The great debate of the importance of the “theatrical experience” has been run into the ground as streaming services continue to expand and movie theater attendance becomes increasingly inconsistent. The industry was headed in this direction even before March 2020, and the pandemic only exacerbated these effects. Yet, however you feel about the business of movie theaters, their relationship with streaming platforms, and the intents of various big-name filmmakers, I think some common ground could be found when discussing the theatrical experience we see on display within the narrative of Maximiliano Contenti’s horror flick The Last Matinee. Contenti’s film takes place in 1993, so the characters would have been limited to a VHS presentation at home, but that would never have ended as poorly as their trip to the cinema on this particular night.
There is a compelling duality at the heart of this film regarding its statements on the cinematic experience. Contenti goes out of his way to show his passion for the lost art of film projection, constructing entire characters and portions of the narrative around it. (I grew up in the period of transition from film to digital, so I always appreciate the chance to get a glimpse into the film projection era). But, Contenti also understands that sometimes, watching a movie in public can be a nightmare. As the title would suggest, the plot of The Last Matinee is developed around the setting of a movie theater in which a horror matinee is being exhibited. This showing instantly gets off to an inauspicious start. While the theater is relatively large, and there are only a few pockets of people scattered throughout, it does not take much talking, chatting, bickering, and carrying on to become a nuisance to someone who is simply trying to enjoy the show. One man who came to this showing by himself is fed up with the other audience members’ disrespect for the big screen. It is not long before he loses his temper, yells “shut up,” and leaves the auditorium. I felt that deep in my soul. I think we have all wanted to do that before. As it turns out, this man left just in time, as a cloaked figure who’s been dwelling in the shadows begins picking off the other guests one-by-one. And by “picking off,” I mean brutally murdering. This film is very intentionally meta and self-referential. These characters are convened in a theater, watching a schlocky monster flick with another bloody murder and mutilation around every corner. Whatever happens in that fictional movie they are watching is somehow reflected within that very room where they sit. But, because the attendees are spread throughout the large hall and are caught up in the stories of their own lives, it takes them a while to realize that something sinister is afoot.
Even with the gnarly bloodshed and barbaric butchery at hand, the subplots that play out like short films in their own right were fascinating. There is a little comedy folded in here, with a young boy who snuck into this horror film screening, being scared to his wits’ end. In another corner of the theater, there is a couple of 20-somethings on a date that is going rather poorly. The guy is tremendously awkward and the girl is amused by this, to say the least. We also have a group of three friends in the balcony, two guys and a girl. One of the guys is the dreaded third wheel. Thus, he decides he will attempt to charm the girl that he sees sitting alone in the gallery below. It is the same beautiful girl he noticed on the bus ride over to the theater. Apparently, she was stood up by her date. This plays like an angsty teenage rom-com. Interestingly enough, each of these underlying narratives almost explore the “horrors” of what can go wrong in small moments in life. A date can go badly, simply based on a conflict of personalities or a lack of chemistry. Loneliness and heartbreak are horrors in themselves. The depiction of these subplots reminds us that there is a deep complexity to each individual human being’s life. Each person in each of the individual rooms has their own personal life experiences which have formed the foundation for their strengths and weaknesses which lead directly into the competition of their hopes and dreams with their anxieties and worries. Such engaging material beneath the surface of this gorefest was not expected from the script co-written by Contenti and Manuel Facal, but I am glad I found it.
I call The Last Matinee a “gorefest” for a reason. There are blood and guts galore. The kills are shocking and grotesque, but, as with all those in the classic slashers to which this film is paying homage, they are also meant to entertain. We as humans have an odd attraction to violence in media. I am not going to go down a psychoanalysis rabbit hole here, but this is a perplexing phenomenon to mull over. With that being said, the disturbing violence in Contenti’s film is simultaneously hard to watch and hard to look away from. It is dialed all the way up to 11. The practical effects team must have had a blast. I must give major kudos specifically to Daniele Bayarres and Christian Gruaz in the makeup department. And, in addition to directing and co-writing, Contenti was also the lead Foley artist. The sound design in this film will get under your skin just as much as the imagery. The musical score from Hermán González leans heavily into electronic synths and perfectly fits the tone and atmosphere. (The best compliment I can give this score it is that I searched Apple Music to see if it was available for download after I finished watching the movie — it was not, unfortunately). Director of Photography Benjamin Silva also shows off with a few creative visual embellishments of his own, incorporating shots of melodramatic slow-motion and a handful of apprehensive dolly-zooms. The things that are transpiring in this film are terrifying, but there is just enough cheese factor to keep it, dare I say, fun. Hopefully calling this movie “fun” will not get me too many sideways looks, but that adjective kept coming to mind the more I thought about The Last Matinee. I would hazard a guess that I am not alone in this reaction.
The crisp runtime of less than 90 minutes is paced efficiently and will be welcomed with open arms by viewers looking for a quick, but satisfying horror fix. Maximiliano Contenti’s The Last Matinee gave me everything I was hoping for and then some from a self-aware horror feature, stuffed with thrills and kills. It also put some things into perspective about the theatrical experience; whatever your worst memory from watching a movie in a theater, it’s probably not as bad as this one.
In theaters August 6th, 2021.
Available on VOD and digital August 24th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.