People wondering whether it’s safe to go to the movie house again may be given pause by “The Last Matinee,” in which that activity proves gravely injurious to patrons’ health. Uruguayan director Maxi Contenti’s feature is a retro slasher whose aesthetics pay tribute to some illustrious forebears, especially of the Italian variety about 40 years ago. Horror fans will enjoy that referential air, even if despite all visual appeal and some gore, the movie proves disappointingly lax in terms of stoking atmosphere, suspense or jolts. Dark Star and Bloody Disgusting are opening the Argentinian co-production on six U.S. screens this Friday. Release to VOD, digital and DVD formats follows on Aug. 24.
In 1993 Montevideo, a hirsute man in trenchcoat and hood purchases a ticket at a cavernous old movie palace, entering just as the audience of parents and tots exits a prior kiddie feature. Despite the rainy weather, only a handful of other customers eventually join him: There’s a little boy (Franco Duran) who’s hidden under a seat in order to sneak into a forbidden scary movie, plus an ill-matched couple (Patricia Porzio, Emanuel Sobre) on a first date. A “crazy” old gent (Julio Troisi) lamentably familiar to the theater staff goes ballistic when three drunken teens (Julieta Spinelli, Vladimir Knazevs, Bruno Salvatti) make a noisy entrance after the feature has started. Arriving even later is a pretty lone girl (Daiana Carigi), on whom one of the teens already has a crush.
Attending to this thin crowd are thirtysomething usher/house manager Mauricio (Pedro Duarte) and young projectionist Ana (Luciana Grasso), an engineering student who’s stepped in so her ailing father can avoid pulling a double shift. When Mauricio’s unwanted flirtatious attentions get too irksome, Ana locks him out of the booth.
Thus she is the last to realize, at about the one-hour point, that mayhem is occurring somewhere other than on-screen. It’s at the half-hour mark that the skulking perp first dispatches a victim in graphic fashion; by the time Ana notices, the body count has considerably grown. She and others still alive flee the killer and his satchel of murderous instruments, their escape thwarted by his having blocked the theater’s main exit.
“The Last Matinee” has the hot saturated colors, florid musical scoring and trademark visual motifs (sinister close-ups of gloved hands, etc.) characteristic of those European giallo thrillers which flourished in the late 1960s through the 1970s. But the specific film horror fans may most be reminded of is Lamberto Bava’s 1985 career highpoint “Demons,” in which another unlucky cinema audience was decimated by a different sort of homicidal menace.
However, that exploitation classic had energy to burn, whipping itself into a giddy fever of blood-soaked action. Contenti has the stylistic externals down pat, but his film’s temperature never rises much. The deaths are handled in uninspired fashion, with little buildup or staging flair, as pacing overall fails to convey escalating tension.
And while the actors are engaging enough in stock roles, their characters’ plight induces just perfunctory involvement — in part because there’s no real plot here, just a basic premise. The little-seen maniac (called “Eye-Eater Killer” in the credits for self-evident reasons) has zero backstory or motivation. We have no idea why he chose this particular show to target, or indeed a cinema audience at all.
When we finally do get a good look at him, the in-joke is that he’s played by Ricardo Islas, a veteran independent Uruguayan filmmaker who’s directed low-budget features since the mid-’80s — including 2011’s English-language gorefest “Frankenstein: Day of the Beast,” the movie being projected in “Matinee.” But his more-goofy-than-scary turn does not exactly heighten the tepid fear factor here.
Ergo, “The Last Matinee” is less effective as a straight horror film than it is as a self-conscious genre homage, providing excitement more of the eye-candy design than the visceral ilk. Still, it’s adequately diverting fare for those who’ll grok its somewhat insular appeal. And there are worse things than a thriller whose thrills aren’t much, yet whose garish lighting palette does provide compensatory stimulus.
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