The Last Matinee masks itself as a gory celebration of horror cinema, which at once caters to the target demographic while glossing over a crucial element that could attract more viewers: the long-term impact of an unforgettable theatrical experience. Filmmaker Maximiliano Contenti knows his stuff; he hosts a visual feast for genre fans to enjoy, whether it’s the obvious Italian giallo influence, a surrealistic eye gag a la Luis Buñuel or a movie theatre killer scene that’s reminiscent of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s 1973 horror flick Messiah of Evil. But when creating a movie with big, bold moments, it’s always important to hook audiences during the opening act. The Last Matinee diddle-daddles around for 30 minutes but eventually delivers the goods. And it’s worth the wait.
Set in 1993 Montevideo (Uruguay not Minnesota), The Last Matinee follows a movie theater projectionist, Ana (Luciana Grasso), who takes over duties from her unhealthy father. Nothing really happens during the first 20 minutes, aside from Contenti establishing the film’s aesthetic identity via neon visuals and synth music. The action picks up when the focal baddie, portrayed by Uruguayan filmmaker Ricardo Islas, thrusts a metal rod into the domes of two young lovers, prompting a teenage girl named Ángela (Julieta Spinelli), along with an already-terrified boy (Franco Duran), to flee.
The Last Matinee does indeed feel like a standard slasher on the surface, but Contenti makes some unique filmmaking decisions that benefit the production as a whole. For one, it’s always a plus when directors don’t feel the need to have their most annoying character eat aggressively at some point for the sake of blatant messaging — you know who I’m talking about: the cocky jock who chomps away on a snack after a one-liner, or pretty much every “confident” Matt Damon character. Does a modern audience need such didactic storytelling? No. In this case, theatre manager Mauricio (Pedro Duarte) — the film’s Annoying Guy — actually chews with his mouth closed during a close-up snack scene. Moments later, Contenti intensifies The Last Matinee’s action with a gnarly kill sequence in which the villain’s weapon curls under a character’s skin and leaves a flap. It’s both disgusting and memorable; a potent combo for a genre homage production.
Twenty minutes later, Contenti makes the audience feel a character’s anguish when teeth break on a bathroom floor. All of this madness sets up the film’s goriest visual — as teased on the official poster — which involves the villain cutting loose his dangling eyeball; it’s a provocative sequence, one that essentially taunts the viewer while subtly referencing the iconic “slice” shot from Un chien andalou (1929). After a rather dull intro, all of the wild middle act moments complement Spinelli’s performance as the undeniable breakout star of The Last Matinee.
The Last Matinee positions Grasso as the headliner, but she unfortunately doesn’t provide many notable acting moments — perhaps due to the script — despite having a strong on-screen presence. Instead, it’s Spinelli who steals scene after scene during the film’s second half, primarily because of Contenti’s stylized direction. Argento fans may be reminded of Jessica Harper in Suspiria (1977) or Jennifer Connelly in Phenomena (1985). Crucially, Spinelli channels the fear and paranoia of her genre predecessors — she doesn’t just shake her head back and forth like an amateur portraying a damsel in distress, nor does she move awkwardly like an untrained performer; the actress steadily harmonizes with the filmmaker’s staging and aesthetic vibe. There is, however, one slightly off-beat moment where Spinelli and Grasso appear to be laughing during a tense theatre moment, but it adds to the indie flair of it all.
Furthermore, the Ana-Ángela dynamic benefits the subplot involving the scared little boy, Tomás. At one point, the girls try to shield the kid’s eyes from the villain. But Tomás must take a look, just like a young moviegoer witnessing a Video Nasty for the first time. The Last Matinee doesn’t necessarily celebrate gore cinema, but rather the concept that moviegoers can evolve and mature by directly facing their fears. The horror genre often gets slammed by those who clearly don’t understand the cathartic value, and those folks could learn a lesson or two from Ana, Ángela and Tomás.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.