Saturday, June 1, 2013

Q&A with Greydon Clark

There are not many auteurs in the history of exploitation, let alone those whose careers span decades, let alone those whose style is so essentially good natured and fun as Greydon Clark - whether he's producing and directing Joysticks or It Came Without Warning or Black Shampoo. His filmography is equal parts versatile, prolific and kind of wacky in the best way possible - parsing the names you have one attention-grabber after another. Mr. Clark was kind enough to give me a few words on his history in low budget genre films by email below, as well as his upcoming project! Read on!

Clark on the set of Joysticks

Which films do you like the most?

I can find something to like in almost every film I've ever seen, beginning with the classic American films of the thirties and forties up to and including today's blockbusters.

What are your recollections of exploitation director-producer Al Adamson, for whom you acted in his films Satan's Sadists (1968), Hell's Bloody Devils (1970) and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971)?

Al Adamson was an interesting character who was very instrumental in my career. I met Al through an actress I knew from an acting class. I was very lucky that we became friends and I worked for him on three pictures. Al's productions were very low-budget and I was able to learn a great deal about filmmaking. I owe a lot to Al Adamson.

How did you come to marry your co-star in Satan's Sadists - and actress in your later films Satan's Cheerleaders (1977), Angel's Revenge (1979) and Joysticks (1983) - Jacqulin Cole?

Jackie and I met in an acting class. I got her the role in Satan's Sadists, we got to know one another and stayed together thirty-four years before her untimely passing.

Your directorial debut was the Blaxploitation film The Bad Bunch (1973), which you wrote and starred in, what did that film mean to you then?

I was very liberal politically and wanted to make a film that said something about race relations in the United States. Blaxploitation films were hot at the box office and I was able to find a guy with a few bucks to invest.

What inspired your subsequent spin on the Warren Beatty film Shampoo (1976)?

The Bad Bunch was successful at the box office and the distributors wanted me to do another Blaxploitation film. Black Shampoo was strictly a move to exploit Mister Beatty's Shampoo.

You hired Dean Cundey as director of photography on Black Shampoo and then on four more films within five years. Did you ever think he'd be working with Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter?

Dean was an exceptionally talent director of photography. Once he got his break with Halloween, I was not at all surprised at his tremendous success.

Satan's Cheerleaders (1977) is an almost aggressively offbeat entry in the cheerleader exploitation craze. What was its genesis?

The Excorcist and The Omen were very successful at the time. The cheerleader movies were also doing an excellent business. I thought I could combine the two elements, stick my tongue firmly in my cheek, and make a fun picture.

You've worked with veteran Hollywood actors including Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Neville Brand, Ralph Meeker, Clu Gulagher and Chuck Conners. Did it feel like your career had taken a turn when you started casting a better caliber of acting talent?

I was very lucky to work with name talent over the years. These men and women were not only wonderful actors but easy to work with. I never really thought about my "career," I was just making one picture after another and hoping each would be successful enough to allow me to make another film.

Your slasher film parody Wacko (1982) was the first of three films you made starring Joe Don Baker and the next one, Joysticks (1983) was also a comedy. How'd you cast him in his first comic role?

I admired Joe Don Baker's talent in his action-adventure films and thought that he could do comedy as well. He was great to work with and I think his performance in Wacko is one of the great comedic performances ever put on film.

In your second horror film The Uninvited (1988) where did the bizarre idea of a demonic cat hiding inside another cat come from?

I had some success on Without Warning (1980) and wanted to come up with an unusual "monster." I placed most of the story on board a luxury yacht, first thought of a rat and then a rabid dog - neither seemed unique enough. I finally decided on the demonic monster hidden inside an escaped laboratory cat.

The Forbidden Dance (1990) is kind of an aberration from your other films, a dance picture. How did you become involved?

Meahem Golan wanted to do a movie based on Lambada (1990). We were introduced by a mutual friend and he thought I could make the film quickly and on a low budget. This was one of the few films that I made where the original idea was brought to me by someone else.

Have you seen the episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 featuring your films Final Justice (1985) and Angel's Revenge?

I have seen their take on both pictures and find some of it very amusing, some of it less than so. They edited sequences out of the pictures that I felt were important story points. If their TV series allowed more people to see the pictures, fine by me.

What are you up to today?

My autobiography, "On the Cheap...Five Decades of Low Budget Filmmaking" will be out in a few months.

There you have it - visit to order ANY of Greydon's flicks AND get signed posters and stills! No Joysticks fan's life is complete without a still of Leif Green and Jim Greenleaf! Speaking of Joysticks (my favorite Clark joint and favorite 80s teen comedy) my initial reactions on Cinemachine can be read here and interviews with Clark and Jon Gries on the film can be found in the essential punks-in-film book Destroy All Movies!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Mars Attacks! (1996, Tim Burton)

Although I didn't see the film theatrically, I loved Mars Attacks! by the time it was released on video. There was subsequent minor rebirth of interest in franchising of the world created by the Topps brand trading cards of the 1950s, in the form of new comic books by Image, with the Martians attacking Spawn and so forth, before spinning the martians off from crossovers into original stories on their own. True to Image's 90s 'tude-inal cred, the comics were full of the same grossness and ultra-violent kitsch that made the trading cards infamous in their day. I hadn't put it together as a kid that Topps was the same trading card company to release Garbage Pail Kids on unsuspecting suburban mother hens. As of this writing, Mars Attacks! and The Garbage Pail Kids Movie are the only two live action films ever made based on trading cards. "Mars Attacks," the franchise, is oddly enough going stronger than the film ever did, which is still woefully underappreciated. Thanks to a small, easily consolidated market of character licensing rights, Mars has attacked The Real Ghostbusters, the Transformers, Popeye, KISS and Judge Dredd, courtesy of IDW Publishing to coincide with the trading cards' 50th anniversary. The convenient thing about anonymous invaders from space is that you can pit them again any other fictional character. Admirably, Burton didn't tamper with old fashioned look of the Martians was not tampered with, embracing their Weird Tales pulp sci-fi paperback cover roots. Animated with a Beavis-like slack-jawed twichiness and given personality only in Beavis-like moments of lust for our beautiful human Earth women.

The screen story and screenplay are credited to one Jonathan Gems, a British playwright. Gems and Burton - whom Gems thanks in the novelization's opening dedication as an invisible co-writer on the screenplay - authored the official "Mars Attacks" film as an homage to the cards, but also a satire of 1970s all-star disaster films, sci-fi tropes, and several social strata of the United States. Gems is a Brit and its cliche to comment that Brits and Europeans often catch the nuances of American life better than our own satirists, but here we are. His is an informed version of America to give a ribbing to; one where the films' opening scene casually shows farm crackers living alongside Filipino families in the sticks - in other words, territory on par with another great satirical work of the 1990s, "King of the Hill."

With a huge ensemble cast, the story takes its time establishing characters and examining their reactions to the encroaching Martian menace rather than expounding any kind of Martian mythology. As aliens, they are in fact completely implacable and in a comedy full of conceptual jokes, Mars Attacks' greatest and best remembered is their baldfaced gibberish language: "ACK ACK ACK ACK ACK!" Humanity's preening optimism in anticipation of first extraterrestrial contact was ripe for puncturing during the 1990s resurgence of interest in scientific evidence for alien life. From the President in Washington to the trailer parks of Kansas to the glitz of Vegas, Americans of all dispositions and sophistication fail to perceive imminent danger, and then for the most part fail to respond effectively.

Critics alternately savaged this film as too over-the-top and not over-the-top enough to be funny, unable to attune to Burton and Gems' vision of grand-scale social and political satire combined with Gremlins-esque eruptions of mischievous monsters wreaking havoc while aping humanity. There is certainly more intelligence and human characterization in this film than Independence Day, a film which stupidly takes dead seriously all the same cliches of 1950s invading aliens films, up to and especially including their jingoistic pro-military bent. Mars Attacks! was released in December of 1996, a few months after the Summer blockbusting success of Independence Day, and felt like a categorical rebuke to everything audiences loved about Roland Emmerich's modern disaster picture which treats the obliteration of cities by alien spaceships as somber spectacle and cheers on humanity's action-packed counterstrike.

An exploding White House is the iconic promotional image, an image meant to thrill and stir emotions, the kind of Hollywood imagery which caused people to say of 9/11 that watching those towers destroyed felt like watching a movie, five years later. Mars Attacks! has a flying saucer tip the Washington Monument on top of a Boy Scout troop. Both films even have the American President as a main character. Independence Day gives him a decisive action sequence against the aliens and a rousing victory speech after their defeat.

After a rousing "Can't we all just get along" speech for intergalactic brotherhood, President Nicholson is impaled by a Martian flag. The Martians are only defeated by dumb luck when someone accidentally discovers their non-sequitor Achilles' heel: like anti-matter to the film score's sci-fi theramin warbling, Slim Whitman's yodeling makes their brains explode. The financial and critical failure of this film to connect with the dopey daydreams of the mid-90s moviegoer is probably what terrified Tim Burton into calculating mainstream success and abandoning any voice of artistic irreverence in his subsequent filmography. Roger Ebert gave two stars to Mars Attacks! but what does he know? He gave two to Beetlejuice, a film Pauline Kael knew well enough to declare a "comedy classic" upon arrival.

Mars Attacks! juggles about 20 characters in four or five locations across the United States in a little under two hours. Literally six of them are left alive by the end of that time, which is the other issue: this film has a hilariously mean streak to its humor and the joke is on mankind. When I watched Jurassic Park recently for the first time in many years I was reminded of how Spielberg deformed the all-star disaster movie formula from the exploitative body counts they were in their heyday into a PG-13 thriller where only expendable tertiary characters are eaten by dinosaurs. Never have so many well paid actors been disintegrated in a single film. Burton is reaching for Dr. Strangelove level comedy, and that's mighty dry terrain - Mars Attacks! is a spoof, yet a restrained and only selectively campy one. Gems allows us to believe in Jack Nicholson as the President James Dale without having him play it as a comedic exaggeration of "Jack Nicholson," the movie persona. Ultimately, he winds up in a direct Strangelove referenced underground war room with Rod Steiger playing an exaggerated Hawk pushing to nuke the Martians.

The same could be said of every cast member, every one of whom is a big name. Only Danny DeVito, in about ten minutes worth of screen time, is giving a "comedy" performance. Him, and Nicholson doing a Sellers-esque turn by playing a second role as a sleazy casino impresario. All the beautiful people are playing into their own types, slightly parodying themselves while retaining credibility as real people thanks to Jonathan Gems' playwright's ears for nuanced and melodious dialogue, so distinctly varied in every character. Danny Elfman's music, at once whimsical yet suitably bombastic for the eventual wanton destruction, strikes the perfect note of arch deadpan seriousness.

Somehow even with the majority of the cast playing dolts, many of them have moments of absurd empathy - Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Jessica Parker are stuffy and dippy, respectively, but find love when reunited as mutilated Martian science experiments. Few $70 million films then had the gall to decapitate Brosnan and Sarah Jessica, before stitching the latter's head to a chihuahua, or to kill Jack Nicholson twice.

A critical portion of the varied characters at play joins the government scientists and leader stock types of 1950s sci-fi protagonists with the media and show business galaxy of stars 1970s galaxy-of-stars casts. Michael J. Fox and Sarah Jessica Parker play a TV personality power couple. Glenn Close plays a chillingly acidic parody of vain and publicity-consious clotheshorse presidential "First Ladies."

Paul Winfield, veteran of decades of genre films, briefs plays a more obsequious version of Colin Powell who is giddy to have won the honor of serving as ambassador to the Martians by "waiting in line" - before being the first to be fried by their weapons, for his trouble. The parade of opportunism across the country is never-ending. Revealing Burton and Gems' moral compass, the few surviving victors of a Martian invasion are not only the little people in this big cast of big stars all across America, they're marginalized members too busy taking on burdens of responsibility to think about exploiting the initial awe of Martian contact, or delude themselves with disbelief as to their motives because their ACK ACK has been officially translated as "We Come In Peace."

About one year before Quentin Tarantino publicized his possession of a golden touch for career resurrection by casting Pam Grier as the lead in Jackie Brown, Burton cast her here amongst contemporary big names for the resonance of her marquee value in the 70s. Her character is one of the good ones, a single parent bus driver in Washington whose two boys wind up defending the president thanks to video game training.

Fleshing out the 70s throwback, her husband is played by Jim Brown, playing a former boxing champ reduced to working dressed as King Tut at a Vegas casino. Brown still loves his wife, sends money back home and tries to get home to when the Martians attack. He's willing to sacrifice himself to help other members of the cast escape by boxing them hand-to-hand, and after a false alarm, we're shown that he survives the ordeal to see his family again.

In Kansas, Lukas Haas plays a shy teenager who's the black sheep of his redneck family, cast with uncanny perfection - Joe Don Baker as the buffoonish patriarch and young Jack Black as Haas' meathead army private older brother, who's among the first to be reduced to a colored skeleton by Martian ray guns. Haas looks after his dotty, sweet natured grandmother, who's similarly ignored by the family, played by Sylvia Sydney, who was also the caseworker ghost Juno in Burton's Beetlejuice.

Their relationship is genuinely touching and Haas' rescue of his grandmother at a rest home massacre during the film's climax leads to Sydney's accidental broadcasting of her Martian-killing Slim Whitman records. Annette Benning is the spiritualist and recovering alcoholic wife of Nicholson's Vegas doppelgänger. Even though her character is a bit of a space cadet during America's initial optimism about the coming Martians, she's one of the few to immediately recognize that the intergalactic situation is only headed towards total war. 

Even before then, her character's recovering alcoholism is treated sympathetically and Benning's funniest moments come from playing off her jerky Nicholson and eventually Vegas costars Brown, De Vito and Tom Jones - whose 11th hour cameo addition to the scrambling survivors is the cherry atop the 1960s-unto-70s old fashioned big-cast vibe as "It's Not Unusual" carries the film into the end credits. Even Godzilla gets a guest spot, courtesy of a gag when the Martians channel surf between it and another junk-cultural touchstone, The Dukes of Hazard.

The choice of Vegas as a major location is, like the other locales in Kansas and Washington, D.C., part of a timeless quality Burton had shown adeptness for since Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands. All three places are unstuck in time one way or another, and longtime Burton costume designer Colleen Atwood created a wardrobe of retro-modern clothing colors and styles while the production design subliminally recalls 1960s aesthetics. Sometimes not so subliminally, as when Martin Short, playing a lascivious White House Press Secretary, is undone by a Martian in a beehive-haired pinup girl human costume while attempting to mack on her in the White House's secret "Kennedy Room." The "Martian Spy Girl," played by Burton's then-girlfriend Lisa Marie has become one of the few iconic images unique to the film version of Mars Attacks.

The whole cross-dressing aspect of the scene is usually a little British in the negative for my tastes but Burton creates an eerily convincing alien sex trap. Mars Attacks' other word on alien sex would be the small British detail of Lukas Haas' "Alien Sex Fiend" shirt, a deathrock band from the UK and unlikely adornment on a Kansas farm boy. Another small British giveaway is a great gag where France unsuccessfully negotiates a settlement.

The novelization of Mars Attacks! would have intrigued me even if it had not been written by Jonathan Gems. Having picked it up and finished it recently I'm delighted to report that every ounce of the wit and intellect appreciated in the screenplay for the film can be heard and elaborated on greater detail on every page.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

An Interview With Mark Torgl: The Man Behind Melvin

Arm of an unknown fan
One of the integral elements to a cult classic is the gathering of actors willing to go earnestly - rather than ironically - over the top and imprint on our memories even a few moments of real magic. The cast of The Toxic Avenger achieves this in every scene and balances a menagerie of caricatured types played to the hilt with a protective outer shell of terrified normals; the local extras who are the little people of Tromaville. As the wise and foreboding narrator states "Our story begins here at the Tromaville Health Club" at the beginning of the film, Melvin Ferd is named and is the first face seen in the exploitation film masterpiece The Toxic Avenger. In a few seconds of dopey happy-go-lucky mopping and hapless victimization at the hands of health club bullies, Mark Torgl's wimpiness before transformation by toxic chemical waste into our titular antihero isn't merely nerdy any more than the bullies are your average harmless movie types. The first line of dialogue in the film is "Would you take a look at that fuckin' guy?" - and it announces the vulgar geek show about to unfold as the tale of "the first super-hero from New Jersey." Torgl is sympathetic nearly in perverse pantomime, he's not a chatty science wiz like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner. A character like "Melvin Ferd" really hails straight from Troma's wacky sex comedies, driven by the same harmlessly indignant impulses from the groin yet beset upon by the new world Troma films were becoming. Like Peter Weller in Robocop, the extremity of pain inflicted on our pre-transformed superhuman embeds him to the soul of the film.

Mark Torgl was kind enough to answer some questions about the making of The Toxic Avenger and also The First Turn-On!, Troma's last "straight" comedy before Toxic in which he has a few scenes. He also worked as Script Supervisor for both films before becoming an editor in Hollywood. His first-ever appearance at a horror convention will actually be happening later this month at "Mad Monster Party" in Charlotte, NC on March 22nd-24th.

How did you first become interested in film?

I've been fascinated with films from the time I was 2 and my parents took the family to a drive in movie, and I saw the pictures in the sky. I went to NYU grad film school and Spike Lee, Ang Lee, and Jim Jarmush were classmates.

What are some of your favorite films and who are your favorite filmmakers?

I love Scorsese films, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, I also love anything from Terrence Malick. Badlands may be my all time favorite. Also anything from Stanley Kubrick. Of course I could go on for a very long time, but I'll leave it at that.

How did you start working with Troma?

While at NYU, I answered an ad from Troma that was placed on the NYU job board looking for crew for The First Turn On! I went for an interview and Lloyd Kaufman, the President of Troma asked me what I wanted to do on the film. I said I like to write, he said "Great, you can help write the script, any thing else?" I said I'd like to be the Script Supervisor, he said done. I should have said "I'd like to direct." Of course it was all unpaid.

"The First Turn-On!" (1983, Michael Herz & "Samuel Weil")

As script supervisor on "The First Turn-On!" how would you describe the production?

It was a bunch of kids interested in filmmaking having a lot of fun. No one got paid so everyone was just doing it for the experience.

How did you come to play Georgia Harrell's psycho boyfriend, Dwayne?

On the day we were scheduled to shoot Dwayne's first scene, the actor that was hired to play him was a no show. Lloyd said "Torgl, you play him." the rest is history.

With Georgia Harrell in "The First Turn-On!"

What are your memories of shooting your scenes with Georgia Harrell? Did you guys actually expose yourselves to each other in the "playing doctor" scene?

Georgia was great, really sweet and funny, we weren't shy.

The first bromo-seltzer!

How soon after "The First Turn On!" were you approached about working on "Health Club Horror," later to become "The Toxic Avenger"?

It was the next summer, again during school break. I got a call from Lloyd, he told me about the film they were casting. For the character of Melvin, "Pre Toxie" they had auditioned hundreds of kids. Then Lloyd said he and partner Michael Herz said "What we really need is the character Torgl played in First Turn On!" Lloyd said if I wanted the part it was mine.

As Melvin Ferd in "The Toxic Avenger" (1984, Michael Herz & "Samuel Weil")

What did you think when you read the script?

I thought it was really campy, I knew it would either be a huge cult film or the worst film ever made. Turns out it was both.

What are your memories of shooting the Tromaville Health Club scenes?

It was all a good time, the sheep was the most difficult part as it had lice or little varmints all over it.

"Oh Julie, Julie, oh, oh Julie, I'm here and you're here and we're together..."

How difficult was the makeup in the scenes where Melvin becomes the Toxic Avenger?

The makeup took many hours, it was pretty uncomfortable. The bathtub scene was difficult as the bathtub had no hot water. And the makeup did not come off easily. Not my favorite part of the shoot. In the catch-on-fire scene, before the stunt double took over, my arm actually caught on fire accidentally. I still have a little scar from that.

Melvin's last moments before his "entire being" is changed

There's a very rare "lost scene" from "Toxic Avenger" of Melvin camping by himself in the woods. Do you recall shooting it?

Yeah, as a matter of fact I wrote that scene. I was sitting by a campfire drinking beer and singing a version of "Hound Dog."

How would you describe the production of "The Toxic Avenger"?

Troma productions are barely professional, we just did what we could to get things shot. Lloyd didn't waste a lot of film, a lot of the scenes were one take. The cast and crew laughed through it all.

Big things bubbling up

What was your reaction to the finished film, and how have you felt about it since then?

I guess at first I thought the film wasn't very good and would just disappear after a few weeks, As it evolved and started showing up at midnight movies as a cult film it was pretty cool. I am happy that it provides such joy and enthusiasm from the fans still.

What came next after parting ways with Troma?

I have been working in Los Angeles in Post Production, making short films, writing scripts. I always kept in touch with Lloyd and would see him when he came to LA.

Were you asked to return as Melvin in "The Toxic Avenger Part II" and "Part III"?

Yes, we were negotiating and since I wasn't paid for part one, or very little, I was trying to make a little something for myself. Also I had moved to Los Angeles and had a job at a post production house, so we never agreed to a price to bring me back. Lloyd jokes in his book "All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger" that he should have paid me the $50 I was asking for.

Fake Melvin in "The Toxic Avenger Part III" (1989, Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman)

How did it feel to cameo as Melvin in "Citizen Toxie" almost 20 years later?

It was fun to do it. Troma flew me out, put me up in a hotel, and gave me all the cheese I could eat. The productions had not changed in 20 years, kids were still the crew, working for no money. But they were all fans of mine so that made it really cool.

Reunited for the first time in "Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger Part IV" (2000, Lloyd Kaufman)

How often do you get recognized by "Toxic Avenger" fans?

Not as often as I used to but still occasionally, It's always a surprise. I will be making my first ever personal appearance autograph signing at "Mad Monster Party" in Charlotte, North Carolina, March 22nd, 23rd and 24th . It will be interesting to see how that goes.

Arm of another unknown fan

Sincerest thanks to Mr. Mark Torgl for granting this interview. Tickets for Mad Monster Party are available here!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

TerrorVision (1986, Ted Nicolaou)

TerrorVision is the most lighthearted satire of the decline of Western Civilization ever conceived as a monster movie for all ages. The studio responsible was Empire Pictures, a 1980s b-movie outfit only slightly more reputable than Troma, whose creative apex happened to coincide from 1985 to 1986. Whereas Troma made their name through shocking exploitation films, culminating those prerogatives to their most absurd extreme with The Toxic Avenger, Empire Pictures traded more modestly in the making of low budget but stylish genre films within conventional horror and science fiction standards. This is no sleight against them; they managed to produce one undeniable classic with their most financially successful and influential film, Re-Animator. Several of their lesser known productions throughout the decade have rightfully garnered cult followings: the sci-fi action film Trancers, the Klaus Kinski horror thriller Crawlspace and the children’s fantasy film Troll.

The latter of those three comes closest to what TerrorVision accomplishes in that Troll is a whimsical tale about a boy discovering that magic is real and also dangerous. As the titular wicked troll runs loose through the apartment building where the boy’s family has moved, busily transforming everyone into fairies, elves and other magical creatures, there’s an undeniable element of horror which could seriously frighten a young viewer – yet no one beyond early adolescence could seriously view this as a “horror movie.” Even Empire Pictures seemed not to realize what they’d allowed writer/director/special effects artist John Carl Buechler to make: the theatrical poster sells the film as straightforward horror about a killer troll, completely ignoring the inclusion of kinder facets, like June Lockheart playing a good witch who befriends our young hero. Moreover, to the best of my memory, no one actually dies. Troll has its flaws but also the rare integrity of a children’s film unafraid to challenge and excite young viewers with a sense of the strange and frightening, undoubtedly inspired by the darker dangers found in fantasy literature by luminaries like the Brothers Grimm or J.R.R Tolkien. Terrorvision straddles a much broader amorphous area between genres and audiences, and the confusion is compounded by a sense of irreverence that borders on apocalyptic. Unlike The Toxic Avenger there’s no mean-spiritedness to this irreverence and unlike Troll, there’s no grasping towards mythic roots. TerrorVision is utterly enmeshed in the junk culture of television and is as cheeky about it as the titular pun.

On paper, the premise of TerrorVision would easily be interpreted by most people with at least some small degree of humor: an American family is beset upon by an alien monster which has been transmitted to Earth as pure energy, and accidentally manifested by said family’s TV satellite dish. The deft outrageousness which writer-director Ted Nicolaou bestows upon his tale, however, must be seen to be believed. The central unspoken joke is that the normalcy disrupted by the alien monster is nothing of the sort, and if it weren’t for the problem that the monster wants to eat everyone, it could fit right into their bizarre menagerie. “The Puttermans are just a typical American family" declares the appropriately impish trailer, and “the only thing they’re missing is a pet.” Each member of the clan is an American archetype circa 1986 blasted through the stratosphere of silliness: doofy do-it-yourselfer dad Stanley (Gerrit Graham) aerobicizing disciplinarian mom Raquel (Mary Woronov) teenybopper new wave daughter Suzie (Diane Franklin) military survivalist grandfather “Grampa” (Bert Remsen) and precocious war-gaming young un’ Sherman (Chad Allen) who adores his Grampa and will become the first responder to the alien home invasion while the rest of the family refuses to believe him.

The satirical aspects of each Putterman’s personal interests are subtle compared to the mania with which the actors approach their performances, elevating their broad comedy beyond sitcom level all the way to that of a human cartoon, as evinced by their caricatured wardrobe. All of which could have been unbearable, had Nicolau not assembled such a talented group of actors. Gerrit Graham had played comedy roles for Brian De Palma, Mary Woronov for Paul Bartel, Diane Franklin for “Savage” Steve Holland and Bert Remsen for Robert Altman – each of them was well qualified to go over-the-top with verve and skill.

The whole soufflé might have collapsed had Nicolau not also been able to write the kind of clever dialogue such vaudeville demanded, but as we’re introduced to the characters in the film’s first scenes, such fears are alleviated:

SUZIE: Hi Gramps!

GRAMPS: Hey, honeybee! Hear the one about the U-2s?

SUZIE: The band?

GRAMPS: No, spy planes!

SUZIE: Oh, yeah! I think I saw 'em on MTV!

GRAMPS: MTV?! Phooey!!

George W.S. Trow, author of the greatest anti-television screed ever written, Within the Context of No Context, sarcastically defied us to try escaping the aesthetic of the sitcom in modern life. The Puttermans would’ve made his head explode. Not only have their neuroses been consumed by post-MTV hyperactivity, their home is a monument to the childlike crudity of 1980s aesthetics: bright neons and pastels, pseudo-classical sculptures and a jaw-dropping art collection of sexually explicit prints resembling the style of that ubiquitous hair salon mainstay, Patrick Nagel. The fact that stylized fetishistic pinups adorn the walls of a family is never once acknowledged, and the Putterman parents’ policy on sexual openness around their children is muddled, openly referring to the fact they're swingers, which is no throwaway gag line – the swinging couple they bring home figures prominently into the plot.

The look of the Putterman house is very important to the film's structural design as a tale of generations raised on and ultimately devoured by the unreality of television, because the whole story takes place inside this funhouse of a home, thus completing the sitcom aesthetic. Shot in Italy with an Italian crew, and it's a bit like Fellini by way of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, right down to the lineup of clownish guests periodically ringing the doorbell to come visit. TerrorVision is rated R for only two real infractions: one, the monster’s victims die messily (no blood, just slime) and two, a singularly chaste depiction of unrelenting sexual hedonism which had to have unnerved the MPAA. There’s no actual nudity from any actors (even a gag about “Channel 69” merely involves limbs writhing atop one another suggestively) or in later scenes when Stanley and Raquel bring their swinging partners home. Similarly, there's not a single four-letter cuss word yet there's a couple jokes about rape and homosexuality. Sexual perversity is all-encompassing and always under the surface in this world, the perversity compounded by a gentle refusal to show actual nudity in house owned by two swinger parents with nude art out in the open.

Thematically, the constant fixation on smutty teasing is a perfect extension of television’s prerogative towards the low-level sexualization of everything that possibly can be, within the confines of network regulations – witness the rise of “jiggle” shows like Charlie’s Angels in the 1970s and that prototypical sitcom of teasing innuendo, Three’s Company. The Puttermans’ nightlife as wife-swapping swingers (another 70s fad with long lasting sociological damage on society) is really a form of sexual consumerism, urged on by capitalist media's insistence on meaningless choices.

These two reflections of television’s influence on society – the numbing addiction to entertainment choices and the reduction of sexuality to adolescent teasing – are conflated together with the supporting character of “Medusa”, a late night TV horror movie hostess whom Gramps and Sherman are watching just before the monster arrives. She recurs throughout the film’s events, buffered by a panoply of cheesy horror film clips, until eventually playing a pivotal, tragic role at the climax.

Medusa spoofs a television tradition which began all the way back during television’s infancy in 1954: “Vampira” was the first costumed TV personality to introduce monster movies in character between commercial breaks, and the branding of the sexy witch/vampire girl TV horror hostess had recently been rejuvenated by the arrival of “Elvira” in 1981. Vampira actually sued Elvira for stealing her act, but the one thing Vampira, Elvira and Medusa all have in common is really two things. The pervasiveness of soft perversity on display in TerrorVision begs the question of the film’s intended audience almost immediately, and is silently answered by watching Sherman’s reaction to Channel 69. Chad Allen was 12 when he played this role, and the look on his face is very much a 12 year old boy’s first glimpse of soft erotica. (Even though Chad Allen, spoiler alert, is gay.) The monster movies on Medusa’s Midnight Horrorthon hold Sherman’s attention more than her chest, but Gramps’ reaction portends Sherman's future immaturity with television as a sexual educator: “Would ya look at those hooters!”

The inclusion of this late-night monster show as a plot point reveals the heart of TerrorVision inspiration. To see a brightly colored and campy sendup of modern life warped by television's phoniness (and especially its cheap sexuality) one has only to turn to Richard O'Brian's ill-fated follow-up to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Shock Treatment - a glib musical with many merits but no real sense of joy. TerrorVision is an unpretentious monster movie at its core, which makes all the enveloping layers of satire so much funnier and pointed. The monster films from Medusa's horror show from which we're intermittently shown clips from are some of the goofiest ever made - particularly The Giant Claw, a film about the attack of a giant vulture using a ridiculously hokey bug-eyed marionette  - and Robot Monster, a dirt cheap sci-fi post-apocalypse film which attempted to sell a man wearing a gorilla suit and a diver's helmet as the robotic conqueror of Earth, and two baby alligators with fins strapped to their backs as dinosaurs. The TV Monster (as it's credited in the opening titles) of TerrorVision deliberately skirts this line. Yes, it's clearly just a big lump of slime-covered pus with two googly eyes and several puppeteers working the flapping jaws and tentacle appendages from inside the shell - but so what? As Sherman remarks during the one sequence when he's not afraid of the beast: "It's COOL looking." The mid-80s was in fact a time when grossness for kids was becoming acceptable again, thanks to things like Madballs toys and Garbage Pail Kids cards.

Troma and Empire Pictures were facing the same impasse in the mid-80s of mainstream films muscling in on the genre exploitation market, and I think writer-director Ted Nicolaou must have had an epiphany about the sudden rise of special effects similar to Lloyd Kaufman's realization about the rise of comic ultra-violence in Hollywood films. 1986 was, after all, the same year as James Cameron's Aliens with its terrifying Queen Alien, a monster the size of a house and totally convincingly brought to life by well-paid craftsmen. Nicolau's artistic conclusion went the opposite direction from Kaufman's: embrace the hokiness. Embrace the fact your creature designer is John Carl Buechler and not Stan Winston. If it's not going to look realistic anyways, make it look funny. The film is a comedy, after all. Buechler and Nicolau came up with something audacious and genuinely iconic - a movie monster in homage to every b-movie monster that ever squeaked by on the power of viewers' imaginations more than expensive special effects.

This really isn't to say the monster is unconvincing: Buechler's simple puppet is too large to ignore and its awkward features are manipulated expertly. The actors react to it with sincere astonishment and voiceover talent Frank Welker gives its growls and barks some personality. Welker has done about a million TV shows and films since the 60s, voicing lots of cartoon characters but primarily creatures, including the gremlins of Gremlins. Pertinently to TerrorVision, his voice is familiar to an entire generation raised in front of the television. “TV Monster” could be on his business card. At one point Welker’s voice can be heard from the Puttermans’ TV ironically shilling for “Super Television! With a picture so lifelike, it comes right out of your screen!”

Television's usefulness as a vessel for horror is its only feature for which TerrorVision seems to have any reverence. The cheesy films glimpsed on Medusa’s late night horror show were likely ones on which Ted Nicolaou grew up, and such programming introduced his generation to all kinds of monster films they wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise in the 30-some years between the dawn of television and the dawn of home video. In the stellar horror documentary The American Nightmare, John Landis recalls watching a Frankenstein film and a Wolf Man film simultaneously on local television, flipping back and forth when one film became “TOO SCARY!!” and this kind of viewing experience is probably gone forever. There are more cable channels available today than ever before, but that only makes their content less special and precious few of them even bother showing horror films at all, except around Halloween. I’m of the basic cable generation who got by on merely 50 extra channels, and before the proliferation of cheap video made “reality” programming a cable staple, many hours were simply filled by airing movies and a good deal of them were horror.

Throughout the 90s, the Sci-Fi Channel was as reliable a source of horror films as any other channel – I can remember stumbling upon the climax of Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse for the first time on a Saturday afternoon, something which probably ceased to be possible in the early 2000s. The Sci-Fi Channel was also home to many Charles Band productions – Charles Band being the b-movie impresario who founded Empire Pictures. While Re-Animator and Crawlspace were too explicit for the violence and nudity restrictions of basic cable, Troll and Trancers aired with some regularity on afternoons and evenings, as well as less accomplished Empire releases like Ghoulies and Rawhead Rex. Even TerrorVision itself would be shown from time to time, unbeknownst to my young horror-hungry self. A frequent draw from Sci-Fi Channel’s horror film offerings were the films that made Charles Band famous after he closed the doors of Empire and began his largely direct-to-video label, Full Moon Entertainment: their flagship series, Puppet Master. Terrified of living dolls, dummies and puppets, I was irresistibly drawn to confront such demons in the dead of night with the flick of a remote control – and away again when the puppet mayhem turned “TOO SCARY!!”

With hundreds of movies available on demand from the most basic cable packages, the adventure of “catching” a forbidden scary movie on TV is a lost delight for horror fans today. More than when it was released, TerrorVision is a love letter to the allure of TV horror viewing as a kid. The song which plays over the opening credits is a fitting ode to these nostalgic feelings, sung by art-punk band The Fibonaccis – who also contributed original music to the score. As abstract video signal patterns ooze across the screen, singer Maggie Song coos lyrics of creeping past sleeping parents one late October night, drawn to the living television and dancing “by the light of the TV screen, all night long.” In a neat bit of self-referentialism to the film’s own late-night horror host, the chorus mentions watching “the medusa’s eyes turn green – but my own reflection, I’ve never seen.”

A child’s imagination brings horror films on television to life in a way adults can never again experience, as an undeveloped mind takes the least sophisticated special effects at face value. The smaller size of the medium also helps seal the cracks and hide the zippers in the backs of many a monster suit. When I was watching Charles Band’s numerous bloody puppet shows on home video and TV as a young horror fan – Ghoulies, Puppet Master, Demonic Toys, et cetera – the shortcomings of their special effects were certainly immaterial to the frightening aura of impossible magic they generated. You don't think about the puppeteer's hand until you're older. By the time I reached adolescence, Joe Bob Briggs was on national cable and I finally had a late night horror host to consider my own – no buxom mistress of the dark, he, but a laconic Texan – although he was always visited by the sexy mail girl Rusty (and later Rene) once every broadcast. And the name of Joe Bob’s late night monster show? Monstervision. Which could’ve just as well been the title of TerrorVision, or vice versa.

The multi-generational childhood nostalgia of watching horror movies on television is the reason Ted Nicolaou makes Sherman Putterman, age 12, the central protagonist of TerrorVision despite the film's witty weirdness having an appeal for all ages. Sherman loves watching Medusa, but as the youngest person in the story he's the least corrupted by television. Psychically, he's better prepared to accept the reality that an actual monster has invaded his home while everyone else refuses to believe him until it's too late. He's also the only one to recognize the reality of a dire warning message repeatedly broadcast on the TV by Pluthar, the alien sanitation worker who accidentally beamed the monster to Earth. (In one of the film's best jokes, whenever the adults happen to catch a glimpse of Pluthar's transmission, they think it's just another movie - and it DOES resemble a movie-within-a-movie we've been seeing: the scenes from Robot Monster when Ro-Man the gorilla suited invader addresses the camera with threats about the puniness of our Earth armies, etc.)

Sherman also has to be the protagonist because he's the only one who's prepared to fight back. Clad in camouflage, we're first introduced to him playing soldier with militaristic Gramps, who's clearly more involved in his upbringing than mom or dad.

When the monster surfaces, Sherman goes for the real guns in the house and barely spends another scene without a rifle in hand. Nicolaou didn't make an action film by any stretch of the imagination, but Sherman still gets to unload a few rounds, toss a few grenades and hack at the monster's tentacles with a knife when necessary. Defending your home from a monster with automatic weapons: this is every little boy's dream!

Before the martial arts of the Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers came along in the 90s, the empowerment fantasy offered by pop culture to boys of the 80s was still deeply entrenched in Cold War scenarios of automatic weapons and explosions. Try giving a machine gun to a 12 year old in a movie today and child protective services will probably show up on the set to haul you before a tribunal of teachers and parents against violence in the media. Grown men watching TerrorVision today won't so much wish they could be Sherman Putterman as wish they'd been allowed to play pretend the way Sherman Putterman had, before the unexpected real danger of an alien monster.

Sherman's military preparedness is established at the beginning of the film as the result of Grampa's influence, in distinction to the potential hedonistic influences of the rest of the family. Grampa's militarism has a kind of recreational quality itself - enjoying the play acting of war with his grandson, getting excited by World War II clips on TV - yet it's not exactly the pleasure principle to which the other Puttermans are devoted. Gramps is the only one to criticize the media saturated status quo - he's the closest thing in the cast to an intellectual, complaining that until recently, downtown used to be the place to "disseminate your literature" and now decent folks won't even stop and talk. His "literature" concerns using lizard tails as a self-sustaining food source in case of nuclear attack, but at least he has other interests beyond thrill-seeking. Saying "phooey" to MTV isn't as bold a stance as it used to be, as many hipsters do so simply to validate their sophistication over the tastes of the mainstream, but when Gramps admonitishes a heavy metal video as "intellectual decay" in an early scene, it isn't about heavy metal or MTV but the dysfunction of time-wasting and mind-wasting entertainment they represent. The only part of the Putterman house which doesn't look like a porno set decorated on a mushroom trip is Gramp's survival shelter: that suburban Cold War phenomenon of a panic room well stocked with weapons and canned food, sealed behind a vault door in case the Soviets ever drop the big one. This is where Sherman and Gramps run to after sighting the monster, and where Sherman will retreat to several times for refuge.

No one in TerrorVision is dignified, but Gramps' old school patriotic paranoia puts him and Sherman in a better position to respond to an alien invader than anyone else. He delivers the key ironic line of the film, the "We all go a little mad sometimes" - just as the Putterman parents and sister are about to leave the house so he and Sherman can settle in for an evening of monster movies hosted by Medusa: "War stories and monster movies are educational! They're survival oriented! They always neutralize the enemy in the end!" Thus you have the meeting of grandfather and grandson's interests, and the setup for the rest of the film's punchlines. Gramps will be first to be eaten, and against every expectation we the monster-and-war movie watching public have internalized, the monster will NOT be neutralized. Ted Nicolaou had the courage of his own irreverence to end his film with the monster on its way to Hollywood, where it belongs - although never explicitly stated, the Putterman home is somewhere in Malibu, unreality central.

Sherman and the few remaining humans of the evening are eaten offscreen, but not before finally meeting Pluthar and being assured that their devoured parents could be cloned back to life…they'd just need to live in special underwater tanks. This is Nicolaou hinting at 59 minutes into the 11th hour that no way is the status quo going to be restored. The TV monster is the conspicuous consumption of junk culture made flesh and now it's our turn to be consumed. Gramps was slightly off in his predictions: bad TV isn't going to rot your brain, it's going to digest it - and monster movies don't prepare anyone against real life monsters. For all the books and websites out there about the "zombie apocalypse," the only people who seriously believe that reading Max Brooks books would prepare you if the dead ever came back to life are nerds who'd be the first to die.

TerrorVision's other great strength as a comedy besides the skillfull campiness of the actors and dialogue is its escalating undercurrent of farce: first no-one believes Sherman that there's a monster on the loose, then mom and dad Putterman are mistaken about the intentions of the swinging couple they've brought home (in one of the film's best jokes) and finally Pluthar, the would-be savior alien savior from the monster is incapacitated in a case of mistaken identity.

Between the monster eating all the grown-ups and Pluthar failing to save the day, there's a hilariously unlikely passage in which Sherman believes the monster hasn't actually eaten anyone - that mom, dad, grampa and even the swinging couple are all safe and sound. When his sister Suzie and her new boyfriend come home and discover the monster, yet another case of mistaken identity pacifies the beast - the boyfriend's heavy metal armbands remind it of its master back home on Planet Pluton.

For almost 20 minutes, the film practically resets its own dramatic clock and becomes a lighthearted comedy about three kids trying to domesticate the monster that unbeknownst to them, ate their parents! The disastrous results of treating a creature from unknown origins like the family dog is kind of the same joke Joe Dante played on Steven Spielberg's E.T. by making Gremlins. Much like Gizmo the Mogwai, the TV Monster enjoys watching television, especially monster flicks: it guffaws as the flying saucers from Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers crash into Washington D.C., a postmodern moment which subsequently found its way into Gremlins 2: The New Batch when the gremlins snickered over a similar scene of destruction in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. I doubt that Dante ever saw TerrorVision, but the spirit of lunacy is very close. Gizmo's original owner admonishes the white middle class suburban family for teaching the Mogwai to watch television, but gremlins and TV monsters need no such instructions, they're drawn to it naturally.

Heavy metal boyfriend "O.D. Reilly" ("Irish boy?" asks Stanley Putterman before being introduced) is played by Jonathan Gries, known to most people as "Uncle Rico" in the abominable Napoleon Dynamite but forever dear to my own heart for playing "King Vidiot," the spazzoid video game playing punk in the greatest stupid 80s comedy ever made, Joysticks. Gries attacks the role of heavy metal bozo O.D. with equal aplomb and keeps the film's energy level escalating after losing Gerrit Graham, Mary Woronov and Bert Remsen to the jaws of the TV Monster. He's essentially the embodiment of what Gramps was going on about when deriding what MTV can do to a person, with Nicolaou extending the diagnosis one generation further. "That punk stuff's just a phase" says Woronov of her daughter's date. "But don't they know how ridiculous they look?" asks Graham as he attaches his tacky gold jewelry.

TerrorVision didn't find its audience back in 1986, and may only be starting to find it today. The games played with television as a medium and the place it holds in modern life are easier to grasp in light of how much less TV matters now that other forms of mass media are available: Sherman, Suzie and O.D. call Medusa on the phone to get the TV Monster on TV, so that the world can know about it - all that would take today is one YouTube clip. In the wake of CGI special effects overload, the monster's clunkiness has never been more charming. There's also the matter of 80s retro being en vogue, which makes the exaggerated fashions and production design more alluring to first time viewers now than in the previous two decades. Shout! Factory's horror label Scream Factory is releasing the Blu-Ray this month and I'd encourage anyone with the mildest appreciation of horror-comedy to purchase it. The Video Dead is packaged as a double feature, and oddly enough, serves as a companion time capsule of what the mid-to-late 80s actually did look like in terms of vulgar tastes, while the extremity of the Putterman household is so much more attractive in its conscious gaudiness.

While The Video Dead is barely passable as a no-budget shot-on-video horror curiousity, both films are about television as a gateway for monsters and pairing them together is a nifty idea. TerrorVision is going to stand the test of time, however, as a stupid-smart critique of how the American nuclear family was driven to hedonistic cartoon insanity by the excesses of pop culture and was ultimately swallowed up. It's not a happy tale - we're living in the shambles of American intellectual and social life, and things are only going to degenerate from here - but TerrorVision, not exactly a kids' movie, not exactly for adults - had the good cheer to reflect our cultural apocalypse as a quirky monster flick for the whole fucked-up family just before regression into the safety of genre fantasies became the norm.