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 soufflĂ© 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.


Craig Edwards said...

If I identify the Joe Bob Drive-In Totals picture as coming from The Howling III: The Marsupials, do I win a prize? (Excellent writeup of Terrorvision!)

Unknown said...

No prize, but good eyes! Glad you enjoyed the piece. Your blog is right up my alley, by the way. Love the pic of the Green Goblin grill from "The finest film ever made in Wilmington, North Carolina" as Joe Bob put it.

Spekti said...

This is an awesome article- definitely putting TerrorVision on my list! Only I think you may be a little misinformed in describing swinging as a 70s fad...and socially damaging, to boot. I hear its still alive and well and keeping couples happy to this day.

Unknown said...

Awesome critique, Matthew. Thanks for spreading the word.
Ted Nicolaou

Richard Freeman said...

One of my favourite films. I can watch TerrorVision again and again. Troll was excellent too. Along with Q The Winged Serpent these films might make for interesting remakes.
By the way do you know the lyrics to the theme song by The Fibonaccis?