Thursday, January 23, 2014

Enchantéd, Part VII: TerrorVision

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin

VII. TerrorVision (1986)
(R, Empire Pictures)

Charles Band, more so than Golan/Globus or Dino De Laurentiis, was responsible for producing a great deal of my adolescence. It was through his 1980s distribution company Empire Pictures and subsequent Full Moon Features that I was inundated with pretty much all the cheesy bliss my heart could ever stand. Of course there were the Puppet Master and Trancers series, plus certified classics such as Re-Animator and...err, Ghoulies. That latter movie's poster art was the perfect distillation of Band's entrepreneurial ability to con you in with a memorable image and tag line. Have an ugly green monster emerge from the potty and slap on the tag line "They'll get you in the end," and the low-hanging fruit of such was the siren call of schlock cinema. It may have been funnier than anything in the movie it promoted (intentionally so), but it helped produce a surprise theatrical hit that kept the Empire banner afloat for a while.

And Full Moon was also one of the best video companies in the early 1990s by virtue of Band's engaging promotional newsletter called "VideoZone," which mixed behind-the-scenes footage and trailers and merchandise plugs to give us perhaps the earliest and most significant form of special feature on tape. Of course, DVDs now have enough room to offer closer, crisper approximations of the theatrical experience and hours worth of paraphernalia, but renting a film like Demonic Toys or Arcade or Bad Channels at least offered a little more than your average feature presentation.

Besides, Band's legacy has yielded a glorious trickle-down effect. Without Troll, Claudio Fragasso would have been forced to name his Z-movie cornerstone simply "Goblins." Without Trancers and Dollman, Tim Thomerson would have never established himself an unlikely action hero. Without Re-Animator and From Beyond, Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs would've been remembered as irreverent theatre vets instead of true gifts for the bookish B-movie buff. And without TerrorVision, chances are I'd have forgotten completely about Diane Franklin, writing her off as a one-flick wonder to my endless dismay.

TerrorVision, writer/director (and occasional editor) Ted Nicolaou's 1986 feature debut from Band's Empire days before helming the Subspecies series for Full Moon (as well as Bad Channels), arrived at the starting gate with yet another indelible image predetermined at Band's will, that of a monstrous eye staring from within a satellite dish as its tentacles (as in te-NT-acles) reached out to an entire suburb. And aside from a top-billed Diane Franklin, fresh off her shamefully ignored star turn in Better Off Dead..., the rest of the cast was a cult cinema fantasy league drafting in Gerrit Graham, Mary Woronov, Jonathan Gries, Bert Remsen, and Alejandro Rey. With those names and that one-sheet, TerrorVision was bound to become an underground transmission of immense proportions.

Yet Nicolaou and his movie experienced multiple static frequencies from a shoestring marketing budget, the lack of a massive wide release and non-stop negative reviews. Even Joe Bob Briggs' reaction upon its release was lukewarm at best. Both of the video movie guides I owned as a boy awarded TerrorVision with their lowest possible grades, be they a turkey or a "Woof!" Naturally, the only outlet for which it could deserve any defense was on home video, and sure enough the Lightning Video cassette was unavoidable on horror shelves out where I lived. And it was a lucky thing they printed the credits right at the bottom of the box, the better for me to catch a glance at the first name on the starring roster and realize it was Monique herself.

Even luckier to me was the discovery that Diane Franklin was permitted to go to Camp.

Looking back at the movies in the series thus far, both The Last American Virgin and Amityville II: The Possession don't completely qualify as campy fun particularly because of their crudely-committed solemnity. These are bitter movies at their core, calculated exploitation endeavors whose promise as empty, exaggerated diversions are weighed down by taboo subject matter, earnestly mimicking the affectations of Afterschool Special-level melodramas with no intended absurdity (the incestuous shenanigans of Amityville II, in particular, are unfeasible but still incredibly icky). They don't go for broke in the manner of a Mommie Dearest, where the hurtful reality of child abuse is glossed over by Faye Dunaway's diva/devil ferocity and the dialogue takes even the slightest, most innocuous trigger (bearing walls, rose gardens and, of course, wire hangers) as an excuse to take off from the runway of sanity. Second Time Lucky and Better Off Dead..., by contrast, take more gonzo chances with their characters and locales than either Virgin or Amityville. And honestly, Diane seems a lot more uninhibited as a performer, by extension also completely delightful to watch, in the movies made from Summer Girl to TerrorVision.

What I'm trying to say is that I feel that the best gauge of a performer's charisma and intelligence isn't so much emotional breakdowns as it is inhabiting a larger-than-life version of a human being. Michael Shannon, for instance, did a giddy job as crooked detective Bobby Monday in David Koepp's courier chase flick Premium Rush. There was an energy and determination and humor to that role which is admirable to take in whether you chose to watch it actively or not. John Waters, of course, has been consistent in regards to directing name stars like Johnny Depp, Kathleen Turner and Johnny Knoxville to their fullest potential as character actors. And Diane's co-stars Gerrit Graham and Mary Woronov have each built reputations for themselves in the realm of camp, if titles such as Phantom of the Paradise, Used Cars, Rock ‘n' Roll High School, and Eating Raoul stick in your memory.

That's where Suzy Putterman comes in, the truest symbol of 1980s spunk by virtue of her cosmic embellishment. With her rainbow-colored weaves, Dale Bozzio eye shadow, Encino accent, and Madonna/Cyndi Lauper fashion sense, Suzy is beautifully tacky pop art made flesh. Go visit the Cinema Gonzo web site if you doubt just how Warholian little Suzy truly is. In the TerrorVision chapter of her autobiography, Diane Franklin talks about how she gravitated towards comedy as a means of expression beyond the ingénue image she was saddled with throughout her career. She makes the same point in the special features on Shout! Factory's release of the film, but by the end of the 1980s, the Princess Joanna role in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure arguably put her back in that box just in time for Diane to develop a bankable name for herself. That she endured as a cult star doesn't feel so much directly tied into her blue-eyed, birth-marked sex appeal as much as it demonstrates she had a chameleonic propensity and accompanying range the industry never really could fulfill.

Diane holds her own against the bug-eyed Gerrit Graham and the rubber-lipped Mary Woronov as the most flamboyant members of the Putterman clan, the straightest straw being drawn by eleven-year-old Chad Allen as Sherman, although even he's polluted by the weirdness surrounding him. Sherman is a pint-sized Lane Meyer in this case, the only one who catches wise to the chaos, endures continued screams of disbelief and is forced to hold his own against the self-centered instincts of his elders. And father Stanley (Graham) is the one who obliviously begets the televised invasion of the plot, as a beam of energy containing an exiled Hungry Beast from planet Pluton is picked up by Stanley's brand new Do-It-Yourself 100 satellite dish. Ostensibly over his head in trying to install the device, Stanley is even more klutzy in regards to his primary reason for buying the damned thing: to put the final touches on his high-tech Pleasure Palace and become the hippest swinger in town.

Mary Woronov portrays the inverse of Mrs. Bland here as the pushy Raquel Putterman, whose forays into hedonism aren't purely materialistic but just as misguided. Her and Stanley answer a classified ad and pick up a couple of eccentric Los Angelenos, glad-handing Grecian Spiro (Alejandro Rey) and shrill-voiced actress Cherry (Randi Brooks), whose kinks intimidate and embarrass them. Stanley is worked into a libidinous frenzy at the sight of Cherry in her Gordian-knotted string bikini, whereas Raquel learns that Spiro is way too faithful to his boy-loving heritage, a definite turn-off for the Spartan, straight-laced Puttermans.

Suzy, meanwhile, is out on a date with her new boyfriend, the heavy metal bozo O.D. (Jonathan Gries), and Sherman is left home alone for a spell under the watchful, wacky care of his grandpa (Bert Remsen, who had a bit part in Jeff Lieberman's equally cross-pollinating Remote Control), a survivalist nutter who advocates lizard tails as a resourceful form of junk food. The boys stay up all night to ogle chesty creature feature hostess Medusa (Jennifer Richards) until the Hungry Beast materializes and devours/mutates first with Gramps and then later with Stanley and company, leading to a bizarre moment which bridges the gap between John Carpenter's The Thing and Brian Yuzna's Society. Suzy and O.D. return to taunt the hysterical Sherman until they come face to face with the monster, who proves docile at the sight of O.D.'s studded leather armbands, thus easing him into an E.T.-style crash course in the wonders of music and television. 

Thus, they have successfully trained the world's first extraterrestrial couch potato. Oh, but for how long?

Perhaps that's the funniest joke in the entire film, the notion that the already doofy-looking beastie is as much of a TV junkie as the MTV-obsessed lovebirds and the status-seeking parents. Like Sherman and Grampa, the Hungry Beast is distracted by the sight of Medusa and her science fiction marathon showcasing such 1950s ephemera as Robot Monster and Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, grunting giddily as the alien threat of the latter lays waste to national landmarks. As designed by Empire stableman John Carl Buechler, the Hungry Beast is a mountainous turd of a terror replete with a third eye attached to a stray limb and a lethal pincer that reduces hapless victims into gooey green puddles to be lapped up by a mile-long tongue. Revealed to be a common pet on its home planet, the Hungry Beast is like man's best friend if said owner happened to be Seth Brundle.

Fittingly, TerrorVision suggests a telepod experiment which merges nuclear-family sitcoms, Ed Wood, an entire VH1 special's worth of Eighties signifiers, and the aforementioned Spielberg blockbuster into one lumpy sum. It's also one of the many Charlie Band flicks released in 1986 where the production migrated to Rome, resulting in a distinctly Italian mise en scène similar to From Beyond or Crawlspace. Cinematographer Romano Albani had already twice collaborated with Dario Argento (see: Inferno and Phenomena) before lensing TerrorVision and Buechler's own Troll concurrently. And production designer Giovanni Natalucci, who worked on all of Band's foreign affairs, doubled up here as art director. The idiosyncratic color schemes and set decorations they devise end up pushing TerrorVision further into surrealism, especially the pornographic artwork and erotic sculptures which consume the entire Putterman household.

As for how Ted Nicolaou's script capitalizes on all this lurid excess, let's just consider TerrorVision a film at the crossroads where Dada meets dum-dum. The plot is 1950s kitsch in a hyper-modernized setting where narcissistic characters grouse about the most minor of inconveniences, lean too much on pop culture in their personalities and are mannered to the point where you expect a laugh track to chime in at any second. Mary Woronov is introduced wearing aerobic Spandex (similar to her villainous appearance on the season finale of Sledge Hammer!) and nagging about the bad reception getting in the way of her regimen. Jonathan Gries as O.D. makes Bill & Ted and Wayne & Garth look like savants by virtue of his dopey, dim-witted swagger. Gerrit Graham and Alejandro Rey strip down to their briefs and quirk up their every line of dialogue, from the way in which Stanley pronounces "Jacuzzi" to sound like "j'accuse" to Spiro's Italian waiter patois. Suzy foolishly decides to become the monster's "business manager," blissfully unaware how the rules of King Kong could apply to this very scenario. Rather than something you'd normally see on Adult Swim, Frank Zappa's juvenile approach to satire is the norm here, very much an acquired taste (Mr. Mother of Invention himself was considered as a composer before the job inevitably went to Richard Band).

Nicolaou's approach is perhaps more polarizing than Boaz Davidson or Savage Steve Holland, primarily because it is so committed to going far out and far gone from anything resembling a familiar universe. That's very much the film's greatest charm or an insufferable hindrance depending on your perspective. Even Killer Klowns from Outer Space allowed the alien threat to feel genuinely threatening and produced a couple of frightening, grisly set pieces. TerrorVision is pure goofball abandon, extremely self-conscious about its genetic tackiness and Me-Decade trappings to the point where even the horror elements do not feel legitimate, especially given that every character appears made from straw and slime. Although categorized as "horrror," TerrorVision plays wholly as comedy, and in a just world, TerrorVision and Killer Klowns from Outer Space would've swapped places at the Video Update I remember renting both those tapes from.

I also bring up Killer Klowns because in the spirit of that film's loopy musical assistance from punk rockers The Dickies, TerrorVision boasts a catchy theme song of its own as written/performed by The Fibonaccis. Singer Magie Song chirps, chants and croons through a senseless array of lurking horrors and gloomy lust in the lyrics, which at least mentions Medusa in the pre-chorus. Still, damned if I could locate swarms of insects anywhere in the film proper. It's more dreamlike compared to the direct awesomeness of "Killer Klowns."

TerrorVision is the epitome of the kind of movie one would see on the monitors of a trendy nightclub or hipster house party, a visually deafening experience that is equally loud in terms of concept and performances. It's equally right at home in the living room of any 13-year-old boy crazy enough to give it a temporary pardon from the VHS shop. It's a bizarre hydra of elements that are equally over-the-top and under-ambitious, squeaking by on its spirit rather than by story or smarts. One would be better off embracing the same year's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 as a merciless, dark comic send-up of big business, sexual mores and dysfunctional families, although the New Wave-riding pastel paradise which is TerrorVision does have a worthy "the more things change..." attitude. It's an iridescent display of intellectual decay, but at the end of the day, I simply can't resist Diane Franklin puckering her lips as she bops along to W.A.S.P. 

I'll take the last train out of Squidsville, fer sure, like, totally!

TerrorVision shares space with 1987's zombie-themed The Video Dead on Shout! Factory's combo pack double feature release, but both films are given bonus commentaries and featurettes to satiate the whims of each film's audience. Of course, after seeing and hearing Diane on the Second Time Lucky DVD, I gravitated towards the former. She joins Ted Nicolaou and Jon Gries for a yak-track that is sprightly and contains plenty of amusing production specifics and quirks such as Gries' industry connections stemming back to the sci-fi films of the 1950s, namely King Dinosaur, not to mention the familiar-looking shape which the remains of his O.D. form upon disintegration. It's equally amusing to see the trio on-camera for "Monsters on Demand," which incorporates more of the cast (Chad Allen, Mary Woronov) and crew (the brothers Band, John Carl Buechler) for a cohesive summation of the film's inception and reputation. When you hear the remarkably perky Diane proclaim her "No way!" reaction to some fans' recollection of the flick as well as her quoting of certain Suzy-isms, it's hard to think that a potentially debuting Belinda Carlisle could hold a candle to the actress. Meanwhile, Woronov provides a good word for the absent Gerrit Graham and Allen recalls walking around the risqué set in the company of his Italian Catholic parents. There is a still gallery to round things out, but surprisingly missing is the theatrical trailer. 

The things we do for love...

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