Sunday, October 19, 2014

Remote Control (1988)

(R, New Century/Vista Film Company, 88 mins., theatrical release date: April 7, 1988)

In 1977, writer/director Jeff Lieberman made Blue Sunshine, a cult classic in which a group of domesticated, distraught ex-hippies who dropped the titular strain of acid a decade earlier lost their hair and their marbles simultaneously. It was made back in the amber-colored days when soft-core writer Zalman King was just another fledgling B-actor, and Lieberman, having previously directed Squirm, was establishing himself as a quirky genre hero on par with Larry Cohen despite a stunning lack of prolificacy.

Ten years later, Lieberman cloned that film's concept of homicidal mass hypnosis as well as its Hitchcock-style "wrong man" thriller elements for the VHS era with Remote Control. This is most certainly not a feature film version of the MTV-produced couch potato trivia show, but another trendy homage to the science-fiction cheapies of yesteryear. Lieberman didn't exactly conjure up by lightning twice, as after Remote Control was consigned to cable-channel obscurity, his already sporadic film credits proved fewer and further between; there was a co-writing claim on The Never Ending Story III here, the swan song-seeming Satan's Little Helper from 2004 there. His career squittered to a halt, and with the advent of digital home video, Remote Control was officially branded his "lost" film.

I actually found a VHS copy at a garage sale pitched by the I Can Smell Your Brains podcast team. Two years after that acquisition, Lieberman secured the rights to self-distribute the film on limited-edition DVD and Blu-Ray himself, complete with a fresh 2k transfer and feature-length commentary track from the filmmaker. One can only hope that the film gains enough momentum for a wider release via Shout! Factory, who recently re-issued Squirm. But I did revisit Remote Control when the news of its re-emergence broke, and as a card-carrying fan of its 1986 contemporary TerrorVision, I was eager to receive whatever it was transmitting.

Remote Control and TerrorVision have quite a few things in common, starting with the requisite joke at the expense of inept wannabe swingers living in their thoroughly-modernized (read: blindingly 1980s) pleasuredome. The husband in this case, bemoaning the lack of anything good on TV, had sent his wife out to rent a videocassette called "S&M Made Fun." As she suits up in her New Wave dominatrix costume, loverboy puts on another rental to pass the time, an obscure chestnut from 1957 called "Remote Control." The movie begins with another jaded couple, Milo and Eva, finding the same relief in modern technology that the present day lovers do, complete with an early form of VHS called "View-o-Vision" that Eva uses to play her own copy of a film titled "Remote Control." Alas, Eva is literally under remote control, as subliminal messages overpower her mind and she mutilates Milo with her knitting machine. But things sometimes have a way of bleeding out into the real world.

Meanwhile, a rundown movie theatre has been renovated into Village Video, where our hero Cosmo DiClemente has a job at. Kevin Dillon plays Cosmo, a couple of decades before his Victory on HBO's Entourage but in the nostalgic wake of breakthrough roles in the likes of Heaven Help Us and Platoon. His boss, Georgie (Christopher Wynne), has received a new promotional display for "Remote Control," and a dozen copies for inventory. Cosmo, however, is more interested in French films, or at least the woman who wishes to rent them, beautiful Belinda Watson (Deborah Goodrich). Belinda is seeking a copy of Truffaut's Stolen Kisses because, like Cosmo, she is a hopeless romantic, her current boyfriend being a possessive douchebag named Victor (Frank Beddor). Georgie is also pining for dizzy brunette Allegra James, played by fellow celebrity sibling Jennifer Tilly.

Victor and Allegra argue over a copy of "Remote Control," and Georgie tips the scales in her favor. He also agrees to hold a copy of War of the Worlds for her, but is so lovestruck that he and Cosmo decide to drop off the tape in person at Allegra's house. They aren't alone, as Victor has become so butt-hurt by the snub, he tracks down Allegra as she is watching "Remote Control." Cosmo and Georgie are chased off by a neighbor, but Victor stays to strangle Allegra and subsequently murder her returning parents.

Policemen Artie (Mike Pniewski) and Pete (John Lafayette) arrive at Village Video the next day to arrest Cosmo and Georgie based on the eyewitness' testimony. Cosmo pleads to Artie to let him try to find the "invisible evidence" that proves Victor was the culprit, believing that the murder was recorded on camera, but the "Remote Control" tape plays as normal until Artie becomes brainwashed and turns his gun on Cosmo, killing his partner and eventually getting shot in self-defense by Cosmo.

Now fugitives, Cosmo and Georgie kidnap Belinda in an attempt to convince her of Victor's guilt, but that necessitates playing the damn movie again. Belinda picks up a hammer and lunges at Cosmo, but the hand-cuffed Georgie manages to stop the tape and break the spell. With Cosmo finally hitting upon the truth, the three of them make an effort to destroy all copies of "Remote Control," eventually leading them to the headquarters of distributors Polaris Video in typical invasion movie fashion. And sure enough, Bert Remsen, the grandpa from TerrorVision, plays a low-level baddie who is easily disposed of in a fit of conflicting emotions.

TerrorVision wasn't just a movie about aliens, it was alien in every aspect of its execution, from the screenplay to the performances to the set design. It was chock full of cheap stereotypes and low-hanging satire, but it was consistent and vicariously weird enough to stand out amongst Charles Band's endless B-movie Empire in the same way Stuart Gordon did with his Lovecraft spin-offs. Remote Control doesn't feel as loose and lawless as that Ted Nicolaou film, as Lieberman is going for a more self-aware, meta tone in which the fictional plot of "Remote Control" is re-enacted in contemporary Los Angeles. The movie plays itself incredibly straight once the mystery is unraveled, yet it doesn't quite work as a direct thriller because it is so unassuming and clearly meant as a pastiche.

The character motivations are confusing even without the mind-control shenanigans. Victor, for instance, is a such a psychotic goon that you keep expecting him to be some kind of a mole, or a clearly-defined satire of 1980s arrogance, but it doesn't shine through in Lieberman's script. He's just a bland nuisance and obvious straw villain who lacks the charisma to even convince Belinda that his actions are innocent, when he comes off as such a robotic creep from scene one. As a result, it also impairs the credibility of the damsels in distress, be they Allegra, who is distressingly unperturbed by his intrusion into her house, or Belinda, whose naivety doesn't change an ounce in the face of clear and present danger.

Deborah Goodrich, coming off a spunky, sexy performance in April Fool's Day, is let down by the material. Ditto Jennifer Tilly, who would go on to riff on her buxom bimbo image with more wit and invention than her minor role here affords her. Leading man Kevin Dillon, though, is convincingly tough and tender, navigating the peril with workaday integrity.

Lieberman is a talented writer who is not below crafting smart dialogue or displaying sardonic wit, but aside from simply rehashing his previous Blue Sunshine or leaning on the DayGlo chintz as a means of poking fun at the concept of futurism, Lieberman lets the playful tone of the first half peter out. A scene where an entire nightclub falls prey to the cathode craze doesn't make particularly memorable use of the indelible image of Eva's demented stare watching over a crowded dance floor, and is staged rather poorly until the pyrotechnics kick in. The conflict involving Victor is perfunctory enough that the showdown has no convincing stakes, and it has no real bearing on the conspiracy plot.

Better to appreciate Remote Control for its minor virtues, mainly digressions such as an offbeat fight between Cosmo and the manager of a competitor store as well as Kevin Dillon's affably heroic presence, especially when the film intercuts his forklift-piloting derring-do with the similar antics in the 1950s film. Moments like these give Remote Control its forgotten glory as a reliable schedule-filler on old school USA Network and Sci-Fi Channel listings. It's entertaining enough that it kind of blends in with its real environment, not so much videocassette as it is the Saturday Night Movie, where real "remote control" is wielded like Excalibur.

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