Sunday, June 21, 2015

The 'Burbs + Little Monsters

(PG, Universal Pictures, 101 mins., theatrical release date: February 17, 1989)

(PG, United Artists, 100 mins., theatrical release date: August 25, 1989)

Rick Ducommun has passed on due to complications from diabetes at age 58 on June 12, 2015. This is the first time I have ever posted a review in tribute to the recently departed, but Ducommun was a familiar face throughout my movie-going childhood. And not just in the bit parts from movies such as Die Hard, Spaceballs, Groundhog Day, and Ghost in the Machine. Ducommun, a Canadian stand-up comic who first came to fame as co-host of Zig Zag, the other popular children's program from the Great White North that wasn't You Can't Do That on Television, proved himself a versatile actor in a number of mainstream projects.

Twice featured on HBO's half-hour live comedy blocks, Ducummon also made headway in the cinemas starting in 1989. Newly thin and imported to Hollywood by Alan Thicke, he appeared in two cult movies with spooky undercurrents.

The first of these black comedies was Joe Dante's The 'Burbs, released in February of that year, which was a minor success at the box office mainly due to the star power of Tom Hanks, fresh off his blockbuster turn in Penny Marshall's Big. The second arrived at the tail end of the summer, Richard Alan Greenberg's Little Monsters, and it fared even worse because of many post-production woes. Specifically, it was another project from the financially-strapped Vestron Pictures, who as I previously mentioned had shipped Bloodhounds of Broadway off to Sony where it, too, was a flop critically and commercially.

Ducommun was the kind of man who could found a skateboard equipment company with his brother Pete, crack a joke about missing gay men on Vaseline jars and then play the good-hearted limo driver in Disney's Blank Check from 1994. From the late 1980s until the mid-1990s, Ducommun was on a considerable roll in his career, but eventually settled down and cemented his career as a bit player. This isn't exactly on the level of Christopher Lee or Betsy Palmer, but I respect Ducommun's comic gifts and screen presence just the same. And it does hit me in the vulnerable area of my youth enough to start me thinking.

Unfortunately, thinking does not exactly enhance the minimal qualities of Little Monsters. The premise was interesting enough to be salvaged by Pixar a decade later for Monsters, Inc., but here the result is a sour and silly combination of Beetlejuice and The Monster Squad. Alongside the holiday release of The Wizard, you can blame both that and Little Monsters for trashing Fred Savage's ambitions to become a movie star based off his success on ABC-TV's The Wonder Years.

Savage plays Brian Stevenson, the lonely new sixth-grade student and eldest son of two combative parents, Holly (Margaret Whitton) and Glen (Daniel Stern). And yes...they not only cast Kevin Arnold, but also his older, wiser mouthpiece, too. Such awkwardness is the stuff of Nostalgia Critic videos. When his younger brother Eric (Ben Savage) is plagued by night terrors involving the monster under the bed, Brian accepts a wager to swap rooms in an attempt to calm his sibling's nerves. Besides, Brian could use the money since his irascible, jumping-to-conclusions Dad has cut off his allowance following a couple of pranks.

Scaredy-cat Eric turns out to be right and there is a monster waiting below until bedtime to make mischief and fright. Enter Maurice (Howie Mandel), a horned, wart-faced, blue-skinned freak whom Brian takes pity on as the daylight melts him into a smoky pile of denim. Maurice shows his gratitude by taking Brian on a guided tour of his grotesque underworld which the monsters call their kingdom, a kid-friendly paradise of junk food, arcade games and rampant destruction. And Brian is even allowed to tag along on many of Maurice's assigned hauntings, where the duo bond over a cavalcade of practical jokes not limited to placing saran wrap over toilet seats, peeing in apple juice bottles and smearing fudge on clean white kitchen surfaces.

The intriguing proposition of seeing Nightbreed pitched to the swing-set crowd is not fully realized, though. Too much time is taken up in the first half by the puerile comedy and Howie Mandel's purposefully, pitilessly overbearing mugging, so much so that subsequent developments and new characters all register as afterthoughts. This means that the Stevenson parents confiding their "trial separation" to their children comes across as ill-advisedly hokey, and that mopey Brian's social isolation is all for naught since he's got three willing companions (including the school bully, Ronnie Coleman, played by Devin "Buzz" Ratray) to help him rescue his abducted brother.

And oh yeah, the poorly-shoehorned antagonists who resent Brian for reasons undefined. One of them is Rick Ducommon's character, Snik, who looks uncannily like the X-Men's Beast as played by W.C. Fields and rages about the realm like a mountain-shaped Mafioso. He is the stooge for the shadow villain known as "Boy," who doesn't appear until the finale without any real set-up or motivation. When we finally see this Boy (Frank Whaley), he's dressed like an English schoolboy and acts like Frank Cotton (seriously, this movie should have been written by Clive Barker) pretending to be Pee-Wee Herman.

Screenwriting team Terry Rossio & Ted Elliott clearly have a yen for suburban anarchy and subverting adolescence, seeing as how they would later go on to Small Soldiers and Shrek. It's too bad their execution is constantly disappointing. There are as many hackneyed elements, particularly in terms of character and structure, about Little Monsters as there would later be in Small Soldiers, but at least that had a genuine loon at the helm to make it seem alive. Richard Greenberg, a titles and optical effects specialist, appears hopeless in trying to pass off a skeletal back lot of a setting as magical. Much like the creature designs and the overall quality of the visual effects, this supposed Neverland is cut-rate and aweless.

However, I would be lying if Howie Mandel didn't eke out a few snickers from his non-stop Michael Keaton imitation. The phrase "over-the-shoulder boulder holder" is exactly how a nitwit 12-year-old boy would categorize a brassiere. There is at least one humorous confrontation between Maurice and Snik, easily the best dialogue exchanges the movie has to offer, not to mention a chance for both Mandel and Ducommun to play funny naturally. And with a better script and direction, Mandel could've actually come across as endearing. But just like Fred Savage and Daniel Stern, Mandel seems to be coasting.

The only grace you'll find on an acting level is the frustratingly brief appearance by Frank Whaley as Boy, who is not to be confused with Guy, the vengeful lackey of vicious Kevin Spacey he played in Swimming with Sharks. Aside from his warm job as Father Mundy in Keith Gordon's A Midnight Clear (I forgot to mention that he went on to become another actor-turned-auteur), Whaley was also the simpering Brett from Pulp Fiction, the Target store janitor hero of Career Opportunities and Robby Krieger of The Doors in Oliver Stone's film. Barely hiding his malevolence behind a frozen visage of adolescent rejection, Whaley is devilishly fey and deserving of more than the script gives him.

The movie ends with Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere," which is worthy of kudos, too. I also heard a cover of Nick Lowe's "(I Love the Sound of) Breaking Glass" and Buckwheat Zydeco's overplayed "Ooh Wow," which was actually supposed to be a cue for Bobby Day's "Little Bitty Pretty One," not to be confused with the smash hit cover by Thurston Harris. I better get my facts right in front of ol' Shrevie.

Little Monsters isn't even half as novel as The 'Burbs, which nobly tries to justify its genre-specific glory through Joe Dante's typically crackpot enthusiasm. Whereas the former boasts a clip from the fifties version of The Fly not used for any thematic good, Dante throws in simultaneous passages from Race with the Devil, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and pays them off splendidly by showing you just how feverish and fearful the imagination is of Tom Hanks' neighborhood schmuck, Ray Peterson.

Ray is content to spend his week's vacation lazing around in his bathrobe instead of treating his wife Carol (straight-shooting Carrie Fisher) and son Dave (Cory Danziger). In his apathy, Ray is fixated on the next-door residency of the Klopeks, one of those decaying Gothic hell-houses which would be ideal for Macabre Homes & Gardens magazine. The Klopeks' peculiar habits of digging up their backyard, conducting electricity for a mysterious whirring furnace in the wee hours of the morning, setting front-door booby traps involving angry bees, and driving the short distance to dispose of their garbage provoke insane curiosity in the community's numb-skulled majority.

Enabling Ray's fanatical snooping are gabby slob Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun), who has convinced himself the Slavic-sounding Klopeks are Satanists; patriotic wacko Lt. Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), who turns every "How do you do?" into a recon mission; and teenage burnout Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman), who is so boundlessly amused and entertained by the weirdness on his block that he invites dates and friends to spectator parties on the patio.

And then elderly Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon) disappears leaving only his toupee, causing Ray and the gang to suspect the homicidal worst.

Ever since Bosom Buddies premiered at the start of the 1980s, Tom Hanks had a reputation throughout the decade as an affably arrested smart aleck. Since becoming the award-winning dramatic juggernaut with Philadelphia in 1993, nostalgia has crept in for a generation weaned on Hanks' boyish, hyperventilating persona cultivated in films like Splash, Bachelor Party, The Money Pit, Dragnet, and The 'Burbs. The closest they got was his voiceover work as Woody in the Toy Story franchise. Dare I say this, but Tom Hanks was the Adam Sandler of the 1980s, less abrasive and more accomplished but still.

So perhaps Big was Hanks' own Punch Drunk Love, a whimsical story which busted open Hanks' Everyman charms to the point where (for Hanks, at least) he got his very first Oscar nod. Unlike Sandler, Hanks' obligations to the mainstream turned out to be even quirkier than expected, including John Patrick Shanley's Joe vs. the Volcano and Brian De Palma's calamitous adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Only Turner & Hooch stunk of hardcore formula. And The 'Burbs may as well be the nuttiest of these interim films between the certified crowd-pleasers of Penny Marshall's Big and A League of Their Own.

A lot of that is down to Senor Dante more than scatterbrained screenwriter Dana Olsen, whose amusingly paranoid sense of humor (imagine "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" as a sitcom-my farce) is capped off in the most chickenshit, "I told you so" manner. A year later, Dante would top himself with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, but there are delirious moments of pop-culture allusions ranging from possession pics to Spaghetti westerns to be savored. His penchant for stunt-casting reaps more dividends in the self-parodying glee evident in Bruce Dern and the assemblage of actors playing the Klopeks, Laugh-In comic Henry Gibson (from Dante's previous Innerspace), Kraut cut-up Brother Theodore and ginger grotesque Courtney Gains (Hardbodies).

Dante regulars and good luck charms Dick Miller and Robert Picardo turn up as garbage men more belligerent than the ones from Creepshow. But this is Rick Ducommon's signature movie more than anybody else's, his every scene alive with cocky one-liners and conspiracy theories. Sure, Tom Hanks delivers a screed worthy of Kevin "You're Next!" McCarthy in the closing stretch, but it's Ducommun's oafish fast-talking and fear-mongering which gives the real momentum.

Another sharp tool in The 'Burbs' comedic shed is Jerry Goldsmith, who provides a maniacally colorful, organ-flavored score which often syncs up with chanted renditions of dialogue ("Satan is good, Satan is our pal") and what sounds like Fairlight samples of a dog barking when Walter's poodle Queenie first scampers on-screen.

If only 'The Burbs had a bit more clarity of purpose to keep it from ending like a John Landis movie. There is subtle hilarity in the way Dante and Olsen poke holes at the suburban haughtiness which relegates a famed doctor like Henry Gibson's character to predetermined quack status, and the performances by Hanks, Ducummon and Corey Feldman are infused with enough obnoxiousness so as not to truly relate to but rarely skimping on the laughs (which was what Howie Mandel couldn't overcome in Little Monsters).

So in essence, you have the kind of movie Rick Ducummon would actually make more of in the dreary Little Monsters, and the kind of movie he deserved in the flighty The 'Burbs. Regardless of how the dice landed, I would like to once again pay my final respects to the Duke of Prince Albert.

"Sleep tight."

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Enchantéd, Pt. IX: How I Got Into College

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin

IX. How I Got Into College (1989)
(PG-13, 20th Century Fox)


Previously on Mind of Frames...

Planet Earth 1989 by way of 2015. A young movie reviewer has found his muse in the form of actress Diane Franklin. In a rush of encouragement, he decides to revisit her many movie roles in the 1980s. Watching Diane's resume gives the writer a productive first year and a sense of success. No matter what opinion is reached for each title, he feels elated to have made such progress and is genuinely thankful for Diane's support both in spirit and in flesh. The feedback she offers is ailment to his restless mind, and even after a complicated second year of writer's block and personal instability, the man renews his commitment with as much purpose and delight as ever.

However, in looking back to the past, the tributary scribe suddenly reaches the dawn of the next decade, and the possible end of his inspiration. Faced with the closing of the 1980s, Diane Franklin has given thought to the progress of her acting career, and, unable advance into a player of mature and multi-faceted characters, instead becomes an adult on her own terms. This means marriage, two children, a full-time gig as acting teacher in Agoura Hills, becoming an animal care-taker, branching out into children's book illustrations, and defining herself not simply as Diane Franklin, but as Diane DeLaurentis.

At this point in Enchantéd, I've reached a burning need for a grander context to make up for the absence of Diane in the 1990s and 2000s. But how do I begin?

Well, the most parallel observation I could make is that the kind of teen-oriented films Diane Franklin had been starring in since 1982 were gradually becoming less imbecilic and frivolous. There was a definite increase in quality scripts and thematic spice than back when young people in movies were defined solely by their hedonism. You had rising stars making legit names for themselves in the genre, whether it be Sean Penn, Tom Cruise, Molly Ringwald, John Cusack, Matthew Broderick, Mary Stuart Masterson, or River Phoenix. Writers and/or directors also demonstrated greater depth-of-perception towards the typical teen angst, which resulted in the rise of John Hughes and many exemplary films like Risky Business, Lucas, the Aussie import The Year My Voice Broke, and Running on Empty.

By 1989, the evolution of the teen flick culminated in not just the pure entertainment of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, but also the arrival of the biting Heathers and the benevolent Say Anything. The latter film demonstrated something most so-called "coming-of-age" films in the 1980s were too base to achieve: a genuine feeling of newly-minted maturity. I can't look back on the decade, what with all of its sub-Porky's, swinging-dick monotony, without hearing Lili Taylor's pitch-perfect statement of young adulthood: "The world is full of guys. Be a man."

Which brings me back to Savage Steve Holland, the writer/director of Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer. In terms of celluloid worth, he is in the middle of the auteur spectrum, not as bright as John Duigan (of The Year My Voice Broke and the equally bracing Flirting) but more bearable than Boaz Davidson (of those piss-flavored Lemon Popsicle movies). Holland's propensity for animation gave him a distinct personality which lasted for two movies, but at least that debut film was surrealistically sublime.

Alas, it soon proved that Holland was more suitable for kid's television, starting with Beans Baxter for Fox and Encyclopedia Brown for HBO. Nowadays, he's best known for the cult series Eek! the Cat as well as numerous Nickelodeon and Disney Channel sitcom credits. One of those projects, A Fairly Odd Christmas, boasts a story credit by Diane Franklin's husband Ray DeLaurentis, whereas Franklin herself made an appearance in Encyclopedia Brown & The Case of the Ghostly Rider, as did the late Taylor Negron.

Franklin did more TV guest appearances after 1985 than movies, including in episodes of Matlock, Charles in Charge and Murder, She Wrote. But she was good enough friends with Holland to appear briefly on the set of One Crazy Summer for an unused scene with John Cusack and to do a cameo role in what would become Holland's final major motion picture, How I Got Into College.

And as it turns out, Savage Steve Holland wasn't even the movie's original director, nor did he even write the screenplay!

Twentieth Century Fox had originally signed on a newcomer named Jan Eliasberg (Past Midnight), who brought a more unorthodox sense of style to the project. Her low-key approach scared the studio, who expected a film more interested in high jinks. Three days into the shoot, an audacious camera trick cost her the job and Fox chose to hire Holland in her place. You can read the full story about Eliasberg's unceremonious outing in this vintage Los Angeles Times article which connects her to other female directors like Martha Coolidge and Mary Lambert, all of whom were facing uphill battles against the Hollywood system.

Diane Franklin would have doubtlessly bowed out with Bill & Ted were Holland not involved, so as a fan, I should be grateful that he was Fox's back-up choice. Funnily enough, though, Franklin's character here is less Princess Joanna and more "Missy...I mean, Mom." Playing the icy stepmother of lead character Marlon Browne (opposite Richard Jenkins as Mr. Browne!), her Sharon (hey, that rhymes with Karen) looks as beaming as a recent college grad but desperately wishes Marlon would move out and free up valuable bedroom space. In one of Holland's usual embellishments, Sharon is introduced teaching advanced geometry to a tyke ("Find the tetrahedron! No, that's a hexagon, sweetie"), a joke on the academic inadequacy of our dopey hero.

High school junior Marlon Browne (Corey Parker) seems to be on the fast-track to a GED rather than the hallowed halls of higher education. Holland demonstrates this much with live-action variants on his usual cartoon tangents involving two SAT answer men who jeer on Marlon as he bungles various word problems. The performers in these interstitials are Bruce Wagner (the poison penman of Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and Maps to the Stars) and Tom Kenny (the future voice of Spongebob Squarepants and sketch comedy star from Mr. Show). One of these uproarious moments has Marlon frenetically guessing to no avail the amount of water the two hypothetical dorks would need to shovel out of a sinking, shark-ravaged boat ("You're killing us!").

The only university Marlon is determined to enroll at is Ramsey College, which is where the girl he fancies is bucking for entry. She is Jessica Kailo (Lara Flynn Boyle), the gorgeous go-getter valedictorian who is more Diane Court than Tracy Flick in her poise. As she is campaigning for senior class presidency, Jessica parlays her honor roll credentials and summer student exchange residency (in Italy, where she got interested in saving the Frescoes) into a slot at the Pennsylvanian campus. The gawky Marlon bides his time in approaching his dream girl, pursuing her down the many prospective rituals involving recruitment fairs and open-house parties.

Writer Terrel Seltzer (Dim Sum, One Fine Day) thankfully broadens the movie's perspective beyond any syrupy expectations. There's plenty of acerbic wit in the discussions about tall tales of stressed-out interviewees and the conflicting values of the Ramsey admissions board. As Dean Patterson (Philip Baker Hall) is resigning after 17 years, there is competition between the laid-back, idealistic Kip Hammett (Anthony Edwards) and the smarmy, materialistic Leo Whitman (Charles Rocket), each vesting interest in their idea of a model student. Kip, who is dating the minority recruitment spokesperson Nina Saatchi (Finn Carter), offers his support to the lovesick Marlon.

Nina finds what she's looking for in Detroit via a spunky, book-smart "spud technician" and graduating senior named Vera Cook (Tichina Arnold). In her own way, Vera feels painfully aware of her own meager prospects as the main white kids in love. All three of them are groomed by their well-meaning but self-absorbed parents into fulfilling their planned social destinies, particularly Jessica, who doesn't want to be another sorority girl baking "ham pineapple surprise" in a modern nuclear family kitchen. To help leaven the mood, there are quirky best friends for the two leads in the presence of grungy Oliver (Christopher Rydell), who wants to experience the real world on his own terms (by hitchhiking with rogue game show hostesses and claiming surplus grand prizes), and the hyper-reactive Kelly (Annie Oringer), whose weepy anxiety is played entirely for chuckles.

Throughout it all, Savage Steve Holland finds several opportunities to detour the material into his oddball alternate dimension. When Oliver gets into argument over Marlon's infatuation with a girl who won't even give him the time of day, the room stops silent so Jessica can tell him the actual time. There's a running gag involving a gullible admissions staff member named Flutter (Bill Raymond) and his fear of pigs stemming from a practical joke. Jessica's fateful interview becomes a symphony of self-loathing and desperation; in effect, she becomes the neurotic urban legend she previously kidded her friends with (also, watch out for Dan "Ricky Smith" Schneider). And Taylor Negron returns to deliver the mail just like he did in Better Off Dead, only now he's crushing another teen boy's ego.

The tone is certainly much lighter and perfunctory through Holland's input than Jan Eliasberg would have demonstrated had she been kept aboard, especially by comparing their treatments of the college fair scene. Eliasberg, as previously mentioned, wanted to capture the chaos in a one-take scene wholly from Marlon's viewpoint. The footage of this was ruined due to a faulty camera when Holland took over, and in wanting to make the movie "cheerier," that scene in particular was ironed out by Holland, who gave the Fox the comforting coverage Eliasberg denied them. The reactions of Corey Parker and Chris Rydell register more broadly, there are snappy caricatures of Army recruiters and Asiatic nerds and, last but not least, a Curtis Armstrong cameo as the spokesman for bible-belt Arcadia College.

The fundamental difference between How I Got Into College and Holland's previous films is the pronounced levity of the young people's aspirations. In Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer, Holland was more hands-on creatively and the gags tended to overpower their admittedly flimsy premises. You may recall "I want my two dollars!" quicker than "Mercy buckets." Still, the creative and kooky personalities from earlier reaped victories romantic (the pairing of dejected Lane Meyer and delightful Monique Junet) and vengeful (Hoops McCann and his grotesque friends winning the regatta by literal hook and crook). In this case, Holland's lack of juvenile indulgence means that his sympathy for these teenage dreamers runs deeper than before.

If John Cusack's roles from Dead and Summer are explicit proxies for Holland, maybe the attitude Holland brings to How I Got Into College is best shared by Anthony Edwards' character, a dry-witted brother figure adamant on giving fair shakes to the "still-searching, doesn't-know-what-he-wants-to-do-with-his-life" teens whom Terry Seltzer also humanizes in her script. Identities are thrown into discomfiting disarray and futures are manifestly undermined by the closed-minded, crises which require more delicacy and virtue than a film about kids getting laid would demand. This isn't Porky's, whose perpetually-delayed, Howard Stern-produced remake was actually written by Savage Steve Holland.

With Cusack itching for serious acting vehicles and Diane Franklin nearing 30, it's up to Corey Parker and Lara Flynn Boyle to make for both credible teenagers and graceful performers. Parker looks like more of a geek than Cusack ever did, but he imbues Marlon Browne with a plucky dignity all his own, and a young, cherubic Lara Flynn Boyle is just as luminescent as Franklin was in Better Off Dead. Anthony Edwards is reliably charismatic in his last teen flick role, but his opposite number Finn Carter (who played the seismologist attracted to Kevin Bacon in Tremors) comes off brighter and livelier, and is perhaps the real standout in this cast. Also in peak form are Tichina Arnold (Crystal from the musical of Little Shop of Horrors), Charles Rocket, Brian Doyle-Murray (as Coach Evans, the hard-up football enthusiast), and Saturday Night Live alumni Nora Dunn & Phil Hartman as Bauer & Benedek, a pair of shameless bamboozlers operating as SAT consultants.

These check-cashing interlopers end up feeding Marlon the chutzpah he needs to make an impression beyond mere aptitude. That is the charm of Savage Steve Holland in a nutshell. How I Got Into College is not on the subversive level of Better Off Dead, which is going to rank high in my final rundown of Diane Franklin movies, but if her role here is deeply skeptical, at least Holland remains faithful in the ingenuity of his teenaged subjects. For all of his zaniness, maybe such all-encompassing empathy demonstrated Holland's edge throughout his sadly brief 1980s career.

The same could be said for Diane Franklin, who followed her heart away from show business and would not appear in a feature film until after more than a decade plus. Alas, the parts just keep on getting smaller...

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Groove Tube + TunnelVision

(R, Levitt-Pickman Film Corporation, 75 mins., theatrical release date: June 23, 1974)

(R, World Wide Pictures, 70 mins., theatrical release date: March 1976)

Before Saturday Night Live and SCTV, Channel One Underground Television tuned in to the irreverent potential of pop cultural satire. The brainchild of Bard College buddies Ken Shapiro, Lane Sarasohn & Chevy Chase, Channel One was a comedic troupe who crossed the mediums of theatre and television. The trio recorded 90-minute blocks of racy programming which was then aired on three closed-circuit sets suspended from the ceiling of their East Village "stage." Instead of seats, they had sofas, and the snack bar was replaced with a well-stocked refrigerator containing snacks and sodas. Audiences, critics and colleges became abuzz with hype surrounding Channel One, and a compendium of their most popular sketches was making the rounds under the name of "The Groove Tube."

Keep in mind that VCRs were a distant dream of the future, and though there was such a thing as cable television in 1972 when HBO was launched, Channel One's content was bawdy to the max. No self-respecting network would give Shapiro & Co. free reign to skewer the medium with as much free-minded puerility as they had demonstrated. So how did Channel One expand to the masses away from Greenwich Village and Manhattan?

The answer is simple: Channel One went cinematic.

The Groove Tube debuted in movie houses starting in 1974. Although the promotional budget didn't allow Shapiro to go the full William Castle and hang TV monitors in every screening room in America, it was an independent film success, just the same. Even after its initial run, you could've seen The Groove Tube double-billed with Flesh Gordon later in the 1970s and it was later loosed onto video via Media Home Entertainment and got regular pay-TV play, including on The Movie Channel. And I remember seeing it on both of those formats.

What is lost to most people was just how influential The Groove Tube proved to be. Later omnibus films like The Kentucky Fried Movie, Amazon Women on the Moon and Movie 43 are well-known in one capacity or another, but you had lesser variations sprouting immediately, too. Case in point: 1976's TunnelVision, which shared with The Groove Tube a bankable early appearance by Chevy Chase, who became a certified star thanks to Saturday Night Live. Alas, TunnelVision also spotlighted a handful of recognizable comic performers, including big names known from Second City and The Groundlings.

Aside from Chase, who appears twice in the film, The Groove Tube has only a couple of other names which are of instant recognition. The first is Richard Belzer, best known as Sgt. Munch from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but also a superstar of the stand-up comedy circuit who was immortalized as emcee both on film (Fame, Scarface) and in the Friar's Club. The third is Martin Kove, who had previously played the bumbling deputy in Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, but would later become famous as the Cobra Kai dojo leader from The Karate Kid.

As for the big names peppered throughout TunnelVision, I'm going to hold off for a bit.

The main thing both these movies have in common is that they are period pieces which lampoon the average television programming of their time. There is a Putney Swope-style inclination toward uncensored, in-your-face advertising and storytelling where the prurience and scatology are left unchallenged by any standards & practices committee. In the post-hippie era of increasing cynicism and social upheaval, The Groove Tube and TunnelVision mock the bland, earnest constrictions of the commercials and sitcoms and newscasts familiar to the average TV viewer.

Don't kid yourself this is righteous disillusionment on the order of Gil Scott-Heron, who favored civil rights awareness over the lavish attention awarded to soap operas and celebrity. The blows these films land are about as superficial as their subjects, and their success depends entirely on your predilection for rampant bad taste, leering nudity and casual profanity. The Groove Tube, by dint of being the first of its kind, has a bit more counter-cultural curiosity to it than TunnelVision, particularly in skits involving openly explicit sex and drug use. The latter movie can't help but feel like an also-ran by comparison, especially given the increased volume of throwaway gags which don't reward one's avid attention.

Also counting against TunnelVision is that the movie boasts a flimsy framing device, looking ahead ten years into the future where the filmmakers believe 1980s audiences will be watching dirty-minded take-offs of distinctly 1970s entertainment. This is not exactly forward-thinking, nor particularly funny, as All in the Family will have been supplanted by Family Ties and children's entertainment will be inescapable. Furthermore, the plot involving station owner Christian A. Broder (Phil Proctor from the Firesign Theatre) being taken to trial by irate senators doesn't even live up to the juicy potential of foretelling the PMRC witch hunts and Video Nasties furors to come.

The Groove Tube kicks off with an amusing twist on the apes' discovery of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey and a titles sequence which posits the TV set as the ultimate technological advancement. There is your sacred cow. Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" kicks into gear as the scene shifts to a pair of free-spirited young adults stripping and sprinting through the woods, the proverbial Gadda-Da-Vida, only for the lustful drifter to run smack into a policeman, buck naked and bewildered. This is indicative of Ken Shapiro's comedic approach to the remaining hour's worth of material.

Shaprio, a former child star whose first exposure was televised as the meddling kid passing by fast-talking huckster Sid Stone's booth on the Texaco Star Theater, uses his insider position to the best of his abilities. The Groove Tube works on the precise level of stylistic parody, taking off from established formulas and templates for maximum outlandishness. A send-up of static cooking tutorials, "Kramp TV Kitchen," finds Shapiro's somnambulant voice detailing a nutty recipe for "4th of July Heritage Loaf," with roundabout instructions that aggravate and confuse the faceless chef handling the load. A Rome apple is peeled only to be reconstructed with toothpicks, Bing cherries have their pits replaced with those cut from olives and there is enough gross overuse of vegetable shortening to put you off Crisco for life.

Shapiro appears in person at the start as Koko the Klown, an excitable Bozo doppelganger who mugs and honks his way towards "Make Believe Time," where he shoos all the "big people" out of the room with the aid of his Magic Monkey. He then removes his big red nose, lights up a j and reads requested pages from various erotica tomes like Fanny Hill and de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom. Even better is a brief commercial for "Babs & Roy," which puts Barbie & Ken through the paces of ill-fated matrimony replete with stifling domesticity, workplace adultery and psychiatric care.

Other mocking ads for vitamin supplements and toothpaste lay bare the latent sexuality of their forebears with as much vigor as their female actresses disrobe. Aside from "Babs & Roy," the highlights are Chevy Chase (seen previously in the "Geritan" ad with porn star Jennifer Wells) showing the Yellow Pages' "walking fingers" performing sexual intercourse and the testosterone-damaged "Butz Beer," in which an entire pub, manned by Marty Kove, breaks out into a violent frenzy at the drop of a glass. And then there's the infamous "Safety Sam" PSA about venereal disease, which gets its reliable testimony straight from the source. I will say no more.

The movie's extended bits are the "Channel One Evening News" as well as an episode of "The Dealers," a fictional show about two fly-by-day marijuana sellers unable to keep their heads above water. Shapiro plays the idealistic Boss and Richard Belzer is the gabby Rodriguez. Clearly, this is a precursor to the kind of comedy Cheech & Chong would popularize, and the gag involving the ingestion of pounds of grass is similar to one used in the duo's debut comedy album, on "Cruisin' with Pedro." But Shapiro seems focused more on the hard times faced by the dealers, with paranoia and poverty the defining characteristics of their misadventures.

Their first errand involving a glad-handing WASP is spoiled by the appearance of a silent witness who screams "Narc," and the duo barge into an occupied restroom desperate to flush their stash. On the drive to their next stop, a squad car tails them and even hits the lights, forcing them to eat handfuls more of their supply. Their only respite comes when they hide in a movie theater, where Rodriguez woos a female patron into wild sex and Boss clumsily tries to get close to her disinterested friend. The apex of Boss' nervous breakdown, waking from a psychedelic nightmare to chase away a thieving junkie, comes when he confesses that he wants to sleep with his oblivious partner, who instead offers him more reds to calm him down. The stinger essentially turns this into a Reefer Madness-style propaganda piece.

As for the nightly news, Shaprio plays anchroman Robert Elgin, who reports on the war breaking out in Suc Muc Dik, the latest madness from the White House (Belzer's president is a proto-Sandler manchild), the disastrous Russian spaceship launch (really just clips from old Commando Cody serials with correspondence), and the prostitution epidemic in NYC (Belzer plays the black transvestite who gets to work on his latest trick, the newsman also played by Shapiro). Once Robert signs off, there is another surrealist punch line which has to be seen to be believed.

The Groove Tube is a relic, indeed, but a very well-made relic, too. At a solid 74 minutes in length, both the individual parts and their sum don't overstay their welcome. Even at its most unabashedly tasteless (see "Brown 25" and "The International Sex Games"), the jokes are varied and betray a sharp knowledge of their subjects which the writers use to their advantage. The really refreshing thing about Shaprio and Sarasohn's efforts is that their comedy does resonate even after 40 years have passed, and that's mainly because for all their japery, a sense of showmanship is the guiding principle. Fitting that the movie ends with a pair of song-and-dance routines, Chevy Chase's a cappella rendition of "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" and Ken Shapiro prancing down the Midtown streets crooning "Just You, Just Me" to various passersby.

What could have been really enervating is in fact quite entertaining, and it's a shame Channel One couldn't catch a break as its offspring catapulted into stardom. Alas, its 1976 bastard son TunnelVision marked the creative debuts of two people who would dominate the industry in the 1980s and onward. The first is director Neal Israel, who wrote the scripts for Police Academy, Moving Violations and Real Genius with Pat Proft and also made the ribald Tom Hanks vehicle Bachelor Party. The second is producer Joe Roth, who became chairman of 20th Century Fox in the late 1980s and then of Walt Disney Pictures immediately after, from 1994 until 2000. He was co-founder of Morgan Creek Productions with James G. Robinson and launched his own production company, Revolution Studios, in 2000.

But Roth was also the pitiful director of both Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise and Christmas with the Kranks. That coupled with the Police Academy franchise launched by Mr. Israel should tell you everything about the comedic pedigree behind TunnelVision. These were the guys who also gave you the duly forgotten Cracking Up (1977) and Americathon (1979), which squandered a fortune in comic and musical talent (George Carlin, Harvey Korman, Elvis Costello, Meat Loaf) for some of the cheapest laughs possible.

Their M.O. remains just as below-the-bar in this debut feature, which crams at least three times more gags into its 67-minute runtime than The Groove Tube, but manages to elicit far fewer laughs in the process. TunnelVision is even more brazenly un-P.C. than Ken Shapiro's earlier film to the point where the gags turn smug and loathsome. Whereas you could sense a framework and imagination behind even the low points from Shapiro's film, Israel and co-writer Michael Mislove expect your automatic laughter at such sights as a proctology school promo, replete with a row of hairy man-ass, a game show where the ultimate tournament is a fart competition (King Frat, this is not) and a gypsy-themed rip-off of All in the Family which is more outwardly coarse but infinitely less hilarious.

That particular lampoon even throws in a mincing gay stereotype in desperation, which coupled with a previous bumper for Curt Gowdy and his hunting team "stalking the wild faggot," reveals a hostile attitude undermining the overall comedy when contrasted with The Groove Tube. In that previous film's "Dealers" bit, the joke was that sexually-frustrated Boss was rebuffed by his "cute" companion Rodriguez ("You ever hear of gay lib?") because the latter guilelessly pleaded ignorance. The juvenile mentality of TunnelVision offends in the most asinine manner possible, without anything clever or clear-minded to compensate.

It takes a special incompetence to bungle nearly every surefire laugh it comes across, whether it be Leon Russell promoting a "marijuana-gram" or an interactive concert experience where audiences beat on the bands. Israel and co-director Brad Swirnoff demonstrate it time and time again. There's another send-up of the six o'clock news involving political chicanery and exaggerated world conflict, which is bad. There's a buddy-cop drama called "Get Head!" starring a mute John Candy who carries around his partner's dismembered dome, which is bald. There's a commercial for an "Ego-spray" deodorant which equally wastes the talents of Al Franken, here a long, long way from Stuart Smalley, and is simply arid. Even Chevy Chase's brief appearance is forgettable, which definitely could not be said for his parts in The Groove Tube.

Glimmers of talent do creep through a mere couple of the sketches, particularly a sexually-liberated send-up of Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore sitcoms which pairs Lynne Marie Stewart and Gerrit Graham, of all people. Stewart is recognizable as Miss Yvonne from Pee-Wee Herman's shows as well as Charlie's Mom on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Graham had already proved his chops in Brian De Palma's early movies including as egotistical, speed-addled glitter rocker Beef in Phantom of the Paradise. These two combine their campy expertise for what is surely the two single funny minutes in this movie.

Sadly, I can't say the same thing about Joe Flaherty and Betty Thomas, who both later starred in the rude, crude and truly hilarious Used Cars (also with Mr. Graham), as the aforementioned quiz show contestants. Again, the premise should have been black comedy gold, as the two of them confess sordid secrets involving pedophilia and miscarriages for points. And once again, its execution is pitiful. They have electroshock lie-detecting sensors in their scalps (and later their anuses) which never come into play. What a waste of potentially good slapstick humor as well as its stars.

I've mentioned John Candy and Joe Flaherty (soon to be SCTV), Chevy Chase and Al Franken (of early and later SNL), Lynne Marie Stewart, Gerrit Graham, and Betty Thomas. TunnelVision's only curiosity comes from its large roster of familiar names, and there are minor roles for the likes of Laraine Newman, Howard Hesseman, Ron Silver (who has his own sketch playing a disreputable Spanish language teacher), Rick Hurst, and a young Danielle von Zerneck (later a star of La Bamba and Living in Oblivion, here eating out at a fast-food broccoli stand). Hell, even the film's gratuitous T&A quotient is filled by Dody Dorn, who didn't become a comedienne but had a healthy career as both a sound and film editor, working with James Cameron (The Abyss, T2) and Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia).

TunnelVision could've thrown in Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, and Gilda Radner, and it still would've been an abomination. It's a blatantly cheap, flailing and ankle-biting attempt for the au courant by so-called humorists who are about as edgy as a softball. The movie's tagline is "Laugh or get off the pot," but TunnelVision is a pants-shitting embarrassment.