Wednesday, July 4, 2012

TerrorVision (1986)

Plato's Retreat was a Manhattan swinger's club started in the late 1970s by Larry Levenson. It basically gave people who want to have unfettered, heterosexual (and this was stressed by the management, though lesbianism was okay) intercourse a place to do so. The club and its owner(s) espoused the sort of hedonism that the era was known for before the rise of HIV/AIDS called attention to the perils of promiscuous, unprotected sex. Reportedly, Levenson structured the rules to ensure that the women outnumbered the men, and he provided multiple amenities for its members, including a sauna and pool. If you've ever seen the type of people who frequented discos (or were one yourself), then you know that they had a sort of primitivistic quality that seemed to produce a fine coating of…something with which they were perpetually glazed. I can only hope that Plato's Retreat had the overwhelming smell of chlorine permeating every square inch, at least some indication that the proprietors attempted to keep the premises and its (very) public conveniences somewhat hygienic. Unfortunately, I'd be willing to gamble that this was not the case, and the pool alone probably looked like the chunder-filled pool of Ted Nicolaou's TerrorVision. Now I don't know (nor do I care to know) what your particular bent is, but the mere thought of fuzzy, chunky, possibly-living things crawling all over my nethers is simply unromantic, my son.

Over a marvelously cheapjack alien world establishing shot, we are informed that we are on the planet Pluton looking at the Mutant Creature Disposal Unit section of the planetary Sanitation Department. Alien Pluthar (William Paulson) wrestles a mutant into the disposal and zaps the being off into space (via a cleverly undisguised USS Enterprise [the interstellar one, not the nautical one] model). After bouncing (replete with "funny" sound effects) off multiple planets as if they were pinball bumpers, the signal carrying the mutant winds up hitting (you guessed it) Earth. Meanwhile, jumpsuited, ascot-sporting dullard, Stanley Putterman (Gerrit Graham), finishes up installing his new satellite dish, while wife, Raquel (Mary Woronov), aerobicizes. Son, Sherman (Chad Allen), runs war games with military- and absent-minded Grampa (Bert Remsen), and punk daughter, Suzy (Diane Franklin), leaves to go on a date with metalhead boyfriend, O.D. (Jonathan Gries). I'll give you three guesses where the monster from the prologue lands.

Nicolaou's film (produced by the Brothers Band under the Empire Pictures banner) is first and foremost a satire of the "Me Generation" and their progeny. The screenplay (also written by Nicolaou) divides the characters up into three distinct subsets, each a broad stereotype. So, Stanley and Raquel are hedonistic swingers solely focused on their own pleasures. Suzy and O.D. are dimwitted, heavy metal enthusiasts. Sherman (as in the tank, get it?) and Grampa are warmongers who want to shoot first, ask questions later. When MAD Magazine does a satire (or at least when they used to), they very cleverly highlighted the most egregious faults of a movie, show, and/or genre in the short space they were provided. It helped that they were drawn in a caricatured style by such greats as Mort Drucker, Angelo Torres, Jack Davis, and others. They played, because they were already removed from reality by their medium, but to do the same in a live-action feature film is not nearly so easy. For starters, there's a lot of time to fill, and if you repeatedly crack the audience over the head with the same joke, they will tire of it quickly. Further, you have to overcome the hurdle of dealing with actors rather than drawings. Viewers instinctually want to connect with actors they see on screen (this is, after all, one of the primary reasons they go to the movies in the first place). But when they see a live-action cartoon peopled with one-dimensional parodies, there is a disconnect. 

Naturally, a film can still be effective and even enjoyable despite these things, but they are obstacles that require a deft hand behind the camera. Nicolau tries by filming the movie primarily on soundstages, thus granting himself a large degree of control (in theory). His lighting is garish and unnatural, similar to Bava's, and even the sky in the distance is purple and pink. The Putterman's are art consumers ("I know a place where you can get all this stuff real cheap") of the tackiest sort. Every painting on their walls has at least one bare nipple, and several depict light bondage. The Roman-style statue in the foyer has breasts that act as fountains. Every character is self-centered in one way or another, and their immobility in this regard makes them unappetizing (to the viewer, perhaps, but not to the monster). As I said, though, since the characters are only skin-deep in every conceivable way, you not only don't care what happens to them, but you want it to hurry up and happen faster. It's possible that this dearth of character was intended by Nicolaou as part of the lampoon, but it comes off mostly as lazy writing.

The filmmakers also use the film as a mild critique of television culture. The monster enters the house through the televisions. The characters think that Pluthar is a character in a movie when they see him pleading for us humans to render our TV sets inoperable for the next two hundred years. Grampa believes that only war stories and horror movies are educational, because they focus on survival (that's actually pretty sound reasoning). Horror host, Medusa (Jennifer Richards), dresses like a monster and puts on a performance while on air, but off air, she's just another egocentric phony. The concept of television being both alluring and dangerous is nothing new. Cronenberg's Videodrome covered the bases on the subject thoroughly. It's a subject that is ripe for investigation, but TerrorVision only gives it cursory attention (except in its background/symbolic context). The filmmakers also use real B-movie footage, rather than taking the time and (more importantly) money to come up with their own mini-parodies. And this leads to one of the film's biggest weaknesses. It is never consistent enough or fully committed enough to come together at the end. The characters flip-flop from likable to unlikable, reasonable to unreasonable and back for no other reason than that's how the director needs them to act for that scene. While there are some interesting notions in the film and it's worth a perfunctory glance (and it must be said, Graham and Woronov are excellent, as always), it's as if Nicolaou were channel-surfing in his mind as he wrote the screenplay. And that can be really annoying when you're not in control of the remote.

MVT: Buechler's monster is slimy and interesting to look at (and you get to see a lot of it), and best of all, it's huge. You have to give the man credit for being able to pull off a creature creation like that for a low budget film. You get the feeling that everyone was so impressed with it that they included it in more of the picture and rightfully so.

Make Or Break: The moment that Grampa shows up in military dress with toy fighter jets glued to his hat, the viewer suddenly realizes that they can erase all hope for any attempt at subtlety from their minds. From that point on, whether you enjoy the film or not depends completely and utterly on how easy you are to please. I admit I can be a little more difficult in this regard than some.

Score: 5.5/10

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