How the weirdest sci-fi thriller of the '80s predicted Netflix
Before TV "binging," this underrated 1986 classic skewered our collective obsession like only a great B-movie could.
“Get ready, you guys, this baby is going to open up a whole new dimension in television pleasure!”
Like the rest of his warped nuclear family, Stanley Putterman (Gerrit Graham) can’t contain his excitement at the new satellite dish that will beam hundreds of channels into their ridiculously garish home. This is 1986, after all, an era when even cable could only offer a few dozen. But by the end of Ted Nicolaou’s ultra-kitsch monster mash, their insatiable appetite for the small screen has literally consumed them all.
Emerging from the decade’s ultimate B-movie studio, Charles Band’s Empire International Pictures (Re-Animator, Troll, Ghoulies), TerrorVision’s commentary on America’s TV obsession isn’t exactly subtle. “Intellectual decay,” barks gung-ho survivalist Grampa (Bert Remsen) about the temperamental transmitter that will soon pick up an amorphous man-eating alien. But from its inspired homage of Elvira’s Movie Macabre to put-downs of MTV hair metal favorites, this horror-comedy has so much fun mocking couch potato culture decades before the era of Netflix that you can only embrace its lack of restraint.
All five of the oddball Puttermans initially get something different out of their new-fangled antenna. Stanley seems more interested in being the envy of his neighbors, although he does enjoy the softcore porn that shows up on, what else, but channel 69. Daughter Suzy (Diane Franklin), a Cyndi Lauper look-alike sporting every shade of hair dye color known to man, is excited to rock out to W.A.S.P.
Even cynical Grampa gets on board as he settles down to gawp at a buxom seductress with his militarized young grandson Sherman (Chad Allen). Yes, this family has an unhealthy relationship with both sex and media consumption.
Director Ted Nicolaou — who’d mine a similar concept for 1988’s alien radio takeover tale Bad Channels — once admitted he wanted to make a movie you’d “turn on at midnight on the TV and go ‘What the f*** was that?’” You only have to look at The Hungry Beast, the gelatinous, toothy blob from the Planet Pluto that oozes out of the Puttermans’ TV set, to see he achieved this feat.
However, this strangely lovable mutant zapped from an extraterrestrial waste disposal unit (don’t ask) isn’t the most outlandish thing about TerrorVision. That honor goes to the family home where 99% of the film’s preposterous action is staged. Covered wall-to-wall in cotton candy pink and tasteless nude artwork, and boasting a super-sized jacuzzi room dubbed the Pleasure Dome, it’s basically a Troma-fied version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The fact that production designer Giovanni Natalucci took inspiration from LA’s swinging community also lends it a bizarre authenticity.
Stanley and his equally self-obsessed wife Raquel (Andy Warhol muse Mary Woronov) are too focused on their swinger lifestyle to pay attention to the son traumatized at seeing a giant primordial being eat his grandfather. With his parents busy seducing a couple they’ve met through the classifieds, it’s up to Sherman to save the day — and perhaps the entire world.
Sadly, for the mini-Rambo, that box in the corner once again turns out to be more foe than friend. A phoned-in plea for help to vampish TV hostess Medusa (Jennifer Richards) only results in some expert shade. (“So tell me, Sherman. Under psychiatric care?”). It’s not long before the grotesque creature emerges from another screen having just liquified mom and pop.
It’s here that TerrorVision itself briefly transforms from a John Waters-meets-Ed Wood camp-fest into a corny E.T. knockoff. Alongside his sister and her dopey metalhead boyfriend O.D. (a scene-stealing Jon Grier embodying the “intellectual decay” Grampa moaned about), Sherman attempts to make friends with their alien intruder, talking to it, feeding it, and teaching it about “mankind’s greatest invention.”
Thankfully, the motley trio’s unwavering faith in TV soon steers things back to more schlocky territory. The Hungry Beast only rediscovers his murderous side when his former captor pops up with a televised warning from outer space. And their greedy plan to grab 15 minutes of fame by parading the monster on Medusa’s show sparks a chain of events that lead to their demise.
Just to hammer home the detrimental effect of too much TV, every single character, from the satellite TV repairman to the cop that mistakes Sherman's genuine 911 calls for pranks, ends up being devoured. It’s a surprisingly downbeat ending to such a cartoonish tale but one which fulfills Nicolaou’s other main intention — to conjure up the “nightmare of a 12-year-old kid.”
TerrorVision’s over-the-top approach to satire bombed in 1986 (it made just $320,000 at the box office) but has deservedly built a midnight movie following since. Sure, the acting is overly-theatrical, the effects primitive, and its references hideously dated. But the cast and crew seem fully aware they’re making a goofball throwback to the creature features of the ‘50s. And in the age of binge-watching, its message, no matter how hilariously unsubtle, is more prescient than ever.