March 12, 2013
27 years after its theatrical release, TerrorVision (1986) was released on DVD and Blu-Ray for the first time by Shout! Factory last month. An outrageously garish horror-satire of 1980s consumer culture in the guise of a low-budget creature feature, it was savaged by critics and disappeared from public view. The Monster Squad (1987) came out in a new Blu-ray from Olive Films on the same day in February, and that nostlagic ode to the classic Universal monster movies had been difficult to see before a DVD release in 2007. Both are steeped in horror film history and iconography, but while TerrorVision adopts old styles to investigate its present, The Monster Squad is only concerned with burnishing the past.
TerrorVision was a rushed production for schlockmeister producer Charles Band, head of the short-lived Empire Pictures (Trancers, Re-Animator). Based in Rome, he cranked out cheap horror and sci-flicks at the old Dino de Laurentiis studio that drafted off the success of Hollywood hits, releasing Ghoulies a year after Gremlins (’84). He sold the studio in 1988, but went on to form the similarly Corman-minded Full Moon Features in 1989, which produced the Puppet Master series. Ted Nicolaou was an editor for Band in the Empire days, and was eager for an opportunity to direct. Band didn’t have a backlog of scripts – instead he collected ideas for titles and poster images that he thought would someday make a sellable movie. So he showed Nicolaou the poster art (an eye poking out of a satellite), and assigned him to write and direct.
What Nicolaou created was not the usual straightforward Empire Pictures material, though, but a day-glo satire of an acquisitive yuppie family in Malibu, thrust into the maw of a blob-monster straight from a 50s Sci-Fi B. Working with the Italian set designer Giovanni Natalucci, Nicolaou emphasized the artificiality of their lives, from the cardboard sky down to the rainbow colored tower of hair on the Putterman daughter, Suzy (Diane Franklin). He then encouraged his actors to perform with as much artifice as the setting, leading to a hilariously grotesque film in form and content. Even the theme song is a head-spinner, a chirruping synth chant from art-rockers The Fibonaccis. Needing content no matter the style, Band let him go ahead with it.
Stanley (Gerrit Graham) and Raquel (Mary Woronov) Putterman are your normal everyday Americans living the dream, parents of Suzy and Sherman (Chad Allen), and owners of an ornate mansion decorated with cartoon erotica and classical statuary with water-spitting nipples. They are swingers, after all, and whose dress consists of an explosion of pleather, spandex and leisure suits. Concerned only with their libidos, they leave their kids to be raised by the new Satellite TV being installed. Suzy is a Cyndi Lauper clone whose aforementioned hair is sprayed into a conical totem, while Sherman plays at GI Joe, indulged by his survivalist ex-serviceman grandfather (Bert Remsen), keen on selling jerky lizard tails and sleeping in a reinforced bunker. The most tactile and real-seeming thing in the movie is the deformed alien Jabba the Hut that is accidentally beamed into their dish. And as hungry as the Puttermans are for kitschy art, orgy technology (including a gigantic jacuzzi pool) and fast food, this monster is equally eager for the taste of human flesh. The consumers become the consumed, but they certainly enjoy themselves before they get masticated. Graham and Woronov go full camp, stretching their rubber faces into parodies of pleasure before they too get sucked down the hole of over-indulgence.
The Monster Squad (1987) is an entirely different animal, presenting a cheery Spielbergian suburb filled with harried but loving parents. The force threatening to undermine this all-American burg is not aliens but monsters awakening from hibernation: Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Frankenstein and the Creature From the Black Lagoon (Universal wouldn’t allow the use of they copyrighted makeup designs to Tri-Star, but they are passable approximations constructed by Stan Winston). Kind of a horror Avengers, they come back to life in order to destroy a magical amulet that would return them to the netherworld from whence they came.It’s up to the scrappy movie-obsessed horror kids to squelch their plans.
Director Fred Dekker wrote the script with Shane Black (whose Lethal Weapon was filmed the same year), and it has the usual array of coming-of-age cliches, from the self-deprecating fat kid (Brent Chalem) to the mettle-testing old dark house at the end of the block. There is nothing surprising here, except maybe one kid’s “Stephen King Rules” t-shirt, but Dekker clearly loves the material, and gets some Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein bumptiousness from the cast of young newcomers. Chalem steals the movie with a swift kick to the groin of the Werewolf (Jon Gries, also in TerrorVision), sealed by the immortal line, “Wolfman has nards!”. It’s the one scene I remembered from my childhood, a still-juvenile joke that also happens to neatly encapsulate how these kids are mastering their fears. It was inspiring stuff at the time, and as fondly as Monster Squad looks back at the Universal monsters, so do 80s kids like myself look back at the movie, creating a nostalgia-feedback loop. Sadly Chalem didn’t go on to have much of a career, playing rote “fat kid” roles on TV with names like “Spud” (Punky Brewster, 1987) and “Tubby” (Dance ‘Til Dawn, 1988). He moved on from acting to become a legal assistant, but died at the age of 22 from pneumonia: “Brent was one of those kids everybody knew,” said family friend Marsha Rosenblum. “He made friends with everybody he met.”