Well, what do you know? I can review a TCM Top 12 movie in the month it airs. Of course, out of the twelve movies I listed I watched the one I believed would be the worst. Surprisingly, TerrorVision is a hilarious hybrid of 80s MTV/materialism and a 1950s sci-fi monster movies. I have to believe that director Ted Nicolaou, who also wrote the script, was aware of the film he was crafting. It’s in the vein of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and The Toxic Avenger, in presenting its situation and characters as enthusiastically bad (for the most part). TerrorVision embraces it’s cheap, campy, downright awful aesthetic, and uses that to create some hilarious one-liners and a monster movie that isn’t afraid of going to dark places. The Puttermans are a classic 1980s family who love their TV to the point of obsession. When father Stanley (Gerrit Graham) installs a new satellite dish, it accidentally transports an intergalactic monster that devours everything it comes in contact with.
Movies in the “so bad they’re good” category are hard to define, and a subsection of that genre is the “so bad, the director has to know it.” I believe TerrorVision is firmly in both categories. The movie is a throwback to 1950s sci-fi with its campy theme song and message of people needing to move away from their televisions, or face dire consequences. The two shouldn’t be uttered in the same breath, but I wonder how inspired by The Day the Earth Stood Still Nicolaou was as the themes are similar. By that same token, the movie is mired in 80’s slang, grunge, and excess. The movie may be inspired by 1950s B-movie sci-fi à la The Blob, but it also homages movies of the 1960s; filled with surreal images, sexual revolution, and an ode to nostalgia. The theme song, appropriately entitled “TerrorVision,” is a hilarious upbeat 1950s theme with 80s synth.
If you wanted to define the worst of the 80s tropes, TerrorVision has them all. Because the audience is so focused on how over-the-top it is, the script is peppered with truly hilarious (and off-color) one-liners. I didn’t expect to laugh at all during this movie, but it happens frequently. After watching this I went to Rotten Tomatoes and discovered TerrorVision holds a solid 0%. I’ve seen far worse in my life, and I believe The Room holds a higher rating than this. Thankfully, Shout Factory will finally be giving this a DVD release in February, 27 years after its release.
The movie has a poor production aesthetic, similar to the work of Ed Wood, that makes the audience believe the budget was about $50. The lone scene on the planet Pluton is filled with garbage, and outside of some oddly colored dirt, doesn’t look like much. The actors on Earth walk outside, and it’s noticeable that the “night sky” is lit from below because it’s a set. You also have characters who are obviously wearing extravagant wigs. All of this sets up the movie as an intentionally bad film. You laugh at how ridiculous it looks, but knowing how people truly dressed in the 1980s, makes you believe that it’s not too far-fetched to see actress Diane Franklin in a huge Jem-like wig. I actually asked aloud, “I thought Pluton was the alien planet. What’s the Putterman’s excuse?” Other 1980s staples include invented words like “grungy,” interspersed with 1950s exclamations of “Holy tomato;” Gramps (Bert Remsen) has a Cold War panic room; and the artwork in the living room is literally stylized paintings of breasts and naked women (the children sit out here, mind you). The various hodgepodge of styles forces the audience to truly look at the details of a set that looks atrocious, as well as creating a hybrid world that spotlights the worst of three decades worth of decorating techniques.
The adult actors also seem to be in the joke, I think. Mary Woronov returns after appearing on the blog during my Night of the Comet review. I mentioned how much I enjoyed Woronov in that movie, but boy did she make TerrorVision a thousand times better than it has any right to be. She seems to be in on the joke the most and sells all her scenes. When she tells little Suzy (Franklin) that she can’t use the Jacuzzi because “Your father and I might be swinging,” it doesn’t sound strange or awkward for her at all. She is the best part of the entire movie. Graham will always be the jerk foster-father from Child’s Play 2, but he is funny here if only for his facial expressions. I wasn’t entirely sure why every emotion makes him look like he’s got the flu and is thisclose to vomiting, but that’s what it looks like. He is the catalyst of the film with his giant remote control that looks like an early computer. The swinging scene gives him two of the best lines of the movie, that are the ones that are off-color. He ends up planning to swim with a lovely lady (who I was surprised to see had a bikini on under her dress for some reason; really thought the movie would force some nudity.) and tells her the Jacuzzi is like “swimming in your mother’s womb.” How romantic! Later on, after the monster eats the Greek male swinger, who asserts stereotypes about Greek people being homosexual, Stanley responds to seeing body parts floating in his Jacuzzi with “Now what’d that homo do to the Jacuzzi?” It’s hilarious because it comes completely out of nowhere.
Remsen plays Gramps as a horny pervert, not afraid to state that in front of the children, while Napoleon Dynamite alum Jon Gries plays the stereotypical 1980s, Keanu Reeves rip-off O.D. Chad Allen as little Sherman and Franklin as Suzy are the weak links in the chain. I’ve reviewed Franklin in Last American Virgin, and I will say she is unrecognizable as Suzy. It helps that she has on that aforementioned Jem wig. She’s loud and obnoxious and just cute enough that guys would watch this. Allen plays Sherman as the typical scrappy little boy. The third act sees these two carrying the movie to completion, and sadly they’re not capable. The adults play their roles campy and over-the-top, well aware of the movie’s intentions, but Allen and Franklin don’t have that finesse. They play their roles straight, and the movie fluctuates between a “children and their intergalactic pet movie” (at one point E.T. is referenced outright), before succumbing to “children have to kill an evil menace.” Leaving at least one adult might have presented more consistency in the humor and pacing.
I’ll end by saying that TerrorVision does have brass balls in how it plays out the gore and death in this movie. Gramps’ head folds in like a paper towel, and the ending reveals everyone dies (not even the children are safe). Ultimately, that left me applauding TerrorVision. It wasn’t a cutesy 80s horror/comedy that made you root for the children. The children are as incompetent as the adults, and unable to combat what they don’t understand. I did feel the ending was too abrupt, and people who aren’t paying attention will not understand the deaths that have resulted, but I thought it was a bold way to keep the movie in people’s minds. I enjoyed TerrorVision a lot! It’s a funny 50s throwback through 80s lenses that isn’t afraid to be crass or brutal. I recommend checking it out via Shout Factory’s impending DVD release.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.