While watching Ted Nicolaou’s 1986 cult classic TerrorVision, it’s easy to write off the movie as “so bad, it’s good”. But I have an inkling that those who adhere to said cult like the horror/comedy for a different reason. Because this film is deceptive. It partakes in a joke that only some viewers will be keen to. Filled with over-exaggerated stereotypes and non-agitprop themes, TerrorVision wants people to think it’s bad to further fuel the laughs of those viewers in on the joke.
We’re first taken to a brief scene on the planet Pluton where an alien monster escapes a giant garbage disposal via energy beams and is sent into space. Meanwhile, the Putterman family–consisting of mother, father, son, daughter, and grandpa–sets up their new satellite antenna for their TV.
One night while mom and dad are out, the young boy Sherman (Chad Allen) and his conspiracy theorist grandpa (Bert Remsen), witness the beast coming through their new television set. After Grampa gets grotesquely eaten by the monster, Sherman spends the rest of the film trying to convince his family that there is indeed a monster in their television. Since each room has a TV set, the monster can teleport itself undetected throughout the house.
The movie is almost entirely set in one location–the Putterman house. Featuring ’80s futurism designs and a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse-like floor layout and decor, this mise en scène taps into our nostalgia before we even know what will eventually evoke it. The film as a whole matches the aesthetic of the set. The fun and unique style almost has to be witnessed to grasp, but something about it gives us one of the most authentically ’80s-looking movies out there.
There are some details in the house that show further evidence of the movie’s subtle humor. The home is cluttered with artistically raunchy paintings that are intentionally never referenced or alluded to at all.
Every actor in the movie is an over-the-top version of some archetype of the time. Daughter, Suzy (Diane Franklin), is a true ’80s child with the big colorful hair and the ironic poodle skirt. And her metalhead boyfriend (Jon Gries) talks like Bill & Ted but dresses like Nikki Sixx. Father, Stanley (Gerrit Graham), is a poor man’s Clark Griswold. And Grampa is an ex-military survivalist and conspiracy theorist who lives in a makeshift bomb shelter in the basement. Separately, these performances would be written off as cliched, but since everyone is on that same level it adds to the appeal of the film.
Towards the end, the plot is stretched thin to reach the 86 minute runtime, yet I think the filmmakers could’ve added even more substance and story. The finale is abrupt and somewhat lazy, almost feeling like an alternate ending. We simply don’t get a good enough conclusion.
This film isn’t quite a satire, but wants you to beg it to be. We don’t get anything preachy or anti-television, per se. Instead the movie is a unique take on the simple monster-in-the-house premise with some fun added details along the way, such as the Elvira-like public access TV host, Medusa (Jennifer Richards), who Sherman continuously calls throughout the night to report his troubles.
TerrorVision definitely seems like it’s “so bad, it’s good” at first glance, but upon further inspection, I sense that Nicolaou and company knew what they were doing all along. Their awareness of the present era is impressive, and the result is a memorable project that calls for repeated viewings. But perhaps only for those who get it.