Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Director Report Card: Jeff Lieberman (1988)

4. Remote Control

I have no hard evidence to support this, aside from their cult following and the general popularity of horror on VHS at the time. But I'm going to assume Jeff Lieberman's first three films were fairly successful at video stores. So it's fitting that his fourth feature would be made primarily for the video market, through a deal with Carolco to fund low budget genre films. Lieberman would let this directly inspire him while writing “Remote Control.” The kooky finished film would also gather fans through rentals and TV screenings before seemingly disappearing before the advent of the DVD age.

Cosmo has a decent job as a video store clerk, a growing field. The store gets a lot of customers. One new release, in particular, seems to be drawing a lot of attention. It's called “Remote Control” and, at first, appears to be nothing more than a goofy sci-fi/horror B-movie from the 1950s. However, the tape seems to have a hypnotizing effect on those that view it, driving them to commit murder. After police attempt to arrest Cosmo, he goes on the run along with a friend and a pretty young customer. Soon, the trio uncovers the creators of “Remote Control,” who are in service of alien overlords determined to wipe out humanity.

Lieberman's fourth feature has a very self-reflective premise: A sci-fi/horror tape named “Remote Control” about a sci-fi/horror tape named “Remote Control.” The film is more than happy to acknowledge this connection. The clips we get of the movie-within-the-movie directly parallel the film's plot, showing a happy couple's night being ruined by VHS-induced murder. Or a young hero in a leather jacket attempting to disrupt the extraterrestrial villains. Considering the movie was made primarily for the video market, it's premise becomes rather meta. If the characters in the film risk their life by renting the identically entitled film, are you, the viewer, also risking your life by renting “Remote Control?” That's a rather cheeky set-up.

Here in 2018, a film about aliens attempting to conquer Earth by infiltrating video stores could not seem more irrelevant. (Though I guess the modern equivalent – a homicidal signal hidden in a Netflix stream? – would be pretty effective.) As depicted in “Remote Control,” video stores are grand gathering centers for the public. They're huge buildings, with elaborate displays, and are always crowded with people. Despite taking place right in the center of video culture in the late eighties, “Remote Control” doesn't seem to have much insight into the effect the media people consume has on them. The video craze is treated like a fad while the behind-the-scenes threat is an intergalactic conspiracy.

Instead of commenting on video store fandom, “Remote Control” is another example of Lieberman using a genre story as window dressing for a Wrong Man story. After two victims of the evil video tape turn up, the police suspect Cosmo and his friend are responsible. In the process of proving his guilt, he ends up shooting a homicidal cop in defense. From there, the police on our on his tail. There's even a sequence where he goes to his sister's home, hoping to protect his nephew from watching the tape. There's two detectives there, forcing him to sneak around. Compared to Jerry in “Blue Sunshine,” who is truly a victim of bad timing, Cosmo really does commit murder. Mostly, putting the heroes on the run is a way to keep the story moving. This time, it's a somewhat clumsy device.

“Remote Control” fuses together several different genres, in addition to the man-on-the-run thriller. Most visibly, Lieberman's fourth is a campy homage to fifties sci-fi. The peaks we get at the movie-within-the-movie are very silly. The characters wear goofy, tinfoil outfits and use horribly impractical gadgets, like an absurd knitting machine and a ridiculous tooth brush apparatus. In the fictional “Remote Control,” the controller of the alien plot is portrayed as a Ming the Merciless type. In the film's “real” world, this carries over, each of the alien pawns being played by Asian actors, a perhaps questionable homage to Toho. There's also a pretty good theremin score, which certainly sets the mood. While Lieberman doesn't totally nail the fifties sci-fi aesthetic – as the death scenes within “Remote Control” are far too gory – it's clear the director has a lot of genuine affection for the genre.

There were moments of humor in “Squirm” and “Blue Sunshine,” some of them even intentional I think, but “Remote Control” is the first full-blown horror/comedy Lieberman made. Most of the humor comes from exaggeration. It's not just the movie-within-the-movie that features ridiculously dated costumes. The film depicts the fashion of 1988 as equally ludicrous. In an early scene, we see a woman don a very goofy dominatrix outfit, which looks more like superhero cosplay. People throughout the film wear Nehru jumpsuits, licorice red dresses, spacesuit-resembling jumpers, and neon blue tank tops. They dance in weird looking clubs and perform in silly aerobics classes. By exaggerating eighties fashion only slightly, Lieberman draws a direct line from fifties B-movies to then-modern fashion.

“Remote Control” even attempts to be an action movie a few times. When fisticuffs cropped up in Lieberman's earlier movies, the results were usually pretty awkward. However, he does better here. When Cosmo and the gang seek out the distributors of “Remote Control,” they end up pulling machine guns on the bad guys. One gets shot through an upstairs window and there's even a forklift chase. This sequence ends with a massive explosion, which is certainly an unexpected and effective stunt. Maybe pyrotechnics were really cheap in the eighties. While the action elements are nothing unique, these scenes are pulled off competently.

More than anything else, “Remote Control” is a horror movie. The premise, of a video tape inducing a homicidal state, proved to be ahead of the curve to a degree. Murderous movies stories would become popular, with “The Ring” and “Cigarette Burns,” about a decade and a half later. The attack scenes are obviously meant to produce chills and shocks. Such as when Cosmo is suddenly attacked in another store, the staff driven mad by the tape. Or when the film's heroine briefly falls under the tape's spell. After the action heavy theatrics of the second half, Lieberman attempts to return to this style, with a smaller, tighter climax. That isn't entirely successful, the story feeling like it's already reached its climax, though a darkened condo does make for a good location.

Kevin Dillon stars as Cosmo. As written, the character begins as somewhat nerdy. He pines for a pretty customer and thinks quoting French movies at her will catch her attention. Yet Dillon also brings a tough element to the character, suggesting that Cosmo’s intelligence is more street smarts than academic. This quality comes in handy as Cosmo becomes more like an action hero throughout the film. Dillon successfully balances both aspects of the protagonist, while also generally projecting a likable vibe.

Sadly, the film’s romance is not as steady as its lead. Deborah Goodrich plays Belinda, the girl that catches Cosmo’s eye. At first, Goodrich shares a believably awkward chemistry with Dillon, during the early scenes devoted to his clumsy flirting. However, later, Cosmo ends up holding her at gunpoint and dragging her along on this adventure. Her fear over this situation quickly deludes and she ends up falling in love with him. That does not seem like a realistic start to a relationship. At one point, it looks like Lieberman is all too aware of this. Late in the film, Belinda says that she’s been manipulated by the evil video tape the entire time. That might’ve been a clever twist but turns out to just be an attempt by the baddies to throw the hero off. The weirdo romance is definitely among the film’s weakest attributes, though it’s no fault of the charming Goodrich.

The film’s supporting cast is pretty solid too. Christopher Wynne plays Georgie, Cosmo’s slightly per year best friend. Wynne is good for goofy comic relief, not so much dramatic death scenes, but seems to be on the film’s off-beat wave length. Frank Beddor is effectively off-putting as Victor, the asshole video store customer who eventually becomes a tool of the alien invaders. Beddor is stiff but in a way that suggests a stuck-up, emotionally distant, frat boy bully. That makes a good contrast against Cosmo’s more down-to-Earth personality. A young Jennifer Tilly appears as Allegra, an early victim of the tape. It’s a small role but Tilly, with her unforgettable voice and screen presence, makes it a highlight of the film. Tilly is also the only cast member who doesn’t look ridiculous in the over-the-top costumes. A tight, neon red dress and silly, space princess hairdo really suits her quirky style.

Like a lot of Lieberman’s slightly obscure films, “Remote Control” would garner a small but passionate cult following. Unlike his later films, it would not receive a nice DVD release in the early two-thousands. I don’t know if this was because of tangled rights issues or a lack of interest on the home video companies’ behalves. Perhaps appropriately, the only way to see “Remote Control,” for many years, was on old VHS tapes. (Or blurry bootlegs ripped from old VHS tapes.) Luckily, Lieberman recently regained the rights to the film and released it himself on DVD and Blu-Ray. So now a whole new generation of cult movie fans can enjoy this slightly uneven but nevertheless amusing genre mash-ups. [Grade: B-]

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