STAY TUNED is a big high concept comedy very suited for an August 14th Weird Summer release. It even has a tagline playing off it being a weird time (“Something weird’s on the air.”) It comes from Morgan Creek Productions, who I respect for bringing us such off kilter mainstream releases as DEAD RINGERS, NIGHTBREED, THE EXORCIST III, TRUE ROMANCE and SOLDIER.
It has some loose connections to other movies we’ve reviewed in this series already. The child narrator character is played by David Tom, the main kid from STEPFATHER 3. The villain is played by Jeffrey Jones, the lead of MOM AND DAD SAVE THE WORLD. The director is Peter Hyams, who 17 years later will be cinematographer for the fourth sequel to summer of ’92’s UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. The makeup effects are by Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis, who did top shelf work in ALIEN 3 and DEATH BECOMES HER. (Woodruff played the titular alien, even – he should’ve played the TV here.) And the producers tried to get Tim Burton to direct it, but he chose BATMAN RETURNS instead*.
To me it doesn’t seem anything like a Tim Burton movie, or like “THE EVIL DEAD meets Monty Python” as screenwriters Tom S. Parker & Jim Jennewein (sharing story credit with Richard Siegel) supposedly pitched it. What it reminds me of really is a HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS type movie. I know we already got a sequel to that this summer, but this is kinda like HONEY WE’RE STUCK IN THE TV, with delusions of being ROBOCOP.
It’s a story about Seattle’s own** the Knables – Roy (John Ritter, PROBLEM CHILD) and Helen (Pam Dawber, A WEDDING) and their kids Darryl (David Tom, STEPFATHER 3) and Diane (Heather McComb, KICKBOXER 2: THE ROAD BACK). They’re all concerned that Roy watches too much TV, and Helen thinks it’s because he’s depressed. She tries to talk to him about it and get him to take a vacation somewhere without TV, but it turns into a fight, seriously endangering the marriage.
The next night an obviously sinister man called Mr. Spike (Jeffrey Jones, AMADEUS) shows up at their door and gives Roy a giant TV and satellite dish that gets 666 channels. Free trial, just sign the contract. See, it’s just boilerplate – blah blah blah, something about your eternal soul, sign here. I assumed Mr. Spike was the Devil, but it’s later indicated he works for the Devil. He mentions “the chairman” having hooves.
Something happens where Roy and Helen get sucked into the TV and become contestants on a game show called You Can’t Win. The questions are personal and revealing, for example, one of them narcs out Roy for lying about why he missed their anniversary (watched a World Series game at a bar, said he had car trouble).
There’s a control room where Spike and his underlings Crowley (Eugene Levy, HEAVY METAL), Wetzel (Don Calfa, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) and Pierce (Erik King, STREET SMART) keep an eye on things because they have some kind of deal with God where they have to give the souls a chance to escape to Heaven by surviving a certain amount of time. Roy and Helen keep getting lucky – winning the game show, winning a wrestling match (announcer: Captain Lou Albano), etc.
The kids assume they went out of town for the weekend until Darryl (an electronics genius) figures out what’s going on and pirates the airwaves, saving them from the guillotine by impersonating the voice of God. One complaint: too much time spent on historical shows. You got this French Revolution part and an adventure show about a snowy cabin surrounded by wolves and of course a western. These seem more like time travel problems than stuck in a TV problems. A waste of the premise.
Of course there are many TV, movie and product parodies, made to be Hellish. Most hit somewhere below the mildly amusing line. There’s a demonic version of Wayne’s World called Duane’s Underworld, and the only sort of funny part of it is hearing them say “Excrement!” instead of “Excellent!” Other jokes: DRIVING OVER MISS DAISY. The Home Shoplifting Channel. An honestly pretty prescient prank show called Sadistic Hidden Videos where a fake police officer knocks on a door to tell a woman her husband is dead. On the end credits they have a very slow montage of parody show titles. The one I thought was kinda good was Murder, She Likes.
The most impressive part is when they get switched to a channel that turns them into cartoon mice. It’s kind of along the lines of the Roger Rabbit shorts, with an expressionistically giant kitchen and a robot cat trying to kill them. I thought this scene was better executed than many comedies that have a joke cartoon sequence in them, and it turns out that’s because the great Chuck Jones designed the mice and was “animation supervisor” (which I guess means he was mentoring co-supervisor and storyboard artist Jeff DeGrandis).
Okay, it’s not, like, on the list of top Chuck Jones creations, but it’s a cool part of the movie. I like the little bit where they try to talk seriously about their relationship while still in animated form, and just the whole concept of a kid sitting down to watch cartoons and realizing that the mice he’s watching are his parents. That would be weird in my opinion. He even gets to see the cartoon mouse version of himself as a photo in his mom’s wallet.
I didn’t mention this but there’s a cold open where an older couple, Murray (Bob Dishy, CRITICAL CONDITION) and Ethel (?) Seidenbaum (Joyce Gordon, POLICE ACADEMY) are watching Doogie Howser, M.D. when Mr. Spike comes knocking. Mrs. Seidenbaum is a mean old shrew in hair curlers who yells at the timidly obedient Murray. I thought that was some Michael Bay shit, but I forgave it a little when it was paid off in a later scene where Murray has managed to escape her and is living his best life as a gangster in a black and white movie. (Then he gets shot.) Roy has the opposite journey – he tries to stop being a “watcher” and become a more active participant in the relationship. When he manages to escape the TV, Mr. Spike ties Helen to some train tracks, so Roy risks eternal damnation to come back and save her.
(It’s one of those things that seems brave in a movie but really, what kind of a shitheel would just say “Oh well, nothing I can do”? Let’s not give him too much credit.)
The crazy bit I really didn’t see coming is during the climax when we get the MTV style text identifying a music video. It’s the actual Salt-n-Pepa and a bunch of dancers doing an original song called “Start Me Up.” Suddenly Roy is dressed like N.P.G.-era Prince. That’s a little too goofy for me but Ritter is genuinely funny awkwardly trying to follow what the dancers are doing.
And then all the sudden Mr. Spike is there too, as the DJ. (Apparently Spinderella is there, but not on the turntables.) Judging by what they did with his hair I’m pretty sure he’s supposed to be dressed as Vanilla Ice, but it’s funnier if you just take it as Jeffrey Jones trying to dress up to go to a club with Arsenio Hall or somebody.
I think what’s so odd about it is they do the entire song but don’t escalate the jokes, so it’s kind of a musical break. There’s a part where one of the dancers accidentally mutes the movie and has to figure out how to unmute it – I liked gimmicks like that back then. (GREMLINS 2 did it best.)
This is a good time to mention that the end credits have not one but two unrelated-to-the-movie songs by legit rappers. First is a lesser Kool Moe Dee song called “Bad, Bad, Bad,” then a much better song called “The Mic Stalker” by Doctor Ice from UTFO. (It actually sounds like prime Kool Moe Dee, but with a higher voice.) The other song from the movie is something called “Taste” by Cherokee & Auto (who I can’t find any record of existing outside of this song). And then for some reason it has “The Choice Is Yours” and “Strobelite Honey” by Black Sheep, “Xodus” by X-Clan and “Message From the Boss” by Ultramagnetic MC’s, none of which are in the movie or seem appropriate for it.
I guess this is just what happens in a time when the money people have noticed that hip hop has entered the mainstream, and they don’t really understand it so they just take some wild guesses of how to take advantage of it, or say yes to younger people in the company or something. All the sudden Kool Keith is getting checks from the new John Ritter movie.
Another thing very specific to the moment is the between-T2-and-JURASSIC-PARK digital effects they use to make people stretch out and zap into the TV and stuff. (Visual effects by Rhythm & Hues.) It dates well because it fits the analog TV subject matter – TV fuzz is one of the movie’s favorite motifs. Anyway, check out this LAWNMOWER-MAN-ass part if you need a little nightmare fuel:
STAY TUNED is respectable on a craft level, mainly because Hyams is also the director of photography. The early scenes showing Roy’s shitty work life are beautifully lit, and the scenes at home feel like an Amblin movie or one of those, where boring suburbia seems heightened to a movie-worthy location. The big time adventurey score by Bruce Broughton (SILVERADO, THE MONSTER SQUAD, HONEY I BLEW UP THE KID) also helps with this, as does the very exciting three-dimensional-lettering-flying-at-you-like-on-SUPERMAN-but-then-they-fizzle-into-TV-static opening credits sequence designed by Nina Saxon (ROMANCING THE STONE, BACK TO THE FUTURE) and Deborah Ross (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: THE SECRET OF THE OOZE).
I also sort of like the novelty of a movie about TV starring two sitcom stars who were hard to think of as movie actors. Ritter is an actor who I realize now could be really funny (BAD SANTA really won me over), but most of my life I’ve thought of him as a guy from a sitcom a little before my time who then starred in nothing but cheesy bullshit. Dawber I only know from watching Mork & Mindy and My Sister Sam at a young age, so it was kind of cool to see her at the center of a big movie like this. It looks like she was in a ton of TV movies and only four theatrical releases. This convinces me she could’ve worked in movies if we hadn’t had that prejudice against TV stars crossing over.
Rather than trying to escape that curse with Ritter they lean into it and give him a joke where he’s suddenly on the set of Three’s Company. (I don’t remember the show well enough so I fell for their fake Chrissy and Janet.)
Of course I have a soft spot for this kind of high concept comedy with fantastical elements and special effects and stuff. In that category of movie this is far, far, far below BEETLEJUICE, and below BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, but at least easier to sit through than MOM AND DAD SAVE THE WORLD. I’ll give it that, no hesitation.
So it’s a movie I find interesting, but I don’t really like it. It seems like for it to work it would need some Verhoeven in it. If it’s really about TV ruining this guy there should be some bite to its portrayal of television, but it’s just “take existing thing, make evil pun title.” There’s plenty to comment on about best picture winner DRIVING MISS DAISY, but they just do “what if she got run over?” They combine THREE MEN AND A BABY with ROSEMARY’S BABY. Okay, fine. It’s just like The Flintstones turning Las Vegas to Rock Vegas. I need a little more substance than that after a while.
Something that really bothers me in the early part of the movie is that it doesn’t seem like they’re going for an authentic portrayal of depression/mid-life crisis, but they also don’t really make it very outlandish as far as an obsession. He’s just a guy who memorizes old movies and watches sports. He’s not depicted as sedentary – during the day he works a semi-physical job driving around lugging suitcases, and when he’s watching he gets up and dances around with a sword (former fencer), etc. More importantly, his biggest rifts with Helen are about being too into sporting events, which I think is a different thing than being a “couch potata” (to quote Captain Lou). As much as I’m not a sports guy, I feel like Helen should not have decided to have her big talk with him while he was watching the Sonics in double overtime. Maybe the filmatists thought Roy would be too unsympathetic if he refused to turn off Golden Palace or Highlander: The Series to talk to his wife, but that would’ve fit the theme much better.
I will give them credit for these two images. The TV in his bathroom:
(though honestly that was the dream back then), and watching a small back up TV placed on top of the larger TV after it has a huge hole in the middle from Helen throwing a trophy through the screen. Those are a good start. Could’ve gone further in that direction.
STAY TUNED got pretty bad reviews and made back less than half of its budget, but I think for the reasons mentioned above some people who saw it at a young age have a soft spot for it. That doesn’t make it a classic, but it’s better than nothing.
This ended up being Hyam’s last comedy. He followed it with his JCVD one-two punch of TIMECOP (1994) and SUDDEN DEATH (1995). And get this – STAY TUNED has a part in it where Roy finds himself suddenly in hockey gear having to play in a professional hockey game. SUDDEN DEATH took that idea and made it a classic scene of ‘90s action absurdity.
Most of Hyams’ movies after that didn’t seem to quite work with audiences, but END OF DAYS (1999) is pretty fun and I enjoyed THE MUSKETEER (2001). He hasn’t directed since 2013’s ENEMIES CLOSER, a lower budget action vehicle but one I really liked, primarily because of Van Damme’s really funny performance as the villain.
Parker & Jennewein remained a writing team, with credits on four major movies released in 1994: MAJOR LEAGUE II, THE FLINTSTONES, GETTING EVEN WITH DAD and RICHIE RICH. They were also the poor suckers who wrote the first draft of SUPER MARIO BROS. In this century they wrote a trilogy of fantasy novels called Runewarriors.
P.S. This was a bit of a stretch to include in the “connections to other summer of ’92 movies” paragraph, but I wanted to show that 90210-loving Diane has a big cutout of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER star Luke Perry on her bedroom wall.
*IMDb gives Burton a “design consultant” credit, making me wonder if he’d been interested enough to do some early development, but I didn’t see that credit on the movie itself (or notice anything that seemed like his visual influence).
**I figured they were supposed to be in Seattle, because Roy wears a Supersonics hat and is really into a Supersonics game, but then they show what is very clearly the Vancouver skyline. I was gonna go ahead and believe they were in Vancouver and he just happens to like that team, but later on they specify that he lives in Seattle.
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