CINEMA: Remote Viewing


BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Exhumed Film is bringing an offbeat, forgotten gem to the big screen at International House this Tuesday, Jeff Lieberman’s 1988 sci-fi/action spoof Remote Control, with the writer/director on hand for post-screening Q&A. Remote Control is centered around two high school video clerks, Cosmo (Kevin Dillon of Entourage and the The Blob remake) and Georgie (Christopher Wynne, perhaps you remember him from the Johnny Depp sex comedy Private Resort?) who work at the busy video store, Village Video. A mysterious promotional stand-up has arrived for a video called “Remote Control,” a VHS tape whose hypnotic powers leads its viewers to kill. Helped out by the info in the store’s computer, Cosmo and Georgie seek to collect the rented tapes before the entire world is brought under their murderous spell.

It’s hard to know how this tongue-in-cheek thriller played during its original release but in 2013 this earnest little comedy is bursting with cinemaphile nostalgia for an era now officially over. I talked to Lieberman briefly this week about his film. “Yes, it is ironic how the movie resonates today more than it did back when I made it. It’s one thing to be satirizing the times you’re living in, in this case the home video explosion of the late 80?s– the sudden flood of obscure horror and sci-fi movies available on the new format, the ‘how to’ videos etc.,– and quite another to look back on that era now that it’s gone. Because I satirized and exaggerated just about everything from that era, the fashions, the hair styles, the music, it really serves as sort of a time capsule now, something I never thought about while I was making it.”

Lieberman has a small but distinctive filmography of original genre films, including 1976’s killer worm epic Squirm, the beautifully mounted slasher film Just Before Dawn (1981) and the killer video game saga Satan’s Little Helper from 2004. His most acclaimed work is probably the unforgettable 1978 film Blue Sunshine, in which a strain of LSD causes those who take it to turn into hairless killers a decade later. Although Lieberman’s films always have an undercurrent of goofy humor, the originality of his plots reveals a shrewd intelligence behind their conception.

“I never know precisely what triggers an idea for a movie, but I’m always on the lookout for some big societal change, some new thing that resonates throughout our culture. Like I did with the LSD of the 70s and Blue Sunshine, or children playing video games in 2004 with Satan’s Little Helper. So, in the late 80s when the video revolution hit, I took notice of that one word, ‘revolution,’ as if this new thing was going to change everything. For the first time in history, people were renting these new gadgets that they could take home and play on another new gadget. I looked at the cassette itself as this strange item that people were bringing into their homes and thought about what unknown dangers this could present, these alien items… Aliens! What do the Aliens make of this phenomenon? Were they just waiting for us to evolve to this point? And if so, now was the time to strike! Of course this was all metaphor for the potential evils that come with any technological revolution, not to be taken literally but it did make for a fun story.“

More so than any other of his films, Remote Control shows Lieberman as both a film fan and a director. The film that triggers the violence is a beautifully staged spoof of black and white 50s sci-fi films, with aliens luring the viewers to kill. Lieberman also works a little Truffaut into the film as well. There’s all sort of entertaining diversions in Remote Control (Jennifer Tilly is delightful as usual in a small role) but it is the VHS-driven world of the video store that is most alluring. Once a center of the film lovers world, today the neighborhood video store is as dead as the malt shop. Does Lieberman long for the lost days of the video store? Not especially.

“I’m of an older generation so, although I did frequent many a video store, it was never a social event for me. For me it was always a thrill to see my movies sitting on the shelves in VHS. In fact, Kim’s Video in NYC had these special shelves for certain cult directors and they included me. That was my video store highlight, my own shelf!”

Writer/director Jeff Lieberman will be speaking live after Exhumed Films’ screening of Remote Control this Tuesday July 30th, 7:30pm at the International House