Stay Tuned is a mix between The Running Man and Kentucky Fried Movie. It’s a bizarre little film that presents us with the idea that Satan is not only sadistic, but he likes his sadism served up as primetime television.
I saw this movie once as a kid, and my parents never let me see it again. For good reasons, I’m sure. Now that I’m grown up, I find Stay Tuned to be strangely endearing. It’s whacky and uneven, but that’s the point.
It’s not a perfect film; I’m not even sure if it qualifies as a good film. But I really like it, for some perverse reason, and I invite you to join me as we discover this forgotten film gem, Stay Tuned. Don’t touch that dial!
What Stay Tuned Is About
Stay Tuned is about a couch potato and his wife who get sucked into a satellite, and the TV shows they find themselves in are trying to kill them at every turn. First, they’re in a game show where they’ll be killed if they answer a question incorrectly. Then, they’re in a deadly tag-team wrestling match. And it only gets crazier from there. If they can survive for 24 hours, they’ll be set free. But almost no one has ever done that.
This movie is constantly tossing in throwaway gags like promos for Three Men and Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcisist (an aerobics/demonic show), and Different Strokes (about how people suffer different complications when having a stroke). Some of the jokes are in bad taste, but that’s satire for you.
A surprising number of jokes hit the mark dead on. There’s an extended cartoon sequence where the husband and wife are transformed into animated mice and they’re chased by a robot cat designed to exterminate them. That entire sequence is absolutely hilarious, and the way they finally resolve the problem is beyond perfect. They try to think like rational adults who have watched cartoons for years, and their solution to a common cartoon problem is both simple and satisfying.
Hyam-ing It Up
At first, I was shocked when I learned that Peter Hyams directed this film. But now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense. Stay Tuned has all of his signature moves: A ticking clock, a dark smoky room where lots of meetings are held, the main character who hates his job, and a husband and wife having marital issues.
Plus, it just has his specific look. Hyams’ films look different than films by any other director. People look slightly stretched or distrorted in some way. It’s hard to describe, but if you watch a few of his films in a row, like say 2010, Outland, and Stay Tuned, you’ll notice it. Also, he has a distinct pattern in his color palette, unpolished special effects, and the way he edits and shoots things. He acts as the Director of Photography on all of his films, so he has a lot of control over their look and feel.
A Couple of Scene Stealers
Eugene Levy and Jeffrey Jones steal every scene they’re in. I mainly remember Eugene Levy as the annoying guy trying to out Daryl Hannah as a mermaid in Splash. And everyone knows Jeffrey Jones as the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
They play a couple of slimy executives in charge of the programming at Hell TV, Satan’s own personal television studio. Levy is trying to undermine Jones at every turn, and he has quite a few memorable moments where he loses appendages to frostbite during a winter storm, passes himself off as a hapless peasant during the French Revolution, and finally gets his sweet revenge in the end.
Jones is the man with a plan who is always in control. He’s giddily evil in a way that you don’t usually see. He enjoys inflicting pain, and yet he doesn’t come across as grotesque. He just loves his job more than anything else in the world. You get the sense that he’s the one having the most fun, whether he’s engaging in a life-or-death sword duel, driving over Miss Daisy, or showing off his dance moves in a horribly dated ‘90s music video. He can act circles around everyone else.
An Underappreciated Film
Critics mostly disliked this movie and it bombed at the box office back in 1992. But don’t let that turn you away. There’s a lot to love about this film. I like its commentary on our media-driven culture more than the first Hunger Games film. It captures the horrific nature of extreme programming in a disarming way. Sometimes literally.
The child actors may be a little lackluster, the characters themselves aren’t particularly complex, and the film doesn’t always take advantage of its satirical possibilities to the fullest. But overall it is a wonderfully black comedy with just enough compelling elements to hold together its bizarre premise for 90 minutes and keep our interest piqued the whole way through.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you… stay tuned.
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