It’s not often that movies find themselves double-covered for Junkfood Cinema, but that’s largely because we reserve double-coverage for our fudge-dipped Oreos…that we then dip in fudge…and then in rainbow cake frosting. Triple-double-covered Oreos notwithstanding, there are certain titles, such as 1992’s Stay Tuned, whose importance to the medium of film cannot be adequately communicated with just one paltry article. Or just one poultry article for that matter, so prepare your palates for a second helping of those delicious Chicken Corn (f)Ritters. Peter Hyams’ hellevision meta comedy may seem at arms length with contemporary audiences, but in fact it has a great deal in common with a recent meta horror film. You know, like even more than the word meta.
It took a recent screening of a 35mm print to finally cement it, but Stay Tuned and The Cabin in the Woods boast some bizarre similarities. That’s not to say Cabin writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard borrowed from Stay Tuned, nor am I even suggesting that they’ve seen Stay Tuned, but at the very least the two movies are kindred enough as to belong on the same channel.
What’s Your Archetype?
In the area of victim selection, it is safe to assert that the antagonists of both films were looking for archetypal personages. Pursuant to its deconstructionist take on the horror genre, the titular cabin in the titular woods (hehe, titular) is populated with an athlete, a scholar, a virgin, a fool, and a whore. Granted, some amount of biological tampering is utilized to ensure proper assignment to said archetypes, but the aim is quite clear. Similarly, the villain of Stay Tuned seeks out the quintessential couch potato; those broadly-drawn lay-abouts more content to watch than to do. Frankly, we here at Junkfood Cinema are incensed by this victimization of the noble shiftless.
Stand By for Transgression
You remember the harbinger in Cabin in the Woods? You may recall that his rustic, tobacco-dribbling babble served as the last opportunity for our doomed troupe to turn back and save themselves. In Stay Tuned, Spike, played with eerily natural creepiness by Jeffrey Jones, actually functions as the harbinger character in Stay Tuned. What could possibly scream ill omen more Jeffrey Jones appearing at your door in the middle of the night, clad in black and offering a cable package so good it’s practically Faustian? Still, like Sitterson points out in Cabin, those unfortunate souls acquired by Spike to enter the programming must choose to ignore the obvious danger. Roy (Ritter) still has to take the deal, ignoring both his better judgment and the fact that his previous television viewing is what placed his marriage on the rocks in the first place. Like the kids in the cabin, if Roy doesn’t transgress, he can’t be punished.
The Control Room
In both films, the cutaways from our heroes’ harrowing battle for survival center on a control room with a series of monitors, panels, and technicians. From these control rooms, our dastardly puppet masters observe, and can even manipulate the various macabre scenarios constructed to dispatch the ill-fated protagonists. Moreover, there is a pronounced element of randomization to the scenarios in both films. Both have ready-made, prepackaged death contrivances, but in Cabin, the arrived-upon scenario is achieved via whichever cursed object is first fully investigated by the campers. Therefore, even those in the booth don’t know which scenario will be set in motion; hence the gambling. In Stay Tuned, if the unwitting Hellvision stars were lucky enough to find a portal to another channel, there was no telling in what devilish program they might next find themselves. It too therefore feels like a crap-shoot.
It’s obvious from the scoreboard on the wall of Hellvision HQ, that several scenarios are running simultaneously with various subjects. This is echoed in Sitterson and Hadley’s control room in Cabin. In fact, a great deal of the humor in both these films comes from the string-pullers’ dark sense of humor toward the imminent deaths of their subjects. Incidentally, in both films, the latest addition to the respective control rooms is a young African-American employee. Both Truman (Brian White) in Cabin and Pierce (Erik King) in Stay Tuned are disapproving of their new employers, but where Truman is morally conflicted, Pierce is disgusted with a lack of subtext and thinks he could manage things better. It would be interesting to see these two characters swapped, as one of the great things about Cabin in the Woods is its potential to lend new subtext to previously released horror films. Fun side note, both King and White played cops on gritty television crime dramas: King years later as Sgt. Doakes on Dexter and White years earlier as Det. Tavon Garris on The Shield. Told ya…fun.
Like Spike, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford (Sitterson and Hadley respectively) initially seem to be the primary benefactors of the torturous series of manufactured misfortunes, but they are merely programmers for far more diabolical masters. We find out that these three characters have simply risen to that lofty height to which we all aspire: middle management. They exist to serve up sacrificial lambs as spectacularly as possible to placate these shadowy overlords; gods for Sitterson and Hadley, the devil for Spike. Even the dialogue used to explain this concept to the new guys (and thereby the audience) is remarkably similar…
Hadley: We’re not the only ones watching.
Sitterson: Gotta keep the customer satisfied.
Spike: We’ve turned the process of soul acquisition into an entertainment extravaganza, and all for the benefit of one very demanding viewer below.
Tropes Spring Eternal
Much has been written, with those fancy word-writin’ words, about Cabin in the Woods’ adept examination of horror cinema’s most popular tropes; going so far as to offer a novel context for those longstanding tropes. While Stay Tuned is not as concerned with deconstruction as is Cabin, it nevertheless highlights a number of television conventions, both classic and of its specific era. The cheesiness of game shows, the catchphrases of certain SNL sketches, the silliness of 90s music videos, and the Deus ex Acme Corp of cartoons are among the many TV trademarks on display. There are a few film standards lampooned as well, but given the conceit, it’s not surprising that Stay Tuned focuses more sharply on television parodies. Ritter’s own television past rears its head in one of the film’s funniest moments.
The Inconsequential Female
That subheading is a tad misleading, but mostly because it’s totally misleading. It’s not that Pam Dawber’s character serves no function in Stay Tuned, in fact her rocky relationship with her husband is the emotional core of the movie. Without her, there is no redemption element and the movie would just be called The Chronicles of Ritter…by no one…so don’t even make that joke. However, during the course of the film, Spike realizes that he doesn’t have to send Mrs. Knable back to her reality once the 24-hour time limit expires because she was never a part of the contract. In other words, her death would have been completely optional, inconsequential to the success of the scenario. This also applies to the “virgin” in Cabin in the Woods. Once all the other characters are dead (or at least assumed to be), Sitterson and Hadley begin to celebrate a job well done. After all, as long as the virgin suffers, the ancient gods are satisfied. In Dawber’s case, I’d say having to participate in an instantly-dated Northern Exposure parody is plenty of suffering for one person.
At the end of both Stay Tuned and Cabin in the Woods, the respective elaborate mechanisms for pain and torment, are foiled by the respective nerdiest characters. Additionally, both extraordinerdy gentlemen manged to manipulate the technology of the respective systems and use it against them. In Cabin, Fran Kranz’s Marty, the mystic imbiber of whacky plants, hot-wires his way into the staging area of the organization hosting the ancient gods; eventually leading to the turnabout unleashing of their entire payload of nightmares. In Stay Tuned, the youngest and most-dweebish Knable, who will almost definitely grow into his personality someday, uses Hellvision’s own satellite dish and some of his nerd toys to broadcast a signal into the programming and rescue his father from a rather guillotine-y fate.
There are moments in both films in which the respective organizations must confront failures to capitalize on their sadistic scenarios. Have we used the word respective enough in this article? Spike must watch the Knable progress bar creep across the scoreboard while Richard Jenkins screams “fuck you” at a room full of nine-year-old Japanese girls on a monitor. We won’t admit how much that made us laugh, because we don’t want you to know what awful people we are. Immediately following this outburst from Jenkins, we scroll through the monitors and see that all their other scenarios across the planet have failed. One of the failed schemes takes places in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In Stay Tuned, Eugene Levy’s character, Eyebrows McTweezeThoseAlready, mentions a past mishap involving a “wily little Peruvian chap.” While a recent geographical survey has concluded that Peru and Argentina are in fact two different countries, when bundled with the numerous other overlaps, this South American connection between the movies is interesting. I like to believe that eventually Hellvision and…crap what was the other company called? This Old God? Sinnings & Things? Anyway, they would have assuredly accidentally overlapped their constructs. “You got zombie redneck torture family on my Scary Seinfeld parody!” “You got Scary Seinfeld on my zombie redneck torture family!”