Penny Henderson (Mary Stuart Masterson) is being run off her feet in her job as an executive at WBN, a brand new radio station which is to broadcast its opening night of shows this very evening. To complicate matters, her husband Roger (Brian Benben) is trying manfully to persuade her not to divorce him, even though she caught him in a clinch with one of the station's singers, Claudette (Anita Morris). He insists it was all a misunderstanding, but she is not too sure. But there's no time to worry over that now - the broadcast is about to begin! So why is there a mysterious voice breaking over the airwaves as the band starts up?
Radioland Murders was a project long in gestation, and its producer George Lucas, who in addition came up with the story, was due to direct it back in the seventies until Star Wars happened and he decided he wasn't keen on directing anymore. With a script by American Graffiti writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, also worked on by Ron Osborn and Jeff Reno (whose cult credentials included producing and writing Duckman on T.V. - oh, and The West Wing as well) the omens were good, or at least they were for those willing to overlook the flops the Lucas name had been associated with over the years.
As it turned out, Radioland Murders joined the shamefaced ranks of those failures, and for most was quietly forgotten about. But for fans nostalgic for the old time radio that the film depicted, not to mention the by-now neglected genre of comedy murder mystery whose heyday was around the same time that the radio the film depicts was ruling the airwaves, this was a real gem. Harking back to the likes of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's Who Done It?, you could not call this sophisticated humour, and as far as the laughs went there were far fewer hits than misses, but its boundless enthusiasm became oddly infectious after a while.
As a mystery, it's not up to much because the only person the murderer can be is the only one who acts normally apart from Penny (and there's no way she could have been the killer). This means everyone else is way over the top, practically winking at the audience to gee them along as the likes of Michael McKean plays a band leader who can turn into Spike Jones at the drop of a hat or Ned Beatty as the short-tempered station boss join the rest of the cast in gleefully consuming the scenery, no mean feat when much of it was computer generated. In fact the plot grows more and more difficult to get a handle on as it proceeds, only falling into place in the final five minutes.
That plot sees the station desperately trying to stay on air while the most important staff are picked off one by one, always preceded by an ominous voice breaking into transmission (it is never explained how the killer manages to do this while still in plain sight of other people). Benben is exhausting to watch as he does his best with keeping the tone frenetic, dressing up in outlandish costumes or performing stunts that see him hanging off the side of the towering building. Masterson's Penny may faint occasionally, but she's the much needed calm in the eye of the storm as Mel Smith's direction keeps things snappy enough to almost forget that the material is not hilarious enough. But it is likeable, and wins you over in its breathless rush through a genre that really didn't mean much to audiences of the nineties and might have been better suited to the seventies after all. Music by Joel McNeely.