VINTAGE CABLE BOX: “Death Hunt, 1981”

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“That look on your face would turn good whiskey into sour piss.”

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Death Hunt, 1981 (Charles Bronson), 20th Century Fox

“This motion picture is based on a true story” is written in schlocky big-and-bold red titles; Charles Bronson is Death Hunt – not quite, but wouldn’t it be cool if his given Christian name were, indeed “Death J. Hunt”, or whatever? I mean, talk about the coolness factor. Here we are in the wild, white Yukon with some splendid Steadicam-aerial photography and we’re thrust into a literal dog-fight. The year is 1931, so it’s probably not illegal yet. Bronson runs afoul of the locals involved when he rescues one of the dogs involved. You get that steely-eyed Bronson trademark gaze. He gives the owner (the great character actor Ed Lauter) $200 for the wounded dog and leaves.

Lauter isn’t having any of it. He takes up arms with an Alaskan version of a posse (among them Carl “Apollo Creed”/”Action Jackson” Weathers, William Sanderson, and Maury Chaykin) to apprehend Bronson. Bronson nurses the dog back to health, feeds him and bonds with him. The heavies case Bronson’s hunting shack, but he is ready for them, and he plugs one of them. Lauter alerts the authorities (in this case, Mounties Andrew Stevens and Lee Marvin, who knows Lauter is lying) and they lead the hunt for the so-called “Mad Trapper”.

The movie’s story depends on Bronson staying one step ahead of his pursuers, which he does with aplomb. He is skillful and resourceful, but unfortunately an act of self-defense is added to his perceived list of crimes. It’s amazing to me (looking at the movie now) how quickly this narrative moves. We have to remember, the movie was made at a time when action/adventure movies didn’t have to be nonsensical, bloated epics. The editing is lean, action-oriented and economical. The scenes between Marvin and Bronson ooze testosterone. Both men have desperation in their eyes. Marvin wants an end to the violence. Bronson just wants to be left alone.

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When Marvin and Stevens’ caravan of vengeance-minded soldiers set out to capture the Trapper, he rigs his property with booby-traps, digs a trench in the middle of his cabin, and positions his guns at strategic points. The Peckinpah-inspired scenes of violence are well choreographed, and the liquored-up, tense dialogue of Lauter’s posse is hilarious. Marvin’s character is lost in his own idealistic past while Stevens represents a future of two-way radios and explosives.

The men constantly put each other through frenetic games of machismo, and all Bronson can do is shake his head and listen to their endless tirades. In the middle of the long Alaskan night, they blow up his cabin with dynamite, and he is forced to take to the snow, but not before cutting down most of them. Ultimately, the posse divide into separate groups, so that they don’t have to split the reward money. They kill each other off as a result of their incompetence until it finally comes down to Marvin and Bronson.

Charles Dennis Buchinsky appeared in House of Wax with Vincent Price. His first lead role was in Roger Corman’s Machine-Gun Kelly. He became a ubiquitous presence in revenge fantasies, starting with Michael Winner’s Death Wish (spawning four sequels), Hard Times as well as becoming a staple for Cannon Films (along with Chuck Norris) with 10 to Midnight, Murphy’s Law, and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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Vintage Cable Box: “Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, 1981”

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“Absence of suspicion often denote presence of danger.”

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Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, 1981 (Peter Ustinov), American Cinema

Peter Ustinov puts on the spirit gum to play the immortal Chinese Sherlock Holmes. Richard Hatch (Apollo from the original Battlestar Galactica) plays Charlie Chan’s Number One Grandson, Lee Chan. He is about to be married to the very beautiful Cordelia, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Lee Grant, as Hatch’s mother, is concerned that the girl he intends to marry is neither Chinese nor Jewish. Hatch is infuriatingly clumsy. He slices through his tie trying to cut a bagel in half, and he wreaks general havoc everywhere he goes.

Unusual murders have been occurring in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Brian Keith is the stressed-out, ulcer-ridden detective on the case. Charlie Chan arrives to offer assistance. There seems to be a connection between the recent killings and the titular curse of “The Dragon Queen” (Angie Dickinson) she bestowed upon the Chan family for three generations (Why not four? Or forever?) when Chan accused her of a murder in the past, but the curse doesn’t make much sense given that “The Dragon Queen” has been present at all of the locations where the recent killings have occurred, so it really isn’t a curse, is it?

Created by Earl Derr Biggers in 1926, Charlie Chan was played by four different actors before Peter Ustinov, and only one of them was Asian. These serials and movies were serious and often intense mysteries with some humor, but not enough to overpower any existing narratives. The decision to make Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen almost a spoof of the character is haphazard; especially since the filmmakers try too hard to make it funny. There’s so much chaos and slapstick, you’d think it was less Clive Donner and more Mel Brooks, but there is one crucial difference. Mel Brooks would’ve been funnier.

There is much to commend, however. The cinematography is gorgeous and the set design and wardrobe are impeccable. It’s unfortunate that the technical aspects of the film (not to mention the casting) were wasted with a ridiculous and incompetent script.

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Michelle Pfeiffer is almost distractingly beautiful, and she makes it very difficult to concentrate on the movie. Roddy McDowall is wasted in the role of a handicapped butler. How practical is it to have a servant confined to a wheelchair? There is one funny gag in the movie that made me chuckle. Lee Chan and Cordelia are tied up in an attic, with the old candle burning through the rope trick that would send an anvil down on their heads. Further, they’re being watched by a big guard dog. So they come up with the idea to sing “Happy Birthday” to the dog to get him to blow out the candle before the rope can snap, and it works!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

Vintage Cable Box: “American Pop”, 1981

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“A stripper gettin’ dressed ain’t beautiful unless she’s ugly to begin with.”

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American Pop, 1981 (Ron Thompson), Columbia Pictures

American Pop is a song with a simple rhyme; the condensed history of recorded music from big-band to punk, where the journey begins over a hundred years with Russian émigrés traveling to the United States to escape Cossack persecution. The descendants of an extended family fight in wars and face episodes of tragedy while trying to realize their musical aspirations. The story settles with young Tony, a Long Island punk who writes songs by night, washes dishes by day, all the while fighting an increasing dependency on heroin.

Tony reunites with his long-lost son, Pete, who also shares an interest in music. Together they deal drugs to high-profile musicians. Tony’s addictions grow worse and he sells his musical instruments in order to pay for more drugs. He abandons Pete after taking all their money. Pete, obviously learning from his family’s missteps in life in pursuit of their own musical dreams, is hired on-the-spot by a musical group whom are stunned by his talent.

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This was the nadir of adult animated features, and because of rights issues with the music used in the soundtrack, a forthcoming video release was blocked until 1995. The same problems arose with a pending video release for Heavy Metal, another cult favorite. Animated adult movies are not produced anymore. The market is now consistently geared for children.

American Pop is an incredible movie to behold; predating A Scanner Darkly by 25 years, this mixed media marvel uses rotoscoping to create realistic movements in astonishing dance and music sequences (which recall classic Disney), and the result is tremendously rewarding. Ralph Bakshi, most notably, directed the first X-rated cartoon, Fritz The Cat, as well as a popular adaptation of Lord Of The Rings, and later, Cool World. American Pop serves to remind the audience that talent and dreams are not enough to succeed in this increasingly cold world. Sometimes all we need is a little luck.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.

Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: “Porky’s, 1981”

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Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.

The eleven-year-old in 1984 can’t sleep; seeks out cold comfort on a late Saturday night. He’s all alone in the house because his Mom works the night shift in a hospital in Murfreesboro, two towns over. He turns on the television and the cable box and finds his first raunchy sex comedy!

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Porky’s, 1981 (Kim Cattrall), 20th Century Fox

“That … tallywhacker had a mole on it. And that mole is the key to it.”

As a standard teen sex comedy narrative, Porky’s is based on repetition, and a curious parochial attitude in which something good (read: sexy) happens to one of our protagonists, and then almost immediately, that protagonist is punished for his pleasure. In one key scene (the basis for the poster, no less) our plucky heroes are spying on girls through peepholes in the shower. One of them decides to tempt fate by sticking his … ahem “tallywhacker” through the peephole. It is then that girls coach, Miss Ballbricker, grabs the offending appendage and pulls on it, causing our hero a respectable amount of pain.

Porky’s follows our teen heroes from one sexual misadventure to another. The story takes place in 1954. Imagine American Graffiti, but with significantly more skin. It’s a low-budget coming-of-age movie with a top-rate cast, excellent acting, photography, and a story that doesn’t condescend to, or patronize it’s audience (other than a haphazard subplot about bigotry, but I’ll forgive writer/director Bob Clark for that misstep). The movie was a tremendous hit for Fox, earning over a hundred million smackeroos at the box office, but it was on cable television that the movie’s success truly blossomed, as it were. While our parents forbade us from the pleasures of Pee-Wee and Wendy in the theater, they couldn’t stop us from checking it out on our vintage cable boxes!

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Porky’s was followed with two sequels, the competent Porky’s 2: The Next Day, and the dreadful Porky’s Revenge (with music from George Harrison!). Most memorable is the beautiful Kim Cattrall, hilariously nicknamed “Lassie” because of her penchant for high-pitched squealing during sex. Dependable character actors, Alex Karras and Susan Clark (from TV’s Webster), as well as Art Hindle, and Nancy Parsons, fill out the cast of mostly-unknown young actors. Bob Clark directed one of my favorite 70s horror movies, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things as well as the perennial holiday classic, A Christmas Story. Sort of puts a different spin on “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.