Vintage Cable Box: “Krull, 1983”

“Power is fleeting.  Love is eternal.”

Krull, 1983 (Ken Marshall), Columbia Pictures

American novelist Stephen King once described Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his book, The Shining, as a “… great big beautiful Cadillac with no engine under the hood.  You could sit in it, enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery … the only thing you couldn’t do was drive it anywhere.”  Krull from 1983 is the Cadillac of science fiction/fantasy motion pictures.  Derek Meddings’ production design is an incredible feast for the eyes.  James Horner’s Star Trek-like musical compositions are appropriately epic in scope.  The visual effects and photography are awe-inspiring.  Lysette Anthony is unbelievably beautiful  as the damsel-in-distress Princess Lyssa.  Unfortunately, the movie takes us nowhere but the back-alleys of Star Wars retreads.

When the Princess is abducted by the evil “Slayers” interrupting her wedding to Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall, resembling a young Richard Chamberlain), he summons the power of the “Glaive”, the five-bladed handheld pinwheel that looks like an over-sized throwing star seen in the film’s promotional advertisements (and which I’ve always wanted to own), from the top of a mountain and bands together with a motley crew of criminals (among them Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane in early roles) in a bid to rescue her.  While we have our requisite laser light show, Krull is a movie that favors swordplay, Errol Flynn-style leaps from balconies, and swinging from chandelier ropes.  The strange, slimy, tentacled “Beast” informs the Princess that she is to marry it, perhaps to destroy the prophecy of the “girl that shall become queen.”

Colwyn is tutored by the wizardly Ynr (Freddie Jones as “The Old One”), collects his “merry” men, and heads for the Black Fortress, the stunning starship/castle that appears to be built out of a mountain.  In a narrative reminiscent of Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword, Colwyn and his band of mercenaries must overcome disparate “challenges”, such as a misanthropic (and rather unpleasant) cyclops, various illusions conjured by the Beast, and assorted Slayers sent to assassinate Colwyn.  Meanwhile, Ynr must monitor his sands of time (given to him by ex-girlfriend, The Widow of the Web); for when the last of the sand diminishes, he will die.  It’s nice to know when you’re gonna go, is all I’m saying!  I remember being frightened by the giant spider in the movie when Ynr traverses an enormous web to to see his old squeeze.  Giant spiders freak me out!

It can even core an apple!

An enormously expensive movie (for the time) when produced, Krull would’ve benefited from substantial rewrites.  As it stands, the performers merely serve as window-dressing for truly beautiful art direction, cinematography, and stunning action set pieces.  Krull is everything I love in science fiction and fantasy, except that it lacks substance.  The story is a lazy mix of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Clash of the Titans (another early cable favorite of mine), with a little bit of Robin Hood and Jason and the Argonauts thrown in for good measure.  Recently, I watched an excellent high definition transfer of the film, and as much as the technical aspects of the film are heightened by it, the deficiencies of the editing and screenplay are displayed as well.

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: A Christmas Story, 1983

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“Aunt Clara had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually 4 years old, but also a girl.”

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A Christmas Story, 1983 (Peter Billingsley), MGM/UA

It used to be that you would unknowingly discover a film, and with such an innocuous title as A Christmas Story, you’d likely flip to the next channel. Very little money was spent on marketing movies already past their prime release dates in theaters. Cable television channels would advertise movies making their broadcast premieres. You might find occasional print advertisements in TV Guide, but more often than not, movies would disappear down a hole, until they were discovered many years later. It would take years to see a movie released to videotape, so word-of-mouth was often all a filmmaker could depend on to get his or her movie seen.

A Christmas Story was not a critical and only a marginal box-office success upon initial release, grossing $19 million against a $3 million budget, but it was purchased by Ted Turner when he acquired MGM/UA’s back-catalog and holdings in 1985. Revisionist film critics now consider it a modern-day classic, and marathon showings of the movie dominate basic cable to this day. Watching the movie non-stop last Christmas, I was struck by how hypnotic the whole enterprise can be. The movie is a string of episodes and those episodes are in constant rotation. It’s like watching the old “yule log” presentations on Channel 11 – it just keeps going … and going … and going. Thanks to digital archivists like Rolando Pujol, that yule log has thankfully returned to channel 11.

So it’s the 8th of September and we’re in the middle of another heatwave here in New York, and I am sweating, but I try to conjure up images of snow and bitter cold and Flick’s tongue frozen to a pole and I’m almost there. I like Christmas. My daughter was born on Christmas Day, and while it may be a drag for her, it’s easy for her mother and me to put together a mega-birthday celebration complete with a tree and some lights, a cake, and a mountain of gifts. We all take a day off from being jerks, mostly because we’ve got a nice big meal and presents waiting for us when we get home. Humanity sucks in general, but for one day out of the year, we don’t suck as much.

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Based on a collection of stories and anecdotes by Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story introduces Ralphie (a brilliant Peter Billingsley), a nine-year-old with a simple request.  All he wants is a Red Ryder BB gun (with a compass in the the stock, and a sundial).  He gets the easy, infuriating brush-off: “you’ll shoot your eye out” over and over from everybody he makes this request to, including a mean-spirited department store Santa Claus.  The “episodes” or anecdotes in the movie include a hideous yet indescribably beautiful lamp shaped like a leg Ralphie’s dad (Darren McGavin) wins in a contest, the hillbilly Bumpus dogs that terrorize McGavin every chance they get, the bullies Farkus (with his maniacal laugh) and Dill (the toadie), the triple-dog-dare, the bunny suit (the pink nightmare), the furnace, the curse word, and the aforementioned adventure with a frozen pole.  In the end, Ralphie gets what he wants.  Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you can still guess what happens.

It’s interesting to me that family movies were not as big in those days as they are today.  I only remember a few of them.  In fact, family movies are all Hollywood has to depend on to put keesters in the seats.  Movies based on toys, video games, and cartoon products are the movies that make the big bucks, because they are made (seemingly) for the whole family.  In 1983, it was a different story.  Most of the money was being made from sex comedies and horror movies.  “Family”-oriented movies were relegated to made-for-television status.  Disney had suffered major financial overhauls due to their creation of a cable television channel, and they were not making many animated features.

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Jean Shepherd’s narration is quaint. He sounds like he is describing the peculiar activities and rituals of the human race to aliens from other planets. Of course, the characters (especially those from Ralphie’s family) are quite familiar to us. His dad is well-meaning, somewhat temperamental, and often wrong. His mother (played by adorable Melinda Dillon) is the voice of reason, and a good sport to put up with her husband’s antics. His little brother, Randy, is an idiot and an anorexic in potentia. The bullies are monsters. I never understood why two kids (one of them a half-pint) could scare four moderately-sized kids so much they had to run in opposite directions.

So leave it to Bob Clark, of all people, to craft a sweet and wonderful holiday movie for children and adults to enjoy. He had just finished Porky’s 2: The Next Day and did a complete about-face with A Christmas Story. I’ve always been impressed with directors who try to broaden their horizons by working in multiple genres. In addition to the Porky’s movies, Bob Clark made horror movies (Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things), thrillers (Murder By Decree), and social commentary (Turk 182). He also made some stinkers, but his body of work more than made up for it. He died in 2007.

I’ve had several conversations with some very interesting people over the last few weeks with regard to their respective roles in the concept (not the holiday with religious implications) of Christmas.  I came to the conclusion that Santa, that Christmas is for everybody.  It’s mainly for children.  Christmas is a child’s holiday.  It’s about presents and trees, and ornaments, and decorations.  It’s about a delicious meal.  It’s about tipping your hat on a cold night to a stranger.  Christmas is for everyone.

Merry Christmas Everybody!

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: Octopussy, 1983

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“Mr. Bond is indeed of a very rare breed… soon to be made extinct.”

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Octopussy, 1983 (Roger Moore), United Artists

Graphic and intense violence was crucial to mid 1970s-early ’80s action films, and Roger Moore’s final three James Bond films were no exception. These were cranked up; shot and edited in the fashion of American action and exploitation cinema, and reflecting new sensibilities in younger audiences at the time. I disagree with the commonplace notions that the Moore series of films playing this character were not as riveting as the Connery series, because of Moore’s British upbringing. His predecessor, Sean Connery, being Scottish, exuded a different kind of magnetism and charisma, but where Connery was often brutal in the punishment he dealt his enemies, Moore was almost bloodless in his actions (though there is a nifty head-shot in this movie), and maintained a stiff, British upper-lip. Most Bond fans in my age bracket prefer Moore over Connery for the very simple reason that they (as I) grew up watching Moore’s cycle of espionage thrillers.

In a humorous pre-credits sequence, Bond almost single-handedly deposes a Castro-like despot with the help of a pretty lady and a personal jet fighter.  After his mission is accomplished, he stops the jet at a gas station on a lonely dirt road.  He tells the owner to “fill ‘er up!”  Cute.  Next we move into the montage of naked ladies and guns set to Rita Coolidge’s theme song, All Time High (the lyrics to which I have never forgotten).  I’ve always enjoyed the fact that “Cubby” Broccoli put the majority of his crew credits at the beginning of his Eon Productions Bond films even after an unofficial agreement between motion picture studios (circa 1979) put into practice to relegate those credits to the end of the picture.  It’s sort of a tip of the hat to the people that work hard on these films.

In pre-Glasnost times, evil general Orlov wants more power and influence.  In Soviet Russia, pajamas wear YOU!  Orlov wants to expand the hypothetical Soviet Empire, and his superiors think he’s mad.  The art direction and cinematography of this scene recalls Doctor Strangelove’s war room.  SIS Agent 009 (dressed in a clown suit) is found dead with a Fabergé egg in his possession.  The egg turns out to be fake, but Bond finds the real egg, plants a bug in it for his latest conquest, Magda, to steal and return to the evil Kamal Khan (an appropriately sleazy, eyeball-eating Louis Jourdan – yuck!).  Bond learns that Orlov has been working with Khan, selling “priceless” fake Russian treasures (the aforementioned egg) and smuggling the genuine articles across the Iron Curtain by way of a bizarre woman (Maud Adams as “Octopussy”, in her second Bond film) with a serious octopus fetish.  When I say serious, I mean serious.  Her bed looks like an octopus.  Her tables look like assorted octopi.  Her curtains … well, you get the point.  She’s an extremely beautiful, fabulously wealthy smuggler (and circus owner) with a private army of hotties.  It takes a while, but Jimmy finally sets his sights on her.

Orlov’s true scheme is to smuggle a nuclear warhead by train to a United States Air Force Base in West Germany (remember West Germany, kids?), where it will detonate in the middle of one of Octopussy’s circus shows.  Orlov’s ultimate goal is to create destabilization and doubt in neighboring nations where he can easily take control and thus, expand the Soviet empire.  Ultimately, Bond masquerades as a clown (like Agent 009), and removes the detonator before the warhead can explode and spoil a decent circus.  I secretly hoped the bomb would go off, because I have a (admittedly irrational) fear/hatred of clowns, but the good guys must prevail.  The baddest of the bad, Jourdan and his evil (again with the evil!) henchman abscond with Octopussy and escape in a small aircraft, but not before Bond (or his incredibly obvious stunt double anyway) can jump on the roof and mess with their engines, and rescue the damsel.

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“It’s all in the wrist.”

This is truly a fun movie with lots of action (expertly directed by John Glen, who helmed five Bond movies).  Glen started on the Bond series as an editor, cutting On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969.  The set pieces are thrilling, and I noted infrequent use of blue screen as most of the visual effects were shot in-camera.  Octopussy would be followed by Moore ‘s last Bond film, A View to a Kill in 1985, and then Timothy Dalton would take over the role for two movies.  There is an interesting bit of trivia here in that Dalton (along with James Brolin) were suggested to replace Moore in Octopussy when his contract was up.  Later in 1983, Sean Connery appeared in the non-canon Bond film, Never Say Never Again, directed by Irvin Kershner.  When Never Say Never Again (with Connery) was announced, the producers renegotiated with Moore to keep him on in direct competition with that film.

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: Never Say Never Again, 1983

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“Never again.”

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Never Say Never Again, 1983 (Sean Connery), Warner Bros.

James Bond is not a character that exists for any particular generation; though different generations will banter back-and-forth about which actor gave the strongest performance as Great Britain’s most famous Military Intelligence operative. It’s like Coke and Pepsi. Dick York and Dick Sargent? Original or Extra Crispy? David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar? Sean Connery or Roger Moore? As a matter of fact, in Ian Fleming’s original concept for the character, he envisioned someone who bore his own resemblance. A bit of wish fulfillment, perhaps? 1983 was an unusual year for our favorite secret agent in that we had two movies, Octopussy and Never Say Never Again, made by different production companies and starring Moore and Connery. Ultimately, as box receipts indicate, there was very little difference in their respective appeal. Octopussy earned $183 million worldwide, compared to Never Say Never Again’s paltry $160 million*.

Essentially a remake of Thunderball, but updated to accommodate Connery’s advanced years, Never Say Never Again came about because Kevin McClory (one of Thunderball’s writers) retained the rights to the film after a dispute with fellow writers Jack Whittingham and creator Ian Fleming. This left Thunderball as the only existing Bond property to not be owned outright by Fleming or “Cubby” Broccoli’s Eon Productions. Bond is compelled by his employers to spend time in physical rehabilitations after failing a wargame simulation. While there, and after bedding down one of his nurses, he spies (he can’t help it) a masochistic therapist, Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) dispensing a little more than medicine to a US Air Force pilot (Gavan O’Herlihy), whom she is using to circumvent the President’s security clearance in order to obtain two nuclear warheads, which SPECTRE will use to wreak havoc with NATO. Bond tracks the warheads to the Bahamas, where he runs afoul of oddball villain Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) while romancing Largo’s lover, Domino (Kim Basinger), who also happens to be O’Herlihy’s sister.

Bond beds Blush, who then betrays him to sharks while scuba diving. Thankfully, sharks don’t know how to open doors in underwater ships. Largo is a little nutty. He challenges Bond to a unusual, but interesting looking three-dimensional video game that utlizes nuclear missile to neutralize their targets. The loser donates proceeds to a children’s charity. Bond always seems to get the upper hand in these games, and he cleans Largo out. Largo captures Bond (and Domino) after Bond tells her the truth about what happened to her brother. He locks Bond in a North African dungeon and ties Domino to a post to sell her to Arabs on horseback. Like I said, he’s a little nutty. Bond escapes his binds with a laser-shooting wristwatch (how come they never frisk him?) and rescues Domino, who avenges her brother’s death (with a well-aimed harpoon) before Largo can arm his warheads.

It’s a fairly simple story, complicated by numerous distraction; those being the women in the film, who serve as impediments (if you choose to designate them as such) to Bond’s goals. Kershner (as he did with The Empire Strikes Back) emphasizes performances over action set-pieces, but his camera always finds interesting places to shoot. Connery’s Bond is more menacing, predatory, and pragmatic than Moore’s civilized charm and manners. The Blofeld character (popularized by Donald Pleasance and Telly Savalas, and more recently Christoph Waltz) is minimalized here, but played very well in this movie by Max Von Sydow. The real villains in this piece are Brandauer and Carrera. Brandauer is a curiousity. He plays his scenes with a child-like glee, keeping everybody around subtly off-balance. He looks like he’s always on the verge of snapping.

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Now we come to the inevitable comparisons. Watching both movies (Octopussy and Never Say Never Again) with my wife, she told me she preferred the Connery movie, because the story was more contained, less expansive, and less tedious than Octopussy. I disagree. While expertly photographed and edited, this is a less cultured Bond, and there seem to be fewer locations and less color than Octopussy. Indeed, the movie is even shot, edited, and paced like one of Connery’s early Bond efforts. When I tune into a James Bond film, I expect exotic locations, beautiful women, and great action sequences, and while Never Say Never Again definitely delivers those elements, it doesn’t deliver enough of them. It’s as if the producers expected only to secure Connery’s involvement and not much else, but it is interesting to speculate (based on this movie) how the Bond series would’ve continued with Connery playing the character. That being said, I’m glad Connery retired when he did. Where Moore was a bit stuffy, Connery is smug and (somewhat) unlikeable, regardless of how many creepily young women he beds in this movie. Also, the film feels naked without the signature (and trademarked) John Barry theme music and credit sequence.

* sarcasm

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: Of Unknown Origin, 1983

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“Watch and weep, you furry fucker.”

Of Unknown Origin, 1983 (Peter Weller), Warner Bros.

1983 was the year of the yuppie. The unusual, one-line Google search engine description defines “yuppie” as a well-paid young middle-class professional who works in a city job and has a luxurious lifestyle. The term, being coined in 1982 by Joseph Epstein, points to the rise of baby-boomers finding employment (usually along executive, financial, and administrative lines) in the big cities; many of them living there, but others succumbing to the phenomena of white flight, the grand mass-exodus of white people to the suburbs when inner-city crime and racial tension was at an all time high. Peter Weller’s Bart Hughes is the test-case of encroaching yuppiedom in New York City (although expertly shot in Montreal).

Living with his wife, Meg (Playmate Shannon Tweed, in her first film), and their son, Peter, in a renovated brownstone, his apartment is astonishingly beautiful, tastefully decorated, with lots of space.  Bart has his sights set on a raise and promotion which will enable him to buy the apartment, and from the beginning of the film, he is depicted as straightlaced, clean-shaven, rocking suits and ties, and glad-handing everybody he comes across (but also, strangely, obsessive-compulsive as my wife observed).  His wife and child take off for a vacation and leave Daddy in the big city to make the money.  This movie is a kind-of Seven Year Itch but with a pesky rodent subbing for Marilyn Monroe.

It only takes a couple of days for Weller to lose the fragile grip he thought he possessed with regard to his controlled world.  It turns out he has a rodent problem.  Contacting exterminators proves futile, as the city is overrun.  With the help of his Super, he starts doing his own research, and in a very interesting scene (a dinner party with guests chewing on Cornish hen), he disgusts attendees with admittedly interesting factoids about rats, about the diseases they spread, about the food they consume.  The scene is revealing to me because the director, George P. Cosmatos, and screenwriter Brian Taggert, are obviously citing parallels between rats and yuppies.

Earlier this month, I chose to watch and review another horror movie about rats called Deadly Eyes.  Compared to Deadly Eyes, Of Unknown Origin is a virtual masterpiece of form.  Deadly Eyes is absolutely dreadful and silly, mainly because the visual representation of the monster in question looks so damned silly.  Little dogs, covered with “rat-like” fur but wiggling and moving like dogs.  As if the obsessive Weller at the end of his rope isn’t enough, we have more parallels; as in when he pounds on his ceiling with a thick copy of Melville’s Moby Dick.

The very beautiful Ms. Shannon Tweed.

By the final third of the film, Weller has completely lost it.  His work is suffering.  He earns the sympathy of his secretary, the ire of his rivals, and the befuddlement of his boss.  He constructs a torture and killing device out of a baseball bat, and he becomes completely obsessed with the idea of destroying the rat, even at the cost of his apartment and sanity.  He learns the logic of his enemy, and he revises his attack, eventually emerging victorious.  The movie reminds me of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) wherein our protagonist must dispense with his own logic in order to survive his ordeal.  This is such a fun popcorn movie, and Weller (as my wife noted, a child of James Woods and Jeff Goldblum in his unique mannerisms) is immensely entertaining to watch.

Sourced from the original 1984 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release (Canadian release – the paper is flimsy and oil-stained, I’ve noted this on the Canadian videos).  Also released on Beta, this movie did not have a release on Laserdisc, but it was produced for DVD.  As of this writing, the movie has not yet been released on Blu Ray,  The accompanying essay claims, “If it can’t scare them to death, it will find another way!”  The essay calls the movie, “… provocative and shocking suspense …”  Next time, we wrap up Vintage Cable Box’s Halloween 2016 Horror Movie Coverage with Drew Barrymore in Mark Lester’s Firestarter from 1984.

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.

A Year of Vintage Cable Box!

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“Our technology forces us to live mythically”

Marshall McLuhan

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Alyssa! My first crush.

Cable television is a beautiful woman (or man, I suppose) who gets into your brain and relaxes you.  She wants you to sit back and unwind.  Just imagine slender fingers rubbing and squeezing against your tense shoulders, then forming a fist to dig into the middle of your spine, and then you hear a satisfying crack and the ease of your joints.  I love her.  She is, as Homer Simpson would say, my “secret lover.”  This is me as an 11-year-old, unlocking the treasure trove, finding the honey pot, and witnessing boobies and enthusiasm, and strong language; the use of the “f” word.  I remember gasping when I first heard it.  I didn’t gasp anymore after I saw Scarface for the first time.  Cable television is different these days; the Pandora’s Box – she offers too much and gives nothing in return.  I looked at my guide the other day – a little over eleven hundred channels, crystal-clear HD, on-demand – anything I want, I can have.  In 1984, we had thirty channels, and if there was something I wanted that wasn’t on cable, I went to the video store.  Bear with me.  I’m not going to start up a diatribe about how things were better when I was a young’in.

Vintage Cable Box is something I always wanted to do.  I wanted to go back to that time when I was a young man, with burgeoning puberty pounding down the door, and Alyssa Milano’s gorgeous face, and Jacqueline Bisset’s tanned body and wet t-shirt, beckoning me.  I tune into Porky’s and come to the realization that there is a whole other world out there: the world of the coaxial cable and the heavy metal box on top of my 25″ Magnavox color console.  From there, innocence becomes a degree of intelligence (not much, but I was eleven, mind you) where cable television becomes my peculiar form of film school.  I can’t tell you how much I learned about movies, about making movies, about filmmakers, watching cable television at this time.  This is my life.  My life is movies.  I eat them up like popcorn.  The Man with Two Brains was the first; turning it on just as the cable guy was leaving the premises – it was exotic.  On the screen, a buxom blonde with a ridiculous accent flashes her bare breasts at Steve Martin.  The cable guy acted like it was no big deal, but we never had cable.  We seriously didn’t.  No cable television in Philadelphia.  My mother had a great job opportunity in Lebanon, Tennessee.  She had family down there, so we moved.  It was a higher quality of life (in theory, but not really).

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As the old saying goes, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.” We got the premium (or deluxe) package. HBO and Cinemax (which would alternate premiere movies; sometimes HBO would get it first, sometimes Cinemax would get it first. Either way, and in lieu of a videocassette recorder, movies were repeatedly shown. Sometimes they would even be broadcast simultaneously, perhaps a couple of seconds out of sync, and with slightly different color gradients and schemes – HBO always seemed a tad bit brighter than Cinemax. We had The Movie Channel for a time as well, until my mother started assessing the bill. The Movie Channel was interesting. You would find unusual, even obscure films often programmed as retrospectives, and this is how I learned about filmmakers. You would see a handful of Brian De Palma films like Home Movies, Dressed to Kill, Carrie, and Get to Know Your Rabbit programmed alongside Scarface to coincide with that film’s premiere. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry were programmed to coincide with the 1984 re-release of those movies. This is why I can never get behind arguments (usually from older people) that TV rots your brain. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Film, in and of itself, is an education, and television was the vehicle (or the medium – per McLuhan) for this delivery system. Me not dumb! Good, write, good!

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I had always wanted share my specific views and history of cable television in the early 1980s.  For a more in-depth analysis into the history of Pay TV and cable television, I suggest Ben Minotte’s fabulous Oddity Archive.  I had the opportunity to interview (with Mark Jeacoma) Mr. Minotte for the VHS Rewind podcast.  He’s an exceptional (and curious) fellow.  The other channels I remember from those times were CNN, Nickelodeon (and Nick at Nite), MTV, TNN (aka The Nashville Network), and WTBS (not just TBS – it was considered a “superstation”, like Chicago’s WGN), the local affiliates, and a couple of bizarre public access stations.  I remember flipping to one of those stations and seeing our landlord at the time, an old Baptist pulpit-punding minister, broadcasting his own show!  He seemed like a nice man, but he wouldn’t allow us to keep any pets.  Nick at Nite was an astonishing find.  I discovered The Bob Cummings Show, Bachelor Father, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.  What I remember, in the days before cable television, the UHF stations in Philadelphia: channels 17, 29, and 48.  Channel 17 WPHL would run Star Trek and The Outer Limits.  Channel 29 (WTAF, later to become a FOX affiliate with terrible reception) would run Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.  Channel 48 WKBS (which went out of business in 1983) would show Creature Double Feature on Saturday mornings and afternoons.  Sometimes, if your antenna was in a good position, you could get the Vineland, New Jersey UHF channel.

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When I launched Vintage Cable Box on August 31 last year, I fully expected to begin the odyssey with Porky’s, but Wes Craven’s passing away over that weekend prompted me to change up my schedule, so I put out three reviews: Swamp Thing, Porky’s, and Rodney Dangerfield’s Easy Money. Looking at the reviews now, they seem more like perfunctory write-ups, descriptions of plots more than any true evaluation. I don’t think I really kicked it into gear until The Osterman Weekend (September 23, 2016). My Big Chill review the following week I rate as one of my best. National Lampoon’s Class Reunion was a sobering reminder that many of the movies I enjoyed as an eleven-year-old I could not stomach today. Some (very few) of these movies are absolutely horrible to watch. Class Reunion kicked off my first Halloween retrospective. I reviewed horror movies for the entire month and got my first big hit with my review of Amityville II: The Possession. Horror movies get great numbers for me. What really sells today is nostalgia, and you could even look back on a failed movie, a terrible movie, and express some level of nostalgia or affection for it, but if you can’t drum up that enthusiasm in yourself, it’s not going to work for your readers or your listening audience.  I know I have this problem on occasion.

Which brings me to those reviews I might have phoned in, because I couldn’t get into it while loving it as a child, and then considering it some form of exquisite torture in my later years.  November brought me The Rosebud Beach Hotel and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.  December’s Christmas cheer brought me The Man Who Wasn’t There, but it also brought me my biggest hit, A Christmas Story (to be rivaled only by Midnight Madness).  I think the elements of popularity and nostalgia (not to mention affection) combine to bring about a newfound interest; it’s not necessarily about how well you think you write.  If you are writing about something a reader has in the back of his or her head, that they remember, that they adore, you’ll get a lot of readers.  Get Crazy, a movie that barely had a release yet exploded on cable television, made me think about some hidden gems; the over-budgeted movies that scam-artist financers would sell to investors from which they would pocket the difference and laugh all the way to the bank.  It’s sort of like the plot to Mel Brooks’ The Producers.  Other examples include Somebody Killed Her Husband and (perhaps) The House of God.

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It’s amazing to me how some movies hold up, while others are terribly dated and get worse with age.  I remember adoring Breathless, They Call Me Bruce?, and Jekyll and Hyde – Together Again.  Now I hate them.  I can’t stand them.  In December, I launched a bit of a mini-series in that in appeared to me that several movies were being made at the time with writers as their central characters:  Deathtrap, Author! Author!, Romancing the Stone, Best Friends, and Romantic Comedy.  Nobody would ever dare make a movie about a writer these days.  Romantic Comedy would find it’s way into my series about Dudley Moore.  Moore was all over cable television at that time.  Dudley Moore’s particular skills revolved around his man-child characters, always unsatisfied, depressed, and yearning (or lusting) after women while negotiating his advanced years.  Sometimes, he would take a dramatic detour (Six Weeks), but those digressions were infrequent.  Mel Brooks’ 90th birthday was coming up, and I remembered seeing several of his movies (in another wonderful Movie Channel retrospective tied to the premiere of his To Be or Not to Be remake) so I put together the four that received endless play.

Stacey Nelkin in Get Crazy

There are also the unexpected deaths that changed my schedule (as with my very first review).  I mentioned in my (very quickly cobbled together) review of The Woman in Red that Gene Wilder’s passing forced me to rush that write-up.  I had originally planned to continue my articles up to the point we got the HBO satellite service in Philadelphia, and The Woman in Red would be featured.  The same situation forced me to publish a review for Garry Marshall’s Young Doctors in Love.  After the death of David Bowie, I wrote up the review for The Hunger.  I have a schedule in place, and I tend to write reviews well in advance of publication for this very reason.  So what are we up to?  At last count, 74 reviews have been published.  I had initially expected to put out an article once a week.  I figure I have about another year’s worth of material.  We’ll see what happens, but this has been a wonderful trip back to my past, and I hope you (the readers) will continue this journey with me.

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: Twilight Zone: The Movie, 1983

TZClam

“You wanna see something REALLY scary?”

Twilight Zone the Movie

Twilight Zone: The Movie, 1983 (Dan Aykroyd), Warner Bros.

I popped in the old Warner Brothers clamshell VHS tape of this, because I wanted to watch the movie as I remembered it when I saw it on cable television in 1984.  Of course I had to play it on my old tube TV (the only way to watch a videotape, or a Laserdisc, or a DVD), and the first thing I notice (after the FBI warning) is the Warner Brothers logo, those post-modern oval or stadium shapes forming the W and the B coming toward the screen, devouring the frame while the first chords of Creedence Clearwater Revival play.

We fade up slowly on a deserted road and then the lights of a car passing by.  Inside is hitchhiker Dan Aykroyd and driver Albert Brooks.  To pass the time, they play games of trivia, TV theme songs, and then finally settle on a discussion about Twilight Zone, where they reference key episodes.  After multiple viewings, it only occurs to me now that the movie is commenting upon the television series in a real-world capacity, in meta fashion, but in the style of Twilight Zone.

We start with “Time Out”, written and directed by John Landis, and starring the late Vic Morrow.  Landis also wrote and directed the prologue, and co-produced the film as a whole with Steven Spielberg.  It’s hard not to review this episode without thinking of Morrow’s tragic death during shooting, but I will try.  Though heavy-handed with a lecturing tone, Morrow’s performance is among the strongest I’ve ever seen.  He plays an “angry man,” to use narrator Burgess Meredith’s words, with “a chip on his shoulder the size of the national debt.”

After angrily calling out Jews and blacks as the source of his uniquely American problems, he is transported back and forth through time being given a taste of his own medicine.  Landis places him in the shoes of a Jew during wartime France, and then as a black man in the South, and then as an enemy combatant in Vietnam.  Morrow died when the rotor blades on a helicopter during an intensely energetic barrage of explosions de-laminated and the vehicle spun into ankle-deep water, killing him and two children he was carrying.

It’s fair to say the film’s production was severely altered due to the tragedy, as the narrative of Landis’ screenplay (which had originally included a scene of vindication for Morrow’s character) was changed drastically so that the only scenes remaining (the only complete scenes Morrow shot) are simply examples of catharsis with little to no structure.  Vic Morrow gives an incredible performance, and it’s sad to think of the resurgence his career would’ve enjoyed.  Landis and his producers were acquitted on charges of manslaughter in 1986, and while most people like to think his career suffered after this incident, he made several highly-successful movies after this, including Spies Like Us and Coming To America.

Steven Spielberg’s somewhat sentimental remake of “Kick the Can” improves upon the source material by capturing the spirit of youth, as viewed through the eyes of the elderly.  The great character actor Bill Quinn plays a bitter old man who watches his fellow denizens at Sunnyvale Retirement Home turn into children under the guidance of new resident Mr. Bloom (jovial Scatman Crothers).  Rather than end the proceedings in pathos and irony as the third season episode did, Spielberg (and screenwriters Richard Matheson & Melissa Mathison) decide to bring them back to senior citizenry with “fresh young minds.”  The next day, all but one of the elderly folk have transformed back, and Quinn learns a nice lesson about staying young at heart, while Mr. Bloom is off on his next merry adventure.  Jerry Goldsmith’s score for this episode (and the movie) is spectacular.

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When I was a kid, I loved this next episode: an updating of the classic “It’s a Good Life”.  Mostly because I dug the idea of a kid around my age with insane psychic god-like powers wreaking havoc upon his rented family and a hapless schoolteacher (Kathleen Quinlan), who had the “misfortune” of nearly running him over.  She takes him back to his house, where his frightened family anxiously awaits his return.  He has televisions in every room playing cartoons.  His supper consists of peanut butter, candy apples, and ice cream.  His sister (Cherie Currie!) has no mouth (but she must scream), and when he gets angry, conjures horrifying creatures to scare the Hell out of everybody for his amusement.  Where Billy Mumy’s version of the child was more monster than boy, the child in this episode is simply an incorrigible brat who needs guidance and structure in his life.  Director Joe Dante populates his episode with great character actors from the past like William Schallert, Kevin McCarthy, Patricia Barry (who had all appeared in original episodes), and Dick Miller.  This is still a fun episode to watch.

We wind it up with what is perhaps the movie’s strongest entry, a remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” featuring John Lithgow in an Oscar-worthy performance, directed by George Miller (The Road Warrior).  Lithgow plays a white-knuckle passenger on an airliner convinced he sees a man (ultimately a gremlin) on the wing of the plane.  There are some subtle differences between this remake and the original starring William Shatner.  For one, in the Shatner version, his wife is traveling with him, and second, he is recovering from a previous nervous breakdown.  I feel the film version is stronger because Lithgow doesn’t foreshadow any particular breakdown, and his performance is a gradual build-up not to insanity but bravery as he takes matters in his own hands and attempts to vanquish the creature (as Shatner did).  The film version is much more visceral than the original directed by Richard Donner.  It’s interesting the best episodes from the movie were directed by relative novices, compared to the input of Spielberg and Landis.  They both meet the same fate, however, as they are carted off to a loony bin while the airplane’s mechanical crew try to figure out where all the damage to the craft came from.

For a decent stinger prologue, Lithgow’s ambulance driver is none other than Dan Aykroyd from the prologue.  He puts on some Creedence and away we go!  Vic Morrow’s death overshadowed any possible success this movie might have enjoyed, and destroyed any chance of a new film franchise.  Though there were reboots in 1985 and 2002, neither they nor this film stack up to the original series.  I must admit this is how I was introduced to the series.  I was aware of the show, but it never played where I lived, at least until after this movie debuted on cable television.  The series played in constant rotation on Channel 11 WPIX New York, and that’s how I was able to watch it before I got the DVDs.

What can be said about Rod Serling’s immortal Twilight Zone that hasn’t been said already?  I loved the show so much I started my own podcast about it, in which a guest and I discuss two episodes every week.  A new season of “That Twilighty Show About That Zone” starts tomorrow!  Sorry about the plug.  I had to do it.  Today is the one-year anniversary for “Vintage Cable Box”.  Hard to believe I started this enterprise a year ago with reviews for Swamp Thing, Easy Money, and Porky’s.  If you want to check out my past reviews, go to this handy archive.  Again, sorry for the plug!

Sourced from the original 1983 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release.  The movie continued to receive different format releases, and is available in Beta, Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu Ray formats.  The accompanying essay obviously down-plays Vic Morrow’s death (“the late Vic Morrow”) as though his passing was not connected to the production.  The film is compared to Creepshow from 1982.  Both movies are referenced as “… the state of the art in cinema horror …”

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.