Vintage Cable Box: “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, 1983”

“Us loners got to stick together.”

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, 1983 (Peter Strauss), Columbia Pictures

So three babes straight out of a Poison music video crash land on a planet of freaks who abduct them, as love-starved freaks are want to do. I’ve never understood that. Are women some incredible commodity in the future (or even in a galaxy far, far away)? Enter Wolff (Peter Strauss), a carbon-copy Han Solo, who picks up on a message rewarding a lot of money (or “credits” as the case may be) for the safe return of the heavy metal babes. His hot android engineer, Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci) activates the drive system (if you know what I mean – heh) and they’re off to collect some space booty. Wolff’s ship houses a spiffy all-terrain vehicle that recalls James Cameron’s Aliens. The big problem is that Strauss seems too cultured (especially with his scholarly voice) to be a no-good, son-of-a-bitch, bastard salvage operator and part-time pirate. Maybe he was a disgraced Sociology professor.

They land on the alien babe planet in the middle of a skirmish. The visuals are strictly Mad Max, and it occurs to me now there was some effort set aside to make this a serious science fiction movie. Chalmers is killed (or deactivated) and the babes are taken away, but that doesn’t stop Wolff from finding his quarry. The alien freaks in this movie remind me of the mutants who crash Wyatt’s party at the end of Weird Science. Scrappy foul-mouthed (and stinky) orphan Molly Ringwald tries to steal Wolff’s wheels, but apparently she can’t drive a stick (a common problem with space orphans). With the promise of food, he takes her along as an adviser on the mysterious freak planet. Sick of her stench, he throws her in a lake and dumps soap all over her. Wolff hooks up with fellow countryman, Washington (Ernie Hudson) who offers a partnership to find the space babes, but nothing comes of it. What? Dispensing with Hudson’s character keeps the clash between Strauss and Ringwald more entertaining.

Of course all of this tension is meant to make us like the characters. Wolff, up until the point he saves a malnourished Molly Ringwald (the both of them suffering dehydration on a planet of poisoned water), comes over as an insufferable prick, but I blame the humor producer Ivan Reitman and his recruited writers, Len Blum and Daniel Goldberg, injected into David Preston and Edith Rey’s otherwise somber first draft. The script obviously parodies 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barbarella (itself a parody), Star Wars, Buck Rogers, and the Mad Max movies, but the material would’ve better served the comic timing of a Bill Murray or a Dan Aykroyd. Indeed, with Elmer Bernstein’s music, Spacehunter plays like a precursor to Ghostbusters. Meanwhile we have the great Michael Ironside (who really doesn’t need ghoulish makeup to look ghoulish) as some kind of a hideous, spider-robot creature with a taste for hot alien space babes, because why not?

In the end, Wolff rescues Molly and the space babes (with an able assist by Hudson) and dispatches Ironside, but the story feels lop-sided. Like 48 Hrs., we spend more time getting to know our protagonists than we do understanding or assessing Ironside’s motivation; as a spider-robot thing, he needs life essence to function and only women will do. Works for me! This is another in a series of hip and goofy space comedies such as Ice Pirates and the Reitman-produced/Goldberg and Blum written Heavy Metal made two years previous. While the movie was originally photographed and shown in 3-D, the film elements removed from the process hold up surprisingly well. In fact, this is one of the better-looking 2-D movies (even with some very cheesy animated visual effects) made from 3-D, unlike Jaws 3D and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Director Lamont Johnson directed several episodes of the classic Twilight Zone television anthology series, including “The Shelter” and “Kick the Can.”

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: Jaws 3-D, 1983

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“White sharks are dangerous. I know ’em. My father, my brother, myself. They’re murderers.”

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Jaws 3-D, 1983 (Dennis Quaid), MCA/Universal

Jaws III (in 3-D) was one of my purest, truest pleasures as a child.  There was a long line around the Sam’s Place theater chain on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia waiting to get in, sit down in the dark in an air conditioned auditorium on a hot July day in 1983.  We used to go to Sam’s Place all the time, at least twice a week.  Tickets (first-run, mind you) ran about two bucks each, maybe a buck-fifty for kids and seniors.  We got our tickets and 3-D glasses, our popcorn and soda, got out of there without spending ten bucks.  If I remember correctly, even the previews were in 3-D, which was unusual (even though the most recent 3-D movie, Spacehunter, was released a few months before).  I vaguely remember, one of my earliest memories was watching the original Jaws at a drive-in.  I remember having nightmares.  Jaws 3-D might be considered schlocky celluloid junk to purists, but it was incredible fun for me.

When Jaws 3-D came to cable television (retitled Jaws III, denoting the lack of 3-D effects), it lacked the punch of the big screen in your face, wearing the glasses and watching such items as severed arms, bifurcated fish, and papier-mâché sharks flying off the screen, but the movie still worked as schlock-horror.  Dennis Quaid plays Mike Brody (Chief Brody’s oldest), all grown up and working as an engineer for Calvin Bouchard’s (Louis Gossett Jr.) SeaWorld.  His girlfriend, Kay (Bess Armstrong, again!), the senior marine biologist at the park, wonders why her dolphins are so scared and flighty (dolphins can sense sharks, you know).  Meanwhile, Mike is investigating the disappearance of one of his employees, drunken ne’er-do-well Overman.  Kay and Mike conduct a search, but are soon beset by a great white shark.  They capture the shark, but Brouchard puts it on display, but it promptly dies in captivity.

Pretentious naturalist filmmaker Philip FitzRoyce (an appropriately douchey Simon “Manimal” MacCorkindale) and his trusted unintelligible assistant, Jack Tate are there to document the opening of SeaWorld’s underground tunnels, so that spectators can view sea life from inside the water (actually a great idea).  Overman’s remains are found, but Kay ascertains that their shark didn’t do the damage.  It’s mother did!  A big bitch they estimate to be about 35 feet long, the shark gets into the park and attacks performers.  The sharks blocks the park’s filtration system, so Brouchard tries to flush her out, but she won’t budge.  FitzRoyce, using himself as bait, tries to blow her up with underwater grenades.  He is eaten.  The shark finally breaks through (a very bad 3-D effect) the window of Brouchard’s underwater control room.  Now, why would you put a control room under water?  This park is supposed to be a triumph of engineering, but you put sensitive electronic equipment under the water?

There are some surprisingly good character beats in a script about an enormous shark terrorizing a theme park.  Quaid and Armstrong are exceptional as a couple not quite ready for a long-term commitment.  The running subplot of their relationship has them wondering which partner will give up his/her livelihood to join the other in a great job opportunity.  There’s a great bit where Quaid’s Basset Hound is eating on the kitchen counter and Quaid is holding the dog’s floppy ears up, so the dog doesn’t make a mess.  Quaid’s kid brother, Sean, visits and hooks up with a cute Lea Thompson.  FitzRoyce flirts with Armstrong.  These are nice beats in an otherwise flawed piece of entertainment.

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Despite some of the 3-D pitfalls and gaps in logic, this movie is a lot of fun.  The effects aren’t as bad as in The Man Who Wasn’t There (a film that didn’t really require 3-D visual effects), and admittedly it is a cheap gag to sell a Jaws franchise movie in 3-D, but they look a lot cleaner than previous attempts.  Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone was probably the most successful in terms of the visual quality, but that movie’s inflated budget killed the concept for a time.  Friday the 13th Part III,  Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, and Amityville 3D were also released around this time, to mixed results.  In 2003, 3D enjoyed a resurgence with James Cameron’s Ghosts of the Abyss.  The Polar Express and Cameron’s Avatar would follow in the years to come.  Now, it seems every action or animated film is released in 3D.  I don’t like this particular process (a kind of photographic layering of disparate elements in the foreground) as it makes me somewhat dizzy and a little nauseous.  Give me Jaws 3-D over Avatar any day!  It’s a lot more fun and a hell of a lot less preachy.

Next time, I keep the 3D glasses on for the third installment in the Friday the 13th franchise; Friday the 13th Part III (in 3-D!).

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: “The Man Who Wasn’t There, 1983”

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“The funniest movie you NEVER saw!” (You can say that again.)

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The Man Who Wasn’t There, 1983 (Steve Guttenberg), Paramount Pictures

Government employee Steve Guttenberg is in a hurry. He’s late for his own wedding, and he has to supervise a consulate dinner. Thugs working for nefarious forces kill an invisible man within Gutternberg’s proximity. The dying man gives Guttenberg the formula. Implicated in the man’s death, he spends most of the movie on the run from yet another invisible man, presumably the heavy because he speaks in ominous whispers. Guttenberg hooks up with his bride’s maid of honor (lovely scream queen Lisa Langlois) and together they elude authorities and bad guys, and at some point he becomes invisible.

He is abducted by his own government because they don’t want the formula to get into the hands of the Mexicans because that way they can walk through our borders undetected. Amazing how topical this stupid movie could be! Guttenberg and Langlois shack up, and it’s interesting to watch badly-filmed and composited invisible sex. Watching Langlois make out with nothing is pretty entertaining, but I kid Guttenberg! While they make an amiable couple, their romantic potential is severely hindered by the incompetence of the people behind the camera.

Like Scott Baio in Zapped (soon to be covered for Vintage Cable Box – thanks, Mark!), Guttenberg uses his incredible powers to look up women’s skirts and take up residence in girl’s showers. This was a pure eighties trope: the ability to look at naked girls. It was like opening the Ark of the Covenant, without the face-melting. I’m proud to admit that I enjoyed Steve Guttenberg. We certainly see enough Guttenberg skin in the movie to last a lifetime. He would not rise to super-stardom until the following year’s Police Academy, but he proved to be an indelible resource in silly comedies.

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This movie is a mess to watch. Inexplicably shot in 3D, a fad at the time (Friday the 13th Part 3, Jaws 3D), it’s sad to think money was spent on this nonsense. Even for a sex comedy, it’s pretty tame by the standards of the time. The visual effects are atrocious, and you get a sense a lot of work was done because every time a visual effect occurs, the film goes scratchy and spotty. There are a lot of cheap gags as well, what with phones and towels on strings floating around. I wonder what a high definition Blu-Ray transfer would look like.

The composite print (the print without the three dimensional “effects”) is exactly the way I remembered the movie when I saw it on cable television. The focus is disturbingly soft (I swear somebody forgot to check the diopter), and the picture is murky. Bruce Malmuth’s direction relies on jittery panning and tilting of enormous “stereoscopic” cameras, but even with all the preparation, the movie still looks like crap. Jaws 3D would be shot with similar technology, but with slightly better results (and actually use 3D effects).

The Man Who Wasn’t There is an extremely difficult movie to find. It had a release on VHS and Betamax, but it was not released on DVD or Laserdisc. It’s obvious the movie was intended to be an updated (not to mention sexier) combination of The Wrong Man and The Invisible Man. It should’ve been called The Wrong Invisible Man – a much better title, in my opinion. Previously, Bruce Malmuth had directed the 1981 Sylvester Stallone action movie, Nighthawks. Steve Guttenberg would appear in Cocoon and Three Men & a Baby. Lisa Langlois appeared in Deadly Eyes and Happy Birthday To 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.