Vintage Cable Box: The Cannonball Run, 1981

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“Officer, I sincerely hope you’re not a Catholic.”

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The Cannonball Run, 1981 (Burt Reynolds), 20th Century Fox

Early ’80s cable television was a dumping ground of racing movies; most of them starring Burt Reynolds and directed by the legendary stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham. You had your Hooper, your Stroker Ace, your Six Pack, your Smokey cycle, and you had The Cannonball Run (which spawned two sequels), which plays more as an excuse to hang out with your friends and make a fun movie than an effort to produce a serious racing movie. We’re not even fifteen minutes in and Burt (with buddy Dom De Luise) are working on hot cars, flying single-engine planes, and riding speed-boats as they try to figure out what vehicle to race in the famous “Cannonball Trophy Dash” from Connecticut to California. Burt gets the idea to use an ambulance after sustaining injuries in the resulting speed-boat crash, but first they need a patient and a real doctor, so they abduct (what?) Farrah Fawcett and a junkie doctor (hilarious Jack “I just gave her a little prick” Elam), so they can drive at high speeds.

The film is a veritable Who’s Who of late 70s/early 80s celebrities, both minor (Terry Bradshaw, Rick Aviles, Jamie Farr) and major (Dean “Father Putz” Martin, Sammy “The Chocolate Monk” Davis Jr., Roger “The Fly Who Bugged Me” Moore), as well as a few up-and-coming stars (Adrienne Barbeau, Jackie Chan).  Farr, as an Arabian Sheik, drives a Silver Shadow Rolls.  Chan drives a state-of-the-art Subaru GL with all kinds of gadgetry.  Roger Moore spoofs his “James Bond” persona as Seymour Goldfarb, a nice Jewish boy who thinks he’s Roger Moore, and drives a gorgeous Aston Martin.  Dean and Sammy are dressed as priests, driving a red Ferrari.  Buxom Barbeau and Tara Buckman drive a Lamborghini (the ultimate winners, but it doesn’t matter) and get out of speeding tickets by showing off their cleavage, until they come upon a similarly stacked State Trooper (Valerie Perrine).

We, of course, have a bad guy, but he’s not really a bad guy.  George Furth (a dependable character actor mainly known for ’70s television) is Arthur J. Foyt (a clever play on racer A.J. Foyt), a crusader (or what you’d call social justice warrior), looking to shut down this silly “Cannonball” competition.  The whole idea seems insanely dangerous, but the lure is a big money cash prize, so who can blame some of your more reckless racing enthusiasts for giving it a shot.  The only real problem in the narrative is that the movie takes too long to get going.  It’s like one of those old Plymouths you had to warm up in the garage for twenty minutes, except in this case it’s more like 35 minutes before we start up the engines.  This is understandable given the many characters and their vignettes, and that the screenplay (screenplay?) plays as a series of episodes rather than a cohesive narrative, but that’s okay.  This is such a fun movie – and never boring – that I don’t care.  It’s obvious everybody’s having a great time.  Burt Reynolds barely represses the urge to laugh in every scene with Dom De Luise.  Dean Martin is obviously drunk throughout the movie, and Sammy’s not that far behind.

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I’m not a fan of NASCAR, or any kind of professional racing (though I have good friends who are).  I don’t get it the same way I don’t get hockey.  I’m a baseball guy.  I tend to agree with David Cronenberg in that the ultimate “man-machine interface” is the man or woman who gets into his or her car in the morning and drives to work without thinking about it.  Plus, these competitions seem to be a serious waste of gasoline (also I suspect a good portion of the audience is there to see horrific crashes), but that’s none of my business.  I do, however, enjoy this movie quite a bit, mainly because it doesn’t take itself seriously.  There’s a brief shot I always remember when I think about The Cannonball Run.  Dean and Sammy pull over the ambulance to let the air out of the tires under the guise of offering a “blessing”.  They slide the door open and see a drugged Farrah smiling back at them.  She was truly beautiful.  Critics, at the time, steeped in Scorsese and Coppola-isms, were not appreciative.  A film snob myself, I don’t necessarily believe all movies should be serious masterpieces of style and form.  In fact, I think we should have an even (and wide) distribution of movies that stimulate our minds, and movies that go for the big belly-laugh.  Nothing wrong with that.

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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“Creepshow, 1982”

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“Come on Harry, the maiden fair waits for her knight in shining corduroy.”

To mark the occasion of the one-year anniversary of my association with Mark Jeacoma and his wonderful VHS Rewind! podcast and blog, I am adding a previous review I wrote for the 1982 horror anthology, Creepshow, and adapting it for this Vintage Cable Box review.  This was a movie I absolutely fell in love with when I first saw it on cable television in 1984.

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Creepshow, 1982 (Leslie Nielsen), Warner Bros.

It seems most movies these days are based around comic books and toys, but in 1982, the double-whammy collaboration of Stephen King and George A. Romero, produced the original comic-book adaptation, Creepshow, one of the great horror movies of the early 1980s. Inspired by Max Gaines and Educational Comics’ Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and later, Mad Magazine, Creepshow gives us five fun stories loaded with graphic violence and intended for adults only.

George A. Romero, best known for Night of the Living Dead, the grandfather of the modern zombie movie, had directed cult favorites, The Crazies, Martin, and Knightriders. King, reportedly a fan of Romero’s work, suggested they collaborate on The Stand and wrote Creepshow as a sample screenplay to see if the two could successfully work together. This was due to the disappointment he felt from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s The Shining.

Creepshow is an anthology of five stories about familial revenge, hapless hillbillies, a Tasmanian devil in a crate, the consequences of infidelity, and cockroaches (lots of freaking cockroaches!). What really propels the stories is a wicked sense of humor, dark comedy, and lots of gore. A great cast (Ted Danson and Ed Harris in early roles, Leslie Nielsen in one of his last dramatic roles, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, Fritz Weaver, and E.G. Marshall) round out the carnage, and though the film only earned modest receipts at the box office, it did very well in pay TV and home video markets.

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“Free to be you and me! It’s okay for boys to play with dolls!”

Romero’s lighting, use of shadow and bold primary color along with the continuity device of using comic book cells and the framing story of an abusive father and his sociopath son (played by Stephen King’s son, Joe) deconstruct the horror genre and places it in a post-modern context, much like Romero would do with Day of the Dead, the underrated Monkey Shines, and Tales From The Darkside (an anthology television series based, in part, on Creepshow).

Creepshow was followed by two lackluster sequels, Creepshow 2 in 1987 (based on stories, not a script by King), and the “unofficial” no-budget Creepshow 3 in 2007. Romero would later work with Stephen King for The Dark Half in 1993, but that film was shelved for two years due to Orion’s impending bankruptcy.

The entry was written prior to the beginning of my Vintage Cable Box articles to tie-in with the release of a VHS Rewind podcast with Mark Jeacoma and Chris Hasler that has still not seen the light of day.  I volunteered to edit the episode, and I am grateful to Mark for giving me the opportunity, but I think I cut too deep, removing a lot of the spontaneity that is a hallmark of that fine podcast.

Happy Halloween 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: “Swamp Thing”, 1982

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When I started writing reviews for the films which became the basis of this series, the original plan was to start with Rodney Dangerfield’s 1983 comedy, Easy Money, but after Wes Craven died, I thought it would only be fitting to pay tribute to one of my favorite horror film directors by looking back and trying to remember if there were any films he made that were shown on cable television during the time period Vintage Cable Box covers, and yes, there was Swamp Thing – a movie I truly adore.

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Swamp Thing, 1982 (Adrienne Barbeau), Embassy Pictures

“Everything’s a dream when you’re alone.”

Sultry government agent Adrienne Barbeau arrives in the Louisiana bayou to investigate Dr. Alec Holland’s (Ray Wise) experiments in bio-engineering with his sister, Linda. Holland has just made a major breakthrough. Louis Jourdan plays Arcane, a rival scientist who orders his men to attack Holland’s compound and steal his new formula. In the resulting firefight, Holland is contaminated with his formula and disappears in the swamp, presumed dead. Later, when Jourdan’s men try to kill Barbeau, Swamp Thing emerges to dispatch them.

Released a good three months before Creepshow, Swamp Thing adopts the same comic-book-with-a-movie visual sense, even down to the turning of pages and artwork panels for scene transitions. Craven’s screenplay is intelligent with a sense of humor and the performances (particular those of Wise, Barbeau, Jourdan, and Dick Durock as the titular hero) are wonderful. Based on Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s DC Comics series, the movie was made on an astonishingly low $3 million budget.

Henry Manfredini’s score recalls his work on the Friday the 13th franchise, with stings and twists, and Bernard Hermann-like trills. The editing is breakneck in the action sequences and appropriately slow in the more romantic and menacing scenes. The creature itself is a marvel, created by Bill Munns, who would also contribute ghastly creatures for The Return of the Living Dead. Swamp Thing is schlocky and pulpy, and pure fun to watch.

The early eighties was a time when filmmakers, presumably working on the edge of the mainstream, and outside of the borders of studio control, started getting bigger budgets. Wes Craven was primarily known for Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Swamp Thing was his formal introduction to studio work. This was the same year Tobe Hooper made Poltergeist and George Romero made Creepshow, so a definitive New Horror renaissance had taken place.

SWAMP THING, Adrienne Barbeau, Dick Durock, 1982, (c) Embassy Pictures

Scream Queen Adrienne Barbeau appeared in John Carpenter’s The Fog and Escape From New York, and would later appear in Creepshow. Ray Wise would later star in Robocop and Twin Peaks (the television series and the movie). Stuntman Dick Durock appeared in the sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing and the spin-off television series, which ran for 72 episodes.

It’s impossible to estimate Wes Craven’s impact and influence on the modern horror movie. A creative thinker and intuitive director, Craven created intelligent horror movies that did not skimp on scares. After Swamp Thing, he would create one of the most popular franchises that rivaled only Jason in A Nightmare On Elm Street. The People Under The Stairs is my wife’s favorite movie of Craven’s. In 1996, he directed Kevin Williamson’s popular post-modern slasher movie, Scream, which yielded three sequels.

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.