Vintage Cable Box: “The House Of God, 1984”

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“You can’t learn medicine without killing a few patients.”

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Sorry. No movie posters were made for this movie.

The House Of God, 1984 (Tim Matheson), United Artists

Ten minutes past the hour mark of this movie, a once-idealistic doctor named Wayne Potts (Michael Sacks) looks out an enormous balcony at a never-ending cityscape. He sees ambulances and police cars tearing down dark, oppressive streets. He wonders if anything of what he does matters. All he ever wanted to do was be a small-town doctor; dispense medicine and heal the sick. He jumps.

The House of God is the greatest teaching hospital in the world. Interns who’ve studied at BMS (“Best Medical School”) are assigned to do rounds, plug holes, and practice what is now referred to as “diagnostic medicine”. Tim Matheson’s fiery, young Roy Basch negotiates half-constructed corridors on his way to orientation. In one of his first film roles, Joe Piscopo conducts the orientation. Charles Haid is “The Fatman”. He’s the guy that gets things done. He supervises the rounds of a group of newly acquired interns.

A G.O.M.E.R. (short for Get Out Of My Emergency Room – patients who take up residence in the emergency room and serve as nothing more than impediments to others in need of more attention) named Ida has the unerring ability to “go to ground”, so Fatman puts a football helmet on her head, so that she doesn’t crack open her skull. Tim’s first patient is an old woman whom he assumes has died. The Fatman sets him straight – “Gomers don’t die.” The Interns bond. I think The Fatman’s purpose is to remind these young Interns on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis that what they do matters, and that they should take care of themselves before worrying about others.

I’m reminded of my review for WarGames, in which I discuss the concept of futility, and how computers will never understand it.  They just keep going, regardless of failure, intuition, hope, or chaos.  The body is supposed to give up.  The body is supposed to die, but the machines keep it going, and there is the insidious undercurrent of a medical bureaucracy designed to continue collecting money from all the bodies it keeps alive, whether they want to give up or not.  The doctors who promote this system are known as “slurpers”; essentially the vampires of medical science.

The House Of God plays as a series of episodes in which these young doctors cope with the G.O.M.E.R.s, blanket administer Valium to all patients, scare patients out of their beds with threats of lumbar punctures, and suffer trials of depression and neuroses.  While The Fatman inspires the ire of the conservative medical establishment with his unorthodox practices, he is obviously respected, but because he does not approve of these new-fangled diagnostic procedures, he will never be promoted to Chief Resident.

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Originally shot in 1981, the film was denied a theatrical release.  I’ve heard of a number of theories as to why the movie was never released.  1. Producers claimed it was unwatchable (which it most definitely is not).  2. Harvard Medical threatened to sue (I don’t know about that one – it’s just a movie).  3. The medical community was appalled at the book on which the film was based by Samuel Shem, M.D. (why bother even shooting the movie amid such controversy?).  4.  United Artists (the parent releasing company) was too broke to release the movie (the likeliest theory).  I don’t know which, or any, of these theories is correct.  If any of the first three theories were correct, how could the movie be released to cable (eventually in 1984)?  “The House Of God” was never given a VHS, Beta, or Laserdisc release, which is puzzling.

The movie’s cast is extraordinary.  Haid is a joy to watch as “The Fatman”.  His character very much reminds me of Hugh Laurie’s Gregory House.  Tim Matheson proves he can flourish in a largely dramatic role.  Bess Armstrong, Michael Richards (Kramer from Seinfeld), Amazing Colossal Podcast’s Gilbert Gottfried, James Cromwell, Howard Rollins, and Ossie Davis round out the cast.  The House Of God would go on to influence St. Elsewhere (which took it’s title from a line of dialogue in the book and the movie), Scrubs, Gray’s Anatomy, and House M.D.

Starting next week, we celebrate Mel Brooks (who turns 90 on June 28th) with two weeks of Vintage Cable Comedy Classics!

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: “The Man With Two Brains, 1983”

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“As far as I’m concerned, you’re the most complete woman I’ve ever known. All my life, I wanted women with great bodies, women who were “tens.” Now, for the first time, I’m aroused by a mind.”

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The Man With Two Brains, 1983 (Steve Martin), Warner Bros.

I make it a grueling and somewhat slavish practice to find the original release posters for the movies I cover. In all but one case, I was successful, but The House Of God never got an actual theatrical exhibition so no poster was produced. The poster for The Man With Two Brains is a simple image of a maniacal Steve Martin displaying his character’s famous “cranial screw-top method” of brain surgery. It’s a brilliant concept that says everything and nothing you need to know about this film. This was the movie that made me fall in love with Steve Martin. I know a lot of people talk about The Jerk from three years earlier, but I didn’t get to see that movie until after I’d seen this one.

Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (that’s a doozy!) runs over an evil, gold-digging Kathleen Turner, whom, among other things, enjoys punting cats, and cooking angel fish. She induces a heart attack in her latest husband, and is injured in her hasty escape. Hfuhruhurr resolves to save her life with his screw-top method. The operation is a success, and Turner has sunken her hooks into Hfuhruhurr’s heart. They marry, and almost immediately, she begins philandering (a term I’ve noted is almost exclusively attributed to men, which is interesting) while eluding her new husband’s advances, which frustrates him deeply. His colleague advises him to take his wife on a honeymoon trip to Europe; ostensibly a conference in gorgeous Vienna.

Meanwhile, Vienna is beset by the Elevator Killer, a madman who uses a hypodermic syringe filled with ammonia to murder his victims (in elevators, hence the name). The killer is working under the auspices of mad scientist Dr. Alfred Necessiter (hilarious David Warner, playing for laughs not menace) to supply him with fresh brains for his experiments. Necessiter invites Hfuhruhurr to his condominium (which is decked out to look like a laboratory in a b-movie). He discovers he can communicate with one of Necessiter’s brains, Anne Uumellmahaye (another doozy!), played by the voice of Sissy Spacek. When he realizes he’s made a horrible mistake in marrying the vixen Kathleen Turner, he falls in love with Anne, and makes a deal with Necessiter to transplant Anne’s brain into Turner’s body.

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Notwithstanding the obvious tribute to low-budget science fiction movies, and the refreshingly raunchy script (written by Martin, frequent collaborator Carl Reiner, and George Gipe), this is a surprisingly sweet and affectionate story about a lonely man searching for love (a frequent motif in Martin’s films and stories). Even as Hfuhruhurr is vain and egocentric, keeping his newspaper clippings in his coat for easy reference and making bold statements about his work such as “I can envision a day when the brains of brilliant men can be kept alive in the bodies of dumb people”, he embodies a certain masculine vulnerability that conceals his inadequacies. He lights up a room when he argues baseball with a disembodied brain in a jar. He puts a pair of wax lips on the jar so he can kiss Anne. It’s sad and funny at the same time.

This wouldn’t be an ’80s comedy without cheap jokes and sight gags.  The presence of cats in the surgery room.  The little girl taking instructions from Martin about prepping a patient.  The condominium walls made of thin paper.  The squeaky-voiced hooker.  Hfuhruhurr singing with Anne.  A lot of the humor recalls Mel Brooks in the popular culture, but both men (also collaborators in their own right) entered the business only a few years apart from each other, so it could be argued they swapped jokes on occasion.  Reiner (with Martin) reveals the subtle insecurities of men, and the (often) clumsy inner-workings of libido.  One of the most beautiful women of her time, Kathleen Turner is perfect as Dolores, Martin’s evil wife.

The Man With Two Brains was the first movie I ever watched on cable television.  The cable guy came over with the box and the wires, and in under an hour, we got the full package (the thirty or so channels I commemorate at the bottom of every Vintage Cable Box article).  In a way, The Man With Two Brains is the reason I started this column.  After this movie, I watched hundreds of movies.  This was my film school education.  It could be argued the greatest movies of all time were being played on cable television during those years (let’s estimate 1982 to 1985), and while this movie was not one of the greatest, it certainly qualified as one of the most fun.  I splurged and spent $6.99 on a full-frame double feature Steve Martin DVD at the nearby Rite-Aid.  I love this movie so much I even have it as Warner Bros. VHS clamshell.

If you like-a-me like I like-a-you
And we like-a-both the same
I’d like-a say this very day
I’d like-a-change your name

‘Cause I love-a-you and love-a-you true
And if you-a love-a-me
One live as two, two live as one
Under the bamboo tree

I’d like-a say this very day
I’d like-a-change your name

‘Cause I love-a-you and love-a-you true
And if you-a love-a-me
One live as two, two live as one
Under the bamboo tree

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.