Vintage Cable Box: Tag: The Assassination Game, 1982

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“I want to win the game, you silly!”

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Tag: The Assassination Game, 1982 (Robert Carradine), Ginis Films

Xander Berkeley knows he’s being watched.  He runs down the corridor, being chased by a man in a hat, wearing a trench-coat.  Xander pulls out his piece.  The man with the hat stalks, with his own gun in hand.  He ducks and hides under a grate, and just when he thinks he’s free and clear, the stranger corners him.  He aims his pistol and fires.  Xander gets a dart to the head for his troubles.  This isn’t real.  This is “The Assassination Game” (or TAG for short), an admittedly fun-looking role playing game of intrigue wherein the participants (a gaggle of mature-looking college students) receive files (called “victim profiles) on their prospective targets: fellow students they must “assassinate” in order to advance and win the game.

After an obvious (and brilliant) James Bond-esque opening credit sequence, Linda Hamilton (looking hot) accidentally stumbles into student journalist Robert Carradine’s room during a particularly tense mission.  He aids and facilitates her escape, causing two opponents to eliminate themselves.  Carradine, intrigued by the game (and Linda, who can blame him?) digs up information.  He finds her name in the list of active players.  The game is always being played and appears to be causing a commotion on the campus.  The participants, humorously, are always on edge for fear they’ll be tagged.  Unfortunately one of the participants goes too far when he is tagged (in accidental fashion) and goes around the bend completely. You can tell from his rather intense, deep and dark demeanor.

The film takes on a dark tone with a murderer roaming the campus, searching for his next victims, all while playing the game, only instead of darts, he uses bullets!  Under the guise of writing an article about the game, Carradine wrangles his way into spending time with Linda, watching her as she plays.  Their courtship is cute.  Meanwhile Gersh (the aforementioned psycho played by Bruce Abbott) stares through windows, looking intense and crazy.  It’s hard not to see his breakdown occurring right in front of our eyes.  A five-time champion of TAG, he has no problem confusing reality with fantasy.  As life goes on with the game and on the campus, Gersh sizes up his next target, and reports of missing students are circulating.  Unusual that we go from a kind of comedy and misadventure, to a kind of horror movie, with the killer and his victims all lined up, with an accompanying musical score.

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Director Nick Castle (working from his own script) shoots the movie very much like a murder mystery, but with unusual (for this genre) touches of wit and interesting characters.  Castle is best remembered (apart from his distinguished film-making career) as “The Shape”, or Michael Meyers from John Carpenter’s first Halloween movie, as well as co-writer of Carpenter’s Escape from New York.  While the tone of the movie shifts uncomfortably from comedy to romance to horror and then back to romance, there are shades of the kind of dark, sleek exploitation film-making that Carpenter was famous for, and Castle pays appropriate homage to that kind of storytelling, particularly film noir and Hitchcock (though I doubt Hitchcock would play so fast and loose with the dark comedy, such as when Carradine unwittingly gives the killer information about his next target).  In the end, it all comes down to Hamilton and Abbott.

I love this idea.  Psychologically, the killer believes he is still playing a harmless game, and until Hamilton and Carradine finally figure it out, they were led to believe Gersh was harmless, which makes for some incredibly suspenseful scenes.  Castle is adept, working makeup and lighting effects on Abbott’s twisted features (notably his vulnerable-seeming eyes).  The movie reminds me very much of another under-appreciated film I covered: Somebody Killed Her Husband, in which normal people are caught up in something bigger and more dangerous than they initially realized.  The influence of Hitchcock comes full circle.  I’m reminded of the latest fad out there: something called Pokemon Go, in which users, guided by their cell phones, track and collect prizes, capture Pokemon, or whatever, and generally make life difficult for anyone not interested in the game, but it is intriguing in the amount of enthusiasm role-playing games like this can generate.

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: “Wavelength”, 1983

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“Iris, they gotta put something on.  We can’t run around with three naked kids.  Not even in Hollywood.”

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“Wavelength”, 1983 (Robert Carradine), New World Pictures

“Wavelength” plays out almost like a hallucinatory daydream, seen through the eyes of a ghost-like Cherie Currie (who is always illuminated by key blue and green lights). She tells the story of how she met burned-out rock star Bobby Sinclair and consequently, a trio of aliens, whom can communicate with her telepathically. Cherie plays Iris Longacre, an earthy artist who hooks up with Bobby, and starts hearing strange whale-like sounds (like cries for help), somewhere buried within the Hollywood Hills. They take a walk around the neighborhood and come upon an enclosed structure, built like a fort, with barbed-wire fences.

Intrigued by her claims, Bobby takes her to meet an old miner (Keenan Wynn) who had assisted in the construction of a top secret Air Force base in the Hills. The reasoning being no one would ever suspect a compound in such a bizarre location. Wynn shows them a network of elaborate tunnels that lead to the base. Bobby and Iris make their way inside, and as they get closer, the cries get louder. As it happens, scientists are conducting an autopsy on what appears to be an alien, recovered from a crash site in the desert. It is this alien that is crying. Iris freaks out and screams in a kind of sympathetic pain. They are caught and arrested.

Examinations reveal Iris to be a twin (interesting in that Cherie indeed has a twin sister, Marie – who appeared with her in “The Rosebud Beach Hotel”), which scientists theorize give her latent psychic abilities. Iris and Bobby are reunited and then confined to the laboratory where alien canisters are being stored. The Government orders the base evacuated and sealed, effectively sentencing the kids to death. Bobby opens the canisters. The aliens come out. They look like naked, bald children. They have superhuman strength and preternatural powers, and they break down the doors, engineering Iris and Bobby’s escape. In a clever twist, the Government tells authorities to launch a dragnet for three missing “kids”, presumably abducted by Bobby and Iris.

The alien crash site is causing all the land around it to be subsumed in a poisonous environment. Witnesses and base personnel are dying off, and plant life is eroding. Iris and Bobby (with the help of Wynn and a pair of intrepid Native Americans) transport the remaining three aliens to their crash site. The movie (and the climax) bears some striking similarities to John Carpenter’s “Starman” (for which director Mike Gray coincidentally co-created the TV series spin-off), released a year later, especially with the revelation of the alien spacecraft: a mirror-like glowing sphere that casts a reflection.

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While obviously a low-budget science fiction, “Wavelength” is a beautifully-shot, impeccably edited (by Mark Goldblatt, who would go on to become Hollywood’s premiere action movie editor), swiftly-paced (yet thoughtful and sublime) and atmospheric film. Even in the murky, old VHS version, I can still appreciate the photography, but I would love to see an HD transfer. Robert Carradine shows he can act without having to dress up like a nerd. Cherie Currie is photographed like a gorgeous ghost, and at times, her performance is flirtatious, solicitous, and downright creepy. I love her face in this film. Director Mike Gray had previously co-written (with James Bridges and T.S. Cook) the screenplay of “The China Syndrome”, as well as an excellent documentary about artist Marc Chagall, “The Gift” from 1973. Gray passed away in 2013.

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: “Assault on Precinct 13”

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“Anybody got a smoke?”

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“Assault on Precinct 13”, 1976 (Austin Stoker), Turtle Releasing

Violent crime and gang activity exploded in the turbulent 1960s. South Central Los Angeles was a veritable hodge-podge of gangs, the children of the poor bathed in the anarchy and the blood of their ancestors. They came to America and were shunted away to live in decrepit conditions. The vast migration of whites had started a decade earlier and bedroom communities were established to keep the middle class safe from the poor ethnic variations.

“Assault on Precinct 13” comes along at the right time; an exploitation movie in a largely untested genre (the “gang” movie) with a familiar narrative – in this case, a circle-the-wagons scenario. Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned to babysit a defunct precinct building in dangerous Anderson, Los Angeles. Idealistic and determined, he remembers his childhood home four blocks away, and how he walked out of Anderson when he was old enough.

A prisoner transfer bus stops at the precinct to care for a sick inmate. On the bus are Wells (Tony Burton) and Napoleon Wilson (bad-ass Darwin Joston), who is moving to death row. Meanwhile, a young girl (Kim Richards) is murdered by the leader of the Street Thunder gang. The girl’s father kills the leader, and runs to the precinct building for protection. Combine these three elements and we have an amazing saga. Hordes of gang members descend on the precinct building, cutting the power, and cops join forces with criminals to defend precinct 9, division 13. They use silencers on their guns and remove bodies so no one will know what is happening.

Carpenter merges elements of two disparate genres: the western, and the horror movie. Carpenter’s synthesized score of stings and minor keys play like a rough draft for his famous “Halloween” score, accompanied by the clean, grain-less night photography and use of shadow, “Assault on Precinct 13” plays like a horror movie, but owes more to “Rio Bravo”, a favorite film of Carpenter’s. The members of the gangs are like faceless entities; robots trained to kill, or the living dead single-minded in their lust for revenge. They are unafraid, and that’s what makes them and this movie completely terrifying. This is a real-world situation. This is something that could happen anywhere at any time.

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What’s innovative about “Assault on Precinct 13” is the timelessness of the look. The movie could play today (it was poorly remade in 2005). The lighting design and the cinematography would become a staple of later Carpenter movies like “Halloween”, “The Thing”, and “Prince of Darkness”. Some of my favorite bits occur toward the end of the film. After Bishop shoots a gas tank, burning the remainder of the gang members to death, cops finally take control of the building. After the smoke clears, all the backup cops see is a pile of bodies and three brave souls, a cop, a criminal, and a secretary, and their shell-shocked charge, the girl’s father. When the cops try to take Napoleon away, Bishop rebukes them and says simply to Wilson, “It would be a privilege if you’d walk outside with me.”

There’s so much to pick at with this movie. The characters speak volumes without uttering a single word. The dialogue is kept to a minimum; the proverbial picture being worth a thousand words. Communication is imparted through eye contact and mannerisms. Each of the main characters exist as archetypes: the authority figure, the criminal, the wise-ass, the coward, the brute. It probably wasn’t meant to be picked apart or studied, or analyzed. According to Carpenter, the distributors just wanted a simple $100,000 exploitation movie, but they got so much more.

“Assault on Precinct 13” aired on The Movie Channel as part of a retrospective of John Carpenter movies. Among them, “Halloween”, “Dark Star”, “Escape From New York”, and “The Thing”. Carpenter would go on to direct Stephen King’s “Christine”, “Starman”, “Big Trouble In Little China” and many other fine examples of genre film-making.

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.

NEW PODCAST: “Nothing Will Happen Suddenly”

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I don’t regularly watch movies on Laserdisc, just those titles you can’t find anywhere, and this is what’s troubling to me. Consider that you have nearly every movie made eventually mass-produced for VHS, and then only a very small fraction of those titles were produced and marketed for Laserdisc. A larger percentage of those titles were produced for DVD, but not nearly as many for VHS, right? Blu Ray comes along and it’s, once again, a fraction of the titles produced for DVD, more than Laserdisc but still fewer and far between. Specialty companies, like (I’m reminded of Twilight Time and Criterion), come out and cost upwards of $50 because they’re on limited runs and Blu Rays are expensive to produce and distribute, so we’re getting fewer titles because streaming is popular. You’re not going to get those hard-to-find titles on Blu Ray because it’s a niche market and not worth re-couping production-run costs.

So I watched the documentary, “Rewind This!”, about the enclave of devoted VHS collectors, some of them famous, a lot of them with big basements and media rooms, who proudly display their wares. They know that physical product is on it’s way out, that this is something the Studios and Networks have wanted for years – the ability to control their own distribution, their own exhibition.

Remember Sony Corp. vs. Universal, 1984. Universal Studios sued Sony for developing home video recording technology, which is strange considering video recorders had been on the market for around 20 years before this case went to trial. I think it was only when prices went down and more people were buying VCRs that Universal realized they might lose money in the rental market. Then copy-guard and Macrovision and other copy protection devices were introduced to keep people from dubbing movies. I think Universal was the first company to use copy-protection, after MCA Videocassette, Inc. was dissolved and MCA Home Video was formed.

“Halloween III: Season of the Witch”

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“It’s time. It’s time. Time for the big giveaway. Halloween has come. All you lucky kids with Silver Shamrock masks, gather ’round your TV set, put on your masks and watch. All witches, all skeletons, all Jack-O-Lanterns, gather ’round and watch. Watch the magic pumpkin. Watch…”

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“Halloween III: Season of the Witch”, 1982 (Tom Atkins), MCA/Universal

On many occasions in writing this column, I’ve had to go back and watch the movies I remember seeing on cable television just to refresh my memory, and recall certain items in the narrative. Some movies are more difficult to review than others, because while I can summon the substance of the plot, or perhaps my personal feelings at the time, I can’t remember everything. Nostalgia is key to this. Movies like “All Night Long” or “Jinxed” require this level of hand-holding to get the reviews written. A movie like “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” does not.

Watching it, you immediately understand the movie is not a direct sequel to the Halloween franchise. There is no Michael Meyers in a bizarre (not to mention disturbing) repurposed William Shatner Captain Kirk mask and mechanic’s jumpsuit dispatching horny teenagers with gusto. Instead, we get a kind of brilliant satire, not necessarily a spoof (in the “Scream” vein) but an ironic piece of gore burlesque about an evil capitalist who wants to use his Stonehenge-enhanced Halloween masks to rule the world. We’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Dependable genre movie workhorse Tom Atkins (“Creepshow”, “The Fog”) plays night shift emergency room Doctor Dan. He takes in a hysterical man who is clutching a mask (better that than a teddy bear, I suppose) and shrieking, “They’re gonna kill us!” which is not what you want to hear at the end of your shift. Atkins takes a nap. Meanwhile, a man in a trench-coat appears, enters the patient’s room and crushes the guy’s skull. This is enough to make people want to quit working in the medical field. Skull Crusher leaves the hospital, gets into his car, dowses himself with gasoline and lights himself on fire. Well, that’s peculiar.

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Kids, don’t try this at home!

A short time later, the deceased patient’s hottie daughter (Stacey Nelkin from “Get Crazy”) shows up to claim the body and fill our Doctor Dan in on some strange circumstances involving small-town Halloween mask manufacturer Silver Shamrock. Stacey and Tom masquerade (heh) as buyers so they can get a guided tour of the factory and do a little snooping.

They are captured by CEO Conal Cochran and his Stepford-style androids. He does what every bad guy in a movie does. He tells them his plan. Basically by putting microchips in his masks and promoting a “big giveaway” on television, and telling the children to watch the TV screen as a flashing computer pumpkin dances on the screen, the masks will cause their heads to explode in a mass of snakes and insects and bring about the resurrection of Samhain.

To save you a trip to the Wikipedia, the definition of Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. I don’t know what this has to do with snakes and insects, but by this point I’m already swept up in the action. This is an unusual horror movie. According to my research, this movie was the first in a planned series of anthology episodes intended to cash in on the Halloween brand. While not an enormous success initially, the film was profitable, but not enough to continue with the anthology plan. It’s worth noting that the movie has a meta sensibility. While having a drink in a bar, Atkins notices a “Halloween” movie advertisement playing on the television.

This is such a fun, well-made movie with competent gore effects and a great mustache-twirling performance from Dan O’Herlihy as Cochran. Refreshingly, the ending is ambiguous with a desperate Atkins calling television stations and telling them to turn off the Silver Shamrock commercial. The image of Atkins goes to black as his echoing voice screams, “STOP IT!”. “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” is a clever suspense-thriller as well as a prescient comment on modern advertising.

Next up: “Brimstone and Treacle” starring Sting from 1983.

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.

 

NEW PODCAST: “All Outta Bubble Gum”

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“They Live” is a 1988 American satirical science fiction horror film written and directed by John Carpenter. The film stars Roddy Piper, Keith David and Meg Foster. It follows a nameless drifter (called “John Nada” in the credits), who discovers the ruling class are in fact aliens concealing their appearance and manipulating people to spend money, breed, and accept the status quo with subliminal messages in mass media.

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The first time I saw the movie was on something called the Universal Debut Network; it was a syndicated movie package that Universal Pictures sold to independent networks, I saw it in 1990, it was on Channel 11 here in New York City. The Universal Debut Network was the pre-cursor to all the syndicated series Universal would show, but at first they started with movies like “They Live”, “Prince of Darkness”, “the infamous extended TV version of the movie, “Dune”, where David Lynch took his name off the credits. Apparently Lynch said, “wait a minute, this movie makes sense now, I’m taking my name off the picture!” So after this run of pictures, shows like Hercules and Xena came on the air because they were thinking about putting together a fifth network at the time.

So how do we look on politics, censorship, liberalism, conservative ideology now as opposed to 1988? In Carpenter’s fantasy, these things are just gradual with no tipping point, no rhyme or reason, but I think certain things happened to bring us a “They Live” situation, like 9/11, obviously 9/11 destroyed our country but in a slow, gradual way, like death by a million cuts.

There’s a great line in a sci-fi movie from 1982, “Endangered Species” starring Robert Urich and JoBeth Williams, where Urich says, “If what’s going on around here is organized, you don’t wanna go up against it! The government. The right wing. The left wing. Mercenaries. The mob. It doesn’t make much difference if you get in their way!”

To me, it’s allegory, like all great science fiction. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” – in the 50s, it was allegory for the Cold War and Communism. In the 1978 version, it was about the “Me” Generation and pop-psychology. In the ’93 remake, it was allegory for disaffected youth and generation X.

BlissVille Fridays: “The Name’s Plissken” and “This World Is Not So Luscious”

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Tonight, we have a Friday the 13th doubleheader, a two-fer, two for the price of one. Batteries not included. Local restrictions apply. Some parts may not exist. Offer not available in Utah or Puerto Rico. Smaller than shown! Money back guarantee! Act now! Buy bonds!

We start with a topic very near and dear to our hearts: the just-announced remake/reboot of John Carpenter’s classic 1981 science-fiction film, “Escape From New York”.

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“Snake Plissken will be heading back to the big screen! Deadline reports today that 20th Century Fox has won the remake rights to John Carpenter’s enduring action thriller, Escape From New York. What’s more, Carpenter himself is set to serve as executive producer!  Set in a dystopic future, the 1981 original original stars Kurt Russell as Plissken, an eyed-patched convict sent into a maximum security prison (formerly the island of Manhattan) to rescue the President.  Carpenter directed his own sequel to the original, Escape From L.A., in 1996, although that film is decidedly less-beloved by fans of the original.”

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The next subject is so psychotically divisive among people right now, we had to discuss it while it was still hot. Andrew and I have differing theories, but we do exercise common sense, and because of that, I think you’ll agree this is an angry but thoughtful discussion. Tonight we give you the ice cream before the medicine and we hope it all goes down easy.

“More measles cases have been found in California, health officials said Friday. Figures released by the California Department of Public Health showed there are now 91 confirmed cases in the state, up from 79 on Wednesday. Of those, 58 infections have been linked to visits to Disneyland or contact with a sick person who went there. Half a dozen states and Mexico also have recorded measles cases connected to Disneyland. The outbreak, which originated at Disney theme parks last month, is spreading to the broader community.”

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As of this new post, the total cases has gone to 107.

When you refuse to vaccinate your child on philosophical grounds, you are using your personal philosophy in a way that will affect a community. If one child comes home with a bad case of the measles, that’s normal. It can happen. Vaccines are not one-hundred percent effective. Nothing is! But if 91 kids come home with a bad case of the measles, that is your fault. You have, unwittingly, created an epidemic.

Questions? Comments? blissville1870@gmail.com