VINTAGE CABLE BOX: “Death Hunt, 1981”

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“That look on your face would turn good whiskey into sour piss.”

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Death Hunt, 1981 (Charles Bronson), 20th Century Fox

“This motion picture is based on a true story” is written in schlocky big-and-bold red titles; Charles Bronson is Death Hunt – not quite, but wouldn’t it be cool if his given Christian name were, indeed “Death J. Hunt”, or whatever? I mean, talk about the coolness factor. Here we are in the wild, white Yukon with some splendid Steadicam-aerial photography and we’re thrust into a literal dog-fight. The year is 1931, so it’s probably not illegal yet. Bronson runs afoul of the locals involved when he rescues one of the dogs involved. You get that steely-eyed Bronson trademark gaze. He gives the owner (the great character actor Ed Lauter) $200 for the wounded dog and leaves.

Lauter isn’t having any of it. He takes up arms with an Alaskan version of a posse (among them Carl “Apollo Creed”/”Action Jackson” Weathers, William Sanderson, and Maury Chaykin) to apprehend Bronson. Bronson nurses the dog back to health, feeds him and bonds with him. The heavies case Bronson’s hunting shack, but he is ready for them, and he plugs one of them. Lauter alerts the authorities (in this case, Mounties Andrew Stevens and Lee Marvin, who knows Lauter is lying) and they lead the hunt for the so-called “Mad Trapper”.

The movie’s story depends on Bronson staying one step ahead of his pursuers, which he does with aplomb. He is skillful and resourceful, but unfortunately an act of self-defense is added to his perceived list of crimes. It’s amazing to me (looking at the movie now) how quickly this narrative moves. We have to remember, the movie was made at a time when action/adventure movies didn’t have to be nonsensical, bloated epics. The editing is lean, action-oriented and economical. The scenes between Marvin and Bronson ooze testosterone. Both men have desperation in their eyes. Marvin wants an end to the violence. Bronson just wants to be left alone.

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When Marvin and Stevens’ caravan of vengeance-minded soldiers set out to capture the Trapper, he rigs his property with booby-traps, digs a trench in the middle of his cabin, and positions his guns at strategic points. The Peckinpah-inspired scenes of violence are well choreographed, and the liquored-up, tense dialogue of Lauter’s posse is hilarious. Marvin’s character is lost in his own idealistic past while Stevens represents a future of two-way radios and explosives.

The men constantly put each other through frenetic games of machismo, and all Bronson can do is shake his head and listen to their endless tirades. In the middle of the long Alaskan night, they blow up his cabin with dynamite, and he is forced to take to the snow, but not before cutting down most of them. Ultimately, the posse divide into separate groups, so that they don’t have to split the reward money. They kill each other off as a result of their incompetence until it finally comes down to Marvin and Bronson.

Charles Dennis Buchinsky appeared in House of Wax with Vincent Price. His first lead role was in Roger Corman’s Machine-Gun Kelly. He became a ubiquitous presence in revenge fantasies, starting with Michael Winner’s Death Wish (spawning four sequels), Hard Times as well as becoming a staple for Cannon Films (along with Chuck Norris) with 10 to Midnight, Murphy’s Law, and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects.

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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NEW PODCAST: “More Inappropriate Knock-Knock Jokes”

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Tonight, we’re going to be talking about the 2014 documentary, “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films”.

I just wanted to share this really funny, but accurate description of the movie, “The Wizard of Oz” from a newspaper, I don’t know how they let this slip through when it was printed, maybe it was the writer’s last day on the job and he decided to screw with the paper, but the description for the movie, as written is – “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” Sounds like a Cannon movie! It’s brilliant.

It seems any curiosity from the eighties, any bit of nostalgia will be squeezed into a juice and distilled as a documentary. Cannon Films was more than a curiosity course. It was a symbol of rough and ready independent filmmaking, the combined talents of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, cousins who made movies in Israel, but they came to America with a dream!

Before the main titles, we get a couple of soundbites from the likes of Bo Derek and Richard Chamberlain and they are not speaking with much in the way of affection. They almost make Golan-Globus seem incompetent, but then the titles roll and we see that there is obvious homage to some of the posters, some of the design and also, Michael Dudikoff. It was good to see Dudikoff, and he looks great. He’s aged well.

Some of the actors speak of Golan and Globus with disdain; there’s this one actress who shrieks, “this is not what I signed up for!” She’s enraged. She signed on for a movie called “The Happy Hooker”, I’m sorry, what did you think you were signing on for? A kids movie? Apparently Golan and Globus were out of their minds for thinking that people liked sex and nudity in films.

There’s a nice little profile of director Michael Winner, whom I always enjoyed.   I watched a lot of Michael Winner films on Cable TV, but the actors and producers  that are being interviewed make him out to be a sadist, almost evil with his unusual demands, his sense of style.  I mean, speaking personally, as a filmmaker, he’s completely out of his mind.  “The Nightcomers”, “The Sentinel”, “Death Wish” and then his Cannon output, wow!  But they’re kind-of speaking ill of the dead a little.  He’s not around to defend himself.

“Nightmares, 1983”

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Cable television was a treasure trove of great horror movies in 1984. You had the old (Psycho, The Birds) and the new (Creepshow, Friday the 13th), something borrowed (Dressed To Kill), and something blue (Jaws 3D – because the water is blue, you see … ahem, moving on!). Occasionally, it can be a crap shoot. You’ll find a gem like The Sender, but then a movie like Nightmares will come on, and then you’ll shy away from anything else The Movie Channel has to offer, but don’t let that deter you. It was the mini-festivals and tributes to certain filmmakers that appealed to me and inspired me to make my own movies.

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Nightmares, 1983 (Emilio Estevez), MCA/Universal

“Terror in Topanga”

“Non-addicts cannot understand. Love, Lisa.”

Chain-smoking Cristina Raines runs out of cigarettes. I know how she feels. A chronic life-long smoker myself, I’ll actually leave the comparative safety of my home in the middle of the night, go up a block to the corner Rite-Aid, present my I.D. and get a pack of smokes. I can’t handle being without cigarettes. I’m aware of my problem and I know it’s wrong to smoke and bad for my health, so please, no judgments. Back to the story. An escaped mental asylum inmate wreaks havoc in the Canyon. Doesn’t anybody know not to live in California? It’s nothing but trouble. Against her non-smoker husband’s wishes, she drives off into the night looking for smokes. Bad move. This episode is based on an old urban legend, which I won’t spoil for anybody who hasn’t seen the movie. Suffice to say, it’s good scary fun.

“The Bishop of Battle”

“Try me if you dare.”

Emilio Estevez is a strutting video game hustler who listens to Fear’s “I Don’t Care About You” (a favorite of mine) on his vintage walkman. His game is something called Pleiades, an 8-bit Space Invaders/Galaxian knock-off, but his true passion is The Bishop, a three-dimensional maze shooter game, which he plays with aplomb, but he can never seem to get to level 13. His obsession with The Bishop gets him grounded, but he sneaks out and keeps playing the game. When he makes it to level 13, the arcade video game explodes and all of the silly, pre-X-Box avatars and sprites come to life and Emilio must fight them for real. This is a silly Tron-style Twilight Zone rip-off that is only interesting because of it’s dated appeal. Kids today!

“The Benediction”

“The well is dry.”

Lance Henriksen’s world-weary, alcoholic priest takes to the open road in a 1970 Chevelle after suffering intense nightmares, and the recent death of a child. He is soon menaced by a demonic pickup truck from Hell, with an upside-down crucifix hanging from the rear-view mirror. The symbolism of a demonic truck chasing an ambivalent priest is tantalizing, but the execution of the story feels like a muddled contrivance that recalls William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Steven Spielberg’s Duel. Though, refreshingly, there is no explanation for why this is occurring, it isn’t enough to keep me interested despite Henriksen’s performance (easily the best in the entire film).

“Night of the Rat”

“I think it’s trying to tell me something.”

After a Poltergeist-like battle with kitchen cabinets and cans of food, shrill housewife Veronica Cartwright implores nebbishy, cheap husband Richard Masur to get an exterminator. The episode is called “Night of the Rat” so you can pretty much guess what it’s about. I can’t think of a more annoying couple than Cartwright and Masur, and here we have to spend a half an hour with them! The beast kills Rosie, the family cat. An old exterminator tells tales of a devil rodent that terrorizes the wicked, or something like that. This episode reminds me of Hammer’s House of Horrors, but the idea of a family being tortured by a giant rat makes me laugh, and then once you see the thing, it’s hard not to bust a gut! Oh, and evidently, it can communicate telepathically with children. God bless us, everyone!

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More proof of the dangers of smoking!

Nightmares was an obvious cash-grab after the unexpected success of Creepshow the previous year, but the movie didn’t start out that way. The episodes were originally shot as part of an anthology genre series for television (similar to Rod Serling’s Night Gallery) titled Darkroom, but were deemed “too intense” and graphic for regular viewing. When Darkroom was cancelled, these episodes were edited together into a feature film with added scenes of violence and language. The results are mixed, and unlike Creepshow, there is no thread or host segments to connect the stories.

“Terror In Topanga” and “The Benediction” are the best episodes from this misguided anthology. Cristina Raines was seen in Michael Winner’s goofy but fun 1976 Ira Levin rip-off, The Sentinel. Emilio Estevez was one of the founding members of the Brat Pack with The Breakfast Club and (ugh!) St. Elmo’s Fire. Lance Henriksen was in Near Dark and the TV series, Millenium. Veronica Cartwright appeared in Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Richard Masur appeared in John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. I don’t know what happened to the giant rat. It probably went out for a pack of smokes.

Next up: Halloween III: Season Of The Witch 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.