Vintage Cable Box: Sixteen Candles, 1984

“You grabbed my nuts.”

Sixteen Candles, 1984 (Molly Ringwald), MCA/Universal

If ever there was a filmmaker so attuned to the yearnings, the vulnerabilities, and the desires of young people (specifically teenagers) in the 1980s, it had to be John Hughes. Initially a Chicago-based freelance writer and advertising copywriter, Hughes dived into assignments for the Harvard and National Lampoon, indirectly transitioning to screenwriting and then to directing with his remarkably self-assured debut, 1984’s Sixteen Candles. Hughes would have a corner on the market of teen angst for roughly the next five years before transitioning to films about children, starting with Home Alone. He would disappear almost completely from the public eye by 1998.

Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) has just turned “sweet sixteen”, but because of the chaos surrounding her older sister Ginny’s (Blanche Baker) upcoming wedding to the “oily variety beau-hunk“, Rudy (Hughes regular John Kapelos), her parents and visiting grandparents have forgotten. At school, she lets it slip that she has a crush on hottie Jake Ryan (Matt Dillon lookalike Michael Schoeffling), which arouses geek Farmer Ted’s (Anthony Michael Hall) curiosity and Jake’s interest. While fending off Ted’s unnervingly amorous and oddly confident advances, Jack’s annoying perfect girlfriend, Caroline (Haviland Morris) throws an after-dance party at Jake’s house. Jake corners Farmer Ted to get more information about Samantha.

Samantha goes home, dejected, only to be woken by her guilt-ridden father (Paul Dooley) so he can clear his conscience and apologize to her for forgetting her special day.  She confesses her crush on Jake.  He tells her, “If it’s any consolation, I love you. And if this guy can’t see in you all the beautiful and wonderful things that I see, then he’s got the problem.”  It’s a beautiful father-daughter moment and rings so true, for me, in the complex and frustrating relationships children can have with their parents even if their years create gaps in their understanding of each other.  Sixteen Candles stands apart from similar teen epics by analyzing Hughes’ sympathy for his characters, including Farmer Ted, Jake, even Ginny and Caroline.  Indeed Hughes’ themes extend to other works such as National Lampoon’s Vacation, Mr. Mom, The Breakfast Club, and Uncle Buck.

Populated with vividly written supporting characters, Sixteen Candles stands in strict defiance of the overused chick-flick designation.  This may be a movie about a young woman trying to learn and master the cues and clues of teenage anxiety, but it has a message that plays for boys and young men as well.  It speaks the ever-evolving language of youth and occasional rebellion, and it never insults the film’s demographic or the viewer’s intelligence, even with some easy throwaway gags.  This movie and the following year’s The Breakfast Club showcased Hughes’ propensity and talent for mixing moments of high hilarity with heart-wrenching drama and, in my opinion, he would never achieve that level of success with his work again.

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: “Strange Brew, 1983”

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“If I didn’t have puke breath, I’d kiss you.”

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Strange Brew (1983), (Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas), MGM/UA

We start on the big silver screen with a belching MGM lion, and that pretty much sets the tone for the motion picture debut of beer-drinking hosers Bob and Doug McKenzie (Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis); ostensibly a set-up for their movie-within-a-movie, Mutants of 2051 A.D., a hilarious no-budget sci-fi exercise that references Planet Of The Apes and The Omega Man. The crowd watching the movie grows restless and walks out demanding refunds. Moved by a distraught father’s story, Bob gives the man his Dad’s beer money.

Dad (voiced by Mel Blanc) demands beer. They try to scam their way into a free 24-pack of Elsinore with the old mouse-in-a-bottle trick, but they’re referred to the brewery. At the gated, electrified entrance, they rescue Pam Elsinore (the fetching Lynne Griffin) when the gates close on her car. Pam is there to receive compensation for the suspicious death of her father, John Elsinore, the former brewmaster. Bob and Doug fall backwards into jobs at the brewery, checking bottles for mice.

Brewmeister Smith (a fantastic Max Von Sydow) is making a mind-altering drug, which he will use to control the population of Elsinore beer drinkers with violent impulses.  After viewing “improvements” made by Smith (surveillance cameras, an empty cafeteria, and lack of employees), Pam gives him two weeks notice to pack up.  Brewmeister Smith orders Pam’s Uncle Claude (toadie Paul Dooley) to kill her, or at least incapacitate her.  Smith is using inmates from a nearby sanitarium to test his concoction, with orchestrated games of hockey, and it’s up to Bob and Doug to save the day.

Hosehead saves the day
It’s actually Hosehead who saves the day!

This is such a fun movie! After all these years, the material (originally a series of sketches for SCTV) holds up and is given the appropriate celluloid treatment. The characters break the fourth wall. There’s even a brief intermission. One of my favorite gags occurs right after the intermission. After Bob and Doug’s van plummets into the river and they are presumed dead, scuba divers are amazed to find them just fine underwater, drinking bottles of beer. When the diver flashes his badge, Doug reaches into his pocket and produces his driver’s license – all of this underwater!

Bob and Doug are framed for the attempted kidnapping of Pam. They are remanded to the sanitarium after being diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics by the Court. With the help of retired hockey star Jean LeRose and the electronic “ghost” of Pam’s deceased father (not to mention Bob and Doug’s superhero dog, Hosehead), they rescue Pam and foil Brewmeister Smith’s plan to sabotage the upcoming Oktoberfest.

As directed by Moranis and Thomas, the scenes effortlessly transition, and the narrative is fast-paced. This is serious filmmaking, for a completely ridiculous story. A great deal of the dialogue feels largely improvised. While a sequel was planned (and eventually abandoned) for release in 1999, Moranis and Thomas never directed again, and that is unfortunate because they are gifted comedians, actors, and storytellers. A year or so after the release of Strange Brew, they would famously appear in Pizza Hut commercials.

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: “Endangered Species, 1982”

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“A little paranoia never hurt anybody.”

Endangered Species, 1982 (Robert Urich), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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Too often, we forget the joys of R-rated films. Staying up late on a weekend to watch horror and science fiction movies from the late 70s to the early 80s on cable television was more fun than any 11-year-old deserved. HBO has a long-standing policy to prohibit viewing of R-rated films before 8:00 pm, Eastern time. The Movie Channel showed R-rated movies all day; they didn’t care. They figured if you were paying for the service, you should get to see movies for adults. Back in those days, there was no PG-13 rating (the uncomfortable middle ground of excessive violence in films made for kids). Which leads us to this week’s movie, Endangered Species, which, if it were released these days, would most definitely have received a PG-13 rating.

Robert Urich is a chain-smoking, alcoholic New York cop, tough-as-nails. He’s a Mets fan in 1982, so he has to be disillusioned as well. He takes his reform school, tom-boy daughter off on a vacation to beautiful Wyoming, but they get sidetracked along the way. JoBeth Williams is a hot small-town sheriff named Harry (short for Harriet) investigating a series of grisly cattle mutilations. Organs seem to be removed surgically. Soon, suspicion points to satanic cults, devil worship, and little green men and unidentified flying objects. The script takes great pains to show that JoBeth is hard-as-nails, though the locals do tend to marginalize her for being a woman, otherwise this a strong female character. It doesn’t take long for Urich and Williams to lock eyes.

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Robert Altman protégé Alan Rudolph seems an odd choice to direct a science fiction potboiler like this, if you don’t consider his first films were the trippy cult genre pieces, Premonition and Nightmare Circus. If you removed the cattle mutilation plot and conspiratorial tones involving germ warfare, there are some very quirky, very charming character beats, which is probably what appealed to Rudolph in fleshing out the story by Judson Klinger and Richard Clayton Woods. There is a nice visual analogy at the beginning of the film comparing cattle out in a field to New Yorkers bustling about in the streets.

Endangered Species follows a typical B-movie trajectory, where you have the insurmountable problem or epidemic, the no-nonsense law enforcement, the concerned scientist, the nosy journalist (played by Paul Dooley), and the corrupt politician (Hoyt “Joy To The World” Axton!), which makes for economical storytelling. This is an ambitious movie made on a small scale, with an interesting message about politics in Urich’s desperate harangue: “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!”

Alan Rudolph went on to direct several high-profile movies, but basically served to propel conversations between cineastes who liked to throw his name into the mix to show they understand modern cinema. Films like Mortal Thoughts and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, while interesting, are not terribly entertaining. JoBeth Williams is rightly considered the mother and wife of the burgeoning horror movement of the eighties due to her presence in movies like Poltergeist. Robert Urich, appeared in Soap, Vega$, and Spenser: For Hire. He died, tragically, at 55, from synovial cell sarcoma.

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.