Vintage Cable Box: “Eating Raoul, 1982”

“Personally, I draw the line at golden showers.”

Eating Raoul, 1983 (Paul Bartel), 20th Century Fox

Paul Bartel sets up his anarchic exploration of sociology, Eating Raoul, like a pseudo-documentary commenting (with his narration) on the evils of Hollywood; the debauchery, the desperation, and the unusual marriage of food and sex. Mild-mannered snob Paul Bland (Bartel) runs a cash register at a liquor store and (to his manager’s ire) advises his clientele to stay away from cheap alcohol. His wife, Mary Woronov, works as a nurse fending off the advances of her patients. They dream of opening up their own restaurant one day, but the high cost of living (and an absurd rent increase) keeps them from saving the money they need for such a venture.

An amorous swinger attacks Mary and Paul kills him with a frying pan.  They manage to cover up the crime and take the money out of his wallet.  This is what entrepreneurs call the “genius” idea.  While Mary has to deal with lecherous bank officers, Paul is stiffed by prospective buyers of his vintage wine.  Paul and Mary have a natural aversion to sex, but they contemplate making Mary into the image of a dominatrix, and then murdering her clients.  The city, being full of “rich perverts”, is a smorgasbord for Paul and Mary’s financial woes.  They interview a dominatrix, who coaches them on various techniques.

Hot-blooded locksmith and part-time hustler Raoul (Robert Beltran) gets wise to their scheme and offers to dump the bodies, and for a time, the three have an easy partnership.  The Blands, though initially amoral, find themselves trapped in an ethical dilemma as they observe Raoul’s obvious opportunism when he extorts them and sets up his own outside deals.  When a client (Ed Begley, Jr. decked out as a hippie) attempts to rape Mrs. Bland, Raoul comes to her rescue and then subsequently seduces her.  Mary, though locked in for the long haul with her sexless marriage to Paul (who she loves dearly), enjoys a sexual awakening with Raoul, who schemes to drop Paul from their partnership.

The “genius” idea.

Bartel’s direction is unsettling. The smutty nature and appeal of the story is juxtaposed (uncomfortably) with the “screwball comedy” texture of the performances. Some of Bartel’s shots recall Douglas Sirk coupled with the subversive stylings of John Waters. Strangely, the movie works as a piece of sexual exploitation even as it parodies such movies. There are some serious laugh-out-loud moments in the film. Paul discovers Raoul is scamming them, jacking the cars of their victims and selling their remains to a dog food company called “Doggie King.” Bartel would later make the companion piece, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, which reunited him with Woronov and Beltran. Eating Raoul was adapted as a stage musical in 1992.

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: Where the Buffalo Roam, 1980

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“This is a party, not a safari!”

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Where the Buffalo Roam, 1980 (Bill Murray), MCA/Universal

“He was … known for his lifelong use of alcohol and illegal drugs, his love of firearms, and his iconoclastic contempt for authoritarianism. He remarked: ‘I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.'”

I figured in this review of the notorious 1980 folly, the unprescribed medley of moments in the life of celebrated writer, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Where the Buffalo Roam, I would adopt the persona of celebrated writer, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. As long as the persona does not irritate, dear reader. Fishing cap? Check! Extra-long cigarette holder? Check! Hawaiian t-shirt? Check!  In a phrase, he was celebrated for being celebrated.

His memories exist as a wild anecdote, only partially rendered impotent by the gross complications of a film director who has lost his personal sense of humor, and instead relented and choked from insatiable gasps of Bill Murray’s star power. He lives in a swanky cabin in Colorado. His fax machine belches, demands tasty portions of words, with which he is not ready to part. Instead he shoots the infernal machine, and sicks his Doberman on the tasty testicles of his Nixon effigy. He looks at a picture of his beloved hippy attorney, Carl Lazlo (Peter Boyle) and remembers those times, some ten years back in San Francisco. Lazlo is an idealist. He defends the weak. Helps the helpless! He’s God’s own prototype! To weird to live. To rare to die. I know. I stole those words directly from the real Thompson, but I can’t help it. The man was such a brilliant fuck-face, it’s hard to imagine anyone (even Master Johnny Depp) portraying him in any meaningful way.

Lazlo spends a lot of his time defending young idiots on marijuana possession counts.  I understand his reasoning.  These are victimless crimes, but in trendy San Francisco, end-of-the-decade, with colleagues seducing him to the dark side; rich clients and cushy digs, Lazlo doesn’t care.  In these all-important character scenes, we become convinced we’re watching the story of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s lawyer (which is probably interesting enough to work on it’s own) instead of a story about the celebrated icon.  Lazlo is demoralized watching his clients sentenced to hard time in prison for what would amount to (in my view) petty misdemeanors, but such are the breaks in the world of the old and powerful.  He flips out when a particularly young client gets five years in jail for possession of one joint.  He’s held in contempt, while Thompson sits on a deadline and makes his editor (Bruno Kirby) pray for Lazlo’s swift release (and also for all the people of the world).

We move forward a few years as Thompson is covering the Super Bowl.  I don’t think he has any interest in covering sports, but he runs up a huge expense account at the hotel where he is staying (including Crab Louie and sixteen grapefruit).  He trashes the hotel room, dresses the staff in football equipment. and causes a ton of havoc on his floor.  The next morning, Lazlo (wearing a Nixon mask) catches up with him.  He stopped being an attorney full-time, and now cavorts with the younger set.  Thomspon ditches his assignment to become Lazlo’s traveling companion.  I wonder if, in these later scenes, Lazlo isn’t simply a figment of Thompson’s potent and overactive imagination.  Lazlo tells him he’s been “reborn”, running guns for paramilitary types out of Mexico.  Whatever floats your boat, Lazlo.  He wants Thompson to write a story about the “struggle.”  The movie is a push-pull of idealism and gluttony that never kicks into gear, mostly because I think those so-called revolutionaries of the time could never get their shit together in a worthwhile way.

The movie is a mess, editorially, with no flow except for episodic moments in which Murray crosses paths with Boyle’s Lazlo.  For his part, Boyle is extraordinary, but he acts in a vacuum.  Murray’s Thompson is a baroque caricature.  While obviously devoted to playing this part (with some guidance from the real Thompson), he comes over as an inebriated middle-child with autism, hiding a feverish addiction to alcohol and other various substances.  Despite good production locales and photography, Where the Buffalo Roam does no favors for the time period, and the social and the political unrest it attempts to show us.  I often wonder if this is the beginning or the end of self-destructive behavior, as Thompson’s exploits become bigger and more dangerous with each scene change.

Later releases of the movie remove key bits of music, due to rights issues, and replace them with “sound-alike” tracks, which make the whole thing even more unbearable to watch.  In retrospect, I had the same issues watching Terry Gilliam’s similar Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, however that movie improves on subsequent viewings, but Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s legacy has been tarnished by his God-given desire to numb himself in any way he could.  In a way, Thompson was his own prototype.  Too rare to live, but always ready to die.

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It still hasn’t gotten weird enough for me.

“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

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: The Slumber Party Massacre, 1982

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“All of you are very pretty. I love you. It takes a lot of love for a person to…  do this. You know you want it. You’ll like it.”

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The Slumber Party Massacre, 1982 (Michele Michaels), New World Pictures

I’m going to have to get analytical now.  I knew this day would come, where I would have to do a write-up of Slumber Party Massacre, taking into account the effect of slasher films on the market and then how this movie impacted slasher films moving forward.  If you read descriptions of the movie on other pages, they will, more often than not, point to Amy Jones, the director, and Rita Mae Brown, the writer as they attempted to deconstruct the subgenre and provide a parody of the material in it’s place.  While the movie succeeds in aping the formula, a very thick tongue is planted firmly in-cheek, but only for those who can appreciate it.

We start with the bold red titles, and the sound of organs not out-of-place in a Vincent Price movie.  Mom and Dad are off on a vacation, or something, leaving Trish (Michele Michaels) in charge of the house, so she decides to throw a party (or a “slumber” party, as the case may be – according to my research, slumber parties usually involve pizza and lesbian experimentation, but I can’t be sure).  Meanwhile, a lunatic (who uses a power drill) is on the loose, killing women everywhere he goes.  I wonder what brand of drill he uses.  We get fleeting glimpses of the horrible man as he watches Trish and her friends.  He seriously looks like a sex offender.  He has the glazed-over look of a man who recently had a vasectomy.

After basketball, there is an extended shower sequence with all the girls, and Jones spends an impressive amount of time lingering on naked female flesh (more than in any other slasher movie I’ve seen).  I suspect Jones and Brown set out to indict the male-dominated industry of slasher movies, or possibly call our attention to the amount of violence perpetrated against women in most movies.  Poor Brinke Stevens (Haunting Fear), who won’t be going to the party, gets locked inside the school and has to run from our driller-killer while her friends remain blissfully ignorant and on their way to the coolest slumber party ever!  I’m kidding, of course.  It’s really kind of boring.

Par for the course, we have a couple of fake-out gags, where the purpose seems to be to frighten young women with ridiculous situations.  A hand comes out of nowhere to frighten a female pedestrian.  A drill breaks through a front door because another young lady is installing a peep-hole (come on!).  A shadowy figure walks slowly down stairs and frightens another young woman.  All of these gags occur within minutes.  What’s the point of that?  To show that women are easily horrified?  I get it.  As a matter of fact, I’m easily horrified.  In fact, I’m horrified right now writing this.  Aaagh!  I will say Jones has a great photographer’s eye.  The compositions and colors of interior shots are deep, dark, and rich with atmospheric lighting, but when accompanied by the Vincent Price organ, the whole thing seems incredibly silly.

First order of business is weed.  The girls smoke up and talk about sex, and who the sluttiest girl is, and how to get to first base, and how their menstrual cycles line up, or something like that.  Honestly, I wasn’t paying attention in between fake-out gags (we’re up to two hundred by this point in the running time).  It’s weird that I like the idea of the movie more than the actual movie.  We have extremely dark night shots (I’ve always preferred that realistic lighting to this new-fangled modern lighting where you can see everything in any given exterior shot), sounds of dogs barking in the background, some heavy breathing and POV shots.  The Slumber Party Massacre has all the trappings of a great slasher film (great photography, great editing), but Brown’s premise is lost in the thick, choking fog of social commentary, not unlike many movies produced today.  We need more entertainment, less moralizing!

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Poor Brinke!

Second order of business is pizza (no anchovies!).  The pizza guy shows up, in the midst of all the female confessionals and make-overs, but he has bloody holes in his eyes so I’m guessing he won’t be getting a tip.  My favorite bit in the movie has one of the girls eating the pizza while they try to figure out their next move.  A particularly telling scene has a girl collapse to the garage floor and the killer brandishes his extra-long drill bit between his legs.  Brian De Palma would imitate this shot two years later in Body Double, but to much better effect.  The killer cuts the phone line, and off we go!  We’re more than halfway through the movie before these dim-wits get a clue.  I can’t blame the girls, though.  Rita Mae Brown is the true killer of this promising story.  In the end, one of our heroines uses a machete to chop the end off of the killer’s drill-bit, effectively castrating him.  There are some very interesting ideas at play here, but Brown and Jones are more interested in making a bold political statement than in entertaining or scaring their audience, and that’s unfortunate.

Next time, we take a look at the (allegedly) final chapter in the Friday the 13th franchise.  As we know, it doesn’t really work out that way.  Thank you, Corey Feldman!

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: Repo Man, 1984

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“The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”

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Repo Man, 1984 (Emilio Estevez), MCA/Universal

A state trooper pulls over a ’64 Chevy Malibu, and asks the bizarre driver what’s in the trunk.  The driver tells him, “You don’t wanna know.”  The trooper opens the trunk and is instantly disintegrated, and all that is left is a pair of smoking boots.  This opening bit sets the tone for what is to come.  The dystopic contemporary depiction of a Los Angeles in the grip of poverty, writer-director Alex Cox’s Repo Man is a landscape of smashed windows and busted televisions, of manipulative evangelists, and UFO nuts.  Emilio Estevez is not quite a punk. more of a poser (the kind of person who admires the lifestyle, but really wants a house in the sticks with a 2-car garage – I know many people like this), because he holds down a steady job (until he loses his cool) in a supermarket, and while he joins his friends for nightly “mosh” sessions, he has more on his mind than getting wasted.

One day, he hooks up with Harry Dean Stanton (always a joy to watch in any film), who asks him to hot-wire a car for $10 because he “lost the keys, and his sister is pregnant.”  Estevez agrees, but wonders why a Mexican man is trying to stop him as he does it.  He drives off with the car, and Stanton leads him to a junkyard, where the car is impounded.  Estevez’s Otto isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he comes to the conclusion he just repossessed a vehicle.  Stanton offers him a job; good money and benefits, but Estevez hates these people, and I can understand why.  They repossess cars (a kind of legal version of theft) when the owners don’t make their payments, or for other reasons (say they’re late on house payments or utilities).  To Otto, they contribute to the downfall of a schizophrenic economy and the cultural wasteland.

When Otto discovers his parents have given his college money (See? Not a real punk!) away to a televangelist, he reluctantly takes up Stanton on his offer, and soon he’s lifting cars at an impressive rate.  He gets to know and bond with the denizens of the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation.  He listens to crazy theories about alien spacecraft and time travel, life and money, and, inexplicably John Wayne’s sexual orientation.  Otto’s life is turning around, and a schism develops between him and his punk friends (one of them bears a striking resemblance to my buddy, Noah).  He gets a kooky girlfriend, who is obsessed with the UFO culture, and he finds he’s been cased by spooks and weird chicks with mohawks.

The Malibu is making the rounds and a bounty goes out on the vehicle.  $20,000 to the person (or persons) who can repossess the vehicle.  It makes sense the vehicle would be hot (figuratively as well as literally), and Stanton is locked in a battle of wits with the Rodriguez Brothers, the only other hacks in the game as bad-ass as Stanton’s Helping Hand cronies.  You have an unusual convergence of like-minded nitwits in skid-row: car repossessers, alien abduction nuts, Feds, and religious fanatics all coming together to unlock the power of this vehicle.  In the mish-mash of social commentary littered about the grounds of Cox’s narrative, what we see are emerging trends.  Cox’s worldview is not unlike that of a punk.  There are forces out to control you, and none to liberate you.  That makes a whole Hell-of-a-lot of sense if you consider yourself disenfranchised.

The Malibu changes drivers a few times when the Rodriguez Brothers lift the car, which is then stolen by a couple of Otto’s friends.  The original, crazed driver taunts them into opening the trunk, and they get zapped.  He takes back possession of the car, picks up Otto hitchhiking, and promptly dies behind the wheel, after confessing to him that he had a partial lobotomy in order to negotiate the heavy stress of driving this beast.  As government agents, priest, rabbis, and UFO enthusiasts swarm on the vehicle, it emits lightning and fire, and only Otto and his co-worker, Miller (who told him earlier he refuses to drive and does all his thinking on a bus), can get behind the wheel.  The Malibu ascends into the air and flies into space.  We never really settle on what is inside the trunk.  The crazy driver tells Otto it’s a neutron bomb.  Otto’s girlfriend tell him it’s the corpses of two aliens that emanate dangerous radiation.  I’m guessing it’s a MacGuffin, merely to keep up our interest in the movie, but it doesn’t matter.  This is such an interesting and entertaining film populated with incredible characters that it doesn’t need this device (or vehicle, as the case the may be) to tell the story.

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For this movie to come out when it did, March of 1984, in the middle of the sex comedy and slasher film explosion, and the beginnings of the opening weekend mindset of Hollywood, Repo Man initiated a major smack-in-the-face to the conventions of filmmaking.  Similar in style to something like Jim Sheridan’s Breathless, but with a story and characters we give a crap for, Repo Man is a cultural send-up of science fiction, crime-drama, and tales of government paranoia.  It shows a side of Los Angeles we aren’t used to seeing.  An extraordinarily bold and gifted filmmaker, Alex Cox would follow-up Repo Man with Sid & Nancy, and the much-maligned (although I liked it) Straight To Hell.

Sourced from a VHS tape recorded off the Independent Film Channel (IFC), extended play, circa 2002-2003.  This was back when IFC ran uninterrupted films with no commercials.  Also on the tape were Harmony Korine’s 1997 oddity, Gummo, and the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers starring Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, and Brooke Adams.

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.

Extreme Cinema! “Enough Is Never Enough”

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Tonight, we discuss two certified Larry Cohen horror classics, Q: The Winged Serpent from 1982, and The Stuff, released in 1985.  An incredibly prolific writer and director, Larry Cohen would make Special Effects and Perfect Strangers before producing what many would regard as his masterpiece in The Stuff  also starring Moriarty (kind of an alter-ego for Cohen, appearing in four of his movies).  Before Q, he had written for television (notably Columbo, Branded – which he created, and The Rat Patrol), directed a pair of black exploitation movies, as well as the classic horror movies, It’s Alive and God Told Me To.  

Written by David Lawler and Andrew La Ganke.
“Love Theme from Extreme Cinema” composed and performed by Alex Saltz.
Introduction written by Bronwyn Knox.
Narrator, “The Voice”: Valerie Sachs

Between Light And Shadow (A Twilight Zone podcast with Craig Beam)

Running Time: 1:26:37

Physical Impossibility Interview with Larry Cohen

Misantropey Interview with Larry Cohen

Any and all images, audio clips, and dialogue extracts are the property of their respective copyright owners. This blog and podcast was created for criticism, research, and is completely nonprofit, and should be considered Fair Use as stated in the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. section 107. It is not an official product, and it should not be sold nor bought; this is intended for private use, and any public broadcast is not recommended. All music clips appear under Fair Use as well. If you’re thinking of suing because you want a piece of the pie, please remember, there is no actual pie. We at BlissVille have no money, and as such, cannot compensate you. If anything, we’re doing you a favor, so please be kind. I do this ’cause it’s fun, and nothing else.

This podcast is dedicated to the memory of David A. Prior (1955-2015)

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. 

 

Vintage Cable Box: “Deal Of The Century”, 1983

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“For I do not do the good that I want. But the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.”

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“Deal Of The Century”, 1983 (Chevy Chase), Warner Bros.

An uncomfortable satire that crosses the line between ludicrous and oddly prescient, “Deal Of The Century” is a cold war romance about America’s obsessive love for military firepower. The first images in the film we see are an advertisement for the Peacemaker, a stealth-like drone craft capable of untold destruction and designed (it seems) specifically to neutralize conflicts in small Central American territories. The advertisement is disturbing not only for the child singing, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, but for the images of infants cradled in their mothers’ arms. Breaking down the demographics, Vince Edwards (with an imposing hawk-like profile) presides over a conference with advertising executives on how to sell this sleek instrument to the public and (more importantly) to nations in the market to buy.

In what is obviously a comment on consumer culture, we focus on slick arms dealer Eddie Muntz (Chevy Chase), as he peddles his wares. He eyes a lusty Sigourney Weaver in a bar; a fellow American lost in San Miguel, a fictitious sovereign Republic led by flighty fascist dictator, General Cordosa. His pitch to shady mercenaries is not unlike the approach of a used car salesman, but he prides himself on selling quality merchandise. Although Muntz considers himself an independent businessman, there is a disturbing bit of foreshadowing which predates the Reagan Administration revelations of selling arms to both sides during Nicaragua’s Iran–Contra affair. Caught in the middle of a helicopter fire-fight during a sale, Muntz is wounded, and loses his money and his merchandise. Design flaws are discovered in the Peacemaker’s offensive program (it appears the drone can suffer water damage and go hay-wire), which causes havoc at a demonstration for representatives of the Pentagon.

While recovering from his injuries, Muntz meets destitute broker and Peacemaker salesman Wallace Shawn, who promptly kills himself.  Muntz steals his $300 million contracts, and takes up his assignment to meet with General Cordosa.  Coming back to the States, Muntz’s friend, former Air Force pilot Ray (a diffident Gregory Hines), picks him up at the airport.  In his absence, Hines has become a born-again Christian who swears off selling weapons and embraces pacifism.  Weaver, revealed to be Shawn’s widow, seeks out Chase in an effort to steal back the contracts.  Edwards approaches Muntz and Weaver to gain their assistance in selling off his Peacemakers to General Cordosa. Muntz appeals to Ray to go in with him on one last job.  Ray is conflicted, and in a momentary fit of rage after a minor collision with an angry couple, he torches their car with his latest acquisition, a military-grade flamethrower.  By itself, this is a brilliant scene.

Ray begs Muntz to reconsider selling the Peacemaker to Cordosa because of the destruction it will cause.  Muntz likens his job to that of selling a product and nothing more, so Ray, in good conscience, cannot allow this sale to happen.  Ray steals a fighter jet and attempts to destroy the Peacemaker himself.  Unfortunately, the movie fails as a comedy, because of the deadly serious nature of the source material (a thought-provoking screenplay by Paul Brickman).  Director William Friedkin shoots the film as a drama with humorous moments.  The material is too moody to aim for the techno-terror style of the same year’s “WarGames” or the farce of Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb”.  There’s a lack of warmth to the enterprise.  Though Weaver and Chase are attractive enough, they lack chemistry, and their romance feels forced, as if it were shoe-horned into the narrative.

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Chase is intensely interesting as a man with no politics, with no compunction about selling weapons of mass destruction to opposing sides in a conflict, and no religion, when he comes into conflict with Hines and his burgeoning spirituality. It’s downright eerie how all of these weapons are now being used in common practice. Every day, we hear stories of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the loss of innocent civilian lives, women and children in the fiery fray. While the film, as a satire, doesn’t comment on the morality of using drones, it does poke holes in the supposedly “fool-proof” design of such weaponry. “Deal Of The Century” (for me) would’ve been much more effective as a straight-out black comedy than a meandering, unbalanced political satire about the mixed morality of capitalism and the destructive consequences it can foster.

Support the troops, not the drones.  Happy Memorial Day!

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.