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┬áthe 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.

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“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.