Vintage Cable Box: Twilight Zone: The Movie, 1983

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“You wanna see something REALLY scary?”

Twilight Zone the Movie

Twilight Zone: The Movie, 1983 (Dan Aykroyd), Warner Bros.

I popped in the old Warner Brothers clamshell VHS tape of this, because I wanted to watch the movie as I remembered it when I saw it on cable television in 1984.  Of course I had to play it on my old tube TV (the only way to watch a videotape, or a Laserdisc, or a DVD), and the first thing I notice (after the FBI warning) is the Warner Brothers logo, those post-modern oval or stadium shapes forming the W and the B coming toward the screen, devouring the frame while the first chords of Creedence Clearwater Revival play.

We fade up slowly on a deserted road and then the lights of a car passing by.  Inside is hitchhiker Dan Aykroyd and driver Albert Brooks.  To pass the time, they play games of trivia, TV theme songs, and then finally settle on a discussion about Twilight Zone, where they reference key episodes.  After multiple viewings, it only occurs to me now that the movie is commenting upon the television series in a real-world capacity, in meta fashion, but in the style of Twilight Zone.

We start with “Time Out”, written and directed by John Landis, and starring the late Vic Morrow.  Landis also wrote and directed the prologue, and co-produced the film as a whole with Steven Spielberg.  It’s hard not to review this episode without thinking of Morrow’s tragic death during shooting, but I will try.  Though heavy-handed with a lecturing tone, Morrow’s performance is among the strongest I’ve ever seen.  He plays an “angry man,” to use narrator Burgess Meredith’s words, with “a chip on his shoulder the size of the national debt.”

After angrily calling out Jews and blacks as the source of his uniquely American problems, he is transported back and forth through time being given a taste of his own medicine.  Landis places him in the shoes of a Jew during wartime France, and then as a black man in the South, and then as an enemy combatant in Vietnam.  Morrow died when the rotor blades on a helicopter during an intensely energetic barrage of explosions de-laminated and the vehicle spun into ankle-deep water, killing him and two children he was carrying.

It’s fair to say the film’s production was severely altered due to the tragedy, as the narrative of Landis’ screenplay (which had originally included a scene of vindication for Morrow’s character) was changed drastically so that the only scenes remaining (the only complete scenes Morrow shot) are simply examples of catharsis with little to no structure.  Vic Morrow gives an incredible performance, and it’s sad to think of the resurgence his career would’ve enjoyed.  Landis and his producers were acquitted on charges of manslaughter in 1986, and while most people like to think his career suffered after this incident, he made several highly-successful movies after this, including Spies Like Us and Coming To America.

Steven Spielberg’s somewhat sentimental remake of “Kick the Can” improves upon the source material by capturing the spirit of youth, as viewed through the eyes of the elderly.  The great character actor Bill Quinn plays a bitter old man who watches his fellow denizens at Sunnyvale Retirement Home turn into children under the guidance of new resident Mr. Bloom (jovial Scatman Crothers).  Rather than end the proceedings in pathos and irony as the third season episode did, Spielberg (and screenwriters Richard Matheson & Melissa Mathison) decide to bring them back to senior citizenry with “fresh young minds.”  The next day, all but one of the elderly folk have transformed back, and Quinn learns a nice lesson about staying young at heart, while Mr. Bloom is off on his next merry adventure.  Jerry Goldsmith’s score for this episode (and the movie) is spectacular.

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When I was a kid, I loved this next episode: an updating of the classic “It’s a Good Life”.  Mostly because I dug the idea of a kid around my age with insane psychic god-like powers wreaking havoc upon his rented family and a hapless schoolteacher (Kathleen Quinlan), who had the “misfortune” of nearly running him over.  She takes him back to his house, where his frightened family anxiously awaits his return.  He has televisions in every room playing cartoons.  His supper consists of peanut butter, candy apples, and ice cream.  His sister (Cherie Currie!) has no mouth (but she must scream), and when he gets angry, conjures horrifying creatures to scare the Hell out of everybody for his amusement.  Where Billy Mumy’s version of the child was more monster than boy, the child in this episode is simply an incorrigible brat who needs guidance and structure in his life.  Director Joe Dante populates his episode with great character actors from the past like William Schallert, Kevin McCarthy, Patricia Barry (who had all appeared in original episodes), and Dick Miller.  This is still a fun episode to watch.

We wind it up with what is perhaps the movie’s strongest entry, a remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” featuring John Lithgow in an Oscar-worthy performance, directed by George Miller (The Road Warrior).  Lithgow plays a white-knuckle passenger on an airliner convinced he sees a man (ultimately a gremlin) on the wing of the plane.  There are some subtle differences between this remake and the original starring William Shatner.  For one, in the Shatner version, his wife is traveling with him, and second, he is recovering from a previous nervous breakdown.  I feel the film version is stronger because Lithgow doesn’t foreshadow any particular breakdown, and his performance is a gradual build-up not to insanity but bravery as he takes matters in his own hands and attempts to vanquish the creature (as Shatner did).  The film version is much more visceral than the original directed by Richard Donner.  It’s interesting the best episodes from the movie were directed by relative novices, compared to the input of Spielberg and Landis.  They both meet the same fate, however, as they are carted off to a loony bin while the airplane’s mechanical crew try to figure out where all the damage to the craft came from.

For a decent stinger prologue, Lithgow’s ambulance driver is none other than Dan Aykroyd from the prologue.  He puts on some Creedence and away we go!  Vic Morrow’s death overshadowed any possible success this movie might have enjoyed, and destroyed any chance of a new film franchise.  Though there were reboots in 1985 and 2002, neither they nor this film stack up to the original series.  I must admit this is how I was introduced to the series.  I was aware of the show, but it never played where I lived, at least until after this movie debuted on cable television.  The series played in constant rotation on Channel 11 WPIX New York, and that’s how I was able to watch it before I got the DVDs.

What can be said about Rod Serling’s immortal Twilight Zone that hasn’t been said already?  I loved the show so much I started my own podcast about it, in which a guest and I discuss two episodes every week.  A new season of “That Twilighty Show About That Zone” starts tomorrow!  Sorry about the plug.  I had to do it.  Today is the one-year anniversary for “Vintage Cable Box”.  Hard to believe I started this enterprise a year ago with reviews for Swamp Thing, Easy Money, and Porky’s.  If you want to check out my past reviews, go to this handy archive.  Again, sorry for the plug!

Sourced from the original 1983 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release.  The movie continued to receive different format releases, and is available in Beta, Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu Ray formats.  The accompanying essay obviously down-plays Vic Morrow’s death (“the late Vic Morrow”) as though his passing was not connected to the production.  The film is compared to Creepshow from 1982.  Both movies are referenced as “… the state of the art in cinema horror …”

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: “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.

“Too Much, Too Soon: The Rise of HD and the Death of CRT”

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You want a new TV?  Okay, you look at the prices.  Steep.  You check out the Best Buy flyers.  Prices are coming down.  So you save up, buy a big-screen LCD, or LED, or (God forbid) Plasma TV, 1080p, 40 inches or more across.  You hook it up to your cable or satellite.  It looks great on the HD channels.  There are more HD channels than ever.  All your local programming is HD.  All the premium channels, the sports, the key basic channels all in big, bright, bold, colorful high definition.  It’s like having a movie theater in your living room!

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This is the problem. You have hundreds, maybe thousands of DVDS gathering dust on the shelf because they just don’t look that great on your new TV. You’ve spent a lot of money in the 20 years since the advent of the digital versatile disc and you don’t want to throw everything away. There’s a very good chance you won’t find another copy of “La Strada”.

You do your homework, research up-converting 1080p DVD players with HDMI hook-ups for your new TV. The good news is they’re fairly cheap. The bad news is they’re not that great. They suffer the same archiving problems, the same stuttering, jarring effect of your old DVD player. Blu-Ray swoops in like Han Solo to save the day, but for a price. The first commercially-available Blu-Ray player (from Sony) cost about a grand. It was a great, clunky thing that took several minutes to load a disc.

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As Blu-Ray players become accepted into living rooms, the prices go down, and it is now possible to find a decent player for under a hundred bucks, but these newer, cheaper Blu-Ray players do not have RCA/composite audio/video jacks, only one HDMI output and (if you’re lucky) a digital audio out, but you have to buy all-new gear to support it. Wasting money with new technology is nothing new. How many cell phones have you owned in your lifetime?

The problem is that these new technologies are rolled out before anybody knows what to do with them. I mention the composite jack problem because I’ve been looking for a Blu-Ray player to replace the old DVD player in my bedroom, but I keep a big-screen CRT (cathode ray tube) TV in there. I have my HD and my Blu-Ray player (which I love because it has a USB connection and wi-fi so I can watch almost anything I have on my computers) in the living room, and I will not let my old CRT go.

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The CRT TV does not have an HDMI jack, so if I shell out for a new Blu-Ray player, I’ll have to find a HDMI-to-RCA jack, not just a jack, but conversion box to decode the signals from the HDMI and make them palatable for my analog receiver! These jacks are very hard to find. You won’t find them at Best Buy for some reason. Electronics companies and retailers want to steer you away from CRT, once and for all. It’s not a conspiracy or anything. It’s just too confusing dealing with all these different formats and wires.

So why not just give up on the old CRT TV? Get with the program! Buy a brand new television! Not too long ago, I took a walk with my daughter down the road to a gas station. It was rubbish removal day in our small town and at the curb of nearly every residence was a television, sometimes more than one television. For the most part, they were CRT TVs, so we played a counting game. We counted all the televisions we saw.

This is a half-mile stretch of road that connects Putnam Avenue and Main Street. By the time we made it to the gas station, we had counted twenty-seven (27) televisions and I think three of them were hi-def. The basement of our new home is a graveyard for CRT televisions, and all of them work perfectly. It seems obvious people want their toys, and it makes disposing of old television sets very difficult, but considering over the last century most programming was produced for standard 4:3 CRT sets.

If you’re a connoisseur of old movies, television shows, and sports (in other words anything produced before March of 1997 when the first widescreen productions were broadcast), you know that most of those products look like crap on high definition screens. Chances are these shows were not given 4K transfers to HD or Blu-Ray. Only a few TV shows have taken that route (“Star Trek: The Next Generation” comes to mind, and now I hear a Blu Ray box set of The Monkees TV show will be released next year) because production costs make it prohibitively expensive to restore and remaster so many classic TV shows for a niche market of fans and pop culture junkies like me. From the late 70s up until the mid-90s, filmed television shows were immediately transferred to video and then edited from U-Matic or Betacam SP tapes which were then shipped to affiliates for broadcast.

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That’s where CRT comes in. It’s quite frankly the only way to truly enjoy all your favorite TV shows, even at the restricted number of pixels (480i as opposed to 1080p, but there is a reason for interlaced as opposed to progressive frames – interlacing fills in the blanks to provide a cleaner image whereas progressive pixels stick out like a sore thumb as they try to interpret DVD and video-tape signals). This is why DVDs and videotapes look better on a CRT screen.

If the rise of DVD wounded the VHS market, then hi-def flat screens killed it. For a while, there was an unusual compromise with high definition CRT television. These were 1080 interlaced tubes that delivered superior picture and were able to display live widescreen television. They worked perfectly with letterboxed TV shows and movies, VHS, DVD, and broadcast high-definition signals. At best, you could get the 480 lines for standard definition and up to 720p for high definition and 720p on CRT looked better than the highest resolutions produced even today. There were drawbacks. The obvious weight issue aside, there were voltage concerns and the coils would superheat. The first models were pricey and this was right before the first plasma and LCD televisions came into market.

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The technology was too fast for it’s own good.  There was virtually no product to support these new enhancements.  Even now, eighteen years out, DVD and Blu-Ray technology has not out-produced conventional video technology nor has it marketed the simplicity that a CRT television and a VCR can provide.  Physical product is being scaled back while the popularity of downloads and streaming soars.  They’ve made it more complicated, more computer-dependent, but not terribly simple.

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LG has introduced the “bendable” LCD screen.  Paper-thin and held in place with a simple magnetic pad, this new screen will weigh ounces and offer the potential of a 4K viewing experience.  Adapted to smart phone technology, we begin to see the possibilities of personal LCD screens in everybody’s back pockets.  Televisions can be installed virtually anywhere.  I have to admit I was extremely excited when I heard of this new development.

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Screens are getting bigger but it doesn’t matter.  There’s only so much visual information the eye can take in and when we go to a movie theater, our eyes selectively rule out anything with limited visual interest, and now we have to do that in our living rooms.  We have the 4K Ultra HD with hundreds of inches of screen space, yet our homes are getting smaller.  Is there a point to this?  Why, I think not!  It doesn’t ultimately matter because we need our toys and we will continue to purchase our toys, and scores of newer high definition televisions will join their CRT counterparts piling up in landfills across the country.

Originally published October 31, 2014 in VHS Rewind!

BlissVille Fridays: “Attack Of The Mobbed-Up Porn Guy”

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Tonight, we have a Super-Special Extra-Creamy episode with cherries on top featuring my old friend, Andrew La Ganke.  Andrew came to the fold recently because he shares a a particular talent with me: that of not being able to shut the hell up.  We’re not quite sure when we first met, but it had to be around 1994 or 1995, something like that.  We worked in a video store on the Upper West Side together.

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We’re talking about Laserdiscs. Remember those?

“You were heavily into laserdiscs, and got me into collecting as well. This was before DVD. This was before all the special features you find being packaged in videos today. We were renting out VHS tapes (we had no clue about DVD yet) – also the video store had an impressive adult section. I remember I was there one day and a salesman brought in a box of HOT titles, so to speak, and our employers sifted through the titles and bought what they wanted for the store. The guy, the salesman was wearing a trenchcoat, he was bald, he looked rather mobbed-up, you know? That was hilarious, and then they were asking my opinion of what titles to buy. I forgot my suggestions, maybe they were the nicest-looking boxes, cover designs that would really grab people, I don’t know.”

“I still have my player. It’s quietly gathering dust in my media center, but it still works. I have my laserdiscs in a storage bin in the basement. I have some of yours as well that you had lent me. I still have your “Abyss” Special Edition. Later on, this “The Abyss” special edition was re-released for DVD – obviously you can store more information on the DVD. The laserdisc package was enormous, four or five of those large discs, this was compact disc technology, converting audio and video to linear digital bits, there was some compression but not nearly as much as you would find on a DVD, but I think, now I’m not sure, but I think that was one of the reasons for what is called “laser-rot”, the problem that would occur from age, neglect; the fact that there was so little compression can cause these problems. On a DVD, you have to squeeze all this information on a comparatively tiny disc. I’m not sure about that.”

A note about the music: Our official BlissVille podcast theme has been added to this episode. The music is titled, “This House Has Eyes”, and it was composed and performed by Sean A. McCabe. The music appears courtesy of Audio Jungle and Envato Music.

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Questions? Comments? blissville1870@gmail.com