Vintage Cable Box: “WarGames, 1983”

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“Mr. McKittrick, after very careful consideration, Sir, I’ve come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks.”

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WarGames, 1983 (Matthew Broderick), MGM/UA

The entirety of John Badham’s thriller, WarGames is encapsulated in the personal anguish of John Wood’s programming genius Stephen Falken, who had tried (and failed) to make his computers understand the concept of futility (citing an analogy to the game Tic-Tac-Toe); that eventually we give up, and thus would never knowingly annihilate each other. When underachiever and computer savant David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) accidentally breaks into a supercomputer known as W.O.P.R. in order to play what he thinks are video games that turn out to be real nuclear war simulators, he launches our military’s path to World War 3.

After David is arrested by Government authorities who have tracked his computer activities in Seattle (not coincidentally, an early nerve center for computer programming), he meets Falken’s colleague, John McKittrick (played by reliable eighties prick Dabney Coleman). David “Macgyvers” his way out of custody, hooks up with his girlfriend, Jennifer (amiable Ally Sheedy), and sets out to track down Falken to get his help shutting down a program which is on a countdown to global thermonuclear war.

WarGames was made in 1983, at the height of U.S. and Soviet paranoia. I remembered hearing all sorts of terrifying news reports about the nuclear arms build-up, stockpiling weapons of mass annihilation and people like Reagan and Brezhnev playing “chicken” with warheads. These were real fears. It was the end of the Cold War and ultimately the Soviet Union would relent, but if you think about it, there still are hundreds, nay thousands, of missiles still out there, just waiting to be detonated.

Check out my Imsai
“Check out my Imsai!”

Granted, an extremely frightening scenario, WarGames is incredible fun. It is clever; using philosophical arguments (arguments that could never be made by real computers) to communicate the need for wisdom in the higher ranks of command where our defenses and nuclear capabilities are concerned. It is a sobering idea to consider that we exist at the whim of a perpetual military arrogance: that the better bomb brings swifter peace. That sense of ludicrous tragedy exists in Falken’s character.

John Badham, as a Hollywood outsider, had an eclectic career of iconoclasm. A couple of months before WarGames premiered on HBO and Cinemax, his Blue Thunder (also made in 1983) debuted. Another fun movie about technology run amok, but it is technology at the hands of amoral military operatives. Later, he would direct Short Circuit (also with Ally Sheedy) about a cute robot that goes nuts (figuratively), Stakeout, and the under-appreciated Nick of Time with Johnny Depp.

WarGames was an “unofficial” brat-pack movie for it’s inclusion of Broderick and Sheedy in the cast, but this was before The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. WarGames is a Dr. Strangelove analog for Generation X, notably contributing to my generation’s despondency and apathy when it came to all matters apocalyptic or nihilistic, and where our parents’ generation relied on love, faith, and hope to solve all of these incendiary problems, we turned our backs and used indifference and sarcasm to keep us sane and make us realize that Tic-Tac-Toe would eventually save our lives.

Be sure to check out Mark and Christopher’s discussion at VHS Rewind!

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.

“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.