Vintage Cable Box: Firestarter, 1984

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“John, the friendly orderly, will make her happy because he’s the only one who can. And when John feels she has reached the moment of her greatest happiness, he will strike her across the bridge of the nose, breaking it explosively and sending bone fragments into her brain. It’ll be quick. And he’ll be looking at her face at the time. He will know her power. And when he dies, which I hope is very soon, perhaps he can take that power with him… into the other world.”

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Firestarter, 1984 (Drew Barrymore), MCA/Universal

We pick up in mid-story. David Keith and daughter Drew Barrymore are on the run from nefarious government agents working under the auspices of “The Shop”, a kind of CIA Science Branch that specializes in chemical warfare and drug experimentation. Some ten to fifteeen years before, a drug called Lot 6 is tested in a double-blind study. Andy and soon-to-be wife Vicki (Heather Locklear) are participants in the study. While some are not affected (by means of placebo), and some have extremely violent reactions (one poor bastard gouges his own eyes out), Andy and Vicki begin communicating telepathically.

They marry and have a child, Charlie, with pyrokinetic powers, but members of “The Shop” (short for the Department of Scientific Intelligence) have been watching and studying the child’s growth, subjecting them to harrassment. Eventually they murder Vicki and attempt to abduct Charlie, but Andy has the power to push people; that is, he can manipulate them to do what he wishes, but his power comes at a cost. He suffers hemorrhages that will eventually kill him.

For a year, Charlie and Andy stow away in motels and keep running from “Shop” agents, who want to exploit Charlie’s power, and perhaps assemble a race of firestarters for use in future war campaigns. The scientist (Freddie Jones) involved in the original Lot 6 tests discourages any further study of her, while “Shop” head Captain Hollister (a wicked Martin Sheen) and psychopathic assassin Rainbird (George C. Scott) want to kill Andy and train Charlie to control her powers, where her father has always discouraged using them.

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They hitch a ride with kindly farmer Art Carney, who takes them back home to meet his wife (Louise Fletcher), but “The Shop” is right behind them. Carney does his best to fend off the enemy agents, and Charlie and Andy escape. They hide out in an old lakehouse, but are then quickly captured by Rainbird. Once imprisoned in a “Shop” facility, they are separated. Testing begins on Andy, while Rainbird ingratiates himself to Charlie, and pretends to be her best friend.

Under the tutilege of Hollister and Rainbird, Charlie’s powers increase. She is able to selectively set fires with her mind. Andy has not been taking the medication he has been prescribed to dampen his own telekinetic activity. He pushes Hollister into reuniting him with his daughter, but Rainbird has other ideas (he wants to destroy her and, in my view, gain her power – “the power of the gods”), and the movie ends with an incredible and violent showcase of fire effects (a variation on the climax in Carrie) in which Charlie destroys the “Shop” facilities.

Stanley Mann’s screenplay is slavishly faithful to the Stephen King book and Mark Lester’s direction is spot-on.  Tangerine Dream’s memorable score is one of the best I’ve ever heard.  Keith and Barrymore are incredibly believable as a desperate father and his precocious and dangerous daughter, and Scott and Sheen make excellent, mustache-twirling villains.  Barrymore was such a gifted young actress in this movie that King wrote a part specifically for her in 1985’s Cat’s Eye.  Reading King’s books, I’ve noted his distrust of authority and government (The Stand and Under the Dome spring to mind) as well as his fascination with children (Carrie, The Shining).  Several movie adaptations of King stories played on cable at this time, such as Cujo, The Dead Zone, and Christine.

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On a personal note, enjoying this movie as a kid (as I’ve said before, I love stories about kids with insane, god-like powers), I never thought I’d have a daughter of my own.  Barrymore, in this movie, reminds me so much of my daughter; not that she has the ability to summon fire, but the sweetness, the innocence of childhood imparted.  Firestarter is one of the very few movies out there to stress and comment upon the importance of fathers and their daughters, and for that reason, this movie earns very high marks from me, and it is one of my favorite adaptations of Stephen King.

Anyone who listens to a child’s crying with understanding will know that psychic forces, terrible forces, sleep within it, different from anything commonly assumed: profound rage and pain and lust for destruction.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Thanks for reading Vintage Cable Box’s Halloween 2016 Horror Movie Coverage.  I had a lot of fun watching these movies and I hope you had fun reading! 

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: Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, 1984

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“Die! Die! Die! Die!”

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Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, 1984 (Crispin Glover), Paramount Pictures

As is the course for the Friday the 13th franchise, we start with a clip show. This is like watching Happy Days, Family Ties, Friends or any number of sitcoms where the actors’ contractual demands per episode outweighed any reason to shoot new episodes, so the producers would cobble together “flashback” episodes to complete production runs. We get a few minutes of the back-story. The dreamy camp coordinator from Part 2 sits his kids around a fire to regale them with the story of Jason. We go backwards to the old man and the “death curse”, forward to Pamela’s shrine, backward to Pamela’s beheading, and forward to our previous survivor, character (actress) putting an ax in Jason’s hockey mask.

Like Part III (in 3-D!) before it, we pick up the action right where the previous movie left off.  Cops in raincoats take all the bodies out of the crime scene (including Jason’s) and off we go to the local hospital.  This time, we spend a good portion of the movie away from the camp, or any forest-like locale, which is refreshing.  You think it’s going play like Halloween II (which took place in a hospital as well, which made it a little boring for me), but just as soon as Jason rises from the dead (the first traces of his super-human stature), and kills a couple of medical staffers (nice to know they’re horny too, Jason works much better as a form of birth control than an instrument of vengeance), we’re back at Crystal Lake, or at least within the vicinity.

Playing as a slight variation from Part III (in 3-D!), we have another group of friends off to spend a weekend at idyllic Crystal Lake.  Perhaps tragedy-plus-time equals comedy, so the locals aren’t so crazy-ass nervous about the whole thing, but what is it about Crystal Lake that seduces teenagers to drink of it’s pristine shores, or skinny dip, or engage in any other number of activities?  The archetypes are almost identical to the previous movie; you have the popular guy, the pretend- popular guy, the hotties, the dweeb (memorable Crispin Glover), and the virgin (her name escapes me).  We meet a friendly family: the Jarvises, a mother and her two kids, daughter Trish and little boy Tommy (Corey Feldman).  Tommy makes halloween masks and enjoys makeup effects, much like expert makeup artist, Tom Savini (who returned to work on this movie specifically so he could kill Jason).  He is a joy to watch in this movie, particularly when he’s checking out the girls undressing through his bedroom window.

Meanwhile, there’s a pair of cute twins looking to make life interesting for Glover and his douche-bag friend.  Tommy watches the gaggle of them swimming naked in the lake, and instantly becomes a man!  What with all the characters running around, I almost forgot we were watching a Friday the 13th movie.  Our favorite hockey player shows up right after Trish and Tommy meet tall, handsome hitchhiker, Rob (Erich  Anderson), who bonds with Tommy after seeing his eclectic collection of monster movie paraphenalia.  The screenplay briefly flirts with the idea of making Rob the killer, because of his similar build to that of Jason.  The teens party on, and Crispin does a ridiculous dance (think Elaine and her “full-body dry-heave” from Seinfeld) that is forever etched in my mind.  In addition, the ending is a better variation of the second movie’s ending that has Tommy shaving his head to resemble a young Jason in order to distract and then murder him.  His story will continue in the next two movies.  Long live Tommy Jarvis!

Shake it, Crispin!

This is the movie I most remember (other than Part VI: Jason Lives) from the franchise, because, as it happened, The Movie Channel ran a marathon of the first three movies to mark the premiere of this sequel.  For some strange and spooky reason, I always watched this movie in quiet surroundings (at least until I watched it again for this review).  The first time I saw the movie, I was living in cricket-infested Tennessee.  Another time, I was upstate in Putnam County (with lots of freaking crickets).  One snap of a fallen tree branch and I was hanging from the ceiling fan, even though Jason never truly frightened me.  By the time this movie rolled around, he was almost a robot, an indestructible entity (regardless of what becomes of him at the end of this movie).  In the formula of how these movies were made, we have story, gruesome death, story, gruesome death – rinse and repeat, so you can pretty much tell what’s going to happen next.  The fun was figuring out how the kids were going to die.

You can also sense the “cold war” of competing slasher movie enterprises.  In looking over the comparative histories of these franchises, I found several similarities.  Halloween was intended as an anthology series, as was Friday the 13th, until the producers changed their minds.  Similar concepts were brought out, such as The Burning (one shot in The Final Chapter imitates the famous canoe scene) and the Sleepaway Camp cycle.  Other concepts were direct parodies (though not marketed as such), like The Slumber Party Massacre and The Dorm That Dripped Blood.  Wes Craven’s Scream franchise deconstructed the genre for a new audience, and in turn, caused a resurgence, resulting in self-referential films like Adam Green’s Hatchet series.

I had a wonderful time catching up and reviewing the first four movies of this franchise.  It seems Friday the 13th (like Jason) will go on forever and ever.  The franchise was rebooted in 2009 (not a terrible movie, but lacking the D.I.Y. qualities and rough charm of the original movies) and produced by Michael Bay, who would also produce reboots of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, andA Nightmare On Elm Street.  It’s sad to think we’ve rendered a particular era of filmmaking obsolete; most movies released these days are not temporary distractions and fun diversions, but full-blown epics with philosophical and psychological underpinnings that the audience must digest and process in order to get a sense of entertainment, or else they completely miss the boat.  Remember when movies were fun?

Next time, we look at the superior rat movie, Of Unknown Origin, starring the great Peter Weller!

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: Friday the 13th Part III, 1982

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“Look upon this omen and go back from whence ye came!  I have warned thee!  I have warned thee.”

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Friday the 13th Part III, 1982 (Richard Brooker), Paramount Pictures

We pick up right where we left off with the previous installment, and then I begin to suspect these opening scenes exist only to pad out the running time. Basically, we have Ginny (the survivor from Part 2, and, not coincidentally, a thoughtful and intelligent young woman) trying to pass herself as Pamela in order to confuse and delay Jason (now revealed to be the killer) so she can get away. There’s a subtle character bit here with Jason that I neglected to mention in the previous review. When Ginny admonishes him for disobeying her, he cocks his head in a quizzical manner, as though he were a puppy who just heard an unusual noise. So Ginny escapes, we go back to the grotesque shrine of Pamela, and we’re off to the races!

This is Friday the 13th Part III (in 3-D, as evidenced by the credits, but for some reason we’re treated to a disco theme this time around). I’m assuming the credits are supposed to be smacking our faces if we’re wearing the 3-D glasses, but here they mercifully stop before messing up my monitor. Phew! Steve Miner directs an immediate follow-up to the first sequel with the discovery of all the dead teens from Part 2. Jason is somewhere still out there, clutching a machete, and it isn’t long before we get our first confirmed kill. This is the first sequel (in my worn-down memory, at least) to step up the action and get right down to business. We get the fake-out jolts, of course accompanied by Manfredini’s violin stings (his score emulates Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho), but we also get a handful of enhanced shots for 3-D; snakes coming toward us, assorted weaponry, and a “clever” gag with a yo-yo. There’s a refreshing amount of quiet that escalates the tension, because at this point we’re waiting for Jason to strike.

After vanquishing an argumentative couple with a fondness for pets, we’re introduced to the requisite teens with the van that’s a rockin’.  These guys aren’t as likeable as the previous batch, but it is admittedly easier to watch them buy a one-way ticket to the bone orchard.  I remember being somewhat upset and alarmed that Adrienne King was the first to go in the previous movie, but as I get to understand and appreciate the formula, I realize this is the only way to move forward in a franchise.  We can’t have long-term heroes (or heroines) in slasher films.  It gets boring after a while.  This is evidenced by the on-again, off-again presence of Jamie Lee Curtis in the Halloween franchise.

The formula of the franchise represents a deviation from the first two movies.  These kids aren’t camp counselors, but a group of old friends (though they don’t act all that friendly with each other, the girls are somewhat bitchy to each other, and the guys are deliberately dense) spending a weekend together in a town that neighbors Crystal Lake.  They are menaced by a strange ’80s version of a multicultural biker gang.  So, in addition to weathering the storm of Jason’s vengeance, they have to deal with these idiots, who also swear vengeance.  There’s a lot of vengeance in New Jersey, isn’t there?  The biker idiots show up, attempting to rain on the kids’ parade, but they get knocked off by Jason, in increasingly inventive ways, and it’s interesting to note several of the killings are done off-screen.  While continuing to use POV shots for Jason, this is the movie in which we get to see more than just a few shots of him.  He dons the iconic hockey mask (as played by Richard Brooker) for the first time and shoots an arrow straight through a victim’s eye!

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Visually, the movie looks a lot better than most of the 3-D films being released at the time.  Earlier today, I wrote up my review for Jaws 3-D (which didn’t look terrible, but it didn’t look that great, either) and I was reminded of the terrible photographic process shots of the Steve Guttenberg nudie classic, The Man Who Wasn’t There.  Shot on a budget twice that of the previous film, Friday the 13th Part III did a little better at the box office, but not quite as groundbreaking as the first movie in the franchise, but by this time, slasher films took over a good portion of the market.  Friday the 13th Part III is likely the last movie in the franchise to show Jason as a human being with physical vulnerabilities, unlike what he would eventually become: that of a super-human killing machine.

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: Friday the 13th Part 2, 1981

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“I told the others, they didn’t believe me. You’re all doomed. You’re all doomed.”

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Friday the 13th Part 2, 1981 (Adrienne King), Paramount Pictures

Adrienne King is having nightmares.  Specifically, nightmares about the carnage from a few months prior.  Pamela shakes her, tells her Jason should have been watched.  He wasn’t a very good swimmer, you see.  Pamela targets poor Adrienne as the source of her anguish.  Adrienne tries to flee, but dead bodies are in her path.  She struggles with Pamela and grabs an ax.  One lucky swing later and Pamela is liberated from her head.  We then see the final image of the first movie, that of Adrienne lazily languishing in a canoe, until Jason emerges from his watery grave and pulls her under.  She talks to authorities and wonders what happened to the boy.  Adrienne wakes up.  The phone rings.  She argues with her mother, which is interesting considering that previous flashback.  What we’re seeing here is a fragmented individual who, unfortunately, will not make it past the opening credits.  She opens the refrigerator door to see Pamela’s decapitated head looking at her (the old Osterman Weekend gag!), and then she gets a ice-pick in her head (the old Basic Instinct gag!).  At least the killer is kind enough to take the whistling kettle off the heat.

We jump to five years later, and a fresh, healthy batch of good-looking camp counselors are en route to a training center just outside of the camp.  Their no-nonsense (yet dreamy) coordinator set them to work making preparations, or something like that.  The script doesn’t waste much time on character development.  This would, unfortunately, become a trope of slasher movies as the years progressed.  As they are want to do, they engage in fornication, smoking dope, telling scary stories or whatever the kids got up to back in those days.  The crazy old man (“It’s got a death curse!”) shows up again to freak out the young people.  That seems to be his primary job.  Dreamy coordinator-guy sits everybody by the campfire and tells the story of Jason, for no other reason than to take up the creepy old man’s mantle (not before being killed himself, goodbye old man, we’ll miss you!) and scare the Hell out of these kids.  Why?  Camp Crystal Lake is off-limits!

As with the first movie, there are a few fake-out jolts to be felt.  What tends to happen is a one or two people trounce off the beaten path, walk through the woods, take a stroll around back, and then we go to a POV shot.  Somebody’s following somebody, a couple of violin stings from Henry Manfredini’s once-again effective score.  Sometimes we see a pair of legs following our hapless kids, and then we get the fake jolt, usually from a portly authority figure, who warns of danger, which is what I don’t understand.  Sooner or later the person doing the warning gets garroted.  You have all these townies warning of danger and yet they continue to live there.  If there was bad ju-ju afoot, I’d book and I mean proper!  Crazy, hemp-smokin’ kids don’t buy this adult plastic hassle, and they keep on keepin’ on.  My favorite bit this time around is two kids doing the nasty and the killer impales their bodies together with the bed.  Fun stuff!

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On a technical level, this second part in the franchise has better lighting and camerawork.  Steve Miner makes use of slow-moving tracking shots and creeping shadows.  Miner would go to direct the next sequel, House (a personal favorite of mine), and, inexplicably, Forever Young with Mel Gibson and Jamie Lee Curtis.  It seems this movie has a little more psychology going for it, with fear of the dark and vulnerability (such as the kids’ propensity for going skinny-dipping at night) driving those in the audience to clutch their boyfriends and girlfriends in sheer terror.  Several of these gags would be repeated in the third sequel.  I recognize one of the counselors as being the crazy bell-hop from the X-Files episode, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.”  Shot on a budget twice that of the first film, this sequel did not make as much money at the box office, but it was enough for Paramount (who purchased the worldwide rights) to justify another sequel.

Next time, I put on my 3D glasses for the third installment in the Friday the 13th franchise; Friday the 13th Part III (in 3-D!).

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: Friday the 13th, 1980

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“It’s got a death curse!”

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Friday the 13th, 1980 (Betsy Palmer), Paramount Pictures

The slasher film was by no means a new idea when Friday the 13th opened to theaters in 1980, nor even Halloween two years previous.  A quick trip to the Wikipedia unearths unusual obscurities like Maurice Tourneur’s The Lunatics from 1912 (which I am stunned to remember watching at some point), which may have inspired the passing of the Hays Code (I would argue that, as the Hays Code was primarily an instrument of sexual censorship).  Thirteen Women from 1932 is more likely the progenitor of the modern-day slasher flick, because of the revenge-obsessed narrative.  The usual pattern of these stories involves an unpopular character, ridiculed, perhaps killed (or assumed dead) who has emerged to exact bloody vengeance on all those who wronged him or her.  This is the impetus of the very popular Friday the 13th franchise.

This is Camp Crystal Lake, a few years back.  The moon is out, and crickets chirp in the woods.  We have a couple of camp counselors getting sexy upstairs, and then we see that famous POV shot.  Young Jason Voorhees (presumably) spies on them, and then murders them.  Henry Manfredini’s iconic score borrows heavily from Bernard Hermann’s idea to use stinging strings to emphasize the acts of violence committed to film, as in Hitchcock’s Citizen Kane of slasher movies, Psycho.

Counselors assemble to repopulate the once-abandoned Crystal Lake.  There are some classic bits in here, as when one of the counselors goes into the town diner to ask for directions to the camp.  Everybody in the place stares at her like they’re all about to tell the story of “Large Marge.”  She hitches a ride to the camp, and the driver tells her about the two kids murdered in 1958, the drowning boy in 1957, and all the fires that have plagued Crystal Lake.  The driver urges her to quit and leave, but she can’t. She’s shaping young minds, damnit!  While her devotion to her work is admirable, her colleagues have other ideas: namely hanky-panky, and this is where we get more of the formula of this sub-genre.  The innocent, or thoughtful characters, usually virginal girls, are spared, while the libidinous of the group die horribly.

For the purposes of the first movie in the franchise, the identity of the killer is kept secret until the end, but we know ultimately that either Jason (or his restless and super-human spirit) are responsible for the subsequent killings.  Adrienne King, the remaining victim, discovers that Jason’s mother, has been avenging herself upon this new batch of counselors in her dead son’s stead.  It seems she was driven mad by his drowning death (as any mother would be) and took to killing as her primary source of communication.  This explains why (from her point of view), she was able to easily dispatch so many unsuspecting and trusting idiots.  As in Psycho (at least for this first entry) Jason exists only as a memory, like Norman’s mother.  After she loses her head (literally!), we’re treated to a De Palma-style leap from a watery grave and King waking from a horrifying nightmare.

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Sean Cunningham (working from soap-opera scribe Victor Miller’s script) crafts a good old fashioned camp-fire story in very economical fashion.  Primarily conceived as a “tax shelter production”, Friday the 13th was shot in 1979 on a budget of about a half a million dollars, and proceeded to make $60,000,000; an enormous box office hit for the time.  While Halloween undoubtedly influenced this film, I believe Friday the 13th to be the most influential horror film of all time.  In the 80s, theaters were blitzed with slasher movies and sex comedies.  Movie theaters were like libraries; the descriptions of so many different kinds of movies were printed in newspapers, and movie lovers could see any type of film they wanted to see.  This was the beginning of the golden age of slasher movies.

Welcome to Vintage Cable Box’s Halloween 2016 Horror Movie Coverage!  Next time, I watch and dissect the first sequel in a big franchise; Friday the 13th Part 2 from 1981.

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.