“The End of Vintage Cable Box”

I started the Vintage Cable Box series at the end of August, 2015. The series bowed with entries for Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing, the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle, Easy Money, and the Citizen Kane of teen sex comedies, Porky’s, directed by Bob Clark, who would later, inexplicably, bring us A Christmas Story (though both movies shares a nostalgic connection in their themes). Over 200 essays later, it’s finally time to pull the plug, and I thought I’d take this time to answer some questions and fill you in on my thought process. Cable television was an incredible oasis at the time; we’re talking 1984 through 1986, two short years. Growing up poor in Cincinnati and then Philadelphia, my Mother had a job opportunity in Tennessee, the State of her birth, and she thought we should live near some family at that time, so we moved down there in the late Spring of 1984.

Attack of the comically-oversized condom.

Philly had no cable in certain neighborhoods, usually anything below Broad Street in the “historic” sections of the town. Cable lines were considered unattractive and would detract from the beauty of the older neighborhoods. This has since been rectified with underground lines, but back then all you had were roof antennas, rabbit ears, and aluminum foil to improve reception of the 12 channels you were granted, three of which were VHF networks, and the rest were independent UHF sources. Add to that the fact we didn’t get our first VCR until probably 1986, so the television was practically a miracle sent down from heaven. We had a 19-inch RCA Colortrack on a rolling stand until I spilled chocolate milk into the back of it, and then all of our television came from a 12-inch black & white Sylvania. It cost $200 to have the television repaired (back then you had to have your electronics repaired), so we took it down to Tennessee with us, and then my Mother invested $125 in a used 25-inch Magnavox color console. It was magnificent.

No cable for you!

This is how I close every Vintage Cable Box article:

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.

So we come from a place with only 12 channels to a place with over 30 channels. Imagine the switch-over. This was the premium package. Compare it to today. I was looking at the cable box channel guide the other day. It isn’t just one HBO channel, it’s six. It isn’t just one Cinemax channel, it’s six. It’s East Coast feeds, and West Coast feeds. Forty sports channels. Twenty cooking channels. It’s countless news channels. In 1984, we were overwhelmed. In 2018, we’re drowning in entertainment options. I only wished we had a VCR, because I felt then (as I do now) the analog picture and sound was perfect. Cable television picture quality was much better than VHS/Beta quality. For a time, we had HBO and Cinemax, and The Movie Channel, which was probably my favorite for offering an incredible assortment of films and film festivals. This was my film school education. Every filmmaker would say if you wanted to know how to make films, just watch films. Technique comes from another place; the source of inspiration and style built somewhere in your psyche, and you can’t learn that in a school setting.

The Precious.

I dug in, and this is where my love affair with movies began. I make it a point to watch every movie I choose to include. Some movies were more difficult to find than others. Some movies were so terrible I didn’t want to continue watching, but I stuck it out for the sake of veracity. As I write this, I’ve just finished writing my review for 1981’s Rollover. I have a good set-up in the bedroom for watching old videotapes; a big-screen CRT* and a 4-head (admittedly mono) Sansui VHS VCR. Sometimes if a movie is available in a superior format, and reasonably priced, I’ll grab it, but I do try to stay as close to the time period as I can. I’ve given some movies much more time than they deserve (i.e. Screwballs, Jekyll & Hyde Together Again, They Call Me Bruce?). Other movies (personal favorites) were written on “auto-pilot” because I knew them so well. I could quote dialogue and remember key edits. There is also the sad fact that some movies get more promotion and rotation than others, and continue to be enjoyed today, while others disappear down a rabbit hole of bad production deals, shady financing, and limited distribution (i.e. Get Crazy, Somebody Killed Her Husband).

The obscuring haze of nostalgia.

I’ve received an enormous outpouring of praise from readers, as well as suggestions. I do take suggestions, but it’s usually when I’ve forgotten a title that did play endlessly on cable television within that admittedly brief window of time and, more importantly, when I’ve actually seen the movie in question. Vintage Cable Box is mostly about my remembrances of those years. On occasion, a reader will suggest a title, and it will not be representative to me of a movie I remember in the rotation of cable television. There were tiny little movies that played constatntly on cable television, like The Sender or Midnight Madness. There were big box-office blockbusters. There were the flops. As I write this, I’m reviewing Smithereens and Rollover, two very different movies. In that brief time period (1984-1985) cable television was an incredible, eclectic, diverse collection of unique entertainment, and most of it was exceptional. Sadly, it isn’t like that anymore. Cable television is a thousand channels, a lot of it prescribed in an algorithm-like fashion, designed to cater to the entertainment needs of a vast audience that does not include the likes of me. It’s so boring. Or perhaps, because there are so many choices, I’m not in a hurry to watch. In the old days, we didn’t have a VCR, so we had to be there – at a specific time, tuned to a specific channel, to watch a movie.

Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?

Consider the VCR. We laugh at VHS and Beta now. I did a whole series about the history of home video with David Anderson. In those days, it was the quite the coup to have all three Star Wars movies on tape playing through your old CRT. It mattered. Now we laugh because we have high definition, big screen. A movie theater in your living room! It’s amazing. How soon we forget. We also forget that too much of anything reduces value and appreciation. Now that we have so many choices, we stop caring about times and places. We won’t rush home so we can have dinner ready and watch our favorite show. Instead, you program the DVR, and take your time doing whatever you want to do. A couple of buttons pushed and I can record a whole series. In case I forget to record a whole series, I can just watch anything I want “on-demand.” No wonder we’re all getting fat!

There were titles I had considered reviewing but ultimately decided not to review. Tom Cruise comes to mind. He would be an obvious choice to evaluate because his work was crucial to the early days of cable television. He had a small role as Steve Randle in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders. After that, he appeared in Losin’ It (which I did enjoy) with Jackie Earle Haley and Shelley Long, and then Risky Business and All the Right Moves made him a huge star. Cruise wouldn’t explode in his popularity until the mid ’80s with Top Gun, Rain Man, and Born on the Fourth of July. He was little more than a teen heartthrob at the time I was watching cable television; the time-line of that very small window was crucial to my choices for the column. I think the ’80s was a time of Dudley Moore and Steve Guttenberg, teen sex comedies and slasher movies, John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg (though I don’t recall reviewing any Spielberg movies for Vintage Cable Box – it was another matter of time-line). Obscure titles were what I sought out originally. I thought about The Buddy System and Nate and Hayes, WarGames and Psycho II, Get Crazy and Rhinestone, not Tom Cruise.

Sorry, Tom.

I learned a few things, too. I learned that the (comparatively) smaller brain of the eleven or twelve year old child compared to that of a forty-five year old adult is much more willing to fill in the blanks of a shoddy narrative or a bad performance or a balls-out terrible movie than viewed through the narrow, rigid scope of maturity. I find I have very little time in my life now to throw caution to the wind and look at every movie coming out. My prejudices will extend to comic book movies and big-budget blockbusters; those movies are simply not made for me. In fact, I tend to look upon those my age who enthusiastically watch comic book movies with some degree of either pity or derision. Where I was willing to give a movie like Screwballs a chance when I was twelve, I won’t even watch a new Jurassic Park movie these days. I just don’t have the time to waste on dinosaurs, or talking raccoons for that matter. It all feels so ridiculously disposable. That’s what has happened to movies today. They’ve become disposable.

No thank you!

We come to the end of the journey. I did this for fun, but then I discovered I had regular readers. I want to thank each and every one of you. If there was one grievance from yours truly, it would have to be that I, in my estimation, wrote some really good material that wasn’t popular with readers because the movie I was writing about was not that popular. I could get big numbers on a title like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (in 3-D!), and tumbleweeds for The Big Chill, which I considered one my best written reviews. I don’t understand how that works, but thanks for reading all the same!

“Blue Thunder, 1983”

“Catch ya later!”

Blue Thunder, 1983 (Roy Scheider), Columbia Pictures

The disclaimer at the beginning of Blue Thunder swears up and down that the technology used in the film is real. So, it’s really more of a “claimer” and strikes at the very heart of director John Badham’s paranoia with regard to new technologies. It isn’t so much that there are whisper-quiet helicopters and other advanced weaponry utilized by the Military, but that these technical marvels can be used for more nefarious, fascistic purposes like spying on citizens and controlling the population. Hot-shot Vietnam veteran Roy Scheider and scruffy young partner Daniel Stern are helicopter cops (or”heli-cops” – neat huh?). I’m not sure how long helicopters have been in use for law enforcement. We hear them once in a while around here, and because of this movie, I tend to draw the shades. When Scheider and Stern aren’t busting the scum of Los Angeles, they’re checking out naked ladies doing naked yoga in skyscrapers. This is a fun job! Shenanigans are interrupted by a rape-in-progress and Scheider and Stern come to the rescue.

I still don’t understand the level of effort rapists put into their work, and this is after I had to watch five Death Wish movies for Extreme Cinema. Crabby boss Warren Oates (in his final film role) busts Scheider’s balls (and deservedly so) for peeping on Encino’s hottest, and Scheider suffers ‘Nam flashbacks – a lot of them involving rival pilot Cochrane (mustache-twirling douche Malcolm McDowell). This goes to Hell pretty quickly. The woman who was raped turns out to be a big-shot congresswoman and political big-wig. She was shot in the process and died in the hospital. Roy is taken to a top secret government installation where he inspects a brand new experimental helicopter called “Blue Thunder.” In the test, the helicopter maneuvers remarkably well, and mows down targets efficiently. Test pilot McDowell misses a lot of targets and cuts down mock-ups of innocent civilians.

Scheider goes on a test run with McDowell. McDowell sabotages his helicopter for no reason other than to kill him, but we didn’t need this detail to know they have mutual hatred for one another. We get that McDowell has an axe to grind, but does he have to be completely evil? There’s no talk of “the greater good,” or the need for advanced firepower. The movie is just one big thrill ride. Scheider and Stern get under the blades of “Blue Thunder,” and go on a test flight to check out the hardware, which includes highly-sensitive microphones and video recording technology. Once again, they use this incredible technology to check out girls, and listen to their cop buddies have sex. While snooping in the Federal database, Scheider discovers a connection between McDowell and the mysterious Project THOR. They tail McDowell to the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles. They record a clandestine conversation between McDowell, some Defense Department cronies, and one of the participants in the politician’s murder.

They all agree to “delete” Scheider, and they kill Stern. This is gripping! They pin Stern’s murder on Scheider, and Scheider is suddenly a man without a Country. Before he was killed, Stern hid the incriminating tape for Scheider, who gets his able-bodied girlfriend, Candy Clark (telegraphed early on driving like a maniac), to retrieve the tape (from a drive-in movie theater dumpster) and get it to a television station in a brilliantly edited and suspenseful sequence. This leads to some amusing helicopter battles, and what floors me is that all of this was done without the use of green screens or digital computer effects. Blue Thunder ends with a thrilling helicopter fight between Scheider and McDowell that leaves most of Los Angeles in ruins. This is a seriously exciting movie, directed by Badham, who would shortly follow-up this movie with WarGames (another techno-horror movie) less than a month later!

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.

“Smithereens, 1982”

“Please don’t do anything weird to me!”

Smithereens, 1982 (Susan Berman), New Line Cinema

Smithereens, in the opening shots, reminds me of early Martin Scorsese. Substitute angry Italians for good-looking punks. One such lady punk, Wren (Susan Berman) catches a young man’s eye on a New York City subway train. The young man, Paul (Brad Rijn), follows her all around town as she puts up flyers promoting herself. What she does is anybody’s guess. I assumed she was somehow involved in music. The Peppermint Lounge is rocking this night, and she bluffs her way inside to chat up musicians. These are real locations. You can tell from the lighting. In fact, it looks like the filmmakers snuck their camera in there and stole shots. Paul makes a date with Wren, but all she cares about is putting her name out there and promoting herself. Paul sleeps in a van. You might say he’s “experiencing homelessness,” but he isn’t. He’s actually well off and bumming his way around. He takes Wren to a bizarre horror movie, which seems to have been constructed specifically for this movie.

I love this New York. It’s populated with young punks hard-up for cash. Paul wants some kind of a relationship with the crazy punk chick, but she flirts with other guys, namely Eric (Richard Hell), intent on furthering her ambitions. Eric was previously affiliated with a marginally successful band called Smithereens, which had one record released in the ’70s. Eric doesn’t seem to have saved his money, and he comes off crazy-shady. She spends the night with Eric, returns home to find her apartment door padlocked by the landlady. She hasn’t paid the rent in four months. The landlady tosses Wren’s clothes out the window. She looks up Paul (whom she ditched the previous night), but he’s angry with her. She appeals to him and manipulates him. Together, they break into her apartment (wearing stockings on their heads) and grab some of her stuff, including her little television set.

This isn’t a conventional romance. The dialogue is real. You feel like you know these people, or you have known people like this. That’s not necessarily a good thing. The movie is unrelentingly bleak for being so real. New York City is only a brief lay-over for Paul. He’s on his way to New Hampshire, and Wren needs a benefactor in the worst way. Her family’s no good to her, and Paul is all she has. One night, while waiting for Wren in his van, he strikes up a sweet and interesting conversation with a kindly prostitute, who shares part of her chicken salad sandwich with him and keeps soliciting him as she does so. This goes right to the heart of the movie’s premise; New Yorkers are lonely people just looking to sit down and connect with other people.

Wren’s an interesting if frustrating character. She’s a sponge to everybody she knows. She uses and abuses people all in an effort to promote herself (and we’re still not quite sure what it is she does) or her “brand.” Paul is the only person in her world who treats her with respect, and she dumps on him consistently. I get that she wants to remain independent, but her behavior borders of self-destructive. She’s a Holly Golightly for the punk set. Paul wants her to go to New Hampshire with him. She never takes him up on the offer. You really want to smack her upside her face for all the bad decisions she makes in the movie. Director Susan Seidelman would go on to direct Desperately Seeking Susan, another quintessential ’80s movie about New York City’s labyrinthine underbelly.

Special Thanks to my pal, Andrew La Ganke for suggesting this title.

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.

“Lassiter, 1983”

“Cooperate and you’re a free man, Lassiter. Cross me and you’ll do twenty hard years.”

Lassiter, 1983 (Tom Selleck), Warner Bros.

A little jaunty piano-driven music kicks in and I think I’m watching The Sting, but no, we have Tom Selleck in Lassiter! This movie was very hard to find. Right up there with The Buddy System and Nate and Hayes. Selleck is some kind of a cat burglar. He’s not a very good cat burglar, and no he doesn’t steal cats. I thought the point of having jewels was to wear the jewels, and not lock them up in a safe, but whatever. A rosey-rumped British tart covers for him when he is caught snatching the family jewels. You might say she waxes his mustache, so to speak. This is cute. He’s a scam artist by trade, working in concert with Jane Seymour (and her beautiful ass!), who may or may not be his wife, girlfriend, or paramour. Jane bruises her feet nightly dancing with rich British bastards.

Lassiter is extremely hard to follow. It feels, to me, like whole sections of the movie were removed in editing, as well as a lot of character development. Our government, working with Scotland Yard corrals “expert” cat burglar Nick Lassiter into stealing “Nazi” diamonds. We’re not completely sure because the movie jumps all over the place pretending to be light comedy, international intrigue, and deadly boring cop drama. Jane Seymour is wasted in the movie, truly lighting up the screen with her beauty but relegated to being a long-suffering housewife-type. Meanwhile, we have Lauren Hutton running around killing men while she has sex with them. She’s apparently the keeper of the secret Nazi diamonds, but she leads a rich inner life. Okay, I’m with you, Movie!

The nudie cutie Hutton killed previously turns up dead and naked in an alley where head copper Bob Hoskins declares the investigation will be done the “hard way.” In other words, his way. Damnit! He’s a good cop! Hutton makes eyes (and thighs) with Selleck, which drives poor Jane up the wall. Scotland Yard wants Lassiter to steal $10 million worth of these Nazi diamonds or else they’ll send him to jail. What? My wife informs me this is Nazi money, therefore it’s a good thing to steal. Lassiter decides it’s time to hang it up, so he takes Jane Seymour with him, but is stalled by Hoskins who assures him he has his number. Okay. He extorts Tom to get the damned diamonds. I gather Lauren Hutton is a Nazi, and a man-killer, but the movie never lets us have any details. Everything is painted in broad strokes.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing and a good deal of fake moral ambiguity here with regard to Lassiter doing the right thing for his country. He nails Hutton, loots her safe, but can’t find the diamonds. We finally get to the feline thievery as Lassiter climbs a wall, slips in, and opens a safe. Nothing in there so he ducks (or cats, heh) out under the cover of night while dogs bark in the background. Lauren leads him to the real diamonds, cleverly hidden in a hideous bust of Hitler. Lassiter steals the real jewels. Hutton catches him and he punches her lights out. Nice. We get a “clever” Sting-style switcheroo where he fences the diamonds for cash and eludes the cops. In the end, Selleck gets the money and the girl. Lassiter is an editor’s nightmare. If this review appears redundant and disjointed, it’s only because the movie was redundant and disjointed. What a mess!

Sourced from the original 1984 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release. Fabrique au Canada! “A master thief sets out to steal a Nazi fortune!” The movie received a brief DVD release as well as appearing on laserdisc, but is unavailable in newer formats. “It’s clear from Lassiter that Selleck is ready for anything – especially the critical and popular acclaim his performance here deserves. Move over, Sean Connery and Roger Moore: there’s a new high-roller in the game of international intrigue!” I’ll stick with Runaway, thank you very much.

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.

“Star 80, 1983”

“You won’t forget Paul Snider.”

Star 80, 1983 (Mariel Hemingway), The Ladd Company

Less a cautionary tale of the dangers of stardom than a lurid, exploitative tome of sleaze merchants ogling naive tarts, Star 80 tells the story of Playboy centerfold, Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway), and her relationship with “personal manager”, Paul Snider (Eric Roberts). Director Bob Fosse shuffles the narrative deck, giving us fleeting glimpses of blood-covered Eric Roberts contemplating his once-perfect princess. This is a structure now common to bio-pics with a slice of documentary-like reality (as in Fosse’s previous Lenny) to give the whole bloody affair a degree of authenticity.

Roberts’ Paul Snider is a wanna-be in a world of ne’er-do-wells. He was a pimp and a promoter. He procured models for car shows and wet t-shirt contests. Fosse’s take on Snider leaves no room for ambiguity; there’s nothing about him you could like. There are no redeeming qualities. Eric Roberts plays him like he’s been kicked in the head one too many times.

Snider spots unremarkable Dorothy Stratten in a diner and starts dating her on the sly. It’s not as though he were corrupting her. He wants to corrupt her, but Mariel Hemingway plays Stratten straight and innocent even as she takes off her clothes for Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson) and his arsenal of bargain basement photographers. Roberts is fascinating; playing Snider as a human-in-training, rehearsing appropriate greetings and stifling his anger when ridiculed. He reminds me of James Cagney. He shepherds Stratten’s career as she becomes Playboy’s Playmate of the Year, but as her star ascends, he descends into a vapid sea of smut, and dangerously, asserts ownership of her soul. This is exactly where we assume the story will go.

Snider manipulates photographers and wrangles finder’s fees to get Stratten’s pictures to Playboy. As much as the principal characters in the movie want you to believe Snider is the Lucifer to Stratten’s Eve, I see only an angry child who turns to murder when he doesn’t get what he wants. Snider and Stratten, oddly, come across as naive soulmates swimming in a sea of sharper, more manipulative sharks. Snider worships her as though she were a porcelain doll, which will permit no tarnish.

Bob Fosse’s direction is cynical and arrogant. Lenny and All That Jazz serve as companion pieces (though superior to Star 80) in establishing Fosse’s puzzling antipathy for an industry that made him an icon. Fosse captures the era perfectly, which is not far removed from the time the real story unfolded. In Fosse’s world, it’s easy to fall into the trap of having a good time. In mid-murder, Snider justifies his actions to his lifeless, blood-soaked corpse of a bride. If he couldn’t control her life, he could at the very least, control her death.

Sourced from the original 1984 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release. The box sports a distinctive silver/metallic gray color scheme. The movie continued to receive different format releases and is available in Beta, DVD, and Laserdisc formats, but remains unavailable on Blu Ray. “She was every man’s dream – and one man’s obsession.” The accompanying essay on the back of the box trumpets the Eric Roberts performance as, “…original, authentic, and hypnotic…” I don’t know why you would have so many redundant adjectives, but I agree. Strangely, there is a disclaimer at the bottom of the essay (as in the movie) that reads, “This motion picture is, in part, a fictionalization of certain events and people involved in the lives of Dorothy Stratten and Paul Snider.”

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.

“Zapped, 1982”

“Sometimes life is like an onion. When you peel it, it makes you cry.”

Zapped, 1982 (Scott Baio), Embassy Pictures

Scott Baio has been given a gift. He’s a brilliant young man – a scientist! All day long in high school, he wears a lab coat cand conducts experiments involving marijuana, alcohol, and white mice. I remember my Mother told me a story about how she placed second in the County Science Fair. She was feeding alcohol to fruit flies to observe effects and consequences. Even second place, the experiment was an official board selection and an article was penned for Scientific American circa 1964. I look at all that past aptitude and then look at my Mother these days and I wonder where it all went. We’re capable of so much sagacity in our early years and then the fever dies down as we watch our hopes and dreams taken away from us like garbage on a regular Monday morning. Back to the Baio! He wouldn’t be an enterprising young man without a Huckleberry, would he? Huckleberry, in this exercise, is played by stalwart Baio-buddy, Willie Aames (who would in short order join him for Charles in Charge). Aames serves as the Baio-id, perhaps the Hyde to his Jekyll; untamed libido and dissolute greed.

This is the requisite high school of movie-maker wet dreams; clean-cut kids, extremely short cheerleader skirts, and students who look at least a decade older than they should look. Right away we have our cliques, as identified by hair color: the brains are brunettes, and the blondes … well, let’s just say they have more fun.  Scatman Crothers (in a hilarious bit), looking for Baio’s stash of Jack Daniels), accidentally spills some “Super Growth Plant Food” into the “Cannabis Extract.” This must be one of them California high schools, huh? Huh? Because … pot was recently legalized in … nevermind. Scatman unwittingly creates a mutant potion when Aames (being a scamp!) pours beer into the mixture, which will shortly give Baio powers. Incredible powers! Incredible powers of telekinesis! Meanwhile Felice Schachter’s Bernadette (who we don’t know is actually a fox without her ridiculous glasses) keeps pestering Baio for an interview. Interesting that Felice beat out Demi Moore and Helen Slater for the part. They eventually hook up, but you know this is going to happen. An accident ensues and Baio is exposed to a chemical reaction.

Baio’s parents (Roger Bowen and Marya Small, who I just saw in a Kolchak episode) are, of course, ignorant to his plight. They seem like the kind of people who watch 20/20, and you have to wonder how they get along in bed. Instead of communicating with their son, they interrogate him about drug usage and check him for tracks in his veins. Remember Matthew Broderick’s parents in WarGames? Same deal here. Baio develops his powers, slowly at first, but then they blossom in the most awkward of ways. He fantasizes (during class) about Heather Thomas stripping in front of him while repeatedly calling his name, and he gets a hard-on. He is called on by his teacher and arranges for the map display to unravel all over her and school principal, Walter Coolidge (Soap’s Robert Mandan). The cast is populated with television actors. Back then, television and movies were separate islands, and actors never dared tread the waters between. This is why Zapped! feels like a television movie for most of it’s running time, until the boobies start popping out. It’s weird to me the producers felt pressured to add nudity to the movie to give it an R rating. That just doesn’t happen today.

Now we get to Baio’s special gift. This is a young man who could help people. He could be a real, literal superhero. He could do some heavy lifting, tugging a couch or piano out an apartment window for his moving buddies with his mind. Instead he uses his newfound talent to expose breasts. This is the Aames-as-Satan connection. Bizarre, in that Willie Aames (a very popular child actor) became a born-again Christian in the ’90s and was known for his character, Bibleman (a true superhero!). Bibleman’s alter-ego, Miles Peterson, would not approve of this garden variety-Buddy Lembeck’s obsession with sex and profit for fun. Felice crack’s Baio’s blue steel facade and falls in love with him, which is sweet. I’m a fan of their love. I don’t like him trying to remove her top with his mind as they make out, but otherwise Zapped! is a lot of fun. It feels like a TV movie that was recut (with added nude scenes) for the less-uptight European audience. There are parody bits throughout the movie; the funniest of them being Star Trek (with an obvious Millenium Falcon/U.S.S. Enterprise model hybrid), The Exorcist (involving a “possessed” ventriloquist’s dummy), and Carrie. Thank you, Scott Baio, for making us laugh at love … again.

And thank you to Mark Jeacoma, who suggested this entry to me a long time ago, as well as hosting these articles for going on two years now! For an entertaining podcast on the subject of Zapped!, check out Mark’s discussion of the movie with Chris Hasler.

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.

“The Apple, 1980”

“Come do anything to me your little heart desires!”

The Apple, 1980 (Catherine Mary Stewart), Cannon

Wow. Just … wow. I don’t know where to go into this except to start off with complete ’80s overload; v-necks and shoulder pads goose-stepping in interesting formations. There ain’t no pleasure, there ain’t no pain. Uniformed space cadets straight from the Ace Frehley/Patti LaBelle Academy dance and wreak havoc on outsized stages, singing “Hey, hey, hey!” to cheering crowds. This is the latest thing! I have to believe it because it scored 150 heartbeats, which must be some kind of currency, but I don’t think I’ll ever be sure. I wonder if this is a structured society or simple commentary on our collective lust for trends. I might be reading too much into it. After this space orgy ends, next is a simple couple (Catherine Mary Stewart, George Gilmour) and an acoustic guitar (with orchestral backing) singing a song of love that earns jeers and boos from the crowd. They don’t like The Brady Bunch. Love is a universal melody and we belong to each other, but fuck ’em – there’s no money in love! Pay attention to the lyrics. The audience starts to like what they’re hearing and the heartbeats go up! Couple of kids from Moosejaw. Who would have though it? 151 heartbeats! The producers sabotage the simple couple from Moosejaw and their heartbeats go down. They leave the stage because they think the crowd is booing them off.

Frustrated with their lack of options, the simple couple seek out an influential sage who will guide them to success. It’s interesting to me they wear regular clothing, jeans and jackets, while everybody else is decked out in lunatic-duds. The forces of evil, a mega-conglomerate known as the “BIM,” set about corrupting the duo with pills and sexual propositions. In the middle of all of this is a musical with some actually decent songs that propel the narrative. Of course it isn’t a particularly original narrative (somewhere between The Phantom of the Paradise and Shock Treatment) but it is visually striking. This is a New Wave musical as if directed by Fellini. It’s Ziggy Stardust meets Amarcord. The music scene as visualized for the year 1994 in The Apple was off by 20 years. 1994 in music was a hodgepodge of folk, emo, grunge, and darkwave, diminutive yet theatrical with a newfound respect for the British explosion and less focused on fashion and choreography. Catherine Mary Stewart is essentially the Jessica Harper of this enterprise. Harper (in The Phantom of the Paradise and Shock Treatment) is the innocent girl thrust into the spotlight and corrupted by “creative” excess, though Catherine appears stronger than Harper.

The forces of evil (aka “BIM”), of course, offer the duo a recording contract and a trip to the west coast. They deck Stewart in a glittering dress and leave Gilmour almost naked. They offer Stewart the “apple.” An actual, really big, apple, and we can see the Biblical connotation unraveling. Is it requisite that she bites into the apple and accepts the evil? I’m guessing. I hope I’m right, because then the movie will satisfy my demand for literalism. What I don’t understand is the song that accompanies the action of biting into the apple. The lyrics, which reference vampires and demons, seem to suggest this is an extremely dangerous choice to make. Is it really that bad for Catherine and George? The Roger Daltrey/Robert Plant-like singer who seduces Catherine compels her to “take the apple and take a bite.” George is disgusted. He walks out and refuses to sign any contracts. With the “BIM” label brandished on her forehead (a glittering triangle with rounded edges), Catherine begins her recording career. They give her Vulcan eyebrows and drape her with dead animal skins. Wait a minute, Catherine! What happened to love being the universal melody and us belonging to each other? What the fuck is your problem? Only Menahem Golan can answer that question.

When she gets up on stage, singing about America (and it’s correlating dependency on drugs) in a strange perversion of Neil Diamond, she just looks like the rest of those fools. She’s lost her individuality and her love for love! She’s a tool. Meanwhile, “BIM” has acquired such power that anybody not wearing their signature label is given a ticket and fined. I don’t get it. Is this what would happen should the Music Industry gain true power? Is this supposed to be the Illuminati with their bizarre hand signs and lizard eyes? It seems everyone else is living in squallor while the elite dance with happy, programmed feet sipping champagne out of weird glasses in ivory towers. This is actually a good movie! So much of what we see has been replicated in recent movies and television shows. George struggles with his career. He misses Catherine. Well, who wouldn’t? In the torrents of her success, he tries to reach her but is beaten by BIM goons for his trouble. In a bit of Xanadu-inspired musical madness, they sing to each other from different locations: she in a luxurious penthouse, and he in the gutter, and we know by the end of the movie, these crazy kids will make it work. Menahem Golan (and his cousin Yoram Globus) had been unfairly characterized as low-budget schlockmeisters with the Cannon Group, but The Apple is quite staggering as a piece of modern art. The Apple is a fun (if bizarre) cinematic statement, and is worth it just for Grace Kennedy’s erotically-charged over-the-top show-stopper, “Coming.” Yowza!

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.

 

“Starman, 1984”

“You are at your very best when things are worst.”

Starman, 1984 (Jeff Bridges), Columbia Pictures

In 1977, the Voyager space probe was launched containing examples of Earth’s excellence, not the least of which is a golden vinyl pressing of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The disc includes examples of our DNA, maps, photographs, and message from the children of Earth. A few years later, an alien spacecraft crashes in a Wisconsin bay, near the home of the recently widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), who spends most of her nights mourning her dead husband, Scott (Jeff Bridges) by drinking herself silly and watching old home movies. An alien lifeform (what appears to be a glowing silver ball) emerges from the crash and enters the Hayden homestead. The lifeform finds a photo album and clones itself from a lock of Scott’s hair. In a terrifying bit, Jenny wakes from her drunken stupor to see a naked infant quickly grow into full manhood. She promptly passes out under the weight of what must be a hallucination.

In short order, our Military is tracking the crash of the ship. NSA director George Fox (Richard Jaeckel) and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientist Mark Shermin (Charles Martin Smith) rush to recover the craft and determine the plotted trajectory of the alien ship to be the Barringer Crater near Winslow, Arizona. “Starman” essentially abducts Jenny and forces her to drive him to Winslow so he can make an important rendezvous. Their dynamic is built on her fear of this familiar-looking creature: an alien made to resemble her husband. You can see the torment in her face as she tries to reconcile the fact that this creature is a child in man’s body; a new life in a dead man’s body. She attempts to ditch him, and she tries to run. He tells her he means her no harm, and she believes him. The dynamic changes to one of mutual fugitives on the run from the law, and we get into familiar John Carpenter territory. Up until this point, other than the cinematography and synthesizer-driven score, this movie could’ve been made by Steven Spielberg or James Cameron.

John Carpenter has a specific gift for ratcheting up the tension, and he tells the story from the point of view of a confused and lonely protagonist in Jenny Hayden. Karen Allen is truly one of our most underrated actresses. Her only other big role in this time period was as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark; a role she would reprise in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If there was one word I would use to describe her, it would be “real.” She is perfect in the role of the audience’s surrogate as she reacts to all of “Starman’s” antics. Her wide, expressive eyes marvel at miracles, large and small, and the movie clings to her chemistry with Bridges. As she begins to possibly remember her attraction to her husband via “Starman,” she tries to leave him again with her money and her keys in the hopes he will go undetected without her accompanying him the rest of the way. Bridges learns the meaning of self-sacrifice. “Starman” and Jenny make love in a train car and she becomes pregnant, despite her infertility. Later, with no money and no car, they arrive in Las Vegas, where Bridges tinkers with a slot machine and wins them $500,000.

Charles Martin Smith is hot on their trail and places Fox’s men around the diner where they are eating. As Fox had revealed his intention to study the alien by means of autopsy even though the aliens were technically invited to study Earth, Smith has had misgivings about his assignment. When “Starman” tells him he finds humanity to be beautiful, Smith decides to let them go. In a hilarious bit, they both kiss him and thank him for letting them go. The movie is in turns scary, tragic, and humorous. Pretty much the human condition right there. Think of Starman as a sexy version of E.T., but I would argue Starman is the better movie for offering a richer story about adults rather than children. Starman was nowhere near as successful as E.T. at the time of it’s release, but it was a popular HBO exclusive and video rental. The Jeff Bridges performance is one of innocence and curiosity. The closest analog, for me, would be Brent Spiner as Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both characters embrace humanity and learn to mimic it, with difficulty. The only difference being that “Starman” can produce a child biologically with Jenny Hayden. Bridges received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Every day John Carpenter isn’t making a film is a loss to us all.

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.