“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.

“Time After Time, 1979”

“Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”

Time After Time, 1979 (Malcom McDowell), Orion Pictures

Let’s get this out of the way first. Before you can jump into Time After Time, you have to accept Nicholas Meyer’s curious (and entertaining) propensity for mixing real life and history with fiction. His novel and subsequent screenplay for The Seven-Per-Cent Solution permits us the conceit of imagining a world where Sigmund Freud co-exists with Sherlock Holmes. His follow-up, The West End Horror, also merges real people with fictitious characters as well. Once we get that out of the way, it’s easier to enjoy his clever directorial debut, Time After Time, based on an unpublished book by Karl Alexander. It isn’t enough for H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell resembling an owl) to be the celebrated author of The Time Machine, he must actually own such a device, which he proudly displays to colleagues and friends, among them a curious surgeon named John Leslie Stevenson (creepy David Warner).

In short order, Stevenson is revealed to be none other than Jack the Ripper when blood-soaked gloves are discovered in his medical bag, following a particularly vicious murder of a prostitute in Whitechapel. Stevenson, putting two and two together, uses Wells’ time machine to move forward into the future. The machine returns, minus one psychotic doctor, but he leaves a trail of breadcrumbs indicating where he went in time. Wells takes it upon himself to pursue Stevenson to the future, arriving in San Francisco in the year 1979. Wells considers himself a progressivist; a believer in “free love” but also eugenics. He thinks he will have no trouble adapting to what he assumes will be a new socialist utopia. He is horrified to discover quite the opposite, and interestingly, what terrifies him about this future, pleases Stevenson. When Wells confronts him, Stevenson informs him this future of violence and unrestrained sexuality is pretty much a shopping market for people like him.

Despite the rather bleak narrative, there are many moments of humor to be had in Time After Time. Wells must “barter with the natives,” so he hocks some antique jewelry. He goes to McDonald’s and is delighted to see that they serve (in addition to Big Macs and pommes frites) tea. He tracks Stevenson to a British bank where he exchanged currency with employee Amy Robbins (cute Mary Steenburgen). Amy, being a modern woman, flirts with and ultimately picks up Wells. She moves fast, and Wells is almost appalled at her advances and the gender-role switch, but he happily assents to her desires. Meanwhile, a rash of murders (similar in M.O. to Stevenson’s early Whitechapel work) are occurring in San Francisco, but are buried under the miasma of horrific violence in this future. Wells takes Amy three days into the future to convince her his time machine actually works. They discover, by way of a newspaper headline, she will be Stevenson’s next victim.

Time After Time is a fun, exciting movie–a time odyssey and a love story. McDowell and Steenburgen make for a surprisingly sexy, amiable couple. They would eventually marry, but then divorce after ten years. Meyer has an eye for unusual details. When Wells sells his jewelry, he notices the man examining the items has tattooed numbers on his arm, which he considers peculiar. While Wells would be considered a genius in 1893, he is uneducated and unprepared for what our future has in store. McDowell shows he can play against type. At the start of his film career, he specialized in portraying angry, disenfranchised young men. Warner would continue to play creepy characters. The next year, Steenburgen’s performance in the brilliant Melvin and Howard would win her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Meyer would next direct Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the chilling made-for-TV movie, The Day After. Meyer would serve as executive producer for the short-lived 2016 television series based on the movie.

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 Sword and the Sorceror, 1982”

“We’ve got kingdoms to save and women to love!”

The Sword and the Sorceror, 1982 (Lee Horsley), Group 1 International Distribution Organization Ltd.

A couple of boats settle on a rushing shore. A frustrated and somewhat evil Titus Cromwell (Richard Lynch) commands his witch to summon a crazy mud-man with glowing eyes, Xusia of Delos, (this can only be Night Court’s Richard Moll) to help him defeat his enemies. In another corner of the word, King Richard rules his empire with the dual benefits of peace and mercy. Honestly, I don’t know he does it! Cromwell’s armies begin ripping through Richard’s land. Cromwell goes back on his deal with the mud-man and chucks him off a cliff for his trouble. I think he’ll be back. Ten minutes in, and we’ve got a lot of story. Richard sends his family away, but his son, Talon, (with a bad haircut) wants to fight. Richard tells him he must carry on, fight on the seas and oceans, fight on the beaches, fight on the landing grounds, fight in the hills, never surrender, or something to that effect. The young man (with a nifty projectile-launching sword) is hunted for years by Cromwell. He grows into the stunning specimen of manhood known as Matt Houston! I mean Lee Horsley. Pirate, slave, rogue. You name it.

Meanwhile mud-boy Xusia is plotting his revenge on Cromwell. Don’t get it twisted. He is tight! There are stirrings of rebellion with Prince Mikah (Jaws 3-D’s Simon MacCorkindale), believed to be the rightful heir to King Richard’s lost empire, planning a revolt. All he needs is a few good men. The fully grown, fully coiffed manhood-oozing Talon is interested in only three things: money, food and women. God bless him! Cromwell gets the drop on Mikah due to his traitorous douche advisor. Mikah sends his sister Alana (Kathleen Beller) to warn the others, but she is waylaid by thugs who are then easily dispatched by Talon (all while eating a big cow leg no less). Alana hires Talon to rescue her brother. They haggle, but he seems more interested in sex, so she offers herself, but he expects his bounty, “perfumed and pretty.” Oh you man, you! Cromwell steals off with Alana, planning to make her his queen, regardless of whether she loves him or not. I’m glad relationships between men and women have evolved. Or have they? So now Talon has to rescue a prince and a princess.

This is a damned fun movie. It’s a story George R. R. Martin wished he had written; concise and economical like The Neverending Story and a pathetic reminder of why movies fail to entertain these days. It looks as though certain scenes and shots were lifted from this movie to make Game of Thrones, which (I don’t care how much money was spent) pales by comparison. Beautifully shot by Joseph Mangine working with director Albert Pyun for his first movie, The Sword and the Sorceror is funny, sexy, and energetic. No easy feat. Pyun’s early work indicates his love for shadows and color, and an eye for framing and detail. Horsley is charismatic, and Lynch is a great mustache-twirler. The story recalls Jason and the Argonauts, Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword, a little bit of Star Wars, and Clash of the Titans. It is often compared to Conan the Barbarian, the movie that kicked off the new wave of fantasy movies for the ’80s, but I see very little resemblance. As a matter of fact, I think I prefer this movie over Conan. and unlike the similar movie, Krull, this one makes sense.

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 Neverending Story, 1984”

“We don’t even care whether or not we care.”

The Neverending Story, 1984 (Barret Oliver), Warner Bros.

It used to be that if you had a few bucks, you made a movie. You had a little more money in the coffers, you’d make something tantamount to extravagant. If you had a ton of money, you’d make an epic movie. “Epic” (in the old days) used to mean 3-plus hours; usually a historical narrative – a Gandhi, a Lawrence of Arabia, a Ben Hur. It was a special night to go out and see an epic movie. Nowadays (here come the old man pants!) every movie is a damned epic and for no good reason (and they’re not good at all). There’s no earthly reason the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit (not even counting the extended editions on home media) movies have to clock in at three hours a-piece. Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story is an epic fantasy adventure movie on Slimfast. It’s a lean, economical 96 minutes. It tells a great story and then quickly gets the hell off the screen so we can go home and process.

Admittedly, because we are separating literature from film, The Neverending Story relies on a conscious form of contrivance. A literal absence of matter and energy known in legend as the “Nothing” is devouring the Universe and is about to engulf the land of Fantasia. The leaders of Fantasia summon a young warrior by the name of Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) to rescue an ailing Empress (Tami Stronach) who will stop the “Nothing,” provided she is given a new name. The kicker to all of this is that the story is being read (from a book entitled The Neverending Story) by a boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) in our present-day world. Bastian is a Spielberg-type child: smart, but lonely, from a broken home with a parent (Major Dad’s Gerald McRaney!) who doesn’t understand him and even scolds him for mourning his dead mother. Jeez.

The rubrics of the story require Bastian to be a bullied introvert so that he can exact revenge on his tormentors; in this case, three psychotic little pricks who drop him into a dumpster. I’ve never understood the bully logic. How do you build on the thrill of terrorizing children? How come wonderful stories of enchanted lands are never experienced by horrifying, spoiled little bastards? Perhaps they would learn not to be spoiled little bastards if confronted with furry luck dragons and ridiculous giant turtles. Speaking of contrivances and dragons, Atreyu, in a moment of danger, is saved by said luck dragon, Falkor (possibly my favorite character in the film). Astride the giant creature, Atreyu can reach his target before the “Nothing” devours the world, but (in a great bit) they require the help of Bastian, who they know is reading their story.

It’s like if you took all the best parts of a book, or a story, or a ballad, and put them into a movie knowing you only had a limited amount of time to get it done, to get the movie’s adaptation down, and the audience satisified. The best movies work on their own terms with cinematic language. The worst adaptations are slavishly faithful to the literary source material. This is the movie Peter Jackson wanted to make. The early ’80s were an awesome (even gnarly) time for fantasy films: Conan the Barbarian, Legend, Willow, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, etc. It also harkens back to a time when movies were made with hands, not microchips. The creatures in the movie are astonishing to behold and it’s wonderful to see players interact with them on an actual physical level. Director Petersen’s next movie (a personal favorite) would be 1985’s Enemy Mine, starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr.

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.

“Somewhere in Time, 1980”

“Forgive me. I have never known this feeling. I have lived without it all my life. Is it any wonder, then, I failed to recognise you? You, who brought it to me for the first time. Is there any way that I can tell you how my life has changed? Any way at all to let you know what sweetness you have given me? There is so much to say. I cannot find the words. Except for these: I love you”.

Somewhere in Time, 1980 (Christopher Reeve), MCA/Universal

Danny Peary, in his excellent Guide For The Film Fanatic, suggests that because Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour are so appealing in Somewhere in Time, the filmmakers should have dispensed with the script and simply shot the two leads making love in every room of the beautiful Grand Hotel. While a flippant and hilarious observation, I don’t know that I agree with Peary. The film was shown constantly on cable television. As a 12-year-old, I was bored with the movie. I didn’t understand the pacing and I had to ask my Mother why the narrative was so unusual. It’s supposed to be about time travel, so I think I was expecting something along the lines of Time After Time. She told me it was “romance,” and as such, followed the tropes and calculations of a fantasy/romance story.

An old woman slowly approaches aspiring playwright Reeve, hands him a pocket watch and whispers, “Come back to me.” Reeve is disturbed by this, to say the least, but he begins to feel a bizarre connection to the old woman. We flash forward some eight years later. Reeve is now a success but suffering writer’s block and a recent break-up, so he goes to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, located between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and St. Ignace on the mainland. I’ve been to Mackinac Island. The journey requires a treacherous (not to mention nausea-inducing) ride on a catamaran, but once you get there, it’s quite a sight. Despite the presence of modern automobiles in the movie, cars tend to be forbidden in keeping with the turn-of-the-century vibe, so generally you would see only horse-and-buggies.

At the hotel, Reeve spots a portrait of a beautiful woman with a mysterious smile on her face. With the help of an old bellhop (Bill Erwin), he discovers the woman in the photograph was an actress named Elise McKenna (Seymour) and that she was the old woman who gave him the pocket watch eight years before. Among her personal possessions, she kept a book about time travel, written by Reeve’s old college professor. He looks up the professor, and drops the ridiculous question, “Is time travel possible?” The professor clears his schedule for the day and runs Reeve through the basics of his theory of time travel. Let’s just put it this way: there is no time machine in this movie, but for Reeve’s horny brain! Basically, the idea is to “will” yourself into the past. You put on the right clothes for the time period, remove all extraneous reminders of the present-day from your field of view (this is important), and put yourself into a hypnotic trance. Rinse and repeat.

Reeve wakes up in 1912 at the Grand Hotel just in time to catch the final performance of a play starring Jane Seymour. He goes down to the lake front where she stands staring at the water. To his surprise, she sees him and asks, “Is it you?” It turns out she had been expecting to meet a man who would change her life forever. Her obsessive, controlling manager Robinson (Christopher Plummer) keeps trying to drive a wedge between Reeve and Seymour; all but telegraphing some kind of unrequited love and devotion under the pretense of protecting her interests, but it is striking to me how fiery and independent McKenna is as she rebels against him.

You made a time machine … out of a De Lorean?

Jeannot Szwarc directs an uneven script from Richard Matheson (based on his own book, Bid Time Return) and the movie suffers from the same problems a similar Matheson adaptation would have in the 1998 movie, What Dreams May Come. Spectacular, in a visual sense, and passionate at their respective cores, both movies cannot negotiate any dramatic strength and instead treat us to beautiful images and provide no explanation for the fantastical elements of the story, nor is there much in the way of logic to guide us through Reeve’s tormented psyche. The two leads are thoroughly engaging and they work hard to sell the idea, but it isn’t enough to carry the movie. I think Matheson (one of my favorite writers) deviated too much from his source material, yet his paradoxes (such as the pocket watch and the bellhop) are still intriguing.

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: Barbarella

“Better adjust my tongue box.”

Barbarella, 1968 (Jane Fonda), Paramount Pictures

Kids from my generation know very little about the actress Jane Fonda from the time period in which Roger Vadim’s Barbarella was produced, except to say that she was involved in protesting the Vietnam War, or something to that effect. She was in 9 to 5 and On Golden Pond. If you get a codger in the room, he or she will invariably spit, “Hanoi Jane!” What the kids from my generation will most remember Miss Fonda for was her marriage to broadcasting mogul Ted Turner and The Jane Fonda Workout, an incredibly successful series of videos she produced for that burgeoning industry starting in 1981 with her workout book.

When we first see United Earth Space Agent Barbarella, she is stripping out of her leatherette bubble-wrapped spacesuit, floating about her small spaceship nude in a non-gravity environment as the credits float past her.  She is given an assignment by the President (Claude Dauphin) to take renegade scientist Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea) into custody for fear his Positronic Ray will be used for nefarious purposes.  Has a Positronic Ray ever been used any other way?  The movie is a whirling dervish of ’60s psychedelic effects, including oil plates, sparklers, and some fairly impressive animation and model work.  The plot recalls a much sexier version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with Barbarella’s leaps into dark tangents, and sexual encounters with eccentric characters, such as a beefy blind angel and a futuristic truant officer.

Barbarella is abducted by creepy twins (what twins aren’t creepy?) after she fails to translate their language with her “tongue box”, who then take her on a manta-ray driven sleigh ride to their dungeon, which is populated with pathological little girls and blood-thirsty dolls with razor-sharp teeth.  As strange as this seems, it only gets weirder.  She is rescued by the aforementioned truant officer, hairy Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi), who insists they must make love physically (instead of with pills and psychological profiles as Barbarella suggests is now the preferred method of sex) if she is to properly reward him.  In her ship, she probes the deep nether-regions of Tau Ceti and is rescued by a the hunky blind angel Pygar (John Phillip Law) after she is injured by falling rocks.  Pygar rescues Barbarella (yet again) from the Black Guards, strange creatures in service to the “Great Tyrant”, so she makes loves to him, thus giving him the will to fly.  He flies her to Sogo, the “City of Night.”  They are beset by attack vehicles that remind me of the Bespin Cloud Cars from The Empire Strikes Back.

Once inside the strange city of Sogo, Pygar and Barbarella are taken in by the “Concierge” to the Great Tyrant, who immediately imprisons the blind angel and sentences Barbarella to death (by bird-pecking).  She takes up with Dildano, leader of a resistance (hilarious David Hemming with his invisible keys, invisible walls, and ridiculous cape), where she becomes a lynchpin to their mission.  She is captured by Durand Durand, who forces her to submit to death by musical and sexual intercourse.  In short, he plays her like an organ, and attempts to screw her to death, but she breaks his instrument!

The movie is well-made and entertaining and visually dazzling.  If only comic book movies being made today had such wit!  This movie should be shown on a double bill with Flash Gordon (also produced by Dino De Laurentiis).  I don’t know what all of this means, but it must mean something.  If there isn’t some greater subtext in this movie, then it must’ve been made to be fun!  You don’t always have to have deep meaning in everything you do, however I do note several unusual choices.  For one, Barbarella is always in danger, and always has to be rescued by someone to whom she offers her body.  Second, as Danny Peary notes in his Guide for the Film Fanatic book, Barbarella always enjoys her sexual encounters.  This had to be keen for the Second Wave of Feminism, which started in 1961.  In Barbarella, sex seems to be her weapon and agency of choice.  Camille Paglia would be pleased.

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: Something Wicked This Way Comes

“I won’t always be younger than you.”

Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1983 (Jason Robards), Buena Vista

There comes a time in every child’s life when he or she realizes his parents are not gods, not super-heroes; sources of steady nurturing and strength, but flawed, weak old analogs, begging for better days. Young Will Halloway sees this failing in his old dad (a heartbreaking Jason Robards) on the day Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival arrives in his small Illinois town. Will and his friend, Jim Nightshade, snoop and investigate. Easily spooked by an oddly porcelain Pam Grier’s tarantula, they run off. The next day, the carnival opens. Good-natured, one-legged, one-armed Ed takes a trip through the wacky Mirror Maze, where he sees a reflection of himself with missing appendages intact. Elderly and bitter Miss Foley sees a beautiful world in the Maze only she can imagine. Lonely men are seduced by gorgeous belly dancers, and given money and cigars.

Obviously, we have a carnival that promises and delivers on thrills and excitement, but of course there is a price to be paid for all that is given. Will and Jim are busted for trespassing in an out-of-order carousel, and they are confronted by Mr. Dark (freaky Jonathan Pryce). The boys stow away until after sunset so they can see what goes on here when everybody leaves. They see one of the townies, barber Mr. Cooger riding the carousel backwards, and being transformed into a child. His shop is closed down due to “illness.” The child takes up residence with Miss Foley, who believes him to be her nephew. Jim returns home to find his mother dancing with a man who is not his father. Will discovers Jim’s father rescued him from drowning during a picnic by a lake several years before. Robards regrets not having saved the boy himself, which stirs up feelings of inadequacy. Miss Foley looks into a mirror and sees a beautiful young woman staring back at her. She becomes this woman, but then is almost immediately struck blind.

Meanwhile a storm is brewing. Will and Jim smell lightning in the air, and a plague of spiders falls on Jim’s house. This is a truly frightening scene, even by today’s standards. Mr. Dark is aware of what the boys know about his crazy carnival, so he sets about looking for them. Dark confronts Robards (who hides the boys) and sees right through him. Robards holds his own, and begins to realize Dark’s awesome powers. The carnival seems to be consuming the town, devouring the hearts of it’s most promising people. In a way, the town was the prison of these people’s failures, and freedom from that prison equals death. Robards joins Will and Jim in their investigation of the carnival and it’s evil proprietor. Pryce’s Dark (as the Devil’s own stand-in) attempts to seduce the boys (particularly fatherless Jim) to join him in the carnival. Robards must fight Dark for possession of his son’s soul.

The film is truly marvelous to behold.  Ray Bradbury adapts his own short story (the story and an early spec-script becoming the basis for a full-length novel), “Black Ferns”, and Jack Clayton imbues his film with horrifying visuals that provide a grotesque counterpoint to initial scenes of small town beauty and Bradbury’s requisite hunger for nostalgia.  You can almost feel the dried leaves of October crackle under your feet.  A lot of the action is strangely intense for a film produced by Disney.  James Horner’s score is delightful.  Owing to problems in editing, the ending feels rushed in comparison to the build-up of everything that’s come before.  Richly drawn characters disappear three-quarters of the way through the film, and Pam Grier’s powers are never adequately explained.  These are minor flaws.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is a gem of a movie.

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks.

Happy New Year!

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.