“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.

“Forbidden World, 1982”

“Get naked.”

Forbidden World, 1982 (Jesse Vint), New World Pictures

SOMETHING IS WRONG ON XARBIA! Eggheads create problems. Mike Colby (Jesse Vint) finds solutions. In a by-the-numbers “B” movie narrative, you get a bunch of scientists together aiming to end galaxy-wide starvation, but instead, they create a monstrous killing machine, dubbed “Subject 20,” derived, hilariously from synthetic proteins. I’m reminded of all the hysteria surrounding “gentically modified” food. People need to understand that movies are not real. It’s called fiction for a reason, regardless of the source’s authenticity or suspension of disbelief. Movies are not real. There are no real terminators running around. There are no aliens out there with acid for blood. Cinderella is a fairy tale. Although I was distressed to see that the latest batch of Crystal Pepsi was “genetically engineered,” according to it’s packaging.

This is one of those wonderful, sexy, exploitative science fiction movies (nary any redeeming value other than schlock) that would crop up on late night movie channels as a remedy for fighting insomnia. The monster on the poster (a spider-like gargoyle creation) is not the monster in the finished movie. The creature in the movie looks like a mutated Kool-Aid Man. Stylistically, Forbidden World rips off Alien, but only to a certain point. The creature in question is the product of genetic engineering that started life as an alternative food source intended to end famine. Released a month before John Carpenter’s The Thing, there are stark similarities to the creature’s ultimate power: to replicate the DNA of it’s prey, which is then consumed.

This would all be intriguing subject matter if made with a little more care than Roger Corman and Jim Wynorski (Screwballs) could provide. Instead, it’s a flimsy excuse for the females in the cast to take off their clothes and have sex with the males. Not that I have a problem with that; June Chadwick (from V: The Series) and Dawn Dunlap are very easy on the eyes, but in the Wynorski lexicon, a plain-old scientist is boring if he or she isn’t sex-starved with a nice body. If the primary influence of Alien was Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, then Forbidden World’s influence appears to be Friday the 13th. Hot sex is the quickest journey to a pine box! Remember that, kids.

Forbidden World was released in an unusual clutch of sexy horror/science-fiction movies; the follw-up to Corman’s Galaxy of Terror (with production design by James Cameron), Horror Planet (originally released as Inseminoid), directed by Norman J. Warren (who also directed Alien Prey) and the no-budget thriller, Nightbeast. Corman (in requisite fashion) re-uses footage from Battle Beyond the Stars and Galaxy of Terror to make Forbidden World. Still, it’s a fun, dirty little science fiction movie which, were it made today, would have all the sexuality stripped of it and (oddly) made more violent with a PG-13 rating.

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: Tag: The Assassination Game, 1982

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“I want to win the game, you silly!”

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Tag: The Assassination Game, 1982 (Robert Carradine), Ginis Films

Xander Berkeley knows he’s being watched.  He runs down the corridor, being chased by a man in a hat, wearing a trench-coat.  Xander pulls out his piece.  The man with the hat stalks, with his own gun in hand.  He ducks and hides under a grate, and just when he thinks he’s free and clear, the stranger corners him.  He aims his pistol and fires.  Xander gets a dart to the head for his troubles.  This isn’t real.  This is “The Assassination Game” (or TAG for short), an admittedly fun-looking role playing game of intrigue wherein the participants (a gaggle of mature-looking college students) receive files (called “victim profiles) on their prospective targets: fellow students they must “assassinate” in order to advance and win the game.

After an obvious (and brilliant) James Bond-esque opening credit sequence, Linda Hamilton (looking hot) accidentally stumbles into student journalist Robert Carradine’s room during a particularly tense mission.  He aids and facilitates her escape, causing two opponents to eliminate themselves.  Carradine, intrigued by the game (and Linda, who can blame him?) digs up information.  He finds her name in the list of active players.  The game is always being played and appears to be causing a commotion on the campus.  The participants, humorously, are always on edge for fear they’ll be tagged.  Unfortunately one of the participants goes too far when he is tagged (in accidental fashion) and goes around the bend completely. You can tell from his rather intense, deep and dark demeanor.

The film takes on a dark tone with a murderer roaming the campus, searching for his next victims, all while playing the game, only instead of darts, he uses bullets!  Under the guise of writing an article about the game, Carradine wrangles his way into spending time with Linda, watching her as she plays.  Their courtship is cute.  Meanwhile Gersh (the aforementioned psycho played by Bruce Abbott) stares through windows, looking intense and crazy.  It’s hard not to see his breakdown occurring right in front of our eyes.  A five-time champion of TAG, he has no problem confusing reality with fantasy.  As life goes on with the game and on the campus, Gersh sizes up his next target, and reports of missing students are circulating.  Unusual that we go from a kind of comedy and misadventure, to a kind of horror movie, with the killer and his victims all lined up, with an accompanying musical score.

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Director Nick Castle (working from his own script) shoots the movie very much like a murder mystery, but with unusual (for this genre) touches of wit and interesting characters.  Castle is best remembered (apart from his distinguished film-making career) as “The Shape”, or Michael Meyers from John Carpenter’s first Halloween movie, as well as co-writer of Carpenter’s Escape from New York.  While the tone of the movie shifts uncomfortably from comedy to romance to horror and then back to romance, there are shades of the kind of dark, sleek exploitation film-making that Carpenter was famous for, and Castle pays appropriate homage to that kind of storytelling, particularly film noir and Hitchcock (though I doubt Hitchcock would play so fast and loose with the dark comedy, such as when Carradine unwittingly gives the killer information about his next target).  In the end, it all comes down to Hamilton and Abbott.

I love this idea.  Psychologically, the killer believes he is still playing a harmless game, and until Hamilton and Carradine finally figure it out, they were led to believe Gersh was harmless, which makes for some incredibly suspenseful scenes.  Castle is adept, working makeup and lighting effects on Abbott’s twisted features (notably his vulnerable-seeming eyes).  The movie reminds me very much of another under-appreciated film I covered: Somebody Killed Her Husband, in which normal people are caught up in something bigger and more dangerous than they initially realized.  The influence of Hitchcock comes full circle.  I’m reminded of the latest fad out there: something called Pokemon Go, in which users, guided by their cell phones, track and collect prizes, capture Pokemon, or whatever, and generally make life difficult for anyone not interested in the game, but it is intriguing in the amount of enthusiasm role-playing games like this can generate.

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.