“Strange Invaders, 1983”

“Three-headed dogs are big, but aliens?  Well, aliens are passe’.”

Strange Invaders, 1983 (Paul LeMat), Orion Pictures

1957-58, young couple listens to rock music and makes out while aliens wreak havoc in a small Illinois town called Centerville (“A real great place to raise your kids up!”).  The boy takes the girl home.  The boy goes to his own home to find everybody gone.  The television is on.  The bathtub is filling up, and nobody’s there.  The creepy shadow of an alien hand reaches out to grab the young home.  He screams.  We jump forward some 25 years later to Columbia University and sports-coat-with-patched-elbows professor Paul LeMat teaching a course in entymology.  Ex-wife Diana Scarwid shows up at his suspiciously spacious New York apartment, tells him she has to go home, to Centerville, on family business, and leaves their daughter, Elizabeth with him.  She never comes back, so Paul sets out to find her.

Paul arrives in Centerville to find a strangely quiescent town. Main Street is a ghost town, and the few people he does run across seem … a little off.  There’s a deserted, yet well-kept church.  The kids in the town have a “retro” sensibility.  They looks like transplants from the ’50s.  They all stare at him.  He’s obviously not welcome.  His car breaks down (of course) so he kills time in an old-school diner.  The people in the diner seem like mannequins, or seat-fillers.  He looks out a window and sees his car being destroyed by what looks like a lightning bolt.  He takes off in a stolen antique car and notices some of the townspeople have turned into weird, reptilian anthropoid-like creatures.  He is arrested by local law enforcement.  Some time later, people from Centerville have chartered a bus to New York.  They are revealed (in somewhat short order) to be aliens.

LeMat returns to New York to find his apartment ransacked.  His ex-wife is still missing.  He looks up his local bookworm on the subject of extra-terrestrial life who puts him in touch with resident UFO nut, Louise Fletcher.  She tells him no one has lived in Centerville (officially) since 1958 when a tornado struck the town.  This is weird.  At a news kiosk, he picks up a tabloid paper with a picture of an alien that looks an awful lot like the ones he encountered.  He looks up the writer (Nancy Allen) of the article.  She informs him these articles are bullshit.  The picture was found in their files, so they ran a story to go with the picture.  He leaves in a huff, even after she hits on him.  Nancy goes home, and is beset by alien lady, cleverly disguised as an Avon representative who kills her super (Wallace Shawn, in a fun bit), and calls the cops, but they can’t find a body.  After watching The Day the Earth Stood Still, Nancy becomes convinced.

Nancy and Paul hook up and talk shop.  Paul speculates about the aliens and their motivations.  After cocktails, they go back to his apartment and get sexy, but they are interrupted by Scarwid finally showing up in a freakazoid panic.  Scarwid is looking for their daughter.  Scarwid confesses she’s an alien, that she was sent to study the Earth, but she found she enjoyed our planet (as I do), got married and had the baby.  The divorce made it tough on her (as it does) and her family.  The aliens follow Nancy back to LeMat’s apartment building.  She shoots one of them and it spouts horrible green blood!  Scarwid sets up a diversion so Paul and Nancy can escape.  Along the way, Louise Fletcher picks them up and informs them our Government and the aliens have an “arrangement” – they provide us technological advances and we give them a place to live.  Now it’s up to Paul and Nancy to go back to Centerville and get tot eh bottom of this crazy mystery.

Now there’s something you don’t see everyday.

Strange Invaders is every great science fiction movie ever made in the ’50s and early ’60s.  Replete with paranoia shared en masse and unified only by the times those movies and this movie were made in – the ’50s and the ’80s.  The film’s opening crawl illustrates that point effectively: “It was a simple time, of Eisenhower, twin beds, and Elvis from the waist up — a safe, quiet moment in history.  As a matter of fact, except for the Communists and rock-and-roll, there was not much to fear.  Not much at all … until that night.”  Strange Invaders had the kind of fun as a movie that The Rocky Horror Picture Show enjoyed; interpretation of classic paranoid science fiction extrapolated with fresh eyes and placing it in modern context.  The music, editing, and performances perfectly capture the nostalgic narrative.  This is a fun, fast-paced 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.

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.