“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: The Atomic Cafe, 1982

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“We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies.”

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The Atomic Cafe, 1982, Libra Films

It was an unexciting, routine mission until they saw the damage. New Mexico, normally a parched, barren section of little Earth; sand and dust, before and after, shows no real effects until you throw in the half-constructed homes and livestock. The “Trinity” Test yields an image of great beauty, often repeated, but as beauty can be a drug with effects that diminish over time, the first mushroom cloud, the report of the first bomb detonation arouses the scientific community, and the first parties of people involved are labeled “mad-men” and “lunatics”; it’s eerie and strange how those voices were silenced over the ensuing years.

Not long after, Harry S. Truman appears in newsreels announcing the destruction of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which effectively end the war on the Asian continent.  The information is edited to remove the consequences of the attacks, but “The Atomic Cafe” pulls no punches.  We see the singed earth resting beneath stacks of bleached bones and graphic depictions of horrifying injuries sustained by the survivors.  The delicate sensibilities of pre-Eisenhower nuclear families that had no truck with unimaginable violence were too tender to witness the actual effects of the primary blasts, let alone the ash-ridden winters and radiation poisoning.

“PEACE!  It’s Wonderful!”  This is the post-war boom of America; the prosperity and the marching majorettes, returning soldiers, and dancing in the streets.  Operation: Crossroads begins with the “Bikini” Test, July of 1946.  The natives of the island sing “You Are My Sunshine” as the bomb is dropped, and an unbelievable cloud appears over the island.  The next year (1947 – “The Year of Division”), a new cloud forms headlining the “global struggle between East and West.”  In other words, Soviet Russia versus the United States.  The Cold War begins.

Propaganda films are quickly produced to demonstrate the threat of communism (like a virus) as it spreads throughout Europe and threatens to land on our shores.  Our “values,” or “freedom of speech” will be diminished, censored, and destroyed, and ideas like “humanity” and “emotion” are considered obsolete in Soviet Russia.  To counter this philosophy, our propaganda sells capitalism to the hilt as an antidote to the concept of communism.  Americans are encouraged to buy products, visit newly-built shopping malls; eat, marry, and reproduce – beef up our numbers.  Truman warns of atomic tests in Russia.  Protective devices, including boxes, suits, and bomb shelters are tested and then sold.  The police are militarized.

In 1950, as our government has enormous confidence in the ability to end any war with an atomic bomb, Korea is invaded.  The populace remains uninformed as to the true dangers of these new war technologies, and this is where the programming starts – by misinforming the public.  A character actor I recognize as James Gregory appears in a training film, wherein those preaching peace are ridiculed by the Military and civilians alike.  Paranoia reigns supreme; the impetus of which seems to have started when the Russians began testing their own atomic devices and then Senator Richard Nixon suspected espionage.  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are sentenced to death for selling secrets to the Russians.  These initial bursts of fear snowball, or mushroom into a full-fledged witchhunt.  HUAC proceedings begin, and those who question our government’s actions, or display sympathies that go against the grain of nation-worship are blacklisted, their lives threatened and their actions monitored.

Ladies and Gentlemen – I give you the Hydrogen Bomb!  Even more awesome destruction is guaranteed, but Russia remains one step ahead and devlops their own Hydrogen bomb.  Testing of animals near bombing sites is accompanied by “Atomic Cocktail”, a jaunty Django Reinhart-like ditty, and then there are badly-acted training films made to assauge and calm fears of devastation and radiation sickness.  Fallout shelters are constructed with emergency preparedness kits, and rudimentary haz-mat suits become the norm for fashion.  This new age of paranoia even has a mascot – Burt the Turtle.  Burt comes with his own theme song, “Duck and Cover.”

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Produced at the absolute height of United States fear and suspicion, where even my generation was indoctrinated to hate Russia and the principles of communism and socialism, The Atomic Cafe is a devastating documentary comprised of newsreel footage, Military training films, and flimsy speeches about safety, and broadcast news, as well as preaching the doctrine of capitalism and false analogies of free speech, and religious exceptionalism.  I have friends (my age) to this day who still possess a strange, undeviated, irrational hatred (read: fear) of anything that is not uniquely American, including our system of government, accepted systems of religion, and finance.  Why?  Why would they still continue to feel this way?  If they (as I) feel that our Nation, our system of government, and our potential for wealth and prosperity are unmatched in this world, they should have no fear.  Yet, the dogma persists.

As Americans go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new President, keep this in mind (as evidenced by The Atomic Cafe): politicians yearn for war, but soldiers pray for peace.  Politicians thrive in division, to keep us fighting each other instead of questioning our government’s practices.  Politicians exist to keep themselves employed; all of them, regardless of religion, race, or gender, with no exceptions, no Party rules, and no compunction about dropping mindless, soulless bombs on innocent people.  We’re capable of so much more than this.  Keep that in mind.  Please.

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.