A Year of Vintage Cable Box!

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“Our technology forces us to live mythically”

Marshall McLuhan

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Alyssa! My first crush.

Cable television is a beautiful woman (or man, I suppose) who gets into your brain and relaxes you.  She wants you to sit back and unwind.  Just imagine slender fingers rubbing and squeezing against your tense shoulders, then forming a fist to dig into the middle of your spine, and then you hear a satisfying crack and the ease of your joints.  I love her.  She is, as Homer Simpson would say, my “secret lover.”  This is me as an 11-year-old, unlocking the treasure trove, finding the honey pot, and witnessing boobies and enthusiasm, and strong language; the use of the “f” word.  I remember gasping when I first heard it.  I didn’t gasp anymore after I saw Scarface for the first time.  Cable television is different these days; the Pandora’s Box – she offers too much and gives nothing in return.  I looked at my guide the other day – a little over eleven hundred channels, crystal-clear HD, on-demand – anything I want, I can have.  In 1984, we had thirty channels, and if there was something I wanted that wasn’t on cable, I went to the video store.  Bear with me.  I’m not going to start up a diatribe about how things were better when I was a young’in.

Vintage Cable Box is something I always wanted to do.  I wanted to go back to that time when I was a young man, with burgeoning puberty pounding down the door, and Alyssa Milano’s gorgeous face, and Jacqueline Bisset’s tanned body and wet t-shirt, beckoning me.  I tune into Porky’s and come to the realization that there is a whole other world out there: the world of the coaxial cable and the heavy metal box on top of my 25″ Magnavox color console.  From there, innocence becomes a degree of intelligence (not much, but I was eleven, mind you) where cable television becomes my peculiar form of film school.  I can’t tell you how much I learned about movies, about making movies, about filmmakers, watching cable television at this time.  This is my life.  My life is movies.  I eat them up like popcorn.  The Man with Two Brains was the first; turning it on just as the cable guy was leaving the premises – it was exotic.  On the screen, a buxom blonde with a ridiculous accent flashes her bare breasts at Steve Martin.  The cable guy acted like it was no big deal, but we never had cable.  We seriously didn’t.  No cable television in Philadelphia.  My mother had a great job opportunity in Lebanon, Tennessee.  She had family down there, so we moved.  It was a higher quality of life (in theory, but not really).

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As the old saying goes, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.” We got the premium (or deluxe) package. HBO and Cinemax (which would alternate premiere movies; sometimes HBO would get it first, sometimes Cinemax would get it first. Either way, and in lieu of a videocassette recorder, movies were repeatedly shown. Sometimes they would even be broadcast simultaneously, perhaps a couple of seconds out of sync, and with slightly different color gradients and schemes – HBO always seemed a tad bit brighter than Cinemax. We had The Movie Channel for a time as well, until my mother started assessing the bill. The Movie Channel was interesting. You would find unusual, even obscure films often programmed as retrospectives, and this is how I learned about filmmakers. You would see a handful of Brian De Palma films like Home Movies, Dressed to Kill, Carrie, and Get to Know Your Rabbit programmed alongside Scarface to coincide with that film’s premiere. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry were programmed to coincide with the 1984 re-release of those movies. This is why I can never get behind arguments (usually from older people) that TV rots your brain. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Film, in and of itself, is an education, and television was the vehicle (or the medium – per McLuhan) for this delivery system. Me not dumb! Good, write, good!

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I had always wanted share my specific views and history of cable television in the early 1980s.  For a more in-depth analysis into the history of Pay TV and cable television, I suggest Ben Minotte’s fabulous Oddity Archive.  I had the opportunity to interview (with Mark Jeacoma) Mr. Minotte for the VHS Rewind podcast.  He’s an exceptional (and curious) fellow.  The other channels I remember from those times were CNN, Nickelodeon (and Nick at Nite), MTV, TNN (aka The Nashville Network), and WTBS (not just TBS – it was considered a “superstation”, like Chicago’s WGN), the local affiliates, and a couple of bizarre public access stations.  I remember flipping to one of those stations and seeing our landlord at the time, an old Baptist pulpit-punding minister, broadcasting his own show!  He seemed like a nice man, but he wouldn’t allow us to keep any pets.  Nick at Nite was an astonishing find.  I discovered The Bob Cummings Show, Bachelor Father, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.  What I remember, in the days before cable television, the UHF stations in Philadelphia: channels 17, 29, and 48.  Channel 17 WPHL would run Star Trek and The Outer Limits.  Channel 29 (WTAF, later to become a FOX affiliate with terrible reception) would run Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.  Channel 48 WKBS (which went out of business in 1983) would show Creature Double Feature on Saturday mornings and afternoons.  Sometimes, if your antenna was in a good position, you could get the Vineland, New Jersey UHF channel.

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When I launched Vintage Cable Box on August 31 last year, I fully expected to begin the odyssey with Porky’s, but Wes Craven’s passing away over that weekend prompted me to change up my schedule, so I put out three reviews: Swamp Thing, Porky’s, and Rodney Dangerfield’s Easy Money. Looking at the reviews now, they seem more like perfunctory write-ups, descriptions of plots more than any true evaluation. I don’t think I really kicked it into gear until The Osterman Weekend (September 23, 2016). My Big Chill review the following week I rate as one of my best. National Lampoon’s Class Reunion was a sobering reminder that many of the movies I enjoyed as an eleven-year-old I could not stomach today. Some (very few) of these movies are absolutely horrible to watch. Class Reunion kicked off my first Halloween retrospective. I reviewed horror movies for the entire month and got my first big hit with my review of Amityville II: The Possession. Horror movies get great numbers for me. What really sells today is nostalgia, and you could even look back on a failed movie, a terrible movie, and express some level of nostalgia or affection for it, but if you can’t drum up that enthusiasm in yourself, it’s not going to work for your readers or your listening audience.  I know I have this problem on occasion.

Which brings me to those reviews I might have phoned in, because I couldn’t get into it while loving it as a child, and then considering it some form of exquisite torture in my later years.  November brought me The Rosebud Beach Hotel and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.  December’s Christmas cheer brought me The Man Who Wasn’t There, but it also brought me my biggest hit, A Christmas Story (to be rivaled only by Midnight Madness).  I think the elements of popularity and nostalgia (not to mention affection) combine to bring about a newfound interest; it’s not necessarily about how well you think you write.  If you are writing about something a reader has in the back of his or her head, that they remember, that they adore, you’ll get a lot of readers.  Get Crazy, a movie that barely had a release yet exploded on cable television, made me think about some hidden gems; the over-budgeted movies that scam-artist financers would sell to investors from which they would pocket the difference and laugh all the way to the bank.  It’s sort of like the plot to Mel Brooks’ The Producers.  Other examples include Somebody Killed Her Husband and (perhaps) The House of God.

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It’s amazing to me how some movies hold up, while others are terribly dated and get worse with age.  I remember adoring Breathless, They Call Me Bruce?, and Jekyll and Hyde – Together Again.  Now I hate them.  I can’t stand them.  In December, I launched a bit of a mini-series in that in appeared to me that several movies were being made at the time with writers as their central characters:  Deathtrap, Author! Author!, Romancing the Stone, Best Friends, and Romantic Comedy.  Nobody would ever dare make a movie about a writer these days.  Romantic Comedy would find it’s way into my series about Dudley Moore.  Moore was all over cable television at that time.  Dudley Moore’s particular skills revolved around his man-child characters, always unsatisfied, depressed, and yearning (or lusting) after women while negotiating his advanced years.  Sometimes, he would take a dramatic detour (Six Weeks), but those digressions were infrequent.  Mel Brooks’ 90th birthday was coming up, and I remembered seeing several of his movies (in another wonderful Movie Channel retrospective tied to the premiere of his To Be or Not to Be remake) so I put together the four that received endless play.

Stacey Nelkin in Get Crazy

There are also the unexpected deaths that changed my schedule (as with my very first review).  I mentioned in my (very quickly cobbled together) review of The Woman in Red that Gene Wilder’s passing forced me to rush that write-up.  I had originally planned to continue my articles up to the point we got the HBO satellite service in Philadelphia, and The Woman in Red would be featured.  The same situation forced me to publish a review for Garry Marshall’s Young Doctors in Love.  After the death of David Bowie, I wrote up the review for The Hunger.  I have a schedule in place, and I tend to write reviews well in advance of publication for this very reason.  So what are we up to?  At last count, 74 reviews have been published.  I had initially expected to put out an article once a week.  I figure I have about another year’s worth of material.  We’ll see what happens, but this has been a wonderful trip back to my past, and I hope you (the readers) will continue this journey with me.

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.

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Vintage Cable Box: “Eddie And The Cruisers, 1983”

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“They’ll find a way to screw us, they always do. Guys like you and me, they strike oil under your garden and all you get is dead tomatoes.”

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Eddie And The Cruisers, 1983 (Tom Berenger), Embassy Pictures

We start off with a live, rousing Springsteen-esque anthem, “On The Darkside”. Sultry rock journalist Ellen Barkin gives us the exposition. They were the biggest, baddest band in the land! Eddie and The Cruisers! Barkin wants to write a story based on her wild theory that Eddie is still alive. His car went off a bridge one night when the band was in free-fall after recording a concept album called A Season In Hell; a follow-up to their successful debut. The label refused to release the album and dropped the band. Barkin wants to find the tapes that went missing a day after Eddie’s disappearance.

Keyboardist Tom Berenger (affectionately known as “Word Man”) teaches high school literature. While a fulfilling job, it doesn’t hold a candle to those lost nights of his youth performing with the band. He flashes back to the Jersey Shore, 1962, where he first encounters hot backing vocalist Joann Carlino (Helen Schneider), boyfriend and front-man Eddie Wilson (Michael Paré), douchebag bass player Sal Amato (Matthew Laurance), and the rest, including a drug-addicted saxophonist, and a frenetic personal manager named “Doc” (Joe Pantoliano). Impressed with Berenger’s musical acumen, Eddie asks him to join the band.

Barkin dogs Berenger for her story (pun!). She wants to know what happened that fateful night of Eddie’s disappearance. Berenger returns to his trailer home to find the place has been ransacked. Obviously somebody’s looking for those tapes. He hooks up with “Doc”, now working as a disc jockey spinning oldies but goodies. He wants the tapes so he can get a cut of the loot from sales and promotion, and he wants to bring the group back together, but Berenger ain’t buying what “Doc” is selling.

Berenger seems to be taking a trip through his past, touching base with “Doc”, Sal (who has revived the act with an impostor Eddie), and finally, Joann, with whom he consummates their long-standing mutual infatuation. In a particularly charming scene that traces the evolution of their hit song, “On The Darkside” from a simple keyboard riff to a fully-realized and produced pop song, Berenger listens to Sal’s revival and can only bemoan the lack of charisma and energy. Flashing back to the past, Berenger remembers the band’s initial success. “Wild Summer Nights” and “Tender Years” become big hits.

Things take an inevitable down-turn.  Eddie spies “Word Man” and Joann getting friendly, which causes a rift in their relationship.  Wendell, the saxophonist, drops dead of a drug overdose, and the band is in ruins.  Back in the present, Joann tells “Word Man” she keeps getting strange phone calls, and her place is also ransacked.  She tells him about the last night she spent with Eddie after the acrimony at the studio in the wake of A Season In Hell.  He takes her to a bizarre junkyard museum.  Joann tells him she took the tapes and hid them in the museum.  Together, they retrieve the tapes, but somebody’s been watching them this whole time.  Is it Eddie?

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Eddie And The Cruisers is a fast-paced rock n’ roll mystery movie. It’s a movie I watched constantly on cable. While given a small release in theaters, all but forgotten, the film became enormously popular on cable television. In fact, the success of the movie played in constant cable rotation inspired a sequel, Eddie Lives in 1989. As Eddie, Michael Paré is a charismatic and good-looking front-man. He almost made me believe he was truly singing the John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band signature tunes that energize this movie’s soundtrack.

Martin Davidson directs (from a script he wrote with Arlene Davidson) with a sure hand and a love of music and music lore. Frequent collaborator Joseph Brooks produced the movie. Brooks also wrote the nausea-inducing, “You Light Up My Life”, and was charged with sexually assaulting eleven woman in his East Side apartment between 2005 and 2008. He committed suicide in 2011. His son, Nicholas, was sentenced to 25 years to life for the murder of his girlfriend, Sylvie Cachay in 2011. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

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 Man With Two Brains, 1983”

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“As far as I’m concerned, you’re the most complete woman I’ve ever known. All my life, I wanted women with great bodies, women who were “tens.” Now, for the first time, I’m aroused by a mind.”

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The Man With Two Brains, 1983 (Steve Martin), Warner Bros.

I make it a grueling and somewhat slavish practice to find the original release posters for the movies I cover. In all but one case, I was successful, but The House Of God never got an actual theatrical exhibition so no poster was produced. The poster for The Man With Two Brains is a simple image of a maniacal Steve Martin displaying his character’s famous “cranial screw-top method” of brain surgery. It’s a brilliant concept that says everything and nothing you need to know about this film. This was the movie that made me fall in love with Steve Martin. I know a lot of people talk about The Jerk from three years earlier, but I didn’t get to see that movie until after I’d seen this one.

Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (that’s a doozy!) runs over an evil, gold-digging Kathleen Turner, whom, among other things, enjoys punting cats, and cooking angel fish. She induces a heart attack in her latest husband, and is injured in her hasty escape. Hfuhruhurr resolves to save her life with his screw-top method. The operation is a success, and Turner has sunken her hooks into Hfuhruhurr’s heart. They marry, and almost immediately, she begins philandering (a term I’ve noted is almost exclusively attributed to men, which is interesting) while eluding her new husband’s advances, which frustrates him deeply. His colleague advises him to take his wife on a honeymoon trip to Europe; ostensibly a conference in gorgeous Vienna.

Meanwhile, Vienna is beset by the Elevator Killer, a madman who uses a hypodermic syringe filled with ammonia to murder his victims (in elevators, hence the name). The killer is working under the auspices of mad scientist Dr. Alfred Necessiter (hilarious David Warner, playing for laughs not menace) to supply him with fresh brains for his experiments. Necessiter invites Hfuhruhurr to his condominium (which is decked out to look like a laboratory in a b-movie). He discovers he can communicate with one of Necessiter’s brains, Anne Uumellmahaye (another doozy!), played by the voice of Sissy Spacek. When he realizes he’s made a horrible mistake in marrying the vixen Kathleen Turner, he falls in love with Anne, and makes a deal with Necessiter to transplant Anne’s brain into Turner’s body.

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Notwithstanding the obvious tribute to low-budget science fiction movies, and the refreshingly raunchy script (written by Martin, frequent collaborator Carl Reiner, and George Gipe), this is a surprisingly sweet and affectionate story about a lonely man searching for love (a frequent motif in Martin’s films and stories). Even as Hfuhruhurr is vain and egocentric, keeping his newspaper clippings in his coat for easy reference and making bold statements about his work such as “I can envision a day when the brains of brilliant men can be kept alive in the bodies of dumb people”, he embodies a certain masculine vulnerability that conceals his inadequacies. He lights up a room when he argues baseball with a disembodied brain in a jar. He puts a pair of wax lips on the jar so he can kiss Anne. It’s sad and funny at the same time.

This wouldn’t be an ’80s comedy without cheap jokes and sight gags.  The presence of cats in the surgery room.  The little girl taking instructions from Martin about prepping a patient.  The condominium walls made of thin paper.  The squeaky-voiced hooker.  Hfuhruhurr singing with Anne.  A lot of the humor recalls Mel Brooks in the popular culture, but both men (also collaborators in their own right) entered the business only a few years apart from each other, so it could be argued they swapped jokes on occasion.  Reiner (with Martin) reveals the subtle insecurities of men, and the (often) clumsy inner-workings of libido.  One of the most beautiful women of her time, Kathleen Turner is perfect as Dolores, Martin’s evil wife.

The Man With Two Brains was the first movie I ever watched on cable television.  The cable guy came over with the box and the wires, and in under an hour, we got the full package (the thirty or so channels I commemorate at the bottom of every Vintage Cable Box article).  In a way, The Man With Two Brains is the reason I started this column.  After this movie, I watched hundreds of movies.  This was my film school education.  It could be argued the greatest movies of all time were being played on cable television during those years (let’s estimate 1982 to 1985), and while this movie was not one of the greatest, it certainly qualified as one of the most fun.  I splurged and spent $6.99 on a full-frame double feature Steve Martin DVD at the nearby Rite-Aid.  I love this movie so much I even have it as Warner Bros. VHS clamshell.

If you like-a-me like I like-a-you
And we like-a-both the same
I’d like-a say this very day
I’d like-a-change your name

‘Cause I love-a-you and love-a-you true
And if you-a love-a-me
One live as two, two live as one
Under the bamboo tree

I’d like-a say this very day
I’d like-a-change your name

‘Cause I love-a-you and love-a-you true
And if you-a love-a-me
One live as two, two live as one
Under the bamboo tree

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 Keep, 1983”

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“You have released the foulness that dwells in all men’s minds! You have infected millions with your twisted fantasies! And from the millions of diseased mentalities that worship your twisted cross… what monstrosity has been released in this keep?”

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The Keep, 1983 (Scott Glenn), Paramount Pictures

An Argento/Goblins-like musical collage (courtesy of realist post-punk 80s staple, Tangerine Dream) fills our ears as Michael Mann’s chilling, underrated The Keep begins. Jürgen Prochnow’s strikingly pale blue eye gazes upon innocent Romanian villagers living at the base of an immense citadel. He is the Captain of a German Army sent (for strategic purposes) to control a crucial mountain pass, and the citadel (a castle-keep) is to be their base of operations.

The keep is maintained by a batty old man who warns the soldiers not to strip the walls of crosses made from solid nickel, but their unearthly glow (that a couple of dimwitted soldiers are convinced is silver) is just too tantalizing to ignore. Breaking through a wall, situated at the precipice of what appears to be an enormous temple, the soldiers are killed by a long-dormant entity. The spirit’s resurgence causes a creepy and mysterious (yet hauntingly striking) Scott Glenn to enter the picture. He charters a boat to Romania.

The SS arrives (under the command of the evil – Whew! Here we go – Sturmbannführer Erich Kaempffer played by Gabriel Byrne) and begins executing the villagers as Communists. Prochnow (as a soldier in the regular German army) locks horns with Byrne and warns him of the unusual power of the castle-keep, but Byrne ain’t hearin’ none of it. The Germans retain ailing Jewish professor Theodore Cruza (Ian McKellen, rocking a fedora, though not quite convincing as an old man) and his hot daughter, Eva, to translate the inscriptions on the castle walls. When soldiers try to rape Eva, the entity appears and causes their heads to explode. After confronting the entity, Eva’s father is rejuvenated, possibly cured, as he reasons the spirit feeds on it’s victims’ souls.

Eva escapes (with Prochnow’s help) and takes up residence in a nearby Inn where she meets up with Glenn’s ambiguous visitor.  For reasons that are never explained, they make love.  He tells her he’s a traveler from “everywhere”, whatever that means.  He tells Eva he is to guard against the resurrection of the entity (identified as “Molasar”).  Glenn is arrested by the SS.  He is revealed to possess super-strength and appears to be impervious to bullets.

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By itself – if you know nothing of the film’s troubled production history – the narrative holds up surprisingly well. Upon closer evaluation, I can see that enormous sections of the story were left out of the general release granted by Paramount. There’s simply too much in the way of stunning art design, set decoration, and cinematography to be relegated to a paltry 95 minutes.

Michael Mann’s original cut of the film ran some three-and-a-half hours. It is replete with his early style; that of gorgeous widescreen composition, moody performances, and synthesizer-heavy music, reminiscent of his previous work, Thief, and his later effort, Manhunter. This is a movie screaming out to be restored and released in Mann’s director’s cut; given the Blade Runner treatment. Strangely, the movie is not available in either DVD or Blu Ray format (indeed the version I recently watched was on an old laserdisc), but it did receive heavy rotation on cable channels in the early 80s, which is where I first saw it.

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.