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.

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Vintage Cable Box: “Somebody Killed Her Husband, 1978”

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“When I was a kid, my father had one word of advice he gave me, I’ll never forget it.  You know what he said?  ‘Jerome, if ever you are in seriously desperate trouble, remember … that … God, in his infinite wisdom has ordained that I’ll be playing pinochle and you’ll handle the whole thing yourself’!”

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Somebody Killed Her Husband, 1978 (Jeff Bridges), Columbia Pictures

There’s a special place in the bottomless bin of lost cinema for a movie like Somebody Killed Her Husband, Reginald Rose’s Edgar®-nominated screenplay directed by Lamont Johnson and starring two bonafide stars of their time, a heavily-bearded Jeff Bridges and Farrah Fawcett-Majors. They meet-cute in the toy department at Macy’s, where Bridges works. He’s a frustrated writer concocting a bizarre children’s story about a caterpillar that saves the world. Like me, he tends to talk to himself, spouting ideas in public, and not caring whether people think he’s crazy. He falls in love (so to speak) at first sight with Farrah, chats her up and has lunch with her and her child in the park.

Bridges and Fawcett-Majors are trapped in relationships with boring, selfish nitwits so it’s only natural they start to enjoy each other’s company. They fall in love almost immediately, and I wish I could say this was strictly and exclusively a film’s narrative device in order to advance the plot, but I’ve had those feelings, and witnessed them in others. Here, it seems completely normal, and ignites some memories for me. Seriously, there’s nothing like falling in love. It’s almost like a glorious drug.

One night during their tryst, Farrah’s husband arrives home early with an unseen guest. As Bridges and Fawcett-Majors prepare to deliver the news of their love to her husband, they see that he has been stabbed to death in her kitchen. This is a well-executed scene, which effortlessly glides from romantic comedy to sheer terror. While Farrah wants to call the police, Bridges (being a typical New York City paranoid personality) believes they’ll be framed for his murder, so he resolves to solve the crime himself. They stuff the body in the refrigerator and get to work. With his fully-functioning writer’s mind, he tries to break down the events leading up to the murder, or any possible suspects.

Complicating matters are Farrah’s housekeeper (Mary McCarty) and her husband’s new secretary (John Glover), as well as nosy neighbors and acquaintances. While Farrah searches for her dead husband’s personal papers, Bridges must play babysitter to her son. He bounces ideas off the child as to who would possibly kill the man. Suspiciously, a plainclothes detective shows up to check the apartment because of a broken window. This has never happened in my experience living in the big city. Bridges discovers the apartment is being bugged, and this is where matters get tense. The people secretly recording Farrah are her bizarre neighbors (John Wood and Tammy Grimes).

Bridges connects the dots and figures the neighbors had the fake cop bug the apartment. While attempting a switcheroo and bugging the neighbors with their own recording equipment, he finds that they’ve been killed! They find jewelry and listings for insurance payments based on a scam to “steal” jewelry and divide the proceeds from the cash value while keeping the jewelry. Yes, it all sounds convoluted, but it is a movie, after all. It shouldn’t work at all, but it does for me, and Bridges and Fawcett-Majors make for an engaging, amiable pair. The movie has a refreshingly old-fashioned feel to it, as though it could’ve been made in the 50s or 60s.

Based on some of the reviews I read, critics were not particularly kind to Somebody Killed Her Husband, mostly because of Fawcett-Majors, as she recently departed the popular television series Charlie’s Angels to start a movie career. Others cited parallels to Charade, and in fact, the movie was re-titled Charade ’79 for release in Japan. As in the case of Get Crazy, the movie was pre-sold with an inflated budget by it’s investors expecting it to flop so they could earn a quick profit. I’ve always enjoyed this movie. There is a wonderful conversation between Bridges and the killer at the film’s climax which is well worth the experience. Bridges outlines the killer’s plan and the killer is impressed with Bridges’ acumen. That this movie remains in the bottomless bin of lost cinema is tragic, although I could’ve done without the Neil Sedaka song!

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.