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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New Episode! “The Great American Movie (Part Two)”

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“Making A Murderer” (a 2015 Netflix documentary series directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos), “The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell Of Fear” (a 1991 film directed by David Zucker), “Bruce Almighty” (a 2003 film directed by Tom Shadyac), “Young Frankenstein” (a 1974 film directed by Mel Brooks), “Bugs Bunny Get The Boid” (a 1942 Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Bob Clampett), “Oh Happy Day” (Edwin Hawkins, based on 18th-century hymn) by The Edwin Hawkins Singers.

New Episode! “The Great American Movie (Part One)”

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“Psycho Killer” (David Byrne/Chris Frantz/Tina Weymouth) by Talking Heads (from the 1977 album, “Talking Heads: 77”), “Making A Murderer” (a 2015 Netflix documentary series directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos), “Bruce Almighty” (a 2003 film directed by Tom Shadyac), “Young Frankenstein” (a 1974 film directed by Mel Brooks), “Bugs Bunny Get The Boid” (a 1942 Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Bob Clampett), “Scarface” (a 1983 film directed by Brian De Palma), “Terms Of Endearment” (a 1983 film directed by James L. Brooks), “How I Could Just Kill a Man” (Louis Freese/Senen Reyes/Lawrence Muggerud) by Rage Against The Machine (from the 2000 album, “Renegades”).

Vintage Cable Box: “Deathtrap, 1982”

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“I want a short-cut, Sidney. And I really don’t care whose yard I cut through, if you understand me.”

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Deathtrap, 1982 (Michael Caine), Warner Bros.

Michael Caine’s Sidney Bruhl, a successful playwright who specializes in the macabre is livid over the terrible reviews for his latest play, Murder Most Fair. His somewhat dizzy, weak-hearted but wealthy wife, Myra (Dyan Cannon), cannot understand his anger. Protégé and fan Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve) sends him his latest manuscript, Deathtrap; the unqualified genius of which drives Caine to the breaking point as he contemplates murdering him and claiming the work for his own. He invites Reeve out to his house in Montauk.

After “killing” Reeve and covering up all evidence of the crime, Caine attempts to soothe his distraught wife. Reeve recovers, obviously not dead, attacks Caine and drives Cannon to have a heart attack. It is then revealed that Reeve and Caine were co-conspirator’s in Cannon’s death, in order to take her vast fortune. Weeks pass and Reeve and Caine collaborate on another play. Cannon has left her fortune to Caine. Paranoia and suspicion sets in as Caine begins to convince himself (with the aid of his lawyer played by Henry Jones) that Reeve is looking to take his money, or planning to extort him. He discovers that Reeve has written a play about Cannon’s death and the machinations involved, and he has titled it Deathtrap.

Caine’s world-reknowned psychic next-door neighbor (whom had previously foresaw the death of Cannon) arrives on a stormy night and informs Caine that Reeve will attack him, fueling his panic further. In a scene filled with baited anticipation, Reeve and Caine are working out stage blocking when Caine pulls out a gun and tells him he can’t be permitted to finish the play. Caine has set up Reeve, leaving all the proper clues to implicate Reeve in his wife’s death. Of course, Reeve sees it coming and removes the bullets, turning the tables on Caine.

As deliciously convoluted as this stage play-turned-suspense-thriller is, you can see that this is a playwright’s own murder fantasy. It was originally written for the stage by Ira Levin, and played a record 1,793 performances; the longest running thriller on Broadway to this day. With the exception of a few short scenes in the city and on the grounds, the entirety of the movie takes place in Bruhl’s house, the living room specifically, so visually the palette is limited, but Sidney Lumet, the film’s director, cut his teeth in studio television production, so he knows how to get the most out of his limited sets.

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Writers are a bitchy group. With enormous egos and leanings toward a kind of creative psychopathy, they live in fear of a lack of originality. I know I’ve been through that myself. I’ll write a million pages and then toss them, flagellating myself for not being “original” enough. It’s hard enough to negotiate, but even harder when I see that originality is a limited and precious commodity in today’s creative marketplace. Writers often accuse each other of plagiarism because they know they can only be creative for so long. Writers live and breathe the construction of their characters, so it’s only fitting that Sidney Bruhl have murder on his mind.

In one particularly tense scene, Caine outlines the definition of a sociopath to Reeve as “one who has no sense of moral obligation whatsoever”. Reeve can only gloat, and his performance in Deathtrap conjures up images of what could have been. He is so confident, so assured, and so human, it makes me wonder what turn his career would’ve taken had he not put on the big red cape. He was a brilliant actor, forever typecast as Superman, and as such, serious work was hard to come by.

Sidney Lumet’s first foray into pictures was 12 Angry Men and every few years, he would make a masterpiece like The Pawnbroker, or Serpico, or Dog Day Afternoon, or Network. Incredibly prolific, he book-ended Deathtrap with Prince of the City and The Verdict in the space of three years. In 1970, he said, “Every picture I did was an active, believable, passionate wish.” Lumet died in 2011.

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.