I remember Laser Tag as an exciting but fairly brief blip in 1980’s pop culture. A lot of the kids I knew got excited about these commercials, a lot of us asked earnestly for Laser Tag guns Christmas, and … none of us got them. (Our parents seemed unanimous that they were too expensive.)
Ah, well. The subsequent buzz around my neighborhood was that our parents were probably wise, anyway — we heard later that the guns hardly worked, making the product nowhere near as cool as the commercials depicted. (I am linking below to Kevin Noonan’s Youtube Channel, by the way.)
And then the fad faded — all the hubbub around Laser Tag (and Photon, its cheaper competitor) just kinda went away. It sort of makes sense. Paintball was alive and well as an edgier, more subversive, and more exciting sport; I can’t imagine how these gaudy electronic products could compete with that.
The Wikipedia entry for Laser Tag had a couple of surprises for me. For starters, the technology for the products’ infrared light guns and sensors was developed by the United States Army in the 1970’s — I guess it was an Ender’s Game-type scenario. And the first game system using the technology was South Bend’s Star Trek Electronic Phaser Guns in 1979. (Those toys were released in conjunction with the premiere of that year’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”)
Didn’t see that one coming. I’ll bet those toys fetch a nice price among collectors.
Anyway, there was another Laser Tag commercial that everybody talked about back in the day … it depicted American and Russian teams competing in a dystopian-future tournament, in which the Statue of Liberty was the trophy. It’s smile-inducing. I couldn’t find a really decent copy of it to link to here, but you can find it on Youtube.
I have some great memories of sipping ice pops and playing “Sorry!” with my best friend on his back patio after a long summer day. (I believe it was licensed by Parker Brothers in the 1980’s, and not Hasbro.) Not once did anyone ever chime in and say “sorry” during gameplay. Because that would have been weird and stupid.
These commercials were ubiquitous in the 1970’s. If you were a small child, you could rattle off the trademark slogan without even understanding what it meant, and adults would find it extremely funny. (The ad actually isn’t terribly funny by itself. The 1980’s had a plenty of inspired commercials. but the few I can remember from the 70’s were generally lame.)
Anyway, fast-forward about 12 years to when I was a senior in high school … a buddy of mine actually handed me a can of V8 and dared me to pound it in one gulp. (For those not in the know, the product is a phenomenally awful beverage concocted from vegetable juices.) I took the dare. And I wound up projectile vomiting like a god damned fire hose — all over the rear bumper of that 1972 Plymouth Duster that I loved so much.
I suppose that I could try to blame my lifelong abhorrence for vegetables on that experience, but I hated greens even when I was a kid. (I was endlessly sneaking them to the dog at the dinner table; I wrote a story about it in the second grade that my parents nevertheless found amusing when I brought it home.)
The V8 vegetable drink is still around; the company is owned by Campbell’s. Somebody should find out where it’s canned, break into the place at night and just machine-gun all the cans in the same manner as Ripley shooting all the alien eggs at the climax of “Aliens” (1986). It would be a public service.
So I’m introducing a dear friend tonight to “28 Days Later” (2002). It is possibly my favorite horror film of all time, maybe even narrowly beating out “Aliens” (1986), “Alien 3” (1992), John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982), the Sutherland-tacular 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and George A. Romero’s first three “Dead” films (1968, 1978, 1985). (Whenever “Star Wars” fans refer to their “Holy Trilogy,” I muse inwardly that those last three are its equivalent for zombie horror fans.)
My friend thinks it’s funny that I refer to “28 Days Later” as “my sacred cow.” I’ll be crestfallen if she does not like it, and I told her as much. And that’s weird for me … I usually don’t feel let down when someone doesn’t enjoy the same books, movies or music that I do. Not everything is for everyone. Art would lose its mystique if it weren’t subjective. If all art appealed to all people, it would lose all its appeal altogether.
Part of me feels, unconsciously perhaps, that “28 Days Later” is the kind of film that “redeems” the horror genre (even though no genre needs such redemption — if art is well made or if it affects people, then it’s just fine).
Most comic book fans of my generation can tell you how people can occasionally roll their eyes at their favorite medium. (Comics have far greater mainstream acceptance today than when I started reading them in the 1990’s.) For horror fans, it’s sometimes worse. Horror is a genre that is easily pathologized — and sometimes with good reason, because a portion of what it produces is indeed cheap or exploitative. I wish I could accurately describe for you the looks I’ve gotten when acquaintances find out that I’m a horror fan. They aren’t charitable.
“28 Days Later” and movies like it are so good that they elevate horror to a level that demands respect from the uninitiated. It is an intrinsically excellent film — it just happens to have a sci-f-/horror plot setup and setting. It’s beautifully directed by Danny Boyle, it’s perfectly scored and it’s masterfully performed by its cast — most notably by Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson.
“Willard” (1971) and its sequel, “Ben” (1972), were another pair of 1970’s movies that got plenty of airtime on 1980’s television. I read both books when I was a kid too.
First I picked up Stephen Gilbert’s Ratman’s Notebooks at a yard sale, because that’s how you found cool horror books during summer vacations when you were too young to drive. (Sometimes adults had few compunctions about what they sold to minors too. I bought a vampire book in gradeschool that was full of nude photos, for some reason, and that led to what I’m sure was an interesting conversation between my parents and the neighbor-proprietor down the street.)
Anyway, I absolutely loved Ratman’s Notebooks (despite its lamentable absence of nude photos) and I finished it in a day or two. The novelization of the “Ben” film by Gilbert A. Ralston was somewhat less impressive, but I still enjoyed it.
If you’re a comics fan, like I am, then it might occur you that “Willard” and his army of trained rats seem to inspire a villain in Batman’s rogue’s gallery — Ratcatcher. Ratcatcher has been a minor league villain since he debuted in DC Comics in 1988, but he’s a pretty neat bad guy when placed in the hands of the right writer.
I feel certain that anyone will recognize Ernest Borgnine in the first trailer below– his face and voice are impossible to confuse with those of another man. If the disaffected, spooky, eponymous Willard looks familiar to you, that’s none other than a young Bruce Davison. He’s a good actor who’s been in a lot of films, but I think a plurality of my friends will know him as Senator Kelly from the first two “X-Men” movies (2000, 2003).
You’ll note the presence of flamethrowers in the trailer for “Ben.” Flamethrowers were a staple of 70’s and 80’s horror films; it was just part of the zeitgeist. They were handy for heroes fighting any nigh-unstoppable nonhuman baddie — think of “The Swarm” (1978), “The Thing” (1982), “C.H.U.D.” (1984), “Aliens” (1986), and “The Blob” (1988), for example. Hell, 1980’s “The Exterminator” featured a vigilante using a flamethrower to kill criminals. It was a weird time.
I swear this spider was as long as my thumb. I could have put my shoe or maybe a quarter next to it for scale, but I don’t want to stick any part of my body near this thing, and I don’t want to subsidize its hellish agenda. (I did kinda zoom out so that you can compare it to the size of the curb.)
What does it eat?! Birds?! Why does it appear to have racing stripes?!
To quote the immortal Ellen Ripley, I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.
Update: someone is trying to persuade me that this is a “garden spider,” and that they are quite harmless. I’m not sure I buy that.
“Kingdom of the Spiders” (1977) was yet another 70’s bug-apocalypse flick that aired from time to time on 1980’s television. As I recall, this one was kinda good … or at least it was scary enough to impress me as a grade-school kid. The movie wisely made use of a truly frightening adversary (and used live tarantulas for filming). And it had the kind of jarring, open-ended final scene that I hadn’t seen before for a sci-fi/horror film.
The only thing that detracted from its creep-factor was the presence of William Shatner as the lead. It wasn’t that Shatner did a poor job with the role — it was just that he was indelibly linked in my young mind to his iconic role in the original “Star Trek” (1966-1969). I simply couldn’t get past the idea that Captain Kirk was an ordinary veterinarian; it took me out of the movie. I’m willing to bet that Shatner was helming the cop drama “T.J. Hooker” (1982-1986) at around the time that I saw “Kingdom of the Spiders,” but that was a show I didn’t watch.
Anyway, if you want to catch the flick in its entirety, you can find the whole thing over at Youtube right here.
Until last night, I’d never actually seen 1988’s “Pumpkinhead” — even though I occasionally joked online about its inspired, iconic titular monster. I was predictably pleased by the movie’s creature effects, but even more disappointed than I thought I’d be by the film’s overall quality. I’d rate the film a 7 out of 10, based on my own enjoyment of it — but I’m a horror fan who loves monsters and who’s typically forgiving of 80’s cheese. If you haven’t seen “Pumpkinhead,” I suspect you’ll finds its flaws a little more egregious than I did.
The film’s strengths are its fantastic monster, designed by legendary visual effects master Stan Winston, and its interesting story concept. It’s easy to see why the sneering, towering golem here inspired a cult fanbase — complete with sequels, videogames and comic books. (Yes, horror movie pedants, I realize that Pumpkinhead is technically a demon-infused and magically mutilated corpse, and not a golem. Whatever.)
This is Winston’s first turn as a director, too … and it seems to me that his genius apparently didn’t quite extend to this larger role. “Pumpkinhead” feels cobbled together, even by 80’s-movie standards, with poor writing, acting and editing throughout. The presence of Lance Henriksen improves matters somewhat, as does an adolescent Brian Bremer in the role of “Bunt.”. (Bremer looks to be about 13 or 14 years old, but he easily outshines his adult co-stars. His surprisingly relaxed performance might be the equal of Henriksen’s. The latter is usually as good as we expect, but even he actually flubs a line here and there. He’s a long way from his brilliant turn as the “Bishop” android in the classic “Aliens” two years prior.)
All things considered, I’m not sure I would actually recommend “Pumpkinhead.”