If you were truly a child of the 80’s, several things are for certain. One, if you were an 80’s adolescent girl, you owned a pair of jelly shoes. If you were an 80’s adolescent boy, you had a crush on a girl who owned a pair of jelly shoes. Also, you definitely remember when Pizza Hut was a sit down restaurant with a pac-man table and red plastic drinking glasses, and to this day I will only drink Dr. Pepper out of such a glass. Furthermore, if you were an 80’s kid you knew how to roll a french cuff on your acid washed jeans if they didn’t come pre-tapered. And lastly, your family had a shelf (or shelves) of VHS cassette tapes that had no less than three movies dubbed onto them in EP mode (extended play, allowing for nearly 8 hours of grainy, fuzzy and warbled content). If you weren’t on top of your TV Guide, you could miss an upcoming movie or show and had no choice but grab the nearest VHS cassette that had an empty space at the end. It may have not been the most effective method, but it worked. What we didn’t realize at the time was that we were creating the foundations of a better world. With the collections of films on these grungy little cassette tapes, cinematic educations were being forged, as most of the time they were eclectic mixes of genres that had no business being together, but that’s what made them great. Where else could you find a double bill featuring Rambo 2 and Bambi? Who in their right mind would program a children’s matinee with The Never Ending Story and Terms of Endearment? I’ll tell you who. My Parents – actually, many people’s parents. Over the course of this recollection, I will guide you through the jungle of VHS “Mix Tapes” that I grew up with, and maybe you’ll recall some that were on the shelves of your childhood home.
In the restaurant industry, we had a system of four descriptors for various menu items. You had the STAR- the item you’re known for, the one that people will travel from miles away to get. The trick however is to not have too many STARS, as they are sometimes costly and can plug up the inner workings of the restaurant if ordered too frequently will nothing to fill the gaps. These VHS Mix-tapes were similar to that. You couldn’t have too many STARS on the cassette, as it would wear our the tape from watching the same film over and over again, you needed something to even things out. For that you would need the PLOW HORSE – the old reliable. The item that you could always turn to if nothing else could appease your appetite. THE PUZZLE… what is it doing there? Why are people ordering it? It doesn’t even fit with the theme, but for some strange reason it shows up on the profit log so you keep it. And finally – THE DOG. Everyone needs a dog on their menu. It’s cheap, its fast to make, and just enough people will order it to keep your margins balanced. In a way, a solid Extended Play Cassette functions the same way, as I highly doubt that anyone ever had a tape with all winners on it. What fun would that be? No, the best mixes were all a scattered mix of DOGS, STARS, PLOW HORSES and PUZZLES, and it’s my hope to highlight some of the tapes from my youth. Who knows, law of averages states that there is a possibility that someone out there had the exact same tape, albeit in different order. This tape was one of the favorites of my youth, and I wish I still had it.
VOLUME 1: YELLOW KODAK – CONTENTS AS FOLLOWS:
AND JUSTICE FOR ALL: You wouldn’t expect a six year old child to have seen this movie, but I did – many times. It was the first film on the tape and I had to fast-forward through it to get to my favorite film on the tape (which I will get to later). Norman Jewison skillfully directs this courtroom comedy/drama from a script by Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin. It follows the story of Arthur Kirkland- played by Al Pacino in an Oscar nominated performance (my personal favorite of his), a veteran defense attorney who struggles with the hypocrisy of America’s Legal System. The idea of justice is broken, as it seems that the innocent and the disenfranchised end up paying for the crimes and disgressions of those with power and influence. Arthur sees this first hand whilst dealing with a judge name Henry Fleming, a cruel and bitter man who takes pleasure in crushing ‘the guilty”, including one of Arthur’s clients who was wrongly imprisoned and not set free due to a technicality. This pushes Arthur to the edge of sanity and his career after attempting to punch the unruly Judge. The tables turn however when Judge Fleming is arrested for the rape of a young woman, and Arthur is handpicked to defend him for political reasons. Arthur’s two partners, played by Jeffery Tambor and Larry Bryggman, find the whole situation hilarious, until the pressure of the case and how it affects them begins to take it’s toll on everyone’s sanity. As if Arthur isn’t dealing with enough, he finds himself in a romantic entanglement with a fellow lawyer who is on the board of legal affairs that is currently looking into Arthur’s past. With all this and an unbalanced and suicidal judge in charge of the trial (Jack Warden in a scene stealing performance), will Arthur stand true to the oath he took as a lawyer, or will he stand up against the system?
A lot had to be explained to me when I first saw this as a child. I didn’t understand what a cross-dresser was, and when it was honestly explained to me by my mother, it made my heart break for Ralph Aggy, a trans woman who made a bad decision and now had to deal with the corrupt and unempathetic legal system to decide their fate. I also didn’t understand that a lawyer is expected to defend his client, even if he knew the client was guilty, it made me never want to be a lawyer, let alone do something to get stuck in the legal system. As the film leads up to it’s electrifying climax, with the now classic “YOU’RE OUT OF ORDER!” rant that Pacino delivers so masterfully, you begin to see that this man has given up on the system of justice that he has spent his entire life defending, and you wonder… what’s next for him?
At some point in my childhood, I stopped fast-forwarding. If the tape was cued at the beginning, I’d watch it all the way through to get to the film I really wanted to watch….
I mean, what can I say about Ghostbusters that hasn’t already been said about Ghostbusters? If you were a kid in the 80’s, this was your manna. No, not the magical life force you earn in role playing fantasy games, I’m talking about that shit in the bible that fell from the sky and kept you alive in the desert. A kid with a VCR could watch this 20 times a week and feel like they were lagging behind. This was the MOVIE of the 80’s, and I had it – well… most of it. I had 100 minutes of it. The other 7 I didn’t see until I was probably 10 and someone bought me the real deal, slip cover and all. No, My version started right at the end of the library scene, just as the ghostly librarian turns into a sinister ghoul and scares the boys half to death. I never got to see the ESP test or ray getting slapped across the forehead. I didn’t to hear about the mass sponge migration or the whether or not Alice was menstruating. Most unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear Ray’s brilliant plant. No Matter, I watched that 100 minutes like it was the only thing keeping me alive.
We all know the story, where a humble group of paranormal investigators (and a psychologist with P.H.D. in psychology and parapsychology) decide to go into business for themselves, taking out a third mortgage on Ray’s (Dan Aykroyd) house to pay for the development of thermo-nuclear accelerators that can capture ghosts and contain them. Of course, THE MAN gets involved (in the form of William Atherton as a EPA investigator) shuts everything down and chaos ensues, and it’s up to the boys to save the day!
Like I said, we all know the movie backwards and forwards. But what it meant for me was something entirely different. It was more than a movie, it was a lifestyle. My mom made me a set of Ghostbusters coveralls, and with the release of The Real Ghostbusters animated TV show in 1986, there were actual Ghostbusters replicas that completed the package, no more pretending that my moms curling iron was the muzzle of positron collider, huh? With my outfit complete, it was pretty much all I ever wore outside of school for a solid two years. If we had to go to the grocery store – Ghostbuster. Thifty’s for an ice cream cone – Ghostbuster. The Library for storytime- Ghostbuster. I was a Ghostbuster through and through. Even at school all the kids played Ghostbusters instead of TAG or FOURSQUARE, and everyone fought over who was gonna be Venkman. Not me, I always was and always will be an Egon Spengler man (RIP Harold Ramis).
In 1988, a seven year old me was playing Ghostbusters with my friends during recess, Of course outside toys weren’t allowed on school grounds, so we had to improvise with what was available to us, mostly utilizing tree branches and rulers with black magic markers taped to the ends for our proton packs. My second grade crush was named Sandy. She was a tomboy through and through. If she was playing Ghostbusters with you, she was Venkman, and nobody argued with it, not unless they wanted a black eye. It was the perfect set up – Sandy was Venkman, I was Egon, my friend Cory was Ray, and our friend Ryan was Winston (granted…he wasn’t black – he was Iranian, but he was cool with being Winston so calm down). The setup was that were making GHOSTBUSTERS 2 (which didn’t exist yet) and I was in charge of the story. I wrote it during math class, so I wasn’t paying attention, hence my poor math grades for the rest of my life. Here is how it went:
The Ghostbusters are called out to a job at a haunted house in New Jersey and Egon and Venkman kiss behind the jungle gym. The End.
It turned out to be a great recess, even though we got caught and had to clean the chalkboard erasers after school.
The next film on the tape was not my favorite, but I watched it often because I was too lazy as a child to get up and stop the cassette and rewind it… 1985’s STONE PILLOW
But on the cassette label, it was spelled PELLOW, with and “e’.
Obviously this was something my Mom dubbed off of TV, but the sickly sweet story of a homeless old woman played by Lucille Ball really spoke to me and changed the way I looked at homeless people (at least when I was seven). This 1985 TV movie directed by Georege Schaefer (who also directed the 1983 version of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which I was subjected to Alex Delarge style during my youth in a private Christian school).
It follows the story of an elderly homeless woman in New York City named Florabelle (played by Lucy) whose entire life fits in her precious shopping cart. She spends her days rummaging through the dumpsters and bins of the city, adding to her cart of treasures all the while being accosted by street punks and business owners that want her off their stoops. Pretty much everyone calls her “bag lady”, which in my opinion is unfair. She has a cart asshole, show some respect. Anyway, one day Florabelle has her cart stolen by another homeless person, but it is rescued by a young social worker named Carrie (played by Daphne Zuniga – Princess Vespa from Spaceballs.) Carrie pretends to be a runaway in order to get closer to Florabelle, and learns the rules of the streets (such as pretending you’re crazy and eating lots of fresh vegetables….okay.) The two become fast friends until Flora goes to a shelter and sees Carrie working there. Feeling betrayed, Flora runs off into the streets and gets put into a shelter in which her precious cart is taken away and where she is abused by the staff. Will Carrie find her before it’s too late? Should she really try to get her off the street, or is the street the only place she can truly be happy?
As a young boy, this film made me feel compassion for the homeless, but also made me realize that we are all either one mistake or one paycheck away from being on the street. Interesting that over thirty years later I still think of that, and therefore think of this film – the third one on this magical mix tape.
Now…. the last thing on the tape was not exactly a movie. In the days before the convenience of YouTube, if you wanted to watch a music video, you had to watch it on MTV, or god forbid… VH1. If you were lucky enough, you could have a tape at the ready to record your favorite music video. And that is exactly how I got Michael Jackson’s Thriller on the end of this tape.
Riding off the massive success of his album of the same name, the first two videos off the album were Billy Jean and Beat it, both of which received massive airplay on MTV and network television. But after a year on the charts, the album slipped from number one. Looking to gain some ground back in the charts, it was decided that they would make a “short film” off of the title track, which really wasn’t getting as much radio play at the time as it was considered too gimicky for mainstream audiences, and that’s exactly what Michael and his production team were going to focus on. They hired John Landis, hot off the success of American Werewolf in London (and recently off the hook for involuntary manslaughter for the deaths that occurred on the set of the Twilight Zone Movie) to help conceive and direct the musical short film. The idea was to take the nostalgic joy of 50’s creature features to lure in the audience with something familiar and comfortable, then SHOCK them with a disturbing transformation. They would get a chance to simmer down with a brief musical interlude from Michael as he walks his date home from the theater, that is until….FUCKING ZOMBIES emerge from the ground spewing blood and puss. They begin to lurk Michael and his date (played by Ola Ray, a former playboy playmate who had been featured in classics like 10 TO MIDNIGHT, 48 HOURS and BEVERLY HILLS COP 2) until they have them cornered in an alley way. She turns to Michael for comfort when… it is revealed that he is a ghoul himself!
And then…. THEY DANCE! And if you can’t picture the zombie dance from Thriller in your mind then you need to reevaluate your life.
So I loved Thriller, mostly because it scared the hell out of me. I had never been afraid of vampires or monsters, but as a young child there was a part of me that believed that ZOMBIES could actually be real. I literally have spent my life with a ZOMBIE SURVIVAL PLAN in the back of my mind. Now what was best about this copy of Thriller that was on this magical mix tape was that it also included a 20 minute “making of” documentary, which I actually watched more than the video itself. It was one of my early peeks into the business of filmmaking and it left me fascinated with the process. At age seven, it seemed unbelievable to me that a man could spend four hours in a make-up chair to be turned into a were-cat, or whatever the hell he is. Or that when the director yelled CUT, all the terrifying zombie creatures would just pop out of character and smoke a cigarette and joke around. Seeing Michael in his natural element, not performing, was also intriguing to me as I had only ever really seen him in music videos or on TV moonwalking. This featurette was the seedling for my love of featured content, behind the scenes footage and directors commentary, making me more fascinated int he process that the final product.
I kept that mix tape well into my 30’s. I don’t know what it is about getting older and recognizing the accumulation of “stuff”, but there seems to come a point where you stop looking at the emotional value of things and focus more on their monetary value or the economy of “space” in your home. One day not long after buying a new house and figuring out where the hell I was gonna put all this “stuff”, I had a minor tantrum and tossed all my old VHS bootlegs and tapes that I hadn’t already given away into the dumpster. Good riddance, right? That is until you sit down one night and start thinking about the childhood memories a small black cassette tape in a yellow Kodak slip cover brought you, and you start digging through your boxes of junk to find it, only to realize that in a fit of anger over having too much stuff, you through your childhood away. What happens next? You try to replace it. Now that you have a little money to spend, you fall victim to the boutique BLU-RAY LABELS like Arrow, Severin, Kino Lorber, Scream Factory, Vinegar Syndrome and the like. You spend ridiculous amounts of cash on special edition slip covers and steel books. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, If I had the foresight years ago, I’d have gone into that business for sure. But no matter how full your Physical Media shelf is, or how many likes on Instagram your collection photos get… nothing will ever replace the joy found on those VHS Mix Tapes.
Until Next Time!