Armagideon Time

I didn’t set foot into a proper movie theater until I was eight years old, when my aunt took my brother and I to see The Black Stallion at the multiplex across the highway from the North Woburn shopping plaza.

Up until (and even for a few years after) then, the entirety of my big screen viewing experiences took place in the back of my parents’ gas-guzzling domestic dinosaurs at the Billerica drive-in. That’s where I saw Star Wars, Superman, and the cinematic release of the Battlestar Galactica pliot. It was also the first place I ever saw a real live videogame machine (a battered Night Driver cabinet in the snackbar lobby) and heard my first Blondie song (“Heart of Glass,” pumped through a tinny drive-in speaker).

It’s not difficult to figure out why my dad preferred the drive-in to the multiplex. It offered a degree of privacy, which made it easier to cuff the ear of his unruly children and allowed him to knock back a few cold ones from a strategically placed Styrofoam cooler.

1983 would mark the end of my drive-in years, but not before I got a chance to see damaged and poorly spliced prints of D.C. Cab and Rocky III on a double bill branded “T’n’T.” I pity the fool who brainstormed that one, but also admire his trend-chasing gusto.

Gotta gather those gold chains while ye may, sucker. And that’s no jibber-jabber.

(This was the likely genesis of the Mr. T psuedo-fandom — as in “friends and classmates assumed I was a huge fan and give me Mr. T ephemera out of the blue” — that would hang over me until high school, and I would end up leaning into at the dawn of the eBay era.)

Falling between the local cineplex the drive-in on the distribution hierarchy, the Redstone off of Route 28 in neighboring Stoneham was the other main movie venue during my formative years. A model of sleek Space Age opulence when it originally opened, it had gone budget-conscious seamy by the time the early 1980s rolled around. The cheapness made it my mom’s venue of choice when my dad was doing his National Guard thing and she wanted to get my brother and I out of the house.

It was where I saw Clash of the Titans in 1981 and Megaforce in 1982 — both of which my mom mocked relentlessly — and where I dragged to see Superman III the year after that.

I’d already hit that stage in my fandom where my childhood adoration of Superman had started losing ground to the bad-ass broodiness of Wolverine and the adolescent melodrama of the New Mutants, but I hadn’t quite written the character off…until I spent two hours fidgeting through a cinematic misfire so blatant that even a crap-devouring eleven year old geek couldn’t justify the trainwreck unfolding onscreen. It was a “be sure to drink your Ovaltine” moment, and brunt of my disappointment (unfairly) fell on poor Kal-El’s broad shoulders.

1983 was also a watershed in my cinematic experiences because it was the year that my friends and I were first granted the privilege of attending movies without adult supervision. We celebrated this newly won freedom by diving headfirst into the cinematic drek that trailed in the wake of the era’s brief 3-D revival.

Oh, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn

You’ve heard the jokes, made the references, perhaps even caught the actual project on basic cable some afternoon.

I saw it on the big screen. In 3-D. With my pal Scotty and a couple of the neighborhood girls.

For a kid who hadn’t yet seen The Road Warrior and whose quality parameters for action sequences were still calibrated to a Glen Larson made-for-TV baseline, Metalstorm…was still pretty shitty. I was much more interested in the “free” pair of polarized glasses and joining in when the girls made fun of Scotty for dramatically ducking during the pretty lackluster 3-D effects.

I went to see Amityville 3-D with my best pal Artie and a kid named Jason. Jason only lived in the neighborhood for a short time. The area’s abundance of vacant “mother-in-law” apartments and cheap rooms to rent made it a stopover point for recently divorced women and their kids. They’d stick around long enough to finalize the legal business, then take off for a fresh start in Florida or California. Jason wasn’t the first of these transient faces to drift in and out of our circle, nor would he be the last.

The original Amityville Horror flick (caught on HBO during the month my family had cable) was a traumatic milestone in my love of spooky stuff. It gave me nightmares, which my dad would exploit for laughs, which gave me even nastier nightmares. The original “true story” novel was probably the first (and most certainly the thickest) grown-up book I read from cover to cover.

That blind terror mellowed in the three years leading up to the release of Amityville 3-D, but there were still bits residual dread as we walked to the theater. This would be the first “real” (if PG-rated) horror film I’d see on a big screen. Could I take it? Would I panic? Would the other guys call me a wuss?

I needn’t have worried. Some grody FX aside, it could’ve been run as a Dan Curtis direct-to-TV production. I felt pretty good about being able to ride out the flick’s mild horrors, enough to take a perverse glee in later using my aunt’s Ouija board to freak the shit of out of the actually-spooked-by-the-film Artie.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess.

Strange Brew, the cinematic spinoff of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas’s “McKenzie Brothers” SCTV bits, was the third and final of 1983’s “kids only” outings to the multiplex.

It was the funniest movie I had ever seen, though a lot of that had to do with being an eleven year old boy watching it with three other eleven year old boys in the front row of an otherwise empty theater.

It was also responsible for my pals calling each other “hoser” and ending every single one of their sentences with “eh?” for at least a month.

Finally, no discussion of an early adolescent geek’s 1983 in movies would be complete without a few words about Return of the Jedi.

I saw it a few weeks after it premiered. My mom took my brother and I to see it while my dad was doing his “two weeks a year” for the Guard. We caught a weekday evening screening at the multiplex, not the Redstone. I wasn’t expecting it at all, and was as touched by my mom’s generosity as I was excited to finally see the conclusion of something that had been a part of my life since kindergarten.

When I was in the theater, in the moment, caught up in the spectacle, I enjoyed every second of it. When I stepped out the theater into the parking lot afterward, though, I just felt a bit empty.

In truth, the movie itself was an anticlimactic afterthought to the avalanche of comics, photo-mags, toys, and other merchandise which was the real engine powering the franchise by that stage. Every “OH WOW” moment on screen was mentally followed with a “I hope they make a action figure/vehicle/playset of it” and even that toyetic allure was offset by the fact that the increasingly sophisticated and articulated G.I. Joe line had usurped the King of the Toybox crown.

Within a few months, every Star Wars figure my brother and I had would be demoted to extras in our fantasy play pageants, their trusty rides remanded to Cobra or some Real American Heroes.
Even the biggest fans in our circle began talking of the franchise in the past tense as they moved on to other more novel distractions. By the time the following summer rolled around, it was all but forgotten.

2 Responses to “1983: The Year My Voice Broke – The Movies”

  1. Chris Wuchte

    Saw Metalstorm for the first time a few weeks ago. I remembered the trailers as a kid, and I think I even tried to get my Dad to take me, since I’d never seen a 3D movie before.

    The only reaction I felt upon seeing it after all this time was the standard bemusement I feel when I see an ’80s film like this and realize it actually played in theaters. Not on cable or straight to video, people actually bought tickets and sat in a theater for 90 minutes. It’s not even that it’s bad (though it is), it’s just that something of that level of production likely wouldn’t even come close to a theatrical release today. And yet at the time, my friends and I were all excited about it.

    And all this time I thought I was alone on Return of the Jedi. It was the first Star Wars film that I didn’t even bother to re-watch when it came out on video or played on TV. I don’t think I experienced a second viewing of it for at least a decade.

  2. stavner

    I saw Amityville 3-D in math class as a reward for doing well on a test. It scared the heck out of me.

    I saw Jedi in theaters and actually liked it, but the first movie is still my favorite.

    One Christmas at a relative’s house, I listened to the Mackenzie Brothers’ album and liked it.

    If I saw any of these today, I’d probable have the same reaction to them as Chris had to Metalstorm.

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