From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Jeremiads: Twenty Things I Learned From Bad 80s Genre Films


When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, my father had an obsession with taping bad movies off of HBO and Showtime. Let me explain for the young among us–we used to have these things called VCRs. Think of them as a primitive form of TIVO. When you wanted to record something, you had to put in a tape, which might hold a pathetic six hours on the lowest quality. You had to program the time by hand and pray that it would come on and record what you wanted to watch. And then when you went to watch whatever you recorded, you spent the first thirty minutes adjusting something called “tracking,” which you never got quite right no matter how hard you tried. Also, we had to walk to school, uphill, in six feet of snow. Get off my lawn.

Anyway, back to my Dad–he was a science fiction fan, although he didn’t go to conventions or anything. He had a bizarre collection of books, mostly paperbacks missing their covers that he rescued from the garbage behind bookstores. As a city employee raising three kids on his own, there wasn’t a lot of money for entertainment. One of the highlights of my young life was the day he received a tax refund large enough to purchase a Nintendo. In retrospect, it probably would have been healthier if he’d gotten us kids library cards, but I’ll never forget the late nights of playing head-to-head Tetris with my Dad while downstairs, the VCRs were busy stealing movies from pirated cable. The VCR was always recording at night.

He would read the newspaper at work and then come home and program a tape to record two or three things most nights. He even somehow scrounged enough cash for a second VCR so that he could tape two movies at the same time. God forbid he would have to choose between Cherry 2000 and They Live!

By the time I was twelve, we had amassed hundreds of tapes, which the family still has, even after the advent of DVDs. Even after Dad passed away a few years ago from cancer. He never let go of old technology. He owned a reel-to-reel when he died, and what’s more, he actually listened to music on the thing.

Whenever I visit home–something that happens less and less these days–I like to thumb through the tape boxes and find titles that I haven’t thought about in decades. They’re almost universally garbage. My dad could have taped stuff like Jaws or E.T. or even Alien. Sometimes he did, but I wonder now if it wasn’t by mistake, because the vast majority of the collection is so bad as to outweigh the occasional gem. Who voluntarily records Mannequin? I’m willing to grant that maybe he meant to record something else and the timer was off. But Mannequin 2 as well? Nobody records that by mistake and doesn’t immediately tape over it.

Now that I’m grown (and now that he’s gone), I can see that what my dad loved was bad movies. He never would have admitted that, but it’s the truth. The cheesier the movie, the more likely it is to be sitting on tape collecting dust among his things. This is one of those things I have in common with him–not because I chose to, but because I absorbed it through osmosis by just growing up and being around him.

At that point in my life, those tapes were probably more educational than anything I had learned in the Kansas school system. The Cinemax “After Dark” stuff Dad taped but didn’t label–yeah, like we weren’t going to check why a tape only had two movies on it and not three, Dad?–were definitely more informative than Kansas sex education. But besides that, there were life lessons on those tapes, and I absorbed as much of it as my pre-teen eyeballs could soak in.

I used to think that I was the only person who saw some of these truly awful-yet-fun movies. In college, I learned that most people my age grew up watching the same movies and learning some of the same lessons. My dad didn’t set out to do it, but he gave me the basis for many lifelong friendships with his hobby. Just one of many things I wish I could thank him for.

But enough about that. This month, on the anniversary of his passing, I thought I would share with you some of the life lessons I learned from bad 80s genre films. See if you can guess to which movie I am referring. My Dad would have guessed them all.

  1. Forget BMX bikes, I want my own UFO voiced by Pee Wee Herman.
  2. Robots can be given sentience with a lightning strike. Unfortunately, throwing my Transformers onto high voltage power lines resulted in blackouts and the smell of burning plastic, not cool new friends.
  3. Sunglasses don’t just look cool–they also reveal hidden aliens. Also–never pick a fight with Roddy Piper.
  4. If my home is in danger of being torn down by rich people to build something frivolous like a golf course, I can save it by going on an adventure and finding treasure.
  5. Music from the people behind the Alan Parsons Project does not make a good soundtrack for a fantasy film.
  6. The only thing I can’t stomach about Santa Clara is all the damn vampires.
  7. You shouldn’t try passing off recovered alien technology as your high school science project. It’ll just rip a hole in the fabric of space and time, and that doesn’t look good on a college application.
  8. Speaking of college, it will be full of wacky adventures, but I’ll probably end up unknowingly building a weapon for the government, so there’s a downside.
  9. Arcade games are training simulations for fighting in intergalactic wars. If I get the high score, I’ll be recruited to fight the evil armada.
  10. There are worse STDs than herpes. Like space herpes.
  11. Reaching into lava will not hurt me if it’s to pull out a magical weapon that can defeat the villain.
  12. If I kill a unicorn, it will plunge the world into eternal darkness.
  13. Also, if I dream about a unicorn, it means I’m a robot.
  14. When rigged lotteries are used to pick a sacrifice, I can count on the sheltered princess to do the right thing and step forward in my place.
  15. Additionally, lose your virginity as quickly as possible. If you’re not being used to lure unicorns to their death, you’re being sacrificed to dragons in rigged lotteries.
  16. Magic is hard to control, and will probably just backfire and turn you into a goat or something.
  17. You can use computers to make dream women who will teach you valuable life lessons and get you a girlfriend. I’m pretty sure if I had just stuck with BASIC a little longer, I might have achieved this.
  18. Two men enter, but one man leaves. That is the law.
  19. In the future, we will all live in the desert and skate around on rollerblades. And finally–
  20. The only way to be sure is to nuke the site from orbit.
Jeremiah Tolbert lives with two cats and a wife in the foothills of Colorado. He spends more time on the internet than is healthy.

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