Prime in the Dustbin: ‘Disconnected’ (1984)

There are many great things to discuss about the 1984 horror movie, Disconnected, but the best aspect about it is how authentically 80s the thing is. This is not a happy little John Hughes movie with quirky kids falling into what they think is love but is actually a flatulent combination of hormones and questionable fashion choices. It’s not a sweeping Spielberg action epic and it won’t make you long for a simpler time before the internet made everything complicated and weird. No, Disconnected is a great snapshot of the real 80s, a wretched, seedy, grimy decade. If you lived through the 80s, as I did, congratulations. There were a lot of reasons to snuff yourself during that time, and if that sounds harsh, then maybe you weren’t around during those dark ages, where the only thing worth hanging around for was the music. Honestly, if you were born in the Nineties or any time after and you think you know about the 80s because you watched some episodes of Full House or ALF, then you need a real snootful of the dirty little subculture that existed back then. You need Disconnected.

Disconnected is presented to you by Generic Films, because in the 80s, we didn’t give a shit. We hated corporations, so we started companies with the thought that they would somehow be anti-companies, subverting the business model, forcing it to conform to our own will. Instead, we got Apple and color changing clothing, New Coke and the basis for American Psycho. We were naive, and we looked dumb doing it.

Alicia (Frances Raines) is a sweet girl. She works at a video store because we had those, listens to music on vinyl because that’s how we did it back then if we couldn’t afford cassette players, and lets weird Poltergeist II looking old men into her apartment to use the phone. She’s a sweetheart. Her boyfriend, Mike (Carl Koch) is a local DJ. One night, she goes out with Mike, her twin sister, Barbara Ann (also Frances Raines), and whatever nasty thing she’s banging at the moment. Barbara Ann’s date starts giving Mike a hard time about the music his radio station plays. “When are you going to start playing some real music, like some Talking Heads or Costello?” he asks. I guarantee you that, ten years later, that same guy started a blog. Do you want Pitchfork? Because that’s how you get Pitchfork.

Alicia has an epiphany that night while dancing to music by The Excerpts (more on them later), because that’s the kind of band names we had then. We were living under the shadow of nuclear war. What was the point of completing things? So we listened to The Excerpts. Missing Persons. Romeo Void. Always empty spaces, always an uncertain future. Anyway, Alicia realizes that Mike is having an affair with her twin sister, who is now also her Eskimo sister. Alicia dumps Mike and his ugly body perm.

The next morning, a new customer comes into Alicia’s video store. His name is Franklin (Mark Walker), and he’s very shy, and his tie is very skinny. He immediately begins to criticize the selection of available movies in the store. Lots of horror and new movies, but not many old or foreign films. He makes this face like someone waved a dog turd under his nose. And get this: he doesn’t even have a VCR. He just came in to see Alicia, whom he had spied at the bar the previous evening, and bitch about movies. Do you want Film Twitter? Because that’s how you get Film Twitter.

And how’s that for a pickup line? “I watched you dance all night at the club last night, so I sussed out where you work and now I’ve come to see you, because you can’t really avoid me when you’re behind a retail counter.” Franklin admits to going to two other video stores before arriving at the correct one. He has hunted her down. That is creepy, and a lot of effort for an iffy result.

Oh, have we talked about the rash of murders in town? Probably not, but there’s a weird cutaway to an interview with one Detective Tremaglio (Carmine Capobianco), who is investigating them. Women are sexually abused and then killed. Tremaglio talks about all this while wearing a Hawaiian shirt and thinking about his next sandwich. Really. He spends one entire scene eating a sub.

Poor Alicia. Mike is trying to regain her affections, her meddling sister keeps trying to ruin her life, and she drinks tea from an ugly B. Kliban designed cat mug. Franklin looks pretty good to her right now, but she wants to take it slow. She’s still getting over Mike and Barbara Ann’s betrayal, to the point where she has a nightmare in which Mike strangles Alicia with his ridiculous skinny tie. Then, Mike and Barbara Ann have sex on her corpse. They just flop down right on top of her. “Now I have you all to myself,” Barbara Ann purrs. That’s a really specific dream, and you don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to get the gist.

Alicia calls Franklin the next day, ready to take him up on his offer for dinner. He is so excited by this development that he talks to the dead redhead in bed next to him about it. “She won’t do all the things you did for me last night,” he says. “She’s not desperate and cheap like you are.” This seems like a spoiler, but man, if you can’t figure out Franklin is a psycho by the fact that he stalked Alicia across town and cornered her at work, then you need to watch more movies.

Let’s discuss the topic of landlines real quick. We didn’t have cell phones in the 1980’s. We didn’t have Caller ID either. There were phone books, though, in which practically every person in a given area had their names, addresses, and phone numbers printed and distributed to practically every other person in town. That seems like a personal security nightmare now, but we thought this was a great idea at the time. Every time you answered the phone, it was a crap shoot. It might be your best friend. It might be a telemarketer. Maybe it would be a heavy breather. There was no way to know.

Alicia starts getting phone calls on her white, rotary landline phone. Lots of them. I can easily imagine that half of the written script for this film consisted of the phrase, “The telephone RINGS.” Usually, it’s Mike or Barbara Ann. But sometimes, like every third call, it’s just this weird noise that sounds like John Holmes fucking a baby seal on a spaceship. What’s that all about? Not sure, but it happens a lot. Some scenes are nothing but Alicia answering continuous phone calls and good grief, that is annoying.

To go into more plot detail would ruin some lovely things and I shan’t do that, but it’s the visual detail, the feel of Disconnected that make it worth watching. Let’s jump back to that club scene I mentioned earlier where new wave combo The Excerpts are playing. One of the members of that band is Jon Brion, who later became a famous producer and composer. He created the soundtrack for I ♥ Huckabees and worked extensively with Aimee Mann. His current musical style is refined, a bit twee, much like Danny Elfman on hefty doses of Zoloft. That makes it hilarious to see him bopping up and down in The Excerpts, a band wearing oversized black and white checkerboard sweaters and popped collars. The drummer wears a thin red headband like Mike Reno from Loverboy. The crowd is no better, dancing like a bunch of Amway reps stuck on a live electrical wire, wearing Raybans inside a dark club. Is this what we thought the future was going to be like? Dudes wearing sunglasses with differently sized and shaped frames on each side? All of us, wretched cyborg representations of a Sharper Image catalog? Man, how disappointed is my generation now?

You can blame MTV for that, and you should. Its influence on the visual style of Disconnected is undeniable. Take, for example, the black and white still photograph montage of Alicia getting hammered on Tanqueray and smoking seven packs of Barclays. It’s one shot away from being a Motels video. There’s also the director’s strange predilection for long, loving shots of the characters’ home decor. A lamp. A crucifix. A Groucho Marx doll. Some toy shoes. Robert Smith inside a wardrobe. Just kidding about that last one.

It’s the sense of dirty fatalism permeating Disconnected that makes it so effective. Alicia spends most of the movie drinking, smoking, listening to the radio while staring off into space, and answering the phone. Always the stupid phone. When she reaches out for human contact, she chooses the worst possible people. It is a miserable existence. Sure, the title refers to the existential terrors of telephony, but it also refers to Alicia, constantly holding her hand out for something sweet only to have it smacked down. In the end, she disconnects from everyone, including the viewer.

That’s the 80s I remember, everyone struggling to keep their head above the doom, trapped in a world we never made, ready to die at any time. You know, that came out wrong. That’s not some kind of passive/aggressive plea for pity. I survived. I got better. I reckon Jon Brion did, too. There’s hope for us all.

But history has given the 80s have this super shiny and glitzy veneer, and there was more to it than that. I mean, we had Dead Kennedys for a reason. Disconnected, in all of its low budget glory, finely captures that under-the-rainbow zeitgeist in all of its filth and despair. That’s a lot of praise for a little slasher flick, but Disconnected packs a well-tuned temporal punch. If all you know of the 80s are sitcoms and chunky jewelry Madonna, watch this movie for a true sense of what the other side felt like. Then again, if you made it through the 80s without succumbing to madness, Disconnected may feel like more a documentary to you. Either way, it is absolutely worth your time.

Disconnected is everywhere that you’re not, unless you’re on Prime Video.

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