16 December 2013

A History of Godzilla on Film, Part 1: Origins (1954–1962)

Other Installments
Part 2: The Golden Age (1963–1968)
Part 3: Down and Out in Osaka (1969–1983)
Part 4: The Heisei Era (1984–1997)
With the release of the teaser trailer for the upcoming Godzilla from Warner Bros. and Legendary pictures, a decade of cinematic silence has come to an end. Godzilla last appeared in 2004 in the Japanese movie Godzilla: Final Wars, which Toho Studios intended as the monster’s final bow before going on sabbatical. It’s the longest break in the iconic monster’s career, and regardless of what happens next, the forthcoming Godzilla ’14 is a reason for G-fans to celebrate. Maybe stomp a few cities. The trailer makes San Francisco look particularly stomp-able.

At this point, we only know as much about Godzilla ’14 as we’ve seen in the teaser. But it was an exciting glimpse that at least assured fans the new movie would not repeat the horrible mistakes of the first American attempt at a stateside Godzilla, the 1998 Roland Emmerich disaster.

This is the first of five (projected) installments covering the history of Godzilla on film, written and condensed for a broad audience. I hope these articles will help readers who have only a passing relationship with Godzilla—the general knowledge from pop culture osmosis—see the unusual variety of one of the longest and most durable film franchises in history. Many of my readers are probably familiar with much of the information I’ll provide in these articles, but since I’ll also sling around my own opinions about the movies mixed in with the history, Godzilla fans may find parts of this worthwhile… if perhaps only to ignite arguments.

11 December 2013

The Vincent Price Collection: Pit and the Pendulum

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Richard Matheson. Starring Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders.

I should move faster on the films in Shout! Factory’s Vincent Price Collection Blu-ray set. But once Halloween drifts past, you can’t spend all your time on horror films. And now it’s December. Oh well.

Anyway, moving on.… Now that the House of Usher has fallen, it’s time to lower the pendulum.

(To be a stickler about the title, although advertised as The Pit and the Pendulum, the onscreen title has no first “The,” and therefore I will treat it as such.)

Pit and the Pendulum, the second of the Corman-AIP-Poe cycle, faced a larger adaptation problem than The Fall of the House of Usher. Where Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” contains enough story to create a beginning-middle-end structure, “The Pit and the Pendulum” is more typical of the author’s adherence to storytelling economy. Essentially, the short story is a great finale for a movie, but has nothing before that. Screenwriter Richard Matheson needed to craft an original opening and middle in order to create a full movie. What he devised feels like Poe, with a man character dropping down into madness, and it stays within the Spanish Inquisition setting of the short story and its emphasis on torture. I don’t beleive a better feature length film could be fashioned from the material.

10 December 2013

Godzilla ‘14 Teaser Trailer Is Here and Life Is Good

You might not have noticed it, because you don’t read my blog often, but Godzilla is sort of a huge big damn bloody deal to me.

Well, Godzilla is just plain huge to anybody, especially if you are in its way.

That’s why I hovered over my keyboard today at 10 a.m., hands palsied, awaiting the premiere of the first teaser trailer for the new Hollywood Godzilla from director Gareth Edwards. And… when the camera at last found the great lengths of the Japanese leviathan looming through the rubble of its devastation, and the beast let loose the legendary roar… I also roared out loud with him at the top of my lungs.

I was at work, mind you. Some impulses cannot be stopped. We’re a loose workplace, fortunately. They expect weird actions from their writers.

There’s no need to describe the trailer further—you can behold it for yourself—except to say that using György Ligeti’s “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra” for the HALO-drop opening is perfect. This music is best known for its use as the “monolith theme” in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and is anything more monolithic than Godzilla? (As a hardcore Stanley Kubrick fan as well, this slammed my geek-meter up to “Do Not Pull This Lever Again.”)

Although the trailer leaves many open questions, as any early teaser trailer should (will Walter White have to move the cook now that a monster has stomped it?), it does show that Gareth Edwards and company have created a genuine interpretation of the figure of Godzilla.

This is crucial: there are many different Godzilla interpretations since the beast first crashed onto Japanese screens in 1954. Godzilla has served as a nuclear metaphor, a force of nature, a butt-kicking anti-hero, a child friendly superhero, and a near-demonic force. All of these are legitimate interpretations of Godzilla, who can absorb many concepts and channel many human emotions. I prefer some versions to others, but as a dedicated G-fan, I can find some enjoyment in all of them.

What isn’t acceptable: not interpreting Godzilla at all. This was the major failure of the 1998 Roland Emmerich-Dean Devlin disaster. The filmmakers did not care about Godzilla whatsoever—its history, its importance, or even why people liked it. They wanted to create their own monster and do their own thing with a popular brand name attached. The fans and the public rejected their crass endeavor. If you make a film titled Godzilla, you must interact with Godzilla in some way.

And this trailer tells me that’s what the new Godzilla is doing. They are going for a 1954 version (perhaps without the radioactivity metaphor that is less timely than it was for Japan in the ‘50s) that emphasizes the beast’s catastrophic effect on everyday people. This was a key part of the power of Ishiro Honda’s original movie and if Godzilla ’14 can capture even a quarter of that film’s epic, bleak power, it will be a winner.

I couldn’t be more ecstatic. Come get in line for the first screening with me right now.

For the sequel: Godzilla doing flying jump kicks and shaking hands with a giant robot! Like I said, legitimate interpretation.

25 November 2013

Flash Review: Hangover Square

Hangover Square (1945)
Directed by John Brahm. Starring Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, George Sanders, Faye Marlowe, Alan Napier.

I've wanted to watch Hangover Square for years, ever since I first heard Bernard Herrmann’s “Piano Concerto Macabre,” a concert piece based on his score. The concept of the music as part of the plot—it’s the concerto the tortured main character is composing—made it more intriguing.

However, before I rented the film, I read Patrick Hamilton's 1941 novel. It’s a fabulous work of World War II British fiction… and the movie bears only superficial resemblances to it. I appreciate the film as a well-fashioned “period noir” that melds psychological drama with the Victorian Gothic, but most of what makes the novel such a grim experience is highly romanticized on screen.

Hamilton's novel tells about the British lower class in a boozy slog toward the outbreak of World War II (the final chapter occurs on the day Britain declares war on Germany), seen through the eyes of the pathetic, jobless George Harvey Bone, a man with occasional episodes of psychotic black-outs. Bone has enslaved himself to a trashy actress named Netta Longdon who leads him on just to get drinks and food out of him. Hamilton weaves in the growth of fascism as a theme, making for a vivid portrait of Britain on the edge of the abyss.

19 November 2013

Visting the Site of the Crash: John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars

Ghosts of Mars (2001)
Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Clea DuVall, Joanna Cassidy.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

I thought writing two John Carpenter articles in a row was sufficient. I had a strong enough excuse to go two-for-two with Carpenter because of the Blu-ray debuts of Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness, films that have developed a growing and appreciative fan base. The idea of doing a third article on a John Carpenter film, let alone one on the critically rejected Ghosts of Mars… no that never crossed my mind when I penciled in on my calendar, “Blu-rays for PoD and ItMoM! Write for Black Gate!”

However, enthusiastic comments on both Black Gate and Facebook made it imperative I complete a John Carpenter on Blu-ray trilogy of articles.

(Oh, wait: Assault on Precinct 13 arrives on Blu-ray today. Should I go for four in a row? Or instead do that examination of the Russian animated film The Snow Queen in time for the release of Frozen? I wish more of life’s dilemmas were of this type.)

Watching Ghosts of Mars on Blu-ray was my first time seeing the movie since August 2001, when it managed to hold onto multiplex screens for a week. The horrific opening weekend—coming in ninth place—meant Ghosts of Mars rapidly evaporated into the thin atmosphere, leaving a carbon blast mark people interpreted as the end of John Carpenter’s career. The $28 million science-fiction action/horror film managed a dismal $14 million global gross. Yes, global. Even in a career like Carpenter’s, filled with disappointing box-office returns, Ghost of Mars crashed epically. The critical and audience reaction was also murderous; it seemed unlikely the film would join some of Carpenter’s other financial disappointments like The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China in future fan appreciation.

Yet Carpenter has always had a reputation for being ahead of his time. Was it now time for Ghosts of Mars? Did the passage of twelve years give the film a better sheen, offer more to digest?

29 October 2013

The Vincent Price Collection: The Fall of the House of Usher

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)
Directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Richard Matheson. Starring Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe.

Shout! Factory has delivered some wonderful treats on Blu-ray in time for the Halloween season: Psycho II, Prince of Darkness, and a six-movie set of Vincent Price classics, The Vincent Price Collection. The set includes four entries from the Edgar Allan Poe/Roger Corman/AIP series (actually, The Haunted Palace comes from an H. P. Lovecraft story, but AIP slapped the title of an obscure Poe poem onto it to make it another entry in the cycle) as two later films, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Witchfinder General, which I consider the best film in Mr. Price’s prodigious filmography.

But where to start watching? Chronologically, of course. That tends to be my answer for ordering anything. Shout! Factory has the films somewhat out of order, probably to best fit the six movies across four discs, and so the first film in the set is the second of the AIP/Corman/Poe series, Pit and the Pendulum. But you can’t fool me, I know The Fall of the House of Usher comes first, so into the Blu-ray tray it goes!

The Fall of the House of Usher (first released as House of Usher, but the print on the Blu-ray uses the longer title so I’ll go with that) represents a major moment for U.S. horror, as well as for director Roger Corman, production company American International Pictures, and star Vincent Price. None of these entities were strangers to macabre cinema, but Usher brought on a new era of popularity and high production values for all of them. The AIP series essentially became the stateside version of Britain’s burgeoning Hammer horrors: colorful, Gothic, lurid. It broke from the 1950s modern, SF-based approach to horror, and would remain the dominant style of horror movies until the next shift in fear occurred with Night of the Living Dead at the close of the decade.

28 October 2013

In the Mouth of Madness on Blu-ray and Other Reasons to Go Stark Raving Mad

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, David Warner, Bernie Casey, John Glover, Peter Jason, Charlton Heston.

“Believe me, the sooner we’re off the planet, the better.”
—John Trent (Sam Neill) in In the Mouth of Madness

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

John Carpenter is a master filmmaker, one of the most influential genre directors to emerge from the cloudburst of creativity of the 1970s. You’d be hard-pressed to find a science-fiction or horror fan who doesn’t have one of Carpenter’s movies in his or her list of Top [Fill in Number] Films list.

But Carpenter’s popularity has created the illusion that his films achieved greater financial success when first released than they did. The unfortunate truth is Carpenter has had only a few outright hits: Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, and Halloween are the most notable. Halloween throws off the curve: Carpenter’s third feature, it grossed $65 million during its initial domestic run against a budget of $325,000—and it continues to generate revenue to this day. Halloween also influenced genre movies immediately, igniting the massive “slasher boom.”

But many of Carpenter’s finest and most beloved movies did middling-to-flop business when they premiered. The Thing, rightfully considered his masterpiece, was a financial disappointment for Universal in the summer of 1982. Big Trouble in Little China was an outright box-office disaster. And through the ‘90s, Carpenter could not catch a break with anything. After 2001’s Ghosts of Mars did a spectacular belly flop (a worldwide—yes, worldwide—gross of $14 million against a $28 million budget), Carpenter went into semi-retirement to play videogames and watch the Lakers. He has only returned to directing for two episodes of Masters of Horror on Showtime and the barely released and very uninteresting feature The Ward in 2011.

However, the march of appreciation for his movies in their post-premiere years continues. I believe we can now safely deposit one of his 1990s movies in the vault of John Carpenter Classics: In the Mouth of Madness, which debuted on Blu-ray last week. Carpenter fans have often dubbed it the director’s last great movie, and although I hope that’s incorrect and he still has a surprise waiting for us, the title seems apt. I certainly haven’t seen anything Carpenter has done since that remotely approaches it in quality.

21 October 2013

I’ve Got a Message for You, And You’re Going to Like It: John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness on Blu-ray

Prince of Darkness (1987)
Written and Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, Alice Cooper.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

“Are you asking me about the backstory of the movie? I have no idea.”
—John Carpenter on the commentary track for Prince of Darkness

This week, with the release of In the Mouth of Madness, all of director John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” movies will have reached Blu-ray. The Thing came out a few years ago (from Universal Home Video, doing a better-than-average job), and at the end of September, right in time for the crisp joys of October, Shout! Factory released 1987’s Prince of Darkness—one of Carpenter’s most underrated films.

(His most underrated film? In the Mouth of Madness. More on that in a week or so.)

The apocalypse trilogy films have no connection to each other aside from Carpenter’s interest in events that might bring about the end of the world, a hangover from his childhood fascination with the wild n’ wooly contents of the biblical Book of Revelation. The Thing threatened the globe with a shape-changing alien nasty capable a rapidly assimilating the human race. In the Mouth of Madness brought the Great Old Ones back in full Lovecraftian form, but also undermined all of reality through the power of fiction.

In Prince of Darkness, it would seem that Old Scratch himself is the force preparing to annihilate humanity. After all, what else to make of the title? But Prince of Darkness ends up confronting Earth with a destroyer as much imbedded in science fiction as The Thing. Carpenter combines Catholic-themed religious horror with, of all things, quantum mechanics. The resulting film frequently makes little sense—even John Carpenter acknowledges that—but when viewed as a deep well of bizarre ideas and unnerving atmosphere, it stands as one of the most creative horror films of its decade. I now rank it among Carpenter’s best movies, although it took me a few years to grasp its achievements and shrug off its faults.

Q: The Winged Serpent on Blu-ray

Q (1982)
Written, Produced, and Directed by Larry Cohen. Starring Michael Moriarty, David Carradine, Candy Clark, Richard Roundtree.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

You want to know something that rocks? Actually, two things that rock, at least in my little world:

1. The Chrysler Building

2. Giant Monsters

So when you have a movie about a giant flying monster nesting in the Chrysler Building, you have something that rocks so hard it makes Van Halen sound like One Direction. Again, at least in my little world.

Video distributor Shout! Factory continued its stellar series of classic B-movie releases on Blu-ray in September with the HD debut of Q. This 1982 sleeper hit, concerning the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl (or a non-god of the same name) appearing in New York City as a humungous flying snake that likes to snap the heads off window washers and topless sunbathers, was always crying out for Shout! Factory to pluck it up.

The company has packaged the film with its alternate marketing title, Q: The Winged Serpent, and repeated the original tagline over the Boris Vallejo artwork: “It’s name is Quetzalcoatl… Just call it ‘Q’… that’s all you’ll have time to say before it tears you apart!” However, Shout! Factory fixed the original poster’s grammatical error, correcting It’s to Its. That is one of the few disappointments I have with their presentation of this nifty low budget flick; I know Shout! Factory doesn’t want to seem careless on the cover for their product, but that grammatical glitch adds charm to the story of a clueless low-life criminal/jazz pianist who holds New York hostage with a winged snake.

17 October 2013

I Gave in and Got a tumblr. It’s about Movies

I now have my own tumblr, something I thought I would never do. But I wanted to keep track of all the movies I see—whether in a theater, on video, or through streaming—so I put together a simple tumblr blog where I’ll put up posters and Blu-ray covers and off a few comments. I’d love to review every movie I see on my website, but I don’t have the time.

So if you’re interested in what I’m watching and reading a few of my thoughts about it, check out The Shapers Watch Movies.

The Blog Silence—It Was a Good Thing

Hey everybody, I’m back from my blogging vacation. I have an explanation, and it’s a positive one.

I got a new job. And for the first time in fifteen years, I moved.

It wasn’t an enormous geographical re-location: I moved from West Los Angeles to Costa Mesa in Orange County. There’s a fifty-minute drive between the two (in good traffic). Nonetheless, it was still a major operation, and since I’ve lived in Los Angeles since I was four years old, it was a significant mental shift. Orange County isn’t much like Los Angeles County, even though they’re side-by-side.

Despite the difficulties I had with moving out of my long-time hometown, I’ve benefited tremendously in other ways. I now have a steady job with regular hours and good pay—and it’s a writing job. Yes, I nailed down a day job where I spend all day doing nothing but writing. It isn’t fiction, unfortunately; I haven’t struck that gold vein yet. The work is for a marketing company. I handle writing the web content for our clients, along with three other writers. The company’s offices are located in the middle of Irvine’s commercial district, two blocks from the massive Irvine Spectrum Center. It’s not a dream job, but it’s better than any day job I’ve held in the last ten years.

I’ve also moved into an apartment far nicer than my Century City digs. I have actual space now—and I didn’t realize how much I mentally needed it. My former apartment was located in a great location, but the apartment itself was cramped, ancient, and horribly insulated. My copious piles of books crawled across the floor to find room, and the air conditioner wheezed and huffed to cool the space down to “barely tolerable.” The new apartment doesn’t feel oppressive, so even in the less engaging environs (how many Subway sandwich places can congregate in one neighborhood?) I have a much sunnier attitude. And the apartment complex has a pool!

Now that things have settled down after a month and a half of adjustments and shifting and heavy boxes sagging from the weight of tomes of knowledge and schlocky adventure, I hope to get the blog active once more. I enjoy writing my posts, and didn’t like that keeping the blog updated had to drop to such a low priority during the last two months.

07 August 2013

Rocket Raccoon! Guardian of the Galaxy: The Early Years

 Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie is the biggest risk yet for Marvel Studios. Last year’s The Avengers was a daring crossover experiment bringing together all the heroes introduced so far into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the five lead-in films were all financial successes and audiences had some prep for what they were about to see. But The Guardians of the Galaxy is a light-hearted space opera starring heroes few people outside of comicdom (and, honestly, quite a few within it) know no better than the main generals of the Thirty Years’ War.* The majority of the characters come from unusual alien species… and one of the heroes is a sentient, blastgun-toting raccoon.

I recently watched an episode of Nature titled “Raccoon Nation.” The scientists interviewed on the program theorized that living in urban environments has pushed raccoons to rapidly evolve higher intelligence. “In a hundred years, they may be running the cities,” one scientist joked. If this pattern continues, the reality of a jet-boot propelled sentient raccoon armed with laser guns is not so far-fetched after all. Rocket Raccoon is already on his way to movie screens in 2014, so how long until his raccoon brethren on Terra follow his example?

25 July 2013

“The Invasion Will Be Alphabetized” to Appear in Stupefying Stories

Now that I’ve signed the contract, I can announce that my humorous science-fiction short story “The Invasion Will Be Alphabetized” is set to appear in the popular e-magazine Stupefying Stories. No word yet on which issue it will appear in, but of course I’ll give an update when I know.

The story’s title was influenced by Gil Scott-Heron’s famous song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” although the actual story has nothing to do with the late Mr. Scott-Heron’s work. The inspiration for this odd piece of near-future comedy was twofold: 1) a visit I made to JPL in 2011; 2) a mix-up regarding overpriced Jack Daniels at a ritzy hotel. Story inspiration often arises come from odd combinations.

(By the way, I won the fight against the hotel’s attempt to rip me off for $500. How? I wrote a polite, professional, but firm letter to the CEO of the hotel company in New York explaining the situation. He told the hotel to get its act together. The power of clear, forceful writing!)

I personally believed the story was too weird to actually sell to any publication… so let that be yet another to all writers to not second-guess yourself. Go ahead and write the damn thing, no matter how strange it may seem.

14 July 2013

Pacific Rim Loves You. Love It Back.

Pacific Rim (2013)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Rob Kazinsky, Max Martini, Ron Perlman.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

If you choose to see Grown Ups 2 this week instead of Pacific Rim, I will come after you. I know nothing about engineering, but I will find a way to build a titanic super robot and hunt you down. I know nothing about genetics, but I will find a way to grow a mutated giant monster and put it on your trail. And if you spent any money on any of the Transformers movies and you don’t go see Pacific Rim….


Pacific Rim is here for you, summer movie fans and science-fiction worshippers: an original, thrilling, no-bloat SF geek explosion. Every summer has that film, the one that reminds us what fun the warm season movies are supposed to be, and makes us leave the theater walking tall as a 50-meter robot and loving life like a thirteen-year-old kind who hit the bank with a lemonade stand and can now afford that new video game.

10 July 2013

Flash Review: Mama (2013)

Mama (2013)
Directed by Andrés Muschietti. Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet.

I didn’t see Mama in theaters, although it seems everyone else did: when studio wisdom predicted the horror crowds would line up for Texas Chainsaw 3D, they instead packed into an original PG-13 fright flick. As Brian Collins from Horror Movie a Day pointed out, this is a win for the genre.

Now that I’ve seen Mama, I understand why audiences enjoyed it. It offers strong atmosphere and legitimate scares that build not from simple “shock ‘em” jumps, but thoughtful directorial construction. One sequence that stands out is a shot where we see a little girl playing tug-of-war with someone off-screen, who we assume is her older sister. But then the sister comes walking down the hall and we have a “Whose hand was I holding?” stunner straight from The Haunting. The best terror moment features a strobing flash on a camera burning the screen white so the afterimages on the viewers’ eyeballs enhance the approach of… something wicked!

The something wicked, the titular “Mama,” ends up one of the film’s disappointments. When the restless spirit that has appointed itself guardian over two feral children, Victoria (Charpentier) and Lily (INélisse), remains a shadow hiding in corners or slipping from closets, it’s a shivery ghoulie. When the finale forces Mama into full view, the CGI deflates the tension and she appears a touch silly. Javier Botet is credited as playing Mama; when his physical performance comes through, the spider contortions of Mama look grisly. But CGI overcomes in the almost-but-not-quite letdown climax.

Mama originates from a short film by Spanish brother and sister Andrés and Bárbara Muschietti. The story is mostly routine ghost business that shatters no expectations. Lucas Desange (Coster-Waldau) and his rocker chick girlfriend Annabel Moore (Chastain) take on the responsibility of caring for Lucas’s nieces, who disappeared five years ago after their father killed their mother and took the girls to an empty shack. Annabel ends up primary caretaker, a role she isn’t prepared for, especially when the girls’ supposedly imaginary friend starts to manifest. Meanwhile, a psychologist (Kash) investigates to find out the origins of “Mama.”

Considering how average much of the story is, and that I never developed an emotional connection to the adult characters, Mama carries itself well. Credit goes to Muschetti’s direction and the riveting work from the child actresses. Jessica Chastain has the largest arc (will Annabel embrace motherhood?), but Annabel never emerges as a strong character. The emotional heart of the story is the two girls and Mama, so even during the CGI-monster madness ending, the movie gets hold of a few heartstrings to tug.

Guillermo del Toro’s name is on the film as Executive Producer, and his presence is felt in the moldy storybook pages appearance, focus on children, and nasty obsession with insects. Lots of icky moths in this one.

Mama is better horror than mainstream audiences usually get, so I hope its success provides us a few more original productions that run on creepiness rather than bland sequel/remake fumes.

06 July 2013

Clayton Moore’s The Lone Ranger (1956)

The Lone Ranger (1956)
Directed by Stuart Heisler. Starring Clayton Moore, Jay Silverheels, Lyle Bettger, Robert J. Wilke, Bonita Granville, Perry Lopez, Charles Meredith, Michael Ansara, Frank DeKova, Lane Chandler.

The horrible 2013 The Lone Ranger has come—and will soon be gone. Let us begin the healing process.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Western refers to the 1956 big screen extension of the Lone Ranger television show as “a masterpiece of children’s cinema.” Which indeed it is, but “children’s cinema” was a different creature in the 1950s. It wasn’t The Chipmunks or The Smurfs is what I’m getting at. The Lone Ranger ’56 is a straightforward adventure film devoid of kiddie pandering. It didn’t need to make obeisance to appeal to young viewers because the Ranger was always a hero marketed toward pre-teen boys, starting in 1933 with the radio program. What marks the film as for children is its simple moral structure and hero who goes above and beyond to be the best man he can.

Arriving after four seasons of the enormously popular show, which was ABC’s first hit program, The Lone Ranger Cinematic Experience must have been a raucous treat for the children who until then could only see their favorite masked hero on miniature blurry black and white TV sets. Here were the Lone Ranger and Tonto flying across a huge movie screen in glorious WarnerColor with the sound of the “The William Tell Overture” thundering from a giant speaker. It’s a thrill we can’t grasp today, but the film still holds up as a solid piece of Old West amusement.

03 July 2013

“Hi-yo, Silver! Awayzzzzzz…” The Lone Ranger Defeats Insomnia!

The Lone Ranger (2013)
Directed by Gore Verbinski. Starring Silver, Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, Ruth Wilson, James Badge Dale, Helena Bonham Carter.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

At the climax of the new cinematic exploit of the Lone Ranger, director Gore Verbinski finally busts out his skills at orchestrating thrilling and intricately choreographed action set pieces. He hits viewers with a top-notch closer aboard a train full of silver roaring around a Mousetrap structure of parallel tracks. The sudden eruption of “The William Tell Overture” on the theater sound system stirs listless audience members awake. For a few minutes, The Lone Ranger feels like The Lone Ranger: old-fashioned Western thrills starring one of the great Do-Gooder heroes. A few folks in the audience clap. Some notice they haven’t finished their popcorn.

Then everybody leaves the multiplex to go home and catch up on their nap times, which they never realized they needed.

That’s the most damning criticism I can lob at this new Lone Ranger: I nearly nodded off twice during my screening. I say this as a hardcore fan of the Western genre, a nostalgia monster, and a fellow who has never before fallen asleep during a theatrical showing of a movie. Not even Meet Joe Black. The only other time I came as close to the narcoleptic fit I experienced here was due to an unfortunate application of medicine that carried warnings regarding heavy machinery.

02 July 2013

Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, Part 2: The Fritz Leiber Novelization

Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966)
By Fritz Leiber, from a Screenplay by Clair Huffaker

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

I have never watched a movie and then immediately felt an urge to “Read the Jove Paperback” (or whatever publisher released the tie-in). Movie novelizations are marketing after-thoughts, and I think most readers pick them up as after-thoughts as well. A wanderer in a bookstore might spot a paperback copy of Blockbuster Film You Kinda Enjoyed and think to herself, “Hey, this might be a fun airplane read.”

But there aren’t as many bookstores to wander in these blighted times, and with the gap narrowing between the time of a film’s release and its DVD/Blu-ray popping up in the impulse item rack of the supermarket, the niche genre of the novelization has entered a slow death cycle. Fewer big tent pole movies are getting the prose treatment.

I’ve read more than my sane share of novelizations, the majority from Alan Dean Foster because Alan Dean Foster rocks (he even responded to my review of his Clash of the Titans novelization). But with Tarzan and the Valley of Gold I found myself for the first time in the peculiar reverse position of wanting to see a movie because of the novelization.

The reason: Fritz Leiber.

20 June 2013

Furious Flashbacks: The Fast and the Furious

The Fast and the Furious (2001)
Directed by Rob Cohen. Starring Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Rick Yune, Chad Lindberg, Johnny Strong, Matt Schulze, Ted Levine.

When I performed my drive-by review of Furious 6 (which has already earned its place as one of the best films of this summer; it’s a better Superman film than Man of Steel), I got the idea to put the car in reverse and review all the films in this most unexpected of mega franchises. It promised a fresh experience, since until I sat down to watch the original film for this review, I had never seen any of the Fast and Furious movies more than once.

So far, I’ve gotten exactly what I got the first time. Almost. The Fast and the Furious is the same as I remembered it, only with the slight slant of hindsight from five more films and the inevitable sprinkle of nostalgia. Wow, Jordana Brewster sure was young! Wait, I was that young too! Ah, damn.

I brought up the time gap, so let’s do it that way:

19 June 2013

Flash Review: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
Written and Directed by Tommy Wirkola. Starring Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare.

The best idea that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has in its anachronistic arsenal is a clever bit grafted onto the original folk tale: as a child, Hansel was forced to eat so much candy at the witch’s house that he turned diabetic. The movie never does much with this, but it shows lateral thinking superior to the pitch: “Hansel and Gretel with guns go splat creatures wearing weird make-up.”

It was difficult while watching H&G:WH not to imagine what this year might have been like if Sam Raimi decided to direct this instead of his own witch-centered project Oz, The Great and Powerful. Writer-director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) obviously has Evil Dead II on continuous rotation in his Blu-ray player, and if H&G:WH had only gone Raimi-bonkers enough it might have worked. It earns the “R” rating, no doubt, with numerous dismemberments and decapitations and profanity (hesitant on the nudity, but that’s American cinema for ya’), but it drops the full-throttle outrageousness for long stretches and decides its fantasyland of Steampunk, Hammer Horror, and Sam Peckinpah needs to be taken seriously.

The trailers sold something more ludicrous, almost to the point they seemed like gag previews. Six minutes in, when young Gretel shouts to the witch getting roasted in her own oven, “Hot enough for you, bitch?”, you get the signal this will indeed be blatantly nutty. When our adult heroes swagger into the city of Augsburg to help find eleven missing children, they spit out 21st-century butt-kicker lines and it’s a touch wonderful. I was prepared to have a decent time.

Maybe the word “decent” is too appropriate. It implies middle of the road, just okay—and that’s what we get. Even though H&G:WH isn’t a belly flop from its goofy high concept, it’s still forgettable. The one place where it makes an impression is, surprisingly, with practical VFX. The CGI enhancements look awful, but when a contemporary movie is willing to have Famke Janssen wear real witch make-up and feature a giant troll that is 95% man-in-a-suit, I have to applaud. The troll character, Edward, played under fantastic animatronics by Derek Mears, is a delight. He has more chemistry with Gemma Arterton’s Gretel than Jeremy Renner does.

But Renner’s Hansel is the better performer on screen of the fairy-tale duo. Renner is the sort of actor who can not give a damn about a role and still seem like he’s crafting a real character. The silly action lines sound right coming from him. Arterton is acting a bit too obviously. The script doesn’t treat Gretel well, either: this women of action at one point needs rescuing from a pack of rapists, and it is a plain ugly moment that poorly serves the type of heroine the movie wants to sell.

For all its flourishes of wild action and gore, H&G:WH is something I’d rather read about than watch. There’s a fun YA novel in here and I wish the movie were an adaptation of that non-existent source.

18 June 2013

The Kids Are More Than All Right: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome on Blu-ray

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie. Starring Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Helen Buday, Frank Thring, Bruce Spence, Robert Grubb, Angelo Rossitto, Angry Anderson, Tom Jennings, Edwin Hodgeman.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

“This you knows. The posts on Black Gate travel fast, and time after time I’ve done the tell. But this ain’t one body’s tell. This is the tell of us all who love the Mad Max franchise. And you gotta listen to it and remember. ‘Cause what you hear today, you gotta tell the newborn tomorrow. I’s looking behind us now, into history-back. I sees those of us who got the luck and started the haul for hi-def. And I remember how it led us here and we were heartful ‘cause we saw the pan-and-scan VHS of what was. And we knewed we got it straight.”

If it weren’t for my aversion to camping and having to use porta-potties, I would attend Wasteland Weekend every year, a “360° post-apocalypse environment” held each September in the Southern California desert for other Mad Maxians. I’m that much of a fan. I prefer an air-conditioned theater and a marathon of the three films, to which a fourth will be added next year, over risking a Gila monster bite, however.

Now I can hold the movie marathon in my less-well air-conditioned apartment—with indoor plumbing and absolutely no Gila monsters!—because Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome made its debut on Blu-ray last week, completing the trilogy in hi-def.

15 June 2013

The Shadow in Road of Crime

Road of Crime (1933)
By Walter Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

No, I’m not done with the Shadow yet! Seeing the 1994 movie on Blu-ray only made me want to rush back to the source.

Reading any Shadow adventure begins with suspense even before the first paragraph: what sort of tale will Walter Gibson spin using a hero character who can fit into almost any crime story? The Shadow has starred in gun-blazing action yarns, street-level noir dramas, weird Gothic mysteries, and super villain-driven SF adventure. The Shadow himself may never change, but the circumstances around him shift with each new exploit.

Road of Crime (first published in the 1 October 1933 issue of The Shadow Magazine) contains a unique story style for the Shadow: a character study of redemption. I’ve never read a Shadow novel anything like it. In exchange for constant thrills, Walter Gibson serves readers a constrained personal crime drama—and it works. A crook finds his way back from the pits of the mob underworld, and the excitement rises from the interweaving of the Shadow’s actions with the main character on his unexpected trip from the lower depths.

11 June 2013

Flash Review: After Earth

After Earth (2013)
Directed by M. Night Shyamlan. Starring Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Isabelle Fuhrman.

I’m glad Will Smith loves his son Jaden. But instead of trying to give Jaden a movie career to show his love, perhaps he should help the young man cultivate his true talents into a successful vocation. I’m not sure what those talents are—except they aren’t as a charismatic leading man. After Earth fails on many levels, but the hapless young Jaden at the center is its most glaring error.

The film’s story, which Will Smith also developed, is not one of the major problems. Given other circumstances, it could have worked as a fast-paced, streamlined adventure yarn, something you might see in a good YA book. A father and son crash-land on Earth, which was long ago abandoned after a war with aliens. The crash incapacitates the father, and it’s up to the son to cross a stretch of wilderness filled with dangerously evolved animals to reach a rescue beacon. The father remotely guides his son as they work through personal issues (the son failed to get into the Ranger Corps of which his father is the most legendary member), and peril and action ensue among the crazy beasts of hyper-Earth. The science-fiction background is interesting as well, although it won’t stand up to scrutiny: the Rangers have learned to control their fear, which renders them effectively invisible to the “Ursas,” alien bio-weapons that can detect fear emissions. The aliens should have given the Ursas a few more senses—like eyes—to help them track their prey, but if the movie entertains me enough I can go with this set-up.

But director and punch line M. Night Shyamalan has no intention of entertaining. He paces After Earth as if it were Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s maddeningly inactive and slow at all times, as if the movie were drugged on the pain medication that has Will Smith’s character, Cypher Rage (seriously), swooning in a chair while and giving tortured speeches. By the point where Mr. Rage gives his key monologue about how he discovered “fear is a choice,” the movie should have already thrown his son Kitai through unrelenting hell. Yet so far all that Kitai has done is run into some baboons and get a poisonous leech bite. The last thing After Earth needs at this point is to slow down.

The film never get its feet under it and starts sprinting. By the climax, when Kitai faces a loose Ursa (which is visually of no interest), the movie hasn’t a drop of energy left. It’s wasted all its time with flashbacks of Kitai’s childhood trauma and Cypher mumbling while staring at readouts.

I can pummel Shyamalan for much of this, but even with a director able to pace the story, there is still the Smith2 failure: Will mistakeningly believing viewers want to watch him as an emotionless shell who spends most of the movie literally on pain medication, and Jaden allowing his dad to pit him against the worst foe possible… a bored audience.

10 June 2013

Pulp Heroes of 1990s Past: The Shadow on Blu-ray

The Shadow (1994)
Directed by Russell Mulcahy. Starring Alec Baldwin, John Lone, Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen, Jonathan Winters, Tim Curry.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The global whirlwind success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 triggered a flurry of retro-hero movies. Eight years later, the gaudy nipple-suited failure of Batman and Robin brought an end to the cycle, and it wasn’t until the double-hit of X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) that our current comic book flood started. But we got a few interesting films during the retro-hero phase, such as Dick Tracy, the well-loved The Rocketeer.… and the semi-forgotten The Shadow, which came out on Blu-ray this week to offer its mixture of elegance and error for a new audience.

A film about the pulp hero the Shadow was in development since 1982 under the auspices of producer Martin Bregman. Originally, Robert Zemeckis was slated for the director’s chair, but the film dwelled in limbo until Batman blew up the box-office. When Bregman was at last able to get the project going, Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) had replaced Zemeckis, and writer David Koepp (Jurassic Park) was on screenplay duty.

Flash Review: [Fast &] Furious 6

I often write long reviews (and stories, but that’s another issue). To test my brevity skills—and to produce more articles for films and books I might not otherwise cover—I’m inaugurating a series of “Flash Reviews” which will be exactly five hundred words long (MS Word count), not including the title and credits. Enjoy responsibly. I’ll still be long-winded elsewhere.

Furious 6 (2013)
Directed by Justin Lin. Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Sung Kang, Luke Evans, Gina Carano.

First thought: This is the second case within a month where a film’s on-screen title mismatches the one used on promotional material. First was Iron Man Three, sold as Iron Man 3. Now Furious 6, sold as Fast & Furious 6. This series has taken pride in irregular naming conventions in order to destroy any chance a collector has of getting them to line up on a shelf. So why did marketing shy away from Furious 6? It’s got good synergy with the previous film, Fast Five, while maintaining the inconsistent titles, including switching to an Arabic numeral. To keep this going, the next film should be titled And VII.

Second (2nd, IInd) thought: Where did they find a human being larger than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? Johnson looks like a CGI creation for Wreck-It-Ralph, but this Danish fellow Kim Kold who plays the evil version of Johnson’s character on the Supervillain Team is the biggest chunk of human flesh and bone I’ve seen.

05 June 2013

“The Hanging Gardener” Now Available

My historical horror story “The Hanging Gardener” is now available in the new issue of Plasma Frequency magazine. It’s a blend of my interest in H. P. Lovecraft and ancient history, and was originally written during a spree of short stories during National Novel Writing Month. (Read more about the piece here.)

You can download Plasma Frequency #6 (June/July 2013) for all e-readers—free! The issue is also available in a print edition.

28 May 2013

Further Tarzan-on-Demand: Tarzan the Magnificent on DVD

Tarzan the Magnificent (1960)
Directed by Robert Day. Starring Gordon Scott, Jock Mahoney, Betta St. John, John Carradine, Lionel Jeffries, Alexandra Stewart, Al Mulock, Charles Tingwell, Earl Cameron.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The Warner Bros. Archive Collection has taken good care of Tarzan fans. This manufacture-on-demand division of Warner Home Video offers all the films from the lesser-known Tarzan actors who followed Johnny Weissmuller in swinging from the jungle ceiling: Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, Jock Mahoney, Mike Henry, and the two seasons of the Ron Ely television story. The best of the lot for a more casual viewer is Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959), but Tarzan the Magnificent from 1960 comes a close second to it. It’s not as lean and stripped-down as its predecessor, and director Robert Day lacks the same skill at pacing an action picture as John Guillermin, but the movie ranks among the top live-action Tarzan films ever made. And it’s just a darn good adventure film in general, with some surprising levels of violence and mature subtexts.

(Tarzan disambiguation notice: The movie has no connection to the Burroughs book of the same title published in 1939 that combines two separate novellas.)

Tarzan the Magnificent is the second movie of the series from producer Sy Weintraub, who created the “New Look” Tarzan that took the character back to his more adult and violent Edgar Rice Burroughs roots. Best of all, Tarzan got his full vocabulary returned to him, breaking over two decades of film tradition that ruled the Lord of the Jungle had to horribly misuse pronouns and exterminate helping verbs.

24 May 2013

Good Intentions for Good and Exorcist II: The Heretic

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1978)
Directed by John Boorman. Starring Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Linda Blair, Kitty Winn, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, Paul Henreid.

After I reviewed Excalibur for its thirtieth anniversary and initial release on Blu-ray, and then acquired Deliverance for my Blu collection, I found myself lured toward another John Boorman film, one more off the beaten track of, shall we say, quality? A film many websites devoted to TTC (Truly Terrible Cinema) have covered in great, snickering detail. Boorman has directed a number of classics of cinema, but lying like an oily stain in the middle of his career is the vomit-soaked box-office disaster and audience-loathed sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic.

I have no recollection how long has passed since I watched this movie. The first time might have been on late-night cable at a friend’s house during junior high. That’s too far back for me to think I have given it a fair trail. Also, my perception of it has been slanted from reading commentary on how awful it is from online reviews. But with Excalibur fresh in my mind in all its glory, I noticed that Exorcist II was available in streaming in HD on Netflix. (It’s gotten purged since then, unfortunately.) I loaded it up, grabbed some red wine, and observed.

17 May 2013

The Spider in The Pain Emperor

The Pain Emperor (1935)
By Norvell Page writing as Grant Stockbridge

May has turned into “Pulp Hero!” month for me. It started when I found out that the 1994 movie The Shadow was arriving on Blu-ray. Soon after, the news hit of a new Doc Savage movie getting underway. The time was right to read some Shadow and Doc Savage adventures. Now, I must complete the classic pulp hero trilogy with a Spider adventure. But don’t expect me to read two Spiders in a row, like I did with Doc and the Shadow. The Spider’s lunacy and lack of logic is exhausting. Twice before I’ve read three Spider novels back-to-back, when I reviewed the collections The Spider: City of Doom and The Spider vs. The Empire State, and I nearly lost my mind. This time I’ll keep the most violent and palsied of pulp heroes restricted to a one-shot.

If you need a quick primer on what The Spider is all about and some background on him and his main writer, Norvell Page, the opening of my review of The Spider: Robot Titans of Gotham provides a concise overview. I think people need a bit of a warning when approaching something as blood-crazy as these books.

The Pain Emperor was published in the heady first two years of the Spider’s red reign on the newsstands. It followed The City Destroyer, one of the most disturbing pieces of pulp I’ve ever come across. (You can find it in The Spider: City of Doom collection, if you’re strong enough.) It opens in the thick of things with a new hero in New York, a masked figure who calls himself the Avenger. Normally, Richard Wentworth, a.k.a. The Spider, would welcome having another vigilante to help him with his tireless work slaying evildoers. But after the Avenger wounds Wentworth’s faithful chauffeur Jackson when the man tries to help a girl whose brother got himself into gambling trouble, Wentworth begins to suspect the Avenger may be a crook who uses his Robin Hood antics as a cover.

15 May 2013

Doc Savage in The Mystic Mullah

The Mystic Mullah (1935)
By Lester Dent writing as Kenneth Robeson

My second Doc Savage novel of this week comes fast on the trail of The Sea Magician. It was published two months later in the January 1935 issue of Doc Savage Magazine, story #23 of the series. When Bantam Books released The Mystic Mullah in its paperback line of Doc Savage reprints, it was book #9. That Bantam put it out so early in the line-up (The Sea Magician was pushed back to #44) indicates the editors thought it was one of the better stories. And they were right.

The Mystic Mullah is a typical Doc Savage adventure, and that isn’t a negative. It follows most of the steps that Lester Dent outlined in his essay for beginngers about how to write a short pulp adventure story. (You can read it here.) An exotic mastermind villain who claims extraordinary powers and constantly hovers over the hero as a danger; bizarre murder methods; numerous chases and shoot-outs; trips to exotic locations; Doc using plenty of gee-wiz gadgets; and a plot that runs at a breakneck pace as the heroes dash around following one action sequence after the other.

Read too many Doc Savage novels in a row and you will rapidly wear down from all this (in fact you may welcome the slower pace and more detective-oriented entries like The Sea Magician). But taken on its own, The Mystic Mullah is the juicy good stuff of high adventure in the 1930s. I wouldn’t place it among the best of the series, but it is definitely an exemplum of what Doc Savage was all about in his prime.

14 May 2013

Doc Savage in The Sea Magician

The Sea Magician (1934)
By Lester Dent writing as Kenneth Robeson

After hopes for a new Tarzan film collapsed (so close!) and also a new Shadow film (not that close), the recent news that Shane Black will write and direct a new Doc Savage film begs for the skeptical approach. However, with Black riding on the massive success of Iron Man Three, he definitely has the power to get this project done. I have a few too many near-misses on genre films I want to see, but if the new Mad Max film could finally get made, then I feel better hoping that this long-stalled adventure film will also make it to screens within a few years.

Premature celebration time! Let’s read a Doc Savage novel! After going through two Shadow novels (The Devil Monsters and Gangdom’s Doom), it’s a logical step to make even if it weren’t for the good news from Mr. Black.

So, scanning across my shelf packed with old Doc Savage paperbacks and some of the new reprints from Nostalgia Ventures, I choose… The Sea Magician. This is Doc Savage #21 according to original magazine publication, and #44 in Bantam’s popular paperback series numbering. It was originally released in Doc Savage Magazine in October 1934.

10 May 2013

The Shadow in Gangdom’s Doom

Gangdom’s Doom (1931)
By Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

I promised when I reviewed The Devil Monsters that I would leap back to the early days of the Shadow and one of his classic-style adventures. This is almost as far back as I can get without re-reading The Living Shadow: published in the 1 December 1931 issue of the Shadow’s own magazine, Gangdom’s Doom is only the fifth story of the series. The character was coming together and his popularity taking off. For this novel, author Walter B. Gibson decided to have the Master of the Night tackle head-on the public’s fear about the crime wave ripping apart the nation in the early 1930s. He sent the Shadow to Chicago, the capital of organized crime, and set him to the task of wiping out the empire of the mob.

Few Shadow novels speak so directly about the period in which they were written. The American public was sick of organized crime and pushed the government to crack down on it. They wanted the Volstead Act thrown out and these murderers with it. The transition from the hard-boiled detective of the 1920s to the “avenger detective” of the Shadow, a forerunner of the superhero, was a natural evolution of U.S. citizens’ desire for action against the legions of criminals.

But the Shadow also took into account people’s fascination with the mysterious world of crime that they openly detested: he was a ghostly, frightening figure himself, and allowed readers to thrill to the dark appeal of the soldiers of the underworld while watching an avenger out-think and demolish them.

08 May 2013

Harryhausen Flashback: It Came from Beneath the Sea

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Directed by Robert Gordon. Produced by Charles H. Schneer. Starring Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis.

With the recent death of one of the great forces for good in the history of movies, special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, I wanted to review one of his films that I hadn’t gotten to yet on this site. Some people may wonder what I was thinking in choosing It Came from Beneath the Sea for this honor, instead of one of his more colorful outings like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or One Million Years B.C. Your confusion is understandable: this 1955 B&W giant octopus flick is arguably the worst film with Harryhausen’s name on it.

But I felt the urge to go back to the beginning of Harryhausen’s career and his original modest step into auteur status. This was the first true “Ray Harryhausen” movie; he had already worked on Mighty Joe Young with Willis O’Brien, and then went solo on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms as the special effects director. But when Harryhausen teamed up with young producer Charles H. Schneer to put together a low-budget monster picture for Sam Katzman’s B-movie unit at Columbia, for the first time he had a level of creative control over the entire film. Harryhausen and Schneer would work together for the rest of their careers, with Harryhausen as the de facto director of their films even if some other journeyman’s name was on the credits. Quick, do you remember who directed Jason and the Argonauts? Of course you don’t. It’s a Ray Harryhausen film, not a Don Chaffey film.

07 May 2013

Remembering Ray: 10 Great Harryhausen Effects Sequences

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Yes, that is a photo of me with special effects wizard and creator of dreams, Ray Harryhausen. I met him at a signing in 2004 at the (now gone) Lazer Blazer DVD store in Los Angeles. He signed my copy of An Animated Life, which was a gift from none other than John C. Hocking.

For the last few years, the idea squirmed around unpleasantly in my mind that I might soon hear the news of Ray Harryhausen’s death. Like his long-time friend Ray Bradbury, a fellow L.A.-area geek who also ended up becoming a legend in the worlds he loved, Harryhausen was a man of great longevity. But he was in his nineties and it was impossible not to imagine the day I would wake up to the headline: “VFX Pioneer Ray Harryhausen (1920–201?).” Still, I wasn’t prepared for it when it finally happened—today. The news struck like a bolt from Olympus, and then the ground split open and the Styx beckoned.

I have no need to explain Ray Harryhausen’s life to most of my readers. You know him. You love him as much as I do. Seeing Clash of the Titans in second grade changed my life: not only did it take a kid who loved dinosaurs and made him into someone who loved all monsters, but it opened that kid’s mind to Greek Mythology and consequently all history, so one day a History Degree would hang from his wall. Through Ray Harryhausen, I first began to love the techniques of filmmaking. Through Ray Harryhausen, I discovered film composer Bernard Herrmann and became an obsessive movie music lover. Through Ray Harryhausen I found heroic fantasy. The whole damn thing is his fault. I told him this when I met him, and he laughed because I’m certain I was only the nine-millionth person to use that same line on him.

Instead of giving the Great Wizard a standard obituary, I want to remember him through ten sequences from his films that do the best job of showcasing what made him an artist of visual effects, a Rembrandt of film magic. These are simply my ten favorite moments, yours may differ, although there’s a few on this list that I guarantee (Medusa) that (Medusa) we’ll (Medusa) all (Medusa) agree (skeletons) on (Medusa).

The Shadow in The Devil Monsters

The Devil Monsters (1943)
By Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

This coming June contains a small but important event for fans of the pulp hero the Shadow: the Blu-ray release of the big-budget film version starring Alec Baldwin and directed by Russell Mulcahy. After a decent first weekend in July 1994, that movie sank like a mob stool pigeon tied to a safe dumped into the East River. (I saw The Shadow in theaters on opening night and the crowd seemed enthusiastic; I thought it would be a hit.) In anticipation of the first widescreen release of the film since its original laserdisc pressing, I’ve gone back to The Shadow stories written by Walter B. Gibson, picking up where I left off a few years ago with The Devil Monsters, the second novel in Nostalgia Venture’s The Shadow #13. The first novel in the volume is the superlative Six Men of Evil from 1933. The leap forward of a decade to The Devil Monsters, which appeared in the 1 February 1943 issue of The Shadow, is a disconcerting one. It isn’t a horrible shift, but this is still one of the least enjoyable Shadow novels I’ve finished.

03 May 2013

Summer Movies… Again: Iron Man (3) Three (III)

Iron Man Three (2013)
Directed by Shane Black. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall, William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, Jon Favreau, Ty Simpkins.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

For people worried that the individual Iron Man series within the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe was in trouble, have no fear: Iron Man is back on track because Shane Black has got your back.

Iron Man Three (yes, that’s what the end credits call it, and therefore it’s the official title) starts off the Marvel Movie-verse Phase 2 with a self-contained story that feels like a great five or six-issue comic book arc. You remember: the kind that Marvel used to pull off in the days before they “evented” everything to death with Skrull infiltrations and Norman Osborne conquering the world. I hear that currently the mad robot Ultron is doing the heavy lifting for Marvel’s crossover event. Maybe this means we’ll see him in Avengers 2.

01 May 2013

Star Wars: Death Troopers

Star Wars: Death Troopers (2009)
By Joe Schreiber

By 2012, the Star Wars franchise was a dead body. It lay in the open, festering, attracting attention, but for most fans it was… dead. Then the Walt Disney wizards appeared and cast a Level 5 resurrection spell along with a multi-billion-dollar buyout spell, and presto! Star Wars turned into the walking dead. We shall see how that works out long term; perhaps zombie Star Wars will develop like Bub the Zombie in George Romero’s Day of Dead, getting smarter and learning to salute.

The recent resurrection of Star Wars makes Death Troopers, a 2009 mash-up of Star Wars and zombie-mania, seem prophetic.

Death Troopers must have been a no-brainer pitch: use a hot genre to fashion a fresh approach to the standard business of the Expanded Universe Star Wars novels, which seem locked in a cycle of destroying the various children of Han and Leia Solo. That’s what I’ve heard, at least. My time scant spent with the Expanded Universe novels usually revolves around the world of the prequels and the classic series. Death Troopers falls into this category: it takes place approximately one year before the events of the first movie, a.k.a. Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope in the burdensome taxonomy of Lucasfilm. Death Troopers has plentiful gore and medical gruesomeness mixed in with fragments of the Star Wars universe and supporting roles for Han Solo and Chewbacca as the characters you know will survive whatever undead onslaught they face. Gorehounds and zombie fanatics with a taste for Star Wars won’t have much to complain about, but groups with marginal interest in either camp should resist the gimmick appeal.

29 April 2013

“The Hanging Gardener” to Appear in Plasma Frequency

More good publishing news rolls in… this one with a slice of Nebuchadnezzar.

I received word today that my short dark fantasy story “The Hanging Gardener” will appear in an upcoming issue of Plasma Frequency Magazine, which publishes in both print and eBook formats and is now going on its second year of publication.

“The Hanging Garnder” is an H. P. Lovecraft-influenced tale, or perhaps I should say it is a “Mythos-influenced” horror tale, since it draws on other members of the Lovecraft circle. I always planned to write a Mythos story from the time I started reading HPL in college, but I wasn’t interested in simply imitating Lovecraft. When I latched onto the idea of setting a story in the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon, I realized I had finally found the slant necessary to make a story that fit my own writing style and historical interests. I wrote the first draft of it during NaNoWriMo, part of a flurry of multiple stories, but it was my personal favorite work to have come out of that November writing marathon.

No definite date is set for the issue yet. I’ll keep everyone up to date when I know more.

Thank you to editor Richard Flores IV for accepting the story.

26 April 2013

“The Sorrowless Thief” Reviewed at Tangent Online

John Sulyok at Tangent Online has given a positive review of my recently published Ahn-Tarqa story, “The Sorrowless Thief” (read the story for free here).

From the conclusion of the review:
Ryan Harvey’s “The Sorrowless Thief” exists as part of a larger science-fantasy series. The world of Dyzan includes few guns and many (magically) tamed dinosaur beasts situated in the usual tropes of fantasy. These surrounding details thicken the setting and the plot, adding a lot of intrigue to the events herein. It feels like a good entry-point if the series continues.
Good news there, John: it already has continued! You can read “An Acolyte of Black Spires” in Writers of the Future Vol. XXVII, and get the novelette “Farewell to Tyrn” as an ebook right now. Dive in, folks… let’s get some publishers chomping at the dinosaur bit to hold of the novel Turn over the Moon.

Thanks to John O’Neill for posting about Tangent’s taking notice.

A Man Is as Big as What Makes Him Mad: Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Directed by John Sturges. Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins, Walter Sande.

Our wide image starts with a split between the modern world and the Old West: Fabulous vistas of a Southwestern desert sprawled over the screen in CinemaScope and Technicolor glory. Running through the brush and sand is an icon of the frontier: the railroad. But no black iron locomotive belching a smoke banner rides these rails. It’s a high-speed silver-and-orange streamliner offering every comfort to its riders blazing through this wasteland to get from one glistening city to the other.

Yet this train of the New Twentieth stops at Black Rock, Arizona, a town rusted in place in the Old Nineteenth. The streamliner hasn’t stopped at Black Rock in four years, and the town looks like it hasn’t touched the rest of the nation for far longer than that. Black Rock may have telephones, electric power, and cars, but it’s as rough as any frontier town from the 1880s and about as far distant from what civilization calls law and order. The single hotel advertises “Steam Heat” on the glass of the lobby window, but none of the buildings look like they’ve gotten refurbished since the invention of barbed wire. Even the sheriff’s office is a one-room hovel made of stone with a single jail cell of iron bars.

23 April 2013

Romance & Revisions: The Outlaw of Torn by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Outlaw of Torn (1914)
By Edgar Rice Burroughs

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

“Not since Arthur of Silures kept his round table hath ridden forth upon English soil so true a knight as Norman of Torn.” –Joan de Tany

“I am very doubtful about the story. The plot is excellent, but I think you worked it out all together too hurriedly.” –Thomas Newell Metcalf, letter to Edgar Rice Burroughs, 19 December 1911

“I am not prone to be prejudiced in favor of my own stuff, in fact it all sounds like rot to me….” –Edgar Rice Burroughs, letter to Thomas Newell Metcalf, 14 March 2012

In Irwin Porges’s groundbreaking and Chartres Cathedral-sized biography Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan (Brigham Young University Press, 1975) only two of ERB’s books have solo chapters dedicated to them: Tarzan of the Apes, of course—and The Outlaw of Torn.

Unless you are a hardheaded Burroughs devotee, I’ll wager a ducat you have never crossed paths with the title The Outlaw of Torn. Considering that chronologically it is squashed between his two most famous books, A Princess of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes, it makes sense that The Outlaw or Torn gets overlooked. That it belongs to the genre of Medieval Romance, a mite mustier than high Martian adventure or swinging times in the African rainforest, compounds the issue.

18 April 2013

Universal Horror Archive: Man Made Monster (1941)

Man Made Monster (1941)
Directed by George Waggner. Starring Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds.

Although a minor film taken on its own, Man Made Monster introduced two of the major stars of the 1940s Universal horror movie factory: actor Lon Chaney Jr. and director-writer-producer George Waggner. Chaney Jr. (born Creighton Chaney) became Universal’s primary monster performer for the rest of the decade, thanks to his success in the title role of The Wolf Man. George Waggner also rode the success of The Wolf Man as its director, and rose to be the studio’s go-to producer and director for the remainder of the classic horror cycle.

Man Made Monster started as an adaptation of a story by Harry J. Essex, “The Electric Man,” which Essex wrote as a film treatment. Universal planned it as a Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi vehicle in 1935 under the title The Man in the Cab, but the studio placed that project on hold. The similarities between the proposed film and The Invisible Ray in 1936 (both concern a glow-in-the-dark killer with an electrical death-touch) make it seem that the execs shelved one to make the other. In 1940, the new Universal management tossed $86,000—as low a budget as anything they were cranking out at the time—to director George Waggner to make another attempt at “The Electric Man.”

14 April 2013

Benson’s Bond Begins: Zero Minus Ten

Zero Minus Ten (1977)
By Raymond Benson

Here is another Bond review I have dragged out of mothballs. I’ve never reviewed one of Benson’s novels—in fact, I’ve only read the first two and have stalled getting to work on my copy of High Time to Kill—but I found my thoughts on his inaugural outing…

After writing fourteen “continuation” James Bond novels, English writer John Gardner finally packed it in after COLD (U.S. title: Cold Fall) in 1996. Glidrose Ltd., the literary rights holder to James Bond, gave the task of writing new adventures of the master spy to Raymond Benson. The American Benson, a longtime Bond fan and author of the popular 1980s’ The James Bond Bedside Companion—an invaluable book for me in high school when there was little criticism of the movies and novels available—debuted with Zero Minus Ten, a thriller taking place around the historic handover of Hong Kong to the mainland Chinese government.

13 April 2013

Universal Horror Archive: The Black Cat (1941)

The Black Cat (1941)
Directed by Albert S. Rogell. Starring Basil Rathbone, Hugh Herbert, Broderick Crawford, Bela Lugosi, Gale Sondergaard, Anne Gwynne.

One of the great discoveries in my college library was the volume Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946 by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas. The 1990 book (new at the time) was one of the first to look at the entire canon of Universal’s horror and mystery pictures of the Golden Age and treat them as something more than the “kiddie TV entertainment” they were relegated to during the previous decades. I grew up watching these movies on weekend afternoons, but until Weaver et. al I knew little about the behind-the-scenes tales of their making.

I must have kept that book checked out of the college library for a straight year, constantly renewing it. It gave me a huge uptick in appreciation for classic horror, and instilled in me a hunger to dig up the more obscure movies the authors covered. And they covered everything: The Sherlock Holmes movies; the Inner Sanctum series; the supernatural comedy Ghost Catchers; films such as The Secret Key that might only count as horror because a star like Boris Karloff appeared in them; historical epics with gruesome content, like Tower of London; plus odd obscurities The Mad Ghoul, House of Horrors, and the film I’m writing about today, the 1941 mystery-comedy The Black Cat.