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.