Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Appendix N Review: The Metal Monster

After jumping face-first into old pulp novels this year, my personal standout (and author I've been most angry about never hearing of before) is Abraham Merritt. His 1918-1919 debut The Moon Pool was mind-blowingly fun and 1924's The Ship of Ishtar is a bona fide fantasy masterpiece. Seriously. Read it. Read them both. They're great.

In 1920, Merritt wrote The Metal Monster as the sequel to The Moon Pool featuring the same narrator/protagonist, Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, off on another exotic adventure. Originally serialized in the Argosy All-Story Weekly, it was later edited into a full-length book and published in 1941.

In it, Goodwin is traipsing around Central Asia near the Himalayas where he meets Dick Drake, adventurer son of an old acquaintance of Goodwin's. Then, investigating a strange aurora, they discover Martin Ventnor and his sister Ruth. Then they're chased by a group descended from a lost city of Persians (who war full battle armor and use spears and bows). With their guides dead and most of the pack animals run off, things look bad until a strange but beautiful and very, very powerful redhead named Norhala rescues them. Human, but also something else, Norhala can command electrical and magnetic forces and is connected to a bizarre city made up millions of ever-shifting living metal Things.

It should work, and in many places it does, such as in Merritt's specific style of beautifully grotesque action sequences. The beginning sets a remote and bleak mood fitting for the setting and the ending is wonderfully apocalyptic.

Unfortunately, its all the stuff in the middle that doesn't quite click.

The Metal Things are suitably weird, and possibly an alien hive mind. Its difficult to tell, since they can't speak human languages. Their origins are vague, as are their motives, but they're capable of draining direct energy from the Sun and causing sunspots (in a fun scene that actually takes into account the speed of light). The Things themselves can move and combine and shape themselves into various forms, including flying cubes, lumbering giants, and the very structures of their city.

They're weird and wonderful and predate John von Neumann's 1948 theory by 28 years and John Bernal's 1929 lecture “The World, the flesh and the Devil” anticipating self-replicating machines by 9 years. (Suck on that, Commies!)

They also have a staggering visual and “sociological” similarity to D&D Modrons, 63 years before their first appearance. And a full 94 years before Knack!

Seriously, they form up and move around like Knack

The bad part is that Merritt spends a staggering amount of time trying to explain how wondrous this is. The characters spend four full chapters on a flying cube trying to wrap their heads around what's going on. That's...not great pacing for an ADVENTURE story. There are great ideas being played around with, but the closer it gets to Hard Sci-Fi, the more it bogs down and frankly, starts to get boring.

Pacing issues give way to a very clear demonstration that Merritt likes to use certain stock characters: There's two intellectuals, except Martin Ventnor spends most of the book either worrying about his sister or in a coma. There's the two-fisted, upright man of action, except Drake is a pale shadow of the quirky Larry O'Keefe from The Moon Pool. There's a hunched, ugly but surprisingly strong servant figure, only Yuruk is more treacherous than The Ship of Ishtar's Gigi.

Then there's the elephant in the room: This is the third Merritt book I've read that prominently features an exotic, beautiful, immensely powerful redhead. Lakla, Sharane, and now Norhala.

Merritt clearly likes what he likes, and I'm more than fine with that.

Unlike the other two, Norhala is destructively ferocious when roused (as the Persians eventually learn) and never fully becomes a hero or a love interest. There's the barest hint of a connection between her and Goodwin, but that's all.

Ruth is no slouch either, despite being off-camera taking care of her comatose brother for most of the book. When it comes to shooting, she's got the biggest body count out of the four protagonists.

I'm beginning to suspect Merritt didn't know how to write weak women.

Finally got the hair right on this cover

For me, the biggest problem with the book is that the main characters remain observers throughout. Goodwin and Drake set out to try and find a solution to the predicament, but merely end up going on a Scooby-Doo chase through the Metal Monster city as they try to figure out what the hell's going on.

The plot carries on whether they get involved or not, and the climax is spent on a hill watching the fireworks.

I can see how this would impress H. P. Lovecraft (who crowed about the story in a letter) with its unfathomable alien beings dwarfing human understanding, but the characters don't glue the whole thing together. Its difficult to care and Goodwin's dry personality works better in The Moon Pool where he has the hot-blooded O'Keefe to bounce off of. There's no real antagonist to speak of. The Persian leader shows up for one chapter near the end and he's dealt with handily by Norhala (in one of the best sequences in the entire book)

The Metal Monster isn't bad. The Metal Monster is a great concept and Norhala is a scene-stealer. It just grinds itself to a halt describing the Metal Monster's mechanics and Merritt does action/adventure/romance much better in other stories.

This one's optional. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Dead Reckoning (1947)

This one's a real hidden gem of deceit and twists and Humphrey Bogart turning in a solid performance in a lesser-known noir from 1947. It's Dead Reckoning.

Bogey plays Rip Murdock, former army captain and war hero. He's in a place named Gulf City looking for his wartime pal Johnny, who mysteriously hopped off a train in Philadelphia rather than receive a Medal of Honor from Uncle Sam. The two are supposed to meet, but one fiery car crash later, that's not going to happen, and Murdock runs afoul of a local mobster named Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky) and the woman Johnny was involved with. And what a woman Coral “Dusty” Chandler (Lizabeth Scott) turns out to be. A husky-voiced blonde who was a former singer at Martinelli's nightclub and is central to everything.

Directed by John Cromwell, the movie with a very solid look. Some scenes really stand out, like the one near the beginning where Rip chases Johnny in vain around some train cars at night, the final showdown and a couple others. Its solid, but there’s not a whole lot there that really pops out in terms of camera tricks and so on.

So, story by Gerald Adams & Sidney Biddell, adaptation by Allen Rivkin & screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett & Steve Fisher. That’s quite a few names for a 100 minute picture. Character dialogue is actually really solid, especially between Bogart and Scott. The best scenes are the ones in cars where Rip & Dusty are talking. I’d say the downside is that the plot is fairly easy to figure out at a certain point, though the film doesn’t try and cop out on the ending at least.

one of the most interesting traits that Rip has in comparison to other characters I’ve seen him play is that there’s a surprising level of misogyny in our hero. Not just like a “typical for the times” way, but the character’s got some real bitterness buried in there. And then of course he ends up falling in love with the femme fatale of the film and the relationship goes to some REALLY interesting places.

Dead Reckoning might not bring a whole lot of innovation to the table, but it is great seeing Bogart and the severely underrated Scott (who made quite a few noirs in her day) really get into things. Its a hidden gem of the genre. Totally recommended.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Panic in the Streets (1950)

I'm unrolling something I've wanted to do for some time now: Noirvember. I've loved film noir ever since I discovered the Maltese Falcon (the book) in high school, and have wanted to do a month specifically dedicated to it for a while, especially as an excuse to discuss lesser-known noir. So here we are.

Does an outbreak of plague belong in film noir? Offhand, I'd say no, but Elia Kazan proved me wrong with 1950's Panic in the Streets.

Dockside New Orleans. A poker game turns sour when one of the players, a recently arrived illegal immigrant, starts acting sick and leaves suddenly. His cousin tries to calm him down, but Blackie (Jack Palance in his first movie role) and his toadie Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel in his second movie role) take issue with that and try to get their money back. One dead john doe later, they do, and dump his body into the harbor, where it washes up the next day for the police to find.

Except the autopsy reveals he was carrying pneumonic plague (a real version of the plague that infects the lungs rather than the lymph nodes). With no identity, no leads and a big port city to incubate it, Lt. Commander Clint Reed of the US Public Health Service (Richard Widmark), has three days to prevent an outbreak that could ravage the country. Along the way he butts heads with Police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) and strains his relationship with his wife, Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes).

This was Kazan's last film noir before moving onto bigger pictures (his next movie would be A Streetcar Named Desire) and it shows a confident, technically adept hand behind the camera. The action sequences are few, but the ones that are there are excellently executed in prime noir style.

The middle bogs down a little bit, but there's a constant tension as the stress takes its toll on Dr. Reed as he tries to convince both government officials and simple dockworkers of the seriousness of the threat.

Panic in the Streets is a good film well executed. I'm not sure I'd put it in my film noir top ten, but I definitely enjoyed it more than Streetcar.


Monday, October 30, 2017

Legends Never Die: Han Solo and the Lost Legacy

Han Solo and the Lost Legacy caps off Brian Daley's Han Solo trilogy, and was published four months after The Empire Strikes Back was released.

Frozen in carbonite, book trilogy ended. 1980 was a rough year to be Han Solo.

After making haste out of the Corporate Sector, Han, Chewie, Bollux and Blue Max are bumming around a backwater sector called the Tion Hegemony doing odd jobs like working for a flying circus.

Adventure comes calling in the form of one of Han's old academy instructors turned treasure hunter: Trooper Badure. Badure's recruits Han to get to the planet Dellalt to find a long-lost treasure ship, The Queen of Ranroon. The ship belonged to a fabled pre-Old Republic conqueror, Xim the Despot, and is said to be guarded by a legion of his deadly war robots. The ship has been the stuff of spacer legends for generations.

After a high-speed chase across a university, Han agrees and meets the rest of Badure's team: Hasti, a miner who's sister discovered the clue to the treasure's location and was killed for it, and Skynx, an eager Ruurian historian who's just about the most adorable fuzzy caterpillar person in the galaxy.

Dellalt proves to be a dangerous world, with a criminal mining operation, a reclusive group of deadly cultists in the mountains, and centuries-old war robots that are just as deadly as their reputation.

And then Gallandro shows up with a grudge against Solo for being humiliated in Han Solo's Revenge.

Considering Raiders of the Lost Ark came out a year later in 1981, the comparisons are inescapable. A character played by Harrison Ford goes on a hunt for ancient treasure and has to deal with angry natives and hostile armies. Probably coincidental, but the pulp element convergence here is striking.

Gallandro himself works as a stand-in for the sinister Setenza from The Good, The Band and the Ugly. His moustache is a little more flamboyant, but there's a lot of Lee Van Cleef in the character. He is one of the few people in the galaxy that Han is legitimately frightened of.

Like the rest of the trilogy, Daley's action sequences are fast-paced and exciting. The aforementioned university chase (which itself has a lot of similarities to one of the few bright spots in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), then there's a mountain chase on a giant metal disc, and a large-scale battle at the climax where everyone's fighting everyone as the war robots advance.

This time, though, there's a tinge of melancholy throughout. Its been a fun ride, but the party's coming to a close. Han makes more mistakes. Hasti, the potential love interest, rejects his advances, saying she wants something real and not a love-em-and-leave-em type. The ancient labor droid Bollux has a touching conversation about obsolescence and free will with the war robot commander. Skynx the academic is rushing to get as much adventure and knowledge into his life before he matures to a full adult and turns into a near-mindless butterfly. Bollux and Blue max have to leave Han by the end because they're not in the movies.

The passage of time undercuts everything in this book, and by the end, Han & Chewie have managed to piss off everyone important in the Corporate Sector and Tion Hegemony, so they bounce around the idea of doing a simple spice run for Jabba the Hutt.

The Han Solo Adventures are a blast to read and can be found individually or in omnibus formats. If you're of a tabletop persuasion, its essential reading for a Scum & Villainy type of game. Highly recommended and essential Expanded Universe reading.

Brian Daley would continue on with a few Star Wars projects, but not more novels. He wrote the script adaptations for the Star Wars Radio dramas (1981, 1983 and 1996, respectively). The audio dramas are really quite good, by the way, and expanded on a few themes that weren't in the movies.

Daley himself died in 1996 of pancreatic cancer shortly after recording of the Return of the Jedi radio drama wrapped. According to his official website, which is still up as a memorial to him, some of his ashes were to be scattered at the Little Big Horn Spirit Gate memorial to help defend it from inter-dimensional threats. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Octoverride '17: Blacula (1972)

Blacula. This little 1972 Blaxploitation horror movie has quite a reputation for its name alone. Black Dracula, essentially. Directed by William Crain, a black director with a few other Blaxploitation movies to his credit, along with several tv shows, including some episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard, and with a screenplay written by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig, the movie starts out strong.

Campy, but strong.

In 1780, Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall, the Future King of Cartoons on Pee-Wee's Playhouse) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) are on a diplomatic tour of Europe and end up in Transylvania. Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) patronizes them and constantly needles the prince about race until Mamuwalde tries to leave, and Dracula captures him, turns him into a vampire, and buries him in a coffin in his castle because Dracula is an asshole. Oh yeah, and Dracula dubs Mamuwalde “Blacula.”

Because Dracula's an asshole.

Fast forward to the 70s and an interracial gay couple of interior decorators buy up a bunch of stuff in Dracula's castle, including Mamuwalde's coffin. They're goofy, and definitely campy, but they're also innocent of what's about to happen, so there's definitely sympathy for them when they inadvertently ship Blacula to Los Angeles and awaken him and get killed.

After that, it slows down pretty hard. A doctor, Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) begins investigating the deaths and turns into this movie's Abraham Van Helsing. Meanwhile, Mamuwalde runs into Tina (Vonetta McGee again) who's a dead ringer for his long-lost love and he chases her, getting run over by a taxi, and exsanguinating the sassy black cabbie lady as consolation.

Then it turns into a slow build of Dr. Thomas figuring out Mamuwalde is Blacula, and his allies trying to save Tina and stop a vampire outbreak across the city. There's a fun scene of a photographer developing a photo of Mamuwalde that he doesn't show up in (before she gets eaten by Blacula, of course), the vampire Cabbie waking up in the hospital and charging down character actor Elisha Cook Jr (from The Maltese Falcon) that's actually kind of spooky, some vampires in cheap capes get thrown into cardboard boxes, and a bunch of extras dressed like motorcycle cops get killed.

There's really not a whole lot to the movie, actually. It borrows heavily from the classic Bela Lugosi Dracula plot while throwing in the love story angle from Boris Karloff's The Mummy. That's fine, its just very pedestrian. The cast is fine, the effects are low budget, and it would be rather forgettable if not for one thing: William Marshall.

Marshall anchors and elevates the movie above its shortcomings by bringing a sense of tragic gravitas to the character. His rumbling bass voice helps too, along with his Shakespearean background. He's more sympathetic than Dracula traditionally is, and despite running rampant across LA for several nights, his death at the end of the movie is handled with a lot of dignity. After he is denied love one last time, he chooses to walk out into the morning sunlight. Marshall makes a scene where he walks up a flight of stairs and falls over dead into something not goofy. That's some real talent there.

Blacula occupies a kind of middle ground of averageness in the Blaxploitation genre. Its inoffensive, competent enough and mostly forgettable. I do, however, recommend it for William Marshall's performance as Mamuwalde. That's worth seeing.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Octoverride '17: The Thirsty Dead (1974)

The Thirsty Dead AKA Blood Hunt AKA The Blood Cult of Shangri-La is a 1974 American-Filipino co-production shot on location in the Philippines. It was directed by Terry Becker, an actor with a few TV episode directing credits. This was the only movie he directed. The story was written by Becker and Lou Whitehill (another actor) with the screenplay by Charles Dennis (another actor, who's done a lot of voice-over work in recent years).

It begins with a long establishing shot of a harbor, then a dancer entertains a bunch of sailors in a sleazy dive bar before her set ends and she goes back to her dressing room to listen to exposition radio discuss a rash of women being kidnapped and because this is 70s schlock, she fantasizes about being taken as a white slave to Hong Kong. This is Claire (Judith McConnell) and sure enough, she herself is soon captured by mysterious people in dark robes. After the credits, another woman, Laura (Jennifer Billingsley) turns down a marriage proposal and goes home alone so she can be kidnapped by the same monk-lookin guys. She wakes up half-drugged in a sewer and tries to get away, doesn't, and is taken by boat into the jungle with another girl, Ann (Fredricka Myers). They get dropped off with Claire and a local girl, Bonnie (Chiqui da Rosa) and are then escorted through the jungle by some bored-looking men in loincloths to a hidden cult.

The cult is led by Ranu (Tani Guthrie) with religious services by Baru (John Considine) and his giant silly collar. They worship a head in a red plastic box called Raul. At least, I think its Raul. The audio of the version I watched was terribly muddy and difficult to understand. Doesn't matter. Raul's only in one scene anyway.

The four women arrive and Laura is singled out by Baru because Raul mentioned her name as part of a something-something prophecy and Baru painted a portrait of her thanks to a prophetic dream he had of her because he's a lonely weirdo and so they can throw in a weak romance plot.

An IMMORTAL lonely weirdo, as it turns out. This cult is kidnapping attractive young women so that they can harvest their blood and mix it with leaves from a local jungle plant with remarkable healing properties and the resulting cocktail extends their life and youth. Interestingly enough, the cult uses the leaves to heal up their wounds so they don't die. Those “rejected” by Raul eventually turn into withered and crazy old people who get locked away in a cave.

Anyway, Baru tries to woo Laura over to his side and while she has some attraction to him, she's horrified by the cult's practices. The conversation goes “What right do you have?” “We are the chosen ones.” Rinse. Repeat.

Claire, on the other hand, likes the idea of being young and immortal and not being the one who's blood is being drunk. This leads to some half-assed tension and the four girls escape into the jungle, wander aimlessly for a while, then get caught and brought back.

Laura wins Ranu over to her side, and with his help escapes again and frees the rejected ones, who predictably turn on their masters. Claire decides she wants to stay, Laura tries to force her into escaping with the group, Claire tries to run away, takes a wrong turn and falls down into a spike pit and dies. Good job missing the point of why forcing people into doing things they don't want to is bad, Laura.

Anyway, the three girls escape with Ranu, and he leads them toward the exit, only they pass the “Ring of Age” which borders the cult's territory and he rapidly starts aging because we needed fake drama introduced at the last minute. The slave revolt is put down and the three women barely escape their pursuers by reaching a road and flagging down a passing jeep.

The movie ends with police searching the jungle with helicopters while a police lieutenant who was investigating the disappearances (Vic Diaz, who I only mention because he was a prolific actor in the Philippine horror movie industry of the 70s) tells Laura that they can't find any trace of settlement on the mountain, not even with helicopters. Meanwhile, Ranu looks at the futile search through a telescope and has a good laugh.

The biggest problem is complete lack of tension in the movie. After getting captured in the beginning, most scenes revolve around “how will the girls be able to escape?” and until the finale, the answer is “they can't.” Everything reverts back to them being captured without much trouble and more scenes of them talking about escaping. Bonnie has a deadly snake crawling at her feet! Never mind, it leaves without any fuss. Ann's bloodletting wound opens up! Never mind, somebody used one of the magic healing leaves to fix it. Its dreadfully boring.

The moral conflict of “We are the chosen ones!” versus “You don't have the right to do this!” feels like a bad episode of Star Trek. The cult's silly robes, propensity for interpretive dance, and soundtrack all add to that feel.

Is there anything good? Well, its got a talking head in a box. That counts for something. The character of Claire, while being a two-dimensional turboslut, is at least entertaining to watch and McConnell has scene-chewing fun with the role, which can't be said about the rest of the cast. That's really about it.

Ultimately, its a boring movie with a paralyzing reluctance to move its own plot forward.

Absolutely not recommended.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Octoverride '17: Varan the Unbelievable (1962)

This is going to be shorter because there's not a whole lot to 1962's Varan the Unbelievable, which is a heavy re-edit of a 1958 Japanese kaiju movie, Daikaijû Baran, directed by the father of Godzilla himself, Ishirō Honda.

This version, directed by Jerry A. Baerwitz, features scenes of an American Naval officer, James Bradley (played by character actor Myron Healey) and his wife Anna (Tsuruko Kobayashi) and some support staff. Its a joint US-Japan project looking into a water desalination experiment, and the saltwater lake they've chosen happens to have a giant monster lying dormant at the bottom.

The monster wakes up and if you've seen the original Godzilla or even Gamera, you know what happens. Monster wanders around destroying things, military tries and fails to stop it, some model buildings get destroyed, and then the scientists come up with a solution eventually that kills the creature.

Its all quite dull, and the editing job does it no favors, though the American cast isn't awful by any means. It just lacks all sense of weight and purpose. Its going through the motions.

I will say that the monster costume for Varan/Baran/Bara-dagi. Varan is essentially a giant Iguana who stomps around smashing nicely detailed sets.

The chop-job does it no favors though, and I would like to see Honda's original version at some point, but this version?

No. Its dull and forgettable.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Octoverride '17: Fangs of the Living Dead (1969)

After a long absence, the Octoverride is back, though I can't promise it won't be nothing but wall-to-wall schlock this year.

1969 brought us today's piece of European Horror Schlock. Fangs of the Living Dead AKA Malenka AKA Malenka, the Vampire's Niece AKA Malenka: La Nipote del Vampiro AKA Malenka: la Sobrina del Vampiro AKA The Vampire Girl. Yeah.

This one's going to have SPOILERS because there's not much else to discuss.

It was an Italian-Spanish co-production that tapped into the then-popular horror plot of “Young(ish) person inherits an old, spooky castle in a town of weirdos and travels there, encountering HORRORS” much like in Horror Rises From the Tomb.

Here, we are introduced to Sylvia Morel, played by Swedish model and actress Anita Ekberg. Sylvia has no job or background to really speak of, but she receives a letter from an uncle that she's inherited the family estate in Walbrooke (which is in some vaguely Carpathain region). She decides to go there and fill out the necessary paperwork two weeks before her wedding to Dr. Piero Luciani (played by Gianni Medici as “John Hamilton”). He's not thrilled about the idea, but their mutual friend and incredibly Italian comic relief sidekick Max (César Benet as “Guy Roberts”) sees no harm in it.

Sylvia arrives in Walbrooke, stops for a drink in a local tavern run by sisters Bertha (Diana Lorys) and Freya (the strong-jawed Rosanna Yanni, who was also a producer of the film). We get hints that Bertha is ill with anemia before the Count's coachman and goon, Vladis (Fernando Bilbao) arrives to drive her to the castle.

At the Castle, Sylvia learns that her uncle, the Count Walbrooke (Julián Ugarte), is a weird recluse with perfect hair and an obsession with Sylvia's grandmother Malenka, who looked just like Sylvia and was played by Ekberg in an overly long flashback sequence. Sylvia also meets Blinka (Adriana Ambesi as “Audrey Ambert”), who lives in the castle, dresses in lingerie, and gives off a rapey vibe when she tries to sweet talk Sylvia into leaving her room. The Count drags Blinka out of Sylvia's room and starts whipping her in the dungeon, where its revealed to Sylvia that Blinka is a vampire. And so is the Count.

The Count wants Sylvia to call off the wedding because “Something Something Family Curse,” and he starts manipulating her to try and turn her into a vampire.

Piero & Max arrive to find out what's going on and they speak with the innkeepers. Bertha is in some kind of relationship with the Count and dies the next day from bite wounds. She rises from the grave, and it all comes down to a climactic showdown in the castle's dungeon where the Count chains a shirtless Piero to a cross and explains that he's trying to drive Sylvia into thinking she's a vampire so she can be declared insane and the Count can then claim the inheritance. Then Blinka and Bertha get into a catfight, which buys Sylvia (who had been pretending to be under the Count's power) enough time to free Piero, who then does the unheroic thing of stabbing the Count with a flaming torch, which then prompts the Count to age rapidly into a papier-mâché skeleton, which then burns up in a pretty decent scene.

Its my understanding that there are two endings to the film. The first, follows the “hoax” plot to its conclusion, and the shorter one for American audiences, which features the burning vampire skeleton. Not having seen the first ending, I still prefer the idea of vampires trying to run an inheritance fraud scheme, mainly because its more original. “Supernatural Goings-On Were All A Hoax To Drive Someone Insane For Money” is a much more cliché plot twist than people realize. 

So what's good about it? Honestly, not a whole lot. There are some fantastic and atmospheric shots, usually in the castle crypt, and the twist of “inheritance fraud vampires” is wonderfully goofy. Other than that, the movie is ill-paced with frequently bad acting, especially during reactions to scares. The biggest star of the film, Anita Ekberg, was a major beauty icon in the 50s and early 60s, even having a major role in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, but there's little allure in a middle-aged sex symbol playing a character that feels written like they're in their early twenties.

Not recommended. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Beat-Em-Up to a Pulp

So a recent Twitter conversation randomly shifted to the lost genre of Beat-Em-Up games.

Aside from nostalgia for pumping quarters into Final Fight at the Pizza Hut my Grandpa would take me to after school for a personal pan pizza, I managed to beat the arcade version of the game this year.

Its simple, even for its genre, but it still holds up. The SNES exclusive Final Fight 3 adds a ton of features, like more playable characters, combos, the ability to dash, and even a super move meter.

Then epiphany hit. Beat-em-ups are, at their core, pulp adventures.

A group of individuals numbering between one and at most six take to the streets to right a wrong. The world, or at least the city, needs saving. A lot of times, its the female love interest who gets kidnapped and its up to the hero and his friends to save her (Streets of Rage 2 remixes this by having it be one of the male protagonists of the first game be the one kidnapped).

Double Dragon establishes the hero's motivation with maximum efficiency. A woman (Marian) is surrounded on a street by a mean looking gang. One of them walks up to her, slugs her in the gut, throws her over his shoulder, and carries her off.

Mission Start. Ten seconds of backstory is all you need to know. Action, romance, and morality (because good dudes don't sucker punch women and carry them off).

Or take Final Fight. The newly-elected mayor of Metro City gets a call from the Mad Gear gang. They've kidnapped his daughter Jessica to extort his cooperation.

Since the mayor is Mike Haggar, the response is swift and decisive. He strips off his shirt and personally takes to the streets to suplex and pile driver anyone who gets in his way. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that he's a former professional wrestler. And this predates Jesse Ventura's governorship.

Sounds insane, right? Sure, but its memorable, and Haggar's design, moveset and moustache are so iconic that he's the poster boy of the franchise and the only one to be playable in every Final Fight game. He's even made it into two Marvel Vs Capcom games.

Joining him are Cody, Jessica's boyfriend and the heroic everyman-type of protagonist, as well as Guy, Cody's friend and a ninja (because 1989), who has no emotional investment in the proceedings and only joins in because its the right thing to do.

Technological limitations had an effect on storytelling back then, but even so, that works for Beat-Em-Ups, which boil the story down into the minimal background required to invest you into going from left to right across a screen and literally beating everything you meet into a pulp.

You want a deep story? There's lots of RPGs to scratch that itch.

You want to play through an action movie? Memorable character designs that fit into gameplay archetypes taking on the world? Killer soundtracks? Eating fully cooked turkey you found in wooden crate?

Don't actually do that last one.

Hell yeah, its pulp.  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Legends Never Die: Han Solo's Revenge

Han Solo at Stars' End was published in early 1979. The sequel, Han Solo's Revenge followed in late 1979. Whereas Stars' End ended up a prison break story, this turns into almost a James Bond style adventure/mystery.

It begins with Han and Chewie (and the droids Bollux and Blue Max) operating a movie theater on a desert planet for easy credits. Unbeknownst to them, they've accidentally created a religious experience for the desert natives by showing a documentary of a water world. The scheme ends in a hurry when they try to show a different movie and they're back in space, desperate for cash.

The solution comes in a simple, lucrative smuggling operation. One catch: Han finds out it involves running slaves. Han & Chewie are rogues, but they absolutely refuse to get involved with any slavers. The immediate situation resolved, an angry Han Solo sets out to find the slavers and get the money they still owe him.

To that end, Han runs into one Fiolla of Llord, a beautiful, idealistic and resourceful woman who's also a Corporate Sector Assistant Auditor-General trying to track down the very same slaving ring. Meanwhile Chewie has his hands full dealing with a persistent skip tracer named Spray, who shoves his way onto the Falcon, intending to repossess it once all the shooting stops.

Shootouts on a luxury spaceliner, planet hopping, a bomb on the Millennium Falcon, a high speed swoop bike chase scene five years before the speeder bikes of Return of the Jedi, and an encounter with Gallandro, the deadliest gunslinger in the Corporate Sector, if not the entire Galaxy.

Much like Stars' End, Revenge runs at a rapid clip of action sequences, betrayals and more action sequences. Comic relief is also strong, as Bollux and Blue Max continue to provide their mix of competence and comedy, while Spray becomes an amusing foil for Chewie.

The real standout is Fiolla, one of the first genuinely memorable Expanded Universe female protagonists and love interests for Han. (Jessa from Stars' End counts too, but she's only there at the beginning and end of that story). Resourceful, witty, and occasionally naive in contrast to Han's practical cynicism, she's great. If one were feeling woke, it could be pointed out that she is a non-Caucasian female hero in a Star Wars story from 1979 and it was no big deal because the franchise was always diverse, but that would shatter the narrative.

She's also a genuinely good cop, which makes a strong contrast to the hard edge the Corporate Sector Authority had in the first book. Tyrants like Viceprex Hirken aren't the only employees in the Authority, which adds a nice layer of nuance.

I absolutely recommend Han Solo's Revenge for fast-paced scum and villainy action, adventure and romance. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Movie Review: Robin Hood (1991)

So you're probably already aware of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves which is an entertaining but ultimately mediocre and hollow movie with a great soundtrack and a damn entertaining Alan Rickman performance.

But also released in 1991 was another Robin Hood movie. Directed by action veteran John Irvin and written by Sam Resnick and John McGrath. McGrath was a veteran TV writer but this is Resnick's only film credit on IMDB. The cast is full of veteran actors, but the biggest name a modern viewer will recognize is a young Uma Thurman in her Post-Baron Munchausen, Pre-Pulp Fiction early 90s period.

Robert Hode (Patrick Bergin) is the Saxon Earl of Huntington and friend Norman Baron Roger Dauguerre (Jeroen Krabbe). Things go sour when Sir Miles Folcanet (Jurgen Prochnow AKA the guy from Das Boot) arrives and arrogantly starts throwing his weight around. He's here to marry Dauguerre's niece Marian (Uma Thurman), but that's not why Robin rebels.

Much the Miller (Daniel Webb) is caught poaching and Robin stands up for him, preventing Sir Miles from blinding the peasant. During his trial, words get heated, pride gets insulted, and Robin punches his way out of the castle and becomes an outlaw with his kinsman Will Scarlett (Owen Teale). They hit upon the standard beats of the river fight with Little John (David Morrissey), the attempted thievery on Friar Tuck (Jeff Nuttall), Marian running off to join Robin disguised as a young man. All against the backdrop of Prince John's regency during King Richard's imprisonment.

So why is this “The Good 1991 Robin Hood movie?”


It gets the spirit absolutely right. There's no way that an early 90s medieval movie would ever reach the joyful spirit of The Adventures of Robin Hood, but while the costumes and sets feature lots of browns and washed out lighting, the spirit of the movie is deeply earthy. Characters sing (not elaborate musical numbers, just little ditties as they go along). There's some swashbuckling. There's trick shooting. There are glimpses of historical awareness, though they muddle together All Souls' Day with the Lord of Misrule tradition that belongs to Christmastide or the Merry Men getting powerful Welsh longbows about a hundred or so years before they became truly dominant in English battle tactics.

These are legitimate mistakes, but there's an attempt at verisimilitude and not something so nakedly absurd as the Ewok Village or Celts or a Moor traveling the 12th Century English countryside because he has a Wookiee life-debt like in Prince of Thieves.

Then there's the romance. Marian is great here as a strong-willed and very court-savvy young woman with a sharp tongue. She has no interest in Sir Miles, and is charmed by Robin's benevolence and hot-blooded heroics. Even when she goes tomboy, she's still a girl in disguise and not simply an action movie character with boobs. This Marian's actually kind of bad in a fight, but still manages to get some good shots in. Compare with Prince of Thieves Marian who starts off the movie showing off her sword skills but becomes useless in the climactic fight scene. 

Robin himself is great too. There's no “You killed my father/betrayed my King, I need revenge!” motivation. He's just a proud, hot-headed nobleman with a rigid sense of morality who commits to his actions. Not quite Erroll Flynn heroic, but definitely channeling him.

Jeff Nuttall's Friar Tuck is also interesting. Nuttall was a major figure in 60s counterculture and artistic movements with an anarchic streak. Here he plays Tuck as a thoroughly shady character: evicted from his monastery for murdering another friar, he now travels the countryside selling chicken bones as saints' relics. Its an interesting thought behind why a man of God would go around with a band of outlaws, but Tuck's postmodern shadiness contrasts hard with Robin's straightforward heroism.

Straightforward heroism is the order of the day here. Robin is good, Sir Miles is bad (but not “consorting with sorcery and trying to rape Maid Marian” bad), and the two spiral toward a deadly confrontation before a legitimately earned happy ending.

Besides Men in Tights, this forgotten little gem is the best Robin Hood movie made in the last thirty years or so. Highly recommended.


Sunday, September 03, 2017

Bike Week Bonanza: Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Every Which Way But Loose, Heroes of the East

I've taken to riding an exercise bike and watching a movie every day to kill two birds with one stone.

Mortal Kombat (1995)
Surprisingly good and probably the best video game movie adaptation. It plays smart by keeping it close to the original “Deathmatch Tournament” plot with broadly-drawn archetypes meeting up to punch each other.

Set design is outstanding and the CGI isn't overused beyond the limits of mid-90s graphics. Christopher Lambert is a stroke of genius as Raiden. The rest of the heroes are well handled, especially Johnny Cage's story arc. The Goro costume/effects are impressive. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa steals the show as douchebag sorcerer Shang Tsung.

The fight scenes rely too much on quick cuts. Scorpion doesn't do much except have a cool fight with Cage. Sub-Zero dies like a bitch.

Unpretentious and a lot of fun. Probably the best Paul W. S. Anderson movie I've seen.

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)
The sequel that replaces almost the entire cast except Liu Kang and Kitana. James Remar (from the Warriors) does a serviceable job as Raiden, but lacks the touch of amused madness that made Lambert's version so good. Brian Thompson (the bad guy from Cobra) is halfway to a good Shao-Kahn, but making him into a daddy's boy hurts the character badly, but that's also because Shinnok ruins everything.

Surprisingly faithful to Mortal Kombat 3's plot, it suffers from a plot that's more ambitious than its budget can allow. Smoke and Cyrax get fun fights. Nightwolf shows up for one scene to spout vision quest nonsense about animalities to Liu Kang. The heroic Sub-Zero II (yes, that's canon) shows up to fight Scorpion, spout some ninja nonsense, and then vanishes entirely from the movie in a complete waste of one of the series' most popular characters. Sheeva, Rain, and Baraka die like chumps. Which I guess is in character, but still...

CGI is more heavily used, to its detriment. Motaro looks like ass. Liu Kang and Shao-Kahn's dragon vs hydra Animality fight is AWFUL. Set design remains pretty good.

Considerably weaker than the first. Pretty bad, but entertaining at least.

Every Which Way But Loose (1978)
Clint Eastwood as street fighting trucker Philo Beddoe with a pet orangutan named Clyde. No reason given for Clyde. No reason needed.

Philo falls in love with a mysterious country-western singer Lynn Halsey-Taylor who leaves him one night and he takes off after her with his ape and his best friend Orville (Geoffrey Lewis).

Philo's something of an asshole since he keeps provoking fights everywhere he goes. He pisses off an idiot biker gang and a short-fused pair of cops. Both groups chase after him.

Its funny, and shows the American working class as affable and heroic. His sidekick Orville finds love with a young Beverly D'Angelo, but Philo himself discovers that the woman he's followed to Denver from California is a shallow, selfish manipulator.

Its good, but fairly subversive toward the idea of romance. Doesn't really stick the landing. Its got an old lady blowing up motorcycles with a shotgun, though, so there's that.

Heroes of the East AKA Shaolin Challenges Ninja AKA Zhong hua zhang fu (1978)
Shaw Brothers production. Directed by veteran martial artist/stunt actor/director Chia-Liang Liu and starring Shaw Brothers staple Gordon Liu/Chia-Hui Liu. Action comedy about a Chinese man put into an arranged marriage with a Japanese woman. Both like each other, but both are martial artists and deeply proud of their respective heritages/styles.

Misunderstandings lead to arguments, which lead to some Taming of the Shrew moments and then lead to him inadvertently insulting all of her martial arts teachers, who show up looking to avenge the insult.

Cue a series of fights where Liu has to fight them off one by one, using different Chinese Kung Fu styles against their varied Japanese styles.

Its got a light touch and (typical of the genre) the fight scenes are where it shines. Nunchaku, katana, jian swords, spears, sai, butterfly swords, three-sectioned-staff, judo, karate, drunken boxing, crane style, ninjutsu, etc. Watch Kung Fu movie fight choreography, and you'll see how just about every modern Western action director needs to be slapped in the face repeatedly for their terrible editing choices.

Naturally, the Chinese protagonist wins (reconciling with his wife along the way), but the Japanese fighters aren't treated like cartoon villains like in a lot of other Kung Fu cinema (remember, WWII Japan was not kind to China). Its a showcase and celebration of different styles of martial arts. Entertaining and impressive. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Movie Review: Mr. Majestyk (1974)

1974's Mr. Majestyk is a curious little early action film that's largely been forgotten, despite having a reasonably large pedigree.

It stars timeless tough guy Charles Bronson as Vince Majestyk.

It was written by pulp western and crime novelist Elmore Leonard.

And it was directed by big picture filmmaker Richard Fleischer, who directed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage and, uh, Conan the Destroyer.

Its about a grumpy Vietnam veteran with a criminal record who now owns a melon farm in Colorado. All he wants to do is bring in his harvest for the year, but fate seems to have it out for him.

Sounds like a Steinbeck novel about the plight of the working class and death of the American Dream, right?

Wrong. This is Bronson we're talking about, not Tom Joad.

After a confrontation with a small time shakedown scheme, Majestyk gets arrested on bogus charges. During a stay in prison, he meets mob hitman Frank Renda, played by gangster character actor Al Lettieri. The two hate each other immediately.

When the mob tries to spring Renda during a prisoner transfer, a firefight with the cops ensues. In the chaos, Majestyk grabs the keys to Renda's handcuffs and drives off with him in the prison bus. Renda tries to cut a deal, but Majestyk has other plans.

He wants to hand the hitman over to the police in exchange for dropping the charges against him so he can go back to his melon farm. It doesn't work out as planned. Renda escapes and boy is he mad.

The good news is that the charges against Majestyk got dropped. The bad news is that Renda's out to kill him. The best news is that he can go back to his melon harvest. On one condition: That he act as bait to lure out Renda.

The harvest is brought in successfully. He starts up a relationship with migrant worker and union activist Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal). He helped her out at the beginning of the movie and hired her group.

But then tragedy!

Renda makes his move, but Majestyk's not at home, so the mobster settles for the next best thing: destroying the melon harvest with sad violin music playing over it. I swear it makes more sense in context.

What follows is a very satisfying road to revenge. Its got shootouts. Its got an old Ford pickup barreling down perilous mountain trails with Bronson bouncing around in the flatbed shooting a shotgun. Its got ramp jumps. Its got a car going over the side of a cliff and exploding. Its got Bronson jumping through a window blasting away with his shotgun.

Its good stuff.

There's a few nods to the labor disputes of the early 70s, but at its core, its basically a libertarian western. The man just wants to get his harvest in and make some money, and the cops do nothing except get in the way of that.

Everybody else in the movie thinks he's crazy, since with all the madness going on, his main fixation is the melon harvest. But in context, it makes sense. Its his livelihood and independence on the line, and he'd be ruined it he couldn't sell the crop. Even the melon massacre works in that context. The hero and villain both understand the symbolism of the crop.

There are some slower parts here and there, but Leonard's script keeps things building nicely.

It may not be his finest work, but at the end of the day, its Charles Bronson kicking ass for a hundred minutes. What more do you need to recommend it?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pulp Review: The Living Shadow

The origins of the Shadow are an interesting, and appropriately twisting gyre of early cross-media promotion.

Once upon a time, Street & Smith published a pulp mag called Detective Story Magazine. On July 31, 1930, Detective Story Hour premiered on the radio for adaptations of stories from the magazine, and to shill other Street & Smith publications. The narrator of the show was a mysterious voice known only as The Shadow (a clever piece of marketing itself).

It worked, but not exactly as expected. The Shadow's sinister charisma had audiences going to the stands to buy magazines, but they weren't asking for Detective Story. They wanted The Shadow. Which didn't exist.

Street & Smith were smart enough to see a demand hungry for a supply, and hired up-and-coming mystery writer (and former reporter, stage magic afficionado, and crossword puzzle writer) Walter B. Gibson, to create a character whole cloth out of nothing more than a voice.

Under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant, Gibson would go on to write 300 Shadow novels, so it worked out pretty well.

Shadow Magazine Volume 1, issue 1 appeared on stands in April of 1931, featuring The Living Shadow, Gibson's first published Shadow story.

What follows is pulp as hell.

We meet suicidally depressed Harry Vincent on a bridge in New York. He got a letter from his old girlfriend back in Michigan dumping him, and so like a bitch, he jumps.

Fate intervenes in the form of the Shadow, who yanks him back onto the bridge and offers him a deal: Harry's financial woes are forever taken care of, but he has to obey any and every command of the Shadow's. Or they could go back to the bridge and Harry goes over the railing again. Harry's life belongs to the Shadow now, and decides his old life is dead anyway, so he eagerly agrees to become an Agent..

It doesn't take long. Harry is introduced to another Shadow Agent, intermediary Claude Fellows. Harry is sent into a nearly fatal disastrous investigation of a fence operating out of a tea shop in Chinatown. Re-shuffled to a murder investigation in Long Island that's got the police stumped.

Mystery! Investigations! Misdirection! Disguises! Murder! Car Chases! Fistfights! Deathtraps! Crossword Puzzles! About the only thing it doesn't have is estrogen. Margo Lane wouldn't appear in radio until 1937 and in the pulps until 1941.

Anything else would give away the plot, and it takes some very clever turns.

What's more important is that it establishes the Shadow as a character: He has a mysterious drive to punish evil-doers and is fabulously wealthy. He says that he can spend the lives of his agents if he wants to, but goes to great lengths to help and protect them in danger. He is a master of disguise beyond normal physical limitations. He can travel convincingly through shadows and its never made clear if its supernatural or not. He has his trademark laugh. These last bits move the story from a master detective with enough prep-time hax to make Batman blush (makes sense, since Batman's the bastard son of the Shadow) into supernatural fantasy.

What's even more amusing is that at one point, Harry Vincent is instructed to tune into the radio at a specific time and channel to hear his next orders from the Shadow. It is a blatant nod to the the Shadow's real-life radio presence and a brilliant piece of cross-media marketing.

Imagine being a loyal listener of the show and finally reading the Shadow's print stories only for it imply that at any time, you, yes YOU, could hear instructions from the Shadow to help him in his crusade on crime. Really tickles the tympanic membrane, doesn't it?

As an introduction, The Living Shadow succeeds, such that Street & Smith would publish it again in hardcover the next year and there would be numerous reprints over the years. Its not the Shadow and his mythos fully developed, hell, the Shadow's identity as Lamont Cranston or Kent Allard isn't even established yet. Yet there's enough there to be unmistakably The Shadow, and its fun as hell.

Highly recommended.