Monday, March 27, 2017

“Even the children threw rocks at me.”

Horror Rises From the Tomb, also known in its original Spanish as El espanto surge de la tumba, is a 1973 eurotrash horror movie. I knew nothing about this going in, which should be fun, I guess?

An Hour and Twenty Minutes Later

Fun” may have been an overstatement. “Curious” might be a better word. “Heavily edited for television to get the juicy bits out” would be several better words.

For a bit of context, the name Paul Naschy looms large in Spanish horror history. Born Jacinto Molina Alvarez, Naschy (a screen name he came up with to better market his films internationally) was a big fan of classic horror films and eventually turned to screenwriting and acting and eventually directing. Incredibly prolific, especially in the 70s, he performed in over a hundred projects, including 12 werewolf movies where he played a tortured soul named Waldemar Daninsky, before his death in 2009 at the age of 75.

Here, Naschy plays three roles in a script he wrote under his real name. The first is Armand de Marnac, a 15th century nobleman who executes his wicked warlock brother Alaric de Marnac (also Naschy). In Ye Olde Times, Alaric was accused and convicted of a litany of horrible and supernatural crimes that made him a Satanist, warlock, werewolf and vampire all at the same time. He had a lover, Mabille de Lancre (played by Helga Line) who was more of a vampire herself, but no less evil. Before their deaths, the two cursed Armand that they will come back and take revenge on his descendants.

Fast forward to modern times (well...1973 Modern, at least). Hugo de Marnac (also Naschy) is a professional bored aristocrat with a bunch of boring and kind of dumb friends. The first is Maurice Roland, descendant of Armand's friend Andre Roland (both played by Victor Alcazar). Maurice is an artist haunted by dreams of a pair of sinister eyes. Maurice is also dating Paula (played by Cristina Suriani), a journalist stationed in Germany home on vacation. Hugo himself is in a one-sided relationship with Sylvia (played by Betsabe Ruiz). Sylvia wants Hugo to settle down and marry her, but Hugo's ambivalent about that.

At a party they all decide to take part in a séance, where the ghost of Alaric messes with the medium, table, and a candlestick to get across the point that he can't rest until his head is reunited with his body. Intrigued by the thought of treasure buried on the property, they all go to the de Marnac estate to look for it out of idle curiosity.

Along the way they get attacked by thieves who are in turn killed by some shifty village vigilantes, reach the estate, find a conveniently head-sized chest, and the spirit of Alaric de Marnac starts possessing people and killing them and its a whole thing as he works towards getting his head reattached to its body and resurrecting his bloodthirsty consort Mabille.

Oh, and we also meet Elvira (played by Emma Cohen). She's the daughter of the caretaker Gastone and sister of Chantal, and the childhood friend/lover of Hugo. And his affection for her is why he hasn't committed to Sylvia.

Anyway, people get killed by sickles, people get possessed one by one and disappear, and there's an interlude where a bunch of people killed over the course of the movie who were dumped into a lake get revived as zombies that unsuccessfully try to capture/kill Hugo and Elvira. Then it reaches a bloody but somewhat standard climactic fight.

The movie was directed by Carlos Aured, and despite being a quickly-produced, low-budget horror, has some nice visual touches. The medieval opening is cold and moody, and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the rest of the movie is well executed despite taking place in a reasonably large estate. The makeup effects are serviceable for the zombies and tricks like teleportation and Mabille's resurrection are achieved with simple editing tricks in a low-budget but somewhat respectable way. Its cheap, but at least an effort was made to overcome budget limitations.

This is, however, a heavily edited version of the film that removed all of the nudity and most of the goriest elements, presumably so it could be suitable for broadcast on American television. The downside is that it makes an already slow burn downright boring for long stretches, since all that's left is people trying to figure out what's going on and making stupid decisions that get them killed in poorly edited ways. A better cut exists, without the editing hack job and with better visual and sound quality, but I can only review what I've seen.

And what I've seen is a ponderous, frequently dull movie with characters that have to act stupid in order for the already thin plot to happen. The script isn't great and steals heavily from vampire, witchcraft and werewolf movies and combines them all into a duo of villains who are quite overpowered except for some very specific weaknesses. Except instead of a holy crucifix driving back the vampire, its an amulet with “Thor's Hammers” on it that can undo the evil warlock's magic.

There are flashes of entertainment, such as Naschy's scenery chewing stare as Alaric de Marnac (a character he would revisit in a later movie) and the atmosphere is often successfully creepy with a few noteworthy setpieces near the end, but man is it a boring journey most of the way. The complete version is probably better, but I'm in no hurry to see it.

Not recommended. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Legends Never Die: Splinter of the Mind's Eye

Splinter of the Mind's Eye occupies a curious place in Star Wars history. Published in early 1978, it is the earliest non-movie novel to be written, and next to the Marvel ongoing series, the second piece of what would later be called “The Expanded Universe.”

Its author, Alan Dean Foster, a newer but already prolific writer by the late 70s, had been contracted for two books. The first was the novelization of Star Wars (ghostwriting as “George Lucas”), which was worked from earlier script and story drafts (which is why Luke is a member of Blue Squadron instead of Red and scenes like Biggs on Tatooine are present but cut from the movie) and Splinter was the second.

On the whole, it operates on a much smaller scale than Star Wars. The bulk of it takes place on a single planet, and the only returning characters are Luke, Leia, Threepio, Artoo & Darth Vader. The reason being that Lucas was hedging his bets in case Star Wars was not massive success and the potential sequel could be adapted from this book on a much, much lower budget. Han Solo & Chewbacca don't even appear because Harrison Ford hadn't signed on for the sequel yet. The movie was a success, so there was no need to go small for the sequel, and so this book occupies its curious niche in Star Wars history.

Despite the smaller scale, the plot ends up being pulpy as hell. Luke & Leia travel to the Circarpous system to recruit for the Alliance when technical troubles cause them to crash land on the swampy planet Mimban. Braving wildlife, they find an Imperial controlled mining town, get captured by the local Captain-Supervisor, Grammel, escape, and join a strange old woman, Halla, on her search for a powerful Force artifact called the Kaiburr Crystal. And then Darth Vader shows up for a showdown in an ancient temple of Totally-Not-Cthulhu. 

Its a short read, and moves quickly from situation to situation. Grammel, the primary villain, starts out as an intelligent but brutal bully of a man who's a big fish in his small pond, but as the situation spirals out of his control, he starts losing his cool, and then has his authority pulled away from him when Vader arrives.

Halla is a little bit like Obi-Wan, since Luke looks to her for guidance in the Force, except she's only a minor talent who's really proud of being able to move a few small objects. More interestingly, she's a shady treasure hunter with a cowardly streak, and she gets a fun character ark.

The other two major characters are Hin and Kee, two big Wookiee-like Yuzzem that Luke befriends in prison. They're miners and have a nasty hangover, but they've got no love for the Empire and gladly join up in the search for the crystal.

The crystal itself is in the lost Temple of Pomojema, a forgotten god who's basically Cthulhu, only with fabled healing powers provided by the crystal.

I mean LOOK at it

The book's strengths are the action and the deeply detailed description of Mimban's environment. Mood and atmosphere are strongly established. Vader is used sparingly in the story, but very effectively. Leia uses a lightsaber for the first time in the franchise, though it doesn't really go well for her. The action sequences are frequent and varied, from encounters with wildlife to medium-scale battles between Stormtroopers and Coway natives (who are much more threatening than Ewoks, despite also being fuzzy). Lightsabers are very deadly, and the climactic fight scene goes to some dark places before the resolution.

As for the bad, the small scale does hurt the story next to A New Hope, which is grand in nature. Also, by the end it doesn't really feel like much has happened or that there's much in the way of consequences, partially because a lot of the plot isn't referenced or revisited by other writers. In the grand scheme of things, its a side story, and feels like it.

The romance angle is awkward in a post-Return of the Jedi world, since Luke and Leia are very much attracted to each other. This isn't Foster's fault, since that's how it was in A New Hope, and if Lucas had an idea where that relationship was headed in 1978, Alan Dean Foster sure didn't know. Still, not the author's fault for not knowing what the characterization would be like five years later.

What is Foster's fault is how Luke is somehow a better swimmer than Leia, despite coming from a desert planet. That just doesn't make sense any way you look at it.

On its own, Splinter of the Mind's Eye is a solidly entertaining, reasonably well-written piece of light pulp. It doesn't really fit well into what the franchise would later become and got swept under the rug more often than not by later writers, but Dark Horse Comics adapted the story in the 90s with a bunch of continuity fixes to bring it closer in line with the Expanded Universe proper. It doesn't have a whole lot of substance going on, and its not as grandly ambitious as The Thrawn Trilogy, but I would recommend it as a snapshot of the humble early years of Star Wars.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Pulp Revolution Review: Sword & Flower

Sword and Flower is the 2017 debut novella of Rawle Nyanzi a young, up and coming author in the Pulp Revolution movement. Firstly, the author and I follow each other on Twitter and communicate with each other. There is absolutely a level of favorable personal bias going into this review and you should be aware of it.

The novella is short, and a brisk read, though I did find the language clunky at times which lessened my enjoyment in places.

What's more important here are the ideas going on, because this story embraces weirdness in a way that you don't see often. (well, not often at the moment, if the Pulp Rev has anything to say about it).

There are two main characters: Mahershalalhasbaz “Mash” Martson, a young Puritan soldier defending his village from demons in The Lesser Heaven (Purgatory, basically) and Chiyo Aragaki, a ki-wielding Japanese pop idol who goes by the stage name Dimity Red. She ends up in purgatory too, and a genuinely unlikely alliance between the two forms based on their need for survival.

Its got romance. Its got action (sometimes quite bloody). Its got an even-handed treatment of religious Puritans who value hard work, honesty and loyalty, but also fear and hate magic as an anathema to God, even when its used by good people to help and heal them. You like them and dislike them at the same time, which is refreshing, since the general fictitious portrayal of them is as witch-burning villains. Here they're just people. Trying to fend of demons in purgatory, but still people.

Anime tropes and storytelling techniques are very clear influences on the story, down to the cover by Spanish artist KuKuruYo. Dimity is a school girl outfit away from channeling Sailor Moon. One of the fights involves her and a giant firing energy beams at each other. In between action sequences it goes into slice-of-life sections where characters interact with each other and build relationships.

While the quality of the wordsmithing could use improvement, I'm still going to recommend Sword and Flower because in taking a bunch of magical girl anime and videogame storytelling elements and mashing them (heh) into what could have been a Young Solomon Kane story ends up making something very different, and very new entirely.

What it lacks in technical polish, it more than makes up for in enthusiasm and a desire to push genre boundaries. Nyanze's one to watch in coming years.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Sky is Falling

This Friday much has been said in Fantasy/Sci-Fi circles about the recently released 2016 AuthorEarnings charts. Specifically this chart:

Looks bad for genre fiction that isn'tRomance, especially Science Fiction, which occupies the basement. It even pales next to Literary (large “L”) which only exists so that university bookstores have something to sell to freshmen taking prerequisite English classes because somebody at the New Yorker said it was “powerful and moving.”

It looks like Sci-Fi is dying as a literary (small “L”) genre, which is puzzling because almost every single major blockbuster movie being made has at least some element of science fiction going on (including superhero movies). Actually, its not really puzzling at all, since movies still have to make money for their studios, and therefore need to please audiences across the globe, and guess what? China really likes action sequences in movies they're investing billions of dollars into.

Sci-Fi's erstwhile brother Fantasy is doing better, roughly on par with Mystery.

Now before you grab those “THE END IS NIGH” signs, it bears looking at some of the colors on the chart, specifically the purple of the Big Five publishing houses and the blue of Indie. Indie Sci-Fi and Fantasy are much, much bigger than Big Five. Now look at Literary, which is almost exclusively carried by Big Five with barely any Indie presence.

What is working for Big Five Literary is clearly not working for Big Five Sci-Fi, yet certain prestigious award programs and online review outlets continuously laud the kinds of authors that are published by and follow the editorial mandate of the Big Five. Its still not selling.

Science fiction movies are huge, but science fiction books aren't selling. Sort of like how Superhero movies are huge, but sales at Marvel and DC are quite bad compared to what they were a decade or two ago.

There are probably lots of factors involved here, but I think a key one has been the steady march of Science Fiction to pursue Literary (big “L”) legitimacy. Some people want to write about rocketships but also want to get into the Norton Anthology, so the rocketship is turned into a backdrop so that they can write about “The Issues.” Or they try to couch their genre in vague terms like Slipstream or Magical Realism, where you get stories that plant the seeds of something imaginative but then turns into a bunch of pages about a weird old guy with wings who may or may not be an angel and nothing is resolved and it just ends with a wet fart of ambiguity.

(“No, but you see, its a metaphor about The Issues that were going on when it was written, you just have to read deeper into the critical interpretations about it in order to get it...” No. I get it. Its a critique of Latin American culture in the unsteady 1950s. Its still a boring story and felt like a waste of my time.)

See, the problem with navel gazing all the time is that you can only come up with so many different ways to describe the lint you find there.

Several years ago, when I would frequently read io9 (I was naive!), there was a prevailing toxicity in the comment sections regarding Sci-Fi/Fantasy, with many looking down their noses at Fantasy because it Wasn't Realistic and while things like Harry Potter were quite respectable, the rest of it was basically rolling around in the mud while truly cultured people read proper Hard Sci-Fi and Asimov help you if you dared to track Fantasy dirt into Science Fiction's space elevator. It wasn't every comment, but it was the prevailing wind and one of the reasons I, primarily a Fantasist, stopped reading the site.

Unburdened with the yoke of respectability, Fantasy is currently outselling Science Fiction, and the few times I check back in on what's generally called “Pink Sci-Fi,” there is a heavy cloud of frustration that things aren't selling well because people aren't writing about The Issues hard enough and not handing out enough Vonnegut Asterisks to the people they don't want polluting their waters. They are also thoroughly convinced that they're right and that people just don't get it.

I'm inclined to disagree, but then again, I un-ironically love Beastmaster, so I was never going to be part of that club anyway.

Now let's look at the chart again. Comparing the Indie authors of Sci-Fi and Fantasy brings them much closer together, yet Indies don't have the marketing clout of the Big Five and have to rely on word of mouth and self-promotion.

Now consider this: sales of Big Five genre fiction are declining, and there's rumors of stormy waters ahead at some very prominent publishers. If audiences are leaving the Big Five because the stories are boring and the community is a bunch of snooty CHORFS, but still want to experience stories of wonder and excitement and adventure because that's been a part of human entertainment since before the Sumerians saw fit to etch the Epic of Gilgamesh onto clay tablets, where will they go?

To the communities that are excited about sharing new stories of adventure and digging up authors whose works have been forgotten for so long that they'll feel fresh and new to a generation just discovering them.

Despite whatever disagreements might be had in the Pulp Revolution Community (as loose as it is), the most common feature is that none of us want to shut up about it and want to throw musty old paperbacks at people we love (metaphorically) because there is a tremendous amount of fun to be had in reading, discussing, and arguing about them on the internet.

Because Fun Is Good For You.

The sales chart looks bad in the same way that the asteroid looked bad for the dinosaurs. For the tiny mammals crawling out of the impact crater and looking up at a star-filled sky, its only the beginning a grand adventure.  

Monday, March 06, 2017

Legends Never Die: The Last Command

1993 capped off Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy with The Last Command. Grand Admiral Thrawn has acquired most of the Katana Fleet Dreadnaughts and thanks to the Imperial storehouse he found in Heir to the Empire, has an army of rapidly-grown clone soldiers to bolster his forces. While he prepares for a grand offensive against the New Republic.

Luke Skywalker investigates the nature of the clones and encounters the now-allied Noghri. Leia gives birth to twins: Jaina and Jacen Solo. Talon Karrde tries to form a Smuggler's Alliance for mutual protection among freelancers from the Empire. Niles Ferrier bites off more than he can chew. Joruus C'Baoth finally goes off the deep end. Disgraced senator Borsk Fey'lya finally does something productive. Garm Bel Iblis and Mon Mothma put their grudge aside. Leia, her assistant Winter and Talon Karrde's ace slicer (hacker) Ghent uncover the information leak on Coruscant. Mara Jade takes several hard looks at where her life has gone and where she wants it to go.

There's much that could be said about the book, but that would ruin the experience of reading it, and read it you should. Thrawn's cleverness is on display with some of his most creative tricks, and Bel Iblish shows just how capable he is of keeping up with the Grand Admiral.

Not to sound like a broken record, but the action, the character interactions, the traveling, the big crazy ideas that populate the galaxy, EVERYTHING oozes Star Wars in the best possible ways and the final showdown with C'Baoth is supremely satisfying in a variety of ways.

So, since that was a fairly short review of the book itself (by necessity, since otherwise it would involve spoilers) let's talk about strong female characters in the Expanded Universe.

There were a hell of a lot of them.

Zahn's trilogy in particular sets a very high bar since essentially every female he introduces is a supremely competent badass in multiple ways. Mara Jade is the biggest example: a wanderer coasting along the fringe after her life as the Emperor's Hand (A spy and assassin trained in the Force) abruptly ended, she gets drawn back into conflict and the echoing last command of Emperor Palpatine ordering her to KILL LUKE SKYWALKER. Through it all she undergoes significant character development, reconnecting with the Force and rethinking her hatred of Skywalker. She's her own woman, with her own goals and motivations, but makes an exceptionally good adventuring partner with Luke as the more cynical of the two. Mara was so popular among fans that Lucafilm eventually actually went and hired a real model to dress as the character and official art would use her face/appearance as reference material. As far as heroes that the Expanded Universe added to the Star Wars franchise, the woman named Mara Jade sits uncontested at the top. 

Leia Organa Solo's aide, best friend, and long time rebel intelligence agent Winter is another strong addition. A fellow Alderaanian with stark white hair and a perfect memory, she appears here as a side character helping Leia out with intelligence gathering and data sorting, but the character would end up appearing quite a lot in other materials and grow into her own (especially in the X-Wing series).

Even Garm Bel Iblis' two most trusted subordinates are women: Sena and Irenez (who feature most prominently in Dark Force Rising). Then there's Shada D'ukal, a very small role who's introduced as a space pirate's arm candy, but ends up being a deadly hired bodyguard in a firefight. Let's not forget Leia herself, negotiating the defection of a race hell-bent on honoring their debt to the Empire while she's heavily pregnant with twins.

While they're all some flavor of “badass warrior lady” each one's different and has different areas of skill and different flaws. Its great stuff, and the vast number of clickbait thinkpieces out there saying that “Star Wars FINALLY has a Strong Female Character in a lead role!” are, frankly, insulting to anyone who's ever dipped even a toe into Star Wars past the movies. These are good characters. Strong characters. Strong female characters, and they're being completely erased by a new continuity and a “Narrative” that can only assert itself by dumping what came before into the Memory Hole.

But yeah, read the Thrawn Trilogy. Its good Star Wars

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Why Han Shooting First Matters

I wrote this a year ago and never did anything with it, but real life got crazy this week and I didn't have time to do much else. So this is one of those "in case of emergency break glass" moments.

The Star Wars Hype Machine is on full blast and we're getting all sorts of dumb clickbait clinging to the franchise like remoras. (Still true a year later) Normally I'd ignore it, but the most recent one involves an interview with George Lucas on stuff and it mentions him defending the idea of making Han shoot Greedo first in the cantina, because in a post-Return of the Jedi world, Han and Leia were an item and Han's supposed to be a John Wayne figure and John Wayne always lets the bad guys shoot first (Can't find the article now).

Yes, that's a reason, but one that short-changes Han Solo's character.

Let's say its 1977 and station wagons ruled the Earth. I wasn't there, so I'm just assuming all of the 70s were the same color and texture as a tartan couch. Not important.

Star Wars is out and it features a Hero (Luke), his Mentor (Ben), and two comic relief sidekicks in possession of a plot device (Artoo and Threepio). They're hunted by the bad guys and need to get out of town in a hurry with no questions asked. They go to a shady bar and hire a shady rogue (Han) to get them off world.

We then learn that Han owes Jabba the Hutt a lot of money and feels like this job can clear his debts. He's then confronted by one of Jabba's lackeys who's come to collect the money. Han doesn't have it yet and tries to get Greedo to back off. Greedo doesn't, and Han shoots him dead before Greedo has a chance to do the same.

This tells us several things.

  1. Han is decisive and crafty. He outwits Greedo by keeping him talking while getting his own blaster ready.
  2. Self-preservation is Han's first priority. He murders Greedo to save his own skin. At this point he's an unknown factor in Luke's story, and he's desperate for money to pay off Jabba. Who's to say he won't turn on Luke and Ben at the first opportunity to save his own neck? (We know NOW that he doesn't, but that's with the benefit of hindsight.)

This creates added tension to their escape from Tatooine, because Luke and Ben are putting their trust into a selfish rogue and criminal. During the course of the movie, Han is continuously grumpy and uncooperative, with Luke continuously appealing to his better nature. Its telling that he only agrees to help Luke rescue the Princess after Luke mentions that she's rich, not beautiful.

After escaping the Death Star, Han gets his money and as Luke prepares for what is basically a suicide mission, Han ducks out, citing his considerable debt and not wanting to risk his neck for some dumb idealists.

At this point, Han is out of the picture. He fulfilled his contract and got what he wanted. He could've paid off his debt and gone on his way and the ending of the movie could've been tweaked to make it work.

Instead, Han returns at a critical point to give Luke a chance to save the day. Luke's (and Chewie's) constant pestering finally had an effect on Han's conscience, and he finally did something selfless.

By the Empire Strikes Back, Han has been upgraded to a main character. He still complains about the bounty on his head and the need to get money, but at least this time he's sticking around the Rebels and even risks his neck for Luke in a blizzard. He's also developing feelings for the Princess, but he's still a rogue. He still doesn't have much attachment to the Rebellion outside of his personal loyalty to Luke and Leia (and Chewie guilting him into staying). From the start of the movie he's making preparations to leave, but its more non-committal and he keeps finding reasons to stick around this time.

That personal level of loyalty shows itself in the stoicism with which he accepts his Carbonite fate. He can go to his possible death knowing that his friends at least won't face the same fate.

That loyalty is rewarded in Return of the Jedi, when he's rescued by those same friends and made a General in the Rebellion. By now he's been tortured, frozen in a block of Carbonite, and handed over to a ruthless crimelord by the same guy. He's been screwed hard by the Empire, and has a very personal stake in fighting it. He even hands the keys of the Millennium Falcon over to the same guy who handed him over to the Empire in the first place, something unthinkable for the selfish jerk from the first movie. By this point, he's a full-fledged hero, using his marksmanship and cunning for the noble cause of overthrowing tyranny instead of just getting paid and completes a redemption arc that you didn't even know existed the first time you saw Han in the Cantina.

This is called character development and is the reason why Han shooting first is a good thing.