Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Shakespeare in Love, The Devil's Bride, and The Woman in Gold

The Devil's Bride (a.k.a. The Devil Rides Out): adapted by Richard Matheson from the Dennis Wheatley novel The Devil Rides Out; directed by Terence Fisher; starring Christopher Lee (Duc de Richleau), Charles Gray (Mocata), Nike Arrighi (Tanith), Leon Greene (Rex), and Patrick Mower (Simon) (1968): Fun, tightly plotted period piece (it's set in England in the 1920's) pits Christopher Lee in a rare heroic turn against the forces of Satan himself as conjured up by Aleister Crowley-esque black magician Mocata.

The great Richard Matheson does solid work turning a novel by the often clunky Dennis Wheatley into a crisply executed occult thriller that clocks in at barely 100 minutes. Lee commands the screen as a reluctant, learning-on-the-fly white magician who must battle the powerful Mocata (a terrifically oily, ingratiating Charles Gray) for the souls of two people who have been pulled into Satanic worship. 

The rites and spells sometimes sound so odd that you'd swear they were lifted from H.P. Lovecraft or William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost-Finder series and not from actual occult sources. This Hammer film has a fairly low budget, as Hammer films always did, but the cinematography, direction, and set design mostly make up for it. There are a couple of goofy moments involving visual effects, but a couple of things also work quite well.

The film is at its creepiest when it keeps its demons off-stage, but that's true of virtually all horror movies. Wait for the moment in which a crucifix operates pretty much like the Holy Hand-grenade of Antioch. Reportedly this was Christopher Lee's favourite of his many Hammer Horror Films, partially because he himself suggested they make it and partially, I assume, because he got to be a commanding good guy for once. Recommended.


Woman in Gold: adapted by Alexi Kaye Campbell from the life stories of E. Randal Schoenberg and Maria Altmann; directed by Simon Curtis; starring Helen Mirren (Maria Altmann), Ryan Reynolds (Randy Schoenberg), Tatiana Maslany (Young Maria), and Max Irons (Fritz Altmann) (2015): Fascinating true-life story of the 1990's quest of an Austrian-American Jewish woman who strives to get her family paintings back from the Austrian government more than 50 years after they were stolen after the Nazi occupation of Austria. The kicker is that these aren't just any paintings -- five of them are by Gustav Klimt, and one of those is Portrait of Adele, aka Woman in Gold, Klimt's most famous painting and one valued in the 1990's at over $100 million.

Apparently I found the narrative and the legal manueverings more interesting than 45% of all reviewers. So it goes. Helen Mirren is wonderful as usual, as are the actors playing her character and others in flashback. Ryan Reynolds is surprisingly sturdy as the young Jewish-American lawyer who reluctantly takes on Mirren's case. Perfunctory scenes between Reynolds and Katie Holmes as his initially doubting wife could have been cut from the film. 

As judges, Elizabeth McGovern and Jonathan Pryce steal their only scenes. And I think the film does a laudable job of showing some of the moral horror of the Holocaust, and of anti-Semitism, still hanging on in the modern world: Austria's attitude towards attempts to get stolen art back show a government and a group of people who still regard certain types of people as objects to be eliminated. But there are also "good" Austrians, as the film shows, both past and present. Recommended.


Shakespeare in Love: written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare; directed by John Madden; starring Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare), Gwyneth Paltrow (Viola de Lesseps), Colin Firth (Wessex), Judi Dench (Queen Elizabeth), Ben Affleck (Alleyn), Rupert Everett (Christopher Marlowe), Geoffrey Rush (Henslowe), and Tom Wilkinson (Fennyman) (1998): 

Hollywood insiders generally consider Shakespeare in Love to be a masterpiece -- specifically, producer/studio head Harvey Weinstein's masterpiece of lobbying for awards. It took down the heavily favoured Saving Private Ryan for the Oscar for Best Picture of 1998, and garnered six other Oscars besides, including Best Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow and Best Supporting Actress for Judi Dench.

It's a very tight movie, wittily written and ably performed by pretty much everyone. The greatest weakness on the acting side isn't Ben Affleck but Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare -- he makes for a lovable romantic lead, sort of like a puppy dog, but there really isn't a moment where one believes that he has much of an intellect or any artistic ability. Dench's Oscar win now looks like the Academy voting for a showy piece of work in heavy make-up and costume: as Queen Elizabeth, Dench is a prickly, sarcastic lawn ornament.

The movie's bathed for the most part in golden light for the romantic scenes; the rest of the time, it's realistically lighted for the dirty streets and alleys of Elizabethan London. The wit of the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard can get a bit twee, and there's a self-congratulatory air in the movie's view of the Greatness of Theatre that can get a bit wearing at times. 

Nonetheless, it's funny and at times quite moving, never moreso than in its final few minutes. I don't know that its Oscar win was that much of an upset -- it's certainly better written than Saving Private Ryan, and unlike that film, Shakespeare in Love doesn't have major third-act plot problems. Recommended.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Alan Moore's The Completist

Alan Moore's Magic Words: adapted by Art Brooks, Fred Torres, Ailantd, Sergio Bleda, and Juan Jose Ryp (2002): Interesting collection of adaptations of short Alan Moore prose pieces and poems by a variety of European comics artists. Really for Moore completists more than anyone, but I enjoyed it. Recommended.


Alan Moore's Another Suburban Romance: adapted by Antony Johnston and Juan Jose Ryp (2003): Comics adaptations of three Alan Moore performance pieces, ably translated into comics form by writer Antony Johnston and artist Juan Jose Ryp. I have absolutely no idea how these were staged because they seem unstageable except as spoken-word pieces. Recommended.


Alan Moore's Light of Thy Countenance: adapted by Antony Johnston and Felipe Massafera (2009): Excellent comics adaptation of an Alan Moore short story actually works much better as a comic than as a short story. That may be because so much of the piece is visually oriented, dealing as it does with the history of television. But as this is a work of fiction, television itself is posited as a living god. Fascinating juxtapositions and wordplay abound. Highly recommended.


Alan Moore's Writing for Comics (1985/2003) by Alan Moore; illustrated by Jacen Burrows: Famous Alan Moore prose series on writing for, well, comics, got reprinted for the first time in 17 years with added illustrations and a new afterword/rebuttal by Moore. Even for non-writers, it's a fascinating glimpse into Alan Moore's process circa 1985, as well as a brief look into what he thinks of that process nearly 20 years later. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Blackhawk Up

Blackhawk: Blood & Iron: written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin (1987-88): Even by the late 1980's, the comic-book characters of Blackhawk had become an almost-dead pop-cultural item. Co-created by Will Eisner, Chuck Cudiera, and Bob Powell for Quality Comics in 1941, Blackhawk followed the adventures of the eponymous aviator and his international band of Nazi fighters. A flying commando unit without a country, the Blackhawks operated from Blackhawk Island. They survived the war and the end of Quality Comics, with DC Comics buying the characters in 1956.

Hot off his popular, revisionist take on pulp-hero The Shadow for DC, Howard Chaykin would take Blackhawk in a slightly different direction. There may be blowjobs and sex and violence, but the violence isn't nearly as graphic as that portrayed in The Shadow: Blood & Judgment. Chaykin seems a lot fonder of the Blackhawks than he does The Shadow.

There's certainly style galore, some of it riffing on WWII propaganda posters, period Arrow Shirt ads (I'm not kidding -- this comes with the cover to issue 3 of the original 3-issue release), Life and Time magazine, and an assortment of other Chaykin favourites. 

As perhaps the most illustrative comic-book artist to come out of the 1970's, Chaykin's influences range from N.C. Wyeth through cartoonists such as Milton Caniff and Noel Sickles and Alex Toth. Once he gained control of what he chose to draw (in part by writing it himself), no mainstream comic-book artist ever seemed so interested in stylish outfits, pressed to a razor's edge. 

Revisionism rules the day in Blackhawk: Blood & Iron, though not as brutally as in The Shadow: Blood & Judgment. Some of Blackhawk's long-time lieutenants die, but not graphically. And the book itself is concerned with the very concept of revisionism. Blackhawk wrestles throughout with the Allied war-time propaganda machine's repeated castings and re-castings of him as Iconic Hero or, briefly, Treacherous Turn-coat. Pretty much every character in the narrative, friend or foe, exists in wildly different private and public worlds. And those public worlds, those public perceptions, vary depending on who's allied with whom today for most of the main characters.

Everything follows a deceptively linear plot in which an atomic bomb stolen by gangsters for the Nazis moves towards a seemingly inevitable deployment against New York on New Year's Eve, 1942. There's a lot of globe-trotting and double-crossing and triple-crossing and possibly quadruple-crossing. There's a treacherous British actor/aviator who now works for the Nazis. There's an American pilot and flight engineer who's become a poster woman for Stalin's USSR. There's a duplicitous, publicity-seeking U.S. Senator. 

And there's Blackhawk, Polish by birth and internationalist by necessity, scrambling to secure planes and supplies for he and his men while also trying to avoid becoming too much of a media darling. Of course his name isn't really Blackhawk. No one's name seems to be stable, or at least everyone seems to have at least two. Or in the case of the book's femme fatale, about 20.

It's all as beautifully done as something this zippy and retro-poppy can possibly be. It's probably Chaykin's (barely) mainstream comic-book masterpiece. It wasn't the massive hit DC expected at the time. DC seemed to be under the mistaken impression that it would be violent, cynically calculated revisionism in the mode of The Shadow: Blood & Judgment or Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns

Instead, Blackhawk was a gleaming, witty, globe-trotting action-adventure with a heavy dose of metafictional musing on all the gaps between private and public, person and icon. That commercial shortfall means that one can generally find the three issues that form the graphic novel in comic shops for, oh, as little as $1 for all three. Seriously. Who needs graphic-novel collections? Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Secret Movie

Ancient Images (1989) by Ramsey Campbell: Probably the sleekest, most thriller-like novel in the prolific Ramsey Campbell's catalogue, Ancient Images is a story of detection with occult elements that begin to dominate as the novel progresses. 

It's 1988 in London, England. Metropolitan TV film editor Sandy Allan witnesses the baffling, apparent suicide of her friend and mentor, a film historian who had just announced that he'd secured a copy of a long-lost 1938 Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi British horror film. But the film isn't in Sandy's mentor's ransacked apartment. 

In order to help deal with her trauma, Sandy uses the mentor's notebook to reconstruct a list of people to contact about the film. She takes holiday time and with the help of an American film writer sets out to see if she can track down another copy of the film.

Her quest takes her across much of England. Many of the actors and production staff remain alive 50 years later. Not so much the director, who died in a car crash mere days after the completion of filming.  

Campbell does such a fine job of describing the fictional film that one starts to wish it were real -- if so, it would be one of Karloff and Lugosi's finest on-screen team-ups. Along the way, Campbell deals with anti-horror, censorship crazes in Great Britain in both the 1930's and 1980's. The English peer responsible for the initial quashing of the film invoked the good of the British people back in 1938 as to why this horror film -- and horror films in general -- shouldn't be allowed in Great Britain. In 1988, the 'Video Nasties' censorship hysteria is in full-blown inferno.

But Sandy won't be dissuaded, despite increasingly weird goings-on, the mysterious death of her cats Bogart and Bacall, and a growing sense of being followed. Campbell has noted that Sandy is perhaps his least tortured, most 'normal' protagonist. This aids in the generation of suspense -- she's not the sort of Campbell character who would believe in even the possibility of the supernatural. All those times she thinks she sees something at the edge of vision -- well, they can be explained away. Can't they?

Its likable, uncomplicated protagonist and its detective-thriller architecture make Ancient Images Campbell's most accessible book to non-horror readers, in my humble opinion. It's a terrific ride with a tense climax. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Pocketful of Horrors, Some of Them Used...

Citizen X: adapted by Chris Gerolmo from the non-fiction book by Robert Cullen; directed by Chris Gerolmo; starring Stephen Rea (Lt. Viktor Burakov), Donald Sutherland (Colonel Fetisov), Max von Sydow (Dr. Bukhanovsky), Jeffrey DeMunn (Andrei Chikatilo), and Joss Ackland (Bondarchuk) (1995): Solid and somewhat atypical HBO police procedural follows the dogged efforts of a Soviet forensic scientist (Stephen Rea) and his sardonic but surprisingly competent superior officer (Donald Sutherland) as they attempt to track down the (real) Ripper of Rostov, a Soviet serial killer of the 1970's and 1980's who murdered in excess of 50 people, the majority of them teenagers or children.

Citizen X hews fairly close to the truth -- indeed, the major changes come not to the pursuit itself but to the portrayal of the Soviet bureaucracy, heightened here for informational effect as much as dramatic effect. Anyone who's read Martin Cruz Smith's novels of Soviet detective Arkady Renko (Gorky Park being the most famous of those) will recognize the self-defeating levels of the Soviet bureaucratic machine -- and the stubborn investigators who seek justice regardless.

The Ripper's murders stay mostly off-screen and non-sensationalistic. The bureaucratic screw-ups we see aren't only a Soviet problem -- indeed, they'll remind one of many such politically motivated screw-ups in the history of Western police work. Throughout the film, Stephen Rea is perfect as the quiet, stubborn-bordering-on-obsessed lead investigator. 

Donald Sutherland supplies a cynical, sarcastic counterpoint to Rea's character, though Sutherland's C.O. reveals hidden, sympathetic depths as the film proceeds. Max von Sydow delights as the only Soviet psychiatrist willing to help profile the Ripper, and Jeffrey DeMunn is chillingly bland and lucky as the Ripper himself. He's the quintessential serial-killer-as-nebbish, and a welcome real-world counterpoint to all our fictional serial-killing supermen and superwomen. Highly recommended.



Harry Brown: written by Gary Young; directed by Daniel Barber; starring Michael Caine (Harry Brown), Emily Mortimer (D.I. Frampton), and David Bradley (Leonard Attwell) (2009): English riff on both Death Wish and Taxi Driver sees Michael Caine as the eponymous retired, emphysemic ex-Marine go on a killing spree to avenge his friend's death at the hands of a bunch of young hooligans.

The movie's brutal and efficient. Ideologically, it's ridiculous. And while it references the Hell out of Taxi Driver, especially in its score, it's really an English Death Wish. There aren't any moral ambiguities here -- the bad guys are terrible and Harry Brown is awesome, lacking only a scene in which he saves a kitten from a tree to make him perfect. So the movie is dishonest in terms of realism but honest if one sees it as a revenge fantasy for retired people who want those punks off their lawn by any means necessary. Recommended.



The Church (La chiesa): written by Nick Alexander, Dario Argento, Fabrizio Bava, Lamberto Bava, Franco Ferrini, Dardano Sacchetti, and Michelle Soavi; directed by Michele Soavi; starring Hugh Quarshie (Father Gus), Tomas Arana (Evan), Feodor Chaliapin (The Bishop), Barbara Cupisti (Lisa), and Asia Argento (Lotte) (1989): So vaguely based on the M.R. James story "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" that I don't view it as an adaptation, The Church is a highly enjoyable though somewhat disjointed piece of melodramatic, religion-soaked Italian horror. 

After a wild 12th-century-set prologue that verges on Monty Python and the Holy Grail territory, we move to the late 1980's and a historic church with a very big secret buried beneath it. As this is a horror movie, that secret will be unearthed. There's some attempt at a slow build in the first 45 minutes or so. That build goes on a bit too long and a bit too slowly. 

Thankfully, the horror that eventually kicks in is lurid and visually shocking. Michele Soavi is a solid director, and he's working in the traditions of Dario Argento (who helped write) and Mario Bava. Terrible things begin to happen, a couple of them pretty much out of left-field (I'm looking at you, subway train!). All hell's a coming. And the movie shifts its narrative focus in the last third to a totally different protagonist than the first two-thirds. This is strangely liberating, and not something I can recall an American or British horror film ever doing, though I'm sure there are precedents.

Overall, The Church is startling and worthwhile despite the early slowness and what one could charitably describe as somewhat indifferent dubbing in the English-language version. Sometimes it visually quotes medieval woodcuts, sometimes it visually quotes Boris Vallejo paintings. It's that sort of over-heated horror-melodrama. The set design, make-up, and sculpture work are all very impressive and very disturbing. Recommended.



The Guilt Trip: written by Dan Fogelman; directed by Anne Fletcher; starring Seth Rogen (Andrew Brewster), Barbra Streisand (Joyce Brewster), and Brett Cullen (Ben Graw) (2012): Formulaic but well-executed film involves a mother-and-son, cross-country road trip by Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen. There are some comic surprises and enough drama and funny lines to keep the whole thing merrily rolling along. Recommended.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Shadow in Autumn

The Shadow: Midnight in Moscow (2014-2015/Collected 2015): written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin; lettered by Ken Bruzenak: Nearly 30 years after writer-artist Howard Chaykin's violent, addictive, and stylish comic-book take on pulp hero The Shadow, The Shadow: Blood & Judgment, comes this slightly less over-heated but equally stylish and enjoyable graphic novel about the Weird Avenger of Crime.

The suits are all crisply pressed, the men and women gorgeous when they aren't grotesques, and the writing as sharp as ever. Chaykin hasn't changed much since the 1980's, and that's great in his case: why improve on a certain type of almost decadently sharp artwork and witty, often trenchant writing? All that and he can still stage an action scene or weave socio-political commentary into a retro-pulp adventure.

It's late 1949 and the Shadow contemplates retirement. Though as gal-pal Margo Lane notes on more than one occasion, he doesn't seem to be aging the way everyone else is. This could very well be a prequel to The Shadow: Blood & Judgment, which saw the Shadow come out of his retirement in the 1980's from a hidden Tibetan utopia when someone starts killing off his former lieutenants in his war on crime of the 1930's and 1940's. 

Has Chaykin mellowed? This time around, the hyper-violence is muted and most of the interpersonal relationships handled without the satiric, sometimes comically dismissive tone of The Shadow: Blood & Judgment. Whatever the reason, this Shadow won't offend some Shadow purists the way Chaykin's earlier story did. There's action and romance here, but there's also an elegaic quality to the proceedings. The aftermath of World War Two has left a world that doesn't want pulp heroes any more, in our reality or in the Shadow's where those heroes were a reality and not simply a publishing phenomenon.

But anyway, there's a wittily different femme fatale. There's a roll call of Shadow villains, lieutenants, and associates. There's an uncomfortable Shadow as Kent Allard as Lamont Cranston dancing with Margo on New Year's Eve (in the pulps, the Shadow was an American aviator named Kent Allard who occasionally also operated as millionaire Lamont Cranston -- but Cranston was also an actual, separate person in the pulps, though not always so on the radio show where the Shadow first appeared, seminal multi-platform superhero that he was). There's funky super-science and one wild space-shot. Atomic war may be a growing possibility, but not while the Shadow is still on duty. 

It's all great fun, with a real sense of melancholy and that permanent sense of Chaykinesque style. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Needy Things

Incarnate (1983) by Ramsey Campbell: Structurally, Incarnate most resembles early Stephen King novels that include Salem's Lot and The Stand insofar as it follows multiple third-person POVs that gradually dovetail as the novel moves to its climax. And this structure works beautifully, suspense being generated from both the narratives and the moments in which we leave one POV for another.

Superficially, Incarnate also falls into the sub-genre of horror novels in which events are set in motion by an ill-advised experiment that unleashes either telepathic or supernatural powers in those who were experimented upon. But it's not really much like Firestarter or any of a dozen other 'wild-talent' novels of the 1960's, 70's, and 80's. 

This time around, an Oxford study of several people who seem to have prophetic dreams disintegrates as the subjects seemingly start to go collectively insane. Eleven years later, one of the scientists in charge of the experiment writes to the subjects to enquire if any of them have suffered long-term problems as a result of the study. Well, maybe they have. Or maybe they simply drew the attention of Something to themselves and our little world. The next 450 pages of the novel will be spent examining what happened, what continues to happen, and what may happen next.

Campbell's strength at creating horrors that are always just a bit undefined even when they take center stage is in full evidence throughout the novel. There are glimpses of odd things that suddenly disappear. There are flashes of vaguely remembered cityscapes. There's a loathsome, terrible, needy thing sleeping in someone's bed. There are stairways that go on forever and crucifixes that move and leer. Through it all, Campbell's command of characterization is first-rate. We may not like all the characters, but even for the worst of them is aroused a fearful pity for what broke them, and why. 

Incarnate gradually builds towards a Sublime and mysterious climax. There's a refreshing ruthlessness at points when it comes to the fate of some of the characters, though that ruthlessness works in concert with mystery: we don't really know what happens once certain people wander out of the light. It's a grand novel, minutely observed and gigantic in its revelations. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Three Chose Adventure!



The Straight Story: written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; directed by David Lynch; starring Richard Farnsworth (Alvin Straight), Sissy Spacek (Rose), Everett McGill (Tom the John Deere Dealer), Kevin and John Farley (The Twins), and Harry Dean Stanton (Lyle Straight) (1999): David Lynch had no part in the writing of this movie so far as I can tell, a first in his career. The visuals, the soundscape, and the performances of the actors are all Lynchian, though. 

It's a brilliant, based-on-a-true-story look at one stubborn old man on what seems to be a quixotic quest to visit his ailing brother whom he's not talked to in a decade. The quixotic part concerns the fact that our protagonist Alvin Straight is too near-blind to drive a car and too poor to afford a bus or train visit from his home in Iowa to his brother's home in Wisconsin. So he decides to make a six-week trek on a John Deere riding lawnmower pulling a hand-modified, covered cart.

And he does. The bulk of the movie concerns that trek going down the road, the people Straight meets along the way, and the natural landscapes through which he passes, quietly observing. Lynch punctuates the movie with Sublime scenes of thunderstorms, vast fields, and the starry sky above, all of them subject to Straight's quiet regard. 

It's the acting, though, that makes The Straight Story especially special. This was a cancer-wracked Richard Farnsworth's final role before his death. His Alvin Straight is stoic and stubborn, but also extremely protective of those whom he loves -- including his mentally challenged adult daughter, marvelously realized by Sissy Spacek. He's a straight shooter. And his stubborn decency wins over everyone whom he encounters. It's an extraordinarily sweet movie, especially for Lynch, but I don't think it's as out-of-character as many critics did at the time.

For one, Lynch has always been fascinated by idiosyncratic characters. Well, he must be -- he's written so many of them! Alvin Straight is perhaps most similar to the eponymous character in The Elephant Man, achingly human while faced with hardship. But the idiosyncratic characters support the movie throughout as well, from the fine Everett McGill's (Big Ed!) John Deere dealer to the fellow World War Two vet with whom Straight commiserates about the mental scars of those long-ago battles.

And while the movie takes its stubborn optimism from Alvin Straight, it's also shot through with darkness remembered and long contemplated by Straight, from a horrible secret of his World War Two career as a sniper to the bitterness and alcoholism that led to falling out with his brother. Maybe the movie contains one too many Alvin-delivered homilies about the importance of family, but I think what's put on the screen earns those homilies their imaginative space. It may be a sweetheart of a movie, but it's the dark moments that put that sweetness into high relief. Highly recommended.


Garth Ennis' The Demon Volume 1: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by John McCrea and others (1993-94/Collected 2015): Ennis and McCrea's anarchic, vulgar take on Jack Kirby's non-anarchic, non-vulgar Etrigan the Demon is a hoot for those with a strong stomach. It's no more faithful to Kirby's original conception of a demon who fights on the side of the angels than, well, pretty much every other take on The Demon after Kirby's. Indeed, the only comic book that ever came close to Kirby's energetic mix of super-heroism and the supernatural is Mike Mignola's Hellboy

Ennis and McCrea, like Alan Moore and Matt Wagner before them, make Etrigan a barely controlled monster. They make the human Etrigan shares a body with, Jason Blood, into a whiny incompetent. They make the various supporting characters into buffoons and punchlines. So it goes. It all works because Ennis and McCrea are really good at ultraviolent horror comedy. It also works because they introduce their super-powered hitman character (cleverly dubbed Hitman) in the course of these issues. Hitman would get his own series. As is pretty much always the case with Ennis, he'd seem a lot more comfortable and a lot less scabrous writing his own character.

The standout story arc here sees Ennis and McCrea bring back DC's venerable weird war series The Haunted Tank. The cognitive dissonance generated by a story of an American tank haunted by a Confederate general taking on a bunch of resurrected, supernatural Nazis with the help of a nihilistic Demon is a wee bit mind-blowing. Perhaps never moreso than in a scene in which the Demon explains to the Nazis why he finds them repugnant. It's crazy fun, and it allows Ennis to himself resurrect some of the ridiculous maneuvers the dinky little Haunted Tank once performed so as to defeat seemingly endless hordes of vastly superior Nazi machinery.

Is this Kirbyesque? No. And Ennis' decision to have Etrigan speak in rhymes all the time -- based on a long-standing, DC-wide misreading of Kirby's original Etrigan , who only occasionally spoke in rhyme -- can make for some truly godawful writing at points. But, you know, Nazi zombies in tanks! Recommended.


Ramsey Campbell, Probably (1968-2015/Collected in 2015 Revised Edition) by Ramsey Campbell, edited by S.T. Joshi: 40 years of non-fiction pieces by World's Greatest Horror Writer Ramsey Campbell. There are autobiographical pieces which illuminate Campbell's often harrowing early life, essays on various writers, pieces on social issues related to horror, and essays and introductions originally written for Campbell's novels and short-story collections. 

In all, they're dandy. And so many of them in this big book from PS Publishing! Campbell is thoughtful and often self-effacing when he writes about his own work, and those essays that do this offer a wealth of information about how and why certain decisions were made in the writing process, and what Campbell thinks about those decisions in retrospect. 

He's also debilitatingly funny in many of the essays, never moreso than when he deals with The Highgate Vampire hoax. There's also hilarity to be had in portions of his self-appraisal (for some reason, a section on his attempt to include the word 'shit' in a Lovecraftian story submitted to August Derleth's Arkham House nearly had me lying on the floor). 

His essays on writers are occasionally scathing but for the most part positive. A melancholy essay on the late John Brunner stands out as a painful meditation on what happens when a very good writer is forgotten in today's publishing climate. A wide-ranging essay on the novels of James Herbert is a sensitive reappraisal of that (alas, also late) best-selling writer's work as a foundational stratum of working-class, English horror shot through with deeply held social concerns not usually seen in English horror up to that time.  Many of the writers Campbell writes about are also friends, thus shedding a certain personal light on writers ranging from Robert Aickman to the (then) Poppy Z. Brite.

General pieces include the almost-obligatory '10 horror movies for a desert island' essay, several examinations of horror in general and the general public's attitude towards horror, the 'Video Nasties' censorship hysteria in the Great Britain of the 1980's and early 1990's, and examinations of the history of horror. Campbell's lengthy autobiographical essay "How I Got Here" is also invaluable in understanding his life and work. He's almost painfully self-revelatory at points, while remaining refreshingly free of self-pity. 

Oh, and there's an essay on British spanking-based pornography. Really, you can't go wrong with this collection. How often is one going to find revelatory close readings of major H.P. Lovecraft stories and brief 'plot' synopses of faux-English-school-girl spanking pornography in the same book? Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

X2

The X-Files: [Fight the Future]: (1998): written by Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter; directed by Rob Bowman; starring David Duchovny (Agent Mulder), Gillian Anderson (Agent Scully), John Neville (The Well-Manicured Man), William B. Davis (Cigarette-Smoking Man), Martin Landau (Kurtzwell), and Mitch Pileggi (Assistant FBI Director Skinner): 

Released to theatres between Seasons 5 and 6 of The X-Files TV show, The X-Files: [Fight the Future] is actually less satisfying than the shows that led directly into and out of it. So it goes. It does codify certain things about the show's alien conspiracy, in part because John Neville's character delivers two minutes of exposition that explains about five years of show. In riffing on dire conspiracy theories about the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, the movie accidentally seems to forecast some of the more dire theories about 9/11. So it goes in the Ourobouros of paranoia. 

The movie does take advantage of having a much larger budget by delivering a couple of cinematic set-pieces and a lot of black helicopters. It also takes advantage of being a movie to give the viewer several widescreen panaromas dominated by the sky, something that didn't happen a lot on the show. It's still a bit incoherent and riddled with coincidence as a plot device. The final Antarctic set-piece gives us the series' most exaggerated and unbelievable example of Scully looking the wrong way when something extraordinary happens. Recommended for X-Files fans.



The X-Files: I Want to Believe: (2008): written by Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter; directed by Chris Carter; starring David Duchovny (Agent Mulder), Gillian Anderson (Agent Scully), Billy Connolly (Father Joe), Amanda Peet (Agent Whitney), Xzibit (Agent Drummy), Callum Keith Rennie (Abductor), and Mitch Pileggi (Assistant FBI Director Skinner): 

Low-budget, enervated attempt to bring back The X-Files as a movie series six years after its TV cancellation was a critical and box-office disaster back in 2008. The main plot would barely have warranted a shrug on the series. The $20 million or so spent on the movie somehow looks cheaper than most of the show's much lower-budget British-Columbia-lensed episodes of its first four seasons, possibly because series creator Chris Carter isn't a very good movie director.

More unfortunately, Carter simply ignores the final episodes of his own show in this movie. That may not be a bad thing entirely, but the result reminds me of the exasperated cry of Sam Rockwell's character to the main cast members of the TV show in Galaxy Quest -- "Did you guys ever WATCH the show?" 

Billy Connolly does good work as a pedophile Roman Catholic priest searching for redemption. David Duchovny's fake beard looks really fake for the 30 minutes of film he's stuck sporting it prior to "shaving" it off. A sub-plot involving Gillian Anderson's Scully and her medical career would be great on a TV show. In a movie, it feels like 20 minutes of filler. Not really recommended except for X-Files completists