Thursday, November 15, 2018

THE ILLUSTRATED MAN


I know a helluva lot more about both film and the works of Ray Bradbury today, in 2018 at the age of sixty-two, than I did at the age of thirteen in 1969. That's when I first saw THE ILLUSTRATED MAN at the State (now Stateside) Theater in downtown Austin. Didn't much care for the film at the time and when I watched it again yesterday for the first time in forty-nine years, I discovered that the film was even worse than I remembered it. 

It's not just bad. It's a fresh, hot, steaming turd of a horrible movie. 

Rod Steiger, who never met a piece of scenery he couldn't chew into oblivion, stars as the title character, a man whose proper name is actually the rather prosaic Carl. His body is covered in tattoos (except for his head and face and a blank spot on his back). But don't dare call them "tattoos". Carl is explicit that they should be referred to as "skin illustrations". The illustrations were placed upon Carl's body by Felicia (Claire Bloom), a woman who may or may not have come from the future and who may or may not be a witch (or both).

Carl meets a young drifter, Willie (Robert Drivas), on the road and tells him the story of how he acquired the "skin illustrations". They are pictures that come alive if you look at them too long and hard and come alive they do when Willie does just that. The illustrations morph into three stories, THE VELDT, THE LONG RAIN and THE LAST NIGHT OF THE WORLD. Funny thing about these stories. Carl and Felicia appear in each one and in each one they're characters named Carl and Felicia. There's no attempt to differentiate these story characters from the "real" Carl and Felicia. It's a clumsy bit of story telling that serves only to confuse an already bewildering narrative. 

The stories, are of course, adaptations of short stories found in Ray Bradbury's collection THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, first published in 1951. I read that book at the time of the film's release and re-read it a few years ago at the time of Bradbury's death. Bradbury's never been my favorite writer but I do admire his prose and all of the stories adapted in the film version were much better served on paper than celluloid. The futuristic settings are all uniformly tired and cliched looking, all sterile white plastic and billowing white tents for dwellings, and unisex, one-piece clothing for costumes.

 While it's a failure on the part of the production designer. the real failure here lies in the screenplay by Howard B. Kreitsek and the leaden, unimaginative direction by genre hack Jack Smight. Neither men bring an ounce of Bradbury's poetic imagery and lyrical prose to life. They're literally tone deaf when it comes to evoking the slightest scintilla of a sense of wonder, of breathless imagination that this material so desperately cries out for. Prior to ILLUSTRATED MAN, Bradbury's work was much better served on film in such fare as BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) and FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966).

But the worst offender here is Steiger. His performance is as hammy and over the top as you would expect from this actor who could never play a part at a level of ten when eleven was available and so much better. While watching the film I wondered if director Smight gave Steiger any direction at all, if he even bothered to shape a performance and an honest-to-gosh character out of Steiger and the material or if Steiger just said, "Jack, I've got this, let me do it my way." I imagine it was the latter and given what was probably a limited budget and schedule, Smight knew better than to lock horns with his star. After all, Warner Brothers hired Steiger for the role so the powers that be must have wanted what he could bring to the screen.

After the three stories have played out, Willie looks into the blank spot on Carl's back and sees his own death (strangulation by Carl) depicted. Willie picks up a rather large rock and repeatedly bashes Carl's head in. Willie lights out across the countryside with Carl's dog, Peck in pursuit. Then, amazingly, Carl rises from his beating, one side of his face horribly disfigured by the attack and begins to lumber along the road after Willie. The end.

Wait, what?

Yep, the movie simply ends on a freeze frame of a deserted dirt road. Did Willie get away? Did Carl catch and kill him as foretold in the blank spot? Who knows? Who cares? The 103 minutes of this turkey are done.

I cannot recommend THE ILLUSTRATED MAN to anyone, not even die hard Bradbury fans who want to see the legendary master's work brought to life on the screen. Read one of his books, any of his books or watch any of the other films and television programs that have been produced over the years. But whatever you do, for God's sake, avoid this mess. 



Monday, November 12, 2018

"WITH GREAT POWER...."


I should have paid the $200.00 at that Wizard World Comic Con in Austin a few years ago. I should have ponied up my money and stood in line for who knows how long to meet the one and only Stan Lee. Don't know what I would have said that he hadn't heard a million times before from countless true believers. Something along the lines of "your work changed my life", "I love everything you've ever done", "you were a major part of my childhood",  "I became a writer because of you", or perhaps, just a simple and heartfelt "thank you.". 

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

 I had my chance and I didn't take it. Stan Lee died today at the age of 95. This is a year that has seen two other creative giants, Steve Ditko and Harlan Ellison, pass away. Ditko's work, whether alone or in tandem with Stan, had a profound impact on my life as did the one-of-a-kind writings of Harlan Ellison. Important artists in my 62 years. But Stan, man, Stan towered above them all.

Got to meet Forrest J. Ackerman, another major figure in my life, not once but twice, first at his home in Los Angeles (the legendary "Ackermansion) and again in Austin when he was our opening night guest at the first and only Drive-In Double Feature Film Festival. Got to see Don Rickles twice (once in Las Vegas at the now gone Stardust Hotel and Casino, the other time at Austin's Paramount Theatre). Saw Woody Allen on stage at the Paramount also. Introduced and did a Q&A with Adam (Batman) West in 2010 before a full house at the Paramount before a screening of the 1966 BATMAN film.
 
 I geeked out like a total fanboy when I met Michael Chabon and got him to sign my hardcover first edition his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, of THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY (a work informed in no small measure by the life of Stan Lee). Met Neal Adams and told him that his artwork blew my mind when I first encountered it as a young lad. "Son," he replied, "that was my job."

 Met Gil Kane years ago at a convention in Houston. Practically everyone there was fawning over the current enfant terribles George Perez and Chris Claremont (yes, it was that long ago), while no one was at Kane's table except for me. Had a great visit with him. Chatted with Erin (BUCK ROGERS) Grey and Richard (FORBIDDEN PLANET) Anderson at a Wizard World convention. Sold books for and got my picture taken with William (STAR TREK) Shatner (he was an asshole, by the way). 

 I've had the opportunity to host a book signing event with the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, go through a buffet line with Robert Duvall, visit with Peter Bogdanovich and Eli Wallach (both at the Paramount) , sit in on an English class lecture at St. Edward's University by James Ellroy, spot Sid Melton in the Las Vegas airport and share a plane flight to Los Angeles with Sugar Ray Leonard.

Not bad, not bad at all. But still, I had the chance to go for Stan and didn't take it. 

Stan Lee isn't my favorite comic book writer. That honor would go to Roy Thomas. But Stan was certainly the first comic book writer I knew by name. His byline was on practically every Marvel comic I bought in the 1960s. It seems that Stan wrote and edited everything published by Marvel at the time. My brother used to give me grief about how much I loved Stan's writing. He used to deride the entire concept of comic books and tell me, with more than a hint of malice, that there was no Stan Lee, that that was just a name someone made up. I knew better.

I'll leave it for others to document all of Stan's many accomplishments in the field of popular culture. While he may not have been the best writer in the history of comics, he was certainly the best at self-promotion, bombast and hyperbole. Yet Stan backed up the bally-hoo with solid, well crafted stories, drenched with emotion and leavened with humor, while creating from scratch the legendary Marvel Universe.

Oh sure, he had help in the form of such stalwarts as Don Heck, Dick Ayers, and Steve Ditko. Stan and Jack Kirby, my all-time favorite comic book artist, produced tons of excellent work. Their 100 issue run on FANTASTIC FOUR as co-creators, is a feat never to be equaled or surpassed in comic book history, a marathon of ideas, concepts and characters tumbling out one after the other, each one more impressive and game changing than the last. Consider: Dr. Doom, the revived Sub-Mariner, the Mole Man, the Puppet Master, Diablo, Dragon Man, the Hate Monger, the Red Ghost and his Super Apes, the Watcher, the Skrulls, the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the Black Panther, the Mad Thinker, the Sentry, Ronan the Accuser, Annihilus, the Negative Zone, Psycho Man, Wyatt Wingfoot, Black Bolt, Medusa, the Frightful Four, Gorgon, Kurrgo, Master of Planet X, and on and on and on. Lee and Kirby produced what are hands down the greatest superhero comic books ever made. Once again, others can speak to the matter of who did what where credit is due. I'm not here to address that. I'm only here to say that Lee and Kirby were the Lennon and McCartney of comic books. 

It's been fun to see Stan cameo in all of the recent Marvel films and it's safe to say that there are millions of people out there who can easily quote Stan's most famous piece of writing without ever having read a single comic book by Stan or any one else.

"With great power there must also come great responsibility."

That was the final caption on the final panel of the very first Spider-Mann story by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. It appeared in AMAZING FANTASY #15 (the last issue of that title before Spidey debuted in his own title, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.). I own a copy of AF #15 and it's what I would have clutched in my hands while waiting for Stan to sign it for me. In that line I never got in that time I had a chance to meet "The Man". 

That opportunity is gone as is Stan Lee. But Stan Lee has achieved immortality through his work. An immense and wondrous body of stories that bedazzled me as a youth and fired my imagination in a way that no other comic books had ever done. He touched my life in a way that is hard to explain unless you also are a child of the sixties, a starry eyed youth like myself riding the pop culture wave of an incredible decade. It was a great time to be a kid, to be a fan, to discover new worlds aborning on an almost daily basis. 

Stan Lee was just one of the guides to the wonderful world of imagination. He took me for a ride that, while slowing down, has never come to a complete stop.

Thank you Stan. Thank you for everything. Thank you for taking an entire generation by the hand and showing them that there are still heroes in this world, that there is still something good and decent and honorable to believe in. Thank you for showing us that no matter how bleak things might seem, there's always hope. Thank you for showing us how to dream big and live large. 

God speed you dear and wonderful man. Excelsior and 'Nuff Said and all that other stuff. Goodbye old friend. 

I love you.



Monday, October 29, 2018

THE CORPSE VANISHES & BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT


The horror films produced by Monogram in the 1940s lie somewhere between the lurid horror pulps of the 1930s and those ghastly black and white horror magazines from the late '60s and early '70s, the ones published by Myron Fass and Stanley Harris, the really cheap ones that consisted of public domain reprints with a mix of new, substandard art. Yeah, those, the ones I never bought, opting instead to purchase the far superior product published by James Warren (CREEPY, EERIE and VAMPIRELLA). But I digress.

Monogram, an outfit which honestly earned the sobriquet of a poverty row studio, produced a slew of extremely low budget cheapies in a variety of film genres. The Monogram pictures that I've seen have all been marked by dark, murky cinematography, wretched library music (which in no way matches the onscreen action), flimsy sets, acting on the level of a UIL one act play competition and narratives that are about as solid as a loaf of bread. I dearly love the Universal horror films and I recently watched a couple of  the Mummy films from the 1940s (with Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis) and as cheap as those films are, they look like something produced at MGM in comparision to your average Monogram programmer.

I know there are legions of "monster kids" who share my love and devotion to all things Universal but come on, are there any fans out there who feel the same way about the Monogram horrors? If so, I'd love for someone to comment on this post and make the case for these films. 

I watched a couple of Monogram chillers the other day, BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT and THE CORPSE VANISHES. Both of them were made in 1942 and both star horror icon Bela Lugosi. I love Lugosi and he's always fun to watch but it's sad to see him working for relative pennies in third rate productions shot in a manner of days (hell, hours!). He needed the work and the powers that be at Monogram (including legendary cheapskate producer Sam Katzman), were canny enough to know that Lugosi's name on the marquee was all that was needed to sell tickets and turn a profit on these bargain basement thrillers.

In BOWERY, Lugosi runs a soup kitchen for the down and outers. He's assisted by a pretty young nurse who provides minimum health care to the men of the Bowery. The soup kitchen is really a front for Lugosi's crime ring. He recruits derelicts to aid in his jewel thefts and then kills the poor unfortunates when the jobs are done. Lugosi is also assisted by a mad doctor of an assistant who keeps the corpses of the dead bums in marked graves in a basement (how convenient!) where he also experiments on resurrecting the dead. Lugosi has a day job teaching at a university(!) and one of his students just happens to be the fiance of Lugosi's nurse. The young student (who looks far too hold to be a college student), decides to write his paper on the poor and visits the soup kitchen for material. Meanwhile, Tom Neal (wearing the same outfit he later sported in DETOUR (1945)) shows up at the kitchen. He's a tough gangster who kills anyone who gets in his way.

That's a lot of plot elements to cram into an hour's worth of film but it gets better. The narrative in the last reel is nearly incoherent as the boyfriend appears to be killed by Neal, Lugosi is thrown to the now reanimated, zombie like bums who were shown dead and buried earlier and the film ends with the student alive and well and now married to the pretty young nurse. I suspect the production code demanded that the film have a happy ending rather than stopping with Lugosi being killed by his victims. It's abrupt and confusing and even rewinding and watching it over failed to make it any more understandable. 

THE CORPSE VANISHES is marginally better than BOWERY. Lugosi again stars, this time as a mad scientist who causes young brides to go into suspended animation at the altar (thanks to a special breed of orchid). Everyone believes the young women to be dead but they're only in deep comas. Lugosi steals their "corpses" and extracts serum from their glands which he injects into his 80 year old crone of a wife to restore her lost youth and beauty. Of course, the change is only temporary so Lugosi must have a constant supply of fresh brides. 

He's aided in his evil pursuits by both a hunchback and a dwarf (!) and a bitter old woman (the hunchback's mother). The laboratory set has a back wall of painted stone blocks and Lugosi forgoes any proper medical procedures when administering his life sustaining injections. A plucky young reporter ala Lois Lane and a local doctor become suspicious of Lugosi's shenanigans and investigate. All of the evil doers are killed in the end and the brides are restored. 

If you're a die hard horror movie fan or Lugosi aficionado you might want to give these films a look. If not, move along, there's nothing to see here.  

Thumbs down. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

HORROR HOTEL


The 1960 British horror film THE CITY OF THE DEAD was released in the United States under the rather generic title HORROR HOTEL (the film was also cover featured under that name in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #40, which is where I first learned about it). THE CITY OF THE DEAD is a far better, more evocative title although if truth be told, the city in which much of the narrative takes place, an ancient town named Whitewood, Massachusetts, hardly qualifies for the misnomer "city". But I'm sure the producers realized that WIDE SPOT IN THE ROAD OF THE DEAD or FLY SPECK OF A TOWN OF THE DEAD, just didn't have the right rings to them and opted for CITY OF THE DEAD.

Speaking of the producers, two of the gentleman that put this film together, Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky (who also contributed the story upon which the screenplay by George Baxt was based), would later form Amicus Productions, a British film studio that specialized in horror films, ala the studio's "older brother" Hammer. Amicus gained fame for producing several portmanteau/anthology horror films along with other productions.

CITY OF THE DEAD focuses on Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), a graduate student doing research into witchcraft in old New England. Her professor, Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), directs her to Whitewood with very specific directions about where to stay and whom to talk to. Whitewood, as shown in the opening sequence of the film, was the setting for witch trials in 1692 in which a witch, Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) was burned at the stake. Whitewood is a fabulously creepy place, constantly covered in thick ground fog day and night (and it always seems to be night), sparsely populated and sporting a cemetery in the center of town. As Nan begins her research, she's quickly drawn into the clutches of a modern day coven of witches who need a fresh, young sacrifice as part of their evil rituals.

After Nan disappears, her brother, Richard (Dennis Lotis) and her boyfriend, Bill (Tom Naylor), journey to Whitewood to begin a search. Bill is injured in an automobile accident while Richard finds a willing helper in the form of Patricia (Betta St. John), who owns a local bookshop and whose father is a blind priest.

Of course Pat is targeted to be the next sacrifice and it's up to Richard and Bill (who makes a last second appearance) to defeat the witches by using "the shadow of the cross."

It's hard to watch CITY OF THE DEAD without seeing parallels to Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (released that same year). Both feature a lovely young blond woman taking refuge in a out-of-the-way hotel only to be summarily dispatched at the 45 minute mark of the film. And both films have relatives of the dead woman coming to investigate the disappearance, with both parties encountering some rather outre goings on.

Produced on a very small budget, CITY OF THE DEAD rises above financial limitations to deliver a solid chiller. The presence of Christopher Lee is a plus, as always, but it's the stark black and white cinematography by Desmond Dickinson and creative set design and art direction that really give this film a punch. The entire film is shot on sound stages but rather than exposing the cheapness of the village sets, the indoor setting creates an atmosphere of claustrophobic doom.

Whatever title you find it under, HORROR HOTEL or THE CITY OF THE DEAD, this one is a first rate little horror film.

Highly recommended.


Saturday, October 13, 2018

IN THE MIDST OF DEATH


I tore through IN THE MIDST OF DEATH (1976) in a matter of hours. It's the third novel in Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series. I've read several other Scudder novels and I've enjoyed each and every one of them but I have not read them in order of publication so I found Scudder's situation in this novel a bit jarring at first.

In later books, Scudder is a recovering alcoholic, constantly dealing with his own personal demons and the oh-so tempting promise of release and escape found in a bottle of booze. But in MIDST, Scudder is just beginning his long, slow slide into alcoholic oblivion. He drinks. A lot. But he's still capable of solving a well plotted murder mystery.

A high-priced call girl (with equally high priced clients) is murdered. Her body is found in the apartment of an NYPD detective, a cop with dreams of being the next Frank Serpico by exposing the corruption within the department. He's innocent, of course, but he turns to ex-cop Scudder to find the real killer and escape the frame-up.

Scudder does so but not before a couple of other people are killed. Along the way, Scudder beds the wife of his client, not always the smartest move in the old private detective playbook.

The mystery here is a good one and you get a chance to see Block setting up this durable character for his ultimate fall and later redemption. A good, solid "quick and dirty" mystery novel in an outstanding series that is best read in the order in which the books were  originally published.

Oh, and pay no attention to the cover art of the Avon paperback edition pictured above. It's designed purely to sell the book (and it does an admirable job of doing so), but no such scene occurs in the book.

Recommended.



Friday, October 12, 2018

THE DEVIL'S BRIDE


I've seen a lot of Hammer horror films in my 62 years. Also Hammer science fiction, film noir and adventure films. But the little British studio produced a vast number of films during the 1950s, '60s and '70s and I must confess, that although I've seen many of them (some several times over), there are still Hammer films out there that I have yet to see.

Case in point the two films I watched this week. The first, SCREAM OF FEAR is a black-and-white psychological thriller from 1961 that I watched the other day with my buddy Kelly Greene. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of viewing for the first time THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968) (released in the U.S. as THE DEVIL'S BRIDE).

This film, my dear readers, ranks as one of the greatest Hammer horror films ever made. It's an insanely ambitious undertaking, on a par with the same year's production of FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH. This is a literate, straight-faced thinking person's horror film that never panders or condescends to the audience. Everything is played straight and seriously and the final product ranks as an undisputed masterpiece.

Part of the success of DEVIL'S is due to the talent behind the camera. Genre veteran and Hammer workhorse Terence Fisher directed many of Hammer's best films and DEVIL'S BRIDE is surely among his very best work. That's in large part due to the first rate screenplay by horror maestro Richard Matheson. The script is based on the book, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT by Dennis Wheatley. I've not read the book so I can't compare Matheson's screenplay to the source material but taken solely as an exercise in cinematic horror, Matheson's screenplay is first rate.

The film is commanded by the regal, magisterial presence of Christopher Lee, who, for a change, plays a good guy. He's Nicholas Duc de Richleau and he's the only thing that stands between a mad cult of Satan worshippers (led by a suavely sinister Charles Gray) and the demonic possession of two innocents, Tanith (Nike Arrighi) and Simon (Patrick Mower). de Richleau is aided by his friend, Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene), who is skeptical at first but soon comes to believe the powers in play (along with falling in love with Tanith).

There are several remarkable set-pieces in the film that produce genuine shocks and jolts. The climax involves a literal rending of space and time before everything comes to an end.

Both Christopher Lee and Charles Gray would later play James Bond villains. Gray starred as Blofeld in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER while Lee played Scaramanga in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974). An odd thought I had while watching DEVIL'S BRIDE. If someone had wanted to make a film based on Marvel Comics' character, Doctor Strange, the sorcerer supreme, in 1968, Christopher Lee would have been a great choice.

Alas that project must forever remain in the realm of unwrought things. In the meantime I encourage you to relish the brilliance of THE DEVIL'S BRIDE. This one is truly a masterpiece.

Highest Recommendation.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

MJ-12 INCEPTION


The set-up is simple but ingenious. Imagine the X-Men being formed by the U.S. Government during the Cold War as a special ops team, ala MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. That's the premise of MJ-12 INCEPTION (2017), the first novel in a new series by Michael J. Martinez.

I just finished reading this one this morning and it's a corker. It's the first book by Martinez that I've read but rest assured, it won't be the last. Martinez does a first rate job here creating an interesting team of "Variants", meta-humans who have gained their special powers, or "enhancements" due to two related but unexplained phenomena that appeared at the end of WWII. The "anomalies" as they're called, appeared in the ruins of Hiroshima and in the basement of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. They appear to be portals to another dimension as well as conduits for controlled blasts of energy that grant the target human a specific super power.

The U.S. agents include a man who can absorb the entire knowledge of a person moments before their death and consequently has multiple voices in his head at all times. Another man can transmute matter, while a third has the ability to steal life energy from living subjects (humans and animals). The fourth member of the team, a woman, is perhaps the most powerful of the Variants as she can manipulate people's emotions. They're gathered and trained by a fifth Variant, a young Naval officer who has the power to detect Variants. And, of course, the Russians have a team of their own, each with his or her own unique powers.

Most of MJ-12 INCEPTION is set up for the series that follows. And that's okay because Martinez has done his homework exceedingly well, mixing real life people (President Truman, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal among others), real places (Area 51) and a well grounded history of the early days of the Cold War. The Variants do eventually get to undertake a couple of missions designed to extract a Soviet scientist who has knowledge of the Russian Variants and what they're up to. Of course, things go wrong on the mission, leaving one U.S.Variant dead and bigger threats hinted at. INCEPTION ends on a cliff-hanger which makes the next book in the series, MJ-12 SHADOWS a must read.

A canny blend of super-heroes and super-spies, MJ-12 INCEPTION is a winner.

Highly recommended.