Saturday, June 17, 2017

AREA 10


AREA 10 (2010), by Christos N. Gage and Chris Samnee, is a black and white, original graphic novel published under the Vertigo Crime imprint. A serial killer is terrorizing New York City. His victims are found beheaded, leading the killer to be dubbed "Henry the Eighth". Investigating detective Adam Kamen has no leads in the killings until he's injured in an attack in which he's stabbed in the forehead with a screwdriver. He recovers from his injury but finds that his long dormant "third eye" has been activated, granting him the ability to "see" the future. Or at least possible futures.

The killings continue and Kamen, unable to sleep, finds himself haunted every waking hour by the case and the things he sees. The investigation takes him down some truly twisted paths involving the art of trepanation, the practice of drilling small holes in a person's skull in an effort to expand their consciousness.

The trail leads Kamen to a mad doctor conducting such experiments. The doctor is killed in a battle with Kamen and enough evidence is found to indicate that he was indeed Henry the Eighth. Case closed, right? But the killings continue and it looks more and more like Kamen himself may be a killer.

AREA 10 is a fast paced, gritty thriller that mixes the police procedural novel with a whiff of sf/horror. A final act between two people, one wielding a scalpel, the other a power drill, is appropriately gory and loaded with tension and suspense. Author Gage does a good job of  playing fair, showing us all of the clues we need to figure out what's really going on and Samnee's artwork is clean and expressive, moody where it needs to be and always delivering clear, straightforward storytelling.

You'll have to read the book to discover the meaning of the title but trust me, AREA 10 is a winner. Thumbs up.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

UP PERISCOPE


A wide screen format and sharp Technicolor cinematography by Carl E. Guthrie add immensely to UP PERISCOPE (1959). It's a fairly routine WWII film but it's handsomely mounted and a pleasure to look at. Some of the scenes during the third act of the film, which take place at night on a Japanese occupied island, could serve as cover art for the men's adventure magazines of that time. The colors are lush and vivid and the movie definitely looks better than it has to.

Edmond O'Brien is Commander Paul Stevenson, the skipper of the U.S. Submarine Barracuda. He's a strictly-by-the-book officer whose adherence to Navy regulations on a previous mission cost him the life of one sailor and the overall disenchantment of his crew. And what a crew it is! Alan (GILLIGAN'S ISLAND)  Hale Jr. is Lt. Pat Malone, Warren (THE WILD BUNCH) Oates is Seaman Kovacs, Edd (77 SUNSET STRIP) Byrnes is Pharmacist Mate Ash and Frank (MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL) Gifford is Ensign Cy Mount. Who wouldn't want to go to sea with these guys?

Commander Stevenson receives a new crewman, Lt. (JG) Kenneth M. Braden (James Garner). Braden is a Navy frogman/commando on a top secret mission. His job is to gain access to a Japanese held island where a communications base has been set up. He has to photograph a code book and get out quick. The book will be used by the Navy to break the Japanese code and send the enemy false information about upcoming attacks. It's a dangerous mission complicated by the fact that it's Braden's first and that Stevenson remains determined to go by the book, which means Braden could end up left behind if he doesn't complete his mission on time.

Capably mounted by veteran director Gordon (THEM! (1954)) Douglas, UP PERISCOPE is a good little WWII actioner. Nothing spectacular but solidly crafted and presented. Nice way to pass a summer afternoon.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

THE DON IS DEAD


Mario Puzo's THE GODFATHER, the bloody saga about the Corleone crime family, became an instant bestseller in 1969.  I bought it, read it and tired to imagine what the announced movie version of the film would look like. I figured it would have to be an "X" -rated film if it was to include all of the graphic sex and violence contained in the book. The film version, released in 1972, was a blockbuster, garnering ten Academy Award nominations (it won three). It was the largest grossing film of the year and has gone on to be recognized as an American classic, one of the finest films ever made.

Following upon the one-two knockout punch success of THE GODFATHER as both novel and film, publishers and movie studios were quick to scramble upon the organized crime bandwagon, churning out thinly disguised knockoffs of both Mario Puzo's pulp novel and Francis Ford Coppola's cinematic masterpiece. Dozens of books and films were released in a relatively short period of time along with several true crime books about the Mob.

THE DON IS DEAD (1972) by Nick Quarry, is one such book. I've had this one on my bookshelf for years and finally got around to reading it the other day. It's a GODFATHER clone/knock-off published by Fawcett Gold Medal. Fawcett also published THE GODFATHER, a fact that's blurbed on the cover which features a nice piece of art (artist unknown) and the same "Godfather" lettering font.

The death of Mafia boss Don Paolo Regalbuto creates a power vacuum in a city controlled by three crime families. The Don's son, Frank, isn't ready to take over the operation. Louis "The Accountant" Orlando is running Jimmy Bruno's outfit while his boss serves time in prison. Don Angelo DiMorra, an aging boss, wants to expand his empire but knows he has to move carefully. Finally, there's the Fargo gang, led by vicious brothers Vince and Tony. They're the wild card element in the escalating struggle for power. An uneasy truce is brokered by the Commission, a coalition of other Mafia families from around the country. But the peace is a tenuous one and before long a full scale gang war erupts in an orgy of violence which leaves only one man standing when all of the smoke clears.

THE DON IS DEAD lacks the character development, history and detail found in Puzo's novel, but it's a page turner that focuses on gun battles and other forms of murder and mayhem. Author Nick Quarry is a pseudonym for Marvin Albert, a prolific author who wrote dozens of novels including westerns, the Tony Rome series, the Stone Angel series (of which THE DON IS DEAD is the first), stand-alone crime thriller and movie novelizations. In addition to the Quarry byline, Albert wrote under the names Albert Conroy, Ian McAlister and Anthony Rome. By any name, Albert knows how to grab a reader from the start and keep you turning the pages.

It's no masterpiece but THE DON IS DEAD is a good, pulpy organized crime thriller. It's a great way to pass a long, hot summer vacation day. Thumbs up.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

THE FACE OF FU MANCHU


Dr. Fu Manchu, the original incarnation of the dreaded "yellow peril" was the creation of British author Sax Rohmer. Beginning in 1913 with the publication of THE MYSTERY OF FU MANCHU, Rohmer introduced the Oriental criminal mastermind  to the world in a series of thirteen novels that ended in 1959 with EMPEROR FU MANCHU. These books have all been reprinted and I have all but the first one in my collection. Other Fu Manchu novels have been written by various authors since then. In all of the Fu Manchu adventures, he is opposed by two stalwart heroes, Sir Denis Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard and Dr. Petrie. They are the Holmes and Watson to Manchu's Moriarty.

The novels proved extremely popular in both the United Kingdom and the United States and it wasn't long before Fu Manchu found his way to the big screen. The first cinematic version was in the 1923 British silent serial THE MYSTERY OF FU MANCHU. American studios jumped on to the Manchu bandwagon with THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU (1929), THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU (1930) and DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931), all of which featured non-Asian actor Warner Oland (who would go on to gain fame as Charlie Chan) as Fu Manchu.

The best Fu Manchu movie remains THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932). Produced by MGM, the film stars horror icon Boris Karloff as the evil doctor in a wonderful performance. He's aided by the lovely Fah Lo See (the incredibly sexy Myrna Loy), in his villainous schemes. The film is handsomely produced and it perfectly captures the visceral, giddy thrills of the best pulp fiction.

In 1956,Republic Pictures produced a thirteen episode syndicated television series, THE ADVENTURES OF FU MANCHU, starring Glen Gordon. I've seen a few of these. They're terrible.

One of the best uses of the character can be found in the pages of Marvel Comics MASTER OF KUNG FU, The comic book series ran from 1974 to 1983 and starred martial artist Shang Chi, who was also the son of Fu Manchu. The series started off slowly and rather unevenly but when writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy took over, the series soared. They played everything as if it was a James Bond film and produced some truly exciting and beautiful to look at, comics.

A series of Fu Manchu films were co-produced by Hallam Productions (UK) and Constantin Film (West Germany), beginning in 1965 with THE FACE OF FU MANCHU. I watched this one for the first time yesterday and I was profoundly disappointed.

The film stars yet another non-Asian actor as the title character. This time, it's the magnificent Christopher Lee who brings real menace to the screen and is far and away the best thing about the film. He's aided by the lovely Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) and a small army of rather ineffective dacoits (most of whom appear to be European rather than Chinese). The film starts on a promising note with the beheading of Fu Manchu in a Chinese prison. The execution is witnessed by Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Nigel Green) but as soon as he returns home to London it becomes evident that the man under the executioner's sword was a look-alike and that the real Fu Manchu is alive and well and hatching another nefarious plot.

Green, a veteran British actor (he was Hercules in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), among other roles) is a good choice to play Smith. He's full of brusque bravado and brings a real physical presence to the role.  But he's hampered by a script by Harry Alan Towers that is full of holes and stiff direction by Don Sharp.

The plot revolves around an attempt by Fu Manchu to gain a formula for a deadly toxin that can be produced from the seeds of a rare Tibetan flower. It has the makings of an entertaining, pulpy romp, but instead it plods along from one capture, escape and capture again until the final showdown in a Tibetan castle.

The script is a mess and there a couple of things that must be pointed out to demonstrate how sloppy this film is. Early on, Maria Muller (Karin Dor), the daughter of Professor Muller (Walter Rilla), the man who has the formula for the toxin, is menaced in her home. Someone tries to force their way into a room, an attempt that is rebuffed by Maria. While she struggles to hold the door against the unseen attacker, said attacker reaches in and places a piece of paper on a side table. The hand withdraws and returns with a large knife. The struggle intensifies until Carl Jannsen (Joachim Fuchsberger) arrives. They hear something in the laboratory and Carl goes to investigate. A fight between Smith and Jannsen ensues in which there's no attempt made to disguise the two stunt doubles. When the lights go on and explanations are made, the three leave the house. No mention is ever made of that piece of paper or the knife wielding attacker.

Later in the film, the heroes narrowly escape from Fu Manchu's lair under the river Thames. In one scene, they're in a dungeon like room. Next, they're on a boat on the Thames. They deduce that Fu Manchu must be headed to Tibet and presto chango, in the very next scene, they're sneaking into a Tibetan castle disguised as monks. Smith and Jannsen have brought gunpowder with them rather than flower seeds and they use the explosive material to blow up the castle (and presumably Fu Manchu and Lin Tang) at the end of the film.

But of course, Fu Manchu cheated death some how and returned in four more films from the same production companies, all of which starred Lee in the title role: THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966), THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967), THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (1968) and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969). Lee has gone on record stating that the series shouldn't have been made because none of the subsequent films were as good as the first one. The first one is terrible so I can only imagine how bad the others must be.

The film exposes the inherent problem in all of the Fu Manchu narratives. The equilibrium of good vs. evil must always be in balance. Smith and Petrie must always defeat whatever Fu Manchu's current plot is (after suffering numerous setbacks and obstacles) but they can never truly destroy the evil fiend once and for all. After all, Fu Manchu is, if not the hero, the title character of these stories and when you have a villain as a protagonist, he cannot ever fully succeed in his mad schemes. He's stopped time after time but he always keeps coming back with bigger and badder plots to rule the world. It's a repetitious formula than can go stale very quickly. But in the hands of a writer and director that truly understands what makes pulp fiction work, there's material there for a satisfying Saturday afternoon adventure film.

Sadly, THE FACE OF FU MANCHU isn't that film.


Monday, June 5, 2017

CLEOPATRA JONES



Beginning with SHAFT (1971), the 1970s gave rise to a cycle of unique sub-genre of films dubbed "blaxploitation". These films were generally low budget action/crime movies that featured mostly black actors and actresses as both heroes and villains. Marketed mostly to young, black urban audiences, the films also enjoyed success on the then still existent drive-in circuit.

Blaxploitation elements were a heavy influence in the first Roger Moore James Bond film, LIVE AND LET DIE (1973). There were even blaxploitation horror films such as BLACULA (1972) and BLACKENSTEIN (1973).  Some of the films, such as COFFY (1973) and FOXY BROWN (1974) featured female protagonists, as did CLEOPATRA JONES (1973).

The statuesque (6 feet 2 inches) Tamara Dobson stars as Cleopatra Jones, a federal agent who is depicted as a female James Bond. She's an expert martial artist who drives a souped up Corvette (with a personalized "CLEO" license plate) that comes with a small arsenal of hand guns hidden inside a door panel. What, no ejector seat? Cleopatra is focused on wiping out the international drug trade as shown in the opening sequence which finds her overseeing the destruction of a poppy crop in Turkey.

The action then moves to Los Angeles where we're introduced to the bizarre master criminal "Mommy" (Shelley Winters), the kingpin (queenpin?) of the LA drug cartel. Winters plays Mommy with an over-the-top flourish that recalls her turn as Ma Parker on the BATMAN TV show in 1966. She appears in a different wig and outfit in every scene, she's surrounded by feckless male thugs and a variety of comely young lasses, all of which are groped by Mommy.

Mommy orders a police raid on a drug recovery house run by Cleopatra's boyfriend, Reuben Masters (Bernie Casey). One of the cops in the raid is the legendary Bill McKinney, who played the hillbilly cornholer in DELIVERANCE (1972) and appeared in six Clint Eastwood films including THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976). Heroin is planted on an innocent young man and the pressure is on to shut down the facility once and for all. At the same time,a subordinate of Mommy's, Doodlebug Simpkins (Antonio Fargas, who played Huggy Bear on TV's STARSKY AND HUTCH), wants to set up his own criminal empire. He's aided by two goons and a white, effeminate man-servant.

Various attempts are made on Cleopatra's life, including a sniper attack and an ambush that leads to a well-staged car chase through the water drainage ditches of Los Angeles. There are gun battles, martial arts fights, and a nice musical number emceed by the one and only Don Cornelius (host of TV's SOUL TRAIN) before the big showdown in an automobile junk yard.

The script by Max Julien and Sheldon Keller is about as solid as a loaf of bread. There are long stretches of the film in which nothing that really advances the plot is happening. It's cinematic filler, shot on location around Los Angeles with crowds of curious on-lookers glimpsed in the backgrounds of several scenes.

But a coherent plot isn't the point of CLEOPATRA JONES. The focus here is Cleo herself, an empowered black woman who is far from a damsel in distress. She doesn't need a man to rescue her from danger. She's extremely competent and assured, a strong, independent woman who commands respect from the white police officers as well as the black youths undergoing treatment at the rehab house. This was a radical message to embed in a low-budget action movie aimed at inner city black audiences. Cleopatra Jones is a true hero in every sense of the word.

Cleo returned in CLEOPATRA JONES IN THE CASINO OF GOLD (1975). The blaxploitation cycle eventually ran it's course, eventually dying out in 1979. But while they were in their prime, blaxploitation films provided work to an entire generation of black actors and actresses, produced dozens of entertaining films and created some enduring cinematic icons.




Sunday, June 4, 2017

RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK


I love Hammer horror films. I love Christopher Lee. He's one of my favorite actors. Therefore, I should love a Hammer horror film starring Christopher Lee, especially when it's one I've never seen. A new treasure to be explored and savored! Right?

Not so fast. RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (1966) is, by any one's standards, a rather lackluster Hammer film. Shot on a low budget, the film recycles sets from previous Hammer productions and although ostensibly set in pre-revolutionary Russia, makes no attempt whatsoever to accurately depict the time and place. Outside of character's names and some period costumes, everyone speaks with a British accent, the scale of the film is intimate and the one shot of a grand ball in the Tsar's palace is clearly recycled footage from some other film.

In addition, the screenplay by Anthony Hinds takes quite a while to really get going and when it does, the storyline is routine with Rasputin's powers and plans never quite fully explained while Don Sharp's direction is flat and dull.

With all of that working against the film, it's up to Christopher Lee to carry the weight and he does so admirably. Lee plays Rasputin as a cross between Dracula and Charles Manson, a "holy man" possessing the power to heal and to mesmerize people into doing his bidding. His healing power is demonstrated in the opening sequence of the film. He cures a woman ravaged by fever and then launches into a wild orgy of drink, dance and attempted rape. He's attacked by concerned citizens, slices off one man's hand and flees back to the monastery to repent of his sins. His credo is, if you're going to ask God for forgiveness, give him something really wicked to forgive.

Rasputin heads to St. Petersburg where he crosses paths with Sonia (Barbara Shelley), who is a lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina (Renee Asherson). He seduces Sonia and mesmerizes her into doing his bidding. Rasputin's goal is to get in good with the royal family and he succeeds. He's given a palatial home in which he sets up shop, ministering to the needs of various women. As his power and ambition grows, he hypnotizes Sonia into committing suicide and moves closer to the royal family. Sonia's brother, Peter (Dinsdale Landen) and Ivan (Francis Matthews), realize the threat Rasputin poses and plot to kill him.

But Rasputin proves hard to dispatch. Poison doesn't do the trick, but getting thrown out of a window does. The monster's dead. The movie's over.

It's never made clear if Rasputin possesses any supernatural powers or if he's just an incredibly powerful con-man and trickster. Since the film is loosely based on a real historical figure, it would be wrong to categorically state that Rasputin was indeed imbued with Satanic abilities. He was nevertheless, a ruthless schemer and plotter which Lee capably portrays.

The story of Rasputin provides material for a great film. RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK, sadly, isn't that film. It's second tier Hammer fare redeemed by Lee's performance.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

IMPACT


I've had this one sitting on my bookshelf for who know how long. Finally decided to give it a read the other day. IMPACT, by Harry Olesker, was written in 1961. This edition was published by Dell in January 1965.

Stanley Gilborn, a New York City accountant, is a middle-aged man married to a much younger woman. Kitti, a former model, is Gilborn's "trophy wife" but the two seem to genuinely love each other. Gilborn returns to his apartment from work one day to find Kitti brutally murdered. Her death devastates him and suspicion (and circumstantial evidence) begins to point towards Lionel Black, an insurance salesman and Gilborn's much younger best friend.

But there are other suspects as well. Could Gilborn himself committed the crime? Black's needy wife Pat? Blanche, Gilborn's secretary who has been secretly in love with her boss for years? It's up to detective Joseph Conrad (I kid you not!) and his younger partner Johnny Rourke to sift through the evidence and statements and discover the truth.

Nothing spectacular here whatsoever but IMPACT is still a tightly written, efficiently constructed little murder mystery. Thumbs up.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

THE WASP WOMAN


"When the monster's dead, the movie's over."

Shot in five to six days with a budget of only $50,000, Roger Corman's 1959 monster movie, THE WASP WOMAN, is a classic example of what made the legendary genre auteur the king of the "B"'s. It's got an alliterative, attention grabbing title (working titles included THE BEE GIRL and INSECT WOMAN), and a bait-and-switch poster that promises far more than the film can possibly deliver. For one thing, the monster is not a gigantic wasp with a woman's head, it's a woman with a wasp's head (ala THE FLY (1958)).

The opening credits play against stock footage of a bee hive, not a wasps' nest. In fact, there's no depiction of a real wasp anywhere in the film's sixty-one minute running time (when WASP WOMAN was sold to television in the 1960s, a prologue featuring Dr. Zinthrop (Michael Mark) was shot by Jack Hill to pad out the running time to seventy-three minutes and allow for more commercials in a ninety minute block of programming).  Zinthrop has been conducting experiments with the jelly produced by queen wasps as a way to reverse the aging process in animals. He's ready to try out the serum on a human subject but he needs someone to act as an investor and a willing guinea pig.

He finds such a person in the form of Janice Starlin (Susan  Cabot), owner of a large cosmetics company. Sales of her products have taken a nose dive especially since cover-girl and spokesperson Janice has begun to show horrible signs of age (she's only forty!). Desperate to regain her lost beauty and rescue her company from financial ruin, Janice agrees to fund Zinthrop and let him inject her with his serum. After all, it worked on a guinea pig and a cat, what could possibly go wrong by shooting the juice into a human?

At first, nothing goes wrong. Janice is restored to her former stunning good looks (loose the glasses, re-arrange her hair and remove the "age" lines and voila!). But Zinthrop discovers that there are some serious side effects and, devastated by this knowledge, steps off a curb into the path of a truck, an accident which renders him temporarily comatose. With Zinthrop out of service, Janice breaks into the lab and shoots herself up with more of the serum. This is where things take a turn for the worse.

The junk causes her to grow a wasp-like head and black, fuzzy waspish hands (actually, furry mittens) and to develop a taste for human blood. That's right, she's a vampire wasp woman (hey, that would have made a great title!). Zinthrop recovers, and warns Janice to stop using the serum but it's too late, she's gone insane. Zinthrop and PR man Bill Lane (Fred Eisley), confront the monster in the lab where she's doused with acid and shoved out of a window. The end.

Despite it's non-scientific plot, WASP WOMAN is an effective little thriller competently staged and efficiently shot by Corman and cinematographer Harry Neumann. The jazzy score by Fred Katz works and the Corman stock company of actors hit their marks and say their lines with practiced aplomb. The sets are minimal but they're nicely dressed with mid-century goodies courtesy of art director Daniel Haller. There's not much room in Leo Gordon's script for a sub-plot but a budding relationship between Lane and Mary Dennison (Barboura Morris), provides some romance. Two secretaries, Carolyn Hughes and Lynn Cartwright, talk about seeing DR. CYCLOPS (1940) on the late show, while Corman himself appears in one scene as a doctor.

WASP WOMAN was the first movie Corman made under the auspices of his own production company, Filmgroup, and, not having someone else's money to play with, it's obvious that he makes every shot count. Released on a double bill with BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE, WASP WOMAN is exactly what you think it is: cheap, quick and entertaining.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

SING ME A MURDER


Before there was Hard Case Crime, there was Black Lizard Books. Black Lizard was an imprint that specialized in reprinting out-of-print works of noir fiction by a variety of writers in mass market paperback format. Founded and overseen by writer/editor Barry Gifford in 1984, Black Lizard published more than ninety books between 1984 and 1990. In June 1990, the imprint was sold to Random House where it was merged with the preexisting Vintage Crime imprint to form Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. The reprints of vintage crime material continue, along with some contemporary works but this time the format is trade paperback.

Black Lizard featured novels by such genre stalwarts as Charles Willeford, David Goodis, Peter Rabe, Harry Whittington, Dan J. Marlowe, Charles Williams, Lionel White and Jim Thompson, among many others. I remember stumbling across a slew of Black Lizard paperbacks in a Half Price Books store sometime in the mid-'80s. I went nuts looking for every book I could find that had the Black Lizard logo on it. I bought as many of them as I could and in the years since, have managed to read many of them. I currently have 22 Black Lizard paperbacks on my bookshelves. I've been in the mood lately to sample some vintage crime fiction but rather than spend money for used copies or reprints on eBay or other websites, I decided I'd read some of the stuff I already had.

Which brings me to SING ME A MURDER, a 1961 murder mystery by Helen Nielsen. Nielsen also wrote DETOUR (not to be confused with the Edgar G. Ulmer film of the same name) as well as scripts for such television shows as PERRY MASON, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, ALCOA THEATRE and 87TH PRECINCT. She was one of the few women writers to sell stories to such male dominated crime magazines as MANHUNT, ACCUSED, HUNTED, PURSUIT and JUSTICE (among others), where she shared pages with Evan Hunter, Harry Whittington, John Jakes, and Gil Brewer. Nielsen was a whiz at plotting, a skill that is on clear display in SING.

Playwright Ty Leander is devastated by the death of his wife, the beautiful singer Julie San Martin. She met her end in a wildfire that consumed half of their Malibu Canyon home. When he learns about the death of Mary Brownlee, a look-a-like for Julie, he decides to attempt suicide in the same boarding house room where Brownlee was murdered by her jealous boyfriend. He doesn't really intend to kill himself but he feels he must atone in some way for the death of his wife. He declares to his attorney friend Cole Tyler that he intends to be charged with Brownlee's murder and take the place of the accused Mike Flanders (whom Tyler is defending). Got it?

Leander's bizarre actions at the beginning of the book are merely a ruse to get him involved in investigating the deaths of the women. He finds evidence that his wife may have been murdered at the same time it becomes clearer that Flanders is innocent. Who killed the two beauties? Among the suspects are lawyer Tyler, theatrical producer Marcus Anatole, set designer Alex Draeger (a woman) and moody young artist Dana Quist. Police detective Janus is also on the case which takes several surprising twists and turns before the killer is finally revealed.

SING ME A MURDER isn't noir or hard-boiled. It's a straightforward murder mystery with well drawn characters and a look into the goings-on in a mid-century artists' salon in Southern California. You have to pay close attention because Nielsen provides a lot of red herrings along with legitimate clues before the big reveal. Not the greatest murder mystery I've ever read but a perfectly fine way to spend a Memorial Day afternoon. Thumbs up to this one and any and all Black Lizard paperbacks you can find.


Monday, May 29, 2017

THE MAGNETIC MONSTER

I'm a huge fan of 1950s science fiction films. I've seen a lot of them but there are still some out there that I have yet to watch. One of them was THE MAGNETIC MONSTER (1953), which I recently had a chance to see, thanks to TCM.

Halfway through this coma-inducing film, I succumbed and nodded off for a few minutes. When I awoke, it suddenly seemed as if I was watching an entirely different film. There was stalwart sf icon Richard Carlson valiantly trying to save the world but what's with that massive set of futuristic equipment that looks like leftovers from Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS (1926)?

THE MAGNETIC MONSTER was produced by Ivan Tors. It was the first in his trilogy of science fiction films featuring the Office of Scientific Investigation. The other two films were RIDERS TO THE STARS (1954) and GOG (1954). Tors also co-wrote the screenplay for MAGNETIC with genre veteran Curt Siodmak, who also directed (along with an uncredited Herbert L. Strock). Trouble is, there are no opening credits to let us know who's responsible for the film. We only get a title card with Ivan Tors name on it. Full credits are reserved for the end of the film.

Tors and Siodmak adopt a docu-drama approach to the material in MAGNETIC. There's a voice-over narration and everything is presented in a straight forward, matter-of-fact manner. All of the scientific jargon sounds reasonable and plausible (it's not) and there's a lot of it (what, no flux capacitor?). Imagine Jack Webb producing a science fiction movie and you'll have some idea of the style of this film.

Carlson stars as OSI agent Dr. Jeffrey Stewart. His partner is Dr. Dan Forbes (King Donovan). They're called upon at the beginning of the film to investigate a mysterious outbreak of super magnetism at a local department store. The plot escalates from there as it appears a fellow scientist, Dr. Howard Denker (Leonard Mudie), has created a new highly radioactive isotope, dubbed serranium, which consumes massive amounts of energy on an exponential basis, doubling in size and mass each time and releasing deadly radiation and intense magnetic energy.

The whole world is threatened by this "magnetic monster" and it's up to Dr. Stewart to save the day. This requires using an experimental Canadian power generator, the Deltatron, under construction in a huge cavern under the ocean. The plan is to "feed" the monster an overdose of energy hoping that the overwhelming amount of power will be enough to finally "kill" it.

And here's where that previously mentioned giant set comes into play. In order to stage an exciting climax, Tors and Siodmak spliced some ten minutes of footage from the German science fiction film GOLD (1934), into the narrative. The match cuts don't entirely work. Carlson is forced to wear clothes that match a character in the German footage and a Canadian official is made to stand in Carlson's way in order to match a similar action from GOLD. The footage from GOLD is spectacular and seeing these few minutes makes me want to see the entire film. It's clearly the best thing about THE MAGNETIC MONSTER. Is it a cheat, an unfair way to pull off a dramatic and exciting climax by using the work of someone else? Tors clearly didn't have the budget to stage something on this scale on his own and it works for the most part. But imagine nodding off for a few minutes while watching a boring, routine "realistic" science fiction movie and seeing something that looks like a cross between Jack Kirby and Kenneth Strickfaden!

Carlson, as always, is good in a role that was a prototype for future parts in such '50s science fiction films as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), THE MAZE (1953), RIDERS TO THE STARS (1954) and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), among others. Co-star King Donovan appeared in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1954), RIDERS TO THE STARS (1954) and Don Siegel's masterpiece INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). Director Siodmak had a long career as a screenwriter. His genre credits include THE WOLF MAN (1941), INVISIBLE AGENT (1942), FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1946) and BRIDE OF THE GORILLA (1951). In addition to helming MAGNETIC MONSTER, Siodmak directed BRIDE OF THE GORILLA and CURUCU, BEAST OF THE AMAZON (1957). Included in the supporting cast of MAGNETIC are veteran character actors Kathleen Freeman as a switchboard operator and the legendary Strother Martin as an airplane co-pilot.

THE MAGNETIC MONSTER is a mixed bag. It sets up a difficult challenge from the get-go, one of how to make a "monster" out of what is essentially just energy, albeit an incredible amount of it. Everyone plays it straight which helps make the wild plot seem feasible. But the ending is jarring, throwing Saturday afternoon serial thrills (from another film), into what had previously been a pretty routine narrative. Definitely worth seeing for genre fans but if you're not already enamored of '50s science fiction films, you're better off giving this one a pass.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?


What hath Robert Aldrich wrought? When Aldrich's gothic masterpiece WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? was released in 1962, no one expected it to be the beginning of a cycle of films that would run through the rest of the decade and into the early 1970s.

We speak of course of the, you'll excuse the expression, "horror hag" films, thrillers in which the leading ladies were all a bit past their prime and "slumming" in low budget genre and exploitation films. These actresses had long and sterling careers behind them, but major roles in A movies were becoming few and far between. They took the work that was offered and gave it their best.

The Horror Hag filmography includes HUSH...HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) (also by Aldrich). Bette Davis, who appeared in both JANE and CHARLOTTE, went on to headline DEAD RINGER (1964), THE NANNY (1965), and THE ANNIVERSARY (1968). Her co-star in JANE, Joan Crawford, starred in STRAIT-JACKET (1964), I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1965), BERSERK! (1968) and TROG (1970). Joan Fontaine did THE WITCHES (1966), Tallulah Bankhead terrorized Stephanie Powers in DIE! DIE! MY DARLING (1965) and Olivia de Havilland was menaced by James Caan in LADY IN A CAGE (1964).

Which brings us to WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971), a late entry in the Horror Hag cycle which paired fading stars Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters in a thriller set in the 1930s. Helen Hill (Winters) and Adelle Bruckner (Reynolds) are mothers with something grim in common. Their sons have been tried and convicted for the murder of a woman in a small town in Iowa. Beset with vitriol from the townspeople for the deeds of their sons, the two decide to leave town together and head for Hollywood. Adelle, a dance instructor, has dreams of making it big in Tinsel Town while Helen, a deeply religious woman, appears to be slightly disturbed and hiding something behind her placid features. Adelle finds a sugar daddy in the form of rich Texan Linc Palmer (Dennis Weaver), but as Adelle begins to find happiness, Helen starts to become unhinged and the bodies begin to mount up.

The poster image gives away a major plot point but there's nothing to be done about that now. It's provocative and I'm sure it helped sell some tickets. Reynolds has a chance to showcase her dance skills in a few scenes and she's generally good. Winters, on the other hand, is crazy from the get-go and it's no surprise when her dark side surfaces. There's a murder scene in which a man goes plunging down a staircase that recalls a similar sequence in PSYCHO (1960). The supporting cast is good with Agnes Moorehead playing a radio evangelist, Yvette Vickers in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance as a stage mother and young Pamela Ferdin as one of Adelle's child dancers. The cinematography by Lucien Ballard gives everything a slightly hazy, gauzy look. It is the past after all, while the production design is by Eugene Lourie, who directed such genre classics as THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (1958), THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) and GORGO (1961).

Director Curtis Harrington does a good job with Henry Farrell's screenplay. Harrington was a genre auteur whose filmography includes NIGHT TIDE (1961), VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET (1965), QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966), GAMES (1967), WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO? (1971, with Shelley Winters), THE KILLING KIND (1973) and RUBY (1977). WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN isn't great by any means. The script holds no surprises and the shocks are minimal. Fans of Reynolds and Winters will enjoy seeing these two square off  but don't expect anything as outre as BABY JANE.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

SAVAGE SEASON


The amazing thing about Joe R. Lansdale's SAVAGE SEASON (1990), the first Hap and Leonard novel, is that there were any more Hap and Leonard adventures, given the number and severity of injuries these two endure during the book's third act, a brutal, blood soaked showdown that plays like something out of a Sam Peckinpah film.

And that's a good thing.

Hap Collins and Leonard Pines are a noir odd couple, two anti-heroes who nonetheless end up on the side of good more often than not. Hap is a disillusioned sixties radical with no causes left to fight for except his own well being. Leonard, a Vietnam veteran, is gay and black. The two are fast friends and best buds who bicker back and forth constantly, trading insults and verbal jabs in the way that only two truly good friends can do.

They're making ends meet in the small east Texas town of LaBorde, working in the rose fields and enjoying a laid back lifestyle. But trouble rears its' ugly head in the form of the beautiful Trudy, Hap's ex-wife. She comes to town still hot-to-trot for Hap and seduces him into a scheme to recover some lost loot, supposedly hidden in a sunken boat in a creek somewhere deep in the woods. Trudy has thrown in with some other post sixties idealists who want the money (from a bank robbery gone bad) to finance their latest social justice cause. Hap and Leonard just want their cut of the loot for themselves. The money is found and the tables are turned as it's revealed that Trudy and her pals need the money to buy guns and ammo so they can go on a crime spree of their own.

But there's yet another reversal of fortune when the gun dealer, Soldier, turns out to be a stone cold psycho who will kill each and every one of them, including Hap and Leonard, in his quest to get all of  the money for himself.

Lansdale builds the tension slowly and surely and then let's everything explode in a wild climax that includes a nail hammered into a woman's hand, multiple gunshots, shovels to heads and more. Along the way he gives us sharp, terrific, hilarious dialogue, well drawn characters, a strong sense of place, a truly scary villain and ruminations and regrets over lost loves and causes.

SAVAGE SEASON was both a critical and commercial success and Lansdale has gone on to turn out several more Hap and Leonard adventures. But this is where it all began in all its' blood drenched glory. A first rate page turner that mixes filthy humor and oh-my-god-I-can't-believe-he-did-that horror, SAVAGE SEASON is highly recommended.


Monday, May 22, 2017

TRIPLE CROSS


TRIPLE CROSS (1966) was one of many films I recall seeing advertised when I was a kid. I identified it as something I wanted to see (WWII! Spies! Beautiful women!) but never did. I had an opportunity to view it yesterday afternoon thanks to TCM and frankly, it wasn't worth waiting fifty years for.

On paper, TRIPLE CROSS has a great pedigree. It was directed by Terence Young, the man who helmed three of the first four James Bond films: DR. NO (1962), FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) and THUNDERBALL (1965). Claudine Auger, a Bond girl from THUNDERBALL, appears in a small part as a member of the French resistance, while Bond villain Gert Frobe (GOLDFINGER, 1964), plays a German colonel. There's even a Bond-style song over the end credits. And then there's Yul Brynner, as another German colonel. With his bald head and glass monocle, all he needs is sizable facial scar to be a dead ringer for Nick Fury's long time nemesis Baron Strucker.

Based on a true story, TRIPLE CROSS is the tale of Eddie Chapman (Christopher Plummer), a professional safe cracker and jewel thief operating in Great Britain at the outset of WWII. When he is captured and imprisoned on the German occupied island of Jersey, Chapman bargains with the German brass for his release by offering to work for them using his safe cracking skills and expertise with explosives. The Germans agree but remain suspicious. Chapman is put through rigorous training before being sent on his first mission. He's supposed to be parachuted into England but instead, lands in Germany as a test of his loyalty. He passes and is finally sent on his actual mission.

Once in England, he goes immediately to the authorities and meets with an unnamed British spy master (Trevor Howard). Chapman gives up all of his information on the Germans to the British and tells them he'll work as a double agent in return for a full pardon and cash. They agree and he's sent back to Germany.

Chapman is promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in the German army thanks to his successful completion of his first mission but things have changed. His main ally, Colonel Baron von Grunen (Brynner) has been sent to the Russian front and several SS officers are beginning to have serious doubts about Chapman's loyalty. He's prepped for another mission back to England but once the allies invade Normandy, the top brass know it's only a matter of time before Germany loses the war.
Chapman returns to England and sends phony info back to the Germans about where their V2 rockets are striking which helps hasten the end of the war. And the movie.

TRIPLE CROSS has all of the ingredients of a first rate spy thriller. Plummer makes a likeable rogue, the villains are colorful and the women (Auger and Romy Schneider as a German countess) are beautiful. But the screenplay by Rene Hardy and William Marchant is weak and episodic. The production seems slightly cheap and cut rate and the third act is rushed, with the movie coming to an abrupt end. There's no real action and very little genuine suspense. Of course, the filmmakers were dealing with real life, not fiction but I can't help but believe that with a little bit more time, effort and money, TRIPLE CROSS could have been an effective wartime thriller. As is, it's a mediocre relic of '60s WWII cinema.

There were far better WWII films produced in that decade and far worse. TRIPLE CROSS falls somewhere in the middle.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

THE BOSTON STRANGLER


In 1968, when I was twelve-years old, I developed an interest in the Boston Strangler serial killer murders of the early 1960s. Don't really know what it was about this case that sparked my interest but I do recall purchasing and reading the Signet paperback edition of Gerold Frank's bestselling book. It was the first true-crime book I can recall reading and, to be honest, the majority of the material was way above my head. I was way too young to fully process what I read and I was certainly too young to be allowed to see the 1968 film of the same name. But I did.

The film was released on October 16th, 1968 with the label "suggested for mature audiences." Had the film's release been delayed by less than a month, it would have most certainly earned an "R" rating under the newly minted Motion Picture Rating System which went into effect on November 1st of that year with the initial ratings composed of "G", "M", "R" and "X". In fact, the DVD edition of the film that I have now bears the "R" rating. Had the film been rated "R" at the time, my buddy Steve Cook and I would not been allowed admission without a parent or adult guardian. But we were on our own and our money was green at the box office of Austin's Paramount Theatre.

I watched the film yesterday for the first time since that long ago 1968 viewing. It's an extremely compelling film, told in a very matter-of-fact, straightforward approach by screenwriter Edward Anhalt (working from Frank's book) and director Richard Fleischer (who also helmed  THE NARROW MARGIN (1952), 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) and SOYLENT GREEN (1973), among many others). Fleischer and cinematographer Richard H. Kline use split/screen and multiple small images all in the same frame to great effect throughout the film. The exteriors were shot on location in Boston and surrounding areas while interiors were filmed at the 20th Century Fox studios.

Tony Curtis, playing against type, stars as Albert DeSalvo, the self-confessed Boston Strangler. It was a brave move for Curtis, who by this point in his career was relegated to romantic comedies, to portray one of the most notorious serial killers in American history.  To make things even more daring, Curtis doesn't even appear onscreen until halfway through the film's 116 minute running time.

John S. Bottomly (Henry Fonda) is the head of the "Strangler Bureau", a combined strike force of various law enforcement agencies tasked with finding the killer. He's aided by Detective Phil DiNatale (George Kennedy) and Sgt. Frank McAfee (Murray Hamilton), among others. The investigation leads them into various blind alleys which uncover the seamy and seedy underbelly of Boston. Caught in the dragnet are peeping toms, obscene phone callers, foot fetishists, bottom pinchers, wife beaters and other kooks and weirdos. Boston's underground gay scene is included, in a scene I'm sure went entirely over my head in 1968.

DeSalvo is ultimately caught and his split personality eventually revealed in a series of interrogations by Bottomly. De Salvo was never indicted or convicted for the murders but was incarcerated on rape charges. He died in prison in 1973.

THE BOSTON STRANGLER is a daring piece of film making, using cutting edge visuals and a bold act of counter casting with Curtis in the lead. It's grim, frank and disturbing but never exploitative nor sensationalistic and is definitely worth seeing.


THE BOTTOMS


Joe R. Lansdale is a born and bred Texas writer (from Nagadoches), who's been around for quite some time. He's written horror, dark fantasy, crime, mystery, westerns, pulp adventures and comic books. I read a couple of his books years ago but he's always been one of those guys that I was aware of and wanted to check out but somehow just never got around to. I saw him at a recent one day book festival and, having just purchased a used copy of THE BOTTOMS, decided that now was as good a time as any to sample some of his more recent work.

Boy, can this guy write. THE BOTTOMS, his 2001 Edgar Award winning novel is one hell of a ride. Comparisons to Harper Lee's immortal masterpiece TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are inevitable but let's call THE BOTTOMS, MOCKINGBIRD noir. Set in a small town in East Texas during the Depression of the 1930s, the story is narrated by a young boy, Harry. His father is both the local barber and constable and he has plenty on his hands when Harry and his little sister Tom (Thomasina), discover the mutilated body of a black prostitute in the woods. The crime is the handiwork of a serial killer who is stalking the bottom lands and it's ultimately up to Harry and Tom to solve the mystery of the killer's identity and bring an end to the killings.

Dark and complex, THE BOTTOMS spins a tale of race relations, hidden secrets, twisted desires, a loss of innocence and unbreakable ties of familial love. Harry and his family, along with other characters in the book, go through plenty of dark patches before the end and the book is definitely not for children or the faint hearted. But Lansdale brings this lost time and place to vivid life, peoples it with well drawn, sympathetic characters and ratchets up the suspense to an almost unbearable level.

I must confessed that I figured out the identity of the killer about halfway through the book but that didn't keep me from racing through the pages, praying desperately that Harry and Tom would survive the ordeal of both the killer and the mysterious, shadowy figure known as The Goat Man who haunts the woods. THE BOTTOMS is a crackerjack piece of storytelling and is one of the best books I've read this year.

I've already started my next Lansdale book, SAVAGE SEASON, the first in his long running Hap and Leonard series.

Highly recommended.

Friday, May 19, 2017

IDIOCRACY


"In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

Writer/Director Mike Judge swings at and hits a lot of low hanging fruit in his 2006 science-fiction comedy IDIOCRACY. The premise is a rift on the old Rip Van Winkle plot device (see also Woody Allen's brilliant SLEEPER (1973)), in which a person from the present day is put into hibernation only to awaken years later into a brave new world.

The sleepers here are Army Corporal Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) and hooker Rita (Maya Rudolph) who are subjects of a military experiment designed to put the two to sleep for only one year. But things, of course, go wrong and the pair are revived 500 years later in an America dominated by dumb asses.

Joe, or Not Sure, as the idiots name him, is, despite his strictly average intelligence, a genius to the stunted mouth-breathers he finds himself surrounded by. Through a series of trial and errors, Joe eventually saves the morons from their own stupidity and becomes President of the United States.

The gags are rapid fire and plentiful. Advertising covers every available surface. Water has been replaced by "Brawndo", a Gatorade-like sports drink that has "electrolytes". The most popular film is ASS, a 90 minute shot of a person's butt. The favorite television program is OH, MY BALLS! a JACKASS like laugh riot in which a hapless stooge's balls are continuously under attack.

To add to the insanity, the president is former wrestling star Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews), who presides over a cabinet of knuckle-walkers. Gee who would have ever thought we'd have a stupid celebrity president and a bunch of idiots (Ben Carson, Rick Perry) as cabinet members?

The special effects range from acceptable to dodgy and there are a couple of scenes filmed in Austin at the convention center and the Seaholm power plant. IDIOCRACY was barely released theatrically by 20th Century Fox, making less than $500K at the box office. It has since gone on to achieve cult status and deservedly so. It is a genuinely funny film that hits a target that we don't have to wait 500 years to see come true. The stupid people are already here and their numbers are legion.

Thanks to our friend Holly Hepp Galvan for the recommendation. Thumbs up.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

FRANKENSTEIN 1970


FRANKENSTEIN 1970 (1958) was, like so many other mid-century science fiction/horror films, a movie I first encountered in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS.A Frankenstein movie starring Boris Karloff and set in the far distant year of 1970 sounded way cool. I never got around to seeing it when I was a kid but I watched it the other day and was profoundly disappointed.

For starters, the title is somewhat misleading because there's nothing in the film that even remotely tries to depict the then 12-years into the future world of 1970. It's a marketing gimmick, pure and simple. And although Karloff gives it his best, he's hampered by a sub par script by Richard H. Landau and George Worthington Yates (from a story by Aubrey Schenck and Charles A. Moses) and an extraordinarily weak cast of supporting players whose acting abilities range from passable to non-existent.

The story concerns a television film crew and cast who are shooting a "documentary" about the Frankenstein family and its' horrific legacy in Castle Frankenstein itself. Baron Victor Von Frankenstein (Karloff), is their gracious host but he's up to something in his hidden, underground laboratory. The scar-faced and limping Baron appears to have suffered at the hands of the Nazis during World War II and he seeks to make a living creature with his own pre-war perfect features. This costs money of course (he desperately needs an atomic reactor) and he's willing to host the film crew in exchange for a fee. By the way, just where does one go to purchase an off-the-shelf atomic reactor?

Of course, things go wrong as various members of the Baron's staff and the film crew stumble across a giant, swathed-in bandages body in the basement and meet their untimely ends. It ends with the "monster" killing the Baron (didn't see that coming!) and the face of the monster revealed as Karloff''s own.

Shot in CinemaScope by Carl E. Guthrie, FRANKENSTEIN 1970 is nonetheless visually unimaginative with director Howard W. Koch either afraid of or unwilling to use edits. He lets long scenes play out in single takes that seem to go on and on, the camera tracking across a borrowed set while actors spout their lines. It's all stagy and static. There's little to no atmosphere or suspense save in the "gotcha" opening scene where a woman is pursued through the nighttime forest by a monstrous beast.

Karloff is the only reason to watch this turkey, a lackluster piece of genre clap trap that trades heavily on the names of both Karloff and Frankenstein to garner an audience.  It's strictly low-budget, barely competent junk. Thumbs down.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

THE CASE OF THE BLACK LOTUS


HIGH ADVENTURE #47 reprints another classic issue of the vintage pulp magazine THE MYSTERIOUS WU FANG. This time, the issue is from February, 1936. The story, THE CASE OF THE BLACK LOTUS is by veteran pulp wordsmith Robert J. Hogan and the vivid cover painting is by Jerome Rozen.

In this page-turner of a thriller, the action takes place entirely in New York City and the twisted streets, alleys and underground passageways of Chinatown. Wu Fang is up to his old tricks again, killing prominent citizens left and right and leaving their poisoned corpses clutching a rare and exotic Black Lotus flower. It's up to the intrepid trio of G-Man Val Kildare, archeologist Rod Carson and newspaper reporter Jerry Hazard to solve the riddle and stop the murders before they escalate to an even larger scale of death and destruction.

The action, as usual is fast and furious with the climax taking place in Wu Fang's torture chamber where Hazard faces certain death when he is placed upon the stretching rack. But help is on the way and things come to an abrupt end with Wu Fang escaping to menace the world again on another day.

Part of the problem with building a pulp character series around a master villain is that he (or she), can't completely succeed in their wild schemes in each issue. If they did, they'd be rulers of the world. Instead, they must enjoy limited success in their plans before being foiled by the heroes which allows them return in the next issue for more murder, madness and mayhem. In BLACK LOTUS, Wu Fang doesn't even appear "on camera" until the final couple of chapters of the story, even though his presence is felt throughout the yarn. Kildare, Carson and Hazard are cardboard, one dimensional characters, interchangeable to a large degree and identified only by their respective job titles: government agent, archaeologist and newspaperman.  The abrupt ending may have been a result of author Hogan being on a strict deadline and word count. It's like he hit a certain number of pages and time's up! Please step away from the typewriter.

A rewrite could have cleaned up some dangling plot threads and made things hang together a bit better but, as I've said before, a polished manuscript would rob such stories as THE CASE OF THE BLACK LOTUS of their vitality and headlong pace. You don't read something like this looking for shine, spit and polish. You read it to escape, to enter a world threatened by an evil genius where death and danger lie in wait around every corner.

Mission accomplished.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

THE DEATH GIVER


There were a total of 30 SHADOW pulp novels reprinted in paperback in the late '60s/early '70s. Following upon the success that Bantam books was enjoying with their ambitious reprints of the entire DOC SAVAGE series, The Shadow found a home at Bantam also at first, before moving to Pyramid which then morphed into Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, or Jove for short.

I have now read all 29 of those SHADOW paperbacks. Wait, weren't there 30? Yes but the first Shadow novel, THE LIVING SHADOW, was published by both Bantam and Pyramid. I have the Bantam edition and read that one first and didn't need to read it again when it was reissued later. But reading 29 SHADOW novels is just a drop in the bucket when you consider that there were a total of 325 Shadow adventures published. Needless to say, I have a very long way to go before I'm finished with The Shadow.

The book pictured above, THE DEATH GIVER, was the 30th Shadow thriller, first published in May 1933. It was the last reprint published by Jove in April 1978. The cover by Jim Steranko is, of course, magnificent but suffice it say, no scene even remotely like this appears in the story. As much as I love Steranko's work and his interpretation of this classic pulp hero, I think he kinda missed the boat on this one.

That's because there was stuff in THE DEATH GIVER that would have made a much more powerful cover, albeit, without the fetching redhead in the pink slip. Thade, the Death Giver, the title character, is a bonafide super villain. He's a disgraced weapons maker who, when the U.S. military declines to buy his wares, turns his devices upon the people of New York City in a reign of terror and death. Thade (real name Julius Olney), is a wizened little man who dresses in green robes emblazoned with a black skull and crossbones. He has a secret hideout somewhere in Manhattan, where he's guarded by two immense Nubian servants. From here he plots his schemes of murder and extortion.

Thade starts on a small scale, targeting random victims to disguise his real objectives, wealthy businessmen and their money. After several seemingly unrelated deaths in the first part of the book, crimes which baffle the police but not The Shadow, Thade and his thralls up the ante by unleashing a rain of poison gas on a ticker tape parade in lower Manhattan. The attack is thwarted by The Shadow which leads to a final showdown in Thade's den of evil.

THE DEATH GIVER is a first rate pulp thriller featuring a genuine costumed super villain with a secret identity, a hideout, henchmen, deadly devices and insane schemes of mass destruction. I would have loved to see Steranko's rendering of this madman on the cover of this book but alas, we'll have to make do with what we have which is still first rate.

Highly recommended for pulp fans and for those who are wondering what all of the fuss over these old stories is about. This one's a winner.


Friday, April 28, 2017

SHADOWS AND FOG


Once upon a time, I made it a point to go to the theater every year to see the latest Woody Allen film. Allen, love him or hate him, is one of the most prolific American filmmakers of all time. He's still cranking out one feature film a year and he's been doing so since the early 1970s. Some have been brilliant, some middling, others, meh. But he's in there pitching each and every year. Gotta give the guy credit for the sheer longevity of his career.

But somewhere along the way I stopped going to the theaters to see the latest Allen film. And it's not because I don't like Woody. He's one of my all time favorite directors. It's just that I quit going to see movies at the theater, period. So, there are several of his more recent films that I have yet to see.

I did, however, go to the theater back in 1991 to see SHADOWS AND FOG. I didn't remember much about it except that it was in black and white and somewhat disappointing. I watched it again the other day for the first time in 26 years and my initial impression was re-confirmed. It's a half-baked mess of a movie, bursting with terrific art direction, sets, costumes and drop-dead gorgeous cinematography by Carlo Di Palma. It has the usual terrific cast of stellar actors and actresses, some in virtually cameo appearances. It looks great, it just doesn't hold together. SHADOWS AND FOG is a film of so many different influences and homages that nothing ever really gels.

Allen stars as Kleinman, a nebbish who gets swept up into a vigilante committee out to find and stop a mysterious strangler that has been terrorizing the city. Kleinman has no idea what part he's supposed to play in all of this and wants no part of whatever is going on but he's caught up in the fever of mob justice. Then there's Irmy (Mia Farrow), a sword swallower at the traveling circus.She catches her clown husband, Paul (John Malkovich), with another woman (Madonna), which leads her to leave the circus and find refuge in a whore house populated by Kathy Bates, Lily Tomlin and Jodie Foster. Kleinman and Irmy's paths eventually cross and they try to help each other out but there's that niggling problem of the strangler and various vigilante mobs that are still roaming the night streets. The situation is resolved by the intervention of circus magician Armstead (Kenneth Mars), who acts as a deus ex machina.

SHADOWS AND FOG is equal parts Franz Kafka, Fritz Lang's M (1931), classic Universal horror films (Donald Pleasence as a doctor would be right at home in a Frankenstein movie), swipes from the German Expressionism cinema of G.W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau and music (and more) from the works of Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht. In short, it's a mess of a film that tries to walk a balance between humor and horror, belly laughs and existential dread. While there are several very funny scenes in the film the overall effect is off-putting and frustrating.

Allen's reliance on magic, real magic, not stage magic, echoes material in some of his other films such as A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY (1982), THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), NEW YORK STORIES (1989), ALICE (1990) and SCOOP (2006) all of which are better films than SHADOWS. Still, I give Allen credit for trying something different. SHADOWS AND FOG will go down as his German Expressionism film, just as INTERIORS (1978) was his Bergman film and STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) was his Fellini movie.

A digression: I wish more contemporary filmmakers would make films in black and white. I love the look and feel of a classic black and white horror film and what would film noir be without b&w? Two of my dream projects would be to see a black and white BATMAN feature film set in the 1940s. Ditto a vintage SHADOW adventure set in the 1930s. The medium could really capture the spirit and vibe of these characters in the eras in which they originally flourished. It will never happen but a guy can dream can't he?

SHADOWS AND FOG is recommended only for those who are already Woody Allen fans. It would be really bothersome to anyone who is neutral or slightly negative about his work.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

THE CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB


Okay, let's get this out of the way right at the top. This is one deplorably racist pulp magazine. THE MYSTERIOUS WU FANG, published by Popular Publications in 1935, lasted only seven issues. Dr. Wu Fang was a stereotypical "Yellow Peril" master villain, in the tradition of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu. The series reflects the racist attitudes held by many Americans towards anyone of Asian descent in the years prior to World War II. But you have to put that into context, and recognize that stuff like this is a product of its' time. It's politically incorrect now, but it wasn't then, at least, not to the majority of readers who plunked down a dime and got swept up into a whirlwind of pulp adventure.

THE CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB was published in December 1935. It was written by veteran pulp scribe Robert J. Hogan who was also turning out material for such pulps as THE SECRET SIX, G-8 AND HIS BATTLE ACES , DARE-DEVIL ACES and DIME WESTERN MAGAZINE, among others. A series character pulp novel required an average of 80,000 words per month so you can see that Hogan was one busy man.

SUICIDE TOMB finds Dr. Wu Fang in pursuit of a ancient plague, long buried in a lost tomb in the American southwest. The tomb contains hundreds of purple tinged skeletons, all of which have their skulls smashed and a horde of white bats. Wu Fang hopes to unleash the plague into the modern world, wreaking widespread death and destruction and offering an antidote to the highest bidder.

Wu Fang is opposed by a trio of stalwart heroes. Archaeologist Rod Carson, newspaper reporter Jerry Hazard and federal agent Val Kildare. They in turn are aided by Cappy, a scrappy newsboy, and two exotic beauties Mohra and Tanya. The action is fast and furious, starting in New York City's Chinatown and ending in the Arizona desert. Along the way, Wu Fang unleashes an army of weird menaces to forestall the heroes including hybrid beasts that are part lizard, part rat and a gorilla. Wait, a gorilla? Yes, a gorilla who turns out to be an Aryan thug in a gorilla costume. You can't make this stuff up.

The version of CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB that I read is a nifty replica edition that includes black and white interior illos, two columns of text layout, a bonus short story, SHANGHAI MURDER by Steve Fisher and the original cover art by the great Jerome Rozen. It's all lovingly packaged by John Gunnison and his superlative Adventure House publishing company. This is actually issue number 42 of the ongoing HIGH ADVENTURE series of pulp reprints, with each issue dedicated to a complete reprint of a vintage pulp magazine.

The story is a pell mell affair with plot holes galore but the pace is furious and you can't stop reading. I can't help but think that if Hogan was paid more money and had more time to re-work his manuscripts, he could have given this the polish and shine that a good re-write could have provided. Hogan was up against multiple deadlines and probably turned this one in as a first draft with few if any edits and corrections.

But to wish for something more sophisticated would be to diminish what it is that makes vintage pulp fiction so much fun to read. You don't read one of these books looking for perfection. You read it looking for adventure, action, danger and thrills galore. On that score, THE CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB delivers the goods in spades.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

ABOUT FACE


ABOUT FACE (1947) was the first Johnny Liddell mystery novel by Frank Kane. Liddell was a tough talking private detective who worked for the Acme Detective Agency in New York City. He later left the agency and operated independently. He starred in a series of books that ran through the 1950s. I was completely unaware of this character and author until the other day when I stumbled across this book while web surfing. It looked like something I'd enjoy so I took a chance on it.

I'm glad I did. While ABOUT FACE is far from a masterpiece, it is nevertheless a very enjoyable, well crafted slice of hard boiled detective fiction. Liddell is sent to Hollywood to work for movie producer Julian Goodman. Goodman's biggest box office draw has disappeared and Liddell is tasked with finding the missing matinee idol. Before you know it, the star is found dead in an automobile accident. End of case, right? Wrong. The body count has only started as soon Goodman and several others are murdered. Liddell, along with coroner Doc Morrissey,  sympathetic police detective Devlin and spunky girl reporter Toni Belden, investigate a twisted puzzle of a case that ultimately involves grave robbing, gun battles, mobsters and a femme fatale. During the course of the story, Liddell consumes more booze than Nick and Nora Charles combined and is almost always smoking either a cigarette or a cigar. I don't know if Frank Kane ever wrote the last case of Johnny Liddell but it's a safe bet to assume that if a bullet didn't kill him, the smoking and drinking did.

ABOUT FACE is a nice introduction to the Johnny Liddell series and I will definitely be seeking out more of his adventures. Thumbs up.



Saturday, April 22, 2017

BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL


On paper, BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL (1965) has a terrific pedigree. Screenwriter (and native Texan ) Horton Foote and director Robert Mulligan had previously collaborated on the American classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). For BABY,  Foote adapted his play The Traveling Lady and with stars Steve McQueen and Lee Remick (both box office draws at the time), I'm sure the top brass at Columbia Pictures were hoping that lightning would strike twice with all of these various talents combining into some kind of alchemical magic to make BABY as successful as TKAM .

But TKAM had great source material in the form of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel and while Foote's play may work well on the stage, when it's opened up and brought to the big screen, the result is a rather lackluster drama that never quite gels.  As much as I like Steve McQueen (he's one of my all time favorite actors), he's never convincing here in the role of Henry Thomas, a wanna-be rockabilly singer and guitar player in the small town of Columbus, Texas, who has recently been paroled from prison. Henry is a troubled young man with a hair-trigger, violent temper and he's one outburst away from becoming a guest of the state of Texas again.  He suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his adoptive mother, Kate Dawson (Georgia Simmons), events which have left him with a multitude of scars. But he's getting by and dreaming of making it big.

All of that changes when his wife, Georgette (Remick) and young daughter Margaret Rose (Kimberly Block), arrive in town by bus from east Texas. Turns out no one in Columbus knew that Henry was a husband and a father and young Margaret Rose, has never seen her father. The newly  reunited family set up a makeshift homestead and try to make a go of things. Georgette gets a job in a drive-in restaurant while Henry continues to play and sing. Things come to a head when Kate dies and leaves nothing to Henry, which causes him to go on a destructive rampage. Henry is arrested and sent back to prison leaving Georgette and Margaret Rose on their own again. They leave town with sympathetic Deputy Sheriff Slim (Don Murray) at the end of the film.

McQueen is good in every scene in which he's not playing the guitar or singing. Those scenes are obviously dubbed and shot and edited to disguise the fact that he's not really playing. Remick (who I always found incredibly sexy), is good but neither actor has a convincing Texas accent. The on-location cinematography by Ernest Laszlo is very good and it's fun to see the real small town Texas of fifty years ago.

BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL is an earnest film that's well made and acted but it just never rises to the level of a memorable, powerhouse drama. Worth seeing once if you're a fan of any of the people involved in the production.



Saturday, April 15, 2017

ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE


Director Raoul Walsh's ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE (1951), is a gritty, two-fisted black and white Warner Brothers Western which I watched for the first time last night (thanks to TCM!).

 Kirk Douglas stars as federal marshal Len Merrick, who interrupts a hanging party at the beginning of the film. Pop Keith (Walter Brennan), stands accused of stealing cattle and killing the son of powerful rancher Ned Roden (Morris Ankrum). But Merrick will not let Pop be the victim of frontier justice. He and his deputies Lou Gray (Ray Teal) and Billy Shear (John Agar), are determined to take Pop to the nearest town to stand trial.

Along the way, they're joined by Pop's daughter Ann (Virginia Mayo) and the dead man's brother Dan (James Anderson). The small band braves the trackless wastes of the desert while being pursued by Roden's posse. Lives are lost and head games are played against Merrick in various attempts to free Pop before reaching Santa Loma. Once there, a trial is held and Pop is found guilty and sentenced to hang. But a last minute discovery changes everything, leading to a final shootout.

ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE mixes robust action with more psychological material to produce an extremely satisfying film. Douglas, all deep dimpled chin and gritted, flashing white teeth, is solid in the lead and the supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Ray Teal appeared in dozens of films before playing Sheriff Roy Coffee on television's BONANZA. You've got to love any movie that stars future sf genre icons John Agar and Morris Ankrum and there's a brief appearance by Kenneth McDonald, who was a bad guy in various Three Stooges shorts. The screenplay by Walter Doniger and Lewis Meltzer fits into the cycle of more adult, psychological westerns that emerged in the 1950s while the cinematography by Sidney Hickox is sharp, using location landscapes to great advantage.

While not a classic, ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE is nonetheless a durable, well made and very entertaining film that's well worth seeing. Recommended.


Friday, April 14, 2017

1969


For the record, I was thirteen years old in 1969, the subject of Rob Kirkpatrick's 2011 book. The sub-title of Kirkpatrick's book declares that it was "the year everything changed." I would argue that every year is a year in which things change, some recording more seismic changes than others. But I must agree that the year in which man walked on the moon for the first time is definitely a game changer.

The story of the Apollo 11 mission is only part of the colorful tapestry of events that Kirkpatrick recalls here. In chronological order he covers a variety of topics, most of which are printed on the book's cover. Every one of these people, places and things get a mention, some more detailed than others and every chapter contains the seeds for a multitude of other books about the topics covered therein. It's breezy and readable and the " I remember that" and "I don't remember that" moments were equally divided for me.

The beginning of 1969 found me halfway through the seventh grade and the end of the year put me at the midpoint of eighth grade. While I didn't read the newspaper every day or watch the nightly news every evening, I couldn't help but be aware of much of what Kirkpatrick covers. Besides the Apollo 11 moon landing, I vividly recall Super Bowl III in which the New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts, the Manson murders, Woodstock (wasn't there of course but I saw the film and had the double LP soundtrack album), and much of the other music of that year as well as the important films he discusses. Again, I didn't see or hear all of this material first hand (some of the films were off limits due to their "R" and, in some cases, "X", ratings) but I had a pretty good general knowledge about these things. Two aspects of pop culture that Kirkpatrick doesn't cover are television in general and comic books. I know, I know, he couldn't cover everything and this is a work of popular history for a general audience. But one of the things I remember most about 1969 did involve comic books.

That was the year the cover price went from 12 cents to 15 cents. When comics cost 12 cents (with the occasional exception of those wonderful 80 page giants for 25 cents, a bargain that I always went for because, hey, those babies were the comic book equivalents of an all day sucker with one of those behemoths taking the better part of a day to read and savor), I could get 8 comics for a dollar. When they went to 15 cents, I could only buy 6 comics for one dollar. This was my first lesson in inflation and economics. I had to get the most of the few dollars I had to spend on comics every month which meant I had to make some critical choices about what I bought. I had to stick with characters and/or artists and writers that I really liked until I had enough cash flow from summer jobs to expand my buying horizons. Come to think of it, that's pretty much the way I buy comics now, just characters, writers and artists I like and not the entire output of every comic book company in business today.

1969 is a good time capsule of an important year in American history. If you were around back then, there are memories aplenty to be found here. If you weren't around back then, read it and get a glimpse of what all of the shouting was about.

Recommended.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

BRAINQUAKE


Sporting a dynamic painting by the late Glen Orbik and a cover font that looks like it was ripped from the cover of a 1960s issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS, Samuel Fuller's BRAINQUAKE (Hard Case Crime, 2014), is a swift-kick-in-the-teeth, fist-to-the-gut, full-tilt-boogie assault of adrenaline fueled pulp fiction. Oh, yeah, you read it right. It's written by that Samuel Fuller.

Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) was an idiosyncratic film writer and director that left his unique, personal stamp on the post war American cinema, especially during the 1950s. Fuller's films pulled no punches in their depictions of crime, war, the American west and modern madness. Fuller, a WWII combat veteran, saw enough horrors in war to last a lifetime. His war experiences, combined with his pre-war employment as a newspaper reporter, gave Fuller a front row seat to the evil that men do. When Fuller began writing screenplays and then, eventually directing low budget genre films, Fuller drew on his own experiences for material, which gave his films an unmistakable jolt of reality and truth.

His filmography includes such classics as PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953), THE NAKED KISS (1964), SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) and THE BIG RED ONE (1980). Fuller, always and ever his own man, fell out of favor during the 1960s but his body of work, filled with virtuoso visuals and uncompromising storytelling, inspired a generation of filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. To watch a Fuller film is to be totally immersed in his overpowering world view of darkness, insanity and redemption. While not every film with his name on it is a classic, every film he made is well worth your time to seek out and watch. You won't be disappointed.

In addition to screenplays, Fuller wrote novels including BURN, BABY, BURN (1936), TEST TUBE BABY (1936) and THE DARK PAGE (1944).  He wrote BRAINQUAKE in the early 1990s, but it was only published in France and Japan at the time. Hard Case Crime (bless 'em), brought this long lost last novel to mass market publication in 2014 and while it's not quite a masterpiece, it is nonetheless an important and vital work by a one-of-a-kind American artist of the 20th century.

BRAINQUAKE is the story of one Paul Pope, a bagman for a major New York City crime organization. Pope's job, along with dozens of other anonymous men, is to deliver bags of money throughout the city. Some of the money is to be used in payoffs and bribes, some is to be laundered. The bagmen live by a strict code of honor, a code which is punishable by death if broken. Guess what Paul does?

But he has good reason because Paul, you see, was a mute as a young man and while he can speak, he rarely does so. He lives a solitary life with few friends and only books and poetry to keep him company. He drives a cab as a front for his job as a bagman and he does his job well. He also suffers from "brainquakes", severe migraine like episodes in which Paul hears the music of a flute and sees the world in a shade of vivid pink. He also sees things that aren't there during these mental seizures. But Paul still manages to get by until he meets a lovely young mother in Central Park.

Paul does what he shouldn't do, fall in love with Michelle, a mob widow with an infant son. When she shoots and kills a low level mobster, she and the baby are forced to go on the run. Paul helps them flee using a bag full of millions of dollars to grease the skids for their escape.

The two travel to France but they are trailed by another low level mobster, a determined New York City homicide detective and a professional killer named "Father Flanagan", a psycho who dresses like a priest and kills his victims by crucifixion (that's right, a hammer and three very large nails). Everything comes to a fevered third act in Paris, culminating in a furious gun battle aboard a house barge on the Seine.

The characters in BRAINQUAKE are numerous, colorful and well drawn but Paul is the real focus of attention here and Fuller does a good job of depicting a decent but deeply broken man struggling to find some modicum of peace and happiness in an insane world of crime, corruption and betrayal. The plot moves at a good clip but relies on some outlandish coincidences a couple of times in order to advance the narrative. Nonetheless, BRAINQUAKE is a first rate page turner by a world class storyteller.

Highly recommended.