Saturday, June 17, 2017


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.