Friday, October 22, 2010
Incubus, written and directed by Leslie Stevens, starring William Shatner (1965): Original Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens decided to do a horror movie after the cancellation of that seminal anthology show, with cinematographer Conrad Hall and composer Dominic Frontiere coming along with him. The result was Incubus, starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner and no one else I've ever heard of. A small town in a vaguely unreal setting is menaced by succubi serving the Devil. They send bad men to their damnation. But can one of them corrupt saintly war hero Shatner?
Oh, and everyone speaks Esperanto, the constructed language that was meant to help bring about world peace through everyone speaking a global language. There are sub-titles. Still. Esperanto? Leslie Stevens had balls! Esperanto's synthesis from a number of other 'real' languages makes it either eerily off-kilter or eerily goofy, depending on your POV.
The movie, a short one (78 minutes), nonetheless drags in the middle: it might actually have made a pretty interesting 50 minute episode of The Outer Limits, but feels padded at its running time. Either because there wasn't money for stunt men or because Stevens was aiming for an otherworldly feel, the concluding fight scenes between Shatner and the Incubus are languid and unconvincing. Nonetheless, Incubus is worth at least 45 minutes of your time -- some scenes work quite well at evoking an other-worldly feel, and Esperanto does sort of work as an unsettling mechanism, as familiar words jostle with unfamiliar ones. Recommended.
The 5th Witch by Graham Masterson: Fast-paced action-horror novel about criminals using witchcraft to seize control of Los Angeles. The gangs have four witches from different magical backgrounds, including one who's pushing 400 years old and was supposed to have been burned at the stake centuries earlier. The police have one detective who realizes what's really going on and his friend, yet another practicing witch. Who will win and what will be left of them?
There are a lot of nice moments in this breezy, fast read. Most of them involve various forms of witchcraft and superstition which, in the world of the novel, are really real. Things wrap up a bit too quickly for my liking, but I was certainly never bored. Recommended.
Live Girls by Ray Garton (1987): The boredom caused me by about 95% of all vampire novels was lifted by this early novel from the prolific Garton. If nothing else, Live Girls demonstrates that Ramsey Campbell has good taste in the novels he blurbs. (Relatively) traditional vampires stalk the New York sex trade, both in a seedy nude show (the eponymous Live Girls) and an upscale club catering to people who want to be bitten and the vampires who bite them.
Nebbishy protagonist Davey Owens' lack of spine drives a lot of the action (or the inaction and bad decisions that cause bad things to happen to a number of good people). Garton manages to tuck a bildungsroman for Davey in among the other elements of the novel, and it's a pretty good one. Live Girls also manages the difficult feat of combining the occasionally erotic nature of vampires with their murderous, abject reality. Unlike Ann Rice's bloodsuckers, these vampires are not wish-fulfillment figures, though at times they briefly appear to be. After all, who doesn't want to live forever? Highly recommended.
Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell (2008): Along with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, writer/artist Steve Ditko pretty much created the Marvel Universe of super-heroes in the 1960's. Ditko co-created (with Lee) Spider-man and Dr. Strange, and had influential runs on the Hulk and Iron Man. Like Kirby, Ditko was pretty much frozen out of any level of decent profit-sharing as Marvel rose to become the most popular US comics firm, leading Ditko to leave the company in the late 1960's. He would return in the late 1970's to do fairly basic work-for-hire pencilling on titles that included Rom: Space Knight, but he'd keep his creativity to himself, with his more personal work coming out from an almost bewildering array of small publishers and fanzines.
Ditko's two, somewhat paradoxical, strengths as an artist were the ability to convey normality and the normative (the original Peter Parker is scrawny, a convincing high-school nerd; Ditko populated all his work with ordinary-looking people striving to be extraordinary), and an unprecedented ability to depict the fantastic (the worlds and dimensions of Dr. Strange are truly alien and magical looking). Ditko's five years on Spider-man as sole artist (except for a couple of covers) yielded pretty much the entire mythology of Spider-man, a supporting cast still used today, and most of Spider-man's major villains. Lee's bombastic dialogue and captions certainly helped shape the Spider-universe, but it was Ditko who gave it its odd, realistic yet fanciful soul.
Bell's main task in this biography seems to be to help the reader understand how Ditko's increasing fascination with the philosophy and writings of Ayn Rand helped shape a career that, weirdly un-Rand-like, moved farther and farther away from money-making as the decades went by. Like many of Rand's characters, Ditko would withhold his 'true' creations from the publishers who would have unjustly profited from them, instead trying to release them in ways that would avoid editorial interference and selling out to a large company.
However, Ditko's idiosyncrasies made him progressively more difficult to work with, and his writing progressively more impenetrable: by the 1980's, Ditko's 'real' work was almost impossible to purchase even when it managed to be published, and his disagreements with those trying to publish him generally ended most projects after only a handful of issues, and sometimes less.
Unlike Kirby, Ditko never had a family to support. His decisions could be made in a near-vacuum of responsibility to others, so he pursued his own odd path. Many of his creations for Charlton Comics and DC have proved fairly successful in the long term (Captain Atom, a revamped Blue Beetle, The Question, Hawk and Dove) while others yielded short but intriguing Ditko runs that are now being collected into hardcover editions for the first time (the weird Creeper and the even-weirder Shade, The Changing Man). Bell's book does a fine (and abundantly illustrated) job of explaining Ditko's odd career and enduring genius. Highly recommended.