Monday, April 30, 2012

Violent Knight

Get Carter: written and directed by Mike Hodges, based on the novel Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis; starring Michael Caine (Jack Carter), Britt Ekland (Anna) and Ian Hendry (Eric) (1971): Brutal, great film about a ruthless, amoral English gangster (Caine) who returns to his decaying wasteland home city of Newcastle to investigate and avenge his estranged brother's death.

Caine plays Jack Carter as an almost pure sociopath -- even his 'love' is really just a reason for violence, though he becomes vaguely sympathetic when contrasted to the mobsters he ends up fighting (mobsters just like the ones he works for, of course). It's a mostly soulless, shark-eyed performance, and one of Caine's very finest. This isn't the performance of an actor (or the film of a director) looking to charm the audience with rogue-ish gangsters and their wacky ways.

I'd call this movie kitchen-sink noir -- it's got the grimy, disintegrating backdrop and characters of the British kitchen-sink dramas of the 1960's and the murky, rotten moral landscape of all good noir. In some ways, the plot resembles the 1940's noir classic, Robert Mitchum vehicle Out of the Past. But the film world of Get Carter can show what a 1940's film noir can only imply.

There's no evident soul-searching on Carter's part as he uncovers the personal effects of the violent, impersonal world he's worked within for so long -- just ever-increasing violence that never provides the vicarious zing that a lot of violent revenge dramas do. There are simply men and women doing terrible things to terrible people and innocent people alike.

The sudden bursts of violence still have the power to chill 40 years after the picture's release -- Hollywood may have remade the movie in the oughts with Sylvester Stallone (!) in the Michael Caine role, but the movie's grim, anti-cathartic world isn't something a major studio would ever try to portray today. It would be too dark and too honest about violence. It would cut into the box office. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fear in the 1980's

Fears: edited by Charles L. Grant (1983) containing:
Surrogate by Janet Fox; Coasting by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; Spring-Fingered Jack by Susan Casper; Flash Point by Gardner Dozois; A Cold Day in the Mesozoic by Jack Dann; The Train by William F. Nolan; The Dripping by David Morrell; The Ragman by Leslie Alan Horvitz; Deathtracks by Dennis Etchison; Father Dear by Al Sarrantonio; As Old as Sin by Peter D. Pautz; Fish Night by Joe R. Lansdale; Remembering Melody by George R. R. Martin; The Pond by Pat Cadigan; The Beasts That Perish by Reginald Bretnor; Cassie, Waiting by Julie Stevens; and High Tide by Leanne Frahm.

Dandy anthology comprising both reprints and originals from the heyday of anthologized horror, and the heyday of horror great Charles L. Grant. There's something very Bradburyesque about many of these stories. Early, nastier Bradbury, that is, before the whimsy curdled, back when nostalgia worked alongside horror and the fantastic to conjure up that distinctive Bradbury glow that could suddenly be shot through with terror. Certainly the stories by Joe Lansdale, Jack Dann, Al Sarrantonio, and Pat Cadigan operate within the parameters of that Bradbury without slavishly imitating him stylistically or even thematically.

The anthology also gives us a mournful horror dandy from George R.R. Martin when he was a science fiction and horror writer, and not a best-selling epic fantasist. Reginald Bretnor's entry seems like it would make a dandy pitch for a TV show. Susan Casper gives us a prescient horror story about video games (prescient enough to anticipate a subplot on this season's Dexter, pretty good for 1983); Janet Fox leads with a prescient shocker about surrogate parenting. Dennis Etchison is represented here with one of his 1980's classics, and the anthology ends with a nice, Wyndhamesque bio-disaster piece by Leanne Frahm, an Australian writer I'm unfamiliar with. Recommended.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Conan the Destroyed

Conan the Barbarian: written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood, based on the character created by Robert E. Howard; directed by Marcus Nispel; starring Jason Momoa (Conan), Stephen Lang (Khalar Zym), Ron Perlman (Conan's father), Rachel Nichols (Tamara) and Rose McGowan (Marique) (2011): Oh, what an awful, awful movie. The sheer ineptitude of this movie caused me to think fondly of Conan the Destroyer, which really wasn't that good of a movie but which, compared to this movie, was Citizen Kane.

Don't ask me what that makes Citizen Kane.

The makers of this movie steadfastly ignore pretty much everything from Robert E. Howard's 1930's pulp creation and the 20-odd stories and one novel he appeared in. What they substitute is an awful, derivative revenge plot lifted instead from the original Conan movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As evil despot Khalar Zym, Stephen Lang looks and acts hopelessly out of his depth, while Rose MacGowan, as his evil sorceress daughter Marique, jarringly plays everything with about as flat and contemporary an accent as one can imagine. We know she's evil, though, because she voluntarily paints a unibrow on herself. Quel horreur!!!

As Conan, Jason Momoa doesn't have much to do other than run around, ride around, and strike muscleman poses in lieu of demonstrating any actual sword-fighting skills. Not that one would be able to notice any such skills, as the editing jumps around a lot, I'd assume to hide the fact that no one involved with this movie knows how to stage a fight scene, much less any other type of scene. The movie substitutes a wearying series of chases and fights for character development, explanation, exposition, and world-building.

In this Conan's world, a person can pretty much get anywhere on horseback in less than a day. Apparently, the entire Hyborian realm is roughly the size of Oxford County. Written and directed by idiots, Conan the Barbarian is a wretched, stupid, embarrassing botch. Nothing makes much sense, and you're not going to care anyway. Not recommended.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Lucifer Volume 5: Inferno: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross, Dean Ormiston and others (2002): After his fight with the malign, supernatural card deck (!) known as the Basanos, Lucifer is weakened, many of his powers separated from him and stored in two lost feathers from his wings (double !). Challengers with vengeance on their minds are after him. He really needs to get back to the administration of the universe he created.

Oh, and Lucifer owes a debt to part-angel Elaine Belloc, a debt that he must repay by rescuing her stolen soul from the great areas of uncreated space known as the Mansions of the Silence. And there are, of course, other loose ends that involve the archangel Michael, the fallen cherub Gaudium, and the fate of the demon who killed Elaine.

Add in supernatural avenger Solomon (son of David), Loki, Yahweh, Mazikeen of the Lilim, and a standalone tale featuring a cancer-stricken convenience store owner and the surprisingly decent demon who frequents his store and you've got a collection. Recommended if one has read the books before this volume.

Edge of Night

Cutting Edge: edited by Dennis Etchison (1986) containing the following stories:

Blue Rose by Peter Straub; The Monster by Joe Haldeman; Lacunae by Karl Edward Wagner; "Pale, Trembling Youth" by W. H. Pugmire and Jessica Amanda Salmonson; Muzak for Torso Murders by Marc Laidlaw; Goodbye, Dark Love by Roberta Lannes; Out There by Charles L. Grant; Little Cruelties by Steve Rasnic Tem; The Man With the Hoe by George Clayton Johnson; They're Coming for You by Les Daniels; Vampire by Richard Christian Matheson; Lapses by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; The Final Stone by William F. Nolan; Irrelativity by Nicholas Royle; The Hands by Ramsey Campbell; The Bell by Ray Russell; Lost Souls by Clive Barker; Reaper by Robert Bloch; The Transfer by Edward Bryant; and Pain by Whitley Strieber.

Solid original horror anthology from Etchison, a fine and unjustly neglected horror writer in his own right. There's violence, and sexual violence, here, but most of it seems justified by the context of the stories (though "Goodbye, Dark Love" seems a wee bit problematic). The writers basically comprise a who's who list of 1980's horror writers, along with some genre long-timers (Nolan, Johnson, and Bloch). Etchison's revealing introduction grants an insight into his career, and into his thoughts on the state of horror and other genres as of 1986. Recommended.

Hebrew for 'Lord'

Ba'al by Robert R. McCammon (1978): McCammon's first novel and first published novel is a humdinger with a lot of flaws and a lot of raw energy and ambition. The influences -- conscious or otherwise -- initially seem to be The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, and The Omen. By the end, though, McCammon has staked out his own odd territory with a climax on the Arctic ice during the long night of the North Pole.

A terrible baby is born sometime in the late 1950's, at least partially the product of a supernatural rape. It's Ba'al, the human-sacrifice-loving god of the Canaanites, a Christian demon known as Beelzebub. Shenanigans ensue. People die. The kid creeps everyone out. By the time he's an adult, apocalyptic cults will form around him. More people will die. And Ba'al's long grudge against the Jews and their god will drive his (or its) actions.

Of course, a ragtag group of heroes will form to face this foe, the most interesting an aging theology professor who initially gets pulled into events while on a search for a colleague gone missing while investigating the rise of the Ba'al cult in Kuwait. The globe-trotting aspects of the novel bear more resemblance to the sort of plotting seen in a spy thriller than in a typical horror novel. McCammon's influences are never programmatic, or programmatically used, even here at the beginning of his writing career.

All in all, I enjoyed this novel. There are flaws, though I'm not sure whether the main flaw is McCammon's fault or his publisher's. Simply put, the novel doesn 't have a middle. We basically jump from the end of the beginning to the beginning of the end, from Ba'al at 10 to Ba'al ascendant. As there are textual references to a confrontation with Ba'al in Mexico and the American Southwest during the 'ascending' portion of the being's development, I really do wonder if this section (also cited in a later, otherwise unrelated McCammon novel, They Thirst) was cut by an editor with the mandate of a specific page length.

In any case, the novel -- and McCammon's brief but illuminating 1988 afterword to the novel -- both make for a diverting experience with much more depth and scope than the similarly themed Omen. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Theodicy: The Odyssey

The Tree of Life: written and directed by Terrence Malick; starring Brad Pitt (Mr. O'Brien), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O'Brien), Sean Penn (Jack O'Brien), and Hunter McCracken (Young Jack) (2011): Seeing Terrence Malick's Oscar-nominated film in a theatre might have killed me -- or at least put me to sleep. But watched in four installments over about two weeks, it's a riveting meditation on life, death, and theodicy (aka The Problem of Evil). As with the Coen Brothers' jauntier but no less problematic A Serious Man, The Tree of Life takes many of its cues from the Book of Job, the section of the Bible most often discussed when discussion turns to the question of why an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God allows evil to exist in the world. The Book of Job also features the famous bar bet between Satan and God over Job's faith, along with a Satan who can appear to many skeptics as God's employee rather than God's adversary. It's the Old Testament, Jake.

In The Tree of Life, adult Sean Penn in the here-and-now muses on his childhood and the pointed difference between his loving mother and his demanding, somewhat tortured father during the 1950's and early 1960's. The movie isn't so much episodic as it is musical (and music, classical music, is a huge component of this film), as themes and variations and lietmotifs play out both visually and on the soundtrack.

It's a magnificent, tough movie, though much softer than Yahweh's reply to Job when Job cries out for an explanation (God sez "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?", a Divine reply which Stephen King once paraphrased as, "Shut up, fuckface, and take what I give you."

Malick, ambitious and visually oriented, actually shows us God's reply rather than simply restating it, in a lengthy sequence that races through the beginnings of the universe all the way up to the development of life on Earth and beyond. This sequence would be splendid on a big screen. Really, this sequence would make a great 'Introduction to Scientific Cosmology' movie. And later on, we see the Earth end, burned to death by the dying, expanding sun. It's a hell of a movie, and startlingly humane. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain -- as the mother and father -- do outstanding work, as does the child actor playing Sean Penn's character. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Radium Exit

The Invisible Ray: written by Howard Higgin, Douglas Hodges, and John Colton; directed by Lambert Hillyer; starring Boris Karloff (Dr. Janos Rukh) and Bela Lugosi (Dr. Felix Benet) (1936): Borderline crazy scientist Karloff discovers 'Radium X' in Africa, a space-born mineral with both healing and killing powers. Lugosi's character figures out how to heal people with it; Karloff's character goes another way. Fun melodrama with some striking visual effects for its time, and strong performances from both Karloff and a refreshingly non-scenery-chewing Lugosi. Bears some resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft's 1928 story "The Colour Out Of Space." Recommended.

Half Fish, Half Boobs

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: written by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, and Jay Wolpert; suggested by the novel On Stranger Tides (1987) by Tim Powers; directed by Rob Marshall; starring Johnny Depp (Captain Jack Sparrow), Penelope Cruz (Angelica Teach), Geoffrey Rush (Barbossa), and Ian McShane (Blackbeard) (2011): Vaguely inspired by Tim Powers's awesome novel about Blackbeard and the search for the Fountain of Youth. Read the novel. Not as bad as Pirates 2 or 3 -- this one actually has a coherent plot. Not very good, though, and someone seems to have turned the lights out in half the scenes so as to save money on CGI (which is easier and cheaper to do when the audience has trouble seeing it). Carnivorous mermaids are sort of cool. Not recommended.