Friday, September 28, 2012

The Thing from Another World (1951)

The Thing from Another World (1951): adapted by Charles Lederer, Howard Hawks, and Ben Hecht from the novella "Who Goes There?" by John Campbell Jr.; directed by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks; starring Margaret Sheridan (Nikki), Kenneth Tobey (Captain Pat Hendry), Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Carrington), Douglas Spencer (Scotty) and James Young (Lt. Eddie Dykes) : I suppose it's a measure of the contempt the producers and writers had for the source material that almost nothing remains of that source novella except the temperature (it's still cold) and the general idea (crashed UFO with an angry survivor).

The Thing from Another World nonetheless remains one of the minor science-fiction classics of the 1950's, but it's amazing how much is changed from John Campbell's 1938 original: not even the original names of characters survive in the screenplay.

Anyway, a UFO crashes at the North Pole near a U.S. experimental base. Some Air Force guys, led by the wooden Kenneth Tobey, arrive to help investigate. Soon, an alien with remarkable recuperative powers and an unquenchable thirst for blood starts rampaging around the experimental station. As he's a giant carrot, shooting him does no good, and unlike later versions of The Thing, there aren't a lot of flamethrowers lying around the base.

The movie's quite tense, with the hulking, monosyllabic alien -- who turns out to look like a bald Frankenstein's monster in a jump-suit -- kept off-screen most of the time, possibly because he looks like a bald Frankenstein's monster in a jump-suit . Campbell's paean to the resourcefulness of civilian scientists and engineers here becomes a paean to the resourcefulness of the Air Force. The chief, Nobel-winning scientist is an idiot who keeps trying to make peace with the alien even as the human body count mounts.

Though Professor Quisling really does have a point -- who wouldn't be pissed after crashing on an alien planet, getting frozen in a block of ice, and then almost immediately getting one's arm ripped off by a sled dog when one awakes? This has to be the worst first-contact scenario ever. Especially since the Air Force accidentally blows up the guy's UFO with some thermite while trying to excavate it from the ice. I'll be damned if I know why there were in such a hurry, and I'd hate to see them at a major archaeological dig.

It's fun to chart the differences between this film and John Carpenter's later, much more faithful adaptation of Campbell's novella. Only the giant carrot is a justifiable change -- visual effects of the early 1950's weren't up to a shape-changing alien. Watch the skies! Recommended.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Land of Dreams

Sandman: The Dream Hunters: adapted by P. Craig Russell from a novella by Neil Gaiman and Yoshiaka Amano (2009): Writer-artist Russell adapted Neil Gaiman's illustrated 1999 Sandman novella into comic-book form to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first issue of Gaiman's hyper-popular Sandman series. The novella itself was released to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Sandman. What will the 30th anniversary bring?

Told as if it were an old Japanese folk story (it isn't, though Gaiman's afterword to the 1999 novella convinced a lot of people, including Russell, that it was), The Dream Hunters chronicles the adventures of a female fox, a young monk, and a magician searching for a cure for his chronic fear. It's set in a legendary Japan of animal spirits, demons, and witches. The Sandman himself -- Dream, or Morpheus -- plays a supporting role, as he periodically did in his own comic-book series. The narrative focus is squarely upon the fox and the monk.

Russell's art is pleasingly legendary in its own way, as sometimes cartoony and sometimes nightmarish demons rub shoulders with realistically rendered humans, a slightly anthropomorphic fox, and some truly horrible witches. Or are they oracles? Russell's faces are always expressive, that expressiveness the product of just a few lines properly placed.

The colouring by Lovern Kindzierski apparently tries to replicate the palette available to Japanese print-makers of a certain era. It's a lovely, muted wash of pastels and faded primary colours. Much of the wording remains Gaiman's, but Russell has done a fine job of selecting what to keep in language and what to render as art. All in all, this is a marvelous addition to the Sandman library, and worth owning whether or not one already has the novella. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft: Tales: edited by Peter Straub

H.P. Lovecraft: Tales: edited by Peter Straub (Collected 2005): If you're going to buy one collection of H.P. Lovecraft's horror and science-fiction stories, this Library of America volume is the one. While it omits the products of about ten years of HPL's apprenticeship learning to write, along with all of his Dunsany-era stories, it nonetheless does contain pretty much all of Lovecraft's essential fiction. The inclusion of his essay on supernatural fiction would have been nice, but the appendices make up for that exclusion.

More importantly, Straub uses the new standard HPL texts as assembled by S.T. Joshi from Lovecraft's original manuscripts and the original magazine appearances of these stories. As monumentally important as editor and publisher August Derleth was to the survival and posthumous propagation of Lovecraft's work, his editing instincts were always somewhat wonky. Derleth tended to think that italicizing key passages and putting exclamation marks after every third sentence made HPL scarier! It didn't. The much calmer, less obtrusive prose of these remastered stories restores a lot of the lost grandeur and sublimity of Lovecraft's greatest moments.

While Lovecraft made cosmic horror and imaginary gods a staple of American horror fiction forever after, he also made the documentary tone a mainstay of horror fiction. Most stories are first-person accounts given by a narrator who has survived the events (at least for a little while -- there's always a cost to saving the Earth) or who has collected information about events that he himself did not participate in. One of the odd things about the current horror boom in 'found-footage' and 'fake documentary' films is that HPL would have loved them: they, and not narrative horror, are the closest approximation on the screen of what the narration of stories from his mature writing period seeks to achieve.

As other critics have noted, one of the fascinating things about looking at HPL's stories in the order of composition rather than the order of publication is to see him gradually losing interest in horror. His work after 1931 or so (he died in 1937 at the age of 47) moves more and more towards being straight, though extravagantly cosmic, science fiction in which all the mythological elements have rational (albeit bizarre) explanations.

For example, the cosmic aliens of "The Whisperer in Darkness" and "The Shadow Out of Time" really aren't that menacing -- certainly not compared to the invading horrors in the earlier "The Call of Cthulhu" or "The Colour Out of Space." Indeed, the time-travelling Great Race of "The Shadow Out of Time" turns out to be relatively benign, while the Mi-Go of "Whisperer" seem more misunderstood nuisance than threat.

Another progression involves Lovecraft's oft-mentioned racism and bigotry. In his early 1920's story "The Horror at Red Hook", pretty much all the horror flows out of Lovecraft's then-deep-seated loathing of non-WASPy ethnic types, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and miscegenation. But by the last two chronological stories in this collection, Lovecraft presents Australian aboriginals as the only group with a rational response to the things that lurk in the cyclopean ruins of ancient cities hidden in the Outback, and working-class Italian Americans as the last line of defense against the resurrection of the extraordinarily dangerous Nyarlathotep. It's a welcome shift in attitude.

In any event, this is a fine collection with a decent bibliography, time-line, and annotations, though the last seems a bit scanty. Though it at least defines the word 'nefandous.' Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Distinct Lack of Meteor Residue

Apollo 18: written by Brian Miller; directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego; starring Warren Christie (Ben Anderson), Lloyd Owen (Nate Walker) and Ryan Robbins (John Grey) (2011): Had the producers not done this film as 'found footage,' they'd have basically remade the Bruce Campbell/Walter Koenig classic Moon Trap. Well, sort of.

A secret Apollo mission blasts off into outer space at Christmas 1972 to ostensibly set up special cameras and monitoring devices at the Moon's South Pole. This is quite remarkable as the Saturn V rocket didn't carry enough fuel to get the standard three-man, two-vehicle Apollo mission to the Moon's South Pole, but so it goes.

The astronauts aren't told why they're really there, even though there's no reason not to brief them once they've discovered that things at the South Pole are a little wacky. Or perhaps even before, given that the Department of Defense -- which has ordered the secret mission -- seems to know an awful lot about what the astronauts are going to find soon after they land.

If ever a lunar mission needed that machine-gun-equipped rover from Armageddon (and some of the nuclear warheads from the same film), this would be that mission.

Found-footage shenanigans ensue, some of them pretty unlikely. Thankfully, the jamming of the astronauts' transmissions once they land on the Moon doesn't affect their crystal-clear video feed all the way back to Mission Control. Whatever. There's no time-lag in conversations between the astronauts and Mission Control, so maybe the whole thing was filmed on a sound stage in Burbank.

If your TV screen is big enough, you may get motion sickness from some of the camera work. And you'll never look at an innocent rock the same again. At 45 minutes or so, this might have made a good Outer Limits episode, but at 85 minutes it's interminable. Not recommended.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Strange Spiders

Spider-man/Dr. Strange: Fever: written and illustrated by Brendan McCarthy with an additional story written by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and illustrated by Steve Ditko (2010/1965; collected 2010): Enjoyable, wonky, slight and psychedelic team-up of Marvel's two biggest heroes co-created by the occasionally trippy pen of Steve Ditko.

That Ditko was amazingly good at conjuring up the weird magical vistas of sorcerer Dr. Strange always seemed a bit paradoxical, as Ditko's other strength lay in making his characters look realistically proportioned -- and New York realistically lived-in. Nonetheless, Ditko made magic look somehow effortless and cool and disquietingly surreal, and forty years of other Dr. Strange artists have struggled to approach the surreal-yet-grounded vistas and creatures of Ditko's realms of magic and mystery.

McCarthy has earned a name as a somewhat surreal comic-book artist, often more for his cover painting for books like Shade, The Changing Man (itself a revival of a trippy 1970's Ditko creation for DC Comics). Here, he grounds his magical dimensions in Australian aboriginal art, among other things, in this tale of Dr. Strange and Spider-man fighting spider-demons in another dimension.

McCarthy wisely keeps Strange and Spider-man believably human-proportioned and muscled, and some of the effects he achieves are quite lovely and strange. He's no Ditko, as the bonus reprint of the first Ditko-plotted-and-drawn Spider-man/Dr. Strange team-up shows, but he's definitely not your average 21st-century comic-book artist. Recommended.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Heartburst and Other Pleasures: written by Rick Veitch with Alan Moore; illustrated by Rick Veitch with Steve Bissette (collected 2008): This selection of Veitch's early 1980's graphic 'novel' Heartburst and a number of other short pieces from two decades is a pleasure to read.

Heartburst (really only 48 pages long and called a 'novel' when first published when, as Veitch notes in his introduction, the derived-from-the-French 'graphic album' would have made more sense) presents an Earth colony that has based its entire culture on the early American TV broadcasts that are just arriving on that world thanks to the pesky speed of light.

That Earth colony, a sort of quasi-Roman Catholic fascist tyranny, is also in the process of exterminating the intelligent natives of that planet for, among other things, being too sexually liberated.

Veitch does a nice job of playing in a very satiric, 1950's science-fictional universe, but with more sex and a little more nudity, and the quantum-spiritualism elements of the text are really quite charming. The whole thing would only be more enjoyable at two or three times the length, where certain elements (such as the travelling circus) might end up feeling more organic and a bit less forced.

The short pieces and sketches give brief snapshots of Veitch throughout his career. He's remained remarkably consistent, and as a bonus, the colours in this collection really 'pop': it looks terrific. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Whole Lotta Rapine Going On

Triage by Richard Laymon, Edward Lee, and Jack Ketchum (2001): Originally printed as a limited-edition hardcover, Triage brought together three fairly famous horror writers to structure novellas around the same central premise: a guy walks into a place of work and starts shooting.

The late Richard Laymon's piece is the weakest of the three, an office-space thriller with a ridiculously hyper-competent, crazed killer and all the rape you could want, if you want such things. The ratio of 'rape' to 'vengeance for rape' is about 10-1, which gives the whole exercise about as unwholesome a feeling as I really need.

Edward Lee's piece is also preoccupied with sex, rape, and bad touching. It is pleasingly loopy at times, set as it is on a spaceship of the dominant, hyper-technologized fundamentalist Catholic Earth Empire. You won't see the twist ending coming, and it is a bit of a hoot, but all the vaginal probing that comes before that may blunt a lot of the impact.

Ketchum's concluding piece is both the best of the trio and the oddest, as the novella goes way off the reservation to give us the day-to-day life of a beaten-down writer who works at a bargain-basement literary agency. He's a sad sack...but a sad sack with two girlfriends, at least when the story starts, and an ex-wife who's turned into a lesbian.

Maybe the three writers misheard 'novella' as 'telenovella.' Sex and rape are mostly absent, and Ketchum's tale gives us a nice bit of characterization with the depressed protagonist. Still, there's nothing either horrifying or particularly thrilling about the story. As a whole or in parts, not recommended.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Personal Best, Personal Beast

A Dangerous Method: adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play "The Talking Cure" and the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr; directed by David Cronenberg; starring Keira Knightley (Sabina Spielrein), Viggo Mortensen (Sigmund Freud), Michael Fassbender (Carl Jung), Vincent Cassel (Otto Gross), and Sarah Gadon (Emma Jung) (2011): If you'd turned to someone 30 years or so ago after watching Scanners and told that person that David Cronenberg would soon become one of the world's greatest actors' directors, you'd have been laughed out of the theatre. But he did, and after eliciting career-best performances from Viggo Mortensen, Peter Weller, Jeremy Irons, and Ralph Fiennes, in A Dangerous Method he makes Keira Knightley look good, partially by making her look terrible.

As Carl Jung's patient-turned-mistress Sabina Spielrein, Knightley looks for most of the movie like she needs a sandwich. A lot of sandwiches. Her gauntness enhances her performance, though it is distracting at times -- how much of this is method and how much of this is madness? Still, it's like nothing she's ever done: for the first time on-screen, Knightley isn't lovely but dramatically inert.

Fassbender and Mortensen have the much less showy roles as the more outwardly controlled Jung and Freud, respectively. But they do a lot with those roles -- Mortensen exudes disappointment at times, while Fassbender, one of the more controlled actors out there, uses that control and reserve to good advantage as the outwardly respectable Jung, who is inwardly and sexually on the brink of his great voyage into the collective consciousness and unconsciousness of the human race.

The movie charts the deteroriation of Freud and Jung's relationship at the dawn of psychoanalysis, as they go from master and apprentice to rivals dismissive of each other's theories of the human mind. But Sabina, who eventually becomes a psychoanalyst herself, has her own theories which seek to combine the approaches of the two -- and as she reminds Jung at the end, he used Freud's theories and practices to cure her of her psychiatric ailments.

Cronenberg's direction remains mostly transparent and unshowy throughout -- he's always been more for mise-en-scene anyway, and the composition of many shots ranges from lovely to subtly disturbing. I don't know that this is a great movie, but it's a very good movie on a difficult-to-film subject. Recommended.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


Swamp Thing: Raise Them Bones: written by Scott Snyder; illustrated by Yanick Paquette and Marco Rudy (2011-2012; collected 2012): I'm not sure there was any character who more needed a clean reboot than Swamp Thing when DC implemented its line-wide 'soft' reboot late last summer. Alas, this was indeed a soft reboot -- apparently, pretty much everything that happened to Swamp Thing in 40 years of comic-book adventures happened to him anyway. It all just happened in five years. Or something. We still haven't really been told.

With this loopy, continuity-albatross around their necks, Snyder, Paquette and Rudy do a solid job of giving us a partially rebooted Swamp Thing who has yet to be Swamp Thing even though he already was Swamp Thing. I'm not explaining that last bit any further. Paquette and Rudy draw some lovely, gooshy creature work, and a suitably gloopy, grungy, fertile swamp environment; Snyder deftly sketches out characters who are both familiar and subtly changed.

Unfortunately, Swamp Thing, like a number of other New 52 titles, drops us into a lengthy storyline that, as of this writing, shows no signs of wrapping up any time soon. We're essentially reading the longest origin story for Swamp Thing ever written, by a factor of five or six and climbing.

And we're also in a storyline that intimately crosses over into an equally lengthy storyline in Animal Man. By the time it's all over, the opening storyline of the new Swamp Thing will also be the single longest Swamp Thing arc in comic-book history. I've enjoyed it so far, but I enjoy it less and less as I go along. None of the issues stand alone, and some of the issues require a parallel reading of Animal Man as well.

Frankly, Captain, I'm exhausted.

I'll keep reading, but I sincerely hope that after this enormous opening, we get a few stand-alone issues and short arcs. If we don't, here and elsewhere in the New 52 line, DC will founder on its new continuity with astonishing rapidity. Recommended.