Tuesday, 19 January 2021

The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage

Brundage Domination

The Alluring Art of
Margaret Brundage -
Queen Of Pulp Pin-Up Art

by Stephen D. Korshak and J. David Spurlock
Vanguard ISBN: 9781934331507

I remember seeing my first Margaret Brundage cover printed in a large format, hardback anthology book about the early days of science fiction maybe 40 or more years ago. It was for one of the Conan stories, Queen Of The Black Coast in the 1934 issue of Weird Tales. My one big takeaway, at the time, was that no matter how splendid and inviting the female figure in the illustration looked, the guy in the picture didn’t look a heck of a lot like Conan, even for the period it was illustrated when perceptions of body types were much different to what they are today (I now know the model for the picture is Margaret’s once husband ‘Slim’ Brundage). During Autumn of 2020, I re-read the complete run of the Conan stories that were published in Weird Tales again (a review will be forthcoming at some point this year, in a special Robert E. Howard Prose and Movies themed week on this blog) and with it, I rediscovered the beautiful artwork of Brundage once again.

It’s true, to my eyes the male figure still looks nothing like the descriptions of Conan in the stories (I think Frank Frazetta probably gave us the truest rendition of Howard’s powerhouse Cimmerian) but the girls are something else and, now I have this book, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage - Queen Of Pulp Pin-Up Art, I find that it was mainly the profusion of scantily clad and often totally naked women rendered lovingly by Brundage in pastels which were the main selling point of Weird Tales... a magazine she started doing covers for in the early 1930s through to the late 30s/early to mid 40s. I was also surprised to learn that, asides from the novelty of a female cover artist plying her trade with such erotically provocative imagery, she was also something of the trendsetter of this style, with most magazine cover art which came before her being of sci-fi style machinery, rockets etc. for these kinds of publications.

Alas, despite the fact that we have this lovely and brilliant book with her illustrations in it, there seems to be a lot of information lacking about her actual life. We do know that she was born in 1900 in Chicago and had a hasty marriage (with a protracted aftermath) to ‘Slim’ Brundage, who she met while working at The Dil Pickle Club, a hotspot of bohemian art and socialism. I know she was a six foot tall chain smoker and that she went for the cover artist job for Weird Tales in order to support her young son and crippled mother. When the owners of Weird Tales were bought out and relocated, various factors including the transportation of delicate, fragile pastel work to those offices of the new publishers meant that she no longer had a job. She clung on to life tenaciously though, leaving her cover artist days behind her and becoming involved in various political organisations, sadly outliving her son by a few years.

There are other details which I won’t summarise here (hey, read the damned book) but what little facts are available, plus a hell of a lot about the political and social background of where Margaret was and who she was seen with at various stages of her life, is lovingly put together for this publication. There’s even a second ‘book within a book’ which organises a lot of this info into more of a chronology and really fleshes things out, which is called The Secret Life Of Margaret Brundage or: Slim & Margaret: A Bohemian Romance of the Chicago Renaissance by J. David Spurlock.

As well as all this stuff though, there are many beautiful full page renditions of her artworks, in their original form without any of the typography plates later seen on the cover versions. There are also page sized reprints of all her magazine covers as they appeared here too and it’s these replicas of well over 60 covers (and not just her ones for Weird Tales) that are the buried treasure compiled within these pages. Along with a few surviving photos of Margaret herself (not many, she was a woman who seemed allmost inadvertently shrouded in mystery) plus the odd photo from the kind of nudie girly magazines that Margaret would be using as reference for her images (I’m glad to see nothing changes in the world of art... I used to do the same thing for fashion drawings when I was at college).

There’s also the odd, fantastic anecdote along the way and the design of the book is such that some of these appear as asides to the main text in some nice, solid layouts. For instance, H. P. Lovecraft seemed somewhat disapproving of how naked girlies could help magazine sales (and I don’t believe she ever illustrated one of his covers) whereas Robert E. Howard seemed totally in love with her illustrations. I also love the fact that, once the writers had cottoned on to her style of content that raised the sales, they would start working scenes with naked damsels into their tales for a better shot at getting the coveted cover spot with their story. There’s a sad anecdote about Brundage calling in at the Weird Tales offices and crying the day away along with the guy running it when they heard of Howard’s tragic suicide in 1936. He was certainly her favourite writer of the whole Weird Tales bunch.

Another thing I took away from this was an insight into her working process. She would be sent a ‘cover story’ for publication due in two months time (she would work on one cover a month) and that would be the one story from the magazine she would read. She’d then send pencil sketches of possible covers for a few scenes and then get the green light as to which one to work up into a cover. Occasionally there would also be changes after the cover was done... by her own admission, she wasn’t that great at hands (they look alright to me but what do I know, to be honest, the hands are not the first thing the eyes are drawn to in a Margaret Brundage illustration).

There’s much more here too, especially about her political leanings but, for me and probably a lot of people, it all plays second fiddle to the wondrous, provocative and truly gorgeous art which is lovingly reproduced on the interior pages of this beautiful book. A book which is adorned with the usual critic quotes on the back which, when you look more closely at them, you realise aren’t what they appear and are, instead, comments about Brundage from her contemporaries such as some of the writers of Weird Tales... another nice touch.  I’m really glad to have this one and am especially grateful to the young lady who gifted this to me at Christmas. If you are a lover of either ‘heroic fantasy’ art or the female form (or, you know, that thrilling combination of the two) then you would do well to pick up a copy of The Alluring Art Of Margaret Brundage - Queen Of Pulp Pin-Up Art before it goes out of print. An essential volume as far as I’m concerned.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Dragon Inn

Everybody Was
King Hu Fighting

Dragon Inn
aka Long men kezhan

Taiwan/Hong Kong 1967 Directed by King Hu
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B

It’s been a good while since I last saw Dragon Inn and the Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray edition seemed an excellent way for me to catch up to it again. I find it strange though that I am only now finding out that it’s not an actual Shaw Brothers movie at all... I’m sure my old Region 3 Hong Kong DVD is actually branded to that company but, maybe they just distributed it in certain territories. This director’s previous film was definitely a Shaw Bros production though, the great Come Drink With Me (which I reviewed right here). Dragon Inn isn’t, for me, as engaging a film but it’s still pretty great and fans of Wuxia in general should really like this although... it’s reputation probably proceeds it these days and I’m sure most Wuxia enthusiasts have probably already seen it.

It’s actually interesting because one of the extras on this Blu Ray mentions that Dragon Inn dates from before the wire work era of martial arts cinema and, indeed, there doesn’t seem to be any on show in this film. However, I find myself having to take that claim with a pinch of salt because, frankly, there was some great wire work in Come Drink With Me so... yeah... I don’t know why the Eureka people are claiming that here. I’ll come back to something else they say in the same extras supplement in a little while.

So what we have here is a film which sets up a basic plot and has a sequence where an absolute load of characters are introduced in voice-over narrative, telling about a group of eunuch overlords running two main factions and... yeah, it all got a bit too complicated for me. People who know me well know I don’t understand political stuff and a lot of the plot set up was passing me by but, what this does do to an extent, is just set up that there are good guys and bad guys and roughly points you in the direction of... a good guy who gets executed has his children sentenced to exile but the bad guys change their mind and go after them anyway. However, various other good guys want to protect the kids but the evil ones pretty much know that they’ll have to pass by the Dragon Inn for a night to stay and pause for refreshment on their journey away from said bad guys. So a small bunch of military types take over the Dragon Inn, perhaps not knowing the absent owner was a General or some such in the good guy army. And, after a few lone maverick style ‘good guy and gal’ characters come to the inn and make themselves known, it becomes a battleground of intense stares, implied conflict and, of course, various bits of action business as the film progresses.

Pretty much the first two thirds of the film are set in the titular establishment before the last act, where various people are fighting outside the inn and in local environs. This film does have some of the action styles associated with the absent wirework such as leaping high via hidden trampolines and also leaping great distances, accomplished with jump cuts from fast moving camera pans from tree to tree, giving the specific character I’m thinking of the appearance of constantly teleporting... so, it’s a curious compromise and it rings truer, to my ears, that the director’s statement that he wanted to steer clear of a lot of trickery to concentrate on the innate skill of the performers is probably the more probable fact of the matter, rather than it actually pre-dating said wire work solutions in the genre.

Also, this movie once again shows the propensity with Chinese films of this period to just needle drop in soundtracks from other films. Although the film has a composer of its own, as credited to Lan-Ping Chow, there are several steals including a Morricone piece from A Fistful Of Dollars which gets tracked in a lot, to give the suspense scenes of ‘are they or aren’t they going to go at it hammer and tongs in a minute or not?’ style tension a bit of a lift. Interestingly, on the extra I mentioned earlier (and I’m really not knocking that extra, I learned a few things from it too), it says the music in these scenes is so close to A Fistful Of Dollars as to be ‘actionable’. Frankly, it sounds so close that, as I said, I think it’s just needle dropped in and I have to wonder if the way it’s expressed on the extra is just a way for the British distributors to avoid their own lawsuit? There are a few recent British Blu Ray releases that have some quite high profile score cuts tracked in now, as various boutique labels start issuing these kinds of films and, well, I’m just grateful that the music used on these films stand as a historical document ‘of their time’ rather than having been tampered with due to legal issues. Wait until they start issuing some of those Turkish films on UK Blu Ray though... it’s surely only a matter of time... and then you’ll really know it. Some of the ‘steals’ on those things are way less subtle than this movie.

Anyway, all in all it’s a rather enjoyable flick, full of action and machismo thrown into the mix equally. There are some lovely sequences where the roaming camera fluidly manages to take in the whole of the environment (such as following... or as I learned from the extras, providing contrary movement)... in respect to the characters in the inn and roaming between both levels of the building. There’s also a nice touch which I can’t help but think, in terms of the genre (if this is, indeed, a genre signature), signals the introduction of various characters in video games of the 1980s and onwards, as various villains in this are sometimes ushered onto the screen with multiple musical stings as each are paraded before the camera. It’s an unexpected but nice touch in places (although I suspect it could get a little irritating if this happens in a lot of movies in one sitting).

If it’s action coupled with great camerawork you’re looking for then Dragon Inn is definitely a good ‘go to’ movie. It’s even better if you like to hear characters constantly goading and criticising their opponents for being eunuchs but, honestly, that element is not really something which did much for me... maybe it’s a Chinese thing. A nicely made film though and with a couple of nice extras from Eureka... one being a short visual essay which I have commented on here and also some really nice newsreel footage from the time showing the Star Wars like queues of the people of Japan queuing up for what was obviously a very lucrative film at the box office. Lucrative enough to get a mention on their local news, at any rate. The Eureka Blu Ray edition is as good as I’ve seen the film looking and it’s definitely the one to go for if you are wanting to take a look at this martial arts gem. Wuxia on, Wuxia off.

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Your Brain Is A Time Machine - The Neuroscience And Physics Of Time

60 Seconds To What?

Your Brain Is A Time Machine -
The Neuroscience And Physics Of Time

by Dean Buonomano
W. W. Norton & Company ISBN: 9780395355604

About this time of year I read a popular science book on an interesting subject if I can. Almost as a way of proving to myself that I can find interest in something other than films. I usually pick up an idea of what to read by a fleeting glance at a title as it flickers by my daily timeline on Twitter (hmm... timeline... okay, I’m totally not going there) or, more often than not, as an associated suggestion from Amazon based on something else I read from the year before.

So this year it’s the turn of Your Brain Is A Time Machine - The Neuroscience And Physics Of Time
by Dean Buonomano and, it’s a humdinger of a book. Although, it has to be said, one of my reasons for reading the tome, to challenge my current belief in the non-existence of time, alas ended with my own expectations of the universe we live in sadly re-enforced.

To explain quickly, for decades now I’ve realised there is no such thing as time, only a man made measurement which has been invented (and perfected, if that’s the correct word for movable goal posts) to allow people to synchronise certain actions... or at least to have the illusion that they are able to, for example, to pick a 'time' to meet up with each other etc. I’ve seen no real evidence that we live in anything than a mostly static world and I was, if I’m being honest, hoping this book would show me a light at the end of the tunnel. Alas, the author seems to live in the belief or acceptance of one version of reality while, at the same time, acknowledging the existence of another as a more truthful representation of what is going on... or at least accepting that it’s quite possible.

So let’s get to it... The book is set out into two main sections - Part 1: Brain Time and Part 2: The Physical and Mental Nature Of Time. Each section has six individually titled chapters and, nicely, the chapter numbers throughout are representative of 12 hours expressed in 24 hour clock time (so 1:00 to 12:00). And it’s a well written thing which starts you off gently before taking you (or rather me) into perhaps less comfortable territory... there were a couple of chapters in the middle which I was having trouble keeping up with, truth be told but, in the end, my brain edited it into a whole which makes sense and I had no real problems with it. I now know that’s what my brain did, actually, purely because I read this book and it explains something about the way the brain perceives and edits reality into something more palatable and understandable for a person, rather than present the actual, real world. Hoorah!

So the writer takes us on a tour of all kinds of interesting things starting off with the fact that three of the top five most commonly used nouns in the English language - time, person, year, way, day - are related to time. He also gives us some common sense proofs (I don’t have any common sense myself so this is always appreciated) that although the concept of time is much harder for us to comprehend as a species, it is also easier to locate in our own construct of the universe... pointing out that objects in space need three separate coordinates to locate while the way we position time it needs only one.

It also shows us the way our perceived flow of time is because we have all sorts of different kinds of body clocks which we use all the time to judge different things. He has a sense of humour too, which helps... and so is able to throw in little ‘one liners’ to demonstrate such as... “And whether you realise it or not, on a moment-by-moment basis, your brain is automatically attempting to predict what is about to ______.” He shows us how the different clocks that our brain has learned to govern our waking reality (and our sleeping reality too, presumably) all do different things and the importance that timing plays in our way of understanding the rules. For example, the timing of words when someone speaks in, in this case, English... gives us the difference between ‘Grade A’ as opposed to ‘grey day’. Or ‘great eyes’ as opposed to ‘gray ties’. He also introduces the reader to the idea of the brain using both prospective timing... where we measure as if from a stop watch when something starts... and the idea of retrospective timing, projecting back from an event such as the last grain of sand has run out, so ‘x’ amount of time must have occurred.

Over the course of reading this modestly sized, simply written but quite weighty (in other ways) tome, I found that the way an organ in the body revs up to different kinds of sounds during time means, for example, you can feel as big difference if you hold your throat and feel the vibrations generated by saying ‘ba’ and ‘pa’. So that could be a good party trick, I’m guessing (probably not but, honestly, I don’t go to parties).

Buonomano also humiliated me by getting me to add up a string of numbers incorrectly (but thank goodness it’s a common mistake by most people) and proved to me why credit cards are evil by maintaining the deliberate illusion that our instant purchase decisions are offset in our minds by the fact that we are not actually paying for them until the end of the month and that, in fact, we are more liable to make a spending decision based on this rather than if we were paying out with cash (well that explains a few things). And the fact that the way we generate the illusion of time for ourselves and the way we measure it nearly always favours a language where we are using spatial metaphors almost exclusively for the way in which we talk about it.

And this leads us nicely into Eternalism. The idea that we are living in a block universe and that time is all laid out and has already happened - what we see as past, present and future is already a static truth and our brains are just giving us the illusion of the passing of time. And then he shows us how Einstein kinda already proved this with his two theories of relativity. So...

Everybody knows the observer looking at a train type experiments. Marilyn Monroe (played by Theresa Russel) demonstrated Einstein’s own theory back to him (played by Michael Emil) in a similar experiment in director Nicholas Roeg’s wonderful 1985 movie Insignificance, if you want to have a look at a version of it which immediately springs to mind. Here Buonomano uses bullets being fired by a man standing dead centre of a train carriage from two pistols and hitting the windows at either end simultaneously. Except, when you do this thing at a very high speed, both the mechanics of the way the windows shatter differs and also, importantly, to the observer not on the train, the windows shatter at different times. Which very basically means that, it’s already happened and at least one of the observers are looking at it from a different point in physical space and that changes the angle, so to speak. He uses the idea of two observers looking at a telephone pole in a street from different angles by way of illuminating this idea. Which means that ‘time’ (for want of a better word) is nothing more than a thing in space... it’s a landscape which is already there and which can be viewed at different angles if our brains could access it in a way that perceives this truthfully. I think that’s the point being made here anyway.

Now, I’ve never really liked this idea (or known about any of these theories as it happens, I just arrived at the conclusion myself that there’s no such thing as a passage of time by what little common sense and deductive reasoning that I do happen to grudgingly possess) but I do know that I really don’t like this view of things... because it automatically knocks the idea of a person's ‘free will’ for six and takes no prisoners. So in this universe I didn’t decide to read this book and review it at all. That has always happened and that’s what the universe looks like, I’ve always written this review but it’s just now that my brain, at this moment in what I perceive as a passage of time, is thinking I have come to the decision to do so.

Now, of course, none of these things are presented as facts, just very plausible theories and, while I certainly get the idea that Buonomano also doesn’t want to believe in an eternalist state of things, he does, for me, kind of more or less prove it or, at the very least, make the most convincing case for it yet. He tells us right from the start of the book that the idea that time is a real thing which passes us by is the underdog these days and that most physicists agree that the non-existence of what we see and measure with time is already laid out and we are just accessing it at different points in a way we perceive as linear. And he does give us the caveat, of course, that our brain is limited in our understanding of the laws of physics because of the way we are capable of interpreting and understanding them (something which I always find hobbles my thinking about certain issues, like the concept of infinity, for example). However, this is countered with the last couple of chapters where he explores how we know reality isn’t what we see, instead our brain edits and presents us a pill which is much easier for us to swallow. Such as, for instance, the fact that a person speaks syllables but we don’t hear the syllables, we hear the sense behind the sounds blended in our brains as words... and that’s just one small example of how we edit and highlight what is actually there.

And that’s me done with this one for a while, I think. It’s an excellent book and I’m glad I’ve read it and, unlike most of the popular science books I’ve read over the years, I may just read this one again at some point. Your Brain Is A Time Machine - The Neuroscience And Physics Of Time is an absolute corker of a read and if you want to delve into the idea that your inner clock (or many inner clocks, actually) are just another form of you making sense of the universe (well, to be fair, what isn’t?) then I would absolutely recommend you give this one a go. It’s simply written (for the most part) and the writer also has a sense of humour (big plus there then). And now, of course, I need to try and forget most of what I’ve read here for a while because, well... because the only way I can stay sane is to constantly pretend that all my actions are my own (even though the author demonstrates they can be detected before we even know we are going to do them ourselves) and that I have a modicum of free will mixed in with my day. But, like I said, I will come back to this at some point.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Annual Cryptic Movie Quiz Answers


Annual Cryptic
Movie Quiz Answers

Well it’s that time of year again where I give you the winners and answers to this end of year Cryptic Movie Quiz. Thanks all who had a go. This year we have two separate winners with full marks so congratulations to Nicholas Walker* and Matthew Cunningham. If memory serves, they’ve both won this in the past on different years.

Okay, so time for the answers, which you can also see in the grid above...

1. I’m calm as Godzilla.
So, if Godzilla was calm I guess s/he’d be ‘Calm-illa’... or in this case, the recent vampire movie CARMILLA.

2. More than nine aliens.
A word for aliens would be extra terrestrials... shortened to ET (of course). Nor than nine would be TEN so.... TENET.

3. Miss Te Kanawa and her friend Harry.
Kiri Te Kanawa and Harry expressed another way may be the Japanese classic HARA KIRI.

4. How hard was this aquatic bird?
An aquatic bird... a duck. How would... well... Howard. So HOWARD THE DUCK.

5. Many stories but, not completely cryptic.
Not completely cryptic might be crypt. Many stories could equal Tales so... TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

6. This is the hundredth rash I’ve got from those reversible rats!
One hundred in Roman numerals is C, add it to rash and you get Crash. Rats reversed is Star. So STAR CRASH.

7. I guess that’s what you get to bug you when you scramble to harm!
Unscramble “To Harm’ and you get MOTHRA.

8. Famous Liverpudlian percussionist gets weaponised.
A famous Liverpudlian percussionist could be Ringo star. Give him a gun and you get the Italian western A PISTOL FOR RINGO.

9. Artifical Intelligence gets all backwards with fives.
AI reversed is IA. Add two Roman numeral fives or Vs into the mix and you get VIVA.

10. Sheriff Ross, go back and get your men.
Ross backwards is Ssor. A sheriff’s men are usually called a Posse. So POSSESSOR.

11. Not a very heavy home.
If it’s not a heavy home then it must be a light house. THE LIGHTHOUSE.

12. Oh no! Kim’s red!
Or, ‘Kim Oh No!” Crimson is a form of red so... the Sam Fuller classic THE CRIMSON KIMONO.

13. It’s only half okay. Why Dan?
Half of OK would be K. Put it in front of ‘Why Dan’ and you get the Japanese collection of ghost stories KWAIDAN.

14. Get Frank something to hold his beer in.
Well how about a beer stein? FRANKENSTEIN.

Okay, that’s it. Hope you liked the answers and please let me hear from you if you want me to carry on this tradition next year.

For all those wondering (and for those who have been asking), I wasn’t going to do a Best Movies Of 2020 column. Covid kept us from the cinemas and of the few new releases under my radar this year, frankly there weren’t many qualified to even be on such a list. I might mention The Hunt, Possessor (uncut), Wonder Woman 1984, Jay And Silent Bob Rebooted and Bill And Ted Face The Music as films that would have probably made the cut but, yeah, in all conscience I don’t think it’s right to try and put together a half hearted list from the impoverished choice of cinematic delights which were so  heavily curtailed in the times of Coronavirus.

*Nicholas impressed me by having this all in the bag in less than two days and he's also returned the favour and devised a Cryptic Movie Quiz for me. Thanks for this, much appreciated although it may be half a year before I get time to sit down and give it my proper attention... looks quite hard. ;-)

Sunday, 10 January 2021

The H Man

Blob’s Your Uncle

The H Man
aka Bijo to ekitai ningen

Japan 1958 Directed by Ishirô Honda
Toho/Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B

It’s been a while since I saw The H Man but I’m really grateful for Eureka putting this out on a really nicely restored Blu Ray (as part of a double bill set with The Battle In Outer Space) because the film hasn’t grown old for me. I still think this is a much more interesting movie than the original version of The Blob, which was released the same year as this one and shares a somewhat common element. The inspiration for this was the real life incident of the Lucky Dragon Number 5 fishing boat which strayed into a nuclear testing zone, the very same thing which inspired the director’s earlier classic, Godzilla (aka Gojira, reviewed by me here).

I’m also delighted to find that the print is subtitled with the actual translation of the real movie title on the Japanese language version here, so it’s Beauty And The Liquid People which is, frankly, a much more accurate title for the film. Although The H Man is also pretty cool, let’s be honest.

The film starts off strongly with some eerie pinging from Masaru Satô’s wonderful score, marking time on the soundtrack as the suspenseful prelude to a rainy night’s narcotics pick up goes wrong for the gang members involved. One gang member starts shooting at the floor and runs into the centre of the road and into the path of an oncoming vehicle and, when his partner gets out of the getaway car to see what’s happened, all that’s left of him are his clothes.

We then get the usual bafflement from the police, headed up by kaiju eiga legend Akihiko Hirata. They go and hassle the disappearing gang member’s girlfriend, the ‘beauty’ of the Japanese title, played by the wonderful Yumi Shirakawa, who is a singer at the local night club. The police obviously mitigate their bafflement by assuming that the gang member, quick as a flash and before anyone could see him, removed his clothing and ran off. Because, yeah, that’s just what a normal person would do in the middle of a rainstorm, right? Well, apparently, according to the police and various members of the gang in question, who also hassle Shirakawa (one of them coming too close and being violently absorbed by The H Man of the UK title).

Meanwhile, a dashing young scientist and new love interest for Shirakawa, played by classic kaiju actor Kenji Sahara, believes a liquid monster, possibly more than one, is absorbing people it doesn’t like, who are getting in the way of its former girlfriend. And, of course, after the police refuse to listen to him multiple times, he’s later proved right.

The whole thing is actually pretty fun and, well, some of the special effects are wonderful and... others not so good but it never once stops being entertaining. Honda brings his usual, wonderful sense of screen composition and injects the thing with a sense of cool more reminiscent of something Seijun Suzuki might have cooked up if he’d have wanted to make a monster movie.

Beautiful frame designs abound with some nice greys and greens plus a really good eye for using natural and, not so natural, vertical slabs of the screen to frame different things in. Indeed, this is so pronounced in some shots that they are literally split into exact thirds by the vertical slats created by doors or boxes etc. There’s a flashback scene on a ship where some sailors discover the bizarre ‘liquid people’ of the Japanese title, when they are going into the belly of the ship with lanterns to light the way... and the director uses these shots to further push his fascination with vertical patterns, using the travelling light source in the actors hand to literally light upright rectangular slabs filled with people while the rest of the screen is left black. It’s a really wonderful use of the ‘Tohoscope’ ratio and exactly the reason why I end up watching these kinds of films in the first place.

Another thing he does, which is something I would more associate with much later films, is to use a cut to a shot meaning one thing before cutting away to reveal a transition to another scene. For instance, when the lead scientist drops the lifebuoy of the irradiated ship onto the floor at police headquarters, we cut to a close up of the shot of the buoy on the floor and then, when we cut away from it again, we are already in the scientist’s crowded lab with the various people also looking at it on their floor. So, yeah, nice stuff like this is what watching these films are mostly about for me. Along with listening to some cool music and seeing outrageously bad monsters, of course. Although, the two night club scenes, where the actress is dubbed with a completely inappropriate voice as she sings to songs in English, had me scratching my head a little... especially as to why Eureka felt they needed to subtitle the song when it was already being sung in English. It’s a little bizarre.

However, when it comes to great colours, great composition, slime monsters and a cool soundtrack, this movie really delivers the goods and, I think, is one of Honda’s better movies (and he made a lot of highly entertaining movies in his time, as watchers of his various kaiju eiga will know. So, yeah, Eureka Masters Of Cinema’s new Blu Ray restoration of The H Man is definitely one I’d recommend for any fans of this period of Japanese cinema’s output. I’m really pleased that I have this version on a beautiful looking Blu Ray.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Frightfest - Beneath The Dark Heart Of Cinema

Fright And Sound

Frightfest - Beneath The
Dark Heart Of Cinema

UK 2018 Directed by Chris Collier
24 Foot Square

FrightFest - Beneath The Dark Heart Of Cinema is the story of the much loved, annual festival of horror films put together and programmed by four guys - Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy, Greg Day and the often comically dour Ian Rattray. The festival is one I’ve been personally going to, on and off in a less than regular capacity, since around 2004... although I have been going more regularly the last few years. I’m not one of those people who can afford to book a whole August Bank Holiday Weekend pass, I’m afraid to say (I have to just pick four or five films I want to see for the first London Weekend of the year) but I have started going to the Halloween all-nighters they do and, I have to say, I’m always very glad to be there. I think the first couple of times I went to the festival was when they showed Dario Argento’s film The Card Player (I think I was possibly the only one there of the small group of people I was with who liked it at the time) and the time they showed a specific surprise movie, which I’d only booked up for because one of the organisers had accidentally let slip to me in The Cinema Store that it would be a preview screening of Sin City.

This documentary is obviously made with love and talks to a few fans of the events, some of whom have since become directors themselves. It also, of course, talks to the four organisers of the festival and even the occasional famous director or two, plus good footage of some of those directors and the occasional actor actually attending the event, which is nice to see. Fans of the festival will see various FrightFest family friends represented here such as Guillermo del Toro, Adam Green and, of course, The Soska Sisters.

Now, one of the things you’ll find stressed here a lot in the documentary is just how nice the people who attend these things are... and it’s quite true, there is a communal spirit at this particular event which you don’t always get at certain other film festivals such as Raindance or the London Film Festival. I can testify to that even though I’m, like, the least sociable and somehow genuinely unapproachable person on the planet. For instance, I’ve never known Alan Jones (who is famous for a lot of things but for me will always be Dario Argento’s biographer) to not sign a copy of one of his books for me whenever I’ve waved it in front of his face. He’s always friendly and, if you’ve ever been to one of his pre-movie intros, a genuinely funny person. And, even though, if you have a lounge full of chatty FrightFesters gabbing it up while waiting for their next film, I am the one person on his own and looking miserable (come and say hello next time you see someone looking accidentally aloof... if you're lucky it might not be me), even I was approached by one of the writers of a film that was screening one year.

I remember that moment well. I was waiting to meet a friend before a screening of Sadako vs. Kayako (reviewed here) the one time they hosted FrightFest at Shepherd’s Bush (a venue I actually quite liked) and a random guy sat down next to me and started asking me about what I was seeing. He was nervous about the screening of his own film and it didn’t appeal to me, I had to admit but, then he told me about another film he’d premiered at a FrightFest a couple of years before and I remember promising I would eventually get to watch and review that film for this blog. Well, it’s been on my ‘to watch’ pile for around four years now (I bought it the day after he’d started chatting to me) and all I can say is, if he’s reading this review at any point is... dude, I promise I will get around to watching Killer Mermaid soon.

So, yeah, my point being that, even if you are somebody who is particularly out of kilter with life... and  I am forced to consider myself as such... there’s always going to be a friendly and welcoming face at FrightFest and this certainly comes across in this documentary.

It’s also interesting, I’m sure, for those who have actually attended the festival, to be reminded of things that they themselves experienced. It’s been going quite a while now (around 20 years) and it’s beginning to stake a claim in the magical region known as ‘nostalgia’ to a certain crowd I’m sure. I was watching this and Alan Jones commented about something he’d said at one of the screenings and I could remember that moment well. So, yeah, it’s kind of nice to hear a story about a specific screening of a movie when you were in that audience yourself. Its also nice to see footage from various haunts of old such as the Camden Film Fair and, one which may live in infamy and is especially connected to one of the organisers, The Cinema Store...

The Cinema Store in London, for those who never knew it, was an absolute treasure trove of interesting, sometimes unique film related items which were always so expensive that, after a while, people just used to use it as a place to window shop so they’d know what they were looking for and order it for half the price somewhere else. Thank you Jake West, director of one of my all time favourite vampire movies Razor Blade Smile (why isn’t this on Blu Ray yet?), for pointing out the hugely inflated mark up prices on those Cinema Store items. They were a good looking shop though (at the London locations they had, at least) and if you wanted to get a movie or soundtrack sometimes months ahead of it being legally available in the country from which it originated, let alone in the UK, in its proper pressed edition, then this was the shop to get it.

And, yeah, not much more to say but the fans on here just have that huge outpouring of love of the atmosphere of the event to share and you will, if you watch it, get a little more insight on just how the four organisers interact with each other (or just get in each others faces on occasion), from taking in this this wonderful documentary. Not the full skinny, of course, but certainly a flavour of that. This is a nice little film and even if you’ve never been to one before, FrightFest - Beneath The Dark Heart Of Cinema will give you a little bit of an idea of just what this particular ‘horror movie’ community is all about. And, who knows, you might want to go to one yourself at some point... once we are all living in less Covid heavy times.

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

There Are Worse Things I Could Do

Stevie Wayne’s World

There Are Worse
Things I Could Do

by Adrienne Barbeau
Carroll & Graff
ISBN: 9780786716371

My first big memory of actress Adrienne Barbeau was when I was absolutely terrified, alone in the dark on my own as a young teenager, while I watched the late night, debut TV screening in the UK of John Carpenter’s The Fog (reviewed by me here). It was an absolutely wonderful experience and Barbeau in particular, with her sexy voice as she played DJ Stevie Wayne, broadcasting from her lighthouse at Spivey Point (I think it was Spivey Point, right?) certainly stuck in my mind. I didn’t put two and two together until later that it was Barbeau who had impressed me so much a few years earlier as the busty, vengeful 'Maggie' when I’d gone to see the AA rated screening of Carpenter’s Escape From New York at my local cinema. She was always an actress I looked out for but she wasn’t often in the kind of films I would go and see, to be honest so, when the earlier ‘made for TV’ movie Someone’s Watching Me also came on television at some point, I saw that one too... not realising at the time that Carpenter had also directed it. The only other thing I consciously remember seeing her in again was in her segment of George A. Romero and Dario Argento’s Two Evil Eyes.

So I was delighted when, sometime last year, I found out that she’d written and published an autobiography back in 2006. I managed to get a second hand copy of the then out of print tome fairly cheaply on Abe Books and was delighted to find that it looked like it had a) never been read and b) had a personalised inscription from Adrienne to someone who, putting two and two together from the message, must have worked with her on one of her film or theatre productions.

So I finally got around to reading it and, I have to say, it’s a really entertaining read. It’s not an incredibly detailed account of her specific film and TV work but it does reveal a lot about her and a lot about the different jobs she took, some of them acting and... some not... to finally get to the actress she’s known as today. She’s also not shy about naming companions and lovers and, telling a few intimate things about herself and her struggles as she stormed through life with one of the best, positive mental attitudes you could ask for in anyone. And, yeah, you’ll get to hear all about people like Burt Reynolds, way before she worked with them on a movie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Cannonball Run but I suspect I should ‘put it on the list’, so to speak... and she’s very complimentary and was somewhat star struck by Roger Moore on that movie, it seems to me. Which is no bad thing.

Now, I can’t say I’d seen a lot of the things she talks about... I’ve never seen an episode of Maude, for example (in fact, never even heard of it until I commenced reading this) but I did twig, before I started it, that the title of the book was named after the song from Grease. Yep, turns out she was the original Rizzo on stage. I think I saw Grease in London with Richard Gere at some point but this is going back quite a while before it was a movie, so this was all interesting stuff.

The book is more or less chronological but it does group by themes and contrasting stories too... you’ll find out about her two waitressing jobs where she inadvertently was working for what she politely refers to as ‘The Syndicate’ nights, while taking acting lessons and going to auditions by day, the chain of events that got her some big breaks, some lightly supernatural stuff and the power of positive thinking. You’ll also find the story behind her marriages and her children, the famous Cody Carpenter and the process of having her twins in her fifties. There’s even a great story about her learning to do a snake dance for the show Carnivale (which also sounds like something I should make a point of catching up with) and, one or two absolute film disaster areas where she’s good enough to not name the actual films by title but, you know, amazing and frankly horrifying tales of film set perils.

And it’s all contrasted and punctuated by various diary inserts. She’s been keeping a journal religiously from a young age wherein, as she says, you won’t find information about her film and theatre experiences but, you will find a lot about what was going on about her various lovers at the different times in which she recorded her observations. There are also some interesting points made which reflect ‘things to come’... so to speak and these were obviously sifted out with a deft eye to accommodate the themes and stories as she tells them.

And... yeah... nothing much more to say about Adrienne Barbeau’s magnificent tome, There Are Worse Things I Could Do, other than I’m glad I read it and she has a nice work ethic, which is to be admired. She writes about things with good grace and a lot of humour. I also suspect she’s a really good person to have around a film set because, as you’ll see if you read this one, she seems pretty calm and tolerant in situations where others might not be so generous with their support and presence. I believe there are still, as I review this, a few reasonable priced copies available on a few of the obvious online marketplaces (the hardbacks tend to go for cheaper than the paperbacks, for some reason but, that’s okay for me, at any rate... at my age I much prefer hardbacks of these things anyway). So, yeah, a definite recommendation for me and if you want to see what else she’s been doing, check out her website https://abarbeau.com

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Doctor Who - Revolution Of The Daleks

Clone and Dusted

Doctor Who
Revolution Of The Daleks

Airdate: 1st January 2020 BBC 1

Oh well. I had ridiculously high hopes for this year’s pseudo-Christmas special of Doctor Who but Revolution Of The Daleks (which doesn’t actually have a proper revolution in it anyway, by the way) turned out to be a somewhat uninspired rendition of the show, it seemed to me. It wasn’t, by a long shot, what the people I live with thought of the episode... which was that it was the worst ever episode of Doctor Who. Hey, they’ve obviously forgotten the Colin Baker era and, you know, it’s certainly nowhere near the worst episode we’ve had in even the last two years of the show, even. But I think it’s time the people at the BBC started to realise that if you just throw a load of Daleks at an episode and hope they’ll stick, it just doesn’t cut it anymore. Maybe in the height of Dalekmania in the mid-1960s that might work but, ironically, the 60s stories would stand up with or without the Daleks in them, something which no longer seems to be the case.

I had high hopes for Jodie Whitaker when she started this show. She’s a brilliant actor and actually plays The Doctor really well. Alas, she’s just not getting the scripts to match her wonderful interpretation of the role and I really feel for her. Capaldi had the same problem in his first couple of seasons but I think they started writing more to his character’s strengths and he did some good stuff towards the end. I wish they’d think about writing up to Jodie’s version rather than treat her as a magic wand or accessory half the time, which is what it feels to me like they’re doing now.

Okay, so I thought the first ten minutes of the show, the set up, were actually very good. They didn’t feature The Doctor at all and instead looked to set up the story idea and then follow it up by showing how her companions had coped while she’s been in space jail. Bradley Walsh was brilliant as always, Tosin Cole seemed to be playing a more mature version of his original character and, frankly, Mandip Gill absolutely took her performance to a new level here and was, possibly, the best thing about the episode. And even the way it was presented was good for a while. There was an excellent moment somewhere during the first ten minutes where the entire screen was out of focus apart from a tiny flask taking up a very small portion of the bottom left of the shot. I thought it was a really brave moment and wrongly imagined I was in for a good ride.

Alas, this didn’t prove to be the case and the last good thing in the show, John Barrowman returning as Captain Jack Harkness to break The Doctor out of space jail, came way to early in the episode to have any real impact (although it was a nice scene taken out of context) and that kind of set the pace from thereon in, as the show just kept going downhill from there.

It was nice seeing Chris Noth back as the slimy, evil politician type from the spider story from last year but... yeah, well, I guess he’ll be back in a future episode, for sure. Mostly though it felt like the episode was needlessly padded and downright ham-fisted in some areas. For example, we already know that a Kaled grown from the tissue of the one from last year’s New Year’s Day special has taken over various high tech systems, acquired humans to build a clone army of Kaleds and then melted the humans down to use for food. We were then presented with a shot of them all in their little jars in a big warehouse so the full impact can be taken in. Why then, in the scene not ten minutes later, when Captain Jack and Yaz discover this fact, is the whole thing treated like another reveal with a big, pull back of the same Kaleds and a big musical flourish to hammer things home? Old information. We already knew that from a previous scene, thank you and, frankly, it didn’t seem all that worrying then. So, yeah, the whole thing just seemed like a big bag of air being puffed up while we watched it for what was, these days, quite a lengthy episode.

Also... it’s quite established in current continuity that the Daleks have invaded and conquered the Earth in recent history in the show. Indeed, I believe they were even sending humans to concentration camps at some point? Why then, does nobody, including the Prime Minister, recognise them or have even heard of a Dalek? I’m sorry, this just makes no sense now.

And even the good-bye scene, where the much loved Bradley Walsh and the ‘just getting to be an interesting character’ Tosin Cole leave the TARDIS for good didn’t actually trigger any emotion, I felt. And it really should have when we’ve come this far with the characters. So, yeah, sorry, I was just underwhelmed. And then to follow it up with the news, after the end credits, that some stand up comic I’d never even heard of until this moment would be joining the TARDIS crew this year seemed, well, pretty underwhelming to be honest.

So there you have it. Sorry to be so negative about Revolution Of The Daleks but... yeah... they can’t go on like this. I think this show needs a long rest now. Not a cancellation... just a rest and then to have someone comparable to Russel T. Davies to take it into a more dynamic direction. This just isn’t doing it for me at all. Jodie Whittaker is cool though so... yeah, the level of the show needs to rise to meet her, I think.

Friday, 1 January 2021

Red Barry

Barry In Haste

Red Barry
USA 1938
Directed by Ford Beebe
and Alan James
VCI DVD Region 1

Well this one’s a bit of a clunker, I’m sad to report.

Of the five Buster Crabbe serials I’ve reviewed here this week, Red Barry was the only one I’d not seen before or was familiar with. Nor am I familiar with the newspaper strip on which it was based so, yeah, I don’t know if this is an accurate fit or not.

Apparently it took fifty or so years for this to get any airplay on television, which would explain why I had to wait for a DVD release to get a look at it. Now I’ve seen it I can almost understand why. People get used to seeing continuity mistakes on the old serials, most commonly it’s rare that the stuntmen doing the fistfights look anything like the people they are doubling for. However, in this one, there are some really stupid things happening and, frankly, I can see how the people responsible for this high spirited mess may have been embarrassed if this serial was ever seen again.

Okay, so the main protagonists are police detective Red Barry played by Buster Crabbe, newspaper reporter Mississipi played by Frances Robinson, Russian ballet dance Natacha played by Edna Sedgewick, Red’s boss Inspector Scott played by Wade Boteler and... well there are way too many principle characters to list here but, also from Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (reviewed here) is Philip Ahn as Hong Kong Cholly (who was Prince Talon from Saturn) and William Gould as the Police Commisioner, who would go on to play the leader of the Hidden City in Buck Rogers (reviewed here).

Okay... so the serial is at least well paced, a little like the ones Republic used to make but, this one seems much sloppier. The two best things about it, apart from Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe’s absolute conviction in the role are 1) the opening episode recaps which are of a similar idea to the ones used in Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars, where comic strip artwork is flicked through from a police cabinet of files (instead of a televiewer) and 2) a really great looking, fire breathing Chinese Dragon on the post cliff-hanger, ‘Coming next week to this theatre’ cards (theatre spelled correctly, for some reason, which is unusual for an American serial). This dragon never appears in the serial in anything other than these end cards but it’s so well done for the time... it’s rumoured to have been created for another production, possibly an earlier Flash Gordon serial, but was left unused.

Okay, those are the only nice things I’ve got to say about this one, unfortunately. Lets look at the negatives...

The plot is convoluted, revolving around 2 million dollars worth of stolen bonds which at least four different parties, five if you count the police, are after (although one of those parties doesn’t reveal themselves as a bad guy until episode 11 of the 13 ‘exciting’ chapters (you'll see it coming though). So it gets a bit complicated to try and pin down the real villains of the piece, especially since one of the characters disguises himself as a Chinese gang head but is really some other guy when he takes the make-up off, even though it’s clear that the same actor is not being utilised for both parts. It’s interesting also that Philip Ahn’s character speaks fluent English, as he does later as Prince Talon in Buck Rogers, except for when he’s around his American friends when he speaks some kind of fake, pigeon-English attempt at sounding ‘properly Chinese’ so they don’t feel threatened by him. There’s a lot of this kind of thing going on in the serial... with some of the Chinese people also clearly being played by Western actors in ‘yellow face’ (or black and white face, I guess) and I can imagine that this would be difficult for younger, politically correct audiences to find acceptable in this day and age (I just think everybody should calm down and appreciate entertainments within their historical context but, to each his own I guess). This may be another reason why this one doesn’t get a lot of airplay, I suspect.

I knew I was going to have trouble with this one when, in the first episode, a diver is sent into the sea to fetch the bonds which have been thrown overboard from a ship in a waterproof container. Except... the guy in the big diving suit is clearly just being lowered into a standard set with a fish tank (with oversized gold fish) being placed between him and the camera to give the, not very good, impression that he is underwater. Oh dear. And then, in the second episode recap, there’s an important plot point shown in a drawing of... a scene which never happened. I’m guessing they forgot to shoot it or had to cut it for whatever reason and were just relying on audiences to not remember exactly what occured the week before. Can’t think of any real reason for this other than that kind of scenario.

But this is nothing to the blatant issue which plagues pretty much every single car chase in the entire serial. In fact, it’s almost difficult to believe that this wasn’t done deliberately but then again, why would you let prints go out to cinemas in this shape... I’m talking about the close ups of various characters in their cars. They car interior shots are obviously done in a studio with the landscape whizzing by the windows in back projection... and nothing wrong with that, that’s how it was in those days (David Cronenberg uses this particular effect in a brilliant, metatextual way in his movie eXistenZ). However, fully half of the shots of characters, mainly Buster Crabbe, have no back projection at all. It’s just a grey background with the screen turned off behind the character... with the car being pursued usually having the characters with the proper rear projection so... yeah, there are a lot of car chases utilising these kinds of shots throughout and it makes absolutely no sense. Did they just use rehearsal footage because the money ran out? Was the machine broken but they needed to hit deadlines anyway? I guess we’ll never know but, wow, how did it get released at all in this state?

And I don’t have much more to say on this one, I reckon. Which is a dampener considering the other four serials I’ve reviewed this week are all worth your time if you are a fan of cinema history and any one of them could be a good jumping on point if you’ve not seen anything like them before. Red Barry, however, I would say would be more likely to turn you off before you’ve even given other serials a chance so... yeah, if you’re a die hard Buster Crabbe fan (and why wouldn’t you be?) then maybe give this one a go just to see what he looks like in a regular suit and hat but, honestly, approach with caution.

If you’ve liked this week’s look at the old 1930s/40s theatrically released chapter plays then, I’m hoping to watch some more of these for the blog before the end of next year so, yeah, more serials forthcoming at some point. Meanwhile, back to normal schedule for a bit.


Buster Crabbe Serial Week at NUTS4R2

Flash Gordon (1936)

Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars (1938)

Red Barry (1938)

Buck Rogers (1939)

Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940)

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Buck Rogers

Buck To The Future

Buck Rogers
Directed by Ford Beebe & Saul A. Goodkind
USA 1940 Image DVD Region 1

Between Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (reviewed here) in 1938 and Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (reviewed here) in 1940, Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe played another famous comic strip hero on the big screen... in addition to Flash, Tarzan (who was, of course, a pulp hero first) and Red Barry. This theatrical serial was Buck Rogers but, curiously, it wasn’t actually based on either the strip or novel itself (although the opening credits of every episode proclaimed it to be so) and instead the character was just grafted onto a different story and given a slightly different origin. In fact, it’s said to possibly be based on an illegally published, unofficial Flash Gordon story from 1936, in which he travels to Saturn.

Either way, it’s still a cool serial and, although it’s probably a little more pedestrian than the Flash Gordon ones in terms of a variety of locales and characters, it does suit the serial format quite well and in this one Buck is not alone in his situation. When his airship crashes in some snowy mountains and the hybernation gas invented by Professor Wade is turned on in the cabin, in case search parties can’t find them, his young friend Buddy Wade (the professor’s son) is also along for the trip into the 25th Century and they are both woken from their airship slumbers by the rebellion facing off against tyrant Killer Kane, hoodlum ruler of the Earth, five hundred years later. Unlike the newspaper strip, Buddy is not Buddy Dearing, a native of the 25th century and Wilmas's younger brother.

So joining Crabbe is Jackie Moran as Buddy Wade, Constance Moore as Wilma Deering, serial king C. Montague Shaw as Professor Huer (who we last saw as the clay king in Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars), Philson Ahn as Prince Talon of the planet Saturn (where a good majority of the Saturnians, apart from the mutant slave race the Zuggs - with their rubber face applications - seem to be of Asian extraction... yeah, I’m not going to touch that one) and Anthony Warde as Killer Kane (who isn’t in it as much as a lead villain ought to be, it has to be said). There’s also Henry Brandon as prominent bad guy Captain Laska, who many may best remember ‘Asianed up’ for the title role in the 1940 serial Drums Of Fu Manchu, in ‘red face’ as Scar in the 1956 John Wayne classic The Searchers and as the old cop in John Carpenter’s original 1976 movie Assault On Precinct 13.

So the action takes place in just three locations which, in serial fashion, the hero and his companions travel to and from in various episodes... so the Hidden City of the rebellion (which is located in a secret mountain that has big doors disguised as the front of the mountain, allowing spaceships to fly in and out), Killer Kane’s technologically advanced city and, of course, the planet Saturn. And there are lots of things going on, some of which make no sense (there are a huge number of plot holes in this one) but, one of the big factors is that Kane has made a zombie-like army of human robots, by putting amnesia helmets on his enemies and making them susceptible to his orders (possibly an influence on the original TV serial version of Doctor Who - The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, by the looks of it).  Most of the set ups are obvious and, despite the expense of serials of this nature, there are a hell of a lot of recycled sets in this. Once obvious thing is that the bullet cars which work as an underground transit system on Saturn are the exact same ones that the Clay Men in Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars used.

I mentioned in yesterdays review of Flash Gordon’s Conquers The Universe that George lucas took a lot of ideas from these serials and both the opening episode recap credit calls and the viewscreen focussing with accompanying sound effect are again in evidence here. In fact, as far as that viewing screen from Star Wars - The Phantom Menace goes, he was possibly thinking of this one first because, here, the viewscreens are also circular in design as they are in that later film.

Actually, despite the crankiness of the effects, some of this stuff is certainly well done. It’s hard to detect the wires on some of the things, such as the little microphones that float above the big radio sets when they’re in use or the ones holding up the people when the characters are using the anti-gravity belts (this serial’s gimmick similar to the Martian wing-cloaks in Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars). And also, talking of some of those technically advanced gadget effects, Gene Rodenberry must have been a big fan of this serial because there are two things he definitely seems to have taken on board for Star Trek. One is that pesky cloaking device which renders spaceships invisible. This is similar here to the one in Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe except is has to be hand fired from a cannon by an observer in the Hidden City and aimed at the ship. Unlike the ones in that serial, the effects of this one will only last for ten minutes so... yeah, you can just see the cliff hanger ending coming on that one, can’t you?

But another future Star Trek element... and very impressively done here... is the teleportation pads which go from point to point in the Hidden City. We’re told how they disassemble and then reassemble a person’s molecules somewhere else and they use very familiar ‘beam me up’ textures when they’re in action. This was an obvious steal by Roddenberry and they look really good. Another great effect is when two Hidden City people are using ray guns to chop through the ice formed outside the preserved dirigible that Buck and Buddy take their time trip in. A layer of superimposed ray effects are in action as the ice melts... I eventually worked out that it was a raggedy piece of cut perspex lowered through the floor with the rays put over the top but, still, very impressive stuff, especially for 1939.

The serial is full of the required fist fights (with really bad and prominent stuntmen looking nothing like the actors they are ‘doubling’ for) and aerial battles, plus the usual stealth visits behind enemy lines etc. It’s light watching for sure and, though it’s probably not quite as engaging in terms of story as the three Flash Gordon serials, I still got a real kick out watching this and it’s hopefully not be the last time I revisit this one. Like the Flash Gordon serials and others of that ilk (like King Of The Rocket Men and Daredevils Of The Red Circle), this serial was a common fixture on BBC in the school holidays during the late 1970s and through the 1980s. So Buck Rogers will always have a special place in my heart and I’ll never stop watching these things. For my last review of ‘Serial Week’ though, I’ll be watching another Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe serial based on a comic strip and, unlike the other four, it’s one I’ve not seen before. So, you know, I’m keeping my fingers crossed it’s as much of a masterpiece as these others. 

Buster Crabbe Serial Week at NUTS4R2

Flash Gordon (1936)

Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars (1938)

Red Barry (1938)

Buck Rogers (1939)

Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940)

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe




The Ming From Another World

Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe
Directed by Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor
USA 1940 Image DVD Region 1

So here we are and into what is... probably my least favourite of the Flash Gordon serials but, you know, it’s still brilliant, goes at a fairly cracking pace and is still miles better than the majority of serials which were being made at around the same time. Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe also seems to be the one serial of the three which has weathered the years relatively well with a print that seems to be in a lot better shape than the other two... so, while it’s still not in brilliant condition, the DVD is pretty clear and fairly sharp (apart from the odd tear here and there) when compared to the other two. I wish someone would save and restore these things before it’s too late... if that time is not already passed and they’re already vinegar. These serials are absolutely invaluable to show future generations the kind of thing people were spending their money on at the cinema... not to mention the fact that they are wildly entertaining.

Once again we have the three actors back reprising their roles who were the only ones to star in all three Flash Gordon serials... so Larry Buster Crabbe as Flash, Frank Shannon as Dr. Zarkov and Charles Middleton as Emperor Ming the Merciless. Joining them all for the first time are Carol Hughes as a brunette but, alas, still almost superfluous Dale Arden, Universal horror lady Anne Gwynne as the traitoress Lady Sonja, Roland Drew as a kind of new, slimmed down Prince Barin (it’s like chalk and cheese compared to the guy playing him in the first two) and Shirley Deane as a blonde Princess Aura (looking lovely but with nowhere near the moxy of her predecessor in the first serial). Plus a fair amount of newcomers including Lee Powell as the adventurous Captain Roka.

Flash’s father has been replaced in this one by actor John Hamilton, who I’m sure many of my readers would recognise from his regular role as Daily Planet editor Perry White in the 1950s TV show The Adventures Of Superman, opposite George Reeves as The Man Of Steel. Another newcomer is Don Rowan as Captain Torch... I mention him last because he’s playing a promoted version of Officer Torch from the first serial (which makes sense since the action of this one does take place on Mongo again) but, well, unless I’d looked him up I would have sworn it was the same guy who played him previously. He looks and sounds pretty much the same to me (maybe if we had a clearer print for the first one I would have rumbled that they'd replaced him).

So Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe is a very interesting serial for a number of reasons.

For starters... well look at the date this was made. A war was happening in Europe and the Americans weren’t in it yet but this one was clearly propaganda loaded. For instance, instead of the Fu Manchu like costuming on Ming The Merciless, he’s costumed more as a military dictator and there’s talk in the very first episode of him keeping concentration camps. Oh, by the way, if you’re wondering how Ming survived being disintegrated at the end of the last serial... wonder away. It’s not addressed and alluded to only briefly with an off hand comment... “So Ming is alive!” or some such. There was no way of writing themselves out of that one, must have been the general consensus, I suspect. Interestingly enough, due to the success of the last one, the writers do write a line into the script for the final episode here implying that there was a slight chance Ming might be able to escape his doom via another route... just in case a fourth serial was called for (alas, the studio policy after this was to lay off the space fiction for a bit so it never happened... at least that’s what I understand of the situation).

Another interesting thing is the two, even more blatant, shout outs to George Lucas’ future Star Wars movies (my kind way of saying how much he ripped off from these kinds of serials). The obvious one being the episode recaps. Each Flash Gordon serial has a different recap style with the first one having just text on a dark background, the second one having comic strip style pictures swiped through on a viewing screen and, in this third one (and in line with what Universal were doing in a fair few of their serials at this point, more on that in my next review), a proper single point perspective title crawl... just like the Star Wars movies. The other thing... and I remember almost jumping out of my seat the first time I saw The Phantom Menace, is the televiewers. The way the images are tuned in and also the exact same sound effects when this happened were used by Lucas in Star Wars Episode 1 so, yeah, I loved that Lucas included this all those years later. Again, these were actually used before this and... okay, tomorrow’s review for the final word on those televiewers.

And it’s not just Star Wars either. If you want to see a cloaking device which made a space ship invisible long before the Romulans and Klingons were doing it in Star Trek... well here we have a new Dr. Zarkov invention which cloaks his rocket in exactly the same way (I will also mention this again tomorrow but, in a slightly different fashion). Other technology includes those same cack-handed ray guns from the second serial but also some handsome looking death ray rifles which seem cumbersome but really look the part.

Now there are less strange inhabitants in this one, again, than in the first serial. We basically just have the Rock People and the Annihilants. The Rock People are literally just a race who dress up in Rock uniforms (to camouflage themselves in their rocky desert region of Mongo) and who speak by the sound department running their dialogue backwards. They look like nothing less than rock textured members of the Ku Klux Klan, truth be told. I don’t know how they got away with this. Interestingly, although a good majority of this serial (including the opening titles) is scored with various passages from the Liszt composition Les Preludes... some of the old needle drops from stuff like The Bride Of Frankenstein are retained and this means that the Rock People appear to exactly the same musical cue that the Clay Men in Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (reviewed here) used to morph out of their cavern walls by.

The other beings are Ming’s remote controlled Annihilants or The Walking Bombs. Its a shame they’re only at the end and start of two episodes because these are one of the most beautiful mechanical robot designs I’ve ever seen committed to film, with their big Christmas decoration-like heads, sped up walking rhythms and bizarrely long fingernails. They look like they stepped right out of a silent German Expressionist movie and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that they did just that. They are just magnificent and I wish someone would do an action figure.

Okay, the structure of the thing is a bit of an oddity for a Flash Gordon story too, although it starts off with the usual thing of the Earth in grave danger. I found it oddly interesting that the lethal Death Dust that Ming is poisoning the Earth with produces an almost unstoppable virus called The Purple Death, which is killing people in their droves... given the time that I’m writing this review, during one of the bleakest pandemics we’ve had in a while on this planet. However, once Flash and his crew go to the frozen wastes of Frigia and mine the only known antidote which can be found there, the mineral Polarite, he actually rockets back to Earth and dumps it, curing the plague by the end of episode four. So Ming’s initial plan is quickly thwarted but, since he wants to conquer the universe, you can be sure he has more deadly weapons up his sleeve for Flash and his friends to worry about.

Most of the action in this one takes place in either the unnamed Mongo City (where Ming resides), the forest Kingdom of Arboria (where Prince Barin rules) and the arctic wastes of Frigia for a few episodes near the start of the serial. What this means is... there are plenty of props and costumes which were obviously recycled from other productions to match those last two locations. When you are in Arboria, the obvious dress code is... leftovers from the most recent Robin Hood production. Seriously, everyone there wears forest clothes and the hats with big feathers in. Similarly, when Zarkov invents a thermal spray and extremely warm clothing so that Flash and the others can survive the formerly impenetrable wastes of Frigia... he basically invents a Santa Claus suit for them to wear. It looks bad but I can only assume they did it to match with the various recycled shots from The White Hell Of Pitz Palu, which litter those scenes.

However, I’m not really complaining much because, frankly, although it’s the shortest of the three serials, it still manages to pack a punch, This might be because there are no bottle neck episodes this time around... what with the many changes in the central cast, I guess it would have been hard to find anything that was a match if they’d gone the usual route on flashbacks.

So, anyway, that’s me done again with the Flash Gordon serials for a while... I loved seeing them all again and Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe is no exception. I’ll leave it for you to find out why it has such an aggressive non-sequiter of a title but, it’s a bit of a stretch. I just love these things. However, in between the previous serial and this one, in 1939, Buster Crabbe would once again play a famous science fiction novel and comic strip character in another great serial which has a lot in common with these three... and that one will be the subject of my next review. Coming tomorrow, to this blog!


Buster Crabbe Serial Week at NUTS4R2

Flash Gordon (1936)

Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars (1938)

Red Barry (1938)

Buck Rogers (1939)

Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940)


Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars



Feet Of Clay

Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars
Directed by Ford Beebe
and Robert F. Hill
USA 1938 Image DVD Region 1

Okay, so... the second Flash Gordon serial is possibly the least popular (nowadays) of the three theatrically released 'franchise' serials... although it’s still pretty great, to be honest. This second serial is called Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars and I’d always believed the myth about the producers setting their sights on a return to Mongo for this and then changing their minds and going to Mars... was because Orson Welle’s popular and traumatic radio broadcast of War Of The Worlds meant Mars was on everyone’s lips again. However, it turns out that this legendary broadcast was actually about 8 months after this serial was put out so... turns out the change came due to budgetary constraints although, to be fair, I really don’t understand how the re-use of sets on Mars was any cheaper than reusing the same sets for Mongo (where that would have been more logical in a story sense, too).

It’s also much less racy in terms of the costuming here, with the bare chests of the men and bare legs of the women a thing of the past, although, that being said, there are at least three ‘bottleneck’ episodes where lengthy flashbacks from the first serial are replayed. I don’t know why you need them, to be honest, since the plot points they purport to explain do nothing of the kind and these could easily be cut with the serial running for one episode less. As it is, it’s the longest of the three serials, clocking in at a hefty 15 chapters long.  

The main cast in this one are pretty much the same with Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe playing Flash, Frank Shannon as Zarkov (doing a much better and more interesting acting job in the role here than his previous turn... much more relaxed), Richard Alexander as his second and final go around as Prince Barin (who turns up half way through the serial as a kind of added ‘deux ex machina’ character) and Charles Middleton as Ming The Merciless. It does, of course, still have Jean Rogers playing Dale Arden, which is a big plus. Out of the two times she appeared in the role, this was a better written version of the character, at least for the first half of the serial before she spends most of the second half relegated to screaming and cowering once more.

There are also four important new characters in this one. We have Wheeler Oakman as Tarnack, Ming’s right hand man who is basically like a more scheming and, ultimately less loyal, version of Officer Torch from the first serial (Torch is absent from this story but returns in the third serial). Next we have serial stalwart C. Montague Shaw as the King of the Clay People. The clay people are at war with the monarchy of the planet because they were turned into... well... people of clay, doomed to live in the clay caverns and await an ally who can destroy the source of the power which robbed them of their humanity... err... martianity... and revert back to their true selves.

Another major player is reporter Happy Hapgood, played by Donald Kerr. He basically stows away on Flash and the gang’s rocket ship in the hopes of breaking a story and ends up on a round trip to Mars. He’s basically there for comic relief but he also seems to serve the dual function of getting into difficulties and falling over at the wrong minute to get them all in trouble, even more than Dale Arden (which was her principle function in the first serial, of course). I’ve always quite liked the bumbling character but he really does seem like a fifth wheel and I guess the studio thought so too because he’s only in the middle serial.

Lastly but, probably the most important, we have the chapter play’s other main villain who is, for most of the story, the dominant ally of Ming. She is Queen Azura, played by Beatrice Roberts. In the strips she was The Witch Queen Of Mongo but, well, given the location change for this adventure, she’s now Azura, the Martian Queen of Black Magic. And, yes, when they say magic they mean it. Due to the properties of a gem she wears (which can only be nullified by the presence of the Black Sapphire of Kalu), she has full on magical properties. Despite all the scientific shenanigans which the rest of the technological marvels are explained away with in the three Flash Gordon serials, this is full on embracing the co-existence of a magical force for good or evil so... yeah... it may seem like an uneasy alliance of elements but the characters don’t once question the logic of it so, neither does the audience, for the most part (the recent Wonder Woman 1984, reviewed here, has not been as successful for some audience members in pulling off the same trick, for some reason).

Now, there are a heck of a lot less things for Flash and company to explore in this one. In terms of different races, the first serial brought us Barin (and by mention only in his case, the forest people of Arboria), the Hawkmen, the Sharkmen and the Lion Men. This serial is way longer but only has the Clay Men (who live in the rocks of their cave and materialise from the walls when they want to be seen) and a forest based race (who I suspect were probably the Arborians in the first scripts, before the location change meant that they couldn’t really be). Don’t worry, we’ll meet the Arborians properly in the third serial and.. oh wait, I’ll save their dress sense for the next review.

So, yes, less people for Flash and the gang to meet and, for the longer running time, this means there is a hell of a lot of jumping from location to location and doing the usual mini quests in an effort to pad out the time. Okay, so this is standard for a serial anyway but there’s just less variety here. I should probably mention I’ve never read the strips this one is possibly based on far enough to know if this is a good adaptation of some of those or if they just did their own thing here. There are, however, some nice technical inventions, in addition to Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical marvels, which were used again for the laboratory scenes here...

So the hand held rays guns are a neat design and are held kind of cack-handed, with the wrist having to be held up more or less at a right angle to aim them at a target. It’s a distinctive way of doing things but, it seems to me, a little less practical in terms of the strain of the user having to keep his arm bent up to fire them. There are also the Martian cloaks or ‘bat wings’ which act similarly to parachutes in that, when you stretch your arms out, you can jump out of a stratosled (the new spaceship design for this serial) and glide along the currents of air to land safely on the ground. Another lovely innovation is the light bridge, which is a beam of light extended from the roof of one building to another which allows you to walk across it in safety. Finally there are the little bullet cars which rocket through a kind of secret, underground runway linking the Clay Kingdom and Queen Azura’s palace... which are used only half the time and make no sense of the times the heroes and villains choose to travel to each other via stratosled. Especially since they seem infinitely quicker. These same transports are also, of course, a main feature of the planet Saturn, as fans of the 1939 serial Buck Rogers will remember, where some of these sets and props were re-used.

Okay so, the serial is fine and, although not as good as the first, is certainly superior to many of the serials put out by the other studios. Strangely, the story starts off exactly where the last one finishes, with Flash, Dale and Zarkov returning to Earth at the end of the previous adventure (which I reviewed here). I say strangely because, although they are wearing more or less the same costumes in their rocket ship... after all, where would one be able to get a costume change on the way back to Earth... Dale Arden has gone from blonde to brunette (as the original comic strip character). So, well yeah, don’t know where she got a hairdresser during her return journey, for sure.

The chapter play does all the usual things with lots of action, wobbly sets and daring stunt work (performed by stunt people who, mostly, look nothing like the stars they are doubling). There are some surprisingly good, effective special effects (where things disintegrate by being, I suspect, iron filings moulded into shape and then de-magnetised so they fall apart... this beats most things I’ve seen done to this day) along with the usual ‘of their time’ effects. I still love the ray gun blasts with their loud bangs and ‘not quite synching up’ rays of superimposed light. Although, in one scene towards the end of the serial, Flash dodges a ray gun attack by one of Ming’s guards but the sound and visual effect are noticeably absent... as though there just wasn’t enough time or money to put that last little effect on. So it looks pretty silly, to be honest.

Actually, the last episode has a pretty dark conclusion, with Ming going somewhat power mad and Tarnack turning on him, forcing him into a disintegration chamber and, well, disintegrating him. It’s got a certain finality to it in terms of his character and, I suspect the studio weren’t planning on making a third serial because, well, they bring Ming back with no real explanation as to how he could possibly have survived in the next one. More on that in my review of the third one but at least his miracle reappearance in this one after seeing him consumed by fire in the last is explained here by highlighting his robes are somehow fireproof. This death scene is followed by a hasty conclusion where Flash and the others return to Earth and are celebrated with stock footage and their faces hastily superimposed over the shots of the crowds (in a kind of eerie pre-cursor to the character ‘sign offs’ in last year’s Avengers Endgame... reviewed by me here).

The music in this one, as usual, comes from a variety of sources such as The Invisible Man (reviewed here) and other B-pictures. Most of the stuff used in here is from Franz Waxman’s score to The Bride Of Frankenstein (which I reviewed here) and it’s probably the most dominant music used in this particular serial. That being said, I don’t think it’s necessarily tracked in and I’m sure I heard some variants in a much slower tempo at one point so... I’m guessing that there was a minimal musical budget for this one (don’t forget, the Flash Gordon serials were the expensive jewels in Universal’s serial output crown) but I suspect a lot of it was re-recorded to fit some of the scenes better.

And that’s me done for a while with Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars. This would be the last time we would see Jean Rogers and Richard Alexander playing Dale Arden and Prince Barin respectively. Also the last time we’d see Priscilla Lawson playing Princess Aura (who is seen in the flashback replays from the first serial only). These characters would be filled out with different actors for the third time around... which I’ll review on here tomorrow. Hope you can make it. 


Buster Crabbe Serial Week at NUTS4R2

Flash Gordon (1936)

Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars (1938)

Red Barry (1938)

Buck Rogers (1939)

Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940)