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)

Monday 28 December 2020

Flash Gordon (1936)

Ming In The Tail

Flash Gordon (1936)
Directed by Frederick Stephani & Ray Taylor
USA 1936 Image DVD Region 1

So... I'm finally revisiting one of my favourite things.

I first saw the original Flash Gordon serial on the BBC in... it must have been the early to mid-1970s. I’m going to say 1973/74 as a guestimate so, that would have made me somewhere between five and six years old. This first one consists of 13 episodes running between around 15-25 mins each (including the usual replay of the last few minutes of the previous episode at the start of the new one, to remind the audience what dire predicament Flash or one of his 'team' had been left in at the end of the last chapter).  

My father spotted it was being shown and, I believe this may have been the first time it was broadcast on television in the United Kingdom, although my dad certainly remembered seeing the serials at the cinema in the early 1940s... so they would have been either very quick re-releases or we got them a few years late over here. He always used to rave about these and also about a certain Western star when I was a kid so, when he spotted that the BBC were showing a special version of this, with the serial spliced together and run as two large parts, including a Hopalong Cassidy feature film showing bang in the middle of this wonderful, visual sandwich, there was no way we were going to miss this one.

And it was fantastic. It was one of my all time favourite things to think about, talk about and act out when I was a kid... taking its place alongside Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, King Kong, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Planet Of The Apes, Doc Savage and, eventually, Star Wars (which really does owe its beginnings to Flash Gordon... I’ll get to that eventually, bear with me... you can read my review of that movie here). I was absolutely hooked and, I guess the screening must have proved pretty popular because, for the next 12 or so years, the BBC would televise the three Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s (and some other classic serials too), one episode a day and usually in the school holidays in the mornings (Christmas was always good) or, occasionally, at 5.40pm on BBC2 in the same time slot they used to show the Charlie Chan, The Saint, The Falcon and the 1960s Fu Manchu films in. And you can bet my whole life revolved around them when they came on. Everything would be planned around me watching the latest installment as far as the way the rest of the day would go. Everything about these things hit big with me. And remember, these were the days before video recording. So I used to have a microphone set up next to the television and everybody had to be quiet so I could sound record the show and then listen to it numerous times after because I loved it so much (I only upgraded from a VHS player to DVD player a year or two after those machines first came out because I discovered that the Flash Gordon serials were out in the US on the format... the very same discs I’m re-watching now... oh, for a Blu Ray restoration).

Now, Flash Gordon was a cartoon strip owned by King Features that was created and written by Alex Raymond. And I say created loosely because, just a few years ago, I found out that it was he who had been working for a while with Edgar Rice Burroughs to try and develop a comic strip based on John Carter of Mars. It almost came to pass when, suddenly, work on the forthcoming strip was cancelled, the Burroughs contract rejected and... not soon after, Flash Gordon burst on the scene with a cast of creatures and locales which, it could be said, bear a certain resemblance to some of the ideas in Burrough’s Barsoomian chronicles. Funnily enough, around about 15 years ago I finally read a collected reprint of the first story of the Flash Gordon newspaper strips and the travelling to and fro from various places on the globe (in this case, the globe is the planet Mongo) and meeting strange creatures while fulfilling mini quests to get to the end of the story... in other words, all of the things that you would associate with a typical 1930s -1950s theatrical serial adventure... were all inherent in that original story. Not only that... and I certainly never realised this at the time... but the first of the three serials is absolutely spot on a fairly straight adaptation of the original adventure (I can’t say the same for the other two because I never read those strips thus far). So, that threw me when I found that out... in as nice a way possible.

Olympic Bronze and Gold Medal champion swimmer Clarence Linden Crabbe II played Flash under his screen name, Larry “Buster” Crabbe. He’s the perfect Flash Gordon (still is) and out of all the cast, he seems to be one of the more natural of the actors (he’d already played Tarzan by this point and would go on to do a whole series of both Billy The Kid and Billy Carson films, not to mention a couple of other strip characters which... I’ll get to over the next few days on this blog). Starring opposite him as Dale Arden was Jean Rogers who, for me, was always the perfect Dale Arden, although she does, in this first serial at least, spend most of her time swooning or metaphorically ‘twisting her ankle’ and generally putting herself in danger so she can be rescued. She was actually a natural brunette, which would have been fine because so was the character but, Jean Harlow was big at the time so the producers wanted her to dye her hair blonde, just as they’d got ‘Buster’ Crabbe to do. In the third serial she was replaced completely by another actress (I’ll get to that when I review it).

Frank Shannon plays Dr. Zarkov and, he was always one of my favourites but, I have to say, watching it this time around he seems to be one of the more wooden of the actors in the cast, although I’m pretty sure he got a lot better as the sequels progressed. Prince Barin is played here by the somewhat portly (which was more associated with strength in those days, as opposed to obesity) Richard Alexander, who would reprise the character in the next serial but, like many of the cast members here, would be replaced by a different actor in the third). Only the actors playing Flash Gordon, Dr. Zarkov and Emperor Ming The Merciless would stay in their roles for all three serials.

We also have Jack 'Tiny' Lipson, James Pierce and Duke York playing King Vultan of the Hawk Men, Prince Thun of the Lion Men and King Kala of the Shark Men respectively. Thun’s character was given short shrift in the 1980 movie version (reviewed here) and was stabbed by Ming early in the story but he's given much more to do here. It’s pretty obvious Brian Blessed must have remembered Lipson’s performance as the constantly laughing, boisterous Vultan when he played the role... which doesn’t seem that far removed from Blessed’s personality anyway, the way he played it.

Rounding out the main cast are Charles Middleton (who appeared a few years earlier opposite the Marx Brothers in a sequence in Duck Soup) as the evil Emperor Ming and the feisty Priscilla Lawson as his daughter Princess Aura (who is even more dripping with sex appeal than the vivacious Ornella Muti was in the 1980s movie). I’ve heard that Middleton’s make up was deliberately made to resemble, to a certain extent, the look of popular book, serial and movie super villain Fu Manchu although, to be fair, if that’s the case then the comic book character also was. Priscilla Lawson is seen here in what is probably her most famous role of not very many films. She joined the armed forces in the Second World War and, I believe, lost her leg... dying from complications from an ulcer or some such in the 1950s. When the character reappears in the third serial, she not only suffers a complete personality change but she’s also played by another actress.

And it’s a real humdinger of a serial, matching the strip it’s based on with different humanoid species (as you can tell from some of the character names) and with some special effects that, while they may look quite ropey by today's standards, still look kind of beautiful in a charming 1930s kind of way. The crudity of the practical effects is, however, matched by the sleak elegance of some of the designs. And, as there are lots of different mini adventures making up the serial, the special effects team at Universal even got to reprise their startling ‘invisibility’ effects which they’d perfected for The Invisible Man movies... Flash spends the best part of two episodes as an ‘invisible agent’, attacking Ming and his soldiers when they least suspect, aided by the invisibility ray Dr. Zarkov perfects while tinkering away in the laboratory on Mongo.

Of course, there’s loads of recycling going on too. You’ll recognise sets from various Universal horror movies redressed and, of course, no scientific laboratory would be complete without using Kenneth Strickfaden’s unusual scientific inventions which did Dr. Frankenstein so proud (read my review of Frankenstein here for a quick mention of Strickfaden and be on the look out for my review of a biography on him in the New Year). There’s also the odd bit of ‘found footage’ from older productions to flesh out sequences and, well, a lot of Ming’s soldiers, not to mention Barin, are obviously outfitted by leftovers from a Roman legion picture.

Even the music is mostly recycled and I wish I knew where half of it came from. Although the re-release of this may have included some selections from Franz Waxman’s score to The Bride Of Frankenstein, this first release doesn’t included those (although the two sequels certainly did). There are various classical pieces which I would love to know the names of here plus various other Universal scores jammed together in one big, quite seductive musical mash up (such as excerpts from the scores of Dracula’s Daughter, reviewed here and Werewolf Of London, reviewed here).

That being said, despite all this recycling, the Flash Gordon serials had huge budgets for their time, three times the amount normally alloted a weekly cinematic chapter play. They were the most expensive serials of their time and this really shows when you compare it to others of their ilk. Universal serials always looked better than rivals like Columbia and Republic and, these (and the Buck Rogers serial) looked even better than the other Universal serials of the time. Yes, there are a lot of clunky bits such as bizarrely miscast voice additions dubbed on to add in lines in post production and, some of the monsters look bizarrely comical (although, as a kaiju fan I still love them)... but they are completely charming and, frankly, I could watch these things over and over again.

It’s no secret that George Lucas wanted to make a big budget version of Flash Gordon in the mid 1970s and that he tried very hard to get the rights but was refused. I guess a lot of Star Wars fans owe a lot to that refusal because he wrote his own space opera along similar lines and, although Star Wars is its own thing, it’s equally a pastiche of several things found in the serials and the history of science fiction (not to mention influences from the cinema of Kurosawa and World War II dogfight pictures, along with a load of other stuff). Indeed, I can’t think of Han Solo being tortured on that static electricity machine in The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here) without thinking of Flash being tortured by the electricity in the static room on Vultan’s sky city (indeed, Cloud City is pretty much Lucas’ homage to Vultan’s city). Similarly, when Flash goes up against a man in suit monster in Episode 2/3 (cliffhanger and resolution)... and changing into a young boy in long shot so the ‘giant monster’ can pick him up... I remember what a debt the Rancor in Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here) owes to this serial. More to come on these kinds of influences as I review each serial this week. Of course, the film-makers here, in turn, were also looking back to their cinematic legacy. For instance, the man working the big dial machine in the atom furnaces in Vultan’s palace was obviously inspired by the workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (reviewed here).

The other thing about this is, although some of the acting is a bit wooden and some of the acting is very ‘silent melodrama’, that the on-screen chemistry between everyone is electric and it really carries it. Crabbe himself is pretty natural as the comic strip hero and you can see why he was cast in these kinds of adventures roles... being an Olympic swimmer he really looks the part and you believe he can do all this running, jumping and fighting... some of which he clearly does himself (and you certainly know it when he doesn’t). And talking about that body... you get to see a lot of it and, frankly, a lot of the actors and actresses in this. The costumes in this one show a lot of flesh and the producers were pressurised into cooling it down and providing more coverings for the various actors and actresses in the two sequels.

And... there’s lots more to say about Flash Gordon but, honestly, watch out for my reviews of the next two serials in this sequence over the next couple of days. When this was finally shown on television in America in the 1950s it became very popular and so, an American/German co-production of a Flash Gordon TV series was produced, starring Steve Holland as Flash (who readers of the 1960s/70s Bantam reprints of the Doc Savage stories will recognise as he was the ‘artists model’ for James Bama’s cover paintings). I’ve got a number of the surviving episodes of this show and, honestly, asides from not sticking to the original concept in hardly any way at all, the shows look really cheap and nasty and certainly don’t live up to the brilliance of the original serials, despite being filmed almost 20 years later. Avoid them like the plague (of sound?*) and stick with these wonderful originals. I have to say that, re-watching these again, they totally hold up and I thoroughly love them. So join me tomorrow when I review the first of the sequel serials.

*sorry, couldn’t resist a little joke to fans of the Alex Raymond branded Flash Gordon novels of the early 1970s there.


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)


Saturday 26 December 2020

Wonder Woman 1984 (aka WW84)



Paw Deal

Wonder Woman 1984 (aka WW84)
UK/USA/Spain 2020
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Warner Brothers

Warning: Yeah, this will have loads of spoilers so,
you know, see the movie first.

Okay, so if you know me at all in real life you’ll know that, for me, Patty Jenkin’s 2017 movie Wonder Woman (reviewed by me here) is not only the best superhero movie ever made but also one of the greatest movies, to date, of the 21st century. There was no way in hell WW84 (aka Wonder Woman 1984, if you go by the posters as opposed to the title on the actual print of the movie) was probably going to come even close to the greatness of the first movie and, yeah, that’s probably the case here but, although it maybe has a few very slight problems, I’d have to say it wins through with what are, for me, the two most important things to get right... one is it’s vastly entertaining and two, it doesn’t let the side down when it comes down to living up to and respecting the original.

What I’m trying to say is, although it doesn’t deliver quite the same experience (I wasn’t weeping throughout the whole movie as I tend to when I re-watch the original one time and time again), it’s a pretty good movie and it certainly has a lot of spectacle to it.

As different as it is to the first film, however, it does try to match some of the elements of the first, attempting to give the fans of the first film more of what they want to see in regards to the specific ingredients which may (or, arguably, may not) have made the first film such a huge draw for the box office.

Perhaps the most blatant of these, at least visually, is a very strong opening action sequence which takes us back to the 12 year old Diana on Themyscira, taking part in a huge sporting contest reminiscent of the games the Amazons used to play on Paradise Island back in the 1940s iteration of the comics (which are, at the moment, the only ones I’ve read... well, just the first couple of year’s worth and a stretch by John Byrne a fair few decades later). This is really a spectacular sequence and Hans Zimmer’s score matches that spectacle note for note. I’ll come back to the scoring of this in a little while.

Another very blatant thing to capture the essence of what made the first film so successful is the return, in 1984, of Steve Trevor, portrayed once again by Chris Pine opposite the sensational Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. People who have seen the first movie will know that Trevor dies at the end of the first film, sacrificing himself at the end of World War I... however, the surprise return of the character fits into the ‘magical’ theme, which sees an ancient artefact of the Gods granting wishes (mostly unconsciously) and thus Diana Prince accidentally wishes Trevor back to life. As does Kristen Wiig’s character Barbara Minerva, who wishes for Wonder Woman’s powers and becomes (although not named in the movie), her alter ego of The Cheetah (or one of them... I’m only familiar with one of the earlier incarnations of Cheetah so I’ve no idea how this character lives up to the comics). So, yeah, you have all that and with it you therefore have the fish-out-of-water scenario from the first film, where Diana was trying to grapple with the world outside her invisible island, reversed here with Steve Trevor trying to catch up with a culture which has moved on almost 70 years. We also get a similar reversal of the costuming scene in the first film, with Trevor this time trying to find something to ‘blend in’ with 1984.

One other nice touch is the way photographs in Diana’s apartment show that the writers have not forgotten the power the photo from the first movie had as an emotional punch on the audience and, although 'that photograph' is not easily in evidence here, there are some moments where the poignancy and emotion of photographs are dwelt upon just a little longer than you may expect in any other film where this fetishism to the static image was not rendered so lovingly in the previous installment.

And everybody is good in this. Pine and Gadot are excellent in their roles, both retaining certain character traits to keep them credible, although I would have liked to see Diana take a punch in a thoughtful manner the way she did in both Wonder Woman and Justice League (reviewed here). Kristen Wiig is also very good in her role, although she totally goes through exactly the same kind of transformation (just a little more gradual) that Seline Kyle went through in Batman Returns (reviewed here). And when it comes to that character, this was one of my slight criticisms of the film... there needed to be a five minute follow up to explore the post-story relationship between Minerva and Prince, I felt. Unless they’re maybe saving her for a sequel.

Pedro Pascal, The Mandalorian himself, does an equally fine job as villain Maxwell Lord and I was very impressed with the arc of the character, who starts off so smarmy that you really dislike him from the get go but then (just like Wiig’s villainess), as more of his back story is revealed, you begin to feel a lot more sympathy for and I was very happy that the arc for both of these villainous characters were handled in a way which was much more appropriate to the title character’s realm and not as they might have been disposed of in other films.

The movie perhaps feels a little light in action in places and another minor criticism is that it starts with a bang and maintains the rush right through to about maybe halfway through the film, with a big desert vehicle chase which, after it has finished, kind of leaves the film a little flat in some ways. I think, however, when I watch this one again, I will probably be more on board with the second half of the piece and I’m pretty sure I’ll regret writing that previous sentence before long.

Just as I regret criticising Rupert Gregson-Williams score in the first movie. By the second screening of that one, I was totally on board with his score and, frankly, tend to get more than just a little teary eyed when I have it on the headphones, walking down a street. I’ll say here that, although I love Hans Zimmer’s music as a composer for a lot of movies, I wish that Rupert Gregson-Williams had been asked to return for this one because, although Zimmer did build the basic Wonder Woman motif for Batman Versus Superman - Dawn Of Justice (reviewed by me here), I thought the stuff that Gregson-Williams brought to the table in the first one far exceeded Zimmer’s wonderful contribution. That being said, Zimmer does have vague hints of Gregson-Williams thematic material from time to time and, of course, he does retain his own Wonder Woman theme with an appropriate build up to it in this film. Other times, though, I thought the score seemed wildly inappropriate, with a comic theme which recalled, to me, his Electro theme from The Amazing Spider-Man 2... a score I was not all that fond of, to be honest. Still, there are also some wonderful pieces of music in WW84 and I certainly can’t wait until the CD arrives in the post.

The structure of the film is clever too and The Monkey’s Paw element of ‘magic’ at the heart of the story (something it comes clean about a few times in the film) extends in like spirit to a credible, if you’re on board with this central concept (I expect some people won’t be), rendition of a new twist on the old Invisible Jet that Wonder Woman used to have in the comics and TV series, imbuing it with a new accessibility which could prove interesting in the future, if the film series keeps going.  Alas, the way the story is put together also reveals the end game quite early on and the obvious ‘sacrifice’ on the table here... I mean, I knew it would have to come anyway but there’s a point in the film where audiences are going to figure out, probably before Diana does, that a certain character is going to have to disappear into the ether again for her to be powerful enough to resume her stance as a guardian of the planet. It doesn’t take the sting out of it too much but, yeah, things are pretty obviously pointing to both this and the mechanics of how the ending is going to have to work to give each of the ‘super-villains’ a way out of the mess they’ve, almost inadvertently, created. The ending is nice, though and, certainly retains both the spirit of the first film and, also, the way the character arcs would tend to go in those 1940s comics I’ve read.

And that’s about me done with Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) other than to say, if you’re a long term fan of the character in the medium of the moving image, you’re going to want to stay around in the cinema for the mid-end credits sequence. Again, I could see the reveal there coming before it happened and, to be honest, it was done in perhaps one of the least subtle, cheesiest ways imaginable but, you know, without revealing too much, I really loved it and hope a certain character can return if there is a sequel made to this movie. Other than that, it fits in surprisingly well with the continuity of the other three DC Universe movies in which Gal Gadot has played this role and I would recommend this as a high calibre superhero movie for most people but, with the small caution that there was no way it could ever be better than the first one. Definitely worth most people’s time though. Loved it!

Friday 25 December 2020

Season's Greetings 2020



















Merry Christmas

Wishing all my readers the greetings of the season.

Pictured above are the three Christmas cards I designed for last year. So I designed the labels first, then shot the bottles and then turned them into Christmas cards. Three ‘Christmas Spirits’ - Rosebud, Cthulhu Navy Rum and Mos Eisley Comfort. Thought some of my readers might like to see them.

From Monday to Friday next week on the blog it’s one of my occasional themed weeks and I chose the Christmas holidays for these particular reviews because, if you are a certain age in the UK (that is, my age or a few years younger), you’ll remember that during school holidays (especially Christmas holidays), one of four of these five reviews used to play on television every morning.

So, yeah, next up on the blog, Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe stars in my five reviews for Serial Week at NUTS4R2, coming next week to a blog theatre near you!

And if you find yourself bored during this year's Covid Distancing Christmas, you could have a go at this year’s Cryptic Film Quiz by clicking here.

Once again, Merry Christmas to all my readers and thanks so much for coming here to read. It’s much appreciated.


Tuesday 22 December 2020

NUTS4R2’s Cryptic Movie Quiz - Christmas 2020

Annual Cryptic Movie Quiz

So here we are again already. Time for this year’s Cryptic Movie Quiz for the festive period.

How you solve it...
Peruse the grid above and you’ll see spaces for 14 movie titles running horizontally and, below this intro, are the cryptic clues to assist you in working out what these 'non-Christmas' movie titles are. To help out, I’ve filled in a line of letters vertically downwards spelling out MERRY CHRISTMAS... so you have a letter in its correct position for each of the titles. Please don’t forget to click on the grid to see a larger version of it and maybe print it off to help yourself.

Email your answers to me at before January 9th 2020 to get your entries in. A few days after that, I’ll stick up the name of the winner (or winners, if it’s a tie or a group effort), along with all the answers, here on my blog.

By way of an example, here’s a question from last year’s quiz, followed by the answer...

Example question:
Ellie isn’t around as this pachyderm takes over from Peter Lorre as a Fritz Lang serial killer.

Example answer:
A pachyderm could be an ELEPHANT. Take ELLIE or ELE out and you’re just left with PHANT. If it replaces Peter Lorre in the title role of the serial killer in Fritz Lang’s M, you get "As M". So the answer when you put it all together is Don Coscarelli’s classic horror film PHANTASM.

Or just check out the January solution pages from the last few years to get a feel for how to put these things together. If you keep checking back at the comments section below, I will probably put the odd extra clue down there every now and again to help you out through the Christmas period.

Full marks are rarely scored by everyone so... if you’re feeling a bit stuck, there’s still everything to play for. Send me what you’ve got anyway.

I hope you enjoy playing. Make sure you have lots of fun this Christmas period, drink responsibly and play irresponsibly but, don’t catch Covid. And here are the questions...

1. I’m calm as Godzilla.

2. More than nine aliens.

3. Miss Te Kanawa and her friend Harry.

4. How hard was this aquatic bird?

5. Many stories but, not completely cryptic.

6. This is the hundredth rash I’ve got from those reversible rats!

7. I guess that’s what you get to bug you when you scramble to harm!

8. Famous Liverpudleon percussionist gets weaponised.

9. Artifical Intelligence gets all backwards with fives.

10. Sheriff Ross, go back and get your men.

11. Not a very heavy home.

12. Oh no! Kim’s red!

13. It’s only half okay. Why Dan?

14. Get Frank something to hold his beer in.

Monday 21 December 2020

Giant Super Hero Holiday Grab Bag

Grabby Christmas

Giant Super Hero Holiday Grab Bag
by various writers and artists
Marvel Comics 1974-1976

Imagine, if you will, a young boy aged six years old, out in London with his parents at the tail end of 1974. There I was, in either Berwick Street in Soho or just down the road and around the corner in St. Ann’s Court (just off Wardour Street, depending on when the place I'm talking about moved) in what was my all time favourite shop, Dark They Were And Golden Eyed. This was the forerunner of such future shops as the short lived Eye In The Pyramid and, of course, Forbidden Planet (pretty much the only one of these types of stores which made it out of the late 70s/early 80s and which is still with us today, although there are some modern variants like Mega City Comics and Orbital, of course).

So, anyway, there I was in my favourite science fiction, fantasy, horror and comic shop gazing up at a huge (well, to me it seemed huge) tabloid sized, cardboard covered Treasury Edition called Giant Super Hero Holiday Grab Bag. There was a load of Christmas Holly with red berries on the cover forming a wreath and, bursting through all that rich greenery were Spider-Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, The Thing and The Human Torch. And then, on the back, there was a reverse of the cover with the same scene but with a view of them from behind, doing the bursting. It was gorgeous and I was actually very surprised when my dad took the thing down from the shelf and said we could take it back home with us. Surprised because, honestly, it was an exorbitant amount of money for the time... a real luxury item. Yep! It was 50p (I believe the US price was about $1.50, which says something about the state of the pound against the dollar these days, I think). How could a comic be priced over what was five times the amount of a regular comic back then? Honestly, fifty pence?

Anyway, we took it home and it got a lot of love and, I still have this and both the other two ‘sequels’ to this tome to this day... and it’s those which are the subject of today's review, an excuse for me to read and hang out with the fond memories. I think it was the first Treasury Edition I’d ever seen. Both DC and Marvel did these tabloid sized Treasury Editions (as they were loosely known at the time) and, although there were a few which pre-dated this one by a matter of months, I believe this was the first year that the two big companies started releasing them. Not a huge amount of them have survived these days because they didn’t travel through the mail too well and their relatively cumbersome size meant they tended to get folded and bent quite a bit. Not mine though. I managed to keep most I had and, although some were given away, I managed to buy many of them back and a few others in the interceding years. Actually, there are two I used to have which I still wish I could get back but, for some reason, those ones seem to go for very big money. As it is they usually go for a fair whack if you’re lucky enough to see them about in the wild. I have maybe 30 to 40 of these things and I still think they’re great buys, with their oversized artwork reprinted at something almost as large as the original artwork might have been before reproduction and with a full colour, no adverts experience of around 80 to 90 pages in total. These were a great deal.

It’s actually now that I read them again that I realise that, although the covers really 'brought the Christmas', the stories inside (which were mostly reprints in the case of these particular editions), were mostly not seasonal tales.

Here is what lurked between the covers...

Giant Superhero Holiday Grab Bag
Marvel Treasury Special - 1974

First up we have what was pretty much the only Christmas tale in this one (honestly, these things feel much more Christmassy than they actually are) with a tale teaming up everybody’s favourite web slinger Spider-Man with the Silver Age version of The Human Torch, Johnny Storm of The Fantastic Four. This is Have Yourself A Sandman Little Christmas by Roy Thomas And Ross Andru and it’s a truly brilliant little tale which humanises the super villain and in which, for a little while, the two lead heroes turn a blind eye for a minute and let him keep his annual ritual of visiting his sick mother in bed on Christmas Eve. It’s a heart warming story and nobody is really worried that The Sandman gets away at the end.

The next, very non-Christmassy story is In Mortal Combat With... Sub Mariner by Stan Lee and Wally Wood. This is a tale of Namor seeking a lawyer to challenge mankind’s rights to be the ruling surface dwellers and, yeah, no prizes as to which legal team he goes for. It’s not long before Daredevil and Sub Mariner are locked in deadly combat in the streets of New York.

And then there’s... And To All A Good Night by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan. Along with the opening tale, this is the other strong story in this collection and, although it has a Christmassy title, it could frankly be set on almost any night of the year. This one shows Black Widow’s chauffer rescuing a suicidal young man from taking a plunge into the river, so he takes the kid back to Natasha to help him. Alas, when the hoodlums who are the cause of the boy’s troubles attack them all in Natasha’s building, the teenager goes to save her and ends up plunging to his death from the rooftop anyway... much to the upset of the teary eyed Black Widow. This one is pretty grim and depressing and really shows that Marvel could take themselves seriously with different kinds of stories when they wanted to.

The last two tales in this first Grab Bag tome, Battle Of The Century - The Hulk VS The Thing and The Avengers Take Over is a two part tale by the classic writing and art team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It does what it says on the tin and shows the first real meeting between The Fantastic Four and the fairly newly formed The Avengers, as they learn how to work together in the second part to end The Hulk’s current rampage. It’s made more than clear in this story that The Hulk’s alter ego is very much Bob Banner... that would change over time.

And that was that for this first volume. Dynamic and, much simpler but much more engaging somehow, artwork than a lot of comics today and certainly a lot of fun. However, this must have been a very successful experiment on the part of Marvel because, a year later there was...

Giant Superhero Holiday Grab Bag
Marvel Treasury Edition Number 8 - 1975

This one goes with the same format with only two actual Christmas tales but there’s also a New Year’s Eve story in here too... of sorts.

Twas The Night Before Christmas by Gary Friedrich And Frank Springer is a nice opening story about Nick Fury, Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D going up into space to defuse a world threatening bomb on Christmas Eve. But it’s a trap and Fury is face to face with a Ku Klux Klan style super villain called The Hatemonger, who straps him to a capsule with the bomb and sends him back to Earth. If it wasn’t for a serendipitous intervention from an unknown entity (it’s strongly implied it’s Santa and his sled) then things might have turned out badly. Nice idea and love that there’s a Sean Connery reference in this, paying homage to the original idea of resurrecting the star of Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandoes as a secret agent in the Cold War.

After this, there’s a reprint of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s classic Spidey Goes Mad story, where Mysterio posing as a psycho-analyst almost makes Spider-Man think he’s going off his rocker with his illusions... if it wasn’t for J. Jonah Jameson accidentally foiling his plans, much to the editor of the Daily Bugle’s dismay. Next up is the second Christmas story, Jingle Bombs by Steve Engleheart, George Tusca and Billy Graham. This one tells of a super villain visiting Luke Cage, Hero For Hire on Christmas Eve and attacking him as people from the past, present and future (in a nod to Charles Dickens) before finding him worthy enough to tie up in his lair so they can die together when he lets off an atomic bomb. This isn’t a great story but it has a certain atmosphere to it that makes up for the clumsy plot.

Then we have Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe’s Heaven Is A Very Small Place, which is... literally The Hulk in the desert reacting to a mirage of a friendly town before it fades out again. It’s... not got a lot of substance to it but at least it’s fairly short.

The final tale in this edition is Eternity! Eternity! by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan and is about Doctor Strange (back in the phase when he used to wear that blue face covering) and is about Nightmare and Eternity trying to destroy mankind on New Year’s Eve. It seems to be the first installment of a two parter because, just as the big fight is about to start, the editors obviously decided they didn’t want to go over the page count and instead have Doctor Strange reminding the readers that everything came out alright in the end.

So, yeah... that one was a bit of a cop out but it must have sold well because it once more paved the way for...

Giant Superhero Holiday Grab Bag
Marvel Treasury Edition Number 13 - 1976

Okay, so Marvel obviously never used to do that many Christmas stories (and I can sort of see why in terms of the long game and the age of the characters) because they manage to have their cake and eat it here. By that I mean, none of the reprints are Christmas themed in this edition but, to ease this and attempt to give the whole thing a seasonal feel, there’s a framing story of a bunch of completely new pages, called ‘Tis The Season, by Roger Stern and George Tuaka, which takes place during and after a Fantastic Four VS The Avengers charity snowball fight event... where various of these and other superheroes interact with the characters and each encounter has one or more of the characters reminiscing about a previous adventure... with a few pages of this popping up between each story and the bookends.
The regular stories start with ...As Those Who Will Not See! by Gerry Conway and Gill Kane, when Spider-Man turns up and we get a tale featuring him plus The Thing  and his blind girlfriend Alicia Masters teaming up to follow a thread created by Alicia’s step-dad, The Puppetmaster. It tries to be an emotional story of a father gone bad but, in the end, it’s not really a great story. The next in the volume reprints the story of The Vision becoming a member of The Avengers with the classic Even An Android Can Cry by Roy Thomas and John Buscema.

He Who Strikes The Silver Surfer
by Stan Lee and Marie Severin is next but, nothing much happens as two titans, Hulk and Silver Surfer, lock horns and trade fists. Marvel seemed to be good at having ‘nothing much happening’ while two characters are pounding on each other for the required number of pages. Something to note here though is that Robert Banner has now become Bruce Banner (later this was glossed over with the explanation that he’s Robert Bruce Banner, if memory serves).

The last story, Once Upon A Time - - The Ox! by Gerry Conway and Gene Colan is Daredevil VS The Ox who, if memory serves, was originally one of The Enforcers in The Amazing Spider-Man but now seems to be a dormant personality in another character. It doesn’t make much sense and is not a fun story, as far as I’m concerned.

And that’s me done with these for the forseeable future. They’re not what I remember them to be but it was nice to revisit these things and I’m surprised that Marvel haven’t gathered some of their more Christmas themed stories from the last sixty plus years of comics and released them under a money grabbing trade paperback reprint but, you know, that’s just what I’d do (and I’d certainly grab a copy for myself). The Treasury format is one of my fondest memories of comic book buying in the 1970s and, despite the weak content in some of these tomes, they will always hold a special place in my heart. Definitely worth tracking down if comic books are your thing.

Saturday 19 December 2020

Santa Jaws

I'm Dreaming
Of A Bite Christmas

Santa Jaws
USA 2018 Directed by Misty Talley
Active Entertainment DVD Region 1
As part of the Shark Bait collection

Warning: Slight spoilers I guess.
Wow, you know I’ve seen a few shark movies this year and, it has to be said, the majority of them weren’t that great (and that’s an understatement... I’ll be putting some reviews up next year to tell you just how bad some of these things are). However, when I heard about the existence of a film called Santa Jaws, I knew this would have to be my big Christmas film here and I managed to track down this US Shark Bait DVD, which has six shark movies on there (five of which I’d not seen yet) and also a bonus alligator movie (go figure).

And I have to say that, quite surprisingly, I really enjoyed it. Out of all the bad shark movies I’ve seen, this one ties with Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre as being among the most competently made. Not to mention it's a whole load of fun and has a ridiculous premise so, you know, the audience totally knows not to take the film seriously.

The plot set up concerns high school student and comic book enthusiast Cody, played by Reid Miller, who has just drawn a comic book, the titular Santa Jaws. However, when his grandfather gives him a magical pen for Christmas (where he got it is not made clear, other than it’s an antique German relic or some such), he doesn’t realise the pen grants magical powers so that anything that is written or drawn with it comes true in real life. He naturally tries his new pen out by inking a big splash panel of the shark in question and, oh yeah, it manifests in his little town where a lot of the homes are built onto a waterfront.

And, yes, it is insanely ridiculous. The film starts off with a sequence from the comic book made real, with Christmas baubles floating on the water in a mini ‘origin’ story which shows how Santa Jaws got her hat. And then we have the set up I just explained and... yeah, fun. The shark in question has red eyes (apparently they are meant to glow like Rudolph’s nose) and wears a Santa Claus hat on its fin... and that’s what you see breaking the water when you hear composer Andrew Morgan Smith’s Jaws parody mixed in with Carol Of The Bells (I actually wouldn’t mind having a CD of this score but, alas, it doesn’t look like the music from this film has had any kind of commercial release). It has its nicely gory moments but the film is centred on fun. It has comic book people hanging out at the comic book store having to band together to fight the shark and, there are a heck of a lot of deaths in this movie from major characters which, given the initial set up, is to be expected. There’s an obvious solution to all the carnage in this movie which, I’m sure, most viewers will twig long before the central characters do.

The actors in this are all surprisingly good for a B-movie like this and, I can see from the director’s IMDB entry that she has a track record directing shark movies (at least one of them is also on this set so I’m kinda looking forward to it) and, yeah, the whole thing works really well. Special shout out to Carrie Lazar who plays Cody’s strict, misunderstanding mother before the expected character growth... she brings a lot of credibility to her role, as do all her colleagues actually. This is obviously a ridiculous movie but none of the actors are tipping their hat to the preposterous nature of the central idea and this is what helps sell the spirit of the thing and wraps it up with a nice Christmassy bow.

And, yeah, the movie does keep on getting sillier as you watch, I’m happy to say. It turns out that Christmas objects are what lures the great white shark to visit death upon its hapless victims. So when grandpa accidentally drops the eggnog into the water, he’s the first to go. Similarly, when a character is trying to work out how Christmas tree lights got snarled up around the propellor of his boat, you know the shark is going to take an interest.

Then, when the group of 'would be' shark fighters discover that they have to Christmassify their weapons to have any effect on the creature, that’s when more fun begins... as spears are augmented by sharpened candy canes and Christmas tree baubles are filled with explosives. And, actually, one of the more unexpectedly spectacular deaths in the film is when the shark uses the candy cane with which it’s been impaled to similarly ram and gut one of Cody’s family.

And, yeah, the film is actually well thought out and scripted, within the realm of its welcomely bizarre premise... there are some nice one liners and the humour even extends to a wonderful ‘Pole Dancer’ T-shirt which Cody’s friend, played by Hawn Tran wears, depicting the silhouette of a reindeer dancing provocatively around the 'North Pole'. Its a nicely humourous movie and, added to the fact that it does actually feel like a movie rather than a bunch of random scenes thrown together where the camera isn’t even pointing in the right direction half the time (yeah, I’ve got some bad shark movie reviews coming, for sure), Santa Jaws is just a refreshingly good little movie and I’m happy to recommend it to all the lovers of ‘so bad it’s good but in the best way’ films out there. You’re definitely not swimming in shallow waters with this little gem.

Thursday 17 December 2020

The Santa Klaus Murder

Red Christmas

The Santa Klaus Murder
by Mavis Doriel Hay.
British Library Publications
ISBN: 9780712556305

I don’t know why the title of this book spells Santa Claus as Santa Klaus... there is something in there about the English upper class wanting to do right by the Germans in the wake of the first World War but, yeah, I didn’t quite understand the bigoted view of the murder victim in this tome. I’m just addressing this issue here because... I don’t want everyone Direct Messaging me and saying I can’t spell. Apparently it’s one of the versions of this name in common use so that’s good enough for me.

Anyway, my second choice of Christmas book for the season is The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay. It dates from 1936, is the last of three mystery novels written by the author in the 1930s and it’s very much in the Agatha Christie mode of whodunnit fiction. In fact, it’s probably a bad choice for me in some ways because, dealing as it does with a large upper class family in a huge country house squabbling about family politics and ‘how father has divided his fortune in the will’, I have to say I found myself less than sympathetic with any of the characters and, frankly, I didn’t care who did it because they were not the kind of people I would want to spend any time with in the first place.

This also goes, in some ways, for the friend-of-the-family police inspector who is put in charge of the case of the murdered father, who had been found shot in the head in the study during a party on Christmas Day by, it would seem, a man in a Santa Claus... sorry... Santa Klaus, suit. The problem with the Inspector is, although he’s a little more sympathetic than the family, he suffers from the same lack of mental acuity and reasoning which seems to be a curse of a great deal of detectives in novels such as these. That is to say, while he isn’t completely stupid, he does take a long time to recognise clues and opportunities and, in this case, has to be assisted by an amateur detective type, another friend of the family, who is curiously in the back seat when it comes to the ‘main protagonist’ nature of this kind of person in such fiction. Apart from one chapter near the end, we only hear of him from the Inspector, Colonel Halstock, so he’s alluded to more than anything.

When I opened the book I was confronted by a floor plan of the house which, I have to say, I didn’t really need to refer to at all and also a huge great ‘dramatis personae’ (it’s a quite large family Christmas get together) which actually is something which could have come in more useful had I bothered to check it. There are so many names in here to remember but, honestly, I wasn’t that bothered who was who by a little way in.

The story is imparted to the reader in the first person mode but the structure of this one is a little different from some of the usual whodunnit fodder in that the first five chapters are each told by a different character and each deal with a different day’s events, leading up to the last of the five telling the events of Christmas Day, when the central murder takes place. My problem with this portion of the book is that each character seems to assume that the person reading this has acquired accumulated knowledge of events and people from each previous chapter even though, as is revealed later, each character told their story without any knowledge of what anyone else wrote. I’m sorry but in real life you would expect details like nick names etc repeated from person to person, to be explained more than once to the intended reader. All but two of the remaining chapters of the book are told from Colonel Halstock’s point of view and it becomes apparent that the first five chapters are reports from some of the family members which he has asked them to write for him... so my problem about implied knowledge stands... this makes no sense.

A trick the author uses at this point is to make it clear that, when Halstock is giving his reports to the reader over many chapters, he actually hasn’t read the contents of these five chapters himself until a point much later in the book. Which is crazy because, hello, there are a lot of clues, very obvious ones, laid out in those early pages. In fact, most of the book seems to be about people telling the inspector one thing and then coming back in a later chapter to tell him they lied just a little to protect someone else’s honour or dignity (what have you) and the real truth of the matter is... etc. So it does get a bit dull and formulaic for the most part, it has to be said. However, in two chapters near the end, two other characters are given a chapter each but, by this point, it makes no sense that they are talking to the reader and there’s no longer any context given by the author as to why this should be happening.

Now, there are a lot of problems with the story, as I see it, but there are a couple of nice, positive things I can say about it before I get into those. Number one is that the ‘voices’ in which each character speaks to the reader are not completely sharing common traits. They don’t all seem like a mouthpiece for one controlling author, which is a good thing and it’s a mistake so many writers make in their novels when it come to all the characters speaking in the same way. So, while there are similarities, it’s not something which blows the credibility of them as separate characters out of the water. It was refreshing that this was the case.

The other nice thing is the writer occasionally has some very interesting phrasing and uses implication rather than outright stating things sometimes. For instance, this appraisal by Halstock of one of the female characters... “There was something impersonal in her expression, and a tightness of the lips, a recklessness of make-up resulting in crudity, which would have justified a description of her as middle-aged and embittered.” So I found that to be interesting... the way the detective wouldn’t necessarily describe the lady in question by making a judgement on her character, more implying that he could see how people might reach that conclusion themselves. So, yeah, nicely done.

What’s not nicely done is stuff like, for example, after the police surgeon has finished talking to the Inspector about the probable cause of death (in this case a bullet to the head is ruled out as suicide straight away), he then adds “Here’s the report in all the correct language.” As if the writer hadn’t bothered to do the required research herself and tell us what the report says in more thorough terms. I found this a bit odd but, then again, I’m used to reading writers like Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs so maybe I’m a bit spoiled in that kind of area.

Another big problem, well kind of, was the usual thing in a murder mystery with this many characters. The reader has no real way of effectively working out who did it from the clues because, frankly, it could have been almost any of the suspects, who almost all have a motive. It’s a bit like a 1970s Italian giallo movie in that respect... an abundance of suspects and no real way of unraveling the puzzle credibly. And, once the murderer has been revealed, it turns out the homicide is both stupidly timed and doesn’t actually gain the perpetrator anything, much to that person’s surprise. However, I was rather taken aback that it’s a minor character we rarely hear of and, frankly, one of only a few characters whose guilt would not inevitably cause a rift in the family relations in any way, shape or form. So the status quo is preserved which, frankly, seems disappointingly tidy and a bit of a cop out. And, yes, I did suspect the murderer early on but then. pretty much every chapter, somebody else seems to be equally culpable for the crime so... well... by that point I didn’t care much at any rate.

The Santa Klaus Murder wouldn’t be my first choice of a good Christmas themed mystery yarn but it is at least an easy, light and somewhat fluffy read and, well, that’s always a welcome thing at Christmas time. I wouldn’t particularly go out of my way to recommend it to anyone except those who thrive on exactly this kind of English, upper class social milieu but, I wouldn’t say don’t bother either because, well, it’s not familiar ground to me so somebody who is more receptive to that stuff might find it delightful. I found it a bit like drinking an under sugared cup of tea in some ways... a quick drink but somebody please get to the biscuits. And I think I’ll leave it at that.