Wednesday 30 August 2023

Enter The Clones OF Bruce

Li Loh

Enter The
Clones OF Bruce

Directed by David Gregory
USA 2023 Severin Films
Screened 27 August at FrightFest, London

Directed by David Gregory, one of the managing directors of the wonderful US boutique Blu Ray label Severin Films, Enter The Clones Of Bruce is a documentary look at the many actors who rode the wave of the Brucesploitation genre after Lee’s death in 1973 and the films they starred in. When I originally booked a ticket it was called Enter The Clones Of Bruce Lee but, sometime between then and the screening, the title was shortened to what it is now so, I’ve no idea if that was due to some kind of legal challenge or an aesthetic decision. Whatever reason, however, it’s a pretty fun and informative documentary, for sure.

The film, in its current cut at least, starts off with a lengthy pre-credits sequence which gives us a short history of Bruce Lee from his birth in San Fransisco, his career as a child star in Hong Kong, his rise to fame playing Kato in The Green Hornet TV show and his subsequent career including his death and funeral in 1973, the same year his most famous (in the west) film Enter The Dragon was released.

Other little nuggets of information are also given throughout the documentary but, after this initial sequence, we finally get the opening titles and then, the rest of the documentary follows the onslaught of various Brucesploitation pictures and their little subgenres within what is already a subgenre. It goes from country to country and interviews various Bruce Lee stand ins, who became the central stars of these movies, getting their take on the phenomenon, while simultaneously having a blast with excerpts from some of these movies. Some of these are sadder stories than others and, in the course of the talks with these people as they are now (crosscut with what they were like in their hey-day of the early to late 70s and early 80s), it does come out that, while they were making good money headlining these kinds of pictures (although not nearly what they were worth, by the sounds of it... they were also being somewhat exploited), most of them regret that they had to imitate the mannerisms and fighting styles of Bruce Lee to get the gigs.

Gregory has somewhat ramped up the entertainment factor by providing clips with their ridiculous English dubs and this enhances the unintentional comedy element of some of these movies. I don’t know how much of that was because he just wasn’t able to get the respective native dubs from the countries of origin for each clip or if there were any negative factors regarding this but, either way, it’s a shrewd choice to play these versions and the audience I saw this with at FrightFest were laughing their heads off at some sequences, which are obviously supposed to elicit that response.

There were some surprises here too. For instance, the electrical contraption like an overlarge TENS machine that Bruce Lee used to use to shortcut the hardening of his body sounded terrifying. I think I may have heard about this once as a young ‘un in the 1970s but it sounds pretty awful.

Another big surprise is that, along with some of the Bruce actors of the films such as Bruce Le and Bruce Li, there are also people who were not imitating Bruce such as Bolo Yeung and the main villain from Enter The Dragon, Kien Shih, who were also, in some ways (especially in the case of Bolo), riding that same wave in their own right. Plus, people I never considered to be extensions of the Brucesploitation genre such as the great Jim Kelly, Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, are also given substantial shout outs.

I was also intrigued that there were different stages of the phenomenon. Starting off with films where the actors were playing Bruce himself, in varied fictionalised accounts of his life (including, in at least one instance, changing his birth country to China) and then continuing into sequels to the original movies and films where Bruce Lee’s death had to be avenged, etc. There was a great little nugget of a montage that showed one of the titles I’d never heard of which I wish Gregory would have spent more time on, namely Bruce Lee VS Frankenstein (which I’ve now found out also has at least two more titles, Bruce Lee VS Chinese Frankenstein and Bruce Lee VS The Walking Dead).

Still, it’s a really great documentary and, although I can’t figure out why such a film is included at FrightFest (other than by association with the wonderful Severin Films, perhaps), I would say Enter The Clones Of Bruce was one of my favourites of this year’s August Bank Holiday FrightFest and I came away a little wiser than I was before. Especially since I’ve not seen any of these movie although, I strongly suspect that this documentary has been crafted to end up as a disc in a future Severin release of Brucesploitation films (maybe one of this year’s Black Friday titles?) so, depending on the price to import such a thing to us poor UK fans, I might be in luck before the year is done.

Either way, I’ve got nothing but good things to say about this documentary and, if you are a fan of Bruce Lee but have been ignoring the 200 plus movies made in the wake of his death which trade on his ‘brand’, then you might well want to check out this documentary. It’s informative but really fun too.

Tuesday 29 August 2023


My Big Fat
Greek Cthulhu

Directed by Konstantinos Koutsoliotas
Greece 2023 Melancholy Star
Screened 26 August at FrightFest, London

Konstantinos Koutsoliotas’ new film Minore had its European premiere at FrightFest this year and, blimey, I had a strange reaction to this one. If I was to sum it up as a quick snapshot I’d say... it’s what you might get if you crossed a 1980s/90s Jean Paul Gaultier perfume advert with an abundance of alien tentacle monsters. So... hmm.

And I found myself a little bit conflicted with it at first. The film slowly sets up its characters... and I mean slowly. So slowly that for the first third of the movie I got kinda bored fairly quickly although, the beautifully ‘muffled’ bursts of colours... everything looks like it’s been shot using strange filters and coloured lighting... were just enough to maintain my interest. It’s a real scene setter which focuses on all the characters in a coastal town in Greece as we learn of the musicians and dancers of a local café and their various friends and regulars, while a lone sailor has come to the town to seek his father... who walked out on the family when he was a mere boy. However, the slow burn coupled with some lengthy singing and dancing sequences did, I admit, begin to lose me but, then again, it’s certainly a quirky film and that kept me going.

And then it started to get really interesting and then, I’ll be honest, it couldn’t get more quirkier if it was a quirky quirk being quirked over with a quirksome quirk machine on Quirkyday. To say the humour and personality of this movie is unique would be an understatement because... about a half way through, things get decidedly surreal, bloody and, somehow, even more humourous. And, ultimately, beautiful too.

Some ancient monsters which, given some of the dialogue are probably more than a little inspired by The Ancient Ones from H. P. Lovecraft’s many Cthulhu stories, attack the town... slowly at first, over a number of days. Some people go missing... perhaps, like the lady played by beautiful actress Daphne Alexander... they have walked into the sea as a result of a dreamlike state siren song of one of the creatures. Luckily, the sailor played by Davide Tucci pulls her out of harm’s way before she is engulfed by the ocean and whatever lays beneath. But it’s what flies above which is giving a rag tag bunch of heroes (and the villanous local crime kingpin) a battle, as the town’s people put up a fight armed with the knowledge of dreams, where the police and the military have failed. People are being tentacle injected with a substance that quickly eats them from inside, so the flying creatures can suck their bodies up like fluid (among other gory treats on display).

Despite my earlier reservations, by the time I was two thirds of the way through the thing, I was totally into it and was invested enough in some of the ridiculous characters... one of them even does a direct parody of the sword kata scene from the John Milius movie Conan The Barbarian... that I really cared when they lost the odd limb or head going into battle. It doesn’t hold back on the gore, for sure and even includes a memorable ‘face peeling’ sequence.

But throughout this, the film is also very funny and has a strange, dream-like, surrealist state underpinning the narrative which both looks gorgeous but also, yeah, is somewhat obfuscating in terms of the clarity of... well... of what the hell is going on. Some of it was easy to understand, such as the desire to hook big speakers up to kill the monsters in a way, perhaps a little inspired by the movie version of Mars Attacks but, as the movie finished and I moved from the darkness of the cinema housing this phantasmagorial art and out into the light of the crowded FrightFest lobby, I realised I had absolutely no idea of how a lot of it got resolved by the end.

That being said, I didn’t really care either because, by this point... I’d had a really good time with it and, yeah, I think I’d even revisit it again a few years down the line. I need to think on it some more.

Would I recommend Minore to others? Well, like I said, it’s got a pacing all its own and the narrative, such as it is, doesn’t exactly rush but that being said, it’s such a unique little film and, you know, quirky (I mentioned that, yeah?), so I’d have to say that if you are a cineaste who’s seen pretty much everything, then this movie at least has it’s own kind of surrealistic atmosphere and dream logic which is individual enough for you to lift the lid and take a peek. I’m really glad I saw this one because, well, who knows if it will get some kind of cinematic release over here anytime down the line.

Monday 28 August 2023



Directed by Matt Vesely
Australia 2022
Black Cat White Rabbit Productions
Screened 26 August 2023 at FrightFest, London

Wow. Okay... I think I’ve now seen what will easily, by a long chalk, be my favourite film of this year’s FrightFest. Monolith has a few actors in it but, it’s essentially a one hander. Which seems a contradiction but, to explain, it stars Lily Sullivan who gets an on screen character name billing of ‘The Interviewer’. She is the only actor in this movie who you will properly see... and the whole film deals with her and is shot at one location only (her parents beautiful house, while they are on vacation). All the other characters in the film are portrayed either by the sound of their voices only (the majority of them and sometimes coupled with a photo reference of them) or, in one instance, a ‘home video’ of a person’s birthday party. And that’s it.

So Lily Sullivan has to do all the heavy lifting but, hey, she does it easily and she’s helped out by some great direction and editing, a superb script (by Lucy Campbell) and one of those intriguing concepts, the exploration of which just gets more gripping as the movie goes on.

Sullivan plays a disgraced journalist who didn’t procure the necessary evidence before making claims about a villain... and has been discredited, even though the person she was talking about was obviously guilty of all her accusations. So, she lands a new job doing a podcast for a place in the vein of all those uncanny and supernatural shows which deal with ghosts, UFOs and various other unexplained phenomena. She has all of her podcasting equipment set up at her parents’ temporarily vacated house but... she just can’t get a good angle for a story and her new editor is screaming for her to hit her first deadline.

Then she gets an anonymous tip to call someone and stumbles on a story which she podcasts about as she goes, episode by episode, capturing the imagination of the listening public and doing huge numbers as she continues her investigation. An investigation of strange black bricks which suddenly turn up in peoples homes (how remains a mystery until much later on because, none of the hordes of listeners who call in want to reveal how they got their black brick). The bricks are causing visions and unusual sensations and also might be a similar phenomenon to something which the UK government were looking into at some point as a possible sound or verbally transmitted infectious disease. And things, as you would expect, start to land closer to home as she continues her investigation.

Okay, so I don’t have anything bad to say about this movie, unusually. It’s near perfect. But there are some nice things I should highlight.

One is that the director, Matt Vesely, seems almost obsessed with verticals. One of the rooms the main character inhabits, the one you see the most of from different angles, has a backdrop of floor to ceiling windows split into about six vertical sections looking out at the surrounding land and, as you might expect, Vesely uses this to frame his lead actress within the space and compartmentalise her within the shots. It’s done really well.

Another thing he does is play around with sound a lot. Lily Sullivan’s character is a wizard with sound as she controls, edits and manipulates the voices of the people she interviews, so the audio design is giving a lot of attention here. Some of the shots like the long opening, are just black which slowly (very slowly) fades up slightly to reveal the focus of the shot... such as the texture of a microphone in the opening sequence. And the director employs this kind of tactic a few times as well as doing things like holding shots of the on screen representation of two voices, picking up the graphic of the sound waves as they are recorded... which is a nice touch.

Now, there are no real surprises if you think things out as you go. For a while you will find yourself looking at every part of the screen to figure out how the director will reveal the inevitable arrival of a brick into the central protagonist’s home environment. However, there are a lot of clues as to the nature of the brick and so, in some ways, you may see it coming well in advance. For example, if you listen carefully to the first interview subject which starts the film off and appears to be nothing to do with the subject ‘the interviewer’ will find herself researching (but you may be best served remembering it), then you’ll probably find yourself with a little clue about where the film is ultimately heading, by way of homaging a certain 1950s science fiction film which has been ‘officially’ remade at least three times (to my knowledge).

And you’ll probably figure out fairly early on from where the brick will arrive. You’ll figure out the delivery method (with more clues in the main character study) and will probably be wondering if it will be Route A... the more mainstream, cinematically acceptable safer route which would, in real life, be the most dangerous method of delivery for the character... or Route B which would be a little less watchable, perhaps but, a lot less dangerous for a character in a similar situation. And I won’t spoil it for you by giving any clues but, I reckon most people will be primed to know how the brick will be arriving into the main protagonist’s life.

But, unlike most films, the lack of surprise there is not a weakness. It’s absolutely perfect and in turn leads to a finale which is even more dramatic and gets to, admittedly, another cinematic cliché (fans of M. R. James or 1990s J-Horror will know what I’m talking about here) but it works really well and it’s a good ending.

And I’m not sure there’s much else I want to say about Monolith. It’s an absolute gem of a movie which keeps the level of intrigue building throughout and which has a great conclusion. I can’t wait for a Blu Ray release of this one so I can show my dad. A really wonderful piece of paranoiac, cinematic art and everyone associated with this one should be heartily congratulated. Catch this one as soon as you get an opportunity to, is my advice. 

Sunday 27 August 2023

How To Kill Monsters

Monster Mash

How To Kill Monsters
Directed by Stewart Sparke
UK 2023 Dark Rift Films
Screened 25 August at FrightFest, London

Well now. I was really hoping for a nice, light hearted gorefest of a ‘pick me up’ for my second helping of FrightFest this year and, on first appearances from the trailer and synopsis, it looked like this might be what I would be getting with How To Kill Monsters. The director said some good things about it being just a fun, gory movie with no political messages before the movie started and... probably said some equally good stuff a the end of the movie (alas, I didn’t stay for the Q&A... the movie had made me quite melancholic with the state of modern horror and I just wanted to get home by that point).

So the film is billed as a comedy horror but, I didn’t find it either funny or frightening, truth be told... I’ll get to that later.

The film has the ‘to be admired’ audacity of taking a very familiar genre cliché and running with it to make it the whole of the movie, rather than just a twenty minute sequence of a story. The cliché in question being when the surviving protagonist of a science fiction or horror movie (or, you know, that lovely genre mix of the two) turns up and gets arrested by the police because they think he or she (in the case of this movie it’s a she) has killed a load of people and won’t listen to his/her crazy story about an alien/monster/cyborg/robot or ‘insert other appropriate killing machine’ responsible for the slaughter of those around him/her. Then, while they are still trying to process the character through and build a case against him/her... the monster/robot/mad axe murderer (what have you), turns up to continue the slaughtering spree with the constabulary and their assorted prisoners... as the local law enforcement and the prisoners, together with the former main suspect (who now becomes the one with all the knowledge due to previous experience), all team up together to fight said slaughterer, with results that usually end with the death of almost everyone except the original protagonist.

So there you go... that’s the set up for this one in a nutshell and it pushes that genre cliché front and centre and explores it as a feature length story. It has some nice acting turns from the likes of Lyndsey Craine, Arron Dennis, Fenfen Huang, Daniel Thrace and Juné Tiamatakorn, is relatively intense and suitably bloody, making good use of practical effects (yay, no crappy looking CGI blood here, for sure) and, despite the fact that I had a generally lukewarm reception to it, it keeps the momentum going at a fair lick for the majority of the story.

That being said... I didn’t find How To Kill Monsters scary (not sure it was supposed to be, to be fair... it’s one of those gory, body count kinds of movies) and, well, maybe I have lost all my sense of humour lately but I just didn’t find myself smiling even once throughout the film’s running time. And, yeah, I get it... humour is very subjective and just because I didn’t find it funny it doesn’t mean other people won’t. Case in point, the four girls sitting on my right for the screening were just eating it up and loving every minute, laughing a lot and generally having a good time with it. I’m pretty sure though, by the looks of things, that at least two of them (or more) were actually part of the cast too so, yeah, maybe that’s to be expected.

All in all, sorry for the extremely short review and I really didn’t want to be having to say this but, so far this year I’ve seen two out of two duds at FrightFest. Still, I have a few more to see yet over the next couple of days* so I’m keeping optimistic as to what lays ahead. This one, however, wasn’t for me.

*Spoiler alert... the next movie I saw at FrightFest was absolutely sensational.

Friday 25 August 2023

Suitable Flesh

Flesh, M’Lady

Suitable Flesh
Directed by Joe Lynch
USA 2023 Eyevox Entertainment
Screened 24 August 2023 at FrightFest, London


I’ve only seen one other film directed by Joe Lynch (Everly, reviewed here) but I would have expected a film based on H. P. Lovecraft’s The Thing On The Doorstep to be something right up my street. Alas, although Suitable Flesh can claim that it’s a, loose at best, adaptation of that tale... the other main target of the film does actually preclude me a little, in terms of being the target audience. I went to see this one because it was opening FrightFest, has Heather Graham in it and also I was kinda hoping Barbara Crampton would turn up (alas, she was originally expected but had to send her apologies due to the writers/actors strike in the US at the moment... and good for her, that’s a pretty good reason for not coming, I think).

Okay, so the main target was for this to be a Lovecraft adaptation in the style of one of Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations of the mid to late 80s. Now, I have only, as far as I know (and not including TV episodes... I’m assuming he directed one of the excellent Masters Of Horror episodes a while back), ever seen one Stuart Gordon movie. I rented it from the off licence over the road on VHS in the late 1980s, when I was in my late teens. The movie was Reanimator and, I’m sorry, I was incensed throughout the whole film because the composer was ripping off the opening titles to Bernard Herrmann’s score to Psycho. I stayed enraged throughout the whole movie and... yeah... still to this day so, I never watched another Gordon movie (I’ve never revisited the original Total Recall again either, since being greatly angered in the cinema on its first release that Goldsmith had presumably been asked to copy Basil Poledouris’ iconic title music for Conan The Barbarian and, looking around me in the cinema, my heart sank when other people weren't standing up in their seats to voice their displeasure at this temp track plagiarism).

Anyway, I say all this by way of demonstrating that I’m not the most sympathetic target audience for this movie and I also don’t have the preferred point of reference to fully appreciate this film on its own terms.

However, I do have a couple of positives I can give you about the experience... and then I guess I’ll do some of the negative stuff because, yeah, I have to be truthful I suppose.

Okay, so the film was nicely shot, switching seamlessly between smooth camera moves, hand held camera, a few iris shots to focus on specific details the director wants you to catch and even a couple of swirly camera shots embracing chaos which were, it has to be said, a little reminiscent of something Brian De Palma might do (at least that’s the way I felt, I don’t know if the director was influenced by his stuff or not).

Another good thing about the movie was the actors. They’re all pretty great and do a terrific job of nailing what is quite a hard mix of comedy juxtaposed with horror in tone. Barbara Crampton had a smaller but significant role and Heather Graham is always good... although, at 53 years old already, I still can’t figure out how she always looks like she’s in her early twenties. Is she a clone? Also a big shout out to the obnoxious brat of a sometimes villain, sometimes damsel in distress (it’s a mind swap plot so that damsel thing is literal), played by Judah Lewis. I hated him in this but... yeah, I think that was the idea. So job well done.

Okay, I’ll leave one last positive for the end of this review but I will say that, I really didn’t enjoy this movie. There were no real surprises in it at all (and, again, there maybe weren’t supposed to be). It kind of hangs together but I did feel it was kinda dull. The gory scenes of violence weren’t particularly shocking or anything you’ve not seen before... which is fine but it didn’t keep me interested either. 

What should have kept me interested were the many sex scenes in the film but... wow! Is there something in everyone’s contracts now that states you can’t have any real nudity in sex scenes. I mean, there’s just a dash but, honestly, there’s nothing gratuitous in here at all, which, doesn’t make it a good advert for the 1980s Stuart Gordon thing, I’m guessing. I mean, an 80s sex scene would have had naked people performing a ‘Hollywood perfect’ version of people getting passionate. This had people getting passionate for no apparent reason half the time (it seemed to me). I was honestly surprised at Heather Graham only exposing a breast or two for maybe a second and a half because, after all, one of her many great roles was as Rollergirl in Boogie Nights. But in terms of sex scenes, this film is ‘Boogie Light’.

So, yeah, the film is a little prudish, the violence didn’t have a real lot of shock value either and, the stuff which I suspect will keep a lot of people happy would be the Stuart Gordon vibes they might be getting from it... I just don’t have the right reference point to pick up on that stuff, I’m afraid to say. Although I will say that, for the most part, the FrightFest audience were behind this and it seemed to get a good reaction from them.

So, one last thing... Steve Moore’s score was great. At least, I thought it was Steve Moore. I thought that’s who was listed on the credits but I can’t find his or any composer’s name listed on the IMDB for this film (at time of writing). It was admittedly owing a debt to certain sections of John Carpenter’s score for The Fog (reviewed here) at times but, yeah, I’d buy this on a proper CD release if it ever came out (but not on a dodgy download or scratchy vinyl).

Other than that, not much more for me to say about Suitable Flesh. It wasn’t a big hit with me and I almost regret buying a ticket but, it wasn’t a terrible movie and it went down well with the audience, I thought. I have some other FrightFest films lined up this week so I’ll hopefully be able to let you know how those went over the course of next six days.

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Sherlock Holmes In Washington

By George!

Sherlock Holmes
In Washington

USA 1943
Directed by Roy William Neill
Universal Blu Ray Zone B

Sherlock Holmes In Washington, the fifth in the ongoing series of films based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character to star Basil Rathbone as Holmes, Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson and Mary Gordon as housekeeper Mrs. Hudson is, I think, the first in the series to not actually use specific or named source material from the stories and is completely a Hollywood concoction. However, with that being said, the writers knew what they were doing and the script, coupled with Rathbone’s confident performance as Holmes, certainly stays true to the spirit of the earlier films and is another fun movie.

This one starts off with the familiar ‘on brand’ credits and music before then going into the same card used in Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror (reviewed here) which once again reminds the audience that Holmes has been updated to a contemporary setting. I’m not sure why this was needed because the previous film didn’t do that and, by now, the contemporary nature of the continued series was obviously something which had been accepted by the cinema-going public.

This one has an extended sequence at the start of the film which doesn’t feature either Holmes or Watson for around ten minutes but which is quite gripping in itself. A British agent carrying sensitive documents, which would be a bad thing if they fell into Nazi hands, is kidnapped after his train journey from one of the airports to Washington. It’s a shame that this character later turns up dead as the performance is pretty good. However, when he goes missing, back in good old London Town, Holmes and Watson are asked by the British Government to find out what happened and to get the documents back. Holmes goes to the house of the agent (as he’s worked with him before) and deduces some information about the nature of the documents which puts him a little ahead of the main villain (played here by George Zucco, who earlier played Moriarty in The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, reviewed here) but also survives an attempt on his life.

Holmes and Watson then rush to Washington for a fun filled adventure which involves a kidnapped woman and some really nice scenes of actual detecting and deducing various essential clues which ultimately lead Holmes to be able to save her life and foil the plans of the lead villain and his henchmen (one of these being Henry Daniell, who played one of the good guys in Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror and who would also play Moriarty in one of the later films in this sequence).

As usual the acting is first rate and the chemistry between Rathbone’s razor sharp sleuth and Bruce’s bumbling Watson is always going to bring a smile to the face. I especially like that one of the cultural take homes that Watson gets from his American experience is that he likes the Flash Gordon newspaper strip. Plus, as I said, there really is a lot of actual, proper detection work going on here and, though it’s not based on an original story, it certainly pushes the kind of deductive thinking that Holmes was always known for.

I’m beginning to appreciate director (and now also producer) Roy William Neill’s way of doing things too. It’s very efficient, allowing his shots to unfold and reveal or highlight interesting moments, without cutting, in one shot... as he did with the mirror to room shot in Sherlock Holmes And The Secret Weapon (reviewed here). In this one, for instance, there’s a nice shot of Watson in the main living areas of 221B Baker Street, sitting in his chair in the middle of the frame. Then the camera swings around 90 degrees as Holmes enters but we only see his arm as the camera is now showing us a detail on another table in close up (without zooming, it’s all just done by panning around) and some words are exchanged before Holmes is revealed fully as he walks into the room and the camera swings back around to frame him and Watson in the original view. It’s nice, economical stuff and hits you on an almost subconscious level.

Once again, Holmes has an interesting set of conversations with the lead villain but, since it’s not Moriarty, Zucco’s character is not armed with an intellect that, at any time, threatens to overshadow or gain a foothold against Holmes’ mind and he beats the villain rather easily... tricking him into handing over the documents without him even knowing he had possession of them.

And that’s that. At the end of Sherlock Holmes In Washington, as Holmes and Watson are being driven through the US capital, presumably on the way to the airport which will take them back to London, Holmes’ gives another of his patriotic speeches about what a great country it is and so, also, how great America is. This time around... and Holmes reveals the reference on screen here... his final speech comes not from either Conan Doyle or Shakespeare as in the previous two films... this time it’s from a speech that Sir Winston Churchill made in America. Once again, another Sherlock Holmes film which is as entertaining as anything and which I would wholeheartedly recommend, along with the rest of the series of features, to pretty much anybody.

Monday 21 August 2023

Wild Cards 31 - Pairing Up

Hearts And Flowers

Wild Cards Vol 31
Pairing Up

edited by George R. R. Martin
and Melinda Snodgrass
Harper Collins
ISBN: 9780008410667

Warning: Some light spoilers

Wow... I’ve been reading the Wild Cards series of novels since they first started getting published in the mid-1980s and we’re already up to volume 31, subtitled Pairing Up. The publication history has been spotty over the decades, with various sequences in the continuing story, which spans generations of characters, being published by different publishers at infrequent intervals. For the last ten or so years though, the books have been coming out fairly regularly, about one a year and I’m really pleased this is the case because, frankly, the Wild Cards novels are amazing.

A lot of the novels are mosaic novels, single story arcs with different chapters about overlapping characters told by several writers dealing with different people and aspects of the story. There’s even an occasional ‘single writer’ novel. This one, like maybe only a couple of the other novels, is more of a collection of short stories by different writers (some new writers to the series, some old, as has always been the case), which don’t make up a single arc but, instead, are stand alone stories.

Now, I’m guessing the popularity... or rather the frequency... of the released novels just lately has something to do with the film/TV rights being worked on by different production companies over the last 10 years or more and, they are trying to keep the brand in the public consciousness for when a TV show finally happens. Now, I have to admit that while I think a series of interlocking, big budget mini series would be the best possible outcome for a moving picture adaptation of the books... the more I hear about it, the less I like. My understanding is the history and original characters of the series are getting a raw deal in favour of stories set in contemporary times and, yeah... I don’t like that idea. We need Jetboy, Croyd, The Great And Powerful Turtle, Golden Boy, Dr. Tachyon, Blythe, Fortunato, Mark Meadows, Chrysalis and Mack The Knife etc to be in the show and set in their respective eras. I’m very worried about the way a TV version could go now, truth be told.

But, I can’t overlook that a good side effect of that, if I’m right, is more Wild Cards novels. The stories in Pairing Up are all set in different decades... kind of starting a little later than I would have liked but, still. I’m not going to over cook this review and I don’t want to give out any heavy spoilers so, a quick run down of each story instead. Following an introduction which explains the Wild Cards virus and how it released the Aces, Jokers and Deuces... not to mention a heavy death rate and a load of people, Nats, who are unaffected by the continuing legacy of the virus (which is something I don’t remember them recapping like this in the books before, or at least recently... so, hmm), we have the following stories...

1. Trudy Of The Apes by Kevin Andrew Murphy
Setting 1957

This one is about Trudy, a teleporting jewel thief going on a treasure hunt and seducing Golden Boy himself to be the patsy that gets her the gold. There are some nice details in the story... as there are in all the Wild Cards novels to be fair, they are full of ideas and sly winks... but stuff like the fact that Braun is the current TV show version of Tarzan is a nice one and a lot of the action takes place on location for that show. I got a bit bent out of shape when Queen Azura is mentioned as being a character from Flash Gordon, since she doesn’t show up until the second serial, Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (from before the virus hit and reviewed here) but then I realised the character who mentioned this could well have just been talking about the original Alex Raymond newspaper strip instead.

2. Cyrano d’Escargot by Christopher Rowe
Setting: 1981

Next up is a story about the super intelligent snail joker who was a big part of the plot of Joker Moon (reviewed here) and how he first meets his actor friend, who he hires to help ‘Cyrano’ his way into the heart of the Ace Chrysalis.

3. In The Forests Of The Night by Marko Kloos
Setting: 2010

This one is the tale of a sympathetic half human, half tiger bodyguard to a high ranking criminal and what happens when he lets one of the opposition, a lady ace assassin (who I’m sure I’ve met before in the stories and I can’t remember anything significant about her) get too close to him, romantically.

4. The Wounded Heart by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Setting: 2013

Veteran Wild Cards writer Snodgrass continues the adventures of Franny from what is now know as the Mean Streets triad of Wild Cards novels. It deals specifically with that characters emotional damage from High Stakes (reviewed here) in terms of the terrible decisions and consequences of that adventure, not to mention the truth about his parental legacy. It also deals with his current girlfriend and the next one coming along. For regular fans of the series, there’s also a quick, blink and you’ll miss it, Croyd sighting.

5. Echoes from a Canyon wall by Bradley Denton
Setting: 2019

The Deuce Adesina’s Auntie Ink is sent to protect a newish Ace that a sinister force wants to control... falling in love with a guy for the first time (as opposed to her usual ladies) and trying to keep him alive while waiting for Carnifex or Midnight Angel to come and get him to safety.

6. The Long Goodbye by Walton Simons
Settings: 2020, 1913 and 1911.

This one takes place in flashbacks from 2020 to Chicago in 1911-1913 as shapeshifting Ace detective Jerry Strauss is stranded there with a few others, building a new movie studio, one successful movie after another... and waiting for Croyd to get them back to their own time. Regular readers will realise this takes place sometime during the adventures of the various characters in the Wild Cards novel Low Chicago (reviewed here). There’s a lovely moment in this one where Jerry screen tests his girlfriend and you realise straight away he’s recreating the screen test between Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray from the original version of King Kong (reviewed here).

7. What’s Your Sign? By Gwenda Bond and Peter Newman
Setting: 2021

This is about the accidental meeting and ‘dating for charity’ of an Ace who can change herself to any astrology sign and another Ace who has the unfortunate happenstance of having his name chosen by the public for charity and ends up with the monicker Hero McHeroface (and if you don’t get the joke, Google Boaty McBoatface and you’ll know the score).

8. The Wolf and the Butterfly by David Anthony Durham
Setting: 2023

This last tale is what happens when Adesina meets a new Ace who is figuring out still how to control his inner... and not so inner... Wolf. It’s a nice conclusion to the volume.

So, just a couple more comments. One is that, if you haven’t figured it out by now, the stories in Pairing Up are all stories about... well, people doing just that. They are romantic tales... albeit also appropriately action packed... and are as close to the constantly warm beating heart of the Wild Cards universe as possible. However, buyer beware (so to speak)... they’re not all happy endings. Over half of the stories here don’t end in the best places for the characters but, at least there are significant strings left in place for most of them (not all, alas) to be more happily resolved in some future stories.

The other thing I want to say is... and this may be a boring statement, not to mention obvious to fans of the series but... there’s not a bad story in the bunch. The Wild Cards novels are never hit and miss, that’s for sure and Pairing Up is no different. After just a page or two into each story I was completely hooked into each set of characters again and sailed through this book in a quite pacey fashion. My only regret is that I now have at least a year to wait until the next time around. As always, I give this book my heartiest recommendation to fans of the series and remind those who have never read them before that, despite it having a brief explanation of the world at the heart of these books in an intro, if you are a newcomer you would be better served starting right at the beginning of the volumes rather than trying to play catch up from here. You’re missing half the story behind the emotional context of the some of the characters if you do try and jump in at this point.

Sunday 20 August 2023


Tomb With A View

United Kingdom 1981
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Orion/Kin Lorber
Blu Ray Region A

Sphinx was a bestselling novel, which I quite liked in my early teens, written by Robin Cook. Now, the book was originally published as Tombs (I am just finding out now) but, although it took me a few years to finally catch up to the movie version, the paperback I read in the early 1980s had a film tie-in cover and was definitely titled Sphinx... a title which has been kept through subsequent printings to this day, it would seem. Now I always liked Robin Cook and I think this was the third of his I read, after first buying a new copy of a later book, Brain, cheaply from a coastal town’s book spinner in the early 80s. I followed it up with second hand copies of Sphinx and then with what is still probably his most famous book, Coma (which was turned into a great film).

Now, I absolutely loved all the Robin Cook novels that I read but I remember being somewhat disappointed with this movie when I first saw it on TV in the mid to late 80s. It didn’t help that it was shown on ITV, mutilated by slight cuts and further destroyed by the insertion of commercial breaks... which, as any right minded individual would recognise, is one of the great blights and evils of modern day living. Don’t watch the ads folks... they’re bad for your health.

Anyway, over the years I’d put down my initial disappointment with the movie version as being due to just the ads and so on... so I was glad to discover a Kino Lorber Blu Ray of the movie at this year’s London Film And Comic Con. I was really looking forward to seeing the movie again and I looked forward to hearing composer Michael J Lewis’ score again in the context of the picture (more on that a little later).

Catching up to it again now I can tell you that, despite the book being absolutely brilliant, I was hugely disappointed with this. Considering both the source material and the fact that the director is none other than the legendary Franklin J. Schaffner, it’s a considerably dull film... although it still looks great. The cinematography on this, where Shaffner and a couple of DPs use mirrors and make use of divisions to give the actors interesting angles and divided screen space (such as square openings in a lattice like room divider in the lead actress’ hotel room) all contribute to a visually arresting film and, normally that would be enough for me. However, this element alone does not help to stop the tedium setting in fairly early on and then continuing for a gruelling two hour running time (give or take the odd minute).

Okay, there are some great actors and they all do a fine job... such as Lesley-Anne Down as main protagonist Erica (although, I’ll come to the tone of that performance in a minute, convincing as it is), Frank Langella as another main protagonist who might possibly be an antagonist (or is he?) and there are even four actors from Raiders Of The Lost Ark from the same year in common with this film. In the shape of the great but, severely underused here, John Rhys-Davies, the brilliant William Hootkins plus Vic Tablian and Tutte Lemkow. The slight Indiana Jones connection is further enhanced by a hotel bellboy played by Kevork Malikyan, who was of course the leader of the Brotherhood Of The Cruciform Sword in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (not to mention being a regular on ITV sitcom Mind Your Language). The film even has Sir John Gielgud in it although, his character really doesn’t last too long, it has to be said (not really a spoiler, you’ll see it coming from a mile off).

Okay... so the actors in and of themselves are not the problem... it’s more to do with the way the thing has been written, I think, other than anything else. The performers are totally credible but the characters they play aren’t. Not as the way they are written and, well, the easiest target here is Erica, played by the lovely Lesley-Anne Down. She’s supposed to be a professional Egyptologist, who gets embroiled in a plot to do with a missing statue, the black market trade and a lost tomb. Well, maybe I’m being a little naive here but, shouldn’t an Egyptologist be able to speak a little of the native language, rather than running about aimlessly trying to stumble onto someone who can speak English? And stumble about is right. Considering she’s the sole protagonist who is supposed to be effectively carrying the movie, she does not in the slightest play a strong woman. This lady falls over at the drop of a hat and screams her way through even the most simple of reveals. I mean, why is an Egyptologist screaming at the sight of skeleton? But then again, why is a grown lady screaming at the sight of a minor wound on someone’s face after they rip a plaster off? This has got to be the least interesting, damselly damsel in distress they’ve written to carry a movie for a long time. Trust me, if you were tasked to break into a lost tomb with an expert in the field, you would not want this Erica woman with you... you’d probably wind up dead fairly quickly, I reckon.

So yeah, it’s kind of an extended damp squib of a movie, truth be told and, although all the actors are trying their best, they lost out to their dialogue and directorial instructions big time when an audience is asked to view the final product. There is, however, one really good element to this movie which has sadly been overlooked, possibly because... I suspect, at least... this movie possibly didn’t make a large dent in the box office take when it was released.

That element is the wonderful American Egyptianese sounding score, richly orchestrated and coloured by one of my favourite musical instruments, the cimbalom. Michael J. Lewis’ astonishing score is absolutely brilliant and is great as a stand alone listen. I know that last fact because, although the score to this one has never been released commercially, the composer did press a promotional CD to tout his work to future clients and I was lucky enough to acquire one of these CDs at a soundtrack specialist shop in Rye on holiday a decade or two ago and, I have to tell you, it’s another crime against filmanity that this particular score has never had a proper commercial release because, yeah, it’s pretty amazing.

However, it has to be said that, as astonishing as Sphinx is both visually and by way of its score, these elements sadly fail to lift the movie over the various problems it manifests. It’s still a very dull watch and... well... at least I saw it again, I guess. So there’s at least that. Sphinx is little more than a curio these days and, my guess is this movie won’t be rediscovered and hailed as a classic by anyone, anytime soon and... that’s not an especially bad thing, I would say.

Thursday 17 August 2023

Kolchak The Night Stalker 50 Year Anniversary Graphic Novel

Monster Of The
Week Turns 50

Kolchak The Night Stalker
50 Year Anniversary
Graphic Novel

edited by James Aquilone
Moonstone ISBN 9781946346179

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the TV movie of the week The Night Stalker (reviewed here) and there’s a reason why I didn’t put these reviews up then and felt forced to stay my hand until 2023. The reason was that, at the start of 2022 I put some money into Kickstarter towards this hardback edition of a Fifty Years Of Kolchak graphic novel, with brand new stories featuring Kolchak in different decades from the 1930s to somewhere in the 2000s.

Now, I was a little sceptical of this collection because it was put out by Moonstone. I tried to read some Moonstone Kolchak comics a few years ago because I thought they’d make a good blog review but I couldn’t get through more than about six issues. They’d tried to update Kolchak to modern times, with mobile phones and internet and, it just wasn’t working. Also, more importantly, the style of writing didn’t really seem like it quite nailed it and... I dunno... it just didn’t feel like anything more than a cash grab, rather than the labour of love I was hoping for. However, there were two things about this new collection that made me sit up and take note...

One was that one of the comic book stories to be included would be written by one of my favourite authors, Kim Newman (who lists, among his many accomplishments, the Anno Dracula novels, one of which had a kind of bizarre displaced cameo by Kolchak). The other was that one of the covers I could have chosen (and did) was by Jerry Ordway, who was doing great things with Captain Marvel a couple of decades back... and by Captain Marvel I mean The Original Captain Marvel, who is nowadays known as SHAZAM!, of course. So yeah I ordered the book and, as a bonus reward, also signed up for an extra one-shot comic signed by one of the creators. 

Alas, there was a lot of fizzle in store for me on this particular Kickstarter... although, I have to say, not so much disappointment that I quite regret buying the book in the first place. I’m glad I made the purchase because it’s at least something which is a souvenir of the year Kolchak turned fifty... well kinda.

So my first disappointment was after I’d reviewed the four other things which preceeded this review, making up Kolchak Week at NUTS4R2, when I found out that the printed hardbacks and comics wouldn’t be ready by the end of the 50th anniversary year after all. Instead, we could download a PDF of the book but, yeah, if I’d wanted a PDF I would have ordered the cheaper option. I’m a print person, I want the real deal, not a bunch of ones and zeros dressed up as coloured pixels on a screen. So I took the decision to hold the reviews and push back Kolchak Week for a year, for when I had the book in its proper form.

My next disappointment, when the book finally did arrive earlier this year, was the beautiful looking signed comic that came with it. Hmm... should I read this before or after the main book? It was while I was trying to decide when I noticed that the comic did not house an extra story at all but, was itself also included in the hardback. So, yeah, I needn’t have bothered grabbing the comic book at all... which is annoying.

Thirdly... the book is a mixed bag, to be honest. After two separate introductions... one by James Rice, the son of Jeff Rice who wrote the original novel and another by R. C. Matheson, the son of Richard Matheson, who wrote the original teleplay... not to mention a dedication to Jeff Rice, Richard Matheson and Darren McGavin... the book is split into two sections comprising 12 comic book stories in the first section, followed by a smaller, second section containing ten text short stories. It reminded me a little of the old hardback Christmas Annuals we used to get over here in the UK in the 60s, 70s and 80s, with a mix between strip and text stories (and occasional ‘activities’) but, yeah, it’s a mixed bag.

Let me state the positive first... all the artwork in the pages is fantastic. A whole bunch of artists, mostly utlising fully painted artwork, all in different styles (although, I think some of them owe a debt of influence from the kind of hyper-real comic artwork that people like Alex Ross used to... and still does... indulge in) and all looking really great. If you are into cool art then you are going to dig this book.

The downside is... the writing on most of the book - comic strips and text stories alike - is really hit and miss about how well they are feeling like a Kolchak tale. There are a few interesting highlights, though. For instance, Kim Newmans Interview With The Night Stalker, which starts off with a wonderful splash page parodying the old ‘Max Von Sydow under a street lamp’ The Exorcist poster, is a retelling and expanded version of the denouement of the original The Night Stalker movie. You know the stuff where Kolchak entered the vampire’s house but, in this version, the vampire Skorzeny gives a kind of interview into Kolchak’s ever present tape recorder.

Another unusual one, although I didn’t love it so much as found it extremely interesting, is the last comic strip in the book. The book starts out with an elderly Ron Updike being left Carl’s notes which make up the stories in this volume. Kind of like a found footage literature, so to speak. He ominously states that Kolchak has ‘gone missing’ but left this stuff to him. Okay... spoiler territory folks. The last comic in the volume, The Last Byline, written by James Chambers, is set in the 2000s and has the vampiric father of Skorzeny returning to bite Kolchak and turn him into a vampire. After this has happened, Kolchak discovers three vampire armies waiting to emerge to take over the city and so, he kills himself just like the lead character did in the vampire movie 30 Days Of Night (and presumably the comic its based on) , by exposing himself to sunlight... but he also deliberately takes the vampire armies up in flames with him at the same time, sacrificing himself for the city. It’s a nice little story because it remembers two characters neglected from most of the stories here... Miss Emily plus the tragic departure of his girlfriend Gail from the end of The Night Stalker but, to me, it felt like a terrible ending for Kolchak. I really wouldn’t have liked to see him go out this way.

The text section has a better hit rate, as far as I’m concerned and I especially noted a werewolf themed tale which had a passage which said... “That’s Henry Rains. He and Claude Hull make up the other pack members.” I immediately twigged that if you transposed those two names you get Claude Rains and Henry Hull, two actors who have large parts to play in famous werewolf movies. So I went back and checked some of the other character names and, sure enough, there were a couple of guys called Michael Chaney and Lonnie Landon... so, yeah, transpose their names and you get Lon Chaney Jr and Michael Landon, two other actors associated with werewolf roles. So that was kinda fun.

My biggest problem with the book is this, though. There are various stories set at different stages of Kolchak’s life, from the 1930s where he’s depicted as a reporter for his High School classes, through some time served during the Second World War, the 1950s and even the Vietnam War. With all of these supposed tales taking place before the character’s debut in 1972. And, in that 1972 movie, it’s made very clear that, until he sees the vampire Skorzeny, he doesn’t have an interest in such things as the supernatural and certainly doesn’t believe in them until he’s suddenly confronted with the evidence. But all the pre-TV movie stories featured here include Kolchak encountering some supernatural forces... a fire flinging magician, a vampire, ghosts etc. So, really, The Night Stalker more than strongly implies that Kolchak has never had a supernatural encounter before but, here, these stories certainly say the opposite. As far as I’m concerned this is kind of a glaring continuity error and I’m kinda surprised that some of the writers bought into it the way they have here... it’s pretty silly.

So, yeah, sorry to conclude my Kolchak Week on a bit of a downer but, heck, like Kolchak, I always seek to tell the truth... at least as far as I understand it. Kolchak The Night Stalker 50th Anniversary graphic novel is a beautifully illustrated and presented book and certainly a nice souvenir for the Kolchak phenomenon but, it doesn’t really have all that much substance, it seems to me.

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Kolchak-The Night Stalker Compendium

Fan Faction

Kolchak-The Night Stalker Compendium
edited by Joe Gentile, Garrett Anderson & Lori Gentile
Moonstone Books
ISBN: 9781933076928

Kolchak: The Night Stalker Compendium
is a 2011 reprint tome amalgamating two collections of short stories featuring everyone’s favourite seersucker suit clad, straw hat wearing, supernatural stumbling newspaperman... namely Kolchak The Night Stalker Chronicles from 2005 and Kolchak The Night Stalker Casebook from 2006. And, truth be told, I was expecting it to be something of a hit and miss affair when I bought it around ten years ago (it’s taken me this long to catch up to what was originally supposed to be a ‘holiday read’) but there is a major problem, for me at least, running through pretty much all 43 of the original stories contained therein.

Okay, so a year or two ago I started reading some Kolchak The Night Stalker comic books from around the same time as this book was published (if memory serves) and, I only got about six issues in when I had to give up on them... I decided against a review because I didn’t want anything I wrote about Kolchak to have such an angry, negative tint to it. The problem was, they’d taken Kolchak... 1950s seersucker suit and all... and dropped him into contemporary times without ageing him (because, yeah, he’d be dead if they did) and tried to turn him into one of those ‘timeless’ characters who seem to live through way too many Christmases for their own good... like The Simpsons or the Peanuts crowd or James Bond. And, for the record, it makes no sense in the case of those franchises either... people should just try to stop moving characters out of the decade from which they were spawned and leave them anchored there... unless they are prepared to age them.

And, sad to say, this book takes exactly the same tack in most of the stories here, which seem to take place following a move to Hollywood where the key characters of Carl Kolchak, Tony Vincenzo, Ron Updike and Miss Emily all seem to now work (I think this is following a new novel or possibly comic strip which was written before these stories were published... Im guessing). So we have these characters happily using cell phones and email and... yeah... it’s a mess. It makes no sense that Kolchak would still be in that same suit and have even survived... especially when it comes to characters like Miss Emily, who was 84 in the original series and who is now existing in contemporary stories which, even as they push all these modern gadgets and modern pop culture references such as The Oprah Winfrey Show at the reader, also reference the original TV stories as something which has happened. It makes no sense and I hate it.

And now that’s out of the way... yeah, the quality of the stories is still hit and miss. I’m guessing this project was spun out from the various collaborators on those newish comics I read because there are a fair few comic book writers in here... some even famous enough for the likes of myself to have heard of, such as Peter David and Tom DeFalco. There are some stories which, in spite of their modern trappings, do actually have a certain authenticity in terms of the Kolchak character and you can imagine the late, great Darren McGavin delivering their words as lines. In more cases than not, though, it all seems more like a parody of Kolchak rather than a genuine tale, it has to be said.

And there are some nice ideas here too. Such as the ghost of Dashiel Hammett helping Kolchak right a wrong or a story revolving around the makers of The Fear Files TV show, which is very much a parody of The X Files (which itself was kickstarted by Kolchak, see one of my other Kolchak reviews for clarification on that one), who are engaged in making a pilot movie based on Kolchak’s exploits, called The Night Stalker. There’s even a story about old Hollywood actors finding their way out of the screen and into real life... and anyone who references the great Elisha Cook Jr is alright in my book. Alas, the execution is poor in terms of actually feeling like they totally fit into The Night Stalker universe but, yeah, even so, there are a fair few nice ideas in this book... and also a fair few clichés of story ideas too, to be honest.

If I was going to single anything out in this 665 page tome that I really liked it would be Wet Dog of Galveston by Jason Henderson. This humdinger of a shaggy dog story tells of various people in peril being rescued by a ghostly dog from the sea... the phantom dog thinking they may be his absent mistress in peril. Eventually Kolchak and some people assisting him manage to help the ghost doggy be reunited with his absent mistress, who died many years before, manifesting as a ghost to welcome her doggy home at the end of the tale.

And this is me pretty much done with this particular collection of tales bundled up as the Kolchak The Night Stalker Compendium, I think. Yeah, there is some good stuff here and a lot of it is written deftly, while some writers try to dance around the introduction of new technology in the world of Kolchak by writing in excuses for him not to use it and, thusly, not make things much easier for the character to get himself out of various situations by modern, labour saving devices. Honestly, who thinks Carl Kolchak with a mobile phone is a good idea? It’s sometimes entertaining, sometimes dead on in keeping with the spirit of the show but, more often than not it tends to come off just like fan fiction, with all the pros and cons that kind of condemnation carries, it’s sad to say. I’d not really recommend this one to fans of the original show but, saying that, if you aren’t a fan of the original show, then I don’t know what you’d be doing wanting to read this one in the first place, to be fair. Possibly the least interesting book I’ve read this year, it pains me to say.

Tuesday 15 August 2023

Kolchak - The Night Stalker

Stalk On
The Wild Side

Kolchak -
The Night Stalker

USA 1974/75
Universal/Kino Lorber
Blu Ray Zone A

Okay, so after revisiting the two TV movies The Night Stalker (reviewed here), based on Jeff Rice’s The Kolchak Papers and The Night Strangler (reviewed here), it was time to take another look at the next chapter of the Kolchak legacy, the show which spun off from those two movies, Kolchak The Night Stalker. Despite the ratings smash of those first two TV movie sucker punches, the regular show only lasted 20 episodes (of around 50 minutes each) before being cancelled, for reasons I’ll get into later.

It was, however, a great show and it certainly had a much longer lasting legacy in TV history than you would expect for a show cancelled before it had even finished its first season. A number of horror themed TV shows of modern times may not have been around without this one and, as I may have mentioned before, The X Files started off with Chris Carter trying to make a new Kolchak series and then going down the Mulder and Scully route when the rights negotiations came to nothing (from what I remember). Similarly, once The X Files had gotten bigger, McGavin refused to reprise the role of Kolchak for the show but did agree to play a different character for a couple of episodes, not to mention turning up as Frank Black’s father in an episode of sister show Millennium for Carter.

Like they did The X Files, decades later, many people refer to Kolchak The Night Stalker as being a ‘monster of the week’ show in an almost derogatory manner and, yeah, okay it’s guilty as charged and is, in some ways, quite formulaic, with Kolchak stumbling onto some supernatural entity and pursuing it to get another unsaleable and unprintable story for his editor... but that doesn’t mean to say the show wasn’t any good. Quite the opposite in fact... which is why it was so influential decades later, with directors and creators who remembered watching it in their youth. Heck, future blockbuster writer and director Rob Zemeckis even sold his first script to the show... although I don’t think the episode in question, Chopper, about a vengeful, headless Hells Angel biker cutting people down with a sword, is one of the better entries in the series, to be honest.

The show kept the two main actors from the show, of course... so we have Darren McGavin as the incomparable Carl Kolchak, in his trademark seersucker jacket and straw hat, along with the wonderful Simon Oakland as his shouty, cynical and much put upon boss, Tony Vincenzo. McGavin was also unofficially co-producing the show on set, which led to friction with the two main producers on the series, one after the other. We also have, after a little while, a couple of other regulars on the show. These are Jack Grinnage as the effeminate, uptight Ron Updyke and Ruth McDevitt as Emily Cowes, or Miss Emily as she was known on the show.

Miss Emily and her character is something of an interesting wrinkle in the show in that she is a sign of the ever evolving nature of the scripts and she has an interesting development. Miss Emily is the elderly lady on the team at the INS (Independent News Service) where Kolchak now works and is the newspaper’s agony aunt, as well as crossword puzzle maker. Now, she is absent and on vacation for the early episodes but talked about as Miss Emily. And in the first episode, Ruth McDevitt plays one of the readers who sends in for advice to that character (leading to Carl going to interview her as she seems to have a clue to something he’s working on). Later, in episode five, the actress would be back as Miss Emily but, her character name is Edith Cowles. In the sixth episode she’s finally called Miss Emily properly, although for that episode she’s still called Edith Cowles on the end credits, for some reason.

Another, similar sign that the show may have had a rushed development was the fact that the title changed a little into the series. For the first four episodes, it’s only called The Night Stalker (like the original movie) before switching to Kolchak The Night Stalker in episode five. So, yeah, big changes were obviously being made while the show was shooting and in post... it certainly shows.

The episodes are all quite fun though and, for a ‘monster of the week’ show, there were actually quite a lot of different kinds of threats and mysteries for Kolchak to dig into without getting boring... although, I can see that future seasons of the show, if they’d gone ahead, may have gotten very similar, to be sure. So we have a werewolf episode, a zombie episode, a Jack The Ripper episode, a Rakshasa episode, an Alien episode and various other quirky things such as Aztec mummies, witches, sentient suits of armour, a Frankensteinien robot and even a youth killer. There’s also a vampire in a sideways sequel, in episode four, to the original The Night Stalker movie... with one of the vampire’s victims from that occasion returning to bring a new toothy threat near the vicinity of Las Vegas.

Likewise, there are a number of guest stars and a fair few ‘before they got famous’ parts scattered liberally throughout the series... such as Richard Kiel, Victor Jory, Phil Silvers (in an episode written by Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster), Julie Adams, Erik Estrada and one time Wonder Woman Cathy Lee Crosby. Not too mention a fair few shout outs to various horror institutions such as, in an episode where one of the characters is watching The Mummy’s Ghost (reviewed here), there’s also a character called William Pratt (which was the real name of Boris Karloff, of course). Actually, that specific episode has the greatest scene of any Kolchak story in it, where Ron Updyke tells Kolchak and Vincenzo about an accident with a truck carrying some animals to a zoo. “It seems some dangerous animals did escape, including two large apes, a pair of adult African gibbons, as well as a Malayan tiger, a civet cat, and a pie-cost.”, he says. “What's a pie-cost?” asks Vincenzo, concerned. “89 cents.” says Ron. I’m not quite sure why certain people of my acquaintance can’t see that it’s one of the greatest jokes ever put on screen but, well... it just is totes hilar, as far as I’m concerned.

I loved the show and I even loved the somewhat pathetic man-crocodile creature in the last episode, The Sentry, which completely nicked its whole plot idea (and a very similar setting) to one of my all time favourite Star Trek episodes The Devil In The Dark... how the company never got sued for this one when it’s so patently obvious it’s ripped off from that one is anybody’s guess.

Something I didn’t know, which explains a lot, is that Darren McGavin didn’t really want to turn Kolchak into a weekly series, although you wouldn’t know it from the quality of his and Simon Oakland’s performances in the show, which is reason enough to watch in itself. He was happy doing just a third movie but the show went ahead in the end and he and Oakland came with it... talked into it by the producing role which he was then never credited for. This meant a lot of friction with the other producers and, this eventually is what brought about the demise of the show, it turns out. Not bad ratings but, McGavin finally telling Universal that he’d had enough and wanted out. And so it came to pass and, it’s a shame but, maybe not so much of a shame in that the plots might have gotten a bit over familiar if it had gone on for too long.

Kolchak The Night Stalker is still a great show though and it’s honestly never looked better than the relatively new Blu Ray set put out by Kino Lorber. Like the two TV movies they also put out, it looks so clear and sharp it could have been shot yesterday. And I think it’s a testament to the high respect in which the show is held that, amongst the few extras on the four discs of five episodes apiece, each and every episode has some ‘guest star’ providing a commentary track for that installment... which is nice. So, yeah, again this is a highly recommended show with some nice scoring, mostly by Gil Mellé and Jerry Fielding which, alas, has not seen the light of day as yet as a commercially available recording. But, although McGavin was done with the series, this wasn’t quite the end of Kolchak. I’m not going to watch the painfully received, short lived, ‘missed the point’ modern remake of the show from 2005 (which lasted only half as long as this one did before cancellation) but the character did live on in other media... which I’ll get too in my next two reviews.

Monday 14 August 2023

The Night Strangler

Bloodless In Seattle

The Night Strangler
USA 1973
Directed by Dan Curtis
ABC Circle Films/Kino Lorber
USA Blu Ray

Warning: Yeah, some spoilerage occurs here.

So, after the smash hit ratings of the original TV movie The Night Stalker (reviewed by me here), Dan Curtis, who had produced the original movie, jumped into the directing chair to give us his sequel, The Night Strangler. This one again has a screenplay by Richard Matheson but it’s not based on another unpublished Jeff Rice novel as before. In fact, the publication of that first novel was held up while Rice was commissioned to write a follow up novel based on Matheson’s script for this one, so both novels could be released simultaneously and take the number one best sellers spot in 1974.

This movie once again has Darren McGavin playing Carl Kolchak, the role he was born to play, this time relocated to Seattle and still trying to peddle the true story of the vampire killings as depicted in The Night Stalker. And once again, the story is told via his narrative voice overs on the soundtrack. In a truly wonderful scene, after we see the first murder of the film, Kolchak is reunited with his former editor, the long suffering Tony Vincenzo (once again played by Simon Oakland), who is now working for the Daily Chronicle in Seattle under a chief of staff played by veteran actor John Carradine. Against his better judgement, Vincenzo gets Kolchak a job on the paper and assigns him to investigate the murders. In this case, a quantity of blood is removed from each dead girl (as the bodies mount up) and it’s not long before, with the help of the newspaper’s archive librarian and research guru, played by Wally Cox (who died suddenly one month after this was first shown on television), Kolchak finds himself attempting to track down a killer of the supernatural bent.

This time around, the ghoulish looking killer has been around for over a hundred years, a doctor in the union army who stumbled upon an elixir which grants him reprieve from ageing but, every twenty one years, when he starts to look more like a walking corpse (with superhuman powers, naturally), he needs to kill six girls in a period of 18 days and extract blood from them within seconds of their death, as the final ingredient of his elixir. Once he takes the potion those six times, he doesn’t have to worry about losing the effects for another twenty one years.

And it’s all great stuff. As usual, the main source of pleasure from the tale is the absolutely brilliant chemistry between McGavin and Oakland, as they shout at each other across the editor's desk while Kolchak tries to get Vincenzo to publish the facts about the case while under direct threat from the police force. Once again, a more than one hundred years old killer at loose in Seattle is not good for tourist season. Joining Carradine and Cox are a load of fine character actors... these things are really well cast. Among others are Jo Ann Pflug (Lt Dish from M*A*S*H) playing Kolchak’s love interest (of sorts), Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West herself), Al Lewis (that’s Grandpa Munster to you) and, as the aged killer, Michael Anderson (who, of course went on to regularly play Oscar Goldman in the original series of The Six Million Dollar Man, after McGavin had played a similar role in the TV movie/pilot episode of that show).

This is one of only two productions I know of (although I’m sure there must have been more) which showcases the secret underground city beneath Seattle, which was built over and which is now used for tour guides. The other film I know which featured this was the recent, quite wonderful horror movie Malignant (which I reviewed here). Ironically, in the case of The Night Strangler, reproduction studio sets plus the Bradbury Building of Los Angeles were used rather than shoot on location in the real underground city. But still it’s a nice location to include in a story and I’d love to go there one day (although I probably will never get there, it would also be true to say).

The Night Strangler is, it has to be said, not quite as sinister as The Night Stalker but it’s still an absolutely brilliant sequel to the original and it’s hard for me to decide which one I like best. The two films work very well together as a double bill, it has to be said and I’ll continue to revisit them often. And once again, we have the brilliant Bob Cobert providing that jazzy, sometimes chaotic but always toe tapping score which follows Kolchak around, whenever he’s on the prowl for his newspaper story. Unfortunately, Cobert didn’t follow in the next set of Kolchak adventures, instead he was replaced with Gil Mellé.

As I think I mentioned in my review of the first movie, there was a third movie originally planned, The Night Killers but, instead, a TV show was commissioned and plot elements of that third one were recycled into at least one episode of that show. If The Night Strangler has one thing it can be criticised for, it’s the fact that it’s more or less a rerun of the first Kolchak movie (something that could be levelled at a lot of modern day movie sequels too, to be fair). It’s a criticism which stuck with Kolchak when the TV show was aired, with people referring to it as a ‘monster of the week’ show and, perhaps, this element is what led to the show's cancellation, 20 episodes in. More on the TV show tomorrow but, yeah, The Night Strangler is a sheer delight and another great movie where you can watch Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland get in each other’s faces and yell the hell out of each other. Another fun watch.

Sunday 13 August 2023

The Night Stalker

Silk Stalkings

The Night Stalker
USA 1972
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
ABC Circle Films/Kino Lorber
US Blu Ray

Warning: Spoilers for the inevitable ending.

Revisiting an absolute legend of a TV character here today. Namely, investigative reporter Carl Kolchak, as portrayed in two TV movies and a TV series, by the late, very great Darren McGavin. I don’t think The Night Stalker is anything like ‘the first’ TV movie ever made, for sure but, something in the back of my mind is telling me that it was the highest rated (or most viewed, if you like) in those early days... not to mention the most brilliantly put together... and helped sell the idea of TV movies as a viable and lucrative art form to the industry (although, I can’t now find any of that backed up by anything on the internet so, hopefully my memory isn’t failing me here).

And no wonder. It has a fine pedigree, being produced by Dan Curtis (who many will remember from many other TV specials and his long running TV show Dark Shadows) and with a screenplay written by the great Richard Matheson. About that, the credit on screen is that it’s “adapted from an unpublished story by Jeff Rice”. It is indeed based on Rice’s novel The Kolchak Papers (aka The Kolchak Tapes) and it’s true, he couldn’t get it published until someone at the production company read the unpublished manuscript and turned it into this TV movie (and it was lamented by Curtis, after the fact, that he didn’t release the movie in cinemas instead, he thought it was that good... which, of course, it is). Rice’s novel (which I’ve read but a long time ago now, might have to reread it soon) was held up until 1974 because, once this TV show aired and a sequel was made (not based on a Rice novel), the publishers wanted Rice to write a second novel based on Matheson’s screenplay for the sequel, so they could release both of Rice’s paperbacks at the top two numbers in the best sellers list... which is what happened in 1974.

It’s a vampire romp and it’s a good one, with Darren McGavin’s acting and constant barrage of cynical voice over absolutely elevating this, as he portrays Kolchak (who if you’re listening carefully and doing the maths throughout the show, has been fired ten times by various newspapers before this story takes place) with a different wardrobe than that suggested by the original screenplay. Because of his character’s fall from grace, he portrays Kolchak in an old vented straw raffia hat and a 1950s style white pinstripe seersucker suit (which you can actually see properly on this new Blu Ray transfer) denoting that he hasn’t been able to afford a suit for quite some time. His beaten up, half rusted car is a further testament to his character’s social status (which is why it grates when the 2005 remake portrayed him as a much more well off, young person... completely at odds with the original character and which I’ve still not been able to bring myself to watch as yet).

The plot is very simple as to be almost a cliché now... set in Las Vegas, various women are turning up with their bodies drained of blood and a local hospital keeps getting its bottles of blood swiped. Kolchak doesn’t want to believe it’s a real vampire but quickly cottons on to the fact it must be... unlike the police, the CIA and various other authorities who manage to let the killer evade them at every opportunity. At the end, Kolchak manages to stake the vampire but is blackmailed to keep the story to himself and ordered to leave LA. He also loses his fiancé Gail, who is exiled from town before he has a chance to find out where she’s gone.

Along with a well filmed story which combines fluid camera shots with a certain amount of hand held footage to give an authenticity to the ‘fly on the wall’ nature of the action sequences, the film has some really great character actors in it... such as Ralph Meeker (who, like McGavin, had also played a version of Mikey Spillane’s hard boiled detective Mike Hammer in the excellent movie Kiss Me Deadly), Simon Oakland who plays Kolchak’s long suffering boss (who would be the only other character to follow McGavin into both the sequel movie and the regular TV show), Claude Akins, Carol Lynley, Larry Linville, Barry Atwater (as the silent but deadly, superhuman vampire) and the one and only Elisha Cook Jr, amongst many others.

To top it off, we have Bob Cobert’s infectious, jazzy theme tune which follows Kolchak around whenever he’s on the beat, reporting on the scene of the crime and, McGavin’s voice over narrative which is another factor that gives the whole film a kind of documentary vibe, as he comes in with dates and times of death or incidents such as... “Thursday May 29th 7.02am”... which is a specific ‘to the minute’ time which lends itself to the reportage of facts rather than just being a story element (Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho used a similar narrative on its typographical updates at the start of the movie).

The film is also nicely designed for the 4:3 aspect ratio, with an especially striking shot playing over the opening credits (following a prologue where Kolchak starts listening to his notes from his tape recorder, to introduce the ‘fact as fiction’ narrative), where three surgeons perform an autopsy of the latest victim, from the POV of the victim herself, their three masked heads forming a triangle looking down into the camera with the big light behind them as they cut into the body where the camera is. As he mentions on one of the extras accompanying this Blu Ray edition, composer Bob Cobert won his battle to keep that scene unscored to really fix the viewers attention, before bringing in the music for the next sequence.

And there’s not much more to say on this one. Kolchak is rightly a well loved and very influential character. After a sequel was filmed, a third movie was ditched in favour of a TV show (both of which I will be reviewing here over the nest few days... along with a couple of other Kolchak items of interest). However, the series only ran for 20 episodes before it was cancelled. However, without Kolchak we wouldn’t have had The X Files, as Chris Carter originally wanted to make a new version of the TV show but wrote The X Files as a response to not being able to secure the rights at the time. He did, however, cast McGavin as the original investigator who started off The X Files in two episodes of the show (after McGavin declined letting the Kolchak character turn up in the series... what a shame, that would have been great) and also cast him as Frank Black’s father in an episode of Millennium (another show that could easily have had Kolchak return and have it all make sense).

If you’ve never seen The Night Stalker, then you really should if you are a fan of the horror genre. It doesn’t downplay the supernatural aspects in the slightest but it does, through the use of the writing and characterisation, couch it in a way that has it collide with a modern, cynical reaction to the myth which powers it. Also, it’s interesting and refreshing that all the authority figures in the film are portrayed as corrupt and basically bad people, interested only in the political stakes that the truth behind the trail of corpses might pose to them personally... in the words of one of them, “It’s bad for business.” They are painted in far worse a light than the central vampire character and are the real evil of the show. So, yeah, check this one out for sure... a true classic of the small screen and, I have to say, Kino Lorber’s recent Blu Ray is absolutely the best I’ve ever seen it looking. I’m really glad I upgraded to this one.