SF & Fantasy films


         Taken from the Murania Press website:

   The award-winning journal of adventure, mystery, and melodrama is back! After a two-year absence Blood ‘n’ Thunder returns as a book-length Annual, its 264 pages crammed with articles, illustrations, and fiction reprints. As always, the emphasis is on pulp magazines, vintage Hollywood movies, and Old Time Radio drama.

   The Annual’s first section is a centennial tribute to the legendary detective pulp Black Mask, which celebrated its 100th birthday last year (an event planned for recognition in the canceled Spring 2020 issue of BnT). In addition to a history of the Mask, our tribute includes two reprinted articles from old writers’ magazines: a 1929 issue analysis by literary agent August Lenniger and a 1934 feature on pulp fictioneering by the Mask‘s most famous editor, Joseph T. “Cap” Shaw.

   Also, Will Murray profiles aviation-pulp writer George Bruce (one of the few pulpsters to hit the big time as a Hollywood screenwriter); Tom Krabacher discusses the fantasy-adventure novels written by Spider scribe Norvell W. Page for Unknown; Denny Lien examines the 1936 one-shot pulp featuring Flash Gordon; Gilbert Colon compares the prose and filmed versions of H. P. Lovecraft’s classic yarn “Dreams in the Witch-House”; Matt Moring reveals the true identity of enigmatic pulpster “W. Wirt”; and Sai Shanker offers a history of the Butterick Company, the New York dress-pattern company that published Adventure, Romance, and Everybody’s magazines.

   Additionally, Will Oliver covers the abortive Weird Tales radio show and a later attempt at supernatural horror, The Witch’s Tale. And there’s a lengthy excerpt from the new book by Martin Grams and Terry Salomonson on the creation and early development of the Lone Ranger radio program. BnT editor-publisher Ed Hulse contributes well-researched essays on the 1929 film adaptation of A. Merritt’s Seven Footprints to Satan, the 1943 Republic serial Secret Service in Darkest Africa, and the early career of well-regarded “B”-movie director George Sherman.

   Finally, the Annual reprints “Mountain Man,” the 1934 first installment in Robert E. Howard’s hilarious Western short-story series featuring Breckinridge Elkins.

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REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

A(BRAHAM) MERRITT – Boni & Liveright, hardcover, 1928.  First published as a five-part serial in Argosy Allstory Weekly between July 2 and July 30, 1927. Reprinted many times, both in hardcover and paperback, including Fantastic Novels Magazine, January 1949.

SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN.  First National, 1929. Thelma Todd, Creighton Hale, Sheldon Lewis. Screenplay by Richard Bee (Benjamin Christensen), based on the novel by Abraham Merritt. Title Cards by William Irish (Cornell Woolrich).  Directed by Benjamin Christensen. First released as a silent film and later as a part-talkie.

   The warning had come to me in many places this last fortnight. I had felt the unseen watchers time and again in the Museum where I had gone to look at the Yunnan jades I had made it possible for rich old Rockbilt to put there with distinct increase to his reputation as a philanthropist; it had come to me in the theater and while riding in the Park; in the brokers’ offices where I myself had watched the money the jades had brought me melt swiftly away in a game which I now ruefully admitted I knew less than nothing about. I had felt it in the streets, and that was to be expected. But I had also felt it at the Club, and that was not to be expected and it bothered me more than anything else.

   The club is the Discoverer’s Club in New York, and the uneasy narrator is James Kirkham, adventurer and explorer, who is about to find himself in an urban nightmare out of the Arabian Nights by way of the Twilight Zone, as in short order he will be confronted by his own double and find himself in a deadly real game with a fortune at stake, his soul in peril, and Satan incarnate spinning the wheel.

   Abraham Merritt is best known as a fantasist and author of scientific romances full of implausible plots, unclad other worldly women, and sensual lush prose pitting his heroes (Merritt heroes always seemed to be falling through mirrors or the equivalent into sensual violent dreams) against strange half worlds and ungodly creations. His best known titles like The Ship of Ishtar, Face in the Abyss, The Moon Pool, and The Metal Monster were highly influential on writers such as Lovecraft, Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith as well as the likes of Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, and many more. Merritt also wrote two famous horror novels where crime and the fantastic mixed in Creep Shadow and Burn Witch Burn (which features a cross dressing vengeance obsessed madman who turns living people into murderous dolls and was made into an MGM film with Lionel Barrymore).

   I won’t kid you that the plot here is ever plausible, but then neither does Merritt. His saving grace as a writer, beyond his graceful style and vivid imagination, was that he plunged headlong into the swirling madness that confronted his heroes and dragged the reader right with them. Merritt, like Dunsany before him, had a true gift at spinning fancies, terrors, and dreamscapes that were by turns gilded fantasy and soul numbing horrors.

   This one is a Gothic nightmare out of the true tradition of Shelley, Lewis, and Mrs. Radcliffe but with a modern pulp sensibility.

   In the dark Kirkham encounters a stranger (“I saw a dark, ascetic face, smooth-shaven, the mouth and eyes kindly and the latter a bit weary, as though from study.”) who engages him in a strange conversation:

   “A beautiful night, sir,” he tossed the match from him. “A night for adventure. And behind us a city in which any adventure is possible.”

   I looked at him more closely. It was an odd remark, considering that I had unquestionably started out that night for adventure…

   “That ferryboat yonder,” he pointed, seemingly unaware of my scrutiny. “It is an argosy of potential adventure. Within it are mute Alexanders, inglorious Caesars and Napoleons, incomplete Jasons each almost able to retrieve some Golden Fleece–yes, and incomplete Helens and Cleopatras, all lacking only one thing to round them out and send them forth to conquer.”

   “Lucky for the world they’re incomplete, then,” I laughed. “How long would it be before all these Napoleons and Caesars and Cleopatras and all the rest of them were at each other’s throats — and the whole world on fire?”

   “Never,” he said, very seriously. “Never, that is, if they were under the control of a will and an intellect greater than the sum total of all their wills and intellects. A mind greater than all of them to plan for all of them, a will more powerful than all their wills to force them to carry out those plans exactly as the greater mind had conceived them.”

   “The result, sir,” I objected, “would seem to me to be not the super-pirates, super-thieves and super-courtesans you have cited, but super-slaves.”

   The curious man is Dr. Consardine and in very short order, he and a beautiful girl who calls herself Eve Walton claim Kirkham is the girl’s mentally unstable sweetheart and virtually kidnap him under the eyes of the police (The game was rigged up against me all the way…), delivering him to a mysterious destination somewhere in Westchester or Long Island (“I saw an immense building that was like some chateau transplanted from the Loire. Lights gleamed brilliantly here and there in wings and turrets.”) where he meets his mysterious host, who knows far more about Kirkham than he should and who finally introduces himself with a strange offer.

  “Since everything upon this earth toward which I direct my will does as that will dictates,” he answered, slowly, “you may call me — Satan!

   “And what I offer you is a chance to rule this world with me — at a price, of course!”

   It turns out Eve Walton and others in the employee of Satan are unwilling pawns in his game, an elaborate and hellish game where each individual must wager his life and free will against a promise of fabulous wealth. There are seven shining footprints of Buddha, three are holy, three doom whoever steps on them. Satan has set up an unholy game in an elaborate temple in which the players risk their souls to attain the three holy footsteps that lead to Nirvana on Earth, wealth, wisdom, love, happiness, health … all things men and women will risk their lives for.

   Kirkham, ever the gambler, has nothing to lose, but he is playing the game for higher stakes than even Satan imagines. As is usually true with Merritt, the conclusion is no disappointment with retribution, madness, drugged slaves, gunfire, explosions, and madness let lose when Satan overplays his hand.

   Seven Footprints to Satan came to the big screen in 1929 under the capable hand of director Benjamin Christensen and with title cards by a young Cornell Woolrich using his William Irish by-line. A well known cast including Thelma Todd and Creighton Hale starred, and the result might have been fascinating because Woolrich certainly knew something about wringing the last ounce of suspense out of purple prose and outlandish nightmare plots — but alas Christensen and the studio decided to make a comedy out of the book in the style of The Cat and the Canary, and the result is a mildly diverting mess that turns out to be a variation on Earl Derr Biggers’ Seven Keys to Baldpate. Without giving that plot away I will only say it is the most annoying in the genre.

   But we have the book, a fine mix of melodrama and terror replete with a satisfying bloody-mindedness where needed, a splendid larger than life villain, clever hero, and enough sheer gall and narrative drive to compel the reader through the unlikely goings on. It is far from Merritt’s best work, but it has its own loony internal logic if you give yourself over to it, and its author writes rings around most of the writers who attempt this kind of fancy.

   There are a few unfortunate, mostly mild, problems as with most books of this period, nothing too awful or offensive, but you have been warned. (Merritt is no Sapper or Sidney Horler, thankfully.) It stands as an Arabian filigree of romance, Gothic horrors, dream like qualities, and fancies that asks only that the reader be willing to surrender to it all, and still has its rewards if you do.
   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THE CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS. Genie Productions, 1960/ Emerson Film Enterprises, 1962. Don Megowan, Erica Elliott, Frances McCann and Don Doolittle. Written by Jay Simms. Directed by Wesley E, Barry.

   A Truly Strange item, made in eye-searing color the same year as Dr. No, for peanuts and it looks it. It’s about the eventual replacement of human beings by Robots, but unlike most films of this genre, it depicts the robots sympathetically, the humans as boors, and the whole process as genetically inevitable, which evinces a feel for the SF genre surprising in a film so tawdry.

   Having said this, I have to add that it’s incredibly dull.

   It has that terrific title, neat sets, and even implies kinky sex between humans and robots, but it’s all presented in an astoundingly static fashion. You may find it hard to credit this next sentence, but I assure you I do not exaggerate here for dramatic effect. Nothing happens for the whole run of the film.

   I mean NOTHING. Aught. Naught. Bugger-all. Bupkis. Diddly. Goose Egg. Nihility. Nil. Scratch. Squat. Void. Zip. Nada. Zero. Non-existence. What Sartre was fond of calling “nothingness.” People stand around and talk, then say they’re going someplace else. The scene shifts there, and they stand around and talk some more. I say “talk”, but actually they Explicate, conveying all the background and plot development (as in a Harry Stephen Keeler novel) by means of endless conversations in stilted language between actors of very limited range.

   It’s quite possible, of course, that the filmmakers were doing this intentionally to convey the sense of a sterile society, in which the substitution of machines for men will be a mere formality, and if so, I must admit they certainly succeeded. Unfortunately, they forgot to make it Watchable. What they ended up with was a movie that merits some attention on an intellectual level, as a curiosity, but fails totally to convey any conviction at all.

   I admit that it stays in the memory, but so does an irritating commercial jingle. And commercials, unlike The Creation of the Humanoids, are mercifully brief.

   

   

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   I have to admit I was somewhat hesitant to watch this movie. First of all, I am a fan of the original 1968 film with Charlton Heston and must have seen it close to half dozen times. Second, I thought I would be put off by the CGI.

   I couldn’t have been more wrong. Using motion capture in a magical manner, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a thrilling and enjoyable origin story. The international trailer is relatively short, but it does a good job in explaining what the movie is all about and what issues it explores. Scientists in search of a cure for Alzheimer’s employ an experimental medical treatment that has unforeseen consequences for man and ape alike. And we all know where this ends up.

   While the movie has a strong cast, the characters themselves unfortunately aren’t particularly well developed beyond what is necessary to service the plot. With the exception of the ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) that is. This is his movie from beginning to end. You might think the movie looks a tad overwrought. Let me assure you: unlike the disappointment that was Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001), this reboot is well worth a look.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

  DR WHO AND THE DALEKS. Amicus, 1965. Peter Cushing, (Dr Who) Roy Castle, Jennie Linden, and Roberta Tovey. Screenplay by Terry Nation and Milton Subotsky, from the BBC Television Serial. Directed by Gordon Flemyng.

   I’ve kind of wanted to give this a look, ever since I saw the previews at the old Southern Theater back in the late 1960s, and I’m glad I got around to it at last.

   It’s Kid’s Stuff, with paper-thin characters, contrived plot, and labored pratfalls from Roy Castle, but I shall remember it fondly, long after better films lie lost in my fading memory, thanks to the gaudy photography of John Wilcox (whose credits include The Third Man and Outcast of the Islands) and the splendid sets, courtesy of Bill Constable, known for… well, not for much, really.

   But once the principals get into the City of the Daleks, this thing takes on the look of a child’s dream, with labyrinthine corridors of shiny plastic, sheer cliffs, bottomless pits, walls that spin like the numbers on slot machines, and the Daleks themselves, rolling about like lethal gumball machines.

   And all at once, this tatty, cliché’d thing takes on a dream-life of its own, actually building up considerable suspense as it barrels toward a lively donnybrook played out like a child’s ballet.
   

   I read Frank Herbert’s original novel when it was serialized in Analog SF, thought it was OK, but I never read any of the sequels — and who knew there were going to be so many of them? I also passed on both David Lynch’s movie adaptation(1984) and the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel mini-series.

   Those of you who may be bigger fans of the book than I am, what do think of the new movie coming out in December, based on the trailer below?

THE OLD GUARD. Netflix, 20 July 2020. Charlize Theron as Andy / Andromache of Scythia,
KiKi Layne as Nile Freeman, a former US Marine, Matthias Schoenaerts as Booker / Sebastian Le Livre, once a French soldier who fought under Napoleon, Marwan Kenzari as Joe / Yusuf Al-Kaysani, a Muslim warrior who had participated in the Crusades, Luca Marinelli as Nicky / Niccolò di Genova, a former Crusader, Chiwetel Ejiofor as James Copley, former CIA agent, Harry Melling as Steven Merrick, greedy CEO of a pharmaceutical empire. Screenplay: Greg Rucka, based on his comic book of the same title. Director. Gina Prince-Bythewood .

   If you’ve read any amount of science fiction, you’ve probably come across the premise of this recent Netflix release before, or something close to it. A band of immortal vigilantes find themselves in a new situation on two fronts: First, they discover that there is a fellow immortal who they must incorporate into their group, a young female marine and the first such recruit in several hundred years. Secondly, their existence is leaking out into the real world, and the villainous head of Merrick Pharmaceuticals wanted their secret to “help the world,” but the profit incentive is his real obsessive purpose.

   Even if there’s nothing very much new in all this, the movie is both well filmed and well acted. Being killed and finding yourself coming back to life over and over again can extract a terrible mental toll on a person. Charlize Theron as Andromache of Scythia, is the oldest of the group, and their de facto leader, and more than her own personal beauty she manages to display a weariness that weighs so heavily on her after so many centuries of life.

   KiKi Layne, as the new addition to the group and the other of the two female leads, is also very impressive, showing both disbelief at first to her new status, then the agony of learning that she is now being forced to leave her family behind. Only the supervillain hard on the group’s trail shows the film’s comic book roots, but as such, once again, that aspect of the story is also most excellently done.

   There’s lots of guns and other bloody action involved, as well as hand to hand combat, for those for favor that aspect of watching thriller extravaganzas such as this, but I found the personal side of the film, and the characters in it, were what made spending the two hours with them all the more worthwhile.

   

COSMOS. Elliander Pictures, 2019. Tom England, Joshua Ford, Arjun Singh Panam. Screenwriter-directors: Elliot Weaver & Zander Weaver.

   There is a tremendous dichotomy about this movie between those leaving reviews of it on IMDb. About half seem to have found it boring beyond belief, while the other half have found it both fascinating and inspiring. Me, I think they’re both right.

   In the first 50 minutes nothing happens except for the conversation between three science and engineers geeks sitting in a large station wagon or a small mini-van setting up their computers, telescopes and the other equipment as they get ready for an all night’s vigil watching and listening to the stars.

   The story the does jump into higher gear when they start receiving signals from who or what somewhere in the sky. There is no action, only the stunned reaction of the three friends as it slowly begins to dawn on them as to what they are probably the first people on Earth to be seeing and hearing. Fascinating and inspiring? I’d say yes, and all the more so because I know personally people who could each be one of the three, and if I knew more about astronomy, I’d probably be one of them.

   That this is a bare bones, love-of-making-movies production goes without saying. I can’t really recommend this movie to everyone, as there are plot holes galore in the story line, and the ending, as the three of them stand looking happily up into the night sky, all wearing their red Astro Nuts caps, goes on for far too long. But if ever we are approached by being from space, I think it could very easily go like this. Or, let’s put it this way. I hope so.

   

   I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to see both of these:



REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE FORBIDDEN ROOM. Buffalo Gal Pictures, 2015. Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, and Charlotte Rampling. Written & directed by Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson.

   Well we’ve all known a forbidden room, haven’t we? Maybe it was in your own house, maybe a grandparent’s, or the musty abode of some aged and indeterminate relative, but we’ve all been given the solemn warning, “This door must be kept locked at all times.” and heard the strange noises from within — haven’t we?

   Well this movie isn’t about that. If The Forbidden Room is about anything at all, it’s about our inability to master our dreams. Indeed, Room drifts and lurches from one vision to another, from the bowels of a trapped submarine to a wintry forest primeval, to a sleazy nightclub, a tropical island….

   You may assume from this non-synopsis that Forbidden Room doesn’t make much sense, and it doesn’t, in the usual sense. But filmmaker Maddin moves it along from tangent to tangent with perfect dream-logic, backed up by visual images where you never quite see what it is that you’re looking at.

   If you’ve never seen a Maddin film, I should explain that he deliberately makes them look like an old movie, maybe something you saw as a child nodding off late at night, on an old TV with bad reception, then half-remembered years later. They look a little like that, bathed in faded, runny, pulsating colors. It’s a unique experience, and one I recommend highly.

   Forbidden Room was originally supposed to be a series of short films but got squeezed together for reasons of economics. As a result, it runs a bit too long and loses momentum. But that only bothered me; it didn’t keep me from watching in wide-eyed fascination.

   And maybe you will, too.


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