SF & Fantasy films

HOTEL ARTEMIS. 2018. Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Jeff Goldblum, Brian Tyree Henry, Jenny Slate, Zachary Quinto, Charlie Day, Dave Bautista. Director: Drew Pearce.

   Although apparently a bomb at the box office, I haven’t been as cinematicly impressed with a movie since seeing Blade Runner for the first time. Blown away, I was. It takes place maybe 20 years in the future during a riot in downtown Los Angeles over the shortage of water in the city. (Some problems never end.)

   That’s only the background, though. The entirety of the film takes place inside the Hotel Artemis or just outside its entrances or the rooftop. What its exclusive clientele consists of are criminals who pay a membership fee, in lieu of medical insurance, for its top of the art medical facilities.

   Jodie Foster plays the elderly Nurse in charge, in her 60s perhaps, a woman who on the outside is tough and organized and ultra competent. But on the inside, over the night the film takes place in. another part of her personality is revealed, showing a huge weariness, sadness and melancholy resulting from the death of son several years ago.

   There are several additional stories attached to the patients who make their way to the hotel that evening, which I won’t go into, but as the paths of the assorted thieves, paid assassins, illegal arms dealers and general all around bad guys and henchmen begin to crisscross and intersect, it’s quite a dizzying task to keep at all straight who’s doing what to whom and why.

   The linchpin to all this (and don’t forget the massive riot going on outside) is the Nurse, trying to hold everything and (I think you can tell) not panic. And as the action never stops, some secrets are revealed, more than one.

   But if a pregnant police office can get an Oscar in another, totally different and otherwise straightforward crime thriller, my vote for this year’s one would have been for Jodie Foster.

   Watch the trailer. As trailers go, it’s a good one.



FREQUENCY. New Line, 2000. Dennis Quaid, Jim Caviezel, Shawn Doyle, Elizabeth Mitchell, Andre Braugher and Noah Emmerich. Written by Toby Emmerich(?) Directed by Gregory Hoblit.

   This’ll grab ya, even as you feel your credulity strained. And we all know how painful that can be.

   Quaid and Caviezel carry the story very capably between them as a Firefighter who dies in a warehouse fire in 1969, and his now grown-up Policeman-son in 2000. A freak cosmic storm in 1969 and a matching event thirty years later (ouch!) enable them to contact each other when Caviezel comes across his dad’s old HAM radio just in time to warn him of the upcoming warehouse inferno (Owww!)

   But saving Daddy’s life triggers a host of unforeseen consequences involving a serial killer, the murder of their wife/mother, death by cancer, Quaid arrested for murder, and a lot more, all of which have to be fixed and re-fixed by father and son working across time together-yet-apart.

   This is the sort of thing that has to be done fast and gaudy to keep the viewer from switching channels in mid-movie disbelief. It also has to be clearly explained each frame of the way for said viewer to keep up with the constantly changing realities. And it also has to offer clear segues from past to present and back again.

   That’s an order of beanstalk dimensions, but Frequency  mostly succeeds, thanks in hefty part to the skillful editing of David Rosenbloom, who eases things through with graceful and easy-to-grasp transitions. And it’s a good thing we got ’em because the screenplay, though credited solely to Toby Emmerich, shows the work of many hands.

   It’s not that there are loose ends — more like dead ends. Plot developments terminated abruptly, characters who arrive late and leave early, and a ninth-ending come-from-behind plot twist that just hasn’t been prepared for.

   But somehow I found myself forgiving all this for the sake of some really ingenious ideas, and the pace and style with which Frequency  delivers them.




THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. Universal Pictures, 1940. Virginia Bruce,John Barrymore, John Howard, Charlie Ruggles, Oscar Homolka. Directed by A. Edward Sutherland.

   More a low-key screwball comedy than a horror feature, The Invisible Woman is a genial, albeit rather forgettable affair. Released in 1940, seven years after James Whale’s The Invisible Man, the film has a light tone that makes it breezy fun, but not much more than that. Based on a story co-written by Kurt Siodmak (The Wolf Man) and directed by A. Edward Sutherland, the movie does what it is supposed to; namely, provide an hour plus of escapist entertainment.

   When oddball Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore) puts an advertisement in the paper for someone wanting to become invisible, he gets more than he bargained for when working girl Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce) shows up. Sassy and strong-willed, she’s determined to use her newfound ability to torment her sexist and demanding boss. While the invisible Carroll gets caught up in a love-hate relationship with playboy millionaire Richard Russell (John Howard), the zany professor is targeted by a gangster (Oscar Homolka) who wants the invisibility machine so he can safely return from his Mexican exile and visit the home country.

   The special effects, by today’s standards, are really nothing special. Truth be told, even for a 1940 feature, there’s nothing particularly impressive doing on in this realm. Director James Whale certainly did it all better years before in the original entry into the Invisible Man series.

   Still, there are some laughs to be had in this comedy. Did I mention Charles Ruggles plays a bumbling butler, devoted – at least financially – to Russell? I guess I would see this one again with a crowd, should the opportunity arise. But to watch it again on VHS? Probably not.


PHILIP K. DICK “The Defenders.” Novelet. First published in Galaxy SF, January 1953. First reprinted in Invasion of the Robots, edited by Roger Elwood (Paperback Library, April 1965). First collected in The Book of Philip K. Dick (Daw, paperback original, February 1973). Along with two of Dick’s other stories, “The Mold of Yancy” and “The Unreconstructed M,” the basis for his novel The Penultimate Truth (Belmont, paperback original, 1964).

   The story begins with a married couple unhappily having breakfast together. The war news is good, but there is an uneasiness to their conversation that suggests that not all is well. Gradually it is revealed they are several miles underground, and the war on the surface is being fought with robots (called leadies) on each side. Because of uncontrolled radiation, the Earth itself is uninhabitable.

   Strangely enough, the husband is called into his lab to learn that one of the leadies that has been brought down for a progress report is not radioactive after all. Baffled, a team including our protagonist is sent to the surface to investigate.

   I will not spoil your enjoyment of this story by telling you what they learn, but if you have read enough of Philip K. Dick’s work, I imagine you can guess what the twist is well enough on your own.

   Of course, though, that’s the point of the story, but what Dick also manages to do is describe living conditions not on, but inside the Earth so well that we, the reader, can feel the oppression of a life that is so subtly unbearable, although it has been made as palatable as technology can do it.

   It’s short for a novelette, only 25 pages long, but I think it was long enough to make a noticeable impression on SF readers of the day. My only personal unhappiness with it is that the ending seemed to me to be an overly happy one. To me, it was a case of too quick, too soon.



RAY BRADBURY Something Wicked This Way Comes. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1962. Bantam H2630, paperback, September 1963.

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. Walt Disney Productions, 1983. Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Royal Dano, Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson. Screenplay by Ray Bradbury and John Mortimer (uncredited.) Directed by Jack Clayton and Lee Dyer (uncredited.)

   I first read Something Wicked This Way Comes back in High School. Then again in College. Since then, I’ve come back to it every ten years or so, and each time found the story enchanting, the imagery compelling and Bradbury’s prose irresistible.

   Reading it this year, fifty-five years on and gray-bearded, puffing on a pipe I carved out of deer antler, reflecting that this is likely the last time I shall visit these pages, I was taken out of myself and transformed once again into the boy of wonder whose story this is.

   Or rather boys, not boy. Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. A dark circus come to their small town to trap the townsfolk’s souls and the boys fall into that childhood dream of forbidden knowledge, the evil only they comprehend, and only they can battle.

   As created by Bradbury, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival is a thing of splendid nightmare, promises of wonder paid with misery amid gaudy colors and laughing crowds. And once they learn its secret, the boys become the prey of brutal Mister Cooger and sinister Mister Dar k — along with a panoply of grotesques passing themselves off as freaks and entertainers.

   Bradbury conveys all of this in poetic prose that never slows down the action or becomes self-important. This is, in short, not so much a novel as a treasure to be taken out and enjoyed .

   A lot of folks in Hollywood took a lot of interest in Something Wicked, including Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas and Sam Peckinpah, but it ended up with the folks at Disney, where it was filmed, then re-edited, re-shot, re-scored and partly rewritten, all at great expense. The result was a great white elephant of a movie that cost almost twenty million to make (back when that was a lot of money) and grossed less than half that. And along the way to failure, they insulted Bradbury and antagonized his fans, feeding Ill feelings all the way around — almost like the Pandemonium Carnival itself!

   Too bad, that, because the film actually borders on greatness at times. It stays mostly faithful to the novel, casts the boys (Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson as Halloway and Nightshade respectively) effectively, and embodies Mister Dark chillingly in Jonathan Pryce.

   The makers also get a thoughtful and well-judged performance from Jason Robards as Will’s father Charles — here promoted from janitor to librarian in the opulent small-town library. If Will and Jim are the motivators of the story, Charles is its firm anchor, and Robards rises to the occasion wonderfully. The confrontation between him and Jonathan Pryce is masterfully written, fluidly directed, and played to the hilt by two actors who seem to know they’re on to a good thing — pure movie magic!

   If none of the rest of the film quite lives up to this moment, well it supports it quite nicely indeed, and Something Wicked This Way Comes – book and movie – are literary/cinematic friends I’m glad I’ve known.


         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.




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.



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.




   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.



  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.

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