Sep 282016
  September 28, 2016

An exceptionally poor “greatest horror of the ’80s” list that made its way around Facebook inspired me to make a correct listing. So here is the list of the best of ’80s cinematic horror. The first ten or so are a bit rough but once you hit the halfway point everything is gold.

 

#50. Warlock (1989)

Not much in horror or story, but Julian Sands is outstanding as an escaped warlock from the past and Lori Singer is respectable as the girl whose house he drops into.

 

#49. Critters (1986)

Very uneven, but still the best of the killer hand-puppet films (unless you count Gremlins as a killer hand-puppet film).

 

#48. The Entity (1986)

Thought of as shocking at the time with its story of a woman being repeatedly raped by an invisible entity, it excels in Barbara Hershey’s performance and lags behind with some unnecessary characters and poor pacing.

 

#47. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

The cleverest of the slasher films suffers from horrible acting and directing, but the supernatural element is fun.

 

#46. Bad Taste (1987)

It’s hard to imagine that this comedy gore-fest was the starting place of Peter Jackson. There’s nothing to think about, but it is D-level fun.

 

#45. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

I can’t say this film is good or enjoyable, but it is interesting. It is also foul. It’s all blood, decapitation, rape, and pain, with real animal killings tossed in for effect.

 
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Sep 262016
 
two reels

An older Wu Xie (Lu Han—a Chinese/Korean boy band idol) is approached by a writer to tell the story of what happened when he was a teen. Wu Xie had belonged to a traditional family of grave robbers. His family had tried to keep him out of the business, but his flair for tinkering and exploring turned up the key to the Snake Empress’s tomb. The family set outs, accompanied by the sullen and secretive martial arts master Zhang Qiling (Jing Boran). Zhang Qiling is ageless, having lived so long that he’s forgotten his past, though he does recall his fight fifty years earlier with Hendrix (Vanni Corbellini), a Western arch-villain seeking immortality in the tomb.

Time Raiders (that’s “time,” not “tomb”) is based on a different, popular set of novels, ones that have also spawned a TV series. It also takes the adventure fantasy route, with characters routinely doing the impossible. As with many Asian action films, we have an angsty, manly-man hero who seldom speaks and often gazes off into the universe, when not kicking ass with his over-sized sword and Spider-Man-like danger sense. He is befriended by the young, cheerful, effeminate protagonist. Chinese eyes might see it differently, but for Westerners (and even more the Japanese), the homo-erotic subtext is overwhelming. That’s the only character development we get, so best to cling to it. The rest of the time is spent with over-the-top action fighting CGI opponents against CGI backgrounds. I like a bit of CGI, but I’d like some story to go with it. Here, CGI is king. Well, make that “baron” as the effects work isn’t bad, but isn’t good enough to support the feature on its own. At least someone should have told them that real room are not lit evenly everywhere like in a video game.

A few scenes are impressive (a Rube Goldberg machine to light the ancient tomb is fabulous) but none of it means anything or has any emotional power. For a cheap Saturday afternoon at home, Time Raiders plays out alright, but really would work best for children who don’t mind subtitles (or speak Chinese).

More interesting than the film is trying to making sense of it. Extensive time is spent on flashbacks and visions that the film never clearly explains and that, in a competent narrative, should have been left out. The masked man Wu met as a child is apparently supposed to have been Zhang, who has probably forgotten the incident. But so what? Why is that important? There is the vaguest implication that Zhang may actually be Wu, who has somehow time-traveled to the past and thereby given some meaning to the title. But that doesn’t help us with the censors. That Wu, as an older man, is miserable and his family is gone gives us our necessary lesson that grave robbing is bad. But Time Raiders doesn’t come up with a non-supernatural explanation for the Snake Empress or immortality. It does bring up her using electromagnetic force fields and keeps flashing into space to show stars zipping about and crashing into each other, but that doesn’t help. Rather, I suspect the filmmakers sold the story to the government in a simpler way: none of it happened. It is all a tale that Wu is telling the writer, one that he clings to instead of the truth, that his family all died while raiding a non-magical tomb and that it is his fault because he found the key. It is rare that some variation on “it was all a dream” is preferable to other options, but in this case, it is the only way to make the film mean anything.

Sep 242016
 
one reel

A physicist (Kristen Wiig), a ghost hunter (Melissa McCarthy), an engineer (Kate McKinnon), and a mass-transit ticket-taker (Leslie Jones) join forces to form the Ghostbusters. A disgruntled janitor is summoning ghosts in order to carry out a larger scheme that will wipe out humanity and our team must use their high tech gadgets to defeat the ghosts before it is too late.

I can’t review Ghostbusters 2016 without mentioning its troll war. The uproar, mainly on social media instead of anywhere nearing legitimacy, was louder than any discussion of the quality of the film will every be. If, somehow, you missed it, it is this: an unassociated mob of people made up primarily of misogynists and those who have based their self-identity on some bit of pop culture from their childhoods proclaimed the film was terrible before they saw it. The big problem for them was that the main roles were now going to be cast with women and that didn’t go over well with men who are very sensitive about their manhood. The more legitimate complaint that this was yet another remake in a time when a larger percentage than ever before of major releases are unoriginal was lost in the sea of fear and anger about women existing. To counter this, an anti-mob, mob of less troubled people (who also hadn’t seen the picture) declared the film would be great due to the main roles going to women. Not that this is a two-sided battle of progressives vs. regressives. While some progressives have claimed (a tad too strongly) that the movie is a step forward in gender equality, the movie hardly has much to be proud of racially.

The entire argument—one without facts—is what the Internet seems mainly to be for, and it became heated.

Well, a little heated, on its own. You see Sony tested the feature and found they had a bomb on their hands. It wasn’t funny and was not getting reactions that would sell tickets. So, they grabbed onto the Internet argument and made it so much worse. They quietly pushed the idea that actually the movie had tested well and that anyone who didn’t like it was part of an anti-woman hate group. They fostered this fight, and the defenders of the film walked into it like little lambs, yelling louder, thus making the detractors yell louder, and Sony sold some tickets.

As for me, I’m in the camp of loving more women in prime roles. I’d also like to see a lot more original scripts produced. Oh well, it isn’t as if the next James Bond film is going to be original. And even with Sony acting like scum, it would be useful socially for Ghostbuster ’16 to be good, not to mention it’s nice to have more good movies.

And now I’ve seen it.

Sigh.

It isn’t good.

It is an embarrassment. I could replace the rest of my review with a list of film terms and the words “is embarrassing.” This is clearest with the humor. Nothing is funny in the two hour running time. They should have been able to do something with Chris Hemsworth’s gender-swapped dumb blonde, which is filled with potential. But no. His big gag is not answering the phone.

The humor can be summed up simply: in the first few minutes, we are given a fart joke, a queef joke, and a joke about someone loosing bowel control. In all cases, there’s nothing more to the joke. Rather, it’s just pointing and saying “There’s a fart.” That’s it. That’s the joke. If you are five, this might be hysterical, though perhaps only for underachieving five-year-olds. Remember I mentioned this film is embarrassing.

The acting (or the characters—take your pick as there is no way the roles as written could have been preformed well) is terrible. Kristen Wiig comes out the best as she’s just boring. With McCarthy, McKinnon, and Jones, we’re back into the land of embarrassment. McKinnon is the worst, over-acting as if she’s desperately trying to enliven a dying SNL skit. Yet, she’s less annoying than the other two. Jones is also acting for the twentieth row but is stuck with a character that couldn’t have been funny in concept. McCarthy’s Abby isn’t a character at all. The actress just waves her arms around and says “Yes!”

The plot isn’t much, but on its own it is only a source of embarrassment for being so bland. There’s a villain, but forget about him. The writers certainly did. I’d normally say the story was sufficient to be the basis for an hour long film, but there’s a lot of pointless CGI stuck in, so the movie couldn’t deal with any more plot. And that’s the bigger problem: empty FX trumping plot and character. The film’s last quarter is an unending climax of heroes vs. ghosts, with absolutely no stakes. Ghosts get bigger or smaller for no reason and the team members pull out new weapons (that in one case McKinnon’s engineer actually says she forgot she had) that shoot slightly different version of beams and rays that can cope with whatever ghost pops up. There’s a lot of smoke and things move around but it means nothing. I was not engaged. It was just background colors moving about.

To keep me disengaged, there’s a bizarrely large amount of fan service. Four of the original cast members appear (as well as a bust of the deceased Harold Ramis) not as new, relevant characters, or even as their old characters, but just appear for the sake of appearing and spewing an old catchphrase. We also get “Slimer” and the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, again, not because they fit into the picture, but just to reference the old film and say “Hey, we remember that movie from your childhood; aren’t we clever.” Well, I was past childhood in ’84 and no, they aren’t clever.

I wish there was something likeable in Ghostbusters, but it is an immature mess. In a year of bad films, it doesn’t reach the bottom, but it is one to miss.

 Ghost Stories, Reviews Tagged with:
Sep 172016
 

Hammer was always searching for the best way to make a buck, or a pound. The powers that be decided to remake a science-fiction horror BBC series, and mix it with as much showmanship as they could manage, playing off of the new X certificate by naming their film, The Quatermass Xperiment. It was a hit, and Hammer Horror was born. But B&W SF was not the future of the company. Instead it would be lavish color in gothic tales. The first of these was The Curse of Frankenstein and it was a huge hit. Naturally, sequels followed.

Unlike the Universal films, the continuing character was not the monster, but the scientist, Victor Frankenstein. The role made Peter Cushing an icon and a star. He would add his talents to many Hammer films, usually as a dry, overly moral, representative of a rather bland version of social goodness. But not in the Frankenstein films. He was a villain, far worse than anything he created. It is a joy to see Cushing in full evil slime-bag mode. Who the Doctor was and what deeds he had done changed from film to film. There was little concern about consistency and Victor Frankenstein would change from a sociopath concerned only with his work, to a sad figure fighting cruel, systematic oppression, to a raping psychopath, to a hero. Normally he’s obsessed with bringing a body made from corpses to life, but even that changes just as his history changes. Finally, Hammer booted Cushing to bring in young blood, only to have that attempt fail miserably, so back came Cushing one last time.

Universal’s threatened law suit is partly responsible for the focus on the doctor. It is even more responsible for the horrendous monster design, though in the end that flaw has to be laid at the feet of Hammer’s makeup team. They were not allowed to make anything that looked close to Karloff’s creature, and no one at Hammer had the artistry or skill in makeup to create something to rival what had been done before. It is one of the greater failings of the Hammer Frankenstein films. The monsters (a new one for each film) always look comically bad, and are often a major distraction. They never are a bonus.

Besides Cushing, the most common reoccurring element was director Terence Fisher. Fisher had two skills essential for Hammer’s success: The ability to stretch a small budget and to pull the richness out of Eastmancolor film. He established the Hammer look that makes these film a joy to gaze upon. However, in other respects, Fisher was less of a standout. We was a very stage bound director, basically aiming the camera straight ahead into his box set. He had no eye for movement, nor was he adept at letting the frame tell the story or changing his style for theme. One frame of a Fisher film looked like every other frame.

Fisher, and Hammer in general, also had a view of women, society, and sexuality that does not echo with our times or with even the late ’50s. There were few parts for women at Hammer, and what there were consisted of proper virgins and evil sex fiends, that is if they had enough personality to even be classified. In two of the seven Frankenstein films, the only significant female character is mute. In only one does a woman matter, but then she’s one of Hammer’s sex fiends who must be destroyed.

The series was a rocky one overall, but things started well.

 

three reelsThe Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Arrogant Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) sets out to uncover the secrets of life with the aid of his tutor, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart). Once he starts working on creating a man (Christopher Lee), Paul decides their work is evil, but insists on sticking around to protect Elizabeth (Hazel Court), Victor’s fiancée.

It is bizarre to think that Hammer planned for a B&W, three-week cheapy. Instead, they changed film history. Sure, the low budget is evident in the minimal sets, and I longed for the far more impressive laboratory that Colin Clive inhabited nearly thirty years earlier, but they did a lot with their budget, and color, vivid color, makes all the difference. Elaborate gothic horror with bright red splashes of blood had never been done before. The Curse of Frankenstein defined the Hammer look, and they rarely came close to it again. Lighting, sets, everything looks good. James Bernard’s pounding scores would overwhelm later Hammer pictures, approaching parody, but here the music is effective.

Once we get past the ambiance of the film, which is hard to do, it is Peter Cushing who catches the eye. This is his movie and he owns every frame. His Baron is not the obsessed, misguided, but basically good innocent of the book, but an evil, conniving middle-aged man who murders without hesitation or a drop of regret. Paul takes over the part of the romantic who sees the error of their ways.

While Cushing sings as the Doctor, the Monster is a mess. Forced to avoid anything close to Universal’s classic look, and unable to come up with a workable design, the make-up was splatted onto Lee’s face without any previous plan. It looked abysmal. The fear of a law suit also forced Hammer away from the haunted, sympathetic Karloff creation, resulting in a monster with no personality. He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t seem to matter, and he’s barely in the movie. The part does no favors for Lee, who really has nothing to work with. All he brings to the part is height, because that’s all he is allowed to bring.

Director Terence Fisher’s tendency to moralize about the cruelty just under polite society would wear out its welcome in later films, but in this first one, it’s intriguing. There’s no question that The Curse of Frankenstein doesn’t stand up to the multilayered James Whale films, but then few movies do. As a simpler film with no moral gray areas, and as the harbinger of a new kind of horror film, it does well.

 

2.5 reelsRevenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Escaping the gallows he was destined for at the end of the last film, Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) sets up a lucrative medical practice, using the name Stein, in the city of Karlsbruck. His “good works” of aiding the poor allows him access to their body parts which he plans to use to make a new body for his crippled assistant. Doctor Hans Kleve recognizes Frankenstein from years ago, and presses his way into their little gang, because they couldn’t make a film without a good looking sidekick.

Whipped out quickly after the huge success of The Curse of Frankenstein, Revenge brings back director Terence Fisher and star Peter Cushing. It is hardly surprising that it looks and feels like its predecessor. The color is rich, the music is bombastic, and Frankenstein (the Doctor, not the Monster, as this movie doesn’t really have one of those) is arrogant and evil. It is a bit plodding—more of a medical drama than a horror story for its first hour. But it is a well done medical drama.

Unfortunately the plot only progresses based on characters acting far too stupidly—a common flaw in the worst kinds of scripts: Both Frankenstein and Kleve just leave their creation alone after the operation. It is the culmination of all of Frankenstein’s work, and instead of looking after his perfect man, he hangs out across town. Why? Because otherwise the creature wouldn’t escape and injure his brain and start causing trouble. That is also where we run into that fascinating scientific fact that cannibalism is a side-effect of brain damage—an idea straight out of the lowest of cheeseball ‘50s horror.

After such a slow buildup, I expected a big, loud, exhilarating—or perhaps frightening—climax. But Revenge of Frankenstein is content to be a lower key movie. Excitement never seemed to be a goal. At least the ending is clever.

 

two reelsThe Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) returns to his home with his assistant Hans (not the Hans from Revenge of Frankenstein, but another, random Hans), and finds the Monster he’d made years ago frozen in ice. As is the way of Frankensteins, he is driven to reanimate the creature, but finds it unresponsive. Zoltán, a traveling hypnotist, is the answer. He wakes the creatures, but then sets it to exact his revenge.

The money that Universal was making distributing The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, and Horror of Dracula in the US persuaded them to make a deal. They gave Hammer the rights to remake all of their films. Surprisingly, this was not a good thing. No longer forced to come up with their own ideas, Hammer borrowed. They also jettisoned the first two films. In a flashback we are informed that the nasty actions of Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein never happened. Instead, Frankenstein used electricity to make a flat-headed creature that was killed and he was then exiled. It draws comparisons to the laboratory in the 1931 film, as well as to Karloff, and those are not comparisons this film can handle. The set is a low rent recreation, but is workable. The monster, unfortunately is not workable. He’s a cheap Halloween mask version of the art done thirty years earlier. Hammer should have kept its distance.

The Evil of Frankenstein also swipes plot points from Son of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, with Igor, I mean Zoltán, using the Monster to kill local dignitaries and the Monster being found frozen in ice.

After two films with an evil and cruel Victor Frankenstein as the main villain, it is odd to see Cushing tone it down, and disappointing. It makes him a less interesting character. He’s arrogant and foolish, but he is almost the hero here.

Still, there’s something likable in the film. After all, the movies it steals from are some of the best. If the monster had been designed better, allowing for us to feel its plight, this might have been a fine movie.

 

two reelsFrankenstein Created Woman (1967)

Things aren’t going well for lovers Hans and Christina. He isn’t liked in town as his father was executed for murder, and she is deformed (actually she’s quite attractive with some scratches on one side of her face). When the local libertines kill Christina’s father, Hans is blamed and the lovers end up dead. Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), who has been spending his time capturing souls, creating force fields, and originating cryogenics, brings Christina back from the grave, but decides to stick Hans’s soul into her for no good reason. Naturally he/she sets out for revenge.

Frankenstein goes new age. Why worry about science when your professor can mumble about souls?

Hammer rebooted their Frankenstein series again. If there is a connection to the previous films, it is hard to spot. There is no indication that Frankenstein ever discovered the secret of life or made a man from corpses. He is not the hero of the previous film, nor the villain of the first two in the series. He’s an eccentric scientist, nearly comical. Certainly not the stuff of horror. And only a secondary character. Except for wanting to sell tickets by using the Frankenstein name, there was no reason to connect this film to the franchise at all. When he finally does act, it makes no sense, that is assuming his soul experiments make sense. Blurting out everything to the police isn’t just stupid, it is bizarre.

As this is a Terence Fisher film, and a Hammer one, women are treated questionably. A woman is either pure and repressed, or sexual and a bringer of death and destruction. Those are the rules of Hammer women. Fisher must have cried with joy when he learned he could have a female character be both simultaneously.

While a man is slipped into a woman’s body, nothing touches on gender confusion. There is no reason for Hans’s soul to have been saved. Christina has all the motivation she needs for revenge and it is, of course for Hammer, the feminine that is dangerous. In fact, the whole thing plays more like a rape and revenge film than a Hammer Horror one, with the mistreated woman using her feminine wiles to lure in each of her abuses one by one and eliminate them.

It’s a bit slow, nonsensical, thematically problematic, and has a breathtakingly stupid end, but at least it is different.

 

two reelsFrankenstein Must Be Destroyed! (1969)

Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is back, if it is indeed the same man. This time he’s lucked into a boarding house where the owner, Anna, has a convenient doctor boyfriend who happens to be stealing cocaine. With a bit of blackmail, Frankenstein has accomplices in his plan to break an insane scientist out of an asylum. When that doesn’t go as well as hoped, Frankenstein decides the obvious move is a brain transfer. Things don’t go well, again. All the while, a pair of comedy relief policemen are hot…or cold…on his tail.

Rebooted yet again, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed ignores most of the previous films and replaces them with a vague background of Frankenstein having experimented with brain transplantation before being run out of his country. His hands are no longer damaged and he is once again as evil as he is arrogant. Continuity was never big with Hammer.

While many Hammer Horror films are horror more in topic than effect, that’s not true here. This is as nasty a film as Hammer ever made. Frankenstein is crueler than he’s been before and things are bleak for his accomplices. I felt for them, a rarity in Hammer films. They are stuck in a horrible situation, with no way out. They might have made a few better choices (like murdering Frankenstein in his sleep), but that’s about as good as it could have gotten for them. The rape scene certainly darkens things up and makes every scene after it with Anna (Veronica Carlson) and Frankenstein just that extra bit more disturbing.

For returning director Terence Fisher, the film is a step up. Fisher always had a knack for color, but he had a stage bound eye, with no skill in camera movement. He would simply shoot what was before him, without the framing carrying any more. But here he, occasionally, did more. The pipe bursting, revealing the corpse and causing its arm to wave, is an unusually effective moment.

While one of the best made, acted, and scripted Hammer films, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed left me without any desire to see it again, and a mild desire not to have seen it already. It isn’t enjoyable nor is there any message to take away from it, besides sometimes the world is horrible. It isn’t fear that it elicits, but depression.

 

one reelThe Horror of Frankenstein (1970)

Young Victor Frankenstein (Ralph Bates) murders his father to inherit a fortune. After running into moral problems at the university, he uses his wealth and title to acquire body parts and make a man (Dave Prowse), which he brings to life. Along the way he dallies with his maid Alys (Kate O’Mara), is courted by his childhood friend, Elizabeth (Veronica Carlson), and is aided by his foolish friend Graham James (Wilhelm Kastner) and a grave robber (Dennis Price).

Just how devoid of ideas do you have to be to remake your own films (Hitchcock excluded)? And remake them with no glimmer of wit or originality?  Hammer studios needed a hit, and felt that a new, young (at studio meetings, they undoubtedly said “hip”), Baron Frankenstein, replacing the aging Peter Cushing, would bring in the kids. So, they produced The Horror of Frankenstein, a new adaptation not of Shelley’s book, nor of the Universal classic, but of their own 1957 The Curse of Frankenstein. I’m happy to say that ’70s teens were not taken in by this farce, and the sixth Hammer Frankenstein flick went down in flames, resulting in Cushing’s return for Hammer’s seventh and final shot at the mad doctor.

Hammer had lost touch with its audience, and while it was innovative and shocking in the 1950s, it hadn’t changed since. The Horror of Frankenstein is devoid of frights, suspense, and blood. The multiple cleavage shots are too gratuitous for a serious film, but too tame to titillate. With the Italians poised to flood the market with topless vampires, Hammer’s work looked like something grandpa would watch.

As for the story, if anyone cares, it follows Victor as he cruelly, and oh so slowly, makes his monster for no particular reason. The Baron doesn’t come off as evil, but as a deeply unpleasant child who never grew up. He only gets away with his deeds because all the other characters are deeply stupid. Hint: if you know someone is a cold blooded killer, don’t threaten to reveal him, then happily accompany him to a secluded room in a castle.

The monster has little to do in the film and doesn’t show up for over an hour. Hardly an object of fright (or pity, or any other emotion unconnected to ridicule), this monster looks like a guy with a bit of rubber glued to his head. He doesn’t speak. He just stomps around a bit, and dies.

I can’t complain about the camera work, sets, and acting, but neither do they excite me. The attempt to stick the thirty-year-old actors into a school room with only bad wigs to disguise their age works as well as you might expect, but happily, the film skips ahead seven years and that charade can be forgotten. Still, the notion that the bosomy Kate O’Mara (my father would call her a very healthy girl) was sixteen at the film’s opening flows into the absurd.

For its concept, I should denounce The Horror of Frankenstein as a foul swamp toxin, but it has a few redeeming features. How poor Dennis Price, the masterful star of Kind Hearts and Coronets, sunk so far as to end up here is beyond me, but he brings talent and comedy to his small role of the gravedigger. I’d cheerfully watch a film about him and his contentedly put-upon wife, who digs up the bodies as he sits and snacks. It is in those characters, and other touches that the film is confusing, as it appears that at least one draft of the film was a comedy. There are quite a few almost-funny moments that make me wonder if it couldn’t have beaten out Young Frankenstein as a parody with a bit of work and altered direction. The demise of the monster should have been hilarious, but the mood is wrong; as drama, it fails miserably, but as a comedy, it had great potential. That’s true of the entire production.

But unfulfilled potential is that and nothing more. There are too many versions of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster for you to waste time with this one.

 

two reelsFrankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)

Doctor Simon Helder (Shane Briant) has been attempting to recreate the experiments of Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) when he is arrested for sorcery. He is sentenced to an asylum, which by luck contains the Baron, who has managed to blackmail his way into running the place. Of course, he is making a new creature and Helder becomes his assistant.

After the disaster that was Horror of Frankenstein, Hammer realized that a younger Baron Frankenstein was not going to bring in the teen dollars, and brought Cushing back. He plays the evil Victor Frankenstein with a bit more ice to his performance than previously. There’s also nothing mentioned that specifically connects him to his other film incarnations. He’s a mad scientist, and that’s it, and we’re given no reason to believe that he ever brought a monster to life.

After their poor remake of The Curse of Frankenstein, the first half of this film is more or less a remake of Revenge of Frankenstein: A pretty young doctor (Shane Briant is about as pretty as a man can be) freely joins with the Baron in his research, and the two use the body parts of the inmates to make their man, instead of the parts from the poor of the clinic.

The plot is plodding, the reduced budget is obvious, and the creature design is horrendous, reminiscent of ape costumes from 1930s, but otherwise the movie is well done, for a time anyway. Briant and Cushing are good and their conversations are darkly humorous. Fisher was always a limited director, but his firm grasp of color again comes to his aid, and while the film looks cheap, it doesn’t look as cheap as it actually was.

Things only dissolve in the third act. The brain transplant is failing so Frankenstein comes up with some nonsense about breeding his monster with the hot girl and somehow getting a refreshed brain from that. Was he going to wait for the baby to grow up? The elderly Baron wouldn’t live to see that. Or would sex just fix the mind? Who knows. I’m pretty sure no one at Hammer did.

This was the last of the seven Frankenstein movies, the last film directed by Terence Fisher, and one of the last Hammer Horror films, and it all shows. The retro look, the repetition, and the ending which doesn’t finish anything but implies it will all go on forever, is more for fans to revel in nostalgia of the Hammer that was than to enjoy what is or will be.

Sep 132016
  September 13, 2016

Keeping the Conversation Going With L. Jagi Lamplighter (Having only written her name—usually with FB filling it in—I really need to ask L. Jagi Lamplighter what I should call her that involves fewer names.)

Ms Lamplighter attempts to answer what Sad and Rabid pups are objecting to (The Bifrost Between Calico and Gingham). Her answer is different than I would give. Well, I’ll go further than different. She gives an answer that is right for her, but I think has very little to do with the Pups in practice. In specific, I think she shifts what it is that is poking them in the eye, and that is an essential element to the entire discussion. On top of that, she looks at the Pups as engaging in an artistic-political disagreement as opposed to a political-regressive one.

And I don’t think we can do that. Ken Burnside, a firm Pup by my standards and one of the Pups’ 2015 nominees, put it well in his after-Hugo essay, which was mainly pro-Pup, when he pointed out that the basis of the Sad Pups was undermined by Brad’s first post for SP3, when he cut away from talking about good, exciting stories like the ones that used to win, and began talking about a culture war and “victim class check box fiction.” That is, this has little to do with taste and a whole lot to do with misplaced anger.

I’ve seen this play out as rank and file Pups (major Pups avoid specifics) will exclaim their hatred from stories that by the Pup early standards, and by Ms Lamplighter’s explanation, they should love, and seen them love stories that likewise they should hate simply because the author was on the “right” side.

If Brad (and Larry before him) hadn’t gone full-on “the enemy is all around us” then we would be having a very different conversation, like what Ms Lamplighter suggests. It would be a very ‘60s conversation, but it would be different, and preferable.

But OK, let me for a moment take her path, and pretend that this fight is about artistic and entertainment preferences. She uses as an example “Cat Pictures Please,” but I am afraid that is a bad example. Yes, it won the Hugo, but not as the best short story of 2016, but as the ONLY short story of 2016. Publically many Pups will declare the last few years of Hugo nominations were reasonable and non-Pups will declare that the end votes were reasonable, but privately I’ve seldom heard that. I would be surprised if many people are fooling themselves. The noms have been totally about the Pups winning and the final vote has been about stopping them winning. Quality has been meaningless for at least two years.

The Pups left only one legitimate nom: “Cat Pictures Please.” I’d suggest using as an example, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong as it won the Nebula award (which has managed to avoid Puppy juggling) and it would have made the Hugo ballot had Vox, with some help from the Sads, not kept it off in favor of “Space Raptor Butt Invasion.”

Besides it winning an unmarred award, I’d suggest that switch because “Cat Pictures Please” is a bit too clear on its theme and thus an outlier. It was not a favorite of mine for that reason, and it does bring politics to the front. Not that I cannot jump into less-than-subtle works. “Harrison Bergeron” is nothing but screaming social politics and it is a favorite of mine (that includes me liking its theme). I doubt if there has ever been a heavier dose of message fic than “Harrison Bergeron.” Really, it is all sledgehammer.

“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” on the other hand, is more subtle. Not exactly secretive, but it carries no hammer. And yes, I would discuss it with “Scanners Live In Vain” or “Flowers For Algernon” or “Nine billion names of God.”

Now “Hungry Daughters” has a gay main character. Well, I assume she is gay. Maybe she isn’t. She certainly is so symbolically. And the story, the theme, is one that speaks to homosexual individuals. It also speaks to anyone in a marginalized group. And it does a pretty good job of speaking to everyone, assuming you are willing to listen. If you are not a careful reader, however, it can still work for you as a cool horror story about a girl who feeds on the troubling thoughts of others. Its message shouldn’t poke anyone in the eye unless the mere existence of anyone who might be gay is a poke in the eye (and if that is the case…well, I believe that is exactly the case, but let’s hold on that for a moment.)

“Hungry Daughters” is also beautifully written, far better than many of those stories of old that Pups love to praise. The Golden Age of Science Fiction was not exactly the Golden Age of Excellent Writing.

Now Ms Lamplighter takes the Pups at their word (ignoring all those words about enemies and how we have to defeat the secret cabal against us)—their literary word. That they just want good stories, but that good stories include awesome science fiction concepts.

Pups, according to her, are willing to put up with a lot for awesome science fiction concepts, but don’t like getting poked in the eye, same as non-Pups. Strong politics that disagree with one’s world view is a poke in the eye.

And I agree with that. Though it does make for some pretty delicate readers, both Pup and non-Pup. After all, I am a fan of The Weapon Shops books while I find their theme as dumb as a box of rocks. (So yes, I want my kudos now. Though I much preferred “The Seesaw” to either novel. I find van Vogt a fantastic short story writer, but only a so-so novelist.) But if there is one truth to The Pup Mess, it is that most everyone is extremely sensitive and easily offended. I’ve found the Pups to be extraordinarily easy to offend, but I fear they are correct in asserting that those they oppose are quite easy as well.

So, poking in the eye is bad. Stories that counter one’s world view are a poke in the eye. Yup. I buy that. I think Ms Lamplighter is correct. It is sad, but still, I think she is correct.

Here is where we divide, at least in part, and what I find fundamental: What is a poke in the eye? She states it has nothing to do with racism or homophobia, but is a matter of things agreeing or disagreeing with ones world view. Yes, but I think we should not take racism or homophobia or sexism, etc, off the table, as those are the world views that are behind much of this. Yes, “Abortion is a woman’s choice” could be in there (though for the life of me I can’t think of any abortion spec fic stories—and no, finding one or two does not make a difference).

For the Pups, a whole lot of things poke them in the eye. It isn’t themes that promote other world views (well, it is, but that’s a small part), but simply being reminded that reality isn’t as they insist it is.

“Gays are great,” is a theme, but Pups more often object not to that, but rather to, “Gays exist.” To so many Pups, if a story has a few Black characters, then the story is about being Black, which is hammering diversity at them, which is a poke in the eye. To a Black author, having Black characters is pretty normal—to life though not literature—but to Pups it is weird. Same as gay characters. Same as Asian characters.

No, Pups don’t think: “Blacks are bad. I don’t like them. Don’t put them in stories because I don’t like them.” It is more built in to that world view. Old stories from the Golden Age don’t mention Black characters, so when they see any, it stands out, and that’s odd—it doesn’t fit. (And that, by the way, is the racism normally discussed about the Pups, not anything about disliking a race or racial superiority, but simply sticking with what they assume is a status quo, which they don’t even realize is a White status quo.)

Pups often talk about the glories of the Golden Age, of Campbellian SF and the pulp fic that came before that. Of those space stories with rocket ships and ray guns. But those stories, all of them, were White Americans in space. Every single one. That’s all we were fed. Some are good. Some are bad. But they all have the same perspective. They are all written with the same outlook, and more often than not, with the same style. Even as we get later, it is still the same. I love Dune, but for all its nobles and flashy tech, it is White Americans in space. (In that case, overwhelmingly so as that’s the theme.) Much of my artistic problem with Pup-recommended stories is that they have no voice, or more accurately, they have the same voice. With a few exceptions (such as John C. Wright) all those stories could have been written by the same person. They feel the same. The sentences are the same. The world is the same. It’s copies of copies and I can’t for the life of me figure out why I’d want to read a second rate copy of Heinlein when I can just read Heinlein.

Much of the history of science fiction is one voice, with one perspective, saying the same thing in the same way.

And to the Pups, this is normal. They copy it. They study it. They eulogize it. This same world view. “It isn’t,” they say, “White America because it is in space far beyond Caucasians and the USA.” They don’t even see it. They don’t notice all that’s changed are a few bits of background. They miss that it is the same old White guys because that’s what they are used to seeing. That’s what they expect. That’s what’s normal.

And if it is normal, then anything else is abnormal.

So if the bridge of a ship is filled with Asian women, then that isn’t diverse fiction, but it is fiction about diversity. It must be making a point about Asians and women and that’s poking me in the eye. If on an alien planet the culture has gay males, then that isn’t diverse, but again, must be making a point about diversity and poking me in the eye. The person who drains the dark thoughts of others is a woman, an Asian, and seemingly homosexual—that’s poking me in the eye.

Reality pokes them in the eye. They want a past that never was, of White Americans in space as written by Heinlein and Asimov and Herbert. But new authors don’t have the same background. They write from their own background, and the mere existence of that pokes Pups in the eye. And some White male authors now acknowledge that the world is more than White Americans in space, and that pokes Pups in the eye. And the very occasional non-White, or less often, non-American, in a Pup story does more to demonstrate this than contradict it. (Though truthfully, I’ve never seen a character without an American point of view in a Pup story.)

I had this discussion with Brad, and he was utter incapable of seeing the difference between spec fic becoming more diverse, and stories having the theme of diversity. Sure, some stories do have a theme of diversity (and sadly, that seems to poke Pups in the eye), but many more just are about a larger world, and Pups don’t want to see that world.

Of course this makes it seem that all the sore eyes are on the Pup side. One thing I have to give to the Pups, when it comes to message fiction, no one does it louder. The Pups talk as if what they love are meaningless exciting tales of engineers in space solving tricky SF puzzles, and Ms Lamplighter assumes the same with her comment on “the science fiction is so awesome.”

But that isn’t what Pups write. They write politics. They write messages fic. Generally they write slow message fic. Brad writes about a man dwelling on the need for religion. Sure, there’s a battle around him, but that’s secondary. The point is the need for religion. John C. Wright and Vox also fill their stories with religious themes. Tom Kratman is just a huge mass of right wing political messages. Steven Diamond: message fic. Steve Rzasa: message fic. Lou Antonelli: message fic. Larry advertises his story based on message (“I made FDR the bad guy and that will drive libtards crazy?”) Now it turns out, I am fine with message fiction. I like it a bit more subtle generally, but since fiction is pointless without a message, I’m glad the Pups in truth are big time message writers.

So it isn’t that the Pups care so much about awesome SF ideas, but simply they don’t like getting poked in the eye and are happy to poke others in the eye with the messages which are the heart of their fiction. That’s fair. I have no problem with that. It is just that awesome SF means no more, and no less, to Pups than to non-Pups. This is about message, and the Pups like their messages, which, as I said, is fair. (Taking over an award and causing a huge fight in fandom because they like their message better–that’s not so fair.)

So, ignoring “we must defeat our enemies” and “awesome SF” I agree with Ms Lamplighter. People don’t like being poked in the eye, so Pups don’t like being poked in the eye.

So now what?

As I’ve said before, now nothing. But I’ll pretend that there is a solution. What, besides people being less sensitive? I’ll grant non-Pups could use some work in that area. A lot of work. As for Pups, they are sensitive not only to other themes of other world views, but of reality, of any change, and of the existence of other people.

There is a kind of answer: read.

Non-Pups, at least of the type that discuss SF in geekish glee don’t have homework do to, because we’ve read the Pups’ world view. If you talk SF with even minor authority, then you’ve read their world. I’ve read Anderson, Asimov, Blish, Brown, Card, Herbert, Heinlein, Pohl, Simak, Sturgeon, van Vogt. I’ve read a whole lot more. I know their world. I’ve done my homework. They haven’t done theirs.

The Pups need to expand out from that. They need to read not a few stories that pop up on nomination ballots, but hundreds of things that are not the same old thing, till the same old thing stops being the definition of normal. And sure, if they decide what they like is the same old thing, fine. But they need to understand that there is more out there, and believe that other people like other things. And they need to feel that the mere existence of other things shouldn’t be a poke in the eye.

Until then, there’s a problem, because the other world views that poke them in the eye aren’t just conservative political or religious views, but the mere existance of others. It is racist and homophobic and a whole lot of other things that they don’t like being accused of. But that is the world view of The Golden Age, where nothing existed by one view and Heinlein putting in one South American character is a big deal worthy of discussion. That is White Americans in space. That is their normal. And it shouldn’t be.

Sep 022016
 
three reels
suicidesquad1

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) puts together a group of unusual criminals (Harley Quinn—Margot Robbie, Deadshot—Will Smith, Diablo—Jay Hernandez, Killer Croc—Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Boomerang—Jai Courtney, Enchantress—Cara Delevingne) with the intention of creating a US force to defend against meta-humans. The group is called into action early when one of her criminals slips through her fingers and sets out to wipe out humanity.

To say that Suicide Squad is the best DC superhero movie we’ve had in a long time seems to be damning it with faint praise. But I’m not—damning it that is. Though my praise may be on the fainter side. This is a fun film, filled with lots of explosions and gunshots and baseball bat thwomps, divided by some solid jokes and some less solid character development. It’s impossible not to like it. I think it will also be impossible to love it. It’s a nice summer movie. I suggest a matinée, where the price will be more reasonable for what you are getting.

On the problem side, it tries to do far too much. It introduces a lot of characters, let us see the darker parts of our government, create a mythology for our big bad who also gets a substantial intro, sends the squad out on a mission that turns out to be two missions, spend time with the joker, and displays a whole lot of fighting. When you attempt that much, somethings are going to suffer. In this case, most things do. A simpler mission, with a simpler objective (the animated film sent them to swipe some incriminating documents from Arkham Asylum which required almost no set up) would have allowed time to focus on character.

It also has the action/explosion/FX porn problem. We spend a lot of time watching bad-natured, CGI fog (did Green Lantern teach them nothing?), multiple bombs going off, and so many, many gunshots. This has become standard in all action movies, which is unfortunate. The big booms don’t arise naturally from the story. I could see how they plotted out the action set pieces, and then fit the story, as best they could, to support the big booms.

And then there is the editing. I can’t recall a film with worse editing. I mentioned character introductions. Well, some characters get introduced three times. Some none. The whole structure of the film is a little off.

But the largest problem is that the film is confused on who the lead should be. By the plot, Rick Flag is the lead. It is his story (dedicated soldier, brought into seedy operation where he must keep his morality, falls in love and then must save the girl from great evil). But Flag is boring, which is not only my opinion, but apparently director David Ayer’s as well. So, while the story says Flag, celebrity says Deadshot and fan interest says Harley Quinn. Deadshot is no more interesting than Flag, and even worse, Will Smith is playing him as Will Smith. It is the Will Smith character that we’ve seen so many times before. The film desperately wants us to care about Will Smith’s…I means Deadshot’s relationship with his daughter, but it is so fake, so saccharine, that there is not a drop of emotion to be had.

suicidesquad2As for Harley, well, here’s where things go right. Based on the story Suicide Squad is supposedly trying to tell, she shouldn’t be the co-lead, but it doesn’t matter because every moment with Harley Quinn is a moment I want in the film. She’s funny. She’s sympathetic. She’s violent. And she’s a joy to behold. Her relationship with The Joker is the only one that works in the film, but it works well. I was rooting for those two swell kids to make a life for themselves…and maybe slaughter a few people. Robbie nails smart, sexy, and crazy. This should have been The Harley and Joker Movie, and nearly is. As for The Joker himself, Jared Leto gives us a very different version of the character, one with more heart than usual. I suspect some traditionalists will not be pleased, but he entertained me.

As for the rest of the Squad, they don’t get much of a chance to shine and in the case of Boomerang, it is hard to figure why he’s even in the film. Katana, a sword-wielding superheroine, is just tossed in and I have to wonder if there isn’t a lot of character development left on the cutting room floor.

I found the big boss battle underwhelming, mainly because there were no stakes I cared about, nor rules that made sense (now why did they think a bomb was the way to go after magic?). It’s just a lot of lights and noise, and I kept wanting to say “Zuul.” I was more interested in Harley’s emotional state. That mattered; twirling cloud-magic did not.

Looking at the film from the distance of only two hours, its flaws seem to out weight its virtues. But they don’t. The action could have been better, but it wasn’t bad. The characters were mostly underdeveloped, but except for Deadshot, not annoying. And where the film was good, such as with Harley and The Joker, it soared. If you don’t like Harley, well, then skip Suicide Squad, but I think most people will like her a great deal.

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