Sunday, May 1, 2016

SWIPES ARE WHERE YOU FIND THEM

From BATMAN #251, DC Comics, September 1973. Story and art by Dennis O'Neil, Neal Adams and Dick Giordano.



From WARLOCK #12, Marvel Comics, April 1976. Story and art by Jim Starlin and Steve Leialoha.

HOLD YOUR NOSE


There's a scene at the end of the first act of DAYLIGHT (1996) which illustrates just how stupid this disaster movie is. Sylvester Stallone stars as Kit Latura, a disgraced former NYC EMS Chief who has a shot at redemption by rescuing a group of survivors trapped in an underground traffic tunnel following a major, explosive accident. Kit has to navigate a series of gigantic ventilation fans to gain access to the tunnel. For some reasons that the script (by Leslie Bohem), never quite exactly makes clear, these immense contraptions cannot be just stopped for easy access. They can only be slowed down in 15 second increments which means Kit must ride a moving fan until it slows down enough for him to slip through the blades and drop to the next fan in the series where he repeats the process again.

 And how do we know he has only 15 seconds to do this? Because on the wall of each fan unit there's a convenient display panel with a red digital clock readout inexorably counting down the seconds. Think about that for a minute. Why is there a display panel, with a clock no less, on the chamber wall of a giant fan, a space where no human being will ever have a reason to be? Who is ever going to see these things? It's like having a clock in the ventilation system of your home. What possible purpose could it serve? The device exists of course as just that, a construction of the plot that is needed to maintain the suspense during this action sequence. I say it's stupid, lazy writing but then, what do you expect from something like this?

DAYLIGHT, is a throwback to the glory days of the big budget, all-star cast disaster films of the 1970s, most of which were produced by Irwin "The Master of Disaster" Allen. Except that DAYLIGHT doesn't have a large enough budget to allow for any "all-stars". It's a Stallone vehicle, pure and simple. Oh, it does blatantly steal a page from THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), by having a sequence in which all of the survivors must swim underwater (in 38 degrees water, no less) with an older woman (Claire Bloom), dying in her husband's arms afterward. And there's a foolhardy outdoor adventurer/advertising executive (Viggo Mortensen) who just happens to have his climbing gear with him, who strikes out on his own before Kit arrives and meets an immediate death. Again, see THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE.

The exterior sequences of DAYLIGHT were shot on location in New York City, while the interiors (including massive tunnel sets) were filmed at Cinecitta Studios in Rome. The special effects are a mix of full scale, miniatures and digital imagery which, for the most part are pretty convincing but this being 1996, there are a couple of dodgy shots that don't quite ring true.

Stallone is, as always, a durable action hero. He's ripped, tight-lipped and determined to save everyone, even the dog, Cooper. He comes equipped with a wonderful Doc Savage-style vest containing all sorts of terrific gear including flashlights, ropes, climbing gear, explosives, fuses, etc. Trouble is, he has trouble keeping it on. The vest is one of those now-you-see-it, now-you-don't things that underscore bad continuity.

All of the people that survive the ordeal in DAYLIGHT come out more or less none the worse for their harrowing adventure. I can't help but think that if people were trapped in an underground tunnel following a massive explosion and multiple car crashes there would be a multitude of cuts, abrasions, bruises, broken bones, burns, hearing loss, breathing difficulties, etc. Instead, the survivors clothes are a little dirty, torn and wet and any injuries sustained seem minor and superficial. Except for the ones who die.

DAYLIGHT strains that willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. The tunnels are remarkably well lit after the disaster, average people perform super-heroic feats and seem to have the lung capacity of the Incredible Hulk. What's ironic about the film is that the last shot shows the World Trade Center towers standing proud over New York. A few years later, the world would witness a disaster movie come to horrifying life and we know just what a true tragedy and loss of life really looks like. Post 9-11 disaster films have had to up the ante to compete with the real thing but DAYLIGHT, made in a pre-9-11 world, stands as a quaint, cheesy relic of what we thought disasters were like.


Friday, April 29, 2016

A SINGLE SHOT


I finished reading Matthew F. Jones's brilliant backwoods noir, A SINGLE SHOT (1996), the other day and I knew two things after reading just the first chapter. One, I absolutely had to keep reading because the narrative had its' hands around my throat and two, things were definitely not going to turn out well for our protagonist, one John Moon, a good, lonely man in what appears to be upstate New York, a man whose life goes to hell in a horse drawn wagon all because of a single shot.

The story opens with Moon venturing alone into a protected wilderness area on a deer hunt. Yes, he's poaching, but he hopes to kill a deer and give most of the venison to his estranged wife and infant son. He's a poor, proud, not-very-bright man just trying to provide for his family. He shoots a deer but doesn't kill it and he's forced to track the wounded animal deeper into the wilderness where the bloody trail eventually leads him to an abandoned granite quarry. Moon hears a sound in the brush, sees movement out of the corner of his eye and shoots, thinking it's the deer.

Instead, he's shot and killed a fourteen-year-old runaway girl. Then he finds a large stash of cash along with the girls' belongings. He puts the girls' body in a cave and takes the money and runs. End of first chapter and the beginning of Moon's nightmare.

Of course the money belongs to bad guys, very bad guys, who come after Moon in a variety of ways. Moon slowly becomes unhinged from reality during the course of his ordeal, worshipping the dead girl and kinda/sorta falling in love with her (there's a slight whiff of necrophilia here). Moon isn't very smart, but he has survival skills and backwoods know-how that allows him to stay slightly ahead of the doom upon his trail but only for a few days as the noose tightens with inexorable dread. The bodies mount, the violence becomes graphic and extreme (the finger cutting scene will make you squirm, guaranteed) and Moon fights a desperate race to stay alive. No more details here, except to say that the ending is definitely unsettling and a shocker.

A SINGLE SHOT is written entirely in the present tense which gives the action an urgent sense of immediacy. The prose is spare, beautiful, haunting and yes (look out, 'cuz here comes the dreaded "P" word), poetic. But it's a close kin to James Dickey's masterpiece DELIVERANCE in depicting the too-easy, almost casual danger that lurks in America's woodlands. There's also a strong sense of Scott Smith's brilliant debut novel, A SMPLE PLAN (1993), which was filmed by Sam Raimi in 1998.

Originally written in 1996, A SINGLE SHOT was re-released in nice trade paperback editions by Mulholland Books in 2011 and again in 2013 (to tie in with the film version of the novel, which I have not yet seen). Mulholland, an imprint of Little, Brown, is a great little label dedicated to publishing quality, contemporary crime fiction.

A SINGLE SHOT is a can't put it down book, a whirlwind ride into darkness and despair that is masterfully and skillfully executed. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A HANDFUL OF HELL


For about the last year and a half, I've been seriously and steadily collecting vintage men's adventure magazines. There were dozens of titles in this genre, most published over a span of 20-25 years from the early '50s to the early '70s. By the mid '70s, most of the titles had either ceased publication or converted to a T&A format in order to survive. But in their heyday, the MAMs offered a glimpse into a testosterone fueled universe in which action and adventure were the orders of the day. Aimed at a male audience comprised mostly of veterans, these magazines were printed on cheap pulp paper with slick covers.

And what covers they were! Lurid, vivid, and over-the-top can only begin to describe the visual intoxication these painted masterpieces provided. Depicting men, women, bad guys and killer animals (among other perils), the covers were certainly designed to sell magazines. It's one of the primary reasons why I collect these magazines. The cover art is just so unlike anything being published today that it's impossible to resist their allure. Plus, when I was a kid, if I had even thought about buying one of these magazines, I'm sure I would have been firmly set upon the straight path to hell. Thus, even though I saw these on the magazine stands of my youth, I never had the gumption to purchase one. My money went for issues of MAD, FAMOUS MONSTERS, CREEPY, EERIE and other black and white delights.

While I swoon over each and every new MAM I acquire on eBay these days, I've never actually sat down and read any of the contents that are so boldly emblazoned on the covers of these treasures. The more sensational, the more salacious, the wilder the cover copy, the better. After all, even though the covers were the primary selling point for the MAMs, they weren't just selling the sizzle over the steak. There had to be content in those pulp pages, stories and articles that delivered the goods to the men who plunked down their hard earned thirty-five or fifty cents for a few hours of reading pleasure and pure escape.

One of the finest craftsmen to contribute to the MAMs was Robert F. Dorr. The best of his many war and adventure stories has recently been collected in A HANDFUL OF HELL, published by, what else, The Men's Adventure Library. Editors Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle have assembled a superlative package of art and prose that  brilliantly showcases the storytelling prowess of Robert Dorr.

It's all here: bomber crews, fighter pilots, headhunters, damsels in distress, rampaging elephants, commies ,courageous Marines, brave padres, and more. Oh, and action, action, action. Dorr starts almost every piece in the middle of a deadly and dangerous situation, grabbing us by the throat in a tension filled narrative before providing the background details to let us know how our hero got into this predicament. With limited space and word count, Dorr can't afford to waste a single word and he doesn't. He gets you in immediately and then dares you to stop reading while he spins his yarns of high adventure and heroism. Told with bracing, cinematic style and verve, Dorr puts us into the bellies of B-29s, cockpits of fighter planes, the jungles of Southeast Asia and other places where danger and death are just a heartbeat away.

The stories are all first rate and adding to the collection is the inclusion of a fascinating introduction by Dorr and full color reproductions of the covers of the magazines where these stories first appeared along with other art. It's a terrific book that belongs on the shelf of MAM aficionados everywhere. My beautiful wife Judy bought a copy of HANDFUL for my birthday in March. I started reading it as soon as it arrived and I couldn't put it down. Editor Deis says there's a possibility of another volume of Dorr stories in the future. I certainly hope so.

A HANDFUL OF HELL gets my highest recommendation. Ya gotta' read this one! 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

THE HAUNT OF HORROR


The 1970s were a period of great experimentation and expansion for Marvel Comics. Not content to just publish monthly comic books starring an ever growing roster of super-heroes, Marvel began publishing horror comics (TOMB OF DRACULA, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, THE FRANKENSTEIN MONSTER, etc.), licensed properties (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, DOC SAVAGE) and adaptations of existing science fiction, horror and fantasy stories in various titles, especially the short lived WORLDS UNKNOWN. The company also branched out into the burgeoning black and white comics magazine field giving established market leader Warren publishing a run for their money with a line of horror mags that included DRACULA LIVES, MONSTERS UNLEASHED, TALES OF THE ZOMBIE and VAMPIRE TALES. More magazine titles would follow, some in black and white while others made the bold jump to full color.

One of Marvel's most interesting experiments was the publication in June, 1973 of the first issue of THE HAUNT OF HORROR, a digest format magazine featuring all prose science fiction, horror and fantasy stories with spot illustrations by current Marvel bullpen artists. Under a terrific Gray Morrow cover there were stories by such names as Harlan Ellison, Ramsey Campbell, R.A Laferty, Robert E. Howard, Dennis O'Neil and Fritz Leiber (among others). There are several things about this line-up that's worth mentioning.

First, the Leiber story is part one of a two-part serialization of his classic horror novel CONJURE WIFE (filmed in Great Britain as BURN, WITCH, BURN! in 1962 and well worth seeing). I have a copy of the novel on my shelf and I really need to get around to reading it one of these days. Dennis O'Neil is an unusual choice to appear in a Marvel publication as he was, at that time, one of DC's best writers. The REH story is one of his minor efforts, USURP THE NIGHT, but hey, any Howard is a good Howard as far as I'm concerned.

The real treasure here is NEON by Harlan Ellison. I was aware of Ellison prior to reading this story as he had written several comics for DC, Marvel and Warren (an AVENGERS-HULK crossover, a Batman Halloween story and ROCK GOD in an issue of CREEPY, illustrated by Neal Adams with a cover by Frank Frazetta). But this was the first time I had actually read a bonafide Harlan Ellison short story and I was blown away. I have a longer tale to tell about the man and his work and its' influence on me but I'll save that for some other time.

I bought this book when it first came out and read it from cover to cover. Ditto the second (and final) issue of the title. I have no idea what happened to my copies except that they are long gone from my collection. While prowling around the eBay store of a dealer I buy men's adventure magazines from the other day, I noticed he was offering both issues of HAUNT (which, by the way, later became a black and white horror comics magazine) for sale. I popped for the first issue without a moment's hesitation and, if luck holds out, I'll purchase number two soon.

This mag is a real blast from the past. It brought back a ton of memories and reminded me of how great comics could be in the 1970s.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

UM, SHE'S NOT EXACTLY STANDING, WARLOCK OL'BOY!


Somebody out there want to explain how in the hell this panel ever got past the Comics Code Authority? From WARLOCK #8, October 1973 Marvel Comics. Script: Mike Friedrich. Art: Bob Brown and Tom Sutton.

RESCUE DAWN

"The jungle is the prison."

Werner Herzog, one of the most influential filmmakers to emerge from the "New German Cinema", started making movies in 1968. He's still at it. But until the other day, when I watched RESCUE DAWN (2006), I had never seen a Herzog film. I was suitably impressed by what I saw and will certainly seek out some of his other films.

Based on true story and set in 1966, RESCUE DAWN details the odyssey of Lt. Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a U.S. Navy pilot who goes down into the green hell of Laos on his first bombing mission. Trouble is, the United States isn't supposed to be flying missions into Laotian airspace. Remarkably, Dengler survives the plane crash and sets out through the impenetrable jungle in an attempt to find his way back to Vietnam or be discovered by a Navy search and rescue mission, whichever comes first.

But it's not long before Dengler is capture by the Pathet Lao who proceed to mercilessly torture and degrade Dengler on a constant basis. They eventually take him a prisoner of war camp deep in the jungle. There's only a handful of guards overseeing the five prisoners being held there, two Americans and three Laotians. The Americans, Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), have resigned themselves to their captivity, going along to get along and patiently waiting their eventual release. All of the men have suffered both physically and mentally. Dengler refuses to acquiesce to imprisonment and begins to plot and plan an escape from the camp. The other prisoners are at first reluctant to go along with him, favoring the devil they know (their ruthless captors) over the unknown perils and near certain death awaiting them in the jungle.

But everyone eventually agrees to participate in the succeed or die escape attempt. The men do gain their freedom and go their separate ways once outside of the camp. Only Dengler and Martin stay together and their ordeal is unbelievably hellish. SPOILER: Martin is eventually slain by native tribesmen while Dengler is finally rescued by American forces.

Shot on location in Thailand, RESCUE DAWN features stunning cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger. His camera puts us right there in the jungle beside Dengler and the others as they struggle to escape and survive. The score, by Klaus Badelt and Ernst Reijseger is sparse but beautifully haunting. Herzog, who also wrote the screenplay, does a terrific job of making us feel the physical and mental anguish of the men. Most importantly are the performances by the three American actors. Zahn and Davies are both very good but it's Bale's show the entire way and he suffered for his art, losing weight before production began in order to shoot his emaciated final scenes first, then shooting the rest of the story as he gradually gained his weight back.

RESCUE DAWN is a grueling, at times tough to watch, tribute to one man's refusal to surrender against impossible odds. Recommended.