Sunday, May 20, 2018

LAW OF THE DESERT BORN


Imagine if you will that at some point in the mid 1960s, magazine publisher James Warren decided to produce a monthly, black and white, comic book magazine featuring western stories by the days best writers and artists. This imaginary magazine would have been done in the style of such other Warren mags as CREEPY, EERIE, VAMPIRELLA and the short-lived BLAZING COMBAT. I would have bought it for sure but alas, such a magazine exists only in the realm of the might-have-been.

But that's the thought that kept coming to me while reading LAW OF THE DESERT BORN, a magnificent hard cover graphic novel published in 2013. LAW OF THE DESERT BORN was one of the earliest short stories written and sold to the pulps by legendary western writer Louis L'Amour. The story first saw print in DIME WESTERN, April 1946. Years later, L'Amour's son, Beau, and writer Katherine Nolan, adapted the story for audio. Not long after, they re-worked the material once again into an as yet unsold and unproduced screenplay. But Beau and Katherine weren't through working with the raw material that Louis had provided more than sixty years ago.

In 2013 the story was adapted into a graphic novel by writer Charles Santino and artist Thomas Yeates (whose artwork looks like a combination of John Severin and Gray Morrow, and believe me, those men could draw), LAW OF THE DESERT BORN is a beautiful piece of work that more than does justice to and honors the works and legacy of Louis L'Amour.

The great thing about this story is it's moral ambiguity. There are no clear cut heroes and villains, no simplistic black and white hats identifying good guys and bad. The men here are complex, complicated people who do what they do for a variety of reasons. Honor, loyalty, desperation, necessity, survival and betrayal are all motivations that drive the narrative.

Relying entirely on dialogue and images, Santino and Yeates almost make the pages turn themselves in a race to the finale. But you'll want to slow down and savor the stellar work on display here. There's great background material included, courtesy of Beau and the whole package is handsomely produced in an over-size hardcover format.

A worthy addition to the libraries of both L'Amour fans and graphic novel aficionados, LAW OF THE DESERT BORN is first rate. Highest recommendation.


Saturday, May 19, 2018

BORDEN CHANTRY


I was always reading when I was a kid. Not just comic books, but paperbacks of almost all genres. I carried a paperback with my school books every day in anticipation of the opportunity to read a few pages throughout the school day of a book that wasn't required reading. My teachers never had to ask me to read anything. In fact, they often had to ask me to stop reading my various pulp fictions and turn to the book that was assigned to the class.

I read a ton of stuff in those days; a lot of science fiction, mysteries, spy thrillers, adventure novels, etc. When I was in high school, my chief supply of out-of-classroom reading material were the paperback reprints of the DOC SAVAGE pulp novels of the '30s and '40s. I tore through those babies something fierce and they filled a lot of down time during after school basketball practice when I, as the the team manager, had time to sit in the coach's office and ostensibly do my homework. Homework be damned. Many an afternoon found me off on some wild ass adventure with Doc and the Fabulous Five. My nearly lifelong association with Dr. Clark Savage Jr. will be the subject of a much longer forthcoming post here on the old blog. Stay tuned.

But there was one genre of pulp fiction that I didn't read and that was westerns. Don't ask me why. I loved western television shows and movies but I just never picked up a western novel of any kind for fun reading. My buddy Ray Kohler (who passed away entirely too young in 2006), was a huge fan of Louis L'Amour. He read L'Amour novels like I read DOC SAVAGE books. He used to give me grief about wasting my time with that Doc Savage "crap", while I would do the exact same thing to him, ribbing him mercilessly about how "stupid" those Louis L'Amour westerns were. We had a long standing challenge (more like a dare, really) that I would read a Louis L'Amour if Ray would read a Doc and vice versa. Neither one of us ever fulfilled the bargain and we graduated high school without ever having ever shared our respective passions.

Years later, I was working at the Book Exchange, a small, local store that sold new and used paperbacks at cheap prices. Our bread and butter merchandise were the numerous paperback romances that were just beginning to explode in the 1980s. The second best selling product in the store was Louis L'Amour westerns. We put a premium on them, would always buy them (for 10% of the cover price) and we were constantly selling through and needing to replenish stock. The books sold almost entirely to men and mostly older gentlemen at that. They were wildly popular, incredible sellers but I just couldn't, for the life of me, see what was so great about them.

I picked one up out of curiosity (sorry, I can't recall the title) and started reading one afternoon. I thought the prose was incredibly simplistic and the plot kind of routine. That brief sampling didn't grab me and I didn't finish the book. Needless to say, I did not become a L'Amour fan. And it's not that I didn't like westerns. By this time in my reading life, I'd discovered the early western novels of Elmore Leonard. I read several of those and thoroughly enjoyed them so it's not that I held any disdain for the genre. I suppose I had some kind of wildly misplaced sense of elitism regarding the L'Amour books. Any thing that popular, that so many people liked, no, loved, couldn't really be any good. They appealed to the lowest common denominator and my reading tastes were more refined than that. Yeah, I was a bit of a literary snob (says the man who reads almost nothing but pulp fiction).

My late father-in-law Lawrence Matetzschk was a huge Louis L'Amour fan. He had read practically everything the man ever wrote at least once, some books multiple times. He read other western authors but L'Amour was his main man. Lawrence often encouraged me to try one, generously offering me any book off of his bulging bookshelves for the trying. I always politely refused, citing the lame excuse that I already had too many other books that I needed to read (which was, in all honesty, the truth). So once again, I missed out on an opportunity to share a deeply held passion with a loved one. Ray was gone and in 2015, so was Lawrence. They were both fine men and I miss them dearly. Why was I so damn stubborn and obstinate about reading a Louis L'Amour book? Good night nurse, it certainly wouldn't have done me any harm to read one.

A couple of weeks ago, my mother-in-law gave me two large produce boxes full of books. Some (the romances and cozy mysteries) were hers but the majority of the books were paperback westerns that Lawrence had owned. She implored me to sell them at Half Price Books or on eBay, whatever I wanted, she just wanted to get them out of the house where they were doing nothing but taking up space and gathering dust. I brought the boxes home and thought, before I start selling all of these beat up old paperbacks, I ought to at least read one or two. After all, now was the perfect opportunity to make up for lost time. Beter late than never, right? So, in honor of two men who always stood tall in the saddle in my book, I read my first Louis L'Amour western. Finally, at the age of 62, I get what makes these books so popular.

BORDEN CHANTRY (1977) is, believe or not, a murder mystery western and as a mystery writer, L'Amour is a great western writer. A man is found murdered in the street of a small town. The man was a stranger in town and it's up to rookie town marshall Borden Chantry to solve the crime. Chantry, a rancher by trade, became the marshall by town consent after the previous marshall died in what appeared to be a tragic accident. Chantry has no training as a law enforcement officer but he has a quick, agile mind and he's one determined son-of-a-bitch. He'llsolve the murder (and others) or die trying. And the killer aims to see that Chantry meets his end during the course of his investigation.

The identity of the killer is no surprise (I had him pegged early on), but L'Amour puts Chantry through a twisting maze of clues and suspects all of which lead him into deadly jeopardy. Chantry finds himself trapped in a caved-in mine at one point and has a shootout with a hired gun before he finally tracks down and confronts the man responsible for half a dozen murders. By the way, the stranger in town whose murder sets the plot in motion, is a member of L'Amour's fabled Sackett family, a frontier dynasty that stars in over a dozen of their own novels. One funny thing, L'Amour bends over backwards not to call a whore house a whore house but it's certainly obvious what's really going on at Mary Ann's house.

The writing is simple, yes, but L'Amour was a master storyteller who kept me turning the pages. Chantry makes for a compelling protagonist even if he sometimes comes off as being a bit larger-than-life. Bottom line: I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and look forward to reading more Louis L'Amour novels in the future. I've got two boxes full of escapist adventure awaiting me. I just wish I could share this experience with Ray and Lawrence. I hope you guys will find it in your hearts to forgive me for coming so late to the dance. It would have been more fun with you both as partners.


Friday, May 18, 2018

DEATH CURSE OF TARTU


A film bereft of both budget and imagination, DEATH CURSE OF TARTU is a dreary, low budget horror exploitation film that found a home in grind houses and drive-ins across the country in 1966. Shot entirely on location in the Florida Everglades and featuring horrible sound and murky cinematography, this 87 minute epic was written and directed by auteur wannabe William Grefe. Who?

The horror starts when an archeologist stumbles across a cave in the Everglades containing a coffin that houses the mummified remains of the ancient voodoo witch doctor Tartu. The corpse comes to life and the explorer is killed (off camera).

Next, another archeologist heads into the swamp in search of his missing peer. He makes camp for the night and soon hears the ominous beat of distant voodoo drums. He goes to investigate and meets his grisly end when a giant python drops out of a tree (more like shoved out by an intrepid animal wrangler) on top of the hapless man.

Finally, six people (three men, three women) load up on air boats and take off in search of the two missing men. This search party is comprised of an older scientist and his comely wife and four of his students (I guess they volunteered for this gig for extra credit). While the professor tries to solve the mystery of the missing men, the swinging teens hold a dance party on the shores of the swamp. The swimsuit clad women gyrate wildly (the camera lingers lovingly on their twisting torsos), while bad, tinny rock music blares from their portable radio. Then, the jungle drums start up again.

Before you know it two of the students end up in the water where they are menaced by a shark. Yes, a shark. In the fresh waters of the Everglades. The shark is brought to vivid life by a cheap rubber dorsal fin and stock footage from some other, far better film. Next, one of the party is attacked by a very large (and real, in many shots) alligator. That giant python makes another appearance and the professor finally deduces that the attacking animals are animated by the spirit of Tartu. The professor and his wife find the cave where Tartu's body resides and find themselves trapped with the evil corpse. They manage to escape (just barely) and Tartu gives chase (granted, at a very slow, shambling pace), before he meets his final doom in a pool of quicksand. Cue jungle drums. The end.

Those drums. Those goddam jungle drums are heard incessantly throughout the movie but their source is never revealed. Not once are we shown any natives pounding upon the drums. The sound is just inexplicably there.

Is there anything worthwhile about this hot mess? Well, the women are attractive and the Tartu make-up and effects are fairly well done. But outside of that, it's a turkey, a real bottom-of-the-barrel piece of celluloid effluvia. Thumbs down.


Thursday, May 17, 2018

ALONE IN THE DARK


At first glance, you would think that a 1982 American horror film starring Jack Palance, Martin Landau and Donald Pleasence would be a can't miss proposition. Palance and Landau were both future Best Supporting Actor Oscar winners at the time while Pleasence was a seasoned, genre veteran. You'd think this would be a good movie, one well worth your time if you're a horror film fan. 

And you'd be wrong.

ALONE IN THE DARK is the story of an insane asylum run by the extremely unorthodox Dr. Leo Bain (Pleasence). There are no locked doors or barred windows except on the notorious third floor where the worst of the worst are kept. These include paranoid former POW Frank Hawkes (Palance), pyromaniac Byron "Preacher" Sutcliff (Landau), obese pedophile Ronald Elster (Erland van Lidth) and Tom "The Bleeder" Skaggs (Philip Clark), who gets severe nose bleeds whenever he commits an act of violence. The four men were beginning to make progress under the supervision of Dr. Merton but when Merton leaves the asylum, he's replaced by bright, eager young Dr. Potter (Dwight Schultz). The men think Potter has murdered Merton and set about to somehow take revenge upon him and his family.

Opportunity knocks in the form of a power outage/blackout (a remarkably well-lit blackout, I might add), which allows the four killers to escape and head towards Potters' house where they began to lay siege to the terrified occupants.

ALONE IN THE DARK recalls better "house-under-attack" horror films such as THE BIRDS (1963) and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Secondary characters (such as a police detective) are introduced and located within the house merely to serve as early victims in the killing spree. "The Bleeder", whose face we never see at the beginning of the film, turns up as a sympathetic young man who befriends the Potter family in jail (after they're arrested at a protest), a plot development seen from miles away. There's brief nudity, one special effects sequence by Tom Savini, and routine, predictable shocks and thrills. Ho hum.

Produced at the dawn age of the Golden Age of 1980s slasher films, ALONE IN THE DARK completely wastes the talents of Palance, Landau and Pleaseance although Palance has a nice little bit at the very end of the film when the maniac killer stumbles into a punk rock nightclub and fully embraces the nihilistic nirvana found within.

For die hard genre fans only.


Monday, May 14, 2018

A COLT IS MY PASSPORT


Gotta confess, I'd never heard of A COLT IS MY PASSPORT until just a few days ago. TCM ran this gritty 1967 Japanese black and white crime thriller crime recently and, even though I knew nothing about it, the description sounded intriguing and I thought I'd take a chance on it.

Boy, am I glad I did. This is one helluva great film.

Shuji Kamimura (Joe Shishido, pictured above with the pistol and looking vaguely like Jack Webb), is a master assassin. His partner is Shun Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio, pictured above behind Shishido and looking vaguely like Tommy Lee Jones), are assigned to kill a Yakuza boss who has double crossed his partners. The hit goes off without a hitch but the conspiring crime lords (one of whom looks like legendary DC Comics artist Carmine Infantino while the other is a ringer for B-movie auteur Roger Corman) don't want to leave any loose ends and set out to kill the two killers. Every move the two men make seems to lead into a deadly trap but the killers are old hands in the art of survival and they're always thinking two moves ahead, managing to stay ahead of their pursuers while desperately trying to find a way out of Japan with the money they earned for the hit.

Their path leads to the Hotel Nagisakan, a coastal inn that specializes in putting up long haul truck drivers for the night. There, the two men meet Mina (Chitose Kobayashi, pictured above at far right), a hard working waitress who yearns to escape her dead-end job. When Shiozaki is captured and brutally beaten by Yakuza goons, Kamimura strikes a bargain with the mob bosses: Shiozaki and Mina go free in exchange for his surrender at dawn at a deserted land fill.

But Kamimura has a few more tricks up his sleeve, tricks he demonstrates in an astonishing showcase of go-for-broke action cinema that brings the film to an explosive climax. It's a bravura, audacious set piece that will make you want to rewind and watch again. A COLT IS MY PASSPORT had already earned a solid three stars in my book up to that point. The ending earned it an additional star.

With a score by Harumi Ibe that would be right at home in a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western (indeed, the final sequence is shot and staged like a Western showdown), and brilliant direction by Takashi Nomura, A COLT IS MY PASSPORT is a neo-noir masterpiece. Several other neo-noirs were produced at the Nikkatsu Corporation including I AM WAITING, RUSTY KNIFE, TAKE AIM AT THE POLICE VAN and CRUEL GUN STORY. They're all available in a Criterion Collection box set while CRUEL ran on TCM accompanying the broadcast of COLT. I've got that one recorded and ready to watch next.

I may have never heard of A COLT IS MY PASSPORT but I know about it now and I'm glad I do. Highest recommendation.

 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

KINGS OF INFINITE SPACE


The title and cover art of the 1967 Curtis paperback version of British author Nigel Balchin's novel KINGS OF INFINITE SPACE is, to say the very least, misleading. The pulp science fiction art displayed on the cover would, naturally, make a potential reader believe that he or she was in for a rousing tale of interplanetary action and adventure with Fireball XL-5 style rocket ships being launched from massive space cannons while a Death Star like satellite (10 years before STAR WARS) lurks in the background. You would think, oh, space opera. And you would be wrong.

KINGS OF INFINITE SPACE is actually, believe it or not, a story that takes place in the very near future (as of 1967) and instead of interplanetary derring-do, the narrative focuses on America's NASA space program in the time immediately after the first successful lunar landing mission of Apollo 11 in 1969. NASA has decided to send a four man crew on the next moon mission and the fourth crew member is to be a foreign scientist of some sort. There's also a planned deep space mission, also involving a four person crew and a foreign observer to take place shortly after the moon mission. This mission is for an Apollo like capsule to travel a certain distance beyond the moon before turning back to the Earth. All of this is in preparation for an eventual manned voyage to Mars.

The story is narrated by Dr. Frank Lewis, a British doctor who specializes in analyzing the effects of prolonged fatigue and stress on the human body. He gets the call to join NASA as a  potential fourth crew member on one of the two missions. He's ultimately selected for the deep space journey and begins extensive and exhaustive training.

The trouble is, Lewis is a coward, paralyzed with fear about making the voyage. However, he's determined to overcome his own demons and make the trip no matter what. But as I turned the pages and realized that the end of the book was fast approaching, I began to wonder just if and when this mission was actually going to take place and whether or not Frank would be on board. SPOILER: a last minute automobile accident sidelines Frank from going on the trip and he never has to face his fear of space travel. A French physicist is substituted in his place and the mission goes off as planned.

Despite being a British writer, Balchin brings a great deal of insight and knowledge about the inner workings of NASA into play in this engaging and compelling drama. The relationships of the astronauts, the scientific observers, the mission and flight control personnel, the astronauts wives and girl friends, the nightlife in Clear Lake and Houston, the hyper life style and endless training is all brought to vivid and realistic life. At times, KINGS reminded me of the works of Martin Caidin.

I bought the paperback pictured above for a buck at a library book sale. I thought I was getting one thing and ended up getting something else entirely, but nevertheless, extremely satisfying. Don't let that sensationalistic cover fool you. KINGS OF INFINITE SPACE is a solid, well-crafted examination of the men and women involved in a crucial moment in the history of space exploration. Thumbs up.


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

THE SHADOW: THE BLACK FALCON/THE SALAMANDERS


THE SHADOW DOUBLE NOVEL #5 (Nostalgia Ventures, 2007) contains two crackerjack adventures of the Knight of Darkness, both from the 1930s.

First up, The Shadow battles the threat of THE BLACK FALCON (from February 1st, 1934). The Falcon is a domino-masked criminal mastermind who kidnaps several wealthy New York businessmen. The Falcon taunts the police (Commissioner Weston and Detective Joe Cardona) with a series of letters, each of which comes with an attached black falcon feather. The Falcon frames a two-bit hood as the real bad guy and it looks like the master villain will succeed in his nefarious scheme, especially when he kidnaps none other than Lamont Cranston, whom the Falcon has divined as the alter ego of The Shadow. With The Shadow among his captives, who can stop the mad fiend?

Well, The Shadow can, for one, since we all know that Lamont Cranston was merely an identity that The Shadow borrowed from time to time. In fact, The Shadow's true visage is revealed to The Black Falcon near the climax of the tale. Author Walter Gibson plays it close to the vest and doesn't reveal much of what the terror stricken crook actually sees but it's hinted at that The Shadows' features are grotesquely mishapen, perhaps from being wounded in combat during World War I?The identity of The Black Falcon is easy to guess and is revealed for everyone midway through the story. Nevertheless, it's a fast paced Shadow adventure in which his fabled autogiro makes an appearance.

That legendary aircraft features prominently in the climax of THE SALAMANDERS (from April 1st, 1936). In this one, The Shadow, aided only by Harry Vincent (who gets captured, rescued and captured again), squares off against The Salamanders, a ruthless gang of arsonists who use fire to cover their crimes of murder and theft. The gang of fire starters, clad in bulky asbestos suits and armed with flame throwing pistols, are after a collection of stocks, bonds and securities that will give them total control over various companies.

THE SALAMANDERS moves like a rocket with several well described action sequences throughout in which The Shadow fights both human foe men and deadly, monstrous flames. The action comes to a blazing climax when The Shadow stages an airborne assault on a burning mansion where he eventually confronts and traps the two evil masterminds behind the crimes.

I liked THE SALAMANDERS better than THE BLACK FALCON but your mileage may vary. Whichever you prefer, they're both a helluva lot of fun to read. Thumbs up and recommended to all pulp fiction and Shadow fans out there. Check it out.