Sunday, September 18, 2016

ALIVE!


In 1931, flush from the box office and critical success of Tod Browning's DRACULA, Universal Studios, headed by Carl Laemmle, Jr., decided to put another horror film into production as quickly as possible. In the silent era, the studios' go-to-guy was the late, great Lon Chaney. But the actor had recently passed away and it was Hungarian transplant Bela Lugosi who became the first horror star of the sound era by playing Count Dracula in the film version of the stage play in which he had defined the role.

The next project being prepped was an adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic novel FRANKENSTEIN, to be directed by Robert Florey. Lugosi was considered for the part of the mute, man-made monster but a screen test was required. Make up wizard Jack Pierce applied his skills to Lugosi with somewhat questionable results. When the test reels were shown to Laemmele, Florey and Lugosi (along with other studio executives), they all knew that what was on the screen simply wouldn't work. Florey and Lugosi were out as director and star of FRANKENSTEIN, James Whale and Boris Karloff were in. The rest is history.

Florey and Lugosi did work together on a different horror film at Universal, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), based on the story by Edgar Allen Poe. And, ironically enough, Lugosi would eventually play the Frankenstein monster in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1942) and only play Count Dracula on screen one more time in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).

But what about that disastrous screen test? It is, to date, lost, a bit of Hollywood history that has never been seen since that fateful day in 1931. No print of it has ever surfaced and it remains one of the great lost treasures of the great golden age of horror films. It ranks up there with Tod Browning's silent horror film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927), as one of the holy grails of lost horror films. At this date, it's likely that we will never see the Lugosi Frankenstein screen test but then again, who would have ever believed that a nearly complete print of Fritz Lang's monumental METROPOLIS (1927) would surface in, of all places, Argentina, as it did a few years ago. Never say never seem to be the bywords here but I would also offer this addendum: Don't Hold Your Breath Waiting.

That legendary lost Lugosi screen test is the object of desire in ALIVE! (2013) by Loren D. Estleman. It's the third mystery involving Valentino, a film fanatic who works for the UCLA department of film preservation tracking down rare and obscure treasures. Valentino searches out both actual films as well as movie related artifacts such as screenplays, posters, promotional materials, props and costumes.  He's also up to his neck in debt restoring a vintage Los Angeles movie theater (he lives in the projection booth). Valentino's quests inevitably lead to murder and when that occurs, he plays amateur sleuth to solve the crimes and recover the prize.

That's pretty much the set-up here. A washed-up, alcoholic former action star, Craig Hunter, calls Valentino late one night claiming to have the Lugosi film. Hunter turns up dead, a victim of murder. The film is missing (if he ever really did have it) and the evidence points to a crime boss whose father worked at Universal Studios back in the day. Valentino's efforts to solve the murder of his friend and find the missing film brings him into contact with J. Arthur Greenwood, a famous Hollywood collector and publisher of HORRORWOOD magazine. Greenwood, is, of course, a stand-in for Forrest J. Ackerman, the legendary editor of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND.

Valentino is also aided in his quest by a student intern and his gang of steam punks. The suspects are many, there's a fair amount of danger and a ton of film history contained within the narrative, all of which is told with a mixture of genuine respect and reverence for film history and a slightly comic, tongue-in-cheek tone. This Valentino mystery reminds me a great deal of the Toby Peters series by Stuart Kaminsky. Peters was a Hollywood based private detective whose cases involved various players in the movie industry during the '30s and '40s. They were light weight, breezy and fun, full of affection for the Golden Age of Hollywood.

That's the vibe I get here. ALIVE! is a fun, fast read. It's not a great mystery by any stretch but I did enjoy it and got a few chuckles out of it. Of course what really pushed my buttons was the Lugosi film and all of the stuff about the Universal horror films (which are my all-time favorites). If you like classic monster movies, you'll definitely enjoy ALIVE! If you're not a fan, it's still a nice, PG-13 (brief nudity and violence)  rated murder mystery.

Friday, September 16, 2016

ECHO BURNING


"No," Reacher said. "I don't need a key."


I finished reading ECHO BURNING (2001) by Lee Child last night. I have now read the first thirteen Jack Reacher novels. I didn't read them in the order in which they were written but I have read the following: THE KILLING FLOOR, DIE TRYING, TRIPWIRE, RUNNING BLIND, ECHO BURNING, WITHOUT FAIL, PERSUADER, THE ENEMY, ONE SHOT, THE HARD WAY, BAD LUCK AND TROUBLE, NOTHING TO LOSE and GONE TOMORROW. I highly recommend each and every one of these terrific thrillers.

For those of you who may have come in late, Jack Reacher is one of the great heroes of modern crime fiction. He's an ex-military police officer who is homeless by choice. Reacher wanders the byways and back roads of America and he always manages to find trouble where ever he goes. He has the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes and the fierce, take-no-prisoners physical toughness of Clint Eastwood in his prime. Oh, and did I mention that he's six-foot, five-inches tall and weighs two-hundred-and-fifty pounds? That's a point made in every book.

ECHO BURNING is set in the arid wastelands of West Texas, a landscape that Child does a remarkable job of capturing with vivid and accurate detail. Reacher is picked up in Lubbock by a beautiful young Hispanic woman, Carmen Greer. She's married to an abusive husband, Sloop, a wealthy native Texan and rancher who is currently in jail for tax fraud. Sloop is about to be released and Carmen wants to hire Reacher to kill him. Reacher, of course, isn't a paid killer but he agrees to stick with the woman and her young daughter, Ellie, and provide what protection he can.

Sloop gets out of jail early and immediately ends up dead, apparently shot by Carmen. It's a crime to which she confesses and suddenly everything she's told Reacher about being an innocent victim appears to be a lie. Or is it?

ECHO BURNING isn't so much a whodunit as it is a what-the-hell-is-going-on-here mystery. Child builds his narrative slowly and carefully, introducing characters with various motivations and secrets as the plot advances. Included in the mix are a team of professional killers that you know Reacher will eventually have a showdown with.

To say any more would be to spoil the surprises and pleasures contained in these pages. Reacher, as usual, exhibits both his physical and mental prowess, twists and turns abound  and there's an edge-of-your-seat ending. If you're a fan of Jack Reacher and Lee Child, you've probably already read this one. If not, it's a good place to start. I guarantee you won't be disappointed and if you read one Reacher, you'll want to read them all.



Thursday, September 15, 2016

WHAT REALLY SCARED ME


In all of my years of reading FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND Magazine, I was never scared by any of the classic creatures pictured above. Intrigued, yes. Fascinated, definitely. Obsessed? You betcha. But scared? Nah, these fiends didn't scare me one bit. Same with watching the films they starred in. I was thrilled by monster movies but I was never really scared by them.

Let's face it, most of these monsters existed only in what I like to call "Earth Universal", a vaguely European, black and white fantasy land. The movies themselves were in black and white and kind of slow and creaky in parts. Most of them I saw on television for the first time, usually during the daytime with many (too many!) commercial interruptions. I knew, even at a young age, that these creatures were not real, that they could not possibly exist in the real world and thus, I had nothing to fear from them.

And even if, for the sake of argument, they were real, what were the odds that any of them would come and get me? The Invisible Man? Despite several sequels, the original Invisible Man was dead at the end of the film. Dracula? Relegated to Europe and could be beaten by a number of ways: crosses, garlic, wooden stakes, etc The Creature from the Black Lagoon? Lived in the Amazon River basin and, briefly, in Florida. No threat to Central Texas. The Mummy was relegated to Egypt in the first film although other entries in the series relocated him to the United States. But so what? I could outrun the Mummy any day of the week. Frankenstein's Monster and the Bride were both stuck in that weird Europe of Universal films and only wanted to left alone. The Phantom never left the catacombs of Paris beneath the Opera House and the Wolfman could be defeated by means of silver, especially in the form of bullets.

No, the Universal Monsters were heroes to me. They posed no threat or menace to my young life. I loved 'em. Likewise, King Kong and Godzilla. Kong lived in the '30s and died in New York while Godzilla came back again and again but always only in Japan. I would have loved  to have seen Godzilla, a giant, radioactive dinosaur, rise up from the depths of Austin's Town Lake and slowly make his way up Congress Avenue towards the state capitol building, wreaking havoc and destruction all around. I even wrote a terrible short story describing that very vividly imagined event. So I was okay with the giant monsters also.

No, what absolutely terrified me, what petrified me, what made my blood run cold was this photograph:





I don't recall in which issue of FM I first saw this still from Don Siegel's masterpiece INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), but I recall staring at it for a very long time and thinking, "this looks real." I had no idea whatsoever about the pod people or the plot of the film but I knew that this was pure terror, something that could actually happen anywhere at any time. A man and a woman running for their lives from a mob in close pursuit on a Southern California street. I wondered if the mob caught them in the film and if they did, what happened after that? What horrible fate awaited these two poor, nice looking people? I  could only imagine.

Believe me, Earth Universal offered nothing as remotely terrifying as this one glimpse of real life peril. I often wondered what I would do if  I ever found myself in a situation like this. I could run pretty fast but fast enough to get away from a mob with death in their eyes? I don't think so. This is an idea and image that still haunts me today. I don't like crowds. Never have. Maybe it's because of this picture.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

THE INHUMANS


The Inhumans, a hidden race of super-powered men and women, were co-created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. They made their first appearance as a group/team in FANTASTIC FOUR #45, December 1965, although a couple of the characters had previously appeared in the title. First, Medusa was a charter member of the super-villain team The Frightful Four, which included The Wizard, The Trapster (formerly Paste-Pot Pete, I kid you not!) and The Sandman. That was in FF #36 in March, 1965. Then Gorgon, he of the hoofed feet, debuted in FF #44, a month prior to the introduction of the rest of the Inhumans members.

There was the regal Black Bolt, whose merest whisper could destroy mountains, Medusa, his queen with her living hair, Karnak (no, not the Johnny Carson character), a karate master who could find the weakest point of any object and shatter it with one blow, Gorgon, who's cloven hooves could cause earthquakes when stamped upon the ground, Triton, the amphibious Inhuman, and Crystal, who controlled the elements and was the object of Johnny (The Human Torch) Storm's affection. The whole gang is pictured above as they appeared on the splash page of their first solo series which premiered in AMAZING ADVENTURES #1 August, 1970. There were two other key members of the Inhumans. Maximus the Mad, Black Bolt's insane, evil brother who reared his ugly head from time to time in various attempts to overthrow Bolt and conquer Attilan (the Inhumans hidden city) and Lockjaw, a gigantic bulldog able to teleport himself and others across vast distances.

These eight characters formed the core of The Inhumans and it's those characters for which I have the most affection and affinity for. The Inhumans have appeared in dozens of Marvel Comics over the years and I have absolutely no idea what the current iteration or status of these characters are in the Marvel Universe as it currently stands. I'm sure changes have been made and will continue to be made. There's also an INHUMANS film on the production schedule for Marvel Films and it remains to be seen which of these original characters (if any), will be depicted in that film.




Yesterday, I pulled out from one of my long boxes and read for the first time THE INHUMANS #1-4, a mini-series published in the summer of 2000. It was a very good read.

All of the regular players are here (except for Lockjaw). The Thing and Human Torch make a guest appearance as does Crystal and her husband Pietro (aka Quicksilver). The main bad guy is Ronan the Accuser of the alien race The Kree (he was in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY film). There's star-spanning battle and intrigue aplenty in a story which finds the royal family forced to serve as pawns for Ronan in his plot to start an interplanetary civil war. We get to see the Shi'ar alien race, represented by Majestrix Lilandra and her Imperial Guard (Marvel's doppelgangers of DC's The Legion of Super-Heroes). The action is fast and furious and there's a major plot twist in the last issue. If George Lucas directed a Marvel Comics movie it would look like this.

What sets this mini-series apart is the story by Carlos Pacheco and Rafael Marin and the fantastic art by Ladronn Studio. Imagine Jack Kirby's pencils inked by Moebius (Jean Giraud) and you'll have some idea of how great this hyper-detailed artwork is. The only problem, and it's a big one, is that many of the panels are small and tight making the artwork cramped and hard to see. The muddy, dark coloring job (also by Ladronn Studio), doesn't help either. There are a few full page splashes but in general, the art is small and dark in a story that screams for the wide screen, four color brilliance of Kirby's '60s work.

Make no mistake. The artwork is stunning. I just wish I could see it in a larger, cleaner format. As it is, THE INHUMANS (2000) #1-4 is a good little self-contained series that is worth digging through the bargain bins at your local comics shop for. Thumbs up.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

MY FIRST FAMOUS MONSTERS


My buddy Kelly Greene and I were talking the other day about how we first discovered FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND magazine. For monster kids of the 1960s, FM was our bible. Edited by Forrest J. Ackerman and published by James Warren, each issue of FM was chock full of b&w photos of monster movies past, present and future as well as articles covering the history and current state of the genre. It was a glimpse into untold worlds of wonder and imagination, a place were we could learn about old favorites or discover a film that we just absolutely, positively, had to see. The magazine was an enormous influence on an entire generation of monster lovers, many of whom went on to have careers as writers, special effects and make up artists and film directors. I loved FM and still do. I had the honor of meeting Forry twice and I'll write about those encounters in more detail in a future blog post. For now, I want to focus on that first voyage of discovery.

The issues pictured above, FAMOUS MONSTERS #21 (Bride of Frankenstein), #24 (Werewolf of London) and #25 (King Kong), were the first issues of FM I ever saw. They were on the magazine rack at a variety store (remember them?) located in the shopping center at the intersection of Burnet Road and Koenig Lane in Austin. For the life of me, I cannot remember the name of the store or why my family was shopping in that center that day. It wasn't one of our usual haunts. But I do remember seeing those three issues on the stands and being overcome with an intense, burning desire to own all three of them. But I didn't have the money and I couldn't convince by mother to spring fifty cents for a trashy magazine about monsters. I walked away empty handed and always wondered what lucky kid eventually bought those magazines.

Not long after, I did purchase this item:



The Customizing Monster Kit by Aurora contained various add-ons for their line of classic monster models. I had all of the models issued thus far but I really needed some extra skulls, bats, rats, lizards and bones to make the monsters look even more monsterific. Included within this small, narrow, cardboard box, hidden beneath that wonderful painted cover, was a golden ticket of sorts. It was a coupon for an issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS. All I had to do was fill out the coupon with the necessary information, include fifty cents and mail it off. I was promised an issue of FM in return. My father, who knew full well how eaten up I was with all things monsters, popped for the fifty cents. We mailed everything off and I began the long, long waiting game. Which issue would I receive? It would be one of the three I had seen at that store or something new entirely? I had no way of knowing precisely what to expect, save that my very first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS was coming my way.

The day finally arrived. I received a large, magazine size manila envelope in the mail. I couldn't wait to open it and see my very own issue of FM for the first time. It was this issue:






FAMOUS MONSTERS #26, with a cover feature of the new ABC-TV science fiction television series THE OUTER LIMITS. Just look at that giant orange skinned alien. It was love at first sight! I read the entire issue from cover to cover several times. I committed every b&w still to memory, likewise the content of every article. I had no way of knowing if I would ever have another issue of FM or if I would ever have the opportunity to see the films and TV shows featured in the magazine. It was my first and, for a time, only issue of FM and in the days before cable television and video recorders, it was the only way I had to experience those monster movies.

At the time, Austin only had one (yes, ONE!) local television station and it did not broadcast THE OUTER LIMITS. I never got to see any episodes of this groundbreaking television series until the summer of 1964 when my family took a trip to the tiny town of Rainelle, West Virginia, where my father's sister and her family lived. It was there, in the basement of Aunt Lou and Uncle Dan's house that I finally saw an episode of THE OUTER LIMITS. Alas, it wasn't THE ARCHITECTS OF FEAR (the episode pictured on the cover of FM). Instead, it was a summer rerun of ZZZZZ (first broadcast on January 27th, 1964). A human queen bee wasn't nearly as cool as a giant orange alien but hey, there were no other options, so I took what I could get and was happy with it.

I don't know what ever happened to that copy of FM #26. I either traded it, sold it or saw it fall apart from constant reading. The bottom line is that I don't have a copy of it in my collection at this time. Nor do I have copies of issues #21, 24 & 25. The oldest, earliest issue of FM I own is #23. I'll track 'em down eventually and fill in the gaps in my collection. It will be a bit of a rush to finally have them all after all of these years but it won't equal the charge these magical magazines gave me oh so long ago. 



Friday, September 9, 2016

EYE OF THE DEVIL


With an evocative title like EYE OF THE DEVIL and a one-sheet that sells it as a horror film, ten-year-old me would have definitely bought a ticket to see this one when it was first released in 1966.

Ten-year-old me would have been sorely disappointed.

There's no monster and very little overt horror in this British MGM production. Capably shot in black and white by Erwin Hillier and directed by veteran J. Lee Thompson, EYE attempts to give a routine horror story a touch of class by casting stars David Niven and Deborah Kerr, both of whom still had a little bit of box-office clout (albeit not much) at this stage of their respective careers. Niven is Philippe, owner of an immense French estate which includes a vineyard. The estate has been in his family for years but the vines have withered and this year's grape crop is useless. Something must be done to restore vitality to the fields. Something like, oh, say, a human sacrifice.

Deborah Kerr is Catherine, Philippe's wife, who slowly uncovers the truth about what's going on. There's genre icon Donald Pleasance as a mysterious priest, Edward Mulhare is a sympathetic family friend (who you think will end up being the hero) and two odd twins, Odile (the stunning Sharon Tate in her film debut) and Christain (David Hemmings). Christain has a thing for archery while it appears that Odile is a witch.

EYE OF THE DEVIL prefigures Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy's THE WICKER MAN (1973), which is a far superior film in every way. Still, you have to give the team behind EYE credit for trying. The film has a definite French New Wave vibe to it as it opens on a series of quick cuts of random images before the Maurice Binder designed title sequence. Director Thompson and editor Ernest Walter favor abrupt smash cuts and camera movement in almost every scene. A camera will move in a shot, then BAM!, a cut into a different scene in which the camera is already moving. This technique is used repeatedly throughout the film, producing a growing sense of tension and unease.

EYE OF THE DEVIL isn't a bad little film at all. It's certainly worth seeing once if you're a horror film fan. There's no monster and few scares, which would have disappointed ten-year-old me. But sixty-year-old me enjoyed it, especially for the opportunity to watch the simply breathtaking Sharon Tate.


Thursday, September 8, 2016

WHITE SHADOW


I found a used trade paperback copy of WHITE SHADOW (2009) by Ace Atkins in a local thrift store a couple of months ago. It looked intriguing and with a price of only a buck, I figured I'd take a chance. Boy, am I glad I did. This is one terrific crime novel.

Set in Tampa, Florida in 1955, WHITE SHADOW is based on the true story of local mobster Charlie Wall. Wall was old and not active in crime at the time of his death but his murder shocked the city and revealed a tangled web of corruption, hidden agendas, dark secrets and old grudges.

There are two main players in the story. One is L.B. Turner, a young newspaper reporter on the crime beat who serves as the story's intermittent narrator as only Turner's chapters are told in first person. Turner was friends with Wall and knows things the cops and mobsters don't. The other main character is police detective Ed Dodge, a tough cop investigating Wall's murder. Dodge has some dark corners in his soul but he's basically a good guy.

There are others including a variety of newspaper people, cops (crooked and straight), low and high level mobsters, hit men, circus freaks, and real life players Santo Trafficante and Fidel Castro.

Atkins has done a great job bringing 1950s Florida and Cuba to rich, vivid life. WHITE SHADOW is drenched in period detail and every page has a strong sense of time and place. It's a world about to undergo a seismic eruption with Castro's rise to power in Cuba signalling the end of the mob in that island country. Atkins' narrative voice is assured and economical, with a sharp ear for dialogue, an at times poetic rendering of the city and the natural world, quick, brutal violence and a densely plotted storyline that unravels in a slow but satisfying pace.

WHITE SHADOW does for Tampa, Florida and Cuba in the 1950s what James Ellroy did for Los Angeles in  his L.A. Quartet: THE BLACK DAHLIA, THE BIG NOWHERE, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and WHITE JAZZ. Atkins has written some other historical crime novels including WICKED CITY, DEVIL'S GARDEN and INFAMOUS. You can bet I'll buy and read every one of them.

Highly recommended.