Sunday, February 28, 2010

A mystery-comedy that fails to excite

The Crooked Circle (1932)
Starring; Ben Lyon, James Gleason, Zasu Pitts, and C. Henry Gordon
Director; H. Bruce Humberston
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

The clandestine battle between the criminal society of the Crooked Circle and the adventurers and amateur detectives of the Sphinx Club comes to a head in a haunted house, as the villains attempt to discredit key Sphinx Club member Brand Osbourne (Lyon) and kill the club's leader.

"The Crooked Circle" is a chaotic comedy/suspense film that tries to cram entire too much into its brief running time. The idea of the Crooked Circle vs. the Sphinx Club is pretty nifty, as are the subplots and plot twists related to it. Similarly, the hijinx of the dimwitted motorcycle cop (Gleason) and the cowardly housekeeper (Pitts) in the haunted house are pretty funny. However, when the two portions of the movie are combined, they distract from one another and make the overall film messy and frustrating to watch.

This is one of the many hundreds of movies that is filled with great ideas that are badly executed. Although it features some decent acting (Pitts, Gleason, and Gordon--as a sinister Hindu with shadowy motives--are excellent in their parts) and some well-done sets and decent camera work, the film really isn't worth sitting through.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The early Hawkman tales are brilliant

Showcase Presents: Hawkman, Vol. 1 (DC Comics, 2007)
Writers: Gardner Fox and Bob Haney
Artists: Joe Kubert, Murphy Anderson, Carmine Infantino, Bob Purcell, and Gil Kane
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

"Showcase Presents: Hawkman" is another mammoth collection of high-quality comics from the early 1960s. This one features the earliest--and very best--adventures of the "re-imagined" Golden Age hero Hawkman.

Written by master-scribe Gardner Fox, who also wrote a number of the original Hawkman tales during the 1940s, this collection of science-fiction tinged superhero adventures introduce the readers to Katar Hol and his wife Shayera who are police officers from the alien world of Thanagar who have come to Earth to study law enforcement techniques of our world. They come to be known as Hawkman and Hawkgirl, because their alien police uniforms and anti-grav technology make them appear like human hawks. The couple pose as the curators of the Midway Museum, and they augment their hi-tech equipment with antique weapons from the museum's collection as needed. They have to deal with alien menaces, Earth-based sorcerers, a few problems generated by artifacts at the museum, and even the bureaucracy of the Thanagarian police force.

The art is primarily by Joe Kubert and Murphy Anderson (with the latter providing inks over Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane on select stories). Kubert illustrates the first 1/4th of the book, and he once again shows himself to be a master of drawing things in flight--there are times when the reader can almost feel the wind rushing past Hawkman and Hawkgirl as they take flight or battle airborne foes. While Anderson can't match Kubert's ability to capture aerial motion, he nonetheless provided some of the very best work of his entire career on these "Hawkman" stories.

In fact, the writing and artwork is for the most part so excellent that the one average comic book story that appears here (a Aquaman/Hawkman/Hawkgirl team-up of all things, by Haney and Purcell) looks positively awful by comparison. In the context of the general level of material from the early 1960s, the Aquaman team-up is okay, but it can't hold up when compared to the rest of this book.

Originally presented in issues of "The Brave & the Bold", "Mystery In Space", "Hawkman" and a stray issue of "The Atom", the stories featured are universally clever, fun, and definately among the very best of the Silver Age. From the interesting relationship between Katar and Shayera (who more than once clash when personal and professional life cross over), to the supporting cast, to the always-interesting foes they confront, to the very interesting team-ups with other superheroes (two with the Atom--another happily married superhero--one with Adam Strange, one girl-magician Zantanna, and the above-mentioned Aquaman crossover), these are stories that are bursting with creative energy, exciting ideas, and that spotlight top talents using their skills to their utmost.

The book isn't flawless, though. I've alredy mentioned the out-of-place Aquaman team-up. There are also the occasional element that feels extremely hokey some 45 years after the tales originally appeared (the worst of these is that Katar Hol's father is the inventor of modern police procedures on Thanagar AND the anti-grav technology that elite officers like Hawkman and Hawkgirl use), but the many fun aspects of the book more than makes up for them.

"Showcase Presents: Hawkman" is an affordable collection of great superhero comics. I think it might even be a book that can appeal to a young girl, of you know one that you'd like to get interested in comics. Despite the title, Hawkgirl is featured almost as frequently as Hawkman.)

The book is even more affordable if you order it from, as it only costs around $13 once their discount is applied.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Post-Racial Sexiness

I'm not entirely clear on why Americans of all colors and creeds continue to keep racism alive. For example, I'm not sure why the likes of Halle Berry is considered more black than white--although since she chooses to make a big deal out of her blackness [as exemplified by her Oscar acceptance speech in 2002], I suppose she's more black than white. The same is doubly true for Mariah Carey, who I didn't know was black until I read some articles that made a big deal out of it.

The same is true of Barack Obama, who is just as white as he is black. Yet, he and his mouthpieces like to play the race card every chance they get.

Oh well. America's obsession with race has given me an excuse to tie Picture Perfect Wednesday to Black History Month AND put up photos of two very attractive women.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Man on the run searches for 'The 39 Steps'

The 39 Steps (1935)
Starring: Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Richard Hannay (Donat) becomes drawn into a spy ring and is innocently accused of murder after a British counterspy is killed in his apartment. He is now on the run, and he must make it to an isolated part of Scotland so he can discover the secret of the 39 Steps, blow open the spy ring, and prove his innocence. There's just one drawback: He's handcuffed to Pamela (Carroll) who wants to see him captured by the police.

"The 39 Steps" is one of Hitchcock's earliest spy thrillers, and it is very, very good. It's got some expertly staged scenes where great tension arises either from the main character knowing he's about to be discovered any moment, if just the other people in the scene notice what he's seen, or from the viewer being in on secrets that none of the characters know. There are also some great moments of expectation reversals and unexpected plot-twists.

This is one of Hitchcock's best movies, and I highly recommend it to any lover of classic films. (I continue to be amazed at how many film buffs haven't actually seen this one!)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Black Sidekick Who's Smarter Than the Hero

King of the Zombies (1941)

Starring: Dick Purcell, Mantan Moreland, John Archer, Joan Woodbury and Henry Victor
Director: Jean Yarbrough
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Mac (Purcell), Bill (Archer), and Jeff (Moreland) are forced to land on a mysterious island after their plane runs low on fuel. Here, they find a mysterious family who aren't at all what they seem... and who are the center of a Nazi cult of undeath.

"King of the Zombies" is one of those movies that you should not show to your ultra-liberal, hyper-PC friends. Their heads will explode when Moreland (as Jeff, friend and loyal servant to adventuresome pilot, Mac) starts in on his stereotypical, subserviant negro comedy routine--a character that was common in this sort of film through the late 1940s.

There's a difference here, however. Unlike most films where the black comic relief character is a cowardly goof who needs the guidance and protection of the dashing, capable white hero to get safely through the night, it's actually Jeff who recognizes the danger faced by the heroes. If Mac and Bill weren't a pair of racist jackasses, who dismiss everything that Jeff has to say without even the slightest bit of consideration, there would have been fewer lives lost as the trio struggles against the Nazi zombie master.

Unfortunately, I doubt the filmmakers were aware of this irony, either while reading the script, during shooting, or while assembling the final product. If they were, it goes unnoticed by any character in the film. Given the overall lack of quality in this too-slowly-paced, mostly badly acted low-budget part horror/part wartime propaganda film, I am almost certain the juxtaposition of the very clever black character against the dull-witted white heroes is a complete accident.

I can't really recommend "King of the Zombies", but I do think Mantan Moreland's performance is an excellent one, as he has great comedic timing and a whole raft of truly hilarious lines. The fact that Jeff ultimately emerges as the brightest character in the film is also something that's noteworthy, and I think it gives the film a unique twist.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Can dreams of death happen when awake?

Fear in the Night (1947)
Starring: DeForest Kelley, Paul Kelly, and Robert Emmett Keane
Director: Maxwell Shane
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Mild-mannered banker Vincent (Kelley) awakens from a horrible nightmare... only to find that elements of his dream seem to have followed him into the waking world. As evidence mounts that Vincent may indeed have murdered not one but two people, his brother-in-law (Kelly), a homicide detective, becomes involved. What is the answer to the mystery of a nightmare that has taken shape in the real world?

"Fear in the Night" is a quirky little mystery film that merges film noir and hardboiled detective elements with a horror film sensibility. There is very little action in the film--and what there is actually the weakest part of it--but Vincent's mounting horror as he realizes that the murder he dreamed about did happen, and the twists and turns the plot takes as the police detective gradually pieces together a theory about what happened. (His initial conclusion that Vincent is trying to play him a fool is one the viewer never really buys, but within the context of the film, it helps heighten the tension greatly.)

The ultimate solution to the mystery may seem a bit hokey to the modern viewer, but the deadly danger that the very sympathetic Vincent is placed in when the police make a couple of missteps more than makes up for that; I can't go into more detail without spoiling the film, alas. As mentioned above, the action sequence that takes place as part of the film's climax is probably the weakest and most unbelievable part of the film, and it robs it of some potential punch. However, the denouement pulls the film back from the edge and ends it on a high note.

A strong cast and a creative script make this a film that lovers of classic mystery movies need to see.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Like-kind

Monday, February 15, 2010

Uzumaki: Making spirals objects of horror

Uzumaki, Vols 1-3 (English Edition Published by Viz, Inc.)
Story and Art: Junji Ito
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Horror comics are virtually impossible to do well. Most are either silly monster stories or are simply tales with twist endings ala "Tales from the Crypt" or the original "House of Mystery." Few are ever actually SCARY the way a well-made horror film or a well-crafted horror novel or short story is.

This three-volume graphic novel series is an exception to that general rule. In "Uzumaki," creator Junji Ito has taken what seems on the face of it to be goofy--a town cursed by evil spirals that are driving the population insane--and turned it into a vehicle for comic books that deliver genuine chills.

An example of the masterful execution of this book is when the narrator and her boyfriend are sitting in a doctor's office with the boyfriend's mother, who has become obsessed with removing all spirals from her body--fingerprints are spirals, so they must be removed; her hair curls, so it must be removed--and they spot an anatomy chart that shows a person's inner ear... and the spiral it contains. The reader actually shares the shock and horror of the characters as they try to make sure the insane woman doesn't see the chart and then proceed to attempt to tear out her inner ear. It's an exceptionally well-done bit of graphic storytelling.

I highly recommend this book if you're a fan of horror. Heck, I even recommend it if you're the kind of person who claims to hate Japanese comics. Ito's style shows only a few of the "stereotypical" manga elements and actually put me in mind of a number of Italian and English comic book artists who specialized in romance or sci-fi comics during the Seventies and Eighties.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

What secret hides in 'The Red House'?

The Red House (aka "No Trespassing") (1947)
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Allene Roberts, Lon McCallister, Rory Calhoun, Judith Anderson, and Julie London
Director: Delmer Daves
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

The summer teenaged Meg (Roberts) and her friends stand on the verge of adulthood, is the summer they decide to explore the woods on the lands owned by her adopted father (Robinson), over his objections. Soon, secrets that have been buried deep in the forest since Meg was a baby are dragged back into the light, with tragic and deadly consequences.

"The Red House" is a well-paced, expertly acted thriller where country-folk are neither simple nor neighborly.

The cast are all perfect in their roles, with Edward G. Robinson (who transforms from an eccentric, crabby farmer into a menacing, murderous pervert, as his vener is gradually stripped away) and Allene Roberts (who changes from a shy, romantic girl into a young woman willing to risk everything to learn the secrets of her past) give particularly noteworthy performances.

The camera-work and the staging are also very impressive. The way the woods change between day and night are very impressively done, with the menace present when Meg's friend and object of her puppy-love (McCallister) tries to take a shortcut them during a storm, but completely absent during the light of day. The musical score is also extremely well-done and probably somewhat ahead of its time. (My biggest complaint about movies from the 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s is that oftentimes the music soundtrack almost seems random in its emotional quality and often not even close to being in sync with what's happening on screen. That can't be said for the music here--it enhances and moves the story along with as much force as the actors and the dialogue they deliver.)

I have nothing but praise for this film, so I think it a sad fact that it is on the verge of becoming "lost." I've seen two different versions of it on DVD--one that so badly hacked up the final scene of the film is missing, and another where the sound is so bad that it was hard to make out what was being said because of static.

If there's a film that deserves to be restored and preserved it's "The Red House." However, since there's no solid commercial hook here, and the film can't be considered "historical", it'll probably never happen.

Despite the poor quality of the sound, "The Red House" is one of the many movies included in the "Dark Crimes 50 Movie Mega-pack" and the even bigger "100 Mysteries" set that made those sets worth the asking price.

Friday, February 12, 2010

'The Man Who Knew Too Much'
is worth knowing

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
Starring: Leslie Banks, Peter Lorre, Edna Best, and Nova Pilbeam
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When Bob and Jill Lawrence (Banks and Best) become aware of an impending political assassination, the leader of the terror ring, Abbott (Lorre), has their daughter(Pilbeam) kidnapped. Abbott hoped the threat to the daughter would keep the couple frightened and silent until the deed was done, but he underestimates the courage and tenacity of these parents who will go to any length not only to rescue their child, but to see the terror ring destroyed.

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" may not be Hitchcock's greatest film, but it is still an exciting piece of work, and the family dynamics presented are very nice, particularly between the characters of Bob and Jill Lawrence. Lorre also portrays a villain who manages to come across as charming and supremely creepy at the same time.

One thing that I noticed about this film is that the characters seemed different than what seem to be the mainstays of Hitchcock's movies... they seemed to be more apt to openly accept and embrace adventure; most of the central characters in his movies seem to be unwilling heroes at best. However, I recently learned that the script was originally supposed to be a Bulldog Drummond film, set years after he and Phillys Clavering were married. Hitchcock was unable to get the rights to those characters, so the script was redrafted to remove all references to Hugh Drummond and friends.

Faster paced than just about any other Hitchcock movie, and with more witty banter that even in "The Lady Vanishes", "The Man Who Knew Too Much" is a fine way to spend an hour and a half.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Karloff proves hard to kill in this one.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
Starring; Boris Karloff, Lorna Gray, Byron Foulger, Ann Doran, Robert Wilcox, and Joe De Stefani
Director: Nick Grinde
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Surgeon and brilliant research scientist Henryk Savaard (Karloff) invents a device that will revolutionize blood-transfusions and organ transplants, a device that is so effecient it can allow surgeons to perform impossible operations and literally be used to fully restore a dead person to life. However, when his final experiment is disrupted by the police and his volunteer dies, Savaard is tried, convicted, and hanged for murder. His loyal assistant Lang (Foulger), a brilliant surgeon in his own right, repairs Savaard's broken neck and uses the fantastic medical device to restore Savaard to life. Lang intends for Savaard to prove to the world that his device works and that if he had been allowed to continue his work, the volunteer wouldn't have died, but Savaard is more interested in taking his revenge against the jury, law enforcement officers, and medical people who scoffed at his work and condemned him to die.

"The Man They Could Not Hang" is a neat little B-movie that starts out as a sci-fi thriller and takes a hard left about halfway through and turns into a "what if Agatha Christie were to write a story about a mad scientist taking revenge on those who wronged him" about halfway through.

The film is its best after Savaard has lured all those who wronged him to his house, trapped them, and is killing them off, one by one. The murders are particularly clever and sadistic, and this is one of those rare films where a "diabolical genius" actually comes across as a the genius he's supposed to be. (In fact, Jigsaw from the "Saw" series of horror films is a sort of great-grandchild of Dr. Savaard; they both put who they consider well-deserving victims in death traps and taunt them.)

The actors In "The Man They Could Not Hang" all give great performances, and Karloff is particularly noteworthy. The transformation he brings to Savaard shows how great an actor he was, as within the space of a very brief movie and limited dialogue and screen-time, he presents a character who changes from a driven, optimistic visionary with a desire to make the world a better place, into a bitter, twisted man who is deaf and blind to everything but his hatred and desire for revenge against those who humilated and scorned him. The way Karloff slips back and forth between Savaard's two personalities at the end of the movie when he is confronted by his daughter (Gray) is a fantastic performance.

The only strike against this film is that the last quarter seems a bit rushed. It would have been well-served by an additional ten minutes of running time, with a bit more time spent with Savaard's trapped victims, or maybe even a little more interaction between his daughter and her reporter boyfriend (Wilcox). The ultimate end to the film is perfect, though... I just wish the journey there had been a little bit longer.

I recommend this film for Karloff fans... and for those who like the "Saw" movies not for their gore, but for their villian. I think Dr. Savaard is a character you'll enjoy.

Great remake project for Roman Polanski?

Tormented (1960)
Starring: Richard Carlson, Susan Gordon, Lugene Sanders, and Juli Reding
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Tom Stewart (Carlson), a third-rate ladies' man, lands himself a beautiful girl with more money than brains (Sanders) and is about to tie the knot; However, he first has to dispose of his former girlfriend, Vi (Jeding). Unfortunately for Tom, he failed to realize that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, whether she's alive or dead... and he soon finds himself haunted by Vi's floating head and other random detached body parts.

The "hero" of this film is perhaps the singularly most unlikable character I've ever been expected to feel sympathy for in a movie. Not only is Tom rotten to the core, but I get this child-molester vibe off him whenever he's around his fiance's little sister. (Of course, part of that is because he thinks she may know that he killed Vi and he's working hard to gain her trust, and eventually he tries to do the ultimate slimeball thing and kill the little kid, but there's still that vibe...)

The greatest problem with this film, and it's only partially because of its low budget, is the way things that are supposed to be scary--like when Vi's ghost manifests--are laughable. The overall flatness of the acting is also a crippling factor. Carlson does a good job as the ultimate scumbag, and little Susan Gordon gives a surprisingly good performance for a child actor... particularly when one considers that she probably got the part first and foremost by being the director's daughter.

The film does have some interesting visual flourishes, and there are several suspenseful scenes that take place in an old lighthouse. In fact, all the movies suspenseful scenes take place in the old lighthouse; whenever we get away from that location, things tend to drag a bit--except when Carlson is giving off "dirty old man" vibes around Gordon. The horror is strong at that point, whether the setting is the lighthouse or not.

The basic idea of this film--which crosses a film noir sort of attitude with a ghost story--is one that appeals to me. The execution here is sorely lacking, however.

Someone should ask Roman Polanski if he has seen this flick. I'm sure he'd have all kinds of sympathy for Tom if he did. He might even want to option a remake and relive the excitement of his youth by having Tom feed Sandy roofies and then rape her before deciding she knows too much and must die.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Peter Lorre lends a hand in the name of 'Mad Love'

Mad Love (aka "The Hands of Orlac") (1935)
Starring: Frances Drake, Peter Lorre, and Colin Clive
Director: Karl Freund
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Dr. Gogol (Lorre), a brilliant but mentally unstable surgeon (Lorre) becomes obsessed with the beautiful actress Yvonne Orlac (Drake)--obsessed to the point where he has a wax statue of her installed in his music room. When Yvonne's husband's (Clive) hands are crushed in an accident, Orlac saves them using a revolutionary surgery technique to save them... but then turns to the task of driving Orloc insane, so he can claim Yvonne as his own.

"Mad Love" is a slightly muddled movie with a confused plot (made more-so by the obnoxious comic relief character of an American newspaper reporter (played by Ted Healey). However, the film is well-acted and filmed on impressively lit sets--Gogol's large, empty house/clinic becomes a great metaphor for his his hollow soul, as shadows play throughout it--and its mixture of romance and horror is bound to entertain lovers of early horror movies. The climactic scenes are particularly chilling, as the depths of Gogol's psychopathy becomes crystal clear.

(It may even serve as part of the lineup for a Bad Movie Nite, although it's by no means a bad movie. Some of the more melodramatic elements may tickle the fancy of certain kinds of movie lovers, especially Dr. Gogol's disguise at one point in the film. It's one of those rare cinematic moments that's both scary and hilarious.)

Although not necessarily considered one of the "founding" films of the horror genre, it is certainly the first "transplanted hands take on a life of their own" movies. I can think of at least three others I've seen over the years with very similar plots. (And I think there's a fourth one lurking in my Review Pile.)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Reviews of Classic Vampirella

For over 15 years, Harris Publishing has struggled to restore the classic icon of horror in comics, Vampirella, to the pinnacle of glory she acheived in the late 1960s and 1970s. There have been glimmers of genius in their efforts, but they've mostly been dissapointing. It seems like none of the modern writers have been able to capture what made the original comics so cool and fun. (Nor have any of the modern artists been able to match the glory of the art.)

In this post, I review four graphic novel collections that Harris has produced of the original Vampirella tales. Some of them are still available from the publisher at, but they are, sadly, mostly out of print.

Still... all hail the boot-wearing, alien vampiress with the impossibly skimpy costume! Theses books are some of the best Halloween reading you'll ever lay eyes upon, as they are brimming with vampires, witches, zombies, and demons. Even Dracula himself puts in several appearances!

(Among the illustrations are some of my favorite Vampirella portraits over the years, with the Dave Stevens illo at the top being my all-time favorite. It originally appeared on the back cover of "Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos".)

Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos
Writer: Archie Goodwin
Artists: Tom Sutton and Jose Gonzalez
Rating: Nine of Ten of Stars

In the late 1960s, magazine publisher Warren introduced "Vampirella Magazine", an anthology series presenting horror comics with a "mature" flavor that was hosted by a vampire vixen who ware an impossibly skimpy one-piece bathing suit and high-heeled boots.

In fairly short order, however, one of the most talented creators to ever work in comic books--Archie Goodwin--took the character to center stage, developed a supporting cast of friends and foes and put down a foundation that other creators have been building on for nearly 40 years.

"Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos" is a paperback that was produced by Harris Comics in the early 1990s, shortly after they acquired the publishing rights for the Vampirella comics. It contains the early Archie Goodwin stories that chronicle Vampirella's first serious adventures. First, we have her initial encounter with the adherents of the Cult of Chaos and the introduction of her loyal companion Pendragon, as illustrated by Tom Sutton in some of his earliest professional work. The art's a bit rough around the edges, but the future hights his talent will soar to is still evident. Then, as Vampirella's struggles against the Cult continue and she finds herself persued by blind psychic and vampire hunter (and future ally) Conrad Van Helsing, the art chores are taken over by Jose Gonzales, the artist who is most closely associated with the Vampirella character. The art is postively amazing, and the stories also get stronger as Goodwin perfects a forumla that mixes equal parts of humor, horror, and B-movie style sci-fi as Vampirella squares off against angels of death, lycanthropes, zombie-masters, love-sick sea demons, and even the strip's unique take on the vampire of vampire, Count Dracula.

Lovers of B-movies, quality comics, and sexy women in outfits that can't possibly exist outside of comics (or only if the wearer has lots of spirit-gum applied to her breasts and moves very, very carefully) shold seek out a copy of this book. (All joking aside, the tales contained in the pages of "Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos" truly are classic examples of high-quality comic book story telling.)

Vampirella: Transcending Time & Space
Writers: T. Casey Brennan and Steve Engelhart
Artist: Jose Gonzalez (cover by Dave Stevens)
Steve's Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

"Vampirella: Transcending Time & Space" was the second collection of classic Vampirella tales issued by Harris Comics after they revived the character in the early 1990s. It picks up where "Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos" (review here) left off, and writers Brennan and Englehart continued to build an excellent house on the foundation that master storyteller Archie Goodwin put down.

The book reprints seven stories, which not only continues Vampirella's clash with the Cult of Chaos, but also manages to pick up and resolve some left over story-threads from the previous book. A major storyline running through the bulk of the tales relates to the attempt by Dracula (who in the Vampirella mythos is an alien from the same planet as our heroine) to reject the Mad God Chaos, to cleanse his soul, and to atone for the many centuries of evil he has committed. It makes for very interesting reading.

Although solidly rooted in the Goodwin stories, the tales presented in "Transcending Time & Space" have a different, more freewheeling flavor. Where Goodwin tended to anchor most of his tales with horror genre mainstays (vampires, werebeasts, and demons) or references to classic genre fiction, the stories penned by Brennan and Englehart lean more heavily on science fiction and bizarre fantasy elements--servants of Chaos trap Vampi and friends in a Dream Dimenions; they're transported to a distant world inhabited by a thoroughly alien and monstrous creature; and then there's the all-powerful Conjuress who hopes to show Dracula the path to redemption. All of these elements, mixed with the sexy Vampirella, a dash of humor, and healthy number of crazed cultists all add up to some great comic book stories that make up the second half of the greatest run of Vampirella tales in the character's near-40 year history. (The book is made even stronger by the fact that in the book's closing tales, Englehart ties off a plot thread that's been dangling since Goodwin's first Vampirella story, and then spins it off into an unexpected direction.)

As strong as the stories in this book are, they wouldn't be half as effective if not for the gorgeous Jose Gonzalez art. While I'm lukewarm toward his tendency to drop in fine art portrait-style images in the middle of his sequential panel art, the detail and beauty of work on every page of the book is a real joy to behold. His layouts are clear, his characters expressive, and every panel helps move the story forward AND be a work of art unto itself. (Gonzalez's finest moments on the Vampirella series are, arguably, found in this book; the two tales set in turn-of-the-century England are particularly well-rendered.)

Oh... and the Dave Stevens cover on this book is perhaps the finest drawing of Vampi that we've seen in 25 years.

All in all, this book is a must-read if you have any fondness at all for the Vampirella character, or if you like well-done, off-beat horror comics.

Vampirella: Crimson Chronicles Vol. 4
Writers: Flaxman Loew and Archie Goodwin
Artists: Jose Gonzalez, Leopold Sanchez, and Jose Ortiz
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

"Vampirella: Crimson Chronicles Vol. 4" presents 13 Vampirella tales from issues 29 to 41 of the original black-and-white "Vampirella" magazine published during the early 1970s.

The art in this volume is absolutely gorgeous, but the fluxuating quality of the stories show that even at the halfway mark of the magazine's life, Vampirella's best days were behind her.

With the initial Archie Goodwin stories, we had horror tales with a classic feel and touches of humor (collected in "Vampirella vs. the Cult of Chaos"). With the T. Casey Brennan and Steve Englehart scripted stories, the sci-fi aspect of Vampirella was emphasized more, but there was still an air of classic horror about the strip. With the arrival of Flaxman Loew (whoever he may truly have been, because that has got to be a pen-name!), the series moves in a campy, offbeat direction, with less of an ongoing storyline but instead having Vampirella and Pendragon globe-trotting from booking to booking, and adventure to adventure. (Loew makes more use of the magic act/showbiz angle than any of his predessors did.) It's still a horror strip, but it too often plunges into the depths of pure silliness. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't.

Take, for example, the low points of the book. Each are two-part stories.

First, there is "The God of Blood" and "Betrothed of the Sun-God" where Vampirella becomes the lust-object of a very jealous Aztec god. Here the goofiness of a sun-god wanting to make Vampi his bride--and turning to ash anyone who looks upon her scantily clad body--is balanced by the lecherous evil of the god's priests, and a plotline about a phoney psychic who is murdering her way to a fortune. (Someone out there must really have liked this storyline, because not only did Warren reprint it later in the original Vampirella series, but Harris has already printed that slightly revised version in a previous paperback, "Vampirella: A Crimson Thirst". These stories are beautifully illustrated, but I think the presense of an Aztec sun-god whacking mortals over Vampirella is a bit much.)

Second, at the bottom of the barrel, the book presents "The Vampire of the Nile" and "The Mummy's Revenge". The in this two-part storyline "reveals" that Vampirella is a reincarnation of Cleopatra, and that she first became a vampire due to the actions of her evil brother. The follow-up pits her against occult forces that are bent on bringing back the evil from her previous incarnation. The second story has some decent elements in it--the sequence with Vampi is stranded in the catacombs under Rome and the dead may be coming back to life is very well done--but its too tightly tied to the idiocy of Vampi as the reincarnated Cleopatra to be any good.

On the flipside, the desire of Loew to send Vampirella off in different and unexpected directions work very well in "The Undead of the Deep" (where Vampi confronts a bizarre underwater party that she may never escape), "The Running Red" (where a cruel gambler and an immortal wanderer meet, with Vampirella standing at the crossroad of fate), "The Sultana's Revenge" (where the manipulative wife of a Middle Eastern prince brings danger to Vampi and Pendragon), "The Carnival of Death" (where evil hedonists get their come-uppance after they attempt to ruin a party thrown by the last remaining member of Venice's old upperclass, and "The Blood Gulper" (where Vampi crosses paths with a rock star and his agent who are truly operating on the life-blood of the public). These stories are all fabulous little chillers that pit Vampirella against unexpected foes while providing either chuckles, tragedy, or ironic twists (sometimes all at the same time).

Another two-part adventure--"The Head-hunter of London" and "The Nameless Ravager"--that pits Vampi against an insane killer and his spell-weilding sisters presents some of the most horrific scenes in the whole book, but the stories feel rushed, so their impact on the reader is someone lessened. Still, one has to congratulate Loew and the illustrator (Sanchez) in this case) on putting some naked women in the book who DON'T look hot in swimsuits.

The balance of the stories ("She Who Waits"--the single Archie Goodwin tale in the book, his last work on Vampirella, as far as I know-- and "The Malignant Morticians" are mostly forgettable and they have a sense of filler about them. They're not bad, but they are vapid.

As mentioned at the top of the review, the art in the book is spectacular. Leopold Sanchez's style is a bit more consistently cartoony than those of Jose Gonzalez and Jose Ortiz (in fact, Ortiz' style is so similar to that of Gonzalez that I had to check to credits page to sure I knew who was doing what), so the first impulse is to consider his work lesser. However, as one reads on and gets used to his style, it becomes clear that Sanchez's art is just as solid, spooky, and sexy as Gonzalez... it's not weak, it's just different. The cover galleries presented on the inside makes one long for the day when such gorgeous covers were common-place on comics magazines.

"Vampirella: Crimson Chronicles Vol. 4" may be a book that's erratic on the story-front, but it's still a collection of fun, creepy stories, and we still get to see Vampi when she was at her best. Most of the stories here are still superior to the more "serious", more modern tales that Harris presented during the past ten years. Get yourself a copy... it's great reading!

Vampirella & The Blood Red Queen of Hearts
Writers: Bill DuBay and Rick Margopoulos
Artists: Jose Gonzalez, Gonzalo Mayo, and Esteban Maroto
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

"Vampirella & the Blood Red Queen of Hearts" is a slim paperback reprinting eight stories from the original run of "Vampirella Magazine." About half of them focus on the villain mentioned in the book's title--a devotee of the Cult of Chaos who is quite possibly the craziest foe Vampi ever faced--and the rest capitalize on Vampirella's science fiction roots more-so than perhaps any others published. (Given that Vampirella's current publisher has ret-conned the sci-fi aspects of Vampirella's background into oblivion (except in the manga-esque "Vampi" version), those stories will probably stand as the ones that have taken the MOST advantage of the sci-fi roots of the character.)

The Blood Red Queen of Hearts was a crazed woman who decided she was going to make herself a Bride of the Mad God Chaos, and to prove her worth she was having her imp servant carve out the hearts of Chaos' greatest enemies. Her insane plan was to culminate with her offering up the ultimate dowry to the god-the heart of Vampirella, a woman who once narrowly escaped becoming a Bride of Chaos herself.

As you might expect, the Queen's plans don't go quite as she had planned. Her machinations actually end up leading to her getting the sort of “reward” anyone who disappoints Chaos gets, providing Vampirella with an opportunity to return to Drakulon, and for the reader to learn about the society that once existed there. The trip to Drakulon also brings Vampirella into conflict with perhaps the creepiest bad guy to ever cross fangs with her. In fact, the "Return to Drakulon" stories mark the end of consistently high quality for the series; after that point, the quality and tone of Vampirella's adventures become inconsistent and erratic.

The final two tales in the volume are from the last days of "Vampirella Magazine", and it shows. The art is not up to the standards set by the likes of Jose Gonzalez and Esteban Maroto, or even Tom Sutton, and one of the stories (a sci-fi horror take with Lovecraftian overtones) is simply lame. The closer in the book (“Return of the Blood Red Queen of Hearts”) is a fun read and it does manage to end the book on a high note.

According to the liner notes in "Vampirella & The Blood Red Queen of Hearts", the Queen was a favorite among readers, and she appeared on more covers than any other Vampirella villain. While the fact that the Queen ran around in even less clothes than Vampirella (being the Blood Red Queen of Hearts means you go topless everywhere!), but I think that readers also responded to the fact that she one of the most interesting Vampi foes to come along since the very earliest days when Archie Goodwin and Steve Engelhart were writing the stories.

Picture Perfect Wednesday
with Vampirella

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Blacksploitation Flick

Febuary is Black History Month in the United States. I'm celebrating it by calling the world's attention to cinematic milestones in Black History across all my various review blogs. Look for the "Black History Month" tag and join in the celebration by checking out the movies reviews!

Ten Minutes to Live (aka "Ten Minutes to Kill") (1932)
Starring: Lawrence Chenault, Mabel Garrett, A.B. Comathiere, and Willor Lee Guilford
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Rating: Three of Ten (but see note at the end)

"Ten Minutes to Live" is a brief anthology film--perhaps the first American-made anthology film--that highlights the sort of B-list movies that were being made as films with sound oblitarated silent movies and the careers most of the actors that performed in them. In both tales in the film, it's clear that one of things director and screenwriter Micheaux is doing is simply showing off the presense of sound. Both tales also very clearly show evidence of silent movie techniques, with the second half being obviously a silent movie that has been hastily and rather badly converted a talkie.

The first tale, "The Faker" is mostly a collection of Harlem nightclub routines (several performances by a troup of dancing girls, a couple of songs--with one being performed by the very sexy and talented Mabel Garrett, and a lame comedy act that shows that even black comedians were made up in something akin to black face when doing stand-up Back in the Day) with a paper-thin and badly acted plot featuring a con-man and abuser of women (Chenault) finally getting what's coming to him as he zeroes in on two new victims, including nightclub performer Ida Morton (Garrett).

The second tale, "The Killer", starts with a woman receiving a note from a pair of thugs as she sits with her date at a table in the night club. The note announces she has ten minutes to live. A flashback then follows, relating to us how she came to be in her present, perilous situation... and what follows is a standard silent movie melodramatic crime drama that's been retooled to show off sound. For example, car sounds have been added to a street sequence, and the sound of crowds in a train station. The sound effects aren't all that well done, the looping is painfully obvious, and the silent movie is still very much a slient movie. (I did appreciate the scene with Willor Lee Guilford changing from her dress into a skimpy nightgown and robe, even if I could have done without the strip-tease music that kicked at that time.)

In 1932, I'm sure the mostly rural black audiences for whom this film was made were awed by the sounds it feeatures. In 2007, however, "Ten Minutes to Live" is of interest only to fillm historians and historians of black nightclub acts the early 1930s.

In "The Faker", the interludes with actors thrown in between nightclub acts are really just an excuse to show us the nightclub acts, The filmmaker was plainly first and foremost interested in bringing music and dancing and singing (and the sounds of all these) to the patrons of movie-houses, some of whom might never make it to the glamorous Harlem nightclubs, but who could now enjoy all the sights and sounds of being there. The best portion of it is Mabel Garrett's song and dance act... but she never should have opened her mouth in an attempt to act. With the sound down, her scene with Chenault as he convinces her he's a famous movie producer is decent enough, but she can't deliver a line if her life depended on it. Chenault isn't much better, and they demonstrate why so many silent movie actors lost their careers with the advent of sound. (I hope Garrett did well as a singer, though. She was beautiful and sexy enough, and she had a great voice.) For movie lovers, "The Faker is a complete bust, but if you want to see what routines would appear at Harlem nightclubs in the 1920s and early 1930s, it;s worth seeing.

With "The Killer", we get a muddled storyline that's decently enough performed and filmed as far as silent movies go, but it's undermined by a hackneyed attempt to add sound to it. The badly acted sequences of Guilford in the nightclub with her date aren't terribly destructive... it's the flatly delivered, badly written lines that are delivered by characters off-screen as a mad stalker lurks atop a staircase, and the obvious looping of traffic sounds and badly staged crowd "chatter" that's going to bug viewers. The upshot is that what could have been the better half of this film is dragged down by a "gee-whiz" factor that has been left behind by history. If you want to see a well-done conversion of a silent movie to a talkie, check out Alfred Hitchcock's "Blackmail."

"Ten Minutes to Live" is not a film for the average viewer anymore. Film students should check it out, because it was the product of a pioneer in the filmmaking biz--Oscar Micheaux was the first black director to make a feature length film, a dedicated fighter for independent filmmakers, and a champion for portraying blacks on film as they really were--and because this is also one of the very earliest anthology films, but the rest of us can safely skip it.

Note: The copy I viewed was severely degraded, and I suspect that there aren't any out there in much better shape. One of the benefits of the DVD and digital storage in general is that films like this one get preserved. It may be a movie that time has left behind, but I think it's a valuable historical artifact, both for its documentation of the nightclub acts, and for its place in the evolution of America's race relations and the art of filmmaking. As a historical artifact, this film gets an Eight of Ten rating, but as a movie to entertain modern audiences, it gets a Three of Ten rating.)


Monday, February 1, 2010

'Fog Island' isn't worth the trip

Fog Island (1945)
Starring: George Zucco, Lionel Atwill and Sarah Douglas
Director: Terry O. Morse
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Leo Grainger (Zucco), a ex-convict and failed businessman, lures the people he holds responsible for framing him and for killing his wife to his mansion on on Fog Island. Dangling a promise of hidden wealth in front of them, he triggers a scavenger hunt of doom within the home's secret passages.

"Fog Island" is a confused and murky picture, and not just because almost every scene appears to be severely underlit. Story-wise, there seems to be big chunks of the plot missing, and we never do find out what Grainger's backup plan might have been if the targets of his revenge has chosen to not play the game, or what some of the clues he gave meant. It also remains unclear why he seems bent on drawing his step-daughter (Douglas) into his web of revenge. (The story actually falls apart even before it starts, because you'd have to be an idiot to accept an invitation from someone you framed and set to jail for five years when said letter declares that "justice will be done." The script does have a couple of Leo's guests discuss that going may not be too smart... but they go anyway!)

Acting-wise, the cast does a pretty good job, but the unintentional comedy is what makes this movie watchable moreso than the attempts at building suspense. The way virtually every single line that Zucco utters is dripping with ominous double-meanings, and the way the villainous supporting cast are creeping around after each other in the darkened hallways are the source of many giggles. (The intentional humor in the film is also pretty good, such as when one character suggests to another that "Crime and Punishment" would make for good bedtime reading, or when Grainger tells a guest his house was built by pirates so the guest "should have no problem finding your way around.")

As a suspense film, "Fog Island" is a failure. It's fun to watch for Zucco's over-the-top performance, though.