Fates Worse Than Death: Raiders of Ghost City

At the end of the Civil War, Secret Service agent Steve Clark is assigned to investigate a series of Confederate raids on gold shipments from the town of Oro Grande, California. Clark is the Service’s most experienced agent, and a target of assassination attempts. Aboard a westbound train under the name “Chuck Mason,” Clark is singled out by Alex Morel, proprietor of the Oro Grande saloon the Golden Eagle, and the singer he is bringing west with him, Trina Dessard (in reality both covert leaders of the gold-raiding operation): Steve Clark must not be allowed to reach Oro Grande! Clark is lured into the rear carriage of the train by one of Morel’s thugs posing as a railroad detective, with the intention of killing him, but the pair are followed by a stranger on the train, a good-natured fighter who takes it upon himself to protect Clark. During the fight that ensues, Morel uncouples the car from the train, sending it careening back down the mountainside to derail and crash! Have Clark and his new ally had it? Is the adventure over before it has even begun? Of course not, but audiences had to return the following week to find out how they escaped in Chapter Two of Raiders of Ghost City!

I wasn’t sure if I was going to write about serials anymore: not that I’ve seen them all, far from it, but over fifty or sixty articles I’ve probably said everything I have to say about them without devoting my life to researching them full-time. And to be honest, I haven’t found the serial community that welcoming. Without naming names, there is a level of gatekeeping within this hobby just as there is in so many, and an orthodoxy that, when combined with the conservatism that often comes with an interest in older film genres, has meant that other fans don’t seem to be looking for the same things in these movies that I am. That’s okay: different strokes, and all that. But it didn’t really encourage me to keep going.

But I still enjoy serials, and Raiders of Ghost City is a good one, fast-moving with likeable characters and a variety of locations and action set-pieces. The wartime espionage theme, combined with the Western setting, has some juice, and although it is a product of its time, it’s nuanced enough to be satisfying to a modern viewer, or at least this modern viewer. (But if I don’t go into as much detail with this one, forgive me; it’s been a busy year.)

Steve Clark, played by Dennis Moore, is a typical stoic, can-do leading man, but the characters around him complement his approach and bring some color to the proceedings: most important is Idaho Jones (Joe Sawyer), the stranger who came to Clark’s rescue on the train. Jones is a detective investigating the murder of Oro Grande’s Wells Fargo agent; he wears a big grin and an even bigger cowboy hat, and he’s the kind of Mark Twain creation that can’t resist a good brawl and leads the bad guys on a chase around the countryside for “a little fun.” He’s basically the co-lead, and while there is never friction between Clark and Jones once they reveal their identities, it does suggest a mismatched buddy cop comedy at times, and following the pattern set by the first chapter, most of the cliffhangers involve one of the pair in deadly peril, only to be saved at the last minute by the other.

There’s also Cathy Haines (Wanda McKay), daughter of the murdered agent and now acting Wells Fargo agent of Oro Grande herself; in her first appearance, she seems to be sweet on Jeff Logan, a cavalryman connected to nearby Fort Loma and its commanding officer, Colonel Sewell. When Logan is caught riding with the gold raiders, Sewell suspects him of being a Confederate spy, but he turns out to be Steve Clark’s brother Jim, working undercover, and upon Steve’s arrival in Oro Grande he’s able to vouch for him. The brothers’ reunion is short-lived, however: Jim promises an explosive revelation, saying “it’s bigger than North and South,” but he is shot to keep him from talking, and is dead by the beginning of Chapter Four.

Many serials have only One Female Character; Cathy is ripe for pairing up with the hero (once the hero’s brother is out of the way, of course), but strictly in a platonic way as Confederate-fighting partners and then as friends, because ew, cooties, but if you’re an older member of the audience and you want to read between the lines, go ahead. As it happens, Raiders of Ghost City isn’t so formulaic that it only has one female character: it has two female characters, so take that, smart guy. The previously-mentioned Trina Dessard (Virginia Christine) is the Bad Girl to Cathy’s Good Girl. In her deep, haughty voice and show-biz worldliness, Trina is implied to be a femme fatale, but in the sexless serial world, implication is as far as it goes.

Trina pairs nicely with Morel, played by sneeringly British Lionel Atwill, and their evil machinations are known to the audience from the beginning, long before Clark and company are able to pin anything on them, as opposed to the common serial formula of unmasking an unknown mastermind at the end, so if you enjoy duplicitous villains, this is a good serial. What is their big secret, and what is the meaning of the various coins dated 1752 that they and others of their ring carry? Despite being played by the Most British Person Alive in 1944, Morel and his gang are actually Prussian! Morel is in reality Erich von Rugen, and Trina is Countess Elsa von Merck (haughtiness factor +10). (The ignominious end of Atwill’s once-stellar career is discussed in my review of Lost City of the Jungle.)

Other operatives are similarly disguised and passing for American, including an unknown traitor in the Wells Fargo office who is shown passing notes to the Prussian spies through a hidden drop in the wall of the Golden Eagle (at least until he is later caught). The coins are a secret means for agents to identify one another, the 1752 stamped on them referring to the year Frederick the Great (supposedly) wrote a detailed set of instructions for political domination for his sons. The Prussian scheme is to raid Union gold shipments, which will be blamed on Confederate forces, but are actually diverted to Prussia, and which will be used to buy Alaska from the Russian Empire before the United States finds out the Czar is entertaining offers. First Alaska, then the world!

In addition to Steve Clark’s investigations, the Prussian scheme is complicated by the end of the Civil War in Chapter Five: Braddock (frequent heavy Jack Ingram), the leader of the outlaws conducting the raids, headquartered at the abandoned Ghost City close to Oro Grande, thinks he’s working for ordinary Confederates, so he and his gang start wondering why they shouldn’t just keep the gold for themselves now that the war is over, or at least get a bigger cut for their trouble. Similarly, Confederate agent Clay Randolph (a former West Point classmate and rival of Steve Clark’s) is ready to surrender to the United States as soon as he hears of the peace, but not until he can confront Morel about the treachery he suspects, a display of loyalty that doesn’t end well for him.

Virginia Christine as Trian Dessard, slinging tunes and serving looks

Randolph, played by Regis Toomey, is an interesting character: in addition to being a Southern spy, he’s also blamed for the death of Cathy’s father and a Union agent in Washington. Toomey plays him as a charismatic and even honest figure, however, at odds with the double-dealing he’s accused of. By the time we learn he didn’t kill the victims he’s accused of murdering (Cathy’s father was killed by the traitor in the Oro Grande Wells Fargo office) and he’s telling off Morel and attempting to reveal the truth to Clark with his dying words, it’s clear that we are meant to see him as one of those honorable but misguided individuals who are an essential part of the Lost Cause myth, whose true loyalty is to the spirit of America even if they felt the need to turn against her government. Such portrayals in the name of national healing and unity were, and are, common, and while they were probably seen as a necessary step following the divisions of that war, it’s not hard to see the persistent lionization of Confederates and erasure of the war’s root causes as one of the sources of problems we’re still dealing with. (The lack of any black characters almost goes without saying, as their presence is more exception than rule in the serials, and in any case it was rare to have their viewpoints centered in pre-Civil Rights-era productions.)

Needless to say, however, the serial’s choice of villains is even more telling: Bismarck-idolizing German expansionists would have been a pleasure to root against during the height of World War II. In its way, Raiders of Ghost City engages with the contemporary war as much as Secret Service in Darkest Africa’s Nazi-fighting hero Rex Bennett. The alt-history territorial premise is similar to The Vigilantes Are Coming, although Raiders is far superior as a film. In writing about The Vigilantes, I noted similarities to 1998’s The Mask of Zorro, to which the Prussian scheme in this movie also bears some resemblance. It’s also worth pointing out that between its title, Idaho Jones’ name, and the haughty German Elsa, Raiders of Ghost City was surely one of the serials that had a direct influence on George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in creating their own updated serial hero Indiana Jones. Coincidence? Perhaps, but if the hat fits . . .

What I Watched: Raiders of Ghost City (Universal, 1944)

Where I Watched It: This was on Amazon Prime, but only up until the end of August, sorry! As of this writing, it is on YouTube, however (and the screen caps are from YouTube).

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Calling All Buckboards” (Chapter Twelve)

The title refers to a sequence (presumably borrowed from a land rush sequence from some bigger-budget Western feature) in which the gold miners head for Ghost City to take on the outlaw raiders while the cavalry is occupied with an Indian uprising. It leads to a pitched battle between the miners, raiders, cavalry and Indians that ultimately burns down Ghost City.

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven, “Trail to Torture,” Idaho has been captured by the restless Modoc Indians. The Modocs have been agitated by renegade Joe Berk, working for the Prussians, and after a telegraph conference between the chief and “Great White Father” Abraham Lincoln falls through due to Lincoln’s assassination, the tribe is convinced that the white man has screwed them over again. (They even turn against the raiders and kill Berk in the next chapter.) In a scene that emphasizes Hollywood’s take on Indian “savagery,” Idaho’s legs are tied to a pair of saplings bent to the ground; when the ropes holding the trees down are cut, Idaho will be ripped apart! It’s one of the more gruesome perils in a serial that includes train derailings, shootouts, stabbing, and drowning as cliffhangers. Fortunately, in the next chapter, Clark arrives at the last moment and shoots through both ropes just at the moment the Indians are about to cut them, an incredible feat of marksmanship that is par for the course for serial heroes.

Sample Dialogue:

Randolph: Yes, I understand German, but I speak good old Tennessee English too. I suspected Richmond wasn’t getting all the gold from our raids, but what you’ve stolen for Prussia, Washington is going to get.

Morel: You would help the enemies of your country?

Randolph: No, Morel. You’re my country’s enemy. As of today there is no North and South, only United States!

Chapter Five, “The Fatal Lariat”

What’s Next: I don’t know, nothing? Your guess is as good as mine, but thanks for reading!

New Fiction: “The Metal Menace” in Pulp Adventures

I’m very pleased to announce that my short story “The Metal Menace” is included in the latest issue of Pulp Adventures (#40), available now! This story is in a retro space opera style with a twist, told from the point of view of two guards, Vilu and Okmun, in the service of the interplanetary Emperor Ayazo: their latest conquest, Earth, has provided the technology for Ayazo to build a mechanical man, a development that has led the guards to question their ruler for the first time. In an unlikely alliance, the Emperor’s Earthling prisoners, Rex Hazard and scientist Doris Walden, may be the guards’ last hope to avoid obsolescence!

Like “Queen Aura’s Address to the People of Planet Mongo Upon Her Coronation,” “The Metal Menace” was inspired by my deep dive into classic science fiction serials a few years back. (Vilu and Okmun are named in honor of Wheeler Oakman, the serial-era character actor who specialized in playing henchmen and heavies.) As an affectionate pastiche, I couldn’t have found a better home for it than Pulp Adventures, which combines reprinted classic stories from the pulps and new stories in the same vein. I also love the interior illustration by Aleena Valentine-Lopez, seen below. The whole issue, edited by Audrey Parente, is beautifully put together, and I’m proud to be a part of it. I look forward to reading the other stories and articles.

Pulp Adventures #40 is available through your favorite bookseller, or you can order it directly from Bold Venture Press.

Revenge of the Ninjanuary: New York Ninja

In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s. I’m bringing it back this year with a few more ninja-themed reviews; past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.

New York, New York. The time is summer 1984. Uptown, Ghostbusters fever has taken hold: the four intrepid ghost hunters are enjoying a burst of popularity, with crowds of fans wearing tee shirts emblazoned with the iconic “no ghosts” barred circle. But downtown, another folk hero has taken the public and their shirts by storm, a low-tech, singlehanded war on crime, a white-clad master of martial arts who goes only by the moniker “New York Ninja.” The city needs a hero, as New York in 1984 is deep in the “war zone” years, terrorized by outlandish criminal gangs and a wave of abductions in broad daylight. So how come the Ghostbusters got all the publicity and the New York Ninja remained unknown until last year, and how is it that a film as crazy as New York Ninja didn’t have a cult following?

Like Ninja Busters, New York Ninja was a lost film, but while Ninja Busters was completed and then shelved before its rediscovery, New York Ninja was never finished. Budget problems closed down the production, and after its abandonment it would have stayed unknown had the film reels not come into the possession of boutique video label Vinegar Syndrome. Under the guidance of Kurt Spieler, credited as “re-director,” the film was not so much restored as reconstructed: not only was the original shooting script lost, but so were the audio elements. Much could be gleaned from reading the actors’ lips in the surviving footage, but it was impossible to say how much had remained unfilmed or to say with certainty how the scenes were to line up. (Original star/director John Liu, a Taiwanese veteran of the Hong Kong film industry, is still alive, but has left show business and declined to be involved with the reconstruction effort.) Building a story up from the extant footage and guesswork, Spieler and his crew created a new soundtrack with dubbed voices (provided by a number of genre stalwarts including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Linnea Quigley, and Cynthia Rothrock) and an original ‘80s-style score by the band Voyag3r; there’s even an end-credits rap. You can take it at face value as a martial-arts/exploitation film, of course, but there’s also a fascinating metatextual element that places it somewhere between The Creeping Terror and Shirkers.

A fitting double feature at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, January 2022

So, how is the movie? Well, it’s, uh, really something. After an onscreen text that lays out the dire state of the city, it begins with John (John Liu, voiced by Wilson, playing a character named . . . John Liu) and his wife Nita preparing to celebrate John’s birthday, but Nita can’t wait to tell him the good news: she’s pregnant. In the next scene Nita witnesses a woman being abducted by three gangsters, and in true ‘80s revenge thriller style, she is swiftly and brutally killed so she doesn’t talk (the ubiquitous “I ♥ NY” bumper sticker is placed for maximum irony). After briefly wallowing in grief and getting nowhere with the police, John (whose day job is sound man for a TV news crew) takes it upon himself to clean up the streets. Cue training montage!

Soon, the New York Ninja is a sensation, thanks to video recorded by tourists and the news crew (who, in classic secret identity fashion, don’t suspect John of being the ninja). John beats up a lot of central-casting gang members and tweakers, many of them wearing clear plastic masks (someone had access to a vacuform machine). They’re the kind of multi-ethnic gangs beloved of filmmakers, with costumes somewhere between The Warriors and Mad Max (the masks appear to be a design choice rather than a gang uniform). Liu’s specialty was high kicking, so plenty of these bad guys turn out to be highly kickable. Other stunts include leaping up and down from walls or ledges, and in one scene John allows himself to be pulled behind a moving car and climbs in the trunk while it’s still in motion. In some of these scenes the change of camera speed is obvious, but charmingly so (the climactic scene in which he hangs from a helicopter in the air appears to be real; I’m not sure how else you would accomplish such a shot). All of the outdoor scenes were filmed guerilla-style, with at best the permission of property owners, but this isn’t the kind of production that can close down Times Square to get the perfect shot; the atmosphere is still highly stylized, but at least somewhat grounded.

There’s a subplot with a street kid John takes in, who organizes the other kids into ninja units, and in a couple of scenes the kid gang misdirects the bad guys and the cops. The slapstick elements of the kids’ scenes are at odds with the serious gunplay and violence the bad guys are willing to use in other contexts, but that’s nothing compared to the jarring scenes of the lead villain: the women who are abducted are pressed into a prostitution ring masterminded by a disfigured ex-CIA operative (voiced by Michael Berryman) who wears dark glasses to protect himself from the light. The victims he keeps for himself turn up dead and covered in radiation burns, causing the newspapers to dub him the “Plutonium Killer” (as a fan of newspaper headlines to convey exposition, there are some great ones in this). The scenes of him—communing?—recharging?—with a glowing green box are off-the-charts nuts, with the Plutonium Killer mugging and hooting like Bruce Campbell in a Sam Raimi picture while his skin falls off. (He even uses the Three Stooges eye-poke as a go-to move.) Obviously, this guy and the New York Ninja are on a collision course with a big confrontation at the end, but it’s so out there that it’s hard to believe it occupies the same universe as the scenes where children scare off gun-wielding thugs by throwing eggshells full of powder at them.

But that’s the ‘80s for you. It’s possible that the film, if completed as intended, would have reconciled its tonal contradictions, but I doubt it, and it wouldn’t necessarily be better that way. The plot of New York Ninja most resembles Revenge of the Ninja with a solid helping of Death Wish, but its “you gotta see this” elements may remind viewers of another competing film from the heights (or depths) of the ninja craze. Big banners for Ninja III: The Domination can be seen over a 42nd Street movie theater in one scene; perhaps New York Ninja halted production because they realized they couldn’t match that film’s absurdity. But they sure tried.

The Martian Chronic: The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun

January is Vintage Science Fiction Month, so join me for a look at a Golden-Age “quiet revolutionary.”

H. R. Van Dongen’s cover art illustrates “The Shadow of the Veil.”

Obscurity isn’t what it used to be: with the internet, there is rarely such thing as a completely new find, and it’s only a matter of a few keystrokes to connect with someone who already knows all about whatever it is that you’ve just discovered. Of course, it’s true that there’s always someone smarter or more informed out there, but it’s easier than ever for hidden gems to rise to the surface where everyone can see them. I’m not sure how hidden Raymond Z. Gallun (rhymes with “balloon”) really was, or is: all I know is that I had never heard of him, or at least didn’t remember reading anything by him before discovering the “Best of” volume edited by J. J. Pierce and published by Del Rey as part of their extensive series of science fiction reprints. But even in 1978, Pierce described Gallun as neglected and underrecognized, even as some of his stories continued to be anthologized, and as Gallun had published a novel, The Eden Cycle, only a few years before. He does not seem to have had a resurgence since his death in 1994.

Nevertheless, Gallun was part of the pioneering generation of science fiction writers in the 1930s and ‘40s who helped to elevate the genre from crude, cliché-ridden pulp to the thoughtful “literature of ideas” we celebrate when looking back, and if many of his stories still have elements of pulp, I’ll hardly complain. The later stories in this book, from the ‘40s and early ‘50s, lean more toward character study, but my favorites balance the demands of the characters’ inner lives with external circumstances that push them toward decisive action. (To be fair, I’m only getting a narrow view of the man’s work—thirteen stories out of more than eighty, and he also produced a few novels which I haven’t read—so I’ll resist the urge to make sweeping judgments, even if I take Pierce’s word that this book really represents Gallun’s best.)

Going by these selections, Gallun was fascinated by the processes of life and death on a long-term cosmic scale. His vision of a dying Mars, with only a thin, cold atmosphere and marked by the ruins of a long-extinct civilization, is one he shared with many other writers of his day, influenced by the ideas of Schiaparelli and Lowell. (Amusingly, Gallun suggests in his afterword that he may have been inspired by a youthful job stoking the furnace at a hemp mill, surrounded by clouds of smoke from burning, cast-off cannabis plants.) However, spread across many of Gallun’s stories is the thought that Mars is only the latest planet in the solar system to approach its appointed end and Earth, too, will one day share such a fate.

Where Gallun stands out is the rigor with which he works out the details of his alien ecologies, whether they be based on other planets or on Earth in some future time or inaccessible place. “Davy Jones’s Ambassador” takes seriously the question of a deep underwater civilization, with Gallun’s solution being the careful breeding of specialized animals to provide food, structures, artifacts, and even electrical currents in an environment without fire. Gallun’s Mars, with its ancient ruins of an extinct, semi-insectoid race, destroyed long ago by war and/or climate change, is superficially similar to other treatments of the planet, but Gallun has little interest in Burroughs-style derring-do or Bradbury’s sense of fable; his is an anthropologist’s and ecologist’s view (the immensely satisfying “The Shadow of the Veil” is almost a sword-and-sorcery tale, told from the perspective of an alien “barbarian,” but its references to magic and gods are those of a pre-scientific being with no concept of astronomy or space travel). “Seeds of the Dusk” describes semi-intelligent plants, evolved to store oxygen in capsules and directing their own evolution for adapting to different environments, including spreading to other worlds.

The notion of intelligent life spreading seeds throughout the universe appears in metaphorical ways as well: “Godson of Almarlu,” the longest story in the book, features a long-dead civilization that once thrived on the planet which became the asteroid belt upon its disintegration. Knowing that the heavy, neutronium-cored comet that destroyed their planet would one day return to the solar system, threatening the life that they had spread to Earth in the prehistoric past, these ancients created a computer-like device to implant in one human’s mind the information necessary to build a sort of astral bridge so a small part of the planet’s population could escape to the moon (again, thought to have a thin atmosphere in those days). But while this 1936 story brings out the biggest guns—planetary destruction, cosmic forces using humanity as pawns—it also shows how Gallun’s science fiction was relatively hard, at least for its time. This is world-wrecking closer to Fred Hoyle than Edmond Hamilton. Based on knowledge of other planets as they were understood at the time, “Godson” even predicted the existence of neutron stars, as Gallun speculated that the newly-discovered element neutronium would, if concentrated, be heavy enough to disrupt the gravitational fields of planets unfortunate enough to be nearby. The mind-altering forces of the ancients and the nature of the energy they use to transport humanity to the moon are, of course, not as easy to explain, but Gallun smartly leaves such issues as mysteries.

Finally, Gallun was an important example in creating alien intelligence that was truly alien, making its different point of view a critical part of the story. His early life as a wanderer, traveling and working all over the world, surely broadened his perspective beyond the typical pulp writer of the ‘30s. Many of his aliens are sympathetic, and even when opposed to humanity, the aliens aren’t all monstrous invaders: in fact, it is often humans, continuing their manifest destiny by spreading through the solar system, that take on the role of colonizers, with the “natives” simply fighting back. (Still, Gallun wasn’t above creating alien antagonists when the story called for it: 1938’s “Hotel Cosmos” includes a particularly nasty one.) Along with Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey,” Gallun’s “Old Faithful” from 1934 is considered a landmark in logically developing a sympathetic alien. The title character is a Martian astronomer, living in solitude and at odds with his pragmatic, unimaginative people, who communicates with observers on Earth before deciding to take the ultimate risk to cement this long-distance friendship. The story feels like a rebuff to H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds: instead of the puffs of smoke on the surface of the red planet being ominous portents of invasion, they are the sign of a kindred intelligence, with which communication, while difficult, is possible.

Speaking of Wells, Gallun’s work can be seen as a continuation of that author’s ideas on the cycles of evolution and extinction. The idea that humans are subject to the same forces as the dinosaurs and must adapt or die is Wells’s great bequest to the authors who followed him, and may in fact be the single greatest insight science fiction has to offer. But as Gallun matured and turned away from simple end-of-the-world scenarios, he realized that individuals face the same choice in microcosm. His 1951 story “The Restless Tide” makes that case directly, with a long-married couple whose lives swing between the indolent comfort of post-scarcity life on earth and the hard rigors of space colonization; neither life is satisfying for long, and it is man’s fate to always alternate between extremes. The futuristic medical and technological advances that increase the characters’ lifespans and make going to space an option mark the story as science fiction, but the central couple could just as easily be a mid-twentieth-century family deciding to leave the cozy suburbs and go back into missionary work. The story’s point is that the motivations and conflicts present are timeless and will continue for as long as there are humans.

Revenge of the Ninjanuary: Batman Ninja

In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s. I’m bringing it back this year with a few more ninja-themed reviews; past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.

“What—ninja Batmen!?” Yes, Harley, that’s right. Batman has been part ninja since at least the 1970s and ‘80s, when creators like Denny O’Neill, Neal Adams, and (of course) Frank Miller made explicit the connection between his use of shadows, disguises, and gadgets and the semi-legendary warrior-assassins of Japan. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins brought it to the big screen, for what is the “League of Shadows” but a fictionalized (more than usual) ninja clan? But 2018’s Batman Ninja, directed by Jumpei Mizusaki, goes even further, thrusting the Caped Crusader (along with a good selection of his allies and enemies from Gotham City) into Warring States-era Japan courtesy of a time-space machine built by the super-intelligent Gorilla Grodd.

Entering the time-warp a few seconds later than the elite of Gotham’s underworld, Batman finds that two years have already passed in Japan before his arrival, enough time for the criminals to ascend to power as daimyos (warlords) and begin altering the timeline. Penguin, Poison Ivy, Death Stroke and Two-Face each rule their own state, jostling for territory and power, but the most powerful of all is Lord Joker, ruling from “Arkham Castle” with his ever-present consort Harley Quinn. With the elements of Grodd’s “quake engine” divided up between the bad guys, they’ve industrialized and raised armies. Grodd himself waits, holed up in the mountains with his monkey troops, playing the supervillains off each other until the time is right for his own plan to unfold. The field is tilted against Batman before he’s even oriented, but luckily for him he also has friends who arrived before him: present and former protegés Nightwing, Red Robin, Red Hood, and Robin, as well as loyal butler Alfred and sometime-ally Catwoman. Another ally is Eian, leader of a ninja clan whose symbol is a bat—those bat-themed ninja who took Harley Quinn by surprise—and who has been awaiting a prophesied leader. Ultimately Batman must defeat all of the villains so he can get them in one place and return them to twenty-first century Gotham City.

Batman’s malleability as a character is one of the key reasons for his longevity: it’s been pointed out that the cheerful straight-arrow played by Adam West; the disillusioned grognard in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns; and the father figure to multiple Robins, the Outsiders, and even international Bat-franchises of recent years differ in which parts of the core mythos they emphasize, and yet are instantly recognizable as the same guy. Some artists—Darwyn Cooke and Grant Morrison come to mind—are able to synthesize the various portrayals into a cohesive whole, where others choose to focus on one element, using what they need for the particular story they have to tell.

In recent years, a hyper-competent, never-wrong, always-two-steps-ahead Batman has taken hold, at least as the popular view of the character. Batman Ninja begins with this idea, but takes pain to show how dependent Batman has become on his high-tech gadgets: suddenly appearing in the middle of a town in feudal Japan and attacked by Lord Joker’s samurai, Batman sets off a gas grenade and then aims his grappling gun, first in one direction and then another, realizing that there are no tall buildings for him to latch onto. Escaping on foot, he uses the built-in communications tech in his suit to orient himself, to no avail: there are no satellites to feed him GPS or news intel. Later, he recovers the Batmobile (which also came back in time with him), but it is destroyed by Arkham Castle’s defense system, with the car, the flying Batwing, the Batcycle, and even powered Bat-armor proving insufficient. With his toys broken, he doesn’t know who he is and complains that he has “nothing.” Is this really the Batman who usually seems so invincible?

Naturally, this stripping away of externals is only the first step in rebuilding himself, the low point before his ascendant triumph. It’s a classic case of backing the hero into a corner so that they can show what they’re really made of: when Batman realizes what he does have—his body and training, his keen mind, his will to fight, and his allies—then he can adapt to his situation. Marking this turning point with a dramatic monologue, he refers to the ninja’s pragmatism and versatility and declares, “We will master the ways of the ninja, our weapons will be everything that exists, and I will turn [the Bat clan’s] legend into reality.” Deception, disguise, and misdirection are major themes throughout the story, and the climax shows him fully embracing them and turning them to his service, clouding the Joker’s mind to make him see what Batman wants him to see, just like the classic ninja.

Made entirely by a Japanese crew (aside from the executive producers at DC and the Western voice talent for the English-language dub), Batman Ninja is a surprising and frequently exhilarating fusion of American superhero comics and Japanese anime, with young creators bringing their own influences and style to characters that are popular all over the globe but are usually presented from the Western perspective. (Jiro Kuwata’s so-called “Batmanga,” a series of original comics published in Japan in the 1960s and only widely-known in the West in recent years, is another example, but those stories were set in the modern era and spun off from the popular TV series, so cultural differences were more subtly expressed, rather than being the point.) Anime tropes are embraced, with the line between parody and homage lovingly smudged: that Robin suddenly has a monkey sidekick who can understand English (or is it Japanese? the language barrier is no more a problem than the barriers of time or space) surprises Batman upon his arrival, but everyone else has had time to get used to it. Likewise, steampunk “mobile fortresses” that transform into giant robots just come with the territory.

The creators are clearly having a blast finding points of connection between the two sources of inspiration, from the aforementioned similarities between Batman’s methods and those of the ninja to Gorilla Grodd’s control of the monkeys with a special flute. Specialized Eastern weapons like razor-edged fans and man-sized kites make appearances, showing that Batman isn’t the only one who likes clever gadgets. Bane makes an appearance as a super-powered sumo wrestler, an inspired choice, but one that doesn’t really leave anywhere else to go with him, so other than his one scene he doesn’t figure in the action. Character designer Takashi Okazaki has done a fantastic job translating the modern characters’ looks into costumes reflecting traditional and historical Japanese garb, as well as bringing in the ruffled collars and tights of eighteenth-century European visitors. Batman disguised as a missionary with a bat symbol carved into his tonsure is a fun example, as is Red Hood posing as a Buddhist monk with a tengai (head-covering basket). Both Western comics’ and anime’s love of fan service is fully embraced as well: “Time for some girl-on-girl action,” Catwoman says to Harley Quinn at one point, causing me to double-check the rating: PG-13, “some suggestive material,” and—oh, they’re just fighting, okay.

As far-out as some of Batman’s live-action films have gotten, it’s animated films like this that approach the free-wheeling, imaginative mixing and matching that comic books regularly indulge in. Interestingly, Batman Ninja doesn’t have time to make much of Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne or his motives for becoming a vigilante, other than the Joker’s continual taunt that being a hero must be a drag. I could imagine a version of this story in which Wayne must assume the persona of an honorable landowner or samurai, hiding his secret life as a ninja, but this isn’t a full Elseworlds treatment, and in any case it’s nice to know that there’s still ground left uncovered in this premise. It’s admirably thorough in ringing changes on its ideas, though, fully justifying the awestruck Eian’s words upon seeing clouds of bats form a kaiju-sized Batman to fight Lord Joker’s Voltron-like castle on the “Field of Hell”: “Behold the mighty Bat-god before us!”

Revenge of the Ninjanuary: Ninja Scroll

In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s. I’m bringing it back this year with a few more ninja-themed reviews; past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.

“You should check out Ninja Scroll, it’s awesome.” I don’t recall what led up to that recommendation, whether I had talked about my recent dabbling in Japanese culture or whether it came out of the blue, but it stuck with me. A little over twenty years ago, I had a sudden burst of fascination with all things Japanese, triggered by reading Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader, edited by Nancy G. Hume. I recall being hit by the sense of a whole new world opening up for me, one that I had known of in a superficial way but which enriched my sense of history and provided a way forward to develop and deepen the aesthetic of my own work. At the same time, Japanese manga and anime were becoming hugely popular, and friends only a couple of years younger than me seemed to connect to it deeply and intuitively, while friends my own age couldn’t get past the big eyes, shrill voices, and memories of cheap imported cartoons like Speed Racer. In my late twenties, I was already aware of a generation gap.

Even then, with much less material available in the West than there is now, it seemed overwhelming: where to even start? Like a lot of those younger viewers, I recall Cartoon Network’s Toonami block being a big deal: I know I watched Cowboy Bebop around that time, and I started picking up translated manga volumes, nearly at random: not everything I read stuck with me, but I encountered Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura (aka Lum) for the first time, as well as reading American treatments of Japanese subjects like Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. I usually preface discussions of manga and anime with the disclaimer that I’m not an expert, but by now I’ve seen enough to know where my preferences lie and to have a sense of how much I don’t know.*

As it happened, I didn’t get an opportunity to watch Ninja Scroll until last year, and, well, that was probably too late to be truly blown away by it. It does, in retrospect, make sense as a recommendation from that particular friend: he wasn’t a “weeb,” but he was still someone who dove deep into his chosen areas of fandom, a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast with a big RPG collection and a classics major whose gateway had been the numerous myths and legends of the Greek and Roman worlds. I remember that he took his blood and thunder straight: he didn’t care much for the winking, tongue-in-cheek tone that undercuts the seriousness of so much modern genre fare. I haven’t talked to him in a long time, but I bet the Marvel Cinematic Universe drives him nuts.

Ninja Scroll is, if nothing else, serious: one might go so far as to call it grim, even gritty. Like the samurai manga that so influenced Frank Miller in the 1980s, the medieval fantasy world of Ninja Scroll is a dangerous one, with little room for sentiment. The 1993 animated film, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, centers on Jubei Kibagami, a wandering mercenary ninja in Tokugawa-era Japan. Although Jubei minds his own business and (breaking with the usual practice) charges his employers only what they can afford, he becomes involved with a major conflict when he rescues Kagero, a kunoichi (lady ninja) of the Koga school, from a monstrous, rock-skinned attacker. The rest of the Koga ninja were wiped out after falling into a trap, and Kagero, after escaping, must report the attack to her clan patron and then, if possible, avenge her fallen comrades.

Jubei would be happy to move on from that one chivalrous act, but by interfering he has become a target of the rock man, Tessai, who is one of the Eight Demons of Kimon, a band of ninja whose mastery of supernatural forces has rendered them grotesque and inhuman. The manipulation of an impish old monk (and Tokugawa spy), Dakuan, seals Jubei’s involvement: the Demons are working for a shadowy “Dark Shogun” whose goal is the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate (and to guarantee Jubei’s cooperation, Dakuan poisons him and offers the promise of an antidote as bait). Much of Ninja Scroll’s running time is made up of episodes in which individual Demons attack Jubei, Dakuan, or Kagero to prove themselves. Their attacks are coordinated by Yurimaru, a dandy who uses strings to eavesdrop, communicate, and control people from a distance, as well as killing directly by garotte or electrocution. Yurimaru is merely the first of the Demons among equals, reporting to Lord Genma, the real instigator of the plot and, it turns out, a figure from Jubei’s past. As in many martial arts movies and video games, it plays out like a series of boss fights before Jubei can reach the Final Confrontation.

Perhaps because I had an idea of what to expect, I enjoyed rewatching Ninja Scroll more than I did the first time I saw it. There is a great sense of atmosphere, whether in a dark forest or a fogbound marsh: a late scene in which Jubei fights to free a mind-controlled Kagero is strikingly rendered in shades of red against the setting sun. The beauty of nature—a spider’s web, lightning flashes, or glittering stars reflected on the surface of the ocean—is often contrasted with equally loving depictions of spilled blood, raining from the trees or trickling down the eaves of a roof, or spit out in gouts by the brutalized and near-dead.  As over-the-top as some of it is, however, the hard-hitting violence is part of the genre’s appeal, and there is a definite “cool factor” to the various Demons and their powers: a snake woman whose tattoos come to life; a ninja who emerges from shadows and sinks back into them, attacking with a prehensile claw; a man in control of a swarm of wasps whose hive is his own body; and more. These enemies are as specialized and cleverly themed as comic book supervillains, and they’d be right at home in fighting games like Mortal Kombat (and I’m sure there was an overlap in fans of the two properties).

But the cynicism and nihilism of the characters and their world are also of their time, and were probably what I found off-putting the first time around. At worst, the bleakness and depravity of the setting comes off as trite, edgy for edginess’s sake. I’ve written before about the exploitative character of many kunoichi films, and Ninja Scroll continues that pattern, with the lady ninja being groped, assaulted and violated in ways that go from graphic to explicit. (I’m willing to accept that foreign standards are different when it comes to depictions of sexuality, but assuming that this wasn’t transgressive or shocking in its home country is equally patronizing: this is the kind of stuff that gave “otaku” a negative connotation in Japan.)

“When you fight monsters, you must become one yourself or you can’t win,” Dakuan warns Jubei. In the scene, Dakuan is referring to the hard, unsentimental choices the ninja must make, but it resonates with what we already know of Kagero, externally beautiful but deadly to embrace. Because of the lady ninja’s duties as a food taster for her patron, the poisons she’s been exposed to have built up in her body; yes, she’s immune to poison, a useful trait, but she is also toxic to any man she sleeps with, forced to live alone or slay her lovers. She is, in Dakuan’s words, “a perfect woman for this hellish world.” It’s hard to say if this is as meant as a commentary on womankind in general—the few (non-Demon) women who appear in the story seem to be present to show how limited Kagero’s choices for her life really are—but the conclusion to Jubei and Kagero’s will-they-won’t-they follows a well-worn pattern: she dies after saving his life, tragic and beautiful, and he moves on, carrying her memory, a more pure spiritual union than any mere physical coupling could accomplish. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering when Ninja Scroll was made, following the AIDS epidemic and the sex = death ethos of so much 1980s horror, or perhaps it’s simply a case of pet themes and obsessions emerging in an artist’s work (Kawajiri’s 1987 debut, the bizarre Wicked City, was even more explicit in connecting intercourse with body horror).

The poison of forbidden flesh is also implicit in the Demons’ voracious appetites: for power, for status, for money, all of which have undercurrents of libertine self-gratification. The Demons’ cruelty is sensual: “I hope you have an excruciatingly painful death,” Yurimaru tells Jubei when he has him in his power, as if about to savor a delicious meal. Yurimaru isn’t physically a monster like the other Demons, but his explicit homosexuality marks him as one. Even the other Demons mock him to his face for it: at least Lord Genma is bisexual. For his part, Genma is a parody of the macho he-man, hugely muscular with a massive, projecting chin. Kawajiri saves his most brutal fight scene for the confrontation between Jubei and Genma aboard a burning ship: the history between them, with Genma having betrayed Jubei and Jubei killing Genma (he got better), is an intimacy that Kagero can’t hope to compete with.

Ultimately I didn’t have to go all the way to Japan for an explanation of the dynamic between Jubei and Kagero: in The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer uses the divide between Clark Kent and Superman, and their respective relationships to Lois Lane, to illuminate a common dynamic, one that applies equally to Japan’s wandering swordsmen and ninjas like Jubei Kibagami: “Our cultural opposite of the man who didn’t make out with women has never been the man who did—but rather the man who could if he wanted to, but still didn’t. The ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, Lil Abner’s, or Superman’s, was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out. Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That’s why they got hit so hard.”

* Yeah, yeah, anime is a medium, not a genre, and there are movies and series that cover every subject imaginable, from the most mundane to the completely fantastical. But around the turn of the century, when I was just getting into it, the imports available in the US tended to be the latter, and getting into anime meant becoming familiar with a number of distinct narrative conventions, tropes, character types, and, yes, genres.

My 2021 in Books

The key word in my reading this year was “pulp”: not to say I didn’t read some “serious” literature, but for the most part I was looking for the quick hit, and that meant tearing through a lot of genre paperbacks—adventure, horror, and mystery—especially once summer started and I found myself doing a lot of waiting for kids at music lessons, doctors’ appointments, and the like. I guess you could say that this year I rediscovered the pleasure of skimming, of not having to read every word as closely as if I were writing a graduate thesis on it. Fiction often takes me longer to read than non-fiction because of the labor of imagining every detail as the author describes it, but, welp, not this year.

If I had a reading “project” this year, it was reading all of the (non-film) Indiana Jones tie-in novels; I had read a couple of them before and had a few more on the shelf, but making the decision to track down the rest (a manageable but not trivial task) was a plunge I hadn’t expected to take at the beginning of the year. Despite my affection for the Indiana Jones movies and pulp adventure in general, I grew up with the snob’s suspicion of such tie-ins, a resistance I’ve gradually broken down in recent years as I explored movie adaptations and mass market fiction in general.

So, how were they? Most of them don’t rise to the heights of the best media tie-ins (Max Allan Collins’s Dick Tracy novelization and Matthew Stover’s adaptation of Revenge of the Sith are probably the best I’ve read), but they are diverting, and the best of them feel like authentic extensions of the character and his world that we know from Harrison Ford’s performance in the film series. They are also a neat-looking collection, with matching trade dress and original painted covers by poster maestro Drew Struzan, and most of them feature Indy confronting a legendary supernatural artifact or phenomenon, as you would expect.

Of the three authors who wrote the original twelve installments, Max McCoy’s were my favorite: they feel the most like they could have been movies in the original series, and strike the right balance of action, mystery, and characterization. The two by Martin Caidin (who, among other works, wrote the book upon which The Six Million Dollar Man was based) feel like they might have originally been written about Doc Savage or some other pulp superman and then rebranded as Indiana Jones novels; they’re entertaining enough, but the plots are bizarre and don’t feel much like the character as depicted anywhere else, like hearing a story about someone you know that makes you wonder if you’re thinking of the same person. Rob MacGregor not only wrote the most books (six), but they have the most complex internal continuity, not to mention a mystical bent that, considering these are prequels set in the early to mid-1930s, makes the character’s skepticism of the supernatural as depicted in Raiders of the Lost Ark a little jarring.

The original twelve books were published in the 1990s, following Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, so there are frequent references to Indy’s strained relationship with his father, and side characters such as Marcus Brody and Sallah make appearances. The thirteenth book, Indiana Jones and the Army of the Dead by Steve Perry, was released in 2009 alongside Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and includes that film’s George “Mac” McHale as Indy’s partner in adventure. With another Indiana Jones movie scheduled for 2022, will there be any new tie-in prequels/sidequels? I don’t know, but while researching that question I found that Rob MacGregor wrote another novel, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings, that was never published, but which he began releasing as audio installments this fall, to be finished in January with a mystery announcement scheduled for February: a new book, or a print publication of this one? Either way, I feel obligated to check it out now.

Another theme emerged in my horror reading: the much-discussed motif of the “final girl,” the (usually virginal) would-be victim who is able to stand up to and escape or dispatch the killer in a slasher film. The concept was codified in Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, but is now deployed self-consciously (witness The Final Girls, the 2015 movie I watched in October, not to be confused with Final Girl, from the same year, and a bunch of other movies and TV episodes with similar titles). The Final Girl Support Group was the first fiction by Grady Hendrix I’ve read, but the novel, which brings together a group of survivors of killing sprees clearly modeled on classic slasher franchises, is definitely the work of someone familiar with the tropes and clichés of the genre, as well as the commentary and criticism surrounding it. By chance I had read a less self-conscious “final girl” novel, Kimberly Rangel’s The Homecoming, earlier in the fall, with its heroine the only survivor of a Ouija board session gone wrong; when she returns home (and to the scene of the crime) years later, many still suspect her of the murders, but the reader knows that it’s actually the work of a serial killer who was executed at the very moment the Ouija board made contact with the spirit realm (did I mention I was looking for pulp?). Even Stephen Graham Jones’ recent The Only Good Indians riffs on the concept with a “Finals Girl,” so-called because she’s a basketball prodigy, but, well, don’t be surprised by where she ends up at the end of the book. (Jones’s latest novel, My Heart Is a Chainsaw, looks to be similarly self-referential, as it deals with a horror fan who ends up putting her knowledge to practical use, but I suppose it’s as much a matter of writers starting out as fans as it is the ubiquity of metanarrative concepts being popular; in any case, I look forward to reading it.)

January

The Boys of Sheriff Street, Jerome Charyn and Jacques de Loustal: French graphic novel, translated and published by Dover, of all companies

Samurai Executioner Vol. 4: Portrait of Death and Vol. 10: A Couple of Jitte, Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima: excellent manga from the creators of Lone Wolf and Cub, set in the same historical era

Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin: a masterpiece

February

Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman in Rogue to Riches, David Boswell (reread)

The Living Talmud: The Wisdom of the Fathers and its classical commentaries, selected and translated with an essay by Judah Goldin

Medieval Ghost Stories, Andrew Joynes

March

The Night Ocean, Paul La Farge

Wonder Woman: The Complete Dailies 1944-1945, William Moulton Marston and H. G. Peter

The Which Way Tree, Elizabeth Crook

May

Kanako el Kananam: Aventuroj en la Ĝangalo de Novgvineo, Kenneth G. Linton: As I mentioned last year, I began studying Esperanto in 2020, and this memoir, by an Australian soldier stationed in New Guinea after World War II, is so far the only full-length book I’ve read in the language. It took me a while.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, George Saunders, illustrated by Lane Smith: another one of those “postmodern author’s children’s books for adults,” fits on the shelf next to Donald Barthelme’s The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, but not as good

The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux: the book that got me in the pulp mood for the summer

June

Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi, Rob MacGregor

Indiana Jones and the Dance of the Giants, Rob MacGregor

Cold Cash, Gaylord Dold

Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils, Rob MacGregor

Indiana Jones and the Genesis Deluge, Rob MacGregor

July

Indiana Jones and the Unicorn’s Legacy, Rob MacGregor

Indiana Jones and the Interior World, Rob MacGregor (reread)

The Homecoming, Kimberly Rangel

August

Avengers: The Complete Celestial Madonna Saga, Steve Englehart, John Buscema, Jorge Santamaría, et al

Faerie Tale, Raymond E. Feist

Indiana Jones and the Sky Pirates, Martin Caidin

Indiana Jones and the White Witch, Martin Caidin

King Kong, Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper, novelization by Delos W. Lovelace

September

Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone, Max McCoy

Dangerous Girls, R. L. Stine

The Yellow Room, Mary Roberts Rinehart: I know, don’t judge by the cover, but I expected more of a Gothic romance than this turned out to be. Wouldn’t you?

Indiana Jones and the Dinosaur Eggs, Max McCoy

Indiana Jones and the Hollow Earth, Max McCoy (reread)

October

Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Sphinx, Max McCoy

The Final Girl Support Group, Grady Hendrix

The Death Freak, “John Luckless” who is also known as Clifford Irving and Herbert Burkholz: I found this at Goodwill and immediately had to read it, and I guess in this case the cover turned out to be pretty accurate: an only-in-the-’70s satirical spy thriller, sort of like a James Bond novel if Q were the hero.

Indiana Jones and the Army of the Dead, Steve Perry

November

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco (trans. William Weaver)

December

The Best American Noir of the Century, ed. James Ellroy and Otto Penzler: a 700+ page doorstop that I’ve had for a while, but once I started reading it I wished I’d started it sooner

Flying Too High (A Phryne Fisher Mystery), Kerry Greenwood

The Only Good Indians, Stephen Graham Jones

That’s it for 2021: I hope to post more consistently in 2022, but whatever happens, have a Happy New Year!

Movies of 2021 and New Discoveries

As 2021 draws to a close, I think it’s fair to say that the reopening of public life following the introduction of vaccines against Covid-19 hasn’t been all it was cracked up to be. With variants continually evolving and hospitalizations rising and falling like the peaks and valleys of a roller coaster, I just haven’t made it a priority to visit indoor movie theaters outside of a few times during the summer. So, while the film schedule cranked back up this year, I didn’t see very many new releases. On the other hand, the normalization of day-and-date streaming and shorter windows for streaming and home video releases meant that I did see more current films than I did in 2020: I just mostly watched them at home. (You can check out my diary on Letterboxd for a full list of films I viewed although I typically don’t rate or review anything.)

As far as the big releases go, I still need to see Dune (I almost went to see it during its IMAX rerelease, but the times didn’t line up for me to see it in the large-screen format, so I thought, why bother?) and Spider-Man: Far From Home. I wasn’t too impressed with Black Widow (too little too late for one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most ill-served characters, plus ick), but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a lot of fun. Godzilla vs. Kong was another enjoyable popcornball that I saw at the drive-in.

Smaller releases I enjoyed include The Mitchells vs. The Machines (a little too formulaic to live up to the massive hype, but it had a lot of heart), Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (ditto on the heart, but much less predictable), and Old (I joked about the most recent M. Night Shyamalan feature during my October wrap-up, but when I saw it, it was . . . good).

Still, continuing to explore films at home was as rewarding as ever, and here’s a small sample of the best or most interesting older films I watched for the first time this year:

Traveling Saleslady (Ray Enright, 1935)

This is one of several frothy pre-Code comedies starring Joan Blondell that I’ve watched in the last couple of years. Blondell plays the headstrong daughter of a stuck-in-his-ways toothpaste magnate, full of ideas for the business but always shut down by her father’s sexist conservatism. So, with the help of scientist Hugh Herbert, she takes her ideas (and the scientist’s new invention that makes toothpaste taste like the alcoholic beverage of your choice) to her father’s competitor under an assumed name. Does she cross paths with her father’s chauvinistic head salesman, and do they drive each other crazy until they can’t deny their mutual feelings for one another, and is there an explosive finale in which her true identity comes out? Well, some formulas don’t change.

Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)

Speaking of Joan Blondell, her world-weary performance as carnival mind reader Zeena is a high point of this adaptation of the same William Lindsay Gresham novel that Guillermo Del Toro remade this year (I haven’t seen the new version yet but I plan to). Tyrone Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, an ambitious, unscrupulous carny who buys the act from Zeena and her washed-up husband, getting into the mentalism racket and taking it as far as it will go, with disastrous results. This may be my favorite new discovery of the year: Power is magnetic, as are the three women (Blondell, Coleen Gray as Stan’s naïve wife, and Helen Walker as a psychiatrist who is every bet the operator Stan is) who mark the stations of his rise and fall. Even the studio-mandated “happy ending” is only mildly hopeful, at best. Nightmare Alley explores the desperate underbelly of the American dream in a manner reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life (and was similarly rejected by audiences), but it’s as if the whole movie takes place in the world where George Bailey was never born.

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Nathan Juran, 1958)

This is one of those movies everyone thinks they’ve seen, but the famous rampage is only the last ten minutes or so. Before that is a good hour of melodrama about obsession, jealousy, manipulation, and, to a degree, “contactee psychology,” as millionaire heiress Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) tries to convince anyone who will listen that she really did see a “satellite” and a thirty-foot-tall giant in the desert while her no-good husband Harry (William Hudson) plots to have her institutionalized. A short but sweet classic of ‘50s sci-fi.

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Karel Zeman, 1962)

I’ve been a fan of the Baron’s preposterous adventures since seeing Terry Gilliam’s 1988 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen—one of these days I’m going to carry out my threat of writing a series on cinematic Munchausen adaptations—so I was glad to catch up with the Czech version that seems to have been the most direct influence on Gilliam. The flat, cartoon-like compositions and animated interludes already have a lot in common with Gilliam’s early Monty Python animations, for one thing, and Milos Kopecký’s take on the Baron as charismatic and heroic but hilariously vain is also familiar through John Neville’s version of the character. The plot in Zeman’s version involves an astronaut arriving on the moon and finding the Baron dining with several other historical and literary figures there. In a reversal of the expected dynamic, the Baron treats the astronaut’s description of his rocket ship and modern life on earth as utterly ridiculous, and offers to help him find his way home . . . in the Baron’s own unique style, of course, and not without a few digressions along the way. It’s charming throughout, and while it has some of the same element of Munchausen being treated as a man out of step with modernity, Zeman uses a feather duster where Gilliam uses a sledge hammer.

Yokai Monsters trilogy (Kimiyoshi Yasuda and Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1968-69)

As sometimes happens, I watched the three Yokai Monsters films (subtitled 100 Monsters, Spook Warfare, and Along with Ghosts) on YouTube about a month before Arrow announced a box set collecting them (along with Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai War, which I haven’t seen). Each film is a standalone story, connected only by the recycling of puppets and props, but they are all fun ghost stories drawing on Japanese folklore (the yokai are something like ghosts or spirits attached to certain places, but by convention there are many discrete types, such as the long-necked lady or the one-eyed umbrella yokai who both make multiple appearances in the series). In a process familiar to fans of monster movies, the yokai who first appear as spooky threats to humans gradually become the heroes, guarding “their” humans from other, more serious supernatural menaces.

The Legend of Frenchie King (Christian-Jaque, 1971)

Comic Westerns are a favorite subgenre of mine, and one without much critical cachet—for every Cat Ballou or Blazing Saddles there are dozens of duds or forgotten obscurities—but every once in a while a surprise turns up. Going by Les Pétroleuses (dubbed in English as The Legend of Frenchie King), the French equivalent of the Italian “spaghetti Western” should be the “Beaujolais Western,” as it centers on a French-settled town in Texas where the saloon taps flow with red wine instead of beer or whiskey. Were it not clear enough that we’re in movieland, this gives us Brigitte Bardot as the leader of an all-girl gang of train robbers and Claudia Cardinale as a rancher battling over a plot of land with oil deposits hidden beneath it. With Bardot’s gang and Cardinale looking after her shiftless, rowdy brothers, there’s a comic-opera symmetry that fits the cartoonish plot (and even a literal cartoon explosion), and the frank but playful sexiness strikes me as very French indeed. Ditch the misogynistic McLintock! and give this one a try instead.

The Astrologer (Craig Denney, 1976)

A self-financed, self-aggrandizing pseudo-biopic about an astrologer who starts out telling fortunes at a carnival and uses his knowledge of the Zodiac to build a financial empire, The Astrologer is a bit like Nightmare Alley if it took for granted that the ambitious mentalist’s powers were genuine. I had wanted to see this for years since I first heard about it, but director-star Denney’s use of unauthorized music from the Moody Blues and others kept it in limbo, viewable only at infrequent public screenings of rare prints. Well, this year some Robin Hood of the internet put a fresh scan of the film on YouTube, and you’d better believe watching it became my top priority. The movie lived up to the hype: lavish and self-indulgent in the way that self-financed art often is, but equally stylish and eccentric, full of location shooting in Africa and Tahiti, slow motion, prismatic colored light effects, and let-it-all-hang-out storytelling. There are comparisons to The Room to be made, but this is a much more accomplished film, making the wtf moments (and there are many) stand out all the more.

Brainstorm (Douglas Trumbull, 1983)

Christopher Walken plays a researcher whose invention lets people share experiences directly, or even record them for later playback; the first half is mostly about the wonderful promise (and a few complications) of the device, but when it becomes clear the military has its own applications in mind it becomes more of a techno-thriller. Brainstorm is an interesting and beautifully-designed film (as one would expect from special effects artist-turned-director Trumbull) that doesn’t quite hang together. It invites comparisons to other movies, like Tron but less purely entertaining or WarGames but more ridiculous, and it seems to have been a major influence on Inception as well. Some of the shagginess is probably due to Natalie Wood’s death during the production but it is also divided between crowd-pleasing special effects showcase in the Spielberg vein and a more cerebral experience following Kubrick’s influence. (The criticism that Walken seems checked out most of the time is also fair.) The best performance and most intense scenes are from Louise Fletcher as the device’s co-inventor, but the plot dictates that she can’t be the center of the film.

The Journey to Melonia (Per Åhlin, 1989)

In this Swedish animated film, loosely based on The Tempest, a kindly wizard protects the last fertile island from an incursion by the residents of Plutonia, a grimy, industrialized island run by rapacious capitalists. The resultant film is not exactly subtle in its environmental and economic themes, but it’s gorgeously animated, reminiscent of Don Bluth and Hayao Miyazaki, and it has many clever touches: there’s a Hensonesque quality to Caliban, Prospero’s grouchy servant and gardener, being literally made of vegetables. This seems like it would have been an easy film to export, so I was surprised I had never heard of it until this year.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki, 1997)

The sprawling Evangelion series was a major pop culture blind spot I caught up with this year: the original TV series from 1995-96, the film that originally capped it off, and the twenty-first century “Rebuild” series of four films that ended this year with Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (how’s that for anime titling conventions, but the suggestion of a software update combined with an ancient myth or fairy tale fits surprisingly well). Years after the “Second Impact” and an attack by “angels” wiped out half of humanity, young Shinji is one of a few teenagers conditioned to pilot the gigantic bio-mechanical “Evas” prepared for the angels’ inevitable return (I had heard that Pacific Rim owed a lot to Evangelion, and boy, that was an understatement). The 1997 feature film reveals both the traumas that shaped the individual characters and how they tie into the ultimate goal of Commander Ikari, leader of the Eva program (and Shinji’s estranged father).

I had already seen series creator Hideaki Anno’s live-action updates of Gamera and Godzilla (not to mention the fan work that led to the formation of Studio Gainax), but this mixture of sci-fi action, mysticism, and psychodrama, exploring depression and the psychological toll of war, is where he made his mark. By turns exhilarating, devastating, baffling, and infuriating, I can’t say I always understood everything that was happening, but I’ve seen enough Anno by now to believe that’s the point: you can’t change the past, you’ll never know everything, and everyone around you is going through experiences you can only imagine, but you can make choices in the here and now. I’m planning a deeper dive into this with a friend of the blog for next year, so keep an eye out for that.

Werewolf in a Buggy, Oh No: Spooktober 2021

The human body is so fragile: aside from the typical slashings and beheadings that befall horror movie victims, all it takes is an upsetting of our delicate chemical balance to send us spiraling. An overdose of alcohol injected by invading saucer-men or exposure to the radioactive body of an astounding she-monster, and it’s curtains. Even the beach that makes you grow old is but an acceleration of the natural process by which we eventually wither and die (alert readers will notice that I didn’t actually get around to seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s Old this month, but I assume it does what it says on the label—it’s not like Shyamalan is famous for big twists or anything).

Autumn is a natural time to contemplate the fragility of life, of course, surely part of the reason we have such spooky associations with the season to begin with. But this particular October has been a busy one, spent waiting for tow trucks and in doctors’ waiting rooms, so finishing the month with a movie like writer-director Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, so aware of the connections between people and events and the chain reactions that cascade into disaster, seems appropriate. (Everything’s under control here, so don’t be alarmed: I’m developing a theme. I was also at a bunch of high school football games, but that’s less dramatic.)

While I was busy, and for a time thought that this year’s Spooktober crop of films would be the most meager since I began keeping track of them for this blog, I was able to fit in a respectable number of horror and fantasy films representing every decade from the 1930s to the present, all but a few of them first-time viewings. Most of them were on the shorter side, some very short indeed. Did I count a repeat viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown just so I could get to the magic number 31? Mmmaybe, but what’re you gonna do, call the Halloween Police?

At least I resisted the urge to log the Korean Netflix hit Squid Game on my Letterboxd account, but watching that nine-hour series is probably the other reason my movie-watching got off to a slow start (for the record, it’s a horror-adjacent thriller, so if it had been a feature film I would have counted it). Squid Game was my son’s first “adult” media aside from Marvel movies or whatever, and we watched it together; it was fun to see him engage with the series’ twists and turns, so reminiscent (to me) of shows like Lost, as he encountered them for the first time (and to be fair, some of the big twists took me by surprise as well). Other uncounted TV watching included multiple episodes of Treehouse of Horror, the Halloween anthology episodes of The Simpsons that I can put on and rewatch with pleasure any time.

Speaking of television, a recent theme in my viewing has been exploring made-for-TV movies, particularly from the 1970s. I “pregamed” a bit in September with some of these movies, so in addition to the TV movies listed below, I enjoyed Are You in the House Alone? (Walter Grauman, 1978), a film about sexual assault with a more serious tone than its title would suggest; The Night They Took Miss Beautiful (Robert Michael Lewis, 1977), a hostage thriller with an all-star cast; and The Darker Side of Terror (Gus Trikonis, 1979), a thoroughly trashy look at the dangers of leaving your clone alone with your sexually unsatisfied wife. Killdozer (Jerry London, 1974), a famous example of the form based on a story by Theodore Sturgeon, turned out to be kind of dull.

Now for the main event! To curtail the risk of running any longer, here’s the complete list:

1. The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932)

2. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)**

3. Alone in the Dark (Jack Sholder, 1982)**

4. Invasion of the Saucer-Men (Edward L. Cahn, 1957)

5. Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

6. Dave Made a Maze (Bill “Not the Calvin and Hobbes guy” Watterson, 2017)

7. Muppets Haunted Mansion (Kirk R. Thatcher, 2021) t

8. Monster Brawl (Jesse Thomas Cook, 2011)

9. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (Joseph Green, 1962)*

10. The Astounding She-Monster (Ronald V. Ashcroft, 1957)

11. Psycho Goreman (Steven Kostanski, 2020)

12. Incubus (Leslie Stevens, 1966)

13. Frankenstein Island (Jerry Warren, 1981)

14. The Wild World of Batwoman (Jerry Warren, 1966)*

15. Trilogy of Terror (Dan Curtis, 1975) t

16. Linnea Quigley’s Horror Workout (Kenneth J. Hall, 1990)

17. Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

18. Shadow in the Cloud (Roseanne Liang, 2020)

19. The Werewolf of Woodstock (John Moffitt, 1975) t

20. Something Evil (Steven Spielberg, 1972) t

21. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

22. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1992)*, **

23. The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)**

24. The Horror at 37,000 Feet (David Lowell Rich, 1973) t

25. The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015)

26. The Black Cat (Luigi Cozzi, 1989)

27. Instruments of Evil (Huw Evans and Curtis Anderson, 2016)

28. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)*

29. The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)

30. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (Bill Melendez, 1966)* t

31. Trick ‘r Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2007)

* rewatch

** seen at the drive-in

t made for television

Best Movie: At the risk of being basic, the movie that impressed me the most this month is also one of the most revered, Bernard Rose’s Clive Barker adaptation Candyman (from 1992, not to be confused with this year’s reboot/sequel). Virginia Madsen plays an anthropology grad student determined to explain the persistent urban legend of a hook-handed killer haunting the Cabrini-Green housing projects; Tony Todd is the iconic title character. Barker in the early ‘90s was a sophisticated new voice in horror, and Candyman often feels like an arty prestige picture to match his reputation (with a score by Philip Glass that still feels novel, even after Glass has scored many more mainstream films), but the operatic tone just makes the blood and guts more shocking and the commentary on racial violence and gentrification is still relevant.

Worst Movie: I’ve seen enough B-movies from the 1950s to adjust my expectations, but at just over an hour, The Astounding She-Monster is especially flimsy. Gun-toting crooks and the debutante they’ve kidnapped crash the house of a geologist in a remote area; meanwhile, a glowing alien (curvy Shirley Kilpatrick in a skin-tight bodysuit), who is either the survivor of a long-vanished civilization or the emissary of an enlightened council of planets (maybe both—I was a little fuzzy on this point), wanders the woods, killing any human she comes into contact with. It’s not the worst thing ever, and I’m fortunate that I didn’t see anything truly terrible this month, but it’s pretty half-baked and it feels as if there’s a decent crime picture that doesn’t need the sci-fi gloss buried inside it. (It does have a hell of a poster, though.)

Scariest Movie: Now this is a horror movie! In The Funhouse, four teenagers spend the night inside the funhouse at a sleazy traveling carnival, running afoul of the sideshow freak who lives inside it, Phantom of the Opera-style. (That’s the kind of terrible decision you can count on old-school horror movie characters to make, and amusingly it’s just one kid who makes every dumb, short-sighted move in this film, ruining it for everyone. Dammit, Steve!) Tobe Hooper recaptures some of the grotty energy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with another grotesque family living on the edges of society and the sly suggestion that “normal” families can be pretty messed up, too.

Weirdest Movie: Dave Made a Maze combines two of my favorite themes: a hand-crafted aesthetic and a superficially silly premise played straight. Dave (Nick Thune), a struggling wannabe artist, has put together a cardboard labyrinth in his living room . . . and gotten lost in it. When his fiancée and friends enter the maze to find him, they discover a sprawling, ever-expanding nightmare factory made of old boxes and other refuse, bigger on the inside than it appears from the outside, and from which there is no apparent escape. The metaphor for feeling trapped by a creative project couldn’t be clearer, and Dave Made a Maze works as a clever exploration of Dave’s relationships and unfocused psyche as well as a continually surprising series of handmade action/horror setpieces. Cheer up: at least your unfinished novel didn’t kill anyone (I hope).

Goriest Movie: A runner-up for Weirdest Movie, The Black Cat (from 1989, one of several movies with this title) is nominally an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, but is actually a crypto-sequel to Dominic Argento’s classics Suspiria and Inferno, made at a time when it wasn’t clear if Argento would finish his trilogy about the “Three Mothers.” He eventually did with Mother of Tears, a film that is not well-regarded and which represents a very different era of horror filmmaking; I don’t hate Mother of Tears, but I’m also happy to have Cozzi’s take on the material, in which an actress (Florence Guérin) studying to play the witch Levana, the Mater Lachrymarum, loses her grip on reality and comes to believe that Levana is possessing her and driving her to kill. The witch has a face made of worms and drools green slime on her, Fulci-style, and some of the more outré supernatural kills include making an occult expert’s heart explode in her chest. In one scene, the film-within-a-film’s screenwriter, after being attacked, crashes his car through the front wall of the actress’s house; after crawling out of the car, he reveals the knife plunged into his back. Was that there the whole time he was driving? An utterly deranged movie in the best Italian style.

Funniest Movie: Many of the films I watched this month are at least a bit funny. Psycho Goreman features one of my favorite sources of comedy, characters who exist at the center of their own universe, with scant (if any) regard for the feelings or situations of people around them. One such character is Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna), a domineering young girl who comes into possession of absolute power over the title character, an ancient world-destroying evil monster imprisoned by the victors in a galactic war (think Power Rangers or Masters of the Universe). Mimi immediately uses the power of Psycho Goreman (a name bestowed by her and her brother) to impress her friends, make boys like her, and get out of doing chores, but of course you can’t keep such a thing secret forever. Psycho Goreman doesn’t quite stick the landing, unable to decide if Mimi should learn a lesson or stay true to her own self-regard, but I found it very amusing overall, and the whole cast is committed to a premise that is part ‘80s throwback (I was reminded a lot of Turbo Kid) and ‘00s indie comedy.

Not That Bad: I’ve written before about director Jerry Warren and my bull-headed attempts to plow through his (mostly crappy) filmography, so I was prepared for the worst with Frankenstein Island. Four hot-air balloonists, attempting a record-breaking flight around the world, are forced down on a remote island inhabited by animal-skin-clad Amazons, shipwrecked sailors, and the widow (big question mark) of the original Dr. Frankenstein. While a genial hostess, Sheila (!) Frankenstein is continuing her late husband’s work, and in fact communicating with him through the magic of science (John Carradine appears as Dr. Frankenstein in these interludes, almost certainly repurposing footage in the vein of Bela Lugosi’s appearance in Plan 9 from Outer Space). The whole thing is ridiculous, but in contrast to most of Warren’s movies it is at least fun to watch and features mostly original footage. It impressed me enough to revisit the only other Warren film I’ve even half-liked, The Wild World of Batwoman, to see if I had imagined enjoying it. That’s two films to receive my highest rating for a Jerry Warren picture, “Not Completely Terrible.”

Dumbest Movie I Will Probably Watch Again: I don’t know if I’ll watch Frankenstein Island again, but other contenders for this honor include Monster Brawl (a face-off between classic monsters—or their non-union equivalents—in the form of a pro wrestling pay-per-view event), Linnea Quigley’s Horror Workout (a tribute to an iconic scream queen’s career in the form of a tacky artifact of the video store era), and The Werewolf of Woodstock (which looks cheap even for a TV production but has a surprisingly credible rock soundtrack). After the Woodstock festival is over, a hippie-hating townie gets electrocuted and turns into a werewolf (?!—perhaps his hatred of hippies kept him alive). Cue rampage against cops and hippies alike. Did I mention that the werewolf hates hippies? Plus he gets away in a dune buggy!

Kino en Esperanto: As mentioned at the end of last year, I started studying the constructed language Esperanto during the pandemic. While I have slowed down since earning my atesto (certificate), I knew I wanted to wait to watch Incubus, starring William Shatner and filmed entirely in Esperanto, until I could understand it without relying on subtitles. Ultimately, it probably didn’t matter because as far as I can tell none of the cast are Esperanto speakers: writer-director Leslie Stevens apparently made the decision to film in Esperanto to give it global appeal during an upswing in the language’s popularity, or perhaps as a novelty. Most of the pronunciation isn’t great, although Shatner (pre-Star Trek) comes off the best, actually acting and delivering the unfamiliar words with a cadence that sounds like speech instead of obviously reading syllables off cue cards. (Actually, the title annoys me more than the dialogue: to conform to Esperanto orthography it should be Inkubo.) Apart from the language issues, the film is interesting and atmospheric, however, a sort of allegorical fairy tale reminiscent of The Seventh Seal or Carnival of Souls and filmed in the natural beauty of Big Sur. Shatner plays a wounded soldier, the target of a beautiful succubus (Allyson Ames) who claims the souls of the men she seduces; has she met her match in Shatner?

That brings Spooktober 2021 to a close; thanks for reading and I hope you had a happy Halloween!

Krazy Kat at The Solute

It’s been a while since I updated this blog–too long, really, but life isn’t the same as when I started writing this, so I’m not going to beat myself up about it. If, however, you’ve been patiently waiting for new posts, I hope that today’s article will reassure you that I’m in still in business. I will probably get back to writing about serials as I usually do in the summer, even though I blew right past my usual Memorial Day starting date; they’ve just fallen by the same wayside as all of my blogging. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing, but I’m waiting to hear back on some things I’ve submitted elsewhere. Obviously, anything that gets published will be linked here, so wish me luck!

Speaking of elsewhere, I posted my first article in about five years at The Solute today. I didn’t mean to take so much time off, but I started a job at the beginning of 2017, and then something happened between 2016 and 2020, so maybe I just wasn’t in the mood to extend myself. Anyway, I am happy to be back on that website with a look at a favorite cartoon from 1935 as part of the ongoing “Year of the Month” series, “The Hot Cha Melody” starring Krazy Kat. This one combines some of my favorite interests, and I’ve wanted to write about it since I first saw it. So I hope you’ll click the link to check it out here. Thanks!