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!
When I was a kid listening to my sister’s record collection with her, I went through a phase where I always requested “Twilight” by Electric Light Orchestra; she had the 45 rpm single, not the 1981 LP Time that it opened. The song is preceded by a short prologue, also included on the single, a hymn-like instrumental over which a robotic voice intones a portentous introduction: “Just on the border of your waking mind/ There lies another time/ Where darkness and light are one/ And as you tread the halls of sanity /You feel so glad to be/ Unable to go beyond.” The music builds like a dam about to burst, swelling in intensity; echoes of laughter and spacey sound effects can be heard layered in (this transition was my favorite part of the record, and I think the sense of expectancy it created was what attracted me to it). After that build-up, “Twilight” proper opens with a soaring, horncall-like synth line and a bombastic drum intro, and then the chugging symphonic rock that is an ELO trademark explodes into action.
The lyrics of “Twilight” (sung by composer/frontman Jeff Lynne sans vocoder) tell the story of a man beguiled by visions and phantasms, caught in the liminal space between night and day: “Am I awake or do I dream/ the strangest pictures I have seen/ night and day and twilight’s gone away.” The chorus continues the theme of being captivated, unable to separate dream from reality: “Twilight/I only meant to stay a while/Twilight/ I gave you time to steal my mind away from me.” But while the words beg for release, the music speaks only of rapture: if this is really a dream, who would want to wake up?
No resource is off the table for Lynne as he demonstrates his studio wizardry: the disco rhythms of earlier ELO productions are replaced by a more contemporary-sounding rock beat, but the strings are still there; Lynne multi-tracks his own voice, the chromatic harmonies and countermelodies building on the legacies of the Beach Boys and the Bee Gees; there’s a burbling background pulse reminiscent of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and a Gershwinesque piano solo; it even builds up to a dramatic major-to-minor shift echoing the introduction from Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, aka the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like I said, Lynne doesn’t hold back when he wants to go big.
I don’t know that I would usually list ELO or Jeff Lynne as musical artists who influenced me, but revisiting this song and album makes me think that perhaps I should. I’ve always enjoyed the maximalism of Lynne’s production work as he out-Wall of Sounds Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, bringing their meticulous sense of construction into the disco era and beyond. It’s often cheesy, like selections from a Las Vegas buffet piled too high on a small plate, but I’ve come too far to deny my love for that kind of excess, and at his best Lynne combines his operatic inclinations with a perfectionism that keeps his ideas focused and the various layers clear: under the (sometimes literal) bells and whistles are the most addictive musical hooks he can come up with.
Perhaps even more formative than “Twilight” for me was “Video,” Lynne’s contribution (as a solo artist) to the soundtrack for the 1984 film Electric Dreams. Within the film, “Video” is a poppy love song written by a sentient home computer to impress its owner’s musician neighbor. The computer, tasked with writing an original song, turns on the TV for inspiration, listening to and rejecting several commercial jingles (“too simple . . . too long . . . “) before hitting on “Get that Pepsi Spirit!” and deciding it’s perfect. “Now: backwards,” the computer says, and the reversed sound of the jingle segues into Lynne’s song over a montage of the main character’s first date with his new girlfriend. I was about ten when I saw this film for the first time, old enough to know that computers didn’t work that way, but the song and the scene in the movie still fascinated me. “Now: backwards” is still a useful strategy for getting started.
Later, when I started using computer sequencers for real, I indulged in the usual tricks of playing back florid Switched-on-Bach-style compositions at inhuman tempos; you can bet that I had that Pepsi Spirit. A friend said that I must have been the kid who watched things on fast forward and reverse when I first got a VCR, grooving on the sense of speed, which, yeah, I probably did that, too. But I guess I was as fascinated by technology as Lynne obviously was: he was having fun with this one, channeling Thomas Dolby or the Buggles in addition to his own pop inclinations. “Self-parody” can be hard to identify: sometimes giving free rein to one’s impulses is more authentic than staying cool; it’s “good taste” that is the performance. Full of more samples and sound effects than a morning DJ’s soundboard, “Video” represents the craftsmanship of ELO brought to bear on something as trite as a commercial jingle: but after years of songs and albums on a symphonic scale, Lynne still knew the value of the “silly love songs” that had always been the backbone of pop music and the primary-color emotions that drove them.
II. “I see Daicon’s making its rounds again in everyone’s recommendation feed XD” –YouTube comment
Speaking of letting it all hang out, I hadn’t given “Twilight” much thought at all for years, and had kind of forgotten about it, until I was recently introduced to the short film that preceded Daicon IV, a Japanese sci-fi/anime convention that took place in 1983. One of several fan-made animations that welcomed con attendees at the time, Daicon IV is the mash-up to end all mash-ups. It was put together by a team of artists, including Hideaki Anno, who would go on to form Gainax, an anime powerhouse that put its stamp on the medium (and raised standards across the industry) in such works as Neon Genesis Evangelion. Two years previously, their Daicon III film had depicted a young girl given a task by some friendly visitors from outer space: carry a glass of water while fighting her way past some of pop culture’s most famous monsters and robots, who try to stop her. Although unassuming in appearance, the girl has a few tricks up her sleeve, including a ruler that doubles as a sword and a backpack that hides a jetpack and missile battery. Along the way, recognizable icons like Godzilla and the starship Enterprise blow up. When she reaches her goal, she finds a daikon radish withering in a drought-stricken field. Yes, the whole thing turns on a pun. After she pours the glass of water on it, the revived daikon turns into a giant daikon-shaped spaceship, and she is beamed aboard to be its captain; the ship departs for the stars.
Daicon IV begins with a short recap of the first film’s events, remade with even better quality animation. The screen goes black after the daikon ship has flown away. Then as a flowing starfield fades in, the notes of ELO’s “Prologue” start up. The lyrics appear on the screen over a superimposed silhouette of the daikon ship. At the transition to “Twilight,” the young girl from Daicon III, now grown up, reappears as a sexy young woman in a Playboy bunny costume (why? well, why not?): she has returned to continue the fight, or to take it to whole new worlds. Again, Bunny Girl (as she is usually referred to) battles a range of popular villains and monsters from Japan and the West, ranging from kaiju to Darth Vader, while yet more characters from manga, anime, science fiction, and American superhero comics look on or make cameo appearances.
The fluidity and beauty of the animation and the range and density of references are incredible, and setting the whole thing to ELO’s song gives it a dramatic sweep greater than Daicon III’s similar outline. It functions as a music video for the song and takes advantage of “Twilight”’s sense of tension and release to play with the audience in a similar manner. The action on screen shifts from hand-to-hand combat to Bunny Girl riding a flying sword into an aerial dogfight, and finally the sword divides itself and strikes multiple targets like the air-to-air missiles seen in Daicon III. During a dramatic pause in the song before the final chorus push, the fighting gives way to a supernatural transformation: an explosion, seemingly the nuclear detonation that would be the culmination of all the destruction from before, turns into a whirlwind of cherry blossoms that sweep away the old order, blowing away the cities of the modern world and even emerging from the ground, prying loose the pavement and highways choking the earth and raising mountains in their place; the daikon ship fires a beam that signals a renewal of the natural world, with whole forests springing up instantly; seen from above, the surface of the brown earth is covered by new growth; finally, we zoom out to a glimpse of the entire solar system, which turns into the Daicon IV logo (perhaps suggested by the musical reference to 2001—whatever, it fits together perfectly). Whew!
Daicon IV is a complete sugar rush: “Twilight” already lays it on thick, and the animators pushed themselves to create the visual equivalent (note that their use of the song, like their appropriation of pre-existing characters and visuals, was totally unauthorized: although they sold copies of the film on laserdisc—leading to its appearance on YouTube and elsewhere—it has never been “officially” released due to the legal complexities of “sampling” so many properties). The effect, particularly if you’re already a fan, is the same emotional reaction we get from crossovers—all your favorites, together for the first time!—amped up to kaleidoscopic levels. Looking back at the effervescent Beatles medley that made Stars on 45 a hit in 1981, Tom Breihan points out that “It mashes the ‘Oh shit, I love this song!’ button like a toddler playing Nintendo. . . . The point is to tickle whatever part of your brain holds affection for those songs, and then to keep tickling it. The point is the recognition.” One could certainly say the same thing is happening in Daicon IV. Now, I’m unabashedly a fan of medleys and mash-ups—see the name of this blog, for one example—and there’s no doubt that Daicon and similar projects play with fans’ affection and nostalgia, but I don’t recognize half of the references in them, and the effect still comes through for me. One could argue that the rapid-fire montage is itself stimulating: just the highlights, all killer, no filler. Familiarity with the characters adds to the enjoyment, but it’s not strictly necessary. (Note how the introductory sequences for so many anime series and Western cartoons employ the same quick-cutting devices to get the audience hyped up for what’s to come.)
I wish I had known about the Daicon films before I wrote about Ready Player One: jam-packed with visual references married to a surging pop anthem, they represent exactly the kind of “fangasm” RPO is going for, and were probably an influence on Ernest Cline while writing it. Shots from Daicon IV were iconic enough to be paid homage in subsequent anime, some of which I had seen without realizing the original source. (Another YouTube video I watched, explaining the film’s origins and influence, cites the shot of Bunny Girl flexing her muscles after overthrowing a giant Gundam mech as particularly iconic: “There it is: the first Gainax bounce,” he says as Bunny Girl’s chest jiggles. I didn’t really need that phrase to be stuck in my head, thanks.) Weirdly, I had already seen Otaku no Video (“Fan’s Video”), the fictionalized story of Gainax’s origins, but not having seen the original I didn’t quite put together how foundational Daicon IV was. Rewatching it, Otaku no Video turns out to be full of references that would have been obvious to anyone familiar with the original fan film, and even stops to include a clip of the cherry blossom sequence so the animator’s in-film stand-in can point out how amazing it is!
Both Ready Player One and Otaku no Video depict victories for fandom. RPO is meatheadedly optimistic about the prospect; Otaku no Video is more cynical, parodying moral watchdogs’ concerns about the wasted lives and near-criminal deviancy of the otaku, and bitterly aware of how business conflicts can poison the wells of art and fellowship. Ultimately, it has more insight into the current, often toxic state of modern fandom. But it, too, acknowledges that fandom is a force that can change lives for the better. For the youthful artists who created Daicon IV, those struggles lay in the future, and part of the film’s exuberance is its hopefulness, and yes, naivete. Daicon IV’s sequence of destruction and renewal (a theme present in watering the daikon in Daicon III, but now spread to the entire world) suggests that being a fan is bigger than just following your favorite series and characters: it is transformational, a way to imagine and access a better world by uniting across fandoms and harnessing their combined creativity and enthusiasm.
In the sky, high above the fairgrounds on which Col. Nathan Gregory’s traveling carnival is pitched, a stunt plane writes a message in the clouds: “MAY 23 1918 THE EAGLE.” What could it mean? To Gregory, it’s a reminder of the past: on the date in question, the ace pilot known as “the Eagle” was shot down by members of his own squadron, not recognizing one of their own returning from a mission in a captured enemy plane. For members of the Evans Aero Corporation’s board of directors, it’s a threat: many of them flew with the Eagle and still live with the guilt of that day’s events. Has the Eagle returned for vengeance, or does someone know a secret that they are leveraging for blackmail?
The skywriting pilot doesn’t know: Craig McCoy works for the carnival, and he wrote the message after someone dropped him an envelope with a hundred dollar bill in it. That doesn’t stop the board members from accusing him: it turns out that Gregory was “the Eagle,” long thought dead. In addition to the friendly fire that brought him down, Gregory claims the company’s success is built on an invention stolen from him. It’s only logical to think that he’s using McCoy to execute his long-planned revenge. Soon, however, another plane appears, and it begins writing the names of the board members and crossing them out, making the threat more explicit; not to mention the appearance of two thugs, Moore and Boyle, who claim to be working for the Eagle. It’s up to McCoy (John Wayne), along with Gregory’s daughter Jean (Dorothy Gulliver), to protect Gregory and his carnival from false accusations and the violent repercussions that follow, and ultimately solve the mystery. And it’s not long before they face danger themselves, as the first chapter of The Shadow of the Eagle ends with the unknown plane chasing the two of them across a field at ground level, threatening to run them down!
Despite Craig McCoy’s job as a pilot and the importance of skywriting and aircraft to the plot, The Shadow of the Eagle isn’t totally focused on aviation, and there’s only a little aerial danger in the form of dogfights or crashes. The youthful McCoy is more Tailspin Tommy than Ace Drummond. The carnival setting is much more important, providing a colorful backdrop and cast of supporting characters. In addition to McCoy and Jean, Col. Gregory is supported by little person Billy (billed as “the Midget”), a strongman (Ivan Linow), and a ventriloquist (James Bradbury Jr.), among a few others. As in Daredevils of the Red Circle, they form a team of varied abilities, so there are many fun scenes of Billy fooling the bad guys as a decoy (even disguised as a baby in a basket at one point), the ventriloquist imitating other peoples’ voices to get information or create distractions, and the strongman, well, being strong. The sense of family and camaraderie between them lends itself to banter and kidding (little Billy has a few catchphrases, including bossing the strongman around and calling him a “palooka”); and of course, all of them have the showbiz lifer’s loyalty to their patron and father figure, Gregory. (The dark side of that loyalty is that if you cross one of them, you cross them all: see the cliffhanger at the end of “The Code of the Carnival,” below.)
Dating from 1932, this is actually the earliest sound serial I’ve reviewed for this series so far, and it has many of the dated elements that I’ve seen in other serials from the time period: there is no non-diegetic music at all, other than the theme that opens each chapter, and there are often long stretches of silence without even sound effects. (I do like the voiceover that provides recaps, as the narrator’s creaky voice makes it sound like a storyteller relaying something nearly lost to the mists of time.) The plot has the sense of broad strokes seen in serials like Pirate Treasure, as if the filmmakers said to themselves, “What do kids want to see on screen? Airplanes! Carnivals! Chases! Fights!” and wrote it up accordingly. The and-then-there-were-none plotting of the board of directors being eliminated one by one, while one of them is secretly the Eagle, is not handled as slickly as it would be in later serials, but it’s clear enough. Finally, The Shadow of the Eagle has the casual relationship with cause and effect I’ve noticed in other Mascot serials. Let one example stand in for the whole: at the end of Chapter Nine, “When Thieves Fall Out,” McCoy and Henry drive off, only for the Eagle’s henchmen, Moore and Boyle, to appear on the side of their convertible, demanding they stop and provoking a fight within the moving car. Where did they come from? The implication is that they were on the car’s running board, hidden from sight until the car started moving, but it’s the kind of thing that would be set up much more clearly in later serials.
Having said all that, The Shadow of the Eagle has one virtue that goes far in overcoming those flaws: it moves like a demon, flowing swiftly from one scene to the next, and the lulls are few and far between. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense, and it definitely challenges the kind of close watching I usually try to do with these films, but if you sit back and allow it to wash over you—arguably, the mindset in which it was meant to be seen—it’s a ton of fun, full of the styles, situations, and twists that are really more important to the serial experience than something as skimpy and inconsequential as plot. I’ve argued that the Mascot serials of the 1930s often feel like dreams, and like dreams, they often circle back to moments of crisis, repeated with variation as if fixated.
As is true of many serials, captivity is a recurring theme, with Gregory abducted multiple times, once even being dropped off at a sanitarium along with his daughter (by Moore and Boyle posing as family members concerned about Gregory’s “persecution complex”). Characters hide or are trapped in trunks, bins, and cabinets, including a magician’s vanishing cabinet. Costumes and disguises are likewise employed by both heroes and villains to misdirect their enemies (and the audience). Even these formulaic devices are deployed less consistently than they would be later on: sometimes the Eagle would appear disguised as Gregory, wearing the same slouch hat and coat to impersonate him; sometimes he would be a disembodied voice, proclaiming, “You are under the shadow of the Eagle!” before striking; other times he would be behind a console, controlling the robot plane by remote.
The slipperiness and seeming carelessness with which these plot twists unfold may appear as defects to those who prefer the consistency and craftsmanship of the Republic serials, but I loved the exuberance with which classic set pieces and plot elements were stuck together in ways that could still be fresh and surprising in those days. More than once I’d cackle as a character announced that he knew who the Eagle was and he would remain silent no more, knowing that as soon as he said, “the Eagle is—” the lights would go out and a knife would go in, or a shot would strike him from some offscreen hiding spot, and the Eagle’s secret would be safe for another chapter. Things like that were already clichés in the early 1930s, but the filmmakers are aware of their audience’s familiarity with them, so they look for new ways to ring changes on the old material. As with other serials from these early days, it helps that all of the stunts are original, without the reliance on the backlog of stock footage from which later serials suffer.
The Shadow of the Eagle is most notable for starring John Wayne as Craig McCoy. Before John Ford made Wayne the icon he would become, the young actor spent more than a decade in the trenches making B-movies and serials (The Shadow of the Eagle isn’t even the only serial Wayne headlined in 1932: the same year he would lead another Nat Levine-produced serial, The Hurricane Express), including a stint in the long-running “Three Mesquiteers” series. Many of these films were Westerns, but not all of them. It’s fascinating to see (and hear) a young but recognizable Wayne at about age twenty-five: he’s a capable serial man of action, but it would have been hard to predict how big he would become later as a laconic, weatherbeaten symbol of the West.
Other familiar faces from the serials include famed stuntman and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt as henchman Boyle and Ernie Adams as Kelly, “The Man Who Knew” (Chapter Ten). “Little Billy” Rhodes was often seen in comic and circus-related roles in the 1930s and would go on to appear in The Terror of Tiny Town and The Wizard of Oz. Finally, Walter Miller appears as Danby, one of the board of directors. Miller appeared in many serials; sometimes he played a good guy, but often he was a slick villain. Miller keeps the audience guessing in this one; familiarity with his other roles doesn’t guarantee that viewers today will guess the Eagle’s true identity. . . .
What I Watched:The Shadow of the Eagle (Mascot, 1932)
Where I Watched It: I found it by chance on the free ad-supported streaming platform Tubi. Tubi is increasingly home to all kinds of genre oddities and interesting programming, despite (or because of) its seemingly casual approach to curating its library; I probably spend us much time watching Tubi as I do Netflix nowadays.
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “The Man of a Million Faces” (Chapter Four) This chapter introduces Henry the ventriloquist’s talent for imitating other people, so it should really be “The Man of a Million Voices,” but whatever.
Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Six, “The Code of the Carnival,” Moore and Boyle have successfully framed McCoy, “catching” him after the remote-controlled plane wrote another of the Eagle’s warnings in the sky. Seemingly convinced that McCoy is guilty of betraying her father, Jean refuses to let the police take McCoy, insisting that the carnival has its own punishment for those who break its code. To everyone’s horror (and McCoy’s disbelief), she orders the roustabouts to “peg out” McCoy: a patch of tent canvas is pegged to the ground with McCoy trapped under it, still protesting his innocence. The last we see before a flap of the tent obscures the scene is one of the carnies about to drive a long stake right through the center of the bulge under the canvas.
Billy: “Ain’t he the greatest flyer you ever saw?”
Gregory (once known as the Eagle): “I’ve only known one as good, an Army flyer. They called him the Eagle. He was shot down May 23rd, 1918.”
What Others Have Said: “From the time he exited [Fox] until [director John] Ford called him, [John Wayne’s] career moved up and down. At one point it went so far downhill that Duke called the Westerns ‘Z’ films. But they were actually ‘B’ films. He scraped along, grinding out one after another, until Republic Pictures was born in 1935, and the decision was made to upgrade its star and its Westerns. During this period Wayne was gaining invaluable experience, and one ‘invaluable’ person rode into his life: rodeo rider-stuntman, Yakima Canutt. Wayne learned how to really ride from him, how to fall off of a horse; he copied his gait and his speech; together they worked at perfecting the barroom brawls. . . . Today every battle reflects their years of work.” –Gone But Not Forgotten, Patricia Fox-Sheinwold
What’s Next: As I mentioned, this was a chance discovery and I happened to be in the mood to watch it, so I can’t promise I’ll get to any more serials before this summer. But you never know, so subscribe to this blog to receive updates as they happen!
Happy New Year! As usual, I kept a log of books I read this year; despite being home for much of the year and having more down time, I don’t think I read more books than in previous years, and I know I read less non-fiction. Finally finishing Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (the main seven volumes, excluding the connected works) was my major reading achievement. Other than those mostly long books, the other novels I read this year were fairly short, particularly in February, where I knocked out several short novels in rapid succession. I also read several graphic novels or comics collections, which also don’t take as much time to read. I finished the year still in the middle of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, another long novel. Considering its length and florid language, it reads quickly, but not quickly enough for me to finish it by the end of the year.
I Need a New Butt!, Dawn McMillan and Ross Kinnaird
When I was in fifth grade, I was placed in an accelerated English class where we were expected to work at our own pace. One of the requirements was to complete a book report each week, choosing books from a cart in the classroom. Once we discovered that the cart held books of all grade levels, it didn’t take us long to game the system by writing reviews of picture books for kindergarten and preschool students. That worked for a lot longer than it should have, and when the teacher realized what we were doing she blew up and announced she was tightening the reins, an outburst that led to me skimming most of Little Women in about a week to make up for it. In retrospect, that’s not really ideal from a pedagogical perspective either, but I definitely learned a lesson about padding my reading lists. That being said, I Need a New Butt! is about a little boy who wants to replace his butt, because you see, his old one has a crack in it. (This was actually a gift for my pastor’s son, but obviously I had to read it first, to find out how it all came out in the end, geddit?)
Criswell Predicts From Now to the Year 2000!, Criswell
Hoping that this will finally explain where things got off-track.
The Physiognomy, Jeffrey Ford
Norstrilia, Cordwainer Smith
Modesty Blaise, Peter O’Donnell
Golgotha Falls, Frank De Felitta
True Grit, Charles Portis
Old Yeller, Fred Gipson
GYO: The Death-Stench Creeps, Junji Ito
The Complete Curvy, Sylvan Migdal
Northanger Abbey and Other Works, Jane Austen (includes Lady Susan and the unfinished The Watsons and Sanditon)
Ultra Kaiju Humanization Project Vols. 1 and 2, Shun Kazakami
Hungry for You: Endo Yasuko Stalks the Night Vols. 1 and 2, Flowerchild
Of the several manga volumes I read this year, this was the one I enjoyed the most, a teen supernatural soap that combines elements of the vampire classic Carmilla with Japanese high school tropes. Also amusing is the American vampire hunter Ashley, who arrives in an attack helicopter with a Texas-sized arsenal but ends up staying in Japan, enrolling in Yasuko’s school, and learning Japanese by watching TV.
Wolves of the Calla, Stephen King
Dial H: The Deluxe Edition, China Miéville, Mateus Santolouco, Alberto Ponticelli, et al
Megaton Man Vol. 1, Don Simpson et al
For a superhero spoof, there sure is a lot about Doonesbury in this.
Song of Susannah, Stephen King
The Case of the Missing Men: A Hobtown Mystery Story #1, Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes
The Stench of Honolulu, Jack Handey
Bible Adventures, Gabe Durham
The History of Astronomy: A Very Short Introduction, Michael Hoskin
The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, Masih Alinejad (with Kambiz Foroohar)
I also read most of Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out, ed. Ibn Warraq; these were background research for a short story I was working on and which I’m now shopping around.
Chew Vol. 1: Taster’s Choice, John Layman and Rob Guillory
Rob Guillory is the writer and artist of Farmhand, an ongoing comic book series combining body horror, environmentalism, and reckoning with America’s deep-rooted (heh) racism in the vein (heh heh) of Jordan Peele’s work or Lovecraft Country. After reading Farmhand I decided to explore Chew, the earlier series for which Guillory provided the art; I enjoyed the first collected volume, and I can see the continuity (Chew also has its share of gut-churning imagery, executed with a sense of wry humor), but haven’t gotten around to following up with the rest of it. (Come to think of it, Hungry For You and Chew could switch titles with each other.)
Bring the Jubilee, Ward Moore (reread)
One of the original alternate history novels (what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War and reduced the North to an economically devastated backwater?), this is the only book on this year’s list that I had read before (about twenty years ago, I guess). I had hoped to write something about it, but this was one of those experiences where the book as I reread it was quite different than what I remembered, and even some of the specific details I thought I remembered weren’t the same. Is it the Mandela Effect? Nah, in all likelihood it’s just the faulty memories of middle age going on senility, combined with the stresses of pandemic isolation. My main takeaway this time was a vivid portrait of a nation in decline, defeated and backward. (I wonder what made me think of that?) It was depressing, and I didn’t end up writing about it.
Precarious Woman Executive Miss Black General Vols. 1 and 2, Jin
Okay, this manga was pretty fun too, in the vein of superhero parodies and reinventions like The Tick or My Hero Academia (but with fewer Doonesbury references than Megaton Man).
The Dark Tower, Stephen King
After concluding this epic series (minus the auxiliary works, as I mentioned) and looking back, overall I enjoyed it. It’s fascinating to see King’s plotting by the seat of his pants play out over a long narrative (although the last three volumes, written after a hiatus and following the incident in which King was struck and nearly killed by a van, show a much clearer planned endgame; Wolves of the Calla in particular feels the most like a standalone novel with a beginning, middle, and end). Years ago, when I read The Stand, I had the sense that it was King’s Great American Novel; I’m hardly the first to observe that The Dark Tower is his The Lord of the Rings.
Have Space Suit—Will Travel, Robert A. Heinlein
I always had a little trouble getting into Heinlein—aside from his ideas, his prose just didn’t grab me and didn’t make me want to keep reading—but I hadn’t read any of his juvenile adventures, of which this is one. I get the appeal now: the quasi-libertarian ideas are still there (and what is it with young-adult protagonists always having eccentric parents?), but the story zips along and the science is hard where it needs to ground the story and pliable when we need to zoom to the other side of the galaxy.
The House on the Borderland and Other Mysterious Places, William Hope Hodgson (Volume 2 of The Collected Fiction of W. H. H.)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume IV: The Tempest, Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, et al
The end of another epic project (barring possible of one-off stories, but the ending indicates pretty clearly that Moore is closing the book on this).
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
The Odds Against Me: An Autobiography, John Scarne
The Princess Bride, “S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, the ‘Good Parts’ Version Abridged by William Goldman” (wink, wink)
Wonder Woman Archives Volumes 4 and 5, William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, and Joye Murchison
Finally, although it doesn’t exactly count as a reading project, toward the end of the year I began learning Esperanto, the first serious study of a foreign language I’ve undertaken since high school. So who knows, perhaps next year this list will include one or more books in Esperanto. Feliĉan Novjaron!
To say that 2020 has been an unusual year would be an understatement; just as the coronavirus and attendant shutdown measures have affected everything else, my film viewing this year has taken a hit. I’ve hardly seen any of the current year’s releases compared to recent years, or even in comparison to my viewing habits before I started this blog and put more effort into keeping up. Obviously, in the scheme of things that’s not a big deal, but because of it I will not be offering a Top Ten (or even Top Five) of favorite 2020 releases. I liked a few things, like Color Out of Space and Birds of Prey, but I don’t think I can do justice to the breadth of this year’s releases.
I’ve been aware of my tendency to prioritize things and how it affects my viewing for a while, but this year has really crystallized it. From highest to lowest priority, it’s something like this:
1. A movie that is showing in a theater for a limited time in my area: if I can fit it in my schedule, I will be there.
2. A movie that I know is leaving streaming, expiring from my DVR, or that I have to return to the library: better get it turned around if I don’t want to miss it.
3. A movie in regular release in the theater: I’ll get to it if it’s something I really want to see, but I might take the chance that it will be held over another week.
4. A movie I own on disc: well, I’ll get to it someday.
5. A movie that is available on a streaming service: out of sight, out of mind.
6. A movie I own as a digital download: like number 5, but with number 4’s lack of urgency.
Mind, this isn’t a conscious system of prioritizing; it’s just something I’ve noticed in my own habits. There are also wrinkles that can have the result of pushing movies down in priority: What if I’m watching with family? And I might not buy a disc because I’ll think, “I know that’s on Netflix. I can just stream it.” But will I? Probably not until it moves up to number 2.
Since COVID has (mostly) closed down theatrical viewing in my area, it’s removed many of the factors that tend to motivate me to watch new releases. Streaming removes the urgency for me, even as high-profile new releases have skipped the theater entirely, and even when it comes to things my family would probably have gone to see in the theater like new superhero or animated family films. Is it expensive to go to the theater? Yes, especially with a family. But there is also value in having a physical destination and a time set aside exclusively to watch a movie without outside distractions, and that’s a big part of what I get with a theater ticket.
I do use the streaming services we have, but when faced with the choices on offer, I’m just as likely to watch something old as something new, and if we’re all watching together it’s harder to reach a consensus than if we make the decision to go to the theater. I don’t know what the theatrical experience will be like post-pandemic; I think theaters in some form will survive or bounce back, but I hesitate to predict what the business model will be, or whether the chains that have dominated the industry will stick around or sell off their assets to smaller, hungrier players (or if the studios themselves will get back into the exhibition game now that the rules have been loosened). I just don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does, either.
Having said that, I still watched plenty of older movies (you can see my Letterboxd diary for the full list) and I’m happy to share some of my new (to me) discoveries. Here is a sample of my first-time viewing this year (all watched at home, of course):
Skull and Crown (Elmer Clifton, 1935)
I spent a good chunk of the summer watching B-movies from the 1930s and ‘40s: they’re nice and short and most of them are pretty formulaic, making for comfort viewing that goes down easy. Skull and Crown, however, is what parents were afraid would rot their kids’ brains in 1935: violence, a suggestion of pre-code naughtiness, and plotting that prioritizes novelty and excitement over logic and realism. Bob Franklin (Regis Toomey), a Canadian mountie, is expecting his sister’s return home from a girl’s school, when he gets word that the notorious Zorro (not the Zorro, but a ridiculous Mexican bandito) is making a headquarters for his smuggling operation in the area. Bob’s dog Rinty (Rin Tin Tin Jr., as seen in The Adventures of Rex and Rinty) gets in on the action as Bob goes undercover in Zorro’s gang, but this is a bit darker than you’d expect for a heroic animal movie (Rinty lives, but it’s close a few times!).
Sh! The Octopus (William C. McGann, 1937)
A rare example of a spoof of a spoof, Sh! The Octopus is a take-off on the influential (and already comic) play and film The Gorilla. Two police detectives (Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins) get drawn into a murky conspiracy in a lighthouse, interacting with a group of characters thrown together by a storm, none of whom are who they seem. The detectives are on the trail of a “crime octopus,” an apparently real octopus that periodically grabs people with its tentacles and pulls them through windows and trap doors. There are some interesting effects (including some famous makeup tricks) and a loopy, nightmarish atmosphere; I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a partial inspiration for Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. I don’t know how I went this long without seeing it, because it seems like it was made for me.
Hellzapoppin’ (H. C. Potter, 1941)
Calling this a musical is bit misleading: there are songs and production numbers, but they are purely generic straight material to be undermined by a barrage of slapstick interruptions. This is anything-goes comedy, anticipating the zany 1960s and ‘70s: the cutaway gags of Laugh-In, Mel Brooks’ fourth-wall breaking, and the throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks style of Zucker and Abrahams all have their antecedents here. (And hey, Hugh Herbert shows up again in this as a detective!) It’s a busy film that never quite lives up to the incredible opening sequence, in which a bevy of showgirls, playboys, and wise guys are delivered into the literal pits of hell. This plays so much with its cinematic medium, including jokes involving the projectionist, rewinding and speeding up the film, and lots of special effects, that I’m curious what the original Broadway show was like.
Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966)
The Czech New Wave of the mid-1960s, brought on by a brief relaxation of government oversight and orthodoxy, led to an outpouring of creative work ranging from honestly-observed slice-of-life vignettes to avant-garde absurdism. In Daisies, a striking example of the latter, two young women leave a trail of destruction behind them in a cracked version of a Joan Blondell screwball comedy, but the juxtaposition of their antics with footage of atomic bombs and fighter jets, as well as dialogue that mocks simplistic Party sloganeering (“The world is spoiled, so we should be spoiled, too!”) puts it into the realm of social commentary. I had seen clips of this, but I don’t think I realized how similar parts of it are to Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Magical Mystery Tour: it seems like an example of youthful rebellion by people who went to art school instead of forming a rock and roll band. (Also, it’s a cliché to refer to an ending as “Brechtian,” but the ending totally made me think of Brecht.)
Harry and Walter Go to New York (Mark Rydell, 1976)
James Caan and Elliott Gould play small-time criminals in the 1890s; after a chance encounter in prison with Adam Worth (the real-life “Napoleon of Crime,” played here with brilliant self-satisfaction by Michael Caine), the two decide to beat Worth to a bank robbery with the assistance of Diane Keaton as a crusading newspaperwoman. What follows is a combination heist picture and fish-out-of-water comedy as the pair try to convince the rest of the underworld that they can hold their own in the big leagues. Presumably made following the success of The Sting, Harry and Walter combines a twisty plot, character-based comedy, and a lavish depiction of the Gilded Age.
The Big Fix (Jeremy Kagan, 1978)
Richard Dreyfuss plays Moses Wine, a former activist turned P.I. who gets drawn back into politics when he’s hired by an old flame to investigate some dirty tricks against a gubernatorial campaign. In addition to the themes of former campus radicals moving on and the passage of their youthful ideals, it’s an interesting take on the ‘70s sad-sack private eye genre. Moses deals with his family as much as his case, bringing his two adorable kids with him on stakeouts and enlisting his mother to create distractions (a subplot in which Moses puts his feminist ex-wife in her place by beating up her controlling New Age boyfriend is a definite marker of time and place). I wasn’t familiar with this at all before I found the DVD, but it’s a good reminder that Dreyfuss made several good films in the ‘70s and early ‘80s that are worth revisiting: his early career was more than just Jaws.
I didn’t realize this was the second movie in this series when I started watching it, but I had read the comics on which it was based years ago, and as it turns out the story is deliberately disorienting at first anyway. Lum is an archetypal “magical girl,” a space alien devoted to the horny teenage boy (Ataru) who defeated her in a game of tag for the fate of the earth (barely referenced in this film). Ataru and his friends are struggling to finish setting up for the school carnival when they start noticing strange details, and the carnival never seems to arrive. Are they caught in a time loop? The world of Lum includes aliens, demons, magic, and time travel, but ultimately the title is the biggest clue as to what’s going on. The animation is a pleasure to watch and the atmosphere is pleasantly strange.
The Peanut Butter Solution (Michael Rubbo, 1985)
In this Canadian family film, a boy (Mathew Mackay) experiences a scare that makes his hair fall out. Then a magical cure for baldness works too well and things get stranger and stranger. I guess this traumatized a lot of kids who saw it in the ‘80s, and while it is tame for adults I can see why it could be upsetting for kids. One of those “adults are out to get you, but children aren’t much better” stories with some amusing touches, and notable for featuring a pre-Titanic Celine Dion on the soundtrack.
Sound of Noise (Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, 2010)
A tone-deaf police officer (Bengt Nilsson), alienated from his own overachieving musical family, faces off against a band of anarchic musical pranksters whose guerilla performances are disrupting the city. This has the energy of a heist film or a cat-and-mouse detective thriller, balancing its Futurist and John Cage-inspired explorations of the boundary between noise and music with a caustic wit. The clash between temperamental artistic personalities is a major source of comedy: as in Whiplash or Nocturne, the suggestion is that musicians are impossible to live with, and frankly, we deserve it.
Sheborg (Daniel Armstrong, 2016)
Sometimes a film really surprises you: I didn’t expect much from the rather generic packaging of this Dollar Tree find, but Sheborg (aka Sheborg Massacre) is a low-budget labor of love from Down Under, full of ingenious practical effects and no-holds-barred fight choreography. Goopy, gory, and goofy, this tale of alien invasion and a bad girl (Whitney Duff) who fights back is reminiscent of the early work of Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi. Recommended for fans of backyard wrestling and Gwar.
Once again, my Halloween-themed blog post is coming out on the day after the holiday, so I hope you have enough leftover candy to snack on while I lay out the State of the ‘Ween for you again. The pandemic didn’t stop trick-or-treaters in my neighborhood: in addition to being on a Saturday with a full moon, we in Kansas were blessed with a perfect not-too-cold evening, a nice change from having snow on the ground earlier in the week. Everyone was doing a good job with social distancing, and to help out I constructed a candy chute out of a ten-foot PVC pipe to deliver candy into trick-or-treaters’ hands. There weren’t as many people out as I would have expected under normal circumstances, but it was a respectable turnout, and combined with the glimpses of other friends’ in-person or online gatherings, I think most people who wanted to were able to find some kind of outlet for their spooky seasonal urges. I won’t pretend that COVID didn’t have an impact, but it was okay.
As far as media consumption this month goes, I decided to take it (relatively) easy. As much as I enjoy indulging in horror movies and ghost stories at this time of year, I don’t like it to feel like homework, and with everything going on in the world and the upcoming election I felt it was just as important to safeguard my mental health and not stress over missing some self-imposed deadline or goal. That gave me more freedom to rewatch familiar classics or follow up on things that might not fit neatly into the Spooktoberween category.
It also meant watching more short films. Before I get on to the main event, I want to highlight a few of the odds and ends I encountered this month. The 1910 Frankenstein produced by Thomas Edison was actually only a little over ten minutes in length, but given the wide variability of film lengths in the silent era, I’m counting it on my main list; I had thought I might revisit other versions of the classic story, but didn’t follow through with it (Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster doesn’t count, as the title creature is a robot only nicknamed “Frankenstein”). For the record, I liked it a lot, and found its suggestion that the monster was only a product of the doctor’s imagination way ahead of its time.
Other shorts included some of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes and classic TV specials starring Garfield and Charlie Brown. I also revisited the 1977 special Witch’s Night Out, which I had seen as a very young child but probably not since. Watching it now, I was struck very strongly with the idea that Witch’s Night Out is a good portrayal of what it was like to grow up in a college town during the ‘70s, particularly the notion that an obviously burned-out hippie would make a good babysitter. Other than that, it’s hard to explain. I don’t think my family was too impressed with this one, but it was a blast from the past for me to be sure.
Finally, I had the opportunity (through Gofobo) to view a couple of episodes of 50 States of Fright, a horror anthology program on the short-content (and short-lived) app Quibi. This was after Quibi’s owners had already put the company up for sale, so I’m not sure what the point of the screening was: to drum up interest and spread positive word-of-mouth, perhaps, or maybe to get viewer feedback? I’m not sure. Maybe they were hoping that I would buy Quibi? Anyway, I was thrilled to be able to watch “The Golden Arm,” the only Quibi project that seems to have gotten much attention, even if it’s for how ridiculous it looked. The attempt to make an overt fable into a serious ghost story about a woman (Rachel Brosnahan) so obsessed with gold that she has a prosthetic arm made from the precious metal, even if wearing it kills her, doesn’t quite land, but to be fair it’s not that much sillier than many episodes of Tales From the Crypt or other horror anthology shows. Here’s hoping 50 States of Fright finds a home elsewhere now that Quibi is apparently closing down for good.
This year was a little different, to say the least, so I am making my list a little differently as well. I usually just list every movie I watch during October, whether it’s a rewatch or a first-time viewing, and a good portion of the list is made up of selections from the October at the Oldtown horror series. This year, with indoor theaters mostly closed, the horror series moved to the drive-in, starting in September; I made it to a few, but not all of the shows, but I’m taking their inspiration to count my “Septober” watches from both months. This time I’m leaving out movies that don’t fit the seasonal horror or fantasy mood as well as rewatches of movies I’ve seen before (anyone who wants to see what I left out can consult my Letterboxd Diary). Here’s the official list, all first-time watches (or, in a couple of cases, it’s been so long that they might as well be):
1. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
2. Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)
3. Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982)
4. The People Under the Stairs (Wes Craven, 1991)
5. Pledges (DJ Red, 2018)
6. The Jurassic Dead aka Z-Rex (Milko Davis and Thomas Martwick, 2017)
7. Frankenstein (J. Searle Dawley, 1910)
8. Slither (James Gunn, 2006)
9. King Kong (John Guillermin, 1976)
10. They Came From Beyond Space (Freddie Francis, 1967)
11. Tokyo Living Dead Idol (Yuki Kumagai, 2018)
12. Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (Xavier Burgin, 2019)
13. Ghost Stories (Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, 2017)
14. The Awful Dr. Orlof (Jess Franco, 1962)
15. Nocturne (Zu Quirke, 2020)
16. Dr. Orloff’s Monster aka The Secret of Dr. Orloff aka The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll (Jess Franco, 1964)
17. Orloff and the Invisible Man aka Dr. Orloff’s Invisible Monster aka The Amorous Life of the Invisible Man (Pierre Chevalier, 1970)
18. Revenge in the House of Usher aka Neurosis aka Zombie 5 (Jess Franco as “J. P. Johnson,” 1982)
19. Hubie Halloween (Steven Brill, 2020)
20. Vibes (Ken Kwapis, 1988)
21. Prom Night (Paul Lynch, 1980)
22. Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Bruce Pittman, 1987)
23. Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (Peter R. Simpson and Ron Oliver, 1990)
24. Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil (Clay Borris, 1992)
25. Invitation to Hell (Wes Craven, 1984)
26. Robot Monster (Phil Tucker, 1953)
27. Cat-Women of the Moon (Arthur Hilton, 1953)
28. Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (Robert Gaffney, 1965)
29. Snatchers (Stephen Cedars and Benji Kleiman, 2019)
Best Movie: Director Wes Craven’s output is among the most variable of big-name horror directors (the same year he made the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street he directed the goofy TV movie Invitation to Hell, starring Susan Lucci as the head of a sinister country club). The People Under the Stairs successfully brings together a number of his pet themes, with a young black kid (Brandon Adams) facing off against a deranged couple whose rent-seeking predations have drained the ghetto of money and hope for years (and who bear a not-coincidental resemblance to Ronald and Nancy Reagan). If the porous membrane between dreams and reality doesn’t come in for examination here as it does in some of Craven’s other films, perhaps it’s because the reality of the film is already so bonkers: “Daddy” and “Mommy” live in a fortified house, imprisoning foster children and intruders alike in feral conditions in the basement, while covering their cruelty, criminality, and sexual deviancy with a Father Knows Best veneer. This is an angry film that manages to deliver its message while remaining both scary and fun, and the continuing relevance of its plot means that it’s not surprising Jordan Peele is reportedly producing a remake.
Worst Movie: Possibly the worst movie I’ve watched all year, not just this fall, The Jurassic Dead promises hordes of undead dinosaurs, or at least one ferocious zombie tyrannosaur, and gives us instead a nearly incomprehensible plot about a scientist who discovers the secret of re-animation, loses his positions with first the government and then a university, and decides to exact his revenge on the world by releasing a zombie virus at the same time the earth is struck by the asteroid that only he predicted. There’s also a dinosaur in it. The protagonists are a band of mercenaries sent to take out the baddie at his compound and a group of college kids who wind up in the same place after getting lost in the desert. Somehow they have to work together. It’s not boring, I’ll give it that, but other than that it’s awful.
Scariest Movie: “The brain sees what it wants to see” is the tagline (and a key piece of dialogue) in Ghost Stories, in which a professional skeptic and debunker (co-writer/director Andy Nyman) is challenged to examine three seemingly inexplicable cases of the supernatural. As he tracks down the original witnesses and hears their stories, it’s clear that he himself is haunted, but only at the end do the threads come together. Thus Ghost Stories has a favorite form of mine, the anthology of stories-within-a-story, and whether or not you find the ending satisfying, the film has a chilling atmosphere and some hair-raising incidents. Ending a film this bleak with “The Monster Mash” over the end credits feels like a final ironic joke at the audience’s expense.
Least Scary Movie: I didn’t watch a ton of really terrifying films this month, but I’ll highlight Nocturne, part of Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse series, as one that I think was trying to be scary. Nocturne centers on a pair of twin sisters attending a prestigious music prep school: Vivian (Madison Iseman), the prodigy, has been accepted to Juilliard, while Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) remains an underachiever. Until, that is, Juliet recovers a notebook belonging to a former student who had committed suicide, and discovers what seems like a set of occult signs: things start to go well for her, but her successes are accompanied by disturbing visions and fear that she is being taken over by some outside force. The elevator pitch seems to be “Whiplash meets Hereditary,” and I want to be clear that I did enjoy it, but I found its depiction of the high-pressure music world much more compelling than the rote horror elements, which had an ominous, dread-inducing mood, but never really came together and, worse yet, played out almost exactly the way the audience was led to expect.
Funniest Movie:Romancing the Stone and Ghostbusters were two of the biggest hits of the early 1980s, so it’s not surprising that someone thought to combine elements of the two. Vibes isn’t a horror film at all, but rather a supernatural comedy in which Jeff Goldblum and Cyndi Lauper play psychics recruited by sketchy-but-lovable Peter Falk to track down a missing expedition to a lost city in the Andes. The lost city is supposedly full of gold, but it’s actually the home of a powerful artifact full of psychic energy, sought after by other, less scrupulous psychics who hope to use it to conquer the world. Vibes is a lot of fun, but it’s extremely lightweight: there’s never much suspense, even during the big finale, but it’s worth watching for Goldblum and Lauper’s sexy chemistry and for the rest of the cast having a ball. In particular, it makes me wish Lauper had found more vehicles to act in: she nails the kind of streetwise screwball throwback that Madonna was trying to portray in movies at around the same time.
Weirdest Movie:Pledges was a Dollar Tree find, and like many of the movies I find there it’s low-budget and not very high-profile. The premise is one of the oldest in horror: a group of fraternity and sorority pledges go into the woods overnight as part of their initiation, and something bad happens. I was expecting typical teens-in-the-woods slasher hijinks, either from hazing gone wrong or from learning They’re Not Alone, but after an unsurprising setup it goes in much stranger directions, more like The Blair Witch Project or even Annihilation. There’s a hint that the woods are part of an off-limits government site, but whether the occurrences, which include time dilation, weird tumors, and creepy doppelgangers, are part of a mad science experiment, an alien invasion, or something else, is never explained. It’s not a particularly great film, but in a season in which I mostly watched straight-ahead horror, it was one of the oddest.
Most Informative Movie: For the first time, a documentary appears on one of these Halloween lists. Horror Noire investigates cinematic horror by and starring African Americans from the early days (by chance, I had watched Son of Ingagi earlier this summer) up to the current success of Jordan Peele (I’m glad I had already seen Get Out, as Horror Noire’s coverage of it goes into detail explaining why it is so cathartic, including the ending). Black audiences have often been among the biggest fans of horror, even while the film industry was slow to cater to them or even recognize their humanity. On the other hand, the fact that horror is often a low-budget entry point into the film industry has made it more welcoming to minority filmmakers than more high-profile genres, and Horror Noire includes plenty of examples of great, ambitious films from black filmmakers, including some that I intend to add to my watchlist.
Biggest Surprise: A few years ago I read a book that rewired some of my thinking on genre film, Atomic Bomb Cinema by Jerome F. Shapiro. Looking at the range of cautionary films that came out after the detonations that ended World War II and ushered in the Atomic Age, Shapiro is uninterested in purely “political” or “sentimental” films like On the Beach or The Day After, and instead takes notions of the Apocalypse back to their roots in the visionary religious texts of the Torah and the Bible. He points out the way modern apocalyptic films use ancient tropes such as journeys to the heavens, visitation from prophets or historical figures, and communication through dreams; even Godzilla has roots in the fantastic monsters that appear in Japanese fables. I don’t recall if Shapiro discusses Robot Monster in his book, but I didn’t expect it to fit into that context as neatly as it does: I only remembered the easily-mocked Ro-Man costume, a gorilla suit with a space helmet, from It Came From Hollywood and similarly selective looks back at the good-old, bad-old days of cheap B-movies. Make no mistake, Robot Monster is cheap, but it’s much more ambitious than I expected. The heroes, a small family, are the last humans left on earth after Ro-Man, in advance of an invasion of his kind, has wiped out all of humanity with incredible space weapons. Space battles and communication with other planets are part of the story as well, but much of the bigger picture is only alluded to rather than shown, and the scale is very much down-to-earth as the family huddles in a bombed-out house, protected by an electric fence, and Ro-Man sits in a nearby cave, conflicted over whether to carry out his programming or spare Alice, the pretty young daughter of the family. What are these new feelings Ro-Man is experiencing? They are counter to the Program! He is becoming more like a Hu-Man than a Ro-Man! It would be a stretch to call Robot Monster completely successful—as storytelling it is garbled, it attempts a George Pal epic on a Roger Corman budget, and I haven’t even gotten to the bubble machine Ro-Man uses as a computer—but I have to agree with my friend Zack Clopton’s assessment that it has an enjoyable “dream logic,” and there is more in it to chew on than one might expect.
That wraps up Halloween and Septober 2020! How was your Halloween? Did you watch anything exciting or scary this month? Have a great fall, everyone!
The Vanishing Shadow begins with Stanley Stanfield (Onslow Stevens), heir to the Tribune newspaper and aspiring inventor, visiting the laboratory of Professor Carl Van Dorn to show him plans he has been working on, but which aren’t quite complete. Can the older inventor help him out by troubleshooting the design? Van Dorn is deeply sympathetic to young Stanfield, and tells him he was a supporter of Stanfield’s late father in his crusade against corrupt public figure Wade Barnett. (Although the exact cause is not specified, it is widely believed that the elder Stanfield’s struggles against Barnett led to his death.) Van Dorn accepts the unfinished invention, an invisibility ray, and Stanfield takes his leave. Amazingly, Van Dorn has been working on his own “vanishing ray,” and by examining Stanfield’s plans he is able to solve the problem that had plagued his own design.
Meanwhile, on his way to Barnett’s office, Stanfield saves a young woman, a reporter named Gloria Grant (Ada Ince), from being run over by a speeding fire engine. Gloria is secretly Wade Barnett’s estranged daughter, working at the Tribune under cover to escape her father’s malign influence. When Stanfield gets to Barnett’s office, Barnett (perennial heavy Walter Miller at his oiliest) offers—nay, demands—to buy out Stanfield’s shares of Tribune stock; with that, he would have controlling interest in the paper and be able to quash its coverage of his illegal activities. Stanfield of course refuses, and when Barnett pulls a gun to have his way by force, there’s a struggle in which Barnett’s bond broker, Cadwell, is wounded. Barnett summons help, making it look like a crazed Stanfield just committed murder, and the young man flees.
Back at Van Dorn’s lab, Stanfield pleads for the inventor to hide him. It just so happens that Van Dorn has finished the vanishing ray, and he has Stanfield wear it (it’s a harness-like contraption that goes over the wearer’s chest). It works! The only catch is that anyone using the vanishing ray still casts a shadow (hence the title). Barnett’s main henchman Dorgan (Richard Cramer) and some of his men force their way into Van Dorn’s lab just as Stanfield manages to hide. Of course, they find nothing, but one of them did see a suspicious shadow; it will be several chapters before anyone takes those glimpses as more than just a trick of the light. (The invisibility effects throughout the serial are quite artful, as well as unusually consistent. There are no visible weapons or objects floating around as if being carried by invisible hands; everything the user is wearing or holding becomes invisible with them, except for the telltale shadow they leave behind.)
After this first successful test of the vanishing ray, Stanfield and Van Dorn realize that they have a powerful weapon to use against Barnett, and the game is afoot. The typical serial plot contrivances stretch the story to twelve chapters: Stanfield and Van Dorn strike back at Barnett in a variety of locations; more inventions are produced, including a “destroying ray” and a robot; all three heroes get captured and escape at different times; the Tribune shares, as well as the vanishing and destroying rays, change hands as they are hidden, stolen, and recovered. In the best serial fashion, all of this action throws the character of the players into sharp relief, with heroism and self-sacrifice carrying the day.
One can see elements of the nascent superhero genre coming together: a crusading young man with a father to avenge; a gimmick that gives him an advantage against his enemies, as well as psyching them out; a secret lair in which to tinker on new and improved crimebusting inventions (Van Dorn’s fortified “beach house” turns out to be an even better HQ); and a young woman whose loyalties are divided (while she immediately allies herself with Stanfield’s idealism, Gloria hopes until the end to reform her father rather than destroy him; and Van Dorn suspects her of working against Stanfield on Barnett’s behalf, at least until she proves her good intentions).
Nevertheless, it would be an overstatement to call The Vanishing Shadow “the first cinematic superhero” or somesuch, as the story is firmly rooted in pulp and serial traditions. The uncomplicated wish-fulfillment of Stanfield’s and Van Dorn’s inventions and the melodrama of stock characters reminds me of Pirate Treasure (which immediately preceded The Vanishing Shadow in Universal’s release schedule); the mix of familial drama and science-heroism are also reminiscent of Judex. But Stanley Stanfield would be at home in most any pulp magazine of the era. The fact that he wears a suit rather than a superhero onesie isn’t a dealbreaker, but it does score another point for the “pulp” side. Most notably, the vanishing ray and Van Dorn’s other inventions aren’t set forth as tools for continuing adventures or a general campaign against crime. Defeating Barnett and gaining control of the Tribune aren’t just parts of an origin story: they are the story.
The Vanishing Shadow is “adventure science fiction,” to use Isaac Asimov’s term for that phase of sci-fi in which the gadgets purely serve the thrills and action. The gee-whiz element is turned up as well, appealing to readers of Popular Mechanics and similar DIY magazines: is there anything electrical science cannot do? It’s telling that an “electrical lock” on the Professor’s gates—essentially a remote control garage door opener—is given as much screen time as his robot or destroying ray (the first depiction of a “ray gun” on screen, essentially a spotlight that kills anything the light touches).
Actually, Professor Van Dorn (James Durkin in his final role; he also played Professor Hargrave in the 1933 Perils of Pauline) steals the film. We never learn why the old inventor hates Barnett so much, but if anything he is more bent on revenge than Stanfield. There is almost a good cop/bad cop dynamic between Stanfield and Van Dorn, with the younger man frequently calling off his bloodthirsty partner. In one chapter, Stanfield makes Van Dorn promise not to bring his destroying ray with him on an outing; in the next scene, Van Dorn gets in the car with an obvious rectangular bulge in the front of his jacket. Stanfield tries to moderate Van Dorn, saying things like “I know your way, but we don’t want to murder anybody,” while Van Dorn is given to pronouncements like “The law? You and I will be the law: judge, jury . . . and executioner.” Same planet, different worlds. Frankly, I never got tired of Van Dorn’s obvious relish for wet work; when, after being shown the Professor’s “iron man,” strong enough to break through a brick wall, Stanfield wonders what it would do to a human being, Van Dorn answers without hesitation, “Crush him into mincemeat!” Between the Professor’s propensity to secure his premises with deathtraps and his distrust of Gloria (“There is nothing I fear so much as women!”), it’s a good thing he’s on our side.
Irascible, even mad, scientists are a staple of adventure science fiction, but usually as villains or secondary characters, so the ambiguity of Van Dorn’s heroism is an interesting twist. I was strongly reminded of Bela Lugosi’s turn in The Phantom Creeps from a few years later, and although that serial doesn’t appear to use any leftovers from The Vanishing Shadow, the cranky professor who has both an invisibility device and a killer robot suggests that someone at Universal remembered the earlier production with fondness. Screenwriter Basil Dickey, a well-known name in serials, worked on both films, but that doesn’t mean the similarities were his idea.
The Vanishing Shadow was the first film directed by Louis Friedlander, who would go on to earn hundreds of credits directing serials, B-movies, and (later) television episodes, mostly using the screen name Lew Landers. Like many serials, it has its lulls, but it more than makes up for it in imagination and the quality of its production, and it especially springs to life when Durkin is on screen. The beautiful restoration from VCI makes this an easy one to recommend for fans of serials and retro science fiction alike.
What I Watched:The Vanishing Shadow (Universal, 1934)
Where I Watched It: A Blu-Ray from VCI Entertainment, remastered from long-hidden original 35mm film reels. (The Vanishing Shadow was long-thought lost, but I guess “neglected” might be a better word.) The restoration looks and sounds great, better than many releases of newer films (the screenshots I’ve used here are from YouTube, so they’re not as sharp, but you get the idea).
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Hurled from the Sky” (Chapter Five)
Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Six (“Chain Lightning”), Gloria shows up at her father’s office, with Stanley using the vanishing ray to shadow her invisibly. Suspecting a trap, they head down the back stairs, avoiding Dorgan and his men at the front entrance of the building. Unaware of this and thinking that Stanley has been captured, Professor Van Dorn bursts into Barnett’s office and demands to see Stanley, or else he’ll use his destroying ray on him! Since Stanley had been invisible, Barnett doesn’t know what Van Dorn is talking about, and his fear of being at the mercy of a madman is palpable (and justified). At the same time, Gloria and Stanley have come back to Van Dorn’s lab; Gloria, not knowing that the Professor has set yet another trap, steps onto the pad in front of the safe and is immediately enveloped in bands of lightning. This is such a fun cliffhanger because not only does it cut between two equally suspenseful situations, but the chain of missed connections and misunderstandings that leads to the danger is laid out perfectly for the audience, and once things lock into place it races to the end.
Sample Dialogue: “If that’s the way you treat a friend, Heaven help your enemies!” –Stanfield, after Van Dorn tests out a paralyzing ray on him in Chapter Nine (“Blazing Bulkheads”)
What Others Have Said: “This ‘before-its-time’ gem was no accident. The previous year the studio had a ‘monster’ theatrical hit with director James Whale’s film adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man. And so it was imperative to develop more material to capitalize on the success of that film . . . the result was The Vanishing Shadow.” –Ralph Tribbey, DVD & Blu-Ray Release Report (included as liner notes with the VCI release)
What’s Next: Well, after an unexpected two-month hiatus from posting, this is coming out much later than I had planned. With everyone in the family home most of the time, my own personal schedule is completely out of whack. My apologies if new Medleyana posts were the only thing keeping you going (and God help you if that’s the case!). Summer is officially over, but you never know if Fates Worse Than Death will return out of season. It’s happened before!
We dedicate this picture to the United States Navy, its officers and men, in grateful acknowledgment of their invaluable co-operation and assistance.
As the above blurb, which appears at the beginning of Don Winslow of the Navy, indicates, the involvement of the U.S. military with Hollywood movie-making has been going on for a long time. Even without that acknowledgment, one could guess by the sheer volume of stock footage–of naval maneuvers, of ships and planes in action, and (in the penultimate chapter) of sailors storming a beach–that there was some connection. Of course, this was released during wartime, so it makes a dandy recruiting film for the Navy, but serials and B-movies generally weren’t going to be critical of the military (or law enforcement) anyway: aside from the demands of the Production Code, it would get in the way of the clear-cut good guys and bad guys narrative that is the spine of such films. Having said that, there are some interesting contrasts here to other pro-military and wartime serials.
The basic setup is a familiar one: Don Winslow, fresh from a stint with Naval Intelligence and recently put back in command of his own ship, U. S. Destroyer 620, is summoned to Pearl Harbor for his new assignment. Supply ships approaching the Pacific island of Tangita, where the Navy is building a new base, have sunk, and sabotage is suspected. Commander Winslow is to take the 620 to Tangita and get to the bottom of the mystery, assisted by his best friend, Lieutenant “Red” Pennington. After another attempt on an approaching ship, Winslow learns that infamous foreign spymaster the Scorpion is behind the attacks, and there must be a base of Scorpion agents somewhere on the island. If the Scorpion’s secret headquarters can be found and the saboteurs wiped out, the Navy base can be completed. So far, so good.
Beyond the unfinished base at Rondana Bay and its community of American workers, Tangita is a movie-land jungle island with all the amenities, including a native tribe with a temple and some crumbling ruins; a gold mine with a separate village for its laborers; and abandoned facilities such as the old smelter and old sea mill, ready to be destroyed in cliffhangers. The audience learns quickly that the Scorpion’s secret base (including an underwater submarine dock) is accessible through a shuttered tunnel in the gold mine, and that the gold mine’s operator, Merlin, is actually “M-22,” the Scorpion’s lead agent on the island. Throughout the serial, Merlin pretends to help Winslow while secretly luring him into traps or away from the real base, even going so far as to kill one of his own agents and plant papers on him to convince Winslow that he got the real M-22. As in many serials, the dirty work is carried out by lower-level Scorpion operatives so that Merlin’s duplicity isn’t discovered until the end. The Scorpion himself never sets foot on the island, instead issuing orders via television, and while Winslow triumphs at the end as expected, the story is open-ended: he moves onto his next assignment in hopes of bringing down the Scorpion for good.
Don Winslow of the Navy is also unusual in the degree to which its hero has it both ways, both commanding from the bridge and operating on the ground. I’ve quoted this passage from Raymond W. Stedman’s The Serials before, but it’s worth mentioning again: “No doubt about it, in jungle, prairie, or metropolis, the cliffhanging heroes and heroines did their part in the war effort–though one must overlook their apparent aversion to ordinary service in the armed forces. Scenes of battle action were no more than inserts in tales of spy fighting or fifth-column activity.” When action heroes are part of the military, they’re often commandos or intelligence agents, or are cut off from their units as a way of justifying their independence. Often, officers are remote characters in this kind of movie, issuing orders from behind a desk, far from the action. Not Winslow! At one point, asked why he always heads into danger alone instead of letting his underlings take the risk, he explains, “The Scorpion wants to get me alive–they’ll shoot the rest of you on sight.” But he also commands a full-sized destroyer, providing scenes of large-scale battle (at one point the 620 even rams a submarine, saving another Navy ship from danger) that are often out of the reach of serial heroes. The scope of the action, and the addition of all that footage from the Navy, makes it feel like a real war picture.
It also brought another genre to mind: this serial may be set on earth, but I think Don Winslow and Buck Rogers would have a lot to talk about. Gene Roddenberry may have pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars,” but one can see the naval influence in the quasi-military treatment of the ship and its crew, and more importantly the balance of ship-to-ship combat and planetside “away missions” that the captain takes part in. Substitute “islands” for “planets” and the roots of the genre are clear: “final frontier,” indeed.
While watching Don Winslow, I also often found myself thinking of The Fighting Marines: there are some similarities, including an unknown master spy and a base on a Pacific island, as well as heroes who are in uniform but given a free hand. But since The Fighting Marines was made in the 1930s, before the war, it’s typically coy about the nationality of the villain. Don Winslow was made in 1941, so it is also not very specific: the Scorpion (played by Kurt Katch) is apparently German, going by his accent, but like many of those villains of the interwar years, his actual goals and politics aren’t mentioned. He’s against America, so that’s all we need to know. The serial began distribution in October of 1941; the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor made it both timely and a little quaint: following the declaration of war, subsequent serials would be less circumspect in naming America’s enemies.
Winslow is played by Don Terry, who is really everything one could expect of an upright, square-jawed, red-blooded serial hero of the time period. Like many of his colleagues, Terry (born Donald Loker) had an athletic background; interestingly, after playing Don Winslow in two serials, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve for real and earned a Purple Heart serving in the Pacific, and he left the film industry shortly after that. Of course, a serial hero needs a supporting cast. In addition to Lt. Pennington (Walter Sande), there’s older Navy man Mike Splendor (Wade Boteler, playing the kind of blustering Irishman he played in The Green Hornet and Red Barry, among many, many Irish cop roles) and civilian construction head John Blake (Ben Taggart). Navy nurse Mercedes Colby (Claire Dodd) and secretary Misty Gaye (Anne Nagel, also seen in The Green Hornet) are established as the only survivors of the shipwreck that serves as the inciting incident, but they go way back with Winslow and Pennington (romance, or at least double dating, is implied, but as in most serials it’s kept in the background).
After a couple of sluggish Columbia serials, Don Winslow of the Navy (also based on a comic strip and radio show) was a breath of fresh air: not only was it a tight twelve chapters, it moved quickly, balancing character scenes with action. Other than the weird Mascot serials of the ’30s, I think Universal’s have been my next favorite; the production is generally (if not always!) good, but not so slick as to be unsurprising and formulaic. In this case, a stirring score helps smooth out the rough edges: the Navy march, “Anchors Aweigh,” forms the theme song, of course, but the incidental music includes a lot of Elgar-sounding stuff and dramatic strains in the vein of Victory at Sea.
What I Watched:Don Winslow of the Navy (Universal, 1942)
Where I Watched It: VHS set from VCI’s Classic Cliffhanger Collection
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Fighting Fathoms Deep” (Chapter Ten)
Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Nine, “Wings of Destruction,” Winslow sets out to test a new plane, and Mercedes talks her way into going with him. Scorpion agent Barsac (John Holland) gets to the hangar first with the intention of sabotaging the plane, but when he is surprised by Winslow’s arrival, a hastily discarded torch sets a fire. Barsac is confident that the fire will put an end to Winslow’s meddling, but that turns out not to be the cliffhanger. Winslow and Mercedes are able to take off, saving both the plane and themselves from the fire. Meanwhile, Barsac radios one of the Scorpion’s subs, having it launch its onboard plane to bomb the 620, carrying out the other part of the Scorpion’s order. With both planes in the air and bombs falling on the Navy Destroyer, a dogfight ensues; Winslow is grazed by a bullet and falls unconscious, and the plane goes into a dive. By the kind of lucky coincidence serial heroes are blessed with, the plane collides with the Scorpion’s bomber, shearing the bomber’s wing off and causing it to crash. But how can our heroes pull out of the fatal dive with Winslow still unconscious? (Hint: remember that passenger who insisted on coming along for the ride?)
Not the Best Cliffhanger: In a very odd sequence, Winslow darkens his skin and puts on a sarong to disguise himself as a native and investigate an old ruin that Merlin has directed him to (it’s a trap, of course). Aside from the ways in which brownface is problematic (although common at the time), it’s odd because Winslow never makes an attempt to blend in with the natives; he is almost immediately joined by (white) members of his party. At the same time, Merlin has provided the native witch doctor, Koloka, with a loudspeaker and microphone to make it seem as if the temple’s idol is speaking (just like in Terry and the Pirates!), which will allow the corrupt Koloka, a Scorpion loyalist, to usurp the tribe’s rightful chief, Tombana. Meanwhile, Blake (overseeing construction of the Naval base) brings Mercedes to the village to help some sick children.
Once of all of our heroes are at the temple, Koloka stirs up the natives using the loudspeaker in the idol, blaming the white newcomers for the sickness in the village. Chased by a mob, Winslow and the others are cornered; their only hope of escape is for Winslow to dive into the water, distract the natives, and come back for his friends. (I had thought that perhaps this dive was the reason for his native costume, so the filmmakers could insert footage of a Pacific islander diving, but there really isn’t enough to the shot to make such trouble worth it, and it looks like star Don Terry performs the jump.) All would be well, if it weren’t for all the sharks in the water! All of this is in Chapter Six, “Menaced by Man-Eaters”; the other reason it seems out of place is that the natives are hardly relevant to the plot except in this chapter and the resolution in the next. The episode definitely feels like filler to pad out the serial, but I don’t mind digressions when they’re enjoyable.
Winslow: What do you know about the men who just escaped?
Miner: You mean Spike? Not much. Him and a couple other guys by the name of Prindle and Corley come over here sometimes.
Winslow: Do they work in the mine?
Miner: Sometimes, not regular. Why? They deserters in the Navy?
Winslow: Hardly. We don’t have their kind in the Navy.
–Chapter Eight, “The Chamber of Doom”
For Your Further Don Winslow Viewing Pleasure: This serial was followed up by Don Winslow of the Coast Guard in 1943, also starring Don Terry.
What Others Have Said: “Boys who enlisted in Don Winslow’s Squadron of Peace received along with a bronze ensign’s badge a copy of the creed Winslow himself was bound to uphold. Composed before World War II neared American shores, it is quaintly touching today:
“I consecrate my life to Peace and to the protection of all my Countrymen wherever they may be. My battle against Scorpia represents the battle between Good and Evil. Never will I enter into any jingoistic proposition, but will devote my entire life to protecting my Country. The whole purpose of my life is that of promoting Peace–not War. I will work in the interests of Peace and will promote the fulfillment of all things that are clean, wholesome and upright. Join me not alone in observing this creed, but likewise be patriotic. Love your country, its flag and all the things for which it stands. Follow the advice of your parents and superiors and help someone every day.“
–Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment
What’s Next: I’m going to take a break from fiddling with my VCR and look at a serial I have on disc: join me next time as I investigate The Vanishing Shadow, which promises to be something different!
Dr. Herbert Lee, an American archeologist, leads a scientific expedition into the wilds to uncover evidence of a lost race. The native queen, known as the Dragon Lady, is determined her kingdom shall not be invaded. Fang, a sinister, lawless half-caste, who controls half of the natives and holds the white settlers in fear, seeks the riches hidden beneath the Sacred Temple. After the expedition has gone into the jungle to face unknown perils, Terry, Dr. Lee’s son, and Pat Ryan, his friend, arrive in Wingpoo with important documents for Dr. Lee.
Those words, presented as text crawling up the screen, begin each chapter of the 1940 serial Terry and the Pirates; chapters after the first add another sentence or two to describe the specific situation our heroes were left in, but that’s it. There’s no other recap (beyond the repetition of the last scene that sets up the cliffhanger), but that’s all you need anyway. Terry Lee, like fellow comic strip-turned serial hero Tim Tyler, is living the dream of many a boy in his audience, seeing the world alongside older and more experienced adventurers. Milton Caniff’s comic strip (and the radio serial, which preceded this film) followed the adventures of Terry and his friends, mostly in the jungles and waterways of Asia, for years. Like many serials based on existing properties, the filmmakers could somewhat rely on audiences to be familiar with the characters already, and the beginning of this one drops us into the action with only that text prologue to prepare us.
In Chapter One (“Into the Great Unknown”), when Terry and Pat arrive at the colonial town of Wingpoo, they are surprised to find that Dr. Lee and the rest of his expedition have already headed into the jungle, despite the radiogram Pat had sent alerting them to his and Terry’s imminent arrival. As it turns out, Dr. Lee never received the radiogram because the town’s radio operator, Stanton, (as well as many other people in town) is under the control of Fang, the villainous warlord who resides somewhere in the jungle, terrorizing the peaceful settlers. Using his inside information, Fang has Dr. Lee captured and the rest of his party slaughtered, supposedly during an attack by natives. (Fang has his white “renegades” don animal furs and masks, posing as “tiger” or “leopard men” so they don’t reveal their treachery to the other whites; this allows Fang to present himself as Dr. Lee’s rescuer.)
At first, Fang offers friendship to Dr. Lee, inviting him to study Fang’s collection of native artifacts: he needs the archeologist to interpret the language of the ancients and thinks that Dr. Lee will lead him to the lost treasure upon promise of a share. Dr. Lee, a man of science above all, is horrified by Fang’s plans and rejects this offer; Fang then coldly orders Dr. Lee held prisoner–he will aid Fang’s search, one way or the other. Fang has also ordered the capture of Terry and Pat, thinking to use them as leverage on Dr. Lee, but at least in the first chapter his immediate plan is foiled. (As in many serials, the good guys in this spend a lot of time getting captured and then escaping, with various combinations of the heroes either free or imprisoned.) Dr. Lee (played by John Paul Jones), it should be noted, is a pretty tough customer himself, and not easily intimidated: his love for his son is the weak spot Fang exploits against him more than once.
Terry and his allies are versions of characters from the comic strip: Terry himself, described as “a wide-awake American boy,” is a teenager in the strip. William Tracy, who plays Terry, was already twenty-three when the serial was filmed, but rather than aging up the character to match (like Billy Batson in Adventures of Captain Marvel), or casting a younger actor, the film has Tracy affecting a high, cracking voice and saying stuff like “Gee willikers!”, and an awkward, bow-legged stance, throwing his arms around spastically in action scenes to look younger and shorter than co-star Granville Owen, who plays the older Pat Ryan. (Owen played the lead in Lil’ Abner the same year he made Terry; he later went by the screen name Jeff York.)
Pat is the typical serial man of action, almost always taking on the fight scenes and gunplay himself while protectively keeping Terry out of the fray and chiding him for wasting time taking photographs, but he doesn’t have a lot of character himself. (Terry eagerly gets into a few scrapes–“Don’t worry, Dad!” he says before leaping into a fight with some prison guards–but his enthusiasm often outpaces his competence, and sometimes he makes the situation worse by trying to help.)
Terry and Pat are aided by two Asian characters, Dr. Lee’s servant Connie (short for “Confucius”), played by Allen Jung, and a local native who towers over his fellows and goes by the nickname “Big Stoop” (Victor DeCamp). Big Stoop is first encountered as a street magician; he joins forces with the Lee party when Pat and Terry stick up for him in a fight, and his escape artistry and magic tricks (not to mention pockets full of firecrackers) come in handy throughout the adventure. He also carries some of the comic relief, and doesn’t always think things through. He’s nothing if not loyal, however: at one point, when Pat and Terry are locked up in the Wingpoo jail, Big Stoop and Connie follow them into the cell, even though as Pat points out, they’d be more useful on the outside. Later, Big Stoop catches hold of one of the renegades and chastises him, saying, “You hit Big Stoop very hard.” A single blow to the man’s head, and the rudeness is repaid.
Another notable character is Normandie Drake (Joyce Bryant), the daughter of a local rubber planter; Normandie is brave and capable, joining forces with Terry against Fang’s depredations (in the comics she and Terry have a long, doomed romance, but they don’t so much as hold hands in this), but she also screams a lot. Boy, can she scream. No female character in a serial is a damsel in distress all the time–they have to hold up their end of the story, after all–but Normandie knows how to get her Fay Wray on when the bad guys come calling with their human sacrifices and trained gorillas.
As for the bad guys, they are many of the usual suspects: Dick Curtis, who plays Fang, was a longtime heavy for Columbia and appeared in a number of serials and B-movies, particularly Westerns (of course); he’s been in some of the serials I’ve covered, although not in a leading role that I recall. Fang is an “Oriental potentate” caricature, half wheedling Fu Manchu mannerisms and half vulgar savagery. His dialogue is amusingly prickly, as when he tells right-hand man Stanton (Jack Ingram, another regular heavy), “You have some brains after all. I was beginning to doubt it.”
What are we to make of Fang’s status as “half-caste”? This isn’t the first time such a character has been the villain in one of these stories: the casual racism of white settlers assuming their superiority over the natives is a common feature of the era’s adventure stories, but the implication is that it’s worse to be caught between worlds, without a people to call your own, than to be one of those honest but easily duped natives. Or it could be that making a major character mixed-race makes it easier to cast a white actor to play them. There’s not much ambiguity here: unlike Fu Manchu, who hopes to unite Asia under his own rule against the white devils, Fang is just in it for the money, promising to leave the Dragon Lady alone in exchange for the treasure. He may leave the temple and the Dragon Lady’s people in shambles, but that’s not his problem; he’ll be gone. In that respect, he’s not so different from the planters extracting wealth from the land, he just has an accelerated timetable.
As for the Dragon Lady herself (Sheila Darcy), she’s an ambiguous character type we’ve encountered before, the haughty and indomitable matriarch whose primary concern is her people (I was reminded of Queen Teka in The Phantom Empire). The Dragon Lady of the comics is an ocean-going pirate (answering my lingering question about this serial: where are the pirates?), but in the movie she is a firmly landlocked leader of the natives. At first she assumes that the white explorers are, like Fang, only interested in the treasure hidden in her Temple of the Dawn, and she sees them as enemies, especially after Terry and Pat interrupt a human sacrifice conducted by her high priest; eventually, however, she comes to see Terry and his friends as allies who have her best interests at heart. (She claims that she had forbidden such sacrifices; it takes a little longer for the priest to be won over.) Once Fang steals the Temple’s statue of the god Mara and makes it speak with a hidden phonograph record (“Listen to your god! Fang is my choice as ruler! Obey him in all things!”), turning the natives against her, she has little choice but to throw her lot in with the Lee expedition.
In the past, I’ve been somewhat critical of the Columbia serials I’ve watched, and I know I’m not alone: the consensus is that Columbia tended to cut corners and came to rely on silly physical comedy and gimmicks, turning its serials into parodies of themselves. As Columbia serials go, however, Terry and the Pirates was largely a pleasant surprise. (There is some light-hearted humor, but constant mugging and jokiness was mostly a product of the later 1940s.) Like many serials, it takes a chapter or two for things to really get going, but the middle chapters have some good action and the characters have a nice chemistry together and a combination of motives that keep the plot humming. My interest started to wane in the last few chapters, but as I’ve said before, many serials don’t really have enough story to fill fifteen chapters. It’s not much like the comic strip, which took a hard-boiled approach to war and adventure, but if you can overlook the too-old Terry and the frankly awful gorilla costume, it is a serviceable adventure in the jungle-explorer/lost-world vein.
What I Watched:Terry and the Pirates (Columbia, 1940)
Where I Watched It: This serial has been playing on TCM on Saturday mornings, but I watched the VHS set from VCI Classics (featuring the dubbing of voices in Chapter Four, for which the original audio was lost). It can also be viewed on YouTube.
No. of Chapters: 15
Best Chapter Title: “The Dragon Queen Threatens” (Chapter Four)
Best Cliffhanger:Terry and the Pirates is a goldmine for fans looking for classic serial-style cliffhangers. Many standard types are represented: buildings in which our heroes are (seemingly) trapped catch fire, cave in, or explode; Terry and Pat get caught in traps that slowly fill with water (Chapter Seven, “Angry Waters”) or in which the walls close in, pushing the boys toward a central pit filled with “barbarious” spikes (Chapter Eleven, “Walls of Doom”); Terry falls into a “sacrificial pit” filled with alligators (Chapter Eight, “The Tomb of Peril”); and Normandie is menaced by the gorilla and is nearly sacrificed by the high priest of Mara. Finally, almost the entire party is bound on a gigantic pyre of wood for sacrifice by burning (Chapter Fourteen, “Pyre of Death”). Almost all of these cliffhangers are well-prepared and executed to both make the situation clear and amp up the suspense.
My favorite is at the end of Chapter Nine, “Jungle Hurricane” (as is frequently the case, the chapter titles tend to foreshadow the nature of the peril that will form the chapter-ending cliffhanger): Normandie is hiding out in an abandoned hut with Connie and Big Stoop to ride out a storm, not realizing that Stanton and his men are making for the same hut as a way station on the route to Wingpoo, where Fang has sent them for more supplies. Terry and Pat have the same idea to stop at the hut on their way to Wingpoo, and when they arrive they find Stanton and the other renegades taking Normandie and the boys captive. Pat distracts the renegades, getting them to chase him into the jungle, so Terry can sneak into the hut and free the prisoners, sending Connie and Big Stoop to help Pat while Terry unties Normandie. All of this happens while howling wind blows branches and palm leaves all around, and the walls of the hut shake under the force of the gale. It’s all quite dramatic. Just as Normandie is freed, the entire hut is blown over the side of the cliff upon which it was built, collapsing at the bottom of the hillside. (I fully expected that in the next chapter we would find that Terry and Normandie had slipped out of the hut before its collapse, or they would be revealed to be hanging on the side of the cliff by a vine, but nope: Pat finds them buried under the thatched roof of the collapsed hut, and once freed they’re perfectly fine. The “walk-it-off” cliffhanger strikes again!)
Sample Dialogue (from Chapter Six, “The Scroll of Wealth”):
Fang: This is my trophy room. Not a bad collection, eh, Doctor?
Dr. Lee: You’re not fooling me, Fang. It looks more like a torture chamber to me.
Fang: You are right, Doctor Lee, and, ah, here is your iron maiden, waiting for you. (touches spikes) You see, Doctor Lee, the maiden has hidden charms, charms which you will be unable to resist.
What Others Have Said: “It’s a whole lot easier to do Steve Canyon, in that I am able to free-wheel–I can go anywhere, do anything–and Terry never got out of China. I never got tired of doing the Oriental background, because to this day it’s still the greatest place for anything-can-happen stuff, it’s just that he had never come home, and I felt that I should change the scene more frequently, and I wasn’t able to do it during the war years.” –cartoonist Milton Caniff, asked in a 1982 interview about the difference between Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, the strip Caniff turned to in later years
What’s Next: Keeping with the comic strip theme, I’ll take a look at Don Winslow of the Navy!
In my review of the 1945 serial Brenda Starr, Reporter, I noted that there was a TV movie based on the same character (directed by Mel Stuart, it aired May 8, 1976 on ABC); I was able to track down a copy, so consider this an addendum to my survey of Brenda on film. As mentioned in my previous article, Brenda Starr, Reporter was a popular newspaper comic strip created by Dale Messick in 1940 (born Dalia Messick, she chose the androgynous byline “Dale” to get past editors who wouldn’t look at work by a woman cartoonist). During the 1970s there were numerous television adaptations of comic strip and comic book properties, as well as a general renewal of interest in the pulps and comics of the 1930s and ’40s. Unlike many of the pulp revival works of the ’80s and ’90s, however, most of the adaptations of the ’70s are thoroughly contemporary, placing their superheroes, gumshoes, and explorers in the modern world. The Brenda Starr newspaper strip was still going strong and keeping up with the times, so this version of the character is a jet-setter and spends time fending off the advances of a rival television newsman as well as tracking down leads the old-fashioned way.
The film isn’t on YouTube in its entirety, but the opening credits are, so you can hear the blend of action and romance in Lalo Schifrin’s stylish theme song (the soaring tune is heard in various guises throughout the film, transformed into a sultry “love theme,” and even presented as a bossa nova when Brenda travels to Rio):
Like the 1989 feature film starring Brooke Shields, the 1976 Brenda Starr begins with the reporter (played by Jill St. John) defusing a hostage situation, in this case a desperate first-timer whose plan of robbing a bank has led to him being cornered by police sharp-shooters. Only Brenda Starr can help him, first as a potential hostage, and then as an advocate who promises to do what she can for him. This little scene establishes Brenda as brave and clear-headed, but also compassionate. Back at the office of her newspaper (unnamed in this version), she gets a tip from a contact at the airport: billionaire Lance O’Toole has just arrived on a private plane and was whisked away by a waiting ambulance. (O’Toole is played by Victor Buono, the longtime character actor who often served as a TV-budget Orson Welles, playing characters who were alternately pompous, jovial, or threatening; he played delusional villain King Tut on the Batman TV series.)
Just as Brenda is convincing her editor, A. J. Livwright (Sorrell Booke, who would play Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard), to run a story based on this tip, Brenda’s rival, TV reporter Roger Randall, goes live with his own scoop. (This is one of those movies where people turn on the TV at the exact moment necessary to get the report necessary to the plot, but in this case Randall himself called Livwright to alert him.) Brenda sneaks into O’Toole’s hospital room disguised as a nun and, overhearing O’Toole discuss his case with a German specialist, Dr. Weimar, she learns that O’Toole believes himself to be the victim of a voodoo curse–or, more accurately, macumba, the similar animist religion from Brazil (although in this film the two terms are used almost interchangeably).
Then the bodies start piling up. Medical science cannot save O’Toole (whose death is again scooped by Roger Randall). Brenda discovers supermodel Kentucky Smith dead in her own home after investigating her connection to the sculptor Dax Leander, whom O’Toole blamed for the statue that made him vulnerable. Indeed, it turns out that the case is deeply intertwined with the Brazilian macumba: not just O’Toole, but several other tycoons, including the owner of Brenda’s paper, are being blackmailed after being approached by Leander to make statues of them–statues that happened to include real hair and fingernail clippings from their subjects! Eager to unravel the truth–and to avenge her friend Kentucky, who was romantically involved with Leander and appears to have been killed for revealing what she knew–Brenda offers to take the money to Brazil on behalf of the blackmailed macumba victims.
Aside from the story, Brenda has another reason to visit Brazil: the mysterious eyepatch-wearing Basil St. John hails from Brazil, and while it has been months since Brenda saw him, she can’t get him out of her mind. Although St. John never makes an appearance on screen, reminders of his presence are everywhere: Brenda’s hotel room is graced by a bouquet of black orchids, St. John’s signature flower (although the film doesn’t go into detail, in the comics, St. John’s family is subject to a madness that can only be kept in check with an extract of the black orchid; St. John is such a romantic character, no wonder only Timothy Dalton could play him in the 1989 movie); Brenda is led into a roundabout trap by a man with an eyepatch, whom she at first mistakes for St. John; and ultimately the villain of the piece threatens St. John with a voodoo statue in his likeness to keep Brenda in line.
The second half of the movie leans into both the exoticism of the South American jungle and the scary otherness of mind control and ecstatic macumba rituals. Like many pulp adventures made after it became increasingly uncool to demonize other cultures and their religions, but not so uncool that they wouldn’t be used as exotic window dressing, this movie has it both ways: Carlos Vargas (Joel Fabiani), one of Brenda’s contacts in Rio, explains that macumba is an understandable reaction to the enslavement and exploitation that produced it, and that its magic isn’t meant to be used for evil (spoiler alert: the magic totally ends up being used for evil). Alas, it turns out that he, too, is under the spell of the macumba, thanks to the magic of the macumba priestess, Luisa (Barbara Luna). But Luisa isn’t the villain either; she is ultimately a sympathetic character, and she helps Brenda turn the tables and uses her magic for good after a sisterly heart-to-heart talk.
Who is the villain? Well, I normally avoid spelling out the whole plot, but since this movie isn’t that easy to find, I’ll place a spoiler section below. Although made for television and definitely a product of its time, Brenda Starr isn’t a bad movie: shallow, perhaps, but diverting. The mixture of magic and very-special-guest TV actors is strongly reminiscent of Fantasy Island and other shows I watched regularly as a kid, and you don’t have to know anything about the source material to follow the plot. This was the era of Charlie’s Angels (although this movie filmed in 1975, Charlie’s Angels beat it to air by premiering in March of ’76), and while Brenda isn’t violent herself, she has a knack for getting into situations where people around her die and get hurt.
Sex symbol Jill St. John plays Brenda as a thoroughly self-sufficient career woman who pursues romance on her own terms. Her heart may belong to Basil St. John, but in the mean time she has her choice of men for companionship, and like comic-strip Brenda, she has an extensive wardrobe (and a couple of scenes where she models a bikini or lingerie, for reasons critical to the plot, you can be sure). She even tries to use her feminine wiles on the handsome and egomaniacal Roger Randall (Jed Allan, best-known for a long stint on Days of Our Lives), but in the end these scenes of seduction, titillation, and (in the third act) sexual menace are neutralized by the very fact that it’s a made-for-television production, safe enough for the whole family to watch together.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
In case you’re curious to solve the mystery but aren’t interested in tracking this one down for yourself, suffice it to say that Lance O’Toole not only faked his death, he set up the entire macumba scheme himself as part of a bigger master plan. Once out of the public eye, he planned to start his own private kingdom deep in the Brazilian jungle, with his absolute rule enforced by macumba mind control. First the jungle, then the world! Carlos, Luisa, and sculptor Dax Leander are under his control, and he had Kentucky Smith killed because she knew too much. Not only that, but he intends to make Brenda Starr his bride, the queen of his new reign. As for the mysterious Dr. Weimar, that was Roger Randall in disguise: that’s how he was able to scoop Brenda, and it also gets him involved with the drama in the jungle.
Ultimately, O’Toole’s magic is used against him when Brenda convinces Luisa to release Leander from the trance he is in and he makes a statue in O’Toole’s likeness. Just another episode in the career of Brenda Starr, reporter!