My 2020 in Books

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.

January

Wizard and Glass, Stephen King

The Best of Henry Kuttner, for Vintage Sci Fi Month

Interstellar Pig, William Sleator

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.

February

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

March

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

April

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

May

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

June

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

July

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.)

August

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.

September

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.

October

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).

November

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)

December

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!

My 2020 in Film

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.

Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer (Mamoru Oshii, 1984)

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.

Thanks for reading; have a great 2021!

Quick Bites of Terror: Septober 2020

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.

The poster
The reality

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!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Vanishing Shadow

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!

Fates Worse Than Death: Don Winslow of the Navy

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.

Sample Dialogue:

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

Commander Winslow was a close personal friend of Captain Marvel, but only on the covers of their shared comic books, sadly.

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!

Fates Worse Than Death: Terry and the Pirates

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!

Brenda Starr (1976)

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!

Fates Worse Than Death: Brenda Starr, Reporter

Daily Flash reporter Brenda Starr and her cameraman Chuck Allen race to cover a fire in a downtown neighborhood, hoping to beat police Lt. Larry Farrell and his assistant Tim Brown to the scene: a fire is big news, but this could be the break Brenda needs in the story of Joe Heller, the thief who stole a quarter-million-dollar payroll and was recently seen in the neighborhood. As it happens, Heller is in the burning building, but before he can escape he is cornered by Kruger, a gunman for the gang to whom Heller was supposed to hand off the loot. Kruger recovers the payroll bag and shoots Heller; when Brenda enters the room, Kruger thrusts her into a closet. After being rescued by Farrell, she bends down to check on Heller, and with his dying breath he slips her a piece of paper with a code on it.

Later, at the swanky Pelican Club, Kruger and his fellow gangster Mullin turn the bag over to their superior, club manager Frank Smith. The bag turns out to be full of blank paper! Even in death, Joe Heller has double-crossed them! Kruger saw Brenda take the note from Heller, so he suspects that she might know where the real loot is. Meanwhile, Farrell passes along a story that Heller is still alive but unconscious, a trap to lure his killers into the open. Communicating with his superior, the “Big Boss,” by radio, Smith is instructed to pass a tip to Brenda Starr through an underworld contact named Charlie, sending her to spring the trap the police have set. When she and Chuck get to the house (that both the police and the gang are watching), she finds it full of gas: only a lucky fall out of a window saves her when absent-minded Chuck lights a match, igniting the gas!

After surviving that little incident, Brenda finds that Joe Heller, played by serial regular Wheeler Oakman, is actually dead, and the cover story was all a ruse. “Woakman” fans (or “Wacorns,” as we call ourselves) will be happy to learn, however, that Joe Heller had an identical twin brother, Lew, also played by Oakman, who turns up a few chapters later to avenge his brother’s death and find the payroll himself. Joe, we barely knew ye, but Lew turns out to be just as slippery and self-interested, holding on to what little he knows in hopes of making a deal with the police (especially after he fractures a milkman’s skull making one of his getaways). The payroll is still out there somewhere, and while the police codebreakers try to make sense of the paper Brenda was given, Frank Smith and his gang try to flush out Lew and the payroll; if they can get rid of the troublesome reporter Brenda Starr at the same time, so much the better!

Brenda Starr, Reporter was, of course, an adaptation of the comic strip of the same name, begun by Dale Messick in 1940 (and continued after her death until 2011). Brenda stands apart from the other brassy dames reporting the news in her day by being glamorous as well as gutsy, and the comic strip is notable for Brenda’s fashionable outfits and the elements of romance that accompany the adventure. Naturally, the sex appeal is toned down in the serial, but star Joan Woodbury makes a convincingly beautiful serial-budget replacement for Rita Hayworth (the original model for comic-strip Brenda) and wears a few nice gowns when the occasion arises. She and Lt. Farrell (serial stalwart Kane Richmond) are clearly crazy about each other, and as in the raucous romantic comedies of the era their banter and disagreements are a cover for their mutual attraction. Here’s one serial where the last-scene kiss between male and female leads actually feels like it’s in character!

This is the second serial in a row I’ve watched in which the villains take orders from a disembodied voice, and I know I’ve seen at least a couple that have the same solution to the mystery of the “Big Boss’s” identity; mostly we get a number of scenes with smooth Frank Smith (George Meeker, according to IMDb: other than the leads, the actors go uncredited) and his underlings (regular heavies Anthony Warde and John Merton; Jack Ingram plays Kruger). Smith and his gang have some of the usual serial tricks at their disposal, such as the “special sedan” with the sealed-off backseat that takes men (and women) who have outlived their usefulness on their “last ride.”

A singer at the nightclub, Vera Harvey (Cay Forester), gets reluctantly involved when Brenda identifies her car as the one used in a crime; at least a few chapters’ worth of incident are spun out of poor Vera getting in over her head, first cooperating in a plot to trap Brenda and then asking for help when she realizes her own life is in danger.

Other than the usual henchmen, the sketchy stool pigeon Charlie (Ernie Adams) makes the biggest impression, playing both sides against each other. With a toothpick dangling from his mouth and his “wise guy” way of talking, Charlie is the picture of a movie gangster; frankly, it’s not clear why anyone ever trusts him when he’s so obviously looking out for Number One.

We also get a bit of Brenda’s home life: she lives with her cousin Abretha (Lottie Harrison), a one-note character from the comic strip. Abretha (full name: Abretha Breeze, which is almost a pun) is a full-figured gal, and like other “fat” characters such as Wonder Woman’s pal Etta Candy, almost every line of dialogue she has revolves around food, and spends her time cooking lavish meals for Brenda and her colleagues that she ends up eating herself. Hilarious! Abretha seems like a nice girl, and it’s useful to have a character who doesn’t share the main cast’s zest for adventure, but a little goes a long way. I haven’t read much of the original Brenda Starr comics, but reading up on the various punny characters like Abretha actually leaves me sympathetic to the usual serial habit of creating new characters as foils for the hero.

In fact, my first impression of this serial is that its strength lies in its sense of character, as the plot and its complications are nothing special. So far, Columbia’s serials have been my least favorite of any studio’s output, with even the better ones having lumpy pacing and a casual, slapdash air. That works, however, for the mostly comic scenes of rapid-fire banter in the newsroom: the Flash’s blustering editor, Walters (Frank Jaquet), has the air of an indulgent but frequently exasperated father, offering and rescinding bonus checks with every change of fortune. Then there’s Pesky (William Benedict), the copy boy who can be counted on to get everything backwards: this is an obvious source of comic relief, but it also informs and complicates the plot, as when he sends the cops to Brenda’s apartment instead of the Pelican Club at a crucial moment, or when Brenda, surprised by Lew at home, tells Chuck over the phone not to come over and to “be a good boy and obey orders like Pesky would”–i.e., by doing the opposite of what she told him.

Finally, there’s the friendly rivalry between the cops and the press: just as Brenda and Lt. Farrell are paired up as co-leads, so do their respective sidekicks have a bantering, semi-antagonistic relationship: Chuck (Syd Saylor) and Officer Brown (Joe Devlin) are betting men, wagering on who will arrive at the scene first and keeping a running tally. Chuck’s sad-sack demeanor is also an excellent comic foil to Brenda’s brash stop-at-nothing energy: “Maybe we don’t live right,” he complains at one point. “Everything bad happens to us.” Buddy, that’s the life of a serial hero.

What I Watched: Brenda Starr, Reporter (Columbia, 1945)

Where I Watched It: DVD from VCI Entertainment (It’s worth noting that the VCI disk is missing scenes from Chapters 3 and 4 due to deterioration of the source material; Serial Squadron has located these missing chapters and is in the process of restoring them for a future release. There is enough redundancy in the serial format that it’s not hard to pick up on what happens in the missing sections, however.)

No. of Chapters: “13 Spine Tingling Chapters!”

Best Chapter Title: “Hot News!” (Chapter One)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Eight (“Killer at Large”), Charlie comes up with a plan that will help Lew get his revenge on Kruger for killing his brother. Charlie convinces Frank Smith to hire a phony fortune teller named Zelda (Marion Burns) for the Pelican Club, and Lew comes along as her assistant, “Abdul,” in a turban and false beard. (The stuff with Zelda, in this and the following chapter, is a lot of fun, and probably the high point of the serial for me.) Brenda and Chuck are invited to watch, as are Lt. Farrell and Tim. As “Abdul,” Lew walks among the audience, calling out for Zelda (who is blindfolded) to say what the marks are thinking, or what is in their pockets. Approaching Kruger, Abdul asks Zelda for her impression and is told that she feels a great sense of evil; through leading questions, Zelda says that a murder has been committed in the past, and that if Abdul looks in Kruger’s pocket he will find the gun that killed Vera Harvey. The plan to trap Kruger in front of the police goes awry when the lights in the club go out and shots are fired. This is one of several cliffhangers in which uncertainty or a reversal of fortune takes the place of an immediate deadly peril, but the implication is that any of our heroes might be on the receiving end of those gunshots. (At the beginning of the next chapter, when the lights come back on, both Kruger and Lew are gone. )

Sample Dialogue: “Whether you believe me or not, I’m going to write a story that’ll crack this town wide open!” –Brenda Starr to Lt. Farrell, Chapter Five (“The Big Boss Speaks”)

More Brenda Starr: Brenda Starr returned to the screen a few more times during periods of revived interest in the comics: in 1976, former Bond girl Jill St. John played Brenda in a TV movie (I haven’t been able to watch this one yet, but if I have anything worthwhile to say about it I may post a capsule review), and a TV pilot was made in 1979 starring Sherry Jackson.

A feature film starring Brooke Shields was produced in 1986, released overseas in 1989, and finally landed in the U.S. (to dismal reviews and poor box office) in 1992. It features Timothy Dalton (no stranger to pulp) as Brenda’s love interest, the enigmatic Basil St. John. In this movie Brenda dodges international spies and a reporter from a rival newspaper while tracking down an ex-Nazi scientist’s miracle fuel additive. The film also goes meta in the vein of The Purple Rose of Cairo, with a cartoonist (not Dale Messick, but an assistant) entering Brenda’s 1940s comic strip world and falling in love with her (Brooke Shields was my very first celebrity crush, so I can’t say I blame him). It’s a hook, but it’s less magical to learn that Brenda doesn’t have a belly button and is unable to swear (because of newspaper censors, you see) than the filmmakers seem to think. Shields makes a great Brenda, even if the film around her is (to be charitable) uneven. There are a lot of clever touches, but it’s pretty damn goofy as well, and everything to do with the Russian spies led by Jeffrey Tambor would be too broad for a live-action Disney movie. But then the movie shows us something sublimely silly like Brenda waterskiing on a pair of alligators and it comes all the way back around to being good.

What Others Have Said: “What Columbia was trying to do in the mid-1940s was trade upon–some would say tarnish–the reputations of heroes of other media. Beginning in 1945, when ‘Produced by Sam Katzman’ was stamped upon every Columbia serial, the borrowings were regular and frequent. The funny papers’ Brenda Starr, Reporter began the procession. . . .” —The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment, Raymond W. Stedman

What’s Next: I dive back into my big box of VHS tapes with another adaptation of a classic comic strip, Terry and the Pirates!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Mysterious Mr. M

The police are baffled by a series of seeming murders: three bodies have been fished out of the harbor wearing medallions marked with the name “Mr. M.” Are they the victims of gangland killings? Is Mr. M a new leader of the criminal underworld? And what is the homicide division to make of the unknown chemical found in the bodies, a drug that appears to have paralyzed them before death? This is Detective Lieutenant Kirby Walsh’s beat, but when Dr. Kittridge, the secretive inventor, disappears, the Feds get involved: Kittridge had been working on a project that was vital for national security. The G-man assigned, Grant Farrell, has a personal interest, as his own brother Jim is also among the missing. Along with Walsh (played by Richard Martin) and Farrell (Dennis Moore), the third member of our heroic trio, insurance investigator Shirley Clinton (Pamela Blake), gets involved with the case after an explosion at one of Kittridge’s factories.

As it turns out, Mr. M has much higher ambitions than just organizing some criminal enterprise: Dr. Kittridge has invented a revolutionary new submarine engine, and Mr. M’s plan is to obtain it and then sell it to the highest bidder. (Politics, shmolitics: other than a few offhand references to war service, this could easily be one of those prewar serials in which a new technology is in danger of “falling into the wrong hands,” with few specifics offered as to who that might be.) The drug found in the previous bodies is a mind-controlling agent, “hypnotrene,” and those victims of “Mr. M” were just test subjects to find the correct dosage and throw the authorities off the scent. Now that the drug has been perfected, it can be used for its intended purpose: to make Dr. Kittridge turn over the plans for his invention. When Kittridge dies of hypnotrene-induced heart failure (I guess the formula isn’t that stable yet), it becomes a race between the criminals and the law to recover the various components of the submarine engine that the paranoid Kittridge had farmed out to various designers and manufacturers under assumed names.

Here’s where it starts to get complicated: the plot was started by one Anthony Waldron (Edmund MacDonald), a criminal believed by the police to be dead, but who had in fact been in hiding in Africa for several years. Now that he’s back in the States, he’s brought hypnotrene with him, living in a secret lab underneath his grandmother’s house and keeping her dosed on hypnotrene to make her pliable. His co-conspirators are Derek and Marina LaMont (Danny Morton and Cat People‘s Jane Randolph), a pair of siblings that society matron Cornelia Waldron (Viriginia Brissac) has always treated like family (and who also live with her).

There’s enough back story to this arrangement for a soap opera, but don’t worry: some version of this background is repeated in almost every chapter, along with a description of Kittridge’s revolutionary engine, “which will allow ocean-going submarines to be built as big as luxury liners!” Our heroes get involved because Cornelia had funded Dr. Kittridge’s research and is a co-beneficiary of the insurance policies Kittridge took out on his facilities in various names, and the scenes in the Waldron home are the most interesting part of this serial, with the secrets and double-crosses typical of contemporary thrillers.

Waldron created the “Mr. M” identity as a cover for his tests of hypnotrene, but now he has a problem: there is a real Mr. M, and he starts communicating with the conspirators by way of records dropped off at the house, using an eerie whisper reminiscent of radio chillers like Inner Sanctum. This Mr. M seems to know everything about Waldron and his partners, and he uses that knowledge to blackmail them: “Now you are working for me,” he says, as he issues directives to obtain the components of Kittridge’s engine. In many cases he is even one step ahead of the conspirators, possessing knowledge of events beyond Waldron’s.

The identity of this Mr. M is the main mystery, as in many serials in which the villain’s identity is kept secret until the last chapter, but the balance between the different factions is handled deftly and the degree to which the heroes and villains have separate stories is unusual. The heroes don’t know anything about this behind-the-scenes power struggle, and in fact when they come face to face with Anthony Waldron they naturally assume that he is the same Mr. M they’ve been dealing with all along. It actually isn’t that hard to guess who the unknown Mr. M is, but the context of the reveal is still pretty satisfying; as I said, the mystery elements in this serial are more engaging than the action scenes. (It’s also amusing that almost every character refers to “the mysterious Mr. M” in full, following the lead of the newspaper headlines, leading to dialogue like “We’re going to clear Jim’s name and get this mysterious Mr. M!” and “Imagine me sitting here talking to the mysterious Mr. M;” even the creepy recorded messages are signed off by “the mysterious . . . Mr. . . Emmmm.” The mysterious Mr. M has great brand awareness.)

Aside from the mysterious Mr. M’s spooky messages, the other weird element in this serial is the mind-controlling drug hypnotrene, which as you can imagine gets a workout. Anthony Waldron is the only one who knows how to manufacture the drug (even his lab assistant Archer doesn’t know the secret, apparently), which keeps Derek and Marina from eliminating him. Cornelia Waldron is kept dosed, but if the drug were allowed to wear off she would reveal all of the conspirators’ secrets. Much of the serial’s suspense comes from this uneasy truce.

But hypnotrene isn’t just a truth serum for extracting secrets: victims can also be conditioned to perform actions at set times, making them effective double agents or assassins (or “human robots,” in keeping with the era’s conception of a robot as a slave, mechanical or not). Several times over the course of the serial, allies of our heroes (including Kirby Walsh) are dosed and ordered to kill or mislead their colleagues, making it seem as if Mr. M has operatives in every walk of life. From the outside, the mysterious Mr. M would appear to be a mastermind with eyes and ears everywhere, even if in reality there are only a few people in on the conspiracy. (There are a couple of more-or-less disposable henchmen, Shrag and Donninger, at Derek’s command, and they function pretty much the same as henchmen in every serial, following the master’s orders without knowing the whole plan or their boss’s identity, so even when they get caught they’re only useful to the authorities as bait.)

Dennis Moore, who plays Grant Farrell, is a good representative of the transition from serials to television. From an uncredited role as a cowhand in the 1933 Buck Jones serial Gordon of Ghost City, Moore had gone on to hundreds of appearances in serials and B movies; most of these roles were in Westerns, but all kinds of genres were represented in his career. By the time Moore graduated to leading man, the serials were starting their decline: The Mysterious Mr. M would be the last serial Universal released. In 1956 Moore would also play one of the leading roles for Columbia in Blazing the Overland Trail, the very last theatrical serial ever released. By that time Moore was established in television, increasingly his home until his retirement in 1961; he died only a few years later in 1964 at the age of 56.

On that note, during the course of this series I have mostly been honest about how I’ve watched these films, all at once at home rather than over weeks in the theater, avoiding nostalgia for the Saturday matinee era since I don’t have personal experience of it to draw upon. It’s understandable that the first generation of serial authors like Alan Barbour and Donald F. Glut would emphasize their nostalgic qualities, but it’s also a bit rich to read passages lamenting how “kids today” won’t get to experience what they did as children, as if kids of every generation didn’t have favorite stories and games to make their youth magical. To the extent that Fates Worse Than Death is an exercise in looking back at my own childhood, it’s been about making connections with pulp fiction and comics and the pulp-derived film and TV of the 1970s and ’80s, which I did grow up with. Television inherited much of the rhythm, personnel, and production methods of the serials, and since I’ve been watching TV my whole life, it’s natural that I should watch serials the same way instead of pretending I’m sitting in a downtown scratch house, getting oil on my decoder ring as I dig into the popcorn between shifts delivering telegrams or whatever. (In a similar vein, I do enjoy the fedoras and roadsters of the serials, but I try not to mistake them for documentaries or, God forbid, memories of a “simpler time.”)

It’s obvious that the theatrical experience of the twenty-first century was quite different from that of the 1930s and ’40s, even before the closure of theaters in light of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. An afternoon at the theater during the serials’ heyday might have included a cartoon or musical short, a newsreel, and one or two features in addition to the latest chapter of a serial: animated films are still shown with accompanying shorts on a regular basis, but aside from one-off experiments like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse the studios are no longer invested in packages that keep audiences in seats all afternoon. (It’s more profitable for theaters and studios to have regular turnover, and television satisfies the desire to binge-watch, now more than ever.)

I do have affection for double features, collections of vintage trailers, and other such celebrations of the cinema experience, but in my experience those are the domain of individual promoters and film festivals (or niche chains like Alamo Drafthouse, which unfortunately I may never get to visit now). The boundary between cinema and home viewing was already increasingly porous, and the closure of theaters has pushed some studios to release their new films as video on demand, but at least so far the big would-be blockbusters have been pushed back in hopes that normalcy will return. It’s a bigger subject than is perhaps fair for me to tack on to the end of a review of a serial, but it is fair to note that the current crisis is yet another moment of transformation in the long, varied history of the cinema: hopefully the communal elements of watching together in a crowded theater, of gasping in suspense at a shocking turn of events or a cliffhanger, whether it be in The Mysterious Mr. M or Avengers: Infinity War, will return, even if some things have changed.

What I Watched: The Mysterious Mr. M (Universal, 1946)

Where I Watched It: The Mysterious Mr. M came to my attention earlier this spring when TCM ran it on successive Saturday mornings. However, I had recently changed cable packages so I didn’t get all the chapters recorded. With a little searching I found them uploaded to Dailymotion (there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time) and earlier this month someone uploaded the whole thing to YouTube. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray from VCI Entertainment, and I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I hadn’t been such a cheapskate and just bought it.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “When Clocks Chime Death” (Chapter One)

Chapter Titles That Sound Like Radiohead Tracks: “Heavier Than Water” (Chapter Six); “Strange Collision” (Chapter Seven); “High-Line Smash-Up” (Chapter Twelve)

Best Cliffhanger: The cliffhangers in this are mostly pretty familiar–a number of collapsing and exploding buildings and various vehicles crashing or plunging into water–and are presumably recycled from earlier serials: there’s not much reason for Grant Ferrell to hop into an old sedan that doesn’t belong to him, except to match up to the footage of the same old car plummeting down the central shaft of a parking garage (Chapter Two, “Danger Downward”). Similarly, the building that houses Dr. Kittridge’s waterfront laboratory in Chapter Eleven (“The Key to Murder”) has burned down so many times that I’m surprised it can still get insurance.

Having said that, there is at least one tight, suspenseful cliffhanger, and it occurs at the end of Chapter Nine, “Parachute Peril”: after tricking Mr. M into stealing a crate believed to contain a model of Kittridge’s submarine engine (but actually containing Grant Ferrell), Grant faces off with Anthony Waldron (whom he takes for Mr. M, of course) aboard an airplane. They struggle, and both of them end up falling out of the plane, continuing to fight even as Grant hangs on to Anthony, who is wearing the only parachute. Anthony kicks Grant loose so that he falls only a few yards to the ground–right on a railroad track in front of a speeding train! Economical use of cross-cutting ensures that the audience is aware of the oncoming danger, and of course the title card inviting us to continue next week appears before the actual moment of collision, leaving the worst to our imaginations.

Sample Dialogue: “I’m one of Mr. M’s men, controlled by his mysterious power. . . . You thought you were setting a trap for Mr. M. Instead you walked into one of his making!” –Thomas Elliott, an industrialist under the effects of hypnotrene in Chapter Four, “The Double Trap”

What’s Next: Step aside, Lois Lane! A new girl reporter is here with some “hot news!” Join me in a week, or two weeks, or whenever I get to it, as I review Brenda Starr, Reporter!

Dome on the Range

It’s been getting harder, I’ll admit: harder to get up in the morning; harder to accomplish tasks for work, such as they are; harder to start updates like this and then finish them. It’s been five or six weeks since I began sheltering at home; other than walking the dogs, the only time I leave the house is to pick up groceries or go to church, where I am involved in livestreaming services. During that time I’ve dealt with the stress of maintaining hygiene when I go out–washing hands, not getting coughed on, etc.–but last week I started getting stressed out just from being home all the time: I wanted to get out, to go somewhere, to do anything. So, I get the stir-craziness of people who want to get things back to normal by any means necessary (of course, the “protests” and such are almost entirely ginned-up by people who have direct financial interests in getting things going and won’t have to face the risks of being on the front lines at retail and service businesses; the same people who got crowds out yelling about “death panels” during the debate over the ACA have decided that a few thousand preventable deaths are now just the price of economic freedom).

But realistically, I just don’t see how it’s going to be possible without rigorous and reliable testing and a stronger social safety net in general. I miss live music and movies, too (contrary to what I said in my last quarantine update, the local drive-in didn’t open as it was deemed non-essential at the last minute), but they’re not worth taking my life in my hands. The government can and should have done much more in ensuring that people wouldn’t starve or be evicted while shelter-in-place orders are maintained. I’ve lost income, too, but I’m fortunate to be able to do at least some of my job from home. In any case, I have a lot more sympathy for someone who has to get out and go to work to keep essential services going than I do for someone who can’t play golf right now.

So, I haven’t made quite as much of the time on my hands as I might have; the schedule we keep our kids on isn’t very conducive to finishing my own work, but even when I have the free time to do my own thing I don’t always have the energy. I peruse Facebook and Twitter; sometimes I watch TV, but not as much as you’d think; I window-shop online, filling virtual shopping carts with sale items and then letting them expire, deciding that I don’t really need anything that badly. It has given me a new perspective on science fiction works about people living in bunkers and shelters, and the psychological effects of that isolation: in short, it’s harder than it looks. Although I didn’t feel like digging into it too deeply last week, I’m sure that my newfound interest in Logan’s Run–about a self-contained community of people living in isolation, looking for distractions, while the social forces around them convince them that old people are expendable, and really who is going to miss them?–is not entirely a coincidence (that’s another blog post that I should have been able to put together in a day or two that limped on for a week and a half before I finally finished it).

Comparisons between the current coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic and the influenza epidemic of 1918 have also caused me to rethink some things: a few years ago, I wrote about the phrase “purple death,” and how its appearances in pulp fiction and serials may have been a reference to the 1918 epidemic. To further the connection, I’ve been thinking about how teleconferencing software like Zoom, Skype, and Facetime has finally realized and mainstreamed the “video phone,” a mainstay of science fiction and pulp storytelling that never really caught on with the public in the twentieth century, no matter how much it was advertised or how many times we were promised that the technology was just around the corner. Video phones, a natural extension of both television and telephone, appear early on in science fiction (a number of early depictions of television portray it as a two-way device: Fredersen uses one in the 1927 film Metropolis, for example); how useful such a device would have been for those who were quarantined during the influenza epidemic (or similar quarantines for polio)! Even the telephone, already in widespread use in 1918, had limits: you couldn’t just call someone up and chat for hours. But for a pulp writer, stuck inside, a technology that allowed him to see friends and family face-to-face without any risk of spreading infection: well, in that situation it’s not hard to see the video phone as a practical solution to a real problem instead of just unbridled technophilia.

Finally, since I live in a neighborhood that is basically suburban in character even if not literally in the suburbs, I’ve given a lot of thought to the self-containment that has always been a part of the promise of the suburbs. With its fenced-off yard, each suburban home is essentially a module in itself, and it could just easily be on the lunar surface or anywhere else as on earth. This was part of its appeal from the beginning, and the connection to space colonization is not accidental: as detailed in Ken Hollings’ fascinating book Welcome to Mars: Fantasies of Science in the American Century 1947-1959, “An ever-expanding, subdivided tract of land, the suburbs constitute the location for a project that will connect humanity directly with outer space, with the future and with its own emergent inner self. . . . In its self-contained isolation, the suburban colony becomes a model for life not just on this planet but on all the others too.” The suburbs are a template for the domed space colonies of Asimov, Heinlein, and the Jetsons. More to the point, as Hollings continues, “At the same time, this self-contained isolation will eventually establish the suburbs as a complex psychiatric community where aberrations such as alcoholism, schizophrenia and sexual deviancy can be studied in clinical depth by an increasing number of sociologists, psychiatrists and cultural anthropologists. It will also supply the pharmaceutical companies with a growing number of customers for a new generation of drugs.” This is more like what you get when you read Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard.

Why is this on my mind? The Atomic Age has a double meaning: yes, the splitting of the atom, for warfare or for civilian power, is the obvious engine for the growth and change that drove images of the future back then. But atomization, disintegration into discrete particles, each cut off from its neighbors, is implicit as well, a metaphor for the breaking of bonds that hitherto held society together. I fear that is what we are experiencing now–not collapse, necessarily, but at least drift–without some form of connection, well, what are we left with? I should acknowledge that in the scheme of things, I’m pretty lucky. Suburban self-isolation is a privilege. Things could be worse. As we’ve been reminded, I’m doing my job by staying home and avoiding the spread of infection. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m looking forward to the day the bubble opens, I can take off my helmet, and step out into the sun again, breathing deeply.