Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja

There had been a man. Miyamoto Musashi. Perhaps Japan’s greatest warrior. Among other things, he founded the Niten or Two Heavens school–or ryu–of kenjutsu. It taught the art of wielding two swords at once. Another aspect of musashi, known as Kensei, the Sword Saint, was that he used bokken–wooden swords–in actual combat–claiming that he did so because they were invincible.The Ninja, p. 114

As American audiences were first introduced to the ninja (at least those who weren’t already delving into the martial arts cinema of Japan and Hong Kong), a common narrative ploy was to hook the audience’s identification with an American or European initiated into the ways of the shadow warriors, learning about them along with the reader or viewer. Stephen K. Hayes’ non-fiction book The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art, published in 1981, starts from a similar premise, laying out the basic philosophies and some of the techniques of ninjutsu while describing Hayes’ own search for a teacher who might admit him into the inner circle. Starting as an American black belt, he is humbled by the recognition of how little he knows, but his journey toward mastery is shared with the reader; it’s a heady formula and one that would be repeated throughout the 1980s.

Nicholas Linnear, the protagonist of Eric Van Lustbader’s 1980 novel The Ninja, plays a similar role as both an audience identification character and an insider who can access secret teachings and relay their meaning to American readers. We first encounter Nicholas as he leaves a high-powered advertising career, although looking back from the vantage point of the book’s end, it’s hard to imagine him putting up with such a job. Born and raised in Japan, Nicholas feels adrift in America, its ways still alien to him, but after his years there he feels that it has changed him, buried his true self beneath layers of foreign ways of thinking and feeling. In Japan, as we learn in copious flashbacks, parallel to the present-day story, he was treated as a different kind of outsider. The son of a British colonel attached to the postwar occupation (who was also Jewish, so he too felt alien in his own culture) and a widow of mysterious Asian extraction (possibly Chinese or Japanese, but possessed of an incredible family legacy), Nicholas excelled in everything he did, including the study of bujutsu, and yet still felt there were mysteries he had not penetrated, among them the political intrigue represented by his uncle Satsugai and the sexual mysteries of Satsugai’s ward, Yukio. So far, so good.

More than anything else, he needed a challenge, with women as well as with all the interests in his life. For he felt quite deeply that nothing in life was worth possessing without a struggle–even love; especially love. This too he had learned in Japan, where women were like flowers one had to unfold like origami, with infinite care and deliberateness, finding that, when fully opened, they were filled with exquisite tenderness and devious violence.  –p. 36

Having retreated to a life of meditation in a Long Island beach house, Nicholas’ soul-searching is interrupted by a chance meeting with a neighbor, Justine, an artist whom he had briefly met in his advertising career. Instantly, there is a bond between them that explodes into graphic, lovingly-described sex. There is a lot of sex in this book, all of it graphic, enough that the paperback cover characterizes Van Lustbader as a “master of the erotic and terrifying thriller.” I’m not sure there’s actually more sex in The Ninja as a percentage of its pages than in the average Stephen King book, but I don’t recall him being characterized as a “master of erotic horror.” In any case, it is certainly true that sexual attraction and obsession is a driving force for many of the characters, and it fits with the general characterization of the East as alluring, unknowable, and ultimately maddening.

Of course, neither Nicholas nor Justine can be truly happy until they conquer their inner demons: Nicholas in the form of his memories of Yukio, whose fate is gradually unfolded in flashback, and Justine in her need to escape from her domineering tycoon father and her own desires to be dominated by the men in her life. At the same time, a strange killing in their beachside community–the killing that actually caused Nicholas and Justine to cross paths–hints at macabre business. The first death could be mistaken for a heart attack, but for the tiniest sliver of a shuriken found in the victim’s chest during the autopsy, coated with a rare poison that takes the local examining doctor back to his own memories of the Pacific front during World War II. Brought into the case as an expert on such things, Nicholas knows instantly that there is a ninja in the area. Sure enough, more killings follow.

The Ninja has more in common with the works of Stephen King than its thickness and the presence of some NSFW subject matter. Like many of the popular horror novels discussed by Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks From Hell, The Ninja borrows a concept from a foreign culture, emphasizing its most lurid and threatening aspects, and sets it loose in modern America to kill some yuppies. The ninja behind the killings is treated like the monster in a horror movie for much of the book, until his identity is gradually revealed, at first striking from the shadows, so that its first victims don’t even realize what has killed them. When the ninja is seen and described, he is wordless and implacable, an unstoppable killing machine in the vein of Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees. Plenty of characters are on hand, as well, to establish the ninja’s deadly threat, first walk-ons who only get a page or two of background before being killed, but the ninja works his way through those who are more established in the narrative and whose deaths make a real impact on the reader. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that it ultimately comes down to a contest between the ninja and Nicholas, the only man in the area–possibly in America–who really understands what he’s up against.

“You know, Linnear, for those two stiffs being your friends you certainly aren’t broken up about it.”

Nicholas sat perfectly still. A pulse beat strongly in the side of his neck; a cool wind seemed to blow through his brain. There were haunting echoes, as if he were hearing words of his ancestors carried to him through the corridors of time. Beneath the table, his fingers were as stiff as knives, his thigh muscles like steel. He required no blade, no concealed weapon. There was only himself, as deadly a killing machine as ever was created in any country at any time.

Croaker was staring into his eyes. “It’s all right,” he said softly. He gestured with the tines of his fork, laced with running yolk. “Your food’s getting cold.” He went to work on his own and never knew just how close he had come to being killed. –p. 191

The Ninja takes place in that phase of the early 1980s when it was still the 1970s in a lot of places: in additional to the frequent casual sex, the fact that Justine is described as spending a lot of time at the disco sets the period. Another temporal marker is that New York City is a hellhole, full of noise and crime, as we are reminded every time Nicholas or Justine grudgingly ride in from Long Island (Van Lustbader was a lifelong native of Greenwich Village, so his descriptions of the city in all its terrible grandeur ring true). In addition to Nicholas, the shifting viewpoint frequently turns to Lieutenant Croaker, the kind of policeman who ruffles feathers but dammit, he gets the job done (he’s the cop who didn’t know how close he was to being killed in the excerpt above). One of the ninja’s killings even takes place in a grimy Times Square porno theater.

Very much a New York character is Rafael Tomkin, Justine’s father, a wheeler-dealer type with a sprawling family estate on Long Island but who is almost always at his under-construction high-rise headquarters or in his private limo. A thin-skinned control freak, he keeps tabs on his estranged daughters (Justine’s older sister Gelda also figures in the narrative) and hires Nicholas to supplement his bodyguards when he realizes how skilled he is. It’s natural in this poisoned time to see every such caricature of the egotistical blowhard businessman as a portrait of Donald Trump, and it’s possible that Van Lustbader had Fred Trump in mind (Donald would have still been one of those youngsters filling up the discos with Justine at the time The Ninja was written), but I’m sure Van Lustbader had plenty of potential models for both Tomkin’s duplicitous character and his unhealthy interest in his daughters’ sex lives.

The ninja are not bound by the Way, Kansatsu had said, and that was correct. Yet ninjutsu was more complex than that and, as in bujutsu itself, there were many types propounded and taught. Good and evil. The black and the red. Kansatsu himself had shown it to Nicholas before he had left Tokyo. Of the red, he had said, far and away the most dangerous, the most virulent ryu is the Kuji-kiri. “It is the Chinese word for the ‘nine-hands cutting,’ the basis for much of the ninja’s real or imagined power. It is said by many that these hand signs are the last remaining vestiges of magic in this world. As for me, I cannot say, but as you yourself have come to understand, there are times when the dividing line between imagination and existence can disappear.” –p. 382

The Ninja strongly reminds me of the paperbacks I remembered my parents reading when I was a kid–Stephen King, yes, but also the popular novels of Danielle Steel or historical epics like James Clavell’s Shogun.  Sometimes I would read the “adult” novels that were lying around the house if I got bored enough and didn’t have anything of my own to read, gleaning what I could of my own preferred subjects in between the subplots about divorce or real estate or whatever. (I did read some Stephen King in middle school, but as I’ve mentioned before, I had the bad luck of getting into his work during a particularly weak stretch of books, so I wrote him off and didn’t reappraise him until I was an adult.)

A good example is Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters, a novel that has become an infamous example of the anti-Dungeons & Dragons panic of the 1980s (and the source for a risible Tom Hanks TV movie); as a D&D-playing kid I knew that Jaffe wasn’t on my “side,” but I still read her book in the hopes that she might have some original ideas about fantasy. She didn’t, and it quickly became clear that she didn’t have much exposure to the actual game or the way it was played, either, but for some reason I got sucked into the drama of rich, disaffected college kids and their addictive pastime.

I didn’t read The Ninja as a kid; if anyone in my family did, I don’t recall seeing it, but I probably would have at least looked into it if I had. I have more appreciation now for the personal drama that fills novels like this–in this case, not just the hero caught between two worlds, but a great deal of soap concerning Justine’s father and all of his family and business problems–but would I have found enough about, y’know, ninjas to satisfy my ten-year-old imagination? I think I would have: aside from being a better book than Mazes and Monsters (faint praise, I know), The Ninja is dense with research, so reading it one learns about the philosophy and technique of many kinds of armed and unarmed combat, and some terminology to go with it; the mindset and methods of the ninja as he undertakes his mission; and the history and mythology of Japan, both in the middle ages and the twentieth century, with at least the pretense of presenting insights into the differences between the Japanese and Western mindsets. Later in the 1980s, when Americans were terrified of being passed up by the ascendant Japanese economy, businessmen were said to be reading Miyamoto Musashi’s classic Book of Five Rings in order to understand the mindset of their opponents. The Ninja, with its mixture of ancient philosophies and modern economic realities, is likewise concerned with bringing Japanese ways of thinking to Western audiences (it’s even divided into five parts in direct imitation of Miyamoto’s work).

It’s the kind of book, still popular even as Jonathan Franzen complains that the Internet has devalued thorough research, that doles out history lessons between sex scenes and moments of intense violence, so that you could feel that you were learning something while being entertained. Its pulpy mixture of action, mystery, sex, and history promises something for everyone, and although I could quibble with the details of Van Lustbader’s style–he frequently chooses inelegant words in his hurry to get on with the story–he keeps the pages turning. As its status as a bestseller (and its several sequels) demonstrates, Van Lustbader knew what readers were looking for, and in The Ninja he got in on the ground floor of a trend that was set to explode in popularity.

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I Am Curious (Ninja)

“To be a Ninja, indeed even to contemplate the Silent Way, one must be a hunter. This means that he knows the ways of his prey. He studies their habits, patterns of movements, and routines. In this way, he can strike when they are most vulnerable, or trap them in their own habits.” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Welcome to Ninjanuary! This month I’ll be exploring and revisiting movies and other media centered on that mysterious figure of stealth and danger, the ninja! I plan to update on Mondays and Thursdays, with a mixture of capsule reviews and longer articles.

Variously translated as the “art of secrecy” or “art of invisibility,” ninjutsu originated in Japan in the tenth or eleventh centuries (or perhaps earlier–fittingly for such a shadowy tradition, there is no single point of origin, but a coalescing of practices originating in China and elsewhere, coming together in the mountains of Japan). As opposed to the rigid, honor-bound code of the samurai, ninjutsu was entirely practical, focused on results, and with an emphasis on acting and escaping with as little trace as possible. Espionage, sabotage, and assassination were the specialties of the ninja, whether working as spies infiltrating an enemy base or as commandos in open warfare. Using sleight of hand and psychology, it was said that ninjas could cloud men’s minds, appear and disappear at will, or even become completely invisible. (The more sober accounts of ninjutsu downplay such fanciful notions, but Ashida rightly points out that if a ninja truly possessed such a power, he would hardly demonstrate it on command for the curious.) Given some of the feats attributed to master ninjas, it is no wonder that the ninja was often perceived as having supernatural abilities, a mystification that only served to hide the truth further.

“To be a Ninja, an invisible assassin, one must be a warrior. This means that he accepts responsibility for his actions. Strategy is the craft of the warrior.” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Ninja techniques and skills were closely-guarded secrets, held by the ninja clans who passed their wisdom down from father to son, only rarely taking on outsiders (note that there were also female ninjas, kunoichi, who plied their trade disguised as geishas, musicians, or courtesans). While the earliest ninjas saw themselves as defenders of the common people, living amongst them secretly as farmers or tradesmen, later ninjas were mercenaries and key players in the struggles between competing warlords. With the opening to the West, ninjas declined in power and influence in Japan, but by then the ninja had entered folklore and popular culture. A few families and ryu (schools) kept the traditions alive, but the glory days were in the past.

“To be a Ninja, one must be a wizard. This means that he can “stop the world” and see with the ‘eyes of God.’ This is the essence of Mugei-Mumei No-Jitsu, which is translated to mean, ‘no name, no art.'” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Ninjas had long been a staple of Japanese entertainment: in addition to appearing in stories and comics, there was a popular cycle of ninja films in the 1960s; in the West, one of the most prominent appearances of the ninja was in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice in 1967. But it was in the early 1980s, following on the heels of the martial arts craze of the 1970s, that ninjas became a full-fledged fad, assuming a seemingly permanent place in Western pop culture. When I was a kid in the 1980s, ninjas were everywhere: I was hardly aware of the long history of ninjutsu or the subtle combination of philosophy and pragmatism that guided the ninja in his own culture, but there sure were a lot of kung fu fighters wearing black pajamas and carrying short swords and blowguns in the low-budget movies I saw on basic cable and on the shelves at the video store.

“‘Lew,’ Nicholas said, ‘slide over. I want to talk to you before the crowd comes.’

Croaker turned to look at him as he slid over to the passenger’s side. Far off, they could hear the wailing rise and fall of a siren. It could have been an ambulance.

‘I know who the ninja is.'” –Eric Van Lustbader, The Ninja

The ninja was a perfect addition to the roster of character types found in action movies: the story could focus on a single ninja at the center of the action, or use ninjas as faceless goons, henchmen to be mowed down by the hero. The ninja’s pragmatic embrace of fighting techniques and spycraft from multiple sources made him usefully versatile, and filmmakers had fun one-upping each other with increasingly weird skills and powers for their ninja characters. TV shows and comics that weren’t focused on martial arts could make room for a one-off character (and even established characters suddenly “remembered” a trip to Japan in their background, where they learned the secrets of the shadow warriors). It wasn’t just on TV, either: as Bart Simpson discovered, you had to take an awful lot of karate lessons before you learned how to pull a man’s heart from his chest, and “ninja stars” were quickly banned from schools everywhere as untrained kids got their hands on cheap knock-offs of the ninja’s iconic weapons.

“Hatsumei Sensei looked at me curiously. ‘This knowledge is not for the public. In any case, no one would believe in these abilities unless he had seen them in action.’ He handed me a copy of one of his children’s books. It was illustrated with pictures of skulking figures in black outfits that resembled jumpsuits. They were engaged in various types of combat with an incredible assortment of weapons. ‘This is what the public think ninjutsu is, so we humor it. The real secrets that have been handed down through the generations are not for publication. They are for the knowledge of a chosen few.'” –Stephen K. Hayes, The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art

It should be clear from the above that I am not a particular connoisseur of martial arts cinema, and certainly not an expert on the real thing, but I hope to fill in some gaps by writing about them. As with some of my other series on Medleyana, part of my goal with this theme month is to explore the roots of this fad and reexamine a part of the pop culture landscape I took for granted when I was younger. When you’re a kid, everything is new, so it’s not always clear when something is genuinely new, or newly popular. In hindsight, the ascendancy of the ninja was a moment, one with a beginning, high point, and end. Eventually, like all fads, the ninja craze faded, becoming first a cliché and then a joke, but ninjas have never really gone away. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, originally a spoof of the decade’s (and particularly comic writer Frank Miller’s) obsession, are themselves now a venerable institution, such that kids today don’t even realize they were meant as a joke. Scott Adkins has starred in a pair of well-received ninja movies in the last decade. And presumably the real practitioners of ninjutsu are still out there, and if they are anything like the mythic figures shown in movies and comics, I doubt they’ve revealed everything they know. The ninja has proven a durable figure, and like the real warriors on which the fictional version is based, hard to pin down.

“Nicholas gave him a wan smile as he shook his head. Time to go, he thought. ‘I am prepared for it. I’ve been prepared for a long time now.’ He climbed out of the car. Every muscle seemed to ache and his head throbbed as if it were in a vise. He leaned in so Croaker could hear him as the blue-and-white drew up, followed by the ambulance. The street lit up red and white, red and white like the entrance to an amusement park.

‘You see, Lew,’ he said with infinite slowness, ‘I am a ninja, too.'” –Eric Van Lustbader, The Ninja

My 2018 in Books

This year I didn’t read as many books as in previous years, but several that I did were longer novels that took longer to get through. No matter how old I get or how many books I read, I’ll admit that I sometimes feel a bit of trepidation when I start reading a long book in earnest: will I have the time to dedicate to it, or will I get lost in it, becoming confused and leaving it unfinished? Will it be worth the time it takes to read? What if it just stinks? Oddly, the book that took me the longest to finish this year wasn’t even that long: I don’t usually read more than one book at a time, but this summer I started reading Jane Austen’s Emma at home while also carrying around a beat-up copy of F. Paul Wilson’s horror novel The Keep to read at the pool. As you can see from the log below, I limped along for months with Emma before I finished it; I’m not sure if that’s due to the book itself–I breezed through two Austen novels last year–or the circumstances under which I read it. As usual, I’m not counting single issues of comic books, magazine articles, tweets, etc. If it’s not between two covers, it’s not here.

January

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me, ed. Alfred Hitchcock (probably in actuality Robert Arthur; includes the novel Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham)

The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies Volume 1: 1954-1982 (Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition), John LeMay

February

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (This was my mother’s copy, which I borrowed)

World’s Funnest, Evan Dorkin et al

Two Women in the Klondike (abridged), Mary E. Hitchcock

March

Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, Cathy Gere

Saturn’s Children, Charles Stross

April

America vs. The Justice Society, Roy Thomas et al

Wonderful World, Javier Calvo (trans. by Mara Faye Lethem)

Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, Edogawa Rampo (trans. by James B. Harris)

Talking ‘Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap, Elijah Wald

May

The Terror, Dan Simmons

I haven’t watched AMC’s television adaptation, but the chatter around it reminded me that I’d had this book on my shelves for some time–enough years that it still had a Borders price sticker on it–and hadn’t read it. Its length and historical detail reminded me of something I heard about the best-sellers of yesteryear being packed with information–about the history of a place, or the details of running a particular business, like the novels of James Michener and Arthur Hailey–so that readers could feel that they were learning something, and thus putting the time spent reading to good use instead of being “merely” entertained.

Mandrake the Magician Dailies Volume 1: The Cobra, Lee Falk and Phil Davis

June

Heartburst, Rick Veitch

The Keep, F. Paul Wilson

July

Red Barry, “Undercover Man” Volume 1, Will Gould (Still waiting for Volume 2)

August

Emma, Jane Austen

Made to Kill, Adam Christopher

September

Paperbacks From Hell, Grady Hendrix

Gremlins, “A Novel by George Gipe Based on a Screenplay Written by Chris Columbus”

Dick Tracy, “A Novel by Max Allan Collins Based on the screenplay by Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr., and Bo Goldman & Warren Beatty”

1941: The Illustrated Story, “By Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch, Adapted by Allan Asherman, Introduction by Stephen Spielberg”

Yes, I spent much of this month reading movie adaptations; I’ve read a few over the years, although they’ve never been a huge part of my reading, even when they were more popular and I was in the target age for movie tie-ins. I had wanted to read Gremlins for a while, having heard that the novelization had added background information and history about the mogwai; there wasn’t quite as much as I had hoped, although part of the story is told from Gizmo’s point of view, which is interesting. The novelization of Warren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy adaptation also fortuitously came my way; written by longtime crime novelist and Dick Tracy writer Max Allan Collins, the book feels more like a “real” novel than you might expect.

As for the graphic novel adaptation of Stephen Spielberg’s 1941, I had noticed that original copies could still be had for just a few dollars through Heavy Metal‘s online store, so how could I resist picking one up? The graphic novel matches the movie’s irreverent (and sometimes offensive) sense of humor with a free-wheeling collage approach that pairs cut-up posters and ads from the 1940s with riotous, Mad- and National Lampoon-inspired asides and sight gags. It feels like a product of a different time, and the fact that new copies are still available makes me wonder just how big the print run must have been back in 1980.

October

Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury

A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny (reread)

True Indie: Life and Death in Film Making, Don Coscarelli

Kraken, China Miéville

November

The Great White Space, Basil Copper

The House of Cthulhu: Tales of the Primal Land, Volume I, Brian Lumley

Secrets of the Ninja, Ashida Kim

The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art, Stephen K. Hayes

The last two titles listed (as well as a longer book I’ve been reading most of this month) are preparation for an upcoming theme event in January–or should I say, Ninjanuary? Stay tuned!

Halloween 2018 Roundup

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It is once again the last day of October, and as always I am here to report on what I have been doing with my time in activities both spooky and spoopy. October was quite a busy month for me this year, and I consciously made an effort to keep some balance in my life (I even read some books, including such seasonal fare as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and a reread of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October). After last year’s high-water mark of watching thirty-nine films, I felt glutted with movies, as if I had gorged all month long. Sure, there are many fans who watch more movies than that in October, but for me that is a lot. So while I kept track of my viewing, and took advantage of screening opportunities when I could, I wanted to keep my goals reasonable, watching thirty-one films. Imagine my surprise when I reached the weekend before Halloween with only a couple left to go, necessitating some tough choices: what would be left out?

My screening of Dawn of the Dead in 3-D was scheduled for last night, so I decided to make that movie no. 31. I go back and forth on which of Romero’s Dead trilogy is my favorite, but seeing Dawn on the big screen, and with a beautiful (and until now rarely-seen) 3-D conversion, made it a fitting culmination to my Halloween pregaming.

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This year I didn’t approach my viewing with much of a plan, other than working my way through the pile of unwatched movies I already own and checking out the offerings at the Regal Horrorfest (formerly October at the Oldtown) organized by Leif Jonker and Big Screen Wichita. The resulting list is less diverse than in some years, with over a third from the 1980s and nothing from earlier than the 1960s. There was also very little foreign film on my list this year. On the other hand, it’s been a boom year for new horror, and I watched more films from the current year than in past Octobers, both in theaters and catching up with films released earlier in the year on home video.

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1. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
2. Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi, 1987)*, **
3. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1992)**
4. Happy Death Day (Christopher Landon, 2017)
5. Puppet Master II (David Allen, 1990)
6. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (Don Coscarelli, 1994)
7. Phantasm IV: Oblivion (Don Coscarelli, 1998)
8. Chopping Mall (Jim Wynorski, 1986)
9. Hell Fest (Gregory Plotkin, 2018)*
10. House of the Damned (Maury Dexter, 1963)
11. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)*
12. Venom (Ruben Fleischer, 2018)*
13. Horror Hotel aka The City of the Dead (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960)
14. The Devil’s Bride aka The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968)
15. Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, 2013)
16. A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018)
17. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)*, **
18. Slaughterhouse Rock (Dimitri Logothetis, 1988)
19. Hellbent (Richard Casey, 1988)
20. Blood Diner (Jackie Kong, 1987)
21. Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
22. The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)*
23. C.H.U.D. (Douglas Cheek, 1984)*
24. C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud (David Irving, 1989)
25. Waxwork (Anthony Hickox, 1988)
26. Winchester (Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, 2018)
27. Paganini Horror (Luigi Cozzi, 1989)
28. The Midnight Hour (Jack Bender, 1985)
29. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick, 1993)*, **
30. John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli, 2013)
31. Dawn of the Dead 3-D (George A. Romero, 1978) *, **

* seen in the theater
** rewatch

happydeathday

Best movie: Groundhog Day as a slasher? Sure, why not? Happy Death Day delivers on that high-concept premise, as spoiled sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) relives the same day over and over again, each time dying at the hands of a mysterious baby-masked stalker, only to wake up again on the morning of her birthday, the clock reset. Lots of fun is had as she comes to understand her situation and uses it to discover her killer; a montage in which she follows various suspects, crossing them off her list, is one of the most purely joyous sequences I’ve seen this year; she learns a few lessons and grows as a person, as you might expect. But the film isn’t content only to hit the beats of its model, and even when Tree thinks she’s got it all figured out, it doesn’t let her (or us) off the hook quite so easily. I loved this movie: it’s funny and scary and satisfying, a movie about death brimming with life, anchored by a fantastic lead performance from Rothe.

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Worst Movie: I didn’t see anything that struck me as truly terrible this month, but horror as a genre often means gambling on the unknown, and they can’t all be winners. The most disappointing film I saw this month was surely House of the Damned; at barely over an hour, it feels padded: it opens with an estate lawyer calling architect Scott Campbell (Ron Foster) to offer him a job surveying a long-empty mansion built by an eccentric heiress so it can be sold; then Scott repeats the same information to his wife in a second conversation. Once the pair move into the house and begin their work, strange things begin to happen: doors are locked, keys are missing or found moved, and they are watched by unseen eyes. Perhaps the last tenants never really left? The middle section features some eerie imagery reminiscent of the classic Freaks (and includes an early performance by Richard “Jaws” Kiel), but just as it’s getting good the whole thing winds up and all the tension and mystery dissolve in a puff of smoke with an explanation even tamer than I would have guessed. This was shown on FXM Retro, with movie channel FXM taking a page from Turner Classic Movies and showing old movies from the Fox vault, uncut and without commercials. Sometimes the movies are pleasantly surprising discoveries; other times they are justifiably forgotten programmers like House of the Damned. Oh, well, it least it had a cool poster.

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Scariest Movie: Would I lose credibility if I named Hell Fest as the movie that most tightened the screws on me while I watched it? I’ve been in the position of heroine Natalie (Amy Forsyth), as the scaredy-cat dragged into things by friends with thicker skin, and the movie ramps up so subtly that I was convinced in the first forty-five minutes or so that it wasn’t scary at all. Only once I grew attached to the characters and invested in their story did things get intense, but it worked on me. I’ve previously expressed my relative lack of interest in slashers (although I did see several this year, including the classic original Halloween, finally), but Hell Fest‘s setting–a pop-up theme park devoted to horror, of the sort that have become popular in recent years–is colorful and intriguing, and the idea of a real killer being loose in such a place provides copious opportunities to explore one of my favorite horror tropes: the thin line between theater and reality. Some of the best moments in Hell Fest involve killings taking place in front of blasé parkgoers, convinced that they’re just seeing another performance; and who will believe someone is really stalking Natalie when the entire park is set up to instill and exploit that fear?

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Also Scariest, In a Different Way, Movie: Another movie from this year, Hereditary, has gotten a lot of buzz, with comparisons to The Exorcist (although in my opinion Rosemary’s Baby might be the more apt comparison). Suffice it to say that this was one of the most intense, dread-inducing films I watched this month, but much of that came from the barrage of horrible events that befall the family at the center of the story (made all the worse because they are things that could plausibly happen, outside of the supernatural business) and Toni Collette’s volcanic performance as the mother of the family whiplashed by grief, guilt, and fear for her own sanity. One could imagine tackling this material as a psychological drama without the occult overlay, but the film telegraphs early on that witchcraft is brewing, so there’s not as much tension as there could be in the notion that Collette is losing her mind. This was still a disturbing film whose imagery will linger with me for a long time, though.

Goriest Movie: Only two films are really in the running this year: Blood Diner features a cannibal cult hiding behind the façade of a vegetarian eatery (O irony!); as such, it gleefully transgresses all notions of good taste, filling the screen with severed limbs and dismembered body parts, all washed down with gallons of stage blood. But since Blood Diner is a comedy (no, really!), it’s all phony and it’s hard to take too seriously. By contrast, the 2013 Evil Dead remake is in deadly earnest, and is one of the most violent movies I’ve seen recently. (Since I revisited Sam Raimi’s original trilogy this month, I figured I might as well check out this later installment. It earns points for remixing some of the original’s iconic moments in the context of a new story rather than remaking the original beat-for-beat: for one thing, there’s no replacing Bruce Campbell’s Ash.) The original Evil Dead was a grotty supernatural spin on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and it is quite intense (only in the later sequels did the comedy come to the fore), but realistic it is not. The 2013 Evil Dead is both more graphic (and plays nothing for laughs) and doesn’t flinch; there’s no cutting away from the self-mutilation of the demon-possessed victims or the extreme measures the heroes must take to save themselves; director Fede Alvarez dares you to watch.

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Weirdest Movie: After reading director Don Coscarelli’s memoir, True Indie: Life and Death in Film Making this month, I decided to fill in some of my blind spots in his filmography, including the Phantasm sequels I hadn’t seen and his most recent feature, John Dies at the End. I haven’t read the David Wong novel upon which John is based, but it’s easy to see the appeal the material would have for the director of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, including parallel dimensions, mysterious supernatural adversaries, and grotesque monsters (there’s even a cameo by Angus Scrimm, Phantasm‘s “Tall Man,” as a priest). Like the Raimi-influenced Phantasm sequels, John Dies at the End handles its ideas in a tongue-in-cheek manner, centering on a drug nicknamed “soy sauce”; the drug gives its users psychic abilities with the unfortunate side effect of opening rifts in time and space, placing (authorial self-insert) Wong in the middle of an interdimensional invasion. John riffs giddily on themes pioneered by H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, and William Burroughs, and the snarky humor, frequently scrambled chronology, and unreliable narrator (as Wong, in fits and starts, tells his story to a skeptical reporter played by Paul Giamatti) bring to mind cult film forebears like Donnie Darko and Fight Club.

Funniest Movie: Every year, there is at least one film in my October viewing that stretches the category of horror movie: this year that film is Venom, the action-horror-comedy hybrid starring Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock, a loser who becomes entangled with a hungry alien symbiote. I was skeptical when I heard about this project: in the comics, Venom is inextricably linked with Spider-Man, but with Spider-Man busy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how would Sony credibly produce a spin-off without the main character? That turns out to be less of a hurdle than I expected, but the comic-book origins are still, in my opinion, the main challenge to categorizing Venom as a horror movie. Of course, I will be the first to admit that Venom isn’t scary, and while there’s quite a bit of violence there’s not a drop of blood; still, based on its premise and plot points, this is a movie about a shape-changing alien who takes possession of a human and bites off the heads of his enemies, leading to scenes of body horror and split personality. What really makes Venom take off is Hardy’s commitment to the bizarre premise (and his penchant for adopting funny voices, even before the symbiote takes over his body), throwing himself into contortions and chewing the scenery like Jim Carrey in The Mask. That’s not a comparison I would usually make as a compliment in a superhero movie, but the key to the movie is just how little actual heroism is involved: Eddie Brock is a loser, and he finds the friend and supporter he needs in his alien companion–who, it turns out, is also a bit of a loser. Forget the requisite CGI monster battle, which comes off blurry and incomprehensible anyway: it’s beside the point. The heart of Venom is an off-the-wall, sometimes kinky buddy comedy.

Most Inspired by Actual Events: We all know that when Sarah Winchester began, on the advice of a spiritualist, the decades-long expansion of her California mansion in order to evade the pursuing spirits of those killed by her late husband’s rifles, she couldn’t have been in her right mind. What this year’s Winchester supposes is, maybe she was? The words “inspired by” do a lot of heavy lifting in this tale of an alcoholic physician (Jason Clarke), himself marked by death, who arrives at the constantly under-construction mansion in order to evaluate Mrs. Winchester’s (Helen Mirren) state of mind. Will it surprise you to learn that the place really is haunted? The labyrinthine Winchester house is a fantastic setting, and the film is a well-constructed ghost story, but the elegant Western gothic that could have been is overpowered by a constant need to prod the audience. If jump scares produced actual fright instead of momentary surprise, this would be the scariest movie of the month by far, and I would now be under treatment for acute hypertension.

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Musical Horror: Finally, longtime readers of Medleyana may be aware of my longstanding interest in musical horror, particularly fables in which musicians trade their souls to the devil in exchange for success (“Instruments of Death,” still my most-read entry, is a good introduction to this topic). Of the three music-related films I watched this month, two had exactly that premise (Slaughterhouse Rock, despite its title and the presence of Toni Basil as the ghost of a dead rock star, isn’t really about the rock scene at all): in Hellbent, punk Lemmy (Phil Ward) makes a deal with “Mr. Tanas” (David Marciano)–the film is not exactly subtle; it similarly makes much of the anagrammatic relation between Santa and Satan–and becomes a junky almost overnight, crossing paths with other desperate people caught in Tanas’ web. A quintessential indie film, Hellbent features plenty of grimy L.A. atmosphere and broadly-drawn characters, as well as some big laughs (whether they are intentional or not, I can’t say for sure, but I was never bored with it).

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Paganini Horror came to my attention on Twitter as a movie that was hilariously inept but all the more entertaining because of it, a description that fits it exactly. Made by infamous Italian low-budget filmmaker Luigi Cozzi, this one filters themes of Dominic Argento through the context of MTV music videos and the legend of the violinist Niccolò Paganini selling his soul; Paganini himself turns up, wearing a gold Carnaval mask like the Commandatore in Don Giovanni, killing off the members of the all-girl rock band who hope to turn his lost composition into New Wave gold. Those who aren’t murdered directly fall victim to increasingly bizarre ends, such as the girl whose body is consumed by a mold only found in the wood of Cremona and Stradivarius violins. Also, Donald Pleasence was there for a day to film a couple of scenes and wrap things up with a suitably diabolical explanation. Ah, Italian genre film, never change.

That wraps up October until next year. Happy Halloween!

Fates Worse Than Death: Fantômas (1913-14)

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Paris, 1913: The Princess Sonia Danidoff checks into the Royal Palace Hotel late at night. After she picks up an envelope containing 120,000 Francs in cash from the front desk, the elevator operator takes her to her room on the fourth floor (we see the elevator ascend all the way to make its importance clear). She puts the envelope and a string of pearls in a drawer and leaves the room to change into a nightgown.

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While she has stepped out, a mysterious bearded man appears from behind a curtain in the room and heads straight for the drawer. But he is interrupted by her return, and once the maid is gone he reveals himself to the Princess. Since this is a silent film, we don’t know his exact words, but when the Princess expresses her shock and demands to know his identity, he hands her a calling card: blank! He warns her not to make any noise as he takes the cash and jewelry, and then makes one last threat before gallantly kissing her hand and making his escape. The front desk is called, and the manager sends the elevator operator up to assist. The stranger lies in wait on the fourth floor, and when the operator opens the door, he pounces! The elevator begins its descent, showing each floor again on the way down. At the ground floor, the elevator operator emerges and says, “I’ll go for the police!” He leaves–but his face looks familiar. Alone, waiting for help, the Princess examines the blank card the stranger gave her, and to her astonishment, a name appears: FANTÔMAS!

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Of course, when the police arrive and the elevator is opened, the operator is discovered, unconscious, his uniform gone. A fake beard and mustache, worn by the thief, are discovered. This is a job for Inspector Juve of the Department of Security! Juve has his work cut out for him, as Fantômas always seems to be one step ahead: through his network of informants and contacts in all levels of society he always knows where the ripest pickings are to be had; he has no scruples against, murder, kidnapping, blackmail, or any other crime; and because of his penchant for disguises, no one even knows what he looks like! Why, anybody could be Fantômas–even you! Thus begins the first chapter of the 1913 film Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, the first of five Fantômas features directed by Louis Feuillade.

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Feuillade’s crime serials neither begin with Fantômas nor end with Judex (the first was preceded by a series of shorts in which Fantômas star René Navarre played a detective, and Judex was followed by a sequel, The New Mission of Judex), but the trilogy of Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex are widely available today in restored editions, and taken together they convey the sense of his influence (I had intended to cover Les Vampires in this entry, but instead I will get to it and Judex at a later time). Fantômas is not strictly a serial in the same format as the other “chapter plays” I have explored in Fates Worse Than Death (it is made up of five films, all but one around an hour in length and released in theaters at intervals of two or three months, although they are divided into chapters), but it is highly serialized nevertheless and is so influential in its imagery and plotting, particularly its characterization of the master criminal, that it feels like splitting hairs to exclude it from discussion.

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The Fantômas series was based on a popular series of pulp novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, which followed the endless (almost literally) struggle between the villainous Fantômas and the team of Inspector Juve and his friend, journalist Jerôme Fandor. Earlier this summer I said that Fu Manchu was “perhaps the model of the criminal mastermind.” Well, I am willing to admit when I am wrong, and Fantômas has Sax Rohmer’s “devil doctor” beaten by at least a year, first appearing in print in 1911 and solidifying an archetype, the modern criminal genius, that had been coming together in a nebulous way in the previous century.

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To digress: when I first read the Sherlock Holmes stories, I found it a little anticlimactic that Holmes’s archenemy, Professor Moriarty, appeared in only one story, introduced and eliminated as part of Arthur Conan Doyle’s attempt to rid himself of his most famous creation. Aside from later writers’ use of Moriarty as a recurring nemesis in their own Holmes pastiches, many of the long-running villains of the early twentieth century like Fantômas, Fu Manchu, and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse struck me as attempts to justify and expand upon Doyle’s description of Moriarty as “the Napoleon of Crime.” However, learning that there were in the nineteenth century several criminals who engineered clever international schemes, committed infamous crimes that captured the public imagination, and who inspired grudging admiration even among those professionals who failed to catch them, and one of whom was literally described as a “Napoleon of Crime,” did serve to put Moriarty in context. Doyle’s audience didn’t need a long history of enmity to be established in the pages of Holmes’ adventures, for they already knew the type of figure Holmes described when speaking of Moriarty, and the detective’s movement from solving smaller crimes to tackling the kind of worldbeater they read about in newspapers and magazines next to the Holmes stories probably seemed like a natural progression. As in Chester Gould’s creation of Dick Tracy to battle forces of criminality that the real police couldn’t get a handle on, Doyle directed his pen toward the real crime bosses of his day, at least within the pages of his fiction.

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Such was Fantômas, but in Souvestre’s and Allain’s books, and in Feuillade’s films, the crimes he committed became surreal and grotesque, and his powers seemingly unlimited. A dead man’s fingerprints are stolen to divert blame for Fantômas’ crimes; a “silent executioner,” sent to destroy Fantômas’ enemies, turns out to be a deadly snake. As his “ghostly” name implies, Fantômas can appear or disappear almost at will, and as a master of disguise he maintains multiple identities, both respectable and criminal: posing as a landlord, he hides a corpse in a freshly-plastered wall, only to take credit for “discovering” the body in one of his other roles, an American detective. Through such strategems he is even able to convince the public and the authorities that Juve, the man hunting him, is actually Fantômas!

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Fantômas and his pursuers are closer to archetypes than fully realized characters, at least in the films (I’ll admit I haven’t read the books): there’s not much evidence that Juve or Fandor have any existence aside from their jobs, and as for Fantômas, there’s even less to him, a hollow man of a thousand faces, an embodiment of pure sociopathy. While I’ve seen the Fantômas series classified as “espionage” (a label that makes sense for its embrace of secret, international conspiracies, multiple disguises, double-crosses, and singularly heroic agents acting alone), there is little to no reference to politics in the external sense–If there is a war being waged, it is between the secret underworld of crime and an orderly society that reacts to it: in short, a “return of the repressed.” The series’ sense of morbid fantasy puts it closer to The Man Who Was Thursday than The Secret Agent.

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However, perhaps we should not be surprised that Fantômas, like Fu Manchu, or the icons of later horror films, gradually came to be treated as the hero of the series, with audiences rooting for him to get away so he can return some other time to continue entertaining us and titillating us with displays of power. As we have seen with Brazil’s Coffin Joe, conservative societies frequently find outlets for antisocial instincts in conscienceless, charismatic antiheroes. Fantômas is, as far as we know, purely in it for profit and personal power, and in a repressive society, such a figure is the ultimate individualist, and thus a potent symbol. The Surrealists who embraced Fantômas as an icon or mascot surely responded to his embrace of freedom at all costs (and generally at the expense of others) just as much as they loved the weird imagery and non sequitur plotting Souvestre and Allain cooked up in their rapid, free-associating writing partnership.

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In his commentary on the Kino Inernational DVD, film historian David Kalat comments on the series’ implicit belief in the possibility of “total disguise,” observing that when Fantômas impersonates a physician, he takes on a practice and even sees patients; when he poses as a real person, copying his appearance and mannerisms, he fools even close friends of the original. I am reminded of the later sound serials’ frequent habit of casting two different actors to play characters in disguise, so that their transformation appears to be truly complete, and their revelation is suitably surprising to the audience. Here, star René Navarre does it all himself with body language and various wigs and mustaches: in fact, most of Feuillade’s Fantômas films begin with close-ups of Navarre showing off the various disguises Fantômas will be wearing in the upcoming episode (in some, Edmund Bréon, who plays Juve, shows off his own disguises in a similar manner). Thus, even though a character is introduced as “Gurn” or “Nanteuil” or “Father Moche,” we the audience already know that it is Fantômas. Sometimes Juve or Fandor recognize their quarry right away, but other times the disguise is completely foolproof. In such cases, the suspense comes from the audience’s knowledge of what is going on, and wondering how long it will take the film’s heroes to catch on and unravel the scheme.

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In other cases, however, the audience is as mystified as Juve and Fandor, and what we get are only fragments of a plot seen from the outside, with the pleasure of seeing the pieces fall into place only at the climax, a conception of the suspense film that has come to be the norm: it feels more “traditional” to save revelations for the most dramatic moment, but it is actually the opposite, a modern approach that withholds information until the tension is at its breaking point.

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Aside from the fluidity of his identity, the other constant is Fantômas’ slipperiness: several times he is cornered, even taken into custody by the police, but each time he wriggles free by some last-minute escape hatch (one of the hallmarks of the mastermind type as seen in later serials and pulp fiction). When apprehended by Juve and Fandor outside a nightclub, Fantômas slips out of his coat, leaving the two men holding a pair of false arms; held at gunpoint in his office, he leaps backward through a false panel behind him and escapes yet again. In fact, one major difference between the Fantômas saga and most of the other serials I have covered is its open-endedness: at the end of each feature, including the last one, Fantômas manages to get away and “Once again, Fantômas, the uncanny, the master of crime, was free.” (The original novels by Souvestre and Allain ran to 32 installments, with 11 more by Allain alone; Feuillade had no more reason to close off his series permanently than the producers of the James Bond movies would.)

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While episodic, there are a few cliffhangers in the modern sense: at the end of the second feature, Juve vs. Fantômas, Fantômas blows up the house in which Juve, Fandor, and the police are searching for him, exulting at his victory. “Were Juve and Fandor killed by the explosion at Lady Beltham’s villa?” the title card asks. Answers would not be forthcoming until deep into the next feature, The Murderous Corpse, which begins with Jerôme Fandor (Georges Melchior), recovered from his injuries and investigating in the footsteps of his presumed-dead friend. (Again, the audience knows from the beginning that Juve, alive, has infiltrated the Fantômas gang in disguise, but it takes a while for Fandor to learn the truth.)Fantomas.triumphant

I would be remiss if I failed to mention one of Fantômas’ most iconic disguises: in a few episodes, when Fantômas himself deigns to get his hands dirty, he dons an all-black costume complete with a long hood like that of an inquisitor or executioner. I have frequently commented on the ubiquity of hooded villains in the later serials, and this seems to be one of the primal founts for that particular costume.

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Fantômas was an international hit: in addition to European success, the films were imported to the Americas and proved very popular (at the time, at least). William Fox handled the series in the United States and produced his own Americanized Fantomas serial (now lost) in 1920. Prior to the explosion of costumed superheroes in the 1940s, the serials and pulp magazines were full of villains (and sometimes heroes) who looked like they all shopped out of the same catalog for members of secret tribunals: it was a standard-issue costume.

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(Interestingly, Fantômas is seen only once in the film series in his other iconic costume, the eveningwear and domino mask seen on the cover of the first book and made famous as a popular poster, and that is as a daydream in which he appears to Inspector Juve, taunting him and daring him to arrest him.)

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The worldview cultivated by the Fantômas features is ultimately a paranoid one: just as the queasy ethnic stereotyping of the Fu Manchu series means that any Asian character is a target of suspicion, for they could be one of Fu Manchu’s agents, so in these films anyone you meet could turn out to be Fantômas or someone in his pocket! Lady Beltham (Renée Carl), one of the few recurring characters aside from the trio of Fantômas, Juve, and Fandor, is compromised, having been the mistress of one of Fantômas’ alter egos and subject to blackmail ever after: even the convent is no escape for her.

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The sense of persecution extends to the inexorable workings of justice, in case you were tempted to take comfort in Inspector Juve’s opposition to Fantômas. In Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, an actor who specializes in making himself up as the master criminal finds himself in prison and scheduled to be executed in Fantômas’ place! (In the film, Juve discovers the imposture just in time, but apparently in the book the miscarriage of justice is permanent; again, I haven’t read it.)

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As mentioned previously, in Fantômas vs. Fantômas (the fourth feature), the public turns against Juve, believing him to be the criminal himself (with more than a little help from Fantômas in his various identities), and he is arrested and imprisoned; incredibly, Fantômas goes so far as to bribe a guard to drug Juve and cut him so that he will have an injury matching one Fantômas had recently incurred in public, so that it will seem as if Juve had escaped to commit the crime. Yes, it is a little convoluted: no scheme is too baroque for Fantômas, and few ordinary people would have the resources and stamina of Juve and Fandor to stand up to them. In the fifth and final feature, The False Magistrate, Juve willingly takes Fantômas’ place in a Belgian prison in order to lure Fantômas back to France, where he can be subject to the death penalty, as clear an example of the policeman adopting the criminal’s way of thinking as you’ll find.

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In the Fantômas series, the ubiquity of masks, assumed identities, and deadly secrets is thrilling to watch, but becomes oppressive after a while. The setting also contributes to this feeling: beneath the modern Paris of neat row houses and elegant society are the catacombs and secret passages through cellars and abandoned warehouses, and above are the moonlit rooftops over which black-clad cat burglars and assassins nimbly make their way. The secret world of cutpurses, fences, and killers is separated from ordinary life by only the thinnest of membranes, and the naïve forget it at their peril. Although largely filmed on location in and around the city, the persistence of shadows and crumbling, empty places anticipates the stark, agonistic productions of German expressionism that would arise in the next decade. Paris á la Fantômas is a place full of wonders, but dangerous in which to linger.

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What I Watched: The Fantômas series (Gaumont, 1913-14)
Where I Watched It: A 3-DVD set from Kino International (This is a restored version undertaken in 1998; it also includes the commentary by film historian David Kalat I have alluded to above.)
No. of Chapters: As mentioned, this isn’t quite in the format of a serial as it would be understood later, but the five features that make up the Fantômas saga are themselves divided into chapters, so taken altogether there are 22 including prologues.
Best Chapter Title: I like the title of the second chapter of Fantômas vs. Fantômas, “The Bleeding Wall,” which is not a metaphor.

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Best Peril: As noted, there are only a few genuine cliffhangers (I don’t really count Fantômas’ inevitable escapes, which are more like hooks for future adventures), but chapters within each feature are (unsurprisingly) more like chapters in a book than the sequence of perilous episodes found in a serial proper, each chapter developing one of several mysteries which, when taken all together, explain Fantômas’ overall scheme. Although not a peril faced by Juve or Fandor, it’s hard to top the sequence in The False Magistrate in which Fantômas sends one of his underlings to fetch some jewelry hidden inside a church bell and then leaves him stranded in the bell tower; the next time the bell is rung, a shower of hidden jewels and blood from his mutilated body falls on the funeralgoers below. No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it demonstrates the degree to which the world of Fantômas is one of free-associating dreams and nightmares. In a series full of Grand Guignol horrors, this is one of the grandest.

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Sample Dialogue: “If you are Fantômas, we want our cut, tout de suite. If you are Juve, then it’s bad news for you.” –a member of Fantômas’ gang, still under the impression that Inspector Juve is secretly their leader, in Fantômas vs. Fantômas Chapter Four, “Settling Accounts”

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What’s Next: Next week, I’ll continue the Feuillade theme with his follow-up serial, Les Vampires (and this time I really mean it!).

Fates Worse Than Death: Drums of Fu Manchu

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A man steps into a taxi; at every step of his journey, he is being followed as he makes his way to his destination. Just as the traveler reaches safety, one of the lurking pursuers attacks, throwing a knife that the would-be victim only barely dodges! The man? Sir Denis Nayland Smith of the British Foreign Office. His attacker? A Dacoit in the service of Smith’s deadly archenemy, Dr. Fu Manchu!

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Just as the first of the popular series of novels by Sax Rohmer (real name: Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward) begins, so begins Drums of Fu Manchu, the 1940 Republic serial loosely adapted from them. As in Rohmer’s books, the only thing standing between the fiendishly brilliant “devil doctor” and “nothing less than the conquest of Asia” is Smith (played by William Royle), a hero who stands midway between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond (temporally as well as in style); and his assistant, Dr. Petrie (it was Dr. Petrie’s doorstep on which Smith was attacked in the first scene). There is usually also a younger man of action who encounters the diabolical conspiracies surrounding Fu Manchu and his secret organization, the Si Fan, as a newcomer, drawn in by some personal connection and allying himself with Smith and Petrie once the stakes are clear to him. In Drums, that young man is Allan Parker (Robert Kellard), son of James Parker, an explorer in possession of knowledge desired by Fu Manchu.

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Fu Manchu’s goal is to recover the sacred scepter of Genghis Khan, an artifact which will allow him to unite all of the peoples of Asia in rebellion against the white occupiers. According to prophecy, a leader will arise to take up the scepter during the “Holy Year”–Sir Nayland has spent months undercover in Burma observing Fu Manchu’s surrogates riling up the local tribes “from the Nihali Mountains through Branapuhr,” in expectation of the leader’s–Fu Manchu’s–arrival. From the point of view of the British authorities, the High Lama is a much better candidate to receive the scepter, as he promises peace (and continuing cooperation with the British, naturally). Both Fu Manchu and Sir Nayland Smith must work through the various clues left behind–scrolls, a plaque, a stone from an altar, and so on–to locate the missing tomb of Genghis Khan, each trying to recover the scepter first. Even once the action moves back to Asia and the scepter is found, the serial isn’t over.

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In order to accomplish his goals, Fu Manchu has (and will again) resorted to murder: the explorer Lionel Barton, whose transcriptions of certain scrolls revealed the existence of the scepter, is already out of the way. Dr. Parker will be next, and things aren’t looking too good for Professor Randolph, an expert on Mongolian languages who accompanied Barton on his expedition. Another victim is Wally Winchester, the radio columnist who is felled by a “gelatinous dart” hidden in his microphone, right before he attempts to reveal on-air the hideout in which Fu Manchu has Parker held captive! Elaborate murders, death-traps, and methods of torture are Fu Manchu’s stock in trade, and they complement the Republic serial style quite smoothly: many of the serial’s cliffhangers consist of traps or torture devices, the question of the hero’s survival left for the following week, and in other cases they are incidents along the way or the basis for action set pieces.

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Most of these killings are accompanied by the drums of the title: a sinister drumbeat that builds ominously, indicating the presence of the villain. It’s not always clear what or where the drums are: sometimes they are part of the diegetic sound of the film, and the characters call attention to them, knowing that they are threatened. At other times they are a spooky, atmospheric effect, ladled onto the soundtrack like gravy. In any case, they are never directly explained, but they are an effective dramatic device, and a symbol of the atmosphere of dread that hangs over the whole serial like opium smoke.

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At the center of this malign web is Fu Manchu himself, played by Henry Brandon. Fu Manchu is one of the great pop culture villains, perhaps the model of the criminal mastermind, and has been portrayed on screen by Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, among others (even Warner Oland, who would later give the best-known portrayal of Charlie Chan, took a turn as the devil doctor early in his career). Here’s what Sir Nayland has to say to Dr. Petrie in their first adventure together:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.

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The unironic use of the phrase “yellow peril” suggests, of course, that the character has little to do with the actual culture or politics of Asia and everything to do with the West’s anxieties and fears of same. (It should also be clear that, in addition to his vicious, criminal acts, Fu Manchu’s dream of throwing off British imperialism is enough by itself to make him villainous in Sir Nayland Smith’s eyes.) Fu Manchu embodies a host of troublesome, contradictory stereotypes: he is bound by a strong sense of honor, yet is underhanded, secretive, and treacherous; he is described in terms that seem physically inhuman and is completely exotic in his costume, yet his knowledge of white ways and mastery of disguise allow him to blend in undetected in Europe or America; he is coded as effete, even effeminate, but represents a sexual danger to white women (this doesn’t come through as strongly in the Hays Code-approved serial, but it often does in other representations of the character); in short, he can be anywhere and can be anything that inspires fear or disgust in his (presumably white) audience. (His command of all Asians also has the unpleasant side effect of making non-white characters appear suspicious, beyond even their usual portrayal as others: in this serial, just about anybody in a turban or robe could be a member of the Si Fan.)

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This is, of course, why none of the actors famous for playing the character were themselves of Asian descent, and a big reason why the character has made few official appearances in recent decades, even as he remains recognizable as an icon. Fu Manchu is now more likely to be spoofed (his last official appearance was in 1980, played by Peter Sellers) or subverted (consider the twist in Iron Man 3) than taken seriously: even among those who still traffic in “yellow peril” anxiety, the Asian villains have been updated to take advantage of current political and economic tensions. (But who knows? Even as I write this a trade war with China is in the offing, and the white nationalism currently embroiling the country has much in common with the panic over immigration that made Fu Manchu and other yellow peril characters so popular a hundred years ago; as much as I would like to consider these stereotypes as a purely academic matter, they are still very much with us.)

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Brandon’s portrayal hits these notes often and hard: he speaks in a high, querulous voice, drawing out words with exacting precision, and delivers his lines with haughty condescension. He is a “villain you love to hate.” (Although Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies is largely a riff on James Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, there’s more than a little of Fu Manchu in him as well, particularly the scenes of gathering his varied henchmen around a conference table, so like the Si Fan council meetings.*) Unlike many other serials, Drums of Fu Manchu keeps its villain front and center, confronting the heroes face to face often rather than keeping distance between them. And why not? Fu Manchu is the star, not Sir Nayland Smith (a point made brilliantly in Gahan Wilson’s short story “The Power of the Mandarin,” which I recommend but won’t spoil).

*On the other hand, Dr. Evil is also said to be modeled on Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, and I’ve never seen Michaels and Fu Manchu in the same room together, have you?

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In Fu Manchu’s service are his Dacoits, mostly interchangeable goons sent on missions of burglary, kidnapping, and assassination, sometimes under the direct leadership of Fu Manchu’s daughter, Fah Lo Suee (Gloria Franklin). The Dacoits’ primary weapon is the throwing knife, but strangling nooses and blowguns–both “exotic weapons”–come into play as well. The word dacoit refers to a Burmese bandit or robber, but in Sax Rohmer’s books they are one of several cult-like organizations, along with the Thuggee, who serve Fu Manchu with undying loyalty. In the serial, the Dacoits have had their brains operated on to make them loyal, and they are recognizable by the grotesque scars left by the surgery. Only a few have names (chief among them Loki, Fu Manchu’s muscle and leader of the other Dacoits), and they are narratively equivalent to the zombies of Haitian voodoo (in fact, in one chapter Nayland Smith is himself threatened with being turned into a Dacoit, a true fate worse than death!).

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It should be evident from this partial description that there are quite a few characters in Drums of Fu Manchu, and that’s not even getting into the one-chapter characters like Ezra Howard, the eccentric collector from whom one of the clues must be finessed. I also haven’t mentioned Mary Randolph (Luana Walters), Professor Randolph’s daughter, first seen bringing the “Dalai Plaque” by train and joining the heroes’ forces after an attempted theft and the sabotage of the train. Mary is naturally paired up with Allan Parker as a romantic lead, and she also counters Fah Lo Suee, the other important female character. Allan Parker and Sir Nayland Smith essentially take turns as leads, one frequently falling into peril (when it isn’t Mary in distress) and the other arriving to save the day. Interestingly, Dr. Petrie (Olaf Hytten), Smith’s nominal sidekick, frequently fades into the background in the serial while other characters take more active roles.

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Drums of Fu Manchu is ultimately more like the popular image of serials than many of the serials I’ve seen: because Fu Manchu makes a personal appearance in every chapter, we are treated to many scenes of him delivering deliciously arch monologues to his intended victims, bound and awaiting death by some slow, gruesome mechanism: “I have a number of Oriental devices for extracting information from stubborn witnesses, but I’m honoring you by the use of an arrangement invented by one of your own countrymen,” he tells Allan Parker in a typical example. “You’re undoubtedly familiar with the admirable writings of Edgar Allan Poe? So you will have no difficulty in recognizing this device, described in his short story, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.'” The rest of the scene, as they say, writes itself.

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Furthermore, whereas even many serials based on series characters are self-contained, Drums of Fu Manchu never lets us forget that it is but one episode in a never-ending struggle. “From the pages of fiction steps the most sinister figure of all time–FU MANCHU!” reads the opening crawl. “Schooled in the ancient mysteries of the Orient he is as modern as Tomorrow!” Even though this is Republic’s only Fu Manchu serial (a sequel was proposed, but was dropped because of the wartime alliance with China), his familiarity to audiences (in addition to the novels, Fu Manchu was a multimedia sensation, with previous film appearances, radio programs, and comics) provided a sense of continuity. The introduction of the characters in the first chapter implies earlier adventures, and–very unusually–the serial ends with a single scene of Fu Manchu, alone, still alive, and vowing to continue his war upon the West: “But there will dawn another day, a day of reckoning, when the forces of Fu Manchu will sweep on to victory! This I pledge.” To the end, he is far too dignified to shake his fist and cry, “I’ll get you next time, Nayland Smith!”, but the meaning is the same.

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What I Watched: Drums of Fu Manchu (Republic, 1940)

Where I Watched It: a 2-disc DVD set from VCI Entertainment

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No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death Dials a Number” (Chapter Six) In this chapter, Allan Parker is left tied up next to a telephone whose ringer has been attached to the fuse of an explosive; as soon as either Fu Manchu or Sir Nayland Smith attempt to call, it’s curtains for Allan!

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Best Cliffhanger: As often happens, the title of Chapter Nine, “The Crystal of Death,” foreshadows the cliffhanging peril that will end the chapter. In this chapter, Fu Manchu, having abducted Mary, brings her to the temple of the sun goddess Kardac. Sir Nayland Smith is already there, trying to gain the information from the temple priest that both he and Fu Manchu are seeking (both are in possession of a fragment of the temple’s altar, one the original and the other a replica). Fu Manchu reminds the priest that prophecy says the goddess will speak when the true fragment of the altar is replaced, and speak she does, demanding a sacrifice to atone for the desecration of the temple by outsiders (strange, though, that the goddess’s voice sounds so much like Fah Lo Suee’s!). Mary, placed in a trance by the “incense of obedience,” is laid out on the altar, and sunlight from outside is projected (via a series of mirrors) through the temple’s sacred crystal, which focuses it into a powerfully destructive ray. As the ray moves slowly toward Mary, the small idols on the altar burst into flame, showing just how intensely hot it is. Somewhere, the drums of Fu Manchu begin their relentless tattoo, the pulsing drumbeat that spells doom. . . .

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Sample Dialogue: “May I remind you that among my people, honor is a sacred thing, and those who defile it can expect no mercy!” –Fu Manchu to Mary Randolph, Chapter Three (“Ransom in the Sky”)

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Bonus Sample Dialogue: “Illustrious father, the switch is open; both trains are on the same track; and when they meet, the Sunrise Limited will be but a thing of twisted metal.” –Fah Lo Suee to Fu Manchu on the telephone, Chapter One (“Fu Manchu Strikes”)

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Death by Octopus? Of course.

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Death by Cave-In? You know it.

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Villain Disguises Himself as Hero? Without a doubt.

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Where in the World is Fu Manchu? Note the address on the packing crate: this must be on the same map as Gotham City and Yoknapatawpha County.

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What Others Have Said: “William Witney and John English, mentioned throughout this book as the most professional directors of movie serials, directed Drums of Fu Manchu. Working with photographer William Nobels, the directing team stressed the mystery elements inherent in the Fu Manchu novels, unlike most of their action-oriented photoplays. [There is still quite a bit of action, however. –GV] Most of their serial was photographed in shadows with the eeriest lighting possible falling upon Fu. Before he made his appearance the almost supernatural drums of Fu Manchu began to sound from nowhere. There was no denying the fact that the Witney-English Fu Manchu was more than human and possessed weird powers not even hinted at in the novels.” Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

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What’s Next: I’ll be back in two weeks with a look at Adventures of Captain Africa, the sequel/rehash of The Phantom. I hope you’ll join me.

Review: Ready Player One

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When I was a kid, back in the 1980s, one of my favorite computer games was Lode Runner, an action-puzzle game in which the player traversed a maze of brick platforms, ladders, and monkey bars rounding up gold bars while avoiding the evil minions of the “Bungeling Empire.” The best part of the game was that it included a level editor so the user could create their own mazes, save them, and play through them. I probably spent as much time creating new puzzles as I did playing the game. Games that include this feature can be a doorway into game design, but even as a kid it was enjoyable to create a setting from a godlike perspective and then play through it, seeing it in action from the player’s perspective. Although I would have killed for a Super Mario Bros. level editor back then, I actually haven’t gotten around to trying Nintendo’s Mario Maker, mostly because I’m afraid if I started using it I wouldn’t be able to stop.

As a child of the ’80s and longtime consumer of pop culture, I’m sure I was predisposed to like Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. The futuristic setting is the best of times and the worst of times: post-Peak Oil, the world is a mess, with economically-depressed mobs placated by logging onto the OASIS, a comprehensive virtual-reality environment containing whole worlds to visit, socialize, and game in. And because the late designer of the OASIS, James Halliday, (like me, and like Cline) grew up himself in the ’80s, the entire online environment is saturated with references to Dungeons & Dragons, Back to the Future, MTV, Atari, and numerous other icons of 1980s nerd culture. Halliday’s posthumous announcement that he had hidden an “Easter egg” behind a series of puzzles in the OASIS, and that whoever solved them would get control of the entire thing, had set off a hunt for those clues and, by extension, a mania for all things ’80s, with “gunters” (egg hunters) devoting themselves to the lore of that magical decade in hopes of cracking Halliday’s code.

It is, in short, a nerd fantasy–now everyone will like the stuff I like–and it is clear that while the book’s protagonist is Wade Watts, a nobody living in the piled-up slums of Columbus, Ohio, Cline really identifies with Halliday, the gamemaker and magic man whose obsessions end up consuming everyone else. It’s Halliday’s world, and Wade Watts just lives in it, or rather gets to play through the maze that Halliday created. Cline’s book has received its share of criticism for various reasons (not least of all its choice of overwhelmingly white and male cultural touchstones), but the biggest tell that this is nerd escapism is that no one in the OASIS appears to resent having to learn about Atari’s unfinished Swordquest series or memorize the lyrics to songs that played on cable more than fifty years earlier. They love it as much as Halliday did, and never seem to view it as homework or history. Cline seems incapable of believing that anyone wouldn’t be jazzed by all this stuff. It’s either endearing or infuriating, depending on your point of view. If you already felt alienated from 1980s nostalgia or don’t fit Cline’s particular demographic, I can imagine it would be repellant indeed, and Cline isn’t the writer to get under the surface of the material and turn skeptics into believers.

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When I read Ready Player One, I felt that it would either be made into a very good or very terrible film: it appears to be written with an eye on adaptation into a screenplay (Cline was previously best-known for his screenplay to Fanboys, a love letter to Star Wars and George Lucas), with minimal style and a straight-ahead plot, with few “literary” flourishes. The reams of description of mashed-up costumes, vehicles, and settings (Wade, as Parzival, his online avatar, drives a DeLorean with the Ghostbusters logo on the side and an onboard computer like KITT from Knight Rider, etc.), in particular, would go down much more smoothly in a visual medium like film or comics, where they could be taken in at a glance, or as background clues, rather than having to be spelled out.

And I will confess that as much as I feel criticism of the book is justified, it occupied a disproportionately large part of my imagination after I read it, just thinking about how its sample-driven, narrowly specific amalgamation of all things ’80s would look onscreen; how deep and multilayered its references could be; what songs would accompany scenes; how a filmmaker might play with the pixilated, airbrushed, and screen-printed visuals of the era and translate them into cinema; and so forth. When I learned that Steven Spielberg was set to direct the inevitable film adaptation, I was a little concerned: I was sure that Cline would be thrilled to have one of the giants of ’80s genre film adapt his work, but the strain of the story that caught my imagination was one of cultural inheritance and transformation, and to me it made more sense to have someone who grew up with Spielberg’s work and could filter it through their own sensibility make this film.

To give an idea of what I had in mind, imagine Ready Player One made by Edgar Wright (whose Scott Pilgrim vs. the World already does something like this, full of video-game and music video references) or Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who in The Lego Movie created a tapestry of references but were also able to call into question the premises of their own fantasy). As one of the fathers of modern blockbuster filmmaking and the creator of numerous iconic movies of the ’80s and beyond, Spielberg is an obvious choice; but it is notable that his style is to breathe a life of realism and naturalism into fantastical ideas. My imagined Ready Player One was one of screens and surfaces–this is how I remember the 1980s–in which the artifice was brought to the foreground.

When reviewing a film, it is of course unfair to criticize it for being what it is not, and in any case the existence of a realized film doesn’t prevent me from imagining my own version. But part of reviewing is being honest about one’s reaction, and it would only tell half of the story if I didn’t mention my reservations.

Obviously, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which opened this past weekend, is different from the movie I imagined, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. As expected, it makes many changes from the book’s plot, mostly for the better. With a screenplay by Cline with Zak Penn, much of the action is streamlined, some characters strengthened and given more to do, and the actual challenges Wade and his friends overcome are thoroughly revamped (I don’t think anyone actually wanted to see Wade reenact WarGames line-by-line, as happens in the book) and turned into satisfying cinematic set-pieces.

In fact, my favorite parts of the movie were those that were changed so much from the book that I couldn’t possibly have predicted them or had a preconception of what they should look like. There is still a sizeable infodump at the beginning, delivered by Wade (Tye Sheridan) through voice-over, but the viewer’s introduction to the OASIS at least shows why it would be popular. There’s a lot of emphasis on how you can be whatever you want to be online (a notion that becomes relevant later), but it also makes the games look like they might actually be fun to play (a hurdle not every filmmaker can overcome when it comes to creating fictional games onscreen). Spielberg is reportedly an avid gamer in real life, and his experience and affection for the medium shows in these sequences.

In its depiction of the real world outside the OASIS, Ready Player One could almost be a sequel to Spielberg’s Minority Report: its extremes of wealth and poverty, omnipresent advertising, and debt slavery form a similar background, and it is clear that the ultimate power in this near future is corporate. As in the book, the bad guys, IOI, are both a stand-in for whichever megacorporation–Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc.–is most worrisome at the moment, as well as the “evil empire” of so many genre films. IOI’s CEO, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), is a soulless money man (you can tell because he only pretends to like stuff from the ’80s when he’s trying to win over Parzival), in charge of an army of gamers trying to find the Easter egg first (and a department of genuinely enthusiastic pop culture nerds, the “mission control” types) so that IOI can monetize the OASIS, dividing users’ experiences by price tiers and filling their VR viewers with pop-up ads (Boo! Hiss!). (I got a good laugh at Sorrento’s gigantic overcompensating gamer chair, although I think I was the only one in the theater.)

It’s easy to accuse Spielberg of swimming in the shallow water with this material: it’s a break from his more serious recent films and a return to his youthful blockbuster roots, in more ways than one. A sequence recreating a classic horror movie, in particular, is the kind of fun-scary thrill ride we haven’t seen from Spielberg since maybe Jurassic Park and The Lost World (War of the Worlds and parts of A.I. were scary but not fun; Tintin was fun but not scary). Although he shies away from recreating his earlier triumphs, the Indiana Jones movies he made with his fellow “movie brat” George Lucas are just as much a mosaic of ideas from an earlier generation of pop culture as Ready Player One–if you thought I’d come all this way without at least mentioning serials, the joke’s on you–the crucial difference being that Indiana Jones and Star Wars rebranded those ideas, fusing them into new mythologies; Ready Player One is concerned with that process of repackaging in an environment in which nothing ever really goes away.

There’s also no question that Spielberg is calling into question the utility of all this spectacle: like Cline’s book, Ready Player One indulges the fetish for nostalgia and escapism while ultimately concluding that it’s important to go outside once in a while, too. There’s a similar contradiction in its celebration of fan culture and open borders between intellectual properties while mostly including characters owned by producing partner Warner Bros. and a few recognizable Japanese icons (so no Marvel, Star Wars, or anything else owned by Disney, as far as I can tell). For all its flaws, Cline’s book felt like a genuinely personal project, full of weird deep cuts (I for one had never heard of the Japanese Spider-Man TV show in which the web-slinger has a giant robot!) and a citizen of the internet’s embrace of Fair Use to justify borrowing just about anything at all, rolled together into one giant ball, Katamari Damacy-style (see, I can do it too!).

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A battle between the Iron Giant and Mechagodzilla sums up the dumb appeal of this premise, and if you’re not on board for that there’s probably not much I can say to change your mind. On the other hand, in a world in which Facebook memes may have been used to turn the tide of our last election and nations and ideologies contend with one another in virtual spaces to win hearts and minds, the final battle for control of the OASIS, the ultimate mash-up that brings those metal titans together, doesn’t strike me as entirely frivolous. Ready Player One never uses the phrase “Net Neutrality,” but it’s at the heart of Cline’s belief that online connectivity can bring people together just as easily as it separates them, and that it is up to us to choose. (And if that sounds impossibly high-minded, a guy also gets killed by a Madball, and it’s hilarious.)

Mark Rylance as James Halliday (shown in retrospective video and as his online avatar, the wizard Anorak) is the film’s real emotional center, and Ready Player One also touches on the deep sadness at the root of Halliday’s creation, a world in which he could be in control as a substitute for the unpredictability, messiness, and possibility of being hurt in the real. As Wade and his online companions Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) discover, Halliday’s own aborted attempts to connect with other people turn out to be the key to unlocking his puzzles, and Wade’s arc (drawn more clearly here than in the book) is one of getting his head out of the game and connecting to the world around him.

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In conclusion, Ready Player One is funny, exciting, sometimes scary, and mostly satisfying in the same way it’s satisfying to see those stuck-up kids from the ritzy camp on the other side of the lake get beaten by the rag-tag misfits in every slobs vs. snobs comedy that came out in the 1980s. If it’s ultimately a little shallow and we’re never in doubt that the good guys will win this one, well, that’s part of the package. Will today’s kids be as inspired by this film as Cline and I were by Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark? Despite tips of the hat to post-’80s properties like Minecraft and HALO, if the audience I saw this with is any indication (mostly middle-aged white guys like me), I doubt it. It will likely be an amusing blip in Steven Spielberg’s late career. But for myself, I’ll continue to imagine what could have been, proving that books are the real portals to the imagination. (You might think that I am above deploying such a cliché, but seeing as I have just written over two thousand words about Ready Player One, clearly I am not.)