Fates Worse Than Death: The Mysterious Mr. M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. of Chapters: 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

Logan’s Run From Screen to Panel

Beneath a starlit sky, the domes sprawl: large, larger than even Buckminster Fuller ever imagined, in those days when men first walked the moon . . . They dwarf the countryside, great gleaming half-spheres of light–and within the domes, the source of that light: the city. The city has no name, and needs none. It is simply–the city. The only city its people know–and perhaps, in a way, this explains what the city’s become. Perhaps it also explains–why the runners run. –Logan’s Run no. 1, cover dated January 1977

The 1976 film Logan’s Run is a classic of a certain era of science fiction (the last gasp of that era, some might say). Before it was an MGM movie, it was a 1967 novel by authors George Clayton Johnson and William F. Nolan, and for a few months after the movie came out it was a Marvel comic book, scripted by Gerry Conway in the first issue and David Alan Kraft in subsequent issues, with art by George Perez (pencils) and Klaus Janson (inks). Adaptations of science fiction films and novels were in Marvel’s wheelhouse in the 1970s: along with original sci-fi and fantasy titles, they were a continuous source of non-superhero action and thrills, even if that sometimes meant expanding on original works for “continuing adventures” or emphasizing thrills over the more cerebral source material. (Marvel also produced Jack Kirby’s mind-bending adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey; the rights to both 2001 and Logan’s Run were negotiated at the same time.) The following year, Star Wars would turn out to be the perfect vehicle for Marvel’s expansionist approach–in fact, the long-running Star Wars series is often given credit for keeping Marvel afloat in the late 1970s when the entire comics industry was suffering–but Logan’s Run was also part of the attempt to launch an open-ended adventure series on the back of a popular film.

Logan’s Run is set in the twenty-third century, in a domed city sealed off from the outside world; the population of the dome lives a life of easy pleasure, regulated by a central computer and kept ignorant of both their history and the state of the world outside. There seems to not even be a concept of “outside,” although this is such a work of 1970s pessimism that even a futuristic utopia has areas of urban blight, such as the “personal risk zone” Cathedral, where feral children rule the territory as a gang. The surface perfection of the city comes at a price, including a strict form of population control: every citizen has a crystal embedded in his or her palm, and its color indicates both their phase of life and how much time they have left. In every public space, a crystalline hand sculpture reminds citizens of the central importance of this device. When a citizen reaches the age of thirty (twenty-one in the novel), the “life clock” begins to pulse, instructing them to report to Carrousel, a public ritual in which they will either be “renewed” and given more life, or “flame out” and die. Not everyone can accept the gamble of Carrousel, and some of them try to escape their fate. Logan-5 (played by Michael York in the film) is a “Sandman,” a specialized police officer whose sole duty is to track down and terminate these “runners” with his “sleeper gun” (a blaster).

Logan’s confidence in his profession (for which he was raised from childhood) begins to waver when he recovers a charm in the shape of an ankh, the Egyptian looped cross, from one of his latest targets. He holds on to it out of curiosity; later, browsing the “availability circuit” (the “hot singles in your area” of the twenty-third century, with the added perk of letting compatible partners beam directly into each other’s apartments), he meets a woman named Jessica (Jenny Agutter in the film) wearing the same symbol. Is there a connection? Nothing happens between the two–Jessica logged on to the availability circuit in a moment of weakness and regrets being chosen by a Sandman–but the girl and her strange attitudes sticks in Logan’s mind. It is when Logan is summoned to a one-on-one with the central computer and given the assignment to find and destroy the supposed “Sanctuary” represented by the runners’ ankh, and four of his remaining years are drained from his life clock, forcing him to become a runner himself, that his suppressed doubts come to the surface. Does anyone ever renew, or is it all a sham? Is there actually a Sanctuary outside the city? With Jessica’s help, he escapes the city, his former Sandman partner Francis (Richard Jordan) hot on their trail.

Compared to some adaptations, the comic book version of Logan’s Run is quite faithful to the film: the main differences are in pacing and emphasis rather than changes to the plot. The film’s elaborate Carrousel sequence is reduced to a couple of pages; a scene in which Logan and Jessica escape to the city’s underground through a service door hidden in a sex club is completely elided in the comics, but in other places the city’s ethos of free love is clearly implied. The Old Man they meet in the ruins of Washington D. C. (Peter Ustinov in the film) spends a lot less time muttering and quoting T. S. Eliot in the comics than he does in the movie (in both film and comics, however, his age, and the fact that he knew and was raised by his parents, are sources of wonder to Logan and Jessica). By contrast, fight scenes and other bits of action are extended, with at least one big set piece per issue, and most issues build up to a cliffhanger. (The covers are working overtime to sell this action-packed version of the story: the first issue’s cover shows the ubiquitous crystalline hand sculpture coming to life and chasing our heroes like the claw of a gigantic monster: of course that doesn’t literally happen in the movie or the comics, but it captures the theme of the story very well.)

The comics do explain one detail from the film’s shooting script that the finished film ended up cutting: during his confrontation with the juvenile delinquents who run wild in the Cathedral district, the “Cubs,” Logan is attacked by the oldest, Billy, who shoves a cloth in Logan’s face and says only one word, “muscle.” In issue no. 2 of the comic, we learn that “muscle” is the Cubs’ drug of choice. “It’s unauthorized. Speeds up your reflexes,” Logan explains to Jessica. “It’s no good for anyone over sixteen, though–it would shake you and me to pieces.”

In The Sci-Fi Movie Guide, Chris Barsanti notes “The f/x, thought impressive at the time, were made instantly obsolete with the release of Star Wars the following year.” I think that’s a little unfair: Logan’s Run is still a very good-looking film, with impressive production values, although the wide shots of the EPCOT-like cityscape are clearly miniatures reminiscent of Japanese tokusatsu or Italian space movies like Wild, Wild Planet. And while Logan’s Run has been lumped in with the other downbeat pre-Star Wars sci-fi of the ’70s, it isn’t particularly meditative: it’s a man-on-the-run film, like Minority Report or a science fiction The Fugitive, full of chases, fight scenes, suspenseful traps, and narrow escapes. True, things slow down once Logan and Jessica get out of the city, but it is nevertheless a popcorn movie through and through.

Of course, in comic book form there is no worry about expensive special effects, and the city’s geometric details stand out nicely. The art is generally good (like many Bronze Age books, it is rather heavily inked, and the combination of Perez and Janson looks quite a bit like Carmine Infantino’s work instead of the feathery detail Perez would become known for in the 1980s). Since the comics were published in the fall (the cover date indicated when comics were to be removed from news stands, so they generally came out a few weeks beforehand) after the film’s June release, the visuals are also more faithful to the finished film than is often the case, in stark contrast to the differences between the Star Wars comic (which was published in the spring to drum up interest in the movie) and film (which was being tinkered with by director George Lucas up to the last minute before its premiere).

Promotional art from issue no. 2

The perception is that Logan’s Run is grown-up science fiction and Star Wars is kid’s stuff, but clearly Logan’s Run had appeal to kids as well (what is more appealing to the adolescent than the allure of “mature” media?). With the passage of time it’s easier to see what Star Wars has in common with the science fiction of its time, most notably a blend of naturalistic acting and countercultural skepticism amidst the futuristic sets and costumes. What really divides Logan’s Run from Star Wars is its conceit of dealing with real-world concerns–overpopulation, sexual freedom, man’s relationship to the environment–in a fanciful way, as opposed to the heroic self-actualization of Luke Skywalker. For all its dazzling surface elements, Logan’s Run is in the social-commentary lineage of Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green, an approach that became unfashionable once Star Wars renewed interest in the space opera of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. One is reminded of Michael Moorcock’s rebuke of J. R. R. Tolkien: “Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.”

The sort of allegory represented by Logan’s Run, in which a society sealed off from external contact lives by one or two arbitrary rules, has never really died off either, even though it would be a few decades before such high concepts returned to big-budget filmmaking (the Divergent series is a recent, if ill-fated, example). In fact, I think the passage of time has been kind to Logan’s Run. Some of the cultural details that probably a seemed a little too on-the-nose in the ’70s–the city’s obsession with youth being a logical extension of the saying “never trust anyone over thirty,” or the 24/7 disco lifestyle–are now simply part of the fabric of its world: eccentric, perhaps, but all of a piece.

Logan and Jessica encounter the robot Box in issue no. 4

There are some obvious similarities to Brave New World, with a population lulled by drugs and sex, but I am also reminded of George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of The Time Machine: the citizens of Logan’s Run‘s twenty-third-century city are much like the childlike Eloi of H. G. Wells’ year 800,000, down to the brightly-colored toga-like wrappings they wear. In Pal’s version, the Eloi are conditioned to associate the arrival of the predatory Morlocks with blaring sirens, the racial memory of long-ago warnings of air raids and nuclear attacks. In Logan’s Run, the great insight of the dome’s designers, and the computer that runs the city, is that with enough conditioning the Eloi will offer themselves up for slaughter at the appointed time: no Morlocks required.

On the other hand, the heavy-handed symbolism of Jessica and Logan ending up in a ruined U. S. Capitol building, “the people’s house,” not to mention the final standoff between Logan and Francis, using a ragged American flag as a weapon, is very much in the style of post-Watergate science fiction; in the fallout of the turbulent 1960s, and with Vietnam still a raw, recent memory, it seems likely that many Americans in the Bicentennial year were wondering just what the future held. While the particular expression of those anxieties marks Logan’s Run as a film of its time, the continued use of American symbolism in horror and science fiction films like The Purge series indicates that those anxieties are still with us, unresolved.

As mentioned above, there was interest in continuing a Logan’s Run comics series beyond the events of the film, a practice that was not unusual. Although Gerry Conway’s editorial in issue no. 1 states that a four-issue adaptation was planned, ultimately it took five issues to adapt the movie. In the same editorial, Conway teases answers to questions like “Are there any other domes, besides Logan’s?” and “Is there a sanctuary somewhere, after all?” These are natural jumping-off points for the kind of “further adventures” readers had come to expect (Nolan would write a pair of sequels to the original novel, but not until after the film had been made). Two more issues were published, exploring the fallout of Logan’s decisions and the apparent destruction of the domed city at the end of Logan’s Run, but MGM felt that Marvel had overstepped the terms of their license and the book was abruptly cancelled, ending on a cliffhanger. (Issue no. 6 is notable for a backup story featuring a then lesser-known character named Thanos in his first solo adventure, an inclusion that inflated the value of the book, at least for a while.) Like its self-contained setting, the series exists now as a time capsule of the future as seen from the vantage of the mid-1970s.

Ninja III: The Domination

In 2019 I observed “Ninjanuary” by writing a series of articles and reviews on ninjas in pop culture. As part of that series I wrote about Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja, two of the Cannon films produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus that kickstarted the ninja craze in America in the 1980s. I mentioned that there was a third Golan-Globus ninja movie, but I didn’t have a copy for reference so I put off reviewing it; since it stars a female ninja (sort of), I also referred to it when writing about the “lady ninja” subgenre. Now, with a copy of Scream Factory’s Blu-ray edition in hand, I am able to complete the Cannon ninja trilogy with a belated Ninjanuary look at Ninja III: The Domination.

Ninja III begins with a Japanese assassin (David Chung) attacking a golfer–we later learn the victim was an important scientist–and his entourage early in the morning. First wiping out the victim’s bodyguards and then the victim himself, the ninja is unable to make his escape before more police arrive on motorcycles, in squad cars, and even in a helicopter. He takes them all on, and like the cold opening of Enter the Ninja, this nearly fifteen-minute sequence shows off all of the ninja’s skills and tricks, from mastery of stealth, martial arts, and the deadly blade to more fantastical feats: after crushing a golf ball in his bare hand to warn off one of the bodyguards, the ninja fires a dart directly into the barrel of a gun being pointed at him, causing it to explode in his attacker’s hand! The ninja climbs trees and attacks from the air; he kills the pilot of a helicopter and jumps into a lake before the craft crashes; then he lies in wait under the surface of the water, breathing through a bamboo tube until he is discovered by one of the cops, whom he promptly kills by turning the tube into a blowgun! Eventually, the ninja is surrounded, and even then he kills a bunch more cops before enough men with guns circle around him to riddle him with bullets. Seemingly beaten, he has one more trick: he throws down a smoke grenade and disappears! Only after the police have split up to continue their search does the ninja emerge from the ground where he had quickly buried himself.

Finally free of the police but mortally wounded, the ninja wanders through the desert outside the golf course until he comes across the only living soul he sees: Christie Ryder (Lucinda Dickey), a telephone line worker. He accosts her and, seeming to hypnotize her with the sound of his voice and penetrating gaze, gives her his blood-stained sword before dying. Cut to the police station, where Christie has reported finding the body, but seems to have no memory of the encounter. It’s not until later, when she breaks up an attempted gang-rape using high-kicking martial arts moves, that she suspects something has changed. She starts experiencing blackouts, not knowing that during her missing hours she is an entirely different person, recovering the dead ninja’s equipment and hunting down the surviving police officers who killed him, taking them out one by one. One of those men is her new boyfriend, officer Billy Secord (Jordan Bennett)–will she kill him, too, or will her love overpower the spirit that has taken possession of her?

Ninja III was directed by Sam Firstenberg, who also helmed Revenge of the Ninja, which had been a sizeable hit (helped by Cannon’s distribution deal with MGM). In looking for a novel twist on the format to follow up Revenge (and keeping with the unconnected narratives of the previous installments), Firstenberg and the producers hit upon the idea of a female ninja, inspired by the recent smash hit Flashdance. (Cannon was famous for exploiting popular trends: Breakin’, about the then-current fad for hip-hop break dancing, was filmed after Ninja III, but it was made and released so quickly that it actually came out before it in 1984, “introducing” star Lucinda Dickey to the public and making Ninja III her follow-up.)

Instead of drawing on the kunoichi or “lady ninja” subgenre, mostly unknown in America, they constructed a story (scripted by James R. Silke) in which an ordinary woman, a beautiful blue-collar telephone linewoman and part-time aerobics instructor–someone you would meet on the street every day, in other words–was possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja, introducing supernatural imagery in the vein of The Exorcist and Poltergeist (including lasers and fog pouring out of open doors, a glowing sword floating in mid-air, and a full-fledged exorcism scene). Most of the crazy things that happen in this film are rooted in the cinematic need for spectacle and novelty rather than a particular take on Japanese martial arts or the mythology of the ninja, but it is worth noting that in Eric Van Lustbader’s popular novel The Ninja, which I wrote about last year, a woman is hypnotized and turned into a killer by the evil ninja, and in The Domination the same forbidden technique, the “nine-hands-cutting,” is even referenced by the exorcist who recognizes the presence of the ninja’s spirit.

While Christie and Billy try to get to the bottom of her blackouts (including the visit to the aforementioned exorcist, played by the ubiquitous James Hong), another ninja is on her trail: Yamada, played by Sho Kosugi (star of the previous installments in the trilogy), arrives from Japan, summoned by the monks from a local temple. Yamada has a history with the “black ninja,” having lost his eye to him in an encounter shown in flashback. Yamada wears as an eyepatch a tsuba, the removable guard from a Japanese sword; it’s a cool look. Interestingly, in the Blu-ray commentary, Firstenberg describes Yamada as the bad guy, but I didn’t see him that way. The black ninja is his quarry, not Christie; the question remains whether he will be able to defeat the black ninja without killing his unwilling host, but that doesn’t make him a villain.

Or maybe I’m supposed to have been rooting for the black ninja all along? Obviously, there’s a vicarious thrill in watching Christie stalk and kill the cops (every time she recognizes one of her targets, there’s a flashback to the black ninja dancing in slow motion as he is cut down by bullets, with the recognition that this or that cop was there, pulling the trigger). And she uses her new powers for good at least once, when she beats up the would-be rapists. For all I know, the scientist killed at the beginning of the movie was conducting germ warfare experiments on orphans and he deserved it. But the rest of the film is framed as a possession story, with Christie terrified by her blackouts and the weird visions she experiences in her apartment.  Yamada is a frightening, intense presence, but he’s also her best hope of getting her life back. (If anything, the film suggests that it’s the black ninja who’s lucky to be Lucinda Dickey for a while, especially a scene in which she drowns one of the cops, along with his two girlfriends, after sexing him up in a hot tub: there’s that Cannon magic!)

But never mind. It’s clear that real-world logic doesn’t apply, so it’s best not to get hung up on details. There’s no point in observing that it seems to be business-as-usual at the police station the same day that dozens of officers were killed in a single incident. Similarly, the rape attempt I’ve alluded to occurs in broad daylight (and in full view of a crowd, including a police officer) right outside the doors of the gym, apparently the assailants’ regular workout place. In fact, after Christie saves the day, Billy Secord arrests her, and this is apparently the moment that changes her mind from rejecting his advances to inviting him home for a hot scene involving V-8 juice (par for the course for this bonkers movie, both Firstenberg and Bennett claim that they came up with this bit of business)! (But again, maybe it was the black ninja who wanted to jump Billy’s bones.) Cannon films in general followed the “rule of cool” when it came to story logic, so if you’re left unsatisfied with one scene, another one is coming up that might please you more.

Actually, the ending is probably the weakest part of the film, although the climactic fight between Yamada and Christie-as-the-black-ninja is quite intense. Perhaps it’s that as the action narrows down, it becomes more predictable, without the odd details that make the rest of the movie so much fun. Or maybe it’s that the infectious synth-pop songs that form the soundtrack of the first part of the film (it could almost be a musical in the first act) give way to more generic action music. In any case, there is more than enough going on in this movie to consider it one of the most ridiculous action movies of the decade (and that’s saying something). It’s held together by committed performances from Dickey (a former Solid Gold dancer in her first acting role) and Bennett; in interviews, both leads describe the making of Ninja III as a challenging but positive experience (considering some of the horror stories related in the Cannon documentary Electric Boogaloo, they got off easy). Stunt coordinator Steve Lambert and his crew were young men with a lot to prove, delivering one action set piece after another; amazingly, there were no serious injuries according to Lambert. And of course, Sho Kosugi had previously worked with Firstenberg and the two of them had worked out how to make the best use of Kosugi’s talents on screen.

It’s all fantasy, of course, more than most movies of this kind, but the kind of fantasy that doesn’t get too bogged down in its own mythology, and it’s serious about delivering action and thrills even if the story isn’t very serious at all. As an amusing postscript, in the second-season episode of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, “Shogun,” the time-traveling superheroes end up in medieval Japan. Mick Rory, the roughneck character played by Dominic Purcell, knows one thing about Japan–ninjas–and everything he knows about ninjas he learned from the movies, including Ninja III: The Domination. It’s a funny gag, but it’s even funnier if you’ve seen the movie.

Color Out of Space: Horror Comes Home

This essay contains spoilers for Color Out of Space.

It’s been hard to be an H. P. Lovecraft fan the last few years. I don’t mean because of his often-lugubrious prose style, his penchant for unpronounceable names, or his tendency to describe his horrors as “indescribable” (how convenient!): those traits tend to be the source of affectionate ribbing between fans rather than cause for cancellation, or at least come down to matters of taste. But Lovecraft has come under greater scrutiny in recent years for his racist views; whether you believe, as I do, that he underwent some revision of those views in the last years of his life, broadening his perspective, the fact remains that in his private letters and early writings he gave vent to opinions on race that put him in extreme company, even in the 1920s. Nor is this a case where one can easily separate the art and the artist, for his fiction, even some of the greatest of his stories, clearly come from a personal place in which Lovecraft’s xenophobia and fear of miscegenation form the basis of the fantastic horrors he describes (not to mention the more explicit references to the race and ethnicity of his human characters when they do appear).

These criticisms have been a long time coming, and they hardly blew up overnight: indeed, recognition that the “old man” wrote a few impolitic things has been present at least since his stories began to be collected and reprinted for an audience beyond the pulp magazines in which they first appeared. The world of fantasy and science fiction was, like many fandoms, an insular one, and the most influential voices within it tended to be white and, like me, insulated by privilege from feeling truly hurt by Lovecraft’s words. Robert Bloch, in his 1982 essay “Heritage of Horror” (the introduction to The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, the paperback collection that was an introduction to Lovecraft for many readers, including me), devotes two whole paragraphs to the charge of racism against Lovecraft, ultimately dismissing it as just one more spurious charge laid against the master by uncomprehending outsiders.

Both fiction and scholarship have, to their credit, attempted to grapple with this legacy rather than ignore it in recent years. On the new fiction front, the subversion or reimagining of Lovecraft’s themes, often written by people of color and tackling Lovecraft’s personal biases directly, has breathed life into a subgenre of horror that frequently consisted of stale imitations. Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, for example, is set in the 1950s and centers on a black science fiction fan, captivated by the imagination in pulp stories but acutely aware of the subhuman depictions of black people in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and others. What, he asks, do you do when you love a genre that doesn’t love you back? The hero’s nephew, for one, creates a comic book space opera with a black heroine, based on his mother, and that’s one strategy (witness the success Jordan Peele has had creating horror centered on specifically black experiences: expanding representation means new and better stories for everyone).

There’s also the 2015 decision to change the World Fantasy Award trophy from a bust of Lovecraft to something more abstract. For the record, even as a fan I think that’s the right call: as much as it was meant as an affectionate tribute when it started in 1975, in this day and age it’s a little odd to have a trophy representing “World Fantasy” look like any single person, as if it were all their idea, and I can’t blame the minority and POC writers who felt that they were being asked to place their work under the symbolic authority of a man who when alive would likely not have recognized or welcomed them. Finally, it’s a decision that makes it easier to keep the man himself in perspective, as one of many authors and with human flaws, rather than an Easter Island totem, unanswerable and above criticism.

I can’t say that I was directly thinking about these issues while I watched Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley’s new adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space.” What most struck me was that the film, in which a strange meteorite contaminates and destroys a small New England farm and the family that lives there, feels up to the minute, urgent even, in ways that are present in the original story and feel completely true to it, even as Stanley prunes and updates the text. But as I let the film sink in over the next few days, it occurred to me that it is next to impossible to talk about Lovecraft now without being aware of the discussion around him, and that for many people Lovecraft’s racism has become the sum total of what they know and think about him, particularly if they haven’t encountered him firsthand (and how many will now avoid him, if they think that every story is but a thinly-veiled racist screed?).

Yet here we are with a largely faithful feature film, and one that not only feels relevant but which features a multiracial cast and does so without a major rearrangement of the text. Lovecraft may be a “problematic fave,” but he continues to hang on in public consciousness because of something at the core of his writing, some essential observation of modern life. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Yes, Lovecraft was a pessimist, but there are times when pessimism and realism are one and the same, and reading a bracingly dark vision can be strangely life-affirming. Lovecraft–pedantic, verbose, racist–hangs on because of the clarity of that vision.

In “The Colour Out of Space” (which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1927, one of only a handful of Lovecraft’s stories to appear in a science fiction magazine rather than his usual Weird Tales), an unnamed surveyor visits the ancient wooded valleys around Arkham, Massachusetts (one of Lovecraft’s fictional towns) in advance for a new reservoir that will flood the land. Finding a desolate area called the “blasted heath” by the country folk, the surveyor tracks down a local farmer named Ammi Pierce, who tells him about the “strange days” forty years prior, when the “blasted heath” was the farm of Nahum Gardner and his family. Pierce relates the story of the meteorite that landed on the farm and the glass-like globule or “bubble” at its center: “the colour . . . was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all.” Over the course of the following year, in Pierce’s telling, the vegetation and animals around the farm go through strange metamorphoses, displaying a vague sense of “wrongness” familiar to readers of Lovecraft, but eventually turning the same unidentifiable “colour” and even visibly glowing at night. The people of the farm, Gardner’s family, become watchful and unhealthy, convinced that something is wrong but unable to leave. The farm’s well, in particular, seems to be at the center of their misgivings. Their transformations become more and more horrible, until the night Ammi Pierce and a delegation of lawmen from Arkham witness the transformation that leaves behind the “blasted heath.” The resolution is as uneasy as the ending of a 1950s monster movie: the danger is passed, but only for now, and it leaves behind the uncomfortable awareness of how dangerous the world really is.

“The Colour Out of Space” has been regarded as a cautionary tale about nuclear radiation and fallout: it was written well before the atomic bomb became a reality, but radiation was already a known phenomenon on a smaller scale, and world-destroying bombs and plagues were familiar in the pages of the pulp magazines long before they hit the front pages of newspapers. The intimations that the meteorite and the unearthly “colour” come from somewhere alien, where the forces of nature are different, place this story within the “cosmic horror” subgenre Lovecraft is known for, but it is essentially a story of contamination: the horror is one of environmental pollution, of body and mind being betrayed and corrupted by the elements around one.

In transferring this story to the screen (and for the record, this is not the first movie adaptation–I’ve even written about another loose adaptation, Die, Monster, Die!), Stanley (with co-writer Scarlett Amaris) wisely eliminates the frame story. The surveyor (now a hydrologist, played by Elliot Knight) is the protagonist, directly visiting the Gardner farm and getting involved in the action, and rather than being set years in the past everything has been updated to the present. Instead of being a yeoman farmer, Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) is a businessman who’s made his pile in the city and moved his family back to his father’s farm, living off the land and living the dream. I recognized this person immediately, right down to the alpacas he has added to the farm (“the animal of the future,” a phrase that will come to seem downright ominous). Theresa Gardner (Joely Richardson), a breast cancer survivor, continues to work as a stockbroker, the laptop and headset mic she uses to connect with her clients incongruous with the tiny garret that serves as her office. The family, with its three children–Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and the youngest, Jack (Julian Hilliard)–may have its issues, but it’s basically functional: they can work things out.

Until, that is, the night of the meteorite. It’s not really possible to depict a never-before-seen color, but Stanley does make it look spectacular, ladling on the neon pink and purple, lens flares and other prismatic effects, and accompanying the visual flashes with eerie sounds (comparisons to the palette of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy are apt). Even the arrival of the meteorite is a big event, causing computers to glitch and affecting each member of the family differently; the staging implies that the stone’s arrival is as much a psychic event as a physical one, and did it really fall from space, or from an opening to another dimension? Once everyone comes outside to look at it, it looks like a pink, pulsating brain. Later on, as the alien color seeps into everything around it and pink-hued flowers sprout around the farm, it’s as if the landscape is being turned into the surface of another planet (and indeed there are suggestions that that’s exactly what is happening). As the meteorite begins to show its malign influence, the transformations the animal life and eventually the family experience recall John Carpenter’s The Thing, or the ooky body horror of Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna.

Unlike some adaptations, Color Out of Space is explicitly set in Lovecraft’s imaginary “witch-haunted” New England: in addition to nearby Arkham, there are references to Innsmouth and Kingsport; the hydrologist, Ward Phillips (one of Lovecraft’s pen names), wears a Miskatonic University tee shirt. Although Lovecraft’s original story predates Cthulhu and his other famous creations, the Necronomicon makes an appearance in the film, but it’s the “Simon” Necronomicon, a mass-produced paperback published in 1977, and it doesn’t provide any answers. The film begins and ends with some of Lovecraft’s own words as voice over delivered by the hydrologist.

By coincidence, less than a week before seeing Color Out of Space I had watched The Last Mimzy for my review of Henry Kuttner’s short fiction: in both films, Joely Richardson plays the mom of a family experiencing an incursion from otherworldly forces. The Last Mimzy is an optimistic film, injecting Kuttner’s story with about 1000% more woo in the form of Deepak Chopra-style speculation about connections between quantum mechanics and meditative states, Tibetan mandalas, and dream visions along with Kuttner’s fourth-dimensional speculations, and it grafts a “children are our future” sense of purpose onto the story. It’s a far cry from the nihilistic horror of Color, and I was tempted to say that the coincidence of Richardson’s casting says something about our national mood then and now. I couldn’t honestly make the comparison, though: The Last Mimzy was released in 2007, post-9/11, in the midst of the Iraq War, and with the culture wars already in full swing. Rainn Wilson’s character in Mimzy, a science teacher, makes the point early on that pollutants, including cultural pollutants (?), can actually change a population’s DNA, corrupting them from the inside. It has a hopeful point of view, to be sure, but the anxiety that the rot is already present is clear.

The same thing is going on in Color Out of Space; the rot is just further along. The color affects each member of the family differently, but the suggestion is that the color is bringing out and corrupting something already inherent in their character. As the mom, Richardson is alternately spacey and shrewish, finally undergoing a sort of inverted pregnancy, drawing her youngest son back into her body. Witchy eldest daughter Lavinia becomes a cosmic priestess of the color, cutting occult sigils into her own flesh. Ezra (Tommy Chong), the squatter who lives off the grid in a shack on the Gardners’ property, becomes a literal burnout; he comes to understand the color and even provides the hydrologist with a vision of the color’s alien home, but that knowledge doesn’t help him escape it.

Nathan Gardner becomes a parody of middle-aged dadhood, berating his family and making tough decisions one moment and settling into his easy chair in the next, watching the static on his TV and surrounding himself with the ghosts of his departed family. (Since this is a Nicolas Cage vehicle, he gets a few good freak-outs, but the build-up is more gradual than in some: unlike in Mom and Dad, he doesn’t seem unhinged from the beginning.) In one scene, Nathan rants about how he followed the rules but everything still went to shit: in context, he’s talking about his crop of tomatoes, tinged with the unpleasant taste of the color, but it’s not hard to hear in it the frustration we’ve all felt, that the game is rigged and that we’re at the mercy of a system we can’t control.

Ultimately, this is environmental horror: the cosmic stuff just gets us in the door, but at its core the fear is real enough. The fact that the mother is a cancer survivor is significant, I think, symbolic of the cancerous growth of the color throughout the Gardners’ farm, but also a reminder that the healthy exterior at the beginning of the film was only an illusion. News clips on television show dead fish and reports about climate change; the hydrologist’s presence on the farm is due to the planned reservoir, a source of manmade devastation. Whatever is in the well at the farm will soon be part of the municipal water supply for a much greater area. Color Out of Space is a vision of an ordinary family destroyed by forces that mankind as a whole has set in motion, and which are as unstoppable as storms, earthquakes, and meteors. “It’s in the water,” the characters tell each other, but there is nothing they can do but drink.

“Merry Christmas, Bigfoot!”: A Suite of Offbeat Christmas Movies

In recent years, I’ve gorged on Halloween movies during October, and I watch a fair number of movies by myself during the rest of the year as well. But being a musician and having a family means that it’s harder to find time in December to watch things that the rest of the family doesn’t want to watch. There are quite a few Christmas- and holiday-themed movies that are darker, edgier, or just weirder than the usual run that I don’t always have time to get to (and which I don’t feel like watching out of season: Krampus in July just doesn’t have the same effect). This year, however, I found the time for a mini-marathon of unusual Christmas movies.

“What?” I hear some of you saying, “Christmas is over! It’s January! Isn’t it a little late for Christmas articles?” Actually, today is the twelfth and final day of Christmas–those weeks leading up to the 25th were Advent. So if you’re all Christmased out, maybe you should have thought of that before you started jamming Christmas carols on November 1st! (Or you could just bookmark this and read it next December when you’re looking for something seasonal to watch.)

In any case, these aren’t necessarily the BEST weird Christmas movies or the WORST or even the WEIRDEST weird Christmas movies; they’re simply the ones I watched this holiday season. Consider this a frontline dispatch from the War on Christmas.

Pottersville (Seth Henrikson, 2017)

When shopkeeper Maynard Greiger (Michael Shannon) discovers that his wife (Christina Hendricks) is secretly part of a furry club, he drunkenly dons a gorilla costume to reclaim her interest and inadvertently sets off a Bigfoot craze in his small town. The resulting comedy is a slightly cracked take on the Hallmark formula (will Maynard get back with his wife, or will he notice the nice coworker played by Judy Greer who has stood by him the whole time?) with a contemporary edge. (Furries are perfect for this kind of movie because they signal “this is kinky” without showing anything explicit; this is a Netflix movie, but it’s PG-13 according to imdb.) As the hysteria, including the arrival of an Aussie-accented TV monster hunter (Thomas Lennon), reaches fever pitch, Maynard and the other townspeople ponder just what they’ll do for a taste of fame and excitement. Pottersville riffs on It’s A Wonderful Life in both the title and a “richest man in town” climax, but above all it’s an excellent showcase for Shannon’s “what the hell is going on?” face.

Jack Frost (Michael Cooney, 1997)

There were two movies about snowmen coming to life called Jack Frost made in back-to-back years. One of them starred Michael Keaton as a dead father who comes back to life as a snowman to help raise his son. I watched the other one, about a serial killer named Jack Frost who, through an accident involving a secret government experiment, is turned into a living snowman and uses terrifying elemental powers to seek revenge on the small-town sheriff who sent him to Death Row. (There is . . . a lot going on in this movie.) Jack Frost definitely falls into the “comedy horror” category, in which such contrivances as the killer’s name or the fact that it takes place in the town of Snomonton, “Snowman Capital of the World,” are barely commented on (convoluted as it is, the explanation for Jack’s transformation is actually pretty cool, and could be the basis of a more serious sci-fi movie). It’s all great fun, and actually suspenseful in places, but it’s also a classic example of a poster that doesn’t look anything at all like what’s in the movie (most of the time Jack in snowman form looks like Frosty, and toward the end when he assumes a more dangerous form, his mouth ringed with icicle fangs, he doesn’t look like this).

Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)

I haven’t yet seen the recent remake (or the one from 2006); this is the original. As winter break begins, a killer stalks a sorority house, terrorizing the sisters with obscene phone calls. This is a tight film, jumping into the suspense right away while balancing it with human interest scenes and subplots. I imagine it was even more shocking when it came out, before its killer’s-eye-view shots and creative murder methods became the stock vocabulary of the slasher genre (although I think its “the call is coming from inside the house!” twist was already the stuff of urban legends when this was made). With its visual flair (Clark does wonders with match cuts), attractive cast (including familiar faces Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Andrea Martin), and thematic concerns (including a possibly mad musician played by Keir Dullea), it strongly reminded me of the thrillers Dario Argento was making around the same time (perhaps both were influenced by Mario Bava; I haven’t done a lot of research on this one).

Santa Claus (René Cardona, 1959)

This Mexican-made children’s film is really three movies in one: a sentimental morality play, in which a poor little girl overcomes the temptation to steal and trusts in Santa (and by extension her parents and Jesus Christ); a documentary-like survey of Santa’s base of operations and working methods, complete with solemn voice-over (at least in the English dub I watched) and explanations for every bit of Santa’s magic; and a wacky comedy about a devil named Pitch, sent by Lucifer to tempt children and throw a wrench in Santa’s plans. The last part is what most people remember, and is also the most entertaining, full of magic and slapstick. I won’t say this is a great movie, but it is an interesting one, as Santa’s North Pole headquarters, full of children from all over the world (interns, I guess), is truly lavish, and the additions to Santa’s lore (including a variety of surveillance devices, charms to help him on his Christmas Eve journey, and a personal friendship with Merlin the magician) would fit perfectly in a Rankin-Bass animated special.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Nicholas Webster, 1964)

Remember that scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure where Pee-Wee rides his bicycle through the Warner Bros. lot and interrupts a bunch of different film shoots, and one of them is a Christmas movie with fake snow and people in gingerbread man costumes? That’s basically what this movie looks like; it’s charming in its quaintness, but perhaps if this had been an animated film it might have a better reputation. The plot is simplicity itself (if you’re looking for a space-age angle on Christmas in 1964, that is): the no-nonsense Martians grow alarmed when Martian children start watching television programs from Earth and become distracted and dissatisfied with their utilitarian lives: Earth children get presents from Santa Claus! The Martian high command draws the obvious conclusion, sending a ship to Earth to kidnap Santa and bring him back to Mars (along with a pair of Earth children who had gotten lost at the North Pole). Most of the Martians (presented as green-skinned, with Captain Video-like TV-antenna helmets) are basically good but misguided, but Santa and his friends must overcome a bullish Martian officer who thinks getting rid of Santa once and for all will end the distractions that threaten to make Mars soft. Ultimately Santa conquers the Martians with kindness, not rayguns.

Rare Exports (Jalmari Helander, 2010)

Now here is a Santa not to be toyed with. In this Finnish film, an archeological expedition on the Russian border uncovers the tomb of the original Santa Claus, encased in ice. But this is the old Santa, the pagan demigod who punishes naughty children–and they’re all at least a little bit naughty, aren’t they? Only a young boy, Pietari (Onni Tommila), realizes what has been reawakened and convinces his reindeer-hunting father and his colleagues to fight back. Along with Black Christmas, Rare Exports was one of the best Christmas films I watched during this mini-marathon; it’s tightly paced (I was frequently reminded of Edgar Wright) and just grounded enough to help the more fantastic ideas come off, and the clever mythological twists are well thought-out (not surprising, as the feature film was preceded by a couple of short films establishing the premise in the decade before).

Anna and the Apocalypse (John McPhail, 2017)

In the world’s only Christmas-themed zombie musical (I assume? I mean, it’s gotta be, right?), Anna Shepherd (Ella Hunt) has enough to deal with, including difficulties relating to her widowed father, a dictatorial school headmaster, and a love triangle that includes her best friend, and on top of that, it’s Christmas! As in many such movies, the zombie epidemic first appears around the edges of the story–a radio report here, an ominous sign of death there–before it spills out into the open. Then it’s a life-or-death struggle for Anna and a group of her friends to get to the school where the other students and their parents are trapped. There are some witty moments–as is also typical for modern zombie movies, the characters have seen the same movies we have, and their reactions range from disbelief to being psyched–but it’s the musical angle that really stands out. In format this is a classic musical, with characters breaking out into song without it being all in their head or limited to background music, and many of the songs (by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly) are in classic holiday style, like the Phil Spector (and Mariah Carey)-like “Christmas Means Nothing Without You” and the seductive “It’s That Time of Year.” Your response to this will probably depend on your feelings about pop musicals in general, but it has a likable young cast and it puts them through the wringer: musical or not, it doesn’t pull its punches as a zombie movie.

Krampus (Michael Dougherty, 2015)

The best Christmas movies are often about doubt and the difficulty of keeping the flickering flame of belief alive during the coldest time of the year. Perhaps that’s why there has been a surplus of movies about the Krampus–the goat-like “shadow of St. Nicholas” who doles out punishment to misbehaving kids in Germany–in recent years. Or maybe it’s just that success invites imitators. Like Rare Exports, Michael Dougherty’s Krampus revives some of the old, pre-Christian spirit of the winter solstice, trapping its protagonist’s bickering family in a nightmarish Fimbulwinter, cut off from the rest of the world by a monster blizzard, while they are picked off one by one by twisted versions of Christmas toys and decorations. It sounds grim, but the darkness is leavened by a caustic sense of humor, roasting crass consumerism, keeping up with the Joneses, and awkward family get-togethers, and it wraps up with a sly “hell is other people” ending. I’m actually glad I watched this after the busiest part of Christmas was over–its acknowledgment of how stressful the holidays can be makes it the most realistic of the movies on this list.

My 2019 in Film: Top Ten

I expect to see this on the cover of a textbook about postmodernism some day.

I was going to beat my breast and confess that I didn’t see as many movies this year as I did last year as an excuse for why my list seemed so paltry, but I actually didn’t come up as short as I thought: last year I saw around fifty new releases, and this year I saw around forty, enough to make a list of favorites without feeling that I had missed too much of the good stuff to be credible. There are some films I didn’t get to that I would have liked to consider for inclusion, such as High Life, Jojo Rabbit, and Uncut Gems, but ultimately there were fewer that I regretted missing than last year. It was a busy year, and in the end I suppose I resigned myself to not seeing everything I might want to. (Even with new films on Netflix and other streaming services, I eventually just ran out of time in December to check them out.)

As I mentioned in my New Discoveries column, I began a Letterboxd account this year, mostly to keep a diary of first-time viewings, and while I didn’t write much in the way of reviews or ratings, it did make it easier for me to look back and see which of this year’s releases I had watched. (As always, for purposes of this list I am using U.S. release dates, so a few international productions show up on Letterboxd as being older; I’m including them anyway.)

So what kind of a year was it? I saw enough good-to-great films that it wasn’t hard at all to fill out a Top Ten (subjective and subject to change as such rankings may be), and I look forward to catching up with many that I missed. Some themes stick out: class-consciousness was a prominent concern in 2019, with many of my top picks reflecting rising awareness of (and frustration with) the growing divide between haves and have-nots. Surely related to this is my sense that climate change is out in the open even in the lightest of entertainment: in one way or another, movies as diverse as Crawl, Parasite, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Frozen II either have extreme weather as a plot element or seem to be driven by underlying climate anxiety.

One reason I wasn’t as hot on the killer-alligator movie Crawl as some others is that it completely disregarded the ways in which climate disasters disproportionately affect poor or marginalized communities: as in Parasite, living on high ground is one of the perks of wealth, and one’s geographical position can mean the difference between a cleansing shower and a catastrophic flood. One could argue that it isn’t the job of a thriller for casual audiences to tell such truths (and to be fair, it is a well-made and exciting film), but the way Crawl borrowed the experiences of Katrina survivors and centered them on a thoroughly middle-class white family felt, at the very least, as if it weren’t telling the whole story, and in this year especially, in which filmmakers have repeatedly married social commentary to dynamic and exciting genre moviemaking, it struck me as cowardly.

Ultimately, however, I don’t think my list is that reflective of the state of the film industry or the discourse surrounding it, which is dominated more than ever by big franchises, especially those now owned by Disney. As a consumer and a citizen, I don’t think any one company should have such a large market share; the bullying tactics theaters have reported, with Disney demanding ever-greater screen presence and cuts of ticket sales, at the expense of smaller films, is one obvious example, and the announced rolling back of the Paramount decrees, which have for decades prevented companies from owning both the studios that produce films and the theaters that show them, is ominous. (And for everyone excited about Disney’s purchase of Fox because it would allow the Avengers to finally share the screen with the X-Men, it’s worth recalling that they would never have been separated in the first place if it weren’t for the same kind of corporate skullduggery the fans are now cheering.) However, aside from concerns about their size, influence, or business practices, Disney has made some terrific entertainment, and they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in if they weren’t skilled at drawing in and pleasing audiences. I’m part of that audience, and thus part of the problem. That is a roundabout way of saying that I’m not excluding Disney products, or parts of the Marvel or Star Wars franchises, from my Top Ten list for political reasons.

I’m excluding them for artistic reasons.

Ha ha, just kidding. Actually, I enjoyed most of the superhero films on offer very much this year (the latest Star Wars is another matter, but I don’t know if I even want to get into it). Avengers: Endgame, which capped off the (at the time) twenty-two-film Marvel Cinematic Universe that began in 2008 with Iron Man, was both an impressive feat of production (in the organizational sense, not just the nuts and bolts of making the individual film) and a rousing and satisfying climax for the series. As I said after seeing it, fan service it may be, but consider this fan serviced. If, however, I didn’t see fit to include Endgame in my Top Ten list, it’s only partly because there were at least ten other films I thought more highly of. In the already-tiresome “are Marvel movies cinema or not?” argument, I’d say they most assuredly are: spectacle and morality play are genres that have been part of the cinema since the very beginning, and the Marvel movies fit within those traditions quite easily.

There is something to be said, however, for the idea that the long-running, multi-stranded narratives the MCU features are closer to what we have traditionally gotten from episodic television, and that much of the impact of Endgame‘s various comings and goings is due to the literal decade-plus we’ve spent with many of them. (Despite pejorative comments calling them empty, nothing but special effects, or theme park rides, most fans I know are more enthused by the characters and actors who portray them than by the action sequences, with each movie an opportunity to hang out with them; again, that’s more like Friends than, say, Independence Day.) There’s nothing wrong with that, but to me that’s the number one reason I sometimes have to remind myself to consider them in the same category as other films I’m ranking.

In any case, without further preamble, here are the movies that, at least today, I consider the ten best new releases I saw in 2019:

10. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Mike Mitchell)

The Lego Movie was my favorite movie of 2014 and still one of my favorites of the decade; the cliffhanger on which it ended seemed like a joke as much as an actual dangling plot thread, but the notion that Finn, the boy whose imagination drove the action in the original film, had a little sister whom he might have to share with turned out to be enough to build a thoughtful plot upon about ideas of masculinity and the differences between boys’ and girls’ style of play. The fact that in the interim, Chris Pratt, the voice of Emmett, the main Lego character, had graduated from playing schlubs and transformed into a buff alpha-male leading man provided the perfect opportunity to spoof that image as Emmett comes face to face with Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), the man he thinks Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) wants him to be.

9. Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez)

A live-action adaptation of a manga I’ve never read? Apparently that is now one of my things. I don’t know how faithful Alita is to the original comics, but this tale of a cyborg warrior woman (Rosa Salazar with CGI-enlarged eyes) who doesn’t remember her past is the kind of lavishly-produced high-concept sci-fi that deserves to be seen on the big screen. The film could have ended stronger instead of teasing a sequel, but there are enough dazzling set-pieces, from a futuristic roller derby arena to a showdown in a club for bounty hunters, to scratch the effects-driven blockbuster itch, all of it anchored by soulful performances from Salazar and Christoph Waltz as her surrogate father.

8. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

I’ve missed out on Tarantino’s last few films–not because I’d stopped being a fan, exactly, but partially because I don’t live near a theater that could show them in 70mm, so the urgency that often helps me get to the movies on time was lost–so I’m probably not in a position to comment on the writer-director’s growth (or lack thereof) over his career. But in a way, the questions and thematic concerns his films always seem to engender–what’s he trying to say? Is this look at Hollywood on the cusp of generational change a salute to professionals, like Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth? Or a lament for the perceived classiness of the old studio system, now that the hippies are in charge? Is its treatment of Bruce Lee racist? Or is it just about all those bare feet?–are beside the point, as moment-to-moment Once Upon A Time is thoroughly entertaining, a mesmerizing recreation of a particular place and time, a hang-out movie full of charismatic stars (Margot Robbie doesn’t have a lot to do as Sharon Tate, exactly, but the screen lights up when she appears, which I think is the point), and a mash-up of genres that continually surprises. As washed-up TV actor Rick Dalton, Leonardo DiCaprio unites all of these disparate threads (and gives Tarantino plenty of opportunities to recreate different styles of film and TV production) as he gropes toward a new phase in his career. As for the controversial ending, well, Tarantino gonna Tarantino.

7. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)

A clever inversion of classic teen movie formulas, Booksmart presents a pair of overachieving best friends (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) on the verge of graduating from high school, only to find that their years of staying on the straight and narrow haven’t given them the social or academic advantages they had hoped for. (At least one friend of mine found this angle hard to relate to, as the scene in which it’s revealed that the seeming underachievers are getting recruited to big tech companies or heading to Stanford struck him as hopelessly unrealistic even for the most privileged, but I think this is one of those elements that is meant to strike a chord with older, Gen-X audiences, who have had time to discover how little your high school achievements really predict future success, rather than the supposed teen demographic the movie appears to be pitched to; in any case, it’s not exactly a strictly realistic movie.) With one night to go, the pair seek to make up for lost time, veering from one party to another and discovering sides to their friends they hadn’t suspected and belatedly acknowledging truths about themselves and their own friendship. As in Good Boys, another of this year’s movies that takes a similar tack with a trio of sixth-grade boys, at the root of the comedy is the painful realization that growing up sometimes means growing apart and finding your own path.

6. Us (Jordan Peele)

Get Out was my favorite film of 2017; Peele’s follow-up, while less explicitly about race and more overtly surreal, still reads as a metaphor for America and its divisions (perhaps a little too neatly, with its repurposing of the “Hands Across America” iconography by a literal underclass and even its title: U S, get it?). But beyond the deliberate weirdness of the red jumpsuits and golden scissors, the rabbits and rabbit holes, Us is a compelling mixture of family comedy, home-invasion thriller, and sci-fi mystery, and probably the most actually-scary movie I saw this year. Lupita Nyong’o owns the screen in this one.

5. Knives Out (Rian Johnson)

A good old-fashioned murder mystery full of familiar stars is an easy sell (or so one would think), but perhaps Knives Out‘s success is in not being quite as old-fashioned as it appears. Sure, there’s the dapper detective (Daniel Craig with an amusing Southern drawl) and a range of suspects (including Chris Evans playing the bad boy again after his run as oh-so-decent Captain America), but the story doesn’t go quite where you might expect, and centering the story on outsider Marta (Ana de Armas), the victim’s faithful nurse, is a smart move, deepening the political subtext and putting Knives Out closer to something like Gosford Park than the Agatha Christie revival it superficially resembles.

4. Ready or Not (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett)

In a similar vein, but without even the pretense of good taste to hold back its class warfare theme, Ready or Not stars Samara Weaving as new bride Grace, married into an obscenely wealthy family. Since the Le Domas clan made their fortune on board games, every new member must play a game, randomly chosen, as a sort of initiation to be considered truly “one of the family.” When Grace draws “Hide and Seek,” she doesn’t realize at first that this is one game in which the family means business, and the result is a comic-horror cat-and-mouse take on The Most Dangerous Game. It’s a hoot, and it has a catchy theme song.

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3. In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

When I saw In Fabric in October, I wrote that “Peter Strickland has become a director whose films don’t always land 100% for me, but whose technique is so incredible and his fixations so resonant with me that they are must-see anyway.” Since writing those words, I’ve probably given more thought to In Fabric and looked forward to watching it again more than anything else on this list (it’s available to stream now, but I haven’t gotten around to rewatching it yet). Like a few entries on this list, this tale of a literal “killer dress” could be classified as comic horror, but it’s a comedy that explores the line between “funny ha ha” and “funny strange.”

2. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

This was another one I saw in October and even considered the best film I saw that month, and I still feel strongly about it. From the moment Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson appear together in an academy-ratio frame so cramped that it cuts off their sides, the theme of two men trapped together by work and the environment is reinforced by the direction and framing of the shots. By turns eerie, hilarious, and shocking, The Lighthouse is unlike anything else I saw this year.

1. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

Like several of the films on my list this year, Parasite begins as one thing–in this case, a comic caper about a desperate family of hustlers who worm their way into staff positions in the household of a wealthy tech executive–that turns into something else, crossing boundaries of genre and upsetting expectations in thrilling ways. It’s a film that is best approached without too much foreknowledge, but one that has rarely left my thoughts since I saw it in November.

Honorable mention: The internet and streaming has made it easier than ever to see short films and for filmmakers to make projects of whatever length they choose, and Netflix in particular this year released several medium-length shows that in the past probably would have been TV specials. My favorite of these was The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience (dir. Akiva Shaffer and Mike Diva), a half-hour “visual rap album” from The Lonely Island relating the rise and fall of sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire in 1980s Oakland. The emphasis is on “unauthorized,” as the special ironically celebrates steroid abuse and tacky overconsumption and stars Shaffer as Canseco and Andy Samberg as McGwire, any resemblance to their real-life subjects or even an athletic physique be damned. Like the group’s previous Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the excess is the point, and only barely less exaggerated than the supposedly more serious rap and pop projects they parody.

Not that bad: Serenity (dir. Steven Knight) must have been hard to advertise: the most interesting thing about it is its twist, but movie marketers and trailer editors are notoriously bad at finding the right line to divide “teasing” from “spoiling.” Actually, I’m not sure I even saw a trailer for this, but when I started hearing conflicting opinions about it and its “jaw-dropping” “rug-pull,” I felt obligated to check it out. Yes, you’ll probably catch on to what is happening to fishing-boat captain Matthew McConaughey as his reality seems to come unglued, even before old flame Anne Hathaway appears on his island to dredge up old memories. You could say it’s all a bit silly, especially if you’ve already seen better movies that play with the same concepts. But I dunno, it didn’t bore me, the scenery is pretty, and McConaughey and Hathaway are working their asses off to land this turkey. I’ve definitely seen worse movies this year.

Most Disappointing: Speaking of which, I’m not going to name The Dead Don’t Die (dir. Jim Jarmusch) the “worst” movie I saw in 2019–some of the other movies I would rank lower were just forgettable, and also I haven’t seen Cats yet–but it was certainly the most frustrating. Jarmusch has played with fantasy elements before, but a zombie movie, a genre that has seen many, many self-aware reinventions in the past couple of decades, needs to have more than just zombies moaning “coffee,” “wi-fi,” and “cable TV” instead of “brains” if it wants to be taken seriously in 2019. Of course, The Dead Don’t Die isn’t totally serious, including scenes of deadpan humor and metanarrative awareness–Adam Driver, as a small-town police officer partnered with Bill Murray, makes numerous references to the script and even recognizes the Sturgill Simpson-penned theme song when it comes on the radio–but its relative plotlessness keeps it from ever quite adding up to anything. Ultimately I agree with Outlaw Vern‘s contention that it’s the movie that most felt like life in 2019, frustrations, fears, and all, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it any more than I liked the year. For better or worse, The Dead Don’t Die absolutely counts as a climate change movie like the ones I discussed above: the film’s most original conceit is that “polar fracking” has knocked the earth off of its axis, leading to the zombie epidemic and other ecological disasters, but nobody can do much about it and the powers that be are determined to ignore it. Cowardly it is not, carrying things to their bleakest, most logical conclusion.

On that note, may 2020 be happier and more prosperous for us all, and thanks as always for reading this. My resolution for the new year is to get more writing done, including (insert prayer hands emoji) posting more regularly on this blog. Here’s to better days!

My 2019 in Film: New Discoveries

For a few years now I’ve been keeping track of my film viewing, and as I do most years I have chosen to spotlight a few movies from previous years that I watched for the first time. This year I finally began a Letterboxd account, which I am using almost entirely as a diary of first-time watches; that makes it a little easier to review my list and decide what is worthy of comment, but it also means you can visit my diary and see the complete list of what I watched this year (more or less: there are a couple of movies I saw that weren’t listed on the service, including one I’ve written about below). Plus it’s fun to see all the posters as little tiles you can group and organize, but that’s neither here nor there. As always, not all of the films I discovered this year were masterpieces, but all of the ones I’ve chosen to highlight are at least interesting enough to spark a conversation.

The Magician (Rex Ingram, 1926)

In this silent film (based on a novel by Somerset Maugham), a deranged alchemist (Paul Wegener) uses hypnotism to steal a beautiful artist (Alice Terry) from her fiancée in order to sacrifice her in an experiment to create life. The simple premise goes to some strange places, and the end result is a kind of Ur-gothic romance complete with a big climactic fight in the “Sorceror’s Tower.” By coincidence, I had just read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, which uses the novel’s “Oliver Haddo” as a stand-in for Aleister Crowley.

Elstree Calling (Adrian Brunel et al, 1930)

This is a series of sketches and musical performances similar to Paul Whiteman’s movie King of Jazz (which I also watched this year) or any number of Hollywood revues. Since it was made in England (at Elstree Studios), however, the cast and crew are predominately British and many of the numbers are influenced by the English music hall tradition. (An exception is a performance by the Three Eddies, a rambunctious black American song-and-dance act, part of a successful revue touring England at the time.) I sought this out for footage of the English xylophone virtuoso Teddy Brown, one of the featured performers, but it is interesting in other ways: some of the sketches were directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and a running gag has it that the whole thing is being broadcast on that futuristic device, television. It’s very much of its time, but of great interest to my corny, Vaudeville-loving soul.

The Penguin Pool Murder (George Archainbaud, 1932)

Hildegarde Withers is a character who was played by both Edna May Oliver and Zasu Pitts (among others); in this first outing, the schoolteacher-turned-detective is played by Oliver as a stern busybody who won’t take no for an answer, inserting herself into a murder case (first as a witness, then defending herself as a suspect) alongside exasperated police inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason). Still, more is made of Withers’ soft side than in later installments, and to my surprise it ends with Withers and Piper impulsively getting married! (Later installments walked that development back.) There’s not much to these comic mysteries: they’re more about the characters than the puzzles, but it’s always fun to see character actors getting to play the lead.

Queen of Outer Space (Edward Bernds, 1958)

Has the “space Amazon” subgenre, with its alien planets stocked with beauty pageant winners and brainy women scientists who need to be taught how to love by red-blooded American astronauts, ever been completely serious? If there ever was a version of this premise that played it completely straight, it was long before the thoroughly ironic Queen of Outer Space, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor as the rightful ruler of her interplanetary sorority. I fell in love with this movie when, in the first five minutes, the scientist who developed a space station has to be reminded not to light up a cigarette onboard a spaceship while they’re refueling. That sets the tone, which is far more “Zapp Brannigan” than Star Trek ever was. There’s a bunch of ’50s gender conformity as our rugged heroes wind up on a planet of beautiful women, but at least 50% is tongue-in-cheek. It’s a movie that knows how silly it is.

In the same vein, Invasion of the Star Creatures (Bruno VeSota, 1962) spoofs the spoof, reviving the two-man comedy of Abbott and Costello (in the form of Robert Ball and Frank Ray Perilli as a pair of bumbling privates) and sending up Army life, beatniks, and fan clubs in addition to showcasing its statuesque female invaders.

Two on a Guillotine (William Conrad, 1965)

Cesar Romero plays a famous stage magician who promised to come back from the dead; when his estranged daughter (Connie Stevens) inherits his mansion and fortune, unscrupulous reporter Dean Jones insinuates himself into her life to get the story. Then strange things begin happening: is the house really haunted, or is someone trying to get rid of the young heiress? This is a tight little jewel box of a thriller, and one that deserves to be more widely seen.

Phase IV (Saul Bass, 1974)

There have been many cautionary films about animals or other forces of nature turning against humanity, including many made in the ecologically-conscious 1970s, but few are as chilly as this tale of a pair of researchers matching wits with an unusually intelligent ant colony. It’s implied that the ants have been touched by an alien intelligence, but it’s just as likely that they’ve made a spontaneous leap in evolution. The shadow of 2001 looms over Phase IV, especially in the Kubrickian sterility of the researchers’ self-contained base and the eerie monoliths that the ants have started building. The close-up footage of ants for which the film is famous might as well take place on a distant planet, and the effect of alienation is complete in a stunning finale (trimmed down in the film’s theatrical cut, but the full sequence can be seen online) that suggests the ants are no longer part of our ecosystem: we’re part of theirs.

Habfürdő (Kovásznai György, 1979)

In this Hungarian animated film, a man gets cold feet on his wedding day and confides in a nurse who happens to be friends with the bride. The farce elements suggested by the frothy title (which translates to “Bubble Bath”) are at odds with a realistic investigation of marriage and childbearing, and the whole thing seems rather ambivalent about marriage. The mixture of tones suggests a state directive at odds with the filmmakers’ inclinations, or at least people with different perspectives working on it. But the style is the real draw, and still pictures don’t do justice to the constantly fluid, expressionistic animation, in which classic squash-and-stretch is taken to cubist extremes and no technique is off the table. On top of that, it’s also a musical with a groovy soundtrack.

Death Nurse and Death Nurse 2 (Nick Millard, 1987 and 1988)

Nurse Edith Mortley runs a clinic with her brother, the doctor, but patients keep dying. It seems like the doctor has lost his mind (the sequel reveals that he’s actually a veterinarian), but Edith just likes killing, and a flashback (which looks like it was edited in from a different project) reveals that she has a history of murder. Both films were shot-on-video cheapies meant to satisfy video stores’ voracious appetite for genre content, but “cheap” doesn’t even begin to state how bare-bones these films are. They’re also only 60 minutes long each and the first one has a hilariously abrupt ending, so it just seems greedy that Slasher//Video packaged Death Nurse 2 separately instead of issuing them together. Call it “so bad it’s good” if you must, but there’s something captivating about how dopey these movies are: Priscilla Alden, who plays the title character, would have fit perfectly in a John Waters film.

Brainscan (John Flynn, 1994)

A horror-obsessed teenager gets his hands on a new video game that promises to be the most immersive experience yet; but when the murders he commits in the game turn out to be real, is there any way out but to eliminate the witnesses? I loved everything about this: the WarGames-style paranoia about hackers and home computers updated for the CD-ROM era; Edward Furlong as the creepy-yet-sympathetic Michael (although considering that he is supposed to be burdened by a dead mother and absent father, he makes being a latchkey kid look pretty sweet); Frank Langella as one of his patented enigmatic, slightly sinister authority figures; even Trickster (T. Ryder Smith), a transparent Freddy Krueger knock-off who dresses like Adam Ant, worked for me in this because everything is just so, so ’90s. It winks just enough, and there is humor, but I loved how it leans into its dreamy, slo-mo screensaver aesthetic, the opposite of what we usually think of as ’90s filmmaking, aided by George S. Clinton’s moody score: Wes Craven by way of Twin Peaks.

Remote Control Grandpa (Matt St. Charles, 2006)

I thought my days of “this is so ridiculous I have to buy it” were behind me*, but when I found a DVD called Remote Control Grandpa for 99 cents, I couldn’t resist. And it was actually pretty good! A video game wiz and his stoner buddy discover that the kid’s overbearing drill-sergeant grandfather has a chip implanted in his brain that makes him follow orders. At the same time, the kid is trying to win a video game competition sponsored by the U.S. Army. In addition to having some amusing gags, this has a very pointed view of the military and government (its comparison of the then-current Iraq War to Vietnam is not exactly subtle), and it’s got a few things to say about those violent video games, too.

* my ownership of two Death Nurse films notwithstanding

Thanks for reading! My best of 2019 post will appear closer to the end of the year.