The Bangers n’ Mash Show Announces 2016 Phantom Awards

. . . and I got to come along for the ride! The Bangers n’ Mash Show, a podcast run by Zack Clopton and John Collis, gives out its Phantom Awards for achievements in science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, including the usual categories like Best Picture but also including a genre-specific Best Monster/Creature/Madman/etc. For their most recent awards, I (and some of my colleagues from the Dissolve diaspora) had the opportunity to record introductions for a few of the nominees. You can find the show on YouTube (where it’s like a podcast, but with a broad range of pictures you can look at while you listen–maybe they should call it a “broadcast,” eh?) or watch the embedded video:

If you read my overview of 2016 films, my comments may sound familiar, but I enjoyed hearing what my fellow Dissolvers had to say, and perhaps, like me, you’ll come away with some recommendations for films that weren’t on your radar. Thanks to Zack and John for the chance to participate, and thanks to all you readers for listening!

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Fates Worse Than Death: The Adventures of Sir Galahad

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After a friendly joust between Camelot and Cornwall, an unknown knight rides forward and challenges the victors, Sir Bors and Sir Modred of Camelot. After defeating them, the stranger requests to be made one of King Arthur’s knights, and reveals that his name is Galahad. Impressed by the young knight’s skills and candor, Arthur agrees to put Galahad to the traditional test: he must stand guard over the sword Excalibur through the night. Through treachery and drugged wine, however, Galahad passes out, but not before seeing a suit of armor move! The mysterious armored knight takes the sword and escapes the castle through a secret passage. The next morning, Galahad is discovered asleep. No one believes his wild story, and Merlin himself accuses Galahad of perpetrating the theft. Even worse, the invading Saxons, led by King Ulric, are attacking! While Arthur defers punishment and Galahad is allowed to ride with the knights, he vows to find the sword and return it to Arthur to clear his name and earn his place at the Round Table.

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Thus begins the twisting plot of The Adventures of Sir Galahad, the 1949 serial from veteran director Spencer Bennet. Along with Sir Bors (also under suspicion because it was he who served the wine that incapacitated Galahad), Galahad infiltrates the Saxon camp, fights against outlaws, and must even overcome Merlin’s magic, all while trying to win over the suspicious knights of Camelot. Ultimately, the villain is the “Black Knight,” the traitor within Camelot who seeks to manipulate the Saxons and outlaws into defeating Arthur in order to claim the throne for himself. He who wields the invincible Excalibur can stand against any foe, so of course the Black Knight keeps it for himself, even while pretending to aid Ulric.

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The legends and romances that make up the Arthurian cycle are so rich and varied that film adaptations inevitably borrow what can be used and discard the rest. Often the forbidden romance between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere is featured, and the quest for the Holy Grail is another popular subject for film, tackled by both Monty Python and John Boorman. In some versions of the story, Galahad is Lancelot’s son, determined to prove himself before he reveals his identity to his father. The Adventures of Sir Galahad doesn’t deal with any of those plots, but it does an impressive job of creating an original story, combining the source material with the formal demands of a serial.

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In fact, The Adventures of Sir Galahad is unusual in its choice of setting: there are very few serials that deal with medieval or mythological settings (but see Jerry Blake’s comments below). Film studios were regularly releasing features about Arthur, Robin Hood, and other legendary figures, so sets and costumes would have been available for serials (Columbia’s The Green Archer features a castle and a Robin Hood-like character, but is set in modern times), but Galahad remained an outlier. It’s largely a successful hybrid, however: the struggle of the knight and his partner to solve the mystery and prove his innocence lends itself to the episodic rhythm of a serial; there are plenty of opportunities for fight scenes, both skirmishes and full-on battles, and the abundant swordplay makes a nice change from fistfights and shoot-outs; the disguised villain is very typical, comparable to such bad guys as the Scorpion or the Dragon (it ends up being exactly who you think it is, but still); and the frequent magical interference of Merlin (as well as Morgan le Fay, who has a few spells of her own) provide opportunities for unusual and inventive special effects and camera tricks.

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To cite just one example of the serial and fantasy worlds colliding, the cliffhanger of Chapter Eight (“Perilous Adventure”) features Galahad and an outlaw fighting in a wagon pulled by a runaway horse. The scene is identical in blocking and editing to similar fights atop trains or trucks in other serials, down to the use of rear projection, but the medieval setting puts it into a novel context.

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From a story perspective, writers George Plympton, Lewis Clay, and David Mathews also make some smart decisions: by setting Galahad against Merlin and the knights of Camelot at the beginning, the story upends expectations about good guys and bad guys: like Galahad, the audience is unsure who to trust. Merlin appears to be the villain at first; Morgan le Fay offers her own magical help, but what’s her agenda? Arthur (Nelson Leigh, seventh billed) is a distant figure, far from the center of the story. Galahad is left to his own resources, with only the dogged Sir Bors (Charles King) to provide both comic relief and the occasional voice of reason. If these versions of the characters ultimately conform to our expectations of them, it’s not without enough twists and turns to make them feel lived-in, the resolution to the story earned.

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The Adventures of Sir Galahad boasts a large cast for a serial, but the difference between serial and feature shows in the battle scenes, where one might expect hordes of extras: a dozen men on horseback is large enough to make a convincing posse or Indian war party in a Western, but when such a group is meant to represent the entire Saxon army, it’s a little puny. Galahad‘s fight scenes are more impressive when staged in close quarters (such as several fights that take place in an inn, or in mountainous terrain), hiding the small number of men involved and making the fight look more crowded. In many ways, The Adventures of Sir Galahad bears a close resemblance to the low-budget fantasy features that would become popular in the 1950s, such as Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword or the many films about Hercules or Sinbad.

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As Galahad, George Reeves (who would go on to play Superman on TV) makes a convincing hero, eager and brave, but at 35 he is more boyish (at one point a discouraged Bors calls him a puppy, “barking at nothing and chasing his own tail”) than boy (apparently a common pitfall in serial casting). Charles King plays Bors as an over-the-hill Falstaff, accustomed to big meals and the wenches who serve them, but he also becomes Galahad’s most loyal companion and, like all the knights of Camelot, will do what must be done to combat evil.

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The MVP of the cast is William Fawcett, who plays Merlin. Fawcett was the crotchety scientist Professor Hamill in Batman and Robin; he’s just as crotchety here, but with the robes and long white beard of a wizard. He’s clearly having a ball chewing the scenery, throwing flash grenades to mask his magical comings and goings, and waving his hands to cast spells. It’s no wonder Fawcett had such a long career: he’s the quintessential character actor, breathing life into a stock character and stealing every scene he’s in.

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If I could add one thing to this serial, it would be to have Galahad fight a dragon; the only monsters the knight faces are ultimately human ones. Other than that omission, there’s as much Dark Ages atmosphere as you could hope for in The Adventures of Sir Galahad, with secret passages and dungeons, sword fights, magic spells, and mighty feasts. There is even a giant crossbow! The Adventures of Sir Galahad is highly recommended to both serial and fantasy fans.

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What I Watched: The Adventures of Sir Galahad (Columbia, 1949)

Where I Watched It: I bought a batch of privately-burned DVDs of serials from a dealer on eBay, along with several others I’ll be writing about this summer. The transfer is pretty raw, but the price was right. The Adventures of Sir Galahad doesn’t appear to be available to view online.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Not since The Perils of Pauline has a serial emphasized the perils of its cliffhangers this much: in addition to “Passage of Peril” (Chapter Six) and “Perilous Adventure” (Chapter Eight), there’s my favorite, “Castle Perilous” (Chapter Twelve).

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Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter One (“The Stolen Sword”), Morgan le Fay has directed Galahad to find answers in the Enchanted Forest; this is Merlin’s domain, from which no man has returned. As Galahad and Bors enter, they are accosted by strange voices and sounds. Merlin appears and bewitches Galahad so that he can’t move; then Galahad is grabbed by a suddenly mobile tree, while flames dance around him. It’s a pretty intense and strange cliffhanger that lets us know we’re going into the deep end of fantasy here. Alas, my hope that all of the cliffhangers would be magical or fantastic wasn’t lived up to. Some are, and there are a few medieval-specific cliffhangers, like one in which Galahad is strapped down beneath a swinging spiked ball, à la The Pit and the Pendulum; but most are the typical falls or brushes with death common to all serials. But man, that first chapter: it’s a doozy.

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Sample Dialogue:
Bors: Have you never heard it said that rashness is the father of disaster?
Galahad: True, but too much caution is the blood-brother of cowardice.
–Chapter Five, “Galahad to the Recue”

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What Others Have Said:Adventures of Sir Galahad represents its producer Sam Katzman’s second and last attempt to combine the serial and medieval-swashbuckler genres; it’s a huge improvement over Katzman’s previous effort in the same line, the shoddy and tedious Son of the Guardsman–even though Galahad and Guardsman have many sets, costumes, and actors in common.” —The Files of Jerry Blake
(I haven’t seen Son of the Guardsman yet, so I can’t make a comparison.)

What’s Next: X marks the spot! Join me next time for the generically-titled Pirate Treasure.

Over the Garden Wall at The Solute

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Last week, Cartoon Network ran its first animated miniseries, Over the Garden Wall, described as a “five night mystery adventure.” Created by Patrick McHale, previously of CN series Flapjack and Adventure Time, Over the Garden Wall leans on the traditions of fairy tales, classic animated cartoons, and much more, and featured enough star power (including such names as Elijah Wood and Wichita’s own Samuel Ramey) that it fully lived up to its “event” status. Over the Garden Wall also draws on the archaic, mysterious body of song and folklore collected in the Anthology of American Folk Music, described by Greil Marcus as “The Old, Weird America.” I’ve written before about my love for the Anthology, so it will not surprise my regular readers to find that Over the Garden Wall‘s synthesis of influences was catnip to me.

I wrote more about it in my review at The Solute; although television rather than a film, I felt that under two hours total (leaving out commercials, of course), Over the Garden Wall could be considered a ten-part feature, and works well in that format.

The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Two

Read Part One here.

As you can probably tell from the previous examples, my own preferences lean toward science fiction and fantasy.  Of my favorite authors, New England horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has had by the far the greatest influence on me, and his connections to other writers (by letters and acquaintance, or by the coincidences of publication) have been a constant thread in searching for stories.

Referring to Lovecraft as a “horror” writer can be a bit misleading: although he considered the cultivation of a frightening atmosphere his primary goal, he mostly eschewed “the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.”  Rather, he was a practitioner of “weird fiction,” a catch-all label for nascent science fiction, fantasy, and horror before those genres had clearly defined markets.  Most of Lovecraft’s work cultivated a sense of ancient, alien forces intruding into the present day, and although he borrowed a great many elements from the gothic horror of the previous century—books full of suppressed secrets, crumbling old houses, ominous supernatural signs—he married them to a scientific outlook, in which the most frightening truths were not to be found in the evil actions of men but in the indifference of a hostile, uncaring universe.  As he wrote in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule.”

I didn’t know much about Lovecraft’s outlook when I started looking for his stories.  All I knew was that his reputed blend of science fiction concepts, ooky tentacled monsters and dreamlike air of mystery appealed strongly to me as a budding reader of fantastic fiction.  As hard as it may be to believe now, Lovecraft’s work wasn’t easy for me to track down when I was young, even though his name (and that of his creation, “Cthulhu”) was known to me.  He was almost mythical, and I think he would have enjoyed the aura surrounding his work, had he still been alive; I knew that his “Cthulhu Mythos” had been included in the first printing of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons book Deities & Demigods, but was removed from later printings due to a copyright dispute—or is that what they wanted me to think?* Every detail fueled my interest, until I was finally able to read his work for myself; fortunately, he more than lived up to the hype, at least in my experience.  My being at the “golden age” of twelve or thirteen surely didn’t hurt.

My first tastes of his elaborate mythology came from anthologies, a single story by him (or one of his imitators**) included here or there.  For a long time, even after I had read all of Lovecraft’s fiction (down to the dire posthumous “collaborations” by his executor August Derleth), I would search tables of contents for his name, not in hopes of finding something new but as a sign that the editor recognized the good stuff and that the rest of the book might be in the same vein.  Similarly, anything connected to the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, in which Lovecraft published most of his work, was a must-have.

That’s how I acquired Weird Tales: 32 Unearthed Terrors, edited by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg.  This collection includes one story from each year the magazine was published (in its original incarnation; it has since been revived), from 1923 to 1954.  There are some terrific opportunities for juxtaposition: you can leap from the brooding, necrophilia-themed “The Loved Dead” of C. M. Eddy (1924’s entry) to the sophisticated modern ghost story “Legal Rites” by Isaac Asimov and a pseudonymous Frederik Pohl (1950, the pair’s only publication in Weird Tales), or from space opera (Nictzin Dyalhis’ “When the Green Star Waned,” 1925) to sword and sorcery (Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom,” 1929) to occult detective (Seabury Quinn’s long-running character Jules de Grandin in “Satan’s Stepson,” 1931).  There’s also plenty of the “mundanely gruesome,” to be sure: the pulps were known for their often lurid content, and Weird Tales, Lovecraft’s opinions aside, was no exception.

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In any case, Lovecraft is included, represented by his novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, originally published posthumously over two issues in 1941.  Covering, as it does, such a wide range of time and variety of authors (including, in addition to those mentioned above, future luminaries such as Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch) gives it the character of history, sampler and tribute all in one, a sort of “This is Your Life” for a long-gone but fondly remembered magazine.

I’ve returned to many of the authors in this anthology over the years and read more of their work when I could find it.  Some of the stories I enjoyed, however, have effectively been dead ends until recently: for example, Arthur J. Burks’ 1936 story “The Room of Shadows,” a creepy story about a hotel room haunted by its previous occupant, a “Eurasian” vampire whose conquests are turned into vicious miniature “sleeve-dogs.”  It’s the kind of thing that sounds ridiculous when summarized, but that’s true of many fantasy and horror stories, and Burks excels at capturing the main character’s confusion and mounting fear, along with some PG sensuality in the form of a mysterious femme fatale.  The editors cite “The Room of Shadows” as “an example of how a talented author uses staple pulp characters and situations to rise above cliché,” and it left me wanting more.  Burks published a collection of stories, Black Medicine, in 1966, long out-of-print, expensive, and unavailable.  Now, however, a number of his stories are available in e-book editions.  I prefer hard copy, but when it comes to hard-to-find stuff like this, I’ll take it in any form I can find it.

A different animal altogether is H. P. Lovecraft’s Book of Horror; it’s edited by Stephen Jones and Dave Carson, but as the cover states, it’s really Lovecraft’s book, compiling Supernatural Horror in Literature along with a number of the stories Lovecraft cited as examples and influences on his own work.  Both the essay and the stories are in the public domain and are available in multiple formats, but it’s convenient to have them in one place, and the editors provide a smattering of commentary.  Still, it doesn’t hold the place in my heart that 32 Unearthed Terrors does.

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In both books, the diversity of styles and concepts is striking: there is room for all of the genres listed above and more; the very concept of the “weird tale” was nebulous enough to allow a variety of approaches, as long as there was something out of the ordinary.  Weird Tales was billed as “The Unique Magazine,” and as Robert Bloch writes in his introduction to 32 Unearthed Terrors, “There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Weird Tales writer, nor is there a ‘typical’ Weird Tales story.”  Yet, the stories are often conservative on the individual level, in the sense that there are generally not more than one or two supernatural elements at play, especially in those set in the modern world.  Even those set in the far future, the mythic past, or a “lost world” often feature a single driving narrative to which all the world-building and window-dressing are subordinate.  The stories are short, and economy of means is key: pulp writers were paid by the word, not the idea.

The great thing about this tendency is that, whether reading an issue of the magazine or a latter-day anthology, while the reader may be dazzled with the sheer variety of ideas on display, each story is allowed to be itself, undiluted, and allows the reader to observe many of the building blocks of modern fantasy when they were still emerging.  Just as Lovecraft and his fellow Weird Tales authors influenced modern writers, so did they draw from previous authors, synthesizing their influences into personal styles, a process that still continues today.

In Part Three, I’ll look at anthologies in a different medium: comics!

* My experience with role-playing games and my search for the “Cthulhu Mythos” printing of Deities & Demigods are subjects for another post.

** I believe the first true Mythos stories I was able to find were by “Conan the Barbarian” creator Robert E. Howard.  Lovecraftians will know that the “Cthulhu Mythos” took hold in large part because Lovecraft encouraged his writer friends to make use of his creations in their stories, and he borrowed freely from theirs, creating a “shared world” (at best a collection of themes and premises rather than a tightly-knit continuity) before such things became au courant.