Fates Worse Than Death: Mandrake, the Magician

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Aboard the S.S. Mohawk, Mandrake, the famous stage magician, is preparing to perform when he receives a telegram from his friend Betty, daughter of the accomplished scientist Professor Houston. Houston’s latest invention, a “radium energy machine” with which he hopes to benefit mankind (and the development of which Mandrake has also had a hand in), has attracted unwanted attention from criminals who hope to use its great power for destructive purposes. Even aboard the cruise ship, Mandrake is spied upon and an attempt is made on his life by henchmen of the mastermind who calls himself “the Wasp.” Upon returning to land and meeting with the Professor and his daughter, Mandrake offers to help protect Houston and his invention, but before the first chapter is over the Wasp manages to kidnap the Professor and steal the radium energy machine, turning it against Mandrake. To make matters worse, Mandrake begins to suspect that the Wasp is actually one of his close compatriots: could the Wasp actually be James Webster, an engineer; Dr. Andre Bennett, a physician; or Frank Raymond, booking agent and magic store proprietor? The truth is revealed by the end of the 1939 Columbia serial Mandrake, the Magician!

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After the Wasp succeeds in stealing Houston’s machine in the first chapter, he isn’t shy about using it (Houston eventually escapes the Wasp, but without recovering his invention): the power of the machine allows the Wasp to strike at buildings and people at a distance, so there are scenes of power lines, a radio tower, and even a dam being destroyed (in miniature, of course). However, the machine the Wasp stole wasn’t the final model, and Houston tells Mandrake that it will wear out through repeated use. A rare element, “platonite,” must be bonded with steel to fashion new, indestructible parts for an upgraded machine. This gives us several directions for the story to unfold: not only is Mandrake trying to track down the Wasp and the stolen machine, the Wasp is still trying to get his hands on the platonite and the formula for combining it with steel, and while he has Houston in his clutches he puts him to work improving the machine.

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Much of the serial is given over to cat-and-mouse games: the Wasp has a listening device planted in the Houston home, so the bad guys can anticipate Mandrake’s moves until he figures it out and uses the bug to set a trap of his own, and there are various other deceptions and subterfuges. When the action briefly turns to Mandrake’s country estate and the Wasp’s men attempt to corner him there, they get more than they bargained for as the magician’s collection of trick items (a gun that shocks anyone who tries to pull its trigger, a vanishing cabinet through which Mandrake escapes, etc.) confound them at every turn. There are a few switcheroos that take advantage of Mandrake’s skills as an escape artist as well, in which the bound and hooded victim of a trap–supposedly Mandrake, caught at last!–turns out to be the hapless henchman who failed yet again to apprehend his man.

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Although Mandrake still has fans today, it would surprise young readers to learn how big he once was: created and written by Lee Falk (who also created the Phantom), the comic strip hero first appeared in 1934 and ran in newspapers well into the current century. Mandrake is even considered one of the first costumed superheroes, although in many ways he is a transitional figure between pulp and literary heroes such as Zorro and the “long underwear” lineage that begins with Superman. Falk, who began the strip when he was only nineteen, single-handedly wrote all of Mandrake’s daily adventures until his death in 1999. Very few comics creators could match either the length of Falk’s active career or the creative control he wielded during that time! Not surprisingly, serial adaptations followed the success of both strips; bearing in mind that the Mandrake strip was only five years old rather than a character with a decades-long legacy when Hollywood knocked, Falk was still (understandably) unhappy with the changes made in the process of bringing the famous magician to the screen.

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In the comic strip, Mandrake wields genuine magic: although partially based on Houdini, and wearing the classic stage magician’s costume of top hat and tails, Mandrake creates illusions by “gesturing hypnotically,” transforms people and things, and turns weapons against their owners, among other astounding feats. Like later imitators Zatara (father of the now better-known Zatanna) and Doctor Strange, the original Mandrake the Magician adapted the stuff of fantasy and fairy tales to the needs of serial adventure, using his amazing powers (and the muscle of his loyal manservant Lothar) to aid those who needed it, including his beloved Princess Narda. Naturally, such a larger-than-life hero had to face off against equally potent enemies, so Mandrake’s cases frequently involved battling evil wizards, mad scientists, and power-hungry dictators; visiting hidden kingdoms; and unriddling seemingly insoluble mysteries. (Although the daily strip ended in 2013 with the retirement of Falk’s successor Fred Fredericks, Mandrake has continued to appear alongside fellow King Features characters the Phantom and Flash Gordon in licensed cartoons and comic books; as always, a feature film is said to be in the works.)

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By now, of course, I am used to the serial versions of licensed characters being a bit . . . different from the originals. Changing the background, abilities, supporting cast, and even the name of the hero is the rule rather than the exception for serials, so it was no surprise that in the Mandrake, the Magician serial (the comma is part of the serial’s title if not the comic strip’s) the title character is a Houdini-like stage magician and escape artist rather than a wizard with the ability to reshape reality or even hypnotize people. One could imagine Mandrake lending itself to fantastic visual effects or mysterious atmosphere as a feature made by Universal or Val Lewton’s RKO production unit, but it was not to be. It was obviously truer to formula (not to mention more economical) for Columbia to have Mandrake demonstrate his bona fides by performing onstage in a few chapters and then throwing a smoke bomb to get out of a jam or two; the rest of the time he solves problems with his wits and his fists like any other serial protagonist.

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Mandrake is played by Warren Hull, who would go on to play the title role in The Green Hornet Strikes Again, and while he makes for a capable serial lead, he doesn’t look much like the comic strip magician. It has been pointed out that Lee Falk could have been a matinee idol himself, and in fact the comic strip Mandrake looks quite a bit like Falk, lean and debonair and possessed of a sleek mustache. Hull, by contrast, is clean-shaven: in the serials facial hair is often code for villainy, or at least a suspicious character. (Consider Mandrake’s engineer friend Webster, played by Kenneth MacDonald, who has not only a pencil-thin mustache but a permanent wave that makes him look like Norman Osborn as drawn by Steve Ditko: Webster comes in for suspicion from his very first scene, and takes the unusual step of protesting his innocence whenever someone looks too closely at his alibis. But having such a prickly character be the Wasp would be too obvious . . . wouldn’t it?)

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In the early comic strips, Mandrake’s hulking manservant Lothar is depicted as a black African wearing animal skins and given to pidgin phrases like “Me coming, Master,” when he speaks at all. The exotic, uncivilized, and deathlessly loyal servant/bodyguard is a problematic character type (but one hardly limited to Falk’s creations) born of colonialism and racial hierarchies considered so obvious as to be unspoken. Yet Lothar is brave and true, especially compared to contemporaneous depictions of Africans and African-Americans (and was eventually revealed to be a king himself in his own native land); is Lothar, as Rick Norwood claims, “the first heroic black man in comics”? Possibly. As with Tonto and the Lone Ranger, one can argue that the important point is the friendship and mutual loyalty of two men across barriers of race and color, and some pulp and comics stories live up to that ideal, but it is hard to deny that in the stories of the ’30s Mandrake and Lothar are clearly master and servant, and Lothar was not given a more realistic (non-caricatured) appearance until the 1960s.

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Like the comic strips and any other popular entertainment of their day, the serials were not free of racial and ethnic stereotypes that now appear offensive, including depictions of “savage” black characters. (I have discussed this issue before, on one side trying to avoid the easy self-congratulation that comes from pointing out politically incorrect depictions from the past as a sign of how much more enlightened we are today–a self-satisfaction that is rarely justified, especially now– but at the same time making sure that as modern audience members we don’t fall into the seductive fantasy of believing that things were simpler then, or that race wasn’t an issue, or whatever illusion we care to project onto stories which themselves were far simpler than reality ever was: in short, let us engage in a little self-reflection to make sure that we aren’t enjoying these old films and comics for the wrong reasons.)

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However, the Mandrake serial goes in a different direction, casting the Hawaiian-descended actor and stuntman Al Kikume as Lothar. The serials’ Lothar (pronounced lo-THAR most of the time) is likewise a man of few words and refers to Mandrake as “Master,” but he is neither primitive nor brutish. While Kikume is imposing enough to play the strongman character, his casting suggests the possibility that non-white ethnicities were considered interchangeable, or that a Pacific islander would be less threatening as Mandrake’s bodyguard–or perhaps Kikume was simply available. Is this a form of erasure? As we have seen, serial producers had no qualms about changing details to suit their budgets, shooting schedules, or simply their whims. Mandrake, the Magician isn’t as disgustingly racist as Batman–in fact, few of the serials I’ve watched are–but as a data point it is part of a larger pattern, and one that is still the norm, even if things have improved over the years.

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Also essential to the plot are Professor Houston (Forbes Murray) and his daughter Betty (Doris Weston), who play the classic pulp roles of the scientist whose invention attracts dangerous attention and the dutiful daughter who enlists the hero’s aid. (There are suggestions that Mandrake and Betty are into each other throughout, but only at the very end is there confirmation of an actual romance—as frequently occurs, Betty is the only prominent female character in this serial.)

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Professor Houston’s young son, Tommy (Rex Downing), is also along for the ride, but aside from a scene introducing the “Junior Magicians Club” (which adds exactly zero to the plot) and asking some questions that introduce helpful exposition, Tommy doesn’t have that much to do and could be edited out completely with little loss: his character is a serial standby, the youthful, enthusiastic kid hero or sidekick, but in almost vestigial form. Junior leads can be annoying when written or acted poorly, of course, but over the course of a 215-minute run time I would happily trade some of this serial’s repetitive fist fights for more scenes of Tommy or his friends helping out.

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Mandrake’s opponent, the Wasp, is also standard fare for serials: the Wasp is a ruthless criminal of unknown identity and above-average technical ability, and the narrative conceit by which he is secretly one of Mandrake’s confidants, to be unmasked only in the final chapter, is also something we’ve seen before. (The Wasp’s get-up, which includes a shiny half-mask, an embroidered cape, and a PUA-style fedora, is so gaudy even a professional wrestler might find himself asking “Is this too much?”) As in other serials, the Wasp is primarily shown in isolation at his headquarters, behind a control panel through which he operates the ray and communicates with his underlings, so as not to confront the hero directly until the end. At first the gang only hears from the Wasp through a two-way television screen while they hole up in a fake sanitarium, and later they report to him in his actual lair, hidden in an ordinary city block behind a maze of empty rooms.

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Dirk (John Tyrrell), the Wasp’s second-in-command, is less like the typical “spearhead villain” and acts almost like a dispatcher, relaying the Wasps’ orders and encouraging his guys to hustle because the boss is really breathing down his neck. (Unsurprisingly, Dirk doesn’t make it to the end of the serial.) Most of the Wasp’s other henchmen are interchangeable in role and personality, moreso than usual, although Columbia rounded up a colorful-looking range of mugs from their stable of regulars to fill out their ranks.

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Quite a few serials don’t really start coming together until a few chapters in, after some scene-setting and moving the pieces into position. Mandrake takes longer than most to “get good,” and while the last few chapters feature some exciting set pieces and drama, far too many chapters are given over to the perfunctory story-telling and sloppy action (especially the fist fights, which are mostly artless brawls) that are all-too typical of Columbia’s serials. I’m thankful that at least Mandrake has only 12 chapters rather than (shudder) 16. Maybe I’m being too hard on Mandrake simply because I’ve seen enough serials by now that it’s harder to surprise me. But I also think Columbia’s house style just isn’t to my taste (although Mandrake precedes the descent into self-parody that marks the Columbia serials of the 1940s).

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However, I’m willing to point out scenes and ideas that do work, most of which are in the last few chapters. A highlight is Chapter Ten, “The Unseen Monster.” Mandrake, rendered unconscious by a train wreck at the end of the previous chapter, is picked up by the Wasp’s henchmen, disguised as ambulance drivers. They take him to “Green Valley Rest Home,” a sanitarium that is actually a false front for the Wasp’s gang. It’s a great setting, and the ruse has great potential for drama. Once Mandrake is free and reunited with his friends (who have traced him to the Rest Home), there is a fantastic sequence in which the Wasp observes their progress through a “photo-electric table,” a sort of primitive view screen that resembles the top-down view of a video game (or the tracking device used to such suspenseful effect in Aliens), closing automatic doors and detonating explosives at key points to block routes of escape. This is the kind of thing one hopes for when watching serials, even if it takes ten chapters to build toward it.

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What I Watched: Mandrake, the Magician (Columbia, 1939)

Where I Watched It: A two-disc DVD set from VCI Entertainment (The first few scenes of Chapter One include some dialogue that is obviously dubbed by modern actors, apparently replacing damaged or missing sound; it’s a little distracting, but since I have complained in the past about garbled or muffled dialogue that is hard to follow, I guess I should at least be grateful for this attempt to enhance my viewing experience.)

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No. of Chapters: 12

Best Title Chapter: “Terror Rides the Rails” (Chapter Nine) All of the chapter titles are pretty good in Mandrake; as it suggests, this one involves an attack by the Wasp on the train in which Mandrake and Lothar are riding.

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Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven (“At the Stroke of Eight”), Professor Houston has gathered Mandrake and his colleagues to see a demonstration of his latest invention, a “nullifier” that can counter the radium energy machine the Wasp stole. Mandrake suspects that one among the group is secretly the Wasp, and his suspicions are confirmed when one of the guests sabotages the nullifier at the last moment. Suddenly, Betty and Thomas run into the room: the lights have gone off upstairs! Mandrake confirms that the Wasp is (remotely) turning his ray on the very house in which they stand! Sparks begin flying out of every corner, and we are treated to several quick shots of the assembled guests panicking, surrounded by gouts of flame, and the whole thing culminates with the complete collapse of the house on top of our heroes.

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Cheats: The end of Chapter Six (“The Fatal Crash”) sees Mandrake in an airplane, shot down by an enemy pilot in the employ of the Wasp; the plane goes into a steep dive and crashes. At the beginning of Chapter Seven (“Gamble for Life”), Mandrake puts on a parachute and jumps out of the plummeting aircraft just in time.

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The end of that same chapter finds Mandrake and one of the Wasp’s men struggling in a cable car suspended over a deep chasm; as they rock the car with their fighting, the hook suspending the car aloft weakens, until Mandrake succeeds in pushing his opponent overboard and the hook finally gives way, sending the car plummeting to the bottom. The next chapter repeats the action, but this time Mandrake leaps from the falling cable car and hangs onto the cable, pulling himself hand over hand back to safety. Look, I don’t even get upset about these things any more, but if you want further evidence of the way cliffhangers play fast and loose with consistency in order to gin up suspense, these are typical examples.

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Sample Dialogue: “I guess that’s the last we’ll see of Mandrake. Let’s go.”

“Look! Mandrake!”

(exchange between two henchmen in Chapter Six, “The Fatal Crash”)

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What Others Have Said: “I remember him [Falk] saying that as he was delighted with the [1996] production of The Phantom, he was a bit disappointed that Mandrake, the Magician (who could easily be viewed as a Lee Falk look-alike) had not made it to the screen first. He mentioned that Federico Fellini had shown interest in such a movie, but it never materialized. There had been a 1939 serial, Mandrake, the Magician, starring Warren Hull, but he discounted that version just as he did the 1943 Phantom serial starring Tom Tyler. He felt that neither portrayed his characters as he had conceived them.” –Bob Griffin, “From Fan to Friend: My Memories of Lee Falk,” included in Mandrake the Magician, The Dailies Volume 1: The Cobra

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What’s Next: Join me in two weeks for cops-and-robbers action in Chinatown as Buster Crabbe plays detective Red Barry!

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Remake, Revisited

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A couple of years ago, writing about the 2004 sci-fi adventure film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I commented on the use of repurposed footage of Sir Laurence Olivier, long dead, to represent the film’s villain, Doctor Totenkopf:

At least since 1997, when scenes of the late Fred Astaire from Easter Parade and Royal Wedding were digitally modified to show him dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner for a series of commercials, it’s been possible to change the context of an actor’s appearance using the same technology that can put Jude Law in an airplane when he’s actually on a sound stage. The Dirt Devil ads, although licensed by Astaire’s widow, were controversial, and raised questions that have still not been settled: who owns an actor’s image, and are there limits to the uses to which it can be put? More importantly, does legal ownership give someone the right to tinker with a classic film? The battle lines are not always clearly drawn, as colorizing enthusiast Ted Turner became the patron of a classic movie channel that is widely respected for its thoughtful presentation of all kinds of film, and George Lucas, who spoke out against colorization in the 1980s, has defended his right to modify his own Star Wars movies because they’re “his” films.

I’m less offended by the use of Olivier’s image in Sky Captain than by Astaire in the Dirt Devil ads–or by the use of Audrey Hepburn’s image in Dove chocolate commercials just this year–of course: however pulpy it may be, Sky Captain is a work of art, not a commercial. But it is worth noting how far we have come, that such things are not only possible but routine. Connie Willis, in her 1995 novel Remake, depicted a future Hollywood dominated by digital effects, in which hardly any new movies were made, but instead older ones were remade by computer with digital copies of past stars (Back to the Future remade with River Phoenix, for example). We’re not quite to that point, but it hardly seems like science fiction, does it?

Some things have changed since I wrote those words: George Lucas, whom I referenced as the bad guy in ongoing debates about the legacy of his Star Wars films, sold Lucasfilm and his right to tinker with the franchise in 2012, and since then new owner Disney has begun a slate of new Star Wars films. The march of technological progress has also continued, and at the end of last year we saw a full-fledged digital recreation of actor Peter Cushing (dead since 1994) in the Star Wars prequel Rogue One, reprising Cushing’s role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original 1977 film. Although the filmmakers had their reasons to undertake this effort and appear to have not taken it lightly, I found it garish and disturbing; even a completely undetectable CGI job would raise questions.

Repurposed footage, as in Sky Captain, is one thing: in addition to the CGI Cushing, Rogue One also inserted unused footage of pilots in X-Wing cockpits from Star Wars‘ Death Star battle for its own climactic dogfight (again, Rogue One takes place immediately before A New Hope, so this was just one of many threads meant to connect the two stories). Perhaps I’m a hypocrite, but that didn’t bother me at all, and in fact I found it a clever touch (longtime readers will recall my love of stock footage and my general wonder at the magic of editing, though).

I should clarify that I’m not against computers, either: I love music created on synthesizers, and I enjoy computer-generated animation. I also respect that CGI has made practical filmmaking easier in many cases where the casual viewer wouldn’t even suspect that stray wires or other intrusions have been seamlessly erased.

But I think part of what I love about the art of film is its rearrangement of a tangible reality: I’ve written before about my love of animation for its ability to create a wholly new world through the illusion of movement, but even filmed live action involves quite a bit of assemblage–of cuts, of effects, of performances–in all but the most extreme cases of fly-on-the-wall documentary and avant-garde cinema. The end result is not exactly a mirror held up to the real world but a mosaic in which many facets of it are reflected, an arrangement of fragments that make up a whole picture.

In theory, the current digital toolbox is just an extension of all the image-making that has come before, but in reality it has its limits, and its frequent use as a cost-cutting measure is dispiriting. It’s all so literal: particularly in the case of Rogue One, there’s no real need to include Grand Moff Tarkin except for the desire to position this story right before Star Wars. In addition, it’s somewhat insulting in its implication that viewers wouldn’t accept a different actor in the role. I enjoyed Rogue One, I really did, but my enthusiasm flagged at the very end when it became clear just how closely it was meant to dovetail with the original Star Wars. I felt the same way at the end of Episode III, when George Lucas felt compelled to leave nothing unsaid, dumping information that was already (or would be, depending on the order in which one viewed the saga) revealed elegantly in the original trilogy. Both cases are typical, though, of a tendency to fill in any and all gaps in pop culture mythology, bowing to perceived demands from fans to reveal every detail, even when leaving something to viewers’ imaginations could have a greater impact.

The issue became more than academic in December with the sudden, tragic death of Carrie Fisher, who of course played Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy and who had returned to her iconic role in the new trilogy that began with 2015’s Episode VII. (As it happens, computer imagery had also been used for a brief appearance of “young Leia” at the end of Rogue One.) Reportedly, Fisher had already filmed her scenes for Episode VIII, but her death puts her role in the last film of the trilogy in doubt. Disney issued a statement to calm speculation last week, assuring fans that they had no plans to create a digital Leia for Episode IX. Is the difference simply that Cushing has been dead long enough that no one is likely to be outraged by his digital doppelganger? Is it “too soon” to do the same with Fisher? In fact, isn’t the cyber-Cushing atypical precisely because he’s been gone for so long? In recent years, digital imagery of this sort has largely been used to make up for the loss of a star during filming (most notably Paul Walker in Furious 7). It’s likely that Fisher, aware of the direction technology is headed, had explicit directions in her will regarding the use of her image, but it’s also true that Leia is a more significant character than Tarkin, and she was expected to carry both more scenes and more dramatic moments. There are still practical limitations on how seamlessly an actor can be recreated digitally.

The Star Wars films have always been showcases for the latest in special effects. If Cushing’s appearance in Rogue One was meant to be a test case for a new technology, it wasn’t reassuring, for either this audience member or (I imagine) living actors who now not only have to compete against each other, but against their predecessors.

R.I.P. Peter Cushing, 1913-1994

R.I.P. Carrie Fisher, 1956-2016

My 2016 in Film, Part Two: New Discoveries

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As I mentioned yesterday, I was more diligent this year in keeping track of my film viewing than I’ve been in recent years, allowing me to provide a more detailed retrospective of older films I watched. The non-2016 films listed below are listed in chronological order without ranking; they’re movies that thrilled me, sparked my imagination, or filled in gaps in my historical awareness. All are recommended, for curiosity value if nothing else.

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Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)
This movie came to my attention as the source of several futuristic cityscapes inserted as background shots in the 1939 Buck Rogers serial. It’s a fascinating production in its own right, and a time capsule of 1930’s ideas about both science fiction and pre-Code musical comedy. New York in the far-off year 1980(!) is a gleaming mass of skyscrapers bound together by orderly lanes of sky traffic, but scientific progress has commanded a high price in individuality and freedom: people have numbers rather than names, and marriages are chosen by the state for optimal matches (the plot centers on the unapproved romance between J-21 and LN-18, a young Maureen O’Sullivan); married couples have children by selecting them from a sort of vending machine; food and drink are taken in pill form; and the planet Mars is full of beautiful, savage women given to elaborate dance routines. The comedy of 1930 is mostly personified by the “Svedish” accent shtick of El Brendel, who plays a man of 1930 revived by science. It’s all corny as hell, but endearingly so, and with its visual flair and brisk, busy plot, it’s worth seeing for fans of retro-futurism and Hollywood musicals alike.

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Bedelia (Lance Comfort, 1946)
Margaret Lockwood plays the title character, a recently remarried widow; during her honeymoon in Monte Carlo, her bland new husband strikes up a chance encounter with a painter who appears to know too much about her. When they return to England, the painter follows. As the mystery of Bedelia’s past (and the death of her first husband) emerges, her web of secrets threatens to come unraveled. The resulting film is a mixture of noirish suspense and doomed romance.

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The Alligator People (Roy Del Ruth, 1959)
If Tennessee Williams wrote a monster movie, it might come out something like The Alligator People, a Southern Gothic tragedy of secrets and mad science. Lon Chaney Jr. as a crazy, gator-obsessed swamp rat is the icing on the cake.

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The Telephone Book (Nelson Lyon, 1971)
The strange odyssey of a young woman determined to track down the man who transported her with an obscene phone call, The Telephone Book is a surprisingly sweet portrayal of a time and place–the sexual revolution in New York City in the early 1970s–that are usually depicted in sleazier terms. Alice (Sarah Kennedy) is both naïve and alluring to the colorful characters she meets along the way, but once she finds the right “John Smith” (Norman Rose), he takes over the story with his commanding monologues, seducing the audience the same way he seduces the women (“I have over thirty regular clients,” he says) he calls. In writer-director Nelson Lyon’s vision, obscene phone calls aren’t just about sexual release, they are an implicit critique of a repressed society, but the film is too wrapped in layers of irony to present such a pat solution without complication. Intercut with “confessions” from reformed obscene callers and the doctors and police who deal with them, The Telephone Book is thrillingly visual for a film about talking, showing off a pop art sensibility that gripped me from the beginning. With its deadpan humor and emphasis on the power of words, I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was one of Steve Martin’s favorite films.

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Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
Sam Neill has the honor of appearing on both yesterday’s and today’s lists. Is Possession a movie about mental illness? Divorce? Nuclear war? All of the above? What the hell can you even say about this movie? It must be seen.

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Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)
Unlike many of the movies listed here, I was aware of this movie and even remember when it was released, but for one reason or another (its reputation as a flop, or that it was too dark for its intended audience) I didn’t get around to it until this year. All the reasons not to watch it back then make it all the more interesting now, and in addition to its mixture of whimsy and dread (in many ways more faithful to L. Frank Baum’s creations than the 1939 classic), I was pleased to discover a forgotten trove of lavish production and practical effects at their pre-CGI 1980s peak.

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Split (Chris Shaw, 1989)
At first, Starker (Timothy Dwight) appears to be just another homeless crackpot wandering the streets of Los Angeles, but it soon becomes clear that he’s a man of many disguises, secreting extra clothes in dumpsters around the city and taking on new personalities as he hides out in a diner and crashes an art gallery opening. His elaborate routines prevent an omnipresent surveillance network from tracking him: paranoid fantasy, or chilling glimpse of a future that was right around the corner in 1989? Featuring then-cutting edge computer graphics and a “handmade” (i.e., low budget) production style, Split is a quintessential cult film, proto-cyberpunk closer to A Scanner Darkly than Blade Runner.

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Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
I was able to see several Studio Ghibli films for the first time this year thanks to a film series at Wichita’s Palace Theatre (other first-time views included My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Princess Mononoke). Perhaps I’m choosing to highlight Howl’s Moving Castle above the rest simply because it doesn’t seem to be quite as well-loved as those others (all of which were great, of course). As lumpy as it is, its mixture of European fairy-tale fantasy (it’s based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones) and Japanese anime style makes it unique.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)
A spiritual descendant of Orson Welles’ meta-documentary F for Fake, Exit Through the Gift Shop begins with compulsive filmmaker Thierry Guetta’s quest to document and participate in the exploding street art scene in Paris and other cities. The first half of the film introduces a cast of daring cat burglar-like graffitists who go to great lengths to place their artwork on the sides of buildings, on streets and sidewalks, and on billboards, usually under cover of night, and the more inaccessible the better. Once Guetta is introduced to the elusive Banksy, the film takes a strange turn as Banksy takes over editing the project and Guetta assumes the name “Mr. Brainwash,” setting up his own ridiculously large art show. Whether the whole thing was a scheme for Guetta to cash in on the hot street art trend from the beginning, or (as some have claimed) a put-on designed to expose the hollowness of the art world, the film itself is as daring and exciting as the wall-climbing provocateurs who inspired it.

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Lazer Us: The Legend of Jimi Lazer (Mann Munoz, 2013)
An odd mash-up of contemporary Christian film and rock-and-roll mythologizing, Lazer Us tells the story of Jimi Lazer, a would-be star who made a deal with the devil to become famous but walked away from it all and essentially disappeared. Now, twenty-seven years later, he has returned to set things right, reuniting the scattered members of his band and rescuing a mysterious young woman (named Zmoothie, in keeping with the film’s square idea of rock culture) from the same fate. The film is essentially a parable building on the “crossroads” legend like The Soldier’s Tale or “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” but throws in references to The Red Shoes, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Johnny Cash, and the “27 club,” not to mention the Biblical figure whose name is suggested by the awkward title. Edgy and “in your face” but ultimately safe, I have no idea whether this movie will lead young rockers to Jesus, but it’s worth seeing on its own quirky merits.

My 2016 in Film, Part One: Top Ten

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Earlier this month, critic David Ehrlich released his annual video list of his top 25 films of the year. To my chagrin, not only had I only seen one film on his list (Kubo and the Two Strings), I hadn’t even seen 25 films released in 2016 total. Of course, I’m not a professional critic, and I don’t have the opportunity to see films unless they’re in wide release or hit streaming/home video by the end of the year (with a few exceptions), but as someone who enjoys film and tries to come up with his own year-end wrap-ups, I try to see as many films as I can in a timely manner. I’ve managed to do some catching up (and I did end up seeing more than 25 movies from this year), but as usual the following observations are based on my rather selective and scattershot viewing. (One thing I did this year for the first time was keep a list of every film I saw, new or old, which has made it easier to remember what I saw way back in January; tomorrow I’ll review some of my favorite non-2016 discoveries.)

Since a large portion of the new films I saw this year were wide release blockbusters and family movies, it’s worth noting just how many of this year’s films were part of series or franchises: the Marvel films Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange; the Harry Potter spinoff/prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; and additions to the Star Wars, Godzilla, and Phantasm canons, among others. That’s not unusual: sequels and franchises have been common for years, although it seemed even more pronounced this year. Many of the sequels that came out this year (not all of which I saw) bombed, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with series. I enjoy catching up with familiar characters and settings as much as the next audience member, and new installments of ongoing series were among my favorites this year. (As always, I’m basing my list on US release dates.)

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10. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
Based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Kate Beckinsale plays the scheming widow with a mixture of calculation and blasé wit for which Stillman’s brand of dry humor is perfect. Tom Bennett (as the empty-headed Sir James) is very funny in this and well deserves the accolades that have greeted his performance.

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9. Hail, Caesar! (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)
On the surface, the Coens’ homage to Golden Age Hollywood is a trifle, a light-hearted spoof and celebration of the studio system that had previously crushed Barton Fink’s spirit. The plot (in the loosest sense of the word) consists of several vignettes tied together by their connection to studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he attempts to put out one fire after another in a typical day. The most worrisome is the kidnapping of leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of the Biblical epic that gives the film its name. While I found Hail, Caesar! entertaining enough while I was watching it (and the film is lots of fun, packing an all-star cast into witty recreations of musicals, Westerns, Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming, and “women’s pictures”), it also felt a little slight. But Mannix’s defense of show business (against the materialism of both Communist rhetoric and a Lockheed executive attempting to lure Mannix to a position in the “real world”) has stuck with me, and is typical of the Coens’ habit of packaging serious messages in comedies that go down easily.

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8. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
Subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” The Witch is a spooky distillation of Puritan fears of devilry and witchcraft, with a single family isolated in the woods illustrating the growth of a panic in microcosm. Are the glimpses of Satanic forces, exemplified by the unmanageable goat Black Phillip, signs of genuine witchery, or are they merely the fervid imaginings of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy in a haunting performance)? Like the best horror, the answer is less important than what it reveals about the character of the family members as they retreat into religious faith, run off into the woods, or turn against each other.

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7. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (John Lee)
As I wrote in my review back in March, “Like many modern reboots and revivals of old properties, this ‘comeback’ is packed with nostalgic callbacks and Easter eggs, remixing an older story by sprinkling in familiar themes, character types, and imagery to summon up the old magic. . . . I’m probably too close to tell you whether this is a fans-only proposition, but as a fan, I liked it.” While the callbacks to the original were the weakest part of this year’s Ghostbusters reboot, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday proved that it is possible for the formula to work, at least as long as you’ve got super-cool Joe Manganiello providing a foil for Paul Reubens’ antic, childlike character. (Come to think of it, Chris Hemsworth was the funniest part of Ghostbusters: maybe 2016 was secretly the year of hunky, bromantic scene-stealers?) One statement I made in my review, that “Unlike Paul Reubens, Pee-wee himself hasn’t aged a day,” deserves to be explored: I didn’t realize when I wrote that just how much technological assistance was involved in rewinding a couple of decades of aging, but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the ubiquity of CGI these days. In any case, Pee-wee’s digital facelift was less distracting and disturbing than the CGI resurrection of long-dead Peter Cushing in Rogue One (a movie I liked, but yeesh).

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6. The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
An aspiring model (Elle Fanning) arrives in L.A. and discovers just how cutthroat the business can be in this stylish thriller. I just saw this one, so I’m still digesting it, but on a first pass I loved the visuals and Cliff Martinez’s electronic score; I wish I’d had the opportunity to see The Neon Demon on the big screen, but even at home it was electrifying. However, it took a while to win me over, as it was hard to shake the impression that I was seeing ideas and stylistic flourishes that had been done before by David Lynch, Ridley Scott, and Dario Argento. A grisly turn in the last twenty minutes took me by surprise and elevated the whole affair by recontextualizing much of what came before, so I have a feeling this is a film that will play very differently for me on a rewatch.

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5. Zootopia (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush)
Immersive, three-dimensional computer animation has its drawbacks: not every setting can stand up to the scrutiny invited by nearly photorealistic animation, nor live up to the standards of internal logic set by Pixar. This year’s Zootopia is a positive example, however, of the tendency to build worlds in a comprehensive way, a dazzling and thought-provoking allegory of modern race-relations and identity politics laid over a clever extrapolation of the “funny animals” that are one of the most venerable pieces of Disney’s heritage. After idealistic rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) joins the police force, having fought against (cuddly, nonthreatening) stereotypes her whole life, she is forced into a begrudging partnership with the hustling Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a (sly, predatory) fox, and learns to confront some of her own internal prejudices. The parallels to real-world issues are unmistakable, but Zootopia’s heavier moments are supported by a well-oiled action comedy with riffs on Chinatown, 48 Hrs., and The Godfather (and even a nod to Breaking Bad). Most fun of all is the multilayered title city, with its ethnic enclaves for different types (and sizes) of animals, somehow finding ways to live in harmony.

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4. The Love Witch (Anna Biller)
The first time I saw the trailer for The Love Witch, I was unsure if it was a new movie or the latest rerelease of an obscure exploitation film. Even after seeing it, I’m impressed at the attention to detail writer-director-designer Anna Biller brought to her feminist-themed parody/homage of early 1970s softcore. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) uses spells and charms to win the hearts of a series of men, but they can’t fill the hole in her heart, even as she drives them to their deaths. (Robinson’s matter-of-fact voice-overs, revealing the gap between Elaine’s perceptions and external reality, brought to mind Election, another bone-dry comedy about feminine striving.) Wryly ironic and reveling in its artificiality (channeling Joe Sarno and Russ Meyer as well as the Gothic chic and hip Satanism of Hammer horror), The Love Witch could have perhaps better emulated the brevity of its inspirations, but like The Neon Demon it’s eye-poppingly colorful and turns its genre’s assumptions upside-down (and this one I did get to see in the theater thanks to a limited release in Wichita).

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3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was my favorite film of last year, and while Hunt for the Wilderpeople is more down to earth, it is no less warm and funny. Wannabe gangster Ricky (Julian Dennison) and his reluctant foster father Hec (Sam Neill) find themselves on the run together in the “majestical” New Zealand bush after a series of misunderstandings. That these two lost souls will come to understand and support each other through their adventure is a given, but the movie never feels formulaic, a credit to both Waititi’s knack for making unusual choices in staging and music, as well as the humanity Dennison and Neill bring to their characters. (Props also to Rachel House, who is hilarious in a potentially one-note role as an overeager Child Welfare officer.)

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2. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi)
In October, I wrote that Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla movie since 2004, “is a worthy successor to the legacy of the King of the Monsters, balancing its weighty political themes with incredible spectacle and an exciting scientific race against time.” I stand by my original review, but reading other viewers’ responses to the movie, it became clear to me that I underestimated how much humor is in the movie (as the heroic bureaucrat Yaguchi ascends ranks, the onscreen captions listing his titles become longer and longer, until the bulk of the screen is filled with text, for one example), caught up as I was in that spectacle. I have so far only seen Shin Godzilla once, but like most of the films I’m highlighting this year, it’s one I hope to return to in order to pick up more of its nuances.

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1. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
As I wrote in October, I only caught up with 2008’s Cloverfield this year, but it was one of the best movies I saw that month. This year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t exactly a sequel, but is rather a free-standing story with a completely different set of characters, only loosely connected (if at all) to the first film. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) loses consciousness in a late-night car wreck, only to awaken in the underground shelter of Howard (John Goodman), who informs her that an attack on the United States has left the surface uninhabitable. Whether she likes it or not, she’s stuck in the bunker with the paranoid Howard and his good-ol’-boy handyman, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Michelle is understandably skeptical of Howard and his motives, but this tightly-plotted thriller kept me guessing with twists and turns (and powerful lead performances by Goodman and Winstead) up until the very end.

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Worst movie: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)
Complaining about this one almost feels like piling on at this point, but I can’t help it: leaving aside the humorless, sociopathic interpretation of its “heroes,” Dawn of Justice is a cluttered, kludged-together mess of a movie that would make even less sense to anyone who had never heard of Batman or Superman. I won’t deny that Snyder attempted to make some serious points about hero-worship and the burden of power, but every time I’m tempted to give credit for its ambition, or for good points like its introduction of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, the best part of the movie), I remember the nonsensical nightmare sequence (Sucker Punch starring Batman, i.e. the movie I suspect Snyder really wanted to make) or the plot-stopping interlude that serves only to introduce the members of the future Justice League. The result is a sprawling contraption designed primarily as a launchpad for future DC comic book movies. And I like comic book movies!
(P.S. I didn’t see Suicide Squad.)

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Dumbest movie that I will almost assuredly watch again: Yoga Hosers (Kevin Smith)
I actually had some hope for this one, against all reason to be optimistic: I liked Tusk, imperfect as it was, and this follow-up put the two Colleens (Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp, seen briefly in the first movie) front and center, facing off against living Nazi bratwursts in a convenience store. Perhaps it’s my affection for movies that take goofy premises and play them out to their logical ends, or perhaps I was hoping for something like The Gate or Freaked!: kid-friendly horror comedies that knew just how ludicrous they were and leaned into it. Or maybe it had just been a while since I’d treated myself to something so shameless. (A rip-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gremlins? With Nazis? Sign me up!) I’d have a hard time recommending the result, a comedy of cod-Canadianness so dopey it makes Bob and Doug McKenzie look subtle, but I would have loved it when I was 13, and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t watch it again. The two Colleens have a fun, snarky chemistry that reminds me of why Smith’s Clerks was so refreshing way back when; Justin Long as a seedy storefront guru makes me laugh; and I can even put up with the return of Johnny Depp’s Clouseau-like Guy LaPointe, who has a few choice lines about his attempts to cash in after solving the case of the “Winnipeg Walrus” in Tusk. You know what this means, right? I’m obligated to see the final installment of the trilogy, Moose Jaws (like Jaws, but with a moose), when it comes out.

Movies I didn’t get to but which probably would have been in the running: Green Room, Swiss Army Man, Arrival, Moana, La La Land, The Handmaiden, too many to name, really

Monstober 2016

mural at 1st and Hillside in Wichita, artists unknown

Mural at 1st and Hillside in Wichita, artists unknown


Since for the last couple of years I’ve kept track of my October viewing and written about it, I’ve gotten in the habit of setting aside movies to watch during the Halloween season. I don’t set a strict schedule, since the odds are against me being able to keep it anyway, and I like to make choices as my mood strikes me, but I did have a stack of movies I had planned on getting to in October. However, once things came together to make October “kaiju month,” even those loose plans went out the window and I ended up spending the first half of the month watching monster movies, many of which are only nominally horror.

That’s OK: as I’ve said before, I’m not a “Shocktober” purist, and I cast a pretty wide net to include science fiction, fantasy and genre pictures during this month. But it did make my list pretty monster-heavy, and as you’ll see I ended up waiting until later in the month to get a very consistent “Halloween” vibe going. In any case, I got my fill of movies this month: at 37 films, including only three I’d seen before, I exceeded last year’s total of 31 movies. (It didn’t hurt that the movies I watched were shorter on average than in previous years, many under 90 minutes). This included several classics I was watching for the first time, as well as a few new releases.

1. Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini, 1968)
2. All Monsters Attack aka Godzilla’s Revenge (Ishiro Honda, 1969)
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3. Son of Godzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1967)
4. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) *
5. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982) *
6. Rodan (Ishiro Honda, 1956)
7. Destroy All Monsters (Ishiro Honda, 1968)
8. Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979) *, r
9. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Yoshimitsu Banno, 1971)
10. Godzilla vs. Gigan (Jun Fukuda, 1972)
11. Godzilla vs. Megalon (Jun Fukuda, 1973)
12. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1974)
13. Terror of Mechagodzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1975)
14. Phantasm II (Don Coscarelli, 1988)
15. Phantasm: Ravager (David Hartman, 2016) *
16. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, 2016) *
17. It’s Alive! (Larry Cohen, 1974)
18. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
19. The Witch’s Mirror (El espejo de la bruja) (Chano Urueta, 1962)
20. The Curse of the Crying Woman (La Maldicion de la Llorona) (Rafael Baledón, 1963)
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21. Ghostbusters (Paul Feig, 2016) *
22. Dragon Wars: D-War (Hyung-rae Shim, 2007)
23. Night of the Lepus (William F. Claxton, 1972)
24. Mystics in Bali (H. Tjut Djalil, 1981)
25. The Giant Claw (Fred F. Sears, 1957) r
26. Daigoro vs. Goliath (Toshihiro Iijima, 1972)
27. Hocus Pocus (Kenny Ortega, 1993)
28. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (Takao Okawara, 1995)
29. The ‘Burbs (Joe Dante, 1989)
30. Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (Ted V. Mikels, 1973)
31. How to Make a Monster (Herbert L. Strock, 1958)
32. The Baby (Ted Post, 1973)
33. Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012) *
34. Hotel Transylvania 2 (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2015) *
35. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
36. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962) r
37. Night Train to Terror (John Carr, Phillip Marshak, Tom McGowan, Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, and Greg Tallas, 1985)
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* theatrical screening
r repeat viewing

(Sorry, no elaborate key to themes and images this year–maybe next time.)

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I also watched a few short films that don’t really fit on the list: a pair of shorts on superstitions, Who’s Superstitious? from 1943 and Black Cats and Broomsticks from 1955 (both aired earlier this month on TCM); It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (an annual viewing with the family, of course); Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins on Saturday Night Live; and assorted bumpers and trailers, not to mention this creepy Japanese Kleenex commercial.

Best movie: I saw several good films this month, but picking one that stands above the rest is more difficult than in previous years. Two of the films that gave me the most pleasure are rewatches: Phantasm and Carnival of Souls. (As an aside, the similarities between the two films are obvious when watched in close proximity: both obey the non sequitur logic of dreams or nightmares, and both feature protagonists menaced by suit-wearing older men who are apt to pop up at the most frightening moments. Upon seeing Phantasm for the first time last year, I had connected it to the dream-like disconnected narrative of Italian horror, but it seems possible that Carnival of Souls–itself an Americanization of Bergman and other European influences–also informed it. It’s also probably not a coincidence that both films had two of the best scores I heard this month: I’m jamming out to the Phantasm soundtrack right now, in fact.)

I liked most of the Godzilla movies I watched this month, as well, not only the “serious” ones but also the goofier entries with Megalon and the like (heck, I even enjoyed the very silly Daigoro vs. Goliath). I think my favorites were the two Mechagodzilla films, which balanced the campier elements of the Godzilla mythos (robots, space aliens) with the heavier themes of the more serious films: sacrifice, tradition, and kaiju as guardian spirits.

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Ultimately, my pick for best first-time viewing is Shin Godzilla. Perhaps I was simply primed by all that Godzilla-watching leading up to it, but the experience of seeing Shin Godzilla in a theater packed with fans (the first Godzilla movie I’d seen in a theater since Godzilla 1985–no, I didn’t even get to see Roland Emmerich’s or Gareth Edwards’ films in theaters) was a high point of the month.

Worst movie: I watched a few clunkers this month, partly as a result of my search for the silliest giant movie monsters, but you also just never really know what will work for you until you pull the trigger. Dragon Wars: D-War, which didn’t make the silly monster list (the movie is ridiculous, but the monsters for the most part aren’t), was a famously terrible flop when it was released, but as janky as it was it also held my attention (its worst sins are convoluted, front-loaded exposition and an over-reliance on CGI, as if the filmmakers had learned the wrong lessons from the Star Wars prequels). Night Train to Terror, an anthology, almost lost me completely in its first segment, but recovered in the second and third parts with some charmingly primitive stop-motion monster effects (this short review of the Blu-ray release goes into more detail and explains why it took five directors to make this mess!).

Of the Godzilla movies I watched in the first part of the month, Son of Godzilla was my least favorite, with its emphasis on the uncomfortably squishy “baby Godzilla,” Minilla (yes, I even enjoyed the oft-maligned Attack All Monsters more than Son of Godzilla; at least Attack All Monsters has a definite point of view and some creative staging).

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However, I have to give the edge to Blood Orgy of the She-Devils. It’s a coincidence that I watched my first film from director Ted V. Mikels the same month that he passed away (I had bought the disc last month). As much as I hate to speak ill of the dead, the movie failed to deliver on its awesome title and was not only disappointingly tame, it was, even worse, boring. I’m told that this is typical of Mikels’ work, which is too bad.

Scariest movie: Well, did you see that Japanese Kleenex commercial?

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But seriously: I’ve written before about how easily scared I was as a kid, and how that’s left me playing catch-up with a lot of classic horror that I probably should have seen sooner. That’s how I ended up seeing The Exorcist for the first time this year, and you know what? After expecting the “scariest film of all time,” I just didn’t find it that scary. How can any film live up to a reputation like that? It probably didn’t help that The Exorcist has been so frequently referenced and parodied that I felt like I had already seen many of its most famous set pieces. Having said that, it was an excellent film, deserving of its reputation. It’s a great drama about faith and loss, with a lot of spooky atmosphere, but I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t really even trying to be the film I had been led to expect. Probably if I had seen it at a younger age it would have had more of an effect on me.

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So what did scare me this month? “Toby Dammit,” Federico Fellini’s segment of Spirits of the Dead, had some eerie visual shocks, as did The Curse of the Crying Woman (the title character’s eyeless appearance is pretty creepy) and Phantasm II, but I think the most consistently tense and viscerally scary movie I watched this month is director Matt Reeves’ and writer Drew Goddard’s found-footage monster movie update Cloverfield. The immediacy of the found-footage device (a gimmick I’m not usually fond of) gives the audience the sense of being on the ground during a giant monster attack on New York City, the kind of scene that is usually visualized from afar (the story contrives to get the characters briefly onto a helicopter so we can get the kind of wide shot of the monster we’re used to seeing in films like this, but for the most part the handheld camera footage feels very naturalistic). In addition to the scenes of citywide destruction, there are sequences in subway tunnels underground that are extremely creepy, as the characters are stalked and attacked by the spider-like parasites that have dropped from the main beast. Finally, the circumstances by which the camera is recovered imply a government-conspiracy backstory to the events that is anything but reassuring. In fact, you know what? Maybe this is the best movie I saw this month (non-Godzilla category, anyway).

Funniest movie: The original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorites, but I was never a fan of its sequel or the spin-off cartoon series. It was pretty much just the first film, a unique blend of irreverent humor and special effects-driven action, and even then it wasn’t scary to me. So I wasn’t offended by the release of the controversial female-led remake this year, but I also didn’t have high hopes that it would recapture what I loved about the original. The new film was, when I finally saw it, quite enjoyable, even if not everything landed. If anything, I found the callbacks and reminders of the first film more annoying than affectionate: the pleasure of seeing the proton packs back in action, wielded by a new generation of characters, should have been enough. However, I won’t deny that it made me laugh; I’m comfortable saying that it is easily my second-favorite Ghostbusters film. (It was also interesting to see the movie, a summer blockbuster like the original, during the fall, and place it in the context of other supernatural “scary” movies: it works decently on that count, especially early on, but like many horror movies it becomes less rather than more frightening as the threat becomes known and it barrels towards the big climax.)

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Even funnier, however, was a film that took me by surprise: Hotel Transylvania, an animated film about Adam Sandler as Dracula, faced with the prospect of his daughter growing up and yearning to explore the world of humans, from which Dracula and his monster pals have been hiding for over a century. Nothing about that description, or the ads that were ubiquitous when the movie was released, made me want to see it, but I ended up enjoying it a great deal, laughing at Genndy Tartakovsky’s expressively cartoony animation style and the many sight gags and running jokes, and the story was actually rather touching.

Weirdest movie: As mentioned, Phantasm and Carnival of Souls are “classically” weird, and I would also put Halloween III in that category, combining as it does elements of horror and science fiction in a story that touches on many qualities of both fairy tale and nightmare. But there are movies that have weird stories, and there are movies whose entire existence seems unlikely: the weirdness is in their conception, leading not to questions like “what does this mean?” or “wait, was Ellie a robot the whole time, or what?” but to questions like “how did this get made in the first place?” and “how can I make sure I don’t meet any of these people in real life?”

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Such was my response to The Baby, the 1973 cult oddity about a social worker confronting a family whose twenty-something son has remained in an infantile state, pre-verbal, crawling, and wearing a diaper. Is he genuinely developmentally disabled, or is he being kept from growing by his domineering mother and stepsisters? Does the effect he has on women stem from something missing in their own lives, or is he capable of adult urges? Frequently disturbing, the movie subverted my expectations at every turn, right down to an ending that was head-smackingly obvious but which I still didn’t see coming. If I had to explain this movie, I would say “only in the ’70s.”

Goriest movie: Night Train to Terror (another candidate for “weirdest movie”) was by far the most graphic and bloody film I watched this month, and despite its deficiencies in other areas, I can’t deny that it delivers the kind of macabre violence–slashings, beheadings, and dismemberments, along with more exotic causes of death such as electrocution and exploding head (sorry, “catastrophic head injury”)–one associates with Halloween thrills. I don’t have much stomach for gore, but fortunately Night Train is a pretty cheap movie, and so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take seriously.

That’s it for this year: maybe I’ll keep watching horror movies through November and work through the stockpile of movies I didn’t watch this month, or maybe I’ll end up saving some for next year. But now I have some important candy to eat business to attend to. Happy Halloween!

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Any questions?

Medleyana: Year Three

Well, another year of blogging has passed, and that means it’s time to write a “state of the blog” post again. I can tell this has been a busy year for me, at least based on the gap between posts earlier this spring. As I said then, I’ve given myself permission to not write unless I have something to say, but I still find the discipline and structure of blogging helpful for making myself finish things. Speaking of finishing, I’m finally nearing the end of a project that has taken a lot of my writing time and is probably the number one reason I haven’t posted as frequently in 2016 (more on that as it develops).

I suppose I don’t really have much to say in comparison to previous yearly summaries, but as always I want to say “thank you” to those of you who subscribed, commented, and shared links to Medleyana. I appreciate the feedback and fellowship. And in that spirit, I’d like to turn outward and recommend a few other online sources that I rely on and enjoy.

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First off, I still follow Philip J. Reed at Noiseless Chatter; like Medleyana, Noiseless Chatter covers a wide range of topics–whatever Philip and his guests feel like discussing–so it’s hard to point to a representative sample. Philip recently wrapped up a long, intensive dive into ALF, the television series about an alien puppet who lives with a suburban family and eats cats (seriously, I was never really a fan of the show, but Philip goes into much greater detail). Other articles have provided thoughtful looks at popular culture, the creative process, and heavy topics like mental health and suicide prevention (Philip’s response to the death of Robin Williams, and the dialogue that followed, is one of his finest moments, as far as I’m concerned). If you’ve followed Medleyana for long, you’ve probably seen me mention Noiseless Chatter before, but if you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for?

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I’ve also recently been taken with New Orleans-based Swampflix, a movie review and discussion site run by fellow Dissolver Brandon Ledet, among others. Swampflix casts a wide net in its reviews and articles, including up-to-date releases and older films going all the way back to the silent era, “from the heights of art cinema to the depths of basic cable schlock.” That’s a mandate I can get behind, and it’s just as much fun to read about films I’ve seen to get the writers’ insights and perspectives as it is to browse their reviews to get recommendations for new things to watch.

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Like many sites these days, Swampflix has also spun off into a podcast. I’m not a very regular listener to podcasts–I enjoy them, but it’s not quite a habit for me–but I’ve enjoyed the episodes I’ve listened to. Another podcast I’ve found entertaining and informative is We Love to Watch (formerly Listen To Our Podcast), by Aaron Armstrong and Peter Moran (in addition to their website, they’re on Stitcher and iTunes). They cover a variety of genre and exploitation movies, as well as a few higher-profile selections that dip into those areas (like Deliverance). They’ve also sometimes covered the same movies as Swampflix, giving an interesting range of opinions and perspectives (like when they both covered 1981’s Possession, a bizarre and unsettling film I also caught up with earlier this summer).

I would be remiss if I failed to include the blog of Rick Kelley, aka Luddite Robot, whose coverage of film is deep and always well-researched, and who doesn’t shy away from the political implications of works, even while acknowledging their power (he’s right on about the flimsy allegory of Metropolis, but it’s still one of my favorite films).

Finally, I also want to recommend fellow Dissolver Zack Clopton’s Film Thoughts. Zack is a true “monster kid,” a fan of all kinds of horror and genre fare, as well as a collector of monster toys and action figures. He both writes knowledgeably about a wide range of movies (his “Director Report Card” series is a highlight) and reflects on what those movies have meant to him in his life; Zack’s affection for the genre shines through in every post.

Thanks again for a great year!

Fates Worse Than Death: Flying G-Men

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“The peace and security of the nation have been threatened by a campaign of espionage and sabotage, conducted by a powerful spy ring whose head is known as the Professor! The Bureau of Investigation has assigned three flying G-Men to the case. They created the Black Falcon, a mysterious masked pilot whose sudden raids spread terror and confusion among the ranks of the conspirators!”

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That burst of breathless narration (or a variation of it) introduces each chapter of the 1939 Columbia serial Flying G-Men, and honestly it summarizes the situation as well as I could, so let’s get to the meat of the discussion. Frankly, I often get hung up on plot, in the sense that when I’m reviewing something, or writing my own fiction, I spend way more time trying to untangle and summarize the action than I do when I’m just watching or reading something for pleasure. All along, I think I’ve been clear that I don’t really watch serials for their timeless stories or (God knows) their deep sense of characterization, but rather for their lurid, punchy aesthetic. An iconic pose; an atmosphere of potent menace; a trained dramatic actor making a meal of a pulp hack’s overheated prose; in short, the “cool factor” are greater contributors to my enjoyment than mere plot mechanics. I get the same kind of pleasure from an isolated image or moment that a really good cover illustration or dramatic turn of phrase conveys.

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Still, unlike a pulp magazine cover or the posters that advertised the serials, movies unfold in time and feature narratives that deliver those moments in a structured way, so as I write I feel that I have to deal with the flow from A to B to C. It’s easy to get caught up in summary that is neither interesting to write nor to read, but is necessary for context when explaining why it’s so cool that it wasn’t really the Black Falcon who got shot by the Professor’s henchmen at the end of Chapter Ten, but rather a captured spy that the G-Men dressed in the Falcon’s uniform to serve as a decoy (or whatever).

Flying G-Men provides many such moments, so I loved almost every minute of it. I think I’ve come to the realization that I enjoy police and gangster serials more than superhero or science fiction serials. In many cases, they are just as fanciful as their high-concept peers, featuring similar costumed characters and high-tech gadgets, but the supposedly more realistic setting forces them to explore that world in greater depth, as well as intersecting with crime pictures, film noir, and other kinds of drama in ways that are surprisingly artistic and expressive. Take a look at the frame below, for example: it’s as absolutely clear as a silent film what’s happening. That’s not to say that such artistic choices aren’t sometimes made in superhero or sci-fi serials, but I have noticed a tendency to lean on the dazzling design elements rather than creative staging in many of them.

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Of course, some exposition is inevitable. The titular G-Men, all in the employ of the FBI’s Air Division, were formerly known as the “Skyhawks,” a foursome who previously set a record flying around the world. (As in Pirate Treasure, an accomplishment that would ensure a lifetime of accolades in real life is here merely part of the heroes’ background; it’s as if Mark Watney’s experiences on the red planet in The Martian had served only to prepare him to stop a jewel heist on Earth.) The designer whose inventions made that flight possible, Ed McKay, has developed a remote-controlled robot bomber for military use, remarkably similar to a modern drone aircraft. Of course such a design is a target for espionage, and under the direction of the mysterious “Professor” a wide-ranging spy ring first kills McKay (leaving behind his sister and young son) and then makes efforts to steal the bomber plans for its own use.

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The spy ring is based on Flame Island, a fortified stronghold off the coast. The G-Men, unsatisfied with their legal remit to apprehend the spies, come up with a costumed identity, the “Black Falcon,” who can act with a free hand (as is frequently the case, this is really a pretext for dressing up in costume and using cool gadgets, because it’s not like the G-Men are held up by such red tape as arrest warrants, inquiries into their use of force, or even trials). The Falcon wears a stylish leather flight suit and face mask with goggles, very similar to the Tiger Shark from The Fighting Marines (and anticipating the twenty-first century tendency to replace spandex superhero costumes with more “realistic” paramilitary-style gear).

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In order to protect the Falcon’s identity, the G-Men do not reveal to anyone (including the audience, until the very end) which of them is wearing the hero’s costume (The opening credits show “? ? as the Black Falcon”). As a proto-superhero, the Black Falcon even has a gimmicky talisman, a dart that he leaves behind to mark his kills (if he remembers, so about half the time).

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Thus, while the identity of the “Professor” is left unsolved only for the first third of the serial, the real mystery is which of the G-Men is the Black Falcon. The fact that Bronson, one of the four G-Men, dies early on would suggest a rather obvious answer to that puzzle, but you won’t get it from me: you’ll just have to watch for yourself. On occasions when the other two G-Men are accompanying the Falcon, they also wear face-covering masks to keep up the air of mystery, but they needn’t have bothered: as three white guys with dark hair and similar builds, I could hardly tell the three G-Men apart even when unmasked unless they called each other by name. (Is it just me? Maybe I suffer from face blindness when it comes to the actors in old black-and-white movies.)

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Flying G-Men is a pleasure to watch even when spinning its wheels: the action, of which there is quite a bit, in the form of fist fights, shoot-outs, and car chases, is generally clear and exciting. Fights are often no-holds-barred brawls, free of the stagey, wooden quality that plagues some serials, and they flow organically from the situation rather than beginning from an arbitrary “time to fight now” beat. The surging, constantly active score (credited to musical director M. W. Stoloff, but the work of diverse hands including composer Mischa Bakaleinikoff) does a lot of the work as well, giving a sense of urgency even to scenes of dialogue. (The main title theme in particular sounds like the Superman march and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” had a baby.) Aerial scenes, oddly enough, are relatively weak, in some cases cut together from obvious stock footage and in most places unclear as to how the combatants are positioned in relation to each other (see my comments below on the end of Chapter Four for a particularly egregious example). Still, these scenes are exciting and unpredictable, and in any case the “Flying G-Men” and the Black Falcon spend as much time fighting the spies on land as they do in the air.

One nice touch is the degree to which events simply refuse to cooperate with the clichés of the genre: for example, disguises are a staple of spy adventures, but almost every time the G-Men attempt to pass themselves off as someone else, they are recognized. Going undercover as workers at an aircraft plant, G-Man Cummings (James Craig) is immediately recognized by Hamilton, the company’s president (and possibly the Professor himself); they had met in the FBI director’s office previously. Cummings offers the lame explanation “Other people have made the same mistake,” but the damage is already done. In another chapter, Andrews (Robert Paige) and Davis (Richard Fiske) invade a hidden lab belonging to the spy ring; after knocking out the lab workers, they don their protective masks and try to take their place when more spies arrive to check on them. “You’re not Walker!” one exclaims after hearing Andrews’ voice, and another fistfight erupts. So much for the art of deception.

Flying G-Men also benefits from a strong ensemble of back-up players. Sammy McKim (young Kit Carson in The Painted Stallion) plays Billy, the orphaned son of the designer killed in the first chapter. Although not involved in every chapter, Billy has just the right amount of presence in the serial: in some chapters he’s put in danger and must be rescued, and in others he contributes to the G-Men’s campaign by being places that only children can go without arousing suspicion. He also has a few scenes with other kids, lending the support of his network of child airplane modelers and HAM radio enthusiasts to the G-Men. (And boy are those kids quick: in one scene, Billy’s aunt Babs is abducted by the spy ring and through quick thinking she drops her brother’s medal out of the car in front of a pair of boys. “Somebody in that car was trying to get a message to the G-Men!” they immediately conclude.)

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Babs (another veteran of the serials, Lorna Gray, who later changed her screen name to Adrian Booth) similarly gets involved in a few of the chapters; aside from being kidnapped a couple of times, she also uses her head and helps the G-Men carry out their plans, mostly by pretending to have some more undisclosed plans for her brother’s designs, as a way of luring members of the spy ring out into the open.

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I haven’t even mentioned the completely superfluous but nonetheless fantastic pretense by which the Professor recruits down-and-outers through his “Historical Study Group”; or the fact that the president of the steel mill in which some of the action is set is named “Lewis Carroll” for some reason; or the garage with a hidden elevator behind a sliding wall that forms a headquarters for the Professor’s second-in-command. Despite Columbia’s reputation for silliness, Flying G-Men largely strikes a satisfying balance between intentional and unintentional comedy: it knows how far-fetched this all is, but doesn’t feel the need to undercut its story with excessive winking and comic relief. Most gratifying to me, it also moves swiftly from one idea to the next, without the stretches of tedium that frequently plague serials (especially those in fifteen chapters). It has, in short, the quality that I value most in serials: it is imaginative, exhilarating, and above all, fun.

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What I Watched: Flying G-Men (1939, Columbia)

Where I Watched It: Flying G-Men was in the batch of DVDs I got from eBay at the beginning of the summer. It can be viewed on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Frequently serial chapter titles will hint at the crisis featured in the episode or the cliffhanger that ends it, but most of the chapter titles in Flying G-Men are either vague enough that they could apply to any episode (Chapter One, “Challenge in the Sky”) or misleading, suggesting a doom that ends up being something else entirely (Chapter Nine, “Wings of Terror,” does include one of the serial’s many aerial dogfights, but ends with the Black Falcon falling off the roof of a building). Chapter Eleven’s title, “While A Nation Sleeps,” is an example of the former, conveying the shadowy, secretive activities of the spy ring, but has little to do with the events of the chapter: it doesn’t even take place at night.

Best Cliffhanger: In keeping with the disconnect between the chapter titles and the chapter endings, the cliffhangers are often somewhat perfunctory or not very well set up, indicating that they weren’t the filmmakers’ highest priority. Most of the chapters have plenty of action within the chapter that may or may not have anything to do with the cliffhanger. So while not the best cliffhanger, the one that has occupied my mind the most since watching it is at the end of Chapter Four, “The Falcon Strikes.” The spies, having publicized an experimental “stratosphere flight” that is actually intended to help them take aerial photographs of coastal defense installations, have ascended high into the sky in a spherical observation vessel suspended from a high-altitude balloon. The Black Falcon, finding out about the subterfuge and determined to stop the spies, attacks the balloon directly from his airplane, strafing the balloon with a machine gun. The editing of the sequence makes it look like the Falcon is diving toward the balloon, firing from above, but when the vessel falls, it lands directly on the Falcon’s plane, which is now somehow below the balloon. Both the vessel and the Falcon’s plane crash to the ground. It’s a real head-scratcher.

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The resolution to this is also a curiosity: previously it’s been established that the Black Falcon sometimes flies a special small plane that can detach from a larger bomber, similar to the robot bombers whose plans are the MacGuffin of the serial. In the resolution to Chapter Four’s cliffhanger, it is shown that the Falcon flew away in the small plane while the spies’ vessel dropped the bomber to the ground. But as a newspaper headline shows, the Falcon’s “piggyback” plane is actually a “pick-a-back” plane. I’d never come across that idiom, but a little digging informs me that “pick-a-back” is actually the original form of the word. Still, according to my sources “piggyback” was current before the end of the nineteenth century, so it seems strange to see the older usage in print.

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Sample Dialogue: “Who knows but that it’ll be the Black Falcon who’ll step in and capture this Professor? This mysterious flyer seems to be doing some excellent work. In fact, he’s what could be considered a first-rate flying G-Man . . . don’t you think so?” –FBI Director Frank Carlton (Edward Earle), Chapter Eleven, “While A Nation Sleeps”

What Others Have Said: “The Falcon has a black leather flying outfit that is handier to get to when needed than the Durango Kid’s horse, while his two remaining partners are stuck with your basic gray . . . and together they are close to being a precursor to “Blackhawk” and his band. . . . Keeping a straight face is not easy to do when facing a gang of henchmen directed by James W. Horne behind the over-wrought narration of Knox Manning.” –Les Adams, summarizing Flying G-Men on the International Movie Database

This concludes this year’s Fates Worse Than Death. Thanks for following along with me! Barring any serial-related articles I may write this fall or spring, serial coverage will resume next summer. In the mean time, I hope you’ll keep following Medleyana, as you never know what I’ll choose to write about next!