In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s, and I occasionally return to that theme. Past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.
Ninjas are only a small part of Samurai Marathon (Bernard Rose, 2019), and although some elements are movied up for dramatic effect, the emphasis is on basic spycraft: no magic powers or convoluted mythology here. Based on historical events, Samurai Marathon begins with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s gunboats in Japanese waters in 1855 and his demonstration of the West’s technological superiority to the Shogun and his men. The abrupt intrusion of modernity rocks Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa), hereditary lord of the Annaka clan, to his core: he knows that the samurai way of life will crumble in the face of inevitable change. (Just so we’re clear on his feelings, he burns a drawing of the American ships and has a nightmare of being killed by Perry’s Colt revolvers for good measure.) Decades of peace have made his men soft, however: many of the samurai in his service are warriors in name only, filling bureaucratic and ceremonial positions, never seeing actual combat or hardship. In order to prepare them for what he sees as an impending American invasion, he calls for a footrace over a grueling 36-mile course, mandatory for all his samurai, foot soldiers, and able-bodied men up to age 50 in his territory. The winner will be granted one wish.
The lead-up to the race brings the several main characters together, illuminating their places and showing what victory means to them. Despite the samurai’s softness, it’s the thing to be in this feudal, insular society. Tsujimura (Mirai Moriyama), the cream of the samurai forces and arranged to marry Itakura’s daughter Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), believes the race is his to win, and arranges to do so even if it requires underhanded means. Yuki herself, yearning for the promise of freedom the Americans have brought, runs away and uses the race as a pretext to get to Edo, disguising herself as a man (but being recognized by everyone anyway). Hironoshin (Shota Sometani), a mere foot soldier, lives in poverty with his wife and child; widely acknowledged as the fastest runner, he is targeted by gamblers who bribe him to throw the race, and by Tsujimura, who urges him to stay out of the way for the good of the clan (or else have his legs broken). But victory for him would mean elevation to a samurai and a better life for his family. Mataemon (Naoto Takenaka), the recently retired palace guard, seeks to prove his loyalty and that he is not too old. When he encounters Isuke (Ruka Wakabayashi), the young, orphaned son of a samurai who hopes to become a warrior himself, he takes him under his wing and the two run together as a team.
Jinnai (Takeru Satoh), a samurai accountant (and the narrator of the film through voiceover), is a ninja: like his father before him, he secretly serves the Shogun as his eyes and ears within the Annaka clan. Jinnai sends coded messages to an “apothecary” in Edo, alerting the Shogun to signs of rebellion. At first he takes Itakura’s announcement as a rumbling of war, but when he realizes the race is only a drill, he tries to retrieve the letter he had already sent. Too late! Assassins have already been sent from Edo to take out Itakura. Jinnai, trying to undo the damage, learns that he is not the only ninja hidden in the Annaka clan!
Once all these characters and their motivations have been established, the race begins, the rest of the film taking the form of an elaborate chase sequence. The characters’ personalities are revealed by how they proceed: Mataemon, the old guard, running in the traditional “Namba” style, back erect, while Yuki leans forward in imitation of the Westerners she has observed; Tsujimura, determined to win, takes advantage of short cuts and cheats, while Hironoshin doggedly pushes forward. Meanwhile, the Shogun’s kill squad is on its way, led by the gunslinging assassin Hayabusa (Ryu Kohata), and as everyone crosses and recrosses each other’s paths, the truth slowly dawns on them: this is much bigger than a race for honor. There are bloody betrayals and retribution, and heel and face turns (it happens that the vainglorious Tsujimura does have some heroic qualities after all). The second half of the marathon, returning along the same path as the first, becomes a race against time to rescue Itakura and the Annaka clan, left undefended during the race.
Filmed in scenic Japan with an all-Japanese cast in their own language (the only Western actor I recognized was Danny Huston as Commodore Perry), Samurai Marathon nevertheless has the character of an international production by virtue of its English director Bernard Rose (Candyman) and his American collaborator, composer Philip Glass. It’s Glass’s score, much of it recycled from his own Mishima and full of familiar Glassisms, that really makes the film soar. The motif accompanying the foot race is a reworking of the propulsive funeral music from Akhnaten, but it’s hard to complain when it works so well, and I have to assume Rose heard the original and recognized its potential for scoring action. It’s reminiscent of John Boorman’s use of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana for King Arthur’s triumphant return in Excalibur, and the ending of Samurai Marathon is nearly as ecstatic.
This is a film about bodies in motion, and while there are likeable characters and themes of honor, history, and self-determination, many of the sequences are ultimately as abstract as Koyaanisqatsi. After the climax, Rose indulges in an epilogue that in other films might seem corny, transitioning to the modern day to relate that the Annaka foot race was the beginning of the Japanese Marathon, still going on today. Like Zack Snyder, Rose knows that what we really want out of cinema is a tableau of athletic bodies moving in slow motion, and then ratcheting to even slower motion as the music swells, but Snyder is far too self-serious to superimpose Edo-era runners over modern people running in gym shorts, business suits, and silly costumes, as Rose does here. It should be a moment of deflation, of “Now they call it . . .” bathos, but after running his characters, and us, through the wringer for a hundred and forty minutes of surging adrenaline, the release of tension had the opposite effect on me: it says, you know what? Against all evidence, sometimes the world is pretty fucking fantastic.
This is the latest I have ever posted a year-end roundup for this blog, but life happens, so if you’re still interested in seeing such an article, well, better late than never. Some of the same life events (detailed in previous posts) that kept me busy also cut down on the number of films I watched last year (you can see my complete Letterboxd diary here). On the other hand, I did manage to make it to the movie theater a little more consistently than I did in 2020 and 2021, although still not at the rate I used to attend. Between theatrical showings, streaming, and physical media options, I saw nearly forty movies released in 2022, enough to make a personal Best of 2022 list. Several films I wanted to see evaded me, including Flux Gourmet, Violent Night, and Babylon, and I have yet to see some of the biggest films with colons in their titles: Top Gun: Maverick, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Avatar: The Way of Water.
Nevertheless! As always, the following list represents my favorites from among those I watched, and is subject to change (at the encouragement of a friend, I started posting more detailed reactions and star ratings to my Letterboxd account, but some of those movies have already changed in my estimation as they linger with me).
10. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson) was one of three new adaptations of the familiar story of a wooden puppet who comes to life, but the only one I saw (and, from what I hear, the only one worth watching). Although many details are familiar from other retellings, del Toro has once again put his personal stamp on the material, weaving religious and political struggles into the story and explicitly setting it in Mussolini’s Italy during World War II. This film was co-written by Patrick McHale (Over the Garden Wall), whose brand of fantasy turns out to be very compatible with del Toro’s. All of this is brought to life in gorgeous stop-motion animation (it’s been a boom year for the medium, in fact, with anthology film The House, Henry Selick’s Wendell and Wild, and Phil Tippett’s long-in-production Mad God all released in the last year).
9. A world-renowned chef (Ralph Fiennes) summons a group of rich clients, restaurant critics, and foodies to his island restaurant for an exclusive event, only to turn the tables, with each course revealing the grudges he holds against them. Fiennes’ performance as the chef is the best part of the film, gradually revealing the intense pressure under which he works, the toll it’s taken on his health and private life, and the masterful control necessary to bring a meal (or a revenge) together. I enjoyed The Menu (dir. Mark Mylod) while I was watching it, but in retrospect it has a very similar dynamic to Ready or Not, a film I still prefer. The pretensions of haute cuisine are perhaps too easy of a target, but expanding its scope to call out bloodless, unfeeling art of any kind makes it clear that it’s as much a jab at A24-style “elevated horror” as a call to bring out the guillotines. That Anya Taylor-Joy, who is practically the face of “elevated horror” since breaking out with The VVitch, appears as the audience surrogate among the diners and gets to deliver the third-act thesis statement makes the irony all the more . . . delicious.
8. Winsor McCay’s classic newspaper comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland is in the public domain, so it’s fair game for borrowing and adaptation, but it’s a little strange that as far as I can tell, McCay’s name doesn’t even appear in the credits for Slumberland (dir. Francis Lawrence). But whatever, real heads know. The new film reimagines the protagonist as a young girl (Marlow Barkley), orphaned and sent to live with her emotionally closed-off uncle (Chris O’Dowd). Reliving memories of her imaginative father in dreams, she encounters Flip (Jason Momoa), a rogue who is able to move freely within the dream world—Slumberland—living out whatever fantasy suits him for the moment. McCay’s comic strip was famously episodic, with the tow-headed main character waking up at the end of each installment, but the film borrows liberally from films like Time Bandits (a map of Slumberland figures prominently), Inception, and the Disney+ series Loki (Flip is a fugitive dreamer, pursued by “dream police” whose bureaucratic look and ethos draw heavily on ‘70s cop shows, much like Loki’s Time Variance Authority) to provide structure. On top of that, Momoa plays the satyr-like Flip as an aggressive mix of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow and wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage. But somehow all these diverse elements come satisfyingly together; the dream worlds are dazzling and connect in fun ways (and since these are technically other people’s dreams, their relationship to the dreamers’ waking lives come as an amusing reveal near the end), and at its core there is an emotional arc that balances the power of dreaming with the importance of living your life while you’re awake.
7. I posted a longer review of The Bad Guys (dir. Pierre Perifel) on Letterboxd, but to keep it short, this is an example of the family-friendly animated comedy done right. A band of slick animal outlaws, all scary predators like Wolf, Shark, Snake, et cetera, is provided with a second chance, allowing them to find out whether they’re “bad guys” because they’re born that way or because society treats them as such. Drawing on a vocabulary of heist and con films, The Bad Guys delivers the pleasures of tightly-plotted scams and schemes (complete with double- and triple-crosses), witty banter, and characters who aren’t always what they appear.
6. Another film about the pleasures of behaving badly, Do Revenge (dir. Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) calls its shots early on with prominently placed copies of Strangers on a Train and Dangerous Liaisons, and it’s similarly knowing about the media- (and social media-) soaked lives of the privileged young people at its center. After Drea (Camila Mendes) has her life at an exclusive prep school turned upside down by a leaked explicit video, endangering her planned-out life path, a new acquaintance, Eleanor (Maya Hawke), helps her get payback in exchange for help with her own revenge. Of course, things never work out quite the way we expect, even when they appear to go according to plan. Do Revenge is the Gen-Z successor to Heathers, and I mean that as the highest praise.
5. In Turning Red (dir. Domee Shi), thirteen-year-old Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) has everything under control, from school to friendship to her dutiful place in her family, until puberty comes along and wrecks everything: her sudden, unpredictable transformation into a giant red panda is fraught with metaphor (outside of educational films, this is the first Disney release to explicitly mention menstruation), but it’s also a powerful escapist fantasy. When she learns that her transformation is part of her family’s heritage, and that she is expected to follow her mother’s example of locking away her newfound power, she is forced to make a difficult decision. It sounds heavy, but Turning Red balances its exploration of generational trauma, the immigrant experience, and peer pressure with the goofiness of being in middle school and just wanting to see your favorite boy band in concert and writing merman fanfic about the cute boy you have a crush on.
4. Ten years ago, Funny or Die released a fake trailer for a heavy, dramatic biopic of “Weird Al” Yankovic with Aaron Paul as the novelty singer-songwriter. Amazingly, we now have the actual film promised by that trailer in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (dir. Eric Appel), starring Daniel Radcliffe (announcing the project, Yankovic asserted that “I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the role future generations will remember him for”). Detailing Yankovic’s incredible rise to the top of 1980s music stardom, his passionate affair with Madonna, having the tables turned on him when his original song “Eat It” was parodied by Michael Jackson, and his battle against a Colombian drug cartel, Weird is in the same vein as comedy “behind the music” films like This Is Spinal Tap and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, but is even more amazing since, unlike those movies, it all really happened.
3. “You’re capable of anything because you’re so bad at everything,” says a dimension-hopping version of Evelyn’s (Michelle Yeoh) husband, explaining why her every failure and missed opportunity makes her the perfect candidate to save the many branching realities that make up the multiverse. Taught to access versions of herself that made different choices and borrow their skills (everything from kung fu to playing the piano with her feet), Evelyn confronts the nihilistic Jobu Tupaki, a cautionary example of a jumper who’s seen so much that nothing has any meaning, but her real struggle is to avoid the same fate and make the best of the one life that’s really hers. Everything Everywhere All at Once (dir. “The Daniels,” Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) represents the fullest expression of the fascination with multiverses that has gradually gone mainstream in the last decade or so, but while it speaks the language of science fiction and superhero comics, the emotional stakes set it apart from the usual summer blockbuster (note the title: there’s not a colon anywhere to be found). It speaks to the pervasive sense of having taken a wrong turn somewhere, and that acute nostalgia for things that never were that comes from imagining things would be so much better in some other timeline. Ultimately, connection to the multiverse doesn’t mean much if you can’t connect to yourself and the people around you.
2. Earlier this year, X homaged and updated The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for a cinephile generation hungry to see itself in the spotlight: Mia Goth plays an aspiring porn actress, who along with her crew, runs afoul of a murderous old woman (also played by Goth). X was cool, but the prequel Pearl, also released this year (and, like X, directed by Ti West), is on another level entirely: Goth returns to reveal the old woman’s youth in World War I-era Texas, struggling to contain her sociopathic impulses and desire for fame and recognition against the strictness of her German immigrant family, her absent husband fighting the war, and the fears of contamination brought on by the 1918 influenza epidemic (filmmakers have tried with various levels of success to deal with Covid as a plot point, but this is the best I have seen, “pandemic cinema” that succeeds by analogy rather than hitting the subject head-on). Where X borrowed the grimy vocabulary of TCSM and Psycho and calls attention to its cleverness through a nerdy film director character, Pearl mimics Hollywood’s Golden Age through a surging, romantic score and visual references to The Wizard of Oz and the silent films Pearl hopes to star in, and the result is magical. Magical, and terrifying.
1. I’ve enjoyed all of writer-director Jordan Peele’s films so far, but I suspect Nope is the one I’ll revisit the most for its ominous Western/monster movie vibe. Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play sibling heirs to a ranch that supplies horses to movie and television productions, left to run things on their own after their father’s death. A series of weird events around the isolated ranch and centered on a former child actor’s (Steven Yeun) nearby tourist trap leads the siblings to suspect UFO activity. I don’t want to spoil anything else, but Nope is scary, funny, and awe-inspiring; Peele knows his Fortean lore, the plotting is tight and fast-paced, and the meditations on spectacle and the treatment of animals in show business don’t feel like an afterthought or a heavy-handed message. I’m also fascinated by the observation that Nope is in part an homage to Steven Spielberg’s career, with numerous references in the visuals and names of characters, and that it’s ultimately a study of the “Spielberg face,” the trademark expressive close-up used to project a sense of awe and wonder in so many of the director’s films.
Honorable Mention: Over the years a number of self-distributed films have made their way to YouTube, sometimes for a limited time and sometimes for good. This year, the most interesting YouTube-distributed film I saw was Ambient Trip Commander, a one-man animated production drawn, animated, and scored by Danny Wolfers, who performs under the name Legowelt. The story is simple but not straightforward: an aimless young woman spends her days working in a synthesizer shop until a mysterious summons draws her to a distant town, home to both a Paleolithic cave and a mountain castle. A sinister pink being stalks her as she makes her way to her destination. With a handmade look and a cool electronic soundtrack, Ambient Trip Commander is mostly about vibes, a meditation on expanding consciousness and a love letter to retro synths and computers. It successfully captures the dreamlike feeling of being alone, traveling across an empty landscape at night: it’s both cozy and a little spooky.
Thanks for reading and following, and have a great 2023!
At the end of the Civil War, Secret Service agent Steve Clark is assigned to investigate a series of Confederate raids on gold shipments from the town of Oro Grande, California. Clark is the Service’s most experienced agent, and a target of assassination attempts. Aboard a westbound train under the name “Chuck Mason,” Clark is singled out by Alex Morel, proprietor of the Oro Grande saloon the Golden Eagle, and the singer he is bringing west with him, Trina Dessard (in reality both covert leaders of the gold-raiding operation): Steve Clark must not be allowed to reach Oro Grande! Clark is lured into the rear carriage of the train by one of Morel’s thugs posing as a railroad detective, with the intention of killing him, but the pair are followed by a stranger on the train, a good-natured fighter who takes it upon himself to protect Clark. During the fight that ensues, Morel uncouples the car from the train, sending it careening back down the mountainside to derail and crash! Have Clark and his new ally had it? Is the adventure over before it has even begun? Of course not, but audiences had to return the following week to find out how they escaped in Chapter Two of Raiders of Ghost City!
I wasn’t sure if I was going to write about serials anymore: not that I’ve seen them all, far from it, but over fifty or sixty articles I’ve probably said everything I have to say about them without devoting my life to researching them full-time. And to be honest, I haven’t found the serial community that welcoming. Without naming names, there is a level of gatekeeping within this hobby just as there is in so many, and an orthodoxy that, when combined with the conservatism that often comes with an interest in older film genres, has meant that other fans don’t seem to be looking for the same things in these movies that I am. That’s okay: different strokes, and all that. But it didn’t really encourage me to keep going.
But I still enjoy serials, and Raiders of Ghost City is a good one, fast-moving with likeable characters and a variety of locations and action set-pieces. The wartime espionage theme, combined with the Western setting, has some juice, and although it is a product of its time, it’s nuanced enough to be satisfying to a modern viewer, or at least this modern viewer. (But if I don’t go into as much detail with this one, forgive me; it’s been a busy year.)
Steve Clark, played by Dennis Moore, is a typical stoic, can-do leading man, but the characters around him complement his approach and bring some color to the proceedings: most important is Idaho Jones (Joe Sawyer), the stranger who came to Clark’s rescue on the train. Jones is a detective investigating the murder of Oro Grande’s Wells Fargo agent; he wears a big grin and an even bigger cowboy hat, and he’s the kind of Mark Twain creation that can’t resist a good brawl and leads the bad guys on a chase around the countryside for “a little fun.” He’s basically the co-lead, and while there is never friction between Clark and Jones once they reveal their identities, it does suggest a mismatched buddy cop comedy at times, and following the pattern set by the first chapter, most of the cliffhangers involve one of the pair in deadly peril, only to be saved at the last minute by the other.
There’s also Cathy Haines (Wanda McKay), daughter of the murdered agent and now acting Wells Fargo agent of Oro Grande herself; in her first appearance, she seems to be sweet on Jeff Logan, a cavalryman connected to nearby Fort Loma and its commanding officer, Colonel Sewell. When Logan is caught riding with the gold raiders, Sewell suspects him of being a Confederate spy, but he turns out to be Steve Clark’s brother Jim, working undercover, and upon Steve’s arrival in Oro Grande he’s able to vouch for him. The brothers’ reunion is short-lived, however: Jim promises an explosive revelation, saying “it’s bigger than North and South,” but he is shot to keep him from talking, and is dead by the beginning of Chapter Four.
Many serials have only One Female Character; Cathy is ripe for pairing up with the hero (once the hero’s brother is out of the way, of course), but strictly in a platonic way as Confederate-fighting partners and then as friends, because ew, cooties, but if you’re an older member of the audience and you want to read between the lines, go ahead. As it happens, Raiders of Ghost City isn’t so formulaic that it only has one female character: it has two female characters, so take that, smart guy. The previously-mentioned Trina Dessard (Virginia Christine) is the Bad Girl to Cathy’s Good Girl. In her deep, haughty voice and show-biz worldliness, Trina is implied to be a femme fatale, but in the sexless serial world, implication is as far as it goes.
Trina pairs nicely with Morel, played by sneeringly British Lionel Atwill, and their evil machinations are known to the audience from the beginning, long before Clark and company are able to pin anything on them, as opposed to the common serial formula of unmasking an unknown mastermind at the end, so if you enjoy duplicitous villains, this is a good serial. What is their big secret, and what is the meaning of the various coins dated 1752 that they and others of their ring carry? Despite being played by the Most British Person Alive in 1944, Morel and his gang are actually Prussian! Morel is in reality Erich von Rugen, and Trina is Countess Elsa von Merck (haughtiness factor +10). (The ignominious end of Atwill’s once-stellar career is discussed in my review of Lost City of the Jungle.)
Other operatives are similarly disguised and passing for American, including an unknown traitor in the Wells Fargo office who is shown passing notes to the Prussian spies through a hidden drop in the wall of the Golden Eagle (at least until he is later caught). The coins are a secret means for agents to identify one another, the 1752 stamped on them referring to the year Frederick the Great (supposedly) wrote a detailed set of instructions for political domination for his sons. The Prussian scheme is to raid Union gold shipments, which will be blamed on Confederate forces, but are actually diverted to Prussia, and which will be used to buy Alaska from the Russian Empire before the United States finds out the Czar is entertaining offers. First Alaska, then the world!
In addition to Steve Clark’s investigations, the Prussian scheme is complicated by the end of the Civil War in Chapter Five: Braddock (frequent heavy Jack Ingram), the leader of the outlaws conducting the raids, headquartered at the abandoned Ghost City close to Oro Grande, thinks he’s working for ordinary Confederates, so he and his gang start wondering why they shouldn’t just keep the gold for themselves now that the war is over, or at least get a bigger cut for their trouble. Similarly, Confederate agent Clay Randolph (a former West Point classmate and rival of Steve Clark’s) is ready to surrender to the United States as soon as he hears of the peace, but not until he can confront Morel about the treachery he suspects, a display of loyalty that doesn’t end well for him.
Randolph, played by Regis Toomey, is an interesting character: in addition to being a Southern spy, he’s also blamed for the death of Cathy’s father and a Union agent in Washington. Toomey plays him as a charismatic and even honest figure, however, at odds with the double-dealing he’s accused of. By the time we learn he didn’t kill the victims he’s accused of murdering (Cathy’s father was killed by the traitor in the Oro Grande Wells Fargo office) and he’s telling off Morel and attempting to reveal the truth to Clark with his dying words, it’s clear that we are meant to see him as one of those honorable but misguided individuals who are an essential part of the Lost Cause myth, whose true loyalty is to the spirit of America even if they felt the need to turn against her government. Such portrayals in the name of national healing and unity were, and are, common, and while they were probably seen as a necessary step following the divisions of that war, it’s not hard to see the persistent lionization of Confederates and erasure of the war’s root causes as one of the sources of problems we’re still dealing with. (The lack of any black characters almost goes without saying, as their presence is more exception than rule in the serials, and in any case it was rare to have their viewpoints centered in pre-Civil Rights-era productions.)
Needless to say, however, the serial’s choice of villains is even more telling: Bismarck-idolizing German expansionists would have been a pleasure to root against during the height of World War II. In its way, Raiders of Ghost City engages with the contemporary war as much as Secret Service in Darkest Africa’s Nazi-fighting hero Rex Bennett. The alt-history territorial premise is similar to The Vigilantes Are Coming, although Raiders is far superior as a film. In writing about The Vigilantes, I noted similarities to 1998’s The Mask of Zorro, to which the Prussian scheme in this movie also bears some resemblance. It’s also worth pointing out that between its title, Idaho Jones’ name, and the haughty German Elsa, Raiders of Ghost City was surely one of the serials that had a direct influence on George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in creating their own updated serial hero Indiana Jones. Coincidence? Perhaps, but if the hat fits . . .
What I Watched:Raiders of Ghost City (Universal, 1944)
Where I Watched It: This was on Amazon Prime, but only up until the end of August, sorry! As of this writing, it is on YouTube, however (and the screen caps are from YouTube).
No. of Chapters: 13
Best Chapter Title: “Calling All Buckboards” (Chapter Twelve)
The title refers to a sequence (presumably borrowed from a land rush sequence from some bigger-budget Western feature) in which the gold miners head for Ghost City to take on the outlaw raiders while the cavalry is occupied with an Indian uprising. It leads to a pitched battle between the miners, raiders, cavalry and Indians that ultimately burns down Ghost City.
Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven, “Trail to Torture,” Idaho has been captured by the restless Modoc Indians. The Modocs have been agitated by renegade Joe Berk, working for the Prussians, and after a telegraph conference between the chief and “Great White Father” Abraham Lincoln falls through due to Lincoln’s assassination, the tribe is convinced that the white man has screwed them over again. (They even turn against the raiders and kill Berk in the next chapter.) In a scene that emphasizes Hollywood’s take on Indian “savagery,” Idaho’s legs are tied to a pair of saplings bent to the ground; when the ropes holding the trees down are cut, Idaho will be ripped apart! It’s one of the more gruesome perils in a serial that includes train derailings, shootouts, stabbing, and drowning as cliffhangers. Fortunately, in the next chapter, Clark arrives at the last moment and shoots through both ropes just at the moment the Indians are about to cut them, an incredible feat of marksmanship that is par for the course for serial heroes.
Randolph: Yes, I understand German, but I speak good old Tennessee English too. I suspected Richmond wasn’t getting all the gold from our raids, but what you’ve stolen for Prussia, Washington is going to get.
Morel: You would help the enemies of your country?
Randolph: No, Morel. You’re my country’s enemy. As of today there is no North and South, only United States!
Chapter Five, “The Fatal Lariat”
What’s Next: I don’t know, nothing? Your guess is as good as mine, but thanks for reading!
As 2021 draws to a close, I think it’s fair to say that the reopening of public life following the introduction of vaccines against Covid-19 hasn’t been all it was cracked up to be. With variants continually evolving and hospitalizations rising and falling like the peaks and valleys of a roller coaster, I just haven’t made it a priority to visit indoor movie theaters outside of a few times during the summer. So, while the film schedule cranked back up this year, I didn’t see very many new releases. On the other hand, the normalization of day-and-date streaming and shorter windows for streaming and home video releases meant that I did see more current films than I did in 2020: I just mostly watched them at home. (You can check out my diary on Letterboxd for a full list of films I viewed although I typically don’t rate or review anything.)
As far as the big releases go, I still need to see Dune (I almost went to see it during its IMAX rerelease, but the times didn’t line up for me to see it in the large-screen format, so I thought, why bother?) and Spider-Man: Far From Home. I wasn’t too impressed with Black Widow (too little too late for one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most ill-served characters, plus ick), but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a lot of fun. Godzilla vs. Kong was another enjoyable popcornball that I saw at the drive-in.
Smaller releases I enjoyed include The Mitchells vs. The Machines (a little too formulaic to live up to the massive hype, but it had a lot of heart), Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (ditto on the heart, but much less predictable), and Old (I joked about the most recent M. Night Shyamalan feature during my October wrap-up, but when I saw it, it was . . . good).
Still, continuing to explore films at home was as rewarding as ever, and here’s a small sample of the best or most interesting older films I watched for the first time this year:
Traveling Saleslady (Ray Enright, 1935)
This is one of several frothy pre-Code comedies starring Joan Blondell that I’ve watched in the last couple of years. Blondell plays the headstrong daughter of a stuck-in-his-ways toothpaste magnate, full of ideas for the business but always shut down by her father’s sexist conservatism. So, with the help of scientist Hugh Herbert, she takes her ideas (and the scientist’s new invention that makes toothpaste taste like the alcoholic beverage of your choice) to her father’s competitor under an assumed name. Does she cross paths with her father’s chauvinistic head salesman, and do they drive each other crazy until they can’t deny their mutual feelings for one another, and is there an explosive finale in which her true identity comes out? Well, some formulas don’t change.
Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)
Speaking of Joan Blondell, her world-weary performance as carnival mind reader Zeena is a high point of this adaptation of the same William Lindsay Gresham novel that Guillermo Del Toro remade this year (I haven’t seen the new version yet but I plan to). Tyrone Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, an ambitious, unscrupulous carny who buys the act from Zeena and her washed-up husband, getting into the mentalism racket and taking it as far as it will go, with disastrous results. This may be my favorite new discovery of the year: Power is magnetic, as are the three women (Blondell, Coleen Gray as Stan’s naïve wife, and Helen Walker as a psychiatrist who is every bet the operator Stan is) who mark the stations of his rise and fall. Even the studio-mandated “happy ending” is only mildly hopeful, at best. Nightmare Alley explores the desperate underbelly of the American dream in a manner reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life (and was similarly rejected by audiences), but it’s as if the whole movie takes place in the world where George Bailey was never born.
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Nathan Juran, 1958)
This is one of those movies everyone thinks they’ve seen, but the famous rampage is only the last ten minutes or so. Before that is a good hour of melodrama about obsession, jealousy, manipulation, and, to a degree, “contactee psychology,” as millionaire heiress Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) tries to convince anyone who will listen that she really did see a “satellite” and a thirty-foot-tall giant in the desert while her no-good husband Harry (William Hudson) plots to have her institutionalized. A short but sweet classic of ‘50s sci-fi.
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Karel Zeman, 1962)
I’ve been a fan of the Baron’s preposterous adventures since seeing Terry Gilliam’s 1988 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen—one of these days I’m going to carry out my threat of writing a series on cinematic Munchausen adaptations—so I was glad to catch up with the Czech version that seems to have been the most direct influence on Gilliam. The flat, cartoon-like compositions and animated interludes already have a lot in common with Gilliam’s early Monty Python animations, for one thing, and Milos Kopecký’s take on the Baron as charismatic and heroic but hilariously vain is also familiar through John Neville’s version of the character. The plot in Zeman’s version involves an astronaut arriving on the moon and finding the Baron dining with several other historical and literary figures there. In a reversal of the expected dynamic, the Baron treats the astronaut’s description of his rocket ship and modern life on earth as utterly ridiculous, and offers to help him find his way home . . . in the Baron’s own unique style, of course, and not without a few digressions along the way. It’s charming throughout, and while it has some of the same element of Munchausen being treated as a man out of step with modernity, Zeman uses a feather duster where Gilliam uses a sledge hammer.
Yokai Monsters trilogy (Kimiyoshi Yasuda and Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1968-69)
As sometimes happens, I watched the three Yokai Monsters films (subtitled 100 Monsters, Spook Warfare, and Along with Ghosts) on YouTube about a month before Arrow announced a box set collecting them (along with Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai War, which I haven’t seen). Each film is a standalone story, connected only by the recycling of puppets and props, but they are all fun ghost stories drawing on Japanese folklore (the yokai are something like ghosts or spirits attached to certain places, but by convention there are many discrete types, such as the long-necked lady or the one-eyed umbrella yokai who both make multiple appearances in the series). In a process familiar to fans of monster movies, the yokai who first appear as spooky threats to humans gradually become the heroes, guarding “their” humans from other, more serious supernatural menaces.
The Legend of Frenchie King (Christian-Jaque, 1971)
Comic Westerns are a favorite subgenre of mine, and one without much critical cachet—for every Cat Ballou or Blazing Saddles there are dozens of duds or forgotten obscurities—but every once in a while a surprise turns up. Going by Les Pétroleuses (dubbed in English as The Legend of Frenchie King), the French equivalent of the Italian “spaghetti Western” should be the “Beaujolais Western,” as it centers on a French-settled town in Texas where the saloon taps flow with red wine instead of beer or whiskey. Were it not clear enough that we’re in movieland, this gives us Brigitte Bardot as the leader of an all-girl gang of train robbers and Claudia Cardinale as a rancher battling over a plot of land with oil deposits hidden beneath it. With Bardot’s gang and Cardinale looking after her shiftless, rowdy brothers, there’s a comic-opera symmetry that fits the cartoonish plot (and even a literal cartoon explosion), and the frank but playful sexiness strikes me as very French indeed. Ditch the misogynistic McLintock! and give this one a try instead.
The Astrologer (Craig Denney, 1976)
A self-financed, self-aggrandizing pseudo-biopic about an astrologer who starts out telling fortunes at a carnival and uses his knowledge of the Zodiac to build a financial empire, The Astrologer is a bit like Nightmare Alley if it took for granted that the ambitious mentalist’s powers were genuine. I had wanted to see this for years since I first heard about it, but director-star Denney’s use of unauthorized music from the Moody Blues and others kept it in limbo, viewable only at infrequent public screenings of rare prints. Well, this year some Robin Hood of the internet put a fresh scan of the film on YouTube, and you’d better believe watching it became my top priority. The movie lived up to the hype: lavish and self-indulgent in the way that self-financed art often is, but equally stylish and eccentric, full of location shooting in Africa and Tahiti, slow motion, prismatic colored light effects, and let-it-all-hang-out storytelling. There are comparisons to The Room to be made, but this is a much more accomplished film, making the wtf moments (and there are many) stand out all the more.
Brainstorm (Douglas Trumbull, 1983)
Christopher Walken plays a researcher whose invention lets people share experiences directly, or even record them for later playback; the first half is mostly about the wonderful promise (and a few complications) of the device, but when it becomes clear the military has its own applications in mind it becomes more of a techno-thriller. Brainstorm is an interesting and beautifully-designed film (as one would expect from special effects artist-turned-director Trumbull) that doesn’t quite hang together. It invites comparisons to other movies, like Tron but less purely entertaining or WarGames but more ridiculous, and it seems to have been a major influence on Inception as well. Some of the shagginess is probably due to Natalie Wood’s death during the production but it is also divided between crowd-pleasing special effects showcase in the Spielberg vein and a more cerebral experience following Kubrick’s influence. (The criticism that Walken seems checked out most of the time is also fair.) The best performance and most intense scenes are from Louise Fletcher as the device’s co-inventor, but the plot dictates that she can’t be the center of the film.
The Journey to Melonia (Per Åhlin, 1989)
In this Swedish animated film, loosely based on The Tempest, a kindly wizard protects the last fertile island from an incursion by the residents of Plutonia, a grimy, industrialized island run by rapacious capitalists. The resultant film is not exactly subtle in its environmental and economic themes, but it’s gorgeously animated, reminiscent of Don Bluth and Hayao Miyazaki, and it has many clever touches: there’s a Hensonesque quality to Caliban, Prospero’s grouchy servant and gardener, being literally made of vegetables. This seems like it would have been an easy film to export, so I was surprised I had never heard of it until this year.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki, 1997)
The sprawling Evangelion series was a major pop culture blind spot I caught up with this year: the original TV series from 1995-96, the film that originally capped it off, and the twenty-first century “Rebuild” series of four films that ended this year with Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (how’s that for anime titling conventions, but the suggestion of a software update combined with an ancient myth or fairy tale fits surprisingly well). Years after the “Second Impact” and an attack by “angels” wiped out half of humanity, young Shinji is one of a few teenagers conditioned to pilot the gigantic bio-mechanical “Evas” prepared for the angels’ inevitable return (I had heard that Pacific Rim owed a lot to Evangelion, and boy, that was an understatement). The 1997 feature film reveals both the traumas that shaped the individual characters and how they tie into the ultimate goal of Commander Ikari, leader of the Eva program (and Shinji’s estranged father).
I had already seen series creator Hideaki Anno’s live-action updates of Gamera and Godzilla (not to mention the fan work that led to the formation of Studio Gainax), but this mixture of sci-fi action, mysticism, and psychodrama, exploring depression and the psychological toll of war, is where he made his mark. By turns exhilarating, devastating, baffling, and infuriating, I can’t say I always understood everything that was happening, but I’ve seen enough Anno by now to believe that’s the point: you can’t change the past, you’ll never know everything, and everyone around you is going through experiences you can only imagine, but you can make choices in the here and now. I’m planning a deeper dive into this with a friend of the blog for next year, so keep an eye out for that.
In the sky, high above the fairgrounds on which Col. Nathan Gregory’s traveling carnival is pitched, a stunt plane writes a message in the clouds: “MAY 23 1918 THE EAGLE.” What could it mean? To Gregory, it’s a reminder of the past: on the date in question, the ace pilot known as “the Eagle” was shot down by members of his own squadron, not recognizing one of their own returning from a mission in a captured enemy plane. For members of the Evans Aero Corporation’s board of directors, it’s a threat: many of them flew with the Eagle and still live with the guilt of that day’s events. Has the Eagle returned for vengeance, or does someone know a secret that they are leveraging for blackmail?
The skywriting pilot doesn’t know: Craig McCoy works for the carnival, and he wrote the message after someone dropped him an envelope with a hundred dollar bill in it. That doesn’t stop the board members from accusing him: it turns out that Gregory was “the Eagle,” long thought dead. In addition to the friendly fire that brought him down, Gregory claims the company’s success is built on an invention stolen from him. It’s only logical to think that he’s using McCoy to execute his long-planned revenge. Soon, however, another plane appears, and it begins writing the names of the board members and crossing them out, making the threat more explicit; not to mention the appearance of two thugs, Moore and Boyle, who claim to be working for the Eagle. It’s up to McCoy (John Wayne), along with Gregory’s daughter Jean (Dorothy Gulliver), to protect Gregory and his carnival from false accusations and the violent repercussions that follow, and ultimately solve the mystery. And it’s not long before they face danger themselves, as the first chapter of The Shadow of the Eagle ends with the unknown plane chasing the two of them across a field at ground level, threatening to run them down!
Despite Craig McCoy’s job as a pilot and the importance of skywriting and aircraft to the plot, The Shadow of the Eagle isn’t totally focused on aviation, and there’s only a little aerial danger in the form of dogfights or crashes. The youthful McCoy is more Tailspin Tommy than Ace Drummond. The carnival setting is much more important, providing a colorful backdrop and cast of supporting characters. In addition to McCoy and Jean, Col. Gregory is supported by little person Billy (billed as “the Midget”), a strongman (Ivan Linow), and a ventriloquist (James Bradbury Jr.), among a few others. As in Daredevils of the Red Circle, they form a team of varied abilities, so there are many fun scenes of Billy fooling the bad guys as a decoy (even disguised as a baby in a basket at one point), the ventriloquist imitating other peoples’ voices to get information or create distractions, and the strongman, well, being strong. The sense of family and camaraderie between them lends itself to banter and kidding (little Billy has a few catchphrases, including bossing the strongman around and calling him a “palooka”); and of course, all of them have the showbiz lifer’s loyalty to their patron and father figure, Gregory. (The dark side of that loyalty is that if you cross one of them, you cross them all: see the cliffhanger at the end of “The Code of the Carnival,” below.)
Dating from 1932, this is actually the earliest sound serial I’ve reviewed for this series so far, and it has many of the dated elements that I’ve seen in other serials from the time period: there is no non-diegetic music at all, other than the theme that opens each chapter, and there are often long stretches of silence without even sound effects. (I do like the voiceover that provides recaps, as the narrator’s creaky voice makes it sound like a storyteller relaying something nearly lost to the mists of time.) The plot has the sense of broad strokes seen in serials like Pirate Treasure, as if the filmmakers said to themselves, “What do kids want to see on screen? Airplanes! Carnivals! Chases! Fights!” and wrote it up accordingly. The and-then-there-were-none plotting of the board of directors being eliminated one by one, while one of them is secretly the Eagle, is not handled as slickly as it would be in later serials, but it’s clear enough. Finally, The Shadow of the Eagle has the casual relationship with cause and effect I’ve noticed in other Mascot serials. Let one example stand in for the whole: at the end of Chapter Nine, “When Thieves Fall Out,” McCoy and Henry drive off, only for the Eagle’s henchmen, Moore and Boyle, to appear on the side of their convertible, demanding they stop and provoking a fight within the moving car. Where did they come from? The implication is that they were on the car’s running board, hidden from sight until the car started moving, but it’s the kind of thing that would be set up much more clearly in later serials.
Having said all that, The Shadow of the Eagle has one virtue that goes far in overcoming those flaws: it moves like a demon, flowing swiftly from one scene to the next, and the lulls are few and far between. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense, and it definitely challenges the kind of close watching I usually try to do with these films, but if you sit back and allow it to wash over you—arguably, the mindset in which it was meant to be seen—it’s a ton of fun, full of the styles, situations, and twists that are really more important to the serial experience than something as skimpy and inconsequential as plot. I’ve argued that the Mascot serials of the 1930s often feel like dreams, and like dreams, they often circle back to moments of crisis, repeated with variation as if fixated.
As is true of many serials, captivity is a recurring theme, with Gregory abducted multiple times, once even being dropped off at a sanitarium along with his daughter (by Moore and Boyle posing as family members concerned about Gregory’s “persecution complex”). Characters hide or are trapped in trunks, bins, and cabinets, including a magician’s vanishing cabinet. Costumes and disguises are likewise employed by both heroes and villains to misdirect their enemies (and the audience). Even these formulaic devices are deployed less consistently than they would be later on: sometimes the Eagle would appear disguised as Gregory, wearing the same slouch hat and coat to impersonate him; sometimes he would be a disembodied voice, proclaiming, “You are under the shadow of the Eagle!” before striking; other times he would be behind a console, controlling the robot plane by remote.
The slipperiness and seeming carelessness with which these plot twists unfold may appear as defects to those who prefer the consistency and craftsmanship of the Republic serials, but I loved the exuberance with which classic set pieces and plot elements were stuck together in ways that could still be fresh and surprising in those days. More than once I’d cackle as a character announced that he knew who the Eagle was and he would remain silent no more, knowing that as soon as he said, “the Eagle is—” the lights would go out and a knife would go in, or a shot would strike him from some offscreen hiding spot, and the Eagle’s secret would be safe for another chapter. Things like that were already clichés in the early 1930s, but the filmmakers are aware of their audience’s familiarity with them, so they look for new ways to ring changes on the old material. As with other serials from these early days, it helps that all of the stunts are original, without the reliance on the backlog of stock footage from which later serials suffer.
The Shadow of the Eagle is most notable for starring John Wayne as Craig McCoy. Before John Ford made Wayne the icon he would become, the young actor spent more than a decade in the trenches making B-movies and serials (The Shadow of the Eagle isn’t even the only serial Wayne headlined in 1932: the same year he would lead another Nat Levine-produced serial, The Hurricane Express), including a stint in the long-running “Three Mesquiteers” series. Many of these films were Westerns, but not all of them. It’s fascinating to see (and hear) a young but recognizable Wayne at about age twenty-five: he’s a capable serial man of action, but it would have been hard to predict how big he would become later as a laconic, weatherbeaten symbol of the West.
Other familiar faces from the serials include famed stuntman and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt as henchman Boyle and Ernie Adams as Kelly, “The Man Who Knew” (Chapter Ten). “Little Billy” Rhodes was often seen in comic and circus-related roles in the 1930s and would go on to appear in The Terror of Tiny Town and The Wizard of Oz. Finally, Walter Miller appears as Danby, one of the board of directors. Miller appeared in many serials; sometimes he played a good guy, but often he was a slick villain. Miller keeps the audience guessing in this one; familiarity with his other roles doesn’t guarantee that viewers today will guess the Eagle’s true identity. . . .
What I Watched:The Shadow of the Eagle (Mascot, 1932)
Where I Watched It: I found it by chance on the free ad-supported streaming platform Tubi. Tubi is increasingly home to all kinds of genre oddities and interesting programming, despite (or because of) its seemingly casual approach to curating its library; I probably spend us much time watching Tubi as I do Netflix nowadays.
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “The Man of a Million Faces” (Chapter Four) This chapter introduces Henry the ventriloquist’s talent for imitating other people, so it should really be “The Man of a Million Voices,” but whatever.
Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Six, “The Code of the Carnival,” Moore and Boyle have successfully framed McCoy, “catching” him after the remote-controlled plane wrote another of the Eagle’s warnings in the sky. Seemingly convinced that McCoy is guilty of betraying her father, Jean refuses to let the police take McCoy, insisting that the carnival has its own punishment for those who break its code. To everyone’s horror (and McCoy’s disbelief), she orders the roustabouts to “peg out” McCoy: a patch of tent canvas is pegged to the ground with McCoy trapped under it, still protesting his innocence. The last we see before a flap of the tent obscures the scene is one of the carnies about to drive a long stake right through the center of the bulge under the canvas.
Billy: “Ain’t he the greatest flyer you ever saw?”
Gregory (once known as the Eagle): “I’ve only known one as good, an Army flyer. They called him the Eagle. He was shot down May 23rd, 1918.”
What Others Have Said: “From the time he exited [Fox] until [director John] Ford called him, [John Wayne’s] career moved up and down. At one point it went so far downhill that Duke called the Westerns ‘Z’ films. But they were actually ‘B’ films. He scraped along, grinding out one after another, until Republic Pictures was born in 1935, and the decision was made to upgrade its star and its Westerns. During this period Wayne was gaining invaluable experience, and one ‘invaluable’ person rode into his life: rodeo rider-stuntman, Yakima Canutt. Wayne learned how to really ride from him, how to fall off of a horse; he copied his gait and his speech; together they worked at perfecting the barroom brawls. . . . Today every battle reflects their years of work.” –Gone But Not Forgotten, Patricia Fox-Sheinwold
What’s Next: As I mentioned, this was a chance discovery and I happened to be in the mood to watch it, so I can’t promise I’ll get to any more serials before this summer. But you never know, so subscribe to this blog to receive updates as they happen!
To say that 2020 has been an unusual year would be an understatement; just as the coronavirus and attendant shutdown measures have affected everything else, my film viewing this year has taken a hit. I’ve hardly seen any of the current year’s releases compared to recent years, or even in comparison to my viewing habits before I started this blog and put more effort into keeping up. Obviously, in the scheme of things that’s not a big deal, but because of it I will not be offering a Top Ten (or even Top Five) of favorite 2020 releases. I liked a few things, like Color Out of Space and Birds of Prey, but I don’t think I can do justice to the breadth of this year’s releases.
I’ve been aware of my tendency to prioritize things and how it affects my viewing for a while, but this year has really crystallized it. From highest to lowest priority, it’s something like this:
1. A movie that is showing in a theater for a limited time in my area: if I can fit it in my schedule, I will be there.
2. A movie that I know is leaving streaming, expiring from my DVR, or that I have to return to the library: better get it turned around if I don’t want to miss it.
3. A movie in regular release in the theater: I’ll get to it if it’s something I really want to see, but I might take the chance that it will be held over another week.
4. A movie I own on disc: well, I’ll get to it someday.
5. A movie that is available on a streaming service: out of sight, out of mind.
6. A movie I own as a digital download: like number 5, but with number 4’s lack of urgency.
Mind, this isn’t a conscious system of prioritizing; it’s just something I’ve noticed in my own habits. There are also wrinkles that can have the result of pushing movies down in priority: What if I’m watching with family? And I might not buy a disc because I’ll think, “I know that’s on Netflix. I can just stream it.” But will I? Probably not until it moves up to number 2.
Since COVID has (mostly) closed down theatrical viewing in my area, it’s removed many of the factors that tend to motivate me to watch new releases. Streaming removes the urgency for me, even as high-profile new releases have skipped the theater entirely, and even when it comes to things my family would probably have gone to see in the theater like new superhero or animated family films. Is it expensive to go to the theater? Yes, especially with a family. But there is also value in having a physical destination and a time set aside exclusively to watch a movie without outside distractions, and that’s a big part of what I get with a theater ticket.
I do use the streaming services we have, but when faced with the choices on offer, I’m just as likely to watch something old as something new, and if we’re all watching together it’s harder to reach a consensus than if we make the decision to go to the theater. I don’t know what the theatrical experience will be like post-pandemic; I think theaters in some form will survive or bounce back, but I hesitate to predict what the business model will be, or whether the chains that have dominated the industry will stick around or sell off their assets to smaller, hungrier players (or if the studios themselves will get back into the exhibition game now that the rules have been loosened). I just don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does, either.
Having said that, I still watched plenty of older movies (you can see my Letterboxd diary for the full list) and I’m happy to share some of my new (to me) discoveries. Here is a sample of my first-time viewing this year (all watched at home, of course):
Skull and Crown (Elmer Clifton, 1935)
I spent a good chunk of the summer watching B-movies from the 1930s and ‘40s: they’re nice and short and most of them are pretty formulaic, making for comfort viewing that goes down easy. Skull and Crown, however, is what parents were afraid would rot their kids’ brains in 1935: violence, a suggestion of pre-code naughtiness, and plotting that prioritizes novelty and excitement over logic and realism. Bob Franklin (Regis Toomey), a Canadian mountie, is expecting his sister’s return home from a girl’s school, when he gets word that the notorious Zorro (not the Zorro, but a ridiculous Mexican bandito) is making a headquarters for his smuggling operation in the area. Bob’s dog Rinty (Rin Tin Tin Jr., as seen in The Adventures of Rex and Rinty) gets in on the action as Bob goes undercover in Zorro’s gang, but this is a bit darker than you’d expect for a heroic animal movie (Rinty lives, but it’s close a few times!).
Sh! The Octopus (William C. McGann, 1937)
A rare example of a spoof of a spoof, Sh! The Octopus is a take-off on the influential (and already comic) play and film The Gorilla. Two police detectives (Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins) get drawn into a murky conspiracy in a lighthouse, interacting with a group of characters thrown together by a storm, none of whom are who they seem. The detectives are on the trail of a “crime octopus,” an apparently real octopus that periodically grabs people with its tentacles and pulls them through windows and trap doors. There are some interesting effects (including some famous makeup tricks) and a loopy, nightmarish atmosphere; I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a partial inspiration for Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. I don’t know how I went this long without seeing it, because it seems like it was made for me.
Hellzapoppin’ (H. C. Potter, 1941)
Calling this a musical is bit misleading: there are songs and production numbers, but they are purely generic straight material to be undermined by a barrage of slapstick interruptions. This is anything-goes comedy, anticipating the zany 1960s and ‘70s: the cutaway gags of Laugh-In, Mel Brooks’ fourth-wall breaking, and the throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks style of Zucker and Abrahams all have their antecedents here. (And hey, Hugh Herbert shows up again in this as a detective!) It’s a busy film that never quite lives up to the incredible opening sequence, in which a bevy of showgirls, playboys, and wise guys are delivered into the literal pits of hell. This plays so much with its cinematic medium, including jokes involving the projectionist, rewinding and speeding up the film, and lots of special effects, that I’m curious what the original Broadway show was like.
Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966)
The Czech New Wave of the mid-1960s, brought on by a brief relaxation of government oversight and orthodoxy, led to an outpouring of creative work ranging from honestly-observed slice-of-life vignettes to avant-garde absurdism. In Daisies, a striking example of the latter, two young women leave a trail of destruction behind them in a cracked version of a Joan Blondell screwball comedy, but the juxtaposition of their antics with footage of atomic bombs and fighter jets, as well as dialogue that mocks simplistic Party sloganeering (“The world is spoiled, so we should be spoiled, too!”) puts it into the realm of social commentary. I had seen clips of this, but I don’t think I realized how similar parts of it are to Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Magical Mystery Tour: it seems like an example of youthful rebellion by people who went to art school instead of forming a rock and roll band. (Also, it’s a cliché to refer to an ending as “Brechtian,” but the ending totally made me think of Brecht.)
Harry and Walter Go to New York (Mark Rydell, 1976)
James Caan and Elliott Gould play small-time criminals in the 1890s; after a chance encounter in prison with Adam Worth (the real-life “Napoleon of Crime,” played here with brilliant self-satisfaction by Michael Caine), the two decide to beat Worth to a bank robbery with the assistance of Diane Keaton as a crusading newspaperwoman. What follows is a combination heist picture and fish-out-of-water comedy as the pair try to convince the rest of the underworld that they can hold their own in the big leagues. Presumably made following the success of The Sting, Harry and Walter combines a twisty plot, character-based comedy, and a lavish depiction of the Gilded Age.
The Big Fix (Jeremy Kagan, 1978)
Richard Dreyfuss plays Moses Wine, a former activist turned P.I. who gets drawn back into politics when he’s hired by an old flame to investigate some dirty tricks against a gubernatorial campaign. In addition to the themes of former campus radicals moving on and the passage of their youthful ideals, it’s an interesting take on the ‘70s sad-sack private eye genre. Moses deals with his family as much as his case, bringing his two adorable kids with him on stakeouts and enlisting his mother to create distractions (a subplot in which Moses puts his feminist ex-wife in her place by beating up her controlling New Age boyfriend is a definite marker of time and place). I wasn’t familiar with this at all before I found the DVD, but it’s a good reminder that Dreyfuss made several good films in the ‘70s and early ‘80s that are worth revisiting: his early career was more than just Jaws.
I didn’t realize this was the second movie in this series when I started watching it, but I had read the comics on which it was based years ago, and as it turns out the story is deliberately disorienting at first anyway. Lum is an archetypal “magical girl,” a space alien devoted to the horny teenage boy (Ataru) who defeated her in a game of tag for the fate of the earth (barely referenced in this film). Ataru and his friends are struggling to finish setting up for the school carnival when they start noticing strange details, and the carnival never seems to arrive. Are they caught in a time loop? The world of Lum includes aliens, demons, magic, and time travel, but ultimately the title is the biggest clue as to what’s going on. The animation is a pleasure to watch and the atmosphere is pleasantly strange.
The Peanut Butter Solution (Michael Rubbo, 1985)
In this Canadian family film, a boy (Mathew Mackay) experiences a scare that makes his hair fall out. Then a magical cure for baldness works too well and things get stranger and stranger. I guess this traumatized a lot of kids who saw it in the ‘80s, and while it is tame for adults I can see why it could be upsetting for kids. One of those “adults are out to get you, but children aren’t much better” stories with some amusing touches, and notable for featuring a pre-Titanic Celine Dion on the soundtrack.
Sound of Noise (Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, 2010)
A tone-deaf police officer (Bengt Nilsson), alienated from his own overachieving musical family, faces off against a band of anarchic musical pranksters whose guerilla performances are disrupting the city. This has the energy of a heist film or a cat-and-mouse detective thriller, balancing its Futurist and John Cage-inspired explorations of the boundary between noise and music with a caustic wit. The clash between temperamental artistic personalities is a major source of comedy: as in Whiplash or Nocturne, the suggestion is that musicians are impossible to live with, and frankly, we deserve it.
Sheborg (Daniel Armstrong, 2016)
Sometimes a film really surprises you: I didn’t expect much from the rather generic packaging of this Dollar Tree find, but Sheborg (aka Sheborg Massacre) is a low-budget labor of love from Down Under, full of ingenious practical effects and no-holds-barred fight choreography. Goopy, gory, and goofy, this tale of alien invasion and a bad girl (Whitney Duff) who fights back is reminiscent of the early work of Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi. Recommended for fans of backyard wrestling and Gwar.
Once again, my Halloween-themed blog post is coming out on the day after the holiday, so I hope you have enough leftover candy to snack on while I lay out the State of the ‘Ween for you again. The pandemic didn’t stop trick-or-treaters in my neighborhood: in addition to being on a Saturday with a full moon, we in Kansas were blessed with a perfect not-too-cold evening, a nice change from having snow on the ground earlier in the week. Everyone was doing a good job with social distancing, and to help out I constructed a candy chute out of a ten-foot PVC pipe to deliver candy into trick-or-treaters’ hands. There weren’t as many people out as I would have expected under normal circumstances, but it was a respectable turnout, and combined with the glimpses of other friends’ in-person or online gatherings, I think most people who wanted to were able to find some kind of outlet for their spooky seasonal urges. I won’t pretend that COVID didn’t have an impact, but it was okay.
As far as media consumption this month goes, I decided to take it (relatively) easy. As much as I enjoy indulging in horror movies and ghost stories at this time of year, I don’t like it to feel like homework, and with everything going on in the world and the upcoming election I felt it was just as important to safeguard my mental health and not stress over missing some self-imposed deadline or goal. That gave me more freedom to rewatch familiar classics or follow up on things that might not fit neatly into the Spooktoberween category.
It also meant watching more short films. Before I get on to the main event, I want to highlight a few of the odds and ends I encountered this month. The 1910 Frankenstein produced by Thomas Edison was actually only a little over ten minutes in length, but given the wide variability of film lengths in the silent era, I’m counting it on my main list; I had thought I might revisit other versions of the classic story, but didn’t follow through with it (Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster doesn’t count, as the title creature is a robot only nicknamed “Frankenstein”). For the record, I liked it a lot, and found its suggestion that the monster was only a product of the doctor’s imagination way ahead of its time.
Other shorts included some of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes and classic TV specials starring Garfield and Charlie Brown. I also revisited the 1977 special Witch’s Night Out, which I had seen as a very young child but probably not since. Watching it now, I was struck very strongly with the idea that Witch’s Night Out is a good portrayal of what it was like to grow up in a college town during the ‘70s, particularly the notion that an obviously burned-out hippie would make a good babysitter. Other than that, it’s hard to explain. I don’t think my family was too impressed with this one, but it was a blast from the past for me to be sure.
Finally, I had the opportunity (through Gofobo) to view a couple of episodes of 50 States of Fright, a horror anthology program on the short-content (and short-lived) app Quibi. This was after Quibi’s owners had already put the company up for sale, so I’m not sure what the point of the screening was: to drum up interest and spread positive word-of-mouth, perhaps, or maybe to get viewer feedback? I’m not sure. Maybe they were hoping that I would buy Quibi? Anyway, I was thrilled to be able to watch “The Golden Arm,” the only Quibi project that seems to have gotten much attention, even if it’s for how ridiculous it looked. The attempt to make an overt fable into a serious ghost story about a woman (Rachel Brosnahan) so obsessed with gold that she has a prosthetic arm made from the precious metal, even if wearing it kills her, doesn’t quite land, but to be fair it’s not that much sillier than many episodes of Tales From the Crypt or other horror anthology shows. Here’s hoping 50 States of Fright finds a home elsewhere now that Quibi is apparently closing down for good.
This year was a little different, to say the least, so I am making my list a little differently as well. I usually just list every movie I watch during October, whether it’s a rewatch or a first-time viewing, and a good portion of the list is made up of selections from the October at the Oldtown horror series. This year, with indoor theaters mostly closed, the horror series moved to the drive-in, starting in September; I made it to a few, but not all of the shows, but I’m taking their inspiration to count my “Septober” watches from both months. This time I’m leaving out movies that don’t fit the seasonal horror or fantasy mood as well as rewatches of movies I’ve seen before (anyone who wants to see what I left out can consult my Letterboxd Diary). Here’s the official list, all first-time watches (or, in a couple of cases, it’s been so long that they might as well be):
1. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
2. Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)
3. Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982)
4. The People Under the Stairs (Wes Craven, 1991)
5. Pledges (DJ Red, 2018)
6. The Jurassic Dead aka Z-Rex (Milko Davis and Thomas Martwick, 2017)
7. Frankenstein (J. Searle Dawley, 1910)
8. Slither (James Gunn, 2006)
9. King Kong (John Guillermin, 1976)
10. They Came From Beyond Space (Freddie Francis, 1967)
11. Tokyo Living Dead Idol (Yuki Kumagai, 2018)
12. Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (Xavier Burgin, 2019)
13. Ghost Stories (Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, 2017)
14. The Awful Dr. Orlof (Jess Franco, 1962)
15. Nocturne (Zu Quirke, 2020)
16. Dr. Orloff’s Monster aka The Secret of Dr. Orloff aka The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll (Jess Franco, 1964)
17. Orloff and the Invisible Man aka Dr. Orloff’s Invisible Monster aka The Amorous Life of the Invisible Man (Pierre Chevalier, 1970)
18. Revenge in the House of Usher aka Neurosis aka Zombie 5 (Jess Franco as “J. P. Johnson,” 1982)
19. Hubie Halloween (Steven Brill, 2020)
20. Vibes (Ken Kwapis, 1988)
21. Prom Night (Paul Lynch, 1980)
22. Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Bruce Pittman, 1987)
23. Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (Peter R. Simpson and Ron Oliver, 1990)
24. Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil (Clay Borris, 1992)
25. Invitation to Hell (Wes Craven, 1984)
26. Robot Monster (Phil Tucker, 1953)
27. Cat-Women of the Moon (Arthur Hilton, 1953)
28. Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (Robert Gaffney, 1965)
29. Snatchers (Stephen Cedars and Benji Kleiman, 2019)
Best Movie: Director Wes Craven’s output is among the most variable of big-name horror directors (the same year he made the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street he directed the goofy TV movie Invitation to Hell, starring Susan Lucci as the head of a sinister country club). The People Under the Stairs successfully brings together a number of his pet themes, with a young black kid (Brandon Adams) facing off against a deranged couple whose rent-seeking predations have drained the ghetto of money and hope for years (and who bear a not-coincidental resemblance to Ronald and Nancy Reagan). If the porous membrane between dreams and reality doesn’t come in for examination here as it does in some of Craven’s other films, perhaps it’s because the reality of the film is already so bonkers: “Daddy” and “Mommy” live in a fortified house, imprisoning foster children and intruders alike in feral conditions in the basement, while covering their cruelty, criminality, and sexual deviancy with a Father Knows Best veneer. This is an angry film that manages to deliver its message while remaining both scary and fun, and the continuing relevance of its plot means that it’s not surprising Jordan Peele is reportedly producing a remake.
Worst Movie: Possibly the worst movie I’ve watched all year, not just this fall, The Jurassic Dead promises hordes of undead dinosaurs, or at least one ferocious zombie tyrannosaur, and gives us instead a nearly incomprehensible plot about a scientist who discovers the secret of re-animation, loses his positions with first the government and then a university, and decides to exact his revenge on the world by releasing a zombie virus at the same time the earth is struck by the asteroid that only he predicted. There’s also a dinosaur in it. The protagonists are a band of mercenaries sent to take out the baddie at his compound and a group of college kids who wind up in the same place after getting lost in the desert. Somehow they have to work together. It’s not boring, I’ll give it that, but other than that it’s awful.
Scariest Movie: “The brain sees what it wants to see” is the tagline (and a key piece of dialogue) in Ghost Stories, in which a professional skeptic and debunker (co-writer/director Andy Nyman) is challenged to examine three seemingly inexplicable cases of the supernatural. As he tracks down the original witnesses and hears their stories, it’s clear that he himself is haunted, but only at the end do the threads come together. Thus Ghost Stories has a favorite form of mine, the anthology of stories-within-a-story, and whether or not you find the ending satisfying, the film has a chilling atmosphere and some hair-raising incidents. Ending a film this bleak with “The Monster Mash” over the end credits feels like a final ironic joke at the audience’s expense.
Least Scary Movie: I didn’t watch a ton of really terrifying films this month, but I’ll highlight Nocturne, part of Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse series, as one that I think was trying to be scary. Nocturne centers on a pair of twin sisters attending a prestigious music prep school: Vivian (Madison Iseman), the prodigy, has been accepted to Juilliard, while Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) remains an underachiever. Until, that is, Juliet recovers a notebook belonging to a former student who had committed suicide, and discovers what seems like a set of occult signs: things start to go well for her, but her successes are accompanied by disturbing visions and fear that she is being taken over by some outside force. The elevator pitch seems to be “Whiplash meets Hereditary,” and I want to be clear that I did enjoy it, but I found its depiction of the high-pressure music world much more compelling than the rote horror elements, which had an ominous, dread-inducing mood, but never really came together and, worse yet, played out almost exactly the way the audience was led to expect.
Funniest Movie:Romancing the Stone and Ghostbusters were two of the biggest hits of the early 1980s, so it’s not surprising that someone thought to combine elements of the two. Vibes isn’t a horror film at all, but rather a supernatural comedy in which Jeff Goldblum and Cyndi Lauper play psychics recruited by sketchy-but-lovable Peter Falk to track down a missing expedition to a lost city in the Andes. The lost city is supposedly full of gold, but it’s actually the home of a powerful artifact full of psychic energy, sought after by other, less scrupulous psychics who hope to use it to conquer the world. Vibes is a lot of fun, but it’s extremely lightweight: there’s never much suspense, even during the big finale, but it’s worth watching for Goldblum and Lauper’s sexy chemistry and for the rest of the cast having a ball. In particular, it makes me wish Lauper had found more vehicles to act in: she nails the kind of streetwise screwball throwback that Madonna was trying to portray in movies at around the same time.
Weirdest Movie:Pledges was a Dollar Tree find, and like many of the movies I find there it’s low-budget and not very high-profile. The premise is one of the oldest in horror: a group of fraternity and sorority pledges go into the woods overnight as part of their initiation, and something bad happens. I was expecting typical teens-in-the-woods slasher hijinks, either from hazing gone wrong or from learning They’re Not Alone, but after an unsurprising setup it goes in much stranger directions, more like The Blair Witch Project or even Annihilation. There’s a hint that the woods are part of an off-limits government site, but whether the occurrences, which include time dilation, weird tumors, and creepy doppelgangers, are part of a mad science experiment, an alien invasion, or something else, is never explained. It’s not a particularly great film, but in a season in which I mostly watched straight-ahead horror, it was one of the oddest.
Most Informative Movie: For the first time, a documentary appears on one of these Halloween lists. Horror Noire investigates cinematic horror by and starring African Americans from the early days (by chance, I had watched Son of Ingagi earlier this summer) up to the current success of Jordan Peele (I’m glad I had already seen Get Out, as Horror Noire’s coverage of it goes into detail explaining why it is so cathartic, including the ending). Black audiences have often been among the biggest fans of horror, even while the film industry was slow to cater to them or even recognize their humanity. On the other hand, the fact that horror is often a low-budget entry point into the film industry has made it more welcoming to minority filmmakers than more high-profile genres, and Horror Noire includes plenty of examples of great, ambitious films from black filmmakers, including some that I intend to add to my watchlist.
Biggest Surprise: A few years ago I read a book that rewired some of my thinking on genre film, Atomic Bomb Cinema by Jerome F. Shapiro. Looking at the range of cautionary films that came out after the detonations that ended World War II and ushered in the Atomic Age, Shapiro is uninterested in purely “political” or “sentimental” films like On the Beach or The Day After, and instead takes notions of the Apocalypse back to their roots in the visionary religious texts of the Torah and the Bible. He points out the way modern apocalyptic films use ancient tropes such as journeys to the heavens, visitation from prophets or historical figures, and communication through dreams; even Godzilla has roots in the fantastic monsters that appear in Japanese fables. I don’t recall if Shapiro discusses Robot Monster in his book, but I didn’t expect it to fit into that context as neatly as it does: I only remembered the easily-mocked Ro-Man costume, a gorilla suit with a space helmet, from It Came From Hollywood and similarly selective looks back at the good-old, bad-old days of cheap B-movies. Make no mistake, Robot Monster is cheap, but it’s much more ambitious than I expected. The heroes, a small family, are the last humans left on earth after Ro-Man, in advance of an invasion of his kind, has wiped out all of humanity with incredible space weapons. Space battles and communication with other planets are part of the story as well, but much of the bigger picture is only alluded to rather than shown, and the scale is very much down-to-earth as the family huddles in a bombed-out house, protected by an electric fence, and Ro-Man sits in a nearby cave, conflicted over whether to carry out his programming or spare Alice, the pretty young daughter of the family. What are these new feelings Ro-Man is experiencing? They are counter to the Program! He is becoming more like a Hu-Man than a Ro-Man! It would be a stretch to call Robot Monster completely successful—as storytelling it is garbled, it attempts a George Pal epic on a Roger Corman budget, and I haven’t even gotten to the bubble machine Ro-Man uses as a computer—but I have to agree with my friend Zack Clopton’s assessment that it has an enjoyable “dream logic,” and there is more in it to chew on than one might expect.
That wraps up Halloween and Septober 2020! How was your Halloween? Did you watch anything exciting or scary this month? Have a great fall, everyone!
The Vanishing Shadow begins with Stanley Stanfield (Onslow Stevens), heir to the Tribune newspaper and aspiring inventor, visiting the laboratory of Professor Carl Van Dorn to show him plans he has been working on, but which aren’t quite complete. Can the older inventor help him out by troubleshooting the design? Van Dorn is deeply sympathetic to young Stanfield, and tells him he was a supporter of Stanfield’s late father in his crusade against corrupt public figure Wade Barnett. (Although the exact cause is not specified, it is widely believed that the elder Stanfield’s struggles against Barnett led to his death.) Van Dorn accepts the unfinished invention, an invisibility ray, and Stanfield takes his leave. Amazingly, Van Dorn has been working on his own “vanishing ray,” and by examining Stanfield’s plans he is able to solve the problem that had plagued his own design.
Meanwhile, on his way to Barnett’s office, Stanfield saves a young woman, a reporter named Gloria Grant (Ada Ince), from being run over by a speeding fire engine. Gloria is secretly Wade Barnett’s estranged daughter, working at the Tribune under cover to escape her father’s malign influence. When Stanfield gets to Barnett’s office, Barnett (perennial heavy Walter Miller at his oiliest) offers—nay, demands—to buy out Stanfield’s shares of Tribune stock; with that, he would have controlling interest in the paper and be able to quash its coverage of his illegal activities. Stanfield of course refuses, and when Barnett pulls a gun to have his way by force, there’s a struggle in which Barnett’s bond broker, Cadwell, is wounded. Barnett summons help, making it look like a crazed Stanfield just committed murder, and the young man flees.
Back at Van Dorn’s lab, Stanfield pleads for the inventor to hide him. It just so happens that Van Dorn has finished the vanishing ray, and he has Stanfield wear it (it’s a harness-like contraption that goes over the wearer’s chest). It works! The only catch is that anyone using the vanishing ray still casts a shadow (hence the title). Barnett’s main henchman Dorgan (Richard Cramer) and some of his men force their way into Van Dorn’s lab just as Stanfield manages to hide. Of course, they find nothing, but one of them did see a suspicious shadow; it will be several chapters before anyone takes those glimpses as more than just a trick of the light. (The invisibility effects throughout the serial are quite artful, as well as unusually consistent. There are no visible weapons or objects floating around as if being carried by invisible hands; everything the user is wearing or holding becomes invisible with them, except for the telltale shadow they leave behind.)
After this first successful test of the vanishing ray, Stanfield and Van Dorn realize that they have a powerful weapon to use against Barnett, and the game is afoot. The typical serial plot contrivances stretch the story to twelve chapters: Stanfield and Van Dorn strike back at Barnett in a variety of locations; more inventions are produced, including a “destroying ray” and a robot; all three heroes get captured and escape at different times; the Tribune shares, as well as the vanishing and destroying rays, change hands as they are hidden, stolen, and recovered. In the best serial fashion, all of this action throws the character of the players into sharp relief, with heroism and self-sacrifice carrying the day.
One can see elements of the nascent superhero genre coming together: a crusading young man with a father to avenge; a gimmick that gives him an advantage against his enemies, as well as psyching them out; a secret lair in which to tinker on new and improved crimebusting inventions (Van Dorn’s fortified “beach house” turns out to be an even better HQ); and a young woman whose loyalties are divided (while she immediately allies herself with Stanfield’s idealism, Gloria hopes until the end to reform her father rather than destroy him; and Van Dorn suspects her of working against Stanfield on Barnett’s behalf, at least until she proves her good intentions).
Nevertheless, it would be an overstatement to call The Vanishing Shadow “the first cinematic superhero” or somesuch, as the story is firmly rooted in pulp and serial traditions. The uncomplicated wish-fulfillment of Stanfield’s and Van Dorn’s inventions and the melodrama of stock characters reminds me of Pirate Treasure (which immediately preceded The Vanishing Shadow in Universal’s release schedule); the mix of familial drama and science-heroism are also reminiscent of Judex. But Stanley Stanfield would be at home in most any pulp magazine of the era. The fact that he wears a suit rather than a superhero onesie isn’t a dealbreaker, but it does score another point for the “pulp” side. Most notably, the vanishing ray and Van Dorn’s other inventions aren’t set forth as tools for continuing adventures or a general campaign against crime. Defeating Barnett and gaining control of the Tribune aren’t just parts of an origin story: they are the story.
The Vanishing Shadow is “adventure science fiction,” to use Isaac Asimov’s term for that phase of sci-fi in which the gadgets purely serve the thrills and action. The gee-whiz element is turned up as well, appealing to readers of Popular Mechanics and similar DIY magazines: is there anything electrical science cannot do? It’s telling that an “electrical lock” on the Professor’s gates—essentially a remote control garage door opener—is given as much screen time as his robot or destroying ray (the first depiction of a “ray gun” on screen, essentially a spotlight that kills anything the light touches).
Actually, Professor Van Dorn (James Durkin in his final role; he also played Professor Hargrave in the 1933 Perils of Pauline) steals the film. We never learn why the old inventor hates Barnett so much, but if anything he is more bent on revenge than Stanfield. There is almost a good cop/bad cop dynamic between Stanfield and Van Dorn, with the younger man frequently calling off his bloodthirsty partner. In one chapter, Stanfield makes Van Dorn promise not to bring his destroying ray with him on an outing; in the next scene, Van Dorn gets in the car with an obvious rectangular bulge in the front of his jacket. Stanfield tries to moderate Van Dorn, saying things like “I know your way, but we don’t want to murder anybody,” while Van Dorn is given to pronouncements like “The law? You and I will be the law: judge, jury . . . and executioner.” Same planet, different worlds. Frankly, I never got tired of Van Dorn’s obvious relish for wet work; when, after being shown the Professor’s “iron man,” strong enough to break through a brick wall, Stanfield wonders what it would do to a human being, Van Dorn answers without hesitation, “Crush him into mincemeat!” Between the Professor’s propensity to secure his premises with deathtraps and his distrust of Gloria (“There is nothing I fear so much as women!”), it’s a good thing he’s on our side.
Irascible, even mad, scientists are a staple of adventure science fiction, but usually as villains or secondary characters, so the ambiguity of Van Dorn’s heroism is an interesting twist. I was strongly reminded of Bela Lugosi’s turn in The Phantom Creeps from a few years later, and although that serial doesn’t appear to use any leftovers from The Vanishing Shadow, the cranky professor who has both an invisibility device and a killer robot suggests that someone at Universal remembered the earlier production with fondness. Screenwriter Basil Dickey, a well-known name in serials, worked on both films, but that doesn’t mean the similarities were his idea.
The Vanishing Shadow was the first film directed by Louis Friedlander, who would go on to earn hundreds of credits directing serials, B-movies, and (later) television episodes, mostly using the screen name Lew Landers. Like many serials, it has its lulls, but it more than makes up for it in imagination and the quality of its production, and it especially springs to life when Durkin is on screen. The beautiful restoration from VCI makes this an easy one to recommend for fans of serials and retro science fiction alike.
What I Watched:The Vanishing Shadow (Universal, 1934)
Where I Watched It: A Blu-Ray from VCI Entertainment, remastered from long-hidden original 35mm film reels. (The Vanishing Shadow was long-thought lost, but I guess “neglected” might be a better word.) The restoration looks and sounds great, better than many releases of newer films (the screenshots I’ve used here are from YouTube, so they’re not as sharp, but you get the idea).
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Hurled from the Sky” (Chapter Five)
Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Six (“Chain Lightning”), Gloria shows up at her father’s office, with Stanley using the vanishing ray to shadow her invisibly. Suspecting a trap, they head down the back stairs, avoiding Dorgan and his men at the front entrance of the building. Unaware of this and thinking that Stanley has been captured, Professor Van Dorn bursts into Barnett’s office and demands to see Stanley, or else he’ll use his destroying ray on him! Since Stanley had been invisible, Barnett doesn’t know what Van Dorn is talking about, and his fear of being at the mercy of a madman is palpable (and justified). At the same time, Gloria and Stanley have come back to Van Dorn’s lab; Gloria, not knowing that the Professor has set yet another trap, steps onto the pad in front of the safe and is immediately enveloped in bands of lightning. This is such a fun cliffhanger because not only does it cut between two equally suspenseful situations, but the chain of missed connections and misunderstandings that leads to the danger is laid out perfectly for the audience, and once things lock into place it races to the end.
Sample Dialogue: “If that’s the way you treat a friend, Heaven help your enemies!” –Stanfield, after Van Dorn tests out a paralyzing ray on him in Chapter Nine (“Blazing Bulkheads”)
What Others Have Said: “This ‘before-its-time’ gem was no accident. The previous year the studio had a ‘monster’ theatrical hit with director James Whale’s film adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man. And so it was imperative to develop more material to capitalize on the success of that film . . . the result was The Vanishing Shadow.” –Ralph Tribbey, DVD & Blu-Ray Release Report (included as liner notes with the VCI release)
What’s Next: Well, after an unexpected two-month hiatus from posting, this is coming out much later than I had planned. With everyone in the family home most of the time, my own personal schedule is completely out of whack. My apologies if new Medleyana posts were the only thing keeping you going (and God help you if that’s the case!). Summer is officially over, but you never know if Fates Worse Than Death will return out of season. It’s happened before!
We dedicate this picture to the United States Navy, its officers and men, in grateful acknowledgment of their invaluable co-operation and assistance.
As the above blurb, which appears at the beginning of Don Winslow of the Navy, indicates, the involvement of the U.S. military with Hollywood movie-making has been going on for a long time. Even without that acknowledgment, one could guess by the sheer volume of stock footage–of naval maneuvers, of ships and planes in action, and (in the penultimate chapter) of sailors storming a beach–that there was some connection. Of course, this was released during wartime, so it makes a dandy recruiting film for the Navy, but serials and B-movies generally weren’t going to be critical of the military (or law enforcement) anyway: aside from the demands of the Production Code, it would get in the way of the clear-cut good guys and bad guys narrative that is the spine of such films. Having said that, there are some interesting contrasts here to other pro-military and wartime serials.
The basic setup is a familiar one: Don Winslow, fresh from a stint with Naval Intelligence and recently put back in command of his own ship, U. S. Destroyer 620, is summoned to Pearl Harbor for his new assignment. Supply ships approaching the Pacific island of Tangita, where the Navy is building a new base, have sunk, and sabotage is suspected. Commander Winslow is to take the 620 to Tangita and get to the bottom of the mystery, assisted by his best friend, Lieutenant “Red” Pennington. After another attempt on an approaching ship, Winslow learns that infamous foreign spymaster the Scorpion is behind the attacks, and there must be a base of Scorpion agents somewhere on the island. If the Scorpion’s secret headquarters can be found and the saboteurs wiped out, the Navy base can be completed. So far, so good.
Beyond the unfinished base at Rondana Bay and its community of American workers, Tangita is a movie-land jungle island with all the amenities, including a native tribe with a temple and some crumbling ruins; a gold mine with a separate village for its laborers; and abandoned facilities such as the old smelter and old sea mill, ready to be destroyed in cliffhangers. The audience learns quickly that the Scorpion’s secret base (including an underwater submarine dock) is accessible through a shuttered tunnel in the gold mine, and that the gold mine’s operator, Merlin, is actually “M-22,” the Scorpion’s lead agent on the island. Throughout the serial, Merlin pretends to help Winslow while secretly luring him into traps or away from the real base, even going so far as to kill one of his own agents and plant papers on him to convince Winslow that he got the real M-22. As in many serials, the dirty work is carried out by lower-level Scorpion operatives so that Merlin’s duplicity isn’t discovered until the end. The Scorpion himself never sets foot on the island, instead issuing orders via television, and while Winslow triumphs at the end as expected, the story is open-ended: he moves onto his next assignment in hopes of bringing down the Scorpion for good.
Don Winslow of the Navy is also unusual in the degree to which its hero has it both ways, both commanding from the bridge and operating on the ground. I’ve quoted this passage from Raymond W. Stedman’s The Serials before, but it’s worth mentioning again: “No doubt about it, in jungle, prairie, or metropolis, the cliffhanging heroes and heroines did their part in the war effort–though one must overlook their apparent aversion to ordinary service in the armed forces. Scenes of battle action were no more than inserts in tales of spy fighting or fifth-column activity.” When action heroes are part of the military, they’re often commandos or intelligence agents, or are cut off from their units as a way of justifying their independence. Often, officers are remote characters in this kind of movie, issuing orders from behind a desk, far from the action. Not Winslow! At one point, asked why he always heads into danger alone instead of letting his underlings take the risk, he explains, “The Scorpion wants to get me alive–they’ll shoot the rest of you on sight.” But he also commands a full-sized destroyer, providing scenes of large-scale battle (at one point the 620 even rams a submarine, saving another Navy ship from danger) that are often out of the reach of serial heroes. The scope of the action, and the addition of all that footage from the Navy, makes it feel like a real war picture.
It also brought another genre to mind: this serial may be set on earth, but I think Don Winslow and Buck Rogers would have a lot to talk about. Gene Roddenberry may have pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars,” but one can see the naval influence in the quasi-military treatment of the ship and its crew, and more importantly the balance of ship-to-ship combat and planetside “away missions” that the captain takes part in. Substitute “islands” for “planets” and the roots of the genre are clear: “final frontier,” indeed.
While watching Don Winslow, I also often found myself thinking of The Fighting Marines: there are some similarities, including an unknown master spy and a base on a Pacific island, as well as heroes who are in uniform but given a free hand. But since The Fighting Marines was made in the 1930s, before the war, it’s typically coy about the nationality of the villain. Don Winslow was made in 1941, so it is also not very specific: the Scorpion (played by Kurt Katch) is apparently German, going by his accent, but like many of those villains of the interwar years, his actual goals and politics aren’t mentioned. He’s against America, so that’s all we need to know. The serial began distribution in October of 1941; the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor made it both timely and a little quaint: following the declaration of war, subsequent serials would be less circumspect in naming America’s enemies.
Winslow is played by Don Terry, who is really everything one could expect of an upright, square-jawed, red-blooded serial hero of the time period. Like many of his colleagues, Terry (born Donald Loker) had an athletic background; interestingly, after playing Don Winslow in two serials, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve for real and earned a Purple Heart serving in the Pacific, and he left the film industry shortly after that. Of course, a serial hero needs a supporting cast. In addition to Lt. Pennington (Walter Sande), there’s older Navy man Mike Splendor (Wade Boteler, playing the kind of blustering Irishman he played in The Green Hornet and Red Barry, among many, many Irish cop roles) and civilian construction head John Blake (Ben Taggart). Navy nurse Mercedes Colby (Claire Dodd) and secretary Misty Gaye (Anne Nagel, also seen in The Green Hornet) are established as the only survivors of the shipwreck that serves as the inciting incident, but they go way back with Winslow and Pennington (romance, or at least double dating, is implied, but as in most serials it’s kept in the background).
After a couple of sluggish Columbia serials, Don Winslow of the Navy (also based on a comic strip and radio show) was a breath of fresh air: not only was it a tight twelve chapters, it moved quickly, balancing character scenes with action. Other than the weird Mascot serials of the ’30s, I think Universal’s have been my next favorite; the production is generally (if not always!) good, but not so slick as to be unsurprising and formulaic. In this case, a stirring score helps smooth out the rough edges: the Navy march, “Anchors Aweigh,” forms the theme song, of course, but the incidental music includes a lot of Elgar-sounding stuff and dramatic strains in the vein of Victory at Sea.
What I Watched:Don Winslow of the Navy (Universal, 1942)
Where I Watched It: VHS set from VCI’s Classic Cliffhanger Collection
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Fighting Fathoms Deep” (Chapter Ten)
Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Nine, “Wings of Destruction,” Winslow sets out to test a new plane, and Mercedes talks her way into going with him. Scorpion agent Barsac (John Holland) gets to the hangar first with the intention of sabotaging the plane, but when he is surprised by Winslow’s arrival, a hastily discarded torch sets a fire. Barsac is confident that the fire will put an end to Winslow’s meddling, but that turns out not to be the cliffhanger. Winslow and Mercedes are able to take off, saving both the plane and themselves from the fire. Meanwhile, Barsac radios one of the Scorpion’s subs, having it launch its onboard plane to bomb the 620, carrying out the other part of the Scorpion’s order. With both planes in the air and bombs falling on the Navy Destroyer, a dogfight ensues; Winslow is grazed by a bullet and falls unconscious, and the plane goes into a dive. By the kind of lucky coincidence serial heroes are blessed with, the plane collides with the Scorpion’s bomber, shearing the bomber’s wing off and causing it to crash. But how can our heroes pull out of the fatal dive with Winslow still unconscious? (Hint: remember that passenger who insisted on coming along for the ride?)
Not the Best Cliffhanger: In a very odd sequence, Winslow darkens his skin and puts on a sarong to disguise himself as a native and investigate an old ruin that Merlin has directed him to (it’s a trap, of course). Aside from the ways in which brownface is problematic (although common at the time), it’s odd because Winslow never makes an attempt to blend in with the natives; he is almost immediately joined by (white) members of his party. At the same time, Merlin has provided the native witch doctor, Koloka, with a loudspeaker and microphone to make it seem as if the temple’s idol is speaking (just like in Terry and the Pirates!), which will allow the corrupt Koloka, a Scorpion loyalist, to usurp the tribe’s rightful chief, Tombana. Meanwhile, Blake (overseeing construction of the Naval base) brings Mercedes to the village to help some sick children.
Once of all of our heroes are at the temple, Koloka stirs up the natives using the loudspeaker in the idol, blaming the white newcomers for the sickness in the village. Chased by a mob, Winslow and the others are cornered; their only hope of escape is for Winslow to dive into the water, distract the natives, and come back for his friends. (I had thought that perhaps this dive was the reason for his native costume, so the filmmakers could insert footage of a Pacific islander diving, but there really isn’t enough to the shot to make such trouble worth it, and it looks like star Don Terry performs the jump.) All would be well, if it weren’t for all the sharks in the water! All of this is in Chapter Six, “Menaced by Man-Eaters”; the other reason it seems out of place is that the natives are hardly relevant to the plot except in this chapter and the resolution in the next. The episode definitely feels like filler to pad out the serial, but I don’t mind digressions when they’re enjoyable.
Winslow: What do you know about the men who just escaped?
Miner: You mean Spike? Not much. Him and a couple other guys by the name of Prindle and Corley come over here sometimes.
Winslow: Do they work in the mine?
Miner: Sometimes, not regular. Why? They deserters in the Navy?
Winslow: Hardly. We don’t have their kind in the Navy.
–Chapter Eight, “The Chamber of Doom”
For Your Further Don Winslow Viewing Pleasure: This serial was followed up by Don Winslow of the Coast Guard in 1943, also starring Don Terry.
What Others Have Said: “Boys who enlisted in Don Winslow’s Squadron of Peace received along with a bronze ensign’s badge a copy of the creed Winslow himself was bound to uphold. Composed before World War II neared American shores, it is quaintly touching today:
“I consecrate my life to Peace and to the protection of all my Countrymen wherever they may be. My battle against Scorpia represents the battle between Good and Evil. Never will I enter into any jingoistic proposition, but will devote my entire life to protecting my Country. The whole purpose of my life is that of promoting Peace–not War. I will work in the interests of Peace and will promote the fulfillment of all things that are clean, wholesome and upright. Join me not alone in observing this creed, but likewise be patriotic. Love your country, its flag and all the things for which it stands. Follow the advice of your parents and superiors and help someone every day.“
–Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment
What’s Next: I’m going to take a break from fiddling with my VCR and look at a serial I have on disc: join me next time as I investigate The Vanishing Shadow, which promises to be something different!
Dr. Herbert Lee, an American archeologist, leads a scientific expedition into the wilds to uncover evidence of a lost race. The native queen, known as the Dragon Lady, is determined her kingdom shall not be invaded. Fang, a sinister, lawless half-caste, who controls half of the natives and holds the white settlers in fear, seeks the riches hidden beneath the Sacred Temple. After the expedition has gone into the jungle to face unknown perils, Terry, Dr. Lee’s son, and Pat Ryan, his friend, arrive in Wingpoo with important documents for Dr. Lee.
Those words, presented as text crawling up the screen, begin each chapter of the 1940 serial Terry and the Pirates; chapters after the first add another sentence or two to describe the specific situation our heroes were left in, but that’s it. There’s no other recap (beyond the repetition of the last scene that sets up the cliffhanger), but that’s all you need anyway. Terry Lee, like fellow comic strip-turned serial hero Tim Tyler, is living the dream of many a boy in his audience, seeing the world alongside older and more experienced adventurers. Milton Caniff’s comic strip (and the radio serial, which preceded this film) followed the adventures of Terry and his friends, mostly in the jungles and waterways of Asia, for years. Like many serials based on existing properties, the filmmakers could somewhat rely on audiences to be familiar with the characters already, and the beginning of this one drops us into the action with only that text prologue to prepare us.
In Chapter One (“Into the Great Unknown”), when Terry and Pat arrive at the colonial town of Wingpoo, they are surprised to find that Dr. Lee and the rest of his expedition have already headed into the jungle, despite the radiogram Pat had sent alerting them to his and Terry’s imminent arrival. As it turns out, Dr. Lee never received the radiogram because the town’s radio operator, Stanton, (as well as many other people in town) is under the control of Fang, the villainous warlord who resides somewhere in the jungle, terrorizing the peaceful settlers. Using his inside information, Fang has Dr. Lee captured and the rest of his party slaughtered, supposedly during an attack by natives. (Fang has his white “renegades” don animal furs and masks, posing as “tiger” or “leopard men” so they don’t reveal their treachery to the other whites; this allows Fang to present himself as Dr. Lee’s rescuer.)
At first, Fang offers friendship to Dr. Lee, inviting him to study Fang’s collection of native artifacts: he needs the archeologist to interpret the language of the ancients and thinks that Dr. Lee will lead him to the lost treasure upon promise of a share. Dr. Lee, a man of science above all, is horrified by Fang’s plans and rejects this offer; Fang then coldly orders Dr. Lee held prisoner–he will aid Fang’s search, one way or the other. Fang has also ordered the capture of Terry and Pat, thinking to use them as leverage on Dr. Lee, but at least in the first chapter his immediate plan is foiled. (As in many serials, the good guys in this spend a lot of time getting captured and then escaping, with various combinations of the heroes either free or imprisoned.) Dr. Lee (played by John Paul Jones), it should be noted, is a pretty tough customer himself, and not easily intimidated: his love for his son is the weak spot Fang exploits against him more than once.
Terry and his allies are versions of characters from the comic strip: Terry himself, described as “a wide-awake American boy,” is a teenager in the strip. William Tracy, who plays Terry, was already twenty-three when the serial was filmed, but rather than aging up the character to match (like Billy Batson in Adventures of Captain Marvel), or casting a younger actor, the film has Tracy affecting a high, cracking voice and saying stuff like “Gee willikers!”, and an awkward, bow-legged stance, throwing his arms around spastically in action scenes to look younger and shorter than co-star Granville Owen, who plays the older Pat Ryan. (Owen played the lead in Lil’ Abner the same year he made Terry; he later went by the screen name Jeff York.)
Pat is the typical serial man of action, almost always taking on the fight scenes and gunplay himself while protectively keeping Terry out of the fray and chiding him for wasting time taking photographs, but he doesn’t have a lot of character himself. (Terry eagerly gets into a few scrapes–“Don’t worry, Dad!” he says before leaping into a fight with some prison guards–but his enthusiasm often outpaces his competence, and sometimes he makes the situation worse by trying to help.)
Terry and Pat are aided by two Asian characters, Dr. Lee’s servant Connie (short for “Confucius”), played by Allen Jung, and a local native who towers over his fellows and goes by the nickname “Big Stoop” (Victor DeCamp). Big Stoop is first encountered as a street magician; he joins forces with the Lee party when Pat and Terry stick up for him in a fight, and his escape artistry and magic tricks (not to mention pockets full of firecrackers) come in handy throughout the adventure. He also carries some of the comic relief, and doesn’t always think things through. He’s nothing if not loyal, however: at one point, when Pat and Terry are locked up in the Wingpoo jail, Big Stoop and Connie follow them into the cell, even though as Pat points out, they’d be more useful on the outside. Later, Big Stoop catches hold of one of the renegades and chastises him, saying, “You hit Big Stoop very hard.” A single blow to the man’s head, and the rudeness is repaid.
Another notable character is Normandie Drake (Joyce Bryant), the daughter of a local rubber planter; Normandie is brave and capable, joining forces with Terry against Fang’s depredations (in the comics she and Terry have a long, doomed romance, but they don’t so much as hold hands in this), but she also screams a lot. Boy, can she scream. No female character in a serial is a damsel in distress all the time–they have to hold up their end of the story, after all–but Normandie knows how to get her Fay Wray on when the bad guys come calling with their human sacrifices and trained gorillas.
As for the bad guys, they are many of the usual suspects: Dick Curtis, who plays Fang, was a longtime heavy for Columbia and appeared in a number of serials and B-movies, particularly Westerns (of course); he’s been in some of the serials I’ve covered, although not in a leading role that I recall. Fang is an “Oriental potentate” caricature, half wheedling Fu Manchu mannerisms and half vulgar savagery. His dialogue is amusingly prickly, as when he tells right-hand man Stanton (Jack Ingram, another regular heavy), “You have some brains after all. I was beginning to doubt it.”
What are we to make of Fang’s status as “half-caste”? This isn’t the first time such a character has been the villain in one of these stories: the casual racism of white settlers assuming their superiority over the natives is a common feature of the era’s adventure stories, but the implication is that it’s worse to be caught between worlds, without a people to call your own, than to be one of those honest but easily duped natives. Or it could be that making a major character mixed-race makes it easier to cast a white actor to play them. There’s not much ambiguity here: unlike Fu Manchu, who hopes to unite Asia under his own rule against the white devils, Fang is just in it for the money, promising to leave the Dragon Lady alone in exchange for the treasure. He may leave the temple and the Dragon Lady’s people in shambles, but that’s not his problem; he’ll be gone. In that respect, he’s not so different from the planters extracting wealth from the land, he just has an accelerated timetable.
As for the Dragon Lady herself (Sheila Darcy), she’s an ambiguous character type we’ve encountered before, the haughty and indomitable matriarch whose primary concern is her people (I was reminded of Queen Teka in The Phantom Empire). The Dragon Lady of the comics is an ocean-going pirate (answering my lingering question about this serial: where are the pirates?), but in the movie she is a firmly landlocked leader of the natives. At first she assumes that the white explorers are, like Fang, only interested in the treasure hidden in her Temple of the Dawn, and she sees them as enemies, especially after Terry and Pat interrupt a human sacrifice conducted by her high priest; eventually, however, she comes to see Terry and his friends as allies who have her best interests at heart. (She claims that she had forbidden such sacrifices; it takes a little longer for the priest to be won over.) Once Fang steals the Temple’s statue of the god Mara and makes it speak with a hidden phonograph record (“Listen to your god! Fang is my choice as ruler! Obey him in all things!”), turning the natives against her, she has little choice but to throw her lot in with the Lee expedition.
In the past, I’ve been somewhat critical of the Columbia serials I’ve watched, and I know I’m not alone: the consensus is that Columbia tended to cut corners and came to rely on silly physical comedy and gimmicks, turning its serials into parodies of themselves. As Columbia serials go, however, Terry and the Pirates was largely a pleasant surprise. (There is some light-hearted humor, but constant mugging and jokiness was mostly a product of the later 1940s.) Like many serials, it takes a chapter or two for things to really get going, but the middle chapters have some good action and the characters have a nice chemistry together and a combination of motives that keep the plot humming. My interest started to wane in the last few chapters, but as I’ve said before, many serials don’t really have enough story to fill fifteen chapters. It’s not much like the comic strip, which took a hard-boiled approach to war and adventure, but if you can overlook the too-old Terry and the frankly awful gorilla costume, it is a serviceable adventure in the jungle-explorer/lost-world vein.
What I Watched:Terry and the Pirates (Columbia, 1940)
Where I Watched It: This serial has been playing on TCM on Saturday mornings, but I watched the VHS set from VCI Classics (featuring the dubbing of voices in Chapter Four, for which the original audio was lost). It can also be viewed on YouTube.
No. of Chapters: 15
Best Chapter Title: “The Dragon Queen Threatens” (Chapter Four)
Best Cliffhanger:Terry and the Pirates is a goldmine for fans looking for classic serial-style cliffhangers. Many standard types are represented: buildings in which our heroes are (seemingly) trapped catch fire, cave in, or explode; Terry and Pat get caught in traps that slowly fill with water (Chapter Seven, “Angry Waters”) or in which the walls close in, pushing the boys toward a central pit filled with “barbarious” spikes (Chapter Eleven, “Walls of Doom”); Terry falls into a “sacrificial pit” filled with alligators (Chapter Eight, “The Tomb of Peril”); and Normandie is menaced by the gorilla and is nearly sacrificed by the high priest of Mara. Finally, almost the entire party is bound on a gigantic pyre of wood for sacrifice by burning (Chapter Fourteen, “Pyre of Death”). Almost all of these cliffhangers are well-prepared and executed to both make the situation clear and amp up the suspense.
My favorite is at the end of Chapter Nine, “Jungle Hurricane” (as is frequently the case, the chapter titles tend to foreshadow the nature of the peril that will form the chapter-ending cliffhanger): Normandie is hiding out in an abandoned hut with Connie and Big Stoop to ride out a storm, not realizing that Stanton and his men are making for the same hut as a way station on the route to Wingpoo, where Fang has sent them for more supplies. Terry and Pat have the same idea to stop at the hut on their way to Wingpoo, and when they arrive they find Stanton and the other renegades taking Normandie and the boys captive. Pat distracts the renegades, getting them to chase him into the jungle, so Terry can sneak into the hut and free the prisoners, sending Connie and Big Stoop to help Pat while Terry unties Normandie. All of this happens while howling wind blows branches and palm leaves all around, and the walls of the hut shake under the force of the gale. It’s all quite dramatic. Just as Normandie is freed, the entire hut is blown over the side of the cliff upon which it was built, collapsing at the bottom of the hillside. (I fully expected that in the next chapter we would find that Terry and Normandie had slipped out of the hut before its collapse, or they would be revealed to be hanging on the side of the cliff by a vine, but nope: Pat finds them buried under the thatched roof of the collapsed hut, and once freed they’re perfectly fine. The “walk-it-off” cliffhanger strikes again!)
Sample Dialogue (from Chapter Six, “The Scroll of Wealth”):
Fang: This is my trophy room. Not a bad collection, eh, Doctor?
Dr. Lee: You’re not fooling me, Fang. It looks more like a torture chamber to me.
Fang: You are right, Doctor Lee, and, ah, here is your iron maiden, waiting for you. (touches spikes) You see, Doctor Lee, the maiden has hidden charms, charms which you will be unable to resist.
What Others Have Said: “It’s a whole lot easier to do Steve Canyon, in that I am able to free-wheel–I can go anywhere, do anything–and Terry never got out of China. I never got tired of doing the Oriental background, because to this day it’s still the greatest place for anything-can-happen stuff, it’s just that he had never come home, and I felt that I should change the scene more frequently, and I wasn’t able to do it during the war years.” –cartoonist Milton Caniff, asked in a 1982 interview about the difference between Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, the strip Caniff turned to in later years
What’s Next: Keeping with the comic strip theme, I’ll take a look at Don Winslow of the Navy!