Fates Worse Than Death: The Vanishing Shadow

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!

Fates Worse Than Death: Don Winslow of the Navy

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.

Sample Dialogue:

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

Commander Winslow was a close personal friend of Captain Marvel, but only on the covers of their shared comic books, sadly.

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!

Fates Worse Than Death: Terry and the Pirates

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!

Fates Worse Than Death: Brenda Starr, Reporter

Daily Flash reporter Brenda Starr and her cameraman Chuck Allen race to cover a fire in a downtown neighborhood, hoping to beat police Lt. Larry Farrell and his assistant Tim Brown to the scene: a fire is big news, but this could be the break Brenda needs in the story of Joe Heller, the thief who stole a quarter-million-dollar payroll and was recently seen in the neighborhood. As it happens, Heller is in the burning building, but before he can escape he is cornered by Kruger, a gunman for the gang to whom Heller was supposed to hand off the loot. Kruger recovers the payroll bag and shoots Heller; when Brenda enters the room, Kruger thrusts her into a closet. After being rescued by Farrell, she bends down to check on Heller, and with his dying breath he slips her a piece of paper with a code on it.

Later, at the swanky Pelican Club, Kruger and his fellow gangster Mullin turn the bag over to their superior, club manager Frank Smith. The bag turns out to be full of blank paper! Even in death, Joe Heller has double-crossed them! Kruger saw Brenda take the note from Heller, so he suspects that she might know where the real loot is. Meanwhile, Farrell passes along a story that Heller is still alive but unconscious, a trap to lure his killers into the open. Communicating with his superior, the “Big Boss,” by radio, Smith is instructed to pass a tip to Brenda Starr through an underworld contact named Charlie, sending her to spring the trap the police have set. When she and Chuck get to the house (that both the police and the gang are watching), she finds it full of gas: only a lucky fall out of a window saves her when absent-minded Chuck lights a match, igniting the gas!

After surviving that little incident, Brenda finds that Joe Heller, played by serial regular Wheeler Oakman, is actually dead, and the cover story was all a ruse. “Woakman” fans (or “Wacorns,” as we call ourselves) will be happy to learn, however, that Joe Heller had an identical twin brother, Lew, also played by Oakman, who turns up a few chapters later to avenge his brother’s death and find the payroll himself. Joe, we barely knew ye, but Lew turns out to be just as slippery and self-interested, holding on to what little he knows in hopes of making a deal with the police (especially after he fractures a milkman’s skull making one of his getaways). The payroll is still out there somewhere, and while the police codebreakers try to make sense of the paper Brenda was given, Frank Smith and his gang try to flush out Lew and the payroll; if they can get rid of the troublesome reporter Brenda Starr at the same time, so much the better!

Brenda Starr, Reporter was, of course, an adaptation of the comic strip of the same name, begun by Dale Messick in 1940 (and continued after her death until 2011). Brenda stands apart from the other brassy dames reporting the news in her day by being glamorous as well as gutsy, and the comic strip is notable for Brenda’s fashionable outfits and the elements of romance that accompany the adventure. Naturally, the sex appeal is toned down in the serial, but star Joan Woodbury makes a convincingly beautiful serial-budget replacement for Rita Hayworth (the original model for comic-strip Brenda) and wears a few nice gowns when the occasion arises. She and Lt. Farrell (serial stalwart Kane Richmond) are clearly crazy about each other, and as in the raucous romantic comedies of the era their banter and disagreements are a cover for their mutual attraction. Here’s one serial where the last-scene kiss between male and female leads actually feels like it’s in character!

This is the second serial in a row I’ve watched in which the villains take orders from a disembodied voice, and I know I’ve seen at least a couple that have the same solution to the mystery of the “Big Boss’s” identity; mostly we get a number of scenes with smooth Frank Smith (George Meeker, according to IMDb: other than the leads, the actors go uncredited) and his underlings (regular heavies Anthony Warde and John Merton; Jack Ingram plays Kruger). Smith and his gang have some of the usual serial tricks at their disposal, such as the “special sedan” with the sealed-off backseat that takes men (and women) who have outlived their usefulness on their “last ride.”

A singer at the nightclub, Vera Harvey (Cay Forester), gets reluctantly involved when Brenda identifies her car as the one used in a crime; at least a few chapters’ worth of incident are spun out of poor Vera getting in over her head, first cooperating in a plot to trap Brenda and then asking for help when she realizes her own life is in danger.

Other than the usual henchmen, the sketchy stool pigeon Charlie (Ernie Adams) makes the biggest impression, playing both sides against each other. With a toothpick dangling from his mouth and his “wise guy” way of talking, Charlie is the picture of a movie gangster; frankly, it’s not clear why anyone ever trusts him when he’s so obviously looking out for Number One.

We also get a bit of Brenda’s home life: she lives with her cousin Abretha (Lottie Harrison), a one-note character from the comic strip. Abretha (full name: Abretha Breeze, which is almost a pun) is a full-figured gal, and like other “fat” characters such as Wonder Woman’s pal Etta Candy, almost every line of dialogue she has revolves around food, and spends her time cooking lavish meals for Brenda and her colleagues that she ends up eating herself. Hilarious! Abretha seems like a nice girl, and it’s useful to have a character who doesn’t share the main cast’s zest for adventure, but a little goes a long way. I haven’t read much of the original Brenda Starr comics, but reading up on the various punny characters like Abretha actually leaves me sympathetic to the usual serial habit of creating new characters as foils for the hero.

In fact, my first impression of this serial is that its strength lies in its sense of character, as the plot and its complications are nothing special. So far, Columbia’s serials have been my least favorite of any studio’s output, with even the better ones having lumpy pacing and a casual, slapdash air. That works, however, for the mostly comic scenes of rapid-fire banter in the newsroom: the Flash’s blustering editor, Walters (Frank Jaquet), has the air of an indulgent but frequently exasperated father, offering and rescinding bonus checks with every change of fortune. Then there’s Pesky (William Benedict), the copy boy who can be counted on to get everything backwards: this is an obvious source of comic relief, but it also informs and complicates the plot, as when he sends the cops to Brenda’s apartment instead of the Pelican Club at a crucial moment, or when Brenda, surprised by Lew at home, tells Chuck over the phone not to come over and to “be a good boy and obey orders like Pesky would”–i.e., by doing the opposite of what she told him.

Finally, there’s the friendly rivalry between the cops and the press: just as Brenda and Lt. Farrell are paired up as co-leads, so do their respective sidekicks have a bantering, semi-antagonistic relationship: Chuck (Syd Saylor) and Officer Brown (Joe Devlin) are betting men, wagering on who will arrive at the scene first and keeping a running tally. Chuck’s sad-sack demeanor is also an excellent comic foil to Brenda’s brash stop-at-nothing energy: “Maybe we don’t live right,” he complains at one point. “Everything bad happens to us.” Buddy, that’s the life of a serial hero.

What I Watched: Brenda Starr, Reporter (Columbia, 1945)

Where I Watched It: DVD from VCI Entertainment (It’s worth noting that the VCI disk is missing scenes from Chapters 3 and 4 due to deterioration of the source material; Serial Squadron has located these missing chapters and is in the process of restoring them for a future release. There is enough redundancy in the serial format that it’s not hard to pick up on what happens in the missing sections, however.)

No. of Chapters: “13 Spine Tingling Chapters!”

Best Chapter Title: “Hot News!” (Chapter One)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Eight (“Killer at Large”), Charlie comes up with a plan that will help Lew get his revenge on Kruger for killing his brother. Charlie convinces Frank Smith to hire a phony fortune teller named Zelda (Marion Burns) for the Pelican Club, and Lew comes along as her assistant, “Abdul,” in a turban and false beard. (The stuff with Zelda, in this and the following chapter, is a lot of fun, and probably the high point of the serial for me.) Brenda and Chuck are invited to watch, as are Lt. Farrell and Tim. As “Abdul,” Lew walks among the audience, calling out for Zelda (who is blindfolded) to say what the marks are thinking, or what is in their pockets. Approaching Kruger, Abdul asks Zelda for her impression and is told that she feels a great sense of evil; through leading questions, Zelda says that a murder has been committed in the past, and that if Abdul looks in Kruger’s pocket he will find the gun that killed Vera Harvey. The plan to trap Kruger in front of the police goes awry when the lights in the club go out and shots are fired. This is one of several cliffhangers in which uncertainty or a reversal of fortune takes the place of an immediate deadly peril, but the implication is that any of our heroes might be on the receiving end of those gunshots. (At the beginning of the next chapter, when the lights come back on, both Kruger and Lew are gone. )

Sample Dialogue: “Whether you believe me or not, I’m going to write a story that’ll crack this town wide open!” –Brenda Starr to Lt. Farrell, Chapter Five (“The Big Boss Speaks”)

More Brenda Starr: Brenda Starr returned to the screen a few more times during periods of revived interest in the comics: in 1976, former Bond girl Jill St. John played Brenda in a TV movie (I haven’t been able to watch this one yet, but if I have anything worthwhile to say about it I may post a capsule review), and a TV pilot was made in 1979 starring Sherry Jackson.

A feature film starring Brooke Shields was produced in 1986, released overseas in 1989, and finally landed in the U.S. (to dismal reviews and poor box office) in 1992. It features Timothy Dalton (no stranger to pulp) as Brenda’s love interest, the enigmatic Basil St. John. In this movie Brenda dodges international spies and a reporter from a rival newspaper while tracking down an ex-Nazi scientist’s miracle fuel additive. The film also goes meta in the vein of The Purple Rose of Cairo, with a cartoonist (not Dale Messick, but an assistant) entering Brenda’s 1940s comic strip world and falling in love with her (Brooke Shields was my very first celebrity crush, so I can’t say I blame him). It’s a hook, but it’s less magical to learn that Brenda doesn’t have a belly button and is unable to swear (because of newspaper censors, you see) than the filmmakers seem to think. Shields makes a great Brenda, even if the film around her is (to be charitable) uneven. There are a lot of clever touches, but it’s pretty damn goofy as well, and everything to do with the Russian spies led by Jeffrey Tambor would be too broad for a live-action Disney movie. But then the movie shows us something sublimely silly like Brenda waterskiing on a pair of alligators and it comes all the way back around to being good.

What Others Have Said: “What Columbia was trying to do in the mid-1940s was trade upon–some would say tarnish–the reputations of heroes of other media. Beginning in 1945, when ‘Produced by Sam Katzman’ was stamped upon every Columbia serial, the borrowings were regular and frequent. The funny papers’ Brenda Starr, Reporter began the procession. . . .” —The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment, Raymond W. Stedman

What’s Next: I dive back into my big box of VHS tapes with another adaptation of a classic comic strip, Terry and the Pirates!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Mysterious Mr. M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. of Chapters: 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ninja III: The Domination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Color Out of Space: Horror Comes Home

This essay contains spoilers for Color Out of Space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pottersville (Seth Henrikson, 2017)

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

Jack Frost (Michael Cooney, 1997)

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

Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)

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

Santa Claus (René Cardona, 1959)

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

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Nicholas Webster, 1964)

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

Rare Exports (Jalmari Helander, 2010)

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

Anna and the Apocalypse (John McPhail, 2017)

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

Krampus (Michael Dougherty, 2015)

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

My 2019 in Film: Top Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m excluding them for artistic reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

9. Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez)

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

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

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

7. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)

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

6. Us (Jordan Peele)

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

5. Knives Out (Rian Johnson)

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

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

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

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3. In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

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

2. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

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

1. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

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

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

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

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

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

My 2019 in Film: New Discoveries

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

The Magician (Rex Ingram, 1926)

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

Elstree Calling (Adrian Brunel et al, 1930)

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

The Penguin Pool Murder (George Archainbaud, 1932)

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

Queen of Outer Space (Edward Bernds, 1958)

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

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

Two on a Guillotine (William Conrad, 1965)

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

Phase IV (Saul Bass, 1974)

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

Habfürdő (Kovásznai György, 1979)

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

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

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

Brainscan (John Flynn, 1994)

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

Remote Control Grandpa (Matt St. Charles, 2006)

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

* my ownership of two Death Nurse films notwithstanding

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