Friday, August 18, 2017

Ghosts and Laughs: Comedians as Ghostbreakers [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The idea of a 'funny ghostbreaker' begins not in a movie, but on the stage. Paul Dickey and Charles Goddard's The Ghost Breaker: A Melodramatic Farce in Four Acts (1909) (listen to the novel version) came at a time when the occult detective was no longer cutting edge horror. Names such as Martin Hesselius, Dr. Abraham van Helsing, Flaxman Low, and Dr John Silence had become familiar articles in the weird mystery genre. Not until World War I was over would interest in all things beyond the veil revive and the ghostbreakers would catch their second wind. But in 1909, people wanted to laugh at the shadows, not fight them.

It wasn't long before Cecile B DeMille made the first silent version of the play in 1914. It was first remade in 1922 with Wallace Reid and Lila Lee, then again in 1940 and 1953 (but more of that later). What is important to grasp here is that the Dickey and Goddard play set in motion a common plot that would be recycled over and over. A young woman would inherit a haunted house and invite her new boyfriend to go along with her to see the property. While in the house, mysterious things would occur, probably some running, screaming, and carrying on. (In fact the 12th film in the Carry On series was called Carry On Screaming! (1966). This scenario is overly familiar to all of us from dozens of TV episodes and endless Scooby-Doo cartoons. In the worst Ann Radcliffe style, the monsters will be explained away, the young lovers will triumph, and the true ghostbreaker fan will be disappointed.

Walt Disney would play three ghostbreakers (Mickey, Donald, and Goofy) for laughs in “Lonesome Ghosts” (December 24, 1937). Other cartoons featured ghosts and haunted houses: Popeye’s “Shiver Me Timbers (1934) and a proto-Bugs Bunny in “Prest-O-Chango” (1939), for example. But only “Lonesome Ghosts” has dedicated ghostbusters who hire out to rid buildings of ghosts. These cartoons are all done for laughs, not serious ghostbreaking.

Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard made the next version of Dickey and Goddard with The Ghost Breakers (1940) and scored a hit. Hope is snide and Goddard fun and beautiful. And the island with the zombies is creepy enough. Like all other versions, no real monsters show up. All the films mentioned on this page are in black and white, adding to their horror feel; Hope's film most of all. It would be much harder to send funny chills down spines in vivid Wizard of Oz color.

Abbott and Costello worked pretty hard to get us to giggle in Hold That Ghost (1941), a film that tried to capitalize on Bob Hope's success, but fails for the most part because of the lack of any real ghosts. The boys did a better job of saving Universal and its 1930s monsters in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

The first and best of the franchise, it has our witless duo as baggage clerks who get the job of unloading real monsters at a wax museum. Dracula, played by Bela Lugosi, hypnotizes Bud and together they resurrection the Frankenstein's monster, all the while Lon Chaney Jr.'s Larry Talbot goes about changing into the Wolf Man. Boris Karloff turned down the chance to be Frankenstein's monster, but made up for it a year later in a film that bore his name.

This film spawned five sequels: Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), a short for the Colgate Comedy Hour had "Abbott and Costello Meet the Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1953) and finally, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). Each of these recycled the same basic idea and got less and less funny, though they all made money.

The last official remake of The Ghost Breaker came in 1953 when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis filmed Scared Stiff. There are more night clubs and singing in it, but in all important ways it is not all that different than Hope's venture back in 1940.

Television and Saturday morning cartoons claimed the province of the funny spooks in shows like Bewitched (1964-1972), The Addams Family (1964-1966), The Munsters (1964-1966), and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970). It would take Richard O'Brien's burlesque sex comedy The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1973) to make fans sit up and take notice again. First in a stage play (how appropriate) and then a cult film in 1975 starring Tim Curry, we see the same story again: Brad and Janet, boyfriend and girlfriend, end up in a haunted house full of weirdos, dancing and singing, and exploring their sexuality, all while an intergalactic power struggle plays out.

What all of these films lack is a true investigator of the supernatural. They are simply ordinary folk who fall into unusual circumstances (and are supposed to make us chuckle). Films such as Young Frankenstein (1974) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) have proven you can make a successful horror parody (much as Dickey and Goddard were trying to do with the ghostbreaker genre), but this requires that the audience have a collection of shared tropes to play off of. It took Dan Ackroyd (an actual believer in the paranormal) and Harold Ramis (not so much) to write and perform in Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989) to see if real occult detectives could be funny. The results fortunately were -- yes, they can.

Before we leave our funny ghostchasers, there is one other that needs mention. In comics, ghostbreaker spoofs were less common, though the Kolchak the Night Stalker television show did receive one lambasting from the Marvel Comics group in July 1975.

Marvel experimented with monster spoof comics with a title called Arrgh!. It ran five issues from December 1974 to September 1975. The series was edited by Roy Thomas. The majority of the strips used were based on the classic Universal monsters. In the fourth issue a parody of The Night Stalker TV show lead off with a 10-pager written by Jack Younger (aka Russ Jones). The artwork was penciled by Gerry Grandenetti (better known in the Warren magazines and undergrounds) and inked by Marvel staffer Frank Springer.

The level of humor is typical of a MAD Magazine parody with Kolchak becoming Karl Coalshaft. His boss Tony Vincenzo is Tony Vinagretto. The plot follows a pretty typical episode with Coalshaft's trying to get the big supernatural scoop and failing each time: first with a vampire, then a werewolf. In both cases, the police show up, riddle the monster with bullets, and it is up to Coalshaft to use his special weapon (that he always carries) to put them down. His camera captures pictures, but is always destroyed. The strip ends with him returning to his office and not noticing his boss is actually a vampire. Tony tries to kill him, but falls out the window. Coalshaft walks away, giving up on monsters forever.

What makes this parody so apt is that the writer had only to repeat what he had seen on the show to make it ridiculous. The juvenile name jokes and sight gags are typical, but what is actually funny is that the Kolchak show was this predictable and silly. That sounds like I'm not a fan, which isn't true. Like Chris Carter, who created The X-Files, I watched these shows as a kid and loved them. They inspired much of what followed in the occult detective line. Still... the show's faults are laid bare in this 10-pager. I suppose it's no surprise that it was cancelled after 20 episodes. "Monster-of-the-week" is a criticism that has been given the series, but you can apply that just as easily to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Charmed series, both of which ran for many years and have huge followings. I suspect what ultimately ruined Kolchak's success was the lack of a larger cast of characters and becoming formulaic almost instantly. (You have to remember the two successful TV movies that spawned it.) It was prominent enough to warrant this single parody... "The Night Gawker”.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hellbent for Letterbox | Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969)

On this episode, Pax and I go through some Pony Express mail, share The Plainsman (1936) and Diablo (2015) with each other, and then dig into the Western comedy, Support Your Local Sheriff! starring James Garner, Jack Elam, Bruce Dern, and Harry Morgan. We also cover some of the "sequel," Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) with a similar tone and starring most of the same cast as different characters.

Monday, August 14, 2017

7 Days in May | Atomic Blonde and Robert Mitchum

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Great spy story with a super cool agent. I like that it's set in the Cold War and I love the heavy use of '80s New Wave music. I even like how the song choices fit with what's going on onscreen ('Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry," for instance, when two characters are trying not to be overheard), but I understand how that might be annoying for some.

The plot is complicated, with a lot of double- and triple-crossing to keep track of, but while I was often kept guessing, I was never confused. And it all tracked for me in the end. Looking back after all the reveals have been made, I have some questions about why certain characters did what they did, but I'm not calling that a flaw until I've been able to see it again with the knowledge of what everyone's up to.

The selling point is the action sequences. There are a few big fights and they're all staged differently and even have different tones from each other. One is a brutal, very prolonged fight in a stairwell, for example, while another in a posh hotel is slow motion and operatic.

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Continuing to rewatch some of my favorite movies from 2016. This was my third or fourth time watching The Magnificent Seven and I like it more each time. I already thought it was a fun movie the first time, but some things that bugged me then don't bother me anymore. It's not that there aren't flaws, it's just that the things that I like - certain characters, set pieces, and the way the villain gets his comeuppance, as examples - smother out the nitpicks that I originally had. It's still not as good as the original, but it doesn't have to be.

Doctor Strange (2016)

One of these days I'm going to need to comprehensively rank the Marvel movies, but I suspect that this will be in the upper part of the middle tier. I enjoy it a lot, appreciate its inventiveness about what spells look like, and like that it opens up a corner of the MCU that hasn't been explored before. I also like how Strange defeats the villain and what that says about him as a character. It's all cool stuff done in a new way.

But even though it's done in a new way, the story that it's telling doesn't feel new enough for me to totally fall in love with the movie. It's essentially Tony Stark's character arc again. And as much as I love Cumberbatch and love him in this role, that sameness keeps me from putting Doctor Strange with very favorite Marvel films.

Moana (2016)

Not just my favorite movie of last year; it's headed towards being one of my favorite movies of all time. There's more to unpack than I want to put in this post, but the short version is that it doesn't just push the nautical/island adventure and awesome female character buttons for me. There's serious, spiritual depth to this movie and a great discussion to be had about mission and identity and how those things are connected. Need to come back to this at some point.

The Ice Pirates (1984)

I've wanted to see The Ice Pirates since 1984. I missed it in the theater and somehow never got around to watching it later, but I've always been a big fan of Robert Urich and of course space opera and pirates, so how could I not enjoy it?

Little did I know.

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood, but as much fun as the cast is (had no idea Angelica Huston and Ron Perlman were in it), it's much sillier than I expected and I didn't actually like any of the characters. Urich is playing the scum bucket that everyone thinks Han Solo is, but without the heart of gold. At least, no heart of gold had been hinted at by the time I gave up and turned this off.

Lady Jane (1986)

So next week, Diane and David and I are taking off for a couple of weeks to go see Britain. It's been a lifelong wish of mine to go see the home of so many of my childhood heroes: Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Ebenezer Scrooge, Tarzan, James Bond, the Loch Ness Monster... it's a long list.

That means that I won't be updating this blog during that time and there might not be any podcasts with me on them either. If you're with me on Facebook though, I'll be posting there as much as possible, but otherwise, I'll pick up here when we get back.

It also means that we're watching some movies to prep for the trip. Lady Jane has been a favorite of mine since I fell in love with Helena Bonham Carter in the mid-'80s, but it's a downer and I knew David wouldn't love it, so I haven't shared it with him before. We're going to go see the Tower of London, though, and Lady Jane is largely set there and covers an important event that took place there. I figured it would be a good touchstone to have for our visit.

True enough, David wasn't thrilled, though I think he appreciated what he was supposed to about the story. I don't agree with every decision that Jane Grey and her husband make, but I'm not supposed to. They're kids and they make a lot of immature decisions. But I love their passion and I love the questions that the movie raises about how far we're willing to go for things that we believe are important. It kind of goes back to the themes of mission and identity from Moana and I love thinking about that stuff.

When Strangers Marry (1944)

I love me some Robert Mitchum and this has a bunch of other cool people, too. I see Dean Jagger get weepy every year in White Christmas, Kim Hunter went on to play Zira in the Planet of the Apes movies, and Neil Hamilton of course is Commissioner Gordon in the Adam West Batman series. And it's directed by William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts).

When Strangers Marry is a good thriller in which Hunter marries a guy (Jagger) she's only known a short time. The cops (led by Hamilton) want to bring Jagger in for questioning about a murder in the last town Jagger was in, but he's doing his best to stay off the grid. Hunter starts to wonder what she's gotten herself into and whether she shouldn't have married her childhood sweetheart (Mitchum) who's recently re-entered her life, instead.

Like I said, it's a good thriller, but it's not great. I was able to predict the outcome, but the bigger problem is that I never for a second believed that anyone would choose to marry Jagger over Mitchum.

Crossfire (1947)

Another early Robert Mitchum movie. I liked this one better though. It's a psychological thriller disguised as a murder mystery. From the start, there are really only a couple of options for who the killer might be, so the real mystery is about the potential motives of the primary suspects. Both are recently discharged soldiers, but one's a hateful bigot and the other is a sweet, but stressed out kid who may not be responsible for all of his actions. Robert Young is the main cop on the case, with Mitchum playing an officer who knows both suspects and wants to prove the kid's innocence.

There's no surprise as to who the killer really is, but that's okay. As the poster's tagline suggests, the movie's more concerned about hate and bigotry. It's heavy handed about delivering that message, but it's also great at humanizing the murder victim and driving home the tragedy of the crime. And sometimes - especially recently - heavy handedness in preaching against hate is exactly what we need.

The Paradine Case (1947)

I'm a big fan of Gregory Peck and Alfred Hitchcock, but I couldn't finish The Paradine Case. Peck plays a married lawyer who falls in love with the woman (Alida Valli) he's defending for murder. The movie hinges on selling the Peck-Valli romance, but that's exactly where it falls apart. Valli is supposed to glamorously mysterious, but she's dull as a mop and there's no reason for Peck to be tempted by her. Especially when his wife (Ann Todd) is utterly charming and far more interesting as a person. The script and performances do no work to transition Peck from happily married to grumpily considering adultery, so when he suddenly and inexplicably started exhibiting feelings for Valli, I was out.

Rio Grande (1950)

The third in John Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy." I accidentally skipped the second, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, because I forgot that Rio Grande was part of it. There are way too many Westerns named after rivers, ya'll.

This is a bona fide sequel to Fort Apache. It doesn't reference any of those events - and I'm not even 100% sure that the timeline works out - but John Wayne is playing the same character in both movies. I like how different the two films are, though.

Fort Apache is about authority and the military structure and what happens when good people are given bad orders. Rio Grande is a more personal movie. Some of Fort Apache's themes show up here, too, because Wayne's character once had to carry out a difficult order that directly affected his relationship with his wife (Maureen O'Hara). But Rio Grande is mostly about that relationship, with both characters trying to decide if they want to repair it. Complicating the situation is that their son has enlisted in the army and been assigned to Wayne's command. O'Hara of course wants the boy out, but Wayne's feelings on it aren't so simple.

It's a lovely story of guilt and repentance and the possibility of forgiveness, which doesn't just play out in the family of main characters. There's also a soldier who's wanted for manslaughter, so when the US Marshal shows up to bring him in, the film adds justice to the mix of themes. What role, if any, should the government play in forgiving crimes? Pretty great stuff.

Winchester '73 (1950)

I'm not typically into movies that follow props around. Most of the time they're thinly disguised anthologies and I'm just not crazy about anthologies. But that's not Winchester '73. The characters who come into contact with the rifle are already connected in other ways and none of them leave the story completely unless they die. It's really about Jimmy Stewart's trying to get the rifle, but more importantly - and for reasons unrelated to the rifle itself - get his hands on the guy who stole it. The other characters are clever diversions who weave in and out of that main plot, but all of them are worth the time the movie spends on them.

Song of the Week: "Electric Love" by BØRNS

No one reads this far down, do they?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Southern Charm | Dolly Parton, Paper Clips, and Hushpuppies

Photo via Vanity Fair

Jody and I begin the episode talking about Dolly Parton and her efforts to poke holes in the hillbilly stereotype while also embracing that part of her heritage. Then we move on to a similar story of the middle school kids in Whitwell, Tennessee who created the Paper Clip Project, a memorial to the Holocaust victims of Nazi Germany. Finally, we wrap up with a recipe for hushpuppies and I learn that they're not just a ketchup delivery mechanism.

Intro Music: "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'" by Charley Pride

Outro Music: "Jolene" by Dolly Parton (33 rpm version)

Also featured: "To Make You Feel My Love" by Mike Reid, "Jubilee" by Alison Krauss, and "Swing and Turn, Jubilee" by Carolyn Hester.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Greystoked | Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Noel and I are joined by my pal and fellow Nerd Lunch Star Wars panelist Kay (Fan Girl BlogHyperspace Theories) to talk about MGM's second Tarzan film. Inspired by King Kong and a pivotal film in the history of the Hays Code, Tarzan and His Mate offers a lot to discuss and we dig in good.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Thundarr Road | Secret of the Black Pearl

Thundarr's journey begins in New York City where he, Ariel, and Ookla meet Gemini, arguably the most iconic of the series' villains. Noel, David, and I cover the episode in detail with focus on characterization, world-building, backstory, and the rules of magic.

Monday, August 07, 2017

7 Days in May | Revisiting 2016 favorites and '80s unfavorites

Jane Got a Gun (2015)

Spent some time this week revisiting some of my favorite movies from 2016. Some of them were new to David and Diane, but all of them I wanted another look it.

I was especially eager to watch Jane Got a Gun again. I loved it last year, but lukewarm reviews by other folks made me wonder if I just wasn't in a really good mood when I watched it the first time. The answer is: nope! It's great.

I love how it unfolds in three different time periods with everything leading to a big showdown between Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor. Joel Edgerton helps Portman, but where most movies would have had him take over and become the hero, Jane lets Portman hold onto that role. She is awesome and the movie is awesome. Glad I put it in my Top 5 last year.

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Liked it even better the second time. Alexander Skarsgård is an excellent Tarzan; probably the best ever, though we'll need to finish Greystoked before I can make that claim. Legend isn't a faithful adaptation of a Burroughs novel and it even changes some basic elements of Tarzan lore, but each change is considered and smart and exactly what's needed to keep the legend fresh and alive.

My only complaint is that the CG animals could be more convincing, but I'm thrilled with the story and the characters.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

My favorite Kelvin Star Trek movie. That's not saying anything in comparison to Into Darkness, but I'm a big fan of the 2009 reboot and this is better. These are the characters - not growing into the people that I know and love - but already as I know and love them. Plus Jaylah. Plus everyone is 300% more kickass than they were in the original series. (And that's not because the original series wasn't kickass. It totally was. But not everyone got to do it back then and they certainly didn't get to do it directed by Justin Lin.)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

After watching this again and loving it just as much, I realized that it's directed by the same guy who's directing Thor: Ragnarok. Which makes me 1000x more excited for that movie than I already was. Taika Waititi knows how to make stuff funny, but also full of heart. If I ever meet him, I'm going to have someone take a selfie of us.

The Island (1980)

This has been on my list for so long. Michael Caine in a horror/thriller about modern-day pirates who dress as Golden Age pirates? And written by Peter Benchley? Yes, please.

It starts well enough with some scary and gruesome boat attacks. Caine plays a reporter named Blair Maynard who wants to investigate the disappearances, but he gets stuck with his kid for the weekend and has to take the boy along. Maynard's a pretty lousy dad, but Caine plays him with charm and it's clear that he loves his son Justin, even if he doesn't really know what to do with him. The movie is pretty good while it's about the pair of them traveling around the Caribbean and trying to bond. In a cruel twist of fate, it's not until the pirates show up that the movie sucks.

I can see how this could be a fun adventure novel, but putting them on screen makes it impossible to take the pirates seriously as a threat. They're bloodthirsty and dangerous, but also unbelievable and goofy. How their civilization has been able to survive all of these centuries is never seriously addressed, so they come off as deadly historical reenactors. It's as silly as it sounds.

Also silly is the drama around Justin's joining the pirate gang. There's a great story to be told about a kid who deserts the already shaky relationship he has with his father to do some horrible things with a bunch of new friends. How far can a child go before a parent gives up hope of bringing them back? Unfortunately, this isn't that story. Justin's transformation from normal kid to Lord of the Flies is way too quick and the movie doesn't really care whether we believe it or not.

Yellowbeard (1983)

The '80s were full of pirate movies that didn't work as well as they should have. I'm sure I'll get back around to some more of them later, but Yellowbeard showed up on my TiVo, so I gave it another look.

I was so disappointed back in the day. You take most of Monty Python and put them in a movie with Cheech & Chong and most of the cast of Young Frankenstein. I don't care what the movie's about, that's got to be hilarious. Making it about pirates is bonus. But Yellowbeard isn't as funny as its individual parts promise. And when I first saw it years ago, the letdown was unrecoverable. I hated it.

Watching it again, I laughed quite a bit. As Stacia says at She Blogged By Night, "Yellowbeard is a complete disaster, but it’s a funny disaster." She has a great analysis of what went wrong (and what went right) and links to still further information from Yellowbeard's director, so I highly recommend checking out her review. I'll probably never watch it again, but I'm glad to have it redeemed at least a little in my memory.

High Road to China (1983)

Another one that I wanted to like back in the day better than I did. It suffered by getting compared to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a comparison that the marketing of the movie asked for, but it's not the best way of approaching the film. I haven't done an exhaustive history of it, but I have no doubt that it was greenlit thanks to Raiders' success. High Road had been in development since the late '70s though, so it's conception was inspired by neither Indiana Jones nor '30s movie serials. High Road is an homage to a later genre: mid-century war/adventure movies.

It's telling that it was originally going to be directed by John Huston and was ultimately directed by Brian Hutton, because it has way more in common with The African Queen and Kelly's Heroes than The Adventures of Smilin' Jack. I still don't completely love High Road to China, because I never really care about whether Selleck and Armstrong get together, but I do appreciate it as a globe-trotting adventure with a war movie finale.

Argoman, the Fantastic Superman (1967)

Went to see Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live and this was the movie. I'm probably breaking some kind of social contract by telling you, because it was billed as a Secret Surprise Film. (There were two shows - an early and a late - and because of schedules, Diane went to the early one - which was Eegah - and I went to the late. David went to both.) Joel Hodgson was there to MC and he said that he wanted the second film to be a secret because he feels the show works best when the audience doesn't know anything about the movie. I'm only telling you, because the chances are really, really tiny of someone reading this who also has tickets to an upcoming late show of the tour. If I've spoiled it for you, I'm sorry. You're in for a great show, though.

It's hard to judge Argoman the Fantastic Superman in The Incredible Paris Incident on its own merits outside of the experience of the show that I saw it in, but I think it's safe to say that it's awful. It's a late '60s Italian film inspired by James Bond and Adam West's Batman. Mostly Bond, if Bond was the millionaire playboy secret-identity of a superhero. (Unlike Batman, Argoman the Fantastic Superman actually has powers. They're not defined very well, but telekinesis is part of it. And also unlike '60s Batman, it took me a long time to decide if Argoman was a good guy or a bad guy. That's probably the Bond influence again.) Calling it "camp" implies some intentionality that I'm not sure was there, but let's give it the benefit of the doubt. If you like horrible Italian cinema from the '60s, it's bonkers enough to make it worth tracking down - whether or not you have wisecracking robots to watch it with.

Windjammer (1937)

It's a decent idea. A lawyer finagles his way onto a yacht to serve a subpoena to a well-protected tycoon who's leaving the country on a race across the Pacific. The execution is miserable though, with the lawyer's seeming super ineffectual and the tycoon's being infuriatingly entitled in a way that I think is supposed to seem whimsically charming. Maybe. I had a hard time telling what kind of tone the movie's going for.

Complicating things is the tycoon's equally entitled daughter who hates the lawyer for obvious reasons until she suddenly doesn't and we enter romantic comedy territory. I think maybe the whole movie is supposed to be a romantic comedy? That would explain why it doesn't really care about how horrible the woman's dad is. Anyway, I'm sorry I watched it.

Johnny Angel (1945)

A case study on why genres are important. I've got a few wishlist searches on my TiVo, so sometimes I record things and I don't really remember why. I bet I grabbed this one because it's about a sea captain investigating the death of his sea captain father and there's gold involved. But that's all I knew about it, so going in I was expecting some kind of adventure story. Which means that I got impatient with how slowly and moodily the story was unfolding.

When that happens, I usually stop the movie for a minute and do some research. Learning that Johnny Angel is a film noir (that just so happens to be about a sea captain and some gold in New Orleans) made all the difference in the world. I started it up again, confident that I could enjoy it for what it was. Expectations are weird.

It's pretty good. None of the cast is especially remarkable except Hoagy Carmichael as a really cool cabbie, but the mystery is good and the movie is awesomely atmospheric. I like how the mystery unfolds, too, with some pleasant (if not especially shocking) twists.

Black Bart (1948)

Between this and Frontier Gal, I'm pretty much done with Yvonne De Carlo Westerns. Or at least with seeking out Westerns specifically because she was in them. She may be Lily Munster - and she's certainly gorgeous - but man does she play some miserable characters. Black Bart isn't focused on rape the way that Frontier Gal was, but it's still about a supposedly strong-willed woman who bends to a man's wishes simply because he's the man.

In this case, the man is a stagecoach robber named Black Bart. He's kind of a Zorro character except that he deserves to be an outlaw. In fact, his master plan for robbing stagecoaches really puts him in the supervillain category. And yet I think we're supposed to find it tragic when he gets what's coming to him. I don't know. If he's supposed to be charming and likable, then the movie makes a huge miscalculation, because he's a boring weasel. I'm glad to see him fall and only sorry that he drags De Carlo into it. I guess it doesn't actually end too badly for her, but that's only because the movie completely forgets about her at some point and never comes back to her again.

Fort Apache (1948)

Got interested in watching John Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy" as a trilogy. I've seen Fort Apache before and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but I have no memory of Rio Grande. Or maybe I've seen it, but I'm getting it confused with the million other Westerns named after rivers. Anyway, I've certainly never watched the three movies close together enough to understand why people consider them a trilogy, so I'm gonna work on that.

Fort Apache is good, if frustrating. It's frustrating in the same way that Mutiny on the Bounty is. I don't have patience for rigid, narrow-minded characters who have authority over more level-headed people. The fear of that scenario playing out in real life is a big reason that I'd never fit well into a military organization. But Fonda is great at the role and the script gives him some humanizing moments in addition to the maddeningly bull-headed ones. I end up feeling bad for the guy, which is remarkable considering how much I dislike him.

Shirley Temple sure is a joy, though, as Fonda's daughter. And I like John Agar more in this than I usually do. John Wayne is typically watchable, too. So as this kind of military drama goes, Fort Apache is the best I've seen.

The Bribe (1949)

Finally, I checked off another Vincent Price noir movie with The Bribe. Robert Taylor plays a government agent investigating a ring of airplane engine smugglers (?!) and Price is the (not really a spoiler, because it's Vincent Price) mastermind behind the operation. Ava Gardner and her husband (John Hodiak) are suspects, but Taylor gets too close to Gardner and his loyalties are compromised. Charles Laughton is Price's front man in the operation; mostly there to give voice to Taylor's conundrum by reminding everyone of the stakes as often as possible.

Taylor is never a compelling lead. He even makes Ivanhoe boring, for goodness sake. I don't know that I've ever seen Ava Gardner in anything else, so I don't want to judge her too harshly for The Bribe. She's dull too, but that might be Taylor's rubbing off on her. Vincent Price is great, but he's barely in the thing, which leaves Laughton to do all the hard work. His character is purely there for exposition (and I guess a red herring, if you're super gullible), but he does fantastic things with it.

Kudos also to directors Robert Leonard and Vincente Minnelli for giving a mediocre story tons of style. The final showdown between Taylor and Price is unforgettable and there's a good reason that The Bribe was one of the movies edited into Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.

Song of the Week: "Goodbye" by Echosmith

I love the guitar in this and the chorus is amazing and hilarious: "When you finally find yourself... tell him I said, 'Goodbye.'"

Friday, August 04, 2017

Star Begotten: A Monstrous Rebuttle [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Star Begotten by HG Wells is one of those novels that you rarely see. The science fiction people tend towards the early stuff: The Time Machine, Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds, while the sociological types prefer the later books like Men Like Gods, The Sleeper Wakes, and The World Set Free. Lastly, the literary types ignore the SF altogether (write it off as a passing phase) and focus on the novels like Wheels of Chance, Ann Veronica, or The Secret Places of the Heart. I can honestly say I am not any of these. I am a monster fan. And Star Begotten is an interesting book to me.

Star Begotten was written in 1937, nine years before Wells’ death. Wells’ reputation by this time was not what it was in 1898 or even 1915. By the late 1920s, he was reprinting his glory days in pulps like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. He must have seemed pretty old fashioned to many. George Orwell described him as being too sane for the mad world of the 20th Century. With the events of the Russian Revolution and afterwards, his socialist ideas were becoming unpopular. (He does address this and many others things in the novel.) I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Star Begotten came and went, only to be resurrected by Manor Books during the 1970s SF paperback boom. (This is the edition I keep encountering in second-hand stores.)

The plot of Star Begotten is easy to describe because there is so little of it. Basically, we follow an idea that a writer comes up with, that Martians are bombarding humanity with cosmic rays in an attempt to “Martianize” us. Wells debates the idea in several long “talking heads” sessions between writers, doctors, and other learned men, but never puts the idea into action. (There is a subplot about how the writer Davis realizes his wife is one of the “Martainized” people and his newborn son is likely one, too.) This static “idea story” had become the norm for him after abandoning the more plot-driven adventures of his early career for dystopic lectures in his later books. As GK Chesterton put it, "Mr Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message..." The exciting moments of the first SF tales - like the descent into the Morlocks’ tunnels, encountering the beast men, fleeing the invisible man, or crossing the devastation of the Martians’ conquered Earth - are not here. Star Begotten is a mental book, filled with many big ideas on humankind, civilization, media, and art. It is as such that we must approach it: Wells’ summing up all his work and ideas.

Now I have been accused of minimizing Wells’ greatness in previous articles. I make no apology for this. I am not a scholar of great literature. I have nothing to add there. I am a student of monsterdom. So if you are looking for tracts on Socialism or Literature or any other higher ideas, move on. I am a monster fan and that is what I do. And here is why Star Begotten is interesting to other monster fans: In this book, Wells gets to look back at his earlier work, The War of the Worlds in particular, (he pokes fun at himself with: “Some of you may have read a book called The War of the Worlds - I forget who wrote it - Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, one of those fellows”) and address how readers took that book, and to rethink the monsters he used in that classic. It’s not often that writers get to do this.

Through the debates on the theoretical Martians, Wells redesigns them. He discards the cruel squidgies with tentacles and blood injections, and instead presents a kinder, gentler Martian:
'Yes, Mars was cool long before earth was. A longer past, a hotter summer and a harder winter—the year of Mars is twice the length of ours—a larger body and a larger brain. With more room for memories—more and better memories—and more space for ideas, more and better ideas. And so the problem comes down to this. What sort of mind would a man have if he had a longer ancestry, an ampler memory, a less hurried Life?'
The gentle giants of Mars are redefined as “quite nice monsters.” Wells no longer wants to shock and horrify as he did in the early years of 1894-8, that great monster-spawning instinct that gave us intelligent ants, killer squid, communal spiders, and a host other great creatures. Instead he wants to extrapolate scientifically, thinking of what Mars was like and how evolution would have sculpted the Martians both mentally and physically. Only after this, once the nominal hero of the story accepts that the Martians exist, do we finally get to see how it affects him. The final chapter confronts a writer who sees all his previous work as misguided nonsense, who destroys his unfinished masterpiece and finally realizes he need not be depressed about the coming new race. Not only is his wife and child part of this new, better kind of human, but he is one of them too.

The obvious stepchild of Star Begotten is John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). Many know it better by its film title, Village of the Damned (1960, and the John Carpenter remake in 1995). Unlike Wells, Wyndham makes the plot move with some energy. The UFO craze of the 1950s supplies the aliens with a more direct access to humanity, visiting the village one night and impregnating all the viable females. The children born of this night are mutants with very similar hair and telepathic abilities. Wyndham does a great job of exploring how humans would feel when homo superior shows up and it is their own children. Wells suggest the idea but never runs with it. Like many 1950s SF films, the subtext seems to be about Communist infiltrators.

As I said at the beginning, Star Begotten has largely been ignored by science fiction and monster fans. But not all writers were unaware of it. One who was familiar is Nigel Kneale in Quatermass and the Pit (1957) in which the discovery of fossils proves that humans were mutated by a dying Martian race. Another is Manly Wade Wellman in Sherlock Holmes’ War of the Worlds (1975) who chooses Wells’ redesigned Martians (or aliens) over the squidgies of 1898. Star Begotten is not the influential masterwork that The War of the Worlds is, but I can recommend it to any writer interested in how to create an alien by extrapolation, or how to re-design one you’ve already created.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.


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