Fantasia 2020, Part XXX: Undergods

Wednesday, September 30th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

UndergodsThere is a certain tone I find in some works of science fiction, almost all from Europe, a ‘literary’ approach that uses science-fictional imagery with self-conscious irony in a way that at least approaches allegory and often satire. In prose I associate this approach with Lem and indeed Kafka; in film, with Tarkovsky’s science-fiction (adapting Lem and the Strugatskys) and Alphaville and On The Silver Globe. The focus in these works is less on world-building than on symbolism, and often on a narrative structure that layers stories within stories and plays with chronology. At their best, these tales emphasise the purely fantastic essence at the heart of science fiction: a type of wonder that uses a modern vocabulary.

This year’s Fantasia Festival had a film in that tradition called Undergods. Written and directed by Spaniard Chino Moya, it’s officially a co-production from Estonia, Sweden, Belgium, and the UK. A series of interlaced stories told by a couple of bored men on a long journey by truck, it openly refers to the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann, one of the early masters of the kind of fiction I described above. That made Undergods the second Hoffmann-influenced film I saw at Fantasia after Tezuka’s Barbara, which was inspired by the tales of Hoffmann at several removes. Hoffmann was a writer who played about with doubles and alter-egos — one of his unfinished novels, Kater Murr, imagined the autobiography of a complacent bourgeouis housecat written on the back of letters by a frenzied Romantic composer — so it’s interesting to note that Barbara evoked the content of Hoffmann’s stories without their complexity of form, while Undergods had the form of stories commenting on stories without much of the fantastic content.

The film opens with the truckers (Johann Myers and Géza Röhrig), gathering corpses in a ruined city. They start talking about their dreams, which leads to them telling three stories. In the first, an older man (Michael Gould) and his wife (Hayley Carmichael) take in another man (Ned Dennehy) who claims to be a tenant in their building who’s locked himself out of hs room; he’s helpful, but doesn’t leave, and soon appears to be manipulating them for some unknown reason. From there we pass to a father telling his young daughter about the aftermath of those events, and then launching into a bedtime story. That story’s about an old and wealthy businessman (Eric Godon) who betrays a brilliant but naive architect (Jan Bijvoet); in revenge the architect kidnaps the businessman’s daughter (Tanya Reynolds), leading the businessman to team up with her boyfriend to try to find her — eventually ending up in the city of the corpse-gatherers. The last story begins where the last ended, with a prison in the ruined city, where an inmate (Sam Louwyck) is released to return to his family in a modern city in the developed world; Sam’s wife (Kate Dickie), thinking him dead, has long since married Dominic (Adrian Rawlins) whose perspective we follow as the family tries to adapt to Sam’s reappearance.

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What Would You Exchange at the Rack at the Track?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Rack at the Track 2019-small

In my Vintage Treasures posts, I like to talk about paperback fantasy that’s been out of print for decades. Books you’re not going to find without a search, but which are worth it all the same. Hopefully I intrigue a few of you lot to search out some of those books every week, and sample authors and titles you might not have discovered otherwise.  The idea is encourage readers to try something that’s given me enormous pleasure for most of my life: tracking down and shelling out a couple bucks for vintage paperbacks.

Of course, when you find them on a giveaway rack at your local train station, you don’t need me to tell you what to do. So today I want to talk about The Water of the Wondrous Isles by William Morris, which I found in the Take One Leave One paperback rack at the Geneva train station last year.

What exactly do you leave in exchange for a nearly 50-year old (and highly collectible) paperback, volume #38 in Lin Carter’s famous (and highly collectible) Ballantine Adult Fantasy line? I have no idea. But I stood in front that rack for a good five minutes, struggling with that question as commuters milled around me. Finally I put the book in my pocket, and returned the next day with half a dozen brand new paperbacks. I quietly tucked them into the racks, knowing I got by far the better deal. But sometimes you just have to accept what the universe has gifted you and not question it.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XIX: Unearth

Tuesday, September 29th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

UnearthThere’s an old line that says science fiction literalises metaphors. It’s a line that applies to fantasy and horror, too. It means that, for example, a realist book may say that somebody walking through their old house is haunted by memories like the ghosts of their past, while a horror story might have that person be actually haunted by an actual ghost representing that past. What is metaphor in one case is literal in the other. But still a metaphor, as well, still symbolising something more than itself. Part of the trick of writing stories of the fantastic is knowing how to handle the metaphorical and the literal — knowing exactly how literal to make the literalised metaphor, and how to explore what literalising the metaphor brings the story, and how to explore the metaphor as metaphor while keeping it a literal thing.

All of which came to mind when I saw Unearth on the start of the eleventh day of the Fantasia Film Festival. The movie was directed by John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies from a script by Lyons and Kelsey Goldberg, and it’s concerned with industry coming into a small town and unloosing something terrible. But it’s a slow build to get to a point that most horror movies would put up front, and by the time the horror emerges you wonder if it was really needed.

The film follows two families struggling to make ends meet, one a farming family headed by matriarch Kathryn Dolan (Adrienne Barbeau), the other by garage owner George Lomack (Marc Blucas). The first act of the film introduces us to the Dolans and Lomacks and shows us their hopes and dreams being strangled by poverty, so that we understand why George is ready to lease his land to an oil company. The company moves in and starts a fracking operation, causing the environment to degrade rapidly. And then something worse is disturbed.

But that something worse does not become obvious until over an hour into a 94-minute movie. When it does, it pays off some hints and imagery from earlier in the film. But those hints have been so subtle it takes a while even after the horror really emerges to understand what it is we’re seeing.

For much of the movie, in fact, it looks like the oil company and perhaps capitalism in general are the monsters. The oil company emissary offers a sinister deal to various characters, preying upon the weakest and least able to resist. After the evil deal’s made, the surroundings become a hell. This is barely a metaphor; the need for money and the corruption of the land make the oil company, distant and untouchable, a demonic force.

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Hercules: Hero and Victim, Part 2

Tuesday, September 29th, 2020 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

Interior Illustration of Hercules, 1885 ed of Bulfinch's Age of Fable p199

Interior Illustration of Hercules from the 1885 edition of Bulfinch’s Age of Fable, p199 (archive.org)

Today I’m going to finish up my 2-part article on Hercules (Part 1 covered his origin, his “twelve labors”, and his growing wisdom). Once again, I will quote from Bulfinch’s Mythology (a series including The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes), by Thomas Bulfinch; God, Heroes and Men of Ancient Greece, by W.H.D. Rouse; and Mythology, by Edith Hamilton. For this second part, I’ve also sourced Sophocles’ Trachiniae and Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book IX.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I had the good fortune as a kid of seeing, in their first theatrical showings, Hercules (1958) and Hercules Unchained (1959), both starring former body-builder and Mr. America, Steve Reeves; as well as Ray Harryhausen’s classic, Jason and the Argonauts (1963), where an older Hercules was wonderfully portrayed by Nigel Green. These led me to my grade school library, where I borrowed and devoured every book on Greek and Roman mythology I could find. In high school and afterward, I discovered such books by such scholars as Edith Hamilton, Thomas Bulfinch, W.H.D. Rouse, Norma Lorre Goodrich, Michael Grant, Carl Fischer, and Sir Richard Burton. Thus, Hercules was my introduction to Greek Mythology, helped along by what my Dad knew and told me. Later, I became interested in Norse, Celtic, and other mythologies, which eventually led the way to Sword and Sorcery, and Heroic Fantasy.

This post will cover Hercules’ temper, tragedy, and passing.
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Understanding the New Order

Monday, September 28th, 2020 | Posted by Patrick Kanouse

Imperialsourcebook-2ndedition

Since Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars and its consequent films and streaming episodic shows — the very good The Mandalorian being only the first of several planned — many would be forgiven for forgetting the very long time between The Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. 1983 to 1999. In that time, novels and comics were the primary vehicle for keeping Star Wars stories going, including the Thrawn Trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn, published from 1991 to 1993.

For roleplayers, West End Games published a Star Wars role playing game in 1987. This game proved to be successful, and the quality of the material was so good, that Zahn referenced — at the instruction of LucasArts — the sourcebooks when writing the Thrawn Trilogy. With the game, players could finally engage in the universe and with supplemental materials to help expand and frame the universe that was — until that time — largely confined to the original trilogy of films and a poorly received Christmas special.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XXVIII: 2011

Monday, September 28th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

2011I’ve mentioned that many of the films I saw at this year’s Fantasia were haunted-house stories. Or: horror movies that revolve around a specific architectural location. That’s an intriguing coincidence in the year of COVID-19, but perhaps speaks to filmmakers finding a way to limit budgets and get the most use possible out of their locations. Which brings me to 2011, a film set in a single apartment and a kind of ghost story that begins and ends with the horror-thriller form. But this only becomes clear at the very end, for mainly this is an experimental and ambitious film that wanders through different genres and types of stories.

It’s the first movie directed by Alexandre Prieur-Grenier, from a script written by Prieur-Grenier with Maxime Duguay and Emmanuel Jean. An unnamed insomniac film editor (Émile Schneider), living in his Montréal apartment, works on assembling a movie called A Burning Flesh. As he does, different kinds of things happen to him, forming multiple plot strands out of which the film 2011 is woven. Bound up with these things are the editor’s dreams, and a grasp on reality that grows shakier as the film goes on.

To start with, there’s the mystery of the tenant next door, who may or may not be breaking into the editor’s apartment. This is the aspect that’s most dreamlike, and perhaps least certain. The apartment next door may be empty, or may not. There may be noise coming from it, or may not. This strand is central to the movie, but doesn’t develop in a linear way — the editor sporadically tries to investigate his neighbour, but there isn’t any sense of him getting closer to figuring out what’s happening in the other apartment through the film.

Instead much of the forward narrative motion of the movie comes from the development of the film-within-a-film the editor’s working on. The director, Hugo (an intense Hugolin Chevrette), visits repeatedly and they view scenes the editor’s put together. That movie’s elliptical, too much so for me to grasp its relevance to 2011 at one viewing. What is most narratively important is that the editor struggles to work on it and grows obsessed with an actress.

The editor in fact has a girlfriend as 2011 begins, but his romantic life also provides plot material. In addition to the two women already mentioned, after he spots a violent argument between his landlord and his wife (Tania Kontoyanni) the wife starts an affair with him. This is dangerous, as the landlord is a bruiser with a bad temper.

There’s a lot of story here, plus the inset scenes of A Burning Flesh, plus dream sequences, plus the editor’s work on a kind of mural decorating the entryway of his apartment. Reality breaks down, and a sense of physical threat grows. But the movie never quite resolves into a simple genre tale, in part because it doesn’t quite build any kind of story. There isn’t a sense of a structure developing, or even really of a character or characters driving events.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Johnny Angel (Raft)

Monday, September 28th, 2020 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Raft_JohnnyAngelLobby1EDITED“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era termsp for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

This essay on Johnny Angel is not about the song sung by Shelly Fabares; though, I do like it. Instead, it’s a nautical noir starring George Raft, now at RKO after what can only be deemed a disappointing career at Warners. Of course, Raft can only blame himself for that, after passing on High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, and Double Indemnity. You think his career wouldn’t have gone differently with those classics on his resume? However, he actually did make some solid movies at RKO in the mid-to-late forties, and this is one of them. THERE BE SPOILERS HERE! Look – I’m talking about a 75 year old movie here. If I ruin something for you; well, you had plenty of chances to see it before now. Okay?

Here, Raft plays Johnny Angel – a merchant ship captain who followed his father into the same career. His father has simply disappeared, along with his ship. Johnny takes offense at insinuations his father did something wrong, and is determined to find out what happened. Raft makes a decent civilian skipper, with a stiff walk. As always, he’s the toughest guy in the room, glowering at, and verbally berating, weaker characters. And of course, beating up the bad guys. You know what you’re getting in a Raft movie.

The female co-lead is the completely forgettable Signe Hasso (though she’s third-billed). She had a funny role in George Segal’s The Maltese Falcon spoof, The Black Bird. But I don’t think she brings anything to this movie at all. If this had been a Warners flick, Joan Blondell, or Ann Sheridan, or maybe even Sylvia Sidney, would have made this a better film. Her character, Paulette Girard, knows something about Johnny’s father’s disappearance, and she’s on the run.

However, it’s top-billed Claire Trevor who carries the female load. Trevor was a terrific actress and played a number of fine parts in hardboiled and noir films. She didn’t have much screen time as Baby Face Martin’s syphilitic, hooker ex-girlfriend, but she brought another layer of emotional depth to Bogart’s character, in Dead End. She had just shone opposite Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet, when she made Johnny Angel. And of course, she won an Oscar for Key Largo.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: ‘50s Vikings – Havoc in Horned Helms

Sunday, September 27th, 2020 | Posted by Lawrence Ellsworth

Prince Valiant-small

Since the resurgence in interest in the Norse and their far-traveling raiders during the Romantic era of the early 19th century, the depiction of Vikings in popular culture had been pretty consistent, as a bunch of rugged, hard-drinking, manic-depressive berserkers with a lust for life and horns on their helmets. But except for the silent epic The Viking (1928) they didn’t really get a lot of Hollywood screen time until the 1950s, when a few films established or burnished the visual tropes that are still touchstones today. Here are three movies that demonized, caricatured, and lionized the Vikings—and it was the last, which valorized them on a grand scale, that made the most lasting impression.

Prince Valiant

Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1954
Director: Henry Hathaway
Source: 20th Century Fox DVD

When I was a kid, Sunday morning meant the eagerly awaited color comics section of the Akron Beacon Journal, and the comic I always turned to first was Prince Valiant. Hal Foster’s adventure tale, set “In the Days of King Arthur,” was gorgeously designed, told an endless story of nearly adult caliber, had engaging characters, was epic in scope and yet ambitious in its attempt to get the details of medieval life credible and accurate. (Its historical setting was highly fictitious, of course, but the Arthur tales are legend, not history.) Prince Valiant was arguably the greatest American adventure strip of the 20th Century.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XXVII: Kriya

Sunday, September 27th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

KriyaReligion’s a recurring subject for horror, and for a lot of reasons; there’s a lot in there to be scared about. More, from at least the 18th century onward writers have followed Edmund Burke and Ann Radcliffe in linking horror with the sublime. When horror fiction in the West has grappled with religion, naturally enough it’s tended to use Christian symbols, ideas, and sometimes even theology — whether in something as simple as the crucifix turning away a vampire, or in something more central to the story, as showing the birth of Satan’s child in The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby.

Of course, horror from other traditions may use religions closer to hand. Thus Kriya, an Indian film written and directed by Sidharth Srinivasan. A little like 2015’s Ludo it uses horror movie ideas and images in an Indian context, in this case placing black-magic versions of Hindu rites at its core. It’s Srinavasan’s third theatrical feature, but his first horror film. For me, as an outsider to the tradition he’s examining, it worked quite well.

It opens in a nightclub, where a mysterious, beautiful woman named Sitara (Navjot Randhawa) invites the DJ, Neel (Noble Luke), to take her home. Neel finds her home is a palatial estate, where Sitara’s dying father (M.D. Asif) is lying gagged and bound. With him are Sitara’s mother Tara Devi (Avantika Akerkar) and younger sister Sara (Kanak Bhardwaj), as well as the family servant Magdali (Anuradha Majumder) and an older priest, or pandit (Sudhanva Deshpande). Sitara wants Neel to take part in the funeral — certain rites can be performed only by the son of the family, and as there’s no son, she hopes Neel will fill in. But there’s something deeply strange and sinister in the old house and the weird family. As the night goes on the wrongness of the place becomes clearer, and Neel senses the wrongness even as he’s pulled deeper into it.

This is not exactly a haunted house story, but is certainly a story about a house-bound horror. As such the sense of place and the physical state of the location is important, and Kriya does not disappoint here. The sprawling mansion exudes a palpable sense of decay, the skin-crawling feel of a thing slowly dying, a shell that cannot be lit by the few small lives within it. The story mostly takes place over the course of a single night, and that night is thick and dark, manifesting in deep shadows everywhere inside. According to Srinavasan, in a fascinating extended question-and-answer panel alongside some of the cast, the building’s a 150-year-old building from the time of the Raj; I didn’t notice any overt thematic overtones to colonialism in the narrative, but I suspect there’s an implication there about Sitara’s family, their aristocratic aspect, and their relationship to power.

But if there’s a Western architectural vocabulary underlying the house, the sense of an Indian setting is nevertheless deep, and central to the film. The plot is fundamentally an interrogation of Hindu practice, and religious practice in general. And the horror of the film, not just the supernatural aspect but the motive for the inhuman things done to human beings, has to do with belief and ritual. Again, from the Q&A, Srinavasan observed that “Kriya, loosely, relates to last rites or rituals.” Part of the theme of the movie is to do with what happens when precepts are followed without being understood. (Also in the Q&A, the cast spoke about the Hindi dialogue as being especially elaborate, often quotations from religious texts.)

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Doom, Zork and Wizardry: 20th Century Retro Gaming

Sunday, September 27th, 2020 | Posted by Doug Ellis

zork - zork II - apple - personal software - infocom-small

Zork and Zork II for the Apple II (Personal Software and Infocom)

Back in the day, I used to play a lot of computer games. And to be honest, I still spend a fair amount of time each week playing, though these days it’s pretty much limited to Lord of the Rings Online.

I started out in the late 1970’s on the Apple II computers in our high school or at the houses of a few of my friends who were lucky enough to have a computer. I bought my first computer, a Commodore 64, when I went to college in 1981, and played a variety of games on it. I particularly remember Wizard of Wor, which was a port from the arcade game that I loved (my friends and I spent a lot of time, and quarters, in arcades during this period).

Later on, after I’d move to a Windows PC, my wife and I, along with a group of friends and family, used to play a lot of first-person shooters, such as Doom, Duke Nukem, Heretic, Hexen, Day of Defeat, Call of Duty and many others. To this day, several of my nephews and nieces still sometimes address me as Duke, a shortened form of the in-game nickname I used in the multi-player games (and no, it had nothing to do with Duke Nukem, but rather was inspired by David Bowie).

When Deb and I went to law school in 1985, we quickly found one of Cambridge’s top attractions (at least if you were a science fiction fan!). This was the Science Fantasy Bookstore, which was owned and run by Bruce “Spike” MacPhee. We used to visit the bookstore quite a bit during the three years we lived there, and always enjoyed talking with Spike, who was a passionate and knowledgeable SF fan. Spike had founded the bookstore in 1977 and it stayed open until 1989.

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