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Author: Thomas Parker

Help! I’ve Fallen into Varney the Vampire and I Can’t Get Out!

Help! I’ve Fallen into Varney the Vampire and I Can’t Get Out!

(1) Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood-small

Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood

In the six years that I’ve been writing for Black Gate (Mr. O’Neill says that my basement cubicle will be ready any day now and I’ll be able to stop working out of my car – oh, wait a minute… I just got a memo that says that due to the current crisis, not only will I be staying in my car, now I’ll be working from the trunk), I’ve written about a lot of books, and when selecting a volume to blather about I’ve had only two simple rules. When I write about a book, it must be one that I like, and it must be one that I have actually read.

I will admit to once or twice breaking the first rule; it can be a lot of fun teeing off on a bad book, seeing just how witty you can be at its expense. By and large, though, the Black Gate mission is a celebratory one. I think we all keep coming back here to find new things to love, not new things to hate, which are already being thrust upon us every minute of our lives.

As for the second rule, that might seem so obvious as to not need to be stated, but haven’t we all finished reading a review of some work we happen to be familiar with and thought, “There’s no way that reviewer can have actually read that book!” (That never happens here, of course.)

My friends, today you are privileged to be present at a historic event. I am now going to break both rules. I don’t like Varney the Vampire, and I make this judgment without having read it – or not read it completely, anyway. My Wordsworth paperback edition runs to 1,118 pages and my bookmark currently rests at page 541. Fine, you say; just push on and finish the thing and then say your peace. Well… I can’t. I just can’t.

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Tarantino’s Time Machine: Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

Tarantino’s Time Machine: Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

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The other day the nice man from UPS brought me something that I had been looking forward to receiving for quite a while: a Blu-ray of Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, which I had pre-ordered months ago on the first day it became possible to do so. I had seen it three times in the theater and wanted to be able to watch it again with minimal delay. (It’s only the third movie I have ever seen that many times as a paying customer, the other two being Raging Bull and Magnolia.)

I have very contradictory feelings about Quentin Tarantino. He’s an acknowledged “major director” – one of the few we have left – whose excesses can make every film feel like a guilty pleasure. A technical master who too often displays the emotional maturity of a fourteen-year-old, at his best Tarantino can still be a dynamite filmmaker, and I enjoyed Once Upon a Time more than any movie I’ve seen in years. I think it’s Tarantino’s strongest work since Jackie Brown.

Set in Hollywood in 1969, the movie follows semi-washed up TV western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his buddy, stunt double, and factotum, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they try to keep Rick’s head above water in the wake of the cancellation of his series, Bounty Law. (At one point Rick and Cliff spend a short time in Italy making spaghetti westerns, and in true Tarantino fashion, we get to see posters and footage from these epics, along with pitch-perfect clips from fake episodes of Bounty Law, Lancer, and The F.B.I. The last two were real shows that Rick was doing guest shots on.) During the course of these efforts, this entertainment industry duo crosses paths with another group emblematic of 1969 LA, those ultimate devils of the 20th Century American imagination, the Manson Family.

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A Trip to Venus

A Trip to Venus

(1) the Uffizi Gallery

The Uffizi Gallery

The summer of 2019 is in the books, and for me, the dog days just past were the most memorable of my life. As an elementary school teacher, I have June and July off and as I’ve shared here before, for my summer breaks I have a plan that I never deviate from – I hew my way through a big pile of science fiction and fantasy paperbacks, just like I did during those long-ago vacations when I was a kid.

Why? I won’t deny that stoking the fires of nostalgia plays a big part in it. But beyond that, why do any of us read all this science fiction and fantasy in the first place, instead of, say, westerns or police procedurals or genteel comedies of manners? Your reasons may be different, but speaking for myself, in voyaging to another planet or to a realm of wizardry, I’m looking for some sort of transcendence, some intimation or even confirmation that this routine, workaday world is not all that there is. Ah, but how rarely does any work of fiction truly satisfy that deep desire.

This year was different, though. Instead of galloping through as many pages of pulp as my bleary old eyes could manage, I spent three weeks in Italy, seeing Rome, Florence, and Naples, wearing out my feet and my savings account as well as my eyes. Sorry, Edgar Rice Burroughs; I love you but I finally got a better offer. (I did manage to get some Jack Vance and Brian Aldiss read even in Europe, though.)

Not surprisingly, my trip was full of memorable sights and amazing moments, but there is one that stands head and shoulders above them all, because it supplied in spades that very glimpse into a world of deeper meaning that I’m always looking for in my reading.

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Gozdilla, King of the Criterions

Gozdilla, King of the Criterions

(1) Criterion 1000-small

October 29th, 2019, will be a very bad day for secret mad-money stashes, vacation change jars, and even kids’ college funds, but it will be a great (shall I say monstrously great?) day for kaiju lovers everywhere. Why? Because on that day, the prestigious Criterion Collection will release a colossal blu-ray set containing all fifteen Godzilla films from the Showa Era (the Showa Era being the years of Emperor Hirohito’s reign, from 1926 to 1989.) Never before have all of these films been collected together in a uniform edition of the highest technical quality… but now they will be, just in time for rubber-suit monster enthusiasts to have the greatest Halloween film festival ever.

Criterion numbers its releases, and in recent months speculation has been mounting — what would the company choose to follow number 999? (John Sayles’ fine period drama, Matewan.) Would it be a foreign film or an American one? A silent movie or one from the sound era? A polished studio masterpiece or a raw, rebellious indie? My money was on Sam Peckinpah’s apocalyptic western, The Wild Bunch, but on July 25th the suspense ended with Criterion’s announcement that number 1000 would not be a single film at all, but instead would be an unprecedented set. Godzilla: the Showa-Era Films, 1954-1975 promises to be a must-have for all Criterion completists and for every fan of the King of the Monsters.

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A One-Way Trip on the Road to Hell: Detour Gets the Criterion Treatment

A One-Way Trip on the Road to Hell: Detour Gets the Criterion Treatment

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I love extra features on Blu-rays and DVDs. I don’t just listen to commentaries, I listen to dull commentaries. I watch restoration comparisons and making-of documentaries. I listen to audio-only interviews with scriptwriters, production designers, and character actors. I ponder the effects of deleted scenes and alternate endings. I scrutinize stills galleries. I watch compilations of grainy on-location footage shot by local news stations. I read inserts and booklets, alternately nodding sagely and muttering sharp disagreements under my breath.

In short, I’m a Criterion junkie. For those throwbacks who still buy physical copies of movies, Criterions are the gold standard, both for image quality and extras, to say nothing of the wide range of films in the collection, which includes movies as radically different as The Blob and The Seventh Seal. The company itself boasts that it is “dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions of the highest technical quality, with supplemental features that enhance the appreciation of the art of film.” You’ll get no argument from me.

Every month I get an email from Criterion (they know when they have a fish well hooked) announcing six films that will be coming out in three month’s time. I always know that out of the eclectic mix of foreign films, American studio classics, indie sleepers, cult movies, and offbeat oddities, there will be one or two… or three… or four that I must have. (Just try finding Island of Lost Souls or Repo Man or City Lights on Netflix. Go ahead and try.)

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Like a Phoenix from the Ashes, City of Heroes Returns!

Like a Phoenix from the Ashes, City of Heroes Returns!

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In the world of superheroes, nothing is less permanent than death. Just ask Superman; his demise in 1992 was one of the biggest news stories of the year, at least for the kind of easily bamboozled person who doesn’t actually read comic books (like the editors of Time Magazine). The more sophisticated were not fooled however, and rightly so. Superman was only in the ground for a little longer than your average basketball season.

This being so, it should come as no surprise that an entire universe of heroes and villains should return to life almost seven years after completely vanishing in a cataclysmic climax that can still bring tears to the eyes of those who were there at the end, but an enormous surprise it was. The comic book immortality principle notwithstanding, it really did seem as if that universe, the world of Paragon City and the Rogue Isles and the alternate dimension of Praetoria, was truly gone forever. But if comic books can teach us anything, it’s that the impossible is possible and that for the brave and pure of heart, no defeat is final.

In other words, City of Heroes, the legendary and beloved superhero MMORPG (that’s Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, a phrase even uglier and more graceless than its acronym), which ran from April 28th, 2004 until it was shut down by NCSOFT on November 30th, 2012, is back!

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The Storyteller’s Voice: Basil Rathbone Reads Edgar Allan Poe

The Storyteller’s Voice: Basil Rathbone Reads Edgar Allan Poe

(1) Basil Rathbone

Basil Rathbone

If I say the name Basil Rathbone, I have a very good chance of guessing exactly what you’ll think (if you’re old enough, that is — if you’re below a certain age, you may only think, “Who?”); ten will get you twenty you’ll think “Sherlock Holmes,” the character that Rathbone indelibly portrayed in fourteen films from 1939 to 1946, so successfully that for many people his name has become synonymous with the character.

And if by some chance you don’t think of Holmes, you’ll almost certainly think of the greatest swordsman in Hollywood, the piercing-eyed, hawk-visaged athlete who figured in some of the screen’s most thrilling duels, most famously against John Barrymore and Leslie Howard in Romeo and Juliet (1936), Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro (1940), the latter battle the most exciting swordfight in movie history, in my opinion.

In addition to these swashbuckling villains, in his almost fifty year film career Rathbone applied his singular talents to bringing many other characters to vivid life. Some of his most memorable non-action roles are his icily sadistic Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield, his brutally indifferent Marquis St. Evrémonde in A Tale of Two Cities, his rigid, fatally conventional Alexi Karenin in Anna Karenina (all in 1935 — studio era Hollywood worked its players hard), and his witty, cynical Richard III in Tower of London (1939), with Vincent Price as his brother Clarence and Boris Karloff as his murderous, club-footed henchman, Mord; truly, they don’t make ’em like that anymore!

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Will the Real Captain Marvel Please Stand Up, or Why Can’t the World’s Mightiest Mortal Use His Own Name?

Will the Real Captain Marvel Please Stand Up, or Why Can’t the World’s Mightiest Mortal Use His Own Name?

(1) Is this Captain Marvel-small (2) Or is this Captain Marvel-small

A few weeks ago my wife and I saw the new Captain Marvel movie. I thought it was a smashingly successful film, above all in its demonstration of how shockingly superhero storytelling has degenerated over the past fifteen years. But whether I liked it or not is neither here nor there; after all, the movie made a billion dollars, and as Doctor Doom himself would be the first to acknowledge, that’s the important part.

On the way to the theater, my wife wanted to know just who this Captain Marvel was – Brie Larson sure didn’t look like the hero that she thought bore that name, the grinning hunk in the bright red suit with the yellow lightning bolt on his chest. Did Captain Marvel have some sort of life crisis that required an extreme change in direction – and wardrobe? (That happens these days, even in comic books.) She was especially confused because there’s another movie out right now that features the crimson-clad character that she’s familiar with, except in this other movie, he’s called Shazam, not Captain Marvel.

The explanation is simple… well, not really simple, but I’ll try to at least make it comprehensible. This Captain Marvel is not that Captain Marvel. The guy in the red suit is the first, the real Captain Marvel, with a pedigree going all the way back to the fabled Golden Age of the 1940’s, while this current version is, for all of her many virtues, a claim jumper. And yes, something indeed happened to the original hero. He was the victim of a plot more nefarious than anything the Joker or the Red Skull ever cooked up, and he suffered something more starkly evil, more life shattering, and more humiliatingly debilitating than any wound inflicted by magic talisman or sinister superweapon.

So what was it that laid Captain Marvel low?

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When Humphrey Met Thomas, or Life Imitates Art, Silver Screen Style

When Humphrey Met Thomas, or Life Imitates Art, Silver Screen Style

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Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu

We live in a movie-saturated society, so much so that a real film fanatic may occasionally experience a blurring of the line between everyday reality and cinematic fantasy. In the middle of spinning an anecdote to an acquaintance, such a person may have to stop himself and say, “Oh… wait a minute now. I wasn’t the one who made the Enquirer the biggest newspaper in the country and then went on to build Xanadu. That was Charles Foster Kane!”

Well, maybe things rarely get that extreme. But sometimes, one kind of reality actually does impinge upon the other kind, and you experience a moment in your waking life that has come straight out of a celluloid Hollywood dream. Let me tell you what I mean.

John Huston’s 1941 film The Maltese Falcon is one of my favorite movies. It may be blasphemous to say so, but in some ways I consider it superior to Dashiell Hammett’s brilliant novel, as Huston’s screenplay wisely omits the book’s only misstep, a bizarre dead-end subplot involving, of all things, the Fat Man’s daughter. Back in those long-gone days when the advent of the VCR suddenly freed us forever from the tyranny of station scheduling (days I look back on with nostalgia, now), The Maltese Falcon was the first videocassette I bought, the first movie I had to own. I can’t even begin to estimate how many times over the years I’ve seen it.

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Movie of the Week Madness: The Night Stalker

Movie of the Week Madness: The Night Stalker

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The ABC Movie of the Week (a beloved American institution on a par with Turtle Wax, disputed Florida elections, and SPAM, and whose history I detailed here) was, during its six season run from 1969 to 1975, a veritable goldmine of cheesy science fiction, mystery, and horror stories… only there were some MOW’s (for you members of the Netflix generation, that’s the acronym for movie of the week) that were a bit better than cheesy, and a rare handful were even better than that — that were, in fact, damned good. At the pinnacle of this admittedly rather small mountain stands The Night Stalker, which chomped its way into millions of unsuspecting living rooms on the evening of January 11th, 1972.

The Night Stalker was produced by Dan Dark Shadows Curtis and scripted by Richard Matheson from an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. After the show became the highest rated made-for-television movie yet broadcast at that point, the novel found its way into print and it became apparent why it had been unpublished — it’s not very good. (It also bears an uncanny — shall we say, almost supernatural — resemblance to a much better book, Leslie Whitten’s little-known and underappreciated 1965 novel, Progeny of the Adder. Just a coincidence, I’m sure…)

The Night Stalker is the story of a serial killer on the rampage in Las Vegas, except that at the time, the term “serial killer” had yet to be coined by FBI agent and profiler Robert Ressler; he came up with it a full two years later. That’s how long ago 1972 was.

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