Of Phibes and Androbots I Sing

Saturday, October 12th, 2019 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

phibes 5Phibes 4Dr. Phibes is far more than the evocation of the great thriller characters of its creator’s childhood; he is a character that stands proudly alongside Dracula, Moriarty, Nikola, Fu Manchu, Fantomas, and Mabuse as an equal in inventiveness and execution. William Goldstein, as screenwriter and novelist, created an immortal as only the best storytellers do. Phibes is a character who transcends his era, defines his own archetype, and is firmly established in his own mythology to pass from one generation, century, and millenium to the next. The best news for fans is The Master’s work continues with the fifth and latest book in the ongoing series, The Androbots – Book I of The Dr. Phibes Manifest.

Those who have read the first four books in the series or, at the very least, my other Black Gate articles covering these titles, are aware there is a significant tonal difference between the two Vincent Price Dr. Phibes films of the early 1970s and William Goldstein’s novels. The books retain the films’ eccentricities, but are far more tragic than comedic. I do revere the two AIP releases. Director Robert Fuest and his production crew imbued both pictures with a sardonic touch that allowed Vincent Price and several of his co-stars to turn in subdued performance that carefully balance extreme bursts of horror, tragedy, and comedy. One never knows quite what to expect as one scene ends and the next begins when watching the films.

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The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance – Thoughts

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019 | Posted by S.M. Carrière

The_Dark_Crystal_1982 Film_Poster 2

This was almost my entire childhood.

Good morning, Readers!

I grew up on The Dark Crystal. In my house, it shared a VCR tape with The Secret of NIMH. Or was it a Beta Max cassette? I can’t really remember, save that we had both players in the house. That’s not the point. The point is, I grew up watching The Dark Crystal. It was one of the favorite movies of my childhood. I remember being so invested in Jen and Kyra, terrified of the Garthim, and utterly petrified of the Chamberlain, whose terrible whimper became a signal for immediate danger.

I credit this movie for my love of all things dark fantasy, because it was incredibly dark. With the name Jim Henson attached, one might be forgiven in thinking it is a light, friendly tale designed for young children. While I would recommend it for children, as a matter of personal philosophy, The Muppets it is not. It is a dark story with frightening events that led to more than one nightmare (incidentally, having rewatched it as an adult, I found the story still excellent, the puppetry breathtaking, but the narration so thoroughly irritating. It’s still watchable for me, as long as I fast forward through the narration).

When I heard Netflix was “remaking” The Dark Crystal, my eyes rolled skywards and I cursed under my breath. Not only was The Dark Crystal perfectly fine as it is, but there are so many original stories, or even adaptations of original stories that deserve attention. Whhyyyyyyyyyyyyy must studios constantly remake things that already exist? I resolved to never watch it. Until I saw the trailer.

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9 Seasons of Hell on Earth: Some Thoughts About The Walking Dead, Part Two

Saturday, September 28th, 2019 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

NightOfTheLivingDead 1968

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

dawn of the dead 1978

Dawn of the Dead (1978)


Day of the Dead (1985)

“Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up.”  — George A. Romero, Night of the Living Dead (original 1968)

Oh, How Those Zombies Have Evolved, Devolved and Decayed!

This ends a two-post series (Part One here) on The Walking Dead. The first post concluded with the observation that TWD has a mysterious lack of “zombie” vocabulary.

To my knowledge, George A Romero invented the flesh-eating zombie genre. Before him there were films like White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Zombies of Mora Tau — films I saw as a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, and all of them deal with more traditional, Haitian-voodoo zombies. After the original Night of the Living Dead, filmmakers such as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci jumped into the zombie arena. Then came a host of spin-offs, take-offs, remakes, reboots and rip-offs.

I always thought George Romero never used the word zombie in his Living Dead films. But after binge-watching all six of his living dead films, I learned a few things. In Night of the Living Dead, the Dead are referred to as cannibals and ghouls. In Dawn of the Dead, the character of Peter (Ken Foree) calls them zombies; the end credits list four actors under the heading, LEAD ZOMBIES. The characters in Day of the Dead call the Dead everything but zombies. By the time Romero got around to filming Land of the Dead, the zombie genre had exploded like a Walker’s head after being hit by a shotgun blast. In this film, the Dead are called Stenches, although one character refers to them as Walkers. Dennis Hopper calls them zombies in one scene. In Diary of the Dead, which I consider Romero’s best, and was basically a reboot of the series, no one knows what’s going on, and the Living Dead are referred to as “the Dead.” In his final film, Survival of the Dead, the word zombie is used a couple of times. Tom Savini’s fairly decent 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, with a new screenplay by George Romero, went back to the basics and did not use zombie as a term for the Living Dead.

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9 Seasons of Hell on Earth: Some Thoughts About The Walking Dead, Part One

Thursday, September 26th, 2019 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna


I chose to finally write about The Walking Dead after nine seasons because of the departure of a major character, which changed the whole dynamic of the series, turning it into a different direction (Season 10 broadcasts Oct 6, 2019). For fans of the show, much of what is in this article is me stating the obvious. I know many people who have stopped watching the show after various seasons, for one reason or another. I also know people who have never watched TWD and never will, and some who have just started watching. There may be some hints and clues about certain things, but there are no real spoilers here. This article is about how the show affects me, personally.

Someone on Facebook commented that they stopped watching simply because the show is so sad, even depressing. True. This is not a comedy. There’s a lot of sorrow and sadness in almost every episode, a veritable trail of tears. Sometimes the grief on an actor’s face is enough to get to me. There are powerful emotions here: both love and hate, as well as fear and horror in the eyes of the characters; there’s also plenty of heart and soul poured into these scenes, which the cast so effectively conveys. As a relative told me when we were discussing the series over the Labor Day weekend, “My heart has been ripped out over and over again by what happens to these characters. I feel their pain, I feel their grief and I mourn with them.” I agree with her. I’ve gotten caught up in the lives and deaths of these characters. So please, bear with me.

Although I’ve read only a handful of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, I’ve been a fan of the television series since episode one, and still remain a fan. I’m not a mad puppy because the show’s producers and writers made some changes which aren’t part of Kirkman’s mythos. Certain characters that had been killed in the graphic novels became so popular on the TV show that the producers decided to keep them around. Other popular characters were killed off on the show and, as most writers know, characters and plot twists often demand to be heard and made.

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Fantasia 2019: Final Thoughts

Thursday, September 26th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

BalloonYesterday I posted my last full review of a film from the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. Today, then, a post looking back at this year’s Fantasia. First, as always, my profound thanks to everyone who puts the festival together. And thanks as well to the audiences, who give the festival a reason for being. Special thanks to everyone I watched movies with, everyone I waited in line with, and everyone who I talked with and hung out with during Fantasia 2019.

This year was a bit odd for me, in that for the first week or even two I felt that while I was watching a lot of very solid feature films I was nevertheless missing a certain sense of surprise; a feeling I normally have at Fantasia of being blindsided by a movie, or a set of movies one after another. This may have simply been a function of what films I happened to see, or a subjective impression caused by some minor health issue (chronic fatigue takes many forms). Certainly that sense of mild shock did set in before too long. But it came from an unexpected place. What struck me as most impressive about the festival this year were not features but the short films.

It has been observed that the relation of short film to long film is more-or-less that of the short prose story to the novel. The short format is capable of powerful work, condensing narrative into terse, elliptical, allusive flashes. Artists often work at that length before embarking on longer stories, sometimes to hone their craft, sometimes to build a name, sometimes because they love the form. But audiences tend to prefer immersion in a longer story. In any case, while there are a number of outlets for prose short stories, short film rarely gets the same kind of exposure.

There are exceptions. It’s perfectly fair to talk about TV episodes as short film, for example. But one of the strengths of a good short is the way it can build a world very quickly, establishing as much as we need to know about character and telling a story with them in just a few minutes. So I want to write for a moment about a film I saw this year that I haven’t yet covered: “Balloon,” by Shin Hyun-woo.

Every year Fantasia has several blocks of animated shorts for children that play at the McCord Museum of Canadian History, not far from the main Fantasia theatres. I have two young nieces, and saw two blocks of those films this year. Plans for coverage here from age-appropriate reviewers fell through, but I have to say as an adult viewer that I was generally impressed by the craft I saw in these shorts.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 22, Part 3: The Divine Fury

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Divine FuryAll good things must come to an end, they say, and for me Fantasia 2019 ended at the Hall Theatre with the Korean action-horror movie The Divine Fury (사자, romanised as Saja, literally Emissary). Directed by Kim Joo-hwan, it follows Yong-hu (Park Seo-jun), a champion MMA fighter who lost his father under mysterious circumstances at a young age. In the present, when mysterious wounds appear on his hands and he is attacked by a demonic force, a blind shaman guides him to exorcist Father Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki), who tells him the wounds are stigmata and give him great power in fighting demons. The two team up, reluctantly on the part of Yong-hu, who holds a grudge against Christianity after the death of his father. But there are dark forces at work in Seoul, and Yong-hu must use all his skills to defeat the forces of hell on earth.

There are a lot of good ideas in this movie. And a lot of the time it looks very nice, with lovely shots of Seoul by night, and glossy, richly-coloured cinematography. Unfortunately the action and horror elements are not blended well, and character beats don’t come off as powerfully as they should.

Let’s start with the action bits. After a long introductory sequence showing Yong-hu as a boy and the death of his father at the hands of demons, we get our first fight. Note that the intro’s failed to build any real narrative momentum, and even the appearance of the demon is only brief. The actual fight we see with the adult Yong-hu looks like it’ll be more exciting; but then it too ends quickly. There is a plot reason for this, but the scene sets a pattern for the rest of the film. Yong-hu finds himself battling demons, and his power ends each exorcism before any real sense of dread can emerge. The set-pieces are thus brief and don’t develop into anything significant, even when plot’s being advanced.

The climax is easily the most kinetic and visually interesting sequence of the movie, a well-shot brawl that does have its own internal structure: Yong-hu defeats some flunkies to make his way to the boss, and then both hero and villain level up as the fight goes on. The problem is that the combatants don’t have anything to say to each other, literally and figuratively. The spectacular visuals feel empty, as Yong-hu doesn’t seem to be dealing with any particular character issue in the fight. The staging’s fine, but there’s no particular sense that there’s an internal logic that dictates when Yong-hu’s done enough to end the conflict. Basically, there comes a point when he hits the bad guy enough that the bad guy goes down and stays down.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 22, Part 2: The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Miracle of the Sargasso SeaThe nice thing about my last day of Fantasia was that rather than sit in one place, I would watch something on my own in the screening room, then something at the small De Sève Cinema, and finally something at the big Hall Theatre. It had the well-rounded feeling of a good summing-up.

The film I had at the De Sève Cinema was The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón, Το Θαύμα της Θάλασσας των Σαργασσών). Directed by Syllas Tzoumerkas from a script he wrote with star Youla Boudali, it follows two characters in the Greek town of Messolonghi. The first is police chief Elisabeth (Angeliki Papoulia), who we see in the opening scenes be exiled from her law-enforcement career in Athens; years later she’s still a square peg in the round hole of Messolonghi. The second is a quiet girl named Rita (Youla Boudali) who works in an eel processing facility; her brother, Manolis (Christos Passalis), is a local pop star. We see Elisabeth and Rita negotiating their lives in Messolonghi, with its various social complexities and patriarchal attitudes. And then a crime unites them, and various secrets of the town come to light.

This is a well-shot film, pleasant to look at with a kind of off-centred low-key energy — there aren’t many mannered symmetrically-composed shots here, but there’s a closeness to the characters that’s engaging. The actors shine, and Papoulia in particular comes off well, a weary dismissive cop with an anger that’s less smouldering than it is in a state of steady magnesium-like incandescence. Multilayered dinner parties are shot with an interesting sense of the social complexities and relationships of the speakers. Contrasting with this are brief scenes of dreams and visions.

And yet much of the film has the feel of a TV cop show — not an American network drama set in the big-city, but something like Inspector Montalbano or Broadchurch. Shows about cops in a small town, solving small-town crimes. Shows that lack the distinctive weirdness of Twin Peaks but that still dwell on the character of the investigators and suspects. Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is different in that the crime doesn’t happen at or before the beginning of the story, but instead relatively late in the film. At which point the paths of the two main characters, until then having nothing to do with each other, begin to converge.

This is an unusual structure which sounds worth trying, but to my mind it comes off as dramatically inert. Early on the different strands are interesting on their own but don’t inform each other, meaning neither really builds up any momentum. Then when the crime does happen, there’s no twist to it. We find out about a death, and the killer and motive are exactly what we imagine they are. The investigation goes about as one might expect. What could have been a subversion of genre ends up merely a dramatic structure that misfires.

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Fantasia 2019, Days 21 and 22, Part 1: The International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase 2019

Monday, September 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

EternityAfter taking a day to attend to various non-cinema matters, I came early to the last day of the Fantasia Film Festival. I had two movies I wanted to see in theatres, but first I wanted to catch up on something I’d missed when played on the big screen: the 2019 International Science Fiction Short Film Showcase. Luckily, I was able to watch it at the Fantasia screening room. Uncharacteristically, American shorts dominated this year; in an appropriately science-fictional statistic, 7 of 9 movies were from the US, with one from Australia that ended the showcase (at least in the order described in the Fantasia program) and one from Ukraine that began it.

“Eternity,” directed by Anna Sobolevska from a script by Sobolevska and Alina Semeryakova, is an effective 23-minute tale about a future year 2058 in which dying people can upload themselves into digital worlds designed by a massive corporation. These worlds have been tested by living humans, but for some even the best are pallid copies of the real world. One way or another, nobody wants the simple afterlives provided by the state. Ian (Oleg Moskalenko) is a man who doesn’t buy into the illusions provided by the Charon Corporation. But his wife Marie (Daria Plakhtiy) is thrilled by the cyber-estate they’re offering. Then tragedy strikes, and Ian has to make a series of terrible choices, balancing the desires of both of them with his idea of integrity.

This is an extremely strong film. It looks sharp, to start with; both the grim, shadowy real world and the lushly-hued cyber-fantasies come across well. The acting’s strong, especially from Moskalenko. The story structure’s solid, getting across a complicated science-fictional idea, exploring it with both plot twists and background ideas (Charon is everywhere, it seems), and above all telling a character-centred tale.

What may be most impressive is how many themes are on display here. I read it as a story about a man struggling to hold on to his beliefs in the face of corporate pressure, trying to set aside sterile romanticism but forced into being complicit with the powers that run the world. But then there’s also a lot here about the power of capitalism, especially in opposition to what used to be viewed as transcendental values — Charon sells a simulacrum of heaven, almost but not quite the real thing. So the film’s about life, death, and what’s beyond, and how to meet all these things. And, on top everything else, it’s built around a relationship of man and wife sketched both convincingly and briefly. This is Sobolevska’s first film as both writer and director, and it’s impressive; one hopes to see more from her in future.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 20, Part 2: Garo — Under the Moonbow

Sunday, September 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Garo — Under the MoonbowI approached my second and last film of July 30 with real uncertainty. I’d never seen many tokusatsu films or TV shows, and what I had seen I hadn’t cared for. (‘Tokusatsu’ literally means something like ‘special effects,’ but in the West it’s come especially to refer to shows like Power Rangers or Kamen Rider.) Still, playing in the De Sève Cinema was Garo — Under the Moonbow (Garo: gekkô no tabibito, 牙狼 — 月虹ノ旅人, also translated Garo: Moonbow Traveler), written and directed by Keita Amemiya. It’s the latest installment of a franchise, created by Amemiya, which began with a 2005 TV series and has continued through more TV shows, live-action movies, and anime series. as well as video games, manga, and various other tie-ins. A veteran creator of tokusatsu dramas, Amemiya is particularly known for his powerful design sense, and the images and description of the film promised a stylish fantasy adventure. Although it’d be my first experience with a series that had dozens of hours of continuity behind it, I decided it was worth passing up a chance to see The Crow on the big screen in order to watch Under the Moonbow.

The movie’s about Reiga Saezima (Masei Nakayama), one of an order of warriors, the Makai Knights, who protect humanity from monsters called Horrors. Superhumanly powerful, he becomes even stronger when wearing his suit of special golden armour — which is unfortunately corrupted by evil not long after the movie opens. Saezima has to purify it, but also must save his true love (Natsumi Ishibashi), who has been abducted by Horrors. Yet as he fights his way through a bizarre train, even more plots boil away, leading ultimately to a fantastic battle involving secrets of his lineage.

The first thing to say is that the film’s easily understood without any prior knowledge of the franchise. I suspect that the climax will have more weight for people familiar with the world and with certain characters who appear there, but everything’s set up well enough in the film itself. Exposition’s delivered cleanly, and does not overbalance the plot. The complexities of the world are dramatised well, and if in an absolute sense evil still remains to be fought, at least the main antagonist of this particular story is dealt with.

Beyond that, the plot’s nicely-worked. The tale keeps expanding as the film goes on, sprouting subplots. A range of characters get moments of their own in which to shine; everyone does something important in bringing matters to a happy ending. Rules of this fantasy are established, and followed logically in ways that bring out unexpected wrinkles. Importantly, new ideas and images are always emerging,

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Fantasia 2019, Day 20, Part 1: Jessica Forever

Saturday, September 21st, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Jessica ForeverMy first movie on July 30 was the first feature by two French directors of independent short films, Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel. Jessica Forever, which the duo wrote as well as directed, is set in a near future in which disaffected and violent youth, mostly male, roam empty suburbs. The law hunts them down with killer drones, and the movie opens with a cloud of drones after one man, Kevin (Eddy Suiveng), who has squatted in an empty house. He’s saved from the law by a mysterious woman named Jessica (Aomi Muyock) and her squad of young men, who welcome Kevin into the fold.

Various bonding scenes follow, but the emotions of the group are odd: muted, to the extent they exist at all. The young men, each in their late teens or twenties, sleep in one room. All worship Jessica. Kevin makes a smooth transition to becoming one of them, training with them in the use of weapons and force. Then another flock of drones approaches, and there’s a surprising death, and the survivors have to flee. They end up on an island, where history risks repeating itself: some members of the group get too close to the locals. Will they find new allies? Or pull the attention of the authorities down on their heads?

The first thing to say about the movie is that it looks lovely. Images are nicely composed, the camera mostly still (it struck me at one point that it seemed to move more when Jessica was in frame, but I wouldn’t swear to that). There’s a kind of sterile perfection in the images of rich estates and partly-green suburbs, emphasised by the lack of people — we see cars and trucks in the distance, see a mall with passersby in it, meet a community on the island where Jessica’s group ends up, but mostly the world is empty of outsiders, of passersby or neighbours. There is a solitude here; a silence and a stillness.

Along with that there’s an affectlessness to both the characters and actors. There’s a blankness to them that’s maybe less an absence of emotion than an absence of a certain kind of social convention. You don’t know how to read them. This all fits perfectly well with the film’s set-up: these are young men gone wild, grown up outside of family or community, learning how to interact with each other. Their only guide, their teacher and parent, is Jessica. Who she is, and why she is gathering these men, is not explained; this is not the sort of film that explains these things. The important thing is that her relationship to her followers comes through, and for the most part it does.

I would go so far as to say that one of the most intriguing aspects of the film is the way it depicts its characters. These youths are convincingly violent, and many of them have done terrible things. But they don’t act the way this sort of character acts in virtually every other movie set in the contemporary world. These aren’t tough-guy hard men trying to assert dominance by busting each others’ balls. They’re quiet, if not reflective, and give each other space and respect. There’s a kind of alternative masculinity to these men, strong and capable of violence but not brutal.

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