She-Ra is Now Even More She-Ra

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018 | Posted by mariebilodeau


For the first time since 1985 (that’s 33 years, people), She-Ra: Princess of Power is getting a full cartoon reboot. Her twin brother and forefather, in a strange, slightly uncomfortable and incestuous link, has already received multiple reboots, some more popular than others (New Adventures, anyone?), but She-Ra hasn’t been seen since the 80s except in some toys and very dark DC storylines. Which mostly focused around her brother, of course.

This time, She-Ra is breaking free! And, from all accounts, she represents her She-Ra-ness more than ever before.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Parker’s ‘Pulp Repurposed – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Monday, October 15th, 2018 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Gat_RobinsonCoverClassicFellow Black Gater Thomas Parker and I have been exchanging our thoughts on the various topics covered here in this column. I mentioned Horace McCoy’s Jerry Frost, head of Hell’s Stepsons, sort of a Seals team for the Air Texas Rangers (also fictional). McCoy is, of course, best-known for his novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. Which I’ve never read. Nor have I seen the movie. So, I asked Thomas. if he’d like to write a guest post on that book. And boy, did he! Read on.

“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

A while back our own Hardboiled Bob Byrne gave us a run-down of the May, 1934 issue of Black Mask, which featured a story by Horace McCoy, a writer whose fame rests solely on his 1935 novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? which probably more people know from the fine 1969 film version starring Jane Fonda than from actually having read. McCoy’s novel is an ambitious piece of work, and with it he was clearly seeking to extend himself beyond the boundaries of commercial pulp – and yet, the mark of Black Mask and its ten and fifteen cent brethren is everywhere in the book. In They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, pulp atmosphere and pulp devices are deployed, but with a deadlier intent than any found in the pages of Dime Detective. Call it pulp repurposed.

In what amounts to a manifesto for the American pulp style, Raymond Chandler famously declared (in his 1944 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder”), that Dashiell Hammett had started the ball rolling because he

gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily use for these purposes.

In other words, Hammett and those who followed him were realists, in both style and substance – at least as compared with proponents of the unbearably artificial (in Chandler’s estimation, anyway) English school like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and the American S.S. Van Dine, the creator of amateur sleuth Philo Vance, dismissed by Chandler as “the most asinine character in detective fiction.”

If the American pulp style praised by Chandler consists of realistic characters with realistic motives using realistic means to commit crimes in contemporary urban settings, then They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? must be considered a prime example of the form, even more so than Chandler’s own Philip Marlowe stories, with their stainless hero and romantic patina.

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October Is Hammer Country: Hands of the Ripper (1971)

Saturday, October 13th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Hands-of-the-Ripper-poster-1“You can’t cure Jack the Ripper!”

Hammer Film Productions was a different place in the 1970s than in the 1950s and ‘60s. And although it was generally a less artistic place after in-house development stopped and the original producers left, it wasn’t an awful place. It’s similar to third season original Star Trek: more bad episodes than before, but what’s good is still damn good. You got “The Way to Eden,” but you also got “The Enterprise Incident.” With Hammer, you got the dreadful The Horror of Frankenstein, but you also got Hands of the Ripper — which, for my money, is Hammer’s best horror film of the decade. It was originally released on a double bill with Twins of Evil, making it the last great Hammer double feature.

Jack the Ripper has fueled many mystery and horror films. Hammer visited the topic in their pre-Gothic days in a 1950 period crime drama, Room to Let. It wasn’t until 1971 that the studio gave the Ripper the full horror treatment. Two treatments, in fact. Hands of the Ripper was shot at the same time as Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a sex-change twist on Stevenson’s novel set during the Whitechapel killings. Weird as the Sister Hyde idea may sound, it’s Hands of the Ripper that takes the dramatically more challenging and interesting approach to Jack the Ripper. Rather than set the story during the original killings in the late 1880s, the screenplay by L. W. Davidson (from an original story by Edward Spencer Shrew) shifts forward fifteen years to Jack the Ripper’s daughter, teasing a spirit possession story and giving the Ripper’s gory hands and misogynistic rage to a young woman.

Hands of the Ripper was shot at Pinewood Studios with Hungarian director Peter Sasdy in the director’s chair. Sasdy already had a history with Hammer. He directed the best of the Dracula sequels starring Christopher Lee, Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969); but in 1971 he was coming off Countess Dracula, a bizarrely boring movie based on the story of Countess Elizabeth Bathory. Re-teamed with producer Aida Young, who worked with him on Taste the Blood of Dracula, Peter Sasdy recovered and made one of his best movies. Young was one of the few women producers in England at the time, and her other Hammer films include Dracula Has Risen From the Grave and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. Considering she produced Sasdy’s best films, the two must have shared a powerful creative partnership.

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October Is Hammer Country: The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Saturday, October 6th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

phantom-of-opera-hammer-1962-one-sheetAh, October. That means nothing but Hammer Films. All Hammer Horror, All the Time! So let’s start off with one that’s … not so great. (Gotta build up the suspense.)

Once Britain’s Hammer Film Productions received full permission from Universal Pictures to raid their box of monster goodies, a Phantom of the Opera movie was a certainty. Universal had twice adapted the 1910 Gaston Leroux novel. The first is the most famous version, the 1925 silent classic starring Lon Chaney Sr. in his signature role. Its unmasking scene is one of the first iconic horror movie images. Universal mounted a lavish color remake in 1943 with Claude Rains as the phantom, but the musical production numbers were pushed to the front, making for incredibly anemic horror.

Almost twenty years later, the time was right for a new version, and Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera was perfect material for Hammer’s luxurious Gothic style, its seasoned horror director Terence Fisher, and an ideally cast Herbert Lom as the Phantom. But even with this talent involved, The Phantom of the Opera was poorly received in 1962 when it was released on a double bill with Captain Clegg, a period adventure picture about smugglers. The film still maintains a lower profile than other cinematic Phantom adaptations, both literal and loose, of the story of a tortured and murderous composer beneath the Paris opera house. Or, in this case, a London opera house.

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Fantasia 2018: Reflections After the Fact

Thursday, October 4th, 2018 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

FantasiaI saw 60 feature films or showcases of short films this year at the Fantasia International Film Festival. As is the case every year, seeing so many wild visions so close together was a powerful experience. If one film didn’t work, there’d be another one coming right after that’d be completely different. Having been slowed down by a bad cold the last few weeks, I’ve had time to think about what I took away from the Fantasia adventure this year in particular, and I keep coming back to things that struck me during the festival itself: the ability of the programmers to select films; the power of seeing the films as part of an audience and indeed part of a community; and the way those things interact.

Let me begin explaining that by thanking the Fantasia team for another excellent festival. I particularly want to thank the people who I spoke with and helped me in my coverage, including Rupert Bottenberg, Mitch Davis, Ted Geoghegan, Kaila Hier, and Steven Lee. I also want to thank a number of fellow writers who helped make the festival even more enjoyable. I’ll specifically note here Giles Edwards, Yves Gendron, Dave Harris, Agustín Leon, and Thomas O’Connor.

I mention all these people because I’ve been thinking about what makes the experience of Fantasia different from watching an equivalent number of movies in an equivalent amount of time on Netflix or blu-ray in the comfort of my own home. Some of it’s getting to see the films on a big screen, of course. But much of it also has to do with the experience of having an audience around you, and so of being able to talk about the films afterward. And, especially, it has to do with the quality of the films and their overall character — the identity of the festival, the overall feel of it that shapes the event.

Spending time at Fantasia is a very specific experience and in writing these posts I try to catch moments outside the movies themselves that strike me as characteristic of that Fantasia feel — the way a theatre may be set up for a special screening, or the way an audience reacts to key moments. Several times over the past few years I’ve mentioned that Fantasia audiences can help elevate the experience of watching a film. Enthusiastic, responsive, but not usually obtrusive, they give another dimension of life to a film. You’re watching a story as part of a crowd, part of a collective whose reaction helps shape the pacing and perception of the tale. Films being films, the director has to try to plan ahead for a crowd reaction, and I think Fantasia audiences on the whole rise to a director’s hopes. That means there’s a special value to being able to see a film alongside an audience, different from watching the same film in solitude or even (usually) at a media screening to an audience of critics. So start with that.

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The Complete Carpenter: Vampires (1998)

Saturday, September 29th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

vampires-1999-one-sheet-posterEscape from L.A. was almost the final film in John Carpenter’s career. He wasn’t enjoying filmmaking as much as he once did, and retirement was looking more attractive. There was also a depressing feeling that movie trends were passing him by — the master’s students had started to take over genre filmmaking. But when Largo Entertainment approached him about directing an adaptation of John Steakley’s 1990 novel Vampire$, the director couldn’t resist the chance to take another crack at making a Western using another genre. The popularity of vampire films had surged in the late 1980s and through the ‘90s. One of the biggest vampire movie hits and a significant influence on the approaching superhero boom of the 2000s, Blade, came out the same year as Vampires.

Blade is arguably one of the problems Vampires ran into when it was released the day before Halloween. Although opening strong at #1, Vampires suffered an enormous second week drop and barely made back its production budget in the US. Younger audiences apparently wanted to see the slick black trenchcoat vampire-hunting heroics of Wesley Snipes in a modern city rather than a grungy ode to Italian Westerns starring James Woods. (The CinemaScore rating of audience reactions to Vampires was a dismal D+. Blade got an A-.) The film that horror magazines had touted throughout the year as John Carpenter’s comeback ended up hastening his retirement.

The Story

Jack Crow (James Woods) is the leader of a vampire-slaying squad working for the Vatican to eradicate the plague of bloodsuckers across the southwestern US. After his team wipes out a vamp nest in New Mexico, the master vampire (Thomas Ian Griffith) slaughters all of Crow’s team while they’re boozing it up at a nearby motel. Only Crow and Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) escape. They take along Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a prostitute who was bitten by the vampire. Crow plans to use Katrina to track down the master and kill him. The Vatican assigns a new priest to work with Crow, Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee), as they hunt for the powerful vampire, who is none other than Jan Valek, the first vampire ever created. Valek is seeking for an object hidden somewhere in the Southwest that will allow him to complete his original reverse exorcism and become the first vampire capable of walking during the day. Crow and Guiteau hunt desperately while Montoya becomes ensnared by Katrina.
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The Princess Bride: What’s Not To Love?

Friday, September 28th, 2018 | Posted by Violette Malan

the-princess-brideIt would have been about this time of year, thirty years ago, that we first watched The Princess Bride. Anyone who knows me knows this is one of my favourite movies, it’s in my top 10 list of favourite sword-fighting movies, and it’s one that gets re-watched on a regular basis. However, I confess I was a bit concerned when I was first introduced to it: I found the title worrying. What could this be about? What kind of movie was it? All I could be sure of was it wouldn’t be some romantic nonsense, because of the friend who recommended it.

But that was all I could be sure of. This particular friend’s recommendations were either wildly successful, or horrible misfires – nothing in between. What was this one going to be?

You know the answer to that already.

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Fantasia 2018, Day 22, Part 5: Lords of Chaos

Wednesday, September 26th, 2018 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Lords of ChaosMy last film of Fantasia 2018 was a late surprise. The Festival often starts with a screening slot still to be announced, as the Directors negotiate to add one last film to their line-up. This year, just a few days before Fantasia ended, they announced that they’d close this year’s festival with a screening of Lords of Chaos, a film by Jonas Åkerlund based on the true story of the band Mayhem in the early 1990s. It’s a drama, with a lot of very dark comedy, involving murder, suicide, and church burnings. The version of the film that played Fantasia was the same unrated version that premiered at the Sundance festival earlier this year; apparently cuts will have to be made before the movie can be shown again in a North American theatre. (I can’t say with absolute certainty what those cuts will be or what the reason for them is, but the leading theory I heard is that they have to do with the film’s realistic depiction of suicide.)

Lords of Chaos is based on the book of the same name by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, with a script by Dennis Magusson in collaboration with Åkerlund. It’s worth noting that in the mid-80s Åkerlund was briefly a member of Bathory, a band that laid the groundwork for the black metal scene that emerged a few years later. Definitions are tricky in metal, and some will argue that Bathory was one of the creators of black metal; the point is that Åkerlund has roots in this world as well as being an experienced director with a long list of credits.

The film he’s made now claims to be “based on truth and lies.” Starting in 1987, we’re introduced at once to young Norwegian metal musician Øystein Aarseth (Rory Culkin), who is our narrator: “this is my story, and it will end badly,” he promises. Aarseth, under the name Euronymous, leads the band Mayhem, which has hit a plateau — but when a new singer sends in an audition tape (along with a dead mouse), Euronmymous sees new hope for the band. Per Yngve Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), who takes the name Dead, is deeply troubled but immensely talented, and Mayhem takes off, helped also by Euronymous’s knack for self-promotion: he positions Mayhem as “true Norwegian black metal,” in contrast to the proliferation of un-true Swedish death metal bands. Mayhem, he implies, is at the vanguard of a movement, harder and more unyielding than anyone else. More evil.

And so we get a moment in which an enthusiastic young fan approaches Euronymous to gush about the band, Euronymous stares at him in a long silence, then points to a patch on the fan’s jacket and reads out “Scorpions” in a flat and chillingly ironic tone. The old-school German hard rock band’s used like a bludgeon, a sign of the un-trueness of the fan, who is crushed; and we realise how Euronymous can and will pick instantly on a small tell to dominate and manipulate people around him. Because the fan, Kristian (Emory Cohen), isn’t driven away but instead becomes even more determined to gain Euronymous’s approval. Dead commits suicide, but if Euronymous is affected, he doesn’t show it much. With his parents’ money he opens a metal record store, and in the basement holds meetings of a “black circle” of favoured musicians. “I was building my own empire,” he reflects. “Everything that had happened had made me immune to reality.” Kristian, still a fan, wants to be a part of this group — for he’s a musician, too, and, it turns out, a talented one. Brought into the circle, he takes new names, Varg Vikernes and Count Grishnackh, and slowly emerges as a rival for Euronymous among the black circle. The two young men compete with each other to say and do ever more extreme things, driving each other further and further, and it is very clear that Euronymous’s early promise is true: this can only end badly.

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Fantasia 2018, Day 22, Part 4: Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings

Saturday, September 15th, 2018 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly KingsThe two final movies I’d watch at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival were both in the big Hall Theatre. It’s perhaps appropriate that the first of those two aspired to be a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (Di Renjie zhi Sidatianwang, 狄仁杰之四大天王) was directed by veteran Tsui Hark and written by Chang Chialu. It’s nominally a prequel to two other movies, though no knowledge of those films is required.

(Before the movie played we saw a short film, “No One Will Ever Believe You,” written and directed by Frédéric Chalté. A young girl wants to play a prank on her sister, and hides in her room. But she ends up becoming a witness to a supernatural horror, and by extension so does the audience. It’s a well-crafted 6-minute short shown largely from the perspective of a girl frozen in terror, and the point of view works. Shots from inside a bedroom closet through a blind emphasise the hidden viewer; it’s not surprising, maybe, that Chalté’s other short at this year’s festival, “Le otta dita della morte,” is a tribute to the surreal paranoia of the giallo film.)

For the sake of completeness, a bit of background on Detective Dee: Di Renjie was a magistrate and duke in 7th-century China who became the hero of an 18th-century Chinese detective novel by an anonymous author. (The first part of this novel, Four Great Strange Cases of Empress Wu’s reign, or Wu Zetian si da qi an, would be translated into English as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee by Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik in 1949; van Gulik would go on to write a series of his own about Dee’s adventures.) The novel shows Dee solving multiple crimes at once, with the help of dreams, a ghost, and a team of constables who skilled in martial arts; detective novels, as invented in China around 1600 (called gong’an fiction, “case records of a public law court”), often included elements of the supernatural as key aspects of the plot. At any rate, Judge Dee, or Detective Dee, has starred as the hero of numerous TV shows and films over the years in both China and the West.

Most relevant here, in 2010 Tsui Hark made Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, written by Chen Kuofu with Andy Lau as Dee. In 2013 Hark made a prequel, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, with a script he wrote with Chang Chialu. Now comes The Four Heavenly Kings, a second prequel that’s set after the second movie but before the first one. As in the last, Dee’s played by Mark Chao, Shaofeng Feng plays Dee’s foil Yuchi Zhenjin of the Ministry of Justice, and Lin Gengxin is Dee’s friend and ally, doctor Shatuo Zhong. As the movie opens, Dee’s been granted custody of the “Dragon Taming Mace,” a magical item powerful enough to save a country from any threat, or to destroy it. The somewhat sinister Empress Wu (Caria Lau) feels threatened by the mace in Dee’s hands, and plots to regain it, enlisting the aid of Yuchi Zhenjin — and a clan of wizards. But there’s something more going on behind the scenes, involving mind control, secrets of the founding of the Tang dynasty, and the mysterious Faceless Lord.

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Fantasia 2018, Day 22, Part 3: Lifechanger

Sunday, September 9th, 2018 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

LifechangerFor my last movie of 2018 in the Fantasia screening room I selected a Canadian horror movie called Lifechanger. Written and directed by Justin McConnell, it follows an entity named Drew (narrated by Bill Oberst Jr), who, born human, at age 12 developed the ability and need to change bodies with other people (which Drew does repeatedly through the movie, tying the film together with voice-over ruminations; thus the “narrated by” in the previous parenthesis). The process kills the other person, and leaves Drew trapped in a swiftly decaying body. For decades, he’s had to keep changing bodies every few days, the inevitable rot slowed only slightly by doses of cocaine. Lately, though, he’s convinced himself he’s fallen in love with a woman named Julia. Drew wants to be close to her, but how can he do that given what he is?

That the question feels meaningful makes the movie a success. It’s odd as a story, with beats in unusual places. Drew never seems too curious about his own nature. Which makes sense; by the time we meet him, he’s resigned himself to the terms of his existence. Still, the movie occasionally feels convenient; his habit of living a few days as one of his victims, for example, feels as though it’d be unsustainable. The plotting here is not the strongest, I think, and I didn’t feel tension build in a traditional way. But it’s an interesting film nevertheless.

This is a small-scale movie, a kind of neighbourhood supernatural horror story set in a suburb of Toronto. It feels a little like the low-budget horror films that filled video store shelves in the 80s, but viewed from a different and somewhat more sophisticated angle. It’s a kind of revisionist horror movie, taking the genre and taking a new look at its framework and structure, keeping what makes those things work while using a different narrative approach. The aim here is not gore, though there is that, but explication of character through the use of horror. As such it succeeds; Drew feels like somebody who’s responding as a human being in an inhuman situation — and so has become inhuman himself, and now accepts the inhumanity as natural.

Drew’s a monster, then, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t consider being honest with Julia about his nature. The movie manages a tricky balance here: Oberst’s dry narration and the sharp script keep Drew at least interesting, though he’s fundamentally unsympathetic on a number of levels. Drew’s got a certain amount of self-knowledge but views mass-murder as merely a necessity for his own survival; being that self-obsessed, he stalks Julia, in a number of different bodies, trying to find out where she lives and whatever information he can that will help him get close to her.

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