John C. Bruening makes a smashing debut as a novelist with a hardboiled pulp yarn that is so good, it immediately makes you set the author to one side with a handful of other standouts currently working in the New Pulp field.
The Midnight Guardian: Hour of Darkness frequently put me in mind of Sam Raimi’s underrated 1990 film, Darkman in that it is likewise evocative of The Shadow and Doc Savage and is set in a world familiar to readers of Dashiell Hammett and those who love old Warner Bros. gangster pictures of the 1930s (and Universal horrors and serials of the same decade). While much of The Midnight Guardian is the work of an author well-versed in the vocabulary and mythology of the pop culture of the last century, it is also the creative construct of a first-rate storyteller who has denied himself and his audience for far too long.
Pulp means a lot of things to different people. For purists, it is exclusively the fiction (adventure, crime, thriller, western, romance, war, humor) published in pulp magazines (not slicks) in the 1920s through the 1950s. For others, pulp fiction is any fast-paced, action-packed story with stock characters and situations set in a world decidedly less sophisticated, but much more visceral than our own.
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The Shadow (1994)
Directed by Russell Mulcahy. Starring Alec Baldwin, John Lone, Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen, Jonathan Winters, Tim Curry.
The global whirlwind success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 triggered a flurry of retro-hero movies. Eight years later, the gaudy nipple-suited failure of Batman and Robin brought an end to the cycle, and it wasn’t until the double-hit of X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) that our current comic book flood started. But we got a few interesting films during the retro-hero phase, such as Dick Tracy, the well-loved The Rocketeer … and the semi-forgotten The Shadow, which came out on Blu-ray this week to offer its mixture of elegance and error for a new audience.
A film about the pulp hero the Shadow was in development since 1982 under the auspices of producer Martin Bregman. Originally, Robert Zemeckis was slated for the director’s chair, but the film dwelled in limbo until Batman blew up the box-office. When Bregman was at last able to get the project going, Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) had replaced Zemeckis, and writer David Koepp (Jurassic Park) was on screenplay duty.
Universal Pictures had The Shadow pegged as a blockbuster in the summer of 1994: it received a heavy marketing push, with numerous merchandizing tie-ins and the announcement of an SNES video game. Universal even planned for a Shadow stunt show at their Hollywood theme park. But after a decent opening weekend, where it came in at #2 under The Lion King’s second monumental weekend and beat the awful Blown Away, The Shadow plummeted to become one of the summer’s disappointments. Plans for a franchise vanished into the darkness with the same skill as the Shadow himself.
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Pioneering silent film director, Louis Feuillade rose to prominence with his stylish 1913 serial, Fantomas which faithfully adapted five of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s bestselling pulp thrillers. Feuillade next succeeded in fashioning an enthralling original story based around the Apache street gang which figured prominently in the Fantomas series. Les Vampires are led by the vampish Irma Vep, played by the exotic Musidora (France’s answer to Theda Bara). The 1915 serial was hugely successful and was a highly influential work in its day. Feuillade was tasked with the challenge of trying to follow up these two successes with a third commercial property.
Responding to the criticism that his films glorified crime and violence, Feuillade turned to author and playwright Arthur Bernede for help. Together they crafted a pulp vigilante dressed in a dark cloak with his face partially obscured by a slouch hat. Judex, Latin for “judge,” fought crime with his loyal brother, Roger and a menagerie of amazing beasts and an assortment of colorful companions by his side. These and Judex’s gadget-filled secret lair and private plane had a tremendous influence on the burgeoning pulp fiction market in England and America.
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