Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Batman Returns (1992)

One of my odd quirks is that I remember what year people were born based on movies that came out the same year.  My Grandma shares a birth year with the original 'King Kong' for example, and I have a brother who is quite proud of the fact that he was born the same year 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' was released.  Thanks to 'Batman Returns' the ol' Geekboy can also remember when HE was born.

'Batman Returns' is a follow up to Tim Burton's 1989 'Batman'.  Like the '89 Batman, this movie spends most of it's time focusing on the bad guys.  '89 Batman only has one main villain however, the Joker, whereas 'Batman Returns' has THREE villains.  Penguin, Catwoman, and a sleazy businessman named Max Shreck who is pulling all of the strings in this puppet-show.  As you may guess, Bruce Wayne/Batman once again gets a little lost in the mix, particularly since he didn't have the focus and character development he deserved the last time around.

Visually speaking this is an all-out Tim Burton movie, and the visuals are the strongest part of the movie.  Burton ditches the Noir/Gangster inspiration from the last time around in favor of Gothic/German Expressionistic style costuming and architecture.  The German influence is evident as Penguin's look is clearly modeled after the titular villain of 1920s 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' AND Max Shreck is named after the actor who portrayed the Vampire Count Orlok in 1922's 'Nosferatu'.

So, let's take a look at the villains of the film.  They're clearly the characters Tim Burton was most interested in anyway.  We start off with the birth of the hideously distorted Oswald Cobblepot, an infant with a taste for any sort of raw meat he can catch.  He is quickly abandoned by his high-society parents and ends up in the sewers of Gotham where he is discovered and raised by sewer penguins.  No, I am not making this up.  Tim Burton is the one making this up, because that's not Penguin's canon comic book origin.

Two minutes on Wikipedia will tell you that Penguin was bullied as a child for his strange looks.  He was raised by a very human mother and he fixated on her pet birds.  There's nothing in there about sewer penguins.  That said, I do enjoy Burton's take on Penguin.  Burton took a villain who is rather hard to take seriously, cast comedic actor Danny DeVito to play him, and turned him into a truly terrifying figure lurking in the sewers and devouring raw fish.

It's Christmas in Gotham City, and as this is a Tim Burton movie, Christmas is the most scariest time of the year.  LAST year I actually watched this on Halloween.  It works well for either holiday.  Businessman Max Shreck is doing great humanitarian acts to schmooze up to the mayor so that the mayor will approve of the new power plant Shreck wants to build.  The power plant is important.  The power plant is what motivates Max Shreck, and Max Shreck is what - in one way or another - motivates all of the other villains in the story.

Penguin wishes to return to his rightful place in society.  He kidnaps and blackmails Max Shreck so Shreck can help Penguin with his goal.  Shreck reluctantly agrees, but he has plans to use Penguin for his own agenda.

Meanwhile Shreck's timid and mousy secretary Selina Kyle accidentally discovers Shreck's real plans for his so called 'power plant'.  He wants to build a gigantic capacitor that will steal electricity from Gotham for some sinister purpose that is never fully explained.  To shut her up Shreck pushes Selina Kyle out of a skyscraper window.  But because Selina had been shown as being nice to alley cats, the cats are in turn nice to Selina.  Selina is brought back to life by the cats, and now somehow has nine lives.  She's also rather mentally unbalanced and out for revenge on Shreck.

Just like Penguin, this portrayal of Catwoman has very little in common with her comic book  counterpart.  She's an ordinary cat-burglar in the comics.  There's nothing supernatural about Catwoman, She doesn't have nine lives, and she's one of the few sane members of Batman's rouges gallery.  These changes to Catwoman are less easy to justify than the changes to Penguin.  I personally don't think they add that much to her as a character.  I'm personally left scratching my head as to how somebody who adapted Joker's origin faithfully to the comics in the previous film would take so many liberties in the follow up movie.

I would like to point out that by the time all of the villains are introduced and their motivations are set up we are half an hour into the movie and Batman has only been in one scene and hasn't yet had a single line of dialog.

Max Shreck hatches a plan to make Penguin into a local hero.  Penguin 'rescues' the mayor's son after first faking his abduction.  Shreck then talks Penguin into running for mayor of Gotham, thinking he can use him as a puppet and get him to approve of that oh-so-important-to-the-plot power plant I mentioned earlier.  They plan to make the old mayor, the city's law enforcement, and Batman look completely incompetent in order to obtain this task.

Meanwhile Catwoman is taking her revenge on Shreck by vandalizing one of his department stores.  Rather than outright killing him, which is allegedly her motivation.  As his secretary she should know his daily routine well enough to take him out at any time.  Maybe the logic is that like a cat she's toying with her prey, so I suppose this is justifiable.  Anyway, she crosses paths with Batman, and after he bests her in battle she decides she wants revenge on him too now.

So.  Catwoman teams up with Penguin to discredit Batman even though Penguin is already clearly working with her arch nemesis Shreck.  Huh?  The two of them frame Batman for kidnapping Gotham's 'Ice Princess' a bubble-headed blond who is a big part of the Gotham City's tree lighting celebration.  While Batman is occupied with trying to rescue the Ice Princess, Penguin's henchmen hijack the Batmobile.  Penguin then frames Batman for murdering the Ice Princess - causing Penguin and Catwoman to have a falling out - and then he takes over the Batmobile by remote control.

The part where Batman is trapped in the Batmobile as Penguin is controlling it is actually my favorite part in the entire movie.  It's a very Pulpy/Cliffhanger Serial idea - careening through the streets at high speeds and trying desperately to regain control of the vehicle.  Penguin plans to kill two birds with one stone - eliminating Batman and showing him to be a reckless driver to further discredit him.

But Batman escapes and manages to turn the tables on Penguin - revealing to the general public that he is truly monstrous not only in look but in deed.  And at this point the movie falls apart structurally speaking.  The first half of the story is pretty good.  The plot to discredit Batman is interesting and well done.  But like the '89 Batman, after the bad guy's first evil plan fails the story just becomes a series of backup evil plans.

Remember Max Shreck's evil power plant that has been the driving motivation of all the characters in this story?  This plot thread goes no where.  After the plot to make Penguin the new mayor is thwarted Shreck is demoted to a really minor villain.  Even though he was the driving force of the entire story up to this point.  Now Penguin is somehow the main villain and the plot quickly degenerates from something as sophisticated as framing Batman for murder to strapping missiles to an army of remote control penguins.

My consensuses?  This is a very flawed - but still enjoyable - movie.  It takes a ton of liberties with the source material - particularly with Catwoman's character - doesn't deliver on plot threads that we are tricked into believing are really important from the very beginning of the story, and Batman is once again barely in his own movie.  But when all is said and done I actually like this movie a little better then Batman '89.  Unfortunately that only makes the weak parts of 'Batman Returns' all the more frustrating.

I may be in the minority, but I personally believe that 1995's 'Batman Forever' is the best of the pre- 'Batman Begins' Batman movie.  Next time I blog Batman you should find out why.

Merry Christmas.

- Geekboy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

'Manhunt of Mystery Island' is a 15 chapter Republic serial.  I feel like it's a bit of an underdog as far as cliffhangers are concerned.  Odds are good you won't hear about it in the same breathe as 'Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe' or 'The Adventures of Captain Marvel'.  'Manhunt' probably wouldn't make anybody's 'Top Ten favorite cliffhanger serials' list.  Until today.  Because I rank 'Manhunt' in my top 2 right after 'Jungle Girl'.

Linda Stirling, one of the serial queens of the 1940's, plays the female lead.  Ms. Stirling is probably best known for 'The Tiger Woman' and 'Zorro's Black Whip,' but in my opinion 'Manhunt of Mystery Island' is her best work.  In 'Manhunt' she plays Claire Forrest, whose scientist father has been captured by the legendary pirate 'Captain Mephisto'.  Mephisto is trying to force Dr. Forrest to build a 'radio-atomic power transmitter' a device the evil Captain wants for some unclear but nefarious reason.  So Claire teams up with world renowned criminologist Lance Reardon, and the two pick up her father's trail to the titular 'Mystery Island'.

Mystery Island is owned by the four descendants of Captain Mephisto.  Some believe that the ghost of Mephisto still haunts the island, but in reality it is one of the owners masquerading as the pirate with the aid of a transforming ray.  Hopefully you enjoy seeing Mephisto's transformation, because you get to see is over and over again over the course of 15 chapters.

This story uses the fairly common cliffhanger serial plot device of 'One of these guys is secretly the villain but we don't know which one! Is it you? Whoops, you have a knife sticking out of your back. I guess it must be somebody else.'  But usually the villain is a mysterious hooded figure or just a voice heard over the radio rather than somebody with a transforming machine.

Lance Reardon - played by Richard Bailey - is a little flat or deadpan at times (fairly typical of cliffhanger serials) but he holds his own in a fight, and at time his crime solving abilities manage to convince the audience that he really is a brilliant criminologist.  For example, at one point he finds a discarded envelope, turns it inside out, and uses a mirror to read the impressions left by wet ink.

Claire Forrest spends most of her spare time getting kidnapped so she can be used as leverage against her father by Captain Mephisto.  Though often imperiled, she is rarely shown as helpless.  She's quick witted, resourceful, and fast acting.  When she's captured she usually finds a way to leave a trail for Lance to follow, at one point using thread from her sewing basket to show Lance the entrance to a secret passage.  Tying her up won't keep her out of the action either - in a moment of pure awesomeness she pounces on a discarded gun and shoots one of Mephisto's henchmen whilst bound hand and foot.

Lance and Claire are one of my favorite serial couples.  They work so well together as a team and that's what really makes 'Manhunt' stand out so much in my mind.

While Lance and Claire are trying to rescue Dr. Forrest from the evil clutches Captain Mephisto, Dr. Forrest complicates matters by trying to escape from the evil clutches of Captain Mephisto by his-own-self.  Several of the cliffhangers are actually traps that Dr. Forrest sets for Mephisto that our heroes happen to stumble into.

'Manhunt' uses the island setting very well.  The island mansion where the four suspects hang out has some Scooby Doo stuff going on, complete with secret passages and henchmen spying through suits of armor and pictures on the wall. There's dockside action, speedboat chases, and a network of coastal caverns for our heroes to explore.   Lance and Claire return to the mainland for a couple of chapters as well just to shake things up.

One unfortunate aspect of crime-fighting serials is that they tend to have a re-cap chapter.  In this case it's Lance and Claire sitting around stroking their chins in deep thought trying to figure out which of the owners of the island might be Mephisto in-between back-flashes of exciting bits you've already seen.  Each of the suspects is equally suspicious, so they get nowhere.  Serials where the identity of the villain or masked hero are unknown often have one of these chapters - the only difference is if it's a superhero/vigilante story it's the bad guy and his henchmen stroking their chins in deep thought trying to figure out who the hero is.  Whenever a serial uses a re-cap chapter I suspect them of not having quite enough story for a full 15 chapters.

Another common theme of later serials is using stock footage from other chapter-plays for the cliffhanger endings.  If you watch enough serials you'll see the same endings over and over.  'Manhunt' is guilty of borrowing that flooding tunnel scene from 'Jungle Girl'.

This serial does have some notable chapter ending however.  One of my favorites has Lance dangling out a skyscraper window from the end of a fire-hose.  Mephisto's henchman is inside disconnecting the hose from the wall.  What I like best about this chapter ending is that it has a really clever resolution in the beginning of the next chapter.  Another of the best endings takes place inside a winery.  The bad guys use a wine press as a deathtrap.  This makes for an interesting variant on that 'the walls are closing in on us!' cliche.

If you need a serial recommendation, check out 'Manhunt of Mystery Island'.  It's one of the best.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Batman (1989)

To fans who grew up with Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, the film is the definitive Batman movie.  Michael Keaton is the definitive Bruce Wayne, Jack Nicholson is the definitive Joker, and the Danny Elfman soundtrack is the definitive Batman theme.  Can't argue with that last one.  Danny Elfman is awesome.

As a Sam Raimi Spiderman fan, I think I know how Tim Burton Batman fans feel.  Tobey Maguire will always be MY Peter Parker, no matter how much I enjoyed Tom Holland in the role in Captain America: Civil War.  But I personally didn't grow up with the '89 Batman.  I had seen both Adam West and Christian Bale play Batman prior to Michael Keaton.  So, how well does this movie hold up WITHOUT the nostalgia factor?  Answer - a little better each time I watch it.

I really like the way this movie approaches Batman's origin.  There's a fakeout in the beginning as we see two muggers attack a married couple and their young son.  We're supposed to think that the boy is a young Bruce Wayne and we're witnessing his parents murder, but then the thugs are stopped by Batman.  What's going on here ---?

We aren't show the actual deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne until much later in the story.  Instead Batman - and Bruce Wayne - are presented as a mystery that is slowly unraveled by our viewpoint character, photojournalist and golden age love interest Vicki Vale.

We are also introduced to villain Jack Napier, a mobster who wants a bigger slice of the pie AND has his eyes set on the ladyfriend of his boss Carl Grissom.  Grissom apparently finds out Jack's true intentions and sets him up as a fall guy.  In a showdown with Gotham's finest - and the mysterious Bat vigilante - Jack Napier falls into a vat of chemicals and is transformed into the Joker.

Even though the movie is more or less set in 'modern times' (or the late 80's) all the gangsters look and act like they belong in a 30's mobster movie - complete with fedoras, trench-coats, and pinstripes.  Batman '89 is the only movie going for the golden age feel.  'Batman Returns' is visually a Tim Burton movie first and a Batman movie second,  'Batman Forever' and 'Batman and Robin' are slightly campier silver age Batman, and everything after 'Batman Begins' has been inspired by Frank Miller.  But this movie has Batman fighting mobsters like in the golden age, has a golden age villain (Joker first appeared in 1940) Batman's golden age girlfriend (Vicki Vale's first appearance was in 1948) and the creation of the Bat-Signal (which first appeared in 1942).

So how is Nicholson as Jack Napier/Joker?  Is he the best interpretation of the character?  I'm not really a Joker authority - personally Two Face is my favorite Batman villain - but this version does seem closer to the Joker of the comics then 'The Dark Knight' Joker does.  His origin is the same.  True, in the comics his identity before he falls into the chemicals is unknown, and he isn't the one who murdered Bruce Wayne's parents, but other than that he's spot on.  But I actually like Nicholson's performance better BEFORE he's transformed.  It's a bit like Norman Osborn and Green Goblin in Sam Raimi's Spiderman.  To quote Weird Al Yankovic: 'He's riding around on that glider thing, and he's throwing that weird pumpkin bomb.  He's wearing that dumb Power Rangers mask, but he's scarier without it on.'

What about Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman?  Well, he's fine as Batman, but if you ask me he's a little lacking as Bruce Wayne.  He's happy-go-lucky, absent minded, very earnest, and shy.  Except for a few brief moments he doesn't really capture the darkness of Bruce Wayne's character.  In my opinion Val Kilmer and Ben Affleck are both superior in the role because they show the necessary brooding qualities of Bruce Wayne in 'Batman Forever' and 'BvS: Dawn of Justice' respectively.  Also, one downside of spending so much time developing Vicki Vale and Joker is that it cuts into the amount of time that CAN be spent on Batman/Bruce Wayne.

Back to the plot: After his transformation, Joker seeks revenge on Carl Grissom for stabbing him in the back.  He murders Grissom and makes himself man on the top.  He then becomes obsessed with all the press Batman is getting.  He's jealous because apparently mobsters want THEIR names all over the newspaper too.  (Sarcasm).  So he goes after Vicki Vale, first to find out more about Batman and then because he's developed a creepy stalker crush.

The second half of this movie really starts to feel like it's more about Joker than it is about Batman, and I think I figured out why that is.  The two characters are playing a chess match.  Joker makes a move and Batman blocks him.  Batman is never driving the action UNLESS Vicki is in danger.  Up until the climax he never tries to stop Joker for good.  He's just trying to stop Joker's current plot.

This does make the movie a little episodic as well.  Joker does something evil, and then Batman stops him.  So Joker comes up with a new way to cause trouble, and Batman stops him again.  Repeat spin cycle.

Since Joker is the one driving the action and Vicki Vale is our viewpoint character, Batman comes across as a third wheel in his own story.  This movie isn't about Batman as a CHARACTER so much as it is about Batman as an IDEA.

All that said, some of the things that seemed like flaws the first couple of time I watched the '89 Batman really didn't bother me as I watched it again for this review.  This is an enjoyable movie with more of the look and feel of the comics than more modern Batman movies like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.  And the Danny Elfman soundtrack ROCKS.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Why You Should Read: The Tooth

The Tooth is a Graphic Novel written by one of my favorites, Cullen Bunn, working in collaboration with writer Shawn Lee and artist Matt Kindt.  This quirky story is a love letter to Horror and Superhero Comics of  a bygone era.

The titular Tooth is a gigantic beast of great strength that can shrink down to the size of a fang and fit in the mouth of a host.  The Tooth forms a symbiotic relationship with his host, in this case our mere mortal of a protagonist named Graham.  Whenever Graham is threatened - which happens quite often over the course of the story - The Tooth springs from his mouth in a Hulk like rage and rips the threat limb from limb.

This may sound pretty straightforward so far, but The Tooth is a comic within a comic.  There are fictional retro-style advertisements and a letters page that alludes to a massive continuity of the character 'The Tooth,' the many hosts that came before Graham, and a Rouges Gallery of Super Villains that we never get to meet within the pages of the Graphic Novel.

I'd like to take a minute to talk about Matt Kindt's art style.  At first glance it seems rather simplistic, almost childlike, but if you take a closer look you can tell Mr. Kindt knows what he's doing.  There are some really strong panel compositions here.  Matt Kindt's loose style really adds to the charm of this book.

As well as paying homage to comics as a storytelling medium, there are several visual nods to Ray Harryhausen (such as a guest appearance of the Mechanical Owl form Clash of the Titans, and Graham mentioning that the Dragon of Ares 'Sounds like something from a Harryhausen movie' the very next page) Which is appropriate as Harryhausen is the one who helped popularized stories about two monsters punching each other in the face.  It's also appropriate since The Tooth's origin is rooted in Greek Mythology.

There's a moment towards the end of the graphic novel that I really like: The Tooth Graham, and his ally Sheriff Turnbull are attacked by a hoard of Vampire women (who are wearing skimpy red dresses and black knee-high boots as a nod to 70's horror comic icon Vampirella) and Graham tries to ward them off by putting two sticks together to form a cross.  He is informed that he doesn't have enough faith to repel a Vampire.  So the Sheriff whips out his badge and drives off the Vampire using his faith in the law.  This is exactly the sort of thing I mentioned before on this blog about symbolism getting lost in modern day Vampire fiction.  It's not the cross that drives away a Vampire, but Faith in what the cross represents.

This book is a ton of fun, and comes from a creative team that clearly loves comics.  I consider The Tooth one of the gems of my collection, and I encourage you to give it a read if you have the chance.  It's quirky and fun and has big monsters punching each other.  You won't regret it.


Monday, November 21, 2016

The Thief Of Bagdad (1924)

So I did something this past weekend that I don't often do: Watch a silent movie.  Don't get me wrong, I'm always up for a classic film.  I just happen to prefer classic films that have spoken dialog.  But I had seen several other adaptions of  'The Thief of Bagdad' - most notably the 1940 version (There's also an Italian version from 1961, but that's barely recognizable as the same story) - so I decided to give the original 1924 version a shot.

Even if you haven't seen any adaption of 'The Thief of Bagdad' you'll probably find the story a bit familiar.  Possibly because it pulls so much inspiration by 1001 Arabian Nights, and possibly because every movie adaption of Arabian Nights that came after 'Thief of Bagdad' seems to pull inspiration from 'Thief of Bagdad'.  Disney's 'Aladdin' for example, probably has as much or more in common with the 1924 and 1940 versions of 'Thief of Bagdad' than it does with the original fairy tale of Aladdin.

Our story starts with a happy-go-lucky thief (played by Douglas Fairbanks) who seems to steal for the fun of it, and also enjoys outrunning or outwitting his pursuers.  The beginning of this movie is actually really funny with visual humor style that's just shy of slapstick.  For example, in one scene he escapes his pursuers by running over the backs of people kneeling in prayer.  Each one is startled, and they all look up at him as he jumps on their backs.  It's well timed and choreographed, and lots of fun to watch.  I know there are silent comedies such as the Charlie Chaplin films, but I guess prior to this point I've mostly just watched horror films like 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) and German Expressionist films such as 'Metropolis' (1927).

After stealing a magic rope that enables him to scale any wall, the Thief returns to his hideout to show the rope to his buddy - who is an elderly thief.  The two make plans to scale the palace wall and make off with the royal jewels.

Meanwhile the evil ruler of the Mongols decides he wants to take over Bagdad.  He devises a plan to disguise himself as a suitor to the Princess of Bagdad and smuggle his army past the walls disguised a porters bringing gifts.  The whole 'Bad guy is trying to marry the Princess so he can take control of the Kingdom' thing is something we've seen hundreds of times before, but it's refreshing in this story that he doesn't actually want to marry the princess - at least not at first.  He unfortunately decides he wants to marry her later on in the story.

That night our hero and his buddy use the magic rope to sneak into the palace.  It just so happens that all the loot is kept in the Princess' royal bedchambers.  The Thief falls in love with the Princess at first sight - so much so that he forgets all about robbing the place.  Unfortunately he is confronted by one of the Princess' servant girls - who just so happens to be a mongol.  He holds her at knife point until he can make good his escape.  When his buddy asks if he found the treasure he responds with 'The greatest treasure of all!' and shows him one of the Princess' slippers which he stole.  The thief's friend is understandably perplexed by our Hero's sudden love of shoes, but he eventually realizes that the Thief is in love.

So he does what any good friend would do: Suggest that our hero sneak into the palace, drug the princess, and then kidnap her.  Because that's how you get a girl to like you, apparently.  So our hero goes to the marketplace, steals clothes that make him look like royalty, and enters the palace disguised as a suitor.

Meanwhile the princess has her fortune told to help her decide which suitor to pick.  There's some sort of mumbo-jumbo prophecy about 'The first one to touch the rose bush' is the one the princess should marry.

So the suitors all arrive, and the princess, because she's a horrible person, judges each one by there looks.  She doesn't like the way the first one scowls, the second one is too fat, and the third one - the bad guy - looks too evil.  And of course she falls for our hero at first sight.

Amusingly enough, one of the suitors - the fat one - is referred to as 'The Prince of Persia.'  This isn't the Prince of Persia!

THIS, my friends, is the Prince of Persia!

So the Mongolian servant girl tips the Bad Guy off about the magic rose bush.  He's about to touch it, but he's stung by a bee instead.  And because this movie is basically slapstick the bee also spooks our hero's horse and he rather predictably falls off onto the rose bush, fulfilling the prophecy.  After that he's all set to kidnap the princess, but she decides to cut out the middle man of the whole Stockholm Syndrome thing and confesses her love for him.  She chooses the Thief to be her husband, and he is so overcome with guilt that he tells her the truth: He's not really a Prince.

She's okay with this, but unfortunately the Mongolian servant girl recognizes him and blows his cover in front of the Caliph of Bagdad.  Now the Thief is once again a hunted man, but the Princess bribes the guards and sneaks him outside the palace walls.

The Caliph demands that she choose a REAL prince to marry from the three remaining suitors.  She sends them off on a wild goose chase: whoever finds and brings back the rarest treasure in the world is the one she will marry.  This kicks off the second half of the movie, and it's a loose adaption of the Arabian Nights story 'The Three Princes and the Princess Nouronnihar'.  The one finds a magic carpet, the next finds a magic crystal that can show the owner whatever they want to see, and the third - in this case the villain - finds an apple that can cure any ailment.  The villain then sends one of his spies back to the palace to poison the princess so she will declare his gift the greatest as it is the only one that can save her life.

Meanwhile our hero goes on a quest of his own, and he will face many perils some of which feature better special effects than others.  A cavern filled with flames is pretty believable.  The giant bat and spider puppets?  Not so much.  He is also tempted by underwater sirens, but remembers his love for the princess just in time and escapes.  He finds a winged horse - either inspired by the Arabian Nights tale of the Flying Mechanical Horse or the Pegasus from Greek mythology - and uses it to find a castle in the clouds and a box filled with magic dust that becomes whatever the owner desires.

So the other suitors discover that Princess is dying after looking into the magic crystal.  They use the magic carpet to fly back to the palace, and then the Bad Guy uses the magic apple to save the Princess' life (which he endangered by the way, so it doesn't really count).  He insists that she marry him as his gift is the rarest.  She finds a loophole however: The carpet and the crystal were just as important to saving her life as the magic apple.

Enraged, the bad guy decides that he will take the city by force after all, and summons his army that had infiltrated the Bagdad earlier.  Our hero is returning from his epic quest, and he learns that the Mongolian army has taken Bagdad.  He creates an army of his own using the box full of magic sand, and rushes to save the day.  But he be in time to stop the Mongolian prince from carrying the Princess off on the magic carpet?  That is the question.

This is definitely worth a watch, but I'd suggest saving it for a lazy afternoon as it is two and a half hours long.  It clearly had a big influence on adventure and fantasy movies, and if you're an Arabian Nights fan you should enjoy this early adaption.  The film is now public domain and can be enjoyed free of cost on or


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Drums of Fu Manchu (1940)

It's hard to remember now, but there was a time when I thought Fu Manchu was a style of mustache.  Not to say it ISN'T a style of mustache, but it's more that that too.  It's also the name of one of the most inspirational criminal masterminds in detective fiction.  Dr. Fu Manchu was a 'Yellow Peril' villain created by British pulp writer Sax Rohmer in 1911, and is said to have had an influence on villains such as Ming the Merciless, Dr. No, Ra's al Ghul, and The Mandarin.

When I was first getting into serials I heard that 'Drums of Fu Manchu' was one of the very best.  My response to this bold claim was of course: "I thought a Fu Manchu was just a style of mustache."  A little research showed me otherwise.  I started watching the movies, 'Mask of Fu Manchu' staring Boris Karlof and the British series of movies staring Christopher Lee, and tracking down some of the books.  Eventually I got my hands on the classic serial.

Is 'Drums of Fu Manchu' the best serial ever made?  That's a matter of opinion.  Personally, I think it pales in comparison to my favorites like 'Jungle Girl', 'Manhunt of Mystery Island', and 'Perils of Nyoka'.  I can see why people hold it in such high regard, however.  'Drums' has a bit of everything, and is a good example of several different genres of serials.  The first half plays out like a crimefighting serial - the type where a government agent or masked vigilante is trying to take out a gang led by a shadowy mastermind.

There are some Science Fiction elements here as well.  Nothing as extreme as the Rocketships of 'Flash Gordon' or the Jetpacks and Robots of the 'Rocketman' serials.  But there are diabolical murder weapons such as a poison dart hidden in a microphone and triggered by sound vibration, and also a door protected by a force-field that disintegrates anyone or anything trying to pass through.

Halfway trough the serial it switches to more of a adventure serial with treasure hunting, deathtraps such as primitive lasers made from mirrors and sunlight, spear traps triggered by tripwire, deadly caves filled with dropping stalactites, and tombs that slowly fill with poison gas.

The story is a loose adaption of Sax Rohmer's novel 'Mask of Fu Manchu'.  In the serial Fu Manchu is trying to get his hands on the Scepter of Genghis Khan in order to prove himself the prophesied ruler over all Asia who was foretold to appear that year.  He is apposed by Sir Denis Nayland Smith and our young American hero Allan Parker.  Allan's father, an Archeologist, is held prisoner by Fu Manchu as he knows how to find the tomb of Genghis Kahn.  Dr. Parker is killed in the rescue attempt.

Allan doesn't seem too broken up about his father's death at the time, but he sees fit to remind us of the fact that he's out for revenge on Fu Manchu every once in a while just in case we'd forgotten.  In general he doesn't have much personalty and is as smart or as dumb as the plot sees fit.  For example in Chapter 2 he hitches a ride to Fu Manchu's hideout by grabbing onto the running-board of the bad guy's car.  THAT'S SMARTLater on in the same chapter, he deliberately backs up until he's standing on the secret trapdoor in Fu Manchu's hideout.  THAT'S DUMB.  And hilarious.  Hilariously dumb.

Nayland Smith, the hero of all of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels, is more or less demoted to sidekick.  He's the leader, and does a bit of detective work early on, but it's the less British and more square-jawed Allan who drives the action.  Still, Sir Nayland has it better than Dr. Petrie - the narrator of many of the books -  who has little to no dialog in this serial.

We also have Mary Randolf, who would be the Damsel in Distress under most circumstances, but we have Allan to play that role more often than not.

And what of Fu Manchu?  How is he in this serial?  Visually speaking, he's rather imposing.  And his sinister plots, torture devices, murder weapons, and disguises are top notch.  Unfortunately he speaks in a high pitched and nasally voice that is rather difficult to take seriously.

Allan, Nayland Smith, and company race to keep Fu Manchu from all of the clues leading to the Tomb of Genghis Khan and then race him to the tomb itself.  These chapters are all exciting, but I tend to loose interest after Chapter 11 when they finally find the scepter.  The rest of the serial is spent trying to keep the scepter away from Fu Manchu, and when that fails, stop him from using it to gain power over all the Mongolian tribes.

Standout cliffhangers include the sequence where Allan is attacked by Fu Manchu's giant octopus, the 'Pit and the Pendulum' torture device, and a bomb rigged to blow Allan up as soon as the phone rings.  Mary and Nayland Smith are given instructions to call at a certain time, unknowingly dooming their comrade.

Another great chapter ending is one in which Fu Manchu discredits our heroes in front of the friendly natives, and then tries to sacrifice a hypnotized Mary in the Temple of the Sun.

Although it's not my personal favorite, 'Drums of Fu Manchu' is a serial worth watching.  It's a mash-up of Adventure and Crime Fighting serials, and features a villain who - though largely forgotten now - had a big influence on pop culture from Superhero comics to the villains in the James Bond films.


Monday, November 7, 2016

Star Wars vs. Flash Gordon: Cloud City

It's no secret that Star Wars was partially inspired by Flash Gordon.  George Lucas stated in interviews that he was a big fan of the serial 'Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe' as a kid.  Pretty much any Flash Gordon fan will tell you that Cloud City was a visual nod to the flying city of the Hawkmen.  But it goes a little further than the striking visual of a city in the air.  There seem to be parallels in the events that take place on Cloud City, and even parallels of character arcs for Lando Calrissian and King Vultan.

In both stories our heroes are on the run.  Flash, Dale, Dr. Zarkov and Prince Thun are trying to escape from Emperor Ming.  They've been sent as slaves to the flying city but escape when the rocketship transporting the prisoners crashes.  They are later captured by Vultan and Princess Aura, who arrived in Vultan's kingdom ahead of them.

In 'Empire Strikes Back' Han Solo and Princess Leia are of course escaping from the forces of the Empire.  They land in Cloud City for repaired unaware that Boba Fett and Darth Vader have beaten them there.

King Vultan tries to add Dale to his harem.  'Empire Strikes Back' tones this down a little bit, but Lando does some non-stop flirting with Leia in front of Han.  What's that classic Cars song?  'Best Friend's Girl?'  Yeah, that's the one.

Both Lando and Vultan are authority figures in their flying cities, but they both bow to the greater authority of the Empire.  In both cases they are willing to turn our heroes over to the villains in the best interest of their city and the people they rule over.

So our heroes are now in the clutches of the villains.  Flash Gordon is tortured by Princess Aura because he has once again chosen Dale over her and she's a woman scorned.  Han Solo is tortured by Darth Vader because...well, dramatic reasons?  He's the bad guy.  Just go with it.

So here the stories deviate a little bit.  Lando's conscience finally gets the better of him.  He's growing more and more uncomfortable with his arrangement with Darth Vader, who has 'Altered the Deal' one time too many.  He and Han Solo had been old friends after all.  So he helps Princess Leia and Chewbacca escape so they can try to rescue Han from Boba Fett.

In Flash Gordon King Vultan and Flash are not old friends.  They are in fact enemies.  So naturally this plays out differently.  Flash and Zarkov escape to try and save Dale from Vultan.  While Flash is doing what he does best - the more active part of going to rescue, Zarkov is doing what he does best - working behind the scenes.  He sabotages the flying city.  It's no longer a flying city.  It's a falling city.

So they make a deal with King Vultan.  Zarkov will fix the flying city IF and WHEN Vultan lets them go.  They don't have a lot of time for negotiating, so naturally Vultan agrees to there terms.  King Vultan is so grateful when Zarkov fixes the city - even though Zarkov broke it in the first place - that he allies himself with our little band of heroes.

So when Ming shows up to take our heroes prisoner again Vultan intervenes.  Rather allow Flash to be taken prisoner he calls for 'The Tournament of Death!'  With friends like these, am-I-right?  So Flash must now fight in an arena for his life and freedom.

The two stories do play out differently, but there are parallels even in the differences.  Lando uses his remaining influence in Cloud City as a last ditch effort to rescue Han, Chewie and Leia.  Vultan uses the traditions of Mongo to give Flash a way to earn freedom for Dale and himself.

The similarities don't end there either.  Lando and Vultan both aid the heroes in battle later on in the story as well.  Lando Calrissian joins the Rebellion and leads the battle against the second Death Star in 'Return of the Jedi'.  King Vultan and his army of Hawkmen becomes one of Flash Gordon's greatest allies in his fight against against Emperor Ming.

As I said, Flash Gordon fans tend to bring up the Hawkmen and Cloud City when they talk about Flash Gordon's influence on Star Wars.  I can definitely see why.

- Geekboy.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Thoughts on: Van Helsing

Happy Monster Month.

Van Helsing is a 2004 monster mashup brought to us by writer/director Stephen Sommers of The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001) fame.  And this movie is too much fun for it's own good.  Or your own good.  So you probably shouldn't watch it.  That's how much fun it is.  It'll give you cavities or something.

If I were to describe Van Helsing to a first time viewer in only one sentence it would go something like this:  Steampunk James Bond dukes it out with Dracula whilst wearing a really cool hat.  Seriously, Van Helsing, I'm jealous of your fashion sense.

In a little more detail: Van Helsing is an ageless being with convenient memory loss who is working for a mysterious organization known as the Knights of the Holy Order.  The Knights of the Holy Order are the only thing standing between us mortal men and the forces of evil.  In his briefing with a grumpy Cardinal (who stands in for M from the James Bond movies) Van Helsing is informed of the Valerious family curse.  Several generations back Granddaddy Valerious made an oath that he and his descendants could not enter Heaven until the Vampire Dracula has been vanquished.  It is up to Van Helsing and the gadget creating friar Carl (Who is the comic relief Q stand-in)  to stop Dracula before he can wipe out the Valerious line.

The line consists of of two gypsies: Prince Velkan and Princess Anna Valerious.  That's right.  This movie had a Princess Anna nine years before Frozen.  Take THAT Disney!

So before they can take out Dracula, Van Helsing Carl and Anna must face a bunch of classic monsters.  Dracula's Brides, Igor, Frankenstein's Monster, and Werewolves - oh my!  And in true James Bond fashion, Dracula has a secret master plan that involves using Frankenstein's science experiments to create and army of vampires.

As a tribute to the Universal classics the film starts in black and white.  The Universal logo fades into the opening shot - a lit torch - and we pan down to see a bunch of angry villagers carrying torches.  That's a cool trick Sommers picked up from the other Stephen and the way the Paramount Mountain is the opening shot in all the Indiana Jones movies.  This story starts where the 1931 Frankenstein ends.  An angry mob is trying to put a stop to Dr. Frankenstein's work, and because nobody ever told them not to play with matches a windmill gets burned down.  Since nobody in the village can mill grain anymore they all starve to death.  Guess they didn't think that one through...

Okay so they don't starve, but that's what would have happened in real life.  Or they'd just go on gluten free diets.

The parts of the movie in Frankenstein's lab are among my favorites.  The set designers went all out.  There are all these Tesla coils are electric arcs and sparks and boiling cauldrons and pretty lights...It's classic mad scientist stuff gone Steampunk.  And this movie's Frankenstein monster is my favorite version of the creature.  He's a Cyborg with partially robotic parts.  A piston in his leg, metal plates welded onto his shoulder, that green glowing thing on his chest...His head is partially transparent so you can see his brain and all these glowing lights inside.  His face pops open at one point and he has to put it back together.  It's pretty crazy.

The characterization of the Frankenstein Monster makes this movie for me.  He's intelligent - like Mary Shelly's original - rather than the mumbling brute from the classic movies.  He's literate as well - he is shown with a Bible.  For the sake of irony they made the Monster religious.  Dracula keeps calling the creation of the Monster 'The triumph of science over God!' and meanwhile the Monster is quoting Psalm 23.  The Monster is also shown as having the moral high ground over Van Helsing.

One of the main themes of Van Helsing's character arc seems to be inspired by the proverb 'Whoever fights monsters must see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.'  Just like a Vigilante Superhero, Van Helsing spends most of his free time brooding about the dark path he must walk.  For Example:

Anna: 'Don't you understand forgiveness?'

Van Helsing: 'Yes.  I ask for it often.'

 And then:

Anna: 'Some say you are a murderer.  Others say you are a Holy man.  Which is it?'

Van Helsing: 'It's a little of both I suppose.'

And of course, by the movie's climax Van Helsing is at risk of becoming a literal monster as well as a figurative one.

For as much as this is a popcorn flick about Van Helsing punching monsters in the face there is a good bit of depth.  There's also this contemplative nugget about mortality:

Van Helsing: 'I'm sorry about your brother.'

Anna: 'I will see him again.  We Transylvanians like to look on the brighter side of death.'

Van Helsing: 'There's a brighter side of death?'

Anna: 'Of course there is.  It's just harder to see.'

Much as I love Van Helsing, I feel a need to acknowledge that it isn't a perfect movie.  A lot of people don't really like it.  They say the special effects are cheesy and dated.  To which I have several responses.

1: This movie is twelve years old now.  Yes there have been advances in CGI in those past twelve years, but movies like this are stepping stones to where we are now.  Where we are now is another stepping stone to where we will be in the future when the movies of the 2010's look cheesy and dated.  We can't be where we are now without the stepping stones.  Respect the stepping stones.

2: Classic monster costumes - with some very rare exceptions - don't look real.  Having werewolves that look cheesy is part of the long and proud cinematic history of cheesy looking werewolves.

3: A special effect that doesn't quite look real REMINDS US TO SUSPEND OUR DISBELIEF.  When you're watching a movie like this you shouldn't take it too seriously.  The filmmakers weren't taking it too seriously.  They were having fun with it.  You should also have fun with it.  If we can be taken out of a story by a cheesy special effect we weren't that invested in the story in the first place.

Speaking of suspension of disbelief - you really need it for some of the plot devices.  There's a full moon whenever one is needed to serve the story.  There are a bunch of werewolf transformations in a story that feels like it takes place over the course of just a couple of days.  The lunar cycle clearly works differently in Transylvania.  Also, the ENTIRE CLIMAX happens at the stroke of midnight.  Yep, a 10 + minute fight scene.  We're clearly working on movie time rather than real time.

The only think I see as a real problem is Dracula's performance.  It's crazy over the top, and takes me out of the story at times.

A major point in favor of this movie is that it doesn't cheat and give us a happy ending.  It gives us the right ending instead.  (The happy ending and the right ending aren't always the same thing).  It's a little melancholy rather than outright tragic, and still triumphant.  But it really pulls together the story's themes of mortality and life after death.

If you're a fan of monster movies I definitely recommend this entertaining tribute to the classics.  Stephen Sommers dedicated this movie 'To the Memory of my Dad'.  I'd like to think that the two of them watched the Universal monster movies together.  It's a sweet mental picture, and it would explain why Sommers made 'Van Helsing' and 'The Mummy'.  I saw this movie for the first time just after the passing of my Dad - we watched a ton of action movies together - and I think Sommers' dedication and the themes of life after death are a big part of why this movie is so special to me.

Read more at:

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Mummy's Hand (1940)

Happy Monster Month.

When we think of Mummy movies we probably have some preconceived ideas about the story going in.  A team of archeologists discover an Egyptian tomb.  The tomb has an ancient curse that the archeologists choose to ignore.  They awaken a slowly shambling bandage wrapped Mummy.  The mummy is a strong and silent type with dialog limited to muffled groans.  Often he is like a zombie with no free will of his own.  He's a instrument of murder who must carry out the curse of the Pharaohs.  He'll strangle the archeologists one by one until they finally catch on and vanquish the evil that - let's face it - they brought upon themselves for dismissing the curse as silly native superstition.

As you probably know the supposed 'Curse of the Pharaohs' has roots in the newspapers playing up strange happenings surrounding Howard Carter's 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen's Tomb.

First time viewers of the 1932 Universal film 'The Mummy' will probably be surprised at how little the movie follows this formula.  Boris Karloff spends only one scene in bandages.  His character - the mummy Imhotep - spends most of the story posing as a human named Ardath Bay.  He's quite intelligent and manipulative.  Rather than getting his hands dirty he uses Hypnotism to get others to do his bidding.  And rather than strangling his victims he uses supernatural powers to choke them or induce a heat attack making it seem that they died of natural causes.

The 1932 Mummy seems to take inspiration from Bram Stoker's novel 'Jewel of the Seven Stars,' the 1931 film 'Dracula' and H. Rider Haggard's novel 'She'.  From 'Jewel of the Seven Stars' we get the Egyptian setting, the Heroine who is the reincarnation of an Egyptian Princess with repressed memories of her past life, and the hero who is trying unravel the mystery of his love interest.

'Dracula' inspired the Mummy's hypnotic powers, as well as his weaknesses.  Rather than wearing a crucifix, our hero is given a protective amulet of Isis by the character of Dr. Muller - played by Edward Van Sloan, the same actor who played Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula.  David Manners - Jonathan Harker in Dracula - plays our hero Frank Whemple.

And 'She' clearly influenced the love triangle.  Hear me out: An immortal being discovers someone that they believe to be the reincarnation of their lost love.  They attempt to unlock the memories of this persons past life, and then make this individual immortal so they can spend an eternity together.  Coming between these long lost lovers is a third party whom the individual with repressed memories shares feelings for.  The immortal one attempts to dispose of this being through supernatural means.  Afterwards the process to make their lover share in immortality backfires and the being who was immortal is reduced to a pile of ash and bones.  The one triangle is Ayesha, Leo, and Ustane.  The other triangle is Immhotep, Helen, and Frank.  It's pretty much the same story.

So.  If the movie you think you know isn't the 1932 'The Mummy,' what movie is it?

The Mummy's Hand.  Universal studios.  1940.

While the 1932 Mummy is more of a legit horror story, 'The Mummy's Hand' is slightly more lighthearted and a bit more like an adventure movie.  Plenty of comic relief this time around - bordering on slapstick in some places.  It recycles plot elements from the first go-around, and even re-uses footage from 'The Mummy,' but it's a much different story.

We start with a passing of the torch.  An elderly priest from an ancient cult is passing down the responsibility of mummy-sitting to his successor.  He dumps a ton of exposition on us as to how Kharis was buried alive after trying to resurrect his dead love interest.  This plays out a lot like 'The Mummy' but instead of using 'The Scroll of Thoth' Kharis uses a potion made from tana leaves.  So instead of killing Kharis, the priests keep him in a state of suspended animation so they can wake him up every now and then to guard Princess Anaka's tomb.

We then switch to two down-on-their-luck archeologists trying to find Anaka's tomb.  They try to get funding from the Cairo museum, but it turns out that -Surprise! - the museum curator and the priest guarding Kharis and Anaka's tomb are one and the same.  Incidentally, he's played by George Zucco, the only big horror name in this picture.

Naturally, he does his best to sabotage the expedition.  First he tries to convince our heroes that the vase/treasure map they picked up at the used vase/treasure map shop is a counterfeit.  Then he 'accidentally' drops the vase, smashing it into a million zillion pieces.  But our heroes will not be dissuaded, and they seek out funding elsewhere.

They encounter a wealthy looking stage magician, and strike up a deal with him to fund the dig and they'll split the profits three ways.  But the priest has spies everywhere, and he soon learns of the partnership.  He nips off to meet up with the magicians' daughter and warns her about local con-artists who fool wealthy men into financing expeditions - leave the poor suckers in the desert to die - and run off with the money.

Thinking that our heroes are swindlers, she confronts them.  But they set the record straight, and she agrees that they can go ahead with the expedition IF she can tag along to keep an eye on dear-old-dad.

So they all traipse off into the desert to do some tomb raiding.  They find a tomb, but it's not the one they expect.  Rather than finding Princess Anaka, they unearth the undead Kharis.  Most of the native diggers run off, fearing the curse.  The high priest is skulking around, and he awakens Kharis to kill off the members of the expedition before they find Anaka's tomb.

In between mummy attacks, our hero, Steve Banning, and heroine, Marta Solvani, develop feelings for each other.  This movie has my favorite cheesy romantic dialog.  "Do you mind if I say I think you're a swell person?"  *Smootch*  Move over Casablanca, THIS is the romantic classic of the ages.

Marta is carried off by the Mummy, as is wont to happen to you if you're a woman in an old monster movie, and the heroes rush off to save her.  The high priest randomly decides he's in love with her, and plans to make the both of them immortal against her will.  Meanwhile the Mummy has gotten a hold of far too much of the tana leaf potion (Supposedly if he drinks enough he'll become unstoppable) as the priest has been leaving it around as bait to lure Kharis into the Archeologist's camp.

The '32 Mummy is higher quality, probably better story-telling, and looks like a bigger budget production, but to me 'The Mummy's Hand' is the classic mummy picture.  It's more fun, and has inspired everything that came after it.  The British version, 1959's 'The Mummy' from Hammer Films has much more in common with 'Mummy's Hand' than the '32 Mummy.  And Steven Sommers' 1999 remake of 'The Mummy' draws inspiration from the '32 Mummy and 'Mummy's Hand' equally.

If your a fan of mummies and adventure movies, you should give 'The Mummy's Hand' a watch.  You should probably see the 1932 movie as well, as it is a classic, but I personally prefer 'The Mummy's Hand.'


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Jack O' Lantern 2016

Happy Monster Month.

My family never really had a pumpkin carving tradition, but I think it would be cool to take the Jack O' Lantern back to it's original roots.  (Because I'm a big Hipster).  The first Jack O' Lanterns were carved not from pumpkins, but from turnips.  Unfortunately I don't have a turnip on hand this year, but my brother grows gourds, and he gave me one for carving.  So, here it is.  My Jack O' Lantern.