Sunday, 30 October 2011

VEx October Giveaway - Vampire Empire - Book Two: The Rift Walker

It's October, Halloween month, which means I should pull a vampire book off the giveaway pile. In this case, it's The Vampire Empire - Book Two: The Rift Walker by Susan and Clay Griffen.
Princess Adele struggles with a life of marriage and obligation as her Equatorian Empire and their American Republic allies stand on the brink of war against the vampire clans of the north. However, the alliance's horrific strategy for total victory drives Adele to abandon her duty and embark on a desperate quest to keep her nation from staining its hands with genocide. Reunited with her great love, the mysterious adventurer known to the world as the Greyfriar, Adele is pursued by her own people as well as her vengeful husband, Senator Clark. With the human alliance in disarray, Prince Cesare, lord of the British vampire clan, seizes the initiative and strikes at the very heart of Equatoria.

As Adele labors to bring order to her world, she learns more about the strange powers she exhibited in the north. Her teacher, Mamoru, leads a secret cabal of geomancers who believe Adele is the one who can touch the vast power of the Earth that surges through ley lines and wells up at the rifts where the lines meet. These energies are the key to defeating the enemy of mankind, and if Princess Adele could ever bring this power under her command, she could be death to vampires. But such a victory will also cost the life of Adele's beloved Greyfriar.

The Rift Walker is the second book in a trilogy of high adventure and alternate history. Combining rousing pulp action with steampunk style, the Vampire Empire series brings epic political themes to life within a story of heartbreaking romance, sacrifice, and heroism.

As always, to enter leave a comment on this post and make sure that there is some way to actually contact you should you win. THe draw will be at midnight, Sunday, October 30th. And like always, thank you everyone for your continued support of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age!

Update: Thanks to the generousity of Pyr, I now have two copies of The Rift Walker to give away. On the appointed hour I will be drawing two names out of the hat!

And the winners are... Lynn and ediFanoB! You will each be receiving a copy of The Vampire Empire - Book Two: The Rift Walker. Check your inbox for a message. And thank you once again to everyone for joining us here at Voyages Extraordinaires!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

The Doctor and the Kid (2011)

Once more, Pyr has sent us an array of new novels in their Steampunk line-up, and once again Mike Resnick makes one of them worth reading. Last time around it was his Weird West reiteration of the Gunfight at the OK Corral in The Buntline Special. This time around it is the sequel, The Doctor and the Kid.

As before, The Doctor and the Kid blends Resnick's alternate history with real personalities, resulting in a world that is fundamentally different but historical events that are not. In this volume, Doc Holliday is preparing for death in Leadville, Colorado when he inadvertently loses his nest-egg in a poker game. It was this wad of cash - lost while trying to impress a visiting Oscar Wilde - that was going to pay for Holliday's internment in a sanitarium until his death of tuberculosis in 1887. He concocts a dangerous get-rich-quick scheme: to collect the bounty on one Billy the Kid.

The variation is that this story takes place in the same universe where Native American shamen have used magic to keep the United States on the eastern shore of the Mississippi. It seems that the infamous Hook Nose is protecting the Kid for reasons known only to himself. Geronimo offers assistance to Doc Holliday in exchange for demolishing a railway station on his sacred burial grounds that also seems to be protected by a shaman. This task leads Holliday to call once again upon Thomas Edison and Ned Buntline, the scientists attempting to counteract Native magic. Geronimo has also protected Holliday, making it impossible for either he or the Kid to kill the other, thus giving two of the Wild West's best gunfighters the chance to develop a grudging friendship that they never had in life... that we know of.

However, like the Gunfight at the OK Corral, history more or less unfolds as it should through the pages of The Doctor and the Kid. Yet this is very obviously a second part of a trilogy in the classic pattern. The first part, whether we're talking about The Buntline Special, Star Wars or The Matrix, stands quite alone on its own strengths. Once the success of that first part is proven, a second chapter ending off on a cliffhanger is provided. The Doctor and the Kid - whose main flaw is too often feeding us lines about how Oscar Wilde or the Gunfight will be remembered in the future - is primarily making arrangements for paydays in later novels.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Universal Monster Favourite Frights

The Universal Studios Monsters movies are a rich repository of truly chilly scenes. Too many to recount, in fact. But here, for your Halloween enjoyment, are a few of my favourites as I could find them online.

The Mummy goes for a little walk...

Frankenstein learns what it feels like to be God...

Dracula listens to the children of the night...

Petty criminal Karloff tries to coerce doctor Lugosi and quickly discovers that he's outclassed in The Raven...

The Satanic Rites of Hjalmar Poelzig in The Black Cat...

A stormy night in an Old Dark House...

The Invisible Man revealed...

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Universal Monster Gallery VI

Frankenstein (1931)

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

The Raven (1935)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Abbott and Costello Meet the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953)

The following clip from the Colgate Comedy Hour adds one more to Abbott and Costello's list of monster encounters. Though Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man and The Mummy were yesterday's news, The Creature from the Black Lagoon was just getting warmed up! The comedy duo heads to Universal's prop department to prepare for their sketch on the show, echoing many of the gags from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. At the end Lou just manages to beat back the Monster when who should pop out from behind the screen but the Creature. Quite possibly the best part, however, is around the eight minute mark when Lou causes Bud to crack up on screen.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Perhaps one of the most perfect horror-comedies ever committed to celluloid, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a bittersweet piece of Halloween candy. One of the best films of either series - Universal Studios Monsters and Abbott and Costello - it failed to reinvigorate them. Instead, it was the final act of petrifaction, preserving Hollywood icons through fossilization as the next cinematic era dawned.

I have talked at length before about how well the Gothic philosophy of the Sublime informs and shapes the Universal Studios Monsters films. According to Edmund Burke, the otherwise overwhelmingly frightful experience of the Sublime can become an aesthetically, morally and spiritually edifying experience "at certain distances" and with "certain modifications":
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is a product of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure... When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.

The ultimate distance and modification from the supernatural pain which the classic horror movies of the 1920s through 1940s expressed came in the 1950s and 1960s courtesy of the new fad of Monster Culture... The experience of horror kitsch. Raymond Castile, a self-declared "monster kid", describes these times:
In the late-1950's, Universal syndicated a package of its classic monster movies to local television stations across the country. Television "Horror Hosts" such as Vampira helped make these films a weekly viewing habit for millions of young people. Monsters became a hip part of the youth culture.

Warren Publishing responded to this growing movement by introducing Famous Monsters of Filmland in 1958. The brainchild of editor Forrest J. Ackerman, Famous Monsters magazine popularized horror and science fiction movies, making them seem more fun than scary. Though obviously aimed at children, the pun-filled magazine was originally conceived as a Playboy-style journal for the monster crowd. The first cover of Famous Monsters featured a man in a rubber Frankenstein mask, wearing a Hugh Hefner-esque jacket, standing close beside a playful young woman.

This may seem incongruous today, but it made perfect sense in 1958. Playboy magazine had become the standard bearer of "hipness" in the late 1950's. Monsters were also "in," so naturally they would be marketed in conjunction with whatever else was en vogue. This is the reason The Munsters used surf music for its opening theme, why the hot rod auto fad became connected with grotesque "Daddy Roth" monster caricatures, and the reason The Monster Mash became a hit party anthem. Monsters were a ubiquitous part of late 50's and 60's pop culture. Their cross-over appeal made them darlings of the beat, surf, hot rod and "playboy" crowds - not to mention little kids.

Arguably, the transition from the realms of Sublime to the realms of kitsch began in 1948 with the release of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Often considered the last of the "true" Universal Monster movies, comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are united with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. reprising their roles as Dracula and the Wolfman, as well as Glen Strange in the role of the Frankenstein Monster and Lenore Aubert as the "vampish" female. Saddly the only one missing is Karloff, who was nearly swayed by the presence of Bela and Lon but backed out thinking the whole idea was ultimately beneath his dignity and that of the Monsters. One of the most deft horror comedies in cinema history, the classic monsters are remembered as pure archetypes (or stereotypes) as they play straight men to Abbott and Costello's misadventures.

Not only do we see the solidification of the monsters in their final, mythic forms, but we also see the dawning of the new age of genre cinema that was to come. The plot revolves around Dracula's attempt to replace the defective brain of the Frankenstein Monster with the more pliable brain of Lou Costello. To do this, the dark Count employs the services and equipment of one of the first Atomic Age square-jawed scientists. Though Abbott and Costello would reunite with different monsters for another four films, for which Karloff deigned ot appear (...Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff [1949]; ...Meet the Invisible Man [1951]; ...Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1953]; ...Meet the Mummy [1955]), the immediate future belonged to the atomic monsters and Martian invaders, as well as one of the classic films of the era, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

Speaking of kitsch, Celeste Olalquiaga succeeds in providing an almost perfect, abiet unintentional, description of ...Meet Frankenstein:
...[K]itsch is nothing if not a suspended memory whose elusiveness is made ever more keen by its extreme iconicity. Despite appearances, kitsch is not an active commodity naively infused with the desire of a wish image, but rather a failed commodity that continually speaks of all it has ceased to be - a virtual image, existing in the impossibility of fully being. Kitsch is a time capsule with a two-way ticket to the realm of myth - the collective or individual land of dreams. Here, for a second or perhaps even a few minutes, there reigns an illusion of completeness, a universe devoid of past and future, a moment whose sheer intensity is to a large degree predicated on its very inexistence.

In Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and The Wolfman of ...Meet Frankenstein we encounter the final suspended forms of these cinematic icons. From this point, the horror film became part and parcel of the hip, youth, drive-in theatre culture. Shock Theatre, The Munsters, and The Addams Family were on TV, Rankin-Bass' Animagic feature Mad Monster Party? (1967) was in theatres, Mego figures and Aurora models were on children's bookshelves, and Tales from the Crypt and Famous Monsters of Filmland were at the newsstand. The horror icons enter the mists of myth and an annual resurrection at Halloween in masses of goofy glow-in-the-dark novelties.

Though the Sublime and Romantic themes the classic films dealt with would still haunt the generation of "monster kids", the changing times of looming, instantaneous and random atomic destruction, moral ambiguity, and suburban commodification would require a new sort of horror. The Romance of the Saints was missing from an increasingly nihilistic society and so, as Walter Benjamin pointed out with regards to fascism, "Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order." This would be the dawn of the modern horror film: the "Slasher" horror of Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Evil Dead 2 (1987), Alien (1979), John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996), Friday the 13th (1980), Saw (2004) and countless other tales of explicit gore, dismemberment, and cosmic chaos. There would only come poor and occasional compensation for the loss of the historic horror film in action movies featuring monsters instead of terrorists, such as Underworld (2003), Aliens (1986) and Universal's own The Mummy (1999) and Van Helsing (2004). Even remakes attempting to meet things half-way, such as Universal's Wolfman (2010) are pale in Technicolor.

Therefore watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is like meeting up with old friends at a wake. One shares reminiscneces of pleasant days gone by in sympathetic comfort, but we have gathered to mourn a death.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Raven (1935)

The second monster movie meeting of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff was once again under the umbrella of Edgar Allan Poe, this time as The Raven. Once again, however, any resemblance to the actual work by Poe is nearly coincidental. Not an adaptation per se, The Raven is much more of a tribute to the great author. A monstrous tribute that tried demure audiences to the breaking point.

Lugosi plays Dr. Richard Vollin, a Poe-obsessed neuro-sugeon called back out of retirement to treat the daughter of Judge Thatcher. Reckless driving landed her in an accident that damaged the nerves of her face to such an extent that it is beyond the abilities of her surgeon fiance Jerry. Only Dr. Vollin has the talent to rescue her face from deformity. Reluctantly he pulls himself away from his project of replicating the torture devices in Poe's novels to work his wonders.

Much later, Jean Thatcher is fully healed and prepared to resume her dancing career. She and Dr. Vollin are fast friends now, though he misreads the signals and hopes that it is much more. Not helping is her returning performance: a modern dance piece based on Poe's Raven. Vollin's reaction lights Judge Thatcher onto what is happening between the two and he appeals to Vollin to leave the girl alone. He, of course, refuses.

At this point, Karloff enters the scene as Edmund Bateman, an escaped con who wants Vollin to change his appearance through plastic surgery. The doctor explains that he is not a surgeon, but does more than that. He sees an opportunity. Bateman the petty criminal only wants the chance to go clean, while Vollin the respected scientist has darker designs of his own. A short ten-minute surgery later and Bateman emerges with his face half-deformed by the selective snipping of a few nerves and tendons. Vollin says that he will only fix the criminal if he agrees to implement the mad doctor's plans. Supposedly they are right up his alley, and will involve that fantastic museum collection of torture devices, including the swinging blade from The Pit and the Pendulum.

Karloff returns to form as the sympathetic character that transcends simple villainy while Lugosi truly shines as the malevolent lunatic. The Raven is his film as surely as was Dracula, with Lugosi practically leaping off the screen and boring into you with those expressively evil eyes. Many have questioned Lugosi's talent, and I strongly disagree with them, but no one can challenge the charisma he exerts. Unfortunately this second outing for the pair made public the backroom goings on at Universal, with Karloff getting top billing and twice the pay despite a much smaller role than Lugosi's. The problem went back to Lugosi's refusal to play the Monster in Frankenstein, which ultimately went to Karloff. Karloff's lack of a veto clause in his script made him much easier for the studio to work with and, as a consequence, he became the golden boy. Lugosi, in the mean time, was consistently thwarted in his attempts to parlay his romantic leading man status on the European theatrical stage into film roles in Hollywood.

The material they had to work with on this film was a bit much, however. Though tame when compared to the likes of The Black Cat and Bride of Frankenstein, this tale of obsessive lust, jealous torture and horrifying disfigurement was the last straw for moviegoers. A brassy Universal tried to market the film especially to school teachers for its redeeming literary value, to no avail. The Raven contributed to an outright ban on horror movies in the UK and to the downfall of the first wave of Universal Studios Monsters. Two last movies chugged out in 1936 - Dracula's Daughter and The Invisible Ray teaming the pair up a third time - before the series was put on indefinite hiatus by Universal's new management. They would return in 1939, but much changed and in solid B-movie territory.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Black Cat (1934)

Any film that stars Bela Lugosi as the hero is prepared to descend to ever deeper depths of horror, abomination and depravity. This unlikely casting of Dracula himself in such a role was forced by his costar, the even more monstrous Boris Karloff. The Black Cat of 1934 is the first film to pair the two horror icons, who to this point had starred separately in Universal's Dracula, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Mummy (as well as the non-Universal films White Zombie, Island of Lost Souls). Each actor was a hot Hollywood commodity in the burgeoning Golden Age of cinematic horror, and it was only a matter of time before Universal teamed them together in what became the studio's top-grossing film that year.

Ostensibly the film is "suggested by" the so-named story by Edgar Allan Poe, and Lugosi's character is saddled with an irrational and irrelevant feline phobia. The connection is contrived, a movie executive's attempt to stack the deck even further with some name recognition coming off of Murders in the Rue Morgue. This Black Cat has nothing to do with Poe or cats and would have done just as nicely without them.

Universal's first Black Cat opens with Peter and Joan Allison on their European honeymoon. Just as they settle into their private cabin on the Orient Express, a scheduling mix-up forces them to share with Dr. Vitus Werdegast, played by Lugosi. The amiable psychiatrist is on his way, so he says, to visit his old friend Hjalmar Poelzig in Hungary. At night he also gets a little too familiar, surreptitiously stroking Joan's hair. Peter, played by Dracula alumni David Manners, sees this but Werdegast tries to put him at ease with an explanation. Joan looks very much like the wife he lost 18 years before when he was called away to serve the Austro-Hungarian Empire in The Great War. At the very end of the war he was captured in the Massacre of Fort Marmorus, during which thousands of Hungarians, soldiers and civilians alike, were brutally murdered. The valleys were piled flush with bodies and the rivers ran thick and red. They were the lucky ones. Werdegast explains how he was sent to the prison camp where he remained for 15 years, his soul destroyed though his body survived. Now free, he is returning to his homeland to find his wife and child.

Arriving at their stop, the trio embark by cab, the honeymooners to their next destination and Werdegast to the home of Poelzig, an avant-garde architect. An accident kills the cab driver and injures Joan, so the whole troupe must shelter at Poelzig's mansion. Unusual for Universal, it is not a decrepit old manor house full of cobwebs and Gothic arches. On the contrary, it is a sleek, new, ultra-modern abode in the Bauhaus style. After all the commotion, Werdegast and Poelzig, who is Karloff of course, meet and the truth is revealed: it was Poelzig, as commanding officer, who betrayed the fort to the Russians and became the architect of genocide. His brightly-lit, polished chrome house of the future is built upon the very ruins of the fallen outpost, the scene of his crime, overlooking thousands of rudely carved crosses. The reason for his atrocity was a shared, jealous love for Werdegast's wife... An infatuation that caused him to preserve her corpse under glass when she died more than a decade before, possibly by his own hand. To top things off, Poelzig lies about Werdegast's daughter, for she is not dead. She is now Poelzig's wife.

Between the two men is a mutual hatred so deep that it would not be satiated with merely killing one another. Poelzig wants to obliterate what's left of Werdegast's fractured soul and Werdegast would like nothing more than to strap Poelzig in and flay him alive. Revenge becomes an intricate game of living chess with the American honeymooners caught in the middle. Every maneuver comes to a head on the following night, in the dark of the moon when Poelzig gathers his followers for a dark, Satanic mass with Joan as the intended ritual sacrifice.

All of this in one Universal Monster film of the Thirties. Karloff as the utterly unsympathetic villain, Lugosi as the murderous hero, evil Satanic rites, Bauhaus architecture, the first direct reference to the horrors of World War I that did much to inspire the whole series, and overtones of necrophilia and incest... The Black Cat is definitely a pre-Code feature that no doubt did its part, despite its success, to provoke a negative reaction out of audiences. Eventually Universal would push too hard and the series would go on hiatus after the next Karloff-Lugosi outing. Thereafter, The Black Cat was remade in 1941, also with Lugosi playing a bit-part opposite Basil Rathbone in a somewhat disappointing Old Dark House murder mystery.

Quite possibly one of the time's most inappropriate advertising gimmicks.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Universal Monster Gallery IV

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)