Obscure Indie Film: The Deadly Spawn

The Deadly Spawn is an oddball sci-fi/horror movie from 1983.  I hadn’t seen it myself until just recently.  I’d seen the poster and a few stills, but that’s all.  Fortunately, we live in the age of the internet and YouTube, hence my ability to watch it.

First, I’d like to make sure you realize this is a ‘B’ movie.  The entire budget of this film was a grand total of $25,000.  Yes, you read that right.  Of course, this was in 1983 dollars, but . . . that’s a shoestring budget.  To give you an idea, note that Night of the Living Dead’s budget was $114,000 in 1968 dollars, and that was a tight budget.  And Night didn’t have much in the way of special effects aside from some makeup effects.

Ignore my phallic shape and kiss me.

Second, the late, great Tim Hildebrandt is one of the film’s producers.  Yes, that Tim Hildebrandt.  Lord of the friggin’ Rings Tim Hildebrandt of the Brothers Hildebrandt.of The brothers responsible for most of the LOTR artwork for a couple of decades, not to mention the original poster art for Star Wars.  (Also note that the youngest protagonist and science fiction fanboy in the movie is Charles George Hildebrandt–Tim’s son.)

The Brothers Hildebrandt also did the artwork for the Deadly Spawn movie poster.  Which is pretty damn cool.

Last time I go to that dermatologist.

The plot is straightforward and familiar to any science fiction or horror movie nerd.  A meteor falls in the woods and is discovered by a couple of campers. The toothy spawn from inside the meteor make a quick meal of said campers.  The spawn takes up residence in a rural house’s basement and proceeds to start eating the inhabitants and visitors.  It also releases multiple tiny spawn with oversized teeth and jaws.  The spawn do what evil alien spawn are supposed to do–they try to eat everything they find.

This little piggy went to the SLAUGHTER!

The gore is both graphic and solidly done, especially considering the minuscule budget available.  Interspersing the graphic effects are several cutaway scenes involving what I kind only assume was a squirt gun with stage blood.  The main creature has some nicely overdone dental appendages of sinister design.  It’s no man in a rubber suit.  It’s accomplished with puppetry effects and judicious use of dark lighting, cutaways and close-ups.

The acting?  All I can say is that for a college production, the acting is decent.  Not exactly Shakespearean, but this isn’t exactly Othello, either.  I will say the acting is better than most of the SyFy Channel’s cheese movies.  Which admittedly, isn’t hard.

Feed me, Seymour!

I could go into more plot details, but honestly, you know everything you need to know.  Alien spawn picking off victims.  Deadly game of cat and mouse.  Plucky young protagonist figures out the spawn’s weakness.  Deadly vegetarian food party.  Don’t go in the basement.

Party on.  Go check it out.  It’s available on YouTube for free.  Enjoy.

*- Please note, there is a quasi “sequel” called Deadly Spawn II or Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor.  Apparently it has little to do with the first movie.  I have never seen it.

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The Great Darkness Saga (A Forgotten DC Gem)

Unless you’re a comic book geek, you’re probably unfamiliar with the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Great Darkness Saga.  The LSH has been around for decades, but never got the exposure of the Justice League or Teen Titans.  Plus, with its roots deep in Silver Age lore, it has definitely had some goofy elements.  The team first appeared in Adventure Comics with Superboy, and was, well . . . corny.  Fun, but corny.  The LSH were a superhero group in the 30th century of the DC Universe, with members from every corner of the galaxy, and power levels varying wildly from Duo Damsel (who could turn into two women) to Mon-El (who could punch holes through planets.)

Not exactly Watchmen.

Anyway, years went by and comic buyers got a bit more sophisticated.  The Legion got its own title in the early seventies with a rotating roster of writers, including Paul Levitz, Gerry Conway and Roy ThomasDave Cockrum and Mike Grell did much of the penciling work and it typically looked pretty sharp.  Overall, it looked solid, but the stories tended to be the same, bland fare.  Not bad, but not outstanding, either.

Then in the early 1980s, Paul Levitz returned to the writing chores.  He brought with him the art team of Keith Giffen and Larry Mahlstedt.  I loved this art team from the very beginning, and the story line took a sudden spike in sophistication and maturity.  It really kicked into high gear when Paul started The Great Darkness Saga.  It involved the appearance of the Jack Kirby uber-villain, Darkseid, in the far future.  He returns without and New Gods to stop him and does a respectable try at conquering the galaxy.

A couple of notes here.

First, for you younger folks, most comic companies weren’t in the habit of having big, apocalyptic, multi-part story lines at the time.  There were occasional long plot lines, but they were few and far between.  And rarely did anything of true substance happen, especially with DC Comics. Moreover, the general tone and plot lines tended to be fairly straightforward. 

Then along comes The Great Darkness.  For those of you who read it after it had been collected in a trade paperback, you’re actually missing a pretty big element of the series: mystery.  Levitz didn’t just come out and say: “Hey, here comes Darkseid!”  Nope.  Through most of it, you have no idea who this Big Bad is.  Sure, Levitz threw in lots of hints, but they weren’t super-obvious, especially if you didn’t know your New Gods lore.  You just knew that things were gettin’ real when the flunkies beat the crap out of the toughest Legionnaires with ease!

As the story progressed, you found out that the mysterious, inhuman bad guys were “unliving clones” (yes, I’m also not sure what the means–but it’s cool) of some of the most powerful members of the DC Universe, including Superman and a Guardian of OA.  They were badass.

Mordru had beaten the whole Legion before. This is a ‘spit take’ moment.

Then when the mysterious master showed up, he proceeded to stomp the Legion’s most powerful enemies with ease and steal their powers.  The stakes just kept going up and the Legion got beaten time and time again before they’d even seen the “master”.  I remember geeking out when I found out (although I had suspected) that the master was Darkseid.  The Big Reveal was sweet.  And Darkseid’s master plan was . . . well, one of the better ones I’ve seen a Evil Mastermind come up with.  When I saw it in action, my response was: “How in the hell are they going to win this?!”  Seriously.  Good plan.

I don’t want to spoil too many of the surprises.  I wish everyone could read this without knowing it was Darkseid.  So good.  I will say the virtually every hero who had every had an appearance in the LSH shows up–and the LSH is still outpowered a thousand-to-one.

Anyway, let me also rain down praise on the art team of Keith Giffen and Larry Mahstedt.  I had encountered Giffen before in the pages of Marvel’s Defenders, but he really comes into his own in this.  When he first started, he looked very much like a Jack Kirby clone (which, if you have to be a clone, isn’t too shabby) but he defines his own style in LSH.  I also must wonder how much of the plotting he helped with, as he’s a pretty good writer on his own.  I must confess I like this period in his artwork the best.  Later he did a much looser style that I liked, but it didn’t feel as good.  I do adore all of his Ambush Bug work, though. (For those who don’t know, Ambush Bug was Deadpool before there was a Deadpool.)

If DC wanted a property to do another animated adaptation of, they could do much worse than The Great Darkness Saga.

Go pick up a copy of the trade paperback and revel in the goodness.

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Movies That Need More Love: Real Steel

I love Real Steel, directed by Shawn Levy.  I simply adore this movie.  It earned my love the first time I watched it and it has never diminished.  Just to let you know my bias.

Is it formulaic?  Oh yes.  Real Steel owes a great deal to the Rocky movies in its formula.  It’s a (very) loose adaptation of the Richard Matheson short story “Steel” which appeared on The Twilight Zone in 1963.  Elements of that story are still there, but mostly serves as the kernel of a new story entirely.  The TZ story was more serious and depressing.

Anyway, you’ve got Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) as a former boxer turned robot boxer promoter.  Backstory reveals that human boxing languished as robot boxing started, as mere humans couldn’t give the type of spectacle the fans wanted.  Charlie reconnects with his son Max (Dakota Goyo) after Max’s mother dies.  Charlie cynically sells away his rights to Max for enough money to continue robot boxing, only to lose again and again.  Part of the deal is that Max stays with Charlie over the summer.

Charlie gets more than he bargained for with Max, as he’s a robot boxing fan and knows more about robots than Charlie.  More than that, Charlie begins to care about his son as more than a moneymaking scheme.  He’s alternately encouraged and chastened by Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly) who is the daughter of his deceased former boxing coach.

After all of Charlie’s expensive robots are destroyed, Max literally falls over an older robot called “Atom” in a junkyard.  They fix Atom up and discover he punches well above his weight class.

Kid, let me tell you about this time my plane crashed on an island . . .

Every actor in this movie punches above his or her weight class.  Hugh Jackman gives a typically great performance.  He manages to portray a burned out loser who isn’t an idiot, but constantly does stupid things by impulse.  I normally loathe child actors, but Dakota Goyo is a joy to watch.  He’s precocious, but not annoyingly precocious, like too many child actors.  He still shows expected, childish gaps in his knowledge.  Evangeline Lilly is also wonderful.  She doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she packs a lot of heart in the few minutes she slips in and out.  (On a personal note, I find her to be absolutely gorgeous, in a ‘girl next door’ kind of way.)  Kevin Durand is hilariously great as the over-the-top heavy with an exaggerated redneck accent and sneering smile.  (Compare it with his Brooklyn/Ukranian accent on The Strain.  The guy’s got some range.)

(Side note: Sugar Ray Leonard advised the fight choreography.)

I would be amiss in not mentioning the Academy Award nominated robot effects in this movie.  The effects people outdid themselves.  The CGI interacts with the human actors

If you were a vampire, I’d so kill you.

and practical effects in a well-choreographed and very believable fashion.  Contrast it with the awful interactions in pretty much any Transformers movie and you’ll see that people who complain about too much CGI don’t understand.  It’s not the effects–it’s how they’re used.  Real Steel uses them like a maestro.  You can easily fool yourself into thinking these robots are real.

The filmmakers show the science fiction elements of this near-future setting, but don’t cram them down your throat.  Multiple, logical progressions of existing technology linger in the background.  The obvious ones with the robots are still handled in a mundane enough manner to suspend disbelief.

I love all of the above, but the part that really ties it up into a bow is that this is a guy’s movie.  No, not a guy’s movie–a father’s movie.  This entire movie is love letter to fatherhood.  So often these days fathers are mocked and/or shown to be shitheads or simply unnecessary.  (“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”.)  This movie does everything but put a banner in praise of fatherhood over the top of the screen.  Fatherhood really matters in this movie and isn’t the least bit shy about showing it.

I’d make a joke about the scene, but I love it too much.

Are there predictable, cliched elements?  Absolutely.  But cliches become cliches because they work. If you have good writing, dialogue and heart, I don’t care if something has been done before.  Real Steel has enough heart for two movies.  I defy any man to not get a little misty-eyed during the Zeus shadow boxing.  Go on, I dare you.

If you’ve never seen this movie–what are you waiting for?!  Go find a copy and watch it!  Immediately!

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Society: A Weird Lovecraftian Movie

Society is a bizarre movie.  Some might quibble with me labeling it “Lovecraftian”, but there are definitely elements that fit.

I saw this thing while stationed in Germany in the early 90s.  A lieutenant and I would regularly swap weird movies with one another to try to ‘out-weird’ the other.  He made me watch Naked Lunch and I made him watch this.  He won.

Society starts out weird and rapidly gets weirder.  The main character Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) is a member of a rich family in Beverly Hills.  However, he never feels like he fits in either with his family or wealthy society.  Not only is there an odd feeling of alienation, but he catches glimpses of bizarre, body-contorting imagery.  Is it in his mind?  Is he going insane.

Sis is very flexible.

A friend from school gives him a tape of his family in what sounds like a twisted orgy.  When he plays it for a therapist, it’s completely different and normal.  Corpses appear only to disappear when the authorities arrive.  Bill’s obviously losing his mind, right?

Not so much.  This movie was created by Brian Yuzna.  Yes, that Brian Yuzna.  Re-Animator and From Beyond Brian Yuzna.  So you know the explanation won’t be that simple.

It turns out Bill is adopted.  His family–along with most of the upper crust in Beverly Hills–are a different species.  They’re parasitical creatures that (literally) feed off the poor to survive.  Bill was only kept as a sacrifice for his adopted sister’s ‘coming out’ party.

No joke will do justice to this.

If this sounds like thinly-veiled social commentary about class structure–ding!  You’re a winner!  It definitely is.  This is where it somewhat parts from Lovecraft.  Howard would typically have the alien creatures be from inbreeding or from crossbreeding with aliens (The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Dunwich Horror).  Although I don’t think Howard would have minded this too much.  He didn’t concentrate so much on class as race.

Anyway, the analogy is about as subtle as a nuclear weapon.  Doesn’t matter so much, though.  This isn’t a movie that takes the analogy too seriously.  Plus, it’s incredibly weird

Worse than a Charlie Sheen party.

and surreal.  The ending ‘coming out’ party is not something you’ll be likely to forget anytime soon.  If you thought From Beyond was a mind-scrambler, just watch!

Highlights are the shower scene with sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings,) Bill’s new girlfriend Clarissa (Playboy Playmate Devin DeVasquez,) and Clarissa’s strange, hair-eating mother (Pamela Matheson).

Mmm . . . Devin DeVasquez.

I don’t want to give too much away, as half the enjoyment of this movie is being surprised at how fucking weird some of the elements are.  Did I mention it’s weird?  The final “Party” is worth the price of admission alone.

Go dig up a copy and enjoy.

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The Hidden: An Oddball 80s Movie

The Hidden (1987) is an obscure science fiction film starring Kyle MacLachlan after his role in Blue Velvet, but preceding his Twin Peaks fame.  Despite several tropes, the skewed plot line makes it an enjoyable distraction. 

Essentially a warped version of the “buddy cop” genre, Michael Nouri plays L.A. detective Thomas Beck.  Beck pursues and (apparently) fatally injures spree killer Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey) during the chase.  FBI Special Agent Lloyd Gallagher (MacLachlan) later confronts Beck, saying DeVries is still a threat.

“Mr DeVries, we think you might have a throat infection.”

Meanwhile, in the hospital, DeVries jumps up and attacks a heart patient Jonathan P. Miller (William Boyett).  DeVries pops opens his mouth and out crawls a hideous, slug-like alien.  It crawls down Miller’s throat and takes him over, letting its old host collapse.  Miller runs off to commit more of the random violence in the same manner as DeVries.

After this starts, Gallagher tries to convince Beck that Miller is a partner of DeVries who is every bit as dangerous, despite no criminal record.

You can probably guess how the rest of this goes.  The evil alien continues to jump through host bodies while the authorities struggle to catch up. 

Aliens are teatotallers.

It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that Gallagher is another alien.  MacLachlan does a brilliant job of being “not quite right”.  He conveys a vibe of alien without much scenery-chewing.  Not only his weird questions, but MacLachlan’s deliciously “off” mannerisms.  There’s an especially amusing dinner scene with Beck’s family, where Gallagher gets tipsy.  Bloody hilarious.  My favorite part is when Beck asks him where he’s from.  Gallagher points straight up.  “From up north?” Beck asks.  Gallagher nods.

It turns out Lloyd is an alien “cop” (named Alhague) and the evil alien is a criminal who killed Alhague’s family.  Yes, it’s a cop revenge story.

That’s a damn fine ray gun.

If all this sounds cheesy, it’s actually not.  Or not much.  The performances in this are wonderful, despite the bizarre premise.  William Boyett has a wickedly good time being the heart patient turned evil alien.  His murder spree is both amusing and horrifying.  Of special interest is when the alien possesses a stripper named Brenda (gorgeous Claudia Christian of Babylon 5 fame).  She fondles herself in front of a couple of cops before shooting them with an assault rifle.  This is after she humps a drunken lecher to death.

Claudia’s role is . . . I’m sorry, was I saying something?

There aren’t many special effects in this.  I suspect it’s deliberate–a combination of shrewd writing and budget considerations.  The few that do appear are pretty effective.  The alien slug switching bodies is skin-crawlingly impressive.  I think it’s a case of “less is more”.

MacLachlan’s freaky acting in this is worth it, even if you don’t care about the rest of the film.  Go dig up a copy and enjoy.

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Hawk the Slayer: D&D Cheese

Hawk the Friggin’ Slayer.  Yes, I’m going there.  You bet your ass.

Cast your mind back (if you’re young enough) to the year of 1980.  There, gifted unto the world was the glorious cheese of Hawk the Slayer.  I first witnessed this wondrous spectacle on HBO (before there were more than one.)  This happened briefly after the insidious, Satan-worshipping evil of Dungeons and Dragons possessed me.  Other than the animated Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, D&D fandom had few cinematic representatives.

Then along comes a cheesefest filled to the brim with elves, dwarves, giants, magic swords and witches.  Oh sweet Demogorgon, yes!

What did I care that the majority of the special effects consisted of glowing superballs, smoke pots, shiny hula hoops and bad stop-motion arrows?  It mattered naught!  To battle!

I AM NOT OVERACTING!

Anyway, the plot is pretty simple.  Bad guy brother Voltan (played by the scenery-chewing Jack Palance) kills his father the king.  Good guy brother Hawk (played with wooden fortitude by John Terry) gets the gift of “The Mindsword” from dad and swears to avenge his death.  The power of The Mindsword (so far as I can determine) consists of reacting to the wielder’s mental commands and lighting the way through a haunted forest at one point.  Other powers are a bit murky–try again later.

Voltan sports a Darth Vader style helmet that helps conceal his burned features.  Burned, incidentally, by Hawk’s lady love right before Voltan kills her.  Yeah, Voltan’s a shitty brother.  You can kinda see why he’s never invited to family reunions.

Years later Voltan’s ravaging the countryside, like a good villain.  He kidnaps the Abbess of a convent and tries to ransom her back to the church.  Unsure which god the church

Still better than most of the D&D groups I’ve known.

worships.  Scientology?  Instead a crossbowman named Ranulf (W. Morgan Sheppard) wounded by Voltan seeks a group to help rescue the Abbess and defend the convent.  This is where we get a “Magnificent Seven” vibe as a group of misfits (Player Characters or Murder Hobos–you decide) is assembled by Ranulf and Hawk.  The group consists of: Gort the Giant (Bernard Bresslaw from Krull “fame”), Crow the Elf (Ray Charleson), Baldin the Dwarf (Peter O’Farrell) and The Sorceress (Patricia Quinn).

At least half of these folks are recruited by rescuing them from brigands.  Seriously, there are brigands all over the place.  Brigands stealing.  Brigands trying to burn witches.  Brigands cheating at archery contests.  It’s like a brigand convention.  I figure half of this world’s population is brigands.

Special Effects!

The lion’s share of the rest of the movie consists of the group playing cat and mouse with Voltan and killing a lot of his redshirts.  Lots.  How Voltan kept recruits with his attrition rate just tells you more about brigand overpopulation than the quality of his leadership.  Keep your brigands spayed and neutered.

There follows the inevitable confrontation between the brothers.  You can guess what happens.

This film was slapped together in six weeks for a mere six hundred thousand pounds in Buckinghamshire, England.  (This explains the preponderance of British actors in it.)  The

I’ve got this trick I do with a fish . . .

movie had a theatrical release in the UK, but the production company ITC went tits-up before it could be released in the United States.  Instead it became cable television fodder and a warm, cheesy memory to hordes of nerds everywhere.  Afterward, it became a cult movie classic to the point that a campaign happened to create a sequel called Hawk the Hunter.  Unfortunately, the Kickstarter campaign failed miserably.

Dig up a copy and enjoy.

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Star Command/In the Fold: 90s Cheese

For many years I tried to find Star Command somewhere on the web.  The difficulty lay in the fact that I couldn’t actually remember the name of the damn thing.  Until recently, I had only seen it once–20 years ago.  However, thanks to the wonder of YouTube, I tracked it down and re-watched it.

I kind of liked the thing back in 1996 with the original viewing.  I feared it would become awful with two decades under my belt.  Did it?

Umm . . . yes and no.

First, a basic rundown.  Star Command is meant to be a pilot for a series on UPN.  Written by Wild Cards and Next Generation veteran Melinda M. Snodgrass, it feels a lot like a Heinlein or perhaps David Weber story.  That’s not a quality judgment, merely a thematic one.

It’s a space opera setting where humanity splinters between Terrans and colonists.  As best I can deduce, the colonies formed their own government and broke away from Terran control.  Not a new space opera concept, but not the worst I’ve seen.  Both sides claim a rare Earth-like planet while they scramble for resources and war is brewing.

The story follows the crew of a corvette named Surprise with a training crew.  The Surprise flies into the disputed system for a scouting mission but gets ambushed by the rebellious colonist government, during which the senior officers all die–and rather quickly.  The ship is crippled but managed to land on a frozen moon and fake its destruction.  This leaves the cadets to stop the five enemy cruisers with their one corvette.

The good:

The writing isn’t bad.  Plenty of time-honored science fiction novel ideas are here which rarely make it onto television or movie screens.  Cliches become cliches for good reasons.

Melinda does her best to incorporate hard science fiction elements.  The ships have lasers and missiles–instead of phasers and shields.  Radiation screws up things.  And so forth.

The acting is passable.  It won’t win any awards, but I’ve seen worse.

The setting is interesting enough I wouldn’t mind more.  It certainly feels a lot more classic sci-fi than most science fiction movies and television.

Morgan Fairchild looks pretty good in this, even though she’s in her mid-forties.

The bad:

The special effects have not aged well.  They were passable for 1996, but . . . ugh.  Computer graphics have a short shelf life and these weren’t cutting edge in 1996.

The sets look like Babylon 5 rejects.  Actually that’s unkind to Babylon 5.

The costumes are . . . well, I’m not sure what they are.  The uniforms appear to be a combination of Next Generation and something from a 1960s Heinlein space navy promotional poster.

Morgan Fairchild dies very quickly.

The ugly:

The robot in it is like Johnny 5’s retarded cousin.  I get that they were trying to have a robot that looks like a robot, as opposed to a guy in makeup, but don’t try it without a budget.  Just don’t.

Overview:

So how does it stack up with my memory?  Better in some ways but worse in others.

I’ve noticed a lot of hate in several internet spots, but I don’t quite get it.  Sure, this jalopy is rusty and clunky, but not worth the disdain.  Perhaps I enjoy it more because I can see the designs and intentions behind the flaws.  This could have been a passable series.  Suppose Babylon 5 or Next Generation had been judged solely by their pilots? (shudders)

Is it cheesy?  There’s a bit of Cheddar.

Flaws?  Goddamn right.

Bad costumes?  Yes.  However, I did enjoy the miniskirts for graduation.  However, I enjoy miniskirts for virtually any occasion.

Honestly though, I’d rather watch this than a polished turd like Independence Day or its ilk.  I’ve had worse times.

Watch it and judge for yourself.

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Warstrider Series: An Unappreciated Gem

The Warstrider series entered by consciousness way back in the early 90s.  I only became aware of it because the author, a William H. Keith Jr., wrote several Battletech books.  Those Battletech books, while game books, were so outstanding I instantly started following the Warstrider books.

They didn’t disappoint.

The series begins in the 26th century, set in a future space empire ruled by Japanese.  The empire is strongly prejudiced against non-Japanese citizens.  Despite that, the main character, Dev Cameron, joins the Imperial Military.  He does so to help the reputation of his father, who died in disgrace during Imperial service.  This death happened in connection to a war against the Xenophobes.

The Xenophobes are an alien species which dwell underground on several planets.  They tunnel easily through the earth and consume any minerals and technology they encounter.  Ignoring all attempts to communicate, the Xenophobes annihilate all other life forms.

Dev enters into battle against these foes, first as an infantryman and later as a warstrider (mech) pilot.  The series starts out as a simple military sci-fi story of rah-rah action.  It doesn’t stay that way.

First, this is the first series I read that used nanotechnology as a major plot point.  Both the humans and Xenophobes (later renamed ‘Nagas’) make extensive use of it.  The implications of nanotech are explored in war, medicine and the nature of humanity.  There is a major power creep in the series, reminiscent of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s books.  Unlike Smith’s books, however, Keith does his best to maintain a level of hard science.  He approaches nanotech, biotech, virtual reality, mental links, quantum communication and even space and time warps with scrupulous detail.

Second to that is examination of political systems and how they might work (or not work) in a space civilization.  This was my first serious encounter with the concept of classical liberalism or Libertarianism.  It was also (at the time) dealing with the U.S.’s paranoia over the growing power of Japan.  Most of the action is between the breakaway Confederation and the Hegemony/Empire, rather than against aliens.

Third, it tries to approach alien mindsets, first with the Nagas and later with other alien races encountered by humanity.  In later books it deals with the concept of humanity’s minds interlinked through technology becoming a new entity.

Finally, it’s an outstanding war story.  Keith keeps the action going even when the methods and even the concepts of warfare change beyond easy comprehension.  He also keeps the stakes personal, even when all of humanity becomes a giant “Battlemind” fighting against a robotic group mind from the center of the galaxy(!) 

Keith’s work blew me away when I read it in the 90s and hasn’t lost its punch.  The concepts are pretty crunchy, but Keith manages to give the elements to you in bite-size pieces.  The technology is also a bit prescient, I think.  The potential of nanotechnology is staggering IRL. 

Warstrider is so layered, I can’t really do it justice in a brief review.  I recommend you check it out.  It’s available on Amazon, only now it’s under another of Keith’s pen names: Ian Douglas.

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Krull: A Flawed Movie That Could Have Been Great

In the ancient days of yore (1983) I viewed a movie called Krull.  It is a strange tale.  Neither science fiction nor fantasy.  Not great, but not terrible.  I weep for the movie it could have been.

This chimera of a movie is the tale of an alien invasion of a fantasy world.  Sort of.  Details are a little fuzzy. 

Essentially, a big bad called “The Beast” invades the planet Krull with an interplanetary castle called The Black Fortress.  The fortress disgorges a bunch of (literally) faceless bad guys called “slayers” (no, not the band,) armed with one-shot blasters called “neon spears”.  The slayers run around conquering Krull for The Beast apparently has a bit of a hard-on for Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony).  I can almost see his point, as she’s a fine-looking woman, but planetary invasion seems like overkill.  The Beast apparently thinks that the way to woo her affections is by kidnapping her and slaughtering her family.  Not exactly progressive.

“Hey, could you hold onto this nuclear weapon for a bit?”

Standing in the way of The Beast’s incredibly violent nuptial plans is Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall). Slayers interrupt  their wedding ceremony when they nab Lyssa.  Their wedding is meant to unify their two kingdoms against The Beast.  Instead, we get to see pretty much every soldier they have die in one night.  Anyway, in what would be an important plot point in a better movie, the wedding ceremony involves a ceremony where Lyssa hands Colwyn a magical flame.  Or rather, she tries to before the slayer wedding crashers arrive.

Fear the Death Frisbee!

Lyssa gets abducted, Colwyn gets injured and everyone else in the castle dies.  Along comes Ynyr, the Old One (no, not Cthulhu.)  Ynyr (Freddie Jones) is a kind of Obi-Wan mentor to Colwyn, and leads him to find a magical weapon called The Glaive.  Colwyn finds this magical, edged Death Frisbee after a very boring climbing sequence which ends with him pulling The Glaive out of lava.  I think it’s meant as a “test of faith”, but I’m not sure.

Armed with the Death Frisbee, Colwyn and Ynyr set out to find The Black Fortress.  The snag is that the fortress teleports every morning to another place on the planet.  Now, how The Beast maintains any logistics with that setup, I don’t know.  I do know it makes it pretty hard to storm the evil headquarters.  Probably pretty hard to receive any mail, too.

“Fred, did you notice a black fortress there last night?”

Along the way, Colwyn and Ynyr pick up a gang of followers.  Ergo the Magnificent (David Battley) is a magical faerie-type fellow, who has a running joke of trying to transform others into animals, only to become the animal himself.  Rell the Cyclops (Bernard Bresslaw) tags along with the backstory of how The Beast cheated his people of an eye to see the future–but the only thing they can see is their own deaths.  Finally, a group of outlaws led by Torquil (Alun Armstrong) joins up.  Liam Neeson, in one of his early roles, plays an outlaw named Kegan.

This motley band sets out to find the Black Fortress in a series of encounters with a body count akin to a Friday the Thirteenth movie.  Torquil’s outlaws serve admirably as redshirts and have worse life expectancy than V.A. patients.  There are a couple of decent fight sequences and a memorable stop-motion giant spider with the “Widow in the Web”.  Unfortunately, slow pacing and ponderous editing neutralize a lot of the good stuff.

The actors are all very British–with the exception of Ken Marshall.  The actors are all very competent–with the exception of Ken Marshall.  Seriously, Ken isn’t strong enough to carry a movie.  The guy’s a block of wood, made worse by the solid actors around him.

My biggest complaint is probably the ending.  The Glaive/Death Frisbee finally gets used against The Beast (and why he didn’t use it in previous fights isn’t explained) only to be useless.  Then suddenly Lysette hands Colwyn that marriage flame and now Colwyn can shoot friggin’ Godzilla-sized flames!  Apparently nobody at the wedding party mentioned “Oh, by the way, you can use that marriage flame like a super-flamethrower.  I mean, if you wanted.”

(beats head into wall)

Can you foresee me in better movies?

I can’t help but wonder who decided this ending made sense.  It could have been fixed to make sense.  I can think of a half-dozen ways off the top of my head.  But no, they decided “Nah, this is good enough.”

That’s what irks me the most about this movie.  There are several moments throughout where it starts to work, only to slam into a wall.  The production values are excellent.  The acting (with one glaring exception) is solid.  The musical score by James Horner is outstanding.  With a rewrite and somebody other than Ken Marshall, this movie had a lot of potential.  Hell, even with Ken Marshall they could have muddled through.

I can still enjoy parts of this movie.  The points which rise above.  Mostly, I just mourn for the movie it could have been.  It might be why I’m an aficionado of Spelljammer and similar fanboy nonsense.

It’s worth watching once for the oddball nature of it and those moments I mentioned.  Check it out.

Quatermass and the Pit

Quatermass and the Pit, or as it’s known in the U.S., Five Million Years to Earth, is a Hammer Film production of a BBC serial.  The phenomenon of Quatermass is a uniquely British craze.  It has had influences on science fiction for decades, but most Americans are completely ignorant about it.

The original Quatermass series on the BBC was tremendously popular in Britain in the 1950s.  It would not be unfair to compare their popularity during their period as something akin to Star Trek in the U.S.  Only three were produced: The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit.  Their influences echo, as both Stephen King and John Carpenter cite them as influences.  In fact, King’s book The Tommyknockers is nearly a remake of The Pit (or perhaps a ‘homage’.)

Hammer made the previous two serials into films, titled The Quatermass Xperiment (The Creeping Unknown in the U.S.) and Quatermass II (Enemy From Space in the U.S.)  The Pit is the first one in color and the first to use Andrew Keir as the main character.  The first two films are well, mediocre.  The scripts and acting are solid enough, but the production values are weak–especially with The Quatermass Xperiment.  They’re not much above the production values of the original, live serials.  They feel more like serials uncomfortably squashed into movies.  Pit, however, feels like a big screen movie, and in color to boot.

The film starts out with a discovery of humanoid fossils in a London Underground dig site at Hobb’s End.  Paleontologist Matthew Roney (James Donald) is brought into to supervise the site.  Roney discovers a buried metallic casing.  He believes  it to be an unexploded bomb from The Blitz.

Professor Quatermass is brought in, along with his new ‘compatriot’–Colonel Breen (Julian Glover.)  Quatermass loathes Breen, as the military forced the colonel into his rocketry program.  The two men investigate the supposed bomb, only to find it something else.  It appears to be an ancient spacecraft.

A workman tries to drill into it, only to have his strongest drill bounce off.  The vibration it creates causes a reaction which opens up a sealed area.  Within are the bodies of several giant, tripodal insects.  Roney and Quatermass examine the decaying bodies and decide they must have come from the Mars of five million years in the past. 

Meanwhile, the workman is struck by a kind of ‘psychic fit’ while working in the spacecraft.  He runs in fear, throwing objects around with telekinesis.  Through investigation, Quatermass finds all sorts of folklore and legends surrounding Hobb’s End.  The ship’s effects activate anytime the ship is disturbed in the ground.

Roney uses a device that can record dreams (just run with it) to try to record impressions from the ship.  His assistant, Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) has the strongest reaction to the ship and they record her dreams.  The images captured shows the Martians purging hives in a racial genocide.  They wipe out all that are ‘different’.  (This is probably the weakest part of the movie, as the special effects consist of grainy images of bugs on sticks.  It’s bad.   A bit more spending on visual effects here would have helped.)

Quatermass and Roney conclude that the Martians manipulated ancient apes to evolve into modern man.  They tried to have a ‘colony by proxy’ since they couldn’t survive on Earth.

When presented with this evidence, Breen and the government officials dismiss it.  Breen convinces them that it’s a Nazi propaganda weapon and there’s no danger.  The government allows the press in, over Quatermass’s strong objections.  A workman’s blunder accidentally gives the ship a huge burst of electricity.  It comes to life and begins manipulating all human minds in the vicinity.  A gigantic, glowing Martian face explodes out of the Pit visible over the city.  The Martian ship makes the Londoners it influences wipe out every life form that is different, including other humans.  They can do so with the psychic powers at their disposal, thanks to the ship.  The Martians want humanity to inherit all their behaviors, including the need to ‘purge the hive’ of all differences. 

Quatermass tries to kill Roney, but manages to overcome the Martian influence.  Roney is one of the few unaffected (hence ‘different’.)  The two men come up with a plan to ground the Martian image to the ground with iron, dissipating the energy.  Roney climbs a nearby crane, meaning to use it, but the energy causes the base of the crane to crack, sending it careening into the image.  Roney neutralizes the Martian ship, at the cost of his life.

The movie ends on a very quiet, introspective note, with none of the survivors speaking.  Nice, melancholy denouement.

Overall, the movie maintains a good level of tension and uneasiness, despite the odd and esoteric nature of the menace.  It’s another good example of the ‘less is more’ school of tension building.  The series and movies do a good job of merging science fiction and horror, without clubbing you over the head with either. Other series copy these themes in later years, including Doctor Who.  In fact, episodes such as Image of the Fendahl can’t be anything but direct descendants. (Although the creator of Quatermass, Nigel Kneale, had great distaste for Doctor Who, as he felt that the series was nothing short of a rip-off of his work.)

The themes of the movie are meant to reflect the growing racial tensions in the U.K. of the fifties, but they fail to resonate.  Perhaps it’s simply too far removed from the events surrounding the original series.

Check it out. 

Also, the entire run of the original BBC series is available online.

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