Jonny Quest: The Invisible Monster & Less is More

I’ve been recently re-watching the original Jonny Quest cartoons from the sixties.  I haven’t seen many of them since I was a kid, and some hold up fairly well, while others . . . ehhh.  There are more than a few dated and embarrassing ethnic stereotypes.

Anyway, one of my favorites is “The Invisible Monster”.  A scientist on an isolated tropical island accidentally creates an invisible energy creature.  The monster seeks out all energy around it and consumes it–including the energy in living bodies.  You only know it’s around by a weird, alien cry it makes and the burning footprints in the dirt.

This creepiness, by the way, is in what was intended as a kid’s show.  Adult themes are nothing new to JQ.  The creators (most prominently Doug Wildey, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera) intended it that way.  They succeed rather admirably in several episodes, including this one. 

The episode follows a fairly standard monster movie formula.  The protagonists (Doctor Quest, Race Bannon, Jonny Quest, Hadji and Bandit the dog) are radioed by the luckless scientist.  His creation kills him before he finishes explaining.  They rush to the island and discover the invisible monster.  Dr. Quest (being the prototypical heroic scientist) figures out what happened and comes up with a way to defeat it.

Despite a run time of only 25 minutes, the episode does an excellent job of building tension.  The monster isn’t seen until near the end, with only its destruction to portray it.  When finally seen, it’s not quite as frightening.  The animators did a decent job of creating an inhuman blob of energy, but it comes across more as an angry scoop of ice cream.  Limitations of animation budget.  Plus I assume they didn’t want to scare the crap out of the little nippers.

Even with these limitations, the episode scared me as a kid.  It was my first encounter with the “less is more” approach to horror and tension.  William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, one said that “Horror is watching something approach”.  A good summation of the concept here.  Something you don’t see is much worse than what you do.  Even when I encountered this in my youth, I realized the power it possessed.  Other ‘golden age’ examples are The Thing From Another World and Forbidden Planet.  Less is more.

A concept so simple that a children’s cartoon can encapsulate it.

Here’s a link to watch it online.  Enjoy.

Save

Save

Television That Needs More Love: Brimstone

brimstone-01Brimstone came out in 1998, roughly the time another hellish series called GvsE (Good versus Evil) appeared.  Both series were similar in plot, and I don’t know if one copied another.  I do know I enjoyed Brimstone, whereas I found GvsE forgettable.

Basic plot goes like this: Ezekial “Zeke” Stone (played by Peter Horton) is a NYC cop whose wife is raped.  Zeke tracks down the rapist and murders him.  Shortly thereafter, Zeke is murdered and goes to Hell for the sin of murder.  Jump forward fifteen years and Zeke is sprung from hell by The Devil (played by a bombastic John Glover.)  Turns out there was a jailbreak from Hell.  113 damned souls are free and loose on Earth.  If Zeke uses his detective skills to find and return all of them to Hell, he gets a second chance at life.

brimstone-02Great hook.  Grabbed my interest from the start.

Any catches, you ask?  Several.  The damned souls are impossible to kill unless you destroy their eyes.  Also, it turns out the longer you’re in Hell, the more of Hell comes with you.  This translates into the longer souls are in Hell, the stronger they are on Earth.  Nearly all of the souls are older than Zeke, and some are hundreds or even thousands of years old.  Even worse, not only are they stronger, but many of them have hellish ‘magic tricks’.  Some can turn invisible, spread hellish diseases or cast magic brimstone-04spells.  Zeke relies on old-fashioned police work and his own immortality.

The sole reason I even know this series exists is because the Sci-fi Channel (before they called it “SyFy”,) had a marathon one Saturday afternoon.  Lasting a grand total of 13 episodes, it was a mid-season replacement that fizzled.  A pity, since it had great promise.

brimstone-03Lori Petty fills out an enjoyable minor role as a hotel clerk.  (Usually people either love or hate Lori–I am one of the former.)  John Glover as The Devil chews scenery like a teething beaver.  No joke, he’s a pleasure to watch.  My favorite episode (“It’s a Helluva Life”) has John playing both The Devil and an angel.  The two of them take Zeke through is life, alternately showing him every bad brimstone-05thing he ever did and the good he’s accomplished.  It’s surprisingly moving.

Is Brimstone great?  No.  Plot stumbles and misfires are in evidence.  The special effects are dated and clunky.  I will say that there was enough there that I wanted more.  It picked up steam as it went, and the writers and actors were hitting their strides–just in time to be cancelled. 

Should someone with a modicum of power in television get a chance, resurrecting this brimstone-06series wouldn’t be the worst idea. 

Go dig up the 13 episodes or watch them online somewhere.  You won’t regret it.

Save

Save

Save

A Good Lovecraft Film: Pontypool

pontypool-01Pontypool showed up on my radar screen a few years ago by accident.  It was recommended as a ‘zombie movie’–which isn’t entirely incorrect, but isn’t the whole story.  My expectations were fairly low since the movie screamed ‘Canadian Indie Film’.  As it turns out, this movie is layered in weirdness and is excellent.

The premise is straightforward.  The main character Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) drives to work at a local radio station on a snowy morning in Pontypool, Ontario.  Grant is a shock jock who has seen better days.  On his way in, a woman comes out of the dark and babbles incoherently before disappearing.  It’s nicely disconcerting and sets up the whole mood for the film. 

pontypool-02Grant’s day only gets weirder as strange events trickle in from the radio station’s reporter and listeners.  Pontypool does a great slow burn by using disembodied voices over the radio to paint a picture of something going horribly wrong.  The wrongness appears, at first, to be a standard zombie apocalypse.  Only after a creepy end to the ‘roving reporter’ does it become pontypool-03apparent that it’s nothing so mundane as walking dead men.

It’s hard to tell much about the nature of the ‘zombies’ without wandering into spoiler territory.  Suffice to say that their nature has an otherworldly creepiness to it.  They are a manifestation of something alien and hostile that invades language and minds.  That’s pontypool-04what makes it Lovecraftian.  H.P. would have enjoyed it.

Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) is the station manager who starts out getting pissed at Grant for his antics, only to later look upon him as a source of strength as the insanity grows.  Romantic chemistry between the two is low-key, but it works.  “Kill is kiss” is a great moment that highlights their pontypool-06attraction and a clever bit of deductive reasoning.

Again, I don’t want to give too much away.  The entire movie except for the opening scene of Grant driving to work occurs inside a single room.  Details of the disaster come at the audience through verbal presentation.  An ingenious–and effective–way of making the most of a small budget.  It’s doubly effective since what is happening escapes visual or rational explanation.

pontypool-05For those of you Lovecraft fans who haven’t seen it, the movie is on Netflix.  I recommend it unreservedly.  I discovered only while researching this that it is based on a book titled Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, which I plan on reading at my earliest opportunity.

 

 

 

Save

Save

The Borderlands: A Good Lovecraft Movie

the-borderlands-01The Borderlands is a creepy little piece of cinematography out the United Kingdom from 2013.  The alternate title it was released as was Last Prayer.  I saw it a couple of years ago after it was recommended on a Lovecraft site or social media group (I don’t recall which.)

(Fair warning: this is technically a ‘found footage’ movie, but a pretty good one.  If this sub-genre annoys you, this one is still worth your time.)

No, I don’t mean the unrelated video game.  And before you correct me, yes, I know H.P. Lovecraft never wrote it.  When I say “A Good Lovecraft Movie” I mean a movie with Lovecraftian elements or themes.  The Borderlands definitely qualifies, although it’s not immediately apparent, but by the end of the movie you can’t escape those themes.the-borderlands-02

The premise starts simply enough.  Three investigators from the Vatican travel to a small town in the British countryside where a priest has recorded what he thinks is a miracle in his old church.  There’s a skeptical old priest named Deacon (with obvious unresolved issues with his faith,) a technician named Gray (strictly there for tech support and to film the proceedings,) and a somewhat obnoxious and overbearing older priest named Amidon (with past the-borderlands-03conflicts with Deacon.)

This trio investigates both the town and the church in question.  Right from the start there’s something just off about the townspeople.  Not hostile, per se, but standoffish and paranoid, even beyond the normal reticence of backward villagers.  Everyone is defensive about the church.  At one point the locals burn some livestock alive near where the trio is staying.

Meanwhile the church is displaying some odd behaviors, but nothing that proves or disproves the local priest’s claim.  The priest eventually commits suicide after a low-key creepy scene.  Investigating further, they discover that the church is incredibly ancient and the land is mentioned in several old, ominous legends.the-borderlands-04

The movie has some nice, unnerving scenes in it that reinforces the feeling that something here is not quite right.  That—and the climax which I won’t spoil here—make this a movie Lovecraft would have approved of.

I’m unsure if the writers/producers meant the title to echo The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson (a writer followed by Lovecraft.)  There are some eerie elements which overlap, so this might be a deliberate nod to that otherworldly book.

the-borderlands-05The movie isn’t perfect.  It has a slow, deliberate pacing which might put off the less-dedicated watchers.  Some plot elements are a bit contrived and the characters occasionally veer towards the clichéd.  Trust me, however, unlike other ‘found footage’ movies, there’s a definite, horrifying pay-off.

Go dig up a copy and give it a chance.

 

The Resurrected: A Good Lovecraft Adaptation

Original cover

Original cover

Back in my army days in the early 90s, I stumbled upon an H.P. Lovecraft VHS movie at the PX called The Resurrected.

I noticed it was an adaptation of a Lovecraft novella called The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (previously adapted as The Haunted Palace in 1963.)  Most of the Lovecraft adaptations I’d been previously subjected to had been hideous–and not in a good way.  Still, I recognized Dan O’Bannon’s name as the director and was intrigued.  I snagged the copy and killed a Saturday afternoon at the barracks to watch it.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t bad.  I had read the original novella many years earlier but only vaguely recalled it, so I wasn’t sure how close to the original it was.The Resurrected 02  The movie had a strength that none of the previous movies had–it was written and directed with respect towards the original author’s work.

The novella was set in the 1920s/30s and a lot of the elements were updated to the 90s.  The first actor I noticed was John Terry from the famously cheesy fantasy movie Hawk the Slayer circa 1980 (I movie I plan on talking about later.)  John plays the private investigator protagonist John March.  The second actor I noticed was the amazing Chris Sarandon (from Fright Night, The Princess Bride and Child’s Play) who played Charles Dexter Ward/Joseph Curwen.

The Resurrected 03

 

Chris owns  this role and is easily the best actor in the movie.  John Terry does a passable job, but the rest of the acting is a bit uneven.  Might have been O’Bannon’s unfamiliarity with directing, as he was primarily known as a screenwriter.  Chris plays both roles to the hilt and takes pain to be gloriously and theatrically evil as Curwen, but never overplays his hand, even as he drifts close to scenery-chewing.

The Resurrected 05The basics of the plot are that the scientist Charles Dexter Ward is acting insane and his wife hires John March to investigate his activities.  Charles found an old trunk from a distant ancestor known as Joseph Curwen from 1771.  Joseph passed down some ‘ancient scientific knowledge’ (pro tip: in anything by Lovecraft, ‘ancient knowledge’ is generally bad news.)  They also find a The Resurrected 06painting of Joseph Curwen and he’s the spitting image of Charles.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, as spoilers abound.  I will mention an amusing side note about the production I remember reading about in the early 90s.  During a shooting next to a river, one of the prostheses of a mutated body got away from them and floated downstream. It was found by locals later, where it scared the living shit out of them (yes, these things amuse me.)

The Resurrected 07I re-read the novella a few years later, and to be honest, O’Bannon’s screenplay is superior.  Even without the updated elements, the novella is clunky and not Lovecraft’s strongest.  This tightens it up without losing the tone.  If you like Lovecraft, do yourself a favor and dig up a copy.

H. P. Lovecraft: The Dunwich Horror and ‘Getting’ Lovecraft

Dunwich Horror 01H.P. Lovecraft has achieved a modern cult status among horror fans through several sources.  I find a great deal of the people who talk about him, haven’t actually read his original material.  They’ve been exposed to the whole Cthulhu Mythos from other media.  Pop culture has created an entire Cthulhu brand name.  Just this evening I discovered that there are “Cthulhu Mints” at a local candy store.  I’m sure plenty of people have seen Cthulhu plush toys.

To be fair, Lovecraft isn’t the most accessible writer.  His style is ponderous, verbose and filled with arcane adjectives.  I can sympathize.

 

His horror fiction isn’t really ‘scary’ per se (with a couple of exceptions.)  What he does excel at, however, is creating a disturbing mood.  A feeling of uneasiness that he crams down your throat by seeing the events through the eyes of another character, who is often willfully ignorant of weird events, because they’re unable or unwilling to acknowledge the events.  They go through mental gymnastics to escape the awful truth.

His strongest works, in my opinion, are The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow Out of Time, and The Dunwich Horror.  I tend to enjoy Dunwich the most, since he takes the ‘unseen horror’ to a new level.  It, like Colour, it takes place in a backward, rural society in New England.  The claustrophobic nature of this insular society is a staple of Lovecraft.

Dunwich Horror 02I, like many people, got my first education in Lovecraft via role-playing games.  In the old 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Deities and Demigods books there was a set of the Cthulhu Mythos, illustrated by Erol Otus.  The mythology was put into an AD&D product for some reason, even though it doesn’t really fall into the ‘high fantasy’ or ‘heroic fantasy’ line of fiction.  Although, interestingly enough, the Conan sword and sorcery series does technically take place in the same universe as Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors.  This is actually not as strange as it sounds, as there was a definite aura of nihilism and dark horror in the original Robert E. Howard books.  The two authors were actually pen pals and swapped ideas.

In any case, Lovecraftian fiction mixing with Tolkienesque elves, dwarves and halflings doesn’t work easily.  It certainly didn’t give me a decent understanding of Lovecraft, nor was it easy to find copies of Lovecraft’s stories at the time.  Ergo, I ended up with a distorted view of his works until many years later when I actually read them.  Even then, I didn’t start to ‘get’ Lovecraft until I read The Dunwich Horror.

Dunwich Horror 03Lovecraft has two great strengths that were brought to the fore in Dunwich: establishing a disturbing background and keeping the horror hidden for most of the time.  In this case, it was impossible to see the final horror and its worst aspects are seen through its deeds in a slow, increasing fashion.  Even throughout its rampage, Lovecraft keeps building on what else is worse out there.  There are terrible things out there and they’re quite literally incomprehensible.

If you take Lovecraft’s monsters out of their element, they don’t work nearly as well.  Is a shoggoth horrifying?  Sure, but not nearly as much without its build-up in At the Mountains of Madness.  Lovecraft’s setting and mood sells them, the same way he sells Wilbur’s brother in Dunwich.  When I put down the book, Lovecraft’s ‘package deal’ clicked.  I got it.

Sadly, I only see a minority of fandom out there who ‘get’ it.  Modern fans are used to seeing the horrors in great, High-Definition, 3-D detail.  Lovecraft understood that the human mind will always come up with a worse horror without seeing a thing.  Once you see the horror, no matter how awful, at least you know what you’re up against and can try to deal with it.  The unseen, cosmic horrors of Lovecraft are beyond that.  You simply can’t deal with them because you only catch glimpses of them.  The horror comes from what they do or (more often) what they suggest about the nature of reality.

Dunwich Horror 04Lovecraft isn’t for everyone.  If you have a low tolerance for a kind of fatalistic nihilism, you’re liable to avoid Lovecraft.  There aren’t any heroic efforts or happy endings.  The best the protagonists usually do is merely escape the ancient horrors that still lurk within the outer dark, or a brief pause before the ultimate doom wipes mankind from the face of the Earth.

It’s also difficult to translate Lovecraft into Hollywood movies.  They’ve been mostly quite bad, with such crap as Die, Monster, Die!, The Haunted Palace, The Necronomicon and–unfortunately–The Dunwich Horror.

Dunwich Horror MovieIt’s worth seeing–once–at least for the oddball nature of Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee in a Lovecraft adaptation.  It’s not a completely terrible movie, but it’s definitely a terrible Lovecraft movie.

There have been better Lovecraft movies, but I plan on talking about them in a future post.