Thursday, December 25, 2008

My City Screams ... for its money back!


The Spirit of Christmas Don't

Years ago, I decided at one point to count the number of movies I had seen. I grabbed the most recent Leonard Maltin Film Guide and went through the book alphabetically, numbering as I went along.

I never finished the project, but I stopped counting somewhere past 1,000. The reason I bring this up is because it not without some authority and considerable experience when I say that The Spirit may be the worst movie I have ever seen, which would put it in the running for worst movie of all time.

I'm not saying this because I have some kind of emotional investment in the character, the way a Star Wars fan complains about The Phantom Menace. I like Will Eisner's comic series a lot, but I went in to the movie expecting it to have more to do with Frank Miller than Will Eisner. But I could not have expected what I got.

I also say this as someone who really, really likes Miller's All-Star Batman and Robin. If I had any hopes going in, it was that The Spirit would be the equivalent to an ASBAR movie. And there are moments when it is clear that the two works are made by the same person, and I don't just mean the moments of self-plagiarism where lines appear straight out of ASBAR. I'm talking about moments where the tough-guy, faux noir dialogue goes so far over the top that it passes parody into something more sublime. Or moments like when the Spirit tries to track down Sand Serif by showing a photocopy of her ass to various bellmen at Central City hotels.

The Spirit is 103 minutes of pure, undiluted WTF.

The experience one feels when watching this is the exact opposite of that emotional epiphany that one experiences in the presence of great art, and yet, the feelings are remarkably similar. It's the moment of ecstasy that lies at the heart of the Dionysian, which Nietzche describes in The Birth of Tragedy--the loss of self experienced at the moment when reason fails. Nothing can explain what would allow for the existence of a movie that is this bad in every conceivable way a movie could be bad: acting, writing, cinematography, editing, music. I wasn't on the set when the movie was made, but I can guess that the donuts at craft services were probably stale, too. Or shit-filled. In fact, a shit-filled donut may be the best metaphor for describing this movie.

When the movie begins, some glimmer of possible quality shines through. The Spirit runs across the rooftops of the city on his way to the docks in order to intercept his nemesis, the Octopus. He stops a mugging in a scene that's both stylish and clever, then moves on to meet up with a police officer, played by Frank Miller himself. Miller is dispatched by the Octopus, who then proceeds to fight the Spirit in a scene that was widely distributed on the internet. This scene is actually quite funny, with a tone similar to a Warner Bros. cartoon. If the film had managed to sustain this tone, it may have been a decent movie, but it didn't, and it isn't.

Also, Gabriel Macht surprisingly pulls off the Spirit. I say "surprisingly" not because I think that Macht is a bad actor, but that Miller's dialogue sounds nothing like words and sentences that any human being would ever utter. Nonetheless, Macht manages to deliver his dialogue, especially the voice-over narration and other odd moments where he addresses the camera directly, with sincerity and conviction. In one scene, the Spirit wakes from unconsciousness tied to a dentist's chair. As he opens his eyes, he says, "Something smells dental." He then looks around to see a variety of Nazi paraphernalia around the room. "Dental ... and Nazis," he grunts through gritted teeth. I think this specific line was meant to cause viewers to think of the movie Marathon Man, which would then cause them to think of Laurence Olivier and finally realize that even a great actor such as he would not be able to pull off dialogue like this. Or something like that.

Most of the other actors don't fare well at all. Scarlett Johansson delivers her lines like an actor in a high school drama production, and Samuel L. Jackson seems barely able to muster the energy to do that Samuel Jackson thing. There seems to be a running gag about the Octopus's obsessive feelings for eggs, but I have no idea how it was supposed to be funny.

The plot has something to do with a quest for the blood of Heracles and the Golden Fleece (really--I'm not making that up). Miller also gives The Spirit some kind of Wolverine-style healing powers, and though they are intricate to the film's plot, they also indicate just how far away the film is from Eisner's original material.

The movie is wall-to-wall bad, and describing the plot or even the smallest moment in the film can be an exercise in frustration. There was a moment, though--a tipping point, if you will--where I had the epiphanic realization that revealed just how bad this movie was. The Octopus's henchmen are all clones, all played by Louis Lombardi. All of them are also considerably intellectually challenged, so the Octopus tries to grow a smart one. Instead, he gets a tiny head on a foot that hops around the lab table. The Octopus then spends much of the scene marvelling at how crazy this looks.

Once that scene passed, my mind entered a state of virtual numbness, as if I had been beaten into submission by torturers and was now ready to accept whatever they had to offer, like Winston Smith in Room 101 at the end of 1984. So, when Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson appear in Nazi officer uniforms, while Paz Vega, in a belly dancer outfit, dances around with a sword, I was no longer in any condition to be shocked or repulsed. And when the Octopus tells the Spirit that he's "as dead as Star Trek," I just sat back and nodded.

Interestingly enough, Miller leaves out one significant member of The Spirit's supporting cast: the hero's sidekick and offensive racial stereotype, Ebony White. However, after having watched the movie, I'm at a loss as to why Miller left the character out. It can't be due to a sense of restraint on the filmmaker's part, because nothing in this movie indicates that any kind of restraint was was applied, internally or externally. Seriously, in a movie that features Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson in Nazi officer uniforms, one would be hard pressed to find this any more offensive.

Instead, I have to think that Miller just forgot to use the character.

And Valkyrie can rest easy--it is not the worst movie featuring Nazis to come out this week.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Nothing says "Merry Christmas" quite like a Jim Aparo cover featuring Batman punching Blockbuster right in the sternum:


In the story, Batman stops by Gotham PD to offer the officers on duty some special holiday cheer:


Also, it's important to note:

Batman knows exactly what you want for Christmas.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

(From Batman 309, story by Len Wein, art by John Calnan and Frank McLaughlin)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dr. K's Top Ten Superhero Comics of 2008, Part 2!

Tonight, we continue my top 10 list with my top 5 superhero comics of 2008. As an added bonus, I'm typing tonight's post with a cute snuggle kitty named Zoe on my lap!


5. Final Crisis

Like Batman: RIP, Final Crisis has been another Grant Morrison series that many readers have complained is too confusing. However, with the last couple of issues, the pieces have started to fall into place, and Morrison's plan has become evident. If Batman and Final Crisis teach us anything, it's that Morrison does have a plan, and persistence and attention will be rewarded.

In this case, the series started off slow, with DC's superheroes following small clues that point to something going on with the New Gods. However, What Morrison has done is launch us, and the heroes as well, into a scenario where, no matter how quickly they put the clues together, it is already too late. The sense that the heroes have failed before they have begun gives this universe-spanning crossover its weight.

Plus, there are moments, like when one of the Guardians tells Hal Jordan that he has "24 hours to save the universe," that genuinely give me goosebumps and remind me why I still get a kick out of superhero stories.

Nonetheless, this series will ultimately be a flawed masterpiece for Morrison due to the inconsistent art and publishing schedule (though the latter won't matter when the collected edition comes out). I wish J. G. Jones had been able to finish the series himself because he has already proven with the Marvel Boy series that he gets Morrison. Alternately, Carlos Pacheco's pages in issue 5 are fantastic, and he would have made a fine artist for the entire series.

4. Action Comics

It's been a very long time since I was excited about Superman comics. But the work of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank on this series have been consistently good from the "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes" arc to the "Brainiac" story. In each case, Johns has taken some convoluted continuity and made sense out of it, which is basically his stock in trade. But he's also telling great stories, with entertaining twists on some old concepts. Johns's script and Frank's art combine to give us Superman in his purest form: noble, heroic, but also human. And that "humanity" gets further explored in the "New Krypton" crossover, where Superman has to deal with the presence of 100,000 Kryptonians on Earth.

Also, the latest issue saw the return of the Creature Commandos and G. I. Robot, and we all know how I feel about those characters.

3. Catwoman

This year saw several good series get cancelled by DC, including Manhunter, Birds of Prey, and Blue Beetle. But no cancellation was more regretable for me than Catwoman. For 2 1/2 years, since DC's "One Year Later" bump, this has been one of the most consistently well written and drawn series from DC. Even when it was saddled with unfortunate crossovers, like this year's for Salvation Run, the Catwoman issues proved superior to the main series. And it was one of only two monthly series for which I had a real sense of anticipation every month. The reason for that anticipation is two-fold. First, writer Will Pfeifer made Catwoman a morally complex character genuinely worth caring about, making scenes like the one where Selina gives up her baby a real emotional shot to the gut. No other comic this year gave me the same emotional reaction. Second, Pfeifer knows how to write action, and almost every issue ended with a real cliffhanger that I couldn't wait to see resolve.

And, I would add that Pfeifer writes the hell out of Batman. Every cameo Batman made was a gem, especially because the situation with Selina and her baby brought out a side of Batman that does not get explored in his own books.

Will Pfeifer and David Lopez did manage to end the series on a classy note, including cameos of themselves in the last issue. DC is continuing to collect this series in trade paperback, so anyone who missed out on it can still check it out.

Also, this was Zoe's favorite series this year as well, and she threatened to jump off my lap if I didn't place it higher on the list.

2. Captain America

2008 was the year that comics made me care about characters for which I had little past interest. This was especially true for Marvel Comics. I have long been primarily a DC reader, but this year I read more Marvel series than I ever have. Hercules, Sentry, Iron Fist, Iron Man--thanks to writers like Jeff Parker, Matt Fraction, Paul Tobin, Greg Pak, and Fred Van Lente, I'm enjoying the heck out of a lot of Marvel comics. But no series this year kept me more excited from month-to-month than Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's Captain America, which spent most of the year working through the latter 2/3 of the epic 18-part "Death of Captain America" story. Brubaker has made Bucky an interesting character as the new Cap, and he has also filled the series with a great supporting cast and a collection of formidable villains.

In addition, Brubaker was extraordinarily prescient to come up with a story where the Red Skull manages to attack America by creating a banking and mortgage crisis. Cap has always been best when he's relevant to the current state of American culture, but this plot was nothing short of uncanny in its currency.

I've also especially appreciated that this book has kept outside of the larger Secret Invasion crossover that has dominated Marvel this year. Brubaker got to take his time with a long story, and yet it managed to stay well-paced and exciting throughout the year.

1. All-Star Superman

With this list, it's going to look like I'm in the tank for Grant Morrison. But All-Star Superman is a true masterpiece, and it will go down in comics history as one of the great works of the superhero genre. It doesn't necessarily transcend the genre, but that is not a bad thing because Morrison is clearly trying to create the definitive Superman story here. And unlike Batman: RIP and Final Crisis, this series hit with a clarity of purpose from issue 1. The premise was simple: Superman was dying, and he had to complete 12 labors before his life came to an end. But within that simple framework, Morrison created some mind-expanding superhero stories.

And also unlike Morrison's other work this year, he was working with an artist in Frank Quitely whose imagination and talent can keep pace with the writer's wild ideas (Quitely is on a short list of artists, along with Cameron Stewart, J. G. Jones, Doug Mahnke, Chris Weston, Richard Pace, and Charles Truog, who seem to "get" Morrison's scripts in a way that a lot of other artists seem to struggle with). Quitely's art is just stunning on this series. Though I like Gary Frank's realistically muscular Superman in Action Comics, I also enjoy the sheer hugeness and solidity of Quitely's Superman. This is a book that just gets better with each reading.

Like I said in the previous post, 2008 was a great year for superhero comics, and there were a lot of series that would have made the list in any other year, including The Immortal Iron Fist, Invincible Iron Man, Green Lantern, Booster Gold, and Secret Six. I expect the latter three series will be strong in 2009, especially Booster Gold, which would have made the list if not for some pretty mediocre fill-in stories. True Believers was another series that almost made the cut, but the later issues didn't quite live up to the promise of the first, though I still enjoyed it.

As always, suggestions for series I may have missed this year will be greatly appreciated. I'll be back soon with my thoughts on some graphic novels and indy comics from 2008.

Dr. K's Top 10 Superhero Comics of 2008, Part 1!

I normally shy away from doing end-of-the-year top 10 lists for a variety of reasons, the primary one being that, once the end of the year rolls around, I have difficulty remembering all that I did in the previous year. But 2008 was a great year for superhero comics, and so I thought I would put together a list of my favorites. So, below is a list of my favorite regular series and miniseries that I followed in 2008. Please feel free to make recommendations in the comments for things I should have listed or should have been reading.

10. Omega the Unknown

When Marvel announced that novelist Jonathan Lethem was going to revive this obscure 70s title, I immediately went to my collection to re-read the original Steve Gerber series. That series was one of the more bizarre of Gerber's many bizarre ideas at the time. I have to admit, I didn't always understand what was going on in Lethem's series from month to month, but when I read the entire series as a whole, it came together as an innovative riff on Steve Gerber's original 70s concept. I'm glad I stuck with it. And the final "silent" issue showcased artist Farel Dalrymple's talents. Congratulations to Marvel for putting out this unconventional series.

9. Madame Xanadu

Though DC's Vertigo books would not normally be counted as "superhero" series, Madame Xanadu is the closest thing to a DC Universe title published by Vertigo. Writer Matt Wagner incorporates many aspects of the DCU in this series, including references to Jack Kirby's Demon mythology and frequent appearances by the Phantom Stranger (though his name is never actually mentioned). A recent appearance by Death from Neil Gaiman's Sandman series also shows Wagner's desire to tie the series into that corner of the Vertigo universe as well. Wagner appears to be quietly making this series the centerpiece of the Vertigo universe in a way that hearkens back to Vertigo's beginnings, when its books made the transition from the DCU proper. In that sense, it's clearly an attempt to return to Vertigo's roots and attract readers who may have been turned off by Vertigo's lack of a clear brand identity.

The development of the main character and the series's historical scope--moving from Arthurian England through the French Revolution--has continued to be surprising and engaging from month to month. But the real revelation here is Amy Reeder Hadley's art, which is just gorgeous and sumptuous in its detail. It would be wonderful if this series became the breakthrough hit that Vertigo has not had for a while outside of the Fables universe.

8. The Incredible Hercules

I followed this series during World War Hulk, but I dropped it soon after. However, I heard such good things about it that I went back and picked up the collections and issues from this year. And now I'm hooked. Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente weave in mythology to reimagine the way gods and humans interact in the Marvel Universe. Their characterization of Hercules as a god doomed to repeat the same mistakes while still being haunted by them adds depth to a character who has generally been depicted as a blowhard, albeit an entertaining one. But, most of all, this is a fun book, and the writers have made me interested in a character that I had only previously cared about as the strong guy in the Avengers.

7. The Age of Sentry

Speaking of characters I cared little about in the past...I liked Paul Jenkins's original miniseries about the Silver Age hero who had been forgotten by the rest of the Marvel Universe, but later appearances of the character in the New Avengers and elsewhere had made me wish that Sentry's first story had been his last. Now Jeff Parker and Paul Tobin have written a miniseries that presents Sentry's goofy Silver Age stories, recreating that milieu perfectly. Every issue has been more entertaining than the last, and I'm glad to see that Marvel has gotten smart by giving two of its best writers more work in 2009.

6. Batman

Lots of readers have complained online that this book was difficult to follow, especially during Grant Morrison's epic Batman: RIP story. But recent issues have shown that Morrison, like Batman, has had a plan all along, and subtleties that have been building for the last two years have all led to this story, which establishes exactly what a bad-ass Batman is. Unfortunately, DC has chosen one of this book's creative peaks to remove the main character from the title completely, leading in to something called "The Battle for the Cowl," for which I have no interest.

While Batman: RIP was an entertaining and complex read, it was nearly sunk by the art of Tony Daniel, who, while a dynamic artist, was inappropriate for this book. It often seemed like Daniel had difficulty understanding Morrison's script, and his storytelling often did not flow well. This, more than Morrison's script itself, may have caused the confusion that many readers felt, and it often seems to be a problem that plagues Morrison's books with other artists as well.

That's the bottom 5 of my top 10. Tomorrow, I'll return with the top 5 series of 2008, along with some honorable mentions that didn't quite make the list.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Return of Ask Dr. K!

Back in October, I received an email from a concerned parent who was hoping that, with my extensive expertise in the subject of superheroes, that I could help answer some of her 4-year-old's questions about the diets and basic personalities of Spider-Man and Superman. That email turned into this post, which has proven to be this blog's most popular post that doesn't deal with Chop-Chop or the Creature Commandos.

Several follow-up questions ensued to help clarify some of my answers. For one, I had to correct my own error when I left out Spider-Man's love of wheatcakes, a mistake upon which dozens of readers rightfully pounced and to whom I will be endlessly grateful.

I also had to support some claims that the 4-year-old met with skepticism. For one, the youngster did not believe that Superman would eat rocks, though he seemed to have no problem with Superman eating nuclear waste, hot lava, solid steel, or the sun (now that I think of it, perhaps his objection was to Superman eating rocks raw, rather than in their heated, liquid form). So, in order to prove the child wrong, I sent him this particular image:

That taught him never to doubt me again. Pwned!

With Christmas just around the corner, I received another timely message from the same concerned parent, hoping that I can answer some more questions that her inquisitive child has.



Dear Dr. K,

Some weeks ago, I wrote in with some questions my four-year-old had about superheroes whose personalities and preferences I know little. Your responses were, overall, very helpful, and I read all of them to my son and showed him the strip you provided of Superman eating rocks as an illustration of the food preferences you so helpfully provided. Were Superman, rather than Santa Claus, coming in just ten short days, we'd be ready with his treeside snack.

But as is often the case, questions lead to more questions, and some of them I cannot answer without your help, so I am, again, imposing on your expertise. First, while scrolling through your blog with said son, he asked me repeatedly, "Zat Batman?" and when I had to reply honestly with a "no," he asked, "Why?" So I guess the question is, "Why isn't ________man Batman when he definitely isn't Batman?"

The question "Why isn't ____________ Batman?" is probably the single most important question your young child will ever ask. And it shouldn't be limited to just superheroes. "Why isn't Barack Obama Batman?" or "Why isn't my teacher Batman?" or "Why isn't Lou Dobbs Batman?" or "Why isn't daddy Batman?" are all legitimate questions that all children should ask as they make their way in this world. Heck, I still ask this question several times a day, often self-reflectively.

But to answer the question, no one is as awesome as Batman. And to be even more succinct, use this question as a test: "Could _________ beat up a flaming bear and then ride it off a cliff?"

The answer, more than likely, would be "No." You may be tempted to lie and say that Daddy could also do this, but that lie might ultimately bite you in the ass when you're family is attacked by a flaming bear.

Next, I have a new set of explanatory challenges thanks to some comic books I brought home from Nashville a month ago. The books were recommended by someone who knows Dr. K's work well, and so I was eager to return home and share them with my preschooler. Lo and behold, with every frame, the boy asked, "He a bad guy?" or "Zat a bad guy?" At first, I thought he was having trouble telling the good guys and bad guys apart, but I think the confusion goes beyond that: I think he's also asking whether everyone is a bad guy or not, which probes philosophical issues I'm unprepared to address without consulting you first. Is everyone a bad guy in general? I could answer that in different circumstances, but I'm not at all confident about the matter within the cosmology of the superhero world, especially after all those ugly things you reported about Spider-Man and the devil. Please advise.

If your child is going to develop a life-long comics reading habit--which I hope he does--then the question about who is and is not a bad guy will become more and more pertinent though simultaneously confusing, because at one point or another, every superhero becomes a villain (and often vice versa, too).

For example, say your child takes great enjoyment in Jeff Smith's fantastic, all-ages graphic novel Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil (which makes a great holiday gift) and in Mike Kunkel's fantastic Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! comic series. And say your child takes a special liking to Captain Marvel's spunky kid sister, Mary Marvel. So, you decide to head off to the local comic store to find that character's most current appearance in order to keep your child up-to-date with the constantly changing world of his favorite comics, and this is what you find:

Then, you will have to explain that Mary Marvel is now a villain, and not the cute, spunky, heroic character that your child loved. So, the youngster will learn another valuable lesson: that every hero he likes, fictional or otherwise, will eventually become evil. Take this from a childhood fan of Marvel's Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver--it's important that he learns this lesson now.

Finally, I want to report that Parents Magazine, which is the most terrifying publication on earth (the Real Death industry has nothing on them), carried an article in the November issue "explaining" why four and five year olds are interested in superheroes. Just to give you a feel for their journalistic prowess, the premise is that superhero appeal is utterly mystifying to a parent (and "parent" means "careless, obese mother" in the Real Death speak of Parents) and needs explaining by actual Ph.D.s who offer comments like "[P]laying a superhero can provide a release for a kid's frustration as well as a chance to try out a leadership role."

You can see why I'm upset.

So please, could you and your superhero blog friends please make sure that Parents magazine is stripped of its privileges to talk about any topic that matters? Please?

I understand your distress about this article, even though I didn't read it and couldn't find it on the Parents Magazine website in a timely manner before the urge to stab out my eyeballs almost overcame me.

But on the matter of dressing up like a superhero, nothing can give a child more self-esteem than dressing like Batman, as this picture of an 8-year-old Dr. K proves:

However, dressing up like and playing Superman may be another matter entirely. As a youth, Dr. K enjoyed safety-pinning a towel to the back of his shirt and pretending to be Superman. This enjoyment, however, stopped when his mother explained to him that TV's Superman, George Reeves, committed suicide because he felt so guilty about kids dying when they dressed up like Superman and jumped out of windows. (This, like most things my mother told me, proved not to be true, as I later found out from the film Hollywoodland.)

I know this is all a lot to ask, but it is the Christmas season, and I thank you in advance for your Christian charity.

Sincerely,
A Flummoxed and Irate Parent


As always, I'm glad to be of service, and I welcome the opportunity to answer any further questions in the future. Good luck raising your son.

Best regards,

Dr. K

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Brown Bomber!

The following scene appeared in last month's Justice League of America 26, written by Dwayne McDuffie and drawn by Ed Benes:



This scene made me laugh, especially the line about "CPT" and Vixen's delayed reaction. In just one page, McDuffie throws in to this comic a gutsy satire of race in superhero comics--something he's done very well elsewhere and something I wish he'd do more in this series (perhaps the return of the Milestone characters in the latest issue will provide such an opportunity).

It also serves as a nice little easter egg for readers with some knowledge of DC Comics' problematic history with multicultural superheroes. Brian Hughes at Again with the Comics has a detailed explanation of how the Brown Bomber fits into that particular history, which makes McDuffie's inclusion (and editorial's approval) of the character even more amazing.

The Brown Bomber doesn't do much else in the comic, and his appearance in an alternate universe created only to test Vixen probably means that we won't be seeing him again in the future. That may be for the best. But there is also an edge here that McDuffie hasn't shown in this series before, and now that most of the loose plot threads left over by other writers are resolved, I hope that we'll see McDuffie cut loose some more.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Waimea Debuts!



I just want to throw a plug in here for a new webcomic called Waimea, written by the Internet's Kevin Church and drawn by newcomer Mike Dake. As the website describes, "Waimea is a serialized-biweekly graphic novel that tells the story of three people who find themselves living under unusual circumstances in Hawaii."

The first episode is already an impressive effort. Mike Dake's art has an animated style that works well with this material, and Kevin Church has created characters and a situation that had me immediately hooked in the first seven pages. Church's characterization is humorous and surprisingly heartfelt. I say "surprisingly" because I'm surprised that such emotional authenticity could come from the biggest douchebag on the Internet.

Seriously, check out Waimea. It's free, so it can't hurt, and there's some real talent at work here.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Frank Miller on TCM!

Comic creator and now filmmaker Frank Miller will be the guest programmer on Turner Classic Movies next Wednesday night (Dec. 10). He's definitely chosen a respectable line-up:

The Naked City (1948)
I love this movie, and it's the type of noir film you'd expect Miller to pick.

High Noon (1952)
I'm curious to see what Frank Miller has to say about this movie. Is the villain's name the primary attraction for him?

The Bishop's Wife (1947)
Miller is just screwing with our expectations here.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Oh yeah! This is a great choice and another for which Miller's attraction is completely understandable.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Jim Aparo's James Bond!

A reader named Ed, who came to my blog doing a search on Cary Bates, recently sent me an email asking me if I knew anything about a proposed James Bond comic series that Bates had pitched to DC in the late 70s, with Jim Aparo on art.

I had to admit that I never heard of this project, but I was immediately intrigued. Such a comic, had it existed, would surely be the single greatest comic series of all time (though its existence may just have been too awesome for this world to handle). At this time, both Bates and Aparo were at their creative peaks. In the mid-70s, Cary Bates had been hired by Cubby Broccoli to write an early script for the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, though that script was rejected, along with many others in that film's chaotic pre-production history. Clearly, Bates was well-situated to write this series.

Also, as detailed by Marty Pasko in a recent Word Balloon interview (which is great, by the way), DC long owned the license to James Bond, though they did nothing with it other than the weak Dr. No adaptation that appeared in Showcase. It's interesting to note, then, that at least someone was trying to do something with that license at DC.

Ed mentioned that his source for this story was an article in the 70s and 80s fanzine, The Comic Reader, which had been created by Paul Levitz and Paul Kupperberg. After I sent out some queries to my fellow comic bloggers, the amazing Mike Sterling was able to get a scan of Aparo's cover image that accompanied the original proposal. This image originally appeared in The Comic Reader 180 (June 1980), though Mike informs me that the image is the only item in the issue related to the Bates/Aparo Bond series. Perhaps the article appears in an earlier issue.

Aparo's Bond looks like a cross between Aparo's Bruce Wayne and Sean Connery, which is exactly as it should be.

I'm now curious to find out more about this series, especially why DC didn't move forward with it. Anybody out there with more information on this, please let me know.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Village of the Damned!


The original 1960 version of Village of the Damned still manages to scare the crap out of me, and at 77 minutes, it offers the kind of tight, efficient filmmaking that is rarely seen today.

I returned to this movie recently after covering The Earth Dies Screaming for the Halloween Countdown. Earth Dies Screaming opens with a scene that's very similar to the opening of Village of the Damned. In Village, some mysterious force causes everyone in the British village of Midwich to drop unconscious simultaneously. We see the villagers caught in the midst of their daily activities, like ironing clothes, cleaning, and listening to music. Anyone who comes within a certain radius from the town succumbs to this sudden unconsciousness. After about three hours, however, the townspeople awaken as if they had all just taken a sudden afternoon nap.

A short time later, all the women of childbearing age in the town find themselves to be pregnant. The movie then effeciently covers the various reactions to this phenomenon, from happy couples to jealous husbands and frightened single women. The women all give birth to similar blond-haired, intense-eyed babies who begin to develop rapidly and exhibit strange behavior.

While most of the townspeople fear these developments, local scientist Professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) looks for an explanation, especially since his own wife birthed one of these children, named David. Zellaby discovers that the children share a hive-mind, so that if one is taught a skill, the others will know it as well. Zellaby then convinces the government that he should be allowed to teach and study the children. This doesn't work out so well, however.

This movie still offers genuine shocks after nearly 50 years. For one, I'm surprised how frankly the movie deals with the subject of immaculate conception as a potential cause for the mass pregnancies. The local vicar, rather than becoming judgmental toward the unmarried women and teenage girls who become pregnant, instead offers his conviction that these women are telling the truth about their chastity.

But the most effective moment, and one that still surprises me even though I know it's coming, occurs when the children force one of the local townspeople to blow his own head off while others are paralyzed into watching. At this point, Professor Zellaby realizes that he cannot control or train these children, and his efforts to do so have only resulted in the loss of life.

Viewers have often tried to read this film as an allegory. Some see it as commenting on the Cold War fear of infiltration from within, and this interpretation is fed by the collective nature of the children's behavior. Viewers also interpret the blond haired children to represent the ideal of genetic perfection advocated by the Nazis. Still more read it as a reaction against the permissive parenting practices advocated by Dr. Benjamin Spock. Others see it as a warning on the dangers of intellect or scientific discovery unrestrained by morality and emotion. I, however, find a different warning in the film, and one that is also shared by such films as The Bad Seed, The Innocents, and the Omen series: kids are evil, and people should really stop having them.

It is often stated that horror movies featuring evil children are particularly effective because they reverse our expectations about childhood innocence. However, I would argue that the truth of the matter is that they expose our naive belief in that innocence. Children can be real jerks, and it doesn't take some kind of alien infestation or demonic possession to prove that: just spend a few minutes in a school yard at recess.

David, the lead child, is played by Martin Stephens, who wins the lifetime achievement award for playing creepy kids after this and The Innocents, which I covered in a previous entry.

One of the things I love about this movie, and probably what makes it prone to allegorical readings, is that we never find out where the children come from or what their real purpose is on Earth. Scientists bandy about theories in the film, including alien invasion and evolutionary progress, but these speculations are soon put aside when it becomes clear that these kids are deadly. One of the hallmarks of true horror is that such mysteries are left intact--that the safety and order that knowledge provides are never achieved.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Before I head into the kitchen to make some kick-ass sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes, I just want to give a shout out to the things I'm thankful for.

There's this:

This:

And, of course, this:

And, lest I forget, all of my friends, family, and readers.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dr. K Reviews: Petey & Pussy!



John Kerschbaum's Petey & Pussy, recently published by Fantagraphics, is just vile and wrong, and it had me laughing so hard at times that tears were streaming down my face. There is much to be said for the fundamental appeal of a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed cat and dog duo, both with balding human heads.

This book is so vile and wrong, however, that I have serious worries about even owning it. I have tried to lead a decent life and cultivate the image that I am a good person. I imagine, after I die, people--including a potential biographer or two--going through my house and cataloging my belongings, Charles Foster Kane-style. They move into the library, commenting on the exemplary intellectual life I led, and on the fact that $25,000 is a lot to pay for a dame without a head. Then, one of them pulls Petey & Pussy off the shelf, pages through it, covers his mouth when he gets to the part about the "Twat-wurst," and blurts out, "What sick, twisted degenerate would own such a thing? We must leave at once and burn this place to the ground."

Meanwhile, though, I'm going to be laughing about the "Twat-wurst" every single day for the rest of my life.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dr. K Reviews Heroes, Volume 2

After the Halloween Countdown marathon, I decided to take a couple of days off from the blog to recover, get ahead of some work, and enjoy Election Day. In the meantime, however, pal Kevin Church sent me his review copy of the second volume of collected comics stories from the Heroes TV series. As you can see, though, before sending it, Kevin used the book as a coaster for one of his giant alcoholic drinks that he always seems to have in his hands, and it left a huge ringed stain on the book. Thanks a lot, Kevin.

The book collects the comics stories published online at NBC's website, mainly during the strike-shortened season 2 of the show. The webcomics serve primarily to reinforce the show's base fans by giving them additional supplementary content to the series, much like Lost's alternate-reality games have done for that show.

The book, therefore, is not designed as an entrance point for new fans who might be curious about the show; instead, it's more like a series of easter eggs for the hardcore fan. I watched all of seasons 1 and 2 (I have since bailed on season 3), yet I had a hard time figuring out who some of the more obscure characters were or remembering when in the season a particular story fit (this confusion is not helped by the fact that some of the art is dramatically off model, and even recurring characters like Peter Petrelli are unrecognizable without context clues). And some of the shorter 4-6 page stories seem little more than deleted scenes from a specific episode, like the 6 pages of Molly's dream that she has while in a coma, or the 4 pages on a boy who witnesses one of Maya's mass killings. These are so slight that it's difficult to call them actual "stories."

The few longer stories that open the collection are the best, and they tend to emphasize what a missed opportunity the collection is. For all its failings, Heroes has created a rich world and mythology with enormous potential for interesting stories. Joe Kelly's origin story for the Haitian, which opens the collection, is a fascinating exploration of a character who serves mostly as a plot device on the series, used to temporarily depower a character or conveniently wipe someone's memory. Here, Kelly tells the story of how his powers manifested at the worst possible moment. Another origin story, this time for Candice, Linderman's shape-shifting assistant, also works well. Clearly, the collection works best when the stories explore origins and other tangents that the series doesn't deal with on the show, but which can exist independently from the show as well. However, other stories fail to live up to their potential. For example, the series could get a lot of mileage out of telling stories about Adam Munroe's immortal existence after Hiro leaves him in feudal Japan, yet the ones here are bland and underdeveloped. Similarly, a story that tries to establish Ben Franklin as an early hero is just dull and unnecessary, when it could be a lot of fun.

In the end, I have to wonder what purpose such a collection serves. Too many of the chapters are temporally connected to a particular episode in the series, requiring the reader to read them in conjunction with the episodes in question, preferably at the time the episode originally aired. That purpose may serve the webcomic well, but it doesn't serve a print collection that should be able to exist on its own and have a life beyond the cancellation of the series (which may be on the horizon as we speak). I am not, I should say, one to completely hate on Heroes. I liked the first season a lot, and I wasn't completely disappointed in the second season. Much of what kept me coming back, however, what the show's potential--the series was weaving an intricate, multigenerational history that, I thought, could be sustained through multiple seasons and ancillary projects like these comics. And there is potential here to develop complete, independent stories around the many characters in the series, or to create new characters that are exclusive to the comics and hover around the fringes of the show. The TV series itself is sorely lacking in consistency or sustained character development in its repetitive focus on big, cataclysmic stories, so the comic could be used to fill that gap, as Joe Kelly's Haitian story does particularly well.

This review is of an advanced copy received by the author. The book will be released on November 25.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: Happy Halloween!



This brings us to the end of another Halloween Countdown! Thanks to everyone who stopped by, including the new readers to the blog. I'll have some more horror movie reviews and commentary coming up, along with the usual comics stuff and other shenanigans.

Now I have to go and refresh our supply of Halloween candy, as much of it has mysteriously disappeared over the last few days. Perhaps...it was a ghost!

(If it was, the ghost did a pretty good job of selectively removing all the Almond Joys out of the variety assortment bag, and it left all the Milk Duds.)

Have a Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: War of the Worlds!

Halloween is now just a couple of days away, but it should be noted that tomorrow is an important date in Halloween history as well: it's the 70th anniversary of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre's famous War of the Worlds broadcast.

As part of a celebration of this anniversary, I'm participating in a live recreation of the broadcast tomorrow night at the university. I happen to have scored the plum role of "Prof. Pierson," the same role that Welles played in the original broadcast, and the last character standing at the end of the play. I originally toyed with the idea of playing the part as Welles in his drunken wine-shill phase, but let's just say that I was encouraged not to do that.

One of my favorite comic stories as a kid was this one, originally published in Superman 62, but reprinted in the Superman from the 30's to the 70's collection, where Superman teams up with Orson Welles to fight off a Martian invasion:
Even as a kid, though, I had to ask my parents, "Is this really the fat guy who sells wine on TV?"

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ask Dr. K!

I'm going to veer off the Halloween Countdown for a moment to share with you a very special and important email I got today. You see, because I'm a doctor, with a Ph.D., and therefore have garnered considerable respect for my authority in several fields, I often get emails asking me questions that relate to my areas of expertise. As always with such matters, I'm glad to be of service when called upon.

So, today I received the following message:

Dear Dr. K,

My four-year-old son has some questions about superheroes about whom I know little or nothing. Would you please provide answers for the following:

1. What does Spiderman like to eat?
2. Who are Spiderman's parents?
3. Is Spiderman a nice guy? Is Superman a nice guy? A real nice guy?
4. What does Superman like? Does he like Rugrats? Elmo?
5. What does Superman like to eat?
6. Does Spiderman go to school? Why not?
7. Does Superman go to school? Why not?

Thank you in advance for your time,
A concerned parent


To share with all of you, here are my responses to the questions:

Dear Concerned Parent:

I’m very glad you asked me these questions, as the correct answers to them are essential for your child’s proper growth and development as a valuable member of society.

1. What does Spiderman like to eat?

Spider-Man (please note the hyphen) likes to eat most normal foods, like hot dogs, pizza, Hostess Fruit Pies, and coffee. Despite the fact that he has the powers of a spider, he does not have the same appetite as one, so he doesn't eat flies and other insects. But I know that's what you were thinking.

2. Who are Spiderman's parents?

This is a very good question. Spider-Man's parents died when he was very young. They may have been spies or secret agents or something like that, but if that is the case, then it's stupid and I choose to ignore it. Seriously, the less you ask about this, the better. He was raised by his loving Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Soon after Spider-Man got his powers, he had the chance to stop a robber, but he chose not to because there was no profit in it for him. Then the robber killed his Uncle Ben, and ever since then, Spider-Man has been motivated by the guilt over his inaction that caused his uncle's death. Guilt is a thing that motivates many adults to do things they wouldn't otherwise do, like visit their parents when they get older, despite the fact that their parents aren't very nice people.

3. Is Spiderman a nice guy? Is Superman a nice guy? A real nice guy?

Both Spider-Man and Superman are nice guys, but if I had to pick one, I would say that Superman is the nicest. Spider-Man often makes a lot of selfish decisions that he comes to regret, like making a deal with Satan so that his marriage to his wife Mary Jane never happened and he can be "single" again and then start playing around with other women, while Superman always does the best thing for everyone. Superman is probably the nicest guy in the world.

4. What does Superman like? Does he like Rugrats? Elmo?

Superman probably would like Rugrats and Elmo if he had time to watch such shows. However, he's usually busy saving the world and beating up bad guys, so all that makes it difficult for him to keep up with stuff like Rugrats and Elmo. He does, however, have a girlfriend or wife named Lois Lane, and he likes her a lot.

Sometimes, if he's fighting a bad guy who isn't putting up much of a challenge, he will use his telescopic vision and superhearing to catch up on some TV during the fight. But then, he usually doesn't pick Rugrats or Elmo; instead, he tries to watch Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, because that Gary Busey is nuts!

5. What does Superman like to eat?

Because of his Kryptonian physiology, Superman can eat pretty much anything. He can eat rocks, nuclear waste, hot lava, solid steel, the sun, and anything else you can imagine that is not made of Kryptonite, which will kill him. However, he mostly likes to eat the same things that normal people eat, like hot dogs, pizza, Hostess Fruit Pies (non-Kryptonite flavored), and coffee.

6. Does Spiderman go to school? Why not?

Yes, Spider-Man does go to school. It is part of the essential conflict of the character that he is a normal teenage boy who uses his powers to fight crime while also trying to keep up with the normal things that a teenager has to do, like go to school. He later goes on to college and gets a degree in physics. He now works as a photographer for a newspaper, which doesn't require a college degree at all. So, that was a waste of his time.

7. Does Superman go to school? Why not?

Superman went to school also. Because his super powers did not manifest themselves until later on in his teenage years, he was able to have a relatively normal childhood. Though when his powers started to emerge, his life became very complicated, and he had to hide the powers in order to keep people from being afraid of him or resenting him. As you get older, you will learn that if you are really good at something, you should hide it because otherwise people will fear and resent you.

Superman also got his college degree in journalism and went to work for a newspaper called the Daily Planet. So, college wasn't a waste of time for Superman.

I hope this helps answer your child's questions. If you need any further assistance, please feel free to ask.

Sincerely,

Dr. K


And I would like to reiterate that I would be glad to help out any readers with any of their questions that I can answer.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: Solomon Grundy's Rampage!

Here's the Solomon Grundy costume, which I think turned out pretty well.
As the host of the party, a noted Golden Age enthusiast and well-known comics writer, commented: "Looks kinda like Mike Sekowsky's Grundy, inked by Sid Greene." I took that as a compliment.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: Halloween Party Tonight!

So, I'm going to a Halloween Party tonight. I haven't worn a costume for Halloween in years, so this is going to be a bit of a test of my costume making skills. Due to the nature of the party (more on that later) and my own preferences, I've decided to go with a comic book character that could also be versatile and pass for something else if people at the party are not familiar. I also wanted to pick something which I could reasonably pull off in terms of available wardrobe and my own physical qualities. Therefore, I'm going with this:
Solomon Grundy!

I'm even using that cover as a model.

Pictures to come.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: Tales from the Crypt (1972)

The 1972 Tales from the Crypt movie, made by Hammer competitor Amicus, should not be confused with the HBO series and its skeletal host, the Cryptkeeper, though both share a source in the EC Comics series of the same name. There is a Cryptkeeper in this film, but this one is played by Sir Ralph Richardson, and he has a little more to do here than just introduce a series of short horror stories.

In this film, a group of tourists follow a tour guide through an old abbey, when several of them are briefly held up and get disconnected from the main group. This smaller group then follows several passages until they are led through a secret door, and there they find the Cryptkeeper, who welcomes them to their chamber. The Cryptkeeper asks each person to explain what he or she plans to do once they all leave, and this provides the frame for the film's anthology structure.

The short stories in this film are a mixed bag, though all are stylishly directed by Hammer veteran and one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of film, Freddie Francis. All were also adapted directly from the EC series of the same title, as well as from Vault of Horror.

The first story, "And All Through the House," stars Joan Collins as a wife who murders her husband on Christmas Eve while the radio announces that a mad killer is on the loose in a Santa costume. This film features very little dialogue, as Collins tries to dispose of her husband's body, cover up her crime, keep her anxious daughter in bed, and protect herself from the killer Santa who inevitably shows up. This is a fun, darkly comic story up until the very end, when it's undermined by a really dissatisfying and unimaginative climax. You can check the whole thing out here:

"Reflection of Death," starring Ian Hendry, is a waste of the star's talent. Hendry, who had a promising career beginning with his role as Steed's first partner on The Avengers, was notoriously difficult to work with due to his alcoholism, and by this time, his career was virtually in the toilet. This particular story is probably the least successful of the entire film.

The third film has Peter Cushing in a very uncharacteristic role, playing an old junk man who is beset upon and tortured by his wealthy neighbors, who hope to drive him out of his home and then buy the property for cheap. Cushing's character, Grimsdyke, communicates with his dead wife through a ouija board, and she sends him warnings that danger is afoot. In real life, Cushing was devastated by the loss of his own wife only a year earlier, and it's easy to speculate that his performance as this emotionally fragile man was influenced by that recent experience. This story is titled "Poetic Justice," and while that title turns out to be quite literal in the end, this particular story seems the most consistently in line with its EC source.

Of the five stories, the last two are probably the most effective, and certainly worth checking this film out for. "Wish You Were Here" is a fairly simple variation on W. W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw," so it's largely predictable, but the ironic results of the couple's wishes still manages to be darkly comic and gruesome.

Finally, "Blind Alleys" is the best of the lot, with an autocratic director of a home for the blind getting his comeuppance from the residents. The blind residents' revenge builds slowly and creepily, and it may, for better or for worse, anticipate the Saw movies.

Following the final bit, the frame narrative wraps itself up, and we learn why all these people were brought together, though this ending is easily predictable.

There is one thing, however, that I'm curious about regarding this film, as well as its successor, The Vault of Horror, and other British horror anthology films that were popular in the 70s. Though the stories used in this film date back to the 50s, and this type of frame narrative goes back to The Decameron and earlier, I wonder if British horror comics writers like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Jamie Delano, and others were strongly influenced by these films in the similar work they did for DC and later its Vertigo imprint. Gaiman especially used such a device repeatedly in Sandman, and this movie would have been popular during an impressionable time in his youth. At the very least, while I was watching the movie, I got a real Vertigo vibe from it, moreso even than the sense of connection to its original EC source material.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The Earth Dies Screaming!

I'm a sucker for end-of-the-world scenarios and last-man-on-earth stories, whether it's alien invasions, zombie attacks, disease outbreaks, climate change, or any other possible disaster that could bring about a huge, sudden drop in world-wide population. I especially enjoy the basic elements that all these stories share as far as the survivors are concerned. What supplies are absolutely necessary? What skills will prove valuable? Will certain basic social structures survive, or will anarchy ensue? What happens to conventional morality when such a disaster occurs and basic survival becomes the most prominent goal?

I say all this, of course, knowing full well that whatever thought-experiments might arise from such stories, I would probably be one of the least likeliest to survive if such a disaster occurred. And if I did, I would have very little to contribute to the new society. A literature and film scholar would be of little use, and I lack most of the other skills necessary for survival. I would have difficulty living without most of the basic modern conveniences, like a microwave or the internet, and once the coffee was gone, I would be of absolutely no use to anyone.

All this is prelude to the fact that I really like former Hammer staple Terence Fisher's 1965 sci-fi film, The Earth Dies Screaming (not to be confused with the Psycho-Rama classic, My World Dies Screaming, which I covered the other day, or with this or this.).

(Nor should it be confused with The Earth Dies Creaming, my epic-length, apocalyptic porn script that has yet to be produced.)

The Earth Dies Screaming chimes in at a lean 64 minutes, and much of the film is dialogue-free, as the main characters explore a world in which nearly everyone has died.

The film opens in the moments just as people suddenly start dropping dead: a train conductor dies, causing the train to derail; commuters die on the railroad platform waiting on their train; a pilot dies and crashes his plane behind a hill. The way people die, however, the film should be more aptly titled "The Earth Dies Sleeping."

Driving into a small, Northern England village comes Jeff, a retired American astronaut who has somehow survived whatever caused everyone else to die. Jeff systematically searches the village, looking for weapons, supplies, and survivors. He settles down in the local hotel, helping himself to the well-stocked bar, which is exactly what I would do in this circumstance.

The first 8 1/2 minutes of the film are completely dialogue-free, until a few more survivors start to show up at the inn. All have different stories about how they survived, but their stories share one thing in common: all the survivors were in some kind of environment where the air was either filtered or came through it's own oxygen supply.

Much of the film focuses on the personal dynamics of the survivors. None seem to be going through a denial phase, thinking that the current situation is anything but permanent. Some, in fact, start philosophizing on what the new world order will be like. One young newlywed comes across a bunch of money, and he makes an interesting commentary on just how useless it all now is, when, just a few days before, he would have done anything for it.

Most of the last survivors of the human race, it turns out, are complete bastards, especially the character Taggert, played by George Sanders stand-in Dennis Price. Taggert is clearly only out for himself, and he even tries to take a female companion along with him at gunpoint.

Some alien robot creatures eventually show up, but they merely lumber through town with unclear motivation, only attacking when they are attacked. The film, to its credit, gives us precious little information about what has happened. We know it's an alien invasion, but we don't know how the aliens killed everyone, and we don't know why they aren't bothering to eradicate the survivors. The robots, however, look awesome:
(The still comes from Tim Lucas's Video Watchdog blog.)

In the final twenty minutes of the film, all the dead people suddenly come back to life, but now with opaque white eyeballs. Suddenly, The Earth Dies Screaming becomes a zombie movie. Jeff quickly determines a way to stop the robots and zombies, at least temporarily, and the film comes to a hasty, and not entirely complete, resolution. I appreciate the fact that everything is not suddenly fixed at the end.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: More Sugar and Spike!

Here's another great Halloween cover from Sheldon Mayer's Sugar and Spike, this one from issue 67:


More Sugar and Spike covers can be found at Cover Browser.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: Doomwatch!


The 1972 film Doomwatch is not a particularly exciting horror movie, and some might even debate its categorization as such. Nonetheless, I find the movie notable for a variety of reasons, and not simply because it stars Judy Geeson.

Doomwatch comes from a British TV series of the same name, which was currently in its final season when the film version was made. In both the series and the film, "Doomwatch" is the name of a British government organization charged with investigating environmental problems. I really wish our own government agencies took on such dramatic names. The Environmental Protection Agency would probably get a lot more funding if it found a similar name.

In the film, a scientist named Del Shaw (Ian Bannen) goes to the remote island of Belf to investigate the effects of a recent oil spill on local wildlife. While there, Shaw discovers that many islanders are suffering from a bizarre outbreak of acromegaly. However, his investigation of the outbreak is met with resistance by the locals who don't take kindly to outsiders.

At the beginning, Belf is highly reminiscent of Summerisle, the mysterious, isolated island community in the classic The Wicker Man, which was actually produced the following year after Doomwatch. Shaw keeps meeting villagers who quickly and rudely close their doors on him, and he has difficulty even finding a place to stay for the night. He finally gets to room at a house where he meets the new local schoolmistress, played by Judy Geeson, who happens to be the only other outsider on the island.

As Shaw discovers the extent of the acromegaly outbreak, he also notes that the villagers are treating it as the inevitable outcome of generations of inbreeding. However, when Shaw investigates a navy dumping ground on the island's opposite shore, he comes across some industrial containers that don't belong there. After a run in with a Royal Navy Admiral (played by a clearly bored George Sanders in his final role), Shaw finds out that the containers come from a chemical company that was experimenting with pituitary growth hormone, and that hormone has made its way into the local fish population, which in turn has caused the acromegaly.

What's notable here is that Shaw faces little resistance to his investigation. Sure, he has to overcome local superstitions on the island, but that's about it. When he confronts the chairman of the chemical company and later employees of the private disposal company that's responsible for the dumping, they all just give up their information readily. Even on the island, most islanders come to agree with Shaw's scientific explanation for the acromegaly, and though some threaten violent resistence to outside interference, they all quickly give in. By the end, the movie feels like the X-Files if that show never had a Mulder--that is, Scully could just solve every mystery with her scientific expertise, and everyone would agree that she's right. Ultimately, everyon on Belf agrees with Shaw and submits to radiation treatment on the mainland. Science wins!

The film does try to create some tension, mainly through Ian Bannen's performance. Bannen, best known today as one of the old guys in Waking Ned Divine, is miscast in the movie, as he often flips the switch to righteous indignancy without much provocation. His character, Del Shaw, is new to the film, but the other characters working at Doomwatch headquarters, including Drs. Spencer Quist and John Ridge, all come from the TV series.

The TV series, which ran from 1970-1972, is much better, though only about half of the episodes survive. It does suffer from the low production values of 70s BBC series, but the plots were interesting and surprisingly prescient. Here's a clip from a slightly less prescient episode involving an infestation of giant rats. This is a long clip, but it highlights some of the key qualities of the series, which include some really fine acting by stars John Paul and Simon Oates. Doomwatch and Dr. Quist are feared by other government agencies because of their diligence and tenacity, often drawing comparisons to Nazis. That tension, unfortunately, is all but missing from the film. I also like the cold open of this episode, with the kid thinking that the giant rat is a pussycat. Also, the title sequence and theme music are pretty awesome as well.

Intrepid readers will find whole episodes of this great series floating around the internet, and they are well worth checking out. It would especially be nice if a DVD collection were made of the surviving episodes. In 1999, the BBC launched a pilot to revive this series, but it never panned out. The time certainly seems ripe for a revival of this series.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: They Saved Hitler's Brain!

In the history of bad movies, very few movies seem so overtly to eschew quality as They Saved Hitler's Brain.I've often wondered if the creators came up with the awesome title, and then just decided to coast from there. If that's the case, I totally understand that impulse, as that is exactly what has happened with my own creation, Dr. Sir Isaac Darrow: Science Lawyer.

But despite its awfulness, They Saved Hitler's Brain remains one of the more fascinating bad movies ever made, and one that frequently gets referenced in pop culture.

What makes the movie fascinating is the fact that most of it is actually another movie, titled Madmen of Mandoras, originally released in 1963. Mandoras had also been produced under a couple of different titles, including Maniac and The Return of Mr. H ("Mr. H" is the name used for Hitler in a flashback sequence that explains how the head of the Nazi leader survived WWII). The film involves a CID agent, Phil Day, and his wife, who also happens to be the daughter of a famous scientist, traveling to the South American island of Mandoras to investigate the disappearance of her sister and father, Professor Coleman, who happens to have developed the only antidote to something called "G-Gas," a kind of deadly nerve gas weapon. On the island, Phil discovers a surviving band of Nazis with a plan to take over the world using G-Gas. The Nazis are led by the head of Adolph Hitler, which has been preserved in a jar and barks orders like "Mach Schnell!"

(As you can see, the poster misses the film's key selling point--nowhere at all does it mention that the film features Hitler's head in a jar!)

The 1963 film runs about 74 minutes--a good, short length for a B-picture fixed to a double bill. However, in the late 60s and early 70s, the film's production company, Crown International Pictures, was looking to gain more revenue from its film library by selling off the television rights, probably for "The Late Show" or for the 3:00 Movies I remember so fondly from WPIX in New York when I was a kid. It turned out, though, that the lengths of these movies were problematic, as TV stations wanted films that fit a two-hour time slot with commercials. So, Crown proceeded to pad out Mandoras by twenty minutes, and thus They Saved Hitler's Brain was born.

But the twenty minutes added to the film are just ridiculous.

A subplot was created and tacked on to the beginning of the film featuring two bickering CID agents, Vic and Toni, who are assigned to protect Professor Coleman before he has been kidnapped by the Nazis. The footage was clearly shot by amateur filmmakers with nonactors some time in the early 70s (no sources that I found can identify when this footage was shot, and the film's copyright date is listed as 1963. The film first appeared on TV under its new title in 1976.). Nothing was done to make it mesh with the look and style of the earlier film. Vic is a Steve Perry lookalike who never wears a suit. Toni is shot by the kidnappers, but she manages to survive long enough to get a warning to Vic before he's ambushed by a double agent. Then, a daytime car chase ensues, and Vic is killed in a nighttime collision, in which the filmmakers used footage from Thunder Road. The film even cuts back and forth between the nighttime accident and the pursuers watching it in a scene shot during the day.

While the first twenty minutes or so looks like a bad home movie, the Madmen footage was actually shot by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who also shot such films as The Magnificent Ambersons and Night of the Hunter, so the contrast in styles is jarring.

For those whose prime interest in this film is Hitler's head in a jar, they are doomed to disappointment. We don't get to see the head until very late in the movie (and then, it appears beneath a giant swastika that happened to be drawn backwards. Man, quality control in the post-Third Reich Nazis dropped off sharply.) And even when he shows up, Hitler doesn't get much to do, except shout "Mach Schnell!" a couple of times and then look scowly. There is a nice scene late in the movie, however, when Hitler's head is being transported in the back seat of a car in order to escape the G-Gas detonation. One of Hitler's commanders if forced to kill an ally who has gotten cold feet, and Hitler's eyes glow and a smirk crosses his lips as he witnesses the shooting.

I have to say that the plot of Madmen of Mandoras, either separately or as part of They Saved Hitler's Brain, does not make much sense to me. At first, I thought the editors of the latter film had just butchered the original, but upon watching Madmen itself recently, I realized that that wasn't the case--as far as I can tell, Crown just tacked on the new footage to the beginning of the older movie. And while Madmen is measurably a better movie than Hitler's Brain--at least ore consistent in terms of filmmaking and acting--the latter is still an entertainingly bad movie. However, it doesn't hold a candle to the greatest of all movies featuring surviving severed heads: The Brain that Wouldn't Die!