Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 31: The End!

Happy Halloween, everyone! This year's Halloween Countdown kind of petered out at the end, despite my ambitious plans for the month. Anyway, the kids are about to start arriving at the door, so I hope you all have a great Halloween tonight, whatever your plans might be.

And here, once again, is my Solomon Grundy costume from last year. I was pretty proud of this, and I hope to break it out again next year.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 28: Blackhawk Wingsdays 8

This particular Blackhawk Wingsday got away from me, so there won't be the regular discussion of a full-length Blackhawk story today. Instead, and in order to keep going with the Halloween Countdown this month, here are some great monster-themed covers from the Blackhawk series. As is apparent from scanning the covers to this series, the Blackhawks frequently fought dinosaurs and giant birds, and I will be dealing with these opponents in later entries. The covers below, all taken from The Grand Comics Database feature some of the strangest creatures that the Black Knights ever faced.

Blackhawk 115

Blackhawk 119

Blackhawk 148

Blackhawk 167


All covers pencilled by Dick Dillin.

Next week: back to the regular Blackhawk Wingsdays schedule!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 27: Even More Gil Kane Style!

"Second Choice," written by Gerry Conway, pencilled by Gil Kane, and inked by Neal Adams for House of Secrets 85 (April-May 1970), contains one of the rare instances of a Gil Kane punch in one of DC's horror titles of the 70s. And, in addition to having the odd combination of Kane inked by Neal Adams, it also features another signature Kane image: the crazy floating head!

"Second Choice" is very similar to the first two Gil Kane stories I covered during this Halloween Countdown: a young man tries to free a village from an oppressive threat. In this case, young Henry Lansbury, in the year 989, hopes to free his village from an evil wizard's control. Years before, his father had attempted the same quest and never returned. The story's twist, however, is that Abel, the host of House of Secrets, tells the story in two different ways. In the first, Henry takes an indirect approach, enlisting the help of a rival wizard and bringing about his village's freedom. In the second version, Henry takes a slightly different route, going after the wizard in single combat. Henry wins, but as we see in the above image, he discovers here that the wizard is really his father, but only after he punches dad into a hell pit. Henry then sees how his father defeated the original wizard but was tempted to take on his power and continue the roll. Now, young Henry makes the same choice his father made.

While Neal Adams inking anybody always seems like an odd combination to me, as I'm more used to Adams as a penciller, he and Kane complement each other well here, as both were exceptionally dynamic artists.

Next week, we resume our regular Gil Kane punch feature!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 26: Beowulf vs. Dracula!

Every year, I teach Beowulf in the British Survey course. And almost every year, I teach Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula, in First-Year English. As I have been tenured for a few years now, I've been looking for ways to make my teaching more efficient and less strenuous. One way I would really like to do this is to combine some of the works I teach and "double-up" so I don't have to do so much reading. That's why I was very excited when I found this comic:

Beowulf 4 (Oct.-Nov. 1975), written by Michael Uslan and drawn by Ricardo Villamonte, has the great Geat hero, Beowulf, fight the Wallachian prince, Vlad Tepes, also known as Dracula. More specifically, Beowulf teams up with the lost tribe of Israel to fight Dracula, which is a plot more awesome in the paraphrasing than it is in the execution.

Satan, who has been screwing with Beowulf and his band of warriors since the beginning of the series, keeps transporting Beowulf back and forth between the battle with Grendel, which is based on the original epic poem, and other conflicts all over the world. In this issue, Satan pits Beowulf against Vlad and his Wallachian army.

But first, Beowulf is attacked by the lost tribe of Israel, who think the guy in the outrageous pointed helmet is Dracula himself. Once this confusion is settled, the wandering Jews explain to Beowulf the story of their enemy, who is known as both the "Son of the Dragon" and "The Impaler".Uslan manages to hamfistedly insert a line from the 1931 Dracula film here, even though it really doesn't belong.

After Beowulf gets transported back and forth to different locations, he finally has a showdown with Vlad, pitting his giant freaking mace against Vlad's flimsy shield and tiny spear.
Vlad then disarms Beowulf and pulls out a giant sword from somewhere, moving in for the kill.

However, in a surprising turn of events, one of Vlad's own men stabs his leader in the back, killing him and saving Beowulf. As we see, the Wallachian soldier was momentarily possessed by Satan, who decided he needed to use Dracula for bigger plans, thus transforming him into an undead vampire.

So, Dracula doesn't even become a vampire until the end of the story, making this slightly useless as a replacement for the two separate literary texts that I teach. And, in the end, it doesn't get close to living up to the potential for awesomeness that a Beowulf/Dracula fight should achieve. Therefore, I think this concept deserves a do-over.

Friday, October 23, 2009

RIP Soupy Sales

Sad news today that Soupy Sales passed away at the age of 83. Soupy Sales was one of the entertainers that crossed generational lines between my dad and me. Dad grew up on Soupy's live, largely unscripted afternoon show,and he would often recite bits from memory when I was a kid. He was about 10 years old when the original Soupy Sales Show started airing on New York stations, and I was about the same age when Soupy got his new show in 1978-79.

I also found this record at a garage sale when I was a kid, and I wore it out.

Though I can remember this record pretty much verbatim--Soupy is asked by the government to infiltrate a circus, and he has to perform some stunt where he's shot out of a cannon and hit in the face with one of his signature pies while in midair--I really want to find another copy of it again, since mine is long gone.

Today, it's hard to imagine a program like the original Soupy Sales Show, which would run for hours every afternoon, filled with often improvised comedy. Here's a clip from the show, which features Soupy's hit song, "The Mouse." It also shows a regular bit called "Soupy Sez," and the joke is really smart--one that I can't imagine a lot of 10-year-olds getting today. But one of the great things about this show was that Soupy never talked down to the kids.

You can find another funny clip here, featuring one of Soupy's pals, White Fang, who was just a pair of furry white claws. Soupy was also joined by Black Tooth and Peaches, two other friends who spoke in unintelligible grunts that only Soupy could understand.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 22: If You're in the Area...

If you're in the area next Thursday, October 29, we're putting on another staged reading of a Mercury Theatre radio show for Halloween. Last year, we did War of the Worlds for the 70th anniversary of the famous broadcast, which was a lot of fun and a big success. This year, we're doing Dracula!

And, most importantly, I get to play Dracula! If you've ever heard the Mercury Theatre's original radio drama--or read the novel, for that matter--you know that Dracula doesn't have a huge part, but it's freaking Dracula, for crying out loud! Details are in the link above if you happen to be around here next week.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 21: Blackhawk Wingsdays 7

In last week's story, I showed you how the Blackhawks took on the somewhat perplexing threat of "The Plantimal." This time, from Blackhawk 199 (1964), we get the mildly annoying danger of the "Mummy Insects"!

Clearly, the way Blackhawk writers would create a threat for the team would be to combine two vaguely interesting things and turn them into one slightly more interesting thing--in this case, mummies and ants.

The story opens with citizens in some unnamed city's park suddenly finding themselves overcome by a strange green gas. Then, a similar gray smog blinds drivers on a local bridge. One's first thought might be that Hendrickson has been cooking again, but this is not that simple. Nonetheless, the local authorities call in the Blackhawks for help.

I have to stop here for a second because I have a question: Where exactly do the Blackhawks show up on local emergency services' speed dials? I mean, who has to be unavailable before you call the Blackhawks? At this time, you would have had the Justice League, Teen Titans, Doom Patrol, Challengers of the Unknown, Sea Devils, The Secret Six, The Inferior Five (am I missing any here?)--how far down that list do you go before you settle on the Blackhawks? And at what point do you just say, "Fuck it, we'll handle it ourselves"? I'm especially curious about that in this case, because I'm not quite sure that a team of aviators would be all that useful in dealing with mysterious gases that come out in city parks.

Whatever the case, the threat soon enters the Blackhawks' wheelhouse, as the city is threatened by a giant dragon fly. The team manages to shoot the creature down, but not before it punctures Andre's fuel tank and causes him to screw the pooch.

At the corpse of the giant dragon fly, the Blackhawks meet up with Professor Marley, a famous insectologist (is that even a real thing?) and natty dresser who has been studying some recent, strange insect phenomena. He shows the men how horseflies are committing suicide by the thousands, and black ants are attacking red ants. Marley reveals that one thing ties all these mysterious occurences together: the appearance of some strange, unidentified insect tracks.

The team helps the professor put together some surveillance equipment, which quickly reveal the culprit to be mummy insects.

Faster than Blackhawk can say "Galloping Ladybugs!" (which is the stupidest fucking expression I have ever heard. I mean, do ladybugs actually gallop?) the professor disappears in a puff of smoke before he can explain what the hell is going on with these crazy-ass ants.

The team splits up to investigate this problem, and Olaf, Andre, and Blackhawk come across a giant anthill with a glowing green meteor on top. They then call in the other four members, but when Chuck, Hendrickson, Stan, and Chop-Chop arrive, their teammates are nowhere to be found. All four members then pull out their handy Blackhawk magnifying glasses from their special detective kits, and find that their missing teammates have been shrunk down to the size of ants!

The four magnifying glasses trained on our heroes cause them to burst into flames and die, leaving only four surviving Blackhawks.

Actually, that's not true. But the mummy insects, who communicate through mental telepathy, take their three Blackhawks prisoner into the caverns of their anthill.

It turns out these aren't really Earth ants, but alien creatures from the planeT "Anteos," who have consumed all of their own natural resources and are now searching for a new planet to waste. The Blackhawks, however, inform the alien ants that we're doing a good enough job consuming all our resources, and we really don't need another species to do it for us.

The ants have wrapped themselves in bandages in order to protect themselves from damaging solar rays, and now they are using their science to cause Earth's insects to destroy each other, so as to reduce competition for valuable vegetation. Their plans aren't working fast enough, however, and the ants have kidnapped Professor Morley to get him to reveal the formula for an insect-killing poison that will finish off the job. Morley refuses, so he and the Blackhawks are thrown into the prison of this alien ant farm.

The Blackhawks and the professor develop an elaborate escape plan: they will convince the alien ants to don some winged contraption that makes them appear to be worker ants, which will drive some imprisoned red ants nuts, as worker ants are the natural enemies of red ants. The ensuing melee will create a distraction for the humans to escape. Actually, the professor comes up with this escape plan on his own, while the Blackhawks do absolutely nothing.

The escape, however, is blocked by alien ant guards, but Andre quickly mounts a firefly in order to get help from his full-sized buddies. They have a simple plan to destroy the alien ants and their secret laboratory: the tiny Blackhawks will take a bullet and a key, and they will bang the cartridge with the key until the bullet goes off.

This works, and the alien ant genocide ensues, but the three tiny Blackhawks are still small. Luckily, just before Blackhawk killed him, the ant guard was nice enough to explain how the shrinking ray worked, and Blackhawk is able to return his teammates and the professor to normal size.

This is one of the first Blackhawk comics I ever owned when I was a kid, and for some reason that I can't quite explain, it got me hooked on the series to the point where I became an avid collector. In hindsight, that just seems ridiculous, and I really have to question the taste of 10-year-old Dr. K.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 20: Gil Kane Style 3!

Following "Comes a Warrior" in House of Mystery 180, readers were treated to a second Gil Kane story, which seemed to be commenting on the previous one. "His Name Is ... Kane!" written by Mike Friedrich and inked by Wally Wood, tells the story of an egotistical comic artist named "Gil Kane," who is too good for the work he is given, and to punish his hubris, he is pulled into his own art!

Kane often drew himself into his stories, especially Silver Age Green Lantern and Atom stories, where Kane would suddenly appear at his drawing board, giving the reader some information during a pause from the action. Here, though, he's clearly letting the piss get taken out of himself for this story.

There's a nice little detail on the splash page, where, in the background, we can see a signed portrait on the wall that reads, "To Gil From Eli." Of course, "Eli Katz" was Gil Kane's real name, so the implication here is that he signed this portrait to himself.

Kane is sucked in to his own story, where he has to do battle with some of the crazy beasts he's created, including what looks like the dragon from the previous story. However, he grabs onto Rangarry's sword and battles the beasts on his own. And while Kane does draw himself as one of his signature screaming floating heads, he does not draw himself delivering a patented Gil Kane Punch, which is the one disappointment in this otherwise awesome story.

The story then flashes back to an earlier time, where editor Joe Orlando is chastising Kane for being late 13 times in a row.

Kane's complaints about his inkers may have been based on real events, as Kane was never very happy with the inkers he had while working for DC in the Silver Age, including Sid Greene and Vince Colletta. However, I can't imagine Kane was dissatisfied with Wally Wood's inks on this or the previous story, as Wood's inks complemented Kane's pencils better than any other inker but himself. And this reference to Kane making it big as a publisher references Kane's failed attempt at self-publishing the previous year, the the awesome comic magazine His Name Is ... Savage! (hence, this story's title as well).

Looking to get away from these harrassing phone calls, Kane finds a quiet place to work at the House of Mystery, where the host, Cain, has a studio already set up for him.

However, Kane can't even find any peace here. as Orlando tracks him down, and they have it out.

I particularly love this reference to Kane's "research for [his] private outside character"--the hyperviolent Savage--which leads Kane to kill Orlando and dispose of the body, causing him to get further behind on his deadlines.

Kane wakes up from an exhausted nap at his drawing board to find a team of small, balding assistants working independently on his art.

(I'm thinking that these miniature assistants are meant to look like DC publisher and former Kane studio-mate Carmine Infantino, but I may be wrong here.)

The artist is then sucked into the page, where he faces a new set of demons, who look a bit like Joe Orlando and Mike Friedrich.

The story ends with Cain entering the studio and finding it empty. Left on the drawing board, however, is an awesome piece of Gil Kane original art, which Cain quickly frames and hangs on the wall, trapping Kane beneath the glass forever!

I've always wondered what the story is behind this story. Kane had to have a good sense of humor to participate in this, yet a lot of the digs at him seem pretty genuine. In a late interview that Gil Kane did with Gary Groth for Comics Journal, Kane suggests that this story, titla and all, was written before he was signed on as artist, but I find it hard to believe that Joe Orlando would have gone with a different artist on it. Still, if anyone out there knows any more about the genesis of this story, I'd be interested in hearing about it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 19: I Married a Monster from Outer Space!

As I mentioned in a previous Halloween Countdown post, I love discovering an old sci-fi or horror movie that has more going on in it than one might expect. The best example, and one that I occasionally use in some of my classes, is the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is well-known for its Cold War subtext. Another similar movie, but with an altogether different 1950s subtext, is I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958).

I Married a Monster from Outer Space (directed by Gene Fowler, Jr., perhaps best known for another confessionally titled classic, I Was a Teenage Werewolf) could be, and often is, read in the same Cold War context as Invasion of the Body Snatchers: the replacement of humans by aliens is a metaphor for the Communist infiltration of the US. Both films build on a similar sense of dread that no one can be trusted, and both are set in stereotypical small town America. However, the anxieties exploited in I Married a Monster are much more domestic in nature.

The film opens with what must be the most depressing bachelor party in history: a bunch of guys sitting around in a bar, getting drunk, and complaining about how rotten marriage is. Bill, the groom-to-be (Tom Tryon), decides to leave this yuck fest and head home. But on his way, he's accosted by a strange, glowing smoke that envelopes his body, and he is replaced by an alien lookalike.

The next day, Alien Bill goes through with his marriage to Marge (Gloria Talbott), and it's clear on the wedding night that the couple is experiencing some considerable sexual tension. The film then cuts to Marge writing a letter to her mother, in which she complains about Bill's lack of intimacy, and how he seems to be a different person. However, she throws the letter away without sending it.

The movie flashes forward a year at this point, and Marge is visiting her doctor because she's worried that she and Bill are still childless. The doctor explains that there is nothing wrong with her, but he would like to see Bill at some point.

It is here, in Marge's anxieties about childlessness and her concerns about Bill's lack of intimacy, that the film's subtext begins to become apparent. The replacement of men by aliens serves as an allegory for 1950s anxieties about homosexuality, and this allegory plays out in very interesting and surprisingly frank ways throughout the movie.

Soon, Bill discovers that he's not alone in Morrisville, as his friend Sam reveals that he, too, is an alien, though he has to do it through coded language and some kind of psychic connection. Then, more and more men in Morrisville are replaced, including local police and other authorities.

Marge continues to suspect that something's wrong with Bill, and when he sneaks out one night, she decides to follow him. She trails him all the way to a local wooded park, where he meets other men from the town, and she is finally exposed to his true nature.

She then tries to share her knowledge with others, but they don't believe her. The sheriff, for one, is an alien himself, so he won't help. When she tries to warn her friend Helen away from marrying Sam, Marge can't find the language to explain her objections, and all Helen can think of that would dissuade her would be if Sam were a bigamist or a bank robber.

Ultimately, the aliens' plans are revealed. On their home planet, all the women died as their sun became extinct, and they are looking for another planet through which they can allow their race to survive. Their scientists are currently working on ways to breed with human women, and once that happens, they can perpetuate themselves.

However, a couple of problems have come up. First, some of the alien men are starting to feel human emotions, as they absorbed the memories of their victims. Second, the aliens can't survive in Earth's atmosphere, so their human meat suits convert oxygen into whatever it is they breathe. And third, they can't consume alcohol, which, as you can imagine, makes them stick out like crazy in 1958.

Marge finally gets the local doctor to believe her story, and the doctor gathers together all the men who have recently fathered children (and therefore couldn't possibly be aliens) to form an armed posse to go after the alien spaceship hidden in the woods. So, the finale of the film basically pits all the certified heterosexual men in the town against the gay aliens. The aliens then decide to leave Earth alone, and the human captives are recovered, so now Marge and Bill can get married for real and start procreating, instead of doing whatever freaky alien sex stuff Marge was doing with her alien husband. Interestingly, we don't see the conversation that Marge and Bill have about what Marge was doing for the year that Bill was an alien prisoner.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 18: Taste the Blood of Dracula!

Hammer's fourth Dracula film, Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), runs a close second to Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter as my favorite Hammer horror film. That's because Taste... represents the quintessential Hammer horror film for me, and it comes just as the Dracula series dips into the ridiculousness and excesses of the last three Hammer films: The Scars of Dracula, Dracula AD 1972, and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Taste... is definiitely more decadent than previous outings, and it's clear that writer Anthony Hinds (credited as "John Elder") has cut loose on this film in ways that he didn't on the previous one, and director Peter Sasdy makes this film look like a high budget period production.

The film opens with the great British character actor, Roy Kinnear, travelling by carriage through an unidentified European forest, on his way back to England with new wares to sell in his shop. He offers to sell some fellow passengers a new snow globe he picked up, but one of the passengers turns out to be a mentally damaged, violent individual, in dress resembling a Victorian undertaker, who takes the globe and throws Kinnear from the carriage. We never see the characters in the carriage again, but we can imagine that they go off into another Hammer movie of their own.

Kinnear is knocked unconscious, and when he wakes up, he begins to walk through the woods in order to find a way back to civilization. He hears, however, some unearthly screams, and when he goes to check out the noise, he discovers Dracula, impaled and writing on a cross, which occurred during the climax of the previous film.

I like how Anthony Hinds binds these two movies together, but he does have to cheat a little to get there. Kinnear walks very easily from the road, through the woods, to Dracula's castle, while characters in the previous movie had to go through some pretty exhausting climbs in order to reach the same goal.

Kinnear witnesses Dracula dissolve into a red, bubbly, jelly-like substance, but as a merchant, he quickly sees an opportunity for profit. He leaves the scene with Dracula's clasp, cape, signet ring, and blood.

After the title card, the film moves to a bucolic English church, where several of London's prominent citizens and their families are leaving after Sunday service. Several of the young people also discuss their plans for later. We then follow one young woman, Alice Hargood (Linda Hayden), as she returns home with her family. Her father, William (Geoffrey Keen), is none too pleased with his daughter, who he witnessed flirting with a young man, Paul Paxton (Anthony Corlan). The father accuses the daughter of acting like a harlot in church, and he forbids her from seeing young Paul anymore.

This sets the stage for the exposure of some good old Victorian hypocrisy. One evening, Hargood gets into a carriage along with two other prominent citizens: Samuel Paxton (Peter Sallis) and Jonathon Secker (John Carson). They head off to do their weekly "charitable work," which takes their carriage to a London soup kitchen. The three men are usured through the establishment, where it's revealed that the soup kitchen is merely a front for an elaborate, decadent brothel, where all three are welcomed as regulars by the flamboyant host.

These three men are self-defined pleasure seekers who get together every week at this brothel in order to be exposed to some new kind of thrill. However, it seems that the new thrills are not bringing the same level of unique excitement, and the men are getting bored. Even the snake charmer that the host produces for them only barely gets a rise out of them.

Meanwhile, into the brothel bursts Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), who rudely goes from room to room searching out the prostitute he wants, much to the host's distress. Courtley bursts into the room where the three men are watching the snake charmer, and he quickly snaps his fingers, drawing to him the prostitute that had previously been serving Mr. Hargood. She and Courtley then depart, leaving the host to make his apologies.

The men, however, have become curious about this bold, extravagant lord, and they quiz the host on his identity and situation. Lord Courtley has been disowned by his father for dabbling in the dark arts. Secker inquires as to how Courtley could then afford the services of these prostitutes, and the host explains that none of them charge Courtley; in fact, they seek him out for the intense pleasures he provides! The men then decide that they need to get to know this guy in order to take them to the next level.

They take Courtley to dinner in order to enlist him as their guide in the dark arts. Courtley makes them an offer: they can provide financial support for his new effort to revive the greatest evil of all, Count Dracula!

Courtley takes the men to Kinnear's shop, where they are shown the relics of Dracula that will be needed for the ceremony. Despite some early resistance from Paxton, the three agree to pay for the items, and the plan is set for the resurrection ceremony.

It is during the resurrection ceremony that the film's title becomes all too literal, unlike the previous movie. Courtley performs a ceremony in which his blood is mingled with the fine red dust that had been Dracula's blood. This mixture then bubbles and overflows the goblets of the three men, who are then instructed to drink up. At this point, they all get cold feet and refuse, leaving Courtley to drink it himself. This proves to be a bad idea, as he begins to choke and gag. The three men, fearing what they've done, proceed to kick Courtley to death and escape the deconsecrated church where the ceremony was taking place.

Unlike the previous film, where Dracula's resurrection is handled quickly and efficiently, this movie takes a long time with the resurrection, and Dracula doesn't even appear until about the halfway point. This is perfectly fine, though. One of the reasons I've spent so much time here just describing the film's first half is because this story is so well done here. I love the way the film delves into this dark underbelly of Victorian England, with the strict, proper, religious father hiding a secret life as a closeted decadent. And Ralph Bates, who's great some of the later Hammer films, like The Horror of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, is wild and unrestrained as the Crowley-esque Lord Courtley. And while the film loses some steam when he leaves it, it's too the filmmakers credit that the movie manages to maintain its quality through the end, which is not something that can be said about all Hammer films.

Dracula (Christopher Lee, naturally) emerges from the chrysalis of Courtley's corpse in the only scene of the movie that betrays the film's low budget. Dracula then vows revenge on the three men who destroyed his "servant," but this vow raises some questions. Clearly, that "servant" was going to die anyway once Dracula burst forth from his body, so this revenge does seem a bit misguided. However, it is the revenge plot that, as in the previous movie, drives the rest of the film.

The three men each experience a different level of stress and near breakdown from their guilt and nervousness over Courtley's death. Even when they become convinced that no legal harm will come to them, they are still quite nervous. Dracula, then, gets his revenge against them by doing what he does best--turning their women into his servants. That revenge works out in some particularly effective and shocking ways, and a genuine sense of dread kicks in to the film when it becomes apparent that Dracula may not be stopped. The filmmakers really tap into one of Dracula's characteristics that makes him such a particularly horrifying figure: he can manipulate your loved ones to turn against you, making even the home an unsafe place and turning normal, intimate family situations into opportunities for murder. No one in the film knows how much danger they are in until it's too late, and victory is achieved only with great cost.

The series really peaks with this film, and Christopher Lee even felt strong dissatisfaction with the scripts he was given for the following films. It seems that, on this film, Hammer got its mix of ingredients just right. The sex and violence that marked the studio's horror output has progressively increased from previous films, yet this film does not rely entirely on those kinds of shocks as the later films do, and it manages to still be inventive and fun.

Here is the trailer for Taste the Blood of Dracula, which features many of the film's highlights. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 15: Dracula Has Risen from the Grave!

As a crossover between the Halloween Countdown and The ISB's Dracula Week, today I'm going to cover Hammer Films' Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1969)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is Hammer's third Dracula movie, following The Blood of Dracula (1957) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) (The Brides of Dracula [1960] is not technically a Dracula movie because he never actually appears in the movie, though Peter Cushing does reprise his roll as Van Helsing). Blood of Dracula is a relatively loose adaptation of Stoker's novel, while Dracula: Prince of Darkness spends a huge chunk of its running time with Dracula's resurrection. In this third outing, Hammer's formula for these Dracula movies becomes set: Dracula threatens a woman and is then challenged by her lover.

Many of these Hammer vampire movies also begin with an effectively suspenseful opening scene that builds toward a horrifying reveal. In this case, a young mute boy arrives at the local church for his job as caretaker. As he goes about his rounds, he grabs the bell rope and finds it covered in dripping blood. The priest arrives and investigates the mystery that the mute boy can't explain, and he finds a dead woman hanging upsidedown inside the bell. The woman has two distinct bite marks on her neck, which leads the priest to cry out, "When will we be free of his evil?"

This scene works great on its own, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that the scene has no real place in the movie. As we find out shortly, Dracula has not yet returned; in fact, he is still encased in ice as he was left at the end of the last movie (which is, by the way, one of the worst methods for disposing of Dracula. All you need is a good thaw and Dracula's free again.) So, this movie never explains how the girl got into the belltower in the first place.

However, after this incident, no one in the village goes to church anymore, and the priest is left to hold mass for an empty hall. It is here that Monsignor Mueller (Rpert Davies) comes to town--a man with experience dealing with vampires. Father Mueller decides to take care of the village's fears once and for all by climbing the mountain that overlooks the town and exorcising Dracula's castle.

Mueller and the village priest make their way up the mountain, but a combination of fear and exhaustion causes the priest to lag behind. Mueller successfully performs the exorcism, which seems to cause a thunderstorm to break out. The lightning causes the priest to fall, cut his head, and crack the ice surrounding Dracula (Christopher Lee) (this also puts the lie to the film's title, as Dracula does not actually rise from a grave. But then, "Dracula Breaks Free from his Icy Tomb" is not as catchy a title). The blood from the priest's headwound then runs down Dracula's mouth and revives him. So, Monsignor Mueller has only succeeded in locking Dracula out of his castle, though the Monsignor does not know this yet and instead returns to his own village, comfortable in the knowledge that Dracula has been defeated once and for all.

Dracula finds that he can no longer enter his castle, so he vows revenge on the one that did this. To track down Mueller, Dracula takes control of the village priest, who then leads the vampire to his prey.

Meanwhile, Mueller returns home to his sister and niece. Maria, the niece, is nervous to introduce her uncle to her new beau, Paul, whose shirtless introduction makes him look like a buff, 19th-century version of Roger Daltry. During their introductory dinner, Paul reveals to the Monsignor that he is an atheist, which, as you can imagine, doesn't sit well with the holy man.

One of the major flaws in these more formulaic Hammer movies is the fact that nothing much happens in the second acts. So, while the movies are only about 90 minutes long, they tend to drag in the middle 30 minutes or so.

Paul works at the local bar while he also studies for some undefined degree. A co-worker at the bar--a saucy redhead named Zena--is always hitting on Paul, but he remains true to Maria. We know, however, that the redhead is obviously going to come under the thrall of Dracula, and this proves true soon enough.

Dracula, now accompanied by both Zena and the cowardly priest, seeks to take revenge on the Monsignor through his niece, and this brings Paul into the fight as well, and his atheism becomes an obstacle for defeating Dracula.

In fact, the movie makes a weird addition to the rules for destroying vampires--not only is a stake through the heart necessary, but the "staker" must also pray while doing so. This is actually closer to the rules established in Stoker's novel, but it's highly inconsistent with the other Hammer vampire movies, and it seems to be here only to present a challenge for Paul.

The director of this film, Freddie Francis, was one of the greatest cinematographers in film history, and he got the chance to direct at Hammer. As such, his films for Hammer have a distinctive visual style. Here, Dracula is always shot through an odd, prismatic filter that gives a rainbow hue around the edges of the frame while making Dracula's skin look unearthly in the center. He also uses a lot of closeups of Dracula's bloodshot eyes, and Dracula has almost no lines in the movie.

This movie also makes up for the weak ending of Prince of Darkness by giving Dracula one of the most awesome, most visually exciting deaths in the Hammer films. You can see it here if you don't mind the spoilers:

Also, as an added bonus, here's one of the posters for Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, which serves as a perfect marketing strategy for what Hammer was trying to do with this series.

This film was followed by Taste the Blood of Dracula, and that title reflects the increasing luridness of Hammer's Dracula films.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 14: Blackhawk Wingsdays 6

Last week, I promised that Blackhawk Wingsdays would be tied into the Halloween Countdown for the month of October, so for this installment, I picked a Blackhawk story that recalls some of the sci-fi movies of the 50s and 60s. So, here's the main story from Blackhawk 218 (March 1966): "Seven Against Planet Peril," featuring the menace of "The Plantimal!"

As the cover states, The Plantimal is "Half-Plant, Half-Animal--and All Murder!" But I really feel like I need to see the math on that equation.

Though no writer is credited on this issue, this is the point in the series where Bob Haney has taken over scripting from Arnold Drake and France Herron, and he initiated some key changes to the series, including new costumes and more sci-fi-style adventures. So, although Bob Haney is not credited as the writer of this story, I'm pretty certain he did it, as will become apparent soon enough. And, as usual, the art is by Dick Dillin and Chuck Cuidera. Dillin definitely seems to be cutting loose under Haney's scripts and perhaps under the influence of DC's other Silver Age artists, and we are getting to see a style here closer to the one he used on his classic run of JLA.

The story opens with the Blackhawks flying to their very special, isolated vacation retreat. Suddenly, all the buildings in the vacation village fly up in the air, and the Blackhawks have to perform a crazy aerial maneuver that couldn't possibly happen, where they link the planes' rope ladders into a kind of lasso.

It turns out that, stowing away in one of these deserted buildings is none other than "King Blingo," the rightful leader of the planet Ezz, who is hiding out on Earth in exile.

Blingo blames some invisible "Image-Men" for the flying buildings, and then he tries to enlist the help of the Blackhawks to return him to his rightful throne on Ezz.

The Blackhawks and Blingo try to infiltrate the Ezz palace, but they set off an alarm that leads some guards to them.

But they use some awesome teamwork and horrible puns to beat these Ezzians into submission.

However, the leader of the insurrection, General B'Adda, uses an "immobile ray" on the heroes, and they are thrown in prison.

While in prison, the Blackhawks meet A'Dora, the woman who Blingo had hoped to make his queen. A'Dora, however, is a stone-cold bitch.

In the cell, the Blackhawks fear that none of their skills can help them escape, at which point Blingo starts whistling, and a terrible noise comes from outside. This turns out to be the "Plantimal," which totally confounds the Blackhawks' rather rigid sensibilities about life forms.

In fact, they get into a detailed discussion of whether they should water or feed it, put it in a pot or leash it, cook it or eat it raw, or make a baseball bat or a fur coat out of it.

In the end, the Plantimal is not defeated by the Blackhawks' various skills, whatever those might be, but instead by Blingo's newfound superpowers, which include flight and incredible strength.

It's at this point that I have little doubt that Bob Haney wrote this story. Nothing from here on out makes any sense, and a lot of it seems made up on the fly.

Somehow, Blingo and the Blackhawks figure out that he got his powers from some mineral water near the mountain retreat on Earth. Meanwhile, B'Adda kidnaps A'Dora, who is hot for Blingo now that he has super powers. They head to Earth in a rocketship, while Blingo uses his as-yet undefined powers to create a "Super-Air Bubble" around the Blackhawks and carries them to Earth.

On Earth, the Ezzians try to gain superpowers through the mineral water, but it doesn't work, and they instead try to take out the Blackhawks with three different weapons: an atomizer gun, a demolisher ray, and a vaporizer gun.

We never get to see if these weapons will work, though, because Blingo uses his antigravity weapon and drops a house on them.

In the end, Blingo gets to reclaim his throne, but he doesn't quite get the girl, as A'Dora--like all women throughout the universe--succumbs to Andre's undeniable attraction.

Andre, interestingly, does not take the opportunity for some green Ezzian strange, so A'Dora decides it's best to hook back up with the king.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Halloween Countdown Day 13: More Gil Kane Style

For this week's Gil Kane story, I've picked "Comes a Warrior," from House of Mystery 180 (May-June 1969), and, like the previous House of Mystery story, this one is also inked by Wally Wood. However, unlike any other Gil Kane story I've covered so far, this one features a rare occurence of a Gil Kane script!

Kane, who was an intensive autodidact, taught himself many of the classics and was particularly fond of opera. "Comes a Warrior," therefore, is a bit of a riff on Beowulf and Wagner's The Ring cycle, which Kane would adapt later in his career, with the help of Roy Thomas on scripts.

The story opens with a young Nordic warrior named "Rangarry" (short for "Rangarry Ran Ross") brandishing a sword through a lightning storm, which can't possibly be safe. Rangarry has been riding around for years looking for adventure that would help him build his reputation as a warrior. If it's taken him years to do this, he's either very picky about what constitutes a worthy adventure, or he's just not looking in the right place. I mean, I've technically spent "years" looking for the perfect Philly cheese steak, but my search has been limited to a couple of places in South Carolina. I wouldn't necessarily call that a "quest."

Rangarry arrives in a small, deserted village, where he senses the danger that he's longed for. Suddenly, a man attacks him, claiming the warrior is a demon in disguise.

After being offered a taste of Rangarry's blade, the attacker realizes he's got things wrong, and he goes on to explain that the village was devastated in an attack by an evil dragon and its "foul spawn."

The dragon looks a lot like the Basilisk that Kane and Wood drew in the story I covered from issue 184 last week.

Eager to get his adventuring out of the way, Rangarry sets up an elaborate trap for the dragon. Then, in an awesome full-page spread, he gets the dragon to follow him.

The dragon falls into the trap, and Rangarry puts the beast away with a well-placed sword to the neck.

However, in the usual House of Mystery fashion, there is an ironic twist coming. It turns out, despite appearances, the dragon was a good guy, guarding a temple that was imprisoning demons and keeping them out of the human world. The dude who attacked Rangarry earlier was one of these demons who had managed to sneak out, and now all his bretheren are freed.

Feeling ashamed, Rangarry just lets the demons kill him, thus dooming mankind to their wrath.

"Comes a Warrior" also serves as a set-up for the next story in this issue, which happens to be one of my favorite Gil Kane stories of all time. This, I'll be covering next week!