Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Slasher (aka Ryker #8)

The Slasher, by Edson T. Hamill
No month stated, 1976  Leisure Books

The Ryker series ends with a whimper, with an installment that appears to have been written by a new ghostwriter…one who basically just turns in a slow-moving police procedural that has nothing in common with the preceeding volumes. No idea who wrote this one, but I’m sure it’s not the same “Edson T. Hamill” who wrote the much superior Motive For Murder. In fact I wonder if this one was just a standalone procedural Leisure got hold of, and then editor Peter McCurtin turned into a Ryker book. But I doubt this is true, as there are none of the Leisure-typical goofs in the text. Ie, Ryker is solely referred to as “Ryker” throughout.

However he bears little resemblance to the Ryker of those earlier books, and none of the recurring characters appear. If this was commissioned as a bona fide Ryker novel, then the author clearly didn’t read any of the originals. This Ryker is also a weary cop, but there the resemblance ends, for the most part. He has no family, unlike the character created by Nelson DeMille, and he displays few of the racist/sexist/what-have-you tendencies of the normal Ryker; in fact at one point he’s told, by his girlfriend no less, that he’s a “good person” and “not racist or sexist.” Also, this Ryker isn’t a dick to his fellow cops, even trying to help out one of them who is laid off. He appears to only get angry when his latest case is compromised by laziness or judicial corruption, and then he will let fly with the racist/sexist/what-have-you stuff.

None of the regulars are here; this Ryker, while still in Homicide, reports to a Lt. Carley, who himself reports to Captain Creech. These are all new characters, yet they are presented as Ryker’s long-term colleagues. And Ryker seldom shows his superiors any of the hostility typical for the normal Ryker, only running afoul of them due to his complaints over the corruption of judges, city hall, etc. As for Ryker’s partner, first we’re told that his partner “of over two years” is being laid off due to the cutbacks hitting the city, and later he is given a new one: Frank Bailey, fresh out of admin and new to the world of detective work. Ryker harrasses him for a bit, but it’s nothing along the lines of the harrassment Ryker doled out to his new partner in #2: The Hammer of God, and in fact there are parts where Ryker doesn’t even call Bailey to the latest crime scene, telling Bailey that he wanted to ensure he got enough sleep(!!).

The Slasher occurs in a nightmarish New York in which budget cuts have whittled the police force down to nothing, the liberal civil rights parties have neutered the arm of justice, and a cape-clad sadist runs amok, slicing the throats of hookers with a surgical blade. So far he has killed seventeen women, and Ryker is thankful his team doesn’t have the case. Unfortunately the Slasher, referred to in the papers as a modern Jack the Ripper, stays off-page for the majority of the novel. Instead, The Slasher is a 180-page slog of small, dense print, more concerned with documenting the travails of an overworked cop than the lurid, sensationalistic stuff of, say, Motive For Murder, which is still my favorite Ryker novel of those I’ve read.

But it’s real slow-going. With the emasculated “Ryker” of the novel, there isn’t even any of the fun stuff to get us through the first third of the book. What makes it worse is that “Hamill” writes the novel like he’s John Gardner or something, overstuffing it with needless, pointless detailing. Instead of just writing “Ryker went home” or whatever, we’ll get several paragraphs of Ryker putting on his hat and tie and tossing his coffee cup in the trash and walking by the night clerk and stepping out onto the sidewalk, etc. For example:

Bailey looked at him and then at Creech, cleared his throat uncertainly and nodded, and turned to follow Creech. Ryker walked over to the coat rack and hung up his top coat, suit coat, and hat. He took the two envelopes out of his coat and dropped them on the desk and he picked up his coffee cup, and he took the cup to the urn and filled it. Carley got up from his desk and kicked his door closed with a boom. The men on Bodecker’s side of the office looked up, looked at each other and shrugged, and went on with their business.

Every page is like this. It might not seem like much when just a single instance is displayed, but when every single paragraph on every single page is filled with mundane incidentals fully spelled out, it gets to be a dead bore. The vast majority of the manuscript should’ve had a red marker slashed across it – I mean, we’re talking about a novel with a titular villain who wears a disguise, slashes throat, and might even be of supernatural origins (a tidbit only revealed in the very final pages, alas), but instead of all that we instead read tedious detailing about Ryker pulling on his coat and tie and etc. Or filling out paperwork. Or ensuring that the office door doesn’t slam so the captain won’t be annoyed. 

Another drag is that the titular Slasher is barely in the book. Plus it isn’t even Ryker’s case until midway through; initially he’s working on a rape-murder case where an unknown black assailant broke into an apartment and raped a single mother and her two daughters, including a prepubescent one who later died from the assault. Strangely, Ryker eventually hooks up with the single mom, who invites our hero up to her apartment for some somewhat-explicit sex. Ryker actually scores twice this time; we’re informed he has a girlfriend: Shirley, an “aggressively liberated woman” who doesn’t agree with Ryker on anything. She likes to call him a “fascist pig” and he likes to call her a “bleeding heart bitch.” Shirley enjoys psychoanalyzing Ryker, but weirdness ensues when we learn that she gets off on Ryker’s graphic descriptions of the dead and violated victims of the cases he works on! 

Eventually the Slasher case is thrown at Ryker. Hamill writes all of the “action” the same as he does with the rape-murder case; this version of Ryker is strictly a by-the-book investigator and uses his smarts and solid researching skills to track leads. There are no chase scenes or fights in The Slasher until the very end, and even then it’s over too quickly. Through his stolid method Ryker discovers that the killer is a former mental patient named Albert Grimes, a guy who killed women several years ago while fashioning himself as a modern Jack the Ripper. Ryker has no evidence to back up his theory, though. Here, too late in the novel, we also learn that the Slasher might be supernatural – cops who come across him during his latest kill swear he’s not only invulnerable to bullets but also disappears into thin air.

The climax has Ryker and his partner tracking the Slasher to his woodshop, where Hamill finally delivers the horror-thriller the back cover promised. Here the killer has devised a series of traps, using sharpened chisels as weapons, hurling them at the two cops. Ryker blasts at him with his pistol – Ryker by the way uses a Walther P-38 this time – and discovers that the stories are true, as the Slasher appears unfazed. Surprisingly, Ryker’s partner is not killed, just injured, and Ryker at length discovers that the Slasher is human after all…plus a bullet between the eyes finishes him off for good. And that’s it for the Slasher, who appears and is ultimately dealt with in the span of twenty or so pages.

The novel free-falls into a middling climax in which Ryker saves the life of a cop horribly injured by the Slasher, then heads on back to his apartment to have some more somewhat-explicit sex with Shirley, who again gets sexually excited by Ryker’s graphic descriptions of the injured cop. Hamill ends the tale on the note of despairity that hangs over the entire book; despite being promised a commendation for taking out the Slasher, Ryker learns that red tape prevails, with more cutbacks coming to the department and even the chance that the rapist-murderer he collared on his other case might get out due to liberal lawers.

And that was it for Ryker. While I found The Slasher ultimately listless and boring, it must be said that this version of Edison T. Hamill at least tried to write a solid police procedural, with a bit of literary flair outside the genre norm. (Yet for all the good stuff there are head-scratchingly stupid lines like, “He silently shrugged, sighing.”) I really didn’t enjoy the book, and I still think Leisure should’ve turned The Savage Women into a Ryker novel. Now that would’ve been a memorable finale to the series!

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Slime Beast

The Slime Beast, by Guy N. Smith
July, 1979  New English Library
(Original edition April, 1976)

Guy N. Smith delivers just the sort of creature feature horror novel I like – a breezy, fun, gore and sex-filled tale that doesn’t overstay its welcome. At 110 pages, The Slime Beast gets right to the good stuff, introducing its titular creature within the first few pages and jumping straight to the gore – that is, after Smith has treated us to a little sleaze. Indeed the novel disproves my blanket (mis)judgment of British pulp as being prudish in the sex department, as it’s actually a bit more explicit than many of its American counterparts. 

Smith seems to have taken The Creature From The Black Lagoon for inspiration, only ramping up the sex and sadism. Indeed the “Slime Beast” is basically described exactly like the Gill-Man, only with the added element of slime, which drips from the creature’s armor-like scales. Unlike the Gill-Man, this creature isn’t shy about killing, and doesn’t pine for any human women – though we do gradually learn the tidbit that it develops a taste for women’s breasts! At any rate it enjoys ripping its human prey apart, sucking out the guts, and then cracking open the skulls for a brain chaser. Smith isn’t shy with the gory details during the Slime Beast’s kills, though in true creature feature fashion the thing isn’t constantly on-screen (as it were).

Rather the focus goes to our human characters: Professor Lowson, a complete bastard of an archeologist who seeks the mythical hidden treasure of King John; Liz Beck, his sexy 22 year-old virginal niece; and Gavin Royle, a long-haired junior archeologist who serves here as Lowson’s sort-of apprentice. They’ve come to “The Wash,” aka the boggy “wilds of the East coast marshes,” to dig for King John’s treasure. This immediately affronts the locals, redneck yokels the lot of them; Lowson proves he isn’t your typical bookworm creature feature-type scientist when he flat-out punches one of the locals who comes to complain.

Smith as mentioned doesn’t waste time; the trio find the Slime Beast on their first night out, uncovering some strange metal buried in fresh mud and gradually digging up the slime-covered form of the creature. The smell is so bad that it causes them to puke (the two men even barf directly onto the Slime Beast, which I thought was funny). They figure the thing is dead and leave it there, Lowson sure that he can become rich and famous from this bizarre discovery. Liz by the way is the one who coins the name “Slime Beast,” which is my one problem with the novel; I think it should be the “Slime Creature.” I guess “beast” is more of a British thing. But as a red-blooded American, I think “creature” is a more accurate term for a reptillian monster…to me, “beast” denotes a shaggier, hairier sort of thing.

Despite being unettled by the discovery of the creature, Liz and Gavin still take the opportunity to zip their sleeping bags together and engage in some casual sex when Professor Lowson retires to his own room in the blockhouse they’re camping in. Here Smith shows that British pulp isn’t as prudish as I long assumed, with Gavin admiring Liz’s “small firm breasts” before getting on with the show: “Gently, very gently, he eased himself into her.” (“You’re not a virgin anymore,” he helpfully informs her.) Meanwhile during all the naughtiness the Slime Beast has awakened and is stalking around the Wash, initially trying to break into the blockhouse but turned back at the sight of fire thanks to a quick-thinking Gavin.

The monster’s first victim is a redneck bird-watcher who, the cops inform our heroes the next morning, was found “mutilated and dismembered.” The man’s guts and brains are gone, and there was a slime trail in the corpse’s wake, though strangely the slime disappeared in the sunlight. There’s no time-wasting with disbelieving cops and whatnot; posthaste we have angry locals storming the blockhouse, only to be scared off by a hunter named Mallard, who himself has seen the Slime Beast. 

One of the novel’s most memorable sequences has a topless Liz being chased by a horny, depraved Mallard, with the Slime Beast chasing after both of them. The sequence ends exactly as expected, with the Beast feasting on Mallard’s guts and brains in humorously graphic detail, a sickened Liz watching from behind the safety of some shrubs. Not that this trauma prevents more sex with Gavin that night! This time Liz insists that Gavin fully consumate the act and not just, uh, make a deposit on her thighs. (“Give it to me properly, Gavin, like every woman wants her man!”)

Smith doesn’t limit his horror sequences to a human perspective. We also have goofy, brief scenes from the perspectives of dogs and even geese, as the animals find themselves running afoul of the Slime Beast. The killing of the dog is seen by most of the townspeople, who watch from their windows as the Slime Beast stalks down the main street and rips the animal apart, feasting on its guts. They all open up on it with their hunting rifles, but the Slime Beast can’t be killed, it seems. Even when the Army is called in, the machine guns of the soldiers have little effect on the creature. 

Meanwhile Professor Lowson is determined to capture the Slime Beast. While Liz and Gavin head off to buy a “flame-gun,” Lowson gets himself some heavy netting from a fisherman and wades through the marshes each night, hoping to catch himself the Beast, which he figures to be from outer space. Throughout it all Smith delivers several effective horror fiction moments, from the traditional “going down into a darkened basement” bit to the Slime Beast ripping apart a man and a woman while they’re having a little outdoors sex (where the Slime Beast develops his taste for breasts, by the way).

Rather than a slam-bang finish with the Army coordinating an assault on the monster, Smith instead goes back to his three protagonists. Lowson succeeds in his goal of capturing the Beast, which is wounded, but this doesn’t work out so well for the professor. It’s up to Gavin and Liz to save the day with their flame-gun, and Smith doesn’t even waste any time with a lame wrap-up, ending the tale there. The book is for the most part just a streamlined bit of horror-pulp, and makes the reader realize how overwritten the vast majority of horror novels are.

Smith recently published a sequel, Spawn of the Slime Beast, which again features Gavin and Liz – and we learn that Liz really did get pregnant that night, as now the two of them, with their adult child, encounter a new Slime Beast in the present day. I think I’ll be seeking that book out for sure.

Here’s the first edition, which gives the Slime Beast more of a demonic appearance:

Thursday, October 13, 2016

You Die Next, Jill Baby! (Hitman #5)

You Die Next, Jill Baby!, by Kirby Carr
No month stated, 1975  Major Books

The Hitman series, which moves over to Major Books with this fifth volume (which removes both the series title and volume numbers), was very much an attempt by Kin “Kirby Carr” Platt to capture the vibe of the pulps of the ‘30s. To wit, hero Mike “Hitman” Ross wears a mask while fighting crime, unlike the majority of his men’s adventure brethren. He’s also about as insane – not to mention nuts about killing – as pulp hero The Spider. And You Die Next, Jill Baby! is basically a Spider novel, only given a somewhat-sleazy ‘70s overlay.

In fact, the sleaze makes a big return here, and in an arbitrary way – whereas the previous couple volumes have reigned in on the dirty stuff, this one brings it all back, though it must be stated that Ross himself doesn’t score (that is, other than on the very last page). The cover alone is proof that this book is going to be rather lurid, and while the cover image does happen within the first few pages, You Die Next, Jill Baby! is actually more of a private eye sort of yarn, with Ross going around Los Angeles looking up clues, while a right-wing (sort of) guerrilla army sows plans to take over the country. The narrative and dialog even have a suitably hardboiled-esque vibe.

The “Jill Baby” of the lurid title is Jill Court, Patty Hearst-esque daughter of Chad Court, megawealthy businessman. She’s been kidnapped as the novel opens, and Mike Ross hears about it on the news. Then he gets a phone call from fellow ‘Nam vet Jim Boyd, a total asshole of a major whom Ross hated – the vague backstory has it that Ross during combat tried to get an air evac for two wounded soldiers, and Boyd refused – the fact that the soldiers were black certainly had something to do with the denial, Ross was certain. But now Boyd, still fit and eager for action despite being old enough to also be a veteran of the Korean war (as is Ross, by the way), runs a trucking business in LA and has been dating Jill Court. The fact that Jill, barely in her 20s, has been seeing a much older man is later explained away with the off-hand comment that she’s into freaky sex scenes or something.

But Jill has been kidnapped by the “army” of “Wake Up America,” which is run by “Major Wingate.” I assumed it would just be another of the left-leaning guerrilla armies of the day, but gradually we learn that the WUA is made up of former ‘Nam vets who initially get together to fight crime, but eventually set their sights on the country itself. But to tell the truth Platt doesn’t do much to elaborate on this. They’ve kidnapped poor Jill as their first attack, which gets them in the news – Boyd has it that he was jumped by several men while driving Jill home, and when he was knocked out they took her away. He wants to know if Ross will help, given Ross’s impressive cred with the police – again, the fact that Ross is “Hitman” is sort of a well-known fact while still being a secret…again, pretty much exactly like in The Spider.

Jill, the only time we see her in the book, is tied up in a dank room in the “ghetto section” of LA, being raped – by a female member of the WUA army. This is Me-Boot, formerly Sarah Bootree, a hotstuff half-American Indian babe with “firm jutting full breasts.” She is also, per another character, a “lesbie dyke,” mostly because, we learn via egregious backstory, she has been used and abused by so many guys. After so many uncaring bastards “shoved their stick pricks” into Me-Boot, she learned that the sapphic way was more personally fulfilling. Thus she introduces Jill Court to the lesbian life – and we’re informed Jill loves it. 

Then Major Wingate shows up…and promptly blows Jill away! Thus the cover image depicts an actual event in the book, and titular Jill is dead by page 15 or so. Also, Platt sort of blows some potential here, and so I will, too – Wingate has killed Jill because she is one of the two people who knows that Major Wingate is also…Jim Boyd! So, rather than stringing this out for the narrative, Platt instead straight-up tells us this in the opening pages, and thus we get a little irritated with Mike Ross, who spends the entire novel trying to “help” Boyd while not realizing he is in fact the enemy.

Action is sparse, and not as gory as previously, though Ross as usual kills several people. To once again compare him to the Spider, Ross as Hitman not only wears a mask and wields dual pistols, but shows a compunction for shooting (and killing) first, and not asking any questions later. Humorously, this is something he’s been accused of in past books, but here Ross himself begins to get annoyed with himself – not that this stops him from outright killing any WUA thugs he comes across, even at one point tossing three of them out of an upper-story window, despite the fact that they could answer all sorts of questions for him.

Me-Boot, after her long backstory in which we learn all about her sex life in copious detail, runs into our hero after Ross has cleaned out the dank room in which Jill was held captive – blowing away every single WUA guy in the place, naturally. But the sparks quickly fly between the two – curiously, Ross is not in his Hitman garb at this point – and Ross suspects Me-Boot might be able to help him. We’ve learned that she isn’t a full-fledged WUA member, had nothing really to do with the kidnapping, and indeed fell in love with Jill, and has sworn vengeance on Boyd – whom she also knows to be Wingate, something which Ross also doesn’t realize until the very end.

But Me-Boot is shot by the police as they raid the place, and Platt has us thinking she’s a goner, taking a bullet or two to the chest. Later we’ll learn she’s in intensive care. Later still Ross will save her from WUA thugs who come to snuff her, taking her back to the dojo of his old Korean mentor Lo, who is one of those magically-talented martial arts masters of pulp. With his skilled hands he is able to make the now-paralyzed Me-Boot walk again.

In fact Platt seems to intimate that Me-Boot, who by novel’s end is once again “Sarah Bootree,” will become Ross’s steady girl…the back cover copy, which as ever only partially reflects the actual plot of the novel, even refers to her as “the only woman Ross has ever loved.” While this might turn out to be true, the element isn’t even introduced until the final twenty or so pages.

Just like in a Spider novel, Wingate’s army runs roughshod over the country, and no one is able to stop him except for Hitman. In fact there’s a total “Grant Stockbridge” moment when Ross, resolving himself to battling the WUA alone, thinks that it will be “one man against a hundred – just the way he liked it!” Wingate’s men have raided US army bases, killing the soldiers and stealing weapons, and in this manner have even gotten some surface-to-air missiles.

By this time Ross has finally figured out that Wingate and Boyd are one and the same. Given that there are only about thirty pages left at this point, the climactic battle is a bit unsatisfying; Ross, having found the secret WUA base deep in the hills outside LA, dons his Hitman garb, plants some smoke bombs, and guns down a few helicopters before finally shooting Wingate/Boyd in one of the most abrupt finales ever.

And that’s it…I recall when I tracked this series down a few years ago, You Die Next, Jill Baby! was by far the hardest volume to acquire. In fact I did some Mike Ross-like searching to even find a copy. But sadly, and as usual with such cases, the book ultimately wasn’t worth the effort (or price). While it starts off promising to be as sleazy, lurid, and action-packed as the first volume (which is still the best one, by a long shot), this fifth installment quickly tapers off into a sort of padded affair in which not much really happens. But maybe at least it will have repercussions for ensuing installments, if for no other aspect than the budding Ross-Sarah romance.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Toy Cemetery

Toy Cemetery, by William W. Johnstone
December, 1987  Zebra Books

I couldn’t help myself – I just had to read another horror novel by William W. Johnstone. I had several of them to choose from, but I went with Toy Cemetery because it seemed to offer up a variation on Johnstone’s normal horror theme – Satan comes to Smalltown, USA – thanks to the presence of evil, Puppet Master-esque toys. Ultimately though Toy Cemetery was just like the other Johnstone horror novels I’ve read…only, once again, lacking the sleazy, lurid mastery of The Nursery.

And like those other books it is way too goddam long…412 whopping pages. But it does have some big ol’ print. All the usual Johnstone tricks are in play: rampant exposition, pedestrian prose, Christian sermonizing, go-nowhere digressions and padding, cardboard cutout characters, an “all women are evil” theme, and occasional bursts of violent action. Two things missing from the usual Johnstone oeuvre are the Right Wing pontificating and the sleazy hardcore sex. While I didn’t miss the former I defintely missed the latter; even though Toy Cemetery initially has you thinking it might approach The Nursery levels of sleaze, the sole sex scene is mostly vague and the book instead comes off more like a vain attempt at capturing the “kids meet horror” vibe of vintage Stephen King. 

Yes, kids play a central part in Toy Cemetery, Johnstone apparently having read Stephen King’s It and figuring he could rip it off somehow. Unfortunately this denies us the twisted shit typical of most other Johnstone horror novels, as in the long sections from the perspectives of the child characters Johnstone goes for a “naïve” sort of approach. However our main character is per the usual Johnstone template: 38-year-old Jay Chute, a ‘Nam veteran who runs an accounting firm in NYC. The novel opens as Jay and his 9-year-old daughter Kelly arrive in Victory, Missouri, the small town in which Jay grew up. But per the Johnstone horror template he hasn’t been here in over twenty years or so, and boy has the town changed (again per the template); what Jay doesn’t realize is that, of course, friggin’ Satan himself has taken over. He first notices something is up when an apparently-living toy runs in front of his car.

Johnstone is not the best when it comes to description, and sadly the toys themselves are vague and forgettable. Mostly because people throughout the first half of the novel keep seeing them, then blinking in surprise, and then wondering if they imagined it. Indeed, Toy Cemetery sets a precedent for muleheaded characters in a horror novel; literally, the first 150 pages or so are composed of characters seeing outright supernatural shit – ghosts, living toys and dolls, even mutant monsters – and still doubting what they saw. Hell, they’re still up to it within the final fifty pages, after they’ve had conversations with ghosts, watched a toy funeral(!), and even killed a few of those mutants. It’s all laughable, which again is standard for Johnstone’s work.

The novel moves at a glacial pace. Actually that’s an insult to glaciers. Let it just be said that Toy Cemetery is not jam-packed with action. Jay Chute is more mulheaded than even the Johnstone norm, and his daughter Kelly comes off as the stronger character. There’s a subplot (which eventually disappears) that Kelly and the other kids are hipper to what’s going on in Victory than the stupid adults, and in fact Kelly gets more shit done, including even braining a Satan-possessed teen boy midway through. (Her trauma over killing another human is quickly brought up and even more quickly set aside.) Kelly soon runs afoul of a gang of kids her own age, led by a slightly-older girl named Jenny; the two will eventually become friends, of sorts.

Johnstone does himself no favors with such similar character names. I spent the entire novel confusing Jenny with Kelly. It doesn’t help that all the characters are such cardboard cutouts. Later we’ll meet resident hotstuff Deva, who is Jenny’s mom as well as being Jay’s old girlfriend, and later there’s Piper, Jay’s ex-wife and occasional bedmate, who by the way happens to be a famous fashion model. There’s also a bunch of kids in Jenny’s group, and all of them run together, but eventually one of them named Ange will bubble to the top. Johnstone works in this “Satanic child porn” thread that he ultimately does nothing with, but many of the kids in the town have been victims of it…we know that Jenny has united her band against Satan, wearing crosses, and Johnstone initially has us thinking that they’ll be the heroes of the tale, but he ignores all of it and the porn ring element is quickly reintroduced and jettisoned in the final half.

The sleaze element as mentioned is nowhere on the level of The Nursery; when Jay first arrives in Victory, to pick up the deed to the house his recently-dead Aunt Cary left him, he runs into sexy twentysomething Amy Fletcher. She comes over to his house later that day and proceeds to seduce him, but surprisingly Johnstone leaves the sex scene – the only sex scene in the book – vague. And in fact Jay can’t even remember the details, and Amy is shocked that she was so brazen…as if something came over her, don’t you know. But this is all brushed off; the first of many such incidents in which our dense-brained protagonists explain away the strange happenings.

Gradually Jay will learn of the utter depravity of the place. Even though everyone acts friendly as can be during the day, at night they become ghoulish freaks; Jay is even shocked to learn that some of his old school friends have grandchildren – even though their own children are barely in their teens. Deva becomes Jay’s main companion here; she too distrusts the town residents, telling Jay how all the weirdness started when the big toy factory opened up. Oh, and Jay’s Aunt Cary was apparently the source of all evil, and had a bunch of toys and dolls in her various houses, and soon after moving into the house Aunt Cary left him Jay is attacked by one of the toys, which slices at both him and a friendly cop named Jim Klein – and sure as hell both of ‘em just basically shrug it off and figure they imagined it or something!!

With the presence of Deva, and later Piper, who comes to Victory to be with her ex-husband and her daughter, I thought for once Johnstone was gonna give us some strong female characters. Not to mention Jenny and Kelly, who take more action than Jay does until the very end. But midway through the novel Johnstone remembers “hey, waitaminute – them womenfolk are all evil!”, and suddenly previously-strong female characters are hinted at being secretly evil. It’s so mind-numbingly stupid – not to mention brazen – that I almost gave up on the book. I mean it’s one thing to start off this way with all sorts of secret evil, but to have various characters clearly be good and then suddenly – I mean within the span of a page – to be “shockingly revealed” as evil all along is something else. To be clear, I was more annoyed by the rampant stupidity than anything “sexist” or whatnot. I mean, bad writing is fine, but stupid writing is where I draw the line.

Throughout it all the toys come and go…there turns out to be two factions, one good and one bad. As mentioned though Johnstone rarely describes them. While I hoped for a tale of GI Joe-type action figures ripping people to shreds, instead Johnstone has old-fashioned dolls and toy soldiers, and usually just describes them as “a tiny man” or “a little doll.” None of them even have any cool gimmicks like in the second Puppet Master movie; the closest we get is a “Viking” toy who goes at people with his tiny axe. But these aren’t the sole creatures in the novel. We also have these mutant-type things that have hulking bodies and tiny heads; the one memorable horror-esque scene has Jay and Jim (again with the similar names, you see) escaping from them in a car, blasting away with their shotguns.

The outright sleaze is gone but there are some lurid moments, most notably when Satan’s minions go for the “dark love” treatment and mind-control Jenny and Kelly into trying to have sex with their parents(!). This is weird stuff for sure, with an also-aroused Jay tossing his prepubescent daughter out of bed and locking her in a room, all of it similar – but nowhere as over-the-top – as the part in The Nursery where the Satan-possessed teen gal begged the hero to whip and sodomize her. Later Jay and Deva, visiting Aunt Cary’s haunted house in the woods (yes, Johnstone even throws in a friggin’ haunted house), are nearly overcome by the same supernatural lust, straining against the Satanic impulse to screw (“Fight it, Deva! Pray!”).

And boy are there some dumb moments, like a part where our characters hear ghosts having sex. The highlight of them all is an unforgettable, so-dumb-it’s-genius bit where our heroes witness a regular toy funeral, some of those good toys carrying the corpse of a “dead” comrade and giving it full burial honors, complete with Taps being played and rifles being fired in tribute. What makes it all the more laughable is that Johnstone strives to convey emotion, trying to invest all sorts of import; the scene plods on and on for several pages. More humor is added in how he keeps cutting over to our human characters, who watch on in growing sadness, all of them crying. Except for “some of the women,” though, Johnstone at this point remembering that all women are horrible creatures and thus not prone to loving emotions.

Another thing missing this time out is the action climax. Jay and comrades are limited to hunting rifles, pistols, and shotguns. As per the Johnstone template, the few Christians have banded together in Aunt Cary’s house, whose ghost sporadically appears, by the way, accusing and taunting Jay – who still wonders if he’s imagining it, of course – even after she appears to all of them, Jay says, “It was a dream.” But the band of Christians, including Jay, Jim, Father Pat (a blind priest dedicated to fighting Satan), and General Douglas (an old war vet who served in the OSS), vow to stop the Satanic forces taking over Victory. All the women at this point are vaguely hinted at being evil – even the kids!! – and Johnstone shows his usual vile brand of “Christianity” when Jay later says “to hell with them,” speaking of both ex-wife Piper and his daughter Kelly. As usual with Johnstone, once it is revealed that someone is with Satan, whether willingly or not, there’s no hope at all for them – they must be killed.

There are occasional patches of gore, but too little, too late, in particular an attack by those mutant-type monsters, one of which rips the jaw off a night guard. Jay himself is captured, knocked out – by one of those women, naturally, though we don’t find out which until later – and along with Amy he’s tossed in the town hospital/prison. Oh and speaking of whom Amy is suddenly with the group, now; humorously, Johnstone doesn’t even reintroduce her or anything. She’s just suddenly in a scene with our heroes and stays there for the duration. But even the big action finale typical of Johnstone is gone. After torching Aunt Cary’s house in the woods (another ludicrous scene Johnstone tries to weigh with emotion), our heroes pack some rifles and pistols and start firing away.

By this point, very late in the game, Johnstone has figured out what is going on. Turns out the humans in town aren’t really human, or something; they’re like porcelain dolls, or something, and those living toys are possessed with the souls of townfolk. Or something. And the “good” toys are made up of souls who tried to fight against the Satanists, or something. It’s all super convoluted and confusing. But it does cap off with the memorable bit of an incensed Jay smashing Victory residents and watching as they disintigrate into showers of porcelain dust. Johnstone kills off the majority of his characters here – Amy by the way we are informed was raped repeatedly while in captivity, even at one point by her own father – and also he finally makes up his mind which of the other female characters are really evil: All of them!!

Even the little girls are suddenly revealed as sadistic murderers, with Kelly offing one important character and Ange another. Oh and by the way Johnstone finally recalls that “child porn ring” subplot, with a bizarre scene where Jay discovers all the child porn tapes and watches them…even taking them back to his house so the other adults can watch them!! I mean did they order a pizza, too??

It’s all so off-putting and unsettling, mostly because it’s so pedestrian in the writing department. As ever Johnstone writes everything with a modicum of description or depth, a sort of “see Spot run” vibe that only makes the weird shit all the weirder. But anyway Jenny and Ange both feature in these porn videos, even though absolutely zilch is made of it, and despite the fact that this would make clear that both girls are victims of the cult, it ultimately matters little in Johnstone’s fucked-up rationale: both kids are consumed by Satan and thus must die.

Oh and also a recurring Johnstone deal is “the Old One;” not Satan himself, but a slightly-less-powerful demon who resides in the town and soaks up the evil powers and whatnot. This creature doesn’t get much screen time but is described as looking like an old man; the finale, which sees Jay leading a cop squad through Victory and killing off townspeople willy-nilly, has Jay looking to finalize the score with the monster.

By this point Jay’s picked up another babe, a hot blonde news reporter who is the biggest victim of all in Johnstone’s “all women are evil” agenda. Seriously, this lady goes through hell with Jay, even saving his life – and then in the last page Johnstone pulls another of his half-assed “twists.” By this point the reader is so fatigued that he or she could honestly care less what happens to Jay, however he gets another twist ending of his own…injured and to be nursed back to health by daughter Kelly, revealed to be fully evil now…indeed the book ends with Kelly figuring she’ll soon start having sex with dear ol’ dad!!

Anyway, I asked for it, I guess. And the helluva it is, I’ll probably read another of Johnstone’s horror novels…by the time I start thinking of reading another one I’ve forgotten what a painful experience it can truly be.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Last Ranger #4: The Rabid Brigadier

The Last Ranger #4: The Rabid Brigadier, by Craig Sargent
August, 1987  Popular Library

The Last Ranger picks up immediately after the previous volume, with hero Martin Stone sprawled out unconscious in the snow, the ruins of the Dwarf’s depraved villa still burning in the distance. Unfortunately the “slave-whores” Stone freed in the final pages of the previous book are gone, having knocked him out, taken all of his weapons, and raced off into the post-nuke night. Meanwhile Stone’s sister April and his new buddy Dr. Kennedy have escaped – and by the way go unseen this entire volume.

But at least we get Stone’s faithful canine companion Excaliber, who still waits where Stone left him midway through Madman’s Mansion. When the two hop on Stone’s weaponized Harley and blast off into the night, the reader expects that they will reunite with April and Kennedy and the series will proceed on from there. However, Jan “Craig Sargent” Stacy has other plans; this volume, instead of continuing on with the building plot of the previous three books, will instead get mired in an elaborate “New American Army” setup that Stone is drafted into.

Easily my least favorite volume yet, The Rabid Brigadier features hardly any of the stuff that makes The Last Ranger so fun, and is for the most part an endless training and initiation sequence Stone goes through. Yet I recall really enjoying this one when it was brand new and I was 12 years old. Reading it this time, I found myself bored for long portions, something I could never say about those earlier three installments. All the crazed, gore-filled sadism of those books is gone, and this one’s basically “The Last Ranger joins the army.” 

Calling to mind the similar survivalist fiction Stacy co-wrote in the first few Doomsday Warrior books, The Rabid Brigadier features a practically endless sequence early on in which Stone and Excaliber are nearly swept up by a massive tidal wive that’s rampaging through Colorado – courtesy that post-nuke freak weather, of course. It’s page-filling at its best as our two heroes struggle desperately to outrace the huge waves; the goofiness expected of this series presents itself when Stone finally remembers a friggin’ raft his dad (who was gifted with an almost superhuman sense of foresight, it would appear) had built into the bottom of the bike.

With the push of a button Stone inflates the raft and he and the dog are nearly in the clear, but the waves are pushing them toward a cliff. They’re saved by the last-second appearance of an army helicopter, which pulls man, dog, and bike clear of the waves. These young soldiers are members of the New American Army, which has been founded within the past few years under the leadership of “Supreme Commander Patton.” Stone meanwhile falls into a stupor; in the opening pages, during a savage battle with a group of ear-collecting cannibals, he was bitten on the hand. Now it’s infected, and Stone is sent off to the NAA infirmary.

When Stone wakes up and finds a hot-bodied blonde nurse at his bedside, the veteran reader knows exactly where it will be heading. This is Elizabeth Williamson, whose sad story has it that she was a refugee saved by the NAA as it moved through the area, “cleansing” the country of cannibals, pirates, and criminals. The expected shagging takes a while, but expectedly it occurs, and humorously Stacy basically just plagiarizes from the sex scene he wrote in the previous book, complete with the description of Stone “mining” the girl with his massive prong. And just as always, once Stone’s banged the girl she’s dropped from the narrative, not mentioned again until the end.

As mentioned, the majority of the book details Stone’s hellish trials during the two-day basic training course all NAA recruits must endure. Stone you see has decided to join, despite his long-borne hatred of authority in general and the military in particular. We are reminded again that Stone’s dad was a total ass, an army man right down to the bones, and his stern nature resulted in a son who was a born rebel. But Stone figures the NAA has the right idea, as he’s been doing alone what they’re looking to do as an army: clear away the criminal, rapist riff-raff and rebuild America.

Curiously, one of the initial tests Stone and the recruits must undergo is ritually cutting themselves, and they use the same blade. I couldn’t help but recall here how Jan Stacy died of AIDs. But Stone has more worries than contagious diseases; the practically-endless training has them going through one hellish thing after another, from shooting at fresh corpses to running a death-trap course through thorns and quicksand. There’s even lots of brutal fighting courtesy ninja-type ambushers who spring out of the thorns and attack them all with fighting staffs.

As expected, Stone is a total badass and gets through unscathed, saving his fellows and uniting them as a team – subtle commentary from Stacy that our hero, despite his rebellious nature, is a true leader. In fact Stone has done so well that General Patton himself wants to meet him. An older vet who carries twin .45s at his waist, Patton bears a similarity to Stone’s father, and indeed actually knew Major Clayton Stone, claiming that he temporarily served as Stone’s commander back in ‘Nam. Unfortunately, Stacy doesn’t do much with any of this. The potential is there for a father/son dynamic between Patton and Stone, but it’s all cast aside within just a few pages.

Instead, Stone’s sent out on a mission, commanding a squad of tanks. Their assingment is to wipe out a village of cannibals. But even here we are denied the crazed nature of action scenes from previous volumes, with Stone more so trying to figure out how to operate the massive tanks. And here we get the first glimpse of the evil nature of the NAA, as the men in Stone’s crew blow away the surrendering members of the village, even the women and children. Stone, “crying like a baby,” is informed that Patton has ordered “no enemies, no survivors.” Stone cannot accept the wanton disregard for life.

Stone is even more shocked when Patton reveals that he has a nuclear warhead, one which he plans to launch on a meeting of Mafia bigwigs only a hundred miles away. In a completely goofy sequence, Patton takes Stone to his handy nuclear silo several miles from the NAA base in New Junction, Colorado, and shows off his ballistic warhead. Despite claiming to have run a similar silo before WWIII, Patton doesn’t realize that a nuke strike so close to the base will wipe all of them out. Here Stone gets further proof of Patton’s insanity, and vows to stop him.

In a development a little hard to buy, Stone decides to unite with the Mafia guys and their biker comrades, ie his former enemies, as Patton is the greater threat. Stone claims to hate these guys, but feels that they’re small fish, only doing their own thing within their own spheres of influence, whereas Patton wants to wipe out the world. So then it would appear so far as Stone’s reasoning goes that raping and killing is okay, just so long as you keep your activities to like a few square miles or something. Strange!

The Mafia-biker meeting is the highlight, as Stacy writes it more like some Satanic gathering; the leader is even described as a craven-faced ghoul who looks like Boris Karloff. Stone sells out his own troops, letting the mobsters and bikers slit their throats (it’s okay, though, as all the NAA soldiers are bad guys, or something), and he leads them all in the commandeered tanks on an assault upon the NAA base. Even here the action is mostly perfunctory, with Stone tearing through the base and finding Excaliber, who has been locked up in the pens – once again the dog spends the majority of the narrative off-page.

The finale sees a desperate Stone tearing ass on his Harley for that nuclear silo, with the warhead launched despite his best efforts. One is reminded again that this series has no grounding in reality when Stone blasts the warhead out of the air with an anti-aircraft gun. Oh, and then Excaliber pisses on the missile’s wreckage! But Patton is gone, and I seem to recall that he appears again (as does the Dwarf), but meanwhile Nurse Elizabeth is dead (remember her?), somehow murdered by Patton during his escape, even though she was all the way back at the base, waiting for Stone to come back and get her, and the last we saw him Patton was still at the nuclear silo.

But that’s that – Stone’s crestfallen, and as a kicker he’s learned that Patton has even more nukes, so all this has been moot. Well, here’s hoping the next volume gets things back on track. And I seem to recall the next volume was the last one I bought when this series was being published, so this was around the point when my enthusiasm for The Last Ranger was beginning to fade.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 1

Horror and Sci-Fi: 

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988): Believe it or not, Elvira actually starred in a feature film during the height of her ‘80s popularity. The movie must not’ve made much of a dent on the public consciousness, as I only recently discovered it. This horror-comedy is all over the map tonally, and appears to try in some spots to retain the vibe of one of the movies Elvira mocked on her “Movie Macabre” show. Playing “herself,” Elvira here is just the host of a local TV creature feature show in Los Angeles, making the same punny, boob-centric jokes as on her real show. The plot kicks in gear when she receives notice that a wealthy aunt in Smalltown, USA has died, leaving Elvira something in her will. The movie appropriates a fish out of water theme as crazy Elvira descends upon puritan, ‘50s-style America, instantly running afoul of the crusty straight-backed types who run the town. 

Interestingly though, the filmmakers don’t make much of an effort to make Elvira likable. She’s snide from the get-go, putting down everyone and mocking everything. There’s hardy any attempt at making her an empathetic character. Rather, more focus is placed on her natural assets, which are spotlighted throughout, with more boobs-centric puns than any other movie you could think of. Some of the comedy is dumb, some of it is funny, like when Elvira gets a bunch of the horny local teens to help repair the old house her aunt willed her, and tells one of them – while swinging her shapely rear in his face – “Grab a tool and start banging.”

A bit of a horror element slowly creeps in, again catering to the campy vibe of Elivra’s real show; turns out her aunt was a witch or somesuch, and within Elvira’s new home is a “cookbook” that is in reality an ancient tome of magic. Meanwhile Elivra’s evil old granduncle has his sights on it, hiring a pair of local thugs to get it for him. Eventually this leads to a finale with a warlock chasing after Elvira, complete with brief monster special effects and whatnot. Elvira also finds love with a square-jawed he-man type who curiously enough seems scared to death of her, studiously ignoring Elvira’s many attempts at bedding him.

Fans of Elvira will be in for a treat; while there’s no nudity, we do see her strip down to lingerie at one point (while a group of those horny teens spy on her from a window), and her body, as mentioned, is usually the focus of each and every scene. We also get to see some of her movie riffing, as she hosts an all-night matinee of horror movies, mocking them for the audience – “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” in this sequence, and a bit of “It Conquered the World” at the beginning of the film. The movie isn’t great nor is it terrible; it just is, and is really only recommended for Elvira fans or fans of horror hosts in general, though admittedly this aspect of Elvira’s character isn’t much dwelt upon. It’s more concerned with Elvira the cool, crazy babe, mocking the fundamentalist attitudes of the old-fashioned town, before becoming a sort-of horror movie in the final 25 minutes.

The Guyver (1991): Based on the long-running Japanese comic series that began in 1985, “The Guyver” is about a dude who comes across a “bio-boosting armor” suit which enables him to fight against monsters. A complete Kamen Rider rip-off, Guyver benefited from a super-cool main character design, which was lovingly captured in this first of two US live-action movies. Co-directed by FX artists, one of whom, Screaming Mad George, was himself Japanese, “Guyver” appears to have been intended as a gory tribute to the Japanese TV shows of the ‘70s, with heroes fighting monsters who were really just dudes in rubber suits. However the studio apparently requested that the film be more goofy, more of a Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles thing.  This resulted in a helluva mixed-up film, where the “villains” pratfall all the time and then suddenly we’ll have super-weird shit like Mark Hamill turning into a human cockroach (a sequence Mad George had earlier created in “Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4”).

But “The Guyver” is most notable for having some of the most godawful acting you will ever see – EVER! The main actor is a vapid nonentity who looks eerily like future vapid nonentity Jared Leto. He sports some of the worst acting ever captured on film, but luckily about midway through the film the actor is replaced by a stuntman in the Guyver suit. The same can’t be said of the main actress though, Vivian Wu, “Guyver” being one of the very few Hollywood films of the era to feature an Asian leading actress. Her line deliveries are even worse than the main actor’s, and she isn’t helped by her big late ‘80s/early ‘90s hairdo and her then-fashionable baggy clothes. To give these actors the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they were just given poor direction. (As for Mark Hamill, in a supporting role as a CIA agent, he gives his best Michael Biehn impression.) The film somewhat follows the story of the Japanese manga, only our hero is a twenty-something aikido student or something, rather than the teenager of the comic. But really his background and character aren’t much explored. He comes upon the Guyver suit, created by the father of Vivian Wu’s character, and soon enough he’s fighting a team of henchmen who can turn into biogenetic monsters.

The FX here are pretty good, very much in that ‘80s rubber monster look that today has been replaced by pathetic CGI. One of the villains is none other than Jimmie Walker, “Dy-no-mite” himself, and his monster is infamously un-PC, with big lips and buck teeth – and honestly looks a LOT like future infamy Jar-Jar Binks. But while these villains are supposed to be cold killers, the movie features them bumbling and fumbling and bickering, to the point that their threatening nature is robbed. Eventually things devolve into martial arts fights, again calling back to “Kamen Rider” and the like – not to mention calling forward to “Power Rangers” – and the Guyver design shines here. It is without question one of the coolest suits I’ve seen in any comic book adaption, and there’s never a point where it’s replaced by CGI, as would be the case in a film from today.

Only available in a so-called “director’s cut” today, “Guyver” originally was graced with a VHS release that had a bit more gore. This has all been gutted (though admittedly there was only a few seconds of it) in the current DVD, and no one seems sure why this is. Two years later the main director returned, without Mad George, to helm a sequel, “Guyver: Dark Hero,” which thankfully replaced the main actor and forgot about Vivian Wu’s character.

Inframan (1975): This Shaw Brothers production from Hong Kong taps into the Ultraman/Kamen Rider craze, but lacks the unique, bizarre spin of the Japanese originals, replacing it with lengthy kung-fu fights that retain the somewhat-acrobatic nature expected of the Shaws studio. I was lucky enough to see this on the big screen sometime in ’97 or ’98 at a Dallas theater that would run Hong Kong movies on Saturday nights; this was the first I’d seen it since then, and once again I was viewing the English dub. Princess Dragon Mom(!!), a sexy Asian babe with blonde wig and clawed hands, erupts from beneath the Earth with a host of monsters (ie men in rubber suits). These monsters look especially bad, worse even than the ones you’d see on those weekly Japanese shows of the era, which is strange given that this had a movie’s budget.

Our heroes are composed of a science patrol which calls to mind the Monster Attack Team of “UltraSeven;” they wear jumpsuits and blue motorcycle helmets. Bruceploitation fans will be thrilled to spot the future “Bruce Le” among them; he gets in an overlong kung-fu fight with several monsters and henchmen midway through the film. Our hero is Danny Lee, who around this time also starred as Bruce Lee in the Shaw Brothers pic “Bruce Lee: His Last Days, His Last Nights;” he is turned via science into Inframan, red-suited, metal-faced vanquisher of evil monsters. The movie has more fighting than story-telling, but despite which it comes off as a lot more padded and uneventful than one of the Japanese shows of the era; “Kamen Rider Amazon” is ten times better than this, plus it has the added element of monster gore. Inframan looks cool, though, and he has a variety of special powers and tricks, including the ability to make himself gigantic, a la Jet Jaguar of “Godzilla vs Megalon.”

The English dubbing is intentionally campy and adds to the charm; surprisingly, it is not voiced by the usual crew who did the English dubs of most Shaw Brothers movies. Another difference from the Japanese shows is a penchant for (cheap-looking) optical effects, in particular laser blasts and disappearing characters, etc. But it is all poorly done and just looks bad, and not even in a fun way. Perhaps if I hadn’t spent the past few months watching “Kamen Rider Amazon,” “Zone Fighter,” and the original “Kamen Rider,” I might’ve been more excited by this Hong Kong take on the genre, but as it is I found “Inframan” only somewhat enjoyable and mostly forgettable.

Invasion of the Saucer Men (1959): So much potential is squandered in this drive-in sci-fi yarn. Filmed in black and white on cheap sets and outdoor locations, the movie features some of the craziest, cruellest-looking aliens ever witnessed. These small-bodied, big-headed creeps have big eyes with lizard-like irises and their hands not only have claws that drip a strange-looking liquid but also have eyes on them as well! Also these monsters display the same sort of mindless sadism as the Martians in Topps’ 1962 trading card series “Mars Attacks!,” joyously attacking everything and anything they come across. However their goals are limited by the film’s meager budget, not to mention hamstrung by the baffling insistence upon treating the whole thing as a comedy…sort of like Tim Burton’s 1996 film adaptation of that Topps trading card series.

The movie features a group of “teens” who look to be in their thirties, necking in the woods in their boat-sized cars. Meanwhile the film is narrated by a travelling conman or somesuch whose pal happens to be future Riddler Frank Gorshin. It’s all treated as a big goof as the “teens” keep encountering these weird creatures, who hide in the bushes – the film is photographed in such inky blacks that you can barely see the aliens at all – occasionally venturing out to attack the cows on an old man’s farm. Also the Air Force is afoot, apparently well-aware of these UFOs and keeping knowledge of them hidden from the public. It all seems to be building to something big, but anyone expecting a “War of the Worlds” resolution will be let down. Rather the flick plays out more on a lame drive-in horror vibe, with stupid schlock shock tactics like off-camera characters putting their hands on the shoulders of on-camera characters. Genuine horror stuff occurs when the severed, eyed hand of one of the creatures ends up in a car with our “teen” protagonist and his girlfriend…this time the hand that comes across her shoulder really is one to freak out over. The movie isn’t long, barely over an hour, and does contain a bit of gore, like when one of the aliens gets in a fight with a steer – juicy black blood jets out of the alien’s big eyeball. 

But the hoped-for action finale never happens. Rather, the heroes discover that the aliens’ lone weakness is light, thus all the teens congregate in their boat-sized cars and shine their headlights at the aliens, causing them to wither away. Lame! The movie even ends on the goofy tone, with “comedy music” playing and drawings on the ends credits that look to have been taken from a story book for toddlers. Overall this one sucks but it must be said again that the aliens have a very wicked, very menacing design.

The Monster Squad (1987): It’s “The Goonies” meets “The Lost Boys” in this now-culty ‘80s horror-action-kids’ comedy that was cowritten by Shane “Lethal Weapon” Black (and it shows in the rampant one-liners throughout). I was the same age as the protagonists when this movie came out, but for whatever reason I never saw the film, though I heard of it – maybe because I was never really into horror or monsters, I don’t know. The movie has aged pretty well, with zero CGI and great monster SFX by Sam Winston; his “Creature From The Black Lagoon” Gill-Man ripoff in particular looks great. Basically, the monsters from the Universal horror movies of the ‘30s-‘50s (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Wolfman, and the Gill-Man) come back to small town, USA (and interestingly the same set/town was used here as in “Back To The Future,” which lends the film even more of neat cross-franchise kind of feel). A group of monster movie-obsessed kids come into posession of an old German book from the 19th Century which foretells Dracula et al wreaking havoc or somesuch.

The movie was PG-13 but wouldn’t be today; there’s violence, cursing, and not only rampant swearing but even some old-fashioned gay-bashing. But the producers understood preteen kids, so it isn’t the sanitized/too cool posturing of today; that being said, one of the squad members is a “junior high” punk with spiked hair and leather jacket, but admittedly he appears to be a spoof of the typical rebel of ‘50s horror/sci-fi movies. The monsters take a bit too long to show up – and conveniently disappear for long stretches of time (plus the dude playing Dracula sucks) – but when they get there they are very cool, if dispensed with a litte too easily. (A shotgun blast takes out the Gill-Man? Come on!) I guess the film didn’t do very well, as despite being geared for a clear sequel or even franchise, this was the one and only adventure of the titular Monster Squad. I bet it would be fun to watch this one on the big screen.

Night of the Creeps (1986): Why am I only just now seeing this movie? A readymade cult film, “Night of the Creeps” is courtesy writer-director Fred Dekker, who gave us the similarly-culty “The Monster Squad” the following year. A tribute to ‘50s horror and sci-fi movies with an ‘80s update, the film opens with a brief Star Wars-esque scene of strange-looking aliens blasting away at each other on their starship. One of them sends a strange cannister off into space. Cut to Smalltown, USA, 1959; Dekker films this sequence in black and white, and he perfectly captures the era. Unlike modern attempts at period pieces, the actors here even LOOK like college kids from the ‘50s. It’s all like a live action E.C. comic as we have an axe-wielding psychopath, a crashing meteor (which is of course that cannister from space), and the introduction of the titular “creeps:” slug-like creatures that throw themselves into human mouths, worm their way up into the brain, and incubate.

From there we go to 1986 (the film now in color), where we meet our heroes: a luckless pair of college dweebs who just want to get laid. The movie isn’t just a love letter to vintage horror and sci-fi cinema; it also captures the teen comedy vibe of the day, and the characters here are not only very likable but also excently portrayed (it doesn’t appear that any of these actors went on to anything else, but they all give great performances). We also get a grizzled cop with a penchant for hardboiled detective fiction who steals every scene he’s in – a witness of the first creeps visitation in 1959, he will eventually aid our heroes in the final battle against them. The film is played straight throughout, with the comedy coming from off-hand comments from the characters, who capably mock the OTT nature of things. The violence is never too gory, though we do have some corpses with exploded heads and whatnot. (The sort of stuf that gets by on modern crime lab TV shows, to tell the truth.) And since this was made in the days when horror movies were actually rated R, there’s even brief flashes of nudity, including a wonderfully-egregious shot of several young women taking showers. The finale is the highlight; the creeps incubate in brains that are alive or dead, and for the latter this results in zombies staggering about. Our heroes pick up a handy flamethrower from the police armory(!!) and start charbroiling them.

There’s even an unexpected emotional depth to “Night of the Creeps;” one of our heroes must be sacrified, per genre madate, and unlike the majority of such character deaths this one actually hits the viewer hard, particularly when you listen to the audio recording he leaves behind. But like “The Monster Squad,” this movie was a commercial flop; Dekker struck out a third time with the abysmal “Robocop 3,” which, per his own admission, ruined his career.

Modern superhero garbage:

Captain America: Civil War (2016): Politics and superheroes make strange bedfellows in this overlong (2 ½ hours) slog from Marvel Studios. Not to mention that the filmmakers muddle their politics. Remember how the Avengers stopped those various invasions in the previous two Avengers films? Well, turns out they inadvertently killed a whole bunch of innocent people during all the fighting, even though it’s never been mentioned until now. But nope, the Avengers and superheroes in general are very bad and hundreds of United Nations countries have signed some treaty to make our heroes agree to act only when ordered to by an official ruling party. But this is only the beginning of the politically-correct mindset of the film; our superheroes are shamed by not one but three black characters during the course of the film, the first the mother of a man who was accidentally killed while Iron Man was fighting aliens in the first film. Later our heroes will venture to fictional African country of Wakanda, where Black Widow will offer an official apology to the king, who of course also takes the opportunity to shame the heroes, as does his son, the prince of Wakanda (aka superhero Black Panther).

The movie is a dire, mostly-humorless trawl of politics and in-fighting; former bad boy Iron Man is retconned into being a government lackey, and my reading of the film had him as a spoof of current Trump proclamations to ban immigrants from certain countries – the Scarlet Witch, you see, has been deemed the most unsafe of the Avengers, and Iron Man insists on her being kept as an unwilling “guest” in Avengers HQ, being that’s she’s a “weapon of mass destruction” and whatnot. According to the current political climate as defined by the mainstream media, the Trump Republicans want to lock up/ban immigrants from certain countries while the Clinton Democrats want to open the borders to practically everyone. However to my surprise I learned that the producers apparently considered Iron Man to be more of a comment on Hillary Clinton, his clinging to ruling bodies and focus groups intended as a commentary on the career politician mindset of the current Democratic party. Captain America, meanwhile, rails against these restrictions and forced imprisonment and will not sign the treaty; while I assumed he was intended to be the radical Liberal (and thus the hero, this being a Hollywood movie and all), apparently he’s intended to be the Republican analog – he especially revolts against the idea of locking up of non-citizen Scarlet Witch.

But ironically enough, Captain America is a man of the 1940s, in particular a man of World War Two (even though the actor portraying him appears incapable of capturing any ‘40s-like sensibilities or mannerisms); anyone who knows their American history knows that the government locked up all Japanese Americans during the war years, whether born in America or not. This incident is never mentioned in “Civil War,” but it leads to a glaring question – if Cap is against superhero internment, was he also against Japanese internment in WWII? It would’ve been nice if this was even explained, and doubtless the majority of viewers never even wondered about it. But at least for me, I had a hard time understanding how a man who, just a few years ago (by his reckoning), was in the 1940s could feel so strongly against locking people up so as to protect the country – again, all of it could’ve easily been explained away with a bit of exposition. But anyway, none of this stuff should have any place in a superhero movie. Sadly though, this proves to be the sole plot, which eventually leads to a full-scale battle between our heroes.

Yes, the characters kids are supposed to look up to spend about a half hour fighting each other nearly to the death; despite which, this is the highlight of the film, as for once we have an action scene where the camera stops shaking (the first hour features a few action scenes that are terrible with the shaky-cam ethic) and you can actually follow the action, which is as expected loaded with CGI. Every character from previous films shows up, save for Thor and the Hulk; even Spider-Man appears, portrayed by a new actor and once again just a teen from Queens. (Not to mention soon to star in his own film, which will likely be yet another friggin’ origin story for the character, and the producers continue the baffling trend of making Aunt May younger and younger, this time casting Marisa Tomei in the role!?) The highlight here for me is Ant-Man, whose film was probably one of my favorites yet from Marvel; this time he briefly becomes his other alter-ego, Giant Man.

But boy, this one just goes on and on, becoming more dire and humorless, with the end result that the Avengers, just formed two movies ago, have for all intents and purposes disbanded. Wasn’t the point of the entire first movie getting them together?? Anyway, even though I grew up reading comics and basically lived for Marvel, I’m not the best judge for these modern superhero movies; I pretty much hate all of them (except for “Iron Man 3,” which I loved), and “Civil War” is more of the same, so opinions as ever will differ. Some people even call it “the greatest superhero movie ever,” which is as baffling as the casting of Marisa Tomei.

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016): This turgid, near three-hour exercise in tedium is not suggested for those contemplating suicide. Director Zach “The Hack” Snyder returns from “The Man of Steel” (a dire, humorless movie that made being Superman seem akin to having terminal cancer) to once again piss on the memory of your favorite DC Comics heroes in a followup that’s just as ineptly-staged, glacially-paced, and poorly lit as its predecessor. And if you didn’t get enough PC messaging from “Captain America: Civil War,” then you’ll be happy to note that this is yet another movie that bashes superheroes for their wanton acts of collateral damage! And before you can cry “cliché in the making!,” within the first several minutes we even have yet another black character shaming Superman for all the mass death and suffering he inadvertently caused in the previous film. But we need to have some feminism, too; in her very first scene, (horribly miscast) Lois Lane corrects a radical Islamic terrorist who calls her a lady: “I’m not a lady. I’m a journalist.” Ooh, take THAT, Patriarchy!

The movie, like most modern films, is shot in such colorless “color” that you could almost think it was black and white; matching the somber tone, our “heroes” mope about. Ben Affleck shows up as a dour Bruce Wayne/Batman who almost makes the viewer misty-eyed for Michael Keaton. The first hour or so is a turgid, horrendously-padded nonevent of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne each trying to deal with all that damn mass carnage Superman accidentally caused; meanwhile Lex Luthor (who looks more like a Millennial Carrot Top) comes upon some kryptonite, which of course he will gradually (everything here being drawn out reaaaaal slow) use on Superman. Our two “heroes,” who apparently only act in their own interests, slowly begin to converge upon one another. Eventually a butch Wonder Woman shows up who displays none of the heroism-mixed-with-femininity of Lynda Cater’s interpretation; this version of the character seems to have stalked out of Snyder’s “300” adaptation. Costume-wise Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” (and, uh, “Dark Knight Strikes Again”) was clearly used as inspiration, complete with a suit of armor for Batman that is taken directly out of Miller’s art. As is this interpretation of Wonder Woman, now that I think of it. 

Anyway, “Batman vs Superman” represents all that is bad about modern superhero films: it’s humorless, it’s pretentious (even the title is pretentious!), it’s too damn long, it’s confusingly directed in the action scenes, it takes itself way too seriously, it thinks grimness equals maturity, it confuses arrogance with self-confidence, and it’s about as fun as a kick in the crotch.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Dragon

The Dragon, by William Schoell
May, 1989  Leisure Books

William Schoell published a handful of horror paperbacks between 1984 and 1990, coming in and going out on the horror high tide. While he never achieved the popularity of Stephen King (or, uh, William W. Johnstone), his books are well regarded today and most of them command high prices on the used books market – The Dragon, one of his last published horror novels, was going for high prices a few years ago, but seems to be cheaply available now.

Actually, Schoell didn’t disappear; he moved on to nonfiction and other markets that likely paid better. This is a shame, as judging from this novel, he’s a perfectly fine pulp-horror novelist, one of the few such novelists of the era who seems quite aware that he’s writing disposable entertainment, the literary equivalent of a B-movie creature feature. Many of these writers had pretensions (or delusions) of literary greatness, but one can tell Schoell is having fun. However he does invest enough thoughtfulness into his book that his characters aren’t just cardboard cutouts going through the motions until their gory deaths.

In fact, the rampant characterization of The Dragon is one of its few detriments, at least in my opinion. Like every other horror paperback of the ‘80s, it’s much too long: 358 pages, a veritable doorstop of a book. However, it’s got some big print, and Schoell’s such a capable author that the narrative flows smoothly. It’s just that, as with most every horror novel, we must endure the interminable opening half in which the characters gradually become aware of the fact that they’re in a horror novel. We also must learn a bit too much about them until the good stuff starts.

The other year I started reading Schoell’s first novel, Spawn Of Hell, from 1984, but gave up on it a little over a quarter of a way through for this reason; the majority of those opening pages were given over to a practically endless budding romance between a comic book artist and a super-hot fashion model(!!). It just felt like way too many pages were burned away on this stuff; I encountered the same obstacles when I later tried to read Schoell’s Saurian, from 1986 – the first half was endless detail about the protagonist’s childhood, and I just wanted to get to the giant monster carnage.

But I was determined to read a Schoell novel in full, so I dove into The Dragon with iron resolve. As with the other books, the first 80 or so pages are given over to a little too much character-building, but it is all very well done – even though I still didn’t much care about any of the characters. Also, Schoell has a tendency to overdescribe his characters, like sometimes up to three paragraphs describing their faces and their clothes. Taking up most of the spotlight is our protagonist, Eddie Drake, a 42-year-old photographer of some fame who became a widow, six months ago, his wife of ten years killed by black thugs in a mugging in the NYC subways.

Eddie’s recent past indeed is almost identical to the origin story of The Vigilante, only Eddie lives in “the real world,” and thus doesn’t become a .38-wielding dispenser of bloody vengeance. Instead he is mostly a shell of himself, still hurt, still grieving, still consumed with thoughts of his deceased wife, though he has learned to cope with it. He finds weekly solace hanging out with a sort of widower’s club: a group of widowed men of various ages who hang out with Eddie and get drunk at a local Manhattan bar.

Enter Lawrence Foster, Eddie’s college pal, now a prominent archeologist. “Larry” has a proposal for Eddie: venture with him and a small team of specialists to a desolate area of southwestern New Mexico, where Larry’s certain they will find a heretofore-unkknown culture buried deep within a mesa. An older archeologist found the place, but was too sick to explore it, thus it has fallen upon Larry. He tells Eddie that he was able to make a preemptory inspection of the place – brushing over the little detail that his colleague on this inspection is now in the hospital, but for an unrelated issue, mind you – and now he’s about to head back down there and excavate it in full.

After brief internal questing – and Schoell to his credit doesn’t waste any time here – Eddie agrees. He figures the trip will help him move on and besides, he could use the photos for a book deal. Thus he sets off for the small town of Mightabeen, New Mexico, which rests beside the looming mesa, El Lobo – named after the wolfhead shape at its crown, or something. Larry’s team is the stuff B-movie creature features are made of, a motley crew that doesn’t have a chance in hell of working well together:

Ellen Foster: Larry’s wife, a hussy socialite with no interest in archeology, but who has insisted on coming along because she’s certain Larry is having an affair with his assistant, Leslie.

Thurston Beresford: A “fussy, elderly anthropologist” who is certain there was once a previously-unknown species of mankind but who harbors fears that he’s become old.

William Ringstone: A professor of archeology, as “hard and black as an obsidian sculpture,” still mentally trying to get over the beating he took as a child by white trash.

Roy Kennison: “stalwart” site supervisor who has as much personality as a rock.

Velma St. Clair: Basically, Velma from Scooby Doo; an ungainly, unattractive young woman who hates the world and herself. She serves as the coservationist of the team.

Leslie Saunders: Hotstuff assistance of Larry Foster, who is indeed in an affair with him, and has even begged Larry to leave his wife, Ellen – something which Larry, the dumbass, actually told Ellen!

In addition there are several veritable redshirts the team picks up in Mightabeen, nameless local laborers who will help in the actual digging of the site. The excacation gets off to a comically nightmarish start when, after venturing down into the antechamber which has been cleared at the top of the mesa, the group is promptly buried inside by a landslide of rubble! As usual though with horror novels, mundane explanations are tossed off – the departing helicopter loosened the soil, etc – and they go about digging themselves out into the daylight, laughing it off.

But from there it all just gets more and more nightmarish, which is to say more darkly comedic. That night Roy pokes his head in a crevice and is attacked by a swarm of mutant insects; he’s flown to a hospital in the town near Mightabeen the next morning. The bugs meanwhile disappear. Next the hired hands come down with debilitating stomach pains and they too have to be choppered off. This element is likely the most well-known about The Dragon, as in a complete Alien swipe it will soon be revealed that these guys have been impregnated with giant worms!!

As ever though, all this stuff is brushed off with “reasonable” excuses – the men smuggled up bad booze, Roy dislodged a swarm of rare bugs, etc. As they descend further into the mesa, new hired hands having been choppered in, the team each begin to experience different ailments, which they hide from the others. Jill has a rash on her arm, Velma finds herself drawn to the eyes of a painted dragon discovered in a temple area, Ringsford can’t make a fist or properly move his arms, Larry harbors feelings of jealous rage for Eddie, Beresford hears voices, and Eddie is consumed with grief over his late wife, grief such as he hasn’t felt since she was first dead. Ellen meanwhile has absconded to the ranchouse at the base of the mesa, unable to cope with the dig.

The pure pulp-horror doesn’t really get started until a hundred or so pages in. Those workers give “birth” to their slug-creatures in a gruesome sequence which sees the things ripping their way out of the mouths and rectums(!) of the men. Described both as slugs and as worms, only with teeth, they tear apart the unfortunate people in the emergency ward, including a child – proof that Schoell isn’t one of those horror authors who play it safe. Rapidly they grow to the size of bull elephants, before becoming as big as houses and running roughshod over Mightabeen. The novel is filled with longish sequences of one-off characters who are elaborately built up – description, background, hopes and dreams – before they are rapidly killed by the giant slugs.

Humorously, our heroes at the mesa dig have no idea of the horrors they have unleashed upon the world below. In fact they’re still in the denial stage, even when they all come to blows at the mesa’s top. Only Ringstone realizes that they are all being made to feel these various thoughts, and he only comes to this realization after being punched by Eddie. Also Ringsford has discovered that the walls of the middle part of the mesa are composed of living tissue. At this point the doctors from the hospital chopper in to inform them of those giant slugs, but Larry brushes off any part of the blame – they could be mutants left over from the atomic testing of the 1950s!!

Meanwhile Velma, compelled by the voices in her head, has run off the edge of the mesa and plummeted to her doom, 5,000 feet below. Humorously, no one even realizes she’s gone until the next day!

Schoell then is clearly having some wicked fun; he’s especially fond of presenting sorry-assed characters who have led miserable lives and who suffer even more miserable deaths. One unfortunately too-short sequence has a band of Mightabeen survivors, including an “amazon” woman warrior named Nordica, blasting at the worms with rifles; here we learn that, unsurprisingly, bullets aren’t very effective against the creatures, and also the worms have acidic blood which burns right through human skin. However despite the carnage The Dragon really isn’t all that gory, at least so far as copious detail of exploding heads and guts go. Only the part with the “birthing” of the worms from the bodies of the men does the book approach anything stomach-churning.

You’ll note though that one thing is missing – namely, the sex, or at least the sleaze. Other than an occasional f-bomb, there’s no funky business in The Dragon, with Larry and Leslie’s affair rendered to off-handed mentions by various characters. Eddie for his part is still struggling with grief (though he does sort of find Leslie kinda hot), and there isn’t even the usually-mandatory scene of any one-off characters meeting their grisly fates while humping. I thought that would be a given, but it never happens.

Eventually Beresford, reacting to the voices in his head, discovers ancient parchments and is able to psychically decipher them or somesuch. El Lobo was a world within a world, created by a race of beings much more powerful than humans, at least mentally. Physically they were deformed weaklings. Masters of the “dark arts,” they fled the world of man ten thousand years ago, creating their lair within El Lobo, where they kept for many generations a group of people whom they sacrificed to their god, Ka Kuna, the dragon. They placed “security devices” throughout their underworld kingdom as protection against invaders; Beresford is certain that the impregnated men, the voices he hears, the other ailments the party has experienced, are all caused by the magical forcefield inside El Lobo.

The final hundred pages up the ante as our heroes, plus some new Mightabeen residents, are trapped within El Lobo and must search through the innards desperately seeking an escape route. Comically they still have no idea of the destruction of Mightabeen. They break off into various groups, also looking for Leslie, who herself has gone off looking for Velma, whose death is still unknown by the others. Eventually the titular dragon appears, which is formed from those living wall tissues which Blob-like flow together and combine on the big statue of the creature. After killing some heroes the dragon flies around another nearby town, wreaking havoc as it kills off a slew of more one-off characters.

The final pages of The Dragon feature a desperate battle between Eddie and the dragon itself, which it turns out is mentally directed from a sort of ancient “control room” deep in the mesa. Having figured this out, Eddie must keep himself out of the room while he faces down the rapidly-dwindling dragon. By this point the thing has done so much damage that hundreds if not thousands of people are dead; indeed so many characters have died – and not just the one-off characters – that the reader doesn’t much empathize with Eddie during this desperate fight. At least for me it was more along the lines of, “What’s the damn point??”

As mentioned, The Dragon is very much in the creature feature mold, right down to the stereotypical characters who meet their stereotypical fates. But Schoell does it all with such relish that it’s fun despite the cliched nature of it all. Maybe that’s the secret to why Schoell is still so well-regarded by horror paperback aficianados today. Indeed he offers an afterword in which he confirms his intent to only deliver entertainment, mocking the “serious” pretensions of some horror authors, and claims that The Dragon was inspired by Lovecraft and various monster movies.

Schoell only published one more horror novel after this, Fatal Beauty, and then moved on to nonfiction. According to an interview Schoell did several years ago, before moving on from horror he wrote a Juraissic Park-type deal about dinosaurs running amok, but failed to secure a publisher for it; it looks like Schoell has recently e-published the novel, Monster World, as a Kindle eBook. I enjoyed The Dragon enough that I might check it out – but first I intend to go back and start in on those other books of his I tried to read earlier, as you can now definitely count me a fan of this author’s work.