Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Wolf Whistle and I'll come to you

Hammer completed a foursome of horror archetypes with Curse of the Werewolf in 1961. Terence Fisher directed again and Oliver Reed making his first credited film appearance as the unlucky lycanthropic Leon.

This time they turned to the ur-text for the Wolf man mythos, The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore, but decided to relocate the action to Spain. And there is an awful lot of back story to get through before we finally see Reed in his full shaggy glory. So we have an evil Marques tormenting a poor beggar who turns a bit lupine after a long stay in the dungeons. In the process he attacks Leon's poor mute mother who then has to escape the rapacious clutches of the ageing Marques before she gets taken in by a friendly couple who discover she is pregnant. Then we have the boyhood of a werewolf as her strange child howls at the bars of his bedroom window, and may be responsible for tearing the throats out of a nearby herd of goats.

Of course this is a Hammer horror so we get some familiar faces turning up, including the ever reliable Michael Ripper, and Warren Mitchell as the local gamekeeper with a Spanish accent direct from the east end of London. Once Leon has grown into lean and hungry looking Oliver Reed we get plenty of Kensington gore and glimpses of some hairy hands but it's not until the last 15 minutes or so that we get the full wolf man make up.

Sadly it's probably the weakest of the first four of the classic Hammer horrors. The strange Spanish setting doesn't really add anything, and the delay in getting to the full Werewolf is rather tedious. But Oliver Reed does make Leon a sympathetic and rather pathetic figure who at the end is begging for the silver bullet to end his rampage, and of course there are plenty of heaving bosoms and Kensington splatterings along the way which do help a bit. Let's give it a middling 2.5 out of 5 great dane ears and move on to the return of the Count.

Judge Dredd The Mega-History

I stumbled across a brand new copy of this book in the antiques shop for a mere £2 and couldn't resist the lure of a great Mike McMahon cover. Written by Colin Karman and Peter Acton and published in 1995 to tie in with the expected upsurge of interest from the Stallone movie.

Obviously this history of Dredd's creation and his development as a character is somewhat out of date now but it makes for an interesting read as another Mega project to collect the best of Dredd gathers speed. Featuring interviews with all the key editors and creators this well written book details the various factors affecting British comics in the late 1970s including the controversy raised by Action. From there the story progresses with the familiar tales of Mills, Wagner and Ezquerra's initial concepts for the strip, and the convoluted back and forth that led to that first episode in Prog 2.

The authors detail the development of Dredd's character concentrating on the epics that defined him and his world and set many of the rules and concepts that still affect him today. In terms of longevity and impact on popular culture it is probably fair to say that Dredd has now outstripped Dan Dare as the most important single character in British comics history, so it is nice too have a book looking at just his stories from the pages of 2000AD.

There are lots of illustrations from the Prog including covers and full pages of art, as well as concept sketches and nice visual details. The creators are given plenty of room to tell their own stories and it all generates a certain amount of nostalgia for those early days of the comic with young artists coming in off the streets and establishing their place in the pantheon.

And, of course, a book about the development of Judge Dredd also becomes a history of John Wagner. His impact on the last 40 years of British comics can not be underestimated and this book does him justice.

Overall, this was a great read even though it is now 20 years old, and makes a good companion piece to Thrill Power Overload. There are still copies out there on Amazon marketplace and it's well worth tracking down.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Megazine 358 vs 2000AD Prog 1923

The last Prog before the next jumping on point and two Nick Percival covers provide a good opportunity to revive some head to head reviewing.

Covers. Nick Percival's Mean Machine vs Howard Quartz.
Two fantastic images from a master of creepy covers. Howard Quartz is great and we all love speech bubbles on a cover, but that Mean Machine face with the ghostly image of the boy he was floating above the title is just heart breaking. My views are coloured by the story it accompanies but that face really tells the tragic tale of what was done to Mean. Best Megazine cover of the year so far.
Result: 1-0 to the Meg.

Judge Dredd: Perps, crimes and videotape by Alec Worley, Carl Critchlow and Annie Parkhouse  vs The Cop by Al Ewing, Ben Willsher, Adam Brown and Simon Bowland.
I am really enjoying what Al Ewing and Ben Willsher are building with their Megazine story. I like to see Dredd using his detective skills and the Synthi-Caf moment is a nice touch. But over in the Prog we have visitors to a zoo terrorised by Megalodon Sharks with robotic legs. Come on, we all love 2000AD for stuff like this and Carl Critchlow renders it beautifully. It's a one off story but a pretty good one.
Result: 1-1 Game on.
Tharg's 3Rillers: 1% by Eddie Robson, INJ Culbard and Ellie De Ville vs American Reaper by Pat Mills, Clint Langley and Annie Parkhouse
Tricky. This particular 3Riller has done nothing for me although I love Culbard's art. The story about some Banksian Smatter or a grey goo outbreak just didn't grab me, but it's up against the incomprehensible American Reaper which looks staggering but static. So Culbard's colours will win this narrowly.
Result: 2-1 to the Prog.
Survival Geeks: Steampunk'd by Gordon Rennie, Emma Beeby, Neil Googe, Gary Caldwell and Simon Bowland vs Angelic by Gordon Rennie, Lee Carter and Annie Parkhouse
Survival Geeks looks good and features another great 2000AD moment with Gundam Gappa taking down Cthuhlu but I can't shake the feeling that the writers are laughing at us and not with us. Over in the Megazine the Angel gang prequel suffers from the one month gap between episodes and the shifting time frame fractures the story making it hard for me to follow. It will almost certainly read better in one continuous chunk but having recently experienced Mr Rennie's contempt for the opinions of his audience I can't be bothered. So my man-child fanboy vote will go to Neil Googe's artwork for Survival Geeks.
Result: 3-1 to the Prog but the match has gone stale in the middle section.
Bob Byrne's Twisted Tales by (err) Bob Byrne vs Tales from the Black Museum: Rising Angel by Michael Carroll, Nick Percival and Ellie De Ville
I never get Bob Byrne's Twisted Tales until someone explains them to me and I've got letters after my name and everything, but it doesn't matter because it's never going to beat Carroll and Percival's stunning story about the last days of Mean Machine. This is everything that Angelic is not, Michael Carroll is a great writer who spots something that has been missed over the years, the innocent gentle soul who was the victim of Pa Angel's abuse. Nick Percival is a well known horror fan and his artwork is perfectly suited for the creepy caretaker of the Black museum and the portmanteau film style of his terrible tale. Carroll and Percival's previous collaboration Trauma Town was a gripping study of Dredd's psyche and here they work similar wonders on the remnants of the Mean Machine as he tries to do some good after a lifetime of enforced evil. It's a terrific piece of work and I wish I could award it more than a single point.
Result: 3-2 to the Prog
Interlude: Michael Molcher's obituary for Brett Ewins is beautifully written and very moving, as is Rufus Dayglo's lovely image that accompanies it.
Savage: Grinders by Pat Mills, Patrick Goddard and Ellie De Ville vs Harlem Heroes by Michael Fleisher, Steve Dillon, kev Walker and Simon Jacob.
Beautiful black and white line work by Steve Dillon in this second volume of the Harlem Heroes. Slice D'Altroy looks an awful lot like Abslom Daak though. Meanwhile Bill Savage contemplates his future as the political fallout from the resistance victory continues. Patrick Goddard gives another master-class in monochrome art, including his recreation of some classic moments from earlier savage volumes. Sometimes you just want a brain in a jar and if I can't have Artie Gruber in the original Harlem Heroes then Howard Quartz is the next best thing. It's an easy win for Savage.
Result: 3-3. A tie, which is probably fair as both the Prog and the Meg are producing top stuff at the moment. But if I had to cast a deciding vote it would be to Mike Carroll and Nick Percival for the Mean Machine story and that terrific cover. If you are only reading the Prog then you're missing out on some great British comics in the Megazine.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Big Finish - Dark Eyes 4

The Dark Eyes series has been a huge success for Big Finish and here is the fourth and final box set, written by Marc Fitton and John Dorney, and directed by Ken Bentley.

Liv Chenka is back, as is the Master and the Daleks, and they are joined by Sontarans as well. Paul McGann is as engaging as ever as the Eight Doctor and Alex MacQueen attacks the bad guy role with his usual relish.

The final tale of Molly O'Sullivan and her dark eyes is all explained but along the way there are some interesting interludes most notably in the first story A Life in the Day which tells a remarkable time loop story with a touching love affair at its heart. It is probably the best thing in the whole box set and extremely well done.

Elsewhere a different actress plays the older Molly with considerable success and there are the final pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of the origin of the Eminence. I may have missed this in an earlier story but I was stunned when I realised how a scientific acronym gave the Eminence its name. Very clever writing indeed.

I've enjoyed each of the Dark Eyes box sets and this one was no exception. A solid 4 out of 5 time loops.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mummy Dearest

Third of the original Hammer colour horrors was their version of The Mummy from 1959, again directed by Terence Fisher and starring Cushing and Lee.

By this time Hammer had arranged a deal with Universal which allowed them to use the titles and characters from the original films. So the plot is initially very similar to the Karloff film, particularly the back story about the high priest and his love for the princess and the lookalike heroine. Again the Hammer version keeps the locations fairly limited around Cushing's house and a nearby swamp. There are also some comic turns from Michael Ripper and a few other Hammer regulars.

Peter Cushing gives his usual fantastic turn as the hero but yet again Christopher Lee steals the show as the Mummy, and this time we have a fully mobile and murderous member of the living dead swathed in those crusty bandages. The Mummy walks and he looks suitably terrifying. Lee really put his whole body on the line for this role, apart from having his head completely buried in the make-up he also sustained a number of injuries. He did his back in carrying the heroine Yvonne Furneaux, sprained his ankles on hidden pipes while wading through the studio swamp. the exploding squibs that created the effect of bullet holes caused burns, and then he dislocated his shoulder crashing through an incorrectly rigged prop door, a moment which I think you can see in the film. It was a good job he was already wearing all those bandages.

Unfortunately when Lee is not on screen this one becomes a bit dull and is the least chilling of the first three Hammers. Three out of five death scrolls I think, but I can't leave it there. Let's dig up some more Hammer and find out how the Frankenstein and Dracula franchises continued. Watch this space.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Mega Collection - Origins and Shamballa

The next two volumes in the Mega Collection arrive bearing gifts in the form of some Judge Dredd coasters and two books that could be excellent contenders for that always tricky dilemma of what to hand to a new reader in the hopes of luring them in to the world of Dredd.

First off, Origins by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Kev Walker and Colin MacNeil, with that famous Brian Bolland cover image. This does an excellent job of covering the back story that led to the Judges taking control of America while at the same time showing how Joe Dredd's character has developed since those early years. And along the way there's plenty of kickass action with cursed earth mutant gangs, deluded townships, and some bonkers robots. This is easy to review as it has several of the 2000AD elite creators all performing at the top of their game. The reproduction is perfect and there are some extra features with sketches by Carlos, an introduction by Matt Smith and a nice afterword by Michael Molcher. I think this is a great book to hand to a Dredd newbie and in fact that is what I plan to do with these volumes once they overtake the space I have available for them (about now in other words).

The Anderson Shamballa volume is similarly beautiful to hold and behold. Alan Grant explores all his interest in mystical matters while Arthur Ranson's artwork is simply stunning. As well as Shamballa this also includes the stories The Jesus Syndrome, Satan, The Protest, and R*Volultion.

Again it is all beautifully produced with another Matt Smith introduction and a very interesting five page essay by Mr Molcher. I have a friend who is into French and other European comics and I think I'm going to pass this one on to him as Ranson's glorious art reminds me of some of the work produced by Moebius and other European artists.

The Mega Collection continues to impress and excite.

Raising the Stakes

Straight on to Dracula from 1958, or the Horror of Dracula as it was known in America to avoid confusion with the Universal movie. Again directed by Terence Fisher and with Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as the Count. 

Once again Hammer took the basic story and kept it all very contained, the action is entirely limited to somewhere in mittel-europe with Dracula's castle, the nearby village and the town where Arthur Holmward and his wife Mina and sister Lucy live all in close proximity. This gets rid of the whole Dracula moving to England plot and so the unfortunate Jonathan Harker becomes a librarian who has come to catalogue the Count's books rather than an estate agent looking to facilitate his move to London.

Christopher Lee is allowed out from under the Frankenstein monster make-up and becomes a very suave and urbane count who is much more believable and affable than Lugosi's creepy interpretation, Peter Cushing is fantastic as ever as Van Helsing, particularly in the climactic scenes of the film, but it's really Lee who steals the show. His height is used to good effect and it's quite clear that he is a very sexual vampire as he runs his lips over the face of the swooning Mina before turning his attention to her neck.

There are some good moments particularly the confrontation with the vampiric Lucy in the graveyard and when Harker turns vampire hunter and dispatches the delectable Valerie Gaunt, making her second appearance in a bosom heaving role. But of course the key scenes are the final desperate race back to Dracula's castle and the confrontation between the Count and Van Helsing. Peter Cushing's  dash (or his stunt man's) along the table to leap and tear down the curtains is fantastic. And hats off to the special effects wizards for the way they show Dracula dissolving into dust. It's a marvellous ending and one that earns the film the full five out of five crossed candlesticks.

It's a shame it took eight years for Hammer to persuade Lee to don the cloak and fangs again for a sequel, but a year after this film's release he was back in full make-up for The Mummy. Can't wait.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Vital Gore

Straight from Universal to Hammer and their take on the Frankenstein story. Curse of Frankenstein from 1957, directed by Terence Fisher with Peter Cushing as Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as his creation.

Hammer's first colour horror film and the first on-screen pairing of Cushing and Lee together in a horror film. Clearly keen to avoid litigation from Universal the studio had too use a different title and a remarkably different make up from the Jack Pierce original. It's also all very self contained with most of the action taking place in and around Baron Frankenstein's house which presumably kept the budget down.

Cushing is suitable sinister and unpleasant as a murderous version of Victor Frankenstein. Meanwhile Christopher Lee is buried under the make-up but still manages to bring a remarkable pathos to his version of the monster. And of course there is the first appearance of that bright red blood that characterised the Hammer horrors, particularly in that famous and oft repeated sequence when the creature is shot in the eye and clasps his hand to his face as the blood pumps out.

And it wouldn't be a Hammer without some heaving bosoms and Valerie Gaunt and Hazel Court prove to have the corsetry, and the screams, to fit the part. But the film belongs to Cushing and Lee who are both terrific. It all rattles along quickly before Frankenstein is condemned for his crimes. Somehow the studio will have to get him out of that for the inevitable sequel, but first they would have a stab at (or stake at?) that bloodsucking Count.

Four out of Five buckets of gore for Curse of Frankenstein but I can hear a hearse pulled by riderless black horses thundering this way to see if Dracula can beat that score.

Creature Feature

Last of the box set and last of his kind, it's The Creature from the Black Lagoon from 1954, directed by Jack Arnold.

The final archetype of the canonical Universal monsters and a real shift from Gothic to the science fiction horror films of the 1950s. In fact it's all science even starting with a lecture on evolution before the clean cut science team pack their bags, charter a knackered old boat and head for the Amazon and the Black Lagoon itself. The Creature himself is rather fantastic and maintains a real sense of rubbery menace in his lovely gill suit, and Richard Carlson is pretty good and the lead scientist and clean cut hero.

It's impossible to discuss this film without mentioning two things, firstly the iconic white one-piece swimsuit worn by Julie Adams as she takes a risky dip in the lagoon. A sequence that provided inspiration for many a science fiction and horror writer. And then there is the work of the underwater stunt man Ricou Browning swimming in the creature suit. The marvellous watery ballet that takes place as the Creature swims back and forth beneath the unsuspecting Adams is just a triumph for everyone involved in it. It's the stand out moment in a pretty good sci-fi horror move.

Somehow I'd never seen this film before and I'm glad I finally got the chance to. It's a good solid 4 out 5 webbed fingered thumbs up, and right up there with Bride of Frankenstein as the pick of this box set. That's it for the Universal monsters, but I can't leave it there. It's time to open a can of Kensington gore and see what the Brits can do as I switch to Hammer studios and see how well they update the horror archetypes.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Night at the Opera

The penultimate disc in my Universal monsters box set is the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera, directed by Arthur Lubin and starring Claude Rains as the Phantom.

The first colour film in the set and it's definitely technicolour, the whole thing looks like an image from the top of a tin of chocolates. I've also just watched the 1925 black and white silent version starring Lon Chaney which is moody and atmospheric. The 1943 film suffers in comparison on several counts, the colour palette makes everything look very pink and reassuring and not at all horrific. It's also a mistake to change the story so that Rains begins as a member of the orchestra and frustrated composer, we see his disfigurement when acid is thrown in his face so we have some idea of what's coming when he is unmasked. There was no warning or explanation of what was to come when Chaney's face was revealed, in fact it's so horrifying that the focus puller missed his moment and the image infamously swam out of focus.

There's also some unnecessary comedy moments from Nelson Eddy and Edgar Barry as the romantic rivals for Susanna Foster's attentions. The opera scenes themselves are far too much like a big Hollywood musical with some rather obvious miming to the soundtrack, and there is not enough of the Phantom in the creepy catacombs. Claude Rains is convincing as poor Erique but gets too little time as the Phantom.

Sadly the whole thing is rather dull and not at all scary, It's the runt of the litter in this particular box set and gets a mere 1 out 5 conveniently handy trays of acid. So it's on to the last of the set, the one I've never seen that I'm really looking forward to. It's time to take a deep breath and meet the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hook, Line and Inker

Scary creatures with sharp teeth sell comics, or at least they did back in the late seventies. Pat Mills and Ken Armstrong created Hook Jaw for the launch of Action comics in 1976 as a direct attempt to cash in on the success of the first summer blockbuster Jaws. Although Action had a short lived and controversial run it was one of the forerunners of 2000AD, and the popularity of the swimming killing machine led Mills to create another fearsome beastie in the form of Shako, the lethal polar bear on the CIA’s most wanted list which d├ębuted in Prog 20.

Egmont classics produced a restored digital version of the first six episodes of Hook Jaw written by Ken Armstrong, The original art by Ramon Sola has been sensitively coloured by Gary Caldwell and re-lettered by Jim Campbell. I bought it fairly cheaply through the Sequential comics app and I believe it is also available for the Kindle. The four page episodes follow a fairly standard pattern; plenty of lambs to the slaughter; a loud mouthed hothead who wants to kill the shark at any cost; and the calmer, clean cut hero who acts as the reader's focal point and narrates much of the action. According to Egmont Hook Jaw was consistently the most popular strip in Action.

Sola's artwork is fabulous and Caldwell has done a lovely job of bringing it to life with a suitably bloody colour palette. It's a nice job by the restoration team and the only downside is that there is no more available in this digital format. This was a 2013 release so it's possible that sales weren't enough to justify further issues?

Shako retreads familiar ground with a similar loud mouth, a native american hero, and a big beastie who is confused by all these humans running around but finds them to be a rather tasty snack. I read the digital collection from the 2000AD iPad app but the trade paperback version is still available. Written by Pat Mills and John Wagner, Ramon Sola was again the go to guy to draw the first episode. Juan Arancio takes over for chapters 2-4, later on the art chores are handled by Dodderio and Lopez-Vera who are perhaps a bit bland in comparison for my taste. Both of the fierce animal stories contain many examples of the showing and telling that was common in kids' adventure comics back then, particularly when it comes to scenes of people being consumed by the monster while narrating their own demise.

The Shako volume benefits from having all of the stories that appeared in the Progs and the 1978 annual story, White Fury. It also has a couple of gallery images including the striking Jock cover for the trade paperback. I gather there may be a few issues with repositioning of the title logo on some of the pages for the reprint but I'll leave that for the experts to comment on. The raw black and white art is fine stuff and I'm again caught in a cleft stick between original monochrome or the lovingly restored and coloured work on Hook Jaw.

Although Hook Jaw was the forerunner I'll give the edge to Shako just for completeness in one volume, but they are both nice collections that are well worth a look.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Urban Warfare

Exploring the world of Dredd as seen in the 2012 movie here is the first collection of parallel Dredd-verse stories in a lovely hard back format with a clever title (and yes, it took me a while to get the reference to the actor's name).

First we have the film prequel Top of the World, Ma-Ma by Matt Smith and Henry Flint, then Underbelly by Arthur Wyatt and Flint, and finishing with Uprise by Wyatt and Paul Davidson. Coloured throughout by Chris Blythe, with lettering Ellie De Ville and Simon Bowland. Also there are some extra artwork images on the end papers and title pages by Trevor Hairsine, Greg Staples, Ben Willsher, Boo Cook and Jock.

All the stories originally appeared in the Megazine where they got a mixed reception to be honest. Some fans want their Judge Dredd straight up and are not particularly interested in this other version of Mega-City One but here we have a chance to reappraise the stories. The prequel is very brief and to the point, it certainly reproduces the atmosphere of the movie but it's so short that it just feels like a deleted scene from the cutting room floor. Henry Flint's artwork is always fantastic to look at but somehow his surreal images always feel more at home in the traditional Dredd stories and seem slightly out of place in this gritty vision of the future. Arthur Wyatt''s first story Underbelly seems like a familiar retread of the drug gang plot from the film. It has moments of brilliance particularly as the Judges move through the criminals' factory lair and Wyatt's handling of Anderson starts out as interesting,but she gets forgotten as the story progresses and overall it feels a little underwhelming.

Uprise on the other hand expands the world and the character in a new direction and does something interesting with its version of the Occupy movement. There are hints and tips of the hat to the mainstream Dredd world with robot Judges, a Wally squad, and a computer called Walter. Paul Davidson creates some lovely looking pages, the whole thing is more satisfying in story terms than the first two, and it suggests that Wyatt and Davidson may bring us some interesting stuff in the future.

There are no extras in the book and sadly the Megazine covers by Staples, Willsher and Cook get rather lost when reprinted in moody monochrome on the title pages, However there is some compensation in the lovely look and feel of this hard back which appears to be the same size and thickness as an old school Christmas annual. It is a strange thing to comment on but it sits in the hands beautifully and produces a strange tactile reminder of the excitement of those volumes of childhood.

2000AD and Rebellion have clearly decided that we fans will lap up these lovely hardbacks and it appears to be working for them. The beautiful design work tips this book over into the must have category for me. Nice work by the House of Tharg.