Thursday, May 23, 2024

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 18

Grindhouse/Drive-in movies

Invasion Of The Bee Girls (1973): Bringing the vibe of ‘50s paranoia sci-fi like Invasion of The Body Snatchers to the drive-in ‘70s, Invasion Of The Bee Girls follows the same path as those earlier drive-in flicks but adds in ‘70s-mandatory boobs. Burly William Smith is cast against type as an amiable, even-tempered State Department agent who spends the entire movie wearing a three-piece suit and smiling; you get the impression he’s dying to tear off the suit and start swinging his fists. Despite being somewhat miscast, he’s still good in the role, and like the same year’s Wonder Women this one almost comes off like the film adaptation of a men’s adventure series that never was. 

Written by Nicholas Meyer, there’s a bit more to the movie than the standard drive-in fare of the day, with various “readings” of the film possible. To me it seems a clear reaction to the women’s lib of the day, though spoofing it to a certain extent. The gist of the story is that men in smalltown Peckham, in California, are dying of massive heart attacks, apparently caused by lots of sex. Though the film never outright states it, the implication is clear: they’ve been fucked to death. But then, the movie is interesting in how it’s never too R-rated; while there is copious boobage, there’s little cursing and hardly any violence. It’s essentially a mainstream take on drive-in pulp, and perhaps it’s for this reason that Invasion Of The Bee Girls is relatively unknown: it’s too timid for the hardcore grindhouse fans and it’s too saucy for mainstream movie fans. 

Truth be told, it is a little slow-paced, operating more on a long-simmer mystery angle than the slam-bang sci-fi action one might expect. Smith’s character is called in because the men dying happen to be employed at a secret governmental research base in town, and the State Department is concerned of threats and whatnot. Safe to say, there’s never been a State Department officer who looked like William Smith (especially not in today’s “intersectional” era), but for a guy who spent the previous decade busting heads in various biker movies, Smith acquits himself well as a nattily-attired agent who’s just trying to do his job. There isn’t even the expected antagonism with the local cops; indeed, there’s a part midway through where the local police chief loses his cool over the “Fed” pushing in on his territory, and Smith just grins and apologizes for stepping on his toes. It’s way against type for Smith, but one imagines he enjoyed the opportunity to play less of a hot-head. 

While the movie spends most of its time focused on Smith trying to figure out what’s going on, the viewer already knows that sultry Anitra Ford, who plays a researcher at the secret base, is basically turning the town’s women into the titular Bee Girls. Now one thing to note is that the awesome poster for the film is misleading: the Bee Girls never wear costumes. 

But then, they don’t wear anything. One of the humorous bits about the movie is that all of these Peckham women are total babes: there’s a laugh out loud part where we meet the widow of one of the men – a heavyset bald guy who looks like Colonel Klink – and she’s a mega-stacked babe who goes topless throughout a practically endless sequence in which we see how the Bee Girls are created. But then, Smith’s character spends the entire movie working with a research assistant at the base who wears glasses and dresses conservatively, and late in the novel she too is captured and almost given the Bee Girl treatment, topless and showing off a body that’s straight out of Playboy…not surprising, given that the actress is Victoria Vettri, who was a famous Playmate in the late ‘60s. Indeed her centerfold picture even made it to the Moon, courtesy the rowdy Apollo 12 crew. Even here Smith’s character shows special consideration; he doesn’t even make his interest in her known until the end, when he throws her on a bed and climbs on top of her. Given that the camera pans over to a bee and we hear “Thus Spake Zarathustra” on the soundtrack as the two get with it, the implication is clear that Vettri’s character might have indeed become a Bee Girl. 

Overall Invasion Of The Bee Girls is fun, but one must think of it more as a hybrid of sci-fi and mystery, as it never goes to the action levels one might hope for. Production values are certainly high for the genre, with Anitra Ford’s high-tech secret chambers being especially cool. But the pace kind of plods at times and one wishes William Smith had been given more to do than just ask questions. That said, the movie scores points for featuring the guy who played the Mafioso in Black Belt Jones as a “sex researcher” at the base. Also, Charles Bernstein’s jazz-funk score is very nice, with an effective main theme featuring a wordless “la la la” melody that almost sounds like it could’ve come off an Italian picture of the day. 

Speaking of men’s adventure, there’s a part toward the very end where the Bee Girls lab is blowing up and William Smith watches the action through a window in a door, and he looks just like the profile portrait of Adrano on the Adrano For Hire covers: 

Seizure (1974): Back in 2016 I bought the Trailer Trauma grindhouse/drive-in trailer compilation Blu Ray, because it was the only new release of its kind after the awesome 42nd Street Forever series came to an end with its fifth volume in 2009 (save for a special Blu Ray release in 2012, which I of course got as soon as it came out, but while cool it was just a compilation of the first two volumes of the original standard disc releases). Trailer Trauma is now also up to its fifth volume – 2020’s 70’s Action Attack, which might be my favorite trailer comp of all time given that it focuses, as you might guess from the title, on ‘70s action – but I never got into the Trailer Trauma series much due to its focus on horror. I’m not a fan of ‘70s and ‘80s horror movies, really. Well anyway I was recently watching my Trailer Trauma Blu Ray…only to realize midway through that I never even watched all of it back when I got it. I think I just watched the first half. Well, hell, there was still a predominance of horror stuff on it, but toward the end of the disc there was this crazy trailer in French with people in a cabin in the woods and a long-limbed girl in panties and halter top fighting some guy with a knife, and the title was “Tango Macabre,” so I figured it was just some goofy ‘70s French horror flick. 

But then I happened to read the review of Trailer Trauma at DVD Drive-In, and was surprised to learn that the trailer was the French promo for a Canada-US film from 1974…a film directed, of all people, by Oliver frigggin’ Stone!! So needless to say I had to see it. It’s now out on Blu Ray and that’s how I saw it, but to tell the truth it would’ve been just as well if I hadn’t. Curiously listless, Seizure has a lot of potential, concerning a horror author/artist (Jonathan Frid, from Dark Shadows) hosting a weekend getaway (or something) at his cottage in the verdant French Canadian countryside. But man, for a movie that features the credit, “Herve Villacheze as The Spider,” Seizure never makes much use of its crazy setup. Basically our hero – such as he is – fears that his dreams are becoming reality, and three freaks crawl out of the woodwork and start making hell for him and his guests. Or maybe they’re escaped lunatics from an asylum…or maybe it’s all just a dream! Stone tries to have his cake and eat it, too, but the only problem is he doesn’t spend enough time preparing either (hopefully that lame analogy made sense). 

The movie is lethargically paced, and not helped by the fact that it takes itself too seriously…but then, it is an Oliver Stone picture! He does aim above his minimal trappings with staging that’s unusual for the genre, particularly using a handheld camera at times. So I guess one could see the makings of a future cinema heavyweight here, this being Stone’s first directing credit. And yes, Herve Villechaize is in the film, a few years before Fantasy Island and two years before The Man With The Golden Gun (according to IMDB the movie was filmed in late 1972). His part here seems to be a trial for that latter role, as he essentially plays the henchman of the lunatic chick in charge of the trio (there’s also a hulking black man with a horrifically-scarred face). But man, Stone saddles Villechaize with most of the movie’s dialog, and I had a helluva time understanding what the hell he was saying! It didn’t help that it seemed Stone (who by the way co-wrote the script as well) seemed to have penned this dialog after ingesting the poetry of Jim Morrison. It’s just way over the top, but at least Villechaize acquits himself well. 

The humor comes unintentionally, like the disperate group of “friends” who congregrate here…they spend most of the time fighting and bickering, to the point that you wonder what the hell they’re even doing together. Genre regular Mary Woronov (who appears elsewhere on this review round-up) shines as the young wife of a loudmouth; the two nearly steal the picture. Woronov though gets the honor; she is the aforementioned long-limbed babe in panties and halter top from the trailer, and she appears this way in the final quarter of the film, forced into a knife fight with the Dark Shadows guy. This scene here again shows Oliver Stone’s attempts at getting outside his contraints, with the camera going handheld again and close to the actors; Woronov looks like she’s trying out for the Conan picture (which by the way Oliver Stone also wrote! At least the first draft!), like a sort of ‘70s barbarian babe. She should’ve been the star of the movie. 

Seizure is curiously tame in the sex and violence departments; other than Wornov’s skimpy clothing, there is zero in the way of sex appeal, and no nudity whatsoever. Violence is also minimal, with only occasional bits of blood, and a gruesome bit toward the end where the hulking black villain crushes a guy’s skull (off-camera) with his bare hands, and we get a closeup of his hands afterward and there’s all this chunky goup on it (ie, the brains he just crushed out!). Oh, we also get some animal violence, with a quick cut of a poor dog hanging in the woods. “Quick” is the key word, though; Stone goes for a lot of “shock shots,” with super-quick hits of violence, but they’re so quick that the shock is ruined – like the aforementioned horrifically-scarred face. The first time it’s shown, it’s on-camera so fast you barely even register it. 

Another interesting thing from a modern perspective is that Seizure, like Hollywood Boulevard below, could almost be the work of a modern-day director trying to cater to an old genre form. And not just due to the lack of nudity – see, for example, Rodriguez and Tarantino’s 2007 Grindhouse movies, which slavishly catered to the form but somehow missed the key ingredient of female nudity and were set in the present day for some inexplicable reason – but also due to the film artifacts that occasionally pop up. By this I again refer to Grindhouse, with Rodriguez’s Planet Terror in particular having all kinds of “bad film damage” digitally overlaid. We get almost this same thing in the “horror scenes” in Seizure; there will suddenly be film damage, like bad splices, when characters scream or react to something shocking or whatever. 

Otherwise Seizure was only interesting in that it showed the beginnings of a legendary career. But even “Herve Villechaize as The Spider” couldn’t save it, nor could Mary Woronov in her panties and halter top. 

Death Race 2000 (1975): I remember hearing about this movie all the time as a kid (I was born the year before it came out), so clearly it made some impact on the cultural radar. But, other than seeing bits and pieces on TV over the years, I never actually watched the movie until fairly recently. I’m not sure how well Death Race 2000 is considered now; the trailer does not appear on any of the grindhouse trailer comps I’m familiar with (which is a lot), and this implies to me that genre fans consider it too mainstream. Or maybe no one wants to talk about it due to the lame remake of several years back. (I assume it’s lame; of course, there’s no way in hell I ever intended to watch it.) But man, Death Race 2000 might just be one of the greatest grindhouse/drive-in movies of all time, featuring plentiful action, lots of nudity, and even horror effects courtesy the proto-Darth Vader garb “hero” David Carradine sports as “Frankenstein.” Plus it co-stars Sylvester Stallone!! (And it also features Mary Woronov – who will appear yet again in this review round-up!) 

The movie performs way above expectations and just gets better with age, though I bet it was a helluva lot of fun to watch in a drive-in back in ’75. It’s also a great reminder of how Hollywood once churned out fast-moving pieces of entertainment that didn’t wear out their welcome (the flick’s not even 90 minutes long), and featured plenty of nudity and violence. While the boobs and butts (and bush, in Woronov’s case) are real, the violence is spectacularly fake – the blood is this garish reddish-orange, and the outrageous gore effects are more comical than gut-churning. Limbs getting ripped off, heads getting crushed, etc; it’s all here, and it all looks more slapstick than violent, lending the film even more of a wonderfully dark comic vibe. 

This appears to be mostly due to director Paul Bartel, who cameos (uncredited) in the film as the doctor who attends David Carradine’s character Frankenstein in the beginning of the film. Bartel was known more for acting than directing, and indeed appeared in the following year’s Hollywood Boulevard (below), where he played a pretentious director – a film that included clips from Death Race 2000, adding even more self-referential comedy to a movie already filled with it. His direction here is great, with a rapid pace, steady shots on the big racing scenes (none of the shaky cam or cgi bullshit of today’s movies here), and the droll, blackly comic vibe seems like just the thing his character in Hollywood Boulevard would have done, again giving these two movies a cool sort of in-joke vibe. 

Carradine is very good in his role, underplaying it; he spends most of the movie in a leather costume and cape complete with full face mask. There’s a proto-Darth Vader element to the Frankenstein look, but unlike Vader this guy actually has a libido, so we have the required T&A when Frankenstein gets busy with his navigator, a blonde babe with a brick shithouse bod (Annie, as played by actress Simone Griffeth). Good grief these ‘70s women had it going on. The producers knew their audience; in addition to Griffeth’s frequent nudity, we also have a bit where she, Woronov, and Roberta Collins (as racer Matilda the Hun) get full-body massages in the nude…Woronov’s Calamity Jane and Collins’s Matilda get in a catfight, and we get a half-second confirmation that Woronov is indeed fully naked when she gets up off the massage table to confront Collins’s character. Stallone is also present, seeming quite the calm professional surrounded by all this bare female flesh. 

The dark comedy is perfectly handled and I love that the movie doesn’t play it safe, though I am glad the producers didn’t go all the way and show kids getting run over by the racers – kids and the elderly affording the most “points” when run over during the trans-continental race. That said, there’s none of the pandering a modern-day flick like this would stoop to; Frankenstein, even though he’s our hero, still runs over men and women without even looking upset about it. I’m sure if this movie were made today the hero would be fighting back tears everytime he had to run over someone, or he’d go out of his way to not run over anyone. (Oh, and of course “he” would be “she” if the film were made today!) I also enjoyed the political satire afoot with the guru-like president who openly lies to the populace (loved the running gag that “the French” are behind the attacks on the race, a government cover-up of the resistance movement) and the easy-going government officials who casually tell the racers they can have them killed. 

A year before he became famous for life, Stallone shines as Machine Gun Joe, and I got the impression he was ad-libbing his lines. Being a writer himself, I think it’s very likely Stallone was coming up with his own lines. There is a natural delivery to his performance and he’s clearly having a lot of fun, and from a modern vantage point it’s also fun to see him playing a bad guy for once. Also, where else can you see slender David Carradine beating up burly Sylvester Stallone? Plus there’s a hilarious part where Machine Gun Joe blasts a tommy gun at the audience before the race starts, and Stallone pulls a proto-Rambo grimace while blasting on full auto. There are also hidden storylines in the film for the viewer to ponder, like what exactly is going on between Machine Gun Joe and Frankenstein’s navigator Annie…who, by the way, also seems to have something going on with one of the resistance leaders. 

There’s also a cool postmodern vibe in play with the proto-reality TV element of the race, complete with gabby newscasters giving frequent updates or voiceovers, a la Survivor or The Amazing Race or other such bullshit. One of the newscasters is a pitch-perfect spoof of Walter Kronkite, and the other appears to be a spoof of a Rona Barrett type, a gossip-focused woman whose recurring joke has it that she is a “dear friend” of practically every important character. The entire movie is funny, with really no missteps, but manages to also pack a punch in the frequent action scenes. I mean I know many years ago Vanishing Point was proclaimed as the best of those ‘70s “car movies,” but really Death Race 2000 is better than any of them, and is probably the epitome of a drive-in movie. 

Hollywood Boulevard (1976): I only recently saw this movie for the first time, and couldn’t believe how much I loved it. Previously I was only familiar with the poster for it, and knew that it starred the blonde and lovely, should-have-been-a-huge-star, Candice Rialson. What I did not know was that Hollywood Boulevard was the first film of future heavyweight director Joe Dante (who co-directs with Allan Arkush), who had been cutting trailers for New World (in fact he cut the trailer for Death Race 2000) and who managed to convince Roger Corman to allow him to direct an entire picture. As mentioned above, there is a strange post-modern feeling to this movie…as if it had been made by someone who watched all of the 42nd Street Forever grindhouse trailer DVD compilations and tried to both spoof and pay tribute to the entire drive-in aesthetic. In other words, Hollywood Boulevard is everything Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse wanted to be, with the additional coolness factor that it was actually produced in the ‘70s. 

This one’s an actual comedy, but still manages to pack in action and the required nudity. Surprisingly Rialson isn’t the one showing off the most flesh; surprising because the lady had perhaps the nicest rack in film history. Good grief! Her topless scenes are for the most part tame, usually while quickly disrobing before some off-screen lovin’ (a fun element about the movie is that Rialson’s character “Candy” is more wholesome than promiscuous, and spends the movie with just one guy). Then of course there’s the rape scene. Actually, the rape scenes. Hollywood Boulevard is so “1970s” that a gang-rape is played for laughs twice: first when Candy must act out being raped by a bunch of enemy soldiers in a movie she’s shooting in the Philipines, and later in the movie when the “real” Candy is almost raped by a film projectionist and an audience member who get overly excited watching the aforementioned “fake” rape scene on the big screen. 

Dante and Arkush recycle footage from other New World movies, like the aforementioned Death Race 2000, complete with Candice Rialson wearing David Carradine’s leather Frankenstein costume. Meaning there’s even a cosplay element to the damn movie…that’s how ahead of its time it was! True, the humor is a little slapstick at times…the plot hinges on mysterious deaths plaguing the shooting locations of Miracle Pictures productions (“If it’s a good movie, it’s a Miracle!”), and the flick opens with a parachutist falling to her death – complete with a big Loony Tunes type bodyshaped hole in the ground where she hit…and moments later the producer, lothario P.G., is talking how most actresses would “die” to get in Hollywood. That said, Paul Bartel shines as a pretentious director, with a running gag of him giving “motivation” to the actors for the scene they’re about to play. But Mary Woronov steals the film, playing a bitchy diva and clearly enjoying every minute of it. 

Rialson as ever shines, but her role is limited to basically just being adorable; she is the na├»ve beauty who just wants to break into pictures, so she doesn’t get much opportunity to steal scenes like the others do. That said, there’s a great meta-fictional bit where her character goes to see her “big debut,” only to have to drive way outside of L.A., where the movie is playing on a triple-bill at a drive-in, and Candy gets progressively drunk and dispirited as she watches herself on the big screen…leading to that aforementioned rape scene. Oh, and Dick Miller also steals the show as Candy’s agent Walter Paisely (a character name Dick Miller often played), complete with running gags about former clients – the movie rewards multiple viewings, as in Dick Miller’s first scene he’s complaining that he’s just lost one of his big clients, a friggin’ elephant, and in a later scene, while Candy’s waiting in the car for a bank robbery that she thinks is a movie scene but isn’t, you can hear the commercial for a movie starring an elephant on her car radio. 

There’s actually a lot of meta humor throughout Hollywood Boulevard; when Candy gets her first gig with Miracle Pictures, Walter gives her directions and tells her to “take the Slauson Cutoff.” Anyone who watched Johnny Carson will get that one. Former Monster Kid Dante also inserts a lot of references to the old horror flicks, with Rialson even posing over the Hollywood star of Bela Lugosi in the opening credits. The direction is miles beyond typical drive-in fodder, with a lot of visual gags; the plot gradually concerns a killer stalking the Miracle Pictures crew, and in one memorable sequence the masked killer slashes a victim with a blade, and we cut immediately to barbecuse sauce dripping off Walter’s chicken onto a newspaper headline about the murder. Another part has P.G. about to get it on with two lovely actresses at the same time, and we get a quick cut to the foam erupting from a beer can someone’s popped the tab on. This is in addition to the visual cues to genre films, like for example the clear tribute to Mario Bava in a late scene where the killer stalks prey on a darkened, fogswept movie lot. I’m not as familiar with the work of Allan Arkush, but one can clearly see the seeds of Joe Dante’s future work here; the movie is just as much a tribute to the genre as his later unsung piece Matinee was to its genre. 

Almost all drive-in genres are spoofed: women in prison, women with guns, car races, giallo-type thrillers, etc.  Godzilla is even here, courtesy a guy who randomly enough is wearing the costume during one of the shoots – leading to another of those goofy gags, where Godzilla gets up off a toilet (which for some reason is sitting in a field in the middle of a shooting location) and throws the script he’s reading into the bowl. Again, the movie is very much both tribute and spoof of the stuff one thinks of when one thinks “drive-in movie,” spoofing the exact sort of thing you see in the various grindhouse trailer compilations out there; indeed, I recall reading that Joe Dante was involved with the Alamo Drafthouse’s 2012 compilation Trailer War, which is one of the best drive-in compilations out there. 

But whereas Matinee was a love letter to a long-gone time, Hollywood Boulevard is a time capsule of a long-gone time; when Candy, her boyfriend, and Walter go to the drive-in theater to see Candy’s movie, we have a long sequence of the experience. It’s obviously done for comedy, with most of the audience drunk, rowdy, and horny, but at the same time it allows us in the modern day to experience what it might have been like in the era. This for me is the highlight of the film; you almost feel like you are there with the three characters. It’s a fun scene, complete with Candice Rialson apparently getting drunk for real. One part that really cracked me up was the sound effects on the film playing in the background; when they watch Candy’s Philipines-shot flick “Machete Maidens,” there’s a quick shot of the movie screen, showing a girl being whipped by another woman; a scene taken from The Big Doll House. The camera cuts back to the trio in the car, but you can still hear the movie in the background, and the girl getting whipped sounds like she’s enjoying it. It’s been years since I saw The Big Doll House (I plan to watch it again soon), but I suspect this audio was newly added by Dante and Arkush. 

There’s also a lot of great dialog in it, most of it again genre-referential. Like when one of the characters is killed in the Philipines and someone says to call the cops, and Mary Woronov (who plays “Mary,” just like Candice Rialson plays “Candy,” adding more of a meta nature to the flick) deadpans: “This is the Philipines. There are no police.” One could clearly come to that conclusion after watching the Philipines-shot action movies of the ‘70s. My only complaint is that sometimes the comedy gets too broad, at least in the callous played-for-laughs reactions to various deaths. There’s also a curious bit a little over halfway through where the crew is about to shoot a 1950s film, but it’s just as abruptly dropped; one gets the impression it was inserted for time. I read that Hollywood Boulevard was shot in a mere ten days, for under sixty thousand dollars, but you’d never guess it, as it’s genuinely a quality film, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Adrano For Hire #4: The Blood Bargain

Adrano For Hire #4: The Blood Bargain, by Michael Bradley
April, 1974  Warner Books

The fourth and final volume of Adrano For Hire picks up three weeks after the previous volume, Gary “Michael Bradley” Blumberg again turning in a slow-moving ensemble piece that could only be considered “men’s adventure” due to the uncredited cover art. There isn’t much mystery why this series didn’t continue, as doubtless readers in 1974 felt swindled by the misleadingly-packaged series. 

Last we saw Adrano, he was relaxing with mega-rich drug buddy Jean Paoli in his fancy retreat in Marseilles, looking forward to reading some literature and whatnot. But when we (eventually) meet up with Adrano this time, he’s chomping at the bit to get back into action. This is set in motion by a long opening sequence in which a wealthy banker is assassinated in Beirut, and ultimately we’ll learn that the banker was connected to Paoli’s business affairs in the drug world. Paoli will activate Adrano as his enforcer to stave off future assassinations – and find out who is behind the plot to take down Paoli. 

But as mentioned this is an ensemble piece, so we also have busy subplots about a girl who witnesses the assassination in Beirut, and becomes another target of the killers. We also have a contract hitman, the one who is doing the assassinations, who happens to be gay (indeed, we learn in background material that he was “gang-raped” in prison)…and wants money so he can have a sex-change operation. I love finding modern-day topicality in old books, and boy, The Blood Bargain is in a league of its own, with subblots involving transsexuals and Palestinian radicals! 

But even at 170-some pages, The Blood Bargain is still sluggish. That cynical vibe of previous books is still here…though “sardonic” might be the more accurate term, as Adrano himself is referred to by Marie, the female character who witnessed the assassination in Beirut…and who happened to sleep with Adrano back in the first volume, when he was posing as “Joseph Abel” and wearing a disguise. Once again she will become involved with Adrano, and author Blumberg develops a subplot at the very end of The Blood Bargain that Adrano and Maria might become a more serious thing, given that Adrano apparently tells Marie he loves her in his sleep after their off-page bedroom shenanigans. 

In fact, Blumberg sets up another subplot at the end of the novel, which presumably would’ve had repercussions in a fifth volume of Adrano For Hire. Namely, Adrano’s benefactor Jean Paoli vows to get revenge of Tony La Rocca, a Mafioso in the US who ultimately turns out to be behind the attack on Paoli in this volume. Both Adrano and Marie are pulled into it, with Adrano not wanting to get involved but knowing he’ll have to if only to protect Marie. I can’t say I’m sad there was not Adrano For Hire #5, as I can already imagine what it would’ve been like: a long-simmer yarn with a “sardonic” protagonist and lots of time-wasting stuff about one-off characters. Such is the case with The Blood Bargain, and such was the case with the previous three volumes. 

To wit, so much of The Blood Bargain concerns new-to-the-series characters like Mickie, the homosexual hitman who wants to “go to Sweden to be a real woman,” La Rocca’s enforcer Tex, and a former Muslim terrorist who through the fortunes of fate has become a smuggler. There’s also a lot of stuff about Rashi Nuhr, a banker in Beirut who was the apprentice of the assassinated banker who managed Paoli’s affairs; it is this banker who is murdered by Mickie in the first pages of the book, the assassination witnessed by Maria, and Nuhr knows he is next on the list. So this entails a drawn-out affair of Nuhr hiding, Tex and Mickie trying to find Nuhr, and Paoli and Adrano trying to find everyone. 

As usual, Adrano is lost in the shuffle. We’re often told he’s bored and ready to get back in action – both of the fighting and the sex varieties – but once the action does begin to happen, he spends the novel sweating in fear. Literally. Blumberg makes a big deal out of Adrano and Marie smelling like “goats” in the climax, stinking of “fear sweat” and “exertion sweat.” Also I thought it was funny that Adrano spent a large chunk of the narrative stuck in a dark apartment. Action is smallscale for sure, with the main villains being Mickie and his boss Tex, who has been called here to Beirut to fix Mickie’s various screwups. Action is also infrequent, and not in the least dwelt upon: “Adrano put a bullet in his head” is literally the extent of it. But then, Blumberg isn’t much of an action writer to begin with, particularly given that he arms Adrano with a .38 revolver that somehow has a safety on it. 

Rather, the author’s focus is on long-brew tension, with lots and lots of stuff about Nuhr hiding in Beirut in various states of panic as Tex and Mickie try to get a lead on his whereabouts. And meanwhile Paoli and Adrano come into town to figure out who is behind the plot. This is how Adrano meets Marie once again, literally bumping into her in a darkened apartment in Beirut, where he’s been taken by a pair of stooges who have captured him. As ever, Adrano is quite prone to getting abducted. And Blumberg further demonstrates how he isn’t much of an action writer when Paoli, in Beirut, provides several guns for Adrano to use, from rifles to submachine guns, and Adrano just takes a .38 police special! At least Adrano eventually uses it here in this “darkened apartment” sequence, but the action scenes are perfunctory and Blumberg is more focused on people running, hiding, sweating, and stinking. 

There’s also a moronic part where Adrano could kill a couple thugs and save himself some future trouble, but doesn’t kill them on account of Marie’s feelings, concerned it would be “too much for her” after she’s been taken captive and all! But Marie does serve as the main female character in The Blood Bargain, at Adrano’s side in the long running sequence that comrpises the final quarter of the book. As mentioned though the sex is all off-page (taking place during a much-needed shower at novel’s end), and here Marie learns that “Joseph Abel” is really a guy named Adrano…though I have to admit it rankled me that Adrano says here that “Joseph” is a “crummy” name. Sure, there’s a crummy President by that name, but the name “Joseph” itself isn’t crummy at all!! The bigger question at the end of the book is if Adrano will tell Marie that he’s really an ex-Mafioso with a price on his head, etc. 

Again, all this no doubt would’ve factored into the fifth Adrano For Hire that never was, as would Paoli’s war against Tony La Rocca. But I’m not upset that this book never came to be; overall I wasn’t much impressed with Adrano For Hire and found each volume a struggle to get through. Regardless, Gary Blumberg at least seemed to be invested in it, as there’s definitely a connecting thread to each volume.  He must have been a fast writer, too, as the entire series was published in two months!  But ultimately I wasn’t much of a fan of this four-volume series.  

Thursday, May 2, 2024

No One Here Gets Out Alive

No One Here Gets Out Alive, by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman
April, 1981  Warner Books

The Doors are one of those groups that go through phases in popularity. Huge in their day, then forgotten, then rediscovered due to the publication of this book, then again super famous in 1990 with Oliver Stone’s film hagiography of Jim Morrison; I still remember how the rock chicks at my high school traded out their Motley Crue shirts for Doors shirts when that movie came out. I also recall seeing this very paperback a lot around school. It seems that today we might be in one of those phases where it’s more common to see the Doors put down, their impact on the era minimized, and the poetry of their lyrics ridiculed. 

So, just to put all my cards on the table, I think the Doors were one of the greatest rock groups of the ‘60s (which is to say ever), I think Jim Morrison had the greatest voice in rock, and I’d rather listen to them than the The Beatles or The Rolling Stones any day of the week. 

So it’s strange it’s taken me so long to get around to reading No One Here Gets Out Alive. First published in trade paperback in 1980, the book essentially relaunched the Doors as one of the most popular rock acts ever; the previous year saw “The End” on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which probably gave the band’s popularity just as much of a boost. Plus the version in the movie was uncensored, with Morrison dropping some f-bombs that were cut from the original record release; man I spent forever searching for a release with this version (it wasn’t on the soundtrack), but it wasn’t officially released until 1999, when it came out on one of the Doors remasters. 

At nearly 400 pages of smallish print, there’s more to No One Here Gets Out Alive than I assumed there’d be. Danny Sugerman was a young fan of the group who eventually handled their fan mail; for some reason he appears in this book as “Denny Sullivan,” and not under his real name. Jerry Hopkins was a reporter who did the big inteview with Morrison for Rolling Stone, and it’s my understanding Hopkins had wanted to do a bio of Morrison for some time, not finding any interest from publishers until Sugerman came on board – I guess the “sell” being that Sugerman would add a lot of behind-the-scenes info about the band. 

But then…boy, the other Doors are supporting characters at best in No One Here Gets Out Alive. This really is a bio of Jim Morrison, with the caveat that Morrison was such a chameleon – particularly, a chameleon who drank a whole helluva lot – that you come out of the book with no greater understanding of him than you had before you read it. Essentially the book is comprised of Jim Morrison doing this or that other insane thing while drunk off his ass. Big events, like recording albums or giving concerts or whatever, aren’t much dwelt upon, and indeed in most cases they just happen in the narrative. If you are looking for any sort of peek into the creative process, forget about it. And if you’re really into the Doors and want to know about their two post-Morrison albums, Other Voices and Full Circle, you can totally forget about them (if you haven’t already); they aren’t even mentioned. Even the posthumous Morrison collaboration An American Prayer isn’t mentioned. 

Another thing to note is that No One Here Gets Out Alive, despite being the impetus for a Doors renaissance (up to and including Stone’s film, which largely was inspired by the book), is now itself ignored by Doors fans – it has been put forth that the book is mostly fan fiction with little bearing on the real Jim Morrison, and in particular that Sugerman tarnished Jerry Hopkins’s actual research with a lot of b.s. Morrison idolization. See this 1981 interview with Doors producer Paul Rotchchild for a telling condemnation of the book…particularly given how Rothchild’s comments to Hopkins were changed by Sugerman prior to the book’s publication. 

That said, the book reads just fine as a sensationalistic rock expose. I knew I was in for a good time when I saw that, on the very first page, Danny Sugerman in his Foreword wrote “This book neither propels nor dispels the Morrison myth,” and then, in the very next paragraph, wrote, “My personal belief is that Jim Morrison was a god.” And this friends is pretty much the vibe No One Here Gets Out Alive maintains throughout, alternately informative and idolatrous. 

We certainly aren’t talking about a fantastic piece of word-painting like Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age, still the best rock bio I’ve ever read. Hopkins and Sugerman do occasionally go into literary flourishes to describe Doors music, but for the most part their focus is on the lyrics. Even then their criticism is not on the level of Paul Williams or the like, but more along the lines of a fanzine. We don’t even get much in the way of the behind-the-scenes material Sugerman supposedly would’ve value-added, at least insofar as the music goes, other than occasional rundowns of how such and such a song sounds. 

What we do get is the rambling, exhaustive account of a very gifted but very troubled artist. I have to say, I got very sick of Jim Morrison over the course of No One Here Gets Out Alive, just tired of his constant drunken escapades, but at the same time it was a refreshing reminder of how rock stars were once so casually self-destructive. I mean the flyweight “rockers” of today are too busy hawking merchandise or posing for social media; Jim Morrison would get blitzed and hang from a balcony ten floors up. But man, it isn’t this sort of shit that makes a legend – I mean I’m 49, so I was born after Morrison was dead and wasn’t around at the time…but I’ve known about the Doors since I was a little kid, and I never knew much about Morrison’s personal life. It was the music I knew and responded to, and doubtless that will continue for future generations. 

And Morrison surely was the key to the Doors’s success, even though he himself was uncomfortable with that notion. If you need any indication, just play the albums Other Voices or Full Circle, laughingly credited to “The Doors,” even though Jim Morrison isn’t on either of them. In fact, play “Ships With Sails,” one of the better tracks off Other Voices, with Ray Manzarek on lead vocals, and you might think it’s okay, even if it doesn’t really sound like the Doors. But then…then play the same track with an AI Jim Morrison, and suddenly…suddenly that same track sounds like the Doors. With two songs you can prove who the key to “the Doors sound” was, if for some reason you ever questioned that. 

One thing I’ve forgotten to mention is that the authors also have a tendency to recreate conversations, giving the book the feel of fiction, sort of like Dakota Days. So we’ll periodically have parts wher Morrison is talking to this or that person, and it’s relayed as dialog between two characters, so clearly it is fiction, given that neither writer was there to hear what was actually said. In some ways, No One Here Gets Out Alive is essentially a rock novel; it certainly has the “drugs” part down – though Morrison became more of a heavy drinker than a drug user – and there’s even a bit of sex at times, though Morrison’s conquests are not thoroughly detailed. We do get the random mention, however, that Jim at one point “butt-fucked” a girl…with the quotation marks around it and everything. 

Surprisingly I found myself really enjoying the pre-fame stuff. Usually with these books I don’t care too much about the background, but in Jim Morrison’s case I enjoyed it – particularly the cerebral essays he would secretly write for his younger brother’s school assignments. There’s also lots of stuff about Morrison and his issues with his father, a career Navy officer who was the youngest admiral onboard a ship, or somesuch. Great insight here on young Jim’s part when we’re told how he would see his dad on his ship, bossing around all the men…but then his dad would go home and take out the garbage when his wife told him to. This kernel, while just a quick humorous note in the narrative, actually serves to explain Jim Morrison’s personality more than practically anything in the ensuing 300+ pages; he was never to be bossed around by any woman. 

I also appreciated how the formation of the band was essentially a casual thing that just happened to fall perfectly together. Speaking of the book’s length, the long page count undermines how briefly the group was even together; they were only around for four years, and fame came to them rather quickly. It’s no wonder Jim Morrison, who was the focus of 99% of the attention, struggled with his newfound fame. The book makes it clear that alcohol was the drug he turned to; indeed, No One Here Gets Out Alive is more a document of a (barely) functioning alcoholic than it is an expose on a rock band. For that matter, “rock stuff” is minimal, with minor asides about this or that concert, or this or that personality – I mean we’re told in passing how Morrison got drunk and puked in a bar while hanging out with Jimi Hendrix, with no further detail…meanwhile, I’ve had a shitty bootleg CD for decades that features Morrison and Hendrix performing together on a small New York stage sometime in 1969 or thereabouts. Sounds like the greatest thing in rock history, true, but in reality it’s barely listenable due to poor fidelity and Morrison is drunk as hell, wailing “fuck my baby in the ass” intermittently. Wow, that’s two references to anal sex in the same Doors review! 

I might be an anomaly in that I prefer the later Doors material; I’d rather hear “Five To One” than “Light My Fire.” And the title track of The Soft Parade is one of my favorite Doors songs of all, and I think their last album, L.A. Woman, is their best. But still, it would have been nice to have just a little more info on the sessions that produced the albums. There’s almost this weird sort of inevitability to the narrative, as if the band was just following some pre-ordained trajectory: we’re told “it was time to record the new album” and such, with no topical detail on how they’d worked up the material or whatever. But again this is also a reminder of how labels drove their acts so mercilessly back in the day. One must argue that the methods of the labels did produce results: I mean here we are still listening to music recorded over 50 years ago. In 1969, who was listening to 78s recorded in 1919? 

But it’s less about the music than it is about Jim Morrison getting drunk, with stuff about his “cosmic mate” Pamela often in tow. There’s also a Wiccan rock critic named Patricia, but the merits of the book could be judged on the fact that the authors consistently misspell her last name: they have Patricia Kennely, but it’s actually Patricia Kennealy. Humorously, we’re often given minor asides like how Morrison flies somewhere to see the Stones, or how he went to see Canned Heat, or etc, but the book very much gives the impression that Jim Morrison had no interest in rock music. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but I did get a chuckle out of the part where the Danny Sugerman character asks Morrison if he can get “Denny” tickets to a sold-out Rolling Stones show, and Morrison, giving him a hard time, replies, “What do you need Mick Jagger for when you have me?” Indeed! 

And do not go into the book hoping for interesting tidbits about forgotten Doors lore. Even standard fan stuff like “The Celebration Of The Lizard” is given short shrift, the authors merely leaving it that the band was unable to record it to their liking. And there’s no mention at all of “Rock Is Dead,” that bizarre hour-plus “song” recorded during the Soft Parade sessions that was bootlegged over the years, before officially being released some years ago. Actually that track explains much of what Morrison was doing at the infamous Miami concert, which happened right around the same time as “Rock Is Dead” was recorded. The authors quote some of Jim’s onstage antics during that show, and the lines he is quoted as saying to the audience – “I want to see some dancing,” “I want to have a good time,” etc – are taken directly from what he says on “Rock Is Dead.” So it seems clear that the authors are correct and that Morrison was indeed doing a sort of performance piece at Miami, and it wasn’t just a drunken tirade. 

I’d only read the barest of details about Miami, but the book makes it clear that the charges were trumped-up by biased prosecutors and judges who had an eye on the political field and were looking for votes. Boy, how times have changed. I also got a post-ironic chuckle of how the FBI even got involved in it, further persecuting Morrison. But according to the book, Morrison was inspired by a confrontational play he’d seen in New York and was looking to do something similar on stage, and was only going to strip down to his boxers. What I hadn’t realized was how this Miami debacle essentially killed the Doors, at least as a performing group, given how they were blacklisted in so many places. 

Otherwise the book moves at a good clip, documenting all the high notes in the brief timeline of the Doors, without getting too much in the weeds. We’re also told a little about Morrison’s pursuits in writing and filmmaking, with MGM at one point trying to get him as an actor. But with his wanton drinking and self-endangerment, it’s clear that, subconsiously or not, Jim Morrison didn’t plan on sticking around long. This again is a narrative conceit of the book, which often brings up the destructive bent of the poets Morrison admired. The problem is, Jim Morrison isn’t the most relatable of protagonists, and reading the book one does not understand how people could be drawn to him – we are told nothing of any kindness on his part, or much of a sense of humor other than mean practical jokes. So even as someone who knew next to nothing about the Doors, other than their music, even I could detect that something was missing in this presentation of Jim Morrison. 

But I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. It’s curious that No One Here Gets Out Alive is the book that made the Doors popular again, but I guess it’s an indication of how if something comes out at just the right time, it will resonate. Perhaps in the post-punk, bland New Wave early ‘80s a book about a drunk and disorderly rock star from the ‘60s was just what people needed. But man…in today’s emasculated era, where Supreme Court justices can’t even define what a woman is, we need a rock star like Jim Morrison more than ever. And speaking of which – color me shocked that Morrison was “politically conservative,” at least according to this book! Man…if he’d lived, he could’ve sang at a Trump rally! Come on, people, just imagine an old Jim Morrison singing “Peace Frog” to a packed Trump audience! I can see the incensed CNN reporter now: “They were singing about ‘blood in the streets’ at a MAGA rally!!” 

Seriously though, I wouldn’t say this was the best rock bio I’ve read, not by a long shot, but I did enjoy a lot of it. It also made me decide to read that Doors bio by Mike Jahn I picked up many years ago, which seems to be scarce these days.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Dirty Harry #1: Duel For Cannons

Dirty Harry #1: Duel For Cannons, by Dane Hartman
September, 1981  Warner Books

This first volume of the Dirty Harry series basically encapsulates everything that is wrong with Warner’s “Men Of Action” line: while it has the right intentions, the execution leaves much to be desired. In short, Duel For Cannons was a chore to read, and I constantly had to give myself pep talks to keep reading it. I mean think about that – a story about Dirty Harry that’s a chore to read. 

What makes this surprising is that Ric Meyers wrote Duel For Cannons, and he was one of the few Men Of Action writers who understood the men’s adventure genre. I know it was Meyers who wrote this one due to the words of Meyers himself; once upon a time there was a website devoted to Dirty Harry, which exists now only on The Wayback Machine. In 2001 the site proprietor, J. Reeves, interviewed Ric Meyers, and Meyers not only took credit for Duel For Cannons (as well as five other volumes of the series), but he also ranked it as one of his favorites! And for posterity, because that website was notoriously hard to navigate, here you will find J. Reeves’s brief reviews of all 12 volumes of the Dirty Harry series. 

It's crazy to think Meyers personally rated this one so high, but it’s cool that he did. I personally could barely finish it and found it to be a mess, with Harry thrown out of his element and featuring protracted action scenes that were more exhausting than thrilling. In fact I was under the impression that another of the Men Of Action writers – either Stephen Smoke or Leslie Horovitz – wrote the book, until I remembered to check the old site. But in hindsight I realized it was obvious Ric Meyers had written it, as not only was the book filled with references to the Dirty Harry films, but Duel For Cannons also opened with a super-long chapter in which a one-off character met his fate in very protracted fashion; a Meyers staple for sure, with the caveat that this time it was a male character getting wasted (gradually). 

This, as the belabored backstory has it, is Boris Tucker, a sheriff from San Antonio who happens to be friends with none other than Harry Callahan, and is here in California on vacation with his family. This opening scene takes place in an amusement park and has the sheriff, who has brought his gun with him on vacation, defending himself against a mysterious assailant who wields a .44 Magnum. But at great length the poor sheriff is blown away, as is an innocent bystander. This brings Harry onto the scene, butting heads with the cops who have jurisdiction on the case. The official story is that Sheriff Tucker shot the bystander and then himself, but Harry knows there’s more to the story. 

Meyers brings in characters from the franchise, like Harry’s chief, Lt. Bressler, from the first film. He also often refers to the movies, sometimes in goofy ways – like Harry thinking of the rogue cops in the second film as “the Magnum Force” cops. Did they actually call themselves that in the movie? I don’t think so. Even goofier is a part later in the book where, for protracted reasons, Harry agrees to be a deputized sheriff in San Antonio, to enforce the law against crooked cops, and thinks to himself how he also became an “enforcer” once before, leading to the death of someone he cared about. I mean good thing Sudden Impact hadn’t come out yet, or we would’ve gotten a goofy reference to that one, too. 

I don’t mean to be so harsh, as I think Meyers is a good writer, and he certainly was the best in the Men Of Action line. But he gets the series off to an ungainly start; as I said, Duel For Cannons demonstrates in its slow-moving 173 pages all that was wrong with this ill-fated Warners line. Meyers’s attempts to mix random action scenes in, like early in the book where Harry gets in a protracted gun fight with a group of rapists, come off as sluggish. But protracted is really the name of the game; not since Terry Harknett have I encountered such ponderous action narrative: 

Acting on instinct, Harry’s finger tightened on the Magnum’s trigger. He immediately loosened his trigger finger for two reasons. First, he remembered that he was not shooting on home turf at a local scumbag. Usually that reason was not suficient for Harry to let someone shoot back at him, but the second reason he didn’t shoot was the more important and the more pressing. Namely, Harry didn’t know whether the keg Thurston was huddled behind was fully or empty. 

If empty, Harry’s bullets would go through like they went through almost everything else. But if it was full and under pressure, it could explode with the force of a frag grenade, sending hunks of sharp metal and gallons of beer everywhere. Under normal circumstances, Harry might have tried it, but these weren’t normal circumstances. He was fighting in front of an innocent crowd and had no cover. 

I mean, just shoot the fucker already! But it’s like this throughout. There is a ton of deliberation on Harry’s part throughout the novel, particularly during the action scenes, bringing them to a dead halt. And beyond that it’s just so excrutiatingly drawn out: 

Callahan ducked down while calculating Thurston’s speed. As soon as he thought the guy had reached the rear door, he shot diagonally through the kitchen door. His aim was good but his timing was a smidge off. The bullet punched a hole midway up the kitchen door and blasted outside, narrowly missing both Thurston’s back and the swinging back door. 

Immediatley afterward Harry was up and out the kitchen door himself, almost tripping over the beer keg Thurston had kicked aside. After noticing that the kick-back man was still hustling across the back porch trying to find a way out of the yard, Harry hefted the metal cask up. It was empty. He carried it with him as he cautiously neared the back door. 

And it just goes on like this, for pages and pages. But at least we learned the keg was empty!! Seriously, this is straight out Harknett’s equally-ponderous The Revenger/Stark series. Even when we branch out of the typical gunfights it’s just as slow-going; there’s a positively endless part halfway through where a handcuffed Harry gets in a boat and is chased by the bad guys. What could have been a fast-moving action scene instead becomes a head-beating for the reader, just going on and on with extranneous detail that slows down the action. 

The non-understanding of action fiction even extends to the names of the characters – or, at least, to the name of the badass .44 Magnum killer of the opening scene. Meyers intends this guy to be the dark reflection of Harry Callahan, a merciless hitman who works for the bad guys and is as good with his .44 as Harry is. And Meyers names this evil badass hitman…Sweetboy. He names him Sweetboy! There’s also a lot of stuff about main villain Nash – who in reality is a Mexican immigrant who has given himself a new last name. This elicits some race-baiting on Harry’s part that might be a little out of line for the character, but then Nash does spend the book trying to have Harry killed. 

Humorously, just as the action scenes are protracted to the point of boredom, the sex scene in the novel is woefully anemic. That’s right, sex scene – Harry gets laid, folks. By the most unexpected babe: the widow of Sheriff Tucker! Here at least Harry only spends a hot second deliberating on his actions, sleeping with the widow of his recently-murdered friend, but Meyers keeps it all as vague as, “They made love,” and that’s that. At this point I was ready to shoot the book…but of course I didn’t know if the book was empty or full, because if it was full… Never mind, stupid joke. But still, the book annoyed me. 

Meyers also wrote #3: The Long Death, which was much better than this one. So again it’s curious he liked Duel For Cannons so much himself. Maybe because it was new for him at the time, and he was excited about writing a new Dirty Harry story. But that excitement does not extend to the novel itself, and at least for this reader Duel For Cannons was a trying, wearying read. 

Finally, there’s the compelling question of who did the cover art; note that in the interview I linked to above, even Meyers didn’t know who did the artwork for the series. As I mentioned in the comments section of a previous review, my guess is that the artwork for the Dirty Harry series was done by artist Bill Sienkiewicz, who was soon to make a name for himself in the superhero comics field with his work on Marvel’s The New Mutants.* This cover and the other Dirty Harry covers all look so much like Sienkiewicz’s work that, if they weren’t by him, they were by an artist who was trying to rip him off. I actually contacted Sienkiewicz via his official website prior to writing this review, asking if he did the art for this series, but didn’t receive a response. That he didn’t respond makes me suspect that he did handle the art, but for whatever reason doesn’t want to acknowledge it. But then, I admit I’m conspiracy-minded; it could be that the guy just didn’t feel like responding. 

*I picked up two of these New Mutant comics at the time, issues #23 and #24, and they essentially blew my 9-year-old mind; I had no idea that comics could be so weird

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Ripper

The Ripper, by William Dobson
December, 1981  Signet Books

I’d never heard of this obscure and apparently scarce Signet PBO until I recently came across it at the Frisco Half Price Books, of all places – I’ve been going there off and on for the past 20 years, and it’s certainly not a bookstore where you can expect to find rare books. Of course they wanted four bucks for it, but I saw copies went for much higher online, and in my usual high spirits I figured what the hell and bought the damn thing. 

A big thanks to Will Errickson, who did a post on author Michael Butterworth, credited as “William Dobson” here on The Ripper and his other Signet PBOs. Curiously though the book is copyright under Butterworth’s real name, despite there being a bio at the end of the book for William Dobson! There must have been an interesting story with Butterworth, as he was a British author who lived in London, but it looks like The Ripper and his other Signet books were only published in the United States. Curious why the novels weren’t published in his home country, as The Ripper is so British it hurts – written in that same haughty, patronizing tone typical of British pulp. 

But then, the novel’s really more of a Mystery, just wrapped up in the sleazy trappings familiar from many Signet PBO thrillers of the era. In fact the back cover copy and the first page preview go out of their way to hype the kinkiness of the book, calling out the sleazy proclivities of several of the characters. But, as you’ll no doubt be unsurprised to learn given the British origin of the novel, such material turns out to be scant at best in the narrative itself. The very few sex scenes are all off-page, and those sleazy proclivities are essentially info-dumped to us in bald narratorial exposition. Even the murders, which essentially would be the biggest draw of the book, are for the most with over and done with in a jiffy, Butterworth only vaguely describing the gore. 

That said, there is a very nice (and British) dark comic vibe to the novel; Butterworth basically just has fun spoofing various upper-crust English people and then killing them off; the humor is especially dark in a ghoulish sequence in which a particular character is murdered while sitting in a car, but the body is not discovered until after the novel’s events have concluded – and Butterworth occasionally cuts back to the corpse, avidly detailing its latest state of vomit-inducing decay. But man that “British” vibe really just kills the book…I mean speaking of “upper crust,” that’s really how the book is written, that sort of “I’m not taking this seriously, dear reader, so I hope you don’t, either!” vibe that I’ve found is so common in British pulp novels. 

So, The Ripper is a murder mystery, with the mystery of course being who the Ripper is. A serial killer operating in Soho and environs, the Ripper is known for slashing wide open the mouths and throats of his victims and then stabbing them until their eviscera is spilled out everywhere; he kills men and women, and the novel opens with the Ripper in the act, chasing a young woman named Eunice through the darkened, early-morning streets of Soho. An effective scene, very much on the horror side, with the Ripper almost superhuman, but here we get a taste of what Butterworth will do throughout the majority of the novel: lots of pages focused on the thoughts of the soon-to-be victim, followed by a quick chase, followed by an even quicker death. 

Essentially, The Ripper is comprised of various one-off characters going about this or that, or thinking about this or that, and then the Ripper comes out of nowhere and slashes them and they’re dead. So in a way it’s basically the usual horror novel template. Our hero, such as he is, turns out to be a private investigator named Jack Shepherd, who apparently looks like Clint Eastwood despite being an alcoholic who spends most of his days drinking, avoiding bill collectors, and sleeping in his office. This being England and all, Shepherd cannot be confused with an American P.I., meaning he doesn’t have a gun. And nor do the police Shepherd occasionally runs afoul of carry guns. Like Jay Leno would say in his stand-up act back in the ‘80s when he guest-hosted on Carson, all the cops can do over there is yell, “Stop! Or I’ll yell ‘Stop’ again!” 

But then, Shepherd’s too much of a lush to even carry a gun. In his sequences he’s desperately counting the hours until he can have a drink, and when he does drink he gets so smashed he passes out in his office – even leaving the downstairs door unlocked at one point, despite being in the midst of the Ripper case. What I mean to say is, he doesn’t acquit himself well, at least in the capacity of a bad-ass hero, but then Butterworth’s intent here seems to be how Shepherd becomes a new man in the course of the case; in that regard, The Ripper is more than just a bloody thriller, with actual character content. 

Shepherd’s brought onto the case by the elderly parents of the first Ripper victim, a pastor and his grim-faced wife. They don’t show much actual sadness over their daughter’s murder, truth be told, more concerned with how she “lost her way” and went down the wrong path and etc. At length we’ll learn that Eunice, their daughter, was a “cigarette girl,” a sort of topless hostess in a Soho bar where guys would pay extra to squeeze her boobs. Shepherd in the course of his investigation will go to this place, the Spooky Club, fairly often, but Butterworth does little to bring the sleazy environs to life; even here the “I’m not taking this seriously” vibe rules supreme, with Shepherd usually more embarrassed for the girls and their topless states. 

But as mentioned the author does have tongue in cheek; one of the Ripper’s earliest victims is a cad of the first order, an art teacher named Dawlish who is a notorious ladykiller (we even learn that he banged both bridesmaids on the day of his wedding…and his mother-in-law!). We meet Dawlish in the act, getting it on with a horny babe who poses nude for his class, and here we see in another horror-esque setpiece in the darkened university building that the Ripper is very inclusive in his kills – this isn’t a serial killer who only does in defenseless women. 

Butterworth periodically delivers short chapters in italics on the thoughts of “a death-dealer,” and these are the first-person recountings of the Ripper, who we learn enjoys his work. The “Ripper” tag comes from the press, which begins to suspect that this serial killer is the 1980s version of Jack the Ripper. But whereas Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes, this Ripper seems to kill people willy-nilly. While authorities don’t believe anything links the victims, Jack Shepherd will of course learn there’s more to the story in the course of his investigation. 

It's not an action-packed novel by any means. We’ll have various one-off characters show up for a few pages, be quickly dispatched, and then we’ll go back to Shepherd as he drinks his way through the case. He manages to get laid, at least; Dawlish’s widow, Moira, takes an immediate shine to Shepherd – indeed, it is she who claims he looks like Clint Eastwood – and beds him soon after meeting. But to give an indication of how prissily “British” this novel is…well, we get dialog like this: “If you wouldn’t very much mind, I would like you to take me again.” I mean folks if I only had a dime… Seriously, though, the book’s so British it hurts – and that’s pretty much all we get in the sleaze and exploitation departments. 

The Shepherd-Moira romance organically develops, and is one of the better parts of the novel. It starts hot, gets cool, then gets hot again, developing into something more lasting. I liked how Butterworth handled it, and while Moira doesn’t have much to do in the novel, she at least comes off as a believable character, one the reader worries about along with Shepherd when Moira expectedly runs into trouble. This is due to Shepherd doggedly pursuing his leads…actually, that’s overselling what Shepherd does in the novel. He basically calls people and drives places on occasion. There’s absolutely nothing in the way of a physical confrontation or any kind of action on his part. 

I guess the only thing that separates The Ripper from a murder mystery of decades before is the increased focus on kink and gore, but as mentioned neither are dwelled on much at all. In fact this is one of those novels where I wondered why the author even wrote it, as there’s nothing particularly memorable or novel on display. The outing of the Ripper’s identity might be it, but it’s such a curveball – though believable, given the small cast of characters we’ve been given – that it more so leaves the reader scratching his head; this is another one of those mysteries that climax with characters expositing on why this or that happened, explaining everything to the reader, like the end of just about every episode of Scooby-Doo

Another thing marking this mystery as a bit more risque is the development, late in the book, that one of the female victims was not only a junkie but also in the midst of a lesbian affair; this entails a nicely-done scene where Shepherd talks to an older cabaret singer who was in a relationship with the victim – a scene that has a surprising climax, if a bit unbelievable. Actually, a lot of The Ripper turns out to be unbelievable in retrospect, given the surprise outing of the Ripper’s identity at book’s end. 

All told I was kind of “blah” about The Ripper. It was just a bit too stuffy, and some of the prose was too ornate. I did enjoy the dark humor of it, though, and Shepherd’s blossoming relationship with Moira was nicely handled. And, at 188 big-print pages, it really wasn’t much of a time commitment. I wouldn’t recommend paying for one of the exorbitantly-priced copies currently listed on the web, but if you too someday happen to come across a copy for a couple bucks at a used bookstore, you might as well pick it up. I mean what the hell, right?

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

No Sympathy For The Devil

No Sympathy For The Devil, by Frederick Snow
April, 1982  Fawcett Gold Medal

I’ve managed to discover yet another obscure rock novel, one so obscure that there wasn’t even a scan of the cover online, so I had to take one with my phone. And also there’s no info out there about Frederick Snow; apparently this is his only book, and No Sympathy For The Devil is copyright under his name, but it could be a pseudonym; whoever it is, the writing is very clunky throughout, much clunkier than anything I’ve ever read from Fawcett, which in my mind was a slightly more upscale imprint. 

On the positive side, I can say without question that No Sympathy For The Devil is by far the raunchiest rock novel I’ve yet had the pleasure to read. Even more raunchy than Mick Farren’s The Tale Of Willy’s Rats; almost every other page features characters having sex, thinking about sex, or talking about sex. The image very much conveyed is that the rock world is comprised of fragile, juvenile egos that are driven by insatiable impulses, constantly snorting coke, smoking dope, or having depraved sex. This of course is a huge mark in the book’s favor. 

On the negative side, No Sympathy For The Devil is poorly written, with the aforementioned clunky prose, expository dialog, and often awkward sentence construction. Frederick Snow also POV-hops like a champ, meaning we’ll start a paragraph in the perspective of one character but finish the same paragraph in the perspective of another character. That sort of thing really grinds my gears. Also the plot is goofy – a suspense subplot is grafted onto the trashy template of the story, perhaps catering to the demands of publisher Fawcett, which of course was known for its suspense and crime fiction.

Another problem is the year of publication…I mean 1982 doesn’t scream “rock” to me. Fortunately Snow makes no mention of punk or new wave or synthesizers or whatnot, though “disco” is mentioned in passing a few times, mostly as in “disco clubs” up-and-coming singers got their starts in. Another interesting note is that the rockers for the most part presented here are all women…this however is so Snow can feature each of them in kinky, drug-fueled sexcapades. Hell, the women in this novel are so horny that at one point a 46 year-old housewife is abducted by thugs – while she’s masturbating in the shower – and one of the kidnappers is a lesbian who immeditely goes down on her when they pull her out of the shower; an orgy ensues. 

The most interesting thing about No Sympathy For The Devil is how it’s so much like something Belmont Tower or Leisure Books might have published the decade before. I’m not exaggerating. It has the same coarse narrative style as, say, The Savage Women, and the same focus on sadism as pretty much any of those BT or Leisure paperbacks – even the same big print. In fact there was something familiar about the writing style, and belatedly I wondered if it might have been written by J.C. Conaway, as there is a touch of his style to the prose – and also I can find no info on a writer named “Frederick Snow.” (Not to mention that I also suspect Conaway wrote The Savage Women.) The glitzy Hollywood trappings are another Conaway hallmark…and really the “glitz” stuff takes precedence over the “rock” stuff, as like Angel Dust this is another “rock novel” where the occupation of the main characters could be changed, from rockers to, say, movie stars, and the plot wouldn’t change. 

The chief rocker in the novel is Jennifer Carron, now “at the top of the rock and roll ladder” but at one point a no-name who sang in those aformentioned disco clubs and whatnot. Curiously Snow does not tell us what Jennifer Carron looks like; he has a tendency to not much describe his characters at all. He also doesn’t much describe the sex scenes, shockingly enough; while No Sympathy For The Devil is certainly raunchy and adult in nature, the actual sex either happens off-page or is only minimally described. What I mean to say is, the novel never truly descends (or should it be “ascends?”) to hardcore. 

And I’ve gone this far without acknowledging that the title, of course, is a nod to one of the greatest songs in history: “Sympathy For The Devil” by The Rolling Stones. At first I thought No Sympathy For The Devil took place in its own reality, with a made-up cast of rock stars and whatnot, but as it develops it is indeed a roman a clef, with occasional mentions of the Stones or The Beatles. We’re told though that the most famous rock group in the novel is “The Cinco’s,” five British guys who are “mentioned historically in the same breath as the Beatles, the Stones, or Elvis.” 

And yes, friends, it’s “The Cinco’s,” with the apostrophe before the “s,” as if “The Cinco” owns something. Remember when I mentioned the clunky writing? 

But as it turns out, The Cinco’s are a minimal presence anyway. It’s the women who stay at the forefront in the novel…which honestly could be yet another clue that Frederick Snow was really J.C. Conaway, given his preference for female protagonists. Jennifer Carron is sort of the main character, or should that be main antagonist, though surprisingly she fades into a supporting role, after a memorable opening which features her snorting coke and having sex in the studio. But there’s also a Tina Turner-esque singer named Darlene Silk, who has a rivlary with Jennifer, and the plot concerns their battle for which will receive this year’s “Entertainer of the Year” Grammy. 

And this is yet another “rock novel” where the author never tells us what the music sounds like, nor really much describes it – we have the opening bit where Jennifer Carron belts out what we’re told is a surefire hit in the studio, but describing the song itself is outside the author’s ability. Later in the book both Jennifer and Darlene will each sing a song at the Grammys, but again we aren’t told how it sounds – and friends that is it, so far as the “rock stuff” goes. As I said, Jennifer and Darlene could be changed into movie star divas, fighting for an Oscar instead of a Grammy, and the novel would be the same. 

Because, as it develops, the “thriller” stuff, such as it is, takes precedence. In the opening chapter we are told how, two years ago, a sleazy individual named Rudy Cannon was fired from IEM Records, where he served as VP of Sales – he was outed by hotsthot producer Greg Welles, who claimed that Cannon was selling pirated copies of the Cinco’s latest album, which had been withdrawn due to the Cinco’s being unhappy with the mix. IEM Chairman of the Board Townsend Parker, urged on by Welles, had no choice but to fire Cannon, who vowed revenge. 

Then the plot itself begins, two years later, and we see Greg Welles in the studio with Jennifer Carron, and this is the most “rock stuff” part of the novel, with studio musicians playing and Jennifer singing what will surely become a huge hit, then doing coke and screwing Greg while the engineers listen in the control booth. But after this No Sympathy For The Devil changes course and the focus of the plot concerns Ashley Burdnoy, attractive 46 year-old wife of John Burdnoy, a CPA who runs the agency that counts ballots for the Grammys. Burdnoy is a non-celebrity who, each year, enjoys a few seconds of celebrity as the guy who brings out the letter containing the winner of the “Entertainer of the Year” on live TV during the awards. 

Readers soon learn that Rudy Cannon’s revenge scheme concerns the Burdnoys: now running his own label, Good Vibrations (which started off due to a wealthy funder whose identity is left a mystery until novel’s end), Cannon seeks to steal artists from IEM, particularly ones who have worked with his archenemy Greg Welles. Jennifer Carron would be the big score, and Rudy has promised her a plush contract – as well as guaranteeing she will become Entertainer of the Year if she moves to his label. Jennifer is all for it, whatever Rudy must do to guarantee it – and his plan is to abduct Ashley Burdnoy and use her as collateral to force John Burdnoy to change the name written on the winning card to “Jennifer Carron.” 

A lot of the narrative is focused on the kidnapping, drugging, and raping of Ashely Burdnoy, who as mentioned is abducted while pleasuring herself, so of course Snow skirts the line with the subtext that Ashley, a bored housewife with no children and who keeps fit on the tennis courts, begins to enjoy it. Her kidnappers are a motley group: a radical lesbian named Ronni, a junkie slut named Eva, and a burly biker-type named Denny. Each of them will have their way with Ashley in the short course of the novel, including even a sequence where she’s forced to have sex with Denny on videotape as yet more collateral – Rudy Cannon’s safeguard to prevent John Burdnoy from going to the cops after all this is over. The kidnappers also have fun drugging Ashley up, most notably a part where they dose her with LSD and then Eva goes down on her, leading Ashley to experience the biggest orgasm of her life. 

So as you can see, No Sympathy For The Devil is pretty depraved. The issue is, it’s really more of a kidnapping/extortion novel than it is a rock novel. The “rock world” trappings are for the most part lost as the narrative becomes more concerned with Greg Welles trying to help John Burdnoy find his abducted wife. But this too is goofy, because multiple times through the novel they could just go to the police, but this is never addressed. But the idea is that Burdnoy assumes the mystery man who has kidnapped his wife – and who keeps calling Burdnoy with orders to declare Jennifer Carron the winner that night at the Grammys – must be Greg Welles, who of course happens to be Jennifer Carrons’ producer. 

As for Welles, he’s kind of a cipher and not much brought to life, despite being the hero of the piece. I did appreciate how the author recreated the casual infidelities of the rock world: as mentioned the novel opens with Welles and Jennifer having casual sex in the studio, even though both of them have respective others: Jennifer’s a sleazebag who serves as her manager and who is also part of the kidnapping plot (which Jennifer is aware of), and Welles’ a hotstuff movie actress named Frederica. The grimy vibe extends to all of this, with every character talking about sex or wondering when they’ll have sex again – even the Cinco’s show up at Welles’ place, having brought along a young girl they discovered in England who literally orgasms at the sound of the lead singer’s voice, entailing a bit where everyone sits around and watches her climax on the floor, complete with details on how wet her panties are getting! 

So yeah, all this depraved stuff is great, but the book is constantly undone by the comically-inept lack of payoff. Like for example, the opening sex between Jennifer and Welles. It’s Jennifer Carron who initiates it, fondling her producer in the studio and asking if he wants to “fuck” after offering him some coke. Later on we realize this is a casual thing between them, but Jennifer seems to secretly be in love with Greg Welles, and that he spurns her is one of the reasons she’s looking to jump ship from the label. But this is never paid off. Even worse is the case of Eva, the junkie who still likes men but for the most part is in a relationship with full-fledged lesbian Ronni. Well folks, we get the WTF? revelation midway through the book that Eva was once married to Greg Welles, and this is never really brought up again, other than another random WTF? tidbit that Welles’s chaffeur/bodyguard Tonto (a white guy with a very un-PC nickname) has “had a crush on Eva since college.” This info is just randomly introduced and then not dwelt on again…indeed, Eva seems to disappear from the text at novel’s end, leaving the reader to wonder what her fate is. 

But really the book is more focused on the various degredations of Ashley Burdnoy, who is captured while fondling herself in the shower and will spend the rest of the novel – which occurs over a few hours – either nude or in a bathrobe that’s constantly coming open so her adbuctors can fondle her nether regions. Meanwhile Greg Welles, working with Darlene Silk’s people, tries to figure out who abducted Burdnoy’s wife. Here’s where it gets hard to believe, with Tonto and another dude ultimately heading for the place where Ashley’s being held, one of them even toting a Magnum revolver – again, it would be just as simple for them to have gone to the cops, given that they’ve not only figured out where Ashley is being held but also who is behind the kidnapping plot. 

Instead the climax plays out at the Grammys, with lots of “tension” as Welles and Burdnoy wait desperately for word that Ashley is safe, the notification upon which Burdnoy will change the cards again so that Jennifer Carron does not win. This entire part is goofy – and here’s where I really started to suspect J.C. Conaway was the author – because there’s a bit where guest presenters The Cinco’s do a dumb comedy routine while presenting the Entertainer of the Year award, complete with them playing “peekaboo” with the audience from behind the award stage curtains, and it’s all very Conaway-esque. 

That Leisure Books vibe also extends to Ashley’s rescue: just as she was abducted while pleasuring herself, so too is she rescued while being forced into lesbian sex with Ronni. I mean this lady is really taken over the coals throughout the book. But there is a nice payoff with Ashley getting hold of that Magnum and blasting out vengeance – complete with the nonchalant reveal, at the end of the book, that she’s blown off the friggin’ head of one of her captors. 

Humorously, Frederick Snow just flat-out ends the book at the Grammys, complete with Ashley showing up still in nothing but that damn bathrobe – not that anyone seems to notice. It’s kind of hilarious in how poorly constructed the novel is at times, but also a refreshing reminder of the days when publishers didn’t have “focus groups” to judge the quality of a book before publication. But while it’s kind of a cold finish, it does at least resolve the kidnapping and revenge scheme storylines, as well as the outing of Rudy Cannon’s secret funder – which, honestly, is kind of easy to figure out, given that there are only a handful of characters in the novel. 

Overall No Sympathy For The Devil is certainly trashy and depraved, and in that regard serves up everything I could want from a rock novel. And at 224 pages of big ol’ print, it is a pretty quick read. Yet at the same time, the rock stuff in it is so minimal that it’s mostly just window dressing…in actuality the novel is more of a kidnapping yarn with a lot of sleaze and sadism, and I’d really love to know if “Frederick Snow” was J.C. Conaway or some other Belmont Tower/Leisure Books veteran.