Monday, January 30, 2012

The Sharpshooter #5: Night of the Assassins

The Sharpshooter #5: Night of the Assassins, by Bruno Rossi
March, 1974 Leisure Books

Johnny "Sharpshooter" Rock thirsts for more Mafia blood in this Miami-based entry that takes place a week or so after The Worst Way to Die. With only his second contribution, author Leonard Levinson has already given the Sharpshooter series more of a sense of continuity than it's previously enjoyed. Once again Levinson delivers a fast-moving tale filled with the patented Johnny Rock sadism, while at the same time showing how boring the life of a lone wolf can get.

The novel mostly follows the pattern of Levinson's previous entry: Rock sizes up the competition, scouts the area, murders a few mobsters, wastes time between hits, and meets a few ladies. Just as in The Worst Way to Die, many parts of Night of the Assassins are composed of Rock checking out the local sights, buying supplies, hobknobbing with locals. One might complain that it's "boring" at times, but Levinson's writing is really good, and also it only serves to make the violent moments all the more shocking.

Johnny Rock, as everyone knows, is one sick bastard. Levinson's portrayal of the character might be a bit more human -- for one, he's yet to have Rock do anything as sadistic as in Blood Bath (dammit, who wrote that volume?!?) -- but Levinson leaves little room for doubt that our hero is insane. Again, Levinson's Johnny Rock thinks he's normal, when in reality he's sicker than the mobsters he kills. In this volume he shoots men in the back, guns down mobsters with a sniper rifle as they eat their pasta, murders two women in cold blood (for being "mafia whores"), and machine-guns a row of unarmed Mafia enforcers. Like an addict he gets the shakes if he goes more than a few days without "tasting Mafia blood."

After the events in the previous volume, Rock heads down to Miami to soak up some sun. He also decides to wipe out the local Mafia boss, checking into the man's hotel. Rock hobknobs with the bartender and the hotel's whore (she's on the payroll) in between mob hits. Setting himself up as a big spender, Rock gets wind of an offshore casino run on a mob pleasure boat. Hooking up with a lonely housewife (the first of three women Rock sleeps with in the novel -- as expected in a Levinson book, there's lots of sex here), Rock takes her along as camoflauge while scoping out the place.

Here we get another of those Levinson page-filling bits where Rock plans his mission, buys the equipment, and prepares himself for the next night. But again, the calm stuff is only there so that the storm will seem all the more fierce, for what follows is the best sequence in the novel. Outfitted in a wetsuit and SCUBA gear, Rock swims out to the floating casino, boards it, and blasts all of the mobsters to hell. Again though we have little "action," here; as usual with the Sharpshooter, Rock just blows away mobsters after getting them to drop their guns.

The Miami Mafia isn't as stupid as Rock expects. They get the drop on him and proceed to beat him half to death. Levinson's version of Rock gets worried and fears death, but is resolved to the fact that he won't live long. He figures this is the end, but is saved by the last-second arrival of the cops, who cart Rock off. They decide he must be a mob-hired assassin. In a bizarre bit he's allowed to leave Miami, but he quickly returns, holing up in Fort Lauderdale (where in another WTF? scene a stewardess hits on him in the hotel bar and then goes up to his room with him).

The stage is set for final payback, and Levinson doesn't disappoint. Rock buys a grease gun from a gun supplier and blitzes the Miami mob. Here we have a genuine action scene, with Rock fighting off an army of enforcers, even a helicopter. (In other words, Ken Barr's cover actually depicts a scene in the book! Too bad the same couldn't be said for his even-better cover for Blood Bath.)

Unfortunately the climax sort of spirals into nothingness; after killing his main rival, Rock finds out that one of the mobsters who beat him earlier is still around. He tracks down the dude, finding the keys to his apartment (which he gets from the two women he blows away), and paying him a visit. This is another unsettling scene as Rock beats the shit out of the guy before killing him in cold blood. Yep, that's our hero.

Levinson sat out on the next volume, which by all accounts is one of the worst in the series. I'll be reading it anyway, of course. Levinson returned for #7: Head Crusher; in fact it seems that Levinson was the closest the Sharpshooter series ever got to a main writer. I enjoy his work; as I said before, he doesn't achieve the wacked-out sicko mentality of Blood Bath, but he delivers better character, story, and prose, all with a refreshing sense of humor.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff

Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, by Gregory William Mank
May, 2009 McFarland Publishing

This is actually the third book by Gregory William Mank I've read in the past few months; first it was his 1999 Women in Horror Films, 1930s, which was composed of essay-length chapters on several of the leading horror ladies of that day, with lots of great photos, after which I read It's Alive!, which was Mank's first book. This edition of Bela and Boris (as I'll refer to it) is an expanded edition of a book Mank originally published back in 1991 or so; this edition comes in at a whopping 700 pages. What kind of world do we live in where a 700 page book can be published about Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff??

However the most surprising thing is how enjoyable the book actually is. Mank has done his research and it shows; Bela and Boris documents basically every known instance in the lives of the two men, from their first forays into Hollywood on down to their deaths decades later, Lugosi basically destitute, Karloff enjoying the gratification of being considered a living legend. For that is the heart of the book, the supposed rivalry between the two; it's long been rumored that Lugosi hated Karloff, at least in his later years, ruined by poverty and stricken with jealousy at Karloff's fame and millions. But also the book operates on the principle of how one decision can make or wreck a life: Karloff came to fame because he was given the role of the Monster in Frankenstein, a role which Lugosi famously refused. Most believe (and apparently, Lugosi late in life believed as well) that his decision not to play the Monster was the first step in his downfall.

I have my own doubts about this. I think Karloff succeeded because he stepped into the shoes vacated by the recently-departed Lon Chaney: Karloff became a master of screen disguise, playing a variety of roles behind pounds of makeup. Lugosi was always Lugosi -- though, as Mank carefully explains, this assumption was not always correct, as there are movies where Karloff overracts (as in the awesomely over-the-top The Lost Patrol, from 1934, directed by John Ford), and movies where Lugosi underplays his role (ie 1934's The Black Cat, aka the best horror film of the Golden Age).

But regardless, having read the book and watched many of the films discussed, it seems clear to me that Karloff went on to fame due to the versatility of his acting, whereas Lugosi suffered due to his (perceived) lack of handling of the English language and his (supposed) overracting. Also, Lugosi would say "yes" to any role offered him; not even a year or two after Dracula and he was starring in a movie serial, basically the dregs of the movie world. He needed the money, but stooping to such a level could only harm him in Hollywood's eyes. Bela and Boris also shows the mercenary, backstabbing world of Studio Era Hollywood; the moguls knew that Lugosi needed money, and they'd sign him up for pitifully-small salaries, paid by the week -- even going so far as to demand that all of his scenes be shot in one week!

The book is filled to the brim with photos, stills, and poster reproductions, many of which I'd never seen before. Mank studiously footnotes the entirety of the text, going into the details of the making of each film, especially those Lugosi and Karloff made togther. One thing you won't get from Mank however is actual film criticism, something I first noticed in It's Alive! He'll tell you the production history, the on-set happenings, the changes made to the scripts and the films, and how the movies performed at the box office, but one thing he won't give you is an appreciation of the film's direction, photography, and etc. In other words, the sort of thing you would expect from a film scholar; but then, Mank is more of a film historian.

As for his writing, Mank has an annoying tendency to start off his chapters in present tense, which makes it all come off like a pretentious Entertainment Weekly sort of article, yet he's unable to hold onto the style for long, jumping back and forth from present to past tense in each chapter, which makes for a bumpy read. He also delivers quite a bit of purple prose, such as: "If Univeral was a fairy tale realm, Uncle Carl was its hobgoblin Mountain King." I mentioned in my It's Alive! review that Mank seemed uncertain of his tone, switching from a schorlarly air to a fan's praise. Though he's evened out his tone here, Bela and Boris still sometimes comes off like a Famous Monsters of Filmland article.

It's also amusing in that Mank is the reverse of the regular film scholar, the majority of whom focus on mainstream films and dismiss horror movies as junk; Mank instead praises the horror and seens unaware of mainstream films. I'm not an expert at all, but even I noticed he got some of his details wrong in his brief mentions of Lugosi and Karloff's non-horror films (for example, he states that Lugosi appeared in the climax of 1933's The Devil's In Love, which is not correct; indeed, Mank appears unware that Lugosi shared a scene in the film with David Manners, his co-star in both Dracula and The Black Cat).

But Mank's attention to detail and his love for these old films more than make up for any of this. He comes off especially well in how he, in the course of his research, made many of these forgotten stars feel important again, after decades of obscurity. The horror genre was never looked upon with much interest in the Golden Age; it was only in later decades, with Shock! Cinema and the Famous Monsters-type magazines that younger generations began to so adore these films that had gone forgotten. Many of the actors and actresses in them had themselves been forgotten in the intervening decades.

Mank, in the course of his research over the years, found many of the cast and crew and talked extensively with them about their lives and work. Mank's interviews spread from the late 1970s on up to the present, and many of the people he spoke to have died in the interim. Mank has in this way preserved the past; if it wasn't for him, many of these people would have gone to their graves without revealing insight into the films they worked on, or how they perceived Lugosi or Karloff.

But again, the rivalry plays a large part in how Mank lays out the book. For his part he doesn't reveal which of the two actors he prefers, though no one says you have to prefer one over the other. It seems to me that the "rivalry" is more of a perception of the fans; Mank mentions throughout how the Lugosi supporters and Karloff supporters often bicker and disagree. This brings to mind the humorous image of over-the-hill former "MonsterKids" duking it out: "Karloff's the best, dumbass!" "Lugosi is, you son of a bitch!"

Personally, I much prefer Lugosi. I've always found it strange his star didn't soar higher. As Mank details, Lugosi is often portrayed as only playing one character on screen -- Dracula. The common perception of the actor is that, unlike Karloff, he wasn't able to subdue his own personality for his roles. As Mank demonstrates again and again, this isn't true; anyone who has seen Lugosi as Ygor in the awesome Son of Frankenstein will know Lugosi could play any role. And yet, the conception persists, and it is true in many instances that Lugosi was usually playing a variation of himself.

But really, this isn't a problem, and that's what bugs me. Golden Age Hollywood was built around a star system in which the stars played variations of themselves (or, at least, variations of who the fans believed them to be). Clark Gable usually played a "Clark Gable" sort of role. Same for Bogart. Same for Cooper. This was how the Studio System ran; studio writers and producers would create a property with a particular star in mind, catering the script, story, and dialog to the actor. Given this, it makes no sense that Lugosi was "held back" for playing a variation of himself. In all honesty, he should've gone on to bigger things. It comes off more that Universal, Lugosi's ostensible "main" studio, just didn't know what to do with the guy. They wanted horror product and were only capable of thinking of Lugosi in a horror light. In other words, he was straightjacketed by the genre he helped make famous.

As mentioned, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff is 700 pages long, and a lot of it could've been pruned. The '30s portion is as expected fascinating, as that's when the two actors were at their height. The '40s stuff, slightly less so. But it all begins to taper off in the '50s, and by the time Bela's died in the late '50s and Karloff in the late '60s, you figure it's about time for the book to end, too.

But Mank keeps going, telling us about the sons and daughters of the actors, when particular DVD sets were released, how fans reacted, etc. He even spends a few pages griping about Tim Burton's awesome Ed Wood -- Mank appears to dislike it due to all of the "cursing," and also because it strays from the facts of Lugosi's later life. I find it odd that people expect 100% truth from biopics; films are fantasy and should be treated as such. So what that Lugosi wasn't a foul-mouthed Karloff-hater in his twilight years? It made for a fun movie all the same.

Another strange thing about Bela and Boris is that I have no idea who the book is intended for. As mentioned, Mank writes in a mostly accessible/mainstream style, with large portions of the book coming off like articles from an entertainment magazine. Yet the book is priced $70 and up, and it's published by McFarland, which specializes in academic film tones priced in the college-book range.

So in other words, we have a mainstream book about two horror stars that's priced beyond the means of the average horror film fan. I don't know too many people who would drop $70 or more on a book about Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. But you can always do what I did -- get the book from InterLibrary Loan.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Death Merchant #2: Operation Overkill

Death Merchant #2: Operation Overkill, by Joseph Rosenberger
February, 1972 Pinnacle Books

Over the past few years I've collected a handful of Death Merchant novels, but just never got around to reading them. As a kid I had a few as well, but as mentioned previously, at the time (the mid-'80s) I was more into the gung-ho exploits of the Gold Eagle line of men's adventure novels. Since getting back into this genre I've kept meaning to read more of Joseph Rosenberger's work, but so far I've only read the first volume of Mace, which really sucked -- nothing but endless fight sequences and zero plot. But still I've remained interested in Rosenberger the man, who by all accounts was a crackpot.

So then when I came across a pristine copy of Death Merchant #2: Operation Overkill, for half off the cover price of 95 cents (!), I just couldn't pass it up. This is the earliest novel I have in the series; I've read that the first volume doesn't have much to do with the rest of the series. In it Joseph "Death Merchant" Camellion is hired to kill a bunch of mobsters, and so Death Merchant #1 apparently comes off like so many other early '70s men's adventure novels, just a lurid clone of Don Pendleton's Executioner.

This second volume already changes things up; the mafia isn't mentioned and Camellion is apparently a soldier for hire, so notorious that even the President of the United States is familiar with him. This time out the NSA has hired Camellion to look into the nefarious schemes of millionaire Cyrus Carey, who apparently has concocted a plan to kill off the President and his chiefs of staff and take over the US. Carey lives in his own little island off the coast of Maine, a veritable Howard Hughes. His lair is a fortress and he's surrounded by armed goons. His politics are so far right-wing that he's considered an American Hitler.

The novel opens with Camellion already undercover, infiltrating into Carey's network of supporters. But immediately he's found out; there's a mole within the NSA and Camellion's been fingered. After a gunfight Camellion escapes. His NSA contacts are a married couple and an attractive lady named Norma. These are the ONLY people who knew Camellion was undercover, which makes it pretty hilarious that it takes our hero the entire novel to uncover the culprit. Other than that Rosenberger presents Camellion as a cipher, always quick on the draw and deadly as any other men's adventure protagonist, but not the superhero he would become in later books.

I should mention here that, unlike Mace #1, Operation Overkill is not an endless series of fight sequences. In fact the novel's rather well-done, with few of the Rosenbergerisms one might expect. None of the bizarre analogies, no footnotes (which would become a staple of the series in later volumes), no overdone passages of gore. True, when action scenes do take place they tend to go on for a while. But they don't fill up the majority of the novel. And true, Rosenberger tends to end every few sentences with an exclamation point. But other than that the novel comes off as very much in line with the other men's adventure novels Pinnacle Books was publishing at the time.

The clearest indication of this is that Camellion has sex in the novel. The aforementioned Norma sets her sights on the Death Merchant early in the book, and succeeds in bedding him halfway through. The scene isn't very graphic, but it's there, which is important enough given the sexless nature of later volumes. Another indication of the times is Camellion's other NSA comrade in the novel, a black agent named Luther Jackson who is unconnected with Norma or the married couple (and therefore not the one who outed Camellion as a spy within Carey's ranks). Jackson is a jive-talking sharp dresser who appears to have walked out of Chet Cunningham's Hijacking Manhattan.

Operation Overkill opens with action but plays out on more of a suspense angle until the climax. In a way it's like the Penetrator series, with Camellion arriving on the scene, doing some digging, getting in a few fights, meeting a lady, and then finally working out his climatic assault. We know from page one that the Death Merchant must storm Carey's island fortress, but we wait until the end for him to do so. He and Luther Jackson make for a two-man team, SCUBA diving to the place and then assaulting it with Thompson subguns and explosives. It's a well-rendered scene, but Carey's goons make for little competition.

Camellion, as his name would indicate, is a master of disguise. He goes through the novel in a variety of disguises, usually posing as an old man. When visiting Carey's island near the end with Luther Jackson, Camellion even goes so far as to make himself black; in a hilarious prefigure of the notorious '80s bomb Soul Man, Camellion swallows a pill which darkens the pigment of his skin. He completes the look with wig, mannerisms, and speech. It's all pretty stupid and funny -- again, much like Hijacking Manhattan, only not as outrageous.

The Death Merchant lives up to his name here. He blows away countless goons and is so consumed with the desire to kill Cyrus Carey that he takes his time with it at the end of the novel, first blowing off the man's fingers and then trapping him in a locked vault where he will die a slow death. Ironically, Luther Jackson proves to be even more merciless -- in a somewhat shocking moment during their assault on the island, Camellion and Jackson corner an unarmed old man who's nothing more than a groundskeeper, and get info out of him. "Thanks," Jackson grins, and then blows the harmless old man away.

Rosenberger was also into the occult, something wich long has interested me in the series, but there's little of that here, other than Camellion's mention of the old novel La Bas. As for Camellion the man, Rosenberger keeps the details slim. He mentions that Camellion isn't handsome, but he isn't ugly, either. Indeed Rosenberger attempts to stress that Camellion looks rather ordinary. Also, no mention of the Cosmic Lord of Death, or any of the other metaphysical aspects of later books -- no auras or ghosts or anything. Again, the novel comes off much like the rest of the Pinnacle line at the time.

Finally, Rosenberger isn't shy about implicating himself with his creation. We're informed that Camellion's full name is Richard Joseph Camellion -- very similar to the full name of his creator: Joseph Richard Rosenberger. I find this personally interesting, as I have the same first and middle name as Rosenberger. Who knows, maybe I'm just another of the Death Merchant's aliases??

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Savage Sands

The Savage Sands, by Christina Nicholson
December, 1978 Fawcett Crest Books

I've had this one for a while and kept meaning to get around to it. For whatever reason I'm fascinated with 18th-19th Century Algiers and Morocco, a lost world of sand-swept decadence, harems, Barbary Corsairs, and "pirate utopias" (as Hakim Bey/Peter Lamborn Wilson calls them). The Savage Sands appealed to me as it takes place (partly) in this world: the novel occurs during the 1820s and concerns a gorgeous blonde of American birth who is captured in Paris and given to the Dey of Algiers to become a member of his harem. I assumed the majority of the novel would occur in the world of the harem, but in fact only about a quarter of it does; the remainder is given over to a sprawling desert adventure that goes on much too long.

The girl in question is Catherine Scott, born in Boston but now in France, raised by her widowed father and her stepmother, who is only a decade or two older than Catherine. Still a teenager, Catherine is taken from school by her stepmother, Madeleine, and goes with her back to Paris. Here ensues your typical Romance fiction stuff, with Catherine getting beautified in all the parlours, gossiping with her worldly stepmom (who wants Catherine to think of her as a sister), and hobknobbing with people like Victor Hugo and Balzac. Also, shortly before leaving the school Catherine met rail-thin but handsome artist David Mulawar, who instantly became smitten with Catherine and who has followed her to Paris. But since he's poor and unknown, Madeleine advises Catherine to set her goals higher.

To wit, Madeleine introduces Catherine to Baron Ricimer, a hunk of a German he-man who immediately sets his dark eyes on Catherine. However she suspects something evil behind the Baron's look; regardless, pretty soon she finds herself fantasizing about him. (And David Mulawar too.) After more Parisian society stuff, it all comes to a head when Catherine, Madeleine, and Madeleine's 12 year-old son Jean-Pierre go visit Ricimer. It turns out that Madeleine was only using Catherine as bait; Madeleine wants Ricimer for herself. But instead they are waylaid by brigands and tied up; masked, they are hussled through the French countryside and finally find themselves on a ship, heading away from French waters.

Ricimer has captured them; he reveals himself to be a personal servant of the Dey of Algiers. Ricimer's been tasked by the Dey to scout around Europe for good-looking virgins (boys and girls) to be added to the harem. Catherine's beauty is so breathtaking that Ricimer is certain she will become one of the Dey's favorites in his army-sized harem. However first he must train her in the sexual arts, particularly how to please a very old man, with the caveat that Catherine must remain a virgin until she gets to the Dey's bed. As expected Catherine is at first shocked and afraid, eventually filled with rage, but gradually finds herself so attracted to Ricimer -- in particular so turned on by his obvious prowess (in one memorable scene he takes Madeleine as Catherine watches, to show how it's done) -- that she finds herself falling in love with him.

Finally though they get to Algiers. The decadent atmosphere of the locale is brushed over; Catherine, of course, is limited to the world of the harem, and can never leave it, so her knowledge of the surrounding city is limited. Catherine's entrance into the harem is well-rendered, as she's bathed and all of her body hair is removed in a grueling sequence. At length she's sent to the bed of the Dey, a man well past 80, broken from the years and his own lecherousness. After getting off to a rocky start (if she doesn't instantly woo the Dey, Catherine will be sent off to a grisly death), Catherine seduces the Dey and he takes her virginity. (At least she thinks he does; it's all over in a flash.) At any rate the Dey is pleased, and Catherine doesn't just become his favorite member of the harem, he places her so far above the others that she basically becomes another of his wives.

Nicholson weaves around Catherine's life in the harem, surrounded by jealous peers, to visits to the Dey's chamber, where the Dey will relate glimmerings of what's going on his world before brief tumbles in the bed. War is soon to come with France and Catherine expects her freedom may ensue. Meanwhile Madeleine has been given to her as her personal slave, and Jean-Pierre, Madeleine's son, has been drafted into the male half of Dey's harem. In another grueling sequence, Catherine must choose whether Jean-Pierre should die or be castrated. She chooses the latter, which as expected makes both Jean-Pierre and Madeleine hate her.

But again, in this harem section of The Savage Sands Nicholson does a grand job of bringing to life the decadent world of North Africa in the early 19th Century. I could've read an entire novel filled with all of the rumor-mongering and secret wars he sets up here among the harem girls, but sadly it all comes to a quick end with the return of Baron Ricimer, two years after he left Catherine here. War is coming with the French, and soon. After being encouraged by Catherine, the Dey determines to fight them, though secretly he fears Algiers is doomed. And it is, the French decimating the Algierian army and closing in on the Dey's palace.

The French have given the Dey the option of leaving Algiers forever as part of his surrender; he may take with him his wives. He comes to Catherine in the harem and asks her to marry him. She hesitates a moment and instantly the Dey sees that she's never loved him. He orders her death, and here Catherine learns that she's never had any friends in the harem: not only do Madeleine and Jean-Pierre seem happy at her imminent death, but even her former pal the Harem Agha (ie the eunuch in charge of the harem) rushes to follow the Dey's command. Catherine is to be tossed in a sack and drowned in shallow, muddy water. Only the gun-blasting arrival of Ricimer and his desert-warrior comrades saves Catherine from death.

Unfortunately The Savage Sands still has a long way to go from here. Riding out into the desert hinterlands with Ricimer, Catherine not only finally gets to act upon her long fantasies of the man, but also marries him. Soon though she finds herself relegated to unimportance; while Ricimer and his desert men get in battles and monitor the events between the French and the Algierians, Catherine has Ricimer's child and is kept on the sidelines, raising it and trying to live among the desert people. Gradually she takes a larger part in the narrative; Catherine's father was a military strategist, and in an early bit of foreshadowing Nicholson relates that, in her youth, Catherine had helped her father write his books on strategy and warfare. So then we are not to be too surprised when, much later in the novel, Catherine uses her strategic skill to plan and win several battles.

But after the harem material the novel loses its thread. David Mulawar as expected returns, so in love with Catherine that he has joined the Legion if only for the chance of finding her somewhere. There is the required happy ending, but it takes much to long to arrive; the novel runs to nearly 450 pages. And curiously, for a novel so focused on sex, there really isn't much of it in The Savage Sands. Other than Ricimer's training sequence, where he advised Catherine in graphic detail on how to please a man, the sex scenes themselves are hardly graphic. And since the Dey is presented as so wasted from years, it's not like he's pulling off any sexual athletics in the bedroom.

I forgot to mention -- Christina Nicholson is actually British author Christopher Nichols. I think he wrote another Romance or two under the "Nicholson" psuedonym. His writing here is good, with great scene-setting, period detail, and colorful touches. I just felt that the novel was too long for its own good, veering away much too quickly from the harem section.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Z-Comm #1: Swastika

Z-Comm #1: Swastika, by Kyle Maning
No month stated, 1988 Leisure Books

This was the start of a 4-volume series by Kyle Maning, who is none other than our pal David Alexander. I'm not sure why Alexander (or Leisure Books) even bothered with the psuedonym, as the book is quite obviously the product of Alexander's fevered imagination. This series began as he was nearly finished with the ultra-awesome Phoenix saga, and though it isn't a post-nuke pulp, Alexander still finds a way to bring that same level of chaotic madness to the tale. Even if we have to wait a bit to get to it.

Z-Comm is short for "Z-Commando," a 5-man team of bad-ass commandos, each of whom is basically the same as the next (except for the female member, but she's just as tough as the rest of them). Their names alone are proof of their bad-assness (while at the same time sounding like the names of characters in the old Rambo cartoon): Logan Cage, the leader, who "killed more than 500 men in Vietnam;" Sam Proffitt, living lethal weapon and Cage's right-hand man; Frank "Bear" MacBeth, "part-time wrestler, part-time construction worker, full-time bastard;" Domino, the aforementioned female member of the team, who as expected is incredibly beautiful as well as deadly; and finally Zabriskie, electronics and tech wiz who despite his nerdishness is just as skilled and deadly as the others.

Alexander saves the best name however for the villain of the piece: Deacon Johncock (!), a grassroots preacher of Nazi superiority who has carved out his own little slice of Aryan rule in a desolate patch of Middle America. Dressing his endless legions of goons in Nazi uniform, Johncock has taken over the hamlet of Ketchum, Idaho (famed for a visit by Ernest Hemingway years before).

The majority of the populace has fallen sway to Johncock's virulent, anti-Semitic garbage; these sections, of course, where Johncock makes his speeches, gives Alexander ample opportunity to attempt to offend basically every race. Again though, it comes off more funny than offensive, as there's no way any reasonable person could take it all seriously. It all just proves once again that Alexander was one of the few 1980s men's adventure authors who kept alive the over-the-top spirit of the '70s.

For some reason the government has failed to officially do anything about Johncock's takeover. I kept trying to figure out why, but then realized I was thinking about it too much. Let it just be said that it all comes down to Z-Comm, who must band together again and go kill some neo-Nazis. After getting the mission from his handler, Peter Quartermaine (another impressive name), Cage goes about the chore of rounding together the other four members of Z-Comm. This proves to take up a large portion of the novel, as Alexander introduces each of the characters. However it's a bit slow-going as the characters are so alike, save for Proffitt, who has a bit of a tortured soul. He easily stands out from the rest of the team, and I wonder if Alexander didn't base the character a little on himself.

Swastika runs to nearly 300 pages, and this proves to be its undoing. It looks as if Leisure Books was trying to do the same thing as Gold Eagle was at the time -- making their books longer so they'd appear to be "real novels." Instead it just bogs the book down, and Swastika spins its wheels for the first third. Indeed it isn't until around page 170 or so that Alexander finally unleashes his trademark OTT violence and gore. It doesn't quite reach the absurd levels of Phoenix, but it comes close:

The guy closest to him caught both bursts right in his heart. A gaping red crater appeared in his brown shirt as his heart and most of his left lung and a couple of ground-up ribs erupted from the massive exit wound in the blitzed Nazi's back.

Hot steel fragments whizzed around in the body cavity like angry demon hornets, creaming internal organs to soupy vomit. The Nazi pulled some moves that would put Nureyev to shame as he spun away from the HUMVEE and hit the blacktop, skidding on his face.

Alexander also delivers on the expected gun-porn; the final half of the novel is an endless sequence of military acronyms and names of assault weapons. He also serves up more of his wacky descriptive phrases: "vomit Vikings" being one of his favorite terms for Johncock's Nazi goons. And he even manages to include some of the sadism of Phoenix, especially in a grossly hilarious sequence where Johncock lets his Nazis run rampant over Ketchum, killing and raping and pillaging, Alexander documenting each horrible act in gruesome detail.

The length of the book also hampers the finale. Once Z-Comm has arrived and done some research, Cage posing as a terrorist with KGB ties (his undercover name, interestingly, is "Coltray," which was the title of a 3-volume series Alexander published soon after this), they decide to just waste Johncock and his Nazis. Lots of great action scenes ensue, but again it all comes off like that Rambo cartoon, with Johncock escaping, coming back with more men, capturing some members of Z-Comm, the other members freeing them, Johncock escaping again, and etc etc. While it's fun, it's also obvious that Alexander had a large page count to fill and was having a hard time of it.

But who am I kidding? This is David Alexander, after all, and his books are always enjoyable. I've got the rest of this series and look forward to continuing with it; it's not as jawdropping as Phoenix (but then what is?), but how can you go wrong with a series that has villains with names like "Deacon Johncock??"

Monday, January 9, 2012

It's Alive!

It's Alive!, by Gregory William Mank
No month stated, 1981 The Tantivy Press

This past summer I watched all of the old Universal horror Dracula-Frankenstein-Wolf Man flicks in "order," the first time I've ever done so. There really is a loose chronology between the films, even if certain characters/time periods are changed at whim. As expected, I found the '30s material vastly superior to the cut-rate '40s output, with more inventiveness, creativity, and superior production values. In fact I found the '40s movies (ie The Wolf Man, House of Dracula) pretty damn stupid, and it boggles my mind that these movies have such a devoted fan following.

You could rank Gregory Mank at the forefront of such following. This was his first book, published in 1981, and Mank continues to publish to this day books on the golden age of horror movies, particularly the Universal output. It's Alive! compiles all of Mank's considerable research on the Frankenstein films Universal released from 1931 through 1948, with an appendix on later film versions of the character. Mank does a thorough job of providing a synopsis of each film (a bit incidental in our DVD era, but the fact is this book was published even before the VHS versions were released), a rundown of the production history, comments from various actors and crew (compiled from contemporary sources or from people Mank himself intereviewed), a listing of deleted footage, and finally a recap on how the film performed.

The only problem with It's Alive! is that it's so damn hard to find these days. Long out of print, the book goes for excessive prices. I was lucky enough to get a copy for fairly cheap. I first heard about the book a few years ago; sources claimed that Mank provided a lot of detail, including production stills, of material that was cut from the various films. Like most I consider James Whale's 1935 offering The Bride of Frankenstein the best of the series (except for those days when I consider Rowland Lee's 1939 The Son of Frankenstein the best), and after hearing that a significant amount of material was cut from the film, I had to get Mank's book to find out more. (Long story short, a subplot involving Dwight Frye's lurchy character was cut from the film; in it he was killing villagers and blaming it on the Frankenstein Monster).

Again, this was Mank's first book, and he appears to struggle for balance. Parts of It's Alive! come off rather scholarly, with Mank laying down the details in factual manner. Other parts get a bit more colorful (he's fond of finishing sentences with exclamation points, never the mark of a scholar), making the book seem like a looong Famous Monsters of Filmland article. But again his depth of research is admirable, especially given that he took the trouble to hunt down the surviving cast and crew of the various films for first-hand recollections.

The book is filled with production stills, poster art, behind the scenes shots, and candid photos, all in black and white. For me though the highlight of the book was reading how different these films were in their original incarnations, particularly the long-lamented Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, in which Bela Lugosi played the Monster; in the original cut, the Monster was "half-blind" and could speak, but all of this was cut from the film right before release, making Lugosi's Monster seem like a half-wit.

Since reading It's Alive! I've read another Mank book, his Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, from 2009. Vast parts of that book are almost rewrites of the material in It's Alive!, with Mank providing even more background detail and cast/crew interviews. I'll be reviewing that one here soon; of the two, it's a much better read than It's Alive!

As a final stupid note...I watched those Universal films in the depth of the summer, drunk most of the time, and began to wish that some dopesmoking cinema scholar in the late '60s had published a study on the films, ie the "gnostic" bent of the movies (that the Monster didn't represent man, and Dr Frankenstein the gods, but that the Monster represented the gods and Dr. Frankenstein represented man -- ie, man creates his own gods, gods which eventually cause his own death). I further thought some sort of knee-jerk scholarly bent could be derived from the hopscotching of actors in different roles throughout the film -- how Lon "Mr. Potato Head" Chaney Jr. (thanks to Ethan Morrden) is the Monster in one movie, the Wolf Man the next...further proof of the gnostic diagram of life, or something.

Like I said, I was drunk at the time, but damn it would've been a cool book.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Crystal Pharoah's Band of the Lost Mix

From the gentleman who brought you the awesome Blaxploration, here's another super-cool mix, this time for the 1970s kid's show Land of the Lost. I never actually watched this show as a kid, though I recall it played every day in syndication; I was too busy watching Challenge of the SuperFriends.

I actually prefer this mix to Blaxploration, especially the way Crystal Pharoah brings out the show's latent psychedelic aspects. Cool stuff, and again I wish he'd do an entire DVD of these video mixes!