Monday, October 31, 2016

The Devil's Brood (Universal Monsters Trilogy #2)

The Devil's Brood, by David Jacobs
June, 2000  Berkley Boulevard

Two years after Jeff Rovin* published Return Of The Wolf Man, the Universal Monsters trilogy continued with this sequel courtesy David Jacobs, which takes its title from the original script treatment that eventually became the 1944 film House Of Frankenstein. Providing perfect Halloween reading, Jacobs accomplishes in The Devil’s Brood what Rovin did not – be drags the Universal monsters kicking, screaming, and clawing into modern pulp horror, with all the mandatory gore and sadism one could want.

Not that I hated Rovin’s novel; I just didn’t enjoy it. It was a little too hamstrung by Rovin’s clear enthusiasm for the monsters, and also by his fan fictionish penchant for chasing various “who cares?” leads from old Universal movies. I mean when you have pages and pages devoted to what happened to the characters Abbott and Costello played, you know you’re in trouble…not to mention that 30 or so-page sequence devoted to the inspection of the haunted castle the novel’s irritating heroine inherited.

Speaking of that irritating heroine, Jacobs must’ve disliked her, too, as she’s gone without a trace in The Devil’s Brood, and so much the better. In fact, none of the characters from Return Of The Wolf Man are here! I’ve seen reviews from fans who raved about Rovin’s novel complaining that in this sequel Jacobs only delivered “second stringer” Universal monsters. This is ironic, given that Rovin killed off all the main monsters in his novel!!

So Jacobs, showing true creativity, goes for the less famous Universal monsters, and to tell the truth that’s fine with me. To be noted, though, the (amateurish) cover art is very misleading: the Mummy does not appear in this novel, sad to say, and neither does the Wolf Man. The Frankenstein Monster eventually shows up, and as for Dracula…Jacobs does some truly novel things with the character, turning him into a sort-of vampiric Blob! Otherwise, the monsters in The Devil’s Brood are Dracula’s Daughter, The Bride of Frankenstein (who spends the entire novel comatose), and the grandson of the Werewolf of London, not to mention a ton of zombies from the non-Universal picture White Zombie. There are also tie-ins to ‘30s Universal horror films like The Invisible Ray and The Black Cat, but never once does it come off like the connect-the-unrelated-dots fan fiction of Rovin’s novel.

Dracula’s Daughter is for the most part the protagonist of the novel, while at the same time serving as the main villain. Jacobs’s version of the character is a bit more evil than the character in the understated ’36 film, not to mention described as being sexier (though she does retain her preference for female victims, as in the film). She’s also much more comfortable with her vampire nature and indeed is looking to assert herself as the queen of the underworld, now that daddy Dracula is dead – the novel opens with this crazy Satanic rite where Dracula’s Daughter, aka Countess Marya Zaleka, leads her coven of cultists in an art deco chamber somewhere in Eastern Europe, where they channel the blood of sacrificed virgins into an orb that turns into a veritable supernatural television. Here Jacobs relays the climactic moments of Rovin’s novel, and Marya learns that Dracula is dead. 

This stellar sequence is just the first instance where Jacobs capably captures a horror vibe, with the red glow of the orb, the deep black shadows of the chamber, and even with Marya pulling on a robe and hood like in the famous expressionist sequence in Dracula’s Daughter where she attempted to cast off the spirit of Dracula. It also proves posthaste that this isn’t Rovin’s book, which was married a little too faithfully to those Universal classics. Marya here is openly Satanic, her followers are too, and theirs is a nightmarish world of blood and death.

As this is occurring on the same day that Return of the Wolf Man ended, Jacobs jumps over to Isla Morgana, the Caribbean isle upon which White Zombie took place and, per Rovin’s novel, was eventually taken over by Dracula (another of Rovin’s incessant in-jokes, Bela Lugosi having played both Dracula and Baron Latos, ie the villain of White Zombie). Here Jacobs delivers a regular zombie massacre, with hordes of the creatures, freed from their bondage to “Baron Latos” now that Dracula is dead, setting upon their tormentors. It’s very much in the EC Comics mode with the zombies getting revenge on the sadists who tortured, raped, and/or killed them – Baron Latos’s men, we learn, also ran a lucrative sex-slave trade, turning some of their female victims into zombies when they were done with them.

Jacobs also quickly proves he won’t be bound by tradition. This is nowhere more evident than in what he does with Dracula, who as we’ll recall was staked by the Wolf Man at the end of Rovin’s novel. He’s dead for sure when The Devil’s Brood opens, but a “hate cloud” of the vampire lord’s spirit remains behind. Retaining its vampiric tendencies, the cloud eats the green blood of the Frankenstein Monster’s corpse (which itself was gutted by wolves in Rovin’s novel), becoming a “blood-slug.” Jacobs captures an Aurora model feel here (and throughout the book, really), going on about the greenish luminescence of the creature, which to my mind brought forth images of glow-in-the-dark toys and models.

The blood-slug, which Jacobs dubs “Drakon” (Jacobs by the way has a sometimes-annoying tendency to lecture the reader via an omniscient narrative tone), is the Blob-like entity mentioned above. Sounding truly gross, it slithers across Isla Morgana, seeking out human prey – and it ingests humans directly into its luminescent, translucent skin, so witnesses can see the bodies quickly digesting within; Drakon sheds the slimy bones and undigestable innards, and it’s growing larger and larger with each human it eats.

In the other novels I’ve read by Jacobs, he generally proves himself more of a “dialog and characters” writer and not so much a “plot” writer. Which is to say, the books of his I’ve read have started off promising but quickly derailed with new character after new character popping up out of the woodwork and clouding the overall story. This doesn’t happen quite so much in The Devil’s Brood, proving that Jacobs became a more skilled craftsman in time. However, that isn’t to say a reader new to Jacobs’s work might not get a little annoyed with the seeming lack of a main character, particularly given the almost-endless tide of one-off characters in the opening half who become zombie or Drakon victims. But compared to the other Jacobs books I’ve read, this one is downright streamlined.

With the presence of Steve Soto, an American underworld type on Isla Morgana on “business,” the reader thinks he has finally come upon the protagonist. But Soto will come and go in the narrative. I was fine with this, as he seems to have stepped out of a ‘30s Warner Bros. crime movie, and he gets to be annoying; despite the movie occurring in the “present day” of the time of publication, Soto talks like it’s 1939. He’s apparently a Mafia bigwig, though still young, and has a torpedo and an underling with him. He happens to be in Isla Morga when the zombies begin attacking; during this Soto befriends Basil Lodge, an old lush with arcane knowledge, and Dorian, Lodge’s hotstuff young niece with “high breasts.”

The two main plots gradually coalasce as we learn that both Marya and Basil Lodge are seeking the Frankenstein Monster, which is now anyone’s for the taking given that Dracula is dead. Lodge hires Soto to serve as a strongarm on a looting expedition to the ruined plantation which was owned by “Baron Latos,” while meanwhile Marya astrally connects with Wilford Glendon III, the grandson of the Werewolf of London. Another character who could lay claim to the “main protagonist” tag, Glendon is a wealthy London-based professor who has a way with women (his intro opens with a good-looking babe in his bed, though the novel has no sex scenes). He doesn’t realize that he has inherited his grandfather’s curse of lycanthropy.

Jacobs indulges in his own bit of Wold Newtonism by linking Werewolf of London with The Invisible Ray, The Black Cat, and even The Bride of Frankenstein. Glendon’s grandfather, the hero of Werewolf of London, was colleagues with Bela’s and Boris’s characters from the first two films, and Dr. Petronius from the third film; Marya has learned by strange means (namely, slicing off the head of a dying mad scientist servant and then bringing the brain to life via dark magic!) that the Bride can only be resuscitated via the “moon-ray,” ie artificial moonlight.

Glendon’s grandfather created a device which replicated moonlight, the Moon-Ray Projector, something which we’re informed Dr. Petronius employed when he helped Henry Frankenstein create the Bride. This is why no one has ever been able to bring the Bride back to life – and who those other would-be Bride revivers were, Jacobs doesn’t elaborate. At any rate the Bride, despite being blown up at the end of her film, is whole in one piece, and spends the majority of the narrative lying asleep in a glass coffin in Marya’s massive headquarters – Jacobs again delivering on the lurid horror with the tidbit that the Bride is fully nude, her otherwise-lovely body horrifically scarred from its patchwork construction.

Marya’s goal is to use the Bride and the Monster to propagate a new super-slave species or somesuch, so first she needs to awaken the Bride, and for that she needs Glendon. By visiting him in his dreams, she subconsciously prompts Glendon to travel to Visaria, the fictional Bavarian country in which the Frankenstein movies took place. Glendon as mentioned doesn’t know he’s a werewolf – there are times throughout where he changes, and Jacobs skillfully writes the scenes from Glendon’s perspective, with him chasing after people (even killing some would-be robbers in one memorable sequence) and not realizing anything strange is going on…and then not remembering anything when he wakes up the next day.

In the final quarter Basil Lodge raids the Baron Latos plantation, taking along Soto, his underlings, and some dirty Isla Morgana cops, as well as Dorian and a mother-son pair of “witches.” (Oh and meanwhile Soto’s scored with Dorian, but Jacobs keeps it all off page, dammit.) This sequence features Dracula’s three undead brides (like Dracula’s daughter, given sexier makeovers in this modern novel, down to the detail that they wear lingerie!), his wolves, and his bats, not to mention more of those damn zombies. Jacobs gets wild again with Lodge using black magic to resuscitate the Frankenstein Monster – his goal by the way is to make the Monster a zombie! – capped off with the memorable image of Lodge shoving a still-beating human heart into the Monster’s mouth.

In fact, there’s a lot of good horror stuff throughout. The zombie massacre in the opening is so “EC Comics” it could’ve been illustrated by Johnny Craig or Graham Engel. There’s a nice part where Marya and her mad scientists try to bring the Bride back to life while a supernatural thunderstorm rages, and Marya’s salvaging of one underling’s brain – turning him into a sort of oracular severed head – is very cool. Throughout Jacobs does his best to capture the Universal feel, greatly setting up each and every scene, as if this were the novelization of a real film (if only!). That being said, some of it can be overdescription at times, with Jacobs occasionally being guilty of dragging scenes on past the breaking point.

Jacobs takes unexpected directions with the final quarter. For one, the fate of Steve Soto, which isn’t anything like I expected. Skip the paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers. Anyway, during the raid on the plantation, Soto is killed – shot several times by his own lieutenant, who lusts for Soto’s power in the Mafia. But Soto somehow keeps walking and talking, despite being dead. Turns out Lodge’s spell affected him, as well, bringing life not only to the Monster but Soto. He helps Dorian escape; no idea if she appears in the sequel. However I have a feeling that’ll be it for Soto.

In the final several pages we get a return of Dracula – Drakon it turns out wasn’t just a Blob riff, it was also a Mothra riff, as the “blood-slug” has secreted itself into one of Dracula’s hidden coffins, beneath his castle on Isla Morgana…and that very night the coffin bursts open and Dracula comes out, “more powerful than ever.” Jacobs again demonstrates how his monsters are more cruel than the versions in the original films, with Dracula, in giant bat form, spending the entire night feasting on humans, killing scores of them, usually for no other reason than the sport of it.

Jacobs pays tribute to the climax of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, with Dracula running into the reborn Monster, which has now broken free of Dracula’s decades-long mental control. The Monster by the way is apparently possessed by demons now, or something, Lodge having broken the “magic circle” that surrounded the Monster during the rite, thus resulting in a blood-crazy, demonic Monster, one who even rips off human heads (including the spinal columns!). It’s a brief fight between the two main Universal monsters, ending with them both buried in the rubble of Dracula’s collapsing castle, but there of course will be little surprise when they each return next volume.

Marya again proves herself as the main character in the finale, chaining the captured Glendon to several corpses and performing yet another black magic rite. She summons the ghost of Glendon the first, ie the original Werwolf of London, and badgers him into providing the secret to his Moon-Ray Projector, which Marya needs to reawaken the Bride, and thus “spawn a race of super-slaves.” And here The Devil’s Brood ends, with Glendon III the unwilling colleague of Marya, and a reborn Dracula over on Isla Morgana looking to reclaim his title of Lord of the Underworld.

As yet another too-long review will attest, I really enjoyed The Devil’s Brood, and I eagerly look forward to reading Jacobs’s sequel, The Devil’s Night, which was published a few months later and wrapped up the trilogy.

*Imagine my surprise when, shortly after I finished reading this novel, Jeff Rovin himself popped up in the news, as yet another footnote in the crazed story that is the 2016 Presidential Election; turns out Jeff Rovin claims he worked as a media “fixer” for Bill and Hillary Clinton!  I haven't read too much about this story (and admittedly it’s only the right-aligned news outlets that have even reported on it, which in itself isn’t surprising), but still I thought it was a crazy little bit of synchronicity.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Soundtrack for Halloween 2016

Just in time for Halloween, Real Gone Music has released the soundtrack to the 1985 movie The Return Of The Living Dead on glow in the dark vinyl!

Limited to 500 copies, the LP is still available at the time of this post, and I highly recommend it. The vinyl is super thick and radioactive green, even in the daylight. Sound quality seems good to me, and the packaging replicates the original release, only with the Real Gone Music label on the back cover.

As you can see, the glow fades quickly. I had to switch on a light midway through to recharge it. Next time I’ll try to charge it up a bit more with some direct light on it for an hour or so.  (“I can see the electric company rubbin’ their mitts together right now!” – Frank Barone)

The track is “Party Time (Zombie Version)” by .45 Grave. The album features punk and “death rock” by the likes of The Cramps, Roky Erickson, and The Damned. About the only thing that could’ve made it better was if Samhain was on it – or better yet The Misfits, but they’d broken up two years before.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Soldier For Hire #7: Pathet Vengeance

Soldier For Hire #7: Pathet Vengeance, by Mark K. Roberts
No month stated, 1983  Zebra Books

The penultimate volume of Soldier For Hire has blowhard hero JC Stonewall heading into Laos to square up an account from his days in ‘Nam. If you’ve ever wondered what it would’ve been like if Mark Roberts had written an installment of MIA Hunter, look no further. This is especially ironic given that MIA Hunter creator Stephen Mertz himself appears in Pathet Vengeance.

While he still kills a bunch of “commie pigs” and engages in the usual illicit sex, Stonewall is a bit subdued this time around. He rarely displays the lovably stupid jingoism of previous installments, and for the most part operates like a regular men’s adventure protagonist. Which is to say there’s very little of the assholic blowhardy typical of the dude. And while this volume sees Stonewall settling a score with an old enemy, a commie one at that, there’s only sporadic bursts of the usual “a good commie’s a dead commie” vitriol.

Anyway, Stonewall’s origin story – as apparently created by the series’s original author – has it that “the one woman he ever loved,” a Eurasian babe named Angilique, was raped and gutted by the commies in Vietnam. This was a personal attack overseen by the Pathet Lao. Stonewall we learn now refuses to take any jobs in Southeast Asia, thus he’s shocked when his handler Trojan insists that he, Stonewall, consider rescuing a few of Trojan’s captive operatives in Laos – not to mention a few ‘Nam POWs who are also kept in the same prison. Stonewall is pressed to consider it because the man who runs the compound, a sadist named Colonel Boupha, was the leader of the Pathet Lao squad that raped and murdered poor Angelique.

Meanwhile Stonewall’s busy getting laid. Roberts again delivers his over-the-top sex scenes that leave nothing to the imagination, with Stonewall initially scoring with his “liberal” girlfriend, Karol. (“Am I a better lay than my sister Karen?” she asks him!) Post-lay Stonewall as expected brushes the girl off and focuses on Trojan’s offered mission. The POW camp is at the Temple of the Moon Goddess in Laos, and when Stonewall learns that Boupha is in charge of the place, he can’t say no. He contacts series semi-regulars Hank Polanski and Tommy Mitsu to go along with him.

Roberts pads out the page count with arbitrary cutovers to the POW camp, where we learn that one of the ‘Nam prisoners is named Rob Randisi, Roberts again displaying his penchant for in-jokery. But the prison camp sequences get to be a chore, with lots of arguments between Boupha and his Russian overseer, Boris Zmeya, who tangled with Stonewall back in #5: Libyan Warlord and hopes to settle his own score with our hero. There’s also lots of lurid torture-porn stuff as we read about the sadistic camp torturer going to work on the captured Trojan operatives; the dude even brings along his two prepubescent sons to watch, one of whom gets off on the torture!

Speaking of getting off, Stonewall hooks up on the Japan Airlines flight to Laos; he hits on a sexy stew named “Mico” (should be “Miko,” btw) whom we’re informed is not only super hot but has bigger boobs than the average Japanese gal. From having already read #8: Jakarta Coup I knew this was going to be headed for some sleazy stuff, as Stonewall was still fondly recalling his encounter with Mico in that later installment. After a night on the town in Laos Mico takes Stonewall back to her hotel room: “Slowly, delightfully, she played her love melody on his satiny instrument.” It only proceeds to get more outrageous, with bonkers likes like, “His lips fluttered over her lush jugs.” Then there’s Mico’s penchant for kinky sex: “With each upthrust, Mico inserted a handkerchief knot into his anus.” Which ultimately leads to, “What started as a powerful ejaculation turned into a gusher.” No wonder Stonewall was still thinking about it next volume!

The usual method of sex scenes in men’s adventure novels is that the girl disappears promptly after screwing the protagonist, so we can get back to the manly stuff. Roberts takes this to ludicrious extremes, with Mico’s head getting blown off mere seconds after engaging Stonewall in another bout. This is courtesy a group of Laotians who break into the room, gunning for Stonewall; when our hero dodges the blast of a would-be killer, the bullet goes right through Mico’s opened mouth and blows out the back of her head. Stonewall spends a hot second mourning the poor girl, then figures out how to get rid of her corpse without compromising his cover.

All of which serves to piss off Trojan’s man in Laos, none other than “Steve Mertz.” Humorously, Mertz spends the majority of his “screen time” bitching at Stonewall, particularly for even getting an innocent young woman involved in the first place. But no worries, as there’s another sexy babe on the horizon: Arlene Farrel, a gorgeous blonde with Stonewall-mandatory big breastesses who is another of Trojan’s operatives, but who was able to escape while her comrades were captured and thrown in Boupha’s compound. Mertz introduces the two, and also tells Stonewall that he will have to listen to Arlene’s demands that she go along with the team to the prison camp.

More in-jokery ensues when Steve Mertz ridicules Tommy Mitsu for carrying around a sword, referring to him as “the Six-Gun Samurai.” “Hey, you read them too?” Responds Tommy. “Hell of a series.” Six-Gun Samurai was another series Roberts wrote at the time, under the house name Patrick Lee, William Fieldhouse being another writer for it. At any rate our heroes head off into the jungle for Boupha’s camp, and Roberts doesn’t waste any time getting to more of the good stuff: Arlene has the hots for Green Berets, and makes her interest in Stonewall quickly known.

“You’re a beautiful broad, Arlene,” Stonewall the ladies man says as Arlene slips into his tent that night. The initial boffing is, surprisingly, a fade to black affair, but later on Roberts provides the juicy details during another bout, Arlene becoming a frequent visitor to Stonewall’s tent (“My God, Stonewall, you really know how to use that economy size member you’ve been equipped with.”). For once Arlene is a female character who sticks around, even learning to kill in the novel’s periodic action sequences as the group is attacked by varios communist Laotian forces.

Speaking of action, Roberts finally lets loose with Stonewall’s customary anti-Red sentiments when they are attacked: “Bodies. Everywhere the ripped and splattered bodies of dead commies. God, how he loved it!” But as usual with the series, the action comes off more like military fiction than men’s adventure, with BRDM scout armor giving Stonewall and crew the most trouble. Which is to say, there isn’t much of the usual lone wolf stuff common for the genre; it’s more about Stonewall leading various “fire teams” of mercenaries and Laotian guerrillas against enemy armor and artillery. In fact there isn’t even any action until midway through, first with a big battle when the group first enters Laotian red territory, and later when they arrive at Boupha’s camp.

The liberation of the camp prisoners very much has the spirit of the later MIA Hunter series, even with the freed American POWs taking up arms and blowing away their former captors. Meanwhile Stonewall settles his account with Boupha, first engaging him in a digressive kung-fu fight and then chopping off his left arm and leaving him to bleed to death. Apparently Stonewall didn’t just put a bullet between his eyes because Roberts intended to bring Boupha back some day; in fact as I recall, in Jakarta Coup Stonewall figured he’d once again track him down. Unfortunately the series ended with the eighth volume, so Stonewall’s revenge went unsated.

Even Boris Zmeya escapes, and in fact assists Boupha, who would’ve died otherwise. The raid on the prison camp is over by page 164…and we still have like 50 pages to go. As with another Roberts novel of the era, Hanoi Hellground, the narrative free-falls in its final quarter, given over to an overlong chase scene through the jungle as Stonewall and the freed prisoners try to escape while the commie forces pursue them. Along the way Roberts delivers even more in-jokery, courtesy Stonewall: “I read some books by a guy named Joseph Rosenberger. He calls [communists] pig farmers, like they were peasants, up to their knees in pig shit. It fits, but it’s too simplistic.” I’m unsure if this is really what Rosenberger’s Death Merchant had in mind with “pig farmers,” though.

The climactic ambush sees Boris Zmeya possibly being killed by Stonewall; it’s left vague, with the horribly-injured Russian stumbling off into the jungle. Meanwhile he’s succeeded in hurting Tommy Mitsu to the point that the Japanese sword-wielder is unable to assist Stonewall in the next volume. Speaking of which, after another bed-tussling with Arlene Stonewall receives a new mission briefing from Trojan, who asks Stonewall if he’d be interested in heading over to nearby Indonesia for another job.

And here ends Pathet Vengeance, which also turns out to be my own personal end for the series, given that Jakarta Coup was the first one I read. Overall this one was on the level of the others, but it missed some of the OTT right-wing stuff, with the caveat that the sex stuff was actually more outrageous than the series norm – save, that is, for Jakarta Coup, which was the most OTT in all departments, and thus was by far my favorite of the series.

Monday, October 24, 2016


Snowman, by Norman Bogner
February, 1978  Dell Books

Norman Bogner typically traded in trash fiction – his biggest hit was the paperback blockbuster Seventh Avenue – but in this instance he tried his hand at paperback horror. However Snowman really isn’t so easy to categorize, as for the most part it too comes off like a bit of trash fiction, only to later morph into adventure fiction, before finally wrapping up on a horror angle.

Overall the book feels more like trash fiction than horror. This is mostly due to the setting: a posh mountain resort in the High Sierras of California. The first quarter of Snowman occurs here, and Bogner delivers a veritable Burt Hirschfeld-type deal; I haven’t yet read Hirschfeld’s Aspen, but I figure it’s probably a lot like this. The owners of the corporation behind the resort hope to rake in the cash thanks to the opulence of the place, however little do they know that the friggin’ Abominable Snowman has moved in.

Bogner does open the novel with a brief horror prologue, which takes place in Himalaya in 1966. Daniel Bradford, a Rhodes Scholar/Olympic skier/expert mountain climber, is leading a search of the mythical Yet, aka the Abominable Snowman, or just “Snowman,” as Bogner refers to the monster throughout. And boy does Bradford find him; the novel opens as the Snowman is ripping apart the Sherpas in Bradford’s crew, decimating them to a man, with only Bradford and his loyal Sherpa pal Pemba escaping.

Bradford’s Yeti is more like something out of a ‘60s Japanese giant monster movie than anything else, coming in at over 25 feet tall, with armorlike gray hide, gnarled horns on its skin, and glowing, radioactive-like eyes that can burn snow. Curt Purcell was accurate when he wrote that Bogner’s Snowman is described very much like future Superman villain Doomsday. New English Library presented an accurate depiction of Bogner’s creature on the cover of its 1978 hardcover release:

Now, 11 years later, the Snowman has made its laborious way to the Sierra mountains of California. We learn that it actually hates snow, and it’s the snow that drives the monster to fury, pushing it out of its hiding places and into the wilds to hunt. The monster can mimic the noises of other animals, and usually feeds on bears and the like, but it has developed a taste for humans. This is displayed posthaste when it feasts on a blonde bimbo named Janice, the recently-nominated “Snow Queen” of the Great Northern Resort.

As mentioned this is all very Hirschfeld-esque before the Snowman makes its first kill. We read a lot about “chestnut haired” beauty Cathy Parker, PR director for the resort, and how she must deal with the bitchery of Janice. There’s also the studmuffin ski instructors, in particular alpha male Brad, whose exploits here very much recall William Hegner’s The Ski Lodgers. But despite how unpleasant she is, the reader still feels bad for Janice when she becomes Snowman prey, captured while alone on the chair lift high up in the mountains, snatched right out of the sky by the 25-foot tall monster in the middle of a blizzard.

Bogner doesn’t get too outrageous with the gore. Usually it’s from the perspective of whatever character is being eaten, and they’re more in shock and/or denial; later the other characters will come across the mutilated remains, but still it’s nothing too gruesome. Save that is for poor Janice’s strewn bodyparts, which are enough to make cops puke. Given the abbreviated nature of the novel, Bogner doesn’t waste too much time – the financial backers of the resort want to avoid any further deaths and the bad publicity that would ensue, thus they give in to the demands of local newsman Ashby.

An old WWII vet who has remained in Sierra to report on small town affairs, Ashby has a growing pile of obscure dispatches in his archives. Thus when he sees the strange triangle-shaped tracks in the snow near Janice’s remains, his memory is sparked and eventually he finds the news item from over a decade before about Bradford’s disastrous Himalayan expedition. Here we learn that Bradford’s story was discredited and he eventualy disappeared into seclusion.

Turns out Bradford, now with long hair and refashioned into some sort of New Ager, lives on an Indian reservation in the California desert. Bogner throws in a bit of Carlos Castaneda material with the Yaqui, Bradford’s Don Juan-esque guru. This doesn’t go much of anywhere other than the Yaqui’s occasional vague pronunciations, and Bradford’s sort of “go with the flow” mindset…not to mention the occasional amamita muscata magic mushroom trip. Bradford listens to Ashby’s story – the newsman having realized that he could become famous for breaking this story – and the two meet with the resort backers, who will pay Bradford and a team $250,000 to go up onto the glacier, kill the Snowman, and keep it all from the media.

Bradford puts together his team. Years before, he was hired by the army to train special forces soldiers in mountain climbing, and he seeks out Packard, a Green Beret sergeant who himself recommends black demolitions specialist Spider for the team. Next they get Jamie, a young Indian from the reservation whom Bradford has also trained. Finally there’s Pemba, the Sherpa survivor from the ’66 climb. The soldiers want weapons for the job, but Bradford warns that heavy firepower might risk an avalanche.

So there’s only one option, friends – friggin’ crossbows with nuclear warheads!! I kid you not. You know you’re in pulp heaven when our heroes visit a weapons supplier in San Diego and brainstorm on how such a crossbow might be created. Eventually they will be supplied with crossbows that fire warheads that stick to the target and then implode, causing the target to disappear. A lot of time is spent on this, and also Bogner takes us back to the resort stuff, again heavy on the Hirschfeldisms, particularly with Cathy’s growing interest in Bradford – an interest which eventually leads to some ‘70s-mandatory sex, which is only somewhat explicit (we learn that Cathy gets off, at least).

Finally, with fifty pages to go, Bradford and team head up the mountain. Even here it’s more adventure than horror, with lots of mountain-climbing stuff shoehorned in; Bogner has clearly done his research, and he wants us to know it. The text is rife with mountain climbing lingo: sangar, curque, serac, etc. In fact Bogner peppers the narrative with many fancy turns of phrases, and he’s very fond of ten-dollar words. The higher the team gets the more signs they see of the Snowman, and Bradford becomes more accepting of his realization that he will finally die at the claws of the Yeti, only having temporarily escaped his fate of 11 years before.

The horror fiction element only gradually inserts itself in these final pages, as the massive Snowman preys on Bradford’s team. It’s all sort of like Predator a decade early, only with a 25 foot-tall monster with radioactive eyes. The kills go down as expected, and again Bogner doesn’t get very gruesome, usually with action relayed from the victim’s perspective as he’s suddenly snatched by an unseen giant claw and swept high up into the air before being tossed into a gaping mouth with rows and rows of massive teeth.

We get to see those snazzy nuclear crossbows in use, first on an attacking bear (which disappears), and later in the climactic battle against the Snowman – entire parts of the gigantic creature disappear, but the Snowman keeps on attacking. And just as in Predator, it comes down to our main protagonist to finally square the account with the Snowman; the badass Green Berets on the team don’t really amount to much, sad to say. But at the same time I wanted a bit more…the Snowman is just too massive, too much of a monster, so the finale comes off like one man vs Godzilla or somesuch, and it just doesn’t have the action impact it deserves…more along the lines of Bradford thinking the Yeti is dead, and then the Yeti smashing out of the ice and attacking again.

But at a little over 200 pages, Snowman at least keeps moving. And the trash fiction vibe is pretty nice in the resort sequences. Bogner also scores points by killing off an annoying little shit of a kid who makes Cathy’s life miserable for a while before he runs into the titular monster. Anyway I’m surprised a movie was never made of this one; it could’ve been like the giant monster equivalent of The Dark.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Slasher (aka Ryker #8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Slime Beast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 10, 2016

Toy Cemetery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Last Ranger #4: The Rabid Brigadier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 3, 2016

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 1

Horror and Sci-Fi: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern superhero garbage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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