“Marvel’s Luke Cage” Lives Up to the Hype — A TV Series Review

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I just finished watching the entirety of Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix, and I must say it was an amazing experience that this life-long comic book fan will not soon forget! It was not without its faults (I’ll get to them), and I never expected it to be perfect. I was, however, hoping it would be awesome, and it truly was despite the imperfections. Marvel Studios, ABC, Disney, and Netflix have thus far consistently worked together to keep our expectations high, so my confidence in a good show and respectful depiction of one of my all-time fav super-heroes was well-founded.
Like all of Marvel’s Netflix series, the 13-episode script is highly intellectual, with a lot of meaningful expository dialogue, so if all you’re looking for is 45-60 minutes of nearly non-stop action and fight scenes, then these are not the shows for you. They are designed to entertain and provide a good amount of spectacle, and they certainly deliver on that; but they are also designed to appeal to the thinking part of the brain, and hence may not appeal to viewers who dislike thinking and only want the spectacle. Admittedly, these types of scripts do result in pacing problems for Marvel’s Netflix shows, with the expository scenes sometimes taking up too much time even for people like me, who appreciates meaningful dialogue. If you can overlook them long enough to get to the true gold of these shows, then you’ll always be rewarded. If you can’t then, well, as I said… you may want to look elsewhere for your entertainment, especially if you consider anything that makes you think to be too “preachy” for your tastes. In that case, I recommend a marathon of football and boxing matches for such individuals.
I. Ah, the ’70s…
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What is special about Luke Cage is how well it preserves the core essence of a series that was born and nurtured in the early 1970s, when the effects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still in its relatively early stages, and black culture had just recently begun to make major inroads into mainstream American society. This was after decades of black culture and entertainment being all but ignored outside of its own racial niche audience. The ’70s decade was thus a glorious era when black super-heroes began appearing within comic books in respectable numbers for the first time, with many headlining their own series. Arguably the greatest of these heroes was Luke Cage, and I’ll get to the why of that in a few moments (or perhaps several, give or take a few).
Most pulp culture buffs who are not comic book fans but nevertheless had the privilege of living their childhood during the decade of the ’70s will remember the many ground-breaking TV series which each had an all or predominantly black cast, even if they were mostly sitcoms: shows like Sanford and Son; Good Times; The Jeffersons; and What’s Happening? were extremely popular and garnered a large chunk of the Nielson ratings, when just a decade prior the tiny number of quality black-led shows like Julia struggled to remain on the air (and usually didn’t). Most of the popular shows of the 1960s had few black characters make even so much as a cameo appearance, let alone featuring a major black character as part of the regular cast (a rare exception being Bill Cosby in I Spy ). In fact, popular sitcoms of the era like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Leave it to Beaver, and Father Knows Best appeared to take place in realities where everyone lived in idyllic suburbs and no black people seemed to exist at all.
Just one decade later, that all changed, and it was an incredible era to live through. It must have been particularly amazing for black citizens of America, since for the first time in the history of the nation they saw fellow people of color duly represented in all aspects of popular entertainment, including the burgeoning medium of TV and its long-time parent medium of cinema, even if some of these depictions still left much to be desired. Nevertheless, they were considerably more respectful of black culture and individuals than the scant number of black-led shows which actually made it to the airwaves in the past, like the entirely-a-product-of-its-time but now utterly forgettable Amos and Andy. Even the Saturday morning cartoon craze of the ’70s gave culturally significant representation to black people with the long-running Fat Albert, which was charmingly respectful and entirely acknowledging of inner city life rather than some fanciful suburban existence that few blacks knew or enjoyed at the time. Interestingly, Fat Albert — which was second only to Scooby Doo as the longest running and most popular cartoon series of classic American Saturday morning fare — also gave us a super-hero in its later seasons in the persona of the star-faring, comical Brown Hornet.
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He may not have eclipsed Luke Cage in popularity, but you can’t fault a brother for trying.
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Most importantly of all in the ’70s decade was the full emergence of the “blaxploitation” film genre, featuring low budget films that had predominantly (if not entirely) black casts led by black stars, even if they were usually minor stars, and often helmed by black producers, screenwriters, and directors. These films could be a mixed bag in terms of quality, but many memorable characters emerged and really did speak to black culture and delivered to black audiences heroes and other iconic characters they could relate to. This includes the likes of the Shaft franchise; Dolemite; Super Fly; and the variety of strong female characters portrayed by uber-gorgeous blaxploitation queen Pam Grier (e.g., Coffy, Foxy Brown); as well as the black female cop protagonist of the film Get Christie Love and its short-lived but memorable TV spin-off series.

Of interesting note, Pam Grier made a major comeback during the 2000s specifically in the super-hero genre on the TV medium in the role of DC Comics’ cagey and formidable Task Force X director Amanda Waller for Smallville, the longest-running super-hero TV series to date. In fact, Grier originated the newer, sexy slim version of the previously uber-corpulent Waller, played most recently by Viola Davis on the big screen version of Suicide Squad.

In popular sports during the ’70s, black professional athletes garnered more respect and earning power than ever before. This was particularly the case for the sports of football and boxing (respectfully mentioned above, ha!). And of course, black music went fully mainstream during that era, with Motown having a major influence on American culture in a broad and general sense, rather than simply black culture or niche markets. My interest in sports was limited to boxing, but Muhammad Ali was one of my major heroes, and I couldn’t help but notice my family’s love of O.J. Simpson during the heyday of his career, long before his later tragic fall from grace. And in terms of black music, I grew up totally loving the likes of Marvin Gaye; the Stylistics; Earth, Wind and Fire; Sister Sledge; Donna Summers; the Commodores; and Diana Ross, all of which I have to thank my mother for introducing me to. I passed many days in a very difficult childhood listening to the work of these artists, and they did wonders to ameliorate the doldrums of life for the kid I once was (and in many ways, still am).
For those of us pop culture buffs who happened to be comic book fans (during an era when being a fan of that medium was considered ultra-fringe and far from cool), things were even more glorious. That’s because, as noted above, black super-heroes finally became a major force to be reckoned with in the fantastical universes depicted within the four-color pages. That included those who debuted in their own titles, and one of those who led the way was a Harlem-born gentleman of color named Luke Cage.

His title started as LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR FIRE, and would change to the more super-heroey LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN with issue #17. The book, and the character, scored very high with readers during the first decade that Marvel overtook DC as Number One amongst the Big Two of comic book companies. By the end of the decade — specifically with issue #50 of his mag — Luke Cage teamed up with white martial arts hero Danny Rand, a.k.a., Iron Fist, whose own comic merged with his to create the fan favorite duo POWER MAN AND IRON FIST. It continued into the mid-’80s under that title, and has re-emerged in different volumes since then with a present day incarnation ongoing at this writing. Nowadays, Luke Cage detests the name of Power Man, and is only referred to as that in an ironic manner; he has also passed the code name on to a teen hero of color he mentored, who is proud to carry it.

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Cover to LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR HIRE #1, where it all began, circa 1972. Both beauty pageant contestants and Wonder Woman now had to deal with the fact that they weren’t the only ones famous for looking good in a tiara. 
Of course, Luke Cage proliferated on his own both before and after he hooked up with Iron Fist. During the ’70s he went on to be perhaps Marvel’s most popular black super-hero, if not the most popular black super-hero in general. He had a lengthy stint as a member of Marvel’s super-team the Defenders in their eponymous comic, and even had a brief stint as a replacement for Ben Grimm (a.k.a., the Thing) in the Fantastic Four. He got around, and he worked hard to cement his status as one of the greatest super-heroes Marvel ever produced, superseding the “color barrier” in short order.

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This is the cover to LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN #17, when Marvel first gave the character an outlandish code name to make him seem more like a super-hero and less like a blaxploitation character.

Luke Cage was heavily influenced by blaxploitation cinema of the time, and has been rightly described as a super-powered version of Super Fly. His back story had much to say to the black experience of the era, and remains timely even now, which is why I was less than happy to see his past somewhat modified for the TV series in a way that wasn’t really necessary or desirable IMO (more on that below). The earliest incarnation of the character was hokey in many ways, something respectfully acknowledged by the much less hokey version seen in the TV series. These hokey elements included his choice of what passed for a costume: a yellow open-chested top with blue spandex pants and matching yellow boots, formerly belonging to an escape artist; metal cuffs around his wrists, a chain around his waist in place of a proper belt, and a metal tiara around his forehead and temples — and unique slang exclamatory catchphrases like “Sweet Christmas!” and variations thereof. It was corny, but it was also charming and in no way detracted from the inherent coolness of the character and the awesomeness of what he represented. These elements also in no way detracted from the gritty drama and hard core action and situations that the character often encountered in the mean streets of Harlem.
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You said it long before I did, Luke. I just agreed with you here 🙂

Luke Cage was a game-changer in the world of heroic fiction, and I’m glad the costume and previous rather silly code names — Hero for Hire and Power Man — though wisely dispensed with since the 1990s, were nevertheless given respectful mention and token representation in the TV series. They were an integral part of his history that deserve to be gone but not forgotten, if such makes sense. And best of all, not only was his exclamatory catchphrases fully retained in the TV series, but a logical explanation for their retention was provided: his minister father and later barber role model and surrogate father figure Pops Hunter were both averse to profanity, so Luke came up with alternative exclamations to those which utilized expletives or obscenities. And they just so happened to stick!

 

II. Who is Luke Cage, and From Whence Does He Hail?
So who, exactly, is Luke Cage? That moniker is not his real name, which is Carl Lucas (though only his last name was revealed during his initial appearance, and his first remained unknown to readers for a long time). In the comic book version, Lucas grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Harlem. The reason was simple and applicable to real life:  the lack of viable opportunities on the right side of the law available for black people and pretty much everyone who grew up in an impoverished ghetto environment. This made the temptation of “easy” money made via illicit means an all too tempting aspect of life for too many young black men who grew up in the economically depressed inner city regions of our lovely capitalist system (I’m sure Ayn Rand would have been proud!). Lucas was such an example, and he and his close childhood friend Willis Stryker quickly began climbing the criminal ladder by pooling their exceptional talents: Lucas was unmatched as an unarmed street fighter and boxer (despite not having superhuman strength at the time), while Stryker was a master of the throwing blade (don’t ask me where he picked up that particular skill on the streets of Harlem, even the Harlem of the Marvel Universe! Most thugs I’m aware of prefer stabbing or slashing with knives, not throwing them!).
As time passed, however, it became clear that Lucas had too strong a conscience and sense of inner scruples to continue on that path. Further, the love of a good woman named Reva Connors cemented his determination to leave a life of crime and turn straight, even if it meant dispensing with the ill-gotten wealth his BFF Stryker was still rapidly accumulating. Unfortunately, Stryker’s conscience and loyalty to his good friend had been eaten away by a combination of the brutal power he acquired and his bitter jealousy over Lucas’s success with Reva, whom he also coveted. Thus, Stryker arranged to have Lucas framed for drug-dealing, and the young man was consigned to the infamous Seagate Prison, whose inmates and staff alike went out of its way to earn that place the not exactly creative but nevertheless apt nickname “Hell”.
This freed Stryker to woo Reva at his leisure, who ended up getting killed in a drive-by shooting that was intended for Stryker. The combination of this horrid betrayal and his culpability in Reva’s murder left Lucas filled with determination to exact just retribution on Stryker… if only the inconvenience of being incarcerated in New York State’s most stringent hardcore prison wasn’t preventing that from happening.
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One can only hope future seasons of Luke Cage  bring us TV adaptations of some of the totally weird ass villains he faced during the ’70s run of his mag. These cats were often equal parts comical and horrific! Examples include the Piscean felon Mr. Fish from issue #29 (and if you think he’s creepy weird, you should see that sycophantic midget who hangs around him)…
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… the other Piscean felon Piranha Jones, from issues 30-31, a guy you definitely don’t want nibbling on your ear if you want to keep it…
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… and this muscle-bound hairy guy called Mangler. Imagine these two getting into a slug-fest on the next bus you ride. 

 

Not only that, but Lucas was subjected to repeated nasty treatment, including periodic beatings, from the cruel racist security guard named Quirt (very appropriate name for some reason!), and enabled by an equally nasty captain of the guards and acting warden named Rackham. This unfortunate situation lasted until a degree of comic book justice came along when a more scrupulous warden named Stuart took over; this guy not only stripped Rackham of his captaincy and demoted him to a regular security guard when he stumbled upon what was going on, but he also graciously locked Quirt alone and unarmed in a cell block with a very angry Lucas. I need not mention the next hour was a very bad one for Mr. Quirt, as his former victims’ fists reduced him to something resembling what his last name sounds like. Lucky for Quirt Lucas was a man of conscience, or he could have more formally made Quirt his “bitch,” if you know what I mean. But if you prefer to imagine that he did anyway, and the creative crew simply didn’t want to show it in order to meet the Comics Code requirements of the day, don’t let me stop you from fantasizing.

However, Warden Stuart was still not about to release Lucas from his sentence, or be convinced he was framed without ample evidence provided, so the matter of the man’s continued incarceration remained a plot obstacle to be overcome.

Up to this point, we have the perfect plot for a classic blaxploitation crime/revenge thriller. But this being the Marvel Universe, things were now about to take a turn for the fantastic, as a truly super hero was about to be born out of this mess.

III. Exit Carl Lucas… enter Luke Cage, Power Man

As is the case often enough for the denizens of a reality like the Marvel Universe, some rather fantastic opportunity was about to come Mr. Lucas’s way. This was in the person of medical researcher and only slightly-less-than-mad scientist Dr. Noah Berstein, who was looking for physically able candidates to participate in an experimental cell regenerative procedure for the benefit of all humankind that his brilliant but wacky mind had concocted. Lucas wouldn’t be the feature character of this comic if he wasn’t the one who proved the most qualified, and though he initially refused to be Berstein’s guinea pig, the death of Reva convinced him that the significant time off his sentence he would earn for stepping into that loony contraption was worth it.

As luck would have it (for the readers, if arguably not Lucas), Rackham was determined to exact vengeance on the man for… his getting caught while beating Lucas up, I guess? So when Lucas was skinny dipping in the water-filled tank of Berstein’s elaborate contraption, the ex-warden snuck into the makeshift medical lab and began operating the controls in haphazard fashion, hoping Lucas would be scalded, or turned blue, or something equally nasty. This being the Marvel Universe, however, that’s not the way it worked, and instead Rackham accidentally elevated the contraption’s energy levels to a point far beyond anything intended. The result: Lucas was enhanced beyond his wildest dreams, including gaining enough superhuman strength to slug it out with Spider-Man, but in his case with steel-hard skin that was bullet and knife proof. Lucas then proceeded to bitch slap Rackham into oblivion and, fearing he accidentally killed the man and would thus be denied the parole promised for his participation in Berstein’s nutty experiment, he decided to use his newly acquired super-strength to pummel  his way clear through the prison walls. He then headed for the sandy shore where miles of ocean separated Seagate Prison from New York City (the prison had to get its name from something!) as security guards pursued the escapee and fired on him mercilessly.

Only Lucas’s bullet-riddled prison shirt was found on the rocky shores near the water, so it was presumed he was mortally wounded and his body washed out to sea. No one knew he had gained superhuman strength save for Berstein (who stayed mum on the matter to avoid explaining his complicity in things), so no one realized he successfully made the swim back to New York. The escapee was therefore believed to have died in an attempted prison escape (don’t ask me how that hole in the wall of Berstein’s makeshift prison lab was interpreted; maybe they figured it was the result of Berstein’s contraption exploding when Rackham made it go haywire). It was quickly revealed to the readers that Lucas succeeded in surviving the repeated shots he received and successfully used his superhuman strength and endurance to swim those many miles to shore. He then spent about a year performing odd jobs wherever he could find them, until he was gradually able to afford enough to return to Harlem to exact just-tribution (I just made that up!) on his ex-BFF Stryker.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been a good story if things would have been quite that easy. After all, need I remind you again this was the Marvel Universe? Stryker had gone on to take the identity of Diamondback, where he became a very powerful crime lord and absolute plutocratic dictator of Harlem (I guess Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, wasn’t overly concerned who claimed to be top dog over there, as long as he had Manhattan). As for Lucas, upon arriving back in the Big Apple, he decided to maintain the fiction he had died to keep the law off his back, so he took on the alias of Luke Cage. He also came upon a new idea on how to make a living when he happened upon a robbery at a diner, and acting on his own inner good will, put paid to the criminals. The owner of the diner was so filled with gratitude that he put paid to the newly christened Luke Cage in an entirely different manner by… paying him a reward.

It was then that Cage realized his superhuman powers could be used to find honest work by his becoming a mercenary! Or, as he called it, a “hero for hire” (I guess “soldier of fortune” didn’t cut it on the streets). Using the reward money to purchase wares from a costume shop, the man on a mission acquired those funky yellow and blue tights, along with the tiara and chain around his waist, printed up some business cards, rented an office — above the Gem Theater on the horrid pre-Disneyfied Times Square, no less — and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire was officially in business.

Not only that, but the story was on! This story, it should be mentioned was written by the late, great Archie Goodwin, one of the comic mediums greatest scripters and editors, and a highly competent artist named George Tuska, whose work gave some perfect gritty detail to the world Luke Cage stomped about and kicked arse within.
IV. What Made Luke Cage a Winner Among the Masses of Characters Introduced in the ’70s?
Okay, the TV series brought to us by Cheo Hodari Coker for Netflix did give have some deviations from the comic book saga of Luke Cage, which I certainly expected. Yes, I fully understand that the TV medium is much different than the four-color pages of the illustrated story medium (or “comic books,” if you prefer), and some things play better on the latter than the former. I’m also well aware that this is the late 2010s, not the early 1970s, so some updating of the cast and situations needed to be made. My main concern is thus always this: was the core essence of what made the character work, and basic details of his origin story and what it represented, retained? Despite some changes I disagreed with (be patient, I’ll get to that), the answer is a resounding yes!

This is because many of the issues facing black america and the working/labor class in general during the early ’70s have found revived popular interest in a strong progressive spirit over the past few years thanks to the Great Recession beginning in 2008. A group like Black Lives Matter would have been just as much at home in 1972 Harlem, or anywhere else in America, as they are across the cyber-roadways of Twitter and Facebook in 2016 America. The issues of how the system denies opportunities to make a decent living off of honest work, and the temptations of crime as a result, are just as relevant during the Great Recession of this decade as they were during the recessions of the early ’70s, when nations in Asia and Europe (particularly Japan and Germany) began recovering from the industrial devastation wreaked upon them in World War II, and thus started giving America major competition in the global market again. How this disproportionately impacted upon people who had gotten a slower start on the capitalist system of wage labor in America was of major importance to the readers who became fans of LUKE CAGE in the early ’70s, and not all of them were black. That type of hard core progressive thinking has been further accelerated in America since the latest failed Democratic presidency, with the promise of another such failed Democratic presidency beginning in 2017 as yet another neoliberal hardliner takes office.

 


Cue one of my uncomfortable but relevant interlude segues: My preemptive response to my centrist friends and followers who read this and are tempted to say, “There you go again, Chris! Can you please leave the Democrats and politics in general alone and stay on topic here? Just for once, dude? Geez!”: In all seriousness, your request that I give respect to your stubborn loyalty to capitalism and the mainstream Democratic politicians who support its continued global hegemony would carry far more weight if so many of you weren’t struggling to pay your bills or even with keeping a roof over your head; or at least contemplating bankruptcy; or dealing with mounting hospital bills and/or inability to pay for needed medication; or drowning in college debt and/or credit card debt; or recovering from a housing foreclosure due to subprime mortgages being inflicted upon you by the “too big to fail” predatory bankers who literally gambled with your livelihood (which heaps of our taxpayer money went to bail out while you were left licking your losses); or keeping a job despite being very hard workers and most certainly not the lazy bums so many conservatives insist you all must be if you’re in such a predicament (even though so many of them are, as well!). Until you’re all thriving in this system and being justly compensated for your hard work more often than not, then I’ll consider your contention that the worst thing I can say about the system is that “it’s not perfect.” Until then, please do not expect me to respect your misguided loyalty more than what is really going on right in front of all of our eyes.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, these issues have much to do with the fictional world Luke Cage inhabits, and the factors that not only made him into the man he became, and which also made the various adversaries and supporting characters he interacted with the people they ultimately became. Hence, these issues are not off-topic; hence, I will not ignore them or pretend they’re irrelevant; hence, I will not foolishly try to pretend the saga of Luke Cage — both in the comics or on the small screen — is somehow non-political or that I’m “reading too much into what was always supposed to be just popcorn entertainment.” To the contrary, it’s the saga’s relevance to problems in the world outside our window mirrored in the fictional locale of the Marvel Universe (or whatever iteration thereof) that heavily contributed to Mr. Cage’s popularity and continued relevance in the modern world. Luke Cage has always been an angry mo’ fo’ against the injustices of the system, and while he may not explicitly point out capitalism and its chief policies as the problem for obvious reasons, I think anyone with half an intellect and the honesty to match it know precisely what the main source of most of Mr. Cage’s challenges happen to be.


End another of my uncomfortable but important interlude segues and back to our regularly scheduled review.


V. Let’s Get to the TV Series, Already!
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MAN IN DA HOODIE
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Let’s start my analysis with the one major change to the saga that I wish Marvel Studios, ABC, and Netflix had not made. In the comic book storyline, the man who became Luke Cage started out as the fairly hard core but small time criminal I mentioned above, but with clear scruples that prevented him from taking things too far. These redeeming character traits allowed the love of a decent woman to pull him out of the escalating chaos that his BFF Willis Stryker — the future Diamondback — was descending into. The younger Carl Lucas could readily be identified with by many struggling members of the working class, including the disproportionate number of young black men who were not bad people at heart but nevertheless got pulled into the temptation to try and find their fortune on the wrong side of the law. Nothing about this history as written in any way condoned those early disreputable actions of his, and he paid dearly for them. However, rather than becoming a slave to bitterness, upon escaping prison he ultimately ended up becoming a hero by working his way up to that status.

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The fact that Cage was taking money to help others as a way to make his living added an important element of controversy to the book. He literally started a one-man company called Hero For Hire, Inc. (until years later when Iron Fist joined him, and it was pluralized to Heroes For Hire, Inc.). He then coincidentally ran across Dr.  Noah Berstein (you can always count on coincidences of this sort in the Marvel Universe), who by this point a year after the prison incident was running a clinic for the poor in Harlem alongside a young and (also not coincidentally) attractive female doctor named Claire Temple. Claire would become Luke’s newest love interest, and would further pull him towards the side of the angels, much as Reva Connors did prior to his framing and unjust imprisonment.
This element of controversy, with the question of whether or not Cage could be considered a mercenary who did not have the interests of others as his first priority was a major philosophical issue driving the series, at least in its earlier years. It became clear from this early point, however, that Cage’s heart was always in the right place, and the well-being of the clients and others in his life always came before the money that the system required him to accumulate in order to both make a living and to keep his business operating. The message that sent meant a lot to readers, and went a long way towards making Cage a full-fledged hero and nothing like the truly ruthless mercenary characters of the comic book world like DC’s Deathstroke, arch-enemy of the Teen Titans and later star of his own series, despite any nuances his character may have (depending on who is writing him, which book he appears in, and what any given story plot requires, that is).
This element was not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) version of Luke Cage, however. In this variant of the story, Carl Lucas used to be a cop who was framed by his former BFF. The MCU version of Willis Stryker, however, is also Cage’s half-brother by Minister Lucas’s secretary, which is why their father refused to acknowledge Stryker. This, not a competing love for a woman, is what ultimately fueled Stryker’s resentment and ended their previous close relationship. Still, because Stryker was a tough natural street fighter who excelled at boxing, he taught his younger brother everything he knew about both of these skills when they were still close. Carl Lucas was an avid learner who put these abilities to good use at surviving in the harsh streets of Harlem, gaining a lot of experience along the way, and they later served him well both as a cop and after he was railroaded into prison by the very trusted individual who taught him these skills.
After this, the onscreen story proceeded similarly to how it was depicted in the comics. I cry foul to that particular change because in this version, despite a difficult childhood and a neglectful father who didn’t like him very much due to his high and mighty, holy-rolling, and hypocritical ways, Carl Lucas was never a young man who fell onto the wrong side of the tracks and had to work his way out of it after paying for these mistakes and ultimately having to summon the hero within to move himself out of it, with a little help and support from his friends. Here, he was a hero from the get-go, and was simply mistaken for a villain after being wrongly incarcerated. He paid for mistakes that weren’t his own (unless you consider trusting a half-brother you loved and respected to be a mistake one should ever rightly have to pay for).
Hence, I think it was a mistake to eliminate this element from the onscreen Luke Cage saga, even if perhaps it was done so in an attempt to make him more immediately “likable” to audiences. Nevertheless, IMO it was far from a deal-breaker for the overall quality and faithfulness to the core of the character, as I’ll now explain.
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The next big change in the series came with its depiction of Reva Connors. She was indeed part of the Netflix series, but this time she was a doctor who assisted Dr. Noah Berstein within the prison, and the future Luke Cage didn’t meet her until he was an inmate. He still developed strong feelings for her, and she seemed to feel the same for him despite grooming him as the ideal candidate for Berstein’s experiment. Cage was similarly devastated by her death in a manner similar to what went down in the comics, only it was not yet made clear exactly what ultimate fate befell this version of Reva as of Season 1. All we know is that it was bad, and Cage never seems up to talking about it with anyone.

How does Claire Temple fit into the TV version? She was actually fit into the saga in a rather interesting and pre-meditated manner. The character, played onscreen by actress Rosario Dawson, had previously appeared in Season 1 and 2 of Daredevil, Season 1 of Jessica Jones, and is slated to have a big role in the upcoming first season of Iron Fist (due to be released March 17, 2017). She is, in other words, the proverbial glue that cements the initial quartet of series featuring Marvel’s street-level heroes on Netflix together into a shared universe. As such, she can reasonably be expected to play a big role, and major force, in the upcoming Defenders series that unites these four heroes into a team. Of course, other supporting characters have appeared in more than one of the Netflix series, and references have been made to events and characters between one and another, but Ms. Temple as the emergency room nurse who ends up getting her fate mixed up with several metahuman heroes which results in a unique career of discretely patching up their cuts, bruises, gunshot wounds, etc., is the true connection between them all.

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It should be mentioned that Mike Colter originated the role of Luke Cage on Jessica Jones Season 1, and had a fairly big role on it, so that is further cement on the firmament uniting this shared universe. I should also mention that the sexual relationship he shared with the titular character of that previous series mirrors one they shared in Jones’s comic book series ALIAS (do not confuse with the unrelated TV series of the same name!), and the two eventually united at a later point in the comics to get married, run an Avengers team together, and have a baby girl named Danielle. It remains to be seen if anything like this occurs after Luke and Jessica re-unite in The Defenders Season 1, especially since Temple is in the picture and she and Cage expressed feelings for each other via a parting kiss at the end of Luke Cage Season 1. Could an interesting love triangle be in the future of these three characters? Gotta love drama!
It should also be noted that Claire Temple is an interesting character for an entirely different reason: her MCU version is actually an amalgamation of two entirely separate comic book characters published by Marvel, one of them with a truly unique point of origination.
It’s been well-established in the media that Claire Temple is based on Marvel’s Night Nurse character, who briefly had her own series around the same time LUKE CAGE was first published. NIGHT NURSE was a very experimental series that had nothing to do with super-heroes, but was about college-aged nurse Linda Carter (she was created before the similarly named actress came on the scene to gain popularity in the role of the Wonder Woman TV series of the ’70s) and her two friends, Georgia Jenkins and Christine Palmer, three young ladies from very different backgrounds who struggled to both become friends and make it in the medical profession at New York City’s Metro General Hospital.
The series was clearly a hybrid of romance comics and some of the popular soap operas at the time (including General Hospital on ABC’s line-up), which gave a big nod to the popular theme of hospital work (medical dramas had been popular on TV for a decade, including Dr. Kildare; The Nurses; and the then-ongoing Marcus Welby, M.D. ), relevant social issues, and added elements of dramatic danger — such as a sub-plot in the first issue of a criminal plot to blow up the hospital generator, a scheme Georgia’s brother ended up mixed up in — that was clearly designed to appeal to college-aged readers of a female persuasion. The book was a surprisingly entertaining experiment that didn’t succeed,  cancelled after four issues. Its main featured protagonist was not to be seen again (to my knowledge) until she turned up in Marvel Comics a decade ago in her role of secretly patching the wounds of street-level heroes in various comics, where for this reason she truly gained the epithet of “Night Nurse.”
The reasons NIGHT NURSE failed, and what a truly offbeat experiment from Marvel it was, warrants a separate blog entry for the future. For now, however, I can say that I think it was a brilliant move for Marvel Studios and Cheo Hadari Coker to combine Claire Temple with the purpose and identity of Night Nurse. The comic book version of Temple was black, and Rosario Dawson’s portrayal of a Hispanic version is much better suited as a contemporary role model of inner city people than the blonde and blue-eyed Linda Carter was, even if I must admit the likelihood of meeting a woman of Hispanic heritage with the surname of “Temple,” or even the first name of “Claire,” in the world outside our window is almost as unlikely as meeting a person with Luke Cage’s powers. But it’s a disparity one can easily live with, because Dawson is so great in the role, and you quickly fall in love with her in each of the series she appears in. She does an adept job of combining the comic book Claire Temple’s compassion, street toughness, and impressive medical skills with Linda Carter’s overall saga, even if most of that saga has just been implied on the TV series thus far. Is it possible Marvel Studios and Netflix will bring us a Night Nurse series starring Rosario Dawson in the future? Since anything seems possible these days, let’s keep our digitals crossed!
No discussion of the “glue factor” would be complete without mentioning Rob Morgan’s reliable role as Turk Barrett, the sleazy street thug who migrates from one crime boss’s employ to another, and is based on a comic book character who has appeared in the many volumes of DAREDEVIL since the 1970s, and has occasionally appeared elsewhere. He has appeared in all of the Netflix shows that occur within the MCU, and will doubtless find some other crime boss to do his small time business with in the upcoming Iron Fist. This is a small but recurrent character role that Morgan plays quite well, and does his small but rather significant part in holding the shared universe encompassing all of these shows together.
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It was a shame that Luke Cage’s long-time supporting character, his likable and loyal friend and employee Dave “D.W.” Griffith, who was popular enough with the fans to carry over into the title when it morphed into POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, didn’t get a part in Season 1 of the series. Oh well, maybe in Season 2, which I’m confident we’ll end up seeing.

Let’s now get to the show’s main antagonist, adapted from Luke Cage’s debut storyline in the comic books: Willis Stryker, a.k.a., Diamondback. The comic book version of this debut story arc played out in the first two issues of LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR FIRE, as written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by George Tuska. The comic book version of Diamondback was interesting enough, and the strong personal connection to Luke Cage described above lent more pathos to their antipathy, even though it wasn’t necessary to make a good story. The villain’s stock in trade outside of his sheer brutality was his skill with throwing blades, for which he had a weaselly little mechanical genius called Gadget design trick throwing knives that released various sprays from the hilt; or exploded; or emitted brain-crunching sonic waves whenever the tip of the weapon struck or embedded in a surface. Only the one that emitted sound waves proved problematic for Luke Cage when the inevitable battle went down, however, and the Diamondback of the comics was defeated in a fairly prompt fashion, not to mention in a rather ignominious manner, as Cage’s first story arc concluded.

If this character was to be adapted into the scripts for the 13 episodes of Coker’s Netflix series, he would have to be made far more menacing and formidable than his comic book counterpart. And I’m happy to say that the scripts fully delivered on that, as did the truly bone-chilling and empathic performance by Erik LaRay Harvey. This cat totally owned the role, and this utterly remorseless version completely saved the character from the obscurity that the Archie Goodwin-created version incurred and frankly deserved.
Harvey’s Diamondback was every bit as lethal and compellingly disturbing to behold as Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin in the Daredevil series and David Tennant’s Kilgrave the Purple Man from the Jessica Jones series. Though he retained his skill with throwing blades, these took an understandable back seat to his preference for firearms, and the trick knives were replaced by the horribly deadly Judas Bullets, which could penetrate even Luke’s steel-hard skin and deliver horrifically life-threatening wounds to him. Later in the series, Diamondback wore another weapon of a much different sort culled from the inventory of Justin Hammer (an Iron Man villain from the comics who had a MCU version in Iron Man 2): a strength-enhancing exo-suit modeled after the snake-like costume his comic book version always wore since taking on the Diamondback mantle. This suit allowed him to throw down with his hated half-brother in a no-holds barred mono-a-mono battle where their fighting skills and sheer determination counted more than physical strength. The fate this version of Stryker met was serious but not final, and we were given a strong indication we may see him again in a new and improved form, possibly in The Defenders Season 1 if not Luke Cage Season 2.
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Willis Stryker, a.k.a., Diamondback, as he appeared during his initial comic book appearance in LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR HIRE #1.
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This is Diamondback in  the TV series, where his garish snake-like outfit was actually a functional exo-suit, and not just for looks.  I’m guessing the visor on the helmet must have been to keep the glare of the street lights out of his eyes, right? 
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Another popular character from the comics who was given a fine adaptation in this series was Mercedes “Misty” Knight, a strong female African-American cop turned cyborg adventurer and martial arts hero who debuted in the IRON FIST comic (well, fully debuted, at least, since she first appeared with Spider-Man in an issue of MARVEL TEAM-UP Vol. 1, but we didn’t know it at the time; long story for another time). Knight has been a long-time supporting character of Iron Fist’s alter-ego Danny Rand, and was his lover for a long time, perhaps one of the first passionate interracial relationships in mainstream comic book land, as it goes all the way back to the 1970s. In short, her story in the comics was this: she was a cop who thwarted an attempted bombing by a terrorist at an airport, saving the lives of many innocents but tragically losing an arm from the ensuing explosion. Being a resident of the Marvel Universe, that arm was replaced by a super-strong, fully articulated bionic limb similar to the one given to Colonel Steve Austin on the then-popular TV series The Six Million Dollar Man (and possibly inspired by it).
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Knight then left the force to become a freelance adventurer. She became BFFs with Danny Rand’s friend and ally, the female samurai Colleen Wing, and Knight proved one of those incredibly fast and adept learners of martial arts skills who are so popular in fiction. The dynamic duo of Knight and Wing then billed themselves as the Daughters of the Dragon when working together, and not only did they remain supporting characters and allies throughout the runs of IRON FIST and POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, but also appeared in a few stories of their own, mostly as a recurring series in Marvel’s black and white 1970s mag THE DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU (where Iron First also had a recurring series, as did the comic world’s first Puerto Rican super-hero, Hector Ayala, the original White Tiger, who debuted in the mag… which may also be a whole other future blog entry).

Though it can be argued that Knight should have waited until the upcoming Iron Fist series to debut, her role as a determined and honest police officer who is nevertheless not afraid to break the rules if the situation absolutely depends on it, and if she honestly feels it’s the right thing to do, was an integral factor in this series.

The character was well played by Simone Missick, even if to be totally honest here, I really wish the role had gone to the truly beautiful Nigerian but London-born actress Deborah Ayorinde, who was relegated to playing the minor if semi-significant character of the beleaguered, ill-fated nightclub worker Candace Miller, a relatively thankless role that in no way allowed this talented and awesome actress to shine. I wasn’t one of the show’s three casting directors, and I do not mean to sling aspersions on Missick, who gave the role of Misty Knight her all to good effect, but this is how I feel about this particular casting decision. I think Ayorinde not only has the acting chops, but also the right look for  Misty Knight, and as attractive as Missick certainly is, she just doesn’t hold a candle in that department to Ayorinde. I know looks shouldn’t mean everything in a casting decision, but this is one of those cases where it should have IMHO. Ayorinde’s beauty totally stole attention from Missick in the several scenes they had together, and since both actresses are graduates of Howard University — which Ayorinde walked out of with honors —  I stand by my decision who the roll of Misty Knight should have gone to.

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Deborah Ayorinde — the amazing woman who should  have been Misty Knight.
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That being said, I again mention that Missick certainly didn’t suck as Misty Knight, so I hope no one perusing this review misreads my words and accuses me of saying otherwise. It should be noted that in this season of the series, Misty Knight receives an injury that may or may not presage her receiving a bionic arm by the time The Defenders rolls around… it may have simply been an homage to this distinct feature of the comic book version rather than a true presaging of things to come, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

As for Colleen Wing, she didn’t appear in this series, but will appear in Iron Fist. We received a nice little Easter Egg in episode 13 of Season 1 presaging both her appearance, and explaining how Claire Temple will end up treating the injuries of Danny Rand in his own upcoming series. I’m really hoping Misty Knight will be brought into that show too, so that the Daughters of the Dragon can receive the MCU treatment on Netflix, and Iron Fist will receive the love interest he had for so long in the comics.
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The character of Hernan “Shades” Alvarez, portrayed as an even better weasel henchman than Turk Barrett who knows how to work things to his advantage so as to move up in a crime lord’s employment hierarchy, was played to entertaining perfection by Theo Rossi. Shades happens to be another example of a character who was African-American in the comic book version that became Hispanic in the TV series. Not only that, but in the comic book Shades was a very minor character whom Carl Lucas knew in prison, and didn’t have much to do in the first story arc other than talking shit and to the future Mr. Cage and getting his ass whupped in a prison court yard throw down as a result. In the TV show, he starts out as a less than friendly acquaintance of Cage in prison, but goes on to become something far more than that his comic book counterpart afterwards.
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Afterwards, he  pops up from time to time in the series working for various criminals, until he finally acquires some goggles (okay, “shades”) that allowed him to fire optic beams that was given to him by the criminal mastermind he most commonly came to serve, the genius Tilda Johnson, otherwise known as the scantily-clad African-American female super-villain called Deadly Nightshade. Retroactive continuity eventually decided Shades and his frequent partner, the bow-and-arrow-wielding Commanche, were part of a four-member street gang with Striker and Lucas in their younger years called The Rivals.

 

 

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Only in the Marvel Universe could you expect to run into these guys while taking a stroll through Harlem. 

He also later turned out to be the father to Victor Alvarez, a teen super-hero who acquired the power to absorb the chi energy of his surroundings and channeling it into physical power, where he took on the moniker of the new Power Man and teamed up with Iron Fist in a memorable POWER MAN AND IRON FIST mini-series from the 2000s. It would be really cool to see a version of the younger Alvarez

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Shades in the TV series (on left), and his comic book counterpart after he began wearing a costume and force beam-firing visor that made him into a Cyclops wannabe (on the right). Too bad the X-Men weren’t recruiting at the time. They may be a mutants-only club, but if they were liberal enough to accept Longshot at the time, I’m sure they would make an exception for Shades, especially since their leader would be flattered by his shtick. 

The role of Dr. Noah Berstein (not “Burstein,” as spelled on the IMDb) was played in realistically nervous manner by Michael Kostroff, who did a fine job of portraying the somewhat morally gray, conflicted nature of a scientist who wants to benefit humankind with his revolutionary though experimental technology, but is sometimes willing to go a bit too far to achieve that goal. He has a crucial role in Season 1 of the series, and will clearly have a similarly important role in Season 2, although the implication is that he’ll have a markedly different one than he played as a regular supporting character in the comic book series. In the latter, he was a doctor trying to make up for his past mistakes — a common theme for the book — and acted as Luke Cage’s sometimes unwanted conscience, keeping an eye on the mercenary to make sure he didn’t stray off the path of the angels.

In the TV show, Berstein also regrets his mistakes, but not so much that he isn’t willing to make them again if there’s the chance of advancing medical science, and not so much that he could ever be the conscience of anyone. The MCU version of Luke Cage needed no help in that department other than the support and faith of Claire Temple, the memory of his mentor Henry “Pop” Hunter, and the appraisal of the people of Harlem to keep him on the straight and narrow path.

Other roles of note in the series, not reflected in the comic book’s initial story arc, were the always talented Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, the corrupt politician hoping to go legit, but emotionally incapable of doing so; and Maharshala Ali as her younger cousin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (but don’t call him that nickname to his face!), the criminal owner of the Harlem’s Paradise nightclub, and initial crime lord of Harlem as the show begins.

In the comic book, the character of Mariah Dillard was quite a bit different from the small screen version, and she first appeared in issue #4 of the series. Woodard played an articulate, fairly shapely, and cunning Clintonesque politician with a veritable graveyard of skeletons in her proverbial family closet. This was in marked contrast to the comic book version of the character, a well-known criminal boss called “Black Mariah,” who spoke in awful ghetto slang, was literally 400 lbs. and over six and a half feet tall — her weight and mass making her more than strong enough to knock the average man across the room with a single swipe of her hand, and even to engage in physical combat with Luke Cage — with an M.O. consisting of the disrespectfully ghastly practice of picking up recently killed bodies in fake ambulances and robbing them of whatever valuables may have been on their carcasses before dumping them in the river. Not to mention blowing out the brains of those who crossed her in traditional fashion via use of firearms when necessary.

It appears the MCU version of Mariah Dillard was fused with the character of hefty female crime lord Mama Mabel, who was played with gusto by  LaTanya Richardson Jackson. Mama Mabel was the viciously awesome female crime lord of Harlem’s past who was the aunt and mother, respectively, of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mariah Dillard. Unsurprisingly, her criminal ways provided the evil influence behind both their moves down the path of the dark side, as shown in the series’ obligatory flash back sequences (you can’t have a Marvel series without those).
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Mariah Dillard on the TV show (right) and her considerably more, erm, “big-boned” variation from the comic books (left).
As for the role of Cottonmouth, Ali played that role with deadly efficiency, and he provided the main villainy of the first half of the series before Diamondback stepped in and took over. I’ll say this much, as well, in deference to those who haven’t yet seen the series: Cottonmouth did not step aside as owner of Harlem’s Paradise and de facto owner of that part of the Big Apple  because of anything Diamondback did; the reason was much more terrifyingly close to home than that. Binge the series and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Needless to say, the comic book version of Cottonmouth — he was simply called “Cornell Cottonmouth” with no aversion to his nickname — was markedly different and less formidable than the comic book version. It was a shame that a version closer to the one we got in the comic book, co-created by writer Steve Engelheart, didn’t make it to the TV series. In the comic, Cottonmouth was an older villain with a bald head who had his natural teeth replaced by razor sharp molars composed of a tool steel alloy, and he didn’t appear in the saga until the story arc featured in issue #’s 19-20. At first, he possessed superhuman strength equal to that of Cage (source unknown, but possibly related to the glowing red jewel on his lapel), and was able to fight him head-to-toe (it was never revealed where he acquired that power. The comic and TV story, however, shared the fact that Cottonmouth had possession of the paper files that could exonerate Carl Lucas, since they had proof Willis Striker  was the one who stole the heroin from Cottonmouth, and framed the crime on his former BFF.
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After being defeated in unarmed combat he wasn’t seen again until three decades later, where he seemed to have lost all of his superhuman strength, had his steel shark-like teeth plated in gold, and took on the role of a repulsive and brutal pimp to cash in on the sex trafficking hysteria in the media. In this guise, he worked for Deadly Nightshade and plagued the son of Hernan “Shades” Alvarez, a student of Iron Fist who became the teen super-hero that took the moniker of Power Man after Cage had long since abandoned it.
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LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN #19, where the comic book version of Cottonmouth first bore his teeth. This was well after Luke Cage’s initial story arc, and we were treated to a monstrous version of the criminal who had more differences than similarities to the TV variant. 
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Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, the dangerous enough human criminal seen in the TV version (right), and the far more scary and dangerous version seen in the comic book (left). 
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Even after losing his superhuman strength, the comic book iteration of Cottonmouth was one dangerous mo’ fo’ who enjoyed sinking his teeth where they didn’t belong. He’s shown here in the pimp persona he took on during the POWER MAN AND IRON FIST mini-series published during the 2000s. 
Rounding that out we had the small but extremely important role of Frankie Faison as Henry “Pop” Hunter, a former boxer and now barber whose persona and shop served as the heart and soul of Harlem, who also happened to be the mentor and conscience-nurturer of Luke Cage and many others in the MCU’s version of Harlem. The man didn’t last long, but his influence certainly did, and it’s a role no one will ever forget. His final fate will impact viewers as strongly as it did Cage and the rest of Harlem, including as vile a man as Cottonmouth himself.
Some final nods should go to the great performances of Jaiden Kaine as the wily henchman punk Zip; Karen Pittman as the upright but sometimes overly hard-as-nails Inspector Priscilla Ridley; Ron Cephas Jones as Bobby Fish, the manager of Pops’ Barber Shop who provides continual friendship and moral support for Luke Cage, along with a good dose of always welcome good-natured humor and pity philosphy; and Jacob Vargas as the Mexican crime lord Domingo Colon, who decides to take on Diamondback.
VI. What About the Main Man? (And I’m Not Talking About Lobo!)
Now we get to the main star of the show: Michael Colter as the titular hero himself. In my humble opinion, no actor could have done the role better. Colter not only proved his merits for the role previously in Jessica Jones Season 1, but he totally cemented them here on his own. His now patented use of bullet-ridden hoodies in place of a formal costume became an important plot thread in the show, and is evocative of the more conventional attire the character has used in the comics since the 1990s, when he dispensed with the yellow escape artist suit and the metal tiara.
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No sooner did ripped jeans go out of style than Luke Cage went and popularized this  look. 
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Cage dispenses his classic attire for a new, updated look in the ’90s.
His old yellow shirt had so many bullet holes in it by that time he figured he might as well tear what was left of it apart and break the chain belt just to show how bad ass he was.
Despite the changes in the TV version that removed the character’s full struggle against the temptations of the dark side of inner city ghetto life, Colter nevertheless instilled the character with a massive amount of “everyman” appeal and working class power and pride, becoming the type of icon the common person can relate to considerably more than Captain America — still the greatest hero of them all as far as I’m concerned, but not nearly as relatable as the likes of Luke Cage. Not only that, but Luke Cage as portrayed by Michael Colter was as inspirational as he was relatable, with numerous nods to the black culture  he grew up in.
Harlem was depicted as a character in its own right, and its centrality and importance to the development of black culture in post-Civil War America was evident in every single scene, almost every line of dialogue, and the entire atmosphere exuded by the script and cast performances.
VII. So, in Conclusion…

If Luke Cage had been made by the mavens of blaxploitation production in the early ’70s when the character first debuted, the resulting film and/or TV series would no doubt have been considerably different than what Coker and his cast brought us here in 2016. Would it have been good? There is absolutely no way to tell, as it never came to pass. I’ll let individual readers decide for themselves if that’s a fortunate or unfortunate fact of celluloid history as we know it. What I can give an opinion on, however, is that what Coker and his cast gave us in 2016 was a great interpretation of the character, keeping intact every theme he represents, and respecting the culture he exemplifies. Thus, I conclude that the show we finally got after waiting so many years for it does Goodwin’s and Tuska’s character proud, with its positive points far outweighing the mistakes. As another comic book legend, writer and editor supreme Roy Thomas, served as the editor of that comic book, it would be interesting to see what he thinks of the TV series and how well it held up the standards of a character and saga he was once in charge of.

If nothing else, this show makes it completely clear why Luke Cage has endured for four and a half decades at this writing, and why he is one of the greatest heroes ever created in the comic book medium. What he represents and the world he came from are as relevant today as they were in the glorious era of the 1970s that spawned him, and the great success of this TV series since the weekend it was released on Netflix offers proof of that. As I said in the beginning, this show — like all produced by Marvel Studios for Netflix — is not for every sensibility, but it should be appreciated by everyone with a flare for a character who represents something pivotal to the society we live in, a script that makes you think, exploration of the history of a major aspect of American culture, an inspirational hero the common person can relate to, and strong character development sharing equal space with super-hero action and fight scenes.
I eagerly await both The Defenders Season 1 and Luke Cage Season 2, where the interrupted saga of this character will continue on the small screen. I hate having to wait an entire year for it, but here’s betting it will be well worth that wait!
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Review — “Captain America: Civil War” is Many Levels Above Awesome! (Spoiler Free!)

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I do not exaggerate in the least when I say this was absolutely the most awesome super-hero movie I have ever  seen! Imagine the Captain America movie you always wanted to see, the Iron Man movie you always wanted to see, and the Avengers movie you always wanted to see rolled into a single  two and a half hour film, and you will have a very good idea of what you get here! The Russo Brothers are the best hands that this film could have been left in, and I can hardly wait to see their upcoming 2-part Avengers: Infinity, which is pretty much guaranteed to be epic.
No movie is without flaws, but this one had, IMO, the most minimal flaws of any of the Marvel movies thus far, and not one of the Marvel films released to date has been a total suck-fest. This movie had more heroes in it by far than either of the two Avengers films helmed by Joss Whedon, yet not a single one of these characters were neglected by the script. Every actor shined in their respective roles! Moreover, problems with pacing were close to non-existent in this film, despite some that plagued Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Chadwick Boseman was an amazing Black Panther and Tom Holland gave us a great Spider-Man (a very  worthy successor to both Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield! Nevertheless, I still want a film with the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man!). Both of them were given sufficient screen time to establish them as characters and to encourage a good emotional investment by the audience. Because of this film, their upcoming solo movies are all but guaranteed to be hits!
The conflict that split the Avengers into Team Captain America and Team Iron Man was very logical, and very, very heart-wrenching, leading to a finale that had both a huge emotional impact on me and also brought us a major and very tragic revelation about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Let’s just say that nothing can ever be completely right between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark again once this revelation was made. The plot was well-delineated, and didn’t simply serve as a series of filler exposition designed to be nothing more than excuses to get the heroes fighting. Both sides had their view well represented, and no matter what team you side with ideologically, I think most viewers will end up sympathizing with both to some extent.
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Team Captain America rushes towards the most epic super-hero battle featured on the big screen to date!
Also, not only does Robert Downey Jr. once again play a stellar and memorable Tony Stark, he was making no idle claim when he said in interviews that this film is pretty much “Iron Man 4” as much as it’s “Captain America 3.” Those clamoring for a fourth Iron Man film absolutely needs  to see this one, as the personal life of Tony Stark is affected in major ways here and this is as much his film as it is Captain America’s. As for Chris Evans, he does another glorious job as the hero who wears and personifies Old Glory. Both complimented each other on screen as friends who felt forced to oppose the other based on their respective beliefs and principles going in the opposite direction. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the revelation which comes along towards the end of the movie results in a very heated and more than slightly brutal slug-fest between Iron Man on one side and Cap and Winter Soldier on the other for the awesome but tragic climactic sequence that no viewer with the capacity to feel emotion will soon forget.
Not only did we get what may well be the best special effects and action sequences of any super-hero film, but the script was absolutely stellar. This movie proves that it’s entirely possible to juggle numerous characters together and provide an unending number of spectacular action and effects sequences while also crafting a good, well-written, emotional story that is simultaneously issue-driven and character-driven. And as one may expect based on the previous two Captain America films, this one is filled with relevant political commentary that makes it an important movie for this time period. Future generations of historians, philosophers, and fanboys will have a veritable field day analyzing and deconstructing this film.And I totally cannot wait to see my friend and colleague Derrick Ferguson do so on his great movie review blog The Ferguson Theater! (Update: he just did! Woohoo! And his guest reviewer Sean E. Ali did his own great review a week earlier! Another woohoo!)
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Team Iron Man confronts the opposing camp. Friendships and even deeper relationships, along with the airport, are about to crumble with this rumble.
I should note that the version of Baron Zemo as the main villain in this film is a rather drastic re-interpretation of the classic foe from Captain America rogue’s gallery. His long career in the comic books always depicted Helmut Zemo as the brilliant but twisted son of Nazi scientist Baron Heinrich Zemo, who was second only to the Red Skull as Cap’s perennial nemesis during World War II. The degree of this change was comparable to how much the version of the Mandarin we got in Iron Man 3  was a dramatic departure from the comic book version of one of Mr. Stark’s greatest foes. However, as controversial as the re-imagining of the Mandarin was for the MCU, I think the change in Zemo was quite interesting, and this version was no less deadly and destructive to Cap’s life on all levels than the comic book version. Others may not agree with me, but I do not think this change will spoil the film for too many diehard Cap aficionados. Zemo’s influence has a direct bearing on what causes the Civil War in the MCU, and it was in no way forced or extraneous.
I won’t mention much about Crossbones here, except to say he does get a very good battle sequence against Cap and the Black Widow early in the film. I was slightly disappointed in how that battle concluded, but it does have a very significant part in setting the main event of the plot into motion. Considering what followed this sequence, however, I was more than willing to overlook that disappointment, as it’s totally overshadowed by the epic events and memorable character interactions that follow.
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“Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, at your hearts — along with the rest of your viscera — out! I bet you guys didn’t even have  a Captain America in your  universes! Hah!”
I want to end this review by pointing out that the protracted battle sequence between the two opposing Avengers camps at the airport was the most incredible and entertaining battle you have ever seen in a super-hero film to date! Every member of both sides gets in some cool shots and accompanying one-liners, and you see practically everyone on each side slug it out solo for a moment with someone from the other side. As just the tip of the iceberg, we have sequences during the epic airport melee where Captain America goes one-on-one with Spider-Man; Hawkeye goes one-on-one with the Black Widow; the Black Panther gets in some mano-a-mano throwdowns with both Captain America and the Winter Soldier, etc. Not only that, but we also have group and tactically coordinated maneuvers between various sets of the combatants that rival the coolness and complexity you will see in the comic book pages! And just wait until you see what Ant-Man does! I don’t want to spoil it, but I shouted and cheered the moment I saw it! If you happen to see this film in a crowded theater, expect to hear the entire facility resonate with cheers and claps when this happens! (What occurs has been mentioned in speculation various places online already, but I’m still not going to spoil it here! Ha!!)
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Things will never be the same again as the Winter Soldier’s sordid past catches up with him in a majorly tragic way.
Keep in mind that like past Marvel films by Marvel Studios, there are two important 30 second Easter Egg sequences after the main film ends; one in the middle of the end credits, the other immediately following the conclusion of the scroll. The second one sets up a certain eagerly awaited solo hero film, and is worth sitting the extra minutes for.
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Hint!
If you happen to be a fellow super-hero fan, by all means see this movie! Not in a few weeks, but ASAP!! This is the stuff that many comic book fans spent many hours dreaming about seeing “someday.” Thanks to Disney, Marvel Studios, and the Russo Brothers, that “someday” is NOW! It’s my strong opinion that this flick is more than worth paying to see on the big screen rather than waiting until it comes to video or pay-for-view, as many have suggested to me was the best option for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
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I Finally Saw “CANNIBAL FEROX”

Cannibal Ferox poster01

After previously working up the guts (ha! ha! pun intended) to watch and review Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1979 Italian cannibal film Cannibal Holocaust, I knew it was but a matter of time before I did the same with the only other flick in this genre with a comparable reputation: Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox, released in 1981. The former film review is still up on my old blog, but stay tuned, as I’ll have a somewhat revamped version up on this iteration of my blog before too long. Once I found out that, as of this writing, Lenzi’s classic cannibal film is on Hulu Plus, well, I just couldn’t resist any longer. This review is the end result of my tuning in to this treat provided for Hulu’s paid subscribers. In fact, Cannibal Holocaust  is also on Hulu at this writing (though its listed release date of 1985 is not accurate). One thing I’ll say about online services like Netflix and Hulu Plus: they will provide you with fare that would never even play on the TV premium channels like HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax, so let’s give them some applause here. Or screams of protest, whatever may first come to mind.

I. Food for Thought (Ha! Ha!)

First off, let’s get this question out of the way: did Lenzi shamelessly rip off Deodato’s anti-masterpiece of gorily atrocious cinema, as is often alleged? Or did he contribute something truly unique to the genre that can stand on its own merits?

As I see it, though the inspiration factor was clearly there, Cannibal Ferox  was not truly a rip-off. Its plot was distinct, as were its characters, though the main lesson learned was essentially the same: our society’s veneer of being civilized makes us no less prone to acts of extraordinary violence than any of the remaining pockets of humanity living the primitive life in remote regions of the world, especially once we’re removed from the standard civilized environment; and further, their violence towards us is often provoked by our own greed-oriented violence against them. Many will say, as they did with Deodato’s previous flick in the genre, that this moral lesson was a mere facade for what was primarily a shameless exploitation flick of gory violence and humiliation–what we would today call “torture porn”– which included authentic animal violence to appeal to the more prurient part of the audience’s psyches, not their intellectual/philosophical faculties. Don’t get me wrong, the violence factor in this film is as over the top as it was in Deodato’s presentation, and the animal lives sacrificed for this contribution to cinema are every bit as sleazily unnecessary. However, Lenzi’s screenplay and direction do an admittedly good job of making the intended lesson blatantly clear, and to his further credit he hired a good cast (at least for the jungle scenes) who were more than up to the task of doing justice to this part of the story. Let’s give him his due credit before we sic agents of PETA on his ass (since I’m guessing S.H.I.E.L.D. may have bigger concerns right now).

This film has a history on home video that carries a curious bit of nostalgia for me, even though I never had the nerve to rent it back in the day. By “back in the day,” I mean the heyday of the VHS home video market during the 1980s to mid-’90s, back when Blockbuster Video and a myriad of smaller independent chains dotted the landscape next to your local McDonalds and Radio Shack. I was very young then, and I recall seeing the VHS cassettes of this movie desecrating the shelves near the likes of “mondo” videos like the Faces of Death series (and its many copycats; remember them?), and “shockumentary” titles like Shocking Asia (yes, the first video in that series was the much talked about one that depicted the male-to-female sex change operation in all of its graphic clinical glory) and all sorts of reality videos purporting to document the gross and horrific things done by our fellow humans to each other, not to mention the many animal species at our mercy, across the world. Of course, you could only find these videos in the less respectable but glorious sub-sections that were reserved for the horror genre. Blockbuster and other major franchises, such as Hollywood Video, felt that their reputation for providing video fare to all ages would end up besmirched if they carried “trash” like that stuff. No doubt carrying such a selection would have interfered with the sales of candy and carbonated soda beverages they also hoped to sell to younger patrons, right?

At any rate, the VHS version of Cannibal Ferox  which was available for rental alongside the above material and other, more obscure cannibal films like White Cannibal Goddess–I don’t recall Cannibal Holocaust  ever being available for rental at these independent stores–was given the more foreboding title of Make Them Die Slowly  by the company which released it, Thriller Video (I wonder whatever happened to them). I’m not certain if it was an edited version or not, but it clearly retained the majority of the “bad” stuff, since I recall how intrigued I was by the disclaimer on the rental box, something along the lines of: “Warning! This is one of the most violent movies ever made. It contains [a large number of] scenes of graphic torture and extreme humiliation. Viewer discretion is highly advised.” A notation exclaiming that the movie was banned in 31 countries also adorned the cover box–which conveniently neglected to mention that the bans were lifted in many countries by the time the video was available–which either piqued the interest of customers  enough to take it home with them just so see what all the fuss was about, or (in my case, admittedly) made them think better of it, since despite a high tolerance for such material I didn’t want to “push it.” Hey, those disclaimers scared me almost as much as the ones that now appear at the end of TV commercials advertising FDA-approved pharmaceuticals!

Cannibal Ferox nom nom nom

Cannibal #1: “Nom nom nom nom!”
Cannibal #2: “You need to learn to eat with your mouth closed, Doutka. Your table manners are deplorable!”

Cannibal #1: “That’s okay, seeing as we don’t actually have a table here right now. Nom nom nom nom NOM!”

Cannibal #3: “Hey, why does Doutka get all the intestines, while you get to hog the heart and liver? You two always get all the good organs while I always get left with the prostrate and the testicles!”

But as the ’90s progressed and the digital revolution fully came of age, including the DVD format and the Internet, I frequently found this film reviewed and included in the various “most disturbing movies ever made” lists that appeared throughout the fledgling realm of cyberspace. Hence, I continued to be intrigued with the movie as time and research went on, and I knew it was inevitable that I would one day see it. I didn’t know it would take as long as the year 2015, when flying cars and hover skateboards would be as common as VHS tapes were back then, but the time did eventually come! And as a result of my finally finding the nerve thanks to Hulu, my blog will now add yet another review of this movie to the thousands of others already online 🙂  Cool, huh?

Cannibal Ferox alternate title poster

Here is the Thriller Video release version of the film that you could find in those independent video rental stores back during the glory days of VHS. Ah, nostalgia!

According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), it’s a fact that this movie first premiered completely uncut in Germany, and then quickly found the complete version banned. The fully uncut version runs 93 minutes, and heavily cut versions of 85 and 86 minutes were made available for theaters and home video rental in other nations, including the heavily censored iteration released by BBFC 18 for British audiences. Of course, this movie had an honored place on the BBFC’s dreaded “Video Nasties” list of films that the government insisted must be banned or heavily censored to spare the moral and emotional sensibilities of any viewer within that nation’s political jurisdiction. The censored version of this film released in Australia was titled Woman From Deep River  to cash in on Lenzi’s first albeit more tame 1972 semi-entry in the cannibal genre Man From Deep River  (a.k.a., Sacrifice!).

II. You Are Who You Eat: The Plot

Regarding the plot of this movie, it was uncomplicated but fully realized, and I completely disagree with any review that claims this movie had virtually no plot to speak of. A lunatic coke-head drug pusher from New York City named Mike Logan (played with awesomely insane zeal by Giovanni Lombardo Radice) is on the run from a Mafia family after screwing them out of $100,000 of cocaine (which he seems to have purloined mostly for his own snorting pleasure, rather than re-sale). He and his eventually reluctant partner-in-crime Joe Costolani (played more passively by Walter Lucchini) flee to Columbia, where they soon end up in the unforgiving wilds of the Amazon jungle where Logan falls into a scheme to bilk an Indio tribesman out of his finding of precious emeralds. You see, Logan has to find something of value that he can’t sniff out of existence in order to sell for an illicit profit. Since opening up a lemonade stand wouldn’t bring in enough income to support his coke habit, moving valuable gems seemed like a light bulb of an idea to him (during the lucid moments between his brain being fried by massive coke intake, that is).

Cannibal Ferox piece of mind

“I’m about to get a piece of his mind.”

However, Logan and Costolani were only part of the film’s cast, and by no means the protagonists. That role would go to the ensemble accompanying main character Gloria Davis (Lorraine De Selle), a graduate level anthropology student who journeyed to the Amazon jungles courtesy of her American university to prove her thesis that cannibalism didn’t exist, but was merely a racist invention of white travelers. Her entourage for this venture was her straight-laced and basically morally upright brother Rudy Davis (Danilo Mattei) and (for Goddess knows what reason) her rather wild female friend Pat Johnson (played by the truly gorgeous Zora Kerova). Their ill-fated quest to prove a truth that wasn’t the truth (which they would learn in the hardest way possible) would cause them to randomly cross paths with Logan and Costolani, after their gem-stealing plans went all to shit thanks to the former’s coke-fueled psychotic rage.

In short, Logan and Costolani talked the overly trusting Indio native who found the emeralds into taking them to the river deep in the Amazon jungle where he discovered the gems. Logan then held him and some other members of his tribe hostage at gunpoint, and tortured the young man in most horrific ways to tell him where he left his stash of gems. This torture included the literal removal of his manhood by machete. Costolani was horrified by his partner’s actions at this point, but seemed too intimidated to challenge him. The two left with the goods… and with the ire of the young male members of the tribe, who resolved to hunt, capture, and torture the criminal duo out of vengeance. One of the tribesmen managed to seriously injure Costolani with his wooden pig sticker, but Logan shot the native and helped his injured cohort make their way further into the jungle, continuing to flee the revenge-seeking tribal warriors… who just so happened to have cannibalistic tendencies.

It was during this flight for their lives when they encountered Gloria’s trio, who had been stranded deep in the jungle after their rented dune buggy-like vehicle (hey, I’m no an expert) had an inconvenient accident thanks to Rudy being kind enough to swerve out of the way to avoid hitting an iguana. Logan hastily provided a bogus explanation as to why the cannibals were hot on their asses (saying they attacked them and their non-existent guide first), and being the trusting good Samaritans that they were, decided they would help these strange guys and tend to Costolani’s serious wounds. Big mistake.

Soon after this, however, Logan’s true nature became known when he encouraged Pat (who had since started sleeping with him) to help him harm a (very pretty) girl from the tribe who, along with a younger male member of the tribe, was playing with a tortoise near the edge of the river. The girl ended up shot to death, but Pat helped the boy escape, thus earning them a secret ally who would come in handy later. Rudy thoroughly kicked Logan’s ass in a fight for what he did, finally giving us some violence that was fun to watch.

Cannibal Ferox ripped abs

“Wow, talk about having a really ripped  set of abs!”

Costolani then told Gloria and Rudy what actually happened just before he expired from blood poisoning due to the severity of his injuries. When his just recently expired corpse was found by the searching cannibal warriors, they decided that the proverb of “waste not, want not” applied to their culture as well as ours, so they ripped open his stomach and fed on his innards in a gloriously graphic scene of culinary indulgence. Gloria and Rudy desperately tried to find Pat–who had fled with Logan–only for all four of them to end up in the clutches of the tribe. Brought back to their village in captivity, the nightmare was about to begin. To see what happens there, and who survives (yeah, right!) and who doesn’t… well, see the movie. Just make sure you’re not eating anything while you do, because you won’t be having dinner alone, if you get my meaning. Oh, and btw… you will never again enjoy the bouncy childhood song “Red River Valley” that you enjoyed reciting in elementary school music class after watching this. You’ll see exactly what I mean once you also find the nerve to watch this film!

III. Being the Main Course in a Cannibal Village: Does It Add Up to the Hype?

I must confess that the movie didn’t so much as make me flinch. It’s rare that something does, though it certainly has happened–the uber-graphic blood-letting of David Cronenberg’s 1977 horror film Rabid starring famed porno queen Marilyn Chambers in her only non-porno-oriented role got me sick to my stomach, for example–so I wasn’t too surprised, especially after sitting through Cannibal Holocaust, the only flick from this genre said to be worse. Don’t get me wrong, though: the violence was pretty incredible, and for the most part, the gore effects were well done on whatever presumably limited budget that Lenzi had to work with. It included graphically unflinching and up-close depictions of people and (real) animals having their guts sliced open and their viscera removed and eaten raw (this tribe was apparently too impatient to cook their meals over a fire when they got hungry), skull decapitations, men being deprived of their manhood in a most literal fashion, graphic breast mutilation, and quick removal of limbs that could have taught a lesson in efficiency to any medical amputation expert who operated (quite literally) during the Civil War.

Of course, being the quibbler that I am concerning lax logic in fiction, I do need to point something out and complain, and my esteemed readers will now have the dubious honor of seeing me vent. Yes, I know this is only a movie and it’s totally fiction blah blah blah, but I’m sorry, I need to see degrees of internal logic and the raw details being as close to “realistic” as possible in a work of fiction, otherwise my suspension of disbelief is given a proverbial black eye. So yes, I’m that  type of viewer, i.e., the type who get’s annoyed at a TV series or movie franchise when, for instance, it’s established early on that a certain character has no siblings, only to later have that character introduce a respected brother with nary so much as an attempt to explain the discrepancy. I know some people will say, “Dude, it’s only fiction, so as long as it’s entertaining, who the hell cares if it doesn’t make sense according to logic as we experience it in the real world? Why can’t you just watch the show/movie without worrying about stuff like that and just stfu instead of spoiling everyone else’s fun?”

Unfortunately for all of those fellow viewers whose fun I routinely spoil, I’m not one of those ultra laid back viewers with no need for suspension of disbelief to have a good viewing experience. I’m the type of viewer who at a very young age complained that The Muppet Movie  was too illogical to fully enjoy because, among other things (don’t get me started!), it depicted Kermit the Frog meeting Scooter for the first time as the manager of Dr. Teeth’s band when the debut episode of The Muppet Show  had previously depicted their “first” meeting, with Kermit expressing incredulity at the name “Scooter” (yeah, yeah, I know, how much logic do you expect from a character whose eye balls are fastened to the lenses of their bifocals rather than attached to their face? But still!). The problem in this film is related to the violent content, of course. Please tolerate me further while I explain.

I don’t think I’m providing any major spoiler by mentioning that the cannibal tribe who captures Gloria Davis’s group begins their brutal vengeance by slicing off Logan’s penis (yes, in full graphic detail) and then adds insult to injury and more grossness to already existent grossness by eating it in front of him (sorry, but I’m not making that up). The agonizing and humiliating mutilation is then followed up by the cannibals cauterizing the stump (is that what you would call it? I’d rather not speculate on proper terminology here) so he wouldn’t bleed out; remember, the idea was to prolong his agony over a lengthy period. All well and good (if you’re not Mr. Logan, that is). But when next we see Logan after the removal of his manhood, he’s casually walking and standing while being led to different locations with his fellow captives, and soon after that escapes from his cage and makes an impressive attempt to fight his way out of the village, in the process moving around in a fashion that would have impressed Indiana Jones or Alan Quartermain. And therein lies the problem.

Alright, granted I’m not an expert here since I never had anyone go all Lorena Bobbitt on me (if you don’t recall that classic real life incident, then you’d be remiss not to do the research that got Ms. Bobbitt and her ill-fated husband John their 15 minutes of fame 22 years ago). But considering how sensitive that area is, wouldn’t you think that Logan would be in constant extreme pain, especially when he tried to walk or run? Even if fueled by adrenaline and extreme determination, wouldn’t you at least expect him to move about in a crouching waddle while repeatedly yelling “Ow! Ow! Ow! Shit! Ow!” or something like that? I mean, any guy can attest to how painful it is if you simply get a single strand of hair lodged into the shaft; it feels like a Phillips’ screw driver is jammed up there! And I hardly think the cannibals gave him any type of exotic herbal painkiller, since that would have defeated the purpose of the torture, right? Maybe Logan’s constant coke sniffing somehow altered his metabolism to act as a permanent Morphine-level painkiller or something, I dunno. But that’s another thing. Considering what a horrid addict he was, why didn’t he ever go into withdrawal during the days he was held captive by the cannibals? You would think his fits, spasms, and vomiting on the floor of his cage would have provided no end of amusement to the vengeful tribe members. But that never happened either. So there you go with my complaint, and a Marvel No-Prize to anyone who figures out WTF was the secret behind the post-vasectimized Mr. Logan’s incredible resistance to pain.

Cannibal Ferox eye for violence

“I have a real eye for violence, dude.”

Okay, now let’s get to the justifiable complaints about the violence initiated against real animals in this film, a problem that similarly plagued Cannibal Holocaust  and encompassed a big chunk of the controversy directed at that movie too. A lot of the scenes involving real animal slaughter in this particular movie featured animal on animal violence. We saw a leopard attack and kill a small animal of some sort, a huge iguana fight a boa constrictor and kick ass (or what passes for one on a snake), and an anaconda constrict to death that weird looking whatever-the-hell-it-was little mammal that Gloria was given as a pet by some of the weird people her entourage met on a boat ride earlier in the film. In fact, Gloria seemed to have been given that animal for no good reason other than the script’s desire to set the poor creature up for its rib-crushing fate in the coils of the anaconda.

However, these slaughters of the natural world weren’t much worse than what you saw in several episodes of those naturist reality shows so popular in the U.S. during the 1970s, many of which copycatted the long-running Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom [it’s hard to forget that little blast from the past that was hosted by naturalist adventurer Marlon Perkins, including that cheesy but melancholy jingle from its sponsor, the life insurance company Mutual of Omaha, who for totally inexplicable reasons had so much invested in wildlife education]. Check out those elephant seals tear into each other at the 1:23 time stamp on this episode of the show as one way cool example. Of course, as far as we know, Marlon and his cohorts didn’t set up these battles before hand, but simply happened to be in the right place at the right time to get the footage, so I presume PETA would give them a free pass. This wasn’t the case with Lenzi and his production crew, who decided to take a lesson from the producers and special effects hacks of the 1960 version of The Lost World,  who decided to cheaply simulate dinosaur battles by gluing a few frilly attachments to a gator and a monitor lizard–two species of large reptile known to be natural enemies–and then pushing them into contact with each other so they would get into a truly realistic savage donnybrook on camera (that vicious footage was recycled by several parties who produced other cheaply made “dinosaur” films for many years afterwards, including the infamously bad King Dinosaur).

Oh yeah, there was also that scene on the boat where Gloria’s entourage interacted with those weird people when some dude ate this big ass insect with multi-colored wings which made it somewhat resemble a Fairy Mothra. I’m not sure if a real insect’s life was sacrificed for this early gross-out scene, but it was explained as some sort of cultural thing that the people of that region of Columbia engaged in. So, if you should ever have an exchange student from that area of South America at your house for a week, do not retch on his shoes if he should happen to snatch and devour a monarch butterfly that lands on a flower near the two of you; it’s a legitimate cultural thing, okay? Just be sure to warn him if he attempts to snatch and devour a bee or a yellowjacket (or don’t, if you want to have a laugh at his expense).

Lenzi certainly didn’t exactly scrimp with the human on animal violence either, though (as partly noted above). We saw more tortoises slaughtered and eaten raw by members of the Indio tribes, which started with having their heads lopped off. As I mentioned in my review for Cannibal Holocaust,  that is normally a merciful way to go about it, but I must say that the second tortoise killed on camera in this flick was subject to a machete that really needed to be sharpened, so the decapitation didn’t exactly go quickly. The crocodile slaughter scene was less merciful, since its guts were opened without the head first coming off (I wonder why the tortoises were treated better). To his credit, Radice refused to directly participate in the scene where his character Mike Logan speared a pig to death, so a double was used to do the deed. As a bit of poetic justice, the slaughter double got his own hand (apparently) accidentally skewered by Radice since due to his refusal to kill the pig, he had to be filmed thrusting his spear into a bowl of fake blood that was held in place by his double. Needless to say, his aim was off and the blood spilled wasn’t all fake. Radice felt that accident was something akin to karmic retribution for this double needlessly killing the pig.

In short, like with Cannibal Holocaust,  the animal killing scenes were fully unnecessary, and provided solely for some extra “jungle savagery” shock value. The only such scene of animal slaughter in this movie that was even remotely relevant to the plot was Radice’s killing of the pig, as it provided a good example of his coke-addled mental instability. However, this killing could easily have been faked considering the quality of the gore effects used to depict human on human violence. So if you happen to be sensitive about this type of thing, and have strong principles against the slaughter of animals for entertainment purposes, then you would miss nothing if you acquired a copy of this film that was sans footage of the animal killings. Be aware, though, that the version now up on Hulu Plus features the fully uncut version.

Cannibal Ferox I knew I should have watched where I was going

“Shit, who put that there? Doutka and those damned practical jokes of his!”

IV. But What About the Quality of the Script?

I have to say this in favor of the movie: both the script and the acting–at least with the scenes that took place in the Colombian/Amazon environment–were quite good. The whole movie held up as an exciting and suspenseful jungle adventure without relying entirely upon the shock value of the uber-gory violence for the entertainment factor. The same cannot be said for the periodic sequences occurring in New York City, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Umberto Lenzi is as good a director and film maker in his own way as Ruggero Deodato happens to be, and this movie can compare favorably to Cannibal Holocaust  as the best film in the Italian cannibal genre. The wondrously experimental and less PC days of the 1970s and early ’80s was an amazing time for cinema, and rarely has the old adage “they don’t make them like this any more” been as applicable. The script fleshed out the characters quite well (please don’t take that as a vile pun), and each had their distinct personality traits, with Pat Johnson and Joe Costolani being sufficiently gray characters to offer their own manner of unpredictability to the plot. Mike Logan was quite a villain, and his machinations went a long way towards providing sympathy for the cannibal tribe, showing that the brutality they dispensed upon their captives was only in response to that which Logan had first inflicted upon them.

The jungle cinematography was very well done, and the thespians portraying the Indio tribe members were spot on with both their acting and the make-up effects. It should also be pointed out that the young native tribeswomen were extremely gorgeous to behold, adding their own degree of incongruous beauty to the general brutality of this movie. As noted before, Zora Kerova was also exceedingly pleasant on the eyes in addition to being a good actress. Lorraine De Selle did an equally good job in the role of main protagonist Gloria Davis, and though she wasn’t bad looking she still couldn’t hold a candle to Kerova or the young Indio women in that respect.

Cannibal Ferox welcome to dinner

“We’re here to invite you to be dinner for us… er, I meant to have  dinner with  us. Sorry, my English is no very good.”

The soundtrack over the jungle sequences was as well done as the cinematography, even though it was borrowed from Lenzi’s lesser cannibal film from the previous year, Eaten Alive.  Hey, if something worked before, why not recycle it, right? Especially when you’re budget strapped and would rather not spend the funds to hire a new maestro. Just as I reported how the highly pleasant and relaxing music that played over the very scenic aerial jungle footage in the opening credits of Cannibal Holocaust  gave absolutely no hint as to the type of movie you were about to watch, so did the opening credits for this movie, but in an entirely different manner! This film opened with footage from a populated street in the middle of a particularly dingy area of New  York City with some really funky music of the type commonly heard on American cop films and shows at the time. Just as the opening theme of Cannibal Holocaust  was indicative of an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney, the opening theme of this film must have made many think they were about to see an episode of The Streets of San Francisco  or a sequel to Serpico.

Now let’s get to what is often reported as the one major drawback to this film in regards to the script and the plot: the New York City sequences, which were actually filmed on location there. I fully  agree with these critiques. Despite the hard-boiled edge and the “realistic” surfeit of profanity thrown about by the characters, these scenes looked as if they could have belonged to an entirely separate movie. The script clearly connected them to the main plot, since the city scenes dealt with the NYPD, led by Lt. Rizzo (Robert Kerman), and members of a brutal drug dealing gang looking for Mike Logan by interrogating people he knew, including his ex-girlfriend Myrna Stenn (Fiamma Maglione). Both the acting and the dialogue for these scenes were below par, to say the least, and most of the violence was no worse than what you would see on a typical episode of Starsky and Hutch  or  Baretta  from around that general era. In fact, the only violent scene from the NYC sequences that was routinely cut from the censored versions of the movie was the scene were Stenn was kicked in the face while on the ground by one of the drug dealers in the course of trying to beat information out of her regarding her boyfriend’s whereabouts. In fact, that scene also involved a lapse in logic: immediately after receiving such a brutal kick to the face, Stenn’s visage looked completely unmarked; no bloody nose or lip, and no sign of a big facial bruise until the next scene when she was at the police station making a statement. She must have been snorting a lot of Logan’s special cocaine.

All of the above regarding the NYC sequences seemed to suggest that most of the budget was spent on doing a good job on the jungle scenes that focused on the main plot and protagonists, and these city scenes were later filmed more or less as an afterthought just to pad the running time to a full 90 minutes. They could easily have been left on the cutting room floor without in any way diminishing the main narrative of the movie. These sequences were pretty much filler that detract from the movie, so it’s a shame we never got a version of the flick that dispensed with most or all of these scenes. What went on in NYC after Mike Logan stole the drugs and fled to South America just wasn’t interesting or important enough to depict in such detail, and only had direct relevance on the main part of the movie as set-up to explain the search helicopter flown into the Columbian jungles towards the film’s climax. A single quick extra scene or two added to the script could have served as sufficient set-up for that, especially considering we knew Logan would never receive any comeuppance for his deeds from the police or the drug dealers he screwed over. The cannibals took care of that in the most dickish manner possible.

Interestingly, the male members of the cast (and one female member) took on screen names for the credits that sounded more American, so that the movie seemed less like an Italian production (for example, Giovanni Lombardo Radice being credited as “John Morghan”). Yanno, sort of similar to the way employees from India or the Middle East who regularly service North American clients during these days of rampant outsourcing take on American-sounding names like David or Mary to sound… well, more American.

Basically, for those with strong stomachs, tolerance for real animal violence (and I mean for viewing it, not necessarily being okay with it ethically), and a penchant for a good jungle adventure flick, I highly recommend this movie. It does have a point to its script beyond the violence, and if you aren’t totally taken aback by those scenes, then you can see this flick as more than a mere exploitation film with no overriding message. If you overlook the New York City sequences, you will at least get a decent script with very competent acting and generally believable characters, if not always believable events. I personally found this movie to be a worthy addition to the horror genre in general, and the Italian cannibal sub-genre in particular.

Cannibal Ferox sharing scene

“Just so we don’t come off as overly impolite captors, I thought I would share some of your friend’s penis with you. I was even generous enough to pre-chew it for you, see?”

I Just Finished Reading Michael Crichton’s CONGO… and Compared to the Movie Version, It’s Nothing to Go Ape Over

 

Let me admit this right off the bat, despite how much it goes against consensus opinion on the matter: Paramount Pictures’ 1995 big screen adaptation of the late, great Michael Crichton’s novel Congo  is one of my favorite horror/adventure films of that decade. To those who have read even a moderate amount of consensus reviews on the quality of this movie, let me assure you that you did indeed read that correctly. Nearly every single review of the film I’ve read over the years, who are often quick to compare it to Crichton’s 1980 novel — and who range from the most famous film reviewer to the lowliest ad hominem-hurling Internet commentator — is generally this: “The movie totally sucked. You really need to read Crichton’s novel, which was brilliant. The movie version left a reeking shit stain on Crichton’s great work.”

What finally inspired me to compose this blog was my state of mind after finally getting the chance to read Crichton’s novel, completed just the other day. I was hoping that my greatly contrary opinion to consensus thought about the quality of the movie wouldn’t extend to that same opinion regarding the oft-stated “brilliance” of its literary inspiration. It wasn’t to be the first time one of my hopes were cruelly dashed, but it was the one relevant to this blog. So if you bother to stick around after this sentence, you are about to read my pontifications as to how the book compares to the movie, specifically why I greatly disagree with the frequently heard commentary from those who have critiqued and compared both.

Congo01

This mo’ fo’ will do a lot worse than hurl feces at you.

I. Conventional Wisdom is Not Always Wise

Contrary to what those who read my non-fiction scribing and also do not know me too well personally may assume, I’m not one of those people who knee-jerkedly goes against anything considered to be conventional wisdom merely for the sake of “being different” or “looking for negative attention.”

There are, in fact, many aspects of conventional wisdom I do fully agree with, including within the realm of literary and film criticism. To wit, I think Citizen Kane  is an absolutely brilliant film. However, I have more than my share of disagreements with the vast majority on certain commonly held opinions: e.g., though I concede The Godfather III  most certainly did not match the grandeur of the first two films in the trilogy, I do not  agree that it thoroughly sucked a certain unmentionable anatomical appendage.

I’m simply notorious for being vocal about aspects of conventional wisdom that I may disagree with based upon a combination of personal experience and research, no matter how dear to the heart of mainstream thought such beliefs, opinions, or interpretations may be. Just ask anyone who has ever heard me dare to criticize anything about Alan Moore’s attitude and decisions regarding his infamous falling out with DC Comics (I do not think his motivations were based on principle or that his work has earned him the right to be an arrogant asshole), or publicly mention that the movie version of The Princess Bride  is not  on my list of cherished cinematic memories (I know what you’re thinking about that last one: “inconceivable!”).

Which brings us to my opinion on how Congo the novel compares to Congo  the film.

I insincerely apologize to the vast majority of critics about this, but I most certainly do not think the movie version sucked ass. Was it a blockbuster epic along the lines of Aliens? No, it wasn’t, and no one deciding to watch the film should expect such a thing going in. But it was a slick, relatively well-acted adventure flick with good casting choices, a decent if not stellar script courtesy of John Patrick Shanley, and some impressive physical effects despite a limited budget during the last years before CGI almost completely took over. The species of vicious, gray-furred gorilla which menaced the human expedition to the remote rain forests of Zaire (that’s what they call the Congo now, people!) were genuinely fearsome-looking and deadly… much more so than the versions that appeared in the book, in fact. But I’m getting just a bit ahead of things here.

The cast was genuinely likeable, even if over half of the expedition members were comprised of porters native to Africa who weren’t played by well-known thespians, and were simply there as fang fodder for the gorillas to rip apart. And these simian horrors didn’t skimp on any of that in the movie version! These killer gorillas were said to be the product of an ancient form of eugenics developed by the lost populace of Zinj, who bred and trained them to aggressively guard their precious diamond mines. It turned out that these simian creations of primitive genetic engineering kept up a sizable breeding population up to the present and continued their predatory security purposes long after the human civilization that spawned them vanished from the historical records. That spelled really bad news for the various individuals comprising the expedition that was hired to search for the legendary but unsubstantiated old city and its reported store of diamonds.

It’s a terrible shame that the company’s intel on the fauna bred by the people of Zinji wasn’t as good as that which they acquired for the lost civilization’s mineral resources. But if it was, the crew would have gone far better prepared, resulting in no loss of human life and a consequently huge loss of entertainment value for the viewers.

Congo02

You gotta “hand” it to that laser weapon’s efficiency! Bwah-hah-hah!

This strange species of aggressive gorilla resembled the two known and gentle conventional species, but had gray fur, somewhat sleeker (and thus faster) bodies, and were much more evil-looking. You wouldn’t want to confront one of these things in an alley, whether dark or fully lit, let alone in a jungle environment far from any human habitation. Having to deal with a horde of such killer simians in a very dangerous and remote area of Africa that these apes knew much better than any human was a true nightmare to experience. I think it’s a complete shame that we never saw more of these creatures in either additional movies or other in other mediums, thanks to the film’s lackluster performance at the box office. So I won’t hold out much hope for seeing Dark Horse Comics acquire the license from whoever now owns the copyright to produce a group of Congo  mini-series, including one titled Predator vs. The Apes of Zinj in the Congo or Tarzan vs. the Zinji Apes, or something like that. And what way cool crossovers those would have been! (Shameless plug: I had the Zinj Apes clash with Felanthus the Tiger-Man and the French vigilante Judex in my short story “Justice and the Beast” in the pulp fiction anthology Tales of the Shadowmen Vol. 12: Carte Blanche from Black Coat Press, so there’s that at least!).

II. Okay, Why Do I Think the Movie Didn’t Suck?

Shanley’s screenplay was faithful to the main story that Crichton took far too long to tell in the book. To paraphrase an apropos expression that someone living on a farm must have invented: Shanley cut most of the wheat from Crichton’s chaff and took one of the slowest stories I ever read and turned it into a reasonably fast-paced movie without losing anything important. The end result focused largely on the main details of the corporate-funded, ill-fated expedition’s trek into the lost city of Zinj and directly into a brutal life and death struggle with the Zinji Apes (did I just coin that term? We gotta call them something, right? And isn’t this easier to type than “Those Killer Gorillas From Congo“?).  Almost all extraneous details not integral to that particular plot, or even having direct bearing on it, were excised. And there were veritable heaps of this extraneous and semi-extraneous material in the novel. This very necessary excision amounted to cutting literally 70% of the text in the book… trust me on this, as I actually checked the counter on my Kindle tablet at the point in the novel where the expedition finally reached the area where they had to deal with the apes.

The gore and onscreen mayhem inflicted upon human victims was surprisingly intense for a PG-13 rated movie, and what survived the cutting room floor for the theatrical version really pushed the limits for that rating. We see the Zinji Apes’ penchant for literally tearing off the heads of human victims and then contemptuously tossing them at the surviving humans in quite graphic detail. This, btw, was in contrast to how the apes preferred to kill people in the book: they smashed their heads on each side with stone paddles specially sculpted by the ancient citizens of Zinj to be used by their ape sentries for that purpose. Yes, you just read that correctly; evidently, Crichton thought the considerable strength of the apes’ bare hands wasn’t sufficient to do the job. I’m thankful that Shanely’s script rectified that matter.

Travicom’s experimental laser beam, powered by the blue diamonds of a certain size that were found in Zinj’s precious mines, was utilized by Travicom’s maverick computer expert Dr. Karen Ross to literally slice through the ranks of the killer apes like a hot knife through wads of butter. And it was seriously sweet to behold! Those scenes hardly skimped on the retaliatory onscreen slaughter wreaked upon Zinj’s simian sentries.

The blue color of those diamonds actually signified a form of impurity that made these gems all but worthless in a financial sense, but extremely valuable in a sheer practical manner as a power source for certain advanced electronics. In turns out natural diamonds can serve as powerful semiconductors (remember learning about those things in high school physics class?) if they are put through a synthetic process called boron-doping, with said impurities leaving the normally clear sparkling gems with an azure hue.

The diamonds in the Zinj mines, however, are subjected to some volcanic process that leaves the lot of them naturally boron-doped, and thus invaluable semiconductors for all manner of technology. In the book, the device intended for this power source was a computer system designed to process command protocols and bolster communication speeds for human-created missile-firing armaments; they served mainly as an opportunity for Crichton to show off his extensive knowledge of late 20th century advanced computer and munitions technology. In the movie, the blue gems were used to power the large sophisticated laser which provided the human expedition members with opportunities to give as good as they got against the apes.

Congo03

Karen Ross kicks some serious hairy ass with the way cool weapon that Crichton didn’t include in the book version.

Take a guess as to which of the two diamond-powered devices I found to be more interesting and exciting. This was another change in Shanely’s screenplay from Crichton’s book that was a great improvement IMHO. The automated, laser-guided ground-mounted machine guns used by the humans to guard the perimeter of their camp from the apes appeared in both the book and movie versions, and the book actually used them to somewhat more of an effect. However, the addition of the diamond-charged laser rifle more than made up for that. Crichton’s book also described a more elaborate perimeter defense system, which included small but effective moats of water dug by the expedition members to exploit the fear of water that all great apes have. I don’t recall this shown in the film, but the moats were hardly missed due to the movie’s far faster pace.

Perhaps I should also mention that the company whose Evil Capitalist CEO, R.B. Travis (Joe Don Baker) employed Dr. Karen Ross and funded the American expedition to seek out the diamonds was called Earth Resource Technology Services Inc. (ERTS) in the book, but changed to the previously noted Travicom for the film. I’m not sure what the reason for the change was, but let’s face it, the latter title sounds much more satisfactory for the arrogance of a wealthy shark in human clothing like R. B. Travis. Even Tony Stark couldn’t resist naming most of his own businesses after himself!

Dr. Karen Ross was perhaps the main character in both the book and the movie, but in the film (where she was played rather well by a young Laura Linney) this tough-as-nails dame was given more humanity. The book version, while not truly malicious, was more or less totally self-centered, focused on finding the diamonds and making a name for herself in the company at all costs. The movie version was equally driven and determined, but she was greatly humanized by having screenwriter Shanely provide her with a fiancee that her literary counterpart lacked: Charles Travis (the inimitable Bruce Campbell of The Evil Dead  fame!), the doomed son of R. B. Travis, who was pulverized by the Zinji Apes during the first expedition sent by the company to find the diamonds.

The cinematic Ross had a clear conscience that caused her to turn on Travis when she discovered the mutilated and largely decayed body of her fiancee in one of the lost city’s stone temples, and thus realized that her employer and almost-father-in-law cared nothing for his murdered son and everything  for the diamonds and bottom line. In other words, he was a good CEO at the expense of being a bad person, very much in the mold of the Evil Capitalists Obadiah Stane and Darren Cross, whose film versions we saw in Marvel Studios’ Iron Man  and Ant-Man  respectively. The cinematic Ross was ultimately glad to sacrifice her career to make R. B. (“rat bastard”?) pay for his callous attitude towards everyone he ever met, including his son and her fiancee. That was nothing Ross’s page-bound counterpart would have done. The viewers of this movie left the theater with much more respect for the cinematic version of Dr. Ross than the readers of the book did for the literary incarnation, I’d wager.

Taking the place of the self-centered, avaricious, and deceptive version of Karen Ross in the film was the added character of the bogus Romanian philanthropist Herkermer Homolka (try to say that five times fast; he was played by Tim Curry). Perhaps more accurately, Homolka actually acted as the human repository for the base characteristics of Ross’ literary version, rather than a replacement for the character herself. The movie iteration of Ross was similar enough to the book version to be considered the same character, but one might say she was a different variation  of the same character, with the possibility that the version native to the movie reality had her dark side tempered by having a positive love interest in Charlie Travis.

The book incarnation seemed to love nothing beyond her career prospects, and the mission that she hoped would bolster her status within it was always her primary concern. Nothing wrong with a dedicated career woman, of course, but one who loves nothing but herself may leave a bit to be desired as a person. Of course, we all knew that from the moment Homolka was revealed as a fake who was simply after the diamonds that he would be gorilla fodder before the closing credits rolled (does anyone seriously consider this to be a spoiler?).

Dr. Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh), the scrupulous but in-over-his-head primatologist, and the sign language “speaking” young female gorilla Amy (Misty Rosas; I once had a best friend named Amy! And no, she wasn’t an ape!), whom he raised from infancy and was in charge of, came into the movie with their literary personas mostly intact. The movie made the improvement of including a device worn by Amy that possessed a computerized audio device enabling a crude verbal translation of her signs so that individuals not fluent in American Sign Language could understand her. This was a good replacement for the very frequent and tedious signs between Elliot and Amy that occurred in the book, with only the primatologist being privy to what she had to say until he let the readers know what she said.

The best character improvement in the cinematic version was the book’s Scottish mercenary Charles Munro being modified into the British African-American tour guide Munro Kelly (Ernie Hudson). The book version was an interesting character with heavy knowledge of the continent and the unsavory business that went on within its borders, but Hudson made his cinematic incarnation of Munro a true  character. The tough but witty and agreeable mercenary from the book was given a suave, affable, and quite charming personality courtesy of Hudson’s great acting talent. I’ve always believed that Hudson may be alongside Michael Ironside and Lance Henrikson as one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. The range of characters he plays well is impressively varied — everything from the sadistically evil criminal Half Dead from Penitentiary 2 to the gentle but heroic intellect-challenged Solomon from The Hand That Rocks the Cradle — and he was clearly having fun in this movie. The end result was therefore much more of a treat to behold than the written version of Munro in Crichton’s book.

Also included from the book was Mahega (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje – try typing that  name five times in a row!), leader of the expedition’s team of African porters. The book version was actually a bit more interesting than his movie counterpart, simply because the former had a “jolly,” good-spirited nature that intermittently offered relief from the grim situation the expedition crew found themselves in. The movie version had much less to say and do, thus making his character, though important to the expedition, largely come off as “just there.” Still, since neither incarnation of the character had any major bearing on the main plot, so I was able to overlook this personality modification.

III. Why I Think the Book Doesn’t Live Up to the Hype

For one thing, I should note that Crichton, despite being rightfully renowned as a great novelist with a lot of talent, frequently breaks what writing instructors frequently tell their students to be one of the cardinal rules of writing: show, don’t tell. He never hesitates to include long paragraphs of explanatory prose to describe every bit of scientific information and/or historical background behind anything of even moderate relevance that his cast of characters come across.

This includes a long historical perspective of Zaire, and the chaotic political situation going on there since time immemorial to throughout the 1970s decade; the scientific process of boron-doping; the history and technical workings of computer, munitions, and satellite technology, and precisely how such tech was all interwoven by 1980; the history of American Sign Language (ASL) being taught to simians and the details of various famous great apes in captivity who learned and used it; the full scientific skinny on the rain forest; the nature of mountain gorillas and the full range of their intelligence in captivity; the historical background of prevalent cannibalism practiced among so many African tribes right into the 20th century; the history and status of the various tribes living there; the nature of vulcanism, complete with an overview of many of the world’s most active volcanoes; etc., et al.

He is also fond of using this info to make largely incorrect future predictions. Then again, he didn’t suggest there would be a skyline full of flying cars, numerous kids enjoying the use of hovering skateboards, and giant holograms on movie-advertising billboards engaging in simulated attacks on people who walked past the theater by 2015, so I’ll give him a break on that.

Large swaths of the above were not presented to the reader via the dialogue and actions of the characters, but through countless paragraphs of textbook style documentation. Don’t get me wrong, I consider few rules presented by writing instructors to be the equivalent of holy writ, but rather much more a combination of the instructor’s personal tastes and popular convention among the writing community at any given time (for example, look at how many college and graduate school instructors frequently pontificate about how they loathe genre writing and consider it the nadir of the literary realm). Every reader’s preferences differ outside of a basic united desire to see coherent grammar, spelling, and formatting. For those who, like myself, enjoy absorbing knowledge off the page like Superman’s arch-enemy Parasite sponges the life energy from others, you may find Crichton’s work –including this novel– an excellent source of historical, cultural, and scientific info. I was highlighting passages of such dry information-laden text left and right for this reason as I read the book.

Amy the Gorilla01

Behold the glorious days before Andy Serkis came along.

But for those who prefer storytelling over big helpings of raw information, they would likely find Crichton’s writing style to be ponderous, not to mention an unwelcome diversion from the main plot and characters of the story. This is a problem you will not have with the movie. I suspect that this is why so many critics and reviewers applaud Crichton’s novel as being brilliant in comparison to the film. The thing is, it can well be argued that his genuine brilliance may be better served writing textbooks than prose fiction, or at least leaving the heavy helpings of scientific and historical information out of a tome devoted to telling a fictional narrative rather than simply providing paragraphs of factual information. This happens so often that the novel often reads like an educational book for grad school students rather than literary fiction.

The pacing of the book is also incredibly slow. I made no exaggeration when I said that you don’t even get to see the expedition encounter the Zinji Apes and volcanic bedlam until 70% of the way into the book. We barely see the killer gorillas prior to that, save for an early prologue sequence at the beginning of the book where their handiwork is shown being inflicted upon the first expedition, and a brief image of one of the apes is caught on one of their cameras. Dr. Elliot also takes long stretches of time to  analyze and theorize on what type of animal is shown in that hazy image.

The day-to-day travails of an inexperienced group trekking through the unforgiving rain forests of Africa take up a huge bulk of the story, but it never really becomes interesting enough to build a compelling narrative. No real tragedy occurs among the expedition during this time, and their encounter with the Ghost People tribe is pretty much a diversion to get them to meet the traumatized and soon to die sole survivor of the first expedition so they can learn something horrible happened. The only hint as to what that horrible thing may have been was the man’s horrified bellow upon seeing Amy the ape just before he collapsed dead. And that’s another thing: a further huge portion of the book is taken up with Elliot’s cute relationship with Amy. Charming interactions to be sure, but hardly necessary in their entirety. In contrast, the close and affectionate relationship between Elliot and Amy was made pretty clear in the movie without it taking up huge portions of the allotted time.

Then there were the many changes in the cast of characters I noted in the previous section. With the exception of Mahega, all of the character alterations in the movie improved over the versions seen in the book. Some of the humor in the film was strained and forced, but it was usually quite welcome, particularly those moments provided by Hudson. The subplot of the consortium composed of foreign corporate agents mounting a rival expedition to Zinj, and the Phileas Fogg-ish race between the two to be the first party to reach the ancient city, was left out of the movie. No great loss there, since despite the suspense it may have added to the book, it was hardly necessary to the plot and simply served to pad the length of the text further. If anything, it took up further space in the book simply to keep the page count up.

Amy the Gorilla02

Nothing “great” about this ape.

[In sign language]: “You fuck off you, Nigro. Amy know you can’t sing ‘Star Spangled Banner’ in sign like Amy. Amy good gorilla.”

Let me also make it clear that the enormous length of novels prior to the previous decade was often insisted upon by publishing houses of the era, since a bloated page count allowed them to justify charging more for the books and the establishment of monopoly price control. As a writer who worked during the era prior to the new possibilities offered by digital publishing, Crichton may well have inured himself to filling a book with 600 pages as part of standard editorial demand. It’s simply how it was done back then. The self-publishing revolution which began in the previous decade has alleviated that requirement, but in prior days there was little way around it if you were serious about being published, at least by a major label. Nevertheless, it doesn’t make the reading experience any less exhausting or tedious, and it embedded the belief in mainstream readers that a novel must be extremely lengthy to be of any value.

More action was featured in the book regarding a short span of pages following the expedition’s departure from Zinj (leaving the vicious gray gorillas behind for good) where the surviving members had to contend with repelling a savage attack by a group of deadly primitive tribesmen from the  remains of their airplane (those bastards even shit on the seats of the plane; I kid you not!). Moderate suspense was to be had here, but considering how much more exciting the confrontations with the gorillas were in the movie than the book, the removal of this sequence in the film version was no biggie.

In fact, the earlier scene of the expedition members dodging hostile government missile fire while traveling over Zaire airspace was even more exciting in the movie version, with Dr. Ross finding a most clever way of diverting the government’s heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. The very suspenseful volcano erupting sequence from the book was retained in the movie, with the latter going much further in showing way cool scenes of the killer gorillas getting filleted by the raging rivers of red hot liquid rock.

I have since found a few others voices of agreement with me in regards to the quality of the movie, despite the legions of “the book is brilliant but the movie sucked” advocates out there. This includes both my friend and colleague Derrick Ferguson, who describes the film version of Congo  as a cool modern pulp adventure on the Blood & Ink blog here; and the detailed analysis of the movie provided by PhilipJames1980 for the IMBd entry on this movie (just scroll down the page to the top of the ‘User Reviews’ section). I was also recently informed by a valued member of one of my writing groups that Amazon has several reviewers who likewise enjoyed the movie and were not so keen on the book.

Even though the absence of these other praises wouldn’t have affected my opinion, it’s always a bit refreshing to find out that you aren’t the proverbial lone voice in the wilderness when it comes to a certain strong minority view. Conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong, but it’s certainly important to question it on matters where we happen to feel that it is. As such, I fully recommend that everyone who enjoys good, fun pulp-style adventure to give the movie a chance, and to only take the time required to read the book if you happen to be enamored of Crichton’s specific style of writing and are an avid connoisseur of information. To each their own, bro.

Ceasar01

“Okay, I may be from that other  movie about apes who war against humans, but since I’m sure lots of humans can’t tell the difference between a chimp and a gorilla anyway, who cares, right?”

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HORROR OF DRACULA – Why It Remains a Seminal Film in the Dracula Cultural Mythos

Horror_of_Dracula_DVD coverThe cover to Warner’s DVD release of Horror of Dracula. It’s a shame the image of Dracula doesn’t resemble Sir Christopher Lee.

I just finished revisiting an old cinematic friend that had immense influence on me as a writer in the horror genre. I watched Horror of Dracula, the debut flick in Hammer’s classic, long-running Dracula film series, for the first time in a long time, and ostensibly for research connected with a new publishing project I recently began. That project is in tribute to the recent passing–just two days past at this writing–of one of the greatest thespians in the history of international cinema, Sir Christopher Lee. Released in 1958, the movie was titled simply Dracula in Hammer’s native Britain, but had the “Horror of…” tacked onto the American release to distinguish it from Universal’s classic 1931 movie, which was still being released to certain theatrical venues at the time (this was just before it was released as a TV package to Shock Theater along with many of the other Universal horror gems). The American release of this film also had strict competition from another Dracula flick released at roughly the same time, Gramercy Pictures’ The Return of Dracula, which featured Francis Lederer in the role of the Count (a role Lederer would reprise over a decade later in the filmed version of Manly Wade Wellman’s short story “The Devil is Not Mocked,” which was featured in an episode of the early 1970s American horror anthology TV series Night Gallery).

Dracula-Denrom04Do not  mess with this guy!

Now don’t get me wrong, this movie isn’t perfect by any means, and nit-picky reviewers can and have had a field day tearing it apart. And yes, its plot did deviate strongly from Bram Stoker’s all-important classic 1897 novel. The names and relationships of several key human protagonists in Stoker’s novel were liberally altered in various ways… e.g., Mina Murray/Harker became Mina Holmwood, the wife of Arthur Holmwood; Mina’s BFF Lucy Westenra became her sister-in-law, set to marry Jonathan Harker, who was Mina’s fiancee and later husband in the novel… who went from an unwitting solicitor to sell English property to Count Dracula, only to escape from his clutches and become part of Abraham Van Helsing’s vampire hunting crew that put paid to the Vampire Lord by the end of the novel… to the Vampire Lord’s librarian who attempted to infiltrate his home… only to most definitely not  escape from his clutches and become a casualty early on in this film; Dr Seward being not the director of an asylum as in the novel, but a regular visiting physician and a minor character in the movie (!); and no Quincy Morris (who likely would have ended up named “Quincy Seward” and depicted as the mischievous kid nephew of the doc had he been incorporated) or Renfield to speak of (!!). And in this movie the setting for Castle Dracula was a town called Klausenberg, apparently located somewhere in Germany, rather than the darkly atmospheric Transylvania locale of the novel before the action shifted to London, England, and then back again to Transylvania for the climax.

Lawerence Van Helsing03And if you happen to be a vampire, do not mess with this  guy!

However, despite these imperfections, I believe it stands out as an excellent horror film that continues to hold up very well today. Not only did it do justice to the basic conception of Dracula, but in many ways it influenced subsequent Western tropes of the Vampire Lord, along with vampire cinema and literature in general, as much as the 1931 Universal film did. The Hammer image of Dracula brought to the screen by Christopher Lee did borrow some elements from the Universal film depictions of the Count, which had itself incorporated them from the popular, long-running stage play that was only loosely based on the novel. This included the distinctive black cape, along with the dispensing of the novel’s caveats that Dracula aged if he went too long without blood (only to instantly return to some point between his late 30s and mid-40s upon imbibing more of the precious crimson fluid), or that he could move about in the sunlight (albeit at the expense of most of his power). Of course, these two caveats had been largely expiated from the Dracula mythos long before Horror of Dracula was released, going all the way back to the stage play.

Perhaps most notably, this movie series had to make a concession to Hammer’s limited budget and eliminate certain powers attributed to vampires since Stoker’s novel, and cemented in the public consciousness by the Universal films. Though the power of mesmerism could obviously be retained with no fuss or muss, Dracula and his fangy brethren had to be divested of their power to shape-shift into bats and wolves, not to mention the option of intangible mist. These powers were explained away in one scene when Dr. Van Helsing told Holmwood that vampires having such metamorphic powers were “a common fallacy.” This version of Dracula still worked well without these powers, and his natural cunning and stealth seemed to more than make up for such a lack of powers. In fact, it could well be argued that this portrayal of vampires sans their shape-shifting powers may have inspired many subsequent variations on the theme, including the vampire types later introduced by Anne Rice (Interview With the Vampire), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), Steve Niles (30 Days of Night), and Stephanie Meyers (Twilight).

This film, and the movie franchise that it spawned, did add a lot of unique flavor to the multi-cultural Dracula parable, however. Lee’s version of Dracula lacked the suave and charming persona of his Universal predecessor, limiting this characteristic merely to the veneer of common civility and hospitality he displayed to Harker (played by John Van Eyssen) during the early scenes of the movie. In fact, these early exchanges between Dracula and Harker in the former’s castle were the only lines of dialogue actually spoken by the Count on screen. They amounted to a mere 13 lines granted to Lee for his portrayal. This was only a minor improvement over the zero lines of dialogue he was given as the Monstrous Creation of Baron Victor Frankenstein a year previous in the first of Hammer’s wildly successful classic horror films, The Curse of Frankenstein. That movie, btw, also spawned an equally long-running franchise, but Lee was to appear in it no more, as that film series was to belong (mostly) to his good friend and frequent co-star Peter Cushing, leaving the Dracula franchise to Lee (save for the second and very last film in the series, The Brides of Dracula and The 7 Brothers vs. Dracula [British release title: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires], respectively).

Dracula-Denrom03Uncle Drac wants YOU!

To be one of his vampire brides! Muah-hah-hah!!

Uncle Sam01“Shit!!”

However, Lee was still to share billing with Cushing in this first film and two others (i.e., Lee’s last two Dracula flicks for Hammer, Dracula, A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula; Cushing got to reprise his Van Helsing role without Lee in The Brides of Dracula and The 7 Brothers vs. Dracula). As noted above, Cushing had the important role of Dr. Van Helsing (his first name was never given in the movie), the medical doctor who was a crusading expert and hunter of vampires. Though he was younger in this movie than his counterpart in the novel, Van Helsing’s character portrayal was left much intact for this film, and Cushing shined like a super nova in the role as anyone familiar with his oeuvre would well expect.

Nevertheless, though Cushing got most of the movie’s good dialogue, and Lee got none following his initial scene with Harker in the castle, it was a testament to Lee’s great acting range and skill that he still pulled off the role via facial expressions, body language, and the sheer aura of menace he exuded every single second he was on screen. His version of Dracula was utterly relentless and vindictive in the pursuit of his mostly female victims to add to his harem. The charms of the Universal Dracula as portrayed quite memorably by Bela Lugosi to get past the guard of his prospective lady victims and her friends and family alike were replaced by something equally effective and much more chilling by Hammer’s Dracula: the sheer psychic power he wielded over these women upon first biting them, turning them into organic putty in his taloned hands so that they themselves would sabotage every effort attempted by their protectors to keep the Vampire Lord from getting to them. Stealth of action, not trickery of word, was used in tandem with psychic domination to get close enough to menace them. The determined Van Helsing had his work cut out for him against this version of the Prince of Darkness.

Though Holmwood (also well played by Michael Gough) participated in this battle much as his counterpart in the novel did, it was Van Helsing who had a solo battle with Dracula in the end, which was very unlike the group effort that took down the Count in the novel. The death sequence of exposing Dracula to sunlight with a simple but tactically effective pull of the curtains was spectacular and utterly grotesque even by today’s standards. Don’t think you’re too jaded by modern horror films to avoid receiving shudders from viewing it. Despite having quite a limited budget to work with, Hammer made good use of the talents and resources it did have at its disposal in this debut film of the studio’s Dracula series, and director Terrence Fisher got the most out of a talented ensemble of thespians, particularly Lee and Cushing. The screenplay by Jimmy Sangster had but minimal fealty to Stoker’s novel, and was full of holes, but that didn’t detract from the performances provided by the acting crew and the other type of holes left in the necks of the Count’s human victims.

Dracula-Denrom06“Don’t even think  of telling me to get some Visine!”

Visine“Damn, you beat me to it! Ha ha ha!”

This movie and the rest of Hammer’s horror studio product may not compare in the gore factor department with modern franchises like the Saw  and Hostel  series, or anything like the grotesque nastiness of the Human Centipede  films, but it was pretty damn heavy for the time period. It certainly didn’t limit the worst violence to the viewer’s imagination as the Universal films did (with effectiveness, in case anyone mistakes this for criticism of those early horror movies and their masterful use of suspense). Hammer did things much differently than Universal, and catered to changing tastes of both viewer expectations and what the evolving cinematic genres would allow to appear on screen by the late 20th century. This movie played up the sexual aspects of vampirism that were always implicit in the concept but had to be kept more subtle in the past, and for all his terrifying mien Lee’s Dracula used the handsome appearance of the actor with the malevolent “bad boy” menace he projected so well to be as much a turn-on to female viewers as a nightmare to fear. I’m sure many female viewers considered Lee’s Dracula, as much as Lugosi’s and (later) Frank Langella’s and Gary Oldman’s, to be a horror figure they thought about hiding with  under the covers of their bed rather than hiding  from.

In fact, Lee’s Dracula personified the ultimate challenge to the male rival. His fantasy mesmerism symbolized the dark traits of the “bad boy” that enthrall so many women, and which push so many noble men to the wayside in favor of. Cushing and Holmwood represented exemplars of the noble and well-intentioned if a bit stodgy male fighting against the powerful dark rivalry embodied by Dracula’s “bad boy” archetype, and triumphed in the end. Even though we all know that in reality, the “nice” guys often ultimately lose the war rather than just several battles along the way, but it’s nice to see them win in our dreams, and to see these dreams transcribed metaphorically to the big screen in such a visceral manner! This is something that films in the horror/fantasy genres do so well, along with action cinema in a general manner.

As for the women in this movie, the only two really major female characters were Lucy Holmwood (played by the stunning Carol Marsh) and Mina Holmwood (played by the less stunning but venerable Melissa Stribling). They both gave good performances, though mostly as typical damsel in distress/victim characters, or as a concerned surrogate big sister/mother figure (in Stribling’s case), who needed the male saviors to rescue them. Lucy Westenra was portrayed much the same way in the novel, but Mina Murray (later Harker) had much more spunk and character to her in the book. She still ended up playing the damsel in distress, though, and only by the later hands of other authors–notably Elaine Bergstrom and Alan Moore–did she rise above that less-than-exalted trope to become a respected force to be reckoned with. Of course, Hammer’s films were produced long before the era where we could see the likes of Rachel Van Helsing from Marvel Comics’ successful comic book series The Tomb of Dracula  a decade and a half later, let alone Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Zenescope’s Liesel Van Helsing from their Grimm Fairy Tales line of comics two and four decades after that, respectively.
Valeria Gaunt (strangely not listed anywhere on this film’s entry in the Internet Movie Database) put in a memorable performance as the raven-haired female vampire who menaced Jonathan Harker during the early sequences in Dracula’s castle, but she later found herself easily put out of her misery by the business end of Van Helsing’s stake while slumbering in her coffin. Marsh did a fantastic job for the still chilling scene when, after being vamped, she almost put the bite on a little girl and her brother. That was a sequence which duplicated the “Bloofer Lady” that Lucy Westenra became in the novel after being vamped in a fairly faithful manner. It should be mentioned that the bloody scene of Lucy Holmwood getting the stake while counting sheep in her own coffin was directly imitated by the sfx crew of The Return of Dracula for a surprise color insert in the otherwise black and white flick.

The evolution of creature technology and the fundamental role technology plays in shaping monster movies will be explored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in “Monsters in the Movies” on Thursday, October 21, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Pictured: Christopher Lee in a scene from HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958.

“PEEK-A-BOO! You’re dead! Bwah-hah-hah!”

To sum it all up, this movie has not lost its ability to send chills down the spine of its viewers, and to do this every bit as much as it did when we die hard monster fans first watched it on TV in our childhood. It would be later in the series before Hammer began adding nudity, more overt sexuality, and put a increase on the blood and gore factors, but this movie and its first few sequels stand above these later efforts. Though we didn’t get a Stoker-friendly version of Dracula here, we did get yet another iconic portrayal of the Count that had and continues to have a  major effect on every depiction of Dracula and vampire characters in general since that first Hammer film saw the light of day (if you pardon the irony there). Lee would go on to take the role of the Count in more movies than any other actor, and this includes a cameo in one movie outside the horror genre entirely (the Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford farce fest One More Time), and two Dracula films outside the Hammer roster (i.e., Jess Franco’s Spanish flick Count Dracula; and a French comedy-horror mishmash, Dracula and Son). The Hammer horror films, particularly the Dracula series, continues to be a major influence on horror cinema today, and this debut flick in the series makes it quite clear why this is the case.

You can purchase this movie on an excellent high-quality 3-disc Blu-ray version released by Lionsgate, or a much more affordable 1-disc DVD version released by Warner Home Video. You can also purchase it even more affordably in digital HD format from Amazon Instant Video.

I Finally Found the Courage to Watch “INSIDE” – Review

INSIDE-movie-poster-2007-1020419953

The latest in my series of reviews for films with a rep for difficult-to-sit-through levels of brutality, The Weinstein Company’s 2007 French horror flick Inside starring Alysson Paradis, was quite a roller coaster ride. Actually, it was a ride that metaphorically had the impact of a serious automobile crash, which is perhaps a more apropos analogy considering the incident that presaged the nightmarish mess which the film’s main protagonist, Sarah, was to find herself in.

For the plot, Sarah is a pregnant photojournalist for a prominent French newspaper who seemed to have a happy marriage. This state of bliss was to come to a tragic and horrific end when during her fifth month of pregnancy, she was involved in a terrible automobile accident–with her in the driver’s seat–that killed her husband and seriously injured Sarah herself… albeit not in permanently crippling fashion, and her in utero  daughter was left unscathed. Four months later, Sarah was mostly physically recovered, but as one may expect, she was still emotionally shattered. She obviously blamed herself for the accident that cost the life of her husband due to her lack of good road judgment at a crucial moment (actually, it was never revealed which driver was at fault in the head-on collision, but just go with me here…). This severe emotional malaise so soon after the accident prevented her from taking much joy in the impending blessed event. Nevertheless, she was still clearly determined to have and nurture the child that was all that was left in the world of her husband, and a manifested product of the happy union they once shared.

There is also a bit of first person character expository narration at the beginning of the film that all viewers should pay attention to. This is because while it’s not totally clear what it means at first, it provides a tantalizing clue that leads to the truly twisted twist towards the end of the movie that makes the motives of the psychotic woman who targets Sarah crystal clear. And when these motives are fully revealed, it throws a massive emotional curve ball to both Sarah and the viewer. It was, frankly, a brilliant twist that actually causes the viewer to see the sadistic psycho murderer who has targeted a pregnant woman in a sympathetic manner. I’m not kidding here! For those who manage to sit through the stomach-churning carnage that ensues up to that point, this emotional bombshell will be well worth the oral expulsion of bodily fluids the viewers may have endured to reach that revelation. It’s both the crux and, yes, the heart of this unreservedly morbid flick.

Anyway, to wrap up the basic synopsis, after the set-up prologue Sarah is seen being examined by her obstetrician on Christmas Eve (again, apropos considering I happen to be doing this review during the holiday season of 2014). She is overdue, but the baby is found to be healthy, and the doctor predicts she will likely go into labor over the next 24 hours. If she doesn’t, then she will be expected to journey to the hospital the following day to have the labor induced. Sounds suckish, right? Well, as bad as things were for poor Sarah up to now, had things gone the route of the anticipated Christmas birth, it would have been a pleasant walk in the park compared to what was about to occur that evening when she returned home. Where she was conveniently living alone, I should add.

No sooner was Sarah relaxing in the comfort of her home, then she received a knock on her door from a strange woman who made the cliched’ claim that the battery of her car had died, prompting her to ask if Sarah would be a good Samaritan and let her in the house to use her phone and make a call to what I presume to be France’s equivalent of the AAA for help. To her credit, the very non-naive Sarah can tell something is just “off” about this strange woman right away, and not only wisely refuses to let her in, but asks her the logical question as to why she doesn’t simply use her cell phone to call for help. Yup, the cell phone is an invention that throws a monkey wrench in the most time-honored method of the home invader that worked so well prior to the 21st century. Of course, the woman countered this logical question with the common cliche’ most often used to counter this line of query: she claimed her cell phone had died around the time the car did.

Again to her credit, Sarah wasn’t buying the obvious con job (I’m guessing she had seen as many horror flicks in the slasher and home invader sub-genres as the rest of us have), and told her mysterious visitor to look elsewhere for help or she would call the police. This is when things really start getting scary. The woman revealed that she knew who Sarah was; knew she was pregnant; and knew about the details of the car accident, and informed her she would know whom her visitor was was if she simply opened the door. Sarah wisely refused again, of course, but this is when the nightmare began going into full gear. The supremely unwelcome visitor refused to take no for an answer, and damaged one of the front windows.

Refreshingly, the strange visitor never cut the phone lines, another time-honored technique of antagonists from horror flicks which the invention of cell phones have likewise put a damper on. And Sarah’s own cell phone didn’t just happen to lose power or get dropped in the toilet bowl at the most inconvenient of times. Nope, screenwriter/directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo didn’t take the predictable and easy way out by turning Lady Luck against the protagonist. Sarah was  able to call the police, and they did  come promptly; and this despite some violent uprisings that were occurring in the suburb of Paris where Sarah lived. And one of the most horrific twists of this film was that even the police were unable to prevent the horrifying nightmare that was to consume Sarah’s life for the duration of the night, even when they were on the premises.

To make a long story short, this psychotic visitor–whose real identity would not be revealed until near the end of the film–launched a relentless and incredibly brutal home invasion on Sarah because she wanted to steal her baby. And by that, I mean while the infant was still in her mother’s womb. Of course, this woman could have simply waited for Sarah to have the delivery induced the following day, then broke into the house that night and taken the baby after she was born. But alas I don’t think like a psychotic, so what do I know? Moreover, there is good reason to believe that this highly unbalanced individual was actually highly desirous of doing major anatomical damage to Sarah in course of acquiring that precious payload in her abdomen.

So does the movie live up to its rep as one of the most brutal and compelling of the New French Horror cinema offerings that has taken the world by thunder over the past decade? To put it bluntly, yes.  For the record, I did manage to sit through the whole flick without turning my head, but even my high level of tolerance for gore and explicit horror was put to the test a few times, and I did cringe. Warning: No matter your constitution, I advise against watching this film while eating, because it will put a damper on the enjoyment of your repast. Also take this serious warning to heart: if you’re a person or couple who has experienced the personal tragedy of a miscarriage, you should really avoid this flick like the proverbial plague, at least until you are reasonably emotionally recovered. It’s an understatement to say that watching this film will do your emotional state of mind no favors whatsoever.

Not to give away any major spoilers, but the rest of the film focuses upon Sarah’s desperate efforts to fend off the brutal attacks of this sadist. This woman is completely deranged, and while not a supernatural slasher in any way, she is maniacally relentless in her efforts to acquire what she came for, and would not hesitate in the least to viciously rip through any other person who gets in her way. And this she does with bloody aplomb to the various friends, relatives, and even police officers who arrive that night at the house periodically to check on Sarah or attempt to help her. This psycho has a very powerful motivation to accomplish her grotesque task, and her lack of supernatural powers is more than compensated by her single-minded determination, proclivity for quick thinking in any situation, and her seemingly inborn ability to use any type of implement she can get her hands on for deadly effect (she would have been a perfect contestant for the brutal contest depicted in Battle Royale). The degree of cruelty she exhibits when taking her victims is both an awesome and terrifying sight for the viewer to behold.

INSIDE_scene01Insert your own ‘Bloody Mary’ joke here.

Sarah turns out to be no slouch or typical screamy damsel in distress despite the horrifying ordeal she has to deal with. The performance by Paradis in the role of the film’s protagonist is exemplary. The fact that she is quite pretty with beautiful raven-colored hair takes a bit of the unpleasantness out of the film for its viewers who swing that way sexual orientation-wise… but only a bit. The role of the featured antagonist, played by the also attractive French film veteran Beatrice Dalle, was also chillingly top-notch. She didn’t get a lot of dialogue, but she did a remarkable emotive performance during her non-speaking majority of screen time. When Dalle’s character did have words to speak they were done very well, and cut through the viewer with the same precision as the variety of sharp objects she got her hands on throughout the movie.

 

Other disturbing and tragic situations also beset Sarah as the result of the melee instituted by her psychotic visitor. One of them involves her having to perform an emergency tracheotomy on herself. That scene actually puts the impromptu tracheotomy performed on Eric Stoltz’s character in Anaconda  to shame. You won’t see that  being taught on an episode of Sesame Street,  nor in a crash course on emergency first aid. And one of the murders constitutes perhaps the most horrifically depressing “oops!” moments in the history of horror cinema since the ending of The Mist.

The mood established by the directors was eerily compelling, and I must agree with Amazon reviewer Hugh Starkey when he says of this film: “One of the best horror (or any other film, for that matter) that I have ever seen”; and R. Loveren “DJ Waxternal” when he/she calls this flick, “One of the best and sickest horror films I’ve ever seen! It’s blunt, in your face, and unforgiving from the start to the end.” The movie had a minority of detractors amongst the reviewers, as is the case with all films, and while I respect their opinions, I sometimes wondered if they had seen the same flick that I did, or actually watched the unrated version in its entirety.

This movie’s unrelentingly dark tone and direction is enhanced by the fact it lacks almost any humor whatsoever; what takes place on screen is as dark as darkness gets. Despite the fact that most of the events occur in a single location, this actually works to the movie’s advantage, and never does it come off as fiscal corner cutting on the part of the filmmakers. The gore effects were very well done and sometimes disturbingly realistic, and they kept on coming and rarely failed to exceed the ones that came before.

INSIDE_scene02When Sarah’s mom told her that it was “handy” to have a pair of scissors around, I don’t think this is what she had in mind.

Though the adversity was mainly between Sarah and her psychotic attacker, another stand out role is provided by one of the police officers who makes a heroic bid to protect the besieged woman from the relentless killer. This officer is played quite well by Nicolas Duvauchelle, and he serves as more than mere slash fodder for the psycho antagonist. But his ultimate fate is unexpected and tragic beyond belief, and Sarah pays as heavy a price for it as he does. You have to see it to understand the meaning of my words, but prepare yourself.

The only bit of humor provided is the reactions of a hapless young criminal whom the officer in question had arrested on a minor charge prior to being called for backup to Sarah’s residence. He pays the price for being at the wrong place, at the wrong time like few other horror film characters in the history of the genre. I’m confident that I’m not providing any major spoiler here by mentioning what you can probably figure out already: this poor was nothing more than the slasher film equivalent of one of the Away Team redshirts from an episode of Star Trek.

INSIDE_scene03“Heeeeee-rrrr-ssss… um, ‘Bonnie’??? Shit, that doesn’t sound right…”

The degree of grotesque injuries that Sarah and her attacker inflicted upon each other using anything in the house each woman could get their hands on were among the most harrowing parts of the ensuing events to watch. The viewer was forced to repeatedly ask themselves exactly how much a nine month pregnant woman on the verge of going into labor could possibly take before taking a turn for the worst. That question is ultimately answered when Sarah–and her unborn daughter–finally do actually reach that limit. What happens when they do was one of the few scenes that made me truly cringe and want to stop watching… but I simply couldn’t. The horror of what I was watching was constantly balanced out by the fascination factor. That, along with my cheering for the brave Sarah, whose determination to survive and protect her unborn from being literally torn from her matched the relentlessness of the psycho killer attempting to commit her ghastly act of robbery.

The disturbing scenes of gore were punctuated by CGI shots of Sarah’s unborn child within her womb reacting to the various wounds inflicted upon Sarah’s body. Actually seeing the in utero  infant suffering in that manner added an element of extreme emotional disturbance to a movie that already had more than enough of that on display outside  of the womb. Those CGI effects served their purpose, but their quality wasn’t 100% convincing. For those who may remember, think of the quality of animation afforded to the dancing CGI baby that became such a popular meme on the Internet during the earlier days of the Web circa late 1990s, and you have a good idea of what to expect here.

This movie is an affordable 48 hour rental on Amazon Instant Video at $2.99 in standard definition (add a dollar to that for a rental in HD, for those who think that makes a significant difference). The movie is not available on Neflix at this writing. The dialogue is in French with English sub-titles. It’s more than worth the digital video rental price for Euro-Horror and slasher film aficionados.

For those with a high degree of tolerance for brutal gore in the extreme, and who appreciate sheer horror with a well conceived script that provides enough suspense and emotional blows along with the scenes of repellent carnage, then you could hardly do better than this. Just don’t consider this movie a good date flick, since your paramour will spend more time retching than clinging to you; and what they see over the course of the film may completely destroy any possible post-viewing romantic mood, if you get my drift, mate.

INSIDE_scene04Sarah: “Can’t you just adopt, for Christ’s sake?!”

Psycho Attacker: “Sarah, m’dear, you just don’t think like a psycho, do you?”

Sarah: “Then can’t you be patient enough to wait for the baby to be born tomorrow?”

Psycho Attacker: “*Sigh*… Kindly refer to my previous comment, m’dear. I hate having to waste time repeating myself when I have an unprofessional medical procedure to perform…”

Reviews – Philip Jose’ Farmer’s Lord Grandrith/Doc Caliban Trilogy

This post is my triple review of the three novels by Philip Jose’ Farmer featuring Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban, his pastiches of Tarzan and Doc Savage respectively, as well as some related material that followed. These novels are, in order of publication:  A Feast Unknown; The Lord of the Trees; and The Mad Goblin.

I. The Man, the Mythography, the (Flawed) Legends

The late Philip Jose’ Farmer (1916-2009; often respectfully abbreviated to ‘PJF’ by us lazy typists) is one of the breakout sci-fi/fantasy/pulp adventure writers of the 20th century. Never afraid to push the boundaries, PJF brought the world numerous interesting and sometimes discomfortingly intimate stories of human interactions with truly alien life forms in various speculative alternate futures. Whether you liked or hated PJF’s material, you weren’t likely to forget what you read, or the questions he forced his readers to ask about themselves and their place within the cosmos. The 2005 collection of some of his early sci-fi novellas by Baen Publishing – Strange Relations – provides a good sampling of this mind-boggling material.

Strange_Relations_cover
However, PJF’s early sci-fi is not the focus of this review, since, to my knowledge, no major attempt to fit any of that material into the various alternate futures branching off from the “consensus” Wold Newton Universe (WNU) has been attempted to date (but stay tuned!). Instead, I’m going to focus on a trio of closely interrelated books penned by PJF at the close of the 1960s decade, which have the distinction of being considered by many creative mythographers to represent the beginning of both his great foray into pulp adventure; and his famous work on para-scholarship intended to tie disparate pulp adventure characters from classic (and sometimes not-so-classic) literature into a single shared universe – and often to a shared and complex genealogical lineage – all within the framework of a reality that is as close to the “real” world we know as one can expect of a universe with such inhabitants, and with physical laws that allow them to exist as they are.

The events recorded in this trilogy of books, interestingly enough, occur within an alternate time track diverging from the “consensus” WNU. However, a subsequent follow-up work of short fiction by PJF that was later augmented by a series of short stories composed by one of his main successors — chief curator of the WNU concept today, Win Scott Eckert — have made it clear that the story quite literally overlaps with the “mainstream” WNU continuity. This trilogy and its follow-up short story, “A Monster on Hold” (more on that later), combine to form an interesting might-have-been history on a world existing on the frontiers of the same megaverse (or, as Win Scott Eckert prefers to call it, pluriverse) that the “consensus” WNU exists in quantum alignment with. They specifically involve obvious pastiches of two of PJF’s favorite pulp adventure characters: Lord Greystoke, a.k.a., John Clayton Jr., a.k.a., Tarzan; and Dr. Clarke “Savage” Wildman, a.k.a., Doc Savage.

The pastiche iterations of the Tarzan and Doc Savage we know exist in an even closer genealogical relationship in this divergent world crafted by PJF than they do in the mainstream WNU: Here they are actually half-brothers whose shared parent, John Cloamby, was the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper of this timeline, who stalked the decrepit Whitechapel section of London in the late 1880s, leaving the remains of several mutilated prostitutes in his wake. One of the many individuals across the span of many alternate timelines to carry the mantle of Jack the Ripper, this version became the horror that he did due to a bout of temporary insanity brought on by the side effects of a life-extending elixir that he was one of the few human beings in the world who were privileged to receive it. Mr. Cloamby’s victims during his bout of insanity would certainly beg to differ that this elixir constituted any sort of “privilege” to the greater world around him, no doubt. However, Cloamby would seek to give the world reparations for the horror he wreaked while “under the influence” upon his return to sanity (or at least a semblance thereof).

Who granted Cloamby and a handful of others such an amazing (if tainted) privilege, you might ask? That would be the Council of the Nine – or simply the Nine, for us lazy typists – who are a small but incredibly powerful cadre of truly ancient human beings who secretly control many aspects of the world through their international criminal and para-military organization. There are nine of them in number, in case that wasn’t clear by the name of their group, btw (just checking!). They separately control a vast degree of financial resources and heavily armed manpower across the breadth of the planet, and by collectively uniting their forces throughout the millennia, they can effectively be considered the secret rulers of the world (take that, Illuminati!). This was made possible by a discovery many ages ago of an extremely rare elixir that extends the human life span tremendously, and they have the sole knowledge of how to distill this incredibly precious formula. They, and they alone, choose a handful of human servitors that make up the upper echelons of their organization to partake of this elixir and gain a life span where they will but very slowly age, and can expect to die of the universal disease of elderliness only after 10-30,000 years have passed (depending on how old the individual recipient was when the elixir was first administered).

Of course, the few extraordinary human beings who are chosen to receive this gift cannot benefit from it without one hell of a price. And that price is complete compliance with the orders, interests, and directives of the Nine when called upon. Moreover, they are not given the means to distill the elixir themselves; that remains the most closely guarded secret of the Nine. In order to earn the right to receive the annual booster required to keep the benefits going for thousands of years, they must not only remain members in good standing with the Nine’s organization, but they must all participate in a truly grisly and sexually charged ritual which takes place annually in a hidden location. This involves, to put it mildly, the sacrifice of some of the most prized portions of their anatomy to both each other and to the Nine – which will thankfully grow back during a short period of post-ritual convalescence thanks to the regenerative properties bestowed upon them by the elixir. Despite being able to regenerate quickly from non-immediately-fatal injuries and being immune to all known disease (save for the very slow progression of the aging process), they are not truly immortal, as they can be injured as readily as normal humans, and can be killed by any phenomena that can instantly prove fatal to a normal human being (so yea, it’s not advisable for any of these guys or ladies to openly confront a group of Uzi-wielding gangbangers or starving pack of wolves while unarmed or alone).

This leads us to the formerly separate but soon to become intertwined histories of Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban – the two main protagonists of this trilogy – whom, if you haven’t already guessed, are this reality’s version of Lord Greystoke and Doc Savage. They not only share an infamous father, as described above, but are the grandsons of XauXaz, the oldest and perhaps most powerful of the Nine. This is why their genetic potential was at such a high level at birth, and why their individual life styles and training led to the complete attainment of their amazing peak human physical and mental acumen. After establishing their respective legends as an adventuring lord of the jungle; and a master of technological innovation, medicine, & crime-busting, the two were obvious candidates for the Nine’s organization (and hey, look who their granddad was… nepotism rules!). The chance for such incredible life extension proved too tempting for either to question the nature of the organization they were offering fealty to in exchange, so both made this Faustian bargain, each becoming near-immortal in short order.

This led to the main crux of the storyline to follow, and one of the main points of focus that PJF brought to his interpretation of classic pulp heroes: Despite their greatness, they were encumbered with the same foibles as any other human being, and this inherent weakness added many uncomfortable shades of gray to the pure white that their uber-noble literary antecedents seemed to embody in their every recorded exploit. In fact, PJF was to make it clear that their official biographers largely romanticized and sometimes outright sanitized their written adventures to make them more palatable to the sensibilities of their early 20th century readers; and to the marketing & editorial requirements of their biographers’ publishers. This is because the readers and publishers of the time (usually) wanted larger-than-life heroes who were noble to the core. PJF the iconoclast would have none of that, however, and instead interpreted them as simply larger-than-life people who strove to overcome their human foibles and faults to accomplish heroic deeds, often succeeding but sometimes not, and occasionally falling short of their exalted principles in rather spectacular fashion. Just like, yanno, each and every one of us, and all the other people we know who genuinely strive to be good people; you can become a good person, but overcoming all of your human foibles is not something you can ever realistically expect to do.

Feast_Unknown_cover

The recent edition of A Feast Unknown published by Titan Books

In short, PJF gives us heroic people, rather than pure idealized heroes, a tradition followed quite successfully by the work of great creators like Alan Moore (think Miracleman, Watchmen, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen); and Joss Whedon (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly). This, of course, can lead to the debate as to whether we, as readers, prefer heroes we can relate to or heroes we can be inspired by. That is a worthy subject to ponder, and individual mileage amongst readers will vary on this point. I will leave this poignant topic for a future blog to tackle in depth in regards to my own preferences along these lines, and my thoughts regarding the merits of these two conflicting hero interpretations.

Of course, whether one prefers unequivocally noble heroes that you can look up to; or amazing people who have to fight internal as well as external demons to achieve greatness that we can relate to on an inner psychological and metaphorical level, probably determines which interpretation of the characters any given reader would prefer: The originals as written by their creators/official biographers, or as interpreted by PJF and subsequent writers who followed his lead (e.g., Alan Moore; Neil Gaiman; Mark Millar; Joss Whedon; Stephanie Myers). If you happen to prefer the latter interpretation, or can find a place in your psyche for both interpretations (like me), then you will likely find much to offer in PFJ’s work. If you prefer the former interpretation, then likely you will find yourself complaining that PJF “desecrated” what those heroes were “supposed to be all about” as written by their creators in any review you may compose of these works. You will note that the customer reviews on Amazon display both opinions, as one might expect.

II. Sibling Rivalry

 The main storyline of the trilogy involves a vacuum left in the ranks of the Nine when the incredibly ancient XauXaz finally bites the bullet (or so they all thought) by succumbing to old age. One of the upper echelons of their worldwide secret organization was now up for a huge promotion, and who better than one of XauXaz’s amazing grandchildren? (John Cloamby himself was since done in by his masters and benefactors for going against their best interests, though Doc Caliban would not find out until the course of this storyline.) Since both were deemed equally worthy, but only one could be given the promotion, the Nine utilized their answer to affirmative action policies by determining that whichever of the two was capable of killing the other in combat would prove themselves more worthy. As you can see, the concept of political appointment, let alone democratic election, was not a consideration for a group of all-powerful, warrior-oriented oligarchs like the Nine; they had to do things the hard (more like hardcore) way.

As you have probably already surmised, the Nine were capable of adding “taints” to the elixir that would have unfortunate side-effects. This compromised version of the elixir resulted in extreme changes in behavior that directly affected the sexual drive. In Cloamby’s case, it resulted in a form of insanity that caused him to be overwhelmed with a compulsion to commit horrific sex crimes. In the case of Grandrith and Caliban, they both found that they suddenly could only gain sexual satisfaction – and to a profound degree, it should be mentioned – by committing acts of extreme violence. This, of course, encouraged the propensity for violence that both had, something Grandrith ordinarily indulged in whenever he deemed necessary but which Caliban tried to keep under mental lock and key after contemplating the effects of his unleashed temper during his earliest cases as a crime fighter. And we all know what repression of one’s natural urges leads to, hmm?

To get the two unwitting half-siblings to participate in such a brutal contest, the Nine did one of the things they did best – manipulation (but with a little help from their other talent for kidnapping) – to provide false “evidence” to convince Caliban that Grandrith killed his beloved cousin, secret lover, and staunch ally, the voluptuous amazon Trish Wilde. Trish would play an important role later in the first novel once it was discovered that reports of her murder were greatly exaggerated (in the expected way upon meeting Grandrith, for one), and later elsewhere in the trilogy, this time in a manner befitting the incredible action hero PJF used her as a pastiche for, Doc Savage’s equally extraordinary daughter Patricia Wildman (the main protagonist of the recent novels The Evil in Pemberley House, co-written by PJF and Win Scott Eckert – this being the last published work of the former – and Win Scott Eckert’s The Scarlet Jaguar, an audio review of which you can check out here courtesy of Jason Aiken’s terrific YouTube channel Pulp Crazy).

This led to an extraordinary and vicious cat-and-mouse game that spanned the globe as Doc Caliban relentlessly hunted down Lord Grandrith, with the latter doing his impressive best to fend off the attempts at misplaced retribution by his long lost half sibling. As the reader happily expected, Caliban proved to be the most formidable foe the great jungle lord ever had to contend with; and Grandrith proved the most difficult target that the ersatz man of bronze ever attempted to put paid to. This led to an ultimate mano-a-mano unarmed battle between the two in the headquarters of the Nine, as the bronze warrior wasn’t inclined to listen to reason even after the jungle master discovered and revealed their actual relationship (and honestly, what fun would that have been for the readers if the bronze guy had taken the reasonable route?).

The battle was as graphically brutal and way cool as one would expect at this point, featuring two largely equally matched peak human titans struggling to inflict maximum damage on the other. And what damage was inflicted! Let’s just say that one of the two was particularly thankful for the regenerative properties of the elixir following the battle, otherwise even had he survived after what he had torn off of him, he would have forever lost the will to live.

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The original cover to A Feast Unknown by Essex House. Yes, the two fought each other naked. Did you expect otherwise?

Needless to say, when Trish’s survival was made clear to the Doc; the secret of the Nine’s tampering with the elixir to encourage this battle was likewise made known; and the side effects of the tainted formulae had run their course, the siblings’ shifted their mad-on for each other – not to mention losing the literal hard-ons they acquired by committing acts of extreme violence against others – to the real perpetrators of this mess, the Nine. They then resolved to join forces and undertake the most difficult task they ever undertook: The take-down of the Nine. This would prove just as difficult and outright grueling as it sounded, and it led into the plots of the two sequel novels, The Lord of the Trees and The Mad Goblin, which occurred mostly concurrently with each other, and which dealt with the separate but interconnected efforts of Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban, respectively, against the individual members of the Nine.

III. Sex, Lies, and Violence… and Lots of All Three Together

 The first novel interspersed these aforementioned fantastic pulp adventure exploits with raw, graphic, and outright controversial sex scenes, which included homosexuality (not overly controversial today, but certainly so during at the time of publication) and the homosexual rape of Grandrith himself (PJF wasn’t known for pulling his punches). These scenes were both gratuitous and connected to various plot points in the story. PJF stopped short of dealing with pedophilia and its political “cousin” hebephilia, both encompassing the Great Taboo of the modern era (most traditional and indie publishers won’t even consider stories that deal with intergenerational liaisons in a thoughtful manner these days), but he didn’t shy away from bestiality, including a grotesque scene of truly violent bestiality rape and direct allusions to a passionate love affair that Lord Grandrith once had with a female big cat companion. No, I’m not making any of this up for cheap shock value, so bear with me.

As you may expect, those controversial and graphic sex scenes in A Feast Unknown (which would not be repeated in the two sequel novels; see below) have subjected this book to much criticism by readers and reviewers who did not understand PJF’s mischievous ways, or the fact that they served as a crude parody of what he felt was the ridiculous over-abundance of violent sexcapades that were then appearing in the adventure and sci-fi literature of the time, i.e., circa mid-to-late 1960s. As famous genre author Theodore Sturgeon noted in a postscript for the first edition of this novel, “ultimate sex combined with ultimate violence is ultimate absurdity.” Also important to note is that this first novel was published by Essex House, who specialized in erotica, and didn’t shy away from the more controversial aspects of it. A novel with such elements was not likely to be accepted by any other publishing house of the time, at least none that would give it a quality release.

Of course, not only was this first novel in the trilogy only really noticed and read by niche audiences – specifically readers of exotic erotica or long-time fans of PJF – but it received the expected derisive reviews from critics who didn’t “get” the satirical intentions of the author. Moreover, publisher Essex House likewise didn’t “get” the true intent of PJF, which is why they published the book as pure erotica, not caring to notice the point made by the author. These harsh and often misguided reviews have continued right up to the latest edition of the novel, a quality release by Titan Books.

Granted, these elements make this novel one best avoided by the squeamish and overly PC out there, and is understandably not everyone’s cup of tea. This is to be expected by all authors and fans of any authors, as there is no writer whose oeuvre or writing style is suitable for all sensibilities; that is simply the nature of human nature in regards to our diversity of preferences in every which way. This is especially true for authors who push the boundaries of “acceptability,” and are not averse to tackling topics and asking questions that the prevailing culture are not comfortable with. PJF was an author who was inclined to confront such questions and transgress boundaries if need be, so those who are considering reading his work do need to take this into consideration. That said, this author believes that PJF did a great service to our culture by asking such questions and opening the many minds who were willing to listen as a result, and he is considered a great inspiration for many modern authors in the fields of speculative and pulp fiction for good reason.

Was the transgressive sexual elements of this book over the top? Of course they were. Were they in “bad taste”? Yes, they were, though I will gladly support Picasso’s famous saying that “the greatest enemy of creativity is ‘good taste’.” Culture and society cannot progress unless artists of all stripes push against existing boundaries, and insist on confronting questions that mainstream culture strives hard to avoid dealing with. These questions tend to be of extreme importance, and the frontiers of knowledge, understanding, and growth as a society are curtailed as a result of denial of any important facet of the world that is difficult to face. Denial has ever been the easy way out of things, and as I’ve often noted, the right thing to do is most often the harder of any two choices (or the hardest of any available choices). So personally, I’m thankful for what PJF and other authors before him and those whom he would inspire have given to the world, particularly as a writer who works with the same genres PJF did.

Nevertheless, no one should expect everyone to look favorably upon any given author’s work, and there are many available avenues for growth and progress, not all of them suitable for everyone. One person’s detritus is the treasure of another, and vice versa. With that point acknowledged, I certainly believe that PJF’s boundary-pushing way can be of immense value, interest, and inspiration to many readers and prospective authors who do not mind having their comfort zone violated and possibly shattered, and look upon such a thing as the path to enlightenment rather than the proverbial road to perdition.

III. A Lord Takes to the Trees, as His Brother Takes on a Mad Goblin

 This brings us to the concurrently occurring sequels, published a year after the first: The Lord of the Trees and The Mad Goblin. These sequels, however, were initially published by Ace Books, at the time being the premiere publisher of straight sci-fi, fantasy, and pulp fiction (which has since been absorbed into Penguin Books, which in turn has since merged with fellow publishing giant Random House to become – what else? – Penguin Random House). This change in publisher is highly important, because it greatly affected the tone and thematic elements of these two sequels.

Specifically and significantly, PJF wrote these two sequels as straight pulp adventure, focusing nearly exclusively on action and characterization, and keeping the sexual elements within “reasonable” bounds. Having seemingly gotten the desire for satire out of his system, and wanting to pen a serious pastiche of his two favorite pulp heroes under the aegis of a much better known publisher which would afford him access to a considerably larger audience, he wrote these two sequels accordingly. Any reviewer or non-reviewing reader who has a harsh reaction to A Feast Unknown for its graphic sexual aspects shouldn’t judge the two sequels on the same criteria, or based upon mere association. Those who prefer standard pulp adventure of high quality with good characters that continue to explore the philosophical nuances of the heroic ideal as few authors other than PJF can or are willing to try, should be encouraged to give these sequels a whirl and judge them entirely separately from the novel which spawned them both.

The sequels take place within months of the ending of A Feast Unknown, and directly reference its events. The Lord of the Trees focuses on Lord Grandrith’s battles against the Nine on one particular front, while also further exploring his origin, giving us a non-sanitized re-telling of the origin of Tarzan begun in A Feast Unknown, seeking to explain and/or discount many of the anomalies and less logical aspects of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ tales. In other words, this novel can be seen as a precursor to PJF’s effort at doing the same for the real deal with his ground-breaking para-biography of a few years later, Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke. That tome, in fact, is considered the one that jump-started the para-scholarship sub-genre of pulp fiction that is such an integral part of creative mythography, which this author is heavily involved in (yup, you can blame PJF for much of my own work!).

The Lord of the Trees delivers an adventure of Lord Grandrith that paints a heavy picture of PJF’s propensity for very in-depth research of any subject he tackles, in this case military conflict and strategies. He never glosses over any detail, such as what weapons are often used and what they are capable of, and this can be daunting for some readers while utterly fascinating for others. Again, your mileage will vary. What you basically get here is a grand adventure of Tarzan as interpreted by PJF, and what a grand adventure it is. The general plot revolves around the Jungle Lord taking on one member of the near-immortal Nine, Mubaniga.

This novel would also serve as a worthy predecessor to PJF taking on the real deal in his classic novel Time’s Last Gift, one of the best pulp adventure/sci-fi novels in his oeuvre IMO. Many of the elements of The Lord of the Trees would find their way into this other novel, and have since become some of the most pertinent elements in the Tarzan mythos as championed by creative mythographers.

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The recent edition of The Lord of the Trees published by Titan Books


The real treat of this duo of sequels by this author’s estimation is, hands down, The Mad Goblin. This novel dealt with the battle against the Nine on a different front, this one fought by Doc Caliban and his two allies Pauncho and Barney, who are the near-identical offspring of the two main members of his previous crew, who were themselves pastiches of the two most popular members of Doc Savage’s Fabulous Five, the brilliant but simian-like Monk Mayfair (a template for the character Henry P. McCoy, a.k.a., the Beast of X-Men fame) and the debonair, sword cane-wielding master attorney Ham Brooks. The characterization in this novel as captured by PJF was superlative, and affectionately loyal to the originals as classically written by Lester Dent. This is especially the case regarding the banter between Pauncho and Barney, who – like Monk and Ham – were the best of friends that were always amusingly at each other’s’ throats, the same type of relationship you saw between the Human Torch and the Thing of Fantastic Four fame. Of course, as noted before, Trish Wilde is also present, this time really getting to strut her stuff (and not in the same way she did in A Feast Unknown!).

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The recent edition of The Mad Goblin published by Titan Books

Very well highlighted in this novel is the myriad of technological gadgets, weapons, and pharmaceuticals carried by Doc Caliban and associates, displaying PJF’s great fondness for these products of Doc Savage’s inventive and scientific genius. They put anything in Bruce Wayne’s or James Bond’s repertoire to total shame. We also have a well-crafted mystery, as Caliban’s crew picks up some unexpected allies, a bickering English couple, whose true identities and purpose are not made clear until later in the novel.
The basic gist of the plot concerns Doc Caliban and crew’s conflict with the dwarfish though ultra-cunning member of the Nine, Iwaldi, whose nickname was the titular basis for the book’s title. Iwaldi was easily the most interesting and dangerous of the Nine, and that’s saying something. His presence as the main antagonist of this book provides a major work-out for Doc and the crew throughout the book.
As it turned out, Iwaldi had also gone rogue from the Nine (though certainly not for noble reasons!), and some of the most interesting elements of the plot dealt with the “Mad Goblin” fending off and initiating assaults against his former comrades in the Nine, culminating in a shoot-out with the forces of former Council member Jiinfan at Stonehenge. Iwaldi was as much the hunted as he was the hunter, and his legendary ingenuity was taxed to the limit here.

The major highlight of this book, however, is when Doc and his two allies are given perhaps their greatest challenge ever courtesy of Iwaldi’s machinations: Having to go bare-handed against a Kodiak bear, the largest existing ursine in the world. This provides a truly grueling battle sequence that is nothing less than epic, and one that pushes the great strength and battle prowess of Doc Caliban and his crew of two to their limits and beyond. They weren’t to emerge completely unscathed, but emerge they did, showing what stern stuff they were made of like never before, albeit under the most difficult conditions imaginable.

Also highlighted is more of the de-romanticized re-telling of Doc Savage’s backstory, as told by PJF in a way that character creator Dent never would have been allowed by his publishers. As with Lord Grandrith and the real deal he was based on, Lord Greystoke/Tarzan, this re-told backstory of Doc Caliban would serve as the basis for the second of PJF’s great para-biography, this one on the “real” Man of Bronze, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. Taken together, the Wold Newton family tree provided by PJF in both Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life would serve as the (sometimes tweaked) blueprint for the Wold Newton Family genealogy followed with consummate authority by pulp fiction authors and fans of creative mythography. Moreover, also as before, it would serve as the basis for PJF’s later tackling of the “true” Doc Savage with his novel Escape From Loki, which told the tale of Doc’s first meeting with the individuals who would become his Fab Five crew during his youth circa World War I.

The end of this novel brought the separate but related adventures depicted in The Lord of the Trees and The Mad Goblin together. This, of course, caused both Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban to realize that the latter would have to find a way to synthesize the life-extending elixir on his own, which was a major task even for his bio-chemical genius. Naturally, the Doc had been feverishly at work on this very project for decades, as a crime fighter like him was never comfortable with the price he had to pay for access to this life-prolonging elixir.

IV. A Monster Held Up, and More

Reading the above novels, many readers will lament the fact that PJF had never written a whole series of novels based on the exploits of the “real” Tarzan and Doc Savage, as opposed to just a few isolated examples. Others will lament the fact that he didn’t simply write many more novels featuring Lord Grandrith and – perhaps especially – Doc Caliban, as these two alternate reality pastiches are pretty awesome in their own rights. I have heard it said that the reason we didn’t see more of the pastiches is that PJF didn’t want to risk alienating the estates of Burroughs and Dent, who could well have balked at his alternative depictions of their prized iconic characters. He wanted opportunities to write these real deals (and I’m not talking about Evander Holyfield here… any boxing fan remember him?), and though only a few materialized, his fans are quite thankful for these few.

Whatever the case, it should be noted that PJF did eventually begin working on a fourth novel in the series, this one another solo Doc Caliban book (yay!). It was to be entitled A Monster on Hold, which was to deal with Caliban encountering bizarre subterranean creatures that would have represented a monstrous otherdimensional intelligence called Shrassk, whose power the Nine had attempted to utilize but had since simply entrapped due to it being too dangerous even for them to mess with. He penned a single chapter for this projected novel, and one of its major highlights was the rather extraordinary depiction of Doc Caliban looking through a dimensional veil and seeing the “real” Doc Savage on the other side looking back at him!

This was clearly intended to bridge any gap between the two iterations of this single archetype, with the dimensional veil representing the red tape barriers of the real world that normally keep different characters owned by different companies and/or individuals in separate fictionalized universes (each one being fictional to anyone not actually living in it, if you want to get really technical). This represented PJF’s high-concept thinking and patented sense of mischief taking a most spectacular turn, and it’s a shame this fourth novel wasn’t brought to full fruition.

Nevertheless, this chapter has been published three times to date, first in the World Fantasy Convention 1983; second, in Myths for the Modern Age: Philip Jose’ Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe, published by Monkey Brain Books in 2005; and third, in Pearls From Peoria (Peoria, Illinois being PJF’s home town!), published by Subterranean Press in 2006.

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First…

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…second …

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… and third. Three times is the charm!

 Of further note is how this chapter directly deals with PJF’s interpretation of the only Doc Savage story that actually caused the Man of Bronze to experience extreme fear – to the point of trauma, in fact. This was a 1948 tale depicting his encounter with nightmarish supernatural forces that completely devastated his rationalistic, agnostic worldview. The exploration of a hero facing his greatest fears and overcoming them can serve as a metaphorical inspiration to each of us having to do the same with matters usually mundane but often no less overwhelming. In fact, to me this represents the very essence of the heroic ideal: Not being stoically immune to fear, but finding the inner strength and determination to overcome it for the benefit of both your own good, and the greater good.

This final section should close with the acknowledgement of two important short stories written by PJF’s most prominent successor and chief curator of the Wold Newton concept, Win Scott Eckert. These stories build upon the alternate universe created by PJF in his pulp trilogy and subsequent follow-up chapter, and solidify their connection to the “mainstream”-“consensus” Wold Newton Universe. The first of these, “Is He in Hell?” was published in The Worlds of Philip Jose Farmer 1: Protean Dimensions; the second, “The Wild Huntsman,” was published in The Worlds of Philip Jose Farmer 3: Portraits of a Trickster. This publication is the great PJF-centric anthology released annually by Meteor House.

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Cover to Meteor House’s 3rd volume of The Worlds of Philip Jose Farmer. The guy was a trickster, don’t ya know?

 Of further note is that “Is He in Hell?” was previously published in the annual French pulp fiction anthology Tales of the Shadowmen 6: Grand Guignol from Black Coat Press, this anthology being one that I’m proud to have stories of my own published in (beginning in Volume 8; plug, plug, shameless plug!). For a synopsis on “The Wild Huntsman,” you can check out this post on Win’s blog.

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In summation, the Lord Grandrith/Doc Caliban trilogy is a very worthy addition to the library of any fan of pulp fiction and hero-driven literature in general, and essential for any fan of PJF and the Wold Newton Universe concept. They represent the beginning of PJF’s foray into pulp fiction, which would have a major influence on many writers who followed in his stead, as well as the great pulp revival of the previous decade that led to today’s New Pulp movement. Despite the controversies surrounding the elements of the first novel, it’s still worth picking up by non-overly sensitive readers who can get behind PJF’s intentions, and whatever one may think of the book, it does hold an important place in the history of the post-Golden Age pulps. As for the entire trilogy assessed as a whole, it should come highly recommended to anyone who can appreciate heroes who dress in shades of gray, and who are closer to the people you know than you may be comfortable with.

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The man himself… thank you for everything, Phil!