Friday, December 10, 2010

Peter Cushing is Hammer Horror's Baron Frankenstein

Of all the characters at Hammer Horror studios, by far the most complex and interesting was Baron Frankenstein, played by Peter Cushing.

The Baron was the central character of all the Hammer Frankenstein movies, and his creature, the famous Frankenstein Monster, was practically an afterthought and didn't even appear in some of the Frankenstein movies. Hammer realized, correctly, that the man that
made the monster was more interesting than the monster himself. Peter Cushing's reptilian performance as a cold, cruel, ambitious man was the most chilling part, and he was brilliantly cast; by all accounts Peter Cushing was a really great guy in real life, but at least in the movies he always had a look in his eye that showed that he was a scary creep with a hard edge.

The most fascinating thing about the Peter Cushing Baron Frankenstein was, he could be a hero or a villain depending on the movie, yet the character never really changed. Depending on the movie, he could be a sympathetic genius visionary hounded, misunderstood and persecuted by superstitious, dimwitted and prejudiced little men and angry mobs who destroy anything they don't understand as he was in Evil of Frankenstein...or, he could be a coldblooded, ruthless and reptilian fiend that destroys anyone's lives and even commits murder to get what he wants, heartless and inhumane, the way he was in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.

There's something kind of likable, despite all his bad qualities, in an arrogant and sharp-tongued character like Baron Frankenstein that doesn't suffer fools or the superstitious gladly. He runs into all kinds of problems because he isn't charming or tolerant.

One of my favorite scenes features Baron Frankenstein overhearing a guy talking about how the former Baron Frankenstein was guilty of "ungodly experiments." His response?

"Pardon me, sir, but are you a doctor?"

"Ah, no sir."

" apologies. I thought you knew what you were talking about."

Likewise, Frankenstein, over and over, was legitimately wronged and his misfortunes, caused by prejudiced people that never leave him alone, have been exploited. In one scene, Baron Frankenstein returned to his villiage in Switzerland and was outraged to see the burgomaster of his former town (who rose to his current status for kicking Frankenstein out) wore a ring that originally belonged to him! And it got worse. When following the guy home, he discovered the burgomaster's entire house was filled with the Baron's furniture!

John Maddox Roberts

John Maddox Roberts may be one of my favorite historical novelists. When he wrote about Rome in his SPQR series, I always had the feeling that, of all the versions of Rome we've seen or experienced, that JMR's was the closest to how it really was: noir before its time, bustling with criminal cartels, prostitutes that knife-fight each other over turf, where even a Senator's life was cheap if he went into the wrong part of town at night, a place of pug-nosed gladiators, where the line between being a gangster/mob boss and being a politician was so thin, the two jobs were practically interchangeable. John Maddox Roberts's Rome was not a nice place to live, but it was cool.

And best of all, JMR always had sense of humor about things. This was in great contrast to many other stories about antiquity that take themselves way, way too seriously. In general, Sword & Sandal and Roman epics are dead serious, with dead being the operative phrase.

JMR also wrote some speculative (what-if) history with his book "King of the Wood," and it's a real relief to read an alternate history that somehow doesn't involve the Nazis. In "King of the Wood," the Vikings reached America, but this time they came to stay. The northern kingdom, from Canada and so on, was Treeland, whereas the southern kingdom was Thorsheim, founded by pagans fleeing religious persecution.

It doesn't surprise me that John Maddox Roberts wrote Conan novels, because the main hero of "King of the Wood" was basically a Conan-type hero that did Conan-type things. A noble from Treeland, he was cast out from his country for the crime of kin-slaying, becoming a "Wolf's Head." The hero is pretty boring, although there is one sequence where he trips balls-out on hallucinogenic drugs that is all the more entertaining because I can imagine it happening to Conan.

Along the way, he encounters the inhabitants of the Americas, including the Aztecs, who are presented, as usual, as a profoundly sick society fascinated by imagery of stillborn babies and human sacrifices in retch-inducing industrial quantities. From what I understand of history this is not that far off the mark.

The book is overall entertaining and chock full of alternate historical goodies in a world that Roberts obviously thought through, but if it is guilty of anything, it's guilty of taking a bit to get to the point. The Mongols are the heavies of the book, and they don't show up until two-thirds of it are done. To JMR's credit, the Mongols are scarier here than anywhere else: imperious, commanding, tactical geniuses in hordes of tremendous size that dwarf lesser armies, with advanced technology for the age and brute's great to see the Mongols as history's most frightening villains, a real world hyperpower, as opposed to the goonish cartoon barbarians seen elsewhere.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Steve Englehart writer profile in 1973 issue of "Vampirella"

Now this was an interesting find: in Vampirella Magazine #22, there's a writer profile on arguably comics's greatest genius, "Stainless" Steve Englehart, in 1973, the very height of his early career.

As an Englehart-aficionado, this hagiography doesn't tell me anything I don't already know (except for the fact that Englehart, along with Marvel-horror guys like Don Glut and Marv Wolfman worked on the Warren Publications Vampirella mag), but other people may find the story surprising: Stainless started off in comics while in the army, after meeting Neal Adams and becoming an inker for him, and then becoming an assistant editor and then scripter.

Warren Publications always had the brassiest comics reporting; they were always pull no punches and raw, and tell a counter-story to the 'official events.' They always, always published letters with strong and dissenting points of view, even ones that make the company look bad. They published letters that said that Vampirella and her sexpot ways was pretty much for male chauvanists; they published letters arguing that Vampirella was lame because of her science fiction elements. In short, Vampirella letters pages were the liveliest and argumentative I have ever seen ever published, and they have never entirely been replaced.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The New Shadow, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Sequel

For those that love "Lord of the Rings," I was fascinated and intrigued to hear about Tolkien writing...and abandoning...a sequel to his most famous work, set in a time when only Men live on Middle Earth during the era of the Unified Kingdom ruled by Aragorn's descendants.

Because there was very little wonder left, the work, "The New Shadow," was crushingly dreary and dark, but in a fascinating way like a good chiller book. The story fragment, set in a time when Goblins and Orcs are legends, features a fighting man in Gondor that discovers remnants of a Satan worshipping cult, of humans that behave like Orcs and cut down trees for no reason (which in Tolkien's world, is quite possibly the most dickish deed possible).

The thing that strikes me the most as interesting about the New Shadow is how similar it is to Conan the Barbarian. Bear with me here. The main character is a solid, regular fighting man whose primary virtues are his simple honesty, traditionalism, and fighting prowess. He lives in a complacent era, with rulers that are merely competent administrators. Most impressively of all, the main villains are frightening Satanic cults dedicated to the worship of scary pre-human societies.

All in all, I'm sorry Tolkien abandoned his Lord of the Rings sequel after 16 pages. It would have been a great insight into an era of Middle Earth that was phenomenally underdeveloped and been a great middle ground between the mythic pessimism and tragedy of the Silmarillion, and the realism and grit of the Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien's reasons for abandoning the New Shadow strike me as incredibly harebrained. According to Tolkien, the reason he gave up was because he felt the sense of wonder that existed in Middle Earth no longer existed come the Age of Men, and because without Sauron there wasn't a single source of evil in the world that transcended the possibility for human evil. For the first point, the very curiosity that many people have about events after Lord of the Rings ends shows there's obviously some creative potential there even without Elves and Wizards.

The second point is enormously wrongheaded. The worst part of Lord of the Rings was a central villain who was inaccessible, remote and entirely in the background with inhuman "Evil with a Capital E" motives. How much stronger that book series would have been with an ever-present "Doctor Doom" type villain with an actual personality and comprehensible human motives.

Also, the idea that all evil has to have a single source and that evil is a unified force is one of the greatest errors in conservative and Christian thinking. One of my all-time favorite examples of this phenomena is the Tea Party's current unification of high-level bankers with socialism, and the inability to tell the difference between fascism and communism. How a banker can be a socialist defies my understanding, but there it is. It reminds me also of the evangelical protestant view that pornography, radical feminism and the coarsening of our culture are ultimately the doing of a conspiracy headed by Satan himself. Again, the idea that feminists and pornographers both do the bidding of a single Master requires mental gymnastics I'm not capable of.