RIP Gene Colan

And another one of my favorite comics artists bites the dust. *Sigh* I first encountered Colan's work as a kid in Marvel Super Heroes featuring reprints of Tales to Astonish Sub-Mariner & Hulk stories, where Colan was known as Adam Austin. While I never liked how he drew Namor himself (too bulky), I loved how he drew the undersea life and always wished I could see him work on something he was more comfortable with, something more atmospherically inclined.

 Imagine my surprise when I discovered his horror-ish stuff like Tomb of Dracula! It blew my mind, both that there was an ongoing Dracula comic that I'd never heard of, and drawn by Colan. I didn't need to know that "Austin" was an alias, I recognized that style right away! The shadows, long grasping fingers, chiaroscuro buildings, unmistakeable. I soon made an effort to hunt down his work on Daredevil and Captain Marvel as well, and while fans will always credit Frank Miller as Daredevil's "real" artist, Colan's version remains the definitive one for me.

 I always considered myself lucky to possess original art by Colan, and that I got to meet him at various cons, where he was so nice to me, now that collection feels even more special. RIP.

  • Current Mood
    depressed depressed

Lamest rapture ever.

 So it's 6:25 as I type this, hmmm, wasn't something supposed to have happened a few minutes ago? Something about a rapture? Well, I certainly do smell something....

 Tomorrow is going to be the greatest day ever for us non-christians. 

Toybox by Al Sarrantonio


 I'm always one to honor holidays and traditions even if I don't actually celebrate them, but tonight I'm really not in the mood to review anything related to this most unholy of Fridays. I guess I could tie in bad luck to my disappointment with my most recent purchase; Al Sarrantonio's anthology Toybox. Then again, I'm not really enraged-disappointed, just sorta underwhelmed. Major spoilers ahead if you wanna read these stories.

 I've passingly mentioned Al Sarrantonio quite a few times on here. Based upon my encounters with him in other anthology books that only featured one or two of his stories, I'd realized that I had consistently enjoyed almost all of them, although I found his much-hyped Orangefield novels underwhelming. But that did not deter me, as I have encountered many an author whose work only came alive when confined to a few pages, and that in novel format often felt stretched too thin or became too bloated and overindulgent (Clive Barker, I'm looking at you). Sometimes short and sweet is the best one can strive for. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me and I ordered Toybox. My expectations were quite high, I must admit.

 Now maybe it's my own damn fault for reading this whole thing in one night, as well as my own mental overhype, but it left me feeling that Sarrantonio is the literary equivalent of table salt: A little goes a long way. What I had liked about the stories I'd read previously were how they simultaneously tapped into a childlike sense of wonder along with that old EC comics taste for irony and sick humor, often with a sense of Bradbury-esque surrealness which simultaneously scared you and made you pause going What the Fuck? Basically, they were stories about children's fears for an adult audience (Sarrantonio uses child protagonists more than any other horror author I know), they made you relive all the fears and hopes you thought you once outgrew. It takes a powerful author to do that well.

 But that's all Sarrantonio does, and writing from formula takes its toll sooner or later. How long can one write stories about children's fears, with all their illogic, self-centeredness and naivety without just coming off as illogical, self-centered and naive? Sarrantonio is one of those writers who, once he feels he's set up realistic events enough to make the supernatural stuff more effective, thows everything out the door when the time comes for the monster to rear it's head. That can be a powerful way to emphasize a threat and to make a monster truly frightening, but once Sarrantonio reaches that point, the entire story just goes bananas. The story loses all logical structure, characters do things that are above and beyond stupid, random elements just pop up out of nowhere with no explanation, and plot twists just seem to be pulled right out of Sarrantonio's ass.

  It's like Sarrantonio thinks "Once the scary stuff happens, it doesn't matter if anything else makes sense". Sometimes this works in a supernatural setting, other times, when the events are relatively realistic (in stories about say, ordinary murderers, or traditional "ironic revenge" stories) it doesn't. Good writing doesn't have to explain everything, and ambiguity can be a strong asset to some stories, but not when it's used all the damn time. A decent example of this is the second story, The Man with Legs, about two children who visit a legless madman who uses adjustable, prosthetic legs to disguise himself as different people. Pretty screwed up, but disturbing and at least somewhat plausible, but then the story just goes bonkers with the legless man displaying weird supernatural powers that are given no explanation at all. You'll never believe the kid's motivation for visiting him, either.

 And that's when Sarrantonio is good, or at least, trying. When he's bad, he resorts to plots so simplistic they could be summed up as "Be careful what you wished for" or "Obey everything you hear, no matter how ridiculous, or else it will happen to you to the fucking letter." There's a story in here simply titled Snow, which is about some kids who wish it would snow forever does. That's it. Even worse is that there's already another story in here called Wish that is the same goddamn story.

 Still, when he's good, he's good. The volume gets off to a strong start (after a weird introduction by Joe R. Landsdale where he compares Sarrantonio to....a land baron. Yeah...) with Pumpkinhead, which is Sarrantonio's most infamous story in some ways. This one is about a shy little girl named Raylee, who is new in town and unintentionally becomes popular among her initially taunting classmates ("She's a faggot!") on Halloween when she tells a story about a deformed boy who went on a killing spree after his bullying classmates went too far. This story is a bit predictable, and some attempts at symbolism by Sarrantonio are pretty silly (A Jack 'O Lantern and a painting of Poe  "watch over" the basement where the gruesome events eventually take place) but overall it's a fun piece, the ultimate revenge fantasy for any kid who was ever picked on. The somewhat nonsensical ending can even be explained away as being the work of some sort of halloween spirit.

 Up next after The Man with Legs and Wish comes The Spook Man, which I already covered briefly in my review of Bruce Coville's Book of Monsters 2. It's a great piece about a funhouse where children are given the chance to become real monsters. This is where Sarrantonio's Bradbury influence is strongest, as the story gives off a huge Something Wicked-vibe with the funhouse and Mr. Dark-like titular character. It'll hit home for any 'Monster Kid" of the 60's. Since it's set in a bizarre fantasy world, it's where Sarrantonio's surrealism works best. See also Richard Matheson's Blood Son for a story with a similar theme.

 Other strong efforts include Bogy, about a group of horror-obsessed children (noticing a pattern?) who feel that their October has been too dull as of late and decide to confront (the apparently fictional) Bogy, the spirit of fear who lives in the forest, in hope that he can bring the fun back to the season. I like how at first this story seems like it's going to be a very saccharine story like one of those "Holidays that almost wasn't" specials but instead veers into some very dark territory. Garden of Eden is also good, in which a bunch of juvenille delinquents attempt to run away from their heavily sheltered small town...but can they? This is also pretty predictable, but is probably Sarrantonio's most thematically-charged story, very reminiscent of other stories about enforced utopias like The Giver and We Have Always Lived in the Forest. What makes it work is that clearly all attempts to make the town a utopia have failed, in that all of the characters live in fear and the protagonists are all throughly unlikeable, even sociopathic.

 Probably the most entertaining and genuinely suspenseful story is The Corn Dolly, about a boy who wishes to take part in his town's annual harvest festival, and his abusive, religious fanatic mother who won't let him. Genuinely intriguing, peppered with some truly tantalizing ambiguity about whether or not the mother's fears are justified, this is easily the best story in the book up until the anti-climatic ending. Still, it succeeds at the scare factor while it lasts, although anyone who has seen The Wicker Man knows where this is headed. A similarly intriguing story with a disappointing payoff is Father Dear, about a man who is driven insane by his wealthy father's ridiculous rules. While Corn Dolly's ending was a bit poorly built up to, at least it went somewhere. This one is just...well, it made me want to punch the book. And the one little line Sarrantonio throws in to explain everything still makes no sense. It's nowhere near as bad as another story though called Richard's Head, which seems to have been conceived as a bad joke, and unlike the other stories, shows no promise in the first place.

 All in all, this anthology defines "mixed bag" when it comes to quality. Although I can at least say that I'm glad Sarrantonio doesn't alter the stories' narrative to fit in with the book's on-and-off again framing sequence.

 Also I must mention Sarrantonio's connection to children's horror literature; After reading this anthology, I was reminded of how I first learned of Sarrantonio through my short-lived career as a school librarian. I found his stories in the excellent children's oriented Bruce Coville's Book of anthologies, which, inspite of one or two stinkers or stories that talked down for their readers with booger jokes and "kill the teacher" stories, were remarkably good stuff, often featuring stories by established adult authors whose previously-published stories were included not because they were for kids, but because they weren't too inappropriate for kids. As a result, those anthologies could be enjoyed legitimately by adults, and featured better selections than most adult anthologies. Sarrantonio was a regular. I often lamented how those excellent books were ignored in favor of R.L. Stine's schlocky Goosebumps series, which even the fans have come to mock. "Oh, if only those poor children would read an author like Sarrantonio!" I thought.

 Now here's the irony, reading Sarrantonio at his best and worst, I think I may have found that R.L. Stine's biggest literary influence was Sarrantonio! Child protagonists, plots that said "fuck all" to logic, twists that came out of nowhere, forced attempts to look like they were down with kids, truly dumb genre mishmashes, similar use of "obey your elders" morality, and kids getting away with a ridiculous amount of stuff, it all fits. I'm not saying they are on equal footing as authors, indeed, even the worst Sarrantonio story trumps the best Stine story, but read, oh let's say; Stine's Calling all Creeps and Sarrantonio's The Electric Fat Boy. I think you'll notice a lot of stylistic similarities.

 Still, Toybox is definitely worth buying if you are curious. Also, do try and get this book in hardcover if you can, as the paperback has some of the tiniest font size I've ever seen. Crapload of typos as well.


Mid-Day Double Feature Picture Show:

So today I went to see Thor, but car trouble caused me to be late an hour. I decided then to see another film and catch a much later showing of Thor after dinner with some friends and then a walk around the park, as my leg needed the exercise (two weeks without a cramp, a record). I decided, against all common sense, to see Your Highness
 It sounded good on paper; a good cast, the film had been in production a long time, and the trailers didn't look bad. Oh boy, was I wrong. Pretty much all the dialogue is improvised, and it shows. None of the jokes have any comedic timing, and although the film is nowhere near as bad as Friedberg & Seltzer's films in terms of being off-topic, the filmmakers seem to have no idea what they're parodying. Medieval fantasy is obviously the main target, but no, we get references to science fiction films, Disney musicals, superhero films, sword and sorcery films, Hammer-style gothic horror and mythological films like Clash of the Titans.

 Most of the "humor" just comes from jokes about how Danny McBride's character is a spoiled coward while his brother (James Franco) is a stereotypical perfect hero. The half-hearted attempts at character development also mar the film. Many of the jokes are just too vulgar, unpleasant and pointless to really work. What's odd about the film is that there was clearly a lot of hard work put into the cinematography, sets, special effects and creatures to give a truly epic feel to the film, one that succeeds better than 90% of most serious such films that I've seen. It's just depressing to see such a beautifully crafted fantasy world ruined by unfunny dick jokes (or in several instances, dick-less jokes).

 Surprisingly enough, the film is actually at it's best when it plays itself straight towards the end when Danny McBride's character toughens up and storms the villain's lair in an admittedly impressive fight sequence. Natalie Portman is also great as a Red Sonja-esque warrior woman, and gives the film's best performance, one which could easily carry a serious fantasy film. Justin Theroux is also good as the villain, and the scenes with his 3 mothers, a trio of Macbeth-style witches, who nag him like he was a little kid, are actually quite funny. Too bad they barely get any screentime.

 Basically the film is a lot like Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers in that it would work much better played straight, but unlike that film, where the lame comedy was tolerable, here the lame comedy is just, well, lame. Literally and figuratively, the film is a waste. Another Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it ain't. 
The high point of the film.

 After sitting through that load of crap, I went to see Thor a few hours later. I've been apprehensive about this ever since I heard Branagh was attached, and got even more scared when I saw pictures of Thor, and assumed Branagh was playing the titular role! (actor Chris Hemsworth looks a lot like Branagh from his Mary Shelley's Frankenstein days). I also found it funny that this film shares several things in common with Your Highness such as the story of an arrogant prince who has to prove himself to his father, conflict between two brothers, anachronism jokes, and Natalie Portman (not that the latter is ever a bad thing, mind you *DROOL* ).  But y'know what? I loved it.
 Anthony Hopkins couldn't have been better casting for Odin, and while I haven't read any Thor comics in years except for the early Journey into Mystery issues, I know I'll be hearing Hopkins in my head from now on when I do read them. Hemsworth gives Thor both the regal arrogance and roguish charm you'd expect from the character, and while he's a far cry from the noble superhero of the comics, he does a good job capturing the spirit of the younger Thor seen in the "Tales of Asgard" backup comics about Thor's youth, with a hint, I suspect, of the bufoonish Thor from Twisted Toyfare Theatre. This is an origin story after all, so one shouldn't expect to see Thor in all his "I say thee Nay!" glory just yet.

 While the romance between Thor and Jane Foster (Portman) is well, rushed to say the least, it's not depicted as anything more than a fascination with discovering something otherworldly. For years in the comics, Jane was written out of the stories so Sif could be Thor's love interest, with Jane dismissing her attraction to Thor as superficial (she went mad upon seeing Asgard or something). Thus, I guess you could say the rushed relationship in this film is forgivable in context. Anyway, it's still better than the similarly rushed "romance" in Avatar, because unlike Cameron, at least Branagh doesn't think he's writing some great mature love story that will redefine romances or something. I never thought I'd say this about Branagh, but he actually shows restraint and unpretentiousness. Anyway, Portman is good in the role, although here Foster is an amateur astrophysicist rather than a nurse, but who cares? She's really likeable, and her friends, played by Stellan Skarsgaard and Kat Dennings, provide for some great comedy relief.

 The real scene-stealer however, isn't any of those actors, good as they are, but Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Back when I was reading comics, when the Thor stories weren't really all that focused on Asgard and were more focused on commies and supervillains like the Radioactive Man and Mr. Hyde/Calvin Zabo (my favorite of Thor's rogues gallery, for obvious reasons), Loki was just a standard supervillain with a sense of corny humor, a cross between the Joker and Mr. Mxyzptlk. To my understanding, while he has been made darker like many supervillains, he hasn't ever really been made more three-dimensionsal or sympathetic by later writers (though I've heard he's very recently been reformed as well as turned into a child). This film remedies that, here, he's such a well-rounded figure I was actually rooting for him over Thor!
The best film villain in a long time.
While Loki is retconned into having done some terrible things just for fun later on in the film in order to make us loose empathy for him, it could just as easily spark a nature Vs nurture deabte. Loki doesn't even do anything terribly evil until after he's been revealed to have been lied to, betrayed and manipulated by Odin. Sure he's somewhat jealous, but not evil. Just hurt and longing for acceptance. Hell, for a god of mischief, he actually plays the voice of reason a lot early on in the film before he becomes the antagonist! But you can't say he's entirely misunderstood and justified either, as he hates Thor for being more favored than he is, but everything we see indicates that Odin approved of him more than Thor, whom Odin clearly sees as arrogant compared to the initially calm and serious Loki. As someone with similar adoption issues, it really left me with a sense of ambiguity. Complexity and depth for a villain who was previously just Mxyzptlk in viking drag, who woulda guessed?

 As for the special effects, while I never once thought I was looking at something real, I'll give the effects wizards props for attempting to imitate the look of Jack Kirby's bathsit insane architecture and machinery, which is no easy task.

 I really enjoyed this film, and my only real problem with it is that it's too short. Also, it may be odd to say this, but for a director who once prided himself on being a mature reinterpreter of Shakespeare, then embarassed himself with his botched attempt at a faithful Frankenstein adaption, it's probably true that this film, based off of a comic book, is the richest and most rewarding thing Branagh's ever done. 

 Now someone sign up Robbie Coltrane to play Mr. Hyde in the sequel...

Another Day at the Movies:

Wow, I'm actually really enjoying this year in film so far, and with the upcoming superhero movies this summer, I'm more excited to be going to the movies than I've been in years. I'm even excited to see the upcoming horror movie Insidious, which is being released on April 1st. Why the hell would a horror movie be released near April Fools Day? There's gotta be a catch. Perhaps the first in-theater Rick-Roll? The upcoming Conan movie also looks good, like it's trying to stay faithful to Howard's conception of Conan as a villain protagonist with few scruples. It's inspired me to break out a few Howard anthologies recently, and wow, I'm really starting to question my once blind-worship of the guy. But that's a post for another time... Anyway, here are the two films I saw today:

 I'm not a big fan of Simon Pegg & Nick Frost, although they're inarguably a lot more talented than certain other "comedy" duos that've popped up recently *COUGH* *Friedberg**COUGH* *Seltzer**COUGH*. Paul more than pleasantly surprised me, proving to not only be very funny, but genuinely heartfelt and serious at times. The plot involves two British amateur comics writers on a UFO-sight-seeing tour in America who encounter an alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogan), who it turns out has been working for the government for years and is now on the run.
 This leads to a bunch of in-jokes ranging from the obvious (Paul eats Reeses Pieces) to the obscure (Nick Frost's character's favorite science fiction film as a child? Mac & Me. No seriously.) to the surprisingly well-thought out and smarter than most serious science fiction films (Paul became the inspiration for the generic "Grey" aliens you see everywhere on bumper stickers, etc. so humans wouldn't be so shocked if the two species ever made public contact). There's some truly funny side characters, surprisingly intense action scenes, and all of the characters grow throughout the film or show hidden depths, even the villains! Two apparently idiotic FBI agents (who are also sci-fi geeks) turn out to be extremely amoral and dangerous, and the drunken, redneck father of Pegg's love interest, who seems at first to be an abusive asshole, turns out to be a decent, just really stupid guy. 

 There's also a subplot about an old woman (Blythe Danner) who was the first human to meet Paul, and whose life was ruined by the incident, because no one believed her and she was forced to grow up a recluse. The scenes between her and Paul are so amazingly well-acted I literally was moved to tears, even though Danner's character as an adult only gets a few minutes of screentime. It could just be Danner's acting abilties, but it's amazing how within minutes of meeting her character we feel her lifetime of loneliness and misery, as if she'd been the protagonist of the film all along. Danner really needs to be nominated for best supporting actress. Kristen Wiig is also very funny as a bible-thumping young woman who, after meeting with Paul and being transformed physically and mentally, becomes a more carefree, happy person (as well as overdoing everything she saw as 'sin" to a ridiculous extreme, such as swearing). 

Still got it.
 Anyway, Paul is one of the best films I've seen in years, the only weak spot is an unfunny post-credits sequence which throws into question much of the film's events. It may sound strange to say so, but this might actually be the best science fiction film of the 2000s. It's funny, heartwarming, smart, and doesn't stray too far from actual science. Time will tell if it will become a classic.

 Oh, and you gotta love the fundies and parent's groups complaining about the film. While the film actually does stick it to Christians rather harshly, most of the really vocal complainers have turned out to be joking or hypocritical. For example, the one attracting the most attention on IMDb; israel578, is an infamously incompetent troll who is most famous for once attacking Will Ferrel's film Step Brothers and calling the film "offensive" and "one of the worst films ever made", even though her signature linked to her reviews, where she had written an extremely positive review of Step Brothers months earlier!!! Her efforts to deny such an incident, like deleting the signature and reviews, even in the face of evidence like screencaps, has led to hours of fun at her expense. I imagine she secretly enjoyed Paul as well.
 As per my style, I thought of choosing an image of some incompetent cartoon villain to use as a "pic" of israel578, but couldn't decide on whether I should use Skooge from Invader Zim or Baxter Stockman from the old TMNT cartoon. Thing is, I love Baxter too much to do him such an injustice (wasn't he done enough in the actual show?), and I can find no good Skooge images. 

 As for the parent's groups, well, it is an R-Rated film, but other than some innuendo and LOTS of foul language, it's fairly tame. I'd say smart kids could handle it. A family of five was in the theatre with me and all seemed to enjoy it.

  In other news, Sigourney Weaver has officially become the female John Carradine. It's only a matter of time before we hear her rendition of Night Train to Mundo Fine.

 Sucker Punch:
The other film I saw today was Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch. Snyder is a director I've always had mixed feelings toward. On one hand, he exudes everything negative that people feel about fanboys and fanboy entertainers, to the Nth degree. He overlooks the deeper themes of the material he tackles, has a juvenille fascination with gore and "kewl" slow-motion sequences, his films would collapse on themselves without their special effects, and he hasn't done anything original, just adaptions and a remake. But at the same time, he more often than not gets great performances out of his actors, stays slavishly faithful to his source material, and while his films may look like video games, they at least look like good video games.

 But most of all, I've noticed that each film he makes is better than the previous, sometimes by baby steps, sometimes by leaps and bounds. He may not have a made a masterpiece yet, but each film shows growth as a filmmaker. Oddly enough, Sucker Punch, is also his first "original project". 

Sucker Punch
involves a young girl who accidentally kills her younger sister while protecting her from their inheritance hungry wicked stepfather (who is literally called that in the credits). She gets sentenced to Arkham an Asylum with apparently all female patients, which is also a front for a burlesque act in which the inmates (all nicknamed) are forced to perform for wealthy clientelle. Nicknamed "Baby Doll", she slowly devises a plan of escape, she gains the details from daydreams during dance sequences, where she and her friends are some sort of anime heroines battling stylized evil forces like giant samurai golems, nazi zombies and robots and dragons.
 It's one part Fairy Tale, one part Harry Potter, one part The Great Escape, one part Walter Mitty, one part Cabaret & Moulin Rouge and one part 70's women-in-prison flick. It also has a considerable helping of...well, I'd rather not spoil the ending, besides, I'm not even sure how it's meant to be interpreted. It's a....different film, I'll give it that. Let's just say if Michael Bay and David Lynch collaborated, this is what the result would look like.

 Anyway, there's lots to enjoy in the bizarre fantasy sequences, all of the ladies are nice to look at, the performances aren't bad and for a film that so many people are critically slamming, it's not what you could call a film with low-brow mainstream appeal, as most of that type of audience seems to hate it. All I can say is that it has "cult classic" written all over it. As with Paul, time will tell.

 Watching this crazy, abstract film also sent many crazt abstract thoughts through my head: 

 1) With all the crazy fashions the girls wear in the film, you can bet this is going to become an instant hint with drag queens. Next Halloween, if I don't see at least one male cosplayer dressed as one of the characters from this film, I will be disappointed. 

 2) The WWI-style sequence, with it's fithy trenches and bi-planes, made me think Hollywood is ready to tackle an Enemy Ace movie. There hasn't been a good WWI movie in years, much of the cast of Inglourius Basterds could be re-used, and Dances with Wolves in Space showed that the American public has no problem with seeing thousands of their own soldiers slaughtered in droves by the hero. What say you Hollywood? Ready to make up for Jonah Hex and give my other favorite DC Comics character the silver screen treatment? 

 3)What would Ken Russell think of this film? 

 4) I want Baby Doll's gun.
 All, in all, I enjoyed my trip to the movies today. And on the morrow, I shall try and see Limitless. Will I review it? Who knows?

Red Riding Hood(2011):

 Fighting back a crippling workload, a bad hangover from my annual St. Paddy's Day Leprechaun drinking game, and fighting off the urge to pick a fight with my old pal Deputy Dipshit in the lobby of the theatre(buying not donuts or coffee, but an icee he ate methodically with one of those spoon/straw things. He went to work on it like it was a gourmet meal) I was able to find time to watch Red Riding Hood.
 I could just say I was only one of three people in the theatre and end this review here. 

 Oh, I knew it wasn't gonna be a contender at Cannes with the reviews I've read of it and the attachment of that fabled interpreter of "reel lidderrachurr" Catherine Hardwicke as director, but I was actually willing to give the film a chance. So many people are going off on the film for being a "horror" adaption of a fairy tale, that I kind of felt protective of it.
 I mean, anyone who has ever read the actual Grimms stories knows how frightening, brutal, and more often than not filled with unhappy endings those stories are. As Evelyn Ankers said in The Wolf Man; "Even Little Red Riding Hood was a werewolf story". Anyone who reads this blog also knows how much of a fan I am of children's morality plays and poetry like Der Struwellpeter, Solomon Grundy and the poems of Helen Adam. One of my all time favorite National Geographic issues focused on how the Grimms stories are actually seen over in Germany and their cultural impact. Tho' I was largely displeased with Hollywood's other attempts to return fairy tales to their sinister roots in fare like Snow White: A Tale of Terror and (shudder) The Brothers Grimm, I still held out hope for the sub-genre. 

 While I didn't hate this film, let's just say all my hope is dead now. 

 The plot is basically Wuthering Heights set in a mountain village in Medieval Germany, where Valerie(Amanda Seyfried) is caught between her well-to-do fiancee and poor childhood friend. The town she lives in has been ravaged by werewolves for decades, but was largely undisturbed until recently, when Valerie's sister is attacked and killed. Pretty soon, neighbor is turned against neighbor and virtually every character becomes a suspect for the identity of the werewolf. Yawn. 
 While the cinematography of the actual mountains is good at first, the film shoots that all to hell with incredibly fake CGI that makes the village itself look like a Kinkade painting animated in the style of those old Grantray-Lawrence Marvel cartoons. Basically, it looks like shit. Incredibly phony shit. The wolf, also CGI, is portrayed as a giant, and is so ridiculously fake-looking it makes the CGI in most Asylum and Video Brinquedo films look good. It also talks, in a gravelly voice that made everyone in the audience burst out laughing. A talking wolf is essential to this story, but damn, this is just stupid.

 As for the actors, eh. Amanda Seyfried does all right, but is given too many scenes where she just stands around doing nothing, and Billie Burke and Julie Christie are pretty good in their roles as red herrings, but the outstanding performance award goes to...well I don't want to talk about him just yet. Anyway, none of these performances is what could reasonably be called good, and the supporting actors? Good God. The actors playing Valerie's love interests are two of the most bland, wooden actors I have ever seen.

 There's also this one actor who plays the village idiot, and turns in one of the most insulting tard-performances in the history of tard performances. Yet, I don't hear any anti-defamation groups bitching about it. Rest assured though, next time someone makes fun of this kind of insulting performance, they'll load up on their torches and pitchforks. It'll be Tropic Thunder all over again.

 Ranting aside, there is one great reason to see this film. In fact, you should just wait until it comes out on DVD so you can just watch all of his scenes. This reason's name is Gary Oldman. Midway through the film, for no reason other than to provide filler and obstacles(none of which play an important role in the climax), the town preacher calls upon a monster hunter named Father Solomon(Oldman), who the filmmakers have no idea at first whether he's going to be a wise professor Van Helsing or a vile Matthew Hopkins. Decked out in purple robes, wearing silver fingernails(for scratching werewolves and carving dinner. I am not making this up), adorned in bracelets, beads and other assorted jewelery, surrounding himself with huge muscular black men, boasting finely combed long hair and speaking with an accent apparently based off of a combination of Bela Lugosi as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein & Alfie Bass as Shagal in The Fearless Vampire Killers, Oldman turns Solomon into one of the most uproariously hilarious characters to grace the screen in decades.
 But get this: Solomon is played 100% seriously! Finally just saying "Fuck it" with trying to present Solomon ambiguously, the filmmakers turn him into the main villain halfway through, and proceed to rip off every "crazed witchhunter" cliche in the book. Scenes are stolen wholesale from Witchfinder General, Mark of The Devil, The Crucible and plenty more. And each one of them becomes absolute comedy gold in Oldman's hands. His role really isn't anything more than an extended cameo, really, back in the 60's this film would have billed him as a "Guest Star". The character of Solomon could have been totally expurgated from the film without really affecting the plot at all, but Oldman makes each scene shine. This is the kind of unadulterated hamming Vincent Price, Lionell Atwill and the dear, recently deceased Michael Gough made famous.

 There's a scene where Solomon has the village idiot roasted alive in, not kidding here, a FUCKING GIANT-SIZED ELEPHANT-SHAPED OVEN. It's meant to be emotionally affecting and to create a holocaust subtext, but it's so silly you'll laugh until you cry. Dr. Phibes would have been hard-pressed to come up with something as ludicrous. Sadly, I can find no images online. Other highlights of hilarity for the film are a dream sequence based off the "what big teeth you have" exchange from the fairy tale, which tries to be creepy and fails, as well as a scene where Valerie is betrayed and spat on by her friends, but because we never get to know her friends, the scene has zero emotional impact. A shame, because the actresses playing her friends are actually better than most of the other supporting actors. 

 The film admittedly has one great scene where one of Valerie's suitors is approached by her Grandmother, and it carries an air of subtle menace which actually did give me the creeps a bit. Sadly, everything else in the film dilutes it's power, and the saccharine conclusion destroys what could have been a great tragic ending. Still, this film, while I certainly won't ever see it again, is definitely worth seeing once, just for Oldman's hamming. And not to be a perv, but I'm kinda dissapointed that the original ending of the story where Red stripteases for the Wolf wasn't retained, especially considering who the wolf turns out to be in this version. It would have been awesomely messed up.

 One thing I did learn from this film though, is that apparently hair gel existed in Medieval Europe.

 Now if you'll excuse me, I have to be off to pitch a Father Solomon spin-off Tv series for Comedy Central.

Batman Villain Anthologies: Part 2

Scarecrow Tales:
 As a huge fan of Russel Thorndyke's Doctor Syn novels and the play Puritan Passions, I've always had a fondness for scarecrows and thus this second-tier Batman rogue. A living scarecrow is too good a visual to pass up in a visual medium like comics, and this book is thus a joy to behold in how various artists depict the villain.

 Unfortunately, comics writers haven't been as enthused about the character, and tend to stretch him too thin, mainly using him to pad out group portraits of Batman's rogues gallery, or as a convenient explanation for stories revolving around hallucinations(hallucination-inspiring "fear gas" being his stock-in-trade, though this was not always the case). Too bad, these rather haphazardly chosen stories show a villain with much potential. 

 The volume kicks off with the villain's first appearence in World's Finest Comics #3, which was apparently intended as a kind of Halloween special because this was the Fall issue(being a quarterly series), this story gets off to a good start with an atmospheric splash page. Unfortunately, that's about as good as this story gets. 

 Spindly young Jonathan Crane grows up loving to frighten birds(get it, he scares crows! Ha Ha...uh...Ha), which we all know thanks to Court Tv is a sure-fire sign that a person will grow up to be a sadistic psychopath. I'm quite sure he also played video games and wet the bed, the fiend! As an adult, Crane decides to channel his psychotic tendencies, naturally into becoming a college professor; beginning what is apparently the first day of class("Gentlemen, this term we study the psychology of fear") by firing a gun in class! Well, you can't accuse him of being a boring instructor. Seriously, Crane would be quite amusing to watch, as he frequently stops mid-lecture to pontificate about how profound his own words are(When describing how protection rackets work: "He makes them afraid--afraid--he makes money--lots of money--"), all while probably penting his fingers and smiling evilly. Stung by his colleague's rather juvenille remarks about his clothes, Crane decides to turn to crime as the Scarecrow, by working as a kind of extortionist-for-hire. 

 That really is about it, with the story descending into typical fisticuffs and wisecracks action as Batman & Robin confront him. Nope, he doesn't use fear gas, he doesn't play off of phobias, he's far more practical, he just uses a gun to intimidate people. Simple, but effective. This would carry over to his next appearence as well.

Interestingly, Crane actually holds his own rather well against Batman and is shown to be quite athletic, that is before being shown up by being jabbed in the ass with a teeter-totter(seriously!). No, it's not a good story, and bad lettering doesn't help, but it's not a truly bad story either. It's the kind of thing best read at 3AM in a drunken stupor while reading the dialogue out loud and doing the voices yourself while eating KFC. Admittedly though, the idea of an intellectual working as a common thug because it's more fun is compelling.

 Next up is Fright of the Scarecrow from Batman#189, which is significant for reintroducing the Scarecrow after being absent since the 40's, with his origin conveniently recapped with most of the same dialogue. This one is interesting in that it's the first time the villain would be depicted as a scientist, and the introduction of his fear-inducing equipment(here a beam), otherwise it's even sillier than the original, with the Scarecrow keeping a submarine hidden in a park pond. A tad better is the 70's story The Scarecrow's Trail of Fear, atmospherically illustrated by Ernie Chua, and based around the motif of Gotham's winter bleakness. Unfortunately, it's an extremely generic hero vs villain story, and could easily have been excised from the volume. It's a masterpiece compared to the following story, though; the abysmally bad The Scarecrow's Fearsome Face-Off from issue 8 of the Joker's own short-lived series from the 70s. Here the two villains, well, face off(with the Scarecrow now using his familiar fear gas), and uh...there really is no plot besides that. While it is refreshing to read a story with no heroes, this one just doesn't work even as the frivolous adventure it's intended to be, particularly because of the childish insult humor that makes up most of the dialogue. Oddly enough, Crane is depicted as being fond of birds in this story, and is enraged when one gets covered with exploded cake by the Joker(!!!?). This characterization would carry over into the villain's depiction on Superfriends. At least the art is nice, particularly the facial expressions.

 So far it sounds like I hate this volume, but then surprisingly enough it picks up considerably with Gerry Conway's superb 1981 story Six Days of The Scarecrow from Detective Comics #503. While it's a bit disappointing in that the motif of the six days isn't really used much, it's more than made up for by a superb plot where the Scarecrow actually lives up to his reputation as a master of fear by, well, demonstrating how he has mastered the application of fear, this time, by making it so that rather than being struck with fear, his victim becomes an object of fear to those around him, and after being exposed, Batman finds himself alienated from everyone. 

 It sounds silly, but there's real tension and pathos in how this is portrayed, with plenty of character bits mixed with some decent action, as well as the always welcome opportunity to see Batman use his brains to handle the situation. So many writers forget that Batman is a scientist and a detective rather than just a vigilante who kicks people's asses. While I've gone down as disliking the idea of sidekicks, both Batgirl & Robin figure prominently in this story, and serve as textbook examples of just what an effective plot device the concept of the sidekick can be when written well. It's depressing as well to contemplate, that where the modern Batman is often portrayed as an obsessive, anti-social psycho who alienates or is mostly aloof towards everyone around him, here the entire point of the story is just how lost he is without human contact, and how lonely he feels when he is solely percieved as a figure of fear. Even his reactions from the public are explored. Seeing a Batman this human, this's not just refreshing, it's genuinely moving. As for Crane himself, artist Don Newton manages to make the villain a truly frightening figure, with much of his face and expressions obscured, this is given more impact than usual, because he barely appears in the story. The ending is nicely ironic, and even manages to make you feel a twang of sympathy for Crane.

 Put bluntly, I love this comic. And it gets better, next up is Fear for Sale from Detective Comics #571 by Mike Barr & Alan Davis. The third issue of their criminally neglected run, it's one of my favorite Batman stories. Again, given my dislike for sidekicks and my preference for macabre themes, I really shouldn't like this story, or in fact any of Barr & Davis's run, which was an intentional throwback to the Silver Age. Wisecracks, innuendo and wackiness abounded, yet theirs may in fact be my single favorite Batman run. The comics aren't dumbed down, or done solely as an exercise in nostalgia, they're just pure fun. Their only real goal being to tell a story and entertain, and they do that exceptionally well. They also can get quite dark, but never excessively so or wallowing in their own pretentiousness. This story is a prime example of how to do straight-out thrill-ride superhero adventures. Here, Batman discovers that the Scarecrow's newest scheme doesn't involve spreading fear, but killing it. Sounds harmless? Well, yes, until you realize how without fear, people can become reckless and stupid. Thus, the villain "sells" fear back to those he has deprived it from. Brilliant idea. Meanwhile, Robin must prevent a newly reckless Batman from blundering into Scarecrow's death traps after Batman ends up deprived of his sense of fear. 

 Simple premise, but wonderfully executed. Barr's writing is crisp and witty, and Davis's art is extremely cartoony but wonderfully detailed and expressive. There's some genuine suspense, a surprisingly touching(and prescient) ending, as well as some wonderful moments of black humor. While this really is a Robin story, Batman nevertheless still gets to do some ass-kicking without stealing Robin's spotlight, while Robin doesn't overshadow Batman. There's a real sense of cameraderie between the two, and though many fans disliked the Jason Todd-Robin, I found him quite likeable here. Hell, everyone is likeable, even the Scarecrow himself, who is so obviously having the time of his life while pulling off this scheme that his joy is infectious. Best of all, this story could easily be linked to modern continuity, as the fact that Scarecrow's primary targets in this story are athletes ties in with his later origin showing him to have been bullied by jocks in high school. With it's prescient ending, brilliant concept for it's villain's scheme and fast-paced, enjoyable storyline, this story is rightly touted as a classic, and elements of it were adapted twice for the Batman cartoon of the 90s. Sometimes, the famous stories really do deserve the hype. Now if only DC would collect the entire Barr/Davis run in TPB format, it's excellent stuff. 

 In contrast to this light-hearted romp, is the disturbing story from Scarecrow's own one-shot comic called Mistress of Fear

No, that's not what the story involves at all.

 Here, Crane seeks revenge on a homely young woman who thwarted him previously, then becomes enamored of her after discovering she experienced the same childhood bullying he did, and tries to tempt her into becoming his sidekick, hence the title. Portraying Crane in a much more sympathetic light, but still piling on some really disturbing moments, this one is a real creeper, and the best story in the collection, though not my favorite. Not surprisingly, it's led to a lot of fanfiction online by fangirls who would be more than willing to take up Crane's offer.
The collection finishes up with Fear of Success from Gotham Knights#23, which is one of those stories I mentioned earlier where the hallucinations caused by Crane are the main focus, this one is better than most by giving Crane a decent amount of panel-time and making Batman's hallucinations real emotional kickers. Damn good, but it pales compared to the last three stories.

 All in all, this collection is quite literally divided against itself. Four lousy stories versus four excellent ones. Rushed out simply to caitalize on the(fleeting) use of the villain in Batman Begins, this clearly wasn't a collection that was going to be a strong priority when it came to choosing quality, but one wonders why they made the choices they did.

 Why not eliminate the lame 60's/O' Neil/Joker stories in favor of say, the 1995 Batman annual focusing on the character's origin? That was a superb retelling of World's Finest #3, giving Crane a much needed backstory, creating some genuine pathos for him, while still managing to be very Batman-focused. With some amusing(and very Disney-infringing) references to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a scene where a young Crane kills his high school bullies that anyone whohas ever suffered similar treatment will find both cathartic and chilling, that was a superb story, whose only flaw was how writer Doug Moench had Crane slip into killing those who were kind to him way too easily, possibly to keep Crane from seeming too sympathetic or to avoid accusations that the story was a projection of his own revenge fantasies.

 Anyway, flaws aside, that story was more deserving of a reprinting than the crap that got chosen, given that it's the most referenced origin for the character. Other fine choices for inclusion would have been Batman #523-4, where Crane finishes off more childhood enemies, or Batman Adventures Annual 1's Study Hall, where a reformed Crane resumes the mantle of the Scarecrow to avenge a female student's date rape, or Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale's shallow but atmospheric Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween special Choices(although that story gave the villain the annoying habit of spouting nursery rhymes and odd jokes).

 Still, considering the hard-to-find gems that it does reprint, I can't bitch too much about this volume. It's one of those rare collections which is composed halfways of crap, halfways of gems, but still gives you a decent taste of each era, with even the bad stories not leaving an overly negative impression of the era they came from. So for an intended Scarecrow collection, it's actually more of a Batman throughout-the-ages collection. A sampler for each era.