Saturday, 31 January 2015

Psychedelic Sci-Fi Round-up:
Lord of Light
by Roger Zelazny

(Panther, 1971)

Last summer I finally got around to reading Roger Zelazny’s canonical SF classic ‘Lord of Light’ (here accompanied by a rare SF cover from the fantastic pop/pulp painter Michael Johnson), and I enjoyed it very much.

It’s been years since I read anything with that particular kind of ‘epic world-building fantasy’ kind of feel to it, and it certainly made for a welcome change of pace amid my usual diet of hard-boiled crime and mid 20th century British miserablism.

In particular, I was quite surprised that the weighty mystical / philosophical content one might reasonably expect to find in a book like this generally took a back-seat to thunderous descriptions of the hyper-weaponised avatars of the Hindu pantheon blasting the shit out of each other as they bestride a far future terraformed world of verdant neo-medieval splendour and ‘Dancers at the End of Time’ techno-decadence. Heady stuff indeed.

Whilst I’m not much of a fan of current CGI-heavy giant monster/robot-based blockbusters (you’d never have guessed, would you?), I’ve got to admit that if the makers of, say, ‘Pacific Rim’ were given the GDP of a small country to make a movie out of this one, I’d definitely be standing in line on the day of release – in the right hands, it could be fantastic. Unfortunately I suppose the possibility of offending every Hindu on earth probably mitigates against that possibility somewhat, but we can dream.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Psychedelic Sci-Fi Round-up:
To Challenge Chaos
by Brian M. Stableford

(DAW, 1972)

Here, a young Brian Stableford (25 years old in 1972) presents one of what seems like about a million ‘70s science fiction/fantasy books about the forces of galactic order rather abstractly battling the forces of chaos, and that sort of thing. Did Michael Moorcock popularise this notion, or was there just something in the air? Either way, presumably best enjoyed with the accompaniment of a Camberwell carrot and a copy of the latest Hawkwind LP, whilst skiving off an engineering lecture.

To be honest, just trying to read the back cover blurb on this one gives me a headache, but the cover art by Frank Kelly Freas (“known as the Dean of Science Fiction Artists”) is very nice. By which I mean, swirly and purple. Lovely detail here if you look closely... which no doubt you will after about half an hour in the circumstances described above. Far-out, etc etc.

As a bonus, here's another rather superb Freas cover for a DAW Stableford book that popped up on a quick google image search.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Psychedelic Sci-Fi Round-up:
by E.C. Tubb

(Arrow, 1973)

Urgh, January. Always a bit of a slog, isn’t it? To keep us ticking over until I manage to pull some new movie reviews together, and hopefully to transport us to some warmer, weirder, more colourful locales for a moment or two, now seems an apt time for some posts showcasing a few recent, random additions to my collection of psychedelic sci-fi paperback artwork.

To begin, how about this eye-catching wraparound number from the cover star of one of the issues of New Worlds we looked at a while back, Mr. E.C. Tubb?

Regrettably, the distinctive montage artwork is uncredited, but any readers able to put a name to it are encouraged to drop us a line and do so.

As to the book itself, like much SF of this era, it sounds a bit… trying, but who knows, maybe I’ll give it a go sometime.

Below is a bonus .jpg of the whole wraparound cover. Perhaps it might make a nice desktop wallpaper, if you’re thus inclined? (Apologies for the bookshop sticker on the back by the way – I know from bitter experience that it’s one of those ones that would be difficult to peel off without tearing the cover.)

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi’s Revenge
(Akira Inoue, 1965)

Like the preceding Adventures of Zatoichi, Akira Inoue’s ‘Zatoichi’s Revenge’ (whose Japanese title translates as the rather more specific ‘Zatoichi’s Two-Cut Sword Style’) adds nothing new to the series by now thoroughly established formula, as Ichi, wandering once again into a remote town where he spent a lot of time in his youth, discovers that his beloved massage teacher has been murdered as part of a nefarious plot to force his virtuous daughter, along with those of the other townsfolk, into prostitution at the local magistrate-endorsed brothel.

The elements are all here: another slimy, toad-like magistrate and oyabun duo to be taken down, another surly, ultra-skilled ronin lining up to take a crack at the great Zatoichi, and various likeable everyday folks in need of a helping hand.

Unlike the equally formulaic ‘Adventures..’ though, ‘..Revenge’ does at least proceed with enough verve and style to overcome its routine plotting to some extent. In his only entry in the series, little known director Inoue handles things with a great deal of energy, mixing extensive handheld camerawork with strong, dramatic compositions, whilst Akira Ifukube’s rollicking, Spaghetti Western-esque score is, as ever, hugely enjoyable.

(Once again, I’m a bit reluctant to start pulling Spaghetti Western comparisons in these reviews, given the rather complex tug of war that was taking place between the Eastern chambara and Western, uh, western genres during the 1960s, but the prevalence here of flamenco guitar flourishes and brooding brass alongside extreme eye close-ups, tense stand-offs, dramatic, tinted flashbacks to past events and visual storytelling involving significant close-ups of coins and medallions etc. etc. – all of this will likely flash viewers in the Western hemisphere straight back to the same year’s ‘For a Few Dollars More’, a comparison that we can reasonable assume to be more the result of accident than design, given the embargo placed on Japanese distribution of the ‘Dollars’ trilogy by Kurosawa's legal challenge to 'Fistful..'.)

Whereas Leone always seemed rather contemptuous of the ‘everyday folk’ supporting characters in his films though, they are by contrast the heart and soul of most Zatoichi adventures, and the main thing most viewers will take away from ‘..Revenge’ is a remarkable performance by comic film & TV actor Norihei Miki, who absolutely steals the show here in the role of Denroku the Weasel, a wiry, booze-addled card sharp torn between loyalty to his scumbag employers and his more noble aspirations to aid Ichi in sorting them out and to keep his own daughter out of their clutches.

Building a complex and hugely likeable individual out of what seems like only a very sketchy script outline, Miki proves himself a masterful character actor here. As Chris D. sagely notes in the booklet accompanying the Criterion box set: “Miki was an actor who, like Katsu, was able to incorporate unforced humour into his performances, keeping the silly and the obvious out and embodying real people”. Straight talk as ever from Mr D.

Also of note in ‘Zatoichi’s Revenge’ is the inclusion of some slightly rougher, exploitation-ish business than usual, introduced via the forced prostitution storyline. Though extremely mild in comparison to the hair-raising excesses that began to consume Japanese popular cinema a few years later, the scenes here of women being imprisoned, beaten and leered at by the baddies are still nearer the knuckle than anything we’ve seen in previous Zatoichi adventures. (In regard to this, it is perhaps worth noting that Inoue, moreso than some of the other Zatoichi directors, seems to have been primarily an exploitation man, with several women’s prison movies gracing his relatively brief filmography on IMDB.)

And… that’s about all I can find say about ‘Zatoichi’s Revenge’ to be honest, except to once again state that by this stage in my viewing, even a mid-table Zatoichi flick like this one is as comforting as a plate of hot toast and a pot of tea. And, as with plates of toast and pots of tea, I find myself immediately looking forward to the next one: that being Kazuo Mori’s ‘Zatoichi & The Doomed Man’, which saw release in Japanese cinemas in September 1965. See you then!

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

“What The Hell?” File:
Runts of 61 Cygni C
by James Grazier

(Belmont, 1970)

A somewhat legendary volume within SF/pulp fandom for, well… fairly obvious reasons, I remember laughing a great deal as a teenager when I first read the extraordinary cover blurb of James Grazier’s ‘Runts of 61 Cygni C’, as quoted in Kim Newman & Neil Gaiman’s Ghastly Beyond Belief.

Now that I actually own a copy (£2 from the basement of Booth’s Books in Hay on Wye) and have skim-read it, I’m happy to report that this cheapie from Belmont (frequent publishers of pretty weird, throwaway stuff, or so it would seem) is thankfully not the depraved runt-orgy that casual browsers may have feared.

Indeed, thoughts of pro-creation remain far from the author’s mind during the book’s thoroughly formulaic first half, during which a team of potential space travellers are laboriously selected by an infallible computer to crew a ground-breaking mission to investigate a distant planet with an atmosphere much like our own, and, more importantly, inhabitants much like our own:

“The two video-motion tapes of Planet C have shown earth-type men scurrying around a dark, sandy beach area. We clearly saw two legs and arms, no nose, and only one eye in a hairless head. We could not see ears nor hair on any part of the body – there was no evidence of clothing.”

Amid much talk of food-tubes, interstellar arcships and global under-population, two married couples are eventually selected for this task (presumably in an attempt to foster a harmonious atmosphere onboard ship or something), and, by and large, generic mid-century sci-fi reigns supreme.

If this book was indeed intended as some kind of edgy sci-fi sex comedy, then needless to say, it misfired badly (I mean, as if you couldn’t tell that from the cover alone). Indeed, the first inkling of anything remotely saucy going on doesn’t reach us until page 59, after the voyage to Planet C has finally departed;

“Alex put the tape measure’s zero mark flat on Diana’s chest, then he ran the measure out to the very tip of the extended nipple. His cheek touched the expanded breast wall, at the same time Diana sucked in her flat, hard stomach and her magnificent torso swelled, about to burst with desire. He measured eighteen centimeters exactly, about six and a half inches, with Diana in a half-sitting position, leaning back, panting, on the soft airpillows.
‘Now the other’, calmly remarked Alex, ‘this one is precisely eighteen centimetres, that one should be sixteen, two centimetres smaller according to that simple, silly, silver-fingered robot!’”

Ah – science fiction erotica. You can’t beat it.

Anyway, skipping ahead a good number of pages - shortly after they reach their intended destination and begin observing the diminutive, one-eyed occupants of 61 Cygni C freely frolicking in their jungle paradise as planned, our intrepid astronauts receive some grim news from Earth. Apparently, nuclear war has broken out (the utopian scientific advancements of 2090 have had little effect on “the Red Chinese”, it would seem), and the human race seems likely to be well on the way to complete annihilation.

“Their faces were grave”, Grazier writes of our heroes’ reaction to these events, and, a few pages of incongruously cheery discussion later, three of the four space travellers find only one viable solution to the situation they find themselves in – namely, to give in and join the runts.

The remaining earthman, Alex, refuses to be party to such primitive debauchery, and as he continues to obverse the nature of the runt culture, the remainder of the look becomes a quasi-scientific rumination on the manner in which a parallel species to humanity might have evolved, had nature seen fit to deposit them in an environment furnished with an endless supply of nutrition, warmth and sunshine, with no natural predators or other sundry threats, thus allowing them to dedicate themselves entirely to pleasure, with no thought of self-preservation or technical / intellectual advancement. (Why they only have one eye is anyone’s guess, but I’m sure there’s an explanation for it thrown in here somewhere.)

It’s a fair bet that James Grazier was influenced to at least some extent here by Robert Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ (the writer of the back cover blurb certainly was), and indeed, far from the smirky tone you might have expected based on occasional, hideous ‘erotic’ passages such as the one quoted above, Grazier remains surprisingly straight-faced throughout, posing the question of whether the earthman or the runts represent the more ‘natural’ (read: admirable) state of being with what appears to be the utmost seriousness. This is, after all, his first venture in the ‘literature of ideas’, and his ideas must be clearly expressed!

Overall, there is something quite sweet about Grazier’s determination to plough on in earnest, in spite of the sheer goofiness of his scenario or the bizarro appearance lent to it by his publishers. As a result, ‘Runts of 61 Cygni C’ has a kind of perverse, Kilgore Trout-like nobility about it – a feeling that is only enhanced by the cack-handed horrors of Grazier’s singularly dreadful prose. Insofar as I can tell (and assuming “James Grazier” wasn’t a pseudonym), this was the author's sole published work.

Of course, this being a novel published in the aftermath of the sixties counter-culture, you can probably guess which course Captain Alex eventually ends up steering in this none too subtle moral conflict between atomic devastation and guiltless free love, and the section of the readership who were actually anticipating some red-hot runt action eventually find themselves rewarded on the book’s final pages, which for the sake of internet posterity are reproduced below.

Those already feeling a bit queasy are advised to look away now.

Selected highlights from the 1970 Belmont Books catalogue can be seen below. (Click to enlarge.)

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Some Thoughts on…
Blood Beach
(Jeffrey Bloom, 1980)

I don’t know, maybe I’ve just been looking in the wrong places, but this little movie seems to get a pretty bad rap within horror fandom. I mean, of course I understand that those coming to it expecting a routine slasher or a Tremors/Deadly Spawn style monster-bash or something might not get very far with it, but even such sources as Bleeding Skull, where you’d expect an off-beat mess of a film like this to find a natural home, don’t seem to think much of it.

Quoth Dan Budnik on page 14 of the otherwise admirable and highly recommended Bleeding Skull book: “Everyone does their best to be as much of a ‘character’ as they can, but it just doesn’t hold. The scenes between the attacks just aren’t very memorable. They’re clichéd and sometimes boring.”

What can I say - with all due respect to Dan, I felt differently. In fact, I had a wonderful time with ‘Blood Beach’, and particularly enjoyed its unhurried, lugubrious approach to staging a monster movie. Well, things are always subjective aren’t they, and fleeting impressions created by late night viewings of trash-horror films more so than most.

It is sometimes said of horror that a successful movie is one that would remain interesting even if the threatening/supernatural element were removed. I don’t know whether that’s a credo I’d always subscribe to, but in this case it seems apt. In contrast to Mr. Budnik, I found myself largely ambivalent to the antics of the carnivorous subterranean beast inexplicably feasting on sunbathers and joggers beneath the sands of Santa-Monica through the duration of ‘Blood Beach’. Instead, I was pleasantly captivated by the miscellaneous goings on that surrounded it. I mean, sure, it was nice to have the monster there. It gave the characters something to do, and gave us an insight into what they might react when stressed, confused or frightened. It catalyzed the events of the film, you might say. But, for me at least, it wasn’t really the central point of the piece.

Anyone who has read this blog for long enough will know that I have a soft spot for that particular kind of disconnected, quasi-bohemian sense of otherness that seems to characterise horror films set around Southern Californian beach communities. From Night Tide through Messiah of Evil to ‘The Witch Who Came From The Sea’, these locales seem to lend a very specific ‘vibe’ to horror films, and, despite being a considerably more linear proposition than the aforementioned examples, ‘Blood Beach’ has it in spades.

You wouldn’t exactly call this an ‘artistic’ or technically accomplished movie. Indeed, in objective terms you may even by justified in deeming it a ‘bad’ movie – one that is poorly paced and sloppily directed with wildly erratic performances, and certainly one that largely fails to deliver on promise of its somewhat legendary poster (see above). Nevertheless though, it has its moments. The photography is very nice (insofar as I can tell from the terribly degraded version I’m watching – see below), and the musical score sounds surprisingly slick and accomplished for this kind of film.

In between ‘Blood Beach’s more eventful moments, there are many shots of stuff like a guy standing by the sea-front playing a violin, lengthy close-ups of a grown woman doing a paint by numbers picture – you know, that sort of thing. All this eccentricity is a tad over-done perhaps, but director Jeffrey Bloom seems very much concerned with building a sense of place around his characters, and I can dig that. I always enjoy films set in locales that I feel I’d enjoy living in. Do I want to see this place torn apart by some big carnivorous worm? Hell no! I feel quite strongly about it in fact, just like the characters do.

Admittedly, there is a kind of self-conscious quirkiness to a lot of the lackadaisical goings-on here that some may find off-putting, but at the same kind there’s a peculiar earnestness about them too - a gentle, deliberate approach that conversely led to me finding this film is very charming.

For instance, you’ve got this one guy, a minor character who works with the main male lead as a lifeguard, or harbour patrol officer, or something. Said guy has a pretty wild mop of curly hair, and he can’t stick around for the night shift, because, quote, “I’m planning to BOOGIE tomorrow night, and I haven’t slept in a week!”. Say no more, brother – male hero guy understands. In a lesser film, such a conversation would probably provide lead-up for some ho-hum monster/killer set piece. Here, it initially leads nowhere, but eventually sets us up for a delightful scene later in the film where we see curly-hair guy getting his boogie on in a cramped and beer-sodden local bar.

Turns out he is the shirt & tie wearing, Joe Cocker-esque vocalist in a sweaty pub rock band. This is a short scene, no fanfare and it just sort of comes out of nowhere, but it’s great. It has a very authentic feel, and it looks like everyone present is having a really good time. An anonymous female singer gets up from the audience, takes a mic, and her and Curly do a few verses of this really haggard, sub-Gram & Emmy-Lou style wind-swept ballad together. Everyone in the crowd cheers them on (or at least they do in my head). It is awesome. I wish I was there.

Similarly, well, actually quite dissimilarly but you take my point, the soap opera-esque plot line about the main harbour patrol guy getting back together with his old flame after her Dad and his fiancée were both eaten by the beach-monster was quite diverting – strangely touching in its earnest, am-dram sorta fashion.

Meanwhile, Burt Young is in this movie too, which is always a treat. He is hanging around playing a fish-out-of-water sidekick to the main police detective, transferred in from Chicago. His character is very ‘one joke’, but boy can Burt Young ever do ‘one joke’ well. He dresses like a 1920s gangster and he keeps saying stuff like “I tells ya, dis wouldn’t happen in Chicago, hyuk hyuk”. He seems to be drunk much of the time, and a lot of his dialogue is slightly incomprehensible. It’s nice to have him around.

Then, after a while, no less a personage than John Saxon himself turns up, playing a hard-headed police captain who is charged with delivering some of the most ridiculous dialogue I’ve heard in a motion picture in recent memory (“you snot-nosed, scissor-billed crow-bait”, he calls an elderly woman at one point).

Saxon has a great two hander scene with this incredibly untogether, wigged out scientist guy they dug up from somewhere, who speaks in the most unbearably disjointed, monotonous sort of manner for ages and ages about what he conjectures that this beach monster may or may not be. (“What I’m trying to do is… try to define… some kind of living THING… perhaps a creature currently, uh, in a state of a evolution… that CRAWLS, subterraneanly… in, uh… MOIST, probably dark… places…?”.) Saxon, getting increasingly irate, tells him, “You gotta lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo that’s about as much use as whiskers on a sausage!”. Frankly I think someone was putting lines like that in the script for a dare, just to see whether John Saxon could get through them without breaking his straight-faced composure. Needless to say, he bats every one straight back like a pro. It’s a joy to behold.

Now that we’ve got all that straight, let’s sit back and reflect. The Joe Cocker bar band guy, the earnest lifeguard guy and his old flame, Burt Young, John Saxon, the rambling old scientist and their pals – they’re all going to get together to combat a carnivorous subterranean beast inexplicably feasting on sunbathers and joggers beneath the sands of Santa-Monica. How are they going to do it? What ideas will they come up with, and what challenges will they face? I bet you want to find out too, to share this strange journey with them.

Well, don’t worry, you have plenty of time. ‘Blood Beach’ only just got going. If you came for gore and boobs and the not-so-special effects, what can I tell you – the exit is that way. But if you’ve got time for Burt and John and the gang, and you like the thought of hanging out with them and maybe sharing a coffee in a paper cup from the refreshments shack in between searching the sand for body parts (Quoth Burt: “say, what colour eyes did ya stewardess have, I mean, uh, had..?”) and ruminating over what might have happened to that nice old lady who used to go jogging along the sea-front – welcome aboard. I don’t care what anybody says, ‘Blood Beach’ is awesome.

(As a final note, it’s possible I might have enjoyed this film even more if the bootleg copy of it I was watching didn’t appear to be a 3rd gen, cropped VHS rip downloaded from the internet in 1996. I have subsequently tried by best to obtain a proper copy, and am even willing to pay money for the privilege, but no dice apparently. Surely a watchable version of this charming motion picture must have hit the streets at some point! Can anybody help? ‘Blood Beach’ fans, stand up and be counted! If I’m not watching this on blu-ray by the end of 2015, can we really say that the great journey of the human race has truly been worthwhile? You tell me.)