Sunday, 25 March 2018

Bloody NEL:
To Outrun Doomsday
by Kenneth Bulmer


Last but not least in our quartet of ‘70s NEL SF gear, here we have another superlative cover illustration from Ray Feibush.

It’s the sense of perspective provided by the little fighting man on the bottom left that really makes this one work I think. Totally awesome is perhaps the phrase I’m looking for.

Even more extraordinary is the fact that Feibush actually gets a credit for his work this time around, hidden in the corner of the back cover. Will wonders never cease?

A hardened paperback warrior, Kenneth Bulmer (1921-2005) wrote around 160 published novels across five decades, utilising enough pseudonyms to fill a train carriage. The vast majority of his output was science fiction, but he wasn’t adverse to the occasional run of westerns, historical fiction or ‘Men’s Adventure’ series titles.

‘To Outrun Doomsday’ was originally published by Ace Books in the U.S. in 1967.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Bloody NEL:
Real-Time World
by Christopher Priest

You know that feeling, particularly common to SF paperbacks, when you begin reading a back cover blurb and think, “gosh, this sounds like one hell of a story”, only to reach the third or fourth paragraph and realise that you’re actually reading synopses of multiple short stories, rather than a single novel? No..? Well either way, you’ve got a perfect example right here.

Christopher Priest of course needs no introduction as one of the finest writers to emerge from the New Wave of British Science Fiction, so it only remains to be said that I quite like the understated cover art here.

It looks a bit like a background knocked up by the artist for a sword n’ sorcery commission, before he added the barbarians and chain mail bikini-clad maidens and so on.

Breaking our Ray Feibush streak, the SF Encyclopaedia credits this one to Chris Achilleos.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Bloody NEL:
The Omega Point
by George Zebrowski

On first glance, the back cover blurb for this one suggests a kind of post-apocalyptic variation on Edgar Rice Burroughs style science fantasy, but venturing inside, it soon becomes clear that George Zebrowski had his sights set a little higher than that.

Chapters pointedly begin with quotes from Freud, Gorky and Shakespeare, and the protagonist spends the entirety of the second chapter enjoying a “percussion cantata”, beamed live to countless millions of spectators across the galaxy:

“There were a hundred performers seated at the various instruments on the raised platform. Each sat at an electronic console which was covered with oversize push buttons and giant levers. The only really novel presence on the stage was the massive percussion batteries – traditional instruments, with some of the designs dating back two and three thousand years to old Earth and the first solar confederation. There were drums of all shapes and sizes; two of the drums were taller than the male performers who stood ready to operate two mounted hammers hanging above each drum. Elsewhere on the stage stood celesta, xylophones, six grand pianos, giant triangles, massive bells, clickers, and iron anvils, and two gargantuan wooden blocks which would be struck by giant wooden mallets swinging freely on chains. All the instruments were wired for sound in the modern manner.”

(Something makes me think Zebrowski might dig The Boredoms..)

Anyway, the iffy grammar in the above paragraph may have tipped you off to the fact that sadly‘The Omega Point’ rarely seems able to live up to it’s author’s grand ideals, but, this seems to be have been his first novel, so perhaps we can cut him some slack?

Born in Austria in 1945, George Zebrowski has continued to write SF well into the 21st century, with the last published work listed on his Wikipedia page appearing in 2009, so, uh, good for him. I’m glad he persevered.

‘The Omega Point’ was originally published in the U.S. by Ace Books in 1972, by the way.

Searching elsewhere online, it seems generally agreed that the - excellent - cover art for this NEL edition is another Ray Feibush joint.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Bloody NEL:
Time and Timothy Grenville
by Terry Greenhough


Is it possible to imagine a book that would look more at home on my shelves than this one? Or, you know that uneasy sensation you get when you suddenly start to feel like a ‘target audience’?

Terry Greenhough (1944-2002) seemingly enjoyed a brief but productive literary career in the latter half of the 1970s, with five science fiction novels and a historical romance seeing print between ’75 and ’80, four of them within New English Library covers.

‘Time and Timothy Grenville’ (note the curious similarity to the author’s name) was the first of his SF efforts. I’ve not read it yet, but tells us that, “..typically of this writer [it] somewhat discursively exploits an uneasy, oppressive relation between the world at large and its protagonist in a story of complex Time Travel and Aliens, in which Earth itself proves to be at stake.”

By that as it may, I’m going to point to the echoes of both Alan Garner and Nigel Kneale in the back cover blurb, and single this one out as a potentially key exemplar of stone circle-sploitation - a phenomenon largely unique to the late 1970s that I’ll write an unconvincing monograph (or at least, a Found Objects post) about one day.

The SF Encyclopaedia page linked above also helpfully credits the cover art on this edition to prolific NEL SF artist Ray Feibush.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Bloody NEL:
The Making of Tania:
The Patty Hearst Story

by David Boulton

If I approached New English Library’s cash-in Patty Hearst book expecting the same kind of questionable laffs I extracted from their cash-in Manson book, disappointment was soon the result.

Perhaps having learned a thing or two since they entrusted their earlier true crime opus to a pseudonymous London-based hack channelling a fictitious Californian hipster, NEL instead assigned this gig to David Boulton, a legit journalist and broadcaster whose achievements to this date had included a book about Conscientious Objectors during the First World War and a history of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

As such, ‘The Making of Tania’ presents what I am inclined to believe is a fairly sober and credible overview of the facts as they stood at the time of writing, largely avoiding the kind of sensationalism I was expecting (and, to be honest, quite looking forward to), and resorting to speculation only when gaps in the factual narrative make it unavoidable.

Above all, Boulton’s book serves to remind us that, extraordinary though the Hearst case may seem when viewed at a distance, the deeper one digs into the details, the more senseless and depressing the events surrounding Patty’s kidnapping in February 1974 become. Tapping into the very dankest corners of America’s pre-Watergate darkness, it is a story that leaves almost everyone involved looking irresponsible, ineffectual and ultimately idiotic.

One of the most interesting aspects of reading a factual account written so soon after the events described is the huge holes that remain in the centre of the narrative Boulton builds from the sources available to him (holes that to a certain extent remain unfilled, or at least bitterly contested, to this day).

At the time of writing, the majority of the Symbionese Liberation Army’s core members were already dead, and the survivors (including Patty/Tania) were on the run, their whereabouts unknown. Unsurprisingly, none of them had stopped to give any interviews.

Whilst the SLA’s movements and activities could be pieced together with a reasonable degree of accuracy (more thanks to the efforts of the media than the police, it seems), the details of what actually transpired within the group – their personal relationships, the balance of power, decision-making processes, and the means by which the members (most of them fairly comfortable, educated, white twenty-somethings lest we forget) ended up being driven to such an extreme degree of fanaticism – all of these things were (and to a significant extent, still are) a complete unknown.

Although a substantial amount of space in the book is taken up with reproducing the SLA’s assorted communiqués and tape transcripts in full, this feels less like an easy way to fill pages, and more like a necessary decision on Boulton’s part. After all, these unedifying diatribes – so charmless, hypocritical and sickeningly self-congratulatory you’re forced to wonder how their authors could possibly have taken them seriously – represent the only insights we have into the thought processes of the people who are ostensibly the “main characters” of our story.

One can easily imagine the frustration that legitimate activists working for left-wing/socialist causes must have felt when these ridiculous, gun-toting bozos suddenly came out of nowhere to instantly dominate all media coverage of progressive politics, but, they could hopefully at least take some succour from the fact that the SLA saga also served to show the USA’s state and federal law enforcement agencies at their absolute worst.

Repeatedly, the authorities’ failure to properly secure crime scenes or follow up evidence led to them missing easy chances to apprehend SLA members (potentially without bloodshed), and, when they did eventually catch up with them – in a casual rooming house in Compton, South Central L.A. in which the bulk of the group had inexplicably taken up residence, apparently without making the slightest effort to disguise their identity – the resulting confrontation was handled appallingly by both the LAPD and FBI.

That no innocent bystanders were killed as the cops opened up with automatic weapons, smoke bombs and hand grenades in a heavily populated urban area, without even bothering to make certain that the buildings in front of them were free of civilians, is little short of a miracle. (Astonishingly, Boulton reports that at one point they were moments away from opening fire on the wrong house, until a passing child(!) informed them that the “white girls with guns” were actually behind them, on the other side of the street.) Would the Feds have behaved like this had the SLA chosen a more affluent white neighbourhood for their showdown? You tell me.

Likewise, the six SLA members within the house may have been armed, dangerous and deluded individuals, culpable for any number of crimes including several murders, but they did not deserve to die like dogs - shot down as they tried to flee, or left to suffocate in the basement of a burning building. Whilst I have limited sympathy for their half-baked ideology and misguided activities, the descriptions herein of their final minutes are enough to make any reader feel sick to the stomach.

I’d like to think I’m not the kind of person to automatically criticise law enforcement agencies without good reason, but reading Boulton’s note that the charred body of Camilla Hall – shot in the head by a police marksman - was found next to the skeletal remains of the Siamese kitten that had accompanied her since her pre-SLA days as a Berkeley drop-out, led me to share the anger of the Compton resident who subsequently spray-painted a perfect, elliptical epitaph on the side of a building overlooking the smouldering ruins: “IT TOOK 500 COPS…” .

Meanwhile, the evidence Boulton presents regarding Donald DeFreeze – aka ‘General Field Marshall Cinque’, de facto leader of the SLA – vis-a-vis the possibility that he was working as a paid informant and agent provocateur for a (no pun intended) “black ops” unit within the CIA right up to (and even beyond) his suspiciously hassle-free ‘escape’ from Soledad prison in 1973, is extremely compelling.

I’m not sure what info has come to light on this in subsequent years, and I’m aware that relying on a single source for something like this is always a mistake (particularly when the source in question is a 40+ year old New English Library paperback), but again, this is an instance in which the facts seem to speak for themselves.

DeFreeze was unaccountably acquitted of serious criminal charges (all involving firearms) on half a dozen occasions during his time in LA, and, when he finally ended up behind bars, he was allowed to practically walk out of a disused wing of Soledad, after Vacaville prison’s anarchic ‘Black Cultural Association’ programme had allowed him to establish personal connections with the unaffiliated Berkeley ‘radicals’ with whom we would later go on to form the SLA.

Again, you can do the math. Could this ‘wild card’ police operative – already noted for his schizophrenic tendencies and dangerous obsession with guns and explosives – have slipped his handlers and gone off-piste only when he realised the fun he could have leading a cabal of machine gun-toting white chicks, provided he could keep his “political” bullshit flowing well enough for them to buy him as a revolutionary Black Power guru..?

Thanks to the gusto of the police gunmen in Compton, we will never know whether or not ‘Field Marshall Cinque’ genuinely believed in the revolutionary ideals he espoused via the SLA’s propaganda, and, in fairness, Boulton doesn’t extend his speculation quite as far as I have in the preceding paragraph. But, it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that DeFreeze was deliberately placed within the initially harmless Berkeley milieu in order to inform on and incriminate its occupants... thus potentially making this whole sorry mess just another gift to the people, courtesy of the paranoid excesses that predominated within US law enforcement during the final years of J. Edgar Hoover’s tenure at the FBI.

Surprisingly, about the only person to emerge from Boulton’s book with any dignity at all is Patty’s father, Randolph Heart (the fourth son of William Randolph Hearst). Following his daughter’s kidnapping, Hearst went to great lengths to arrange meetings with representatives of organisations affiliated with the SLA, and announced, apparently in earnest, that his view of the world had been changed as a result of these discussions. He implemented the SLA’s demands for a vast public food programme about as well as he could within the prohibitive timeframe and guidelines the kidnappers had outlined, eventually sinking so much money into it that the solvency of his business empire was put in jeopardy, and he enraged the editorial staff of his newspapers by ordering them to re-print the SLA’s monotonous tracts in full, as they had demanded.

For these efforts, Hearst received nothing but abuse from all quarters, including from his own daughter. Given his impossible situation, one can hardly blame him for effectively washing his hands of Patty’s fate following the Compton blood-bath, and withdrawing from the public eye insofar as was possible. For this of course, he received yet more abuse – all of which leaves me feeling rather sorry for the poor guy, regardless of his nominally unsympathetic status as the multi-millionaire son of a notorious tyrant.

All of which, I realise, tells you very little about the aesthetic or editorial policy of New English Library, which is what I instigated this series of posts in order to discuss. But what can I say – as an example of no nonsense, long form journalism, ‘The Making of Tania’ proved an unexpectedly engaging read, blowing the dust off a series of now-historical events that I was broadly aware of, but had never really taken the time to read up on in this level of detail.

I hope I won’t need to derail this weblog into factual/, ‘true crime’ territory too often – rest assured, no icky serial killer fascination is forthcoming - but, like the Manson murders a few years earlier, the Hearst/SLA saga is a tale that has entirely transcended it’s historical context, becoming a key ingredient in the stew of the crazy culture that BITR exists to celebrate, and as such I find that freshening up my knowledge of the genuine article every now and then proves quite rewarding.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Exploito All’Italiana:
Delirium: The Photos of Gioia
(Lamberto Bava, 1987)

As a lover of the irrational in cinema, it saddens me to report that one of the most delirious things about this late period giallo opus from Lamberto Bava is probably its name. First off, this ‘Delirium’ should definitely not to be confused with Renato Polselli’s more comprehensively delirious 1972 ‘Delirium’, nor indeed the 1979 American horror film of the same name. And, if you’re thinking, hang on, pictures of what? Well, ‘Gioia’ is the Italian version of ‘Gloria’, which is the name of the central character in the English dub under review here, so, there you go; it’s not just a poster typo that stuck, although quite why the title wasn’t anglicised to match the dub heard in English territories is anyone’s guess. (1)

So, having got that out of the way, let’s crack on and see what kind of enjoyment we can wring from the younger Bava’s attempt to sew up elements of Argento, De Palma and indeed his father’s own ‘Blood & Black Lace’ (1964) into a kind of crudely assembled Ultimate Giallo, telling the can’t-miss tale of Gloria, the excruciatingly rich and tasteless publisher of a soft porn/fashion magazine named ‘Pussycat’, and of a vengeful killer stalking and murdering the models in her employ.

As you might well have anticipated, ‘Delirium’ is first and foremost a veritable riot of out-of-control ‘80s kitsch. The film’s visuals immediately recall the slick, hyper-real fantasias of Argento and Michele Soavi’s ‘80s films, whilst the fetishised, Helmut Newton-esque fashion / photography milieu that provides much of the local colour seems like a direct homage to ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars’ (1978), executed here with a level of garish, exploitative tackiness that makes Irwin Kirshner’s film look like a model of taste and restraint in comparison.

This aesthetic is carried over wholesale into the movie’s shamelessly prurient stylised murder sequences, and, needless to say, the wardrobe and hair-styling throughout must be seen to be believed, whilst the displays of conspicuous consumption highlighted in the production design are such that the characters may as well be lounging around on furniture made of gold doubloons.

Another thing viewers will soon note is that lead actress Serena Grandi has unsettlingly large breasts. Not the cool, Russ Meyer / Tura Satana kind of large breasts, but the kind that look out of proportion with the rest of her body and tend to make you worry about the terrible back pain she must be suffering.

Realising it is his solemn duty to exploit these assets appropriately, Lamberto does so not just via a ludicrous climax that sees Gloria going one-on-one with the killer whilst wearing Victoria’s Secrets-style lingerie, and also through the means of a sub-plot in which she reignites her love affair with a jobbing actor, aptly played by the ubiquitous George Eastman. In a delightful touch, Eastman is introduced whilst in costume for some kind of barbarian movie his character is appearing in. [I’ll put money on the fact that this actually WAS his costume from Ruggero Deodato’s ‘The Barbarians’, released the same year].

Grandi and Eastman’s passionate-in-inverted-commas jacuzzi love scene is… quite the thing, proving beyond doubt that wherever the younger Bava’s talents lay, it was certainly not in the arena of eroticism.

During ‘Delirium’, I wasn’t overly troubled by the notion that Grandi might be a gifted actress, but, in fairness, IMDB reveals that she has over fifty credits in theatrically released Italian pictures across four decades, so she must be doing something right. Perhaps it was just the combination of a distinctly iffy English dub and general tone of OTT melodrama that torpedoed her here, who knows.

Happily though, Grandi is flanked by a battalion of familiar faces in the supporting cast, including Daria Nicolodi (brilliant as ever, making comical “shifty eyes” faces behind the backs of the cops as they question her about the murders), David Brandon (whom you’ll recall as the outrageously camp English theatre director in Soavi’s ‘Stage Fright’ (1987), here expanding his range to include an outrageously camp English photographer), and ‘60s starlet Capucine, who puts in a great turn as Gloria’s embittered former mentor/rival magazine publisher (red herring much?), retaining about as much dignity as is humanly possible in a movie like this.

In order to differentiate his product from the legions of other “beautiful fashion models get butchered” titles competing for our attention across the decades, Lamberto’s principal gimmick in ‘Delirium’ involves shooting the murder scenes as heavily-tinted subjective sequences giving us the POV of the murderer. Nothing out of the ordinary there, I’ll grant you, BUT it seems that this killer’s ill-defined paranoid schizo tendencies cause him/her to see his/her photogenic victims as rubber-faced monsters of one kind or another, thus instigating ‘Delirium’s sole claim toward delirium.

The first time this happens – with fluorescent gel lighting flashing crazily as a model we just saw leaving a late night soiree in Gloria’s villa suddenly walks on-screen with a giant prosthetic eyeball head, shortly before she is impaled by a pitchfork – is genuinely pretty crazy; an authentic WTF highlight that momentarily justifies the movie’s title.

This is only topped by the second – even more distasteful - murder sequence, in which the killer visualises his showering victim with a compound-eyed aphid head. Overpowering her, s/he subsequently slathers his/her victim in what appears to be honey, before unleashing… a shoebox full of bees! (It was the shoebox that cracked me up.) Presumably an attempt to capitalise on ‘Phenomena’s (far superior) insect effects a few years earlier, this is all utterly inexplicable, and just as grotesquely daft as it sounds. (2)

As if all that weren’t enough to keep us busy, we’ve also got a peculiar sub-plot involving a wheelchair-bound teenager who spends his time spying on the kinky goings-on around Gloria’s pool and making obscene phone calls to her, but hey, it’s ok, he’s a good kid really. Beginning as an obligatory Hitchcock nod, developments here take a pretty weird diversion in the second half of the film, when it is revealed that wheelchair boy’s incapacity is a self-inflicted psychological condition resulting from the guilt he feels for the car crash that killed his fiancée. For a few moments there, ‘Delirium’ seems as if it’s about to turn into some ‘General Hospital’ tearjerker, and… I have no idea why any of this ended up in the movie to be honest, but hey – at least it’s unexpected.

Also worthy of note, we have another reliably banging, synth-drum heavy score from Simon Boswell, and a wonderful ‘Pieces’-esque moment in which a cop investigating the first murder presents his superior officer with a blood-free pitchfork, announcing “I found this in the tool shed” before the latter stares quizzically at him for a few seconds, then orders him to “get it to the lab, for testing!” (Ah, small pleasures).

Now, by this point, you’re probably thinking that ‘Delirium: The Photos of Gioia’ is shaping up to be one of the greatest Euro-trash horror films of the 1980s. How can it not be? Well, I don’t have any easy answer for you, but let’s put it this way: one of the great unsolved mysteries of European genre cinema must be: given the lengths it clearly goes to to please the kind of people who’d want to watch a film like this in the first place, how come ‘Delirium’ is basically just not that much fun to watch?

It’s a puzzler alright, but for Exhibit A I’ll put the following proposition to you. Given that Lamberto Bava’s ‘greatest hits’ as a director (the two ‘Demons’ films) provide a veritable blueprint for dispensing with exposition entirely and making horror movies that go off like rockets, it is ironic that, whenever he ventured into thriller/giallo territory, his films tended to suffer from serious pacing issues.

Essentially I think, whilst Lamberto can handle the action/exploitation stuff like a pro, he has no feel for either building tension or developing believable character interactions, and when doing so becomes necessary, he is apt to flounder.

Furthermore, for a film named ‘Delirium’, plotting here is disappointingly mundane. The nature of the killer’s monster delusions is never really expanded upon (indeed, this whole device is dropped in the movie’s second half), and things culminate with the kind of crushingly inconsequential “oh, it was… that guy” type resolution that has long been the hallmark of inferior gialli.

With no real surprises or innovations, the film’s 95 minute run time feels pretty gruelling, with toe-curlingly awkward, repetitious dialogue, highly variable performances and ill-motivated corridor wandering eventually reducing it to a painful crawl to the finish line, in spite of the myriad bells and whistles I’ve outlined above.

And for Exhibit B meanwhile… again, I’m not entirely sure how to put this, but there is a certain lack of charm to ‘Delirium’ that makes me reluctant to give it the same breaks I’ve accorded many of the other films I’ve reviewed in this Exploito All’Italiana strand.

By 1987, I suppose things were getting pretty far down the line towards po-mo self-awareness and the kind of “so-bad-it’s-good” mentality that led many cult filmmakers to creative penury during the dark days of the ‘90s. In this respect, the scenes of monster-headed weirdness in ‘Delirium’ feel contrived – knowingly silly - where, just a few years earlier, more genuinely unhinged filmmakers like Lenzi or Polselli would likely have thrown them in entirely in earnest.

It feels as if Bava was sufficiently canny to know exactly what he was doing with the various cultural reference points and commercial necessities spliced into this picture, but was not smart enough to really justify them or put them to any interesting use. Instead, the film veers toward a cynical, camp sensibility that never feels entirely satisfactory, light years away from the simple, derivative charm of pictures like Sergio Martino’s ‘Hands of Steel’ (1986) or Bava’s own Blastfighter (1984). It’s a fine line perhaps, but Clever-Stupid can make for a good time - Stupid-Clever not so much.

Just a few months ago, we were looking at a Lamberto Bava film – Graveyard Disturbance – that crashed and burned as a result of its total failure to fulfil audience expectations of a horror movie. It is curious therefore to reflect on the way that ‘Delirium’ ostensibly delivers in spades on everything an inebriated Euro-cult fan could possibly wish for, yet still somehow comes up empty-handed. What can I say - It’s a funny old game, isn’t it?

It’s not that ‘Delirium’ isn’t worth watching at some point if this kind of thing floats yr boat. On the contrary, it’s loaded with stuff to make you grin and chuckle and gasp, right on cue. But, just as in the world of empty ‘80s narcissism that the film purports to critique in some vague, five-degrees-removed type fashion, those grins, chuckles and gasps will feel hollow and fleeting, where once they ran deep and rich.

(1) For the record, IMDB currently lists upward of twenty feature films with the name ‘Delirium’ – mostly indie horror efforts released during the 21st century, although there’s also a Spanish ‘Delirium’ from 1983, a 1997 Filipino one, and most intriguingly, a 1965 Iranian horror movie that also shares the name. Now that I’d like to see!

(2) We need to acknowledge at this point that ‘Delirium’ is about as shamelessly misogynistic as these things get, but c’mon. If you’ve made it past the poster art and plot synopsis, you should be prepared for that. You might as well criticise a bulldog for drooling. Should you wish to mount a defence of the film on these grounds, I suppose you could point to both Nicolodi and Capucine as strong/interesting female characters who are never overtly sexualised, and perhaps even make a tenuous claim that the film’s camp sensibility pushes its leering depictions of eroticised violence into a guilt-free queer/po-mo context. But, I’m not going to make these arguments – in fact I’m going to drop the issue right there. ‘Delirium’ is gloriously indefensible rubbish, and I’m happy to enjoy it as such.