Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Mortimer's Sanctuary, and What He Found There" in Spark: A Creative Anthology

My latest short story (an urban fantasy, from the perspective of a cockroach) may be found in Volume VI of Spark: A Creative Anthology.  It is available for purchase, here and here, in print and e-book editions.  A 35% discount is available if with the code, "GILL-FRIENDS," but it expires on May 15, 2015.  I hope you enjoy!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Only now does it occur to me... THE THIEF OF BAGDAD

Only now does it occur to me... that while Raoul Walsh's THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is commonly and accurately posited as the great-granddaddy of the modern action-adventure genre, rarely mentioned is its influence on... vintage video games!

Before I begin drawing somewhat absurd comparisons, I'd like to offer some sincere words of praise.  THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is truly something special, a magical fusion of the irrepressible star quality of Douglas Fairbanks, William Cameron Menzies' spectacular art direction, imaginative staging, and innovative special effects– it's truly the perfect blend of adventure-fantasy-comedy-romance, and its shadow lays heavy across the canon, from THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD to JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS to BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, to the STAR WARS, INDIANA JONES, and LORD OF THE RINGS trilogies.  I could go on.  But I, devoted to bizarre 80s pop culture minutiae, shall now draw parallels (with increasing specificity) between THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and classic Nintendo games (specifically SUPER MARIO BROTHERS and the CASTLEVANIA series), whose makers were likely inspired by this classic of silent cinema.

The General:

It might seem fairly broad to draw a parallel between Douglas Fairbanks sliding down a magic, freestanding rope

and a similar action in SUPER MARIO BROTHERS,

but then there's his propensity for popping in and out of pipe-shaped wells,

his battles with dragon-like foes,

and his skillful dodging of fireballs by timing his jumps through a now-stereotypical "Cave of Danger"

which easily compares to a similar trope seen in nearly every sidescroller.

Pictured here from CASTLEVANIA I.

These are all fairly commonplace ideas, and not necessarily tied to THE THIEF OF BAGDAD,  though the film's latter "quest" half is neatly divided into levels with "bosses" at the end of each scene, with creepy enchanted forests and spider-monsters

killer man-sized bats,

and dangerous spiked gates.

The Specific:

The similarities become stranger and more explicit when we examine the NES game, CASTLEVANIA II: SIMON'S QUEST.  The ignominy of this notoriously bad sequel (best described by James Rolfe, "The Angry Video Game Nerd," in his two reviews of the material) centers on the oppressive interruptions of the action with intertitles announcing day/night transitions, as well as its cryptic puzzle-solving (including an infamous scenario where you must kneel in a precise spot in a graveyard with a specific crystal equipped in order to summon the conveyance of a traveling tornado).

I first thought of CASTLEVANIA (and the ZELDA series, too) when Fairbanks encounters a old man who offers obscure puzzle-solving advice,

which later became a cliché in Nintendo adventure gaming:


But then I began to think about the day/night transitions.  THE THIEF OF BAGDAD has a greater magnitude of these than most comparable silent films.  The transitions become a plot point, too, as the Princess summons her suitors to bring her the world's most magical treasures within "seven moons."  

And after each moon, we're privy to a transition:

This continues throughout:

et cetera, 
et cetera...

While these title cards are not narratively bothersome in THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, it is my belief that the makers of CASTLEVANIA II, in attempting to pay homage, inadvertently peppered their game with this kind of action-pausing distraction:

Finally, for those not yet convinced, I present the coup de grace.  In THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, Douglas Fairbanks acquires a "Cloak of Invisibility."  When he wears it, he is transformed into a mostly-invisible energy tornado, and speeds along on his merry way.

Now, compare this to the aforementioned cryptic "traveling tornado" in CASTLEVANIA II:
Simon kneels in the cemetery with the crystal,
 summons the traveling tornado,

becomes invisible,
 and travels on his merry way.

I'm certain that this exercise has been incredibly enlightening to the two or three of you out there who are scholars of both silent film and NES gaming.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Music Review: LOST THEMES (2015, John Carpenter)

Stars:  5 of 5.
Publisher:  Sacred Bones Records.
Runtime:  Forty-seven minutes, fifty-three seconds.
Personnel:  John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, Daniel Davies.

John Carpenter: the heir to Howard Hawks, an unrivaled enthusiast of "Albertus" font, the man who has most effectively used "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, and quite possibly the greatest genre director of all time.  I have sung his praises on many an occasion.  Carpenter (often and affectionately referred to as "Carpy" on this site) is not merely "The Master of Horror"–he is also the Maestro.  It's well known that he scored or co-scored the vast majority of his films with pulse-pounding vigor (that has inspired countless electronic musicians to this day), but less well known is the remainder of his musical oeuvre, much of which was rendered with the help of buddies Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace under the flag of "The Coupe de Villes."  I've reviewed the Coupe de Villes' debut album, WAITING OUT THE EIGHTIES in two parts, here and here, as well as their contributions to the soundtracks of HALLOWEEN, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and THE BOY WHO COULD FLY.

LOST THEMES is, quite obviously, not a Coupe de Villes album, but it is executed with the same unhindered passion, diligence, and privacy.  I mention privacy because I've come to believe that the hustle-bustle of a big-budget film set and the corporate entanglements therein have, over time, spoiled the joy of artistic creation for Mr. Carpenter.  However, with music, he can enter his inner sanctum and exercise the boundless powers of his imagination without unnecessary outside interference.  In a manner of speaking, this album represents the distillation of almost thirty years of artistic expression; each track brims with an élan vital, the force of feeling of a fully imagined feature-length film.  Close your eyes, lose yourself in the swirling sounds, and you're watching every film Carpy never made.  There's a reason this is entitled "LOST" THEMES.

Why, it's enough to force you to your knees like Charlton Heston at the end of PLANET OF THE APES, and scream (at the studio heads who made THE THING and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA such ordeals for Carpy) "You maniacs!  We could have had all these films!  Ah, damn you!  Damn you all to hell!"

But enough psychoanalytical speculation and delusional wish fulfillment... onto the album itself!

#1.  Vortex
Runtime:  Four minutes, forty-five seconds.
Impressions:  This is the track they released in advance to whet the appetites of Carpenter fans, and it's a damn good one.  Immediately it launches us back in time, overwhelming with nostalgia...  the melancholy piano chords recall ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK; the synthy cannonade, PRINCE OF DARKNESS; the impish guitars, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA... but you can't go home again, and consequently it feels a little gloomier than your average Carpenter track.  But a dark power lurks in that gloom, persistent, threatening to rise to the surface...
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  VORTEX, the fourth film of his apocalypse trilogy (THE THING, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS), a loose retelling of John Wyndham's unorthodox novel of extraterrestrial invasion, THE KRAKEN WAKES–set on an isolated sea base staffed by blue-collar, monster-slayin' heroes.  Starring Keith David, Peter Jason, and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.

#2.  Obsidian
Runtime:  Eight minutes, twenty-four seconds.
Impressions:  Obsidian plays with several musical modes: one has more overtly pounding drums and a cosmic/heroic flavor (it feels sort of like UNDERWATER SUNLIGHT/OPTICAL RACE-era Tangerine Dream); one is darker and cheerfully macabre with tinkling arpeggios; one is thoughtful, with echoey, pensive piano; one is kickass Gothic with FOG-style cathedral organ and guitar riffs on rampage; one broods unrepentantly with percussive shakers and a wailing synth; and finally we return to the mode that began the piece.  Quite possibly my favorite track on the album.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  OBSIDIAN ZONE, the story of cocksure coal miner (obviously, Kurt Russell) who accidentally forges a pathway to Lovecraftian terror and, along with his fellow miners, must use the tricks of the trade to destroy the creatures before they reach the surface.  Co-starring Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, and "Buck" Flower.

#3.  Fallen
Runtime:  Four minutes, forty-four seconds.
Impressions:  At the outset, this feels slightly more like a Jean-Michel Jarre track (think EQUINOX era) than a Carpenter one, but it's rather atmospheric and well-executed.  The mystery gives way to "gettin' shit done" guitar riffs out of VAMPIRES or IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, but it maintains a dark consistency.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  In the far reaches of deep space, the leaders of a failing colony (Franco Nero and Harry Dean Stanton) must solicit help from a rival settlement run by a mysterious and dynamic commandant (Willem Dafoe), who may or may not be an iteration of the fallen angel Satan (as depicted in Milton's PARADISE LOST).  See all this and more in JOHN CARPENTER'S FALLEN.  (I imagine this as Carpy's first European co-production, with French and Italian financing.)

#4.  Domain
Runtime: Six minutes, thirty-four seconds.
Impressions:  It begins with haunting, ghostly synths–and launches into a wonderfully insane mosaic of the 1980s, flitting between a dance party and what could easily be the opening credits to an action-TV show.  It closes out with a melancholy-but-sort-of-sassy heroic theme that conjures imagery of say, a helicopter shot of a background character from MAD MAX riding a horse across a beach at sunset.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  This is obviously the suite of music to Carpenter's first television series.  He directed the pilot, but then it was taken over by the same (quasi-charming?) hacks that laid claim to most of his real-life scripts for television.  It's called MASTER OF HIS DOMAIN, and it takes place in at futuristic prison, surrounded by desert in all directions.  Each week, via bloody kumite, the inmates must compete to become... MASTER OF HIS DOMAIN.  Starring Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, and Philip Michael Thomas; with Wilford Brimley as "The Old Man," and Ernest Borgnine as "The Warden."

#5.  Mystery 
Runtime:  Four minutes, thirty-six seconds.
Impressions:  Sensitive and thoughtful, it begins with nearly Classical arpeggiating... that could easily accompany a space documentary on battered VHS.  Then, it gains traction and authority, and its latter half is comprised of commanding drumbeats and power chords; audacity with a hint of menace.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  JOHN CARPENTER'S SHROUD OF MYSTERY, an interstellar romance (not unlike STARMAN), but one that ends with our two intergalactic wayfarers forced to confront an ancient, ghostly evil beyond the edge of the Solar System.  Starring Tom Atkins and Adrienne Barbeau.

#6. Abyss
Runtime:  Six minutes, seven seconds.
Impressions:  The beginning sounds a little Fabio Frizzi to me (Lucio Fulci's usual composer)–there's something in the tone of the modulation that feels like 80s Italy to me, though there are sparklingly dark electric pianos and deep synth chords that are pure Carpenter.  There's a tonal shift at the halfway point as a thumping beat and some reverb-y guitars get down to business.  So many of these pieces build an exquisite sense of macabre mystery before transforming into work of relentless, driving action–which is not unlike many of Carpenter's films.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  HALLOWEEN III, BOOK 2: SEASON OF THE ABYSS.  Picking up directly after the end of HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, Challis (Tom Atkins) struggles to survive in a world reeling from the aftermath of Conal Cochran's masterstroke, a world bereft of children but overflowing with bugs and snakes and the mournful echoes of the Silver Shamrock song.

#7. Wraith
Runtime:  Four minutes, thirty seconds.
Impressions:  A quiet, twinkling opening slowly builds ominous momentum before finally exploding with the energy of a tempestuous, mournful guitar solo in the David Gilmour mode.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  WRAITH, a John Carpenter ghost story partly inspired by the writings of M.R James, starring Dennis Dun as an investigator of paranormal phenomena, Jamie Lee Curtis as his spitfiery competitor, Donald Pleasence as his Professor, and Lee Van Cleef as "The Wraith."

#8. Purgatory
Runtime:  Four minutes, thirty-nine seconds.
Impressions: Another diptych.  The first section lays heavy, with slow, emotive strains.  The second is rootin'-tootin' action piano, lively drums, and whooshing synth FX.  This is the soundtrack to a serious film– albeit one that's not afraid to tread in 'whacky' territory.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  Clearly this is the theme to CAPTAIN RON VS. THE FOG, a film which resides only in the "purgatory" of my imagination, best explained in my three-part fiction, "Carpy & The Cap'n," which can be read here, here, and here.  Starring Kurt Russell as Captain Ron, Dennis Dun as Captain Kwon, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper as Nardo, and Powers Boothe as Blake.

#9.  Night
Runtime: Three minutes, thirty-eight seconds.
Impressions: The dark and deliberate oscillations call to mind imagery of flashing lights and wet pavement, a snaking and zooming futuristic highway after dark.  Unlike many of the other 'lost themes,' Night retains the same mood throughout, with varying degrees of gloom and wonder.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  John Carpenter's N.I.G.H.T., a cyberpunk thriller (which brings us full circle– William Gibson, considered to have originated the genre with NEUROMANCER, was deeply inspired by ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) set on a stretch of crumbling superhighway near Cleveland in the ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK universe, chronicling the clashes between outlaw biker gangs (led by Lance Henriksen) and the paramilitary forces of President Donald Pleasence (led by Michael Ironside).  Co-starring Adrienne Barbeau, Brion James, Sonny Landham, Pam Grier, and featuring a cameo from Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken.

In all, LOST THEMES is a treat for the imagination; for fans of John Carpenter, for the film buffs and the dreamers, for anyone who's relished the chance to escape to another world, even if only for an afternoon...    Five stars.

–Sean Gill

Friday, February 6, 2015

Only now does it occur to me... DOWN PERISCOPE

Only now does it occur to me... that DOWN PERISCOPE may possess the lowest ratio of "overall quality in comparison to amount of Great character actors" from any comparable film.

I think most of us think of DOWN PERISCOPE as the moment in the 90s where our nation's thirst for the "submarine movie" peaked, having enjoyed THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, CRIMSON TIDE, THE ABYSS... before beholding the Rob Schneider version.
 The Rob Schneider version.

Conversely, you may also think of this as "the time Kelsey Grammer put out the feelers to see what his post-'Frasier Crane' stock might be worth."
If we were to examine DOWN PERISCOPE through that lens, I think we'd find that it is not typical of his actual post-FRASIER output:  clearly he's found his new niche acting against type in the third installments of modern action franchises (X-MEN III: THE LAST STAND, THE EXPENDABLES 3).

Anyway, I've digressed from my original point, which is that DOWN PERISCOPE is indeed terrible, but that it contains performances by some of our finest character actors.  There's a certain cognitive dissonance that expresses itself when you're watching Rip Torn:
William H. Macy:

Bruce Dern:
and Harry Dean Stanton:

doing their best to deliver peabrained jokes about bird shit and penis tattoos.  Whew.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Only now does it occur to me... GODZILLA VS. MEGALON

Only now does it occur to me...  that the clear highlight of GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, and perhaps human civilization to this point, is the moment when anthropomorphic, steel-masked robot Jet Jaguar holds back the arms of giant cicada Megalon so that Godzilla may effortlessly administer a lethargic, full-supine, tail-dragging high kick to Megalon's torso.  Twice.
I have preserved this moment for posterity.

EDIT:  In light of YouTube's desire to censor the glorious madness that is this 42 second clip from GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, I shall do my best to recreate it via screencapture.  You will have to imagine the Godzilla roar sound effects and rootin'-tootin', goofy, mock-heroic music yourselves.

Jet Jaguar and Godzilla regard their weakened adversary.

Godzilla nonverbally indicates that Jet Jaguar ought to hold Megalon's arms behind his back.

Jet Jaguar complies with Godzilla's request.

Godzilla begins a lethargic, full supine, tail-dragging high kick.

Godzilla continues his lethargic, full supine, tail-dragging high kick.

Godzilla lands his lethargic, full supine, tail-dragging high kick.

Godzilla then repeats the action using largely recycled footage:

and Megalon suffers the aftereffects.