Thursday, January 25, 2024

Quoth THE RAVEN (1963) Forevermore

On this day--25 January--in 1963, Roger Corman's THE RAVEN first hit the screen. On paper, the film is an adaptation of the poem of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe. In practice, it just uses the poem as a jumping-off point for a raucous horror comedy about dueling wizards written by dark fantasy legend Richard Matheson, directed by the Pope of Pop Cinema and starring genre royalty.

THE RAVEN was the 4th of Corman's adaptations of Poe, which are real highlights of his work as a director. The cycle kicked off in 1960 with HOUSE OF USHER, followed by THE PIT & THE PENDULUM then PREMATURE BURIAL (both 1961) and TALES OF TERROR (1962).

Vincent Price, who headlined all but one of the Poe flicks, had become a horror star in the 1950s and these movies helped catapult him to genre superstardom. While, castwise, he was the initial featured attraction, Corman began bringing into the Poe pictures other current horror stars--Barbara Steele, fresh off Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY, appeared in THE PIT & THE PENDULUM; Hazel Court, who had been in Hammer horrors THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, co-starred in 3 of the Poes--and teaming them great actors who were perhaps past their primes--Ray Milland, just off his second retirement and opposite Court, in PREMATURE BURIAL[1] and Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone in TALES OF TERROR.

TALES OF TERROR had been an anthology featuring adaptations of 3 Poe tales. One segment, a take on "The Black Cat" crossed with "The Cask of Amontillado," featured Lorre as a cat-hating drunk who finds a pal--and eventually a nemesis--in Price's comically urbane wine-taster. It was a straight-up black comedy and arguably the high-point of the movie.

THE RAVEN springboarded off that segment, a feature-length farce bringing back screenwriter Matheson (who had written TRILOGY and 2 of the other 3 Poes), Price, Lorre and, from PREMATURE BURIAL, Court, while adding Boris Karloff and an impossibly young Jack Nicholson, whom Corman had discovered a few years earlier.[2]

Karloff and Lorre had very different acting styles, which caused tension on the set. Karloff, who was approaching 80 by then, was a classically trained actor and, as Corman described it, he knew his lines, knew his character, understood his role and how to play it. Lorre, said Coman, "had a vague idea as to what the script was, but was prepared to come in--as a matter of fact, could only--come in, improvise, make up his lines, do outrageous things on the set and just kind of flow."[3] This constantly threw Karloff--no big improv guy--off his game.

Karloff told Corman he wasn't happy with his scenes with Peter, but their conflicting approaches actually worked to the film's advantage, as their characters were hilariously mismatched rivals. Karloff is the dignified, aristocratic schemer Dr. Scarabus, plagued by the alcoholic wizard version of a yapping, ineffectual feist dog in Lorre's Dr. Bedlo. The irritation Scarabus projected toward Bedlo reflected Karloff's genuine irritation with Lorre's antics.

That isn't to say the movie was an entirely sour experience for horror's elder statesman. Corman encouraged collaborative input. In Corman's autobiography, Vincent Price recalls how

"Boris, Peter and I wrote some additional jokes and brought them to Roger. He approved almost everything we'd done, added business to match, and integrated the result into the script. This was one instance where the actors and the director made a funny script into an even funnier picture."
Jack Nicholson, then 25, plays Rexford, the son of Lorre's Bedlo. He recalls[4] that:
"Roger gave me one direction on that picture. 'Try to be as funny as Lorre, Karloff, and Price.' I loved those guys. I sat around with Peter all the time. I was mad about him. They were wonderful. It was a comedy and Roger gave us a little more time to improvise on the set."
Rexford craves his father's love--or at least recognition--while Bedlo is perpetually annoyed by his attentions and wants nothing to do with him. Rexford would sort of hang on Bedlo's cloak while trying to talk him into coming back home. Nicholson recalls that
"I grabbed his cloak--actually, I grabbed a lot of other things that aren't visible in the frame--just to keep him alive to the fact that I was trying to get him out of there. Of course, the good actor that he is, he just reacted to it spontaneously, slapped me and lashed out."
THE RAVEN is the first time Jack Nicholson, then 25, got to show off the full-on Bring The Crazy that, later in his career, would become one of his trademarks.

ike the other Corman Poe pictures in which she appeared, the film shows off how badly Hammer had wasted Hazel Court in something like THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Here, she's Lenore, who faked her death in order to leave her husband--Price's Dr. Craven--for Scarabus, who calls her "my precious viper." Given a good part, she's a magnificently evil, conniving, red-hot ice-queen. "Are we going to have some torture?", she asks at one point, clearly relishing the prospect.

The film culminates in a no-holds-barred special-effects-heavy wizard duel between Karloff's Scarabus and Price's Craven--an astonishingly daring undertaking for a low-budget movie made decades before CGI tech. Some of the effects don't hold up very well today--some of the animation is crude and Price phasing through the floor didn't looks so great, even in its time--but the goofy tone of the movie makes one play along with even these moments and overall, it's an inventive, effective sequence that is constantly throwing something new and surprising at the viewer.

And, of course, it culminates--like all of the Poe pictures until then--in a fiery cataclysm, as the castle goes up in flames. During the production of HOUSE OF USHER, the first of the Poes, Corman had found a barn that was scheduled for demolition. He, instead, sold the owner on the idea of burning it down--for the princely sum of $50--while his team filmed it. The footage was great, worked in that film and since it became a bit of a convention that the castle burned down at the end of these flicks, Corman always cut it into them.[5]

That kind of recycling was another boon to the Poe pictures. From the first, Corman would send his art director Danny Haller to Universal studios to buy stock sets and scenery--things a small movie would never be able to afford to build but that the big boys would sell for a song just to get it out of the way. This would then be stored after each movie then pulled out again for the next, when the art department would have an all-new budget to repeat the process and add to the collection. In this way, the Poe pictures, all done on very low budgets, looked progressively larger and more elaborate.[6]

THE RAVEN thus displayed, in effect, the art department budget of 5 such movies. It shows. It's beautiful, a very impressive design.

In his autobiography, Corman writes, "I have always felt THE RAVEN... is one of the most accomplished films I directed." It is.
Quirky performances, an always-moving camera, unusual angles, memorable shots. While not his best movie or even his best Poe adaptation, this is still definitely Corman the director at the top of his form.  His affection for it, however, may have contributed to its major shortcoming. One of Corman's signatures is tight editing, but THE RAVEN does tend, at times, to drag, as if the director perhaps fell just a little too much in love with it and couldn't bear to part with some runtime-stretching material that may have been better left on the cutting-room floor.

Still, the movie is a lot of fun. Humor in movies usually doesn't weather the ages so well. THE RAVEN's context, sending up the other Poe pictures, gives it some shelter against the winds of time, at least to the extent that the other films in the cycle are still appreciated. Standing alone, it plays almost like a children's movie. And as long as there are children who are monster kids, genre geeks, horror fans--or, like this writer, one of those kids who grew up--there will always be an audience for it. On this, its birthday, I'm very pleased it exists.



[1] In became a sort of Conventional Wisdom (and thus oft repeated) that Milland in badly miscast in PREMATURE BURIAL, a part written for Price but for which Price was unavailable. While it's easy to imagine what Price would do with the role then compare it unfavorably with Milland, I confess that I've never seen this as the gross mismatch of actor with material that some insist it to be. In any event, Milland made up for any deficiencies here with his work with Corman the same year in the excellent X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES.

[2] Corman first met Nicholson in Jeff Corey's acting class, where Corman had gone to try to better understand actors and their craft. Corman cast Jack in the actor's big-screen debut and first starring role, THE CRY-BABY KILLER, in 1958 and Nicholson appeared in his movies from time to time for the next 9 years. It was with Corman that Nicholson did his first comedy acting, first horror acting, did some of his first screenwriting and his first directorial work.

[3] Corman's account of all of this comes primarily from his 1990 autobiography, "How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood & Never Lost A Dime," and an interview with Bob Costas that same year on Costas' show LATER.

[4] The Nicholson quotes in this piece are from Corman's autobiography.

[5] Though an ill-advised long shot of the RAVEN castle in flames, the characters standing outside watching it, looks fairly terrible.

[6] Loving the ornate sets created for THE RAVEN, Corman decided, after intending to play tennis one day and getting rained out, to quickly produce an entirely original picture in this "genre" he'd created with the Poe movies, a project which became THE TERROR. All of that film's castle footage was shot on the sets for THE RAVEN on the weekend before they were torn down. The story of THE TERROR is a great one but one for another time. Corman's next Poe wasn't really a Poe at all. THE HAUNTED PALACE, which was shot in the Poe style and reused material like its predecessors, was actually a rather extraordinary adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's story, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." AIP slapped the name of the Poe poem on it and marketed it as a Poe. From there, Corman went to the UK, where he made his last 2 Poes, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, though AIP would continue marketing various movies as Poe movies--whether they were or not--for several more years.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Legend of the Golden VAMPYROS LESBOS (1971)

Golden Anniversary Dept. - Released on this day--15 July--in 1971, VAMPYROS LESBOS, Jess Franco's trippy, sexy, psychedelic, so-arty-it's-always-about-to-pop vampire epic.

About 13 years ago, I wrote about my first experiences with Jess Franco's movies (which, by then, were, themselves, years in the past). About VAMPYROS LESBOS, I wrote:
"Bela Lugosi's 1931 DRACULA has been sequelized, remade, rehashed and referenced more times than can be easily counted but this is the only time anyone set out to produce a "remake"--if one can call it that--that consciously reversed everything in the movie. Franco's film is like a negative image of it. Night becomes day, cold Carpathian environs fall to warm Mediterranea, hetero Count becomes lesbian Countess, Puritanical vampire hunter becomes a degenerate obsessed with becoming a vampire himself.
The film's heroine, the sad and lonely--but still fearsome--Countess Carody, is essayed by the stunning Soledad Miranda. As I wrote back then, she "dominates the film with her remarkable presence. Bela never drank... wine, but when Franco zoomed into Soledad's exquisite face as she tells us 'I love this wine,' well, I may not have literally danced a jig in joy but the impulse were certainly there." For Soledad, this was one of a string of movies with Franco that led to a studio contract that would have made her a major star. Unfortunately, she died after an auto accident on her way to a party to celebrate signing it--only 27 years old.

This was Franco's follow-up to his own COUNT DRACULA, starring Christopher Lee in the title role, with Soledad as Lucy Westenra. That picture had been an effort to create the first faithful sound adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel[1] but had been hampered by budget issues. It had its flourishes, to be sure, but it was an example of Franco trying to go mainstream, which almost inevitably proves to be the least interesting Franco material. I'd like to think VAMPYROS LESBOS was his palate cleanser. Working from, at root, the same material, Franco just threw out all the rules, went wild and experimental, pursued his own obsessions, made it his own, an utterly unique, hypnotic, hallucinatory dream-made-film--both galaxies different and galaxies better than the earlier picture.

In trying to describe the music for VAMPYROS LESBOS, I'm left at a bit of a loss. "Free-form" is probably the closest I'm going to get. Jazz, progressive, strange stuff from another world. Utterly unique, the only place you'll ever hear the kind of music featured in this film is in the other two Franco/Miranda pictures also scored that year by Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab.[2] The music for all 3 was released as "The Vampyros Lesbos Sexadelic Dance Party," and became a hit decades after the film first appeared. Quentin Tarantino used one of its tracks in JACKIE BROWN (1997).

This is a grossly inadequate write-up for such an extraordinary film. I only realized this was the anniversary of its release too late to do it justice before the day was over! Franco is one of my cinematic heroes, a guy who could take a camera, some friends, a few rolls of quarters and some bologna sandwiches and make something so extraordinary that people are still talking about it decades later. This is one of his best.



[1] For all the sound Dracula movies up until then, the productions had given little attention to--or, more often, had entirely ignored--the original text.


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Jungle Sam Katzman & the Five-and-Dime B-Movie Businesss

Born on this day--7 July--in 1901, "Jungle Sam" Katzman. Not a household name, but one of the most prolific b-movie producers of the 20th century. "A picture that makes money is a good picture--whether it is artistically good or bad," Sam told Variety in 1957. "I'm in the five-and-dime business and not in the Tiffany business. I make pictures for the little theaters around the country." And that's what Sam did for four decades, turning out, in rapid succession and for relative peanuts, a mammoth assemblage of popular screen entertainments of every species and level of noteworthiness. At present, the Internet Movie Database lists 239 credits for Sam as producer but even that doesn't appear to be complete. Interviewed in the '60s, "Katzman admitted that he'd lost count of the number of pictures he'd ground out," writes genre historian Tom Weaver, "but guessed it might be as high as 1200."[1] The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Some things:

Katzman produced two of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen's first films. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA in 1955 featured a giant octopus, unleashed by an H-bomb, attacking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. To save money--always tight on a Katzman picture--Harryhausen created an "octopus" with only 6 tentacles--less to animate. This proved a huge success and Katzman and co. followed it in 1956 with EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS--alien invaders destroying most of the famous landmarks in Washington D.C.

In 1957, Katzman intended to employ Harryhausen's effects in another monster flick, Mark of the Claw, but when this looked as if it would be too expensive, he farmed out the effects work to, um, lesser talents, giving birth to THE GIANT CLAW, featuring what was supposed to be a Godzilla-scaled, near-indestructible avian menace from the stars but that looked, instead, like some demented Muppet--specifically, in perhaps a bit of metatextual concession, a giant turkey. With arguably the worst movie monster of the 1950s but with everyone on screen taking the whole affair very seriously, THE GIANT CLAW became a cult classic.

This is the era of copious comic-to-screen adaptations and Katzman, who did many, was responsible for some milestones in the genre. He produced the first live-action Superman projects, SUPERMAN in 1948 and ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN in 1950, starring Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel and Noel Neill as Lois Lane (a role Neill would reprise in the very successful ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN tv series a few years later). Katzman produced BATMAN & ROBIN (1949), with Robert Lowery as the second live-action incarnation of the Caped Crusader. Steven Spielberg is reportedly developing a movie based on DC Comics' Blackhawk; Katzman produced the first BLACKHAWK in 1952.[2]

"Rock Around the Clock" is now regarded as a rock classic but when Bill Haley and His Comets originally released the record, it was only a very modest success. That is, until MGM used the tune to open THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE in 1955, instantly making of it a mega-hit. Katzman smelled opportunity; he scooped up Haley and co., the Platters and other rock acts and within months released ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK, the first of an all-new genre that would quickly become omnipresent: the rock musical.

Katzman made 10 movies with Bela Lugosi.[3] In the '60s, he made Elvis movies. He worked with beloved--for both good and bad--cult directors like "Wagon Wheel Joe" Lewis, William "One-Shot" Beaudine and Edward D. Cahn. His career as a producer extended from Hollywood's Poverty Row in the '30s to his best years at Columbia to, later in life, the big dogs of MGM and 20th Century Fox. The diversity of his work is extraordinary; he can honestly be said to have made movies in nearly every genre. A lot of movies in every genre. Genres that predated him, genres he invented, genres that have passed into cinema history and genres that will never die. Back in 2007, someone at Sony--who wasn't paid well enough for this--decided to spotlight Katzman's work in one of those never-die genres as part of the studio's "Icons of Horror" series, offering a set featuring beautiful prints of THE GIANT CLAW, THE ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU, THE WEREWOLF and CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN. Later this year, Arrow Video intends to release the same 4 movies in "Cold War Creatures: Four Films From Sam Katzman," an extras-laden limited edition Blu-ray set. Sam made movies to make money, and he often bragged that he never lost money on a movie and given his tight budgets and the supportive market in which he released them, that may even be true. On his birthday, it seems a nice thought that, nearly 48 years after Jungle Sam's death, they're still making that money.



[1] That's Weaver from his excellent "Poverty Row Horrors!: Monogram, PRC and Republic Horror Films of the Forties."

[2] Jungle Sam was fond of Jungle settings, and among his other comic adaptations were KING OF THE CONGO (a 1952 version of Frank Frazetta's Thun'da character), DC's CONGO BILL in 1948 and a series of movies starting in '48 made from Alex Raymond's Jungle Jim comics, and starring Johnny Weissmuller, who had just finished a 16-year stint playing Tarzan at MGM. In 1955, Katzman was in the midst of producing a sequel to Columbia's adaptation of Lee Falk's comic strip hero THE PHANTOM when he got into a dispute with the publisher, lost the rights and simply renamed the character in the film "Captain Africa." THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN AFRICA--definitely not one of his finer moments.


Monday, November 5, 2018

"Nah": What Comes After THE WALKING DEAD's Latest Dumpster Dive?

I've been slacking in my WALKING DEAD reviews this season. I've been in a real rut when it comes to writing anything recently and TWD doesn't exactly inspire. After a season opener chock-full of TWD's usual idiocy, which at least gives one something at which to poke fun, the series has settled into an astonishingly bland run of eps about the characters' efforts to repair a bridge and how this has been complicated by the Simmering Tension between the Saviors and everyone else. The writers tried to squeeze in a mystery wherein someone was bumping off various Saviors who were hauling critical supplies. This suggested someone was trying to cripple the other communities and maybe incite another war but it was eventually revealed that it was just some of the ladies from Oceanside carrying out revenge killings against the Saviors who murdered their men. Fair enough--revenge killings of this sort would be a regular occurrence on a competently-written TWD--but while the writers probably thought they were throwing in a red herring when it came to the supplies, the fate of those supplies was never addressed, the implication being that Oceanside is simply keeping the stuff (which gives the murder-spree a rather different character).

The last few eps have seen the writers repeatedly setting up storylines then, with tonight's installment ("What Comes After"), deciding to abandon them.

Last week, Maggie sets off to the Safe Zone with the intent of finally killing Negan. The Godfatheresque final moments of the previous season ender suggested that Simmering Tension over Rick's refusal to kill Negan would play a central role in this year's story, leading Maggie to assert Hilltop's independence and try to usurp Rick's leadership role, but after setting this up in such an overbearing way, the writers apparently just decided "Nah." Maggie, who, for no real reason at all, had already backed down from her more hardened stance re:the Saviors, had a brief confrontation with Michonne at the door to Negan's prison, confronted Negan then decided he was so pathetic, she wasn't going to kill him. And that was the end of that.

That this went nowhere lends an amusing twist to Rick's story.  Upon hearing that Maggie was heading to the Safe Zone, Rick deduced why and hitched a ride with Daryl, hoping to beat her there. Daryl is in on Maggie's plan, though, and misleads him. The two briefly scuffle and, like the show itself, end up falling into a hole and getting stuck there. The many versions of Rick have been written as complete idiots for years but in his handling of the Saviors and Negan in particular, this Rick has been written like a seriously deluded fool, insisting that, in memory of Coral, Negan remain alive and that the other communities accept and live in harmony with the Saviors, the thugs who murdered, pillaged and terrorized them. The writers seem oblivious to how far they've put his head up his own ass over this; they have Rick willing to fight his best friend, who has been with him throughout the entire zombie apocalypse, over the life of the mass-murdering Negan, and still write him as if he's pursuing some righteous dream of a better future for doing so. And, of course, it all turns out to be for nothing, as Maggie opts not to kill Negan anyway.

While Rick and Daryl are in that hole, a large group of Saviors show up at the bridge work-camp intent on liberating a cache of guns from the representatives of the other communities. The two sides square off, then, as shooting begins, the action cuts away. And it never cuts back. This was set up as a major stand-off, a full-blown Savior rebellion that had been brewing for 4 eps. It finally comes to a head and, with the lives of Carol, Jerry and several other characters in the balance, the writers say "Nah" again, and we're never shown what happened.[1]

Instead, the whole thing is just used as an excuse to have some shooting that attracts a pair of nearby zombie herds. Rick and Daryl make it out of that hole with zombies falling in on top of them. Rick decides to hop on a nearby horse, a runaway from the fighting, and try to lead away the herd that is closing in on them, though Daryl has his motorcycle, which would be much better-suited to the task. Rick leads the zombies up a road but when he comes to a turn, he finds the second herd bearing down on him from that direction. With nowhere to go, Rick wheels the horse and it spooks and throws him. He lands on a pile of rubble randomly deposited on the side of the road[2] and is impaled through his side on a piece of rebar. Last week's ep ended with the zombies closing in while he was pinned there. Tonight, he very implausibly manages to free himself, hop on the horse, which, after being so frightened, is just sort of milling around, and exit down a zombie-free road that suddenly appears before them, as what had previously been presented as just a turn in the road is revealed to be, instead, an intersection. It's a cheat via staging and editing; if the road just continued through the intersection all along, there would have been no reason for Rick--and the horse--to panic.

Yeah, right.
AMC has been promoting this as "Rick Grimes' final season." A few weeks ago, I wrote of this:
"Andrew Lincoln is supposed to be leaving the show after this season and AMC's promotional materials reflect this, though it wouldn't be at all out of character for TWD to merely be using this as an attention-grabbing ruse along the lines of Glenn's infamous dumpster dive a few years ago. There's no way Rick can just be made to leave; to be rid of him, TWD will have to kill off the character, their central character from TWD's first screen moments. AMC's greed is infamous. Its execs show every sign of wanting to milk this cash-cow right into its grave and beyond. But the smart ones--if there are any--must see the writing on the wall. Last week's ep, a season opener, drew the smallest audience since the show's 2nd season. The numbers, taken in the abstract, are still impressive for a cable series but anyone but the die-hards would be hard-pressed not to concede TWD is a fundamentally broken show that has been, in effect, dead for years now. Killing Rick can only further devastate the ratings. Continuing without him would be like the Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey Circus without the elephants (and would go over just as well). AMC should wrap up the series while Lincoln is still on board and try to give it some sort of dignified ending.

"Do I think that will happen?

"Not a chance."
Though tonight is only the 5th ep of the season, it was supposed to be the last Rick ep, but I certainly called it right.

Rick wanders around on the horse,[3] bleeding enough to kill an ordinary man a dozen times over while deliriously conversing with ghosts from his past. Shane, Hershel, Sasha--they mouth pleasantries that add nothing to the show except running time. By the end, Rick is staggering across the newly-repaired bridge, the massive zombie herd behind him. Our other heroes, presumably alerted by Daryl, show up but with Rick dying on his feet, they then run away to try to spare the bridge by diverting the herd. No one goes to Rick's aid! Daryl, who is beside and slightly below the bridge, snipes several zombies but he doesn't rush up the hill to help Rick either--he doesn't even move from his position. It's utterly inexplicable that our heroes would leave a very large cache of explosives laying around right in the middle of the bridge they'd just repaired, particularly with the Saviors rebelling and looking for weapons, but tonight, for no other reason than that the writers decreed it, there it was--a zombie knocked over a box, the lid came off and it was full of dynamite bundles. Rick shoots it, sets it off and the bridge--and apparently Rick himself--are blown all to hell, the burning zombies plunging into the raging river below.

Then the writers pull their last "Nah." Rick didn't die in the explosion. All that hype turned out to be another dumpster dive, as Rick was, instead, blown into the river, sent hurtling down it without drowning or being eaten by the dead (who somehow do seem to have drowned) and just happens to wash up on shore right where Jadis/Anne was standing, waiting for her mysterious helicopter people to pick her up. She has them patch up Rick and the helicopter flies off with him on board.

The last thing we see is a flash-forward scene wherein the show time-jumps at least 5 or 6 years into the future, maybe more, and the previews for next week make clear this is the new status quo. In the opening moments of TALKING DEAD, TWD executive producer Scott Gimple revealed that, contrary to all the hype regarding Rick's "final episodes," Rick's story will continue via a new series of movies AMC will be producing. Instead of letting this worn-out show die a peaceful death, Gimple describes this as a major expansion of the TWD "universe," that word every movie and tv studio in this MCU era loves. If Gimple had anything to say about how this essentially renders an entirely pointless exercise every episode of the season to date--over a third of the season--I didn't stick around long enough to hear it.

One gets the strong impression that this season was initially supposed to be very different and then, at some late point during production, the creators faced some sort of crisis and had to radically alter their plans. The eps prior to this were definitely building a story, even if it wasn't terribly engaging. "What Comes After" not only abandoned individual storylines, it abandoned the entire season. But for some intervening behind-the-scenes problem, it would have made much more sense to simply begin this season after this latest time-jump. Rick's "death" is the only event that has happened so far that will have any impact on anything that comes after, and that could have just as easily been filled in via flashbacks. As it is, these first 5 eps are now an island of entirely inconsequential filler in a sea of time--about a year-and-a-half between the end of last season and the beginning of this one and 5 or 6 years between last night's ep and everything that is to come. And AMC's immediate sequel to this latest expression of contempt for the audience is to double down on the franchise.

Perhaps the next "Nah" we'll get will come from viewers.



[1] Only, a bit later, something of its aftermath; at one point this evening, Rick stumbled into the work-camp and found it abandoned except for some zombies. Presumably, these are the people who were killed in the confrontation, though they're sporting make-up jobs that make them look as if they've been dead for months. At the end of the ep, Carol turns up with the other characters, so at least she survived.

[2] This is apparently, the debris from the mysterious Hulk zombies that wrecked the bridge in the first place then were never explained.

[3] TWD definitely isn't noteworthy for particularly interesting cinematography but it does occasionally manage to pull off a spectacular image, and there was a really good one tonight, Rick, on white horse, leading what seemed to be an infinite army of the dead:

Twitter: @jriddlecult

Monday, October 15, 2018

THE WALKING DEAD Cain't Afford Ta' Lose No Horses, You Dummy!

THE WALKING DEAD kicked off its 9th season last week but while the ep was entitled "A New Beginning," it felt an awful lot like everything that had gone before it, and tonight's installment, "The Bridge," had one checking the expiration date stamped on it well before it was over. "New," one suspects, really just isn't in the cards for this show.

If my absence here over the last few months doesn't speak to it, I haven't been writing much lately. Life has been what it always is with me and I've recently been through an overly long illness as well but I was feeling blocked up and uninspired even before that bug bit me. TWD certainly hasn't done anything in the last two weeks to make me rush to my keyboard. Still, I continue to do these TWD articles as, in part, a discipline, so I probably should have wrote about it last week, whether I felt like it or not. If I sound disjointed or pretty badly off my game, it certainly wouldn't be the first time that happened when writing about this particular subject but I apologize in advance.

Near the beginning of, well, "A New Beginning," a large group of our heroes trek to Washington D.C.. The city should be like Atlanta back in the 1st season--crawling with millions of zombies, essentially inaccessible and a place no one should risk even trying to enter unless utterly desperate for something he thinks he will find there. Perhaps budget restrictions prevented any massive zombie hordes from ever materializing; our heroes are able to go into town with minimal effort or notice by the dead and invade a museum that, oddly enough, looks just like the Georgia state capitol building in Atlanta. They're after a collection of seeds, a worthy target in an apocalypse, and some primitive farming/fishing gear.

The gear, which is the stuff that eventually causes all the trouble, doesn't really make a lot of sense. Maggie notes that an old horse-drawn plow will provide a pattern for their blacksmiths to copy. Fair enough, but a plow of that sort isn't exactly space-age tech; any good blacksmith tasked with creating one would do just fine without needing an existing one as a guide. Making even less sense is the heavy replica of a dugout canoe lifted by the leader of the Oceanside community. No one needs a pattern for a simple Stone Age dugout, just a good section of tree and the time to hack it out. Oceanside is a community that lives, yes, oceanside and already has far better fishing vessels. The biggest item is a replica of an old prairie wagon. Though building a wagon of that sort would be comically simple and we know our heroes already know how to do it, as they rode into town on one of their own, they go through a great deal of trouble to get this one, treating it as if it was made of gold in a world where that still meant something.

The wagon does seem to weigh enough to be made of gold. To create a moment of suspense, it's made to destroy the transparent masonry on the landing at the base of the building's stairs as our heroes try to make off with it. Hundreds of thousands--perhaps millions--of visitors would have trekked over that floor in the life of the museum--it's large enough to accommodate dozens of people at a time and would have been built to hold up far more weight than that--but in the TWD writers' hands, it crumbles like candy glass under a wagon that weighs about as much as 7 men. Our heroes risk life and limb to roll the wagon out over the floor as it's giving away, then carry the entirely worthless canoe over it but when Ezekiel and Carol try to move the plow, it finally gives out, and the King ends up falling through it.[1] The zombies milling about on the level below nearly eat him before he's hauled back to safety.

Never let it be said that our heroes won't put their lives on the line to protect a valuable asset! Even if there's absolutely no reason why these items would be regarded as such. Never let it be said... well, until about 5 minutes later.

"Hulk Zombie Smash Bridge!"
Traveling home with their salvage, our heroes come to a bridge that looks as if the Hulk has crashed through it, a mess of now-coallpsed and twisted steel supports and reinforced concrete that has been smashed to bits. With a straight face, Rosita explains that a zombie herd destroyed it, a feat that is, for a TWD zombie herd, roughly the equivalent of constructing a warp-drive. No one seems unnerved by--or even concerned with--this evidence of zombies with superpowers far beyond those ever seen on the show; they just paint "Bridge Out" on a nearby road-sign, as if that was necessary, and decide to take another way home.[2] Doing so, they run into a little mud. Very little mud. As in, maybe an inch of it. Though there's so little it isn't even worth mentioning--more budget limitations, perhaps?--they decide their horses can't possibly haul the wagon through it, so they unhitch the critters and they, themselves, pull the wagon through it. Because on TWD, the people are so awesome that they're better at moving a wagon than are a team of horses. 

Budget Zombie Herd Approaching Budget Muddy Spot
As they're finishing up, a handful of zombies appear out of the bushes behind them. There are maybe a dozen--light work for our heroes, who number half a dozen and whose best fighters (Rick, Daryl, Michonne) are present--but Rick orders the wagon abandoned, along with one of the horses that had been rehitched to it! The ep later establishes that they're using horses for transport now because fuel has (FINALLY) become too scarce. Unlike the dugout, the plow and the wagon, a horse would be one of their most valuable assets but while, only minutes earlier, Rick was willing to risk everyone's necks for those trinkets, he's suddenly dead-set on needlessly allowing zombies to chow down on one of their mounts.

An anonymous redshirt, who seems to be the fellow who takes care of the horses, doesn't much cotton to that idea. He goes back to free the horse but he runs into one of TWD's patented teleporting zombies, which suddenly appears beside him, bites his arm and spooks the horse so badly that it kicks him. Rick orders everyone to go back and fight the zombies, the thing they should have done in the first place, and they destroy the ghouls in a matter of seconds with minimal effort. Redshirt Kid dies though.

This sets up a not-terribly-interesting subplot wherein the elderly mother of Redshirt Kid becomes very angry that their boy has died on, as she sees it, a mission to help the Saviors (?!). The idea--spelled in neon letters 10 feet high--is to convey the boiling resentment among some Hilltoppers, who were enslaved and terrorized for so long by the Saviors at Sanctuary and are now being asked to accept them as just another community to which they render mutual aid, but that's an obvious point that shouldn't really need this amount of attention. Carried out both badly (because the museum job wasn't just to aid the Saviors) and ham-handedly, and with characters we don't even know, it just feels like an exercise in filling time with something that, in a better-written show, would just be accepted. Trying to get the Saviors' former victims to be all nicey-nice with them was obviously going to be a problem.

Remarkably, Gregory is still around. He suggested Hilltop hold elections for their leader and is fuming because Maggie beat him. Redshirt Kid's father is an alcoholic who has been dry for years; Gregory plies him with hooch and convinces him to try to assassinate Maggie. That doesn't go so well and when Maggie confronts him, Gregory attacks her. For that, Gregory finally ends up at the end of a rope.

Tonight's installment was mostly just a filler ep. The premise of it was that Rick was visiting Negan, locked up in a jail-cell at the Safe Zone, to give the villain a status report on the great new world the communities are building, and Rick narrates the show but it's full of all kinds of things that happen outside Rick's knowledge, events for which he wasn't present, things that, absent previously undisclosed super-powers, he has no way of knowing. The writers apparently don't expect their viewers to notice such things and as TWD's audience is increasingly being pared down to a core of die-hards, most of them probably won't.

In this one, the communities set out to repair that bridge. Because they're getting so much help from Hilltop, Maggie insists that the Saviors do most of the work. The ep spends some time showing they're an unruly bunch, some of whom cause a lot of problems.[3] Daryl, who never liked the idea of letting the Saviors live, has been charged with overseeing them and his disgust, made plain in the previous ep, is repeated here. Redshirt Kid's mother stages a protest at being cut off from her husband, who has been locked in a storm cellar since his failed attack on Maggie. This leads to a lot of drama regarding whether Maggie should let her see the old boy, whether he should be locked up, his backstory and a lot of other things about which viewers care not a whit but which are used to consume a great deal of screentime. The writers are forcing a come-out-of-nowhere, zero-chemistry romance between Father Gregory and Jadis/Anne. As Gabriel is entirely blind in one eye and may not see so well out of the other, he's assigned lookout duty. At night (he decides to make out with Anne instead). Later, Anne sees a helicopter overhead. She's never really explained the helicopter, which we've seen before and which had some connection to her. At one point, our heroes' system for diverting wandering zombies breaks down when one of the least likable Saviors goes temporarily AWOL and a horde end up marching right through the middle of one of the bridge lumber-camps. This seems to happen only to get some zombie action into an otherwise very dull, filler-filled ep.

In the only real substantive development, Saviors are disappearing under mysterious circumstances. Some of these are probably just leaving because they don't like having to work for a living but some are unlikely to have just disappeared under their own steam--they have families, children at Sanctuary--and others have gone missing with important supplies--in particular, a shipment of fuel intended for Hilltop's tractor. These disappearances should raise some alarms but don't. At no point does anyone seem to be trying to find out what's happening. Toward the end, one Savior, exiled by Rick, is wandering in the woods, comes across someone he knows, starts talking and is apparently killed.

Andrew Lincoln is supposed to be leaving the show after this season and AMC's promotional materials reflect this, though it wouldn't be at all out of character for TWD to merely be using this as an attention-grabbing ruse along the lines of Glenn's infamous dumpster dive a few years ago. There's no way Rick can just be made to leave; to be rid of him, TWD will have to kill off the character, their central character from TWD's first screen moments. AMC's greed is infamous. Its execs show every sign of wanting to milk this cash-cow right into its grave and beyond. But the smart ones--if there are any--must see the writing on the wall. Last week's ep, a season opener, drew the smallest audience since the show's 2nd season. The numbers, taken in the abstract, are still impressive for a cable series but anyone but the die-hards would be hard-pressed not to concede TWD is a fundamentally broken show that has been, in effect, dead for years now. Killing Rick can only further devastate the ratings. Continuing without him would be like the Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey Circus without the elephants (and would go over just as well). AMC should wrap up the series while Lincoln is still on board and try to give it some sort of dignified ending.

Do I think that will happen?

Not a chance.



[1] When the floor gives way, it appears to be about as thick as an ordinary pane of glass.

[2] Robert Kirkman, the co-creator of TWD, also wrote Marvel Zombies, which saw the Marvel universe of superheroes and villains transformed into super-zombies. Perhaps this is subtley laying the groundwork for a later TWD/Marvel Zombies crossover?

[3] Among other things, they're nostalgic for Negan, and it feels like the show is setting up some scenario whereby Negan (possibly a reformed Negan?) could return to whip them into shape.

Twitter: @jriddlecult

Monday, April 16, 2018

On THE WALKING DEAD, No Wrath Need Apply

This evening, THE WALKING DEAD capped yet another lackluster season with yet another breathtakingly unsatisfying finale. TWD's writers evince a strong preference for "Tell, Don't Show" over "Show, Don't Tell." They substitute ridiculous, melodramatic speechifying in place of naturalistic dialogue. As this writer has long noted, this is a show about survival in a zombie apocalypse that rigorously adheres to an anti-survivalist ideology. It's a stupid show. These and many other long-running TWD problems appeared with a vengeance in "Wrath," which was supposed to wrap up the war with the Saviors.

That storyline should have been essentially finished a few eps ago when our heroes liquidated most of the remaining Savior fighters but as has happened repeatedly this season, many, many more magically appeared to take the place of the fallen. In the previous ep, Negan decided to bait our heroes into a trap. Equipped with that Respawning Saviors cheat, he sacrifices even more of his men so that Rick can capture a map misdirecting the forces of the rebel communities to... well, you get the picture. Ultimately, Rick and the gang end up in a field surrounded by a large number of enemy fighters. When the Saviors reveal themselves, they just stand in the open, arranged like a firing-squad rather than firing from cover or a prone position. While this allows for a dramatic (if now well-worn) Kurosawa shot of the shoulder-to-shoulder enemy army cresting a hill, it guarantees that, in a fight, many of them will immediately be needlessly killed as well. Eugene suggested this arrangement and Negan went along with it.

In a turn like something from Monty Python, the Saviors open fire simultaneously only to have their own weapons explode in their faces, courtesy of Eugene sabotaging the ammo he's been manufacturing. There follows what's supposed to be a very dramatic final battle[1] in which our heroes defeat the Saviors, leading many enemy fighters--too many--to surrender.

Rick chases down Negan--hey, it wouldn't be a season finale without a one-on-one between these two, right?--but just as always happens, the two find a way, in the middle of a fight to the death, to talk, talk, talk. Rick points out that Negan's forces are defeated. Negan is unconcerned. "I'll get out of it," he says, "I always do." And damned if, by the end, he does. Rick, after seriously wounding the villain, decides to spare his life. Maggie is quite upset by this,[2] as everyone else should be, but the writers try to paper over it by having Rick give one of TWD's patented speeches about how they all have to work together to build a new world. "We are life!", he declares. "The new world begins." And a lot of other things just as cringe-inducing. He tells the Saviors to go home! And other than Maggie, no one, among an entire army of people who have suffered under these marauders, seen their hard work stolen by them, their lives ruined, their friends and family-members murdered, offers any objection at all.

Besides being handled exceptionally badly, the series has entirely failed to do any of the work that would have been required to make such a turn succeed, dramatically speaking. The Saviors have been portrayed as sadistic bullies, fanatical ("I am Negan!") thugs who get a kick out of terrorism and murder, who enslave entire communities and live large off those they keep beneath their boot. Only a few eps ago, they enthusiastically massacred an entire population of unarmed people who had already submitted to them. There's been no indication that they have any misgivings about the horrors they've perpetuated. Negan himself is a vicious terrorist who bashes heads with a barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat, who tortures and murders helpless people through a smile, taunting his victims even while he's snuffing them out. Rick decides to keep Negan alive as a prisoner, telling him he's going to spend the rest of his life in a cell watching this better world grow up around him so he can see how wrong he was, but the writers removed nearly every trace of the character's humanity when adapting the comic-book version to the screen, rendering him a one-dimensional cartoon (a frequent complaint here). Not someone who is going to be tormented by this very limp effort at poetic justice, just someone who has a large following of like-minded fanatics and will represent a danger for as long as he lives.[3] The Saviors are a mortal enemy to be defeated, not people with whom one can ever link arms and sing Kumbaya, and there's no way to see Rick's play as anything other than suicidally stupid. There's absolutely no reason to believe the Saviors would do anything but return to base, regroup under a new sadistic leader or break out their old one and start all of this over again. Born of TWD's aversion to raw survivalist sentiment--killing them would be a nasty business--Rick's decision is shown as being driven by Rick's memories of Coral and while the writers want viewers to think it's a noble and moral decision and a tender tribute to his departed son, this just makes it seem worse, like Rick has his head utterly up his own ass and isn't considering what is, from a practical standpoint, in the best interest of those he leads.

Earlier this season, the writers had some of the Saviors switch sides, and one assumes this was done with an eye toward the ultimate resolution of the storyline, an effort to establish at least some basis for Rick's actions, but these turncoats have, with only one exception, been nameless non-entities (and even with the one, I can't remember his name). They've done nothing to counter the overwhelming impression of the Saviors that viewers have been given over the last couple of seasons but because they exist and because the one fellow has been nothing but cooperative, the writers apparently consider this sufficient. They've gone Tell, Don't Show again. During tonight's ep, the Saviors invaded Hilltop. Tara stayed behind to fight them and a contingent of these ex-Saviors stood with her--the same sort of nonsense.

It was made even worse in this instance because just as things were about to get rolling, the approaching Saviors suddenly burst into flames from what turn out to be super-powered Molotov cocktails[4] lobbed by the just-arrived women of the Oceanside community. They've decided to join the other communities in fighting the Saviors but when they arrive, they have no way of knowing what's even going on. Their surprise appearance is completely random. They just walk up and start burning people. This is a community whose entire male population--these ladies' husbands, fathers, sons--were murdered by the Saviors. One suspects they'd probably have a very strong opinion of Rick's decision to let Negan live and the Savior community continue.

One suspects just about everyone Negan and the Saviors have terrorized, whose friends and family the Saviors have murdered, would have a very strong opinion on these matters but in real time, no one but Maggie offers any dissent. And, this being soap melodrama, she just collapses, screaming and crying about how it's not right to let Negan live, instead of taking charge of the situation like a leader (as in, "anyone who helps save that fucker dies").

Toward the end, there's a truly bizarre aftermath scene wherein Maggie, at her desk, lit like a supervillain and with ominous music playing under her words, says Rick was right to let the Saviors live (shiver) but very wrong to leave Negan alive. She throws in Michonne as well. She says we'll put Hilltop back in order, build up its defenses, get strong. "We're gonna' bide our time, wait for our moment and then we're gonna' show him," clearly implying some sort of violent retribution one could read as extending to the entire Safe Zone community. The camera reveals she's talking to Jesus and Daryl. The former offers an agreeable smile and a nod while Daryl verbally agrees, neither being reactions that make any sense. Jesus has been the pacifist all season, throughout, even, this very episode, when he convinces Morgan to stop killing Saviors. Daryl's bond with Rick has been nearly unshakeable throughout the run of TWD. Even earlier this season, when he broke with Rick over the idea of releasing the dead into the Sanctuary, he apologized to Rick--the guy he calls "brother"--after. It's reasonable to think he would strongly disagree with Rick's decision re:Negan[5] but it's impossible to imagine him even considering some sort of violent action against his own "family." For that matter, it's impossible to imagine Maggie herself contemplating such a thing. To deal with a problem that could be easily solved by a quick visit to Negan's cell (and, if one wants to be unreasonably vengeful, to Rick and Michonne)?

Thrown in to provide what's meant to be a shocking twist, this is just stupid. Sort of like the rest of TWD this season.



[1] The staging and editing of the big battle are absolutely atrocious. Negan speaks to our heroes through electronic devices which, along with the geography, make it seem as if it's coming from all around them. The whole time, they're looking around and fruitlessly trying to pinpoint it and no Saviors are visible in any direction. When the Savior firing-line appears, it seems to be behind them but when the bad ammo takes out that line, Rick orders a forward charge, in a direction where no Saviors are visible. That direction is where Negan and his lieutenants are standing. A hill between the rebels and Negan's contingent allow them no view of one another. During the initial Savior volley, Negan and co. fire their guns, which makes no sense--they don't have any targets in sight, just a hill of dirt. The rebels, unmindful of the Saviors behind them, rush over the hill and defeat those in front of them.

[2] Though this being soap melodrama, Maggie, the leader of Hilltop, just screams and cries about how what Rick's doing isn't right, instead of taking charge of the situation (as in, "anyone who helps save that fucker dies").

[3] The writers' decision to gut the relationship that developed between comic Negan and Carl is particularly fatal here.

[4] They explode in bursts of flame that shoot 30 or 40 feet into the air, incinerating wide areas.

[5] Daryl has just spent more than 2 seasons lamenting the fact that he didn't kill Dwight upon their first encounter, which is rubbish from the writers, and vowing to kill Dwight once the Savior war is over. Tonight, prior to this scene where he's plotting with Maggie, he decided, instead, to let Dwight live--gives the guy a truck and lets him leave.

Twitter: @jriddlecult

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Worthless WALKING DEAD

In "Worth," tonight's WALKING DEAD, Negan makes his presence known at Sanctuary and deals with his disloyal lieutenants Simon and Dwight.

That's it. That's the plot. In a better-written series, this would have been a subplot in an ep about something else. Here, it's the featured--and nearly sole--attraction, with only a rotating handful of scenes with other characters to pad out the rest. There's only one more ep left in the season; this was just a standard TWD delaying action to get things there.

There are a few scenes with Aaron, camped out beyond the Oceanside community, that exist primarily to get in a zombie-fighting sequence. He hasn't been there long but seems to be nearly dead from exhaustion, hunger or something. His community terrorized the ladies of Oceanside and stole their guns. Now they have none but he's trying to recruit them to fight the Saviors, presumably with the sticks and stones Rick left them.

Last week, Rosita and Daryl were scoping out Eugene's ammo plant and there seemed to be a lot of Saviors around. On tonight's ep, set the next day, the operation appeared to consist of seven or eight people and only two armed guards. Our heroes swoop in, take out the two heavies carrying guns and hijack Eugene as he steps outside but there's no reason they couldn't have just stepped inside and taken out the entire operation, taken away as much ammo as they could carry, probably even recruited the workers. Instead, they just take their prize and leave. Minutes later, Eugene escapes them using a ruse that wouldn't have fooled a 7-year-old.[*] By the time he makes it back to his shop, a lot more armed guards have turned up and he's assured the security situation has been addressed.

Where in hell did the Saviors find any more gunmen? I spent a lot of time in my previous review pointing out that no matter how many Saviors Rick and co. have killed in an entire season devoted to systematically killing them, an endless number of replacements are being continuously written into the story. Savior manpower should be down to practically nothing by now but instead, it's as if Eugene had invented a respawning cheat. It's been a recurring absurdity throughout the back end of this season. When Negan drops the hammer on Simon, he kills Simon's loyalists too--7 or 8 more guys. The two then move inside for a final hand-to-hand battle to the death and that respawning cheat has been working overtime again--there may be a hundred other people present to watch the festivities:

And even that doesn't include those who are elsewhere (like at Eugene's ammo factory). So after a whole season of all-out war, taking out Saviors left and right, the Savior force looks about the same now as it did at the end of last season before a shot had been fired:

They aren't even trying.

Not much else to add; it just wasn't much of an ep.



[*] UPDATE (11 April, 2018) - About this, regular reader Jim the Hammer writes, "I like how Daryl, the hillbilly who in season 2 was able to track Shane and that kid through a forest, in the dark, to the extent where he points out who walked where and when, etc.... is unable to discern Eugene's cartoon escape method in a pile of ashes. In broad daylight. Once again, established character traits/abilities get thrown out the window to advance a plot point for the simple reason that the writers couldn't think up a reasonable and more believable method to do so."

Twitter: @jriddlecult