Archive for the ‘ Cons ’ Category

The Shadow Out of Hollywood, Part 2

HPLMarqueeThe HP Lovecraft Film Festival is a long-running tradition here in puddletown, dating all the way back to 1995. Until last year it ran under gloom-tinted skies during dank, rainy, fungus-infested October, but now for some reason its set during the bright and sunny temperate days of May. Though I don’t approve of the date change, the fest has grown better and more sophisticated with each passing year.

The event takes place at the Hollywood Theater, a Portland movie palace from the 1920s that now houses a repertory company and shows a wide range of art films. The place maintains its ancient ambience quite nicely and is, I am told by people who actually worked there, definitively haunted. I myself — normally Mister Rational Thought who rolls his eyes at “Ghosthunter” shows on Discovery — felt some moments of being watched and glimpsed shadowy figures in dark corners, so I can’t conclusively say that I don’t believe that something still lurks there.

I can’t say that I’ve attended every single festival (I started around ‘02 or so I think), but I’ve attended enough to know that it’s a blast every year. It’s a great opportunity to meet both HPL writers like S.T. Joshi and W.H. Pugmire, and to actually discuss filmmaking with the creators themselves. I think the high point for me was when I had the pleasure of meeting the great scream queen Barbara Crampton, from Reanimator and From Beyond. It was in Reanimator that she participated in one of the most disturbing sex scenes of all time, being molested by the severed but still living head of the late David Gale. Like pretty much all of the actors I’ve met, she was a class act and it sounded as if she had a blast being menaced by extradimensional monstrosities.

The fest includes feature-length films as well as shorts from around the world, and though the works are of varying quality they’re always pretty fascinating. I managed only two of the four short blocks this year, seeing such varied flicks as the awesome George Jones and the Giant Squid, Seizures and Grasshopper. As you might note, sometimes the connection to the great HPL is a bit tenuous, but there’s always at least a slender thread binding them.

Members of the HPL Historical Society performing "At the Mountains of Madness."

Members of the HPL Historical Society performing “At the Mountains of Madness.”

Non-film highlights included witnessing the members of the HP Lovecraft Historical Society presenting their radio-play version of At the Mountains of Madness, live and in person. These guys are all theatrical actors with amazing voices, and their live play included a cool newsreel-style film that they created entirely out of old newsreel footage, portraying the supposed Miskatonic Antarctic expedition. For a real treat, check out these guys’ radio plays.

I managed two feature films that I have not seen for years, and both of them were pretty awesome. First was John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, which I think is one of his best works. I’d recommend anyone who enjoys SF and supernatural cinema to check it out — it’s clearly inspired by Lovecraft and the works of Nigel Kneal, specifically the Quatermass movies (Carpenter himself wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, and characters in the movie have Lovecraftian names like “Marsh” and “Danforth”). A science professor and his students are asked by representatives of the Catholic church to investigate a mysterious object that has been discovered beneath a church in Los Angeles — an object that has been there for centuries and has been watched over by a secret order of priests called the Brotherhood of Sleep. The malevolent entity inside the cylinder reaches out, possessing first the street people of the area (led by a pale-faced Alice Cooper) then members of the team in an effort to summon its “father” from his prison in an alternate dimension. To call the entity “Satan” is a horrific understatement. There’s plenty of creepiness and philosophical discussion of science vs. faith, good vs. evil, and the ending is creepily ambiguous.

The crown jewel of the festival however was what is being called the “Cabal Cut” of Clive Barker’s neglected masterpiece Nightbreed. In a story that I fear is far too common in Hollywood, Clive Barker directed the film in the wake of the successful Hellraiser, then presented it to studio execs, who stared at him blankly, said “I don’t get it,” and told him to reshoot half the movie. While the result was not a bad film by any measures, it also wasn’t quite what Barker had in mind. The movie flopped due to studio indifference, but a VHS copy of the rough cut was found a couple of years ago. The rough video footage was then spliced into the existing film, pushing it to 144 minutes in length (the final edited studio cut was a mere 102 minutes), and making the story quite a bit more coherent. According to Russell Cherrington, the gentleman responsible for the new cut, there is real interest in seeing the Cabal version released to video, and with up-to-date digitization techniques, the rough video footage can be restored to crisp, clean DVD/Blueray quality.

The official "Nightbreed" poster kind of made it look like "The Breakfast Club" for mutants...

The official “Nightbreed” poster kind of made it look like “The Breakfast Club” for mutants…

In brief (and there are awesome resources for this film to be found elsewhere), Cabal (spoiler warning) is the story of Aaron Boone, a young man tormented by dreams of an underground city inhabited by bizarre monsters. His psychiatrist, Dr. Decker (director David Cronenberg in one of his few appearances as an actor) manipulates Boone and frames him for a series of brutal murders, which Decker himself actually committed. Shot dead by police, Boone returns to live as a “Nightbreed” and finds the city of Midian, “where the monsters live” apart from humanity. The “monsters” are actually the Tribes of the Moon, the last survivors of ancient races who once inhabited earth but were exterminated by the violent humans. Boone joins their community but soon after his girlfriend Lori follows and discovers Midian for herself. Dr. Decker in turn follows Lori, learns about Midian and is determined to destroy it and its inhabitants, aided by the police and by violent local humans. In the battle that follows, Boone releases the Berserkers, a band of savage Nightbreed, which destroy the human attackers. Dr. Decker dies in the battle as well, and Midian is destroyed. Now given the name Cabal by the ‘breed’s god Baphomet, Boone is charged with finding a new city for the outcasts. Lori is still in love with Boone, and kills herself rather than lose him, but he restores her to life, transforming her into one of the Nightbreed. Roll credits.

That really glosses over a lot of the story, and the entire thing should be seen in its entirety. As I said, the original cut wasn’t really all THAT bad, and tells sorta the same story, but with more of an emphasis on Dr. Decker’s murders, giving it more of a “slasher flick” feel, rather than a horror/fantasy/love story as Barker intended.

Though I loved the film, it wasn’t without its faults — some of the plotting is a little jumpy. The scenes where Boone returns to live and escapes the hospital are confusing, and they are followed almost immediately by scenes of Boone and his companion Narcisse in Midian, with Boone having already been more or less accepted by the Nightbreed. Most of the humans, particularly the cops, are portrayed as fairly one-dimensional rednecks (First cop: “I think we’re only killing ‘em ‘cause they’re different!” Second cop: “Isn’t that reason enough?”). Nightbreed can easily be seen as a movie about racism, sexism and homophobia, but the  allegorical elements are laid on a bit thick.

Honestly, that’s all beside the point, I think that Nightbreed’s strengths, especially in the new cut, overwhelm its shortcomings. I can see what a heartbreaker this whole project must have been for Clive Barker — after trying to make the Star Wars of monster movies, he had his work taken away and chopped down into a truncated little remnant of itself, misunderstood by studio execs (who hadn’t even watched the entire movie) and promoted as a slasher flick. To add insult to injury, many critics laid the blame at Barker’s doorstep, suggesting that the uneven pacing and incomprehensible plot (a result of studio cuts rather than Barker’s direction) proved that he was a hack director. Barker pretty much stayed out of Hollywood until Lord of Illusions in 1995 (another pretty awesome movie that tanked at the box office, unfortunately).

The remainder of the festival went as smoothly as I’ve come to expect, with crowds of alternative types surging from tiny theater to tiny theater (I skipped a whole short block because the theater was at least 90 degrees and humid), a small dealer’s room in the lobby upstairs, an adjoining structure renamed the Esoteric Order of Dagon and given over to readings and game demos (including Sandy Peterson’s Cthulhu Wars, which I regrettably did not see), speed painting contests, panels for Lovecraft enthusiasts and after parties at Tony Starlight’s Lounge.

HPLNightAbout my only real complaint is that while I usually have companions on Friday and Saturday, most of my friends end up abandoning me on Sunday leaving me to attend the festival solo. Sunday morning i did my electronic bill paying and discovered that I was kind of broke for the rest of the month, so I attended the event feeling pretty glum, even going so far as to consider not seeing the Cabal Cut, which was one of the main reasons I attended the fest in the first place. Rescue came in the form of friendly artist Lee Moyer, creator of some awesome literary pinup calendars and more book covers and posters than a normal human can count, whom I got to hang out with before the flick and who shared some of his newest art with me, so it ended up being a decent time after all.

Unfortunately, I ate too much popcorn and pizza and spent the night with severe indigestion, so today I’m feeling a little unsteady. I think that after a lifetime as a popcorn connoisseur I’m probably going to have to swear off the stuff and maybe smuggle in bananas or something when I go see movies.My diabetes simply isnt forgiving enough for me to overwhelm it in that fashion.

So that pretty much encapsulates the spirit of the HPL film fest for me — I have a great time every year even though I usually have to go stag on Sunday, and the celebration of Lovecraft and his works gets bigger and more impressive all the time. One of these years I’m hoping that John Carpenter or Guilermo del Torro joins us. And if anyone reading this wants to go, by all means let me know. Maybe we can hang out on Sunday.


The Shadow Out of Hollywood

Hi there — it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but hey — a dude’s gotta make a living, huh?

It’s been a pretty wild couple of months. I actually signed a contract with a literary agent and was quite excited at the prospect (I’d been looking for an agent for over a year and FINALLY got one — yippee), only to have the gentleman inform me last week that maybe repping me was more than he could handle right now. I spent the day in deep gloom, dropped him a polite thank you and got back to business. I’m currently trying to contact an agent whom I was in discussions with, then broke off when I signed with this guy, but I haven’t heard back from them yet, so that window might be closed as well. On the positive side, I have a 15k word pulp story almost finished for Pulp Empires, have completed an assignment for Paradigm Press’ Witch Hunters rpg and will probably get another one soon, so it’s not all bad.

I’m at the HP Lovecraft Film Festival here in Portland for the weekend and I hope I can get some photos. Last night we watched some very high-quality short horror/supernatural films from a range of countries, and a very nostalgic revival of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (screenplay by John Carpenter under the pseudonym “Martin Quatermass” which should mean something to all those fans of 1960s British sci-fi out there). It holds up pretty well, actually. Later I look forward to seeing the brand spanking new “Cabal Cut” of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, another potentially great film that was cut to ribbons by a studio that didn’t understand fuck all about what made Barker’s work so special.

I can only repeat my past assertions that HPL himself probably would have been horrified to see what a crowd of alternative-types his work has attracted, but I’m not complaining a bit. Even though it reminds me that I really feel as if I was born too early (certainly before being a geek became sexy), I don’t mind the opportunity to go hang out with a fanbase that includes writers, filmmakers, poets, artists, Goths, punk rockers and very attractive women with body piercings and tattoos. God knows, if I’d tried to get women interested in HPL back when was in my twenties, I’d have been locked up.

Anyway, owing to work and the various writing projects I haven’t updated in a while, but I’m determined to at least get some minimal thoughts blogged on a regular basis from here on out. I’m also working on a new column about the odd and bizarre rpg products that I’ve encountered over the years, and kicking it off with David Hargraves’ The Arduin Grimoire, one of the most flamboyant collections of over-the-top gaming supplements ever produced.

Stay tuned. More to come, hopefully this very weekend.

A page from Frank Thorne’s Red Sonja series, suitably recolored.

It was in the mid- to late-70s that I both discovered Conan the Barbarian and Dungeons and Dragons, and about that time I started collecting comics, including titles like Savage Sword of Conan (President Obama’s favorite, I’m told), Conan the Barbarian, Claw the Unconquered, John Carter of Mars, and other more adult-oriented titles such as Heavy Metal and Warren’s odd and disturbing 1984 (later called 1994, possibly because the calendar was catching up with them). Among the books I read back then was of course Red Sonja, since from the very start of my swords-and-sorcery obsession I have loved women warriors. Red was a pretty good example of the said warrior woman genre, with that mix of independence, female liberation and sexism that I speculated on in my previous entry.

Sonja had moved more than a little away from her historical origins as Sonya. The Hyborian version was a recovering victim of sexual violence, gifted with a sword by a goddess and sworn to never lie with a man who had not bested her in combat. Personally I think there’s so much wrong with that concept that it needs to go to therapy, but Marvel managed to run with it reasonably well and the books were a lot of fun.

Most of Red’s solo run was illustrated by Frank Thorne, who manages best to encapsulate the whole contradictory nature of the sword and sorcery genre with its exploitive obsession with sex, and its bizarre simultaneous objectification, veneration and liberation of women.

Frank Thorne, hard at work. Heh-heh… Heh-heh… I said “hard…”

Born in 1930, Thorne’s first job in comics was illustrating a Perry Mason book which I have been unable to track down. He gained fame as Red Sonja’s artist however, though his tenure with the title was relatively short for reasons that will be discussed presently.

Even today, when he’s well into his 80s, Thorne is quite the character — articulate, lusty, and pretty honest about his intentions and outlook. Let’s face it — he liked drawing hot, chesty women and even 30 years ago was pretty much a dirty old man. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course — I’m well on the way to that title myself, though I think some of my views diverge from Frank Thorne’s radically.

Thorne was by his own admission fascinated by Sonja. He’s quoted as saying stuff like “to cast Red Sonja aside as a sexual dream of adolescence is missing the thrust of this mythic figure. Granted, Sonja is a dream, but beyond lie the Himalayas. True, among those peaks roams this magnificent, near-naked woman. The child’s infatuation with nudity is there, combined with the mature wisdom of combat. Venus with a sword, stalking through the once and future kingdom. She is formed energy; she is the sound that Siegfried harkened to. Red Sonja represents the total possibilities in all of us.”

Holy crap. Combine that sort of statement with his assertions that Red is “the ultimate woman” and “the epochal female” and Mr. Thorne starts to sound like a man with an obsession.

The wizard tells us all about Sonja.

Thorne’s fixation on the divine Sonja was further evidenced by a unique presentation that he used to give at comic conventions. Thorne played a bearded wizard, along with a bevy of attractive Sonjas — played by actress and model Linda Behrle, dancer Angelique Trouvere, author Diane DeKelb (now DeKelb-Rittenhouse), artist Wendy Snow, danish actress Gita Norby and — I kid you not — Elfquest artist Wendy Pini.

In the show, which is chronicled in Savage Sword of Conan number 29 (and reprinted and recolored in Dynamite’s Giant Size Red Sonja number 2 — presumably the title refers to a “giant sized” comic book, rather than a “giant-sized” Red Sonja, as that is a fetish that I don’t intend to address in the current article), an unnamed wizard gives a quick intro to the red-haired she-devil and tells us that he’s going to summon her to his cozy little wizard’s lair. For what purpose I can’t say, but the fact that the wizard was played by Thorne, and his artistic rendering bears a striking resemblance to Thorne, I have a couple of pretty good guesses.

(It’s also worth noting that the Dynamite reprints of Red Sonja include much more sophisticated inks and colors than the older Marvel pulp comics and make Thorne’s work look damned nice — finally, I think, putting to rest the rumor that inkers are just “tracers.”)

So after some very Thornian (and I think that “Thornian” sums up Mr. Thorne’s feelings about Red pretty well) declarations about Sonja, calling her “the most magnificent vessel of wrath ever to stalk the ancient kingdoms… The ultimate woman — with hair of crimson,” he casts his spell (“innvolo legemmmmm opton rialc arummmm!”) and cries “Come, Sonja! Come! Come! Come!”

I’ll pause here so people can make appropriate comments.

Frank and his Red Sonja’s — aka “Cosplay: The Early Years.”

…And we’re back. The wizard’s spell, it seems, succeeds too well and not one but five Sonjas are summoned — the first being our current model Linda Behrle, playing pretty much the straight Roy Thomas Sonja, telling us how she was raped and now won’t let a man touch her alabaster body until he’s beaten her in a sword fight (which frankly might end up being kind of self-defeating, but who cares?). The second is Angelique Trouvre, who was a nightclub dancer and also played Vampirella at cons — she talks like a southern honey, saying things like “Ya know, Wiz, you remind me of a fortune teller I once knew…” which just doesn’t quite sound like a Hyborian to me.

Diane Dekelb plays at least a version of Howard’s Russian Sonya from Shadow of the Vulture, and is the most modestly dressed, in boots, pantaloons, a chain shirt and bandanna. She claims that the original Red was her ancestor, and has a quick and bloody sword fight for the wizard’s benefit with an evil monk. Wendy Snow’s Sonja wears the familiar “portable coin collection” costume, but with extra armor for her abdomen. Finally Wendy Pini’s Sonja dances about quoting poetry and swinging her sword, prompting the wizard to conclude that they’re all authentic Sonjas, representing the respective “body, humor, spirit, mind and soul of the great Hyrkanian swordswoman.” The show ends with the five Sonjas chasing the wizard offstage in frustration.

Enter Ghita. She’s supposed to be a blonde but for some reason they couldn’t resist making her a redhead. I wonder why…

If nothing else, Frank Thorne put his own spin on Red and while he did pay some lip service to the original REH creation, his vision of her, along with that of Roy Thomas, had wandered pretty far afield. Apparently Thorne’s obsession proved a bit much fo Thomas, and Thorne’s run as Sonja’s artist ended with Issue 11.

“And a good thing too,” says artist/author R.C. Harvey, “because Ghita, a more fully-realized version of Thorne’s vision of Sonja, would not have appeared among us otherwise.”

So it was that Frank Thorne responded to his inglorious termination by taking his Sonja obsession to the next level. He did his own version of the character, and boy howdy what a change it was.

Though Ghita was not Sonja in the flesh, she was certainly Sonja in the sex-obsessed mind of Frank Thorne, and with her appearance in the pages of Warren’s 1984, Sonja’s journey was complete. Robert E. Howard envisioned her as a tough-talking, sword-wielding, pistol-packing woman who was the equal of any man. Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith made her a rape victim out for vengeance on men. And Frank Thorne (at least in the person of Ghita of Alizarr) made her a divine whore with a sword. An epochal female indeed, and a radical departure from her original conception.

I’ll get into Ghita, my (and others’) mixed feelings about her and some suitably Thornian artwork in the next entry.