Attention, all! If you enjoyed my ’90s action movie series and would like to read more blog posts about movies, fellow author and blogger Peter Martuneac is doing a series on his favorite films, beginning with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first installment, his analysis of The Fellowship of the Ring, went up today and you can read it here.
What, you may ask, is ultimately the point of this series? Have I come to tell you that the only good action movies were made between 1990 and 1999? No, of course not. There have been plenty of good action movies for decades before and after. North by Northwest is a wonderful action movie, and so is Ghost in the Shell. Nostalgia for the cinema of the ’90s may color my vision, but it has not blinded me. Not yet, anyway.
Let me answer this question the same way I do everything: by telling a long rambling story that I’ve probably told before on here someplace.
The story begins with my mother, who is a much better critic than I am, and one of my worst fears is that someday she may start a blog of her own, and put me out of business. Part of the reason she is so good she attributes to the nuns who educated her. One of these nuns taught my mother’s high school English literature class, where she drilled into her students that one of the great themes of literature was “Love Conquers All.”
My mother wondered what were some other great themes of literature. She concluded that another one was “Ya Can’t Fight City Hall.” Tragedy, in other words; the inevitability of fate. (Ma Gambrel is a classicist, and I’m sure that it was reading Greek tragedy that made her think of this.) She was convinced there were others, but as yet, she has not been able to name them.
Now, you know me, readers! Show me a rule, and the first thing I try to do is break it. But there’s no doubt in my mind this is one versatile rule. I’ve found that most stories can be sorted into one of these two categories. Of course, they’re very broadly defined. “Love” can be familial love, fraternal love, paternal love, erotic love, patriotic love, etc. Likewise, “City Hall” could be God, destiny, social norms, the inherently imperfect nature of humanity, ancestral sins, etc.
Is this a perfect way of categorizing fiction? Certainly not. No such thing exists. Is it even a worthwhile exercise? Well, that’s a discussion I’ll leave up to you. But I’ll tell you this: my hunch is, most famous movies of a given era will fall into one camp or the other. The late ’60s and early ’70s, for example, were heavily Ya Can’t Fight City Hall, e.g. McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Chinatown. And in contrast, the ’90s were, on balance, all about Love Conquering All.
Which brings me at last to the topic of the movie I actually want to talk about today. Like Tank Girl, this is one I’ve reviewed before, so that will spare me the synopsis, which is my least-favorite part of review writing, and let me get right to the analysis.
The Fifth Element, basically, is love. Well, of course, technically it’s Leeloo, the mysterious woman who appears just in time to oppose the evil forces threatening to destroy the universe. But she doesn’t do that until Dallas declares his love for her. It’s a surprisingly fairy-tale ending for what has largely been a wild, semi-cyberpunk sci-fi adventure.
A good theme can hold a weird movie together. You can have all sorts of weirdness, as indeed The Fifth Element does, but if you do, it’s best to have a solid foundation in the form of the kind of story that people have been telling for millennia. Otherwise, you just get weirdness for weirdness’ sake.
The other thing that makes Fifth Element great is its sense of humor. Sometimes directors get so invested in trying to make people buy in to their make-believe world that they forget to be able to laugh along the way. But this movie knows not to take itself too seriously, and the result is a playful adventure move that can be rewatched again and again. My friend Pat Prescott, who introduced me to this film, watches it whenever he’s having a really tough week.
Now, before I wrap up this installment, let’s do a thought experiment: imagine there was a Fifth Element franchise. There would have been sequels where Leeloo and Dallas broke up. There would have been a prequel that showed Zorg’s dark, gritty origin story. There would have been a reboot that was substantially the same as the original except with everything just slightly worse. It would have been awful.
One thing I’ve learned from this hobby of mine as a wannabe techno-decadent cultural critic is that the word “franchise” in the context of movies is essentially synonymous with the word “putrefaction.” Once something is called a franchise, that means it is dying. The process may be slow and subtle, or it may be swift and brutal, but it’s inevitable once that word starts showing up.
Anyway, though; this is supposed to be an upbeat series! I don’t know where all that doom and gloom came from. The point is, The Fifth Element is a wonderful sci-fi adventure that encapsulates the bubbly good-spiritedness of ’90s action movies.
This entry is an unusual one. For starters, it’s the first film in this series that I’ve reviewed before on this blog. Hopefully, I’ll be able to say something new about it, rather than just repeating myself. I suppose I’ll need to find a new angle from which to talk about this movie, since I’ve covered most of the plot in the earlier review.
I’m not sure if “tank movies” are officially recognized as a type of genre, but they ought to be. Obviously, they can’t officially be a “sub-genre”… that would have to be for movies like Crimson Tide and Das Boot.
Sorry. But there really is such a thing as a tank movie. 1988’s The Beast, about a Russian tank crew in Afghanistan, is one such example, and this is another one. Actually, as I think about it, there may have been some real tank nostalgia going on in the ’90s. After all, who can forget the big scene with the tank in the previous film I discussed? And this was also the decade that gave us BattleTanx, a post-apocalyptic video game about a future where rival tank gangs fight it out on the streets of ruined cities.
Tank Girl is more like The Beast, in that there is just one tank, all by itself in a huge desert. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end, because while The Beast is a dark rumination on the morality of war and man’s inhumanity to man, Tank Girl is a hilarious romp complete with Cole Porter musical numbers, half-man, half-kangaroo hybrids, and Malcolm McDowell hamming it up as the villain. Ladies and gentlemen, the ’90s!
Is Tank Girl a great movie? No, I wouldn’t say so. But here’s a thought for you: maybe every movie doesn’t have to be great. Maybe it’s good enough to just be fun sometimes. Tank Girl doesn’t feel like it had any pretensions, or grand ambitions, or designs to cleverly subvert or archly critique. The writing process was pretty much, “What if there was this punk girl who drives a tank and fights an evil corporation?” And that’s what you get.
Okay, I am going to repeat myself a bit. I guess it’s a bit tacky to quote from my own review, but hey, I stole the title of this blog from a stage direction in a Victorian operetta. I’m not one to stand on ceremony.
[W]hat amazed me most about the movie was that—despite being a combination of live-action and surreal cartoon animation, despite the bizarre set design, despite the male love interest being part kangaroo—at its heart, it’s just a good old-fashioned tale of frontier justice.
It’s tough to make something weird and unique that is still compelling. Most well-worn tropes are well-worn because they work very well. Telling a story that is both innovative and yet follows a good, solid three-act plot structure that will satisfy an audience is hard to do, and Tank Girl does it.
Maybe you’ll find the movie just too bizarre. Unlike the other movies I’ve covered so far, this is a cult film, with nothing like the huge blockbuster ambitions of the others. But I realized I simply couldn’t make this list without it. Its mixture of surreal and commonplace plot elements, its grungy aesthetic, and its essential optimism all make it a film that practically shouts “’90s” to me.
And finally, a note about the tank itself. According to my most-used reference website, it is an M5 Stuart tank in most scenes, though sometimes it is a T-55 or PT-76. The Stuart tank is also featured in another “tank story”: DC Comics’ Haunted Tank. Do with this information what you will.
Although this series is yet young, this may be the most important movie I’m going to analyze. Why? Because in addition to being an action movie, it’s about action movies. It is a meta-commentary on action movies.
It’s also a departure from Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park in that it was not a box office success. In fact, part of the reason it was not a success was because it came out right after Jurassic Park. Which, as we have established, is a great movie, so I can’t even indulge my snobbish side by complaining the masses have no taste. It’s just a bit of bad luck, that’s all.
Last Action Hero is about a young boy named Danny Madigan who loves the movies. In particularly, the Jack Slater series, about a tough cop played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film begins with Danny watching the climactic battle with the villain The Ripper at the end of Jack Slater III.
Let me pause here to tell you: I was that kid. I loved Schwarzenegger movies when I was 10, MPAA ratings be damned. (My mom was thrilled about that, let me tell you…) So, I can identify with Danny, and when the projectionist at his local theater gives him a ticket for an advance screening of Jack Slater IV, he reacts the same way I would have as a ten-year-old.
But the ticket is a magical device, and transports Danny into the world of Jack Slater, where everything operates according to action movie logic: cars explode from a single bullet hit, a main character can suffer grievous physical trauma and walk away with only a scratch, all the female characters wear skimpy outfits, and Slater casually fires a round into his closet every time he enters his apartment, knowing without checking that there will be a bad guy lying in wait to ambush him.
And then, of course, there are all the Easter eggs, like when Danny and Slater enter a video store (remember those?) and see an ad for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, starring… Sylvester Stallone. Slater’s assessment: “It’s his best performance ever.”
Eventually, when confronting the main villain, Benedict, the ticket sends Slater and Danny back into the real world, along with Benedict. Here, Slater is baffled by the rules of this strange reality. “Something’s wrong with my gun,” he mutters when it fails to blow up a car.
Benedict, however, is right at home in the real world:
Think of villains, Jack. You want Dracula? Dra-cool-la? Hang on, I’ll fetch him. Dracula? Ha! I can get King Kong! We’ll have a nightmare with Freddy Krueger, have a surprise party for Adolf Hitler! Hannibal Lecter can do the catering, and then we’ll have a christening for Rosemary’s Baby! All I have to do is snap my fingers and they’ll be here. They’re lining up to get here, and do you know why, Jack? Should I tell you why, hmm? Because here, in this world, the bad guys can win!
Benedict, you see, has been busy exploring the gritty underbelly of New York, and has learned that drugs, prostitution, and murder run rampant on the streets, with no larger-than-life heroes swooping in to save the day.
Slater does ultimately defeat Benedict, but in the process sustains wounds. Real, mortal wounds, not the fake kind he is used to getting in the movie-world.
The only way to save him, of course, is to send him back to the world of Jack Slater IV, where his fatal stomach wound just needs a quick bandage. And then, with a fourth wall breaking wink to Danny, Jack Slater rides off into the sunset.
The film is packed with references, in-jokes, parodies and meta-humor. But most of all, it’s a love letter to the movies. A love letter full of good-hearted teasing about all the ways in which action movies are silly, of course, but at its heart Last Action Hero is about why we love these movies. Because the real world is full of ugliness, and it’s pleasant to visit a world that’s not ugly and nasty, but instead ruled by hope and heroism. Yes, it’s “escapism,” and yes, it may be true that if people focused on translating the virtues of their cinematic heroes into actual, real-world actions, it might not be a place that we so urgently wished to escape.
But stories are the seeds that eventually bear fruit in deeds, and that is why heroic stories are important. Last Action Hero confesses openly that there is something silly and juvenile about the whole concept, but it doesn’t do it out of malice or with contempt. Ultimately, despite poking fun at many action movie tropes, it’s a defense of the genre.
Because the world needs heroes, just as Danny Madigan needed Jack Slater. And that fact is the central emotional core of Last Action Hero.
Jurassic Park is a movie that is so much better than it had to be. It would have been so easy to make it just an empty spectacle of a film, drawing audiences in with CGI dinosaurs and nothing else.
Make no mistake, the CGI dinosaurs are amazing. Even all these decades later, they still hold up pretty well, I think. Part of what makes it work so well is the way they’re cleverly teased out. We see what they are capable of at the beginning, but without actually seeing the dinosaurs. This creates a wonderful sense of tension and suspense.
Then we get more foreshadowing, very skillfully done, when we meet Dr. Alan Grant at a dig in Montana, where he explains to a dismissive kid just how velociraptors hunt their prey. This scene is such an economical bit of screenwriting. It communicates both something about the raptors, the primary antagonists of the film, and tells us something about Dr. Grant; namely, his disdain for children, which is a key point of disagreement in his relationship with Dr. Ellie Sattler.
And already, we see what distinguishes this film: the characters feel real. There is real love between Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler, real affection from Hammond for his grandchildren, and real respect from Muldoon for the lethal animals he is in charge of managing.
I love Muldoon’s character. The way he murmurs “they remember,” with a mixture of fear and awe when describing the raptors’ systematic escape attempts, or his calmly delivered last words, “Clever girl.” The way he conveys that, even though he’s about to be brutally killed, he admires the sheer intelligence of the beasts.
What does it tell you that I’ve been talking about how great the characters and performances in this movie are, and I haven’t even mentioned Jeff Goldblum’s or Samuel L. Jackson’s characters yet? Like I said, everyone is great. Goldblum’s cynical mathematician has plenty of good lines, the best of which is probably “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Which brings me to the thematic meat of Jurassic Park. It’s your basic Frankenstein story: humanity’s attempts to play God backfire, unleashing monsters we cannot control. Actually, in a way, it’s the same theme as the previous movie I discussed in this series. But while I like the first two Terminator films, I definitely prefer Jurassic Park to both. And I think it’s largely due to the relationships between the characters. They are just so well fleshed-out, and the actors can communicate so much without even saying a word. Look at the final scene, when the survivors are flying away from the island. You know what every character is thinking just from their expressions.
This is the essential thing about Jurassic Park: it’s a monster movie with a fundamentally sweet core. The ending feels hopeful, even despite all the horror. And I don’t just mean for the human characters, either. There’s a real note of triumph in the T-Rex’s last scene in the film, as it bellows exultantly amid the wreckage of the visitors’ center. The greatest of the old beasts, literally “the king tyrant lizard,” has returned to rule, and I think every audience member cheers right along with it.
Such an upbeat time were the ’90s that even the monsters got approval from the audience! Jurassic Park is more than just a monster movie, it’s also wish-fulfillment for every kid who ever wanted to see a dinosaur for real. Yes, they are terrifying, but they are also, in the very truest sense of the word, awesome. In that moment, we are all Muldoon, feeling simultaneously the fear and the respect that these mighty creatures deserved to command.
And that is Jurassic Park‘s subtle genius: it treats dinosaurs not as mere villains for the sake of jump scares, but as if they truly were real, living, breathing creatures; great and terrible apex predators that once held dominion over the earth as surely as humans do today.
I’ve been waiting for this book since I read the first book in Stephenson’s Byzantium series back in 2018. And was it ever worth the wait. After setting the stage in The Porta Aurea, with the rise of the Emperor Isaac, Stephenson has events play out in dramatic fashion. It may seem odd to describe a historical fiction book as a political thriller, but at times that’s almost what this feels like. It’s that fast-paced and exciting.
Once again, the book is told from the perspective of Anna Dalassena, wife of John Comnenus, Emperor Isaac’s brother. The initial optimism they feel at Isaac donning the purple subsides quickly as they realize the extent of the mess he’s inherited. Misfortune follows misfortune, and soon Isaac is unable to serve, presenting John with an opportunity to reign.
This is a key episode in the book that I want to focus on, because John is presented with an opportunity to take power and turns it down. Anna resents this more than a little, not least because John’s refusal allows the contemptible Constantine Ducas to be installed as Emperor, with the help of the scheming bureaucrat Michael Psellus.
On the one hand, it’s hard to argue with John’s honest assessment that he would not be a very good emperor. He’s a decent, hard-working, well-meaning guy, but not ambitious or particularly suited to thinking on a grand scale. You’ve got to applaud him for knowing his own limits, and for not being easily goaded into taking power, which has well-known corrupting tendencies.
On the other hand, though… Anna makes the valid point that while John probably wouldn’t be a great emperor, it’s hard to imagine he could be worse than Constantine Ducas, a longtime enemy of Anna’s family as well as a generally horrible person. Given that John’s refusal to take his brother’s place results in Ducas taking the throne, there is a strong argument to be made that a sense of duty should have compelled John to take power, if only to prevent it from falling into the hands of someone even less suited to it.
Much has been written about the nobility of refusing power, and no doubt there is something to that; but there is also a sense in which taking power can be a sacrifice, which must be made to prevent worse abuses. After all, someone has to rule the Byzantine Empire. Is it better if it’s ruled by a stolid if unimaginative soldier, father, and husband, or a ruthless, abusive maniac? Something to ponder.
In any case, Ducas rules for a time, but eventually he dies and is replaced with his son, the Emperor Michael, who is only a teenager and in no way ready to assume the duties of Emperor. Thanks to Anna’s clever gamesmanship and political maneuvering, an extremely capable soldier named Romanus Diogenes rules as “co-emperor” and leads many successful campaigns against the Turks, who are continually harassing the edges of the Empire.
Romanus Diogenes is a brave and honest man who is, unfortunately, a bit too naive about the realities of politics. Once again, Psellus and another Ducas, (John, Constantine’s brother) conspire against him to reassert their power.
The whole book is a gripping tale of political intrigue, shifting alliances, backstabbing and maneuvering for power. I’d call it Machiavellian, except Machiavelli wouldn’t be born for a few centuries yet, so that seems inappropriate. But I think that gives you a good idea of what I mean.
Through it all, Anna is a likable and interesting narrator. She, and other women, may not often have held direct power during this period, but they had all sorts of ways of influencing events behind the scenes.
I’m really impressed by how vivid Stephenson makes everything feel. Too often, when I read historical fiction, I feel like I’m just watching cardboard cutouts go through prearranged motions to arrive at a foregone conclusion. Not with this book. It all felt immediate and real.
And one more word about that sneaky character Michael Psellus. He’s such an archetypal figure; the amoral administrator who somehow survives every regime change, largely because he knows where all the bodies are buried. He makes me think of Talleyrand, or, for fans of Brit-coms, Sir Humphrey Appleby. There’s no doubt he’s a snake, and yet I have a grudging sort of admiration for his persistence and resilience.
Psellus, by the way, was a real person and in fact wrote a book, from which comes much of our knowledge about the Byzantine empire during this period. I have not read his whole book. (Stephenson has, though, and she has written about Psellus on her blog, which you should read after you read her book.) But I have read the parts of it which correspond to the events in Imperial Passions.
Naturally, Psellus paints a very different picture of events than that described above. But then, he would, wouldn’t he?
Which telling should we trust, Stephenson’s or Psellus’s? Ah, well, my friends; that’s the fun of history, isn’t it? There are names and dates that we can all study and memorize, but beyond that, it’s really all about interpretation to weave a compelling story out of all these dry facts.
One thing I can say with certainty is that Stephenson has woven a masterful tale in her latest book, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
[Audio version of this review available below.]
Happy New Year’s Eve! Once again, I decided to devote the last Friday of the year to a recap of all the book reviews I wrote in the past twelve months.
In January I reviewed Cliff Hays’s Aamrgan, a mind-bending work of philosophy. Then for vintage science-fiction month, I took on another book heavy on philosophy, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Then came a work by one of my favorite newly-discovered authors, C. Litka’s A Summer in Amber. The month finished up with J. Guenther’s dystopian A True Map of the City.
February I decided to go heavy on romance for Valentine’s Day, starting with Jill Weatherholt’s charming Second Chance Romance. Next up was Penelope’s Pleasure by Deborah Villegas. Taking a break from love stories, I also reviewed Doggerel, Sue Vincent’s collection of canine poetry, and Geoffrey Cooper’s medical thriller Bad Medicine. Then it was more romance with E.M Foner’s sci-fi rom-com Date Night on Union Station. After that came the first in Tammie Painter’s fantasy-comedy Cassie Black series, The Undead Mr. Tenpenny. I wrapped up the month with Geoff Lawson’s Boer war romance Forgiven and Peter Martuneac’s zombie dystopia His Name Was Zach.
March had to be Mars month, and I started it off with Litka’s wonderful Martian novella Keiree, followed by Ian Miller’s hard sci-fi novel of a Martian colony, Red Gold. Then came Jackie Hunter’s Lost in the Red Hills of Mars and Jodi Bowersox’s madcap comedy Mars Madness.
April started off with a venture farther from Earth with Jeremy L Jones’s sci-fi adventure Ruins of Empire: Saturnius Mons and then I turned my attention to H.R.R. Gorman’s magnificent, fantastical dystopian techno-thriller American Chimera. I followed that up with Vesa Turpeinen’s modern Western Bounty Hunter Stex and then the second installment in the Cassie Black trilogy, The Uncanny Raven Winston. I finished up with Sid Stark’s academic mystery Campus Confidential and for Walpurgis night reviewed my favorite Lovecraft story, The Haunter of the Dark.
Lovecraftianism continued into May with R. Walter Dutton’s Book of the Elder Wisdom, and then it was on to Richard Pastore’s comedic retelling of Greek myth, Perseus Kills His Grandfather. After that, I finished up the Cassie Black series with The Untangled Cassie Black and then made a return to sci-fi with Henry Vogel’s Fortune’s Fool.
June began with Lindy Moone’s The Harbinger of Gloom Street and Bill Fitts’s cozy campus mystery He Needed Killing. After that, it was time for another Litka book, Beneath the Lanterns, a romantic fantasy adventure, and Abby: Alone, the short prequel to the His Name Was Zach series.
July began with Alex Cross’s fantasy short story The Teddy Bear’s War and then one of my most eagerly anticipated reads of the year, Mark Paxson’s literary YA novel, The Dime. After that, the sci-fi spaceship adventure Fire Ant by Jonathan Brazee and The Fall of Alla Xul by Andrew Rakich finished up the month.
For August, I went back into Tom Williams’s Napoleonic spy adventure with Burke and the Bedouin. Next came a pair of literary fiction works: Zoe Keithley’s collection of poignant short stories 3/Chicago and Kevin Brennan’s Occasional Soulmates. I rounded out August with a return to Peter Martuneac’s zombie dystopia with Her Name Was Abby.
September was time another Litka book, the short sci-fi tale A Night on Isvalar. Then I reviewed Elizabeth Gauffreau’s literary historical novel Telling Sonny, Zachary Shatzer’s hilarious comedy The Goose Finder and finished off with the mystical and mysterious space opera The Dream God by Brendan M.P. Heard.
October is my favorite month, being Halloween month, and accordingly I reviewed various horror books. First up was Tom Williams’s tale of battling magicians, Dark Magic, followed by Seth Tucker’s homage to Victorian horror, Richard Rex and the Succubus of Whitechapel and M.D. Parker’s blend of military sci-fi and horror URP-113. I took a brief break to review Victor Godinez’s new techno-thriller The Doormen before returning to horror with Roberta Eaton Cheadle’s tale of a vengeful spirit, A Ghost and His Gold. I was delighted to cap the month off with Carrie Rubin’s latest Ben Oris book, The Bone Elixir, a perfect modern day Gothic story, complete with a haunted hotel and a demonic conspiracy.
November is not my favorite month, being not Halloween month, but it was eased by the light comedy of the fun-for-all-ages mystery McGorgol and Hockney at the Guano Island Hotel by Audrey Noah. I finished the “His Name Was Zach” series with Their Names Were Many, and then Geoffrey Cooper’s latest thriller, Ill Intent. That was followed up by another hilarious novella from Zachary Shatzer, The Story of John Warbly and the Crabcakes, America’s Favorite Band. I finished up with the epic fantasy by Rob J. Hayes, Never Die.
For December, I took the always dangerous step of reading a Star Wars book. It’s dangerous because nothing causes me to carry on at length quite like Star Wars. But I enjoyed Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando: Hard Contact. That was followed by the excellent ghost story The Last Photograph of John Buckley by T.J. Brown and the hilarious parody of romance novels, 9 Lovers for Emily Spankhammer, co-authored by Brown and Kaleesha Williams. Then I read Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel Casino Royale and for Christmas reviewed the light-hearted holiday fantasy The Witch of the North Pole by Snow Eden.
And that, my friends, brings us to the present moment. You know, I got the idea for this whole review-a-week thing back in late 2019, and thought I’d give it a try in 2020. I frankly never expected I would do it for this long or have this much fun. It’s proven to be a great way not only to discover new books, but also to meet other writers and readers. Thanks to everyone who has stopped by the blog this year. All the best wishes to you for the new year.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to my fellow authors at Writers Supporting Writers, Mark, Audrey, Chuck, Lucinda, and Richard, with whom it has been my privilege to have many excellent discussions about writing this past year. Here’s to many more in 2022!
To my shame, I’ve let my list of indie book reviews get hopelessly out of date. The reason for this is it has to be manually updated every time I have a new book review. This isn’t the most time-consuming thing in the world, but I try to post a new review almost every week, and the time it takes to update adds up. (One might argue that I am just lazy, and perhaps this is true. But I prefer to think of it this way: the less time I have to spend updating the site is more time I can spend reading books.)
But, I think I may now have a solution. The solution is Query Loops, and it should, if it works properly, allow me to automate updating the page, so every time I post new review, it will immediately be added to the list in the appropriate genre without me having to do anything.
So, here is a revamped version of the indie book review page that uses Query Loops. Note that the link at the top of the blog still takes you to the old page. I want to give people a chance to check this out and give feedback before I put a link on the front page.
Now, I’ll admit, this is still not perfect. In particular, because the Query Loop block only displays the “Featured Image” for each post, the cover images are different sizes. Yes, this is annoying, and if I get the time, I’ll try to go back and replace the images with ones that are the same size. But probably not at WordPress’s suggested size of 1200 x 675, which in my opinion is huge.
Still, on balance, this is way nicer than having to manually update. So, please check it out, and let me know what you think, or if you see any problems/issues etc.
[Since I’m talking about vampire fiction this month, it seemed right to include this review, which I originally published in 2019, of a weird western film that claimed to pit one of the most famous outlaws of the American west against the legendary vampire.–BG, 10/16/2021]
Go ahead, say that title out loud. (Okay, maybe not if you’re in a public place.) “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.” The words seem intrinsically strange together, and become even more bizarre when you know that William Bonney, the famous outlaw known as “Billy the Kid,” was shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, 16 years before Bram Stoker published his Gothic novel of vampire horror, Dracula.
Now it’s true, Stoker’s vampire was based on Vlad III Dracula, who lived in the 1400s and thus—if he had been an immortal vampire, which most reliable historians seem to feel he wasn’t—might have found his way into a showdown with the famous outlaw.
But as the film begins, it quickly becomes clear that these details do not matter after all, because Billy the Kid isn’t really Billy the Kid—the film apparently is set in some sort of alternate history in which Mr. Bonney abandoned his outlaw ways, did not run afoul of Sheriff Garrett, and instead became foreman at a ranch, where he is engaged to marry the young daughter of the ranch owner.
Careful students of the craft of storytelling may here ask the question, “Why did the writer choose to tell a story about Billy the Kid in which Billy the Kid does not act like Billy the Kid, but somebody else altogether different?” Careful students of the craft of storytelling are advised to take a stiff drink before going any further, because it is also worth noting that the vampire is not once referred to as Dracula throughout the entire film.
So, it’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, except Billy the Kid isn’t Billy the Kid, and Dracula isn’t Dracula. All quite clear? Smashing! We proceed.
The film begins with the vampire, (played by John Carradine who portrayed Dracula well in the surprisingly decent film House of Dracula) descending upon a family of German immigrants traveling by wagon in the American west. He bites the young daughter of the group, but is warded off at the sight of a crucifix.
Later, the nameless vampire comes upon a stagecoach, carrying wealthy travelers towards their ranch, where, he learns, their beautiful niece Elizabeth resides. He is much taken with a picture of young Elizabeth shown to him by the travelers. When the coach stops for an evening, the vampire attacks a young Native American woman camped nearby, sparking the rage of the rest of the tribe. They assume it to be the work of the stage coach’s occupants and retaliate by killing them—allowing the vampire to assume the identity of the ranch owner and Elizabeth’s uncle, Mr. Underhill.
Meanwhile, William Bonney and young Elizabeth are playfully shooting tin cans and flirting with each other, much to the annoyance of the previous foreman, who watches jealously from afar. Apparently, being foreman also entails being Elizabeth’s lover, since apparently Billy took both positions from him at the same time.
Realizing that Elizabeth’s uncle Mr. Underhill is due to arrive in town soon, Billy rides off to meet him at the saloon. He arrives just after the vampire, posing as Underhill, has come to the saloon and taken a room. Moments later, the immigrant family arrives, still shaken by the earlier vampire attack, and are horrified when their daughter recognizes “Underhill” as the vampire who attacked her. However, he is somehow able to convince them that he is not a vampire, and, as a gesture of goodwill, allows them to take his room for the evening while he follows Billy to the Underhill ranch.
But of course, this is all a diabolical trick, and the vampire returns that night to finish the job on the poor immigrants’ daughter. Meanwhile, Billy and Elizabeth ponder the idea that there is something odd about her uncle, although what it is they can’t quite put their fingers on…
What could it be?
So, after much riding back and forth, Billy getting into a brawl with the ex-foreman, and the old immigrant woman’s attempt to keep the vampire away failing, Elizabeth is carried off into a makeshift lair the vampire has created in an abandoned mine. Billy rides there furiously, ignoring the town doctor’s advice that to defeat the vampire, he must drive a stake through his heart. Instead, in typical outlaw fashion, he tries to gun him down with his revolver. But the bullets have no effect.
Okay, look: I know it’s absurd to complain about logic in a film called Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. But I can’t help myself. Bullets are just fast-moving, miniature stakes, right? So why shouldn’t they work on the vampire? Now, you might say, “Well, they didn’t hit his heart, so it didn’t work.” I could buy that… except that then Billy throws his gun at the vampire and hits him in the face and knocks him down!
Seriously, what is this? If being hit with bullets didn’t hurt him, why should being hit with a much slower-moving hunk of metal? I know, you all are thinking I’m being Comic Book Guy at this point, but I have a reason for talking about this, and it’s not because I’m one of those people who is going to go off and start a petition demanding that Billy the Kid vs. Dracula be remade with proper consultation of a period firearms expert and a close-quarters combat specialist.
The reason is because it’s an important lesson for anyone who writes fiction: there are bound to be illogical things in any work of fiction. That’s a given. If there weren’t, it wouldn’t be fiction. But the important thing is that the logic must be internally consistent. We get to make up our own rules for our fictional worlds, but they must never conflict with each other.
All right now, where was I? Oh, yes! So, Billy then stabs the vampire through the heart with the doctor’s stake, and releases Elizabeth from the spell the creature placed on her. He then carries her out of the mine, in the words of Wikipedia, “presumably to live happily ever after.” I love that use of “presumably.” Like, we think they’re going to live happily ever after, but who knows? It could be they’ll realize that they’re just two very different people who happened to get involved in this weird vampire business, gradually grow apart, and eventually come to the point where they argue over petty things like who should do the dishes before finally realizing that they need to go their separate ways.
So we’re 1,097 words into this review and you’re wondering, “Berthold, why are you even writing about this random lousy 55-year-old movie?”
The reason is very simple: I’m fascinated by the Weird Western genre. I like westerns for the desolate desert landscapes and their frequent use of themes of loneliness and revenge, and of course, weird supernatural horror was my first love in fiction, and the combination of the two will always interest me. And so while I’ve made a huge amount of fun of the film, it’s nonetheless, in its own odd way, significant as one of the first Weird Western films.
I mentioned the title at the beginning because I honestly think that a competent storyteller could make something interesting out of that. Make Billy the Kid be honest-to-God Billy the freakin’ Kid, the ruthless outlaw who boldly escaped from a New Mexico Jail, and have him encounter a vampire while on the run from the law, somewhere in the gorgeous New Mexico landscape. A skilled writer could spin all kinds of compelling yarns about death, murder and revenge out of that.
But, instead we got a move that shows a vampire strutting around in daylight! For shame!
That’s okay, though. They say that once you invite the vampire in, your fate is as good as sealed. And since early Weird Westerns invited the vampires west, it’s paved the way for all sorts of interesting stories to follow.
[Audio version of this post below.]