Conan the Rebooter

What is best in life? To revive a franchise, to turn it into a success, and to hear the lamentation of your rivals!

I really do wish Hollywood would consult with me before embarking upon certain film projects. I’ve no doubt my sage advice could save them endless money and embarrassment in regards to the making of the more expensive science fiction and fantasy sort of films. “What’s that Mr Executive? You’re thinking about green-lighting a film based on the game Battleship? No. Just no.”

Ah, but I sense you would like some proof of my ability to deliver such sage advice. Fair enough, let’s then consider that famous barbarian, Conan, by Crom! As a teenager I read at least eleventy-seven paperbacks featuring Conan stories (published by Sphere Books in the UK and by first Lancer and then Ace Books in the US) so I’m reasonably familiar with the source material. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve read any of Robert E. Howard’s stories but I think I can unequivocally state that neither attempt to put Conan on the big screen was unflawed.

Sphere Conan

Okay, I know that statement won’t sit well with the myriad fans of Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger, but perhaps they will forgive me once I explain.

In fact the 1982 film, Conan the Barbarian, is a watchable but overly generic fantasy film. And that of course is the core of the problem from my point of view. Howard gave Conan an origin, a history, a philosophy, and a detailed world to stride across but to me little or none of that is present in this 1982 epic. In particular the origin story included in this version, an origin in which his parents and all the other adults of Conan’s village are killed by mounted raiders and Conan himself put into slavery, bears no resemblance to anything Howard wrote (but is quite like scenes from so many other sword and sorcery movies of that period). Given the source material for Conan is uniquely detailed it’s a great pity the Dino De Laurentiis Corporation filled Conan the Barbarian with scenes that are indistinguishable from contemporary sword and sorcery films; films such as Hawk the Slayer (1980), The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), Ator, the Fighting Eagle (1982), & Deathstalker (1983). At least once Conan’s origins are dealt with the rest of the plot is serviceable and doesn’t clash (at least as far as I can recall) with Howard’s creation.

Actually, given the tendency of the plot and settings towards generic imagery I do wonder if Conan the Barbarian would be more fondly remembered than, for example, Ator, the Fighting Eagle had the director of the former cast Miles O’Keeffe as Conan instead of the hugely popular Arnold Schwarzenegger? For that matter would Conan the Barbarian be so fondly remembered if Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t then go on to star in The Terminator? I think not because while Arnie made a pretty decent Conan (it could be argued that he was the best thing in the 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian) nothing about the rest of the film stands out. I suspect that Conan the Barbarian benefits from the fact that The Terminator is a film that drags every other part of Schwarzenegger’s career up a notch or two (well except for Hercules in New York, I’ve seen that one and you had better believe me when I tell you it’s beyond even the gravitational pull of The Terminator).

This is a great pity because I really do think Arnie worked well as Conan despite him not really being much like Howard’s vision. He certainly didn’t look like the magazine Conan, a character who I think is closer in looks to Frank Frazetta’s depictions on those Sphere covers above. The script also had him displaying the occasional flash of unconscious humour which while not canon I thought a necessary addition. Howard’s Conan is a very serious character, even a little pompous at times (especially when decrying the faults of civilisation), and I can’t imagine him coming out with anything like Arnie’s line about the lamentation of the women. Now while that level of seriousness is tolerable in Howard’s relatively short stories the occasional lighter moment is a welcome relief in a full-length action film. Also, the humour works because it’s clear that Schwarzenegger’s Conan isn’t aware of the fact that something he said or did comes across as funny.

All of which brings me to the 2011 reboot of Conan the Barbarian. First of all, given the comments above I doubt you will be surprised to learn that I thought the casting of Jason Momoa was one of the stronger points of this second version. I was also very pleased with the early scenes depicting Conan’s origin story. I would like to note here that some reviewers of the film have mocked the absurdity of the birth scene for being absurd. Which is true, it’s absurdly over the top but it’s absurdly over the top in the stories too. What these reviewers seem to have missed is how important this absurdity is to the Conan mythos. The fact that Conan was born on a battlefield is there to underline just how over the top the character of Conan is. I would bet good money that’s why Howard kept mentioning the born on a battlefield business in the first place, to make it clear that Conan’s over the top feats are possible because he’s already been established as an over the top character.

Unfortunately this version of Conan goes downhill once the main plot takes over. The whole villain who must be defeated or whole world will suffer plot was done to death long before this film was made. At this late stage the only way to make such a plot tolerable is to make the villainous threat secondary to other aspects of the story. If the film doesn’t concentrate on character interaction or include a major mystery to be unravelled then these ultimate evil plots do tend to be pretty boring. It also a bad plot to use in an action flick that intends to be the first of a series (as I assume they hoped the Conan reboot would be). Really, if you pull that trick in your first movie then what do you do in the sequel? Start with averting the end of the world and it becomes very difficult to produce a sequel that doesn’t feel like a let-down. Howard clearly knew that and avoided writing himself into such a corner. Which is another reason why this plot was entirely inappropriate for a Conan movie. Anybody familiar with Robert E. Howard’s stories about Conan know he kept the stakes small in order to ensure that whatever he wrote didn’t eclipse latter stories. As far as I recall it wasn’t till he wrote the novel length story, The Hour of the Dragon, which is set towards the end of the Conan story arc, do the stakes become significantly higher than in stories set earlier in Conan’s career.

All in all as far as I’m concerned while each film version of Conan the Barbarian has some good features neither has enough to be a fully satisfactory movie. Interestingly though with a little judicious hacking and stitching I cold see the two plots being joined together to make a pretty decent Conan film. Begin with the origin story of the second film and continue on with the small-scale plot of the first and the end result would be at least adequate.

So why is this so? To me the obvious answer is that other than The Hour of the Dragon Howard never wrote any novel length stories featuring Conan. Howard was writing for the pulp magazines of course and in order to achieve the best possible financial return he focused on writing shorter stories in the hopes of achieving fast sales. The trouble is what worked for Howard doesn’t work when scripting a Conan film because stories of 30K or less he was writing just don’t have enough plot to fill out a feature length film. So the scriptwriters needed to create a plot from scratch and as we’ve seen not just in Conan but all those other sword and sorcery flicks the average scriptwriter just doesn’t have the right background to do justice to the genre. They either produce something dull and cliché ridden or venture out into the valley of the very dumb (and some especially gifted individuals manage to do both, go watch Wizards of the Lost Kingdom if you don’t believe me).

If it was up to me Conan would never have become a film property at all. To me the Conan stories beg for television treatment instead. Turn Conan into a series of 45 minute episodes and it becomes possible to tell the sort of stories Howard was writing without needing to recycle . Each week Conan would find himself in a different location dealing with some difficult but less than world ending situation. Like the original stories the nature of the situation would vary, some weeks he would be working for somebody in power, other weeks he would be carrying out some scheme as a self-employed ruffian, and sometimes he would just accidentally ride into a situation that requires a few heads be bashed together in order to achieve a satisfactory resolution.

Now to elevate this above the average villain of the week plotting there needs to be some ongoing elements to link the episodes and give them a little more complexity. Of course to do this would require a significant departure from Howard’s original stories but I don’t think it could be helped.

For the first series at least (yes, I’m assuming a lot here) this linking could be provided in the form of a quest.

As I really like the relationship Jason Momoa’s Conan had with his father I think I would employ something similar. So let’s have Corin, Conan’s blacksmith father, be highly regarded by his fellow Cimmerians and let his father’s standing frustrate Conan because like so many teens he knows he is destined for greatness and isn’t it about time everybody noticed this and accepted the inevitable. However Conan’s father doesn’t have the good grace to step aside so Conan decides the only thing to do is venture outside of the Cimmerian homeland to retrieve the Seven Keys of Pentuzler which the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom stole from the Cimmerians decades before. Conan’s reasoning being that if he returns with the keys his fellow tribesmen will have no choice but to acknowledge him as the greatest Cimmerian ever. So all he has to do to is search the kingdoms of the south, where no Cimmerian has ever set foot, until he finds the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom, kill said evil sorcerer, find where he has hidden the Seven Keys of Pentuzler, and return in triumph with the keys, easy peasy. Corin and the other men of the tribe would of course have the good grace not to raise even one eyebrow among them when Conan announces his intentions and it’s not until Conan is riding out of sight that the following exchange occurs:

Shaman:   “How long before he comes to his senses?”
Corin:   “Hopefully not before the south knocks some humility into that boy!”
Shaman:   “Assuming the south survives the encounter.”
Corin:   “Gaah! Now you’re sounding like him!”

I’d also like to diverge from the original stories by giving Conan a permanent companion to do a lot of the talking so Conan can concentrate on being moody and impulsive. A companion like Alvazar the wisecracking thief would also be useful for nagging Conan into revealing why a Cimmerian has come south and other important nuggets of information such as:

Alvazar:   “You must wish this quest was over so you can return to your homeland given what a low opinion you hold of civilisation.”
Conan:   “Maybe. I have some unfinished business first.”
Alvazar:   “Really? What could be so important as to keep you away from the adulation of your people?”
Conan:   “Before I leave I must defeat every warrior and empty every tavern. My honour is at stake.”
Alvazar:   “You have a most frightening sense of honour Conan. Let me see, Zingara has a lot of taverns and swordsmen. We might as well start there.”

You’ll note that I gave sex the big swerve n that last exchange. Mostly because I think going even partway down the Game of Thrones path would introduce one too many changes. I would prefer to preserve as much of Howard’s original vision where I could so I’d rather underplay the sex angle. Besides, this is another opportunity for unconscious humour from Conan:

Conan:   “Southerners are too soft! I will not lie with any woman who cannot knock me out with one punch and carry me to her tent!”
Alvazar:   “I seem to recall Red Sonja managed something like that…”
Conan:   “Bah! She hit me from behind with a cask of ale! That was cheating!!”

Such a series should also have a supporting cast of occasionally appearing characters such as Bêlit, pirate queen of the Black Coast, the wizard Thoth-amon, Taurus of Nemedia, Epimitreus the Sage and Red Sonja. If the series moves around the lands of Hyboria it seems reasonable to have the cast very a lot from episode to episode. On the other hand it wouldn’t seem out of place for Conan to team up with or go against certain characters multiple times. The evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom should in particular be a recurring character as Conan seeks to hunt him down.

Well, I could go on for pages outlining every little detail but I think you have the general idea now. Hmm, perhaps I should tell Netflix all about this next. It does seem like the sort of thing they would make.

And they do seem keen to cause some lamentations.

Devil Girl From Mars

You won’t believe what Mars needed in 1954.

The creator of the Daleks, Terry Nation, has admitted he moulded them on the Nazis. Thus the Daleks are violent, merciless, and pitiless cyborg aliens who are determined to conquer the universe and exterminate every other race they view as inferior, which is to say all of them. This is hardly news, Nation admitted this as far back as 1978 in an interview which appeared in Starburst Magazine (probably not the first time this came up so feel free to enlighten me as to when Nation first admitted it).

What doesn’t seem to get much mention though is how the Daleks are hardly an outlier in this regard. When it comes to British science fiction Nazis, fascists in general, and a love of eugenics are topics which have have popped up more than a few times. Sarban’s novel, The Sound of His Horn, and shorter stories such as The Fall of Frenchy Steiner by Hilary Bailey and Weinachtsabend by Keith Roberts are good examples of this. In the realm of television dystopian series such as The Guardians and 1990 have featured fascist governments ruling Britain while in Blake’s Seven something about the uniforms worn by its soldiers suggest to me that the Federation might also be just a little bit on the fascist side.

Servalan and Federation

Remind you of anybody?

More recently another British TV series, Misfits, played with an alternative timeline in which Germany had won WWII and Nazis ruled Britain. Heck, even in Space 1999 the protagonists encountered a planet where individuals with any physical deformity were ‘eliminated’. This particular idea was also used by Nigel Kneale in his TV series (and later film) Quatermass & the Pit (retitled as Five Million Years to Earth in the US). Which is not to say every villain used in in such outings is an umpteenth generation SS officer but the Nazis and eugenics clearly have been a favoured form of evil for British writers ever since WWII.

Which leads me to today’s topic, Devil Girl From Mars, a 1954 British science fiction film from Danziger Productions. I watched this one just last week (I found it on Vimeo and you might too if it hasn’t since been taken down) and while I can’t tell you that it’s a great flick, neither would I label it as terrible. If I had to give Devil Girl From Mars a one word rating that word would be unambitious. Yet in a way it’s very lack of ambition is what made it interesting to me.

Devil Poster 1

The reason I call Devil Girl From Mars unambitious is mostly because the plot feels like it has been filched from the sort films about Nazi spies or saboteurs being made in Britain only a decade before. Like them Devil Girl is set in a remote location, in this case an inn deep in the Scottish highlands during winter. As with those wartime films the opening scenes introduce a large number of characters; the elderly Scottish couple who own the inn, their barmaid, a crippled handyman, a small boy, a glamorous city woman, the escaped convict boyfriend of the barmaid, a reporter, and a scientist, the last two wandering around the the Scottish Highlands in search of a reported meteor. These films always required such a varied cast in order to demonstrate how British folk from all walks of life would firmly united against the Nazi, or in the case of this revamp, the alien menace.

Devil Poster 2

As was also the tradition with such British films of the 50s certain scenes would descend into overly fraught melodrama. This seems to have been a ploy designed to establish the degree of sacrifice certain characters would be making in order to defeat the Nazi, or in this case alien, menace. It’s always a safe bet that at least one or more of the cast who is required to aggressively emote will go on to make such a sacrifice before the film ends. Personally, I associate this sort of performance with amateur theatrics and I don’t think I’m alone. The cast of the BBC radio comedy, Round the Horne, took great delight in expertly lampooning this sort of thing. Betty Marsden, as Dame Celia Molestrangler, and Hugh Paddick, as ageing juvenile Binkie Huckaback would overact dialogue such as the following:

Binkie: I know.
Celia:    I know, you know.
Binkie: I know you know I know.
Celia:    I know. Then why can’t you give it to me?
Binkie: It’s not easy Fiona.
Celia:    It’s not hard Charles. If you try. And now you’re going.
Binkie: I have to. This is something I should have done a long time ago.
Celia:    Is it her? Daphne?
Binkie: Yes, Fiona. I must go. She needs me.
Celia:    I need you. Does this mean nothing?
Binkie: Daphne needs me more. Much more. But I shall think of you all the time I am with her.
Celia:    I’ll wait for you Charles. You will come back to me won’t you? Please say you’ll come back to me.
Binkie: I always come back don’t I?

At this point Binkie takes Daphne the dog for a walk.

Anyway, so we’re sixteen minutes in before the previously mentioned meteor the professor and reporter are looking for, or ‘unidentified white aircraft’ as the radio announcer calls it, arrives on screen and proves to be a rather decent looking flying saucer for a 1954 science fiction film. It lands and sits there glowing menacingly until minute twenty-four when Nyah, the devil girl of the title steps out. As can be seen above all the posters depicted Patricia Laffan, who plays Nyah, in a skintight catsuit. Laffan actually wears a black mini skirt with stockings, mid-calf boots, and a long black cape. Does this make her a more impressive looking alien threat? Hmm… either works if you ask me. The catsuit would have made her a predecessor to Diana Rigg as Emma Peel whereas this outfit makes her a predecessor to Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan.

Devil Girl From Mars

Almost immediately after exiting her ship Nyah encounters the crippled handyman trying to flee home and using what looks like a glue gun disintegrates every part of him but his glasses. Having displayed the sort of ruthlessness that would win make a Dalek proud Nyah then appears at the hotel and explains that she’s from Mars, that there has been a war between women and men which the women won, the women now rule Mars but ‘the males have fallen into a decline and the birth rate is dropping tremendously for despite our advanced science we have still found no way of creating life’. Turns out that Nyah’s solution is to collect some nice, healthy breeding stock from Earth. Upon hearing about this plan the reporter is inexplicably outraged by the idea that Nyah will proceed to London and select a few such specimens to take back to Mars. I could understand if he was a bit jealous or if British men truly hated breeding but I’m pretty sure it was neither of these.

This is the point at which the retooled Nazi spy script started to not work for Devil Girl From Mars. Unlike Nazi spies Nyah’s intentions don’t threaten the British way of life in any way. I’m sure if she made it to London and announced her plan to the authorities there they would be able to provide her with more than enough willing volunteers. Even if she announced it was a one way ticket I doubt there would be any shortage of men lining up for the physical. I should perhaps also point out that despite her brusque demeanour (very like the stereotypical Nazi she was based upon) Nyah is not an unpleasant threat. Combine this with the fact that all she wants to do is take a few men back to Mars and it becomes very difficult to empathise with this British desire to stop other people from having a good time.

Of course Nyah does talk like a recycled Nazi:

Today it is you that learns the power of Mars. Tomorrow it will be the whole world.

Fill your eyes Earthman. See such power as you never dreamed existed.

You fools! Do you think you can hurt me with this? Even your limited intelligence should have convinced you by now that you cannot harm me.

Talking tough like this is all very well but it has to be backed up with action in order to convince the audience. This sort of dialogue from a Nazi character works because the audience knows what the Nazis were capable of. When an alien whose plan is nothing more than to collect a harem talks this way it just sounds empty and pompous. Yes, she killed the cripple handyman but she doesn’t even boast of this to the other characters or threaten to kill them all she leaves. I’m pretty sure a Nazi would not have made such an oversight. Another area where the scriptwriter needed to tweak the Nazi spy plot I think.

The majority of the plot revolves around Nyah making multiple visits to the inn as she waits for her ship of living metal to repair itself. While there she amuses herself by telling the humans about how powerful she and her race are and how humanity can do nothing to thwart her. The Brits look scared at these pronouncements and then when she leaves they immediately make plans to thwart her, none of which come even close to succeeding (as Nyah keeps predicting). At one point Nyah takes the scientist back to her ship to show him around and browbeat him with some truly impressive technobabble. A little later she shows off her robot to the whole group. Chani the robot is a big, bulky, man-like device which shuffles around awkwardly and disintegrates things in a rather similar manner to the Martians in the 1953 version of The War Of the Worlds. I suspect all this coming and going was caused by the fact that these Nazi spy movies usually had multiple villains and for some reason it was decided not to give Nyah any companions. This meant that scenes which previously would be split amongst various villains all required her presence and thus a certain amount of scene repetition.

Victor Harbour Times (SA) Friday 30 September 1955

Eventually Nyah chooses to take the escaped criminal boyfriend with her and predictably the scientist is able to tell this fellow how to cause the ship to explode and shield British men from the attention of alien women. Nyah’s ship takes of with the boyfriend and her inside but before the ship gets very far it disintegrates in one of the best explosions I’ve seen in a science fiction film.

Mirror (Perth, WA) Saturday 26 March 1955

As I wrote at the start of this article this is a competent but unambitious effort. Things are set up early on and paid off later, the characters all have something to do in plot terms and apart from that lovely final explosion the effects are decent without being Western Herald (Bourke NSW) Friday 28 June 1957really impressive. Patricia Laffan is quite good as Nyah the alien from Mars and her outfit is quite impressive looking but the rest of the cast fail to rise above soap opera quality. The film isn’t sufficiently engaging plot wise as there is really very little at stake and Nyah is made too indestructible to generate dramatic tension. On the other hand it’s quite well made for a 1954 science fiction movie, they really did put a decent amount of effort into it. I did find the soundtrack took some getting use to though as the musical score is used quite aggressively to to tell the viewer how they should feel about each scene (a not uncommon practise in 50s movies it has to be said).

What I found most fascinating about this movie was how so many of the details suggested the script was cribbed from earlier films about Nazi spies invading British soil. I would certainly label Devil Girl From Mars as exhibit A when making a case for the Nazis as an integral part of British science fiction.

Also of interest is the fact that Devil Girl From Mars had a very positive reception in Australia. As can be seen from the above review scanned from the Friday, 28 June, 1957 issue of the Western Herald newspaper not only did the film garner a positive reaction but was also paired with movies such as The Colditz Story and The Big Heat, films that have retained a higher reputation than Devil Girl.

The Canberra Times (ACT) Wednesday 28 August 1957

Above and beyond the relative quality of the films quoted above I can’t see how anybody could decide that Devil Girl From Mars was a logical pairing with either of them.

Australia was a weird place in the 50s.

The Notorious Bert I. Gordon

“…repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax…”

Before you read any further there is something I think you need to know about me. I’m a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and have been since sometime in 1994 when a friend living in the USA began sending me episodes (and I will be eternally grateful to Lucy for her part in circulating the tapes). Now I know some of you will be shocked by this revelation and the rest of you will be confused. For the latter group I suggest you go here.

Okay, so now we all know that MST3K is a TV show that revolves around showing a movie of dubious quality and providing a humorous commentary which, in this, the future world of today, is a little thing we like to call riffing. I doubt riffing is a new or revolutionary practise, I imagine people have been moved to talk back to the screen ever since the very first bad movie was shown in front of an audience. I even have evidence of a primitive form of movie riffing happening at a British science fiction convention. Consider this quote from Walt Willis writing about the Loncon in Quandry #22 (edited by Lee Hoffman, August 1952). This particular Loncon (there has been more than one SF convention called this) was held 31 May & 1 June, 1952 and in London of all places:

The final event was a showing of Metropolis, which in a way was the best part of the official programme. This was because there was no incidental music to drown fan comment on the action, some of which was brilliant. Dan Morgan shone especially. When the hero suddenly mimed exaggerated alarm the way they do in silent films and dashed madly for the door Dan remarked “FIRST ON THE RIGHT”. That started it and the whole worthy but rather dull film was enlivened by a ruining commentary from the audience which I wish I had space to quote…

By the way, I’m pretty sure the Dan Morgan mentioned here was the soon to be published author Dan Morgan.

However, to get back on topic, as far as I’m aware MST3K was the first ever attempt to use riffing as the centre piece of a TV show. Earlier attempts to reuse old film and TV footage for comedic purposes usually involved removing the original soundtrack entirely and replacing it with new dialogue and sound effects. This is clearly a different thing entirely, though when done well it can be extremely funny.

However, while I’ve been a long-standing fan of MST3K (or a MSTie if you prefer) my taste in bad movies doesn’t entirely match majority opinion. The bottom line is that for me the added humorous commentary can’t make a badly plotted and slow moving movie watchable. For example, according to The Den of Geek the top three MST3K episodes as voted on by fans of the show are 1. Manos: The Hands of Fate, 2. Space Mutiny, & 3. Mitchell. I’ve watched all three of these episodes once but despite several attempts I simply can’t sit through any of them a second time. Once was possible only because the novelty value helped me through but once that was gone…

Instead my favourite episodes include (to select a few from the Den of Geek list) 9. Cave Dwellers, 27. Warrior of the Lost World, 44. Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell, 57. Attack Of The Eye Creatures, & 65. The Magic Sword. None of these are good movies, all of them deserve to be on MST3K but still each of them have enough plot to maintain forward momentum. In these films there’s always something happening, it may be a stupid thing but at least the stupidity is driving the plot forward.

Then there are the marginals, those MST3K episodes which use almost interesting films, the sort of you can watch more than once so long as you can jump over the slower bits. Many, but not all, of these involve monsters for some reason (don’t ask me why, there are some things best not pried into). Good examples of these, again taken from the Den of Geek list, would be 16. Hobgoblins, 68. Wild, Wild World of Batwoman, & 84. Godzilla Vs. The Sea Monster.

Curiously I see The Giant Gila Monster, an episode I’ve never had the will to watch all the way through, not only made the Den of Geek list but also placed a very respectable 43. I am amazed at this given the far more entertaining Earth vs the Spider didn’t make the list at all. Now Earth vs the Spider isn’t up there with the better MST3K episodes but I would still rate it a watchable marginal on a level with Godzilla Vs. The Sea Monster.

Gene Roth
             Gene Roth – Sheriff to the film cowboys.

Personal taste to one side Earth vs the Spider has two features that in my opinion set it above The Giant Gila Monster. The first being the superlative performance by Gene Roth as Sheriff Cagle. By the way, if he looks at all hauntingly familiar to you it will be because Gene Roth also played Sheriff Kovis in Attack of the Giant Leeches, another watchable but not great Roger Corman film featured on MST3K. Gene Roth had a long and varied career but I think it’s fair to say he was never better than when he had to play a law enforcement officer who through no fault of his own was forced to work a beat that was a week away from the nearest source of doughnuts. In The Giant Gila Monster Fred Graham did his best as Sheriff Jeff but how could he compete with the man both Bert I. Gordon and Roger Corman knew was sheriff material?

Even better than Sheriff Gene Roth however was the shameless plug director Bert I. Gordon gave his own work. About fifty minutes into Earth vs the Spider faux-teen Carol (played by June Kenney) phones Mike (played by Eugene Persson) her faux-teen boyfriend. Mike is working at his father’s movie theater so naturally the action twice passes by a large poster advertising The Amazing Colossal Man, a film directed by (surprise, surprise) Bert I. Gordon. Then when we see Mike on the phone he’s standing in front of a selection of lobby cards framed on the wall, lobby cards that look suspiciously like they might be advertising the work of a certain Bert I. Gordon. (I can’t be totally certain about the lobby cards however as my eyesight is no longer sharp enough to read those tiny, blurry titles.)

Okay, I can let the above pass because the scene is set in a movie theater, a place where you would expect to see posters and lobby cards. True, the plot didn’t need Mike’s father to own a theater and the poster and lobby cards could just as easily been for a fake movie but I can accept the possibility that Gordon did what he did simply because it required no effort. However, when faux-teen Mike tells Carol he doesn’t want to leave the cinema and take her to the cave they had visited earlier in order to recover a bracelet any doubt I had about the director’s motives were blown away. And just why didn’t young Mike want to live up to his earlier promise and do the decent thing for his girl? Well, in his own words, “Carol, not today, my dad just got in a new picture and I haven’t even seen it yet, something about puppet people, sounds pretty wild.” That wouldn’t be Attack of the Puppet People (directed by Bert I. Gordon) you’re talking about by any chance, would it Mike? Not only that but as he says this our faux-teen glances in an exaggerated manner at those lobby cards which leads me to suspect they might indeed be advertising Attack of the Puppet People. Oh my! Bert I. Gordon! You certainly deserve to be called the Notorious B.I.G. for so blatantly suggesting that a teenage boy (even a faux one like Mike) would be better off watching one of your movies than making his girlfriend happy. Even Quentin Tarantino has never gone so far as to suggest his films are a superior choice to normal human relationships (at least don’t I think he has, but it’s hard to be sure with a hot bag of nuts like Tarantino).

So there you have it, the Bert I. Gordon get out of gaol free card. Any time somebody wants you to do something you don’t wanna just tell them you really, really have to watch a Bert I. Gordon film (your choice of title) because you hear it’s really, really wild. Try it tonight, you’ll thank me in the morning.

Gene Roth 2
       Who wouldn’t want to see Gene Roth play the space Sheriff of Nottingham?

Psycho Birds Bloch Hitchcock!

Robert Bloch & Alfred Hitchcock were plotting against us.

Typist Inside

Horror Bloch & Mystery Bloch Tag Teaming On Psycho

Last year a cinema local to me devoted Sunday afternoons to showing classic films. Among these hits of yesteryear were the Alfred Hitchcock films Psycho and The Birds. I made sure to attend both those showings because I’d never seen Psycho on the big screen and The Birds not at all. Much as I enjoyed re-watching Psycho and picking up on details not obvious on the small screen it was Hitchcock’s version of The Birds which most piqued my interest most. While I’d read the Daphne du Maurier novelette the film is based upon several times the only part of the film I was familiar with was the scene in which Tippi Hedren is trapped in a phone booth by attacking seagulls. Despite how dramatic this scene is it helped convince me that Hitchcock’s film would be lacking the brooding menace of the story was based upon and thus a bit of a let-down.

Having at last seen the film version of The Birds I find I was right to assume that a 1963 Hollywood production, even with Hitchcock at the helm, could not match the power of du Maurier’s original. Overall I thought The Birds was okay, certainly better than I had assumed it would be, but still not great. I can see why Hitchcock made so many changes as I doubt that in 1963 a more faithful translation of the story would sell tickets, but I can also see why Daphne du Maurier hated what he did to her story. I didn’t hate it myself but I did think it was the least impressive Hitchcock film I’ve ever seen.

None the less I was fascinated the way Hitchcock started off the film with a light romance that had nothing to do with du Maurier’s story and didn’t begin to introduce anything by du Maurier until the romance plot was well advanced. Why did he take such an unexpected approach I wondered as I watched this story unfold? Afterwards however it occurred to me that Hitchcock began The Birds the way he did in order to replicate the success of Psycho.

This theory of mine starts with not with Hitchcock but Robert Bloch for it was he who wrote the 1959 novel Hitchcock turned into his famous film. One of the interesting things about Bloch as an author is that while he wrote a large number of short stories he produced relatively few novels. Part of this is probably because while the majority of his pulp contemporaries shifted to writing novels during the 50’s as the fiction magazines were steadily replaced by paperbacks Bloch moved into script-writing instead. Possibly Bloch never felt as comfortable with the novel length and had no great need to overcome this due to his script-writing income.

Perhaps this is why Psycho is not a lengthy novel. The copy I have here is a mere 98 pages long which was short for a paperback even in 1959 (though to be fair comparable in length with many of the ‘novels’ that appeared in the fiction magazines back then). Moreover Psycho reads to me like two short stories linked together by that famous shower scene. Why the novel should have this rather unusual structure I can’t say for certain. Perhaps Bloch was using this as a deliberate ploy to ease himself into an story length he wasn’t entirely confident in. Perhaps Bloch decided to link two story fragments together because he couldn’t make a satisfactory stand-alone story out of either. Whatever the reason the fact is Psycho is greater than the sum of its parts because of the way those parts are fused together.

The first part of the novel is classic example of what I like to call the morality tale of horror. Such morality horror tales begin with the the protagonist transgressing in some manner. Sometimes the protagonist commits a crime, sometimes they knowingly or inadvertently cause some offence. However they have transgressed the protagonist then attempts to escape punishment by taking a series of actions. However in the morality tale of horror every attempt to avoid retribution leads the protagonist a step closer to their ultimate, ironic, fate. Classically these stories end by making it clear that the only reason the protagonist met their gruesome end was due to their efforts to avoid punishment for the initial transgression.

In Psycho, Robert Bloch’s morality tale, after a little scene setting and misdirection at the Bates Motel we are introduced to the person we assume is to be the main protagonist, Mary Crane, secretary for the real estate agent Mr Lowery. The plot proper begins when she is tempted into committing the crime of theft when Tom Cassidy presents Mr Lowery with a large sum of money and Mr Lowery asks her to bank it for him. Instead she packs her bags and flees town with the money, heading to Fairvale where her boyfriend lives. With the stolen money she then begins to sell and buy cars as she travels in the hopes of covering her tracks. However Fairvale is a long way away, eighteen hours on unfamiliar roads and not surprisingly she takes a wrong turn. After having realised her mistake Mary Crane decides to stay the night in a hotel somewhere and find the right road in the morning so she can arrive at her boyfriend’s hardware store in a more composed state.

That’s when she spots the secluded Bates Motel and sets off the sequence of events that leads to the shower scene.

Now if this had been a typical Bloch morality horror short story appearing in Weird Tales I imagine that the final scene (not necessarily in the shower) would reveal the hotel was a base for cultists willing to use Mary Crane as a sacrifice, a home for werewolves willing to have her as a meal, or some other horrible fate that she could only suffer by arriving at such an unlikely location.

However such an immediate conclusion was clearly not possible given Bloch was writing a novel, albeit a rather slender one. So instead Bloch simply leaves the abrupt end of his horror story up in the air. Who murdered the secretary and why? We have no idea though perhaps some suspicions. Anyway, upon the death of Mary Crane, the original protagonist, Bloch the horror writer retires to his corner and Bloch the writer of mystery stories takes control and brings her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, and her younger sister Lila to the fore. From this point on the story becomes a fairly straight forward problem solving plot as Sam and Lila attempt to discover the whereabouts of Mary Crane. Even the final reveal isn’t an especially uncommon plot twist. It does have some added impact when the killer’s thoughts are revealed to the reader but even that isn’t much of a surprise to the average reader of Weird Tales.

Now clearly Alfred Hitchcock grasped that it was the abrupt twist in the middle of the story which made this book so worth turning into a movie. Consider how much he built up the initial misdirection by having Marion Crane (no, I’ve no idea why her first name was changed) briefly encounter Tom Cassidy as she flees town and then by having her arouse the suspicions of sheriff Al Chambers. By the time Marion Crane arrived at the hotel anybody not familiar with the book would be primed to assume the rest of the film would revolve around a cat and mouse game between Crane and sheriff Al Chambers. For anybody not familiar with the book and who didn’t recall the hints dropped in the trailer (in other words the majority of the initial film audience) the shower scene must of been a devastating revelation.

This leads me to my theory that Hitchcock liked this misdirection so much that he decided to reuse the idea in The Birds. I would recommend that anybody who hasn’t read the Daphne du Maurier novelette should go and do so because it’s an excellent story. Just be warned though, it’s every bit as bleak a story as I suggested earlier. Indeed, so dark is it that Hitchcock had to change a lot of the detail to make the story palatable to the average film goer (that is apart from the traditional shifting the story to the US as would of happened regardless). He decreased the feeling of isolation by including a cast of bit-players, he reduced the threat level by having the avian aggression intermittent rather than constant, he removed the sense of hopelessness by having it made clear that the bird attacks were only localised.

Of course the danger with all this downplaying of the danger is that the threat might not feel big enough to properly scare the audience. So why not repeat the success of Psycho by starting the plot in one direction and then twisting it in another. In the case of The Birds the change in direction from the sunny uplands of a light romance to the darker and considerable more fraught survival story was less abrupt (well most things are less abrupt than Psycho’s shower scene) but effective none-the-less. By, hopefully, getting the audience invested in the light romance plot and resulting domestic drama I suspect Hitchcock hoped to make the introduction of the bird attacks feel like more of a tonal shift and thus more alarming. It also had the advantage of helping to stretch out the plot. For all the power of Daphne du Maurier’s novelette there isn’t a lot of plot to it so Hitchcock was was rather neatly killing two birds with a single stone.

Killing two birds with a single stone. That’s certainly one way to describe such plotting.