Personal blog - and temporary home page until new website is finished - of writer, editor and graphic artist Christopher Mills

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Infra-Man is Invincible!

I first recall hearing about Infra-Man on an episode of Siskel & Ebert At the Movies (actually, it was probably Sneak Previews back then, right?) back in the mid-Seventies. The fact that it stuck in my mind at such a young age is meaningful, I think. I vividly remember a brief clip of the titular hero battling a bunch of bad guts in monster suits, and that Gene Siskel was sneering at this goofily giddy Hong Kong super-hero flick, while Roger Ebert sang its praises. I knew I had to see it.

Unfortunately, if it ever played theatrically in Central Maine, I missed seeing the ads in the newspaper. If I had seen such an advertisement, I know I would have begged my mom to take me to see it. Fortunately for her, I never did.

When the home video boom came along some years later, I saw the Prism VHS pre-record of Infra-Man in pretty much every video store I walked into. But, oddly, I never bothered to rent it. You see, I'd grown up a bit since the film's U.S. run in 1975-76, and I thought I was above such things. (This was around the same time that I turned my back on cartoons, too.)

By the early 90's, though, I was once again happily indulging my inner child, and I came across a used copy of the tape for sale in a South Florida video store for about $5. I bought it, took it home, and gave it a screening.

Man, what fun!

The story begins when the mysterious Princess Dragon Mom appears and threatens the world with her army of monsters and skeleton-men. ("Greetings to you, Earthlings, I am Princess Dragon Mom. I have taken over this planet. Now I own the Earth and you'll be my slaves for all eternity.") In response to this awesome threat, the governments of Earth cede all authority to the smartest man in the world, Professor Chang, and his Science Patrol – a group of athletic young Asian men dressed in Vegas-era Elvis-styled uniforms (one of whom would soon go on to gain exploitation film fame as "Bruce Le!"). Professor Chang persuades one of his blindly obedient operatives (future HK superstar Danny Lee of Mighty Peking Man and John Woo's The Killer) to submit to extensive operations which turn him into the "bionic" super-hero, Infra-Man.

With his stylin' new suit of red and silver, AM-FM equipped helmet, and newfound powers of flight, super kung fu, bionic backflips and "thunderball" fists (it is not revealed whether these include goldfingers – ha! Get it?), the invincible Infra-Man is unleashed upon the monstrous minions of Princess Dragon Mom, who are – let's face it – simply overmatched.

Call it the ultimate lazy Saturday afternoon veg-out flick. Ninety minutes of kung fu fightin', rubber monsters, mad science, cheesy special effects, and swingin' Seventies sci-fi schtick... I mean, seriously – what more could anyone possibly want from a movie?

Produced by Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studio, home of hundreds of kung fu flicks, Super Inframan (its official English title) was an attempt to duplicate the success of Japanese super-hero shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, which all featured garishly-costumed heroes who battled rubber-suited monsters. Shaw Brothers even imported some Japanese talent to help whip up their creature costumes. Ultimately, though, it was the studio's (and the country's) only full-fledged attempt at the genre... and that's a shame.

For, while it may have been an imitation of Japanese super-hero shows, the final film had a unique Hong Kong vibe and distinct identity of its own.

Image Entertainment (as part of their Shaw Brothers collection) has now released Super Inframan on a really nice widescreen DVD. The print and transfer are virtually flawless, with bright colors and sharp details, and it's even cooler looking in its proper "Shaw Scope" aspect ratio. The film is presented in its original Mandarin with subtitles... and in the wonderfully comic book-ish English dub, which, for once, is actually preferable, as the Mandarin dialogue – if the subtitles are accurate – is rather straight-forward and dry. The English track is much more fun, with over-the top dialogue and goofy voices for the monsters.

Here's the U.S. theatrical trailer. The picture quality sucks, but you can't beat that voice-over!

I highly recommend indulging your inner child. Check it out. Just be sure that when you sprawl out on the couch to watch it that you have plenty of soda pop and candy handy!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Payback is a Bitch!

Brian Helgeland (A Knight's Tale, L.A. Confidential screenwriter) & Mel Gibson's 1999 film Payback, is one of my favorite modern crime films, and the last Mel Gibson film (and performance) that I have any use for. I loved it in the theater, and it was, literally, the first DVD I bought; I brought it home with my first DVD player.

I've long been a fan of the "Parker" novels by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake), and Payback, which was based on the first "Parker" novel, The Hunter, was probably the closest Hollywood has ever come to capturing Stark's professional thief on film. Sure, Point Blank (1967, starring Lee Marvin and directed by John Booorman) is a bona fide film classic, and The Outfit (1973, with Robert Duvall, and directed by Jack Flynn) was a pretty solid 70's crime flick, but neither quite managed to evoke the distinctive feel of the "Parker" novels.

Let's not even discuss Slayground.

Payback didn't quite nail it either, but it came closest, and I loved it. I loved the casting, the 70's-esque music score, the gritty photography, and the "timelessness" of the flick. Helgeland made the choice to not show any cell phones, PCs, PDAs – no technology that would date the film any more specifically than "late 20th Century." Brilliant.

However, sometime after seeing the film in the theater, I read that the cut I had enjoyed was not that of director Helgeland's. According to reports, after he completed his version, someone – either the studio or Mel himself – decided that the movie did not represent the Mel Gibson that audiences had come to love, making him far too hardboiled and merciless, and with none of his trademark wry humor. (Never mind that it was also Mel's best film performance since the 80's.) This seemed likely to alienate Mel's huge fanbase, so, without Helgeland's input or cooperation (or approval, apparently), Gibson created new scenes and subplots (including the kidnapping of Kris Kristofferson's son, and the patented Gibson Torture Scene™), added more humor, and directed the new footage himself.* Some say as much as 30% of the final film was Gibson's work.

Well, to be fair, he did a pretty seamless job integrating his footage with Helgeland's. I couldn't tell. But it didn't seem to help the film's box office much. Despite the changes and the film's obvious high quality, it was considered a financial disappointment by the studio upon its release.

As I said, I love the movie as it stands, but ever since finding out about the behind-the-scenes turmoil and the existence of a different, more hardboiled cut, I've been dying to see it. Couldn't even dig up a bootleg.

Well, according to reports over on Ain't it Cool News, Brian Helgeland's director's cut, Payback: Straight Up, is supposed to be released on DVD early next year.

Can't wait.

(*According to the not always reliable IMDB, the new footage was not directed by Mel, but by production designer John Myhre. Frankly, I don't buy it. It has Mels' fingerprints all over it.)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Halloween Season Viewing: Creepshow

A loving homage to EC horror comics of the Fifties, CREEPSHOW is a colorful, finely crafted entertainment from two guys who really respect and understand the horror genre: Stephen King and George Romero.

In the early Eighties, no one was hotter than King, with a string of best-sellers that Hollywood was quick to snatch up and translate for the screen, often with no apparent understanding of what made them work on readers' psyches in the first place. Director George Romero, whose reputation in the genre had been cemented with 1979's Dawn of the Dead, had recently watched his brilliant, very personal masterpiece, Knightriders, crash and burn in theaters, and was ready to return to the more profitable scary movie genre. The two terror titans had talked for years of doing a project together, and when they finally did, it was a match made in horror film heaven.

In 1982, anthology films had long been out of favor (and still are today), but in CREEPSHOW, King and Romero found the perfect framework within which to place their stories: an EC comic book. Like those classic four-color rags, CREEPSHOW is comprised of five original King stories of varying lengths, all adhering closely to the classic EC formulas of twist endings and supernatural vengeance. CREEPSHOW even visually invokes the look of a comic book, with bright primary colors, superimposed "panel borders," and animated "bumpers" of wind-tossed comic books pages, complete with ads.

From the classic "vengeance-from-beyond-the-grave" themes of "Fathers' Day" and "Something to Tide You Over," to the cosmic justice of "They're Creeping Up On You," or Hal Holbrook's unique solution to marital strife in "The Crate," CREEPSHOW perfectly evokes the experience of reading one of William Gaines' lurid horror magazines. Only "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verril," starring King himself as a dim-witted country bumpkin, doesn't particularly work, since King's character in no way deserves his gruesome fate.

Boasting a cast of familiar faces (some of whom were far less familiar then) CREEPSHOW includes some truly impressive performances, great special make-up effects by Tom Savini, and a premise that is delightful in concept and execution.

Released to theaters in the Fall of 1982 and available on home video and cable TV ever since, chances are good that visitors to this site have already seen this minor classic many times. If you've somehow missed it or you're interested in adding it to your own movie library, the print on the Warner Bros disc is clean and devoid of any obvious defects, and the comic book colors are bright and vibrant. The mono soundtrack is equally crisp and clear.

CREEPSHOW is still available online as a no-frills DVD – at least it's presented in it's original aspect ratio and includes a theatrical trailer (a full-frame, unmatted version is available on the flip side) – from Warner Home Video. The sequel, the inferior but enjoyable CREEPSHOW 2, is also available on DVD, from Anchor Bay in a couple of versions, including a remastered, "Divamax" edition.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Happy Birthday, Ed Wood!

In celebration of Ed Wood's birthday (okay, so it was yesterday, but still...):

Without a doubt, Bride of the Monster is legendary director Edward D. Wood Jr.'s best film.

I don't mean to damn with faint praise. I've never acknowledged that Ed Wood was the worst movie maker of all time – anyone who's sat through an Al Adamson or Larry Buchanan or Michael Bay or Uwe Boll film would have to agree that they, and many others, are equally worthy of that ignoble title. No, Eddie was amazingly untalented, but he was not a hack (at least not until his later years) and he had a genuine passion for his art (such as it was). That passion almost always shone through, despite the cardboard sets, inept acting, bad lighting, odd Angora appearances, and bizarre leaps of logic.

Despite the usual Wood-en acting and bizarre bits of baffling dialogue, Bride's story structure is surprisingly sound, with a more-or-less logical beginning, middle and end. Bela Lugosi, in his last true headline performance, gives an energetic and occasionally moving performance as the mad Dr. Erik Vornoff (witness the clip above). This is all the more astounding considering that Lugosi was a frail 72 at the time, and deep in the throes of his soon-to-be-made-public drug addiction.

Bride of the Monster was clearly Ed's tribute to the Poverty Row horror films that Lugosi had made in the Forties, and as such, is a fairly successful one. In many ways, it could have easily been a Monogram shocker – except that it was made more than a decade after those shoestring productions.

It faithfully follows the standard Poverty Row plot: mysterious – and overtly foreign – mad scientist is conducting his evil experiments in an isolated location, plucky girl reporter investigates, and scientist is destroyed by his own creation/assistants. In Bride Of The Monster Loretta King is the distaff newshawk who pursues her investigation despite the warnings of editors and police. Legend (and Tim Burton's masterpiece, Ed Wood) has it that King bought her way into the film, chipping in her personal funds to keep the production going. True or not, she's an adequate leading lady, far better than her romantic love interest, played by Tony McCoy (son of another investor). Other familiar Wood regulars fill out the cast, including Tor Johnson (as "Lobo"), Paul Marco, and Delores Fuller.

In this case, our foreign mad scientist is attempting unsuccessfully (although that probably shouldn't come as a surprise) to create a "race of atomic supermen" using a photo enlarger in what appears to be a cardboard dungeon with convenient kitchenette. For kicks, he keeps a stock-footage octopus in the closet. A closet that's attached to the local lake. Or something.

But it doesn't really matter. It's fun stuff, silly as hell, and if you're in the right mood, it can really entertain. Everyone involved tried his or her damndest, and it does show, despite what others might say. I say, if you've had a bad day, pop this thing into the DVD player and have a good time.

Bride Of The Monster is available on DVD from Image Entertainment, as part of "The Wade Williams Collection." The transfer is surprisingly good.

Monday, October 09, 2006

From When I liked TV...

Between trips to the doctor's office and emergency room, and working on a couple of big writing projects, I haven't had time to write much for this blog.

So, here's another Godzilla video....

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

High Adventure, 80's Style!

As a follow-up to last month's post about my two favorite 80's "pulp" adventure series, here's the opening credits to Tales of the Gold Monkey:

Enjoy. (This is probably the highest quality vid I've found on YouTube!)

And a vintage TV Guide ad for Bring 'Em Back Alive:
Great art, even if the ad copy leaves a little to be desired.... "Who's sizzling" indeed?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

I Like This Month: October

Ah, October at last.

October is my favorite month, for two reasons. One: generally speaking, it's cool and dry here in Maine during this time of year, and that's the way I like it.

Two: Halloween.

My wife and I got married on Halloween, which should adequately demonstrate our shared affection for that amusingly macabre holiday. Choosing to tie the knot on that memorable date has also ensured that I will never forget our matrimonial anniversary and suffer the horrible consequences such a lapse would justifiably engender.

Also, Halloween gives me a perfect excuse to watch horror films and monster movies all month long... and I've got a lot of those.

By the way – that beautiful Dan Brereton painting accompanying this post was his cover for the second issue of the short-lived comic book I co-published with my pal Jim, Shadow House.

The gal's name? Autumn.

I Like This Comic: Claw the Unconquered

I love sword & sorcery fiction, and am a big fan of the genre in comics, too. Conan, of course, but I also dug all the other S&S comics from back in the sword-slingin' Seventies: Atlas’ Ironjaw and Wulf, Marvel’s Kull, Red Sonja, and Skull the Slayer, DC’s Warlord, Beowulf, Stalker… and Claw the Unconquered.

In fact, while black-haired barbarian Claw was by far the most blatant rip-off of Marvel’s version of the Robert E. Howard Cimmerian swordsman (even to the point of being drawn by Ernie Chua, the most prominent inker of John Buscema on the Marvel barbarian book), I always found something distinctive and appealing about the character. Probably it was his grotesque, twisted talon of a right hand, clearly demonic in origin, sheathed in a heavy crimson gauntlet – a unique defect that hinted at great evil in the character’s past and future.

In fact, when Conan made his triumphant return to comics, courtesy of Kurt Busiek, Cary Nord and Dark Horse Comics, followed soon after by the successful reincarnation of the flame-haired Sonja by yet another publisher, it looked like S&S was back... big time. Hoping to capitalize on it, I contacted an artist friend of mine about working up a Claw pitch for DC. Simply titled Unconquered, the proposal teamed the raven-maned mercenary up with several other obscure DC fantasy heroes in an Alamo-like last stand against a cosmic necromancer and his unstoppable, interdimensional army of the undead.

For various reasons, it never made it onto the desks of anyone at Detective Comics Comics (like, for example, the fact that no one at DC has any friggin' idea who I am!), and eventually, thanks to the online news sites, I got wind of a Red Sonja-Claw team-up miniseries (which I still haven't seen), followed by the battling barbarian’s own, brand new solo series from Wildstorm. It was difficult to be bitter about missing the boat, though, as the new Claw series was placed in the skilled hands of Chuck Dixon, a writer I rate very highly. In fact, for my money, he’s one of the top two pure action-adventure writers in the medium, coming in just behind the late Archie Goodwin.

Now, as we’ve established in earlier blog posts, I read very few new comic books, but last Friday evening, I happened to be in a comics shop for the first time in about a year, and they had the first four issues of the new Claw the Unconquered still on the shelves.

Needless to say, I picked them up.

While I thought the first issue was just a bit too Crossgen-lean, the script picked up and filled out with the second issue, and I was ultimately quite impressed and satisfied by the writing. Dixon, as usual, deftly delivered action, mystery and characterization in well-chosen doses, and the plot itself was pure, no-bullshit, Gardner Fox/Lin Carter-styled sword & sorcery. And that’s a compliment.

I personally felt that Andy Smith’s art was a little inconsistent (and maybe a bit too imitative of Dark Horse’ Conan book, with uninked pencil art being directly colored on computer; I think Smith would benefit from a skilled inker embellishing his pencils), but overall, it served Dixon’s script more than adequately.

Unfortunately, I understand that the series has been cancelled with Issue #6. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get my hands on those final issues without too much difficulty, as I can't count on Wildstorm reprinting this in trade. I still haven’t been able to snag a copy of the last issue of Dixon’s Iron Ghost miniseries from last year, and no trade of that excellent title appears to be forthcoming, either.

On a related note, I also picked up the first two issues of the Dixon-written DC title Rush City. You may have heard about this: it’s a co-publishing venture between DC and Pontiac, featuring a heroic wheelman who drives a customized Pontiac Solstice GXP. I was dubious initially, but Dixon’s great at this sort of stuff. With luck, DC will collect this eventually.

One has to have hope, right?