Author Archives: Christian Robshaw

About Christian Robshaw

At mediocrebatman.wordpress.com I discuss aspects of pop culture.

Universal, the Dark Universe, and undead movie monsters

Frankenstein

AS THE JUGGERNAUT Marvel Cinematic Universe wraps up its “Phase Three”, bids farewell to some of its most beloved characters, and moves on to new, weird films with titles no-one could possibly like, other attempts at recreating Marvel’s obvious yet surprisingly difficult formula/business model continue to fall behind.

The DCEU movies continue to be allowed to stumble on whenever something like David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! generates good reviews*; Sony are working on their second doomed attempt to build a cinematic universe solely based on characters from the pages of Spider-Man; perpetual losers Sony also tried to build a universe around Ghostbusters – you know, that charming standalone comedy from 1984, the one that was pretty much played out by the time of its first sequel.

And Universal, having built the first cinematic universe back in 1943 when they created Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man – and in later films added Dracula and The Invisible Man to the mix – tried to channel new life into some dead properties by announcing the Dark Universe. Predictably, everyone hated the name and, after much wasted money on marketing, the whole universe was cancelled after one bad movie, The Mummy.

Universal’s had a long and interesting history with these characters. Every time they come up, the assumption seems to be that they’ve been dormant since the 1940s. This is not entirely accurate. Universal made their very first horror film in 1913, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but the earliest film they retroactively branded as a “Universal Horror” was 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A number of silent, German Expressionist-influenced silent pictures followed before the huge sound successes of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter, among many others, followed in the next few years and, in 1939, Son of Frankenstein re-invigorated the series once again. At that point, Universal’s business model shifted to cranking out cheap sequels of varying quality and, in time, crossovers became inevitable. In 1948 the original incarnations of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man had their last hurrah in the comedy vehicle Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Abott and Costello went on to encounter The Invisible Man, Jekyll & Hyde and The Mummy, all while standalone horrors continued to be produced at a rate of 2 or 3 a year until 1960.

In 1957 – while the original Universal Horror franchise was still running – Hammer released The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing as the creator and Christopher Lee as the monster. There had, of course, already been other takes on Frankenstein, Dracula and the other Gothic classics, but Hammer’s had a semiofficial Universal seal of approval, often distributed by them and sometimes using Universal-owned elements. Horror of Frankenstein and The Mummy rounded out Hammer’s Universal stable, and Frankenstein and Dracula sequels kept appearing until 1974.

In 1979, John Badham directed Frank Langella in a classy, moody Dracula, but unlike previous revivals, it led to no further monster activity until 1987’s The Monster Squad, a charming comedy in the style of Gremlins or Ghostbusters** featuring Dracula resurrecting Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and the Gill Man (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) to cause family-friendly mischief. Universal licenced the character rights but not their familiar appearances, meaning the film features handsomely realised and almost-familiar versions of the classic monsters. For TV, Universal coproduced House of Frankenstein with NBC. Billed as a remake of the 1944 film, in practice it was nothing of the sort, but it did feature Frankenstein’s Monster alongside a generic vampire and werewolf.

Then in 1999, Stephen Sommers’ remake of The Mummy, trading Gothic mood for action-adventure spectacle, kicked off a flurry of monster activity. It had two sequels, the first of which, The Mummy Returns, generated its own spinoff, The Scorpion King. The Scorpion King was a prequel to the prologue scene of The Mummy Returns, and itself generated one prequel and three sequels. Van Helsing, also by Sommers, featured Jekyll & Hyde, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Brides of Dracula and a number of werewolves in an overstuffed, feature-length trailer that made Sommers’ Mummy look restrained. It was preceded by an animesque half-hour straight-to-DVD prologue, Van Helsing: The London Assignment. The best of the third-millennium Universal monster movies thus far has been 2010’s The Wolf Man which, despite another overstuffed narrative, at least aims for Gothic chills and not action-movie thrills. 2014’s Dracula Untold, conceived as a standalone blending Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula with history’s 15th-Century tyrant/liberator, Vlad Dracula, was retooled by executives into the first Dark Universe movie, then retconned out of continuity after its (deserved) box-office flop. Which brings us to the 2017 Mummy, which also brings in Jekyll/Hyde as a main character and features brief nods to Dracula and Gill Man. A tedious, too-dark-to-see special-effects rollercoaster that’s too dark and strange for the Summer blockbuster crowd but far too much a blockbuster for the horror crowd, it was another well-deserved flop that actually had little to do with classic Universal mythology***. Amusingly, it was even lapped by the previous set of Mummy pictures, when The Scorpion King: Book of Souls, the fourth sequel to the prequel to the prologue of the sequel to the second remake of the original, appeared in 2018. And there may well be more straight-to-DVD Scorpion Kings coming. Someone’s clearly watching them.

As for the Dark Universe, a Bride of Frankenstein remake, that would have come out without a Frankenstein to sequelise, has been cancelled, while a Johnny Depp-starring Invisible Man has been completely retooled into a far more exciting Leigh Whannel-directed Blumhouse co-production. Dependent on its success, Universal may revert to their 1940s model and churn out low-budget but basically satisfying revisions of their old material. Ultimately, the saddest part of the whole thing is how many interesting takes on these characters Universal has rejected in favour of pursuing bid-budget action movies. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water was the best Creature from the Black Lagoon ever made, and it grew out of del Toro’s desire to do an official Creature movie. why Universal didn’t sue is beyond me, but one can’t help but be glad they didn’t. Over the years, George Romero, Clive Barker, Joe Dante and others have been denied the opportunity to develop takes on Universal’s properties.

Without even touching on the hundreds of non-Universal-approved takes on these characters, the longest Universal themselves have ever let them lie silent in their graves is 10 years, from The Monster Squad to House of Frankenstein. And the odds are that these undead monsters will simply continue to live, well beyond their natural lifespans. Remember, Frankenstein was well over a hundred years old when Universal made their first adaptation.

*Interesting note: Sandberg’s clever, low-budget horror Lights Out is a DCEU movie by virtue of one of its characters reappearing in Shazam!

**I call these “charmedies”, where the humour doesn’t necessarily come from being laugh-out-loud funny, just very charming. They were particularly popular in the 80s and often feature pastichey takes on comic-book and matinée-movie fantasy; other examples include The Blues BrothersBack to the Future, The Goonies and Bill & Ted.

***Its rather fetching Sofia Boutella Mummy was not the Imhotep featured in the 1932 and 1999 Mummy films, nor Kharis who featured in the 1940s Mummy sequels, the Abbot and Costello vehicle and the Hammer version, but an original Mummy, while Jekyll/Hyde has never been counted among the classic monsters line-up, despite being granted occasional appearances such as in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Van Helsing.

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Bohemian Rhapsody, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, & how to title a rock biopic

WELL Oscar season is here, with the nominees being announced later today. One movie that’s already done surprisingly well at the Golden Globes is Bohemian Rhapsody, the fast-and-loose adaptation of the life story of Queen’s Freddie Mercury. I’ll confess I haven’t actually seen it, and I’m not in a great hurry to either; I’ve never been all that big on biopics on the whole.

That said, my real issue with the movie is a trivial one, but one that’ll never cease to irritate me: its title. Sure, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the most famous Queen song in a huge back catalogue of famous songs, and sure, rock biopics are generally named after a well-known song from the artist in question. But those movies also at least tried to pick thematically relevant songs: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (from “Susperstar”) looked at the seamy underside of superstardom; Great Balls of Fire showcased the exuberance of Jerry Lee Lewis; Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story (from “Hysteria”) focuses on the hysteria of Def Leppard’s stadium-crowding fans as well as that of the band’s private life; Walk the Line (from “I Walk the Line”) dealt with Johnny Cash’s not always successful attempts to, well, walk the line; I’m Not There‘s Bob Dylan really isn’t there, appearing as a series of interpretations of aspects of the man rather than him himself; Nowhere Boy (from “Nowhere Man”) dealt with a young John Lennon who was nowhere, spiritually as well as materially; Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is obvious. What’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”? I mean, what does that phrase even mean?

Here’s what you could have titled it: Don’t Stop Me Now. Or We Are the Champions. Or We Will Rock You, though granted the stage musical’s already nabbed that one. Or Princes of the Universe, or A Kind of Magic, or Radio Ga Ga, or The Show Must Go On, or One Vision. Any of those would do if they wanted to capture the flamboyance and showmanship of Queen. Or for Mercury’s sexuality and private life in general, they could have had I Want to Break FreeI Want it All, Innuendo, Save Me, Under Pressure, or Somebody to Love. For his tragic death, they could have had Who Wants to Live ForeverOnly the Good Die Young, Let Me Live, Too Much Love Will Kill You, or Keep Yourself Alive. For morbid black comedy, they could have had Another One Bites the Dust. It all depends on where they want to focus. Those are just the good titles. Here are the ones that are kind of iffy but still better than what they went for: Breakthru, The Miracle, I’m Going Slightly Mad, Stone Cold CrazyKiller Queen, Now I’m Here, Headlong, Hammer to Fall, It’s a Hard Life, Friends Will Be Friends, These Are the Days of Our Lives, or Heaven for Everyone. Christ, I’d even take Flash. And I’ve stuck only to singles here, and successful singles at that. But apparently the two-time UK Christmas No. 1 trumps every other hit the band ever recorded. Thanks, Wayne’s World.

bohemian rhapsody

While you’re here, why not buy a paperback or e-book copy of my novel, Wankers?

Paperback: https://amzn.to/2AFVFet

e-book: https://amzn.to/2H740NV

Wankers has been described as “Alternately hilarious and touching”, “Fun, thoughtful, especially for music nerds“, and compared to the work of P. G. Wodehouse, Edward St. Aubyn, Nick Hornby and Irvine Welsh.

Thrilling Cities, James Bond, & Ian Fleming’s literary fiction

IF YOU HAVEN’T READ Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities, I reckon you probably should if you like witty, readable books. At least have a glance at a witty, readable review of it. One key passage that could do with some elaboration is this one:

Fleming was periodically weighed down by a kind of directionless, spiteful ennui, which often fired his best writing – Casino Royale, From Russia, with Love, “The Living Daylights”, “Octopussy”. Reading his novels in sequence, one is bewildered by the mood swings between, for instance, From Russia, with Love, the cynical book in which Fleming comes closest to Le Carré, and actually kills 007 at the end (obviously, it didn’t stick), and its follow-up, the dizzyingly exuberant Doctor No. Today, he’d probably be called bipolar.

It’s unsurprising, really, that Fleming in a foul mood should kill off 007. It wasn’t only his general attitude toward life that was affected by his mood swings, but also his attitude towards his most famous creation. Gleefully pulpy Bond adventures such as Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Doctor No, Goldfinger and Thunderball burst with such genretastic staples as pirate gold, disguised Nazi war criminals, Chinese evil geniuses, all-lesbian crime gangs and missing atomic weaponry. Fleming grew up reading about the exploits of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, Sapper Morton’s Bulldog Drummond, and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, and at his most carefree seemed delighted to be keeping alive that lineage.

At other times, he was rather more cynical about his place in the literary world and seemed, as with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, to view his creation as an albatross keeping him from achieving greater literary respect.

Of course, Fleming did have some heavyweight admirers in the literary world. Kingsley Amis was the most prominent, writing two books of analysis of the character, one serious and one tongue in cheek, as well as a continuation novel after Fleming’s death. Roald Dahl, too, counted himself as a fan and wrote the screen treatment for You Only Live Twice. Raymond Chandler thought Fleming a fine thriller-writer, and he should know. Anthony Burgess noted that he had read and enjoyed every one of the Bond novels.

What Fleming lacked, though, was any body of work outside of Bond on which to be judged, with the small exceptions of the children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and two nonfiction books: the aforementioned Thrilling Cities and The Diamond Smugglers, cobbled together from leftover research for Diamonds Are Forever. That’s not to say that the Bond books are entirely without literary merit; just view the passage below from “Octopussy” for evidence:

Octopussy

-it’s just that the obvious limitations of the Bond format of exotic locales, dastardly villains, daring escapades, and sex and booze and food and sex and cigarettes and sex and death don’t much reward experimentation, which is likely why most of Fleming’s occasional stabs at literary fiction are in the short-story format. “Octopussy”, excerpted above, is a slow and rather melancholy rumination on guilt and probably the peak of Fleming’s ability as a writer.

In the same collection appeared “The Living Daylights”, which returns us to somewhat more familiar territory with Bond ordered to snipe a Soviet sniper in order to aid a defection. We’re thoroughly in Le Carré territory here, and treated to such stylistic flourishes as Bond’s mental description of Berlin as “a glum, inimical city dry varnished on the Western side with a brittle veneer of gimcrack polish, rather like the chromium trim on American motor-cars”.

Earlier, Fleming had taken Bond as far away from formula as he’d ever get with “Quantum of Solace”, a stylistic and thematic homage to Somerset Maugham with Bond appearing only to listen to another character whose party he’s attending tell him a story about two other figures and their broken marriage. It’s good stuff if a little pastichey, with the only really unconvincing element being the questionable necessity of having Bond himself appear at all.

Mind you, the Bond of the short-stories spent about as much time relaxing as he did going on missions. “The Hildebrand Rarity” introduces us to a truly vile American businessman, Milton Krest, and his vessel the Wavekrest. Krest has no plan more dastardly than to use somewhat unethical fishing techniques to retrieve the rare fish of the title, but he’s a more convincing portrait of evil than a whole cartoonish parade of Draxes, Goldfingers and Blofelds. We finally end up in murder-mystery territory as Krest is found murdered with two possible suspects (we as readers are allowed to know James Bond didn’t do it) and a subversive lack of solution.

Finally, there’s one Bond novel that attempts to enter literary-fiction territory (though look out for flourishes in Casino Royale and From Russia, with Love): The Spy Who Loved Me, in which a nice yet somewhat broken Canadian girl recounts her life and sexual history for two-thirds of the novel before Bond shows up and takes care of the thugs menacing her in the present. It was released to reviews ranging from indifferent to hostile, and Fleming quickly decided he was embarassed by it, leading to a film “adaptation” that used the novel’s title and very little else. Actually it’s really not that bad (aside from one cringeworthy line extolling the merits of “semi-rape”) if one’s able to accept that it’s really not much of a Bond adventure.

Still, its reception seems to have put Fleming off from doing anything other than sticking to what he knew best, and he stuck to formula for the superb On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before the rushed You Only Live Twice and The Man with the Golden Gun. One wonders how he would have fared in the literary world had he not been so afraid to experiment; the presence of Bond himself in each of these stories feels like nothing more than a crutch and they’d all be the better off simply ditching the whole pretence. But I suppose albatrosses aren’t easily got rid of.

 

Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities, & the reluctant traveller

TRAVEL WRITING STEMS from a variety of motives – to inform, to amuse, to educate, to show off or to make a bit of money. But sometimes the best travel writing comes from writers who don’t even want to be there in the first place.

That was the case for Ian Fleming in 1959, when The Sunday Times all but forced Fleming to make a several-weeks’ trip around Asia and then on to the United States via Hawaii. Despite Fleming admitting himself to be “the world’s worst sightseer”, who “had often advocated the provision of roller-skates at the doors of museums and art galleries”, the trip went ahead and resulted in a series of articles for the paper, one for each city visited; these articles were later compiled to form one of Fleming’s few non-James Bond books, Thrilling Cities.

But Bond aficionados will find much that is familiar; not only the glamour, but the seediness, the snobbery, the murky threat of violence, the constant boozing and the malaise of the novels can all be easily recognised throughout the travels recorded here. The first city visited is Hong Kong, where Fleming’s descriptions are enjoyable both for what has changed – “when the remaining forty years of our lease of the mainland territory expire, I see no reason why a reduced population should not retreat to the islands and the original territory which we hold in perpetuity” – and for what is still eminently recognisable: “the streets of Hong Kong are evidence that neon lighting need not be hideous, and the crowded Chinese ideograms in pale violet and pink and green with a plentiful use of white are entrancing not only for their colours but also because one does not know what drab messages and exhortations they spell out”. While staying in Hong Kong, Fleming also makes a jaunt to Macau, where he latches on to stories about the gold-smuggling trade, with “the internal Geiger-counter of a writer of thrillers ticking furiously”, before making his way on to Tokyo.

“I hate, small, finicky, breakable things, and I am slightly over six feet tall”, complains Fleming, who has had reservations about Japan from the beginning: “Before and during the war they had been bad enemies and many of my friends had suffered at their hands.” But in his short three days there, Fleming is won over both by his companions – Orientalised Australian Dick Hughes and Japanese “Tiger” Saito – and by the eccentricity and charm of Japanese culture. Despite feeling clumsy, awkward, and out of place, a good-humoured, “when in Rome” attitude soon overtakes him, and in a brief three days he manages to take in a meeting with Somerset Maugham, a Judo demonstration, a Japanese bath, a visit with a soothsayer, and an evening with geishas, all sake-soaked and never in violation of his anti-itinerary: “no politicians, museums, temples, Imperial palaces or Noh plays, let alone tea ceremonies.” The judo, bath, geishas, and Maugham are uniformly delightful, but the soothsayer is rather a wash, predicting Fleming will live to eighty, return to Japan, and is about to enjoy a streak of good luck. The latter cheers him, his companions having dispensed grave warnings to him against his flight out of Tokyo: flying on Friday the 13th is bad enough but, going Eastward to Hawaii, he will cross the dateline and experience two Friday the 13ths in a row.

As with the soothsayer’s other predictions, the streak of good luck is nonsense. The flight gets off to a bad start, rattled by Typhoon Emma, but Fleming doesn’t mind. His devil-may-care alter ego Bond actually prefers to fly on the 13th, he reminds us: “There are practically no passengers and it’s more comfortable and you get better service.” The comfort, the service, and the drinks see him asleep by midnight. After four hours, the voice of the captain awakes him: “There has been an explosion in number three engine and a fire […] I have no hydraulic pressure.” Luckily, this happens to be the most unflappable airline pilot in the world: “We have altered course for Wake Island where I shall carry out a no-flap landing at an unusual altitude and faster than is the custom […] I have made many three-engine landings and also many without hydraulic pressure, so – see you on the ground!”

In their own day, most of the appeal of the Bond novels and, by extension, Thrilling Cities, was aspirational; the diabolical villains and lurid exploits were just conventional story-building elements. Air travel alone was a thrilling and romantic experience, beyond the means of most, never mind staying in the best hotels, playing in the best casinos, wearing the finest suits, drinking the finest wine, eating the best caviar – the novels work as a sort of lifestyle porn, and Thrilling Cities, lacking the villains and the exploits, still works on the same level. Today, air travel, exotic places, skiing, fine dining and cocktails are no longer unobtainable for the average person, but that aspirational element remains; rather than vicariously living like an international playboy, today’s reader instead longs for a time when boarding an aeroplane was an adventure rather than a chore.

With a USAF rescue-plane and two Navy craft deployed, the captain breezily makes his landing (“To lighten the load, I am about to dump fuel, so there will be no smoking please.”) and Fleming’s en route to Honolulu, where his spirits remain high despite his failure to take to surfing, his distaste for plinking ukulele music and his dismay at hordes of elderly American tourists.

Fleming’s thriller-writer senses kick in once again in Los Angeles as he discusses the Mafia with Police Captain Hamilton, and his gambling connoisseurism in Las Vegas, providing a quick summary of how to gamble sensibly that is the level-headed antithesis of Mr. Bond’s high-stakes play. Speaking of Bond, Fleming was so wearied and miserable by the time he reached New York (via Chicago) that, as an apology for his rubbishing of the city, American readers were offered a humorous short-story about him. “007 in New York” isn’t much of a thriller but its throwaway nature is precisely what makes it enjoyable, with a rare and light-hearted ending in which Bond fails his mission – plus, there’s a recipe for “scrambled eggs James Bond”.

Fleming’s trip was so successful that, having barely finished submitting his articles, Fleming found himself being asked by the paper to make another trip. The Sunday Times had Latin America in mind, suggesting the appropriately thrilling Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Havana, but an already-weary Fleming was only willing to go as far away as Europe, making most of the trip in his own car and finding many of his destinations boring or repellent.

First on the agenda was Hamburg, where Fleming – often caricatured as an old Tory, but really more of a libertarian – briefly praises the sex industry (“normal heterosexual ‘vice’ is permitted to exist in appropriate ‘reservations’ and on condition that it remains open and light-hearted. How very different from the prudish and hypocritical manner in which we so disgracefully mismanage these things in England!”) before moving on to Berlin where he is oppressed by Modernist architecture, Cold War tensions and the spectre of Hitler.

In “The Living Daylights”, James Bond thinks of Berlin as “a glum, inimical city dry varnished on the Western side with a brittle veneer of gimcrack polish, rather like the chromium trim on American motor-cars”. If anything his creator is even harsher, but one wonders whether it’s the ghastliness of the city itself or the ghastliness of his mood that’s to blame. Fleming was periodically weighed down by a kind of directionless, spiteful ennui, which often fired his best writing – Casino Royale, From Russia, with Love, “The Living Daylights”, “Octopussy”. Reading his novels in sequence, one is bewildered by the mood swings between, for instance, From Russia, with Love, the cynical book in which Fleming comes closest to Le Carré, and actually kills 007 at the end (obviously, it didn’t stick), and its follow-up, the dizzyingly exuberant Doctor No. Today, he’d probably be called bipolar.

Even so, Fleming takes out some frustrations in a still-thrilling description of buzzing down the Autobahns, which takes up a good third of the chapter and makes the arrival to pleasant, dull Vienna rather an anti-climax, as is Geneva (“to include Geneva among the thrilling cities of Europe must seem to most people quixotic”). Italy is a bright spot: tracking down retired gangster Lucky Luciano in Naples, and Gracie Fields in Capri, before noting down an amusing bit of bother in Pompeii when a French tourist’s wife is refused entry to the Lupanar, where “childish pictures […] show you how to make love – if you were the right shape and extremely athletic”. The unimpressed Frenchman protests, “Pah! […] You think I have come a thousand miles from Paris to see that? Why, I was doing it myself when I was sixteen! […] These stupid Romans had no idea how to make love. And you mean to say you won’t let my wife see this nonsense!”. And after a discourse on how ugly and dull lava is, our author makes his way to Monte Carlo, where an amusing encounter with a sarcastic English girl and a visit to Jacques Cousteau both prove so restorative to the author’s spirits that he ends up closing the book with an incongruous “What fun it all was! What fun ‘abroad’ will always be!”

Still, travel at the best of times tends to take it out of us, but in another six weeks, six months, or a year we find ourselves looking back on our adventures with nothing but fondness, and presumably it was so for Fleming too, who probably expected to make a third trip once he’d recuperated sufficiently. Sadly, a heart attack at 56 meant that not only would there be no third trip, there’d be no more of his Bond novels either. Given how many of his experiences and impressions from Tokyo made their way directly into You Only Live Twice, it’s hard not to wonder what sort of adventures he was planning for Bond in Macau, Honolulu, or Naples. Still, the adventures recorded here provide an appropriately thrilling little volume which, if it is too dated to be of much value as a guidebook, is so of its time as to be indispensable as social history, and should be treasured and re-read as the witty, crotchety, yet always endearing record of a reluctant traveller.

Ian Fleming Author the creator of James Bond 1963

Nada the Lily, Black Panther, & the colonial adventure

EVER SINCE READING, as a teenager, H. Rider Haggard’s classic adventure novels She and King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel Allan Quatermain, I’d been hungry to find more from Haggard. It wasn’t until, as an adult, I was gifted a Kindle and found an ebook of his complete works that I was able to: aside from the well-known titles already mentioned, hardly anything remains in print from an author who was once one of the English-speaking world’s most popular.

This likely has to do with much of Haggard’s work’s status as colonial fiction, which has had a hard time attracting any readers since around the advent of post-colonial literature. Kipling, one of the most prominent writers of his own time, is nowadays hardly read, save for the odd academic defence or condemnation. Heart of Darkness remains on syllabi, likely aided by being so deconstructionary and generally difficult, but the rest of Conrad’s colonial fiction is obscure.

Haggard himself inaugurated the genre with King Solomon’s Mines, but his full oeuvre of more than fifty novels spans almost half a century and an array of genres including early examples of science fiction and the historical novel, and settings ranging across Africa, Europe, Asia and North and South America as well as throughout human history. Popular sales and enthusiastic reviews sustained his career well into the twentieth century, and dozens of film adaptations appeared, from Georges Méliès’ 1899 “The Pillar of Fire”, based on She, to Hammer’s 1965 treatment of the same material, while the last thirty years has seen Haggard’s only screen representation come from the 2008 Asylum mockbuster Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls, taking more cues from the successful (and Haggard-influenced) Indiana Jones films than the text it purportedly adapts. To this day, echoes of Haggard’s work are evident in all kinds of stories of adventure and fantasy, exploration and colonisation – the recent success of Marvel’s Black Panther film, set in a Haggard-like hidden African kingdom, attests to this – but his novels themselves remain little-read and overdue for re-interpretation.

The books in question, it must be said, range in quality as well as content – though the very roughest still make for stirring yarns – but the most remarkable among them is Nada the Lily, an early example of the spin-off prequel for a successful series, exploring the younger days of Umslopogaas who, in Allan Quatermain, had played a formidable variation on the Man Friday noble savage part.

Already the ambition of Nada the Lily is evident, for it is hard to imagine the original Man Friday, nor any of his literary descendants, meriting their own derivative work – particularly not one in which the narrative is at no point driven by their relationship to white European characters. In fact, the entire cast of Nada the Lily are black Africans, and many of them are real historical figures, or closely based on them: while the “Lost World” literary genre began with the imaginary Kukuanaland of King Solomon’s Mines, and was more fully explored in the hidden Zu-Vendis kingdom of white Africans in Allan Quatermain, Nada the Lily’s action takes place in the very real Zululand, and in what was then the fairly recent past. We would not, either, expect the prequel to a fantastical adventure story to fall more into historical fiction, then still a relatively young genre having been codified by Sir Walter Scott in the first half of the century. No prior attempts appear to have been made at a novel of African history, and Nada holds the distinction of being the first ever novel with an entirely black cast. In fact, given the paucity of African written records, such a novel could probably only have come from a colonial adventurer such as Haggard, who relied heavily on the oral histories he picked up from natives as well as the partial reconstructions attempted by some of his contemporaries, such as the missionary Henry Callaway.

In a favourite technique of Haggard’s, the narrative is presented as a genuine artefact, with occasional interjections by its “editor”. In the frame narrative, a white explorer becomes stranded in a sudden and mysterious snowdrift, whereupon he gets caught up hearing the main story, which is recounted to him by the elderly Mopo, who was once witch-doctor to the great king Chaka (better known to modern readers as Shaka Zulu), and father of the beautiful Nada who is the object of the young Umslopogaas’ love. Umslopogaas has been raised as Nada’s brother but is in actuality the son of Chaka, kept secret by Mopo due to Chaka’s policy of having all his sons killed lest one should rise against him.

Following Chaka’s assassination by his half-brother Dingaan, Nada is forced to flee, taking refuge on the great Ghost Mountain, with “a grey peak rudely shaped like the head of an aged woman” in a manner recalling the twin peaks nicknamed Sheba’s Breasts, in King Solomon’s Mines. Unlike Sheba’s Breasts, however, the Ghost Mountain really exists, though Haggard never visited and took some dramatic licence in its depiction. Here his carefully-researched historical epic takes a turn into the phantasmagorical territory which made his name, with Umslopogaas’ introduction to the mountain’s unique resident, Galazi the Wolf, who has been raised by the mountain’s resident wolf-pack (Kipling acknowledged in a letter to Haggard that the concept for The Jungle Book grew from reading Nada the Lily), though presumably the “wolves” are hyenas. Galazi acts as the pack’s leader and the wolves do his bidding, making for an unforgettable Haggard set-piece as he makes his last stand on the Ghost Mountain.

Haggard’s blending of fantastical elements with historical narrative makes Nada the Lily one of his most appealing works; his books have always been sold on his great imaginative power, while the lofty tone of his prose, informed by Homer and the King James Bible, is often undercut by a lack of polish and an occasional clumsiness. He himself seems to have been aware of this, but preferred to leave his manuscripts unrevised, asserting in his autobiography The Days of My Life that “wine of this character loses its bouquet when it is poured from glass to glass”. The energy and roughshod nature of his earlier adventure novels is less evident in the latter half of his body of work, which is dominated by melodramas and further historical tales. Indeed, the narrative of Nada the Lily itself is revisited and continued in a trilogy of novels – Marie, Child of Storm and Finished – which fully integrate Allan Quatermain and his wife Marie into the action, covering a number of key historical events such as the Great Trek, the Weenen Massacre and finally the Anglo-Zulu War with the detail of an amateur historian and, in some cases, an eyewitness. All are captivating, but Nada the Lily stands as the ultimate Haggard work. The tone is set in the very opening lines of the “Introduction”, as detailed documentary narrative begins to give way to the spellbinding voice of folk-tale or oral history:

 

Some years since–it was during the winter before the Zulu War–a White Man was travelling through Natal. His name does not matter, for he plays no part in this story. With him were two wagons laden with goods, which he was transporting to Pretoria. The weather was cold and there was little or no grass for the oxen, which made the journey difficult; but he had been tempted to it by the high rates of transport that prevailed at that season of the year, which would remunerate him for any probable loss he might suffer in cattle. So he pushed along on his journey, and all went well until he had passed the little town of Stanger, once the site of Duguza, the kraal of Chaka, the first Zulu king and the uncle of Cetywayo. The night after he left Stanger the air turned bitterly cold, heavy grey clouds filled the sky, and hid the light of the stars.

 

The synthesis of styles is sufficiently convincing to allow for a premonition much later in the book, and spelling out its underlying theme, not to spoil the narrative immersion:

 

Thou canst not kill this white men, for they are not of one race, but of many races, and the sea is their home; they rise out of the black water. Destroy those that are here, and others shall come to avenge them, more and more and more! Now thou hast smitten in thy hour; in theirs they shall smite in turn. Now they lie low in blood at thy hand; in a day to come, O King, thou shalt lie low in blood at theirs.

 

So prophesies Mopo to Dingaan, elaborating on a prophesy made earlier by Chaka with his dying breath. The Shakespearean wrangling for the Zulu throne which has driven the novel’s tragic events is given a deeply ironic weight by the reader’s sure knowledge that all of this contending for power is in vain, and the alienating effect on the European reader shown himself as Other, as relentless monster, is increased by the richly immersive detail with which the novel portrays the Zulu way of life. The cultural destruction wrought by colonialism has never been more vividly made plain, though Chinua Achebe’s novel of immediately pre-colonial Nigerian life, Things Fall Apart, does make use of a similar effect.

Both are novels which make no attempt at “whitewashing” pre-Christian African values; Nada the Lily’s heroes and villains alike are recognisably Zulu in culture, with their multiple wives, pragmatic attitudes toward death, and glorification of war and conquest. Haggard’s treatment of Chaka, in particular, is spectacular. His cruelty and paranoia, and the sheer arbitrariness with which so many of his acts are conceived and carried out, is chillingly similar to the tyrants that came before and after him: Genghis Khan, Caligula, Idi Amin. Yet Chaka is also a visionary, terrible but great, and fits in with popular conceptions of tragic conquerors like Caesar or Napoleon.

Like every one of Nada the Lily’s characters, in short, his actions play out on a grand, larger-than-life scale, something Haggard was unique among Victorian authors – and even early-to-mid 20th-Century writers – in acknowledging could be afforded to native African affairs. The aforementioned superhero film Black Panther has broken a number of box-office records, and won much critical acclaim for its images of a bold, vibrant, and epic black African adventure directed at mainstream audiences. Yet it has an antecedent, more than a century old, in Nada the Lily and the rest of the series.

H Rider Haggard

Tomorrow Never Dies, Police Story 3, & a hopeless spinoff

I’VE ALWAYS THOUGHT that, as exciting and underrated as it is, Tomorrow Never Dies probably features a bit too much action for a Bond picture, which have always leant towards the “adventure” side of action/adventure – it’s a noticeable difference if you compare the series to such Bond competitors/derivatives as the Indiana JonesBatman or Mission: Impossible series, or Marvel’s brand-new stab at the long-dormant “black 007” genre in Black Panther.

For a long time, though, I’d been mistakenly thinking of it as a film that’s overly keen to ape violent American films, in the manner of Licence to Kill or Quantum of Solace. After defining its own subgenre in the 60s, the series has occasionally, and rather sadly, borrowed from other genres, many of them partially derived from the Bond formula itself: blaxploitation in Live and Let Die; Kung Fu in The Man with the Golden Gun; Star Wars in Moonraker; Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and their ilk in Licence to KillBatman Begins in Casino Royale; Bourne in Quantum of Solace. What hadn’t struck me previously is that Tomorrow Never Dies represents the Bond series’ attempt to piggyback on Hong Kong action cinema of the sort codified by John Woo. That’s the real meaning of Bond dual-wielding a P99 and an MP5 as he mows down Carver’s henchmen, not to mention the use of pre-Matrix bullet-time showing off Wai Lin’s cartwheels and high kicks.

Wai Lin, of course, is played by the Hong Kong star Michelle Yeoh, who had already submitted an audition tape for this precise rôle with her appearance in Police Story 3: Super Cop. In that film, Yeoh plays a no-nonsense Chinese policewoman, an orthodox communist who bickers with the partner she’s assigned: Jackie Chan as a policeman from (then still-British) Hong Kong. In Tomorrow Never Dies, Yeoh plays a no-nonsense Chinese spy, an orthodox communist who bickers with the partner she’s assigned: James Bond, a spy from Britian. (An earlier draft of Tomorrow Never Dies would actually have revolved around the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, which was scrapped when a) production took too long for the issue still to be relevant, and b) the handover went very smoothly and afforded little opportunity for action set-pieces or communist-vs.-capitalist quipping.)

It isn’t only the character dynamic between Bond and Wai Lin that feels borrowed from Police Story. After about eighty minutes of standard Bond stuff, the film sends us to Asia, after which the action is nonstop for about a solid half-hour. Among the setpieces are Bond and Wai Lin rappeling down a skyscraper by clinging to an enormous and slowly-tearing poster adorning its side, and a rooftop motorcycle chase for which the pair are handcuffed to one another for the duration. The combination of eye-popping action and physical comedy comes straight from Jackie Chan, and it’s a shame that Pierce Brosnan is an actor and not a stuntman, for scenes like these work best when they’re done fully in-camera, without swapping between actors and stuntmen.

Wai Lin was apparently one of the series’ more popular Bond Girls, though I always found Yeoh a little stiff and awkward here compared to some of the wonderful performances she’s given in Chinese and HK films. Still, a spinoff was originally intended for her character who, of several Bond Girls set up as female counterparts to Bond (The Spy Who Loved Me‘s XXX, Die Another Day‘s Jinx) is the most convincing. Yeoh was already used to such spinoffs, having starred in one of her own featuring her character from Police Story 3: Super Cop. That spin-off was confusingly marketed in various territories as SupercopSupercop 2, Police Story 3 Part 2, Supercop, Police Story IV, Project S or Once a Cop. I wonder whether the producers would even have started thinking about spinoffs if the Police Story series hadn’t gone there first.

And I wonder if the Police Story series first came to their attention with the wide release of Police Story 4: First Strike, aka Jackie Chan’s First Strike. It takes the series away from Hong Kong cop action in favour of a globetrotting plot obviously intended to launch Chan’s character as a Hong Kong alternative to Bond, and was seen by plenty of international audiences previously ignorant of the series. Once again, Bond was borrowing from its own imitators.

As for the Wai Lin spinoff, it never materialised, and the producers turned their hopes to Jinx in Die Another Day, envisioning a “Winter Olympics” scenario in which her films and Bond’s would alternate. After the rough reception given Halle Berry not only in Die Another Day but also X-Men, Swordfish and (especially) Catwoman, the spinoff idea was once again abandoned, and I have to wonder: does anyone really want or need to see Bond without Bond? If they do, they already have a rich array of alternatives from which to choose.

Tomorrow Never Dies

Jigsaw, Martyrs, & torture awe

martyrs

OH, I should say, graphic image warning, sorry. The deranged, disturbing beauty of the shot above comes from the 2008 French extreme picture Martyrs, in which (spoilers incoming, and throughout) a cult of some sort repeatedly kidnaps young women and subjects them to the most extreme varieties of pain in the hope of inducing a state of spiritual transcendence. Why they have to be female isn’t explained, and many of history’s famous martyrs, from Jesus Christ to Thích Quảng Đức, have been male. Of course, the term “martyrs” as used in Martyrs doesn’t carry the exact same meaning as our understanding of the term, but those two candidates along with many others would seem to qualify according to the rules the film establishes, wherein an experience of religious ecstasy and enlightenment is generated from the act of martyrdom.

Is Martyrs‘ provocative philosophical content just an excuse for the 40 minutes of unrelenting brutality which close it (after a first half that’s no picnic either)? Or is that brutality itself a necessary vehicle for what Martyrs attempts as art? The arguments have been endless, and I’m not even sure where I come down in the end. Certainly Martyrs is a gruelling experience, but it’s also a commanding and unforgettable work of art, something which can’t be said for a number of torture flicks more limited in their ambition. Then again, my favourite film in the genre, Audition, manages to use graphic torture sequences both intelligently and sparingly, with only about five minutes towards the end and a couple of brief, say 30-second, scenes before that in what is largely your standard romantic comedy-drama-detective-ghost-story.

And I really hated The Passion of the Christ, which I thought used religious worthiness as an excuse for truly sadistic scenes of a degree of gratuitousness that none of the Saws or Hostels come even close to matching. I don’t even like Hostel very much, but despite a shallowness and nastiness to its tone, it’s more a standard rape-and-revenge picture, albeit with a genderswap and with “torture” replacing “rape”, while the original Saw is a  cleverly-executed little locked-room mystery. Even the far gorier sequels focus more on inventive types of ironic punishment than they do on the actual mortification of the flesh. I’ve always thought that “torture porn” is a misnomer for these kinds of films, because the torture isn’t in there for people to get their jollies to; for that, see slasher movies, which feel much less nasty because of their fun tone, but are much more callous in the way they encourage audiences to cheer on the deaths of drunk horny teens (hypocritically: the films are just made for enjoying a beer with, and almost all feature the tits of attractive young wannabes) while turning their killers into advertising mascots, plush toys, “chibi” figurines, keyrings, TV anthology hosts and rap stars. Meanwhile in torture films it’s the opposite; they’re supposed to make you uncomfortable, to be hard to watch, and it’s certainly the victims you’re rooting for, which is how Hostel and Irréversible both get to treat cold-blooded murders somewhat sympathetically, by allowing you to see the horrific ordeals that drove those characters to murder their tormentors. OK, so The Jigsaw Killer is the closest thing to a modern Freddy or Jason. But he’s remained cold, callous, and intimidating even as his screentime increases in every new instalment.

Actually I wonder whether Jigsaw himself would sympathise with the cult from Martyrs. His morality, his methods and his motivation are all entirely secular but both share a belief in the ability of pain to induce transcendent experiences. In Jigsaw’s case, he hopes to make people better, help them overcome their personality flaws, their mental health issues, even just their general complacency. The cult in Martyrs aren’t doing things for the benefit of individuals, but for all of mankind, because doesn’t the temporary suffering of a few hundred or thousand individuals pale in comparison with gaining an understanding of humanity’s destiny?

The bad guys of Martyrs are also shown to be correct within their movie’s fictional universe, but it’s hard to imagine that Jigsaw could ever have the positive impact on anyone’s life that he sees his antics resulting in. Despite what Nietzsche tells you, torture can profoundly damage who you are as a person. Perhaps the most realistic of these spooky pain-worshippers is the ridiculous Illuminati spokesman from the ridiculous Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation: “This… all this… It’s been an abomination. You really must accept my sincere apologies. It was supposed to be a spiritual experience. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am.” Writer/director Kim Henkel strikes much the same tone: “Of course, it does produce a transcendent experience. Death is like that. But no good comes of it. You’re tortured and tormented, and get the crap scared out of you, and then you die”.