Tag Archives: Lovecraft

The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, & the impression of agelessness

Tolkein toking

HERE’S A NICE bit of character description from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: “The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars.” It works on a few levels: it surrounds the character of Elrond with the same aura of ageless beauty and mystery shared by so many of Middle-Earth’s legendary inhabitants (Gandalf, Galadriel, Treebeard, et cetera); it plays nicely with themes of dusk, night, gathering darkness, and the light of hope shining through, that crop up everywhere in the rest of the book; and, in a way, it works as a metaphor for Tolkien’s writing itself, “ageless” and “written [with] the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful”.

I always surprise myself by remembering just how young The Lord of the Rings really is, so successfully does it create the idea of itself as an ancient myth, an archetype. It also feels like the birth of the fantasy genre, probably just because its high-fantasy descendants have dominated the market in the 60-odd years since its publication from 1954-55.

Nevertheless, there was much fantasy before it, and it bears remembering. Three great pulpy strands predate it by half a century: the heroic fantasy of Robert E. Howard, the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft, and the planetary romance of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the last of which would, of course, inspire the later (but still earlier) Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, and older yet are the scientific romances of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Those are only the major subgenres of pulp fantasy writing, and there’s plenty more outside of pulp fiction that it still feels odd to remember came first.

The entire Golden Age of Science Fiction, for instance, had come and gone. So had many important works of the New Wave of Science Fiction, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon, and Isaac Asimov’s entire Empire and Foundation trilogies. Ayn Rand, the rum old bugger, had already published We the Living, Anthem, and The Fountainhead, and was probably hard at work on Atlas Shrugged.

James Bond had already had three literary adventures and his first film (albeit a telefilm) by the time LotR‘s publication had finished. Rock ‘n’ roll, if we date it from the appearance of Elvis’ “That’s All Right” single, was ten days old when the first volume appeared, and Godzilla would be born between the publications of the first and second volumes. Kong was already an old-timer from over twenty years ago, but American monster movies were getting hot again, with The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them! already released, and It Came from Beneath the Sea shortly to follow.

Superheroes had already dominated comic books for a decade, fallen out of favour, and would in a couple of years be making a comeback. Batman was old hat when The Lord of the Rings came out.

And Tolkien wasn’t the first popular scholar to revive interest in hero-myths, either. That would be Joseph Campbell with his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949. And Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis was on his fifth Narnia book.

So how does it manage to convince us all of its age? Well, it draws a lot on some legitmately ancient, pre-Christian literature and mythology which, even if it remains obscure to most to this day, surely triggers some reflex in our Jungian collective unconscious. Surely. Also, it consciously avoids reflecting the attitudes, concerns, or even language of its contemporary time, and could just as easily fit in amongst the novels of the 1920s or even 1860s. Perhaps more so: Tolkien doesn’t write like Graham Greene or Iris Murdoch, and he certainly doesn’t write like Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck.

He must have seen a lot of himself in his characters, an old-fashioned anchor in a sea of modernism. I bet he’d be pleased with the impression of timelessness his books created, not that he was the first to do so; it gives me pause to think that the King James Bible is younger than most Shakespeare, while most of the Scottish, Irish, and English folk ballads are no older than the 18th century (and sometimes significantly younger).

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Hideo Nakata, Takashi Shimizu, & the Golden Age of J-Horror

sadako

I might not have mentioned, but I was recently at FrightFest, which is always the highlight of the year for me. We’d been promised a mysterious new Adam Wingard picture entitled The Woods, which was set to be the very latest thing in scaring audiences’ pants off. Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t really The Woods at all, but rather a new sequel to The Blair Witch Project. At the same time, it turned out we weren’t really getting to see it at all, but THEN it turned out that instead we were getting Sadako vs. Kayako, i.e. The Ring vs. The Grudge. For me, that was a good result I’d been eagerly awaiting Sadako vs. Kayako since its announcement, & nothing could dampen that enthusiasm.

As it turned out, the picture was only OK, offering a few interesting ideas but undermining itself with tongue-in-cheek humour & never really reaching the nightmare pitch achieved in the best of its predecessors (Ringu, Ju-On: The Curse, Ju-On: The Grudge, The Ring). Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising. Those films all came out within a remarkably short period of time a Golden Age for what was called J-Horror.

J-Horror is not simply any horror that comes out of Japan, but in order to qualify it does have to be Japanese. The films from J-Horror’s Golden Age favoured vengeful spirits, usually girls in white dresses with stringy black hair. The approach to horror, while often incorporating a hefty dose of surrealism, was subtle too, usually avoiding gore, or even any specific depictions of harm, in favour of maddeningly relentless pursuits. They were also heavily reliant on intelligent use of the frame, hiding characters in background shadows or just out of shot. Naturally, this meant the films required talented directors making them work, which is exactly what they got: Hideo Nakata helmed Ringu, Ringu 2 & The Ring Two, leaving other, less talented directors to follow him on pictures such as Ringu‘s discredited sequel Rasen, the surprisingly effective prequel film Ringu 0: Birthday, & the tacky, CGI-filled later revivals Sadako 3D & Sadako 2 3D. Hideo Nakata’s relationship to Ju-On is similar; the series had its origins in the shorts “Katasumi” & “4444444444” released in the anthology Gakkô no kaidan G. Nakata expanded around them with Ju-On: The Curse & Ju-On: The Curse 2, before giving the series its first reboot with Ju-On: The Grudge, which earned its own sequel in Ju-On: The Grudge 2. Following the success of Ringu‘s even better US remake The Ring, lavishly staged by later Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, Ju-On: The Grudge received a similar US treatment, yet again directed by Shimizu, who would also stay on for The Grudge 2 before abandoning both the Japanese & American iterations of his franchise. The Grudge 3 went straight to home video, but the American series continues to hold out hope, with a reboot reportedly in the works. In Japan, the series never quite fell out of fashion, & the spin-off films Ju-On: White Ghost, which was pretty good, & Ju-On: Black Ghost, which was less so, marked the series’ tenth anniversary before yet another reboot in Ju-On: The Beginning of the End, whose sequel was Ju-On: The Final Curse. Sadako vs. Kayako, for those who are interested, reboots both series yet again in order to incorporate some minor changes to the mythos.

The US pictures coming out at this time that weren’t remakes of Japanese pictures ended up looking like they might as well be, while the cinemas of China & Korea both responded to the horror waves coming from Japan. A neighbouring, yet different, genre enjoying a little Golden Age of its own at the same time was Asian extreme, best represented by Korean Park Chan-Wook & Japanese Takashi Miike, while the tactics of J-horror fed into, & from, other media, such as the horror manga of Junji Ito, the novels of Kōji Suzuki, or the many survival horror videogames released in the same period.

Nakata & Shimizu made some other excellent horrors; Nakata delivered his masterpiece in Dark Water, which also had a US remake, while Nakata delivered the Junji Ito adaptation Tomie: Rebirth, the Lovecraftian Marebito, The Shock Labyrinth, & Tormented. But other directors were active, too; if you want to easily keep track of them, why not try the J-Horror Theater imprint? It gathered six of J-Horror’s leading talents to deliver one picture each; Nakata & Shimizu pitched in with Kaidan & Reincarnation respectively, while the other pictures were Infection (from Masayuki Ochiai of Parasite Eve, Saimin, Shutter, & Kotodama – Spiritual Curse before taking over for Shimizu on the Ju-On franchise); Premonition (from Tsuruta Norio of Ringu 0: Birthday & Kakashi, which was based on a Junji Ito manga); Retribution (from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, best-known for Pulse); & finally Kyōfu (from Ringu screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi). The J-Horror Theater series had mostly died off by its later entries, however, as had the brief, incredibly terrifying success of the genre. Sometimes all it takes to create a Golden Age is one or two great talents. Or maybe there was just something in the water in the late-90s.

Asimov, Lovecraft, & promiscuous continuities

Aliens

HERE’S A piece of news for you: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus 2, formerly known as Paradise Lost, Prometheus: Paradise Lost, & Alien: Paradise Lost, is now called Alien: Covenant, until a new title for it rolls around. Pfft, who cares? Prometheus was rubbish, & the whole world is much more excited for the same-franchise, rival-movie, Neill Blomkamp’s maybe-one-day-to-see-release Alien 5. And if we have to see Ridley Scott revisiting a gritty early sci-fi classic, aren’t we all way more excited for the Blade Runner sidequel? Yeah? Kind of? Yeah.

You know, in another world, both movies would be the same thing. Scott stopped just short of including explicit reference to Blade Runner‘s Tyrell Corporation in Prometheus. Given the visual & thematic similarities of Alien & Blade Runner, it only makes sense to bind them together as sisters in continuity. But, it could be argued, it doesn’t even require a Prometheus to do that. The recent videogame Aliens: Colonial Marines had absolutely no qualms about including a cheeky nod to Blade Runner. OK, given it also includes nods to Prometheus & Spaceballs, it may not be that significant, especially since Colonial Marines has trouble even fitting itself into the franchise. But the more authentic Alien: Isolation also enjoys a good Blade Runner nod.

& then, of course, there’s the matter of Soldier. Released in 1998 & forgotten shortly thereafter, the film was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson & written by David Webb Peoples, also credited for Blade Runner. Sharing many elements of continuity with Blade Runner, & incorporating several references to other Philip K. Dick works (Blade Runner was based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Peoples admitted to seeing it as something of a sidequel to Blade Runner. But freeze-frame enthusiasts would also have determined that it shares a continuity with Aliens, thanks to a reference to Kurt Russell’s character Sgt. Todd 3465 having received training with the M41A Pulse Rifle & the USCM Smartgun. Those even fonder of freeze-framing may also have discerned the wreckage of Event Horizon‘s Lewis & Clark alongside a wrecked Blade Runner spinner. It seems appropriate, given that Event Horizon, also directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, so effectively aped the look & the mood of the Alien series that it was more satisfying than the same year’s Alien: Resurrection. About the only property it seemed to resemble even more closely than Alien was the videogame franchise Doom: in Doom, an experimental teleporter on Mars accidentally opens a portal to Hell; in Event Horizon, an experimental FTL engine in space accidentally opens a portal to Hell. Doom, the most influential first-person shooter game in history, had begun life as an Aliens licensee, before legal issues required a quick reskin & change in backstory. & what other weapon should Todd have been trained in the use of? The DOOM MKIV BFG! Perhaps we shouldn’t take all of this too seriously: the really really freeze-frame-savvy would also have spotted references in Soldier to Executive Decision (in which Kurt Russell starred as Dr. David Grant), Escape From New York & Escape From L.A. (in which Kurt Russell starred as Snake Plissken), Stargate (in which Kurt Russell starred as Colonel Jonathan O’Neil, & which also deals with aliens contacted via experimental portal technology), Tango & Cash (in which Kurt Russell starred as Lieutenant Gabriel Cash), The Thing (in which Kurt Russell starred as R. J. MacReady, & which owes its structure, mood, & nightmarishly-designed alien villain to Alien), Captain Ron (in which Kurt Russell starred as Captain Ron), Backdraft (in which Kurt Russell starred as both Captain Dennis McCaffrey & his son, Lieutenant Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (& thus indirectly every other iteration of Star Trek, too), & the Dexter Riley trilogy: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, & The Strongest Man in the World (which starred Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, & whose use of Medfield College, a fictional university setting shared with The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, & Flubber, recalled the use of fictional Miskatonic University in the works of Lovecraft). Soldier was clearly having its fun, & “Tannhauser Gate” has become almost an obligatory reference for science-fiction works.

But, at the same time, there might be something to this. Science-fiction giants of the late-twentieth century, Alien & Blade Runner both established handy ready-made references that later films could easily piggyback on, aiming perhaps to gain a bit of easy credibility or, less cynically, just to make audiences smile. Both were accepted into a wider canon of what we might call “promiscuous continuities”: fictional shared continuities which were a) open to new entries, b) proved to be attractive continuities for other writers, & c) could have continuity easily established with a throwaway line or references. Most of these pre-established promiscuous continuities came from pulp literature, in which originality is uncommon, but so is litigation. Prominent promiscuous continuities include: the Cthulhu Mythos, a cosmic horror continuity established by H.P. Lovecraft & others; the robot stories of Isaac Asimov, whose Three Laws of Robotics are sufficiently simple & sensible to be adopted whole by numerous other writers; & the world of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, in which mech armour is deployed against alien “bugs” (probably shares DNA with the aforementioned Doom: just as Aliens FPS games look like Doom ripoffs; just as the Doom movie, when it finally appeared, looked like a ripoff of Aliens, Event Horizon, or even Resident Evil, itself a videogame-to-film adaptation by Paul W. S. Anderson; just so, the eventual Starship Troopers movie owed a fair debt to the superior Aliens).

Academics would call this wealth of pre-established suggestive connections intertextuality, though the key difference is that, where intertextuality requires only that another work is being referenced, these are cases of it being invoked, i.e. the use of elements from that work are to establish that both take place within the same wider narrative universe. Connections to these promiscuous continuities are often so casually established that it’s easy to miss &, like invoking magic with spells, there are usually certain preferred phrases with which to do it. For Blade Runner, you just have to say “Tannhauser Gate”. For Asimov, it’s “Three Laws”, while for Lovecraft it might be Miskatonic University, the Necromonicon, or Cthulhu. Alien is often referenced via the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, while the Terminator films, sharing much cast & crew with the Alien series, are invoked in Aliens with Cyberdyne Systems.

Aliens just couldn’t stop namedropping, so it only made sense when a Freeze-Frame Bonus gag in Predator 2 led to a full-fledged crossover film directed by Paul W. “him again!” S. Anderson. In the comics world, things were taken even further with an Aliens versus Predator versus The Terminator comic. Aliens came out in a more innocent time, & writer-director James Cameron was probably only aiming for window-dressing in hitting the big promiscuous continuities: the android Bishop, we are told, is Three Laws Compliant, while Starship Troopers, required reading for the actors, was invoked in one throwaway “bug hunt” line. Meanwhile the first Alien film, without ever directly referencing Lovecraft, has also been suggested to do a better job recreating the mood & themes of his works than most official adaptations, & between it & Prometheus, Lovecraft’s celebrated At the Mountains of Madness has pretty much been covered.

If one has to go to Alien for their Lovecraft fix rather than to other, more official sources, this is likely because most official Lovecraft film adaptations were by either Stuart Gordon or Brian Yuzna or both, whose successful Re-Animator set a comedic tone influenced by The Evil Dead & Ghostbusters, both of which suggested themselves as unofficial Lovecraft films. Lovecraft’s sphere of influence, however, extended beyond the cinema; it was a sufficiently promiscuous continuity for Doctor Who, who found himself battling Lovecraftian Old Ones several times in the novels; more officially, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos & Robert E. Howard’s Hyperboria (home of Conan the Barbarian & other, less successful, creations) were mutually dependent. Conan the Barbarian even became a part of Marvel Comics continuity, which also included G.I. Joe, TransformersStar Trek, & another promiscuous continuity of the cinema: Godzilla.