Book Review: The Hammer Vault by Marcus Hearn

Hi again!

From the time that I was old enough to understand what I was seeing on screen, I’ve loved the movies. Star Wars was the first movie that really made me sit up and take notice. But it was the Saturday afternoon “Monster Mash” marathons on our old black and white TV set that kept my attention after that. Movies like The Blob, the original The Thing (with the walking vegetable), all of the Godzilla films, Planet of the Apes… I could go on and on. I watched with my sister and the two of us often talk about those happy weekend afternoons to this day.

But even with my love for those classic monster movies, I’ve never really focused on film history. Every now and then I’ll watch a documentary or read a book on some of the history involved, but that’s about it.

So when I was given an opportunity to check out The Hammer Vault: Treasures from the Archive of Hammer Films by Marcus Hearn, I jumped at the chance. Though I was only familiar with a handful of the 80+ movies detailed in the book, it’s truly a treasure trove of information about how some of these films were made starting with 1954’s The Quatermass Xperiment all the way through 2010’s Let Me In based on the Swedish-language version of Let the Right One In in 2008. The trials and tribulations of the production company coupled with licensing for certain properties, actor disputes, money troubles, and more really offer an intriguing glimpse behind the curtain of some of these classic films.

Each film covered in the book offers a peek at some of the photographs, posters, scripts, and publicity materials used to make or market it. Looking at the black and white photographs as compared to the colored posters and lobby cards makes for a unique view at that time in film history. We’ve come a long way from handing out little booklets at movies like they do for theater productions today, but I was amazed to see the work that went into not only encouraging moviegoers to attend shows, but to get the films shown in movie theaters in the first place.

It was amazing to see actors like Peter Cushing, who I first saw in Star Wars and Christopher Lee, whom I’d seen but didn’t really recognize until the late 1990s in films like Sleepy Hollow and The Lord of the Rings films. Cushing and Lee looked so young in films like The Curse of Frankenstein in 1956! Even Oliver Reed, who I wasn’t familiar with until Gladiator in 2000 after his death looked extremely young in his first starring role in 1960’s The Curse of the Werewolf!

If you’ve ever been curious about some of the classic horror movies of the 1950s and ’60s, The Hammer Vault is an amazing way to learn about them. Even though each film only gets a page or two in the book, you get a quick glimpse at the past to see how these films have had a lasting effect into the present day. Plus, it’s a beautiful coffee table book!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Comic Review: Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom

Hi all!

Back in 2009 I had the pleasure of reviewing a new Lovecraft-inspired graphic novel from author Bruce Brown and illustrator Renzo Podesta – Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom. Somehow Brown and Podesta managed to approach the world of H.P. Lovecraft from the point of view of a child. The title was innocuous and you couldn’t help but wonder what this little boy on the cover is doing with a tentacled creature from the depths of the Cthulhu mythos…

So when Brown asked me to take a look at the next chapter in young Howard Lovecraft’s adventures, I jumped at the opportunity. This time poor Howard faces the repercussions of what he unwittingly helped with in the first book. And, just like with the first book, the cover of Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom somehow merges the innocence of a child with creepy things from the dark places mankind really shouldn’t be shining a light into. This time out, Brown worked with writer Dwight L. MacPherson and illustrator Thomas Boatwright, the artist who did the cover for Frozen Kingdom.

Again, Brown starts off with a quote from Edgar Allan Poe – “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” And poor Howard wakes up in a bizarre dream where his house is underwater in a realm of tentacled things and toothy fish… or is it a dream? Outside the house he sees his friend “Spot” (Thu Thu Hmong or the great Cthulhu himself that Howard saved from certain death in Frozen Kingdom), who warns that an old enemy has returned – King Abdul – and that Howard shouldn’t trust anyone. At that point Howard wakes up in his room and is told by his mother that it’s time to get up for school.

This time out, Howard’s father and a new friend, Constable Clyde Smith help Howard along on his journey. He must travel to Yuggoth, the world where the evil King Abdul holds Howard’s family hostage in return for the book Howard holds in his possession – a book from his father about R’yleh and other places of fairy tale and nightmare. Can Howard, his father, and the good Constable save Howard’s family? Read on and find out!

Ultimately Boatwright’s style is a bit different than Podesta’s, but it still maintains that childlike innocence without feeling forced. So much of what the characters feel is captured in their facial expressions that it’s easy to get sucked into the story. I instantly felt a connection with this trio of heroes as they set off on their adventure with all these creepy critters hovering in the background. And the subtle transitions from panel to panel are enough to translate the many transformations Howard goes through as the journey continues. For example, one collection of panels features Howard falling into an ocean and developing the gills and fins of Lovecraft’s “Deep Ones” as described in his novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth. That transformation is hinted at earlier but only becomes complete when our hero needs it to be.

It’s those little touches that really make this series of graphic novels perfect for kids seeking to explore a bit of Lovecraftian horror. Frozen Kingdom and now Undersea Kingdom offer glimpses at the monsters and evil within the Cthulhu stories without scaring them off or scarring them for life. That can come later when they read stories like “The Dunwich Horror” and other novellas like At the Mountains of Madness!

Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom will be released at the end of February 2012. For a bit more about the graphic novel, check out it’s page at the publisher’s site.

This review first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Book Review: Spartacus: Swords and Ashes by J.M. Clements

Hi there!

Swords and sandals. Political intrigue. Betrayal. Each of these describes some quality of the common perception of the Roman Empire. Whether you buy into this popular perception or prefer the drier, more factual approach to nearly a millennium of history, Rome’s influence can be felt to the present day. Just ask the producers at Starz. Spartacus: Blood and Sand started in January 2010 on their pay cable network and was watched by an estimated 3 million viewers its premiere weekend. Since then it has aired two more seasons – a prequel Spartacus: Gods of the Arena in 2011, and Spartacus: Vengeance in 2012.

The success of the Spartacus series has spawned a new series of novels based in the hero’s world of Rome – Spartacus: Swords and Ashes by J.M. Clements is the first – which brings Spartacus to the funereal games in Neapolis for a friend of Batiatus named Pelorus. Pelorus was murdered by a slave in his own house, the tattooed Getae witch named Medea who must pay for her crimes. Batiatus soon finds himself in the middle of a political bout between Gaius Verres, the soon-to-be governor of Sicily and a young Cicero from home hot on the trail of new prophecies of Rome.

Honestly I wasn’t sure what to think of the book at first. I watched the first episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and quickly decided that the stylized blood and combat was not my cup of tea back in 2010. I was sad to hear of star Andy Whitfield‘s battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and the fact that he eventually lost the battle. The series has lived on however with Liam McIntyre in the lead role along with the rest of the cast – John Hannah (The Mummy) as Quintus Lentulus Batiatus, Lucy Lawless (TV’s Xena: Warrior Princess) as Lucretia his wife, Viva Bianca as Ilithyia, and many more.

Swords and Ashes captures some of the backhanded double-dealing I would expect in the Rome of “Et tu, Brute?” of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as well as the foul treatment of slaves and the quickly-changing-fortunes of competitors in the arena. And once the second half of the book took off, it was a sprint to the finish. The first half was a bit of a slog for me, considering my lack of experience with the TV series itself, but Clements manages to keep things moving enough that even non-fans like myself can enjoy the book.

And it was really Clements’ imagery that kept me reading throughout… “The snow-covered ground became a clash of pinks and crimsons, darkening with the death of the day, not from the sunset, but from life-blood splashed in torrents. Warm steam rose from the ground, creating an unearthly mist, as if the surviving warriors were surrounded by the departed souls of their fellows.”

If you are a fan of Spartacus, the series, or simply looking to add a bit more swords-and-sandals to your reading pile, Spartacus: Swords and Ashes manages to capture a bit of the glory of Rome and the spectacle of the arena with words!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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