Thursday, June 30, 2011

Almuric and the "Posthumous Collaborator"

In my last post, I mentioned Almuric, Robert E. Howard's only foray into the sword-and-planet genre. I have a feeling that we may see a resurgence in sword-and-planet stories with the impending release of the John Carter of Mars movie from Pixar next year.

I wanted to point out Al Harron's great introduction and overview of Almuric's publishing history and Keith Taylor's overview of Almuric and the sword-and-planet genre. The story of how it was published is almost as interesting as the story itself. Most of its published instances make no mention that the original first draft manuscript is lost and what we have of the story, as published in Weird Tales over three months in 1937, is likely to have been completed by another author. The last chapter doesn't read as if it were written by Howard. Many of the words and phrases used do not appear in any of his other stories. Harron writes about the work done by another Howard scholar, Morgan Holmes, who discovered evidence that points to Otto Binder--another author managed by Howard's agent Otis Kline--as the person who completed the story.

These details shouldn't diminish anyone's enjoyment of the book by any means. It's a fun ripping yarn and a great read. Anyone who loves "planetary romances" and other fantastic planet stories would like Almuric.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The lost book of Almuric

Earlier this year, I saw a post on Paizo's blog listing items that were in short supply and soon to be sold out. One of the items on this list was the Planet Stories edition of Almuric, Robert E. Howard's sword-and-planet novella in the style of Burroughs. I thought to myself, "Self, you better get a copy before it goes out-of-print," so I ordered one from our local Barnes and Noble. It was a little shelf-worn but I was glad to have it.

This weekend, I was looking through a box of books that we had packed up last year when we painted the living room of the Kaiju Lair. I didn't find the book I was looking for, although there was something else--a minty-fresh brand new copy of the Planet Stories Almuric.

I think the lesson here is that I need to unpack and display my books. The only other time I remember this happening was when I accidentally purchased another copy of GURPS Egypt from the "3 for $10" shelf at the Adventure Gaming Retail booth at Gen Con a few years ago. You can never have too many GURPS sourcebooks, right?

Did you ever accidentally buy a book (gaming or otherwise) because you forgot that you already owned it?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

Hammer Film Productions was formed in 1934, but by the end of the Thirties it was primarily a distributor of films produced elsewhere. After World War II in-house film production resumed, mostly consisting of crime and mystery films. In the mid-1950s Hammer would rise to prominence with two film adaptations of the television series Quatermass and the first of their horror films, The Curse of Frankenstein. These proved so popular that Hammer continued with a series of films using the same characters--Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein--including The Revenge of Frankenstein in 1958 and The Evil of Frankenstein in 1964.

Baron Frankenstein continues his grisly experiments until the local clergyman discovers his "blasphemy". Fleeing with his assistant Hans, the Baron decides to return to his home in Karlstaad, thinking that the residents will have forgotten him after a ten-year absence. They make their way back to his abandoned and looted chateau using the local carnival festival as cover. With the assistance of a deaf and mute beggar girl, they find Frankenstein's original creature frozen in a mountaintop glacier. The Baron enlists a carnival hypnotist to get though to his creation's damaged mind. The hypnotist, however, has other plans for the monster...

Along with the later film Horror of Frankenstein (1970), Evil... is usually set apart from the other movies in the Hammer Frankenstein series. Horror... is a remake of Curse of... with a dark comedic bent. Evil... started out as an unproduced script from the TV series Tales of Frankenstein. The plot device of a hypnotist who can get through to the creature's damaged brain carried over from that script.

Because of the distribution deal with Universal Pictures, the production had more money to work with in its budget. This arrangement also allowed Hammer to use Universal's intellectual property, whereas in the previous films they were prevented from doing so for copyright reasons. The creature makeup in Evil... was the most similar in the series to Jack Pierce's famous makeup design for Boris Karloff. The machinery in Baron Frankenstein's lab is modeled after Kenneth Strickfaden's electrical set pieces. The monster is found frozen in ice, as seen in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The backlot set of the village is like the German village set from the Universal backlot. In look and feeling, the film itself was much more like one of the Universal Frankenstein films.

This similarity to the Universal monster films became a sticking point among fans at the time of its release. Hammer had charted their own new course with the previous films, and this return to a more standard style of storytelling appeared to be a step backward. Another point of contention was its place in the timeline. Evil... has a flashback sequence to a different set of events that were not in the first two movies. The creature wasn't shot and chased into the mountains in the first film; there's no mention of the Baron's escape from the guillotine or his "escape" from the authorities at the end of the second film. Frankenstein's personality is also different in Evil... In the first two films, he is cold, calculating, and clever enough to evade his pursuers, including the police and the medical association. In this film, the Baron is less in control of situations.  He flaunts his superiority over the villagers and can't control his temper in a local inn, leading to his arrest. He also trusts a sideshow hypnotist with his greatest creation. For reasons such as these, many fans see this as a stand-alone film apart from the normal series.

The Evil of Frankenstein is essential viewing for anyone watching the entire Hammer Frankenstein series. On its own, it's a good Frankenstein movie, harkening back to the classic Universal films. Peter Cushing is great as usual but limited by the material he's given. He still manages some standout scenes. As far as interesting movies that do something different, Curse of... and Revenge... are the better films. I watched this on DVD as part of Universal's terrific 8-movie, 2-disc set The Hammer Horror Series.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A random thought

If I had known that the PDF of the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure from Free RPG Day would cost $4.99 later, I would have picked that up from my FLGS as my freebie on Saturday.
Having said that, It's more likely that our group would play the Dragon Age quickstart adventure that I chose instead. I'd like to try both systems at some point, though. The 3d6 and "dragon die" mechanic in DA is pretty neat. I haven't had a chance to read the DCC beta file yet.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Matango and Chicago Shock Theater

If you're a classic film fan, you should regularly check in on Turner Classic Movies' blog Movie Morlocks. I haven't looked at it for a couple of months, and it seems that I've missed out on some good articles. There are two notable posts I want to highlight.

Film historian David Kalat gives his take on Toho's Lovecraftian horror flick Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People). This has always been one of my favorites but I learned something new from his analysis of the final scene (spoilers ahoy if you read the post). I think I failed my Sanity check... not from the movie stills but from the photo of the Bullmark Matango tricycle toy.

Cult movie fans in the Chicago area need to know about the Shock Theater series of double-features running the first Friday of each month in Wicker Park. Two classic horror and sci-fi movies projected from real 16mm film prints for $5? Sounds like a great time!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Free RPG Day PDF downloads

Many of the publishers involved with Free RPG Day release PDF copies of their giveaway products after the event. Here are the ones that I've found as of last night:
 When there are any updates I'll make the appropriate changes here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Free RPG Day this Saturday

The annual Free RPG Day is June 18th, this Saturday. Based on the highly successful Free Comic Book Day, it's a chance for the gaming industry to show off new products, give away free quickstart rules or accessories, and get more people involved in our hobby.

See if one of your local game stores is participating with giveaways or game demonstrations. Many publishers also have free downloads for the occasion at their sites or RPGNow/DriveThruRPG.

I always have good intentions about volunteering to run a game demo at a local store but schedules seldom work out. Maybe next year!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: Logan's Run (1976)

Based on the 1967 novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, Logan's Run was released in June of 1976. Less than one year later Star Wars hit theaters, and everything would change. The film, then, acts almost like a bridge between the darker, dystopian theatrical science-fiction films of the 1960s and early 70s, and the blockbuster science-fiction films of the late 1970s and after. Science fiction on TV, however, still looked the same into the early Eighties: shows such as Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica, for example, had sets with lots of glass, blinking lights and chrome panels.

I remember seeing the movie on TV once or twice, but most of my early memories of it were from the short-lived Marvel Comics series and articles in Starlog and other magazines. I clearly remember the vast majority of photos in those articles being 1) the futuristic cityscape miniature, 2) the still of Michael York firing the Sandman gun with its distinctive four-way muzzle flash, and 3) Farrah Fawcett. Of course, the nudity was edited out of the TV print.

In the 23rd century, a perfectly-balanced society run by a central computer system exists within a multi-domed city. Life exists only for the pursuit of pleasure, which grows more intense as each person approaches his or her thirtieth year and their Lastday: entering into the performance known as Carousel with the hope of "renewal". Some members of the population try to avoid this fate and run, escaping the city for a mythical Sanctuary. When Logan-5, a "Sandman" who's job it is to terminate runners, finds a symbol of Sanctuary on a runner's body, the computer assigns him the task to go outside the city and find Sanctuary and the missing runners, setting his own lifeclock forward to Lastday... 

Logan's Run was an impressive film for the time in which it was made, and it has that MGM "epic film" look to it. It was one of the last to develop from that massive 1960s-70s studio system. A budget of $9 million was quite a lot for a film in 1975, and the studio made a profit with it, earning around $50 million worldwide. Much of the action takes place in indoor locations and would have cost much more if shot entirely on soundstages. The crew took advantage of several "futuristic" looking buildings in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area for many of the indoor locations. They also used older buildings such as a sewer plant for some of the undercity locations.  Even then, the sets that were constructed for the film are really well done. Logan's apartment, the "New You", and most impressively, the computer room at Sandman headquarters. The size and scope of that room are beyond what I imagine for most films made at the time. It reminded me of the extravagantly large sets from an earlier MGM classic, Forbidden Planet.

The film's visual effects certainly deserved the Academy Award that was won the following year. Three effects sequences stand out: the wire effects for Carousel, the cityscape miniatures, and holography. The scene of Logan's interrogation by the computer was the first use of holograms in a major motion picture. In the audio commentary director Michael Anderson mentions that although they looked flat in the film, they were much more three-dimensional in real life.

The miniature cityscape was an outstanding achievement for the time. Much of its effect was due to the size and detailing. I did not know that it was built at a scale where many of the buildings were four or five feet tall. Stock footage of the city continued to be used in science-fiction films and television shows for years, including (apparently) one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Logan's Run shares many similarities with another dystopian classic, George Lucas' THX-1138. In both films, we have future societies insulated from the outside world, a complacent population, a society run by and dependent on one or many ruling computer systems, and at least one character who fights to find a way out. The main difference being that in Logan's Run the population live for fun without care, while in THX-1138 the people of the city are drugged worker drones without any type of social life. I watched THX-1138 again fairly recently, and I'll have more to say about it in some future post. The thought crossed my mind while watching Logan's Run that they could exist in the same universe--the worker drones of THX-1138 could be living in the undercity of Logan's Run, doing all of the manual labor and manufacturing to keep the upper levels of the domed city functioning.

The film inspired a television series of the same name which lasted one season on CBS, and is probably most notable for the cars.

I watched the 1999 MGM DVD of the film, which has since gone out-of-print. Warner Home Video released it in 2000 in a cardboard snapper case with both widescreen and fullscreen versions (minus the 8-page insert), again in 2007 in a standard Amaray plastic case, and on Blu-ray in 2009.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG Beta

We've had various...interesting things...happening around the Kaiju Lair this week. I haven't had a chance to sort out the rest of the photos for the True20 Freeport campaign so I will try to work on more updates this weekend.

The big news of the week was the release of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG beta rules yesterday. I've been reading very encouraging words about the game pre-beta. Now that the beta rules are available I look forward to reading some good discussion about it. I find the idea of a modern system with an old-school sensibility very appealing. Add the use of some of the odd-size Zocchi dice into it, and the DDC RPG could be something special.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Upcoming books of interest

Actually, this first book is available now. I should have mentioned it earlier. Edited by Otto Penzler, The Big Book of Adventure Stories purports to be the largest and best compilation of adventure stories inside one cover. It certainly contains the top names of pulp and adventure fiction: Jack London, O. Henry, H. Rider Haggard, Alastair MacLean, Harold Lamb, Talbot Mundy, Cornell Woolrich, Baroness Orczy, Rafael Sabatini, Philip Jose Farmer, Sax Rohmer, Louis L’Amour, H.G. Wells, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, and Robert E. Howard. Whew!

Check out that table of contents: the story that introduced The Cisco Kid; a Zorro story; the complete Burroughs novel Tarzan the Terrible; "To Serve Man"; and the first appearance of Buck Rogers.

The Conan story selection is intriguing. "The Devil in Iron" is good, but "Iron Shadows in the Moon" is a better, similar story. Penzler is legendary in the field, so I am interested in reading his justification for choosing "Devil".

A second book I'm looking forward to is Conan the Barbarian: The Stories that Inspired the Movie. This is an official publication by Del Rey, publishers of the Howard trade paperback library. It's due for release at the end of July as a mass market paperback listed at 304 pages. I wouldn't expect it to be illustrated except for perhaps a frontispiece and a map. So far, the contents haven't been released. Knowing the page counts of the stories and the expected page count of the book, there's some good guessing of the contents going on at the official forum. If it does turn out to be a true "best of Conan" compilation, it should make a great inexpensive entry for first-time Howard readers.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The ephemeral nature of the RPG experience

I had planned for another post on my True20 Freeport campaign report for today but I'm still sorting through photos. I'll be working on that over the weekend.

In the meantime, check out this post over at Age of Ravens. Lowell traces the Japanese concept of mono no aware (the ephemeral nature of things) from the short life span of insects through to role-playing games. It's a look at how we remember those fleeting in-game experiences and how they live on in memory after their moment has passed.

What are some of your gaming memories--good or bad--that have stuck with you over the years?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: Alphaville (1965)

Jean-Luc Godard was one of the leading filmmakers of the movement known as the French New Wave. The style and techniques used in Breathless (1960), his first feature, changed the landscape of cinema forever. As his career progressed, his politics tended to overshadow his technique. Along with Contempt (1963), Alphaville might be one of Godard's more conventional films.

American ex-pat actor Eddie Constantine found his niche portraying the private eye Lemmy Caution in a series of low-budget French crime films produced during the 1950s and early '60s, and based on the work of 1930s British writer Peter Cheyney. Even in other movies, the gruff, no-nonsense personality of the Lemmy Caution character carried over because of his popularity.

In true Godard fashion, Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution is a departure from the norm: an existential sci-fi noir/private eye film. Instead of Cold War Europe, the film finds Caution in a nebulous future era. He's sent by the Outer Countries to the technological "utopia" of Alphaville to find a missing scientist. Using his cover as a journalist, he makes his way through various levels of the bureaucracy (technocracy?), making contact with another undercover agent and falling in love with the scientist's daughter. That doesn't stop Caution from using her to get to the heart of Alphaville, the sentient computer Alpha-90. It's a battle of love and poetry versus the cold calculating logic of the machine that controls an entire population--and wants to expand that control to the Outer Countries.

I say "nebulous future", because it's unclear just exactly when or where the action takes place. Caution mentions being a veteran of Guadalcanal, which puts him in the post-war 20th century. He drives what looks like an early-'60s Mustang. The streets have other motor cars and buildings that would be at home in 1960s Paris, albeit futuristic modern architecture fitting the story.

However, there is the geopolitical question: what are the "Outer Counties"? Is "Nueva York" New York City? Where is Alphaville located? The weather and daylight are different from the north side to the south side. I like to think that it's an isolated island city-state in the middle of the Atlantic, based on the night scenes of driving to and from Alphaville, filmed on long streetlight-lit straight roads.

But then there is the talk about "galaxies". Lemmy's car is a "Ford Galaxy". Alpha-90 speaks about Caution traveling "light-years" across "open space". Caution is offered control of at least one "galaxy" in exchange for his cooperation. Because of the anachronistic mix of words and images, I believe that one possible reading of the film is that it's all a fever dream; it only exists in the mind of the Lemmy Caution from his other films, a nightmare brought on by the ever-increasing danger and loss of identity in the post-war atomic age.

I'm not sure that it really matters if the story is set on Earth or if Alphaville is another planet. Godard is playing with the conventions of the pulp/noir film drama, mixing in his own meditations of life, the meaning of art, beauty, and what it means to be human in an increasingly tech-driven consumer-focused society where the people move in circles and more words are removed from the "bible" (a dictionary) every day. It's very much in the same realm as other science-fiction dystopias as 1984, Brave New World, and films from Soylent Green to Blade Runner. It was also one of the inspirations for the name of this blog.

I watched Alphaville using streaming Netflix. The Criterion Collection released it very early on DVD (with only a liner notes essay, available online) although it appears to be out-of-print currently. I'm not sure if Criterion still the rights. If so, I hope they consider updating this title to a proper special edition on DVD or Blu-ray. Many of Eddie Constantine's other Lemmy Caution films are available from Sinister Cinema.