Sunday, February 20, 2011

Another coupon code

Another code, this time for Lulu's "birthday"; 20% off any order, or 25% off an order over $500. The code expires right at midnight tomorrow (Monday).

Enter coupon code HAPPY305 at checkout and receive 20% off your order. The maximum savings for this offer is $100. Enter coupon code BIRTHDAY305 at checkout and receive 25% off your order of $500 or more. The maximum savings for this offer is $500. Sorry, but these offers are only valid in US dollars and cannot be applied to previous orders. You can only use these codes once per account, and unfortunately you can't use these coupons in combination with other coupon codes. These great offers expire on February 21, 2011 at 11:59 PM.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: Horror Express (1972)

On an expedition to Szechuan, China, in 1906, Dr. Saxon (Christopher Lee) finds what he believes to be a missing link -- an ape-man, thousands of years old, frozen in an icy cave. The "fossil", as Saxon describes it, is crated up for a trip back to England. But people begin to die around the crate at the station even before it's loaded onto the Trans-Siberian Express...

"The two of you together... that's fine. But what if one of you is the monster?"
"Monster? We're British, you know."

Peter Cushing is one of my favorite actors, but I haven't studied much about his personal life. Both of his autobiographies are still in print and I plan to read them at some point. Two things I do know about him: 1) So far, I haven't read a disparaging word about him by anyone with whom he worked. He truly was "the gentle man of horror", and 2) he didn't really recover after the 1971 death of his wife Helen.

Horror Express was the first film he made after this loss. According to the DVD liner notes, Cushing informed Bernard Gordon, the producer, that he wouldn't be able to do the film on the same day that he arrived in Spain for shooting. Gordon spoke with Christopher Lee. At the hotel that night, Lee monopolized the conversation between the three men, trying to put Cushing in a good humor and not let him have an opening to voice his concerns. Lee followed up his farewells with "See you at work tomorrow, Peter," and filming began the next day. The two would remain close friends until Cushing's death in 1994.

There isn't much pointless exposition in the film; things happen quickly aboard this train. There are a few leaps of logic here and there. Dr. Saxon's belief that the frozen fossil is now alive and killing people turns on a dime when confronted by Cushing's character Dr. Wells. Overall, however, the story is quite good, taking some cues from John W. Campbell, Jr.'s story "Who Goes There?", also filmed as The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982), with an alien creature frozen in the ice and able to move from body to body, stealing memories as it goes.

The script takes the story deadly serious, but there are some great moments that give a nod to, and celebrate, the previous horror films of Cushing and Lee. They seem to be enjoying their time in this production and it shows in their work, particularly their line delivery (as in the quote above). Dr. Wells' assistant has some of the best sarcastic quips. Note also the cuts between scenes of a character cutting steak and the autopsy of the baggage clerk. It could play as a parody of the genre, but the talent involved in front of -- and behind the camera -- raise it more to the level of homage. The duo also shares more screen time together here than in almost any other.

The film was produced by Scotia International, a US-UK production company that made several movies in Spain, mostly westerns. It was a low-budget film even then ($300,000) and some of that shows on the screen at times, but there was also some innovative and creative work done with this production. The makeup for the victims of the monster required custom-made all-white contact lenses. Red plastic lenses with lights inside were fitted over the eyes of the actors playing the characters possessed by the monster, and the lights were activated by a technician on the set.

There are some genuinely creepy shots in the film, and the environment of the characters being isolated on a speeding train rolling through a winter wasteland heightens the effect. The train car sets were left over from the production company's version of Pancho Villa filmed prior to this, with Telly Savalas in the title role. All the scenes set in a particular train car were filmed at once, then the car was redressed as another car for more scenes. The miniature train and its tracks were re-used as well, to spectacular effect in the final scene.

There are two interesting moments that I want to highlight. Dr. Wells is shown having dinner in the dining car with a stowaway (later revealed to be a spy), but also with a faraway look in his eyes. She mentions that her glass is empty, bringing him back into the moment. "Forgive me, my mind was elsewhere." She asks, "What is it?", to which he replies, "Sorry, I can't tell you." We believe that it's the murdered baggage clerk and the monster on the loose that are on his mind, but I can't help but think that it is also Cushing's grief over his wife that shows through in this scene.

Lee's character, Dr. Saxon, develops over the course of the film, although in staggered steps. At the beginning of the film he is stoic, single-minded of purpose in the cause of scientific discovery. In conversations with Countess Pretrovski over the course of the film, we see him develop a soul. He realizes that he "doesn't care as much as he should" about the deaths that have occurred. By the end of the film, when the creature (in the body of a Rasputin-like monk) offers him knowledge, the history of the planet that the creature has acquired over the years, if it is released, Saxon understands that life is more important than scientific discovery.

I watched the out-of-print 1999 Image DVD of the film. Horror Express is in the public domain, and has been the subject of many low-quality VHS tapes and dollar-store DVDs. "Digitally mastered" doesn't mean restored, however. This has been the best presentation so far but the print used has some scratchy moments, and the DVD is in non-anamorphic letterbox. There are three pages of liner notes in the snapper case, and on the disc are text filmographies for both Lee and Cushing. The one real extra is a good one: the isolated music and sound effect audio track. Many European films made at this time did not record audio on set, with the actors (or other voice actors) dubbing in their lines later. Lee, Cushing and Savalas dubbed their own characters for English-speaking markets.

Severin Films is currently restoring a film print for eventual release on DVD and Blu-ray. It can also be found on YouTube (with ads or without) and the Internet Archive in various file formats. Hulu has it but apparently the film cuts off after 59 minutes...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Bruce Timm

I didn't realize until this weekend that February 9th was the fiftieth birthday of comic artist and animation designer Bruce Timm. He has been involved in animation as an artist, writer, director and producer going back to Blackstar in 1981, but he is probably best known (and justifiably so) for his work in character design for Batman: The Animated Series beginning in 1992.

His sparse, angular retro-1960s style is extremely influential in both animation (The Incredibles is one example, also any of the other DC/Warner Brothers animation that has followed Batman) and comic book art. He can create tone, mood and action using a low level of detail, very similar to a couple of my other favorites, Alex Toth and Jack Kirby. I'm not an artist, but I believe this is referred to as "economy of line". Compare this to artists such as Todd McFarland or Jim Lee, who will fill a panel with an abundance of lines and detail to achieve the same effect. I find Timm's work just much more stylish.

Best. Team-Up. Ever.

What I love about his work is that it's timeless and still rooted in history. He know the history of the characters that he draws and uses it to great effect while still bringing a freshness to the work. He's influenced by many of the same things that I find appealing: comic books, movies, movie poster art, animation, monsters, pin-up art, and pulp fiction.

If the Avengers movie is half this entertaining...

Bruce Timm does not appear to have an official site or any real presence on the web despite his popularity. Not surprisingly, there are quite a few pages where his work is posted. A few highlights:

Fifty-one favorite Bruce Timm illustrations
A Halloween-themed post with many of Timm's monster-related art
Gallery at Comic Vine
The ladies of Bruce Timm's art (site NSFW)
Comic Art Fans gallery (some art NSFW)
A site whose name is probably NSFW...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Making D&D 4e Fun (link)

...not that it isn't fun right now. I'm sure it is. I haven't had the experience of playing the Fourth Edition rules yet but I've read through parts of it. The Dungeon Delve book is a great idea. My only experience of actual play comes from the flamewars discussions about it that I've read online. Some people love it as a great new method of play with low prep and easy player buy-in, others decry it as a complete sell-out to the MMORPG way of play and short attention spans, a betrayal of "role-playing" in favor of "roll-playing".

The situation isn't helped when even WotC doesn't know how to market the line. What is "Dungeons & Dragons" today? Is it the three core books? Is it D&D Essentials? If the Starter Set is intended for people who have never played before, why use the nostalgia factor of the Mentzer Red Box artwork and trade dress?

Beyond these questions, on the actual subject of playing, The Chatty DM recently wrote about a D&D Essentials game that he ran for a group of media professionals working on geek-related TV shows and/or websites (part 1, part 2). Most of them were new to tabletop gaming. It turned out to be one of his best D&D games due to the energy level of the players, his design decisions, and some ideas that he incorporated into the game (one idea from Burning Wheel). It isn't necessarily about the mechanics, it's about play style and having fun.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Free Issue of Kobold Quarterly -- Ends Today

The good folks at Kobold Quarterly magazine are offering a free PDF copy of issue 11. The offer ends today. Enter the KQ store, drop issue 11 in your cart, then use the coupon code KQ11Gift. Kobold Quarterly has in many ways taken up the mantle of default RPG print magazine since the demise of Dragon, and is worth checking out. 

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Dr. Anton Phibes, genius, holding advanced degrees in theology and music (a world-famous organ player) was presumed dead, killed in an automobile accident. But if that were true, then who is killing the doctors who worked on his deceased wife?

The Abominable Dr. Phibes was Vincent Price's 100th film, and the last film he appeared in for American-International Pictures. Filmed in England, it it is set in the mid- to late-1920s, but there is also a contemporary look to the sets. The art direction of the Art Nouveau sets and the costuming is reminiscent of the Twenties as seen through the prism of the early Seventies, with that Swinging London vibe. I'm not sure if floor-to-ceiling mirrors were in vogue at the time.

Price ends his run with AIP with a bang, and he heavily chews the scenery here, even if the character really doesn't "say" anything, as it were. Phibes takes his revenge on the medical team who treated his wife (what the surgery was for is never mentioned) by using his theological knowledge -- each murder is a meticulously-planned recreation of the Plagues of Egypt.

When Phibes leaves a clue to that effect at the scene of one of the murders, Scotland Yard begins to put the pieces together. This is an interesting part of the editing. We follow Phibes as he plans, carries out, and celebrates each murder, then we cut back to follow the police investigation. I haven't timed it out but the movies feels almost like two separate films in that respect.

Although these are senseless, murderous acts, we feel some sympathy for Dr. Phibes. He seems to be fully in command of the situation, his brilliant mind always several steps ahead of the hapless police. I think that might be the preferred reaction, as it really only works as a black-comedy/horror film. I'm a huge fan of Mr. Price, but I think I still prefer many of his other films over this one. Still, it's only a personal observation, as this is one of the landmark films of the horror genre, and can be seen as a progenitor of the "deathtrap" horror film, eventually leading to the Saw franchise. Two years later, Price starred in another British production, this time for United Artists, Theatre of Blood, with a similar premise: an actor shunned by the critics for a Best Actor Award in his final season has his revenge by killing them in methods based on various Shakespearean plays.

Bonus cult movie fact: The photos of Phibes' wife are of the uncredited actress Caroline Munro.

I watched the MGM Midnite Movies disc with the trailer being the only extra feature. It was later released as a Midnite Movies double-feature with the sequel, Dr. Phibes Lives Again!, and the same double-feature disc was included in the Vincent Price MGM Scream Legends box set.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Snow Day Fun -- Simplified D&D for Kids

Kaiju's lair is covered over with snow drifts from our latest snow storm. If you have a snow day like us, and have little ones at home (or even big ones that are little kids at heart), check out Jimm Johnson's simplified rules for Dungeons & Dragons for young children. It seems more like a board game, and he used Dwarven Forge cavern terrain for the dungeon layout. Looks like fun!