Thursday, October 31, 2013

Movie Review: The Monster Squad (1987)

During the 80's, a funny thing happened to action movies. First, we started to think of them as "action movies", rather than "violent films". Is Dirty Harry an action movie? I wouldn't call it one. What about Peckinpah's The Getaway? No, I wouldn't call that an action movie, either. Once we hit the 80's, films became big business, "Blockbuster" business, and studios began casting a wider and wider net for their audiences. I lay a lot of this at the feet of the Star Wars films, but even as they were hitting the scene, Indiana Jones and Conan and Beastmaster were arriving, films that were clearly s breed apart from films made a decade previously.

Along with the "action movie" phenomenon, a sub-phenomenon began to occur - the rise of action-adventure movies where children were the heroes. Goonies is probably the most famous example, but you also had films like E.T., Cloak and Dagger, The Lost Boys, Flight of the Navigator, and today's gem, The Monster Squad. All of these films, and a number of others, feature children - often not even teenagers - as the protagonists, often either directly opposed, or at least hindered, by the actions of adults. The great thing about these movies is that it portrayed children as being smart, able to solve problems with creative solutions, and capable of great bravery and courage when necessary. I wrote about this at some length when I reviewed Super 8 back in 2011.

The plot of the movie is pure cheesy fun. Dracula comes to town and brings with him the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein's Monster, and he even wakes up a Mummy. He also creates a few Brides to cause further mayhem. Dracula is looking for a powerful gem, a physical concentration of pure good, that can be corrupted and used to cause terrible things in the hands of monsters. The Monster Squad, a club of young kids who obsess about monsters, get their hands on an old book that turns out to be the diary of Van Helsing, and inside the diary they read about the gem (with the help of an old German neighbor who "knows all about monsters", being a concentration camp survivor). They discover that the gem is hidden in town, and begin a race against time to find it and save it from the clutches of Dracula and his monstrous allies.

Overall, this is a great Halloween movie. I wound up watching it twice over the last couple of weeks, and it's got action, comedy, horror, and even some real emotion. The kids are all great, the special effects are surprisingly good (Stan Winston Studios), and Duncan Regher's portrayal of Dracula is particularly creepy and effective. There might be a little bit of hamming it up here and there, but he's certainly better than a number of Draculas in cinema over the years.

Here's a great version of the film's trailer on YouTube. The movie is on On Demand with my cable provider right now, but you can pick it up at a reasonable price. If you haven't seen it, or if it's been a good 25 years since you did, the movie is worth a repeat viewing.

And just remember, Wolfman's got nards!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book Review: A Fine Likeness by Sean McLachlan

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Normally, I'm not really that interested in the American Civil War. I understand the basics of the war - the lead-up, the battles, the conclusion and the aftermath - but for one reason or another I've never felt the need to do a deep dive into this time period. Because of this, I've never had a strong interest in reading any fiction relating to the ACW, such as The Killer Angels or Bernard Cornwell's Nathaniel Starbuck chronicles.

Even with an only lukewarm interest in the conflict, I was intrigued by Sean McLachlan's A Fine Likeness when I first heard about the book. A "Civil War Horror" novel written by a seasoned archaeologist, travel writer, and historical reference author sounded peculiar enough to warrant a second glance, and although it took me a while to circle around to reading it, I'm now kicking myself for waiting so long, because it's one hell of a good yarn.

The book starts off near Columbia, Missouri with a skirmish between Captain Addison's militia company and Rawlins' Rangers, a six-man band of "bushwhackers". The term refers to small bands of guerrilla fighters who operated in many states during the war, launching ambushes and raids and falling back into the wilderness, where the men lived off the land and the generosity of sympathizing civilians. Like the guerrilla fighters of the Napoleonic wars and WW2, these "combatants" occupied a weird middle ground between organized military units and simple armed civilians taking action against their enemies. Missouri was a state absolutely infested with bushwhackers, and due to the fieldcraft of these guerrillas, and their habit of carrying upwards of four six-shot revolvers apiece (opposed by men carrying single-shot long arms), these small bands were often able to cause a degree of havoc and mayhem disproportionate to their numbers.

What starts off as a small battle between Union militia and Confederate guerrillas grows into something a lot more deadly and dangerous when Jimmy Rawlins, the "Captain" of Rawlins' Rangers, gets his band involved with Bloody Bill Anderson, one of the most violent and dangerous guerrilla fighters of the Civil War. I don't want to give away any of the book's twists and turns, but suffice to say the small conflict between militia and bushwhacker is only the facade of a much larger, far more diabolical battle taking place, one that stretches beyond the boundaries of our physical world. Some of the characters are hinted to be far, far more than they appear, and there is a greater "mythos" for lack of a better term, lurking just below the surface of the story.

This is a whole other aspect of A Fine Likeness that should be discussed. At first I thought this was going to be an ACW "ghost story". Because of the war's incredibly brutal nature, and the way it coincided with the rise of spiritualism, mentalism, and the more pseudo-scientific theories regarding ghosts and the spiritual world, there were many people during and after the war who tried contacting dead friends and relatives, and a great deal of fraud was committed by charlatans who preyed upon those who sought them out.  Hand-in-hand with this, a lot of post ACW horror fiction, especially Southern horror, revolved around ghosts and hauntings. So, I figured the author was throwing his hat into the ring, so to speak, and writing a ghost story tied to the Civil War.

While the story does have elements dealing with ghosts and spirits, that's just the tip of the supernatural iceberg, and as I said above, the story makes it clear that there are forces - both sinister and benevolent - at play in a much larger and more active cosmology. This was a pleasant surprise for me, and I feel it shifts the book from being a "Civil War ghost story" to something a lot more like a Weird West tale, similar to the Weird fiction of the 30's written by authors like Robert E. Howard or H.P. Lovecraft, tales that blend history and the supernatural in a way that could be considered "Pulp Horror", although I don't feel that this book really falls into the category of "Pulp". Indeed, I think the only weakness of A Fine Likeness, if there is one, is that I'd be hard-pressed to pin this book down in any sense of a traditional genre. I don't really consider it traditional horror, but the supernatural elements definitely take it out of the realm of historical fiction. I think the author was actually very smart in independently publishing this book, because I can't imagine a traditional publishing house attempting to market this book.

Which reminds me to set any potential reader's fears to rest and point out that this novel is very well-written. The author has a long career writing non-fiction works for established publishers such as Osprey, and that professionalism carries over into this book. I didn't notice any spelling or formatting errors, and the prose overall is very deft - descriptive without being exhaustive, colorful without being overwrought. The author handles both action and dialogue quite well, and every character has their own well-considered "voice".

In conclusion, if you like historical fiction with action and a touch of the supernatural, you cannot go wrong with A Fine Likeness. It's a great novel, and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: Doom Platoon by Len Levinson

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Originally published by Belmont Tower Books in 1978, this slim novel tells the story of one Sergeant Mazursky, as he leads 2nd Platoon on a desperate mission; to hold back an entire German Panzer division during the opening moves of the Ardennes Offensive, better known to most as the Battle of the Bulge. With only 29 men, can Mazursky and his unlucky few stand their ground and slow the Panzers for the few precious hours their division needs in order to fall back and regroup?

I'm not going to give away any spoilers, but the story takes more than a few twists and turns along the way, dividing itself into three pretty clear arcs. Even though this book was written years before The Sergeant or The Rat Bastards novels, you can certainly see the origins of Mahoney and Butsko in Sgt. Mazursky, as well as the sort of rogues gallery of other squadmates that pop up in those novels, and the sorts of conversations the characters engage in during down time. Writer/Blogger Hank Brown states, and I'll agree, that if you've never read Levinson before this might not be the best introduction to his WW2 fiction, but if you like his war stories already, this would be a neat look into the genesis of those stories.

Overall, this is a really quick read. I zipped through the book start to finish in a long evening's reading, most of it on my cell phone. Ben Bridges of Piccadilly Publishing has partnered with Levinson to publish a bunch of Len's old books under Bridges' own PULP HEAVEN imprint. Overall the ebook version is quite well done, with only a couple of minor formatting errors, probably due to OCR conversion. Other than that, the ebook is very nicely put together, and has a couple of essays at the end written by Levinson, discussing his life and career.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Movie Review: The 13th Warrior (1999)

Recently, I popped this movie in the DVD player and gave it a viewing for the first time in a year or two (I've probably watched it over a dozen times, however). My objectivity surrounding The 13th Warrior, I'll admit, is somewhat shaky.'s pretty much non-existent. A few of you out there who know me were there, that fateful summer day in August of '99, when we went to see this at the Cheri theater downtown as a matinee. At the time, the main hall of the Cheri was probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest, screen in Boston proper, and so this movie was definitely given a real "cinematic" presentation. I'll always maintain that certain movies need to be seen on the big screen, in the theater, and even today's mega-televisions and home theater sound systems don't compare to what a real movie theater can provide. Perfect evidence of this was when I saw Conan the Barbarian in the theater for the first time about six years ago, and my already favorite fantasy movie suddenly became one of my greatest cinematic experiences, period.

But I digress. The 13th Warrior is adapted from the Michael Crichton novel, Eaters of the Dead, which was in turn his attempt at writing a "historical" interpretation of Beowulf, using some fake "found documentation". Written in 1976, it was one of his earlier novels, written way before Jurassic Park, when he was just another writer turning out cool books in various genres. The premise, in a sentence or two, is that the story follows an Arab diplomat as he gets caught up with a band of Viking badasses as they venture far into the hinterlands of Scandinavia to do battle with a horde of, to put it simply, cannibalistic Neanderthals. Crichton uses the cave-dwelling, fire-toting savages as the stand-in for Grendel, the Dragon, and Grendel's Mother.

Right there is the first problem - when you explain the plot of the film, it sounds a lot dumber than it is. there's a great deal of superstition and mystery surrounding the "Wendol" as they are known, and the Vikings all believe them to be actual supernatural creatures, a race of legendary were-bear creatures that are half man, half beast, lurking in the deep forests and appearing in the night with the mist, to raid and kill and make off with the heads of dead men, and most disturbingly, " is said...they eat the dead...". Thus, the name of the book.

The movie also had a very difficult birth. John McTiernan started directing it, and then there were severe creative differences between him and Creighton, to the point where McTiernan left and Crichton finished directing the film (at this point Crichton had already directed a successful film, so this wasn't necessarily a dumb decision on the part of the studio). The movie does exhibit a kind of mixed personality disorder; it doesn't know if it should be horrifying and scary, or more straight action-adventure. The Vikings are also very..."Mythical" is how I like to put it. All the badasses wear armor and clothing that come from a wide range of cultures and time frames, many of them anachronistic. There were a LOT of people who tore the movie apart on this factor alone. I look at it as simply representing the Vikings as widely traveled adventurers, who've been to a lot of different, exotic locales.

In addition, there is the infamous "I listened!" language montage. If you're actually paying attention, it is pretty clear that Antonio Bandaras' character is spending weeks traveling with the Vikings, and as an educated man who probably speaks a couple of languages already, he over time picks up bits and pieces of the Viking's language, until he surprises them by being able to speak their tongue pretty well. Many folks thought this process took a couple of days, perhaps as short as a single night, which isn't really supported by the montage unless you're not really paying attention. Ultimately, it is a gimmick to get around a language barrier that would've killed the story before it even began (not that some critics would be upset by that). Ultimately, I think it is fine; if the Stargate television series can get away with EVERYONE IN THE UNIVERSE speaking perfectly understandable English, then I think we're okay here.

Beyond these and some other criticisms of varying merit, I think this movie is flat out one of the best historical action-adventure movies of the last twenty years. The Viking Band is so perfectly cast, so well-populated with these tough, gritty, steely-eyed asskickers. The dialogue might be a little hammy, but it is so well-suited to the badassitude of the movie that it just plain works. A few quotes snagged from IMDB:

Herger the Joyous: When they come, we form a circle in the center of the room, backs to one another.
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan: I am not a warrior.
Herger the Joyous: Very soon, you will be. 

Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan: Have we anything resembling a plan?
Herger the Joyous: Mm-hm. Ride till we find them... and kill them all. 

Buliwyf: I have only these hands. I will die a pauper.
King Hrothgar: You will be buried as a king.
Buliwyf: A man might be thought wealthy if someone were to draw the story of his deeds, that they may be remembered.
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan: Such a man might be thought wealthy indeed.

I also want to emphasize that, although this movie at some points isn't sure if it wants notes of horror or pure adventure, in many ways, it is still a good blend. The Wendol, until you get what they are later on, are a creepy, evil, almost goblin-esque race that hide in the shadows and "come in the mist". It isn't until about halfway through the movie that the characters can confirm that their opponents are simply men who dress and think of themselves as bears. The dark, misty, foreboding nature of the landscape, as well as the more disturbing scenes inside the caverns of the Wendol also contribute to the eerie quality of the movie, as does Jerry Goldsmith's incredible score. In fact, for years I used the soundtrack as tabletop role-playing game "mood music" because it just carried such a sense of adventure, mystery, suspense, and horror, all mixed together. Like another one of my favorites, The Brotherhood of the Wolf, the "supernatural" elements lend a horror to the story that complements the action in my mind, rather than subtracting from it.

All in all, it is a shame this movie is considered such a disaster. It was extremely expensive to make, re-shoot, and market, and made back only a fraction of its costs ($60m in revenue vs. $160m in expenses). The financial failure of this film, I think, colors for many people the overall quality of the film, as many probably were introduced to it over the years already knowing it was a flop. On the other hand, there is a small, but quite strong, following for this film out there, mostly folks who understand it for what it is - an epic, mythic adventure story. Novelist and movie critic Stephen Hunter reviewed the film when it came out, and his review from the Washington Post can still be found here. Hint: he opens with, "Think of "The 13th Warrior" as Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" jacked on amphetamines."

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"The Train to Calais" Becomes the First COMMANDO: Resistance Story

When Operation Cannibal gets released (hopefully) in November, I'm making a minor change at that time to set up the COMMANDO stories as a series, and cutting the "COMMANDO:" part out of the titles. This makes it not only less awkward to type and talk about, but with three books (hopefully a fourth by the end of the year), it'll go a long way to showing this is a regular series of books.

At the same time, I want to be able to write short story spinoffs set in the same "world". I did this with The Train to Calais, using the short story as a bridge between the first two novels. It's been a surprising hit, selling 1,100 copies in just 10 months. I like the French Resistance characters I've written, and there is a ton of material worth mining over the course of the war. I could easily write a short story for every novel in the COMMANDO series, if not more.

However, looking at the reviews I've gotten for the short, while most are positive, it is plainly obvious that the story is often being purchased by folks who are unaware that it is tied to other stories. There's nothing wrong with this of course - I tried to write the story in such a way that someone who hadn't read Operation Arrowhead wouldn't be confused - but if I'm going to write further short stories, I thought it best to brand them together, not only tying them to each other but to the books as well. I've found that mentioning the association in the product description doesn't always do the job of passing that information along.

So, yesterday I went ahead and did a complete re-work of the cover. I'm using the same title graphic and fonts the COMMANDO books use, and I'm trying to stick to a similar aesthetic. The COMMANDO: Resistance shorts will touch now and then on the novel missions and characters, but for the foreseeable future I'd like them to have a life of their own, so to speak.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review: FARGO #2 Panama Gold by John Benteen

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After reading the excellent debut Fargo novel a couple of weeks ago, I was really chomping at the bit to get the sequel on my Kindle ASAP. Ordering the ebook at the end of last week, I powered through Panama Gold in about 24 hours. They might be short, quick reads, but Benteen packs a LOT of action and adventure into a relatively compact story.

Panama Gold starts off with Fargo arriving in Long Island to visit his old commanding officer, The Colonel. And by 'The Colonel', we actually mean former Rough Rider and ex-President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. However, no matter how high his star had risen, Fargo will forever only think of Roosevelt as his commanding officer, and we are reminded that Fargo saved Roosevelt's life during the battle of San Juan Hill. The two are fast friends still, even after all those years (this story is set in 1912), and Roosevelt has a favor to ask of Fargo.

Roosevelt needs Fargo to kill a man.

Cleve Buckner is, like Fargo, a former military man, but unlike our main character, Buckner is a deserter, gone on the lam after shooting an officer who caught Buckner in bed with his wife. Buckner is a sort of dark reflection of Fargo; tough, battle-hardened, and utterly ruthless, but there is an evil, sadistic streak to Buckner which makes him immediately repellent. In a nice bit of symbolism, before we meet Buckner, it is pointed out that Fargo has clean, white teeth that are well-cared for, because the last thing a fighting man needs, out in the middle of nowhere on campaign, is an abscessed tooth or other ailment that could quickly lay him low. When we meed Buckner, one of the first things we learn about him is that his teeth are blackened and rotten, just like his soul.

Long story short, Roosevelt needs Fargo to kill Buckner, because Buckner has raised and trained a small army of mercenaries and cutthroats to attack and possibly blow up portions of the Panama Canal. Although Roosevelt is no longer President and has no real authority, he represents a small group of "private citizens" who have a vested interest in making sure the Canal goes through on time. There are also rumblings that foreign powers - namely Germany and Japan - would like nothing more than to see American and British naval powers deprived of the ability to move through the Canal any time soon. If Buckner succeeds in delaying the completion of the Canal by even a few months, it could give these aggressive nations just the window they need to take action on their enemies.

I won't give away any more of the story than that, because, like the first Fargo novel, there are a number of interesting twists and turns that shouldn't be spoiled. There's plenty of gun-fighting and adventure, especially in the depictions of the brutal jungles around the Canal, which Fargo finds himself having to traverse a couple of times. We are reunited once again with Fargo's small arsenal; the .38 Colt revolver loaded with "dum-dums", the sawed-off 10-gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot, and the deadly Batangas knife. Like the first novel, Fargo also carries a .30-30 Winchester carbine, but it gets misplaced early on and sees essentially no use.And again, like the first novel, the Fox double-barrel blows people away with the authority of a Napoleonic field piece loaded with canister shot, but the weapon is just so badass that we don't really care.

This book is a fitting follow-up to the first Fargo adventure, and if you liked that debut novel, you'll enjoy Panama Gold just as much. There's action, adventure, sex, boozing, gambling...pretty much everything you'd ever want in a book like this, all told with Benteen's skillful economy of words. These are definitely the sorts of books you buy as soon as you can, read as quickly as you can, and then you sit around slightly miffed that you'll have to wait so long to get your hands on the next volume.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Four Rules to Make STAR WARS Great Again

I've loved the original Star Wars movies ever since I saw RotJ as a little kid in the theater. I went to the theatrical re-releases back in the late 90's, and I actually worked for THX briefly at the end of college as a quality-control screening specialist, and got to see Episode I in theater for free the day it was released.

But the Star Wars of my youth and the Star Wars of "now" are two very different animals, and countless hours of nerdity have been spent trying to explain what makes a true Star Wars story, and what does not. Well, this youtube video, put together by an ad agency packed full of Star Wars nerds, says it all better than I ever could. Enjoy:

There's Never Enough Firepower

I'm finishing the draft of COMMANDO: Operation Cannibal in the next day or two. Currently writing the start of the massive climatic final battle. The previous two books had large end battles as well, but the firepower involved was fairly limited. This time around, let's just say, everything's getting an upgrade...