Friday, December 27, 2013

Book Review: World War Z

The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z
World War Z is Max Brooks' 2006 follow-up to his Zombie Survival Guide, published in 2003. While the serious nature of World War Z is apparent from the beginning, the Survival Guide has inexplicably been marketed as a humor book. Anyone approaching the Survival Guide expecting a laugh might be disappointed, though. Its tone is entirely serious and fits a lot better in the sci-fi genre than comedy. While the survival aspects of the book could possibly be seen as satirical, the sections about zombie behavior, the nature of solanum (the zombie virus), and historical cases of zombie attacks clearly aren't meant to be funny. In fact, they represent solid sci-fi world building that forms the basis for Brooks' World War Z. Two or three references to "the civilian survival manual" in the latter book reveals the Survival Guide to be an in-universe text.

An Oral History of the Zombie War
While The Zombie Survival Guide acts as a primer for surviving a zombie apocalypse of the kind shown in George Romero's Living Dead films, World War Z purports to a be "an oral history of the Zombie War" compiled ten years after the war's official end. The author, a U.N.-supported historian, traveled around the world and interviewed a number of individuals involved in key events of the war to create the account. The author contributes little in the way of narration or a historical framework since the audience is assumed to already know about the key events of the war. This means that real-world readers have to piece together a broader historical outline based on indirect statements by interviewees. For example, the book never directly tells the reader what the "Great Panic" was, the first interviewee that mentions the Special Forces "Alpha Teams" simply assumes that the audience knows what they were, and the vital "South Africa Plan" is referenced several times before the interview describing its inception finally reveals what the plan was. Brooks leaves behind enough hints and clues to figure out what happened during the Zombie War, but readers will have to correlate each piece of information for themselves.

The first interview documents one of the earliest known outbreaks of the solanum virus in China (although the actions of the Chinese government suggests that previous outbreaks had been contained and kept secret). The virus spreads as infected refugees attempt to flee the country while outbreaks occur in far-flung locations such as Brazil when infected organs from Chinese "donors" (most likely executed political dissidents) are implanted into recipients. At the time, the nature of the virus and the fact that its apparently insane, cannibalistic victims are actually mindless reanimated corpses is unknown to the vast majority of people. Government coverups only make things worse and before long there are hordes of the living dead roaming through almost every country.

Although it isn't necessary to read The Zombie Survival Guide before reading World War Z, it's in this first portion that the information on zombie physiology and behavior found in the Survival Guide is helpful. For example, the doctor who investigates the earliest known Chinese outbreak first examines the bite wounds of several individuals who tried to subdue a teenage victim of the virus. The doctor is amazed to find that the villagers' wounds are entirely free of bacterial infection. This is meant to be an ominous sign, but only if you had read the Survival Guide. In the guide we learn that the solanum virus is lethal to nearly all forms of life (but will only reanimate human bodies) and actually repels any number of species. This is why a zombie can remain a threat for years; insects, bacteria, scavengers, etc. that would normally consume the average corpse are either killed by infected flesh or will avoid it at all costs. The villagers' wounds show no signs of infection because the solanum virus has eliminated any bacteria that might have infected the wound.

Anyway, the first part of World War Z builds up to the "Great Panic" that sees the fall of civilization as we know it and the death (and undeath, in many cases) of more than half the world's population. This is where most of the novel's horror is found and is the point where the average zombie story ends. Where Brooks really shines is in his vision of what happens next.

While the walking dead continue to make appearances, the second section focuses on the living and their efforts to gather survivors, form safe zones, conserve resources, and prepare to go on the offensive. The third part covers the reversal of the course of the war, the changes in military doctrine needed to defeat the living dead, and the eventual victory over the zombie hordes. The author also spends a lot of time showing the geopolitical consequences of a worldwide brush with annihilation. Events such as China's conversion to democracy, Russia's return to a czarist system, and Cuba's wartime renaissance are revealed during the course of the interviews. Without going into too much detail, the novel explains how the interaction between politics, geography, history, culture, religion, and military response to the zombie menace leads to the post-war world.

World War Z as Serious Sci-Fi
Bizarrely, the copyright page of World War Z classifies the novel as "War-Humor". First, World War Z isn't remotely funny. Brooks has attempted to realistically depict the collapse of modern society in the face of an unimaginable horror. Second, the author clearly put a lot of thought into the hard choices and sacrifices that would have to be made as well as the tactics and equipment that would be needed to reverse a zombie apocalypse.

While the zombies are defeated, there's no Hollywood ending to Brooks' story. Characters are traumatized, for every person who rises to the challenge there are many more who give up or give in to their baser instincts, many who are rescued from years of being under siege are resentful, and the victory is so hard won that no one can even find the energy or the heart to celebrate.

Finally, the depth of the author's sci-fi world building and the extent to which he explains why his post-war world takes the form that it does are far beyond what I had expected out of a zombie novel, let alone one designated as "humor". Rather, it reminds me of the post-Formic War Earth that Orson Scott Card developed for his Ender's Game series. Contrary to my original expectations, World War Z turns out to be a serious and well thought out science fiction story.

About World War Z's Zombies
In the acknowledgements, Brooks thanks "the genius and terror of George A. Romero". It's apparent in both The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z that Brooks is a huge fan of the Living Dead films and of the now-classic "Romero Zombie"; i.e., a slow moving, mindless flesh eater that can only be killed by destroying its brain. Brooks' living dead are so similar to Romero's that one could easily think of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequels as describing incidents that occurred during World War Z's Great Panic.

As far as I'm aware, Romero never explained in detail the exact nature of the zombie disease. This is where Brooks steps in. As described in the Survival Guide, the solanum virus affects every cell in the body, turning each into a more or less independent entity. Shooting a zombie in the chest does no good, since its body doesn't require the use of any of the organs that could be affected. The only organ that still has any function is the brain itself, which continues to coordinate the zombie's movement and drives it to consume living flesh.

Any attempts to kill a zombie that doesn't involve destroying the brain are bound to fail. This frequently comes into play in World War Z, particularly at the disastrous Battle of Yonkers. The modern weaponry used by the U.S. Army in that early battle was designed to kill living soldiers by shredding them or causing severe blast injuries. Weapons that were expected to be 100% lethal within a certain radius ended up being only partially successful against the living dead. Without enough antipersonnel weaponry to defeat the horde, and with soldiers trained to shoot at an enemy's center of mass rather than the head, the Army is routed and forced to retreat with heavy losses. The living are only able to reverse the tide of the war by adopting radically new tactics.

The Novel versus the Film
Since I haven't seen the movie yet, I can't compare the two with any level of detail, nor can I judge the quality of the film. However, the ads alone show that World War Z (2013) is fundamentally different from the novel it's supposedly based on. The whole point of the novel is to provide a history of the entirety of the war through the experiences of various individuals. The film, on the other hand, appears to focus on the real-time experience of a single character. How can you depict a "world war" when you spend most of your time with a single person?

Another huge change is in the nature of the zombies. Max Brooks' slow-moving zombies are threatening due to their weight of numbers and relentlessness. While it's common for people to laugh at a monster that you can escape by walking away at a brisk pace, imagine that there are millions of flesh-eaters that never sleep, never rest, and never stop hunting. A would-be survivor can easily escape one swarm just to run into another one. The novel's plot is directly shaped by the creatures' behavior.

Instead of the shambling horror, the film's menace consists of the newer "fast zombies". While I'm sure that fast zombies can be pretty darned scary too, it's not really an adaptation of Brooks' best-selling World War Z if the creatures that Brooks has painstakingly developed are fundamentally altered.

In the 1990s, a screenplay entitled Hardwired, which told the story of a robot uprising, was shopped around to various companies. It was eventually picked up by 20th Century Fox and, at the studio's insistence, it was altered to include Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robots. The final product became I, Robot (2004) which, although fairly good, has little to do with Asimov's novel.

The cynic in me suspects that, like I, Robot, the makers of World War Z never had any intention to follow the novel's plot and bought the rights to the name for marketing purposes. The fact that Max Brooks never even read the script seems to confirm this.

A Word on the Language
Just like Dan Simmons' Hyperion, which I also enjoyed, World War Z contains a lot of strong language. Like Simmons, Brooks uses it as a distinguishing trait of several of his interviewees. American combat personnel tend to use it the most, whereas swearing is almost entirely absent in the interviews of foreign civilians. Although I recognize that many people speak this way in reality (and I often work with people who swear just as frequently), it still seemed unnecessary. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to readers of science fiction and fans of zombie stories in particular, although I can only recommend it to mature adults who are not easily offended.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Christmas Tradition Continues

A few years ago I mentioned our family's annual tradition of going to the Hallmark Store and buying ornaments for the Christmas tree. This year, as usual, we put the tree up the day after Thanksgiving and went to buy the new ornaments on Saturday. Although this is our usual time to buy them, we were surprised to find that a couple ornaments we wanted were sold out. Fortunately, the store allowed us to buy the display models (they even had the boxes in their store room) and a crisis was averted.

In 2010 I bought Captain Kirk, who was the first in the series. The next year I got Spock and the year after that I bought Doctor McCoy. Predictably, this year's ornament ended up being Scotty. As fate would have it, Scotty was one of the ornaments that had been sold out. Our theory is that a) the original Star Trek series isn't popular enough to justify stocking a lot of them and/or b) the unusual number of engineers living in our area means that there are a lot of geeks around that want to have the Chief Engineer of the USS Enterprise on their tree.

Having already hung Kirk, Spock, and McCoy on our tree the day before, and being one of those engineers that idolizes Starfleet's "Miracle Worker", I had to get Scotty even if it was the display model. Fortunately the model looked like it had just come out of the box and I went home a happy Trekkie.

Except for our youngest, who still thinks everything that falls into his hands is supposed to go into his mouth, each kid was allowed to choose his or her own ornament (while Bride of Atomic Spud decided that the youngest wanted Spider-Man). Our oldest daughter's choice received my enthusiastic approval:

Our daughter finished The Hobbit last year when I promised to take her to the movies if she read the novel first. She loved the book, loved An Unexpected Journey, and can't wait to see The Desolation of Smaug. When we reached the Hallmark Store there was absolutely no hesitation on her part; she walked directly to the display and immediately grabbed the first Bilbo Baggins ornament she saw.

My wife often worries that our daughter will have a hard time in junior high.

Friday, November 29, 2013

There's No Accounting for Taste (In Movies)

Talk about blog neglect. While the 40K blog has seen relatively regular updates, I've not touched the original Atomic Spud blog in nearly two months. I keep intending to post another May Day Movie Marathon review, but those darn things can take me hours, especially when I've not seen the film in months and have to refresh my memory.

So bad it's good
While on the subject of movie reviews, I started thinking about how irrational one's taste in movies can be. The idiom "there's no accounting for taste" (i.e., people's preferences are often inexplicable) best describes it. While looking over the movies I watched back in late April, it struck me that the films I liked the most varied wildly in tone and quality.

One of my favorites was The Manster (1959) (sometimes called The Split). This bizarre American/Japanese sci-fi film could not be called "good" by any objective standard: the movie is as exploitative as they could get away with in the late '50s, the acting is stiff, the costumes are goofy, and the science is absurd. The Manster seems to go out of its way to make the characters unlikeable while leaving us completely in the dark with regards to their motivations. Despite all this (or maybe because of it), I loved the film.

On the opposite end of the cinematic bell curve is Orson Welles' The Stranger (1946). The movie features Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Wilson; a member of the United Nations War Crimes Commission tasked with hunting down Franz Kindler. Kindler (played by Orson Welles) is a Nazi war criminal who had the presence of mind to ensure that no photographs or any other physical evidence remained behind to identify him. It turns out that Kindler has settled in a small Connecticut town and used his knowledge of history and the ability to perfectly mimic an American Accent to create a new identity as the popular prep school teacher Charles Rankin. Knowing what awaits him if he's caught, Kindler will go to any lengths to protect his secret, even if it means killing the woman he claims to love.

So good it's... also good
The acting is great (as you'd expect from Edward G. Robinson and Orson Welles) and the plot is engaging. Since The Stranger never shies away from the nature or magnitude of the Holocaust, and because Welles is in full cold, calculating sociopath mode, the audience immediately shares Wilson's urgency to bring Kindler to justice. In other words, The Stranger is a genuinely good movie.

So why in the world did I like both The Manster and The Stranger? The only way that I can put it is that the former is so bad that it's good and the latter is simply good. And while I enjoyed both, I'm sure there are plenty of people who wouldn't care for the silly sci-fi movie while having little patience for the pacing of a film from the mid-'40s.

Taste in movies is a funny thing. Every once in a while, a few members of our 40K gaming group get together before the game to watch an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. We've watched quite a few abysmal movies, but few have reached the depths that The Creeping Terror (1964) hits. Yet, as abysmal as this movie is, I've watched it three times. One of our fellow gamers has said that he would rather watch it again than re-watch Twilight (2008). Despite the hatred that my peers have for Twilight and its sequels, I've never had a problem with the two I've seen (at least they're better than The Creeping Terror).

The only way a squad of soldiers can be eaten by the
Creeping Terror is if their guns have a 5' range

Speaking of movies that people loathe, despite the common declaration that it's the "worst movie ever!", I found that Battlefield Earth (2000) didn't even fall into my list of 10 worst films. It was silly but it was fairly entertaining. In fact, my only complaint was that it wasn't nearly as bad as people had said it was.

Even stranger than my interest in b-movies is my disinterest in movies that enjoy a wide appeal. Of course there are exceptions (nearly all of them being sci-fi or fantasy films), but in general I avoid most action movies, comedies, and dramas. (Although if a film has a production date before 1970 I might give it a chance.) For example, a few years ago I finally saw the majority of The Bourne Identity (2002) and the first half of The Bourne Supremacy (2004). While they kept me reasonably entertained, it's unlikely that I'll ever watch either of these movies again, nor do I have any interest in seeing their sequels. Almost as soon as the movies were over, I could barely remember their plots and, other than Jason Bourne himself, I couldn't describe any of the characters. Compare that to the fact that I can recall the storyline of The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1959), It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), or the ever-amusing Fiend Without a Face (1958) even though I've seen each movie only once.

I guess there's no accounting for taste.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Brief Thought on the Government Shutdown

I've not done a post on politics in a while, mostly because they've become completely uncivil in the past few years. However, I thought I'd throw in my two cents on the government shutdown.

I'll start with saying that my company is directly affected by the shutdown. There is a possibility that, if the shutdown goes too long, the funds that my company is coasting on will dry up and I'll be facing a furlough. Thus, the effects of the shutdown aren't exactly theoretical to me.

I'm not entirely happy that the GOP decided to use the budget as the tool to try to get concessions on the hilariously misnamed "Affordable Care Act". At the same time, I can see why the Republicans think this may be their only real chance to take the ACA head on. The ACA was a ridiculously partisan law that was passed along party lines. As far as I know, the law had absolutely no input from the GOP. Many believe that the GOP's gains in Congress the following election year were primarily caused by the passage of a law that was so unpopular with the American public. Many Republican representatives see their election as a mandate to repeal or reform Obamacare.

What really annoys me is how much the media and others are calling this "the Republicans' shutdown". It's not the Republicans' shutdown, it's Congress' shutdown. The government didn't shutdown because Republicans wanted it to, it shutdown because the GOP wanted to negotiate some concessions. Unfortunately, the Democrats, led by Harry Reid (a ridiculous clown that should have been put out to pasture years ago) were entirely unwilling to negotiate and apparently preferred the tactic of name-calling. Since the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate couldn't agree, the government shutdown.

Here's the problem, Mr. Reid; because we don't live in a single party dictatorship, you have to make make concessions if you want something in return. Our political system was actually designed to work this way to promote moderation. However, you've decided instead to behave like a petulant child since you can't immediately have everything your way. When the Republicans try to do something civil, like offer to fund important parts of the government until a solution can be reached, you scream "no deal!" and then return to lamenting that the GOP doesn't care about furloughed workers. When the Republicans support a bill to ensure that furloughed workers receive back pay when the government shutdown is over, you claim that it shows that the GOP doesn't care how long the shutdown lasts.

Harry Reid's idea of negotiation in good faith

This is why our political system has become so uncivil in recent years. People like Reid don't see the other side as earnest but mistaken, they see them as mustache-twirling villains.

I would argue that this shift in mindset over the past 10 to 15 years is the cause of most of the so-called crises in Washington. When people refuse to accept that their opponents may simply be wrong or just have a different opinion and instead insist that they're actually evil and have impure motives, then you have a recipe for constant deadlock and vicious partisanship.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Warhammer 40K-Related Blog Neglect

Unfortunately, I've been slow in posting more May Day Movie Marathon reviews. Although relatively brief (the last two reviews came in at about 1600 and 1800 words, respectively), the reviews can take me several hours to finish. Much of this is because I'm a bit obsessive-compulsive and re-read and edit the whole essay repeatedly.

I've not been inactive in blogging, though. Since my last Atomic Spud blog post on July 4th, I've posted five times on my Warhammer 40,000 blog, which has become more popular than this blog ever was. During its heyday, the Atomic Spud blog was regularly getting 3,000+ pageviews per month. At its peak in October 2012, the blog received 4,851 pageviews in a single month. It's been downhill from there; nowadays I'm lucky if I get 1,600. Disappointingly, the majority of the pageviews have come from Google's image search and represent people looking for pictures of monsters that appeared in my "31 Monsters of October" series that led up to Halloween 2010. I believe the pageviews dried up because Google doesn't list my images as high up as it used to.

By comparison, the 40K blog reached 5,565 pageviews a couple months ago and is on track to beat that record this month. The army I play, Space Marines, will soon be getting an update and my posts on the subject have become rather popular. The best part is that many visitors are people who are looking for actual content rather than just images. The blog has a number of followers who regularly visit and leave comments. Late one month I even got an email from a follower asking if I was going to be updating the blog soon; I guess he looks forward to blog updates and was worried that I wasn't going to post that month.

Anyway, I hope to post more May Day movie reviews once I've finished these guys:

Obviously there's more to them than just the heads.

My close combat Terminator Squad has taken up much of my free time since early July, which doesn't leave me much time for movie reviews. I expect to have the models done in a couple weeks, after which I'll take a short break before starting another set. Hopefully I'll get in a few reviews during the down time. I still have a hard sci-fi film from the '30s, a living brain movie, a Korean daikaiju eiga, a couple low-budget b-movies, and an Orson Welles film to cover.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

May Day Movie Marathon, Part V

Red Planet Mars (1952)
Given its name, I had expected Red Planet Mars to be either one of a number of mission to Mars movies or a Martian invasion film. Well, it turns out to be neither and was actually one of the more surprising movies I watched during the May Day Marathon. There will be spoilers, as usual.

Using an experimental communications device called a hydrogen valve, Chris and Linda Cronyn attempt to make contact with Mars. Telescopic images of the planet show that enormous changes have occurred on the planet's surface in a short period of time, including the melting of huge quantities of ice to fill the canals that crisscross the face of Mars. It seems apparent that an advanced society exists on the planet, but the only response that the Cronyns are receiving is a repetition of their own signals. As the scientist couple and their military backers debate whether or not the signal is an echo of the original or simply a failure to communicate with the Martians, the Cronyns' son suggests that they use pi to communicate. Certainly an advanced race would understand the concept of pi and, if sent the first few digits of the sequence, would recognize the pattern and continue it.

The nature of the hydrogen valve means that the signal can't be intercepted unless someone else has one. In an isolated shack on a snowy mountainside, Nazi war criminal Franz Calder, the hydrogen valve's inventor, has been listening in on the Cronyns. Calder's employer is the Soviet Union, which sprang him from prison in exchange for their own hydrogen valve system. The Nazi scientist has been unable to contact Mars himself, but he has been able to eavesdrop on the Cronyns' signals. Calder's handlers are displeased by the lack of contact with the Red Planet, but they're intrigued by the ability to listen in on the American's attempts. The Soviets are nearly as excited as the Americans when Calder reports that the Cronyns have finally received a response that wasn't merely the repetition of the original signal; a continuation of the pi sequence.

The Cronyns begin exchanging mathematical formulas with the intention of forming a basis for an extraterrestrial dialog. Their first real questions are very simple, but the responses have a devastating effect on Earth and especially the Western world. When the Martians are asked how long they live, the answer is "300 Earth years". Further responses reveal that Mars can feed 1000 beings with a half an acre of farmland and that they harness cosmic energy to run their advanced society. With the realization that Martian technology could make wide swaths of the West's economy obsolete, chaos ensues. Each revelation causes prices to plummet and industries to collapse. Obviously, the Soviet Union is delighted. With their Western adversaries on the ropes, the Soviet Central Committee begins to plan a preemptive strike.

Upset at the effect their work is having on the world, the Cronyns finally ask how the Martians have avoided destroying each other despite the amazing power at their command. Strangely, this question doesn't receive an immediate answer like the others did. Concerned that subsequent responses could make things even worse, the military decides that all further signals received by the hydrogen valve will be sent directly to the Pentagon for translation without being released to the public or the Cronyns themselves. However, when the surprising response to the last question is translated, it starts a debate between the military and the President on whether or not the answer should be revealed. When it's finally released, chaos again follows, but in the Soviet Union.

The Martians say that they took the Cronyns' question to their supreme leader, although the context of the Martian's term "supreme leader" suggests a godlike being. The leader's response: "Seven lifetimes ago you were told to love goodness and hate evil. Why have you denied the truth?" The time frame mentioned (seven Martian lifetimes is around 2,100 years) and the content of the response implies that the Martians follow a Judeo-Christian religion(!) and that the "godlike" supreme leader may be more than just godlike.

Subsequent messages begin to arrive from Mars, each more overtly religious than the last. Franz Calder reports the messages to his handlers faster than the Pentagon can get them to the press. Although the Central Committee attempts to hide these messages from the Soviet people, there are enough concealed radios to get the word out and the Soviet system rapidly begins to collapse. Hating his Soviet masters as much as he does the Americans, Calder becomes more delirious with each message until, one night, his cabin is buried in an avalanche.

As the religious messages restore stability to the Western world, the Soviet Union is restructured and an interim government composed of long-oppressed spiritual leaders is formed. An Earth that was on the brink of nuclear war has finally found peace and Chris and Linda Cronyn are happy to have been a part of changing the world. However, they're disappointed that they've stopped receiving any additional signals. It's at this point that Franz Calder shows up.

Calder survived the avalanche and had made his way to the United States to confront the people who had been using his design. The war criminal pulls out the notebook he had kept in his cabin and gleefully reveals that he had sent the early messages for his own amusement. By timing the response just right and bouncing the signal off the atmosphere, he had made it look like the answers were coming from Mars. But, he admits, it was brilliant of the Americans to start making up their own religious messages to destabilize the Soviet Union. When the Cronyns asked how the Martians had avoided annihilating each other, Calder had intended to answer with "one tribe must hold the power". But when he saw what the religious messages were doing to the Soviets, he decided to keep his handlers in the dark. Although Linda refuses to believe that the latter messages were faked by the President or the Pentagon, Chris isn't so sure. It doesn't matter what either of them thinks, says Calder. The first few messages were faked and there have been no transmissions since Calder's shack and hydrogen valve were destroyed. He's taken the liberty of inviting the press to the Cronyns' lab with the intention of revealing the hoax he had played on the world.

With only a few minutes left before the press arrive, and knowing that the revelation would inevitably lead to war, the Cronyns make a desperate decision. The hydrogen valve is aptly named; hydrogen is a vital element of the device's function and Chris secretly starts to release the flammable gas into the lab while Linda prepares to light a cigarette. The Cronyns' suspicious behavior gives them away and Calder prevents them from sparking the lighter just as another message arrives. Knowing that only another hydrogen valve (or a genuine Martian transmission) could send such a message, Calder fires a gun at the transmitter and blows the Cronyns and himself to smithereens.

When the U.S. President gives the eulogy at the Cronyns' memorial, he announces the Pentagon's translation of the final, incomplete message; "ye have done well, my good..."

Compared to the other '50s sci-fi films I've seen, this one was very unusual. While many of them had religious overtones (e.g., The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)), few were as overtly religious as this one. Additionally, most films that I've seen from this era portray American fears of nuclear war or the spread of communism metaphorically (e.g., Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)) rather than explicitly. What surprised me most about the film was the Cronyns' willingness to kill themselves and Calder to cover up what they briefly believed to be a hoax. Before the final transmission was received and the truth of the religious messages was confirmed, the heroes of Red Planet Mars were preparing to blow themselves up to protect a pious lie. While I expect this kind of thing in the more cynical films of later decades (protection of a pious lie is the whole point of the climax to The Dark Knight (2008)), I certainly didn't expect it in a film from the early '50s.

Although an interesting film, Red Planet Mars has a few weaknesses, several of which I didn't realize until well after seeing the movie. First of all, I found it a bit unbelievable that the "Martians'" response would so quickly lead to an economic collapse. Even if the Western world believed that the Martians could feed 1000 people on a half acre of crops, why would Earth's food prices drop so quickly? Why would so many people think that the Martians would necessarily share that technology with us, that they would do so immediately, and that humanity could implement it at once? Maybe there would be some effect, but I don't think humanity is quite that rash.

The fact that some of the messages were Calder's and the rest were genuine introduces several plot holes. The "seven generations" statement in the first real message is meant to coincide with the time of Christ, indicating that the Martians follow His teachings. However, the film's climax tells us that all the previous messages, including the one saying that Martians live up to 300 years, came from Calder. Did the Nazi simply guess right on the Martian lifespan? Why were the Martians silent during the time that Calder was sending the Americans false transmissions? In light of the fact that only the religious communications were genuine, how was the Pentagon able to translate them using the methods developed to translate Calder's false ones? Why didn't the Martians start their communications with something more basic like "Greetings, we'd like to share an important message with you"?

It's worth noting that the scene before Calder's appearance in the U.S. shows the Cronyn family listening contently to the declaration of world peace on the radio. In other words, it could have acted as a happy and heartwarming '50s movie ending. The apparent finality of this scene, combined with Calder's unlikely survival and appearance in the Cronyns' lab, has caused some reviewers to suspect that the movie's final sequence was a last minute addition. I believe that the plot holes introduced by Calder's claims confirm that the final scene wasn't part of the original plot and was added to increase the drama of the film. All internal consistency goes out the window the very moment the Nazi scientist claims that the first transmissions came from his shack. While it's an affecting scene, and quite possibly my favorite of the movie, it shows a degree of sloppiness on the part of the filmmakers.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

May Day Movie Marathon, Part IV

The Manster (1959)
If The Ghoul (1933) doesn't deliver on the horror or (off-screen) carnage, then The Manster more than makes up for it. The movie was made for an American company, United Artists, but it was filmed in Japan with a mix of both Japanese and American cast and crew members. The movie's tone is a mix, too: it feels like an American sci-fi/horror movie from that era (I'm reminded of The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1959)), but the creature's look and origin are as bizarre as any I've ever seen in a Japanese monster movie.

Before we even get to the opening credits, some sort of hairy creature sneaks into a home and brutally kills at least three women. Coincidentally, I watched this movie right after the nearly bloodless The Ghoul. The Manster seems to go out of its way to underscore the difference between a British film of the early '30s and an American/Japanese film of the late '50s by actually splashing blood across a window as the opening titles appear.

We soon find ourselves in the mountain laboratory of Doctor Robert Suzuki, amoral scientist extraordinaire. Immediately upon entering the office, Suzuki asks his secretary, Tara, if "he" has come back. Tara says that she locked him into the laboratory and hands Suzuki a gun. "He" turns out to be Kenji, the most recent product of the good Doctor's work. In his lab, we see that the Doctor keeps a hideously deformed woman named Emiko locked in a cage. When Kenji appears, Dr. Suzuki takes the opportunity to inform the audience that Kenji is his brother and an experiment gone wrong... I mean, he "reminds" the mutated Kenji that he's his brother and an experiment gone wrong. Suzuki finishes off the creature with the pistol and dumps the body into his convenient monster-disposal system; i.e., a shaft that leads into the volcanic heart of the mountain.

Dr. Suzuki goes back up to the front office to find American reporter Larry Stanford. After working for several years as a foreign correspondent in Japan, Larry has been assigned to interview the enigmatic scientist before heading home to his wife in New York. The audience gets another healthy dose of exposition as Dr. Suzuki describes his work on evolution and claims that he has found a way to chemically replicate the effects of the mutagenic cosmic rays that bathed prehistoric Earth.

During this interview, Dr. Suzuki does some "harmless" questioning of his own, claiming that the scientist in him is simply curious. The oddest question is whether or not the reporter has had 'any other companionship' while he's been away from his wife. Larry is mildly offended by the question, but says that he's been "a good boy". This seems to satisfy Suzuki who has pulled down a bottle from the back of his liquor cabinet. After the liquor puts Larry out, Dr. Suzuki injects the reporter with a mysterious fluid.

That's right, Suzuki has decided to continue his experiments literally minutes after having to put down his brother. The hallmark of a good mad scientist is persistence.

When Larry comes to, he accepts the Doctor's offer to see the local sights before returning to the States. It's immediately apparent that Suzuki's mystery chemical has affected a change on Larry. Despite having remained faithful for several years away from home, Larry now seems eager to participate in drunken debauchery on the eve of his return trip while being surrounded by plenty of geishas. When Suzuki includes the attractive Tara in an "innocent" trip to the local mineral baths, Larry abandons all thoughts of returning home. This sudden change in plans and personality have both Larry's wife and Ian, Larry's boss and friend, extremely worried.

Larry's wife is flown out in an attempt to convince him to come back with her, but things don't go well when she catches him and Tara returning to his apartment after a night on the town. Given the choice between his wife and his mistress, Larry dramatically chooses the latter. Despite her threat, his wife decides to stay in Japan for a while longer in hopes of winning him back.

Larry's personality isn't the only thing that's changing. He's had a sore shoulder since the surreptitious injection, but the confrontation with his wife seems to have exacerbated whatever changes are occurring to him. The most minor of these is the scaly patch that's formed around the sore spot. Of greater concern is the fact that his right hand has sprouted hair and claws. That night, the distraught man wanders through the village before entering a monastery. After ranting for a while, Larry kills the Shinto priest.

The next day finds Larry anxious and unable to remember what he's done. He becomes extremely solitary, drinks heavily, and has little patience for Ian's attempts to talk with him. It's during his nighttime wanderings that the creature spawned by Dr. Suzuki's injection completely takes over his personality and he begins stalking and murdering young women. Meanwhile, Suzuki is excited by the obvious changes in Larry, who he says is becoming a new species thanks to his formula. It's not apparent whether or not the Doctor knows that his latest experiment has become as violent as his last.

In a final effort to help his friend, Ian introduces Larry to a psychiatrist. Almost immediately after he drives the two men out of his apartment, Larry experiences a sudden sharp pain in his shoulder...

Up to this point, The Manster has given us a pseudo-werewolf that kills at night and has no memory of his deeds. The only difference between Larry Stanford and Larry Talbot (it's interesting that both are named "Larry") is that Larry Stanford's transformation thus far is only partial and doesn't go away with the rising of the sun. It's after the psychiatrist leaves that The Manster gets seriously weird.

Larry pulls off his robe to find that the scaly patch on his shoulder has turned into an eye!

And I immediately loved this movie

Larry immediately makes a beeline for the psychiatrist's office, kicks in the doors, and frightens the shrink into calling the police. As the horrified doctor watches, Larry's extra eye grows into a hideous second head! Not wanting to be left out, his original face also becomes monstrous. The psychiatrist is dispatched and the two-headed fiend escapes before the police arrive. However, the fact that Larry had been screaming at the doctor only a few hours before makes Ian suspicious.

Did I mention that I love this movie?

Ian admits his fears to the police chief and the local law enforcement are soon on the lookout for the mutant reporter. A long series of chases ensue, with Larry leaving several dead cops in his wake. When the monster returns to his apartment, he comes face to face with his wife, who promptly faints. The chase then continues to the nearby shipyard, where the police again fail to catch the creature. (The police in this movie are about as effective as the Godzilla films' JDF.)

Back at the laboratory, we see that Dr. Suzuki (who has had only one short scene in the past 40 minutes) is finally feeling pangs of conscience. He's developed another serum that he believes will separate Larry from the monster if he's exposed to heat. To further atone for his actions, he's decided to commit ritual suicide. But first he dispatches Emiko, his wife(!), whose deformity had been the result of voluntarily taking an early form of the serum.

Before Suzuki can off himself, though, Larry arrives at the mountain laboratory, which is experiencing significant volcanic activity. The fiend leaves Tara unconscious in the office before stalking into the lab itself. The Doctor quickly injects him with the second serum before being killed. With the police in hot pursuit, Larry escapes the lab and grabs Tara. While running across the mountain, he passes by several volcanic vents. The heat from the vents activates the serum, which causes the two-headed man to split into two beings; Larry himself and the murderous creature that's been growing on his right side. (The waistband of Larry's pants is strangely intact considering that the right side of his body just tore free and became a big furry creature.)

There's a brief struggle between the two and Larry is knocked to the ground. The monster, being a jerk, throws Tara into a volcanic vent. In return, Larry pushes his ugly twin into the same vent. It's only after eliminating his own alibi that his wife and the police show up. As Larry is carried away on a stretcher, Ian and the world's most patient wife contemplate the good and evil present in each man.

The Manster has all the marks of high quality cinema: mad science, serial killing monsters, and a creature that spends the last half hour of the movie with two heads. The best part is that we have no idea what Dr. Suzuki is trying to accomplish. He babbles on about evolution and is apparently trying to create a new race of being, but he doesn't seem to have any real goal. What kind of being is he trying to make? Does he want to evolve the human race or devolve it? What is his purpose? He seems to think that Larry's post-injection hedonism is a good sign, but is that really indicative of what he wants? He's disappointed when he produces bloodthirsty monsters, but isn't that kind of the logical result when you create an evolved/devolved creature with no self-control? In the end it doesn't really matter because Dr. Suzuki gives us a murderous two-headed monster, which is all I was really asking for.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

May Day Movie Marathon, Part III

The Ghoul (1933)
The early 1930s saw the release of a number of American horror films from Universal Pictures that are familiar to American and European audiences 80 years later (although precious few have actually taken the time to sit down and watch them). Dracula (1931) is usually credited with starting the trend, followed by Frankenstein in that same year. Subsequent films included The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) (although more of a sci-fi film than a horror movie), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Lesser known movies filled the latter half of the decade, including a second Frankenstein sequel: Son of Frankenstein (1939). A number of pseudo-sequels to The Mummy were released in the early '40s, although the most famous monster movie of that decade is probably The Wolf Man (1941).

While the Universal monster movies were seeing diminishing returns by the '40s, and were eventually reduced to self parody with films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), the earlier movies were very popular. (Those who think sequel-mania is a recent phenomenon might be surprised by how many monster movies of the late '30s and '40s were sequels of these original films.) It wasn't long before filmmakers on the other side of the Atlantic wanted a piece of the monster movie action, particularly in Britain, but the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) had other ideas.

The BBFC was relatively lenient with imported American horror films (Island of Lost Souls (1932) being a notable exception), apparently believing that Brits wouldn't be overly influenced by the product of a foreign culture. However, they were a lot more strict on domestic movies, making it clear to homegrown filmmakers that American-style horror films would not be tolerated. This proved to be unfortunate for Gaumont-British Picture Corporation. Gaumont had been able to convince Boris Karloff, who had decided to vacation in his home country after the release of The Mummy, to star in a movie technically based on a crime novel but that included elements strongly influenced by Karloff's recent film. While The Ghoul clearly aspires to be a Universal-style horror film, it's undermined by the limits imposed by the British censors.

Our film starts with the confrontation between an antiques dealer and an adherent to an ancient Egyptian cult. (It's funny how many of these older movies, and even the 1999 version of The Mummy, suggest that significant numbers of modern-day Egyptians worship the ancient pantheon.) The cultist demands the return of a jewel called "the Eternal Light" to the tomb from which it was stolen. The dealer no longer has it, having sold it to a Professor Morlant for a sizable portion of his fortune.

When we finally meet Morlant (Boris Karloff!) we find that he's a true believer in the ways of the ancient Egyptians and believes that the Eternal Light is his key to immortality. As he lays dying, the Professor demands that his servant, Laing (Ernest Thesiger! a.k.a., Dr. Pretorius from The Bride of Frankenstein), wrap the jewel in his hand. Morlant believes that, after his death and burial, he will revive the night of the first full moon so that he can make his offering to Anubis. At "the first hour" (which turns out to be 1 AM rather than midnight as one might expect) he will place the Eternal Light in the open palm of a statue of Anubis. If Morlant is found worthy of eternal life, the statue will close its hand over the jewel, signifying that the offering has been accepted.

The deeply Christian Laing strongly disapproves of his boss's beliefs. Failing to pursade Morlant to give up on his pagan ways, he argues that burying the jewel in Morlant's ersatz-Egyptian tomb will deprive the Professor's heirs of their rightful inheritance. With Karloff's characteristic intensity, Morlant warns that any attempt to deprive him of paradise will cause him to rise from the grave with the full moon to wreak a murderous vengeance. Despite this warning, Laing removes the jewel from his master's hand not long after he expires.

Shortly thereafter, the doctor declares Morlant's death by heart failure. Several people notice that the dead man's hand has been recently wrapped, which raises the suspicions of Morlant's shifty-eyed lawyer, Broughton. While going through Morlant's papers, Broughton couldn't help but to notice that his client recently spent a huge sum of money, but that the item or items it purchased are nowhere to be found. That night Morlant is buried in his tomb where the statue of Anubis that had been watching over his death bed has been relocated. As the pallbearers leave, Broughton sneaks back into the tomb to take a look at the wrapped hand, but finds nothing.

Contrary to my expectations, Laing isn't the stereotypical unscrupulous servant who robs his deceased employer for his own gain. While he does take the jewel from the corpse, he does so because he truly believes that the dead shouldn't rob the living. After hiding the Eternal Light, Laing finds the address of Betty Harlon, one of Morlant's heirs. The servant surreptitiously hands Betty a message, but the paper is immediately stolen by Broughton, who had been shadowing Laing. Not long afterward, Betty is visited by the other surviving heir, Ralph Morlant. Although there is some bad blood between Betty's and Ralph's families, Ralph's meeting with the deceased's attorney earlier in the day has convinced him that Brougton is trying to rob both him and Betty of their inheritance. The two set off to Morlant's mansion with Betty's friend, Kaney. Kaney will be our odious comic relief for the rest of the picture. I still cannot understand filmmakers' insistence on including such characters. Even newer films fall into this trap; Transformers (2007) had at least two such characters, neither of whom accomplished anything except to earn the audience's loathing.

Betty, Ralph, and Kaney arrive at the Morlant house to find Broughton there. Of course, the three put little stock in the attorney's claims that he's simply putting his client's papers in order. These are joined by Parson Hartley, the clergyman who had been rebuffed earlier when he tried to give Morlant his last rights. It's not long before the Egyptian antiquities dealer is knocking at the door, claiming to be an associated of Morlant (which isn't entirely untrue). Meanwhile, the dealer's cultist companion skulks around the house looking for any sign of the Eternal Light.

As the mansion becomes the gathering place for various characters, all of them secretly looking for the same valuable object, I see my Mummy-inspired horror film turning into one of the dreaded "spooky-house mysteries". Past the halfway point, just as I'm starting to despair that Karloff's part at the beginning was just a cameo, we see the full moon rise. Despite his earlier disregard for his master's beliefs, Laing starts to show some trepidation. This turns to outright terror when he sees the door to Morlant's tomb open and its angry occupant stride out.

Oh how I wish we actually got what Karloff's character so chillingly promised.

Morlant stalks around and through the house for much of the rest of the film. Although the cultist is dispatched pretty quickly, Laing is spared when he reveals where he hid the jewel. The rest of the titular ghoul's rampage consists of almost killing several people, much to the disappointment of any viewer who is expecting the kind of body count that contemporary American pictures had. (Despite my desperate pleas, he doesn't kill Kaney.) With only minutes to go before 1 AM, Morlant finally obtains the Eternal Light and returns to his tomb. With a knife taken from the cultist's body, he carves a bloody ankh on his chest and places the jewel in the statue's hand. Betty and Ralph arrive in time to see Morlant's offering and watch in amazement as the statue's hand closes over the jewel. With a shout of joy, Morlant falls to the ground dead.

I wish I could say that this was the end of the movie. I wish I could say that Boris Karloff's Professor Morlant had really been an undead ghoul and that the hand of a "heathen image" really did accept the Eternal Light. The offering scene is actually very well done and had the blessed words "The End" appeared immediately after Morlant's death I would have a much higher esteem for the movie. But no, like I Bury the Living (1958), The Ghoul has to give us a "logical explanation" that's nearly as far-fetched as any supernatural one.

So, how does the statue of Anubis accept the jewel? Well, after Morlant's final death, the hand withdraws into the hole where the statue's stone hand had been originally. It turns out that Parson Hartely is a fraud and that he has spent much of the night chiseling off the hand so that he could hide inside the statue and "accept" the offering (since when did the Egyptians make hollow statues?). As the heirs try to stop the faux-parson, the antiquities dealer shows up and takes the Eternal Light. During the scuffle, a bullet damages the tomb's lamp, which is fed by an outside source (plot point!). The dealer makes his exit, locking Hartley and the heirs in the tomb.

In the meantime, a doctor and the police rush to the Morlant house in response to a phone call Ralph placed before entering the tomb. As expected, the doctor declares his belief that the Professor may have actually suffered from a fit of catalepsy so severe as to be almost indistinguishable from death. (I can't help but to mention that a believer in the ancient Egyptian religion would certainly have insisted on being mummified; a process that would definitely prevent a premature burial.)

While making his escape, the dealer drops the Eternal Light where Kaney can find it. Broughton confronts the fleeing Egyptian, who realizes that the odious comic relief has ended up with the MacGuffin. The villains demand the jewel from Kaney at gunpoint but are held at bay when she threatens to drop it in a well.

Back in the tomb, Hartley, Ralph, and Betty are trying to find a way out. Suddenly, the damaged lamp drops and starts an enormous blaze. Hartley reveals that he had previously installed explosives outside of the doors (obviously he hadn't expected the tomb's owner to simply open the doors for him). The advancing flames set the explosives off and Betty and Ralph escape the tomb while Kaney is saved by the timely arrival of the police (drat!).

As usual, watching Boris Karloff is a pleasure, although he should have gotten a lot more screen time. Thesiger is always fun to watch. And with the exception of the obnoxious Kaney, the other characters are completely forgettable and manage not to damage the film too much. But it's the ending that really brings this movie down. I hate a Scooby-Doo ending, especially when it's in a movie from an era known for its supernatural films.

American films from this period had been unashamedly invoking the supernatural with good results, both at home and abroad. The Ghoul obviously wanted to share in that success, securing an actor who gained his fame in American monster movies and filming a story involving Egyptian mysticism and revenge from beyond the grave. However, in The Mummy, this film's obvious inspiration, Karloff's Imhotep isn't a cataleptic or a thief in disguise. Imhotep actually is undead and he uses genuine mystical powers in an attempt to carry out his fiendish plot. It's possible that The Ghoul's filmmakers thought that a spooky-house mystery with a horrific angle would play better than an outright supernatural movie, although it's suspected that the BBFC's strong disapproval of domestic horror movies might have influenced them to take the path of least resistance; i.e., "logical explanations" and mortal villains who are inevitably brought to justice. It's also very likely that the few deaths we see at Morlant's hands reflect Gaumont's fears that the BBFC might not certify the film.

The worst part is that the supposedly logical explanation is completely ridiculous (I Bury the Living is also guilty of this). The Ghoul would have us believe that immediately after providing a very specific warning regarding what would happen if the Eternal Light wasn't buried with him, Morlant could go into a cataleptic fit that is mistaken for death by the attending doctor, just to conveniently come out of the fit and go on a murderous rampage on the night of the full moon; thus seeming to fulfill his threat in exact detail. Then, the movie wants us to believe that Hartley expects Morlant to place the Eternal Light in Anubis' hand and accordingly modifies the statue, even though Laing is the only one who is privy to the Professor's intentions. A supernatural explanation would have held up a lot better than these outrageous coincidences.

One final nitpick: it's obvious that the filmmakers only read enough about Egyptology to pick up a few names, since the movie's version of Egyptian theology is almost entirely unrecognizable. Although Anubis was the god of mummification and the afterlife, I don't believe that adherents of Egypt's ancient religion called upon him to grant eternal life. That was typically the domain of Osiris and Ra. This kind of historical license can be expected in even the best classic horror movies, though.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

May Day Movie Marathon, Part II

Vincent Price in his least
melodramatic role ever!
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
I first read Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend shortly after seeing the 2007 film adaptation of the same name. As entertaining as it was, I Am Legend (2007) deviates significantly from Matheson's original story, particularly with regards to the climax and the meaning of the title. Despite having a totally different name, The Last Man on Earth is significantly more faithful to its source, to the extent that there are no real surprises for anyone who has read the book.

[Note that this review will contain spoilers for both the film as well as its source.]

Every day of Dr. Robert Morgan's life seems exactly like the one before it. Each morning he wakes up, checks his food supplies, makes sure his generator has enough fuel, does a little woodworking, and drives around the deserted city in his station wagon running errands. Those errands include picking up some fresh garlic, getting new mirrors to replace the smashed ones, throwing corpses into the endlessly burning pit on the outskirts of town, and breaking into homes to stake their undead inhabitants.

As far as he can tell, Dr. Morgan is the "Last Man on Earth", or at least the last living man on Earth. Everyone else succumbed to an invariably fatal disease three years ago... and then awoke looking for human blood. Every night these monsters congregate outside of his home trying to get in. Every night the vampire who was once his friend, Ben Cortman, shouts "Come out, Morgan!" The only thing between Morgan and the vampires are makeshift fortifications, strands of garlic, and mirrors. It also helps that the vampires are relatively weak and lack the intelligence they had in life.

A lengthy flashback reveals that our hero once had a wife and daughter. As the plague swept across the world, Dr. Morgan and others had worked feverishly but futilely to find a cure. Soon some of his fellow laboratory workers had contracted the disease while others like Ben Cortman whispered about the government's sinister reasons for burning the victims' corpses in the massive pit on the edge of town. When the plague hit his household, Morgan told his wife not to let the authorities know that their daughter was ill. While he understood intellectually that the government was burning the victims' bodies in an attempt to contain the disease, he couldn't bear the thought of his daughter being thrown into the smoldering pit. However, a desperate Mrs. Morgan broke down while her husband was at work and called the doctor. Morgan arrived from work later that evening to find an Army truck taking his daughter's body away.

When his wife came down with the disease, Morgan vowed not to let her end up in the pit too. The night after her death, he took her to a nearby field and buried her. In his exhaustion and grief he found himself unable to bury his wife more than a foot or two in the ground. Later that night, while preparing to go to bed, Morgan heard a hoarse voice calling his name. When he opened the door, Morgan found that the bizarre rumors that the plague victims were rising from the dead to prey on the living were most definitely true.

Three years after being forced to kill his undead wife, the last man on Earth has become utterly despondent, his singular immunity to the plague being a curse rather than a blessing. Day after day he searches houses for undead inhabitants and stakes them, but night after night the vampires gather outside his home and torment him. His first glimmer of hope in three years comes one day in the form of a stray dog; the first truly living creature he's seen since the plague completely enveloped the globe. When he finally brings the dog home, its odd behavior concerns him. A blood test shows that the animal isn't immune to the disease after all, and Morgan buries the staked corpse shortly thereafter.

Not long after burying the dog, Morgan finds an even more unexpected surprise during one of his daylight travels: a woman walking through an empty field. The woman, Ruth, startles and runs when he starts yelling, forcing Morgan to chase after her. She's understandably nervous when he takes her to his home near sunset and starts barricading the place. While ecstatic to be speaking to another human being for the first time in years, Morgan starts to suspect that the situation is too good to be true.

When Morgan finally pushes a string of garlic in her face, Ruth nearly vomits. Since one of the characteristics of the infected is an allergic reaction to garlic, the doctor insists that Ruth's blood be tested. She claims that a weak stomach caused the reaction, but other plague symptoms and the vial of vaccine and the syringe that she fails to conceal proves that she's lying. She eventually admits the horrible truth: her people sent her to spy on Morgan. Like herself, Ruth's people are infected but can keep the disease at bay with a vaccine, although many of them remain sensitive to daylight and are therefore nocturnal.

Now, imagine that you believe that you're the last human being on Earth and are convinced that everyone you come across during your daytime hunts is a vampire that must be destroyed. That's right; along with the undead, Morgan has also staked many diseased, but still living, human beings over the past three years. In the eyes of Ruth's people, Morgan is a monster that hunts down and murders innocent people while they sleep.

Soon a well armed mob shows up outside of Morgan's house, destroys all the undead surrounding it, and goes after Morgan himself. The doctor makes a run for it but is eventually caught inside of a church. Having seen that the fiend her people fear is simply a lonely man who didn't know what he was doing, Ruth asks for him to be spared. This goes about as well as can be expected in a movie like this and Morgan takes a few spears to the body. With his last breath, our hero calls his killers freaks and claims that he is the last man on Earth.

I knew beforehand that I would like The Last Man On Earth; it's a Vincent Price movie about a vampire apocalypse! Like Will Smith's I Am Legend, this movie has a strong first half featuring an engaging actor who is able to carry significant portions of the film by himself. While the older movie takes the easy way out and incorporates a lot of voice-over narration to let us in on the protagonist's thoughts, the fact that the narrator is Vincent Price more than makes up for it.

At the same time, I found it lacking in a few places, particularly near the end. By conveying the loneliness and horror of the hero's life as well as it does, it sets the bar for what follows a bit too high. For starters, this horror film isn't all that scary. Only once, when he loses track of time and arrives home late, do the vampires really threaten Morgan. But the creatures' clumsiness and weakness mean that he's able to get back to the safety of his home after only a brief and unsatisfying struggle. Scenes featuring hordes of the undead surrounding your house and calling you out by name should be frightening by their very nature, but the filmmakers present them in a static and unexciting way. The only truly creepy scene is during the flashback when Morgan's wife comes back from the dead. A few more moments like that one would have made The Last Man On Earth a much more effective horror film.

Another shortcoming is in the film's failure to discuss the nature of its sci-fi vampires. All we get from The Last Man On Earth is that the vampires are the result of a disease, that the victims (undead or not) are allergic to garlic and sensitive to light, and that Morgan's stakes are designed to hold open the wound so that "their body seal can't function". We don't get any elaboration on the vampires' self-sealing ability nor why other things like crosses or mirrors also ward them off. Matheson's novel, on the other hand, spends a lot of time explaining why his bacteria-spawned vampires behave according to the legends. The novel's Robert Neville (who isn't a doctor and does his research as a way to distract himself) finds that the vampire bacteria dies when exposed to air. To protect itself, the bacteria introduces a type of glue into the bodies of its victims. Narrow cuts or holes made by bullets seal too quickly for the bacteria to die, but stakes keep the wound open and allow enough air in to kill it. Mirrors and crosses (and Stars of David for those who had been Jewish) work on some vampires since the remnants of their personalities feel remorse or horror when reminded of what they have become. Unfortunately, The Last Man On Earth doesn't go into enough detail and the reason why Morgan feels compelled to replace the mirrors that the creatures smash each night remains unexplained.

Finally, we come to a significant philosophical difference between The Last Man On Earth and I Am Legend. When Neville finds out that he's been killing the living along with the undead, he's devastated. He makes no attempt to escape or hide despite having several weeks or even months between Ruth's warning and her people's attack. It's only when he sees the brutality with which the infected dispatch the undead that he attempts to defend himself, which results in him getting shot before he's captured. Since the infected are certain to execute him (possibly in a very unpleasant manner), Ruth gives Neville some pills to finish off what the gunshot wound started. As the pills do their work, he looks out his cell window at the mobs of the infected and realizes that, to them, he is as frightening and terrible an entity as any vampire had been to him. A being that could walk in broad daylight and killed their friends and family, Neville had become a legend among them.

Like Neville, Dr. Morgan also finds out that he has been killing the living, but if he feels remorse for it he doesn't really show it. Instead of empathizing with the fear and hatred of the infected as Neville does, Morgan calls them freaks and implies that they're no longer human. He had been a likeable character up to this point, but he loses the viewers' sympathy with his refusal to accept that he made a mistake that killed countless innocents.

(I won't go into detail, but even The Last Man On Earth's slightly disappointing ending is better than that of the theatrical cut of 2007's I Am Legend, which tacked an unimaginative Hollywood ending onto an otherwise good movie. The film's alternate ending, which preserves the general idea of Matheson's story, is a lot better.)

On a historical note, horror fans may notice that George Romero's zombie movies (e.g., Night of the Living Dead (1968)) have a lot in common with this film. It's not a coincidence; Romero admitted that he borrowed liberally from Matheson's novel.

Friday, May 3, 2013

May Day Movie Marathon, Part I

With the birth of Son of Atomic Spud II a couple weeks ago, I took a two week vacation from work. As I did with the original Son of Atomic Spud, I liked to spend a few hours holding the baby and watching old movies while Bride of Atomic Spud took a nap. After watching a few movies from my Netflix queue, I found that a number of movies were only going to be available for streaming until May 1st. Since I didn't want to miss them, I decided to work through all the soon to be expired movies on my list.

The dozen movies I watched over my vacation varied wildly in quality, release date, and plot. They ranged from an Orson Welles film noir (excellent) to a Larry Buchanan made for TV movie (wretched). The oldest was released in 1935 and the newest was released in 1967. Oddly enough, four of them were released in the '60s, which is unusual for me since I rarely watch anything made during the period from 1960 to 1976. While there was the usual smattering of American sci-fi pictures, there was also a British horror movie at least partially inspired by The Mummy (1932), an Italian film starring Vincent Price, a Korean kaiju film, and a joint Japanese/American production.

I'll be presenting the movies in the order I watched them (as best as I can remember, anyway). Since the newest of these films is about 46 years old, many of these reviews can be expected to contain spoilers.

The Giant neither comes from another
world nor is it from the unknown. Who
knew that '50s movie posters could
be so deceptive?
Giant from the Unknown (1958)
For whatever reason, an unusual number of my favorite movies were released in either 1954 (e.g., Gojira, Them!, Creature from the Black Lagoon) or 1958 (e.g., It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Fiend Without a Face, The Crawling Eye). Unfortunately, Giant from the Unknown will not be joining this list.

When animal mutilations in a small California mountain town are followed by the brutal murder of a local citizen, Sheriff Parker begins to unfairly suspect amateur geologist Wayne Brooks. Brooks pays little attention to the Sheriff's insistence that he not wander far from town and takes archeology professor Frederick Cleveland and his daughter, Janet, up to Devil's Crag in search of evidence for the existence of "the Diablo Giant". Legend has it that the Diablo Giant was a famous conquistador's lieutenant who went AWOL with several other soldiers. The Giant was purportedly an enormous and brutal man who may have passed through the area in search of fortune and glory. Although Brooks has yet to find any Spanish artifacts at the site, a recent thunderstorm removed a lot of the topsoil and may have uncovered something new.

After an apparently futile search, the three accidentally run across the bones and rusted armor of a number of conquistadors. As the sun begins to set, they find an enormous helmet and breastplate in better condition than the other pieces of armor. Brooks also finds an ax buried deeply in the trunk of a fallen tree that he's unable to remove. Since it's dark when they find the armor, they don't realize that the Diablo Giant himself is nearby and laying under only a few inches of dirt. Earlier Brooks had discovered that the rocks and soil of Devil's Crag have the unusual property of preserving living creatures such as the lizard he found in the middle of a rock. It's only a matter of time before he finds out that it also preserved a very large and angry Spaniard.

The Giant extracts himself from his shallow grave and goes on a small-scale rampage, which includes killing a young woman and kidnapping Janet. As expected, the Sheriff blames this new murder and Janet's disappearance on Brooks and takes him into custody. With the help of Professor Cleveland, Brooks makes his escape and goes in search of the kidnapped girl. When the pursuing Sheriff sees the Diablo Giant for himself, he and Brooks become fast allies and the Sheriff's posse is reassigned to monster-hunting duties.

This movie could have been a lot better. The Diablo Giant looks great as his makeup was done by Jack Pierce himself (Pierce did Karloff's makeup for Frankenstein and The Mummy). The acting is passable and the characters are likable enough. I don't much care for plots in which the local law enforcement persecutes the hero with little evidence, though, especially when it takes time away from the monster. As for the Diablo Giant himself, it's unfortunate that he turns out to be one of those slow and clumsy monsters who likes to commit mayhem off-screen and racks up a disappointingly low body count.

Worst of all, the Diablo Giant isn't really a monster in the traditional sense. Although the movie begins by suggesting that the animal mutilation and the first murder are the result of some sort of curse associated with the Indian burial ground at Devil's Crag, the fact that this is an American film from the '50s means that there's a "rational explanation" for the whole thing. (Well, it's as rational as the idea that an unusually large conquistador can be revived after being buried for 500 years can be.) Since the Diablo Giant doesn't represent any sort of supernatural threat, or even an unnatural mutation, he can be dispatched through relatively conventional means and is, in the end, simply a large man with an ax. That's not nearly as cool as the idea of an undead conquistador who has risen from his grave as the instrument of an Indian curse intended to wreak vengeance on the white man.

It would have been more entertaining
if it actually delivered the Ultimate in
Diabolism or Pure terror
Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space is one of my all time favorite sci-fi/horror stories. Die, Monster, Die! claims to be adapted from that story and shows evidence that the filmmakers were at least somewhat familiar with Lovecraft's writing in general and The Colour Out of Space in particular. However, the film completely abandons the central premise of Lovecraft's story and replaces it with something that had already been done better by other movies.

Immediately after arriving in the small English town of Arkham (the original story's backwoods American setting has been inexplicably transplanted to Britain), scientist Stephen Reinhardt realizes that he's going to have a hard time getting to his final destination. He's been invited to the Witley mansion, the home of his college girlfriend, but no taxis will take him there, the local bike shop won't rent him a bicycle to get there, and none of the locals will even tell him which way to go. After figuring out the general direction, Reinhardt sets out on foot.

While walking to the mansion, Reinhardt passes the "blasted heath" which is dominated by an enormous crater (enjoy it, Lovecraft fans, this is the most obvious reference to The Colour Out of Space you're going to get). The crater is surrounded by scorched and dead trees that disintegrate at a touch. The American eventually arrives at the Witley house just to find that no one will answer his knocking. When the door drifts open itself, Reinhardt invites himself in and quickly comes face to face with Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff!). The wheelchair-bound master of the house doesn't approve of the visitor at all and insists that he leave. He only relents when his daughter Susan greets Reinhardt and it's revealed that Susan's mother, Letitia Witley, invited the foreigner to the house.

Reinhardt is asked to speak to Letitia, who has come down with an odd disease that makes her sensitive to the light. From the shadows of her curtained bed, Susan's mother begs Reinhardt to take her daughter away from the house. Mrs. Witley doesn't really elaborate on her reasons, although she briefly mentions the disappearance of the Witley's maid, Helga. Reinhardt agrees to leave with Susan, but his girlfriend insists on staying until her mother gets better. Shortly after Reinhardt leaves the room, Nahum starts questioning his wife. Letitia laments the blasphemy of Corbin Witley (Nahum's father) and the fact that he was calling upon the powers of the "Outer Ones" when he died (a reference to many of Lovecraft's stories, although I don't believe the Outer Gods or the Great Old Ones are explicitly mentioned in The Colour Out of Space). Nahum declares that the Outer Ones' gift is a blessing, although recent events suggest that the master of the house is seriously deluded.

The butler's mysterious death and burial by Nahum, the locked greenhouse with its pulsing green glow, and the attack by an apparently insane Helga suggests to Reinhardt that something odd is going on at the Witley house. Susan shows Reinhardt a secret entrance to the greenhouse, which proves to contain enormous plants and vegetables. When they follow odd screeches and howls into an adjacent shed, they find a bizarre menagerie of misshapen creatures in cages. The chunks of glowing crystal in the plants' pots leads Reinhardt to conclude that the plants and creatures are radiation-spawned mutations. Susan reveals that Helga, Letitia, and the butler had all worked in the greenhouse before Nahum saw the need to padlock it.

Lo and behold, the "gift" that Nahum Witley believes was sent by the Outer Ones is in fact a radioactive meteor, the bulk of which is being kept in a pit in the mansion's basement. Shortly after Reinhardt and Susan return to the house, Letitia is found to be missing from her bed. The mutated and violent woman is finally found after a drawn out search involving various false scares. After briefly attacking her family, the matriarch takes a fall from a balcony and her horribly deformed body melts away in the rain.

Concluding that the meteor is a punishment for Corbin's sins rather than a gift to restore the fortunes of the Witley house, Nahum goes into the basement to destroy it. The patriarch is attacked by Helga who ends up falling into the meteor's pit. The radioactive crystal shatters, annihilating the mutant maid and transforming Witley into a glowing tinfoil fiend (I assume the monster is played by someone other than Karloff since the venerable actor could hardly walk by this point in his life). In a rare demonstration of heroic competence, Reinhardt defends himself from the monster with the axes decorating the walls of the mansion rather than miscellaneous items like breakaway chairs or tables. An ill-advised rush at Reinhardt sends Mutant Nahum through a guardrail and down to the floor below (there sure is a lot of falling in this movie). The creature's body shatters like stone and the resultant sparking starts a fire. Reinhardt and Susan emerge from the burning house, presumably to start a new life.

Die, Monster, Die! isn't necessarily a bad film, but it's a bit too slow. Worse, it eagerly deviates from its source material and heads off in a decidedly less interesting direction that had already been taken by dozens of movies before it.

Throughout his stories, Lovecraft eschewed the overtly supernatural in favor of science fictional horror. A "Lovecraftian Demon" is typically an ancient transdimensional being rather than a fiend from the Infernal Pit of Judeo-Christian belief. While many of his stories involve cultists who worship or attempt to summon beings such as Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth, the subjects of the cultists' belief are invariably intelligences from distant galaxies or realms outside of our space-time continuum. If you removed the element of horror, these beings are not unlike something you might see on an episode of Star Trek.

While a basic knowledge of who the Old Ones are is often necessary to understand Lovecraft's stories, The Colour Out of Space never explicitly references them. Instead, this particular sci-fi/horror story involves an encounter between a family on a small, out of the way farm and an utterly alien intelligence or intelligences. The beings arrive on Earth by way of a strange meteor that lands near the farmhouse's well and gradually disintegrates. Shortly thereafter, the plant and animal life on the farm begin to transform; the crops grow early in the season and reach an enormous size, although their taste is horrendous. The family even swears that the trees near the meteor's impact site sway by themselves. After a season of riotous growth, the crops and trees turn to ash and the region is changed into what the locals refer to as "the blasted heath".

The plant life isn't merely dying; it's being consumed by the aliens. As lifeforms around the farm are reduced to dust, the intelligences increasingly manifest themselves as an indescribable "colour" that seems to live in or around the well. As they feed on the humans, the affected family members go insane and, like the plants and livestock, are slowly reduced to a gray powder.

Rather than taking advantage of Lovecraft's extremely original alien invasion story, the filmmakers decide to give us the standard radiation-spawned monster story that was ubiquitous in the '50s. Sure, they throw in a reference to the Outer Ones to justify their claim that this is a Lovecraft adaptation, but the film seems to be saying that Corbin's blasphemy and Nahum's belief that the meteor is a gift from the Outer Ones is merely a superstition. The true cause of the tragedy is the disastrous effects of radiation, which the Witleys don't understand but Reinhardt, the scientist, does.

Personally, I'd rather see a more faithful version of Lovecraft's story.

Monday, April 22, 2013

On the INL Plutonium Exposure Controversy

Warning! Do not eat the plutonium!
Recently, my mother brought an AP article published in the Idaho Falls Post-Register and the online version of The Oregonian to my attention. The article briefly discusses a complaint filed with OSHA against Battelle Energy Alliance (BEA) by two employees. In 2011, 16 employees, including the two who filed the complaint, were exposed to plutonium contamination at the Materials and Fuels Complex (MFC), which is one of the many facilities at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) (the official Accident Investigation Report can be found here). Of course, the article actually says that they were exposed to "plutonium radiation", which once again shows that the media has no interest in learning the difference between radiation and radioactive contamination. Anyway, as part of their complaint, the two employees claim that the 2011 incident occurred after they had expressed safety concerns over several different jobs.

Let me start by saying that I don't deny that the employees involved have a genuine complaint with regards to the incident itself. Had they been assigned to work a properly planned and engineered job, the spread of contamination would have been avoided. As a matter of fact, I heard about the incident the day it happened; my first response was "why didn't they just use a glovebox?" I wasn't too surprised when I found that Table C-1 in the official report states that the problem would not have occured if they had done exactly that.

Regardless of the errors made, I have a low tolerance for the perpetuation of inaccuracies or falsehoods with regards to the nuclear field. While I could criticize or question the article's statements (and the employees' complaints if it's assumed that the article accurately reports them) on several of fronts, I want to address a detail that is completely wrong. Specifically, one of the primary examples given of a safety concern that was supposedly ignored by BEA turns out not to have been a safety problem at all in light of the radioactive properties of plutonium. The fact that the workers still believe that it was an issue shows that the January 2012 report's statement that "Workers did not understand the consequences of Pu contamination" apparently remains true. According to the article:
Twice in 2011, BEA allegedly refused to allow Stanton and Simmons to use lead shielding to protect themselves when handling plutonium. Both workers exercised their right to stop the jobs, according to the complaint.
Let me cover a few of the most basic radiation types encountered in nuclear power and then we'll see why this particular claim is entirely baseless.

Alpha Radiation: Alpha radiation or alpha decay is the emission of particles from a radioactive isotope. These particles have two protons and two neutrons and are simply helium nuclei with a significant amount of kinetic energy. However, alpha particles present very little external risk since their kinetic energy is expended after traveling through a few centimeters of air or striking something as flimsy as paper or the dead layer of cells on a person's skin. Once stopped, an alpha particle is rendered harmless. Alpha particles only become dangerous when a strong alpha-emitting isotope enters the body. Internal tissues can become severely damaged since they aren't protected by a dead layer of cells like the skin is.

Beta Radiation: Beta radiation is the emission of electrons or positrons (which have the same mass as an electron but are positively charged) from the nucleus of a radioactive isotope. Beta particles don't have as much kinetic energy as alpha particles, although they have greater penetrating power. A beta particle can be stopped by sheets of metal, plastic, or glass. While beta particles have the potential to penetrate the outer layers of a person's skin, personnel working with a beta-emitting isotope are generally protected by the plastic walls of a glove box or by anti-contamination clothing. Since beta particles can penetrate the cornea, personnel may wear goggles or a face shield to protect their eyes.

Gamma Radiation: Gamma radiation is the emission of high energy photons with high penetrating power. Dense materials such as lead or steel are typically used to shield significant gamma-emitting sources, although a generous layer of water or concrete can perform the same function.

Neutron Radiation: Neutron radiation is the emission of free neutrons that usually occurs as the result of nuclear fission. Neutrons can also be produced by exposing certain light elements such as beryllium to an alpha-emitter. Neutron radiation is only effectively shielded by water or other hydrogenous materials such as oil or polymers.

Here's where the INL workers' complaint about the lead shielding falls apart. The workers claim that they weren't allowed to use lead shielding to protect themselves while working with plutonium. However, as I mentioned above, dense shielding is used to protect against gamma radiation, which is highly penetrating. Plutonium, on the other hand, is an alpha-emitter. Unless you have a critical mass (in which case you've started a lethal fission reaction and anything short of a reactor vessel isn't going to save you), plutonium is only a threat if it gets inside your body. As explicitly stated by the EPA, the external risk presented by plutonium is very small since it emits almost no gamma or beta radiation. BEA did not endanger the two employees by disallowing them from using lead shielding since such shielding is completely unnecessary to protect people from an alpha-emitter like plutonium.

I can understand why BEA would have disallowed its employees from using lead shielding while working with plutonium. Once BEA had conceded to allowing two employees to install useless shielding because it made them feel better, the company would be compelled to use "feel-good" shielding all the time. The allowance would simply perpetuate the myth among employees that lead shielding is effective and necessary for handling plutonium. Personally, I would never engineer a job to use unnecessary shielding for that very reason, although I would make sure to explain my reasoning to the workers to avoid any misunderstandings.

There's a lot more I could say about the article and the complaint filed by the two employees (I actually deleted a third of my draft before posting because it became too long and unfocused). For example, I believe that the purported retaliation didn't necessarily have sinister motivations, although I don't have any inside sources on this matter. The employees' claim that their radiation dosage information was withheld might sound suspicious, but may simply reflect the fact that dose assessments following exposure to an alpha-emitter are very difficult to perform. Page 61 of the accident report acknowledges that the measurements needed to complete the assessment might have to made over a period of months or even years.

Nuclear power has many enemies who latch onto any accusation of safety violations in support of their cause. Much too often, these anti-nuclear groups take advantage of the public's ignorance of the science to get their way. Inaccuracies like those found in the AP article and the employees' complaint are inevitably used to frighten the public away from an effective and safe form of power.

[The above represents my own opinions and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer, BEA, or the INL.]


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