Essays, Reviews, Thoughts

 

  1. A Partial Recommended Reading List of Fantasy Lit.

 

  1. Fantasy: A Brief Definition

  2. The Gothic Masters

  3. The Post-Gothicists

  4. The Golden Age

  5. The Space Age: Fantasy on Film

  6. The Language of Fear: Horror in Literature and Film

____________________________________________________________________

  1. Essays and Reviews

  1. Fantasy and Faith: Compatible?

  2. The Dark Side of Internet Fandom

  3. Exploitation vs. Art, pt. 2

  4. Revenge of the Sith Review

  5. On the Final Star Wars Film

  6. X-Files Review

  7. On Swamp Thing

  8. On the Narnia Film

  9. On Prince Caspian

  10.  Who is the Creator of Star Wars?

 

Fantasy: a Brief definition

 

The Roots of Fantasy as Literature and Art  

 

Fantasy has been said by many to be truth cloaked in the guise of the strange, beautiful and extraordinary � all of the elements that make it so enjoyable to read.  "Fantasy" in its broadest definition encompasses the realms of Science-Fiction and Horror, as well as traditional Fantasy such as 'Heroic Fantasy,' along with many of the subdivisions, branches and step-children that accompany those genres.  By this broader definition, FANTASY is widely diverse and far-ranging for it tells the tales of the imagination, and regardless of how scientifically-based or logically-grounded a story may be, has not and very likely will not occur as described in the real world. 

 

    The opposite, therefore, of this genre could be termed Realistic fiction which presents stories that could � and oftentimes do � occur in the real world.  And there is no doubt this kind of fiction has its importance and beauty in the realm of Art.  Yet Fantasy literature , which has been too often disparaged or misunderstood in modern times, has a long pedigree, for its roots lie at the doorsteps of antiquity: from the mythologies of ancient world cultures, to the sobering � but no less exciting � pages of the Bible; from the Oriental Adventures of 1001 Arabian Nights, to the grand Northern epics of the Eddas, Beowulf and The Ring of the Niebelung; from the Middle-Ages to the Renaissance, fairy tales to the famous playwrights of the 16th century (such as William Shakespeare), Fantasy has played an integral role in the shaping of modern literature, even when for a time it was treated as the ugly stepchild by the post-Victorian literati who snubbed their noses at everything that didn�t smack of �ultra-realism.�  Fantasy has been with mankind almost from the beginning, for it is the very stuff of Imagination and Dream�  (for more in-depth examination on the subject, please see my article 'Fantasy: A Brief Introduction')

 

 

The Gothic Masters

 

Ghastly murders, spectral visitors, hidden rooms, nocturnal sepulchers, decadent villains, virtuous young women in deadly peril and their noble rescuers � all and more were the subjects of intense scrutiny by the readers of the Gothic Novel (then called Romance).  Setting the stage for the masters of the next era, Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Emily Bronte, Arthur Conan Doyle and countless others to come were the Gothicists of the 18th and 19th Century.  In their day, the highly popular Gothic Romances were likely viewed by the reading public of the day as closer to how we see Suspense or True-Crime stories today; Time has shown just how outr� these semi-lurid and macabre tales really were, and as such stand as sterling examples of the stretching boundaries of Literature: the adventure story darkened with the spice of mystery and a heavy dose of the fantastic. 

 

 

Recommended Reading:

 

Ann Radcliffe � Mysteries of Udolpho

Without a doubt the Queen-master of the Gothic novel was Ann Radcliffe (or �Mother� Radcliffe as she was called by Lovecraft).  While her early work is somewhat tepid, Radcliffe saw her masterpiece in her fourth volume, the enormously successful Mysteries of Udolpho.  Udolpho was so popular, it�s been acknowledged by some as the first real fiction best-seller.  So ubiquitous was Radcliffe�s romance it even spawned an early parody by famed author Jane Austen in her highly readable Northanger Abbey (in that volume the main protagonist is reading and discussing Mysteries of Udolpho with her friends).  Mysteries of Udolpho remains the pinnacle of the Gothic era, in its haunting landscapes, wistful characters, and bleak visionary outlook of a bygone era filled with all the trappings of the Gothic mode, but none of its superficiality.  At times powerful and moving, Udolpho is filled with profound sagaciousness that is the rare gift few authors are able to impart to their readers that elevates their book to the rightful title of �classic.�

 

Matthew Gregory Lewis � The Monk

A tremendous fan of the Gothic mode, particularly Radcliffe�s Mysteries of Udolpho, young Matthew Gregory Lewis set out to compose his own volume of terror that would match hers.  To that end he may have surpassed her.  For where Radcliffe kept subtle or held back, The Monk plunges headlong into carnal perturbations and supernatural forces, invoking the wrath of the moral majority of its day and earning the book through the ensuing controversy both tremendous popularity and notoriety.  The Monk is hardly as lurid as its detractors have claimed, nor is it as ultimately fascinating and wise as Radcliffe�s Udolpho, yet it remains a thrilling read, passionate and dark, and at times alternating between brutally chilling and hilariously comical.

 

Additional Reading:

 

Ann Radcliffe The Italian

Following on the heels of Matthew G. Lewis� The Monk, which Radcliffe was not a fan of, was her final work The ItalianThe Italian seeks to do what The Monk could not, that is, provide a Radcliffian Gothic perspective to the motif of the corrupt and wicked priest.  By no means the equal of its predecessor (Udolpho), The Italian still remains one of Radcliffe's best works and is a nice companion piece to Lewis� foray into similar dark territory.

 

 

 

Jane Austen Northanger Abbey

Brilliant parody, which also works as a fine novel unto itself about a young woman who allows her imagination � as fueled by such reading as Ann Radcliffe�s Mysteries of Udolpho � to interfere with the very real situations that are developing around her.  Obviously works much better if you�ve read the latter volume, but as always, Austen�s work is filled with immense wit and charm.  There�s a reason this woman is universally described as one of the greats of Classic Literature.

 

 

 

Horace Walpole � The Castle of Otranto

By all means a far lesser work in the Gothic canon, but the one that veritably started it all and for which Radcliffe borrowed her mold and built upon.  Still, it's a short book and a fun, if flawed read.  Others of note include Beckford's Oriental Fantasy Vathek, Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer and Elizabeth Gaskell's Gothic Tales.

 

 

 

 

The Post-Gothicists:

 

 

  Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the Gothic novel was soon copied and imitated by countless others who lacked the verisimilitude and talent to create lasting impressions of their works and the genre took a rather nasty fall as a result of it.  It would be some time before the label was resurrected, but by then things had changed and the majority of what was to come would not to be the same.  Although the clich�d trappings and standards were gone, in its place was something far greater and more diverse, for the post-Gothic writers �  the Romanticists � embodied the true Gothic spirit.

 

 

Recommended Reading:

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne � House of the Seven Gables

 Hawthorne�s New England masterpiece is a model of realistic character study in the Gothic setting.  Ponderous and portentous, Seven Gables is gripping in a vague, nameless sense that comes from deep unease, a stark, silent sorrow that slowly unfolds from the chains of archaism and stilted longing.  Evocative and deeply moving, Hepzibah and her guests in the House of the Seven Gables are not easily forgotten.

 

     

Edgar Allen Poe � The Fall of the House of Usher

 One of Poe�s greatest works.  A crumbling, ancient house stands as a metaphor for a dying man and the fears that overtake him.  Awash in shadow and brooding gothic power, Usher remains a classic due to its vivid portrayal of the descent into madness that is ultimately grandly melancholic and tragically chilling.

 

 

Oscar Wilde � The Picture of Dorian Gray

 One of the most interesting books ever written; a dual-sided look at the price of vanity and hedonism from the perspective of a beautiful young man that doesn�t age and his haunted portrait that reflects his ever-increasing sins.  Powerful and shocking, Dorian Gray details the creeping, sinister effects a person can have on others, and the lure and temptation of our own wicked souls.  A Must Read!

 

 

 

Additional Reading:

 

Mary Shelley � Frankenstein

Bram Stoker � Dracula 

Nouveau-gothic masterpieces that birthed a thousand permutations in the decades since their inception, these classics of the genre inspired a gigantic film-franchise and made household names of vampires and ghouls.  Actually, the literary genesis of these itinerant monsters is far less lurid than it is intellectual and philosophical.  Musings on the dark nature of man, power, corruption and God.   Shelley and Stoker's creations led to the popularity and acceptance of Horror as legitimate works of art.   For more on the subject of Horror as Art, see The Language of Fear.

 

 

The Golden Age of Fantasy

 

If Fantasy began in the turn-of-the-Century, it wasn't until the 20's to the late sixties that it reached its peak.  So tremendous was the emergence of authors and high artistic endeavours in the fantasy field that no period before or since can even come close to rivaling it.  With names such as George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, William Morris, L. Frank Baum, Kenneth Grahame, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lloyd Alexander, E. R. Eddison, E. Nesbit, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Peter Beagle, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur C. Clarke, A. Merritt,  Fritz Leiber, William Hope Hodgson, James Branch Cabell, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore, Manly Wade Wellman, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Brian Lumley, Seabury Quinn, Michael Moorcock, Theodore Sturgeon, Tanith Lee, Lin Carter, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Susan Cooper and many, many more� 

 

And while there are still excellent and numerous volumes published in the genre nowadays, nothing has come close to hitting the high water mark of this fertile literary period.  And it�s doubtful anything will.  There was magic in the air for Fantasy (and its relatives sometimes rivals Sci-Fi and Horror), a storm of imagination and creativity so wild and diverse that it seems now that the majority of present endeavors struggle just to re-capture a tiny piece of it.  It is not unlike the thirty-year golden age of Rock music (from the sixties to the eighties) where artists invented the wheel, and then kept reinventing it, experimentalism thrived as talent and inspiration combined to produce a thousand great bands and a thousand great sounds. 

 

One of the main reasons for the growth spurt in Fantasy fiction must be attributed to the success of the pulps.  With countless names from Fantastic to Amazing Stories to Science Fiction Age and Weird Tales, an innumerable source of quality authors were discovered whose names still resound today.  An excellent resource into the groundbreaking work of the pulps can be found in the book Art of Imagination which covers the pulps in each of the major genres: Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.

 

 

Recommended Reading

 

Lord Dunsany � In the Land of Time

Baron Lord Dunsany is rightly hailed as the master and grandfather of Fantasy fiction.  Tolkien and Lewis were influenced by him; H.P. Lovecraft adored him, and in many of his writings, attempted to emulate him; and in recent times, renowned genre author Alan Moore paid homage to him.  Dunsany�s early work is admitted by all to be his best, and it remained unsurpassed in his canon.  The Pega�a tales contained within Penguin�s recent volume In the Land of Time are replete with a redolent, dream-like quality.  There is the essence of the ethereal in Dunsany�s prose wherein words transcend from cold hard things into far-off landscapes of half-remembered dream.  Dunsany also gets credit for inventing the heroic fantasy sub-genre, sometimes called Sword and Sorcery, and In the Land of Time contains two of the earliest and best examples of its kind, the rousing �The Sword of Welleran� and its elegaic successor, �The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth.�

 

J.R.R. Tolkien � The Lord of the Rings

Plenty has been and will continue to be said about the brilliance and magnificence of Tolkien�s The Lord of the Rings.  Much more than a sequel to the excellent and enduring The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings goes places emotionally few of its thousands of imitators have ever been able to go.  Certainly the filmed adaptations of these books will stand as classics for some time, yet not even their success could begin to fathom the layers of depth contained in Tolkien�s massive epic.  Part of its heady power lays in its utter sorrow, its aching longing for things and places forever gone.  This pervasive feeling of grief that saturates and permeates the text is part and parcel of its beauty and nostalgic charm.  Another important aspect is its varied, memorable and highly endearing characters, of which Middle-Earth is a part.  Tolkien writes intensely poignant verse about the land, making Middle-Earth and its history, languages, cultures, geography, geology, etc., very real, as indeed for him it was (for its beginnings had been mapped out long before in the sprawling annals of his masterpiece The Silmarillion).  Finally, Tolkien�s work is infused with insightful themes that resonate even more today than it did in the fifties and sixties, themes of corruption and power, sacrifice and loss, courage and friendship which woven throughout The Lord of the Rings imbue it with a deep sense of truth and wisdom.

 

C. S. Lewis � The Chronicles of Narnia

Cambridge Professor, Christian apologist, and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis released his masterpiece series The Narnia Chronicles unto the world in the mid-fifties, and it remains one of the world�s most celebrated fantasy efforts ever penned.  In their uncle�s sprawling mansion, four children discover an entranceway to a far-off land of talking animals ruled over by an evil witch-queen who is bent on their destruction�  Filled with tremendous joy and sorrow, The Chronicles of Narnia is the essence of childhood wonder and exploration, a journey through Arcadian valleys of long ago and far away.  Lewis, a devout reader, distilled a library and life-time�s worth of inspiration from the Classics, mythology and his love of Christian ideals into the seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, a series that deserves all the merit it's earned in the decades since its release.

 

H.P. Lovecraft � The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

A masterpiece of dark fantasy set in the eldritch lands of nightmare and dream! H.P. Lovecraft charted wholly new ground with this novella that combined the ethereal majesty of Lord Dunsany with the mind-blasting horror of his own terrifying imagination for which he is so renowned.  The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is an utterly original and unforgettable jaunt into the Dreamlands.  Explore the primeval mountains of unreachable kings to the forbidden, nethermost chasms of hideous, creeping things.  Sail aboard the Ship of Dreams that journeys the furthest reaches of the mind's eye, past bizarre valleys where felines rule over men, to the haunted night-side of the Moon where hideous beings lie in wait; beyond the sepulchral home of the beautiful � but deadly � Queen of the Undead, to the sinister realm of Kadath; but beware, for along the way lie the ghasts and ghouls and hideous Nightgaunts, fearsome silent sentinels that carry men to the forgotten lair of unnamable terror...  H.P. Lovecraft remains one of the most celebrated and imitated authors of our day.  No other author has been known to have so many later writers utilize his motifs, settings, characters and concepts than Lovecraft.  He is also the first of the Weird Tales pulp generation to have his work published by Library of America (a distinctive honor) which generated, not-surprisingly, some controversy among an elite minority that continue to deny the vast contribution Lovecraft has made to the oeuvre of Fantasy.  Indeed it has been rightly said that Lovecraft is second to none but Poe. 

 

Robert E. Howard � Kull, the Fabulous Warrior King

Second of the holy triage of Weird Tales alumni, Robert E. Howard was a master of the short story format in whatever genre he chose to write (and he wrote in several), crafting stories that were fast-paced, intense and alive with a expert�s hands, and a poet�s heart.  Best known for his short stories about Conan the Cimmerian, it�s his Kull from Atlantis, cited at times as a prototype of sorts to Conan (an unjust comparison) that remains the most striking, beautiful and far-ranging of his works.  Kull�s tales are infused with an ethereal charm that perfectly offsets the hard-edged violence and morose character of the axe-wielding protagonist.  Neither mindless savage nor amoral brute, Kull is a deeply thoughtful, wary and keen-witted warrior-king who questions life and its cultural norms.  These aspects give Howard�s Kull tales a profoundly philosophical and moving quality, while at the same time never taking away from the action-packed adventures set in a world rife with supernatural menaces (such as Thulsa Doom) and bizarre landscapes.  Truly original (perhaps the first genuine sword and sorcery tale) and classic, Howard�s work is the benchmark for all adventure-fantasy, and his contributions to Weird Tales helped elevate that magazine from a standard pulp to a literary journal of art. 

 

 

C. L. Moore � The Best of C. L. Moore

It�s been written that C.L. Moore�s first novella, �Shambleu� changed the face of science-fiction.  For once, we had a genuinely alien entity (as opposed to the stock monster-of-the-week), a hero who�s more rogue than superhero, and for its time, explorations of strong adult themes, including lust and addiction.  On top of that, �Shambleu� was also an exciting and well-written story.  But Moore didn�t rest on her laurels and went on to build an even greater literary legacy with the characters of Northwest Smith (a likely inspiration for Han Solo), Jirel of Joiry (one of the earliest female warrior protagonists) and a host of mind-bending science-fiction/fantasy stories that dealt with issues the average writer wouldn�t touch: the transcendence of Love, the obsession of beauty, the cost of vengeance, the price of immortality; these and other powerful tales enamored Catherine Moore to readers of her works in various pulps of the day including and especially Weird Tales, where she ranks with Lovecraft, Howard and Smith as one of the great literary purveyors of Fantasy-fiction of that era and any.  If you can find the Donald Grant illustrated editions from the early eighties of either Scarlet Dream or Black God's Shadow, pick them up as they contain the full stories of Jirel of Joirey (Black God's Shadow) and Northwest Smith (Scarlet Dream) and contain color plates (rare for a book published in the modern era).  The Golden Era of Fantasy, Science-Fiction and Horror may be behind us, but they are not forgotten!  These are but some of the gems of that era!

 

 

 

 

Manly Wade Wellman � John the Balladeer

Following the demise of Weird Tales and the Lovecraft-circle of authors (Lovecraft, Howard, Smith), other magazines attempted to carry on the tradition of weird fantasy, although none ever reached the heights that Weird Tales took it.  Science-Fiction had taken hold of the young readers� imagination, particularly on the big screen and in the newsstands.  Despite this, traditional fantasy was about to make a huge resurgence and the forerunners of the movement were gearing to unleash their literary masterpieces upon an unsuspecting world.  Among these were J.R.R. Tolkien�s Lord of the Rings trilogy, C. S. Lewis� Narnia Chronicles, and one author whose name deserves every bit as much recognition: Manly Wade Wellman.  Wellman wrote for the pulps, particularly The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and stands out as every bit the artist his Weird Tales predecessors were.  Comparatively few authors have the ability to transport their readers to other times and places, but Wellman�s Silver John stories (which first started appearing in 1951) do just that.  The first collection, John the Balladeer, introduces the titular character, a guitar-playing traveler who wanders the weird backwoods of the American Appalachians battling supernatural evil and sinister menaces from the old folklore of the Southern mountains and black hills.  Whereas Tolkien integrated Northern mythology into his mythos, and Lewis the European Fairy Tales of yore, Wellman�s stories are drenched in the folktales and songs of old Americana; the haunting stories of the slaves and the tall tales of the Revolution, strange beasts, witch-women, and dark apparitions.  As famed author Karl Edward Wagner wrote: �These stories are chilling and enchanting, magical and down-to-earth, full of wonder and humanity.  They are fun.  They are like nothing else you�ve read before.�

 

Kenneth Grahame � The Wind in the Willows

Part beast fable, part fairy-tale, Grahame�s celebrated book of 1908, The Wind in the Willows is an elegiac celebration of all that it is to be alive and young amongst the changing seasons of life.  The story centers on the central characters of Rat and Mole, two very different personalities who form a bond of friendship that safeguards them through the passing days, and their companions, the troublesome Toad, the stern but wise Badger and the elusive Otter.  Grahame�s prose range from strangely comforting to melancholy, conjuring up nostalgic visions of lost Arcadian youth. Willows is essentially a tale of the beauty of life and all that it could be, and as such is almost painfully wistful and gorgeous without a single ounce of pretense or puerility.  There is a great deal of humor, to be sure, particularly at the expensive of the foppish and ridiculous Toad whose antics would drive any self-respecting animal mad, but the real undercurrent of the work lies in the eldritch and moving seventh chapter, �The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,� a paean to the joy and sorrow of time and age.  This is truly a book for the ages, and both young and old should have this volume included in their diet of healthy reading.  Absolutely don't miss the four sequels by William Horwood: The Willows at Christmas; The Willows in Winter; Toad Triumphant; and The Willows and Beyond.  Beloved by fans of the original and critics alike, Horwood perfectly captures Grahame's spirit as well as that of the Edwardian Age in which the books are set.   The final book acts as a denouement to the characters and settings and is highly moving (at times heartbreakingly so) and should be read last.  For earlier adventures taking place soon after Grahame's book, I highly recommend the Wind in the Willows TV series that aired on the BBC (and is now on DVD).  These are likewise brilliant and perfectly capture the spirit and feel of Grahame's work (I'm tempted to put up a timeline of the Willows tales to help fans keep track of them all).  Not one cheap imitation to be found, the Willows stories form some of the highest quality children's literature (and television) that has ever been created!

 

Richard Adams � Watership Down

Actually arriving after the end of the Golden Age is Richard Adam�s lyrical fantasy of loss and recovery, tyranny and renewal.  Yet so infused with the spirit of the age before, Watership Down deserves mention, for it elevates itself far above the average beast-fable, infused with rich, mythological underpinnings and the vast scope of fantastic 'realism.' 

Fiver is a young rabbit that can sense things to come.  His instincts are respected by his friend Hazel who convinces a number of fellow rabbits that they must leave their warren at once in search of a safer haven.  Joined by the noble Bigwig and others, they begin a desperate quest over vast terrain to find a new home far from the encroachment of man.  Yet along the way, they encounter danger and the specter of death in varying forms, including an imperious warren of rabbits led by the cruel and despotic General Woundwort.  Deeply moving, Adam�s novel, beautifully adapted into an animated classic (available on DVD), is a sharp and keenly intelligent portrayal of life and death and the quest for immortality.  While you're at it, check out Tales from Watership Down, which details further adventures and legends.

 

 

Additional Reading:

 

Robert E. Howard � The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

                                     The Bloody Crown of Conan

                                     The Conquering Sword of Conan

Based on Wandering Star's high-class publications, and featuring all-new illustrations in the style of the old pulps by famed artist Gary Gianni, these are the quintessential Robert E. Howard Conan tales, freed from the heavy editorial emendations of L. Sprague DeCamp and Farnsworth Wright.  Forget Arnold, this is the real Conan from the hands of his creator.  These exciting and action-

packed stories (originally published in the famous pulp magazine Weird Tales) spawned a legacy of comics, pastiche novels, films and paintings.  Fantasy adventure at its very best as the indomitable hero faces off against a host of adversaries, from nightmarish, supernatural hordes to evil sorcerers and crooked kingdoms, all on his way to the throne and the crown of kings...  The final volume (The Conquering Sword of Conan) will be published in November.

 

 

 

H.P. Lovecraft � Dagon and Other Macabre Tales

                              The Dunwich Horror and Others

Combining horror, science-fiction and fantasy in a macabre blend of New England gothic terror is the master H. P. Lovecraft who successfully channels the beauty of Lord Dunsany in a surreal landscape of mind-blasting eldritch corruption.  All have tried to emulate him, but none equal Lovecraft in originality and his ability to evoke sheer dread...  These excellent hardcover collections by editor and Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi finally restore the author's original text (back from the heavy editing of Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright).  No educated fantasy reader can go without having absorbed Lovecraft's work into his psyche and reading milieu.

 

Additional Reading:

L. Frank Baum and the Oz Books

Clark Ashton Smith

Robert Bloch

Brian Lumley

Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Space Age: Fantasy On film

 

With the onset of ever better technology in special effects, it became possible for screenwriters, directors and producers to realize Fantasy on the big screen in a way that was ever more believable.  Pioneering special effects and digital technology through his company Industrial Light and Magic was George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars saga and Indiana Jones trilogy.  With visionary insight, Lucas married old-world storytelling with new developments in visual effects for a legacy that continues to this day.  Thanks to his efforts, there are no longer any boundaries between an author's imagination and the what can be achieved on the big screen.  We now can witness realistic representations of beloved books and stories, and epics such as The Lord of the Rings and more are at last giving new audiences, as well as old-time fans, a taste of the wonders of Fantasy literature in a powerful visual and auditory way as they sweep through theaters and DVD screens across the world.

 

Recommended Reading

Click here for recommended titles in: the Star Wars Expanded Universe

 

The Language of Fear

 

Understanding the Artistic and Psychological Value of Horror in Literature and Film

 

Often misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused, the genre of horror, terror, and suspense as utilized in film and literature is as valid a form of human expression as that of comedy and drama, or any art form, particularly as it expresses important psychological concerns about the nature of fear and man.


Defining the Horror Genre

Art Vs. Exploitation

The Appeal and Value of Horror

Horror and the Language of Fear

Modern Insight into Ancient Monsters:

The Vampire

The Werewolf

The Ghoul

Aliens and Monsters

Psychopaths and the Slasher Film

Children and Monsters


 

 Defining the Horror genre 

 

�Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts.�
-- E.B. White

�Prejudices are rarely overcome by argument; not being founded in reason they cannot be destroyed by logic�
-- Tryon Edwards

 

To understand what is good about Horror, it's first and foremost necessary to separate the wheat from the weeds and to define the genre in terms of its proper appellation as an art form, and to distinguish it from the imitations and bastardizations which have compromised and cheapened it. 

 

The modern term Horror is used here to define a subtype of Fantasy fiction which deals primarily in the elements of heightened dramatic tension, suspense, terror and fear, usually portrayed in various means by a physical (or psychological) threat or menace to the characters.  It can be a very broad definition by nature as it exists in various forms, even amongst other dramatic types not associated with the genre.  It exists in Shakespeare, for example, Hamlet and Macbeth (neither of which can by any stretch of the imagination be considered Horror) are ripe with the trappings of it (ghosts, murders, dark castles, witches, evil dreams, madness, etc.,).  It also exists in other areas of classical literature.  Emily Bronte�s Wuthering Heights, for instance, contains elements of terror with few of the genres conventions.  Thus, in order to better analyze and distinguish this specific field of literature and film, we must narrow the definition of the genre down to its basics and determine what distinguishes it from other dramatic forms. 

 

Horror is essentially a work which highlights certain elements of terror that exist beyond the realm of the ordinary.  For instance, a torrential storm is certainly terrifying, particularly if you are out to sea trapped in the midst of it.  However, a film or book which told a story of this kind would hardly be considered a Horror tale by most definitions.  Now factor in a persistent, seemingly malevolent sea creature (whether one known to man as a shark or a fantastical sea creature) and you have the makings of a good monster movie (the monster movie being a subset of the Horror genre).  Yet, it is not the shark or creature that suddenly changes the nature of the story from Adventure to Horror.  There is something more and this element usually exists within the framework of the narrative itself.  Remove the shark or sea creature and tell a story of one of the crew who has gone mad and begun to sabotage and commit murder aboard the ship, and though you no longer have a �monster� movie, the tale within the Horror framework (with the man now acting in the role of monster).  Yet note that regardless of the object of terror � be it shark, sea monster, raving lunatic, evil pirates, specters, etc.), the story takes place far outside the boundaries of normalcy.  It exists in a veritable �Twilight Zone,� an imaginative realm wherein fantastical things can and do happen.

 

Thus we can see that there is a striking difference between literary horror and real-life horror.  Where the latter is founded on tragedy and suffering, the former (while possibly also tragic) travels beyond common experience into the landscape of the surreal.  Where true-life horror depresses and brings to mind the evils of the real world, literary Horror stimulates the imagination, enabling healthy cathartic escape from the real world.  Horror as an art form may at times reflect real world events, however, when rooted in fantastical iconography (such as monsters) it mutes or distorts them into shapes that are more palatable, so that even if terrifying, they are not so close to reality that they cease to be entertaining

 

 

 

   Now entertainment � as a thing apart from Art � particularly for the Horror genre can work without sinking to the lowest common denominator and still be artful and enjoyable.  The best Horror tales are not focused on death and suffering, but rather on life and the struggle to live in the face of extraordinary circumstances.  Others play out as morality tales in the same way the old fairy tales once did, wherein those that act in selfish or greedy ways reap poetic justice as their reward.

 

Horror is best defined by its association and close relationship to Science-Fiction and Fantasy.  Both of these forms often utilize horror elements in their basic structures (albeit with different focal points) far more than any other literary or filmic genre.  More importantly, all three forms are highly inventive in nature.  As a rule (that is not uncommonly broken), Science-fiction speculates on the imaginative or philosophic possibilities of various futures and alternate worlds, whilst Fantasy speculates on the imaginative or philosophic possibilities of various pasts and alternate worlds.  In some cases, all that separates the two are their usage of certain standard motifs � spaceships and aliens in Sci-Fi, and Elves and swords in Fantasy � although the genres are not defined by these trappings and often transcend them.  Conversely, Horror does not require a setting and is free to utilize all settings, the present, past, future, or alternate world.  It speculates more on what the individual (or individuals) will do in the face of physical, metaphoric, imaginative or psychological fear. 

 

 

Art versus Exploitation

 

   What unfortunately has led to misunderstanding of the genre and a not-entirely-undeserved aversion to it is the gross misuse of the form by the Exploitation Industry which has a particularly strong presence in the celluloid world.  Because Horror films are relatively inexpensive to produce, it�s an easy means for irresponsible filmmakers to churn out degrading schlock (which generally consists of the coupling of graphic violence with sex) that caters to certain malicious niche groups, including inexperienced and vapid youth, in order to rake in quick cash.  In 1960, following the close of the Hayes Committee (a moral watchdog group in Hollywood which generally served more as a hindrance than help to Art), independent filmmakers were allowed the freedom to produce films with any content they wished, subject to a Ratings Board that would determine appropriate age groups for each film.  Newspapers would generally not advertise films that garnered an X rating (or who submitted an unrated film), thus hurting sales of such features.  Nevertheless, the freedom given genuine filmmakers was likewise an open door to purveyors of exploitation.

 

Seemingly the majority of what exists in the Horror film genre today is nothing short of exploitation.  Independent movie-makers as well as Hollywood moguls see the public as fickle, unintelligent and thrill-starved pawns (sadly they are not always far from the truth), and never more so than when they cater to youth, which is ever a growing target.  With more parents placing less value on ethical and moral concerns, young people are not taught to discern between healthy and unhealthy attitudes and behavioral patterns.  And no surprise, the entertainment world of Pop Culture has reflected this change in the menu it serves up in theaters (as well on television and popular music).  What is acceptable and embraced now would have been shunned and considered revolting only forty years back.  As a result of the popularity of degrading entertainment, it has become more and more difficult for many to understand and differentiate between genuine art and valueless exploitation. 

 

One difference is that Horror as a legitimate Art form utilizes unpleasant elements for the furtherance of the story itself, its characters, plot and underlying themes.  Exploitation often jettisons these elements (although clever filmmakers will sometimes hide behind them) in order to use unpleasant scenes as focal points in order to entice, titillate or even mock audiences with graphic depictions of sex, torture and violence.  As in pornography, exploitative horror sets out to desensitize its audience with the subtle message that what is sick and dissolute is in fact amusing, entertaining, �cool� and most of all acceptable.  Like the pornographers, the agenda is to inure the public to ever-more disturbing scenes of degradation and violence, taking it out of the basements and corner shops and into the mainstream where greater money can be made at the expense of standard societal mores and basic human dignity.

 

Catering to youth and perverse segments of society has thus led to countless amounts of worthless cinema which serve no purpose other than to demonstrate various gruesome ways to hurt and slaughter people.  Exploitation is the counterfeit of true art, and in reality Horror�s greatest foe.

 

 Let�s more closely examine the genre for what it is and get a better grasp at understanding its long-standing appeal and value.

  

 

The Appeal and Value of Horror

 

"The depiction of something is not an endorsement of that thing. This is the simplest thing, yet somehow something many people seem to have a hard time understanding it." David Faraci

 

   Horror, even in its most pure and artistic forms, will never appeal to everyone.  Many are simply not in a place where they are able to confront images of fear, symbolically or otherwise.  Others simply dislike or are unwilling or unable to emotionally process the iconography, mood, tension, suspense and thematic elements of Horror, and thus cannot gain value from this type of art form.  The imagery may cause nervousness, leave too indelible an impression or represent fears that come too close to home and which call forth bad associations.  For many who have faced real-life horrors in their past, it may not be a pleasant experience to sit by and watch others confront terrors of their own.  These are all valid issues.  Just as with illustrative art, not every picture that hangs in a gallery is going to appeal to every person or personality.  There are a number of factors that determine what is enjoyable, appropriate and meaningful for each individual.  This, of course, does not detract from the art form itself, no more so from any art form that imparts powerful impressions onto its audience.  Horror may simply be too strong for some tastes.

 

Yet it is that strength wherein lays the true value of the Horror genre and the very things that turn some off to the genre is what gives it is import and attraction.  Beneath the veneer of seemingly day to day stability are very real and frightening issues.  At any moment, tragedy can strike our lives.  Accidents, sickness, disease, death, violence, corruption, betrayal, disasters, chaos, all of these and more are waiting just outside the fringes of our everyday, routine existence.  And though we may not like to think about it, any one of us may be afflicted by these things at some unspecified time to come.  Hence the paradox of Horror is that with such very-real life horrors in existence (even if for some it is only on TV or in the newspaper), why would anyone invite the subject of fear into our leisure time as entertainment or pastime?

 

Ultimately, the answer lies in the nature of Art itself.  What does art give mankind that has made it so integral to our existence for the past six thousand years?  While the response would vary among different people, some might find the following description accurate:  Art gives birth to human expression, be it hope, joy, strength, comfort and meaning.  Art helps to make sense of the whirlwind of chaos that is Life.  Be it romantic yearning, concern for a better future, love of nature, bonds of family and friends, sorrow, grief or personal tragedy, art ennobles the spirit and mind, elevates the heart and lends beauty to even the grimmest of truths because it gives it a face.

 

Never more profoundly is this expressed than in the Horror genre which at its best serves to underscore the value of life.  Horror can offer transcendence through courage, escape though confrontation, survival through strength.  Horror gives us consolation solely by virtue of the fact that we have faced the terror that lies in shadow and given it a face.  In many cases, Horror gives us satiety in seeing justice win out and good triumphing over evil.  This is no small matter in a world where justice is not always served, hope is oft forsaken, and evil (seemingly) wins out over good. 

 On the other hand, Horror does not always offer a happy ending.  In some cases, the protagonist does not defeat the Monster.  Sometimes the Monster wins.  In certain cases, however, the value is not necessarily negated.  The audience has stood up to the face of fear and withstood it.  Such a display of psychological courage can have positive effects for the viewer or reader [1]

 

As an audience, we board and survive the rollercoaster ride, with moments of gripping fright and exhilaration, and at its end, a sigh and a breath of relief and cheer.  There is enormous cathartic benefit that comes from the experience itself that can contribute to feelings of empowerment.  This is one reason why Horror�s traditional forms can be a source of tremendous fun.  Because older films and literary Horror tales do not utilize realistic portrayals of horror but rather fantastical and imaginative constructs, Horror becomes far more appealing and entertaining.  While subconsciously, there may be layers of subtext at work, on the surface, you are essentially engaged in an enjoyable romp through the bizarre and surrealistic landscape of the Imagination.

  

Finally, Horror can affect us in other ways that can be seen as beneficial.  It can cause us to take a more cautious approach to life and our surroundings.  We may learn to check the back seats of our cars before entering; we more closely examine the avenue before we walk down it; we may be taught to lock our doors at night; we may impress upon our kids to avoid strangers (either on the street or in the computer).  And while we wish to avoid losing our balance and becoming overly fearful and descend into paranoia, at the very least, Horror can benefit its audience on a more practical level by reminding us to be more vigilant, that the world is not as safe as it may sometimes appear to be.   

  

 

Horror and the Language of Fear

 

   The traditional forms of horror in literature and film can be viewed as metaphoric devices which speak directly to our subconscious.  This may be one reason they have resonated down through the centuries imparting different levels of meaning to different people.  The mind uses similar types of symbols at night in our dreams.  Nightmares are in fact so vivid because the mind instinctually understands the symbols it creates to frighten us.  A child wakes up in terror because he or she has envisioned monsters under the bed or in the closet.  We rightly understand what such nightmares mean.  The child feels vulnerable, unsafe, and insecure in the world he has been born into, fearful of the new and sometimes unpleasant things he might have seen or overheard throughout the day.  We respond to his fears with hugs and reassurances that all is well and that no monsters exist under the bed or in the closet.  We effectually tell the truth, but if we dared to probe deeper into our own minds, we may in fact discover that such statements are not entirely accurate.  There are monsters in this world, waiting imperceptibly and ever patiently under the covers of our carefully contained mundane lives we�ve created for ourselves. 

 

Although existing as fiction and Fantasy, Horror can be brutally honest, and as with anything that shows you the truth, may be disturbing in that it serves to psychologically prepare you to come to terms with certain frightening and unpleasant realities. 

 

Man has intrinsically learned to use the language of symbols to more creatively depict his fears in ways he can thus understand and gain strength from.  H.P. Lovecraft wrote that �Mankind�s greatest emotion is fear� and his greatest fear is fear of the unknown.�  The latter half of that statement is correct[2].  And it is for this reason that Man has put a face on fear.  He must give it a name and thereby render it knowable.  As knowledge is a source of power, understanding what we fear enables us to defeat or overcome it. 

 

Thus was born the archetypes that Mankind has come to utilize down through the ages: The vampire, werewolf, ghoul and alien, as well as the more modern variety of walking psychopath[3].  Mankind has long drawn value and enjoyment from stories featuring this menagerie of terrors.  But what do they mean for us now, and what value, if any, do we derive from them?

 

 

Modern Insight into Ancient Monsters

 

  1. The VampireThe Vampire has been one of the most predominant literary and filmic creatures to have crossed our paths, and equally one of most mutable in recent times.  Based in olden legends and quasi-historic events, the vampire is essentially a being that lives by feeding off others.  It is the ultimate parasite that drains the lifeblood of its victims while gaining its own vitality.  It is also a seducer, luring its victims into its embrace where it will either destroy or transform them into a vampire itself.  Examining closely mankind�s experience, we can see how this resounds.

  2.  


The traditional iconic image of the vampire, the Dracula and Nosferatu is that of the wealthy nobleman (who turns out to be anything but noble).  The vampire came from privilege and aristocracy, never from the lower classes.  Not surprisingly then, we find that the era from which vampire legends were strongest were times when the aristocracy held power over the working classes.  The resentment harbored by the farmers and toilers may have found expression in the form of the wealthy aristocrat draining the blood of the lower classes (which figuratively speaking was not far from the truth) and robbing them of their most precious commodity, their daughters.  More modern expressions might emphasize the growing anti-rich sentiment among blue-and-underpaid-white collar workers.  Not unlike our grandparents� grandparents, fears of inadequacy in the face of seemingly superior rivals who posses money, power and leisure may continue to fuel a modern response in the too-suave vampire (perfectly expressed in the 70's comedy Love at First Bite).  This may also be seen as a great metaphor for the modern workplace, in the form of employers, supervisors and corporations who abuse power and drain their employees for profit and greed, workers who are oftentimes mistreated and abused, compensated neither financially nor emotionally for their labors until they too, at last, after having given their soul to the organization, are given promotions and end up as tyrannical and abusive as those that came before them.  Yet another interpretation may be found in the simple fear of losing loved ones to psychologically unhealthy predators who �suck dry� their weaker paramours, either financially, emotionally, or both, contributing nothing but grief in return. 

 

As times have changed, so too has the role of the vampire.  In the classic films and books up to the mid-eighties, the vampire was always the villain.  Depraved, craven, sick and evil, he was often defeated by the noble Van Helsing archetype who restored sanity to the community (for a time).  In more recent years, however, there has been a turn-around.  As the era of the anti-hero has become embraced in society, so too has the vampire been transformed into the misunderstood misanthrope and cast into the role of protagonist.  Films like The Lost Boys, and novels and adaptations of Anne Rice�s work have made romantic heroes out of vicious predators and an entire sub-genre and movement has awoken in response to this.  Simply a fad, or a sign of the times?  And should we be concerned that so many young people relate more to the nocturnal, sexually-promiscuous, parasitic, blood-drinking fiend than to what they consider the �boring� and �ordinary� heroes? 

 

  1. The Werewolf.  The Werewolf is a more tragic figure, oftentimes a victim of circumstances, and unable to recall his wicked deeds in lupine guise.  With the werewolf we have a human who during certain circumstances (such as a full moon) transforms into a wolf or wolf-like creature (that is the old-fashioned view of the wolf as shadowy predator and not the real-life animal who has been sadly hunted down due to misunderstanding, lack of education and misguided fear).  The Werewolf comes in two forms: the one who regrets and hates his violent deeds, and the one who revels in it.  Both have parallels with real-life fears and desires. 

 

 

   There is a strong metaphoric parallel to be found in the metamorphosis young people, particularly males (which werewolf legends almost exclusively speak of) go through during puberty.  Hair begins to grow in places it�s never been, carnal appetites awaken, both for food and sexual desire, the body begins to alter and change, the larynx changes.  Essentially, the transformation into a werewolf can be seen simply as a metaphor for puberty. However, there�s more to it than that, for in the werewolf something has gone terribly wrong.  The appetites become too powerful, the hunting instinct too strong, the transformation overwhelming and deadly for any who the transformed creature happens upon.  The results are often tragic, with death as its final result. 

 

   There are similarities to the Vampire in that both can be seen as sexual predators, however, the Werewolf lacks the aristocratic, parasitic and seductive qualities of the Vampire.  Oftentimes, the Werewolf is one of the locals.  Once again, examining the roots of the legend takes us to its origins among the working classes and in particular, farming communities.  Just as the local farmers hated and feared the wolf that could steal away and eat their precious lambs, so too with the metaphoric wolf that could steal away and eat even more precious prey, one�s daughters.  By day, the werewolf appears to be a normal man, oftentimes likeable individuals who might be workmates or neighbors.  Yet by night, their true skins come out, a ravenous creature with one single-minded purpose, to �devour� their prey and move on, leaving a trail of carnage behind.  In the werewolf myth, whoever is bitten by a werewolf and survives often becomes a werewolf.  Thus, victims of sexual predation unwittingly become predators themselves, perpetuating the vicious cycle of the wolf.  Full moons in ancient societies were often connected with the menstrual cycles of women.  That the full moon would arouse the wolf inside the man is thus helpful in understanding the myth and how fears of sexual predation could haunt a parent.

 

 

   One other interesting interpretation may be found in the destructive behavior sown by those who are alcoholics and drug-addicts.  The Jekyll and Hyde myth, which has been cited simultaneously with and is a strong parallel to the Werewolf myth, works well here.  Normal, kind-hearted, loving husbands and fathers (of course wives and mothers can also fit this bill) are suddenly transformed into angry, violent monsters.  In fiction, it's due to a curse or scientific potion; in real life, however, this often the curse of alcohol addiction or the potion of drugs.  The behavioral pattern shown in the werewolf and Jekyll and Hyde stories in many ways mimics the pattern of alcohol abusers.  There is often memory loss regarding alcohol-induced rages, or deep regret, depression and melancholy due to feelings of helplessness to stop the sick behavioral pattern.  A final symbolism may be seen in the suffering caused by those with certain personality or psychological disorders. [4]

 

  1. The Ghoul.  In films and literature of the 30�s and 40�s, ghouls or zombies took the form of mummies or were the results of voodoo-rituals.  The one exception being the famous Frankenstein monster, based on Mary Shelly�s excellent cautionary tale of the rampages of unchecked science and megalomania (themes which are also echoed in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Michael Crichton�s modern Jurassic Park).  Frankenstein is ripe with metaphors and parallels that deserve their own entry apart from the ghoul, particular the modern variety that dawn with the famous zombie film of the late sixties Night of the Living Dead.  While that undead horde actually bears a number of similarities to Shelly�s creation, in other ways it�s a different beast entirely.  Mindless, devoid of reason, conscience, and emotion, the zombie was formerly a human that for unknown reasons has come back to life and exists solely on primal instinct.  

 

 

   The modern day ghoul, or zombie, is no longer a solitary creature, but exists by the thousands, akin more to wild and dangerous animals than its counterpart of past generations (such as the Mummy whose sole raison d�etre was revenge for violating its ancient tomb), with one purpose: to eat and to survive.  Yet they retain a basic memory of places they visited and things they did. 

 

Drawing on the apocalyptic vision of films like Alfred Hitchcock�s The Birds, EC comics, as well as a keen insight into societal trends, George Romero�s single-handed vision of horror was in reality a biting social commentary on American behavior and cultural mores.  Purposefully gory (and one of the few cases where it is arguably justifiable), the undead in Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, are us.  They are the mindless American public whose lives contain little meaning or purpose beyond their own selfish needs. 

 

While Night took on racism and Day militaristic aggrandizement, Dawn showed us a culture of consumerist, materialistic monsters.  Set appropriately in a shopping mall, the surviving humans (the upper class) soon learned the lesson that material wealth was empty and devotion to it made them subject to becoming zombies themselves.  The only way to kill a zombie is to shoot it in the head, an appropriate symbol for the fact that the root of the problem really exists in the mind, with our attitudes and dominant thought patterns.  Romero was attacking the American mindset, the unhealthy attitudes that place greater value in material things than in life, people and principles.

 

 

 

   The current decade has given us new kinds of zombies, ones that exist in daily society: the beaten-down commuter and office-worker that is worn away into a miserable, self-parody of a human-being; its only solace the material things and physical pleasures their self-imposed slavery can buy; yet as these are fleeting and empty pleasures, they must be constantly resupplied which keeps the modern zombie in perpetual bondage to their appetites and the system which controls them.

 

  1. Aliens and monsters.  Post-war fears and prejudices begat nearly two decades worth of �alien� creatures that came to enslave or devour the American people.  Often seen as humorous now, back in the fifties, US propaganda made fear of outsiders a very palpable threat which filmmakers used in a number of Sci-fi/Horror features. 

 

  

 

   That monster movies of the 1950�s were a reflection on Cold War paranoid fears of invasion from hostile countries is a sad commentary on an insular society that boastfully thought itself so advanced and superior that most outsiders were considered a threat and looked upon with fear.  With blind patriotism in full swing after WWII, it�s no surprise then that monster movies invariably featured hostile creatures and beings trying to take over the world with square-jawed do-gooders always in time to save the women and children.  However, with The Creature from the Black Lagoon and King Kong, a subtle shift had taken place (even if most filmgoers at the time missed it).  With the Lagoon trilogy and Kong/Mighty Joe Young films, the monster became the victim.  It was the monster's home that was invaded; his land polluted, his life taken captive for profit and "science", and ultimately his life destroyed while the square-jawed �hero� flirted with the vapid heroin.  Thus the �monster� as victim became a new subset of Horror picture, one in which Mankind, due to its selfishness, pride and greed, became the villain. 

 

 

   In more modern times, aliens have left behind their Cold War roots and emerged into something more acutely fearful for today�s more sophisticated audiences.  In the sixties, shows like The Outer Limits and the Twilight Zone delivered new concepts in the guise of aliens.  Joseph Stephano, producer of the first season of The Outer Limits, commented regarding the episode, "The Invisibles" that the aliens were in fact his metaphor for the CIA, "I got to say things about the CIA that I could never say in a straight drama... I'd have never gotten away with it"  Executive Producer Jonathan Glassner adds: "The better science fiction has always been a metaphor for some point you're trying to make, some statement you're trying to make, a lesson you're trying to teach, a moral." (The Outer Limits: Aliens Among Us Special Features documentary) As the 80's approached and conglomerate corporations began hostile takeovers of small businesses and companies, fears of assimilation and homogenization became palpable threats in the eyes of thinking people.  Not surprisingly, shows and films reflected that.  In the film, Aliens, for instance, Sigourney Weaver battles a seemingly endless horde of surrealistic roach-like creatures who seek humans as hosts.  Through a bizarre breeding cycle, the Aliens implant miniature versions of themselves into their captured humans, creatures that when mature will gorily burst out of their hosts� chests and grow into adult Alien life-forms that will go on to repeat the process.  These insidious, nightmare brood of nearly-unstoppable organisms of mostly teeth and claws with a phallic-shaped heads are little more than a nasty plague, metaphorically pandemic diseases such as Cancer or transmittable agents like AIDS.   Yet it is the "company," Ripley�s employers who ultimately prove to be the real evil behind the conflict, for as nasty as the Aliens are, ultimately, they are insectile or at best animalistic and not capricious.  Ripley's battle against them over the course of four films is an emotional roller-coaster ride of fear, anger, denial, defiance, triumph, grief, resignation, and dispassionate acceptance, a pattern that in other words can be used to describe the course of a person who has spent years battling an illness.  The ones who infected her, however, are the greedy businessmen and scientists...

 

 

    The X-Files, meanwhile, explored a different side to aliens, one based on the images and testimonies of purported real-life abductees.  While Chris Carter used this backdrop to launch his own imaginative mythology, other filmmakers and shows jumped on the bandwagon to help generate a short pop-culture phenomenon based on little green men.  In the meantime, psychologists wondered if post-modern isolation and deep-seated feelings of "alienation" had more to do with the sudden emergence of UFO's and aliens watching and waiting to rescue or destroy mankind.

 

  1. Psychopaths and the Slasher Film.  With the release of Psycho in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock unwittingly created the genre of the Slasher film.  While the idea of the monster within was hardly new, the depths to which Hitchcock formed the mentally disturbed Norman Bates, a sociopath with the thinnest veneer of normalcy, was unique.  Horror reached a new apex of realism with these kinds of films, reflecting near-accurate characters from real life headlines.  But in so doing, this branch of Horror steps outside the broader Fantasy spectrum and into the genre of True Crime.

 

 

 

   Television and newspapers sensationalized serial killers and movies were quick to jump on society�s fascination with notorious crazies.  Here is where we find the most abuses of the genre.  Where Hitchcock crafted real drama and suspense (as well as complex and nuanced characters), the majority of slasher pictures focused on brutal ways to kill, maim and inflict pain � especially women �  and in so doing, effectually made voyeuristic murderers out of their audience.  It wouldn�t be until 1978 that John Carpenter�s Halloween would successfully capture the essence of what Hitchcock was doing in Psycho, as well cast a strong female lead (out of Jamie Lee Curtis who ironically is the real-life daughter of Psycho�s Janet Leigh) who�s smarts would enable her to triumph over the killer.  Halloween perfected the form, yet sadly, in a way its success spawned a whole new era of slasher films, including several of its own exploitative sequels. 

 

 

   Over a decade later, the slasher film took on even more realistic proportions with the popularity of the Hannibal Lechter series begun in Silence of the Lambs.  It may be argued this sub-genre actually belongs in a category of its own (a cross between True-Crime and Slasher) due to the fact that it exists outside of the wider Fantasy genre and deals less in the archetypal �language of fear,� and more on hyper-realistic, �straight-from-the-news� headlines.  It certainly is less enjoyable as a purely entertaining art form, serving instead as an immediately disturbing reminder of the outside world.  While this may have its place in the film and literary pantheon, in subtle and obvious ways it differs greatly from the kinds of Horror that has been described here.

 

 

 Children and Monsters 

 

  When it comes to exposing children to the Horror genre, every parent must weigh not only the subject matter in question (much of which is aimed at adults and not suitable for younger audiences), but the nature of each individual child.  Like adults, personalities and levels of maturation vary with each child.  Many children love monsters and scary stories; others do not. 

 

 

   Educators have found that young people generally have an innate sense of justice and a desire to accomplish good.  For some, the subject of monsters (whether by reading about them, doodling or watching them on film) is not only fun, but one way for young people to deal with difficult issues in life, serving as a means of overcoming psychological blocks, lingering phobias and other problems which can dishearten and discourage young ones.  It is easier to defeat something you can put a name or face to, regardless of how horrible that name or face may be, than it is to overcome an unidentified fear in real-life.  Similarly, kids who can identify with a hero (in the true sense�not the flawed �anti-hero� popular with sociopathic older teens) are taught to adopt qualities as courage, honour, ingenuity and sense of loyalty to loved ones and community.  This is an area lacking in many of today�s movies and video-games.  They offer little more than stultifying action sequences, often accompanied by needless graphic violence, bereft of a story in which to place the context of the action in, or a real hero in which to identify. 

 

   As with most of today�s entertainment, parents have the responsibility of examining the contents of anything they allow their children to watch, listen to, or play.  This is not to advocate a backwards-thinking, stultifying atmosphere of narrow-minded control, but to encourage the use of discernment, education, discussion and moral training.  A parent should go beyond the cover and do research if needed.  If there is violence, is there a good reason or purpose for it; or is it merely mindless slaughter?  What is the thematic nature of the book/film/game?  More importantly, does your child understand the nature of it?   Does he or she understand why it might or might not be objectionable?  Their answers will enable you to better understand their level of maturity and whether or not a particular film/show/game is suitable for them. 


[1] This may be why Horror seems to work better in the short-story format than in the epic/Fantasy one.  Fantasy, because of its scope and immersion in mythic and romantic elements, requires much more from the artist to succeed.  Horror doesn�t require any of these trappings to be effective or impactful.

[2] The first part of Lovecraft�s paean to fear (taken from his famous essay Supernatural Fear in Literature) that �Mankind�s greatest emotion is fear�� is a rather biased perspective based on the author�s life and milieu and considered by many to be highly erroneous.  Love is mankind�s greatest emotion and has been demonstrated to have the ability to transcend fear on nearly every level). 

[3]  Lovecraftian entities and elements are not included in this list precisely because Lovecraft sought to avoid the conventions by utilizing the nameless to frighten his audiences.  Yet even in Lovecraft and his fellow Mythos writers, the nameless were soon given numerous names and associated metaphors.  Nevertheless, Lovecraft was successful in inventing rather original stories that were bizarre and frightening enough to continue to give chills to modern day readers.

[4] Note: this is not a study of alcoholism, drug addiction or psychological dysfunction, rather this is an attempt to examine why the symbols of certain literary and filmic creatures have carried such weight over so many years and what possible modern-day metaphors might be drawn from them.

 

ESSAYS

Fantasy and Faith: Are They Compatible?

 

"Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but no one has a right to be wrong about the facts. Without the facts, your opinion is of no value." �Ren� Dahinden

 

     Fantasy is often misunderstood and misrepresented by those who seek to subvert the genre or who refuse to comprehend its import.  It's been wrongfully associated with children's stories by an elite cabal of the literati, and looked down upon by some in the media as puerile nonsense for overgrown adolescents.  To be fair to the critics, for every work of art created, there are far more produced that are worthless, lacking in artistic merit or intrinsic value.  There are plenty of books, films, comics, video games, and TV shows which glorify negative elements and are geared strictly to shallow teens and adults who crave mindless violence and debasing entertainment.  Perhaps, this is one reason in recent times why the genre has so often been misunderstood and attacked by moral watchdogs and religious groups.

 

     Too often well-meaning, but ill-informed individuals are quick to jump on the bandwagon that attacks films, shows or books which they've never read or viewed and know nothing about.  Not everything in life is evil or harmful.  Without the proper perspective, it's all to easy to become imbalanced, extreme or fanatical.

 

     In regards to controversies surrounding certain films, it's important to remember that a story told is not necessarily advocating the good or bad choices of the characters in it.  While there are some in the industry looking to subvert audiences, oftentimes filmmakers are merely looking to make audiences think and discuss.   Internet reviewer David Faraci sounds an important reminder:

 

"The depiction of something is not an endorsement of that thing. This is the simplest thing, yet somehow something many people seem to have a hard time understanding."

 

     Yet ignorance spreads quickly among the ignorant, and many find themselves subtly coerced or pressured by supposed 'moral' peer-groups who attack what they don't understand or which they deem wicked simply because it is not their taste.  Others erroneously judge a title based on an ad or trailer that appears to depict something unpleasant to them.  Failing to learn from the proverb of not judging a book by its cover, misunderstanding takes root. 

 

   One issue that some religious people have with Fantasy is the common use of magic.  In this regard, it's important for thinking people to take note of the fact that Fantasy is a fictional story usually set in a fictional world.  It is in essence nothing more than the expression of a person's imagination, a game of make-believe or 'What If?' where the rules of the game are made-up by the inventor.  So too with Fantasy's use of magic.  There is for the most part little or no parallel between the imaginative expression that is called "magic" in most Fantasy tales and the attempt at it in the real world.  Well meaning Christians, therefore, do well to ask themselves if the Bible's prohibition against the real-world practice of spiritism (such as described in the Book of Deuteronomy) is meant to be extended to a prohibition against reading a fictional story set in a fictional world wherein a fictional character uses fictional "magic."

 

   At the same time that the Scriptures condemn the practice of spiritism (witchcraft), murder, theft, dishonesty, fornication, adultery, greed, unbridled anger, etc., they do not shy away from telling numerous and detailed stories of real-life individuals who committed wrong acts.  Based on the Bible's example, it's not sinful to tell or read about stories in which bad people (and sometimes even misguided good ones) do bad things. The salient point here is that wrong acts are never portrayed as good ones. The Scriptures show consequences for bad actions. Thus, it would not highly inappropriate for anyone claiming to follow the precepts of the Bible to condemn a work of Art which is simply following the Scriptural precedent.  And despite that we are living in Satan's world (1John 5:19), there are still plenty of books and films that are honest. Jesus is the perfect example, as he's the role model for Christians to follow.  He told true stories and fictional ones to teach a moral point (and rarely were these lighthearted tales).

 

    Another point that should be remembered in regards to whether Fantasy is harmonious with Christian thought is made in some of the eschatological Bible books, in particular, the Books of Revelation, Daniel and Ezekiel.  Within the pages of these ancient prophetic scrolls are all manner of fantastic imagery (much that would put many modern works of fantasy to shame!): Dragons, fierce and fantastical beasts, warriors, drunken harlots, witches and supernatural battles abound, and all for our spiritual edification!  But that is not all.  In Judges 9:15-17, Jotham tells a parable in which trees converse with one another, spinning plots and schemes. In Isaiah 14:9-11, Isaiah uses the imaginative device of depicting long dead rulers conversing in the grave.  Jesus used a similar illustration in Luke 16:23-31.  Thus if God saw fit to use fantastic imagery and allegorical tales to instruct his people, why do we find persons of faith carrying torches and crusading against works of art or entertainment that employ similar imagery?  Romans 14:4 states: "Who are you to judge the house servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for Jehovah can make him stand."

 

    The important question that anyone endeavoring to live a spiritual life should ask is 'What morals are being taught by this book, movie, comic-book, TV show or videogame?' 'What is the author's message behind the content?' 

 

   Lewis and Tolkien's worldview are based on their love of Christian values, and their tales reflect moral themes found in the Bible.  Lucas is interested in getting young people to think about God and spirituality.  In an interview with Billy Moyers he states: "I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young peoplemore a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, "Is there a God or is there not a God?"that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, "I'm looking. I'm very curious about this, and I am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can't find an answer, then I'll die trying." I think it's important to have a belief system and to have faith." 

 

   Obviously, that's not going to be the case with every author or filmmaker.  For example, writer Phillip Pullman's worldview is admittedly anti-Christian, and his trilogy His Dark Materials bears this out in less-than-subtle ways.  On the other hand, many authors don't have a leaning one way or the other.  Many fantasy tales (as with many comedy, drama and action stories) are neither pro, nor anti-God.  They're simply flights of fancy, adventures set in worlds of their own imagining.  And there's nothing harmful in that.  To be able to weave a yarn that entertains its audience and temporarily distracts people from their problems for a little while is a gift and the God-given freedom of any storyteller.  To imagine, invent and create, is as Tolkien puts it an act of sub-Creation that reflects or imitates God himself, the greatest of all imaginative inventors who created us and the living world around us.  So to invent a world in fiction, a universe of our own imagining, to formulate its laws, geography, geology and populate it with peoples and languages and histories is nothing short of an homage to what God himself did in reality.  And if the storyteller abuses that privilege by inventing scenarios that endorse or glorify morally harmful ideas and actions, it is the privilege and freedom of us, the reader, viewer, gameplayer to choose to not read, watch or play such a work.

 

     So for religious individuals, or simply concerned parents or thoughtful adults, there is no reason Fantasy as a genre unto itself should be shunned.  Practically every avenue of art and entertainment is in the process of erosion and has been besieged by the vapidity of greed that mines the lowest common denominator in mankind.  Degradation, exploitation in terms of violence and sex, glorified drug abuse, profanity and obscenity pervade all levels of pop-culture.  This reality�rather than make us turn to the extremes of paranoia,  shunning all forms of art & entertainment�should instead encourage us to THINK and REASON when we make choices for our children and ourselves...

 

 

The Dark Side of Internet Fandom

Anyone whose ever traversed a website, whether an official or fan-created hobby site in which individuals are allowed to post public messages will have discovered very quickly the existence of a small, but loud cadre of antagonistic, rude, negative and vitriolic fanatics.  And sadly, this obnoxious element exists in practically every hobby forum or public group who gathers to discuss shared interests, from sports to movies to literature and education.  Labeled "trolls" or "talifans," (for its proximity to the fanatic religious views of the Taliban) this group attacks, berates, condemns and scorns any and all who don't agree with their ideas and opinions.  And sometimes, they go even farther.  In response to a violent, hate-filled video (directed against a science-fiction author whom the videographer disagreed with on some point of minutia), a moderator at the official Star Wars site has posted an excellent essay on his blog (called Sex, Lies and Video Hate) that really everyone should read, especially as this is a problem that isn't going away, but is actually getting worse:  http://blogs.starwars.com/bluemodgroup/42

 

ESSAY

Exploitation vs. Art, pt. 2

   It's a shame the frequency of this problem forces me to address a subject of this nature yet again (see Fantasy: Art vs. Exploitation) but when a highly intelligent, gifted and skilled writer of Alan Moore's caliber announces that he's attempting to push pornography as art, I feel its important to make readers aware of this debasing trend that has flooded pop-culture in recent years.  

This topic was first brought to my attention on the online Oz-forum called Regalia, a Yahoo group that discusses issues concerning Baum's Oz books and its legacy.  Former editor-in-chief of the Baum Bugle (the official journal of the International Wizard of Oz Club) brought to everyone's attention writer Alan Moore's plans to place Dorothy Gale, Wendy (from Peter Pan) and Alice (from Alice in Wonderland) in an admittedly pornographic storyline devised by himself and his fianc�e.  Here is Moore's quote, followed by my original response:

"This summer, Mr. Moore said, Top Shelf will also be publishing 'Lost 
Girls,' his 16-years-in-the-making collaboration with Ms. Gebbie [artist Melinda 
Gebbie, Moore's fiancee], a series of unrepentantly pornographic adventures told
 by the grown-up incarnations of Wendy Darling of 'Peter Pan,' Alice of
'Alice's  Adventures in Wonderland' and Dorothy Gale of 'The Wizard of Oz.' 'I
refuse to  call it erotica, because that just sounds like pornography for people
who've got  more money,' Mr. Moore said. 'It would seem to be possible to come
up with a  kind of pornography that was meaningful and beautiful, not ugly.'"
 

    Alan Moore is a brilliant writer who's produced amazing works that have proved time and again that the comics medium is far more than juvenile wish-fulfillment about men-in-brightly costumed tights, but a serious literary and artistic medium. 

   That said, I'm at odds to reconcile such an intelligent man uttering such a ridiculous statement that pornography can be "meaningful and beautiful," when by it's very nature it can never be anything but ugly.  To me, Moore's statement sounds far more like justification than the use of the term 'erotica' which he rightly eschews as hypocritical and a "nicer" word for pornography.  Yet he can't see that taking beloved childhood characters that represent innocence and placing them in a highly sexual context is nothing short of exploitation?! 

   I've no doubt Moore will use his skills to dress-up his admitted pornography with a well-crafted story and well-rendered artwork, but none of that changes the fact that it's still ugly and immoral.  It is no more possible to dress-up pornography than it is to place sewage in the finest wine and served in the most expensive decanter and expect it to be anything less than deleterious to the drinker's health.  The current trend of carting human degradation into the mainstream of pop-culture and disguising it under the veneer of art doesn't broaden any boundaries or push any envelopes, as its purveyors would have you believe.  It's merely an exacerbation of the cancer eating away at society through moral erosion. 

 

Movie Reviews

 

Revenge of the Sith Review

 

From the moment the opening scene pans to hundreds of battling starships you know you're in for something special.  The banter between Obi-Wan, Anakin and R2 are classic Star Wars, and the action is intense and unrelenting.  In fact one of this film's greatest strengths is that it manages to carry you back to 1977 and 1980.  Each entry has had it's own particular vibe and style, but from the outset this one indeed feels more like the Classic Trilogy. 

 

Begun in Episode I's The Phantom Menace, the philosophical concept of duality is brought to a climax as the kindly Palpatine is at last revealed to be the Satanic Darth Sidious, and Anakin who has been leading a double-life is torn in two due to his fearful concern for his wife and his duties to the Jedi.  But those are just the surface tensions and the film is replete with complex theological and political issues that are anything but.  This is easily the heaviest film of the saga, and is filled with thematic resonance.  Yet it is also the most action packed.  General Grievous adds to the mayhem of the first half of the film as the newest villain to enter the Star Wars pantheon.  Sadly, we don't really get to know too much about him (a shame as he's really the progenitor of Vader in many ways), and I'm not sold on the Russian accent or cowardly disposition.  Thus, his back story which features in various books, comics and cartoons is left to fill in the blanks (and also presents a much fiercer enemy) for those interested. 

 

As mentioned, the story is densely packed and it builds in layers upon layers until the final climactic hour.  The fact is, going in we all know what is essentially going to happen, but when it all finally comes down, it's surprisingly shocking.  As other reviewers have brought out, Palpatine/Sidious steals the show as he sows the final seeds of the Jedi's destruction, the Republic's fall and Anakin's turn in brilliant Machiavellian style.  And its arrival feels sick and dark and wrong.  The main theme of the film is betrayal with a capitol B and Lucas perfectly sets the stage.  And then we get Order 66. 

 

Order 66 is the knife stab, the final coup de grace.  While general audiences will be disturbed by the stunning montage, those of us who've read the literature leading into the film and have gotten to see the relationship the Jedi formed with their Clone comrades will be heartbroken.  One can't help but shudder now when they see that armor.  Still, the film gets darker from there.  There is no happy ending here.  Anakin not only loses the girl, he loses himself.  There is a brilliant shot of Vader's helmet descending upon his face, but filmed from the audiences' POV which is a telling indictment of the viewer.  We are each the hero in our dramas and must choose wisely else the figurative mask of evil becomes our own.

 

Some have expressed confusion over Anakin's "quick" turn to Jedi killer �  myself included when it first occurred � but in truth it adds to how disturbing everything feels.  In real life, sometimes people do things we never in a million years thought they would do.  It's shocking because it happens so suddenly.  In the case of Anakin, the seeds that had long ago been planted are cultivated and come to fruition at last.  What's upsetting is the fact that it didn't have to.  Though, we're made to understand his motivation and ultimately why he chooses to believe the lie, there is no denying that Anakin allows himself to become the thing he's hated.  It's one thing to sacrifice your own life for the one you love, but to sacrifice the lives of others is evil and twisted.  And despite Anakin's resultant carnage, Lucas still manages to make us feel sorry for Anakin.  He doesn't start out a monster, although he certainly becomes one.  And the keys to understanding how are all there and in the prior two films. 

 

Visually, the film is as striking as the depths to which all of the characters go; it is exhausting (in a good way), exhilarating and emotionally charged.  The acting is superb on all fronts and is exactly as it should be for a film that is painted in broad strokes as fantasy films are (and any feelings you might have that there was a superiority of performances in the Classic Trilogy is pure nostalgia).  Ewan, Hayden, and Portman break hearts.  Obi-Wan's speech to Anakin as he is consumed by the flames is achingly painful!  Truly this is not only the darkest film of the six, but the keystone to all of them.  Many of the loose ends are tied up and the pieces come together, and those that aren't have become the subject of much welcome discussion.  One of the most brilliant aspects of the film are the subtleties left unexplained, mysteries that leave audiences with various thoughts and questions for them to answer; Is Palpatine in fact the "father" of Anakin?  Sidious hints to Anakin that his master (and he) had the power of manipulating midichlorians into creating life.  Or is this yet another of his megalomaniacal lies and Anakin was created by the Will of the Force?  Does Mace Windu best Sidious prior to Anakin's betrayal?  Or is Sidious playing a game that will force Anakin's hand against Windu?  How did the Jedi Council fail so thoroughly to prevent these circumstances?  How were they so easily deceived? 

 

Then there's John Williams' powerfully emotive score that manages to strike all the right chords.  This one is right up there with Empire's score and may even, like the film itself, surpass it.  Many fans out of a sense of misguided loyalty will never allow "a prequel film" to be equated on the same rank as their beloved and holy "Classic Trilogy", but all that aside, I think time will reveal that this film ranks as one of the best (if not the best) Star Wars film of all six, and its soundtrack is certainly one of the many reasons why.  The DVD promises even more.

 

My sole disappointment is knowing how much was cut out.  A lot of great scenes were removed purely for time factors that I'd like to see restored to the film in an Extended Edition.  Likely, we'll have to wait for the six-DVD box set for that, but it'll be worth it!  More Jedi; more battles; more Wookiees; and more importantly an entire subplot involving Padme, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma plotting the Rebellion that adds considerably to the story of the saga, to Palpatine's machinations and to Anakin's downfall as well. 

 

There you have it.  Star Wars as a film series has come to an end.  But what an end!!  One cannot look at the Classic Trilogy the same way and Lucas was right when he promised that when all six films were out, the entire saga would make more sense.  Episodes I and II now have far more resonance and an expositionary structure that set the stage for film three.  Revenge of the Sith has brought cohesiveness to the two trilogies and ultimately elevated the entire saga.  For fans who still have questions or just can't get enough, there are always the books and graphic novels, and even two upcoming television shows to stave our appetite for the greatest science-fiction/fantasy epic of our time...  Lucas proves the naysayers wrong by crafting a film with real human depth and drama, a brilliant cinematic treat that despite its grounding in the fantastic and mythological, stands as a warning example for our day about our own inner temptation and pride, the sin of misplaced loyalty and the trust we place in human institutions and leaders and those that wield power.

On the final Star Wars film...

 

Reflections on Revenge of the Sith... prior to seeing it

 

Right now, the final Star Wars is debuting all over the Eastern Coast and the excitement ranks palpable among the million faithful.  Even the TV news, the acme of bourgeoisie mediocrity is showing newsclips of rabid fans lined up for what will likely promise an exciting and truly climatic two-plus hours detailing the choices and consequences of a young man desperate to do what's right but ultimately failing in the end.  Yet sitting here writing this now, still several hours from seeing the film (tomorrow evening at 7PM), I can't help but think about the issue of choice and consequence and discern a somewhat bitter pang of disillusionment.  No, I'm not talking about tired fan-boy vitriol over the prequels or allusions to raped childhoods.  I'm not even talking about the films, per se, but rather what they represent in the cultural milieu in which many of us grew up. 

The spell, of course, doesn't true for all � for a faction remain staunchly immune to its charms � but for a rather large number of youth of the seventies and eighties, the Star Wars films were lightening in a bottle back in 1977 and 1980 (and to a degree in '83 and in subsequent re-release years); and whatever illusive thing it was, it was magic, for it was the essence of idealism and imagination.  Few films have the ability to catalyze a generation.  There was a reason Star Wars altered everything in the movie industry.  The films opened up the hearts of filmgoers � especially young people � to the possibilities of something more, something greater and more profound than the dark, mundane madness of the world we inhabit.  True art has the power to do that.  Star Wars, despite its perceived flaws (most of which are besides the point) is true art.  Dreams were begun for the generation of 1977 and here, twenty-eight long years later, they've come to fruition. 

 

Or have they? 

 

I know of many who's lifelong careers in writing, illustration, editing, make-up, design, special effects, music, acting, directing, etc., were birthed and achieved solely due to a love of Star Wars.  Still for every success story, there are hundreds who simply dreamed... and ended up in an office somewhere typing up TPA reports, or following professions their parents laid out for them long before they were born, or struggling at a variety of things that never seemed to fit.  The final Star Wars film is not merely nostalgia, nor is it just the exciting and likely memorable conclusion to a fantastic series of films.  Revenge of the Sith could be viewed as a reflection on three-decades of life lived and choices made.  That's a lot of time to look back upon and reflect on where we are... where we might have been ... and where we still might be. 

 

Some reviewers have gone to lengths to express a sadness at the conclusion and completion of the Star Wars saga and the transformation of the good man Anakin into a figure of evil, but perhaps there is a more subtle notation on the passage of life itself and its inevitable march towards old age and death; of dreams not fulfilled; of hopes not achieved; of love not attained.  With Revenge of the Sith at hand, and its layered theme of choice and consequence, the youthful dream comes to an end and the dreamers are washed ashore on the tide of transience and regret...  Or perhaps not.  Perhaps, Sith is the catalyst, an opportunity to start again, to make the next thirty years everything the first wasn't.  After all, Lucas has promised that Star Wars itself will live on... on television with two new series, in books and comics and DVDs, and eventually 3D.  So as Star Wars continues by morphing into new life, so too can its audience embrace change and growth, taking courage from the metaphoric examples of hope to embody better ideals and effect real transformation in life  Dreams are only so good as the foundation blocks upon which to build improved lives.  Or like Anakin will we continue to languor in illusion and disappointment and inevitably suffering the consequence of bad choices?

Book Reviews

 

The X-Files: Volume One

New trade paperback by Checker Publishing

To the minds of many fans, no Television show has ever come close to equaling The X-Files, not in its creativity nor in its quality.  One of the things that set it apart from the others were the stories; intelligent, dark, mysterious, quirky, dramatic and at times funny and bizarre, the X-Files were a cornucopia of imaginative tales with a cast of characters you loved and loved to hate.  And while the show may be gone, The X-Files are far from forgotten.  In line with star David Duchovney�s recent talk of an upcoming X-Files feature film, Checker Publishing has done X-Files fans a great favor by publishing The X-Files, Volume One, bringing back into the print some of the best original issues the Topps' X-Files comic book series had to offer.  Approved by X-Files creator, Chris Carter, this too-short lived series ran a brief 41 issues before Topps' comic line folded, and now at long last you can read some of these great stories!

 

Wisely, The X-Files Volume One begins where the Topps' trade paperback collection left off. Volume One presents issues 13 to 19, along with the adaptations of the pilot and Squeeze (episode 1x03) for good measure.  While the first twelve issues formed a continuous storyline of a a conspiracy involving an entirely different alien entity and government cover-up, in truth, the best work on The X-Files series began with issue 13.  Stefan Petrucha abandoned the overlong (and overly confusing) multipart story in favor of well-constructed standalone tales, and the results shined� and scared. 

 

�One Player Only� deals with the monster within and the thin line between sanity and madness.  �Falling,� a highlight of the run, demonstrates the disturbing truth that evil transcends age and the supposed innocence of youth; �Home of the Brave,� pts. 1 and 2 form a chilling account of Mulder and Scully trapped within the violent mindset of disenfranchised, uneducated youth.  �Thin Air� features everyone�s favorite smoker in a story about the strange reappearance of a long-lost pilot.

 

Petrucha�s characterizations of Mulder and Scully are dead on, and the well-researched mysteries they must solve evoke the same chilling, true-to-life aspect of the show.  Likewise, Miriam Kim and Charles Adlard�s artwork do well to evoke the shadowy mystique of the series.  Checker�s reprint job is superb, with vibrant colors and heavy-stock paper that excels even the original run.  Volume II and III are scheduled for release shortly, and X-Files fans would do well to grab up these excellent trade paperback collections while they can.

 

On Swamp Thing

 

I must admit that seven years after reading it, I've come to have rather strong feelings regarding the Swamp Thing title.  As a character, Swamp Thing himself is great: he's what turned me on to the series and ultimately what kept me there when things started turning sour.  The character displays compassion, justice, love and courage; he's a champion of the earth, a noble protector and an altogether fun guy (pun intended) to boot.  As a series, however, its a different story.  Swamp Thing began life as an enjoyable post-EC monster title which Len Wein (and then roommate Gerry Conway) "borrowed" from the old Airboy comics in the character known as The Heap.  The Heap was the forerunner for all marsh monsters to follow (note: The Heap himself may have been a borrowing from Theodore Sturgeon's short story "It," albeit Sturgeon's creature was no helper of Man), a bizarre-looking � but lovable �  humanoid moss creature that aided Airboy (and in a later incarnation of the series his son) on various adventures and against a myriad of human and supernatural foes. 

 

Len took his 'Swamp Thing' to DC and Gerry brought 'Man-Thing' to Marvel.  Both started off as one-shots in horror anthology titles, and in time both were deemed worthy enough to warrant their own individual series.  Wein's Swamp Thing soon followed the comic-book tradition of crossovers �  and before too long �  Batman and a few others were paying visits to the marsh.  The decision to incorporate a horror/fantasy character into the greater DC Universe would prove to be part of the series' undoing in later years.  Swamp Thing was eventually cancelled and the character was dragged over to the abysmal Challengers of the Unknown series for six mind-stultifying issues of stupidity as the character traveled millions of years through time with the abominable "Challs" (absurd as it now sounds, in a few years another writer would attempt to take Swamp Thing through time with similar success)...  Before long, Swamp Thing was back in his own series (it's second) with a more capable writer (Marty Pasko) and better days ahead. 

 

Then came Alan Moore.  It's no exaggeration to say that Moore is among the best writers the comics world has ever known, if not the best.  For a change, a comic book actually had a master storyteller on their hands �  an artist who knew how to craft powerful and interesting tales, generate an atmosphere of palpable fear, and create believable flesh and blood characters that readers could care about.  Now, the horror medium is not for everyone, and Swamp Thing contains more than its share of disturbing elements that some might rightfully find distasteful: incest, child-exploitation, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, and other less than savory elements were backdrops for many of Swamp Thing's adventures.  In the hands of Moore, however, they were at least handled with a sense of artistic care and propriety, and never sank into debasing exploitation (later writers and titles to emerge from the Vertigo label had no qualms about keeping to such standards).  The series took off and became a literary masterpiece that proved to anyone paying attention that the comics medium could attain to far greater artistic heights than it formerly aspired to.  While Moore celebrated a long run on the series, eventually he decided it was time for him to move on to greener pastures. 

 

Admittedly, few writers could have followed in the heels of Moore.  Neill Gaiman would have done very well, and I can think of a handful of others that might have managed to at least maintain a certain level of integrity for the series.  But that was not to be the case.  Over the course of the next two writers Swamp Thing devolved into a series so absurd and riddled with plot holes you could move a forest through it.  

 

Rick Veitch, the series' then current illustrator, thought to follow-up on Moore's space saga (in which Swamp Thing took a phantasmagoric tour of the universe) by taking Swampy through time.  Time-travel stories are at best extremely difficult to write and even more difficult to make sense of, and even the most capable writers generally fall back on campy pseduo-science for the sake of enjoyable stories.  Veitch's efforts proved time-travel was in fact a waste of time, as issue after issue became bogged down in absurdity.  But the real problem was that the stories became increasingly difficult to follow and ultimately just not that interesting.  Veitch departed the series due to DC's firm decision not to run a story he had written in which Swamp Thing travels back in time to the final days of Jesus' life.  In Veitch's proposed tale, Swamp Thing and Etrigan the Rhyming Demon play direct roles in a blatant corruption of the Biblical account (Veitch apparently had no qualms placing what many consider a sacred historical event within the context of a fictional universe that embraces evolution, aliens and Greek and Roman deities).  Unable to comprehend how such a story might be considered offensive to some, Veitch abandoned the title mid-stream, forcing DC to come up with a writer on a moment's notice.  Proving they could match one bad move with another, DC hired writer Doug Wheeler to pick up the strands of Veitch's now abandoned storyline. 

 

Admittedly, Doug Wheeler had an unenviable task.  He had to finish Veitch's barely comprehensible storyline, as well as come up with a new and interesting storyline of his own.  While he may arguably have succeeded at the former, he failed miserably at the latter.  So awful has the later run become that Wheeler's stint on Swmp Thing is regarded as its lowest point, incorporating some of the most inane, confusing and ill-conceived ideas of the series.  By the time the multi-part 'Quest for the Elementals' storyline was over, Wheeler had mired the series in a dense web of perplexity and delirium that was further made atrocious by the ugliest interior artwork Swamp Thing had ever seen (ironic as the cover art was some of the finest to grace the series).  The end result is stultifyingly bad. 

 

Whatever straining sense of believability Swamp Thing might have gained under Moore as a fantasy series was destroyed by shoddy storytelling and an impossible-to-follow narrative that hijacked its readers into nonsensical ideas including mushrooms from outer space, improbable lineages and kidnapped elementals with unpronounceable names, all of which betrayed a lack of care or concern on the parts of the authors and editors at DC.  As noted earlier, the problems began with allowing the absurdities of the DC Universe to infiltrate Swamp Thing in the first place, and one that Alan Moore himself perpetuated (although in his case the DC elements were at least made remarkable).  The failings of the DC Universe with its myriad spandex-clad superheroes, and well-intentioned, but ultimately superfluous Crisis on Infinite Earths became the failings of Swamp Thing as well. 

 

By the time Nancy Collins came onboard to try and restore some dignity to the series, it was for many a case of too little, too late.  Moore's departure had been the death knoll of a once great fantastic series.  Collins, to her credit, did manage to return the series to its roots and give it an adult, dramatic element that proved extremely refreshing after the absurdity of the last two story-arcs, and had the prior two writers never gotten involved, Swamp Thing as a whole might have stayed on top artistically (commercially it was never a great seller, even under Moore).  Her work shows a maturity and depth of understanding of the horror/fantasy genre, and she is clearly, next to Moore, the most adept writer on the series.  Yet before long, it was time for Collins to part as well.

 

Despite some excellent writing and ideas, Swamp Thing was again ripped from his roots by its next author.  Millar took Arcane, a villain that was a perpetual child molester, torturer, rapist and mass murderer and magically transform him into a kind old man.  Conversely, he took established beneficent characters and suddenly twisted them into evil ones, all for the sake of giving readers a shock.  More successfully, he took the character of Swamp Thing himself through a much-needed and dramatic arc.  As a result the series somewhat managed to conclude on a high note.  Had he relied less on the modernization and surprise-factors, his run might have even rivaled Moore's in popularity.  Thematically, at least, Millar brought both the title and the character to where it needed to be.  The saga of the Swamp Thing had drawn to an appropriate close and a rather poignant finish.  No more appropriate ending could the series ask for.  Or at least, so it should have been.

 

Years later, the title was resurrected again, only this time it was to follow the miserable career of Swamp Thing's miserable daughter.  This third series was penned by Brian Vaughan � by no means a bad writer, but who turned the main character of Tef� into someone so repugnant and put her in a storyline so drenched in negativism, even long-time readers walked away feeling they had been dragged through a bog.  Mercifully, the series was cancelled not long afterwards.  But the shame of it is, having read Darko Macan's treatment for how he would have taken the series (you can find that here), it's clear to many that it would have made the perfect coda for the first two series.  Macan's ideas incorporated not only the continuity of the former Swamp Thing tales, but the spirit, taking Tef� in a direction that was logical for her character, easy for new and old fans to jump onto, and good for the overall story.  Yet for whatever reason, the powers-that-be at DC clearly thought Vaughn's trip to the funeral parlor every month would sell more than Macan's concept for mystery and adventure.  It didn't and it was cancelled after a mere twenty issues. 

 

Why DC would want to resurrect Swamp Thing yet again is beyond anyone's guess, but this time they promised to return Swampy to his roots, only with more insanity, sickness and super-villains.  By this point, however, a long time had passed since the second (and primary) series had ended.  DC should have presented a story that would bring old and new readers up to speed. They didn't.  Instead, they had Mike Carey churn up a storyline in Hellblazer that was every bit as convoluted as some of the most incomprehensible stories of Swamp Thing's past.  Due to a mystical Beast from Eden, Sargon, and a ruby with strange powers (!?), Swamp Thing is somehow stripped of everything he gained in Millar's run, all so that they could have him once again roaming the Louisiana Bayou.  If you've read that series, you might realize just how utterly wrong an idea that is, not just for the character or continuity, but for the story as a whole.  The new Swamp Thing was a character split in half, with the primary focus of the series being on the half that's a mindless, blithering idiot (apparently Swamp Thing had become like many of his former DC editors.) 

 

As with the last series, the story meanders in weirdness, and with no one interesting to follow, the series soon devolved into an exercise in phantasmagoria.  By the time Andy Diggle handed over the writing chores to Joshua Dysart, even the hardcore fans were perplexed as to what exactly was going on.  To be fair, some have expressed enthusiasm for what Dysart had attempted (the run was finally cancelled again at issue #29.) I can't say as I don't know. Having lost interest, I'd stopped reading it.  It seemed to me that the writers forgot what the series was about: a tragic creature called the Swamp Thing, who is dangerous but ultimately good-natured and heroic, fighting evil and maintaining the balance between Mankindwho could be both innocent or destructive and crueland Nature, which could be similarly destructive and cruel.  More importantly, that second series had a true ending.  Swamp Thing was no longer either of the swamp or a thing; he'd become what he'd meant to be all-along, the embodiment of the earth itself.  The planet and its inhabitants were changed as the result.  The entity Swamp Thing became was untouchable, beyond the Green, beyond anything John Constantine, Sargon or a mystical ruby could do.  To suggest otherwise was absurd, redundant, and an invalidation of the first two series.  In my eyes, at least Swamp Thing ended at issue #171.

 

Among the charms the first two series had was its wild abandon.  Giant killer flowers, over-the-top villains who refuse to stay dead, a cabal of talking trees, monsters of every shape and size, trips to outer space and the underworld, hallucinogenic plant-sex, mind-blowing revelations, melodrama, Machiavellian plots, evil cults, aliens, dinosaurs, pirates, a hippie doll-elemental, aquatic vampires, ecological warfare, magical transformations, multiverse hopping and even a visit from Walt Kelly's Pogo! These were some of the elements that kept the series entertaining (albeit in a mental-institution kind of way) and unpredictable.  The series is dark, but also beautiful and witty and humorous.  Moore's stories were only on the surface about monsters; underneath was a running commentary on the human condition.  Those who came after him, excepting Collins and Millar, missed all of that, and from Vaughan on, it was nothing but darkness.  And in so committing the series to that sole direction, DC betrayed its spirit and forged a counterfeit Swamp Thing.

 

But perhaps it was doomed even before then.  Due to its inherent nature, fantasy has a more difficult job maintaining a willing suspension of disbelief.  By placing Swamp Thing within the context of the DC Universe rather than its own separate realm, the title became mired in the inconsistency and irreconcilable contradiction.  Introducing badly researched mythological, religious and pseduo-scientific concepts further sank the series into a bad parody of itself.  The reason it's a shame and why this essay was even written in the first place is because Swamp Thing had risen to such heights.  I remain ambivalent about Swamp Thing, but it's helped me to understand the concern for creator's rights that many had fought for in the industry some years back.  I also understand now why it's called the comics industry

 

It goes without saying that if I were put in charge of the license, Swamp Thing could be redone right.  No more infiltration of DC's out-of-control universe; gone would be Veitch's time-travel mumbo-jumbo and Wheeler's Quest for the Elementals arch; also gone would be Vaughan's suicide-inducing Tefe stories and basically everything that came later.  What would be left standing would be most of Wein, Pasko, Moore and Collins (with a smattering of the others) incorporated with new stories from Steve Bissette (who was going to be pen several Swamp Thing novels) and Darko Macan's Tefe storyline.  And while I'm fantasizing out loud, I'd even solicit new stories from some of the first two series' writers.

 

So no, I can no longer recommend reading Swamp Thing as I once did.  But I can recommend tracking down some of its highlights, including the work of Marty Pasko, Nancy Collins and even Mark Millar.  But start off first by picking up the trade paperback reprints featuring the first series by Len Wein, the man who created the lovable muck-encrusted mockery in the first place, and then, of course, Alan Moore, the man who brought comics out from the nursery whilst penning some of the most creative and enjoyable issues of comic literature ever seen...

 

From Page to Screen

 

The Chronicles of Narnia:

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

A Review by Joe Bongiorno

I managed to catch a midnight showing of the Narnia film (with the unwieldy acronym TCON: TLTWATW).  Like many others who've read them, the Narnia Chronicles is more than just a children's series of books, and for good reason are they rightly renowned as one of the cornerstones of fantasy literature.  So for those of us who've read and embraced the books, anticipation and hope for the first genuine film adaptation (both a cartoon and BBC series predated it) ran as high as that for author Lewis' friend J.R.R. Tolkien's adaptations. 

To set the record straight, this film is not Lord of the Rings IV as some had hoped or feared it might be.  It is a wonderful children�s film, but a children's film it remains, one that parents can enjoy alongside their young ones and teens.  It�s adventurous, funny, creative and whimsical, and never panders to children in the cloying way recent animated faire has done that sends anyone above ten into violent paroxysms of rage (as in the atrociously awful A Shark's Tale.)

The story centers on four children who've been sent to a distant relative's home to escape the bombings in England during the second World War.  The siblings eventually discover a passageway into another world called Narnia where animals speak.  There, another kind of war is about to take place, one led by the rightful ruler of Narnia, a lion named Aslan, and the usurper queen known as the White Witch.  With forces arrayed on both sides, the children become the catalyst for the war, and in particular, the youngest son Edmund, who's misguided judgment betrays his family, and gives the evil queen the trump card needed to give her ultimate power over Aslan and Narnia.

From the masterful hand of C.S. Lewis, the story is timeless and brilliant in every way; it is the stuff of dreams and myth, and Lewis adroitly interweaves a sense of verisimilitude into his fantasy world that has kept children and adults returning to his books for over fifty years.  The film needed to give Narnia that same reality, and on one level it does.  As a movie for young people, it is successful and many in the audience (mostly made up of teens and young adults) were thrilled.  As an adaptation of the book, however, it falls short on a number of levels.  Where and when the film works, however, it works beautifully, transforming the wonder and magic of the written word to the screen.  The first forty or so minutes were near-perfect (save for the professor who is a bit too eccentric and not enough the wise grandfather-type he needed to be); the house, the interaction between the siblings, and especially Lucy and Tumnus are fantastic and lifted expertly from the pages of the book (even the WWII prologue which is not in the book "feels" right), and if in fact the film followed the inspiration exhibited in the first third of the picture, it would have emerged a genuine masterpiece.  Sadly, though, for me it doesn't.  As the four children enter Narnia together to begin their adventures, the magic begins to become contrived, the humor a bit too cute and the characters a bit too Disney/Shrek.  In fairness, Andrew Adamsom gets an 'A' for effort, as he does his best to remain faithful to the book, but there are some beats missing that are pertinent to the realization of the story and to capturing the essence of the book.  One element that is sorely lacking is exposition.  While played well by Tilda Swinton, we know next to nothing about her character?  Who is this witch and why had she taken over Narnia?  What's made her think she�s queen?  What is Narnia for that matter?  Granted, the book doesn't go into all the details (leaving a lot for the prequel The Magician�s Nephew to unfold), it does give enough back-story to render The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a complete story that could stand alone without the other six books in the series.  The film, on the other hand, skimps on these details.  Adamson does right by focusing on the four kids, for they are at the heart of the tale, but he fails in developing the other aspects of the story (the metaphoric skeleton and muscles), and as a result the world and all its denizens get short shrift � including the main protagonist and antagonist, Aslan and the White Witch, who are just barely sketched.  Again, this works for a children�s film, and if nothing else, if this film gets interested viewers to pick up the books, then it�s accomplished a great thing in and of itself.  Yet for adult viewers, something feels missing in the film. 

So much care and detail are spent on the brilliant first third of the picture that the later portions seem rushed by comparison.  Another aspect that seems rushed is the special effects.  In some cases they are spot on, such as the perfectly portrayed Tumnus and Aslan who is mostly well-conceived, yet in others it was clear that another few months would have really benefited the picture.  That or perhaps the effects should have all been handled by WETA instead of dividing the work to lesser companies.  In a film that attempts photo-realism, the fox is particularly out of place, sporting a face halfway between cartoon and human; in fact he seems straight out of Shrek 2.  For me, this shatters the tenuous illusion of Narnia as a believably real world.  The wolves were better handled, although they too kept shifting from decent effects to bad, but aside from some poor CGI moments on them, the greatest flaw was the voice given to the head wolf.  Not only does the creature talk far too much, but whoever played him lacks any sense of gravitas, rendering the character as little more than a cartoon villain. Couple this with the wisecracking beavers (who are the comic relief and indeed succeed to be funny at times) and you have a poor middle-act that unravels the sense of believability in Narnia that the first third of the film imbued.  This is further degraded by the inclusion of a certain unwelcome character, but more on him below. 

The focus of the latter third of the picture is, of course, the great battle.  Here again, some parts are inspired, particularly the ones focusing on the White Witch � who proves an interesting, adept fighter that steals every scene � but others seem a bit overdone.  Two elements detract from full enjoyment of the battle, and the first is the fact that much of it seems similar to what's come before.  Many will cite Lord of the Rings or Braveheart as the quintessential battle films, though many have come about since.  But of course, as this is a PG rated film for younger viewers, much of what lent that film its power cannot be reproduced here, and any homage to those films does little to aid this one other than to make one wish the director had the creative juices to render the battle in a more unique fashion. 

*Update: The extended edition of this film on DVD goes a long way towards helping with the battle scene.  In fact, while I still would have liked it a bit grittier, I like it a good deal more now.  The extended edition also helps give Narnia more screen time, as well as the kids, both of which are needed extensions.  The extended edition could and should have been longer.  But knowing Disney, they may be holding back for marketing reasons.  But I like the film enough to purchase another version, if indeed a longer cut is in the offering.

Perhaps I�m reading too much into it, for the Queen is exceptional to see.  Another element that needed work was the creature design.  While the Minotaurs are fearsome enough, the faun army is just plain goofy, and a number of other races just don't feel like the paint has dried on them yet (such as the Centaurs) or seem out-of-place (such as the Dryads who are bizarrely realized).  What�s lacking here is any kind of introduction to all these creatures and races.  They all just suddenly appear on the scene and then soon disappear, and one wonders what they're doing there.  At least in the cartoon adaptation, the White Witch introduced the various races of evil creatures she�s summoned, but no mention is made in the film of the fact that Narnia happens to contain a myriad of races, cultures and allegiances.  The film takes it all for granted, as if to say, �Here�s a fantasy world and here�s a bunch of fantasy creatures.�  That�s a lazy way out of taking a few brief moments to properly set the stage for the land and its inhabitants.  As such, Narnia as a place suffers from seeming like too generic a fantasy world with no real sense of history or purpose.  Again, a little exposition from the book would have solved this.

As mentioned, Adamson's focus is firmly on the four children.  And while great performances can sometimes elevate a picture above its shortcomings, this never happens on this film because one of the main protagonists, Peter, doesn't work for me at all.  In the book, Peter was my favorite character and Edmund my least favorite.  In the film, it's completely reversed.  The other kids are great most of the time, but William Moseley who plays Peter is just bland; in fact he's almost unlikable.  This may or may not be the actor's fault, but he's miscast in my opinion.  The character needs to draw the audience in.  Instead, he's distant and a bit of a prig, which hurts the film as Peter is utilized quite a lot, and the character as portrayed simply isn't interesting and I resented the screen time he was given (time that was needed for Aslan, the witch and their respective minions). 

One final insult to injury was the painful decision to include Father Christmas.  Tolkien was right in objecting to Lewis� inclusion of the character in the book, but in the film, it�s awful and hits a completely wrong note.  Thankfully, he�s in only one scene, but the scene stops the film cold in its tracks and truly destroys the suspension of disbelief for all but the sappiest and youngest in the audience.  It's a scene that should�ve been left for the Extended Cut (or better yet separate deleted scenes section).   

Despite my complaints over what I perceive as flaws with the film, it�s still an excellent and enjoyable movie for its audience, children and the young-at-heart.  I won't comment on the over-inflated controversy.  Whether you love, hate or are indifferent to the Christian underpinnings of the book, it's mostly the same here and as such is subtle (as it should be.)  My review is based on an adult fan's perspective of the adaptation of the book and may be overly harsh and nitpicky.  But I think C. S. Lewis� work could and should have been much better realized, particularly in the latter two thirds of the film.  More time before the release date could have turned what were only so-so special effects into truly astounding ones.  More importantly, a more experienced director could have taken the material and transformed it into a masterpiece.  Better decision-making in terms of the actors (particularly in the case of Peter), including appropriate voice-actors for the animals (which, as the most difficult element to swallow, benefit from the proverb �less is more�) who needed seasoned voice-acting and directing to convey the 'reality' of talking beasts; more exposition that brings the viewer firmly into the history of the unique world of Narnia and its struggles; more weight, gravitas and elegance; more time spent establishing the inhabitants of the world (both good and evil) to allow the final battle scene to have some power and a real sense of purpose, and better scripting, direction and oversight (eliminating suspension-of-disbelief destroying scenes involving poorly conceived foxes, loquacious wolves and Father Christmases).  These elements and more would have propelled this film from an enjoyable diversion that bears a surface likeness to the book into a genuine classic.

*Update: Again, the film is improved in the Extended Cut on DVD and on a second and third viewing proved more enjoyable.  The Extended DVD claims to have improved on some special effects, and that's possible.  The fox and wolves seems a little better to me, though it's possible that the smaller screen (I have a 65" widescreen but that's still a lot smaller than most movie screens) helps in that regard.  More importantly, the film does seems to work as a more grown-up version of a classic Disney film.  What do I mean by that?  Simply that it should entertain most age groups.  Hardened adults and spoilt brats aside, it's a good family film in the most positive aspect of that phrase.  Looking forward to Prince Caspian!

 

The Chronicles of Narnia:

Prince Caspian

 

 

If I may wax poetic for but a moment, tonight I saw a book come to life. It is not a common sight, especially when said book is a fantasy title, for it�s all too easy to get things wrong. And the fact remains that, though I came to like the first film a good deal, I didn�t love it; the first third was well executed, but the middle portion felt too light, lacked gravitas and mood; the world wasn�t as fleshed out as it needed to be; the ending battle was weaker than it should have been; the CGI seemed rushed in parts; there were just a lot of ways in which I'd have made things resonate stronger. The extended edition did improve the film, and as I've said, I came very much to LIKE it a good deal.

 

So as can be imagined, I didn�t have terribly high expectations for Prince Caspian; and none of the ad campaigns did anything to raise them, not least of which was the trailer: I didn't care for Caspian's accent, the effects looked as ho-hum as before, the choreography and acting seemed to promise more of the same. I didn't want more of the same.  I wanted a movie that would make me, a fan of the genre and of the books, but one who's well past the age of 10, believe in the world and its denizens. Yet I doubted it was possible. Too many compromises have to be made in an era that pigeonholes movies based on target audiences with too few directors remembering the days when a film had the power to move you.

 

How wrong I was! From the moment Prince Caspian begins with the screams of a mother in labor, to the dour and treacherous Miraz, the harrowing night-time escape of Caspian into the forest, the enigmatic arrival of the Pevensies into Narnia, everything worked.  It not only worked, it set the right tone and began to weave a spell� 

 

Could this be the SAME Andrew Adamson that gave us the cartoon-like fox and even sillier Father Christmas of the previous installment!?  Prince Caspian was touted as being darker, and that's a term that's often overused, usually with the intent of trying to get an older audience to see it.  But Prince Caspian isn't simply darker (which it is and gorgeously so), it's a far more well-crafted film, somber, artistic and atmospheric.  In other words, all the things I felt were lacking in TLTWATW (though in fairness, that was intended to cast a different aesthetic).

 

A big part of the reason for this is the fact that Adamson takes a bit more time conveying the characters and world.  The political machinations of the grim Telmarines, for instance, help ground the film with a level of verisimilitude more often found in historical epics. That a thousand years have passed, that the four protagonists have not quite adjusted to returning to the world in which they're children again, that Narnia has irrevocably changed, these elements are handled with skillful directorial touches, moments of beauty and strangeness, a well-spoken line of dialogue or a subtle glance. The world and its inhabitants are so fascinating you want time to explore them even more, but you can't because an army is heading to exterminate the ancient, hidden part of that world that still exists.  It�s just the right balance of tension the film requires.

 

Wars in fantasy films have become almost clich�, so I don't quite understand how Adamson pulled off the many battles present here. While on the surface they might appear lost scenes from The Lord of the Rings, on closer examination, they stand out as exciting and fresh.  In fact, I prefer these to the interminable Helm's Deep and the over-the-top Battle of Pellenor Fields in the Lord of the Rings films.  I certainly wasn't expecting to find Prince Caspian's battles more interesting and better choreographed. 

 

Now, all of this would have backfired if Adamson made the "magical" parts and characters too magical, or if the voice-work wasn't well done, or if the CGI didn't convey photo-realistic beings, all of which were failings to one degree or another on the first film.  How would the film hold up one once the Old Narnians (the magical creatures) made their appearance?

 

As with the human characters of the film for whom doubt is a major theme, I had serious misgivings.  Adamson proved me wrong yet again. For one thing, the character designs this time around don't look like they just popped out of WETA workshop or some effects house.  The creatures all look and feel like creatures of the forest.  Heck, they look dangerous.  I don't know what parts were CGI and what parts practical, nor do I care.  They felt alive and kicking, and served the story, rather than distracted from it. The other part was that the actors playing the dwarfs, centaurs, minotaurs, badgers, and mice (yes, mice!) were spot on in their roles. These aren't just stunt people, and the audience cares when they get hurt and go down. And go down, many do.

 

Adamson makes some changes to the book by giving the characters arcs that aren�t present in the original. It's the one area where some ire might be raised. Lewis� story has the Pevensies as likeable and heroic, serving the story in a similar way to how characters in fairy-tales do. In fairness, the characters in the book are a notch or two more realistic than that, but Adamson brings that element up a few notches more. You really get the sense that these kids lived these disconcerting lives, and that translates to an understandable internal and external conflict for the two eldest characters. In fact, the narrative, despite being action-oriented, is entirely character-driven. That may come as a surprise, for this kind of film is usually plot-driven, but not so here. The actions all stem from the flaws and positive aspects of the characters. It's done subtly, but the characterizations ring true and flow with the story (though they are dependent on the viewers� knowledge of the first film to make complete sense).

 

My feelings are that, as with The Fellowship of the Ring, the changes from the book work to improve the story for film. Thus, lines are eliminated, changed, switched; characterizations are added or altered, and instead of regaling the major part of the tale to a flashback (which is how the book handles most of Caspian�s story), the Pevensies are brought back to Narnia earlier so that Caspian�s story can occur roughly around the same time. What�s important is that the film keeps the themes and spirit of the book true. Lewis writes Prince Caspian like a wonderful old fairytale, just slightly modernized in regards the four siblings. Adamson is just doing the same thing. Smartly, this time I chose NOT to read the book before the film, recalling how damaging it can be when a recent impression of a book interferes with the adaptation. What the film does right is echo one�s old memories of the book. So, though Adamson doesn�t slavishly copy the dialogue and characterizations of Peter, Edmund, Lucy and Susan (and let�s face it, Lewis� focus was hardly characterizations), he does capture the heart of the story and all its important beats.

 

To their credit, Ann Popplewell, Skander Keynes, William Moseley, and Georgie Henley (Susan, Edmund, Peter and Lucy) have become fine actors. No surprise for Brits, but it helps ground the film, as does the fact that their characters are older and more mature. Ben Barnes is likewise an excellent addition as Caspian. He�s been getting mixed reviews, and some very nasty negative ones, but I�ve long grown impervious to the vitriolic cynicism given voice by the vulgar Internet age. Ranting hate is far more indicative of the individual than their maligned target. Aside from these, Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin and Warwick Davis as Nikabrik deserve mention. They're fantastic as the book's two cynical dwarves!

 

Speaking of acting, special mention must be made of Eddie Izzard who, like Frank Oz before him, brought Reepicheep to life! This sword-wielding murderous mouse could SO easily have failed, one by being the too-cute character of the piece, and another by being constantly featured for humorous purpose. Reepicheep is hilarious, but he�s used sparingly, and his humor is borne out of his character (seeing a pattern here?) Reepicheep may be funny, but he�s also a seriously deadly creature that Adamson doesn�t shy away from showing in the act of killing humans, repeatedly! 

 

One of the beautiful things of this film is the fact that neither Adamson nor Disney pander to a �target� audience, or go the route of Return of the Jedi or countless other PG fare.  Ultimately, these films are set against the backdrop of war; and in wars, people kill and are killed.  In fact, this is probably the strongest PG rated film I�ve seen.  There is no gore to speak of, but there is a surprising and refreshing level of violence and intensity. So, yes, leave the toddlers at home with grandma and grandpa and a copy of Shark�s Tale (or if you�re a really good parent, don�t, and leave them instead with a Pixar film) and bring your mature 7 or 8 year old instead. Of course, this isn't mindlessly violent like a video game; quite the contrary: there are consequences for actions, some quite painful ones. Not everything is spelled out either; there's lots of room for reflection and discussion.

 

There is a LOT of action in this film, but never to the point of exhaustion (The Two Towers) or at the expense of quieter moments (Return of the King) or humor. Juggling these extremes can be difficult even for experienced directors. Here, Adamson pulls it off effortlessly. He succeeds I think because he�s injected the picture with a strong sense of atmosphere and mood. Where the prior film lacked gravitas and atmosphere, this film is rife with it. Fantasy films need to have a touch of surrealism and a strong sense of mood to properly convey a sense of wonder or of heightened reality. A good writer is able to fill pages with emotive and phantasmagoric depictions of beauty and terror, but it�s much harder to convey that same level of profundity in a film (though it has been done). Lucy�s �dreams� of Aslan and the return of the White Witch both qualify. In less capable hands, these scenes would easily have fallen into mediocrity. They work so stunningly well because of the combination of technique and style, being performed and filmed superbly, and awash in atmosphere. Lucy�s scene is a soft interlude that has an ethereal charm; the White Witch�s scene builds to heightened tension that feels out of control, scary and sacrilegious. 

 

I don�t know how a director can grow so vastly in a mere three years, but Adamson undoubtedly has. In every way, shape and form, this is a superior picture to the last one � and despite my mild disappointment, that one was no failure by any means � and a great fantasy epic in its own right. This is, in my opinion, the best fantasy film since Pan�s Labyrinth and Fellowship of the Ring

 

One minor complaint. I didn�t care for the fact that the final few seconds were intruded upon by an almost-modern sounding song. The Emiliana Torrini-like voice should�ve not begun until the start of the end credits, not before.  It feels inappropriate and almost spoils the last few seconds.  The soundtrack is otherwise excellent (another improvement over the first picture) and captures the vagaries of the film�s moods and scenes. Like I said, the song is a minor complaint, but worthy of note.

 

A huge thanks is due to Disney and Adamson for making a REAL fantasy film that doesn�t cater to the kindergarten crowd, narrow-minded Christian parents or corporate sponsors. Despite the ridiculous horse-race nature of the box-office and its final tallies, this is a film that will stand the test of time. Let�s hope, though, that it does make enough money to ensure the remaining Narnia films are made, for the best is yet to come, the wonderfully weird Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the shadow-haunted underground journey of The Silver Chair and the stirring magnum opus, The Last Battle (not to mention the two prequel tales The Magician�s Nephew and A Horse and His Boy).  Now that I�ve seen Adamson prove his worth and given me a film I can truly love, I�m thrilled he�ll at least be overseeing the first of these future epics. Regardless of the future franchise, however, I�ll be returning to Narnia many more times with this installment, both in theaters and on DVD.

 

Who is the Creator of Star Wars?

 

Who is the creator of Star Wars?

 

The quick answer is "D'uh, George Lucas, dummy!" And whether we like the direction he's taken the story since the prequels (or for many of us, Return of the Jedi), it would indeed seem as if that was the correct and obvious answer. But is it?

 

Now, I'm not going to go on about how the fans ̶ who gave the franchise its tremendous success ̶ have some kind of nebulous rights to the saga. It's an interesting argument that may have some validity, but it's not one I'm looking to make at this moment, and in part, because it's not the question I asked. The question was 'Who is the creator of Star Wars?' Now bear with me a moment because the wording matters. Note that I didn't ask 'who is the owner of the Star Wars franchise?' or 'who has the legal rights to the universe?' George Lucas unquestionably owns the universe. And indeed, he's also the person who first started it, who brought it to completion, and continues to oversee it. Well then, doesn't that make him the creator of Star Wars?

 

Not necessarily.

 

The Star Wars films are the result of the collaboration of several people. I don't just mean the physical and technical aspects of the film. All of those elements, important though they are, act together to bring to life in the best way possible a story.

 

Thus, it's important to understand that the story of Star Wars (particularly the classic trilogy of 1977 to 1983) is the result of collaboration with such individuals as Lucas' former wife, Marcia Lucas, producer Gary Kurtz, writers Gloria and Bill Huyuck, illustrator Ralph McQuarrie, writers Lawrence Kasdan and (to a lesser degree) Leigh Brackett and director Irvin Kershner. Others, like editor Walter Murch, director Richard Marquand and friend and fellow-filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, also had a hand in what we see on the screen every time we pop in the original trilogy. There's no question that the films would be completely different entities, and might not even exist past the first film were it not for the tremendous creative input of these individuals. We can additionally add the actors into that mix. C3PO, for example, is not characterized as a used-car salesman, but a prissy butler specifically because of the creative decision Anthony Daniels made in his performance. To the co-writers, editors, producers, directors, friends and actors, we can also add Akira Kurosawa and other filmmakers, writers and storytellers who directly influenced Lucas in the creation of the screenplay. Even Lucas has credited Joseph Campbell for direct inspiration. Lucas' original vision was a retelling of Flash Gordon with better special effects. His next idea was an exact retelling of one of Kurosawa's films. It's clear that Lucas and a group of collaborators created the Star Wars universe. So that answers the question, right?

 

Well, again, only partly.

 

Star Wars is, after all, far more than just six films.

 

In 1978, Lucas and two of his employees (specifically Howard Roffman and Charles Lippencott) began to put the new Lucas Licensing, part of the greater Lucasfilm brand, to work. The point of Lucas Licensing was to create a venue for other authors to officially continue the story of Star Wars in other forms, namely books, comics and newspaper strips. There are some who'll argue that this was little more than a business decision, and not intended as being part of Lucas' vision. The facts, as revealed by the early treatments of The Empire Strikes Back is that Lucas had no overarching vision. He was basically making it up as he went along. There's no reproach in that. Numerous writers have found themselves in that position. Where it's a bit shady is in the later deception to the media (and thus the fans) that he had a grand vision all along (for evidence of all of this, please see J.W. Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars and The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, and Michael Kaminsky's The Secret History of Star Wars, all of which make for fascinating reading, and back up the statements made in this article).

 

There was a period of time when Lucas actually wanted to make 12 films (before that number was cut down to nine), and during that period, his vision was that several different filmmakers would tell their continuation of the story, with him coming in at the end to tell the final one. It was an ambitious and imaginative idea, sadly nixed later on when Lucas became obsessed with building an empire, namely Skywalker Ranch (which, at the time, was for the purpose of creating an alternate to Hollywood where filmmakers would be free to create their art without studio interference. As Lucas became disenchanted with the idea of filmmaking and found himself alienated from his former friends and colleagues, Skywalker Ranch devolved into a commercial facility for handling the technical aspects of other films--particularly sound editing and special effects--and for the merchandising of his own films). Due to workaholism and time spent on two Indiana Jones and two Star Wars films, Lucas succumbed to exhaustion and decided he would only make three Star Wars films, and move on to other things like raising a family. Whatever concepts he'd envisioned for films seven, eight and nine were destroyed, sadly along with the integrity of Return of the Jedi when it was determined that if the film steered younger, it would make more money. In part due to the fact that Kurtz, Kershner, and, to a lesser degree, Kasdan, made a film that was better than Lucas wanted to make (a quote Lucas himself has made), out went the idea of collaboration, and in came the beginnings of a kind of insular autocraticism, where Lucas would become the sole voice guiding his films. The story of this transformation, and the dissolution of the great collaborations that had fostered the great THX 1138, American Graffiti, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back is far better told elsewhere (see http://secrethistoryofstarwars.com/).

 

However, the idea of story collaboration on Star Wars continued in one aspect, and that was in the field of literature. Lucas was still behind the idea that authors could be hired to tell the stories in between the films (later expanded to include the time periods before and after the films). This wildly successful project later became known as the "Expanded Universe."

 

While it was understood that Lucas would have the creative freedom to change elements if he felt he needed to, for the most part, authors worked with the knowledge that, since everything from story treatments to finished manuscripts to artwork had to go through a rigorous approval process from the editors Lucas hired to oversee this (with some story ideas going directly through Lucas himself), their stories were legitimate extensions of the universe. Fans certainly understood that official Star Wars literature was part of a single, evolving narrative that included the films. Time and again, this fact would be demonstrated and confirmed, such as when Lucas changed the name of the Imperial planet in Episode I from Had Abaddon (his original idea since the early screenplay drafts of Revenge of the Jedi) to Coruscant, the name given to the planet by bestselling author Timothy Zahn, who coined it for the popular "Thrawn trilogy" Star Wars novels, a name that has been used in hundreds of novels and comics since.

 

It's no exaggeration to state that a large part of the success of the expanded universe was the fact that readers believed it was what it claimed, the actual continuation of the story. That idea was firmly entrenched for over thirty years, and it paid off, with novels regularly hitting the top of the NY Times Bestseller's lists and comics being regular big-sellers. Lucas himself confirmed his view of the expanded universe in the introduction to the reissue of Splinter of the Mind's Eye, where he notes that his films were "only one of thousands that could be told... but these were not stories I was destined to tell. Instead they would spring from the imagination of other writers, inspired by the glimpse of a galaxy that Star Wars provided." He goes on to call it an "amazing" legacy that "so many gifted writers are contributing new stories to the Saga."

 

In other words, the licensed fiction was not some business idea that had spiraled out of control, but a successful contribution to the saga that continued to have Lucas' blessing. And why wouldn't it? He gave the go-ahead for it to be so, hired a team of editors to ensure quality and continuity, and reaped the financial profits of all the books and comics sold as a result. The growing fanbase around the books and comics not only ensured that Star Wars remained alive and in the minds of consumers for years when there were no films, but created an organic, ongoing history of events set in that universe.

 

It wouldn't be until the advent of the current and ongoing Clone Wars animated series, which Lucas largely has authorial control over, that things have begun to change, and the status of the expanded universe is, for the first time, coming into serious question with Lucas ignoring the established continuity from the books and comics, and overwriting long-entrenched story elements with his own versions. Thus, we see the literary audience (who've followed the ever growing saga beyond the films for decades in many cases) beginning to sour to Lucas and the franchise in a way that the prequels, for all the upset they caused, never accomplished.

 

This is an unfortunate development. I've discussed in the past the moral obligation that a company has to back up the products it sells to its consumers. Since Lucas and his company sold the fanbase a product, namely books, comics, short-stories, etc., with the explicit and implicit understanding that this was the legitimate expansion of the story presented in the films, those consumers have the right to complain if they feel they've been sold a bill of goods, which would be the case if, in fact, the expanded universe is no more than a long-running "What if?" scenario (though we'll leave aside any questions of financial re-compensation for the lawyers and judges to decide). The ramifications of this continued course by Lucas will have to be discussed at a later time. For now, this article isn't about that.

 

It's about who the creator of Star Wars is. And by now, you're likely on to the fact that it was a bit of a trick question. There is no single creator of Star Wars. George Lucas' vision was to do a space opera for the young at heart, and to achieve that end, he and a large number of talented collaborators created the stories that became the films A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Since Star Wars was, from the start, intended to include the literary stories that officially bear its stamp, it's also the created works of Alan Dean Foster, Roy Thomas, Russ Manning, Archie Goodwin and a thousand other creative men and women since who've written, illustrated, directed, and expanded the Star Wars universe as it is today.

 

Putting aside any arguments as to whether Lucas' overwrites are superior or inferior (a rather unfair argument since Lucas has openly admitted that he considers himself a terrible writer), Dave Filoni, Lucas' employee and director of the Clone Wars, has argued that it's Lucas' creative *right* to do as he pleases (no one's arguing the legal right), pointing out that since he's the creator of Star Wars, he knows what is and isn't true to the vision. This is a view shared by those who are opposed to (or resentful of) the expanded universe (mainly fans who don't read the books and comics).

 

As we've discussed, a deeper than cursory look at the facts reveals that this is misleading, especially as Lucas had no overarching vision, and the story treatments were collaborative. Star Wars (particularly the classic trilogy) would not remotely be what it is today, and might not even exist beyond one film, without the creative minds of other writers, editors, producers and actors. Of course, Lucas is the coach of that team. But a coach without a team is a pretty useless thing. Thus, the idea that the vision of Star Wars, as we know it, is solely the imagination of George Lucas, is a patently false one. But it is an image Lucas has attempted to foster on the public consciousness for some time through interviews and books on the subject, to the point that he's been successful in eliminating one of Star Wars' most important co-creators from the history books (see In Tribute to Marcia Lucas).

 

When one begins to realize the fact that Star Wars, as a saga, as a universe, is the end-result of the creative minds of many, many individuals working together to create a single, unified tapestry, no one person should have the creative *right* to say that past contributions are null and void, especially not the one who oversaw and approved those contributions in the first place, or who profited from those contributions! If your employer gave you and a number of colleagues the outline of how he wanted things done on the job, and based on those guidelines your team went ahead and implemented growth and success, with the continued approval of your boss, doing so for three decades, your boss can legally still come in, throw out everything you and your colleagues have built, and fire all of you. He can legally do that. But that doesn't make him a just boss, nor his actions right. And as a person, he would be viewed in a rather dim light.

 

It is troubling that in the establishment of such a vast body of work, of which nearly every piece contributed to the whole, we now have the man who first set it all in motion turn around and set fire to it. Those who argue that it's his right to do so have only the argument that it's legally his to do as he pleases, which is inarguable. However, since at least three of the six Star Wars films were creatively and commercially successful because of the voices and visions of several, not just one, only a deep character flaw would lead someone down such a path. But a man who has become insular, autocratic and potentially insecure of the strengths of others (strengths that were once embraced and employed to ensure his works were the best they could be) has no real desire for any opinion, idea or correction that doesn't come from his own mind. Perhaps it's too much power. Or too much wealth. Perhaps its the hubris that comes from years of being told you're a genius.

 

Lucas wants everyone to believe that the Star Wars story is solely the result of his imagination and vision. But that doesn't make it so. Lucas may be the emperor of his empire, and it may be his decision to take the thirty-year creative tapestry of thousands of tales, and burn them down in a mad desire to reshape the universe in his image alone. It may even be his desire to ignore his own films for the sake of some amusing notion he wants to stick into his animated show. But if so, he will do so at his own peril, standing atop a crumbling heap of ash and abandonment as his once loyal fanbase scatter in dismay and resentment, the creator of Star Wars, legacy of a filmmaker who drove all but the unthinking and blind away.

 

Addendum:

One might wonder, given the nature of the article above, and my clear resentment over what Lucas is doing to his fans, why I continue to work on this site. In part it's because I've invested in this universe. Financially, certainly (and quite a bit, as many of you have). But also with my time and emotion. Star Wars might be his legally, and as such, he can ruin it all he wants. But he can't force me to accept his revisionism. It admittedly does sour the experience, and for some people it does so completely, which is a shame. Not a few are angry at the deception and betrayal. I wasn't alone in once holding Lucas in the highest regard as a filmmaker and as a man. No longer. The truth may not be pretty, but it holds weight.

 

But the Clone Wars won't be around forever, and I can put anything into Infinities that I want to in order to preserve the historicity of the universe that's been established. But after 30 years of a single continuity, I shouldn't have to. And the loyal fans deserve to be treated better. If the expanded universe builds on what Lucas is doing in the Clone Wars, and ignores what he's contradicted, it will mean the dissolution of the expanded universe. That isn't exaggeration. The EU is deeply interlinked, as it should be for any history (real or invented), like a web. Thus, the removal of one strand affects surrounding strands, which affect the strands surrounding them, until the whole thing is irreparably destroyed. If LFL follows on what Lucas establishes in the current series (and we have every reason to believe that they will, being that it's Lucas' company, and there is no one at LFL who's going to challenge Lucas). The sundering will begin with the history that's developed post-Clone Wars series, which will be vastly different from the history that existed before the Clone Wars series began. Each will share some similar aspects, which will make it confusing to the writers and fans. This will quickly devolve with new stories including aspects of both universes (pre and post), causing splintering canons that in a short time will leave everything mired in confusion and contradiction. It will mean the end of Star Wars on the bestseller's list, and the full transformation of the franchise into a low-quality cottage industry like McDonalds and Burger King.

 

There are some who've said it's been there since Return of the Jedi. And some who say from Day One. But despite the cheapening of the story by incessant merchandising, the literary branch of the universe has always held itself to a higher standard (not perfect, mind you). But without the ideal of a single canonicity to hold everything together to an ongoing and expanding narrative, it all goes down the tubes.

 

I can't say if it's too late. I won't financially support any present and future Clone Wars DVDs/blu-rays. That's the only way to make my voice heard to those inside the ivory tower who've cut themselves off from those who've made and kept them wealthy. I'll pick them up used instead, and will determine what can be considered canon and what can't based on its adherence to the stories that came before. Lucas and his company have lost the power they once had to determine canonicity. You'll see what I mean if these rumors come to pass. This isn't a revolution or a rebellion (though if there's one in the works, let me know) so much as a way for those who want to hold on to their literary universe and still enjoy it, and who don't want to get completely bitter, to salvage what is theirs. So, maybe it is a personal revolution. And maybe it's a lesson for all of us to not so eagerly place our trust and hopes in imperfect authority figures, most of whom are only looking out for their own self-interest.