Thursday, October 22, 2020

Missed Opportunities For The Women In FROM DUSK TIL DAWN

As part of our Halloween vampire month, the merry crew of misfits at Myopia Movies decided to do From Dusk Til Dawn, a Quentin Tarantino hybrid of Natural Born Killers and a Mexican vampire movie. Here's the episode itself. The following discussion elaborates on some thoughts I had during the podcast. Spoilers for the canonical film coming...


Although I hadn't seen the movie before, I'd seen some discussion online that made vampire stripper Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) seem much more important than she turned out to be in the film. At least one person claimed the vampires at the strip club Titty Twister were a matriarchal society that preys on the vices of men, the television series based on the film develops this whole mythology about the vampires and other evil supernatural forces, and Pandemonium herself even had a prequel movie dedicated to her origin. However, Pandemonium and the other major vampire characters get killed off three-fourths of the way through the movie and the rest of the film consists of the surviving humans trying to survive against the zombie-horde of vampire reinforcements gathered outside.

Meanwhile, although we see preacher's daughter Kate Fuller (Juliette Lewis) grow from being this nice, timid girl who can't bring herself to stake a corpse to being a hard-core vampire fighter willing to kill her vampirized adopted brother Scott (Ernest Liu), the film ends with her out of nowhere asking to stay with the other survivor, bank robber Seth Gecko (George Clooney) in Mexico. To his credit, he turns her down, saying he's not that bad, and flat-out tells her to go home. He goes off to retirement in El Rey with the proceeds from his last robbery, while it's implied Kate takes the money that Seth gives her and returns to the United States in the family RV.

Put these two together and there's some serious missed opportunities for both Santanico and Kate.

*Kate and Scott are on a road trip with their father Jacob (Harvey Keitel), a pastor who is losing his faith after the prolonged and ugly death of his wife in a car accident. Although Kate does love her father and brother, she's also a teenage girl who's realistically going to want more independence from her family. This would especially be the case if her father and brother default to relying on her to fulfill her late mother's responsibilities. We see her going swimming by herself at the hotel pool rather than hanging out with the folks and perhaps we could throw in that she really doesn't want to be on the trip in the first place. If we see friction before the Fullers get taken hostage by the Gecko brothers, well, that's a thread that can be followed.

*Seth's brother Richie (Quentin Tarantino), who broke him out of prison before the story begins, is mentally unstable and sexually perverse. He kills several people unnecessarily, rapes a bank teller he and his brother had taken hostage before killing her, and he clearly lusts after Kate. He hallucinates that she'd propositioned him and later he leers at her (particularly her feet). Seth uses the possibility he might try to rape Kate to intimidate her father, but he has enough moral sense that when Jacob tells him that he'll kill Richie if he touches Kate, Seth's response is "fair enough." Kate manages to deflect an early attempt by Richie to perv on her, but she has to be aware he's dangerous beyond the fact he's a twitchy kidnapper. Even though she likely doesn't know about the bank teller, the man reeks of creepy.

*Kate's alienation from her family can be combined with improving Santanico's role if, rather than being killed by Seth during the vampires' opening attack that kills most of the Titty Twister's patrons and all but a few of the original vampires, Santanico leads the survivors in a retreat deeper into the club (which the credits reveal is actually the top of an enormous Aztec-style temple). The vampire reinforcements massing outside break in earlier, forcing the human survivors to retreat in the same direction. Santanico, seeing Kate as the lone woman among the survivors, tries to cultivate her as a traitor. At this point Richie is dead, but since she knew he was Seth's brother (got his memories by drinking his blood?), she might know about his creeping on Kate. 

She could use this as a lever to get her to betray the others and join Santanico's matriarchal vampire society that preys on immoral men rather than living in fear of them. Christopher Moore's vampire trilogy, although it's primarily comic, very seriously touches on the same theme with the character Jody. She comes to enjoy being a vampire because she realizes that as a woman she'd lived in a low-level state of fear her entire life before becoming a vampire--now she can effortlessly annihilate any man who bothers her. Although Kate is too nice and too Christian (despite his perversity, she warns Richie about an attacking vampire and later uses her cross necklace to kill another) to fall for it, she might be tempted. This would especially be the case if the human survivors include another male character who'd behaved sexually aggressively toward her. Per TVTropes in the television version the sleazy Sex Machine (Tom Savini) hit on her, so he might be an option.

(To get this to work, the film would have to depict those killed by vampires as staying dead rather than rising again as new vampires as the canonical film does. Perhaps only Santanico, being the vampire queen, can make new vampires. You could also emphasize the Christ-perverting nature of the vampires by emphasizing becoming a vampire as a parody of Communion--like in Interview With A Vampire, "drink from me and live forever." As a Christian, Kate might take particular offense at that.)

*Although she might have offered to join Seth in Mexico because her whole family is dead and she's vulnerable in a foreign country without a strong protector (when the Geckos bring the Fullers into the club, the comically-gross hype man says some very ungentlemanly things), as I said earlier that came out of nowhere. It would make more sense if she had some idea--even if it's a completely wrongheaded one--that Seth would be interested in having her around. That Kate has any friendly feeling toward Seth could be chalked up to Stockholm Syndrome (he's a gentleman in comparison to his sicko brother and has some, in TVTropes terms, Pet The Dog moments), his notion that vampires existing means there must be a God and therefore her father has spiritual power as a preacher she might interpret as a conversion to (or at least interest in) Christianity, the two are the last ones standing against the vampires, and she might further sympathize with him upon seeing the demonic Santanico's infamous threat to enslave him, but what's going on with Seth?

*Well here's an idea. When Santanico threatens to enslave Seth and make him "lick the dog shit from my boot heel," his response in the canonical film is to tell her he's been married before. Perhaps he has a daughter Kate's age and when Richie starts getting pervy, he tells Richie that he wouldn't act that way toward his niece (Seth's daughter) and shouldn't act that way toward Kate. Given how Seth had been in prison for years before Richie broke him out (and was likely divorced before that, given how he compares marriage to slavery), he probably hasn't seen his daughter in some time and might start using Kate as a substitute.

(Per the almighty TVTropes, in the TV series when Kate tells her father that Sex Machine hit on her, Seth pulls a gun on him as well. I would expect a father to be protective of his daughter, but why does a career criminal like Seth care?)

This could especially apply once Jacob is vampirized, since now her actual father is out of the way. Psychologically there's also something called Lima Syndrome, where a captor starts to feel sorry for their prisoner and that can be a factor too. The fact the robbers and the hostages both have a common enemy in the vampires likely helps.

*This all comes to a head in the final battle where the humans realize dawn is near and try to make a break for the exit, fighting both the vampires between them and the sun and a counterattack by Santanico and her minions. One by one the human survivors fall until only Seth and Kate are left to face Santanico and the last vampires. Santanico makes another recruitment pitch aimed at Kate, who when faced with the alternative of simply being killed, is tempted again, but it's Seth who convinces her it's better to die fighting. Then Seth's criminal friend Carlos arrives, smashing open the doors and frying the vampires en masse with the sun. Santanico, stronger than her minions, manages to make one last attack on Kate and Seth, but together they finish her off and meet with Carlos in the parking lot. After all this, it makes a lot more sense that Kate would want to stay with Seth, but Seth knows how bad an idea this is and sends her home.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Blast from the Past Movie Review: GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (1990)

Probably one of the earliest signs of my interest in horror film and fiction was when I wanted to see the film Gremlins 2 when it came out in 1990, when I was a little over five years old. Being rather conservative and possessing a great deal of common sense, Mom and Dad said no. Although I may have seen bits and bobs of it here and there on television, I never saw the complete film until The Plaza Theater in Atlanta hosted a special spaced-out COVID screening. So wanting to support a local theater--where, incidentally, I'd seen the first film--and figuring I could see the film in theaters at last, off I went...


The Plot

Some years after the events of the first film, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) is working in New York City as an artist for a media firm headed by the technology-obsessed developer Daniel Clamp (John Glover). He's trying to save money so he and Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates), who works as a tour guide at the same building, can get married. Unfortunately the elderly Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) has died, allowing Clamp to buy out his curiosity shop. The benign gremlin Gizmo escapes the destruction of the shop, but is captured by scientists conveniently from a lab in the Clamp property where Billy works. Billy rescues him from unpleasant medical experimentation, but some misunderstandings involving Billy's lecherous supervisor Marla Bloodstone (Haviland Morris) and a janitor get Gizmo wet. The Gremlins are unleashed once more on New York City, all while Kate becomes suspicious that Billy is cheating on her with Marla.

The Good

*The film retains a lot of the goofball physical humor of the original. Although I didn't like it nearly as much as the first film (more on that later), there were several moments where I did laugh out loud.

*Although I didn't like creator Joe Dante's decision to make this film a satire of the original film and film sequels in general, it did spawn a couple good jokes--one involves trying to find loopholes in the rules governing Gizmo and another involves an appearance by Leonard Maltin.

*Galligan and Cates are just as adorable as Billy and Kate as they are in the first film. Glover is entertaining as Clamp, a good-hearted combination of Donald Trump and Ted Turner with a cable television empire and a flair for turning everything into a way to promote himself. Robert Prosky is fun as "Grandpa Fred," a Grandpa Munster knockoff who hosts a horror show for the network.

*The special effects team are clearly having fun with all the new creatures the dramatically larger budget could buy.

The Bad

*The film would have probably been a lot funnier when it came out in 1990, but seeing it in 2020 it came off as very dated. There are jokes about the Phantom of the Opera musical (premiering in New York in 1988), as I mentioned earlier Billy's ultimate boss is a cross between Ted Turner and Donald Trump, a supporting character is a Japanese tourist who can't stop taking photos, and one of the gags involves Hulk Hogan. It lacks the timeless quality of the original.

*The film feels more disjointed than the original, like a bunch of gags (often funny, I admit) strung together.

*There was no need for the Looney Tunes segment at the beginning of the film. That's not why we're here. More broadly, rather than the dark comedy of the original, this one is just a bunch of slapstick humor that didn't work as well. Joe Dante apparently had more creative control over this one than the original and although as an artist myself I prefer more creative freedom than less, sometimes having someone able to tell somebody "no" is a good idea.

*The supporting cast is much weaker than in the original. The first film gave us the vile Mrs. Deagle, Billy's doomed high-school teacher, his eccentric and inept father and his kick-ass mother (seriously, watch the kitchen battle), and even that kid who hangs out with Billy despite being around half his age. Although Christopher Lee playing a mad scientist is a nice genre in-joke, he's in the movie too little to impress.

(Seriously, Lee would've been better as the film's human villain. Robert Picardo's Forster, the building's jerky security chief, doesn't measure up to Mrs. Deagle as a human antagonist.) 

Bringing back the Futtermans (apparently they didn't die in the first film) and giving them much bigger roles didn't help either. They were much better in smaller doses in first film, but the second film turns Mr. Futterman into an action hero.

*Some of the attempts to recapture the magic of the original fail, like Kate describing another holiday she hates.

*The film had a $50M budget to work with, as opposed to the $11M of the original. It seems all they spent on this was more Gremlins, some early 1990s CGI that's rather recognizable as such, and hiring Christopher Lee to play a mad scientist. Would've been better to invest it in a funnier script--perhaps they could have released it later and had Chris Columbus write it like the first time?

*Although it's around the same runtime as the first film, it felt a lot longer, probably it wasn't nearly as funny.

*Why do Billy and Kate need to save money to get married? They're already living together and both have full-time jobs. Unless they were planning on having kids very quickly and having Kate quit her job to be a stay-at-home mom, they seem financially pretty fine. If they wanted to avoid the obvious question of "why don't they just courthouse it," maybe Kate has rather impractical wedding dreams for someone with her family's income? Ergo, poor Billy is on the hook financially just like he was for his father's incompetence at breadwinning in the first film. They could have pre-empted Father of the Bride in mining that vein for humor.

(Hmm...between this and my thoughts on Christopher Lee, I'm thinking of a "how I would have done it.")

The Verdict

Maybe worth seeing if you're a Gremlins completist, especially since there's going to be an animated prequel series set in the 1920s in which a young Mr. Wing first encounters Gizmo. And make sure you rent it, don't buy it. 6.0 out of 10.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Crossing Over THE CARE BEARS...With RIFTS

About six weeks ago, I spotted some discussion on the We Hate Movies Facebook group about unlikely fictional crossovers. It looked like a fun discussion, so I contributed a crossover between the rather violent role-playing game Rifts and the cheerful 1980s children's cartoon The Care Bears.

It's not as ridiculous as it sounds...the world of Rifts includes a lot of extradimensional beings. The Care Bears are clearly not from our world, while Dark Heart, the villain of Care Bears II: A New Generation, clearly is some kind of demon.

So here goes...

The Care Bears are beings of goodwill who have been observing Earth for some time from the pocket dimension of the Kingdom of Caring and can see the apocalypse coming. Being well-intentioned but not particularly powerful, they generally intervene in relatively small ways--befriending lonely children, getting people to talk about their feelings rather than lashing out, curing a town of unnatural depression, teaching lessons about the virtues of hard work, etc.--and hoping that like a falling pebble triggering an avalanche, the coming darkness can be averted.

And for a time it actually works. In Care Bears II, for example, the monstrous shape-shifting Dark Heart is not only defeated in his schemes to spur children at a summer camp into violence and destruction, but renounces his wickedness and becomes a real boy. Through the power of kindness, not only is a powerful supernatural force for evil neutralized, but it actually becomes a mortal force for good.

(Maybe the redeemed Dark Heart and Christy went on to found a food bank or something. Who knows?)

However, that's only a Hope Spot before the darkness falls--a nuclear war kills so many people that it reignites the dormant ley lines, tearing open holes in the fabric of reality and bringing in all sorts of aliens, monsters, and supernatural beings into the devastated Earth.

But somewhere in a ruined Magitek world, there are still several small bear-like creatures doing their best to make things better...

Monday, October 12, 2020

What If the Cataline Conspiracy Had Succeeded?

Once upon a time, I took a class on classical history (Greece, Rome, etc) at the University of Georgia and one of the subjects that came up was the Catiline Conspiracy. This was a failed attempt by a Roman consular candidate Catiline to seize power as a populist demagogue that was foiled by the great Roman orator Cicero (who was one of two consuls), who forced him to flee the city. Cataline and his allies were later defeated in battle in the countryside and the Roman Republic saved...for a time.

But what if the planned coup had gone ahead? Behold the scenario "O Tempora, O Mores! The Cataline Conspiracy Succeeds" in which Cataline murders his enemies in the night and seizes power in the Roman Senate. A young Julius Caesar, who had objected to Cicero's execution without trial of several of the alleged conspirators in real history, brings the Roman priesthood in on Cataline's side and the demagogue's rule is secure.

But Cataline's men did not succeed in killing Cicero, and as Sherlock Holmes might put it, the game is afoot. Many of the personalities of the Republic's final civil wars--Cicero, Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey the Great--all have their parts to play in another round of civil war.

So if you're interested in Roman political history or if you simply enjoy a well-written historical tale in a history that didn't happen, check this out. It's very interesting.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

ENOLA HOLMES: The Possibilities of an Indian Inspector Lestrade

In the recent Netflix series Enola Holmes, the police officer Inspector Lestrade is played by Adeel Akhtar, who is of Pakistani background. In the original stories, there's no indication that Lestrade was anything but a white Briton (although his name is actually French) and someone online suggested this was simply a case of colorblind casting where the actor's ethnicity/nationality is simply not considered in picking the role, making Lestrade Indian actually raises some interesting possibilities in regards to his back-story and characterization.



For starters, why is an Indian man working as a police officer in Great Britain in 1884, the year the reform bill that's a big part of the movie passed? Akhtar himself suggested that his Lestrade came from a working-class background and had to work his way up to his police position, leaving his back-story full of possibilities.

*India at the time was part of the British Empire and theoretically Indians could travel and live anywhere within its bounds--the Komogata Maru Incident I helped research as a graduate student was a legal test of that concept). Furthermore, many Indian sailors lived in port towns and even had British wives due to there being so very few Indian women in Britain. Akhtar's Lestrade could be from that background, perhaps a former sailor or a child of such, which would tie in with the working-class background. A 1931 census indicated there were thousands of Indian students in British universities, so Lestrade could be going to school part-time and paying for it by working as a police officer. Given his apparent age, this could be something he's been working at for awhile.

*Another possibility is that his presence in the UK is related to the Indian Civil Service. According to the book I used when I taught AP World History, theoretically anybody could work in the Indian Civil Service, but because examinations were held in Britain, it was extraordinarily difficult for Indians to access them. The Indian National Congress was actually founded in part to include more Indians in government--it didn't start out as a national independence movement. Lestrade's family could have paid for him to come to Great Britain to take the exams, he failed, and he's working as a police officer to pay them back. Or more optimistically, he hasn't taken the exams yet and this is how he supports himself until he does. His associations with the civil-service might explain why he is a police officer despite not being British--an Indian man applying to Scotland Yard might be rejected due concerns he might not be able to do the job effectively as a foreigner or simple straight-up racism, but an exception might be made for a civil-service candidate, either current or previous.

*Also, given how Lestrade's name is actually French, there are some other possibilities. This might be a name he adopted upon coming to Britain, indicating a desire to assimilate (especially since one study, albeit a disputed one, suggests Britons with Norman names are wealthier than those without even centuries after the conquest) or perhaps a Dark and Troubled Past he's trying to avoid. Alternatively, given how the French had a colonial presence in India before being defeated by the British, perhaps he's distantly descended from a Frenchman? Bonus points if as such he's actually Catholic, given the history of anti-Catholicism in Britain even in the 19th Century.

Although I'm almost certainly reading too much into this, if more Enola Holmes films are made (it is based on a book series) and Akhtar continues to play the role, this could be an interesting rabbit hole to go down. And if anybody wants to write a fan fiction story elaborating on this, go right ahead.

(Heck, Lestrade is public domain by now--although one wonders if a specifically Indian one is--so you could actually write a novel. Just leave out Enola completely and it probably won't be a copyright issue.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Ministry of Land and Resources Offers Free Farms For Retired Guardsmen

Ministry of Land and Resources Offers Free Farms For Retired Guardsmen

Stenhus Posten
By Nils Berglund

The Obsidian Guard, in partnership with Sejera's own Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR), has formally put out another call for retired guardsmen or guardsmen considering retirement to apply for lands in the Basin.

"Since the defeat of the Camrose Confederation eight years ago, hundreds of millions of acres in the eastern and southern Basin have been vacated due to the vagaries of warfare -- the death or flight of the original occupants, failure of irrigation systems, or other causes," said Erica Wivell, a spokeswoman for the Obsidian Guard. "Hundreds of millions of acres of land that, if put to good use, can support a family or many families, but at present are lying fallow, serving as haunts for bandits, or simply not being put to efficient use."

Wivell went on to say that Grendel, Lord of Sejera and First Lord of the Northlands, believes very firmly that those who have helped win this land should be the ones to benefit from it. Consequently, members of the Obsidian Guard eligible for retirement or who have already retired may apply for a land grant. Experts from the MLR will interview them and any families they intend to bring with them to determine their eligibility for a land grant and, if so, what type of grant they might receive.

"Generally speaking, a veteran colony dedicated to farming should be self-sufficient in terms of labor, both in quantity and in skill," she continued. "A veteran with a wife and children skilled in agricultural pursuits would be able to put a large amount of prime farmland to good use, while a single man without agricultural skills might be better-suited for a personal home and a different occupation."

He added that local labor, though often available, is best not relied upon, especially in sensitive matters.
 
And this boon isn't solely for those who've faithfully served their twenty years. If a guardsman has received a medical discharge due to injury or illness, doctors and agronomy experts will judge their fitness for particular jobs and if their kindred can take up any slack. Wivell cited the examples of Sergeant Chao Wang, given a medical discharge for epilepsy after ten years' service, who now owns a prosperous farm in a veteran's colony near the interior entrance of the Pass, or Private Abbas Naifeh, who lost a leg at the Battle of the Iron Horse and ironically now shoes horses at the veteran settlement of Klókskapr near the borders of the new Firebird Host in the northeast.

But any interested veteran would be advised to act quickly. Wivell emphasized that available lands between Sejera and the Pass are filling up quickly and requirements for skills and capital to claim the remaining land are rather strict. Further east, in the regions of the Basin across the mountains from the lands formerly ruled by House Merrill and now under the control of our loyal allies from the Flesh-Eating Legion, the requirements are less strict. The Obsidian Guard and the MLR will even provide capital and tools for deserving applicants. Although the risks are greater, the rewards will be greater still.


So how did this policy implemented by Grendel, Lord of Sejera and First Lord of the Northlands, work out? The answers can be found in Battle for the Wastelands and "Son of Grendel."

Sunday, October 4, 2020

A Television Series Inspired By Dean Koontz's Novel WATCHERS

This morning I saw fellow Atlanta Horror Writers Association member Andy Davidson posting on Twitter about his lifelong love of Dean Koontz's novel Watchers. Apparently he'd first read it when he was ten and re-read it every year since. I read the book somewhat later--I first got into Koontz in middle school with Cold Fire (the Dickerson Middle School library had it) and read Watchers and Phantoms soon afterward--and so I replied that I would love to see a quality movie adaptation. Unfortunately, most of the films based on it were direct-to-video garbage.

(Seriously, in the first one Travis and Nora, who are married in the book, are a mother and a son. A later version made Travis a military deserter rather than a decorated Delta Force retiree. One looks like a rip-off of Predator. And so on and so forth.)

Andy suggested a television series would be better than a film, something that reminded me of S.M. Stirling's comment at DragonCon many years ago that books made good miniseries. Although my first thought was something like one of those British TV series that lasts for around ten episodes and then done (what I think would be an appropriate adaptation of The Thing in the Woods), then I remembered the original 1960s TV series The Fugitive. Although in the 1990s film the events look like they take place over about a week or two (at most maybe a month), the original TV series ran for four seasons. The Fugitive presumably takes place in the 1960s and the novel Watchers takes place in the 1980s, both before truly large-scale government and private surveillance and tracking. It would be much easier for Dr. Richard Kimble to evade the U.S. Marshals or Travis, Nora, and the super-intelligent dog Einstein to evade the NSA, the KGB, and the predatory monster The Outsider for a prolonged period of time than today.

(It's been years since I read Watchers, but the NSA guys hunting Travis comment on how between his experience as a Delta Force operative and how he and Nora sold Nora's house for cash, tracking them would be very, very difficult. And we see that thanks to Travis's military experience, he knows just how to get false papers.)

The first season could be "everybody meets everybody" and the early hunt for the Outsider, with the climax being the Outsider's killing of Travis's landlady that causes Travis and Nora to become fugitives. The second season and perhaps a third could cover how Travis and Nora are fugitives, their getting stalked by the KGB's assassin, Einstein's distemper scare, and the final confrontation with the Outsider.

Between all the different factions hunting them, how some of them are working at cross purposes (the NSA and the KGB's hired hit-man), and one of them is chaotic force of destruction (the Outsider), a Watchers TV series could last a respectable amount of time. And given fiction's increased interest in exploring social issues these days, one could touch on other topics besides "how will Travis, Nora, and the dog escape the baddies this week" or "how will the NSA keep the Outsider from blowing the cover-up going on a rampage this time."

(In the book Nora, raised as a recluse by her emotionally-abusive aunt, initially has little ability to function in the real world and is stalked and nearly raped by the handyman she hires to work on her house. Given how fearful and lacking in self-esteem Nora is and how inept she is at "adulting" when we begin the story, I could easily imagine her blaming herself and not reporting it to the police if Travis and Einstein hadn't stopped the bastard. And if I remember right, the perpetrator only pled guilty to a lesser charge and got jailed because Travis--a man and a decorated soldier--wouldn't tolerate the police not taking it seriously. Travis's first wife died of cancer they didn't know she had until it was too late, so you could touch on health care, the importance of catching cancer early, etc. And lead NSA agent Lemuel Johnson is so hard-driving and neurotic because his father, a self-made wealthy black man who managed it during Jim Crow no less, raised him without any tolerance for failure whatsoever. One could use flashbacks Lemuel has to meeting Einstein and the Outsider before they escaped the lab to show how just pitiable and messed up the Outsider is despite how to all outward appearances it's a merciless monster. There's a lot of room for thoughtful stuff here.)

And if you make it a 1980s period piece, there's no cell phones or cameras, doing everything in cash isn't really suspicious, stuff like the Patriot Act doesn't exist, etc. That would allow for a much longer show simply because the NSA wouldn't be able to locate Travis and Nora easily, nor immediately locate and squash the KGB. And the success of It and Stranger Things shows that now is a good time for 1980s nostalgia pieces. Barnes and Noble went so far as to even point out that those who loved Stranger Things would really like Watchers.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Blast From The Past Movie Review: 13th Warrior (1999)

For the current season of Myopia Movies, we're pairing freely-available episodes with episodes available only to our patrons. Our episode on the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, for example, was paired with a patrons-only episode on Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the surprisingly good one with the whales). Now we're pairing Twister, written by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, with a patrons-only episode on The 13th Warrior, based on Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead and partly directed by Crichton himself.

If you want to listen to the podcast (it's available now), sign up for the Patreon here, but in the meantime here's my review.


The Plot

*The real-life historical figure (and in this version of the tale, a court poet of the Abbasid Caliph) Ahmed ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas), after an indiscretion involving another man's wife, is sent from Baghdad on a diplomatic mission to the Volga Bulgars in modern-day Russia. Along the way, he encounters a group of Norsemen whose king has recently died. After the king's funeral celebration, an envoy arrives from another Norse king, Hrothgar (Sven Hollter), seeking the warriors' help against an ancient evil. A Norse wise woman prophesies that thirteen warriors are needed to defeat this evil and one must be "no Northman," so ibn Fadlan is inducted into the mission despite his vigorous protests.

Now the thirteen warriors, led by the chieftain Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich), have to travel to the northerners' homeland, to do battle with the vicious Wendol, a horror that, as the book describes it, "slaughters the Vikings and devours their flesh."

The Good

*The film is entertaining and never boring. It moves along at a brisk clip and made my elliptical sessions go much faster.

*I liked the overall concept. Some people online who seemed to think the book was actually real history basically described it as "Vikings fighting Neanderthals in ancient Russia" and were I a movie producer or book publisher and someone pitched this to me, I'd definitely want more information. More on the Neanderthal part later...

*I liked the initial focus on the Vikings in Russia, before they return to their homeland to fight the wendol. The popular image of Vikings in Western culture is based on their raiding in Ireland, England, and France and the accounts are largely written by monks who were their victims. The Vikings also traveled eastward--they sailed down the great rivers of Eastern Europe to the Black Sea and founded the cities that became the centers of Russian civilization. The Byzantine emperors' Varangian Guard was largely made up of Norse. Vladimir I, the prince of Kiev, converted to Orthodoxy to marry an emperor's sister and assisted him in putting down a rebellion. There were even Norse expeditions on the Caspian Sea, to plunder as far as Iran.

*And although most of what happens in Eaters of the Dead is fictional, the first part of the book consists of (or is at least heavily based on) the historical ibn Fadlan's account of the Vikings when he was a diplomat in modern-day Russia. Islamic involvement with the Norse (or the early Russians for that matter) is something that isn't well-known either, so I'm glad Eaters was made into a film even though they weren't able to spend a whole lot of time on this part.

*The casting is good. Although some might raise eyebrows at casting Spanish actor Antonio Banderas as an Arab, the Arabs ruled Spain for hundreds of years. Banderas likely has least some Arab background even if it's way back, and he's a box-office draw (even if unfortunately that wasn't enough to save the film). And the legendary Egyptian actor Omar Sharif has a role here as well, albeit not a big one. The Vikings all look the part and have good accents--at no point do we reach "John Wayne as Genghis Khan" levels of miscasting.

*There's some good attention to detail, like the casting of Diane Venora (an American presumably of Italian background) as the Norse queen Wealthow. In the older Germanic languages the "weal-" sound is used to designate "foreigner" (hence the Celtic Welsh and the Wallachians in modern-day Romania) and she's a darker, lithe Mediterranean type, not a big blonde Nordic. Although the book includes the "Venus figurines" as a Wendol cultural icon, the addition of the Wendol general with the "horns of power" alongside the Wendol's priestess-goddess "mother" seems like they were going for some kind of proto-Wicca--the Goddess and the Horned God. The Norse are also extraordinarily brave in battle because of their religious beliefs--they believe the day of their death has been determined already, so there's no point in retreating or trying to hide. And at another point, weregild is paid to prevent a blood feud.

*Some of the dialogue is pretty funny. Herger (Dennis Storhøi) gets the best lines, but Weath (Tony Curran) gets some too. Banderas' ibn Fadlan gets some good moments in, especially when he shows that despite being a little guy riding a small horse he can be pretty bad-ass himself.

*And some of the serious dialogue is legitimately good, like a character who is mortally wounded (in the film cut with a poisoned blade; in the book a gut wound pierces either the stomach or intestine) claiming he will die a pauper. One character promises the burial of a king, but the person instead wishes someone who can "draw sounds" to tell his story so it would be remembered. Spoilers ahead, but you can see the dialogue in the Heartwarming page of TVTropes.

*The soundtrack is really good. A lot of very dramatic music, as befits the subject matter.

The Bad

*It was difficult to tell the various Northmen apart. Buliwyf stands out because he's the leader, is wise enough to recognize the value of writing, and has all the presence and charisma of a particularly large brick. Meanwhile, Herger is funny and keeps calling ibn Fadlan "little brother." However, the rest really aren't developed. TVTropes goes so far as to depict most of their names and epithets (like "Halga the Wise") as Informed Attributes, since we don't see them. That's one of the film's great failings. At DragonCon one year S.M. Stirling said that books make good miniseries or TV shows and adapting Eaters of the Dead into a miniseries or TV show would have been really helpful in this respect. Hey Netflix or Hulu, need something? :) Even a three-hour Lord of the Rings-esque film would have been better.

*The book plays up the differences between Norse polytheism and ibn Fadlan's Islam, but all we get the in film is one line about how ibn Fadlan is from a land where one god is enough but that's not the case in Scandinavia, the fact ibn Fadlan actually has personal hygiene in way the Norse most definitely don't, and some rules-lawyering about how as a Muslim he's forbidden to drink beer or wine but honey-based mead is just fine. The culture shock for the courtly Muslim in the land of violent, unhygienic pagans could have been much more developed. The book plays this up a lot more (ibn Fadlan has a running commentary on the Norse throughout most of it), but most of that didn't get into the film. I don't agree with fellow podcaster Nic's position that his being an Arab Muslim means so little that they could have just made him European or per Jon's suggestion Chinese (for starters, that would be an utterly pointless deviation from the book), but this is still a missed opportunity.

*There's a travel montage depicting the Norse making their way back to what in the book is pretty obviously Denmark from their riverside camp in Russia, but it's disjointed and it's not clear what's really going on other than ibn Fadlan gradually learning Norse and showing off his riding ability to the Norse who look down on his small Arabian horse. Some kind of Indiana Jones-style map-montage depicting their route might've been nice, or at least a more coherent "we're traveling overland through the Russian interior until we get to the Baltic coast and then we're taking ships home" journey would've been better. The Lord of the Rings films' depiction of Aragorn taking the Hobbits to Rivendell and then the combined Fellowship of the Ring traveling from Rivendell to Moria would be a good model, although since those movies came out later straight-up copying wouldn't work.

*In one of ibn Fadlan's prayers, he refers to God as "Father." It's my understanding that that's a very Christian thing, not a Muslim thing at all.

*The book very strongly implies the Wendol are a group of remnant Neanderthals. Ibn Fadlan comments specifically on their heavy, bony brows, for example, and this DeviantArt image of what they should look like includes relevant text from the book. However, other than a comment on how they look like the mating of a human and an animal, this never comes up. When we see them without their bearskin disguises, they look like ordinary people, not Neanderthals or some sort of "ancient evil." For all we know these could be some random tribe of cannibals that have managed to gather a large force of cavalry and get the drop on an isolated Norse settlement, not the monsters the Vikings claim they are. It would have been more interesting if the movie touched on the fringe theory that Norse mythology about trolls were either ancient racial memories of Neanderthals or that a small population of them survived into historic times or the even more fringe theory that most of humans' distinctiveness from other primates came from evolving to defeat Neanderthal predation. It might've cost a bit more, but hiring shorter and more heavily-built actors to play the Wendol and making them up to look just Neanderthal enough (bigger noses, heavier brows) to trigger the Uncanny Valley effect would've been an improvement.

*Per the above, a major villain looks nothing like the Venus figurines or her depiction in the book as a hideously fat old woman. Instead she's this swarthy ninja girl with poisoned weapons. Per IMDB, she was originally portrayed by an older actress, but Michael Crichton (who directed reshoots of the film) thought it wouldn't look good for Buliwyf to fight an old woman. Here's what the character should look like, at least if she were slimmed down a bit.

*It would have been better in a couple of battle sequences if the Wendol were less numerous. It's true the Vikings have metalworking and the Wendol seem to be generally Stone Age, but the Wendol seem to outnumber the Norsemen so absurdly at times that they could bury them in their corpses if nothing else. Think Zulu Dawn (about the Battle of Isandlwana) in which around 20,000 essentially Iron Age Zulu spearmen (with a few riflemen) destroyed just under 2,000 19th Century British troops armed with rifles and possibly even artillery while taking around 2,000 to 4,000 casualties.

The Verdict

Not the best adaptation of Eaters of the Dead that it could have been, but it's not a waste of your time either. 8.0 out of 10. If you want to listen to Myopia's take on the film, go to our Patreon page and sign up.