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Posts Tagged ‘Greg Cox’

Mjolniriffic

Normally, when Hollywood adapts a comic book—particularly for the first film in a presumably hoped-for franchise—I prefer them to stay as close as possible to the original stories, especially when they’re from my beloved Marvel.  (At this point, I’ll add my standard disclaimer that my Marvel frame of reference extends only from the dawn of the Marvel era to the mid-’80s.)  But in this case, I’m obliged to admit that the makers of Thor were probably wise not to stick to the thunder god’s very first adventures, begun by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Journey into Mystery #83, which were frequently earthbound and involved a lot of angst about maintaining his mortal secret identity of (literally) lame Dr. Don Blake, which made him seem like a lot of super heroes.

It must also be said that the team handling this particular adaptation is pretty damn impressive on both sides of the camera, starting with sometime Shakespearean wunderkind Kenneth Branagh a seemingly suitable choice as director.  The five credited screenwriters include Mark Protosevich, whose work was rewritten (presumably for the worse) by Akiva Goldsman on I Am Legend, and J. Michael Straczynski, whose Babylon 5 ranks in my estimation with the great fictional creations of our era.  And the cast was headed by Anthony Hopkins, appropriately regal as Odin, the “All-Father” of the Norse gods, and Natalie Portman, fresh from her deserved Oscar for Black Swan, here upgraded from Blake’s nurse and love interest to a storm-chasing scientist.

It’s a frequent observation in the BOF household that Branagh, especially outside of the Bard’s work, does best when acting or directing but not both, as he so disastrously did in, for example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (“Say my name!”).  Thor proves that point as he adroitly balances the scenes set on Midgard—that’s Earth to you, buddy—with those set in Thor’s home of Asgard and in the land of the frost giants, and as he juggles the film’s alternating serious and light tones.  My most common complaint with comic-book movies, especially Richard Donner’s Superman, is that they’re too jokey, but Branagh is judicious in his use of comedy, much of which derives from the fish-out-of-water relationship between Thor and his fellow Asgardians and us humans.

Here again, a lot of credit goes to the cast, including Australian Chris Hemsworth, who wasn’t my idea of Thor at first but admittedly won me over, and Portman’s colleagues, the legitimately Scandinavian Stellan Skarsgård and Philadelphia native Kat Dennings, whom I loved in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.  Skarsgård’s had a fascinating career, ranging from such highs as the original Norwegian Insomnia (so well remade by Christopher Nolan) and John Frankenheimer’s Ronin to the low of having his arm bitten off by a shark in Renny Harlin’s laughable Deep Blue Sea.  I’ll bet if you bought him a few aquavits he would tell you some truly hair-raising stories about the spectacular Hollywood train wreck that resulted in Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning.

Although Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston were well cast as, respectively, Odin and Thor’s brother Loki, I had more reservations about the actors—all basically new to me—playing Thor’s gal pal Sif and the Warriors Three (Fandral, Hogun, and the not-as-Falstaffian-as-I-expected Volstagg).  Ever-reliable heavy Colm Feore was effective as Laufey, the king of the frost giants, and while Rene Russo wasn’t given that much to do as Odin’s wife, Frigga, I don’t remember her having that big a role in the comics, either.  For some reason, Heimdall, who guards Bifrost, the rainbow bridge connecting Midgard and Asgard, is now black, with which I have no problem in principle, and as embodied by Idris Elba, formerly of The Office, his was a strong and impressive presence.

What sold me on Thor when I saw a commercial for it was a quick shot of the Destroyer, since another of my frequent beefs with these films is that the villains don’t look like their comic-book counterparts, yet the Destroyer (not to be confused with Drax, his namesake in Starlin’s Thanos saga) was unmistakable.  I use the term “villain” advisedly, for as I recall he was conceived as a morally neutral construct animated by a fraction of Odin’s lifeforce, but here he is sent by Loki to attack Thor.  In the film’s complex plot, which I will not recount in detail, Thor is banished to Midgard to learn humility, hence his stormy appearance in New Mexico, and while the Big O is in his periodic restorative Odinsleep, Loki takes over and proclaims himself the king of Asgard.

Odin also chucks down Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir (which, alas, is way too large as depicted by the filmmakers, who appear to have had some compensation issues), after putting a spell on it so that it can only be lifted by one who is worthy, enabling us to go the whole Excalibur route.  All this attracts the attention of the international espionage organization S.H.I.E.L.D., which swoops in and appropriates all of Jane’s research, another facet of the film with which I was uncomfortable, although Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is not portrayed as a standard Evil Fed.  In my day, Nick Fury and company were never anything but the good guys; of course, I’m a bit biased because my pal Greg Cox made me an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in his X-Men/Avengers Gamma Quest Trilogy.

One thing I did not mind, although apparently some people did, is the ongoing effort to link new Marvel movies with the upcoming Avengers film—in this case via a cameo by Jeremy Renner of The Hurt Locker as Hawkeye—and it should be noted that such crossovers were part of Marvel’s unique appeal years ago, even if they got out of hand in the dreaded Secret Wars era.  While the sweeping vistas of Asgard were the usual eye-glazing CGI construct, the special effects were, in the main, well done, and the production values worthy of the film’s distinguished pedigree.  On the whole, I found Thor an extremely satisfying addition to the fast-expanding cinematic Marvel Universe, and look forward not only to his appearance in The Avengers but also, I hope, a sequel.

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Happy Halloween!  In honor of the (apparently) late, lamented Watching Hammer, I offer this nostalgic list, written at their request just before the site ceased posting new material:

Sincerest thanks to Watching Hammer for inviting me to contribute a Top Ten.  Since Hammer’s heyday ended when I wasn’t quite old enough to drive, I haven’t had the experience other contributors did of seeing these films on the big screen, and was forced to content myself with TV, home-video and convention screenings over the years.  In my infancy as a genre-film aficionado, I thought Hammer was a bunch of pretenders who had the audacity to remake our beloved Universal classics, but our friends across the Pond had the last laugh because now, at any given moment, I’d probably rather watch a Hammer than a Universal, much as I love them both.  And the fact that my future wife and I bonded in high school by chatting about these films during chorus class didn’t hurt.

As the guy who had a hard time getting his list of favorite films on his own blog down to 100, I found it difficult to limit myself to ten, and must give an honorable mention to The Phantom of the Opera before beginning.  So, rather than subject myself to further agony, I am listing them in chronological order.  I make no apologies for including both of the films written by the object of my obsession, Richard Matheson, because I genuinely believe they were two of Hammer’s best, although this is really a list of favorites rather than those I would rank as “best” by some mythical objective standard.  Here goes…

The Quatermass Experiment:  Given my focus on writers, it’s no surprise that I think Nigel Kneale was one of the best things ever to happen to Hammer.  He might not have agreed at the time, since he was unhappy with both the casting of Brian Donlevy in the lead and the adaptation (by Richard Landau and director Val Guest) of his seminal BBC serial, but since some chapters of the TV version are lost, we’ll never be able to compare them in their entirety.  Be that as it may, Quatermass’s struggle to learn what happened to the three-man crew of his first space rocket is eerie and suspenseful from the start, as he learns that contact with an alien life-form has made one astronaut (Richard Wordsworth) absorb the others and begin mutating.  It was Hammer’s first big success, and rightly so.

Quatermass 2:  Many years ago, when New York’s outstanding Film Forum repertory cinema was still in its old Watts Street location, I arranged with my friend Greg Cox (now Matheson’s editor at Tor and a successful author of franchise fiction) to attend a screening of the Quatermass trilogy.  When I told him we might want to arrive early, he laughed and said, “Matthew, these are old British SF films from the ’50s and ’60s; we won’t have any trouble getting in.”  Well, the line was literally around the block, but we did get in.  Due to the vagaries of television programming, I think this was the first time I’d seen the original since childhood—perhaps the first in its entirety—and the first time ever for the sequel, which really wowed me.  Donlevy and Guest were back (the latter sharing script credit with Kneale this time), as Quatermass copes with a government conspiracy that turns out to represent an alien invasion.  The scene of the politician who has fallen into a vat of toxic liquid is a particular standout in this gripping and inventive thriller.

The Curse of Frankenstein:  With its unprecedented full-color gore and sumptuous period production values, this set the template for Hammer’s most famous films and established the “dream team” of their early days, including director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, composer James Bernard, and up-and-coming genre superstars Peter Cushing (as Baron Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (as the Creature).  Cushing’s Baron is a fascinating character, and Hammer wisely built the ensuing series around him rather than the Creature, who gets dissolved in a vat of acid at the end.  Hazel Court is the delectable cherry on top as Elizabeth, and I love Cushing’s chutzpah as he yells, “Look out, Professor!”…while pushing the poor old guy—whose brain he needs—off a balcony, in order to throw anyone within earshot off the scent.

The Hound of the Baskervilles:  In all fairness, I haven’t seen a number of the screen incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, but of those I have, I would rank Peter Cushing as second only to Basil Rathbone in the role.  In most cases, Rathbone easily surpassed his material, much of which was not derived from Conan Doyle, but here, the above dream team (minus Sangster) provided a top-notch vehicle, complete with the always-welcome Andre Morell as an unusually intelligent Watson.  Although relegated to the role of the imperiled Baskerville heir, Lee adds considerable heft, and Cushing is a delight as he rips into lines like, “There are many strange things to be found upon the moor—like this, for instance!”  (Cue the loud “Thwock!” as he slams the ceremonial dagger into the table.)

Fanatic:  One might be forgiven for mistaking this as another of Hammer’s post-Psycho psycho-thrillers, written by Sangster and bearing similar one-word titles:  Paranoiac, Maniac, Nightmare, Hysteria.  But as much as I love Sangster’s seminal scripts for Hammer in the ’50s, I think Matheson far surpasses him in this adaptation of Anne Blaisdell’s Nightmare (whose title presumably had to be changed to differentiate it from the Sangster film).  Stefanie Powers is lovely and believable as the American girl imprisoned by her late former fiancé’s mother, equally well played by Tallulah Bankhead, and her growing realization that her captor is a dangerous religious fanatic rather than a harmless eccentric gives the film a satisfying dramatic arc.  Throw in the young Donald Sutherland as a mentally challenged servant, and you’re good to go.

Dracula—Prince of Darkness:  This is my wife’s favorite movie, but that’s not the only reason I’m including it.  I’m sure many would consider it sacrilege to give this the nod over what we Yanks think of as Horror of Dracula, especially since Lee’s distaste for the script (Distaste the Script of Dracula?) led him to omit his dialogue.  Still, I’ve always preferred Prince; maybe I never got over the fact that Sangster had Harker get turned into a vampire, just as Dan Curtis did in the Jack Palance television version—a plot point, I might add, that is not found in Matheson’s published teleplay.  But I digress.  Andrew Keir pinch-hits beautifully for Van Helsing as rifle-toting Father Sandor, and rich entertainment is provided by the interplay among the ill-fated Kent family, with Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer amusingly cast as Charles and Diana and the ever-popular Barbara Shelley as the prim Helen, whose transformation into a sensuous vampire is most extraordinary.

Quatermass and the Pit:  Feel free to criticize me for devoting almost a third of my list to ol’ Bernie, but remember, I could have included Kneale’s The Abominable Snowman, as well.  Reuniting Keir (as Quatermass) and Shelley, this is truly a thinking man’s SF film, as Quatermass discovers a five-million-year-old Martian spacecraft that is buried beneath London and holds surprising secrets about mankind’s evolution.  With Roy Ward Baker [see “A Career to Remember”] succeeding Guest, and Kneale bearing sole script credit, it once again showed the triumph of good writing over pathetic special effects—in this case, those finger-puppet Martians.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave:  Yeah, we Bradleys love us our vampires (Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter almost made the list as well), and I’ve always had a big soft spot for this follow-up to Prince, an affection that not merely the presence of Veronica Carlson can explain.  The redoubtable Rupert Davies as the monsignor has a lot to do with it, as does the spectacular climax, with Dracula knocked over his own battlements and impaled on a giant cross.  One of Fisher’s periodic hospitalizations forced Freddie Francis to direct this, but although he told me when I interviewed him that he was more interested in the young lovers than in Dracula, I think that once again, the story of the non-nosferatu characters is strong enough to keep us going in between visits from Lee.

The Devil Rides Out:  A pinnacle for all concerned.  Dennis Wheatley justifiably praised Matheson for his exciting adaptation of Wheatley’s somewhat verbose novel, and Lee has a rare heroic (not to mention sizeable) role as the Duc de Richleau.  Charles Gray is also outstanding as the Satanist villain, Mocata, and although the usual complaints are leveled at the skimpy special effects, see Quatermass and the Pit for my response to that.  With the usual superior contributions from Fisher and James Bernard, this is horror at its fast-paced, non-jokey and intelligent finest.  Lee and others have argued that it is ripe for a remake, but since you know it would just turn into another CGI-fest, I’m not sure I agree.

The Vampire Lovers:  I’d be lying if I said that naked women in general, a naked Ingrid Pitt in particular, and lesbian vampires didn’t influence this choice.  But, in my defense, look at the record:  you’ve got Cushing as the devoted and devastated father, General von Spielsdorf.  You’ve Jon Finch, soon to be brilliant in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, in a supporting role.  And, perhaps most of all, you’ve got what may be the most faithful adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s oft-filmed “Carmilla,” with Baker at the helm.  Threadbare production values be damned, this is a good movie.

BOF Addendum:  Now I’ll sit back and wait for Drax to complain (albeit with love) about the absence of visuals.  I keep telling him I am the Word-Man.  Word-Man.  WORD-MAN!  BWUHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

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It’s a hard truth, and one to which many of us have trouble reconciling ourselves:  there are only so many hours in a day—twenty-four, to be precise—and when you spend twelve of them just getting to, through, and from your day job, as I do, plus at least a couple of them sleeping, that doesn’t leave much time for living your life, let alone blogging.  So the bad news is, I’m writing a series of posts on Richard Matheson for Tor.com, which will make it even harder to find time for BOF.  The good news is…I’m writing a series of posts on Richard Matheson for Tor.com!

Seriously, Tor.com (see link at right) is an excellent outlet for this series, “Richard Matheson—Storyteller,” to which other writers may be contributing as well; today’s I Am Legend article has already garnered TEN TIMES as many views as the average BOF post.  Tor being his primary trade publisher, there would seem to be no better place to spread the word about Matheson in general, which I’m always happy to do even without a book to promote, and Richard Matheson on Screen in particular.  Not to mention the fact that they have a very spiffy-looking site, and you couldn’t ask for a nicer person to work with than my Tor.com editor (if that is the correct term).

In my introductory post, I refer to Richard’s “long and fruitful relationship with Tor,” where my old friend Greg Cox has been his editor for almost two decades, but the description could apply just as well to me.  I promoted Tor titles as a publicist for St. Martin’s Press, which distributed their books before acquiring the company, and over the years they have hired me to write press releases, jacket copy, and even reading guides, including one for Matheson’s own Somewhere in Time.  As avid BOF readers know, I also did some editorial work with Elleston Trevor for them.

In order to provide loyal BOF fans with as much content as possible, I’ll run a “Tor.com Alert” here every time I post a new article over there.  Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to continue coming up with new content on the home front, or at least “new” content derived from articles written for the former Scifipedia site, and from reviews written for the fabled Bradley Video Library catalog.  Rest assured, I won’t abandon you, and I’ll make sure this site is worth every penny you pay for the dubious honor of reading it, but for now, do check out the two posts that kick off the series.

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Speaking of blogs, it looks like your humble correspondent may soon be dividing at least some of his time between BOF and Tor.com (see blogroll at right).  The latter is, of course, the online presence of Tor/Forge Books, Matheson’s primary trade publisher; Gauntlet Press releases his work in handsome limited editions and, through its Edge Books imprint, the occasional trade paperback such as Visions Deferred.  My friend Greg Cox, who has been Matheson’s editor ever since 7 Steps to Midnight was acquired in 1991 and became one of the first books they published under the Forge imprint, told me that they might want me to contribute some Matheson posts.

Seems that with so much Matheson activity afoot (e.g., Tor’s trade edition of the Gauntlet tribute anthology He Is Legend; his new novel Other Kingdoms, coming out in March; the forthcoming Hugh Jackman movie Real Steel, based on his story “Steel”), they want to do a series of posts on Matheson’s movie career.  Boing!  So, despairing of finding someone with genuine expertise on the subject—heh heh—they decided out of pure desperation to fall back on the author of Richard Matheson on Screen.  And they wanted me to start with that old standby, the screen versions of I Am Legend, effectively requiring me to condense 23 manuscript pages into a mere 1,241 words.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, when it comes to the subject of You-Know-Who on you-know-what, my brain is now analogous to a supersaturated sponge:  just poke it a little, and a huge amount of water comes gushing out.  So, writing mostly off the top of my head, I banged out a couple of pages of hyperdistilled prose that—miraculously—managed to cover what I consider the high points of three separate sections from my magnum opus, written in a conversational style more appropriate to a blog than to a quasi-academic tome.  Mind you, I don’t have the thumbs-up from the folks at Tor.com just yet, but if I get it, you can be the judge.

So by all means check out Tor.com, and of course keep watching this space (although that should go without saying) to find out when my posts will be appearing, which may begin as early as the week of September 13.  In the meantime, I’ll keep waiting for word from McFarland about when the book will actually be out and keeping you, uh, posted to the best of my ability.  Bradley out.

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First of all, my very special thanks to the like-minded members of Quiller@YahooGroups.com for their interest in, and kind comments on, these posts.  It’s great to know there are so many avid Quiller fans out there.

Now, back to our story

“…Bob Gleason at Tor is a friend of a friend and has also just signed up several books by another favorite author of mine…” Those seemingly ordinary words, penned by me to Elleston Trevor on January 6, 1992, augured not only a new phase in our friendship, but also a harmonic convergence of the most amazing kind. For that “favorite author” was, you guessed it, The GREAT Richard Matheson, and to have both of my literary Twin Titans under the roof of a single publishing house, let alone one where I had a personal connection, was almost beyond belief.

Moreover, said friend was my oldest in the industry, Greg Cox (see “Steel Trap Mind”), who soon became the editor of the Matheson books Bob had acquired, as Greg related in his contribution to The Twilight and Other Zones. Interestingly, I see from my trusty correspondence file that I first read Matheson’s inaugural Tor novel, 7 Steps to Midnight, when it was on submission at Viking. But with my usual luck, they turned down that (despite having published two of his finest novels, Hell House and Bid Time Return, in the 1970s) as well as Elleston’s latest book and backlist. What I wouldn’t have given to publicize either of those guys in a formal capacity!

I’d had a solid relationship with Tor ever since I worked at St. Martin’s Press, which in my day distributed Tor’s books (subsequently acquiring the company outright), and the celebrated SF and horror writers in which Tor specialized made me uniquely qualified among the SMP staff to publicize them. As a matter of fact, the one time I came close to leaving Viking Penguin before I ultimately decamped for the now-defunct GoodTimes Entertainment—where the opportunity to write about movies and TV full-time was too good to pass up—it was for a job at Tor.

Bob, who is still with Tor after twenty-seven years, edited Elleston himself, and had acquired The Sister, a belated sequel to his bestselling 1979 horror novel The Sibling. (Now that I think of it, both The Sibling and Matheson’s Earthbound were published by Playboy Press, where Bob had previously worked; it really is—if you’ll pardon the pun—an incestuous business.) By December I was able to get a copy of the just-completed manuscript into the hands of my slightly better-known Viking author, Stephen King, with an eye toward a blurb, but despite being an avowed Trevor fan, he disappointed me due to rewrites on the miniseries of The Stand. Again, what might have been…

In the fall of 1993, Bob kicked it up another notch by asking me to prepare a reader’s report on Elleston’s next Tor thriller, Flycatcher, which I was of course thrilled to do. Actually, “thrilled” is too feeble a word to convey my excitement over working with him in an editorial capacity, a feeling exceeded only when I formally edited Matheson’s Duel & The Distributor (still available from Gauntlet) a decade later. At the same time, I was also ghost-writing press materials on The Sister for Tor’s publicity department, and it appears that I ended up writing the jacket copy for Flycatcher as well.

Imagine, here’s a guy who’d won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for The Quiller Memorandum when I was just a tyke, soliciting the editorial input of an inexperienced fan on his work. Per my report, “Trevor and I have now discussed the manuscript several times in some detail. He has already revised the ending completely in accordance with my comments, removing a subplot…[that] I felt detracted from the effectiveness of the ending and took the novel too far into Exorcist territory.” Thus did my Shadopub sobriquet (short for “shadow publicist”) become Shadopubed.

Next: The final days—and beyond.

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Greg Cox might be regarded in some circles as the luckiest man alive.  First, he is an acknowledged master of franchise fiction (or what I call “franfic”), which means he spends his days novelizing things like the Underworld films, writing New York Times bestselling Star Trek books, contributing stories about various superheroes and -villains to various anthologies, and generally living every fanboy’s dream.  In his X-Men/Avengers “Gamma Quest” trilogy, he even made me an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., which to this lifelong Marvel fan is about as cool as it gets.  Check out his website (http://www.gregcox-author.com/index.html) for further details, as well as fun photos of his cats and dog.

In his spare time, however, Greg is also Richard Matheson’s editor at Tor, and as such is a good source of information about upcoming Matheson movies or other activity.  Today he forwarded a story from SCI FI Wire (http://scifiwire.com/2010/02/hugh-jackmans-looking-for.php#more) about how they’re looking to cast the role of Hugh Jackman’s son in Real Steel, based on Matheson’s classic story “Steel.”

Due to my manuscript deadline, you won’t find a chapter on Real Steel when McFarland publishes Richard Matheson on Screen later this year (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4).  But you will find the straight dope on the classic episode of the original Twilight Zone that Matheson adapted from his story, with a powerhouse performance by Lee Marvin in the Jackman role.  Among Richard’s personal favorites, it also boasts a superb script, including one of Rod Serling’s most memorable closing speeches.

Not surprisingly, the character of the son has no analog in the short story or half-hour episode, but has obviously been added to bring the story up to feature-film length.  Let’s hope they do so more successfully than the makers of last year’s train wreck The Box, based on Matheson’s “Button, Button” (also adapted, less successfully, on the ’80s Twilight Zone revival).  But more on that another time…

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