Monday, September 30, 2019

Wings of Thunder

They flew by day, for they had learned that the hunters saw better by night. Tathar led his people through the rugged hill lands, skulking through the misty skies and lairing in hidden rifts and vales by night. Under the red sun they haunted the edges of the crags and cliffsides, seeking the wake of the sea beast as it swam along the great estuary. They hunted it, following always from a distance as it moved west. Tathar sensed a purpose in its motion. It had a destination, and he thought he had some thought of what that might be.

Sometimes the water was too shallow, and it moved overland, lumbering on great, clawed feet, leaving a trail across the earth that could be seen for miles. When it moved from the water it grew wary, and they had to follow from a distance, watchful of the spiral of hunting beasts that rose above it. Tathar wondered if those were its own young, and whether each winged beast might someday grow so immense. It seemed impossible – surely the world could not encompass so many behemoths.

Now Tathar flew ahead beneath a lowering sky and the dim glow of the copper sun. The beast was moving to the north, making way for the deeper waters of the sea, but Tathar wanted to know what its purpose might be. Everywhere through the civilized parts of the empire they had seen pillars of smoke and marks of pillage and death. Kurux had loosed all his war power to bring chaos upon the world, tormenting even his own empire for no purpose save terror and slaughter.

Zakai’s wings left trails of mist threaded through the cold air as he and Suara flew ahead to scout the way. They saw a last barrier of sharp-edged cliffs and then the land turned green and gentle, sloping downward to the north. Tathar knew that long slope led to the waters of the Numarean Passage – the long thread of the sea that led past the Black City and in the west opened out into the Sea of Azar.

They flew onward, the birds glad of the open sky, and Tathar was pleased to look on the green, tree-covered hills rolling below. It was pleasant country, if stony and all but useless for farmland. They swept down over the hills and through layers of fog until they saw the sea, dark and rolling slow beneath the sky. And there, filling the waters, was an armada of ships with crimson sails billowing, and Tathar knew what the thing from the sea was coming to do.

Monday, September 23, 2019


The runaway success of Star Wars in 1977 kicked off a wave of SF and Fantasy films that carried through the 80s, as the studios learned that visual effects had matured to the point that they could serve as a major selling point of a film, and the phenomenon of the “effects blockbuster” was born. The original Conan the Barbarian was a part of this wave, even though in the end it was pretty light on VFX. Oliver Stone’s original script had been much more fantastical and monster-heavy.

Another product of this wave was Dragonslayer, a strange little film that has become kind of a cult classic – mostly due to nostalgia from people who saw it when they were kids. A joint production between Paramount and Disney, the move was part of a short-lived venture whereby the big D sought to bankroll films through other studios as an outlet for more mature subjects. The only other result of this pairing was – believe it or not – Popeye, and when neither that movie nor this one made any money, the whole thing fell apart, probably leading to the formation of Touchstone pictures a few years later.

Written and directed by Matthew Robbins, who was a friend of George Lucas from his film school days, Dragonslayer tells a story that is part archetypical, and partly tries to subvert expectations, and doesn’t manage either that well. A dragon is menacing a kingdom, the people hold a lottery to choose virgins to sacrifice to it twice a year to appease it, and then some of the people send a delegation to find a wizard to come kill it. The wizard Ulrich dies almost before his journey begins, and we follow his apprentice, Galen, as he tries to carry out his master’s last quest.

As Galen, Peter MacNicol is a strange choice of leading man. Short, fuzzy-haired, and just kind of odd-looking, he doesn’t radiate any kind of danger or intelligence, and it is telling that the rest of his career saw him settle in as a comedic character actor, most memorable as the camp director in Addams Family Values. He’s just miscast, and the script seems to mostly use him for humor. In another subversion of tropes, he doesn’t even kill the dragon, but instead Ulrich is conveniently resurrected to battle the beast himself, dying again in the battle.

The movie, overall, is darker than expected, and just has a nice amount of grit. There is blood and killing, some nudity, and the world has a grimy, lived-in look that resembles Excalibur more than a little – though that film had only come out a few months earlier. We get some rather gruesome shots of one of the dragon’s victims being devoured by her young, and overall the movie’s world is depicted as unfriendly and dangerous, which gives it a bit of gravitas that the lead actors don’t lend. A lot of the performers had extensive stage backgrounds, and so there is just a rather formal, artificial quality to the acting.

The real star of the movie, obviously, is the dragon himself – or herself, as there are young, so the grandly named Vermithrax Pejorative is apparently a she. Only glimped in part through most of the film, the dragon, when she finally emerges, is one of the most stunning achievements in creature VFX prior to the age of CGI. Graphic artist Dave Bunnett created the design, which was realized by Brian Johnson – who also supervised effects on Alien and Empire Strikes Back, among other films. The standout sequences where the beast was moving in full view were done by Phil Tippett using “go-motion”, which used a computer-controlled model to move synchronized with the camera exposure, allowing for a much more realistic look, without the jerkiness of stop-motion. Effects legend Ken Ralston created the flying sequences, giving the dragon a speed and deadliness in the air other flying monsters lacked.

It is in the underground scenes, where the dragon is fully revealed more than an hour into the 109-minute movie, that the film really takes hold. The lair is a flame-lit nightmare underworld, filled with steam, burning water, and dripping slime, and then there comes the beast herself, looking more real than any other movie monster ever had. It takes the movie a while to get to the dragon, but when they do, they are not shy about using it.

The pacing of the movie is slow, and the tone wanders around quite a lot, as though the filmmakers were not quite sure what kind of film they were making. It has elements of awkward comedy as well as a strong atmosphere of horror, and the dragon is never depicted as anything but terrifying. Still, it contains one of the great achievements in practical creature effects, and in its depiction of a morally compromised, dangerous world beset by inhuman forces, it is a kind of Sword & Sorcery film without a real Sword & Sorcery hero at the center of it.

Monday, September 16, 2019

A Sea of Iron

With dawn a heavy mist rose off the waters, and Shath’s armies moved through it as they followed the ancient road down to the place called the Iron Narrows. Here the land that lay on the north and south banks of the straits grew close to one another, and the crossing was shortest. Here armies had crossed since before the memory of the histories, and here he would move from the western wilderlands of the imperial territory to the heartland itself.

The earth trembled as his riders moved down to the shore and spread out, seeking for any sign of scouts or ambush. In his train came prisoners dragging the war engines he had captured at the pass, and even more behind carried the scraps and pieces his army had brought together for just this purpose. Shath had no ships, no way to ferry his armies across, and his armored warriors could not swim the channel. For weeks now they had gathered every scrap of wood or debris they could seize so that they might build a crossing of their own.

The Narrows were not deep, but the waters were treacherous, for the seabed was still thick with the remnants of another age, and so jagged spines of corroded metal jutted up from the water like teeth or like the fleshless ribs of some vanished creature. When Shath looked upon it, some vision seemed to flicker before his eyes and show him an immense bridge spanning the crossing, rearing higher above him than he would have believed, held up by massive pillars of stone braced with the ageless metal that was stronger than steel.

He shook his vision off and looked to the east, where the waters vanished in the mist-laden distance. This was the only place where an army such as his might cross, and so he knew Kurux would be a fool to allow him to make the transit uncontested. Shath despised the emperor, but he did not make the mistake of thinking him foolish or weak. He would send a strong force to try and turn Shath back, and as he saw no sign of such a force, he was suspicious.

Still, he gave the command, and his men went down to the shore. They began lashing together the rafts of logs and scrap wood that would make the backbone of their bridge. The waters were calm this time of year, and the iron beams thrusting out of the sea would serve as anchor points. They would lash together a bridge made from whatever they had to hand, and with it his entire force could cross in a day, perhaps two.

Once they were on the bridge, he knew his men would be terribly vulnerable – easily spilled off into the waters to be scattered and drowned. Perhaps the emperor waited to attack when they were strung out and at their weakest. That would be the best plan, and so he feared it.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Kull the Conqueror

Is this the worst adaptation of a Howard character? The argument could be made, although Conan the Destroyer was pretty fucking bad too, and Red Sonja was no masterpiece, although one could say that one only sort of counts as a Howard character. The so-called Kull the Conqueror represents the pernicious influence of the De Laurentiis family taken to its logical extreme.

In retrospect, it really seems that the effectiveness of the original Conan was kind of a fluke, brought about by the vision of John Milius and his refusal to compromise it. He may not have been that faithful to the original character, but at least he had guts. The sequel displays more of the De Laurentiis’ desire to dumb the stories down, make them bloodless and family-friendly, and pay almost no attention to the source material. And here, with no one to stop her, Rafaella De Laurentiis finally got her way and produced this piece of crap.

This movie started life as the intended third Schwarzenegger film, to be an adaptation of The Hour of the Dragon and to be titled Conan the Conqueror. However, after the whole debacle of Red Sonja, Schwarzenegger was disgusted with the mishandling of the franchise and refused to come back, as his contract was up. Rather than recast the iconic role, the De Laurentiis camp simply had the script rewritten to become a Kull story. That’s something that could actually have been done well, as the stories about Kull and Conan dealing with life on the throne and plots to depose them are kind of similar.

It’s not done well here. As usual, there is almost no resemblance to any actual Howard story except for a few bits here and there. There are some plot points borrowed from “A Witch Shall Be Born” and Hour of the Dragon. The main villain, Akivasha, shares a name with the undead princess Conan encounters in Hour, but nothing else about them is the same. Mostly the script is just a pile of half-assed cliches and stupid, declarative dialogue tying together a standard fantasy quest story where Kull has to go to point A to get plot item B and thus overcome the poorly-defined villain.

The look of the movie could certainly be worse. Shot on locations in Slovakia and Croatia, they took advantage of some nice-looking castles to add a good bit of production value, and some of the matte paintings and miniatures are not half-bad. The costuming is significantly better than what we got in the 2011 Conan, though the wigs are not better, and so almost everyone looks ridiculous with bad, poofy hair all over the place.

The casting is pretty much a disaster, and a lot of it is because the director, John Nicolella, was a TV guy and so he cast TV-level talent. Sorbo was well-known at the time for the Hercules TV series, and he plays pretty much the same character here, with his stupid SoCal accent and smirking expression. Native rapper Litefoot is bland in a bland part, and Karina Lombard is blank and boring as ever. We also have to discuss the fact that Harvey Fierstein shows up for really no reason. The only person who seems to be having any fun here is Tia Carrere as the villainous Akivasha. In an outrageous red wig and some over-the-top outfits she preens and prowls her way through every scene, chewing the set like it was made of cookies. She’s honestly the best part of the movie.

The real problem, besides the bad script, is that the director is a TV director, and he shoots this like it was a TV movie. The fight scenes are a disgrace, and he was actually proud of the fact that there is no blood to be seen. Zero. The pacing is sluggish, the “action” is dull, and the dialogue is embarrassing. The really sad part is that even considering that this cost $20 million to make, it does not look appreciably worse than the 2011 movie, which cost north of $90 million.

So this movie represents what Raffaella De Laurentiis always wanted a Conan movie to be: broad, filled with slapstick humor and with zero blood or gore to be seen. They already tried this crap on Conan the Destroyer and the movie made less than a third of the original’s $100 million take, now this movie was even more family-friendly and made only $22 million worldwide. You would think that people would wake up after that and realize that to make a successful Howard movie you have to commit to grit and gore and violence, and you have to adhere to the damned source material. And yet here we are, decades later, and Hollywood still can’t figure it out.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Teeth of the Storm

The sky was dark by day, tormented with storms and lit from above by the red blaze of the dying sun. Tathar led his riders into the teeth of the wind, keeping high above the heaviest of it. He had not been this way for many years, and he wanted them to escape notice, for they were very close, now, to the heart of the black imperial power that stretched forth an iron hand over the smoldering earth.

They were not a wing of hunters or warriors, they were a tribe upon the move. Sixteen eagles, each with both rider and passengers seated behind them. Children clung to the leather harnesses, or to their mothers, faces covered against the cold winds. The birds flew slowly, carrying greater weight, and that was another weakness that Tathar feared. If they were caught by the new riders of the emperor on their winged beasts, they would not easily be able to escape.

That was why he flew without anyone to burden him. Zakai was the keenest hunter in the flight, and Tathar the most experienced warrior. If they were found, it would be on him to defend them, to hold back pursuit with the claws of his bird and his thunderlance.

It was that lance that led them onward. He possessed his own, and they had two more taken from slain enemies, but it would not be enough. To be a potent force in a true battle, they must have more. The art of their crafting had been lost, or so Tathar had always believed. Now it seemed there were more than there had been. He knew of one place where there might be some untended, and now he led his people there and hoped he did not lead them to their dooms.

They fought through the gusting winds, and below them the storm grumbled and flashed with sullen lightning. He knew they were close. Before they entered the storm he had taken a sighting and glimpsed the rolling black waves of the sea to their right. The peak he sought was tall enough it would pierce the clouds, and even in the dark Zakai could likely take him there – it was where he had been born.