Monday, February 17, 2020

10,000 BC


Released in 2008, the unimaginatively-named 10,000 BC was an almost complete critical failure. Although it made money, it is often regarded as Roland Emmerich’s worst movie – and this is the guy who can count schlock-epics like Moon 44 and 2012 as part of his ouvre. All but devoid of historical accuracy, this still could have been an entertaining adventure full of cavegirls and monsters like we used to get in the old days, but its own desire to be serious kept it from being as fun as it might have been.

The story tries hard to present itself as a kind of primordial hero’s journey, with Steven Strait giving a terrible performance as protagonist D’Leh, though to be fair, he doesn’t have much to work with and is saddled with a pretty stupid script. His tribe of unwashed, racially-diverse cave people live in an inhospitable-looking frozen steppe, and you have to wonder why they don’t go somewhere more convivial to hunter-gathering, since they don’t seem to have any contact with any other tribes, and don’t seem to have a reason to stay where they are. They hunt mammoths to survive, when there would be a lot of easier prey to hunt, and the one hunt we see tries hard to be exciting, but does not really manage it.

All the action sequences in this movie are strangely inert. Part of it is the poor CGI, which makes the prehistoric animals look awesome but completely unreal, so they are obviously not there. They are not the worst effects ever or anything, but they don’t look as good as other movies of the same period – not by a long shot. The other problem is just clunky, uninspired direction which makes the action predictable, as well as a PG-13 rating which makes sure you don’t see much blood or anything visceral – literally or figuratively.

Anyway, a bunch of dudes on horses ride in and attack the hovels, carry off D’Leh’s girlfriend Evolet, and start the plot in motion. Now, there were no people riding horses in 10,000 BCE, but from this point on the movie diverges farther and farther from any kind of reality, and this is actually what starts to make it more fun.

Because in the pursuit of his captured tribespeople, D’Leh finds that the riders are the servants of a more advanced civilization in the far south, led by a mysterious figure who is referred to as “The Almighty” and who is worshiped as a god. The slaves are gathered up to work on the immense, stone pyramids the Almighty seems to want to build for some reason. It is heavily implied that the Almighty is the last of the Atlanteans, and we get a glimpse of maps of the Atlantic Ocean as well as modern navigation tools like a compass and calipers.

While this twist carries us way outside anything resembling history, it actually makes this a great setup for a Sword & Sorcery movie. Pulps in general and Howard in particular were obsessed with the Stone Age, and Howard himself wrote several stories about Paleolithic heroes in “The Garden of Fear”, “The Valley of the Worm”, and in his first published story “Spear and Fang”. The idea of a stone age warrior confronted with the remnants of an ancient civilization bent on world conquest is a golden concept, and it should have made for an awesome, exciting movie.

In the end, the film just was trying too hard to take itself seriously. Rather than jump into the pulpiness of the central idea and run with it, the film hinted and hedged and tried to pass itself off as a serious recreation of the Stone Age, when it was really nothing of the kind. In an effort to stay “realistic” they just veered away from anything that could have made this movie awesome. We could have had an Atlantean sorcerer wielding magic powers and conjuring demons, warriors riding mammoths into battle, a deluge or maybe a volcano. If you combined this idea with the first five minutes of X-Men Apocalypse you would really have something to go with. In fact I may have just come up with next year’s storyline thinking about that.

10,000 BC was a movie that should have gone down in the tradition of movies like When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth or One Million BC, but instead it tried to be Quest For Fire and hobbled itself out of the gate. Proof of the fact that if you have a pulp idea, you have to give it pulp execution.

Monday, February 10, 2020

The City of Midnights


The ancient city of Shendim dreamed beside the waters of the Nahar, the land around it a jewel of green in the expanses of the desert beyond. The high cliffs that rose on the western bank of the river glowed red in the sunset as though fresh from a fire, while the sky turned an endless blue studded with a thousand thousand stars. Eagles and carrion birds screamed in the dusk, and cranes stalked in the shallow waters among the reeds.

Down by the riverside, the city was built of white buildings that glowed day and night, their windows billowing with white silk curtains and hung with vines laden with flowers. The scent of the river was ever close, masked by incense and the smell of candles. The city was a maze of winding streets, stairways, tunnels and canals lit by hanging lanterns and haunted by the hum of dragonflies.

The white palace rose on a rocky promontory beside the water, above the city so its towers could be seen in every quarter. Each tower and wall glowed with dozens of lights, so that the palace itself seemed unreal, like something made by the gods themselves to float over the city, as if it were made of clouds. The white stone gleamed in the starlight, and those who passed near could hear music drifting from colonnade and garden path.

Queen Malika held her audiences at sunset, when the heat of the day began to dissipate and gentle breezes blew up from the river, rich with the smells of flowers and crocodile dung. She sat on her ivory-inlaid throne, an arch made from the tusks of elephants framing her. She wore white and was resplendent in golden jewelry studded with emeralds. Slaves kept their place to either side of her, fanning her with wide palm-fronds.

Water rilled down the fountain at the center of the audience chamber, and the courtiers gathered to speak to her and hear her judgments, to make alliances and agreements, and to aid in the functioning of the kingdom of Meru. Here in the southern uplands they were far from the intrigues of the Ashemu court, and from the ambition of the war-lords of Kadesh. Meru was at peace, and its young queen wished for it to remain so.

Monday, February 3, 2020

The Age of Chaos Arrives


The ebook has arrived after a bit of a delay (normally I like to get these out in January).  All 25 stories that make up the epic in one convenient package.  HERE IS THE LINK!

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Faceless God


A thousand torches burned under a thousand stars in the moonless night of the desert, the light shining on the sand dunes turned to steel in the deep blue silver. In the wide open space, between two pillars of stone carved with ancient glyphs, two great clans of nomads met beneath a banner of truce. Banners fluttered in the night breeze, and light glinted on a thousand swords and a thousand spearpoints among the gathered hosts.

Beneath a black hawk standard were the war-lords of the Muzur Clan, hardened warriors and raiders led by their towering, one-eyed chief, Ayyut. Across the flame-lit space before him awaited the men of the Emru Clan, led by their young chieftain, the tall, handsome Izil, son of a great father, now gone down into death to leave his only son to command his people. The banner that hung over him was an ancient one, emblazoned with a red serpent coiled upon itself.

Riders came forth and erected a great pavilion there in the darkness, and they hung it with ornate lanterns and lit the oil so the canopy glowed with a warm radiance. The sides were drawn up, so that all might see there was no treachery, and no assassin might lurk. All was done beneath the watchful eyes of thousands of warriors, for these clans were mortal enemies, and did not trust any motive of the other.

Izil had called this gathering, and so he rode forth first, a dozen of his greatest warriors in his guard. He dismounted from his horse and entered the tent. A seat was brought for him, and he sat down on it, his sheathed sword across his knees. He drew off his brazen helm and set it down beside him, and he waited.

Monday, January 20, 2020

KRULL


The early 80s saw a boom in fantasy and effects films, brought on by the success of Star Wars, which had opened up the floodgates for movie projects that might previously have been considered unfilmable. In much the same way the birth of CGI effects in the 90s led to many movies going into production because there were new possibilities for doing the visuals, the early 80s were a time for experimentation.

Krull is one of the stranger films in the fantasy canon, as it does not draw upon any established mythology or history, but presents an entirely fantastical world, and it also includes some elements of Science Fiction and even Horror in ways not usually done, and it does it all with a lot of energy and some really innovative visuals.

A British production, Krull was directed by Peter Yates, director of solid action/thrillers like Bullitt and The Deep. He was never known as an especially adventurous craftsman, but he saw the script (Originally The Dragons of Krull) as a chance to stretch out and try new things.

The script is pretty much the usual tropey fantasy junk that was passed off in dozens of 80s movies, with the One True Hero riding off to Rescue The Princess with the power of the yadda yadda yadda. Prince Colwyn has a Wise Mentor, a comic-relief Inept Wizard Sidekick, and a trademark Ragtag Band Of Freedom Fighters. There’s nothing you have not seen in a dozen other movies, though there is some interest in the cast. Krull features early parts for both Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane, and also gave Alun Armstrong his first widely-seen feature role.

Even with a decent amount of star power, you can’t say the performances are very good. Ken Marshall tries gamely, but he’s just not very charismatic in the lead role. Lysette Anthony is gorgeous to look at, but she doesn’t have much to do, plus all her lines were dubbed over by Lindsay Crouse after filming was over. The late, great Freddie Jones is overacting like crazy as Ynyr, but at least he’s got some gravitas. His scene with the beautiful Francesca Annis as the Widow of the Web is the most affecting, genuine scene in the whole movie.

What really sets the movie apart, and has done a great deal to make it a cult classic, is the arresting and original art direction and the overtones of SF and Lovecraftian horror that color the story. The villain of the film is known only as “The Beast”, and he comes from outer space in his flying black fortress. His minions are the white-armored Slayers, who wield both blades and some sort of energy weapons, and when killed they collapse and some kind of worm or slug emerges from their skulls and burrows into the earth. Ew.

The Beast himself, when he is revealed, is a towering, misshapen figure with pulsing, gelatinous skin and glaring red eyes. He can read minds, change his shape, and seemingly controls the very form of his fortress, causing it to shift and alter in some startling ways. The interior design of his tower is really cool, drawing on Giger and Bosch to create weird, organic landscapes like nothing else in film. The whole design adds a layer of strange grandeur to the scenes within the fortress, and creates an air of mystery and Lovecraftian gulfs of unknown time and space.

Another plus is the epic, sweeping score by James Horner, who was then just beginning to break out, and his lively, swashbuckling work really adds another dimension to the movie. It’s the kind of lush, string-and-horn heavy score that sounds like a cross between a Robin Hood movie and a Space Opera.

The movie was famously expensive, the budget ballooning to $30 million in 1983 money (equivalent to about $75 million today) largely due to sets and costumes having to be redesigned as the script was constantly rewritten. It points up that in the early days of big-effects movies, directors did not yet understand the absolute necessity of previsualization and tight storyboarding to keep costs down. Plus, the effects crew was often trying techniques that no one else had ever used, and sometimes they didn’t work out and had to be either scrapped or redone. In places, the movie looks pretty rough, but you have to keep in mind that they were pretty much making shit up as they went along.

Despite a lot of effort spent to market it, Krull was a financial failure, and didn’t get many critical accolades either. A lot of the cast and even the filmmakers seem pretty embarrassed about it, but over time, it has built up a cult following among fantasy fans, and despite its flaws it engenders a lot of affection. Even now, the design and sets stand out, and present sights you won’t see anywhere else. Even though it looks cheap in places, it avoids the bargain-basement look of so many 80s fantasy movies, and having a villain from outer space is an original twist that I don’t think anyone else ever used. Even almost 40 years later, Krull still stands out.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Dust of Fallen Ages


The sun cursed the skies over the endless sands of the Zaheh, turning the dunes into waves of gold and azure, the shadows deep as night. The day was failing, but not fast enough. Shedjia rode her camel across the barren landscape of a waste older than any kingdom, and she looked with her hawk’s eyes for a sign.

She was wrapped in black silks and linens, covered against the fierce heat of the day, only her eyes peering forth, heavily rimmed with kohl to cut the glare of the merciless sun. The winds moaned, and she listened uneasily, hoping she did not hear a voice utter her name. This place was forsaken by all men, wandered only by the desperate, and the dead. She was one, and she hoped not to join the other. A spirit caught in this trackless land would wander for an eternity.

Her beast was almost done, and she rode him as easily as she could, trying to keep him going as long as his strength would last. The pace of her journey had exhausted him, and he walked with his head down, and only occasionally did he give forth one of his ugly, groaning cries.

At the top of a dune she looked back, squinting through the heat shimmer, and she saw them there. Riders followed her faint track across the sand. There were perhaps a dozen of them, she could not say for certain. She cursed all gods living and dead, for no one would follow her in this waste for a gentle cause. They were marauders come to sell her into slavery, if they did not cut her throat first. The kinds of bandits who haunted this part of the world would be the lowest, most feral kind. Madmen of the desert.

Perhaps she had been mad as well to ride here, to seek a treasure she risked everything to obtain. Like any gamble, if she won she would seem brilliant and courageous, and if she failed the sands would swallow her bones. She had carried out many thefts – enough to make her half a legend – but nothing compared to this. Now she hunted through the ruins of an empire so old its very name was a legend, and she sought a jewel so fabulous it should not exist.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Last Witch Hunter


This is very much a Sword & Sorcery movie that bucks the standard by setting itself within the modern world, pushing the question of whether an S&S story has to be set in a fantasy world. I will maintain that this movie is set in a fantasy world, it’s just one that superficially resembles our own.

The movie opens in a poorly-defined “dark ages” which we can gather from later context is supposed to be sometime in the 1200s. Humanity is at war with an elder race called “Hexen” - which is a Germanic word for “witch”, though we are given zero indications where this all is supposed to be happening. Vin Diesel stars as Kaulder – which is not a real name, and the cognate “Calder” is a Scottish name. So this is just some vague “Europe in the dark ages”.

Anyway, we see the big showdown between Kaulder, his companions, and the Hexen, or witches they came to fight. The evil tree that serves as the lair of the Witch Queen looks amazing, and the digital painters do a great job with the backgrounds, giving it a really evocative look. The battle is a bit confusing, but in the end it seems like Kaulder is the sole survivor, who stabs the Witch Queen and she curses him with immortality as she dies. We later find that none of this is true, but that’s later.

Then the movie cuts to modern New York, where Kaulder has become a figure that would be very familiar to fans of the pulp heroes of the 30s. Vin always kind of plays the same character in his starring roles, but this time it works. Kaulder is like other pulp luminaries like Doc Savage or the Spider, as he is always the coolest, toughest, smartest guy in the room. He’s rich, lives in a cool apartment, and all the chicks want him.

Kaulder has spent 800 years as the “or else” of a human brotherhood that made a truce with the witches, and now, so long as they behave, he lets them go about their business. But of course there are always witches who say “fuck that” and start trouble, so Kaulder always has lots of opportunities to stab people with his flaming sword.

The look of the movie is pretty good, even if some of the CGI is iffy-looking. The sets they built and the locations used range from good to great, and the cinematography is excellent. The cast is solid, with Micheal Caine, Elijah Wood, and Rose Leslie on hand. Even if Caine is kind of phoning it in, he lends dignity to the proceedings, and Leslie is quite good as the gothy witch girl Chloe, who kind of becomes Kaulder’s sidekick.

The handling of magic in the plot is varied and imaginative, with witches using magic stones, runes, powders, herbs, incantations, and other methods that all look cool and have their own effects. It’s a bit too complex to work completely in a movie, when you don’t have time to really lay out the rules very well, but I appreciate that they did more than just have them throw CGI lights at one another, and the magic has some echoes of real-world witchcraft to give it texture. Magic is also depicted as being an inborn power, a connection to a vast and dangerous force that is inevitably dangerous to humans.

Overall, it’s a really fun ride of pure pulp entertainment. It’s doing what it wants to do, and nothing else, and so if you go in expecting something besides a pulpy adventure, you will probably be disappointed. If you are in the right mindset, however, you will have a good time. It wasn’t that well reviewed, and did rather poorly financially, which is a shame, as this kind of character always works best as a serial.

The Last Witch Hunter certainly fulfills some of the criteria of Sword & Sorcery. Kaulder is definitely in the mold of an S&S hero, and he is not a black and white, moral character. He’s driven by revenge for his slain family, but also has an ambiguous relationship with both his ostensible foes and the people he serves. Magic is shown as dangerous and unknowable – an inhuman power that only witches can use. The theme of man fighting for survival against a prehuman race is very much in the tradition of Howard and Moorcock, and the idea of a secret war carried on against a hidden enemy for centuries has echoes of “The Shadow Kingdom” and similar pulp tales.

The world-spanning stakes and modern setting are the elements least compatible with S&S, and there could definitely be more straight-up violence in the movie, but overall, this is a film that Sword & Sorcery fans should find a lot of good stuff in, and I have hopes it will find a niche as a cult classic down the line.