Doctor Strange… er, uh, Mordrid (1992) [Midnight Movie]

Although the premise certainly enticed me, I distinctly remember seeing Doctor Mordrid at the video store a million years ago, perhaps even picking up the box, but passing it up anyway. To be honest, I didn’t really want to watch it today, either, but Doctor Strange is coming out later this year and I’m reasonably hyped. So I guess it’s time to check out Doctor Mordrid, which entered pre-production as an official Doctor Strange film until directors Albert and Charles Band let their option expire.

That didn’t stop them from making the movie anyway (I wouldn’t expect any less from Full Moon). The character names which would’ve gotten ’em sued have been changed. What we’re left with is a movie about an alchemist (he’s insistent he’s an alchemist, not a wizard) from another dimension. He’s in charge of protecting the film’s MacGuffin, which is known as the Philosopher’s Stone… hey, maybe Full Moon should sue J.K. Rowling!

I’m legally obliged to inform you this is NOT the Sanctum Sanctorum

The “alchemist’s” name is Anton Mordrid. He and his brother Kabal were taught all manner of wizardry when they were children. Unfortunately, Kabal is breakin’ bad now that he’s all grown up and he plans to unleash demons from hell… or something. I didn’t really follow that part, but it’s enough to know that if he succeeds Earth is kind of fucked. Probably. Anyway, when he arrives on our planet he leaves a rash of murders in his wake, which snags the attention of Samantha Hunt, the policewoman who just happens to live in Mordrid’s apartment building.

What develops between Mordrid and Samantha is one of the mildest romances in movie history. You won’t even know they’re attracted to each other until the very last scene in the movie—and even then you won’t really know for sure. Yet what Mordrid suggests to her, out of the clear blue, is the equivalent of popping the question to a neighbor you occasionally see on the sidewalk. I love Jeffrey Combs to death, but his chemistry with actress Yvette Nipar is nonexistent. Considering they appear quite at ease with one another in this behind-the-scenes video, I’m not sure when or how the ball was dropped, but I suspect it has something to do with Full Moon’s speedy production schedule.

Kabal, played by Brian Thompson (you’ve seen him before in movies, but I’ll be damned if I can think of a single one off the top of my head), is just another bad guy. Yeah, he’s evil, but he’s not extraordinary evil and, frankly, he talks way too much to be effective. For some reason his presence gives me more of a Warlock vibe than a Doctor Strange one. Again, here’s another element that could have worked, but it doesn’t.

Look, Full Moon made a ton of movies. They’ve managed to produce a lot more greatness than you would expect from a fledgling studio, so you can’t be surprised when they make a dud like this one. The directors, at that point in their careers, were such experienced filmmakers you can’t even laugh at the movie in a so-bad-it’s-good way. Technically, it’s a well-made film, it just happens to stink. Even if you go into it seeking the hokey factor, you’re bound to be disappointed.

Best movies of 2015

So here it is, from least to best, my favorite movies (that I saw) from 2015. Just in time for the bullshit Oscars. I still need to see a few movies like The Big Short and Bridge of Spies, so I will adjust this list over the next few weeks.

23. Creed I liked Creed, but didn’t love it. I liked it a lot better than Rocky’s last movie, though. I don’t know. I guess I just want to see Stallone do something different before his star fades. I probably would have liked the movie more had he not been in it.

22. Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation This is the same movie as Ghost Protocol. If you’re a fan of the franchise, that’s not really a complaint. I liked this one better than the first two. I find it insane that Tom Cruise still hasn’t run out of box office steam when even Willis and Schwarzenegger are going straight to VOD. Cruise is probably the last 80s megastar who’s still a megastar. Enjoy it while it lasts.

21. Sisters I loved James Brolin and Dianne Wiest as the parents, but they were underused. There are a lot of good gags here, but the “heart” of the film is phony. These comedies work best when they use Animal House as their moral template as opposed to trying to make their characters grow up by the end.

20. The Visit M. Night Shyamalan made a decent little horror movie out of The Visit, which made me laugh here and there (though not strictly when it was trying to). Definitely includes one of the grossest things I’ve ever seen in a PG-13 movie, so it gets points for that.

19. San Andreas I’m surprised this made my list, but the tsunami sequence (it was like something out of Return of the Jedi with boats instead of spaceships) was exciting enough to forgive the generic first half of the movie. It also showcases top notch CGI destruction—some of the best special effects of the year. Still, I wish Dwayne Johnson would get offered better roles. He’s much better than this.


18. The Revenant I expected The Revenant to make my top ten. As far as technical achievements and acting go, the film kicked all kinds of ass. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think that’s all there is to it. It never hit me on a purely emotional level after that breathtaking opening. Nothing wrong with that, but some of the films on this list did hit me on that level and that’s often the deciding factor behind their placement. Full Review.

17. Ant-Man I think Ant-Man is one of the best MCU films, almost as good as Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. The fight scene in the briefcase made the movie for me. I hope Michael Douglas returns in the inevitable sequel. Full Review.

16. Crimson Peak The “typical” Guillermo del Toro movie would fare a lot better on this list. While I don’t think anything in this gothic horror film reaches the imaginative standards he set with Pan’s Labyrinth or the Hellboy films, it’s still one of the year’s best genre movies.

15. Jurassic World I’m really surprised this one made my top twenty because I hated everything about the trailer. Jurassic World is easily the best of the sequels, but that’s not really saying much. I never feared for the characters’ lives at any point during the movie, but it’s otherwise a solid adventure film. I do have to point out that the kind of kid who can get a twenty year old jeep running (with twenty year old batteries, no less) is not the kind of kid who fails his driving test.


14. It Follows The music, the tone, the set design, the believable teenagers—It Follows proves horror is a lot more effective when it takes every aspect of the production as seriously as the scares. This is one of the directors to keep an eye on. I can only hope he does more horror. Full Review.

13. We Are Still Here This one came out of nowhere for me. I had no idea it existed until my girlfriend rented it one night. It remains chilling from the beginning to end. It’s yet another reason I think 2015 was the most exciting year for horror in over a decade.

12. Straight Outta Compton Most people who produce a film about themselves take pains to cast their fictional counterparts in a positive light. Thankfully, there’s no self-adulation here. Asking whether or not the rest of the film is historically accurate is missing the point—Straight Outta Compton is one of the most authentic, honest films of the year.

11. Spectre I’m hardwired to like James Bond films, especially when they’re as proper as this one, which really seemed to balance the old theatrics and the new seriousness well in my opinion. While audiences and critics didn’t seem as thrilled about this outing as the last, the showrunners should be commended for sticking to basics after Pierce Brosnon’s run smoothed out edges which were better left rough. Even the product placement isn’t as annoying as it’s been in past films.

The top ten is after the jump…

10. The Hateful Eight Earlier this year I said I may have liked The Revenant more than The Hateful Eight, but when it came to ordering this list, it just didn’t feel right until I arranged it this way. The music, the entertainment value, and Kurt Russell’s all-or-nothing involvement added up to something I think The Revenant was lacking. This one grew on me the more I thought about it. It was, however, the first time I felt Tarantino was getting dangerously close to repeating himself. Don’t get me wrong: I want him to do another western, but he needs to step outside his comfort zone, at least a little. Full Review.

9. Deathgasm The weird kids who wore out their video cassettes of the Evil Dead series are all grown up and they’re making their own movies now. The world is all the better for it. Deathgasm is one of those movies and it’s among the best throwbacks ever made. The cast of newcomers were sufficient and the laughs were genuine. Plain and simple: this movie kicks ass and doesn’t apologize for a thing. Full Review.

8. What We Do in the Shadows I haven’t met anyone who didn’t like this one. It’s short, not too sweet, and extremely funny. There’s talk of a sequel focusing on the werewolves. Unlike a lot of the movies on this list, I like it the more I think about it.

7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens It’s probably as good as a modern Star Wars movie can be. The more I think about it, the more I like Kylo Ren. He’ll never be as iconic as Vader, but holy shit did they get it right. The film walked a fine line between fan service and new, and although it dropped the ball by the end, J.J. Abrams has conquered a unique challenge. Full Review.

6. The Martian The Martian absolves Hollywood of all the terrible science fiction we’ve had to endure in the past. Why can’t more science fiction movies be as plausible as they are fun? Matt Damon is in top form and extremely likable as the marooned lead. To illustrate just how good 2015 was for movies: The Martian probably would’ve been #1 on my list had it come out in any of the last five years or so. Full Review.

5. Bone Tomahawk I know this one divided a lot of people, but I love westerns, I love horror, and Bone Tomahawk does both well. It’s a no-brainer for me. The controversial killing toward the end of the movie is something I’ll never forget. It blows Scarface’s chainsaw scene out of the water. Can’t wait to see what the director does next. Full Review.

4. Sicario I’m beginning to love Emily Blunt. Here’s a big reason why. Sicario has a lot to say, but isn’t willing to beat its audience over the head with it. Serious entertainment, strong performances, and you actually feel everything can go terribly wrong at any second. If this is really the guy who’s directing Blade Runner 2, then I feel a lot better about that movie being made.

3. Room Room is about abduction—a subject that’s rarely handled tastefully in movies—and skips the tired bullshit of conventional movies in order to give us a believable story that’s so good it hurts. I loved every second of this emotional roller coaster. I’ll probably watch it many more times before I die. I’m especially glad I managed to miss all the promotional material, which seemed a little more spoilery than normal.

2. Fury Road When the credits rolled, I considered staying in my seat for the next showing. It’s easily the best throwback I’ve ever seen, not to mention the most exciting film in years. The most amazing thing about it was how every action scene felt different despite using the same setting and elements throughout. Full Review.

1. Ex Machina Above, I said The Revenant never really hit me on a purely emotional level. This one did and with all the force of a sucker punch to the gut. Beautifully filmed and perfectly acted, I haven’t seen such a landmark science fiction film in years. Ex Machina thoroughly rinsed away the awful taste left by the terribly miscast and ultimately mediocre Terminator Genysis, which I somehow managed to see the same day. Like other great science fiction stories, Ex Machina will seem a lot more important several years from now.

Midnight Movie: The Visitor (1979)


The Visitor opens on a plane of unreality in which a force of good (John Huston) comes face to face with a force of evil. When the evil flings off its sacramental robe, it reveals it has taken the form of a little girl. Cut to a different plane of existence: Franco Nero, in Christ-like garb, tells a group of bald disciples the mystical backstory concerning these forces. I’ll be damned if my eyes didn’t glaze over at this long, dull explanation, which is probably why I had so much trouble following the rest of the movie.

Maybe I would have been lost anyway, but it’s worth noting a great deal of The Visitor suddenly made sense in the end. Whether or not the rest of it means anything is up to the individual viewer.

You’ll probably want The Visitor to take you on a cosmic trip. With exposition like Nero’s, though, the film is like winning a free vacation, but only after listening to a sales pitch for timeshares. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie. It’s actually quite good for borrowing so heavily from so many different sources. (Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen came to mind for me. Others have compared it to everything from The Exorcist to Star Wars.) Despite these obvious influences, you’ve never seen anything like The Visitor and you’ll never see anything like it again.

Following its dreamlike prologue, the audience is whisked away to the un-magical land of a basketball game in Atlanta, Georgia. When the away team nearly turns over the score in the final seconds, a little girl in the front row uses her supernatural powers to make the basketball explode in the player’s hands. (No one seems to think it’s weird that the basketball blew up like a gunpowder-stuffed piñata. You’d think any ref who witnesses something like that would at least call interference.)
The eight year old girl responsible for the exploding basketball trick is accompanied by her mother, played by Joanne Nail (Switchblade Sisters). Nail’s character is being courted by Lance Henriksen, the owner of the basketball team. Henriksen proposes to the girl’s mother, who refuses his offer despite creepy persistence. We soon learn Henriksen is an agent of evil when we see him in the boardroom of rich and powerful Illuminati types. The mysterious figures, led by Mel Ferrer, remind Henriksen that their evil plot hinges on Nail getting pregnant again. Apparently their goal is the sort of event that happens whenever the gatekeeper comes into contact with the key master. 
Meanwhile John Huston’s character, the inter-dimensional traveler from Nero’s plane of existence, arrives on Earth. He can freely hop between realms, but requires a commercial airliner to take him to Atlanta. When the little girl discovers her arch-nemesis is on Earth, she angrily uses her Omen-like powers to turn a birthday gift into a loaded gun and promptly shoots her mother in the spine. This “accident” leads to a couple more surprisingly high-profile talents: Shelly Winters and Glenn Ford, who play the new nanny and a police detective. Later the film will introduce Nail’s ex-husband, a doctor played by Sam Peckinpah. 
Seriously. All these people are in this movie. If you only like one of these people, you owe it to yourself to see this movie.
The problem with The Visitor (and I’m nitpicking here because the more I look back on it, the more I like it) is it has too much plot for what it wants to be. And it’s a plot that will be just a little too familiar for fans of pre-Halloween horror. I usually love movies like this and I’m no stranger to psychedelic journeys, but no one’s asking directors of acid films to stitch together their visual exercises with coherent—but ultimately pointless—plots. I just feel The Visitor would work a lot better if it didn’t try to be so damned routine in between its short bursts of wonderful lunacy. 
The Visitor is a film for viewers who love film itself. I couldn’t recommend it to anyone else.

Midnight Movie: Masters of the Universe

Here’s one I haven’t seen since I was five or six years old. I don’t think I watched Saturday morning cartoons when I was a kid, so the extent of what I know about He-Man comes from Masters of the Universe. I’m pointing this out so I don’t offend the die hard fans out there with my ignorance. For all intents and purposes, I’m an adult who’s just been exposed to the He-Man mythos for the first time. Let’s not pretend this movie was made for people my age. The extremely obvious attempts at comic relief make that perfectly clear.
The mighty warrior He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) lives on planet Eternia, home of Castle Grayskull. The castle, which holds a plethora of magic secrets, has just been seized by the villainous Skeletor (Frank Langella) and the commander of his hellish army, a witch named Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster). There the villains have taken “The Sorceress of Grayskull” hostage with the help of a “cosmic key” which rips holes in the space-time continuum. Sooner than later this plot device will conveniently usher the characters to Earth, probably because the producers couldn’t raise enough money to shoot the entire film on the Eternia sets, which I imagine is what we all came for in the first place.
It’s on Earth that a duplicate of this cosmic key is lost and He-Man must recover it before Skeletor’s minions do. Joining him are a character named Man-At-Arms, a troll, and a female warrior known as Teela, played by Death Spa’s Chelsea Field. (I’ve always thought Field had an interesting and unusually photogenic look, so I was thrilled to see her in a sort of Red Sonja role even though she’s relegated to keeping lookout in the background of too many scenes.) This band of heroes cross paths with the most insignificant characters in the film: a couple of teenagers played by Courtney Cox and TV actor Robert Duncan McNeill.

I’m guessing Cox and McNeill’s characters weren’t part of the original He-Man mythos. They feel like an afterthought, added by misguided screenwriting logic: “We should give audience members someone they can relate to!” The film wastes so much time on these sickeningly white bread teenagers it’s a cheat to everyone who came to see swords, sorcery, and cheesy action. If, like me, you thought Masters of the Universe was going to be set almost entirely in a fantastical world like Flash Gordon, you’re going to be disappointed anyway.

Masters of the Universe desperately wants to be the next Star Wars film, and although Bill Conti’s music and most of the camerawork are pretty good, you tend to realize you’re watching the first take of many scenes. In one action sequence, He-Man is heroically holding off the bad guys as his friends flee through a doorway. Meanwhile the door itself, which is supposed to be propped against a wall, keeps falling and distracting Lundgren from his acting. Later, when being lashed by one of Skeletor’s henchmen, Lundgren’s reactions to the whip are hilariously out of sync. Early on there’s a big panoramic showing Skeletor’s army of bad guys marching prisoners of war across a battlefield. One of the bad guy extras trips front and center and has trouble standing back up. You’ll hear echoes of Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood enthusiastically yelling, “Cut! Print!”

Which isn’t to say this is a cheap movie. Despite the flaws, Masters of the Universe just isn’t bad enough to warrant a midnight movie-going audience. And despite some wonderful costume creations, it isn’t good enough for adults, either, partly because the villains’ inability to kill anyone plays out at the expense of suspense. The film looks pretty damn good in HD and roughly half of the special FX are kind of impressive, but Frank Langella’s skull makeup restricts his performance rather than enhancing it.

If you ever wondered why movie adaptations differ so much from their source materials, Masters of the Universe is the answer. A movie should stand on its own. I suspect MotU’s intended for fans who’ve already explored the rich universe in various media and are already familiar with Man-At-Arms, Teela, and the entirely pointless inclusion of the Sorceress of Grayskull. As an introduction to the He-Man universe, MotU is like walking in on a modern television series midway through.

Introducing Monday Midnight Movies!

Midnight Movie Monday begins November 9th.

UPDATE: So yeah, as of November 27th, 2015, this feature is going to be on Fridays. Just makes more sense.

ANOTHER FUCKIN’ UPDATE: So yeah again… as of January 2016, I’m, uh, kind of not doing this weekly at the moment. Too many 2015 movies to catch up on.

Like I said a couple days ago, I’m planning a weekly feature which resembles 31 Days of Gore, but it’ll be a lot broader in terms of genre choices. Considering I just did well over thirty horror movies in a row, I’ll probably focus on action, science fiction, and fantasy for a while. I won’t be reviewing new movies for Midnight Movies (a title which is subject to change, by the way), and I’ll either choose terrible movies or exploitation films (or both) for this new feature.

I’m actually eager to see this shit again

Any movie I want to talk about which doesn’t fit my idea of a midnight movie will appear no differently than movie reviews often appeared on this site in the past… in other words: sporadically. So if it’s a new release in theaters or on VOD, it will not be featured in Midnight Movies.

Although it’s not written in stone, here’s my current criteria for Midnight Movies:

  • Movies that never quite made the leap from VHS to DVD (such as Sonny Boy)
  • Movies I haven’t seen since I was a kid (such as Masters of the Universe)
  • Movies with high exploitation values (such as Malibu Express)
  • Movies that are unimaginably awful (such as the Anna Nicole Smith vehicle, Skyscraper)
  • Movies oozing pure, unadulterated cheese… my favorite flavor
What this feature will ultimately become is anyone’s guess. I’m not sure I’ll do it every Monday, either. I’m just trying something new. We’ll see how it goes
So why am I finally introducing regular features to this blog after updating it so sporadically for the past few years? The older I get, the more I like regularity in my life. That and I want to experiment a little with this blog’s content.
Once again: Midnight Movie Monday starts November 9th. I imagine it’ll be mostly weekly. Mostly.

The Bloodymare (short story)

This is one of my few fantasy stories. I wrote it about two years ago.

The Bloodymare
by Grant Gougler

The man with the giant fists stood on the rear deck of the prison ship and watched the windmill burn in the distance. Although the propeller was engulfed in flames, the wind still managed to spin the skeletal remains. Once the island had receded to the horizon, all twenty stories of the structure collapsed into an avalanche of cobblestone and dust. Its sounded like thunder reverberating across the water.

Scandakar could make out the cheers of the Amarillo Soldiers, the thousand-man army which had just burned the entire village to the ground.

He shook his head and reached for the cigarette between his lips, but his arms were restricted. A chain, several links too short, was binding his handcuffs to the shackles around his ankles. He turned to Dwoit for assistance. Scandakar’s old friend took the butt and pitched it behind the boat where the massive props churned phosphorescent sea life into neon blue brilliance.

“Why would fate bring the two of us back together like this?” Dwoit wondered aloud.

Scandakar didn’t have an answer. He didn’t have answers for much of anything since the injury. Things were the way they were. Always would be. That was the extent of his philosophy. His half-brain couldn’t come up with anything more complicated than that, anyway.

“How many of my comrades were captured?” Scandakar asked.

“Four, including you. The one called Brennan—your leader, right?—he was shot down by our archers. Another one did himself in with a dagger.”

“That was probably Wiznick,” Scandakar said. He clicked his tongue and gave an imperceptible shake of his head.

The sun was setting port side. The oblong moon had appeared, small, red, and brilliant. Its lopsided crescent was greatly magnified by atmospheric trickery. Scandakar could not remember seeing the moon so big. Memories like that were probably in the other half of his brain. No telling where that had ended up. A gutter, maybe.

“I take it there are Marshals on board?” Scandakar asked.

“Three, including Marshal Hunt. Have you heard of him?”

“Don’t know. I don’t remember things so well since….” Scandacar’s massive finger pointed at the dent in the side of his skull. He would have raised his hand higher, but his wrists were jerked to a stop by the chains.

Dwoit said, “Your friend who killed himself? You can damn well bet he knew of Hunt.” He turned away from the ocean and rested his back against the rail. “All you have to do is tell Marshal Hunt your secret and he’ll let you go. He’s a fair man.”

“I’m not that stupid. Look at what he had the Amarillo Soldiers do to that village. A thousand people dead. For what? Because they harbored a handful of pirates? Where’s the justice in that?”

“What could possibly be so important you would willingly stay on a ship like this? I’d sell my own family out to get off this damn thing and I’m not even a prisoner here.”

“I said I truly don’t know. Not anymore.”

“We’re practically brothers, Scan’. You can tell me.

For the first time in his adult life, Scandakar looked his old friend in the eye. “When they caught me the first time, back in Moontown, they messed my head up pretty bad. My ability to find my way around—that’s what got scrambled the worst. It changed me, Dwoit. I’m not the same person you knew. I can’t be the same person, even if I tried… and I have.”

“You don’t remember anything at all?”

“Only that it’s real. I’m from a continent, Dwoit. Thousands of acres of dry land, maybe even millions.”

Dwoit stiffened. “Millions?”

“I remember walking the coasts,” Scandakar said. “I could walk and walk and never come back to where I started. It’s real. I wouldn’t forget that. I just don’t remember how to get there.”

“They say it’s impossible for land that big to be lost, Scandakar.”

“The Amarillo Army knows it exists. Why else would they be after me?”

“Why the fuck is that freak still up here?” someone called, shattering the ocean’s tranquility with his booming voice.

Dwoit straightened to attention. Scandakar turned and discovered a broad-shouldered man with a curlicue mustache and muttonchops was approaching. His uniform was gray. A holstered musket rested on each hip.

Marshals didn’t wear badges and spurs like the Amarillo Soldiers. Things like that made noise. Noise made it harder to sneak up on your prey. Instead, Marshals identified rank by the colors of a single armband, made of cloth.

This Marshal’s armband was yellow. The hotter the color, the higher the rank.

“Don’t you look at me,” the Marshal snapped at Scandakar. To Dwoit: “I asked you a question, Deckmaster.”

“The prisoner and I were childhood friends. I thought maybe he would tell me what you wanted to know.” Hastily he added, “Sir.”

“You’re going to be sorry if Hunt hears about this. Look at the size of that freak’s fists. Even with those shackles on he could easily—”

“Don’t,” Scandakar said, irritated by the lameness of the show. To his old friend: “You’re Marshal Hunt. I’ve known it since you brought me on board.”

The other man had been reaching for his club. Dwoit held an arm out to halt him. In a matter of seconds, his weak demeanor melted away. He stared back, eyes drawing narrow. His snarl revealed the white, perfect teeth of a wealthy man. In other words, not the teeth of a deckmaster.

“How did you guess?” Dwoit asked.

“Your family is the wealthiest I’ve ever seen. You expect me to believe you became a lowly deckmaster?”

“I’m sorry, brother. Perhaps your head injury isn’t as bad as I thought.” Dwoit turned to the deckmaster with whom he had swapped roles. “Take him below. And take off that fucking armband before you disgrace it any longer.”

#

Three levels below, the real deckmaster unbolted and flung open a massive trapdoor. Beneath it was the final set of stairs on the Bloodymare. A stench, which the crew had tried to mask with lemon peels, cascaded over Scandakar. It reeked of every bodily waste he could imagine. The smell of rotting flesh lingered there as well as it was probably days before a deceased prisoner was removed, if ever.

Scandakar stood by as the deckmaster lit his lantern.

“Go on,” the deckmaster said, shoving him forward.

Against every instinct in his muscles, Scandakar trudged downward into darkness. The deckmaster followed him into the cell block, his lantern chasing the shadows of bars across the walls and withering figures. Scandakar found it strange how the hopeless eyes of the other prisoners seemed to sparkle in the firelight. The men who were still strong enough to stand extended their arms beyond the steel cages, begging for morsels. Those who were too weak to stand lay in tangled piles on the floor, mustering pathetic moans and death rattles.

It was a place of protruding rib cages, scraggly hair, and sheer insanity. And it was Scandakar’s new home. The only thing he could ever look forward to would be much, much worse than this.

As the deckmaster locked him away in a cell with an elderly man, his eyes appeared on the other side of the bars.

“I’ve seen Hunt’s interrogations before,” said the deckmaster. “You’re strong, but not strong enough—no one is. Save yourself several months of suffering, lad. Please.”

Scandakar extended his bound wrists towards the bars. “Aren’t you going to uncuff me?”

“With fists like that? You’ll wear those cuffs until the day you die.”

#

Scandakar had grown a beard by the time Dwoit visited his cell. As much as the lantern burned his eyes, the man with the giant fists strained to keep them wide. Dwoit paused to raise his light on Old Man Acers, Scandakar’s cellmate. Acers was standing with his malnourished back pressed against the bars, jittering his toothless jaw in a chant of madness as he masturbated.

“I figured you would have killed him by now,” Dwoit said.

“He’s a kid killer,” said Scandakar. “He deserves to rot.”

“Good point.”

The fragile old man tottered around and squinted at the lantern.

“Margaret?” he asked. A cracked and leathery tongue appeared briefly to dance over his chapped lips and rotten teeth. “Is dat you, woman?”

“Get back,” Dwoit barked, banging a club against the bars.

“Margaret! What’re you doing, you old bitch?”

Scandakar grabbed the man by his long gray hair and flung him into a corner. The man whimpered dryly. For a moment his back arched as he began to rise. Then, with a long sigh of defeat, he deflated and stayed put.

“Thanks,” Dwoit said. Scandakar could see his old friend clearly as he set the lantern down. He was still dressed in the clothes of a civilian. “I brought you bread.”

As soon as the bread appeared, the other prisoners moaned, which sounded like a cacophony of tortured ghosts. Dwoit shouted at them to shut up. Then there were only the whispers of madness.

Scandakar shoved his giant hands through the bars and took the offering. It had been charred, but the texture and the hint of honey was downright luxurious compared to what prisoners usually got: leftovers which periodically drained out of the garbage chutes above their heads. Scandakar devoured the bread in seconds.

“So how do I address you?” Scandakar asked, finding the last bite painful to swallow on his dry throat. “Dwoit or Marshal?”

“I prefer my old name, but they make us choose new ones when we become Marshals. Right now I’m not coming to you as a Marshal, though. Right now, I’m the person you knew when we were boys. I’m afraid this is the last time you ever see this side of me.”

“What made you choose the name Hunt?”

“Hunting was what I loved to do.”

“Now you do it for a living.”

“It’s in my blood.” Dwoit took a seat outside the cell. “We made a hell of a team, you and me. With you I could venture farther, deeper into the swampland than I ever dared. I think it was because your sense of geography was in your blood.”

Scandakar shook his head. “That’s gone now.”

“I don’t believe it is. I don’t care how badly someone caved my skull in, I could still do what I do, better than anyone else. You can’t forget what comes naturally, what makes a man the man he is. Even with half a brain, you’re still the same person I knew so many years ago. I can sense it.”

“So is this the beginning of the interrogation?”

Only the beginning. We’re currently traveling through the Gordon Straights. It’s the last land my crew will see for weeks, which means we’ll be docking in the next day or so. Following that, I’ll interrogate you properly.”

“What happens when you fail to break me?”

“I will spare you none of the brutality I gave the criminals before you.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

“You must remember, though, it’s all for show,” Dwoit said with a sad smile. “If the esteemed Marshal Hunt showed mercy, word of it would spread to every corner of the ocean. It’s a shame, too. As far as I’m concerned, you meant more than a flesh brother could have ever meant to me. I truly wish I could help you help yourself, Scan’.”

“But you can’t,” Scandakar said. “I understand that. Whatever happens, I won’t blame you.”

“Just confess, brother.”

“I told you I can’t.”

“Then make something up, damn it! Tell me the location is far away from here! Send us on a goose chase!”

“That would only prolong my suffering. I imagine then you would only have to beat me even harder for lying.”

“Beat?” Dwoit asked, a funny smile on his face. “Is that what you think will happen to you? I’ll give you a simple beating? No. It will be far worse than that. I promise you.”

#

The Bloodymare had stopped for many hours. The stillness brought sickness to Scandakar’s stomach. Or maybe it was his diet of kitchen run-off, the lack of water, scurvy, and the steady degradation of bone and muscle. They had apparently docked at the Gordon Straights.

After a night or two of the nauseating stillness, the ship was underway again. They would be coming for him soon.

One day Scandakar heard the bolt slide on the trapdoor. A blinding wedge of candlelight spread across the cell block. Then he heard two pairs of boots stomp down the creaky stairs and along the aisle. One pair of boots belonged to a young Marshal who wore a white armband. The other pair belonged to the deckmaster. The men unlocked the door to Scandakar’s cell and tossed him a burlap hood.

“Put it on,” the Marshal said with a malicious grin. “You don’t want to keep Hunt waiting. Believe you me.”

#

Scandakar was led through what sounded like an engine room, what felt like a furnace, and what smelled like a kitchen. Then the scent of oak and freshly polished brass let him know they had not taken him to any typical room of interrogation. Indeed, when the two men whipped off his hood he found he was in a private stateroom, which looked out over the ocean from the ship’s quarterdeck.

In front of him was a desk. On the other side of the desk was a leather chair, riveted with gold. The back of the chair faced Scandakar. The person sitting in it, presumably Dwoit, faced the large view of ocean behind Bloodymare.

A third Marshal, older than Dwoit, was squat at the fireplace, heating a poker which was beginning to glow. Beside him was a tall-backed chair with leather straps for the occupant’s head, neck, and each of the limbs.

Scandakar’s blood ran cold when he saw the hole in the seat of the chair.

“Blood is dangerous on a ship,” Dwoit explained, spinning around to face his old friend as he lit a pipe. “Especially on a floor as polished as this one. That’s why we use red hot instruments.”

The Marshal who had helped the deckmaster deliver Scandakar joined the other Marshal’s side, taking from the mantelshelf a hollow ivory horn. The horn, Scandakar knew, would be used to prevent scarring on the outside of his body. Short of a proper medical examination, it would appear as if he keeled over for reasons unknown.

“Dwoit,” Scandakar said, beginning to struggle. The deckmaster slammed his fist against the dented side of Scandakar’s skull. Scandakar ignored the warning. “Dwoit, please. Don’t do this.”

“You will refer to me as Marshal Hunt whenever I wear this uniform,” his old friend said. His armband was red, which signified a rank equivalent to captain. He hunched over the desk and rested his chin on folded hands. “You know, I really have been trying to save you. Had you told me what I want to know, I could have negotiated your release. Now I have to make damn sure you really did forget. Deckmaster?”

The deckmaster turned and opened the door. Two more members of Hunt’s crew jerked another prisoner into the room, his head hooded and his frail legs dragging helplessly across the floor. He cried out as they yanked his tattered pants down around his ankles and strapped him to the torture chair. The Marshal at the fireplace smirked as he rotated the glowing iron back and forth.

“Don’t,” Scandakar whispered, regaining some of the strength he needed to hold himself upright. His voice, however, was still weak. “This man is innocent.”

“Hardly,” Hunt said. “But look at it this way, brother: if you know of the location of your homeland, all you have to do is tell me and you can spare this man’s suffering.”

The hooded prisoner cried out. One of his captors pinned his head against the seatback as the other fastened straps across his temples and chin. Meanwhile the eager young Marshal squatted beside the chair with the horn in one hand and a wooden mallet in the other.

“And if you truly don’t remember,” Marshal Hunt continued, “you can comfort yourself with the knowledge there was nothing you could do to save him.”

“Shall I gag him?” the older Marshal asked, drawing the poker from the fire.

“No. I want Scandakar to hear this man’s screams every time he closes his eyes.”

#

That night, Scandakar was sitting in the corner of his cell, resting though he knew sleep would never come. Old Man Acers’ sanity had devolved another notch. Now he could no longer form words. He was only capable of bird calls and incoherent mumbling. Occasionally he would flap his arms like wings.

“Acers,” Scandakar said softly.

“Ka!”

“You want to know a secret?”

“Ka?”

“I’m a bad man, Ace’. I’ve killed a lot of people. Some of them deserved it, but most of them probably didn’t. I regret the ones who didn’t, but I have this temper. When the only thing you’ve got going in life is a pair of fists, you tend to fall back on that, you know?”

“Ka,” the old man said with an understanding tone.

“Yet I was never as bad as you were. The only reason I joined those pirates is because they traveled uncharted waters a lot. I thought maybe one day we might stumble upon my homeland.” Scandakar sighed. “One day we did.”

“Ka-ka.”

“I should have never left.”

“Kaaaaa.”

“Anyway, I think what you are now—”

“Ka! Ka!”

“—is nothing more than the shell of the man who committed your crimes.” Scandakar rose to his feet and towered over the crazy old man. “I believe the evil departed with your sanity. So I’m sorry I have to do this, Acers. I really am.”

Scandakar seized Acers with his giant fists and broke every bone in the man’s arms and legs, one after the other. The other prisoners howled in response to Acer’s screams.

Several minutes later, the trapdoor was flung open and the deckmaster came down with a lantern, shouting, “Shut up! Shut up, all of you!”

The deckmaster lifted his lantern high and moved to the end of the cell block to see what had gotten into the old man. What he saw first, in a jiggling mound on the floor, was Acers. His shackles and chains had been yanked right off of his body. When he realized he was standing too close to the bars, it was too late: Scandakar had a noose of chain and had looped it around his enemy’s wrist.

The deckmaster’s screams joined Acer’s in a brief moment of harmonized agony. Then Scandakar jerked him, and his big ring of keys, through the narrow opening in the bars.

The lantern hit the floor. And the guard’s scream was cut short.

#

The ensuing revolt lasted the better part of an hour. Unfortunately for Scandakar, the number of able and willing prisoners was more or less equal to that of armed guards. Even so, the impromptu army capitalized on the element of surprise as they swept the levels of the ship. The ratio of armed to unarmed reversed almost immediately.

In the end, half of Marshal Hunt’s crew fell in battle. The other half abandoned ship and swam for the harbor where they had recently docked. They would never make it.

Marshal Hunt had locked himself in his quarters, holed up behind his desk with a couple of muskets. Scandakar ordered his army to batter the door down. As the prisoners gained access to the room, Hunt fell someone with his first shot, but missed entirely with the second. Just as they descended upon him for the final blow, Scandakar stopped them with a sharp whistle.

“This one’s mine,” he told them. And not one of the prisoners dared to ignore the order.

#

The following morning, Bloodymare was well underway with its new crew. Now Scandakar toured the cell block, which contained only the one prisoner: Marshal Hunt. 

The man with the giant fists brought him a loaf of bread. Hunt took it greedily and began to devour it. Then he stopped, as if only then realizing he would need to ration it. He glanced up from the bread and caught Scandakar’s eye.

“Show me mercy, Scandakar. I was the one who convinced my family to take you in.”

Scadakar shook his head. “That was a boy named Dwoit. You’re Marshal Hunt.”

“This is how you’re going to repay me?”

Scandakar sat on the free side of the bars cross-legged. He lit a cigarette and said, “This ship is mine now. I intend to use it to search for my homeland.”

“You bastard,” Hunt said softly.

In a sudden fit of rage, Hunt hurled his bread at Scandakar. The man with the giant fists had only to move his head a few inches to dodge it. The bread bounced off the wall behind him and landed in a puddle of urine. Within seconds a rat had scurried away with it.

When Scandakar turned his attention back to Hunt, the man was weeping.

“You wanted to know where I come from,” Scandakar told him. “All you have to do is hold onto your sanity until we get there.”

What is Enclave about?

I’ve expanded the information about my upcoming novel on the Current Projects page. Check it out. It’s the longest I’ve ever spent on a single project and I just wanted to talk about it some more, particularly my motivations for writing it, since I’ve been pretty secretive about it with everyone I know. I don’t call myself introverted for nothing.

Is the wait for the newest episode of Game of Thrones killing anyone else? Well, that’s probably a dumb question. Of course it is.

io9’s best science fiction & fantasy books of 2014

Well, the only books I’ve read from the list are The Peripheral, The Martian, and Lock-In, which just goes to show I should really read more new stuff (I blame this on my pulp addiction). I actually thought The Martian and Lock-In came out last year, so I’m a bit more current than I usually am at this point in the year.

Here’s their list.

And here’s a fairly new video of William Gibson talking The Peripheral:

I love how the interviewer mentions he used to pretend he was Case as a kid
As for my New Year’s Eve plans tonight, I have no idea. Frankly, I just want to sit around at home and watch the ball drop because that and The Oscars are the only two television “events” I watch all year. I just don’t like getting drunk on the one day of the year everyone’s drinking and yes, I realize how crazy-paranoid-silly that sounds. A friend reminded me of time zones and the fact China isn’t celebrating the new year today, so theoretically there should be plenty of sober people to deal with a potential alien invasion.
Speaking of time zones, each year I’m reminded of Louis Wu in Larry Niven’s Ringworld who, at the beginning of the story, decides to extend his 200th birthday by hopping across time zones via teleportation. Here’s something I haven’t realized until today: that novel’s over forty years old. Man, we’re getting old, aren’t we?

Horns is available on-demand before it hits theaters

It’s October. Time to talk horror. I’ll focus on horror-related posts until Halloween comes and goes.

A movie adaptation shouldn’t be judged by the quality of its source material. It’s impossible to avoid, though, especially when the material is so admirable. The adaptation of Joe Hill’s legitimately insane Horns suffers in the typical three-act screenplay form. Whereas the novel opens with a guy who wakes up with devil horns, the film gives us a typical movie opening, putting off the horns for just a little too long. And the reason he gets the horns in the first place—the violent desecration of a memorial, if my memory serves me correctly—hardly appears in the film version at all. My girlfriend asked me, “Why does he have horns?” Then I realized the movie is a better companion to the book than a standalone feature. Maybe judging it by the book is excusable in this case.

That’s the bad. The rest is quite good actually, at least when it’s not trying to play it too safe. Sometimes it feels the filmmakers pussyfoot around the demonic aspects of the story, which kind of misses the point. Otherwise, there is plenty of snake-charming, plenty of startling confessions from seemingly normal people. To call this horror is misleading. Dark urban fantasy is a better label.

The plot: Ig Perrish is a twenty-something whose childhood girlfriend has been murdered. Everyone thinks he’s the killer, including his parents. One day after a hard night of drinking, he wakes up to find devil horns have sprouted from his temples. The horns have an effect on people. Nobody seems to think the horns are out of the ordinary and they feel compelled to tell Ig their darkest secrets. Heather Graham’s character, a waitress, confesses she’s telling the cops lies because she wants to be on TV. A bartender tells Ig he wants to burn his establishment down for the insurance money and Ig tells him to do it. He does, laughing hysterically. The confessions are the funniest parts of the movie.

I’m happy to report Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t suffer from the same fate as most former child actors. Whenever I look at Fred Savage or Elijah Wood, I still see them as children. But when I see Daniel Radcliff, I see an adult, which is good. He makes a good Ig Perrish. The rest of the cast is just as good. I particularly liked Juno Temple (I usually do) as his girlfriend, Heather Graham, David Morse, and the casting of Ig’s parents: James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan, two generally underused actors.

It’s a good picture, just a little rough in spots. Also, I’m not sure it’s quite worth $10.99, but I hope it does well when it hits theaters.

How I became a fan of Highlander 2: The Quickening… stop laughing at me

Highlander 1986

Don’t get me wrong. I loved Highlander when I was a kid. I even followed the film series enthusiastically up until part three, which came out when I was eleven. Eleven was apparently too old to enjoy Highlander sequels anymore. Or so I thought….

You know the tagline even if you don’t know the movies: There can be only one. Why can there be only one? When the French Christopher Lambert (playing a Scot) asks questions like that, the Scottish Sean Connery (playing an Egyptian) replies with another question: “Why does the sun rise?” That’s a cheat—in reality we all know why the sun rises, but we’ll never really know why Immortals have to fight. Probably because someone thought it would be pretty bad ass.

To outsiders—and for nearly twenty years I was one of them—Highlander’s popularity can be a bit mystifying. Let’s get some of the bad stuff out of the way. Here’s the biggest problem with the original Highlander: there are no answers. None. Zilch. The sooner you accept that the better because there’s a decent movie lurking beneath the cheese. And who doesn’t like sword fights that produce roughly as many sparks as a bumper car grid?

Yesterday, I watched the original film. The Queen music was awesome, the beheadings were satisfying, and the bad guy (played by the grossly underrated Clancy Brown) is a totally bad ass “seven-foot tall lunatic.”

The rest isn’t Shakespeare. Let’s say you’re a Trans-Am-driving gun nut who happens to pass a dark alley in which two strangers are sword fighting. Do you A) drive to the nearest payphone and call the cops or B) get out and shoot at these people? If you chose B, you belong in this movie.

The pacing is a bit rough, too, while the acting is just good enough. Even so, you’re going to be scratching your head and making MST3K quips throughout. So when the movie was over I popped in the Blu-Ray edition of Westworld and all but forgot about Highlander. Then I went to bed where distant memories of the infamous sequel began to haunt me.

I remembered Sean Connery was in it and (minor spoiler coming up) just had to know what kind of movie magic they spun to bring his character back to life. I had frequently read how awful the movie was, which was at odds with how much I enjoyed it as an eight year old. So this morning I shelled out four bucks to rent it on demand.

I may never be able to enjoy another movie again.

Highlander 2 (1991)

See, other movies are not as good because other movies aren’t Highlander 2. Other movies don’t have the mysteriously likable Christopher Lambert, Michael Ironside, and Sean Connery—the trifecta as far as I’m concerned. Other movies are too logical, make too much sense, and have way too much taste, which is ultimately their undoing.

Every movie I have seen since I watched Highlander 2 has fallen flat.

I’ve said before I enjoyed Johnny Mnemonic in spite of how badly it managed to butcher its source material. Turning Molly Millions into a damsel in distress was unforgivable, but come on: it’s the film that both managed to bring cyberpunk to the mainstream and kill it at the same time. I just take enormous pleasure in the 90s’ ridiculous vision of the future. (See: everything from Van Damme’s Cyborg to Billy Idol videos.) None of this stuff could even come close to holding a candle to the set design in Blade Runner, but it’s as comforting as an old sweater nonetheless.

Highlander 2 is set in such a dismal future world. For the most part it’s a pretty convincing one, though a little on the rich side, and it looks like they got more bang out of their budget than Freejack and Johnny Mnemonic combined. Some of the movie was even set on an alien planet at one point, but those versions of the film have been buried. All this jumping around takes the series out of the domain of fantasy and ushers it into science fiction, where I’m most comfortable.

When we first see Lambert’s MacLeod, he’s elderly and speaks in a hilariously phony voice. Why is it so high-pitched? Chalk it up to a brave yet misguided acting decision if you must, but never mind that. Just look at how big budgeted this all feels. The opening crane shots in and around the grand opera house are like nothing you’d see in a typical B movie.

That’s because there was a shit ton of money spent on the production. Rumor has it the people who put up that money are partially to blame for the film’s “problems.”

The theatrical cut, the version I saw on Pay-Per-View when I was eight, corn-holed the entire mythology of the original film within the first few minutes. It accomplished this by asserting two things: one, the Immortals were (surprise!) aliens all along and two, MacLeod and Ramirez didn’t meet for the first time in the original Highlander, but a long, long time before that.

Luckily for the director, this bit of contradictory dialogue had been filmed with characters who spoke telepathically, without moving their lips. The obvious fix was to phase out the original version and rerecord the dialogue. In the subsequent versions, and I’m not sure if I saw the director’s cut or the newer “Renegade” version, all verbal references to the aforementioned alien planet are edited out of the dialogue… but the visual references remain. That way audiences are led to believe, if they’re still paying attention, that it’s not an alien planet, but Earth a long time ago.

The changes didn’t really help the film, though. If anything, they made it a little more confusing. But hey, that’s part of the reason I love it. I’m really not being ironic here. I fucking loved this movie.

beginning at 1:30, Siskel & Ebert don’t agree with me

I’ve never seen anything like it before. That’s probably the best compliment I’m capable of giving any movie. Look, it’s not so bad it’s good—it’s so good it hurts. Seriously. It hurts in a way that it makes your stomach knot from tickled laughter, some of it intended, a lot of it not. Yet I found a lot more to make fun of in part one because this one didn’t bore me for a second, while engaging from one end of the film to the other.

Highlander 2 shows absolutely no restraint in its crusade to not only give you what you expected, but absolutely everything you could possibly want. You get hover boards. You get bad guys who look like they’re straight out of a Hellraiser film. There are jet packs with unfolding wings. There are numerous sword fights and awesome beheadings. And you will never see a hero have sex with the heroine so quickly after meeting and, ahem, I do stress the word “quickly.”

Guess what. All of that awesome stuff happens in the first thirty minutes.

Adding to the plot’s confusion, the world’s ozone layer has deteriorated. MacLeod himself helped create an artificial layer of atmosphere to deflect the sun’s radiation. I know he’s immortal, but it must have been very busy life to go from warrior to antique dealer to world-renowned scientist.

Meanwhile, Virginia Madsen’s character and a group of environmentalists break into the shield generator’s complex and discover the real ozone layer may have repaired itself in the time since the artificial one went up. Madsen is so surprised by the discovery I have no idea why she broke into the complex in the first place—for shits and giggles? With MacLeod’s shield in place, the world is constantly dark now and if her findings are correct, it’s all for nothing. Madsen, by the way, is one of millions of people who have never seen a blue sky. You’ll think, “Oh, the blue sky is going to be the payoff at the end of the picture.” Yet it’s not.

This movie is too insane to even follow convention.

Here’s where the alien planet retcon screws up the current version: so the Immortals from the past watch the events in the future unfold as if they were being broadcast on live TV. Think about that for a moment. They’re watching what’s happening in the future from the fucking past. They also have teleporters time travel on their planet in the past. So you wonder why the villain didn’t just travel to the point before MacLeod remembered he was an Immortal (I forgot to mention: our hero had amnesia at the beginning of the film) and chop off his head then. On second thought, it really doesn’t matter at this point.

What matters is the film feels like the result of people who were legitimately crazy. Remember when I said I was dying to see what kind of movie magic they would use to bring Connery’s character back to life? The answer is none. They used no magic at all. MacLeod screams the character’s name and, inexplicably, Ramirez appears on a stage in Scotland during a performance of Hamlet. I’m not kidding or exaggerating here. That’s literally how it happened.

The bulk of Ramirez’s screen time is making the journey to America while acting not like an Egyptian, but an older James Bond whose flirtatious jokes have gotten a lot raunchier. “I don’t eat anything I can’t identify,” he tells a flight attendant before looking to the woman beside him and adding, “Well, that’s not entirely true.” A pussy-eating joke!

And man, does Connery look like he’s having fun or what? Meanwhile, you catch glimpses of Lambert’s frustration with the doomed production. You occasionally see a flicker of How the hell did I end up in this turkey? in Virgina Madsen’s eyes, particularly when she has to deliver a stupidly complicated piece of exposition. But Connery is having a blast and it shows. I’ve always been a fan of Connery, but I think I like him more than ever now. What grace. What charm.

Highlander 2, as it exists today, just doesn’t deserve its sour reputation. It’s too damn entertaining for its countless inclusions on “worst movies of all time” lists. Mediocrity is much more offensive than terrible. Highlander 2 tries—I mean it really fucking tries. It gets an A for ambition alone.