Written by Matthew Sunrich
The Hour of the Dragon
Robert E. Howard was one of the most prolific writers of the pulp era. It’s impossible to say for sure that Conan the Cimmerian was his favorite out of his numerous creations, but it seems to be the case. In all, he published seventeen stories about the character in the pages of Weird Tales in a four-year period. Sixteen of these were short stories, but The Hour of the Dragon, which was serialized in five consecutive issues of the magazine, was the only novel-length Conan tale he ever penned. It was later retitled Conan the Conqueror, perhaps in the interest of branding, and published in novel form by Gnome Press. While it borrows plot elements from earlier stories, most notably “The Scarlet Citadel,” it’s a superb work of sword-and-sorcery fiction. It has everything a fan of the genre could possibly want: dark magic, labyrinthine dungeons, horrific monsters, fierce battles, political intrigue, an eldritch relic from antiquity, and the resurrection of an ancient sorcerer. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s the perfect sword-and-sorcery novel, but I think it’s about as close as anyone could get. Marvel Comics, the original holder of the Conan license, adapted the novel, somewhat awkwardly, in Giant-Size Conan #s 1-4 and The Savage Sword of Conan #s 8 and 10 in 1974. In 2013-14, Dark Horse published a new adaptation in two six-issue miniseries. Writer Timothy Truman and artist Tomas Giorello, to my way of thinking, did a far better job of bringing the story to life, especially since they didn’t have to deal with the restrictions of the Comics Code. Giorello’s rich and textured illustration, in particular, is breathtaking.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Author Douglas Adams once described The Hitchhiker’s Guide as “science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction,” and this is certainly apt in my case. With a few exceptions, I have never cared much for science fiction, preferring fantasy and supernatural horror, but I love absurdist comedy, and this novel definitely fits the bill. The whole thing started out as a radio drama, but I think it’s fair to say that the ideas solidified when he turned it into a series of novels. The fact that the story begins with the destruction of the planet works on so many levels and is a fantastic way to launch a story. Isolate the main character from everything he has ever known and loved and cast him into a confusing, uncaring universe, and you’ve got the perfect formula for a narrative about the ultimate absurdity of existence and the futility of humankind’s efforts to better itself. Of course, if you were to remove the humor it would be monumentally depressing, but, thankfully, it’s insanely clever, inventive, and laugh-out-loud funny on every page. When you discover that the answer to the great question of life, the universe, and everything is “42” and that the Earth was merely a giant computer built to determine the question itself, it really puts things into perspective. Sure, the engineers of Magrathea can build another Earth, but do we really want to wait another ten millennia for the question? We can assume that, not unlike the answer, it’s bound to be something really stupid. It’s worth noting that in 1993 DC Comics adapted the novel into a three-issue comic series, which is pretty darn good.
I was seven years old when Creepshow hit theaters in 1982. Even though I had no clue what it was all about, I was immediately taken with the aesthetics of it. Of course, my dad wouldn’t let me see it, and when I found out that there was a comic-book adaptation of it, he wouldn’t let me have that, either. It was probably wise that he kept me away from it, as it likely would have scared the crap out of me, but in later years I was finally able to see it and to get my hands on a copy of the comic (it is important to note that after years of being out of print it is now available again in an affordable hardcover). For those of you who don’t know, the film is an homage to the EC horror comics of the early 1950s, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear; the movie provides a far-more-rewarding experience if you go in knowing that. Written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero, it comprises five stories and is designed to look like a comic book (my favorite is “The Crate,” followed closely by the funny-but-tragic “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” which stars King himself). Just like the stories the film pays tribute to, there is a great deal of black comedy and over-the-top violence, and the finks always get their comeuppance. At this point, King had only published a handful of novels, but it’s easy to see that he has virtually mastered the storytelling craft. Even though the special effects are dated my modern standards, it’s still an immensely satisfying and rich film. Its cult status is well deserved. The sequel isn’t bad, either.
The Mummy (1999)
I have been fascinated by ancient Egypt since I was three or four years old. When I was five, my grandparents gave me a big, lushly illustrated book about King Tut for Christmas, and I used to pore over its pages for hours at a time. Since then, I have always kept an eye out for anything about the Nile civilization and fiction based on its stranger elements in particular. When Universal decided to resurrect its Mummy franchise, it decided to give it an Indiana Jones kind of spin rather than make another straight horror film. The result was 1999’s The Mummy, which has become one of my absolute favorites. It’s clear that the filmmakers took special care with it. The sets are gorgeous, the atmosphere is perfect, the costumes are stunning, the music is phenomenal, and the script, which is a superb blend of adventure, humor, and horror, is brilliant. I really cannot think of anything they could have done to make it better. It’s the ultimate pulp-fiction movie (take that, Pulp Fiction). Of course, there are plot holes, some glaring, but can you name a movie that doesn’t have them? Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Kevin J. O’Connor, John Hannah, Oded Fehr, and Omid Djalili (as Rick, Evelyn, Beni, Jonathan, Ardeth Bay, and Gad, respectively) are resplendent in their roles, and you can tell that they’re having a great time. Some people have written it off as a popcorn movie, but I think it has too much depth and substance to fall into that category. Hollywood will likely never produce a better mummy movie.
In 1969, Warren Publishing decided to add a third magazine to its horror-comic line. This time, it chose a beautiful, scantily clad woman to be the star, and the decision paid off. It soon became clear that Vampirella, who was conceived as little more than a hostess for the tales, not unlike Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie of their respective mags, deserved her own stories, and the rest is history. Like the EC comics that inspired them, Warren’s mags featured several stories per issue, a mix of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, weird westerns, and stuff that just flat-out defied categorization. Of the three magazines, Vampirella is my favorite, and it’s not just because of the titular female, though that certainly is a contributing factor. By the time they hit their stride in the mid-1970s, all three of the mags were consistently featuring top-notch work. Artists such as Bernie Wrightson, Ramon Torrents, Rafael Auraleon, Luis Bermejo, Gonzalo Mayo, and Esteban Maroto, along with the myriad talented writers who collaborated with them, were producing phenomenal, sophisticated stories. No disrespect to Eerie and Creepy, but Vampirella has a charm and atmosphere all its own, which I find irresistible. The series ran until 1983, for a total of 112 issues. Thankfully, Dynamite has compiled the entire thing into gorgeous archive editions, but most of my collection consists of the actual magazines. The ads, which feature a variety of horror-related merchandise, are really fun to look through.
The Empire Strikes Back
What can I say about Star Wars, and this film in particular, that hasn’t already been said? A New Hope is, without question, a masterpiece, but Empire takes the story to a whole new level. Many of the series’ most memorable aspects can be found here. The Rebel base on Hoth, Dagobah, and Cloud City are all beautifully realized, and the monsters and bounty hunters are about as cool as it gets. The pacing is perfect, the dialog is sharp, and the drama is effective without veering into cheese territory. Darth Vader is at his absolute best. Things about him that were merely hinted at in the first film come to fruition here. We also get a better idea of just how vast the universe in which the story takes place is. The development of Han and Leia’s relationship is a little awkward, but other than that it’s amazing. I am lucky enough to own the unaltered version of the film, a LaserDisc transfer that was included in a special release. Some people complained about this, as it was not digitally remastered or whatever, but it’s good enough for me. I am in the camp that wants the films as I remember them. As far as I’m concerned, there was nothing that needed to be fixed.
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Visual-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s final film, Clash of the Titans holds, to my mind, the distinction of being the ultimate B movie. I used to think that relegating a film to this category was an insult, but I have come to understand that “B” does not necessarily mean “bad”; it just refers to a different kind of film than an “A” movie, generally a genre film that has a particular type of storytelling and cinematography. It’s a hard thing to pin down, but I know it when I see it. I never saw Clash in the theater, but when it began appearing on television in the mid-1980s I would watch it from any point that I happened to catch it. I think the writing is excellent and the plot well-constructed. The script wasn’t going to win any of the actors an Academy Award, but the dialog conveys the story effectively, and there are some nice surprises. The real stars of the movie are the stop-motion models. While I can’t deny that modern computer animation looks more realistic, there is a charm about the way the models in this film move. There is a real art to it. As far as I’m concerned, sometimes artifice should look like artifice. The scene with Medusa steals the show; the tension is almost palpable as Perseus is forced to rely solely on his instincts to win her head.