Toronto No Go

October 10th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

Due to a flare-up of health issues, I will not be attending the imminent Bouchercon in Toronto. Barb will also be staying home. We are disappointed, obviously – we were to be on a panel together (a rare treat) and looked forward to seeing readers and signing books, while I am still enjoying MWA Grand Master 2017 bragging rights.

But I’ve had a rough month, leading to getting some medications adjusted and tests taken, with a procedure (not an operation) likely. Just part of the ongoing effort to stay on the green side of the grass. Please don’t be unduly alarmed. Don’t even be duly alarmed.

Throughout a month of sickness, I nonetheless wrote Killing Town, chronologically the first Mike Hammer novel, working from a substantial (60 double-spaced pages) Spillane manuscript from around 1945…before I, the Jury!! It has an ending that will either delight, outrage or disgust you…perhaps all at the same time.

Delivered it yesterday. Killing Town will join The Last Stand in the celebration of Mickey’s centenary, the first Mike Hammer novel bookending the final Spillane solo novel.

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Barb and I went to two movies recently, both of which were based on “true” events (as opposed to what, fictional events?), and both were entertaining.

One was Battle of the Sexes with Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in seriocomic look at the much ballyhooed match between a onetime tennis champ (male) and a current tennis champ (female).

The other, also a comedy-drama, was Victoria & Abdul, in which a lowly Muslim clerk is chosen (because he is tall) to go to England to present Queen Victoria with a gift for her Golden Jubilee from her loyal Indian subjects. The elderly queen takes a shine to him and they become friends (not lovers, though there is a friendly flirtation). Judi Dench presents an amusing and touching portrait of the aged queen, and Ali Fazal is almost as good as a man who is somewhat naive and perhaps a little too ambitious but basically decent.

I enjoyed both films, but Victoria much more. The actors in Battle cannot be faulted, and not just the leads – the supporting casts in both these films are first-rate. The films share a similar agenda – each one attempts to make some serious societal points through the story being told while keeping that story itself the primary goal.

On this score Battle fails rather miserably. Rather than focus on the equality of women as the clear central issue, it takes a sustained side trip into gay rights, by way of a romance novel-ish treatment of the married King’s relationship with another woman (who becomes the team’s hairdresser). What could have been an impactful sidebar insists on being much more, ballooning the film to over two hours.

Instead of allowing the social satire to play out – to let a depiction of the events make the points at hand, in particular the neanderthal attitudes toward women that righteously fuel feminism – a heavy-handedness and even at times embarrassing editorializing (“One day people will be allowed to love who they love”) clouds the narrative and does something Billie Jean King would never do: take the eye off the ball.

On the other hand, Victoria charms and delights, allowing the anti-Indian (and specifically anti-Muslim) attitudes of those around the Queen to speak for themselves. Effortlessly, points are made about today in this look at yesterday – exactly what Battle should have been doing.

Victoria’s director, Stephen Frears, has never been a big favorite of mine; but I now think I may have been wrong about him. His direction here is quietly stylish, the performances he gets from wonderful British actors (particularly Eddie Izzard as the king-to-be) faultless.

Meanwhile, the direction of Battle is plagued by handheld cameras and crushingly claustrophobic close-ups, particularly in the syrupy lesbian love sequences. On the other hand, the film’s tennis court action is well-done and compelling. Two directors are credited, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (of Little Miss Sunshine fame).

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Barb and I spend October evenings watching horror movies, in anticipation of Halloween. Last year we watched mostly Hammer horror. The year before we watched the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and the Halloweens.

This year began with a terrific little sleeper called The Final Girls (2015). This one is so original and clever that I don’t want to spoil it for you, but prepare to have the chills work even though laughs are what it’s mostly after. In brief, some kids at a horror film somehow wind up inside that very horror film.

Chucky

We have just completed the seven Child’s Play/Chucky movies. Barb liked all of them except the newest one, but I liked it, too. What makes Chucky perhaps the best of all these series (there are clinkers in all the other modern horror franchises that began with Halloween) is that an effort has been made to make each movie distinct as to setting and style. While all of the films are dark comedies, the first three are rather more traditional slasher pictures, despite the evil doll at their center. But with Bride of Chucky, things got overtly comedic yet ever darker, and the series knowingly jumped the shark in Seed of Chucky, with Curse of Chucky a knowing return to more scary form.

Here’s why Chucky is the best of these franchises: the same person has written all of them. That is something that Hollywood never allows. But Don Mancini has written them all and directed the last three (he’s a damn good director, too). Mancini and his partners create a continuity that, while wacky as hell, carries over from film to film. None of the other franchises even bother trying. In the world of Chucky, actors return. In Curse of Chucky and the current Cult of Chucky, the kid who played Chucky’s “friend forever” returns as an adult – the same actor. Jennifer Tilly, introduced in Bride, has been around ever since, to an admittedly varying degree, and she is a special effect her own self.

And like Robert Englund in the Nightmare films, actor Brad Dourif (whose daughter Fiona is excellent in the most recent two Chuckys) brings a cackling madness to the voice of the killer doll that makes him both amusing and frightening.

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Here’s a nice little Quarry’s Climax write-up from Mystery People.

Finally, here’s another Wild Dog on Arrow TV article. I have the Blu-ray box of the current season, but still haven’t got round to watching it.

M.A.C.

Bye, Hef

October 3rd, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

The recent death of Jerry Lewis is a reminder that for Baby Boomers like me, our own mortality is continually underscored by the passing of the great media figures who shaped us.

Just as Jerry Lewis had a big impact on what I think is funny, Hugh Hefner – who recently passed away at 91 – was hugely important in my life. My uncle Richard had Playboys in his basement proto-man cave that I saw when I was as young as ten or eleven, learning well before puberty that I liked seeing pictures of beautiful naked women. When I was in junior high, my father received a Christmas present of a subscription to Playboy as a gag gift in a bridge club “Secret Santa” exchange. He had no interest in the magazine and soon forgot about the subscription, because I always got to the mailbox first.

I loved the magazine. I loved everything about it, including, yes, the articles. And the fiction, and the book and movie and record reviews. There was a sophistication an Iowa kid could only dream of. As a comics fan, I was bowled over by the incredible cartoons, not just their raciness but their artistry. And the incredibly beautiful photography of the centerfolds (this is circa 1964 – 1966) defined for me what a woman should look like. I should say “could look like,” because even then I knew this was an airbrushed fantasy. Still, I knew the names of every Playmate from the ‘60s through the mid-‘70s – the beautiful woman I married was completely unthreatened by the Playboy fantasy, and the magazines never had to be hidden around our home.

I came of age in the pre-hippie ‘60s. It was a world of the Rat Pack and sick humor and Beatniks and Ian Fleming’s James Bond and the early Beatles. I still prefer the early Beatles – you can have most of the White Album. But then the ‘70s came along, and magazines that were more frank about sex in prose and in photography – Penthouse, Hustler – began to make inroads for Hefner’s fabulous brainchild. (I write about this in the forthcoming Quarry’s Climax.)

Hefner was important in loosening up the sexual mores of this (and other) nations. For good or ill, he fired some of the first real volleys in the Sexual Revolution (the most important after Kinsey). But the later ‘60s and every decade that followed were problematic for him. He struggled with feminism and self-consciously wrote progressive essays that were very smart but pretty boring. He never found a way to square the circle of a woman having sexual freedom and full human rights. The female as sex object had been defined long before he came along, and he obviously made his fortune and fame expanding and redefining that image. But it limited him and made him seen a hypocrite.

I make no apologies for considering Playboy in its prime (and even for many years after) a great publication. Until the recent revamping (since abandoned) with nudity banished, a new issue always gave me a bit of a thrill reminiscent of getting to the mailbox before my parents noticed I had snagged Dad’s copy of Playboy. For many decades I subscribed, and I looked forward to no magazine more.

For the articles. And so much more.

I always felt Hef was a kind of nerd. He was a work-a-holic who loved publishing and awkwardly took on the sophisticated sybarite persona his magazine dictated. Oh, I realize he really did become a sophisticated sybarite, but when he appeared on TV, particularly on Playboy After Dark, he seemed so awkward and ill at ease.

Somehow that was his charm. It conveyed the possibility to nerds in Iowa and elsewhere that an Illinois nerd could be the man who lived in a mansion filled with beautiful models, movie stars, intellectuals, top nightclub talent, world-class chefs and a never-ending party. I much prefer the quiet life I’ve led with one beautiful woman, but fantasy is still fun to think about.

As some of you know, Hefner was Nate Heller’s friend and there are scenes at the Chicago Playboy mansion in the JFK Trilogy (Bye Bye, Baby, Target Lancer and Ask Not). So Nate tips his fedora to his old friend, while I just say, “Goodbye, Hef.”

* * *

Here’s a nice article on the Nolan series, marred a bit by the erroneous inclusion of the first name “Frank.”

Bookgasm has a nice review of the Bibliomysteries collection that includes the Hammer story “It’s in the Book.”

Gravetapping has a fine review of my pal Steve Mertz’s new novel.

Finally, here’s a brief review of Strip for Murder.

M.A.C.

How I Invented Binge Watching

September 26th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

When I landed the Dick Tracy writing gig in 1977, I received a nice advance of $5000. As half of a young married couple, with limited financial means, I somehow convinced my wife Barb that the first thing we should do was buy a home video recorder. I bought a VCR console, which was outlandishly expensive (despite its modest 19-inch screen), an unjustifiable extravagance amplified by my brilliant choice of formats: Betamax.

But I mention this only to let you know that the Collins household (all two of us) were early adapters in the home video revolution. You need to know this to understand that you are indeed in the presence of the person who invented binge watching.

Around 1979, the Australian TV series Prisoner Cell Block H was syndicated nationally. It’s a wonderful women-in-prison series that has recently been updated into the equally wonderful Wentworth. For some reason, the local channel running the syndicated show dropped it after a few weeks – maybe it had something to do with the rampant violence and lesbianism or maybe the Aussie accents.

But I was not to be denied (I rarely am).

I approached a friend of mine in Chicago who ran a comic book shop to work out a trade deal for original comics art for his ongoing efforts to record the five-times-a-week series for me on VHS (I had one of those machines now, too). Every couple of months he would send me a box of tapes, each package containing around 20 hours of Prisoner Cell Block H. Barb and I, and my cartoonist pal and collaborator Terry Beatty, would hunker in to watch the episodes until our eyes burned. This would be on the weekend, consuming two days (allowing time out for meals and calls of nature).

We did not call it binge watching, but clearly that is what it was. The same comic book shop pal did the same for me with the 1960s-70s Dragnet, which had not yet hit Nick at Night because it didn’t exist yet. Again, these were sent to me four or five shows to a tape, as the series was being “stripped” nightly. Barb and Terry did not join me for this, not being insane, and the binging would usually only be one or two VHS tapes a night.

The first binge watching from pre-recorded tapes came with Poldark, both seasons of which Barb and I consumed in a weekend. Over the years this approach to TV watching continued with the pre-recorded Poirot tapes and beyond. During my son Nate’s college years, he would come home for the weekend when informed that a new DVD season of LEXX had arrived (my favorite science-fiction series). These would be watched, binge-style.

To this day, Barb and I binge in this fashion, although sometimes not quite as aggressively. A House of Cards season usually lasts only two days, but with mystery shows like Murdoch or Midsomer Murders, we hold ourselves to two or three a night, because things in that happily homicidal world start to blur otherwise.

One bad side-effect of binge-watching seasons of favorite shows – particularly when you haven’t followed them in their bite-size weekly episodes – is that a new season can at first seem to have nothing to do with anything you’ve ever seen before. We had that experience with two excellent series that we’ve followed from the beginning – Ripper Street and Orphan Black – both of which we chugged in a couple of gulps.

What happens is that the first episode of the season makes you wonder if you skipped a season, but by the second episode, it begins to come back – especially when two of you are watching, as Barb and I will prompt each other as memories come floating or sometimes bursting back.

So I’ll comment briefly on a couple of series we’ve binged of late.

Poldark Season Three. While Barb and I are devoted fans of the original series, this remake is equally faithful to the books and has the production values of a fairly big-budget feature film, with breathtaking Cornwall location work. Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson do very well as Ross and Demelza, and again the original Poldark, Robin Ellis, is back for a nice scene…a fine show of respect for the original classic series.

Murdoch Mysteries Season 10 – For some while now, Murdoch has been running 18 episodes. This charming, often amusing mystery series – which still plays as a turn of the century CSI – likes to bring characters back, and because those characters have appeared in single episodes (not story arcs), it can be tough to recall them. Also, we always have a little trouble getting used to the non-regulars in the casts because the Canadian acting style can have a dinner theater vibe…but you do get used to it. And the regulars are strong and very comfy in their roles – Yannick Bisson as Murdoch, Helene Joy as Dr. Julia Ogden, Jonny Harris as Constable George Crabtree, and in particular Thomas Craig as Inspector Thomas Brackenreid, who recalls Gene Hunt in Life on Mars. The tenth season begins jokey and at first seems weak, but by mid-point it’s playing well, even revealing itself as a particularly strong season, getting more serious and darker as it goes.

Orphan Black Season Five. Orphan Black shares a charming recurring actor – Kristian Brunn – with Murdoch. Otherwise the shows have little in common, and the guest casts never have that dinner theater vibe. Two things are particularly outstanding about this series. First, it’s one of those convoluted, complex science-fiction/fantasy series in the X-Files mode that seems to be getting so ever more complicated, you suspect it doesn’t know where it’s going (Lost, anyone?). Well, Season Five is the final season of Orphan Black and everything from the previous four is paid off with thought and emotion, and no small amount of clever plotting. Virtually everybody of any importance is back from the run of the show and loose ends are not in abundance.

Second, lead Tatiana Maslany may be the best actress of her generation, or maybe several generations, as she portrays the various “clone” sisters who are the orphans of the title, each one distinct in look, mannerism and overall characterization. She is a wonder (and the technical expertise of the “sisters” interacting is mindboggling). Particularly interesting, and rewarding, is the decision of co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson to wrap up the exciting, often frightening storyline midway through the final episode, and follow it with a “three months later” half-an-episode that suggests where the characters are heading and how they are, or are not, dealing with what they’ve been through.

Ripper Street Season Five. Ripper Street, set in Whitechappel just after Jack the Ripper’s reign, is like a much, much darker Murdoch Mysteries. Lead Matthew Macfadyen as Detective Inspector Reid brings modern police methods to London’s most barbaric area with the help of his American forensics expert, Adam Rothenberg as Captain Homer Jackson. Like Murdoch, Ripper Street appears initially to have been born out of the popularity of CSI, but has outlived its inspiration, and surpassed its accomplishments. Creator Richard Warlow wrote around two-thirds of the episodes (early seasons ran 8 episodes, later one 6) and he does not stint on wild plot twists and grittily horrific crimes, but the characters are so real and compelling – and not always admirable – that you will likely stick with them.

Orphan Black runs 50 episodes, and Ripper Street 37, so binging on their complete runs is doable, and will not provide the confusion that those of us doing so a season at time can experience. Murdoch is well over 100 episodes now, so binge-watching can take planning and patience.

So, yes, now that you ask – I did indeed invent binge-watching, with Barb’s help, and Terry’s.

You’re welcome.

* * *

Hey, I bet you didn’t know Road to Perdition came from a comic book. You do? Check this out anyway.

M.A.C.

Shock Value

September 19th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

I recently received in the mail from the UK the Arrow Films blu-ray box set of Shock Treatment, the much unloved sort of sequel to Rocky Horror Picture Show. I will now discuss this a little – not in depth, because for you to have access to this, you’d have to have an all-regions blu-ray player, which still isn’t very common (though they are not expensive).

Shock Treatment is high on my list of things that I love that I’m not supposed to. (Also on this list is another movie sequel – the Chinatown follow-up, The Two Jakes.) I am one of the few people you’re likely to run into who saw Rocky Horror in a movie theater on its first run. I was at the time teaching cops English in the Quad Cities (with my back to the firing range at the Davenport PD) and had a long stretch of time between the morning and late afternoon sessions. This I would fill with a movie. So it was that I found myself the only person in a very big theater watching Rocky Horror.

I liked it, and bought the soundtrack (vinyl days). When it became a cult hit, I disliked the talking-back-to-the-screen and dress-up midnight-show screenings, because I actually wanted to hear, see and enjoy the film. That’s how strange I am.

Anyway, Shock Treatment was, on one level, a misguided attempt to create a cult film; its first run in theaters was as a midnight show, and the movie itself was brimming with colorful characters in colorful costumes for Rocky Horror-ites to dress up as.

But it was also a fairly acid criticism by creator Richard O’Brien of America in general and Rocky Horror fans in particular, although you had to be smart to get the latter. Whereas Rocky Horror was about “don’t dream it, be it,” and letting your freak flag fly, Shock Treatment was a critique of everybody wanting to be a star in the “me” decade, which in 1981 had just begun. One of the big production numbers had much of the cast dancing with wheeled full-length mirrors.

Even detractors of Shock Treatment will occasionally admit that the score is at least as good as Rocky Horror and probably better – the soundtrack is a virtual compendium of “New Wave” at its best. I was sold on Shock Treatment going in, because I knew that Janet (of the Brad and Janet duo) was going to be played this time by Jessica Harper, the mesmerizing Phoenix of Phantom of the Paradise, who brought her Karen Carpenter-like alto to all the great Paul Williams music in a film that is on my shortest short list of favorites. And Shock Treatment seems to have been more heavily influenced by Phantom than by Rocky Horror, oddly enough.

Shock Treatment presents the residents of Denton, USA, as the members of a studio audience, who even sleep in that studio. As they watch monitors and live broadcasts, they are caught up in the lives of the various local people who have become the stars of game shows, religious programming and reality TV.

Now here’s the thing: when Shock Treatment was made in 1981, reality TV didn’t exist. Nor did MTV, though the DTV of Shock Treatment seems to be a parody of it, right down to the logo. I had probably seen Shock Treatment fifteen times, easily, on its initial release and later on a laser disc I got from Japan. But I hadn’t watched it in at least ten years.

I had realized the film was remarkably prescient long ago, but seeing it again I was staggered by how much it seemed to be a satire on Trump’s America. It not only predicts and defines MTV and reality television, Shock Treatment includes “selfies,” anti-Mexican Americanism, anti-gay Americanism, and the fast food culture. Most shocking (so to speak) was seeing the movie’s climax in which the much-manipulated studio audience is handed out matching baseball caps with a dumb slogan to wear for the rally-like appearance of a Trump-ish figure whose slick-haired resemblance to Donald Trump, Jr., is downright creepy.


Cliff De Young as…Don Jr.?

This satire of Trump and his followers would seem too on-the-nose and heavy-handed, if it were done today…and not thirty-six years ago.

I don’t expect anybody reading this to send to the UK for the Arrow box set (and Arrow doesn’t have the rights to release the package in the US). But there’s a DVD available, as well as a double feature DVD with Rocky Horror.

* * *

Another movie walk-out: The Hitman’s Bodyguard. I am partial to Ryan Reynolds as a quipster, but Samuel Jackson must have really good material to be tolerable, and this one doesn’t have that. The tone is an uneasy combo of extreme, nasty violence and supposed dark humor, with tons of lazy f-wording. We bailed when Reynolds and Jackson, hitchhiking, were picked up by a van that turned out to be transporting cute nuns. Jackson says to the girls, “Whose lap am I going to sit on?” The nuns blush and titter, and we are gone.

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Bookgasm has often been very good to me, but this review of Quarry’s Climax rubbed me the wrong way.

Anybody has a right not to like a book, and say so; but this reviewer (who has liked other Quarry novels and has a few nice things to say even here) accuses me of “a disturbing lack of commitment.” That’s a combination of personal insult and mind-reading that goes over the line.

I will counter this review by sharing these Quarry’s Climax reviews with you:

Publisher’s Weekly on Quarry’s Climax:

Set in 1975, MWA Grand Master Collins’s taut 14th Quarry novel (after 2016’s Quarry in the Black) presents a peculiar challenge for the professional hit man. Instead of simply killing his target, Quarry is tasked by his employer, the Broker, with protecting Max Climer, the Memphis-based publisher of a raunchy skin magazine called Climax, from a hit that has been assigned to parties unknown—and then eliminating the rival hit men. Quarry travels from his home in Paradise Lake, Wis., to Memphis, where he joins forces with his longtime partner, Boyd, a proficient assassin, and the two plunge into the city’s underworld in search of those out to get Climer. One of the book’s pleasures is watching the cold-blooded Quarry make tactical decisions with utter logic. Fun, too, is Quarry’s raffish way with the women he meets at every turn, leading to several colorful (and explicit) assignations. Numerous ’70s pop culture references leaven the criminal proceedings in this deft exercise in the business of violence.

Booklist on Quarry’s Climax:

Chronology is always a little tricky in Collins’ Quarry series. Take this one. It’s a new entry, but the story
is set in the 1970s, when the first Quarry thrillers were written. The hit man with a heart of steel (and a skewed sense of, well, just desserts) is working for the Broker, a murder middleman who farms out hired kills to his operatives. This time it’s a little complicated: Quarry and his partner, Boyd, must first dispatch the hitters sent to eliminate the publisher of the Memphis-based porn mag, Climax; then determine who hired the hitters; and, finally, get rid of them, too. All in a few days’ work for the resourceful Quarry, of course, who developed his killing chops as a Vietnam sniper, but along the way Collins treats us to a wonderfully vivid look at the pornography industry in its heyday. From publishers to centerfolds to strippers to feminist protesters, he cuts through the stereotypes with quick bits of subtle characterization (but, please, don’t say you read a book with Climax in the title only for the characters).
* * *

Here’s an interview with the guy who plays Wild Dog on Arrow (still haven’t seen it, but the blu-ray set is on its way).

And finally here’s a Wild Dog podcast.

M.A.C.

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