Two Dracula Flicks and a Great Rip-Off

October 31st, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

Barb and I continued our Halloween season nightly horror film fest with a pair of Dracula movies, both of which I’d seen on their initial release and neither of which had made much of an impression on me. What a difference a few years makes.

First up was Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Stylish to a fault, flirting with incoherence, this Dracula shows what happens when a director goes with the hot talent of the moment. Gary Oldman – who was his era’s Johnny Depp for maybe fifteen minutes – is a singularly unappealing Dracula whose sexual appeal for his female victims is a bigger mystery than the thinking behind Anthony Hopkins’ ridiculously over-the-top Van Helsing. Other momentary stars help bring the lavish production down to dull earth – Winona Ryder, a very lost Keanu Reeves – despite some fun touches, in particular shadows that have a life of their own. With different casting, and a sharper script (this one is by James V. Hart, whose others “credits” include Hook and Sahara), this might have, well, flown.

When Barb complained that Dracula should be a handsome leading man type – not a quirky self-indulgent nebbish – I dug out Dracula starring Frank Langella. John Badham is hardly my favorite director – he was responsible for Saturday Night Fever, after all – but he does a very respectable job that, all these years later, comes across as the Masterpiece Theater version of Dracula.

Langella’s surprise Broadway triumph as the count, in Edward Gorey-designed play, ran for 900-some performances between October 1977 and January 1980. The actor fought to keep Dracula a romantic anti-hero in the film version, eschewing blood-shot eyes and fangs, and his lady love/slash victim, portrayed by Kate Nelligan, similarly sold the gothic romance at this version’s (stake-through-the) heart.

The film apparently suffered due to the recent release and success of the spoof Love at First Bite with George Hamilton, but it plays very well now. Coppola’s casting of the moment is defeated by Badham’s transfer of the Langella Broadway performance, Nelligan’s full-blooded heroine, and a supporting cast showcasing those crazy kids, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Donald Pleasance. A wonderful John Williams score is another big plus, and the script is in part by W.D. Richter, whose cultish credits include the likes of Buckaroo Banzai and Late for Dinner (which he directed but did not write).

The Blu-ray (and the previously released laser disc) are a revision of the theatrical version, with Badham desaturating the color to near black-and-white, to recall both the Gorey stage version and the original 1931 film, while the theatrical release had a kind of golden glow forced upon the director.

Anyway, decades later my opinion of the Coppola film worsened and that of the Badham film got elevated.

Happy Death Day

As Barb and I near the end of our horror festival, we took in the current theatrical release Happy Death Day, which is a slasher film/mystery variation of Groundhog Day. This is an example of why paying some attention to Rotten Tomatoes can pay off. I had seen the preview of Happy Death Day and contemptuously dismissed it as a rip-off. I was looking forward to both Suburbicon (directed by George Clooney from an early Cohen Brothers script with a top cast) and the nordic noir, The Snowman. The critical response to both was dismissal – Suburbicon rates 26% fresh and Snowman a staggering 8% fresh. Meanwhile, Happy Death Day rates 69% fresh with a lot of positive reviews.

Our only other possibilities were the well-reviewed downers Thank You for Your Service and Only the Brave. We were in the mood for neither, plus there was something Trump era-ish about both, and anyway Happy Death Day worked as part of our Halloween-month film festival.

And Happy Death Day is terrific. It is indeed a rip-off of Groundhog Day (which it cheekily admits right on screen in its second-to-last sequence) but it’s clever, witty and brings in some nice new twists to the stuck-day concept. Further, lead Jessica Rothe is appealing even when she’s playing the early, somewhat unpleasant version of her character (like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Rothe must learn to be a better person as the day repeats – but she must also solve her own murder).

* * *

I am deep in the research for the upcoming Heller, which is about the Sam Sheppard murder case. I find the material disturbing in the same tough-to-get-to-sleep fashion of the research for Butcher’s Dozen and certain of the CSI and Criminal Minds novels.

I am also wrestling with the nature of the case, which does not lend itself to certain elements that Nathan Heller books always contain – specifically, sex and action. This feels much more Perry Mason, and I haven’t decided whether to just go with it or to find ways to make the book more typically Heller.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out what happened in this controversial case. Hint: it wasn’t the One-armed Man.

* * *

I may have provided this link before, but check out this nice “mini-interview” at Rumpus.

The actor who plays Wild Dog weighs in on the new costume controversy, which Terry Beatty sparked without wanting to. For the record, I think the costume sucks.

Finally, here’s a lovely review of the Mike Hammer short story collection, A Long Time Dead, from that great writer, Bill Crider.


October Country

October 24th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

Barb and I often watch a movie on Blu-ray or DVD in the evenings, and when October rolls around, we make a steady diet of horror films.

For many years, Barb avoided most modern horror films (she’s always liked “monster movies”), but after she worked on Mommy and Mommy’s Day, and had a behind-the-scenes glimpse at making movie mayhem, she has been much more open to such fare. In particular she is a fan of the Alien movies, in part because of the strong female central characters in those films (Aliens by far her favorite).

In the past we’ve gone through the Universal horror films, many Hammer UK films, as well as the Scream, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. This year we tackled Friday the 13th, although we stalled out after number five (a good entry), having begun to tire with number four (a bad entry). We decided to pick up next October with the rest of the series.

The only real misfire was the Phantasm series, which I like but Barb couldn’t abide. I understand that – the Phantasm movies are a very quirky affair and you either get into their sloppy but earnest amateur style or you don’t.

We took comedic side trips into Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Chopping Mall, the latter a film I’d watched earlier this year and put on the “Barb should see this” pile. I have several more of those I want to show her, mostly low-budget ‘80s fare that had limited releases theatrically but success on home video (not unlike Mommy); these include Warlock and Wishmaster, both spawning series that quickly got terrible. Vamp and the two Waxworks film are pending.

The top of the pile (and I spoke of this one before, briefly) is the South Korean film, Train to Busan. If you haven’t seen this, you need to. I avoided it for a while because it is a zombie film, and I’m fairly sick of those. But Busan is a remarkable piece of filmmaking that works on many levels, not the least of which is the scarcy-as-frigging-hell one. Most of it takes place on a train where a handful of survivors are wading through and battling off the many passengers who have gotten infected, died and quickly returned as ravenous zombies. In that regard, Busan is like Dawn of the Dead and other good zombie movies that have a strong adventure aspect – a resilient group of humans flees and outwits a zombie horde.

Train to Busan

But Busan has many serious socially charged themes, including greed, sacrifice, family, and bio-tech hazard. It’s also well-acted and brilliantly shot and staged; the director is Yeon Sang-ho. I think of the Hollywood fare that I’ve either suffered through or walked out on, in recent years, and see in BUSAN a level of filmmaking I’ve rarely encountered of late. I believe you can find this streaming on various services, and the Blu-ray is inexpensive.

We did take a break from horror to watch the fifth season of Wentworth, the reboot/re-imagining of the great Aussie soap opera, Prisoner Cell Block H (actually, just “Prisoner” in its native land, Patrick McGoohan nowhere in sight). We’re about two-thirds through and remain riveted to this deftly plotted and well-acted series, which strikes me as better than any TV series currently generated in America in the crime genre.

A sixth season is in the works. This one is on Netflix, I believe. We’re watching it on a Blu-ray from the UK.

* * *

On the health front, I am doing quite well. I have a procedure scheduled this week that I may be able to skip, as medication seems to have gotten rid of my a-fib and put my heartbeat back where it’s supposed to be. A cough that has nagged me for many weeks seems beaten back, too, and my energy level is close to normal. I am taking a shitload of pills, but gradually am getting off some of them.

I do regret missing Bouchercon. Looks like everybody had a great time.

On the work front, editing on Scarface and the Untouchable by A. Brad Schwartz and myself continues apace. Killing Town has been delivered, and I am researching the next Heller and hope to be writing in early November.

* * *

Here’s a review column by the great Maxim Jakubowski (no one knows his stuff better) that includes a nifty Quarry’s Climax review.

Check out this terrific Bookreporter review of Quarry’s Climax.

And here’s an interview with me on the Quarry novels from Adam Hill.


Hey Kids! Free Books (Again!)

October 17th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

E-Book: Amazon Nook Kobo iTunes

E-Book: Google Play Kobo

[Nate@3:21 PM: All giveaway copies are claimed. Thank you for your support!]

I have six advance copies of the just-published Quarry’s Climax for the first six readers who request one and promise an Amazon review (Barnes & Noble also encouraged, and blog posts, too). Reviews need not be lengthy. And I have six advance copies of The Bloody Spur, the new Caleb York western, which will be published in January.

Rules: only the USA, foreign shipping a little too pricey. And you must include your snail-mail address in the e-mail you send requesting the book.

* * *

I know many of you were disappointed to learn that Stacy Keach had stepped down from reading the Mike Hammer audios. But I was able to enlist the man who has brought Nate Heller to life many times – Dan John Miller.

The Will to Kill is available now from Audible on Journalstone (the CD version isn’t available yet). Barb and I are listening to it in the car as we gallivant about the Midwest, and Dan has done a terrific job.

* * *

More Mike Hammer news, which I should soon be confirming. But reliable sources tell me a Blu-Ray of I, the Jury in 3-D is at long last in the works!

I love the movie and getting it on Blu-ray in 3-D is probably my remaining Holy Grail of movie collecting.

I have seen it theatrically in 3-D, which improves the movie immeasurably. The cinematography is by the great noir master, John Alton, and it’s written and directed by Harry Essex of Creature from the Black Lagoon fame. The cast includes the much underrated Biff Elliott as a very Mickey-like Hammer, the lovely Peggie Castle, Preston Foster, Elisha Cook Jr., and John Qualen.

* * *

I am sorry to report that we walked out of Blade Runner 2049. I have friends (including Terry Beatty) who loved it. I found it infuriatingly poor in pacing and coherence, despite the plot being simple. We gave it an hour, and when we left, Harrison Ford hadn’t been in it yet.

When I got home, I did some checking and discovered the director, Denis Villeneuve, had been responsible for two films I despised, Sicario and Arrival. I should have done my homework.

* * *

It has been, as people of my generation are wont to say, a bummer, having to bail out of the Toronto Bouchercon at the last minute. Matt Clemens is having such a good time there that I have determined to throttle him when he returns (in his sleep – he’s bigger than I am).

But it was necessary (staying home, not throttling Matt). I had another rough week, and am goofed up on meds as the docs work on getting me regulated to where I can have the jump-start procedure that will, I hope, take me out of a-fib and back into a regular heartbeat.

Good thoughts and prayers are appreciated, but what I really want you to do is buy Quarry’s Choice.

* * *

Well, the TV geniuses have screwed up Wild Dog already. Read it and weep.

Barb is speaking at a brunch in Muscatine on Thursday. A rare public appearance by my beautiful, somewhat publicity-averse wife.

Here is a lovely article about Quarry, with a gallery of the Hard Case Crime covers.

Check out this lovely Quarry’s Climax review.

And here, I am pleased to say, is another.


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.

* * *

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).

* * *

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.


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.

* * *

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.


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