Monday 30 January 2017

(More) Matte Paintings

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm a big fan of matte paintings in films and have written about them a few times in the past (you can find the others on this link).  As ever, I've tried to highlight excellent paintings which really show off the craft - apart from a couple (Blade Runner and Batman specifically, which are sci-fi/fantasy anyway), these extend real-life situations and, to me, epitomise the idea that a matte painting at its best is an invisible effect.

Hope you enjoy them.

North By Northwest (1959)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
matte painting by Matthew Yuricich
(I wrote a retrospective about the film here)

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Directed by Guy Hamilton
matte painting by Albert Whitlock

Das Boot (1981)
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
matte painting by Leigh Took
To compound my joy at discovering this one, the sub in the finished shot is the miniature! Mattes AND miniatures in one go!
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
matte painting by Alan Maley
(I wrote a retrospective about the film here)

Blade Runner (1982)
Directed by Ridley Scott
matte painting by Rocco Gioffre

Murder Me, Murder You (1983)
Directed by Gary Nelson
matte painting by Mark Sullivan
(note, this TV movie starred Stacy Keach as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer and was one of two pilots for the 80s TV show)

V (1983)
Directed by Kenneth Johnson
matte painting by Matthew Yuricich

The Twilight Zone movie (1983)
(from segment 3 "It's A Good Life") Directed by Joe Dante
matte painting by Rocco Gioffre

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
matte painting by Frank Ordaz and Caroleen "Jett" Green (in this case)
Ordaz and Green paint a matte extension to a large scale miniature of the cliff face, which then has Harrison Ford (or, more likely, Vic Armstrong) composited in at a later point.
The Terminator (1984)
Directed by James Cameron
matte painting by Ken Marschall

Fright Night (1985)
Directed by Tom Holland
matte painting by Matthew Yuricich
Top image is the original shot, bottom image is still from film - it was decided after filming to show more of the cityscape
Batman (1989)
Directed by Tim Burton
matte painting by Ray Caple

Backdraft (1991)
Directed by Ron Howard
matte painting by Mark Sullivan
matte painting combined with miniature (the rooftop where the explosions are laid) with an actor composited on top
Cliffhanger (1993)
Directed by Renny Harlin
matte painting by Michelle Moen
Since the shot "pulled back" on Stallone (whose image would be posted in the black rectangle), Moen's matte painting was combined with miniature cliffs to provide depth.  In this shot, Moen works on the painting whilst camera operator Alan Harding gets things set up
There will be more matte paintings posts...

thanks again to

Monday 23 January 2017

The Mystery Of The Sinister Scarecrow, by M. V. Carey

2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published and, to celebrate, I re-read and compiled my all-time Top 10 (safe in the knowledge that it would be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I posted my list here, having previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here).

During 2015 and 2016 I decided to re-visit some of the books I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews but, as is often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  I'm happy to say that's continued into 2017 and so here's an additional review...
Armada Format B paperback, first printed in 1982 (my edition), last reprinted 1984, cover art by Peter Archer
cover scan of my copy
Jupiter stopped dead in his tracks.  A living river of giant insects was pouring towards him over the doorstep - thousands and thousands of them, marching in a horrifying column across the floor and furniture.  One chair was already swarming with the creatures, like a waving undulating carpet.  There was no way out - Jupe was trapped!

At a lonely house in the mountains, a crime is committed.  Who is the culprit - the eccentric scientist, the neurotic woman, or the scarecrow that prowls in the night?  For The Three Investigators, the web of terror tightens…

detail of the US cover art by Robert Adranga
On their way to the Santa Monica Mountains, where Jupiter is about to embark on his first solo buying expedition for the Jones Salvage Yard, Hans has a blow-out on Chaparral Canyon Road.  Crossing a cornfield to get to a barn with phone wires, they are seized upon by entomologist Dr Charles Woolley, who seems to think Jupiter is a scarecrow.  It soon turns out that Woolley is being funded by Chester Radford, on whose ground the barn is located, to carry out research into army ants which can “easily eat a human - and have!”  Intrigued, they accompany Dr Woolley to the Radford Estate (having heard more about the scarecrow from a man who talks to them in a café), where they meet Chester’s highly-strung It-Girl sister Laetitia, Mrs Chumley, the disabled lady of the house, the Burroughs who are the live-in help and Gerald Malz, who runs the Mosby Museum across the road.  It appears that Laetitia, scared of spiders, bugs and pretty much everything else, is being targeted by the scarecrow but no-one else believes her.  Later, after Jupe is trapped in Woolley’s cabin by some army ants, the entomologist hires The Three Investigators to get to the bottom of things.

This is the eighth book in the series by M. V. Carey, following the wonderful Mystery Of The Magic Circle and, in general, works well.  Taking place almost exclusively around the Radford Estate - there’s a small piece at Headquarters, Uncle Titus appears briefly but Aunt Mathilda is only mentioned - it makes good use of that location, as well as Woolley’s barn full of experiments and the brutalist stylings of the Mosby Museum, which has no windows.  The characters are vivid and fleshed out well, enough to put them all under believable suspicion (Mrs Burroughs, for example, could easily have become a cartoon house-keeper), with Woolley and Laetitia coming off the best.  There’s also a nice, brief little cameo from Dr Barrister, one of Carey’s recurring characters, who first appeared in The Mystery Of The Singing Serpent.

The book isn’t without its flaws though.  Everyone is quick to accept the normality of a scarecrow wandering about (though it does become obvious why a little later on) whilst Jupiter is uncharacteristically remiss on picking up certain clues (though he comes good in the end) and one rescue has a bit of an unfortunate ‘with one bound he was free’ moment to it.  Having said that, the atmosphere helps tremendously - the book takes place in either bright sunlight or shades of twilight which are superbly described - and the whole piece has a great pace that helps paper over some of the cracks.

Well written - as we’ve come to expect from Ms Carey - with a good tone and some decent set pieces - the rampaging scarecrow bearing down on Pete in particular - this is perhaps slighter than some of her other entries in the series but still great fun.  A decent, entertaining read, I’d recommend this.

There were no internal illustrations for the UK edition (or the US one, for that matter) and this was the first book in the series to not have a hardback edition.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Monday 16 January 2017

Interview with Peter Mark May

I can’t remember now where Peter Mark May and I met - it might have been online, it might have been at FantasyCon - but I do know that I like him a great deal.  He’s always one of the people I look forward to meeting up with, we talk a lot online and often bounce ideas - for stories, books and other nefarious plans - off each other.  We’ve also worked together a lot - I have stories in his anthologies Alt-Dead, Fogbound From Five and Alt-Zombie (I also designed the covers for them) and he published my anthology Anatomy Of Death as well as my 2016 novella The Factory.

In late December 2016, as Alexander Arrowsmith, he published the historical crime novel Pillars Of Blood.  Set in Ancient Greece, it's the first in a proposed series and published by Endeavour Press.

I thought it’d be good fun to sit down with him and catch up.
MW:  Hi Peter, thanks for sitting down with me.  So to start, can you give us a few details about yourself?

PMM:  I’m an old git who writes stuff that he enjoys and hopes other people will like. More?  I write horror, historical crime (now) and have had one fantasy short story published. I am the owner, CEO and one-man-band in charge of Hersham Horror Books. I also help run Karoshi Books.  Something More Than Night is out now if you fancy some cosmic horror.

MW:  What led you into writing and how long have you been doing it?  When and where was your first publication?

PMM:  I’ve been writing since I was 17 and started with a vampire novel set in Surrey. I got a few rejections and then never sent anything again for years. I continued writing and after the death of my eldest brother decided life was too short to be afraid and in 2008 my first novel Demon was published.

MW:  Before Pillars of Blood, which is a crime novel, you worked extensively in the horror genre. What led you to that?

PMM:  I read some fantasy when I was young, but mainly horror - Stephen King, James Herbert, F. Paul Wilson, Brian Lumley, etc. - and it seemed to be the genre for me. They say write what you know: death and loss are old companions and writing horror has helped me face things head on. It’s part of me and always will be.

MW:  So why crime now? And how did Pillars Of Blood come about?

PMM:  Good question. I liked history at school and still do - I love ancient history and reading about people’s lives in different ages. I also love Greece as a rich, cultural place to visit and the many gods and myths it has surrounding its past which, like sci-fi, fantasy and horror, you can lose yourself in for a while.  And it's real!  The ideas for Pillars of Blood and two sequels came to me in a dream, along with the murder mystery plot. I already had some knowledge of that age and love learning more, so I set about challenging myself to see if I could write in a different genre from horror and it took four years in all.  It's the nearest thing to time travel that will happen in my life - I remember going to the Acropolis when I was twenty, thinking about how many famous sandaled feet (from Socrates to Pericles and even Byron) may have stood in the exact same spot as I.  As for crime element, adding a few gruesome deaths worked well for my new hero, as it is the story of his later life and the crimes of Athens are part of his journey. I also had a lot of encouragement from the American writer Tasha Alexander, to give historical crime writing a go and I’m glad I did.

MW:  Do you have a typical process when it comes to creating a story, are you visually orientated with ideas coming to you as images, or do they just appear to you fully formed?

PMM:  I have many methods. As I said, the titles and basic plots for the Ancient Greek novels came to me in a dream, where I woke up with a lot of it laid out before me. Dreams and nightmares (which I love having) bring me lots of story ideas as does watching TV and reading - 'oh they went that way, I would have gone this way', that kind of thing. Then there are what I call 'the long plotters'; ideas I’ve had for twenty years or more, that you suddenly find another piece of plot to dovetail into and you are away. I think my stories are very visual, gawd knows how they flow out of my brain. When writing I use plot-islands, like stepping stones to get from the start point to the ending. Some of the best parts of a story come when your brain takes you off on a detour, and you discover lost islands full of exotic writing promise.

MW:  That sounds brilliant!  So what's a typical work session like for you, are you a ‘write every day’ kind of writer?

PMM:  In a typical week I try to write for four days, sometimes five, depending on if the kids are at school or not. I like to have set minimum daily goals, with 2,000 for horror and 1,500 for historical stuff, as with the latter there can be days where you have to stop and start and research things that come up as you write.

MW:  What is your preferred genre for reading, if you have one?

PMM:  Still horror and always will be, but I’ve always read historical novels too, like Wilbur Smith, Christian Jacq, Tasha Alexander, Paul Doherty and Stephen E. Ambrose.

MW:  Has your style changed much over the years?

PMM:  That’s hard to answer, one hopes to get better with age at least. I know Peter and Alexander have different styles, less swearing in historical crimes is one I can think of off the top of my head.  I seem to be able to swap genre hats without thinking too much about it.

MW:  What more can you tell us about the novel, without giving everything away?

PMM:  Set in ancient Athens, Pillars of Blood is a murder mystery featuring Polydektos, who was once a great general, the pride of the Athenian people. Now, after the death of his son Socos in battle, he has fallen into a life of debauchery. While his wife Kephissa and his daughter Kyra wait at home, he spends his days at the courthouse, passing guilty verdicts on innocent men for no reason other than his own unhappiness and his nights with his two young lovers, the slave girl Gala, and his ward, seventeen year old Talaemenes, a strong and capable lad devoted to Poydektos.  After a night of drinking and debauchery, Talaemenes and Polydektos return to his family villa to find everyone inside has been slaughtered. While the slaves have been gassed, the Metics have had their throats cut, and his beautiful wife and daughter have been dismembered in their beds. Strangely, however, there is no blood at the scene, despite the massacre.  He then begins a search for the killers, a search that will have priestesses whispering in his ear, as his old friend Sokrates joins forces with Polydektos to figure out what happened to his family. But will that answer bring him peace, or open up new wounds?

MW:  Hersham Horror Books is a well regarded publisher with a lot of anthologies in their catalogue.  Do you like to read them?  What do you think is their appeal?

PMM:   I hope HHB are getting towards being well-regarded, we are still here after six years, when others have fallen by the wayside. I do love reading anthologies, to read friends and authors I admire and to find new gems and new talented writers and store them in my head for future publications. They have more of an appeal to me as a reader, I only write about one short story a year now, as I prefer to write novels.
At Sledge-Lit in Derby, November 2015, with our mutual friend, the writer Steve Byrne (who I interviewed here)
MW:  You and I both are moving away from horror in our writing, even though we have a vibrant genre community here, as far as I’m concerned.  Do you like the social side of being a writer, the Cons and gatherings?

PMM:  I never used to, I’m not very good at chit-chat and social gatherings, but I’ve been attending Cons for nine years now, so I know a lot of the people, they know me, and I’ve published half of them too which makes things easier.  Four years ago I did a reading in Edinburgh in a cinema in front of a crowd of one hundred people so if nerves kick in I remind myself of that and draw confidence from it.

MW:  So why a pseudonym?

PMM:  Two reasons. One, there is the more famous Peter May who writes crime novels, and I didn’t want any confusion between the two of us as I moved into that genre.  And two, it makes it easier to mentally swap hats when working.  Plus it's cool pretending to be someone else.

MW:   So what’s next for Peter Mark May and Alexander Arrowsmith?

PMM:  For Peter, the Hersham Horror Books boss man, it’s looking forward to getting three novellas ready for publication in the autumn. For Peter the writer, it's a waiting game sadly, on publishers to come back for subbed novels, short stories and rights reverted works and eventually getting back into a novel I got twenty-thousand-words into writing last year. For Alexander, its writing the follow up to Pillars Of Blood, which I'm fifty-thousand words into.

MW:  Thanks for your time, Pete.

PMM:  Thanks for having me.
Peter and me at Edge-Lit 5 in Derby, July 2016 (read my report here)

Peter can be contacted online at his website here and he's also on Facebook.  Alexander Arrowsmith also has his own Facebook page.

Polydektos, once a great general, has now fallen into debauchery after the death of his warrior son. When he finds the rest of his family and slaves murdered in his home, Polydektos must overcome his grief, and an accusation of guilt, to get the justice he craves.

'a thrilling portrayal of Ancient Greece' - Richard Foreman

Monday 9 January 2017

Hersham Horror Novellas

Last year I was part of the inaugural Hersham Horror Books Primal Novella range, along with my friends Stephen Bacon, James Everington and Phil Sloman.  Peter Mark May did a great job, bringing together four very different but equally good pieces of work and I'm proud to be part of the group.
The four Novella writers (from left) - Phil Sloman, Stephen Bacon, me, James Everington
Here, then, are my reviews of the novellas (not my own, of course, I've included reviews by others for that) and if you click on the title, that will take you to the Amazon page for the Kindle edition.

Four novellas, all well worthy of your time.

Laudanum Nights, by Stephen Bacon
A crime/dark fantasy cross-over, set in a pseudo-Victorian city, this involves kidnapped children, sentient dolls and a mysterious fiend who never ages.  Leonard Miller is a lecturer at St Timothy’s university, who lives on Serpentine Street, part of a squalid area of Blackford known as The Abyss.  When a young child, Martha Glass, goes missing, he is initially questioned since he did private tutoring for the child.  The police then discover that he left his last university under a cloud, something (unrevealed) to do with yet more private tutoring.  Determined to find Martha - not to clear his name, but because he visits her family and sees the devastation her disappearance has caused - he sets out to investigate and quickly makes connections that lead to death in a toyshop, a mad woman in a pub and an old Gothic mansion in the marshes.  I thoroughly enjoyed this, it had great pace and a strong sense of location and atmosphere - you could almost smell the gas lamps and taste the fog.  Leonard is a sympathetic character - though we’re not entirely sure of his backstory or his relationship with the mysterious Raul who sets his investigaton on the right path - and well portrayed, brave, resourceful and, above all, determined.  The other characters are vividly sketched and there’s a nice twist about who the key villain is.  Assured, technically smart and deftly written, this is an excellent novella that I would highly recommend.

Paupers' Graves, by James Everington
In a Nottingham cemetery, hidden from the grandiose tombs of the city’s rich in a depression known as Saint Ann’s Vallley, are the old pauper’s graves.  Katherine and her team, interns Alex and Katya (who are secretly lovers), have been ordered to create an exhibit based on the lives of those unfortunates buried beneath.  But the paupers represent part of the city’s history Katherine tries to avoid, as well as part of her own and when she alters some of the histories, the dead become enraged.  Solidly told and multi-layered, this weaves between the present - the highly-strung Katherine, rich-boy Alex and poor immigrant Katya - and the past - the long-dead citizens of the city they are researching, Joseph Hewitt, Patricia Congden and Stanley Burton - effortlessly, painting the time period with rich detail that brings it to life vividly.  Equally at home in the Victorian slums as he is in the dingier areas of modern-day Nottingham, Everington builds the story patiently, comparing the cheapness of life back then with some of the extremes that austerity is creating today.  As the story rushes towards its downbeat climax, it’s as disorientating as a nightmare, a tone and atmosphere the writer sustains well.  Gripping, intelligent and bleak, this is well worth a read and I’d highly recommend it.

Becoming David, by Phil Sloman
Richard Lodge lives a very ordered life, in the house that had been his mothers.  He has a cleaner come in twice a week, prides himself on his minimalist existence and enjoys a good career as a freelance accountant.  He also kills people.  The story opens with a wonderfully shocking chapter, where Richard kills the latest man he’s lured back to the house, listening to the life ebb away with a detached air.  As normality returns, the details of his life - working for clients, complaining that his cleaner is singing too loudly, working in the wet room in the cellar where he butchers his victims - begin to come through.  Sloman has a good grasp on Richard’s character, where nothing phases him until one of his victims, the David of the title, proves just that little bit harder to get rid of.  The book has a claustrophobic feel - most of the early scenes take place in either London pubs crammed with eligible gay men or the cellar gym/disposals area of 17 Beechwood Avenue - that combines with the oppressive nature of Richard to give the narrative a tense, skewed sense of place.  When it does open up, with more characters and locations, it actually becomes more oppressive as things go from bad to worse.  The book doesn’t shy away from violence though most of it is tinged with a nice sense of black comedy - arterial blood hits a dinner place “decorating the remains of their evening meal with a human jus” and it’s easier to hide a body once you’ve broken its shins with a tyre jack - and I liked that.  Well written, with a good pace, this is a horror novella I would very much recommend.

The Factory, by Mark West
Twenty years ago at college, Martin, Paul, Jane, and Gwen were members of the GLUE Club - the Gaffney Legendary Urban Explorers - run by the charismatic Tom. Now, following his mysterious death, they agree to meet up again and undertake one final exploration to honour his name.

Aside from Paul who never left, none of them have been back to Gaffney since and the reunion is awkward, re-opening old wounds. As they begin to explore the long-abandoned Pocock Factory, it seems they might be intruding on something better left alone. As they succumb to the spirits in the darkness, it quickly becomes a battle to see who will survive the night...

"[A] skilful, gradual escalation of detail, a suggestiveness reminiscent of Ramsey Campbell."
- Gary Fry, at his website (the full review can be read here)

"There are so many elements of suspense, of dread, of sensory overload - you begin to feel the characters’ unease which soon becomes terror as you read on."
- Paula Limbaugh, Horror Novel Reviews (the full review can be read here)

"Beautifully, darkly written."
- Charlotte Bond, Gingers Nuts Of Horror (the full review can be read here)

The novellas were launched at FantasyCon-by-the-sea in Scarborough on Saturday 24th September, along with Marie O'Regan's collection.  It was a great launch (I wrote about it here), including a packed room, lots of sales and plenty of friendly faces and smiles - if only every launch could be as much fun!
Busy signing - Marie, me, James, Phil, Steve - picture by Wayne Parkin
If you decide to take a chance on any of the books, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Tuesday 3 January 2017

Star Wars At 40

It is a foggy Saturday afternoon in late February 1978 (I've just turned 9) and I'm playing down the Rec with my friend Claire.  We'd been due to go and see a new film I've been raving about but the showing was sold out, so we'd come home despondant.  After a while, we hear our names being called and head out of the fog to find my Dad looking for us.  He's come to get us so we can go back into Kettering and catch the next showing of Star Wars.

We got in on that second occasion and my memories of the showing are a little hazy now but I do remember watching the Star Destroyer come over us in the opening minutes and thinking "Wow!".  I fell in love with Star Wars and cinema that day, a love I'm pleased to say is still going strong.
A poster from Look-In magazine, from issue 11, w/e 11th March 1978
On 25th May 1977, Star Wars opened on 32 screens in the USA and the response was incredible.  Within the next two days, 11 screens were added as the film broke box-office and attendance records left, right and centre.  The film was a huge success and cinema owners couldn't wait to get their hands on prints, so much so that 20th Century Fox, the distributor, was cranking out extra prints evens as they sped up plans for a broader, nationwide release of the film.  It had made $3m by the end of its first week and over $100m by the end of summer.
card 11, Topps series 1 - What were Jawas and what had they done with R2-D2?
Back then, it wasn't unusual for a film to open in the US and then have several months elapse until it reached us and such was the case with Star Wars.  It opened in London (at two cinemas, the Odeon on Leicester Square and the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road) on 27th December 1977, with the nationwide release starting on 29th January 1978.  In London, it made £117.7k in its first week, comfortably beating the previous record, held by Jaws, of £90.6k.  I already knew a lot about the film because the TV news and entertainment shows had been covering it for months and kids like me (and plenty of adults too, I'd imagine) were chomping at the bit to see it.

I began collecting the Topps trading cards during the summer (each wax packet contained seven cards - and a sticker, apparently, though I don't remember those - along with the strip of bubble-gum that quickly lost its taste), amazed and excited by images that I sometimes couldn't even properly work out.  What the hell was a Wookiee?  What were droids and how did they communicate?  What was Darth Vader, what did he sound like, why did he have the Stormtroopers with him?
I convinced my Dad that even though I was eight I was more than up to the challenge of reading the novelisation 'by George Lucas' (actually, Alan Dean Foster wrote it).  Dad believed me, bought the book and I did read it, my imagination running wild - I doubt I understood a lot of it and I certainly didn't envisage it in my head as it played out for me much later on the cinema screen, but I do remember enjoying it.
I was an avid reader of Look-In magazine and they put Star Wars on the cover for their last issue of 1977, having mentioned it several times beforehand.  In the issue published w/e 11th March 1978, Star Wars had the cover again (with a free gift of 2 Letraset transfer sets) and Harrison Ford was interviewed.  In February 1978, Marvel Comics launched Star Wars weekly (the US had seen it in 1977), with C-3PO appearing in TV ads to promote it (priced 10p and including a free cardboard X-Wing fighter!).  Marvel also published the Official Collectors Edition (apparently only in the UK) which tied Star Wars in with Hollywood's past, had some decent behind-the-scenes material and also recapped the story.  Lavishly illustrated, I thought it was a great publication (and still have my copy in my collection).
I think it's impossible, in this age of social media and on-line spoilers, to over-state just how big a deal Star Wars was back then - because it really was.  Unlike today, nothing was available (apart from the novelisation) before it opened - even the toys, which everyone remembers, weren't released until a year later - and I spent 1978 enjoying those spoils.
The original 12 figures in the Palitoy/Kenner series
To help Star Wars celebrate its 40th anniversary, the blog will run a year-long thread "Star Wars At 40", with each post appearing on the first Monday of the month.  There will be articles/essays on the Marvel comics, Stormtroopers (of course), the production design, ILM, the toys and much more, along with other pop-up posts.  I'm looking forward to it and I hope you'll enjoy it too.

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!