Monday 21 December 2020

The Twelfth Annual Westies - review of the year 2020

Well it's been an odd year but here we are again, gearing up for Christmas and so it's time to indulge in the annual blog custom and remember the good books of 2020.

Once again, it's been a great reading year for me with a nice mixture of brand new novels, a few books that have languished on my TBR pile for too long, some good second-hand finds (which jumped straight to the top of the pile) along with some welcome re-reads.

As always, the top 20 places were hard fought and, I think, show a nice variety in genre and tone - if I've blogged about a book before, I've linked to it on the list.

Without further ado, I present the Twelth Annual Westies Award - “My Best Fiction Reads Of The Year” - and the top 20 looks like this:

1:   Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma
2:   Into The River, by Mark Brandi
3:   At Home In The Shadows, by Gary McMahon
4:   Under The Italian Sun, by Sue Moorcroft *
5:   Christmas Wishes, by Sue Moorcroft
6:   13 Minutes, by Sarah Pinborough
7:   The Possession, by Michael Rutger
8:   Here We Are, by Graham Swift
9:   Memory Leak, by Richard Farren Barber **
10: Ascent To Godhood, by Jy Yang
11: The Shadow Friend, by Alex North
12: Strangers, by C. L. Taylor
13: The July Girls, by Phoebe Locke
16: The Survival Of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson
17: Tomorrow Never Dies, by Raymond Benson
18: Dead To Her, by Sarah Pinborough
19: Someone We Know, by Shari Lapena
20: Trust Me, I'm Dead, by Sherryl Clark

* This is Sue's Avon book for next summer, which I read to critique and will be published in May 2021.
** I read this to critique

The Top 10 in non-fiction are:

1:   Halfway To Hollywood: 1980-1988, by Michael Palin
2:   Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin
3:   Face It, by Debbie Harry
4:   Wild And Crazy Guys, by Nick de Semlyen
5:   I Am C-3PO, by Anthony Daniels
6:   Captain's Log: William Shatner's Personal Account of the Making of Star Trek V, by Lisabeth Shatner
7:   The Making Of Taxi Driver, by Geoffrey Macnab
8:   My Squirrel Days, by Ellie Kemper
9:   Cinefex 49, by Mark Cotta Vaz
10: The Art Of The Rise Of Skywalker, by Phil Szostak 

Stats wise, I’ve read 74 books - 41 fiction, 15 non-fiction, 12 comics/nostalgia/kids and 6 Three Investigator mysteries.

Of the 68 books, the breakdown is thus:

6 biography
15 horror
9 film-related
6 drama (includes romance)
16 crime/mystery
7 sci-fi
3 nostalgia
6 humour

All of my reviews are posted up at Goodreads here

In case you’re interested, the previous awards are linked to from here:

Monday 14 December 2020

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Christmas Annuals (part 4)

"Christmas is coming!"
me, Christmas 1982, posing with my haul (and clearly very chuffed with the Blondie calendar).  That sign I'm holding would stay on my bedroom door well into my mid-teens... (also - The Fall Guy!)
Welcome to the fourth post (the others are here - 2017, 2018 and 2019) showcasing one of the Christmas highlights from when I was a kid (beyond the catalogues I wrote about in 2016), seeing which annual I got that particular year.  For those who don't remember them, annuals were (and still are) large size hardback books, designed for children and based on existing properties, generally comics and popular TV shows, as well as the occasional film and sport and pop round-ups.

The ones based on comics featured the same cast as the weekly editions, while the TV and film ones had comic strips, the occasional short story, fact files and interviews and - brilliantly - in the case of The Fall Guy, behind the scenes information on stunts and how they were filmed.

Published towards the end of the year, annuals are cover-dated as the following year to ensure shops don't take them off the shelves immediately after the new year (though, by then, unsold copies are often heavily reduced).  Still as popular now, though kids today don't have the choice of comics we did, the only real difference seems to be that they're skinnier (and that's not me being all nostalgically misty - my ones from the late 70s and early 80s are substantially chunkier than the ones I’ve bought for Dude over the past few years).

Here, then, is another selection of old favourites, ones I received and ones I remember my sister Tracy having.  I hope some of them inspire a warm, nostalgic trip down memory lane for you...
Mum & Dad must have got this second-hand for me - I was a big fan of the 60's Batman show with Adam West (who, for a long time, I was convinced must be related to us) but I had this much later.
One of Tracy's favourite TV shows (she would go on to work with - and compete on - horses) and just hearing the theme tune now makes me feel a slightly melancholic sense of nostalgia.
Everybody... "Underground, overground, Wombling free, the Wombles of Wimbledon, Common are we..."
The annuals post wouldn't be complete without an appearance by Rupert The Bear!
 My Dr Who...
I know this probably doesn't stand up to the modern Marvel version and yes, it's probably very silly (it's been a long time since I last saw it) but this is my Hulk.  And I still think the theme tune is hauntingly beautiful...
I remember this (or, more precisely, I remember Dan Tanna parking his terrific car in his house!) but for me, Robert Urich will always be Spenser.  I wrote about the Vega$ novelisation, by Max Franklin, which you can read here.
The first Judge Dredd standalone annual - and it's still a cracking read.
An odd - and often spooky - TV show I have fond memories of

Happy Christmas!

scans from my collection, aside from the girls titles (thanks to the Internet for those)

You can read more of my nostalgia posts here

Monday 7 December 2020

Creature From The Black Lagoon

Creature From The Black Lagoon opened in the UK on 9th December 1954, having premiered in the USA on 12th February that year.  It was directed by Jack Arnold, produced by William Alland and written by Harry Essex & Arthur Ross (story by Maurice Zimm).  William E. Snyder was director of photography, Ted Kent was editor, Milicent Patrick created the suit and the team of Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter and Herman Stein wrote the score.
As a child of the 70s and 80s, I grew up without ready access to the films I often read about in magazines or books and so a lot of my exposure to early horror came if I was allowed to stay up late on a Saturday night to watch one. Then, during one summer – I think it would be been 1980 or 1981 – a lot of classic B&W chillers were shown on BBC2, after tea. Finally, I got to see Lon Chaney as The Phantom, rather than just reading about him and scaring myself silly over the pictures; finally I got to witness Boris Karloff’s superb performance as Frankenstein’s monster and finally, I got to see the creature that, for me, is the highpoint of Universal horror icons.
 Assuming it was 1981, I was twelve when I first saw “Creature From The Black Lagoon” and I’ve loved it ever since.  Re-visiting it recently, on DVD this time, was a wonderful opportunity to revisit an old friend.

Opening with a prologue that details the formation of earth (but, really, is just an excuse to have loads of things hurtling at the camera to fully utilise the 3D experience), this moves to the present day where a geology expedition in the Amazon uncovers a fossilised hand from the Devonian (I don’t know either) period. The expedition leader, Dr Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) takes it to his friend, Dr David Reed (Richard Carlson), an ichthyologist and the formers girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams). Their financial backer, Dr Mark Williams (Richard Denning), decides to fund an expedition so they sail up the Amazon in an old steamer called Rita, captained by Lucas (Nestor Paiva).
Arriving at Maia’s camp, they discover his workers dead (we, the viewer, get to see the attack, where the Gill-Man is threatened and so fights back) and decide to stay on to look for more fossils. Reed suggests that some rock formations could have been washed downriver and Lucas tells them of the “Black Lagoon”, a paradise from which no-one has returned, at the end of the tributary they are on.  They set off, unaware the Gill-Man is watching them, as it’s spotted Kay and likes what he’s seen.

Once at the Lagoon, Reed and Williams go scuba-diving and pick up some samples and then, whilst they’re examining them, Kay goes for a swim and the Gill-Man stalks her, touching her feet with an almost gentle reverence. It then gets caught in the ships net but escapes, accidentally leaving behind a claw to reveal its existence.
After killing two of Lucas’ crew members, the Gill-Man is captured and locked in a cage on the Rita. It escapes and Reed decides that they should return to civilisation but the Gill-Man has other ideas and blocks the lagoon entrance with logs. As the crew attempt to move them, Williams is killed by the creature, who then abducts Kay to take back to his cave. Reed, Lucas and Maia follow, rescuing her and shooting the creature. He is last seen sinking slowly into the depths, presumed dead.

This is a terrifically entertaining film and I really enjoyed it. Ably directed by Jack Arnold (who made, amongst many others, It Came From Outer Space, Revenge Of The Creature, Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Monster On The Campus, before moving into TV directing), this keeps up a good pace from the off, with only a couple of slower moments which mainly seem to do with the 3D experience.

The idea originated with William Alland, a close friend of Orson Welles and a member of his Mercury Theatre troupe.  While at a party at Welles’ in 1941, the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told him about a race of mythical half-fish, half-human creatures in the Amazon River.  Alland wrote up notes for “The Sea Monster”, also inspired by Beauty And The Beast and Maurice Zimm expanded these into a treatment in 1952. The script, by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross, keeps the scientific mumbo-jumbo to a minimum, though I could have done without the “Devonian period” and whilst it’s a fairly standard plot, the character interplay is sharp and bouncy.

The production design is terrific, with the main set being Rita in the lagoon and while we never see the whole area, you get the sense of the claustrophobia, which ramps up the suspense when the Gill-Man is on the prowl.  The above water scenes were shot at Universal City and various locations across California as well as Florida while the second unit worked underwater at Wakulla Springs in Florida.
The acting is, on the whole, pretty good with Nestor Paiva making the most of his character’s cheerful brashness to hold the screen whenever he’s on, whilst Richard Denning seems to relish his characters nastiness. Julie Adams, the beauty to the Gill-Man’s beast, is more than just decoration, holding her own even when - at times - she’s reduced to simply being the person who screams to alert the others. As for the Gill-Man himself, the two stuntmen who played him - Ben Chapman on land, in a darker suit and Ricou Browning underwater, in a lighter suit - aren’t credited in the film, which is a shame.  Chapman couldn’t sit down in the costume (and was on set for 14 hours a day) and overheated in it easily, so he often kept to the back lot lake between takes.
Mind your toes!
The underwater sequences, directed by James C Haven, are beautifully photographed, with the murky depths illuminated by shafts of sunlight that look spectacular. The film spends a good chunk of itsrunning time underwater, highlighting the differences in the worlds though some of the swim-pasts, though they probably looked great, feel like padding in 2D.

Of course, a monster movie lives or dies by the quality of its “star” and this doesn’t disappoint, introducing the Gill-Man early (well, he's plastered all over the advertising!).  He even gets his own theme - some jangling horns - and the first ‘shock’ reveal of him, underwater, is still quite unnerving today.
A big element of that is the fantastic suit, though it wasn’t without its disadvantages.  The visibilty in the headpiece was poor and, at one point, Chapman bashed Julie Adams’ head as he carried her into the cave.  For his part, Browning had to hold his breath for long periods of time so all the air had left the suit before he could move. Designed by Milicent Patrick, though Bud Westmore took the credit, the creature’s facial features were based on a frog, hence the bulging jowls as it breathes. With scales and fins and hands like a wicket keepers gloves, the suit looks superb - on land or in water - and still holds up well when viewed now (as it should, costing $12,000 back then).

This was originally shown in 3D (the director's House Of Wax, made the previous year, was also in 3D), as was the craze at the time but I’ve never seen it in that format and some of the ‘special dimensional effects’ get a bit wearing when watched in 2D. But as a quibble, it’s very minor.

The film was successful enough that two sequels followed - Revenge Of The Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).
Creature From The Black Lagoon is a classic, giving the genre at least two highly iconographic images -the Gill-Man himself and the wonderful underwater swimming session with the lovely Julie Adams, sparkling in her white one-piece. What makes the character stronger is that, in the end, he’s a sympathetic creature -he’s only trying to protect himself and his environment from the deadly encroachment of men.

This is a cracking film and very highly recommended.