Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Screaming Dead Balloons

Berkley Medallion Edition, May 1969

The Screaming Dead Balloons by Philip McCutchan features Shaw, Esmonde Shaw that is. Commander Shaw is a spy, very much in the vein of another more well known British spy of the same rank. Commander Shaw works for the secret organization 6D2, an organization backed by various governments, in the business of spying and saving the world from bad guys. The novel begins with Shaw slumming and whoring through London, drinking and screwing his guilt away from a previous mission that resulted in the death of three astronauts. He's lured into 6D2 through the offer of 5000 pounds along with further enticement from mini-skirted female agent/recruiter Anya Kiselyov. In spite of being "a rip with the girls" Shaw calls Anya a bitch a handful of times before accepting her offer to join 6D2. It's clear from their animosity that they'll hook up before the novel, and their assignment, is over.

Shaw's assignment is to check up on a certain Doctor Zan, a sort of brilliant scientist with a criminal slant. Word has it that Doctor Zan is part of the evil organization GRASP. GRASP is described as "pretty tough operators" who "show up where ever there is the smell of trouble." Kind of along the lines of SPECTRE or SMERSH that we've come to love to hate. Doctor Zan's mission in life is to establish the rule of Science over all of the world's political powers, with himself in the captain's chair, of course. Not necessarily a bad idea, except for the megalomania bit.To aide him in this endeavor Zan has at his control a race of indestructible slug-like creatures, described as screaming balloons able to grow to the size of small buildings and devour anything in their path. Shaw and 6D2 have no idea of the force behind these balloon creatures until they're unleashed on a small Amazon village, leaving wads of charred flesh and bone in their wake. Their next stop, as Doctor Zan warns, is London!

It's a ripping adventure, one in which Shaw and Anya are kidnapped in no-time-flat, tortured, and held captive in an underground lair beneath the Amazon jungle. Doctor Zan is also one of those maniacal villains who demands that his captives are fully aware of the true nature of his plans, before he dispatches them. It's all good jolly fun, in the sort of James Bond-meets-The Blob fashion. I do admit I was a bit disappointed that Anya isn't really much of an agent other than bedding Shaw, and getting captured. She also seems to be frightened a lot. It's too bad, as there doesn't seem to be a point to her character otherwise. I guess I should have expected such when Max, Shaw and Anya's chief at 6D2 tells Shaw before the mission, "Take care of her. Try not to sleep with her too casually. She's tough, but she's all woman."

It sounds goofy as hell, but it's a pretty good time if you're looking to spend a rainy afternoon with another one of those swinging spies from the day.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Husker Du - Books About UFOs

I don't know how anyone can not hear this bouncy love song by Husker Du and not smile and relate to it in some fashion. Written by Grant Hart for their album New Day Rising "Books About UFOs" has all the right ingredients for a great song. There is a love-struck nerd, a dreamy girl who reads books about UFOs, faraway planets, and a promise to name one after her. And who wouldn't have a monster crush on a dreamy girl who reads books about UFOs? 

Husker Du had a lot of really cool songs in their career, but this is one of their very best in my humble opinion. I typically prefer Grant Hart's songs to Bob Mould's, who usually went deeper, often more painfully, into his subject matter. This is one band that I'm glad I got to see back in the 80s before their breakup. Along with bassist Greg Norton, Husker Du was easily one of the best bands of that decade, and sadly not played enough, if at all, by crappy radio stations today (nor then) who give lip service to so-called 80s music. Yeah, that's right. Forget about that Phil Collins crap and go out there and find the really good stuff instead. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Martini, Leaded

I was a pretty big fan of the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming when I was a teenager. I'd worked my way through all of them, courtesy of our neighborhood library. I would often look for other spy novels as well, and got into a few by Alistair MacLean which I'll probably revisit for this blog. But in my searches through the paperback racks in our library I would always see these Matt Helm novels by Donald Hamilton.

Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton  - Fawcett Publications 1960
I never gave any of these novels a chance, thanks to those Dean Martin movies. Not that I didn't like the movies, I did (I was a kid, remember). But I couldn't imagine them translating well to a book format. Plus, I wasn't too jazzed about the covers, which were sort of like the Travis McGee covers, showing the star of the series in the upper right hand corner, looking all rugged and bad-ass. Now if I'd found a cover like the one shown here, well then, hell yeah...I would have taken that baby home with me toot-sweet-like. 

It took about ten years for me to get in the game and read a Matt Helm novel. A buddy of mine up in Galena Alaska lent me his book, The Vanishers, and I was hooked. Since then I would grab any Matt Helm novels from the used bookstores as long as they were in decent shape. Most of the time they weren't. And when they were, they would be over-priced. 

Anyway, to get to Death of a Citizen, it was one that for some reason I could never find, until recently. I was looking forward to getting the origin story of Matt Helm, from the source. Turns out I was not disappointed. The novel is as hard-boiled a novel as any of them. Helm is living the suburban life of a writer, his past life in WWII a secret. He's married, with kids, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. One night at a cocktail party, he sees a woman he'd known as Tina from his past. He and Tina survived a particularly brutal mission behind enemy lines in Germany, then later had an affair. Tina is still in the game, and drops a coded hand signal to him, letting him know to not blow her cover. Helm is feels the old muscles twitching. He's gone a bit to seed, a little older and out of shape, but inside he can feel the old instincts and responses awakening. Also at the party is a renowned nuclear physicist. Tina's escort is one of the beefy youngsters full of ego and muscle and not much brains, that Matt detests. Tensions mount. Helm is introduced to a young woman claiming to be interested in his writing and wanting to meet with him in private later. Just another cocktail party among the elites...until the young woman interested in Helm's writing shows up dead in his personal office later that night. Dead, and armed with the familiar spy accessories hidden under her skirt. 

Tina shows up and pulls Helm back into the game, using the dead woman as blackmail. It's all rather nasty, and along the way there is a lot backstory to Helm's time in the war. Helm's old chief, Mac comes back into his life, loaded with the usual head-games and deceit. Helm finds his voice that fans of the series have come to love, jaded, laconic, more than a touch misogynistic and cold blooded as hell.

My understanding is that Hamilton had written Death of a Citizen to be a one-shot, but the emerging popularity of spy novels in the early 60s brought Helm back for many more missions. Cool hero, cool novels. Yes, Matt Helm drinks Martinis, beds women and kills bad guys just like that famous gent from across the pond, but he does it with that good old red-blooded American style. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Hot Spot

One of my favorite movies is the mostly forgotten neo-noir classic (in my own  humble opinion) The Hot Spot, released in 1990 and starring Don Johnson, Jennifer Connelly and Virginia Madsen, and directed by Dennis Hopper.

Hopper created the cinematic equivalent of a classic Gold Medal paperback novel, using Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams as its basis.  The movie barely strays from the book at all and that’s to its credit. It didn’t have to be a loud shoot-out, blood, guts and profanity spattered mess that is so often the case when filmmakers attempt their version of noir. It’s slow, languid, stylish and nearly perfect, remaining true to its source with lots of smoking, lots of laconic gestures and lots and lots o’ seething lust.

Johnson plays Harry Madox, a loner who cruises into a small Texas town in the heat of a summer afternoon. From his classic Studebaker he sees the gorgeous Gloria Harper, played by a Jennifer Connelly, walking to work, and he decides to stay. Madox immediately lands a job at the local used car lot where Gloria does the bookkeeping. It’s only a matter of a day before Madox has come to the attention of the car lots owner’s wife, played by a stunning Virginia Madsen. Dolly stalks Madox like a perennial bitch in heat, dropping lines on our hero like, “There’s only two things to do in this town, and one of them is watching TV. Unfortunately my TV is broke.” Needless to say, in no time flat Dolly has her claws in Madox’s skin. Meanwhile, Madox is developing a slow burn for the virginal Gloria Harper, who keeps throwing that up-from-under look at him from her desk at the car lot. But things about Gloria don’t seem to add up. For one thing, there’s this sleazy creep Frank Sutton (William Saddler) from outside town who seems to have an undue influence over her. The same creep that always seems to show up with camera in hand whenever folks let their guard down and let their animal lusts take over.

What’s a guy to like Harry Madox to do?

Why, rob a bank, that’s what.

And that’s where the trouble really begins.

I've probably seen this movie five or six times since its release. It made no money at the box office, and I’m not surprised. A film like this is only going to appeal to a certain audience. That is, people who appreciate the source material it’s taken from, like those old paperbacks that lined the truck stop and drugstore turnstiles back in the 50s and 60s. Charles Williams was one of the past of the paperback writers of his time, right up there with writers like John D. MacDonald and Jim Thompson. Some of his other novels have made it to the screen, notably Dead Calm back in the late 80s. You can find Hell Hath No Fury fairly easy since it was republished by Black Lizard as The Hot Spot back in the 90s. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Flying Burrito Brothers

Too country for the rock stations and too rock for the country stations, The Flying Burrito Brothers created a slew of classic songs that put a stamp in a lot of the popular music genres that would follow them, notably in songs by The Eagles, Little Feat, and even the Rolling Stones, on to many of today’s “alt-country” singer songwriters and bands like Lucinda Williams and Drive-By Truckers.

The Flying Burrito Brothers were formed by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman along with Chris Ethridge a year after both Parsons and Hillman played together on the Bryds album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Hillman had come from a country background; while Parson’s had an affinity for RnB, Country and Blues stirred into a mélange he dubbed “Cosmic American Music.” Together with “Sneeky” Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar, the Burrito Bros recorded their first album The Gilded Palace of Sin in 1969.

Parsons stuck around just long enough to complete a second album with the Burrito Bros, Burrito Deluxe, but his increasing time away from the band to hang out with his pal Keith Richards and his notorious lack of discipline split the terrific team he’d created with Hillman.

Rick Roberts replaced Gram Parsons and the band took a more “country rock” road with their music and completed a third record in 1971, The Flying Burrito Brothers. By this time, Hillman had his sights set on other projects as did other members of the band, and the lack of any airplay were taking a toll. They completed one last album, Last of the Red Hot Burritos, before parting ways, to reunite only a few times after.

I pulled the track from YouTube here, “Christine’s Tune” (aka Devil in Disguise) by both Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman about a dangerous little chick the band knew from their earliest gigs. I could have selected any of the songs from that first album, they’re all that good.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Messiah of Evil

One of the things every horror movie fan knows is you have to wade through a lot of shit to find gold. Messiah of Evil from 1973 is one such find.

To describe the movie would take the fun out of seeing it for yourself, if you haven’t seen it already. I’ll say that it’s a psychotic, random, dreamlike, psychedelic, cannibal, zombie, vampire, swinger movie and let it go at that. All the right ingredients for a classic, right?

Marianna Hill plays Arletty Long, who comes to Point Dune to visit her father Joseph Long, a reclusive artist. She arrives in the night to a Mobil gas station, where the attendant tells her that no one wants to go to Point Dune. An antique pickup arrives and a gaunt, creepy Albino looking dude who tells the attendant that he wants “Two dollars, no knock!” The attendant then sees in the bed of the truck a couple of corpses, one with its eyes ripped out. Just another night in Point Dune, and just the type of weird scene to kickstart the craziness. But that’s nothing compared to the stuff in store for Arletty.

In town, Arletty looks for her father who is missing from his spooky house on the coast. The only clues he’s left behind are his scattered artwork and a chaotic diary, evidence of a disturbed mind. Arletty is meets the local art dealer who happens to be blind. Maybe that’s a shot at art critics, who knows…anyway, the dealer’s assistant tells Arletty that some others have been asking about her father, and they’re staying at the Seven Seas Motel. Arletty goes to the motel and finds Thom, played by Michael Greer, an aristocratic “collector” and his two travelling companions Laura and Toni, played by Anitra Ford and Joy Bang, respectively. Anitra Ford may look familiar to fans of The Price is Right as she appeared on the game show for several years early on. She’s a beautiful woman and would have been seen often on TV in the 70s in a number of shows. Toni is one of those bored seventies girls that you would have seen by the score in lower rung girlie magazines like Cheri back in the day, if that was your sort of thing. Entertaining Thom and his companions is the local town kook, played by Elisha Cook Jr. He blithers on about a blood moon and the town’s citizens turning into animals, before being sent on his way by the gang.  

Later, Thom and his girls take residence at Joseph Long’s house with Arletty. The opportunity for some groovy sex scenes with Arletty, Thom and the girls is squandered here, in lieu of more creepy randomness. Laura gets bored with the scene and leaves one night for San Francisco. She gets a ride into town by the creepy Albino character in his antique pickup, where he tries to impress her by consuming a live beach rat. Needless to say, Laura would rather bail at the next stop sign than ride any further with him. And this is where the movie turns from cheapy drive-in horror to cool, effective dreamlike horror. Laura wanders through a ghost town of brightly lit storefront windows until following a lone pedestrian into an empty Ralphs Supermarket. What Laura discovers in the supermarket is justifiably a famous horror movie moment and my describing it wouldn’t do it justice.

I believe the film is easily available for viewing, and I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates old horror flicks from the 70s and 80s that don’t follow the paint-by-numbers plot of your standard horror fare. I think you’ll dig it.