Pulp Consumption: SOLO: A Star Wars Story

Pulp Consumption: Solo: A Star Wars Story.

No, I’m not trying to claim that STAR WARS is pulp with this article, as its general themes of a grand evil to be overcome, a plucky band of adventures, and a complete heroic arc puts it firmly in the realm of a fantasy epic. SOLO, however, is a great case for a pulp style adventure.

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The film opens with Han being a thief on the planet Corellia, working for a Fagin type figure of Lady Proxima who controls the underground. In an attempt to get out from under her thumb, he ends up fleeing Corellia, but ends up leaving his girlfriend, Qi’ra behind. Originally enlisting with the Imperial Navy, at some point he ends up being busted down to regular Imperial Army and finds himself in the mud in the middle of a battle. It’s there that he meets Tobias Beckett and his gang, and he quickly figures out that they are up to something seeing as how there are blaster marks on their uniforms but Tobias isn’t wounded. He tries to turn the tables on Tobias… but Tobias is able to pull his non-existent rank and claim that Han s a deserter… which gets him thrown into a pit with “The Beast.” That turns out to be a half-starved Chewbacca, but Han, thanks to knowing a bit of Shyriiwook is able to turn a death sentence into an opportunity to escape. He does end up part of Tobias’ team in an elaborate heist scheme working for the Crimson Dawn.

What follows is a series of heists, crosses, and double crosses. The action is more light-hearted than what’s been seen recently from STAR WAR films, especially compared to the other stand-alone Star Wars film, ROGUE ONE. It ends up being a fairly slick film of compromised loyalties where each of the characters is ultimately looking out for themselves first and foremost. There is also enough in the movie to appeal to fans of the original trilogy, from Lando’s mispronunciation of Han’s name to Han decidedly shooting first to explaining the reference to Kessel Run in twelve parsecs.

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What really is the best part is the first ten minutes, which quickly establishes Han’s character as someone playing fast and loose with the law, someone who is devoted to the people he cares about, but is also willing to take risks because he can. Everything else flows from those opening moments.

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This won’t end well.

If there is any complaint I might have about the film is that it often feels frenetic, lacking the deliberate pacing that marks the best of STAR WARS. Some purists might also be saddened at the lack of lightsabers and the Force, but I didn’t really feel its lack. The biggest complaint I probably have is that with the lackluster box office and lukewarm reception, we probably will never see what happens next.

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Pulp Appeal: Worms of the Earth (Guest Post by Matt Spencer)

Editors’ Note: Matt Spencer is the author of numerous novellas and short-stories, as well as the novels The Night and the Land, The Trail of the Beast, and Summer Reaping on the Fields of Nowhere. His latest book is the short-fiction collection Story Time With Crazy Uncle Matt. He’s been a journalist, New Orleans restaurant cook, factory worker, radio DJ, and a no-good ramblin’ bum. He’s also a song lyricist, playwright, actor, and martial artist. As of this writing, he lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.

If you know me and/or the kind of stuff I write, you’re probably at least passingly familiar with the works of Robert E. Howard, even if only by reputation, as to the man’s profound influence on the evolution of heroic adventure lit, and fantasy/speculative-fiction in general. On those merits, whether you’ve read him or not, you probably already have an idea whether or not his stuff’s for you…and yet perhaps not. If you’ve dismissed Conan the Barbarian as simplistic, macho male wish-fulfillment fantasy…honestly, hey, fair enough, whatever. I make no apologies for art that resonates with me personally, for whatever reason, high and low and everything in between, though I’d also guess that you haven’t read the longer Conan tales such as Red Nails and Beyond the Black River. It’s when we get into Howard’s far larger, non-Conan body of work that things get a lot weirder, darker, stickier, and more complex.

Which brings me to Howard’s oft-collected/anthologized novella Worms of the Earth, one of his most famous and influential non-Conan tales. It’s a fan-favorite for good reason, though also a fascinating anomaly, specifically for how it subverts the very tropes of hard-edged sword-and-sorcery (more popularly called “Grimdark” these days[1]) Howard himself unwittingly codified.

The premise will sound familiar enough: sometime in the third century, a corrupt Roman General unjustly executes one of the people of Pictish leader Bran Mak Morn, who vows revenge. To modern audiences accustomed to scrappy, rustic freedom-fighter hero-types in movies like BRAVEHEART, ROB ROY and GLADIATOR, Bran comes across as comfortably familiar enough, at a glance. He’s more complicated than that, though, and Howard’s not interested in anything so simplistically sentimental so far as bloody ancient history as seen through a fictional lens. Bran is caught up in a double uphill fight, struggling both against Roman occupation in ancient Britain and to raise his own people out of primitivism, with his own distant, hazy dreams of Empire-building. Howard wrote several lengthy stories featuring Bran as a prominent ensemble character, but WOTE is the only completed work with the character as the central point-of-view protagonist. The tale seamlessly weaves a blend of real history[2] and ancient British/Celtic mythology/folklore, with a few not-so-subtle winking nods to the mythos of his pen-pal and literary contemporary H.P. Lovecraft.

Bran witnesses the execution while spying on the Romans disguised as an emissary. While he’s clearly a badass, he’s also smart enough to realize that trying to get to the General directly would be both personal and political suicide, and he has to think of his own people’s interests before his own. So he does what, y’know, any sensible person would do under such circumstances: vow in a fit of rage to enlist supernatural assistance, from some fabled subterranean abominations of the lore of his homeland. He does this against the advice of his own tribal elder who visits him in a dream to say basically, “Dude, I know what you’re thinking, and…No, trust me on this, man, don’t go there, just…NO!” Undeterred, Bran sets out on his quest to strike a Faustian bargain with the Worms of the Earth. His journey takes him to the gloomy, lonely moorlands, where he meets and enlists the aid of a reclusive witch Atla, who may well be herself something other than human[3]. From there, without giving away the outcome, the tale becomes a surprisingly nuanced tragedy of how revenge, even when successful, can turn out to be a “Be careful what you wish for” affair.

The tale showcases Howard’s vivid, poetic prose at its best; while his dialogue is often embarrassingly melodramatic, the descriptions of both open natural landscape and shadowy, spooky locations are timeless, the very definition of “Puts you right there.” To a 21st century reader, the imagery feels uncannily like epic, fantastical cinematography worthy of Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS films captured in concise prose.

It’s in the details, however, that things get more subversive. Atla the wolf-witch of the moors is one of Howard’s more enigmatically intriguing female characters. She essentially acts here as a femme fatale, tauntingly warning Bran to be careful what he wishes for, while guiding him towards it anyway. Yet instead of being treated as the sultry sex-object one might expect, she’s described through Bran’s eyes as unsettlingly alien, to where he responds to her sexual advances with squirmy discomfort rather than titillation[4]. Even her attraction to Bran has less to do with his mighty, kingly, heroic studliness, more to do with her natural sexual frustration as a social outcast. Re-reading the story recently, whatever Howard’s authorial intent, I found myself sympathizing more with Atla than with Bran on some levels. Also, while Howard’s knack for vivid, visceral violence is on full display in this yarn, it never takes the form of heroic swashbuckling combat one might expect, from Howard or in this kind of story in general. Rather, acts of violence are presented as stark, abrupt, ugly and cruel, when committed by sympathetic and unsympathetic characters alike. Such instances are few and far between, yet they serve to ratchet up the tension of the larger narrative, lending a pervasive sense that such volatile danger is the norm, ready to break through at any moment…and that no matter what creepy-crawly supernatural menace our hero encounters, at the end of the day, it’s us humans who are the real monsters.



So if you’re a fan of dark fantasy, historical fiction, or sword-and-sorcery, and you haven’t read this powerful little masterpiece…what are you waiting for?

Worms of the Earth can currently be found in print and e-book, in the collections BRAN MAK MORN: THE LAST KING, CRIMSON SHADOWS: THE BEST OF ROBERT E. HOWARD vol. 1, and THE HORROR STORIES OF ROBERT E. HOWARD.


[1] – The term honestly makes me cringe, but hey, it’s stuck as a marketing label within the industry, so whattayagonnado, right?

[2] – Howard’s depiction of the Picts, while largely debunked now, was meticulously accurate to historical scholarship available to an amateur history enthusiast in the 1920s.

[3] – Fans of the 1982 CONAN THE BARBARIAN movie will instantly recognize this lady as the source of an homage.

[4] – I don’t know what Bran’s problem is; Atla sure sounds hot to me. Hey, don’t kink-shame me, folks!

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Pulp Appeal: Die Hard

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Okay, let’s get the big piece out of the way. DIE HARD is a Christmas movie. Beyond the obvious (the action takes place during a holiday party), there is a sense of reconnecting with family, of finding happiness in little things, and of course Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
DIE HARD came out in 1988, based on a novel by Roderick Thorp, NOTHING LASTS FOREVER . There are significant changes between the novel and the book, enough that DIE HARD can legitimately seen as its own product.
For the five or so people who haven’t seen it, the basic plot is that John McClane is flying from New York to Los Angeles in an attempt to reconnect with his estranged wife, Holly. McClane is a beat cop, eleven years on the force. His wife is a high powered executive married to her job. He’s supposed to go to her holiday party, which is being held at the unfinished Nakatomi Plaza skyscraper. Unfortunately for John and Holly, their reunion is interrupted by Hans Gruber and his merry band of thieves masquerading as terrorists who are after the $640 million in bearer bonds being held in the on-site safe.
Only, John isn’t in the main area where the party is being held when the terrorists arrive, and is able to elude their initial sweep of the offices because the thieves end up distracted by a woman who was mostly naked at the time. McClane initially tries, and fails, to contact the police for help, but ends up being unsuccessful until he drops the body of one of Hans’ group onto the police cruiser of Al Powell. McClane doesn’t want to try and take on the bad guys by himself. His initial instinct is to get away and get reinforcements (though the LAPD and later the FBI are not only incompetent but actually end up playing into Gruber’s plans). He doesn’t step up until it becomes obvious that the outside world won’t be able to help after all.
DIE HARD is also noteworthy in that the villains’ plan and execution is very, very smart. They have a well detailed plan and stick to it. Gruber has taken into account most variables, even baking the FBI and police response into his overall scheme. They have a clear exit strategy and concise goals and are prepared for contingencies (why else bring rocket launchers unless they were planning on using them?).

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Rocket Launchers. Just in case the police have a RV.

The biggest stumbling block of course is McClane, which is especially notable in that he rarely has a concise plan. As a great example, see where he is tying himself to the fire

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Even John thought this was a bad idea.

hose before jumping off the roof and asking himself “John, what the fuck are you doing?” Or before that sticking a bunch of detonators into a brick of plastic explosive because he doesn’t actually know what he is doing. McClane’s biggest advantage is his ability to think on his feet and react quickly… well, that and his ability to never quit .
DIE HARD also doesn’t need to fill every moment with action. There are several quiet scenes where John and Al talk, where John and Hans meet near the roof (and which makes John realize there is something going on with the roof), and where John and Holly’s children are interviewed that act as brief breathers to the rest of the action.
Finally, DIE HARD is one of those movies that rewards the viewer for paying attention. From Holly’s gold watch to Argyle being trapped in the garage in the limo to the nationality of the kids’ babysitter, it all comes into play and finds use in the film. So yes, I’ll be watching DIE HARD again this Christmas, and so should you.

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Pulp Appeal: Highlander (the tv series)

Last week Matt tackled the 1986 movie, Highlander, a film we share a mutual love for. I first came across the film when I was about 11 or 12 on a free HBO weekend, or something like that. While I enjoyed it for what it was, even then I recognized there were elements of greatness (the soundtrack, Clancy Brown’s Kurgan) amidst elements I felt were less than satisfactory. We had a French actor playing a Scotsman, a Scot playing a Spaniard by way of ancient Egypt, sword-fighting which was merely okay despite having immortals who’ve had eons to perfect their skills, and some cringingly terrible dialog. Of course at 11 or 12 I didn’t have my vocabulary established enough to employ it in this sort of article, but I knew something was off. It was in my teens when I started watching the tv series that I really understood why I balked at aspects of the movie.

Yeah, let’s pretend this didn’t happen. For all the revulsion Highlander 2 got, this movie was even worse. Yeesh.

Now, I’m not going to tell you the tv series is in any way high art, but it did fix several of the flaws I saw. First and foremost, the casting was fixed, and I mean in every way. Look, Christopher Lambert isn’t awful. He was okay as Tarzan and as Connor MacLeod. But if you compare him to Adrian Paul, Connor’s younger cousin Duncan, it’s not really a contest. Perhaps it’s rose-tinted nostalgia here, but having a trained martial artist who could actually pull off a Scottish accent portray an immortal Scot swordsman (really, more like samurai here with his sword and how he uses it) sets a whole different vibe than whatever Lambert was trying for. That said, the series is of, by, and for the 1990s, so maybe keep that in mind if you choose to go back and watch it.

There are too many seasons of Highlander to do them all justice, and the show isn’t completely perfect. There’s some hand-waving of the movie’s plot. Connor exists alongside Duncan and no one has yet won The Prize. There are an awful lot of immortals still left walking the Earth, whereas in the movie they’re far fewer in number. And there’s the introduction of the obnoxious sidekick, Richie. And while I love the show, don’t get it twisted – I hate the Richie character and all of his subplot storylines. He’s supposed to be Robin to Duncan’s Batman, but he’s a Robin who maybe should have been killed during a circus accident. Maybe that’s too harsh, but…yeah, I don’t like Richie.

Roger Daltrey at Hugh Fitzcairn

For those minor flaws, the rest of the show stands up and is not only a worthy successor to, but perhaps better (and pulpier!) version of the film. There are clear good guys and bad guys. There’s detective work, including mortal friends of Duncan who are aware of the Immortals and track their movement. This group, The Watchers, have a code to watch but never interfere, but there are secret factions machinating in the background, hoping to sway the outcome of The Game so that the winner of The Prize isn’t a total jerk.

Richie isn’t the only recurring character. There’s Joe Dawson, one of the aforementioned Watchers; Methos, purported to be the oldest living Immortal having lived since around the time of the Sumerians; Tessa, Duncan’s girlfriend at the start of the series; Amanda, Duncan’s on-again, off-again Immortal lover. The latter is played by former Miss America Elizabeth Gracen. And she’s not the only famous person to have played a role on the show. The Who’s frontman, Roger Daltrey, played Hugh Fitzcairn in seven episodes. Other shorter cameos included singers and actors like Ron Perlman (a Broadswords and Blasters personal favorite), Graham McTavish (now more famous for Starz’s Outlander), Roddy Piper, Sheena Easton, and Joan Jett. 

Something the show does better than the film is show the everyday life of an Immortal, and their various incarnations over decades as they must move and reinvent themselves every generation or so to prevent regular humans from seeing their longevity. Some Immortals, like Duncan, reveal portions of their long histories to companions, but others use and abuse humans like cattle, seeing them as pawns in The Game.

Can we just talk about how awesome these swords look? But they’d be impractical as all hell in a real fight. That ivory would be slippery and there’s nothing to use to maintain a grip. So, cool to look at or hang on a wall, but totally useless in a real fight.

Additionally, since each episode is a self-contained story-of-the-week, it reads a lot more like a Conan or Solomon Kane. But since it is story of the week, there do have to be concessions to the story, as in the previously mentioned hand-waving over The Game and The Prize. The most obvious one, and what makes this show fun but also perhaps slightly less believable than the movie, is the number of Immortals running around. Each episode Duncan is faced with an Immortal he must deal with. Some are friends, such as one could have in a Game that rests on only one winner at the end, but most are enemies. Many of them are people who have long histories with each other, having variously been friends, enemies, or even lovers in past locations.

This duster is directly responsible for some of my fashion choices in high school.

If I’m honest, I’d say the show loses almost all appeal around the middle of the fourth season. Then it went on for two more seasons. Without a doubt, the series simply went on too long. Although many other series hit the point of having long outlived their best stories, I was perhaps more annoyed by this one simply because I liked it better. The high point for me, and many others apparently, exists in between the middle of seasons 2 and 3. That’s when the mythology is at its best, works within the confines of its own canon, and tells the most engaging stories. Den of Geek! has a suggested viewing order, which sounds like a good idea, too. Start with the pilot, skip ahead to episode 13, and then hop around a bit in the rest of the first season since most of the episodes are relatively self-contained. After that, you can go back through the series in order.

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Pulp Appeal: Highlander

There can be only one!

Well, that might have been true back in 1986, but Highlander, the movie featuring Christopher Lambert as the immortal Scotsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) spawned two other feature films, two separate live action television shows, an anime series, and one television movie.

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So what about this movie made it so popular? Was it the idea of immortals existing throughout time, experiencing different cultures and periods? Was it the implied backstory with the arcane rules (there can be only one, no fighting on holy ground)? Or was it the simple fact that watching a swordfight in the modern day turned out to be strangely compelling?

In case you weren’t aware, HIGHLANDER traces Connor MacLeod’s humble beginning as a clan warrior in the highlands of Scotland through the centuries to modern (okay, 1980s) New York. It is in that time and place where there will be The Gathering, where the immortals who exist at that time will gather together until there is only one remaining. The one, of course, will gain The Prize. Yes, the Prize is poorly defined (there is some sense that winning the prize will make the winner mortal and able to have children… but then why the concern over an evil immortal winning it?). Perhaps the nature of the Prize is governed by what the immortal who wins it wants.

All of that is well and good, but what drives the conflict is the personal animosity between Conor MacLeod and the Kurgan, played to the hilt by the inestimable Clancy Brown. The Kurgan has been tracking Connor down through the centuries, and is in fact responsible for the death of Connor’s immortal mentor, Ramirez (Sean Connery), an ancient Egyptian by way of Spain… who just so happened to spend some time in Japan.

What the film does well, despite being an action-film, is addressing some of the deeper concerns over immortality. Connor, despite finding another love interest (or two, or three) throughout the centuries, still remembers and cares about his first wife, and the fact that he was forced to watch her grow old while he retained the same appearance obviously weighed heavily on him. The film also addresses the ways that immortals attempt to blend into society but the movie also makes clear that modern forensics is catching up and is able to expose them… if not explain them. Finally, despite the Gathering and that immortals are destined to fight until only one is left, the idea is explored that some of them at least get along quite well with one another… because they are the only ones that understand the experiences and trials they face.

HIGHLANDER is also noteworthy for having one of the more memorable villains in the Kurgan. Unapologetic, crass, and more than a little mean, he acts as a perfect foil to the more urbane, modern Connor. Connor is a character that has adapted, at least partially, to modern life, while the Kurgan remains a barbarian, caring only for his own needs and seeing the teeming throngs of mortals as beneath him. The movie also does an excellent job of showcasing what kind of threat he is more than once… when he fights and kills Ramirez in Scotland in the first case, and then again when he kills Connor’s friend Kastagir. And who can forget his immortal line: “I have something to say! It’s better to burn out than to fade away!”

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You know he’s evil because he’s wearing a bear skull as a hat.

With a killer soundtrack by Queen as well, this is a movie you should check out again if it’s been a while… and well, if you’ve never watched it: what are you waiting for?

 

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Pulp Appeal: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is the latest release by the Coen Brothers and just so happens to be part of Netflix’s original catalog. The amount of talent represented is noteworthy. The writing is excellent. But, at the end of the day, the whole piece falls weirdly flat. Fair warning: some spoilers ahead.

The structure is non-traditional as well. Instead of a flowing narrative, the film is divided into six unrelated vignettes and uses the concept of a short stories in an anthology as a framing device. Each story is preceded with an illustration, as well as a small bit of text preceding and ending as if one was reading a story.

The vignettes start with story of a singing cowboy (the eponymous Buster Scruggs) as he makes his way through the Old West. The story is a weird juxtaposition of songs with brutal violence, including one part where Scruggs kills a menacing Curly Joe (a gravely under-utilized Clancy Brown) with Curly Joe’s own gun. At the end, however, Scruggs is undone when a different, younger singing cowboy entered the picture. As an added bonus, the cowboy who ends up out drawing Buster enters playing a harmonica, bringing to mind Harmonica from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. The entire piece is meant as a shout-out to the singing cowboy, with Roy Rogers probably being the most famous example.

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Buster Scruggs himself.

“Near Algonodes” follows, where James Franco is an unnamed cowboy looking to score big with a bank heist. He’s no match for the teller, however, and finds himself strung up to be hanged. His hanging is interrupted by a Comanche war party, and he finds himself in the company of a drover who informs hm that he’s now the drover’s sidekick. Only problem is, the cattle have been rustled, and the cowboy finds himself with a noose around his neck again. Again, there are elements that call back to other Western movies that highlight outlaws such as BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and the shooting down a hanging man puts one in mind of the ending of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the literal gallows humor when the cowboy turns to the weeping man next, also to be hanged, and asks if it’s his first time.

“Meal Ticket” could very well be the most problematic section of the film. An older man (Liam Neeson) runs a mobile theatre, with its soul attraction being an armless and legless young man with a voice turned to oratory (played by Harry Meeling- better known in the role of Dudley Dursley from the HARRY POTTER films). The overall piece plays it sympathetically for the most part, with the old man taking care of his star, making sure he is fed and clothed and otherwise cared for. However, when the crowds start coming and another opportunity presents itself, the old man shows just how callous man can be in the worst sort of way. At least one person I know of gave up on the film at this point, feeling that the general theme running through it is “ALL about how much life sucks.”[1]

“All Gold Canyon” was easily my favorite segment, starring as it does the incomparable Tom Waits. Interestingly, Waits inhabits the segment almost entirely alone, except for the introduction of another man halfway through… who has no speaking roles. Easily the strongest segment of the six, it is also the one that is the most uplifting, showing that perseverance (and, well, maybe being a bit touched in the head) go a long way to getting ahead. The fact that Waits fills up the space with his presence and voice also certainly helps.[2]

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It doesn’t get much better than Tom Waits, which is good, because he is the best part.

“The Girl Who Got Rattled” finally puts the spotlight on someone other than a white male. Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is on her way to Oregon with her brother where he hopes to see her married to an associate of his. Of course, they have to get there, and that means a wagon train journey. Alice suffers one setback after another, including her brother dying unexpectedly, the loss of any money she might have had, and her brother’s dog running off. She does, however, catch the eye of one of the guides travelling with the wagon train. He proposes to her, as he is tired of a life in the saddle and would like to settle down instead of turning into his partner, a taciturn man who seems to have lost all care and compassion. Sadly, she comes to a tragic turn by the end. What didn’t sit right by me with this piece was that there were six vignettes and all of them focused more on men than women. With this piece, which was a better chance to focus on a woman, by the end of it the question was how the older partner was going to break the news of Alice’s death to his partner and with that being the pressing concern. Yes, the terrible thing happens to a woman, but the question is how are the men going to deal with this problem as opposed to keeping the focus on the woman for a change.

“The Mortal Remains” ties up the film, with four men and one woman sharing a coach ride in the dark. What follows are a series of discourses on the danger of isolation, the nature of love, whether humanity can be divided into different groups, and what it is like to watch a person die. Given that it was an extended piece of dialogue with little actually happening, it was the one I was the least impressed with (though Brendan Gleeson singing was a rare treat). There’s some allusion that there might be some supernatural element at play (the Irishman and the Englishman describe themselves as Reapers), the whole tone was more philosophical discourse as opposed to anything as vulgar as a Weird Western.

Overall, I was disappointed with THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS. Disappointed in the focus of the stories (come on, the Old West wasn’t quite that white, folks). Disappointed that the only Native Americans seen were either plot devices or perpetrators of unexplained and unexamined violence. Disappointed that given the wealth of stories out there to tell, these are the stories that the Coen brothers decided to put their energy behind. In many ways THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS feels like a love letter to Westerns as a genre, and more divorced from the reality of what the West was like than anything post-DEADWOOD has a right to be.

[1] Hat tip to Cynthia Ward who also noted “the weirdness of the whiteness” of BALLAD.

[2] Matt Spencer noted the theme of the entirety could be “Don’t fuck with the crazy old man” and I have to say there’s more than a bit of truth to that.

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Pulp Appeal: Castlevania (Part 2)

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Has it been a week already? Okay then, it’s time to continue Castlevania franchise nerd-out. As I said last week, this article ballooned on me. While you could conceivably read this Pulp Appeal cold, it might be best if you went back and read last week’s, either for the first time or as a refresher for today’s article. As with last week, I’m linking you to a soundtrack to listen to while you read, but it will only work if you have Amazon Prime, as the music is proprietary and not under weird video game music laws. Honestly, Trevor Morris has made some great music for filmed properties, and the soundtrack is worth purchasing.

Last week I spent time talking about the inspiration behind Castlevania, the history of the first three games in the series, and a bit about their impact on video games that came after. This week I’m going to tackle the most recent iteration of the franchise, the Netflix animated series. But first, more history!

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Illustration from original serialized publication of Carmilla

Castlevania as an intellectual property is a mish-mash of vampire lore, and includes all the horror-adjacent properties from myth and legend. It even ropes in an original contemporary for Dracula, Carmilla. Actually the novella Carmilla predates Stoker’s novel, which makes her legend as a lesbian seductress and master vampire even stranger when reflecting back on historical standards of sexuality, publication, and censorship, except that if you read it, you’ll see the author, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (another Irish novelist!) does not empathize with Carmilla and sees her sexuality as a deviant threat. In any case, Carmilla shows up as an enemy in Simon’s Quest and some of the later games, as Castlevania has no qualms about sucking in any public domain vampire lore and bleeding it dry.

Since Dracula and its contemporaries are clearly in the public domain, their use in video games is clearly fine from a legal standpoint, but making Castlevania itself into a tv series is another beast altogether. Video games make poor movies for the most part, although much of that could be the fault of the one director who ruined it for many other people, Uwe Boll. There are some exceptions, but even listing them might be contentious. Suffice to say, I liked Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft, but that’s neither here nor there. Castlevania, as I was saying, is a complex property to do justice to all its aspects, and choosing which of the games to use as a tentpole for a film interpretation was bound to cause consternation.

What’s surprising is when it came down to the actual interpretation, Netflix seems to have chosen the most solid, strongest part of the franchise to rest its initial run, Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse. I’m not sure why I find that so surprising given the general high level of quality for many Netflix produced shows, but it is for some reason. Anyway, Dracula’s Curse is not only the game series’ prequel, thus setting the stage for any later stories, but also one of the more complex storylines to follow, if you can consider 2D 8-bit platformers as having stories. But before we dissect the plot, let’s talk about the writer, Warren Ellis.

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Spider Jerusalem, main character of Transmetropolitan

I am a comic book nerd, too. Right, like that wasn’t obvious. And as a good comic book nerd, I’ve read Warren Ellis comic books for about two decades. Ellis is the writer behind the superhero deconstruction The Authority (not my favorite, if I’m honest), and also Transmetropolitan, the cyberpunk-dystopian homage to Hunter S. Thompson, perhaps one of the most important literary comic books series this side of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I read both of those books after I’d discovered Ellis in the pages of Hellblazer, the comic book exploration of John Constantine, a noir-esque wizard first created by Alan Moore during his run on Swamp Thing. Ellis’ portrayal of Constantine was captivating, so I followed his trail through the industry whenever I had disposable income to throw at him, including his successful visionary web-comic FreakAngels.

When I first heard Ellis was attached to a Castlevania film property, I was all ears. But those inklings started in the mid-2000s and nothing came of it for a long time. Then last year all of a sudden Netflix dropped four episodes, and those episodes simply blew my mind. I admit that I was a bit taken aback by the first time the word “fuck” was uttered in the show, and felt like it was unnecessary. Then I saw Warren Ellis’ name in the credits and it made a lot more sense. I still think it may be a bit of overkill for the property of Castlevania, but I’ll allow it.[1] Then the series went dark for over a year. When the “second season” dropped just a few weeks ago at the end of October, I was pleasantly surprised, but didn’t have the time immediately to tackle it, so I watched it all through two weeks later.

Beware: spoilers may abound from here going forward, so if you care about that sort of thing, or would rather watch the show without such foreknowledge, you might want to just go watch the show and then come back. We’ll still be here. I’m not going to do a complete episode by episode breakdown, but the first four episodes set the stage for the rest of the series.

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Alucard, dhampir son of Dracula

In the first episode, a woman seeks out Dracula in order to learn from him. There’s an indication that because of Dracula’s very long life he is in possession of advanced science, including medical advances that seem to parallel modern medicine, but the setting is medieval Europe, so there’s a disconnect here that I don’t quite understand. The woman, Lisa, and Dracula form a relationship, the result of which is Alucard, but we don’t see this until later in the series. What we do see is Lisa being arrested by the Catholic church, accused of witchcraft for her medical knowledge, and then burned at the stake by the archbishop. Dracula vows vengeance, which he enacts a year later, launching a full-scale assault on humanity, feeling as though all of humanity must pay for the church’s actions.

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Trevor Belmont, whip-wielding hero

The second episode introduces Trevor Belmont, the last survivor of an ancient vampire hunting clan, who is wasting away in a bar, drinking through his troubles. He fights off a wave of the undead, corrupted humans, and demonic entities who make up a portion of Dracula’s army. Along the way he meets up with a sect of wizards and agrees to help them find one of their number who was lost on a mission to awaken a legendary sleeping soldier who could help them fight Dracula. This transitions into the third episode, where Trevor comes across the lost wizard, who was frozen by a cyclops. Trevor kills the cyclops and in doing so awakens the wizard who turns out to be a beautiful young woman named Sypha. After confronting the archbishop, who thinks Sypha and the rest of her wizard enclave are to blame for Dracula’s attacks, Trevor and Sypha fight off another night-time assault by the undead minions. They fall into the catacombs beneath the city and accidentally awaken the legendary sleeping soldier. This turns out to be Alucard, and after a brief fight between Trevor and Alucard, the two fight to a standstill and begrudgingly accept each other’s company on the quest to fight Dracula.

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Sypha Belnades, a wizard

If any of that sounds familiar, it should, because it’s effectively the first five stages of Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse, and so the show introduces three of the four playable characters from the game.

The second season breaks from established game canon, which is both welcome and necessary, and introduces Dracula’s vampire generals, who include the Viking Godbrand and Carmilla, who I talked about above. While I have no problems spoiling the first season of the series, here’s where I’ll exercise my judgment and tell you just to watch it yourself.

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Dracula

The action sequences are animated with surprising precision, considering how complex the movements of the characters and their weapons are. The subplots and individual machinations of characters as they seek to work together, undermine each other, or carry out their own plans are more complex than even the fight scenes, and make the series fun to watch closely. Dracula’s generals and vampire allies are given depth, and Dracula himself is shown in a sympathetic enough light that viewers may end up feeling sorry for him, even while rooting for Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard.

The big fight scene is one I won’t describe other than to tell you it is amazing, and if you are a fan of the video game series you’ll get an even bigger thrill when a certain iconic song finally plays as background music. The direct connection is nice to hear, especially since it was the one missing piece for me. I’m hopeful there will be more inclusion of video game music going forward, especially if it’s done as well as it is here.


[1] As if Netflix needs my approval.

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