Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Horrors of Hammer (Reviews)

To those of you who are devoted to this blog and love to read my writing (do such people exist?), today might be a good day as I am presenting you with two reviews for the price of one! As you know, I'm partial to Hammer Horror films and I have reviewed a number of them on this blog, most recently in my celebration of Peter Cushing's 101st birthday. I also compiled a list of what I believe to be the Top 10 Best Hammer horrors, a list which I should revisit seeing how I've dipped back into the studio's films recently.

All-the-same, I have been doing some reading lately, much of my reading material concerning Hammer's movie output. Today, I present two mini-reviews on these books. So, sit back, relax and let your spines tingle...

The Hammer Story by Marcus Hearn & Alan Barnes - Boasting its status as the only authorised history of Hammer films, The Hammer Story is a coffee-table book of the highest order. Both of the book's authors are more than qualified in writing this piece (Hearn is a Hammer scholar while Barnes has also penned the quintessential volume Sherlock Holmes on Screen). With two such powerhouse writers collaborating, it's no surprise that the result is magnificent.

The Hammer Story features a detailed, behind-the-scene look at the studio's horror films beginning with 1955's The Quartermass Xperiment and ending with 1975's To the Devil a Daughter. The information is insightful, giving the reader an in-depth look at the history of the studio. Despite the fact that the book covers the Gothic horror output, sections are devoted to Hammer's forays into science fiction, comedy and drama (which awards the reader with a nice write-up concerning one of my favourite Hammer efforts, Cash on Demand [1961]). Each page of the book is excellently presented with a multitude of colour and black-and-white photographs. For someone who was regrettably not very well-versed in Hammer's history, The Hammer Story was an excellent introduction. Also worthy of mention are Marcus Hearn's more recent efforts concerning the studio which include Hammer Glamour, which looks at the many actresses who formed Hammer's informal repertory company, and The Art of Hammer, a book solely devoted to Hammer's movie posters!

The Hammer Story was an excellent introduction for the Hammer fan, and with a generous helping of information presented for each film, it is a book which is sure to treat the long-time enthusiast as well. I give the book 5 stars out of 5.


A Thing of Unspeakable Horror by Sinclair McKay - This one's slightly different. Though the book is dubbed 'the history of Hammer Films,' Sinclair McKay's book works to analyze Hammer's films, and more often than not, to draw parallels between what was presented on screen and what was going on in the real world.

Going into McKay's book, I had some notion of what to expect having read his book The Man With the Golden Touch, which sets out to do much of the same analyzing with the James Bond franchise. McKay's writing is fun and breezy, and I found myself completing this book in two sittings. However, McKay's writing may not appeal to all - as he analyzes the movies, he is far more more likely to interject his own opinions, and this opinionated style of writing will certainly not jive with all. I for one was surprised by his strong criticism of one of my favourite Hammer efforts, 1962's The Phantom of the Opera (to each their own I suppose). Nevertheless, I found McKay's style in both of his works to be incredibly entertaining, and at times laugh-out-loud funny. His assertion that the Gorgon in the 1964 film of the same name looks less like a monster and more like a begrudged landlady with a head of hot curlers was an all too true, and very funny assessment. A Thing of Unspeakable Horror was a fun, entertaining read, and while not as jam-packed with information as The Hammer Story, there was still a thing or two to be learned from McKay's analysis.

While its style may be off-putting for some, I for one enjoyed Sinclair McKay's slightly tongue-in-cheek analysis of Hammer horror and therefore I give A Thing of Unspeakable Horror 4.5 out of 5 stars.

So, there you have it. Both of these books come highly recommended from me. And Hammer fans - I hope to bring some more things your way in the future.

Monday, July 21, 2014

"The Valley of Fear" - Forgotten Masterpiece?

The Valley of Fear is arguably the most forgotten of the original Sherlock Holmes novels. Unlike the first three novels it doesn't have the same number of distinguishing features, and much like A Study in Scarlet, the detective is only present for half of the novel. Despite this fact, The Valley of Fear is, I think, more entertaining than its similar predecessor. Not only does it have a more interesting mystery, but a back-story which is arguably more interesting and better crafted than the bits with the world's greatest detective.

The Valley of Fear is interestingly one of the later Sherlock Holmes stories, published first in 1914. The novel was Doyle's first Sherlockian effort since The Adventure of the Devil's Foot which was first published in 1910. When one looks at the ingredients of the novel, it seems as though Doyle was returning to the detective with a vengeance. The Valley of Fear features: an impossible crime, a mansion brimming with suspects, a revenge-killing, a secret society and even Professor Moriarty! Unlike the thinly disguised adventure or horror novels that were The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Valley f Fear is a mystery through and through and what's more, it seems to be the first of its kind as the novel's second half, set in the United States of America, is more akin to a hardboiled detective story than the traditional Sherlock Holmes story.

I argue that the reason for the novel's relative obscurity compared to the other three Sherlock Holmes novels is due to its lack of dramatic adaptations. Much like A Study in Scarlet, Holmes isn't around for the background information which have dramatic possibilities all their own. That's not to say that there have not been adaptations here and there - 1935 saw the release of The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes which starred Arthur Wontner as Holmes. The film is a direct adaptation of the book, the second half intact. The abysmal 1962 film Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes (Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace) retains a few of the novel's plot threads and The Blind Banker, the second episode of Sherlock retained the code-breaking technique used in the novel's opening chapter.

Perhaps because of its obscurity, The Valley of Fear contains a number of surprises to its reader. Perhaps the first comes in its re-introduction of Professor Moriarty. Moriarty plays a shadowy presence in this novel, only ever loitering on the periphery. This aspect of the Professor's character would certainly influence future incarnations such as Eric Porter's scheming Moriarty from Granada's acclaimed series and Jim Moriarty's "consulting criminal" in Sherlock. The novel further justifies the Professor's brilliance with the introduction of his scientific thesis, "The Dynamics of an Asteroid."

The Valley of Fear also boats one of the finest mysteries in the Holmes canon and it's one of the few times that Doyle utilised the "impossible crime" scenario. In addition, the mystery is one of the few in the canon which features a number of suspects in the style of Agatha Christie. It proves that the novel paved the way for various types of mysteries to come in the future. As mentioned above, the second half of the novel set in the Vermissa Valley, the titular Valley of Fear, follows an undercover Pinkerton agent as he infiltrates a secret order of criminals. This aspect of the story more than any other is a prototype for the hardboiled detective mysteries which were to emerge during the '20's and '30's which truly makes The Valley of Fear the first of its kind.

It is interesting to note that the hardboiled aspect of the novel seems to garner much more attention today than the actual mystery.Perhaps the best bit of advertising I've seen for The Valley of Fear can be seen at left as the book was re-issued for the "Hard Case Crime" series. Aside from the rough and rugged cover art, the novel is penned by A.C. Doyle, which seems to go to great lengths to make the book seem more like a hardboiled novel than a Sherlock Holmes mystery. The cover also plays up the "based on a true story" aspect of the novel's plot. Doyle loosely based the plot on the exploits of James McParland, an American Pinkerton agent who infiltrated the secret society known as the Molly Maguires who operated out of a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania.

 In the valuable resource Sherlock Holmes for Dummies, much is made of the hardboiled story-line as well as the increased level of violence which interestingly leads into the next set of short stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, which curiously features some of the most violent stories in the canon.

In all, The Valley of Fear is one of the best of the Sherlock Holmes stories and unjustly forgotten in the canon today. While it is perhaps less famous than its predecessors, the novel has a number of excellent points which make it more deserved of a re-evaluation than any other story.

Friday, July 11, 2014

"Sherlock" - One of the All-Time Greatest Shows?

Why do we love television? If you ask me, it's the escape that we enjoy. Whether we're watching a drama or a comedy, television allows us to escape for 30-minutes, an hour (or in some cases hour-and-a-half). Over time, we come to love and care about the fictional characters portrayed therein and the show slowly becomes a part of our lives.

It is of course obvious that some television shows are better than others and some have gotten the distinction of being loved by a large following. We in the Sherlock Holmes community know a thing or two about this as Sherlock has taken on a life of its own taking the detective to places and being presented to people to an unparalleled extent. What's more, Sherlock has been critically-acclaimed and is oftentimes regarded as one of the best shows on television. I have not come to dispute the show's quality today, I have come to pose a question: in the years to come, will Sherlock be remembered as one of the greatest shows of all time? According to the 2002 edition of TV Guide the sitcom Seinfeld is the greatest show of all time followed by I Love Lucy. The first drama on the list is The Sopranos which ranked number five. Now, how reliable is this list? The fact that it is obviously outdated makes it a bit less reliable as some of the shows which are today regarded as being the best have only come along in the last few years or so.

When I first saw Sherlock in 2009, I thought that there was nothing like it with its rapid-fire dialogue, intricate plots and stellar acting. Few shows have rivaled it in my mind and there really isn't anything else Sherlock on TV today. It's for that reason that I think that the show shall be fondly remembered. The only potential problem is the number of other beloved shows out there today. I started investigating this post on IMDb and looking at the average viewer ratings for some of the most popular shows on TV today. Though not exactly the most trustworthy source, these ratings do put things into perspective. Sherlock: 9.3/10. Doctor Who: 8.9/10. Hannibal: 8.6/10. Game of Thrones: 9.5/10. Breaking Bad: 9.6/10.

I for one was pretty surprised by this. Breaking Bad was an excellent show with some brilliant performances from Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul and some complex writing. However, the character development was what made the show so good as you become drawn into the characters' plights and it was nearly impossible not to find yourself hooked at parts. But, what I found surprising was that Breaking Bad is a show which is no longer on the air. Usually, the new and the current is what is most popular and by some standards Breaking Bad is old hat - a show to be enjoyed by those playing catch-up on Netflix (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Now, I do not watch Game of Thrones, my knowledge is based purely on what I have read and from what I have heard from friends who do watch. However, there is something I know above all else - this show has a large and very devoted following. What's more, just about everyone with whom I have spoken has never really had a bad thing to say about Game of Thrones. This, I think, sets the show apart from others, Sherlock especially. Upon the release of Sherlock's third series, there was some fall-out from fans who believed that the show had dropped in quality. While both Sherlock and Game of Thrones have large fan-bases, it seems to me that the latter has a large devoted fan-base. I could be completely wrong with all this, but that's the way I see it. The other interesting thing concerning these two shows is that both of them are in part literary-based. One wonders why television doesn't have more literary adaptations anymore. It's pretty clear that people seem to enjoy that sort of thing and I think there are a number of books or book series' which could make fine television shows or mini-series. Maybe with the success of Game of Thrones and Sherlock, TV executives will think about more adaptations in the future. Maybe we have already seen a glimpse of things to come as NBC has had some success with Hannibal (based on the characters of Thomas Harris' book series) and their recent two-part adaptation of Rosemary's Baby.

 But the real question that we're trying to answer here is how Sherlock will be remembered in the future. For this, we have to work our way backwards a bit. One of my favourite shows of all time is the '90's sitcom Frasier, the brilliant spin-off of Cheers with Kelsey Grammar reprising his role as psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane. The comedy is I think one of television's best shows which featured both hilariously funny moments as well as poignant character moments. Interestingly, Frasier is not as well-remembered today, despite its high ratings and multiple Emmy Awards at the time of its run. I wouldn't really call Frasier a cult-show today as it had a large following at the time (and ran for eleven seasons) but it is not as fondly remembered as other sitcoms of the time such as Seinfeld or Friends.

Could this be the future of Sherlock - fondly remembered by those who watched it, but slowly fading into obscurity? I think not as the fan-base for Sherlock is a large-enough one with enough people who will keep the show alive. The fact that Sherlock appears on PBS in America is perhaps also helpful as Masterpiece Theater is a long-running, beloved show on public television, and often crops up on those Best of Television lists.

So, will Sherlock be remembered as one of the all-time greatest shows? At this time, I really cannot say as it currently has quite a bit of competition, but there is one thing which I can say without fear. Sherlock will be remembered fondly, and for years to come in Sherlockian circles by people (like myself) who view it as the best Sherlock Holmes series since The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. However, in regards to my original question - I suppose the answer for present is that only time shall tell.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Spoilers Everywhere!

In response to the BBC's plea for Doctor Who fans not to spread spoilers after the first five scripts for the up-coming Series 8 were leaked, I have only one thing to say: I couldn't agree more.

I understand the appeal of getting to know about the episodes early, but there really is something special about going into an episode with few (if any) preconceived ideas. Even if someone, like myself, who has no intention of reading the leaked scripts comes across some words scattered somewhere in the vast expense of the Internet, it's liable to change the way I view an episode. I think I can speak for many when I say that it would be very disappointing to ruin someone's enjoyment of the show.

So, if you are one of those who were fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to get your hands on a copy of those leaked scripts, please keep as much of the information to yourself. Believe me fellow Whovains, 23 August will come soon enough.

And on an unrelated note, for those anticipating more content from me, your wait shouldn't be much longer.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Review - "Gods of War"

James Lovegrove has dipped into the Sherlock Holmes sub-genre once more following his first effort The Stuff of Nightmares which was published last year. That book found Holmes and Watson fighting evil in a steampunk world. Though I am not particularly fond of the sub-genre, I did find myself enjoying the novel and so I did not think twice about purchasing Lovegrove's second Sherlockian foray, Gods of War.

Set in 1913, Gods of War finds Sherlock Holmes living out his retirement keeping bees in Sussex. Dr. Watson journeys to the seaside to visit his friend, and no sooner has the doctor alighted from his train than he is swept up into a mystery with his old friend. Holmes and Watson investigate a jewel robbery, but the case serves as a prelude to bigger things. While taking a stroll on the beach, the duo come across the body of a young man washed up on the shore. The man's father, industrialist Craig Mallinson, hires Holmes to look into the case hoping to prove that his son committed suicide after being jilted by his lover. Yet, the woman in question believes that there is more to the young man's death, insisting that his death is in some way connected to a mysterious cult operating in the village. Holmes and Watson's investigations will lead them into uncharted waters as they uncover a conspiracy and a world which is on the brink of a war the likes of which has never been seen before.

As I have written before, the subject of Sherlock Holmes' life in retirement has influenced many writers in the past. The publication of Gods of War is timely, not only has it honours the 100th anniversary of World War I, but as it serves a nice prelude to the movie version of A Slight Trick of the Mind starring Sir Ian McKellen which is slated for release sometime early next year. So, does Gods of War add to the multitude of similar works? In short, it does. Much like James Lovegrove's The Stuff of Nightmares, his second novel is immensely entertaining. Its fast-moving plot doesn't allow for much downtime, but when the plot slows down to deliver exposition, it retains a level of interest and I found myself reading the book in only a few sittings.

Frederic Dorr Steele depicts the detective
in retirement
Also of note were the excellent representations of Holmes and Watson. Lovegrove's Watson-like tone has improved greatly, as has the voice of the great detective. The presentation of the characters in retirement is also well-done, with many references to the duo's cases made. Particularly noteworthy is a scene in the book's opening chapters where Holmes and Watson discuss superstitions which include one or two nice nods to The Hound of the Baskervilles. That famed work is referenced again later as Holmes and Watson are pursued through the fog by one of the villain's mastiffs.

While much of Gods of War was nicely handled, there were one or two things which hinder the reading experience. The plot's presentation can at times be cumbersome - the opening jewel robbery serving only to wet our appetites for things to come, and its connections to the true mystery are tenuous at best. A few chapters also find the detective journeying to London leaving Watson alone, and for no real reason the good doctor begins to believe that the detective has been disposed by the villains. Watson's ramblings at times border on the paranoid which can make some at times annoying narration. That's not to say that Gods of War is all bad. It is a very entertaining read with a fast-moving, intriguing plot and excellent presentations of its central characters. I therefore give it 4 out of 5 stars.