Models & Toys

American Fetish Meets Pop Art: Russ Meyer’s ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’

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Sam Moore / November 19, 2020

It’s easy to spot an exploitation film by the cover of the poster or DVD. Maybe more so than any other type of art, you can judge it by its cover: a woman, often barely dressed, holding some kind of weapon. Think Pam Grier on the cover of Coffy or Foxy Brown. Even contemporary grindhouse fare like Planet Terror embraces this tradition, with a machine-gun-legged Rose McGowan among the most immediately recognizable images from the film. That’s because exploitation films always know what they’re selling. That’s where the name comes from; there’s something in these films—normally sex and violence—that is being exploited in order to lure an audience. And that’s where Russ Meyer comes in, the filmmaker whose Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) takes everything about the exploitation genre and ramps it up to an eleven. It’s a strange film that at once knows the genre’s problems and is willing to embrace them. 

In the film’s poster, true to form, instead of one woman, there’s two, and the angle of the camera seems designed entirely to highlight Varla’s (Tura Satana) chest. She’s thrown a man to the ground, and there are two cars, engines roaring, behind her. In many ways, it’s the perfect crystallization of the film itself: women, breasts, violence, fast cars. This excess is a “come hither” moment for exploitation audiences, taking everything that they love and blowing it up to extremes. That’s what makes Pussycat so compelling, the strange combination of exploitation and the reverence with which it treats its objects, like a piece of lurid pop art, amplifying and magnifying the tastes of the seediest corners of grindhouse cinema.

One of the ways in which Pussycat challenges the nature of exploitation is by approaching these common tropes—oversexed and ultraviolent women—with a kind of self-awareness, looking at the genre with a nod and a wink. This is made clear from the very beginning of the film, and the way it uses voiceover narration—there’s no other voiceover in the film after this, which is unusual—that beckons the audience by welcoming them to “violence, the word and the act.” The voice goes on to talk about the way in which the “favorite mantle [of violence] still remains sex,” and the “voracious appetite” that the film gives to its leading ladies is something that obviously applies to the audience as well. Pussycat is explicitly designed for an audience that’s hungry for the intersection of sex and violence, for images of powerful women—as long as they’re not too powerful.

The women in Pussycat are fascinating contradictions, something that the film explores through the ways in which the gaze of the camera operates, often changing to enhance different aspects of the characters, from their sexuality to the power they possess over men. As the film begins, Varla and her soon-to-be partners in crime, Billie and Rosie (Lori Williams and Haji), are go-go dancing. The camera loves it, obsesses over and objectifies their bodies, the way that they move, embracing the male gaze at a level that almost feels like parody, even though it’s clearly played straight as can be in every possible way. But beyond just leering at the women, this sequence establishes the fact that they are powerful, with a shot straight out of Film School 101: with the camera low down, looking up at them, it makes the women seem bigger and more prominent—in more ways than one, they fill the screen. As the camera cuts between the dancing women and the borderline rabid men who watch them, bellowing “GO, GO, GO,” it becomes clear that this is, for better or worse, a film about women—about the power they can exert, about the way that they’re looked at. The opening voiceover offers a warning about the kind of women capable of violence, and it’s clearly aimed at men, with examples like “your secretary, your doctor’s receptionist, or a dancer in a go-go club.” It’s power through the lens of female characters, but clearly designed for the consumption of men, the great contradiction that defines the gaze of Pussycat, and much of the other exploitation fare of the era.

The women are placed among a landscape of things that define American masculinity, and the object most rooted in this is a fast car. Driving, racing, and time trials animate much of the drama and narrative of the film. Varla, Billie, and Rosie race through the California desert; they play high speed games of chicken with one another, and the film climaxes in a chase sequence that takes place both on foot and on four wheels. The three women are placed in a position normally associated with masculinity, which is what makes them such fetishistic objects of male wish fulfilment. The camera never lets the audience forget about the assets of these women, but they’re also shown to be “one of the guys” in the way that they drive, fight, and flirt. They can—up to a point—hold their own against the men, and there’s often a kind of role reversal in terms of gender.

In action films, with the James Bond franchise being a prime example, it’s the men who are good drivers and use women purely for sex. But in Pussycat, the women do that, with Varla’s attempted seduction of Kirk, a man she’s hoping will lead her to some money that’s been stashed away. There’s something striking about the way in which, in the moment, Pussycat engages in this role reversal without any asterisk or caveat, simply allowing the women to be powerful and sexual on their own terms. This understanding of how sexuality works on screen comes through in one of the most common exploitation tropes—the catfight, which occurs early on in the film. Billie and Rosie fight each other, their shirts get wet, and it’s all set to a strange, almost dissonant jazz score that undercuts the sexploitation angle of the scene. If the score had been different, then it would seem lifted directly out of porn.

This strange combination of a kind of female empowerment (one built on having the characters embody ideas of strength that are typically associated with maleness and masculinity) and exploitation fare is what makes Pussycat a unique, more aesthetically curious film than a lot of its contemporaries. And some of these images: the cars racing across the desert, Billie and Rosie in the water after a catfight, are reminiscent of pieces of perverted pop art. Pop art as a movement was all about taking the lowbrow and mass-produced elements of American culture, from Warhol’s soup cans to Lichtenstein’s comic strips, and elevating. This relationship between commerce, mass-production, and artistic merit is something that is rooted in a uniquely American tradition; Jasper Johns even reproduced the American flag itself. All you need to turn stills from Pussycat into a Lichtenstein print are some kitschy captions and speech bubbles.  

Meyer’s relationship to exploitation film is a lot like the relationship that pop art has with capitalism. They’re both at once slyly aware of what the systems they exist in are doing, and they are either satirizing it (the dissonant jazz score over the catfight highlights the absurdity of the trope) or embracing it in all of its ugliness. The difference, sometimes, is almost impossible to distinguish. It’s easy to imagine Varla, for instance, even at her lowest point, aping Lichtenstein’s famous Drowning Girl. The original contains the thought bubble “I don’t care! I’d rather sink — than call Brad for help!”, and while the words don’t appear in Pussycat, Varla might have said exactly this, replacing Brad’s name with Kirk’s. The film is even willing to lampoon the misogyny that defines so many responses to independent and powerful women, notably when the Old Man whose family the dancers ingratiate themselves with in the hopes of finding money says: 

Women! They let ’em vote, smoke and drive—even put ’em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for president! A bunch of smoke up your chimney! Russian roulette on the highways! Can’t even tell brother from sister, unless you meet ’em up close.

This line highlights the biggest problem with Pussycat’s relationship to the grindhouse: while it’s more than willing to show these women being sexual, strong, and violent, it always reins them in when the male characters get too uncomfortable, a response that typifies a kind of masculinity that both objectifies, and is afraid of, powerful women. The film makes them monstrous, in a way—they always exist in counterpoint to the sweet and innocent Linda, who they’ve kidnapped and who offers a different kind of womanhood, one more palatable to male audiences once the credits have rolled. It’s no wonder that Varla’s demise in the climactic finale—in a moment of what feels like purposeful irony, she’s run over by a truck driven by Linda—that she gets described as “nothing human” by Kirk, before he and Linda drive off into the sunset in the very truck that she used to kill Varla.

In a way, the end of Pussycat is the only way that such a distinctly American exploitation film could end: after a whirlwind tour of tropes associated with male action heroes, set against a uniquely American desert landscape, normalcy returns. The power (and gender) dynamics of the real world—where your secretary or doctor’s receptionist are unlikely to kidnap your girlfriend, or try to seduce and rob you—are reinforced by the violent end that the subversive women meet. In contrast to this, the sweet Linda and righteous Kirk ride off into the sunset together to begin a quote-unquote normal relationship. Exploitation cinema reached its heights in the early 1970s, and while the template of Pussycat is there, the films that came in its wake were less willing to embrace the larger-than-life aspects of their characters and stories. Pussycat remains unique for the ways in which it refuses to look away from the complicated relationship that its characters have with the gaze of both the camera and the audience. These women are simultaneously manipulating that gaze and being manipulated by it, something that makes Pussycat the kind of gaudy pop art that you could only ever find on 42nd Street.

Sam Moore‘s writing on queerness, politics, and genre fiction in art has been published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, Little White Lies, Hyperallergic, and other places. Their poetry and experimental essays have been published in print and online, most recently in the Brixton Review of Books. If their writing didn’t already give it away, they’re into weird stuff.
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The Thrill Is Worth the Pain: Hell and Survival in Dio’s ‘The Last in Line’

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Mike Apichella / November 17, 2020

The first music videos to air on MTV and broadcast television were chaotic blurts of arty nonsense defined by pastel colors, cheesy dance party theatrics, and avant-garde visual effects. Often realized by student auteurs working with little to no budget, even the weirdest of these clips didn’t aim for scares.  

Early heavy metal videos were an exception. Sans any playful abstraction, these emerged as S&M nightmares brandishing dystopian, Mario Bava-esque atmospherics, and other classic horror movie elements. Iron Maiden, W.A.S.P., Ratt, Mötley Crüe, Judas Priest, and the ever disturbing Ozzy Osbourne were some of the earliest metal acts to dabble in these themes, and headbangers were mega-stoked to find their favorite shredders interspersed among skinny tie New Wave bands, foppish New Romantics, Barnes & Barnes’ “Fish Heads,” and all the other tamer acts that typically formed music video programming in the age before American Idol and reality shows.

No heavy metal chiller got more immersive or confrontational than the 1984 video Don Coscarelli directed for Dio’s “The Last In Line” (watch it here). By ‘84, Coscarelli was already well known in the genre circuit for cult classics like Phantasm (1979) and The Beastmaster (1982). The work he turned in here is a claustrophobic melange of suspense and political subtext, overflowing with scenes of torture and psychological horror.

The clip starts off with a courier (child star Meeno Peluce) bicycling in a peaceful California suburb, gliding through a squeaky clean business district. Sporting long curls, a dangling earing, and tight Levi’s, it would’ve been tough to find another actor who looked more like a young suburban rocker. Once he arrives at his office-plex destination, a beardo in an old sports car (Dio member Claude Schnell) gestures ominously with the sign of the horns, possibly an attempt to stop the kid from entering the glassy industrial space. Confused and annoyed, the teenager avoids the mysterious hairball. As he enters the building, the music chimes along with a folky lilt and forlorn vocals describing “a ship without a storm.”

The kid gets in the elevator, going up, then makes a sudden high speed plummet as the guitar distortion kicks in, crashing deep beneath the Earth’s crust. The elevator doors open to an attack of screaming riffage that ushers our hero into a murky, post-industrial Hades. Freakish processions of enslaved deformity mob the kid: shambolic zombies, doomed souls covered in infectious scars and pockmarks, and hastily assembled androids (including one that’s extremely Borg-like in appearance, years before the Star Trek: The Next Generation characters made their debut). The hapless creatures are pressed into electronic torture chambers by cyborg storm troopers armed with glow-in-the-dark cattle prods.

Several images here signify economic blight. One zombie can be seen clutching a grocery cart filled with sundry garbage (a boom box, a broken record, scraps of fabric) while dressed in a tattered trench coat. A balding middle-aged man limps along in filthy business attire wearing a cracked pair of reading glasses. Their vacant stares are fearsome, but also touched with overarching sadness and tragedy. Some of the less monstrous extras appear to be outcasts from L.A.’s Skid Row (whose hordes of homeless the LAPD was desperately trying to “clean up” on the eve of the 1984 Summer Olympics).  

Of the video’s many scenes of suffering, there are two big standouts. The first occurs as our hero finds a fenced-in arcade where kids are chained to video game machines. Their wrists are locked in manacles that shock them whenever they make a mistake. If they lose a game, they’re fried to death. An obvious interpretation here involves criticism of consumer culture and the moral panic surrounding video games. 

Another interpretation involves game theory—the belief that dog-eat-dog competition is a major building block of civilization. So Long Sucker (originally Fuck You Buddy) was a board game co-created by the infamous RAND Corporation and Nobel prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., a paranoid schizophrenic whose battles with mental health weren’t publicly known until several years after his research had concluded. In the early 1950s, Nash and RAND conducted a series of experiments in which people were monitored while playing So Long Sucker. They hoped the project would yield undeniable scientific proof of game theory’s validity. According to RAND’s own documentation, their first experiment was a failure; the others were successful, but occurred in an environment much more tightly controlled than that of the first one. Regardless, after many years of therapy and introspection, Nash later declared his belief in game theory to be nothing more than a bi-product of the paranoia brought on by his mental illness.

The deadly arcade serves as the proving ground for this cynical realm, ruled by a mutant military-industrial establishment. The players here, like the protagonist, are teens. Unlike the other haggard rogues, they’re fresh-faced and clean cut. The arcade of doom pinpoints and rewards those driven by the insane competition while rooting out and killing those who are not addicted to conquest. Presumably whoever endures gets a special place in the wretched promenade. 

The scariest torture scene unfolds when Peluce’s character wanders into a theater where another large group of teens have been fastened to metal racks, their mouths stuffed with big red ball gags, foreheads primed for lobotomizing. They all face a giant screen TV that plays footage of singer Ronnie James Dio belting out incendiary lyrics:

Two eyes from the east
It’s The Angel or The Beast
And the answer lies between the good and bad
We search for the truth
We could die upon the tooth
But the thrill of just the chase is worth the pain

In the track notes of the 2003 Dio anthology Stand Up and Shout, the singer described “The Last In Line” as an open-ended tribute to perseverance: “This song has many interpretations. You could be the last in line meaning, oh shit, all the good stuff is already gone. Or you could be the last, the strongest, and, to me, it’s always been that, the perseverance that comes from going through challenges in life. And when you get to the end and you’re the last one standing, and you ask yourself, ‘Was it worth it?’ You better say yes. That’s gonna be my answer.” The song’s revelatory chorus reinforces this sentiment:

We’ll know for the first time
If we’re evil or divine
We’re the last in line!
See how we shine!

No one goes further with over-the-top theatrics than Ronnie James Dio himself. The guttural overlord gets to do all the things that have rightfully made him a superhero to generations of heavy metal fans. In many scenes he’s shown standing on a bonafide pedestal! His greatest moments come at the end of the clip with a hilarious sequence that’d be a spoiler if given any detailed description.

The other Dio band members also get interesting cameos. They emerge as impartial overseers breaking the netherworld tension by hamming it up in one ridiculous arena rock pose after another. Along with Schnell’s cryptic allusion are the scenes where drummer Vinny Appice flails away at a zany bronto-bone drum kit, while guitarist Vivian Campbell solos atop a bashed up car before an adoring crowd of zombies all clad in skull-crunching electrodes that are actually hooked into his axe. The rapt attention that the ragged zombies give to Campbell and his guitar’s connection to their head gear combine to symbolize another great creator of iconic ‘80’s trance states: the Sony Walkman and similar portable stereo devices, distractions that could just as easily enhance or annihilate reality. The scene also refers to another great moral panic of the time: the idea that heavy rock could turn people into disciples of Satan. It was one of many irrational fears that inspired the anti-metal crusades of The PMRC and other right-wing Christian groups. 

Just like the dehumanizing repetition of factory work or the brain melt one experiences while stuck at the local post office or DMV, the prisoners keep on marching around and around, enduring the same endless cavalcade of machine-induced humiliation. In harmony with the lyrical themes, Peluce’s character stays focused on survival from start to finish, even when fear seems to control every expression. Coscarelli’s horrors only encourage the kid to resist the overwhelming bleakness. 

While videos for tracks like The Plasmatics‘ “The Damned” and Motley Crue’s “Looks That Kill” prominently featured dystopian aesthetics, “The Last In Line” is one of the few clips to serve as an unflinching commentary on defying the apocalypse. Don Coscarelli turned the Dio anthem into an ideal soundtrack for Reagan-induced nightmares of cruelty and destruction. Grotesque monsters, wayward youth, and the impoverished are all enslaved in the same excruciating hell—what lies beneath the glassy veneer of the suburban industrial park. To find a way out of this infernal world the young courier must move against the tide of pain. His will to survive—tenacious individualism is another Reagan-era requisite—provides the only path to freedom. 

Mike Apichella has been working in the arts since 1991. He is a writer, multimedia artist, musician, and a founder of Human Host and the archival project Towson-Glen Arm Freakouts. Under his real name and various pseudonyms, his work has been published by Splice Today, Profligate, Human Conduct Press, and several DIY zines. Mike currently lives in the northeast US where he aspires to someday become the “crazy cat man” of his neighborhood.Patreon Button

Hell Is for Children: The Revolutionary Politics of ‘The Omen’

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Noah Berlatsky / October 30, 2020

This is a revision of a piece that originally ran on Noah Berlatsky’s Patreon.  

The Omen is generally considered a bleak film because the devil wins. But it’s even bleaker as a picture of who the devil is supposed to be, and what kind of measures are needed to defeat him.

The movie stars an aging but still virile Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn, the American ambassador to Britain and a close friend (and former roommate) of the U.S. president. When the film opens, Thorn’s substantially younger wife Kathy (Lee Remick) is in the hospital where she has just delivered and lost a baby in a Catholic Italian hospital. A priest suggests the couple substitute a baby whose mother has died at almost the same moment. Robert agrees without telling his wife, which is a mistake because the baby, Damien, is the spawn of hell. After Damien grows into a disturbingly smirking toddler (Harvey Spencer Stephens), the child quickly uses mysterious powers and malevolent allies to murder, in quick order, his governess, his unborn sibling, his mother, and Robert himself en route to the apocalypse and the extermination of the human race (the last two heavily foreshadowed albeit not quite accomplished at film’s end.)

As with most Hollywood movies that focus on politicians, The Omen carefully has no particular politics of its own. We never learn what party Robert belongs to, and his own geopolitical views are unspecified beyond a general opposition to allowing the antichrist to drown the world in blood. Despite this wishy-washy reticence, viewers can draw some conclusions about the movie’s view of righteous order from context. Director Richard Donner’s cinematography is tasteful and high class, as are the Thorn’s lifestyles and sumptuous residences. Servants are thick on the ground, and little Damien’s fourth birthday party is celebrated with all the casual opulence the American de facto peerage can muster, including but not limited to an apparently rented merry-go-round. The good, the normal, and the safely non-demonic status quo is represented by opulent high ceilings and expensive clothes draped upon the trophy wife, who in one scene tosses a lavish piece of outerwear upon the pricey floor in preparation for what will presumably be equally pricey and opulent intercourse. 

Into this paradise of privilege slides Damien, whose sin, like the fork in a snake’s tongue, is twofold. First, he’s a child, and America in 1976 was notably anxious about the next generation. The Omen‘s most direct predecessor, 1973’s The Exorcist, is less shy about drawing the connection between the demon in the daughter at home and the demon in the daughters and sons out there protesting in the streets. But even if Vietnam is never mentioned in The Omen, Damien’s revolutionary assault on his elders’ government seems congruent with the nation’s contemporary traumatic generational conflict. The demon child’s remote murders of his various adversaries show up as dark, shadowy predictions on photographs—a priest bisected by a dark line, a governess with a shadowy, inexplicable loop around her neck. The children are the future, and that future is one in which the confident, smug olds are harvested with a scythe of blood and documentary photography. 

Damien is not just evil because he’s young, though. He’s evil because he’s upwardly mobile. Damien has no birth and no breeding; he’s a presumptuous upstart who murders Robert’s infant heir and seizes the perks of power to which he has no right. It’s significant in this regard that Damien’s chief allies are servants. You’d think that, given a choice, the devil would subvert the wealthy and powerful to his cause. But those most drawn to him aren’t capitalists and kings, but service workers. The obsequious priest in the hospital in the opening scene is eager to bend the rules to get the American ambassador the child he wants. It is Damien’s first nanny (Holly Palance) who delivers to him the most enthusiastic paean he receives in the film, shouting “Damien! Damien! I love you!” as she hangs herself to make way for her equally devoted replacement, the malevolent Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw). The horror of The Omen is in large part a terror that all the people you pay to scrape and stoop are plotting your downfall from down there on their knees. 

In addition to the hired help, the devil’s other devoted acolytes are dogs; he is attended by a number of bristling Rottweilers. Damien’s association with animality is cemented in one of the film’s most striking images: in a barren cemetery, Robert opens the tomb of Damien’s mother as the camera, panning down, reveals the skeleton of a jackal. Damien was not born of a human woman; he’s of a different, fouler womb. The eugenic implications are that the elite are actually of a different species than the less fortunate. Damien is passing as rich, as white, and as human, all categories that are conflated with each other in a film that, not coincidentally, barely has a single person of color on screen during its entire run time.

Damien represents the young, the poor, and the non-white—all those in the outer darkness staring in at Robert’s immaculate top hat and Kathy’s blond coiffure. When Robert realizes the uncouth hordes have breached the gates, and the stray dog is actually in the living room, his eyebrows flex, his jaw clenches, and he turns to rabid homicidal conspiracy theories and Christian apocalypticism. Driven by the paranoid ramblings of priests and millenarian, vaguely anti-Semitic prophecy, he drags his four-year-old to the altar and prepares a ritual sacrifice. Faced with a challenge to its purity, power, and lines of succession, the humane, rational representative of cosmopolitan American power reaches immediately for the prop of religious zealotry, bending his upright angles to the bloody work of reaction and child murder.

Robert’s bid to murder his son for the greater glory of God and country is foiled by the authorities, who shoot him dead, little knowing they are contributing to their own doom. The last, now famous shot of The Omen is of Damien holding the hand of his new adoptive father, the U.S. president; the child turns towards the screen with an unsettling grin. The revolution has come, and all will change utterly. The American way of nice homes, genetic purity, and obedient servants will fall like the blade of a guillotine, or the pane of glass that Damien arranges to have slice through the neck of a meddlesome reporter. Change is apocalypse, and the defenders of the status quo must do all they can to resist it, even unto murdering their own children. 

Damien’s smile, though, was perhaps premature. The forces of reaction and Christian nationalism are not so easily overthrown. In retrospect, The Omen warned not of the devil’s child, but of those who hunted him—all those blank-eyed patriarchs and their long knives.

Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.Patreon Button

Tubular Terrors: ‘Invitation to Hell’

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Reviews / October 29, 2020

Invitation to Hell
Directed by Wes Craven
ABC (1984)

Last year, my esteemed editor-in-chief delivered me a Halloween treat for our Tubular Terrors series in the form of The Night Stalker. My overall lack of familiarity with the made-for-TV horrors of yesteryear led to another recommendation this year, and it was just as enjoyable as skulking around 1970s Las Vegas with Carl Kolchak. But the sunlit suburbs of Wes Craven’s 1984 Invitation to Hell hide just as many demonic horrors—and conspiracies among the ruling class—as the shadowy, vampire-stalked alleyways of Las Vegas’s sleazy eternal night.

Invitation to Hell (Wes Craven’s previous made-for-TV horror was the 1978 Linda Blair vehicle Stranger in Our House) definitely follows on well-trod thematic ground, examining the American nuclear family’s impulse to conform and keep up with the Joneses in suburbia. But it’s on the execution, in the casting, and in a few of the left-field plot developments that the film really shines. Robert Urich and Joanna Cassidy play Matt and Pat Winslow, a married couple with the requisite pair of kids, Robbie and Chrissy (Barret Oliver of D.A.R.Y.L., Cocoon, and The NeverEnding Story and Soleil Moon Frye of Punky Brewster), and the obligatory dog moving into a brand new planned community as Matt takes a new job at the believably-ludicrously-named firm Micro-DigiTech. Matt is working on a new spacesuit for NASA’s exploration of Venus (not only is it temperature resistant to the thousands of degrees, but it can also identify non-human life; unsurprisingly, these details will become very important later in a unique case of Chekhov’s Spacesuit).

The Winslows’ beat-up station wagon literally runs into the town car of the woman who seems to really run this community: head of the local Steaming Springs Country Club, Jessica Jones (played by All My Children star Susan Lucci). The Winslows are soon drawn into the inevitable peer pressure to “join the club,” which, yes, ends up being a Satanic coven where the wealthy members of the club are replaced by doppelgängers from Hell. Matt ends up becoming the de facto resistance to this infernal conspiracy as his work colleagues get “promotions,” loyal secretaries are killed in mysterious accidents, and eventually the members of his own family are replaced by their evil demonic duplicates.

Again, this is all pretty bog-standard stuff that’s been explored since the very beginnings of American postwar suburbia: we’ve seen it from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Twilight Zone and back again by this point. If the Reagan 1980s jostle alongside Eisenhower’s 1950s as the collective psychological emblems of our Cold War material bounty (and the neuroses that come along with it), then it’s no surprise that we’d see a reflection of the same social-parable B movies just as “morning in America” is dawning. But this is the ’80s, and times have changed. From the very outset of Invitation to Hell, the creeping presence of technology is as much a sinister undertone as the impulses towards conformity and upward mobility. From the very first minutes, we see Robbie staying up late playing a hand-held video game (later smashed up by one of the neighborhood’s bratty demonic kids) and Matt’s habit of bringing his work home, impelling Pat to complain, “I want this house to be a home. Not a lab.” Later on, as Matt’s paranoia ramps up, he finds a seemingly hypnotized neighbor kid over at the house for a sleepover smiling in front of the television—not in front of static as in 1982’s Poltergeist but in front of violent riot footage. Matt’s first secretary at work suspects something is wrong with all the people who’ve received promotions at Micro-DigiTech; she hands Matt the pertinent HR files on a giant computer tape. All around Invitation to Hell, the ways in which surveillance, automation, and computers are beginning to intrude upon family life in the 1980s abound.

The brand new home that the Winslows move into also becomes demonically-possessed in a way. Full of the family’s more old-fashioned furniture and decor at the beginning, Pat redecorates it in a severely dark and angular 1980s style, laden with all the modern amenities, once Pat and Robbie and Chrissy become “members of the club” without Matt’s knowledge. All around the country in the 1980s, the often homespun aesthetic embraced by Boomers in the 1970s as a post-hippie reaction to their plastic childhoods began to shift to something more aspirational, sophisticated, and urbane. This transformation is foreshadowed early in the film—before Pat’s demonic replacement!—with Pat stating that she wants to redecorate to make this house look like a home, not “a fraternity house.” “We’re grown up now,” she says. “You work for a big corporation.” Of course, Pat’s hope for a “pretty and bright” home is subverted when you see it looks like something out of an ’80s music video—or the films of David Lynch or Tim Burton.

Pat wants to keep up with the neighbors, which leads to her being seduced by Jessica into membership at Steaming Springs. The family (minus the suspicious Matt) undergoes a creepy “initiation” ceremony in the resort’s springs, which is actually a literal portal to Hell locked behind a giant steel door (with, of course, electronic keypad lock). The idea of locating the town’s demonic clique at a country club is a deeply resonant American trope by this time, but the prominent and conspicuous addition of a health club and spa to the country club’s social matrix shouldn’t be ignored. In the 1980s, physical fitness was peaking throughout America, and while jogging had been a fad since the 1970s, the next decade saw more and more Americans buying memberships to pricey private health clubs. Locating the sinister impulse to conformity within a palace of fitness and health might be one of Invitation to Hell‘s more subtle and successful horror metaphors, especially considering so many other ’80s horror films did so either exploitatively or gruesomely.

It’s really only in the final act that Invitation to Hell somewhat falls apart. As Matt discovers his family are seemingly forever replaced with their evil duplicates, he takes the fight right to Steaming Springs and Jessica. Filching his experimental space suit from the lab at work, Matt gate-crashes the club’s Halloween party (where the guests favor costumes as conspicuously evil as honest-to-God SS uniforms!) and makes his way down to the steel doorway leading to “the springs.” There he actually physically enters Hell. I was still under the impression that there might be a twist, and Jessica and her doubles might be aliens from Venus themselves, or robots—but the shadowy Gustave Doré-like caverns and the cries of the damned (including Matt’s coworkers and family) convey neatly that Matt is about to follow Orpheus, Aeneas, and Dante into the depths. And at the very bottom of this TV-movie Hell? Well, it turns out that it looks an awful lot like suburbia (the suburban street grid that Matt falls into, shot in negative film, actually looks a bit like a circuit board). In a mist-cloaked replica of the Winslow family home (empty of all furniture except a piano that Pat must play eternally), Pat, Robbie, and Chrissy are trapped in laser-lit circles, which Matt can only break through by reasserting his familial  love for (and patriarchal control of) his family. They escape, of course, and Jessica—who tries and fails to seduce Matt into abandoning his family—is defeated. The Winslows teleport home to find the country club in flames after the Halloween party.

Whatever mawkishness the ending might possess, and despite the overall simplicity of the film’s message, there’s a lot to love about Invitation to Hell. Susan Lucci manages to convey real menace without chewing the scenery, portraying a sort of 1980s glad-handing, professional-class noblesse oblige that hides an iron fist underneath. It’s only when she’s forced to become a run-of-the-mill succubus that her character becomes uninteresting. In a pre-credit sequence at the very beginning of the film, she mercilessly combusts a limo driver who accidentally runs her over; in the aftermath of the explosion, her perfectly-poised big hair, makeup, and wardrobe say more in a few seconds than any clumsy exposition: Jessica is a confident, powerful, shoulder-padded coven leader for the Eighties. After getting used to Robert Urich in hardboiled TV series like Vega$ and Spencer: For Hire (as well as his turn as a world-weary cop investigating cattle mutilations in Endangered Species), it’s hard to buy this tough guy as a middle-management, Lacoste-wearing tech nerd. His transition to third-act quasi-badass seems almost like a fait accompli. But the scene where Soleil Moon Frye portrays a possessed Chrissie sitting in the middle of the dark and severely redecorated Winslow living room disemboweling her beloved stuffed bunny with a crowbar (!!!) throbs with real eerie energy. The synth soundtrack also gives the film a potent underscore of the technological paranoia telegraphed but never quite delivered upon by the film’s final act. Unsurprisingly, it’s mostly swapped out for an orchestral score during the scenes in Hell.

Wes Craven, for the most part, delivers the goods in Invitation to Hell, a funny little parable from a year of paranoia that occasionally punches above its B-movie lineage to deliver some real thrills and thought-provoking themes.

Michael Grasso

tHE BIG mAP

Bri's Battle Blog -

 Here is the great big map of Ornria.  

The campaigns of the Fabulouth Armee of the  Second Polyester Freestate, and it's nemesis the Blackguard Hordes of Oppressorbad, all take place on this lovely diskworld full of dinosaurs, interwar tanks, pre-dreadnaughts, and biplanes, Chocolotl, paper, lead, and plaster are the great trade items that make the world go round...and cans of coffeecola...



Tubular Terrors: ‘Cruise Into Terror’

We Are the Mutants -

Reviews / October 28, 2020

Cruise Into Terror
Directed by Bruce Kessler
ABC (1978)

World-weary Captain Andy Andrews (Hugh O’Brian) never smiles, but he is especially not smiling today. The company’s luxury liner was overbooked, you see, and he’s been ordered to take eight passengers 800 miles to Mexico on a busted up “battle wagon” (in fact a midsized pleasure boat decorated with ferns) with a broken port engine. Andrews refuses, and is hit with an ultimatum by the line’s director (Marshall Thompson): “Are you gonna take the Obeah to Mexico? Or are you gonna look for a job in the Bolivian Navy?” Andrews, as you’ve probably guessed, chooses poorly. Then again, Obeah refers to an alleged (by white people) type of evil Caribbean sorcery, so he kind of asked for it.

The director, from his office that is for some reason smack in the middle of a warehouse chock-full of giant cardboard boxes (spoiler alert), quickly places a call, telling the other line that the deed is done before hanging up and asking God to save his soul. Enter menacing tribal chanting over a Jaws-like theme (it will occur throughout the movie, and it is a joy) as a runaway forklift rams a stack of giant cardboard boxes (told you) that squash the director.

Briskly, our unlucky passengers are introduced: the ship’s black cat Carina (real name unknown), who is scooped off the dock by recently divorced and looking-to-party Ms. Marilyn Magnesun (Stella Stevens, well acquainted with cursed ships); deck hand Nathan (Magnum, P.I.’s Roger Mosley, here employing a very unfortunate Jamaican accent); archeologist Dr. Isiah Bakkun (Ray Milland, bless him); too-busy-for-love husband and fed up, horny wife Neal and Sandra Barry (played by real life husband and wife Christopher George and Lynda Day George); gal pals Judy “the looker” (Jo Ann Harris) and Debbie “the great personality” (Hilarie Thompson), the former immediately inviting First Officer Simon McLane (pre-Battlestar Galactica Dirk Benedict) to make a house call; too-holy-for-love Reverend Mather (John Forsythe) and fed up, horny wife Lil (Lee Meriwether); and the straggling, bumbling physicist Matt Lazarus (Frank Converse).

Mr. Lazarus is familiar with Dr. Bakkun’s work on “Mayan-Egyptian cross-culturization,” obviously, as we find out during happy hour on the first night. “Ancient Egyptians sailed to Mexico 2000 years ago and founded the Mayan civilization,” the good doctor explains to the skeptical passengers. His evidence? A piece of papyrus revealing that Cleopatra ordered a tomb built “where the sun hits the sea.” I’m not sure how that narrows anything down, but apparently his “calculations” prove that the tomb is on the island of Cozumel, directly off the Eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula—the destination of the Obeah. 

Strange occurrences begin: Debbie nearly falls overboard when malevolent red eyes encroach in the darkness. But Debbie, because she’s somewhat intellectual (i.e. she wears glasses and reads books), is just “high-strung” and “hysterical.” What she saw were the lights of the channel police, says the Captain. Meanwhile, looker Judy is getting it on with Simon, who is only fulfilling his obligations as the “entertainment director.” Mrs. Barry and Mrs. Mather are not so lucky: their husbands both spurn their sexual advances, Mr. Barry because he’s a bigshot finance director and a giant asshole, Reverend Mather because he’s trying to impress God by doing “penance for the years I spent worshiping the bottle.”

The physicist “whiz kid” has done some independent research and concluded that Dr. Bakkun’s “calculations” are for shit: the tomb is actually 41 miles north of Cozumel. And sure enough, that’s exactly where something called the the injector pump breaks. Everyone wants to raid the tomb except for the good Reverend, who thinks “the dead should be allowed to rest in peace,” but Bakkun has “waited for this moment my whole life” and will not be swayed by “Biblical fantasies.”

Ms. Magnesun uses this opportunity to hit on the Captain, sensing he’s “spooked”: “Oh, I pick up on things,” she coyly brags. “Sometimes I know what people are thinking before they know.” Is she “some kind of a witch,” the Captain wants to know. “Well, some people might pronounce it a bit differently,” she says, “but like I said, I do read minds, and yours looks like some pretty heavy reading.” Is that a smile lurching across the Captain’s stony face?

The passengers take a dive and dig up an Egyptian tomb plate, to the orgasmic delight of Bakkun. The Reverend, who can apparently read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, explains that the plate specifically warns against desecration. Also, according to Bakkun’s own papyrus, the tomb (despite all the big brains in the room, no one seems to understand that the tomb has already been desecrated) is to be opened every thousand years for inspection. The last time that happened, the entire Mayan civilization disappeared without a trace. “Something evil” resides inside, the buzzkill Reverend declares, “something waiting for the next millennium.”

The passengers haul up the sarcophagus in short order. It is… much smaller than we were led to believe, but big enough to make dollar signs dance in Neal’s head. Nathan, left in the water like so much chum, is soon “buried under a thousand pounds of rock.” But there’s no time to mourn! The passengers want to take the sarcophagus back to the States and cash in, but the Captain gives them a quick class on maritime law: the salvage belongs to the ship. The Reverend wants to destroy the cursed thing “before the seal is broken on the lid,” because “the son of the evil one is inside, the son of Satan.” Evidence? He reads from a book called the Key of Solomon (a real Renaissance grimoire that has nothing to do with the Bible): “where 12 souls gather, the child of Satan shall be lifted from his bindings,” and so on. One of the 12 is his “guardian”—“One by one, he’s going to take us all.”

Ms. Magnesun uses this opportunity to bed the Captain. During the post-coital cigarette, Cap reveals that it’s his last trip; he’s making all the wrong decisions (he sure is) and feels guilty about Nathan’s death (as he should). Ms. Magnesun tells him something her father used to tell her: “That there is a devil, there is no doubt. But is he trying to get in us, or trying to get out?” She wants the Captain to “let [his] devil out.” Now, unless this is her roundabout way of asking for seconds, I believe she has completely misunderstood the point of her dad’s creepy rhyme.

Thunder and lightning. Lustful Lil has had enough: she must have sex. After making eyes at the heaving sarcophagus, she visits Lazarus’s room unannounced, breathes heavily, and drops her nightgown. Minutes later, disheveled and stumbling down the hall, she meets the Reverend, starts speaking in tongues, and tries to choke him to death. Meanwhile, Neal has become increasingly obsessed with cashing in on the sarcophagus, even while Sandra reasons that it’s clearly evil and should be thrown overboard. “We came on this cruise to be happy again,” she pleads. His response is the best line of the movie:

Happy? And how do you plan to work that miracle? We’re a little old to find happiness on a beach in some sleeping bags like a couple of hippies. Happiness has a price tag, Sandra. It costs money.

Dr. Bakkun comes to his senses, grabs an axe, and tells the baby devil that he’s going to chop him up. Bad move: devil baby shakes the ship, toppling Bakkun, and the sarcophagus launches itself off the table into Bakkun’s face. Neal threatens the physicist into teaming up with him and removes the sarcophagus to his cabin for caressing and safekeeping. They need to get it to the launch before the Obeah docks in Mexico and the treasure is confiscated. But the Obeah is dead in the water, and Simon has to take the launch to get help. The guardian reveals himself, but the Captain still believes there’s a logical explanation. The Reverend strongly disagrees, chucking a couple of gas lanterns at the sarcophagus (and poor Carina, who has snuggled up to it)—“to the flames you shall return”—and wrestles with the guardian. Lil, her trance broken, sticks with her man to expire, along with the guardian and the devil baby, in the flames. The survivors escape in the launch before the ship explodes (an explosion lifted from a production with an actual budget and clumsily overlaid onto the Obeah), and the Captain concludes with a morose voiceover log entry. He will never smile again.

I have spent much too long describing the plot of a 1978 TV movie called Cruise Into Terror that is very obviously a rip of the greatest telefilm of all time, The Horror at 37,000 Feet, but I couldn’t help myself. There is magic here. Good magic. Hugh O’Brian utters every word with the gravitas of a Rod Serling-narrated Twilight Zone epilogue, and at one point the Captain, Bowie knife in hand, quite literally stares down a shark. Christopher George is spectacularly over-the-top, as was usual during this stage of his career. Milland is a treasure, and I won’t hear otherwise (he too would go on to star in Battlestar Galactica as the debauched Sire Uri). And the sarcophagus! It really breathes, with accompanying heartbeat sound effect! Ultimately, that’s what seals the deal for me. The ’70s were a golden age of paranormal media and pseudoscience and urban legend, and the idiotic and recycled occult theme feels like home. Also, I’ve got a thing for boats (see below).

An Aaron Spelling production, Cruise Into Terror was obviously banking on the success of Spelling’s The Love Boat, then in its first season. And yet it was probably an earlier Spelling TV movie, the murder-mystery Death Cruise (1974), that set the template (minus the foul play) for The Love Boat. Anyway, every single member of the Cruise Into Terror cast would go on to star one or more times on The Love Boat. Yes, I checked.

K.E. Roberts

 

makin' molds for makin' armies.

Bri's Battle Blog -

 So, I have a lot of models backed up that I intend to make lead castings of to fill out my various wargame armies.  So have been spending time with silicone and cornstarch working up the casting molds.  Tanks, infantry, comic book flats, a fuel truck and officer staff car...  a gulash cannon, heavy guns, and armored cars to fight the wars of Ornria...  so. many. molds.









Tubular Terrors: ‘The House That Bled to Death’ and ‘Snowbeast’

We Are the Mutants -

Reviews / October 27, 2020

 

The House That Bled to Death
Directed by Tom Clegg 
Hammer Films (1980)

Apologies in advance to any fellow child of the UK who might be reading this, because for a Brit of my generation, choosing The House That Bled to Death as exemplar of British TV horror is a bit like announcing that your favorite novel is Moby Dick or your favorite food is pizza: so totally obvious that it looks like either laziness or ignorance. But the rest of the world needs to know about semis. No, not those semis.

Semi-detached houses—the two-family domestic Rorschach tests that made up almost half of all properties built in the United Kingdom from the end of the war until the mid-1960s—occupy an important if strangely unacknowledged place in the country’s collective psyche. I say strangely unacknowledged because the place is rotten with them. Semis can be working-class, like the majority of British council housing, or very posh, generally tending towards a square, cozy middle class (British middle-class, mostly with much less disposable income than their US counterparts) averageness that’s very much of its time and place. In 2018, 60% of the UK’s population lived in one. The British haunted house is usually represented in popular culture by some crumbling mansion or middle-class pile with a turret, but from a statistical standpoint, the sheer number of semis makes them far more likely sites for supernatural manifestation, and a series of poltergeists and serial killers of the post-war period did eventually give the semi claim to the paranormal and unpleasant. There’s something implicitly strange about the structure’s floorplan, something that echoes the organic symmetries of lungs or lobes and evokes doubles and distorted mirror-image versions. Perhaps it’s because it hints at something deep in the British—or more properly in this case, English—psyche, some feeling of only half-inhabiting reality, of only being half of a life. Yet despite all this, it remains something of a marginal presence in British popular culture, so ubiquitous that it’s invisible. The House that Bled to Death is an exception, a fact that confers upon it an odd power.

The House that Bled to Death was the fifth of the 13 episodes that made up Hammer House of Horror, a television anthology series produced by Hammer Films in association with Cinema Arts International and ITC Entertainment in the hope of breaking into the TV market. Houses were very much on the country’s mind on Saturday the 11th of October 1980, when The House that Bled to Death was broadcast, because the previous week the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher had introduced the Housing Act. Around a third of the country’s population lived in public housing, and the Housing Act allowed five million of them to buy those houses at discounted prices, but at the same time eliminated vast swathes of the stock of (often poor quality) public housing. It was a hugely divisive move that, while undoubtedly giving a lot of families a financial leg-up, kicked off the Conservative Party’s dismantling of social cohesion and, by placing vast numbers of cheap homes in the hands of private landlords, also helped kindle the vicious housing market the UK enjoys today. In 1980, the average annual salary in the UK was probably somewhere between £5,000 and £7,000, and the average price of a house £20,000, meaning three or four years’ wages. As things stand today, the average price is almost £240,000 and the average salary around £30,000. Consequently, owning a home is nowadays at least twice as hard—and impossible for a lot of people. And in the meantime, private landlords have become ever more greedy and unscrupulous. But anyway.

Perhaps taking its lead from the previous year’s The Amityville HorrorThe House that Bled to Death tells the story of young couple William and Emma Peters who, in their desperation to get onto the property ladder, move with their daughter Sophie into the semi-detached house where an awful crime was committed involving a pair of incongruous machetes (weirdly referred to repeatedly as “swords”) that the former tenant kept mounted over the fire, only to find themselves under paranormal attack. A pervasively ominous mood of doom envelops the proceedings, but The House That Bled to Death is mainly remembered for containing the shabby British suburbs’ riposte to the crew’s celebratory meal in Alien–-a scene where a pipe detaches itself from the ceiling and starts belching out blood, drenching a group of children assembled around the dining table to celebrate little Sophie’s birthday.

As is often the case with this kind of thing, it’s the echoes of childhood impressions that trigger unease as much as the “horror”: the perennially overcast weather, the pebbledash, “liver for supper,” nobody wearing seatbelts, the constant rumble of traffic, people carrying plastic bags, how empty rooms were back in the days before full materialism, the mercurial pervery of the great Brian Croucher (even more uncomfortable here than he was as Travis in Blake’s 7) as the Peters’ neighbor. And in this age of spectacularized everything, it’s incredible how much more strange and alien the unaffected voices of the child actors here sound compared to the supposedly unnerving music box melody that plays every time something nasty’s about to happen to poor little Sophie—one of The House That Bled to Death‘s more witless and hackneyed attempts at putting the frighteners on.

I’m not going to try and spin some revisionary interpretation that The House that Bled to Death‘s twist ending is actually a veiled comment on the effects of Thatcher’s housing policy, though to be honest, it would sort of fit. That writer David Lloyd was the same ex-tennis professional David Lloyd who founded that other symbol of those hedonistic times—a chain of private sports facilities—in the early ’80s seems unlikely, which is a shame, as it would provide a gratifyingly neat Hammer-esque twist in the tail. Watching it today, with the country in the final throes of pretending that it knew what it was doing when it took out a high-interest mortgage on the damp-ridden haunted semi that is Brexit Towers, it does seem oddly timely, what with the Peters’ refusal to look reality in the face and their hysterically taking against their neighbors for trying to point out that self-eviscerating cats and severed hands in the fridge might mean there are issues that need dealing with.

Brexit was never really about leaving the EU; it was about leaving behind concepts like equal opportunities and social care and moving the country to the right. And in fact, as we learn at the end of The House that Bled to Death, the terrifying events the Peters have been subjected to were never real—they were just a way of using other people’s credulity and fears to whip up a payday. The House that Bled to Death concludes with them living off their ill-gotten gains in a bungalow with swimming pool that’s nominally in California, despite being so clearly outside High Wycombe that all that’s missing is a sign for Bekonscot Model Village.

Who knows if Britain’s children will one day revenge themselves upon their self-obsessed parents for the trauma they’ve been put through the way little Sophia revenges herself on hers. 

snowbeast Snowbeast
Directed by Herb Wallerstein 
NBC (1977)

The reason I was allowed to hurtle through the 9:00 bedtime threshold and watch The House that Bled to Death in the first place was because when it was shown I was staying in Wales with my mum’s auntie, who in broken English insisted on my parents letting me traumatize myself because I was “on holiday.” In fact, until I was able to access a VCR (we never got one), my exposure to horror was pretty much exclusively thanks to elderly relatives either nodding off in front of the telly or brushing away parental concerns. And the beautiful traumatizing of that long evening of Saturday the 11th of October 1980 hadn’t even started at 9:15, when The House that Bled to Death was broadcast—it had started an hour and three quarters earlier when another of the Caravaggios in the Uffizi of TV terror had begun. Yes, I’m talking about Snowbeast with Bo Svenson.

Snowbeast—which, predictably, is Jaws with Bigfoot as the shark—has it all. The perennially underused Yvette Mimieux, the reassuringly enormous and idiotic visages of Bo Svenson and Clint Walker, The Wilderness Family‘s Robert Logan (who can barely keep a straight face), the great Sylvia Sidney as the avaricious ski resort owner who refuses to close things down, and a monster design almost as alarming-looking as the sasquatch from the previous year’s Six Million Dollar Man story The Secret of Bigfoot, which was presumably at least partly the movie’s inspiration. No rationale is given for the Snowbeast’s frenzied hatred of humankind, though it does genuinely seem to detest skis and skiing—which makes at least some sense in the end, as the instrument of its death isn’t a rifle or a revolver but a Bo Svenson-wielded ski pole. 

Both The House that Bled to Death and Snowbeast are great, but I’m going to risk opprobrium in my homeland by admitting that though the first doesn’t frighten me anymore, for some reason, Snowbeast, which in many ways is far more ludicrous, still does. The sheer surreal irrationality of the whole thing, its risibly shoddy monster, its obsessive revisiting of the same locales, the terrifying snowbeast POV shots and freeze-frame fade-to-red snowbeast attacks (though as I approach 50, the most frightening scene in the film might be the one where a fleeing Sylvia Sidney is knocked to the ground and bangs her hip), the endless boring scenes of skiing: they all combine into something nightmarish, and watching it I’m immediately transported back to a little Welsh house with only wild countryside thrashing away in the wind outside the window and the awareness gradually sinking in that, as bedtime inevitably approaches, I’ve bitten off way more terror than I can realistically chew.

Richard McKenna

Dead Shells and Black Plaques: ‘The English Heretic Collection’

We Are the Mutants -

Michael Grasso / October 26, 2020

The English Heretic Collection: Ritual Histories, Magickal Geography
By Andy Sharp
Repeater Books, 2020

Disclosure: The editors of We Are the Mutants are currently writing a book for Repeater Books. Featured image courtesy Andy Sharp.

At this time two years ago I was in the thick of writing my capstone project for my Master’s degree in Museum Studies. As I researched how fragmentary memories of childhood museum visits could be used in their later promotion and preservation, I also delved deeply into the larger cultural uses (and misuses) of remembrance, commemoration, and “heritage” in the US and UK. In the schema of nostalgia theorist Svetlana Boym, top-down cultural commemoration often reaches for a “restorative” impulse of wanting to enshrine a golden era of the past, while personal memories and interpretations, playfully reassembled and remixed, offer a “reflective” method of accessing nostalgia.

I found myself thinking about my abortive career in museums when I read the foreword and preface to English author, musician, and artist Andy Sharp‘s catalog of the weird and lost in the English landscape, The English Heretic Collection: Ritual Histories, Magickal Geography. Using as its inspiration English Heritage, who preserve the very bones and sinews of English feudal hierarchy in the form of the nation’s stately homes and historical sites, Sharp’s English Heretic project seeks to détourne these edifices of authority, playfully bringing forth the dark and forgotten occult secrets in the English landscape. In his foreword, Dean Kenning cites Sharp’s mining of “mythology… generated not from on high, but from somewhere subterranean and demotic.” The connections that Sharp makes between places, persons, themes, and concepts in the mystical English imaginarium deliberately echo the “ludic” tendency of children’s constructivist play at historic sites: “Children,” Sharp says in his Preface, “see these locations as stages for some imaginary film—a natural tendency to play with the backdrops of history.” Sharp’s “black plaques” are a reminder that there is a moonstruck dark side to the English landscape, one that’s often ignored in favor of sunny evocations of the perceived doughtiness in the English character and the too-quaint yeoman ruralism of a romanticized countryside: “The comfort and nostalgia for rurality and animism is a weekend retreat from all the small shocks we endure in the maze,” Sharp says in his closing chapter. “But inevitably they become photo opportunities to report back our coordinates to the social laboratory.”

The English Heretic Collection consists of a series of essays that themselves meander across time and space, using individual people and places as launching points for apophenic explorations. Through the lenses of film directors, in the pages of novelists, and in the grimoires of ceremonial magicians, Sharp perceives and explains the occult patterns that echo down the ages in England’s green and pleasant land. Like his fellow seers Nigel Kneale and Alan Garner, he turns the leaves of the land to demonstrate that the past isn’t ever truly dead, and that its mysteries recur in attenuated, mutated forms throughout both English artists’ and occultists’ sense of the uncanny.

Speaking of those occultists, Aleister Crowley, that giant of early 20th century English occultism, haunts many of the chapters of the Collection, but so does somewhat lesser-known (at least on this side of the Atlantic) Thelemic magician Kenneth Grant, whose syncretic approach to magic integrates elements of the Lovecraft mythos, kabbalism, and Surrealism, among much else. Sharp reminds us that the three books in Grant’s first “Typhonian” trilogy were released between 1973 and 1975. At the same time, of course, mystics and magicians with similarly spiritually syncretic impulses were working those same fields in America. But Grant’s output continued to grow throughout the next three decades, absorbing new and further elements as it went. “Grant’s later works are grimoires,” Sharp notes. “By the time he reaches the final volume of his third ‘Typhonian’ trilogy, Grant’s universe is a self-replicating, self-referencing, semi-autonomous ouroboros.” Sharp takes Grant’s embrace of Salvador Dalí’s art—Grant calls Dalí the “foremost magician of the twentieth century”—seriously, and sees Grant’s obsession with the feral animal dreamscapes and visions of Dalí and Max Ernst as a link between Grant and J.G. Ballard’s surrealist visions of a late-20th century psychosphere scarred by war, suffering, and technology.

That mention of Dali evokes the next noteworthy theme in the Collection: for all the very English settings and personalities, Sharp is acutely aware that the gradual assemblage of a 20th-century English Weird aesthetic owes much to interlocutors in Europe and America. The archetypal English hamlet was not exempted from being swallowed up by McLuhan’s “global village” in the postwar era. What has come down to us in the 21st century as the aesthetic of “folk horror“—foundational films such as Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)— demonstrate how the motion picture camera lens fused the uniqueness of English myth, history, and landscape with the American hunger for on-screen sensation and blood. Every now and again the name of an American who seems to innately understand and plumb the Weird such as Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, even Charles Manson, floats through the Collection. Furthermore, Sharp is especially astute when analyzing the intrusions of the American metaphysic on the land- and psycho-scape of Britain. Whether it is the ghost of Joe Kennedy Jr. enshrined with a black plaque commemorating his efforts (and death) as part of a top-secret early remote drone program during World War II, or the UFO sightings at Rendlesham Forest in 1980 (which, Sharp reminds us, are believed by many to be a test of psychotronic mind control technology and not a UFO landing), the incongruous sight of a McDonald’s opposite a centuries-old gibbet, the broadcast intrusions that parrot the ufological/New Age consensus on both sides of the Atlantic, and of course the very American cultural phantasms conjured by J.G. Ballard’s works in the 1970s—Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, Ronald Reagan—are all signs of the havoc wreaked by a Cold War American empire reaching out with its tendrils to wrap its “allies” in its black embrace.

Unsurprisingly, the spectre of war also hovers over the Collection. The psychic and physical scars of World War II and “phantom” invasions abound. Sharp’s linkage of a childhood fear of the closing credits to British sitcom institution Dad’s Army to the possibility that German soldiers actually did set foot on England at the “Battle of Shingle Street” is especially spooky. Even after the conclusion of WWII, the melding of black magick and the Cold War military-industrial complex cut England’s body and soul to the bone. In an exploration of the post-Cold War ruins of an abandoned defense installation, Bawdsey Missile Base, Sharp explores the psychogeographic ramifications of these colossal ruins:

These rockets were stored in what look like giant concrete squash courts, or more to the point, like the bloody ball courts of Mesoamerica. As one walks through these ominous precincts, devoid of their munitions, the vacated architecture appears to reveal its primal purpose, its ritual origin. This is a palace of solar worship, a site under a regime in the age of a thousand suns, embodying all the paranoid manipulations of protecting king and salvational psychopath.

Here, English Heretic most darkly echoes its daytime counterpart at English Heritage. The ancient castles gawked at by holidaymakers are centuries-old picturesque ruins now, but at the time of their building and use were no less potent displays of naked political and military prowess. (Sharp takes a smart detour in one of his essays to talk about “nuclear semiotics,” the practice of providing warnings for buried nuclear waste for human beings tens of thousands of years hence, and the idea of an eventual “atomic priesthood” that would warn people away from radioactive ruins.) The profane geometries left behind on the English landscape by both castle and missile base are a literal evocation of the kabbalistic concept of the qlippoth, the empty husks or shells left behind after the light of creation filled up the universe. “At last we have the ordnance map for [the qlippoth],” Sharp muses, “abandoned military bases, WWII bunkers, nuclear bunkers, melting power stations, the dead shells of all that technology ‘concentrated on the production of nothing,’ a black nirvana.” One of Sharp’s most intriguing essays concerns Winston Churchill’s outsized archetypal shadow which still haunts Britain; Sharp finds him a dark reflection of the mythic savior of the British Isles, Merlin, thanks to Churchill’s real-life membership in a druidical circle and his repeated mentions of the “black dog” of his depression, recalling English myths such as the Gabriel Hounds—let alone Churchill’s penchant for human sacrifice.

And that brings us to what I found the most interesting of all of Sharp’s explorations: his implicit location of blame for this landscape on the people who sold Cold War necromancy to the English (and Western public). Absolutely the makers and deployers of these bombs and jet fighter bases deserve to be counted among the poisonous cabal practicing black magick upon the physical landscape, but so does the late-modernist “expert class.” Sharp notes at the outset of his essay titled “Anti-Heroes” that he felt that an archetypal member of this class needed to be represented among his black plaques. Sharp sought to “commemorate a fictional psychopath. The perfect vehicle for such an exploration, I felt, would be Dr Robert Vaughan, the hoodlum scientist of J.G. Ballard’s visionary forensic Crash.” Vaughan is an avatar of modernism’s black underbelly, a fictional concatenation of the physical scars of World War II; the ancient blood in the leylines of England as exemplified by their modernist successor, the motorway cloverleaf; and the rise of a postwar expert class ineluctably linked to the military-industrial-entertainment complex: Ballard’s uber-technocrat, who is also a celebrity. Recall that before he was the leader of a de facto cult of car-crash fetishists, Vaughan from Crash was a “one-time computer specialist” as well as a television host: “one of the first of the new-style TV scientists,” Ballard tells us, “driving about from laboratory to television centre on a high-powered motorcycle.” Sharp notes that one of Ballard’s real-life inspirations for Vaughan, Dr. Christopher Evans, was the scientific consultant for thoroughly glam-hauntological 1970s children’s sci-fi series The Tomorrow People.

These echoes of science, media, and old hauntings reverberate throughout the varied weird television British series of the 1970s that married the countryside gothic with hypertechnology, from Doctor Who to Children of the Stones. Throughout Crash, “Ballard” the narrator’s obsession with Vaughan, his physical body and its scars and secretions, and Vaughan’s own hieratic dedication to the global spectacle of media, celebrity, and technology weaves its own black spell on narrator and reader both. That spell’s incantation is the technically-overspecific language of the automobile as machine, of car crash tests, and the mystery cults of celebrity that grow around the media spectacle of car crashes both anonymous and famed: Vaughan is Ballard’s “undead guardian angel,” in Sharp’s words, much like the American bombers and missiles perched on English soil.

The traumas that war, conspiracy, and black magick leave on the landscape tend to scab over and leave interesting scars. All the while, official history is told by organizations like English Heritage: sanitized tales from the parapets of the mighty redoubts of English castles, of derring-do during the World Wars, of Churchill’s fighting spirit. Sharp channels the dreaming subconscious of that much-invaded land, the rituals of the priest caste that controls the weapons of war, and the secret currents of folk magick that have always existed alongside. The folk horror aesthetic was never just about hobby horses, Morris dancers, and wicker men; nor was the hauntological aesthetic ever merely about library music-tracked public information films on warped, crackling celluloid, or high-tech radomes on hills overlooking ancient stone circles. They were more fundamentally about the very intrusion of modernism, of global industry and media, and of the waging of wars, both secret and overt, on a landscape itself cyclically scarred by conflict and a history of apocalyptic change. Despite this semiotic pollution and these alien temples to human sacrifice, England prevails, in all its horror and splendor.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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alternate or House rules for Battletech (3025 campaign).

Bri's Battle Blog -

 

Battletech rule variant: HAND HELD WEAPONS.


During the Star League period battlemechs were much more sophisticated, but the Succession Wars has seen a collapse of industry and technology. This is a given, of course, and can be seen in many areas of daily life as well as on the battlefield. One specific instance in the devolution of weapons technology is in the field of hand-held weapons. In the early years of mech design, one of the key features leading to the adoption and acceptance of the battlemech as a weapons platform was it's adaptability, and weapons were no exception. Early mech weapons were styled after the infantry fire arms of the period, being self contained, but with power and data couples built into the handles, individual weapons were easily used by a variety of mechs, and an individual mech could easily tailor itself to mission needs simply by picking out the appropriate laser, autocannon, or missile launcher exactly as it's infantryman counterpart did.

The Periphery wars however, showed up two key deficiencies of the concept, though they were little regarded at the time. The first was mechanical, hand held weapons were hardened with armor and built of durable materials, but final piece weight limited the amount of protective measures that could be packed into them leading to easy damage or jamming in true combat field conditions. Not critical during Star League days as repair and replacement was cheap and easy, in the centuries since the widespread destruction of production facilities and critical component manufactures has made “throw away” weapons impractically expensive. (Missile technology and munitions quality in the intervening centuries reflects this trend also...guidance that once made missile attacks deadly has been lost, and “missiles” today are more accurately compared to primitive ordnance rockets. This led manufacturers to “build in” weapons onto the frame of the 'mech itself where greater use could be made of armor and redundancy measures making for tougher, more durable battle weapons at the cost of flexibility.

This ties in with the second drawback of hand held weapons, what was once practical; the ability to let go of a mech's primary fighting guns. Even light damage or physical attacks on the arm or hand of a 'mech could lead to accidentally ejecting (dropping) the heavy hand carried weapon, making it available to be turned on it's owner just by picking it up. Dropping also became the cause of many weapon failures (jams). Worse still, Mechwarriors in a tight spot might choose to loose the weapon intentionally to increase speed, especially true when forces were experiencing reverses and 'Mech Units chose to flee the field. By the Second Succession War the great house militaries had passed orders requiring 'mechs to fix their weapons permanently, and the surviving manufacturers refitted and retooled production mechs to eliminate or permanently fasten hand held weaponry. Hand held weapons do still exist however, in limited numbers. Many come from ancient Star League caches, and a tiny number of copies come from minor factories throughout the inner sphere.


Rules;

The table below lists weapons that are available in Hand-Carried Format, as well as their important statistics.

To carry and use a hand-held weapon a mech must have a hand and all hand and arm actuators present. Damage to actuators heavily impacts weapon use; hand actuator damage give a -4 to hit and taking a hit on one requires a piloting skill roll at -2 to maintain hold of the weapon. Arm actuator damage gives a -3 to hit and taking a arm actuator hit requires a pilot skill roll at -1 to maintain hold of the weapon. Shoulder actuator damage adds a -2 to hit, and taking Shoulder Actuator damage requires a pilot skill roll to maintain hold of the weapon.

All penalties for actuator damage are cumulative, so a mech whose hand and upper arm actuator are hit would have a -7 to hit, making most shots impossible.

Carrying a hand held weapon penalizes running speed and jumping by one.

Jumping while carrying a hand held weapon requires a pilot skill roll to avoid dropping it on landing. Failure means the weapon is dropped in the landing hex.

Hand Held weapons have a reliability rating. When a hand-held is dropped this number or lower must be rolled for the weapon to remain functional. Failure means the weapon was damaged/jammed and is subject to the same repair rules as normal weapons of it's type.

Most Hand held weapons have a limited number of shots, the table shows how many shots are carried in the weapons magazine. When these are exhausted the magazine must be replaced before the weapon can be fired again. Magazines (also called “clips”) can be loaded by techs in the same way as they reload normal Battletech weaponry. Clips can be carried externally on a battlemech hanging from exterior hard points. Clips may be changed by a mech only if it has two fully functioning hands.

The location of a clip must be noted, and a clip is potentially hit when that location takes a hit. When a clip location is hit roll a pilot skill roll, failure indicates the clip has exploded and the clip's worth of damage is applied to the location in question. Energy weapons do not have magazines and rely on power feeds built into the 'mechs hand, these feeds fail if the weapon fails it's saving throw, and the weapon can only be repaired as per a weapon critical hit, further having an energy weapon knocked out of the hand will lead to a “blowback”, automatically giving one critical hit to that arm and doing 2 points of internal structure damage.

 


* Treat as a bi-pod weapon, Mech must be prone to fire.

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Coining stuff for the Baconbach Campaign

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The Coins of Aerovian Continent.

 



One of my biggest irritations with the D&D system is it’s hideous “gold point” system, that reflects nothing of actual monetary practice in Europe from 400-1600. This makes developing any kind of background economy very difficult, and disrupts and undermines what should be the main story telling features of quasi-medieval fantasy economies. In a game where treasure accumulation is an important measure of character success, having a rational background to the money system is important; after all what separates a serf, from a kulak, from a merchant, from a lord is the same thing that divides 1stlevel characters from 9th level characters; money.

More importantly, it defines the resources that money can command. In the actual middle ages there were a number long term trends; inflation, depreciation, and so on that can be overlooked, but only if you see the long term consistency; Land is wealth, the cost of armor and weapons makes those who have them rare and powerful, trade is dangerous because it requires large investments with huge amounts of risk.

The currencies of the middle ages descend from late Roman times, and they were already economic chaos, various reforms following reform as the Empire bled itself of metal to pay for the armies, bribe barbarians, build churches and fill them with treasures, bribe barbarians, build  monasteries and fill them with treasure, bribe barbarians, build city walls, bribe barbarians, and build ships to try and hold the economic and military Roman world together, all while dealing with a manpower drain to monasteries, disease, and war. Over the few final Roman centuries a whole smorgasbord of coins were minted and melted, and reminted, some by towns, some by emperors, some by desperate generals, and what began as a simple system of As and Denier bushed out into a bewildering fecund forest of metal.

D&D reduces this amazing variety to a decimal system and introduces coins in metals that were almost never seen. Platinum was unknown to the middle ages in Europe (when conquistadors first encountered it in South America they tossed it back into the rivers they were panning, hoping it would mature into silver). Copper was never coined, though some bronze coins were molded in the late Roman Empire, and in dark age England. By the year 1000, the usual start date for middle ages, they were effectively gone from European commerce. (except when they weren’t, China and Asia pumped some in from time to time).

Medieval Europe relied on three major kinds of coins descended from Roman models; a large denomination coin, the Shilling , the everyday silver coin that most people would be familiar with called the Penny, and an occasional Gold large denomination coin called an Ecu or Noble. A Few types of Shilling were minted in limited areas of Spain from Electrum..but that was a rarity. Later in the middle ages the richest cities would counter inflation with an even larger coin; The famous Florins and Ducats and Byzants based on imported coin type from the rich east, these coins were needed by spice and cloth merchants to pay for ship loads of goods, and by kings to hire the very large “state” armies of the many 15th century wars. .

All these coins were essentially bullion guaranteed by the issuing authority; often a king, sometimes a town, or a bishop, or a baron even...but effectively interchangeable pence to penny, shilling to sou. Florin to Mark.

That’s pretty much the scene; three kinds of coins ultimately amounting to no more than bouillon guaranteed with the King’s mark. Which was why kings liked them...they could cheat and debase the coin a tad, and it, like the dollar, would still spend as it’s face value since it be reckoned as if it were bouillon. To counter the kings and barons, bankers and merchants would use a touchstone; a bit of slate upon which a coin was rubbed, the lines being compared to the color of known quantities, detecting (hopefully) the cheats.

Real medieval coinage is based on the value of a pound of silver. One pound of Silver divided evenly into 20 portions (or sometimes 22 or 24, this isn’t an exact science here)- the Shilling/Sou/or Roman Soldus… itself divided into 12 silver pennies. The penny was the main coin of European transaction.

There were many other coins, but all based on multiples of one of these two; larger values minted in gold like the Noble (6 shillings), or smaller ones (usually in silver as well) like the haypenny. Notice the 12 and 20 relationship? That's because dividing coins this way is easier. A circle can be bisected easily by eye three times to produce 6 surprisingly precise equal parts, 5 is a much harder division to get right...and people get fussy when you give them “short change”.

D&D coinage is based on a decimal accounting, it’s easier book keeping, but it isn’t right. And it’s bugged me for years. I keeps the system locked into the computer like tyranny of sameness, reducing a perplexing, ambiguous, and colorful riot of names and values into mere “gold points” so bland and uninteresting and patterned that one may as well be playing a video game, and an old one at that.  

    my desire is to make regions distinct with their own coins so that a breath of wonder and suggestion of depth comes into the game.  Also age; hoards of coins that are very old being distinguished from what is current, and that from what was brought from far away...

So, what to do? I’ve tried developing conversion tables, to turn the D&D gold points into reasonable facsimiles of Deniers and Ecus and Solidos and whatnot. That totally failed. It would require rewriting every rule book and treasure table to be functional on the fly. I don’t have the oomph for that. So my new compromise is this; a simple name change table, allowing the complexity of unique coins from different regions without having to engage in crazy conversion tables.  Later I'll compose a similar one for the ancient past, and for places farther away...

Sister Lovers: The Curse of Queerness in ‘Ginger Snaps’

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Noah Berlatsky / October 8, 2020

John Fawcett’s 2000 Canadian werewolf film Ginger Snaps is usually discussed as a feminine and feminist allegory: “the most complete feminist horror film ever made,” as this site’s K.E. Roberts puts it. There’s no doubt that the linking of the werewolf cycle to menstrual blood, and thus to female adolescence and female stigmatization, demands a feminist reading. Hidden inside the story about women, though—like a dirty secret, never to be spoken—is a story about queerness. The tragedy of Ginger Snaps, in fact, is that patriarchy makes queerness unspeakable and unthinkable. As a result, the film can imagine no future for women in patriarchy other than death.

The movie starts, in fact, with imagining death. The Fitzgerald sisters, Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), live in a dreary, lower-middle-class, mostly white Ontario town, which they hate, and which hates them. Disgusted at the thought of being normal, they swear to each other to die together before they get old. To seal their love affair with death, they create a kind of slide-show horror movie as a school project, with images of Ginger impaled on suburban fences and run down by suburban lawn mowers. The bloody show is successful in nauseating their instructor. It’s also a winking ironic foreshadowing: the sisters are about to experience the horror movie story they long for, and it’s not going to be fun at all.

But beyond that, the film–within-a-film is a camp signal to the viewer that all is not as it appears. Or rather, it’s a signal that all is exactly as it appears. The movie shows the Fitzgerald sisters as they use fake blood and special effects to stage bloody scenes of death, just as the filmmakers of Ginger Snaps stage their dog disembowelments and nightmare janitor eviscerations. The truth of the movie, which you know going in, is that it’s fake. And the thing that is most obviously fake is not the blood and gore, but the pretense that the Fitzgerald sisters are sisters.

Obviously, the actors, Isabelle and Perkins, are not sisters. They look nothing alike. Isabelle as Ginger is a conventionally attractive movie lead, while Perkins as Brigitte is mousy, big-nosed, and human- rather than Hollywood-shaped. You’re supposed to suspend disbelief about their blood ties. And yet, the movie pushes at the edge of that suspension, as if it wants you to notice the artifice. The girls are not twins, but are in the same grade: Brigitte skipped a year, Ginger too casually explains. The boys in the film notice and comment on the fact that the two don’t resemble each other. And in a queasy scene towards the films end, Ginger, more than half-transformed into wolf, leans into Brigitte and husks, “We’re almost not even related any more.”

If sisterhood is a convention, rather than a truth, then the girl’s intense friendship, and indeed their shared room, takes on a different valence. So does their alienation from their peers. The narrative provides no real reason why the Fitzgeralds feel like outsiders, or why they’re hated by their classmates. But if you accept what you’re actually seeing, then the dynamic is obvious. Two girls who really are not sisters are engaged in a passionate, intense, open same-sex relationship. Their peers hate them for it.

In this context, Ginger’s transformation isn’t just a metaphor for female adolescence; it’s a metaphor for queer adolescence, in which increasing evidence of deviation in gender and sexuality must be pushed ever further into the closet. Ginger grows a tail—a penis metaphor, surely—and hair on her chest, even as she gets her period for the first time. She becomes more femme, wearing tight clothes, redoing her hair, flirting with boys. At the same time, she becomes more masculine. She just about sexually assaults Jason (Jesse Moss), a boy she’s making out with, after he asks her who the guy in their relationship is.

The chaotic confusion of gendered presentation and gendered desire could be a metaphor for trans experience, for lesbian experience, for male gay experience. The common through-line is social ostracism, shame, and a need for concealment. Most of the movie is devoted to Brigitte and Ginger’s efforts to keep Ginger’s condition closeted, so that she can pass.

Part of obscuring Ginger’s condition involves hiding it from the film’s viewers. It seems likely that Brigitte and Ginger were made sisters in the script specifically to defuse queer possibilities. The erotic tension between them is expressed through misdirection, and routed especially through relationships with guys. Ginger has unprotected sex with Jason, infecting him. Werewolf Jason later almost assaults Brigitte, who stabs him with a phallic needle to cure him. In a parallel triangle, Brigitte has a possibly more than platonic relationship with local drug dealer Sam (Kris Lemche), who Ginger then tries to sleep with. And most explicitly, Ginger viciously murders a school janitor who she believes has been staring at Brigitte. “I don’t like the way he looks at you!” she hisses. That could be read as the anger of an overprotective sister. But it could also be jealousy.

Brigitte and Ginger’s desires aren’t just hidden from onlookers, diagetic and otherwise. They’re  hidden from themselves. When Brigitte first approaches Sam for help with a werewolf cure, she tells him that she’s the one infected, rather than Ginger. That’s an admission as much as a lie; if the curse in the movie is queerness rather than lycanthropy, then it touches both (supposed) sisters. Brigitte, notably, still has not gotten her own period, even though she’s 15. Her femininity is queer too.

Ginger, for her part, says that she has a hunger inside her that she at first mistakes for a desire for (heterosexual) sex. But then she realizes that what she actually wants is “to tear everything to fucking pieces.” We learn what that means in practice when she claws two men to death, and then suggests to Brigitte that the two of them “swap fluids” and go away together. You have to wade through apocalypse, blood, death, and the destruction of all things to get to a place where you can love that girl who is not your sister.

There’s a moment when the movie seems to foresee a plausible happy ending for that love whose name it never speaks. The sisters’ mom, Pam (Mimi Rodgers), discovers that Ginger is killing her way through her classmates. She’s understandably upset, but she doesn’t turn them in. Instead, she reacts the way you’d hope a small town mom would on learning that her kid is queer. She offers to burn down her house and chuck her mediocre husband to support her child.

The filmmakers aren’t as supportive, alas. Brigitte does agree to swap blood with Ginger, making some feeble denials to Sam about how it’s the only way to lure Ginger out to cure her with the good heterosexual injection Sam’s whipped up. But, inevitably, the taste of Brigitte causes Ginger to rage ever more out of control. Brigitte, knife in one hand, injection in the other, tries to save her, but Ginger again chooses the wrong thing to impale herself upon, and expires in the arms of her sister, who can’t be her lover.

“I’m not dying in this room with you!” Brigitte shouts right before the end. It’s a rejection of the teen sisters’ suicide pact, and an embrace of adulthood and possibility. Or, alternately, it’s a stifling acceptance of heteronormativity. “To die” is a standard double entendre, especially when it’s used to refer to what you’re doing in a bedroom. Ginger is beckoning, with bared fangs, to a realm of monstrous difference, where the girls can admit they are unrelated, and still wrestle and thrust and experience release together. Brigitte says no and kills her rather than be consumed by queer desire.

Ginger Snaps is about how patriarchy destroys women. But, as its callous title indicates, the film itself is only ambivalently opposed to that process of destruction. The movie cares about Ginger and Brigitte, but it’s also invested in denying some of the possible ways they might care about each other. In Ginger Snaps, death is better than, and the natural result of, girls loving each other intensely, or too well. Ginger wants to tear down the whole world. Ginger Snaps tears down Ginger instead.

Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.Patreon Button

Impossible Animals: Bernard Heuvelmans and the Making of Cryptozoology

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Daniel Elkind / October 6, 2020

Mort Künstler illustration for a March 1960 True magazine story on “America’s Mystery Giant,” Bigfoot.

During Christmas 1879, the last known wild tarpan (Equus gmelini) was run off a cliff somewhere in Ukraine. Native to the forests of Poland, this undomesticated horse species had survived in Europe’s ancient woodlands since at least the time of Herodotus. Apart from a few individuals scattered among various zoos, its death left Przewalski’s horse the sole wild species. 

Apparently some wild horses remain in Poland’s managed old-growth Bialowieza Forest, but their population is the result of Nazi-era experiments in back-breeding extinct animals, the tarpan included, from captive specimens. Lutz Heck, a Nazi zoologist and head of the Berlin Zoo, was not alone in his enthusiasm for resurrecting the dead. He and his hunting buddy, Hermann Göring—who, in addition to being propaganda minister and chief of the Luftwaffe, was also Reich Hunt Master and Forest Master—intended to reinvent a host of ancient and endangered “native” animals like the auroch and wisent to populate their future game reserve. In the future Europe they imagined, they and other elite Nazis would retreat to lodges in forests like Bialowieza to hunt and kill these impossible animals.  

Impossible animals—animals that do not, should not, or cannot possibly exist—have been part of human iconography and myth from the art of cave paintings to medieval bestiaries. Their absurd anatomies have been used to symbolize and subjugate, to parody and portend. (Think of the details in The Garden of Earthly Delights.) Ironically, it was the discovery of very real fossils belonging to implausible behemoths in the earth beneath our feet that renewed a belief in fantastic creatures. Since the dinosaurs were extinct, however, living anachronisms would have to be found. And because science values “skulls and skins” above all, a whole menagerie of freakish and often fraudulent specimens have cropped up to support one claim after another of isolated species still stalking remote parts of the globe. 

With the introduction of photography, new opportunities for deception arose. Using nothing but their father’s camera and some painted specimens, two girls from Yorkshire managed to fool Sherlock Holmes inventor Arthur Conan Doyle into believing that fairies lived all around us. Obviously, Conan Doyle was less of a skeptic than his invention. In dispelling the shadows, he seemed to believe, science had also purged the world of mystery: “Victorian science would have left the world hard and clean and bare,” he wrote, “like a landscape in the moon.” 

First American edition, 1959

In the early days, these pretenders tended to come from the ranks of the learned—from disciplines such as evolutionary biology, zoology, and Egyptology. Their hoaxes appealed not to fear but to the equally compelling desire to confirm whatever pet theory one had already developed. George Montandon, for example, was happy to christen De Loys’ Ape (Ameranthropoides loysi) a new species based on nothing more than a single, staged photograph taken by a Swiss petroleum geologist named François De Loys. After much publicity and speculation, however, this new primate species turned out to be a dead white-bellied spider monkey (Ateles belzebuth). Erudition can entrap as effectively as ignorance—perhaps more so. Montandon apparently “endorsed and required the creation of a large, vaguely human-like South American primate because—as a supporter of the then seriously regarded ‘hologenesis’ hypothesis—he needed a primate that could serve as an ancestor of South American humans.” 

Sergei Isaakovich Freshkop (often Frechkop), a mummy expert from Moscow, was an early proponent of another theory, now likewise discredited: the initial theory of bipedalism, which suggested that all mammals started out upright. One of his most promising students at the Free University of Brussels was Bernard Heuvelmans, who coined the term cryptozoology, and dedicated his 1955 opus Sur la Piste des Bêtes Ignorées (translated as On the Track of Unknown Animals in 1958) to his former mentor. 

Heuvelmans’ book is an exasperating, encyclopedic bestiary located at the “frontier of science and fantasy.” It’s also a beast of a book, a doorstop-sized chunk of zoological history with no less than 50 photographs, 120 illustrations—from the “monkey-eating eagle of the Philippines” to a “reconstruction of the abominable snowman”—and five hand-drawn maps. (To my eternal disappointment, neither my home state of New Jersey nor the Jersey Devil seems to merit any mentions.) If you’ve ever wondered about how we got from Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and nineteenth century Forteana to the Weekly World News of the checkout aisle, you would do well to look him up.  

Heuvelmans, who died in 2001, lived through some radical transformations in the state of the art. On the one hand, he was a trained zoologist with a dissertation on aardvark teeth; on the other, he marshaled folklore as scientific evidence and wasn’t shy about slapping his name on sensational pulp. (Allegedly, the Yeti bits in Hergé’s Tintin in Tibet derive from his input.) For Heuvelmans, as for Conan Doyle, it was all about bringing back a sense of faded romance. Along with German mammalogist Ingo Krumbiegel and Ivan T. Sanderson, Heuvelmans is often considered one of the founders of the field of cryptozoology. Perhaps more important, he embodied the embattled crypto figure as a righteous scholar who stalks the unknown while reminding the “armchair naturalists” and stuffy old Pharisees in the academy of the great mysteries that still remain in the forests of Minnesota. 

Much of Unknown Animals is thus spent in attempting to “confound the skeptics”—i.e. agreeing that we cannot say we don’t know for sure—rather than in attempting to demonstrate that there is any evidence for his claims. Heuvelmans casts this power struggle as a kind of religious schism. In Searching for Sasquatch (2011), Brian Regal attributes the contest between “eggheads” and “crackpots” to the growing professionalization of natural science as a discipline. Folklore scholar and zombie expert Peter Dendle puts it even more diplomatically

Unconfirmed species served as an implicit ground of conflict and dialogue between untutored masses and educated elite, even prior to the rise of academic science as a unified body of expert consensus.

What’s particularly interesting about 1950s cryptozoology is the way it seemed to exploit this haunted zone of possibility between fiction and verifiable fact, using doubt to its advantage. After all, dinosaurs, too, were once considered the stuff of fantasy. It was only with Cuvier and the bones unearthed by American paleontologists Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh in the 19th century that the systematic study of fossils could take place, bringing dinosaurs closer to the realm of nonfiction, if not yet science. But Sanderson and Heuvelmans went even further. Leveraging their status as outsiders, they argued that dinosaurs not only existed, but likely still survived in some remote corner of the globe. Though they claimed to despise the academy, the cryptozoologists simultaneously aspired to remake it in their image. At the same time, they were right to call out the overreliance on fossil evidence and the role of colonialism. Too often native accounts were dismissed, while white administrators who rarely left the comforts of their coastal abodes were given the benefit of the doubt regarding matters in the interior. Then there was and still is the practice of naming a new species after the first western interloper to lay hands or eyes on it. 

Fawcett Publications, 1970. Cover art by Frank Frazetta

Take the gerenuk. Native to Somaliland, where it is known as garanuug, this beautiful giraffe-necked creature is often called the Waller’s gazelle because in 1879 a hunter-naturalist “discovered” and named it after the Waller who procured the specimen. Ditto Clarke’s gazelle, Père David’s deer, Burchell’s zebra, Hunter’s hartebeest, Meinertzhagen’s forest-hog, and so on. But in what sense can one claim to discover something well-known or to name something that already has a name?

It echoes an earlier struggle, during the 18th century, when European naturalists were skeptical about biological life in the New World. The Comte de Buffon was especially vocal in his doubts that any significant new species remained to be discovered there. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the founder of American paleontology, disagreed. Jefferson had a network of people supplying him with newly-discovered fossils, specimens that ultimately convinced him that mammoths or mastodons must still exist somewhere out in the American wild. “It may be asked, why I insert the mammoth, as if it still existed,” he wrote in 1785’s Notes on the State of Virginia. “I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist? […] [the north and west] still remain in their aboriginal state, unexplored and undisturbed by us, or by others for us. He may as well exist there now, as he did formerly where we find his bones.”

In sowing doubt and helping to bust down the door to amateurs, Heuvelmans and his descendants also opened up the flood gates to crowdsourced conspiracy, in which one begins with the desire to believe and then seeks corroborating evidence among the like-minded. The more corrupt our political and environmental reality seems to get, the more technocratic the solutions proposed, the more desperate the reaction from people with nothing left to lose. In a world of constant contact, ubiquitous information, and surreptitious surveillance, doubt has become a powerful weapon against orthodoxies of all kinds. For some self-styled freethinkers, it serves as a shield from truths too ugly and dangerous to perceive directly. It reminds me of the Toynbee Tiles, an anonymous graffiti phenomenon that started with tantalizing mosaics pressed into the asphalt of major cities in the US and abroad, promising some kind of utopian TOYNBEE IDEA/IN MOVIE ‘2001/RESURRECT DEAD/ON PLANET JUPITER, but ultimately spelling out a paranoid Protocols-like media conspiracy: MURDER EVERY JOURNALIST I BEG OF YOU.

We need monsters. Without them, the world is somehow more terrifyingly rational, shrunken, diminished. The imagination rebels against such austerity, casting shadows where they didn’t exist. “But then everyone thinks himself better than his neighbours and gives them beastly habits or animal appearance,” writes Heuvelmans. “Most of the ancient travellers gave tails to the savages they found, especially on islands. Marco Polo mentions men with tails in Sumatra. Gemelli-Careri finds them in Luzon, Jean Struys in Formosa, the Jesuit missionaries in Mindoro near Manila, Köping, a Swede, in the Nicobar Islands.” Then, as if looking in the mirror, he turns back to Europe and the West: “in Europe in the seventeenth century the Spaniards believed Jews had tails, in France the people of Bearn attributed them to the Cagots who lived at the foot of the Pyrenees, and in England the Devonians believed the same slander about their Cornish neighbours. . . . Every savage believes in someone more savage than himself.”

Daniel Elkind is a writer and translator living in San Francisco.Patreon Button

 

Excited, Thrilled, Golly-Gee-Whizzed, and Titterpated too!

Bri's Battle Blog -

 Been a while since I made a good Battletech post.  I just finished Mr. Pardoe's recent novella "Divided We Fall".  It's a great BT yarn, exciting, fast moving, engaging, and a real page turner.  Also it has a special charm for me, as, in it,  I am one of the  fans Mr. Pardoe honors with an official alter ego in the Battletech Universe.

      I've loved the game since it was first shown to me in 1987...  Ah, High School, a terrible time in many respects, but my first friends were made over games of Battletech, and the universe has had my, sometimes near obsessive, attention ever since.  Lord knows how much mayhem my imaginary other world self has caused, though I take pride in knowing I've always done all I could to minimize casualties, avoid the Civvies, and uphold the Aries Conventions...  

  


 

     I couldn't be more jazzed that a  Character with my name is now a Cannonical part of the Universe; Brianne Elizabeth Lyons (Battletech Me) is a Colonel in Wolf's Dragoons!  the best of the best!  assigned to Logistics, which is exciting to me because I love thinking about Battletech logistics and strategic problems, and always imagined myself in that universe doing Operational Planning more than tactical field work.   And, to boot, the Character pilots one of my favorite of all Battlemechs; the Urbanmech.  I couldn't have asked for a more delightful and perfect representation, and it was all unasked, making it all the sweeter!  Thank you Mr. P!  You made one of my dreams a reality! 


  Anyhow, in the real world I've never quite felt comfortable with other super fans of the franchise, being a transwoman kinda has it's complications, even if they are usually inner ones, and I've shunned the community for the most part.  It certainly doesn't help that the one tournament I entered; Amigocon '89, was ruined for me when I had to abandon the game because my Dad showed up and made me leave as we entered the final heat.  I am sure I would have placed, but the cost to my familial relationships would have been severe...  You know when you are really "in the zone" on something?  you can see a few moves ahead, you know exactly what to do, and how to do it, and you can feel the victory in your fist?  yeah, it's a rare exhilaration, I've felt it a few times, some hard fought chess games, and a couple of really busy Battletech games...  And that day I totally had it.  my Lance of Mediums; my Griffin, my pals playing an Assassin, a Centurion, and a Hunchback, we'd bested Warhammers, Riflemen, Marauders, and were still in good shape, fighting on a neat underground terrain board, using first rate tactics; scooting and shooting with care...  it was a good free for all, and I would give my eyeteeth to see how it would have ended if I'd been allowed to stay and finish.  it's my third greatest regret in my life.  Well, that's all ancient history and water under the bridge as they say.

Times have changed since the late 80s... in the real world and in the game world.  The Dragoons have  a new logo...classic mech designs are re-imagined, and the clans have come, changing everything, everything except the one eternal truth; there will always be war so long as humanity remains...human.

The Jewel in the Skull: ‘James Cawthorne: The Man and His Art’

We Are the Mutants -

Richard McKenna / September 17, 2020

James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art
By Maureen Cawthorn Bell
Jayde Design Books, 2018

Stuff has to happen when it has to happen, I suppose. Back in the summer of 2018, I’d pre-ordered a copy of James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art, but by the time it was released, the family health issues that had been increasingly dominating my life over previous years had consumed it completely. When the book arrived, I didn’t even leaf through it; just unwrapped it and stuck it on a shelf, registering only that it weighed a ton and must be hundreds of pages long. And perhaps because of its association with a sad time, I completely forgot about its existence for a couple of years, only finally opening it the other night on a sudden impulse. Would what it contained be powerful enough to burn off any negative personal associations and also not be the kind of dismal self-congratulatory fannery that makes you want to chuck all your books away and start getting into metalworking or something? Well, yes it would—James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art is absolutely fucking mind-blowing.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Cawthorn was everywhere: the covers of his comic book adaptations of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories were a fixture on the wall of every head shop, goth shop, comic shop, second-hand bookshop, and pawn shop I entered until I was in my mid-20s, and I’d grown up seeing his illustrations in things like New English Library’s Strange World of Science Fiction, the Savoy Books edition of Moorcock’s The Golden Barge, and the four kids’ sci-fi anthologies that Armada books put out in the 1970s. But, weirdly, it wasn’t until I sat down with this volume that I realized just how deeply his work saturates my own aesthetic life. Which is to say, my life. Not that I’m claiming my aesthetic or actual life are of two shits’ worth of interest to anyone except myself, of course, but it’s a strange feeling to suddenly realize that the blur that’s always been there at the edge of your attention is actually one of the spinning flywheels driving your mind—reminding you how many of those people existing on the margins of the culture remain marginal despite their contributions to shaping it. Cawthorn—who passed away in 2008—is a recognized figure among genre obsessives, but how did someone so interesting and idiosyncratic, who was once so ubiquitous, fall into such relative neglect?

Cawthorn was a child of the North East, an unfairly disregarded region of England, historically far from the money of London or Manchester, that has suffered massively since the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher set in motion the definitive closing down of the mines, heavy industry, and shipyards that had been the area’s backbone for centuries. As the final remnants of the steelworks and shipyards are gradually sold off to venture capitalists, that process of neglect is now pretty much complete, yet it’s a beautiful and magical place with its own strange magic, with deep links both to the ancient past and to the future—which makes sense, given how much of the future the locals dug, hammered, and welded together before they were sold out by the Tories. If you’re in any doubt about the North East’s futurist vocation, just remember that some of our culture’s most pervasive images of the future are the handiwork of another product of the region, one Ridley Scott, who certainly took inspiration from the vast petrochemical complexes lining local rivers (as anyone who ever flew into Teesside airport at night can testify). A self-taught, working-class illustrator, Cawthorn seems like a perfect reflection of that local genius, and in a way his relative anonymity mirrors that of his native land.

James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art contains (apparently—I didn’t count) something like 800 color and black and white illustrations that cover his entire career. The contrast between the scratchy detail and dense chiaroscuro of his b&w work and the vaguely lysergic glow of his color art highlight how the two exist as entirely distinct entities, which, however, complement and complete one another when seen together here. And his color work also inspires the thought that perhaps Cawthorn’s relative oblivion is partly due to his style being too outsider-ey, too delicate and lurid (in a good way) to work at its best in the medium that was most lucrative and that offered most visibility during the time he was working—the paperback cover.

In fact, one striking thing about Cawthorn’s work is that it always retains the beauty of the obsessive amateur, never feeling glib or by-the-numbers. Even in the drawings that look most rushed, you can feel the commitment animating each piece—the euphoric sensation of watching cheap felt-tip pens somehow create entire new worlds. And unlike many other artists, Cawthorn’s aesthetic becomes more, not less, compelling and intense the more of it you see, as he endlessly mines and refines the mineral splendors of his own imagination in pursuit of his totally individual aesthetic. Looking through the book, it rapidly becomes clear that Cawthorn’s best-known images—to those who know them—aren’t even his most striking. In fact, it’s difficult to illustrate this review properly because some of his most memorable work doesn’t exist even in the daunting repository of everything that is the internet, and I don’t want to bugger up the spine on my copy.

The book has clearly been a labor of love for Cawthorn’s sister Maureen and publisher John Davey, and Maureen’s evocative and delicate memoir of him casts a lot of light on the personality behind the portfolio of artwork. Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock (a close friend of Cawthorn from his youth until Cawthorn’s death) both provide genuinely touching contributions, and the ever-reliable John Coulthart does a lovely job of arranging and presenting everything in a way that makes sense of the ridiculous amount of material, which ranges from the comics Cawthorn drew at school to the lovely t-shirts and birthday cards he produced in mind-boggling numbers for family and friends. 

So like I said, James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art is absolutely fucking mind-blowing, a reminder of the violently surreal and inspiring power that imagery of this kind can possess when emptied of retrogressive cliché and self-satisfied rhetoric and filtered through a distinctive talent. It’s a potent inducement to pick up a pen, or a pencil, or a keyboard, or just anything, and put your imagination into use.

McKenna AvatarRichard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.

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Portals and Presences: The Surreal Landscapes of Hipgnosis

We Are the Mutants -

Michael Grasso / September 16, 2020

Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue
By Aubrey Powell
Thames & Hudson, 2017

There’s always a danger of excessively romanticizing the era of the vinyl LP. Issues of sonic fidelity and durability aside, though, there’s one aspect of records on 12-inch wax that seemingly everyone does miss, and that’s the full-size record cover. Album covers during the heyday of psychedelic rock and roll were gateways to other worlds, their art often the province of esteemed painters and illustrators, their cryptic surrealism often filled with esoteric codes and symbols. Probably no other artistic collective was more famous during this decadent era than the London partnership known as Hipgnosis. From its edenic origins palling around with the rising stars of the late-’60s London psychedelic underground through to its mature period making iconic platinum album covers for global sensations like Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, and Led Zeppelin, the creative forces behind Hipgnosis gained a rightful reputation as artistic visionaries whose work didn’t merely create identifiable brands and images for a musical group. Hipgnosis covers added to the mystique of the music, creating a visual component that rendered itself an indelible part of the listening experience.

“Album covers… defined you,” says Hipgnosis founder Aubrey “Po” Powell in his “Welcome to Hipgnosis” history in 2017’s Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue, a 300 plus page full-color hardcover monster that reproduces the collective’s entire album cover output from 1967 to 1984. “The covers gave an inkling of your personality, your musical tastes and preferences, and just how up to date and hip you were.” Powell, Hipgnosis’s photographer, met his creative partner Storm Thorgerson at a hashish-suffused party across the street from his rooming house (that was suddenly raided by the police) attended by much of Pink Floyd. In that afternoon, a bond was formed between Powell and Thorgerson, a graduate student in film at the Royal College of Art. In these swinging, soon-to-turn-psychedelic times, Thorgerson and Powell were at the center of a music and art scene that would break out of the cozy confines of a few odd students and onto the global stage. Named after a piece of graffiti that Floyd’s Syd Barrett scrawled on the door to their apartment in pen, Thorgerson and Powell’s partnership (Throbbing Gristle member Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson would join in the mid-1970s) created some of the most memorable album covers of the era.

Hipgnosis’s first rock client was Pink Floyd: seen here are three of their Floyd covers: the Dr. Strange-meets-real-life-alchemy of 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets, the recursive design of 1969’s double album Ummagumma, and the iconic 1973 cover for The Dark Side of the Moon.

Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art . itself is equal parts fond (post-)hippie memoir and hard-nosed realistic account of what it was like to run a business in the often high pressure, big-money business of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll. The book contains a brief—if frank and fascinating—foreword from Peter Gabriel, who worked with Hipgnosis while leading Genesis and for his first three solo album covers. Throughout the hundreds of album covers, Powell provides a wry and informative running commentary on the personalities, problems, and sudden moments of inspiration—provided by both musicians and the cultural and natural environment—that contributed to Hipgnosis’s success. The Surrealist movement of the 1920s and specifically photographer Man Ray get quite a few name-drops in Powell’s assessment of the Hipgnosis catalog, and it’s easy to see why. The nude human form, out-of-place manmade objects juxtaposed with the organic, obvious, and often unnatural-looking photo collage: all of these definitive Surrealist techniques appear with frequency in Hipgnosis’s early output.

Much of the overall aesthetic of psychedelic rock took its inspiration from long-past artistic movements with Romantic, back-to-nature overtones: Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts, notably. With the surrealist edge of Hipgnosis’s designs, however, a flash of danger and alien weirdness was added to rock’s visual lexicon. Hipgnosis’s efforts at whimsical storybook-style covers for the Hollies and Genesis stick out like sore thumbs: solid efforts, but very much against the subversive grain of most of their work at the time. The covers where Hipgnosis unites Victorian twee with counterculture edge—such as using century-old techniques to hand-tint pastel color on Powell’s contemporary photos—do provide a pleasing synthesis of old and new. 

Gentle nostalgic folkie Al Stewart’s understated style might not seem like it jibes with the fantastic scenes conjured on Past, Present and Future (1973) and Time Passages (1978). On the other hand, Dark Side of the Moon producer-turned-bandleader Alan Parsons’s 1978 album Pyramid was directly influenced by Parsons being “preoccupied with the Great Pyramid of Giza,” to the point of “obsession” and “out-of-body experience.”

But it’s not just the art movements of the past that provided Hipgnosis with ambient inspiration. The counterculture’s well-attested conscious fusion of old and new, of the esoteric with contemporary pop and outsider culture, including science fiction and comic books, is on display throughout the Hipgnosis corpus. One of their very first commissions, Pink Floyd’s 1968 A Saucerful of Secrets, very obviously embodies this fusion, with its mixture of images from “Marvel comics and alchemical books.” Powell and Thorgerson attest to their being “avid followers of Stan Lee… Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby,” all while recognizing that “in those heady days of 1968—a man was soon to land on the Moon, alchemy was a hot topic, extraterrestrials were a certainty, Tarot readings and throwing the I Ching were de rigueur—the search for enlightenment in the East was a definite must.”

Whichever way the cultural winds were blowing, Thorgerson and Powell always forged a link to the music in their designs. Even in cases where the imagery looks too mystically epic or weird for the music on the disk, such as the covers for Scottish folk musician Al Stewart’s Past, Present, and Future (1973) and Time Passages (1978), the music’s overall themes—remembrance, nostalgia, prophecy, and folk memory—contain a tenuous throughline justifying figures leaping through strange mystic portals or tuning into a radio station that glitches out all of reality. All these strains of the magical and surreal, from Renaissance alchemists to haunted Victorian portraitists to avant-garde plumbers of the post-World War I collective unconscious to Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer—Hipgnosis synthesized these with the subconscious themes of the music to create visions that defied reality. Powell’s photographic eye and Thorgerson’s dreamlike visions found common cause in composing images that looked like set pieces on strange alien worlds or in magical faerie realms. But even with all the photographic trickery and post-production flourishes available to them as they moved out of student darkrooms and into their own studio, Hipgnosis still found inspiration out there on our Earth’s weirdest real-life spots. From the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland to a cracked, dry Tees estuary in the North of England to deserts in North Africa and the American West, Hipgnosis’s most memorable landscapes are worlds where something has gone awry, where weird monuments, alien beings, and strange hauntings abound.

Hipgnosis had a knack for using unique real-world backdrops to create eerie scenes for their album covers. Italian rock progressivo group Uno’s self-titled 1974 album depicts a mysterious hieratic harlequin with a glowing geodesic dome for a brain emulating the pose of the famous English chalk figure, the Long Man of Wilmington.

Of course there are the usual stories of rock star excess in the book, with the personnel from Hipgnosis being flown all across the world for photo shoots and consultations with the biggest names in ’70s corporate rock. In many cases, the musicians and managers themselves couldn’t resist being part of the process. Paul McCartney enjoyed hamming it up on the cover of Band on the Run, and a few years later Macca wanted to be the one to personally place the giant letters on a London theater marquee for the cover of Wings At The Speed Of Sound. Noted hard case Peter Grant, the imposing manager of Led Zeppelin, was giddy—he “burbled with glee,” according to Powell—over Hipgnosis’s proposal for a worldwide scavenger hunt of a thousand replicas of the eerie totem from the cover of 1976’s Presence. One could argue that Hipgnosis, Led Zeppelin, and Peter Grant invented the music industry alternate-reality game in 1976 (sadly, the surprise Presence publicity stunt never got off the ground after it was leaked by the music trades).

Powell is honest throughout the book about the various misfires; he finds some of their ideas in ridiculously poor taste upon reassessment and most modern observers would be hard-pressed to disagree. The collective’s pinpoint arch visual humor certainly sometimes misses the mark. If I were to sum it up: the Hipgnosis catalog contains a few dozen stone-cold classics, a bunch of forgettable designs, and a few that look like rejects for Spinal Tap’s album Shark Sandwich. Hipgnosis’s wit was used to best effect when channeling those common cultural currents mentioned above: for example, 10cc’s classic cover for their album Deceptive Bends—the creation of which is broken down in great detail by the late Thorgersen in a contemporary piece from 1977 included in the book—talks about the physical and logistical challenges in place from the beginning but also places the imagery of the diver carrying the helpless damsel in its proper context with “monster” B-movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and Robot Monster (1953). Trawling our collective pop culture unconscious, Hipgnosis called forth all kinds of creatures from the deep over their less than two decades on Earth, creatures that walk amongst us long after the collective’s demise.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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A Coke and a Smile: Tsunehisa Kimura’s ‘Americanism’

We Are the Mutants -

 Exhibit / September 15, 2020

Americanism, 1982

Object Name: Americanism 
Maker and Year: Tsunehisa Kimura, 1982
Object Type: Photomontage
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

Unlike his younger compatriots Shusei Nagaoka, Hajime Sorayama, Eizin Suzuki, and Hiroshi Nagai, who broke into the American illustration market with glistening airbrushed futures and breezy, pastel-colored beach scenes, Tsunehisa Kimura’s output was absurd, darkly surreal, and often apocalyptic. He remembered the devastation wrought by the war, and aimed his photomontage squarely at imperialism, colonialism, and, during the 1980s, a locked-and-loaded America whose leaders were playing an increasingly dangerous game that might have enveloped the entire globe.

Kimura’s most recognized piece is probably Waterfall, circa 1979, which shows Manhattan beset by, or rather integrated with,  Niagara Falls. The scene evokes disaster, but there’s something serene about it too—the riotous natural world and the built environment appear to commune, as is the goal in traditional Japanese architecture; not so in America, where we build things to keep nature—including other people—out. New York is frequently Kimura’s muse: New York encased in crackling ice; New York encased in fire at the end of the world (or is it the violent beginning of the world?); an ocean liner (is it the Titanic?) stands in for the Hindenburg, running aground on the Empire State Building.

There’s nothing serene about Kimura’s cover to the 1984 Midnight Oil LP Red Sails in the Sunset, either, showing a bombed-out, scorched-earth Sydney. A simmering red sun settles in the dust, similar to the black sun that precedes the atomic explosion in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1982-1990). And his cover for Space Circus’s Fantastic Arrival (1979), where American astronauts caper about on the Moon—while on fire—is similarly uncomfortable. Waterfall, in various edits, has also appeared on several LP covers.

Americanism is a pointed critique of both WWII-era (the photos are from the ’40s) and ’80s America, consumed with consuming and not much else, though the world (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) may burn. The ironic nonchalance of the juxtaposition is, once again, striking. The Statue of Liberty is drowned (a long-standing visual motif in sci-fi) in a 1977 photo, and an untitled piece from 1984 shows the noble lady once again, this time hurtling over (or towards) the New York skyline under the power of six American ICBMs—which huddle beneath her skirts!

Kimura’s work was collected in 1979’s appropriately title Visual Scandals by Photomontage, as far as I know the only such collection published in the US.

More DM-ing in the Town of Rosewich and environs.

Bri's Battle Blog -

      Svobod the Mule smiled to himself.  Things had sure turned for the better.  He couldn't help a satisified grunt as he stretched slowly and extended his muzzle into the trough for a breakfast of good oats.  These new friends were first rate folks, and he'd decided he'd look after them.  


     Munching away, his mind turned back to the old witch, one of a long line of cruel, dumb, and selfish "owners" who'd come into his life since the old Poopseller had passed, Bless his soul.  The witch was the worst, tying him up in that Barrow while she rummaged for something called the Table service of King Jaques, bah, the gelly cube that ate her did the world a favor.

     Why are hoomans so silly anyway?  I mean, they take the God's good oats, beat them, crush them up, dry them out, THEN put them back in water, heat them till they boil in an iron pot, THEN put them into yet another bowl, and wait for them to cool off again, and all that takes time and effort,mind you,  before they finally eat, which they have to do out of special little magic tableware?  what nonsense!  Svobod snorted so hard oats flew up his nose.

       Well at least these new ones were good fellows, it's nice to spend the night in a warm barn with nice smelling straw, the grooming girl does a good straw rub-down, the other stalls have interesting horses from all over with all kinds of horse-gossip, the oats are first rate...and not a whip or chain in sight.  No...these new adventurers were under his protection now...  if only they'd stop calling him Francis...a girl's name...so demeaning. 


Dungeonmastering Day.

Bri's Battle Blog -

 Got to run the Eldorath/Baconbach D&D game with Scott and Raven today.  

The party consisting of ; Helin Fiter -the student of Rustfus Ranquesoc who directed him into the service of St.Botewes.  Lighter Graves- a youthful tough and gruff prestidigitator of amateur accomplishments, but great potential.  Once a student of the hedgewitch Gundabarda, but since her death, a masterless youth seeking adventure.  their friend Sylvester; an enchanted sentient bedsheet, whose principle combat skill is impersonating a halloween ghost, but is kindhearted, sweet, and has hidden talents where magics are concerned.  The party is joined by Carbunkle, a childhood friend of Helin's haling from Oldsoc Village.  Carbunkle's passion is pretzles, he's a journeyman pretzle baker, but his old master having passed and unwilling to work for the new, has taken up adventuring to make the money to open his own bakery.  He's a nice asset to the gang as he is pretty muscley after an apprenticeship hefting bags of flour and hand kneading dough every morning for years. He's also a good natured and dependable friend.  

These brave souls are exploring an old barrow about an hour's walk from town, a place that has been a nuisance to travellers on the king's highway, just enough for Sir Sangramore to bother hiring some very inexpensive and expendable amateur dungeoneers to look into it.  It is said to be the burial mound of Aelpas, and ancient Wizard King of the Vertimorci Tribe in the days before the Remian Elves came to Aerovia.  But how much faith can one place in a legend attested to in only one line of the few scraps remaining of a lost book of Aerovian History?

Well today's adventure saw the gang explore a new room, discover some gems that turned out to be glass, fight rats, befriend a placid mining mule (now named Francis)  who, unknown to the party,  can see in the dark and has a fine sense of direction, and little tolerance for abuse.  They were pleased at the discovery of a gargoyle that spouts a stream of quicksilver, encountered a room with yellow fungus and a nice tapestry, and happily, had no encounters with the dreaded Pickwicky.

     In town they got taken for a large sum of money by the town's Banker-Merchant in a sour deal for a great Tapestry (of the baker of Wooton Major), discovered the humility of the penitents crawl to the crypt under the vault of the cathedral, and it's magical healing, and enjoyed the warm comforts of the Cracked Cask.  

More would have been done, but my teeth began to buzz (the Aura warning of my migraines) and I decided to pack up and flee for home.  good thing too, the winds are roaring outside, and that pretty typically gives me the kind of migraine I have tonight.  Still, a nap and my brain pills has broken the worst of the pain, leaving me feeling like I've been swimming in a river for hours. 

Spending time with my friends makes this a great day, no matter what.




chicken paintings

Bri's Battle Blog -

 So, some friends painted a mural for the state fair...  but there always seems to be a chicken display placed in the way.  for some reason the idea was both maddening, and kind of interesting.  I decided to incorporate the chickens into other paintings...and it amuses me.

























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