East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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The other Van Helsing

I was watching Brides of Dracula last night. The 1960 Hammer movie directed by Terence Fisher does not feature Dracula at all – the Count is name-checked in the title and in the spoken intro – and given for dead – and the main vampire in the picture is Baron Meinster (David Peel), on the rampage in search of young women’s blood in an out-of-the-way corner of Transylvania. It’s a good fun movie, with a lot of original touches, despite the presence of a very dodgy bat. And of course there’s Yvonne Monlaur, that is absolutely gorgeous, in the role of student teacher Marianne Danielle – the damsel in distress of the piece, all the way from Paris to Transylvania to get in a whole lot of trouble.

And we get Peter Cushing, reprising his role as Doctor Van Helsing. Maybe.

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Relic/The Relic (1995 & 1997)

Often it’s all a matter of timing. I read Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Relic when it came out in 1995, having read some good reviews. I was in the Air Farce at the time, and that probably did not help me enjoy the book, that I read during one dull weekend while holed up in the switchboard bunker, plus a late-night train ride home. That, and the comparison to The X-Files – a series I did not enjoy very much – did not help putting me in the best disposition. I liked the set up, the setting and the premises, but I found the main protagonist Agent Pendergast absolutely insufferable. I came out of the book with very mixed feelings.

Also, it was pretty obvious one of the authors, that had been an employee of the museum in which the novel is set, had an ax to grind with that sort of environment, and while I can appreciate it – I do have my own set of axes to grind with the world of academia and research – and I certainly approve of using fiction to kill the people we hate, the revenge fantasy element in the novel was to me a little too evident.

So, OK, I sort of liked it but I wasn’t crazy about it – to the point that I have a stack of other Preston/Child books here in my emergency box, and I’ve never been desperate enough to try another – despite the excellent reviews the books had from people I respect.

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Leiji Matsumoto has been drawing comics and animated features forever, and it makes sense that when Japanese animation was first distributed in Italy, one of Matsumoto’s works was at the forefront of the anime invasion. Space Pirate Captain Harlock hit my country about six weeks before my 12th birthday, and instantly became my favorite Japanese cartoon. No giant robots stomping over the suburbs of Tokyo, but good old fashioned space opera – and it was just what the doctor ordered for a kid that had spent two years reading Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton. I mean, come on… space pirate? Where do I sign up?

Matsumoto’s Northwest Smith
Matsumoto’s cover for Shambleau

Only much later would I find out that Matsumoto had been, about ten years before, the illustrator for both the Northwest Smith stories and the Jirel of Joiry stories by C.L. Moore, when they had first been published in Japan. Impeccable pulp space opera credentials, that Matsumoto put to goo use not only in Harlock, but also in other works, and of course in Space Battleship Yamato, from 1974, a military sf/space opera that was the answer to the prayers of anyone grown up (not much, in fact) with The Legion of Space, and that felt trapped in a world in which there was not enough SF on the telly, nor in the bookstores.

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Raiders of the Lost Franchise: Gwendoline (1984)

Ah, the French! The whole world is looking around for an Indiana Jones-style screenplay, resurrecting old projects and launching dubious attempts at new franchises? And the French decide that the best way to go is to take an old fetish comic series from the ’40s, and make a movie of it – with lots of nudity, a poor excuse of a plot, and Tawny Kitaen. What could ever go wrong?

The movie makes Bo Derek’s Tarzan look like the real thing, and was distributed in 1984 as Gwendoline or, on some markets, I kid you not, as The Perils of Gwendoline in the land of the Yik Yak.
Some of us saw it back then, on the big screen, and have the scars to prove it.

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Raiders of the Lost Franchise: Sky Bandits (1986)

What was it about 1986 and planes, and adventure movies? Because we just had the time to take stock of the disappointing weirdness that was Sky Pirates/Dakota Harris that we find ourselves back again in the time of Biggles – well, the real time of Biggles, the Great War – for another one of those weird eccentric movies that would have been a great first episode for a franchise, only the franchise never happened, and maybe it’s better this way. The movie in question is the 1986 British independent movie Sky Bandits, aka Gunbus – that I saw back to back with Sky Pirates over the weekend (hence this episode of the series so close to the previous).

Not to be confused with the 1940 Monogram movie also known as Renfrew of the Royal Mounted in Sky Bandits, Sky Bandits/Gunbus is a historical adventure movie with some weird/science fictional elements (not enough to make it dieselpunk or what – just plain weird).
The plot in a nutshell (courtesy of Wikipedia): In the dying days of the old west, two bank robbers, Barney and Luke, find themselves fighting in World War One in France.

Nice and smooth.
Well, not exactly.

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Raiders of the Lost Franchise: Sky Pirates (1986)

The year 1986 was clearly a good one for Indiana Jones wannabes and unlikely first chapters of franchises that never went beyond the first chapter. In the first episode of this series, we’ve seen how in 1986 good old stalwart British pulp hero Biggles was let down by a confused execution and a misguided “update”. This time, we get a movie that features…

  • ancient astronauts
  • Easter Island
  • Stonehenge
  • the Sea of Lost Ships
  • the Philadelphia Experiment
  • space-time distortions
  • conspiracy theories
  • Melbourne (for that little extra exoticism)
  • World War Two (but just a hint of it)
  • and a lead called Dakota Harris

It was shot in Australia, and it is, of course, the 1986 adventure … ehm, classic, Sky Pirates (aka Dakota Harris).

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Space Rangers (1993)

The first science fiction novel I ever read was Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space, that my grandmother gave me as a gift on my tenth birthday, and that I probably read fifteen times in the course of the following summer. This to explain that I have a soft spot for old-fashioned space opera of the pulpy kind, and I am not ashamed of this fact: Jack Williamson, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore are still very high in my personal list of favorites, and if you can give me mysterious planets, strange aliens and some kind of space adventurer, I’m fine.

Which leads me to Space Rangers, a very short lived TV series from 1993, that I found by chance – you find the six episodes on Youtube. The quality is not the best, but who knows, you might want to check it out.

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