Serena and the Ratts

“Look what the RATTs dragged in…”

serenaA somewhat jumbled mix, this sounds like a film about a punk-rock band but certainly isn’t. It actually starts off playing as a WW2 version of The Terminator, then morphs in the middle to become a mongrel crossbreed of Leon and Nikita, more or less abandoning the whole time-travel aspect entirely. The reasons for this do eventually become clear, yet still leave you feeling like the first third of the film was an entire waste of effort. To begin in the middle, Serena (Marie, who as you can see from the left, even looks like early Anne Parillaud) is a young woman, plucked off the streets by the Boss (Thomson) and raised in his image to become an assassin. She and her boyfriend, Leonard (Neal) are given a very strange mission. A group of scientists have discovered how to manipulate the space-time continuum, allowing them to travel in time, and they have sent someone back to kill Hitler as a child. A counter-group, the RATTs – Researchers Against Time Travel – believe this will just make things worse i.e. allowing someone else, more competent, to rise instead, so through Boss, hire Serena and Leonard to kill the assassin. So how do you stop someone, when those behind them have the ability to control time itself, and counter every move?

By coincidence, I watched this the same week as Predestination, and that film demonstrates how time-travel, altering past effects and the resulting paradoxes, should be handled. Here, the film never gets a firm grasp on it, and nor does the budget allow for anything approaching the credible depiction of a previous era that is necessary. The performances are all over the place too, mostly under-emoted and flat, though there’s also the worst apparent attempt at a British accent I’ve heard in years: Dick Van Dyke snorts derisively from the corner. [Look, I know we make great villains and all, but if you don’t have someone who can do it properly, and the Britishness isn’t necessary to the plot, I have to wonder: why bother?] As noted, there’s a sudden switch in focus, and it’s quite jarring, although I suppose it kinda makes sense for a story (nominally) about time-travel to have a fractured structure. Here again though, it doesn’t add anything to the plot, and a more linear retelling might perhaps have allowed the makers to build more empathy with Serena.

It wouldn’t have impacted the plot much, since it’s only at the end, when the Boss does the whole “let me tell you the entire plan for no good reason” thing – a staple of movie characters since early Bond flicks – that it makes sense. However, please note the sharp distinction between “sense” and “compelling viewing”, since the latter is never even approached here. Technically sound, with some interesting camerawork and a decent soundtrack, this remains just marginally passable as entertainment, mostly thanks to a script in need of at least two more rewrites.

Dir: Kevin James Barry
Star: Evalena Marie, Jonathan Thomson, Dave Neal, Marek Tarlowski

Werewolf Woman

“Hungry like the wolf”

wolfwomanWhile there have been plenty of female vampires over the year, the number of female werewolves is a lot smaller. There’s the wonderful Ginger Snaps (and its not as wonderful sequels), the forgettable Cursed, TV series Bitten, and most infamously of all, Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf.  However, perhaps the closest relative here is a little off to one side: the remake of Cat People, made by Paul Schrader in 1982. It is not dissimilar in tone and approach, both taking a firm, if somewhat hysterical psychosexual tone to proceedings, and Giorgio Moroder’s musical score sounds like the synthesized one here. Both have heroines whose transformations are triggered largely by sexual excitement, and who eventually find a man happy to love them for who they are – only for that happiness to be short-lived. Of course, this one being grindhouse, the reason for its abrupt termination is her boyfriend being stabbed to death while trying to stop her from being raped, which triggers a rampage of revenge that justifies its inclusion on this site.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. It’s also a sexual assault which triggers the psychological problems for Daniela Neseri  (Borel). The psychological trauma and Daniela’s obsession with a family legend involving an ancestor who supposedly turned into a predatory animal, form a potent combination, and she develops a deeply-held belief that she also changes into a wolf at the full moon. That doesn’t appear to be the case, but it still brings tragedy down on the family, when Daniela gets all hot and bothered after seeing her sister (Lassander) making love to her husband. The resulting carnage get her committed to a psychiatric hospital by her aristocratic father (Carraro), only for Daniela to escape after an encounter with the facility’s local nymphomaniac. After some more brutal murders, which baffle the local police, she finally meets her soulmate, who works as a stuntman. And this takes us back to where this paragraph came in.

It’s pure exploitation cinema, not skimping at all on the nudity, and with a healthy amount of gore as well – what else would you expect from a director who, the same year, gave us Deported Women of the SS Special Section? This isn’t quite as sleazy, though certainly is not family viewing, and is well enough made to make for an interesting viewing experience for broad-minded spectators. Borel has a nicely lupine quality about her, and even if the transformation sequences [most notably the opening dream sequence] leaves a bit to be desired, the various elements – the heroine, her family, the cops who gradually realize the connection between the corpses – are tied together with a script that has had more effort put into it than you might think. They truly don’t make them like this any more.

Dir: Rino Di Silvestro
Star: Annik Borel, Howard Ross, Dagmar Lassander, Tino Carraro
a.k.a. La lupa Mannara or The Legend of the Wolf Woman

Winter’s Bone

“A grim fairy-tale.”

Ashlee Thompson as Ashlee Dolly (left), Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly (centre) and Isaiah Stone as Sonny Dolly (right)Not perhaps our traditional fare, but there’s a good case to be made for its inclusion, with a strong, single-minded heroine who is prepared to do whatever it takes, including putting herself at considerable risk, to keep her family together. Certainly, you can see why Lawrence went on to stardom, and knowing her subsequently as Katniss Everdeen makes going back to her breakthrough role interesting. For you can see echoes of Katniss’s steely determination in 17-year-old Ree Dolly, trying to cope with a mentally-ill mother, two young siblings and an absent father. She’s just about coping, until she discovers that her father has skipped out on an impending court date for cooking meth, and put up the family home as collateral for his bail bond. If Ree can’t track him down, the bail company will be able to seize the family’s property and turf them out. Tracking him down is going to require Ree poking her nose into some very unpleasant corners of rural Missouri, where some intimidating characters have good reason for the missing man to remain that way.

It’s a disturbing glimpse into a world that seems barely part of America. I haven’t been so unsettled by a film’s location for a long time – the only comparable movie I can think of, is the East European gypsy slum in Import/Export, which looked more like a bomb site than a functioning residential area.  Outside the natural surroundings of the Ozark Mountains, beauty is rare here; happiness, even rarer: survival is a full-time occupation, leaving no time for anything else. Outside of Ree, and her young sister and brother, who are too little to know different, there is hardly anything approaching a sympathetic character here. They virtually all pose a threat of some kind to Ree’s mission, and she has to navigate her way through them as if they were wolf-infested woods, knowing the right time to push, and the right time to back down. Except, even Ree isn’t fallible, which is how she ends up on the floor of a barn, beaten to a bloody pulp. Yet that’s when help arrives, from an unexpected source, and I guess, almost everyone lives happily after. Or as happy as possible, given the circumstances.

Lawrence is great, convincing and sympathetic, resilient and focused, a heroine who is credible without being incredible. Indeed, all the performances hit the required spots, to a degree where you wonder if Granik simply put out a casting call for meth dealers. However, the script isn’t as convincing, relying too much on people who have behaved one way, suddenly switching tack, for no obviously apparent reason beyond it being necessary for them to do so. It’s not exactly light entertainment either, and if you’re expecting flashy set-pieces, definitely look elsewhere. Falls more into the category of films which are to be respected, rather than enjoyed, yet Lawrence’s portrayal takes the viewer along, on a trip into the heart of Missouri darkness.

Dir: Debra Granik
Star: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Garret Dillahunt

Xena Reboot: Yes! No! Maybe?

xenaWell, it was a glorious 24 hours of hope, while it lasted. On Monday, the Hollywood Reporter wrote that NBC were “in the extremely early development stages” of preparing a reboot of the much-loved action-heroine series, which originally began in 1995. Producers of the original show, Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi, were reportedly involved, continuing a partnership which had also brought us Spartacus and the upcming Ash vs. Evil Dead – both of which included roles for Lucy Lawless, a.k.a. Mrs. Tapert. There was no firm word as to whether Lawless would have been involved in the reboot, but based on that track record, it would seem likely. Albeit not as the heroine, the piece saying “the new Xena would have to have the charisma and charm of Lawless and the smarts of The Hunger Games‘ Katniss as producers are said to be looking for a sophisticated and smart superhero for a new generation.”

This was certainly something Lawless had been keen on for quite some time. Just earlier this month, while appearing at San Diego Comic-Con to promote Ash vs. Evil Dead, she said: ” I’m pitching my ass off to make it happen, whether it’s with me or not… It’s about who’s got the rights. But that’s a piss poor excuse anymore… Freakin’ pay it. It’s better to have 80 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing. Don’t waste this opportunity. Reinvigorate that franchise… They’re fools not to bring it back.” Judging by the reaction in the media, Lawless is right: the demand for a Xena revival is clearly still there, and it wouldn’t be the only piece of fondly-remembered nineties television, with the Fox revival of The X-Files already being one of the most eagerly anticipated shows of 2016.

But, not so fast, those of you already strapping on the leather corset in preparation for the cosplay contest at XenaCon next year. For no sooner had the seed been planted, then the earth on which it was sown was strewn with cruel salt:

Pardon me, if I sob gently into my Gabrielle-shaped pillow for a bit. :) Though it’s kinda odd, because the Reporter piece definitely seemed like it was a good deal more than a “rumor”, with meat on its bones, though did acknowledge the development was still in the extremely early stages. One wonders whether the story was, perhaps, a trial balloon of sorts, sent up to see whether the public were enthusiastic about the potential, or whether it was greeted with derisive rolling of the eyes. That question seems to have been answered in the positive, and it would certainly fill a niche for action-heroines on network television, which right now appears virtually to begin and end with Agent Carter and Covert Affairs. But let’s not forget, NBC are also the network which got as far as the Wonder Woman pilot, with Adrienne Palicki, and that never even (officially) aired. There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.

If the idea does progress, the issue could then become one of casting. There is, obviously, a strong groundswell of support from the existing fanbase to have Lawless and Renee O’Connor [who has been quiet on the whole thing] reprise their roles, even though they are aged 47 and 44 respectively. While not “past it” – Vin Diesel, say, is 48, or the Rock is 43 – this is a full two decades older than they were when they started the series. Lawless has acknowledged this, saying she thinks it’d be funny for the reboot to have a “middle-aged Xena in a muumuu with a bad attitude and a smoking habit.” Hmm. It might be funny as a one-0ff, but not sure there is exactly much staying power in that idea! Who I would like to see take over, and it would also provide a nice sense of continuity, is Zoe Bell, who was Lawless’s stunt stand-in in the show. Performances in the like of Raze have shown her capable of holding her own on the screen; and think of the money they’d save in doubles…

We’ll see what develops. I’d like to see it, but have to say, my re-viewing of the series has been a bit like binge-watching Monty Python: yes, there were some absolute classics, but your brain kinda forgets all the filler and other, lower-quality stuff in between those gems. The potential is there, sure, yet also the potential for a fond memory of my younger days to be shredded. For an example, look no further than the Charlie’s Angels reboot? Enough said.

Dakiti, by E. J. Fisch

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

dakitiThis series opener is a rousing science-fiction action adventure yarn, far better crafted than today’s average first novel. (I’m guessing that Transcendence Publishing is a real small press, not simply a printing service for self-publishing authors; but in either case, Fisch has taken her craft seriously and given readers a polished work.) The premise appealed to my liking for action-oriented heroines, so I took the opportunity to try out the series by downloading this novel when it was offered free for a day. (I’ll definitely be buying a print copy!)

We have here a tale of interplanetary intrigue, set in a far-future galaxy widely colonized by humans, whose far-flung settlement has brought them into contact with various alien races. Our main series characters belong to one of these, the humanoid Haphezians. They’re not really “super-human,” but they are taller and more muscular than Earth humans, with strength and endurance to match; and with two stomachs, they only need to eat every few days. (Otherwise, they’re physically much like humans, except for more vividness and variation in eye and hair color.) In this novel, we also meet another alien race, the reptilian Sardons. Characters from all three races will interact here, in a galaxy that’s riven by tensions, and sometimes open warfare.

Much of human space is ruled by a powerful Federation. But some fringe human planets like Tantal maintain their independence; and as in the Star Wars universe, the Federation faces resistance from a guerrilla insurgency that has elite fighters, the Nosti, who have special telekinetic powers (unlike the Jedi, theirs are derived from injections every ten years with an illegal psi-enhancing drug). The Haphezian monarchy faces a terrorist insurgency of its own, called Solaris; and some years ago fought a war with the Sardons, who sought to end the Haphezian monopoly on the caura extract trade. Ziva and Aroska serve the Haphezian Crown as agents of the HSP, Haphezian Special Police; and Haphezians are much in demand from other, less combat-capable, peoples as allies or as mercenary soldiers. That’s what’s brought hereditary Tantali governor Enrike Saiffe and his son Jayden on a diplomatic mission to Haphez near the novel’s beginning. Meanwhile, there’s a plot afoot that Ziva and her team will have to discover, and it’s a nasty one.

All of this political background is quickly sketched here in the process of narrating swiftly-moving events, without noticeable info-dumps (I expect it to be developed more in the succeeding books). Haphezian culture is suggested a bit more fully than that of the other two races involved here, but detailed world building isn’t the author’s strong point. Rather, her strong points are tight plotting, smooth and direct prose style that does what she wants it to, well-written action scenes (and a lot of them!), a conflict against a foe whose aims and methods are definitely evil, though that doesn’t mean that we think the Haphezian regime necessarily resembles goodness incarnate; and above all, character development and interrelationships between characters. (We’re not talking about romantic relationships here, but human relationships –and Haphezians are as “human” as you and I in those respects, regardless of how many stomachs they have.) Fisch throws some twists and turns into her plot (one of these I saw coming –but the satisfaction of guessing rightly is part of the fun!) and the last chapters especially are suspenseful right up to the end (reading these, I was glued to the screen!).

Ziva Payvan is a complex, round and dynamic character, embodying more than physical strength, good aim with a gun, and quick reflexes –though she’s got all of those, in enough measure to make her a VERY formidable fighter in any combat situation; you definitely don’t ever want her as an opponent! She’s an intelligent, layered person with a capacity for strong feelings, an inner moral code, and a lot of loyalty; but she’s not necessarily likeable. A product of a rough childhood and adolescence and of a dysfunctional family, she harbors some secrets and has made some bad choices, one of them really dark. And her government has trained her, and used her, as a professional assassin for State-sanctioned killings, with attendant toll on her softer feelings. She’s also abrasive, arrogant, and hot-tempered. But Fisch manages to make her a person you care about.

Aroska Tarbic is also a well-developed character, a strong, tough male well able to handle himself in combat, and with no problems about fighting shoulder-to-shoulder alongside of a woman. (Commendably, Fisch shows both male and female characters routinely taking fighting responsibility, and handling it well.) Indeed, all of the important characters here come to life in the author’s words. Many of the situations and scenes here are powerfully emotionally evocative.

One aspect of the premise here is problematical: Haphez is a highly-developed, tech-savvy planet with a culture that undoubtedly boasts centuries of development. It seems implausible that they wouldn’t have developed a more efficient judicial system, and a more efficient way of carrying out capital punishment, than they apparently have here. We can say the same for a few key details of the plotting that don’t stand strenuous examination too well. And hard-SF buffs will quibble about the impossibility of real-time interplanetary radio communication between planets that are light-years apart, given the relatively slow speed of sound waves. (In Ursula LeGuin’s fictional Hainish universe, an invention called the “ansible” eliminates this problem –we’re not told how, it just does!– but as far as we know, Haphez doesn’t have the ansible.) None of these factors kept me from really liking the book, though! I absolutely plan to continue with the series.

Note: Bad language here (strictly of the d- and h-word sort) is minimal, and there’s no sex, explicit or implied. Very romance-phobic readers can approach this tale without fear.

Author: E. J. Fisch
Publisher: Transcendence Publishing, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Lady Avenger

“Big hair, big sunglesses and a little budget.”

ladyavengerDeCoteau gave us one of the all-time worst GWG films, in American Rampage. Made the same year, 1989, this is surprisingly… Well, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say “good,” it looks like Citizen Kane beside Rampage; let’s settle on “surprisingly semi-competent.” The heroine, Maggie (Sanders), is serving time in jail, when she is let out on furlough to attend the funeral of her murdered brother. Maggie escapes, and sets about tracking down those responsible, working her way up the chain of command, wielding everything from a baseball bat to a flamethrower(!), and with a fetching line in 80’s wraparound shades, which she wears even when exploring a dimly-lit warehouse. Hey, it was the eighties, man – the decade that gave us Miami Vice! How you looked was at least as important as what you did… The trail of those responsible ends up a good deal closer to home than is comfortable; the character in question is not exactly unexpected, so that doesn’t count as much of a spoiler.

There’s probably only one person in the cast you’ll recognize, and you have to be a B-movie aficionado even for that – scream queen Bauer (under her name at the time, Michelle McLellan) shows up as Maggie’s two-timing friend, who delivers a copious amount of entirely gratuitous nudity and lingerie, to liven things up. Sanders was the Playboy Playmate of the Month for January 1990, which tells you just about all you need to know regarding her acting ability. Wisely, the script opts not to test the limits of her thespian ability, giving her a bit of low-tier emoting early on, as she gets told of her brother’s demise and attends her funeral, before she heads into stone-faced machine of vengeance mode. The villains are a curiously preppy-looking bunch of drug-dealers, all white, mostly with nice teeth, and many wouldn’t seem out of place at a frat party.  Still, they all go down like ninepins, though the action is of widely varying quality; some of the car chases are pretty good, yet on the other hand, the less said about the grenade sequence, the better.

Given how much I was braced for something irredeemably bad when I discovered who had directed this, I will confess to being pleasantly surprised. This is, however, at least as much a result of my low expectations, as any reflection of the film’s quality, and you’d be well-advised to follow suit. If you’re looking for a slice of cheesy, straight-to-video 80’s goodness, from a time in history not long after the question “VHS or Beta?” was still being asked, and with a lurid sleeve to match, this and a couple of beers will represent a throwback to a more innocent era. The trailer below offers a perfect appetizer for it.

Dir: David DeCoteau
Star: Peggy Sanders, Tony Josephs, Jacolyn Leeman, Michelle Bauer

Blood Soaked

“Zombie Women of the S.S.”

bloodsoakedIt’s nice to see a horror movie which has women on both sides: not just the “final girl” trope, but as the entirely deranged pair of antagonists. This is equality at work, folks! In this case, the villains are sisters Sadie (Grendle) and Katie (Derryberry), who were apparently left orphaned by the unexpected death of their father who was… Well, if I’d to guess, I’d say he was trying to continue the work of Nazi scientists, with the aim of creating an army of undead slaves through the use of a resurrection serum, who can then be used to bring about the Fourth Reich. I’m kinda assuming this, from the use of copious public-domain Nazi footage during the opening credits, and the swastikas hanging around their desert bunker. Meanwhile, peppy student Piper (Wilder) is starting at college, and before long is exploring her sexuality with fellow student, Ashley (Corona). The pair head out into the desert, but a roadside encounter with our psycho sisters kicks off the horror part of proceedings, with Piper in particular being stalked, captured and dragged into the Naziettes lair where even worse things await.

There are two main problems here: one stylistic, and the other an issue of pacing. The former is the decision to switch into high-contrast black and white, when it first becomes clear to Piper, the trouble she’s in. While it certainly adds impact to the that moment, the film-makers apparently forgot to flip the switch back on their camcorder, and any impact is lost. You give your film a title like Blood Soaked, and we expect to see… well, blood. Here, however, it might as well be chocolate sauce, as used by Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho. That’s when you can see it at all, as the high-contrast mentioned tends to wash everything into the two ends of the spectrum: all or nothing.

Equally problematic, is the film taking too long to get to a point where it is even attempting to justify the title. It barely runs an hour between opening and the end credits rolling, which should be an incentive to get cracking and have things moving on at a fast pace. We do not need to see Piper showing up to college with her mom. We do not need to see Piper and Ashley meeting and building their relationship. We do not care. I’d have been a lot more interested to see what Sadie and Katie were up to over the decade after their father died, though quite how such a pair of certifiable loony tunes were able, not just to survive but flourish, escapes me. In the end, it commits the single, unforgivable sin of both original grindhouse cinema and modern films which attempt to reproduce its philosophy: it’s mostly dull. By the time the mayhem eventually showed, I was already trying to figure out if I could do household chores, while leaving this on in the background. Never a good sign…

Dir: Peter Grendle
Star: Heather Wilder, Rachel Corona, Hayley Derryberry, Laina Grendle

Sword and Sorceress XII, edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: Variable

sword12Another reliable winner from Bradley’s long-running anthology series, with a good mix of genre stalwarts and talented newcomers. For once, I read this volume without interspersing it between other books, and read the stories almost entirely in order. In this case, the really outstanding stories tend to be clustered closer to the back; but most of the earlier ones are also solid, competently-told tales of their type.

The one worthless clunker in the collection, IMO, is Carolyn J. Bahr’s “Does the Shoe Fit You Now?” a cynical and predictable re-imagining of the supposed situation some time after the part of the story of Cinderella that we know, from an anti-male, anti-marriage standpoint. It preaches to the choir of women who’ve married self-centered drunks and given up on the male gender as a result; but like most tracts in the form of “fiction,” it doesn’t succeed well as either, unless the aim was solely to resonate with that audience. (And news flash: physical work is going to a part of ANY lifestyle, married or single, that involves earning one’s keep and contributing to the world.) Nor does it really fit the collection theme: it has no fantasy element apart from the nominal “fairy-tale” connection, Cinderella is neither warrior woman nor sorceress, and stealthily running away from a bad situation without trying to change it (especially when that involves reneging on a commitment) is not a strong or “empowering” action.

However, the other selections more than make up for that one. 17-year-old (at the time this was published, in 1995) Karen Luk and L. S. Silverthorne contribute good exercises in humorous fantasy with “A Lynx and a Bastard” and “Dragonskin Boots,” respectively. Luk’s title characters would make series protagonists that I’d enjoy seeing more of. (I can say the same thing for Kaitlyn and Alvyn in Patricia Duffy Novak’s “The Lost Path” –and Novak was, at publication time, working on a novel featuring them!) “Though the World Is Darkness” by Lisa Deason pits her protagonist against a challenge more intimidating than fire-breathing dragons or pillaging hordes, and one far more obviously relevant to the real world –loss of eyesight. Heather Rose Jones’ “Skins” is a new twist on the shape-shifter theme, and very well done. One of two male authors represented here, John P. Buentello, makes use of the craft of glassblowing in “Demon in Glass” to tell a satisfying tale, though exactly how the magic system works there was a bit murky to me. Mercedes Lackey collaborates with Elisabeth Waters here to produce, in “Dragon in Distress,” another well-crafted yarn featuring Tarma and Kethry, whom I first encountered in an earlier volume of this series. (That’s also a story with a humorous touch.)

As usual in these volumes, a number of the stories struck me as truly outstanding, with a seriousness of tone and an evocative power that went straight to my heart. Several of these were by other veteran writers whose work I’ve also enjoyed in one or both of the earlier volumes in this series that I’ve read: Diana Paxson, Jennifer Roberson, Deborah Wheeler, Vera Nazarian. Like her earlier “Beauty and His Beast,” Nazarian’s “The Stone Face, the Giant, and the Paradox” explores the difference between physical appearance and moral worth. (The story here also pushes the limits of language to try to convey mystical experience that doesn’t translate well to language, but manages to do it without alienating the reader.) Paxon sets her “Stone Spirit” in a still-pagan Dark Ages Norway, where things like trolls and draugs are real, and people think their lives are ruled by Wyrd (Fate); being of Scandinavian descent myself, that background strikes a chord with me. (Patricia Sayre McCoy, on the other hand, draws as successfully on ancient Chinese culture to create the world of her “Winter Roses.”)

Wheeler’s “Silverblade,” besides being a gripping story on its face, makes particularly striking use of symbol and metaphor to say things about challenges, obsessions, and parent-child relationships. One of my favorite stories here, “Garden of Glories” by Roberson, has very little fantasy element at all. The cultural-historical background is one we can’t identify in the real world, and one of the two sisters depicted here has a talent for mending things that’s more than figuratively magical, as one minor incident shows; but basically this is “just” a story about human relationships (sisterly, filial, romantic, marital), about choices, about being true to our nature, about growing and changing; above all, about caring and love. It could easily have been written as descriptive fiction –very, very good descriptive fiction!

Two of our protagonists here (the title characters of “Chance” and “Amber”, by Tom Gallier and Syne Mitchell, respectively), are assassins by trade, trained to be good at a morally dark and lethal profession, and whose lives haven’t offered them much in the way of other options; but that doesn’t mean that either of them are sadistic, nor lacking in a sense of honor or capacity for love. Chance in particular is one lady you won’t soon forget, and her story is another of my very favorite ones here –but be warned, it’s not a sweet and warm-fuzzy tale, and her path in life isn’t an easy one.

My comments haven’t touched on all the 22 stories, but hopefully I’ve touched on enough to convey the flavor of the collection. In many of these selections, the quality of the world-building and character development cries out for expansion into a novel or story cycle. If swords-and-sorcery, or just good storytelling in the short format, is to your taste, then this is a collection well worth your time!

Editor: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Publisher: DAW, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Rana, Queen of the Amazon


“Should come with a box of moist towelettes.”

ranaThere are times when watching a film raises existential questions. Who are we? Where are we going? Or, in this case, why the hell did I start this damn website if it means I have to watch stuff like this? I knew, going in, it would bve cheap, but I was hoping for something light-hearted, a tribute to the “jungle girl” serials of the forties. Hell, I’d have settled for a micro-budget version of The Perils of Gwendoline, a film which manages to be both innocent and incredibly trashy at the same time. Instead, what I got was something that was badly-made and, frankly, creepy. I think the sequence which drove this home was when American agent Alexandria Solace (Murphey) was running through the “Amazonian” forest [quotes have rarely been used more advisedly] when she falls into a pool of quicksand. And spends the next, seven minutes, thrashing around in the mud, trying to climb out, in painfully obviously pandering to a certain, specialized fetish market. Not being part of said target audience, it was the longest seven minutes of my life. There was also rather too much… strangulation going on – to similar purpose, one imagines.

The feature is divided into three “episodes”, so does seem to be aiming for a serial approach, with titles being “The Jungle Woman versus the Nazis”, “The Jungle Woman and the Flowers of Death” and “The Jungle Woman and the Fangs of Death”. Though would it be churlish of me to note that there is only one actual Nazi? That would be Ilsa Von Todd (Krause, who has gone on to a semi-respectable career in B-horror), whom we first see plotting to take over the world with her army of mind-control zombies. [Actually, we first see her putting on her stockings. V-E-R-Y  S-L-O-W-L-Y] Though she hasn’t exactly got very far – the army count reaching precisely “one” – it’s apparently deemed sufficient threat for the US to send agent Solace down to the Amazon to stop her. Which she does, with the help of Lana, and after significant amounts of thrashing around and unconvincing fisticuffs between the three of them and the zombie.

However, no sooner has Von Todd been returned to the United States, than she escapes and heads back to the jungle, to take revenge on Lana in the second installment. Beginning with the quicksand scene mentioned earlier, this involves also involves Lana being tied up and struggling against her bonds for an extended period, before finally escaping through the kind of ludicrous deus ex machina which does, I guess, also harken back to cliffhanger serials. The finale sees [sigh] Von Todd escaping from federal custody again, but don’t ask me any details, since I had lost the will to live by this point. I do seem to recall a “snake” at one point which was clearly a green sock puppet.  I may have hallucinated this. The best thing I can say, is the theme song is kinda catchy. Otherwise, let us never speak of this again.

Dir: Gary Whitson
Star: Pamela Sutch, Tina Krause, Dawn Murphey, Laura M. Giglio

Sister Street Fighter


“The lady dragon just attacked our wig warehouse!”

sisterstreetfighterfI have reviewed this previously, way back at the birth of the site, as part of the Women Who Kick Butt box-set, where it was easily the best film present. However, that was in a dubbed version, and having recently got hold of a copy in the original Japanese, I thought it deserved a re-watch. I’m pleased to report it remains a supremely loopy bit of fun, fully meriting the seal of approval and deserving of its own page, However could it be otherwise, with dialogue such as the title caption above, or the unforgettable line, “I killed fifty bulls with my bare hands in South America, you know.” It’s 70’s martial arts plot #26: central character goes to look for missing relative. In this case, it’s Tina (Shihomi), whose brother, an undercover cop, vanished while looking into a Japanese drug cartel. She agrees to follow in his footsteps, and soon finds the gang, under boss Hayashi (Yamamoto), handle snoopers with extreme prejudice. As that caption suggests, they bring the merchandise in using heroin-infused wigs(!), and the eccentric boss is now keeping Tina’s brother as a plaything in his basement – presumably alongside the “men who know where they are and care, but don’t drink.”

Oh, and Hayashi also collects martial artists: “Some rich men buy race horses or keep an expensive dog as a pet. But I keep unusual humans instead of animals. It amuses me.” This includes everything from an expert in the Okinawan Kobudo, a chained sickle, through to a pack of Thai kickboxers called the “Amazon Seven.” There’s also a guy with a mohawk who shoots poisoned darts from his blowgun, and bunch of fairly ineffective minions, who walk around wearing what look kinda like ski-masks made of straw. Wisely, they remove these before going into battle, although this does make me wonder what the point is. These and more will all, at some point or other, be faced down by Tina and/or her own allies, including colleagues of her brother, Sonny Hibachi (Chiba) and Emmy Kawasaki (Hayakawa), as well as a ballet-school teacher, because everyone in Japan knows some version of karate, it appears. [I should also mention the unfortunate logo of the karate school is a swastika!] Though Tina’s most startling skill is her ability to fall hundreds of feet from a high bridge, then re-appear without the slightest explanation as to how she survived.

Yamaguchi’s directorial style appears to consist of tilting the camera semi-randomly, leading to some sequences being Everyday Etsuko Shiomis, seen from unusual angles. But he also is smart enough to stand back when appropriate, letting her and everyone else do their thing, and this is when the film earns its keep. Watching Shiomi duel with nunchakus is worth the cost of admission alone, with the rest of the fights, and the general lunatic approach, merely a bonus. Released almost exactly a year after Enter the Dragon, the debt owed to that classic is certainly clear, not least in the tiger claws wielded by Hayashi. If some performances may be on the functional side (watch the drug withdrawal scene for truly epic over-acting), it still does a better of job of repaying its debts than many other imitators of the time, being an enjoyable slab of excessive kung-fu action in its own right.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Shohei Yamamoto, May Hayakawa, Sonny Chiba