Crazyhead

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“Buffy does Britain.”

Amy (Theobold) is insane. Or so the rest of society thinks, due to her being able to see things nobody else can. She’s trying to keep her head down, working quietly at a bowling alley. But after being attacked, she is rescued by Raquel (Wokoma), another young woman who can see exactly the same things. Amy learns from her new friend that demons are real, and live among us: Raquel has appointed herself a demon-hunter, and convinces the reluctant Amy to join her. This causes no end of issues, not the least of which is Amy’s room-mate becoming one of the possessed, and the most of which is likely the apocalyptic plan of Callum (Curran). He intends to use Raquel to open the gates of hell on Halloween, allowing thousands more demons to flood into our world and take over humans.

It is, very clearly, inspired by Buffy in many aspects, from its blonde heroine, through the “Scooby Gang” of friends in assistance, such as long-suffering bowling-alley colleague, Jake (Reeves), who carries a torch for Amy and likes canoeing. On the villainous side, Callum also seems to owe a particularly large debt to the Mayor of Sunnydale (though in our house, Curran will always be Van Gogh from Doctor Who!). However, it’s almost fourteen years since Buffy Summers rode off into the sunset, so I guess the statute of limitations has run out there. Another potential inspiration could be a distaff version of Supernatural, but there’s still plenty here that’s fresh and fun, and it has a particularly British approach

For instance, it’s laden with sarcastic banter, as well as (for those who might be offended) plenty of harsh language and general crudity – an exorcism, for instance, requires a very special shower for the target… If somewhat lacking in originality, the dynamic between the two leads helps make up for this; it’s likely the show’s strongest suit, and overcomes most of the scripting flaws. Amy and Raquel are each outsiders in their own ways, who can mesh together into an effective whole. One possesses better social skills, and can hold down a job, so is able to interface with other people if necessary; while the other has superior knowledge about what’s going on, in part thanks to her “special” background. Though both are quite happy to resort to a more physical approach when necessary – and, given who they’re facing, that would be quite often.

It’s all over remarkably quickly, especially if you are more used to American series, typically lasting 20+ editions a season. This only takes six 45-minute episodes to go from introducing the characters to the eve of the apocalypse. It is perhaps a good thing, as the story written by creator Howard Overman is somewhat thin, and could potentially feel stretched if told at any greater length. Instead, you will likely be left wanting more, and that’s never a bad position for the audience to be in, at the end of a show’s first season.

Dir: Al Mackay and Declan O’Dwyer
Star: Cara Theobold, Susan Wokoma, Lewis Reeves, Tony Curran

Chosen, by K.F. Breene

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

Shanti is a bad-ass. Not that you’d know it when we first encounter her, staggering through the wilderness on the edge of death, after an ill-considered choice of route as she escapes from… Something. We’ll get back to that. Fortunately, she is found by Sanders, a career soldier from a nearby city, out on a training mission with a band of raw recruits. They take her back to their town, where she’s nursed back to health – then the awkward questions begin, concerning where she was going and precisely why she was carrying weapons. But the key turns out to be Captain Cayan, who possesses the same psionic warfare capabilities as Shanti; except, he’s all but unaware of it, a sharp contrast to her finely-honed and practiced expertise.

When the city comes under attack, it appears initially just to be another raid by the Mugdock, a barbarian tribe who have caused trouble for years. However, it turns out they aren’t alone, and have partnered up with others who pose a bigger threat. While her adroitness, with both mind and sword, are key in fending off the enemy, it offers only temporary relief, because Sanders is then captured while out on a mission, and tortured to reveal the city’s secrets. Cayan, together with Shanti, lead the expedition to rescue him, but the resulting conflict brings her presence in the area to the attention of the very people she least wants to find out.

I enjoyed reading this – after a couple of fairly lackluster entries in the genre, it was refreshing to find something where you wanted to keep turning pages, to find out what would happen next. Shanti is an excellent heroine: smart, fiercely loyal to those who have earned her trust, takes no shit from anyone, with a sardonic wit and possessing copious back-story, some of which is filled in over the course of this book. But woe betide you get on the wrong side of her, for she can kill you quickly with her sword – or very slowly with her mind. As we see near the end of the book, you’d better pray you get the former fate. Speaking of which, her talents are showcased particularly well in the following passage, depicting her defense against the Mugdock attackers:

Words could not describe how thoroughly Sanders had underestimated her. How they all had. She moved as if in some elaborate dance. Every nuance of her body was in perfect harmony as she glided through her fighting postures, slicing and cutting, weaving in and out. Even her sword was part of the dance, moving like an extension of her arm. She was breathtaking. And extremely deadly. Her pile was larger than her male counterpart’s. It was neater, too. One cut, maybe two, and they were brought down. Appendages sliced off, heads, limbs, incapacitated, then she moved on. Every so often she would throw a knife, hitting someone in their head, heart, or, most often, their neck. He had never seen anything like it.

Damn. It’s a bit of a shame that there isn’t more action, because it’s described so evocatively when it comes along, you’re left feeling as if you were there, and wanting more. To her credit, Breene also does a good job of Shanti’s psychic abilities; I’ve seen books where that kind of thing turns into clunky and ineffective prose, not the case here. A couple of other points worthy of praise. While there’s obvious unresolved sexual tension between the heroine and the Captain, this provokes a lot less eye-rolling than usual; indeed, it makes sense, given their mental bond. It’s also a fully-formed story – Shanti’s saga goes on, obviously (there are six books in The Warrior Chronicles to date), yet this finishes at a point that feels complete, not an obvious “Continued in Volume 2!”

There were occasional passages which I did find myself having to re-read, because the intent or meaning of them seemed rather confused. But that’s a small quibble, for an engrossing story in a universe a bit reminiscent of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle (albeit with fewer dragons… at least, so far!). My rule of thumb for deciding whether a book is good or not, is whether I watch it unfold cinematically in my mind’s eye as I read. That wasn’t just the case here, I was also actively casting it. What do we want?! Cecily Fay for Shanti. When do we want it? As soon as someone gets the budget. :)

Author: K.F. Breene
Publisher: Through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.

Catfight

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“All teeth and claws.”

My wife is a big fan of Sandra Oh, for her long-time work on soapy medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy. This is about as far from that as imaginable. It’s a gloriously mean-spirited “comedy” [and I used the quotes out of reverence, not in a bad way], which combines social satire with gleeful hyper-violence, at a level where you would not expect to find serious actresses. Veronica (Oh) and Ashley (Heche) knew each other in college, and have since grown apart. Veronica is now wife to a defense contractor; Ashley a largely unsuccessful artist. They meet at a birthday party, and instantly the hate begins, each representing everything the other finds reprehensible. The night ends in a stairwell brawl, which leaves Veronica in a coma for two years. She awakens, to discover she has lost everything, and Ashley is now on top, enjoying commercial and critical success.

But things are only just getting started.

This is cinematic schadenfreude: watching two thoroughly unpleasant and entitled people lose it all, and take it out on each other. The three-act structure here has each act culminate in a ferocious bout of fisticuffs, whose only point of comparison would be the Roddy Piper/Keith David fight from They Live. It is, equally as much, entirely over-the-top and deliberately so, not least for being backed by classical music e.g. The Stars and Stripes Forever or even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Particular credit goes to the sound design crew, who really go to town, with the blows having so much impact, it feels as if the punches are being launched from a missile silo in Wyoming. You’ll certainly come away with a new appreciation for the art of foley.

It’s nicely even-handed in its cynical view: most films would be inclined to come down on the side of one or other protagonist, but here, any bias is more likely to reflect the viewer’s point of view. Personally, I though Oh hit it out of the park with her performance: she has a great face, capable of conveying a wealth of emotion with a look. Though no, darling: I still won’t watch Grey’s. [Bonus points to Chris, as she did notice the hospital in which Veronica wakes up is called Mercy General, a name likely chosen as a nod to the rival hospital in the show, Mercy West.] But it is undeniably a two-hander, with credit due to both: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and in that, I was occasionally reminded of a more brutal version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Credit is particularly due for the ending, where I felt certain the movie was going to cop out, delivering a sappy “kiss and make up” conclusion. There would probably be hugs, it would be utterly at odds with the acid venom of the previous 90 minutes, and I’d walk away disappointed. I’m delighted to say I was entirely wrong, and the ending fits the film perfectly. This is an ugly, guilty pleasure: yet, a pleasure it undeniably is.

Dir: Onur Tukel
Star: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Ariel Kavoussi

The Champagne Gang

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“Contains 100% of your daily requirement of eye-candy.”

Under the leadership of Bliss (Toups), whose father is serving an extended stretch in jail, four young women stage a series of convenience-store burglaries in the San Diego area, before moving up to larger schemes. This brings them to the attention of local crime-boss, Cal Wertlieb, who makes them an offer they can’t refuse. He’ll train them to carry out more lucrative jobs, by cracking safes, which will give them access to cash and other easily fungible loot, in exchange for a cut of the proceeds – and their absolute silence in the event of them ever being caught by the authorities.

It opens with the “based on a true story” title, which as usual had me raising a sardonic eyebrow. However, in this case, it appears to be at least somewhat accurate, even if the end credits admit that the real “champagne gang” were Canadian men, rather than California girls! Still, I’m not inclined to criticize writer-diretor-producer Zirilli too much, for taking the more photogenic route. The film is at its best when it’s a lawbreaking version of the ‘police procedural’, i.e. instead of explaining how crimes are investigated, covering the nuts and bolts of how the group pulled off their thefts. These little details here bring the film to life, and help to keep it grounded in reality. That’s something sorely needed, given Zirilli’s horrid over-fondness for irrelevances, such as the make-over, the surfing montage, or the cringeworthy concert with a cameo by Bokeem Woodbine.

The film does make some effort at making the girls individuals, even if outside of Bliss, this largely consists of giving the other three a single-word character. Thus, we have Nerdy Michelle (Lakota), Bimbo Erika (Tobiason) and Bitchy Amanda (Serano), but I guess there was a conscious decision to sacrifice further character development, on the altar of that surfing montage. Shallow though these are, it does help set up the plot, with Erika tending to ill-considered actions which bring heat in their wake, such as contacting her boyfriend when they’re supposed to be laying low. There are also occasional moments of nice self-deprecation, such as when Bliss explains their aesthetic choice of footwear on their raids: “We really should have been wearing sensible shoes for the climbing. But we knew we could do it in high-heeled boots. After all – we’re girls.”

Unfortunately, the decent aspects tend to accentuate the copious quantities of padding necessary to get from the set-up to the conclusion, where the cops finally realize they’re not chasing a male gang. Zirilli the director should have gone back to Zirilli the writer, and demanded he put more meat on the bones, of a script that has flashes of some potential. Outside of Bliss, there’s not even a fragment of motivation for anyone involved, and you’re left watching something which too often drifts into being not much more substantial than an elaborate pop promo.

Dir: Daniel Zirilli
Star: Lacey Toups, Candise Lakota, Tarah Tobiason, Suri Serano
The whole movie is on YouTube, if the trailer below whets your interest.

Cyborg X

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“James Cameron’s lawyer, on line one…”

cyborgxMaybe the makers of this should just have been honest, and called it Terminaliens. For the amount of wholesale theft that has gone on here is really quite staggering. It takes place in the nearish future after a weapons research program goes haywire, and the cyborg results start attacking humans all over the globe. It’s up to a band of freedom fighters to attack the central computer complex and disable the system before humanity is entirely wiped out. Through in an adorable moppet young girl, who falls under the protection of the heroine, along with some crawling through air-ducts, and you’ve got a homage to James Cameron – back when he was good, rather making three-hour epics about doomed icebergs.

The main thread has heroine Lieutenant Spears (Mauro) rescuing Jack Kilmore (Myers), an X-Corp executive who holds the key to infiltrating his company’s former HQ. You may have to resist the urge to yell “He’s a cyborg!” at your television set, but that’s actually just Myers’s style of acting. There’s also Col. Shaw (Johnson), who smokes cigars and yells a lot, while the nerdy Wizkowski (Stormoen), has a name which seems curiously close to being another Aliens rip-off… Finally there’s even a tough Hispanic chick, Lopez, who – in full keeping with the Aliens approach – is played by the thoroughly non-Hispanic Angie Papanikolas.

One upgrade on Aliens is that Danny Trejo shows up for a bit, as another one of the soldiers, which is nice. We love us some Danny Trejo. He would likely have made Aliens  Otherwise, the rampant plagiarism is all a bit of a shame, since some of the other aspects aren’t bad. The CGI drones which are Skynet’s X-Corp’s surveillance system are nothing to write home about, but the more practical effects are solid, with some surprisingly gory moments. One woman gets the front of her head blown off, while later, a man is cut in half, and left to crawl along the ground, his intestines trailing behind him. Meanwhile, Spears manages to kick ass while looking decent doing it, even when yanking a Very Large Bazooka out of nowhere. Fortunately, supplies of beauty products apparently have not been interrupted by this apocalypse.

This wouldn’t be out of place on the SyFy channel, and stands up decently enough against others of its ilk. If you haven’t seen the Terminator series or Aliens, you would probably enjoy this a good deal more – though if so, that does beg the question, why are you watching the SyFy channel? But I just wish the makers had put more effort into creating a plot that was not so tired and over-familiar. If the resources devoted to this had been applied to an original story-line, it could have been a small gem, rather than feeling like a lame rip-off of genre classics.

Dir: Kevin King
Star: Eve Mauro, Rocky Myers, Adam Johnson, Jake Stormoen

Calamity Jane’s Revenge

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“Talk is cheap. VERY cheap…”

calamityTwo stars might actually be a bit generous, on an objective scale. But I confess to possessing a soft spot for low-budget films made with passion, even if the results fall short. The most obvious deficiency here is the location shooting. Outside of an opening scene with a few ramshackle houses, the entire film takes place in a forest. Seriously, the closest thereafter we get to seeing any other buildings, is two people leaning up against a fence… in the middle of the woods. Maybe they should have called it Calamity Jane: The Wilderness Years, and set viewer expectations appropriately.

It’s a revenge story, which we join in progress, with the husband of Jane (Ryan), no mean legend himself, Wild Bill Hickok, having already been gunned down. She’s now on the trail of the men responsible, who have split up and need to be tracked down individually. Complicating matters, one of the culprits is now accompanied by a kidnap victim, Fay (Gomez), whom Jane initially attempts to leave behind, but eventually agrees to help out. Additionally, Jane is being tracked by the new sheriff of Deadwood, along with renowned tracker, Colorado Charlie Utter (former WWE star Snow, which was an unexpected surprise). Will she be able to finish her mission of vengeance before the forces of law catch up with her?

And, more importantly, will the viewer be able to finish this movie, before unconsciousness catches up with them? Because the pacing on this leaves a great deal to be desired, without any real sense of building toward a climax. The film instead ambles its way through the trees, giving you two minutes of action, then 15 minutes of chit-chat. Rinse. Repeat. Forest. It’s not actually badly acted: Ryan has some presence, and Snow is certainly no worse than some others from the WWE who have stepped in front of the camera (looking at you, John Cena…). But the paucity of the resources available also leads to action more befitting a school playground, in which when people get shot, they fall over clutching their chest, without ever any apparent injury. Could the budget truly not stretch to a couple of bottles of fake blood?

On the technical side, it’s has its moments, with some impressive drone (I’m guessing) shots, capturing the epic grandeur of the mountains. These do, however, seem somewhat at odd with the static approach taken for the rest of the film. Couto seems to have tried his hand at various genres over the years, from horror to family films; while I guess he’s to be commended for that, it perhaps helps explains why this feels so generic. If you’re short on budget, you need to make up for this in other, inexpensive ways, from imagination to risk-taking. Unfortunately, Couto appears more concerned with playing it safe, and there’s precious little here that will stick in the viewer’s brain past the end credits.

Dir: Henrique Couto
Star: Erin R. Ryan, Al Snow, Julia Gomez, Adam Scott Clevenger

Curve

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“A feature-length advert for NOT wearing your seat-belt.”

Mallory (Hough) is driving to Denver for her wedding, though has some qualms about the upcoming event. She opts to take the scenic route, but her car breaks down – she’s startled, but delighted, when back-packer Christian (Sears) shows up out of nowhere to fix it. She offers him a lift, only to find once they hit the road, he’s a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. Realizing the dire straits she’s in, and that she’s wearing her seat-belt while he isn’t, she opts to crash the car into a ravine. However, the result is the exact opposite of what she wants: Christian is thrown free, and Mallory trapped by her ankle in the wreckage. Realizing he has a captive toy, Christian wanders off to terrorize the residents of a nearby cabin, but pops back occasionally to taunt his victim, who is forced to extreme measures to survive, while trying to figure out a way to escape.

curveIt’s a perfectly reasonable way to pass the time, and given its obvious limitations – there are barely a handful of speaking parts and the bulk of the running time takes place in and around the single location of Mallory’s car – works within them reasonably well. It’s a little weird to see Hough, whom we recently watched play Sandy in a televised “live” version of Grease, cooking and eating rat, and contemplating going all 127 Hours on her leg, but she pulls it off decently enough. Less effective is Sears, though he has the problem of walking in the footsteps belonging to the pinnacle of psychotic hitch-hikers, Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher; it’d be hard for anyone not to be overshadowed by that comparison. On the other hand, I like the way Mallory is thrown entirely on her own resources: there’s no knight in shining chain-mail coming to her rescue here.

For obvious, ankle-related reasons, this only kicks into high gear once the heroine has extracted herself from the car, and the boot goes, at least somewhat, onto the other foot (hohoho), as she begins to hunt Christian – the still, above, is obviously from the later section. It likely does take a little too long to reach this point, and once it gets there, offers at least one element of shamelessly obvious foreshadowing, which had me rolling my eyes when it appeared, then again when it came to pass. Yet I can’t say this affected the overall respectable level of enjoyment provided here. No-one could ever describe this as ambitious, and I was surprised to discover this was by the director of Hackers, as it seems a much smaller work. That aside, there’s something to be said for aiming low and hitting your target, rather than over-estimating your resources and talents, then falling short. This definitely falls into the former categoty.

Dir: Iain Softley
Star: Julianne Hough, Teddy Sears

Camino

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“Flash, bang, wallop – what? A picture!”

caminoFollowing up on their successfully crunchy collaboration in Raze, director Waller and star Bell head into the jungle and back to the eighties – an era before cell-phones and digital cameras – for this story of one woman’s fight for survival against a band of Colombian rebels, led by Spanish immigrant, Guillermo (Vigalondo). In this case, the woman is Avery Taggart (Bell), a lauded war photographer whose latest mission is to cover the enigmatic yet charismatic Guillermo, whose mission initially appears as much philanthropic as military. Keyword: initially. For Avery stumbles into the rebel’s darker side, witnessing, and worse, photographing him carrying out a drug deal, then slitting the throat of an inconveniently-passing local child. Knowing this revelation would destroy him, Guillermo blames Avery for the murder, and sets out after her with his group, intent on preventing the incriminating film from getting out of the jungle. However, it won’t be easy: Avery has picked up a few survival skills from her life during wartime, and some of Guillermo’s foot-soldiers are unconvinced by his explanation.

I think the first surprise here is the opening chunk, before she goes into the jungle, which has Bell delivering the most intense acting of her career. Quite a discomforting performance too, it has to be said, and I did wonder if I was watching the right film for a bit. Fortunately, we’re eventually on the right track; nobody will exactly have rented this to watch Zoë emote in a hotel room, surprisingly impressive though it is. The action here is brutal: while the body-count is relatively small – compared, say to Raze – nobody dies quickly here at all, with demises which seem to stretch out forever. The peak is probably the first fight, in which Avery is stalked by Guillermo’s psychopathic lieutenant. This turns into a knock-down, drag-out brawl that is relentless and hardcore. Nothing after can quite compare, to be honest. The ending of the main story thread is, entirely deliberately, understated and almost casual, though a coda delivers a satisfactory payoff.

You do wonder how a photographer is able to do more than hold her own against jungle-hardened soldiers; I was half-expecting a further appendix scene where Avery turned out to be a CIA agent of some kind. [Truth be told, I wouldn’t have minded!] Vigalondo makes for a decent villain, if a little too verbose; had this had actually been made in the mid-80’s, rather than just set there, it would have been a perfect role for Klaus Kinski, and Nacho puts over a similar mix of thinly-disguised psychopath. The jungle almost becomes a supporting character here, abetted by an unusual, crunchy yet chewy soundtrack from electronic project Kreng. The film might have benefited from some editing and the script an additional polish. But, as expected, it’s Bell’s show and she delivers the convincing mix of elegance and physicality we have come to appreciate, like a tightly-wound spring inside a camera case.

Dir: Josh C. Waller
Star: Zoë Bell, Nacho Vigalondo, Francisco Barreiro, Sheila Vand

The Circle (Cirkeln)

cirklen

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“Into every generation, half a dozen or so chosen ones are born…”

The first in an intended trilogy, based on a popular series of books, this is set in the fictional Swedish town of Engelsfors, where the high-school is rocked after a student commits suicide in the bathroom. At the same point, six female students start to experience strange events, hinting at undiscovered powers: one can move objects with her mind, another can influence people, a third becomes invisible. Turns out they – as well as the dead colleague – are proto-witches, one of whom will eventually develop into the Chosen One, who will save the world from her evil nemesis. However, said nemesis is not sitting around, waiting for thus development: that “suicide” wasn’t a suicide at all, and it becomes clear the remaining six are just as much in danger.

This starts off in highly-impressive fashion, setting up its premise with elegant style. The film looks great, makes excellent use of music, both original and adopted (the soundtrack is by Benny Andersson of ABBA fame, who is also one of the producers, and there’s a particular cool montage set to Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill), and the special effects are nicely understates: director Akin doesn’t throw them at the screen for the sake of it, he uses them to enhance the film’s atmosphere as much as for show. However, the second half feels unnecessarily stretched: this runs 144 minutes, and probably shouldn’t. Perhaps the process of adaptation from the book needed to be more ruthless; you get the sense the film is trying to juggle too many characters, simply because they were in the original source material. As a result, they all suffer since, even at its significant length, the film doesn’t have the chance to explore them in any depth: they remain not much more than stereotypes, e.g. the Goth, the slut, the bullied, the swot. Maybe they are leaving this for the subsequent entries?

However, it works well enough as a standalone movie – more Harry Potter than Lord of the Rings – and still continues to provide a sleek and shiny source of mainstream entertainment. There’s more than a hint of Buffy here, and not just in the “Chosen One” concept and high-school location, also the idea that Engelsfors is some kind of Hellmou… er, portal for evil, as well the Witches’ Council who try to run things. As yet, neither of these last two aspects have been explored much, and I sense they will likely come into play more, down the road. I also got a distinct hint of Eko Eko Azarak too. It’s probably true to say that you may get more out of this if you have read the books, which I haven’t; I suspect a remake is only a matter of time, likely bringing nothing of note to the party. Bit of a mixed blessing to see countries attempt to ape Hollywood so shamelessly: I can’t help preferring films like Let the Right One In, which do their own thing. This is perhaps just too slickly commercial for its own good.

Dir: Levan Akin
Star: Josefin Asplund, Helena Engström, Ruth Vega Fernandez, Irma von Platen

The Complete Adventures of Senorita Scorpion, by Les Savage, Jr.

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

scorpion1Action adventure fiction, in the pulp era, tended to be a male-dominated field; the writers and readers were overwhelmingly male, and the protagonists having the adventures and engaging in the derring-do tended to be correspondingly male. The culture of that day had deep-rooted stereotypes about the unfitness of the “weaker sex” for strenuous physical challenges, and about the inappropriateness of combat as a role for females who were supposed to be naturally gentle and demure. But there were writings that bucked these assumptions, particularly in the Western genre. Senorita Scorpion, the creation of Les Savage, Jr. (1922-1958), wasn’t actually the first pistol-packing cowgirl to be featured in the Western pulps of the 30s and 40s; but she proved to be the most popular, one of the most unique, and probably the subject of the longest running and thickest corpus of material of any of these fictional ladies: seven stories, originally published in Action Stories from 1944-49. Through its Altus Press imprint, (CreateSpace is just the printing service) Pro Se Press seeks to bring the best fiction of the early modern pulp magazine era back into print, in book form now, for a new generation of fans. These stories (plus one by Emmett McDowell, which used the Senorita Scorpion name for an entirely different character) were a felicitous choice for one of their first projects, in two volumes.

The stories included here are: “Senorita Scorpion” (1944); “The Brand of Senorita Scorpion” (1944); “Secret of Santiago” (1944); “The Curse of Montezuma” (1945); “Brand of the Gallows-Ghost” (1945); “Lash of the Six-Gun Queen” (1947); “Gun Witch of Hoodoo Range” by McDowell (1948); and “The Sting of Senorita Scorpion” (1949). For purposes of this review, the McDowell story is considered separately; the main body of the comments below refer just to the stories by Savage.

Our setting here is Brewster County, Texas in the 1890s. This is a real county, located in the Big Bend area west of the Pecos and north of the Rio Grande, and the geography of the area as depicted by Savage is real, including the inhospitable Dead Horse Mountains. When we first meet protagonist Elgera Douglas, a.k.a. “Senorita Scorpion,” she’s a girl outlaw pulling off a daring robbery, but she’s not an outlaw who wants to prey on others in order to live without working; her motivations are considerably different. They’re rooted in the background of the story series, which is gradually disclosed in the first tale; but it won’t be an undue spoiler to explain it here.

In 1681, a grandee of New Spain, Don Simeon Santiago, discovered a gold mine in the Dead Horse Mountains, originally worked by the local Indians. He built a house and ranch there, in the only valley in the range with enough water to support humans and cattle, and sent several fantastically rich shipments of gold south to Mexico. Soon, however, the ranch was attacked by raiding Comanche, who killed everyone they could find and, when they left, sealed off entrance or egress to the valley by caving in the mine tunnel which served for that purpose. The only survivors were George Douglas, a British-born slave originally captured from an English ship in the Caribbean, and a Mexican Indian slave woman. From these two, over the next two centuries an inbred Douglas clan of mixed Anglo-Indian ancestry and culture grew up in the valley. In 1876, they finally succeeded in digging through the mine and re-uniting with the rest of the world, though they kept the location of their valley secret.

By 1891, clan leader and official landholder John Douglas, Elgera’s father, lies in a coma, and the Santiago lands are under the covetous eye of ruthless cattle baron Anse Hawkman, who owns everything in the area worth owning and has used legal chicanery to force the smaller landholders off their claims. Elgera (“El Gera” is Spanish for “the blonde one”) is one of three children, the only girl, and not the oldest; but with her father disabled she’s the undisputed leader of the family. Savage never actually explains why; we’re left to infer that it’s because of her strong, born-leader personality –which is definitely evidenced– and the respect commanded, in a situation where fighting is a necessity, by her formidable gun skills, which considerably surpass those of most men. She’s become an outlaw, as the law defines it, in order to strike back at Hawkman and his interests.

scorpion2From this beginning, the first four stories proceed in a chronological arc; each is self contained, but the following ones build on the preceding ones in terms of character and situational development, so that what we have is a genuine story cycle. In the later three stories, the chronological relationship to the rest of the corpus isn’t as clear, except that they all take place after the events of the first story, and that “Lash of the Six-Gun Queen” is set near the end of the decade. Savage makes statements inconsistent in details with what he wrote earlier in one story, and another tale also gives some evidence of forgetfulness on his part. The rest of the Douglas clan simply disappears in the later stories, and their unique sociological circumstances aren’t explored at all, while the Santiago Ranch functions about like a set or a piece of furniture; there’s not much attention to its fortunes or the practicalities of running it. Elgera’s supposedly well-known skill at cards is only brought out in “Brand of the Gallows-Ghost,” and never mentioned elsewhere.

The major characters are well-developed, and several appear in more than one of the stories. (Chisos Owens tends to play as large a role in most of the stories as Elgera does, and actually does more of the fighting.) Savage develops his plots with considerable originality and artistry, and the stories benefit from his trademark serious research to ground his work in actual Western history. (The fraudulent so-called “History of Montezuma,” for instance, really was produced in 1846 under the conditions he describes in “The Curse of Montezuma;” and while I haven’t been able to check his details about 17th-century Native American and Spanish mining/smelting practices in “Secret of Santiago,” they have a ring of truth.) He writes action scenes well; he’s an excellent prose stylist, and has a good sense of pacing, and the stories employ elements of mystery which are very effective in adding to the suspense he conjures. Elgera’s a likable character, as are the various good guys who assist her; and the villains are the sort you love to root against. A half-Indian heroine is as much of a trail-blazing feature, in this period, as a combat-capable one, and Savage’s treatment of Hispanic and Indian characters isn’t racist; some are villains, but others are treated very positively.

Critics might complain that some plot elements are a bit exotic (such as a character who’s a Satanist, or the premise of a peyote-based cult in one story), or that there’s some reliance on coincidence in places. But peyote use really is historically a feature of Southwestern Indian religion, and coincidence IS at times a feature of real life, too. There’s not much bad language in the stories (McDowell uses more of it than Savage does), and what there is isn’t particularly rough.

In terms of her action chops, we’re told much more often about Elgera’s gun skills than we’re shown them –but we are shown them occasionally. She uses lethal force sparingly (and only in defense of herself or others), though when she has to, she takes it calmly in stride. (Bad guys who take her on hand to hand –and she’s no slouch at that type of fighting, either!– usually wind up killing themselves accidentally; but as a group, they’re too stupid to recognize that pattern and avoid it. :-) )

Will Murray contributes introductions to both volumes; the second one deals mostly with the genesis and publication of the stories, but the first one regrettably concentrates mostly on the sex appeal of the pulp cowgirl characters in general and the more salacious aspects of the cover art. To be sure, many males then and now were, and are, culturally conditioned to view both real and fictional women only, or primarily, as sexual commodities. But that’s not, IMO, the most helpful lens here for viewing the character –nor the primary one that Savage invites us to use. Yes, he depicts Elgera as powerfully attractive to most of his male characters (and she tends to be fickle in her own romantic attractions –one of my primary quibbles with his portrayal of the character). But the stories certainly aren’t about sex, Elgera and her male admirers never do anything more than kiss, and her sexuality is just an ancillary part –not the be-all-and-end-all– of who her character is.

A brief word will suffice about McDowell’s story. My wife considered it out of place, and a detriment to the book; it’s included because Savage’s publishers, when he was too busy working on a novel at the time, enlisted McDowell to write a Senorita Scorpion story, and this is what they got. He used the name, but makes the woman’s character and circumstances totally different from Savage’s Elgera, and changes the setting to Arizona in the early 1880s to boot. Essentially, it’s a story about a completely different woman with the same nickname. Taken on its own terms, though, it’s actually a solid story with an excellent twist, and one of my favorites in the book.

Author: Les Savage, Jr.
Publisher: Altus Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as printed books: Volume 1 and Volume 2

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.