Julia X

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“Battle of the sexes.”

juliaxA date appears to go badly wrong for Julia (Azlynn), when her companion (Sorbo) turns out to be a serial-killer who has been using Internet dating sites to find the young women he targets. However, it turns out the tables are eventually turned, for Julia and her sister Jessica (Willis) are every bit as monstrous, who have been luring in and killing men, as a result of the abuse they both suffered at the hands of their father. But Jessica is a bit fed up of taking a back seat to her big sis, and wanders across the street to kidnap a victim of her own (Moore). But Julia’s captive is not exactly prepared to give up his liberty without a fight.

Nice bit of casting against type for Sorbo, whom we’re used to seeing in more heroic roles. He’s quite effective in a Patrick Bateman-esque way (American Psycho, if you’d forgotten), and this is certainly an equal opportunity film, in terms of the copious violence inflicted both on and by women. The last third is not much more than the two leads battering each other forcefully through the entire house, with extreme and escalating aggression. It’s the kind of thing which I should love. So why does it all feel relatively unaffecting and forced?

It may be because the scenario unfolding requires almost industrial strength idiocy from the main characters. Sorbo’s killer, for example, is so sloppily incompetent, it’s a wonder he managed to pull off his first murder without accidentally killing himself. The sisters aren’t much better, and we’re not given much of a reason to root for Julia and Jessica either. I get the feeling the reveal of them being psychos as well is supposed to “matter”, but it has next to no impact at all. The backstory offered for the sisters is pretty trite and cliched too; maybe it would have been better off if they’d begun with that, and we’d been brought along with the siblings on their journey, to the point where murder apparently started to make sense.

What does work, fortunately, is the action, which is well-staged and crunchy. The film doesn’t linger on the pain with sadistic glee, as it could; this is wise, since if the makers did, some scenes would likely be hard to watch. Instead, there’s an almost Looney Tunes element to the mayhem, particularly in the way the protagonists are able to take a pounding, and bounce back with an even more enhanced vengeance, like a human version of an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. On the whole, I’d not have minded at all to see this deliberately outrageous aspect played up, highlighted particularly by a beautifully ironic use of The Carpenters’ soft-pop anthem, Close To You. For the film arguably doesn’t do enough with its script or characters to make the viewer interested in taking them seriously.

Dir: P.J. Pettiette
Star: Valerie Azlynn, Kevin Sorbo, Alicia Leigh Willis, Joel David Moore

Judy

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“Insane Clown Posse”

judyAt first, I wondered if this was some kind of post-apocalyptic work, with Ursula (Giorgi) the leader of a face-painted tribe, enforcing discipline with extreme brutality on her minions. But it turns out to be everyday society: she actually heads a group of “street performers” [I guess; not quite sure what they do, but it’s likely something between mime and a freak show]. who survive by extracting money from members of the public. Ursula’s next target is Mary (Babusci), who pulls over in her car to have a phone conversation (an admirably safe approach, it has to be said), only to find herself being menaced by Ursula. Panicking, Mary pulls a gun on the whey-faced loonette, and drives off. Despite making it safely back to the apartment where she lives with her dog, Judy, it becomes increasingly apparent that Ursula has not taken kindly to her rejection at gunpoint, and will have her revenge – both on Mary and Judy.

What’s particularly interesting here is, this is a horror film almost entirely without male characters. There isn’t a single speaking, on-screen male role: there is a emergency dispatcher whom Mary calls on her cellphone (before Ursula’s blocker kicks in), and one of the villains could be male, since they wear a mask and never speak. But otherwise, not just protagonist and antagonist but all the supporting roles – hell, even the dog! – are female. That’s not common in any genre; it’s likely entirely unique in the “home invasion” sub-division of horror. De Santi sets the table well, quickly establishing both the ruthless brutality of Ursula as well as her mercurial nature: Giorgi does very well at putting over the idea that her character could explode into savage violence at any second.

Significantly less effective is the middle section, which largely consists of Mary pottering around her flat. There are attempts at building menace, such as a creepy-looking robe in the bathroom, or incoming phone-calls consisting of almost dead-air. However, there’s no real sense of escalation or progression to these, and they appear little more than trivial gimmicks. Things ramp up appreciably when Judy goes missing from the locked apartment. Mary goes to look for her canine on the beach, but the answer to the mystery may be closer to home than she initially thinks, and when she discovers that… Hoo-boy. There’s also the question of what, exactly, Ursula keeps in that manacled, spike-encrusted box (and, perhaps, also the one of how the hell she got it up all those stairs).

To call the ending abrupt, on the other hand, would be the understatement of the year. Admittedly, it doesn’t seem like there’s anywhere else the story could go, at the point when the credits roll; yet there’s usually at least a momentary coda at the end of most movies. Here? Not so much. All told, it would likely have worked better as a short film, in the 15-20 minute range, which gives you an idea of how much padding is present. Still, given the low budget, it is certainly better than some I’ve endured, and is helped by a creepy central premise, especially if you suffer from coulrophobia. Look it up…

Dir: Emanuele De Santi
Star: Orietta Babusci, Marlagrazia Giorgi

Jessica Jones: Season one

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“The Jones’ town massacre.”

jjones1A low-key take on the whole Marvel Universe, this takes place alongside the likes of The Avengers, yet almost separate from them. This means there are a couple of references to more high-profile superheroes (the battle for New York depicted in Avengers is called ‘The Incident’), plus nods to, and characters from, Netflix’s other Marvel show, Daredevil. Otherwise, this is its own creature, and likely the better for it. The heroine is Jessica Jones (Ritter, possessing an Eliza Dushku vibe), a private eye who has been gifted – or cursed – with remarkable strength. While this does occasionally come in handy, as we see in the first episode when serving a subpoena to an unwilling recipient, she’s well aware of the downside that her talent might bring; in the comics, but barely discussed in the show, she had a brief stint as a superhero, which ended badly. Now, she largely keeps it to herself, rather than running around the city fighting crime ‘n’ stuff.

jjones2Our story starts with her taking on what looks like a mundane missing person job, the parents of the girl in question having been recommended to her PI services. The disappearance turns out to have been engineered by “Kilgrave” (Tennant), the pseudonym adopted by a man with the talent of mind-control. Jessica crossed paths with Kilgrave before, having been one of those under his mental thumb. The experience left Jones with post-traumatic stress, but she believed she had seen the last of him – only to discover that not only is he still alive, he is perhaps even more obsessed with Jessica than he was. Fortunately, she isn’t alone, with help from her foster sister, Trish Walker (Taylor), now a popular radio host, and Luke Cage (Colter), a barman who, like Jones, has an abnormal ability he prefers remain private. However, how can you defeat someone who can take anyone, even your closest friends, and turn them against you as spies or assassins?

If you are used to Marvel movies, this is very much understated in comparison to something like The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, big, bombastic epics with a lot of things blowing up. It’s often easy to forget they share the same universe – but then, remember that “comics” aren’t a genre, they’re a medium. While the term “comic-book movie” has come to mean a certain type of film, the truth is the range actually includes titles as diverse as The History of Violence, The Road to Perdition and When the Wind Blows. It’s possible to imagine a version of Jessica Jones, with its heroine entirely free of all special abilities – you’d more or less have a modern noir, right down to the jazzy intro music and voice-over narration. Kilgrave would be harder, admittedly, since his powers are largely what he has allowed to define him, but perhaps he could become a creepy, stalkery ex-boyfriend.

Jones is certainly flawed, though how many of these flaws are the result of her first encounter with Kilgrave is uncertain, given the limited glimpses we get of her life before that. She now drinks heavily, can’t maintain a relationship with anyone, and is crabby and sarcastic. All told, not a very likeable individual, and this is reflected in the near-lone existence she has. As the audience spends time with her though, they grow to appreciate her better qualities, such as a ferocious loyalty which, once earned, is never lost. She’s relentless too: once she sinks her teeth into a case, you probably would have to cut off Jones’s head to get her to back off, though the pursuit of Kilgrave certainly has a significant personal element to it too. As well as strength, it appears Jessica has the ability to take damage and keep going; not just physical either, but also psychological and spiritual, because she goes through the ringer over the course of these 13 episodes.

However, she may still be overshadowed by Kilgrave, even during the early episodes where he is rarely seen. Unlike most traditional “comic-book” villains, Kilgrave has a philosophy that informs his actions, and even possesses a twisted morality of sorts. He wants, and indeed, is desperate for, Jessica to like him, without being compelled to do so through mind-control. Tennant is quite brilliant in the role: you’ll be astonished if you’ve only seen him in Doctor Who, less so if you’re aware of his excellent work elsewhere, such as in Broadchurch, or even as Hamlet. Kilgrave is a total dick, likely a clinical psychopath, with a short fuse. This may be close to the worst combination possible for someone given the ability to manipulate others like a puppet. However, Tennant manages to retain a good degree of humanity in his depiction of the character. Like many psychopaths, Kilgrave can be charming on occasion, and the differences between him and Jessica are not as obvious as you might think: they are both children of trauma.

jjones3Less effective, for me, were the supporting cast, and this aspect left the show short of “Seal of Approval” status [though I know many disagree]. The apparently obligatory, dysfunctional romance between Jones and Cage feels both too sudden and forced: I guess he needed to be established for his own, upcoming TV series, though I’ll probably not bother with it, any more than I did with Daredevil. Meanwhile, Carrie Ann Moss’s aggressive lawyer, oddly gender-swapped from the comic, never served any significant purpose over the course of this first season. More effective is the complex relationship between Jessica and Trish; one born of personal tragedies, on both sides, which still continue to resonate, years later. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that a 13-episode series was over-stretching the material; a few of the shows appeared a good deal more filler than killer, and I suspect a 10-episode order might have been better overall.

The other main weakness, to me, was some contrived plotting, such as the way in which an inexplicable immunity to Kilgrave’s powers becomes an essential part of the final arc. I can’t say if the comics dealt with it similarly, but for a series so grounded in gritty realism, suddenly to pull out something which felt more like a big lump of handwavey Kryptonite, was disappointing. Similarly, the final confrontation between Kilgrave and Jones also had the former behave in a rather dumb way, closer to that of a sixties Bond villain, than the smart and savvy psycho he’d been portrayed as over the previous 12 episodes. I guess you can take the television show out of the comic-book, but you can’t entirely take the comic-book out of the television show. Or something…

Those flaws noted, this is still likely the best action-heroine entry to come out of either Marvel or DC so far. The show has been renewed for a second season, although the time-frame for this is uncertain, and it may end up being queued behind other planned Marvel/Netflix series – not least The Defenders, their “low-rent” version of The Avengers which will team up Daredevil with Jones, Cage and Iron Fist. Additionally, the makers will need to figure out who or what will replace Kilgrave as the show’s “big bad”, a tough act to follow. If the future of Jessica’s day job seems highly uncertain at the end of this run, there are also hints that she is no longer going to  be quite the lone wolf operator that she was here, possibly building eventually toward that Defenders team-up. If not as jaw-droppingly good as some claim (“The best show on TV”?), its hard-boiled approach has to be commended, and is refreshingly unlike anything else available, from any source.

Creator: Melissa Rosenberg
Star: Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, David Tennant, Rachael Taylor

Jane Got a Gun

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“The sixties called. They want their Western back.”

janegotagunThere have been no shortage of revisionist spins on the Western over the last few years, looking to drag the genre into the 21st century after it seemed all but dead. Just in the last four months, I’ve seen Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight and The Salvation, and while their approaches have been radically different – as have the degree of their success – they are, at least, trying to bring something new to the party. Jane Got a Gun? Not so much, to the point that viewers may feel the urge to check they haven’t fallen through some kind of wormhole, back to the era of Bonanza and The Virginian.

The rural farming life of Jane Hammond (Portman) and her husband, Bill (Emmerich), is thrown into turmoil, when he comes home, shot multiple times. Turns out, he had a battle with notorious outlaws, the Bishop Boys, which ended with several dead on their side, and Bill severely injured. Worse follows in the wake, as John Bishop (McGregor) is on the trail, seeking revenge for his men. With Bill in no state to defend himself and Jane, she turns to former boyfriend Dan Frost (Edgerton, also co-writer on the screenplay), who reluctantly agrees to help Jane stand against the Bishops.

The results are so overwhelmingly bland, one suspects they’re a great deal interesting than the disastrous production, which saw original director Lynne Ramsay literally not show up on the set for the first day of shooting. It took almost three further years for the movie to be released – and they probably shouldn’t have bothered, since it was the lowest grossing wide opening weekend ever for the Weinstein company, then posted the worst second weekend drop ever for a 1,000-plus screen release. Though you can see why it flopped, it’s not a bad movie, just an utterly forgettable one, without a single particularly memorable character to be found. Portman – also a producer, which may explain some things – perhaps comes out best, although her performance consists mostly of setting her jaw and exuding steely resolve. It’s not complemented by the flashback structure used in the story, which is clunky at best, and results in a severe lack of narrative flow. What was the hot-air balloon about, for instance?

It’s even fairly retro in the way Jane leaves most of the fighting to Dan, at least until the very end, and the movie simply feels astonishingly safe, as if O’Connor was reluctant to take any risks at all, for fear of jeopardizing a production which had already gone very badly wrong before his arrival. But sometimes (and Apocalypse Now is likely the best example), film-makers just need to say, “Screw it”, and plunge on regardless towards realizing their vision. If the results may or may not be great, they’ll probably be less forgettable than here, and considering how long it took to arrive, it wasn’t worth the wait.

Dir: Gavin O’Connor
Star: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich, Ewan McGregor

Saint Joan

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“Joan of Inaction”

saintjoanAn adaptation by noted playwright Graham Green of George Bernard Shaw’s 1924 play, this is most famous for the extensive search undertaken by director Preminger to find the “right” Joan for the job, which involved testing over 18,000 candidates before settling on Seberg. whose only previous acting to that point had been in school plays. That’s in sharp contrast to the experience in the rest of the cast, which included Widmark as Charles, the Dauphin enthroned by Joan’s actions, and Gielgud as the Earl of Warwick, whose schemes lead to the heroine’s death at the stake. But what’s most notable here, in contrast to some of the other versions of the story we’ve written about, Preminger and Greene seem entirely disinterested in the process which brought the Dauphin to the crown. We see Joan’s rise to command, but the film then skips over everything from her approaching the fortress of Orleans, to the coronation of King Charles. In other words: the fun bits.

The framing story has Joan as a specter, visiting the aged king, along with the ghost of the Earl and other participants in her life, such as the English soldier who took pity on Joan at the stake and gave her a makeshift cross to hold. The adaptation whacked out, it appears, close to half the running-time of the play, and one had to wonder whether it is any more faithful to the work’s spirit. For in the preface to his work, Shaw explicitly wrote, “Any book about Joan which begins by describing her as a beauty may be at once classed as a romance. Not one of Joan’s comrades, in village, court, or camp, even when they were straining themselves to please the king by praising her, ever claimed that she was pretty.” This is in sharp contrast to Seberg, who even after giving up her long feminine locks for the almost compulsory crew-cut, looks more like Audrey Hepburn’s tomboyish little sister than someone, in Shaw’s words, “unattractive sexually to a degree that seemed to [contemporary writers] miraculous.”

It’s not entirely without merit; some of Shaw’s text still retains its impact, such as Joan’s explanation of why the French are losing: “Our soldiers are always beaten because they are fighting only to save their skins; and the shortest way to save your skin is to run away. Our knights are thinking only of the money they will make in ransoms: it is not kill or be killed with them, but pay or be paid. But I will teach them all to fight that the will of God may be done in France; and then they will drive the poor goddams before them like sheep.” The sheer certainty in Joan’s mind that’s she’s right, and will accept no arguments to the contrary, is impressive. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to sustain the film overall, and you’re left without much insight into either the history, or the personalities who created it.

Dir: Otto Preminger
Star: Jean Seberg, Richard Widmark, Anton Walbrook, John Gielgud

Journal of a Contract Killer

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“The hits just keep on coming…”

journalStephanie (Powell) had been an assassin for the Italian Mafia, but had abandoned that life and settled down in London with her daughter. Years later, she is shocked to see her former lover, Alessandro (Canuso) show up at her job, and even more so when she gets an order she can’t refuse from her old employer, Franco (Gambino) – to kill Alessandro. Despite some qualms, not least how the family will react to her taking out one of their own, Stephanie carrier out the mission. But soon after, she finds herself being watched by the enigmatic Sam (Leese), who says he is there to protect her. Is that really the case, or does he have an entirely different purpose?

Maylam directed one of our favourite B-movies of all time, the post-apocalyptic monster flick, Split Second, starring Rutger Hauer. This isn’t anywhere near as good, though still made for an okay ninety minutes of entertainment. I think the main issue is Powell: not so much for her performance as such, more the stylistic choice made for it. I think the director and actress were going for a “dead inside” vibe, portraying Stephanie as someone who has had all emotion wrung out of them, through years of dealing death on a professional basis. It’s difficult to pull that kind of thing off while still retaining any sense of a likable character; Jean Reno in Leon is an example of it done well, but the results here come across much more as a flat monotone. There’s only one scene where Powell gets to let rip with unrestrained emotion, and it’s undeniably the film’s most effective sequence; you wish there had been more of this.

The story-line is well constructed, however, and it doesn’t pull its punches; there isn’t what you’d call a happy ending for anyone involved. Probably another misstep to claim the movie is inspired by true events, for that’s a label abused so badly for over four decades [at least since the days of Texas Chainsaw which, while inspired by real-life killer Ed Gein, utterly does not fulfill its poster claim: “what happened is true”], everyone I know immediately rolls their eyes and refuses to believe a word of it, whether actually the case or not.  In its favour, the film does remain restrained in terms of her abilities, with no sense of Stephanie being turned into some kind of superheroine. Instead, everything she does is plausible, though I’d like to have seen them devote more time to her shift from “hooker for the mob” to “hit-woman for the mob,” which seems sudden and jarring, involving little more than a random assassination of an innocent bystander. However, this restraint does perhaps lead to a lack of memorable moments; there’s not a surfeit of action either, despite what the trailer below wants you to think. Just go in expecting something low key, and you’ll be okay.

Dir: Tony Maylam
Star: Justine Powell, Adam Leese, Jake Canuso, Marco Gambino

Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia

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“Not sure if serious…”

johannaThe scenario here could be the jumping-off point for a wilderness adventure, with a train going across Mongolia being held up by a tribe of nomadic locals. and the Western women on board taken hostage by the princess who leads them (Xu). But it ism’t. Indeed, Ottinger seems almost deliberately to go out of her way to avoid anything that might increase the pulse above a resting rate. What follows is more a depiction of rural Mongolian life, which appears to have changed very little since the era depicted in Warrior Princess. It’s a topic that seems to have entranced the director, as she went on to explore the topic at greater length in Taiga – and when I say “greater length”, I mean it, since that film lasts eight hours and 21 minutes. This clocks in at a comparatively brisk 165 minutes, with the first hour almost entirely within the confines of the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian Expresses, before exploding out into the wide, sweeping vistas of the Mongolian steppe.

Until then, it introduces us to the Western women, led by Lady Windermere (Seyrig), an ethnographer who knows both the Mongol culture and their language – skills which prove fortuitous, to say the least. The others include a Broadway singer (Scalici), and a young backpacker (Sastre), whose use of a Sony Walkman – kids, ask your parents! – is about the only thing which locates this in a specific era. But once they are taken hostage, for reasons which are never even hinted at, the film largely loses interest in them, save the backpacker, who appears to “go native” more than the others.  It becomes more about the princess, for whom “action” is simply part of everyday life. She hunts with her bow and arrow; she talks with visiting emissaries from other tribes, treating them with scorn where appropriate. She rules – in the literal, rather than the social media corrupted sense of the word.

Quite what any of this has to do with Joan of Arc escapes me entirely. The whole movie feels like some kind of trolling exercise, aimed at readers of this site, by having the pieces in place for an action heroine film, and then steadfastly refusing to deliver on it. But if so: hah! Joke’s on them, because I didn’t actually hate this. Seyrig, who was the star of one of the best Euro-horrors of the seventies, Daughter of Darkness, is always worth watching – or, more relevantly, worth listening, as her voice sounds like slowly melting butter. There is enough quirky eccentricity early on, such as the Kalinka Sisters, a trio of strolling players also on the train, to keep things moving, until the landscapes and culture then take over. While I’d still say Cave of the Yellow Dog is the best “slice of Mongolian country life” film, and I will not be sitting through Taiga anytime soon, this is probably not something the likes of which you’ll have seen before. As such, Ottinger deserves admiration for pursuing her own artistic vision, regardless (it appears) of any commercial constraints.

Dir: Ulrike Ottinger
Star: Delphine Seyrig, Ines Sastre, Xu Re Huar, Gillian Scalici

Julia

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“As therapy, beats ice-cream and a copy of The Notebook.”

juliaPainfully shy doctor’s assistant Julia (Williams) is drugged and raped by a group of young men, but is too traumatized to report the crime to the authorities. Sitting alone in a corner of a bar one night, she overhears another woman, Sadie (Tozzi), talking about a radical therapy regime, that allows women to reclaim their self-esteem and power. Eventually talking Sadie into referring her to Doctor Sgundud (Noseworthy) who, after discovering Julia is a suitable case for treatment, allows Sadie to mentor Julia in the system. This involves seducing men, and then punishing them for their lechery. However, Sgundud’s therapy comes with strict rules against taking personal action against those who abused you: rejoicing in her new=found power, Julia is not so keen on abiding by such apparently arbitrary restrictions, especially coming from a mere man. But the doctor wasn’t kidding, when he warned her of the severe consequences for not following the rules.

Initially intriguing, the film becomes more problematic as it goes on, both morally and cinematically. By “flirty fishing” for men who have done little if anything wrong, and then punishing them, Julia has moved from abused to abuser, and the movie doesn’t succeed in bringing the audience over the line with her, and any sympathy for her is largely lost as a result, well before she ever gets round to confronting those actually responsible for the attack. Nor does the film appear to know what to do once it gets there, suddenly shifting focus so that Dr. Sgundud becomes the Big Bad, though we know little about him or his background, beyond that he seems to enjoy manipulating the easily manipulated. On the plus side, the film looks luscious, depicting a New York saturated in neon and rain, like some kind of nightmarish car commercial. As the lead, Williams (previously seen on all fours in the first part of Human Centipede) is solid enough in terms of her transformation from self-harming wallflower into avenging succubus.

However, she doesn’t bring enough personality to the role to make it memorable. Compare and contrast, say, the similarly-themed (and equally problematic, in different ways) American Mary, in which Katherine Isabelle had a far greater impact. Or Nurse 3D – also with a medical professional character – where Paz de la Huerta went over the top, dragging the viewer with her – kicking and screaming if necessary. Campbell appears to be aiming for low-key, yet ends up closer to flat-line, and I found myself tuning out in the second half as a result. While even-handed in its depiction of the sexual violence, with one scene certainly likely to have male viewers crossing their legs, there’s otherwise just not enough impact. When you’re going down a well-worn path, you either need to travel it extremely well, or take an interesting diversion, and sadly, this does neither.

Dir: Matthew A. Brown
Star: Ashley C. Williams, Tahyna Tozzi, Jack Noseworthy, Joel de la Fuente

Jirel of Joiry, by C. L. Moore

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

jirelOriginally published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in the late 1930s, Moore’s five stories featuring beautiful swordswoman Jirel, lady ruler of a feudal fiefdom in medieval France, were as germinal in the development of sword-and-sorcery fantasy as the work of her contemporary, Robert E. Howard. Jirel is a strong and complex character, the first in prose fantasy’s long and honorable list of butt-kicking heroines; tough but not brutal, proud and hot-tempered, but possessing a gentle side, too. Like most people in her time, she’s a loyal daughter of the Church –but she’s not especially religious and wouldn’t make any claims to sainthood! Though she’s a veteran fighter of conventional battles, these stories involve her mostly in adventures of another sort, confrontations with dark sorcery, usually in otherworldly, extra-dimensional realms.

Moore’s prose style here was influenced by Poe and Lovecraft (and she’s fully their equal); her plotting and her creation of vivid fantasy worlds, all significantly different from the others, are highly original, and she excels at evoking a mood of strangeness and menace –Jirel’s approach to Hellsgarde castle is a masterpiece of this sort. Some critics have found fault with Jirel’s having romantic feelings toward her enemy in the first story, Guillaume, considering this a betrayal of feminist orthodoxy; but I think her complex feelings are quite plausible psychologically, and lend the story a depth and tension that it wouldn’t have otherwise.

In the first story, “Black God’s Kiss,” searching for an instrument of vengeance and victory over an invader who’s conquered her domain, Jirel dares to explore a dark tunnel underneath Joiry Castle, that leads to what proves to be a dimensional portal. The sequel, “Black God’s Shadow, finds her undertaking the same path, ut with a very different mission. “Jirel Meets Magic” pits her against a malevolent wizard responsible for the deaths of ten of her men. Sinister sorcery brings her from what everybody expects to be her deathbed into a fantasy world beyond this one in “The Dark Land” –but the move may be from the frying pan to the fire. Finally, in “Hellesgarde,” she goes to seek a small leather casket in an ill-omened castle, demanded as the ransom for some of her soldiers held prisoner by a villainous warlord; but small packeges can contain very potent and dangerous things.

The late Marion Zimmer Bradley dedicated her first Sword and Sorceress anthology to “every girl who grew up wanting to be Jirel.” When all’s said and done, those girls didn’t pick a bad role model!

Note: Jirel (who’s single) remarks in passing at one point that she’s “no stranger to the ways of light loving,” and she can cuss a blue streak when circumstances provoke it. But there are no direct references to sexual activity in the stories, and no directly quoted bad language.

Author: C. L. Moore
Publisher: Ace Books, available through Amazon, only as a printed book at this time.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Janie

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“Janie hasn’t got a gun. But that won’t stop her…”

janie ad matThis grindhouse obscurity manages to rise above the limitations of its budget, and proves an effectively nasty piece of work. The titular teenage “heroine” (Carpenter) is on the way to see her older lover, but embarks as well on a killing spree that first includes a classmate and the guy who picks them up, then a householder (Michael Findlay) whose swimming pool Janie hijacks, before moving onto a predatory lesbian and finally her lover’s girlfriend (Roberta Findlay), whom she strangles with a belt. This is all told in flashback as she tells the story to her disbelieving bedmate – though the corpse he discovers in the bath-tub rapidly changes his mind. Oh, and did I forget to mention, for extra sleaze points, he is also Janie’s daddy? Damn. All of her exploits are accompanied by narration from what could be seen as an ancestor of Dexter’s “dark passenger”, exhorting Janie to further murderous acts, in a placid and matter-of-fact tone that is actually all the more chilling for its calmness.

While credited to Bravman, there was definite creative input from the husband-and-wife partnership of the Findlays, both in front of and behind the camera. Bravman says Michael “helped” direct a number of scenes, though insists he was in charge overall. And as well as her on-screen role, Roberta also provided the narration and shot the film under her pseudonym, Anna Riva. The Findlays would go on to achieve worldwide notoriety for their 1976 film, the purportedly real Snuff, before Michael was killed in a rooftop helicopter accident the next year. The film appears to be Carpenter’s only movie, though reports indicate she was the director’s girlfriend, whose real name was Linda, and she was not a natural blonde, as depicted here – the early, failed efforts involving wigs account for some of the woeful continuity present here. She’s not a bad actress, though isn’t asked to do much more here than alternate between psychotic and cute; it’s the narration and overall sleazy feel that are mostly responsible for making this flesh-crawlingly effective.

Make no mistake: this is cheaply-made, with all the killings save the last (because you don’t need much to fake a strangulation) thoroughly unconvincing and lacking in impact. And for a grindhouse film of the era, it’s actually kinda tame, with less nudity than you’d see in a typical Game of Thrones episode [this runs 65 mins, so isn’t much longer either!]. Still, this is such a nastily twisted piece of work, it can only be admired as such, and is a fine example of how low-budget and independent film-making can go places mainstream cinema would never dare venture.

Dir: Jack Bravman
Star: Mary Jane Carpenter, Roberta Findlay, Peer St. Jean, Michael Findlay