Sunday 24 February 2019

Happy Death Day 2U by Landon and Lobdell

Back in 2017 I wrote about Happy Death Day, a surprising little left-field delight of a movie. 

It took the simple premise of reworking Groundhog Day as a slasher flick, and explored the possibilities with cheeky good humour.

The film deservedly became a minor classic. And when I discovered there was a sequel, I was eager to see it.

The first movie was written by Scott Lobdell and directed by Christopher Landon. This one is both written and directed by Landon, and I have to say — as much as I am wary of a director taking over another writer's creation — he's done a great job.

The premise of Happy Death Day was that a rather unpleasant and vain young university student, Tree Gelbman (brilliantly played by Jessica Rothe), is given a chance for growth and self improvement — the hard way...

By being stuck in a time loop whereby every morning she wakes up on her birthday and ends up getting murdered. The plot of the film followed Tree's attempts to work out who her mystery killer was, and charted her development as a character.

The new film takes this concept and runs with it, inventively and amusingly exploring variations.

For one thing, it focuses not on Tree at all but on Ryan, a minor character from the first movie played by Phi Vu. My disappointment about this soon faded as the movie cleverly drew me in.

And then Tree turns up after all! At first she is apparently herself a minor character in Ryan's narrative. 

But then she's gradually moved to the centre of things and it turns out that this indeed her story, and it's exactly the sequel that I (and millions of other viewers) wanted it to be.

Full marks to Christopher Landon for so imaginatively manipulating our expectations.

Once again we're plunged into a time loop narrative, involving a killer wearing a baby-face mask, representing the mascot at the university in the story — "Who chooses a creepy baby for a mascot, anyway?" says Ryan. "I knew I should have gone to MIT."

This sequel is more of an ensemble piece, throwing Tree in with Ryan and a group of other students, mostly physicists.

Because Landon has fashioned a non-supernatural rationale for the time loop, involving a science experiment gone wrong (or maybe gone right, depending on your point of view). So Tree has allies to help her solve the puzzle: "We're scientists. This is what we do."

And the solution involves our old friend, the multiple universe theory — "Do I look like someone who knows what a multiverse is?" asks the blonde, pretty Tree.

My only complaint about Happy Death Day 2U is that the first movie had one of the greatest title sequences that I've ever seen. The title sequence for this one is dullsville.

Never mind. This movie is ingenious, funny, audacious and — most unexpectedly — very moving. Because Tree finds herself in an alternate universe where her beloved late mother is alive again...

Seldom has a sequel added so much value to the concept of the original. Nice work, Christopher Landon.

(Image credits: There is only one official poster for this film, and it comes from Imp Awards. Luckily there are a load of striking alternative designs at Talent House, where there certainly is a lot of talent on display. The clock face one is from Reddit. The photographic one is from Deviant Art. )

Sunday 17 February 2019

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

This Perfect Day was the third novel by Ira Levin, published in 1970, after both A Kiss Before Dying and Rosemary's Baby, and before The Stepford Wives, and it's rather a daring departure. 

As I've discussed elsewhere, Levin was fearless at crossing genre boundaries. 

He wrote Rosemary's Baby, a novel of supernatural horror at a time when such things were generally considered worthless potboilers.

But with This Perfect Day he took an even greater risk, because it is science fiction. And even more than horror, SF was considered then (and, to an extent, now) commercial suicide in publishing.

It is a classic dystopian novel, following the likes of Brave New World and 1984, and preceding The Handmaid's Tale and Never Let Me Go.

Interestingly, the film script for Never Let Me Go, written by Alex Garland, borrowed an element from This Perfect Day — the use of identification bracelets, as a kind of electronic tag to keep track of a subjugated populace.

(Never Let Me Go comes to mind again when we meet Levin's compliant, brainwashed citizens who "vie with one another to give parts of themselves for transplants" for the ruling elite.)
Levin sets up his futuristic world very quickly and concisely in the first chapter — a mere nine pages. This is a society where "hate" is a curse word and the word "fighting" is troubling and offensive — indeed, it stands in for another f-word... "brother-fighting" is an amusing obscenity here.

Our hero is a boy nicknamed Chip. Chip lives in a medicated brave new world where you receive regular treatments by sticking your arm into a machine "through a rubber-rimmed opening... the infusion disc nuzzled warm and smooth...and... tickled-buzzed-stung his arm." 

Amongst other things, this regime of medication keeps you tranquilised and obedient. Poor Chip is eager to get his treatment, to obliterate disturbing thoughts he is having that call into question the perfect world where he lives.

Levin gives us a chilling depiction of brainwashed children obediently parroting the approved responses. It is scary and and all too convincing. 

This is a world effectively run by a supercomputer called Uni. Levin clearly did some impeccable research for his novel, and shows considerable prescience — he got the cooling of this computer just right; it's super conductive and operates at a temperature close to absolute zero. 
But not surprisingly he got the size wrong. Uni is huge compared to the server farms we know today, some of which are busy administering our own modest attempts at totalitarian states.

One of the book covers you see here shows a shaven headed woman being menaced by the heavy black glove of authority, emblazoned 'Uni'. 

This imagery seems to have been drawn from the film THX-1138, and while it's a striking piece of design, it isn't really accurate. 

Because the dystopia Levin depicts is all the more frightening since it doesn't use a heavy black glove. It's insidious and soft. Every citizen has an 'adviser' to go to if they are troubled by doubts. And the advisers see that they receive the proper treatments to keep them perfect, compliant members of their perfect society.

Or, you might say, slaves. Levin shows the true nature of this supposed paradise in a staggering throwaway line: Chip "thought of getting married, but he was told he wasn't to reproduce and so there didn't seem much point."

The treatments kill all originality and imagination and desire, not to mention any stirrings of rebellion. But Chip works out a way to dodge the treatments — in a truly brilliant moment when someone spills a drink at a picnic and he sees "a flat leaf lying on the wet stone." And that gives him the vital clue he needs...
Soon he is having "dreams more vivid and convincing than any of the five or six he had had in the past." And so he begins a process which will end with our hero, and a small band of fellow misfits, seeking to overthrow the entire totalitarian apparatus of this placid, smiling, tyranny.

This is a story you won't be able to stop reading.

Essentially Ira Levin has taken a dystopia in the manner of Brave New World and 1984 and rewired it as a thriller. And the result is often, intensely, unbearably suspenseful — which is Levin's hallmark, of course. 

He dedicated the book to his three sons and, no doubt, to the hopes of a future very different from the one he depicted.

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from our good friends at Good Reads. The Pan edition with the woman's face and the glove is from Modspil. The Fawcett version with the lovely Gene Szafran cover art, and the pink lettering, is from Flickr.)

Sunday 10 February 2019

Day of the Giants by Lester Del Rey

Like Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey's Day of the Giants is one of those books which had a powerful impact on me when I was a child, which I absolutely loved back then, which I read repeatedly and which — rare miracle — I can still read and enjoy today. These books retain their magic.

Also like Podkayne, Day of the Giants is a science fiction novel. On the surface it appears to be a heroic fantasy, or sword and sorcery tale. And there's certainly no shortage of heroes, fantasy, swords or sorcery in it. Indeed, the story largely takes place in Asgard and associated realms from Norse mythology, and is peopled with the gods from those myths.

But Lester Del Rey skilfully seeks to underpin the fantasy with attempts at rational, scientific explanation, by way of the speculations of his hero Leif Svensen, a mortal and a 20th Century Midwest American farmer who is swept up to Asgard along with his identical twin brother Lee — a far more heroic figure, a mercenary and wanderer who has the warrior temperament suited to Asgard which Leif so singularly lacks.

In fact, it was Lee Svensen who was supposed to be transported to Valhalla when he falls in battle. Only Loki's wily machinations cause Leif — who, of course, looks just like his brother — to also be picked up by the Valkyries in the confusion of combat and carried across the rainbow bridge Bifrost.

Leif is needed because Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods against the giants, draws near. And if Valhalla is to prevail they will need more than courage and brawn to carry the day. This is where Leif and his brains and scientific aptitude come in...

I said the brothers were felled in combat, but this was no grand engagement on a battlefield. It was a sordid little attack by vigilantes — Leif's farmer neighbours who had formed a lynch mob intent on killing Leif's faithful dog, Rex. This is a strikingly chilling sequence with Leif confronting "the hysteria of the mob and the ferocity of these former friends and neighbours."

"Give us that damned dog... Leif Svensen," they tell him. "This is your last chance."
Rex has been accused of killing livestock, a serious charge in a time of acute shortage and hardship — when in fact it was wolves who were responsible. Wolves who have come roaming in from the wild places, emboldened by the onset of the Fimbulwinter, which precedes Ragnarok, "roaring across the fertile plains of the United States... a blizzard running from Dakota clear down to Kentucky."

And it's Loki, ever the slippery manipulator, who has stirred up feeling against Rex among the locals, specifically to trigger the attack which will enable him to send Leif to Valhalla...

I forgot to mention that Rex the dog gets brought across Bifrost, too. But Del Rey himself soon forgets about Rex, and he fades from the story, which is a shame. Because he's a very cool and very brave dog. And I could have done with a bit more about him and a bit less of Leif's romance with Fulla, a shield maiden...

Del Rey's depiction of the Fimbulwinter and its catastrophic effect on the human realm is striking, not to mention rather disturbingly prophetic: "Even the Southern Hemisphere was in the grip of savage storm... The Muslim faith was sweeping over Russia and there was dark muttering of a new jehad." (Day of the Giants was published in 1959.)

However, most of the story is set not on Earth but in Asgard, where Leif finds himself drawing on the "Tattered shreds of the old Norse legends" he recalls from his childhood. At first the place strikes him as something from a "second-rate production of a Wagnerian opera... Asgard seemed badly in need of repairs."

Loki warns him, "yes, you're looking at myths — but myths with sharp teeth." 

Soon Leif is working with Asgard's contingent of dwarfs, trying to manufacture more advanced weaponry which will allow the gods to prevail against the giants, who are a memorably unpleasant bunch — All three of his mouths were drooling" — before it's too late.

Meanwhile, the situation on Earth is swiftly growing critical. "The cities were horrors now," Del Rey tells us, with chilling concision.

Lester Del Rey is an excellent writer. I particularly admire the way he roots even the most fantastical scenes in concrete physical reality. So, even as a Valkyrie is carrying him to Asgard over Bifrost on her winged steed, "Leif felt the sweat from the horse begin to soak into him, stinging sharply as it worked into his wound." 

And I just love his evocation of the most fantastical sequences, as when Leif crosses the rainbow bridge and leaves our mortal realm for the alternate dimension of Asgard: "the horse strained and something seemed to give with sticky reluctance."

Meanwhile the Valkyrie is singing a "strange shrieking set of tones" and Leif speculates, "Probably sonics had some effect on the dimensional bridge." These are wonderful details and this is imagination of a very high order.

There are also great, tumultuous, bloody action sequences, like the one in which Thor's "hammer cut the air with a scream that left a wake of steam behind it." 

And lest I seem too harsh on the pre-feminist depiction of Fulla, I should also mention that she  buckles on her mail and goes into battle instead of staying home and making meatloaf for our hero...

This is a splendid, memorable adventure story and a forgotten classic of fantasy and science fiction. And it has a lovely, uplifting ending.

(Image credits: There are very few editions of this wonderful book — one hardcover and one paperback in English, plus three foreign language versions I've discovered, and a Kindle. And the English language paperback has a dreadful cover by some artist who read no further than page 1 of the book, and misread that one, coming away with the impression that the story is about flying saucers. Luckily the original 1950 magazine version of the story featured on the cover of Fantastic Adventures magazine by Robert Gibson Jones, and a lot of its internal illustrations, also by Jones, are available online. The Avalon hardcover art by Ed Emshwiller is from Good Reads. The aforementioned disappointing paperback cover is from Nite Owl Jr. The Kindle cover is from Fantastic Fiction. The Fantastic Adventures magazine cover is from Battered, Tattered, Yellow & Creased, which features an excellent post about Del Rey's novel. The internal magazine illustrations are from diverse Pinterest saves by Josan: Page 6, Page 7, Page 36, Page 45, Page 51. The Dutch edition is from De Boekenplank. The 1993 Club Jules Verne Czech edition with the orange cover is from Antikvariát Bosorka.The 1999 Czech edition with the dark purple cover is from Anitkvariát U Kostela. The Dutch edition, which recycles the Robert Gibson Jones cover and dates from the late 1950s or early 1960s is from the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.)

Sunday 3 February 2019

The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin

If you'd asked me yesterday if The Boys from Brazil was one of my favourite Ira Levin novels, I would certainly have answered in the negative. 

But today, as I re-read it for the first time in many years, all bets are off. I absolutely love it.

This is the biggest surprise so far in my project of re-reading the complete works of Levin — just how great this is.

The Boys From Brazil was published in 1976 and comes after The Stepford Wives and before Sliver in the author's canon.

The book opens with a gathering of male conspirators who, smoking after-dinner cigars as they discuss a high tech agenda, strongly call to mind the sinister Men's Association in Stepford.

Levin's writing is full of acutely observed descriptions, even if it's just a Nazi hitman taking off his shoes in a Japanese restaurant. And his gift for description is as sharp as ever, as he takes us through "a steamy jangling kitchen where antique ceiling fans slowly turned." 

This is strikingly cinematic prose.

And once again Levin's ability to conjure suspense is forcefully on display: near the end of Chapter 1, my heart was in my mouth as the kid was on the phone with the tape...

As with The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil features a stunningly audacious conceit at the heart of its story. And, as with Stepford, I won't be revealing that surprise here, even thought it's widely known.

I will tell you that the plot concerns a group of dangerous Nazi fugitives in South America and a washed up Nazi-hunter called Yakov Liebermann who gets wind of a conspiracy they're hatching (by way of that tape I mentioned).

A conspiracy involving a program of mass assassination. The killings have a pattern, all similar men of a certain age, but the motive behind them initially baffles Liebermann and, one hopes, the reader...

The chief bad guy is Josef Mengele, a real-life mass murderer and a Nazi war criminal who really did escape to South America (and, as far as we know, died peacefully in bed. The bastard). 

At first I was dubious about the use of a real person — and such a person — in a work of fiction. But Mengele's behaviour and background is a crucial plot hinge.

So The Boys from Brazil begins with a mystery around which Levin proceeds to entwine a suspense thriller, like the two curving, interconnected strands of a DNA molecule.

Having Liebermann, the old Nazi hunter virtually coming out of retirement — and being regarded as a fossil and an embarrassment even by his allies — is a brilliantly compelling device.

And then Levin has Mengele leave his jungle lair, and the travels of the two men carry them towards a lethal intersection.

The book really gives the reader an emotional workout. It's incredibly frustrating when  Liebermann initially discounts a vital clue. But when he gets back on track the suspense is exquisitely unbearable.

This is a superbly constructed mystery. Levin slips in the casual mention of a name —
Frieda Maloney — early. Later, when she suddenly clicks solidly into the plot, it's sheer genius.

And Ira Levin devilishly keeps the suspense coming. At one point the Nazi cabal in South America call off their operation. But we don't want them to. Because it means the trap Liebermann is setting won't work. Diabolical Levin!  
It's fascinating that, as he enters the United States under a false identity, Mengele wears a neck brace as a disguise; Hannibal Lecter would use a similar ruse some decades later in Thomas Harris's masterpiece Hannibal.

Indeed, the Hannibal Lecter connections don't stop there. Mengele is a foodie and a snob ("The food... forget it"), and the scene where he purchases a knife also pre-echoes that Thomas Harris novel.

I knew that Harris was influenced by John D. MacDonald but I had no idea he was a disciple of Ira Levin. Well, it makes perfect sense. Thomas Harris writes brilliant suspense novels himself, and he couldn't have chosen a finer mentor.

In its themes of genetic manipulation and eugenics The Boys from Brazil takes us back to the world of Levin's 1970 dystopian novel This Perfect Day. With its threat of the birth of the Anti-Christ, so to speak, we're back in the world of Rosemary's Baby...

And Mengele, fiendishly dangerous in the cleverness of both his planning and his improvising, is reminiscent of Bud the cunning psychopath in A Kiss Before Dying.

(There are other resonances with Levin's oeuvre. Is it far-fetched to point out that dogs are instrumental in the finale here, the way a cat is in Sliver?)

The Boys from Brazil is a terrific tale, beautifully wrought, with the chilling symmetry of another conspiratorial meal at the end of the book, where once again an atrocity is planned to be perpetrated.

And once again it's up to poor Leibermann to stop it.
Simply brilliant.

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from Good Reads, where there's a wealth of international editions. Some of which, it has to be said, feature howling plot spoilers right there on the front of the book. Isn't the Chinese one wonderful, though? The French version with a rather nice cover painting, Ces Garçons qui venaient du Brésil, published by J'ai lu, is from the wittily named site NooSFere. And the French version published by Robert Laffont is from Rakuten.)