Welcome back, Wastelanders.
With the recent passing of legendary actor Rutger Hauer, I thought it only fitting to revisit his single greatest contribution to the post apocalyptic genre.
I'm talking about the largely forgotten 1989 cult classic, The Blood of Heroes, aka Salute of the Jugger.
The film opens on a desert vista, with a rough-looking group of wanderers approaching a small town. These wanderers are Juggers, players of a savage sport known only as The Game. At their head is veteran player Sallow (Hauer).
Excitement in the village mounts at the strangers' arrival. The local team of Juggers quickly assembles, prepared to play off against the newcomers. The rest of the villagers gather to watch. Among the observers is Kidda (Joan Chen), a talented and eager young player who apparently serves as part of her home team's second string.
The preparations for The Game commence. The players suit up, putting on armor and setting out the dog's skull that serves as the game's "ball." The locals set the goal stakes in the ground. They gather piles of counting stones to keep time with.
Once The Game begins, it's raw and brutal. Pretty soon one of the local players is broken and out of commission, and a player on Sallow's team named Dog Boy is playing with a badly injured leg.
Also in the exchange, Sallow's headgear is knocked off, exposing the tattoo on his face. The crowd is stunned. Sallow is (or was) a member of The League, the elite of the elite, the Juggers that play in the Nine Cities. What brought him out to the sparsely populated Dog Towns, they can only speculate.
With one of her home team's players out of The Game, it's Kidda's turn to shine. She suits up, taking her position as the team's "Quik." Her direct opposite is the injured Dog Boy. She begins taunting him before the round begins, saying she's going to break that leg.
The gong sounds, and immediately Kidda and Dog Boy are in a knock-down, drag-out fight over the skull. Kidda prevails, making good on her promise to break his leg. Then she takes the dog skull and makes a run for the goal stake. She nearly makes it, only getting stopped when Gar (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Sallow team up on her. Dog Boy gathers the skull, and drags himself to the home team's goal stake to win the game.
A night of drunken celebration later, and the Juggers are on the move again. Except now they have a follower.
Kidda, having tasted greatness against the traveling Juggers, decides she wants to be as good as the League Players. She follows at a distance, only approaching when they pause to let the limping Dog Boy catch up.
Kidda offers to take his place on the team, saying she's fast, she'll make a good Quik. Sallow rejects her at first. He says that Dog Boy will heal up soon enough, and tries to send her home. But she's still following a day later when Dog Boy admits he can't stand up anymore. The Juggers offer to bring him along, anyway, but he has too much pride to accept.
"No one carries the Dog Boy," he tells them. Respecting his wish, they leave him propped against a tree in the desert, with only his share of the food and water.
The next thing we see is an extended practice/tryout session, as Kidda works to earn her place. She gets knocked down. But she keeps getting up and trying harder. Sallow, deciding she's good enough to stay on, teams her up with the chain-wielding Gar, the team's "Giffer."
Soon the wandering Juggers enter another Dog Town, a village bigger than Kidda's. The ritual from before repeats as both teams square up and gear up. Then The Game begins, and Kidda has a chance to prove she's been paying attention.
Locked in another knock-down, drag-out brawl with the opposing team's Quik, Kidda is getting the worst of it, until she manages to climb onto her opponents back. She bites his ear off, forcing him to drop the dog skull. She scoops it up and makes a run for the goal stake. The team swoops in to protect her, and Kidda scores a victory.
Later, as the night's drunken celebration wears on, the team's surgeon Ghandi attends to Kidda's injuries. As he does, she asks about Sallow. How does a League Player end up out in the Dog Towns?
Ghandi begins to tell her the story: Sallow was apparently a rising star in the League, but young and foolish. He openly flaunted an illicit love affair with a lord's woman, which earned him an expulsion from the League and an exile from the Red City.
The story is interrupted by a drunk Sallow, who offers Kidda backhanded comments, criticizing her play style and saying she needs more practice, before he stumbles out into the night with a woman on each arm. This incenses Kidda, but Ghandi points out that he was actually complimenting her.
"He thinks you're very good," Ghandi says.
"That's not what he said," Kidda replies.
"That's what he meant."
Their talk then turns to the League, the Nine Cities, and the luxuries found there. Kidda's imagination—and her ambition—are stirred.
The film follows this with a montage of Dog Towns, matches, and drunken nights. The team wins every game they play, but the victories are always hard fought. Through all of it, Kidda is getting closer to the team, and especially to Gar, who she takes as a lover.
One night, talking to Sallow after a Game, Kidda observes that the boys in the Dog Town don't look like they've eaten in six weeks. He remarks that they probably haven't.
"We live good, compared to most," he says.
Kidda, though, uses this talk of hunger to pry for details about the League, and the Cities. She asks if they're really as good as everyone says, and if the stories about the luxuries Ghandi told her about are true. He says they are.
The Juggers continue to move further north, and they continue to play and win. But the matches get tougher the farther they go, and eventually Sallow gets blinded in one eye. As Ghandi patches him up, the surgeon remarks that maybe its time for them to turn south again, to head back to the smaller Dog Towns.
The following day, as they're walking to their next destination, Kidda asks why they don't just head for the Red City. She's been talking with the others. She knows now that any team can issue a challenge to the League. That's how Sallow got noticed and accepted.
Sallow refuses, saying they wouldn't accept anyway. But that night in camp, he sits awake, thinking. Kidda's hunger and drive for glory remind him of who he used to be, and what he used to stand for.
Come morning, he's making his way to the Red City. After some debate, the rest of the team follows.
A while later, the Juggers join a procession of refugees and travelers outside a lonely, isolated elevator shaft. They're all waiting to be allowed entrance down into the city. While they wait, Gar asks Sallow if it's true that no League team has ever lost a Challenge. He asks sallow if he thinks they can do it.
"Win," Gar repeats. "Or at least go 100 stones three times. That would be just as good, 300 stones. Tie."
Sallow says nothing, and Gar asks how many stones Sallow went back when he made his Challenge.
Sallow tells him they only went 26.
Gar is shocked. He asks how Sallow could possibly have been allowed into the League after a game like that. Sallow flashes a haunted smile.
"We were the only ones to ever last that long," he says. "Two of us were still standing. It was a good Game. We played very well."
Eventually, the elevator shaft opens, and the Juggers are permitted to take the long ride down into the underground City. Once there, the team goes to get food from a street vendor, while Sallow and Kidda go to watch one of the League Games.
At the sight of it, though, Kidda begins to have second thoughts. The Game is faster, more intense, and more brutal here than she ever imagined.
After the Game, Sallow and Kidda watch the winning players leave the field. The city's lords and ladies stand by the exit ramp, greeting and fawning over the victorious Juggers. While they do, Sallow's gaze drifts to one lord in particular. From there, it rests longingly on the lady by his side. They're obviously the ones from Ghandi's story, the object of Sallow's illicit affair and the lord behind his subsequent exile.
Kidda notices, but she makes no comment, allowing him his private memories.
Then Sallow spots an old colleague of his, a League Jugger named Gonzo. He approaches Gonzo at the end of the ramp, far from the city's elites. He asks about a Challenge match. But Gonzo says the League will never accept. At least not with Sallow on the team.
As they're leaving, Kidda tells Sallow she doesn't want to go through with the Challenge anymore. He asks if she's scared. She says yes. She says she doesn't want the League's attention anymore.
Sallow tells her he wants it.
In the very next scene, the Juggers appear before the League officials. For consideration, they present all the dog skulls they've collected as trophies in their wanderings. While they wait for the officials to give word, Sallow tries to stand near the back, unobtrusively. But the same lord from earlier, the one behind his exile, recognizes him. He wanders from official to official, whispering in their ears.
At last, the chairman announces they will deliberate before making a decision.
At a dining hall, the team sits around, dejected. They suspect that in not being accepted right away, they've been turned down. They saw how the officials looked at Sallow. They know if they're denied, it's his fault, an opinion Gar states out loud.
Both Sallow and Kidda leave to wander the city, eventually winding up in the Red City's ghetto. As Sallow offers to pay for two beds in a flop house, Kidda tells him to just pay for one.
As Kidda and Sallow spend the night together, the action cuts to Gonzo. The League Jugger is dressed in silk finery, enjoying a dinner party thrown by the city's elite. There, he's approached by the same lord seen whispering to the League officials earlier, Lord Vile.
Vile tells Gonzo that at his personal insistence, the challenge from Sallow's team has been accepted. Also at his request, Gonzo will be playing against them. He then instructs Gonzo to put out Sallow's good eye and break his legs when The Game commences.
Gonzo is practically dumbstruck. "You want me to damage him on purpose?"
Vile gives him a cold look. "I insist."
The next day is the day of the Challenge. In the audience stands above the arena, Lord Vile arrives with his lover in tow. Without telling her, he's brought her here to watch as Sallow is broken and humiliated.
On the arena floor, Kidda eyes the opposing Juggers. She talks to Sallow about her fears. She says she was never afraid in any of the other games, because before now, she never imagined it was possible to lose. She always expected to win.
"Then win," Sallow tells her.
On the opposing side, Gonzo tells one of his teammates to pin Sallow and hold him for the remainder of the round. Despite Vile's instructions, he intends to protect his old friend by any means possible.
The Game begins. In short order, Sallow is pinned. One of his other team members, Big Cimber, is down and badly injured.
But Kidda manages to keep the opposing team's Quik from making a goal, running out all 100 counting stones in the first round. It's an unprecedented achievement, and news of it spreads around the Red City as spectators flock to the arena.
During the intermission, team surgeon Ghandi is forced to take Big Cimber's place. The Red City's team gets fresh replacements. Lord Vile berates Gonzo for failing to carry out his instructions.
The second round begins. Sallow takes Gonzo head on. Kidda battles her rival tooth and nail. It's all-in for the entire team, and soon Sallow gains the upper hand on his old friend. He pummels the League Jugger into submission, then he slowly removes his helmet and locks eyes with Lord Vile.
At the same time, Kidda wrests the dog skull from the opposing team's Quik, beating him into unconsciousness. But Sallow stops her from running to the goal stake. He gestures around the arena. To a man, their team has the Red City Juggers down, pinned and defeated.
There's no one left to oppose her.
"Walk," Sallow tells her. "Slowly."
To the sounds of the roaring crowd, Kidda triumphantly strides up to the stake, placing the skull on it. For the first time in the history of The Game, a challenger has beaten a League team.
Plenty of it, and hallelujah to the b-movie gods for that!
While the bloodshed is entirely confined to the playing fields of The Game, a significant amount of the film's runtime is dedicated to it. We get bone-crunching, eye-gouging, skin-ripping action every time the Juggers take the field.
When it comes to violence, The Blood of Heroes lives up to its title.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Probably one of the most restrained cases in the entire genre. Arguably, it's also one of the best.
A lesser film would have labored to show the Juggers wandering past the blasted out remains of a city. But The Blood of Heroes doesn't go for such an easy or extraneous shot. Instead, it hints at the ruined state of things by carefully selecting the pieces of the old world the wandering Juggers carry with them.
Ghandi lugs around an old dresser full of his medical supplies, wearing it like an oversized backpack. The Juggers' armor is piecemeal, with most of it being made of old tires or chains.
But the single most striking example is the chess set made of sockets. It's a wonderfully understated piece of world-building, one almost bordering on genius: the competitive, tactically-minded Juggers finding a use they understand for an old-world artifact they don't comprehend the original purpose of.
Is it as spectacular or visually stunning as a shattered Statue of Liberty?
But it brings the world of the film to life in a way that no amount of crumbling landmarks in the background ever could.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
The Red City is an underground hellhole where the aristocracy lives in luxury, the poor live in squalor, and the Juggers fight to entertain the masses.
Sure, it's a fairly standard set-up. But with the story's tight focus on the Juggers themselves—and especially on the parallel character arcs of Kidda and Sallow—the film really doesn't need to stretch here.
Less is sometimes more, and The Blood of Heroes gives us just enough to keep things moving.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
With apologies to Tina Turner and her Thunderdome, The Game featured in The Blood of Heroes is the greatest example of this trope in the entire genre.
It's basically a heavily armed variant of football, where the goal is to put a dog's skull on the opposing team's spike. Time is divided into three rounds, and kept by throwing piles of 100 stones at a metal gong. When the pile runs out, the round ends. One goal is all it takes to win.
Simple enough. But there's a hidden complexity beneath the surface. Each of the five named player positions has a fairly a defined role. Only the Quik gets to handle the dog skull. The chain-wielding Griffer acts as the Quik's blocker and backup. The Slash appears to be the offensive line, with the Back-Charge, and the Drive serving as the defense.
Once the game is on, anything goes, with biting, gouging, and leg-breaking all deemed acceptable moves. Sallow ends up blind in one eye. Dog Boy ends up crippled and left for dead.
But despite the game's brutality, there's a sense of honor and fair-play surrounding it. Gonzo says it best, when defying Lord Vile's instructions to intentionally injure Sallow on the field.
"I've broken Juggers in half, smashed their bones, and left the ground behind me wet with their brains. I'd do anything to win. But I'd never hurt a soul for any reason but to put a dog's skull on a stake. And I never will."
Barbarian Hordes -
None, surprisingly enough. That said, The Blood of Heroes is the rare example of an apocalyptic movie that doesn't need them.
Aside from the Juggers themselves, nothing in the film's world building hints at any intertribal or inter-village rivalries. We see no war-bands, no weapons, and no guards or sentries of any kind, other than those at the Red City. Warfare is never even mentioned outside the pre-title card.
The assumption we're left with is that by some unspoken tradition, all war and conflict have been replaced by The Game.
It's a conceit that 100% works in the context of the story. One the movie pulls off by presenting it matter-of-factly, along with the rest of its premise.
Badass Warrior Women -
While Anna Katarina's battle scarred, boisterous, and fearless Big Cimber certainly deserves a nod, The Blood of Heroes' Badass Warrior Woman MVP is undoubtedly Kidda.
From the first frame she appears in, Kidda has the eye of the tiger. She makes good on her threat to break Dog Boy's leg in her initial game. In her first match as a member of Sallow's team, she bites the opposing Quik's ear off. She battles tooth and nail to help drive her team to victory after victory, culminating in the climactic Challenge match in the Red City.
Sure, Kidda might be small. But she's as tough as they come, and the movie forces her to prove it time and again.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
None to speak of. Gonzo is probably the closest we get, but that's stretching the definition past its useful limits.
In fact, I'm only bringing him up here because of what he represents in the story.
While most apocalyptic films use the grotesque and the freakish as shorthand for the forces trying to tear down civilization, The Blood of Heroes does the reverse. Gonzo is actually this civilization's representative: an abnormally large Jugger with an exposed steel plate in his head. He's what Sallow could have been if he'd remained in the Red City, and an illustration of the "good life" Sallow was exiled from.
It's an interesting visual choice, especially when coupled with the almost Dantean elevator ride down into the Red City.
For one thing, it underscores that Sallow's exile may not have been an entirely bad thing. We see the Red City, the aristocracy, and the League, and we come away with the conclusion he was better off in the Dog Towns.
Sallow descends into a metaphorical hell in search of his redemption. Keeping with the Dantean metaphor, the Red City is Inferno rather than Paradiso. And Gonzo is one of its bloated, grinning devils.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out about The Blood of Heroes is how flat-out brilliant the concept is. It's a post-apocalyptic sports movie, equal parts Rocky and The Road Warrior. And while the set-up has the potential to be gimmicky, Writer/Director David Webb Peoples uses it to break new ground in the genre.
Where most apocalyptic stories feature characters focused on survival, The Blood of Heroes instead gives us characters primarily concerned with honor. That's a fresh enough take to be noteworthy on its own. But what's truly fascinating about that choice is what it implies about the movie's setting.
The Mad Max films and their imitators mostly portray a world falling into savagery. Bands of lawless nomads rape, murder, and pillage their way across the wastes in an endless struggle for limited resources. But The Blood of Heroes shows a world where the pendulum is just beginning to swing the other way, a world taking its very first steps away from barbarism. The celebrity status of the Juggers, the reverence everyone holds for The Game, and the unspoken but pointed absence of any other kind of violence all hint at a new and emerging order, an infant civilization crawling out of the ruins of the old.
It's the kind of story that rarely—if ever—gets told in this genre.
The second thing that needs to be said about The Blood of Heroes is that in terms of pure story, it's flawlessly constructed.
By maintaining a tight focus on the unknown but ambitious Kidda and the disgraced veteran Sallow, it seamlessly blends two opposite—but not opposed—character arcs, creating a larger and more powerful story in the process.
The film's biggest strength is the way it leverages the main characters' motivations. Kidda's hunger for glory is played perfectly against Sallow's desire for redemption. Most importantly, it avoids the easy trap of dropping them into a traditional Mentor/Pupil relationship, opting for a more nuanced approach.
While Kidda learns the ropes of The Game from Sallow, the aging Jugger sees a reflection of his own lost, youthful enthusiasm in her. It sparks a deep desire to go back and right a wrong committed against his pride.
By act three, both characters have a powerful, consuming need to play in the Red City. The Challenge match is more than just another Game to either of them. It's everything. Win or lose, they'll go down swinging.
And damn if we're not on the edges of our seats the entire time.
Ultimately, The Blood of Heroes is a film is about hope and heroism in a brutal, unforgiving world. Victories are short and fleeting, and they only happen when you make them happen.
But when they do, they're stuff of legends.
The Rad Rating:
The Blood of Heroes comes within reaching distance of the coveted Five Rad rating, but it falls just short of apocalyptic perfection.
The pace never flags for an instant. The action moves along smoothly without feeling rushed. The characters have ample time to grow and breathe. The film knows which moments are important to show us in full, and which ones can safely be summarized in an action montage.
Above all, The Blood of Heroes doesn't engage in hand-holding. It presents its characters and its world matter-of-factly. It trusts its audience enough not to pause and point out the obvious, allowing us to gather everything from the subtext, the dialogue, and the art direction.
Honestly, the film's only real flaws are the relatively wooden performances from the supporting cast, and its somewhat uninspired cinematography. Neither are grievous sins. But they're just glaring enough to prevent me from awarding a full Five Rads.
That said, The Blood of Heroes is a criminally underrated masterpiece of post apocalyptica. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Mad Max and The Road Warrior when discussing the genre's all-time classics.
Until next time, Wastelanders!
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
A little over a week ago, I took an in-depth look at a bona fide genre classic. As expected, Mad Max stood up well on The Rad Scale. This week, I'm applying those same standards to 1988's tongue-in-cheek "Rowdy" Roddy Piper vehicle, Hell Comes To Frogtown.
The results? Decidedly mixed.
A decade after a nuclear war, mankind is on the brink of extinction. 68% of the male population is dead. Fallout has rendered most of the survivors sterile. Birth rates are plummeting, even as both sides are struggling to rebuild and rearm.
"Rowdy" Roddy Piper is Sam Hell, a notorious criminal and serial woman-sexer.
Hell has left a string of pregnancies everywhere he's been, and according to the militarized fertility nurses at MedTech, he has the highest sperm count they've ever tested. MedTech's primary mission is, of course, to locate and impregnate fertile women in the blasted atomic wasteland.
And they're prepared to offer Sam Hell a full pardon for his crimes in exchange for his *ahem* services.
Hell, of course, agrees, reasoning that a life sexin' women is better than life in prison. He signs the papers, which include a clause declaring his manly parts "government property."
Before the ink is even dry, he's off on a rescue mission in the company of Nurse Spangle and her stoic, steely-eyed subordinate, Corporal Centinella. Their destination: Frogtown, a stronghold deep in mutant territory. According to intelligence sources, rebel "Greeners" originating in Frogtown have kidnapped a group fertile women and are holding them for ransom.
The Provisional Government wants Spangle to get the women out, and Hell to get the women pregnant.
And HOLY CRAP, I just now spotted the double entendre in the title!
Not even joking. I'm actually kind of embarrassed. I was 13 the first time I saw this movie. But somehow, that joke flew over my head until I was 40.
To prevent Sam Hell from running out on his duty, the Provisional Government has fitted him with a special chastity belt. It monitors his physiosexual condition. It transmits his location at all times. It can deliver electric shocks on command. If he wanders too far from Nurse Spangle, it explodes. And it will also explode if anyone but her tries to remove it.
With their weapons in order and their "equipment" properly secured, our heroes set out into the wasteland, traveling in a pink ambulance with an M-60 machine gun mounted on top. Because damn it if this movie isn't just awesome when it wants to be.
Unfortunately, after this zany and promising set up, the movie meanders a bit. For a movie taking place in a mutant-infested atomic desert, the road to Frogtown is surprisingly uneventful.
Sam Hell tries to escape, which earns him a lesson in how his electronic chastity belt works. At camp the first night, Spangle poses seductively for him to "keep the subject in an excited state." Corporal Centinella tries to sleep with him, but they're interrupted by an obviously jealous Spangle. There's some bickering, an attempt by Hell to renegotiate his contract, and an encounter with an escaped hostage from Frogtown, culminating in Spangle once again posing seductively to excite Hell enough to do his job.
The above scenes serve mainly to pad out the runtime, and to demonstrate the rising attraction between Spangle and Hell. Eventually, though, the trio arrives at Frogtown. They halt the ambulance just outside in the hills, leaving Centinella on guard duty. Spangle and Hell infiltrate the rest of the way on foot, with Spangle posing as Hell's prisoner.
Once inside, they encounter an old friend of Sam's, a prospector named Loonie. As it turns out, Loonie discovered a pocket of uranium beneath Frogtown, which the frogs have been mining for profit. They also encounter the double agent they're supposed to rendezvous with, frog burlesque dancer Arabella.
At first, everything is going according to plan. That changes with the arrival of Bull, chief lieutenant to the rebel Greeners' leader, Commander Toty. Soon both Hell and Spangle are in captivity, with Hell chained up in Bull's private workshop/torture chamber, and Spangle in the palace's Harem.
Bull sets to the task of removing Sam's explosive chastity belt. He manages to get it off without triggering the bomb. It does off in his hand as he's examining it, however. The blast is enough to knock him senseless, and it buys Arabella just enough time to sneak in and free Hell from his chains.
Meanwhile, Spangle is forced to perform a ritual called "The Dance of the Three Snakes" for commander Toty. As she dances to the music in the throne room, the frog commander becomes visibly aroused, declaring that she's successfully awakened the "three snakes."
And yes, it's exactly as weird as it sounds.
Thankfully, before Toty can force himself on her, Hell kicks in the door, wielding a shotgun in each hand. He delivers the proper action movie quip of "Eat lead, froggies," just before mowing down the guards. Toty narrowly escapes by leaping up onto the overhead scaffolding.
Spangle and Hell then make a beeline for the harem, where they free the hostages and make a break for Centinella's waiting ambulance. A brief shootout follows, but the heroes peel out and hit the open road. Toty and his warriors give chase, riding in an armored, camouflaged car that has some kind of recoilless rifle attached.
Hell and the others almost make it, but they end up trapped in the rocks with their vehicle destroyed. Sam Hell is forced to fight Toty alone, eventually prevailing and knocking him off the edge of a cliff face.
The threats finally over, Spangle and Hell get into another bickering, heated argument. The argument quickly turns into the passionate kiss that's been building up since the two of them met, but Spangle tells him to hold his horses before he gets too excited.
After all. He still has a job to do.
Violence - Surprisingly little, and most of it confined to the third act. We have a couple of brief fight scenes. We have an even briefer shootout in Toty's throne room. The final chase contains some explosions and gunfire, and we get a climactic fight between Toty and Piper out in the desert. That final fight is almost the kind of knock-down, drag-out brawl you'd expect with a pro wrestler as the lead. But not quite.
Sadly, Hell Comes to Frogtown disappoints on the violence front.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins - Fairly standard for the genre. That said, it's delivered with confidence and competence. Directors Donald G. Jackson and R. J. Kizer lean heavily on some of the time-tested tricks of the apocalyptic film trade, but they make them work.
Wide desert vistas, a lonely toll both, and a few hastily erected signs marking the edge of the "Hostile Mutant Zone" provide a quick shorthand for the atomic wasteland. The Kaiser Steel Mill in Fontana, California stands in for Frogtown itself.
There's also the requisite opening narration describing a great war, played over stock footage of an atomic bomb test. But Jackson and Kizer play with the formula here, adding a welcome bit of deadpan snark to the narration. Not to mention a funny sight gag that sends up the iconic ending of Planet of the Apes.
Dystopian Survivor Society - Look, citizen. The Provisional Government is trying to stave off a population disaster. And if that means forcing a man to sign over control of his own penis and testicles, wiring them with an explosive device so they don't fall into "enemy hands," and driving him into the heart of mutant territory to impregnate a bunch of fertile women against his will, then by God, it's a small price to pay.
Futuristic Bloodsports - None. But they would have been better off including some, considering how long this film takes to finally get to the action.
Barbarian Hordes - Nada. Mankind apparently managed to avoid a complete descent into savagery after World War III. Of course, with the plummeting birth rates threatening to wipe out the war's survivors in a few generations, that descent probably isn't far off.
Badass Warrior Women - Nurse Spangle, played by Conan the Barbarian alum Sandahl Bergman. Trained in both combat and the "arts of seduction," Spangle is the rescue mission's fearless leader. In addition to taking down Commander Toty with a series of kicks to each of his "three snakes," Spangle completely flattens the frog sentries in the hallway without breaking a sweat.
Secondary mention goes to Corporal Centinella, who spends most of the film manning the ambulance's M-60 machine gun.
Watch Thou For the Mutant - And fuckin' how! Hell Comes to Frogtown is hands' down the mutie-est mutant extravaganza ever to grace the apocalyptic screen. Where other movies try to pass off extras with dried oatmeal on their faces as mutants, this one goes whole hog... er, frog.
Thats right, Wastelanders. We've got full-on, giant, anthropomorphic human/frog hybrids.
Jackson and Kizer wisely chose to spend the majority of the film's budget here, and it shows. Sure, most of the background frogs stay covered in stereotypical wasteland garb like trench coats, goggles, and dust scarves. But the "star" frog suits—reserved for major characters like Commander Toty and Bull—have articulated eyes, pulsating necks, and working mouths. They're honestly more impressive than anything in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, which would be made just a few years later for considerably more money.
I've gotta admit, "Roddy Piper Saves Humanity with His Dick," is a bold premise for a movie. The fact that Hell Comes to Frogtown works as well as it does is nothing short of miraculous.
With its central conceit of plunging fertility rates, weaponized sperm counts, and what amounts to forced stud work for central character Sam Hell, this film could have taken the obvious route of relying on gratuitous, graphic sex scenes to pad the run-time. The fact that there's only one scene of actual nudity, and that it's played mostly for laughs, speaks to the integrity of the filmmakers. They clearly wanted to make a post apocalyptic action romp, rather than a softcore sci-fi sex film, and they need to be applauded for sticking to their guns.
The unfortunate flip side is that the movie doesn't quite commit to the action aesthetic, either. In fact, there's shockingly little action on display. This was probably for budgetary reasons, and the filmmakers do deserve some credit for trying to turn each action scene into a set piece. But in the end it's just not enough.
So what's left? Aside from the humor, frustratingly little.
Since there wasn't enough budget for more action, and the filmmakers chose to eschew excessive sex, a big chunk of the movie's runtime is dedicated to Sam Hell and Nurse Spangle's budding romance. To their credit, Piper and Bergman do manage to keep these scenes from dragging the film down, thanks to their fun, over-the-top performances. But this shift in focus almost makes the movie feel like a quirky Romantic Comedy. One that just happens to have a tough-talkin,' mutant-killin,' and woman-sexin' subplot tacked on.
Side note: I would definitely watch more RomComs if they included the above elements. Also, if I ever find myself single and in the dating pool again, I plan to use this movie to justify a "yes" answer on the subject of liking RomComs.
Speaking of subplots, there is one about traitor humans selling the frogs guns in exchange for uranium. The traitor even turns out to be the same "bad cop" seen roughing up Hell at the beginning of the movie. But it's not really explored, and when the character pops up at the end just to lengthen the climax, it winds up feeling tacked on.
Likewise with the parts about Sam Hell's old mentor, Loony, and the hints about Hell's deceased wife and daughter. Loony's death during the climactic chase scene doesn't seem to affect Hell enough to warrant his inclusion in the movie at all. And the pendant that belonged to Hell's daughter makes no real appearance in the film until the last fifteen minutes. It seems to have been added solely for the purpose of giving him a tender moment with Centinella.
While the attempt at giving us deeper characterization and a more complex plot is appreciated, it ultimately falls flat. Sometimes the simplest answer is best, and the simplest answer here would have been to include more scenes of Roddy Piper kicking mutant ass.
The Rad Rating:
As much as I hate to admit it, Hell Comes to Frogtown comes painfully close to earning Two and a Half Rads. The slow beginning and the overall lack of violence hamper things badly. Admittedly, that's only two strikes, but they're big ones.
The film's primary redeeming quality—and the one area where it stands above practically all other movies in the genre—is its mutants. Hell Comes to Frogtown pulls out all the stops when it comes to the frogs, enough to bump it up to a full Three Rads.
Bottom line: Hell Comes to Frogtown is a flawed cult classic, frustrating mainly for what it could have been rather than what it is. It's still a fun and entertaining film at the end of the day. Recommended if you've got both an evening and a six-pack of beer to kill.
That does it for now, Wastelanders. Until next time!
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
For today's review, I'm dipping into one of the genre's greats: George Miller's 1979 proto-action epic, Mad Max.
While it's sometimes overshadowed by its sequels—especially the genre defining masterpiece The Road Warrior--Miller's original film is nonetheless an apocalyptic essential. Telling the focused, intimate story of a family man and police officer serving in the final days of a collapsing society, Miller manages to show us a different side of the apocalypse.
This isn't the rusted hulks and collapsed skyscrapers of the 'Pocky-clypse Past, Wastelanders. This is the impending doom of the 'Pocky-clypse Soon. And its every bit as harrowing as the aftermath.
The film opens hot, beginning "a few years from now," with the Australian Main Force Patrol in pursuit of a crazed cop killer calling himself the Nightrider. Vehicles crash, bones break, and glass shatters as the Nightrider outpaces the "Bronze," taunting them the entire way over the police band radio in his stolen V8 Interceptor.
He's set to get away, until Officer Max Rockatansky joins the action, intercepting him along a barren stretch of highway and driving straight for him. The Nightrider, at first cool and collected during the game of chicken, breaks first, swerving around Max in a panic.
Max spins his vehicle around to give pursuit, and a rattled Nightrider ends up plowing his nitro-charged vehicle into a stalled big rig, resulting in an explosion and fireball.
And that, folks, is how you open a fucking movie!
After this blistering, edge-of-the-seat nail biter, we're treated to a series of quieter moments between Max, his wife Jessie, and their toddler son Sprog. It's obvious Max doesn't completely relax at home, however. He's distant and detached as his loving wife tries to engage him.
The next morning, Max heads in to Main Force Patrol Headquarters, where his partner Jim Goose and the department's mechanic surprise him with a salvaged and rebuilt V8 Interceptor. "The last of the V8's" they call it. Max stares at it with genuine awe, displaying more interest and emotion than he did with his wife the night before.
It's here that we learn, via an upstairs conversation between Captain "Fifi" Macaffee and some department bean counter, that Max has been talking about leaving the force. The rebuilt Interceptor is apparently an expensive bid to keep Fifi's best officer on the job.
Later that night, at the bloody, twisted aftermath of yet another of Max's pursuits, Fifi pulls up to warn him about an ominous rumor. Nightrider apparently has friends, and they're out to get him. Max grins, saying he'll add it to his list of death threats.
He doesn't have long to wait. The next scene is the Toecutter's gang rolling into town to collect their friend's remains from the train station. While Toecutter sits silently by the coffin, the rest of the gang begins to have a little fun with the locals.
This being an apocalyptic biker movie, "fun" involves drinking, laughing, dragging a man to death behind a motorcycle, and running down and raping a young couple in a hot rod.
Some time later, Max and Goose are called to the scene. They find Johnny, one of Toecutter's men, alongside the brutalized girl. Johnny is whacked right out of his skull, and ranting and raving about the Nightrider. They bring him into custody, but the Main Force Officers are forced to release him on a technicality.
Johnny taunts Goose on the way out the station, and it quickly devolves into an all-out brawl in the parking lot, with other Main Force Officers having to pull Goose away. Johnny manages to get in a chilling last word.
"We remember the Nightrider, and we know who you are, Bronze."
True to their word, the bikers locate and tamper with Goose's motorcycle, causing the brakes to lock up and dump him on the side of the highway. He borrows a truck to scoop his bike off the road, and as he's driving back to civilization the bikers ambush him, throwing a rusted brake drum through his windshield and causing him to crash.
What follows is one of the film's most harrowing scenes.
Goose, trapped and covered in leaking gasoline, looks on helplessly as Johnny and Toecutter stride up. Toecutter instructs Johnny to light a match. Johnny hesitates, saying this isn't what he wanted. But Toecutter tells him this is a threshold moment, that the Bronze are keeping him from being proud. Johnny resists the Toecutter's increasingly frantic demands to throw the match until it physically burns him. He reflexively tosses it into the grass, causing the gas to ignite.
The scene then cuts away to Max arriving at the hospital. The other Main Force officers are gathered in the hall. Everyone tries to keep him out of the intensive care room, but Max goes in anyway. He sees the burned wreck of his partner and friend, and staggers out of the room, sick with shock. He can't accept it.
"That thing in there," he says. "That's not the Goose."
The next day, Max walks into Fifi's office and hands in his resignation. Fifi won't hear of it. He tells Max that he's top shelf. He's a winner. And he can't afford to lose him.
This exchange provides one of the series' most memorable lines:
"I'm scared Fifi. Do you know why? It's that rat circus out there. I'm beginning to enjoy it. Any longer out there on that road and I'm one of them, you know? A Terminal Crazy. Only I've got a Bronze Badge to say I'm one of the good guys."
Fifi agrees to give him a few weeks off, saying if he still feels the same way when he gets back, he can resign. Max assures him he won't, but Fifi says Max is hooked and that deep down, he knows it.
The film slows down considerably here, as Max goes off and attempts to enjoy his vacation. Fortunately for the viewer, it doesn't last. Before long the bikers are back, the family dog is dead, and Max is out hunting the bikers with a shotgun while his terrified wife huddles in the farmhouse with the elderly landlady.
Unfortunately, this is just what the bikers wanted. With Max running around in the woods, the bikers swoop in and get their hands on Sprog, leading to a tense and terrifying confrontation. It's only the fortunate arrival of the landlady and her shotgun that keeps the worst from happening, but even that turns out to be nothing but a short-term delay.
As the two women make their escape, the car fails, forcing Jessie to take Sprog and run.
It ends about as well as you'd imagine.
It's at this point Max finally caves. He dons his leathers, steals the V8 Interceptor from the Halls of Justice and sets out on the highway. The rest of the movie is exactly what we signed on for: a practically non-stop rampage of balls-out, high-octane violence and revenge.
We're treated to spectacular set pieces of Max stalking the bikers, running them down with his nitro V8, and shotgunning his way out of the bikers' attempted trap. Soon the only survivors are Johnny and Toecutter, who opt to break and run in opposite directions. Max gives chase, opting to follow Toecutter.
What follows is another edge of the seat, nail-biting chase sequence, and one of the film's absolute highlights.
Max doggedly pursues him, catching up inch by inch. The Toecutter, panicked, keeps looking behind him. He doesn't see the oncoming semi truck until the very last second, just long enough to register a moment of terror. Then the truck crushes him, rolling over his broken body even as the driver tries to stop.
The following morning, Max finally catches up to Johnny at the scene of yet another vehicle wreck. He cuffs the pleading biker's leg to the wreck at gunpoint. He then lights Johnny's zippo lighter and places it beneath the leaking gas tank. Handing Johnny a hacksaw, he says it will take him ten minutes to hack through the chain on the handcuffs. But if he's lucky, he can cut through his ankle in five.
He then leaves the begging, screaming Johnny to his own devices and drives out into the wastes. The film closes on Max's dead, icy expression as the wreck explodes into a huge fireball behind him.
Violence - Mad Max delivers here. Arguably more than any other film in the series. The individual scenes may not be as elaborately staged as those in the later movies, and there certainly aren't as many of them. But the ones we have are brutally effective and powerful.
Special mention has to go to the standout opening chase scene, which—40 years later—is still one of the greatest ever put to film. Even in the three subsequent Mad Max films, George Miller himself never quite topped it. It may not have the flash or the scope of the chase scenes in The Road Warrior or Fury Road. But in terms of nail-biting tension, stakes, and raw grittiness, it remains the series' high point.
Other highlights include the gang savagely running down Jessie and Sprog, the horrifying ambush and immolation of Jim Goose, and Max's violent rampage for the last ten minutes of the movie, culminating in his poetically appropriate torching of Johnny.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins - No ruins, but that's mainly because the world George Miller shows us in Mad Max isn't quite apocalyptic. Not yet. Rather, it's a world that's rapidly heading towards apocalypse, in the throes of economic depression, fuel shortages, and a general breakdown of order.
That said, the dilapidated Halls of Justice building, the general squalor of the city, and the occasional pile of wreckage alongside the highway do an admirable job of portraying a society going to rot.
Dystopian Survivor Society - In spades. Whatever body is governing the city is rapidly turning into a dictatorship, as they struggle to keep some stability and order in a world going to shit. There are distinctly Orwellian overtones to the radio dispatcher's messages throughout the movie. Furthermore, aside from some stand-up types like Goose, Fifi, and Max, the Main Force Patrol is made up of violent thugs no different from the gangs.
It's subtle by genre standards, but arguably all the more powerful for it.
Futuristic Bloodsports - None whatsoever. While the series would eventually go on to become synonymous with the most famous futuristic bloodsport this side of Rollerball, the first Mad Max is basically a near-future police drama.
And as cool as it would have been to see, a rousing game of Machete Rugby would have detracted from the story.
Barbarian Hordes - Scoot jockeys. Nomad trash. Whatever you want to call them, Toecutter's biker gang fits the bill. Right from the moment they ride into town they're seen raping, raiding, and looting everything in sight.
While they're a bit tame compared to some of the series' later villains, what really makes them effective is their audacity. They're not out there in the wastes preying on one another. They're riding up main street, preying on the film's stand-ins for the audience.
Lord Humungous might be the Warrior of the Wasteland, but Toecutter leads the barbarians at the gates. For a society trying to hold onto its last threads of civilization, that's far more terrifying.
Badass Warrior Women - Jessie spends a little too much time playing damsel in distress, but the film doesn't leave us hanging. I present the sweet, elderly landlady, May Swaisey.
May faces down over half a dozen bikers with nothing but a double barreled shotgun, showing all the grit of an Old West Marshal. After she fires off her warning shot, she knows damned well she's just got just one load of buckshot left before they can dog pile her. She still doesn't show the slightest bit of fear or hesitation. Rather, she menaces the bikers with her remaining shot, daring each of them to be the one that eats it as she corrals them into the barn.
I say this in all sincerity. Do NOT fuck with a grandma holding a shotgun. She's not playing games. Mess around, and she will end you.
Watch Thou For the Mutant - The Mad Max series has always been pretty lacking in this department, and Mad Max has the weakest showing of all. Not one mutant or abnormal creature shows up for the entire run time.
Its no accident that one of the very first shots in the film is the broken, run-down Hall of Justice. With just that one visual, Miller manages to convey a lot of background information to the viewer. We don't need a long narration over stock footage, or a silent title card explaining how the world got this way. That one shot tells us all we need to know, that we're in a world that's just barely holding on before the final slip into anarchy. It's elegantly simple, and one of the best examples of purely visual storytelling I can think of.
Likewise, the entire opening sequence does an incredible amount of heavy lifting, introducing not just the story world and several main characters, but effectively showing us who Max and Jim Goose are. Within minutes of the film's opening crawl, we know Goose is an easygoing joker, while Max is already teetering dangerously on the edge. And it manages to do this while simultaneously delivering a thrilling chase scene.
Arguably, that relationship between Goose and Max is the movie's most important one. Jim Goose has all the humanity and humor Max seems to be lacking. That said, he's not a one-note character. The most telling moment for Goose is his outburst in the Halls of Justice, as the Main Force patrol is forced to release Johnny.
The fact that no one showed for the hearing (not even Max) is what finally cracks Goose's cool, easygoing exterior. The Justice System is what he truly believes in, we realize. It's the one thing enabling him to put on that jolly, relaxed demeanor every day. Watching it collapse and fail before his very eyes is more than he can stand. The world—the real, failing world, the one out there in the Wastes—has suddenly become too real, too impossible to hide from. The mask slips, and for a brutally savage moment in the parking lot, Goose is no different than the bikers, pinning and beating Johnny until he's physically dragged away.
And it's Jim Goose's burning that provides Max's first and most important crisis moment. One that oddly mirrors that of another character in the film, biker and simpering Toecutter toady, Johnny.
Toecutter has a meaningful line in the previous scene, as the two bikers are standing over the helpless Goose. Toecutter tells Johnny he's at a threshold moment, and urges him to step through it by lighting the gasoline. Johnny, of course, hesitates, and it's unclear as to how willingly he tosses the match at the end.
Seeing Goose's burned body is Max's threshold moment. And like Johnny, he doesn't want to step through. He even tells Fifi he's going to quit the Main Force, over fear of becoming "one of them, a terminal crazy."
The main difference is that Max is partially successful in stepping away from that threshold. He still has some tiny bit of humanity left, something to hold onto. It's only after he loses his son and his wife is brutally injured that he crosses it, but when he does it's a much more deliberate and willing action than Johnny's.
This point is hammered home in the film's nihilistic final shot. Max simply drives out into the wasteland, not bothering to go back and check on his hospitalized wife. She, like the majority of humanity, will be dead soon.
And Max Rockatansky no longer cares.
The Rad Rating:
Mad Max can be forgiven for lacking some of the genre's Vitals. After all, the series is still in its embryonic stage at this point, and subsequent films will arguably go on to create or codify several of the items on the list. Nevertheless, where it lacks in one area it dramatically pays off in the others. The dearth of Mutants and Futuristic Bloodsports is more than balanced out by the Violence and the Dystopian Survivor Society.
The film's only real weaknesses occur in the sagging middle portion, where Max attempts to have a quiet vacation with Jessie. Several of the scenes here run overlong, and the plot sort of meanders a bit. There are also a few nonsensical character moments, the most jarring of which involves both Max and Jessie forgetting all about their son while the bikers are stalking them at the farmhouse.
However, these flaws are only occasionally glaring, and there are few enough of them on display to keep this film comfortably in the Four Rads category. Highly recommended.
Until next time, Wastelanders.
Since its publication, much has been made of the connection between Schuyler Hernstrom's new post apocalyptic sci-fi novella and Ursula Le Guin's Hugo-winning short, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
I'll touch on that connection in a bit, but if you're still on the fence about reading this, let me help you out.
Do you like barbarians? How about motorcycles? Settings that feel like a combination of Vance's Dying Earth and Mad Max? Enjoy witty banter between two likable heroes? Do you like TALKING MONKEYS?
Then stop reading this review right now. Go to Amazon immediately, and buy a copy of "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City."
If I could describe this book using only one sentence, it's like somebody spilled Jack Daniels on a stack of old Heavy Metal magazines with Motorhead blaring in the background. It's random pages from Gary Gygax's Appendix N, screamed out loud over the analog hiss of a bootleg Manowar tape. It's D20s rolling across the cover of the Player's Handbook, with a blacklight illuminating the Led Zeppelin poster on the wall and Black Sabbath's Sabotage playing on the hi-fi stereo.
It's the sort of gonzo, kitchen sink science-fantasy mashup that made old school D&D so balls-to-the-wall awesome.
Bottom line, this story flat-out fucking rocks.
And if none of that convinces you to buy this book, then gentle reader, I don't think I can help you.
Like all of Hernstrom's work so far, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" is actually easy to summarize. Northern barbarian Mortu and his companion Kyrus—a human priest trapped in the body of a monkey—encounter a swarm of desert nomads attacking a caravan. Mortu swings into action, saving the caravan and its precious cargo. The pair are then invited back to the White City, the mysterious, ancient ruin the travelers have taken for their own. The barbarian and the small monk accept, grateful for the rest. But the seemingly utopian society the travelers have built in the White City holds a dark secret.
If you're familiar with Le Guin's famous short, you can already guess at the nature of that secret. If not, well...
I'm about to go into it, so from here on out the review will CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS, both for "Mortu and Kyrus" and for "Omelas."
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is more of a parable than a story. Wikipedia calls it a work of "philosophical fiction," which I guess is a good enough description. There are no characters, no conflicts, little else except the setting, and even that's kept deliberately vague.
In it, an omniscient narrator describes the city of Omelas as a perfect society, one in which everyone is happy except for one small child. That child is kept in a basement, abused, half starved, and suffering. The suffering of the child is somehow tied to the happiness of everyone else. If the child is ever shown kindness, ever taken out of the basement, ever so much as washed to clean his or her own excrement off, then everyone else in the society will be unhappy. The narrator describes how the citizens of Omelas find various ways of justifying the child's suffering as "necessary." The exceptions, of course, are the titular "Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," those who learn of the child's suffering, cannot abide it, and leave the city forever.
Quite honestly, I never understood the appeal of Le Guin's piece. It struck me as a half-assed attempt at presenting an ethical thought experiment, like the trolley problem. And when I say half-assed, I don't mean the writing. Le Guin is pretty much beyond reproach in terms of prose.
I mean it's half-assed in the construction of the ethical problem.
The moral dilemma presented in "Omelas" is simple and straightforward: preserve utopia by permitting the unspeakable suffering of one, or relieve that suffering and destroy utopia?
The problem I always had with "Omelas" is that those two things are in no way equal, at least not in the way the story lays them out. No indication is given that the citizens of Omelas will suffer genuine consequences if someone helps the child. No one will die. No one else will be tortured. The only consequence is that their idyllic perfection will vanish, and they'll somehow be "unhappy."
I could honestly never see the moral dilemma there, even as a teenager. Choose between vaguely defined happiness and torture? What the hell is there to think about? Torturing the kid is wrong. Full stop. End of discussion. Jesus, how is this even a question!?
Well, Hernstrom plays with a similar set-up in "Mortu and Kyrus." But in my opinion, he does something infinitely more interesting with Le Guin's premise.
Scratch that. He does two things:
The first is that he gives a reason for the citizens of the White City to engage in the horrific torture of the child, as well as real consequences for them should the torture ever stop.
As Mortu and Kyrus learn, the ancient architects of the city left behind advanced technology. Chief among the relics is a machine capable of rendering those within the city immortal, but it does so by painfully draining the life force of one person over the course of several years. The citizens of the White City purchase orphans from nearby settlements to feed the machine, rationalizing that the life of one unwanted child is a small price to pay for their own god-like existence. If the machine ever stops, their immortality ends, the centuries will catch up with them, and they'll die.
It's an important change. With something more on the line than "happiness," the torture and brutality take on a more realistic, believable dimension.
The second interesting thing Hernstrom does is that he actually answers the moral question Le Guin never really got around to presenting.
See, the trolley problem forces the subject to choose between two unspeakable wrongs. It's a true ethical dilemma: which of these equally awful things is the "right" choice? "Omelas," on the other hand, presents us with a clear right and a clear wrong, and then pretends its asking a deep question by rigging the answer.
What do I mean by that?
Le Guin only ever tells us about two groups of people: Those who stay in Omelas, giving tacit consent to the torture, and "the ones who walk away." The sight of the child shakes them to the core, they cannot live in such an awful place, so they leave.
But the ones that walk away are just as guilty as those who don't. They're still allowing the torture of the child to continue, only they can partly absolve themselves of responsibility since they're not enjoying any of the benefits.
Even so, given the choice between "vaguely-defined happiness for the many" and "objectively measurable torture and child abuse," literally everyone in the story chooses child abuse.
This is another reason I've never gotten what people see in this story. For all that "Omelas" is touted as some deeply philosophical think-piece, it's really not much more than a nihilistic statement about human nature.
Sorry, but I already get enough of that outside my fiction.
Fortunately, there's absolutely none of that nihilism on display during the climax of Hernstrom's tale. Instead, the author gives the only answer to Le Guin's question that I ever really believed in. Not only does Mortu save the child and ensure the destruction of utopia, he gives that destruction a head start, taking up his shield and his battle axe, and killing anyone who comes within reach.
Just prior to writing this review, I re-read "Omelas" to reacquaint myself with it. This quote particularly stuck out:
"They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians."
Contrast that quote against Robert E. Howard, one of Hernstrom's biggest cited influences. Howard's main recurring theme was civilization's corruption and decadence, as opposed to the savage but straightforward barbarians on the fringes.
On this re-reading, Omelas struck me as the ultimate expression of the decadent, corrupt civilizations Howard's barbarian heroes rail against. A perfect and peaceful veneer, hiding a rotten core. But if Omelas is the ultimate expression of decadent civilization, the bloody path Mortu carves through the White City is the ultimate refutation of it.
Schuyler Hernstrom sees our Ursula Le Guin. And he raises us a Robert E. Howard.
"Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" is available on kindle for $0.99.
If you travel in pulp sword and sorcery circles long enough, sooner or later you're going to run into the name Schuyler Hernstrom. And with good reason. Few writers working today have grasped the pulp S&S aesthetic as throughly as Hernstrom. The stories in this collection deliver old-school action, weird fantasy, and hard-hitting heroes.
Originally appearing in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, "The Challenger's Garland" is the only reprint. The story follows Molok, a ringwraith-like servant of the Death God, on his journey to challenge yet another champion in his lord's name. The tale is short, and there aren't any real surprises here. Especially not after we're introduced to Lobon, the champion. Even so, Hernstrom's telling is immensely satisfying. Rather than feeling predictable, the linear nature of the story gives the events a sense of finality, and portrays the characters as slaves to an inescapable fate.
"Athan and the Priestess" is the story that gives this collection its title. Athan, warlord of the steppes, receives a vision from Thune, the tribe's dying wizard. Athan is tasked with crossing the magic wall separating the steppe from the lands to their ancient enemies, the Ullin. There, he is to lay with the Ullin High Priestess and father a mighty son. The following adventure is a fantasy in the classic Weird Tales mode, with strange sorcery, wicked goddesses, and ancient towers.
"Movements of the Ige" is almost a science fantasy. The story details a ritualistic battle between the primitive, lizard-like denizens of an unnamed planet. The proceedings are interrupted when an otherworldly "egg" drops from the sky, bringing with it some alien explorers. Once again, there are few surprises here. But Hernstrom paints an exceptionally vivid and well-realized culture among the lizard-like Ige in this short tale.
"The Ecology of the Unicorn" is more-or-less a Vance pastiche. While not explicitly set on Vance's Dying Earth, Hernstrom's work here recalls the earlier, loosely-linked shorts that made up the first Dying Earth collection, especially "Turjan of Miir" and "Mazirian the Magician." The plot is simple enough: the wizard Malathiksos seeks immortality, demanding the help of a captive fae creature named Rutu. The flourishes are what make this story stand out, and the flourishes are pure Vance. In other hands, this one would be a complete misfire, but Hernstrom pulls it off admirably. The ironic twist ending is a hat-tip the master himself would have probably enjoyed.
The longest story in the collection, and probably my favorite, is "Adalwolf's Saga." In a pseudo-Norse/Germanic culture, Adalwolf must avenge his father's death against a rival warlord. The initial battle goes poorly, with only Adalwolf and his brother, Gasto, escaping the field. At first believing himself cursed, Adalwolf soon gains the favor of the All-Father. But his righteous quest for vengeance gradually twists into self-serving ambition, and Gasto questions whether or not the All-Father will be pleased.
It's incredibly rare for me to buy a single-author collection and enjoy every story. Thune's Vision was an exception.
If you enjoy reading the pulp greats of yesteryear, particularly Robert E. Howard or Jack Vance, then I highly recommend this collection. It might not be up to the lofty standards of those two masters, but it scratches that old-school itch in a way that most modern fantasy doesn't.
Thune's Vision is available on Kindle for $2.99. There's also a paperback edition available for $5.00.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.