REVIEW: EWOKS – THE BATTLE FOR ENDOR

Check out the above poster. See that mean-looking human dude in the middle brandishing a blaster? I have absolutely no idea who that is, and I only watched this film last night. He is literally NOT IN THIS MOVIE, and yet he has pride of place on the poster. But why?

One possible explanation for this glaring anomaly is that the producers (ie Lucasfilm) wanted to send out a signal that Battle for Endor was going to be a far livelier affair than its predecessor Caravan of Courage, and I am happy to report that it is.

This Ewok sequel, released in 1985, is less magic and whimsey and more action and adventure. Gone is the dreary Burl Ives narration from the first film, thankfully. Also, it’s goodbye magic stones, cursed ponds and fairies. The only concession to fairytale is the presence of an actual wicked witch, called Charal. However, it’s not all bad as she’s played by Siân Phillips who is all kinds of wonderful in everything she’s in (including the original movie version of Dune which came out the previous year).

Battle for Endor sets out its stall early with the deaths of three fourths of the Towani family (who we saw shipwrecked in the first film) at the hands of a pack of horrid Marauders. These Marauders take sole survivor Cindel, along with all her Ewok buddies, prisoner. However, Cindel and Wicket escape and flee into the forest where they meet grouchy old hermit Noa (played by Wilford Brimley) and his little friend Teek, who is a small, cute furry creature with big ears who can run extremely fast. I’m talking Quicksilver from the X-Men fast here.

It’s quite possible that Wilford Brimley was method acting on this production as he apparently remained grouchy even after the cameras had stopped rolling. I remember reading that things got so bad that George himself had to be called in to have a quiet word in his ear.

Anyway. after eating porridge and muffins and picking flowers, our fantastic foursome head off to the Marauders’ castle to rescue the imprisoned Ewoks where all kinds of Mayhem ensue. So as I say, there’s a lot more going on here than in the first one.

The chief of the Marauders is Terak (played by Carel Struycken) who makes for a fantastic baddie. He and his cohorts are all suitably grotesque, loads of fun to watch and add a level of threat that was missing from Caravan of Courage. Also of interest are the beasts of burden they use, called Blurrgs. They were apparently based on one of the unused tauntaun designs from The Empire Strikes Back and later turned up in The Mandalorian.

The climactic showdown is enjoyable and exciting and rivals the one seen in Return of the Jedi. Actually, that was a complete lie, but it really is enjoyable and exciting, and we do get to see something we didn’t in ROTJ: Ewoks going into battle armed with blasters!

In addition to the nifty old-school stop-motion FX there is plenty of gorgeous matte work to admire. There are some very impressive sets too, especially in the Marauders’ castle and Noa’s crashed spaceship, which lend the film a bigger feel than its predecessor. Also, crucially, it has a good dose of humour. Oh, and a dragon!

It was cowritten and directed by brothers Ken and Jim Wheat who went on to make sci-fi horror classic Pitch Black. Like Battle for Endor, that movie also featured a band of crash survivors fighting for their lives on an alien planet, but featured far less fur.

Warwick Davis, who returns as Ewok favourite Wicket, said there was a treatment in the offing for a third Ewok movie, but sadly it never came to pass. That’s a shame, because I enjoyed this one so much that when it was over I found myself feeling hungry for more – and I suppose there’s no greater compliment than that.

REVIEW: APPIUS and VIRGINIA by GE TREVELYAN

Warning: this review has more spoilers than a boy racer convention!

The story of Appius and Virginia is as interesting as the story in Appius and Virginia.

It was the first novel by Gertrude Trevelyan, already an award-winning writer, and was published in 1932 to (mostly) stunning reviews. It’s about a woman who buys a baby orangutan with the intention of raising him as a human being. Living in seclusion, Virginia teaches him over the years how to read and how to speak, albeit at a basic level. At 9 years-old and believing that he is a man, Appius’s world falls apart when he sees an image of an orangutan in a children’s book about animals labelled ‘ape’.

Appius and Virginia is for the most part a study of loneliness. Virginia, 40 years-old and unattached, at first sees raising the baby ape as nothing more than a project. An experiment for which she will one day be lauded. But as time goes on, and as her friends drift further into the past, she comes to see him as her very own child and dreams of him one day going to university and achieving great things.

However, that is not how Appius sees things. A chasm exists between how both characters perceive each other and the world. Appius barely has any grasp of concepts such as “past” and “future”, and so Virginia’s dreaming is all in vain.

It’s a compelling, original and tragic story. Trevelyan digs deep into the psyches of both Virginia and Appius and we turn every page knowing that such an “experiment” cannot possibly end well.

Virginia throughout the story projects her own aspirations onto the young ape, misreading almost all his behaviour patterns. We are never allowed to forget that despite his thin veneer of domesticity, Appius is a wild animal. This side of him is always there, barely contained beneath the surface, ready to erupt at any moment. Eventually of course, it does and the author makes no concessions to softening the inevitable blow.

GE Trevelyan went on to write seven more books, but in October 1940 she was injured in a German bombing raid and died about four months later. She was described in her death certificate as “Spinster – an authoress”.

After her death her novels fell out of print and were sadly forgotten. Until now, that is. Appius and Virginia is once again available thanks to the Abandoned Bookshop, a publisher whose “mission is to track down forgotten books of the past and re-publish them for a modern audience.”

And thank goodness they did.

I finished reading this book in the hope that others by GE Trevelyan will also be resurrected. Thank you, Abandoned Bookshop.

REVIEW: CARAVAN OF COURAGE: AN EWOK ADVENTURE

Think the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi are cute?

I don’t. They were going to burn Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca alive and eat them. That scene is seared into my memory. All the subsequent scenes of them falling over and hitting themselves in the head with slingshots I saw through that prism. Yeah, you may be acting all adorable now, but you were going to set fire to Luke Skywalker, strip the flesh from his charred bones and eat him.

If our furry friends are indeed rather partial to a bit of human for their supper, there’s no hint of it on show in Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure. Here, the moon of Endor becomes the ENCHANTED moon of Endor and the cute factor is turned up to 11.

Caravan of Courage is a TV movie that premiered November 25, 1984, pulling in a wopping 65 million audience. It was also released theatrically in Europe. The story comes courtesy of George Lucas himself and was directed by John Korty, best known at the time as an animation director with Twice Upon a Time (1983) his best known work.

The plot sees the Ewoks embarking on a magical quest to reunite a family of shipwrecked humans. The parents have been kidnapped by a giant beast known as the Gorax, leaving their kids to do all the rescuing along with their new friends.

The kids in question are Mace (Towani, not Windu), who looks like a badly drawn Luke Skywalker, and his four-year-old sister Cindel. Mace is a hot headed teen who’s always whining and Cindel seems to be on a mission to out-cute the Ewoks. But whatever their shortcomings, at least there’s a bit of life in them, which is more than can be said of their parents. Watching this, I was convinced that the actors playing Jeremitt (dad) and Catarine (mom) had been sedated prior to the shoot. They seem to deliver all their lines as if they’d only just woken up, or if the film was being played at half speed. Weird.

So, the story is very kiddie-orientated, with magic walking sticks, magic stones and magic fairies. On their quest, our caravan of courage encounters a cursed pond, a giant spider (complete with visible strings) and the mighty Gorax itself. Which conveniently brings us onto the special effects.

As a TV movie made for a thrifty $3, these are not cinema-standard FX. Most of the Ewok village scenes take place at ground level and the creatures our heroes encounter are mostly of the stop-motion variety, save for the Gorax who’s an actor in costume. There are a few scenes in which we see the life-sized cast in the same shot as the Gorax and they look fantastic. Seriously, the FX guys (yes, it was ILM) did a great job there. Also, his lair looks equally impressive. But best of all is the matte painting work. I seem to remember reading that Caravan of Courage featured more matte paintings than any other TV movie yet made. Some of them are genuinely amazing and really help to expand the forest moon of Endor, giving the film a much bigger feel.

And now, a note about the music score (see what I did there); all the way through this film I kept thinking, “This really does sound familiar.” Later, the penny dropped. The music sounds suspiciously like the original Star Trek theme! Again, weird.

Overall, Caravan of Courage will keep the kiddies entertained far more than it will their parents, being as it is rather twee and bit plodding. But it does have its moments and it is quite pretty to look at. It spawned a sequel, Ewoks: the Battle for Endor (1985), which was a lot more action orientated and hence far more enjoyable. Expect a review of this once I’ve managed to persuade my girlfriend to watch it with me.

One last thing. In this film we actually get to hear an Ewok swear, not once but twice. So if you’ve ever wondered what the Ewokese is for **** is, it’s “feech”.

A MOMENT IN THE SUN

A SHORT STORY BY RICHARD E. ROCK

It’s a fact of life that dead bodies are pretty much always found by either joggers or dog walkers. I was doing both and yet I’d never found a single one. I was starting to wonder if I was doing something wrong.

            Every morning I’d harness up my Siberian husky Mayhem and do a five-mile run along the Pembrokeshire coast. But despite all those miles of treacherous cliff-tops and jagged rocks, my days remained frustratingly corpse-free.

            I wouldn’t have minded so much if other people weren’t tripping over stiffs every other day. Barely a week would go by without some lucky so-and-so explaining to a local news reporter how they were out walking their dog, and there below them was a body washing about in the tide and what a shock it was and blah blah blah. Or they were out for their morning run in the woods and imagine their horror when they noticed something unusual in the bracken and yada yada yada.

            They would pretend to be all upset and shaken but they couldn’t fool me. They were thoroughly enjoying their moments in the sun, I could tell. Yesterday, they were nobodies. Today, everyone wants a piece of them. When was it going to be my turn? That’s what I wanted to know.

            It was my counsellor who had got me into running. She said it would be a good way to keep my…erm…problem under control. It would help me expel all that excess energy, she reckoned. Don’t get me wrong, it was horrendous at first. I’d come back feeling like crap. I’d have stitches, shin splints, the lot. But deep down inside I knew she was expecting me to fail and I wanted to prove her wrong, so I stuck at it.

            “When you do something regularly,” she’d said, “you’ll be amazed at how quickly your body adjusts to it.”

            Yeah, whatever, I’d thought. And what do you know? Turns out she was right. My stamina kept building and building and my distances were getting longer and longer, and pretty soon I was doing a five-miler every weekday and then a fifteen-miler on Saturday. Sunday was rest day. Gotta rest.

            And boy was I shaping up fast? I’d heard it said that three months is all it takes to transform a body, and it’s true. I’d feel so good after a run that the last thing I’d want to do was eat any crap, so I started eating healthily. I stopped eating sugary things from Monday to Friday and instead would just have the occasional treat at the weekend. I dropped two and a half stone so quick it would make your head spin.

            I was looking pretty damn good too. I was way leaner, and for the first time in my life I actually had muscle definition. My calves were like granite! That was thanks to all the hills. And it made a difference psychologically too. After a run my head felt clearer. I’d be calmer, able to think straight, and I was sleeping better.

            The only downside? That it’s addictive. It got to a point where I’d have to go running. No choice. Had to. On the rare occasion that I couldn’t go for any reason, I’d feel agitated for the rest of the day. But better to be addicted to something that’s good for you than something that isn’t, right? Believe me, I should know.

            The dog was her idea as well. She said it’d be beneficial for me to have something that I was responsible for. And it would mean company for me. If I was on my own I’d just end up lonely and bored and would eventually slip back into my old habits.

            Mayhem came to me from my brother-in-law, who was a breeder. Or a dog pimp, if you want to be cynical about it. I named him after one of my favourite bands. I’m guessing you’ve never heard of them. They’re an extreme metal band. But then, there wasn’t a lot about me back then that wasn’t extreme.

            Yeah, things seemed to be going really well; I was healthier than I’d been in years, probably the happiest I’d ever been, and I’d even started to forget about the imagined thrill of finding a cadaver washed up on the shore and having my moment in the sun.

            But then, one day, it happened.

            Mayhem and I were running along the coastal path just around the bay from Solva. We were probably about three-and-a-half miles into a five-miler and going strong. I looked down and saw, on the shingly beach far below, the body of a man lying face down with his head resting on a blood-spattered rock. My stomach lurched and my flesh writhed with a cold, clammy sweat. It was like a scene from one of those late-night crime shows. It was horrible.

            At first.

            This sense of shock was quickly – very quickly – replaced by one of excitement. Yes! Thank you, god! I thought. Swiftly followed by: Well, it’s about bloody time!

             I looked around. There was no one else in the vicinity; no walkers, no runners, no dog walkers. In other words, no one who could get in there first and claim this trophy as their own. I resisted the urge to cheer.

            He was wearing trainers, shorts and a stripy t-shirt. No sign of a leash in his hand or a frantic dog looking for its lost owner. He was probably just some bloke out for a stroll in the morning sunshine, and it wasn’t difficult for me to figure out what had happened. He had scrapes and cuts right up the backs of his legs and dirt all over his t-shirt. Also, there were bits of rock and clumps of earth all over the place. The path had given way under his feet and down he’d gone. It had happened right where I was standing. I took a step back.

             I realised that my heart was pounding in my chest. Play it cool, I told myself. Play it cool.

            I looked around for a safe way down. Well, safer than the way down he had taken, anyway. I followed the path around the curve of the bay and found somewhere where Mayhem and I could scramble down without too much bother. I was now on the shingly beach with the prone man and relishing every single moment. I lowered myself to my knees and prepared to turn the body over. Luckily, he was pretty scrawny so it wasn’t going to take too much effort.

            Mayhem sniffed at him as I steeled myself. I gripped one of his arms and flinched. He was still warm!

            Still fresh, I thought. Must have happened just before me and Mayhem got here.

            I pulled myself together and prepared to try again. I grabbed hold of him and heaved, only to find myself looking into the eyes of a man who was, somewhat disappointingly, not entirely dead. I felt my entire world fall away.

            I don’t know how lucid he was at that point, this unlucky chap who had happened to step in the wrong place at the wrong time, but if his wits were still with him the look on my face would have said everything: Damn him! It’s not fair! How could I be so unlucky? My moment in the sun, eclipsed!

            The unfortunate fellow inhaled suddenly and jerked into life, grasping at me with his one good arm. The other one, having been shattered during the fall, merely flopped about lifelessly, unlike the rest of him. His eyes were blurry and bloodshot and his mouth was moving but no words were forthcoming. That’s when I realised how severe his injuries were.

            I looked around. The beach was deserted and so was the path above. I thought quickly, and then I picked up the stone, the one covered in his blood, and held it high above my head. At that moment approximately one million thoughts crashed through my brain:

            But there’ll be two wounds on his head. Won’t that be suspicious?

            I’d better make sure my aim is dead on, in that case. Pun intended.

            What if I end up covered in his blood?

            What if I do? I came down here to help him and there was blood everywhere. It was unavoidable.

            Won’t I leave DNA evidence on the stone?

            I’ll just say I picked up the stone and moved it. Big deal.

            There were a lot more questions but for each one I had an answer so I just batted them away. What’s more, I had waited a hell of a long time for this. When was I ever going to get another shot at it? And besides, there’s risk involved in every single thing we ever do, right, whether it’s driving to work in the morning or simply eating out in a restaurant that may have a less than stellar reputation for cleanliness.

            So, mind made up. Let’s do this.

            His bloodied eyes widened as he realised what was coming, and not wanting to be cruel by prolonging his shock any longer than necessary, I brought the rock crashing down onto his head, right on the sweet spot. I watched as his eyes rolled back and his one good arm fell still. Now he was dead.

            “Sad, eh?” I said to Mayhem who had started whimpering pathetically.

            Next there came the fun part. I pulled my phone out of my backpack, called 999, and prepared to give the performance of my lifetime. My moment in the sun had arrived.

The End

© Richard E. Rock 2021

SALEM RECOMMENDS: ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH by ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN

Here’s the scene:

I travel back in time and pay my younger self a visit. He’s 12 years old, his religion is Star Wars, he’s into Marvel Comics and he reads pretty much nothing but sci-fi. I tell him that one day, in his late 40s in fact, he’ll discover the joys of Russian prison literature, and you know what he does? He looks at me like I’ve got two heads and he laughs. Worse than that, he points and laughs.

But guess what. I was right and he was wrong. Russian prison literature rocks!

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the third RPL novel I’ve read in recent months. As the title suggests, it’s the story of one man and one single day in a Siberian gulag, starting with ‘reveille’ at 5am and ending with lights out. In between, we follow our protagonist Shukhov (as Ivan Denisovich is known) as he negotiates his way around prison protocol and the machinations of his fellow inmates. It is a brutal way of life, rendered more so by the matter-of-fact prose of the book. There is no room for self-pity or reflection here, because time stands still for no man in prison. If you get knocked down, you pick yourself up again and you carry on, otherwise you die. And that’s it.

After their meagre breakfast, Shukhov and his fellow ‘gang’ members – prisoners are organised into gangs – are sent out into the fierce Siberian winter to do building work at a power plant site. Before they leave their barracks, they are all hoping and praying that the temperature has fallen to -40 as that means they won’t have to go. But no such luck. It is, we are told only -27. ONLY! So off to work they go.

Every single of minute of every day of Shukhov’s sentence is spent seeking advantage; spending an extra minute or two somewhere warm, burying his tools so no one else will find them, cadging food from fellow prisoners. The endless quest for extra food forms a large part of the narrative. Shukhov acquires an extra 200g of bread, so he sews it into his mattress to keep it safe, saving it for later. The prisoners here count every last gram of food as it’s the difference between life and death.

Also, to be caught breaking prison rules means a spell in the cells. There, you only get one piece of bread per day and one bowl of porridge every three. The extreme cold in the cells means that a 10-day sentence will probably mean TB. A 14-day stretch will mean your end. As I said, brutal.

Despite his sentence being ‘only’ eight years, Shukhov knows he will never return home or see his family again. Authorities can add extra years onto your sentence, double it even, on nothing more than a whim. And if he ever does see freedom again he’ll be sent into exile. Shukhov’s crime? He was taken prisoner by the Germans during the war. That was it. In fact, most of the people in the Russian prison system were guilty of nothing more than coming into contact with foreigners. That was enough under Stalin’s rule to get you packed off to Siberia.

Solzhenitsyn himself was sentenced to 8 years in the gulag for – and I swear I’m not making this up – making insulting remarks about Stalin. He was released after Stalin’s death in 1953 and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was eventually published in 1963. It caused such a furore that the Russian authorities supressed his other works.

It’s a magnificently written book. Having the narrative unfold over a single day intensifies the sense of claustrophobia and frustration experienced by our protagonist as he scrabbles to make it from dawn until dark with his dignity intact. We are with him for every personal battle, every argument and every little victory. The knockout blow comes at the end with the realisation that Shukhov has to do all this again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. For years.

It really is powerful stuff.

INTERVIEW WITH MYSELF

Hi. I’m Rhydderch Wilson, the mortal counterpart of the immortal horror author Richard E. Rock. I was born in Newcastle in January 1971. By complete coincidence, Richard was born on the same day, in the same place and to the same parents. Incredible.

We are both writers. By day, I work as a commercial scriptwriter in the radio biz and contribute ideas to Viz Comic. By night, Richard writes about the dark side. His debut horror novel DEEP LEVEL was published last year by Darkstroke Books.

Rhydderch: So, when did your writing career officially begin?

Richard: Officially, in 2002 when I landed my scriptwriting job in the local commercial radio station.

Rhydderch: Did you have any experience as a scriptwriter prior to that?

Richard: No. When I applied for the position I started paying close attention to the ads on the radio and I sussed out that there was a kind of language to them. Once I’d realised this, I thought, “I can do this!” In the interview I was given a genuine brief to work on. The script I came up with ended up actually being used, so they had to give me the job.

Rhydderch: Were you a keen reader as a child?

Richard: Yes. I was brought up in a house full of books and music and art. I come from a very creative background. My mother is also a published author.

Rhydderch: And what did you read when you were a kid?

Richard: I started off on comics, like most kids. In my day it was The Beano, Whizzer & Chips and so on. Then it was war comics and Marvel superheroes. I was six years old when the original Star Wars came out and the day I saw it was the day my imagination was born. I started devouring sci-fi books after that.

Rhydderch: And now?

Richard: Now I cast my net pretty wide. My favourite authors include Dylan Thomas, Stephen king, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Zadie Smith. I’ve been going through a bit of a Russian prison literature phase lately, so I’ve been reading Georgi Vladimov and Alexander Solhzenitsyn.

Rhydderch: What led to you writing horror?

Richard: I’m plagued my nightmares and anxiety dreams. After a particularly ferocious nightmare one night I woke up and thought, “Wow! That was amazing!” So I wrote the whole thing down before it had a chance to fade away, as dreams so often do. That nightmare formed the basis of DEEP LEVEL.

Rhydderch: So what’s DEEP LEVEL actually about?

Richard: It’s about four friends who discover a secret underground Vicrotian train network. They take it upon themselves to explore it and soon realise that some things are secret for a reason. It was inspired by a nightmare in which I was being pursued through dark tunnels by a silent, steamless, driverless Victorian steam engine. It was horrific. In another dream, I was being stalked by a demonic entity. If I let it get too close cobwebs would form over my eyes and I’d feel my life-force ebbing away.

Rhydderch: Is it strictly a book for horror fans?

Richard: Not at all. I’d like to think that it’s a horror novel for people who don’t necessarily read horror novels. When I was working on it, my number one concern was the characters. I put a lot of effort into them. I knew that if I could make the readers fall in love with the characters, they’d experience the horror through them. The reviews I’ve received so far have been overwhelmingly positive, so I think I succeeded.

Rhydderch: And what are you working on now?

Richard: My work in progress is a sci-fi horror about two shipwrecked refugees who wash up on a mysterious east African island where incredible experiments have been taking place. The only person who can save them is a lowly spaceport employee half a world away in the US. I’m currently at the editing stage.

Rhydderch: And what does the future hold?

Richard: I’m working on a trilogy of Victorian horror novels, the first one being a vampire story. I’ve also started making notes for a fantasy story for younger readers. They were all inspired by dreams.

Rhydderch: Why did you choose Richard E. Rock as your pen name?

Richard: As my immortal name, you mean? Well, as it came to me in a dream, you could say that it chose me. I was never going to publish under my mortal name of Rhydderch Wilson as it’s so difficult to spell. Richard E. Rock sounds like a horror author. Rhydderch just sounds like someone clearing their throat.

Rhydderch: What does the E stand for?

Richard: The dream didn’t fill in that particular piece of info, so it’s doesn’t stand for anything.

Rhydderch: Finally, if you could go back in time and give your younger self some advice, what would it be?  

Richard: Three things. One. If you know what you want to do when you grow up, concentrate on that one thing. If you don’t know, that’s okay. You’ve got plenty of time to figure it out. Two. If you want to be a writer, surround yourself with other writers. I really do believe that creativity begets creativity. And three, persevere. You WILL suffer setbacks. Everyone does. You just have to pick yourself up and soldier on. The ones who make it are the ones who didn’t quit.

Rhydderch: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

Richard: No problem at all. I’m used to it.

DEEP LEVEL is available now from Amazon in ebook and paperback formats.

A DELVE INTO DEEP LEVEL

Greetings, friends.

Below you will find an excerpt from my debut horror novel DEEP LEVEL, which was published by darkstroke books 1st October 2020.

It is the story of four friends who stumble upon a secret Victorian underground network beneath the streets of London. They set out to explore it, only to discover that some things are kept secret for a reason.

The idea for the book came to me in a nightmare in which I was being pursued through endless tunnels by a silent, steamless, driverless engine. In another part of the dream I was being hunted by a dark presence with long, spindly limbs and growing eyes. If I let it get too close cobwebs would form over my eyes and I would feel my life force ebbing away.

I woke up excited and thought, “Wow! That would make an AMAZING story!” so I wrote it all down before it faded away, as dreams so often do. And thus, my career as a horror writer was born.

What you are about to read is from chapter one. Rosalind, Syeeda and Ffion have met up at a local cafe to await Rich, who will be picking them up to take them exploring. Enjoy.

***

It began early one morning and ended later that same day. It was a November morning, cold and dark, and the wind carried a touch of the Arctic. The buildings loomed black and erect like tombstones against the sky, which was a deep cosmic-blue and star-sprinkled.

            The lifelessness of Gunnersbury Lane was broken by the huffing and puffing of a lone woman, engaged in a peculiar sort of non-run; arms moving rapidly, legs not so much.

            Ffion was late, as usual. You’re like a bloody train, her friends would say. You’ll be late for your own funeral. She wondered what cheeky remarks awaited her in the cafe where two of them were waiting.

            It was the shock of bright red hair through the window that first snared Syeeda’s gaze. “Aha! Head’s up,” she said as a rosy-cheeked Ffion slinked in through the door. “The human matchstick has finally arrived!”

            “What was it today then?” asked Rosalind, looking back over her shoulder. “Leaves on the line? Wrong kind of snow?”

            “Shuddup,” said Ffion with a sheepish grin.

            The windows were streaked with condensation as the warm air inside collided with the cold morning frost without. The place smelled of tea and beans.

            “Alright, Jase?” asked Ffion of the man in the apron behind the counter. “How about a cuppa then? I’m bloody knobbled.”

            “ANYTHING ELSE, LOVE?” boomed Jason. He did not do quiet.

            Ffion looked back at her friends. Rosalind had a bacon buttie in front of her and Syeeda was getting stuck into a plate of beans on toast. No butter. She felt a pang in her belly.

            “Have whatever you want, Fee,” said Rosalind. “It’s on me.”

            “Full English, please, Jase.”

            “THAT’S MY GIRL!” Jason bellowed. From behind his steamed-up glasses he ogled Ffion up and down with longing eyes. He had nursed a thing for her since she’d arrived in this particular corner of London (with small child in tow) from the south Wales town where she’d grown up. Unfortunately for him, she had relocated to be with her boyfriend. That was two years and another baby ago.

            “HAVE A SEAT THEN, MY DARLING, AND I’LL BRING IT OVER TO YOU!” He hauled his tall, gangly frame off to the kitchen where he proceeded to yell something at an understrapper.

            Ffion pulled up a chair and, as she sat down, she gave Rosalind’s hand a little squeeze. “Thanks, Roz,” she said.

            “That’s alright,” replied Rosalind. “God knows how long we’re going to be down there for, so you’ve got to get some fuel in you.”

            “Well, I hope it’s not going to be too long. Greg’s mam’s coming over later and she said she’d treat us to a Harvester.”

            “Can I come?” asked Syeeda.

            “No. Bugger off,” chuckled Ffion.

            “Charming.”

            “So what’s the German for breakfast?” Rosalind asked Syeeda.

            “Frühstuck.”

            “And beans on toast?”

            “Um. Bean is Bohne so beans must be Bohnen. I don’t know what toast is but bread is Brot.”

            “Still at it then?” said Ffion. 

            “You’re certainly starting to sound more German,” said Rosalind.

            “Yeah. I sussed out that in Germany they say their R’s in the back of the throat.”

            It was a few weeks spent hiking in the Stubai Alps in Austria with her sister the previous summer that had inspired Syeeda to start learning the lingo. She already spoke two languages and she liked the idea of being truly multilingual. 

            “So are you still planning on going back?”

            “Yeah. We’re looking at maybe next summer.”

            “And how is Jas?”

            “Great, actually. Up to her eyes in work but that’s how she likes it.”

            As Syeeda was talking, Ffion was fishing her mobile phone out of her bag. She placed it on the table in front of her and swiped the screen. Rosalind cleared her throat. Ffion looked up to see Rosalind’s eyes dart down to the phone and then back up to meet hers.

            “Oh yeah. Sorry. Forgot.” Ffion put her phone back in her bag.

            “She did that to me too,” Syeeda sighed.

            Rosalind ran a hand through her short, greying hair. “Have I told you my theory about why the zombie is the bogeyman for the modern age?” she asked, addressing both of her friends.

            “And this has what to do with mobiles?” asked Syeeda with an arched eyebrow.

            “You’ll see,” Rosalind smirked. “In America in the fifties, it was all flying saucers and aliens. That’s because their biggest fear at that time was the threat of Soviet invasion. So the whole flying saucers thing was a metaphor for invasion. In the eighties it was all body-horror movies, like The Thing and The Fly, because of AIDS. The corruption of the body. Go back about fifteen years or so and that’s when the so-called torture-porn movies started coming out, because America was stomping across the Middle East renditioning people and waterboarding them.”

            Ffion was transfixed. Where was Roz going with all this?

            “In Japan it was Godzilla and other assorted giant mutated monsters, because of the fear of radiation after the atomic bombs. But the bogeyman for today is the zombie. Everywhere you look, there’s zombies; Walking Dead, World War Z, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. You can go and have zombie experiences where actors in make-up will chase you around, for god’s sake. And why? Because of these.”

            She pulled her mobile phone out of her pocket and held it up.

            Ffion and Syeeda looked at each other blankly.

            “Okaaay,” Syeeda eventually said. She sounded unconvinced.

            “Yep. Every single day, everywhere you go, all you see are people plodding along, stupefied, phones in hand, not looking where they’re going, mouths hanging open, only half aware. And what do they all look like?”

            “Zombies,” said Syeeda and Ffion in unison.

            Smugly, Rosalind slipped her mobile back into her pocket.

            “But you’ve got a mobile.” Ffion couldn’t help but point it out.

            “Yes, but mine’s not a smartphone,” replied Rosalind. “It’s not internet-enabled and I certainly don’t plod around staring at it when my attention should be on what I’m doing. Not that there’s going to be much of a signal where we’re going today.”

            “Or any signal at all, for that matter,” added Ffion.

            “I would literally die without my phone,” Syeeda stated firmly.

            It was at moments like this that Rosalind usually called Syeeda out on her use of the word ‘literally’, but it was still early and right now she simply couldn’t be bothered.

            “I have to say,” said Ffion to Rosalind, “I never had you down as the type to go poking around in old tunnels full of rats. I thought you were too posh for all that.”

            “Oh, thanks a bunch!” Rosalind gasped, genuinely offended. “Posh indeed!”

             Syeeda laughed. Basically, Ffion thought that anyone who had a degree was posh.

            “And what about you, Syd?” asked Ffion. “I thought you were supposed to be out on a date today.”

            “Well, I was,” Syeeda replied with a curl of the lip, “but I called it off. To be honest, I’d rather be hanging out with you guys, even if it is in some grotty old subway.”

            “Aw, bless you,” said Rosalind.

            “Yeah, cheers, Syd,” Ffion said with a smile. “So, how’s work going?”

            “S’alright,” Syeeda replied with a lazy shrug. “Been on wars this week.”

            “What are wars?” Ffion asked.

            “Work available reports.”

            “Some of the work jargon you come out with absolutely blows my mind,” said Rosalind. “My favourite one is the warm hand-off.”

            “What the hell’s a warm hand-off?” Ffion spluttered.

            “Transferring a live call to a specialist,” replied Syeeda.

            Rosalind shook her head. “I can’t get over the fact that instead of just calling it ‘transferring a call to a specialist’, they called it a ‘warm hand-off’. Jesus.”

            “I think it’s amazing, I do,” Ffion beamed. “Any jobs going?”

            “Back-end access is another one,” Syeeda continued, ignoring Ffion’s question. “You’ll often hear someone asking someone else if they have back-end access.”

            “So what does that one mean?” laughed Rosalind.

            “If you have database access.”

            “Working in your place sounds like a Carry On film.”

            “A what?” Syeeda asked.

            “Never mind.”

            “Have you got any more stories for me to read then, Syd, is it or what?” asked Ffion.

            In her spare time, Syeeda wrote and illustrated short stories, which she circulated amongst her friends before putting them into a box and then forgetting about them. Ffion was her biggest fan.

            “Almost. I’m working on one now about the boy who invented the spitball.”

            Ffion’s face lit up. “The boy who invented the spitball? Brilliant. I don’t know how you come up with this stuff. What’s it called?”

            “Charles Lippincott Ball.”

            “You’re wasted in the civil service, Syd,” said Rosalind. “You should be a writer.”

            Syeeda said nothing.

            “How’s work with you then, Fee?” asked Rosalind, picking up the slack of the conversation.

            “You won’t believe what happened yesterday,” she scowled. “Some woman came in with her two kids, bought them tickets and some popcorn and stuff and then left them there to watch a film. When she came back later there was no sign of them – they’d buggered off early – and she went ballistic. Started blaming us. Went up the wall, mun!”

            “So she was using the cinema as a cheap babysitter, basically,” said Rosalind.

            “Not that bloody cheap, but yeah. She was really kicking off, so we had to call security on her.”

            “How old were they?”

            “Security?”

            “No. The kids. Did she find them?”

            “About ten or twelve, I reckon. And I dunno. Security told her if she didn’t calm down, they’d call the police on her and she’d probably get nicked for neglect as well as threatening behaviour or whatever.”

            “What film was it?” asked Syeeda.

            “Does that really matter?” Rosalind asked with a wry smile.

            “It matters to me.”

            “Last Jedi,” said Ffion.

            Syeeda rolled her eyes. “No wonder they left early.”

            “Mmm,” Ffion agreed.

            “HERE YOU GO, MY PRECIOUS!” boomed Jason as he placed a steaming-hot full English breakfast in front of Ffion. “I’VE THROWN A COUPLE OF BLACK PUDDINGS ON THERE AS WELL FOR YOU! ON THE ‘OUSE!”

            “Aw, cheers, Jase,” said Ffion, giving him a little wink. “You’re a star, you are.” She was well aware of his feelings for her and could have played him like an Xbox, but she wasn’t that kind of person.

            She had started dating her first husband at the age of twenty, back in 2008. Or, as Ffion was someone who measured time by movies, when Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda and Twilight were on release. They were married four years after that, in 2012 (The Avengers, Skyfall), and welcomed their first and only child together, Iwan, a year later (Despicable Me 2, Frozen). In 2014 (Guardians of the Galaxy, Maleficent) Ffion discovered that her husband was “doing the dirty” on her. The following year (The Force Awakens, Minions) she left her boy with her mam for a week and went on holiday with her Carmarthen friends to Portugal and met her current boyfriend, Greg. Actually, she did more than just meet him, and in 2016 (Rogue One, Deadpool) she gave birth to her second son, Geraint. By this time, she had jacked in her job in Carmarthen and joined Greg in Acton so that they could all be a family together, and so far, so good.

            “So,” she said, “what time’s Rich picking us up?”

***

DEEP LEVEL is available now from Amazon in ebook and paperback formats.

REVIEW: THE FANTASTIC FOUR (1994) – THE UNRELEASED ROGER CORMAN VERSION

Watch this film twice and you’ll get two very different experiences.

See it the first time as a casual viewer and you’ll behold a low-budget movie with wobbly sets, cheap costumes, dodgy FX and hammy performances.

Watch it a second time having read up on it – or, better still, having seen Marty Langford and Mark Sikes’ excellent documentary Doomed! – and you’ll enjoy an heroic effort by a dedicated cast and crew to bring a beloved comic book to life on a pitiful budget and against an impossible deadline.

This is the legend that is the unreleased Roger Corman production of Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four, and it’s one of those rare movies in which the story that unfolded off the screen is even more bizarre and fantastical than the one that occurs on it.

In the mid-1980s the movie rights to Marvel’s Fantastic Four property were bought by Neue Constantin Film. Fast forward to the early-90s and there was still no sign of production commencing – and the clock was ticking. If Neue Constantin didn’t begin principal photography within ten years, the rights would revert to Marvel and they could auction them off again.

Enter legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures.

If anyone in Hollywood could turn a SFX movie around on a tight budget and in limited time, it was him. With the now unbelievably paltry sum of $2 million to play with, he assembled a cast and crew and got to work.

The movie was completed in 1994 but was never released. And, unbeknown by the aforementioned cast and crew, it was never intended to be.

We view superhero movies now through the prism of mega-budget Marvel Studios productions – epic running times, huge casts, vast concepts, astounding FX – which makes watching this version of the Fantastic Four a bit of an eye-popping experience.

The sets are small and claustrophobic, the FX basic and seen sparingly, the tone lurches uncomfortably from dramatic to just plain silly. At one point, my girlfriend asked me if we were watching a Mel Brooks movie. Jay Underwood, as the hot-headed Johnny Storm/Human Torch overdoes it so much he actually comes across as being a bit demented. Dr Doom spends so much time with his hands up in the air that you begin to suspect his gloves are too big and will fall off if he lowers them. In the all-action finale, Johnny Storm shouts “Flame on!” and basically turns into a cartoon. He then has a fist fight with a laser beam in a scene that I swear they cribbed from one of those old Max Fleischer Superman animations.

But after learning how the cast and crew, faced with producing a superhero spectacular with almost no money, put their hearts and souls into the production in order to make the very best movie possible, one can’t help but admire the end result.

In its favour, this is the only Fantastic Four adaption that even attempts to remain true to its comic book origins. We get to see vile villain Dr Doom ranting and raving in the throne room of his Latverian castle. We see the Fantasti-Car taking off from the roof of the Baxter Building. We see Rebecca Staab in her Invisible Girl costume. In all fairness, Ms Staab does bear a remarkable resemblance to the original comic book character.

Also, the matte paintings may be unconvincing but they are undoubtedly spectacular. The musical score is great. Alex Hyde-White is stoic and heroic as team leader Mr Fantastic. But best of all, the undisputed star of the show, is the team’s rocky mascot, The Thing. The costume guys, even with their tiny budget, did a great job on bringing him to life. His face is expressive enough for the actor behind the mask to give a nuanced performance, and as viewers we can’t help but punch a fist in the air every time he growls, “It’s clobberin’ time!”

But despite all it had going for it the movie was shelved and that was that. No one toiling away on it had any inkling that this was its intended fate all along. Neue Constantin Film were basically pulling a fast one so they could hang onto the movie rights a little longer and put out a big budget version further on down the line, when they were ready.

So the cast and crew were shafted good and proper, with nothing to show for all their hard work and tireless efforts. It’s not rare for Hollywood to throw out movies that come with shady behind-the-scenes tales of double dealing and underhandedness, but rarely are they as tragic and, yes, as downright nasty as this one.

In the documentary Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, a chap involved in the making of the film expresses his joy that someone somewhere managed to sneak a copy of it out, so that it could find its way into the hands of the very fans it was intended for. I too feel a debt of gratitude to that mysterious hero, because I love this movie, and without him or her I never would have got to see it. So, thank you, whoever you are.

NB. For further reading, I can heartily recommend tracking down a copy of the October 1993 issue of Film Threat magazine, which treats us to a behind-the-scenes peak at the movie in production, when the cast and crew were still under the impression they were making a film that would be seen in theatres. As I said, tragic.

SALEM RECOMMENDS: FAITHFUL RUSLAN by GEORGI VLADIMOV

By the end of the 1930s, Russian leader Joseph Stalin, in his ever blackening state of paranoia, had imprisoned over twelve million people in his notorious “corrective-labour camps”. A vast majority of these people were, of course, completely innocent. When the war ended, these numbers were swollen further when he imprisoned all returning Soviet POWs. Their crime? Coming into contact with foreigners.

In 1956, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Kruschev, began the process that would see eight million of these prisoners released. A consequence of this was that a vast number of prison guards suddenly found themselves unemployed, and so did their guard dogs.

The Ruslan of the title of this book is one such guard dog. Instead of being shot by his master, which was the fate that befell most of the retiring dogs, he is left to fend for himself, convinced that it is only a matter of time before normality is resumed and he is called back into service.

Georgi Vladimov completed this book, considered to be his masterpiece, in 1974. When this particular edition was published in 1981 it was still banned in his homeland. However, a manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in West Germany in 1975. It is told from the point of view of the hound in question, with the human characters rarely even named. Instead they are labelled; The Master, The Shabby Man, The Instructor. But Disney this ain’t, as this is a brutal, uncompromising and tragic story.

Ruslan’s years of training and service have left him incapable of adjusting to life beyond the prison fences and watchtowers. Taught never to accept food from anyone but his master, he is forced to hunt in the nearby forests, despite being lucky enough to stumble upon a new home. But even here he finds no peace as he views the owner of said home as a prisoner who requires guarding.

Also, every day he makes a pilgrimage to the local train station to await the arrival of a trainload of new prisoners. This train, of course, never comes.

Days after finishing Faithful Ruslan, it is still on my mind. Vladimov’s writing is impeccable, and he succeeds in communicating the pain and heartache of our lost hero without ever resorting to sentimentality. Ruslan never suffers, he simply endures. It’s a deeply affecting work and is probably one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I don’t think I’ll ever look at a dog the same way again.

REVIEW: THE HAUNTING OF MARGAM CASTLE

I don’t usually put horror movies in my basket when shopping in my local Sainsburys, but on this particular occasion I felt compelled to make an exception. The reason for this is that Margam Castle is just a few miles up the road from where I live. I’ve been there many times and I know it well, so I was intrigued.

But before we proceed, be warned, this review contains spoilers.

Margam Castle is a magnificent and imposing building built between 1830 and 1840 in Port Talbot, south Wales. It has a reputation for being haunted and was featured in the TV series Most Haunted. Ghost hunts are regularly held there, although I’ve never attended one.

The boast on the DVD cover read, “Based on a true story.” Needless to say, I was somewhat sceptical, and as it turned out my scepticism was entirely justified. I’m pretty sure that if a team of American parapsychologists had died horribly in Margam Castle, it might have warranted a mention in the local news.

I watched it with my girlfriend and the next day she confessed that it had given her nightmares. I only wish I could say the same as it really wasn’t very good. Despite having a location to die for (see what I did there?) it all fell a bit flat. There was not much of a story to speak of, most of the characters were rather uninteresting and pretty much all the horror movie tropes were crammed in there…

Superstitious locals? Check.

Messages in the bathroom mirror? Check.

Creepy little girl? Check.

As the film progressed it sank into silliness and there were moments where we were just laughing at it. Researcher being dragged into a computer monitor, anyone? Also, many of the performances were very wobbly to say the least. However, it wasn’t all bad. There was just enough creepy atmos, a few effective jump scares and a certain trashy enjoyability. Also, there were a few cast members worthy of mention.

As historian Hugh Morgan, veteran actor Derren Nesbitt was excellent. His presence alone actually elevated the quality of the whole film, in my opinion. And there were some notable cameos too. First up was Garrick Hagon, best known for his role as Bigg in the original Star Wars. Also present were Jane Merrow, Judy Matheson and Caroline Munro, all of whom previously appeared in Hammer horror movies. The appearance of Bond Girl Munro was also notable for another reason. A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet her at a geek convention that took place at…Margam Castle.

But the real star of the film is the location itself. Margam Castle simply oozes creepiness, and in all fairness it is beautifully shot. The cinematographer does a great job of capturing the scale and eeriness of it. For this reason it worked better for me as an interesting curio rather than as a horror movie, so I’ll be hanging onto this DVD and very possibly watching it again in the near future.