Tuesday 23 February 2010

Solomon Kane's North Devonian Cousin (and other strangeness)

(hat tip to Al Harron at The Cimmerian for the title)

[spoiler warning: there would be spoilers ahead, if you hadn't already seen every single thing in this film done better somewhere else. Srsly, watch Van Helsing and Conan the Barbarian and you know exactly how everything in this film is going to work out]

"Do not be alarmed. You are caught in a cliche storm. The Hollywood sound and fury machine controls all that you see. They control the horizontal and the vertical, and the editing suite. And they are /really/ high on coke.

Devoted fans of REH, please put your head between your knees and repeat the mantra "There is no Howard but Howard, and the Blessed Tompk is his prophet" until the urge to weep, scream and tear out one's eyes subsides. I suggest you maintain the position until the credits roll." ;)

Solomon Kane

England. 1600AD, the late Dung Ages. A land of rain, mud, more rain, grimy leather and oppressed yokels labours under the twin tyrannies of LOTR surplus costuming, and pompous and intrusive incidental music. Only one man can save the kingdom:

Solomon Kane, Action Wurzel!
(also, zoider-smuggler, pirate, Aragorn cosplayer, and architecture critic extraordinaire).

Unfortunately for not-so-merrie olde Englande we first meet this highly-strung Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen wannabe in the throes of a towering rage against the intrusion of a (grossly out-of-keeping) Overblown Evil Gothic palace into the charming Moorish vernacular skyline of Tunis. Solomon Kane and his pirate/aesthetes rage through the streets, stabbing stuntmen, chewing all the scenery in sight, causing spontaneous plot-directed explosions, and demanding to see the manager.

Some cliches, exposition, FX and one handwaved "because the script says so" set up of Mr Kane's impending damnation later, and we are reintroduced to our protagonist. The cunning Puritan is now hiding out in the only monastery in Slovakia^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H (*ahem*) England whose abbot had the presence of mind to hide his foundation from Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. Thereby bypassing all the complication of the Protestant reformation, and of the anti-Catholic scares of the later Tudor era. Yep. Going "you ain't seen me, roight?" at a whole 70 years or so of history, that there's some achievement Padre.

(Cut to 70 years previously.

Thomas Cromwell: "An island?! Curses. These perfidious Catholics have learnt that running water negates our Suppression Acts, and that agents of the Court of Augmentation do not understand the concept of boats. They are entirely safe from us. All our plans foiled by their cunning aquatic Popery.")

I mean, I can watch Braveheart and Gladiator without entering a state of full on, frothing GNAAARRhistorianRAEG, but there are limits!

Forced to leave his sanctuary by prophetic dreams sent by the powers of "plot" and "get on with it" Solomon Kane (hereafter SK) takes some carefully staged, ad-friendly hero poses against the skyline. Obligations to the marketing machine discharged he is also kawwed at by the fearsome ravens of obvious presaging, then curbstomped by some Central Casting bandits who know not pacifism ("Oi am a man uv peace. Ow! Ow ow ow!"), and then falls in with a family of not-at-all-puritan Puritans heading for the New World ("USA! USA!") for no readily apparent reason.

Of course, having garbed SK in their spare Van Helsing costume, and engaged in some portentous exposition, said Puritans then fall afoul of an OBVIOUS EVIL CHILD sole survivor witch. Witch handily dissipated into a flock of crows by a gambit that was creaking with age when Peter Cushing used it (clue: cross), the Puritards then wander blindly into the clutches of the evil, slave-taking mook villains of our piece, the dreaded West Zomerset Happy Fun Club* and their Summer Sunshine events organizer, Mr Lurtz Leatherface McNazgul Vader.**

* Played by some surplus-to-requirements Orcs of the White Hand cast adrift after LOTR finished filming. The life of a jobbing extra is a hard and unglamorous one.
** Any resemblance to SK's dear dead elder brother is purely in the mind of the viewer, and cannot be spotted a friggin' mile off after the helpful flashback scene.

Tangential: Hmmmm. Pale-skinned, badly-dressed jabbering psychos infesting the English landscape and enslaving people. Date stamp around 1600AD. I call subtle satirical allegory of the Stuart ascent to the throne, with overtones of protest against the current Scottish Raj reigning at Westminster. No? Just me. Fair enough.

Anyhoo. Back to the action!

Some hyperkinetic and badly-edited attention-deficit fight scenes, a quick outbreak of "why hast though forsaken me" emoting by James Purefoy (dir: "Act harder!"), and a promise - "solemn oath" in the original Puritanese - to a dying Boromir^H^H^H^H^H^H^H (sorry, wrong film) Pete Postlethwaite later, and SK has a new quest: save fresh-faced Puritan jailbait daughter Meredith Plot Coupon McFinalgirl from the clutches of the West Zomerset HFC and their invisible incidental music hurdy gurdy of doom. The unspoken "Let's hunt some Orc!" hangs heavy in the air.

It's pretty much 'action heroism by the numbers' from here on in. You can fill in the blanks yourself. I'm only going to point up the worst crimes against cinematic originality.

Blah, blah. Mr McKenzie 'never knowingly typecast' Crook playing an oddball treacherous priest. He reminds us that the apocalyptic mudscape we are seeing is, in troth, the delightful cider apple orchards and gently rolling hills of the Somerset-Devon border, and not just an especially gloomy bit of eastern Europe with cheap labour and hotel rates. The worthies of the West Country Tourist Board write a stern letter. Mr Crook eats bits of it.

Fr Nuttyboy then tries to feed SK to his ghoul parishioners. They fight. SK escapes. Reappearing Central Casting bandits claim Meredith (plot coupon girl) is dead and get their expected comeuppance.

Blah, blah. Drunken despair scene in the back room of the not-at-all-the-Prancing Pony. SK passes out, and awakens captured by the WZHFC. Doh!

Blah, blah. Crucifixion, in an obvious (if sucky - no vulture-biting) homage to Conan the Barbarian, and in case we hadn't got the redemption symbolism yet. SK sees Meredith alive in the WZHFC's superfun sightseeing slavecart and pulls himself off the cross (cheap nails, obv.) before passing out in a puddle like a big damn hero.

Blah, blah. SK is rescued by the Rangers of Ithilien^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H Weymouth, who he then leads on an unpictured 'ran out of budget' sewer crawl assault on his ancestral manse, now HQ of the WZHFC. Said home is another looming pile in the Hollywood Inappropriate Grotesquely Evil Gothic style, and obviously the place from whence SK derived his distaste for anachronistic architectural cliche.

Quick scene where Max von Sydow (imprisoned in his own dungeon by his son like a man who's never ever seen King Lear, or heard the words "Faustian bargain") semi-reprises his Conan the Barbarian role as King Osric, albeit with some added narm, a touch of Peter o'Toole's Priam (Troy), and a masterfully unstated air of "Who do I see about my cheque?" Fear not Academy, your precious Supporting Actor Oscars appear to be safe from the fantasy ghetto scum this year.

Blah, blah. "Hold them off. Rescue the prisoners".

Blah, blah. A nice touch, possibly covering more running out of money, where we're cockblocked from another 300-style mook-butchering spree when the top-of-the-totem pole villain, Mr Evil Albino Wordfaced Priest (Malachi - good scary cliche Biblical name that - to his friends) actually unlocks his throne room door when said door is forcefully knocked upon by the protagonist. Why, I near woke up in shock! Is this a cunning double-bluff on the part of the villain? The first cinematic wrong-footing I've seen since Nameless stabs the First Emperor in Jet Li's Hero? Erm, nope. It would appear not. Oh well...

Blah, blah. SK & Lurtz Leatherface McNazgul Vader fight. Guy called Kane fighting his brother; inevitable outcome is inevitable.

Blah, blah. Malachi outlines his plot to use cache of demon mirrors left over from Constantine (heh, same place they got the 'dark hero fighting to redeem his soul' schtick) to conquer the West Country ("ooh ar ooh ar ooh ay") with the aid of the WZHFC, intrusive incidental music, and a giant tinkertoy with a fine line in LOTR Balrog impersonations left over from Hellboy: Golden Army. His is a subtle and cunning plan. And his motivations are obviously entirely too subtle to be conveyed to the audience in any meaningful fashion.

They fight. Glowy special effects. SK 1: Evil 0. Huzzah.

Cut to sequel-bait burial of the beloved dead + generic portentous voice-over ending.

Credits. Weeping of Cimmerian readers. REH turns in his grave. "Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."


So, yeah. It's about what I expected. Good points?

  • Well, it's remarkable what you can get for $30M nowadays. If only the money had been used to make a real SK movie, for grown-ups.
  • James Purefoy's Loamshire accent alone is worth the price of admission. Wurzel action hero? Comedy gold.
  • My bag of Maltesers was delicious.
  • At least it wasn't as bad as Kevin Sorbo's Kull the Conqueror (*shudder*).

tl;dr: It's the Van Helsing prequel. Not Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane, just SK(INO).

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Purest Essence of Dungeoncrawl

"...light threaded the ceiling... Drops of water danced and sparkled like diamonds."

I have recently taken delivery of a book which I can only describe as dungeoncrawl in its purest form. What? Mike who? Goodman what? I'm talking about an overlooked classic entitled Dark Dungeon Adventure by Paul Sellers.

This slim little 32 page volume has it all. Survival in a hostile wilderness; a ruined castle; a subterranean underworld filled with monsters, wonders and unexplained noises; loss and rescue; fear and courage; and a dog. There is no flab or excess to the tale. No Monty Haul 'treasure for the sake of it'. No playing the system, rather than the game. The protagonists are elated simply to escape the dungeon with their lives.

There is much we can learn from this book.


Ok, low comedy aside. My copy of the (justly praised) Dungeon Alphabet finally arrived this morning.

On first reading it would appear that the phrase "ne plus ultra of the OSR" can be applied without accusations of hyperbole. This is the sort of book I'd have killed for as a proto-DM. The art is evocative, the content is thought-provoking, and the whole is an adornment to the hobby. It looks, feels and even /smells/ like a proper hardbound gaming book should. And the price is an achievement in itself: $10+p&p. I paid the equivalent of $16-20 dollars for books of a similar quality 20 years ago!

Can't talk now. Geeking out. ;)

edit (17/02/10): Purely in terms of game utility Stonehell probably trumps The Dungeon Alphabet at my table. TDA is a thought-provoker and a beautiful thing, Stonehell is - to my mind - more immediately useful as a dungeon builder's toolbox.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...