Hatching a Murderous Plan

Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a big man in the chicken business. He and his wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida) live in a home attached to a vast chicken factory complex, its processes almost entirely automated, and the poultry grower’s association that Marco is a part of is branching out into genetic engineering. Marco is tasked by the head of the association with devising a new publicity campaign to convince the public that chicken is tasty and delicious (seems like a bit of an easy sell, but OK), and in aid of this is teamed up with PR professional Mondaini (Jean Sobieski).

Mondaini is a stranger to Marco – but already knows a secret about him. For playing at peeping tom at a hotel, Mondaini witnessed a liaison between Marco and a prostitute – specifically, Marco apparently in the middle of murdering a prostitute, which is his hobby in his spare time. Meanwhile, back at home, tensions mount between Marco, Anna, and Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin), Anna’s cousin who has come to live with them and do some light secretarial work. Both Marco and Anna have some pretty intense feelings about Gabrielle – Anna encourages her to help her learn Marco’s secrets whilst gushing to Marco about how fantastically well-engineered Gabrielle’s body is; Marco, for his part, knows this all too well, since he and Gabrielle are having an affair.

Meanwhile, Mondaini increasingly overshadows Marco and Anna’s social life with strange games at a party they throw, the factory scientist perfects boneless chickens, and Luigi (Renato Romano), a mysterious amnesiac from Marco’s past, comes wandering in and out of the situation. Surely this must all come to a head somehow – but who’s in the driving seat and who’s going to end up with egg on their face?

Death Laid an Egg opens with a bizarre look into the lives of a cross-section of guests at motel and their various dubious business before we hone in on the specific characters of interest, floats between murderous intrigue and the intricacies of the chicken business, and confronts the viewer with motifs like a strange runic scarf in which Marco seems to perceive a threatening message, visions of a terrible car accident as Gabrielle drives Marco down a motorway, shots of couples engaging in everything from eagerly consenting sex to violent rape in a room of truth Mondaini establishes at Marco and Anna’s party.

In short, it’s what happens when the giallo style as initially formulated in the early 1960s goes stumbling into the psychedelic, experimental world of the late 1960s, complete with a tense free jazz soundtrack and a willingness to experiment to an extent which incorporates a near-hallucinatory element into the subgenre. There’s still plenty of hallmarks of the genre, mind – we see a lot of Gabrielle and Anna in various lingerie getups – but the whole concoction is so deliciously odd that nobody would call it a standard giallo.

Originally released in 1968 with some significant cuts, some of the lost material was restored in a so-called “giallo cut” in the 1970s; it’s only recently, thanks to the discovery of some lost prints, that Nucleus Films have been able to piece together a 104 minute director’s cut of the movie to represent Questi’s original vision for the movie.

Most of the restoration was done from the original negatives, but about 14 minutes or so of material had to be incorporated as inserts from an Italian print of the movie, for which no English soundtrack exists, so if you watch with the English soundtrack the movie reverts into Italian at points. This is an interesting exercise, however, because it makes it evident what parts were removed from early versions of the movie.

Most of these are fairly minor cuts which nonetheless give a bit more flesh to some of the subplots and odd little occurrences during the movie when restored, but others are more significant – in particular, almost all the material involving Luigi seems to only exist in the Italian version of the movie, and to be honest this seems the right call since he’s ultimately a bit of a red herring and his plotline doesn’t come to anything.

Indeed, the various tangled strings at the end don’t quite come together into a wholly satisfying conclusion, as is often the way with giallos which get too excited about weaving a web of intrigue to remember you’ve got to actually stop weaving and wrap up at some point. Part of the reason the ending drags is that a major plot twist is telegraphed too much in advance, so that by the time it’s revealed it’s not so much a sudden swerve as it is the narrative finally catching up to the viewer. Whilst this oddity might not be a keeper, it’s certainly worth a watch at least once.

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Vallée of Mystery

Of all the big names in UFOlogy in the late 20th Century, Jacques Vallée might be the most interesting. A physicist and computer scientist by training, he believed that there was some form of physical reality behind UFOs, but was reluctant to jump to the conclusion that they were necessarily nuts-and-bolts spacecraft from other worlds. In the late 1960s, his classic Passport To Magonia aired his personal theory that if there was any truth to stories of extraterrestrial visitors at all, they seemed more consistent with visits from other dimensions than from distant space – and that the phenomenon had direct parallels with folkloric encounters with angels, fairies and similar.

1979’s Messengers of Deception came about after Vallée decided to turn his attention from the witnessed aerial phenomena themselves to the people who claim to have witnessed them – and, in particular, those who insist they have met the occupants of interplanetary craft. His initial reason for doing so was a hypothesis that UFOs are a real physical phenomenon which has psychological or neurological effects on witnesses, and so by looking to said witnesses it might be possible to find evidence of this.

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Blake’s 7: First Flight

Some things you don’t want to leave up to chance. Whilst all of Blake’s 7 seems to be freely available via YouTube, with no particular effort by the BBC to get it taken down, at the same time I’d wanted a physical copy of the thing just in case all that changed in the immediate future – plus, getting the proper DVDs likely meant better quality than the YouTube copies. Lo and behold, after Christmas HMV went bust (again), and in the midst of the fire sale I was able to get a boxed set of the complete series for a fraction of the usual price.

I’m going to share my thoughts on Blake’s 7 here, and like my mammoth article on Babylon 5 way back when I’m not going to flinch at dropping spoilers. If you’re averse to spoilers for a show which is now over 40 years old, then to be honest I’m not that fussed about your feelings because there’s a statute of limitations on these things, but don’t complain if you read deeper into the article and encounter spoilers.

Other sources of comparatively fresh Blake’s 7 discussion include the excellent podcast Down and Safe, featuring various professional SF authors taking it in episode by episode, but don’t get your hopes up for them to ever actually finish the damn thing – the update schedule got increasingly glacial, until their season 2 wrapup got released nearly a year and a half ago, so I suspect the odds of them actually getting to the end of season 4 are so remote as to be not worth considering. (Dear Down and Safe crew: I love your work but if you don’t want me saying mean things about your schedule, prove me wrong, mamajamas.)

A non-spoilery observation, by the way: as much as American hegemony is problematic, I am really glad that American English has given us this distinction between “series” and “seasons” in talking about television. In British English, it is the case – or at least used to be the case – that “series” was used to mean both “series” (as in the show as a whole) and “season” (as in a particular run of the show), which in retrospect is tremendously awkward because whenever you mentioned a “series finale” it was unclear whether you meant the final episode of a series ever or just the last episode of the latest run. It feels like we’ve had a bit of a sea-change lately, possibly due to the boxed set/Netflix streaming era making it more common to consume TV by the season and so much of the fodder for that coming from America.

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Offutt’s First Effort As Editor

While I don’t quite buy John Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces theory, I do think that there are certain basic frameworks that stories can (but never must) follow, and which can yield a nigh-infinite variety of different permutations of the same basic ideas whilst leaving room for the author’s own themes and personality to shine through. The Hero’s Journey is one such case in point; another one, which through an act of epic pretentiousness I’ll dub the Traveller’s Intervention, was fleshed out by a number of authors in the early 20th Century and goes a little something like this:

A hero, often itinerant, almost always foreign, finds himself called upon to intervene in a dilemma which frequently involves the ambitions of one or more powerful individuals. Often the hero will have his or her own ambitions, which will usually involve some form of personal advancement; occasionally the hero will be unwilling to intervene, but find themselves compelled to, either by external force or their own conscience. Eventually one side or the other in the dilemma will turn out to be in the wrong; sometimes the true villain of the piece will prove to be a raging, instinct-driven beast, whereas sometimes it will turn out to be a manipulative individual who believes that they are invested with the right (whether by tradition or by occult means or by virtue of their special qualities) to do as they please to whom they please; in the latter case, this could turn out to be the person who requested the hero’s intervention in the first place. The hero eventually discerns the correct course of action and defeats the villain, and usually endures physical danger and occult menace in the process; in most cases the hero will win through by virtue of his or her wit and skill. The situation having been resolved, the hero will normally move on, although not without a certain reward for his or her efforts. The hero, in this model, is an agent of societal change, whose intervention has the effect of either breaking a stalemate or championing the underdog, but is not a part of society but exists externally to it.

This is the formula which once refined by Robert E. Howard (with the aid of such precursors as Edgar Rice Burroughs) became the seed of the sword & sorcery subgenre of fantasy, with authors as diverse as Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock making important contributions to it. As with the Hero’s Journey, of course, the above outline is only a loose and ridiculously broad framework, and most authors (including Howard) produced works that diverge from it radically, but even then it’s notable as a departure from the standard format. (For example, the Elric series by Michael Moorcock centres around a weak-willed cripple who wins his Pyrrhic victories by virtue of his soul-stealing magic sword, but aside from this the original novellas fit the above formula surprisingly well.)

A limitation of this particular monomyth is that it appears to be more suited to short stories than to novels; whilst there are a few examples of excellent sword & sorcery novels (including much of Michael Moorcock’s output from the 1960s and early 1970s), most of the foundational works of the genre are in the short story format. This may in part be due to the framework I’ve described covering only one incident of many in an individual’s life, whereas the Hero’s Journey tends to describe the most important and valuable thing the protagonist is ever likely to do. (This may be why the quest narrative is so popular in high fantasy); I think it is also due to this sort of story working best when it has a nervous, energetic, Howard-like intensity to it, with fast pacing and lightning-fast action; this is a mood which is decidedly sustainable over the course of, say, a novella, but is difficult to maintain for the duration of a novel.

Of course, another factor has to be the origins of sword & sorcery in the first place: whilst high fantasy has its roots in novels by the likes of William Morris, E.R. Eddison, and of course Tolkien, sword & sorcery sprang from the pages of 1930s pulp fiction magazines, with a few antecedents in the form of the short stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lord Dunsany. The fact that the framework seems especially well-served by the short story format probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was devised for the short story format in the first place. But with the waning of the short story magazines as forces in SF/fantasy publishing, and with the audience’s tastes spurning most epics shorter than, say, Dune or Stranger In a Strange Land, the genre found itself in trouble in the mid-to-late 1970s. The apparent intellectual vacuity of the subgenre probably didn’t help, and neither did its undeserved reputation for misogyny and racism; both of these image problems may have resulted from oversaturation of the market by Robert E. Howard’s work, posthumously-completed Howard stories, and people writing lazy Howard pastiches. But the genre does not deserve to be written off as the disreputable legacy of an anti-intellectual, racist bigot from rural Texas, and it didn’t deserve that in 1977; luckily, a lone hero sallied forth to save the day, that hero being Andrew Offutt, editor of the Swords Against Darkness anthology series.

Anthologies of all-original SF/fantasy stories (as opposed to mere compilations of the year’s most notable output) such as Swords Against Darkness were all the rage in the 1970s and 1980s, having somewhat supplanted SF magazines; sure, if you were good with a typewriter you could get into the magazines, but if you were a real hotshot you got picked for the anthologies. The craze probably started with Harlan Ellison’s seminal Dangerous Visions, although apparently many of the all-original anthology lines of the era abjectly failed to turn a profit, and the petering-out of the Swords Against Darkness series may be a consequence of this; though Offutt would produce five such anthologies from 1977 to 1979,

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Mini-Review: It’s Grim and Dark For Kids 2

So at the end of Attack of the Necron, Zelia, Mekki, Fleapit and Talen found themselves stranded on an ice planet; for the purposes of Claws of the Genestealer they spend most of the book stuck on the planet trying to avoid the titular beastie, until eventually someone comes along to evacuate them.

In terms of actual plot developments, then, this is a filler episode; on the whole, the book is less concerned with advancing the party’s search for the mysterious locale known as the Emperor’s Seat (where Zelia’s mother has promised to rendezvous with them) so much as it is Cavan Scott taking a moment to make sure he’s got the interpersonal chemistry within the party clearly worked-out and communicated. It’s a fun episode, but I expect more significant developments will come in the followup – Secrets of the Tau – due in August.

Communion or Concoction?

It has become an iconic alien abduction story. Horror author Whitley Strieber (whose early hits included Wolfen and The Hunger) and his family split their time between their apartment in New York City and their out-of-town holiday home… which in true horror style is an honest to goodness cabin in the woods. Surprise guests arrive in the form of little grey UFOnauts who take away Strieber in the middle of the night, mess with his head, and stimulate his prostate a bit with a fancy vibrator. Under hypnotic regression, Strieber remembers all this and comes to the conclusion that this has been happening all his life – that he, his father before him, and his son after him are a line of abductees, destined to be taught important spiritual information and lovingly pegged by a big-eyed ancient space goddess. At the end of the book, he sits down and thinks about triangles for a while.

Communion was, for a time, the book on alien abduction. During that brief cultural space when alien abductions were a red-hot subject, Communion ended up becoming such a widely-cited text on the subject – the book people waved around to try and persuade sceptical audiences of the reality of the phenomenon, and the book which many abductees claimed resonated so closely with them.

It’s rather odd that it has that status, considering how absolutely bizarre the book gets in some of its aspects, particularly towards the end. I can only assume that most readers got through the early descriptions of abduction experiences – undeniably creepy and haunting that they are – and perhaps a few of the hypnosis sections in the middle of the book before their attention wavered and they sort of gave up. Or possibly it’s the case that, as is very frequent in this field, people cherry-picked: they took the bits which supported their personal visions and theories about the abduction experience onboard as fact, whilst writing off bits which didn’t fit as Strieber filtering the information through his own worldview.

Strieber’s worldview is certainly eccentric; contrary to many of the claims people make about Communion, and the narrative he tries to frame, he is far from a rationalist, materialist sceptic at the start of the story. He claims to not have much interest in UFOlogy, but as we shall see, he has a deep interest in a number of esoteric subjects and philosophies – more than you’d really expect from a James Randi-style atheist materialist – and it is not only possible but likely that his whole abduction schtick is an exercise in working with these ideas.

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The Second Coming of a Lo-Fi Masterpiece

The story is told to us from, apparently, a mental institution, where our narrator Arletty (Marianna Hill) alludes to a terrible experience she’s undergone in the beachside holiday town of Pointe Dune (formerly known as New Bethlehem) – and suggests that whatever horror overtook the town is spreading outwards, and perhaps soon nowhere will be safe. Arletty’s father Joseph Long (played by Royal Dano, largely in voiceovers narrating Long’s letters and diaries), an artist, maintained a studio in Pointe Dune where he could work in solitude; Arletty received a strange letter from him, at once suggesting he was in terrible danger but urging her to stay away and not get involved, or seek help.

As she pulls into a gas station just outside town, she looks over to see the twitchy attendant (Charles Dierkop) shooting his pistol out into the darkness; when she comes over, they both hear a terrible yelp in the darkness, and his claim that it’s just stray dogs fails to convince her. We see certain other terrible things suggesting that the attendant is keeping a whole swathe of secrets, for fear of what the Pointe Dune residents will do to him, with the result that we see pretty unambiguous indications that everything is fucked long before Arletty does. It’s too late though – he’s been seen talking to her, and as she makes her initial investigations into Pointe Dune, the attendant is… dealt with.

That’s just the start of the nightmare, as Arletty learns of the past of the town – a town which used to be called New Bethlehem, before the Moon turned red one night and a mysterious stranger came from the sea to change everything, with a promise of returning some day. Just what has happened to our narrator’s missing father – and what horrors are heralded by the second coming of this Messiah of Evil?

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