LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961) is the art film other art films probably laugh at for its artiness. The story has a man recounting to a woman at a resort their passionate meeting the year before, which she claims not to remember—but it’s the arty visuals that have the real impact, such as the odd, mannered way people seem to stand in every scene, as if it were a protracted dream sequence. Memorable, but not in a good way. “You knew it was possible and now there’s nothing else for you to do.”
Having treated myself to Universal’s Frankenstein Legacy collection, I kicked off with FRANKENSTEIN (1931), in which Frankenstein (Colin Clive) sets out to create a living body from dead tissue and thereby brings Boris Karloff cinematic immortality. Old-fashioned in some ways, but memorable, with its eerie sets and solid performances: Karloff is awesome even under heavy makeup, but Clive and Frederick Kerr as Frankenstein’s father are both excellent too. Some plot elements are less effective—the idea the Creature’s brain is defective doesn’t add to the plot (would a normal person tolerate the treatment Karloff endures any better?) but it’s understandable how this film became a template for so many others even at a mere 75 minutes. The audio commentary is also excellent. “So far he’s been in complete darkness—wait until I bring him into the light.”
IN GREAT WATERS by Kit Whitfield is an alt.history fantasy involving a power struggle for the British crown in a world where the monarchs of Europe have intermarried with merfolk (security to prevent the mers destroying their shipping) and over the years have become heavily inbred. Well done, and interesting in that it’s one of the few fantasies where someone wanting to be king or emperor isn’t automatically proof of villainy.
DEEP SECRET reworks a lot of Diana Wynne Jones’ favorite tropes, such as a covert cabal running the world behind the scenes, parallel worlds and parents forcing their kids to become what they don’t want to be. As usual, Jones never lets them feel like formula as she tells the story of a Magid (the wizard equivalent to the Green Lantern Corps) tries to recruit a new apprentice (ruling out one young woman who’s so Obnoxious and Irritating—why, he can’t stand her!) only to discover a sinister conspiracy to conquer an empire which he has to fight while in the middle of an SF convention (amazingly, Jones manages to make that entertaining too).Well done.
EVERY LIVING THING: Man’s Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life From Nanobacteria to New Monkeys by Rob R. Dunn traces human efforts to study biodiversity from Linnaeus’s classification efforts through one researcher’s dream of identifying every species in a square mile of Costa Rica to the constant history of unexpected discoveries such as life on the ocean floor, gathered around volcanic vents or living in oil deposits (raising the question of how deep into the Earth the bacteria go, and whether they could be under the rocks of Mars as well). Interesting, though it could have been better written (Dunn’s habit of guessing what drives various scientists to their obsessions gets old fast).
ELFLAND by Freda Warrington is a dreary novel about the relationship between an Ideal and a Troubled Family (both elvish and living in a small English country town), complicated by the Troubled Patriarch’s role as guardian of the gates into faerie, and his Obviously Crazy insistence that he can’t open them because of the terrible threat on the other side … About two-thirds mainstream novel and one-third fantasy and none of the thirds worked for me (DWJ’s otherworld trip in Deep Secret was vastly more effective than anything here.