Tuesday, June 11, 2024

20 Years Ago: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

“They are an army unlike any other, crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land, a constellation of dark new worlds. Necromongers, they're called. And if they cannot convert you, they will kill you. Leading them: the Lord Marshal. He alone has made a pilgrimage to the gates of the UnderVerse... and returned a different being. Stronger. Stranger. Half alive and half... something else. If we are to survive, a new balance must be found. In normal times, evil would be fought by good. But in times like these, well, it should be fought by another kind of evil.

-          Introductory voice-over narration, The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

Following the box office success of Pitch Black (2000), writer/director David Twohy was afforded the opportunity to construct a big-budget franchise around the film’s break-out character: Vin Diesel’s anti-hero, Riddick. 

In 2004, The Chronicles of Riddick -- a sort of “Riddick meets Dune” re-vamp of the Riddick-verse -- was released to mixed critical reviews and middling box office.  Heavy on CGI landscapes and quick-cut fight sequences The Chronicles of Riddick undeniably proved imaginative and ambitious…perhaps to a fault.

A decade later, the film’s extensive special effects appear highly-dated, and one can also detect how the film shoe-horns two good stories together, even though, perhaps, they should have remained as two separate chapters.  One story involves Riddick’s escape from a burning planet called “Crematoria” and the rescue of a friend, Jack, while the other involves his interactions with a malevolent cosmic army the Necromongers, and unexpected ascent to the empire’s throne.  

Each story in its own right would have made a great second Riddick picture, but The Chronicles of Riddick often experiences trouble finding the right balance between them, and erects too vast a “mythic” architecture around Riddick.  

No longer is he merely a gifted and clever outlaw.  Instead, Riddick is the subject of sacred galactic prophecy, and the man who can save the universe from slipping into perpetual darkness. Riddick thus carries more weight on his muscular shoulders than Atlas himself, and there are times in the film when it’s all too much.  Choosing one story (and saving the next for a sequel) would have streamlined the movie and resulted in a more appealing, cohesive sequel.

When I first screened The Chronicles of Riddick in theaters, I felt profoundly disappointed with it, feeling that the film was over-stuffed and over-burdened in terms of “world building” and mythology-building.  What I had connected with so deeply in Pitch Black was the simple idea of a man surviving an inhospitable planetary environment and eco-system using his wits, and his own code of morality.  The Chronicles of Riddick features moments that reflect that particular (original) aesthetic, but everything has been made so grand and “galactic,” that much humanity is lost in the process.

Watching the film again for this review, I must acknowledge that I enjoyed and appreciated The Chronicles of Riddick much more than I had before, while still feeling that Twohy had miscalculated somewhat in terms of approach.  

Riddick is Riddick, and he can thrive or survive anywhere. He doesn’t need to be “The Chosen One” or the messiah for audiences to feel interest in his adventures. Yet today, I can also detect how The Chronicles of Riddick -- released in 2004 -- meaningfully reflects its War on Terror Age context.  The film involves a group of fundamentalist radicals, so called “World Enders” that have hijacked “established” civilization (think Iran, or Iraq) for belligerent purposes.  This subplot is pretty clearly a metaphor for radical Islam.

Also -- and I never picked up on this element before, blogger Roman J. Martel once noted in the comments section of the Pitch Black review that my description of Riddick reminded him “strongly” of Robert E. Howard’s vision of Conan.  Roman’s insight is doubly true of The Chronicles of Riddick.  

Much of the mythology that comes to surround Riddick in this sequel feels like a space age variation on Conan’s mythology.  Many details match, or at least line-up. That insight and literary context from Roman actually brings new luster to The Chronicles of Riddick, and makes the film much more intriguing to discuss and debate.  

So there is plainly more in The Chronicles of Riddick than I saw in 2004, even while some of the film’s flaws have not been ameliorated with the passing of two decades.

“There's gonna be one speed: mine. If you can't keep up, don't step up. You'll just die.

On a planet consisting only of ultra-violet light, the bounty hunter Toombs (Nick Chinlund) attempts to capture the escaped convict Riddick (Vin Diesel), who has not been seen in five years.  Riddick promptly kills Toombs’ crew, strands Toombs on the planet, and steals his ship.

Riddick learns that the man who put the price on his head lives in New Mecca, in the Helion System.  Specifically, his old friend, the Imam (Keith David) is responsible for the bounty.  As the Imam -- now a husband and father -- reports to Riddick, the highly-advanced and civilized planet is under threat of invasion from an army of militant religious zealots called “Necromongers.”

Because Imam knows the story of Riddick’s birth -- that he was nearly strangled to death with his own umbilical cord and left for dead in a dumpster -- he suspects that the convict may play a role in the prophecy of the Necromongers’ destruction.  

Specifically, it is known that only a Furyan can destroy the Necromongers’ Lord Marshal (Colm Feore). So the Imam sent Toombs to retrieve Riddick, and share this information. 

Riddick refuses to take sides in the conflict, but when the Necromongers swarm the planet, and kill the Imam, he fights the Lord Marshal and his soldier tooth-and-nail.  Like all the people of New Mecca, Riddick is given a simple choice by the invaders: convert or die.

Riddick escapes from custody, and allows himself to be re-captured by Toombs, in hopes that the bounty hunter will take him to Crematoria, the prison world where his old friend, Jack (Alexa Davalos) has been reported incarcerated.  

Toombs complies, and Riddick is dumped in the subterranean “slam” on Crematoria, a planet with an inhospitable, charred surface.  Riddick and Jack are reunited, but she now goes by the name of Kyra, and holds a grudge against Riddick for abandoning her five years earlier.  Riddick counters that he went into hiding so all the mercenaries gunning for him wouldn’t endanger her.

Putting their differences aside, Riddick and Kyra engineer a jail break to the fiery surface of the planet, even as the Lord Marshal’s top underling, Vaako (Keith Urban) arrives to bring Riddick back to Helion.  

But Vaako and his manipulative wife (Thandie Newton) are enmeshed in courtly politics, and believe that Riddick is the key to ridding the Necromongers of the Lord Marshal once and for all.  Using Riddick as his assassin, Dame Vaako hopes to install her husband in the Lord Marshal’s place.

 “We all began as something else.

In very basic terms, The Chronicles of Riddick involves an invasion of a highly-civilized planet by fundamentalists that want to either “convert or kill” all sentient beings.  There is no negotiation with these violent radicals, either. You either become one of them, or you are destroyed.  Concepts such as democracy, education, and civilization mean nothing to these theocrats.  They care only for their draconian faith, and their (promised) ascent into another realm, the UnderVerse.

Very plainly, the Necromongers are meant to represent the Taliban, or other radical Islamists who had declared war on the Western world in the first decade of the 21st century. Like the Necromongers, these radicals practice a restrictive, draconian faith, and claim that their (violent) actions in this reality will meet with a reward in the after-life. 

This real-life context is reinforced in The Chronicles of Riddick via the setting of the planet Helion and the city of New Mecca.  

Specifically, there is a distinctive Middle Eastern design to the visualization of the Imam’s planet. New Mecca looks like it could be a space-age Tehran, or even Baghdad -- on Earth, once the home of the Islamic Golden Age -- before the fever of religious radicalism takes hold. In short, a planet of reason, technology and democracy falls to tyranny.  All the progress towards a just and fair society is lost.

The Necromongers are terrifying for the same reason that radical Islam is, in my opinion.  Imagine spending generations arduously lifting your culture out of ignorance, fear and superstition through the development of science, education and social justice, only to see a military coup which knowingly reinstates all those vices.  

Welcome to the New Dark Ages…

In my introduction, I mentioned the stories of Conan, and The Chronicles of Riddick also offers some unique parallels to that character’s life as it has been depicted in both literary and film form.  

In particular we learn that Riddick comes from an extinct planet called Furya.  Conan is, likewise, a Cimmerian, another survivor of a dead and gone society.  

Furthermore, in both Conan the Barbarian (1982) and The Chronicles of Riddick, we learn that a religious cult leader (either Thulsa Doom or the Lord Marshal…) is directly responsible for the death of the hero’s parents.  Thus, the life-time quest for that hero -- although he doesn’t know it, initially -- is to avenge his parents’ deaths and vanquish the war lord.

Similarly, Riddick and Conan have both functioned, throughout their narratives, as occasional thieves and outlaws. But they boast one other vocation in common, and it is of vital significance. 

They are both kings.

During the denouement of The Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick assumes, uneasily, the Necromonger throne. 

Similarly, in Howard’s mythology (and we see the image briefly in Conan the Barbarian…), Conan also usurps the throne of an enemy.  He replaces the tyrant of Aquilonia and becomes that kingdom’s ruler.

In terms of fantasy settings, The Chronicles of Riddick and Conan may even have something else in common: they are both set in a kind of baroque “mythological” age rather than an historical one.  Conan’s adventures are set in the long-gone -- and fictional -- age of Hyboria, and The Chronicles of Riddick is set in a distant future epoch.

One other inspiration also helps to lift The Chronicles of Riddick above its over-used CGI and chop-suey cutting: the works of Shakespeare.  

Vaako and Dame Vaako are very patently futuristic versions of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth.  Like their literary predecessors, these characters ambitiously scheme to control the kingdom, and eliminate the rightful ruler, whether King Duncan or the Lord Marshal.  

As befitting MacBeth’s characters, Vaako is the conspirator with doubts and some residual sense of loyalty. And by contrast, Dame Vaako is the one with murderous certainty.  Part of the reason that the Necromonger sequences work at all here is because of this Shakespearean dynamic made fresh.  The underlings of the Lord Marshal could have been fairly anonymous or lacking in definition, but the MacBeth “homage” adds resonance in a most welcome fashion.

Finally, I also appreciate the welcome visual imagination of The Chronicles of Riddick.  

The opening scene set on Planet U.V. is visually-distinctive, and the escape from Crematoria is, perhaps, the film’s adventure high-point. 

In the latter case, a group of survivors flee across a desolate planet surface as walls of treacherous fire encroach on them.  When Jack becomes trapped on a mountain peak, Riddick must brave the scorching fires to pull her out of mortal danger.  It’s all pretty exciting, and dynamically wrought.

In space operas like Star Trek, Dune, and Star Wars, audiences have seen again and again the desert planet, the ice planet, and so on, but The Chronicles of Riddick tries hard to mix things up a bit with its unusual (and dangerous) planetary environments, and that’s certainly a point in the movie’s favor.

My deepest concern about The Chronicles of Riddick has always been the fact that a great (and Carpenter-ian…) anti-hero is ret-conned into being a sort of “Chosen One” on a heroic quest.  The comparisons to Conan’s story help ameliorate that concern to a large degree, it’s true, but the thing I’ve always liked about Riddick is that he seems like a very “in the moment” kind of character; one who measures his situation and his options, and acts according his moral code.  

Somehow, knowing that Riddick is the “instrument of fate” as it were diminishes some of his virtues.  He has been “ordained,” in other words to be special, because of his unique heritage….not because of his experience.  I suppose I just like my Riddick movies lean and mean, and without all the pretensions to grandeur.  I like the character as a bad-ass…I don’t need him to be a mythology-fueled, supernatural bad ass.

In terms of production design and imagery, I love the concepts of The Chronicles of Riddick, but dislike the execution. I fully realize that CGI is the preferred mode for visualizing other worlds at this juncture in cinema history, and will be for the foreseeable future.  But there’s so much CGI in The Chronicles of Riddick that your eyes don’t always know where to look, and they nearly get burned out by the over-stimulation.  When absolutely every edifice is colossal and baroque, nothing really looks impressive or stands out anymore.  Instead, it all looks kind of…flat.

Similarly, the fight scenes in the film have been turned into nonsensical hash. The quick-cutting ruins any sense of rhythm or momentum, and instead, we’re just watching sheer spectacle: (beautiful) bodies in motion.  In these fights, men and women defy gravity (courtesy of wires), but we never really know how or why they do so.  In conjunction with the CGI overkill, the editing approach for the fight scenes creates a sense of distance from Riddick.

And so while I remain authentically impressed with the real world War on Terror context and the Conan influences in The Chronicles of Riddick, I am also disappointed by the film’s colossal-ness, to coin a term. 

The one quality I sought most in a Riddick sequel was to re-connect with the character emotionally. Riddick has some great lines of dialogue here, and Vin Diesel still moves great, but all the world-building around Riddick keeps us away from getting as close to the guy and his struggles as perhaps viewers would like to be.  

Pitch Black was thrilling, spectacular, and most importantly, intimate.  The Chronicles of Riddick is….spectacular on a whole other level, but often at the expense of intimacy.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Now Available: The Soul of Wes Craven by Joe Maddrey

Joseph Maddrey, author of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, and many other superb works of genre scholarship is back with a new and exciting project: a meticulous, assiduously researched biography of the late, great horror icon (and so much more...), Wes Craven.

 The Soul of Wes Craven is available for purchase now, and Joe and I recently had the opportunity to talk about his amazing new book, and the incredible work that went into it.

JKM: Let’s begin with the obvious. How and when did you decide to write a biography of Wes Craven? Why did you choose Craven as your subject?


Joe: I started thinking about it in 2010, when I interviewed Wes. We had a great conversation and we talked about a book, but at the time I was busy writing a biography of Lance Henriksen. It took me a couple years to come back to the idea, and by then John Wooley had published his biography of Wes. Soon after that, Wes died and I felt like I’d missed my chance. 


Then in December 2019, I became interested in Wes’s early writings. He wrote a column for his high school newspaper (titled “Craven’s Ravin’s”), and he had a lot of poems and short stories published in the literary magazine at Wheaton College. While he was pursuing a Master’s degree at Johns Hopkins, he also wrote a novel, which has never been published. I tracked down those manuscripts, then started tracking down Wes’s peers from high school and college. None of them had ever been interviewed about Wes, so that became the foundation of a new biography. 

JKM:  I have always admired your diligence and completeness in terms of research. This book explores facets of Wes Craven’s life I knew nothing about, even having written my own book about Craven’s canon back in 1997. Talk to us a little about your process, and your interviewees.


Joe: I believe the best interviews are more than Q&A. It has to be a real dialogue. When I met Wes in 2010, we had a dialogue. He actually preempted my interview questions by interviewing me. “Where are you coming from? Why are you interested in talking to me? What do you want to write about my films?” He was genuinely curious, so I told him. It turned out we had some similar early life experiences, similar beliefs, and similar taste in literature. 

As a result, our conversation quickly became personal. That’s one of the reasons I had to write the book; it was important to me to pursue answers to the big questions at the center of Wes’s life and work, even though I didn’t have access to Wes anymore.


When I started reaching out to his college peers in early 2020, I wasn’t sure anyone would talk to me. Wes went to Wheaton, an evangelical school, and I didn’t think most Wheaton alums be eager to talk about the man who created Freddy Krueger. But everyone I talked to remembered Wes and remembered him fondly. The more I learned about him, the more questions I had, so I just kept moving forward through the chronology of his life, tracking down new manuscripts (a lot of unproduced screenplays) and new people, having great conversations, and finding the storyline as I went.


JKM:  There have been many books about the films of Craven, including my own, The Art of Horror.  How does The Soul of Wes Craven differ from these other books, would you say? Why is Craven’s story one that needs to be told?


Joe: For me, the big ones were yours, Brian J. Robb’s Screams & Nightmares, and John Wooley’s Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares—but there are also hundreds of smaller articles, essays, interviews, etc. I read as many as I could because I wanted to have a comprehensive overview of Wes’s evolution. Then it was a matter of filling in the gaps with new research. I think most of the information in the first three chapters of The Soul of Wes Craven will be completely new to even the most die-hard Wes fans. The same is true of the last three chapters, plus the chapter on Wes’s “lost years” working in adult cinema. And even if you think you know everything about A Nightmare on Elm Street, I promise you don’t.


But my goal was not just to generate new Wes Craven trivia. I wanted to present a more comprehensive and humanizing view of the man behind the work, and to treat the work with the kind of seriousness that an academic scholar would apply to great literature. To me, Wes’s work deserves that kind of attention. I have written a couple of books about T.S. Eliot (one of the subjects that Wes and I connected on), and Eliot believed that in order to fully appreciate an artist, you have to know the whole of their work. You don’t have to like it all, but if you make yourself aware of it all, you can see how the artist’s mind evolves, and how all the different individual works complement each other. If an artist’s work speaks to you, you can learn a lot about yourself and your world by studying theirs. That’s why we do this, right?


JKM: The book is riveting, frankly. My eyes were really opened by the chapter about Craven’s college years. Tell the audience a bit about this very special chapter. What did you find out, and why do you think it’s so surprising and interesting to Craven scholars and fans?


Joe: Through my interviews, I learned that Wes had been a part of (if not a leader of) a group of brilliant “literary rebels” at Wheaton. I’d always imagined him as an outsider at Wheaton, but it turns out there were quite a few outsiders at Wheaton in the early 1960s. They were all wrestling with the same issues Wes was wrestling with at that time in his life, which had to do with belief in God, or definitions of God. This is a brilliant, brilliant group of people, many of whom went on to become successful writers and artists in their own right. Wheaton challenged all of them in life-altering ways. 


One of Wes’s most formative experiences at Wheaton was when the president of the college “denounced” him publicly during a church service—because Wes, as editor of the school literary magazine, had published a couple of short stories that were deemed inappropriate by some board members. I think this admonishment really brought out Wes’s rebellious streak and played a big role in making him the “Wes Craven” that we know. Wes was always impish, but I think his experience with the literary magazine transformed him. Like his peers, he was forged in fire. The stories of that time and place really help to explain his complexity as a literary thinker, and also the strength of his character.


JKM:  Again, most folks familiar with Craven know that he had -- let’s call it a “flirtation” -- with the adult film industry. Your book covers that phase in remarkable detail. How do you think the details of this time in his career add to our understanding of Craven as an artist?


Joe: Yes, but most people get the details wrong. Wes did work in adult cinema, because that’s the work he could get as an aspiring filmmaker. That became his film school. He didn’t study to be a filmmaker as an undergraduate. He wanted to be a novelist, then he became a Humanities professor, then he decided to get into filmmaking when he was about 30 years old. He was starting late, he had no c.v., and he had a lot of catching up to do. You also have to remember that in the early 1970s, adult cinema was (briefly) a mainstream phenomenon. Deep Throat was the 5th highest-grossing film of 1972, behind The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, What’s Up Doc?, and Deliverance. Certain filmmakers were making artistically ambitious films in that arena. Especially in New York, where Wes was working. 


Wes never shied away from admitting he made adult films, but I imagine he would have mixed feelings about the amount of attention I focused on The Fireworks Woman, the one hardcore film he wrote and directed. I gave it extra attention for two reasons: (1) because not much has been written about it, and (2) because the film is, in some ways, very Wes. The major themes of his later work are present in this film, and I don’t think you can talk about Wes’s oeuvre without considering The Fireworks Woman. In much the way that Last House on the Left was conceived as a reflection on American attitudes toward violence, The Fireworks Woman was a serious, and very personal, attempt to explore American attitudes about sex. The former is celebrated today is because the horror genre has achieved some mainstream acceptance. The latter is a dirty secret because adult cinema does not have the cultural currency it did in the 1970s.


JKM:  Let’s talk about My Soul to Take (2010), a film that is not beloved by many horror fans, including me. Why was it so important to Wes Craven? Why was it so personal?


Joe: One of the reasons I titled my book The Soul of Wes Craven is because Wes said he felt like his generation of horror filmmakers drew more deeply on personal experience when they were telling stories. Younger filmmakers, he felt, draw too much on the old films. They might be more technically adept, but their stories are too often recycled or reheated. With My Soul to Take, Wes was trying to go back to his deepest well, drawing on his early life experiences for inspiration. Ironically, he ended up writing and directing a film that recycled elements of several of his earlier films, because he (or his financiers) felt like he had to meet certain audience expectations for “a Wes Craven film.” 


My Soul to Take is a hot mess and I don’t think Wes fully understood why. I believe it could have been a good miniseries or a great novel, with each episode / chapter focusing on a different character. There are too many characters, and the film doesn’t develop them adequately. But the central metaphor—about a collective soul—is intriguing, and I think Wes could have done something brilliant with it, if he’d had a bigger canvas and more time to develop the story. Unfortunately, the film was hastily written and rushed into production during a brief lull between Hollywood strikes. That commercial failure pretty much ended his filmmaking career.

JKM: The final chapters of the book are a bit more emotional, and affecting, or at least I read them that way. Were they harder to write? Was that your intent? A result of you getting closer and closer to your subject, as you continued to write?


Joe: Wes was disappointed that the success of the Scream films didn’t give him the freedom to make non-horror films. That’s what he wanted, and he tried really hard to break out of the horror genre in the new century. There’s an entire chapter about unrealized dream projects. As a result, it is tempting the interpret the last 15 years of Wes’s biography as an anticlimax. But that’s only part of the story, because Wes was more than his films. In the middle of the book, the story of his personal life gets overwhelmed by the stories behind the films, because that’s where he was putting so much of his energy and enthusiasm. In the last fifteen years, I think his personal life was more rewarding and fulfilling than the film work. During that time, he met and married his wife Iya, and they built a beautiful home and a new life together on Martha’s Vineyard. And he was writing prose again, instead of just screenplays. Had he lived a little longer, I think we might have a few more Wes Craven novels.


The book illustrates that artists have a meaningful life beyond their art. Art comes out of our life experience and informs our life experience, but art is not life. This is something I thought about a lot while working with my friend Bruce Joel Rubin on his new memoir, It’s Only a Movie. Initially, I thought that would be a book about intersections between Bruce’s spiritual life and his film work, but the book Bruce ended up writing is so much more—because his life is so much more. I wish Wes had written his own memoir. For years, he talked about it. In lieu of a true autobiography, there’s The Soul of Wes Craven, a “collective soul,” incorporating the voices of many of the people who knew and loved Wes.


JKM:  What lessons do you think Wes Craven’s life teaches us about horror, and, more broadly, about art, today, in 2024?


Joe: You mean, does a book about a dead horror filmmaker really matter in our crisis-driven everyday world? Yeah, I think it does. Making art and telling stories are things we do to understand the world, cope with the world, engage with the world, disengage from the world (when necessary), transcend the world and transform the world. Wes did those things in a sincere and meaningful way, so we can learn from him. Anyone who dismisses that opportunity because Wes was a horror filmmaker is missing out on a powerful life story.


JKM:  What’s next for you? Can we look forward to another horror icon biography? 


Joe: Honestly, I don’t know. I have a few new book ideas—and even a few works in progress—but right now I’m waiting to see how this one is received. Believe it or not, I’ve been writing nonfiction books about filmmakers for twenty years. My first book was published in 2004, and it ended with a chapter on Wes Craven. I feel like I’ve come full circle, so now I have to figure out what’s next. 


JKM: Finally, where can readers find the book?


Joe: Dustin McNeil of Harker Press, who has been a wonderful collaborator on this project, has created a website for the book. www.wescravenbook.com


For now, the easiest way to get The Soul of Wes Craven is on Amazon, but it will eventually be available via Barnes & Nobles, Walmart, Target, and the usual online retailers. Thanks for your interest!


20 Years Ago: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

“They are an army unlike any other, crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land, a constellation of dar...