Wednesday, November 19, 2014

GAMERA GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995), ADVENT OF LEGION (1996), AWAKENING OF IRYS (1999)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological, psychological*

With the exception of 2006's GAMERA THE BRAVE-- which I didn't like and don't plan to re-screen any time soon-- these three 1990s films, directed and co-written by Shuseke Kaneko, were the final hurrah for the turtle-monster.

The first time that I screened 1995's GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE, I thought that it was a strong, substantive upgrade of the enjoyably loony series of the 1960s and 1970s. In re-screening these films, I can see that on occasion they had a greater claim to mythopoesis than I used to believe. Still, compared to the original Godzilla films, the mythic material appears in a very hit-and-miss manner. Most of the early films get by purely on the absurdity of a giant turtle who defends children from harm.

Kaneko's series does not forswear the events of the old films, but he erects a more sophisticated science-fiction explanation for them.  Gamera is not just a freak of prehistoric nature mutated by radiation, but a creation of an ancient civilization, one "programmed" to protect the Earth against its enemies. The foremost enemies here are a trio of Gyaos-birds, but humanity has unwittingly conspired in their resurrection through its pollution of the atmosphere.  In addition, humans hurl their military forces against Gamera, despite the protests of Asagi, a psychic Japanese woman who has formed a link with Gamera and knows that his basic instincts are protective. Asagi performs basically the same role in all three films and provides a decided improvement on the old series' concentration of cutesy kids as viewpoint-characters.

The FX are far more impressive than anything in the old Gamera films, and the script is far more logical. Still, I must admit that the first film seemed a little pedestrian this time out, lacking the wild inventiveness of the old flicks. Still, it remains one of the better kaiju films of the period.




GAMERA 2: ADVENT OF LEGION is a serviceable follow-up, but it necessarily lacks the excitement of the first film's conceptual reboot. LEGION begins a year after Gamera's victory over the Gyaos-creatures, and the heroic monster has apparently stayed out of sight, not even emerging from the sea to feed on the odd volcano, much less raiding human refineries.

A new menace arrives from space: a meteor which unleashes not only a brood of killer insects but their own ecosystem, consisting of alien plants that immediately take root in Earth-soil.  After the insects have killed various victims, Gamera emerges from the sea and begins killing the intruders, who are dubbed "Legion" by an observer, because they are many, a la the Biblical quote. The legion-creature's Big Mama appears on the scene and engages Gamera in combat, and in keeping with the usual pattern, she wins the first bout and leaves Gamera seriously wounded.  Queen Legion then leaves, seeking new ground on which to expand her brood.

While humanity plays its usual role, attempting to short-circuit the creatures with technological weapons, Asagi continually tries to reach out to Gamera psychically. She finally succeeds, and Gamera rises to fight again, with the expected results.

As brood-beings go, the various incarnations of Legion are just okay: I found them visually far less arresting than the similar Godzilla-foe Megaguirus, though these monsters appeared four years later. The film's most interesting moment appears at the coda, when one character theorizes that Gamera isn't primarily a defender of humanity: that the hero-monster's main goal is to preserve the Earth-- and that if humans endanger the planet, they may find themselves on the wrong end of Gamera's fire-breath.




As stated before, Gamera's myth always remained secondary to the more impressive aura of Godzilla, and although there have been some Godzilla films that were as bad as the worst Gamera movies, there were never any Gamera films equal to the best of the second-tier Godzillas (the original GOJIRA occupying its own primary tier).

GAMERA 3: AWAKENING OF IRYS is the happy exception, for IRYS is as good as the best second-tier Godzillas.  Just as a few Godzilla-films have dealt with viewpoint-characters obsessed with terminating the big lizard, IRYS introduces Ayane, the first human who lusts to see the big turtle brought low. During one of Gamera's battles with Gyaos, the young girl and her family were trying to evacuate their house before the combatants came too near.  This flashback sequence is seen in chaotic fashion, capturing the terror of Gamera's presence even when he has been given a sympathetic nature.  Gamera accidentally crushes the house and kills Ayane's parents.

Years later Ayane happens upon the egg of a Gyaos-- though apparently a mutant offspring-- beneath her village's temple.  Despite the fears of her schoolmates, Ayane psychically bonds with the creature, just as Asagi did with Gamera.  When the creature is a helpless, somewhat bird-like fledgling, Ayane names it "Irys," after her pet cat, also lost in the cataclysm that took her parents. The creature matures quickly and begins bonding with Ayane physically as well as psychically.

Gamera makes his usual appearance and gives battle to the now gigantic Irys. However, all the intense delving into psychic matters causes Ayane to unlock her buried memories. Belatedly, she realizes that she helped cause her parents' death, delaying them by looking for her cat. This is one of the more emotionally intense scenes seen in a giant monster film, particularly when one realizes that she has named the monster "Irys" not for her conscious reasons-- he reminds her of her desire for vengeance-- but because the name of the cat reminds her of her subconscious guilt.

Gamera proves unusually forgiving for a giant monster: he reaches his paw into the monster's chest and liberates Ayane, which is the beginning of the end for Irys.  The final battle is again an above-average display of FX, but this time they serve as a counterpoint to Ayane's emotional turmoil.

Kaneko ends the series on an ambiguous note, and one might wish that this high point had been the final battle for the Big Bad Turtle.





Tuesday, November 11, 2014

GAMERA VS. JIGER (1970), GAMERA VS. ZIGRA (1971), GAMERA SUPER MONSTER (1980)


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*


Gamera once more seesaws downward in quality with GAMERA VS. JIGER. Like 1966's Barugon the great turtle's opponent is a quadruped, and in fairness Jiger is a little better designed than the lizard-critter.  However, though Jiger-- a rare female monster-- packs some odd weapons in her biological arsenal, this is a case where the parts do not add up to more than the whole.

One of the film's bland protagonists seems to encourage a return to the folkloric content of the early films, for this character, apparently an anthropologist, advocates learning from the cultures of the past. However, there's no depth to this sentiment: it's only a justification for a crucial plot-point. The 1970 World's Fair is being held in Osaka, so the anthropologist journeys to "Wester Island" to obtain a mysterious stone statue, intending to exhibit it at the Expo. Even though this is referenced as being somewhere in the Pacific, a representative from the island-- portrayed by what looks like a Black African in a daishiki-- objects to the statue's removal, shouting that it will bring down something called "Jiger" on all of them. 

That character never appears again, but Gamera shows up on Wester Island and tries to block the Japanese crew from removing the statue. The adults fire their guns at Gamera, who isn't harmed but withdraws to avoid a fight. Two precocious kids immediately know that Gamera had sensed some danger in the statue's removal, but could not communicate said danger.

As it turns out, the statue-- called "the Devil's Whistle"-- was erected to keep a fearsome monster confined beneath the earth, by virtue of the whistling sound the statue could make when the wind blows through it. Once the statue is gone, the baleful Jiger comes forth. Gamera attacks the evil beast but Jiger wins the first round, temporarily immobilizing the chelonian.

Because the statue continues to make its annoying sounds in transit to Japan, Jiger swims to Japan, intent on destroying her nemesis. Gamera follows and again gets trounced, this time because Jiger manages to inject Gamera with its own eggs-- sort of a wasp-and-spider parasitic relationship.  Gamera suffers greatly until the two kids journey into Gamera's gullet, find the implanted egg, and destroy it.  This is the film's only noteworthy sequence, only for the curiosity value of seeing the big monster saved by two of his little acolytes.  However, the concluding battle between Gamera and the mom-monster is poorly choreographed, ending rather sappily when Gamera stabs Jiger through the head with the length of the statue.



GAMERA VS. ZIGRA-- technically the last in the original series--benefits from a better looking bad monster, the shark-like Zigra, making his debut four years before Spielberg's JAWS became the defining cinematic image of the killer shark.  The film recapitulates elements of earlier films: again a spaceship comes to Earth seeking conquest, as in VIRAS, but in addition Zigra want to reverse the food-chain by feeding on human beings, as seen in GUIRON.  Whereas two inhabitants of GUIRON's evil alien-world Tera survived some planetary catastrophe, here Zigra seems to be the only one aboard the ship, aside from a Japanese woman. She's later revealed to be not a Zigran but an Earth-woman abducted by Zigra and forced to serve him.  

The kids, being held captive along with some adults on Zigra's ship, call upon their hero Gamera, and the turtle-creature obediently shows up to attack the spacecraft.  Zigra, originally not much bigger than a regular shark, emerges from the ship, instantly grows king-size, and paralyzes Gamera with a ray-attack.  Slightly later Zigra-- one of the genre's few talking monsters-- meditates that he's changed because of the different "pressure" in earth's oceans, as opposed to those on his destroyed native planet.  He initially tells his human slave that he doesn't want to kill all the humans, since he plans to use them as a food-resource, but he evidently changes his mind and starts creating havoc.

Since the paralyzed Gamera is sunk beneath the sea, the adult protagonists employ a bathyscaph in order to attempt awakening the beneficent monster, and their kids sneak along for the ride. Zigra sees them and threatens to destroy the humans. Fortunately for them, a bolt of lightning revives Gamera and the turtle returns to the fray. Happily, the big concluding battle is much better staged than the Jiger fight. Zigra's sword-like nose gets in a few cuts on Gamera's shell, but in the end Gamera not only defeats Zigra, he humiliates him by playing a tune on the shark-monster's back, as if his dorsal fins were a big xylophone. This may be the best single fight-image in the series, making the actual destruction of Zigra a little anti-climactic.




There's not much to say about the studio's lame attempt to give Gamera another shot at stardom nine years later. It's the cinematic equivalent of a television "clip show," since almost all of Gamera's scenes are borrowed from earlier films. The framing-device here is that aliens called the Zanon-- never seen, except for a ship that looks like a swipe from STAR WARS-- are conjuring up these monsters to attack Earth and reduce its defenses before the Zanon ship arrives to destroy them. 

Young Keichi knows nothing of this, but he idolizes Gamera-- who is, however, only a character in comic books. But he accidentally stumbles across a trio of "space women," who have taken refuge on Earth after Zanon destroyed their world. Somehow the Zanons know that the space women are there, for they send a human-looking agent, Girugi, to find them as well as paving the way for the monsters' acts of destruction.  Whenever the space women transform from ordinary women to ladies in superhero costumes, the Zanons can target them from afar with destructive rays. But they find a way to strike back by creating Gamera from an ordinary turtle, and setting him against Zanon's creatures.

The space-women sequences in themselves aren't that bad for juvenile entertainment: the three women have a good rapport with Keicihi, who seems to have been the only Gamera-kid with real acting talent.  Girugi finally throws down with the leader of the space women, but after she's spared, Girugi redeems herself for 
her evil acts. At last Gamera charges the massive spaceship, and sacrifices his life to end the Zanon menace.  

Even if a clip-movie was a terrible idea, I must admit that SUPER MONSTER gives the big turtle a better than average fade-out-- at least until his revival in 1995.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

GAMERA VS. VIRAS (1968), GAMERA VS. GUIRON (1969)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*


Having never seen the Gamera films in order, I wasn't sure when they turned into pure juvenilia. As it happens, GAMERA VS. VIRAS marks the transition well-- which is about all it does well. This is the first time, according to the Mill Creek translation, that Gamera acquires the cognomen "friend of all children," and not one but two precocious tykes find that they can call on his help like Jimmy Olsen summoning Superman, but with no rationale whatever.

The image of Gamera as a monster that stomps on people while he feeds on oil-refineries has gone out the window. An alien spaceship descends to Earth, planning to raze humanity so that its masters can take over the planet. Gamera intercepts the candy-colored spaceship and drives it away.  But the aliens don't give up easily. When they learn that Gamera cherishes children, they abduct two smart-ass kids-- Boy Scouts residing in Japan-- and threaten to kill them, so that Gamera backs off. 

Eventually the boys get loose and free Gamera from the aliens' control, but their leader-- a gigantic octopus-critter named Viras-- engages the giant turtle in battle.  Up to this point, the story has been banal in the extreme, and the big battle-scene is no different. Viras is a poorly designed kaiju-creature, lacking any of the interesting powers seen in Barugon and Gyaos.  The references to myth and folklore, or even to average facets of Japanese life, are gone.




After this low point, the series had nowhere to go but up. GAMERA VS. GUIRON follows roughly the same pattern as VIRAS,.in that once more two Earth-kids are caught up in alien machinations. However, the film is much better paced and plays better to a juvenile sense of wonder.  There may not be any folklore-references, but the kids' sincere interest in the cosmos is undercut by their parents' insistence on mundane reality, to the extent that one of the boys remarks, "Grownups don't know how to dream any more."

Two boys and one girl witness the descent of an alien ship to Earth. The boys get aboard and the ship takes off with them, and when the girl tries to tell adults what happened, her story is dismissed as a child's fantasy.  The ongoing reactions of the adults as they look for the lost children are mild compared to what one would expect in reality, but this minor conflict enhances the goings-on in the otherworldly setting.

The automated spaceship takes the kids to Tera, which is the unseen tenth planet of the solar system-- unseen because it occupies the precise space opposite to Earth in its orbit around the sun. As science this is nonsense, but as juvenile SF, it's a fun motif.  The kids find that there are two species of titanic monsters on Tera: flying monsters that strongly resemble the creature Gyaos from the earlier film, and one big knife-headed beastie named Guiron. In a scene elided from the American release of GUIRON, the knife-monster uses his sharp snout to chop a Gyaos into mincemeat. True, there's little or no blood, but it's still a fairly graphic scene for a juvenile film.

The kids encounter the last two survivors of the once advanced civilization of Tera: two young women in flashy space-costumes.  They spin the children an interesting "fall from grace" tale about how their civilization was destroyed by a computer malfunction. The same malfunction somehow spawned or summoned monsters to infest Tera: both the Gyaos-es and Guiron are the results of this, even though the alien women have managed to enslave Guiron to their will.

Since Tera is doomed, the aliens plan to emigrate in their remaining spaceship. However, they need rations for the long trip-- and they think a supply of little boys' brains would be haute cuisine. They're just on the verge of harvesting their brains when Gamera, seeking the boys, arrives. The aliens hurl Guiron against the big turtle, and Gamera is temporarily bested.  However, the boys liberate themselves and manage to release Guiron from the women's control.  Guiron destroys the alien base, which fortunately gives Gamera the chance to recover. Gamera then engages Guiron and wins the second bout, and returns the kids to Earth.  

It's no kaiju classic, but GUIRON at least sports two appealing giant monster battles, and an adequate if not especially original script. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER (1965), GAMERA VS. BARUGON (1966), GAMERA VS. GYAOS (1967)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*


Though I enjoy the MST3K sendups of English-langugage Gamera films as much as anyone, I have to admit that there's some satisfaction in finally watching the series in Japanese with English subtitles. Admittedly, no particular prism of cultural values can ameliorate the inspired lunacy of a film-series built around a giant turtle who can breathe fire and zoom through the sky like a flying saucer.  Still, a subtitled translation can't help but preserve more of the cultural values present in the original films.

In most of its components, GAMERA THE GIANT MONSTER emulates the pattern of 1954's GOJIRA. Like Gojira, Gamera is a prehistoric beast that slumbers beneath the earth until it's awakened by an atomic blast.  The first Gamera film is a little fuzzy as to whether the titular creature spontaneously mutates thanks to exposure to radiation, but it's just as well the film didn't try to sell viewers on this idea. Not only would one have to believe that the colossal turtle gained the power to breathe fire, but also that somehow, it can pull its head and appendages into its shell and then emit rocket-like fire from the "holes," allowing the creature to simultaneously spin like a top and whirl through the heavens.  Like Gojira, in the monster's first appearance he battles no opponents save humankind, but when his series gets rolling, he never fails to engage in combat with another critter of similar dimensions.

Still, there are interesting differences. GOJIRA is suffused with anxiety and ambivalence about Japan's history in World War Two, with Gojira standing in simultaneously-- as my review explicates-- for both a traditional spirit of vengeance and an embodiment of alien forces, particularly those of the Atomic Age, bent on bringing Japan to its collective knees. In contrast, the GAMERA series engages at the level of domestic, rather than epic, conflict.  True, geopolitical tensions are invoked in Gamera's rebirth in the first film.  A Soviet plane carrying an atomic bomb trespasses into North American air space. The aircraft is shot down by American planes while far below on the icy tundra, a group of Japanese researchers watch the exchange. But the researchers don't exhibit any post-nuclear fears at the appearance of Gamera, and even when the giant turtle goes out of its way to swim all the way from the arctic to the shores of Japan, Gamera still doesn't carry any trace of Gojira's "atomic valence," so to speak.

Still, the earliest Gamera films have their own distinction: they show more interest in garnishing the marginal science-fictional structure of the narratives with references to myth and folklore.  While this particular Gamera has apparently never been un-earthed before, the researchers encounter some Eskimo people who preserve an ancestral tradition that such apocalyptic beasts have showed up in other times. This sounds like the script setting up the possibility that Eskimo tradition will provide some solution to the giant creature's rampages, but this potential soon fizzles out. In addition, the nominal "young male lead" at one point compares the "young female lead" with the Goddess of Good Luck. And then there's the film's principal viewpoint character, a grade-schooler named Toshio. This little boy, long before witnessing Gamera's advent to Japanese shores, worries his sister and her husband because he doesn't play well with others and displays an almost totemic obsession with -- what else?-- turtles.

To be sure, Gamera isn't as balls-out mean as Gojira. The first film places more emphasis on the fact that Gamera is motivated by hunger, for the great turtle feeds on heat, fire, and diverse other forms of energy. The monster doesn't attack anything but sources of food, such as refining plants, and barely even bothers to counter-attack against the gnat-like humans shooting at him. And of course, Gamera-- though not yet sentimentalized to earn the sappy title "friend of all children"-- does something that Gojira never would. When little Toshio takes a fall, Gamera extends a clawed hand, catches the kid, and allows him to run free. As presented in the first film, it almost seems to be a spontaneous impulse rather than an outpouring of kindness, for after that Gamera just goes back to feeding on oil-rigs. Nevertheless, when Japan's leading scientist comes up with a way of disposing of the monster, Gamera is treated with relative beneficence: being tricked into entering a space capsule that will take him to Mars, presumably with the idea of letting him live out his life there.



Though GAMERA had the disadvantage of being filmed in black-and-white, something about the film must have clicked at the box-office-- perhaps the memorable design of the monster, which somehow works despite all the disparate elements. Thus the big turtle gets a reprieve from his Martian exile. GAMERA VS. BARUGON starts with a meteor destroys the spaceship holding Gamera, after which his spinning shell whirls its way back to Earth (apparently the beast's nuclear mutation also allows the creature to survive in deep space).  While the colossal chelonian makes his way back, three Japanese fortune-hunters inadvertently unleash Gamera's first kaiju foe.  They travel to New Guinea in search of a giant opal, which is actually the egg of a giant creature called Barugon. The fortune-hunters hear of Barugon from a high priestess on New Guinea, name of "Karen." She warns the fortune-seekers against trespassing in the forbidden "Valley of Rainbows," which warning they naturally ignore. Apparently none of the present-day New Guineans have ever seen a Barugon, any more than the Eskimos of the first film had ever seen a Gamera, but somehow ancestral tradition has preserved the knowledge of these quasi-prehistoric survivals.

For instance, after Barugon has hatched, expanded to king-size, and gone on the usual rampage, Karen reveals that it usually takes ten years for a Barugon hatchling to grow to maturity.  This leads to a rather dopey explanation as to how Barugon's quick development-- and perhaps some of his fantastic powers as well-- came about as a result of exposure to an infrared sun-lamp being used by one of the treasure-seekers. As BS-explanations in SF-films go, this one's pretty awful, and doesn't even have the virtue of being funny.
Fortunately, though the visual design of Barugon isn't nearly as impressive as that of Gamera, the oversized lizard does display some very cool powers, such as a tongue that sprays freezing mist and rainbow-rays that shoot out of the spines on his back.

There are no cute kids in GAMERA VS. BARUGON, and the male lead-- the fortune-hunter Kano-- is refreshingly mature in realizing that he's indirectly responsible for the deaths of many innocents through his trespass on a sacred precinct. In contrast to Kano, one of his surviving accomplices, Onodera, is a picture of arrant selfishness: since he doesn't witness the egg hatch, he gets the idea that the gem is still out there, and his single-minded obsession leads him to interfere with Kano during one of the armed forces' attempts to vanquish Barugon.  He dies in the jaws of Barugon, while Kano will later be rewarded for his selflessness by winning the heart of the lissome Karen.

Gamera is almost side-lined from his position as "star of the show." The turtle is drawn to the scene of Barugon's rampage by his displays of energy, but is thereafter frozen stiff by the lizard's ice-tongue, and only thaws out in time for the finale. There's no sense that Gamera vanquishes Barugon out of any protective feeling toward humans; it's just a big grudge-match between two monsters who don't think Nippon's big enough for both of them.  When Gamera destroys his opponent, the adults watching don't precisely cheer him, but they don't seem too worried any more about Gamera attacking humans again.




Although GAMERA VS. GYAOS begins the trend toward Gamera's strange penchant to succor human children, it's probably the best of the original series.  While BARUGON maintains a somewhat murky look throughout, GYAOS's photography displays a palette of bright primary colors, perhaps as part of a desire to appeal more overtly to a juvenile audience.  The film also benefits from Gamera's best opponent: the vicious-looking pteranodon Gyaos, who like Barugon eats people rather than just flames.  The two major fights between the monstrous opponents are also the best choreographed in the original series.

This time no human beings are guilty of unleashing the new monster on the block. Mount Fuji erupts and releases yet another time-buried creature, later named Gyaos for his screeching cry.  Gamera does show up to gobble up the flames released by Fuji, but he isn't involved in the pteranodon's rebirth.

Nearby a more mundane drama is transpiring. A Japanese road-building company is attempting to build a new highway in the neighborhood of Fuji.  To do so they must convince the inhabitants of a small village to sell their land.  Some villagers don't want to leave their long-time homes, while some only want to make the most money they can from a big sale. They appeal to the village-mayor to make their deals for them, but discussions are tabled when it's revealed that there's a man-eating monster hanging around the area.

The mayor's grade-school grandson Eiichi becomes far more intimately involved in the perils, for he's almost one of Gyaos' first victims.  Gamera shows up and not only gives battle to the winged monster, he deliberately rescues Eiichi and even takes him back to the bosom of his family.  The tusked turtle's motivations for doing so are no longer explicable as the spontaneous action of an unthinking beast: Gamera has become, at least on one level, a heroic figure.

Like the other films GYAOS includes some quasi-superstitious pronouncements, like "when animals run away, disaster will follow" and "the gods sent Gyaos to punish us for being so greedy" (the latter comes from the mayor when he realizes that his delays may have cost the villagers the chance to sell their property). These may not be profound, but they do reinforce the Gamera series' aura of modern folklore.  But of course Gyaos' nifty powers-- particularly his ability to shoot a flesh-cutting sonic ray from his mouth-- and Gamera's ability to counter them are the highlights of this kaiju epic.  The conflicts between Japanese traditionalism and progressive capitalism are solved rather easily, but at least this time the little Gamera-phile kid is reasonably appealing.  More annoying avatars, to be sure, were on the horizon.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

BLACK FRIDAY (1940), THE MONSTER MAKER (1944)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*


BLACK FRIDAY was originally intended as a Karloff-Lugosi pairing, with Lugosi as an over-ambitious scientist who transplants part of a gangster's brain into the skull of a mild-mannered colleague, to be played by Karloff. The story goes that Karloff insisted on playing the scientist, and that Universal then decided to use a younger actor, Stanley Ridges, in the part of the colleague. Bela Lugosi was then shunted off into a secondary role, that of a "colleague" of the slain gangster.

While FRIDAY rates as decent time-killing entertainment, I doubt that it did any of the actors' careers much good or harm.  It follows a very well-worn sub-Frankenstein plot-line: mad scientist experiments, sans permission, on an individual, and that individual turns into a monster who must eventually be killed.  One minor deviation from the usual structure is that the film begins with scientist Ernest Sovac about to be executed for his responsibility in his creation's crimes, a contrivance that would be used in 1957's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  The bulk of the story is then "read" by a reporter who has been given Sovac's account of his hubris-filled experiment. Sovac, having recently made great strides in brain-transplant theory, gets to put his theory into practice when his collegiate friend George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) is killed by the crash of a gangster's car. Also killed in the crash is tough racketeer Red Cannon, so Sovac defies the law and transplants part of Cannon's brain into Kingsley's body.  The persona of Cannon is the first to awaken, and Sovac convinces the confused hood that he's merely been given a new face via plastic surgery. Cannon then goes after the gangsters who tried to kill him, one of whom is Marnay (Bela Lugosi).  However, Cannon's vengeance is interrupted whenever the persona of Kingsley begins to re-assert itself.  Sovac, for his part, begins encouraging the Cannon persona to re-emerge, because the scientist has heard that the gangster has salted away a cache of stolen loot-- and Sovac wants the money in order to expand his research.  Thus Cannon returns to the revenge-trail, resulting in various deaths until he-- and Sovac-- are brought to justice.

Frankly, since Karloff had already played parts like the brutal Cannon, it's not much of a loss to see him pass on another. However, I wouldn't say he did himself any favors with the underwritten role of Sovac, for BLACK FRIDAY's scientist is one of the least interesting "would-be Frankensteins" in the actor's career. I don't know if Lugosi's age or physical condition played into the casting director not giving him the Cannon role, but he does well with Marnay. This part is not any better delineated than that of Sovac, but it's a little more winsome to see Lugosi play a down-to-earth hoodlum.  Stanley Ridges does well with both of his roles, but I have to say that he lacks that extra charisma that makes such a mutation fascinating to behold.




PRC's THE MONSTER MAKER is a much cheaper mad scientist flick, but I enjoyed it more than BLACK FRIDAY.  J. Carroll Naish plays Doctor Igor Markoff, an expert in the treatment of the disease acromegaly.  He's first seen at a piano-performance with his lab assistant Maxine, but Markoff only has eyes for a lady in the next box, Patricia, engaged to Bob, an age-appropriate young man.  Patricia is so annoyed she almost can't enjoy the performance, which is being played by her own father, Anthony Lawrence.

Slightly later, Markoff approaches Patricia, apologizing for his rudeness and telling her that she resembles his late wife. However, Markoff then continues to pursue Patricia with notes and flowers. Her father Anthony seeks out Markoff at his home to settle things. Markoff responds by infecting Anthony with acromegaly, so that his features get heavier and he loses his ability to think coherently, much less play the piano.

To be sure, even when the bland protagonists are afflicted with various sufferings-- including Anthony being forced to seek out Markoff for help, prior to learning what happened to him-- they're still boring characters. Only Markoff is perversely interesting, particularly when we learn from his assistant Maxine that he's not really the original owner of the name. He took it from the man who had seduced his wife from him, which prompted the faux-doctor to infect his wife with acromegaly, so that Original Markoff wouldn't want her any more. However, the wife killed herself, and the faux-doctor killed the original doctor, taking over his career the way the doctor tried to take his wife.  Maxine has stayed with phony-Markoff because she's fallen in love with him, which is apparently the only way the scriptwriters could make it probable that she would go along with his imposture. How the impostor managed to make himself into an expert in the treatment of acromegaly is anyone's guess.

Naish projects an obsessed, intriguing personality throughout, though he's so charmless that it's hard to believe that Maxine would become so entranced by his presence. Eventually "monster" turns on "creator" in a foregone conclusion, but up until that point, the film is fun whenever Naish is on the screen. When he's not-- it's not.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

ATRAGON (1964)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


I find myself looking for themes about war and nationality in the works of director Ishiro Honda ever since I noticed the way the original GOJIRA encoded Japanese attitudes toward the war that Japan had lost. Though I don't know how the director personally felt about becoming indelibly associated with monster movies, it does seem that he and his collaborators were often sensitive to those deeper sociological themes-- more so than many of their American counterparts.

ATRAGON is loosely based upon a series of juvenile novels about a super-submarine, and though these have not been published in English, they're said to incorporate strong themes regarding Japanese nationalism. The film begins with a worldwide threat that, as is often the case, is only seen through the eyes of the Japanese viewpoint characters. The underwater empire of Mu has apparently been waiting for its opportunity to gain dominion over the surface world, and it begins by sending agents to that world in order to steal structural engineers and other personnel. A reporter investigates the rumors of strange "fiery" men assaulting Japanese citizens, and this indirectly leads him to a girl named Makoto, who happens to be the daughter of a WWII ship commander, missing and presumed dead for twenty years.  Just as the Mu Empire makes its demands known to all the world, it comes out that the commander in question, Captain Jinguchi, is not dead but has remained in hiding for twenty years, working with a small coterie  on a super-submarine-- but not with the Mu Empire in mind.

In the subtitled version I screened, the modern-day characters are relieved that Jinguchi has created a great super-weapon at a time when the world needs it most. However, they don't understand that for Jinguchi, the Pacific War never ended, despite Japan's surrender. He does not precisely say that he plans to make war upon the Allies that defeated Japan in World War Two, but he claims that his submarine Atragon can only be used "for the Japanese navy."  For Japanese citizens who lived through their country's defeat, Jinguchi is their version of Rambo, implicitly capable of re-fighting a lost war-- though in this case, the Mu Empire takes the place of the original opponents. At no time in the subtitles does any character mention the fact that Japan's part in the war was imperial in nature, attempting to force other nations to join their "co-prosperity sphere," so in a sense the sunken land of Mu is a shadow-image of Japan's own history: a history that Honda's film does not admit to its audience.

To some extent Honda and his scripters question Jinguchi's relentless militarism, particularly in the encounter between the captain and his daughter, who cannot reconcile the fact that he deserted his paternal duties in favor of his private military ambitions. Yet it's also implied that Jinguchi is heroic in his self-denial-- a major theme in Japanese art-- and that if he had not denied the joys of family to himself and his daughter, the whole world would have been dominated by the subsea empire.  Needless to say, Jinguchi does change his mind when Mu agents try to destroy Atragon, and the captain and his crew pilot the super-sub down into the depths. After a battle with the colossal god of the Muvians, a gigantic snake-monster, the submarine destroys the undersea city by breaking into its power-source with Atragon's drill-nose.  Then, to finish things off, Atragon also destroys the last weapon of the Mu people, another super-submarine.

I've left out this detail because it's an interesting complication to Jinguchi's backstory. Jinguchi isn't just thought to have died at sea, but that he deserted his ship. When he appears alive to his contemporaries, Jinguchi explains that his vessel was attacked by a ship of the Mu Empire, and that he and his crew fled to avoid capture. However, Jinguchi's notes for his super-sub were aboard the abandoned vessel, and this allowed the Muvians to build their own sub. The point isn't dwelled upon, but it may be that the Muvians don't make any moves against the surface world precisely because they see the advantage the sub would give them. Therefore, both the Empire and Jinguchi are engaged in an "arms race" based on realizing Jinguchi's great weapon-- but though the Empire finishes first, and tries to sabotage the captain's own effort, it's Atragon, the true weapon of a Japanese commander, that prevails.





Friday, October 31, 2014

JOURNEY TO THE WEST (2013)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*

*** SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS****


I had to give a lot of thought as to how to classify Stephen Chow's looney, often anachronistic take on the classic 16th-century Chinese novel JOURNEY TO THE WEST.  In the original novel, a devout Buddhist priest journeys from Tang-era China to India in order to secure a collection of precious sutras and to bring them back to China. According to Wikipedia most of the adventures of the priest-- in the film given the name Xuan Zang-- and his magical bodyguards take place on the way to India. Chow's JOURNEY focuses only on the early life of Xuan Zang, when he is a young Buddhist demon-hunter, but one with a naive belief that he can reform demons by reading nursery rhymes to them. This is probably nothing like the original priest's early history, and certainly the available summaries emphasize not demon-hunting but Xuan Jang's quest on behalf of Buddhism.

The priest isn't only naive about demons; he also understands nothing about women, and out of foolish pride he rejects a more experienced female demon-hunter, Duan (Shu Qi) when she falls in love with him. The association of Xuan Zang and Duan leads them into many exploits of demon-hunting, particularly against cannibalistic pig-demons, whose leader is given the comic name "K.L. Hog" (Killer Hog?)  The climax involves the rash young priest releasing Sun, the mercurial and deadly Monkey King, from the prison to which the original Buddha condemned him for the past 500 years. In the novel, Monkey is released so that he will be tamed and enlisted to help Xuan Zang collect the sutras, but in Stephen Chow's script, the mission of the sutras doesn't come about until after Monkey is released.

My various comparisons with the novel are not meant to suggest that Chow misleads anyone in his audience into thinking he'll deliver a sober-faced rendition of the original work. By the time Chow has finished the opening sequence, which deals with Xuan Zang's attempt to "demon-bust" a murderous fish-demon, it's clear that the director is delivering an all-stops-pulled-out Hollywood-esque exercise in kinetic showmanship. It's in this sequence that Xuan Zang first tries to pacify a demon through the use of Chinese nursery rhymes, which naturally does not end well for the young man. Duan arrives on the scene and promptly beats the demon to death with her fists. She becomes piqued by Xuan Zang's resistance to her charms, and when they cross paths again, both hunting down the leader of the cannibal pig-men, she determines to pursue him.

This theme by itself-- a woman's aggressive pursuit of an unwilling man-- should signal that the film will be an all-out comedy. And certainly the middle section of the film is replete with many farcical sequences. Duan and her fellow martial demon-hunters (one of whom is called "Fist of the North Star," after a famous manga hero) have a wagon that can be propelled sans horses, because inside is a ludicrous air-filled balloon that makes the wagon shoot forward every time the balloon is whacked with big hammers. Duan uses her friends to attempt fooling the priest into sleeping with her. Duan, deciding that she needs to act in a more feminine manner to snare Xuan Zang, gets a female friend to use magic so that she Duan will "mimic" the friend's actions-- and of course, the wrong actions get mimicked.

Yet the third part of the film begins the downfall of the traditional boy-girl plot. On the advice of his mentor, Xuan Zang journeys to the prison of the Monkey King in order to employ the latter's powers against the pig-demons. This sequence starts out comically, for when the priest first meets the simian demon, he looks like a wizened old man. Monkey even gets Duan to dance with him, much to Xuan Zang's displeasure.

But once Xuan Zang releases Monkey, the funny little man becomes a malicious, egotistical demon, and he smashes down all of Duan's demon-hunters. Even some of these fight-scenes contain farce-elements, particularly since one of Monkey's challengers is a monk whose power is to make one of his feet grow to titanic size. But the comedy vanishes when Monkey kills Duan. This, ironically, causes the grieving Xuan Zang to realize his own Buddha-hood, and he attains a level of power that allows to chastise Monkey in a show-stopping fashion.  Following this, Xuan Zang goes on to accept the sutra-mission, taking with him his three most iconic helpers: a pig-demon, a river-demon, and the now tamed Monkey.

I've discoursed on the storyline in detail to indicate why I think that JOURNEY is more of a drama than a comedy. It's not simply that it has a sobering ending, but rather, because all the jubilative scenes are subordinate to the main point of the plot. This main point is not jubilative but purgative in nature. Xuan Zang, since he is destined to be a priest, must be purged of his desire for Duan, and this, in the formulations of Northrop Frye as I have read him, aligns JOURNEY with the mythos of drama.

This isn't to say that a drama must end tragically: even Aristotle stated the contrary. SLEEPING BEAUTY is a notable film that I categorize as a drama, not because it ends sadly, but it does so by emphasizing the purgation of evil, in the form of Maleficent, more than it does the heroic triumph of Prince Philip. SLEEPING BEAUTY, like JOURNEY, contains many farcical scenes, but the presence of these is also subordinate to the dramatic resolution of the romance-plot. In similar fashion GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is also replete with numerous comedic material, but at its core it does emphasize an invigorating heroic triumph, and so it qualifies for the mythos of adventure. Finally, THE TENTH VICTIM is another film with a number of funny sequences, but the main point of its plot centers upon the mortificative mood of the irony, even though, as in SLEEPING BEAUTY, the romance does succeed despite the rest of the world going to hell.