Tuesday, October 25, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological. sociological, metaphysical*

It's been a while since I reread Fritz Leiber's novel CONJURE WIFE, but I'm not going out on too much of a limb to declare that of the three film-adaptations, BURN, WITCH, BURN! easily comes closest to the mark.

Obviously the movie's script-- by three genre-favorites (Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and George Baxt)-- had to elide many of the more complicated aspects of Leiber's novel. However, the script, as well as the stylish direction of Sidney Hayers, are true to the core of CONJURE WIFE. It starts as a martial conflict between college professor Norman Taylor and his wife Tansy. Tansy doesn't seem to fit in with the other professors' wives on the small campus where Norman teaches, and he's largely deaf to her complaints about the hostility being directed against both of them by the entrenched faculty. Even before the main conflict between them erupts, Norman makes a remark about her unusual interest in primitive systems of magic, which he observed during their visit to Jamaica years ago. The mere fact that he would obsess about such a trivial detail shows Norman to be a staunch empiricist, though this version of the story doesn't emphasize the stature he acquired from writing an anti-superstition book, as did the earlier adaptation WEIRD WOMAN. The conflict heats up when Norman learns that Tansy has been secretly enacting witchcraft rituals in order to stave off malign influences. She even tells him that she used witchcraft in Jamaica to save him from a fatal illness. Norman is deeply offended, not only that a wife of his would countenance such irrational beliefs, but also that she doesn't think he earned his position at the college through his own efforts. In short order, he pressures Tansy into destroying all of her protective systems.

As in the novel, all of Norman's good fortune turns sour. Students and faculty-members who were mere annoyances become tangible threats, and a strange presence comes to the door, only to be banished by Tansy's efforts. Norman still does not believe, until Tansy performs a magic spell designed to attract the malign forces upon herself. As a result she almost drowns, but Norman, his love overcoming his sense of rationality, imitates one of her spells and manages to bring her back from the brink. However, the couple still have to deal with the source of the evil sendings.

There are some weaknesses in the script, probably the result of trying to cram Leiber's expansive concepts into a simpler plot. There's an early reference to one character being a hypnotist, which I don't recall from the novel. If this were an uncanny thriller like CALLING DOCTOR DEATH, one could easily understand the inclusion of this talent, as a setup to explaining the witchcraft in semi-rational terms. However, since there's no real viewer-doubt about the reality of the marvelous magicks taking place-- at least not after some unseen presence comes knocking on the Taylors' door-- this point seems irrelevant. The novel makes more of an idea that the villain, an older woman, wants to take over Tansy's body and her life, planning to cohabit with Norman without his knowledge. In the film, this trope is reduced to the villain briefly possessing Tansy's body and trying to kill Norman. I didn't mind that the villain was re-written so that she didn't have any erotic interest in Norman, but the script doesn't really give her any strong motive in its place. The story's worst failing is that, in a scene taking place after Norman himself uses magic to recover Tansy, he confronts the villain and tries to fall back on the idea that she's done it all through hypnotism.  Really?

The metaphysical aspects of the novel are played down as well, but at least they are present, in contrast to WEIRD WOMAN, and BURN certainly does a better job eliciting the psychological and sociological conflicts between the couple.

The first adaptation WEIRD WOMAN may have been a little dull, but at least it knew what formulas it wanted to follow, and did so in an adequate fashion. By comparison, I couldn't figure out what WITCHES BREW thought it was doing with the plot of CONJURE WIFE.

Once again, there's no doubt that the witchcraft on the campus is real from the get-go, but it's treated as the daffy hobby of the professors' wives, including Margaret (Teri Garr), wife of up-and-comer Joshua Lightman (Richard Benjamin). (NOTE: unlike BURN, there's not even a partial attempt here to keep any of the novel's characters or their names.) Vivian Cross (Lana Turner) is the one old witch who has darker plans hidden within her witchy ways, and this time they do include taking over the body of the good professor's wife, after he foolishly persuades her to destroy all of her magical wards.

I've seen WITCHES BREW labeled a "spoof," but it's an irony rather than a comedy, for everything in the film's world is rather idiotic, giving the viewer little reason to care about the heroes any more than the villains. This ironic detachment mirrors well the persona of Richard Benjamin, whose ennui seems to inform the performances of Garr and Turner as well, but Benjamin isn't credited as one of the writers. The script is credited to the film's co-director Richard Shorr, whose principal occupation was that of sound editor, and to Syd Dutton, who has no other writing-credits on IMDB but does have a slew of visual effects citations-- though, strangely, not on WITCHES' BREW. Another possible source of the detached attitude might be the film's other director Herbert L. Strock. But none of the works in Strock's writing'/ directing repertoire director really suggest this level of smarmy disinterest in the ostensible subject matter.

The nicest thing I can say about this tepid brew is that it has an engaging theme song by Lennie Bleecher and John Carl Parker.

Monday, October 17, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I was not a great fan of the 1975 ROLLERBALL, with its attempt to meld Orwell's 1984 with the staid intellectual's aversion to a supposed "bread and circuses" culture.  And on occasion, when a given film seems overly self-important, I've even enjoyed seeing it get ripped off by a dumb pop-culture imitation.

Not this time, though. Despite some serious money behind the scenes, FUTURESPORT manages to copy the main plot of ROLLERBALL without adding anything of its own. Again we have one single sport that has, in a future society only about 20 years from the present, pushed all other sports out of American consciousness. (At least FUTURESPORT doesn't extend this development to the whole world, as ROLLERBALL did.) Again, the popularity of the new sport invites politicians to use it, very improbably, to settle their arguments. Here, for reasons never articulated, Hawaii wants to secede from the U.S.

The foremost American player of Roll-- I mean, Futuresport is Tre Ramzey (Dean Cain). He's an arrogant prick, and somehow, long before any government start betting the farm on The Big Game, the Hawaiian secessionists target him for an attack. He and his team-buddies use their combat-skills to trounce the terrorists. This incident,if anything, pumps up Ramzey's ego even more, so that he starts showboating on the Futuresport ball-court, failing to give them support when needed. Ramzey's ex-wife Alex (Vanessa Williams) busts his chops for this, which leads the fractious duo to become a couple again. At some point Ramzey gets religion and begins working with the team as its coach, paying more attention to teamwork in time for the Big Game that will decide whether or not Hawaii can secede from the union.

Wesley Snipes, listed as one of the producers, has a small role here, and since he was an A-list star at the time, I'd bet that this TV-film was a financial investment for him. Neither he nor anyone else puts much effort into their acting, though Williams brings a certain conviction to her part, and even gets a little bit of fighting alongside the sports-heroes. The action-scenes are watchable but nothing more.

PRIEST (2011)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*

There's not much similarity between this film and the Korean comics-series on which it's said to be based. The comic-book PRIEST is very much a "weird western" story, taking place in some alternate-world version of 19th-century Europe and America. Demons and rogue angels are continually fighting one another in this world, often unleashing plagues of zombies. One demon makes a pact with Ivan Isaacs, the Catholic "priest" of the title, giving the former priest fabulous powers in order to battle the minion's of the angel's enemies. Though not all of the story takes place in the American West, "spaghetti western" tropes are seen in abundance.

Though the comic book is somewhat philosophically disorganized, the 2011 film has little interest in any philosophy, Catholic or otherwise. The story takes place in the future, and replaces angels, demons and zombie hordes with one primary menace, that of vampires. Prior to the film's main action, vampires have warred on humans for centuries. The human world, now governed by a Catholic theocracy, triumphs by somehow creating a warrior caste known as "Priests," who can leap great distances and wield mighty weapons. The Priests make it possible for humans to destroy most of the vampires and confine the rest to a reservation (though why any are left alive is never suggested). However, having won the war, the Priests-- all of whom seem to be called "Priest" if they're male, and "Priestess" if they're female-- are forced to re-integrate into society, while the theocracy continues to hold power over the post-apocalyptic society.

A sheriff from an outlying (and somewhat Western-looking) community seeks out a man known only as Priest (Paul Bettany), who, though he had another name prior to his ordination, is always called just "Priest." The sheriff relates that a new gang of vampires have killed Priest's brother and sister-in-law, and have absconded with his niece Lucy. Against the orders of his, er, order, Priest and the sheriff leave the city to investigate the vampire's new plot. On the way they also enlist the services of a surviving Priestess (Maggie Q), and eventually Priest learns that the vampires have also managed to suborn a new ally to their crusade against humanity.

The story is overly familiar, but the action sequences are often better than average, particularly in terms of the designs for the warriors' weapons and conveyances. The script is pretty timid about making any particular references to Catholic Christianity, and unlike the comics-character, Priest and Priestess have only vague visual resemblances to the Catholic image. The vampire menace is woefully under-characterized.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*

Like 1981's THE HOWLING, the original PUMPKINHEAD is a touchstone for the 1980s FX-advances. Effects-wizard Stan Winston, directing a film for the first time, had already become well known for his inventive designs, and the titular monster may be his best creation. Winston also collaborated on the story, which is just fair of its type.

Through a prologue, Winston establishes that a demon called "Pumpkinhead" has become a legend in an unspecified part of America's "hill country," and that the demon can be summoned to avenge wrongs. Focal character Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) manages a small country store with his young son, and their life seems peaceful if unremarkable.

As in many other films about rural terrors, trouble starts when big-city outsiders appear on the scene. A group of city-kids show up at the store, planning to ride their motorcycles in the country. In contrast to some rural flicks, most of the kids are reasonably nice types, but there's one bad apple in the bunch, and he accidentally runs down the young son with his bike, with fatal results. The vengeful Harley seeks out an old witch, and, following the exhumation of a body from a pumpkin-patch / graveyard, the witch sends Pumpkinhead forth to kill all the city-kids.

Winston proves a decent if not extraordinary director, and he keeps things looking spooky and sepulchral at all times, with snatches of "hillbilly music" to give the story local color. Henriksen, though, is the only actor who acquits himself well here, but admittedly he's the only one given a strong character-arc. The old witch doesn't tell him in advance that he'll suffer a sort of Corsican Brothers sympathy with Pumpkinhead whenever the demon kills one of his targets, and so Harley turns against his pawn-- though not before most of the city-kids are knocked off.

The sequel is a more mixed bag. Visuals under the direction of Jeff Burr are generally dull, sort of "JAWS II" next to "JAWS." However, the story starts out with an interesting new direction. About 20 years prior to the film's main story, Tommy, a deformed teenager, haunts the woods, being fed by an old witch-woman (no relation to the witch of the first film). Wikipedia claims he is the spawn of Pumpkinhead himself, but that's not beyond doubt: all we here is some mythology claiming that deformed people are often thought to be the result of demon-human mating. Certainly Tommy has no demonic powers when he's assaulted by a group of local louts. who end up killing him. The witch claims his body and buries it, but takes no action against Tommy's murderers.

Twenty years later, the killers are all respectable men in a particular rural town clearly modeled on the beach-city in JAWS (right down to both having a mayor who worries about the impact of monster-hunting on local commerce). The focal character this time is Sheriff Braddock, who was formerly a resident of the town, moved for a time to the big city, and who has now returned to his old roots, along with his daughter. The daughter falls in with some trouble-making teens, and it's their actions that lead to the recrudescence of Pumpkinhead-- although the script is muddled on this point, giving both the teens and the old witch credit for the demon's resurgence.

As if trying to avoid the program of the earlier flick, the demon doesn't immediately go after the teens; instead it starts chasing down the killers of its its formerly mortal body. It seems to take its time about it, too, giving Braddock and the teens plenty of scenes in which they puzzle over the unexplained murders.  The somewhat sedentary film only comes alive when Pumpkinhead kills someone, and though there's a little more potential for individual characterization, the script doesn't take full advantage of said potential.

Saturday, October 15, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny // marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

In my review of SHAOLIN BROTHERS, I observed that the film maintained two plotlines-- one marvelous, one naturalistic-- which never came together, at least in the English version. I wrote:

In SHAOLIN, the real vampires have no effect whatever on the main story, and so I've come up with a new category for this sort of metaphenomenon: the "peripheral-marvelous."

This serial came very close to having the same bifurcated phenomenality, with a "naturalistic" core story and peripheral marvelous content. MASTER KEY, appearing in theaters in April 1945, concerns government agents in America seeking Nazi spies back in 1938. The Nazis, working under a mysterious figure called "the Master Key," are trying to obtain the scientific breakthrough of Professor Henderson, whose "Oroton Tubes" can harvest raw gold from the ocean, presumably without spending more than one uses for the harvesting-techniques. Despite the efforts of G-Man Tom Brant (GUNSMOKE's Milburn Stone in his salad days) and his aides, the spies do capture Henderson, but the scientist fears being killed if he simply gives up his secret. He cooperates only to the extent of buying time with requests for the materials to build the Tubes. Thus, as in many serials, both good and bad guys are sent chasing after any number of McGuffins. The idea of a gold-making device is sufficiently advanced that it registers as a marvelous phenomenon, although one doesn't see it in action more than once or twice. Aside from providing the Nazis and their enemies with their motives for fighting, the Tube-machine is peripheral to the main action. Even the death-ray in BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD, used only twice in the film, gets more emphasis.

So Brant fights the servants of the Master Key amid blazing guns, flying fists (though not many fight-scenes here) and cliffhangers, usually cadged from previous serials (as is the music, swiped alternately from 1941's WOLF MAN and 1943's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN.) However, although the villains are led by a mastermind with a fancy name, the Master Key does not literally appear on screen for the majority of the serial. Rather, the underlings simply receive their orders from him via radio-conferences.

Merely having a weird name and a creepy voice is not enough to propel a narrative into the domain of the metaphenomenal, as I asserted in my review of these two serials, both of which include a mystery villain who also communicates with henchmen via radio, and who in both stories takes the sobriquet "The Voice." For twelve of MASTER KEY's thirteen serials, the Master Key makes no appearances, costumed or otherwise. Then, in the very last chapter, the villain appears in a masked outfit-- nothing very fancy, but enough to qualify her (yes, I gave it away) as a genuine "masked mastermind." Thus the serial does use, very belatedly, the "outre outfits" trope.

Also tossed in, nearly at the last moment, is an "outre device," when the spies attempt to lure Brant into an electrical trap. This is much more mundane technology than a gold-harvesting machine, but it's also just bizarre enough for me to consider it within the domain of the uncanny.

So why is my phenomemality-category still bifurcated? In essence, though the masked mastermind and the zap-trap seem like last-minute additions to the story, they are still *centric* to the story, whereas the gold-machine is truly *peripheral."

Back in January I rated two obscure "spooky westerns" as uncanny because their stories did include owlhoots pretending to be ghosts, even though the spectral impostures were really pathetic. However, on further consideration, since the main action in these flicks is that of a naturalistic hero fighting naturalistic villains, then by the rule I've elaborated they too might best be classified with a bifurcated phenomenality, just because the uncanny dingus has no direct influence on the narrative, just as the marvelous in MASTER KEY could easily have been a new bomb-sight or the like.

Monday, October 10, 2016


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

This silent Tarzan film-- adapting (not very accurately) Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1923 novel of the same name-- was deemed lost for many years, but a French copy was found and duly released in subtitled form.

Though it's a handsomely mounted film, it seems to have been conceived as a more or less standard jungle-adventure in which Tarzan and his wife Jane are inserted with cumbersome effects. Actor James Pierce was selected by Burroughs for the role of Tarzan, but Pierce proves a stiff and uncharismatic hero for modern tastes (though Burroughs' own daughter married the fellow, and he did continue to act for many years). Though the novel includes many melodramatic twists and turns, some of which call upon the ape-man to rescue his equally famed mate, Jane has little to do in the 1927 film. She, Tarzan and Tarzan's sister-- a character invented purely for this film-- participate in a caravan seeking a legendary city full of diamonds but inhabited by sun-worshippers with a bent for human sacrifice.

Surprisingly, the narrative focus seems to be on sister Betty Greystoke-- seen in the still above, being rescued by her brother while she's garbed in her sacrificial regalia. Betty also has a romance going with one of the white hunters. This was a plot-thread that Burroughs had used in other books: once Tarzan and Jane were safely married, the author often created subplots that threw another heterosexual couple into one's arms. However, though that seems to be the intent of the film's early part, Betty's romance with the white hunter never becomes nearly as important as her role as the Girl Tarzan Saves.

The sun-worshipers are just a standard tribe of savage natives, whose origins are not explored, and the climactic action scenes are no better than fair. The one major plot-thread taken from the novel-- that a man resembling Tarzan impersonates the ape-man for a time-- is underused in favor of meandering jungle scenes. Boris Karloff has a small role as a bad native, but he has no scenes of moment. Two years later, there appeared a far better Tarzan film, TARZAN THE TIGER. It not only portrayed a much more charismatic hero, it also made use of the same tribal villains that had appeared in the GOLDEN LION novel, and who were tossed aside in this film for a bunch of bland sun-worshipers.


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *irony,* (2) *drama*


"The past is never really the past. It stays with me all the time."-- Norman Bates, early in the film.

"But I'll be free. I'll finally be free."-- Norman, late in the film.

One of the few rewarding aspects of watching sequels is their occasional defiance of entropy. In the majority of cases, an excellent first film is followed by follow-ups that are either progressively worse or identical in their unremarkable qualities.

PSYCHO III is the rare film to buck the trend; by making a silk purse out of the ordinary sow's ears of PSYCHO II. The third film in the franchise takes the gimcrack plot-devices of Film Number Two and finds a way to meld them with something closer to Hitchcock at his darkest. This 1986 film is no classic like PSYCHO, but in addition to returning Norman's story to the Fryean mythos of irony-- where everyone, not just Norman, is fundamentally crazy-- it does so by building on the tropes that Hitchcock and Stefano refined from the Robert Bloch novel. Scripter Charles Edward Pogue, best known for his work on the 1986 FLY, may deserve a great share of the credit. However, I tend to credit the film's rich visual style to Anthony Hopkins, this time occupying the director's chair in addition to reprising the central role of Norman Bates. The look of the film is excellent, and given that cinematographer Bruce Surtees had produced largely generic-looking work prior to PSYCHO III, I'll advance the possibility that Hopkins was responsible for masterminding the film's look and tone. No doubt, given that Hopkins had been somewhat typed by his PSYCHO fame, the actor-- who only directed one other film-- hoped to increase his fortunes via the association. Unfortunately, PSYCHO III did not fare as well in the box-office as the mediocre second entry, so I don't imagine Hopkins' career prospered as a result of this installment.

The story picks up about a month after Norman has been cleared of the murders committed by his supposed "real mother," Miss Spool, and also after Norman has secretly murdered her, stuffed her as he did with the woman he'd previously considered his mother, and went back to having argumentative conversations with the "mother in his head."  Yet, just as PSYCHO began with one of Norman's victims rather than the psycho himself, PSYCHO III starts out by introducing the viewer to Maureen Coyle (note the initials, identical to those of Marion Crane). Maureen is a troubled young woman first seen in the attire of a postulant nun. In an opening somewhat reminiscent of a concluding scene in Hitchcock's VERTIGO, Maureen tries to leap to her death from the top of her nunnery, yelling that "there is no God!" Several nuns try to corral the potential suicide, with the result that one of the nuns falls to her death. Later Maureen, clad in commonplace clothes, leaves the nunnery on foot with her suitcase, and is soon picked up by a driver, a wastrel named Duane. Duane gives her a ride for a little while before trying to take advantage of her, forcing the former nun to flee again.

Both Maureen and Duane then enter the orbit of the Bates Motel. Duane, low on cash, answers an ad placed by Norman to help manage the motel, which has become a little more profitable since the first movie. Maureen makes her way to the neighboring town, looking for a place to stay, but before she arrives at the motel, Norman meets a new nemesis: Tracy Venable (note similarity to a family-name in Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER). Tracy is an aggressive reporter seeking a story on Norman, and she makes common cause with the money-hungry Duane, to find out whether or not Norman has truly been reformed.

Norman, of course, is back in full mother-mode, his mania if anything further aggravated when he meets Maureen. Though she doesn't look much like Marion Crane, Norman sees her initials on her suitcase and makes the connection. He gives her Marion's old room at the motel, Number One, and soon the reborn "Norman-Mother" is on the loose again.  However, instead of taking a shower Maureen takes a bath, and opens her wrists in it. Seeing the threatening woman already dying throws Norman back into his normal persona, and after doffing his maternal guise, he takes Maureen to a hospital and town, thus saving her life.

Not that this cures his tendency for bloodbaths. After Maureen has been released from the hospital and has returned to the motel, she and Norman begin a tentative relationship. However, this activates the psychotic belief that Mother will be pathologically jealous of any female rival, and so Norman's wrath falls upon another "loose woman," and then another days later. Both bodies are concealed so that the law only lists them as missing, but reporter Tracy continues to investigate Norman's peculiar history. Duane, looking for more lucre, finds the mummified body of Miss Spool and tries to extort money from Norman. Suffice to say that for once, Norman doesn't need to change into "Mother-Man" to kill someone.

Tracy then learns a bit of news that reverses the turnabout of PSYCHO II's script: Miss Spool was not, as she claimed, Norman's mother. That honor belonged to the original Mrs. Bates (who would not be seen in a "live" flashback until the last film in the franchise, PSYCHO IV). Miss Spool was indeed sister to Mrs. Bates, but she was also in love with Norman's married dad. She both killed her would-be lover and briefly abducted baby Norman in the belief that he was hers: this got her put in the nuthouse. This reversal has the advantage of explaining how easy it was for her to start down the slasher-path in Part 2, as well as making Norman's relationship with his main parental figure genuinely Oedipal.

Maureen almost succeeds in forming a romantic bond with Norman, but by sheer accident, she meets the very death she'd courted earlier. Norman goes round the bend, menacing Tracy as the reporter tries to reveal the truth to him. As a further irony, Tracy-- the least sympathetic major character in the film-- is spared when Norman chooses to turn against the image of the mother who has possessed him-- although by the denouement, it's by no means clear that he's managed to win free, as he claims.

I don't have much to add about the first season of BATES MOTEL, recently re-screened, since I've not yet screened the other seasons. It is, unlike the film-franchise, a purely naturalistic dramatic series, with lacks even the uncanny aspects of the inferior second and fourth films in the series. Perhaps taking some inspiration from PSYCHO IV, Norma Bates in the opening episodes is far more intense-- though not quite psychotic-- than she is as represented in the first three films. It's a competent enough melodrama, though it adds elements of organized crime to the bucolic mix that never quite fit the PSYCHO mythology. The performances of Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga are uniformly excellent, but the producers are really not interested in exploring the dark corners of Norman Bates' mind, much less in inquiring into what he represents: the tendency of all humans to become caught in what Norman calls "traps"-- which in turn represent the human tendency for delusion and darkness.