Saturday, February 28, 2015

CAPTAIN AMERICA (1944)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


Republic's 1944 adaptation of Timely Comics' Captain America is often slammed for some of the cosmetic changes to the hero: the elimination of wings from his cowl and of the hero's signature shield. What I find more peculiar is the casting of lead Dick Purcell. Given that Hollywood serials boasted many male actors who had jaws no less square-cut than that of the comics-character, why did they go with a fellow whose head is shaped like an egg? In terms of acting, Purcell is no better or worse than most of serial-actors, but in the terms of the image he presents, he's a strange choice for one of the last superheroes seen in chapter-plays.

It's also rather peculiar that, at a time when the Allies had not yet won WWII, one of the heroes most associated with fighting Nazis was occupied with battling an evil mastermind. The Scarab (Lionel Atwill) is concerned only with committing various acts of theft, and Captain America is not army private Steve Rogers, but fighting district attorney Grant Gardner. The previous year, Republic had pitted their original hero The Masked Marvel against Japanese saboteurs, so the company was hardly opposed to Axis-fighting. This Wikipedia article suggests that the serial was originally intended to be another project that was simply re-routed into a Captain America adaptation, but the truth may never be known.

As Republic serials go, CAPTAIN AMERICA is just fair. It delivers a decent collection of hard-hitting fights and exotic death-traps, and Purcell is nicely doubled by stuntman Dale Van Sickel. Female lead Lorna Gray, playing an aide to Gardner, is given a spunky characterization (at one point she fools a Scarab henchman into disclosing his identity) and has one shootout with a thug that ends badly for said thug. But for modern viewers the actor to watch is Lionel Atwill. No one could screw a monocle into his eye as malefically as could Atwill.

His character is also the principal source of the serial's meager psychological interest. His alter ego Doctor Maldor initially kills off the other members of a Mayan expedition because Maldor/Scarab thinks that they received greater monetary rewards than he did, though the serial doesn't waste much time detailing his grievances. The Scarab is essentially the figure of the Envious Brother, wreaking havoc on all those who received more than he did. He's also a figure of conspicuous consumption, since he's equally concerned with stealing pricey valuables and scientific weapons-- though unlike a lot of serial villains, he doesn't seem interested in selling weapons to foreign nationals.

It would interesting to know if the scriptwriters of the serial knew in advance that Atwill would be cast as the villain. The actor had already become strongly associated with the horror-genre from films like 1939's SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Scarab's death-devices, whether created via his expertise with Mayan drugs or swiped from others, often have a macabre feel: "purple death" poison, a method for reviving the dead, and best of all, the concluding menace of the "mummifying gas." This theme certainly wasn't coincidence, for in the first chapter a newsman mentions that it's ironic that the villain has assumed this cognomen, since for "the ancients" the figure of the scarab symbolized eternal life. The film doesn't end with the villain dying in some explosion he might have conceivably escaped; instead, the film ends with the Scarab being executed for his murders at midnight, even though the film spares the audience from the sight of the villain's actual demise.


Friday, February 27, 2015

FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965)



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


Aesthetically speaking, it might be for the best that on its initial release FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! didn't make much money for cult director Russ Meyer. Had it been successful, Meyer might have tried to duplicate that success. Meyer's later works have their partisans, but I prefer his works from the early 1960s. For me Meyer's bawdy cartoon-world worked best when depicted in black and white photography, which also highlighted his mastery of wild camera angles and iconic positioning.

Prior to PUSSYCAT Meyer had completed MOTOR PSYCHO, an enjoyable, and reasonably profitable, biker-film. Both films had their roots in the "J.D. exploitation" genre-films of the 1950s, though Meyer's villainous scofflaws are all adults. With PUSSYCAT Meyer changed out the villainous male bikers for a trio of female go-go dancers obsessed with driving fast cars. The memorable opening scene that introduces the trio-- fun-loving Billie (Lori Saunders), sultry Rosie (Haji) and hard-bitten Varla (Tura Satana)-- begins with all three wildly driving their separate cars along a vacant desert road. While real go-go dancers might have been more likely to economize by sharing one car between them, the ladies' love of tearing up the road, each in her own particular car, makes clear that these women aren't concerned with economy. Whether it's tearing up the road or gyrating in a club for men unable to do anything but watch and hurl catcalls, it's clear that Meyer's women love thrills of all kinds.

While most of the "delinquent films" were morally on the side of the ordinary nine-to-five folks whom the J.D.'s terrorized, it's clear that the script for PUSSYCAT, written by Meyer and two-time collaborator John Moran, is of the devil's party. While tooling out in the desert the girls come across two spunky teens, Tommy and Linda. Tommy's a car nut too, having driven to the desert to improve his racing skills in the open desert, but to Varla he's the antithesis of her "all or nothing" philosophy. "You're the All-American Boy, a safety-first Clyde."she tells him, and this leads to a race between them. In the script's first ironic touch, "safety-first" Tommy proves the better racer, so Varla cheats, sending his car spinning. Tommy recovers, but a subsequent argument results in Varla killing Tommy with her karate-skills. The three go-go dancers leave the dead teen in the desert and vamoose, taking Linda, the sole witness, with them.

PUSSYCAT could at this point have turned into a "criminals-on-the-run" thriller, but the script veers into the terrain of "Western Gothic." While gassing up at a lonely filling station, Varla learns of a strange trio of men who live a hermit-like existence, and decides that her group's best chance for escape is to rob the family of their money so that the dancers can get far, far away from John Law. This isn't an especially logical idea, since the girls have no idea when Tommy might be found. But logic is not important here. What is important is a mythic conflict between a group of three hard-living, road-running women and a family of three men with deep, dark secrets.

The patriarch of the family, known only as "the Old Man," is wheelchair-bound due to a train-accident, which ironically came about because he saved a young woman from perishing. His older son Kirk is more or less normal, though he harbors some suspicions that the Old Man has been conducting illicit activities with the help of his younger son, called only "the Vegetable," a dim-witted hulk who barely speaks. It eventually comes out that the crippled elder, unable to satisfy himself sexually, has been forcing his muscular pawn to abduct young girls, and that the Old Man is particularly interested in shrinking violet Linda.

PUSSYCAT deserves a fuller exposition than I can devote to a single blog-post, but I'll confine myself to saying that the "mythic conflict" is that of women and men, a conflict as much redolent of violence as of sex, as the film's introductory voice-over makes clear:  


While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains sex. Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled, yet violence doesn't only destroy. It creates and molds as well.

Georges Bataille, who also equated sex with violence, could not have put it better. Though some previous Meyer's productions, such as MOTOR PSYCHO and MUDHONEY, are full of extravagant language and metaphors, PUSSYCAT is the only Meyer film that concretizes his often erratic themes into a sort of cinematic poetry. I tend to credit co-scripter Moran with giving the PUSSYCAT script greater depth than Meyer's professed major influence-- the LI'L ABNER comic strip-- but there's no way to be sure. Yet whatever Moran's contribution, the manic, unapologetic tone of PUSSYCAT is ineluctably that of Russ Meyer.

Despite my "Western Gothic" remark, there's no hint of the uncanny-metaphenomenal in the tougher-than-dirt world of Varla and her opposite number, the Old Man, with one exception.  The hulking Vegetable does perform one feat of strength that compares with some of the uncanny muscular feats seen in certain Italian peplum: that is, he wins a shoving-match with Varla's car.



Still, though this is one of the film's great visual highlights, it doesn't conjure with the mood of "strangeness" seen in films like THOR AND THE AMAZON WOMEN.  Thus, even though PUSSYCAT is one of the most mythic films I've ever reviewed here, its mythic structure remains firmly within the realm of the naturalistic.







Monday, February 23, 2015

FROM DUSK TO DAWN (1996), FROM DUSK TO DAWN: THE SERIES, SEASON 1 (2014)




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


The original FROM DUSK TO DAWN is famous for the involvement of director-editor Robert Rodriguez and screenplay-scribe Quentin Tarantino. However, despite their unquestionable input, at base the original story by makeup/effects guy Robert Kurtzman is most concerned with producing as many crazy-ass prosthetic effects as a horror-fantasy can hold.

In 1996, watching DUSK on the big screen was a hoot. Almost twenty years later, the film doesn't hold up as anything but a series of cheap thrills, though the central idea remains appealing. A couple of tough crooks-on-the-run, holding a small family hostage, blunder into a Mexican titty-bar. The bar is run by vampires who prey upon truckers and bikers whose disappearances will presumably never be missed. The first half-hour plays like a mundane suspense-tale: will the innocent nuclear family-- lapsed preacher Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), his daughter Kate (Juliette Lewis) and adopted son Scott (Ernest Liu) win free from the merciless gunmen Seth and Richie Gecko (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino)? But the gangsters' success at fleeing the U.S. law into Mexico takes a PSYCHO-like turn as they find themselves immersed in a titty-bar version of the Bates Motel, where customers who check in-- well, you know.  There follows a series of fight-and-chase scenes, interrupted with a few dramatic moments, ending with a slightly ironic coda for the survivors of the firefight.

The first section shows the greatest attention to detail. The Gecko Brothers have a dysfunctional relationship: though Richie is responsible for breaking Seth out of jail, Seth is the more rational of the two, regarding himself an experienced holdup-artist who doesn't kill without necessity. Richie, however, is a dangerous psychotic given to imagining that his hostages are out to kill him or have sex with him-- and both scenarios lead Richie to commit gratuitous murders. Seth knows that his brother is crazy but remains loyal to him, hoping that they can retire to Mexico with their ill-gotten gains. In contrast, the Fullers are reasonably cohesive, even though Jacob's kids bust his chops a little about having given up his religious status. The script doesn't really explore the characters of Scott and Kate, though. The focus is almost entirely on Jacob's loss of faith due to the loss of his beloved wife, but in the Rodriguez-Tarantino universe, loss of faith can best be countered by becoming a kickass Warrior of God.

One of the main pleasures of DUSK the first time out was its gestures to earlier icons of adventure-cinema. John Saxon and Michael Parks don't get much to do, but Fred Williamson, who had not made a high-profile film in years, is fetishized for his status as a major adventure-icon. In the history of metaphenomenal films, Tom Savini's fame depends far more upon his skill with special effects than at acting. Still, though he had acted in other films prior to DUSK, in this film his semi-comic turn as tough biker "Sex Machine" raised Savini to the level of a minor character-icon in his own right. In fact, Savini's acting is better than Williamson's. The latter's image of extreme toughness descends into silliness when he rips a vampire's heart right out of its body.

Tarantino is reasonably good as the alternately whiney/hyperviolent Richie, but he only works because Clooney gives a more nuanced performance than usual. Jacob Fuller is the only character given a level of development approximate to that of Seth Gecko, but as noted above the Robert Rodriguez answer to "the silence of God" is really no more than a lot of noise.

The weakest link in DUSK, though, is the vampires. Because they're thrown into the plot in such a haphazard way-- as I argue above, as little more than an excuse for lots of FX-stunts-- there's no coherent vision of what these vamps can or can't do. The script gets some humorous mileage out of the fact that the humans defending their lives are desperately trying to figure out the nature of supernatural killers for the first time ever. But that said, there's no reason why some vampires keep semi-human forms, while others seem to be auditioning for ripoffs of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. The central villain, Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek), has a cool opening performance, but she's killed early on, after which the vampires are just a motley crew of monsters.




I would never have thought FROM DUSK TO DAWN would have been improved by adaptation to another form, but the ten episodes of the 2014 teleseries do successfully confer greater depth on the sketchy characters and their background.


For one thing, in the film crazy Richie Gecko is largely defined by the degree of trouble he brings to his more sensible brother Seth, and his perverse hallucinations are nothing but indicators of his mania. In the teleseries, Richie (Zane Holtz) is in part crazy because, like a latter-day Renfield, he's responding to the call of a master vampire. Even before the Geckos cross the Mexican border, Santanico Pandemonium is calling out to Richie, and not until they arrive at the Titty Twister does brother Seth (D.J. Cotrona) realize what's going on with his brother.

Jacob, Kate and Scott are still present, but since two of them are doomed to die in the series just as they do in the movie, the Fullers are not given appreciably greater development. Other potential plotlines are expanded, as with a conflict between the Geckos and local Mexican gangsters, and a Texas Ranger named Gonzalez follows the Geckos into Mexico as well. But without question the greatest improvement is that the vampires are substantially re-thought. Their indebtedness to Aztec mythology is slightly suggested in the movie, but in the series, more information about the vamps is doled out by the character of Sex Machine, who is himself revised into a rather peculiar professor of mythological studies. The Mexican vamps are redefined as "culebras," and are said to be closer in nature to snakes than to bats. Since the teleseries isn't trying to drown the viewer in makeup effects, the result is the vampires aren't nearly as erratic in form or in function. Further, their occupation of the titty-bar is given a more metaphysical function.

The ten episodes of the series take the audience a series of events roughly paralleling those of the movie. The biggest change is that both Richie and Santanico (a fetching Elza Gonzalez) do not perish as they do in the movie: they get clear of the annihilation of the titty-bar and depart for new territory. Seth and Kate are again the only "good guys" to survive the vamp-holocaust, but in contrast to the film's conclusion, the two characters remain together, though they're not explicitly pursuing Richie and his vampire mistress. Presumably, since the series has been granted a 13-episode extension, all four will cross paths again, and new characters will have to be invented to take up the slack for all those that took the dirt nap.




Friday, February 20, 2015

HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946)



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


I mentioned in my review of CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN that in the 1940s Universal Studios' horror movies increasingly took the form of efficient if contrived B-movies, as against the ambitious, often eccentric works of the 1930s. The horror films were increasingly defined as repeating franchises, and the best-regarded of these were continuations or re-interpretations of the "Big Five" from the 1930s."The "Mummy" from 1932 and "Werewolf of London" from 1935 may have served as templates for the continuing exploits of the 1940s Mummy and the Wolf Man, the Frankenstein Monster and the Invisible Man remained reasonably robust in a "series" of films extending back to their beginnings, and even Dracula finally merited a return of sorts in 1943's SON OF DRACULA.

The studio's 1940s regime, however, was not able to birth any vital new franchises. The Wild Woman series petered out in three episodes. Two characters invented for the "Sherlock Holmes" series did no better, with "the Spider Woman" from the film of the same title meriting only one solo outing while "the Creeper" from PEARL OF DEATH managed two-- though admittedly the death of star Rondo Hatton was a big factor in the termination of that series. I rather doubt that there would have been many more Creeper-films had Hatton lived longer, for the second film, THE BRUTE MAN, was not even released by Universal, which by that time had determined to distance itself from B-level horror-films. Given all those factors-- including the fact that in 1948 Universal gave a humorous farewell to four of the Big Five in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN-- it's surprising that HOUSE OF HORRORS, first of the "Creeper" films, is as good as it is.

I haven't seen every film directed by long-time work-horse Jean Yarbrough. I tend to think that HOUSE OF HORRORS is probably his best work, though arguably it's good because Yarbrough's more or less channeling Robert Siodmak's moody approach to the horror-genre.  The script by George Bricker and Dwight Babcock may be the real "star" of HOUSE, making it possible for the actors-- particularly Martin Kosleck and Virginia Grey-- to shine.

The core of HOUSE's story is as old as the hills: (1) killer commits murder(s), (2) innocent man is accused of the crimes, (3) innocent man's friend or girlfriend goes looking for the truth and uncovers the real murderer. But Bricker and Babcock come up with a good twist on the hackneyed plot, allowing these Hollywood writers the chance to address a subject rarely mentioned in horror films: the question of Art.

To be sure, at base Bricker and Babcock were riffing on the trope of the "mad artist" seen in 1933's MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. The script has the Creeper-- recovering from his apparent fatality at the end of PEARL OF DEATH-- rescued from death and taken in by eccentric sculptor Marcel DeLange (Kosleck). This too was a fairly worn trope also seen in PEARL: clever little criminal uses big brutish killer as his catspaw. But Marcel, instead of simply having the grateful Creeper kill for profit, turns him loose on victims whose deaths don't earn Marcel a penny-- though it could be argued that they were stand-ins for people that the scriptwriters disliked: the critics of high culture.

The script of HOUSE is oddly both sympathetic to, and repulsed by, the character of Marcel. Before he meets the Creeper, he's the very picture of the "starving artist." He inhabits a shoddy little studio with only his cat for company, which earns him some sympathy, but he also talks to the cat about how misunderstood his great work is, which makes him seem odd, as is his sculpture, which is expressionistic and non-representational.

Enter a prospective buyer of one of Marcel's statues; a fellow who doesn't know art but will pay other people to tell him what's good. He brings into Marcel's studio professional art critic Holmes Harmon (Alan Napier), who ruins Marcel's chances for a sale by castigating his sculpture. Marcel chases the two men out and then destroys the statue, leaving one to wonder: does this "great artist" really believe in his own work, or is he just as much a worshiper of the dollar as anyone else?

It should also be said that Marcel doesn't rescue the Creeper out of pure benevolence: as soon as the artist sees the strangler's disfigured mug, he compares him to "Neanderthal man" and wants to sculpt a bust of that face-- again, with the hope of reaping great financial rewards. The audience is covertly warned to be suspicious of anyone so pre-occupied with ugliness, and the Bricker-Babcock script doesn't bother to give Marcel any deeper reasons for that preoccupation.

However, when the Creeper gets well he goes wandering from the studio, and encounters what is implicitly a streetwalker. It's not clear if he's trying to approach her as a potential customer-- an unlikely prospect, since he's broke at the time-- but she screams at him and seals her fate. When Marcel reads about the murder the next morning, he adds up two and two, and decides to steer his mammoth ally in the direction of the nasty critic Harmon.

Bricker and Babcock probably don't see Marcel as much more than a "screwball," to use the term applied to him by the writers' lady journalist Joan (Grey). However, the scripters are overtly contemptuous of Harmon. In his conversation with his fourth-estate female colleague, it's clear that Harmon has no real preferences: he pretty much hates everything, be it Marcel's grotesque expressionism or the sunny commercial art of Joan's boyfriend, a painter named Steve Morrow. Joan lightly teases with Harmon with the prospect of a date, but it's clear that she doesn't intend to date him: she just wants to make it clear that he has no moral compass and would be theoretically willing to alter his critical opinion if there was something in it for him.  But he never gets the chance to sell out, after the Creeper comes calling.

The script's depiction of Morrow and his commercial art is clearly meant to validate audience-members who didn't hold with all that artsy-fartsy stuff. Morrow produces commercial paintings of leggy female models; ergo, he's "healthy" while Marcel is 'unhealthy."  He's also a "man's man" in that (a) he threatens critics like Harmon when they badmouth his work, and (b) he doesn't want Joan to continue working as a journalist-- ostensibly because she might encounter danger, though it's easy to imagine him as the type who won't allow a wife of his to work.

It's the first demonstration of macho sensibilities that gets him accused of Harmon's murder. When Morrow stymies the cops' investigation with an alibi, one officer talks yet another critic, name of Ormiston, into attacking Morrow in print with the idea of drawing out the killer. Ormiston is a little less poisonous than Harmon, in that he agrees with Joan that Morrow has some real talent-- but the second critic manages to work in some criticisms of Marcel as well, and that gets the Creeper on his tail.

It should be noted that Bricker and Babcock are also careful to keep the alliance of Marcel and the Creeper from earning any sympathies. The Creeper is slow-witted and doesn't understand anything about Marcel's artistic leanings, except that if they don't sell Marcel doesn't make any money, and the Creeper, being wanted, can't go looking for work. Marcel doesn't care about his brutish companion except for the sake of furthering his own career, and at the climax he tells Joan that he plans to let the Creeper take the fall for the murders-- which of course brings the Creeper's wrath down upon his head. This is, incidentally, the only scene in which the director gave Hatton the chance to evince some strong emotion; throughout the rest of the film, he registers hardly any more feeling than one of Marcel's statues.

Though it's clear that Marcel and the Creeper are not good guys, Morrow and Joan are not great specimens of humanity either. Morrow doesn't actually follow through on his physical threats against a couple of older, out-of-shape critics, but he's not starving like Marcel, so he hasn't even got that much of an excuse for his bullying behavior. Joan is clever and likable, and gets many of the saucier lines, but at the conclusion she caves in to Morrow's desire for wifely subordination. Even in B-horror films, the monsters remain more appealing than many exemplars of "normality."

In the end, the script of HOUSE OF HORRORS gives us only a superficial critique of "high culture" critics; there's no evidence that Bricker and Babcock have any idea as to why the snooty critics don't like "low culture," But at least HOUSE, unlike many horror-films of the decade, found a new source of "victims you love to hate"-- a resource that many later films, particularly 1973's THEATRE OF BLOOD, would continue to exploit.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943)



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


CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, the first of the three "ape woman" films from Universal, is easily the strongest of the three films, despite the following factors mitigating against it:

(1) Though Universal had made the classic WOLF MAN roughly two years before WILD WOMAN, by 1943 the studio had clearly moved away from putting together horror films with quasi-literary qualities. Universal horror films of the 1940s cheerfully embraced the lurid and the cheesy, possibly reflecting the management's belief that the chief audience for such flicks was juvenile in nature.

(2) CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN is built in part upon the reputation of Clyde Beatty. who had starred in Universal's successful circus-film THE BIG CAGE. Substantial CAGE footage is used throughout WILD WOMAN, which achieves only modest success at matching up the older footage with the new, using actor Milburn Stone to portray a new animal-tamer character, one Fred Mason.

(3) Though the film-series is built around "Paula the Ape Woman," the featured monster really doesn't do very much in any of the entries, in contrast to the lively "Kharis the Mummy" films made around the same time. In WILD WOMAN the nasty mad scientist Doctor Walters (John Carradine) kills as many people as the "Ape Woman" does-- more, if you consider him primarily responsible for her limited rampage.

(4) Paula is portrayed by Universal's newest attempt at creating a new sensation, Acquanetta the "Venezuelan Volcano." Though Acquanetta possessed suitably exotic features, in WILD WOMAN her performance is at best unexceptional.

(5) At least one lurid aspect of the script suggests that the ape woman's affection for animal-tamer Fred may bloom into bestial transgression. Yet it's a mark of WILD WOMAN's lack of nerve that Paula's passion never even gets as far as that of Lota in 1932's ISLAND OF LOST SOULS.

Yet, even with all of these factors weighing against the film, WILD WOMAN is a reasonably compelling B-flick. Given that the script is a fairly muddled potboiler by four credited writers, I tend to credit the film's success to the fluid directorial hand of Edward Dymytrk and to the intensity of John Carradine, who does wonders with a character far more underwritten than, say, George Zucco's mad scientist in THE MAD GHOUL, also issued in 1943 by Universal.

One interesting aspect is that just as Clyde Beatty achieved fame by working with a combination of lions and tigers in his animal-taming act, Universal is also mixing together two popular elements: a mad scientist plot and a circus-film setting. Most of the major characters work for the Whipple Circus: the aforementioned animal-trainer Fred, his girlfriend Beth (Evelyn Ankers), and her sister Dorothy. Dorothy, though not given much of a character, serves as a vital plot-point, for it's her glandular illness that prompts her sister Beth to take Dorothy to the sanatorium of the megalomaniac Doctor Walters. Unbeknownst to any of the circus-folk, Walters has been conducting experiments that are also all about "mixing." In his conversation with his nurse the doctor describes his successes in transferring characteristics from one animal to another via glandular transplants. The nurse demurs, pointing out that the animal from whom the secretions are taken always perishes. The nurse's negativity eventually leads the doctor to murder the nurse, and Dorothy will eventually perish as well, though not before Walters has managed to plunder her glands and turn the female gorilla Cheela-- purloined from the Whipple Circus-- into a dusky skinned female, whom Walters dubs "Paula."

I won't dwell on the rather convoluted plot of WILD WOMAN. At least one reviewer has pointed out that after Walters has accomplished his aim, it makes no sense that he takes her for a visit to the circus from which he stole her. It's purely an arbitrary convenience of the script: because Cheela the Ape was said to have formed an attachment to Fred, who brought her from Africa to the circus, the transformed ape-woman must be brought into proximity with Fred and his girlfriend. so that Paula can conceive a jealous rage when she sees them together. Paula's rage causes her to re-transform into a gorilla-- as seen in the still above-- and she seeks to kill Beth. Walters captures the transformed ape and takes her back to his lab, but the incident spurs Beth's suspicions, so that she ends up sneaking into the sanatorium and turning Paula loose on the mad scientist. (Despite Dmytryk's expert staging, even this sequence is a conceptual mess: Walters discovers Beth in his lab but doesn't bother to either knock her out or tie her up while he works on his next experiment, making it really easy for Beth to open the gorilla cage.)

The cosmological theme of animal-human covalence, so ably explored in Paramount's LOST SOULS and in Universal's own MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, isn't explored with any depth in WILD WOMAN. However, since the plot places less emphasis on the peril of Fred mating with Paula than on Paula killing Beth, I find myself wondering if on some level Cheela/Paula is a substitution for Dorothy. It's established-- though not dwelled upon-- that Beth, Dorothy and Fred all work for the same circus, which is often a recipe for melodramatic conflict in circus films. Is it really only Cheela in the Paula-body who covets Fred, or is it also Dorothy, whose glands have contributed to the woman that Cheela becomes? But I must admit that there's no textual support for the notion that Dorothy might have had a thing for her prospective brother-in-law.

ADDENDA: One peculiar facet of CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN is that prior to Paula's first transformation back into Cheela, her skin turns totally dark prior to her becoming a gorilla. In some quarters this caused the film to be critiqued for conflating persons of color and apes. I don't think that there are any conscious racial politics in  the film: the scene simply seeks to maintain continuity with the audience's impression that the gorilla-- played by an actor in a suit-- has dark skin. Though it's been established that actress Acquanetta did have some African-American heritage, her agents apparently counseled her to omit said heritage; hence the "Venezuelan" tag. Though it's likely that someone at Universal picked Acquanetta for this project based on her "exotic" looks, I imagine that Universal had no awareness that she had any black heritage-- or else she probably would not have been given a lead role even in a B-horror movie. Ergo, any imputation of negative racial profiling to this particular Universal film has no basis in logic.


Monday, February 16, 2015

THE MIRACLE RIDER (1935)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


Lately I've been giving some thought to the way American films and television movies depict the marginalization of the Native American by the white man.

One of the most familiar tropes in the western genre is that of the "Vanishing American," or, as the lobby card seen above has it, "the Vanishing Indian." It's been averred that one of the first literary evocations of the concept appeared in the works of Fenimore Cooper, the author who originated the subgenre sometimes called "the Eastern Western." This trope pays sentimental lip service to the downfall of the Native American, while it simultaneously avoids placing any moral responsibility on the people who made the Indian vanish, the ancestors of the dominant European-descended white man's culture. In this trope the Indian's fate of vanishing seems ordained by fate, rather than being caused by a rival human culture.

Closely related to "the Vanishing Indian" trope is the "Keep Them Indians Down" tropes. Hundreds of western films and television shows have featured western heroes-- usually white men, though occasionally they may be half-Indian or raised by Indians-- who are faced with the problem of keeping a tribe peacefully confined to a reservation, even though conspiracies by villainous white men have given the tribesmen every reason to go on the warpath. I don't advocate the Marxist notion that popular fiction is predominantly about enforcing social controls.  Still, after I watch about a half-dozen Lone Ranger episodes in which the Ranger and Tonto manage to keep a pissed-off tribe of Indians on their reservations, I find that the morals of these stories has much the same effect as the sentimental "Vanishing Indian" trope: keep the Native Americans in their place and you can forget about them.

At the same time, there have been Hollywood westerns that were more confrontational on the issue of social justice-- though it may come as a surprise that one of them is a adventure-serial, since serials are not exactly known for their exploration of sociological issues.

THE MIRACLE RIDER was one of the last sound serials produced by Mascot Pictures before that company was essentially absorbed by the Republic studio. It was also the last major feature of Tom Mix. America's first western star. Most of Mix's two hundred-plus films were westerns, but very few are readily available to film buffs. THE MIRACLE RIDER is the only Mix film I have seen, and it may well be the only one with metaphenomenal content.

RIDER is predominantly a fast-paced adventure film, but it does avoid one major pitfall of the "Keep Them Indians Down" trope. The action takes place in 1935, when there was no serious fear about a tribe of Indians going on the warpath. This time, the villains are seeking to make the Indians of the fictional "Ravenhead" tribe voluntarily move off their lands because those lands are rich with the equally fictional mineral X-94, a fantastic source of fuel-power.  The chief of these villains is Zaroff, played by Charles Middleton about a year before he earned serial immortality as Ming the Merciless in 1936's FLASH GORDON. Star-spotters may also enjoy seeing Jason Robards Senior playing one of Zaroff's flunkies. However, it's unquestionably Mix's film all the way, and although the actor was in his mid-50s at the time, he still displays considerable charisma as Tom Morgan, a Texas Ranger who follows in the footsteps of his father-- and several famed American heroes-- in championing the rights of the Native American. (More on those American heroes later.)

Though some of the behind-the-scenes personnel of RIDER would later work on the muddled DARKEST AFRICA, this serial has more in common structurally with the earlier Mascot serial LOST JUNGLE, in that both serials set up a loose but reasonably compelling situation, as opposed to the tendency of serial-scripts to become lost in a confusion of plots and counter-plots. While RIDER doesn't sport any bravura sequences that would stand with the best serial-scenes, it does come up with enough incident to keep things from becoming overly repetitious. Similarly, even though I have enjoyed the fight-choreography of the Republic serials-- what I like to call "clockwork brawling"-- it's also pleasurable to see Mix's hero, uh, mixing it up with the villains with more realistic fighting-moves: lots of grappling, rolling on the floor, etc.

For movie Indians, the Ravenheads are reasonably well done. Though the script isn't able to deal with issues like Native American beliefs about the sanctity of the land, it's at least clear that the Ravenheads like their home and don't want to pick up and leave. The chief Blackwing is the one who dubs Ranger Morgan "the Miracle Rider," though there's no justification for the title. Maybe the Indians have seen so few good white guys that Morgan is a "miracle" to them?  After Blackwing is killed by Zaroff's henchmen, a "bad Indian" named Longboat conspires with Zaroff so that when the tribe is moved off the valuable land, Longboat will become the new chief. In contrast to the evil Indian, Morgan is aided by a good Indian maiden, the daughter of Blackwing, who alone among the tribal people sports a Caucasian-derived name: that of Ruth. Though she's not a fighter, Ruth is reasonably spunky in pursuing villains. In the early episodes it's clear that Ruth has a thing for Tom-- Longboat complains that she's not interested in the men of the tribe-- but any romance is sidelined throughout the bulk of the serial. Oddly, at the serial's end, Ruth makes some broad hints to Tom about her being alone now that her father's dead. Tom's response is far from romantic: he suggests that she follow him to his new Washington post and become his secretary, and the film ends with a very un-passionate handshake between Ruth and Tom. But then, considering how many westerns depicted Indian maidens leaving their people for white suitors, maybe this is something of an improvement.

One of Zaroff's plans to drive them off the reservation is also one of the serial's two claims to uncanny metaphenomenality: the villain dresses up a radio-controller glider and flies it over the heads of the superstitious Indians, who fear that it's one of their totems, "the Firebird." Since this element in the film also involves an attempt to fake a supernatural presence, the glider counts as both a "phantasmal figuration" and an "outre device."

I should mention that the other metaphenomenal element is that of the fictional mineral X-94. I consider it an uncanny rather than a marvelous made-up mineral because X-94 doesn't really do anything fantastic; it's just a more efficient energy-source than gasoline. It also plays a role in creating peril for Tom Morgan. This serial doesn't sport many death-traps, but in one chapter Morgan is inadvertently trapped in a room with an engine that's about to explode due to the extra-powerful X-94 formula running through it.

I should also note that X-94 plays a part in the serial's happy ending: after Zaroff and his aides have all been defeated, the government takes over the mining of X-94, and implicitly makes all of the tribesmen rich by paying them a fair price for the mining rights. There is of course no opposition to the U.S. government getting access to the land, and RIDER takes it for granted that the proper authorities will deal more justly with the Ravenheads than the nasty fellow with the foreign name.

Though I enjoyed the fighting-and-shooting action, MIRACLE RIDER's most interesting facet appears in its introductory chapter. The audience is given a short, four-part history of white-Indian relations. In each segment, a virtuous white character counsels other white men against fighting the Indians over their land or their game, and each time the evil white men go ahead and do whatever they want, leading to wholesale carnage. The first three of the virtuous whites are Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill Cody, while the last one is the father of Tom Morgan, a Ranger killed in the act of defending an Indian from bad white guys, and who thus passes on his ethical sense of responsibility to his young son Tom.

Clearly, whatever these legendary figures were in their real lives, here Boone, Crockett and Cody are being portrayed as sporting enlightened views of the Red Man, the better to make a rhetorical point against the whites who treated the Indians unjustly. Today, when we see such a sequence, followed by an uplifting shot of the American flag superimposed over the United States of 1935, it's impossible not to wonder if such unification might have come about more because of the greedy whites than because of the virtuous paragons. Yet I think that the introductory sequence is about more than "social control." It feels more like "wishful thinking;" a writer's desire to imagine that Manifest Destiny could have been achieved without racial injustice.  Perhaps there's something similar going on in a lot of the "Keep Them Indians Down" stories: the wish-dream that the real-life Indian wars could have been averted as easily as they are in "Lone Ranger" tales.  MIRACLE RIDER, being a simple good guys vs. bad guys entertainment, can't deal with these social issues. But as far as avoiding some of the more condescending pitfalls of the western genre-- if only because the Indians don't really vanish, but get rich off their land-- RIDER is ahead of the pack.



Tuesday, February 3, 2015

GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964), MONSTER ZERO (1965)



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


GHIDORAH is often cited as a turning-point in the Godzilla franchise. The Big G had remained the heavy in his first four appearances, but in this fifth movie, he, his former opponent Mothra, and Rodan are all united against a common menace, the three-headed dragon-creature of the title.

Though the movie is named for Ghidorah, the monster is more of a catalyst than a primary menace. With his three heads, two wings, two rear legs and no forelegs, Ghidorah is a marvelous design, but that design-complexity makes him hard if not impossible to identify with, whereas the other three creatures benefit in that department from a simplicity of design-- though, as I've said earlier, I've never really cared for any version of Rodan.

This is the first film in the Godzilla series to strongly push a human-centered subplot that isn't devoted to stopping a monster or monsters. In this case our viewpoint character Detective Shindo becomes involved in trying to figure out what has happened to Selina, princess of the far-off country Selgina. Initially she seems to perish in a plane-explosion, in theory ending Shindo's involvement in her story. However, Shindo beholds a woman who looks just like Selina, making predictions of catastrophe to the Japanese press and claiming to be a denizen of Venus.  Shindo investigates her more thoroughly when her predictions come true: that both Rodan (resuscitated from his "death" in his initial appearance) and Godzilla will attack Japan. In addition, an assassin attempts to take Selina's life, demonstrating that the explosion of the plane was no accident. In addition, scientists are investigating a mysterious meteor shower, which turns out to be the means by which the titular outer-space monster arrives on Earth, and the Fairies of Infant Island just happen to be in town, appearing on a local TV show. The latter development feels like a 180 degree turn from their previous feelings on modern-media exploitation in MOTHRA, but maybe they considered it a cultural outreach program.

All three monsters-- Ghidorah, Rodan and Godzilla-- converge to attack Japan. The locals implore the Fairies to call upon Mothra, who previously protected humanity from Godzilla in 1964's MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA.  Though the last Mothra-egg gave birth to two giant larvae at the end of that film, only one of them answers the Faeries' summons: for the rest of the 1960s, Mothra's remaining appearances will abjure his winged moth-form. Meanwhile, Shindo gets Selina examined by medical experts, who find her sound of mind, and convince Shindo that while she isn't literally from Venus, she is a genuine descendant of a Venusian colonization of Earth, which explains why the trauma-shocked princess has reverted into a persona derived from her psychically-endowed ancestors. For good measure, we learn from Selina that her distant ancestors were ravaged by an attack from the vicious hydra-headed space dragon. Thus it's fitting that Selina, like the Faeries, plays a role in bringing about Ghidorah's defeat this time out.

As it happens, just as Mothra arrives, Godzilla and Rodan have crossed paths and started fighting one another. The humans and the Faeries watch as the caterpillar-creature strikes up a dialogue with the giant reptile and the humongous pteranodon-- a dialogue translated by the Faeries. I'll comment more on this later, but suffice to say, Mothra initially fails to convince the two bigger monsters to oppose the space-born menace to Earth. The Mothra-larva proceeds to engage the three-headed dragon in battle, and gets his annelid ass kicked. This misfortune, however, shames Godzilla and Rodan into belatedly entering the battle. The result is that Ghidorah is driven back into space, the Earth-monsters go their separate ways, and Princess Selina, having speedily regained her memory, returns to her home country, bidding farewell to her Japanese protector.

The most striking sociological trope of this script is Selina's development, as she provides the strongest female role in the series since Emiko in the original film-- and even then, Emiko's most riveting dramatic scene was pruned from the American-made, internationally distributed version. Less striking, however, are the comic bits with the monsters talking to one another. I've seen it argued persuasively that this was a vital strategy in keeping the franchise appealing by giving Godzilla and his fellow critters more positive, almost heroic personalities. I can appreciate that, but I still find the "monster-talking" scene pretty egregiously juvenile, and its only virtue is that it's confined to this one section of the film.




MONSTER ZERO, which is the title by which I knew the film in its American distribution, is not without some bumpy spots, but on the whole it's much more streamlined and manages to integrate the main plot and subplots thematically. GHIDORAH's only aliens are the monster himself and the civilization of Venus that Ghidorah annihilated long ago, whose seed is reincarnated in Princess Selina. Here, Ghidorah is the catspaw for a hostile race of aliens-- the denizens of Planet X, known as X'ians-- who initially approach Earth on friendly terms, but turn out to be the first in a long line of alien conquerors that frequently become the new "heavies" in the Godzilla franchise.

In the near future, America and Japan have collaborated to produce a space program that is now able to venture out past Jupiter, to investigate Planet X, which has somehow managed to "hide" behind the bigger planet all these years.  As in all such pictures, these voyages appear to take no more time than an airline flight from Asia to Europe, so in no time American astronaut Glenn and Japanese astronaut Fuji are setting down on Planet X. There they meet the X'ians, a race of humanoids who all wear black ray-bans and govern their lives by computerized input. (There's some suggestion that they may be partly computerized themselves, but it's not made explicit.)  The Controller of the X'ians reveals to the astronauts that their planet is haunted by a fearful spectre: King Ghidorah, who has taken up residence on Planet X, where he flies around, pointlessly blowing up real estate with his lightning bolts. The Controller knows that on a previous occasion Ghidorah was driven from Earth by Godzilla and Rodan (Mothra is not mentioned), so he asks to borrow Earth's monsters to achieve the same effect on Planet X. The Controller promises that in exchange for Earth's cooperation, the X'ians will bestow on Earth a miracle serum able to cure all diseases.

After the astronauts return to Earth and convey the X'ians offer, two subplots commence. Glenn makes the acquaintance of a beautiful Japanese woman named Namikawa, and begins dating her. However, Namikawa has a suspicious connection with Tetsuo. an inventor and the boyfriend to Haruno, the younger sister of Fuji. Both Tetsuo and Haruno sustain their own subplot, for they're in love and are trying to convince Haruno's older brother Fuji that Tetsuo is good marriage-material. However, though Miss Namikawa buys one of Tetsuo's inventions, she doesn't develop it, which gives the young inventor no way to impress his girlfriend's brother. When Tetsuo investigates, he learns that Namikawa is an undercover X'ian, and that she purchased his invention because it could be used against the people of Planet X.

Meanwhile, Earth gives permission for the "lend-leasing" of Godzilla and Rodan, who are duly transported to Planet X. Glenn and Fuji jump in their space capsule and go along to see the fireworks. The Earth-monsters kick Ghidorah's ass, and everyone seems happy-- until Glenn finds out that all of the women of Planet X look exactly like Namikawa. The astronauts smell set-up, but they have no real evidence of any foul dealings, even if Namikawa is a secret agent. They return home, leaving behind the troublesome Godzilla and Rodan, who "seem to resent" being abandoned.

But when Glenn and Fuji go hunting for Tetsuo, X'ian agents on Earth capture and detain them. Namikawa reveals that the Controller's game-plant is total conquest of Earth and its resources. For displaying the unseemly emotion of love, Namikawa is disintegrated by her fellow agents. Once the three men are united, they eventually manage to compare notes and escape-- all to the good, since Planet X has declared hostilities. The X'ians use magnetic waves to control the three monsters, who now can be used to hammer Earth into submission. Presumably, though the X'ians already controlled Ghidorah, they were afraid that Godzilla and Rodan might oppose him, and rigged up the whole lend-lease affair as a way of depriving Earth of potential defenders without any shots fired.

There's no surprise in the way that the humans manage to turn the tables on the invaders, but all the elements of the final sequence-- the reversal of the magnetic waves that pins down the giant beasts, the use of Tetsuo's sonic invention as a weapon against the X'ians, and the explosive defeat of the aliens-- are pulled off with great panache, with the FX-talents of Eiji Tsuburaya and the musical accompaniment of Akira Ifukube reaching new heights. The content of the story may be no more than your basic FLASH GORDON super-science, but it provided a new direction for the Godzilla franchise to pursue, in place of just big monsters fighting one another.

I should add that there are some comic bits of business in ZERO, but this time out they're so brief that they're not annoying. And for the longest time, I've wondered whether or not the Controller's final action-- deciding to destroy himself and his men with an explosion-- suffered from a translation-change, since the character's rationale for his action is that he's trying to cause his forces to "escape into the future." The English-subtitled Japanese version, however, reveals that in that version he's also seeking escape, not immolation. Still, I tend to wonder if maybe the Japanese scripter originally toyed with the idea of the villain embracing a "noble suicide," because it seems so characteristically Japanese. Since there's no mention of time-travel anywhere else in the story, I suspect that suicide was the original intent of the Controller, and that the script changed to "soften" the violence by making it accidental rather than intentional-- though of course, by that time, the audience is itching to see the invaders blasted to Kingdom Come. Maybe someone in production thought it would send a bad message, since the closing lines mention that Glenn and Fuji will be sent as envoys to Planet X, to negotiate peace treaties with the survivors-- a humanitarian ethos that didn't allow for noble suicide.