Wednesday, February 19, 2020

COLOSSUS AND THE HEADHUNTERS (1963), COLOSSUS OF THE ARENA (1962)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


Here we have two Italian "Maciste" films linked only by the idea of giving the hero the name "Colossus" in the titles. As was common for these films, Maciste appears at random in different time periods, with no connection between any of his adventures.

HEADHUNTERS' only virtue is that, because it's so dull, it made an above-average episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Without the jokes, though, it's a dreary affair, though of minor interest in breaking with some of the standards of the template.

Usually, Maciste or one of his duplicates wanders into the midst of some dispute between two cities, takes the side of the righteous, and helps overcome the rulers of the unrighteous domain. Here, just as a volcano threatens to destroy the civilization of a more or less Greek-sounding island, Maciste shows up out of nowhere and leads the inhabitants to board a handy ship and escape annihilation.

Once Maciste and the island-people make landfall, they're almost enslaved by a nomad tribe, ruled by Queen Amoa (Laura Brown). However, Amoa's no standard "bad queen." She and her people are simply guilty of bad judgment, as they've been forced to flee Kermes, a renegade member of their tribe who enlisted the titular Headhunters as his henchmen. Maciste is tempted to help the sexy queen with her problems, but first he endeavors to get the islanders to safety. However, Kermes and his head-hunting buddies are aggressive enough to pick fights with both sets of good guys, thus solving Maciste's great moral quandary.

Both the photography and stunt-work here is tedious in the extreme, and although Kirk Morris made a good muscleman-hero in other peplum-films, he just barely performs enough strongman-films to edge this flick into the realm of the uncanny. The Headhunters are no help here, since the film tells the viewer nothing about their weird society. The only other point of interest is that Amoa is one of the more active heroines, though she just has two or three short scenes of swordfighting.




COLOSSUS OF THE ARENA, set in ancient Rome in the period of the gladiators, is far more entertaining in every way, though Mark Forest's Colossus/Maciste seems here to be an ordinary muscleman. Indeed, ARENA sports a scene in which the main hero actually gets beat up by seven other boulder-shouldered bad guys. This in itself may be deemed a marker of the film's comparative naturalism, even though later on the hero gets to clobber five of his former foes in one big saloon-battle.

The main thrust of the plot involves a nasty plotter seducing Revia, sister of the reigning queen Thalima, so that he can overthrow the rightful ruler. This doesn't sound too much like any historical version of Rome, but I feel sure that the audience of the time allowed Maciste a lot of leeway. The plotter also enlists the seven gladiators-- including both an African and a Mongolian-- to do some of his dirty work. One gladiator (Dan Vadis) ends up siding with Maciste, though this subplot proves of less interest than the one involving the royal sisters. It's incredible that Revia thinks she can depose her sister without running the risk of Thalima's being killed, but putting that aside, the two actresses, Scilla Gabel and Jose Greci, provide a satisfactory helping of pulchritude.


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (1973)




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


This is the first horror-film directed by long-time porn director Joe D'Amato, though he may have hopes that DEATH would advance his career, since he used his real name here.

DEATH, while always visually impressive, seems to be an uneven crossover of the giallo genre launched in the sixties and various proto-slashers of the seventies, such as Bava's 1971 BAY OF BLOOD. D'Amato shows absolutely no interest in maintaining even the skeletal outline of a detective-plot, such as one sees in the seminal giallo BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Instead, D'Amato jumbles together an assortment of tropes from various classic horror-stories, and concentrates only upon their emotional and kinetic appeal. To this end the director makes heavy use of vertiginous photographic angles and zooming camera-work, and, of course, more than a fair amount of sex.

The story throws a few fragmentary setup-scenes at the opening, though few commercial films have ever devoted so little exposition to similar scenes. In 1906 a brother, Franz, mourns his dead sister Greta, and we're apparently in his head as he remembers a few past events. Franz is seen attacking Greta sexually, but her attitude in the next flashback-scene is ambiguous: Greta allows her brother to chase her playfully through the countryside. She stumbles across a rich fellow, Doctor Van Ravensbruck, and then smiles coquettishly at her brother as he watches Greta chat with the older man. Later it will be suggested that Greta not only had sex with the doctor but also died of a miscarriage as a result.

Three years later, the previously dead Greta has an accident near the estate of Walter Von Ravensbruck, fully grown son of the doctor, and his wife Eva. The wealthy couple take her in so that she can recover from her apparent mishap. Family doctor Sturges examines Greta and just so happens to recognize signs on her body that remind him of a strange Incan ritual for bringing back the dead. But he doesn't suspect the full truth: that Greta is a revenant brought back to life by her brother's combination of Incan sorcery and modern science. Both Walter and Eva fall in lust with beauteous Greta and become extremely jealous of her attentions/

The supposed scientific elements have no real influence on the story: in essence, Greta is both zombie and witch, able to survive murder-attempts and to return the favor with sorcerous curses. (In the film's most memorable scene, she tosses a bouquet of flowers at her lascivious brother, and the bouquet turns into a black cat that claws Franz to death.) D'Amato works in yet another Poe-reference when spiteful Eva tries to kill Greta behind a wall of bricks, but Greta easily escapes and executes Eva in a scene reminiscent of "Masque of the Red Death." Even the name "Ravensbruck" may be something of a Poe-quote. Greta kills various other victims, and according to a review one of them is the original person who wronged her, the older doctor, but frankly I couldn't keep track.

Greta's combination of innocence and malevolence is conveyed by Ewa Aulin of CANDY fame, while top-billed Klaus Kinski collects his check for the supporting character of Sturges.



POWER RANGERS MYSTIC FORCE (2006)



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


I keep a weather-eye on the ongoing "Power Rangers" serials, most of which tend to run together after a while. This one-year series, like all the others, combines new footage with Japanese scenes taken from various incarnations of the "Super Sentai" concept. The successful first series, "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," was the only one in which the producers filmed some better-than-average fighting-stunts for the original footage, while later entries have offered less innovation in the stuntwork department. In general the English-language serials' main virtue of the serials appears in the Japanese scenes, where the Japanese scripters and costumers come up with some truly demented visual concepts for the Rangers' villains.

MYSTIC follows its "Sentai" model by hypothesizing a new set of Rangers who depend on a fusion of technology and mystic powers. The five "clean teens" of MYSTIC receive tutelage from a Celtic-looking sorceress, but their enemies look like the same old goony aliens, albeit with supernatural overtones. In fact, the main reason I searched through the series was because TV Tropes claimed that the season qualified as a "monster mashup" on the basis that some of the aliens have aspects of (a) a werewolf, (b) a mummy, and (c) a Creature of the Black Lagoon (seen above, all in red). If MYSTIC had really built up this concept, consistently making its aliens close analogues to familiar monsters-- be they the Universal fiends or science-fiction freakazoids like those of MONSTERS VS, ALIENS-- then I would consider that a genuine mashup. But the monstrous facets of the various Ranger-enemies are very minor, and at no time did I consider any of them to be anything but "villain-types."

Though some "Rangers" serials maintain some steady subplots, MYSTIC's plotting is erratic at best. The first two-thirds of the serial waste a lot of time with wimpy opponents, and a boring subplot about one of the Ranger finding his parents during the various imbroglios. Only in the last third of the show does the script introduce a set of villains called "the Ten Terrors," who almost have a Lovecraftian Old-Gods vibe once or twice (possibly because the Japanese originals were some sort of Old Gods). But because these somewhat interesting foes are introduced so late, the scripts have to burn through them quickly.

The psychological function comes down to the teens confronting and solving various simple problems, but this is better done than MYSTIC's bland treatment of visual and narrative tropes from various magical systems.





Sunday, February 16, 2020

THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956)



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


THE MOLE PEOPLE is not so much the proverbial “silk purse made from a sow’s ear,” as it is a silk purse improbably stuck into a sow’s ear. By that I don’t mean that the directing of Virgil Vogel and the acting of the principal players prove to be as ghastly as some pig’s body-part. But both the performances and the direction remain essentially workmanlike and undistinguished. Lazlo Gorog’s script is the real star of this Universal venture into the “lost civilization” subgenre.

A lot of movies have formulated their own modern myths. However, it’s a rare film that manages to successfully translate the myths of ancient times. Lost civilization stories usually come up with societies made of a hodgepodge of Graeco-Roman motifs. In contrast, Gorog does his best to make THE MOLE PEOPLE a homage to the Babylonian deity Ishtar (called Innana by the preceding culture of the Sumerians). Though there are a few technical inaccuracies in Gorog’s fictional treatment of the goddess, Gorog comes closest to capturing the multivalent symbolism present in archaic cultures.

Though MOLE PEOPLE was not the first American film to deal with a version of the “hollow earth”theory, the film begins with a scientific lecturer elucidating the theory for the audience’s benefit. The lecture’s main points of interest is its validation of inner-earth fictional tales with reference to religious narratives concerning descent into the land of the dead-- appropriate in the case of THE MOLE PEOPLE, whose lost race is metaphorically a culture of the living dead. The lecture mentions both Dante’s Inferno and a similar descent-story featuring the hero Gilgamesh.
Yet surprisingly, the lecture  does not mention that Ishtar—the deity who dominates the main
narrative—is particularly famous for descending into the death-realm of her goddess-sister Ereshkigal. But then, in the film proper, the script’s concept of Ishtar is covalent with the mountain in which the lost race endures, which may be why the lecture-sequence concentrates on images of mortal men descending into a feminine-gendered underworld.

Unlike various mummy-films in which the tombs of the dead never wish to yield up their secrets, the Himalayan mountain Kuhitara sends tokens of invitation to those who venture close. In this case, the explorers comprise an American archaeological expedition. The scientists-- four in number, though only Bradley (John Agar) and Belliman (Hugh Beamont) are principal characters-- are investigating the possibility that Sumerian emigrants, escaping the devastation of the Biblical Flood, may have traveled to the great mountains to found a colony. None of the scientists expect to find anything but relics of those ancient denizens. The archaeologists first discover a cuneiform siele written by an ancient Sumerian king, promising doom to intruders. But before the foreigners even have the chance to trespass, an earthquake—which one of the scientists humorously associates with Ishtar—shakes the entire camp and destroys the stele. However, the quake also unearths an ancient lamp, on which the chronicle of the emigration is related. This second relic encourages the archaeologists—Bradley, Belliman and the other two-- to explore the mountain’s summit. Once there, a third relic, disclosed by a convenient avalanche, points the way to the abandoned portal of an archaic temple. Yet Ishtar-as-mountain proves so impatient for the modern men to trespass on her domain that the ground swallows up one of the scientists. This forces the other three—Belliman, Bentley and Lafarge-- to go on a spelunking journey to rescue the lost man. The lost scientist perishes in the fall, and Lafarge doesn’t live much longer than it takes for the scientists to discover a living Sumerian city beneath the mountain’s rocky exterior.

Up to this point Gorog is clearly drawing upon the Biblical story of the Flood, in which Noah’s Ark eventually comes to rest on a mountain, after which both human and animal denizens stream forth to repopulate a destroyed world. But Gorog's Sumerians offer not rebirth but stasis, in keeping with the majority of lost civilizations ever since Rider Haggard invented the subgenre,
The people within the mountain, who both keep slaves and are enslaved to their superstitions, no longer have any concept of a world outside their domain, believing that everything beyond their borders is the heavenly terrain of Ishtar. The ruling class is a race of albinos, due to their long exile from sunlight, and they are served by humanoids with claw-hands and mole-like features, the “Mole People” of the title. Belliman and Bentley never devote any time to wondering how, even in two thousand years, human beings could have ever taken on such theriomorphic shapes—but perhaps that’s because the moment the scientists are captured, the albino people try to kill them as demons. Only the fact that Bentley has a flashlight—whose radiance can blind both the albinos and the Mole People—keeps the explorers in one piece. The Sumerians honor the three scientists as emissaries of Ishtar, and when Lafarge dies in a mishap, the other two have to cover for his death by claiming that he returned to the goddess.

During this time of relative safety, Belliman and Bentley learn the ways of their worshipers/captors—how they eat and make clothes-- though again, nothing much is said about how the Mole People, known to the albinos as “the beasts of the dark,” came into being. The mole-men—who presumably have females, though none are clearly indicated—harvest mushroom-crops while being lashed by cruel overseers. It’s not clear if the Mole People eat mushrooms as well, though they do consume meat, since at one point they’re accused of despoiling an albino corpse. The albinos are dependent on the Mole People to harvest the crops, which suggests a rewriting of H.G. Wells’ Eloi-Morlocks trope, one in which the effete Eloi maintain control over the cannibalistic brutes. Further, though the albinos worship a goddess, none of the few women seen have any high status, and the only female character, the handmaiden Adad, is despised for being a throwback, having non-albino coloration. Bentley becomes friendly with Adad, and tries to teach her about the freedom of the individual and the wonders of the outside world. She, for her part, does not take long to realize that the two scientists are not gods—but neither does high priest Elinu (Alan Napier), who gets the idea of stealing the flashlight from the supposed “emissaries.”

Before the conflict between the newcomers and the old guard heats up, the script devotes considerable time to working out the system of worship. Ishtar is the mountain in which the albinos live, but she is also “married to the spirit of this world.” She is also the heavenly world beyond the limits of the mountain, and though the albinos have no concept of the sun as such, they reduce their surplus population by hurling sacrificial victims into “the Eye of Ishtar." This means exposing them to sunlight in a sacrificial chamber, so that the sacrifices burn to death. High priest Elinu presides over the executions by invoking a chevron-like symbol, called “the golden rod,”which seems to be a sort of stylized image of a thunderbolt, embodying the sun’s destructive power.

Despite the fact that the albinos are the only living humans still worshipping Ishtar, one gets the impression that she’s invited the scions of modern humanity into her bailiwick in order to ring down the curtain on this corrupt and backward society. Belliman and Bentley don’t confine their emancipatory sympathies to Adad, for they also defend the Mole People against Sumerian cruelty. This indirectly emboldens the monster-men—who possess rudimentary reasoning-powers—to rebel against their masters at last. Ironically, Belliman, Bentley and Adad are spared this violence because they’re sentenced to the sacrificial chamber, where the sun’s radiance has no negative effect upon their non-albino flesh.


However, in the end Ishtar proves to be a jealous god. From the sacrificial chamber the scientists and the ex-handmaiden escape to the surface of the mountain. Yet one last tremor panics Adad, so that she turns, like Lot’s wife, to look back at the place she came from. Adad, instead of getting turned into a pillar of salt, is crushed to death by a falling pillar of the temple’s exterior. Thus, even though two of the four delvers into ancient mysteries are allowed to return to the living world, the world of death claims its last daughter. It’s a conclusion that somewhat undermines the dominant reformatory spirit of the 1950s, insisting that the people of primal times cannot transition into the world of fast food and airplanes, but must, like the goddess, pass back into the domain of fable, legend and myth. 

Saturday, February 15, 2020

UNTAMED WOMEN (1952)



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


I saw UNTAMED WOMEN over twenty years ago, and barely remembered anything about it. The flick's reputation on IMDB and elsewhere is that it's just another cheap "prehistoric women in modern times" B-flick. One review claimed it didn't even rate that high among the best of the "so bad it's good" movies.

Certainly UNTAMED can't boast any great creative pedigree. This was the only metaphenomenal film directed by W. Merle Connel, a raconteur best known for fifties grindhouse fare like TEST TUBE BABIES and THE FLESH MERCHANT (though he contributed cinematographic work to THE UNEARTHLY and THE CAPE CANAVERAL MONSTERS). Writer George Wallace Sayre worked exclusively in B-level fare. with his best known metaphenomenal credit being 1939's THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, though his best script might be NEARLY EIGHTEEN, a 1943 Gale Storm comedy vehicle.

And certainly Sayre's concept of an amazon society is no better than it has to be. Following the opening part of a frame-story related by Steve Holloway, the only survivor from a lost bomber-plane, Sayre and Connell depict Holloway and three other survivors set adrift after their plane's shot down. The four men find their way to an island rife, like King Kong's skull-shaped domain, with prehistoric creatures. A few of them are recycled from ONE MILLION B,C, though as far as I can tell, the giant armadillos are a new touch.

However, like the title says, the "Untamed Women" present the story's main problem. Certainly it's risible when Sayre's script tells us that these young women are the survivors of a colony of Druid pioneers, not to mention that all of the women speak perfect English, albeit sprinkled with an occasional "ye" or "thou." Moreover, some of these spear-wielding babes have archaic-sounding cognomens like Tennus and Valdra, while others have modern names like Myra and Sandra (the latter being the name of the tribe's high priestess).

In addition, Sayre also seems to be going for something like Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Caspak" books, wherein tribes from different time-frames converged without much rhyme or reason. Though the colony has apparently remained hidden from other civilizations since the days of ancient Rome, within the last few years the tribe's men were all wiped out by an invasion of "Hairy Men" from some other island. While the Untamed Women are wear cute cavegirl cutoffs, the Hairy Men, when seen at the conclusion, look like rude, crude, and extremely lewd Neanderthals.

Yet, despite all the absurdities of the setup, I felt like Sayre and Connell were trying to give the viewer a good ride for his buck. Though the concept is set up to give the modern males a chance to come to the defense of the lissome cave-ladies, Sayre goes in some interesting directions. While most of the women are instantly captivated by the new arrivals-- showing an admirable commitment to monogamy by suggesting that they all draw lots for their future husbands-- high priestess Sandra tries to get rid of the guys by sending them into the "Valley of Monsters." It's not entirely clear why she does so, though one of her lines-- describing soldiers as men who "attack, kill, enslave and exile" the people-- suggests that an early encounter with the Hairy Men embittered her against the male gender. The average "amazon society" would venture to reform the pissed-off matriarch by having the modern-day "alpha male"-- in this case, Holloway-- introduce the high priestess to true love. But though we see a few sparks between Holloway and Sandra, they get no romantic scenes, which are left to the other three guys after the women rescue the men from one of the giant dinos.

The Hairy Men invade, and get routed by the servicemen and their guns. However, Holloway points out that ammunition is limited and that sooner or later, the bad cavemen will win. As if to keep the villains from enjoying total victory, the cave-girls pray to their sun god, who apparently causes a local volcano to erupt and wipe out the whole island, thus giving the Amazons a sort of pyrrhic victory. Only Holloway survives in the same life-raft that brought him to the Untamed Island, and the film ends in real time, with his testimony getting validated by a handy archaeological expert.

Connel's direction is actually pretty good within the limits of his budget, and the actors, mostly minor players who were never even modest "names," generally play the melodrama straight, to reasonably decent effect. There are, to be sure, some goofy lines in the script, the best being "Shoot anything with hair that moves." Yet I think Sayre was pretty creative overall in his take on the Amazon-tribe trope. Though these cave-babes aren't nearly as tough as the WILD WOMEN of the previous year, Sayre keeps working in asides about powerful women  Holloway's story begins with his doctor asking him about "Lucy," who turns out not to be a flesh-and-blood woman, but Holloway's bomber-plane, given more female associations in that its bombs are called "eggs" by Benny, the film's comedy relief. This denizen of Brooklyn also voices a lot of gynophobic remarks, remarking that the Amazons want to turn all the men into "hors d'oeuvres," or talking about he got his ass kicked on a date with a female "wrassler." There's a brief reference to a sacrificial Druid altar, though nothing comes of this. Most interestingly, Sayre devotes several minutes to the Oedipal complex of one guy, Ed by name. After unburdening himself to Holloway about how his mother tried to run his life and keep him away from other women, Ed walks out into the jungle by himself. He pulls out a photo of his mother and casts it to the ground. However, he thinks better of the action and re-pockets the photo-- at which point he's attacked by a man-eating plant that engulfs his face within its leafy fronds. I'm sure the actor doesn't struggle because he would've torn up the phony plant-creature just by breathing hard. But for the character Ed-- whose name even sounds like that of Oedipus--, getting almost smothered by a man-eater seems almost like poetic destiny.

Friday, February 7, 2020

BLACK MAGIC (1949)



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


"Orson Welles, superhero."

Okay, I just had to write that line, even though it's not literally true. To be sure, at least one intellectual, Antonio Gramsci claimed that the character Welles plays in BLACK MAGIC-- the character of Cagliostro, as fictionalized in Alexandre Dumas's 1846 JOSEPH BALSAMO-- to be an example of a 19th-century "superman." But Cagliostro, a.k.a. the gypsy hypnotist Joseph Balsamo, uses his unique gifts for evil, and thus BLACK MAGIC can be accurately described as--

"Orson Welles, supervillain."

BLACK MAGIC begins with half of a frame-story, not unlike that of 1935's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, in that the frame starts out with author Alexandre Dum as talking about how his great creation Cagliostro seemed to escape him. However, the film ends without returning to Dumas.

Welles, then forty-four years old and not yet as heavyset as he would become in future decades, plays Joseph Balsamo as a crafty gypsy whose people have been perpetually mistreated by the non-gypsy populace of France. As a child Joseph saw both his mother and father executed by the will of a petty nobleman, Montagne, because Joseph's mother predicted a child's death and was therefore accused of being a witch. Child Joseph is spared when his fellow gypsies rescue him from the French soldiers, but vows vengeance on Montagne. Years later, when Joseph has become an adult, he develops a rude version of hypnotic skill, and the real-life French physician Doctor Mesmer (founder of "mesmerism") sees Joseph demonstrate his powers. Mesmer wants Joseph to hone his talents so that the two of them can use hypnotism in medical treatments. Joseph, who's never given his ability much thought, realizes that if he can impress this wealthy gadjo, he can impress others, and so he rejects Mesmer's offer.

Years later, Joseph has assumed the name of Cagliostro, and has garnered fame and wealth through alleviating people's ills with the power of suggestion. This fame brings Joseph back to his long deferred desire for vengeance, for the nobleman Montagne summons Cagliostro to treat a comatose young woman, Lorenza. Joseph represses his desire for immediate revenge, studies Lorenza and realizes that she's a dead ringer for Marie Antoinette, who will ascend to the rank of France's queen when her husband's father Louis XV passes on. Since Lorenza is useless to Montagne unless Joseph can release the woman from her coma, the ambitious gypsy deals himself in on the plot of Montagne and his co-conspirator Madame DuBarry, which involves a complicated scheme to defame the queen.

As part of the deal, Montagne has to get the famed "Cagliostro" an invitation to attend the court of Louis XV. Local Parisian doctors arrange a hoax to expose the supposed healer's fakery, by presenting Joseph with nobles dressed up like suffering wretches. But Joseph has the last laugh, for after the court's had a good guffaw at his expense, the hypnotist places one of the impostors under his mental control, forcing the unwilling nobleman to act like a dog. This impresses Louis XV and awes the court, though this doesn't help Joseph much when, some days later, the current king dies and Louis XVI ascends to the throne. Marie Antoinette doesn't like the alleged healer, so Joseph and Montagne initiate their plan to embarrass the queen, which in a roundabout way is supposed to bring them great temporal power.

On a side note, though Joseph does bring Lorenza out of her coma, he also falls in love with her, and keeps her under his psychic thrall. However, Lorenza has an age-appropriate love, Gilbert of the royal guards, and Joseph eventually hypnotizes the young woman into marrying him, the better to discourage the young swain.

Though the plot proceeds to some extent, Joseph and Montagne are both accused of conspiracy. Joseph easily escapes jail and for good measure forces his old enemy to commit suicide. However, eventually Joseph/Cagliostro is brought to trial, though the authors of the villain's downfall are both Gilbert and Joseph's short-lived mentor Mesmer.

I skimmed the ending of Dumas's BALSAMO-- which probably is no better a rendering of historical fact than BLACK MAGIC-- and I'm reasonably sure the book doesn't end in as combative a manner as the film, which boasts both a hypnotist-battle between the villain and Mesmer and a sword-fight between Joseph and Gilbert. Wikipedia mentions that both Welles and director Gregory Ratoff rewrote the script credited to two other writers, and I would guess that someone behind the scenes wanted BLACK MAGIC to conform to the model of Dumas's best known work, THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Rumor has it that Welles directed parts of the film, but though MAGIC is a better-than-average swashbuckler, its direction isn't all that distinguished. The film's greatest significance may be as a possible inspiration to the Marvel supervillain Doctor Doom. Doom's origin, analyzed here, starts with Doom as a gypsy boy whose dead mother actually was a witch, after which the future supervillain grows to manhood, confounds the local nobles with his scientific wizardry, and eventually rules the country-- only to fall victim to a fate closer to that of Dumas's MAN IN THE IRON MASK.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

THE BLACK ALLEYCATS (1973), WOMEN IN CAGES (1971)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


In this essay I'll look at two films which put lots of female pulchritude on display, yet do so to very different ends.

BLACK ALLEYCATS uses the twin tropes of victimization and vigilante justice to entertain a presumably male audience with lots of female nudity. Though ALLEYCATS is badly filmed, recorded, written and acted, it does accomplish that one goal, and, unlike a number of films from the time period, does choose some young no-name actresses who are attractive even with their clothes on.

Four women-- all clad in identical garments, later seen to be a boarding school uniform-- are minding their own business, walking a street in some big city, when a male gang pursues them. The nasty fellows waylay the girls in a warehouse and rape them (mostly off-camera). The four women then take crash courses in armed and unarmed combat, and then don black masks and jackets. In these outfits the ladies-- calling themselves the Black Alleycats, even though two are white and two are black-- track down the rapists and beat them up, but don't bother filing charges with the cops.

This is the last time the Alleycats show off even badly-filmed martial arts. After the presumed rush they get from vigilantism, the ladies decide to start fighting petty criminals like numbers runners, holding up the crooks at gunpoint. But the script doesn't explore the usual criminal retaliation. Instead, it works as many peepshow scenes as possible, mostly at the boarding school, where they butt heads with another young woman, resulting in a short catfight. However, the four female felines find out that Girl Number Five has been victimized by a criminal doctor and his wife, who are blackmailing her to perform sexual acts. So the Alleycats induct Girl Five into the group and confront the doctor at his home. Finding that the doctor has some aphrodisiac on hand, they force the doc and his wife to take it, so that the two are humping like bunnies when the cops show up to arrest them. Not sure any evidence is presented for a trial, but by that time, who's thinking any more?

The only principal actor known to me was softcore specialist Marsha Jordan, playing the doctor's wife. If these vigilante vixens didn't wear masks, I might demur from considering them within the uncanny domain of the "outre outfit." Still, even though the masks are so large that it doesn't seem that the girls could possibly see out of them-- the only real amusement in the flick-- those accoutrements still put the Black Alleycats in the same category as more laudable creations like Zorro and the Spider.




WOMEN IN CAGES was apparently filmed slightly after Corman's seminal THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, using both the same Philippine locations and three of the same actresses, Judy Brown, Roberta Collins, and Pam Grier. However, whereas Grier played a minor role in HOUSE-- so minor that I don't even consider her a member of the starring ensemble-- she's essentially the star of the show here. I suspect that some person behind the scenes-- be it Corman or director Gerardo de Leon-- instructed the film's writers to build up the warden's part, whether it was to promote Grier or just to vary the formula a bit.

Certainly the viewpoint character Carol "Jeff" Jeffries (Jennifer Gan) doesn't stand out, save in terms of how naive she is. Her gangster boyfriend, about to be caught by the cops while carrying drugs, passes the illegal substances to Jeff and lets her take the rap. Not only does he allow her to be sentenced to a Manila prison, where prisoners are tortured if they don't behave and cut sugar cane, the creep even colludes with another female prisoner, a junkie, to assassinate Jeff.

For some time prior to the assassination, Jeff assumes that her boyfriend will appeal her case, which proves a source of great amusement to her cellmates: Teresa (Sofia Moran), Sandy (Brown), and Stoke (Collins), the would-be assassin-junkie. After Stoke's attempt to poison Jeff fails, Jeff belatedly grows a spine and plans a way to escape imprisonment, even taking Stoke along with her. The convicts face danger not only from the hostile terrain, but also from local poachers, who are awarded a bounty for capturing or killing prisoners. But the alternative is to remain in cages, where the convicts are continually brutalized by Alabama (Grier), the head matron. (A warden is only briefly seen; a dour Filipino woman who barely registers as a character.)

I argue that Alabama is the starring character of CAGES because, even though she's not the head of the prison, she's the one who makes it a hell on earth. The viewer knows nothing about Alabama except that she's an American Black, and claims to have been "strung out on smack" and to have been raped by a white man (though these claims may be linked to a possible prostitute past). She also hates white girls from her country, though she never articulates what they did to her, aside from not having been forced to grow up in the squalor of Harlem. Still, she goes out of her way to subject the white prisoners to such tortures as fire, electrocution, and even a gladiatorial-looking trident. The name "Alabama" is peculiar since Grier's character never sounds Southern in the least, and if she was given the name to denote her low status as the offspring of slaves, one wonders why she kept the name in the Philippines, where she could've called herself any damn thing. Alabama provides the film with the requisite lesbian sex scenes, since she has a regular thing with non-white prisoner Teresa. However, Alabama shows sadistic cruelty even to a fellow "woman of color," taunting Teresa with the possibility that Alabama may reject Teresa from her bed in favor of Stoke-- prompting one of the requisite catfights. In BIG DOLL HOUSE the mysterious warden tortured her female charges just for Sadean jollies. But when Alabama punishes white girls, her sadism seems tied to the idea of revolution against Caucasian hegemony.

When the big break comes, the convicts manage to drag Alabama along as a hostage, though they end up leaving her behind for the poachers to kill. In an oddly emotional scene, Teresa can't desert her former lover, but she and Alabama perish anyway.  The escapees make their way to the gangster-boyfriend's prostitution-boat, possibly with revenge in mind. Yet though two prisoners escape with their lives, the film ends with a harsh scene undermining female empowerment, as a drugged-up hooker on the boat is about to be violated by a Filipino john. It's an odd ending for a film within the generally escapist WIP genre, and seems to be a loose indictment of male hegemony as a whole.

The torture sequences qualify in my system for naturalistic versions of the "bizarre crimes" trope.