Thursday, April 23, 2015

THE STRANGE DOOR (1951), THE BLACK CASTLE (1952)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


In 1948 Universal essentially "exorcised" its own reputation for horror-franchises by subjecting its most famous monsters to Abbott and Costello. And for the next three years, Abbott and Costello films were the only outlets for Universal horror. Then in 1951 and 1952, Universal made two period-dramas with horror elements. The films's main appeal seems to be oriented toward the swashbucklers of the decade, which unlike horror films were reasonably popular across the board. Both films were the first metaphenomenal films for their respective directors, though only one of the two became famous for his output in that department.

I have not read the Robert Louis Stevenson story on which THE STRANGE DOOR is based, though some reviews state that the film has ratcheted up the torture elements. But DOOR is unquestionably the stronger of the two films. The title refers to a concealed door in the castle of the Sire de Maletroit, an eighteenth-century nobleman who maintains a medieval attitude toward torture-devices. He also keeps his own brother Edmond confined in a dungeon, while creating the fiction that he is dead. He does this because he wanted the woman his brother married, and so comes up with a complicated plan of revenge. Maletroit has raised Edmond's daughter Blanche-- who looks exactly like her deceased mother-- to adulthood, but has done so so that he may despoil her in marriage. However, Maletroit doubtless knows that society would not approve of an uncle marrying his own niece, so he tries to blackmail a young wastrel, Denis de Beaulieu, to do his dirty work for him. However, Denis and Blanche fall in love, which means that the evil nobleman must come up with a new plan.

Boris Karloff has a supporting role as Voltan, a servant who is still loyal to Edmond, but the role is very underwritten despite the character's importance to the plot. Even one of Maletroit's lackeys, Talon (Michael Pate), gets better characterization. Richard Wyler does nicely as the young swain reformed by love, but this is entirely a Charles Laughton vehicle. And while Laughton does use some of his favorite acting-tricks-- lounging on a table a la Doctor Moreau-- he invests the villain with a great deal of humanity, particularly toward the end, when Maletroit realizes some of the folly of his actions.

Director Joseph Pevney brings a sort of low-budget flair to the proceedings, but did not return to metaphenomenal subject matter until he started directing for television shows like THE MUNSTERS and STAR TREK.



In contrast, director Nathan Juran became quite well known for his 1950s fantasy-works, particularly THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, as did his producer on THE BLACK CASTLE, William Alland. Yet they seemed out of their depth in these mordant Gothic settings, and the script, though written by the same fellow who adapted Stevenson, lacked the psychological tension seen in STRANGE DOOR.

This time, a British agent named Burton is sent to Austria to investigate the doings of Count Von Bruno, with whom Burton contended in colonial Africa. The implication is that Von Bruno practiced some atrocities on the natives, in contrast to the more enlightened British regime, making this somewhat in the territory of Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS. The backstory, however, is only an excuse to motivate Von Bruno in acts of revenge against certain British officers who fought against in Africa. Burton, who never met Von Bruno personally, mounts an investigation of the missing officers. While Von Bruno tries to find ways to discreetly murder the young officer, his young wife Elga begins to show a strong interest in Burton.

Richard Greene, playing Burton, attempted to bring to this role some of the swashbuckling brio he put across in his ROBIN HOOD teleseries, but the character is bland. A more melodramatic actor than Stephen McNally might have saved CASTLE, but McNally lacks the needed intensity, while horror-stalwarts Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. are sidelined in supporting roles. There's a fair amount of action, and a Romeo-and-Juliet schtick where Burton and Elga fakes their deaths with drugs that slow their reactions. But CASTLE proved unviting to audiences, and there were no more in this "series."

TOWER OF LONDON (1939), NIGHT KEY (1937)



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


I mentioned the Rowland V. Lee TOWER OF LONDON while reviewing Roger Corman's same-name film, noting in passing that the Lee-directed work benefited from a more rounded cast of characters. I didn't remember for certain that Lee's version of Richard III didn't see ghosts of his murdered victims, as did the versions depicted by Shakespeare and Corman, and indeed, Lee's historical-drama-with-horrific-touches is firmly naturalistic in every way.

But though I enjoyed many of the character touches of the 1939 TOWER OF LONDON, it' doesn't always manage its many characters all that well, TOWER's script isn't directly based on the Bard's RICHARD III, but it could have used some of Shakespeare's ability to imbue even minor characters with distinct emotional attitudes. Far too many incidental "royal" characters are flung at the audience, and Lee doesn't manage to clarify the political situation in the days of Plantagenet England. Sadly, like many Universal films, the emotional core of "what's at stake" is concentrated upon the fate of two dewy-eyed young lovers, neither of whom sustained my interest.

With so many ill-defined "good" characters swarming about, the audience can't help but be most interested in the villains, Basil Rathbone's Richard III and Boris Karloff's fictional "Mord the Executioner," both of whom manifest the trope of "freakish flesh" in its naturalistic manifestation. As if to explain the alliance of this unholy duo, Richard's famed hunchback is given its mirror in his henchman's club-foot. Mord does all of Richard's dirty work within the torture chambers of the titular tower, and even maintains a curious "beggars' army" that he can use to spread rumors that work to Richard's advantage. Strangely, though Rathbone got better scenes than Karloff when the two actors collaborated that same year with Lee on SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, Lee's script gives both actors good scenes. Yet Rathbone, perhaps because he's made to play the usurper as both an insidious schemer and a courageous fighter, doesn't succeed in giving audiences a memorable Richard. Karloff's Mord, however, steals every scene he's in, playing a character who seems as if he's brutalized his own potential humanity through his acts of brutality-- which, in a roundabout way, would seem to be in tune with the moral of Shakespeare's play.




NIGHT KEY by comparison is very small beer indeed, Some Karloff fans have enjoyed him best when he played basically benevolent men who overreach themselves, as he did in THE APE. For my money, though, these are some of Karloff's most monotonous performances, and David Mallory of NIGHT KEY may be a low point here.

Karloff plays David Mallory, an electronics expert with a grown daughter, Jean. They live a low-income existence because fifteen years ago Mallory's last great discovery, a complex "electric eye" alarm system, was taken over by his business partner. the oddly-named Steven Ranger, in such a way that Mallory got nothing. Mallory then spent the ensuing time trying to devise an even more improved alarm-system, in the hope of lifting himself and Jean out of penury. We also later learn that Mallory and Ranger were once competitors for a woman, and that this woman became the mother of Jean, meaning that Mallory won that contest. So, given these two points of contention between Mallory and Ranger, you wouldn't think that the scientist, worried about his failing eyesight, would seek out Ranger to exploit his new alarm-system.

Yet, even with the advice of a lawyer, Mallory gets swindled again. Ranger buys the new system so that he can keep Mallory from marketing it elsewhere, perhaps in part because of his old grudge about Jean's mother-- though he never admits as much.  Mallory tries to reason with Ranger, but apparently Mallory's lawyer didn't read the contract very well. Mallory warns his old partner that he can "destroy what he created."

Just as Ranger prepares a big press event to celebrate his current alarm-system, Mallory uses a sort of "override mechanism" to short-circuit the alarm. He also frees a petty crook, name of Petty Louie, from incarceration, but does so only to embarrass Ranger. After ruining the demonstration, Mallory then uses the override device to infiltrate businesses with the system, not stealing anything but leaving behind mocking notes. Petty Louie goes along with him, providing the film with some much-needed humor when he tries to swipe things, much like the proverbial kid in the candy store.

The cops go looking for Mallory, and so does a security officer who works for Ranger, one Travers. Travers courts Mallory's daughter Jean and tries to arrange a deal for Ranger to give Mallory immunity from prosecution if the scientist will stop messing around. However, hard-core crooks get wind of Mallory's override device-- the "night key" of the title-- and capture both Mallory and Petty Louie, in order to force the scientist to open the vaults of the city to them.

The romantic subplot is not much more interesting than Karloff's befuddled scientist routine, and the crime story distracts from the nastiness of Steven Ranger, who seems a worse menace insofar as he commits "crimes" under the aegis of "good business."  I realize that a feature that's barely over an hour can't adequately comment on the evils of capitalism. I just find it more satisfying when the cheating capitalists are knocked off by mad scientists, rather than publicly chastised.

Aside from the comic moments of Hobart Cavanaugh's goofy crook, NIGHT KEY is mostly interesting for showing the status of electronics in the days before integrated circuits, much less microchips. Yet what Mallory's invention does is functionally indistinguishable from the modern "computer override," so I regard it as an "uncanny" device rather than a "marvelous" one. In John Stanley's CREATURE FEATURES the author incorrectly claims that Mallory uses a "death ray" against his crook-captors, but it's just a big showy electrical discharge, not a ray of any kind.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

THE JUNGLE CAPTIVE (1945)



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


I managed to get a fair amount of mileage out of the first two chapters of Universal's Ape Woman series, respectively in CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN and JUNGLE WOMAN. But my review for the last in the series, JUNGLE CAPTIVE, will be one of my shortest, because there's just not that much one can say about this phoned-in entry.

Once again, Paula's corpse is exhumed by a scientific researcher with ideas about using it for some project that may benefit humanity in future, even if he has to kill a few people to get there. In contrast to the previous film, though, mad scientist Stendahl doesn't manage to get Paula Dupree on her feet to menace handsome swains. Once he's brought Paula back to life, she doesn't have much strength, though she does get up and wander the grounds a few times before being brought back. Finally he decides to revert her to ape-hood, which, as shown above, results in his own demise.

With a monster-star who's so conspicuously sidelined, CAPTIVE can only attempt menace by giving the mad doctor a stooge to commit his murders. This job falls to Rondo Hatton, strangely given the name of the Semitic god Moloch, usually associated with child-sacrifice. Moloch's character type is basically lifted from DRACULA's Renfield, in that he falls in love with the film's leading lady, and turns on Stendahl when the doctor menaces her. Just like Renfield, he's killed by Stendahl not longer before his evil leader himself buys it.

Harold Young's direction is competent but so uninspired that even Reginald LeBorg-- not exactly known for being a kinetic director-- looks good by comparison. Aside from Hatton, there's a little fun to be had in spotting other character-actors like Ottor Kruger, Jerome Cowan and Eddie Acuff. Oh, and while JUNGLE WOMAN went out its way to rewrite everything in CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, JUNGLE CAPTIVE returns the favor by going back to the original "Doctor Walters" scenario and ignoring almost everything in the middle film. What goes around, and all that.

THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955)



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


THIS ISLAND EARTH presents a tough puzzle to the would-be solver of cinematic mysteries. On one hand, ISLAND is one of the seminal films to emerge from the 1950s, when Hollywood formed its first enduring investment in the science-fiction genre. Yet, in contrast to some of the other  “A-level” films that preceded it, such as 1951’s WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and 1953’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (both produced by George Pal), ISLAND’s theme is hard to read, and its narrative lurches erratically from incident to incident, as one might expect of a cheaper B-film.

       Some of the film’s narrative eccentricities may be explained by its attempt to transform its source material, a series of SF-novelettes by Raymond F. Jones. This series, which I have not read, took a rather Wellsian tack on the politics of the World War II conflict. In Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS, Earth is invaded by technologically superior Martians in the same way that technologically superior Europeans invaded Third World countries. Jones goes further by imagining Earth in the position of a Pacific island being fought over by two technologically superior alien races. The conclusion of Jones’ narrative gives his Earthmen a little more agency than Wells does: Jones’ story ends with its main characters Cal Meacham and Ruth Adams convincing the more benign alien power to defend Earth against its enemy.

         ISLAND keeps the source work’s basic setup. insofar as having the benign aliens approach several Earth-scientists and try to enlist their research against the malign aliens. However, ISLAND’s latter half takes a darker, possibly even more Wellsian turn than the Jones narrative. From my point of view, this would seem to be the influence of the film’s producer William Alland.

Neither the scripters that adapted the Jones story nor director Joseph M. Newman had previously attempted SF-themed material, but ISLAND’s producer had already delved into the genre successfully with 1953’s IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and the first two “Creature from the Black Lagoon” films. All three of these films kept their action centered upon Earth, as modern mortals are forced to contend with stranded aliens in OUTER SPACE and with a primeval fish-humanoid in the “Creature” flicks.. Thus ISLAND marks Alland’s attempt to delve into the more apocalyptic terrains exploited by the aforementioned George Pal. No one can state with certainty that Alland consciously sought to emulate Pal. However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that ISLAND’s script includes various tropes of religiosity similar to those evoked in the Pal productions. It may also be significant that such tropes are not abundant in Alland’s previous three SF-films.
 
That said, ISLAND overlays the sociological theme of the Jones story with a quasi-metaphysical pattern, in which aliens assume the role of forbidding “angels” who dispense forbidden knowledge and threaten to subvert Earth’s dominion with their heavenly, albeit hardly divine, powers. It’s a pattern that diverges from Pal’s unequivocal Christian religiosity, and suggests in part that the aliens’ advancement into higher technology may portend dire consequences for those humans who follow their example.

Whatever the film’s divergences from the Jones novel, it keeps the same names for the story’s viewpoint characters, Cal Meacham and Ruth Adams. The film begins by focusing on Cal, depicting him as a combination brain-boy and daredevil. He’s first seen being interviewed by reporters on the scientific conference he’s just attended. However, less anyone think that the life of the mind might be unmanly, Cal gives the interview while he gets ready to fly his own jet plane back to his research laboratory. A reporter avers that Cal’s specialty is electronics, and he talks like an engineer who hopes to make possible the “pushbutton age,” by finding ways to channel atomic energy into practical use. However, later he will sound less like an engineer and more like a physicist—or even an alchemist—since his current project is to find a way to transform lead into uranium.

Cal flies back to his research lab, where he’s apparently the only one in authority, since his assistant Joe calls him “boss” and no other supervisor is seen. Indeed, only Joe and one other man are present at the lab’s landing field when Joe flies overhead. His jet conks out after he buzzes the landing-tower, but he doesn’t crash because he’s upheld by a strange green light that lowers him safely to the ground. Joe and the other fellow witness the event, and Joe fearfully invokes both “flying saucers” and the fear of being taken to the “booby hatch.” Cal apparently doesn’t want to be tagged as a saucer-spotter, for he tells his subordinates to remain “blind” to the miracle.

 Cal takes the miracle in his stride and tries to go back to his more mundane, if potentially world-transforming, project. But the same power that saved his life contacts him in an equally mundane manner: sending Cal technology through the U.S. mail. Cal is intrigued enough to use that technology to assemble a futuristic viewing-scope. Through this device he first sees the face of Exeter, a high-domed humanoid who invites Cal to join a fraternity of scientists devoted to the “end of war.” Though Cal hasn’t expressed any opinions on the subject of war thus far, he is, unlike Joe, highly motivated by curiosity. Later in the film, Exeter will appeal explicitly to curiosity as a vital human trait. However, even while Exeter voices an opposition to warlike violence, he demonstrates a destructive power by automatically reducing the communication device to slag, so that Cal and his assistant can’t make further use of the advanced technology.

Cal keeps a rendezvous with a robotically operated plane that takes him down south, to a sumptuous estate in Georgia. As he debarks the plane, he remarks to the person he meets that he half expected to end up on Neptune or Mars. Together with Joe’s  “flying saucer” comment, these are the only direct allusions to matters extraterrestrial in the film’s first half. At first Cal doesn’t recognize the woman who meets him at the Georgia airfield, but he belatedly recollects that she is Ruth Adams, who was, like him, an attendee of another scientific conference four or five years ago. Ruth admits that she was at the conference but doesn’t admit having made Cal’s acquaintance, particularly since he says that they went swimming together. This seems to have been less than a date but a little more than a casual interaction: later the tentative nature of their first meeting is described by Cal as “holding hands.” Cal can’t figure out any good reason for Ruth’s feminine reticence but it casts the first of many clouds upon his new place of employment. The second appears when Cal and Ruth arrive at the Georgia estate. Cal meets many cheery scientists of diverse disciplines, but he also sees a sullen fellow named Brack, another high-domed fellow who is apparently second in command to Exeter.

It’s at the point that Cal arrives that this rather leisurely film accelerates. Hitherto, Cal’s alien patrons were apparently content to play a long con: giving Cal plenty of time to order parts, build the communications device, etc. But mere moments after Exeter gives Cal the welcoming speech, Exeter’s own boss calls Exeter on the carpet. Speaking through another future-scope, an arrogant fellow called “the Monitor” reams Exeter out for not having finished the necessary research. Through this conversation we learn that the Monitor expects Exeter to subject all of the scientists to brainwashing, and that Exeter has not done so. Exeter, like many a middle-management employee saddled with an arrogant boss, tries to explain that human beings need free will in order to make the deductive leaps that the project requires. The Monitor won’t have it and demands that Exeter follow through with “Plan A,” which is basically the same as Cal’s own project: seeking to mass-manufacture uranium.

Cal meets privately with Ruth and another scientist, Carlson, who are two of the technicians whom Exeter chose not to brainwash. Ruth confesses that she does remember him, but that she wasn’t sure that he might not have already been subjected to the mental conditioning. The three of them lay plans to escape the installation. Meanwhile, Brack and Exeter confer, and while Brack, like the Monitor, believes in total control of the inferior human breed, Exeter again argues that it defeats their purpose. Then the Monitor contacts them, announcing that they must abandon “Plan A” and proceed to the “alternate plan.” This involves destroying the whole installation and all of its brainwashed scientists, and bringing back to the aliens’ homeworld the only two scientists who seemed capable of unlocking the secret of mass-produced uranium: Cal and Ruth.

It’s night-time when Cal, Ruth, and Carlson steal a car and try to escape the estate, so apparently all of this rapid-fire shuffling of plans has transpired in one day; before Cal has had time to touch a capacitor. Brack gets the chance to show what he really thinks of inferior Earthlings: firing remote-controlled rays at the fleeing car. Lest anyone think this goes against the plan of keeping Cal and Ruth alive, Cal yells, “He’s playing with us,” so that members of the audience won’t get the wrong idea. Carlson doesn’t apprehend that there’s safety in unity, though, for he adjures Cal and Ruth to get out of the car; then drives on, giving Brack the perfect excuse to annihilate him. For good measure, Brack also uses the ray to zap one of the scientists who’s wandering about on the estate. Then the aliens—“Metalunans,” as they’ll soon be dubbed—ascend into the sky via a flying saucer and the whole installation blows up.

Cal and Ruth get to the estate’s airfield and try to escape in a plane, but the saucer simply beams them aboard in a scene that may’ve influenced STAR TREK’s transporter-beam. Then, and only then, does Exeter reveal to the stunned humans that they are pawns in an armed conflict between the Metalunans and their enemies, the Zagons. Cal rebukes Exeter for the slaughter of the scientists. Exeter regretfully protests that “we’re not all masters of our souls,” and he adds insult to injury by claiming that he learned that phrase on Earth.

As the saucer zooms off to Metaluna in “another solar system,” the script tells the audience nothing about how this “war in heaven” came about, though Exeter claims that his people did try to make peace with the Zagons. The Zagons are never seen; all the audience knows of them is that they somehow take control of space-meteors and use them to bombard the surface of Metaluna, which can only repel these attacks with its nuclear-powered “ionization layer.”  The Zagons seem less like sentient beings than forces of nature inimical to life, and Exeter’s only allusion to their origins is that “their planet was once a comet.” This declaration makes for astoundingly bad science, but it’s just possible that the scripters, consciously or subconsciously seeking religious metaphors, were aligning the Zagons with the phenomena of “shooting stars”—i.e., comets and meteors—because such phenomena are mythically associated with devils through the Biblical phrase, “How art thou fallen, O Lucifer son of morning.” Curiously, during the flight to Metaluna Exeter protests that it doesn’t matter whether the humans consider him “a devil or a saint,” suggesting that such religion-based metaphors occupied the scripters’ minds more as they ventured into the space “beyond the moon.”

Once Cal and Ruth are taken to Metaluna, they get more nasty shocks. Not only does the ruling Monitor intend to brainwash them so that they’ll cook up the uranium he needs, there’s no longer the implication that the Metalunans only want to defend themselves or defeat the Zagons. Rather, the Monitor decrees that the remaining populace of his planet will soon relocate to Earth. Exeter weakly protests that it will be a “peaceful relocation,” but even he doesn’t believe it. The Monitor sneers at humans for believing themselves superior to all other life-forms, and compares them to “children looking through a magnifying glass”—presumably at themselves, though the metaphor is pretty strained. In his only direct religious reference, Cal portentously states that “Our size is the size of our God.” The Monitor is not impressed and orders Exeter to take the humans away for re-programming.

Exeter does as he’s ordered, but he protests that he’ll try to find some way around the command. Cal and Ruth try to make a break and are corralled by the Metaluna Mutant, an unintelligent humanoid insect-creature who has apparently been assigned to back up the Monitor’s orders. However, before Cal and Ruth can be brainwashed, a Zagon bombardment smashes into their corridor. The blast injures the Mutant and possibly Exeter, and kills the Monitor on his cosmic throne. Cal and Ruth flee again. The blast apparently shakes Exeter out of his belief that he can work around his superiors’ evil dictates. He finally convinces the humans to return to the saucer, so that he can take them back home.

However, while the saucer is in progress back to Earth, the Metaluna Mutant refuses to say die, having somehow followed the threesome onto the ship. He only lives long enough to threaten the life of Ruth, who fulfills her function as “defenseless female” by screaming a lot. But the ship’s change in pressure kills the Mutant, and from there it’s smooth sailing back to Earth. Cal and Ruth try to persuade Exeter to return with them, but he demurs. It’s not clear whether he’s wounded unto death or simply doesn’t want to live apart from his people, but while the humans fly to safety in their airplane, Exeter sends the saucer into a death-dive.

In a structural sense ISLAND is deeply flawed: its leisurely beginning makes all the later events seem rushed and helter-skelter. The fact that Cal and Ruth travel all the way to an alien world and then flee it almost as quickly flies in the face of the audience’s desire to see more of this fantastic setting. Although Exeter’s change of heart is the core of the film’s emotional arc, and actor Rex Reason has a few strong moments, the script doesn’t devote enough time to make the changeover seem inevitable.

Yet, even though the script doesn’t make the most of its weighty symbolic discourse, the potential is plainly evident. The Metalunans possess the very “pushbutton age” that Earthmen strive after, but as a consequence the Metalunans have become indifferent to the suffering of others, like the Monitor, or even borderline-sadistic, like Brack. Given that in the 1950s it was the Americans who consistently pitched the idea of the highly-automated “pushbutton age,” then it follows that the Metalunans stand as a negative image of what Americans in particular might become. They are the alien version of “ugly Americans” who make grand promises to less technologically advanced people but are truly defined by a desire to make all others conform to their will. They believe that their own ends justify anything, and it may not be coincidence that the Metalunans are strongly associated with tropes of slavery: the aliens make their headquarters on a Georgian estate, where Exeter speaks of “cracking the whip” when Cal begins to work under them, while on Metaluna the planet’s denizens have specifically bred a race of beings to be servants.

The religious references suggest another line of inquiry. Since none of the characters are ostensibly religious, in contrast to the devoted Christians of the George Pal films, what does it mean when Cal tells the Monitor, “Our size is the size of our God?” On one level he could be simply stating that the Metalunans are so devoid of ethics that this makes them a godless people who deserve their destruction. But then, I’ve suggested that Americans and Metalunans are symbolically covalent. So one might interpret Cal’s statement as an unintentional proof of the Monitor’s statement: that Earthmen/Americans consider themselves superior to all others due to their belief in a supreme deity, just as the Metalunans believe that only their own destiny can matter. But because ISLAND is not as thematically unified as the previous WAR OF THE WORLDS, or the far superior FORBIDDENPLANET, this theory remains at the level of pure conjecture.

The movie isn't helped by the flatness of its two viewpoint characters, though it's dubious as to whether Jeff Morrow or Faith Domergue could have done much better with more complex characters. Rex Reason's character of Exeter has the greatest potential for a good character arc, but the tendency of the plot to jerk the characters about willy-nilly doesn't allow Exeter to progress credibly from his Metalunan arrogance to a greater empathy for other forms of life.



Monday, April 20, 2015

THE CLIMAX (1944)




PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


As I mentioned at the end of my review of the 1943 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, that film's success caused Universal Studios to consider a sequel. Instead, the studio dropped the idea of the Phantom and pursued a new story in an opera setting. The credits claim that THE CLIMAX is based on a play by Edmond Locke, but as Wikipedia asserts that Locke's play has little in common with the 1944 film, it's likely that the film's producer George Waggner-- who had produced PHANTOM but chose to produce and direct CLIMAX-- sought to come up with a pattern that would remind film-goers of the PHANTOM. Curiously, though, what we get has fewer overtones of the 1943 PHANTOM than it does of another horror-classic on which Waggner collaborated with CLIMAX's scripter Curt Siodmak: the 1941 THE WOLF MAN.

No comparisons between PHANTOM's plot-elements or WOLF MAN's theme will ennoble THE CLIMAX, which is fundamentally a very mediocre film. But it's fair to note that CLIMAX had greater potential than it used.

One important genre-notation to be made is that CLIMAX lacks even the muted horror elements of PHANTOM. Although Boris Karloff takes the place of Claude Rains in the role of plaguing Susanna Foster-- one of very few actors carried over from the 1943 film-- CLIMAX is closer to the pattern of the uncanny murder-mystery. In most horror-films, most of the audience's attention focuses on the twisted nature of the monster, mad scientist, etc. But though Karloff gets top billing, his character Doctor Hohner's only true function in the story is to be an obstacle to the singing career of Foster's diva-in-training Angela.

After some brief set-up scenes at the Vienna Royal Theater, the audience delves into a flashback in the mind of Hohner. Though all of Vienna remembers the mysterious disappearance of the famous diva Marcelina, only Hohner knows that he caused the disappearance. In the flashback we learn that Hohner loved Marcelina, but whatever may have passed between them meant far less to her than to him-- and far less than her operatic career. Hohner despises the singer's voice because she's chosen her career over him, so he kills her. Later the audience learns that he's kept her corpse concealed in a hidden room, though this is the least of Hohner's "bizarre crimes."

The arrival of Angela, a new understudy to the theater's established diva Jarmila, propels Hohner into a new obsession, for to the doctor Angela's voice sounds exactly like Marcelina's. When the diva Jarmila proves difficult, the theater-manager elevates Angela to the position of premiere singer. Hohner, who can't stand to think of another Marcelina giving her voice to the world, conceives a plan. Using his position as theater-physician, Hohner hypnotizes Angela so that she will lose her voice when she performs-- so that even if Karloff may never have played a Phantom of the Opera, he does fulfill the role of an "anti-Phantom."

Naturally both Angela and her supportive fiancee Franz are more than a little distressed by this malady.  Finally, after conferring with a sympathetic support character, Franz decides that the only way to cure Angela's little problem is the classic idea of "shock therapy," of forcing Angela into a situation that will force her to delve into the depths of her being and overcome her inhibitions, even though all are ignorant as to what caused them.

This form of "shock therapy" was also a part of scripter Siodmak's psychodrama in his earlier WOLF MAN. Intriguingly, though, in that film, the overbearing Sir John Talbot is proven wrong for trying this form of treatment on his son Larry.  But maybe good intentions make the difference, because Franz is proven right. All that Angela really needs is to be forced into giving a performance for a young royal, who is the current King of Italy (I think). This prompts Hohner to take new steps to prevent the return of Marcelina's voice, but by that time he's tipped his hand so that Franz and others have found him out. Hohner conveniently manages to off himself in the bower of his victim, while Angela goes on to a brilliant career.

The superficiality of the main characters-- Hohner, Angela, and Franz-- is not the main reason that CLIMAX is less than deeply involving.  The characters of Foster's character and her young swains in 1943's PHANTOM are no deeper than Angela and Franz, but PHANTOM's plot benefits from centering the action on the tragic monster. But Hohner is no tragic figure; he's a plot contrivance. The idea of an "anti-Phantom" whose only passion is to keep a great singer from her success just doesn't set up much of a story-dynamic. Even though the Phantom's motivations in the 1943 film are inconsistent, his obsession to Make Something Happen is much more dramatically interesting than Hohner's obsession to Keep Something from Happening.

I noted in my PHANTOM review that this Christine gets absolutely no tutelage from the masked man haunting the opera. Could it be that even though Foster was playing a fictional character, the performer herself might have been averse to playing a character whose musical brilliance was brought about by someone else? This is unfounded speculation that will never find any foundation, but I can't help but observe that Angela, bland stock-character though she is, is even more of an "anti-Trilby" than Foster's Christine. That is, whereas Christine in Leroux's PHANTOM and the titular heroine of DuMaurier's TRILBY are both female Galateas who are molded into excellence by male Pygmalions, both of Foster's characters owe nothing to the men who try to control them. Indeed, in THE CLIMAX Angela is really much more the narrative focus than Hohner, and the "climax" of the movie is that she triumphs over his attempted repression even without ever knowing what he did to her.  It's a theme that might well be embraced by a consciously feminist author-- though one would hope it might be used for a much better film than this one.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A VIEW TO A KILL (1985)



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

A VIEW TO A KILL was the last Bond film for both Roger Moore as 007 and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny. It was also a "first" in that it borrowed nothing I can see from its supposed source material, Ian Fleming's short Bond story "From a View to a Kill." Wikipedia asserts that THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, MOONRAKER, and OCTOPUSSY were all original screenplays, but it's at least possible to descry elements borrowed from the Fleming originals, even if they were very minor, as when a hood with steel-capped teeth in the novel SPY WHO LOVED ME was reconfigured  into "Jaws."

Though VIEW was scripted by frequent Bond-writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, the film's scenario picks up on the Third Reich's "quest for genetic perfection" theme seen in Christopher Wood's MOONRAKER. VIEW opens with a good-but-not-great ski-pursuit "teaser," in which Bond must flee Russian pursuers before finding his way into the arms of a luscious female contact. For once, the teaser does play into the main plotline, for Bond has learned that the Russians have acquired a microchip identical to one manufactured by Great Britain: a microchip designed to resist the threat of magnetic pulse technology. This suggests that the European manufacturer of the chip, Zorin Industries, may be in bed with the USSR.

Bond must investigate the company and its eponymous leader, Max Zorin (Christopher Walken). Zorin happens to come to England to race one of his horses at Ascot, so that Bond and his MI-6 associate Tibbett (Patrick MacNee) observe both the industrialist and his striking female bodyguard, May Day (Grace Jones). Tibbett comments that it's unusual that Zorin has enjoyed great success with equine bloodlines thought to be inferior by experts. There's a slight resonance here with the novel MOONRAKER, in that the hero is put on the trail of a beneficent industrialist simply because of the anomaly that the man cheats at cards.

Though the horse-breeding plot-line seems wildly unrelated to the matter of microchips, Bond follows this line of inquiry all the way to France, the location of Zorin Industries. Bond contacts a French detective for information on Zorin. Though the detective doesn't seem to have much in the way of leads, he's assassinated, in a very public manner, by May Day. Bond pursues May Day all the way up the Eiffel Tower but fails to corral her. She escapes in a speedboat with none other than Zorin himself.

Though I don't generally care to pick apart the plot of escapist films, this sequence is pretty egregious. Not only is the detective killed for dubious reasons and in public, he's killed by a person who, if identified, would have brought down unwanted inquiry on Zorin-- the more so, if she was seen escaping in Zorin's company. Was France hard up from professional killers at the time? Of course I know the writers devised this sequence as another "teaser" for the major conflict to come. Yet I also had trouble with the idea that Bond, after having given pursuit to the assassin, would simply continue with his investigation. as if there was no chance that May Day would remember his face-- which she doesn't, until it's too late to do her and Zorin any good.

Thanks to May Day's poor memory, Bond is able to infiltrate one of Zorin's gatherings, where he meets two significant persons. One is Stacey Sutton, a woman with a grudge against Zorin, and the "Bond girl" this time round. The other is Carl Mortner, the physician in charge of caring for Zorin's "inferior" horses. The fact that he's a German talking about breeding superior strains from inferior ones ought to send up some flags, and sure enough, later it's revealed that he's an ex-Nazi scientist.

A connection between racecourses and microchips becomes clear when Bond and Tibbett learn that Mortner has found a way to secretly inject steroids into Zorin's race-horses using timed microchip technology. However, the discovery costs Tibbett's life, while Bond, exposed as a spy, escapes another death-trap.

Bond's researches into Zorin and Mortner's backgrounds turn up information that is also communicated when Communist general Gogol pays a visit to Zorin. It turns out that during WWII Mortner experimented on concentration-camp victims in an effort to make them into supermen, and that Zorin is one of the few experiments that survived, though he was taken over and financed by the Russians in order to provide them with desired intel.I should remark that no Nazi scientist ever would have been seeking to use camp-victims for anything but as a means of discovering medical info that might help German soldiers in the field; certainly, no Nazi would conceive that "inferior breeds" could somehow be made superior through technology.  Still, if the idea fails every logical test, it does serve to explain why Zorin is such a nutbar, and why he's broken away from Russian control. Eventually Bond will learn, partly with the help of Stacey Sutton, that Zorin wants to create the most hostile of all takeovers, by flooding the San Andreas Fault and destroying the seat of American pre-eminence in microchip tech: Silicon Valley. While as a business plan this doesn't make a lot of sense, the scheme carries the same "daring supercriminal" vibe seen in Fleming's THUNDERBALL and GOLDFINGER. Thanks to Bond's interference, Zorin ends up double-crossing May Day for reasons of expedience, and she aids Bond in foiling the scheme. Bond then takes on Zorin directly in a well-staged battle taking place jointly on Zorin's dirigible and the Golden Gate Bridge.

There are a lot of flaws in this screenplay, but there are a few more moments of genuine emotion than one sees in a lot of Bond-films from this period. After Bond saves Stacey from thugs, he doesn't do the expected thing; instead of trying to bed the beleaguered girl, he allows her to go to bed alone (though of course they hook up in the end). During a scene wherein Zorin floods a tunnel and thus kills all of his own henchmen, May Day gets an anguished moment when she sees the dead body of a friend floating in the water. I wish the producers had eighty-sixed the time-wasting fire-truck sequence, but I've certainly seen worse sequences in the Bond corpus.

Mortner's "superman" experiments don't work out, but they do edge this thriller firmly into the domain of the marvelous. And though VIEW doesn't have the best script, even for the Moore Bonds, it does have one of the best song-montages, despite the fact that Duran Duran's lyrics don't make a helluva lot of sense.





Friday, April 10, 2015

THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE (1959)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Although Edward L. Cahn's 1962 film BEAUTY AND THE BEAST  was his last metaphenomenal film. it was very atypical of his 1950s work, and I even argued in the above essay that BEAUTY was probably more of a writer-driven project. 1959's FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE is far more typical of Cahn's 1950s work. Like ZOMBIES OF MORA-TAU,  INVISIBLE INVADERS, and CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN, SKULLS is about the horror of the undead returning to persecute the living. However, SKULLS may be the only Cahn to be predicated on post-imperialist politics.

For over a hundred years the patriarchs of the Drake family have died under mysterious circumstances, though they are always old enough that the deaths can be dismissed as "natural causes." The current generation of the Drake family is represented by Kenneth Drake, his brother Jonathan, and the latter's daughter Alison. Kenneth dies at the film's opening. An investigating cop, Jeff Rowan, finds a few unusual aspects to the case, like the fact that someone leaves a shrunken head, as created by the Jivaro Indians, at the home of the late Kenneth Drake. Both Drake's brother and his colleague Doctor Zurich inform the officer that there's a rumored family curse on the Drake family. The scenario is a little vague, but it seems that at some time in the 1800s, a tribe of Jivaro Indians took a white prisoner and cut off his head. No reason for the tribe's action is given, but a Drake was responsible for a retaliatory expedition against the Jivaros, allegedly wiping out all members of the tribe except its witch-doctor. The witch-doctor, alleged to be immortal, is thought to be the source of the curse, which divests each of its victims of his head.

Though Rowan doesn't for a minute credence the idea of an immortal witch-doctor, SKULLS' running-time is too short to play around with "is-he-real-or-not" games. Early on the audience sees not only the witch-doctor Zutai-- whose lips are sewn together with thread to show that he does not need to eat or breathe-- but also that he's being helped in his head-hunting endeavors by the devious Doctor Zurich. Zurich's one-sided conversations with Zutai don't reveal his motives for doing so, and the reason for this reticence is that said motivation leads to the film's one unexpected mystery-solving pay-off.

Though Zutai makes a creepy-- if not precisely scary-- figure, SKULLS' plot doesn't do much to take advantage of his menace. As with ZOMBIES OF MORA-TAU, this film's stock characters don't offer the audience much of a reason to become invested in them. A modern audience would probably find it unacceptable that the Drakes are so blase about their ancestor's involvement in the slaughter of an entire tribe. Unlike Marxist critics, I'm not all about looking for imperialists under every rock, but it does say something about the filmmakers' world-view that the ethics of massive retaliation didn't even occur to any of the characters. The aforementioned solution to the mystery of Zurich's involvement might be fairly deemed a "demonization" of the real-life Indian tribe, though that demonization takes such an absurd form that I prefer to see it as expressing the ambivalences of the filmmakers, and potentially of their audience, toward the intersection of the modern and the primitive.

The journey to reaching that pay-off is fairly tedious, as policeman Jeff slowly comes around to believing in the supernatural, and ends up fighting with both Zutai and Zurich. Cahn's direction of the climactic confrontation is unremarkable, with the immortal Zutai being defeated far too easily. The big reveal is that Zurich is literally a "man of two worlds," for he was the white man who was beheaded over a hundred years ago. However, only his head still exists in a state of "living death," for it was attached by Zutai to the body of a Jivaro Indian, also presumably dead before Zutai brought this South American Frankenstein back to life.

Since Zutai never speaks, one can only conjecture as to his motives. Even before the destruction of his tribe-- for which he might deemed partly culpable-- did he have it in his mind to perform this wild "head transplant?" Did he want to create the ultimate "undercover agent," a creature who could pass as "white" even though the greater part of him was "red?" How did Zurich conceal the Jivaro flesh of his hands from day to day, and was it really his mind in that skull any more, or did Zutai somehow transfer the soul of the Jivaro into the hybrid body? The script makes much of the witch-doctor's belief that the victim's head must not be damaged, lest the soul escape; for that reason he preserves the skulls of the Drake victims, apparently just for the satisfaction of one-upping the family of his enemy, or perhaps Caucasians generally. A psuedo-scientific reason is advanced for Zutai's immortality, but the idea that he's simply filled with curare fluid is just Cahn's version of the "tana leaves" of the Universal "Mummy" films. But whether souls really exist or not is left up to the audience's speculations.

SKULLS is nowhere near the best of Cahn's metaphenomenal outings-- that would be both THE SHE CREATURE and CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN. But at least SKULLS has more potential for high-level mythicity than most of his other undead-films, even if it doesn't deliver on its promise.