Tuesday, June 23, 2015

ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996), ENDGAME (1983), 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS (1982)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

I didn't remember much from any earlier screening of ESCAPE TO L.A., the sequel to 1981's influential ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Prior to my recent re-watch of L.A., I might have agreed with the dominant critical opinion of the sequel; an opinion shared by the 1996 audiences, since L.A. bombed big-time in 1996.

However, though I don't consider either NEW YORK or L.A. to be classic adventure-films, this time round I liked L.A. a bit better. I didn't mind the fact that the sequel recapitulates many of the earlier film's popular sequences. This is standard practice with many big-budget Hollywood films, and there have been times that the sequel actually shows greater mythic resonance than the original, as I would argue with regard to both ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2.

ESCAPE TO L.A. is not anywhere as good as these two sequels. However, unlike many 1996 critics I liked the fact that L.A. is more kinetic than the rather slow-moving NEW YORK. The screenshot above captures the film's most delirious moment, when hero Snake Plissken surfs a tsumani-wave that just happens to run alongside a highway, so that Plissken can take over the car being driven by the astonished driver, a professional weasel named "Map to the Stars" Eddie (nicely played by Steve Buscemi, and a decided improvement over Ernest Borgnine. Plissken's guide in the New York flck). I also appreciated a dynamic scene in which Plissken hang-glides over the encampment of his enemy Cuervo Jones and blows the hell out of it.

The plot is largely unchanged: again a precious military device has fallen into the hands of lowlife insurgents, and the equally lowlife military poisons Plissken with a slow-killing disease so that he'll use his special skills to recover the device. Writer-director John Carpenter jacks up the social satire of the original, for now the military-industrial hegemony has cloaked itself in religious righteousness. The uncontrolled territory of Los Angeles has become a haven for anyone who resists the government-- though, contra STAR WARS, this doesn't mean that all rebels who "fight the power" are angels. In fact, Carpenter is quite clear that L.A. is full of a lot of creeps. Plissken encounters, in addition to the power-hungry Cuervo Jones, vicious gang-bangers,and a demented plastic surgeon (Bruce Campbell) who kidnaps people for their body-parts, in order to keep his disintegrating customers happy (a none too subtle jab at the subculture of Hollywood "plastic people"). Still, at least the L.A. creeps aren't hypocrites about what they do.

The conclusion virtually duplicates the ending of the 1981 film, with one exception. Like some viewers, I was a little off-put by the brutal nihilism of the first film, wherein it's implied that Plissken sets off a nuclear war just to take down the corrupt government. There's no reference to this event in L.A.-- perhaps cooler heads prevailed at the last minute?-- but the sequel allows for a little more ethical wiggle-room. This time, Snake brings about a nullification of advanced technology all across the globe. Although this will cause chaos, it does allow for a equalizing effect that conceivably could put an end to the military-industrial complex. It reminded me of a similar equalizing conclusion in Alfred Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION, written during the "nuclear panic" era in America, and also devoted to the ideal of ending the nuclear hegemony.



1983's ENDGAME is yet another post-apocalyptic film. But though visually it owes a lot to the Mad Max films, it's best seen as a combination of tropes from Wild West films-- particularly those revolving around the "gunfighter" subgenre-- and satirical SF about futuristic blood-sports, as established in cinema by films like 1965's TENTH VICTIM and 1987's THE RUNNING MAN.

The film spends its first half hour on depicting the bloody past-time of licensed killing in the reality-TV show "Endgame," but the game itself is not that important to the movie's plot. The game exists to set up a conflict between the game's two toughest players, heroic Ron Shannon (Al Cliver) and villainou Karnak (George Eastman).

However, before the two opponents manage to square off for their last battle, Shannon is drafted into a sort of futuristic "wagon-train" duty. A telepathic mutant woman named Lilith (Laura Gemser) enlists Shannon to help her people-- all mutants persecuted by the city's normal denizens-- to reach a safe haven far away. Shannon in turn persuades a small coterie of other tough guys to help his charges brave the radioactive landscape and fight off predatory nomads and much uglier mutants. For good measure, Karnak follows, pretending to join the wagon-train but secretly planning to kill his long-standing Endgame-rival.

Directed and co-written by Joe D'Amato, ENDGAME is actually a little more sophisticated than most post-apoc adventure-stories. The plight of the fugitive mutants is well handled, and although there's a very politically incorrect rape-scene, in which Lilith is attacked by one of the "uggo" mutants, the scene does manage to show courage on Lilith's part, as she restrains herself from calling out to Shannon at a critical moment, so that the other bad mutants won't detect the hero's presence. (Yes, I know this scene was primarily about showing T and A, but that doesn't entirely negate Lilith's self-sacrificing actions.) In the end, Shannon, like the similarly-named cowboy-hero "Shane," forswears any participation in the promised land he's made possible. The film ends on a freeze-frame as he and Karnak charge each other, fated to duel one another to the death. Said ending would be a good deal more potent if lead actor Cliver weren't a poor man's Clint Eastwood, whose underplayed solemnity is consistently upstaged by Eastman's bravura performance.




Strangely, one year before D'Amato did ENDGAME, he directed an aggressively bad post-apoc tale, co-written by D'Amato and George "Karnak" Eastman, though Eastman does not contribute his acting-talents to said film. The flick was known in its American release as 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS. The Italian release-name more correctly called its heroes "Freedom Fighters." Unsurprisingly, no one in the film does anything even slightly gladiatorial.

Here, in a post-apocalyptic world centered around what's supposed to be Texas, several vigilantes go around busting the heads of criminals. Their leader is a fellow bearing the Greek name "Nisus." Nisus and his men save a lissome young lady named Maida from rape, but one of Nisus' own soldiers, "Catch Dog" by name, tries to rape her himself. Nisus lets the Dog out of the group, but the team's real enemy is Maida, who functions as something of a Yoko Ono. She talks Nisus into giving up the martial life to raise crops and the rest of the so-called "Rangers" disband.

The error of Maida's ways are soon evident: soon the local post-apoc towns are menaced by nasty motorcyclists-- led by the rapacious Catch Dog-- and a new fascist army, and there are no dedicated vigilantes around to stop them. Nisus (essayed, as in ENDGAME, by emotionless Al Cliver) is killed,. However, his death inspires the remnants of the old group re-unite to kick hell out of the bad guys. Maida belatedly learns the importance of kicking ass and taking name, and manages to blow away several evildoers herself.

Whereas ENDGAME is a simple film whose broad characters are reasonably appealing, GLADIATORS is a mess, in which no character comes off particularly well. The one point of interest is the name of the film's sacrificial hero. One can't be exactly sure what D'Amato and/or Eastman had in mind by evoking this obscure name, but in my opinion, the most likely match-up is with the Nisus of one Greek legend. This Nisus was a king fighting an invading army, but his defenses were betrayed when his daughter, who had fallen in love with the invaders' general, gave the enemy soldiers a pass into the city. Even here, though, the symbolism is pretty confused. Is the film's Nisus "betrayed" by Maida, since she talks him out of the vigilante life and indirectly brings about Nisus' death, just as the Greek king dies for his daughter's betrayal? However, the script doesn't really pay that much attention to Maida's sins, any more than it does to any other character's reasons for his or her actions.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966), THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967)



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

I'm sure that I could find other films starring the recently deceased Christopher Lee that would better summarize his cinematic accomplishments than the Fu Manchu films written and produced by cut-rate filmmaker Harry Alan Towers. Unfortunately, I've already reviewed a fair number of Lee's best works, such as many entries of the Hammer Dracula works. Further, for some time I've been meaning to examine the rest of the series since I examined 1965's THE FACE OF FU MANCHU.

I gave FACE moderate praise for the way the Towers script and the Don Sharp direction put the Chinese devil-doctor and his British enemies through their paces. However, even though Towers and Sharp are once more scripter and director for BRIDES, the result is a dull, murky film. I suspect that when FACE proved successful at the box office, Towers did what many such filmmakers did: instead of trying to keep a constant level of quality, he rushed the next films out in an attempt to "strike while the branding-iron was hot" so to speak.

Just as Fu Manchu did in FACE, the film's action centers around his attempt to suborn various European scientists into helping him create a world-beating threat. He does so by threatening the scientists' daughters, who may be deemed, very loosely, the "brides" of the title, though fiendish Fu shows no interest in them. For that matter, neither does his daughter Lin Tang, who seemed to swing a little toward Lesbos in her first appearance. Fu's sole passion is to create a menacing death-ray, able to strike at any target on Earth by virtue of being carried on "radio waves."

Douglas Wilmer replaces the earlier Nigel Green as Fu's perennial foe Sir Denis Nayland Smith, and at this point he displays less charisma than Green. But then, both Chris Lee and Tsai Chin (as Lin Tang) also give uninspired performances. There are some half-hearted torture scenes thrown in, but the films standout scene is one that now seems risible to modern eyes. While the death ray is being made ready for its first outing, Fu helpfully explains that there's a control lever attached to the mechanism, to keep the machine from overloading. However, at one point one of Fu's assistants tries to pull the lever back, to keep the machine from exploding-- and Fu, consumed with a passion for conquest, shoots the man, thus insuring that the film ends with a big bang-- though Lee's voice is heard saying his usual mantra: "The world shall hear from me again."



The third film also has its share of dull stretches, but Towers came up with a somewhat more gripping story-line. In addition, British television director Jeremy Summers took over directorial duties, including some location shooting in Hong Kong. Summers displays a better sense of composition than Sharp, and there are some adequate fight-scenes, as opposed to the Sharp films' tendency just to have characters wrestle each other around. Best of all, even when the action-scenes are somewhat questionable-- particularly the film's climax-- the score of Malcolm Lockyer, in his sole contribution to the series, makes the action seem more exciting than it actually is.

This time Fu Manchu has no exotic weapons in his quiver, though he still plans to take control of all the criminal organizations of the world, as a prelude to world domination. "How will you do this?" asks Moss, a representative of American gangdom, who sounds like he learned his English in a German beer-hall. Fu plans to undermine the law organizations of the world by having a master plastic surgeon (he's the European captive scientist with the pretty daughter this time) create perfect doubles of the world's top cops, and then ruin their reputations by having the doubles commit heinous crimes.

This sounds like a pretty laborious way to overthrow the world's law-enforcement agencies. However, it works on a deeper psychological level if one deems Fu's grand plan to be nothing more than an excuse to destroy the career of his hated enemy, Nayland Smith-- who is, naturally, the top cop Fu begins with. In short order, Fu's dacoits kidnap Nayland Smith and insert the double in his place. The double doesn't make more than a passing attempt to imitate the routine of Nayland Smith, which seems contrary to the idea of making the illusion succeed with the lawman's best friend John Petrie. Within a day or so, the double commits his crime-- strangling Nayland Smith's housemaid, and refusing to offer any defense of his act in court. Since the housemaid is a young Chinese woman, it's strange than no one suggests that the real Nayland Smith's emnity for Fu Manchu has resulted in a racial hate-crime, though this would seem to be the only reason for producer Towers to cast the murder victim as Asian.

While Petrie and other confidantes try to figure out the strange behavior of their friend, the devil-doctor has Nayland Smith transported all the way to China. Fu acquaints Nayland Smith with the conspiracy and informs him that the only way he can live is to swear allegiance to his former enemy. In contrast to the previous film, this time Lee and Wilmer project a great deal of personal animus toward one another. Nayland Smith succinctly refuses, and the doctor is momentarily piqued, making it clear that he would have preferred to have his old enemy totally submit to him, thus giving Fu a spiritual dominance as well as a physical victory. Given Smith's refusal, Fu announces his plan to execute his enemy at the same hour when the double is hung for murder in England. The English execution goes off without a hitch, and Nayland Smith's friend Petrie is given a strong scene i which to display his grief, since he cannot be sure whether or not an impostor has died.

Fortunately for the English cop, some of his friends send forces to invade Fu Manchu's remote palace. The good guys are able to get into the prison that holds Nayland Smith, the scientist and his daughter. After the heroes beat down various Chinese guards and the American with the strong German accent, they-- escape? No, for some reason they decide to make a show of delivering Nayland Smith up for execution in the palace's central pavilion, right in front of the noses of Fu Manchu and his daughter. Though I got a kick out of Nayland Smith suddenly whipping off his phony bonds and calmly defying Fu, this is a pretty stupid strategy given that the former prisoners are completely outnumbered. Towers, wanting to end the film with yet another big bang, comes up with a way for the good guys to trigger a convenient explosion. They reach safety, but Nayland Smith prophesies that they have not seen the last of Fu Manchu. Given how awful the final two entries in the series were, I imagine most of Fu's fans would probably have preferred that VENGEANCE would have been the last time the villain suffered the tender mercies of Harry Alan Towers.  

I note in passing that most of the Towers films, whether they contain marvelous weapons or not, tend to show Fu and his daughter exercising hypnotic powers that verge upon magic, though they are not given a truly marvelous context.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

SAMSON AND THE MIGHTY CHALLENGE (1964)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*


Toward the tail-end of the Italian peplum craze, filmmakers began to team up the fabled heroes in the hope of pumping up their box-office returns. Until recently, I would have said that the best of these was 1963's HERCULES, SAMSON AND ULYSSES. However, the cheerful death-knell for the subgenre was most effectively sounded by this 1964 film. played for exuberant comedy.

The film begins with Hercules riding his steed up to a crossroads. At this point his heavenly father Zeus suddenly addresses the hero, telling him rather redundantly that he's at a crossroads-- though Zeus actually means a spiritual crossroads, since one road will lead Hercules to "virtue" and the other to "vice."  Though only lovers of mythic minutiae may appreciate this scene, it's a spoof of a Stoic story about Hercules choosing between virtue and vice, a visual trope that became popular in Renaissance art. The movie's Hercules promptly chooses vice, much to Zeus' frustration.

However, the all-father has his ways of getting even. Hercules happens upon a party of women-- Princess Omphale and her retinue-- swimming in the sea. Omphale gets tangled in a net and Hercules saves her from drowning-- at which point Zeus apparently takes a leaf from Aprhodite and causes his son to fall in love with this "virtuous" princess.  What Zeus fails to consider is that Omphale already has a mortal boyfriend, so that she scorns Hercules' attempts to court her.

The king and queen don't know quite what to do with the unwelcome suitor, but one of their slaves comes up with a brilliant idea: to set Hercules with a task he can't complete, and then deny his suit. Hercules promptly accomplishes the first couple of tasks with ease. Then someone gets the idea to force Hercules to fight the "strongest man in the world," and they further deceive Hercules by voicing the requirement as an oracle from the gods.  Hercules expresses confusion about being forced to fight himself, until it's explained that he's not technically a man, but a demigod-- and that the strongest mortal is actually the foreign-born Samson.  Hercules agrees to fight Samson before the court, so a contingent of courtiers is sent to fetch Samson.

Unfortunately, Samson is married to the possessive Delilah, who doesn't want him traveling to the big city and messing around with other women. She cuts a lock of his hair, and he loses his strength so that even she can shove him to the ground without much effort. The courtiers can't persuade the weakened Samson to come, so they enlist the brutish Ursus-- who isn't much like the noble fellow who had his own series-- to kidnap Samson. Another local hero, Maciste, objects to Ursus' bullying and defeats the brute. Eventually Samson is given a bribe to accompany the courtiers and "throw the fight" to Hercules.  Maciste and Ursus follow along for no particular reason. Eventually Samson's hair grows back-- though not before Hercules trounces him-- and the film concludes in a big battle royale between the four musclemen and the palace guards.

It's not often that I find an Italian slapstick film as funny as its makers think it is. But MIGHTY CHALLENGE, while no masterpiece, provides its share of light-hearted yocks.

ULYSSES AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES (1962)



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


The original title of this *peplum* flick was "Ulisse contro Ercole," and though the English dub has a prologue explaining that the protagonist "Heracles" is the "son of Hercules," the hero himself talks as if he's the direct descendant of Zeus and that he performed many of the feats associated with the famed demigod, like slaying the Hydra and taming the steeds of Diomedes. Thus it's very likely that the original script always intended for the hero to be Hercules himself, and that the "son of Hercules" label was just to market the film alongside a crop of other films supposedly featuring other "sons" of the demigod.

That said, both the Italian and the English titles are accurate in placing the name of Ulysses first, because even though the story teams up Ulysses and Hercules, Ulysses earns more far more sympathy. Writer-director Mario Caiano had put in his time with earlier peplum tales and similar fare, but here he breaks from the formula more than most films of the type do, with interesting if not riveting results.

Caiano basically tosses out the key concept of Homer's ODYSSEY-- that Odysseus (the Greek original of Roman "Ulysses") wandered at sea for many years as a punishment for blinding Poseidon's son the Cyclops. Instead, just as Ulysses almost gets back to his home Ithaca, the gods send Hercules to capture the Ithacan general and turn him over to the tender mercies of the Cyclops he wounded.  Hercules doesn't want to do it, not so much out of sympathy for Ulysses but because he's preoccupied with his lady-love Helen, who's slated to be given to a Greek prince in a purely political marriage.  Nevertheless, Hercules obeys his celestial dad. Strangely, his first gambit is to hire a group of Greek pirates to take Ulysses prisoner. Since the pirates don't have much of a role in the story, I theorize that they only appear to give Ulysses some opponents against whom he can fight with his purely mortal skills.

Once the pirates are vanquished, Hercules himself takes Ulysses prisoner and attempts to escort him back to wherever the Cyclops lives-- though naturally he secretly admires the mortal's skill and cleverness. In the film's high point, they're waylaid by a weird cult of bird-people who want to sacrifice both of them to their deity, "the Great Vulture"-- who, unfortunately, does not make an appearance. The bird-men's queen is attracted to both heroes and proposes that they should fight one another, with the winner becoming her king while the loser feeds the Great Vulture. However, the fight never comes off. For some reason the bird-men tie the two heroes to a big tree and dance around them for a while. A lightning-bolt hits the tree and distracts the bird-men long enough for the heroes to break free and escape. Strangely, though lightning is usually the province of Zeus, neither man wonders if Zeus intervened to free them. Instead, when Hercules grabs up a flaming branch, Ulysses tells him to use it "like Prometheus."

A little later, the two battling buddies are separated. By some contrivance Hercules finds himself in the kingdom of his beloved Helen, which is now besieged by the forces of King Lagos and his hairy-bodied "cave dwellers." Meanwhile Ulysses  has fallen into the hands of Lagos, who isn't so much the standard evil tyrant as a twit with a mammoth ego. The scenes between Ulysses and Lagos are played for tongue-in-cheek humor, in which clever Ulysses solves every riddle Lagos puts to him, proving his true identity. Lagos wants to use Ulysses' skill at strategy to help him conquer Helen's city, but Lagos is his own worst enemy. Somehow he gets it into his head that Ulysses ought to be able to make wings that can help a man fly like a bird. When the wings don't work out, Lagos puts Ulysses in a room with a stone ceiling, slowly lowering down upon the hero. Fortunately for Ulysses, Hercules leads Helen's army to victory over the cave-dwellers and rescues Ulysses as well. Things are then given a happy ending as Hercules implores Zeus to spare Ulysses. Zeus does so, and everyone goes about his or her merry way.

I rate its mythicity low in that all of these reshufflings of classic myths don't add up to much. But compared to the more formulaic Hercules-films, this one has a little appeal in terms of character interaction.

Monday, June 8, 2015

THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE (1959), CURUCU, BEAST OF THE AMAZON (1956)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

This time I'm linking two of Beverly Garland's creature features, both of which are greatly aided by her ability to suggest a strong presence, even when the script gives her little to work with.

ALLIGATOR PEOPLE was directed by journeyman Roy Del Ruth, who had produced little in the way of metaphenomenal cinema prior to the 1950s, when the genre became "hot" for a time. Similarly, all three of PEOPLE's scripters had middling contact with this type of cinema, with Orville Hampton boasting the most credits, including THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE the following year.

The film's biggest drawback is that the film's "Alligator Man" simply isn't well-designed enough to go down in "creature feature" history as one of the better movie-monsters, nor is the monster risible enough to become known as one of the worst. The film creates a strong mood of suspense from the opening, which begins in media res, as two sincere physicians seek to uncover the secrets hidden in the subconscious of their nurse Jane Marvin (Garland).

Having established the framework, the audience sees Jane and her new husband Paul Webster on a train as they voyage to a honeymoon retreat. Paul receives a telegram before the train leaves, and promptly disappears. Though the script suggests a mysterious injury in his past, Jane is unable to account for his inappropriate leavetaking. She spends months looking for her lost husband, and finally receives a clue that takes her to a desolate Louisiana swamp, and a mansion that was once the home of Paul Webster.

The mansion is one of the better sets of its kind in low-budget horror-films of the period, creating a mood of stultifying oppression. Garland first encounters the mansion's handyman Mannon (Lon Chaney Jr.), a raucous drunk who wears a hook in place of a hand lost to one of the swamp's gators. After that she meets two other mysterious locals: Lavinia, the matron of the manse, and her physician Sinclair, neither of whom initially tells her anything about the missing husband.

It eventually comes out that Lavinia is Paul's mother, and that Sinclair has been treating Paul with a radical "cobalt ray" technique that healed him of the wounds he'd received in his pre-marital accident. However, the ray-treatment has had a side-effect not only upon Paul but on other patients of Sinclair, seen fleetingly in a few mansion-scenes. They have regressed to a reptilian mode of life, that of "the Alligator People." The script doesn't provide much of an explanation, even of the "pure BS" variety, for this biological regression, but it's tailor-made for raising the ire of the gator-hating handyman.

PEOPLE is very effectively photographed, and the cast is above average. Chaney, for one, gets one of his best roles of this decade. But the script fails to link its laborious gimmick to anything of deeper resonance. For instance, Hampton's script for FOUR SKULLS isn't any masterpiece, but at least the curse in that film resonates with concerns about post-colonial anxieties. Given the Louisiana-Gothic setting, maybe I wanted some connection between Paul's fate and some mysterious physical atavism in his family, but Sinclair's scientific justifications for the transformation just don't lead anywhere interesting. The film's suggestion of problems that compromise Jane's marriage showed some promise, but this too peters out as the film focuses on Mannon's Ahab-like obsession with alligators and alligator men.

Visually speaking, PEOPLE  is a solid B-film, but even a better designed monster probably couldn't have boosted the so-so script.




Like many monster-lovers I usually felt cheated by films that promised a monster and fobbed off the viewer with your basic "phantasmal figuration."  One tended to expect fake ghosts in old dark houses, but in the Amazonian jungle?

Beverly Garland plays more something closer to a supporting role in CURUCU, given that Curt Siodmark's script and direction place more emphasis on male lead "Rock Dean," a he-man adventurer whose father owns a plantation somewhere near the Amazon. Rock is played by John Bromfield, who had just essayed a somewhat dickish alpha-male in 1955's REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, Possibly Siodmark tailored the script to that persona, for Rock has all the sensitivity of the object for which he's named.

Rock's precise job isn't clear, but apparently at times he trouble-shoots problems for his plantation-owning daddy, who only appears in one scene near the beginning, when Rock, his dad and two other land-owners confer on their current dilemma. In recent weeks five natives have been slain by an assailant that the natives believe to be the monster "Curucu." The terrified natives are retreating back to their villages, leaving the plantations understaffed. The elder Mister Dean believes that the natives are just striking for more money-- thus establishing his level of sympathy for the dead people-- but Rock believes that he can ferret out the truth behind the monster by taking an expedition to the area of the killings.

Needing inoculations, Rock seeks out the local doctor. Hearing that the office now includes a female physician as well, Rock shows he's a chip off the parental block by stating that "she probably couldn't find a man, so she married her career." His tune changes when he beholds the lovely Andrea (Garland), who accepts his invitation on a date.

Rock regales Andrea with his glorious mission, boasting about the knowledgeable guide he's engaged, a native fellow named Tupanico. Andrea then reveals that she has an ulterior motive for accepting the date: she too wants to journey to the Amazon, to purchase from the local headhunters a potion that she can use for medical purposes. Rock says no; the jungle's no place for a woman. Andrea then not only leaves him flat, she moves in on his guide and buys Tupanico out, forcing Rock to include her on the trek if he wants his experienced guide.

While on the trek, the clever Andrea proves herself valuable as well. In one sequence, Rock is able to use the presence of a female in his group to demonstrate that he Rock has no hostile intent. In addition, while Hard Rock is happy to let one of the natives die of appendicitis so as to avoid trouble with the tribal witch-doctor, Andrea won't have it. She has the porters take the native along to a jungle settlement, presided over by a Catholic priest who views native religions as "darkness." Andrea saves the life of the native Tico and earns his gratitude.

However, another native is murdered, and Andrea sorta-kinda sees something that might be Curucu. She runs wildly and almost gets herself killed in the jungle, losing all of her points for cleverness and compassion as she becomes just another helpless woman to be rescued by Rock. Later, despite her reasons for coming along-- certainly nobler than Rock's self-interest-- she berates herself for having forced her way into the expedition. Still, the fruits of her generosity later save the two of them from death, though neither Rock nor Andrea brings this up.

After various jungle perils-- many the spawn of stock footage-- Rock and Andrea are captured by headhunters under control of the man who has been killing in the guise of the beast Curucu. Given that there aren't many red herrings in the jungle, no one should be surprised that it's Tupanico, who's already expressed some ambivalence toward the white man's culture.  He also seems to be a bit ambivalent toward Andrea, for he gives her the potion she wanted, as if he plans to let them go for pledging silence. Rock's response to this generosity is to start a fight with the fake monster. Rock, who hasn't passed much if any remarks on tribal culture, also starts sounding a little like the Catholic priest, adjuring the guide for turning his people back to their primitive religion. Rock and Andrea have no chance of escaping the headhunters, but they're saved when the village is attacked by Tico and his allies, out to save the "white mem'sahib." (Does Rock ever say anything along the lines of, "You sure were smart to save that native, honey?" Not much he doesn't.)

CURUCU is certainly not a good film. The Curucu-costume is so bulky, it's hard to believe its wearer could effectively step on a bug, much less kill a human being. The stock footage is horribly intrusive, as well. Still, I have to give the film points because Siodmak does put in Tupanico's mouth some valid complaints about the ways his people have been mistreated by the whites. Perhaps he had no political intent in this part of the script. Possibly, being a writer, Siodmak just wanted to supply motivation. Certainly the script as a whole tends to validate the hegemony of Europeans and Americans in South America, just as Rock's physical strength is validated over Andrea's moral strength. But at least, even if Siodmak's essential message is politically retrograde, I can appreciate that better than a film that doesn't really know what it wants to put across.


HUNDRA (1983)



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


Many films sought to ride the crest of the 1982 film CONAN, which succeeded in translating to the cinema Robert E. Howard's seminal contribution to the genre later dubbed "sword and sorcery." Of CONAN's many imitators, HUNDRA is the only one I've come across that eschewed the "sorcery" and concentrated only on "sword." The only really "marvelous" aspect of the film is the fact that the heroine dwells in a made-up "barbarian world."

Given an abundance of character-names that don't resemble anything in Earth-culture-- not only the name of the titular heroine but also "Tracima," Pateray," and "Rothrar"--I have to assume that this is supposed to be a world with no ties to Earth-history, not even those of a pre-cataclysmic Earth like the one represented in Howard's "Hyboria."  The script pays a little more attention to a more crucial aspect of Howard's mythology: the opposition of the hardy savage to the corrupt city-dweller. Still, the lack of a "sense of place" results in the film's following the heroine through a melange of violent adventures in a world barely a step up from what it really is: a bunch of movie-sets for an Italian-Spanish production.

Though even basic Dungeons-and-Dragons setups boast better made-up geographies than HUNDRA can offer, the film does keep true to the ideal of barbaric opposition to civilization. But here the representative of noble barbarism is the Amazon-like Hundra (Laurene Landon), whose all-female tribe is wiped by a band of raffish (and thus ignoble) male barbarians at the film's outset. One other member of the tribe survives, a wizened elderly woman long beyond the age for breeding. She tells Hundra that the warrior-woman must seek out a man with which to conceive a female child, thereby to begin the tribe once more. Hundra doesn't point out the illogicality of this proposition. She just protests that she has never known a man in the Biblical sense, and that she's hardly been impressed by the specimens she's seen. "No man will penetrate me, either with his sword or himself!" Nevertheless, after a little more nagging from the elder, Hundra goes off to find a source of male seed.

Following some moderately enjoyable (but time-wasting) encounters with lousy examples of the male gender, the film picks up speed when Hundra arrives in a large-ish town, which serves as the film's example of corrupt civilization. Hundra gets into a fight with the town's priests and constables, but on the plus side, she meets the town's handsome doctor, and decides that she wants to collect his seed. The doctor isn't much attracted to the Amazon with the weapons and the matted hair, especially when her idea of getting him aroused is to chuck knives at him. However, Hundra, having become set on her course, surrenders to the constables so that she can get a chance to see the doctor again.

Only the good fortune of a beneficent scriptwriter keeps the beautiful barbarian from ending up in a rock quarry, or, more likely, a whorehouse. Hundra is made into a slave, but she receives a better than average fate when she's put to work alongside the local ruler's coterie of female slaves. Hundra befriends Tracima, who's never known anything but the life of a dominated woman. The two of them bond and exchange skill-sets: Hundra teaches Tracima to defend herself with the arts of combat, and Tracima teaches Hundra how to clean up good so as to seduce the handsome doctor.

HUNDRA is never subtle, wearing its feminism on its sleeve. Still, the film is effective despite its lack of subtlety. Unlike the 1985 RED SONJA, HUNDRA foregrounds the friendship of two women, which assumes an importance beyond the heroine's quest for motherhood. The doctor is eventually persuaded to cooperate in copulation, and raises no objection to the stipulation that Hundra plans to take their kid away to start a new (lesbian?) society. The question of day-to-day sexual activity in Hundra's lost tribe is never raised. No one attributes to them practices like those of the Amazons, who spent just enough time with men to engender new life for their ingroup. However, no one in the film mentions the "L" word, and Hundra herself soon becomes an advocate of male charms, though she gets points for not giving up her Amazon ideals to become a civilized hausfrau.

HUNDRA is at its best when the lady barbarian is laying about her, crushing impudent males with her fists, feet and weapons, and though the film isn't that well choreographed, the heroine has a fun rooftop-battle with pursuing constables. Landon gives a lively performance, but the script, co-written by director Matt Cimber, lacks narrative drive due to the absence of a strong villain. The nasty local ruler, his mincing assistant, and his chauvinistic soldiers simply offer no serious opposition. A greater variety of villains, some of them comic, resulted in a better action-flick when Cimber once more collaborated with Landon a year later in YELLOW HAIR AND THE FORTRESS OF GOLD.

TRAPPED BY TELEVISION (1936), ROCKET ATTACK USA (1958)



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


These two moldy oldies don't make for very good entertainment, but they do illustrate some of the ways I see "unusual technology" falling into the domain of the uncanny-- of something that seems strange but doesn't break with the causal order-- as opposed to the marvelous, which is strange precisely because it breaks with said order.

I've often used Jules Verne's Nautilus as an example of "marvelous technology." I've read that when Verne conceived of his novel, he drew upon his period's theories of how a submersible might work, and so in some senses the Nautilus is grounded in the science of the period, though naturally Verne had to rely on the "one gimme rule" to extrapolate the ship's non-existent functionality. The extent to which Verne had to conjure forth a non-existent technology is what determines a particular SF-concept to be an concept of "the marvelous" rather than of "the uncanny."

In contrast to Verne's marvelous extrapolation, the writers of TRAPPED BY TELEVISION didn't have to shoot for the moon, so to speak. Television technology was in development at the time, so when living-hand-to-mouth scientist Fred Dennis (Lyle Talbot) comes up with a viable TV camera and transmitter in his apartment, he hasn't exactly created a wonder that stands alongside Verne's prototype for the real-world submarine.

TRAPPED is an amusing trifle of light comedy. I can't say that I precisely cared much about whether the poor scientist succeeded at his task, or whether he hooked up with glamorous con-woman Barbara (Mary Astor). What sold the film for me was the character of Rocky, a "dese-dem-and-dose" fellow who has a charming love of scientific advancement. Rocky, employed by a collection agency, meets Fred when he Rocky is sent to repossess the scientist's equipment, but Rocky ends up helping Fred sell his invention, and, for good measure, also helps clobber some heist artists caught by the television lens.

Astor and Talbot are appealing enough in their roles, but Nat Pendleton as the science-lovin' tough guy Rocky makes the film worth watching. Fourteen years later, Talbot would be playing a less prepossessing avatar of science, when he essayed the role of mad scientist Luthor in the serial ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN.



ROCKET ATTACK USA possesses none of the moderate entertainment value of TRAPPED BY TELEVISION.  I'm not sure why some sources list the film's date as 1961; the 1958 date seems more probable given that it must have been rushed out in response to the launch of Sputnik in 1957.

Filmmakers have often released movies that were meant to coattail on some fad or public concern, just as ATTACK does. On occasion such movies, while never subtle, capture some popular mood of the period with an emotional intensity that makes up for the lack of either subtlety or intelligence.

ATTACK is not one of those movies. It's predominantly a spy-jinks flick, postulating that the purpose of Sputnik was to gather and transmit vital U.S. info back to the USSR. An American agent travels to Moscow to find out how much the Russians know. By the time he gets finished watching a belly-dancer finish a long routine, the Russians have assembled a nuclear missile, which they use to destroy New York. The end.

I joke, but not by very much. Since the main intent of ATTACK is to deliver to the audience a gut-punch of seeing the Russkies destroy a major American city, none of the spy-crap really amounts to anything. The characters are so resolutely flat that they make serial-heroes seem like models of Dickensian verisimilitude. In the sixties director Barry Mahon would find his true metier in low-budget sexploitation films, some of which have modest metaphenomenal content, like 1965's BEAST THAT KILLED WOMEN. The ones I've seen are every bit as crude as ATTACK, but they all deliver more entertainment than this tedium.

Since nuclear missiles capable of devastating cities already existed at the time of the film, they in themselves are not metaphenomenal objects. The possible outcome of using them, however, does, but in highly particularized ways. In my system, if a nuclear attack simply occurs and devastates some target, as it does in this film and in the more highly regarded 1964 FAIL SAFE, this falls into the category of the uncanny. In such a narrative the deployment of the nuclear weapon requires nearly no extrapolation, though the event's "strangeness," its foreign-ness to everyday experience, still goes beyond the bounds of the ordinary. However, if the narrative attempts to broadly extrapolate how survivors of a nuclear holocaust seek to cope with the aftermath, then such a work falls into the category of the marvelous. Thus, even though THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL carries a very mundane appearance in opposition to many post-apocalypse scenarios-- that is, in that the film lacks monsters, mutants, or even weirdo tribal groups-- its suggestion that the protagonists must evolve a new society still extrapolates a "new thing," and so takes on the mantle of the marvelous.

ADDENDUM: Though it seemed implicit to me, I did not mean to imply that "strangeness" would appear in the case of every nuclear detonation. Clearly the historical depiction of the nuclear attacks at the end of World War II do not carry the phenomenality of the uncanny. And though I've stated that I do deem SPECTRE's theft of a nuclear bomb in Ian Fleming's THUNDERBALL as falling within the domain of the uncanny, not every cheapjack action-film about terrorists getting hold of nuclear missiles is automatically uncanny, either. The dividing line between the naturalistic and the uncanny is not so much "what objects or concepts appear in them," but "how are those objects or concepts used?"