Tuesday, May 21, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
"In order to see you must first open your eyes"-- deep thought from Grazbo the Dwarf
As many before me have opined, the best way to view Al Adamson's DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN is as a comedy, though technically I have to label it a (melo)drama. Just to add even more confusion to the category-mix, the main plotline-- that Dracula has a yen to use a mad scientist and the Frankenstein Monster in a grand bid for power-- seems most derived from the Universal "monster mash" comedy ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.
Indeed, given that DVF is Adamson's ninth film as full-fledged director, it's surprising that the man hadn't made a Frankenstein film before this, since most of his works are cobbled together from a variety of sources, just like the archetypal Mary Shelley monster. DVF, for instance, started as a biker-film sequel to a successful Adamson film called SATAN'S SADISTS. Then the script injected the element of mad butchers waylaying people, and this grew into a mad scientist who was a descendant of Doctor Frankenstein. Then Dracula got into the act as well, not to mention some musical stings ripped off from the original CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.
The more mundane basis of the original story is seen in the plight of the viewpoint character Judith (Regina Carroll, the director's wife), who is searching for her missing sister. Little does Judith know that her sister Joan had her head cut off by the maniac Groton (Lon Chaney Jr.), who serves the will of the mad Dr. Duryea (J. Carroll Naish). Duryea, like many mad scientists before him, believes that he can create a miracle serum from the blood of murdered victims, with one refinement (if one can call it that): the victim must undergo great trauma to produce the needed effect. A borrowing from THE TINGLER as well, perhaps?
But Doctor Duryea isn't the only monster in the house, for out of nowhere Dracula shows up in the doctor's lab, conveniently located beneath an amusement park. The vampire lord, who knows all about the doctor and his plans, reveals that he has located the body of the Frankenstein Monster, concealed by some of Duryea's enemies. Dracula makes a "quid pro quo" proposition: give me access to your miracle serum and I'll sic the Frankenstein Monster on the only surviving member of your old enemies. Why Dracula himself doesn't just kill this last pathetic victim-- played by none other than Forrest J. Ackerman-- is never revealed, and for that matter Duryea's blood-serum research is in no way enhanced by the Monster's presence. Presumably the director felt the Monster had to have something to do to justify his name in the credits.
I'll pass over the excruciating details as to how Judith's search for her sister leads her, and Mike, a newly acquired amateur-detective boyfriend, to Dr. Duryea's hideout. Both the vampire and the Monster seem to disappear for long stretches of this part of the film, appearing only after Duryea has suffered one of the cinema's most improbable deaths. One of the funniest scenes appears then, when the Monster attacks Mike. Mike blinds the creature with a flare, and the Monster mistakenly attacks Dracula until the vampire can drive him off with a whammy. Surprisingly, Mike actually buys it then, as Dracula incinerates the boyfriend with a bolt of fire from his ring. I think we can fairly assume that Adamson was innocent of any influence from Iron Man's The Mandarin.
To justify the title with which the film was being sold, Adamson then tossed together a last-moment incident in which the Monster falls for Judith and attacks the vampire when Dracula wants to make her one of his kind. The scene in which the irate undead finally tears apart the Monster by his seams remains the film's high point in bad inventiveness.
I had to think about whether or not to consider this a "combative drama," since I had dismissed THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI simply because there's no real build to the conflict between the two creatures in that film. But at last I decided that there is at least the suggestion of an escalating conflict between the vampire and the heir of Frankenstein, so "combative" it is.
Monday, May 20, 2013
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*
Rarely does one see the first sequel to a film-franchise show a huge positive leap as against the original film. Some viewers prefer "The Empire Strikes Back" to "A New Hope," but I for one have never seen any such fans express total negativity toward the original.
Despite my negative feelings toward the 2009 STAR TREK reboot, I'll admit that it succeeded in its summer-movie mission. Whereas the TREK franchise had limped along for years, embraced only by the hardcore fans and thus irrelevant to the mainstream audience, producer-director J.J. Abrams launched the franchise into box-office success at last. It did so in part by eschewing the "technobabble" of the hardcore SF-fan, and jettisoning the burdensome continuity built up over decades upon the schema pioneered by Roddenberry.
I don't fault Abrams for navigating clear of this narrative morass. By propelling the TREK franchise into an alternate history, one where (for instance) Spock's planet Vulcan is destroyed, Abrams opened it up the potential to re-imagine the continuity. In the 2009 film, however, the script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman suffered from a paucity of imagination no less the worst of the in-continuity predecessors (possibly STAR TREK: GENERATIONS, which resembles the 2009 film in having a menace that spans at least two generations).
Because '09 TREK chose to re-introduce all of the characters-- as well as finding quick ways to propel them into positions of authority-- it's inevitable that the characters don't play off one another as well as they did in Classic Trek. However, a lot of the "character-moments" designed by Orci and Kurtzman were predictable. Kirk is the emotional risk-taker (far more so than in the classic series), while Spock is the conservative rule-follower, even though their early experiences show both of them as alienated due to a father-figure, or lack of same. Other "classic" characters are brought on to do their little turns on the cat-walk, but even some of the eyebrow-raising changes-- such as a love affair between Spock and Uhura-- seemed gratutious.
The intellectual content of the original series-- which, admittedly, was not always terribly deep-- is also jettisoned in favor of a "thriller" approach reminiscent of Abrams' outing on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3. Nothing shows this orientation better than an overlong scene in '09 wherein Kirk and Sulu must battle Romulans on the outside of the villain's ship.
And then there's the villain, a Romulan who just happens to have the same name as a Roman emperor. Eventually one learns that Nero's raison d'etre is his quest to be avenged on the entire Federation because one of their representatives-- namely, the original version of Mister Spock from the Roddenberry continuity-- attempted to save Nero's planet from destruction but failed. As motives go, this is a pale rewrite of the one given Khan in STAR TREK II: WRATH OF KHAN. As if to emphasize the linkage, Nero even tortures a victim with an earwig-like creature much like one used by Khan in the aforesaid movie.
Given that I found '09 no more than diverting, I'm amazed to find that INTO DARKNESS scores in every way wherein the earlier film failed, particularly since the later film shares the same writing-team. There is one additional writer's credit for Damon Lindelof, though he served as a producer on the first film as well. Though the characters haven't really spent that much more time together since the first film-- the "five-year mission" does not occur until the end of this film-- the writers manage this time to play off the "classic" personas in terms of both their original history and their revised elements. Naturally as in the series Spock and Kirk get the lion's share of attention, but every character gets more than just a little turn, playing some substantive role in the plot. The script's use of both pathos and humor is also far more pronounced.
The difference may be explained by the director and his writers having played to their strengths in a concerted fashion. The reboot still has none of the original franchise's fascination with strange alien cultures and cosmological phenomenon; again what we have is a futuristic thriller. But in place of a nebulous revenge-seeking foe who amounts to little more than "Khan Noonian Singh writ small," this script not only produces a new and viable verison of Khan, but adds a secondary villain designed as a condemnation of military imperialism-- though with a good deal less pontification than one sees in earlier TREK movies. I particularly liked the fact that the script takes issue with the prevalent cultural idea of simply "blowing away" an enemy political figure deemed to be dangerous to a government's interests.
I won't say that there aren't problems with the exceptionally complicated plotline. Many aspects of the plotline involving the two villains fall apart when one asks the question, "would Character A really do X in response to the actions of Character B?" But films often fudge such details. The backstory of the murder-story in Hitchcock's VERTIGO is just as logically untenable as the backstory details in DARKNESS, but VERTIGO remains a classic despite its well concealed lapses. DARKNESS, if not a classic for the ages, does a similar good job of involving the audience in the passions and complications of the characters' lives, so that only later will some audience-members experience the famed "refrigerator moment."
In contrast to the mediocre action-scenes of the '09 film, Abrams brings a fine sense of visceral excitement to both outer space battles and hand-to-hand fights, as well as gleaning the maximum dramatic impact from them. Since my original viewing of "Space Seed" from the classic series, I had wondered what might have transpired had Khan had a dust-up with Spock. Now thanks to DARKNESS, I not only get my Khan vs. Spock fight, but one that fits in with the dramatic arc between Kirk and Spock.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
The great FX work of James Whale's THE INVISIBLE MAN is often the focus of reviews of this film, as is the unique voice "personality" provided by the star enacting the titular role, Claude Rains. To avoid repetition, let such plaudits be taken as already stated.
One thing I found most interesting about the script by R.C Sherriff, Philip Wylie and Preston Sturges is that it has a darker feel to it than the majority of 1930s horror films. By "darker" I don't mean simply that the film contains monstrous characters who do horrible things, since most horror films have such elements. Rather, a work is especially "dark" in the sense of what Northrop Frye calls an "irony" if all the characters exist in a world that seems fundamentally hopeless, one where no one's positive actions amount to much. Neither of Whale's FRANKENSTEIN films conform to this pattern, since in both the scientist is allowed to escape the penalty for his hubris and to be "saved" by his fiancee. One 1930s film that comes closer to the pattern of the irony is 1934's THE BLACK CAT, which conjures a bleak vision of life despite allowing two innocents to avoid being caught in the mills of the gods. But most horror-films conform to the pattern of the drama, which allows for some degree of comparative victory for the forces of life, as we see in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and most of the sequels to the original INVISIBLE MAN film.
What most struck me as ironic in Whale's INVISIBLE MAN is that its script manages to show both the way of the risk-taker and the way of the conservative plodder as equally doomed.
Twice the script intones some variation on the familiar (if not necessarily original) refrain: "he meddled in things that man should leave alone." Certainly Doctor Griffin's foolhardy experiment, in which he tests the serum "monocane" on himself, is far from salutary in its effects. Griffin not only becomes invisible but also insane, and he plots to use his unseeable status to gain absolute power over the world. In his godlike ambition he forgets nearly all of his connections to ordinary humanity, particularly to his fiancee Flora-- a character invented for the film, since the Wells novel, like most in his oeuvre, is romance-free. Griffin takes a foolish risk and kills countless innocent victims. Many older horror films don't date well with modern audiences, but the scene in which Griffin causes a train to derail, implicitly killing dozens of passengers, remains as bracing as it was in 1933. In contrast to the more "sinned-against" character of the sequel, Griffin's climactic death is something of a relief, since the audience knows that there was no way back for this character.
However, the character of Kemp, the "conservative plodder," is no better. In contrast to the Kemp of the Wells novel, who's rather colorless in his righteousness, the character played by William Harrigan comes across as slimy and self-serving. In one of Kemp's earliest scenes, he not only attempts to put the moves on Flora at a time when she's desperately worried about Griffin's prolonged absence, he also preaches that Griffin was foolish to pursue risky ventures. Kemp boasts that he's prospered because he only does research for established pharmaceutical companies, rather than pursuing "pure research." In later scenes Griffin frets about how his original research, and later his search for a cure to his invisible status, have been hampered by his need for money, expressing a hostility to filthy lucre that the socialist H.G. Wells might have found appropriate. In one of Griffin's less murderous acts of chaos, he robs a bank and simply throws dollar bills about to the delight of local citizens. Whale and his scripters escalate the novel's association of Griffin and Kemp into a clash of opposites, and when the Invisible Man successfully kills Kemp, the audience can't help feeling some pity for the wretched man even though he remains largely unsympathetic.
There's also a modicum of societal commentary, as in the novel, on the small-town eccentricities which the Invisible One encounters, but this takes a decided back seat to the ideological struggle of Griffin the overeacher and Kemp the plodder-- a struggle which both lose.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
DISTRICT 9, which looks to be the most expensive SF-film ever shot in South Africa (in particular contrast to this one), might be considered the opposite side of the coin to 1988's ALIEN NATION. In both films, a wayward spaecehip filled with quasi-humanoid aliens arrives on (or above) Earth. In NATION Earth responds with a certain liberal largesse, allowing the alien "newcomers" to attempt integration with the people of Earth. DISTRICT presents a darker, more scarred sign of that coin, for in Neil Blomkamp's film the insectoid visitors, roughly a million in number and given the nickname "Prawns," are confined to a refuse-filled "concentration camp" policed by the South African military.
On the DVD the filmmakers assert that their film is not made to be expressly political, but to be entertaining, to get the most out of an uncomfortable conflict. There's some truth in this, but the filmmakers certainly knew in advance that merely setting this "first contact" story in South Africa would set all manner of political resonances, ranging from those associated with apartheid to the concentration camps of WWII. One facet of the screenplay allows for more "free play" than the real-life situations, though. The prawns are dominated by the human military, but the creatures bring with them an alien super-technology. Because this technology can only be activated by prawn-biology, human authorities have every motive not just to oppress their unwanted visitors, but to exploit and experiment upon them in order to harness this advanced weaponry.
Enter "ordinary hero' (what I've termed a "demihero" elsewhere) Wikus van der Merwe, a bureaucrat put in charge of evicting the prawns from their original confinement to a new and even less desireable location. By chance Wikus is infected by an alien artifact, and begins to mutate into one of the prawns. Desperate for some method of reversing the change, and ignored by the warmongering authorities, Wikus is forced to make common cause with "Christopher Johnson," one of the more intelligent prawns. Johnson has doped out a way to return to the spaceship and escape Earth's tender mercies, but needs Wikus' help to do so. Their one advantage is that Wikus' infected biology makes it possible for him to use the devastating weapons of prawn-technology, so that he blows away a lot of nasty Earth-soldiers as well as various disreputable criminal types. This opposition of violent forces qualifies DISTRICT for the category of the "combative drama," for the emphasis is less upon the physical conflict than Wikus' gradual ability to think beyond his own predicament once he's walked a mile in alien feet.
The film received some criticism for supposedly stereotyping the aforesaid "criminals" Wikus encounters, since all of them are black Africans, though they are specifically Nigerians rather than black natives of South Africa. Some critics didn't like the invocation of the "black cannibal" trope (the Nigerian ganglord wants to eat Wikus to gain his power), but this is excusable partly in that the whites are just as nasty and retrograde in their own ways-- particularly Wikus' main opponent, a mean militarist named Koobus. Further, though DISTRICT is not technically a comedy, the "cannibal" trope is invoked with a good deal of humor, and is no more racist than the teaming of Wikus and Johnson as an "odd human-alien couple."
Friday, May 17, 2013
MYTHICITY: *fair* (sort of...)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*
In this review of SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and JACK THE GIANT KILLER, I contrasted the films in terms of how well they'd chosen to fill their fantasy-narratives with "impossible things," saying that one had done so in "the right way" while the other had followed "the not-so-right way."
However, the fault I found in JACK THE GIANT KILLER-- that of following the example of SINBAD too mechanically-- doesn't even begin to describe the problems with these two Italian-lensed Golan-Globus productions. Neither of these mythic misconceptions prove quite as stunningly awful as the current reigning champ for "Best Worst Movie." Nevertheless, both movies, written and directed by Luigi Cozzi, have the feel of someone taking a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology and tossing it into a blender.
I've frequently found gems of mythic significance in some really goofy films, but it's hard to rate the symbolism of these two daffy flicks. I can see some definite myth-motifs in Cozzi's two films, and I have to believe that he had some inklings about some of the meanings behind the archaic myths he invokes. And yet even when Cozzi explicitly points to some of these meanings-- like the idea of Hercules as a force of order in the universe, both on the cosmic and human levels-- he puts these myth-meanings across with a strange combination of incoherence and leaden obviousness.
To be sure, an awful lot of Italian fantasy and SF films tend to wander from one oddball phenomenon to another with little sense of continuity, so Cozzi's nothing special in this regard. But because there is so little continuity, it seems pointless to attempt plot summations. Both films take roughly the same approach: the evil king Minos-- not a foe of Hercules in archaic myth-- somehow imperils the metaphysical balance between "order" and "chaos." Some or all of the Greek gods send Hercules to fight Minos, but various secondary foes or problems delay the demigod until he finally manages to lock horns with his enemy and defeat him.
In narrative terms, the 1983 HERCULES is the weaker story. It starts out with a partial "origin-story" for the hero, but it quickly, and rather incoherently, puts him on the trail of Minos. The evil king, who worships "science" rather than the gods, must be pursued to his island sanctum on the isle of Thera, a genuine Mediterranean island famous for a volcanic eruption during what we now call the "Minoan civilization." In Hercules' wandering course, the following things occur:
*Creation itself begins with some vague demiurgic forces, which may give rise to the Jar of Pandora, which in turn begets the earth, the gods, and mankind. This is at least a novel use of Pandora, who was sometimes figured as "the first woman" but was never considered a creatrix of the universe. One might hazard that Cozzi wanted Pandora, or just her womb-like jar, as a stand-in for the archaic goddess "Gaea."
*Zeus creates Hercules not by sleeping with his mother, but by sending down divine light to infuse the child of two nobles with super-powers. When the forces of Minos kill Hercules' parents, the infant is sent floating down a river by a loyal maid in patent imitation of Moses and other waterlogged infant-heroes. Zeus' wife Hera for some reason hates Hercules even though he's not the product of Zeus sleeping around, so she sends water-serpents to kill the infant. Baby Herc kills the snakes pretty much the same way his archaic model does.
*Hera and Minos then ignore Hercules for the next 20 years. Then Hera sends a bear to kill Hercules. The hero kills the beast, but not before the animal kills his adoptive father. At this point Minos becomes aware of the threat, and decides to invoke the help of his weapon-maker Daedalus (who is both female and an incarnation of the "chaos" Cozzi associates with scientific innovation). Minos sends a mechanical moth-creature to attack Hercules, but with numbing monotony, the monster only succeeds in killing Herc's mother. At this point Herc decides he needs to learn why he's so strong and causes so much suffering. His solution to this existential crisis is the same as every other *peplum,* to go to town and fight in a gladiatorial game.
*After another Herculean labor, Hercules romances the king's daughter Cassiopeia, who will function as the true love for whom the hero forsakes all the other tasty morsels who throw themselves at him. Minos' daughter Arianna captures both the hero and the princess. Arianna keeps the princess for a later sacrificial ritual and tosses Hercules to feed the fishes. Despite this submarine fate the hero manages to swim to a nearby island.
*Hercules meets an old woman who will help him pursue Minos if he lets her drink some of his "powerful blood." The young hero's blood restores the old crone to the youthful persona of Circe, who then takes Hercules on a long and winding trek to recover a special talisman. On the way Hercules fights another of Daedalos' tinkertoy monsters, and manages to secure the talisman, which gets them off the island but not to Thera.
*Hercules separates the African continent from Europe. Don't ask. This labor earns him to gain the use of the chariot of Prometheus, whom Cozzi has apparently confused with Phaeton. At this point, even though Zeus is trying to help his symbolic son when possible, the high god yields to Hera's nagging and allows Circe to be infected by the spell of Aprhodite. This causes Circe to fall in love with the hero, and to lose her sorcerous powers.
*Finally on Thera, Hercules meets and beats another giant tinkertoy, though Circe perishes in the battle. Arianna plans to seduce Hercules with drugs so as to beget a super-race, while Minos explains to Cassiopeia that she's going to be sacrificed in the volcano, where he's confined a people-eating Phoenix. Hercules fights free of captivity, kills a lot of guard-ass and eventually duels Minos to the death. Oddly he gets to use a sword which Minos filched from the Temple of Hera early in the film, and because Herc draws the sword from its place, the Phoenix (never seen) escapes its confinement and the volcano goes off, though not before Minos is killed and Hercules escapes with Cassiopeia.
The film weirdly ends with Hercules-- apparently bedazzled by all the females who've thrown himself at him-- asking Cassiopeia whether or not she's the real thing, or whether she might be either Arianna or Circe in masquerade. The princess lets him have his cake and eat it too by claiming that "I'm all of them and none of them."
As anyone can see there's a lot of good potential myth-fodder here. What I've left out are most of the things that undermine the awesomeness of the fantasy-motifs-- crude sets, inept dialogue, and of course Lou Ferrigno's total lack of acting-ability. Frankly, while HERCULES isn't the worst film ever, Ferrigno may be the "worst Herc ever."
Compared to this mixmaster mashup, Cozzi's second and last outing is coherent by comparison. The only reason is that for this story he chooses a motif I call the "jigsaw quest." In this kind of myth-narrative, some precious object gets divided into multiple pieces, and the hero has to run around in quest of the parts. Again Cozzi's basic scheme derives from genuine archaic myth, specifically the myth of Typhon, the evil deity who temporarily defeats Zeus and steals what one text calls Zeus' "sinews." In ADVENTURES, Cozzi has Zeus' seven thunderbolts stolen by four rebellious gods: Poseidon, Hera, Aprhodite, and "Flora, Goddess of Spring." To keep Zeus from recovering the thunderbolts, the rebel gods hide the weapons in the bodies of monsters on Earth-- though it's never clear as to how this maneuver helps them overthrow Zeus.
*Though the thunderbolt-monsters are scattered hither and yon, Cozzi starts with one monster, a big fire-creature called Anteaus, to whom virgins are sacrificed. The victims of Anteaus belong to a local tribe, and two young women of that tribe, Urania and Glaucia, seek to appeal to the "Little People" for oracular counsel. The oracles (later given the names of two of the Fates, "Clotho" and "Lachesis") instruct the two women that they will be able to gain assistance from Hercules, as his father Zeus has just sent him to Earth. Even though we're still in archaic Greece, Urania strangely claims that Hercules hasn't been seen "for ages."
*The rebel gods respond to Zeus' action by calling forth their own champion. Flora hoaxes an ambitious warrior into opening the tomb of Minos for her. Then she kills the warrior and uses his blood to resurrect Minos. Minos, however, is even more of a fanatic for "science" than before, and plans to extinguish all of the gods.
*Hercules, Glaucia and Urania fight various monsters, such as "Slime People," a roadshow Medusa, and a warrior named "Tartarus," releasing a thunderbolt with each decisive victory. Tartarus is interesting in that though he inhabits an earthly forest, he keeps the souls of "demigods" imprisoned in the form of white dolls that he hangs from the forest's trees. This is one of the few visuals that seems to resonate with authentic myth, rather than owing its inspiration to American films like STAR WARS and SUPERMAN.
*Hercules and his gal-pals take a side-trip to visit Thetis, nereid of the sea, because the only way the hero can fight the fire-monster Anteaus is by applying a special "balm" to his bare skin. This may owe something to a roughly similar motif used for the hero Jason in the ARGONAUTICA. Herc successfully beats the fire-beast and releases another thunderbolt.
*Just so the hero won't be deprived of the requiste evil-queen seduction-scene, he is captured by "the Amazons of Scythia" with their new-and-improved "magnetic net." Not sure if the net was a creation of Daedalos or not, though it certainly works better than the tinkertoys from the previous film. The Queen of Spiders (called "Arachne" in the credits) tries to overpower the captive hero. Urania calls upon her psychic powers and sends the "powers of light" to Hercules, enabling him to kill Arachne and unleash another thunderbolt.
*Minos kills Flora with his "sword of ice," and then turns on the other gods, killing both Poseidon and Aphrodite. He lets Hera live to get info from her, because he doesn't know where one of the thunderbolts is located, but he doesn't seem to do anything to coerce the reluctant goddess. Hercules is reunited with Urania and Glaucia, but Minos overtakes them. Glaucia betrays Urania, and Minos reveals that he had the original Glaucia killed days ago, so that he Minos could use his phony Glaucia to monitor Hercules' movements (not that it seemed to help him much). To prove his power Minos has the false Glaucia kill herself.
*Because of the chaos running riot, the moon is about to collide with the Earth. Minos and Hercules both become astral beings and fight each other in space, sometimes taking the form of animated sketches based on KING KONG. Hera ironically ends up helping her old foe Hercules, giving him a magic sword with which he slays Minos for the second time.
*Urania is revealed to be a pure creation of light by the hand of Hera, made to be the vessel of the thunderbolt. Hera has a sudden moment of maternal feeling, but Urania wants the world to be stabilized, so she pleads to be killed. Hera gives her "the kiss of death," so Zeus gets all his thunderbolts in a row. Both Hercules and Urania are translated into constellations, but separately, whereas at the end of HERCULES it was implied that Hercules got to "be with" Cassiopeia even in star-form.
There's no doubt that both films are virtual catalogues of fantasy-content-- far more than one finds in even the most ambitious of the *peplum* films of the 1950s and 1960s. But Cozzi has no appreciation as to when "less is more." Even had he been given a more competent star than Lou Ferrigno, Cozzi unleashes so much myth-content that the effect is more like an avalanche than a sublime experience-- with the effect that almost everything that's potentially sublime becomes, instead, "ridiculous." I will note that ADVENTURES doesn't have as many anachronistic machines in it, and that a few scenes capture a little sense of wonder if one turns down the dialogue. Urania and Glaucia are both more interesting characters than Hercules, and seem to be among the most kickass female characters ever to arise from an Italian fantasy-film.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
In my review of the original ZATOICHI film, I commented that the narrative thrust was that of the purgative drama rather than the invigorating adventure. After my viewing of a later Zatoichi entry, I imagined that the bulk of the films about the blind swordsman/masseur probably tended more toward adventure in the later entries. However, the second film in the series makes the transition more quickly than I expected, as the story places far more emphasis on spectacle than on dramatic agonies.
The central plot maintains the tone of sociological protest in the first film, in that low-class masseur Zatoichi falls into trouble through no fault of his own, but through the sins of the well-born. While plying his masseur trade, Zatoichi becomes privy to the fact that a great lord is losing his marbles. The lord's retainers don't want the masseur telling tales, so they attempt to kill him, demonstrating how little the life of a low-class human being has for them. Zatoichi only survives because of his peerlessness swordsmanship, enabling him to slay six or seven opponents in one dust-up.
A secondary plotline has Zatoichi consorting with another profession of society's low rung, when he encounters a group of female prostitutes. Zatoichi's temptation is handled realistically, in contrast to American heroes who would never sully their hands (or whatever). But the main importance of this plot is to reveal an aspect of Zatoichi's past, that he once lost the love of his life to his own brother. In fact, Setsu, the one prostitute who befriends the masseur, reminds Zatoichi of his lost wife. However, a crippled samurai named Yoshio also covets Setsu-- and only after building some suspense as toYoshio's motives does the film reveal that Yoshio is Zatoichi's brother. The sense that the two siblings are once again opposed due to their common lust for one woman produces a fine undertone of Japanese fatalism.
In the earlier reviews I've explained in detail my reasons for deeming Zatoichi's feats of blind swordmanship to be "uncanny," and I devoted one review to showing how certain types of blind hero failed to transcend the vale of the naturalistic. However, just to provide one more such example, I watched the Phillipines-produced heist-flick BLIND RAGE, which deals with five blind men who conspire to rob a bank.
In a broad sense this idea of a "blind man's burglary" is just as improbable as Zatoichi's peerless feats However, RAGE never imparts the unique tonality of "the uncanny" to its improbable events; rather, the improbabilities are simply there, and the audience either accepts them or not. However, there's not nearly as much one can say about BLIND RAGE. Though producer/writer Leo Fong can be credited with a smattering of "good dumb fun" action films, the pace of RAGE is plodding and its actors are uninspired. Even Fred Williamson, who only appears for about ten minutes in the film to give it some cachet for American audiences, proves unable to inject RAGE with any charisma. There's a tiny amount of sociological content in the film, as the five blind men "rage" against "the Man" for marginalizing their handicapped status, but even this is forced and unimpressive. The only amusing moment is when the five blind thieves employ "Braille watches" to synchronize their operation.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
It's axiomatic that Universal Studios' THE RAVEN was initiated to follow up the company's box-office success from the previous year, THE BLACK CAT. Both films derived from supposed inspiration by Edgar Allen Poe works (even down to both of them using animals in the titles), both featured two of the era's greatest horror-stars pitted against one another, and both dwell upon Poe's theme of "thanatophilia," albeit in ways that have nothing much to do with Poe's themes.
However, in terms of story-structure, THE RAVEN most resembles another horror-film released in the same month-- June of 1935-- as the Universal film. Universal's THE RAVEN and MGM's MAD LOVE both pursue the idea of a surgeon who falls madly in love with another man's woman, and who attempts to avenge himself on all those who oppose him-- an idea that appears nowhere in 1934's THE BLACK CAT. In addition, though both film-scripts were the efforts of several screenwriters, both movies have one writer in common: Guy Endore.
Endore was not the first writer MGM assigned to adapt Maurice Renard's 1920 novel THE HANDS OF ORLAC into a working script, but according to Wikipedia he is among those who collaborated on early drafts with MAD LOVE's director Karl Freund. Wiki also credits Endore with having presented the original 19-page treatment that evolved in the 1935 RAVEN. Which came first? Lacking a preicise timeline, I can't be sure. But I don't find it incredible to imagine something along these lines: someone, be it Endore or some other script-collaborator on MAD LOVE, introduced the element of the woman-stealing surgeon, an element which, going by available synopsi, does not appear in either the Renard novel or the silent 1924 film adaptation. Endore then sought to "recycle" this basic idea into his treatment for THE RAVEN, since the actual Poe work, the famous long poem, offers no plot that a mainstream movie-company could use. Purely as a hypothesis I tend to credit Endore with introducing this element, if only because he presents another case of "doomed love" in his 1933 novel THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS, though Endore's protagonist in this novel is not otherwise comparable to the mad surgeons of MAD LOVE or THE RAVEN.
I dwell on this point in part because THE RAVEN, though quite enjoyable, feels very much like a mechanical replay of the quite superior treatment of "l'amour fou" in MAD LOVE. Since I haven't yet reviewed the Freund film, I can't offer my specific reasons for claiming MAD LOVE's superiority. All that I can say here is that even on the larger-than-life terms offered by both of these uncanny films, MAD LOVE's madman is more believable than that of THE RAVEN.
At no point does RAVEN's script attempt to offer even a sketchy psychological outline for the extreme thanatophilia professed by the film's premiere monster, Dr. Vollin (Bela Lugosi). "Death is my talisman," Vollin tells the museum representative who visits his house, a house tricked out with full-sized reproductions of Poe's torture devices from the story "Pit and the Pendulum." But early in the film, Vollin is not mad, just rather eccentric in his love for Poe. He has apparently profited from his practice to the extent that he's able to retire from surgery and to indulge his mild obsession in his secluded mansion, with no other human beings around except his servants.
Vollin's only vulnerability is his ego. When young dancer Jean Thatcher is injured in a car accident, her father Judge Thatcher is told that Vollin is the only surgeon skilled enough to save Jean from death. Vollin is flattered that his peers have given him this compliment, and yields to the judge's pleas, coming out of retirement to save Jean's life.
However, Jean's beauty captivates Vollin, particularly when she composes a dance-revue in honor of Vollin's favorite author, even dressing up like a "raven." Since Vollin keeps a statue of a raven in his study, Jean unintentionally becomes for Vollin the embodiment of all the "lost loves" of Poe's stories and verse. One may speculate that perhaps Vollin also had some "lost love" in the past with whom he has merged the image of Jean, but the film remains blithely uninterested in providing any deep psychological insights. One imagines director Lew Landers saying, "What motivation? He's Bela Lugosi, so he's a crazy guy!"
Judge Thatcher sees Jean-- affianced to an age-appropriate young man, also a doctor-- in danger of falling for Vollin-- something the audience never sees, since aside from her dance-tribute Jean shows no special fondness for her savior. Thatcher is horrified to see the obsessed doctor express passion for Jean, so the judge breaks off contact with Vollin. The judge's high-handed rejection sends Vollin over the edge; he desires revenge, but fears that he doesn't have the moxie to kill his enemies. By dumb luck Edmund Bateman (Boris Karloff), a fugitive from justice, comes to Vollin with the mistaken idea that Vollin can surgically alter his face and help him escape the law. Vollin mutilates Bateman in order to make the crook serve him in gaining his revenge. In jig time Vollin lures the Thatchers and some other guests to a "make-up party," but it turns out to be a torture session. Only Bateman's hatred for Vollin, as well as the thug's rather improbable tender feelings toward Jean, saves Vollin's victims and dooms Vollin to one of his own torture-devices.
The main deficit of RAVEN is not so much the psychological flatness of Vollin, which is overcome by the barnstorming performance of Bela Lugosi. Rather, it's that all of his victims are colorless bores. Judge Thatcher, as noted above, is arrogant and unfeeling toward the man who saved his daughter's life, obviously valuing propriety above all else. Jean's tribute to Vollin is the extent to which she acknowledges her debt, but after that, he's almost a joke with which to taunt her fiancee Jerry ("He kinda likes me, y'know?") Handsome age-appropriate suitors to the leading lady are almost always bland in Universal horror films, but even by those standards Jerry is a bumptious clod. And it's almost inevitable that the comedy relief characters are tedium personified.
Finally, we come to Boris Karloff. Despite the fact that Vollin is the center of the narrative, while Bateman is merely a vividly freaky henchman, Karloff received both top billing in the credits and a higher salary than his co-star. The level of Karloff's performance in RAVEN doesn't merit this treatment. Though Karloff delivers some nice lines here, such as the quotable "maybe if a man looks ugly he does ugly things," Bateman's not any better developed than Vollin, and Karloff seems to recycle elements of earlier performances to compensate. In the scene where Bateman learns, in graphic detail, how Vollin has ruined his face, he growls and shakes his fist at the safely hidden surgeon, as if Bateman had suddenly channeled the Frankenstein Monster. The same is true of the thug's sudden compassion for Jean Thatcher; it comes to pass because the scripters needed Bateman to save the nice people and doom Vollin.
There is some satisfaction in the fact that of the six horror-collaborations of Lugosi and Karloff, this is the one in which Lugosi's flamboyance overmasters Karloff's brutishness. The same dichotomy prevailed to some extent in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, where Lugosi'sYgor is far more interesting than Karloff's Monster, even though there's no doubt that the Monster is the central character. The two actors were narrative equals in BLACK CAT, but of the other three horror-films (and obviously I'm omitting the two comedy-collaborations), Karloff's role trumped Lugosi's quite easily in INVISIBLE RAY, BLACK FRIDAY, and THE BODY SNATCHER.
There's no doubt that RAVEN is a fun torture-ride, but it's sublimely ironic that if any 1935 film truly succeeded in emulating the sophisticated perversity of Edgar Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT, it's Freund's MAD LOVE, and not "the big bad raven."