Wednesday, July 8, 2020

THE WILD WOMEN OF WONGO (1958)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*


Though WONGO is not one of the better “Amazon fantasies” of the fifties, it does present a challenge in terms of phenomenal classification.
For one thing, though all of the action takes place on what look like Pacific islands, the narrator tells us that it’s all taking place 10,000 years before the current era. This unseen narrator self-identifies as Mother Nature, and she tells the viewer that she and Father Time have been doing a good job shepherding the human race for eons—except, perhaps, for one odd experiment on the islands of Wongo and Goona. (Note: as far back as the thirties, the exploitation film industry used the term “goona-goonas” for flicks which were set in exotic climes and promised sexual thrills.) After this introductory narration, neither of these deity-like presences figure into the main action of WONGO. Often, when I’ve encountered films that start off with some supernatural entity or setting that appears only in a preface, I tend to regard them as “fallacious figments” that don’t really affect the work’s phenomenality. However, since the sexual arrangements of the two islands can’t be explained by any naturalistic process, I have to regard the influence of these supernatural influences as real, so that the film becomes marvelous, even though most of the main action is uncanny at best.

The aforesaid exual arrangements read like something screenwriter Cedric Rutherford might;ve cooked up after reading an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel like THE RETURN OFTARZAN. In that novel, Burroughs describes the city of Opar as a place where all the women are gorgeous and all the men are subhuman brutes. Wongo is much like Opar, and Rutherford extends Burroughs’ idea to the isle of Goona, where the men are all beauties and the women are all beasts.

The script isn’t consistent about whether the two islands know of one another. When Engor, Prince of Goona, shows up on Wongo in his canoe, the Wongo men and women act like they’ve never seen his like before-- and yet they recognize that the feathered staff carried by Engor signifies pe.ceful intent. While the women of Wongo—uniformly young cute things, with no sign of any older generation—goggle over Engor’s good looks, the men listen to Engor’s story: that “ape men” from another island have caused great havoc in the vicinity. Having delivered his warning, Engor prepares to depart. But the Wongo men, even without knowing how their women feel about Engor, decide to kill Engor. One of the maidens, Omoo (apparently named for an obscure Melville novel), saves Engor, and he flees back to Goona. In retaliation, the Wongo men banish all of the women from their village. The women pick up their spears and leave their ugly men to figure out how they’ll propagate all by themselves.

Frankly, I can’t remember if the Wild Women stay on Wongo or boat over to Goona, looking for other hotties like Engor. There are a couple of Amazonian action-scenes, such as Omoo succesffuly outwrestling an alligator underwater. In addition, the Wild Women also encounter two “ape men”—who just look like more ugly guys—and use their spears to force the duo (scouts maybe?) into the jaws of an alligator. After that, the alleged invasion of the ape men never takes place. One wonders how these girls got so tough sitting around the village, but maybe the possibility of making out with hot guys gives each of them the strength of ten.

Meanwhile on Goona, Engor and his fellow studs are turned out into the wilds as a test of manhood. As on Wongo, all the “beastly women” are of the same marriageable age, and apparently the guys are all anxious to get away, once they’ve heard Engor’s stories of beautiful Wongo women.

Somehow, I think everyone ends up on Goona, because the men of Wongo go looking for their women, and instead they find, and become enchanted with the ugly Goona women. But the movie’s real centerpiece takes place when the women of Wongo decide to hunt and trap the hunky Goona men. No actual fighting takes place either the girls trap the guys in nets, or they all just jump on one guy to overwhelm him (I saw one wild girl pinion a guy’s arm once). The filmmakers were almost surely going for the same sort of sexual-reversal theme that appeared in 1950’s PREHISTORIC WOMEN.  However, though the 1950 film is just as silly as this one, it did have a reasonably coherent formula-story. Here the climax, if one can call it that, consists of the Wild Women marching their conquests to the local temple to be married, while the Wongo men decide that they want to cleave to their fellow ugg-os. The temple priestess marries everyone, and that’s that.

Neither the writer nor the director garnered further IMDB credits, and most of the players were in the same boat, except for muscleman Ed Fury, who later starred in some peplum pictures. (One woman has a name similar to that of Adrienne Barbeau, but the two actresses are not the same.) Other metaphenomenal curiosities include a talking parrot, a crocodile worshipped as a god, and a stone temple where one big stone functions as a door, turning on a pivot to admit people. WILD WOMEN is such a cheap production that I can’t imagine their building this relatively expensive-looking set, and so I would conjecture that it’s some local attraction the makers came across while filming down in Florida. Despite those scenes of Amazonian action, the film shakes out as subcombative.

NOTE: Oddly enough, the male lead of PREHISTORIC WOMEN is also named "Engor."

THE WITCHMAKER (1969)



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




I’m glad that some online review mentioned that WITCHMAKER was the first exploitation-film to take advantage of the trope of “Satan-worshipping witches” after 1968’s ROSEMARY’S BABY popularized the concept. Without that insight, I would not have been able to assign the flick any significance at all. WITCHMAKER isn’t even bad enough for the “so bad it’s good” category.

The film was producer, written and directed by William O. Brown, who had one previous producer-director credit to his name, and nothing afterward that made the IMDB files. Two experienced actors, L.Q. Jones and Alvy Moore shared producer credits, and Moore, best known as “Hank Kimball” on GREEN ACRES, has a supporting role. The basic setup seems promising. Four young women have been murdered in a Louisiana bayou, and witches are suspected. A psychic research team-- comprised of Moore, Anthony Eisley and Thordis Brandt-- shows up to investigate. Eisley’s character seems to be woefully ignorant of the concept of witches, prompting Moore to provide lots of exposition. Brandt’s character is a full-fledge psychic medium, but her ability proves of even greater interest to the murderous witch-cult than her good looks.

Brown devotes little attention to his psychic detectives, though, saving all of his efforts for Luther, the leader of the sacrificial witch-cult, and an unaligned witch named Jessie. Luther convinces Jessie to work with him so that she can not only convert the medium character to Satanism, but also so that the old witch can take over the young woman’s body. Thus the two sorcerers are the stars of this show. However, Brown gives the villains only the barest of motivations and no real backgrounds, so they’re not much better than the heroes. On top of that, though Brown did a little research on his topic—mentioning at one point the witches’ “flying ointment,” allegedly a hallucinogenic drug—he also feels free to make up any old thing he pleases about his malefic magicians. For some reason Luther is called a “Berserk,” but what if anything this has to do with the Norse tradition of Berserkers is anyone’s guess. There is a fair amount of appealing nudity, thanks to the fact that most of the witches are hot young women, but overall even the orgy’s rather lame. The film’s one moment of inspired idiocy features Luther chasing Eisley and Brandt and flinging magic spells at them, but he keeps missing them, so that they make the nearby trees explode, just as if they had explosive charges set in their boles.

Given that Brown’s witches are rather bland, he might’ve done better to emulate ROSEMARY’S BABY in beefing up the roles of the good guys and allowing the witches to be more mysterious. As the movie stands, the only point of special interest is that of seeing Alvy Moore play a “straight” version of his officious GREEN ACRES character.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

SPIDERS (2000), SPIDERS 2 (2001), SPIDERS 3D (2013)



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






On the kinetic level these three arachnophobic outings are decent timewasters, though the spider-FX are ordinary and the scripts show no real fascination with the cosmological nature of spiders (though one mad scientist comments that the critters don’t get a lot of diseases).

Though all of the films take place on present-day Earth, the shadow of ALIEN engulfs all three of them. The first film asserts that some American intelligence-operation got ahold of alien DNA and for some reason decided to crossbreed the genetic material with that of Earth-spiders. Naturally, this results in some really big bugs who can’t be contained by secret scientific installations—or, for that matter, an experimental station on a space shuttle, where the spiders take over, laying their eggs in one astronaut before the whole megilla crashes to Earth. The initelligence-spooks take custody of the evidence, but local alien-conspiracy reporter Marci (Lana Parrilla) tips to the operation and infiltrates the installation with two other aides. The aides are of course there to be Red Shirts, but Marci makes friends with a friendly spook who helps her against the nasty one. After an hour-and-a-half of derivative ALIEN hijinks, the climax does deliver an impressive scene with Marci, reporter-turned-Rambette, destroys a King Kong-sized spider with a bazooka.

Maybe the production company blew their budget for two films on the first one, because SPIDERS 2 stays confined to a couple of ships out in the briny blue ocean. Young marrieds Jason and Alexandra have problems with their boat, and get ostensibly rescued by a bigger craft, one that has its own mad doctor (Richard Moll, always a welcome villainous presence). I didn’t catch any linkage between this rather limited experimental endeavor and the more ambitious one from the first film, but I suppose someone might’ve harvested a few alien spider-eggs for fun and profit. Jason becomes suspicious of the doctor and the rest of the crew, but for half the film Alexandra just thinks he’s being paranoid. She finally does have to stand by her man, not least because Crazy Doc wants to make him spider-bait, and she gets the honor of blowing away the last surviving arachnid at the climax.

We’re back to big, quasi-governmental conspiracies for SPIDERS 3D, and this second sequel had much better production values than the first one. However, though most of the action takes place on planet Earth, once again it all starts with a space station, though it’s a Russian one, crashing to Earth in the vicinity of the Big Apple. Some of the alienated spiders find their way into New York’s subway system and start looking for victims, so American spooks shut down the subway, much to the chagrin of subway administrator Jason Cole (Patrick Muldoon). When Jason investigates the mysterious happenings, both he and members of his family are targeted for abduction by the military, who all apparently report to another mad doctor, this one by the name of Darnoff. Apparently Darnoff, being Russian, had some extra intel on the Russian experiment—which may or may not have been connected with the one from the first flick—and he’s just salivating for the chance to breed spider-human mutants. The conspiracy aspects of the film are more entertaining than all the lame giant-spider tropes, and the performances are generally better, though Darnoff registers as the least interesting of the mad scientists.


Of the three films, only SPIDERS qualifies for the combative mode, but the series as a whole would be subcombative.  


A CHINESE GHOST STORY 1, 2, 3 (1987, 1990, 1991)




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



These three ghostbusting fantasies from Hong Kong, all based loosely on a tale from medieval Chinese literature, still hold up fairly well today. However, in contrast to works that have managed to balance romance and action, such as THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE, action gets a certain amount of short shrift here—possibly because the original story was more of a pure romance.

All three films focus on a young man coming into contact with either a female ghost or someone conceptually linked to a ghost, with Films One and Two using the same two leads while Film Three remakes the first film but changes the names and the backgrounds of the principals. Back in an indeterminate period of medieval China, tax collector Ning (Leslie Cheung) happens to spend the night in a haunted pavilion. He meets a pretty young thing named Tsing (Joey Wang) but doesn’t suspect that she’s a ghost for the first hour of the film, even though the supposedly deserted pavilion also houses a weird old matron and her all-female entourage. In due time Ning learns that they’re all ghosts, and that the matron is the demonic incarnation of a “Devil Tree” that likes to consume mortal souls. (A strong influence from the 1988 film EVIL DEAD has been argued.) On top of that, as if to perpetuate the evil customs of human beings, Tsing is due to be wed to an evil demon-lord.

Ning, as a humble scholar with no kung-fu training, is utterly out of his depth to fight demons, while Tsing has a few ghostly powers but nothing on the level of the Devil Tree. The comely couple are only saved thanks to the aid of a Taoist exorcist, Swordsman Yen, who provides most of the heavy lifting in the demon-battles. He even gives Ning a magical weapon of sorts, a holy scroll with a Buddhist sutra written on it, which proves useful in the splashy FX-battles. (I suspect one will not find such an over-dependence on explosions in classical Chinese literature. Ning and Tsing do give Yen just enough aid in these fights to qualify the first film as combative in nature, but the romance scenes, laced with cute comic touches as well, seem to have been the selling point.

GHOST 1 ends with Ning freeing Tsing from her ethereal imprisonment, which means that her soul is therefore free to become reincarnated. Thus Ning wanders about for a time, moping over his lost love, until a townful of people mistake him for the leader of a group rebelling against the emperor. This plot-point is tossed off so as to stick Ning in jail very briefly, where he shares his cell with a scholar named Chu, who helps Ning escape. Ning also comes into contact with Autumn (Jacky Cheung), a young exorcist with assorted magical powers. (Before casting spells he says things like “hocus pocus” and “abracadabra”—and yes, he’s the source of most of the film’s comedy.) Autumn and Ning encounter a small group of rebels who dress up like ghosts but are entirely mortal. The rebels plan to liberate a man named Fu when a military unit transports him overland to the emperor’s court. The rebels are led by two comely sisters, Windy (Joey Wang) and Moon (Michelle Reis), and they all venerate Ning when they become convinced he’s the scholar Chu in disguise. Ning wonders if Windy could be the reincarnation of Tsing. He eventually decides that this is probably not the case, and indeed, though both Windy and her sister fall for Ning, there’s never any indication of continuity between the two Joey Wang characters. (Just before final credits, though, an ethereal-looking Joey Wang, implicitly Tsing, is shown smiling as she looks upon the unison of Ning and Windy—whatever that may mean.)

Though Windy and Moon command the rebel fighters, neither female displays any display any strong fighting-ability, and Ning participates in even fewer battles than he did in GHOST 1. (Thanks to some comic training from Autumn, Ning does learn the trick of freezing opponents with a magic spell.) The occult opponents this time seem more like demons than ghosts: there’s a big hulking stone critter that Ning and Autumn must vanquish, and Windy is briefly possessed by some sort of spirit. The cure for the latter ailment is entirely appropriate for a comedy-romance: Ning has to kiss her possessed lips and infuse her with his “yang energy.” The main villain is the High Priest who advises the emperor’s court, but he’s apparently a demon in disguise, since later he morphs into a giant centipede. The only thing that shifts the balance in the favor of Ning’s forces is the return of Swordsman Yen, and if anything GHOST 2 has even more lavish magical fights than did the first film.

GHOST 3, though, ratchets down the combative aspects even further. This time the earnest young mortal is a junior monk named Fong (Tony Leung Chia-wen), who travels with his aged exorcist master. Given that the master is a first-class demon-fighter, one would think that Fong might have a little mojo of his own, but such is not the case. Joey Wang plays a character with a new name, that of Lotus, but her situation is the same as in the first film: stuck in a haunted pavilion and enthralled to a Devil Tree. She too has next to no real power beyond flying around a little, and thus the old exorcist provides the demon-fighting this time. There’s one minor exception at the climax: the monk, unable to keep fighting, infuses Fong with enough energy to fly up to the sun, absorb solar powers, and use sunlight to dispel the demons—or ghosts, or whatever they are. This is a nice sequence, but Fong is just the vessel of someone else’s power, so GHOST 3 fails the test of the combative mode.


All three of them are enjoyable romantic romps, with decent FX, “haunting” performances from the lovely lead femme, and some funny comic moments, particularly a scene in GHOST 3 wherein Lotus gives new meaning to “giving tongue.” However, on the mythicity meter their use of metaphysical folklore never scores higher than “fair.”


Friday, July 3, 2020

THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES (1940)



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


MAN WITH NINE LIVES is close to being a reprise of Boris Karloff’s previous “mad scientist” film for Columbia, THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG. This was a pleasing if unremarkable story of Henryk Saavard, a dedicated doctor who perfected a way to bring patients back from death. The state thinks that he’s killed a patient and so they hang him. A confederate steals Saavard’s body and brins him back to life, after which he traps the judge and jury wwho unfairly slew him, and kills several of them before he’s stopped. In my review of HANG I thought it the best of the Columbia “mad doctor cycle.” I’ve changed my mind, for though writer Karl Brown re-uses many of the tropes of his earlier script, the arrangement is much more than just another vengeful killer film.
NINE begins with a mystery: Leon Kravaal, a doctor who claimed to have perfected the science we now call cryonics, disappeared ten years ago, along with four men who had accused him of freezing a patient to death (analogues of Saavard and his condemning jury). Tim Mason, a doctor who admires the missing doctor’s theories, takes his nurse-fiancee Judith to Kravaal’s abaonded home, and the two of them find what the police of ten years ago could not: a secret passage leading to a cryogenic chamber. Tim and Judith soon discover five men—Kravaal and his accusers—and, upon thawing them out, find that they’re all alive.

Director Nick Grinde approaches the material in the same adequate manner he did for the previous film, but this time Brown makes his tragic doctor more appealing. Upon being revived, Kravaal theorizes that he accidentally exposed all of them to a unique combination of chemicals, allowing them to survive the deep freeze. The other four men, all of whom were willing to condemn Kravaal out of hand, find that they’ve lost ten years of their lives, and that they’re all legally dead. One of them destroys Kravaal’s notes, and in retaliation the maddened scientist decides to use his unwelcome guests as guinea pigs.


The romantic couple proves a bit of a drag, though Mason’s conflicted feelings about Kravaal’s accomplishments keep him from being just another bland leading man. Of the support-cast, Byron Foulger excels in playing his go-to character type, the insufferable martinet. But the show is Karloff’s all the way, though Brown’s script gives the actor a better sampling of good lines than Karloff usually got from his B-films.



WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST (1958)



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



Whereas AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN was something of an undercooked stew, COLOSSAL BEAST is more like a breezy, well-made souflee. It’s not any deeper or more mythically complex than the preceding film, but wtiter-director Bert Gordon gave the sequel a little more dramatic heft.

In COLOSSAL MAN, the viewer is asked to identify with the travails of Glenn Manning, a former military soldier mutated into a giant freak by radiation. While this gave rise to some quotable quotes for Manning, neither he nor his plight proved all that resonant. For the sequel, Gordon borrowed from his earlier giant-man outing THE CYCLOPS. That film dealt with a man who lost almost all of his memories after being giant-ized, and since COLOSSAL MAN ends with Manning getting blasted by cannons and falling off the Hoover Dam, the king-size monster was in the perfect position for Gordon to reprise his earlier scenario.

In both CYCLOPS and COLOSSAL MAN, the victim’s wife seeks to help her mutated husband. BEAST dispenses with Manning’s wife and brings in a never-seen-before sister, Joyce. She hears about reports of disappearing food trucks and elicits the aid of the military to learn if Manning is still alive.; He has indeed survived, though his face has been disfigured. This facial makeup made it easy for Gordon to replace the previous colossal actor Glenn Langan with Dean Parkin, who had essayed the Cyclops as well. Though the Colossal Beast is intelligent enough to seek out trucks as a source of food for his giant form, he’s lost his memory and cognitive skills. Joyce gets the army to capture Manning alive, but he gives no indication that he remembers her, or that he can attain humanity again. Thus the struggle accrues more suspense by virtue of the audience wonderig whether or not his mentality can ever be recovered. In addition, in contrast with the dozens of the films showing the military as ruthless monster-slayers, here the United States army is shown diligently trying to cure a damaged citizen, with no end beyond doing the right thing.

Since it’s a monster film, obviously things don’t end up sunshine and roses for Manning. Gordon pads the film with flashbacks to the undamaged Colossal Man, but even these don’t detract from the basic effectiveness of the plight of finding the “man” within the “beast.” While not Gordon’s best film, it easily makes it to the top three.

ROSELAND (1971), THE NINE LIVES OF FRITZ THE CAT (1974)



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




I remember enjoying writer-director Frederick Dobbs’s GODMONSTER OF INDIAN FLATS, but though I’d screened his ROSELAND before around the same time, I couldn’t recall anything about it. Having watched it now, I can see why nothing stuck with me. Though there’s a certain amount of nudity and softcore sex in the flick, I can’t imagine anyone seeking out ROSELAND for erotic satisfaction. However, it may be one of the few films of the period that overtly commented on the audience for sex-films.

Adam Wainwright (great name!) is a man of many parts. He became obsessed with sexuality after an early exposure to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. This led, in some fashion, to his being condemned for performing a dirty song on the Ed Sullivan Show, after which he becomes “the Black Bandit,” devoting himself to stealing smutty films from theaters. But his thievery has nothing to do with the plot, such as it is. Rather, Adam seeks help from a psychiatrist, who tells him that everything in his fantasies is a reflection of Freudian hang-ups—which the viewer can’t judge, not seeing anything of Adam’s early life. The therapist gives Adam LSD, which provides the film’s only metaphenomenal content, as the schnook starts having wild fantasies. These include cavorting with unclad followers before a giant penis and talking to the Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch, who just happens to be black (as well as the best actor in the movie). I might theorize that Dobbs was trying to emulate the avant-garde theater of this period, particularly with respect to using a black actor for a non-black role, as JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR had done for the character Judas.

Despite some esoteric references to Freud and Gnostic Christianity, clearly Dobbs had no real plan here, so ROSELAND is nothing but pretentious twaddle. Yet it’s still a little more entertaining than my other seventies selection, NINE LIVES OF FRITZ THE CAT. This adult-rated animated feature was a sequel to Ralph Bakshi’s FRITZ THE CAT, freely adapting Robert Crumb’s comic-book character. But whereas the Bakshi film was lively enough to earn good box office as a midnight movie, NINE feels like the animators just threw together a bunch of aimless fantasies, possibly thinking that their viewers were all stoners who wouldn’t remember a narrative anyway.




NINE’s basic idea is that henpecked Fritz, nagged by his heavy-bodied cat-wife, leaves home and starts telling strangers about the glamorous “other lives” he’s lived as a cat. The only scenario that had a half-decent concept dealt with a future in which a black separatist state in the U.S. (run by crows, of course) threatens to make war on the government. The state’s actual intention is to surrender, in order to force the country to render military aid, but this backfires, and Frtiz is right in the middle of it. The film’s perhaps interesting as a time capsule, but director/co-writer Robert Taylor never manages to ccme up with anything remotely funny.