Saturday, September 20, 2014

THE THING THAT COULDN'T DIE (1958)



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


Despite the risible title of THE THING THAT WOULDN'T DIE, it's the sort of film that rewards the genre-oriented film fanatics, the ones who will watch a dozen common dogs just to find the one member of the pack who looks like an interesting crossbreed. THING, even though it's hampered by a low budget and average-at-best performances, manages to cross two major concerns of human beings-- religion and sex-- and come up with a better-than-average occult thriller.

In the same year prose-SF writer Jerome Bixby scored a similar low-budget thriller with CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN.  THING's writer was also noted for his work in prose SF, and while a couple of David Duncan's other film-scripts are noteworthy-- THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD,
MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS-- I regard THING as Duncan's standout film-script.

The film opens on a California ranch, where young leading lady Jessica (Carolyn Kearney) is demonstrating her talent for water-witching.  In attendance are Jessica's aunt Flavia, who runs the ranch/bed-and-breakfast with the help of two hands, conniving Boyd and slow-thinking Mike. Also in attendance are Hank and Linda, two of the ranch's three guests, all of whom have vacationed at the ranch previously.

In the midst of Jessica's demonstration, the third guest-- young, handsome Gordon Hawthorne-- comes riding up on a horse-- a nice touch, since the action makes him look more patrician. His attitude toward water-witching is both skeptical and condescending, and Jessica is visibly stung by his negative opinion. In her anger she lets her water-wand guide where it will-- and it leads her toward a gnarled old tree. Almost immediately Jessica regrets having given in to her impulse, and tells the watchers not to dig near the tree after all. Flavia, a greedy woman, gets the idea in her head that Jessica has stumbled across buried treasure, saying something to the effect of, "What else do people ever bury, except gold?"  Jessica reviles the entire group for not listening to her, swearing that she hopes the tree falls on them. With the help of a sudden, demonic-sounding wind, a tree-branch  falls, slightly injurinig Linda, though no one in the group believes that Jessica's curse is responsible.

An ancient chest-- later revealed to be 400 years old-- is unearthed. Flavia wants to break it open right away. Gordon plays on her greed, informing her that the chest itself might be valuable to a museum. Jessica, for her part, refuses to stay in the house with the mysterious chest, even when Gordon tells her she's acting "like a child." It will soon come out that Gordon has a very specific reason for critiquing Jessica's psychic premonitions: as a skeptic he considers all such metaphysical beliefs nonsense, and he wants Jessica to "grow up" and to grow out of such childish beliefs so that he will be accessible to him as a wife. To her credit, Jessica never doubts her own natural gifts, and finally does persuade him by directing him to find a lost item. In finding the lost item, Gordon also finds an ancient fleur-de-lys amulet which he places on Jessica's neck. The amulet functions as an ersatz "engagement ring"-- later she tells him, "you put it on, you're the only one who can take it off"-- and also as protection against the bane in the box.

While Jessica and Gordon are reaching their rapprochement, Flavia's crooked ranch-hands plot to make off with the treasure in the box. The latter-day Lenny-and-George come to regret this action, for in the box is the decapitated head of an immortal sorcerer, Gideon Drew. Four hundred years ago, Drew came to the New World on the ship of Sir Francis Drake (presumably during Drake's circumnavigation the globe in the 1570s). The still living head of Drew takes mental control of "Lenny" and uses him to kill "George."  Later, Drew takes control of Linda as well, and finally, of Jessica-- all with the end of having these mortal pawns link together his head with the rest of his immortal body, buried elsewhere in the area.

Drew is a great idea, but one undone by the limited budget. Despite a well modulated performance by Robin Hughes, most of the scenes of the wizard-head dominating this or that pawn are more funny than fear-inspiring. Drew's indirect influence is a different matter. In keeping with the sorcerer's satanic affiliations, he corrupts others by his mere presence. After he's caused the deaths of both Boyd and Mike, Drew separates Linda from her boyfriend Hank. Hank, hurt by her rejection, tries to put the moves on Jessica. Jessica, at one point divested of her protective charm by practical-minded Gordon, also falls under Drew's sway, and makes a partial shift from "virgin" toward "whore." That is to say, she starts behaving in an un-virginal way. She allows Hank to paint her in a compromising situation, though she has enough mental strength to reject his attempt to sleep with her. In another scene she begins dressing more provocatively and kisses Gordon passionately.  In the end, though, once Gordon is finally forced to believe in witchcraft and sorcery, he's allowed the privilege of putting down the evil sorcerer for good, though he must use the charm that Jessica unearthed. The movie closes on his words while he places the amulet back on Jessica: "let this protect us both."

Will Cowan's direction is generally competent but pedestrian, even in the film's strongest scenes, those depicting the uneasy romance of Gordon and Jessica. It's likely that behind Gordon's scorn of Jessica's witchy power lies a general fear that women may have instinctive ties to the dark side of the supernatural world, and that even for an unbeliever, only the sanctity of marriage can keep women from becoming the brides of Satan. For Gideon Drew is first and foremost a pocket-sized Satan, whose power lies in persuading a virgin to bring together the parts of his divided body. Strangely, moments before the eleventh-hour reversal, Drew is lusting not for Jessica, but for the privilege of slaying the good-hearted Gordon. Or perhaps lust isn't quite the right word, but Duncan's script makes clear that Drew scorns the corruptible Flavia, Linda and Hank as hardly worth killing, perhaps because they've figuratively signed over the souls to him.

In a Hollywood jam-packed with remakes of films that didn't need remaking, it could be interesting to see THE THING THAT COULDN'T DIE given a new lease on life.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


It's been observed that many of the prominent comedians of the Classic Hollywood period made horror-comedies. Not many of the resultant films are much more than serviceable, though-- which makes it all the more pleasing that Universal's final monster mash, combining the popular team Abbott and Costello with Universal's "Big Three" of Monsterdom, turns out to be the best of the horror-comedies, particularly since it appears so late in the Classic period (depending on how long you deem that to have lasted).

Now, it should be said that ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (henceforth A&CMF) is a classic in a very different way than any of the classic horror films from which the cinematic figures of Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster derive. Since A&C specialized in light farce, it's a given that the viewer isn't going to get Dracula musing on the boundaries between life and death, or the Wolf Man haunted by blood-guilt, or the Monster raging over the unjust treatment he has received from his maker. And yet, as many before me have remarked, the three monsters are given roughly the same sort of dignity they have in their earlier appearances. Dracula (Bela Lugosi) still has a domineering will, which he demonstrates when his criminal accomplice Doctor Mornay (Lenore Aubert) attempts to defy him. Larry "Wolf Man" Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is still tormented by the possibility of harming others, though to be sure, this film softens his threat by having him stumble over obstacles that would never have deterred him in the old days. Best of all, the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), ignominiously confined to an operating-table in the previous two "serious" monster mash-ups, is allowed to wreak havoc for a good ten minutes or so at the climax of A&CMF.

One advantage of this film is that the film's three screenwriters-- all much more associated with A&C comedies than with "serious horror"-- paid close attention to the template provided by the three previous "monster mashes." FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN loosely recapitulated the sibling rivalry-theme of 1941's THE WOLF MAN by having both the Wolf Man and the Monster seek the help of a scientist, who becomes an eleventh-hour "Frankenstein manqué" thanks to becoming fascinated with the Monster's bizarre biology. HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN presents a much madder scientist who's also more interested in the power of the Monster and who is undone by a Wolf Man rampage, while HOUSE OF DRACULA offers a scientist poisoned by the blood of Dracula, who tries to unleash the Monster's power before being killed by a de-lycanthropized Larry Talbot. In the latter two films, Dracula barely interacts with the other two monsters. The A&CMF scripters found a way to give Dracula a more central role: now, for reasons unexplained, it's the evil count who decides to bring the Monster's power under his sway, using the aforementioned Doctor Mornay as a catspaw to work his will.

Chick (Abbott) and Wilbur (Costello), playing two delivery-men accidentally involved in Dracula's plot, are the sort of characters who would normally provide a little bit of comic relief in a serious horror film. Here, their vaudeville routines-- principally, "straight man takes advantage of comic foil"-- are given new meaning.  Comic foil Wilbur, whose intellect tells him that monsters are "silly stuff," keeps seeing monsters while his blase pal Chick witnesses nothing. In this film their relationship metamorphoses into something more like scolding parent and naughty child, except that here, the audience knows that the "child" is right when he howls about seeing the living dead dogging his steps.  Small wonder that Wilbur's last words in the film are those of juvenile vindication: "And another thing Mr. Chick Young! The next time I tell you that I saw something when I saw it, you believe me that I saw it!"

I said that it was amazing that A&CMF works so well as a horror-comedy compared to its genre-kindred. But it's also the most tightly-written of all the Abbott and Costello films, with hardly a wasted word or plot-development to be found. In this it's also superior to the previous two films in the "monster mash" series, both of which suffer from unraveling plot-threads. A particular standout is the gag in which Wilbur momentarily tricks the Monster by pulling Dracula's cape over the lower half of his face, only to blow the illusion a moment later by rejoicing in his own cleverness. But this gag would not have worked so well, if there had not been a chilling scene in which Dracula is seen mesmerizing Chick and Wilbur by placing his cloak over his lower face, presumably to emphasize the effect of his vampiric gaze. In fact, when I screened the film for my nephew and three of my nieces, this scene prompted one of them to say, "Are you sure this is a comedy?"

This balance between the horrific and the humorous is the reason why A&CMF has remained a perennial of its kind. It's also a pleasant sign-off for the Big Three, who aren't diminished by the comic shenanigans. It may be that someone at Universal realized that the monsters who'd helped make the studio's fortunes had become too familiar to conjure terror the way they had for earlier audiences. Many "straight horrors" of the forties had begun to "play to the kids," and so in this atmosphere the best possible send-off for the Big Three was to allow them to hold their own against the proponents of light farce-- giving each of them a suitably horrible finish, rather than allowing them to simply fade into obscurity.



Friday, September 12, 2014

KUNG FU: SEASON 1, EPISODES 13-15 (1973)

-

PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*

The last three episodes of KUNG FU's Season 1 are resoundingly in the naturalistic sphere. Caine shows no special talents, but plays more of a second-fiddle to the guest stars.

"The Stone" is in part KUNG FU's take on Steinbeck's "The Pearl," which also concerns characters who lose themselves in the quest for profit.  Caine is passing through a town when he sees bullies attack a Braziilan man, Isaac Montoya (Moses Gunn), presumably for no reason but that he's a black man wearing a suit.  Montoya defends himself with his country's fighting-art capoeira, much to Caine's fascination-- though the Shaolin isn't so fascinated as to neglect defending Montoya when one of the bullies resorts to firearms. Montoya, who has a chip on his shoulder due to his treatment as a slave in Brazil, expresses a modicum of gratitude and goes his way-- not knowing that during the fight he's lost his most precious possession: a huge diamond.  When he misses it, he jumps to the conclusion that Caine took it.

Three kids witness the fight and one of them idly picks up the lost gem.  Their main concern is also with Caine. They live with their widowed mother, who was recently left at the altar by her current beau, an Armenian immigrant named Zolly. The kids, having seen Caine's skill, try to get him to accept a commission to assassinate that triflin' man. Caine, concerned only with getting the kids back home, gets involved with seeking out Zolly. Zolly, like Montoya, is haunted by the past. In his case, Zolly fled his native land to escape a purge, yet he harbors the desire to return and fight tyranny. Caine more or less convinces him that he's formed new ties in the new land and to forget old hatreds.

The climax leads to a nice, fluid fight between Shaolin arts and capoeria dance-fighting, followed by the usual sorting-out.


"The Third Man" is more in the vein of a murder mystery. On a road that leads to a town, Caine comes across Jim, a genial gambler who was attacked and beaten by robbers. Caine helps Jim reach his wife Noreen, and then invites Caine to stay as their guest. But Jim, despite being a popular guy in town, is a lightning-rod for trouble. He goes out gambling again and has a great night-- until he leaves the saloon. The same thugs that attacked him come after his roll. Caine comes to Jim's defense, fighting the robbers, but a mysterious "third man" intevernes and kills Jim.

As there aren't many suspects there's not a lot of suspense about the killer's identity, and the script doesn't play up the perpetrator's emotional conflict as much as it might have.  Though one of the script's main points is that Jim was wealthy in friends even if he was perpetually strapped for cash, this too is a little tough to believe.  In a small western town, how many creditors really appreciate the spirit of the all-or-nothing gambler?



"The Ancient Warrior" is easily the most touching of the three episodes. At another random stopping-place (Caine seems to have pretty much forgotten about looking for his brother in these segments), the monk encounters an aged Indian named Ancient Warrior (Chief Dan George) and his adult son. The son has been wounded and dies almost immediately, so charitable Caine takes up the obligation to get the old fellow where he's going. This happens to be his final resting-place, for the old Indian knows that he's going to die soon. He's also the last member of his almost extinct tribe, so he wants to be buried in a location given to him in a vision.

The quest becomes more complicated when it turns out that the grave foreseen by Ancient Warrior is in the middle of the street of an Indian-hating town.  One thing keeps him from being kicked out on his rear: Ancient Warrior has a deed that gives him ownership of the entire town and the surrounding valley.

Caine doesn't do very much in this episode, since the main action is legal and philosophical in nature. In the episode's best scene, an irate townsman (Gary Busey) rages at Ancient Warrior about the brothers he Busey lost to Indian raids. Ancient Warrior calmly trumps him with the record of the many Indian tribes wiped out by the white man's advance-- though Busey's character pays no attention whatever.

In the end Ancient Warrior doesn't elect to be buried in a town that hates him, though after his death Caine sprinkles the old fellow's ashes in the street, thus honoring his vision in a roundabout fashion.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

THE TENTH VICTIM (1965)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

THE TENTH VICTIM is one of the few films that decidedly improves upon its source material.

That source material was a 1953 short-story by Robert Sheckley, "The Seventh Victim." It's probably not the first story to translate the key idea of Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" into SF-terms, but it's become one of the best-known.

From Sheckley's mordant story about a future where it's legal for people to hunt one another, director Elio Petri and his scripters take the basic setup while casting aside the short story's ironic twist: that after the protagonist falls in love with his intended victim, she reveals that she's tricked him in order to turn the tables and kill him.

This quickie "reveal," while appropriate for a short story or the episode of an anthology-series, was too thin to sustain a commercial film. In addition, love makes the world of commercial films go round, so that here, leads Marcello (Marcello Mastroanni) and Caroline (Ursula Andress) genuinely fall in love with one another.

However, even the validation of love doesn't take anything away from the irony of the overall situation, and in some ways, the survival of one value in a crazy world makes that world seem even crazier.  The romance never detracts from the looniness of this future culture, which seeks to avoid the chaos of war by allowing citizens to sign up to be "hunters" or "victims"-- a status which each entrant must accept equally, in order to obtain a big pay-off.

Similarly, Sheckley's short tale throws in a few shots at the banality of capitalistic marketing, even in the manufacture of murder-weapons. But VICTIM improves on this trope tenfold. For some time, Marcello is uncertain whether or not Caroline is his pre-designated hunter. She, for her part, holds off on revealing her status, having been intrigued by the fact that in all his years he's only married once.  But once they both know the score, they vie to work out their quarrel with the full cooperation of television sponsors.

Happily, Marcello and Caroline don't end up killing one another, though there's enough of a battle at the climax that I rate this a "combative irony."  The coda ends humorously, with Caroline maneuvering Marcello into marrying her-- though it becomes debatable as to whether she was ever really trying to kill him in the earlier scenes.




Monday, September 8, 2014

MACHETE (2010), MACHETE KILLS (2013)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


It's often been observed that James Bond's creator Ian Fleming had two creative sides. On one hand, having been a real agent for British Naval Intelligence, Fleming could write credibly about the down-and-dirty nature of spy-work, producing such mundane-focused works as THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and many of the short Bond stories, such as "The Living Daylights." OTOH, Fleming unquestionably enjoyed invoking sensational, often freakish villains like Goldfinger and Doctor No, and although Fleming never saddled his hero with the dozens of gimmicks wielded by the cinematic Bond, Fleming's character does exist at times in a world inclined more toward "fantasy" than "reality."

I don't know anything about Robert Rodriguez's tastes or personal history, but his history as a writer-producer-director suggests that he also finds it easy to switch gears from "reality" to "fantasy." Granted, Rodriguez' version of "reality" is like Fleming's, for it still involves unusual exploits by a ballsy hero, whether one is talking about the "El Mariachi" films or 2010's MACHETE.  These films are very much in the tradition of the hard-boiled protagonists played by celebrated stars like Eastwood and Bronson (the latter sharing something of Danny Trejo's formidable homeliness).  On the other hand, Rodriquez has also produced a large quantity of pure-fantasy films, ranging from the juvenile SPY KIDS franchise to the grittier action-horror flicks FROM DUSK TO DAWN and PLANET TERROR.

In the original MACHETE, heroic ex-federale Machete Cortez can perform stunts that border on the uncanny, like cutting off people's heads with his signature weapon, or descending from a high window by holding on to the unraveling intestines of a man he's just eviscerated. However, I find that the script for MACHETE, as wild as it is, remains on the naturalistic side of the border between the two worlds of "realistic spectacle"-- also represented by THE SPY WHO LOVED ME-- and "fantasy-spectacle," ranging from the uncanny phenomenality of LIVE AND LET DIE to the marvelous nature of DOCTOR NO.  It helps, too, that the script-- co-written by director Rodriguez-- includes some meditations on a real-world sociological concern: the relationship of the citizens of Mexico to their richer neighbors of El Norte.  These meditations aren't meant to be very deep, given that MACHETE is first and foremost about balls-to-the-wall action, indicated by the tag-line:

He gets the women. And he kills the bad guys!

The original MACHETE is aso noteworthy for tossing in a level of perversity reminiscent of the Bad Old Days of 1970's sleaze cinema, including one scene in which a Catholic priest is crucified, and another scene in which one of the villains-- the father of a teenaged girl-- clearly lusts after his own daughter.  Rodriguez, unlike his sometime collaborator Quentin Tarantino, makes no bones about offering up loads of voluptuous femininity-- Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, and Lindsay Lohan, for three. But the big action set-pieces are the main attraction, and Rodriguez delivers on most if not all counts.




2013's MACHETE KILLS isn't just Machete's version of DOCTOR NO, it plunges full-bore into the overt science-fictional content of the Bond-film MOONRAKER.  I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Rodriguez and his collaborators had intentionally "homaged" the 1979 flick, for KILLS' master villain Luther Voz (Mel Gibson) basically follows the same scheme of MOONRAKER's villain: to take a coterie of carefully selected colonists onto a space station while the rest of the world is destroyed.  However, Rodriguez plays up the loony humor of the situation to a much greater degree. Voz is an avowed STAR WARS fan, who tries to win the hero to the Dark Side by offering him various perks, including a charged-up, "lightsabre"-ish version of his normal machete. Indeed, the faux-trailer for the next Machete film-- which may never appear, given that KILLS was not a box-office success-- goes all-out with STAR WARS imagery. Gibson's performance as a space-happy super-villain is a little too in-jokey for my tastes, but his two fights with Machete are enhanced by his claim of precognitive talents, so that he can to some extent read Machete's intentions.

If Rodriguez did model KILLS on MOONRAKER, he inadvertently copied one of the earlier film's worst aspects: a slack script punctuated by the villains' repetitive attempts to kill the hero. The first half of the film poses a threat roughly like that of Jason Statham's CRANK franchise, in that Machete is forced to keep the heart of a crazed terrorist (Demian Bichir) beating. If that heart stops beating, a missile-attack will devastate the United States.  This is a fun plot-device up until Rodriguez throws it away, and after that, the film more or less gets lost in a welter of aimless fight-scenes and sexy scenes. One scene, a catfight between Machete's gal-pal Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) and the evil Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard), combines aspects of sex and violence, though I for one would much rather have seen Ms. Rodriguez take on the movie's other major Bad Girl, Sofia Vergara.

KILLS' script does toss out a few sociological comments about the demeaning treatment of Mexicans by norteamericanos: William Sadler plays a bad "good ol' boy" lawman with a habit of hanging any Mexican he encounters, and the U.S. President ("Carlos Estevez," a.k.a. Charlie Sheen) more or less forces Machete to take on the mission to find the missile-master.  But these are mere toss-offs in a script that feels more like SPY KIDS than FROM DUSK TO DAWN-- or even MOONRAKER.

One STAR WARS emulation may have hurt KILLS at the box office, for it's possible that some film-goers heard that the conclusion leaves various plot-threads dangling-- and, in contrast to the original STAR WARS, not in a good way, Also, KILLS duplicates some of the 2010 film's signature moments: there's another gut-unraveling, another revelation about an incestuous parent. A film-sequel can only succeed with these sort of  "mirror-scenes" in the same way TERMINATOR 2: by having a script that built upon the ideas of its predecessor did. But although there are some moments in KILLS, the weak script keeps them from being compelling. It's possible that the first Machete film pretty much "shot its wad," so to speak, and that even a less fantastical approach in the sequel may not have done any better.

Friday, September 5, 2014

HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)



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


I've generally tended to view 1945's HOUSE OF DRACULA as the poor cousin of the previous year's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, even though the films shared the same director, Erle C. Kenton, and one of the credited writers, Edward T. Lowe Jr.  In my review I championed HOF for its "dark romanticism," while admitting that the film had a strong appeal to me in that it was the first "Classic Universal" horror-film I ever saw.  When I saw HOUSE OF DRACULA much later, it seemed to me that it had none of the previous film's romanticism, as well as an even more rickety plot.  However, on a recent re-screening, I find that HOD has its own strengths.

The greatest contrast between the two plots relates to nature of the "mad scientist" protagonist in each. The 1944 film had an active agent who brought three monsters into his sphere, though not always intentionally. By stealing Lampini's wagon, Doctor Niemann gets ahold of the corpse of Dracula and makes the vampire do his bidding  Later, when Niemann deliberately seeks out the Frankenstein Monster, he also finds the Wolf man. He plans to use both of them in his revenge against old enemies, though he seems to take his bloody time to execute said revenge-- just long enough, in fact, for the Wolf Man to set off a chain of events that dooms the mad doctor's plans.

In the 1945 film, however, all roads lead to the home of Doctor Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), a researcher who lives in a castle-cum-laboratory in the monster-haunted Middle European realm of Visaria.  Edelmann does absolutely nothing to solicit the three monsters who, by devious routes, make their way to him, nor has he any grand plans for vengeance.  Edelmann is the ethical opposite of crazed egotist Niemann, for he and his two lab assistants-- gorgeous Milizia and tragic, hunchbacked Nina-- are busy researching a species of plant-spore whose fluids can soften bone and make difficult operations easy.  Edelmann plans to operate upon Nina and reshape her back as soon as he can harvest enough of the rare fluid.

Dracula (John Carradine), again keeping a discrete distance from the other two monsters, arrives first to ask Edelmann's help. In contrast to other Universal Draculas, this one has become weary of his life as an immortal bloodsucker. Edelmann is leery of this supernatural creature, but scientific curiosity-- as well a Christian religiosity rare in Universal scientists-- move the doctor to examine the vampire. Edelmann prescribes a blood transfusion treatment to rid the Count of his diseased blood-cells, and the doctor even allows Dracula to keep his coffin in the castle's basement.

Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) shows up on Edelmann's doorstep slightly later, having apparently read the same scientific papers that Dracula did. He explains his werewolf curse to Edelmann and later has himself locked in the town jail so that Edelmann, Milizia, and local constable Holtz (Lionel Atwill) can witness his transformation. Edelmann eventually comes up with a method to cure lycanthropy, but it requires a great quantity of the spore-juice, so that Edelmann can perform operation to relieve pressure on Larry's brain and free him from the werewolf curse.

(Possibly this business about Larry's head-injury hearkens back to 1943's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, for in that film Doctor Mannering observes that Larry has recovered from head-wounds, which the viewer knows were inflicted by Larry's father at the end of 1941's WOLF MAN. But in that film no head-trauma was involved in Larry's curse.)

Larry, impatient with the delays, tries to commit suicide by jumping into the ocean from a cliff near the castle. Edelmann goes after Larry and finds him alive, but transformed into a killer werewolf. Fortunately for the doctor, the full moon wanes just in time to banish the wolf and bring back the man.  The search for Larry also reveals that both the body of the Frankenstein Monster and the skeleton of Doctor Niemann have improbably ended up in a cavern beneath Edelmann's castle-- so that now Edelmann himself gets the idea of reviving the Monster. Unlike most mad scientists in this series, Edelmann lets himself be convinced to put the Monster on the back-burner, influenced by Larry's advice to keep hands off.

Up to this point Edelmann is perhaps the most monster-friendly scientist of all time: he feels pity for all three monsters, and does what he can to alleviate their sufferings. However, Dracula soon goes back to his old vampiric ways, for he fancies Milizia and wants to add her to his vampire harem.  When Edelmann attempts the next transfusion, Dracula double-crosses the doctor and causes Edelmann to receive vampire-blood-- a much less visceral way of blood-transfer than one sees in the Stoker novel.

Edelmann doesn't become a vampire, though. Instead, he transforms into a sort of manic "Mister Hyde." The doctor manages to maintain his good self for a while, exposing Dracula's sleeping body to the sun and destroying it, and then performing the crucial operation on Larry, curing him of werewolfism. But "Hyde" will have his day. Edelmann has dreams of unleashing the Monster's power on the world, and, more perversely, of first curing Nina of her deformity and then strangling her. Evil-Edelmann kills one of the locals-- easily the film's scariest scene-- and the constable suspects Larry of the crime. But Edelmann is exposed in the end: he makes his dream come true by choking Nina to death, and then successfully revives the Monster. In an ironic touch, Larry, who has been saved from his curse, is forced to shoot Edelmann to end the physician's affliction. Unfortunately, the hurry-up-and-finish conclusion undermines the emotional tone:the Monster is apparently-- and too easily-- destroyed in a blazing laboratory and Larry escapes with Milizia, his new lover.

HOD's idea of treating monsters with modern medicine proves inimical to the atmosphere of fantasy pervading the early Universal works. But the film remains interesting, for it's arguable as to how the viewer ought to regard Edelmann's sense of Christian charity.  Clearly he's taking a much higher road than many previous Frankensteins, both "real" and "would-be."  Yet, he's destroyed because of his pity and generosity, and even Larry, who has actually been a monster, counsels him not to extend his charity to a kindred creature.   Though the film wasn't necessarily meant to take a distinct moral view, it does sound like the reigning ethos here remains the old  "don't meddle in things beyond the pale of science."

In closing I'll note that Onslow Stevens gives his Jekyll-Hyde mad scientist great intensity, and easily wins the honors for the film's "best monster."

Saturday, August 30, 2014

SON OF SINBAD (1955)




PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, cosmological*


One of the original Sinbad's feats was to tie himself to the leg of a giant Roc, which creature was called a "Simurgh" in some versions. On that basis I choose to dub this sort of Hollywood amalgam of Arabic motifs-- Sinbad, Omar Khayyam, the 40 Thieves, and the legendary "Greek fire"-- a "simurghasboard."

Bad puns aside, the most interesting thing about SON OF SINBAD is that it's an example of the uncanny motif "exotic lands and customs" set within a faux-historical period. This stands opposed to my more usual application of the term to either narratives set in prehistoric periods (CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR) or in primitive backwaters within the modern world (just about every Tarzan film).

In the case of SON OF SINBAD, it's not simply that the scripters of the film were ignorant of the temporal difficulties of having the son of Sinbad (the very American Dale Robertson) be best friends with Omar Khayyam (Vincent Price). This conflation is not a simple result of carelessness; rather, SON represents a deliberate lumping-together of Arabic story-motifs, in much the same fashion that makers of prehistory pictures would lump together cavemen and dinosaurs.

SON is usually listed in concordances because a main element of the plot-- which doesn't really bear analysis in itself-- involves the son of Sinbad encountering a weapon unknown to his period or that of Omar Khayyam-- the incendiary explosive "Greek fire." But this is not a marvelous phenomenon, given that it's merely an exotic form of gunpowder. It is an uncanny phenomenon because it appears out of its proper time-frame. At the climax, Sinbad's allies coat arrows with Greek fire and use them to blow up their enemies in much the same way Rambo blasts his foes with dynamite-shafts. It's the same physical phenomenon, but only the former manifestation carries the aspect I've termed "strangeness."

For good measure, the proto-scientist who discovers Greek fire's secret encodes the process for its manufacture within the brain of his daughter, by using a special hypnotic lamp-- hence adding the uncanny phenomenon of "enthralling hypnotism" to the mix.

"Weird families and societies," in turn, is ably represented by an all-female band of warriors, the daughters of the original Forty Thieves, who become Sinbad's allies for the big climax. I'd say that the concept of a band of Arabic Amazons-- all played by glamorous Caucasian girls, of course-- being able to operate in any period of the Islamic Middle East is a greater stretch than the rediscovery of Greek fire. In keeping with SON's avoidance of marvelous devices, the famous cave of the Forty Thieves uses purely mechanical means to "open sesame."

Overall, this is an entertaining bit of Hollywood gibberish, with lots of pretty girls and Robertson ably swashing buckles, at least for this sort of lower-tier product. Vincent Price gets the best lines, intoning pastiches of Omar Khayyam in his usual orotund fashion.