Saturday, May 23, 2020

MUNSTER, GO HOME! (1966)



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

Though THE MUNSTERS series both started and concluded inn the same seasons as did its competitor THE ADDAMS FAMILY, the former series got a slightly longer lease on life when Universal chose to give the family of Herman Munster a big-screen outing. To be sure, the Addamses got their revenge later, in that they garnered far more revivals over the years than did the inhabitants of 1313 Mockingbird Lane.

Speaking of that euphonious address, HOME could have easily have been set in America once more, the better for the producers to get a little more value out of that expensive-looking series-set. Instead, Universal decided to send its family of friendly monsters to Merrie Old England. During that same decade, England’s Hammer studio had been remaking (with Universal’s permission) a fair number of classic Universal horrors, albeit with a characteristically British spin. Maybe sending funny versions of the classic fiends to the shores of Albion could be seen as an act of revenge against the British upstarts..

Most of the actors from the series—Gwynne, DeCarlo, Lewis and Patrick-- once more donned their ghoul-getups. This time out Debbie Watson played Marilyn, the “ugly duckling” of the family, and it should be noted that her character gets considerably more to do than she did in most series-episodes. If any of the main characters was ill-served, it would be Patrick’s Eddie Munster, who only gets a handful of moderately funny lines but no real physical business. Still, overall the lion’s share of the good scenes naturally go to the other three performers, which was equally typical of the series.


The plot is simple and devised with kid-viewers in mind: out of the blue Herman inherits both an English castle and an English lordship. The whole devil’s brood packs up and leaves their house behind (including Spot, left alone under the stairway), and nothing is said about the now-wealthy Earl of Munster tendering his resignation to “the parlor.” Marilyn is a bit confused about this turn of events, having been told that her uncle, although a “man of many parts,” was put together in Germany. However, it’s explained that at some point Herman wandered onto English shores and was adopted by the Munster clan, from whom he gets his name.  


Assorted hijinks transpire once the American Munsters cross the ocean, but the only significant event is that Marilyn enjoys a meet-cute with Roger, a handsome scion of Old Blighty. Not until reaching English shores does Marilyn learn that Roger’s family has old grievances against Clan Munster.

Further, even the English Munsters don’t like this American breed, not least because the British members of the clan were expecting to inherit everything—on top of which, the Brit-Munsters are conducting certain illegal activities at Munster Hall. Thus matriarch Lady Munster (Hermoine Gingold) and her two grown aristo-brats Freddy and Grace (Terry-Thomas, Jeanne Arnold) plot to either scare off or kill off their adoptive relations. Moreover, these comic connivers are aided both by a grotesque butler (John Carradine) and a mystery villain known as “the Griffin.”

Lots of silly things happen during the visit of Herman and company, not least their discovery that locals consider all Munsters to be “rotters.” (So, the continuity-buff asks, how did Herman, if he was raised by reprobates, turn out to be such a goody two-shoes?) However, all the in-between business, including Marilyn’s fights with her prospective boyfriend, comes down to nothing but marking time until the big finish. The comic climax is certainly more spectacular than anything the series ever attempted, as Herman engages in a cross-country drag-race against assorted opponents, including Roger. The Griffin takes this opportunity to try offing Herman, and both the stunts and the attendant musical score prove top-notch for this level of entertainment. On a side-note, both Lily and Grandpa are more active this time out, feverishly trying to come to doltish Herman’s rescue. (DeCarlo even gets to exercise her skills in horse-riding, presumably honed during her B-western days.)

In the end the script returns the Munsters to their old status quo, and it’s back to Mockingbird Lane.. Presumably the producers did so with the idea of keeping the concept going for at least one more feature-film, as had occurred with two earlier teleseries, “the Lone Ranger” and “McHale’s Navy.” But when these Munsters went home, they wouldn’t again emerge from their crypt until the 1981 telefilm THE MUNSTERS’ REVENGE.





Sunday, May 17, 2020

THE TERMINATOR (1984), TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1990)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1 *good,* (2) *superior*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*

On re-screening 1984’s TERMINATOR, I noticed how dependent writer-director James Cameron was on an FX-staple of American action-films in the eighties: vehicular mayhem. This was a necessity, since the film’s budget was only 6.4 million, a far cry from the budgets of most if not all sequels in the franchise. And though all of the mayhem is well executed, it’s a little on the pedestrian side. Still, certain action-scenes, like the oft-referenced “precinct invasion,” exemplify Cameron’s genius for portraying relentless, driving motion—be if of barreling vehicles or blasting projectiles—and place him with America’s best “masters of motion,” from Hawks and Witney to Lucas and Spielberg.

At base TERMINATOR is an extended chase-film, and thus the plot is stripped down to its essentials, like a regular automobile being customized into a dune buggy. Thus the audience learns almost nothing about its modern-day heroine Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), only that she becomes the quarry of two travelers from the future: human Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who wants to save Sarah, and the inhuman Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who’s programmed to kill her. The future from which both travelers hail is likewise sketchy: an apocalypse in which the computer-system Skynet has created a hierarchy of machines to supplant, rather than enhance, the rule of man. Skynet is overthrown by a rebel-group led by John Connor, but the computer seeks to reverse the tide of events by sending the Terminator back to eliminate the womb from which John sprung. Providentially, future-JC is expecting this, thanks to the intelligence given to him by his future-mom, and he sends Kyle Reese through time as well, not only to fight the cyborg killer, but also to make sure that John comes into being in the first place. Cameron’s script labors to provide a rationale to keep the time-door closed to any other tampering, which rationale he himself had to demolish in the ensuing sequel.


Sarah Connor embodies a trope that Cameron would use again in both ALIENS and TITANIC: that of an inexperienced young woman who must emulate the heroic example of a courageous man, even though his labors on her behalf end with the male’s demise. To be sure, TERMINATOR is the only film in which there’s another man stage-managing the courageous male’s inevitable sacrifice. It wouldn’t be hard to read the narrative as a thoroughly secular rewriting of the Christian trope of a heavenly father sending his only begotten son to Earth, though Cameron has shifted roles so that it’s the son sending the father to the mundane world—and not only to die for a higher destiny, but also to copulate with the son’s own mother. Of all the many stories in which children are placed the position of choosing their own parents, TERMINATOR may be the most audacious.

  Though Sarah’s transformation from “zero to hero” proves integral to the film, the Terminator is the main star of this show. This cyborg-assassin might not have been the first major “hardbody” in cinema, but he’s almost surely the first who was harder on the inside than the outside. Even in 1984 it was routine for filmgoers to observe that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s limited thespian skills made him the perfect fit for an affect-less android, while his Germanic accent contributed to the stilted feel of his delivery. Yet Schwarzenegger’s tight rein on emotional expressivity is not the same as “not acting,” and his reserve allows the audience to speculate on what a malevolent machine might be thinking or feeling. Had Schwarzenegger never played this iconic role, it’s hard to imagine the actor remaining a Hollywood superstar throughout the nineties, to say nothing of his having a gubernatorial career. Though a sequel could’ve kept the stoic cyborg in his role as evildoer, it’s a mark of the Terminator’s deeper resonance that Cameron chose to place him on the side of the angels.


TERMINATOR is a very good action-film, but TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY—henceforth DAY for short—is more than just “a sequel that’s better than the original.” In his collection FILMS AND FEELINGS Raymond Durgnat speculated about a possible “wedding of poetry and pulp,” and DAY provides its audience with just such a consummation.

DAY is still a chase-film, though Cameron finds time to interpolate an involved search-and-destroy mission. He also “quotes” from TERMINATOR numerous scenes and dialogue-passages, but here it seems less like recycling and more like repurposing. There’s just as much vehicular mayhem as before, but Cameron finds more inventive (and expensive) ways to stage his “poetry-of-motion,” which maintains its drive regardless of whether the action takes place in narrow confinements or in wide open spaces. To be sure, the old style of visual violence is subsumed here breakthroughs in CGI effects, which would soon usher a new era of big-ticket Hollywood entertainments.

The setup wastes no time explaining how Skynet, who was supposedly destroyed by the events of TERMINATOR, can now send back a new improved Terminator, the T-1000, to a time-frame eight years later, this time with the mission to extirpate young John Connor (Edward Furlong). The JC of the future, nothing daunted, sends back a reprogrammed T-1 Terminator (Schwarzenegger again) to defend young John—this time presumably depending on his own memories to decide what kind of “surrogate father” his younger self needs.


In the Old Testament, the “Sarah” who mothers the race of Israelites has a husband as her ostensible protector (even if he sometimes seems to be pimping Sarah out). But Sarah Connor has no one to help her raise young John, and ironically her search for such a co-parental figure ends up making her seem less than motherly. Sarah apparently sleeps with a lot of men in her search, thus mirroring a common predicament for single mothers, even those without cosmic destinies. Young John for a time enjoys having such a destiny, but when the authorities put Sarah in an insane asylum, he’s even more pissed off than the average American kid.

Then the Terminators enter his life: one a liquid-metal monster able to morph into assorted shapes, and the other a laconic, gun-toting hulk programmed to protect John—and to obey the orders of any version of John Connor. Young John, upon discovering that his mother really wasn’t crazy, enlists the T-1 in liberating Sarah—who, in the ensuing years, has become as much of a hardbody as a mortal woman can be. In the midst of copious scenes of fighting and shooting, Cameron devotes ample time to sorting out the relationships between Sarah, John, and the Terminator, now also called upon to learn the feelings of the beings he was created to annihilate.

The search-and-destroy subplot, in which Sarah and her allies seek to “terminate” the roots of Skynet’s future existence, goes on too long, though it’s nice to see the evil computer get a taste of its own medicine. By so doing, Sarah and company are finally given the chance to obviate not only the computer’s reign, but also the nuclear holocaust that it unleashes—even though, as the famous coda indicates, this remains a possible future for humankind, even with Skynet’s demise. And it is must be admitted that without the subplot, it would be impossible for the film to have executed its heartfelt conclusion—which yet again involves another male sacrifice for the sake of the future.

This time Sarah, John and the T-1 enjoy co-starring status, in that no one in the ensemble proves more important than anyone else. Neophyte actor Furlong captures all the impertinence and insouciance the character needs, and Hamilton arguably improves upon her earlier performance, in that now she’s a mother sometimes forced to turn against her own maternal instincts for the sake of her child’s survival. Once again, Schwarzenegger has to tread a fine line between mechanical precision and an artificial intelligence’s fitful stirrings toward humanity.That leaves Robert Patrick with the job of playing the role of an affect-less cyborg-assassin like the first Terminator, though Patrick also gets his share of “almost human” moments.

FANTOMAS (1964), FANTOMAS STRIKES AGAIN (1965), FANTOMAS VS. SCOTLAND YARD (1967)




PHENOMENALITY: (1,3) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

Though the silent adaptations of FANTOMAS are lauded by many critics, the most accessible movies featuring the master criminal are these three French productions of the sixties. All were directed by Andre Hunubelle, and all star Jean Marais as this version of Fantomas, who still assumes many disguises but now wears an expressionless blue face-mask much of the time. Marais also plays the role of the evildoer’s most formidable foe, the journalist Fandor, while Mylene Demongeot plays his stalwart girlfriend Helene and Louis de Funes plays a very comical version of Inspector Juve.

A Wikipedia article assets that these movies were greatly affected by the then-current craze for superspy movies. There are dollops of Bondian content here and there, but on the whole the scripts don’t attempt to emulate the linear storylines of the Bond films. Though the trilogy places more emphasis on swashbuckling action than the silent films did, Hunubelle appears to be following the lead of Feuillade in showing the action evolving in a haphazard manner. I spotted a few srory-elements borrowed from the first “Fantomas” book—particularly the villain’s aristocratic mistress Lady Beltham-- but I tend to doubt that any of the films are direct adaptations.


The first book gives the reporter Fandor a personal reason for pursuing the super-crook, from whom the journalist takes his nom de plume. FANTOMAS dispenses with this conceit. Fandor, having heard of the criminal’s depredations, and to stir things up, files a phony interview with the fiend in his newspaper. The enraged Fantomas captures Fandor, rather incredibly railing at the journalist for abusing “the public trust,” and promising to force Fandor into a career of crime, in part by impersonating him. The first film starts off strong and shows Fantomas using some low-level gimmicks like the Bond villains, but falls apart with an overly long chase scene.

FANTOMAS STRIKES AGAIN is the closest thing in the series to a Bond film, since it’s the only one where the villain eschews his more limited operations and seeks to rule the world. He plans to usurp control of a scientist’s research, which can be applied to massive brainwashing of citizens, though the mind-control angle gets far less emphasis than the villain’s tricky masquerades. But there are far more Bondian gimmicks, in that Fantomas has a secret hideout in a volcano and a car that turns into a plane. Even goofy Juve gets in on the superspy action, using a cigar with a gun in it to good effect.

FANTOMAS VS. SCOTLAND YARD finds the villain returning to relatively penny-ante schemes, trying to force a cabal of rich businessmen to pay him tribute. This leads Fandor, Helene and Juve to rendezvous at a Scottish castle, where various spooky things happen. I frankly couldn’t follow whether or not the villain’s plans had been foiled by the time he made his inevitable escape.

Unlike the first novel and the silent film-series, all of which I’d class as subcombative dramas, the film series proves a little harder to pin down. All three films definitely fall into the combative mode, with Marais playing a very two-fisted reporter, even if his blue-masked foe lets his pawns do most of his fighting. Yet despite some impressive spectacles, the film never seems all that invested in the adventure-aspects. Juve is constantly played for baggy-pants comedy—which proves amusing in small portions—but the trilogy is not primarily a comedy either, and it’s certainly doesn’t have a dramatic angle. My finding, then, is that Hubesmith is playing all of this high adventure with the kind of arch, removed humor characteristic of the irony.

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970)



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

Robert Bloch may not have provided the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, but he indubitably profited from the association. For many years afterward, films in America and Great Britain adapted a plethora of Bloch stories, even many that had absolutely nothing in common with the type of horror exemplified by Norman Bates.

HOUSE, another of the many anthology-films that the Brits do so well, is a conglomeration of Bloch stories from various eras, and as in Amicus’s earlier TORTURE GARDEN, the tales are linked by a dubious device. Here it’s an English manse that a number of doomed characters have rented over the years, and though there’s no specific malign entity in the house; the place seems to be fantastically unlucky. This idea might have worked well enough, except that not enough of the tales center upon the doomed characters residing in the house.

“Waxworks,” for instance, barely shows the victim dwelling in the house at all. Philip (Peter Cushing) mourns the memory of a lost love, but while tooling around the town, he comes across a waxworks, where the wax-sculptor has crafted a bust of Salome, reminding Philip of his beloved. This conceit might have worked reasonably well, except that Philip brings in an old friend who knew the lost love, and he too is amazed and astounded by the likeness. I don’t know if the friend was in the original story, but the effect here is of padding, since the crux of the narrative is the never-explained conflict between Philip and the weird wax-man. It’s a pretty haphazard plot, though it’s the only story to register in the uncanny phenomenality.

Similarly, when horror-actor Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee of “Doctor Who” fame) moves into the house, he spends very little time there. Henderson is sort of a fan’s idea of what a horror-actor ought to be like, in that he’s obsessive about being an authentic titan of terror. When Henderson finds the young punks running his next film are insufficiently invested, he goes out looking for a cape befitting a master vampire. When he finds such a garment, Henderson begins to believe it has the power to make him into a real bloodsucker. Instead, he finds that his devotion to verisimilitude has earned him a fandom that includes actual vampires. Here too, the purported “twist ending” doesn’t track even at first glance, and the episode’s main attraction is the joined appearance of Pertwee and the delectable Ingrid Pitt.


At least Charles (Denholm Elliott) of “Method for Murder” moves into the house, along with his wife, for a specific reason. He’s a professional horror-mystery writer, and he wants a spooky joint to enhance his creativity. While there, he starts a new novel, and shows his tolerant wife a sketch of his new villain, a sttangler named Dominic. When Charles starts seeing Dominic around the house, he thinks that he’s either insane, or that the creation of his mind has come into corporeal being. The denouement moves into “Diabolique” territory, but again there’s a big twist conclusion. It’s not really any clearer than the other two, but a devoted filmgoer can, if he pleases, cook up a rationale that might make a little bit of sense.

“Sweets to the Sweet” also has its muddled aspects, but it’s the only one that shows a little symbolic potential. A strict-seeming fellow named Reid (Christopher Lee) rents the house for himself and his little girl Jane, and he also engages a local nanny, Ann (Nyree Dawn Porter) to give Jane lessons, as Reid has deep, dark reasons for not wanting the girl to attend regular school. Ann observes that Jane has a terrible fear of fire, and the nanny helps her get over it, though this has the unintended effect of unleashing certain demons in the girl’s psyche. Reid confesses to Ann that Jane’s mother, of whom Jane is a spitting image, was evil, and though he stops short of claiming that his late wife was a witch, clearly he’s been sequestering Jane because she’s inherited her mother’s hex-powers. Possibly the original story somehow involved the witch-mother suffering some sort of death-by-burning, though this remains a murky point. In any case, Jane’s evil nature comes to the fore, and she ends up killing her father with a wax effigy, though her animus is similarly vague. Lee’s presence expunges the story’s shortcomings, and Chloe Franks makes an adorably creepy junior witch.

On the whole, though I’ve not read any of the original prose stories, I suspect that they all deserved to be left on the shelf. Good performances alone make this house worth a visit.




MAN IN THE ATTIC (1953)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*



MAN IN THE ATTIC was the fourth film to be based on Belloc-Lowndes’ novel THE LODGER, and the first remake of the Barre Lyndon script used in 20th-Century Fox’s 1944 adaptation, also called THE LODGER. Lyndon’s version discarded any concern about the possible innocence of the titular character, and ATTIC follows the same path, signaling early on that the mysterious lodger is none other than Jack the Ripper, hiding out from his serial murders in 1888 London.

Though ATTIC also appeared under the aegis of Fox, director Hugo Fregonese doesn’t seem to have nearly as stellar a budget to work with as John Brahm did with the 1944 version. Still, if Fregonese is not quite as stylish a director as Brahm, Fregonese makes his entry just as tense as the earlier film. There’s less use of the sort of close-ups one gets in “A-level” pictures like the ’44 film, but I only felt their lack at the film’s end. In the Brahm film, I never questioned that the killer died by drowning, largely because the film shows him drowning, but the ending of ATTIC is not quite as explicit.

The script this time out is credited to both Lyndon and another writer, and the latter may be responsible fo ATTIC’s only major divergence from the earlier film. Putting the twist aside for last, the same template applies. A mysterious fellow named Slade (Jack Palance) seeks lodgings in the home of an ordinary British family. Slade specifically requests to take up residence in the house’s small attic, ostensibly so that he won’t disturb the family with his medical experiments. The mother and father find him slightly odd, particularly when he expatiates on “scarlet women,” but they rent him the room nonetheless. Shortly afterward, he meets the couple’s only child, their daughter Lily (Constance Smith), who works as an actress in a London music hall. Despite Slade’s negative feelings toward actresses, he’s enthralled by Lily, even though his night-time activities consist of stalking streetwalkers and slaying them with medical precision.


Palance’s depiction of the psycho-killer is markedly different from Laird Cregar’s. From start to finish, “’1944 Slade” seems unceasingly twitchy and troubled, and though this lends Cregar’s characterization great intensity, it does make one wonder why the renters seem so blithely accepting of his overall creepiness. In contrast, “1953 Slade” just seems eccentric, and even his rants about women seem more misogynist than psychotic. Palance also gives his version of Slade a more overtly masculine nature, so that his love-scenes with Smith are somewhat more credible than Cregar’s with Merle Oberon. And though neither version of Lily is really in love with the peculiar fellow, it’s a little easier to see why the ’53 version of the character might find ’53 Slade attractive.

In both films, Slade associates women, particularly actresses and prostitutes, with a world of unregenerate sinfulness, and the murderer seeks to cut that sin out of himself by cutting up women. In addition, as I noted earlier, there are indications that Slade’s first act of murder may have subconsciously titillated him so much that he felt compelled to repeat the act. In 1944, Slade, witnessing the suicide of his beloved brother, kills the latter’s fiancĂ©e, since her faithlessness caused the brother’s demise. ’44 Slade speaks so fervently of his lost sibling that some critics have speculated that he had some suppressed homosexual impulses—though any feelings of pleasure at the murders would have necessarily fallen into the hetero division. In ATTIC, ’53 Slade still hates actresses, but the offending woman is not Slade’s prospective sister-in-law, but his natural mother, and the cuckolded male is Slade’s father. Slade’s monologue doesn’t really say much about his father, for the Lodger is too focused upon the sinful figure of his actress-mother, of whom Slade says that she “never met a man she couldn't entice” (which logically might include the speaker). The actress’s culminating offense is to go off with a “young rich Frenchman”—implicitly, a young man who’s not Slade—which results in the father’s death. Slade finishes his monologue by saying that he knows that his mother ended her life as a prostitute—thus forging the link in his mind between actresses and prostitutes—though Slade doesn’t happen to say how his mother’s life terminated. The logical extrapolation from the ’44 film is that the mother of ’53 Slade was his first murder, and that the pleasure of killing her led to the rampage of the Ripper—which may be for some viewers an even creepier moment than anything in Lyndon’s original script.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

LETHAL WOMAN (1988)



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


Of all the many cinematic takes on the classic short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” LETHAL WOMAN had the most potential to provide a novel take on the venerable concept. I’m not talking about the obvious twist of the script, which makes man-hunting into a scheme for female empowerment. Rather, I’m thinking of the movie’s one venture into mythopoeic waters; that of naming its villainess “Diana,” after the Roman name for the Goddess of the Hunt.

To be sure, the film’s first third doesn’t seem like it’s going to delve into matters mythic or, for that matter, metaphenomenal. In this pair of reviews I noted that the “human-hunting” scenario doesn’t automatically qualify a given film for metaphenomenal status; that like many other such tropes, it’s uncanny or naturalistic depending on the way it’s handled. LETHAL’s set-up initially seems staunchly naturalistic, as protagonist Derek Johnson, retired army major, is compelled to return to active service by his superiors. The army’s become aware that about twenty of their officers have gone missing, and the only thing that allows investigators to connect the dots is that all fhe missing men had some contact with an enterprise on a Caribbean island (presumably outside the U.S.’s sphere of control). An ad promises customers an “erotic adventure,” and army intelligence has tracked down the island as belonging to a former officer, Christine Newhouse (Merete Van Kamp). The army brass wants Johnson to masquerade as a customer, to expose whatever’s going on.

As the officers brief Johnson on Christine, however, the film shifts into her viewpoint, showing the events of the past in a way that doesn’t exactly flatter the army. Christine, an army brat from childhood, has shown such formidable skills in firearms and in unarmed combat-practice that she’s called to confer with her current superior, Major Maxim. But Maxim hasn’t summoned Christine to praise her, but to order her to stop showing off her skills, because they’re bad for the morale of the male soldiers. When Christine refuses to submit to Maxim’s will, he resorts to overpowering and raping her in his office. Two subordinates outside the office hear the commotion but don’t get involved. When Christine brings charges against the Major, he claims that the sex was voluntary on her part, and even Christine’s boyfriend testifies against her so as to avoid being penalized by the Major. Christine loses her case and leaves the army, justifiably bitter against all men (though at least one woman is implicated in the corruption, since Christine’s best female friend reacts by falling into bed with her traitorous ex-boyfriend).

Thus far, the backstory seems very naturalistic, particularly in the harrowing rape-scene, which would not have been out of place in any melodramatic movie-of-the-week. But since this is a “Most Dangerous Game” riff, Christine somehow sets up a covert man-hunting operation on the aforementioned island. How she paid to purchase the island, or recruited to her service a half-dozen other female victims of rape—the script does not trouble to ask. Further, since Christine—who has rechristened herself Diana—is only focused on military men, she and her people have no particular reason to accept Johnson as an applicant. At the end of the briefing, an officer says that Johnson was somehow associated with the trial Christine lost, but his status at the time isn’t explained, nor does Christine/Diana recognize him when the two meet. Nevertheless, Johnson’s application for the erotic adventure is accepted.

Before he arrives, though, the viewer gets to see Diana’s modus operandi played out. One might’ve thought that the woman-hating Major Maxim would have been one of Diana’s first targets, but instead, he’s the last one to get hunted before Johnson arrives on the island. Obviously, had he been killed offstage, this would have deprived the film’s audience the pleasure of seeing the despicable fellow offed on-camera. Initially Maxim comes to the island, thinking that he’s going to have sex with all the island-women, who are, inevitably, equally gorgeous. Instead, they all don archaic hunting-outfits—complete with non-feminine “war paint”-- and chase Maxim through the woods. The huntresses all utilize archaic weapons as well: knives, spears, and crossbows, and it’s at this point that the film forges an interesting connection between the “Dangerous Game” trope and the Greek myth of Actaeon. While that venerable Greek hunter wasn’t precisely guilty of rape, he did, however unwittingly, commit an act of sexual voyeurism against the goddess Diana, for which offense she changed him into a hart, who was then destroyed by his own hunting-gods. The Diana of LETHAL WOMAN takes a more personal tack. Having wounded Maxim with an arrow, Diana personally grapples with him, and before killing him blinds him by stabbing his eyes with barbed earrings. Can you say “displaced sexual symbolism?” Knew you could.

Now, at this point, viewers are likely to feel more sympathy with Diana’s Amazons than they ever would’ve experienced toward Count Zaroff and his close imitators. So, when Johnson arrives on his mission of investigation (and maybe assassination), the script has to work hard to make the society of rape-victims less sympathetic. Diana sets up a demonstration of martial arts for Johnson’s benefit, and one of the tough girls beats up on a girl named Tory (Shannon Tweed), whom Johnson already likes. Johnson’s decent intentions toward Tory may have been intended to represent normative male-female relations, but the romance between Johnson and Tory is too bland to offset the intense melodrama of Christine/Diana’s maltreatment. The writers also strenuously avoid giving more than incidental characterization to the other huntresses, probably so that when Johhson has to kill some of them, the viewers won’t think of him as a Bad Guy.

Inevitably the hunt is on, and though Johnson takes out some of his pursuers, he ends up falling to his apparent death, just like the protagonist of the original Condon story. He survives, sneaking back into Diana’s compound. Here appears another small twist on the original, for Diana very nearly kills Johnson, and he’s only saved because Tory, “the good woman,” stabs Diana with a spear. Here, too, the script gives Diana the sympathetic edge, for though the spear goes right through her, she comes close to stabbing Johnson with the very weapon that has killed her.

The film ends quickly, before anyone raises the question as to whether Tory’s last-miute change of heart overturns her earlier participation in twenty murders. There’s no real question that Diana, the “Lethal Woman” of the title, is the star of the film. The only interesting aspect of Johnson is that twice the script remarks on how short he is. For a time I wondered if this also had a sexual subtext. Now I think it was just the script’s way of reminding viewers that Diana almost wins her fight with Johnson partly because he’s not that much bigger than she is.






Wednesday, May 6, 2020

FUTURE FORCE (1989), FUTURE ZONE (1990)




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

You have committed a crime and are presumed guilty. You have the right to die. --John Tucker, FUTURE FORCE.


If the writer of FUTURE FORCE had concocted more brain-fried lines like this one, the film might deserve inclusion in the Edward Wood Hall of Fame. Certainly the basic idea is more ambitious—albeit in a dumb way—than dozens of other direct-to-video flicks, both with and without David Carradine. It’s because of that idea that FORCE even earns a “fair” mythicity rating, though the execution is no better than it has to be.

Tough future cops with “Dirty Harry” delusions of grandeur were nothing new even in 1989, but FUTURE FORCE, rather than directly imitating some popular model, inverts its chosen template. The original ROBOCOP of 1985 was noteworthy in that it gave viewers a futuristic conflict between a government-sanctioned police force and an ambitious corporation seeking to privatize police services. Director David A. Prior, scripting with another writer, ignores this sociological conflict and posits a near-future setting in which sanctioned cops simply don’t exist any more. What’s taken their place are COPS—Civilian Operated Police Services—which are nothing more than bounty hunters, generally dressed in the grungy fashion seen in contemporary reality-shows about the profession. Prior’s script has no interest in asking how such an organization can be deemed in any way accountable to society, for this is just a particular incoherent take on “frontier justice” transferred to a not very futuristic setting. The first ROBOCOP played to this myth-trope as well, but it did so with intelligence, as did the British comics-series JUDGE DREDD, whose penchant for instant justice also resembles the attitude of Carradine’s hero John Tucker.

There’s no evidence that Carradine had any special regard for the project: throughout the film he’s a pretty lame hero, looking paunchy, wasted, and bored. But Prior, though unable to spring for a robotized cop on his budget, does give the private cop a rather memorable assert: a robot glove. When John wears the glove, he can shoot laser beams and other rays at his opponents (mostly low-life crooks). And near the film’s conclusion, after John’s been knocked silly by a big plug-ugly, the hero manages to pull out a special remote, looking like some fancy TV-control, and summons his glove into battle. The sight of Carradine lying on the ground and working the remote while the glove flies to his aid, both punching and strangling the thug, is the film’s one memorable scene.



Prior also directed the sequel FUTURE ZONE, and this time he borrows from THE TERMINATOR rather than ROBOCOP. John, who suddenly has a wife this time out, is going about his bounty hunting business when Billy, a twenty-something hunter, joins the force and starts pressing John to become his partner. The older man responds to the younger one’s enthusiasm by insulting and slugging him. But Billy won’t take subtle hints, and eventually John lets the guy work with him. Little does John realize that Billy is his own grown son, who’s not been conceived in the film’s present, and that he’s somehow traveled back in time to prevent John’s being slain.   



Overall the film is better shot and directed, and Ted Prior (brother of David) is a good enough actor that he seems to enliven Carradine as well. But the external threats to the father-and-son team are even more forgettable than the first film’s villains, and minor appearances by old pros (like Charles Napier) fail to alleviate the overall tedium.