Tuesday, April 25, 2017

SPECIAL MISSION LADY CHAPLIN (1966)



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


SPECIAL MISSION LADY CHAPLIN is the third and last Eurospy film concerning the adventures of American spy Dick Malloy (Ken Clark). I haven't seen the others, but this is a colorful and action-packed example of same. In addition to swiping the plot for 1965's THUNDERBALL, the film also exploits its Bondian connections by pitting Malloy against the titular lady assassin, played by Daniela Bianchi of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE fame.

Chaplin, in fact, gets a lot more memorable scenes than Malloy. Aside from his romantic interminglings with Chaplin and other Euro-beauties, most of the time the hero is just running around busting his knuckles on bald henchmen. Chaplin dresses as a nun and machine-guns some fake monks, masquerades as an old wheelchair-bound lady and shoots a victim with guns hidden in the chair-arms, karate-chops one guy and catfights with another gorgeous babe (albeit very briefly). She eventually joins Malloy in opposing the mastermind who's stolen a brace of atomic missiles, but she doesn't get much leeway from Malloy despite this.

Unlike a lot of Eurospy films, this one is quite liberal with its uncanny gadgets: aside from those mentioned, there's also a car whose cab fills with knockout gas and another gas-dispenser in cigarette form.

REIGN OF FIRE (2002), FIREBALL (2009)



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

The appearance of the word "fire" isn't the only reason I paired these unrelated films. I've also done so to spotlight my own preference for a well-done if formulaic film over one that doesn't know how to handle its own ambitions.

REIGN OF FIRE was a box-office failure in its day, and though it's fairly watchable, I can see why it didn't move audiences, despite the star talents of Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey. REIGN is another addition to the populous genre of the post-apocalyptic film. However, much of the charm of that genre lies in its abilities to (1) eradicate everything viewers may dislike about their real-life histories, and (2) erect some marvelous landscape or phenomenon to take its place. Whether it's the endless driving-spaces of MAD MAX or the grotty perils of zombie hordes, the new world has to be interesting in some way.

The film starts by showing one of the film's heroes, Quinn, as a British child who witnesses the recrudescence of a race of fire-breathing dragons in the early 21th century. The dragons, who have been sleeping beneath the earth since prehistoric times, immediately start burning everything in sight, for they feed only by devouring the ashes of what they burn. In the space of less than thirty years, the human race is nearly eliminated, both by the dragons' attacks and by futile counter-attacks by the world's military.  Only isolated tribes of humans have survived, and one such tribe, led by a grown-up Quinn (Christian Bale) resides in a castle in Northumberland. Unfortunately, the dragons frequently attack the tribe's crops, so that the humans are in more danger of starvation than direct attack.

A detachment of American soldiers-- or rather, ex-soldiers, given the annihilation of most governments in the world-- shows up on the doorstep of Quinn's tribe. The hardnosed Van Zan (McConaughey), leader of the detachment, informs the Britons that he and his men (and one female soldier) have figured out the way to hunt and kill dragons. Further, after the soldiers demonstrate their prowess with one such conquest, they want Quinn's help in locating and killing the only male dragon in the flock, so that the creatures will die out and give humanity another chance. The hub of the conflict is that Quinn must overcome his conservative instinct to protect his tribe, and join Van Zan's group in order to save humanity.

The dragons, while their FX are well realized, are conceived as no more than a biological infestation. One can't expect them to have any of the symbolic heft of the dragons of myth and legend-- and yet the script doesn't show any interest in their biology beyond describing their weaknesses. They aren't especially believable in terms of biological patterns, either: they're supposed to have fallen into their deep sleep because they destroyed the dinosaurs with their flames, and so cut off their own food-source. That's a pretty dumb sort of predator that does that!

The primary interest in REIGN is sociological. In general terms the story pits the proactive Van Zan against the merely reactive Quinn, and though Van Zan is right in his quest, Quinn is the one who survives to deal the final blow. Since the viewers don't see the rest of the world destroyed, the focus on the devastation in England may have been patterned after the London Blitz of World War II-- not least because it's American troops who come to the rescue. However, this re-playing of 20th-century history isn't enough to make REIGN's world interesting.



FIREBALL doesn't have much money or much ambition, but it does much better on its limited terms. It seems to have premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel, which is usually the haven of tedious monster-flicks with desultory action and cheap CGI. FIREBALL doesn't have any more money than the other flicks, but the action is nicely staged and the two leads, Lexa Doig and Ian Somerhalder, display a good chemistry as they work to take down the "fireball monster."

Said monster is an out-of-control former linebacker, Tyler Draven (Aleks Paunovic). After unleashing his bad temper on several innocents, Draven is jailed. Part of his bad behavior may be attributable to his having witnessed his mother's death at the hands of his father, but a more influential culprit may be the special steroids he's been taking. A fire breaks out at Draven's place of incarceration, killing everyone except Draven. Later he regenerates from his burns, and develops the ability to channel balls of pure flame from within himself, and hurl them at targets just like the comic-book Human Torch.

The best thing about FIREBALL is that the script buttresses its premise with loads of well-researched tech-talk about the genesis of "pyrophoric" (learned a new word!) phenomena, all supplied by sexy fire inspector Williams (Doig). She and FBI agent Somerhalder are nowhere near in Draven's league, so this does not register as a combative film-- but they do a very good job of outmaneuvering the pyrotic psychotic. The psychological angles of Draven's temper-tantrums aren't any more interesting than Williams's "daughter-who-wants-to-be-like-Daddy" routine, but the action is well mounted and the dialogue is generally pretty sharp.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

THE STORY OF RUTH (1960), JUDAS (2004)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*

The 1960 STORY OF RUTH is less significant as a recapitulation of themes from the Biblcial "Book of Ruth" than it is as another example of the priorities of Hollywood moviemaking. That said, in its status as American pop culture, it sustains more mythicity than the humdrum 2004 JUDAS.

Most Hollywood Bible-films have sustained their box-office profits by building upon one major motif of the Old Testament-- that of the ressentiment of the nobly poor Jews against the rich "princes of the earth," as recorded (for example) in Ezekiel 39:18:

Ye shall eat the flesh of the mighty, and drink the blood of the princes of the earth, of rams, of lambs, and of goats, of bullocks, all of them fatlings of Bashan.

It's surprising, though, that 20th-Century Fox chose to adapt the Book of Ruth at all, because it's totally lacking in any meaningful opposition between the rich and the poor. The Biblical story tells the reader nothing about Ruth's background; she is introduced as a Moabite woman who marries the Hebrew Mahlon, the son of Naomi, during a period when Mahlon's family is sojourning in the land of Moab. Though other parts of the Bible inveigh against Moab and its worship of the pagan god Chemosh (whom later commentators identify with the better-known Moloch), the only original relevance of Ruth's Moabite heritage is that, after the untimely death of Mahlon, Ruth puts aside her cultural birthright and chooses to follow her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem. The story's main significance seems to be to demonstrate that a converted Jew could be as loyal to the faith as anyone born to the religion. Some analysts have asserted that the second part of the story-- in which Ruth meets and marries the Hebrew Boaz-- may reproduce Hebrew fertility rituals in disguised form, largely because Ruth approaches Boaz in a threshing-room, implying an association between the grain and the eventual union between human male and human female.

THE STORY OF RUTH was written by Norman Corwin, sometimes called "the poet laureate of American radio." Corwin only amassed a handful of Hollywood script-credits, but he does bring a sense of intelligence to his rewriting of the Bible-story, possibly because he was an observant Jew. That said, Corwin's script-- directed by journeyman Henry Koster of THE ROBE-- amplifies the role of fertility in the movie's narrative.

To make up for the original story's lack of earthly princes, in childhood the orphan Ruth is given an exalted position as a handmaiden of Chemosh. Some Moabite children end up being sacrifices to Chemosh/Moloch-- implicitly for fertility, though the motive is not emphasized. Ruth dodges that bullet and lives on to serve the god as a young woman (Elena Eden) attached to the priesthood. Only when she meets the Hebrew artisan Mahlon (Tom Tryon) does Ruth come to repudiate the worship of Chemosh in favor of what Mahlon calls "the invisible god," and so she marries Mahlon and becomes the daughter-in-law of Naomi. However, Ruth's renunciation results in the death of Mahlon at the hands of the merciless Moabites. The widowed woman then chooses to accompany her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem. (This development actually weakens Ruth's decision in dramatic terms, since the original story implies that Ruth could have stayed in Moab without any consequences.)

Once they reach Bethlehem, the two dispossessed women have no property, and so they are forced to glean the fields to make their daily bread. The owner of the fields is local bigwig Boaz (Stuart Whitman). He fancies Ruth but one of Naomi's kinsmen has first claim on the widow of Mahlon. In addition, the country suffers a drought, and some of the more ignorant Hebrews attribute the lack of rain to the presence of an idolatrous Moabite in their midst. An ambivalent miracle takes place, when Naomi alone witnesses an unnamed holy man come to town. Not only does rain manifest right after the holy fellow (or maybe angel?) shows up, but he informs Naomi that Ruth is destined to be the ancestress of a great Hebrew king. (This one scene is the movie's only instance of a marvelous phenomenality.)

Even after the rain comes, many hidebound Hebrews still don't want Ruth around, and they put her on trail for idolatry. I suspect that these scenes reflect Corwin's experiences as a writer persecuted by 1950s Commie-hunters, but they also function to give the film a stronger climax than was possible with the original material. The trial causes Naomi's kinsman to renounce her, and even Boaz doesn't seem to want her when two Hebrews testify that Ruth is indeed an idolater. However, Naomi reveals that the two are false witnesses sent from Moab to make trouble for the apostate Ruth-- a far-fetched revelation to say the least. Ruth is then found innocent of idolatry and is united with Boaz.



Though RUTH is far from a great Bible-movie, it's a work of genius next to the 2004 telefilm JUDAS. Tom Fontana's script takes the story of Judas' interaction with Jesus and gives the familiar characters banal lines unworthy of anyone's religion. The priest Caiphas is made to say, for example:

 I hear that Jesus is quite captivating. I look forward to meeting the young fellow.

The only aspect of JUDAS that's of mythic interest is that Fontana may have drawn upon medieval folklore about Judas, given that the viewer meets Judas's mother, who does not appear in the Bible but does have a role in folklore (oddly, playing "Jocasta" to Judas's "Oedipus). Fontana-- best known for creating the down-to-earth prison-drama OZ-- treats the friendship of Judas and Jesus as if they were just a couple of young guys shlepping around Jerusalem, and shows absolutely no awareness of any metaphysical considerations in the narrative.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE (1929, 1935, 1947)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1, 3) *drama,* (2) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

I reviewed the 1929 version of the cinematic war-horse SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE back in 2012. However, due in part to some discussion on the CLASSIC HORROR FILM BOARD regarding the thriller's three sound incarnations, I began to reconsider my 2012 reckoning of the film as "uncanny" in terms of both the "phantasmal figurations" and "weird societies" tropes. I appended a 2017 note at the end of the 2012 post to this effect. I don't plan to re-review the other film covered in the earlier post, because I think that 1983's HOUSE OF LONG SHADOWS succeeds in transmitting the uncanny vibe, for reasons I'll cover later.

I have not read the original Earl Derr Biggers book, or seen either the play or the three silent films based on the book. That said, I'm going to guess that the 1929 flick, the first sound version, is probably reasonably close to the model of book and/or play. The "Barker version" (that is, directed by Reginald Barker) is fairly stagy despite depicting its basic situation with a light tone, and I said of it:

Richard Dix plays a writer challenged to finish a novel at an isolated inn, the Baldpate, but his isolation ends when an assortment of characters gain entry to the inn and distract him from his purpose with their assorted melodramas... Barker maintains a light tone, as well, which made it even harder for me to invest much emotion in the film, given that I knew the Big Reveal: that all the intruders are actors hired to harass the writer for fairly dubious reasons.  Though there aren't any overly spooky moments in this version, and the actors supply a naturalistic explanation for the "weird-society" aspects of the story, I still categorize this as an uncanny film based on the Gothic concept of tricking a victim with the appearance of weirdness.
I should have stated the nature of the "weirdness:" that the writer (whose name, McGee, remains constant in the sound films) suffers. Despite McGee's having being told that he's been given the only key to the door of the Baldpate Inn, six other strangers, in the course of one night, also utilize keys to enter the inn. Some of them seem to be innocents-- including a misogynistic hermit who likes to don a sheet and pretend to be a not-very-convincing ghost-- while others seem to be criminals involved in a complicated pay-off scheme. As played by Dix, McGee is a fairly witty fellow who doesn't seem all that flummoxed by the appearance of armed men at the deserted inn, and he frequently makes arch remarks about how all these melodramatic occurrences resemble events in his novels.

In my assorted commentaries on the "phantasmal figuration" trope, I've ferreted out at least three "variations" of the trope. One of them does not relate here: that of works like HAMLET, where something supernatural seems to happen though no one can explain its provenance. But the Barker film has both of the other two variations. One variation is akin to what we see in 1943's LEOPARD MAN, where a character projects the illusion that a panther has committed a killing in order to cover a crime, and this is comparable to the way in which actors-- hired by the man who bet McGee that he couldn't finish a novel in one day-- pretend to be dangerous gangsters. The other relevant variation is supplied by the hermit who plays ghost with a sheet over his head: this is the sort of half-baked ghost-imposture one sees in HAUNTED RANCH (also 1943), where no one but a child or a cretin could possibly be convinced by the illusion.



Eight years later, the 1935 BALDPATE, directed by William Hamilton and Edward Killy, totally drops the first "naturalistic phantasm" trope, for the gangsters that invade the security of McGee (Gene Raymond) are entirely for real. Only the female lead is still keeping up an imposture, and this time she's a newspaper-woman looking for a story, which was perhaps borrowed from a minor character in the 1929 film, or some even earlier source. The hermit who dresses up as an unconvincing ghost is still in the film, and he's arguably one of the film's highlights, as he's played by Henry Travers, a supporting actor who attained immortality as "Clarence the Angel" in 1946's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, so a "naturalistic phantasm" is still in this film.

There's some irony in the fact that a lobby-card for the Barker version calls that film a "farce melodrama," for it's nothing of  the kind: it's a thriller-drama with a somewhat light touch. Hamilton and Killy, however, go full-tilt comedy, as if they were trying to distance their work as much as possible for earlier versions of the creaky old story. The script dispenses with the long set-up seen in Barker's film, wherein McGee makes the bet to stay at the supposedly lonely inn. Instead, Hamilton and Killy start with McGee arriving at a train-station in the locality of Baldpate, where he meets his leading lady (rather than meeting her at the inn). Every attempt is made to "amp up" the proceedings, with lots of close-up  shots (a good early shot shows a face looking through a foggy window, the better to draw the viewer in) and a black cat who hangs around the inn to provide "jump scares." Gene Raymond's version of McGee is much more in the mold of Bob Hope; he's not just making the occasional witticism, but slamming out bon mot after bon mot. Moreover, a lot of other characters begin uttering whimsical lines-- a cop has a line that goes something like, 'Ya can't have a murder without a corpus"-- and for the first half-hour the score plays jaunty, comical music. The real gangsters are defeated and McGee hooks up with the reporter-lady with none of the complications that attended the Barker version.



Since neither Hamilton nor Killy enjoyed any major successes as principal directors, it's surprising to me that the 1947 version is not nearly as good as the one from 1935. The last of the SEVEN KEYS films (at least, the last to sport that name) was directed by the venerable Lew Landers, later celebrated for some outstanding if formulaic works, particularly the 1935 RAVEN.

Like the scripters on the Hamilton-Killy version, the writer for the Landers version plays a little mix-and-match with elements from the earlier iterations. Once again, the gangsters who invade the inn are the real thing, though this time the film plays up the menacing aspects of one particular malefactors, played by the always sinister Eduardo Cianelli of MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN fame. Again, only the leading lady is putting across an imposture, but instead of being a reporter, she's an actress who has been explicitly hired to throw McGee off his game so he'll lose the bet. This might be seen as a skewed salute to the main gimmick of the original property. That said, even though the "naturalistic phantasm" is back in this adumbrated form, the Landers film only makes indirect reference to the hermit's attempts to pose as a ghost. Maybe by 1947, no one could buy the idea of the bedsheet angle. The last BALDPATE is probably the weakest, though, for Philip Terry's McGee is the least interesting. True, his rather nebbishy take on the role is more realistic than anything from Dix or Raymond-- but it's neither engaging nor funny. Though Landers incorporates stuff from the 1935 version, notably the train-station opening, he doesn't keep up the comic ambience and so the film transitions back to the drama-category.

In conclusion, 1983's HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS is the only version I've seen that uses the acting-troupe to portray an uncanny phantasm, since the SHADOWS actors are portraying members of a significantly weird family.



Wednesday, April 19, 2017

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987)



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

I was too old to have been enthused by the 1983-85 cartoon series HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE. I don't mean that I had grown too old for superheroes and similar adventurers. I mean that by that time it was easy for me to spot most of the influences from which the cartoon-- principally devised to sell the Mattel toy line-- had been constructed, and it seemed a very ramshackle construction indeed.

I saw similar problems with the 1987 live-action movie, but it had one advantage over the cartoon: it wasn't constantly trying to sell me toy-figures with goofy names like "Ram-Man." I'm not even sure if I saw the film in a theater, though I might have given it a chance had it appeared in one of the "dollar theaters" of the period. If I saw it without spending much, that might explain why I find it easier to take than many Golan-Globus productions of the time.

MASTERS is little more than your basic duel between absolute good and absolute evil as they vie over a magic doohickey called "the Cosmic Key." Almost everything about it is indebted to the SUPERMAN film-franchise that was launched in 1978, and which Golan and Globus attempted to pick up in an ill-fated fourth film. There's a copycat John Williams-esque score, a bombastic credits sequence, and various lower-tier actors in fancy costumes.

Yet MASTERS isn't nearly as bad as either SUPERMAN IV or the two HERCULES films.  True, the film does itself no favors-- except in the financial sense-- by having most of the fantasy-action take place on mundane Earth, as He-Man's group and Skeletor's gang contend for the Key. But the David Odell script does play the superhero action fairly straight, aside from a typically unfunny comic relief (Billy Barty playing a Muppet-like dwarf named Gwildor). Frank Langella has often been praised for imbuing his Skeletor with sophisticated menace despite acting through a heavy mask. But I thought Dolph Lundgren managed to keep a fair amount of dignity despite the opposite handicap: having to swagger around in barbarian-garb and showing off his pectorals almost non-stop.

There are of course two innocent humans who get mixed up with the good guys: one who would go on to become a "Friend" and the other who would become a long "Voyager." The latter is an amateur musician who gets the chance to save the universe with his skills, leaving his girlfriend with the major role of-- well, betraying the good guys to supposedly save her parents. Not exactly standout roles for either actor.

Still-- I've seen much worse than this bit of derivative but nicely mounted nonsense.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR (1969), ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO (1961)


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological. sociological*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Psychotic killers appeared intermittently in cinema before Alfred Hitchcock scored a major hit with 1960’s PSYCHO. The trope of the psycho-killer became far more prevalent thereafter, as seen in works like 1966’s THE PSYCHOPATH, but most of them were fairly derivative of Hitchcock.

NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR is the first directorial work by Joy N. Houck Jr,, best known for his cheap “Bigfoot” movie CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE and for being the son of Joy Sr., a producer associated with an earlier generation of cheap flicks, including Ed Wood’s “Jail Bait.”  NIGHT is sloppily edited and badly acted, but the psychological motivation of its killer is a twist, particularly because the script, co-written by Houck, suggests a motivation of which he might not have been consciously aware.

NIGHT gives the viewer a helter-skelter introduction to Wesley, a young fellow who may or may not be a psycho. In childhood he accidentally shot and killed his brother Jonathan, implicitly the favorite of their mother Agatha. Wes spent some time in a mental institution but was eventually released into general society—but is he really cured? He experiences splitting headaches, illustrated by weird animated visuals. Somehow Wes has no trouble bedding comely young women, but two of his girlfriends get gruesomely murdered. The cops put Wesley through a grilling that borders on brutality, but they can’t prove him guilty. Then another young woman comes into Wesley’s life: a reporter looking for a story on the murders. When she too falls for his (less than obvious)+ charms, the viewer must wonder: will she become another victim?

Since Houck doesn’t provide any red herrings, there should be no surprise in the final revelation: this time, Mommy Really Did Do It. This is the one psychological angle that makes NIGHT more interesting than an outright PSYCHO imitation.

Once Agatha’s crimes are disclosed, she doesn’t use the usual justification seen in the aforementioned PSYCHOPATH: that she nurtured a maternal jealousy of any woman who slept with her boy. Rather, Agatha claims that she’s killed Wes’s girlfriends to keep him from knowing any happiness, because she still resents him for having killed her favorite son. Further, Agatha has in some sense conflated her favorite son with her husband, for it turns out that at some point she acquired the rotting bodies of both Jonathan and her husband, and decided to keep them in her house. (Naturally, whereas Hitchcock played fair with the audience by setting up Norman Bates’ means for preserving his mother’s body, Houck just throws in the two corpses at the last minute, as a cheap shock.)

But for all this distancing, in a roundabout way NIGHT still conforms to the “maternal jealousy” model, since by killing Wes’s girlfriends Agatha is still keeping him from having sex. True, there are no indications that she nurtures any desire for him, but it’s possible that her *eros * has been projected backwards into both Jonathan and the dead father. Aside from this minor trope, the only other noteworthy aspect of the film that its grungy look links it less with the Hitchcock imitators of the period and more with the raw look of the 1980s slashers.



There’s even less going on with 1961’s ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO. Despite using the same buzzword as the Hitchcock movie, the main character is not at all in the Norman Bates tradition of the mad killer. Main character Chet and his sister Pat were raised by their older brother Duke. Duke is found guilty of murdering a man and the state executes him. Pat is able to move on, particularly because she’s engaged to a young upper-crust fellow named Mickey, but Chet just can't let go of the wrongs society did to his family. Chet’s fixation on the injustice of his brother’s execution—whom he regards almost as a surrogate father—is given little psychological elaboration. Only in the opening sequence is his extreme reaction given some basis in fact. After he visits his condemned brother in prison-- where Duke protests his innocence to the last-- some of the “respectable” male teens rag on him for having a crook-brother, beat him down, and scar his face. However, this is the first and last indication that "straight society" might harbor some bad apples. After being so wounded, Chet refuses to let his scar be treated by a doctor, so that it disfigures his good looks and so becomes the "objective correlative" of his rage against society.

The opening suggests a potential conflict between the lower and higher classes in the unnamed American city. However, the script-- which some have attributed partly to Ed Wood writing under a pseudonym-- drops the ball, content to portray Chet and his friends as no-account juvenile delinquents. In his brief crime-spree, Chet starts a fire and burns down a house, treats his girlfriend lousily, and frames his sister’s boyfriend for murder before he's put away by the square citizens. ANATOMY came out at a time when “j.d..films” were beginning to lose their appeal; hence, the attempt to ride Alfred H.’s coattails.

None of the acting is memorable, but one participant makes for some curiosity-value: Ronnie Brooks, adopted son of comedy-team George Burns and Gracie Allen, plays the thoroughly uninteresting character of upper-crust Mickey.

Monday, April 17, 2017

PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS (2004)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


I've reviewed almost none of the myriad productions of entrepreneur Charles Band, who apparently never met a creepy little doll he didn't like. There's not usually much to say about even the better Band films, though his longest running series, PUPPET MASTER, is watchable if one is in the mood for creepy mixed with silly. My main reason for seeking out this 2004 film-- made for the Sci-Fi Channel and apparently "non-canon" according to Band-- stems from my interest in the dynamics of crossover properties.

By and large, the film builds its sketchy storyline largely from PUPPET MASTER mythology, and the less developed DEMONIC TOYS mythos is more or less grafted on top of that. The evil-looking puppets of the former series eventually took something of a "good monster" role in some installments, given that these magical mini-mannequins were created by a basically good mad scientist. (The puppets even end up fighting Nazis in one film, I forget which). In contrast, the DEMONIC TOYS had enjoyed one solo movie and a crossover with Band's mini-superhero DOLLMAN, and then remained in mothballs for almost ten years before appearing in this teamup flick. It's thus not too surprising that the Toys don't get as much attention as the Puppets. The script doesn't even bother to revive all the terrible toys from the 1992 DEMONIC TOYS film for this roundup.

A summary of the plot isn't really all that rewarding. Suffice to say that a modern descendant of the original puppet-master, a nutty but basically nice scientist (Corey Feldman), finds himself using his ancestor's puppets against a madwoman (who has control of the Demonic Toys) who plans to unleash demon-possessed toys on children on Christmas Day. The Puppets get all the best scenes, the Toys are forgettable, and the two teams of "tiny titans" only contend in the last minutes of the film, using what looks like a very cheap form of stop-motion animation. The overall feel of the film is more silly than creepy, and the most entertaining aspects are Feldman's wacky scientist and Vanessa Angel's wacky villainess.

Throughout this blog's history I've tended to categorize "monster-films" as dramas unless the plots were strongly determined by the modes of adventure, irony or comedy. Thus I've linked even a film as goofy-looking as GAMERA VS. GUIRON-- in which a "good" fire-breathing turtle fights a "bad" quadruped with a knife for a head-- with the drama's reputation (in the works of Northrop Frye, at least) for *purgation,* for using evil to cast out evil. PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS always seems to be right on the edge of turning into a complete comedy, similar to a situation I noted in the almost-spoofy spy-film OPERATION KID BROTHER. But like the Gamera films, as absurd as PMVDT becomes, it never puts across the *jubilative* scheme of the pure comedy, and so this, like the more overtly "scary" films in both serial-properties, lines up with the trope of "good monsters casting out bad monsters."