Thursday, March 15, 2018
PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
FLYING DISC MAN is a quasi-sequel to THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES, but only because it recycles the same basic idea-- Martians coming to Earth and collaborating with America's enemies-- and the costumes. DISC MAN is directed by Fred C. Bannen, who was one of the two helmsmen credited with PURPLE MONSTER, and is written by Ronald Davidson, credited as the PURPLE producer.
Yet, though PURPLE MONSTER is just an average serial, DISC MAN seems to go out of its way not to live up to its predecessor's modest accomplishments. It's not that surprising that the new serial does away with the Martians' propensity for "body-snatching," as this was probably an extra expense and the 1950 serial was already recycling scenes from its predecessor and from other serials. But whereas PURPLE MONSTER had several writers assigned to think up new perils for the heroes, Davidson wasn't even able to think of one good setup-- much less distinguishing his characters. Serial heroes and heroines are not exactly scintillating personalities at the best of times, yet the characters essayed by Walter Reed and Lois Collier impressed me as two of the dullest ever.
The only element that was even remotely exciting was the appearance of the "disc" of the title, which is the Martian spaceship-- and that's recycled from the 1942 serial KING OF THE MOUNTIES.
THE SECRET CODE, made at the height of U.S. involvement during the Second World War, is at least average entertainment. Like a number of other 1940s serials, it starts with a bang, as policeman Dan Barton is accused of being a collaborator. His betrayal is really a put-up job, though, so that Barton can infiltrate a spy ring endangering U.S. security. The first episode even has a moment in which Barton's best friend is tempted to shoot the supposed traitor, but gives in to his instincts about Barton's essential decency and becomes the undercover agent's confidante. Further, so that Barton can act against the spies without endangering his status, he assumes the masked, black-clad identity of the Black Commando-- thus making for a lot of fights in this knockabout serial. CODE's biggest weakness is the same as that of many wartime serials: an undistinguished collection of espionage villains. Because the plot partly concerns an attempt to break the enemy spies' "secret code," each episode ends with an official of U.S. "military intelligence" explaining examples of code-breaking to the audience. Fortunately, modern viewers, unlike theater-goers in 1942, have the option of ignoring these tedious propaganda lectures.
On a side-note, because the serial fell into public domain (or was believed to have done so), the Black Commando showed up later as a comic-book character for Bill Black's AMERICOMICS line.
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*
TUROK SON OF STONE, a Silver Age comic book about two intrepid Native Americans seeking to escape a dinosaur-filled domain, enjoyed an unlikely revival in the 1990s, spawning not only new comics but also popular video games. I assume that's why Classic Media decided to adapt TUROK for a direct-to-video.
I didn't follow either the 1960s or 1990s comic-book incarnations of the character, so I don't know if any of the plot-elements were adapted. I can say that the Silver Age version focused only on Turok and his younger brother Andar fighting dinosaurs. The video version changes Andar into Turok's nephew, as well as interpolating a backstory in which Turok's brother Nashoba married Catori, a young woman known to both of them. Turok is exiled from his tribe for having accidentally attacked Nashoba while fighting off enemies from another tribe. The film does not state that Turok harbored any desire for Catori, though the brothers do compete to win the maiden's kiss, giving the situation a very "sibling rivalry" vibe-- the more so since Nashoba is later killed, and Turok is joined in Dinosaur-Land by a ready-made family consisting of his nephew and sister-in-law. (The original Dell comic hardly had any female characters, since it was being sold to dinosaur-loving boys, but the video has clearly been pitched to appeal to fangirls as well.)
The video is basic journeyman work, in that none of the characters are particularly memorable, including Turok's opposite-number villain, Chichak. Aside from the "girl power" touches, the only other distinction of TUROK is that there's a little more real blood shed when people or dinos get hit with spears or tomahawks. It's far from enough blood to satisfy gorehounds, but it would probably prove sufficient to give minor grossouts to the younger dinosaur-fans.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*
In my review of FORBIDDEN PLANET, I remarked that the creative people behind the film seemed to have gone far beyond anything they'd done previously in their respective careers. The corollary to this is also that none of them ever did anything quite so outstanding.
KRONOS came out the year after PLANET, and the later film is also credited to a story idea from Irving Block, a production designer on both films. But KRONOS was also a low-budget effort from a small company called Regalscope, and the credited screenwriter, Lawrence Goldman, brought no particular passion to the story of an alien device-- called an "energy accumulator"-- that invades Earth. Director Kurt Neumann had made his bones as a journeyman director of better-than-average Tarzan films, like TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS, but his only exceptional directorial work wouldn't come along till the next year, when he helmed THE FLY.
It takes KRONOS quite a while to get going. A flying saucer sends an energy-construct-- possibly alive, possibly not-- down to Earth to possess a commonplace motorist. The motorist is instantly possessed by some vague alien consciousness or program. He then seeks out a redundantly named scientific laboratory, "Labcentral," penetrates the lab's security and passes on his "possession" to a major scientist named Eliot. The motorist dies, and Eliot then serves as the "inside man" for the never-seen alien aggressors. In particular, he wants to make sure that when the saucer is discovered, the U.S. Air Force attacks it. Despite the meddling of some of Eliot's subordinates, particularly leading man and leading lady Les and Vera (Jeff Morrow, Barbara Lawrence), the saucer is shot down and plunges into the ocean off the coast of Baja California. However, this is only a stratagem designed to activate the giant energy-device within the saucer. The monolithic machine has no consciousness-- it shows no reaction when Les and Vera employ a helicopter to land on its head-- but when it gets ready to start sucking energy, not even an atom bomb can stop it.
The name given to the gigantic, energy-absorbing mechanism is the one cool mythologem of the Block-Goldman story, but it's curiously underdeveloped. A newsman says that someone took the name from the "evil giant" of Greek myth, whose main distinction was that of devouring all of his children so that the giant's reign would never be threatened. Probably Goldman didn't pursue this symbolism because the people of Earth weren't related to the creators of the giant robot. Still, to a small degree Kronos still works on this level, as the spawn of godlike aliens who have decided to wipe out humankind. The idea that the aliens have gone through all this trouble simply to steal Earth's energy with their colossal robot never proves particularly persuasive.
The only hiccup in the aliens' well-laid plans is that Eliot's possession doesn't fully take, and sometimes the scientist recovers enough to pass on insights to the defenders of Earth-- at least, when he isn't being deemed to be out of his mind. However, it's leading man Les who has the brilliant insight to over-feed Kronos with special energy designed to make him short-circuit-- which is less like the outcome of the original Kronos story than various tales in which a monster is slain by feeding it something noxious, as with Bel and the Dragon.
Kronos, looking like a giant capacitor with piledrivers for legs, might be considered a take on the Martian tripods of the 1953 adaptation of Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS-- in which film, it will be remembered, the invading vessels also survive a nuclear blast. It's an imposing presence, but it seems that the producers weren't concerned with anything else. Les the Scientist is no Clay Forrester, and his relationship with Vera is forgettable, lacking even the minor touches of the "dueling romance" theme seen in many SF films of the period. KRONOS is a film with one good mythopoetic concept, stuck in a film with a lot of bland mundane dialogue and characterization.
Friday, March 9, 2018
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological, psychological*
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN isn't even close to one of my favorite Frankenstein films. However, it certainly eclipses most of the slapdash sequels, particularly REVENGE, even though Hammer used the same writer and director to bring the mad baron back from death.
The film begins well enough, with one petty thief trying to convince another to help him rob the grave of Doctor Frankenstein, executed at the end of the previous narrative. The business between the reluctant thief and his con-man acquaintance provides the film's only comic relief, but the grave-robbers' scene is only designed to provide the explanation for the baron's return. The thieves find that the coffin of Frankenstein actually contains the headless body of a priest, who was somehow substituted for the Baron on the guilloutine. The reluctant burglar wisely flees, but the greedy one sticks around, and promptly gets a heart attack when he sees Baron Frankenstein himself show up at the gravesite, in the company of the usual hunchbacked aide. It's loosely implied that the Baron has showed up here to raid the graveyard for parts, but it seems pretty counter-intuitive for even a madman to show up at the same place where he's supposed to be buried, not even wearing any sort of disguise. This is particularly egregious since the Baron is masquerading as "Stein," a doctor to the poor in what I assume is the same city
In CURSE, the scientist was aided by an older mentor-figure, who harbored some ideals about using Frankenstein's ideas for the betterment of mankind. This time Frankenstein plays the mentor, for a younger medical student, Hans Kleve, reveals that he's figured out the true identity of Stein. Kleve wants to join Frankenstein in his endeavor, and the scientist accepts the younger man's offer with scarcely the turn of a hair. This presumably gives Frankenstein someone to talk to besides his hunchback, a peer with whom he can discuss his next project: to transfer the brain of the deformed assistant into a new body, once again cobbled together from multiple sources. Karl is only too happy to leave his ugly old body behind, though once the operation takes place, the former hunchback wants to simply return to normal life, rather than being Frankenstein's ongoing showpiece.
The doctor boasts that this time the procedure will succeed because he's not using a "bad brain." However, for reasons the script does not explain, Karl's new body begins taking on the same deformities as his original form. The production chooses to "cheap out" on the appearance of the Monster, leading to many other Hammer-monsters of unprepossessing appearance.
The monster pursues romance, causes a little havoc, and exposes Frankenstein to the public. Though the mad scientist meets his comeuppance, this time Sangster's script gives him a rationale-- however improbable-- so that he can go on to future installments-- which he did, generally to even more unimpressive results.
Thursday, March 8, 2018
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Since writing these two reviews, I've still not read any of the original Russell Thorndyke novels about the early quasi-superhero "The Scarecrow," a.k.a. "Doctor Syn." The character-- a former pirate named Clegg, who escaped his alleged death and became a parson in a small English village-- might be closer to a "villain" than a "hero," albeit a very benign villain. In the same way that Robin Hood fought the soldiers of the king to benefit the poor, Syn-- who is renamed Doctor Blyss in the 1962 film-- is out to better the lives of Romney Marsh's citizens by helping them smuggle wares in and out of the country. The local lawmen don't like this, just as the soldiers of King John resented Robin Hood's incursions, and on this hinges the conflict-- though Clegg/Blyss adds one touch that the lord of Locksley never thought of; having his merry men dress up in phosphorescent ghost-costumes to scare off the curious. However, one other major difference is that Robin Hood's opposition to the legal authorities comes to an end when King Richard returns and kicks John out. Within the context of the Thorndyke setup, smuggling will always be illegal, and so Blyss can only keep fighting the law until it kills him-- which, to drop a very minor spoiler, is exactly what transpires.
Since the plot-action of CLEGG is pretty close from that of the 1937 DOCTOR SYN, I won't repeat the specifics of the plot. Suffice to say that a new officer comes to Romney Marsh with the intent of rooting any and all smugglers. No one in 1962 or since is likely to doubt that the serene-looking parson Blyss (Peter Cushing) is really behind all the skullduggery, nor that the two young lovers Harry and Imogene (Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romain) are destined to come together despite all odds. In one way Hammer's version is racier than that the 1937 adaptation: in both films an older man, who has functioned as a not-very-paternal guardian to Imogene since her childhood, puts the moves on his ward, revealing her tainted past so that she'll marry him. But the Hammer film plays the scene with more attempted bodice-ripping.
In terms of acting, Peter Cushing could do this simple swashbuckling-role in his sleep. The best scenes involve the limber actor showing off his fighting-skills against a bulkier opponent, and later trying to escape the constables at the film's finish. The film's visuals are both stark and evocative, particularly in the scenes with the "phantom horsemen." CLEGG is certainly the most watchable of the three adaptations.
Monday, March 5, 2018
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological*
Here are two more of the Syfy-oriented "giant beastie" films, which I surveyed largely to see if they fell into the combative mode.
BEHEMOTH starts out fairly well for this type of film.A small American town, existing for years in the shadow of a mountain, experiences seismic quakes. The only one who really knows what's going on is William, a crazy-seeming old man. William claims that every few million years, a creature arises to wipe out humankind for its sins, and that this time, the creature dwells beneath the mountain.
Sure enough, he's right.
The film is fairly suspenseful for the first hour, suggesting the enormity of the buried monster rather than showing it outright. Of course, in the latter half the viewer finally gets to see the beast, and it's just another big tentacled grotesque. The script gets a couple of points for referencing the Babylonian epic of monster-slayer Marduk and his dragon-enemy Tiamat, but even then, the myth is only brought up as a guide to the hero on how to execute the modern-day behemoth.
The "Sand Serpents" are even less mythic in dimension than the Behemoth: as the above photo shows, they're just big worms with mouths like lampreys. Borrowing a trope from the original GODZILLA, the worms have apparently existed for eons far beneath the surface of the earth-- but not so far that a simple explosion in Afghanistan can't wake them up. The worms, invulnerable to gunfire though not to grenades, burrow through the earth and gobble up both Taliban terrorists and American soldiers with impunity. The script doesn't suggest how they've survived all this time if they had nothing to feed on beneath the earth, though I suppose the old "suspended animation" schtick is still good for another run. Still, it's hard to imagine such colossal creatures being able to sustain themselves by feeding on such puny fare. Each one of them looks like it needs nothing short of a whale for a good meal.
The American grunts are given at least moderately competent characterization, and Jeff Renfroe's direction keeps up the tension even in the non-monster scenes. There's a moral lesson on the folly of deeming all Muslims to be terrorists, but it's not overdone for this sort of action-melodrama.
Saturday, March 3, 2018
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*
LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES had a couple of "firsts" to its credit, in that it was the first collaboration between Hammer Studios and Shaw Brothers, and the first British attempt to meld the elements of their horror-films with elements of the kung-fu genre. (The latter might not be much of an accomplishment, since earlier in the same year, Hammer had released a horror/swashbuckler, CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER.) However, the film's "lasts" may prove more historically significant, since it was the last Hammer film of the original period to feature either Dracula specifically or vampires generally. And LEGEND was one of the very last films made by Hammer before its 1970s demise (its later reincarnation being a separate matter).
Hammer films were never known for being scrupulous about internal continuity, and LEGEND follows the same pattern. The film begins with a prologue set in 1804, wherein Dracula has been, for vague reasons, confined to his castle. For once, Hammer's Van Helsing can't be blamed, for it's 1885 when the vampire-hunting doctor encounters the king bloodsucker in HORROR OF DRACULA, so this particular Van Helsing can't have been alive in 1804, unless he was remarkably well preserved. In fact, the continuity of HORROR and its sequels seemed flatly contradicted by the following events. A Taoist monk named Kan enters Castle Dracula, asking for the vampire-lord's help. It seems that for some time a group of vampire-lords, the Seven Golden Vampires (so called for their golden masks) have existed in rural China. However, the Seven have fallen into deep slumber and need aid from the master of vampires. Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson) arrogantly rejects the simple request for help, but apparently sees in Kan an escape from his imprisonment. Over the monk's objections, Dracula possesses Kan's body-- certainly a vampire-talent never before revealed-- and in that form journeys all the way to China, where he joins the Seven and terrorizes the Chinese, often kidnapping young women for blood sacrifices, more Taoist than Transylvanian in nature. To the hardcore continuity-bug, this makes it impossible for Dracula to be in either Transylvania or England in 1885-- for when the prologue ends, the film proper starts in 1904.
A version of Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) lectures on vampire legends at a Chungking university. It will later come out that this Van Helsing knows all about Dracula, though there would seem no way that the two could have met, even though they seem to know one another at the conclusion. The doctor also knows about the stories of the Seven Vampires of China. Though this Van Helsing doesn't seem to be busy tracking down any undead, he clearly believes that they're real. The audience of skeptical Chinese students don't hold any faith in old legends, not even when Van Helsing regales them-- and the film's audience-- with a highly detailed narrative about a humble farmer managing to steal a magical talisman from the Seven.
One listener, Hsi Ching, believes Van Helsing, and asks the scholar to join a quest to root out the evil of the Golden Vampires. Hsi Ching brings along his six brothers and one sister, who are all kung-fu experts, while Van Helsing brings along his grown son Leyland and a beautiful young widow, Vanessa.
Once the expedition begins progressing through the Chinese countryside, any resemblance to the British style of heavily-plotted drama vanishes. The film was jointly directed by Roy Ward Baker and Chang Cheh. But since only the latter had experience in handling kung-fu scenarios, it seems likely that he influenced the bulk of the film's action-scenes. There are some minor emotional subplots, such as a blossoming interracial romance between Hsi Ching and Vanessa. which was somewhat daring for a 1974 British horror-film. But most of the film is just one attack after another by the Golden Vampires and their zombie-like hordes, followed by the heroes' counterattacks. Dracula/Kan doesn't have much to do, and the Seven Vampires are even more routine as villains than Hsi Ching and his siblings are as heroes. To be sure, Layland and Vanessa are not well-developed either, so it seems likely that Shaw Brothers realizes that Cushing's Van Helsing had to be in the forefront to help sell the film in the West. The action-scenes are good fun, though there's something of a sameness about them. Van Helsing has a final face-off with Dracula, who once more assumes his Transylvanian form, and while it's just an average fight-scene, it does have the distinction of being Hammer's final battle between the two characters-- even though one could argue that these aren't "the real ones."
I assume that the visual motif of "masked evildoers" stems from Chinese folklore and/or popular fiction, since four years later, Chang Cheh used this motif in one of his biggest hits, THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS.