Monday, July 21, 2014



Despite the high billing of Bela Lugosi, this strange little film was all about translating the nightclub act of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo to the cinema. Mitchell and Petrillo, banking on the latter performer's striking resemblance to Jerry Lewis, had already patterned their act on the popular team of Lewis and Dean Martin. Unfortunately, though a fair number of Martin-Lewis films are still enjoyable today for their wit and chemistry, this solo outing for Mitchell-Petrillo doesn't even come up to the level of the contemporaneous "Bowery Boys" episodes, many of which had been written by GORILLA's writer and directed by its director: Tim Ryan and the prolific William Beaudine, respectively.

Mitchell and Petrillo, portraying two nightclub performers with the exact same names, get stranded on a Pacific island, where they are befriended by native beauty Nona (Charlita).  Nona gets romantic with the handsome singer Mitchell, while Petrillo has to contend with the attentions of her "little sister" Saloma (Muriel Landers, who is only "little" in terms of age). Nona also happens to work for a scientist on the same island, and she introduces the boys to Doctor Zabor (Bela Lugosi), in the hope that the doctor can help the fellows get back home. But, in keeping with many of Lugosi's other mad scientists, Zabor sees the two guys as fresh guinea pigs for his experiments in evolutionary alteration. This eventuates in Zabor transforming Mitchell into a "brooklyn gorilla."

GORILLA is never amusing, and Lugosi doesn't get even as many decent lines as he did in his Monogram mad-scientist outings. For me the film's main interest is that while it could easily be a standard mad-scientist comedy, scripter Ryan chooses to bring the film to a tragic climax-- Zabor tries to shoot the gorilla-ized Mitchell, and Petrillo dies saving him-- and then reveal that "it was all a dream," thus putting the film in the same "delirious dreams" category as more famous works like the 1951 ALICE IN WONDERLAND. It's not surprising that the dream should be that of the goofus character Petrillo, but it's a little odd that when he wakes up, he really doesn't recognize anybody as their true selves-- for instance, Lugosi's Zabor is the boss of the duo's nightclub act.

I should note that though I'm not an advocate of "queer theory," in which films are interpreted as revelatory of gay-friendly themes, I've seen this approach used on the Martin-Lewis films, and it probably applies about as well to BROOKLYN GORILLA.  After all, doesn't Petrillo sacrifice his life to save his gorilla-buddy? Hmm-- but it also has the same guy "waking up" from this gay-friendly dream to meet the real-world amours of Landers' plus-sized woman, and more or less getting won over by her charms. Oh well.

Friday, July 18, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*

"Guards! Torture these two men until they tell us of their plot! I'll torture the girl at home."-- evil vizier from THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN

As a kid I didn't care for this strange Italian-U.S. co-production, and my recent re-viewing of it did not much improve my opinion.  But it does have a few things going for it:

As the above line indicates, it is, far more than most Arabian Knockabouts, obsessed with the comic treatment of torture. The girl referenced above, name of Djalma (Noelle Adam), gets hung by her wrists while naked, and the doofus hero of the title (Donald O'Connor) is sewn into a wet animal-skin that is supposed to shrink in the sun and strangle him. Moreover, both Aladdin and his dumbbell sidekick Omar are captured by desert-dwelling Amazons, who plan to sleep with them once before killing and skinning them to make garments out of their flesh.  The evil vizier drops a victim through a trap-door to a pool full of crocodiles, and his court wizard creates a female robot who crushes anything she embraces. While the credited director was Henry Levin, and this review attests that Mario Bava's only contribution was second-unit work, the film's catalog of cruelties sounds like something scripted by the director of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. Maybe all the Sadean elements stem from the five Italian writers credited alongside the one American scribe.

There's not much point in detailing the rambling plot, many elements of which are borrowed from the classic 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD. In this essay I showed how the 1942 ARABIAN NIGHTS liberally swiped from THIEF in terms of plot-elements. WONDERS is too loosely structured to worry much about plot, but as it opens, O'Connor's Aladdin-- whose sole likeness to the folktale-character is that everyone in his town deems him a worthless dreamer-- has only one ambition: to behold the pomp of Prince Moluk (Terence Hill, several years away from his international success in the "Trinity" films).  This bears a slight resemblance to the ties between Abu and Ahmed in THIEF, but though Aladdin does ultimately rescue Moluk from the designs of his nasty, Jaffar-like vizier, the two never become best buds. Instead, the buddy-bonding takes place between Aladdin and Omar. The latter becomes Aladdin's virtual slave when Aladdin unintentionally unleashes the power of the magic lamp in his possession, though it takes the hero some time to figure out how to call up the genie (famed neo-Realist director Vittoro de Sica).  Thus Aladdin's preoccupation with the prince functions as a motive force that keeps the hero focused on doing something righteous with his genie's powers, rather than just conjuring up palaces and riches, as the character from the original folktale did.  The strangling-robot is another swipe from the 1940 film and its six-armed female automaton, while the climax, in which the genie helps Aladdin defeat an army's attack on the prince's city, is very probably borrowed from the ending of the 1924 THIEF.

Donald O'Connor works hard to inject his trademark energy into this bumbling genie-caller, but the comic bits are too derivative to be funny.

I have far less to say about 1955's THE COURT JESTER--because it's almost too perfect to criticize. While Hollywood made a fair number of swashbuckler-spoofs over the years, JESTER  is the best of these, and is also arguably comedian Danny Kaye's most aesthetically successful film.  Paramount Pictures spent $4 million to make JESTER look as sumptuous as the best of the "straight" swashbucklers, but for whatever reason the 1955 audience was not receptive and JESTER only courted bad box office.

Today JESTER may be the best-known film in Kaye's repertoire, combining the performer's propensity for fast-paced patter songs with intricate dance and/or fight sequences.  Kaye's character Hubert is one of many comic bumblers who aspires to be more like an admired hero-- in this case, the rather forbidding Black Fox, a Robin Hood-like figure who leads a covert rebellion against Roderick, evil usurper of the English throne. Hubert also aspires to impress the martial maiden Jean (a ravishing Glynis Johns),but the only duty Hubert can get is to care for the infant who will someday reclaim the throne.

In contrast to ALADDIN, which almost has no plot, JESTER is so intricately plotted that it's difficult to summarize. In fact, I can hardly believe that it was written by the same team-- Melvin Frank and Norman Panama-- that scripted the silly 1959 LI'L ABNER.  I can only assume that the collaborators warmed as never before or after to the ambition of their project: to send up almost every trope of the swashbuckler genre. Said tropes include the aforementioned child-heir, court intrigue and seduction, a joust between armored knights (which births the film's most famous schtick, the redoubtable "pellet with the poison" rigamarole), and a rapier-duel between the hero and the black-hearted villain (played by Basil Rathbone, arguably the most iconic swashbuckler-villain of Classic Hollywood).

This duel is possible only because of the film's sole metaphenomenal element: a "witch" (Mildred Natwick) who uses something like hypnotism on Hubert. While the hypnotic spell is in effect, Hubert becomes an unbeatable swordsman, and he comes very close to defeating Rathbone's skilled evildoer. However, the spell repeatedly fails and puts Hubert in increasingly hot water, so that in the end Hubert has to beat his enemy by trickery, rather than by permanently emulating the macho qualities of the Black Fox.  For this reason, though there's a substantial duel between hero and villain near the film's end, its effect is undermined by the comic turnabout. Therefore JESTER does not qualify for my term "combative comedy."

Friday, July 11, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

In 1932's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, the mad Doctor Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) wants to prove that apes were a "rough draft" (my words) for human beings. I had a parallel feeling with regard to this movie, which is very probably director Robert Florey's most well-known film these days. I don't think MORGUE is successful at trying to be a good film, but it's a rough draft of how one might make a excellent film out of the unpromising Edgar Allan Poe story.

When I say that the material is "unpromising," I'm not saying that the Poe story-- a classic in both the genres of mystery/detective fiction and the "uncanny horror" story-- is bad. But despite its sensational elements it's a very talky story, and not particularly cinematic-- hence "unpromising" as a source of adaptations. Most film adaptations of the Poe tale have, like Florey's, been forced to change Poe's story substantially in order to play to the requirements of the cinematic medium. One close adaptation proves my case by a negative example: the 1986 TV-movie adaptation of MORGUE sticks pretty close to the original, and it's a generally dull affair.

Florey may have also had some influence on the refitting of the original simply because of his circumstances. Initially selected to work on Universal's adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN, Florey was bumped from that project by studio politics. Thus it's probably not a coincidence that Poe's story-- which featured a super-smart detective ferreting out the crimes committed by an unthinking animal owned by a none-too-bright seaman-- changes into a story about a super-mad scientist who controls a unthinking animal, and whose iniquities are exposed by a slightly-smart medical student / amateur detective.  The parallels between Doctor Frankenstein, Doctor Mirakle and their respective monsters could hardly be clearer-- and for good measure, just as Doctor Frankenstein also had a freakish assistant, Mirakle has "Janos, the Black One," played by black actor Noble Johnson. He is, for reasons unclear to me, costumed whiteface, which would seem to defeat the idea behind his nickname.

In the Poe story Dupin must use his phenomenal wits to solve a locked-room mystery involving a murder of extreme sadism with a possible sexual element. The detective then proves that neither sex nor sadism was the intent of the guilty party.  At the same time, Dupin also solves a corollary mystery involving a Babel-like confusion of languages, in that every witness who has overheard the barbarous noises of the crime's perpetrator claims that said perpetrator spoke a foreign language, though no witness agrees on what language it was.

In MORGUE, Florey does manage to work in Poe's solution to the language-mystery. But because the story is no longer primarily about the locked-room mystery and its scene of maybe-sexual sadism, Pierre Dupin's big deductive breakthrough doesn't deliver the goods that it does in the short story. That's because all the real sex and violence has been orchestrated around the figure of the Superman Scientist, not the Superman Sleuth.  Though in my view both Doctor Frankenstein and his monster share center-stage in Whale's FRANKENSTEIN, Erik the Ape is a secondary presence next to Bela Lugosi's quintessential mad scientist Mirakle. Lugosi would play many mad scientists in his career-- far more than he played vampires-- but Mirakle is the best. His makeup and clothing suggest a weird Expressionist combination between a roadshow preacher and a carnival mountebank, and Florey's staging of many scenes in MORGUE suggests that he was familiar with the cinematic strategies of German Expressionism.

The "priest" analogy seems apt for Mirakle; even putting aside his name, he claims to have "consecrated" his life to his project-- ostensibly one devoted to science-- in fulsome religious terms, speaking of the "dawn of man" and "the slime of life."  He horrifies his audience of 19th-century Parisians by advocating a kinship between man and ape, one that can supposedly be prove by joining together the blood of the two. This inverts Poe's strategy, for Poe suggests what sounds like sadistic sex can be explained rationally. Mirakle tries to justify his kinky "blood-joining" project by appeals to some Darwin-inspired scientific truth. But when he rants to his female captive-- spreadeagled in a rough crucifixion posture, no less-- and tells her that she will be "the bride of science," Freudian displacement surely lurks around the corner. One wonders why it should matter to him that his captive's blood is "rotten" and "black as [her] sins." Why wouldn't the blood of (say) a female syphilitic be just as kin to her anthropoid ancestors as the blood of a nice, clean woman whose lover claims she has "stardust" in her hair? Unless the real "groom of science" is not Erik but Mirakle, who is just as "lonely" as the scientist claims Erik is when he purports to translate the ape's language.  If the rest of the film had been as psychologically resonant as this sequence, MORGUE would be on a par with the best of the Universal classics.

MAN MADE MONSTER is in many ways the opposite number to MORGUE.  It is a far less arty and individual work than MORGUE, and the film's focus is not on the mad scientist, but on his creation, the monster who starts out as cheery but dense Dan McCormick. It's not that "Dynamo Dan," as he is known in his carnival act, is very "dynamic" a character. He is narrowly defined as a gosh-gee-willikers fellow who likes dogs and has a mild crush on a woman but never makes a move on her. Famed scientist Dr, Lawrence-- father of June, the aforementioned crush-- becomes interested in Dan's ability to resist electrical shocks and hires him to be a test subject in his laboratory. But where Lawrence is interested only in scientific knowledge, his partner/Jungian shadow Dr. Rigas wants to use Dan as a model for an army of will-less electrical zombies.

Rigas is about as far as one can get from a obsessed ideologue like Mirakle: he's in the science game for sheer power. When he tells the shocked Lawrence that zombie-Dan is the harbinger of "the worker of the future," he sounds like equal parts evil capitalist and evil Communist.  Rigas' relationship with Lawrence is comparable to that of Rotwang and Fredersen in METROPOLIS, another film about controlling the working class through technology, albeit in a very different way.

Still. MAN MADE MONSTER is primarily about creating a new monster, loosely in the Frankenstein tradition. Unfortunately, despite a strong performance by Looming Lon Chaney, the basic idea of a monster who kills by electrifying his victims never, er, sparks into life. I for one found the night-light glow that sometimes appears around Dan's head and/or hands to be absurd rather than sinister. Sadly in 1941, FX were not capable of exploiting the visual impact of a man charged with electricity.

Unlike Frankenstein's unkillable creation, the "man made monster" is more vulnerable; he's doomed to die when his energy runs out. Still, the script doesn't exploit this aspect, because Dan is just a big easygoing schmuck, he's not able to grapple with the existential unfairness of his situation, not even when he's falsely accused-- by Rigas-- of having willfully murdered Lawrence, when in fact Rigas commanded the electric zombie to commit the crime. As if to illustrate that Dan is free from psychological complexity, during his trial the prosecution brings in a Freudian quack who tries to prove that Dan intentionally killed Lawrence to get even with some father-substitute who beat Dan as a child. Actually, in some places this wouldn't necessarily be all that swift a strategy for the prosecution if they wanted a death sentence, as it might have got Dan off with a plea of insanity. Nevertheless the wheels of justice turn quickly and conveniently, so that Dan goes to the electric chair-- which actually gives him a new lease on life, enabling him to save the girl of his dreams and avenge himself on Rigas before he Dan meets the usual monster's fate.

I said that Rigas might be considered the "Jungian shadow" to Lawrence. Of course, Lawrence is an even more one-dimensional character than Dan, but there's one irony about their relationship: that Lawrence, as much as Rigas, brings about Dan's doom. The saintly scientist bursts in upon the laboratory he shares with the selfish scientist, and discovers to his horror that Rigas has created an electrical slave. Lawrence tells Rigas that he considers this transformation to be an act of murder-- even though zombie-Dan technically is still alive-- and Lawrence announces his intention to call the police, whereon Rigas orders Dan to kill Lawrence. One can understand Lawrence's shocked reaction. Yet the whole scenario would have played out very differently had the character been more concerned with preserving Dan's life rather than with expressing moral outrage. The good doctor could well have faked out the bad doctor and called the police on the sly, so that Lawrence might have lived, Rigas might have been carted away without violence, and Dan might have been been cured. But then, it would have been a very anti-climactic monster movie.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


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

I suspect that the roots of Maleficent's reformation probably run alongside those of OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL-- to wit, the novel/stage play of WICKED, in which L. Frank Baum's "Wicked Witch of the West" was given a sympathetic makeover.  Happily, although OZ was a bore, saddled with a flat protagonist and an actor unable to overcome the script's limitations, MALEFICENT is more successful in its re-imagining.

I mentioned in my review of Disney's SLEEPING BEAUTY that the titular beauty's lack of a birth-mother is compensated for by "Maleficent and the Three Good Fairies subsume the roles of 'bad mother' and 'good mothers' respectively." This psychological division, only implicit in the 1959 film, becomes the film's central theme.

This Maleficent-- portrayed with acidulous charm by Angeline Jolie-- shares the familiar motif of "the Woman Wronged by a Man." Far from being an evil fairy with vague Satanic associations, Maleficent begins as a young wing-backed fairy who dwells in a fairy-haunted forest, far from the prosaic world of man. (I'll note in passing that the designs for the fairy creatures also far excel the dull imagery of the OZ film.)  In the innocence of her youth Maleficent meets an adventurous young man, Stefan, and becomes first his friend, and in later years, his implied lover, though no literal sex is indicated. By the time Stefan reaches his young adulthood, however, he's seduced by the allure of power. When the king of the nearby castle announces that he will deed his kingdom to anyone who can slay Maleficent-- who has refused to accept the tyrant's authority-- Stefan uses his friendship to drug Maleficent.  He shies away from killing her, but because he needs evidence that he has slain her, he cuts off her wings for his trophy. Stefan gets the kingship and the betrayed fairy-woman retreats into her magic forest, biding her time.  When Stefan and his barely seen wife conceive a child, Maleficent appears uninvited at the christening and lays an unstoppable curse upon the female infant Aurora.

In the 1959 film, three wise if somewhat dumpy fairies take Aurora under their tutelage to keep Maleficent from finding her. In this film, the three "good mothers" become three incompetent pixies, so scatter-brained that they can barely figure out how to care for their charge. All-knowing Maleficent finds their secluded cottage easily, where she is presented with a conundrum.  If the infant doesn't survive the clumsy care of the pixies, she'll never live to receive Maleficent's curse, and the fairy-woman will never be revenged on Stefan. Thus Maleficent, who starts out intending to be the murderous bad mother to Aurora, ends up fulfilling the duties of a good mother.

Much of what follows is fairly predictable: Aurora discovers the identity of her mysterious protector and responds to her as if Maleficent is a maternal guide-- which she is, insofar as Aurora is symbolically the child Maleficent might have had with Stefan.  I even foresaw that the "love's true kiss" that would awaken the beauty from her sleep would not come from Prince Philip-- a rather negligible presence in the story--but from Aurora's symbolic mother.  Still, thanks to the stunning design-work and Robert Stromberg's crisp direction, even the predictable moments are pleasurable.  It's perhaps inevitable that, since in the 1959 film Maleficent's nasty raven was an objective correlative of her evil, here the raven, name of Diaval, should be used for comedy relief. Still, his presence also foreshadows Maleficent's need for companionship, and makes her mother-love for Aurora more credible.  The film's weakest point is its villain Stefan, in that the reasons for his betrayal are inadequately explored.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is a lot more predictable than MALEFICENT, but it too manages to make its visits to familiar places pleasurable.

Skinny hero Hiccup is the very incarnation of the alienated youngster: in the forbidding Viking town of Berk, he alone is aware of his culture's absurdities-- not only its almost total validation of relentless warfare, but also the fact that his chieftain father "Stoic" is the supreme representation of Viking manhood. Hiccup, a proto-nerd with a Jimmy Stewart-esque drawl, can't find validation in either the older generation or in his peers, all of whom accept without question the need to kill the dragons who constantly raid Berk's resources.

Hiccup then has a "pet-meet-cute" with an injured dragon, whom the youth names "Toothless." The two unlikely friends bond, though Hiccup must keep the relationship secret from his fellow Vikings.  In time Hiccup learns a deeper truth behind the dragons' raids-- a truth that exonerates them and paves the way for a rapprochement. More importantly, Hiccup uses his new dragon-training talents to tame other dragons in order to bring his fellow Viking-teens under his command, so that the Clever Youths can save the day when their Stick-in-the-Mud Elders cannot.

No wheels are reinvented here, but the dialogue is savvy and the CGI is lively.  No deep themes, just basic fun.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, cosmological, metaphysical*

Compared to the famed H.G. Wells novel, George Pal's 1953 WAR OF THE WORLDS sports a number of ironies. The novel's action is confined to England and barely alludes to the Martian's depredations in other Earth-domains. Some critics argue that Wells wanted his own people to feel what it was like to be invaded by beings with superior technology, the way many third-world tribes experienced British imperialism. Yet, although Pal and his collaborators widened the scope of H.G. Wells' famed novel in a literal sense, they narrowed it in a thematic sense. During Pal's WAR, we see images of the Martians' incursions in countries other than the United States, but they have all the depth of a tourist's snap-shots. This was pretty much standard for American SF-flicks of the 1950s, but a significant change that the invasion is not defeated by superior U.S. technology. but by its superior religiosity.

That said, Pal's upending of the irreligious themes of Wells' novel are at least more inventive than those of his previous SF-film. 1951's WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE evidently succeeded at the box office, or Pal probably would not have been allowed the duties of producer on WAR. But in my review of COLLIDE I found its stuffiness and cultural smugness almost intolerable:

...someone in the film's production decided to really pile on the religious references. A voice-over tells us that the impending destruction causes people all over the globe to re-commit to their respective religions, but no tradition except Christianity is validated in the film, particularly since all of the people who survive Earth's destruction appear to be American WASPs. I've never subscribed to the notion that all films must be models of diversity, but I must admit that even I was uncomfortable with the film's utter lack of interest in any other cultures. 
WAR OF THE WORLDS' problems in these departments probably stem from Pal and his collaborators consciously or subconsciously modeling WAR's script on that of COLLIDE. However, even if WAR does end with a paean to the Christian faith, Lyndon's script gives his characters-- and they are nothing like Wells' characters-- names that are intriguingly suggestive of Christian mythology. Is it mere coincidence that the military commander is named "General Mann," making him a representative not only of mankind generally but of a specifically military aspect of Man in his fallen, post-Edenic state? This, if intentional, could coincide with the film's first spoken lines, in which a voiceover (Cedric Hardwicke) speaks of how the devices of technological man have "reached an unparalleled peak in their capacity for destruction," not far from the superior technology that is produced by "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic." Some critics have aligned Pal's Martians with the Communist menace, but in the Martians' mastery of technology they hew closer to America's 1950s obsession with the military-industrial complex.

Contrary to the way of technological man is the way of Christian love, love so unconditional that Pastor Collins sacrifices his life. He does so after the Martians have already killed a handful of human beings, but Collins still holds to the possibility that they may not be beyond redemption.  The memorable scene in which the aliens fire upon Collins as he approached their buried machines with his Bible has much the same effect as if the Martians had fired on the bearer of a white flag: it marks them as utterly beyond redemption. In this context it's interesting that while Wells' novel claims that the Martians may be Earth-like humanoids who have undergone a process of physical atavism, Pal's Martians are said to be "primitive" by virtue of their anemic blood-- which may be a way of distancing them from good human stock.

General Mann and Pastor Collins, though, are supporting characters: what of the male and female leads?

Mann's name, which would be "Adam" in Biblical Hebrew, is reflected in the male lead's first name "Clayton" or "Clay," whose associations with the myth of the First Man should be evident. His surname "Forrester" is echoed in the first name of the female lead, Sylvia ("sylva"= Latin for "forest.") But since forests are not a major Christian symbol, the appearance of the word in the leads' names may be a subconscious displacement for a forest in its human-controlled form; i.e., a garden. I don't suggest that either Pal or Lyndon worked all of these symbolic allegiances out consciously. In contrast to WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS succeeds whenever its conflicts become deep and elemental. This is even absent from the book, for the efforts of Wells' protagonist to find his wife pale beside the scenes of Clayton's struggle to be reunited with Sylvia. Even the riot-scenes in the film's last quarter work better than similar scenes in COLLIDE, in part because of the enforced separation of the two lovers.  Further, their separation may also be emblematic of man's separation from God, given the story Sylvia tells Clay about a childhood experience, wherein child Sylvia became lost and only "found her way" when she arrives at her pastor-uncle's church.

Byron Haskin's direction, coupled with some of the best FX of the decade, usually overcomes the script's potential for romantic treacle. The Martians' ships rank with the best representations of alien presences in the decade. The Martians themselves are not quite so appealing, however. Though the image of Sylvia accosted by a Martian sucker-arm remains impressive, that scene is undermined by the limitations of the puppet used to animate the Martian himself.  

In the finale, Pal inverts Wells' ironic defeat of the Martians by Earth-germs, giving the same event the aura of Biblical triumphalism. But though it is an inversion, at least it's a damned clever one.   

Wednesday, June 25, 2014



This film, created by essentially the same team of actors, director and writers as the previous year's THE MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR FU MANCHU, marks a slight improvement over the earlier film. The writing and direction are still on the stagey side, and it still follows a revised origin for Fu Manchu that emphasizes dramatic intensity over adventurous thrills. But whereas the first film's script confined most of its borrowings from Fu-creator Sax Rohmer to the use of familiar names, this time Lloyd Corrigan and the other scripters infuse the story with more Rohmeresque touches.

While stout Warner Oland still remains remarkably unthreatening as the devil-doctor, this time he has more tricks in his bag than the hypnotism he displays in the first film. His skill with exotic drugs is immediately in the forefront, for the film's opening reveals that in the first film his apparent suicide through poison was in truth an escape-ploy, for he drank a potion that allowed him to simulate death. All of his foes from that film attend his funeral-- the dogged Nayland Smith, who alone recognizes Fu's evil genius, Jack Petrie, the last man Fu wanted to slay for his father's sins, and Lia, the daughter of another of Fu's enemies, to whom Fu was something of an adoptive father.  Later in the film, Fu will also employ a drug that can reduce human beings to a mindless madness. Fu's hypnotic abilities are used more cleverly this time, as he programs a captured cop to betray Nayland Smith at a pre-appointed time.  Lastly, while the doctor in MYSTERIOUS is only served by a small collection of Chinatown hoods, there's an early scene when he sends turbaned assassins after Petrie-- assassins who use poison darts and announce their presence with the howling "Call of Siva."

Still, spectacle is still in short supply. We see nothing that could not be depicted on a theatrical stage, and the script is even structured to lead from one actor-pairing to another. Even the scenes in which Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu spar verbally-- which are enjoyable in the novels-- drag somewhat here. On occasion direcrtor Rowland V. Lee comes up with a novel way of treating these encounters. One such scene shows Lia, a captive of the devil-doctor, imprisoned in a chamber with a grate over the top; Lee then Lee shows Fu mocking his quasi-daughter from above the grating.  Another scene, possibly influenced by similar episodes in the Rohmer novels, causes Fu to be wounded by a bullet in such a way that he must blackmail Doctor Petrie into operating on him. This sort of scenario is more effective in Rohmer, where Petrie, like Nayland Smith, has become semi-fascinated with the genius of his mortal enemy. But it's an interesting twist, nonetheless.

The climax is certainly more "explosive" than the one from the first film, though overall the film still lacks the elements that would make it a combative film like the much later-- and more financially successful-- FACE OF FU MANCHU.  RETURN could have provided a decent ending to the mixed virtues of the series, and one might have fancied that Fu survived the climactic blast. Unfortunately, when Lee and Corrigan did DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON the next year, they chose to assert that Fu finally met his maker, part of a strategy to promote his insidious daughter. But she didn't take Hollywood audiences by storm either, and it would be left to MGM's MASK OF FU MANCHU to show everyone how fiendish Orientals should be done.

Monday, June 23, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Though I can get as jazzed as anyone by the crossovers of famous monsters, ALIEN VS. PREDATOR underwhelmed me both times that I watched it.

Though it borrows from the 1979 ALIEN's basic structure-- this time placing a bunch of hapless humans in a "haunted alien temple" rather than a "haunted spaceship"-- the script by director Paul W.S. Anderson, Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett feels more like a film in the Predator series. In so doing the film more or less follows the lead set by the 1989 Dark Horse "Alien vs. Predator" comic book, except that the comic kept the action in the far future of the ALIEN films.  This film is the first in the ALIEN franchise to take place in modern times.

The script conflicts with the seminal "Predator" concept, in which a race of hunter-aliens choose to stalk human beings using their skills and advanced technology. AVP, however, imagines that back in prehistoric times a group of Predators constructed a subterranean complex beneath the surface of an island in Antarctica. The island was in those days inhabited by human beings manipulated by the Predators into maintaining a cult of worship to the aliens, though the humans' main purpose was to serve as incubators for the Predators' real prey, the Aliens. I suppose absolute agreement is a chimera, though, and one could always claim that AVP takes place in an "alternate universe."

Though the sacrificial human culture has long vanished, the Predators apparently take it into their heads to revisit Earth in 2004 and start up another Alien-hunt.  From the depths of space the aliens re-activate the machines in their complex. This results in an energy-signature spotted via satellite. Fatally-ill billionaire Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) seizes upon this event, mounting an expedition to investigate the anomaly.  He's in a great hurry to do so, purportedly to keep other forces from descending on the anomaly, though no competing explorations are ever seen. He enlists a savvy young arctic guide named Alex Woods (Sanaa Lathan) to lead the expedition.  Alex, Weyland and their companions make their way down into the subterranean world, only to find themselves caught between the hunter and his prey.

The battles between the Predators and their Alien foes are vivid, but they're the only part of the film with any energy. Even compared to your average SYFY-monster-hunt, the characters are tedious and lacking in tenable motivation. Talented pro Henriksen has nothing to work with, and it's impossible to tell how good Sanaa Lathan might have been with a well-written role. But her Alex is even more underwritten than the cop-protagonist of PREDATOR 2-- and she's nowhere near the heroic heights of either Weaver's Ripley from the ALIEN franchise or Arnold's "Dutch" from the first-- and still best-- PREDATOR film.

The honor-oriented hunter-culture of the Predators is adequately realized here, and is the sole reason I give this film a "fair" rating.