Sunday, March 29, 2020

NABARI NO OU (2008), CORPSE PRINCESS (2008-09)



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


I’m far from an expert on the development of anime in the 2000s. Still, based on my spotty viewings, I note a downward trend in overall creativity and mythicity. This view finds some support in two television serials released in the late 2000s, both adapted from manga-features debuting in the early 2000s.

NABARI NO OU proves derivative in the extreme, and can best be summed up as “pretty ninjas with problems.” Like many American teen soap-shows, NABARI has no ugly people, and barely anyone who even skews somewhat homely. If the scripts showed some awareness of their status as lightweight entertainment—BEVERLY HILLS 90210 comes to mind-- perhaps the writers might’ve had fun with the melodrama. However, NABARI presumably follows the example of its manga-source, drowning all potential for humor in relentless seriousness.

Though it’s not unusual for a serial’s viewpoint character to be an “everyman” type, NABARI sports one of the dullest principals in pop-culture history. High-school boy Miharu has no familial connections or friends, and floats through school in a state of apathy. Then he finds that rival ninja clans want to induct him because he’s inherited a mystic power, the “Shinra Bansho.” The good ninjas, most of whom wear modern suits or school uniforms, just want to monitor Miharu’s power, while the bad ninjas, “the Grey Wolves,” want to gain dominion over the ninja world.

Because NABARI specializes in copious talking-head scenes in which very little is said—aside from keeping up the melodramatic tone—it’s never very clear what the Shinra Bansho can do for its possessor. When Miharu relecutantly summons the power, he blazes with light and scroll-symbols appear on his body, but the limits of the ability are unclear. Once the glowing light looks like the DNA double helix, but no one makes any commentary on this manifestation. Sometimes Miharu has mental reveries with a female demon who’s apparently the incarnation of the power, but she doesn’t really do much of anything either.

The supporting characters, despite their good looks and their archaic weapons (almost no one uses a gun), are dull in the extreme. The closest thing to memorable melodrama appears in the backstory of girl-ninja Raimei, for her B-plot involves squaring off aginst her brother Raiko. Since she believes him guilty of slaying her clan and her immediate family, the backstory sounds like a setup for the sort of superheated passionate drama for which Japanese animators are justly famous. Instead, this plot peters out with some minor revelations. Even the serial’s fight-scenes are dull and makework, making NABARI NO OU one of the worst anime-serials I’ve ever encountered.


                                                 

CORPSE PRINCESS is no classic, but it’s at least as good as many of the better formulaic anime-shows from the eighties and nineties. The manga presumably provided a much better model for the serial in terms of concepts and characters than that of NABARI NO OU. To be sure, though, NABARI does at least give the viewer closure at the end, while PRINCESS’s 26 episodes evidently weren’t able to capture the range of the original manga, which ran for about six years. However, if the viewer accepts that the ride will be wild but somewhat brief, PRINCESS is worth a look.

The manga provided the serial with a relatively novel take on Japanese folklore about “angry spirits.” Whereas many ghosts in the Westenr storytelling tradition appear as ephemeral phantoms, Japanese revenants tend to be capable of taking on solid form with many repulsive characteristics. I’m not sure whether or not the Japanese word “shikabane”—which literally means “corpse”—appeared in genuine folklore as a word for such a revenant, though I tend to suspect that the original manga-author has taken many liberties to adapt legend into pop culture.

The Shikabane of this anime-serial are less like ghosts than zombies. If, at the moment of a human being’s death, that person nurtures deep resentments—repeatedly termed “regrets”—the person’s body simply re-animates. These living dead people have no organic needs as such, but they feel driven to avenge the wrongs done them in life. However, a particular Japanese sect (possibly Shinto) called the Kougon Sect evolves a special means of fighting death with death. Certain monks of the sect make contracts with dead Shikabane, in which the monks supply the Shikabane with a power called ”rune.” In exchange, these benign Shikabanee then use their inhuman strength and endurance to battle the more malefic corpse-monsters. An additional facet of this arrangement seems rooted in Japanese pop-culture’s preference for cute young female heroes, for the monks are only able to forge their contracts with deceased girls of a certain age. (And yes, this circumstance is played for as much raunchy fan-service as is feasible.) All of these undead women are termed “Shikabane Hime,” meaning “Corpse Princesses.”

Though several of the “Hime” (as I’ll call them from now on) and their “contracted monks” appear as supporting characters, the focal figures here consist of one particular “Corpse Princess,” Makina, and a young man, Ouri who’s forcibly introduced into the world of metamorphic zombie-fights. Makina, a dynamic young Hime, is originally given her mission by Keisei, who’s both a Kougon monk and the adoptive brother of Ouri. However, early in the series Keisei perishes, and the later episodes deal with the problems faced by Ouri as he tries to assume his brother’s role in this dangerous scenario—not least because he and Makina face not only random undead menaces, but also an organization of evil Shikabane, the Seven Stars.

The somewhat passive Ouri and the hardcore Makina make a good “opposites attract” team, though by serial’s end it’s unclear as to whether or not there will be romance between the principals. At the very least, though, they complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Further, the scripts are sensitive to the melodramatic potential of human beings who feel cheated of life but must define themselves as the living dead—though not without lots of high-powered shonen action, wherein the super-powered Hime (who wield weapons but don’t usually change form) battle hordes of shapechanging zombies. A particular standout appears when Makina goes toe-to-toe with Hokujo, a Shikabane who seemingly has no human sentiments, and therefore seems to Makina like the incarnation of death itself.

As noted earlier,,the story is unfortunately truncated. Episode 25 ends with Makina fighting, and apparently winning out, over Hokujo, but there’s no wrap up of the situation,. The final episode concerns one of the supporting characters, and was apparently released as a solo DVD feature in Japan when it became apparent that another full season would not appear. Still, even these limited adaptations of Makine and Ouri make me want to invest some time in the original manga.

Monday, March 23, 2020

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932)



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




MGM’s loose adaptation of Sax Rohmer’s same-title novel, published in the same year, presents a mixed bag to the acolytes of Fu Manchu.

On one hand, the film is much more entertaining than the so-so novel. The three credited writers clearly display familiarity with the overall mythos of the devil-doctor as it had developed up to that point, and they sought to build upon Fu’s reputation for ingenious tortures, less evident in MASK than in the earlier books. The script dispenses with the book’s dull device of a fictional Muslim revolutionary, and instead imagines that the Chinese evildoer seeks to inspire an uprising of diverse Easterh factions by finding the relics of the formidable conqueror Genghis Khan. Arguably, this trope—that of unifying the East to rebel against Europe’s colonial authority—is a major source of Fu Manchu’s appeal, and this stand-alone film certainly captures all the implicit horros of such a rebellion, far more than the two films starring Warner Oland (reviewed here and here).

On the other hand, even though the tortures are inventive, the torturers, Fu and his daughter Fah Lo Suee, are much more one-dimensional than they are even in the least of Rohmer’s novels. To the writers, both villains are merely unregenerate sadists, and though both Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy chew the scenery with vim and vigor, no one would think of this Fu and Fah as, respectively, a “superman” and a “superwoman.” Karloff’s Fu boasts of his numerous collegiate degrees, but the script doesn’t really play up his intelligence or his ferocious dignity. Perhaps it’s a measure of the script’s antipathy for the character that it’s the only English-language Fu-film in which the venerable villain is killed at the end, with no ambiguity about his return.

The rather fusty plot of the novel is accelerated here. Fu’s continual enemy Nayland Snith is first seen informing archaeologist Lionel Barton (played here as a standard English gentleman, not the egotist of the novels) that the latter’s quest to unearth Genghis’s tomb is of the utmost importance. Smith is somehow aware of Fu’s plan to acquire the Khan’s relics—a scimitar and a golden mask—in order to unite all of Asia against the West. Despite giving Barton this warning, Smith does nothing to protect the scholar, so that he’s abducted by Fu’s men quite easily. This incident gives the writers ample opportunity to subject Barton to a memorable torture. However, sicne Barton’s absence doesn’t prevent his expediton from proceeding to Mongolia to unearth the tomb, it seems peculiar that the oily mastermind even bothers trying to pressure the archaeologist for inside info. Karloff’s Fu never says anything to justify the torture, and since the audience never sees Barton break, it seems like a massive waste of the villain’s time and effort. I found myself wondering, “Given how highly visible the expedition is, why doesn’t the evil mastermind just shadow the Europeans until they reach their goal?”

Indeed, apparently the writers realized this was their best course too. Despite Smith’s lectures about the monumental consequences of unearthing the tomb of Genghis, he doesn’t take along any armed guards. Aside from Mongolian coolies, the expedition consists of Smith, a handful of archaeologists (one of them, Van Berg, named for a character in the fourth novel), and the standard romantic couple. In the novels the romance originates from Lionel Barton’s niece Rima and her English suitor Shan Greville. The movie-script changes these to Barton’s daughter Sheila and her suitor Terry Greville, both of whom are thoroughly American despite Barton’s Brit-heritage.
After the expedition unearths the tomb and collects the relics (despite a supposed curse compared to that of King Tut), Fu’s assasins attack the party, albeit unsuccessfully.

Providentially, Fu happens to have transported Barton all the way to China, and he attempts to extort Greville into surrendering the relics in exchange for the freedom of Sheila’s father. Greville takes the relics to Fu’s hideout, but unbeknownst to him, he’s carrying counterfeits of the originals, which Smith had made for reasons that are never at all clear. Fu’s wrath against Greville leads to a scene which may be the film’s most perverse use of torture: the villain orders the stalwart hero whipped, and Fah, who has obviously formed an attraction to Greville, watches the whipping and excitedly commands the slaves “Faster! Faster!” A subsequent scene implies that she intends to enjoy Greville without his consent, but Fu has another plan, using one of his many mind-control drugs to make Greville his pawn. Whereas in the novel Fah Lo Suee entrances Greville to simulate ardor out of a melancholy desire for romantic connection, here it’s obvious that sex with the Chinese villain’s daughter signifies nothing but degradation.

Greville obeys Fu’s will and brings the villain not only the Genghis relics, but also his fiancĂ©e. Considering that the film is famous for a line in which Fu exhorts his followers to “kill the white man and take his women,” the Asiatic mastermind shows no interest in degrading Sheila. He only wishes to use her in a pagan sacrifice to his gods, to further inflame the Asian tribes when Fu shows them the relics that prove his fitness to be the new Khan.

Fu also captures both Smith and Van Berg and subjects them to torturous traps, but following a tradition rightly parodied in the AUSTIN POWERS films, the villain assigns no guards to watch the captives. Smith escapes and frees both Van Berg and Greville, leading to a violent conclusion in which the white guys not only slay Fu but also massacre all of the rebellious tribesmen with Fu’s own weapon, an electrical arc capable of being used as a death-ray. The slaughter is then followed by a light-hearted coda in which the white men feel relief when they behold a dim-witted Chinese fellow working in a position subservient to their authority.

It’s hard to know how seriously the director and writers took this farrago of racial myths. Certainly they weren’t concerned about offending Asians of either the Near East or the Far East, nor is there any suggestion that any Asians might have a legitimate beef against colonialism. Even the first Warner Oland film is a little more liberal on that score. Still, the film’s racial myths seem too outlandish to inspire the conviction of even the full-fledged racists in the audience. The alteration of Fah Lo Suee from a melancholy superwoman into a man-eater is one example of the outlandishness, as is a follow-up scene in which a tearful Sheila “de-programs” Greville with the power of her love, and so triumphs over her iniquitous rival. In her autobiography Myrna Loy regarded the film as trash and claimed that she and Karloff were the only ones who tried to have fun with it, but it’s possible to see the writers amusing themselves with the overheated melodrama, rather than trying to make the material convincing, as Sax Rohmer did. Thus MASK is fun on the kinetic level, but its greatest signifance may be that its basic plot was recycled, with far greater poetic resonance, in the superior serial DRUMS OF FU MANCHU.

To touch briefly on the film’s phenomenality, most of Fu’s devices register as uncanny, even his mind-drugs, which as mentioned aren’t as infallible as the ones in the book-series. However, the electrical arc-cum-death-ray is enough to transport the movie into the realm of the marvelous.


Friday, March 20, 2020

TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964)




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



TOMB OF LIGEIA was the last of Roger Corman’s Poe-films. Often serials, whether built around a character or a general concept, tend to peter out toward the end. Happily, Corman’s last outing with the haunted genius was a fitting summation of everything that Corman and his collaborators had managed to extrapolate from the original works of Poe.

As I remarked in a review of the short story, LIGEIA is the closest Poe ever came to writing a “classic ghost story.” The author doesn’t neglect the possibility that the unnamed narrator may have imagined all of the apparitions, but my verdict was that most readers probably tended to affirm that some sort of obscure transmigration did take place from the late Ligeia, the narrator's first wife, to the person of his second wife Rowena. The same basic approach holds true for the direction of Corman and the script by Robert Towne. In contrast to some of the other adaptations, this one is set within Poe’s own era, that of the 1820s, and TOMB embodies, perhaps better than any other Corman film, Poe’s association of dangerous physical enclosures with the peril of the enclosing family unit. The action takes almost entirely on the estate of the unfortunate husband, given the pleasingly Gothic name of Verden Fell (Vincent Price), and not only is Fell’s manor as thoroughly baroque as any of Poe’s domicile-descriptions, Fell’s property includes a ruined abbey where the main action of the delirious story concludes. Indeed, Fell tells another character that his wife was so knowledgeable in things occult that”in a sense, Ligeia became the abbey.”

The abbey is the site of the film’s opening, as Fell chooses to bury his recently deceased wife in the shadow of the ruined buildings. A local priest objects, asserting that Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd) cannot rest in such a grave because of her past history of blaspheming against the power of God, claiming that human will alone can allow one to survive death. Fell doesn’t care about traditional pieties; he only wants to ensure that his beloved wife will always be close to him, whether she can return from the dead or not. Ligeia’s coffin even comes with a window spotlighting her face, and when a mysterious black cat pounces on the coffin, the eyes of the corpse flutter open. Verden examines her, and shuts her eyes once more before having Ligeia committed to the earth. During this scene Fell shows no signs of optical impairment, but for the rest of the film the gloomy aristocrat’s eyes prove extremely sensitive to sunlight. Towne was certainly referencing, in part, the over-sensitivity of the Poe-character Roderick Usher, but the lack of sight has other connotations. Since Fell’s under the thumb of his late wife throughout the film, one might speculate that even while dead, she’s exerted her will to make sure that he sees nothing she doesn’t want him to see, such as other women. Further, it will be disclosed that Fell’s lack of sight also signifies his inability to see his own nature, though he ends up being the only one who pays for it.

Poe’s short story suggests that the narrator’s second marriage may have been arranged as a merger of fortunes. Here, Towne contrives a meeting between Fell and his future second wife that recalls the encounter of Jane Eyre and Rochester. While Rowena (also played by Shepherd) is out hunting foxes with her family, she crosses onto the property of Fell, her neighbor. When she meets the strong but damaged lord of the manor, she becomes fascinated with him, and with the idea of “rescuing” him from his morbid attachment to his dead wife. Fell isn’t eager to cultivate new relationships—indeed, during his second encounter with Rowena, he imagines her to be Ligiea and tries to strangle her. Yet even this doesn’t discourage the ardent female, of whom Fell notes that she’s as “willful” as Rowena.

The story’s climax revolves around Ligeia’s spirit usurping the body of Rowena, and the film chooses to follow this model as well. To do so, Towne’s script has to delay the climax with assorted “haunting scenes.” The best takes place when Rowena follows the omnipresent black cat into a bell-tower—possibly on loan from one of Poe’s other stories—and nearly gets “bonged” to death. Fell rescues Rowena, and the scene glides to the site of Rowena’s wedding to Fell, complete with church-bells. More than once, the black cat seems at times to represent the will of the late Ligeia. If so, then Ligiea may have abetted Fell’s second marriage for her own reasons.

As in most of the other Corman Poes, there’s a young man who more or less plays the role of detective. In this case a man named Gough, who seems to cherish a covert ardor for Rowena, investigates when Rowena claims that the spirit of Ligeia is still haunting the manor. Eventually Gough discovers that much of Fell’s eccentric behavior stems from what a later era called post-hypnotic suggestion, and Towne’s script skillfully foreshadows this revelation with a scene in which Fell demonstrates hypnotism on Rowena. At the same time, Towne isn’t attempting to dispel all the ghosts via Radcliffean rationales. Ligeia’s seeming possessions of Rowena aren’t explained by hypnotism, and though Ligeia never comes back in the same way she does in the story, the black cat still seems to incarnate her recrudescent will for the big climax. Fell is literally blinded by the cat’s claws—castration complex, anyone?-- and another convenient Corman-fire destroys both the ornate manor and the proto-family that inhabited it. As in the Poe story, the chain of events proves too extraordinary to be contained by even marginal rationality, and the Corman Poe-cycle fittingly meets its end by equating Ligeia’s “tomb” with her destructive “womb.”

Monday, March 9, 2020

COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE (1953)



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


COMMANDO CODY is an anomaly in the world of serial films. When filming began, Republic Studios intended it to be a 12-part television serial, competing with other juvenile SF-fare like CAPTAIN VIDEO. However, union rules required Republic to exhibit CODY as a movie serial first, even though each installment of the serial was self-contained. The only exceptions to this rule are the first episode, in which the hero and his aides are introduced for the benefit of the audience, and the final episode, in which the main villain is defeated.

CODY has a complicated relationship to Republic's three "Rocketnan" serials, the last of which had appeared in 1952. In KING OF THE ROCKET MEN, the Rocketman suit was worn by a crusader named "Jeff King," played by Tristram Coffin. In RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON, another hero took King's place without explanation, and he was given the name "Commando Cody." This character was played by lead actor George D. Wallace, and there's no explanation as to why the hero affects this peculiar name. The third serial, ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE, allegedly started out with the idea of using the "Cody" name again for the featured "Rocketman." But again the studio used a different character-name, "Larry Martin," possibly because the lead actor changed once again, this time to one Judd Holdren.

The CODY TV-serial was designed as a "prequel" of sorts, for the first episode shows the featured hero meeting his two aides Ted and Joan for the first time, as they're already working under Cody when RADAR MEN begins. In addition, the studio, possibly observing the popularity of the LONE RANGER teleseries, gave the character of Cody a domino mask, which he wears even when he's not in the rocket-suit. This gets a quick explanation in the first episode: Cody is a great scientist who uses both the mask and his peculiar cognomen to protect his real identity from spies-- though the fact that he's forever running around fighting alien invasions doesn't exactly keep him clear from danger. This version of Cody is also more pro-active than the first one: at some point Earth has become aware of a hostile alien force, based on Venus. Cody's genius is responsible for creating a massive cloud of space-dust-- sort of a literal "Iron Curtain"-- that keeps the aliens away for the most part. This ensured that when the evil alien tyrant attempted to assail the planet, he had to operate either through thugs born on Earth, or occasional agents who managed to travel to the planet even though their ships disintegrated through contact with the dust-cloud.

This setup is the most interesting thing about the serial. All twelve episodes show off Republic's skill with both miniatures and fight-choreography. However, because the episodes are roughly thirty minutes, the producers often pad the running-time more than was necessary with serial-segments. Thus the action is decent but never riveting, and of course a lot of footage and many props get re-used seen throughout the serial, notably the "enraged water heater" robot from RADAR MEN. The better episodes are invariably those that present the heroes with some apocalyptic threat-- a new ice age, two suns in the sky-- because these stories force the characters to provide some elementary lectures on scientific principles. I found particularly amusing an episode in which the script worked in a reference to the Greek savant Archimedes.

I commented in my serial-reviews that I thought Judd Holdren was the best Rocketman, but the actor doesn't come off nearly as well in this low-budget TV show. Aline Towne reprises the role of lady assistant Joan, and for three episodes "Ted" is played by veteran character actor William Schallert. Due to a schedule-conflict, Schallert was not available for the other nine episodes, so the writers created a new number-two man, Dick, played by Richard Crane, who had previously played the lead in the serial MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. The scripts with Crane emphasize more light humor and thus are a little more accessible than the first three. However, even when CODY made it to the small screen, no one was interested in the commando's further adventures, thus bringing an end to his adventures, apart from a quickie reference in George Lucas's REVENGE OF THE SITH.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

THE EYE IN THE LABYRINTH (1972)



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



SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Nothing in the repertoire of director/screenwriter Mario Caiano—full of peplum flicks, Eurospies, and westerns—suggests artistry. In the U.S. Caiano’s probably best known for the 1964 horror-film NIGHTMARE CASTLE. It’s possible that when Caiano directed and co-wrote THE EYE IN THE LABYRINTH, he may have been making his bid to enter the domain of “toney thrillers,” along the lines of the celebrated giallo-filmmaker Dario Argento. Presumably EYE didn’t bring in big box office, since Caiano didn’t become as prolific a producer of giallos as numerous other toilers in that field, like Umberto Lenzi.

An opening quote from Jorge Luis Borges certainly seems to signify Caiano trying to stake out territory for EYE among the more sophisticated horror-films. The title is similarly referential, and much less random that many giallo-titles, many of which comhine sensationalism with nonsensical elements (cf. DON’T TORTURE THE DUCKLING). Eyes aren’t automatically paired with labyrinths, where the dominant association is either the thread that leads the hero out of the maze, or the minotaur-monster waiting to assault said hero. Yet the image of an eye at the center of the labyrinth suggests a trope common to mystery-thrillers, where the person seeking to solve the mystery is “a private eye,” investigating a labyrinthine mystery. Further, given that EYE makes liberal reference to psychoanalystic ideas—albeit seen through the prism of a horror-thriller—the main character turns out to be seeking the nature of her own self, lost in the maze of her own conflicting nature.

EYE first shows a man being knifed to death by a vaguely seen assailant, though this scene proves to part of a dream on the part of central character Julie (Rosemary Dexter), and the man being murdered is her boyfriend Luca (Horst Frank). Disturbed by the dream, Julie seeks out Luca at the mental asylum where he works as a prominent psychiatrist. But Luca has left without leaving a forwarding address. Julie’s only clue is that a fanatical patient screams that Luca can be found in the small (and fictional) seaside resort-town Maricuda.

Guided by this token from a demented soothsayer-type, Julie goes to Maricuda. There she meets an older man, Frank (Adolfo Celi). He guides Julie to a resort built on a rocky Mediterranean coast, run by its apparent owner Gerda (Alida Valli).  However, none of the resort’s residents appear to be tourists. Rather, they all seem to be bohemian psuedo-artists living on the property at the sufferance of Gerda. All of the residents are famlliar with Luca, who stayed at the resort, but they claim that the psychiatrist left some time ago. However, Julie observes various inconsistencies in their stories, and gets a mysterious phone call that sounds like Luca. A previous relationship between Frank and Gerda is mentioned—one which involved in Gerda taking over the house from Frank in some arrangement—and all of the artists have peculiar tics, to the extent that they seem like the demented Dionysian rabble from Tennessee Williams’ SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER. Sex, particularly age-transgressive, makes frequent appearances, and not only with Frank macking on Julie. Middle-aged Gerda keeps Louie, a younger man, as her lover, and a teenage guy, Saro, peeps on Julie in her bedclothes. Saro is also the source of another clue about Luca’s disappearance, when Julie sees that Saro has painted a picture of one cartoony figure stabbing another to death at the resort. Real death doesn’t take long to raise its grisly head, as a mysterious killer makes attempts on Julie’s life. The director doesn’t craft his murder-attempts with as much visual panache as Argento. Still, Caiano brings a piquant quality to a scene on the rocky coast, where the driver of a distant speedboat tries to kill Julie with a speargun.

The truth about the artists’ colony—more or less the “labyrinth” of the title—is that the god they worship is the demon of lllegal narcotics, and both Frank and Gerda are pushers. Further, the monster at the heart of the labyrinth initially seems to be Luca, who used his psychological mind-games to unearth the artists’ secrets for blackmail purposes. This revelation devastates Julie, who reacts by falling into bed with Louie, much to the displeasure of Gerda. Caiano also gives his audience the impression that Julie’s inquiries are spreading a plague of death without help from some other killer. She drags the lascivious Saro into a car, intending to make him admit his secret knowledge of Luca’s fate to the cops. Instead, she crashes the car, and manages to accidentally set it on fire with Saro inside.

But Caiano has an additional mystery to disclose, right out of the Cornell Woolrich “the killer is really the detective” handbook. Although Gerda, Frank and their bohemian puppets are dangerous people— that speargun shows up again, when Gerda executes the traitorous Louie with it—none of them embody the monster at the labyrinth’s center. Frank has known the monster’s true nature all along. It turns out that Julie wasn’t just Luca’s girlfriend, but his former patient. The audience never knows much about Julie’s psychological problems—this is no attempt to do a rigorous portrait of a disturbed mind a la “Equus”—only that at some point in the past Jule’s father cast aside Julie’s mother, which somehow resulted in Julie being treated for anger issues. Yet, precisely because Luca was a scumbag, he took advantage of his patient’s father-transference, sleeping with her and then casting her aside, just as her mother was cast out. So Frank finally reveals that Julie’s visit to Maricuda was her second one: that she came to the resort days ago and murdered Luca. None of the residents witnessed the murder, but they all covered it up to avoid having their own crimes exposed. Frank evidently worked all this out because he was monitoring the situation in the hope of reclaiming his former property. However, Frank outsmarts himself. He gets the idea that he can become the new “daddy” in Julie’s life—not realizing that for Julie, sex and death are inextricably entwined.

Some IMDB reviews complained that EYE was too “Freudian.” It’s true that Freud’s intermingling of “eros” and “thanatos” casts a long shadow over the history of popular entertainment. However, though Freud was notable for a few images of monstrous femininity—in particular when he imagined the Medusa as horrible because her snaky hair represented the pudenda—his principal concern in most of his psychological writings concerned the Oedipal conflict of father and son. The father of psychology even rejecred Jung’s perhaps-humorous concept of an “Electra complex,” in that Freud argued that the female subject simply manifested a feminine version of the Oedipus paradigm.

There might be a father-son conflict buried in the original story of Theseus and the Minotaur, but there’s none in this labyrinth. The “eye” of the movie’s title is clearly Julie herself, the would-be detective, but she;s also the minotaur waiting at the maze’s center. Her monstrousness is malignant femininity, in that it’s directed toward not just fathers, but all males. There’s a loose opposition between her and Gerda, the evil mother-figure, since they contend over the same man, whom Gerda ends up killing out of jealousy. (A previous scene, in which Gerda upbraids Louie for his infidelity, shows a rate moment of humor in this grim film, for the proprietess of the resort asks “Aren’t you ashamed,” as if she were a real mother castigating her son for going out with a bad girl.) Yet even though Julie’s specialty is killing false fathers, she’s something of a fatal mother to teenaged Saro as well, reacting to his clumsy passes by imprisoning him in a flaming coffin.

Most giallos allow the protagonist to remain relatively innocent, and thus qualify for the Fryean mythos of the drama. But there are no redeemable characters in Caiano’s acidulous riff on bohemian evil, and so it better aligns with the more downbeat mythos of the irony. I've already mentioned one of the "bizarre crimes" in the narrative, that of the speedboat-speargun attack, but at the climax Julie also decapitates her dead lover for no reason in the plot, which tempts me to believe that Caiano was referencing the Freudian take on castration.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

TEEN TITANS GO! TO THE MOVIES (2018), TEEN TITANS GO VS. TEEN TITANS (2019)




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


I commented in one of my ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE essays, SUBCOMBATIVE SUPERHEROES PART 3, that I didn't consider the still-current series TEEN TITANS GO! to be a combative series, even though occasional episodes did hinge on fight-scenes rather than on fart and poop jokes. In the multi-part episode "Island Adventure," even the character Raven commented, after she and the other Titans beat a bunch of villains, something like, "I don't know why we don't do this more often. After all, we are superheroes."

The two feature-movies based upon the GO series, however, emphasize the tropes of adventure more than does the average episode. Possibly, because both films run about eighty minutes each, the producers may have favored a more action-oriented superhero-plot to hold the audience's attention, even though both films are dominantly comedies. Of the two, only MOVIES was released to theaters, but though it enjoyed a profitable box office, the second went straight to DVD release. Perhaps Warner Brothers simply couldn't find a hole in their release schedule for a cartoon-movie sequel, despite the fact that MOVIES made substantial money.

As in various episodes, the comedic Teen Titans are screw-ups and bozos. When they botch a confrontation with the Balloon Man (based on an ultra-obscure one-shot METAL MEN villain), three other heroes-- Superman, Wonder Woman, and "John Stewart Green Lantern"-- comment that they don't consider the Titans real superheroes. The teens suffer further societal scorn. They're excluded when they try to attend an advance screening of a new Batman movie. Dozens of heroes far more obscure than the Titans are getting movies-- including Swamp Thing and the Challengers of the Unknown. Robin, the group's irritable alpha male, is particularly torqued at the group's marginalization. The other four aren't that affected, but they're willing to accompany Robin to Hollywood in quest of getting both respect and movie-fame.

Naturally, in the course of courting the cinema, the Titans fall afoul of the evildoer Slade. In the 2003 TEEN TITANS series, Slade was one of the group's principal villains, but most of the GO! episodes made only vague allusions to him, though he seemed to exist in their universe in some form. Here he's treated as if the heroes have never encountered the villain before, resulting in one of the film's better jokes, when the Titans mistake him for Marvel's Deadpool. Slade's evil plot also happens to involve the current craze for superhero movies, and even the late Stan Lee is called upon to make an animated cameo to usher the Titans into the Superhero Big Time.

Overall MOVIES has some moderately witty moments, though I imagine the references to obscure aspects of DC Comics' history were lost on younger viewers.



If anything, the DTV entry-- which I'll call TEEN/TEEN for short-- is even more referential. Here, most of the inside jokes deal with the popular 2003 TEEN TITANS series, which was dominantly serious in tone and which was responsible for establishing the comic-book characters as popular subjects for animation. Indeed, the producers of GO! included a "teaser" at the end of MOVIES, suggesting that the "Serious Titans" would appear in this sequel.

If the main subject of the first movie was American society's enthusiasm for all manner of superheroes, TEEN/TEEN spoofs what I'll call the "multiple earths adventure" In comic books, this trope depended on the encounter of at least two groups of heroes from parallel versions of Earth, wherein the two groups had to resolve some cosmic threat to the respective domains of each group. In Silver Age DC Comics, these were usually variant versions of popular heroes like the Flash and Green Lantern, and thus for the most part the trope was confined to the comic-book medium. The TEEN/TEEN take on this concept is certainly one of the first, if not the first, non-comics adaptations of the trope, debuting even before the CW network produced its very loose adaptation of a crossover-series from the eighties DC-series CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. In TEEN/TEEN, not only must the "funny Titans" deal with the serious versions of themselves, and with an assortment of other variant heroes as well, the teams' antagonists are a funny and a serious version of the demon-lord Trigon.

Though the 2003 Titans are played straight, their gravitas is largely flouted by the levity of the 2013 group. The level of humor is about the same level as MOVIES, decent but not spectacular, and the "serious TItans" don't really have a chance to shine in this format-- which will probably aggravate the many fans who preferred their adventures to those of their goofball variations.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

THE GOLDEN IDOL, KILLER LEOPARD (1954)., LORD OF THE JUNGLE (1955)



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


The most interesting thing about the last three BOMBA films is that, although numbers 10 and 11 are nearly rock-bottom in terms of general entertainment values, the twelfth and last at least rises to the level of "fair," which puts it on the same mythicity-level with the first (and best) in the series.

The idol of number 10's title-- hilariously referred to several times as "the Golden Idol of Watusi"-- is a priceless relic that the Jungle Boy steals from Ali, a crooked Arab chieftain, who in turn stole the idol from its true owner. Ali suborns the help of a crooked white hunter to track down Bomba and recover the statue. At the same time, a pretty young archaeologist arrives, and she tells Bomba that museums will pay top dollar for the idol to the tribe that owned it. (Almost as soon as she arrives, she decides to go swimming, signifying that the shadow of Maureen O'Sullivan still loomed large over the Bomba series even by the 1950s.) Mostly, IDOL burns up its running time with various chases and captures, none of which are memorable.



That said, IDOL is still a little better than KILLER LEOPARD, the dullest of the series. In addition to the leopard, Bomba also has to deal with a lady, though only in a non-romantic sense. LEOPARD dovetails the overt plot of the hunt for a man-killing beast with that of a civilized wife looking for her husband, who fled into the jungle from the forces of the law. Garland, one of the few BOMBA leading-ladies who went on to a measure of film-fame, has very little to do, though she does go swimming as well, with the usual result that Bomba must rescue her. There's a slight suggestion that Bomba's interested in her despite her married status, but naturally nothing comes of it, even though he was about 24 and no longer a "boy" in truth.



LORD OF THE JUNGLE-- which some writer may have borrowed from the title of a 1928 Tarzan book-- at least places the jungle boy in a situation that pits his love for the jungle-world against the encroachments of civilization. After a herd of elephants wreaks chaos on various native habitats, the colonial government sends Wood (Wayne Morris) and his fellow hunters to gun down the whole herd. Bomba argues with Wood, claiming that only the leader of the pack is a rogue, and that, if the rogue leader is killed, the other elephants will go back to their non-destructive ways. Wood, though not a true villain, is a martinet who insists on following his orders, and he doesn't like it when Bomba tries to keep the elephants on his land to prevent their being slaughtered. Bomba meets some resistance also from the local commissioner, who's usually on the jungle boy's side in other entries, but the commissioner's niece Mona (yes, another swimming fiend) throws her support toward the hero. Though Bomba is put into a few perilous pickles from stampeding elephants, in the end he gets his way when the rogue is slain and the other elephants are spared. Thus the series ends on the same quasi-ecological theme with which the first film in the series began.