Wednesday, January 28, 2015

HELLRAISER (1987)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Though I can't say that the HELLRAISER franchise is one of my favorites, I must admit that the first two films are interesting transformations of the Christian concepts of hell and suffering. I have not at this time read the source-material THE HELLBOUND HEART, but going by the Wikipedia entry on it, there would seem to be few salient differences between Barker's novella and the first film, which Barker himself wrote and directed.

The sadomasochistic Cenobites soon dominated the series, with the second film emphasizing the bizarre nature of their otherworldly dimension, but in the first film, they take up very little screen-time. I could see an argument for the position that the real stars are the human characters they oppress, though I would tend to state that the Cenobites are still the "focal characters" of the first film, providing symbolic exteriorizations of the sadomasochistic vibe that binds together the obsessed lovers Frank and Julia.

Frank, disreputable brother of respectable Larry, began an affair with Larry's second wife Julia on the day that the two were wedded-- an affair informed by Julia's fascination with Frank's sadism and violence. The film's backstory is vague as to why Frank purchases a strange puzzle-box bought from a dealer in Morocco, but because he chooses to tamper with it, he's sucked into a other-dimensional world that its denizens call "hell." (In the prose story, Frank goes into the otherworld of his own free will, but regrets doing so when he learns that the inhabitants practice a sadomasochism so extreme that they cannot distinguish between pain and pleasure.) Frank dies, but without leaving a body, so that when Larry and Julia check out the house that the brothers jointly inherited, they assume that Frank's simply on the run from the law. Larry, though unaware of his wife's infidelity, expresses the feeling that he Larry is more entitled to the house than Frank. This mirrors what the resurrected Frank will believe, that he's entitled not only to Julia, but also to Kirsty, Larry's twenty-something daughter via his late first wife.

Mirror-incidents govern almost every aspect of this quasi-Freudian film. Frank injures his hand while moving his belongings up the stairs, and he happens to shed some of his blood on the exact spot where Frank died, thus forming a conduit through which Frank can re-manifest himself, albeit in a not-quite-complete body.  Julia expends precious little sympathy on Larry, making it clear that in her eyes he is the "weak brother" to Frank's "strong brother"-- just as to Kirsty, Uncle Frank will be the "bad father" she must flee, while she must try to rescue her "good father" from her bad stepmother. While Kirsty expresses no transgressive sentiments, her focus on attempting to save her father in the first two films speaks to a Freudian "rescue fantasy" with possible psychosexual undertones.

Despite the fact that the reborn Frank looks like six feet of bad road-- or like a body dragged over a bad road-- Julia is still so entranced with his animal magnetism that she agrees to commit multiple murders in order to provide Frank with human blood, so that he can regenerate his body in full. There's a slight disconnect in that Barker's script never really does show Frank fully regenerating, but then, the fact that Frank can't leave the house serves the author's purpose of keeping him tied to that location.

Kirsty walks in on one of the murders, thinking that she's simply about to catch her stepmother in an affair. Confronted by the ghoulish figure of her uncle-- who shows every sign of wanting to know her carnally-- Kirsty escapes by grabbing hold of Frank's puzzle-box and flinging it through a window. While Frank is distracted, Kirsty runs out of the house, grabs the box and runs with it, only to collapse in the street.

While recuperating at a local hospital, Kirsty manages to "solve" the box by placing its pieces in a new configuration, which happens to be the very means by which one summons the Cenobites. Though terrified by their appearances-- most of which involve variations on piercing and flesh-maiming-- Kirsty manages to strike her own deal with these "devils," offering them the chance to find Frank, who escaped their dominion. Thus "good" Kirsty unintentionally mirrors "bad" Julia's deal with Frank.

Kirsty returns to the afflicted house to look for her father, only to meet Julia, and what looks like Larry, assuring her that they joined forces to kill Frank.  But no, it's Frank the Wolf wearing the skin of Larry the Sheep, and he wants so much to make Kirsty his new pleasure-toy that he even kills off Julia first. However, the Cenobites intrude, seeking both Frank and Kirsty. They get Frank, who has one of the series' more memorable death-lines, but Kirsty manages to banish the hell-cultists back to hell with the puzzle-box.

The Cenobites provide the most memorable visuals, and their leader Pinhead (Doug Bradley) gets the best lines. Frank makes an okay villain, but his goals-- returning to humanity, boffing both his sister-in-law and his niece-- are fairly petty. Julia is no better, and I'm surprised to read that the producers of the franchise at some point considered making her the star of the series, rather than the Cenobites. In some ways it's not hard to imagine the basic plot being done, sans eviscerated demons, for one of Britain's "Thriller" TV-movie shockers, though of course with a good deal less in the "latex-and-light-show" department. I should note that this film ends with the puzzle-box being spirited away by a mysterious fellow who morphs into a dragon. This individual seems to exist just to pass the box on to new victims, though neither in this film nor the sequel is this function made explicit.

In conclusion, HELLRAISER's main virtue is that the film opens its own box, a Pandora's box of potential, with regard to the use of sadomasochism in horror films. Whether the HELLRAISER series itself fulfilled that potential is another question, to be addressed in future reviews.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

FUTURE FEAR (1997), T-FORCE (1994)




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

I consider myself fairly easy to please regarding B-movies and their video descendants, but my sense of charity is very nearly exhausted by FUTURE FEAR-- the sole product of one-time director Lewis Baumander, released under the umbrella of Roger Corman's Concorde-New Horizons organization. I saw it long ago on cable, remembered little about and so gave it a second viewing via YouTube.

It's axiomatic that few straight-to-video-and-cable productions are noted for originality. They're cranked out quickly, usually with heavy indebtedness to high-profile Hollywood genre-works, and usually their main virtue is offering uncomplicated thrills of sex and violence.

Baumander's FUTURE FEAR, though, doesn't even offer the most modest thrills, despite teaming up two small-time icons of home video, Maria "Angel of Destruction" Ford and Jeff "Mission of Justice" Wincott. These film-titles, of course, have meaning only for fanatics like myself, who must comb through nearly everything in search for unusual thrills. But FEAR offers no thrills, only an incoherent mess of a storyline tricked out with countless incomprehensible references to Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND books.Carroll's iconic characters and situations are so enmeshed in modern pop culture that I can forgive an author for invoking them in an unoriginal manner-- but not for making them tedious.

Sometime in the future, Earth sends a probe into space. The probe comes back with a virus that lays waste to humanity-- though none of this chaos is within the film's budget.  Only one scientist is able to come up with a possible serum: Doctor John Denniel (note the similarity of the name to the famed illustrator of the Alice books, John Tenniel). To do so, though, Denniel must create a form of pseudo-life on which to run his experiments.

Denniel has no interest in using these pseudo-humans for anything but test cases. However, his ex-wife Anna-- also a lieutenant within whatever military hierarchy has survived-- nurtures an irrational desire to keep the test cases alive, because she once suffered the abortion of Denniel's child. Her commander General Wallace (Stacy Keach) orders Anna to steal from Denniel a case that holds all of his research: a case which is called "the Ark" for no good reason. I suppose the writer-director was thinking of it as a parallel to Noah's boat, rather than the ark of Indiana Jones-- though, just to confuse things, the hero does have a line where he says he's in a "poor man's Raiders of the Lost Ark flick."

Anna pursues her ex-lover via helicopter for a while, but the majority of the film has her chasing him through an unconvincing subterranean complex. Both of them spout assorted wisecracks drawn from high-profile pop culture, but Denniel hardly lets a minute go by without tossing in some reference to Lewis Carroll. The script gives no coherent reason for him to be such a Carroll nut, so it goes without saying that Baumander is working the character's mouth for him, perhaps in the mistaken impression that these continuous quotes would make the project seem more interesting.  Baumander is clearly no action-director, given that the peripatetic struggles of husband and wife are pretty tedious, even though as noted above both of the leads had experience doing martial-arts movies.

As for the character of General Wallace, he exists to interrupt the chase-scenes and rant about his secret plans: he wants to use the virus to wipe out all the world's "inferior races" and to create humanoids to his specifications. Oh, and incidentally, he's also responsible for killing Denniel's father, though this has zero impact on the plot as such. In the end Anna turns against her superior officer, and she pays the ultimate price for it. Her sacrifice moves Denniel to amend his original "no right to life" stance, though as the film closes it's no clear how he plans to do so and save the world from the virus at the same time.

This is one of the most relentlessly confused films I've ever screened, and not even in the amusing manner of Ed Wood.



T-FORCE, however, is the sort of derivative but memorable film that makes it worthwhile to comb through piles of pop-culture detritus. No one's going to esteem it over its proximate inspiration, the TERMINATOR films, but I liked it on its own terms.

In the near future the U.S, has been using specially designed cyborgs-- called "cybernauts" in a probable eye-wink to an AVENGERS epsiode-- as servants in minor domestic roles. Idealistic scientist Doctor Gant-- played by the same fellow who oiled the parts of the Six Million Dollar Man-- perfects four intelligent cybernauts for use by the Los Angeles police department, as a SWAT-like detachment called "Terminal Force." The film opens with them getting their chance to prove themselves by terminating a cadre of hostage-taking terrorists.

Unfortunately, the cybernauts don't manage to save all the hostages. The mayor (played by Erin Gray of BUCK ROGERS fame) decides to feather her political nest by giving the order to destroy the cybernauts, despite Gant's protests.

The four cyborgs-- three males and one female-- debate whether or not the order for destruction to be in conflict with their orders to preserve their own lives.  Only one cyborg, ironically endowed with the rebellious name of Cain (Bobby Johnston), supports the right of human authorities to terminate them all. The female Mandragora and the other two males, given father-figure names like Adam and Zeus, elect to rebel, reasoning that since the kill-order makes no sense, the authority-figures must have become corrupt. Rather than simply leaving the city, they choose to stock up on assorted weapons and plan to kill both the L.A, police chief and the mayor.

The chief and many other officers are quickly snuffed out, at which point maverick cop Jack Floyd (Jack Scalia) is called in. The cops have taken Cain prisoner, but Cain, still invoking only emotionless logic, points that he alone has the power to take down his kindred. Floyd, who also happens to be a long-time robot hater (a machine took daddy's job), is forced to become partners in yet another mismatched buddy-cop opus.

Yet, for all the familiar tropes of the story, and the skillful but unexceptional action-scenarios, T-FORCE does have some winning moments. After Floyd has told his robotic partner to "kiss his ass" three times, Cain asks if this phrase connotes some forbidden sexual desire.  It's predictable enough that man and robot must and will bond, but there's an unexpectedly bittersweet conclusion, wherein Floyd manages to preserve the life of the only cybernaut who was willing to let himself be killed.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

THE CRIMSON PIRATE (1952)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*


Though I've reviewed other films belonging to genres that only rarely feature uncanny metaphenomenal content, THE CRIMSON PIRATE is definitely my first uncanny pirate-film-- though I have touched on a few uncanny swashbucklers here and there.

In this case the metaphenomenal functions only to add to CRIMSON's spectacle, consisting of three or four uncanny inventions that don't belong in the eighteenth century setting, including a hot-air balloon, an explosive that may be nitroglycerine, a gatling gun, a flamethrower, and a wooden submarine, all the creations of scientific genius Professor Prudence. Of these, I wouldn't consider the balloon outré enough to move CRIMSON into the realm of the uncanny, but the others qualify, given that they are inventions appearing out of their proper time and space.

Still, the major spectacle of CRIMSON is the body of heroic red-garbed pirate Captain Valo (Burt Lancaster), forever vaulting and swinging and fighting so as to show off his acrobatic skills, often in tandem with his mute partner Ojo (Nick Cravat). Lancaster and Cravat learned their acrobatics as youths in the circus, and this was the second film, following the 1950 swashbuckler THE FLAME AND THE ARROW, to showcase their physical talents. Indeed, there's so much emphasis on the spectacle of half-naked bodies that CRIMSON may be the first pirate-film in which the hero employs neither gun nor blade.  Valo and Ojo only occasionally pick up "found weapons" and clobber their enemies with them, but their preferred method of attack is derived from the Batman-and-Robin school of wading into seas of armed men, using nothing but fists and feet.

In contrast to the pirate epics of the 1930s and 1940s, CRIMSON barely references the history of any particular period. Nor are the opposed parties well defined, though most of them seem to be Englishmen. In the course of hijacking a ship, Valo meets the ruthless Baron Gruda, an emissary sent by a monarch known only as "the King." Gruda has been sent to put down a rebellion on the fictional island of "Cobra." Vallo, out for profits like most pirates, tells Gruda that for the right amount of money he'll find and deliver up "El Libre," the leader of the rebel forces.

It will come to no one's surprise that when Valo and Ojo infiltrate the rebel forces, Valo meets a gorgeous young woman, Consuelo (Eva Bartok), who happens to be the daughter of El Libre. Valo falls for Consuelo and eventually turns against Gruda and his army.

According to Wikipedia the original script by accused Communist Waldo Salt was entirely serious, and there are still traces of a revolutionary theme in CRIMSON, particularly when Valo reflects that the new inventions of Professor Prudence can be used against "the weapons of the old regime."  However, the refurbished script and Robert Siodmak's direction produced one of the most tongue-in-cheek pirate epics of all time, yet not one in which the humor overpowers the adventure-elements. It's no more than a minor classic, but remains essential viewing for lovers of pirate-cinema.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

MACKENNA'S GOLD (1969)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


For my ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE blog I wrote the following after reading the famed western novel RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE:

...my recent reading of an avowed prose western classic, Zane Grey's 1912 RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE, gives me an example of how westerns more often than not use tropes with uncanny potential in a thoroughly naturalistic manner

PURPLE SAGE uses two major tropes in a naturalistic manner: a "masked rider" and a "mysterious valley." However, if one wanted to see how the bracing Western wildernesses of Utah and Oregon could take on an uncanny phenomenality, few films have done so better than J. Lee Thompson's MACKENNA'S GOLD. This is, I should note, yet another "uncanny film" that appears in few fantasy-film concordances even though GOLD creates a mood of mystery and forboding superior to many dime-a-dozen "spooky thrillers."

That's not to say that the Thompson film doesn't have its share of problems. This was Thompson's third collaboration with major Hollywood star Gregory Peck, following the WWII multi-star blockbuster THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961) and the edgy thriller CAPE FEAR (1962). However, whereas the multi-star approach was justified with NAVARONE, Thompson and his producers reaped uneven benefits when they chose to pursue the same path with MACKENNA'S GOLD. I have not read the source novel, but the GOLD script is far too thin and hackneyed to justify the presence of the many stars brought on board, some of whom may not even be on screen for twenty minutes, including Edward G. Robinson, Lee J. Cobb, Anthony Quayle, Burgess Meredith, and Raymond Massey.

Even the main characters don't resonate very deeply. Within the first half of the film, the audience learns only bits and pieces about the titular hero, U.S. Marshal Mackenna (Peck). We learn that:
 (1) Mackenna used to be a gold-prospector, (2) that he somehow made the acquaintance of a federal judge, who appointed Mackenna a marshal over the objections of the citizens of nearby city Hadleyburg, (3) that Mackenna once had a love affair with Apache Amazon Hesh-Ke (Julie Newmar), one that ended after he arrested her brother and turned him over the hangman, and (4) he used to be friends with bandit leader Colorado (Omar Sharif).

The key conflict is between Mackenna and Colorado, set up by two parallel incidents. Mackenna, riding along minding his own business, is shot at by an old Indian, Prairie Dog. Prairie Dog,on the verge of death, spins a familiar tale of the fabulous gold-filled "Canon del Oro," with one difference: Prairie Dog has a map to the famed canyon. The Indian complains that the canyon is no longer holy to the younger Apache, and then dies. Though Mackenna evinces no belief in the legend, he memorizes the map and then burns it.

Roughly around the same time, Colorado and his gang-- which includes the aforementioned Hesh-Ke-- break into a small ranch, looking for provisions. The bandits kill the ranch's owner, who happens to be the same judge that made Mackenna a marshal and also put out a reward for Colorado's head. The gang also takes captive the judge's daughter Inga (Camilla Sparv), without knowing the identity of her father. This will provide a minor subplot when Colorado takes Mackenna prisoner as well, and Mackenna must endeavor to keep his former friend from learning Inga's identity-- though this is a subplot with no pay-off, since nothing happens when Colorado does find out the truth.

Many have criticized MACKENNA'S GOLD for its cumbersome length. This is a consequence of Thompson and his scripters trying to inject thrills (Apache chases, a river-rafting episode) to cover the fact that nothing much can change until the bandits and their captives arrive at the fabled canyon. The sequences are well done in and of themselves, but they don't add much to the repetitive theme: money/gold is the root of all evil, etc. There's a little sexitude thrown in as Hesh-Ke becomes jealous of Mackenna's attentions toward Inga, but this too isn't really settled until the climactic sequence, and not very satisfactorily.

The good part of GOLD is that the script does create a mythic feel for the Canon del Oro. The canyon is a place of taboo to traditional Apaches, though some of the younger Indians, influenced by the white man's corruption, have begun seeking the canyon's gold for pure gain. The canyon is merged with the "Lost Adams Mine" of American western folklore, and whoever Adams was in those stories, here he's the only white man who beheld the golden fields and lived, though the Apaches made him a sort of holy pariah by blinding him. Adams himself shows up as one of the throwaway guest-stars. played effectively by Edward G. Robinson, and in some ways he's symbolically homologous with Prairie Dog, who passes the secret of the canyon on to Mackenna-- though, considering all the trouble this makes for the marshal, the Indian's gift is almost as deadly as his initial attempt to shoot Mackenna.

The entrance to the valley is marked by a natural obelisk called "Shaking Rock," whose name sets up the story for a conclusion strongly influenced by the ending of RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE. The mood of the uncanny is further enhanced when the sun, flashing off quartz deposits, guides the gold-seekers into the canyon. It's a perilous entrance, and Hesh-Ke loses her life when she tries to murder Inga. Later, when the remaining searchers find their bonanza, they're still in danger, for one of Colorado's Indians (Ted Cassidy) turns on his boss, claiming that the ancient spirits have told him to kill all the trespassers.

It's not surprising that Mackenna and Inga survive the great cataclysm that buries the canyon for all time, but I for one would have found the ending stronger had Colorado bought the farm along with all those who followed him. The film-script strains to make the continuing dance of bandit and lawman seem jovial in tone, but this seems at odds with the "root of all evil" preachments. I suspect Colorado got to live in order to keep from offending the fans of Omar Sharif-- though as it happened, Sharif's days as a major star would not endure past the 1970s.

I'm sure MACKENNA'S GOLD will never be remade, but its story would have made a cracking good ninety-minute western along the lines of 1948's YELLOW SKY. But then, a shorter western might've given the Canon del Oro shorter shrift, and it wouldn't have been much more memorable than the Whistling Skull from this 1937 B-western.

Friday, January 9, 2015

THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU (1977)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*


In many ways AIP's 1977 THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU is a better translation of the Wells source novel. In my review of the 1932 ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, I noted that Paramount ratcheted up the sex and violence for their adaptation, not to mention adding various references to the 1931 success FRANKENSTEIN.

The Doctor Moreau of the 1977 film, however, has little in the way of Frankenstein's psychological peculiarities, nor does he display the voyeuristic tendencies of the 1932 Moreau. Like the Wells character, this version of Moreau, played by Burt Lancaster, is simply a man entirely absorbed by the pursuit of one scientific goal: to eradicate the differences between animal and human by showing how one can be changed into the other.

As in other versions, the audience is introduced to Moreau via a bland "everyman" observer, though the 1977 script gives its viewpoint character Andrew Braddock (Michael York) a bit more grit than the "Parker" of the 1932 flick. Braddock is washed onto the shore of The Island with one other ship-survivor, and the other fellow almost immediately perishes, as if to goose the audience's fears for Braddock. Braddock is taken in by Moreau, his aide Montgomery, and Moreau's enigmatic house-guest Maria.  All three of them seem normal enough to Braddock, but he soon senses that the other humanoid inhabitants of the island are-- not quite human.

MOREAU's script only briefly touches on the subject that the original novel protested: animal vivisection. The 1932 film didn't really make Wells' central concept-- the physical reconstruction of animals into human beings--any more feasible than the novel did, but it did give the idea a twisted Sadean intensity. Perhaps wisely, the AIP version gives Moreau a genetic serum which is principally responsible for mutating the island's animals into humanoids.  In addition, whereas previous narrators do not become the subject of Moreau's experiments, the scientist here does decide to see how well his serum works in reverse, attempting to force Braddock to regress to animal status. The scenes in which Braddock fights to keep his humanity are easily the standout scenes of the film.

Unfortunately, though the script is more reasoned than that of the 1932 film, it's also rather dull. As in the book Moreau promulgates an imitation human society with his "manimals," attempting to force the creatures to obey an abstract, prohibitive set of laws-- but when the laws fail to control the beast-men, the film fails to dramatize this memorably. For that matter, the makeup of the beast-men lacks the touch of ghastliness needed to make them seem like proper abominations.

The script does come up with one interesting touch. In the book, Moreau is killed by one of his creations, leaving the narrator and Montgomery with the responsibility of trying to rein in the animal-people. Here, Moreau kills Montgomery, thus causing his creations to kill him specifically because he has broken his own law.  But this leads to a scene in which Braddock tries to convince that their slain ruler has risen again, as if Moreau the Old Testament God had become the risen Christ. However, the deception doesn't even come close to succeeding. And in this non-event, we see the film's greatest problem: it raises interesting ideas and then drops them, as if afraid of offending the audience.

The use of Maria is key to this trepidatious attitude. The script hints that she too may be a beast-person, probably modeled on the "panther-woman" of the 1932 film. That character, who is not modeled on anything in the novel, has become such a significant part of the Moreau-myth that it seems the writers wanted to reference her-- and yet, to the very end of the film, there's no Big Reveal disclosing that Maria is a leopard-lady. This lack of payoff may also be a consequence of producers pussyfooting around behind the scenes, trying to keep the film's "PG" rating at all costs-- even at the cost of making a more fulfilling movie.

Monday, January 5, 2015

THE LOST JUNGLE (1934), DARKEST AFRICA (1936)



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


Time proves an ironic master. Often, as in the case of these two serials, the "gimmick" being used to sell them to one generation may prove of minimal interest to later audiences.

It's perfectly understandable that since these serials were presenting the fictionalized adventures of real-life lion-tamer Clyde Beatty, the Beatty character should therefore spend huge amounts of time in both serials taming lions, or tigers, or better yet, both of them together, since a lion-and-tiger act was one of Beatty's real-life specialties. But for modern audiences, these are likely to be a tough slog.

Of the two serials featuring Fictional-Beatty as a daredevil hero, LOST JUNGLE-- one of the last serials produced by Mascot Studios before it was mostly absorbed by Republic-- is the better of the two. To be sure, the charisma Beatty imposed over his trained animals doesn't come across through the camera's lens: he seems ill-at-ease before the camera much of the time-- though for some viewers this might be preferable to the dime-a-dozen "stalwart leading man" types that infested most serials. Oddly, in comparison to most romance-free action-serials, Beatty is made to look a little more human thanks to the ardent attention of his girlfriend Ruth (Cecilia Parker, who's a much better actor than Beatty). The two of them can't seem to get on the same page regarding their romantic status, and Ruth's father presses the issue even more by taking Ruth with him on a ship bound to investigate a mysterious island in the South Pacific.  Beatty receives word that the ship has been wrecked on the island and he mounts a rescue expedition via dirigible-- though, just to keep the circus-theme going, he also decides that he's going to capture as many animals from the island as he can take back with him.

For good measure, Beatty further highlights his naivete about human nature by including in the rescue-party one Sharkey. In our first look at Sharkey we're given an anti-Beatty, for he's a trainer who beats his animals maliciously, and this forces the hero to deal out a Beatty-beatdown. Naturally, Sharkey plots to trip Beatty up whenever he can.

The island is host to two uncanny presences. One is an uninhabited "lost city," name of Kamor, which still has a few traps for the unwary, like a thriving pit of crocodiles. The other is that somehow the island plays host to numerous wild beasts not native to the South Pacific, particularly-- you guessed it-- lions and tigers. The script does not attempt to explain the beasts' provenance or the city's emptiness, and together these factors give the setting an uncanny phenomenality comparable to that of many other jungle pictures examined on this blog.  LOST JUNGLE is a moderately entertaining series of thinly plotted jungle thrills, though recommended only for viewers in the mood for this sort of thing.




By contrast, DARKEST AFRICA is a serial that tries to do too many things and does none of them well. The serial's primary claim to fame these days is that Beatty's antagonists include a cadre of warriors called "Batmen," and thus the serial has as good a claim as several other sources as a possible inspiration for the name of the DC Comics Batman.

Apparently when Republic bought some or all of Mascot's properties, they decided to give the lion-taming adventure-hero a second outing. Possibly a script had already been produced at Mascot; only one creative talent made the jump from JUNGLE to AFRICA, a writer named John Rathmell.  Still, no matter how much or how little Rathmell contributed to both pictures, they share a similar disinterest in providing a rationale for their weird settings. But while JUNGLE didn't need much explanation, AFRICA really does-- and it doesn't have any to offer.

The title is one of the weirdest aspects of the film, invoking racial myths rather covertly. There aren't many scenes with Black African natives, but in a sense one of the most common race-myths associated with them-- that Black Africans will fall all over themselves for a Blonde Goddess-- is transferred from native tribes to the white inhabitants of the bizarre lost city of Joba.

The plot gets started when animal-trainer Beatty-- ostensibly the same character as in JUNGLE, though with no Ruth in sight-- meets a jungle boy named Baru (Manuel King, billed as an animal trainer in his own right). Baru is said to have been raised in the jungle, and he's even bonded to an obedient gorilla-servant, Bonga (Crash Corrigan). Yet he has an adult sister named Valerie Tremaine, presumably from either Europe or America, and there's absolutely no explanation of how the two of them, presumably separated at some earlier time, came together. Nor does Baru explain how he and Valerie came to investigate lost Joba; only that Valerie was taken hostage by the city 's evil high priest Dagna. Baru wants someone to help him go rescue his sister, and Beatty agrees to do so, taking a small party of travelers that includes two mercenary diamond-hunters and an American black comic-relief named Hambone (Ray Turner).

The camera's side-trips to Joba inform the audience that the city seems to lack any secular authority at all. Dagna wants to promote Valerie as "the Goddess of the Golden Bat" to the rarely seen populace of the city, but it's not clear why he needs her. He seems to wield complete authority over the Batmen, a troop of men who can fly through the skies on artificial bat-wings, so one wonders why he doesn't just seize power outright. Perhaps he thinks that the populace is so religious that only a "blonde goddess" can gain their approval, though the script doesn't give any reason as to why the Jobans would associate blonde girls with some primeval bat-deity. Additionally, Joba boasts no other technology save whatever principle allows the Batmen to fly on their unconvincing wings. I suspect that the real impetus for the Batmen was the similarly accoutered "Hawkmen" in Universal Studios' serial adaptation of FLASH GORDON. If so, the producers of AFRICA jumped on the bandwagon before it started, as both serials came out in February 1936.

The mockup for the city of Joba looks good, and the Batmen's flying scenes are moderately impressive. Unfortunately, the goal of freeing Valerie is so limited that the script must keep finding contrivances to put obstacles in the way of Beatty and his allies. Beatty, Baru and Valerie are as one-dimensional as heroes as Dagna and the two diamond-hunters are as villains. Frankly, only two characters work very well-- and one of them is Bonga the Gorilla.

Hambone the comedy relief is no better or worse than most characters of his type. His first big scene comes when he's waylaid by a tribe of Black Africans who don't know what to make of him. When the local witch doctor demonstrates his penny-ante fake magic before Hambone, the goof tries to one-up the magician-- and only dumb luck keeps Hambone out of a tiger pit. Turner also performs some nice comic pratfalls when he's captured in Joba. Strangely, the script throws out a stray plot-line in which Dagna invites Hambone to use his "magic" to bring to life some long dead historical figure-- and then nothing comes of the plot-thread. Maybe this was another subconscious identification between the fictional white Jobans and real Black Africans, standing in for the supposed superstitious credulity of the latter?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

SABU AND THE MAGIC RING (1957)



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


In this review I mentioned that I saw 1961's WONDERS OF ALADDIN in my adolescence and didn't really like the film, either back then or in my re-screening. But I'll say one thing for WONDERS: at least I more or less remembered it. My film-viewing records testified that at some time in adolescence I'd seen SABU AND THE MAGIC RING, but I remembered nothing about it. And even upon re-viewing thanks to its posting on Youtube, no scene seemed at all familiar.

RING is essentially a toss-off B-picture, in which Sabu, veteran of classic Hollywood films in the 1940s, attempts to keep his career afloat, much as Johnny Weismuller did with the dime-a-dozen JUNGLE JIM flicks. Prior to this film, Sabu made a jungle film, JAGUAR, with the same director and almost the same writing-and-producing team, so SABU was designed in the same cost-conscious mode of filmmaking. Opulent "Arabian Nights" fantasies, though, are not exactly well served by small budgeted films.

The basic theme of RING is "Aladdin learns a lesson." Sabu is a penniless stable boy who, like Aladdin, is something of a layabout and a moocher, usually sponging off his sort-of girlfriend Zumila. He comes across a magic ring and finds that he can summon the hugely proportioned genie Ubal (William Marshall), who will grant him any wish-- usually limited to materializing a few petty items within the film's budget--as long as he holds the ring. Trouble is, the city's evil vizier witnesses the genie's power and wants the ring.

After that, most of the plot revolves around Sabu getting or losing the ring in some allegedly comic manner. Though Sabu is the star, and tries mightily to give his character some of the winsomeness of Abu from the classic 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD, most of the film's best lines-- such as they are-- go to the tolerant and all-knowing Ubal.

Since RING can't deliver on opulent FX or humor, its most entertaining element are three short fight-scenes: one where the towering Ubal (given the illusion of standing about seven feet) beats a half dozen Wazir-thugs, and two for the adult Sabu, who for a stable-boy shows himself oddly adept with a cutlass. These are lively enough for me to regard SABU AND THE MAGIC RING as a combative, if not very funny, comedy.