Saturday, March 23, 2019


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I reviewed the sequel to this film here, where I said, among other things-

I should note that THOR was filmed back-to-back with another peplum with the same star and director, TAUR THE MIGHTY.  Both "Thor" and "Taur" were toss-off names applied to a hero who, the story goes, was originally going to be called "Tarzan" until the Edgar Rice Burroughs organization took exception.  This goes a long way toward explaining why the protagonist has no resemblance to the Scandinavian thunder-god of mythic and comic-book fame.

Until recently I'd never been able to view this film, which was probably shot back to back with the second given the use of many of the same actors in different roles, aside from the main character and his sidekick. Now that I've seen the standard English version of TAUR, I can state, for what little it's worth, that the dub calls Taur "Thor," just as did THOR AND THE AMAZON WOMEN. Though neither film is a classic, even for the peplum subgenre, TAUR feels almost like a less colorful dry-run for AMAZON WOMEN, which has more interesting incidents amid its equally formulaic script.

TAUR starts off with two royal sisters, Illa and Tuja, being hassled by a couple of enemy soldiers out in the wilds of what might be North Africa (actually shot in Yugoslavia). To their rescue comes a tough young fellow-- but no, it's not Taur, but a young orphan, Syros, whom Thor found in the forest and raised as his son (sort of like Classic Hollywood Tarzan's relationship with "Boy.") Syros beats off the baddies and returns the girls to their father the King of Some Kingdom. Syros asks for the hand of blonde Illa and the king agrees. They start planning a wedding, and since they figure Thor ought to attend, the king sends a Black African servant, Ubaratutu, to fetch Thor for the festivities.
Ubaratutu, it should be noted, is just as muscular as Thor, but occasionally shows a streak of cowardice, a streak which isn't apparent in AMAZON WOMEN.

A little later, Thor and Ubaratutu arrive at Some Kingdom, but they find only corpses, since the neighboring warriors of Quesos (?) have carried away as slaves everyone they didn't kill. Since Syros isn't among the dead, Thor insists that Ubaratutu come along as they seek out the Quesos realm and free Thor's buddy.

The heroes soon learn that most of the survivors of the raid have been confined underground, where they're forced to mine gold and refine it in a rather anachronistic furnace (complete with conveyor belt!) The women get different treatment, being trained as sword-wielding warriors to fight in some arena somewhere. Both Illa and Tuja have survived to join these almost-Amazons, though the script's only reason for keeping both alive is to force them to fight each other blindfolded later on. The tyrants in charge of the operation are Queen Akiba and her high priest El Kab, who are pretty much your standard evil rulers. Since Thor can't immediately free everyone from the soldiers, he and Ubaratutu blend in with the slaves, apparently with no real plan but getting close enough to figure out how to undermine (heh) the whole megilla.

For an Italian muscleman film, TAUR is pretty skimpy on romantic interludes, but it does offer an assortment of female-female sword-duels. Script and direction frequently takes advantage of comical possibilities, though a forced arena-fight between Thor and Ubaratutu seems designed to humiliate the black guy. (FWIW, he gets better treatment in AMAZON WOMEN.) Perhaps the funniest consequence of the English dubbing takes place when Illa, freed from captivity, chases Akiba into a cavern. Good girl corners bad girl alongside a crevasse, and then utters the deathless line, "I should kill you!"-- just before pushing Akiba into the crevasse. Maybe some dubber didn't know the difference between "should" and "am going to?"

Anyway, the evil mining operation gets blown up, the villains are slain, and the former slaves of Some Kingdom take over. Syros is all set to marry Illa once more, but instead of sticking around for the wedding, Thor informs Ubaratutu that it's time for them to go looking for a new adventure. And off they go, the peplum version of Ebony and Ivory-- even if they only get one more outing.


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

Though the 1937 KING SOLOMON'S MINES remains the most faithful adaptation of any work by H. Rider Haggard, KING SOLOMON'S TREASURE may be the runner-up.

To be sure, there's not a lot of competition. Since the silent era, only three Haggard works-- SHE, KING SOLOMON'S MINES and MINES's sequel ALLEN QUATERMAIN-- have seen adaptation, and it's a sad state of affairs that for modern movie-watchers the best-know version of Haggard's long-running white-hunter hero comes from two terrible 1980s movies, the 1985 SOLOMON'S and its immediate sequel, ALLEN QUATERMAIN AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD. The second of these adapted a few elements from the novel ALLEN QUATERMAIN, but it was primarily, like the earlier film, a clear knockoff of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

TREASURE, completed two years before the debut of Indiana Jones, is probably the closest adaptation ALLEN QUATERMAIN-- which actually gets explicit mention in the credits-- will ever receive. Though Haggard's initial Quatermain book is the better work, ALLEN is arguably more influential. In the later book Haggard promulgates the trope of the "lost race," a civilization that has somehow become separated from the rest of the world and that keeps all the customs of some archaic culture. Many authors, not least Edgar Rice Burroughs, mined this trope repeatedly throughout 20th-century pop fiction. To a small extent, ALLEN also contributed to the trope of "surviving prehistoric life," in that its heroes are forced to battle unusually large crabs. To be sure, Jules Verne's yet earlier JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was probably the main influence on the signature work of prehistoric survival, Conan Doyle's 1912 THE LOST WORLD.

TREASURE doesn't entirely hew to the 1887 Haggard novel: in addition to oversized crabs, the heroes of the story also come across a couple of dinosaurs before reaching a lost colony of Phoenicians, conveniently next to a smoldering volcano. The film uses the same characters from the two Haggard books-- great hunter Quatermain (John Colicos), Sir Henry Curtis (David McCallum), and Captain Good (Patrick MacNee)-- as well as including Umslopogas (Ken Gampu), the Black African tribesman who joins Quatermain in the second novel. However, instead of alluding to the previous African journey of the three Englishmen, they go looking for King Solomon's Mines and end up encountering Zu-Vendis, the kingdom of the Phoenicians. Presumably the producers wanted the title to remind moviegoers of the first book, which is far better known today than the second one. The three Englishmen and their African buddy are welcomed by the city's queen Nyleptha (Britt Ekland), who in the book is one of two sisters. (Oddly, the 1987 QUATERMAIN film gets this detail right, but not much else.)

Nyleptha has good reason to welcome strangers, for her court is controlled by an evil high priest, who wants her to marry her half-brother in order to secure the throne for the future. The Phoenician queen promptly falls in love with Curtis, and he with her, which of course leads to lots of trouble for the Englishmen and their buddy-- not to mention the fact that the volcano chooses to get active right around the same time. The Englishmen take out a lot of soldiers with their rifles, with Quatermain showing himself the best shot, as in the novels. In contrast to the ending of ALLEN QUATERMAIN the novel, though, where both Allen and Umslopogas perish, Allen is left alive for possible sequels.

Now, having chronicled all of the film's likenesses and differences from the novel, I come to the big question: does being faithful to the book make TREASURE a good film? And the answer is that it's at best watchable. I've seen online reviews trashing the performances of Colicos, McCallum, and MacNee, but I thought all three of them did a fair job of keeping things moderately interesting. (Can't say the same for Britt Ekland, though.) The main problem is that both the script and the direction are simply pedestrian, giving the actors little to work with. I only assign the film with a "fair" mythicity because it does try, however erratically, to bring life to the original "lost race" novel

Thursday, March 21, 2019


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

I'm a little more forgiving these days of SEA MONSTER's shortcomings than I was in earlier viewings, but even so, the thing I like best about the film is that it took a script that would've made a terrible "King Kong II" film and converted it into a mediocre Godzilla flick. By my lights this was a fortunate state of affairs, because when Toho Productions did make its second and last "King Kong II" film, they did a better-than-average job with the delirious KING KONG ESCAPES. Thus I'd have to say that SEA MONSTER's virtue is that of the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to protect the lives of other soldiers.

Godzilla, after all, had already had a number of epic films in his repertoire, with SEA MONSTER being immediately preceded by the two monster-mashes that pitted the Earth-monsters against King Ghidorah. Since Toho was reputedly cutting costs on its monster epics anyway. Godzilla's best days (at least in the Showa era) were all but behind him, apart from DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, and even this was originally intended as a farewell project.

The most obvious sign of the penny-pinching times is that most of SEA MONSTER emphasizes a coterie of human beings who get stuck on Letchi, a South Seas island that's a neighbor to Mothra's Infant Island. A motley crew of Japanese youths are dragooned by one of their number into a search-and-rescue for the one guy's brother, and although the brother-location poops out dramatically, it does make for an interesting opening. Once the guys arrive on Letchi, they eventually find the brother, but they also come across a lot of trouble. One source of trouble is a maybe-Communist terrorist organization, the Red Bamboo, who have set up shop on the island to manufacture nuclear bombs. They've also drafted several Infant Isle natives to slave for them, though one comely lass named Daiyo escapes and involves the guys in her difficulties. On top of this, there's also a giant lobster, Ebirah, who just hangs around the boundaries of Letchi and keeps anyone from leaving. It's not clear if Ebirah was created by nuclear run-off, or if it was one of the many subterrranean prehistoric behemoths who found its way to the surface as Godzilla did. Alternately, the big crustacean may be a little of both, like Godzilla. Somehow the Red Bamboo have evolved a way to fool the lobster's senses with a special chemical, which might argue for their direct involvement in its creation.

However, the young girls and girl have one small, if ambivalent, advantage: they find Godzilla hibernating in one of the caverns on Letchi. (Originally this would have been Kong, though presumably that script would've had to find some half-decent reason for Kong to have allowed the terrorists free reign on his island.) With some help from a lightning-rod-- IMO the movie's best scene-- the heroes manage to jolt Godzilla awake, and the rowdy reptile immediately takes on the big lobster. Ebirah retreats, so Godzilla returns to the island-- which means that he becomes yet another problem for the good guys.

The rest of the film involves the heroes running from either Godzilla or the soldiers while waiting for Mothra to wake up and come to their rescue. Despite some lively moments, the remainder of the film becomes wholly predictable, aside from a modesty entertaining final battle between reptile and crustacean.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019



Here's a mini-review I recently wrote on the Classic Horror board:

As I type this, I've almost finished watching MB on Youtube. I can appreciate Losey's use of vivid, primary colors and weird angles, but he's taken the story O'Donnell did and flummoxed it around for the sake of "artiness." Reportedly in the day he claimed he was going to "out-Bond Bond," but had never seen a whole Bond film, and so only had his own skewed perception of what the genre was about. OUR MAN FLINT is a much more successful spoofy spy-flick-- heck, even the obscure OUT OF SIGHT understands how to play on the tropes better. Why Losey thought his Antonioni borrowings would play in Peoria is beyond me.
I've seen a lot of criticism of Vitti, but I think she was just doing what she was told to do, to be airy-fairy and silly, and she did that well. It just didn't help sell the movie.

Of course I have a few more things to say about this famous misfire. The MODESTY BLAISE comic strip, written by Peter O'Donnell, debuted in 1963, and its success with the public coincided with the "Bond fever" unleashed by the 1962 movie DOCTOR NO. Technically the sophisticated Modesty Blaise and her partner Willie Garvin weren't any sort of espionage agents. But because they were reformed master criminals, they had a working knowledge of the subcultures of crime and espionage, and most of their exploits were only different from those of Bond in that they were independent agents who answered only to their own sense of justice. At some point, the franchise was optioned for film adaptation, and O'Donnell provided a screenplay, based partly on the first outing of Modesty and Willie. Though O'Donnell's screenplay was only marginally influential on the finished film, the author novelized his story in the first prose novel, MODESTY BLAISE. Though I haven't read the novel in many years, I recall it as a tautly-written adventure-story informed by humor and strong sentiment. The novel has no metaphenomenal elements, though other stories in both the comic strip and the prose adaptations employed such elements on occasion. The 1966 film does have a few uncanny devices-- gas-bombs and something called "antisonar"-- which place the solo film into the realm of the uncanny.

Director Joseph Losey, best known at the time for his 1963 arthouse success THE SERVANT, reportedly found O'Donnell's script boring, though he kept just the bare bones of the original story, in which Modesty (Monica Vitti) and Willie (Terence Stamp) take on master criminal Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde) and his small army of henchmen. Whereas O'Donnell provided a crisp adventure-tale involving stolen diamonds, this setup was for Losey merely an excuse for endless shots of Vitti fluttering around various exotic locales in bizarre costumes.

Twice blonde-haired Vitti is made up to look like the comic-strip character, complete with brunette hair and quasi-military outfit.  But at no time does Losey give either of the two heroes any resemblance to their tough-as-nails predecessors. Willie does a little bit of his signature knife-fighting, and Modesty does a little clumsy judo, but Losey seems utterly uninterested in giving the audience anything approximating thrills. Had he spent even a tenth of his costume budget on stuntwork, maybe MODESTY would've been improved slightly. As it stands, the only scene that offers some suspense is one in which Gabriel's perverse right-hand henchwoman beats up a mime and throws off a cliff. In the original story, the mime is an undercover man, but the script by Evan Jones (who had worked with Losey on three previous projects) doesn't even provide that rationale. I suspect that Losey only kept this scene true to the original because it tickled his love for surrealistic imagery.

While Losey shows no interest in the travails of Modesty and Willie, the villain Gabriel comes close to being the real star of the show, as Losey apparently instructed Bogarde to play the character as a flaming, effete homosexual. Thus the film is replete with countless scenes of Gabriel lounging around and making ironic pronouncements-- though none of his supposedly humorous asides are funny.

Speaking of irony, Losey certainly intended to undercut the straightforward adventure of the original narrative and replace it with something like "camp," although Losey apparently did not understand that true camp only mocks its narrative very indirectly. One can't call MODESTY "satire" either, since there's no target for any animus. So by default MODESTY becomes a free-form irony, mocking the supposed pretensions of adventure-fiction with yet greater pretensions.

The movie's sole virtue is its use of vibrant primary colors. But in many respects, even though it's an irony like the 1968 BARBARELLA, the later film took the opposite course: piecing together various sequences from the picarescque French comic feature and making them into a relatively tight whole.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*

Though BIG DOLL  HOUSE was not the first WIP film, it was arguably the one that defined the genre for the 1970s and subsequent decades. And one thing that makes it stand apart from the rest is that, although it's in no way a metaphenomenal narrative, it does use tropes that, given a different approach, could have been aligned with the uncanny.

HOUSE sets up its action with many of the usual patterns seen in WIP films from earlier decades: the new fish (Judy Brown) enters prison to do time for an offense that the audience doesn't think is so bad (in this case, killing a scummy husband). She meets a set of predictable yet still vivid character-types: the tough girl (Roberta Collins), the revolutionary idealist (Pat Woodell), the lesbian and her heroine-addled partner (Pam Grier and Brooke Mills). There's a sympathetic prison doctor, who's pretty much the only decent male, a couple of comical delivery guys (one of whom is played by Sid Haig), and a bunch of cruel guards, all women. But for once there's a little mystery: though a woman named "Miss Dietrich" is nominally in charge, there's also a mystery man, Captain Mendoza, who is supposedly the real warden, though the prisoners never see him. The audience gets to see Mendoza as a weird masked figure who presides over the frequent tortures of prisoners: whippings, electroshock, and torment with snakes (the last two providing naturalistic versions of "bizarre crimes," even as Mendoza's outfit is a naturalistic "outre outfit.")

Since all of the women are impossibly glammed-up, it's hard to take even the violence very seriously, and a constant stream of one-liners reinforces the lighter mood, with the stand-out being the oft-quoted "You'll get it up or I'll cut it off!" There are some mild subtexts of feminine liberation here, roughly linked to the then-popular vogue for proletariat revolution, though these too don't bear strong examination.

There's more implied than actual sex, and catfights are featured far more than gunfights, including a classic battle between Collins and Grier (the last time Pam Grier would ever lose a filmic fight). The revelation of the mysterious warden's identity is pretty obvious, though the script adds a twist by showing that the corrupt official has a psychological hangup against the sexual proclivities of the female convicts. Though I used to think that the next-year follow-up THE BIG BIRD CAGE was the better of the two productions, I've come to feel that the latter is a little too jokey, and thus misfires when it comes to providing good sleazy melodrama.

Monday, March 18, 2019

DOOM (2005)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*

I've no familiarity with the 1993 video game DOOM or any of its later iterations. Wikipedia informs me that the original concept's "first-person shooter" scenario took a lone gunman  to the planet Mars, where he shoots it out with an assortment of demons from Hell itself. In contrast, the movie DOOM remains firmly within a science-fiction universe, aside from a highly speculative assertion by a scientist that there may be a genetic code for the human soul.

The year is 2046, and humankind has gained access to Mars by finding a teleport-device, left in Nevada by ancient Martians who apparently deserted their planet. There's no evidence as to what happened to the emigrants, and Mars itself shows no trace of living creatures, but a facility of Earth-scientists has been built on the planet to study the remains of the long-dead denizens. When communication between Mars and Earth breaks down, a squad of Marines, all armed to the teeth with advanced weapons, are sent via portal to Mars to rescue the scientists and, perhaps more importantly, their research. However, once there, the soldiers are repeatedly attacked by monsters.

Because of the combination of marines and monsters, some critics chose to see DOOM as overly indebted to the 1986 ALIENS. There are rough similarities, particularly the idea of humans attempting to co-opt alien science or resources for human military advantage. As in ALIENS, most of the military grunts are "doomed" to become cannon fodder. However, the David Callaham-Wesley Strick script emphasizes the way in which the monsters from the outside are identical to those on the inside.

Only three characters are of great consequence: the mission-leader "Sarge" (Dwayne Johnson), his subordinate "Reaper" (Karl Urban), and Samantha Grimm (Rosamund Pyke), who, in addition to being one of the facility's scientists, is also Reaper's twin sister. In between conflicts with monsters, Samantha eventually reveals that her fellow scientists performed a genetic analysis of the human-like inhabitants of Mars. The oldest remains of Martians showed 23 pairs of chromosomes, just like humans, but later Martians had 24 pairs. Samantha theorizes that the 24th chromosomal pair was synthetic, and that it boosted the strength and healing-powers of the natives. However, she further theorized that the genetic tinkering caused a cultural upheaval that resulted in the extermination of the race, including, presumably, those that failed to colonize Earth.

The plot-device of the long-distant upheaval recalls a similar trope from 1956's FORBIDDEN PLANET. In that film, the humans who investigate the titular world learn that its long-vanished native race invented mind-boosting machines that unleashed the "demons of the id," so that the natives destroyed themselves in their quest for advancement. In the course of all the monster-slaying, Samantha observes that although some monsters came about from the project using human test-servants, and others were "infected" by contact with mutated persons, the infection doesn't spread to everyone. She observes that the genetic mutation occurs only in persons who have a propensity for excessive violence in their (figurative) souls. This leads to a combative confrontation for Reaper, for his superior officer Sarge soon reveals the dark nature hidden behind his military facade. Fortunately, Reaper, who also gets exposed to the genetic mutagen, also has his positive nature boosted by the mutagen. Overall, I found DOOM a reasonably good example of military SF-cinema, though I found tedious the movie's attempt to reproduce a "first-person shooter" scenario. Happily, it only took up about five minutes toward the end.

Whereas ALIENS is a film in which the titular extraterrestrials are on center stage, dwarfing the importance of the space-marines fighting them, determining the "main characters" of DOOM becomes a little more dicey, given that the actual Martians are all dead. However, their genetic legacy-- that of passing on the mutagen  that can enhance either "good" or "evil"-- has more central importance to the narrative than any of the three human characters. A quick check of Wikis about the video game suggests that there's no generic name for the "Doom Monsters," probably because they are largely supposed to be either Hell-demons or humans possessed by demons. So for my own satisfaction, I'll state that the stars of DOOM are indeed the "Doom Mutants"-- and, since both Sarge and Reaper become affected by the mutagen, they become reflections of the mutagen's potential to create both monsters and monster-fighting heroes.

ADDENDUM: Though there are no literal devils in the movie, it's interesting that in one scene Samantha demonstrates that mutagen-infected flesh literally goes out of its way to infect violent people, and ignores those who are not so spiritually polluted. This may be a psuedo-scientific way of saying that people who have already "signed over the souls to the Devil" are the main victims of the mutagen.

Saturday, March 16, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*

COUNTESS DRACULA is something of a Hammer anomaly for a couple of reasons, neither of which has to do with the studio's use of the name "Dracula" to sell a film based on the crimes of 16th-century noblewoman Erzebet Bathory.

First, COUNTESS was only Ingrid Pitt's second starring film-role, after her moneymaking debut in 1970''s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS-- and yet, COUNTESS had Pitt conceal her beauty beneath old-age makeup for many of her scenes-- which probably was something of a turn-off for viewers who wanted to see Pitt follow up on her earlier, very sexy performance.

Second, though there are various scenes of bloody violence, in keeping with Hammer's increasing penchant for exploitation, they're fairly low-key for Hammer and for the director Peter Sasdy, who showed far more flair for cinematic violence both in his previous movie TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and in the one that immediately followed COUNTESS, HANDS OF THE RIPPER. Perhaps Sasdy or his producer (Alexander Paal, also one of the film's scripters) had some notion of using the Bathory legend to make a comment on the dangers of vanity. Coming from Hammer Films, such a righteous message seems a little like a barman give lectures on the virtues of teetotalling.

The script also fails to "up the game" once the setup's been established. Elizabeth, an aging noblewoman recently widowed, listens to the reading of her late husband's will and learns that she must share the inheritance with her daughter Ilona, currently attending school far from the Bathory castle. By accident Elizabeth learns that when she's exposed to fresh blood, her wizened skin becomes rejuvenated, though this is given no real explanation whatever, and her few confidantes just take this miracle in stride. Being one of Hammer's many nasty aristocrats, Elizabeth begins exsanguinating various female victims, though far less than the historical Bathory allegedly did, and for a time, the countess enjoys being young again. A young nobleman, Imre, arrives at court as part of an arranged marriage to Ilona, whom Imre has never met, so Elizabeth simply usurps her daughter's place and makes passionate love to the younger man-- much to the disgust of her confidante Dobi, an older man who liked the countess the way she was. Receiving news that Ilona is scheduled to return to the castle soon, Elizabeth arranged for her to be waylaid and imprisoned, so that Elizabeth can continue living the life of a young woman.

Despite a solid performance by Pitt, the character of Elizabeth never comes alive. It goes without saying that almost everyone can identify with the desire to cast off the bonds of age in favor of renewed youth, but the viewer knows so little about Elizabeth that even her joy in regaining said youth falls flat. Even a political reading of the Bathory story-- the ruthless noble, literally bleeding the life out of the lower classes-- gets less textual support from COUNTESS's script than one can find in any of the "regular" Hammer vampire flicks. Only once did I find myself repulsed by a character's immoral action, and that was in a scene where Elizabeth's nurse, a commoner who simply hitches her wagon to the Countess's star, makes it clear that she'll do anything to protect her meal ticket.

The other narrative flaw is that Elizabeth remains largely confined to the castle and the surrounding terrain, so that she doesn't really DO anything. Imre and Ilona don't come alive as characters, and though there's one clever line in which Dobi tells Imre that the ideal mate is also a "mother," COUNTESS has none of the interesting Oedipal themes found in Sasdy's RIPPER.