Thursday, February 11, 2016

THE SPELL (1977)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS (Really. Don't read unless you've seen the flick)

There's no question that this 1977 telefilm owes its existence to the successful 1976 film-adaptation of Stephen King's CARRIE. At the same time, the Brian Taggert script does exert itself to ring a few changes on the material, so that THE SPELL is not a total knockoff. Aside from some nice acting moments here and there, those changes are the only thing worth discussing about this low-intensity barely-a-shocker-- ergo, massive spoilers.

Jagger and Richards penned the song "Sympathy for the Devil," and it wouldn't be much exaggeration to sum up THE SPELL as "Sympathy for Carrie's Mom." CARRIE is first and foremost a horror story about a child who suffers abuse from a domineering mother. As a result of the mother's browbeating, Carrie possesses few psychological resources for dealing with the torturous rituals of high school-- though as it happens she does possess superior psychic resources, which eventually make Carrie into a monster who slays all of her tormentors.

THE SPELL is nowhere near this ambitious, and if anything, Rita Matchett's status as a young monster-in-bloom is compromised throughout the story. Fifteen-year-old Rita is somewhat tormented by other girls at school, but their dislike and contempt of Rita isn't explained by anything but their conviction that Rita is "fat." Given that the actress (Susan Myers) playing the part is at best merely chunky, even this reason seems unconvincing, especially compared to the motivations Stephen King gives to even his most routine villains.

As for the situation at home, Rita really doesn't seem to have all that much worth complaining about. Her dull father Glenn shows a tiny bit of favoritism to Rita's younger sister Christina, but he's not exactly sentencing Rita to live under a stairwell. The girls' mother Marilyn (Lee Grant) is actually quite sympathetic to Rita's travails, though she does enforce a strict but sensible code of behavior on the tempestuous young girl, and the sister doesn't do anything particularly offensive beyond taking away attention from Rita..Ironically, though Myers' character Rita is technically the focal point of the story, Marilyn gets most of the best lines, probably in deference to Lee Grant's formidable thespian experience/ Thus the story sometimes skews toward that well-traveled TV trope of the "aggrieved parent with a problem child."

Whether one thinks Rita fortunate or not, people around Rita start to have bad fortune: a young girl breaks her neck, an older woman burns alive for no apparent reason. One would assume that this is Rita's psychic power at work, consciously or not, but then the script brings in references to witchcraft and occult techniques. So it would appear that unlike Carrie White, Rita has gone out of her way to use her power to become a practicing sorceress.

However-- SPOILER #1--

While Carrie White had a girls' gym teacher who sympathized with the young girl's plight, Rita's gym teacher is also her mentor in malefic magic, She's the true culprit in the murders, which is the film's first "big surprise," as well as a means of exculpating Rita so that she doesn't meet Carrie's tragic fate.

As for the other big surprise, aka SPOILER #2:

At the very end, Marilyn reveals that she too is a psychic/ witch, and she uses her own powers to school Rita so that she learns not to abuse her powers in future.

This non-tragic ending is not particularly engrossing, and Taggert drops the ball on any opportunity to play with some of the popular tropes of "witch-cinema:" like "witchcraft as female empowerment" or even "witchcraft as lesbian bonding." There's the slight possibility that Rita's gym teacher--given the gender-ambiguous first name "Jo"-- may have designs on the high-schooler. Yet Jo never makes a pass, and the two characters fall out for a not very compelling reason: Jo wants to build a coven of similarly powered witches, and Rita doesn't like that-- not for any altruistic reasons, but because such a gathering impinges on her feelings of uniqueness. Perhaps there was some notion of Jo playing the part of the "bad indulgent mom" as opposed to Marilyn's "good strict mom," but even that small psychological myth doesn't come to life.

As I mentioned earlier, there's not much horror in the telefilm's supposed shock-sequences, and though there are a few adequate dramatic scenes, THE SPELL's greatest debit may be that the central character is just not very interesting, either as a monster or an innocent.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I dimly remembered this TV-movie-- actually two hour-long pilots for a series that didn't get picked up-- as being mildly entertaining in a cheesy fashion. I re-watched largely to see whether or not it cohered with my definition of a combative adventure, which it did not.

The screenplay has less in common with the Jules Verne novel-- wherein a  trio of explorers venture down into the earth's bowels on foot-- than with Edgar Rice Burroughs' AT THE EARTH'S CORE. This telefilm like the Burroughs novel concerns a group of explorers who uses a drill-headed vehicle to tunnel their way into the earth. But whereas Burroughs made do with two adventurers, the crew includes no less than seven persons gifted with either scientific or survival skills, plus a computer intelligence with a holographic image. Presumably the producer wanted to be sure of having a wealth of potential backstories to explore as the crew went from week to week, encountering this or that buried civilization (another point of similarity with the Burroughs franchise, since Verne's book is ambiguous as to whether any tribe of humans, or even proto-humans, dwells beneath the earth's surface).

On top of the seven people who begin the journey-- eight if the female computer-mind would've become a participating character-- the explorers also pick up a new member, a Yeti (Carel Strucken) exiled from his culture for the crime of having saved a child's life (sort of an extreme caricature of a non-intervention ethic). In the film's only near-miss with mythology, one of the scientists suggests that since they can't pronounce the Yeti's name in his own language, they ought to nickname the furry titan "Daedalus," after the Greek maker of a labyrinth. The resident Angry Black Guy doesn't like such high-toned cognomens and promptly renames the Yeti "Dallas"-- which I hope contributed to the decision not to launch this idea as a series.

Once the plot gets past an extraordinarily poky intro section and actually begins the subterranean voyage, JOURNEY has enough pretty and/or seasoned actors to be watchable. The explorers' main opponents are a subterranean tribe of troglodytes bent on human sacrifice, though there's some additional folderol about a magic book possessed by one of the scientists, and a strange subterranean individual who sounds and looks like Darth Vader and covets the book. Despite the potential for violent conflict, the plot avoids any substantial action, although there's a very strange sequence in which Vader 2.0 jumps on top of the drill-ship and tries to force his way in. 

JOURNEY is at least colorful in its silliness, though like most of director William Dear's productions it's strictly journeyman work. And even though there are plotlines that will never be resolved, even by the most fanatical fanfic writer, at least this flop pilot doesn't end on an annoying cliffhanger.

Saturday, January 30, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2, 3) *uncanny*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I don't have a lot to say about these three ordinary oaters, except in terms of the theory I explicated in my review of HAUNTED RANCH.

GHOST PATROL pits cowboy star Tim McCoy against a gang of owlhoots with a mild science-fiction twist. It happens that the crooks have abducted a professor who foolishly let the papers broadcast his development of a "radium tube" capable of zapping any electrical systems. Being small-time thinkers, the crooks decide to use the tube-- seen above looking like an electric chair-- to make mail-planes crash so that the gang can loot the contents. The finale manages to incorporate the device long enough for McCoy's character to blast the hell out of it.

In the HAUNTED RANCH review, I claimed that even though that film included a ghost-imposture, the villains' plot was so minimal in its effect that I couldn't seriously deem it a "phantasmal figuration" in the uncanny mode. Both PHANTOM OF THE RANGE and its three-years-later remake STRAIGHT SHOOTER test that theory, for in both the only attempt to create a "ghost" is that of a mysterious man in dark clothes riding past a ranch in order to spook the inhabitants.  There's still no attempt in either film to create a spooky atmosphere. Yet as long as there's at least a man in a costume-- however badly the costume is conceived-- I'd have to place both of these films in the uncanny domain.

The remake is pretty much beat-for-beat of the earlier film, but the 1936 film includes a better performance by female lead Beth Marion, who lectures Tom Tyler on the exigencies of hitchhiking. The latter film is notable only in taking the earlier script and tweaking it to become part of a short-lived character-serial which starred none other than-- Tim McCoy! 


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*

I'll get the question of phenomenality out of the way first. Both of these are dominantly uncanny jungle-adventure films concerning mysterious humans raised in the African jungle. However, LUANA is marvelous thanks to one scene in which a giant carnivorous plant closes its leafy fronds around a full-grown man and apparently eats him.

LUANA and KARZAN are both Italian-made jungle films, produced at a time when Tarzan films were beginning to wear out their welcome on the American screen. Neither rates as even good lowbrow entertainment like the Bomba series, though LUANA is slightly more interesting in its potential albeit not in its execution.

KARZAN, as the name suggests, is just a routine Tarzan knockoff, though oddly for most of the running-time the hero remains somewhat on the defensive against a group of mercenary white hunters. The hunters' expedition-- made up of a bunch of barely distinguishable characters-- is waylaid by a tribe of Black Africans, who are ruled by a lithe-bodied queen. Karzan and his mate Shiran-- neither of whom can speak English, and who are implicitly both white castaways somehow raised in the jungle-- intervene to save the hunters.

Amusingly, Shiran is the first to attack the tribe, getting into a catfight with the African queen. (The director's best moment is including a shot of a tribesmen grinning as he watches his queen rolling in the dust with the white girl.) Karzan then intervenes as well, using his jungle muscles to toss other grown men. It's possible that Karzan's motives are not entirely altruistic, for he promptly takes possession of the group's only woman, taking both her and Shiran off into the wilds, leaving the other guys to free themselves. But the film isn't organized enough to get any dramatic mileage out of Karzan's apparent attempt at a menage-a-trois.

Despite Karzan's perhaps unworthy motives, the hunters are worse. They decide that they can make a fortune by taking the white savages prisoner for exhibition in the civilized world. From then on there ensues a seesaw battle: first the hunters have both Karzan and Shiran in captivity, then Karzan gets free and fights to free Shiran, then he's captured again, and so on. Finally, one of the white guys decides that they should let their captives go back to the jungle, and that's the end. The catfight is absolutely the only interesting scene in KARZAN, and that's largely because its purpose in titillating the audience is so transparent that it's funny.

LUANA isn't really much better, but its plot at least makes a little more sense.

The set-up is standard enough. A white woman named Isabel comes to Africa looking for information on her father, a scientist whose plane went missing many years ago in a remote section of the jungle. She needs a guide, and finds one in George, your basic "tough jungle hand." Despite the movie's title, the focus is more on the heroics of this cut-rate Allen Quatermain than on the mysterious Asian jungle-girl. Joining the expedition is Norman, an older man and a former colleague of Isabel's father, whose motives for going along are suspicious, not least because he makes a tentative pass at the younger Isabel.

The expedition makes its way through a very unconvincing jungle, encountering colorfully garbed natives who employ poison dart-blowguns. On the way the travelers are regaled with the story of Luana, a mysterious jungle-girl, regarded as a goddess by the natives-- but not, for once, a white goddess. Isabel informs George that her father had remarried an "Oriental princess," and that both the wife and a three-year-old child were in the plane that crashed. Even before the travelers see Luana (Mei Chen), Isabel speculates that the child may have survived and grown to maturity in the jungle, meaning that the woman could be Isabel's half-sister.

Luana, wearing a loincloth and hair long enough to shield her breasts, swings around on readily available jungle-vines and watches the white people from hiding, becoming especially curious when George and Isabel start to hook up. Even when George finally meets Luana, she displays no ability to speak any human language. The implication is that she simply raised herself. She does pal around with a single chimp, but there's no suggestion that she's a member of some ape tribe, nor does she seem to have any of the mysterious animal-rapport found in many jungle-heroes. She evinces no combat abilities whatever, and all of her scenes portray her less as a tough Sheena-type than like an Eve-like innocent. It's not even clear whether or not she's sexually intrigued by the sight of George and Isabel making out, or if she's just showing simple beast-like curiosity.

The film proceeds to a combative conclusion that Luana doesn't take part in. Norman is exposed as a contact man for the local tribes, and that he buys the poison from their local plant-life and somehow converts it into a viable drug for exploitation. Even though George has proven his toughness in other scenes, it's a slight surprise when Norman is killed not by George but by one of the guide's African allies, who isn't even a particularly developed minor character.

In the end Isabel and George decide to leave the jungle innocent to her pastoral paradise. There's a slight Oedipal touch in a scene where Isabel says she finds George appealing because he shares her father's passion for jungle life-- though, unlike the crafty Norman, George has the advantage of being more age-appropriate.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, cosmological, psychological*


The original 1952 Spillane novel-- which I discussed in a spoiler-filled essay here-- is, by the terminology I've propounded, thoroughly *isophenomenal,* concerning detective Mike Hammer's attempt to find a mysterious box, filled with drugs, which is being sought by minions of the Mafia. The same men killed an innocent woman and almost killed Hammer as well, giving the P.I. the excuse to wreak bloody vengeance upon the criminals. Hammer, despite his sadistic tendencies, is without a doubt the hero of the story. He's also a formidable fighter. Toward the conclusion he's bound and beaten savagely by two thugs, but when he gets free he manages to defeat both men with no more advantage than a moment's surprise.

Both the phenomenality and the heroic tone of the original story are discarded in the 1955 film, whose primary authors-- director Robert Aldrich and scripter A.I. Bezzerides-- were repulsed by Hammer's violence, and perhaps also by his creator's generally reactionary political outlook. Thus while they followed some of the general plot-developments of the novel, they subvert the theme of the original KISS ME DEADLY (subversion being what critics call an unfaithful adaptation when they don't like the work being adapted). Instead of Hammer being a modern knight-errant, enraged at the attempt on his life and the killing of an innocent, the film's private dick is, well, a dick. His detective business is based upon having his secretary Velda make up to married men, and then blackmailing her marks. His motive for pursuing the mystery box-- which Velda terms "the great whatsit"-- is purely pecuniary. Hammer is a thoroughgoing capitalist, hoping to profit by finding the coveted box before the crooks do.

Although Hammer is the lowest of the low here-- using his beefy size to bully potential witnesses, for example-- no one else in the film is much better. For this reason I call the film an "irony" in the terminology provided by Northrop Frye, connoting a type of narrative often characterized by showing
"human life in terms of largely unrelieved bondage and social tyranny." KISS ME DEADLY certainly qualifies. Hammer's police contact Pat Murphy, his best friend in the Spillane novel-series, sometimes views Hammer with thinly veiled contempt, which makes one wonder why Murphy seems solicitous about Hammer in other scenes. Later, when Velda is kidnapped and Hammer wants the officer's help in freeing her, Murphy turns his back on the detective, apparently willing to see the secretary die just so that it will torment the mercenary P.I. 

Another interesting change is that Hammer is no longer nearly as tough as the book-version. He does punch out a couple of guys who come at him, but this Hammer only wins one-on-one battles. In the film's latter half Hammer is taken prisoner by two thugs as he is in the book. However, the film devotes a scene to showing Hammer trying to escape the thugs, who promptly beat him down without much effort. In contrast, the film's scene of Hammer's escape-- which contributes to the book-detective's aura of toughness--  takes place in darkness, probably to deprive the film's protagonist from seeming in any way heroic. 

The change from a naturalistic to an uncanny phenomenality has less to do with critiquing Hammer than the world in which he lives, for the mystery box contains not the evils of Pandora's Box, but the spectre of nuclear disaster. At one point it's implied that the box simply contains a radioactive isotope stolen from Los Alamos, since Hammer is briefly exposed to the box's contents and receives a radiation burn from it. However, as the above still shows, the box is fully opened by the film's femme fatale Lily, and as a result it not only sets Lily on fire but explodes with destructive fury. No simple isotope could do all of this, but Aldrich and Bezzerides are not concerned with scientific veracity, as is seen in the attempts of the villainous Doctor Soberin to prevent Lily from opening the box:

Dr. Soberin: You have been misnamed, Gabrielle. You should have been called Pandora. She had a curiosity about a box and opened it and let loose all the evil in the world. 
Lily: Never mind about the evil. What's in it?
Dr. Soberin: Did you ever hear of Lot's wife? 
Lily: No.
Dr. Soberin: No. Well, she was told not to look back. But she disobeyed and she was changed into a pillar of salt. 
Lily: Well, I just want to know what it is.
Dr. Soberin: Would you believe me if I told you? Would you be satisfied?
Lily: Maybe.
Dr. Soberin: The head of the Medusa. That's what's in the box. And whoever looks on her will be changed, not into stone, but into brimstone and ashes. Well, of course, you wouldn't believe me. You'd have to see for yourself, wouldn't you?

Soberin mixes together a cocktail of mythological references, but the most resonant one may be Lot's wife. Only the Biblical story from Genesis involves, not just the destruction of a curious woman, but also the annihilation of the corrupt civilization of Sodom, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Hammer's world. I classify the mysterious contents of the box as an "outre device" in that it doesn't precisely violate the causal rules of the naturalistic world, but simply bends those rules to produce an effect akin to the wrath of God. Interestingly, though Aldrich shots scenes showing Hammer and Velda escaping the cataclysm, the original American release simply showed an explosion that implicitly destroyed both the protagonists and antagonists, as if to say, "to hell with them all." Yet, even the scenes in which the couple escapes-- scenes restored in some DVD restorations-- one wonders if Hammer and Velda have really escaped, given their proximity to a miniature nuclear blast.

While many of the script's lines emphasize Hammer's misogyny-- particularly in his opening conversation with the innocent female who dies-- it might be argued that Aldrich's femme fatale is more condescending to women than Spillane's. In both cases, the femme fatale is a woman who has murdered the real Lily in order to assume her identity. But as I note in the essay cited above, the book's Lily is something of a "feminine monster," who horrifies Hammer in being a modern-day version of what Soberin calls "the Medusa." In contrast, there's nothing horrifying about the film's Lily, except that she like Hammer is obsessed with monetary gain, and that her feminine curiosity mirrors that of the culture that has birthed the Bomb. Both are misogynistic portraits, but though Spillane's femme may be monstrous, at least she's a powerful monster.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

It's interesting to compare this postwar American serial to BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD, made in the U.S. prior to the country's entry into WWII. Both serials emphasize a message concerning the maintenance of world peace, but while BLAKE has the idea of giving away a great weapon to keep the peace, LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE is more interested in keeping the status quo.

Admittedly, the serial's heroes are largely aligned with a private organization, the United Peace Foundation, that is not directly affiliated with any government. The Foundation's ideals-- tediously reiterated at the beginning of each JUNGLE chapter by a bunch of Foundation-guys sitting around a table-- are supposed to reflect the ethos of the newly-minted United Nations. These sequences even emphasize that the Foundation is based in San Francisco, the city where the UN first convened. The idea of an unaligned international peacekeeping force would show up again in the 1964 teleseries THE MAN FROM UNCLE. Yet JUNGLE, like the later TV show, seems to associate the best interests of the world with those of the United States. This political attitude is indicated by the threat posed by the villains: they want to construct an "anti-atomic defense" that they can sell to the highest bidder-- implying that the circulation of such a defense will inevitably bring about another war. "The warmonger who steals peace," pontificates one of the Foundation members, "is the worst kind of thief."

 The atomic defense can only be constructed by harvesting a rare radioactive element, "meteorium," from a lost temple in the Asian realm of Pendrang, so the villains head for Zalabar, capital city of Pendrang, and two Foundation agents go after them. The lead hero is one Rod Stanton, played by Russell Hayden, an actor who spent most of his career in westerns like the Hopalong Cassidy series, but who doesn't manage to project the brio of the best serial-heroes. He's frequently helped out by fellow agent Tal Shan (Keye Luke), whose role in JUNGLE allows him a little more status than his better-known serial-role as houseboy Kato in the two "Green Hornet" chapter-plays. There's also Jane Adams, playing the standard part of a scientist's daughter, but she barely has anything to do. Helen Bennett plays Indra, a road-company Dragon Lady who rules over Zalabar and who may or may not ally herself with the Foundation guys.

The nature of the villains is complicated by the fact that one villain, Sir Eric Hazarias, is played by Lionel Atwill, who died of lung cancer during the serial's production. Therefore, even though Sir Eric is the principal fiend against whom the heroes contend, the serial had to find ways to work around scenes that Atwill never shot-- sometimes using a double for the deceased actor, sometimes giving his scenes to a subordinate character, his secretary Malborn (John Mylong), who, rather confusingly, is sometimes said to have been Sir Eric's secret superior. Nevertheless, even with all of these drawbacks Atwill's Sir Eric remains the evil name with which the good guys conjure when they moralize against the evils of warmongering, and Atwill has a handful of decent scenes, though his villainous role in 1944's CAPTAIN AMERICA blows Sir Eric away.

In addition, the heroes have some dust-ups with the tribesmen of Pendrang, who are understandably miffed when the bad white guys destroy one of Pendrang's lakes in order to gain access to the lost temple hidden beneath. But despite getting help from archaeologist Dr. Elmore, an innocent gulled by the villains, the warmongers don't manage to explore the temple until the final few chapters. Perhaps this foot-dragging comes about as the result of the production's recycling of scenes from earlier serials, though JUNGLE isn't as transparent in its re-use of old footage as some chapter-plays I might name.

Though the early chapters are slow to get going, not least because of Hayden's lack of charisma, eventually the Foundation's agents get involved in an assortment of fights and death-traps. The best trap is the "Pendrang guillotine," which is triggered by the sun's rays burning through a rope, a device possibly swiped from a similar one in Republic's 1940 serial THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU.

In the history of fantasy-films, JUNGLE's greatest repute is as a possible influence upon 1980's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. It's not until the last couple of episodes that JUNGLE's "ark" materializes: a special box containing the radioactive meteorium. Thanks to some lost archaic technology, the box can provide a shield from the substance's radioactivity, and though the meteorium is loosely associated with a Pendrang deity, it has no literal metaphysical aspects, though it does blast one of Sir Eric's henchmen into dust in an Ark-like display of power. The villains actually manage to get their prize away from the heroes, but a last-ditch stratagem by one of the good guys' allies causes the warmongers to meet destruction, albeit a much humbler one than the famous climax of RAIDERS. I suppose there's a poetic justice here; that evildoers seeking to curb the right-minded use of the Atom are destroyed by meddling with a not dissimilar power.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I don't usually spend much time touching on DTV films whose main purpose was just to show a lot of butt-kicking amid some mild SF-elements, but I happened across CYBORG COP III on an old VHS tape and gave it a watch.

I think I saw the first two in the series, which struck me as efficient if unremarkable action-flicks. Like this one, those installments focuses not upon a low-rent version of Robocop, but a heroic human cop who has to take on cyborg opponents for assorted reasons. In both previous films the kickbutt cop was played by David Bradley, better known for his martial arts expertise than his acting. But even though Part III substitutes two heroes in place of one, Frank Zagarino and Bryan Genesse-- formerly opponents in the second "Shadowchaser" film
-- don't even provide the mild entertainment of one Bradley. Both men have done tolerable action-films before and after this one, but their script is so ghastly they've nothing to work with.

Quick summation: an evil company, Deltatech, begins working on cyborg-soldiers whose genetic material includes cockroach DNA, so that they'll be able to survive nuclear war. Supposedly this makes such soldiers interesting to foreign agents, but an intrepid reporter manages to get on the trail of the illegal arms deal, and she involves two witless U.S. marshals in the case.

The bit about the cockroach DNA is about the only element that causes me to label this a "cosmological" film: in no other way does the script do anything with the science of cyborg technology-- so that it's just as clueless in that respect as in every other one.

CCIII might be good for a few laughs at its incompetence if one is in the mood for a pathetic misfire. But it's not "so bad it's good;" it's just bad.