Thursday, May 24, 2018

I LOVE A MYSTERY (1973)




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


The once popular radio serial I LOVE A MYSTERY (1939-44), which followed the adventures of crusading detectives Jack, Doc and Reggie, doesn't seem to have had much success in other media. Three low-budget films in 1945-6 are probably the best-known artifacts of the franchise today, and even these aren't entirely representative, since for complicated reasons the films elided "Reggie" and focused only on Jack and Doc.

This telefilm, almost certainly designed as a pilot for a possible series, is the only other artifact of much repute, though it may not be in the spirit of the radio serial. Though MYSTERY first aired on television screens in 1973, it was completed in 1967-- which leads me to suspect that writer-director Leslie Stevens was on some level seeking to emulate the then-reigning success of the BATMAN teleseries.

I wouldn't quite call MYSTERY "camp," but more "tongue-in-cheek" like Stevens' roughly contemporaneous work on IT TAKES A THIEF. Amid plentiful bon mots, the detective trio--Reggie being re-united with Jack and Doc-- becomes involved in looking for a vanished millionaire named Cheyne (who only appears in one scene, played by a "famous face" in a short cameo). They arrive at the millionaire's island, where his crazy wife Randolph (Ida Lupino) tells them that she has her husband chained to a bomb and will kill him if the detectives don't do her bidding and participate in her weird psychological experiments. The woman with a man's name is frequently compared to a black widow, and seems to have a stifling "s/mothering" effect on her four grown children: three sexy daughters and one long-suffering son with the appropriate name of Job.

MYSTERY is good for a quick watch, but it's not meant to be given much thought, even if one can keep track of the loony plot. It's a film that doesn't appear in a lot of metaphenomenal film-concordances, apparently because Lady Cheyney doesn't use any super-scientific devices or look like Bela Lugosi. Still, she's pretty crazy, and though she's not responsible for the one or two murders thrown in to spice things up, she still takes the film into the realm of the perilous psycho. The automatic bomb also satisfies the "outre devices" trope.

It is however not a combative film. The three detectives-- the best acting coning from David Hartman-- do get into a scuffle with a couple of not very aggressive pet lions, but it's hardly a battle designed to rouse the envy of Samson the Danite.


Friday, May 18, 2018

CELLAR DWELLER (1988)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


CELLAR DWELLER, a low-budget B-flick directed by special-effects guru John Carl Buechler, has one thing in common with the more critically lauded UNBREAKABLE. Both are fantasy-films that involve made-up comic book lore yet show no awareness of how comic books are produced or marketed.

DWELLER's one idea-- that comics-artists can call up a monstrous being called the Cellar Dweller when they illustrate his imagined adventures-- is actually the sort of concept that often appeared in anthology horror-comics, and, for that matter, in anthology TV-shows. There's so little character development in Don Mancini's script that often he seems to be marking time till the big "surprise ending."

Thirty years before the main story, the creator of the comic book "Cellar Dweller" (Jeffrey Combs) dies while trying to rid the world of his beastly creation. This is enough time for a young woman named Whitney (Debrah Farentino under another name) to grow up reading the comic book and to decide that she too wants to be a comics-artist. Whitney petitions to join a "school of the arts" that now exists in the building where the Combs character died. She receives a grant to study at the school, though it seems to function more as an art colony, where various artists just sit around performing for one another. The "den-mother" to the group is Mrs. Briggs (Yvonne DeCarlo), but she seems to function less as a teacher than some sort of glorified housekeeper.

So Whitney starts doodling away, producing her own illustrations of the "Cellar Dweller" character. How a commercial comic book could have been built around a big furry monster who has no particular raison e'tre-- except that he's apparently conjured forth from the human imagination-- is anyone's guess. So the monster appears and kills some of the disposable characters. Whitney finally figures out that the real supernatural is at work, and tries to counter the creature's unexplained rampages. Both the solution and the "trick ending" are less than rewarding.

Farentino gets the most scenes, so she's able to be fairly engaging, despite the paltry characterization. DeCarlo and the others all seem to be bored with their roles, which are-- appropriately for the medium evoked-- paper-thin.

Both writer and director went on to better things, with Don Mancini collaborating on the birth of the "Chucky" franchise while Buechler made a much better monster-flick in the better-than-average FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE NEW BLOOD.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

HERCULES, SAMSON, & ULYSSES, ATLAS AGAINST THE CZAR (1964)



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


These two peplum-efforts had three aspects in common. Both starred bodybuilder Kirk Morris, both appeared late in the waning cycle of the Italian muscleman films, and both featured a hero of one ethnicity struggling in a foreign land. The last of these is the most minor distinction, though, since the muscleman films were well known for having their heroes wander hither and yon across the globe.

HERCULES, SAMSON AND ULYSSES was filmed as "Hercules Challenges Samson," which is the better title since the "Ulysses" here barely does anything of importance. I assume his name got pushed to top billing because of some promoter's idea that a third name in the title would bring in better box office. Or maybe the same promoter had seen positive returns for 1962's ULYSSES AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES, and decided to bump up the Ithacan chief for that reason. Surely the world will never know, and even I don't much care.

Hercules, Ulysses and their friends do spend a few quiet moments in their native land before heroic duty calls them to slay a menacing sea-serpent. The heroes succeed, but their boat is swamped by a storm and the Greeks are shipwrecked on the shores of Judea.

This could have been the setup for a potentially fascinating "clash of cultures," but since it's a muscleman film, the script's only concern is to bring about a clash of titans. The one moment of culture-shock comes when the seductive wench Delilah, in league with some of the local tyrants, makes some minor moves on Hercules, seeking to inflame the Greek to fight local boy Samson. It's unclear whether or not Delilah has yet made any movies on Samson, although the two do end up together, meaning that Samson's enervating haircut has yet to take place.

As for the fight, the film delivers a good one, with the Greek and the Danite bashing each other about in the ruins of an abandoned city, tossing around stone pillars like spears. However, most of the other spectacles in the flick are subpar, and neither Morris nor the actor portraying Samson (billed as 'Richard Lloyd," but actually an Iranian bodybuilder) have enough charisma to enliven the slow scenes. However, there are some moderately funny scenes here and there, particularly one that takes place at sea, when the survivors of the shipwreck quarrel about eating their homing-pigeons.




ATLAS AGAINST THE CZAR has nothing to do with the Titan of Greek myth, for the hero renamed "Atlas"-- and also "Samson" in some translations-- is just Maciste, Italy's all-purpose hero. It's not even clear what culture the bare-chested hero hails from. He's revived from a long slumber in a cave, and then promptly gets mixed up in intrigues relating to the medieval Czar Nicholas.

Morris's Atlas gets to toss rocks around and to have a big tug-of-war to demonstrate his strength, but it's hard to say if he qualifies as a marvelous hero. However, the element of the centuries-long slumber proves sufficient to confer a marvelous phenomenality.

The intrigues are made duller by the fact that almost everyone aside from Atlas wears heavy fur garments. Thus, one of the genre's most enduring factors-- that of comely women in diaphanous garments-- is dumped out of hand, and nothing quite makes up for that lack.

Friday, May 11, 2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)




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


Though INFINITY's opening weekend yielded one of the most impressive box-office bonanzas for a superhero movie, it's not quite the apogee of the genre. True, it duplicates one of the big appeals of Marvel Comics: the multi-character crossover, this time focusing on nineteen principals, in contrast to the mere dozen seen in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. And it's equally true that it's a much more enjoyable and coherent movie than the previous AVENGERS film, the tedious AGE OF ULTRON, which was more concerned with setting up plot-points than telling a good story.

Even critics who dislike superhero movies ought to be able to admire the chutzpah of the filmmakers. Having already sold the mainstream public on films starring both individual superheroes and the assembled Avengers together, the producers chose to "up their game" by crossing over the earthbound Avengers with Marvel's spacefaring crusaders, the Guardians of the Galaxy. Most of the "MCU" films have been planting "Easter eggs" in various superhero flicks in preparation for this mammoth team-up feature, using commendable restraint regarding INFINITY's Big Bad: the redoubtable Thanos. As yet most of the MCU films have avoided cosmos-spanning threats, usually focusing on catastrophes taking place in a restricted spaces, whether on Earth or in exotic realms like Asgard or Xandar. This time, even though much of the action takes place on Earth, or at otherworldly sites already visited by the Galaxy-Guardians, it's explicit that Thanos's evil will affect every sentient being in the universe.

In contrast to the comic-book villain, a sort of cosmic necrophile who wanted to destroy the universe in homage to the Goddess of Death, this Thanos is framed as an obsessed extremist like Erik Killmonger in BLACK PANTHER. However, whereas Killmonger is merely a facile bundle of ideological postures, the writers of INFINITY strive to make Thanos a truly epic villain. His backstory isn't much better delineated than that of Killmonger. Yet Thanos is given a coherent character-arc, balancing his obsession with winnowing the universe's population with his paternal affection for a little girl who will grow to become Gamora, one of his most dedicated enemies.

Not a few reviewers have celebrated the writers' ability to evoke distinct emotions for each of the nineteen characters, as well as assorted support-cast members. I'm somewhat more impressed by the fact that the MCU has managed to translate one of the key aspects of Marvel Comics' appeal-- that of character-based, soap-operatic melodrama-- without being able to utilize the structure of what I term "the fast serial." Such serial entertainments are predicated on being able to attract patrons with characters who can be viewed with high frequency, whether once a week, as with a television serial, or once a month, as with the most popular commercial comic books. The medium of cinema sometimes flirted with such formats, as with weekly film-serials. But in film, most sequels and serials have been separated by considerably more time-- be it about three months, as seen with B-films like the Charlie Chan and Andy Hardy franchises, or three years, like the original STAR WARS series. MCU films are "slow serials" like STAR WARS flicks, and slow serials cannot devote a lot of time to continuing plotlines. For instance, in between ULTRON and INFINITY, the Vision and the Scarlet Witch become lovers, but viewers must fill in the blank spots themselves, rather than seeing the love-affair progress as it would in a "fast serial." That the MCU has "trained" its audience to look forward to such adumbrated dramatics impresses me no end.

Humor, of course, is the MCU's key to making the characters relatable, though since the films can't use drawn-out sequences, jokes and funny character-moments assume far more importance than they did for Silver Age Marvel. The MCU also works with might and main to conceive large-scale scenes of spectacular violence, and INFINITY has some good fight-scenes, though nothing here measures up to the "airport scene" in CIVIL WAR.

Whereas all previous MCU films have been structured to give closure in spite of overarching plot-lines, INFINITY finally comes to its EMPIRE STRIKES BACK moment, trusting that the audience will accept a true cliffhanger ending and come back for the next chapter. This is appropriate since INFINITY's box-office earnings have exceeded those of each of the recent STAR WARS outings. The outer-space scenes are executed efficiently but with little of George Lucas's elan, but then, as I've noted elsewhere, the "sense of wonder" in the MCU comes at a distant third from the jokes and character-arcs.

I enjoyed the way the film managed to balance so many such arcs, though some characters inevitably get less attention than others. I expect that the second part of INFINITY will be no less impressive in this regard, though I'll be more interested to find out how the MCU manages to "top itself" in its impending "Phase  Four."

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

THE EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956)



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

If it's true that Curt Siodmak, credited with "screen story" on IMDB was the first person to try figure out how to get a fictional tale out of Donald Keyhoe's non-fiction book FLYING SAUCERS FROM OUTER SPACE, one has to wonder how he approached the task. Ray Harryhausen presumably was charged with everything involved the saucers and their effects, but someone, whether it was Siodmak or producer Charles Schneer, had to decide the basics of the story. Personally, I think it's likely that someone took a close look at the 1953 box-office success THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and used it as a template, though there are some strong points of divergence between the two films.

In both films, aliens come to Earth in strange vessels and seek to conquer the planet. In the Wells-derived film, the Martians make no attempt to communicate whatsoever. In EARTH, the unnamed invaders initially seek to contact one human who heads an American space program, Operation Skyhook, whose main focus in the film consists of launching satellites around Earth. Doctor Russell Marvin and his new bride Carol are buzzed by a flying saucer, which bombards them with seemingly nonsensical sounds. Only by sheer luck-- the fact that the couple had been using a tape recorder around that time-- does Marvin later learn that the gibberish they heard was an appeal from the aliens to make first contact at Skyhook Base, but that the appeal was out-of-sync and therefore incomprehensible. As a result of the failed communication, the aliens land their saucer at Skyhook, but the military perceives them as threats and attacks, shooting one of the extraterrestrials. The other aliens strike back with devastating sonic beams and then take off, abducting one officer, General Hanley, who happens to be Carol's father.

By itself this opening gambit sounds like a setup for a story about "mankind victimizing misunderstood aliens," like another popular SF-film, 1951's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Yet the 1957 EARTH is nothing of the kind, for after the aliens are repulsed, they lure Russell, Carol, and two other Earthmen into another meeting. The newcomers reveal that they are the last remnants of a race with no homeworld, so they've come to take over Earth. They also reveal that the fate of General Hanley, who has been reduced to little more than a walking corpse after having had his brain drained of pertinent information. Unlike the Wellsian Martians, these invaders offer humankind the chance to capitulate without violence. However, when one of the other Earthmen attacks an alien device, he meets the same fate as General Hanley. Russell reluctantly agrees to take the aliens' message to humankind, though it's actually his intention to thwart the conquest.

Some of these plot-contrivances don't track especially well. The aliens' first activity on Earth, long before Russell deciphers their failed message, is to shoot down all of Skyhook's satellites. Later the aliens make the feeble excuse that they mistook the satellites for weapons-- a mistake I find difficult to credit in a spacefaring race. The aliens' reasons for wanting to contact Russell in particular are weak at best, and their second mistake-- their inability to make their own message clear-- seems equally improbable, though it's admittedly a good writer's device for generating suspense about the aliens' motives. Their initially covert approach is explained as an attempt to keep from spreading "panic" among the Earth-people, but after the conference with Russell, the invaders don't seem the least bit concerned with keeping a low profile. I speculate that the only reason the writers chose the covert approach had nothing to do with consistent motivation, and everything to do with giving Russell Marvin an inside look at one of the saucers, so that he, alone among all Earthmen, would have some inside knowledge about how to defeat them.

Once the purpose of the flying saucers is known, Russell indeed proves the linchpin of the efforts to come up with alien-destroying weapons before the invaders attack. The invaders disclose that they can manipulate time to some extent, though it's never clear in what manner, and that most of their weapons have a basic in sonic technology, although their spacesuits are made of "solidified electricity." Thus Russell, aided by other scientists around the world (talked about but not seen), invents a sonic cannon. A test of the cannon brings down one saucer, and the humans get their first look at an alien without his suit, showing that the creature, somewhat after the fashion of the Wellsian Martians, is a humanoid with an attenuated appearance.

In any case, when the aliens launch their first concerted attack, Russell's cannons go into action, resulting in the great Harryhausen set-pieces, showing them the saucers falling from the sky-- though they also manage to take out a lot of American icons as they go down, demolishing the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument.

Given that all of the other characters are ciphers-- not least Carol's father, who only exists to get brain-drained and thus cause Carol grief-- Russell and Carol have to carry the burden of making the invasion relatable in a human sense. Hugh Marlowe is good within the limitations of the role, but Joan Taylor, though she's given some decent lines, doesn't ever get beyond the limitations of being the obedient hausfrau.





Monday, May 7, 2018

TERROR OF THE RED MASK (1960)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

It seems incongruous to type "spoilers" for a penny-ante swashbuckler like TERROR OF THE RED MASK, whose place in history comes down to being one of assorted Euro-thrillers made by star Lex Barker after he shed the loincloth of Tarzan (so to speak). Yet for me the only points of interest in this routine flick consist in revealing the identity of the titular freedom-fighter, the Red Mask.

Ineluctably, RED MASK is just another take on the "Zorro" formula, this time transplanted to 15th-century Italy, where the crimson-attired crusader battles against the tyrant duke Astolfo. However, most Zorro-imitations make clear from the beginning that the viewpoint character is also the person who is, or is destined to become, the masked avenger of the title. Instead, Lex Barker plays Marco, a roving warrior-for-hire who is hired by evil Astolfo and who gets wooed by the film's two lead females. Marco, not the Red Mask, gets all the best action-scenes, and the film's simple story consists of two simple plotlines: the Duke's attempts to uncover the identity of the Red Mask, and Marco's decision as to whether to stand with the freedom fighters against the exponents of tyranny. This focus on "the guy who helps the masked avenger" rather than the avenger has sometimes shown up in comedies like 1955's THE COURT JESTER, but rarely in straight action film. Occasionally there have been cases where the centric protagonists shared billing with an ally of some sort, as seen in both HERCULES AND THE MASKED RIDER  (where "the Rider" is the star) and in THE THREE STOOGES MEET HERCULES (where the Stooges are in the ascendance). But from the title, one would expect the Red Mask's "terror" to be the focal point of the narrative.

It's no surprise when Barker's manly Marco decides to help the oppressed, or, depressingly, that he chooses the virginal court-lady (Liana Orfei) over the fiery gypsy (Chelo Alonso). There is a slight surprise in the Mask's identity, for it's none other than Karima the female gypsy. She's only seen in costume a couple of times-- the only reasons this film gains "uncanny" status-- but she does sword-fight a little in one scene, so she's at least more than just a pretty face. The "terror" of the title may be her own Poe-esque guilt, because at one point she poisons a man who loves her because he's on the wrong side. Later she gets guilty about her deed and hears voices, and ends up dying while the Good Girl gets the Good Guy.

Thus the film does also possess a little cachet in depicting a female swashbuckler, though the Red Mask's secondary status next to Barker's star-turn won't put her in the same league with the Black Whip and other distaff duelists.


Saturday, May 5, 2018

INVISIBLE STRANGLER (1978)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


I'm not meaning to damn INVISIBLE STRANGLER with faint praise by stating that there are many, many worse films. I'm just emphasizing that, while it's not especially good, one could watch it in a mood of pure escapism and find oneself slightly diverted.

There's probably some story behind the fact that the credited director is John Florea, while of the two persons cited on IMDB for uncredited director-duties, one of those two is the screenplay-scribe Arthur C. Pierce. Florea, Pierce and Gene Fowler Jr all had numerous credits directing and/or writing for television, and in most respects STRANGLER looks like a made-for-TV movie. It's a little more stylish than most such telefilms, particularly in respect to coming up with ways for the titular killer to knock off his victims.

This is one of the few films, along with NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY, in which a killer focuses only upon mature women, in contradistinction to the PSYCHO model. As the film opens, the strangler of the story, Roger Sands, resides in prison. He's made liberal use of the prison library, however, particularly with respect to studies of the occult sciences. He demonstrates his newfound telekinetic powers on an unruly cellmate, and then turns invisible, simply walking out of prison while the guards search for him.

He kills one victim, calling her "mother" as she lolls in a bubble-bath, but somehow the invisible man leaves behind very visible fingerprints. Police lieutenant Barrett (Robert Foxworth) learns that the killer is Roger Sands, the adult son of a famous celebrity model who tried to keep her son out of the public eye, the better to maintain her illusion of sexiness. Finally Roger snaps and strangles his mom, and then starts trying to kill other mature celebrities who remind him of his maternal unit. He attacks five women but fails to kill any of them, allowing them to testify at his trial and have him put away. The newly empowered Invisible Strangler then picks up where he left off, killing all of his mother-substitutes while Barrett and his subordinates try to head him off.

The script by Pierce and two other writers is entirely by-the-numbers, showing no interest in Sands' character except what's needed to keep the pot boiling. The lieutenant and the women he protects are similar ciphers, though somehow the producers got an unusual number of former big-names to participate in this lowbrow exercise, such as Elke Sommer (who gets the most screen time), Sue Lyon, and Leslie Parrish. Stephanie Powers plays Barrett's ditzy girlfriend, who I suppose was intended to serve as the film's sole comedy relief. It's no reflection on Powers' talents to say that she's not successful.

Aside from a few stylish scenes-- like one in which a victim is invisibly strangled in front of witnesses, who have no idea what's happening to her-- the film is a workmanlike diversion, and nothing more.