Monday, May 18, 2015

MYSTERY SQUADON (1933), ADVENTURES OF THE FLYING CADETS (1943)




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

Here we have two aviation-oriented serials, separated by ten years, but they have in common only one metaphenomenal element: a masked mystery villain.

Daredevil pilot Fred Cromwell and his pilot-buddy (and comic relief) Bill Horn are contacted for a suitably challenging job. Stephen Gray, contractor for a new dam, finds his project under constant aerial attack by a cadre of criminal pilots dressed in matching uniforms. They call themselves the Mystery Squadron, and their masked leader, "the Black Ace," continually warns the construction company to pick up stakes and leave the project.

The mystery elements of SQUADRON are minor at best; the film presents several red-herring candidates, and does so without being overly misleading or contrived. Still, the Squadron's motives for trying to drive off the construction company are dubious, and none of the suspects are particularly engrossing, though they include the popular character-actor J. Carroll Naish. Still, I noted that this Mascot serial seemed unusually adept at casting actors who look rugged and down-to-earth, in contrast to many serials that make their characters look overly handsome.

The heroic pilots Cromwell (Bob Steele) and Horn (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams) are no exception to this rule: although they're flat as characters, the script gives them some good badinage, particularly with reference to Horn's comical affection for jelly beans. Most serials overplay their humorous elements until they become predictable and thus unfunny, but SQUADRON is at least palatable in this respect.

Of course, such a serial is mainly about the action, and SQUADRON provides some good if not exceptional sequences. The Black Ace isn't on camera very often, and his costume design-- seen in the above lobby card-- is unimpressive. However, since all of the other crooked pilots tool around in light-colored uniforms-- possibly silver, though it's impossible to tell with a black-and-white serial-- they have a visual effect rather like that of a crooked Blackhawks.

The Black Ace also sports a few uncanny devices, such as a flamethrower mounted on his plane, and a few flash-grenades that he uses to blind his adversaries when he's cornered.



In contrast, the only metaphenomenal element in ADVENTURES OF THE FLYING CADETS is its single masked villain, who has no special devices and no explanation for his peculiar name, "the Black Hangman." Since he goes around trying to knock all the members of an expedition to North Africa, perhaps the scripters were thinking of the game "Hangman?"

The heroes this time out are four former street kids who are receiving flight-training to prepare for them for possible acceptance to the Air Force. Perhaps the implied rationale for this program was to fast-track juveniles for service in the armed forces, given that America's involvement in WWII was at its height in 1943, but no detailed explanations of the program are given, nor do the four boys-- Danny, Scrapper, Jinx and Zombie-- make more than cursory reference to their urban experiences.
They become involved in tracking down the Hangman after he kills their mentor, a retired U.S. Army officer. Though the Hangman has allies in the German spy-network, he himself is motivated only by a profit. He wants all the persons who visited the African caves of An-Kar-Han dead, so that only he can make the caves' stores of natural helium available to the Nazis, and thus reap a great monetary reward. It's not clear to me as to why the other expedition-members didn't immediately reveal this significant strategic information to the American high command, and none of them seem to have any suspicion as to the reason they're being targeted.

The four juvenile leads are competent in their adventurous derring-do, though not distinct enough to give any competition to the Dead End Kids (or their various derivations).  As is often the case with kid-gangs, the character used for comic relief gets the best lines, as when "Zombie" (William Benedict of CAPTAIN MARVEL fame) tells his buddies that he's stolen them some fresh clothes off some "good Nazis"-- by which he means "dead ones."

CADETS is an OK serial with good production values, but no particularly imaginative scenes or characters that would raise it above the level of the average. 

HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973), PALE RIDER (1985)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *irony,* (2) *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


So from what "high plains" does Clint Eastwood's "stranger" drift? If it's supposed to be heaven-- and Eastwood, directing his second film, is said to have altered the Ernest Tidyman script to emphasize the supernatural-- then it's a heaven that's more than a little comfortable with the sins of rape and murder.

DRIFTER is clearly indebted to some of the darker visions of the Old West, like 1952's HIGH NOON and 1953's SHANE, in that DRIFTER focuses upon a lone gunfighter who metes out justice in a corrupt western town. But the towns are redeemable in the earlier films, and the hero's actions are meant to cut out the poisonous criminal elements and make possible new growth. The Stranger (Eastwood) comes to the town of Lago to destroy it for its complicity in the murder of a marshal-- who may or may not be identical with the Stranger-- and he leaves very little standing, any more than did the Biblical angels who visited the city of Sodom.

The narrative unfolds in elliptical fashion. Eventually the audience learns that the townspeople arranged for their marshal, one Jim Duncan, to be killed, and that they allowed the three killers who did the dirty work to be condemned to prison. Now the three owlhoots are on their way back to Lago for vengeance. The townspeople hire three other gunfighters to protect the town, but the protectors take a dislike to the Stranger, pick a fight with him, and are killed by the lone gun. The town must then turn to the Stranger for protection from the gunfighters, but the Stranger runs roughshod over the cowardly townsfolk even while training them to defend themselves. Only two people-- a dwarf named Mordecai and a woman named Sarah-- show any sort of decency, and when the Stranger has finally visited his vengeance on both the town and the killers, it's hard to say if even the two good people will enjoy any future. For this reason I deem HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER to be an "irony," in that it depicts a world that is either completely or almost beyond the sphere of morality and justice.

The aforementioned "sins of rape" are perhaps the most striking here, since they are both committed by the hero, albeit "with an explanation," as the saying goes. Given that Tidyman's vision of Lago was reputedly informed by the murder of Kitty Genovese, a woman killed during a New York mugging, it's odd that women's deceptiveness with regard to sexuality makes them a target of the Stranger's attentions. Early in the film, a woman named Callie tries to provoke a reaction out of the stoic Stranger by bumping into him on purpose, obviously expecting him to apologize and give her the upper hand. Instead, he divines that she really wants to get with him, and when she slaps his cigar out of his mouth (here's one of the times when a cigar isn't just a cigar), he pulls her into a barn and takes her in the haystack. She shoots at him later, though her bullets miraculously miss him, and she ends up sleeping with him again, only to betray him to some of the aggrieved townsfolk.

Sarah, although she's seen in a flashback trying to prevent Marshal Duncan's murder, fares only a little better. To foil the attack on his hotel-room, the Stranger blows up most of the building with dynamite. Following this incident, Sarah remarks to the Stranger that only the room she shares with her husband has been left standing. He gives her a look, and then drags her, protesting greatly, into the room with him. She prepares to defend herself from rape, but the Stranger shifts gears and professes disinterest, which prompts her, like Callie, to attack him-- and this too ends in his assertion of dominance, though again, with the excuse that on some level the woman sought to provoke him to assault her. I tend to think that such incidents, though, were less about demeaning women and more about satirizing the image of the simon-pure western champion.

The Tidyman script provides a somewhat logical reason for the Stranger's animus toward Lago: that he is actually the brother of the slain marshal. Eastwood excises this explanation, though reputedly it survived in foreign versions of the film. Yet even if the Big Explanation had appeared in the American release, other elements continually suggest that the Stranger is more than a mere human being. I've mentioned the incident of the attempted shooting-- where Callie tries to shoot the Stranger in his bath, and he simply ducks his head under the tub-water, which should be no defense against point-blank gunfire even from a clumsy shooter. A similar incident occurs later, when a man standing behind the Stranger begins to draw a knife, and the gunfighter tells the knife-man, "You're going to look pretty silly with that knife sticking out of your ass." Moreover, in a scene that would seem to contradict Tidyman's Big Explanation, the movie lets the audience see into the Stranger's head just once, when he sleeps and dreams of the death of Marshal Duncan, though the Stranger was not present for the event-- unless, in some metaphysical manner, he and Duncan are one and the same. None of the incidents are unquestionable demonstrations of supernatural power. But when a film couples such ambivalences with copious references to religious concepts or rituals, it yields the effect I've termed the '"'ambivalent uncanny,' where one may be able to read the narrative in a naturalistic fashion if one pleases, but where the narrative is oriented toward presenting something wondrous despite that possible reading." Given this propensity, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER functions as a "phantasmal figuration," one of the few in which the source of the phantasm is the protagonist who may or may not be a ghost, rather than some hooded figure pretending to be a ghost.




Eastwood also directed a "kindler, gentler" version of DRIFTER in 1985. PALE RIDER hews more closely to the model of the redeemable community, Where SHANE has a gunfighter take the side of a group of poor homesteaders against a ruthless cattle baron, RIDER has an enigmatic traveling preacher, nicknamed Preacher (Eastwood), who takes the side of impoverished tin-pan miners against the owner of a big mine who wants them off their land.

Preacher is certainly a less demoniacal presence than the Stranger. He's called "Preacher" because he wears what looks like a clerical collar, but he keeps his philosophizing to a minimum, in keeping with the Eastwood Hero's "strong, silent" reputation. He does argue a little with corrupt mine-owner Coy LaHood, telling the rapacious miner that he can't serve both God and Mammon. Like the Stranger, if he is supernatural-- and he only comes into town after being figuratively "summoned" by Megan, a teenaged girl from the mining-camp-- his "supernatural" acts are again ambivalent. A couple of times the Preacher escapes from dicey situations with no clear explanation, and when LaHood brings a gang of crooked enforcers to town to kill the Preacher, the enforcers' leader is astonished when he recognizes his foe from some previous encounter. But if it was an encounter like that of DRIFTER, where Preacher has returned from an inconvenient death, the enforcer gets no chance to expatiate on the matter, as Preacher kills him before he can say more.

 RIDER does not strive to create DRIFTER's horrific mood, nor does it use the earlier film's range of spooky musical effects. Yet though there's no rape-by-the-hero here, the sexual politics may still be a bit problematic for some viewers. After the Preacher shows up at the camp of the put-upon miners, he ends up staying with Megan, the teenaged girl who "summoned" him, and Megan's mother, who just happens to share the name "Sarah" with the character from DRIFTER. Whereas the protagonist of SHANE is idolized in a non-sexual way by a teenaged boy, Megan eventually professes something more than admiration for the considerably older man (Eastwood was 55 at the time of the film's release, and the actress playing Megan was about sixteen). Preacher is suitably restrained at this juvenile protestation of affection, even when Megan accuses him of being in love with her mother. However, Preacher does not end up either seducing or being seduced by either of the women. Perhaps the extraneous romantic elements were only present to keep up the reputation of the Eastwood Persona.

Of the two films, RIDER is the less ambitious and the more derivative. Its evocations of Christian morality are at best half-hearted, since it goes without saying that turning the other cheek would have deprived this decent time-killer of its shoot-em-up climax.

Friday, May 15, 2015

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)



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


I find nothing stranger about the reception given AGE OF ULTRON by comics fandom than the complaints that it didn’t give the character of the Black Widow a satisfying character arc. While I was not mesmerized by a romantic linkage between Natasha Romanoff and the Hulk’s alter ego Bruce Banner, the two of them shared an arc far more impressive than any other hero in the movie got.

Consider the poor God of Thunder. He gets some nice moments bonding with the other Avengers over the manly art of hammer-lifting. But as far as the plot is concerned, Thor is just there to play cosmic cop, trying to round up stray Asgardian tech. Oh, and he has a vision that alerts him to the future menace of the Infinity Stones, which isn’t directly relevant to the ULTRON story, though the plot-thread of the Stones does serve as a lead-in to the cinematic incarnation of the Vision.

  Captain America doesn’t get much better character treatment. He’s still the moral bastion of the group, laying bare the hubris of Tony Stark’s actions in creating Ultron.  But his extended hand-to-hand battle with Ultron serves no purpose in the plot, and long-time comics-mavens may find Captain America's survival against Ultron hard to swallow. Cap too has a vision designed to make him uncertain of his actions, but it amounts to nothing more than penny-ante nostalgia.

Iron Man’s treatment may be the worst of the batch. I fully understand why writer-director Joss Whedon chose to make Stark the creator of Ultron. There was no question of shoehorning any version of Henry Pym, Ultron’s comic-book “daddy,” into this already overcrowded flick. Stark could have made a passable 21st-century Frankenstein, given his need to exceed his own father and his belief in solving all problems through technology. But Stark’s creation of Ultron is rooted in a plot-contrivance-- a vision of the death of his avenging buddies-- rather than in his established character. It’s perhaps appropriate that this is the film to introduce the character of the Vision, for visions are also the way Whedon moves most of his character-arcs forward—visions created by Whedon’s version of the Scarlet Witch.

This mistress of mental magic also wreaks similar incapacitating delusions on the minds of the Hulk and the Black Widow, but their shared arc benefits somewhat from beholding their worst nightmares. At least their nightmares don’t serve as arbitrary plot-points, as they do with Thor, Cap and Iron Man. Early in the film Banner’s fear that his monster will elude his control and hurt people is mirrored by Romanoff’s anomie at having been created to be a government-sponsored “monster:” a trained assassin who’s implicitly got a lot of innocent blood on her hands.

The Scarlet Witch, who dispenses these intense hallucinations to most of the Avengers, does so early in the film because she, like her brother Quicksilver, bears a grudge against Avengers-patron Tony Stark. This plot-line doesn’t come to much of anything, either, for its only purpose is to bring the mutant twins into contact with the Avengers. This is important purely because one of them—the one who, in the comics, became one the group’s most enduring members—ends up joining the super-group in the movie as well. But take away the contrivance of the twins’ reason for hating Stark, and they too fall apart at the seams.

Hawkeye gets a little better treatment. While in his other film-appearances he’s something of a cipher, just another cog in the SHIELD wheel, in ULTRON the archer becomes in this Whedon-outing the exemplar of the “normal life” denied to most super-heroes. Hawkeye’s conversations with his wife carry the resonance of the “noble soldier” who wants to remain home but feels compelled to serve the greater cause. This is a far cry from the comics’ sassy scofflaw. However, though Hawkeye’s soldierly soliloquies run on a little too long, the revelation of his home life throws into relief one of the biggest problems with the AVENGERS franchise in any medium.

Marvel Comics has successfully defined its characters in all media as fluid entities capable of change. But the original concept of THE AVENGERS, as introduced in 1963, took its inspiration from DC’s JUSTICE LEAGUE, which teamed up DC’s foremost heroes in what remained, from a characterization standpoint, very static adventures. Stan Lee may have realized this problem early in the evolution of the series, for he quickly wrote the Hulk out of the group and did the same for Thor and Iron Man fourteen issues later. From then on, though the “big guns” came and went in the AVENGERS comic, the feature was primarily defined by the characters who, unlike characters with their own features, could change and grow, like Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and the Vision.

Did Whedon feel similar constraints in using Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America in ULTRON? Future plotlines with the latter two may not have coalesced as yet, and there’s no certainty that there will be another IRON MAN feature if Downey chooses not to reprise the part. Whatever the reason, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON has the feeling of a weak second act that may or may not yield a more resonant third act—be it the Infinity Stones megillah or something else.

It’s not my usual practice to review the characters of the film rather than the plot, but I have an excuse: there really isn’t much plot to review: the result of a poor conception of the villain of the title. While I’m not opposed across the board to a writer inverting the nature of a popular character, I think said writer needs to be doing it for well-considered reasons. In the comics, Ultron is a raging Oedipus Complex on the loose: a man of metal who despises his mortal creator simply for being made of fallible flesh. Whedon, known far and wide for his facility with snappy patter, unfortunately decided to make his robot rogue into a smooth-talking ironist in love with the sound of his own voice, and the casting of that voice as the urbane James Spader only worsened the problem. Mechanisms who decide that their creators are either undesirable or redundant have a long history in science fiction, and one AVENGERS continuity even gave the Sentinels the idea of wiping out mankind to prevent mutation. But Whedon does not provide any good reason, whether of passion or cold logic, for Ultron to desire the death of humanity. There may have been some dim idea of having Ultron mimic the metrosexual stylings of his “father” Tony Stark, but if this was the idea, it wasn’t pursued with any depth. The relationship between Ultron and the Vision in the comics, also a sound extension of Oedipal concepts, lacks any emotional resonance in ULTRON, and Ultron’s plan for destroying humanity may be one of the worst ever conceived in any medium.

That is not to say that entertaining moments in ULTRON are entirely lacking. The outstanding scene is the film's big FX-set-piece, a battle between the out-of-control Hulk and Iron Man, clad in “Hulkbuster” armor. I noted in my review of IRON MAN 3 that I did not like the IRON MAN franchise letting the hero utilize a bunch of Iron Man-like robots as his helpers; “my” Iron Man only put himself on the line in his battles with evil. Therefore I was certainly pleased that Ultron took control of these annoying automatons to use as his shock troops. Even if the Avengers’ battles with Ultron lacked something, at least I enjoyed seeing these suckers get picked off.

There are lots of Marvel trivia scattered throughout the story, particularly the suggestion of a Black Panther-Klaw storyline of some sort, and of course the de rigeur appearance of Stan Lee. But the promise of the original AVENGERS has already begun to dim.
        
      




















                     

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

THE RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS (1983), ROBOVAMPIRE (1988), FUTURE HUNTERS (1986)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*

I've been slowly working my way through Mill Creek's SCI-FI INVASION DVD-collection, and though I like a good bad film as much as the next SF-fanatic, there aren't many diamonds amid all this refuse. Here I'll lump together three of the films that belong to the mythos of adventure, though all three are pretty punk examples of that mythos, or, really, of anything.

Italian director Ruggero Deodato has established a strong rep for doing serviceable trash-films, such as LONE RUNNER, appearing just three years after RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS. But RAIDERS is an incompetent hodgepodge that fails even as popcorn entertainment.

A Russian submarine sinks, releases radiation, and somehow triggers the rising of Atlantis. Deodato, having no budget to even suggest such an event, relies on the mere suggestion of the city's re-surfacing via lots of splashing water. Two American soldiers of fortune are at sea when they witness the event: a dull white guy named Mike and a dull black guy whom Mike usually calls "Wash" despite the black guy's occasional demand to be called "Mohammed."

Since Deodato can't afford the rising of Atlantis, Mike, Wash, and the lady scientist who hired them zoom back to land-- IMDB says it's supposed to be a Caribbean island. Somehow, though an Atlantean invasion force called "the Interceptors" gets their first, massacres almost everyone, and turns the city into a wasteland. Although the Interceptors are supposed to be the heirs to whatever great technology allowed the city to survive under the sea, they look like nothing more than a bunch of rejects from a MAD MAX imitation, dressed like biker-punks, driving motorcycles and cars with weird decorations. They also don't have any weapons but standard firearms, though the leader wears a mask modeled on the "crystal skull" artifact unearthed in the 1920s. The Interceptors don't talk much and don't seem to have much of a game plan, but they do kidnap the lady scientist and take her back to Atlantis, to be their new queen. Deodato manages to have Mike and Wash rush to the rescue while not seeing much more of Atlantis but a bunch of empty chambers (though one has in it a statue that shoots laser-rays), a central monitor that shows the faces of the Atlanteans, and a big pair of glass shapes that are apparently supposed to represent the dome of Atlantis. MIke and Wash fail to save the woman from the Atlanteans, retreat to their helicopter to get out before the dome closes, and-- hey! Somehow the lady not only freed herself of the Atlanteans' control, she got there ahead of them!

I pity the poor audiences who may have actually seen this travesty on a big screen.




With a title like ROBOVAMPIRE, one can only go up-- particularly since the title character, an Asian clone of Robocop, is actually named "Robowarrior." A group of drug-smugglers enlist a Taoist priest to help them battle drug-enforcement agents, which the priest does by unleashing on the cops a bunch of Chinese hopping vampires. For good measure, the priest also has control of a male vampire who looks something like a bat, and a female ghost who was once the inamorata of the bat-guy.

Fortunately for the cops, one of their number, a fellow named Tom, gets gunned down, so the cops turn his body over to a convenient scientist, and he creates-- Robowarrior! The battles between the robot-cop and the various ghoulies might be good for a laugh if you were in the right mood. I have to say that for me, ROBOVAMPIRE doesn't reach the heights of absurdity required for "so bad it's good."



In most respects Cirio Santiago's FUTURE HUNTERS is every bit as dumb as the other films. A man from the future travels back to 1986 bearing with him the spear that wounded Christ (I think). Two young fortune-hunters, ex-marine Slade and his girlfriend Michelle, take custody of the spear-head when the future-guy dies, telling them that they can prevent the holocaust that will overtake his time. They never really do find out how they can do this, because they're immediately pursued by a Nazi collector of rare objects, who brings a small army of henchmen with him. Trying to find someone who knows what they should do next, Slade and Michelle journey to the "Venus Valley," looking for a lost scientist who might know the score. The Nazis pursue, eager to gain the object that will help them rule the world (or maybe destroy it?), and our heroes must also face off against midget Mongolians and a tribe of primitive Amazons.

Yet, even though HUNTERS is stupid, at least it keeps a sense of forward motion, and the cheesy sets and costumes reinforce the sense of fun. As an extra added attraction, famed kung-fu actor Bruce Li has a small part as the couple's taxidriver, who unveils his superior Shaolin technique and comes to Slade's aid when the latter is beaten up by an aged kung-fu monk.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

MASTER OF THE WORLD (1961)



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

The frequent aphorism that "films are never as good as the books on which they're based" will find no support in 1961's MASTER OF THE WORLD.

Since I recently finished chronicling my impressions of Jules Verne's two Robur-books in this blogpost, I was anxious to re-screen the film and draw comparisons to the source novels. Scripter Richard Matheson, who around this time was also adapting Edgar Allan Poe for AIP, compensated for many of the weaknesses of the Verne novels by borrowing key incidents from both of them and giving them a more consistent theme-- albeit one probably indebted to the theme of Earl Felton's script for Walt Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, cited as the second highest-grossing film of 1954.

I noted in my review of the books that the first novel, ROBUR THE CONQUEROR, proves the better of the two, while the sequel MASTER OF THE WORLD is weak at best. That said, though ROBUR benefits from a strong "villain-protagonist" and an engrossing situation, it has structural weaknesses. Verne apparently created Robur as a sort of "Captain Nemo of the air," in that Robur is as fascinated with the domain of the sky as Nemo was with the sea. Further, both are reclusive mystery-men who build fantastic vehicles in order to emancipate themselves from the world of ordinary mortals. However, while in LEAGUES Verne gives the reader tantalizing hints about Nemo's nature, the reader gets nothing about Robur except mystery piled on mystery. And whereas Nemo's actions are reasonably consistent-- though somewhat less so in the 1954 film adaptation-- Robur's amount to, "look, I've built this great thing and you had better admire it!" The books give Robur a few acid remarks on the backwardness of the most advanced nations, and he uses his flying ship the Albatross to intervene in a Dahomeyan sacrificial rite. But Verne's Robut isn't explicitly devoted to crusading against the sins of man.

Matheson's Robur, however, is such a crusader, for his express purpose for building the Albatross is not because of an *amour fou* with the sky, but to force mankind to give up warfare by demonstrating the superiority of air power, which he alone wields.  The proximate source of this dedication is probably the script for the 1954 LEAGUES, which presented Nemo as engaged in a ceaseless war with the corrupt nations of the world, not least because of his hatred of slavery. Matheson's Robur simply amps this up to a desire to control the unruly nations through an act of intimidation, which surely seemed relevant to the audiences of 1961, having experienced over a decade of nuclear brinksmanship.

Matheson's only important borrowing from the second Verne novel is the character of John Strock, a rather bland viewpoint character who gets taken aboard Robur's flying machine, in a manner more or less identical to what happens to the viewpoint characters in the first book. From that book Matheson borrows most of the film's structure as well as two of Verne's viewpoint characters, young man Evans and older man Prudent. Matheson happily jettisons another viewpoint-character, the comic relief Frycollin, and substitutes a female lead, Dorothy, who is the daughter of Prudent and the fiancee of Evans.

Initially set in early 1900s America, the film opens with an absurd debate about the right way to steer a lighter-than-air craft, which is basically true to a similar scene in Verne; this scene serves to introduce government investigator Strock (Charles Bronson) to Dorothy, her father and her fiancee-- the last two of whom Strock wants to enlist in investigating a mystery centered around a mountain in Pennsylvania. The four of them end up piloting a hot-air balloon over the mountain, but a rocket knocks them out of the sky. The foursome are saved from death and taken aboard the Albatross, whereon they meet the fantastic ship's creator Robur (Vincent Price). Robur, though capable of killing his unwanted guests outright, elects to let them live as his prisoners aboard ship, as long as they obey his laws.

An internal conflict develops between Strock and Evans. Evans is presented as a stuffy prep-school type who incites Prudent and Dorothy to attempt a half-baked escape; Strock reports them to Robur in order to save their lives. This antagonizes Evans, who considers Strock a traitor, but causes Dorothy to become more interested in Strock's motivations-- which in turn signals a shift in her affections.

The battle lines are thus drawn: Evans is the bull-headed idealist, seeking to ignore the reality of their situation, while Strock is the realist, willing to temporarily side with the enemy in order to gain an advantage. An incident taken from the first novel, in which Frycollin is punished by being dangled in air from a rope, is transferred to Evans and Prudent, though Strock nobly takes the older man's place on the suspension rope. This too demonstrates Strock's superior character, for Evans' rope breaks and Strock saves him until the two of them can be reeled back to the Albatross.

The struggle of the captives to get free from Robur's ship roughly follows the first novel, though without the novel's reprieve for the Albatross and its creator. Evans even tries to sabotage Strock out of jealousy, though nothing more comes of this, since this comes near the climax, which is concerned with Robur's inevitable demise.

Though the script makes clear that Robur's actions are folly, Matheson never allows the viewer to forget-- as the Disney LEAGUES often does-- that the villain's folly is a noble one. Vincent Price, whose character still occupies center stage for all the wrangling of the co-stars, is in fine form railing against the evils of war, and the scene in which he and his crew elect to "go down with the ship" provides a note of tragedy amid the adventurous goings-on.  But though the script makes a good case for the superiority of Strock over Evans, one wonders if his "get the job done no matter what" ethic isn't far removed from the ethics of the warmongers whom Robur despises.



Saturday, May 2, 2015

ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)



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

"Man, you stepped right out of a comic book."

Despite this remark by Jim Kelly's character "Williams," Bruce Lee's ENTER THE DRAGON doesn't usually appear in most (if any) compendiums of fantastic film. I tend to believe that this is not because DRAGON lacks the content necessary for an uncanny film, but that in the minds of most viewers, the genre "martial arts flick" overpowers all other considerations. I've observed a similar phenomenon of "genre-precedence" in many mystery-genre films, with particular reference to 1976's MURDER BY DEATH.

I admire DRAGON but I don't have a lot to say about its story-line. Like many spectacle-oriented narratives there's not a strong interplay of plot and character. Rather, DRAGON functions largely to link together assorted kinetic martial-arts scenes. There's a slight invocation of a "Three Musketeers" alliance between Lee's character "Lee" and two other fighters, Roper and Williams. But since Williams dies halfway through the film, there really isn't much more than a transitional bond between the two surviving heroes. Since DRAGON is a film about spectacle, then, I'll concentrate on the ways in which it provides viewers with spectacle by drawing on the tropes of fantastic cinema.

The cinema of James Bond, rather than comic books, was probably the proximate influence on the DRAGON script. In the 1960s Lee had attempted to break into the big time in Hollywood with no great success, though his reputation as TV's Kato allegedly helped launch him as a star of Hong Kong martial arts films in the early 1970s. Those films, which harvested international box office, certainly paved the way for DRAGON, which pits Lee's kung-fu warrior against a foe of near-Bondian proportions. Han, a petty warlord on an Asian island, seems strongly based on Fleming's Doctor No, but where No simply has metal hands, Han is missing one normal hand but can insert a variety of attachments in place of the missing organ.

Long before Lee is given a personal reason for hunting down Han (the villain indirectly causes the death of Lee's sister), Han is depicted as a rogue Shaolin student, and thus may represent a "negative image" of Lee the loyal practitioner.  British Intelligence contacts Lee and somehow arranges for him to join Han's tournament in order to gain intel on the warlord's crimes of drug-dealing and white slavery.  In contrast to Lee, Han apparently invites both Roper and Williams because he wants to use them to facilitate his drug-dealing operations-- a motive that doesn't hold up well, given that neither man is a literal criminal, much less possessing any "insider" status with American organized crime.

Lee's formidability in his fights is amazing; even in scenes where he's attacked by many guards, he's only rarely tagged by them. But though his untouchability may strain the viewer's credibility, in a narrative sense his skills fall within the boundaries of the naturalistic. Whatever metaphenomenal content the film has, then, centers around the character of Master Han.

In this 2012 essay on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, I made this observation without having seen the film in several years:

...had Bruce Lee's character (also named Lee) simply battled the villainous Han in a more mundane setting, that would have removed one metaphenomenal element from the film.  However, the idea of a villain trapping a hero in a "hall of mirrors" goes quite a bit beyond the habits of even the most inventive of the naturalistic villains... A hall of mirrors certainly does not violate our ideas of causality, so it is not metaphenomenal in any cognitive sense, but because it does suggest the metaphenomenal in an affective sense-- pushing Han more toward the domain of the supervillain proper...

I still consider that the "hall of mirrors" scene conveys a tone of uncanny strangeness. I don't think Han ever gives a reason for its presence on his island, so it must exist for no purpose than to torment victims. However, though it's the only metaphenomenal device in Han's compound-- and I won't count the sliding metal doors with which Han traps Lee prior to the big concluding battle-- Han's interchangeable hand-attachments are an "outre" device in their own right.

Granted, I haven't as yet reviewed any films that made use of this particular device. I came close with 1946's TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN, but the hero's leopard-man villains don't just wear claws on their hands; they dress in leopard-costumes as well. There don't seem to be a lot of films where the uncanny phenomenality stems from nothing but a character having a claw-hand, though I would definitely count 1947's DICK TRACY'S DILEMMA. Obviously, the presence of a claw-hand in itself does not confer the uncanny tone; it has to be used in a certain way not found in isophenomenal dramas like THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (also from 1946).

Han's metal hand is definitely used to lend the villain a superhuman aspect in the first scene that reveals it. Han confronts Williams, accusing him of being a spy. After Williams disposes of a couple of the villain's guards, Han engages with the hero. Williams grimaces in pain from the blows of the metal hand, given that he has no knowledge of Han's special advantage, and it's broadly hinted that this advantage allows Han to taste victory and kill Williams.

Now that I have re-screened the film, I'd say that even without the mirror-maze scene, Han's weird attachments are enough to give the film a sense of that aforesaid strangeness. Most viewers remember the nasty long metal claw with which Han slices Lee during the maze-scene.



However, in some ways, his other claw, which resembles the paw of a beast, better symbolizes Han's status as a "super" villain. Interestingly, after Han's defeat and death,the film ends on a shot of the beast-claw embedded in a table. Perhaps this signifies the defeat of a human beast by the morally superior Lee (and to some extent, also by his ally Roper, who becomes something of a "hero in a breach")  But given that director Robert Clouse wasn't exactly known as a paragon of subtlety, this concluding detail is more likely to have come from original scriptwriter Michael Allin or even from Bruce Lee himself.







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Thursday, April 23, 2015

THE STRANGE DOOR (1951), THE BLACK CASTLE (1952)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


In 1948 Universal essentially "exorcised" its own reputation for horror-franchises by subjecting its most famous monsters to Abbott and Costello. And for the next three years, Abbott and Costello films were the only outlets for Universal horror. Then in 1951 and 1952, Universal made two period-dramas with horror elements. The films's main appeal seems to be oriented toward the swashbucklers of the decade, which unlike horror films were reasonably popular across the board. Both films were the first metaphenomenal films for their respective directors, though only one of the two became famous for his output in that department.

I have not read the Robert Louis Stevenson story on which THE STRANGE DOOR is based, though some reviews state that the film has ratcheted up the torture elements. But DOOR is unquestionably the stronger of the two films. The title refers to a concealed door in the castle of the Sire de Maletroit, an eighteenth-century nobleman who maintains a medieval attitude toward torture-devices. He also keeps his own brother Edmond confined in a dungeon, while creating the fiction that he is dead. He does this because he wanted the woman his brother married, and so comes up with a complicated plan of revenge. Maletroit has raised Edmond's daughter Blanche-- who looks exactly like her deceased mother-- to adulthood, but has done so so that he may despoil her in marriage. However, Maletroit doubtless knows that society would not approve of an uncle marrying his own niece, so he tries to blackmail a young wastrel, Denis de Beaulieu, to do his dirty work for him. However, Denis and Blanche fall in love, which means that the evil nobleman must come up with a new plan.

Boris Karloff has a supporting role as Voltan, a servant who is still loyal to Edmond, but the role is very underwritten despite the character's importance to the plot. Even one of Maletroit's lackeys, Talon (Michael Pate), gets better characterization. Richard Wyler does nicely as the young swain reformed by love, but this is entirely a Charles Laughton vehicle. And while Laughton does use some of his favorite acting-tricks-- lounging on a table a la Doctor Moreau-- he invests the villain with a great deal of humanity, particularly toward the end, when Maletroit realizes some of the folly of his actions.

Director Joseph Pevney brings a sort of low-budget flair to the proceedings, but did not return to metaphenomenal subject matter until he started directing for television shows like THE MUNSTERS and STAR TREK.



In contrast, director Nathan Juran became quite well known for his 1950s fantasy-works, particularly THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, as did his producer on THE BLACK CASTLE, William Alland. Yet they seemed out of their depth in these mordant Gothic settings, and the script, though written by the same fellow who adapted Stevenson, lacked the psychological tension seen in STRANGE DOOR.

This time, a British agent named Burton is sent to Austria to investigate the doings of Count Von Bruno, with whom Burton contended in colonial Africa. The implication is that Von Bruno practiced some atrocities on the natives, in contrast to the more enlightened British regime, making this somewhat in the territory of Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS. The backstory, however, is only an excuse to motivate Von Bruno in acts of revenge against certain British officers who fought against in Africa. Burton, who never met Von Bruno personally, mounts an investigation of the missing officers. While Von Bruno tries to find ways to discreetly murder the young officer, his young wife Elga begins to show a strong interest in Burton.

Richard Greene, playing Burton, attempted to bring to this role some of the swashbuckling brio he put across in his ROBIN HOOD teleseries, but the character is bland. A more melodramatic actor than Stephen McNally might have saved CASTLE, but McNally lacks the needed intensity, while horror-stalwarts Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. are sidelined in supporting roles. There's a fair amount of action, and a Romeo-and-Juliet schtick where Burton and Elga fakes their deaths with drugs that slow their reactions. But CASTLE proved unviting to audiences, and there were no more in this "series."