Thursday, October 23, 2014

PROJECT SHADOWCHASER I-III (1992, 1994, 1995)



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


I had seen PROJECT SHADOWCHASER III years ago on cable, and for many years had no idea what the other installments were like. YouTube gave me the chance to find out.

The opening film from 1992 is essentially "Die Hard with a Killer Android."  In a near-future setting some terrorists break into a government installation. There they find and liberate an intelligent android being kept on ice. The android, name of Romulus (Frank Zagarino), takes over the gang, and they invade a high-rise hospital in order to kidnap the daughter of the president.  More or less by accident, the authorities also unleash a convict from cryo-sleep, name of DaSilva (Martin Kove). To keep his freedom DaSilva braves the high-rise and begins knocking off terrorists in the approved John McClane manner, with a little help from the aforesaid daughter (Meg Foster). It's a tolerably executed cheesy action-flick with decent direction from Jon Eyres, also the director on the other two in the official series.



Next up is 1994's SHADOWCHASER II, aka NIGHT SIEGE. Although Romulus appears to be destroyed at the end of the 1992 film, again an android-- this time without a name, but identical in appearance and again played by Zagarino-- recruits a bunch of terrorists. With this gang he proceeds to take over a nuclear plant, apparently in the hope of triggering armageddon. This time the tough McClane-clone is Frank (Bryan Genesse), a janitor at the nuclear facility, who for no clear reason is a master of the martial arts.  Of the three films, this one puts forth the best hard-hitting fight-scenes, particularly a face-off between Unnamed Android and Forgettable Janitor-Hero at the conclusion.  Female lead Beth Toussaint is both a physicist at the plant and a working mom, so of course her young boy arrives during the chaos in order to up the tension a bit.




PROJECT SHADOWCHASER III, however, has even less to do with the earlier two Eyres films than they do with each other. Number Three jumps forward to an era in which mankind is now exploring space on a regular basis. Our viewpoint characters are a motley crew aboard a communications station orbiting Mars, all of whom are just minding their own business, shooting the shit and complaining about work. Then an ore-mining spacecraft suddenly careens into their vicinity. The crew manages to steer clear of the onrushing spaceship-- until it turns around and deliberately runs into them.  The protagonists soon learn that the ship's original crew has been killed by a berserk, again nameless android (Zagarino), who then begins stalking the comm-station crew as well. For absolutely no reason, the android can assume the appearance of anyone he sees-- which means that, in essence, Eyres and his scripter decided to borrow not from one movie, but two: the original ALIEN and 1982's THE THING.

Ironically, though Eyres' handling of the larger ensemble of actors and the low-budget ALIEN-derived setting is quite skillful, Number Three is the least enjoyable of the series.  The actors are skilled but their characters are all cookie-cutter types, and whatever charisma Zagarino displayed in the earlier films is mitigated by all the shapechanging.

Given that dozens of DIE HARD imitations appeared during the nineties without birthing sequels, I speculate that Zagarino's lean muscular bod is the main reason the first film managed to spawn two more entries.  It's interesting that while Zagarino doesn't look anything like Alexander Godunov, who played the long-haired blonde crook in DIE HARD...




...it might be that Zagarino's essaying of yet another "blonde muscleman" sparked in video-viewers some enthusiasm for this particular DIE HARD knockoff. But as I say, it's pure speculation on my part.

Since the android in the third movie doesn't have any decent opposition, that and its copying of ALIEN relegate it to subcombative status.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

ANNIE (1982), LITTLE RITA OF THE WEST (1967)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2)  *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


I haven't reviewed many musicals on this blog, but the form presents a number of challenges to the NUM theory.  In contrast to more mimetically oriented narratives, musicals take a pleasure in "breaking the fourth wall." Most of these are "fallacious figments" in the naturalistic sense, meaning that audiences know that they're meant to disregard most, if not all, departures from causality. The most prominent figment is the manifestation of orchestral music to accompany the performers' songs, but there are also moments in which the protagonists briefly contravene causality, as when Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling in 1951's ROYAL WEDDING.  Yet there are also instances in which musicals include metaphenomena that are not meant to be disregarded. The cinematic dance-team of Astaire and Lucille Bremer did one of each type of metaphenomena. In ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, a dying Astaire dreams that he dances a sumptous exotic ballet with Bremer, while in YOLANDA AND THE THIEF, Astaire poses as a heavenly angel to the naive Bremer, only to encounter the Real Thing.

Except for one brief sequence, the 1982 ANNIE could be a musical in the naturalistic mode. This would be in keeping with the comic strip, which seemed to place Little Orphan Annie's exploits in a largely naturalistic, if larger than life, world. As my knowledge of the strip is spotty, I don't know if the film's attribution of magical powers to Daddy Warbucks' aide Punjab is on-target or not. But Punjab provides the only example of marvelous content in the film; that of levitating a flower-vase with his mind-powers for Annie's entertainment. Thus the film falls into the category I've termed "the marginal metaphenomenal," in that the metaphenomenality doesn't really contribute to the plot and barely adds anything to any of the characters.  Yet this doesn't seem to be a phenomenon meant to be disregarded as with my first Astaire example. There's at least a degree of logic in that Punjab, being a Hindu, may have developed mental powers through the mystic arts for which India has become famous. I tend to think that there ought to be at least a tenuous chain of logic that justifies a real metaphenomenon, even as tenuous as when a vampire and a mad scientist appear in the manor-setting of ONE MORE TIME, apparently for no better reason than the tendency of monsters to show up in such settings.

Incidentally, I don't have much to say about ANNIE as entertainment: it's tolerable on that level, but it doesn't bother to address any of the social issues relevant to the conservative Harold Gray comic strip, except in the most dismissive manner.





Much more negligible in the history of film musicals is the Italian western spoof LITTLE RITA OF THE WEST. It's a silly farrago of comics scenes in which the titular Rita-- played by Italian singer Rita Pavone-- goes around beating down various cowboy opponents, except when she takes time out for non-diegetical musical performances.  The script is cheerfully anachronistic, so the question comes up: should anything be taken "seriously?"  Or should everything fantastic be dismissed in the manner as ROYAL WEDDING's ceiling dance?

The particular maybe-metaphenomenon I had to consider is seen in the still above. Following a scene in which the miniscule cowgirl beats up a guy dressed like Eastwood's "Man with No Name" (and played by former *peplum* star Kirk Morris), she blows the guy away with a "golden pistol" that doubles as a grenade-launcher. Real spaghetti westerns sometimes edge into the realm of the uncanny with the use of weird weapons, but my verdict is that the only way Rita's golden pistol would have qualified would be if it had been given even a tenuous thread of logic to justify it. No such logical chain is evoked, so in essence Rita's pistol-- really no more than a verbal reference to the 1966 film, RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL-- is no more a :"real fantasy" than Astaire's ceiling-dance.

Like ANNIE, RITA is only tolerable entertainment if one happens to be in the mood for its charms. Its most amusing sequence is one in which Little Rita triumphs over a villain outfitted exactly like Franco Nero's Django.

Friday, October 17, 2014

THE X FROM OUTER SPACE (1967), MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET (1967)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*


These two kaiju films debuted in the same year, both coming from studios not known for heavy involvement in the genre, unlike Tojo (home of Godzilla) and Daiei (domicile of Gamera).  THE X FROM OUTER SPACE originated from a studio called Shokichi, best known to Americans for their production of anime films, while MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET was the only kaiju to come from Studio Nikkatsu.  But their differences are far more fundamental.

I've seen reviewers who harbor quite a bit of affection for THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, with its reptile-chicken monster Guilala. I might have liked Guilala if he'd appeared in a film that showed some life. Unfortunately, before the monster appears, almost an hour of X's running-time is squandered with slow-moving scenes with no action and superficial characters.

The story begins by stating that a Japanese space program has already sent ships to visit Mars, and that none of the ships have returned. A new ship, commanded by Captain Sano, takes off for Mars to investigate, and although most of the crew is Japanese, there's one pretty white girl named Peggy, who's patently in love with the brave captain. Sano's got nothing but business in mind, though, especially when his ship nears Mars and almost encounters a UFO. The ship fails to intercept the UFO but the alien craft leaves some spore-like residue on the Earth-ship's hull. Having failed to unravel the mystery, Sano's ship goes home (because we all know that in the future space-ships will be able to simply turn around like you turn around your automobile).

There's not much to say about this. Once the ship returns to Earth, the spores, upon exposure to air, spawn the aforesaid giant chicken-reptile, which then goes on a rampage-- an exceedingly cheap rampage, with inferior visual effects and miniatures. Is the creature the tool in an alien conquest-plot? No one seems interested in the matter.  After the monster has rampaged for a while, Sano's team isolates an element from the detritus that birthed the monster. Just like Lex Luthor could synthesize kryptonite, the Japanese manage to synthesize "Guilalanium," which has a kryptonite-like effect on Guilala. The monster, after being coated by what must be tons and tons of white Guilalanium foam, shrinks back to spore-size, and the humans send it back into space.




MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET doesn't have a plot that's any more complex than that of X. However, even if its visual effects had been on the same low level as those of X-- which they aren't-- MONSTER plays fair with its simple story, and delivers a giant-monster tale with a little bit of heart.

I suspect MONSTER had a higher budget, since the director allows for a number of engaging shots even at the beginning, while the protagonists-- a Japanese exploring group, combining both scientists and reporters-- are simply riding in their chartered boat. The comedy-relief guy sees a shining UFO flash through the sky, but of course, he's the only one, so no one believes him.

The explorers have been hired by Japanese businessman Funazu to scout Obelisk Island. Funazu plans to find some way to dispossess the island's natives in order to remake the island into a tourist-trap. The explorers-- primarily represented by scientist Hiroshi, reporter Daize and lady photographer Itoko-- don't initially worry too much about their role in this dicey plot, so it's not clear how much they know about the tourist-project in advance. However, they end up committing a similar act of imperial aggression all on their own.

The natives are happy to meet the explorers, having had some previous contact with Japanese people, though it's never clear what that contact was. There are a few seismic rumblings, and the explorers attribute these to the local volcano, though a young native boy claims that the shocks are caused by "Gappa."  The curious explorers trespass on the cave-temple of Gappa, assuming that he's merely some non-existent local god. Within the cave, they find giant dinosaur bones and a giant egg. Hiroshi jumps to the erroneous conclusion that the bones belong to a mother dinosaur, whose only legacy is the egg. When the egg hatches, disclosing a bird-reptile, the explorers decide to take the creature with them. Hiroshi wants to use it for experimental biology, Daize wants a good story, and Funazu wants to exhibit the monster in the time-approved Carl Denham manner. Only Itoko feels squeamish about taking the creature away from its habitat, though neither of the Japanese males listen to her. While the three characters are merely stereotypes, the script attempts to ground them in reality with some reasonably lively dialogue.

The creature not only grows to small-dinosaur proportions, it's pursued by its two larger parents, twin bird-creatures who fly all the way to Japan from Obelisk Island. Even when it becomes clear that the twin monsters are seeking to recover their offspring, Funazu doesn't want to give up the creature. Granted, this sort of satire was better done by MOTHRA. But MONSTER has its heart in the right place.The ending is somewhat predictable, but in a pleasing manner if one isn't too demanding.

Strangely, after the demise of Nikkatsu Studios in the 1990s, Shokichi announced a crossover film that would have starred both Guilala and at least one of the Gappa-monsters.  I for one am just as glad no such film ever came to be.





COUNT DRACULA (1970)



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


At the beginning of Jess Franco's COUNT DRACULA there's a short intro that claims that the film will adapt Bram Stoker's novel "exactly" as written. Perhaps it's not surprising that filmmakers would fib for the sake of publicity, but I'm amazed that a few fan-critics have agreed with this assertion.  For the record, COUNT DRACULA may use more of the novel's plot structure than either the 1931 classic or 1958's HORROR OF DRACULA.  But the Franco version is just as cavalier about condensing or switching around characters-- to less good effect than those previous Stoker-adaptations.

Like the majority of the films in the Hammer Studios "Dracula" series, the king-vampire is played by Christopher Lee. Lee sometimes phoned in the Dracula role in some of the lesser Hammer entries, and aside from the actor's opening scenes, COUNT DRACULA is about on the level of weak efforts like DRACULA A.D. 1972. The opening scenes also display director Franco using his much-loved zoom lens to best effect, to capture the eerie tension of Jonathan Harker's journey to Castle Dracula.  But it's all downhill after this.

One of the few changes that resonates well is that after Jonathan Harker escapes the castle, he's found by Transylvanian authorities and shipped back to his native England-- but because he makes the mistake of telling his fantastic story, Harker ends up in an asylum; the same one that, in the novel, just happens to be within spitting-distance of Dracula's English hideaway.  In addition, Dracula's nemesis Van Helsing (Herbert Lom), who in the novel is called in for a consultation, is the asylum's administrator, while Doctor Seward, who held that post in the novel, is demoted to a staff physician, whose role is largely confined to his interaction with the inmate Renfield.

The two friends Mina and Lucy are still in the story, and Mina is at least still affianced to Harker, in contrast to the turnabout of the girls' roles in HORROR OF DRACULA.  Lucy, however, does not have three suitors; Arthur Holmwood is written out and Quincey Morris is Lucy's bethrothed. Van Helsing does not initially seem to believe Harker's story, but he comes around quickly when Lucy Westenra begins to suffer a mysterious blood-loss.

One of the most interesting twists-- one which could have been exploited to good effect-- is that Van Helsing recognizes the vampire phenomenon because he's been researching black magic for years. Why? Because he became interested in the subject after Renfield (Klaus Kinski) became his patient. This version of Renfield, unlike the one from the novel, has been to Transylvania like the Renfield of the 1931 film. But this Renfield, who traveled in the company of his daughter, was simply a victim of the vampire's predations: the daughter died-- or possibly became one of Dracula's wives-- and Renfield went insane. Renfield doesn't really have much to do in Franco's tale: as in the novel Mina tries to reach out to him, but the madman almost strangles her. But I can imagine a situation in which Van Helsing might have been more involved in treating Renfield, perhaps using him to track down the vampire-lord.

Unfortunately, even though Franco selects a handful of scenes from the novel, none of them maintain much tension. The actors are partly to blame, for most of them, aside from Herbert Lom, give bland performances-- but not even the best actor could pull off Franco's most idiotic scene. In it, three of Van Helsing' vampire hunters-- Seward, Morris, and Harker-- invade Dracula's lair, where his coffin is guarded by-- a bunch of stuffed animals? I guess Franco envied the novel's ability to have the villain conjure up troops of wolves or rats at a moment's notice, and since the director's budget didn't allow for such spectacle, he decided to go with a bunch of taxidermy victims. I don't even think the scene even works as self-indulgent cinema.

As in the novel the vampire flees England for Transylvania, and his hunters pursue him. Franco doesn't come anywhere near the excitement of the final confrontation, either in the novel or in superior renditions like BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA. The hunters' defeat of Dracula's gypsy minions and their execution of the vampire are both listless affairs, so that unlike the novel and some of its translations, COUNT DRACULA proves to be a work in the subcombative mode.



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

THE PSYCHOPATH (1966), THE PREMATURE BURIAL (1962)



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


In reading up on STRAIT-JACKET, I often saw it described as a "B-movie."  In terms of the film's production values, I don't doubt that it qualifies. However, a number of reviewers used the term to connote "something you don't expect to be good in the first place."  As I would hope my review made clear, I think the film had some though not all of the same symbolic resonance as its partial model PSYCHO, making it better than a huge number of more expensive "A" pictures.

Freddie Francis' 1966 PSYCHOPATH is closer to being a B-picture that justifies that putdown. Like JACKET it's made on a budget, and PSYCHOPATH also presents only two viable suspects for a rash of serial murders. But there really isn't much to the story beyond watching the murders unfold while slow-moving Inspector Holloway (Patrick Wymark) takes his time to investigate.

At the first crime-scene the murderer leaves a doll made in the image of the victim. Holloway finds his way to the friends of the victim, all of whom were members of a German war crimes commission. The inspector's investigation of the doll leads him to a dotty old woman, Mrs. Von Sturm (Margaret Johnson) and her protective adult son Mark. Mrs, Von Sturm's house is filled with dolls, making it pretty obvious that either she or her son is the killer, but Holloway takes no action to have them or their house watched by London cops.  The old lady may seem the less likely candidate as she's confined to a wheelchair, but Holloway's interview with her doctor establishes that her injury is only psychological and thus not a real alibi at all. The howling obviousness of this declaration makes it hard to believe that it was written by the same Robert Bloch who penned STRAIT-JACKET two years previous.

The reason for Holloway's phlegmatic detection is obvious as well: it's suggested early on that the four men targeted were indirectly responsible for causing the death of a man they sent to prison, the husband of Mrs. Von Sturm. Thus the audience is given every reason to want to see them knocked off.  Each death at least uses a different tool-- a noose, a blowtorch, etc.-- though none of the murder-methods are exotic enough to have raised the blush of envy on Dario Argento's cheek.

The one psychological touch that is interesting-- and goes undeveloped-- is a parallel between Mark, dominated by his clingy, maybe-crippled mother, and the innocent female viewpoint-character Louise, who's similarly under the thumb of a parent: her father, who tries to discourage her marriage to a suitable young man. But Bloch and director Francis leave this kernel unpopped. If one doesn't guess the murderer after the doctor's declaration, one would have to be pretty dense not to get it when the killer cuts down one victim not associated with the German commission: a pretty young girl who makes the mistake of showing interest in Mark Von Sturm.




Roger Corman's THE PREMATURE BURIAL looks a lot more opulent than PSYCHOPATH, but it's even less well-developed in terms of narrative and symbolism.  Although scripters Ray Russell and Charles Beaumont are renowned for a respectable number of quality metaphenomenal works in film and television, BURIAL seems to be nothing more than a sterile regurgitation of narrative tropes borrowed from the Corman-Matheson Poe-film from the previous year, PIT AND THE PENDULUM.


Matheson's script, which had nearly nothing to do with the original Poe story, focused on a central character, played by Vincent Price, who was consumed and destroyed by his heritage, in part due to a conniving wife. The Beaumont-Russell script at least bears a thematic resemblance to Poe's "Burial" story, in that Poe's protagonist has to overcome his morbid fear of being buried alive. BURIAL's Guy Carrell (Ray MIlland) has a similar meaningful epiphany, but it occurs in the middle of the film when he thinks he's put his irrational fear behind him. In contrast to the prose-character, who overcomes his fear after being comically embarrassed, Carrell transcends his fear with the help of an apparently loyal wife.  Then, of course, there begin all the "phantasmal figurations" that are meant to send him to his doom, but end up backfiring on the plotters-- just like in PIT AND THE PENDULUM.

Some reviewers have wished that Vincent Price could have essayed the role of Carrell, but I think it would have made the resemblances to PENDULUM all the more glaring. Milland is perfectly fine in the role, bringing what I'll term a "calm twitchiness" to the part, in contrast to Price's stylized seriousness.  Milland is particularly good in the film's best scene, where Carrell outlines to his horrified listeners the many devices in his custom-built burial vault-- devices to keep him alive if he should be buried while still technically alive-- and one device he can use to meet death quickly, if no one comes to rescue him. Daniel Haller's art direction makes BURIAL look great, though I imagine the penny-pinching Corman didn't spend a dime more than he had to. Fortunately, Beaumont would do much better in Corman's later Poe-outings, HAUNTED PALACE and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, while Corman, Russell and Milland would enjoy a solid, non-derivative winner with 1963's X-THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES.

In passing I'll note that the role of the sister, who doesn't want her brother to marry Hazel Court's character, suggested to me a slight incest-vibe. But even if this was intentional, it remained undeveloped.

Monday, October 13, 2014

STRAIT-JACKET (1964)




PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

In my review for the Joan Crawford psycho-film BERSERK! I wrote:

Though there are some perceptive psychological motifs scattered throughout the Herman Cohen-Aben Kandel script for BERSERK, I can't help feeling that if they'd been doing this script in college we'd have witnessed them peeking over Robert Bloch's shoulder to read his notes for STRAIT-JACKET (1964).
Upon re-viewing JACKET, though, I have to add that Bloch's notes for that film would have had another previous source: that of his own 1959 book PSYCHO. This book, rather famously adapted to film by director Alfred Hitchcock and scripter Joseph Stefano, set the tone for the majority of the "perilous psycho" films of the 1960s.

The producers of both STRAIT-JACKET and BERSERK-- respectively William Castle and Herman Cohen-- were both showmen just as Hitchcock was. The great difference, though, was that Hitchcock usually chose scripts that were tight and at least apparently logical, while the other two preferred scripts built, almost transparently, around gimmicks. STRAIT-JACKET is the exception to the rule in William Castle's films, but any quality in the film arises predominantly from Robert Bloch's script.

As many horror-fans know, Castle had dipped his bucket in the PSYCHO well earlier, as he produced and directed a knockoff, HOMICIDAL, which appeared a year subsequent to Hitchcock's big success. HOMICIDAL has its moments, but it's not nearly as well organized as Bloch's script for JACKET-- which in turn, recycles many of the elements of Bloch's PSYCHO novel.  I don't suppose Bloch thought he'd duplicate the success of the Hitchcock film by collaborating with Castle, but JACKET is a much more layered script than one sees in most Castle movies-- or, for that matter, in most of Bloch's later screenplays.

If any readers ignored the spoiler warning, too bad, because right off I'm revealing that the daughter did it. Even though this is a Joan Crawford film-- sold as one of the "horror hag" movies more or less initiated in the 1960s by WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE-- the character central to the narrative is not Crawford's Lucy Harbin, but her daughter Carol (Diane Baker)-- who functions in part as Bloch's "female Norman Bates." I don't remember if I guessed "the real killer" in my first viewing of JACKET, but in retrospect there are no other suspects for the film's murders: one either believes that Lucy did it, or figures out that it's really her solicitous daughter. PSYCHO, the story of a boy's unhealthy obsession with his mother, diverted the audience's suspicions from Norman by creating the illusion of a vicious old knife-wielding biddy. JACKET focuses on a girl's unhealthy preoccupation with her mother, but Carol is never as twitchy as Norman, and usually seems to be a model of daughterly concern-- though some of her innocuous lines take on new meaning following the Big Reveal.

Norman's poisoning of his mother and her lover-- not seen on camera, and only recreated through dialogue--  has been interpreted by some critics as a violent reaction to the Freudian primal scene, every young boy or girl's first exposure to seeing Mommy and Daddy make the beast with two backs. Bloch's script puts JACKET's scene of primal-sex-and-violence right up front. Lucy, a low-income farm-woman, finds her husband in bed with another woman, picks up an axe, and chops them both to death. But this time a fourth person witnesses the transgression: grade-schooler Carol witnesses the murder of her father by her mother, in some ways becoming merged with the "eye" of the audience. Whereas the story of Ed Gein informed PSYCHO, JACKET's roots are in the story of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of killing both her father and stepmother with an axe. Bloch makes this evident by reworking the famed "Lizzie Borden took an axe" doggerel and inserting Lucy Harbin's name into the song.  Of course, Borden was acquitted by the law, if not by folklore, while the film's viewer never doubts that Lucy kills in rage at her husband's infidelity. When the film concludes, it will be Carol who has the closer resemblance to Borden, having been focused on killing a mother and a father-- though not her own.

Lucy is found guilty of manslaughter and condemned to an asylum for the next twenty years. During this time Carol is raised by her uncle Bill (brother to Lucy) and his wife Emily, who like Lucy and her barely seen husband are also low-income farm-folk. So Carol doesn't take a step down in terms of her economic situation, but at some point in her fictional life-- perhaps because she's mercilessly teased by schoolmates for being a murderess' daughter-- Carol decides to marry up by romancing Michael Fields, a scion of the upper crust. Michael's parents are a problem, though. Mister Fields is not entirely hostile-- in one scene he flirts jokingly with Carol, claiming "it's all in the family"-- but Mrs. Fields doesn't want the daughter of an axe murderer in the family.

Lucy's release sets up Carol's plot: while not realistic on the face of things, it is at least "apparently logical" in film-thriller terms. Carol gaslights her mother to make her uncertain that she's truly been cured, and designs a mask that will make observers (the audience?) think that Lucy has killed the Fields. But before Carol can even get to her real targets, she's forced to kill two men who pose a threat to her elaborate scheme-- one being Lucy's psychiatrist from the asylum, the other being farm-hand Leo, a sort of stereotypical "white trash" hick who represents the nightmare of low-income origins.

One of Bloch's best twists on his PSYCHO-plot revolves around Carol's Pygmalion-like efforts to build Lucy into a credible killer. Norman Bates' efforts to simulate his mother's continued existence fool no one but himself, but Carol is playing to a bigger audience. When Lucy is released into the real world, she looks like no sort of threat: she's a fragile, dowdy old woman. Carol actually re-models her aged mother to make her look as much as possible like the Lucy who killed Carol's father, with a flashy dress and a big black wig, not unlike Carol's hair. Carol succeeds so well in this makeover that Lucy comes on to Michael right in front of Carol's eyes. This scene probably does a lot to convince audience-members who expect Crawford's character to go axe-happy.

Other PSYCHO-references abound: edged objects like knives, axes and even knitting-needles appear not just to puncture things, but also to punctuate the narrative. Wigs and sculpted busts constantly remind the audience of the image of the severed head seen at the opening-- and may be Bloch having some fun with a Norman-motif that didn't appear in Hitchcock's film: the fact that Norman wasn't just a stabber, but also a head-chopper.  Yet all of these images, so often stage-managed by Carol, raise the question: is Carol really acting for sheer gain, or is she recapitulating these images as a sort of repetition-compulsion?

Interestingly Carol doesn't say much if anything about her murdered father; she certainly isn't committing murder because she lost her daddy, like the female psycho of 1971's BLOOD AND LACE.  And though Carol's real opponent is another woman, Mrs. Fields, whom she does plan to kill, Carol only ends up slaying males, her third and last victim being the blandly unassuming Mr. Fields. Carol may well be the first female psycho-killer who executes only male victims, even though she does plan to kill one woman and frame another.

Norman Bates kills his mother and her lover, and then kills women who remind him of his mother. Carol builds up her mother in order to destroy her-- but Carol can only do this by "becoming" her mother, by taking on the image of a violent, trashily-dressed slattern. It's in this guise that Carol is thwarted from killing Mrs. Fields when Lucy intrudes by accident and wrestles away Carol's weapon. Carol's last scene shows her pounding her fists on the mask she made of Lucy's face, alternately crying out both hatred and love for her mother. Carol may even show more ambivalence than Norman, given that in a sense Lucy's husband betrays not only Lucy, but also his daughter, by sleeping around. On some subconscious level Carol may admire Lucy's fearsome use of force, rather like the "daughter of the Ripper" from HANDS OF THE RIPPER, who walks in on Daddy murdering Mommy and decides she'd rather be more like a live Daddy than a dead Mommy.

Like PSYCHO, JACKET ends on a downbeat summing-up scene, but lacks the powerful final image of the Hitchcock film. Strangely, the title really doesn't take on much meaning either in a literal or figurative sense. There's a scene or two in which Crawford's Lucy is seen in an asylum strait-jacket, but this may have been nothing but a marketing-strategy, intended to sell the film with something that had "madness assocations."




Monday, October 6, 2014

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (2014)



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

Frank Miller's second venture into Grecian formulas-- entitled XERXES--  has not yet been published, so it's impossible to tell whether or not its film adaptation, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, follows it closely or not.  While I was not a huge fan of the original 2006 film, I had to admit that it had a certain "feverish" power, full of wild fantasies of freakish flesh and racial transgression. Since RISE lacks this visual inventiveness-- which is generally present even in Miller's worst work-- I speculate that the filmmakers may have had to fill in a lot of holes in the narrative. Script and production were provided by Zach Synder, director of the original film, but actual directing chores devolved to one Noam Murro.

The film is based upon two crucial battles in the history of archaic Greek-Persian relations: the Battle of Marathon and the ten-years-later Battle of Salamis. As other critics have pointed out, RISE is in no way historically accurate regarding either battle, but that in itself is no criterion for judging the film's value as art.

Much of the symbolic power of the first 300 arose from tapping into political myths about the masculinity of the West vs. "the demi-femininity" (as I term it) of the East. Miller's fierce and uncompromising Spartans became the very incarnation of masculine power. But RISE, presumably in line with the unpublished graphic novel, chooses to investigate a less extreme representative of Hellenic culture: Themistocles, an Athenian general, who in the real world was justly famed for his leadership both at Marathon and Salamis.

Miller's fantasy-version of the Persian king Xerxes-- an eight-foot-tall Black African covered with body-piercings-- is the brains behind the assault on Salamis, just as he was in 300's assault on Thermopylae.  This time, possibly in answer to the many criticisms of Miller's having made the Persian overlord look distinctly un-Persian, the script for RISE provides a hypothetical reply. In youth Xerxes looks like any other Persian noble, but it is strongly suggested that he undergoes his transformation into Big Black Pierced Dude as a result of making a deal with unspecified dark powers.  This might open the narrative up to mythic associations between the East and the Judeo-Christian underworld, but since that concept goes nowhere, it's more likely that no one was thinking of anything more profound than a "continuity fix."

Xerxes, however, remains in the background far more than in the 2006 film, for the central villain is the female warrior Artemisia. In a rare combiation of tropes, she is both the evil genius who foments Xerxes' conversion to inhumanity-- she not only encourages his transformation but also kills all the lord's other advisers-- and his general on the field of battle.  Whereas Xerxes is a huge male who projects an air of effiminacy, Artemisia is a beautiful woman who proves herself adept at battle and leadership. She's also Greek by birth, but has turned against her people because in her youth Greek soldiers sold her as a sex-slave. A Persian general saved her from that degrading status, and trained her in the masculine arts of combat.

Like Themistocles, Artemisia is based upon a historical female battle-commander. But for the sake of a good story, the two of them are opposed romantically as well as combatively. During a conference between the two generals, Artemisia takes a fancy to the Athenian and tries to convert him to her dream of Persian supremacy. Like many heroes before him, Themistocles is devoted to the dream of democracy and refuses to switch sides-- though unlike most of those heroes, Themistocles does allow himself a quick fuck with the lady general *before* he turns her down.  This naturally leads to a bloody duel between the two during the climactic naval battle, and the best line of the film: the Athenian general strikes Artemisia during their duel, and she remarks, "You hit harder than you fuck!"

The metaphenomenal content of RISE is far less emphasized than in the original 300: Xerxes' possibly-Satanic transformation is the only uncanny aspect of the Evil Orientals. The samurai-masked "immortals" from the first film appear in RISE, but to far less effect, though they do qualify the film for the "outre outfits" trope.