Sunday, August 9, 2020

FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974)



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


While I can appreciate the commitment Peter Cushing brought to the role of Baron Frankenstein, I’ve never liked any of the Hammer triflings with Mary Shelley’s creation. None of Hammer’s scripters showed any interest in pursuing the metaphysical and psychological ramifications of the “man-made man” concept. There’s a sociological theme in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, in that Jimmy Sangster, reputedly following the orders of producer Anthony Hinds, chose to focus on the Baron as the ultimate aristocratic dirtbag. But the series as a whole was never consistent with even that dumbed-down characterization. MONSTER in particular de-emphasizes the seamy side of Frankenstein’s gory experiments, and almost makes him into a quasi-hero next to the lumpen-proletariat characters. Most hilariously, the script for MONSTER—written by Hinds under the name “John Elder.” though this time the producer was one Roy Skeggs—includes a line in which the Baron says, with an utterly straight face, “I haven’t killed anyone.”

Elder/Hinds and director Terence Fisher chose to recycle an element from REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN; that of the young aspirant to blasphemous experiments. This time a young medical student, Helder (Shane Briant), gets in bad with the local authorities for the crime of bodysnatching. For some reason he’s consigned to an insane asylum instead of prison. This works out well for the young fellow, since the Baron has hidden from the law at said institution, working under the pseudonym “Doctor Victor” (one of the few nice referential touches in the script).

In no time at all, Frankenstein and Helder are working on making new men out of old corpses. They receive a little feminine help this time out, in the form of a young girl nicknamed “Angel.” Angel, the daughter of the asylum’s corrupt director Klaus, cannot speak after her nasty dad tried to rape her, but she functions well enough as nurse to the big experiment—problematic as it is.

In the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, the monster supposedly turned out badly because Frankenstein’s assistant stole the wrong type of brain. In MONSTER, the Baron almost seems to be setting himself up for failure, for he chooses to use the body of a murderous maniac as his template. Oh, the demented doc throws into the mix a pair of hands from a gifted violinist, perhaps hoping that the heavenly powers in the hands will supersede the hellish nature of the body—which, for reasons unclear to me, looks more hirsute and brutish than one would expect of a 19th-century German. The Monster (David Prowse) looks less like a cobbled-together amalgam of human parts and more like an escapee from one of Hammer’s prehistoric epics.

Though MONSTER was Fisher’s final film before he passed, it’s poorly paced and holds few surprises. The two avid experimenters can’t control their man-beast, which eventually breaks loose, kills various people, and gets torn asunder by the asylum-inmates. The rampage serves the purpose of doing what the Baron can’t do without risk to himself, for before the monster dies, he slays the corrupt daughter-rapist—and around that time, Angel miraculously regains her ability to speak again. Thus in MONSTER the Baron becomes Angel’s “good father” in contrast to her bad real father—though it’s hard to countenance Frankenstein as having a better nature after FRANKENSTEIN MUST BEDESTROYED, in which the Baron himself gratuitously rapes a younger woman. Clearly Fisher and Hinds had some concept of using this installment of their sage to put across a “rape-revenge” fantasy, but the execution proves too muddled to have any strong effect.


Since the Baron, Helder and Angel all survive unscathed, Hammer may have contemplated another episode in the series, only to terminate the series when MONSTER didn’t enjoy strong box-office. I suppose there are fans who would’ve liked to see more in the series, but I’m not one of them.








BLOODMATCH (1991)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

This very peculiar kickboxing film, directed by the notorious Albert Pyun, isn’t exactly “so bad it’s good.” Yet it still stands out as an interesting little cinematic mutant, despite all of its numerous faults.

In essence, BLOODMATCH is like a standard kickboxing film crossed with one of those Hollywood detective films of the 1930s. Such movies usually concluded with a detective—Philo Vance, Charlie Chan—assembling all of the suspects of some crime in one room, clearing each suspect in turn, until reaching the true culprit and revealing the clues that led to his detection. BLOODMATCH, however, starts with a comparable scene. Four kickboxing champions wake up in a dark amphitheatre, bound to chairs as they recover from having been drugged by unknown assailants. The guy behind their abduction appears in the central fighting-ring, and they all recognize him as Brick Bardo (Thom Matthews), a familiar face in the kickboxing circuit. He claims that he’s the brother of another kickboxer, Wood Wilson, whom all four fighters had dealings with before Wilson was killed. Bardo believes that one of his four captives caused Wilson’s death—but Bardo can’t be bothered following up clues. Instead, he propose to fight each of the suspects in turn, until one of them reveals the truth. Bardo is also quite prepared to kill his victims to get the true stories, so again—not dealing with a great intellect here.

So the film unfolds in expected manner. Bardo’s assistant lets one fighter go at a time, and with the help of a pistol encourages each one to climb into the ring with Bardo. In terms of structure, BLOODMATCH isn’t that different from any other kickboxing flick, but most professionals who direct such films use fancy camera-angles to overcome the limitations of two opponents fighting in a closed space. Pyun utterly flops at this, though fight choreographer Benny Urquidez—also one of the battling suspects—is equally to blame for the dull mechanics of the combats. Further, while the leads of such films are not usually particularly good actors, at least most of them can fake-fight with considerable √©lan. Thom Matthews is incredibly unimpressive in both departments, though he chews the scenery well enough to be enjoyable on the ironic level.

Did I mention that one of the suspects was (a) female, (b) the former lover of the dead Wood Wilson, and (c) the last suspect to get into the ring, after Bardo defeats the others? Given that setup, the viewer will be likely to guess that she’s the culprit, if only because the “detective” gets to her last. But wait, there’s more! Wood Wilson didn’t die; he just suffered hideous facial injuries, went into a hospital for months, and after a huge amount of reconstructive surgery, emerged as—Brick Bardo! The scenes in which Bardo frantically tries to convince his former lover of his identity are goony enough to be worth the time spent on this mess, and though it’s the script, not Bardo, who saved the female boxer for last, sure enough, she was responsible for Wilson’s not-quite-death. Nevertheless, though you couldn’t tell it from the choreography, she’s also the best of the fighters, and she beats down the vengeful kickboxer with a series of extremely repetitious moves.

The idea of staging a ring-fight with several suspects in order to beat the truth out of them is without question a “bizarre crime,” but I had to wonder if it qualified as uncanny or naturalistic. I’ve reviewed a handful of kung-fu films that proved bizarre enough to move into the region of the uncanny, even without weird costumes or weapons, but Bardo’s scheme doesn’t quite move the needle into that terrain. Though he’s an absurd character, he’s also the star of the show, loosely comparable to other narratives—GET CARTER, POINT BLANK-- in which the viewer follows the exploits of a largely unsympathetic main character simply because he’s engaged in fighting other unsympathetic characters.

AVENGER X (1967)




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




The original title to this Italian supercriminal film was MISTER X, after a popular Italian comic book of the same name. Possibly the American version stuck “Avenger” in the title just to make clearer that this wasn’t a mundane mystery, though even the English dub uses the name “Mister X” for the protagonist.

Like his predecessors Fantomas and Diabolik, Mister X has been robbing rich people for years without being apprehended by the law-dogs. Despite, or maybe because of, this reputation, a schemer named Lamarro decided to frame Mister X for one of his own crimes, the better to divert the police from Lamarro’s big operation: that of smuggling drugs into Europe under the cover of a reputable pharmaceuticals enterprise. X, however, doesn’t like being framed, and over the course of the film the super-crook makes it his business to chastise these lesser felons. Sometimes, like Fantomas, X assumes disguises to execute his schemes, and a couple of times he dons a black catsuit with a hood and a domino mask. Still, most of the time the master criminal runs around in ordinary clothes. One online review claimed that X uses “gadgets,” but all I saw was a mundane smoke bomb. X receives assistance from his girl Friday, a lady with the odd name of “Timmy,” who shows off a little judo-skill in one scene.

It’s rare that I’ve seen native Italian actors pull off the charming qualities necessary for this sort of roguish character, but Pier Paolo Coppoli—billed with the name “Norman Clark”—acquits himself well in the charm department, as well as pulling off the brief action-scenes well. For fans of sixties Euro-flicks the best-known name in the cast is surely Helga Line, playing a secondary villain. However, in the version I saw, she’s last seen heaping scorn upon the captive Timmy—but though X frees Timmy, Line’s character just disappears from the story.





A CHINESE GHOST STORY: THE ANIMATION (1997)



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





This Hong Kong-produced animation borrows elements from the three live-action “Ghost Stories” from the same producers, coming up with a stand-alone tale that’s more than a little diverting in its own right.

One new element is that this version of Ning the tax collector—who has no previous love life known to the audience in the other films—starts out being rejected by a potential mortal girlfriend, who marries a man of greater age and substance. Thus it’s a classic case of compensation when Ning wanders into a whole city of ghosts and promptly falls in love with a lady spectre named Shine, who shares some of the characteristics of Ning’s mortal beloved. Whereas the lady ghost in CHINESE GHOST STORY is being forced to marry an evil male demon, Shine actively hopes to be joined with what one review styles “a rock star demon.” However, because the demon only loves himself, Shine comes to place greater value upon the young mortal, and the two of them seek to make it possible for Shine to escape the spirit-world and to be reincarnated, so that the two of them can share romantic bliss.

Though Ning and Shine are the central characters here as are their counterparts in the other films, they aren’t nearly as compelling this time. Possibly this was because the producers wanted a G-rated romance, and this means that most of the animators’ energies were devoted to envisioning the city of ghosts, and a trio of exorcists who try to bring the ghosts under control. The exorcists—a severe old monk, his warlike student, and a raffish old loner who competes with the two of them—are borrowed from characters in all three films, though they’re most comparable to their analogues in GHOST STORY 3. Had the exorcists been the stars, ANIMATION would have been a deliriously combative film. But since they’re all just supporting players, the film registers as subcombative.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

RETURN OF THE EVIL FOX (1991)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*




Genuiely funny comedies from Hong Kong are so rare that the true collector might want to direct his efforts toward something that offers greater satisfaction—say, looking for hens’ teeth. RETURN OF THE EVIL FOX might not be the worst HK comedy out there, but it’s so mediocre that it will do nothing to disprove the generalization.

A page right out of medieval Chinese history sets up the main storyline. Two medieval exorcists, beautiful Chiang Su-su (Charene Choi) and her wimpy brother, anticipate that their temple will soon be attacked by a female demon, whom the subtitles always style “the Fox Elf.” Chiang, a kung-fu exorcist, goes out to fight the demon, who looks like a human female (Pauline Wang), except that in place of human hands she has oversized furry fox-paws. The brother remains inside so that he can sit by the candlelit altar, praying for their mutual ancestors to send supernatural aid. However, as the candles start going out, it looks like the prayers won’t be answered. The Fox Elf gives Chiang a mortal wound, but just then the ancestors imbue her brother with supernatural power. With that power the possessed exorcist imprisons the spirit of his sister and that of the Fox Elf in a big jar.

Cut to modern times. Despite the imprisonment of Chiang’s spirit, somehow she has a lookalike modern descendant, a lady reporter named Yi (also Choi). Her sister Yu (Sandra Ng) and her goofy father pursue the ancient family business of exorcising ghosts and demons, though they’re not very good at it and Dad owes a lot of money to local gamblers. When the father won’t pay Yu what she thinks she’s worth, she puts together a Hong Kong version of a “Ghostbusters” act with two other women, and they pretend to banish ghosts while dressed in bizarre costumes. Meanwhile, two new arrivals show up on the family’s doorstep. One is Hwa, a hunky young guy who according to the subtitles is either the father’s godson or his foster son. The other is a Tibetan monk who fears that the Fox Elf has been secretly feeding off human victims to build her power. Apparently she managed to do so 107 times without detection, and if she can devour one more, correlating with the mystic Buddhist number 108, she’ll be free to ravage the modern world.

Naturally, the monk is entirely right, though nobody seems to take the threat seriously. The dumb dad is busy fending off his creditors, and Yi is oblivious to Hwa’s blooming passion for her, while sister Yu covets Hwa but can make no headway. There’s also an idiot hotel manager and a few other goofballs, though on the whole Sandra Ng’s character gets most of the comedy-moments. Ng shows herself a good comic actor, but Yu is a one-note character, and the writers seemed to have no idea as to how to have fun with this basic “romantic triangle” trope.

Eventually the monk gets all the buffoons to work toward exorcising the Fox Elf, which makes for the strongest action-scenes of the movie, albeit weakened by yet more alleged moments of humor. Given that the defenders of humanity are so dopey and monotonous, the Fox Elf is at least consistent in her menace, and I judge her to be the central character of this mixed-up mess.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

BATMAN: “FINE FINNY FIENDS” (1966)



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



The first season of BATMAN ’66 finishes up with one of the weaker Penguin episodes—though, to be sure, it looks like a TV classic next to some of the things that befell the character in Season Three.

Whereas “Fine Feathered Fiends” hinged on the idea that the heroes themselves designed the villain’s crime for him, “Finny”—a reference to the aquatic aspects of penguins—posits the idea that the villain practically tells everyone in advance what his target will be. Witnesses see Penguin’s thugs kidnap the Wayne butler Alfred from a phony fish-market, but he subsequently shows up at Wayne Manor, apparently no worse for wear. Even before Alfred returns, Batman guesses that Penguin wants inside info about a millionaires’ charity function, at which Alfred serves as major domo. Despite these suspicions, neither of the heroes figure out that Alfred has been subliminally brainwashed, through the villain’s use of a device called a “Penguin box” (and which looks like a steam cabinet made of papier-mache). However, Penguiin wants Batman and Robin out of the way before he commences his operation. He contrives to leave a clue behind at the fake fish-market, which the Gotham cops overlook and the Duo immediately pick up on. They find Penguin’s hideout, get caught, and almost die in a deathtrap. Before breaking out, Penguin’s current moll Delia swoons over Batman’s stellar handsomeness, but this time her sentiment serves a purpose in the overall plot.

Penguin and his hoods abandon their hideout, though for cost-cutting reasons, the fiends come back to the same location for the final scenes. Though the heroes are free, they apparently fail to stop Penguin from ripping off the charity dinner, which also ties in to an institution of dubious repute these days: a beauty contest packed with feminine pulchritude. But the Duo’s failure is a fakeout, and once more the Penguin is forced to fold his umbrellas and fade into the distance—if only for the first season.


Though there aren’t a lot of great camp lines in Sheldon Stark’s script, one keeper is “Who’ll save our natural resources now?”


BATMAN: “DEATH IN SLOW MOTION” (1966)






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



Dick Carr’s “Death in Slow Motion” is one of the the last BATMAN ’66 scripts to be based on an original comic-book story, “The Joker’s Comedy Caper” (DETECTIVE COMICS #341, 1965). In the comic books some Bat-villains waxed and waned over the years, but the Joker was a reasonably regular presence in the ten years prior to the TV show. “Caper,” written by John Broome, puts forth the idea that the Clown Prince of Crime decides to start patterning his crimes upon the routines of old silent-film comedians. Perhaps as an in-joke for more learned comics-fans, Broome replaces the names of the actual comedians with phony cognomens: Charlie Chaplin becomes “the Tramp,” Buster Keaton is “Deadpan,” and Harold Lloyd is “Specs.” The Joker’s big score, however, is that he plans to use these crimes to get in the good graces of a wealthy film collector, whom he will then rob. Late in the story, the villain confesses to his henchmen that he didn’t have to go through all of the comedy-robberies; that he and his thugs could have just broken into the rich man’s house and ripped him off—but he, the Joker, chose to do things in his own quirky style.

“Slow Motion,” however, is a broader, if camped-up, salute to the Silent Era of Hollywood—and the title is perhaps accidentally ironic, since films of the silent era often seem to be running in “fast motion” when not shown so as to compensate for differing film speeds. Patently, the pre-sound period was the era of the first cliffhanger-serials, to which BATMAN ’66 was somewhat indebted. To be sure, the immediate inspiration for adapting the Caped Crusader to TV may’ve come about in reaction to a later serial, since in 1965 Hugh Hefner ran the 1943 BATMAN serial at his Playboy Club Theater in Chicago, garnering good box office from audiences who largely laughed at the antiquated chapterplay. Not all interested fans believe that the one event influenced the other, but it’s beyond contradiction that from the first episode, Semple and all the BATMAN ’66 writers strove to draw on the tropes of old serials to please both juvenile and adult TV-audiences. Carr’s script extends this self-referential conceit to silent cinema in general, rather than just serials, or, for that matter, Broome’s concern with silent comedies.

As far as the TV-show was concerned, the Riddler was a much better representation of the power of irony than was the Joker, and so the substitution of Gorshin’s Riddler for Romero’s Joker proves fortunate for a number of reasons. The episode opens when Carr’s version of the eccentric film collector, Mister Van Jones, has just screened an old silent comedy for the delectation of Gothamites. Into the theater struts Gorshin, dressed as Charlie Chaplin and doing a good parody of the comedian’s style. His henchmen, dressed like the Keystone Kops, chase the phony Chaplin around, amusing everyone in the theater except Van Jones. Then the disguised Riddler rips off the theater’s box office, hurling down a riddle-gauntlet to Batman and Robin once more.

Though other comedians are referenced in Carr’s script—and by their own names this time—the Chaplin-impersonation is the only time Gorshin imitates one of the cinematic funnymen. However, like the Joker in the comics-story, Riddler has his henchmen continually film all of their comedy-themed capers, and for the same reason: to use these amateur slapstick flicks to get in good with the eccentric millionaire. Two of the henchmen are named after famed movie directors who began in the silents, respectively Erich Von Stroheim and Cecil B. DeMille, while Riddler’s gang-girl—described as a would-be actress, “a star that was never born”—takes the name “Pauline” after the most famous female character in silent serials.

Though sometimes the Riddler’s capers concentrate on comedy tropes like pie-throwing and Pauline dressed in a Bo-Peep costume, the villain also borrows from the familiar tropes of silent serials, as seen in the mid-episode cliffhanger. In this deathtrap, Riddler has chained Robin to a log atop a conveyor-belt, which leads the proverbial buzzsaw. The breathless narration insists that this time Batman will not rescue Robin in time—which proves half-true. Batman doesn’t show up at the fake sawmill in time, but it’s a mannequin of the Boy Wonder, not the real thing, rhat suffers the blade. (Incidentally, Riddler shows up in this sequence dressed in the gear that has become known today as the “Snidely Whiplash” look.) Riddler has another doom in mind for Robin, which involves filming the junior crusader perishing in a re-creation of a famous Harold Lloyd stunt. Had Batman not arrived to save Robin—however inprobably—did Riddler intend to show this rather grim denouement to Van Jones?

In “The Bookworm Turns,” Batman took the villain’s henchgirl to the Batcave to use a hypnotic Bat-interrogator on her. This time, the police have taken Pauline prisoner, so Batman encourages Commissioner Gordon to accompany him to the Batcave in order to grill Pauline (patently, with no consideration of her Fifth Amendment Rights). The sequence is less interesting for Pauline’s hypno-interrogation than for the way Neil Hamilton’s Gordon acts the total fanboy over the wonders of the Batcave.

Once again, as the ending looms nigh, the Dynamic Duo are given a riddle-clue that seems to point them in a wrong direction. Riddler and his thugs, all dressed like cowboys, show up at Van Jones’ home and attempt to steal (for the purpose of later ransom) his exclusive copy of silent classic “The Great Train Holdup”—a.k.a. real-life classic “Great Train Robbery.” Batman and Robin show up to ring down the curtain on the Riddler. The closing coda, rather than building on all the Hollywood referentiality, chooses to end with a sweet familial gesture. Aunt Harrier, waiting to go to a luncheon for her birthday with Bruce and Dick, meets her idols Batman and Robin, who show up to wish her happy birthday. Given that Aunt Harriet spends most of the series unaware of the events around her, this ending provides for the character a decidedly un-ironic bit of sentiment in a series steeped in ambivalence.