Thursday, October 1, 2015


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

Given that I was a baby boomer, "my" Headless Horseman was inevitably the Disney version. I'm pretty sure that I'd read the Washington Irving short story in school, but it was just OK. Disney's version was THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, one of two long cartoons created for the 1949 feature THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MISTER TOAD. I don't doubt that I saw Disney's version of SLEEPY HOLLOW on the "Wonderful World of Disney" teleseries, and the Horseman remains one of the scariest things the company ever brought to life, what with its demonic-looking horse, ghastly laugh and murderous sword. The cartoon, like the original story, ends in an ambiguous manner, and I've seen an argument online for the possibility that the Horseman was a true ghost.  That said, I've always tended to regard the Horseman in both media to be a put-up job arranged to scare away schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. Thus, even though I once asserted that I thought the Horseman was the star of the story, even though I deemed him an illusion, a part of me always wished that the Horseman-- perhaps the first original boogieman produced in American prose fiction-- could take on a definitively real presence.

And in 1999, Tim Burton and his writers delivered just such a "real boogieman" in 1999's SLEEPY HOLLOW.

Burton seemed tailor-made for such an assignment, having rocketed to success in the world of high-profile Hollywood projects with his version of Batman and original film-characters Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Arguably he also introduced the real-life figure of Ed Wood to audiences that would never have heard of the "so bad he's good" director.

1999's SLEEPY HOLLOW is just as well mounted as any of the "big pictures" Burton had previously directed. But since the original story doesn't allow for a bonafide supernatural menace, Crane becomes a New York constable sent to investigate a series of decapitation murders in the small Dutch town of Sleepy Hollow. The date of the original story, 1790, is moved down nine years so that the film's story can take place in a millennial year, just like the release-date of the film. This Crane, instead of being jittery and superstitious, is a resourceful believer in modern science and forensic methods. Like many Burton characters, Crane has a past clouded by parental issues: his mother was falsely accused of being a witch, and his own father, apparently a priest, surrendered her to be executed.  Given that horrific background, Crane does not want to believe that the supernatural is anything but delusion and hoaxes.

He meets the assorted quirky denizens of Sleepy Hollow, and forms an attachment to young heiress Katrina Von Tassel, despite some competition from local bully-boy Brom Bones. And he also encounters the Horseman, witnessing how the headless rider easily chops off the heads of its victims while resisting assaults by sword and gun. In a second encounter both Crane and Brom Bones attempt to fight the Horseman, and the battle ends with Brom's death, efficiently signaling to the audience that this story departs in other ways from the Irving tale.

Still, Crane continues to believe in the validity of deductive logic, as he realizes that the murderous ghost can have no good motive for targeting the citizens he slays-- and that, therefore, the creature must be the pawn of a mortal summoner. Crane doesn't exactly pin down the right suspect at the first crack-- indeed, Burton allows for Crane to take a few pratfalls, keeping him a reasonably human hero. But in the end, the reality of the supernatural does not invalidate the applicability of logic to the matter of human motives.

There's a great deal of high-octane action throughout the film, though it allows for fair amounts of quirky humor and touching romantic moments. The psychological issues are not deep, and it may be that the only reason for Crane's backstory re: the witch-persecutions was to serve as a red herring; to make the reader anticipate a culprit who would reflect the hero's daddy issues. But overall SLEEPY HOLLOW does not disappoint in any major way.

That said, it's still not the "real boogieman" film I hoped for, and it's because the Horseman has no agenda of his own, as all the best monsters do. He's a catspaw here, and that's not necessarily all that much better than being an illusion: in both cases there's some puppet-master pulling the strings.
Further, the film is much more focused on the hero than the monster, which is one reason I deem it "adventure" rather than a horrific drama, just as I did with Steven Sommers' Mummy trilogy.

More disappointingly, SLEEPY HOLLOW proved much less ambitious and heartfelt than Burton's previous directorial efforts. However, given that the next film he did was the critically panned PLANET OF THE APES, this adventure of Ichabod Crane is a classic by comparison.

Monday, September 28, 2015


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical*


In addition to warning any readers that I'm going to disclose plot-points here, I'll add a personal revelation. My reaction to this series-- or at least, to the first film in the series-- is first and foremost the reaction of a religious comparativist. Thus, though I was reared in a Christian religious tradition, these days it doesn't bother me to see a work of entertainment play fast and loose with the tropes and narratives of Christian belief, as it might annoy others.

DRACULA 2000 and its two direct-to-video sequels are all directed by Patrick Lussier and co-written by Lussier and one of his producers, Joel Soisson. The recently deceased Wes Craven is listed as a producer on the series, but I doubt Craven-- for whom Lussier worked as an editor-- had any creative input. Although the creators probably hoped to launch a series like that of Craven's Freddy Krueger, their emphasis is more on action than on horror-- though as it happens, there's enough narrative emphasis on the pathos of the monster to keep the stories from sliding into the category of adventure, as one sees in 1998's BLADE and 1999's THE MUMMY.

The first entry in the series, while flawed, stands head and shoulders above its sequels, thanks to the audacity of its concept. The ending of Bram Stoker's novel is altered to reveal that (1) in 1898 Abraham Van Helsing overcame but did not destroy the body of Dracula, because Dracula was a unique type of vampire resistant to ordinary means of disposal, (2) for the next hundred years Van Helsing kept Dracula's comatose form imprisoned in a special vault, while the vampire-hunter gave himself a qualified immortality by infusing himself with the vampire's blood, and (3) Dracula's origins extend far further back in history than his masquerade as a Romanian count, for he's actually the Biblical Judas Iscariot, cursed to walk the world as an immortal until such time as God forgives him for his part in Christ's execution.

As a reshuffling of Christian tropes for the sake of entertainment, this is pretty ingenious. The writers may have been inspired by a verse in the Gospel of John that possibly contributed to the legend of the Wandering Jew, though none of the Gospels are directly referenced: Soisson and Lussier merely state that God's immortality-curse upon Judas is the true reason that the vampire hates the touch of silver (because Judas betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver) and any Christian paraphernalia. Of course, this doesn't quite explain why other vampires, who don't have those associations, share the same antipathies, though the script does assert that some mysterious "essence" is transferred from Dracula to others, whether he bites them or whether they infuse themselves with his blood. On the other OTHER hand, there's nothing in the Judas narrative about beheadings, so it's a safe bet that all scenes in which vampire-hunters kill bloodsuckers by chopping off their craniums are directly indebted to Stoker.

DRACULA 2000 features many other "quotes" from Stoker. The reborn Dracula ravages everyone on board the cargo plane that takes him to America-- specifically, New Orleans-- just as the original reduced the cargo-ship Demeter-- the one carrying the vampire's coffin to England-- to a ship of death. Soisson and Lussier also touch on the novel's "good girl/ bad girl" dichotomy. They keep the name Lucy for one of Dracula's first victims, who is also a friend to the film's version of Mina, Mary Van Helsing-- this time the daughter of Dracula's nemesis, rather than the wife of vampire hunter Jonathan Harker. Given all the Christian connotations, the use of the name "Mary" is surely no coincidence, though Mary Van Helsing is not portrayed as a virginal paragon, as Mina Harker is in the Stoker novel. If this Mary is like any character in the Christ-narrative, it would be Mary Magdalene, who has had "seven demons" exorcised from her body by Christ in two of the four Gospels. Judas-Dracula's corrupts rather than cleanses this Mary, though it's an additional irony that from birth Mary has been bonded to Dracula because she was conceived after Abraham Van Helsing had been using Dracula's blood for many years. Thus as soon as Mary encounters Dracula "the bad father," she must struggle against her sense of bondage to the vampire, and as with Mina Harker the struggle has more to do with sexual ambivalence than with a purely spiritual crisis. It's also psychologically noteworthy that though Abraham is killed, Dracula doesn't do the deed himself, but has the old vampire-hunter slain by Dracuala's figurative offspring, three modern-day women turned into bloodlusting brides. Unlike Mina, though, Mary actually gets fabulous super-powers after being turned by Dracula, and she uses them to battle Dracula much more physically than the retiring Mina of the Stoker novel. In essence, the psychological constellation of Mary, her real father Abraham and her symbolic father Dracula is the core of DRACULA 2000. That said, the writers don't stint on the BLADE-style action, for the senior Van Helsing also receives aid from a doughty young man named Simon, whose motto is "Never fuck with an antiques-dealer!" I'll forbear to comment on possible Christian meanings of the name Simon, since the movie-character really isn't anything but a convenient tough guy.

As much as I love genre films in all their permutations, I have to admit that I'd have liked to see the Judas-Dracula idea executed by talents who could've got more mythopoeic mileage out of the concept. But one takes what one can get.

Perhaps because the first film was a failure in its general release, the two sequels downplay a lot of the Christian mythology.  Though Mary and Simon pledge to guard against Dracula's recrudescence  at the end of 2000, they vanish from the narrative without explanation. Dracula, whose body has been burned by the sun's rays after Mary "hung him out to dry," remains whole enough to be delivered to a morgue in New Orleans. Two morgue-doctors, Elizabeth and Luke, discover that the dead body is that of a vampire when Elizabeth pricks her finger on one of Drac's fangs. After Elizabeth reveals this big secret to her boyfriend Lowell, Lowell talks Elizabeth and Luke into spiriting the body to an out-of-the-way house, so that they and their friends can experiment on the vampire and see if its fluids can be used for curative purposes. It will later be revealed that Lowell, who is handicapped, hopes to use the vampire's essence to cure himself, much as Abraham Van Helsing retarded his aging in the earlier film.

Meanwhile, a kick-ass Catholic priest, Father Uffizi, is on the trail of the reborn Dracula, intending to destroy him and any of his vampiric spawn.  In flashbacks he consults with an older priest, and they refer to the Count as "the Betrayer," but no further allusions to the legend of Judas appear here or in the next film. The older priest tells Uffizi that despite the Betrayer's many crimes, the only way to banish his evil is to give him absolution, thus freeing his soul from vampirism-- a very different form of "imitatio Dei" than the one with which the first film concludes.

Elizabeth and her friends experience many problems trying to experiment on Dracula: one friend is killed, Elizabeth becomes bonded to the monster because of receiving his essence through the finger-prick, and one of the experimenters injects himself with Dracula's blood. Luke belatedly has misgivings about trying to profit from the exploitation of ultimate evil, and he finds new ways to bind the vampire with medieval superstitions (faced with a knotted rope, a vampire must undo all the knots; faced with scattered seeds, a vampire must stop to count them all). However, in due time Dracula gets free just as Father Uffizi makes the scene. Elizabeth declares her allegiance to the vampire-lord and the two escape Uffizi, leaving the film on a cliffhanger scene.

ASCENSION is merely middling entertainment, clearly patterned after hundreds of horror-films in which foolish mortals trifle with forces beyond their control. That said, though most of the characters are flat stereotypes, ASCENSION at least allows for a few Faustian themes. LEGACY, however, is just a lot of thud and blunder, as Uffizi teams up with Luke and they both run around various beautiful Romanian locations hunting vampires. This time, because Uffizi has been infected by Dracula's vampirism, the church doesn't sanction his mission, and he goes vamp-hunting on his own recognizance, though he continues to wear the priestly collar.

During the duo's quest, a European reporter named Julia joins them, with the result that she and Uffizi form a romantic attachment. There's a little character-conflict in that Uffizi doesn't want to fall in love, despite no longer being restrained by a priest's injunctions, and this mirrors Luke's desire for Elizabeth, and to liberate her from the evil Count. Eventually Dracula is defeated. Only at the very end do the scripters dip into the Christian myth-bag once more, for though Uffizi slays Dracula, he doesn't manage to overcome his own curse, and at the end he's seen with a vampiric Julia sitting in his lap-- a clear quotation of Michelangelo's "Pieta," which shows the slain Christ lounging in the lap of his mother Mary.

On a final note, it's interesting that the scripters found a "Doctor Who"-like method of accounting for changing the actor playing Dracula in each film, stating that whenever the vamp regenerates, he automatically changes his face. This doesn't really make any sense, but does make it easier to watch the transitions between Gerard Butler, Stephen Billington and Rutger Hauer.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


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

DRAGONHEART is neither the first or best film to posit the bonding of a human being with an intelligent nonhuman. But if one happens to want one about sympathetic dragons, I suppose one could do worse than DRAGONHEART, which has managed to generate both a sequel and a prequel on the strength of the human-dragon bond.

The original film is a melding of two narrative ideas that don't really mix. One idea-- purportedly the one that served as the film's original "pitch"-- was that of a medieval knight and a dragon teaming up after the manner of 1971's SKIN GAME. Some viewers may find this section funny, but it leaves me unamused.

The stronger idea is that the human-dragon bonding takes place as the result of a frustrated human-human connection. The film begins with thirty-something knight Bowen (Dennis Quaid) easily fending off the sword-strokes of Prince Einon as the two conduct a practice duel. From this and other scenes, it becomes evident that the childless knight has developed a paternal interest in the young man, even though the prince's mother and father are both alive-- at least at the film's opening.

Einon and Bowen join Einon's tyrant father when the king seeks to put down a peasant revolt. The king dies in the battle, and Einon is mortally wounded. Desperate to save his life, Queen Aislynn and Bowen take the price to the cave of one of the last remaining dragons in Britain. The dragon, who does not initially give his name, is concerned that the race of men is seeking to exterminate his race, so he makes his own Faustian bargain with humanity. He performs a "half-heart transplant," donating a portion of his own heart into Einon's body, which allows the youngster to recover from his wound. The dragon hopes that this infusion of immortal power will cause Einon to become a king well disposed toward dragons.

Instead, because the dragon-heart in Einon's body makes him proof against mortal harm, the new king becomes as bad a tyrant as his late father. Aislynn realizes that the prince has inherited his dad's worst tendencies, but Bowen, in a dubious leap of logic, decides that the dragon-heart has corrupted Einon. Bowen then goes on a crusade to exterminate all the dragons he can find, ironically doing the exact thing the mystery-dragon had hoped to prevent. Rather unbelievably, the single knight is able to kill all the dragons in Britain, except for one: the one who gave his heart to Einon. Despite the fact that the mystery-dragon possesses the distinctive voice of Sean Connery, Bowen doesn't tumble that this is the mystery-dragon, simply because he didn't get a clear look at the dragon back in the cave. The great, Scot-voiced beast tells Bowen that his name is Draco and that he's the last of his race. The two fight until they're at a point where both will die, at which point Draco convinces Bowen to put aside his crusade and to begin playing at dragon-slaying in order to bilk the local populace.  All through this sequence-- which exists to provide an excuse for human and dragon to bond-- Bowen still doesn't tip to the fact that Draco is the one he was blaming for infecting Einon with evil. When Draco does reveal the truth, their bond prevents the knight from attacking the dragon despite being angry about the sin of omission.

Happily, this section is soon over. Bowen finally realizes that Einon is responsible for his own evil, and he and Draco join a group of rebels seeking to overthrow the new tyrant. Interestingly, Kara, female leader of the rebel group, is the same person who, ten years earlier, accidentally gave Einon his mortal wound. In one sequence Einon captures Kara but seeks to seduce her rather than simply killing her-- which makes for an odd psychological reflection of his mother's fate, for Aislynn seeks to bring about her evil son's death, and he ruthlessly slays her, even though she's responsible for his prolonged life. A more psychologically dense script might have made more of the "woman-as-womb-and-tomb" trope.

At any rate, because Einon is immortal, he can only be killed if Draco sacrifices his own existence-- thus setting up the narrative for a big dramatic renunciation scene at the end.

DRAGONHEART is a film with a very problematic script, but at least there's some potential in some of its ideas.: A NEW BEGINNING is jsut a programming reshuffling of the earlier film's structure, and aimed more at a juvenile audience, given that this time the human-dragon bond takes place between a teen stable-boy, Geoff, and an immature dragon named Drake, whose egg survived Bowen's holocaust.

The script makes a moderate attempt to give Geoff a valid dramatic arc: despite his low station, he aspires to be a knight. Though he doesn't befriend Drake with any notion of gain, his association with the putative "last dragon" gives Geoff stature at the court of the local ruler Osric. However, the scenes of the Geoff-Drake bonding are predictable and hackneyed, and it doesn't help that Geoff is a pretty dull character. Thus, when he faces his challenge-- wheher or not to trust Osric when the lord wants a "heart transplant" from Drake-- Geoff's flat character doesn't really bring much vitality to the table. Osric turns out to have secrets beyond just being an acquisitive tyrant, but in essence he and Geoff reverse the parental postures of the first film, focusing this time on a mature man betraying the trust of a younger fellow. There's also a subplot about two Chinese travelers trying to prevent the unleashing of a fatal dragon-curse, and the female member of the group, played by Rona Figueroa, gives the slow-moving film some verve with her kung-fu fighting.

Neither film is a complete waste of time, but neither one uses the material to best effect. The second film tantalizes by asserting that at the dawn of mankind the dragons played a rather Prometheus-like role by helping humans advance to their present state, but this concept is merely tossed off and not exploited to its full potential.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

AMAZONS (1984)

FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Of all the uncanny films I've examined here under the trope of "weird families and societies," AMAZONS is closest to THE OCTAGON, in that both films deal with an undercover martial-arts society. However, since the "Amazons of Helena," as I'll call them henceforth, claim to trace their lineage from an all-female society of archaic times, some compendia of fantasy-films have been more liberal in including this film, though otherwise there are no elements of magic or super-science in the story.

Two modern-day viewpoint characters, lady doctor Sharon and male cop Tony, stumble across a modern-day cult of Amazons who are seeking to insinuate themselves into the all-male halls of power. To this end they're willing to covertly assassinate certain men they consider obstructions, and one such killing involves falsifying the treatment of a hospital patient under Sharon's care. Tony makes Sharon's acquaintance, becomes romantically interested in her, and starts helping her investigate her malpractice case. Their detective work leads them to an organization called Helena Enterprises, maintained by a congresswoman-- but this is just a cover for a bunch of women who are trained in modern martial arts and the Greek tradition of archery. As a mark of their cult, all members wear bracelets adorned with bow-and-arrow sigils.

Aside from the congresswoman, only three Amazons are characters in their own right: the leader Diana and her two lieutenants Roselund and Vivian.  Roselund was one of the last roles of cult-actress Tamara "Cleopatra Jones" Dobson, but unfortunately she doesn't get to do much beside beat up a couple of unworthy males. A fan-rumor claims that the actress may have been suffering from one of the illnesses that later took her life, so it may be that her character was originally intended to play the role assigned to Vivian (Leslie Bevis): that of the hothead lieutenant who wants to resort to violence against the investigators. I offer this speculation simply because as the film is scripted there really isn't a crying need for two lieutenants.

There are a few strong scenes of the Amazon-cult reveling in their long history, and the story of female empowerment was given a contemporary air in that these martial maidens are also behind a female vice-presidential candidate (the telefilm came out the year Geraldine Ferraro served as running-mate to presidential hopeful Walter Mondale). Unfortunately the script and its director-- Paul-Michael ("Starksy") Glaser spend far too much time on the bland characters of Sharon and Tony. I could imagine the same basic concept being given much more verve had it been executed as one of Brian Clemens' many low-budget telefilms.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

At some point in my writing-career, I thought of trying to pitch an essay entitled "The Thieves of Baghdad," covering the four English-language / English-dubbed iterations of the story. The distinction of these four films for me-- at least at that time-- was that I felt all four films did an above-average job in evoking Arabian Nights magic. In contrast, most remakes and re-interpretations in this vein usually emerge as poor copies of some high-quality original.

I remain an unqualified fan of the 1940 Alexander Korda film, and an admirer of the original 1924 silent original. Had anyone asked me back in 1978, I might have judged this 1978 movie to be the third-best, leaving the 1961 Steve Reeves vehicle at the bottom of the heap.

Though I haven't re-screened the Reeves film in many years, my re-viewing of the 1978 film has bumped it down a notch. Undoubtedly I'm a little more aware of the budgetary limitations of this film. Despite a genuine attempt to bring a sense of pageantry to the settings and costumes, this THIEF, directed by Clive Donner, always seems constricted, even constipated, in comparison with the other versions.  The only effect that still impresses me today is the re-imagining of the film's genie: though he's still lent gargantuan size by the wonders of photography, this time he has a more serpentine aspect, given green skin and played by the capricious-looking Daniel Emilfork (above).

The script borrows most of its motifs from the 1924 and 1940 films, but without much wit or verve. The silent film focused upon a solitary adult thief, played by Fairbanks, who must seek out fabulous treasures to gain the hand of a princess. The Korda film splits the solo protagonist into two characters: a handsome adult king who has been deposed by an evil vizier, and a teenaged thief who befriends the king and helps him survive many fantastic adventures before helping the king recover his kingdom and rescue a princess.

Plot-wise Donner's film probably takes its lead from Korda's film, though happily it doesn't use any of the character-names thereof. Handsome Prince Taj (Kabir Bedi) is deposed by his evil vizier. While on the run from the usurper's men, he happens across street-magician-and-thief Hasan (Roddy McDowell). Hasan doesn't fully credit Taj's claim to be a royal on the run, but he's too greedy to pass up the possibility of gaining a rich reward, and so becomes Taj's ally.

Fairbanks' thief entered the palace of the Caliph in the guise of a nobleman from a far-off land, with the aim of getting access to the Caliph's daughter. The 1978 THIEF borrows this conceit, having Taj and Hasan infiltrate the palace of their Caliph (Peter Ustinov) in the guise of noblemen, hoping to gain an ally against the Wazir Jaudur (Terence Stamp). However, Taj and the Caliph's daughter Yasmine become infatuated at first glance. However, master magician Jaudur also shows up, flying carpet and all. In a scene slightly indebted to a similar one in Korda's film, Taj challenges Jaudur to a swordfight-- but where no swordfight ensuses in the 1940 flick, Taj and the wazir do lock blades. Taj stabs his foe, only to find that the wizard won't die because he keeps his heart elsewhere. This effects-scene, incidentally, looks like it was copied exactly from a similar one in 1963's CAPTAIN SINDBAD.

Despite Taj losing the bout, Yasmine talks her father into having all of her suitors, including Taj and Jaudur, compete for her hand by bringing back the most desirable prize imaginable.  From there on, the rest of the film follows the general scheme of the 1924 film, though the scene with the genie is indebted to the Korda work.

Some lip service is paid to the metaphysical motifs of the two earlier films, but on the whole, the script is ill equipped to handle such ideas in more than cursory fashion. Thus I don't even assign the film a metaphysical function, but only a sociological one, in that the story principally focuses on the fortuitous union of aristocrat Taj and lowly Hasan. Unfortunately, there's no chemistry between the actors who have to sell this relationship, and even McDowell doesn't bring his customary flamboyance to the role of Hasan. In fact,with the exception of Peter Ustinov, all of the actors merely deliver the goods with no extras included.  Thus THIEF, while not by any means a waste of time, only offers moderate entertainment.

Though the film was released in theaters in Europe and elsewhere, in the US it only debuted on television, so that it's sometimes mistakenly labeled as a "film for television."

Friday, September 18, 2015


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*

For someone who's usually associated with naturalistic Charles Bronson "toughguy movies," it's surprising to note that director J. Lee Thompson has a substantial number of metaphenomenal films on his resume. In fact, his second project with Bronson was this 1977 film, which was also his second "uncanny western," preceded by 1969's MACKENNA'S GOLD.

This Bronson vehicle film is a lot less laborious to watch than the earlier film, but-- to immediately dispose of the "buffalo in the room"-- WHITE BUFFALO is often bogged down by the titular creature. Wikipedia notes that this film was also the second collaboration between producer Dino de Laurentiis and FX-maker Carlo Rambaldi, who had enjoyed some degree of box-office success with 1976's KING KONG. Though I know nothing about the backstage production politics of BUFFALO, I can't help but suspect that the film came about because de Laurentiis saw dollar-signs in a return to animatronic entertainment. I'd further speculate that since the novel by long-time pulp writer Richard Sale had just seen publication in 1975, someone must have thought that its subject matter would provide a match made in heaven.  Unfortunately, there's not a single scene when the monstrous mammal is on camera that it doesn't look an artificial construct confined to motorized tracks.

A bad special effect is certainly not enough to sink the whole film, of course, and WHITE BUFFALO has garnered some fans since its inglorious failure at the 1977 box office. At that time Bronson's star was riding high thanks to the success of the 1974 DEATH WISH film, and the cast was sprinkled with other familiar thespian faces like Kim Novak, Clint Walker, John Carradine, and Jack Warden. However, only Warden and Native American actor Will Sampson have substantial roles complementing that of Bronson.

The plot is simple: during the last years of his life gunfighter Wild Bill Hickock (Bronson) begins having strange dreams about a menacing white buffalo; dreams that urge him to journey to the snowbound Black Hills of South Dakota, so that he can kill the haunting spectre-- a daunting goal, since everyone he talks to believes that the last albino "buff" was slain years ago. At the same time that Hickock makes this voyage, the story shifts to show viewers the monster's reality as it attacks the village of Sioux warrior Crazy Horse (Sampson). The buffalo slays Crazy Horse's child and other tribespeople before running off, after which the whole tribe gets pissed at Crazy Horse for the incident. Given the humiliating name "worm," the proud chief is exiled until such time as he can track down the vicious beast and slay it.

On his way to the Black Hills Hickock allies himself with Jack Warden's character, the grizzled trapper Zane (perhaps named for Zane Grey, who had become famed for his westerns by the time Richard Sale was growing up). Both Zane and Hickock have had bloody encounters with the Sioux and other aboriginals, so Zane is mightily puzzled when they come across a solitary Indian named "Worm" defending himself from a trio of antagonists, and Hickock helps Worm fight off his enemies. Thanks to this encounter, Hickock gains an ally who will eventually help him slay the monstrous snow-hued menace.

In contemporary culture it's almost impossible to think of human hunters tracking a big white creature without managing to invoke Melville's classic MOBY DICK. However, though Richard Sale- who wrote the film's screenplay from his own novel-- was surely aware of his cetacean forerunner, the resemblance seems no more than cosmetic. One online review asserts that Sale's film-script follows the novel closely, and if this is so then the only thing Sale borrowed from Melville was the notion that an albino animal would seem more unearthly. Otherwise none of the complex mythological concerns of MOBY DICK find their way into WHITE BUFFALO.

The filmmakers are principally concerned with rendering a simpler American myth: the union of white man and red man in a common cause-- which perhaps puts them closer to Fenimore Cooper than to Melville.  However, though Hickcock's almost-but-not-quite premonitory dreams help to give his actions a sense of destiny, they also deprive him of any mundane motive for hunting the beast. True, Thompson and Bronson seek to give the character a melancholy air, as if he were seeking to kill the phantom creature in order to stave off his approaching death. Still, the script isn't quite skillful enough to articulate anything like this. As an aboriginal, Crazy Horse has less need to justify going on a hunt for a creature that seems strangely godlike--but here too, the nature of Crazy Horse's personal quest lacks any deeper symbolic resonance. Interestingly, Crazy Horse gets to deliver the death-blow, which does allow the Native American character the honor of the climactic kill, whereas most western films would have given that privilege to the white leading-man.

The encounters between Bronson and Sampson are the film's best scenes, even when they're sharing screen-time with the unthreatening ungulate. Their mutual victory is bittersweet when it becomes obvious that their opposed cultures prevent them from sharing any prolonged brotherhood-- and perhaps these scenes are the reason the film has earned a minor cult status, because I can't believe anyone likes that damn "track 29" terror.

Ironically, de Laurentiis famously told TIME magazine of his KING KONG, ""No one cry when Jaws die. But when the monkey die, people gonna cry." 
 I'm sure the producer didn't expect anyone to cry for his big white critter as he thought they'd cry for Kong. Still, WHITE BUFFALO might have benefited from taking a leaf from the JAWS playbook, as the monster could only have been more imposing the less viewers saw of him.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

I once made the following comment about this film's status as an "irony:"

BARBARELLA (1968)— Jean-Claude Forest’s sexy space-fantasy might have borrowed a lot of paraphernalia from FLASH GORDON, but the tone of Barbarella is more Rabelais than Raymond. At times Vadim’s best work verges on straight comedy, but the satirical elements dominate, particularly in the scene of Barbarella's most memorable combat-scene, where she out-orgasms a mechanical sex-machine.

After recently re-watching the 1968 film, I also re-read the original Jean-Claude Forest stories on which the film was based. All of these were translated into English for a 1960s volume from Grove Press, and this seems to be the sole English-language source for the curvaceous crusader's adventures, except for a much later 1970s sequence printed in HEAVY METAL.

The original 1960s stories have been accurately praised as a breakthrough for comic books of the period, in that BARARELLA, however derivative of the FLASH GORDON mythos, seems to have been the first attempt by a major publisher to issue comics with mature sexual content. In addition, whereas FLASH GORDON was all about the hero's continual attempt to overthrow various tyrants of Mongo, Barbarella's exploits are more in the tradition of the picaresque novel, with the heroine merely bopping about from peril to peril-- many of which, naturally, imply sexual encounters.

Despite the allegation that Roger Vadim's script had at least fourteen contributing writers, and that Vadim himself was more interested in stunning visuals than in story, the movie does manage to cull many of the more sensational elements of the Forest stories-- often combining elements from different stories-- and unite them in a plot with some degree of consistency.

This means that Barbarella, rather than simply drifting from one adventure to the next, is given A Mission at the film's beginning. The heroine hails from a far-future Earth which has become so over-civilized that its natives use "exaltation transference pills" to achieve sexual ecstacy. It's not clear why Barbarella, who possesses no special training, is selected to go to Tau Ceti, where she's expected to find missing scientist Duran Duran and prevent his positronic ray from falling into enemy hands. Indeed, this may be one of Vadim's key ironies; that Earth entrusts its future to a female astronaut, without their even being aware that her primary skill is her ability to seduce males (and one female) with her feminine charms. To be sure, in Barbarella's first encounter she initially offers to reward her first male conquest with sex in the Earthling manner. But once he converts her to the old-fashioned method, Barbarella never "goes back," as she uses sex to seduce an angel and a queen, as well as destroying the aforementioned ecstacy-machine with her own erotic capacity.

To be sure, during the course of Barbarella's peripatetic adventures, she does occasionally show that she can use a ray-gun. which is about the only reason I can countenance this film as belonging to my "combative irony" category. Her shooting-skills don't play a major role in the plot, contrary to the many iconic posters showing her brandishing various weapons. Given that in the 1960s a woman handling a gun would have instantly connoted "penis envy" to the Freudians, it's kind of surprising that Vadim never goes there. But Barbarella's greatest weapon is dumb luck, which more or less accounts for the way she encounters the evil queen of Sogo, the resistance movement headed by Dildano (who, despite his name, DOESN'T have sex with Barbarella), and the scientist Duran Duran, who plays only a small role in the comics but becomes far more central in the film-- which surely led to the co-opting of his name by the famed rock band.

Fonda's wide-eyed approach to heroism doesn't much resemble the rather cynical and knowing attitude of Forest's protagonist, but the latter approach probably wouldn't have played any better in the 1960s, given that the film was a box-office flop. The effects are minimal by modern standards, but the excellent costume-work makes up for a lot-- which was also the primary visual appeal of FLASH GORDON, for that matter. Fortunately, over the years the film has become a cult movie, and Vadim's ironic accomplishment has retained its appeal for a small, select audience ever since.