Friday, February 10, 2017

FLESH GORDON (1974)



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

FLESH GORDON is a pretty good sex-comedy send-up of the Universal "Flash Gordon" serials. Reportedly Universal Pictures tried to block it with a plagiarism suit, and this may have engendered the prefatory title-card before the film begins, wherein the producers attempt to convince the public of their deep regard for such "superheroes" as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Superman and Captain Marvel.

Though I'm sure the producers' main concern was to make a buck, FLESH has its moments if one takes it on its own terms as pure farce, without expecting to see any satirical barbs against the venerable space-opera of comic-strip and movie fame. The narrative's sole concern is to replay the familiar setups of the original 1936 serial-- albeit with a few touches taken from other FLASH movies-- and to jazz up their sexual content.

This isn't altogether inappropriate, for both the early comic strip and the first of the three serials are replete with tons of sumptuous sexual imagery. The other two serials and the strip in its later days become considerably toned down into simplistic space opera, but sexuality was a major part of the early FLASH. Note this tableau from the first serial, showing five of the main players: noble Flash, who wants Dale but who is desired by nasty Princess Aura, while to the side you see both Ming and Vultan, both of whom made unsuccessful assaults on Dale's chastity.




Though FLESH GORDON is never more than baggy-pants comedy, I can appreciate that the producers didn't indulge in a lot of irrelevant silliness, but stuck with their one basic trope: jazzing up the sex in the extravagant situations. Whereas the story originally started out with Earth being menaced by cataclysms brought on by the approach of Ming's wandering planet Mongo, now "Wang the Perverted" of "Porno" bombards the Earth with sex-rays, causing all affected to do the nasty with each other. Flesh, "Dale Ardor" and "Flexi Jerkoff" journey to Porno, though they are hit by the sex-rays en route and enjoy a (not very explicit) three-way. Once the threesome arrive on Porno, Wang takes them prisoner. He decides to keep Dale for himself, to put Flexi to work in the labs, and to hurl Flesh to the arena to be killed. In the 1936 serial, Flash fights two muscular men with fangs, who try to kill him: in place of this, Flesh fights fanged women who might be trying to hump him, kill him, or both. I imagine that this might become tedious for some viewers, particularly since the sex-scenes aren't all that good, but I preferred the repetition of one okay joke in place of a dozen bad ones.

I mentioned that FLESH sometimes borrowed from later serials. The film doesn't parody the devilish Princess Aura, who seeks to seduce Flash away from Dale, but it does, strangely enough, reproduce a MAD-ized version of Queen Azura, who appeared in the comic in 1935, and in the second FLASH serial in 1938. The film gives viewers a "Queen Amora" who can magically vanish like the one in the 1938 serial, and who spirits Flash away from Ming's court, has sex with him, and then gets unceremoniously killed-- which made me wonder why the writers even bothered with her.

Of course, many of the jokes fall flat. I didn't mind that the film's version of Prince Barin is gay-- after all, his main role in the strip is to be Aura's consolation prize when Flash refuses her-- but "Prince Precious" just isn't funny. There are other predictable riffs: ships that look like phalli, "penisauruses," "rape robots," and a gigantic idol who comes to life and flashes the middle finger at his foes. It's all pretty routine, but happily the three main actors playing Flesh, Dale and Flexi play it generally straight, reacting to all the lunacy just as stolidly as the serial-characters. Jason Williams is a particularly good road-company Flash Gordon, and doesn't make the character sappy like the actor who took over the part in 1989's FLESH GORDON MEETS THE COSMIC CHEERLEADERS. Also, Flesh may be in a silly world, but he's given as much combative chutzpah as Buster Crabbe in his day, so this comedy falls into the combative mode.



Monday, February 6, 2017

THE MINOTAUR (1960)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

THE MINOTAUR, while far from the definitive cinematic treatment of the famed Greek myth, stands as one of the stronger entries in the ranks of Italian *peplum.*

As most will know, the original Minotaur is the half-human progeny of Pasiphae, Queen of Minos, and a sacrificial bull. Not surprisingly, this scandalous origin is not retold in this 1960 flick, nor is there much of an explanation for the provenance of the bull-man who haunts the labyrinth neighboring the Minoan city of Crete. Since there are few deities in MINOTAUR, the implication seems to be that the creature is just some freaky mutant who wandered into the cave, after which the Minoans decided he was a deity and that they would make annual sacrifices of virgin daughters to the creature. As the film begins, the custom is still going on even though King Minos' princess-daughter Phaedra has been exempt from the ritual.

Then as mother Pasiphae passes on, she reveals to Phaedra that the latter has a twin sister, Ariadne. Pasiphae feared that Ariadne might be sacrificed and so sent her away to some rural village, where she was raised without any knowledge of her royal heritage. Pasiphae dies, but Phaedra, who aspires to the throne, wants no sibling reunions, and sends a horde of mercenaries to kill everyone in the village.

By chance two heroes wander by just as the village is being attacked: the Athenian hero Theseus and the Minoan warrior Demetrio. After the two men rout the mercenaries, they take along Ariadne-- one of the few survivors of the raid-- to their original destination: Demetrio's home city of Crete. Theseus and Ariadne quickly fall in love, though Demetrio remarks on Ariadne's resemblance to the Princess of Crete. That's the last important thing he does in the film. Phaedra's agent escapes the rout of the mercenaries, returns to Crete ahead of the heroes, and lays a trap for them. Demetrio is killed, Ariadne is taken captive, and Theseus is hurled into the sea to drown. Thanks to the intervention of the sea-goddess Amphitrite, Theseus survives. There are a number of complicated palace-intrigues, in which Theseus tries to rescue Ariadne from her evil sister, Phaedra is killed, and Ariadne is forced to masquerade as her sister, At the climax Theseus is forced to descend into the labyrinth, and though he's not quite as "Herculean" as many peplum-heroes, he does manage to slay the beast and free Crete from superstitious ritual and tyrannical rule.

Compared to the original myth, the Italian treatment is a bit of a mix-master version. Ariadne and Phaedra are the daughters of Minos and Pasiphae in the original tale, but they're not twins. Phaedra has no role in the part of the story involving the Minotaur, and only re-enters Theseus' life long after he has (1) slain the Minotaur, (2) deserted Ariadne for vague reasons, despite her essential aid to him in the labyrinth, and (3) had a child, the male Hippolytus, by an Amazon named Antiope. At some point after all this, when Ariadne has gone on to a separate destiny, Theseus decides to marry her sister Phaedra, but Phaedra then performs her most significant mythic action by falling in love with Theseus's grown son Hippolytus, which of course leads to-- can you guess it?-- tragedy.

Clearly Ariadne and Phaedra in the film have been written to be the "good girl" and "bad girl" personae found in various earlier pepla, Some of these have presented a slight "mother-daughter" complex in that the "bad woman," usually a queen of some sort, is implicitly older. Here the same actress, Rosanna Schiaffino, plays both characters, so there's no actual age-difference. There's still a little psychological myth here, though, in that the mythic Ariadne is best known as a daughter-figure helping out a foreign-born hero, while mythic Phaedra has her greatest repute as a "bad mother" figure.

The presence of Amphitrite is a curious touch. She's not strictly speaking necessary to the plot: Theseus could have simply got washed ashore and gone about doing everything he does in the remainder of the film. In the best-known version of the Greek myths, Theseus is a demigod whose father was Poseidon, god of the sea with a special affiliation with Athens. The film doesn't allude in any direct way to the hero's divine status, but possibly such allusions made it in through the "back door," as it were. In late myth Amphitrite was made the consort of Neptune, the Roman version of Poseidon, though this Wiki essay argues that originally she had no connection with any male sea-god. Similarly, THE MINOTAUR has her appear to Theseus in her submarine palace as she seeks to make him her consort, which might have proved unfeasible if she had an unruly husband hanging around.

Why is the sequence in the movie? It does have the nice effect of playing up Theseus's utter devotion to his mortal love Ariadne, and it may be that one of the scripters thought it would be nice to do something along the line of Odysseus remaining in love with Penelope despite the blandishments of Circe. (True, Odysseus does remain in Circe's company for what one presumes was many nights of non-romantic sex, but hey, it's the thought that counts.) One also might view Amphitrite the immortal goddess as being, like Phaedra, another displaced mother-figure, although the goddess is gracious enough to let Theseus go once he refuses her. A final significant motif is that while Phaedra is defeated as are all evil queens of epic movies, her fate is particularly gruesome: a guard, trying to hit Theseus, hurls his spear right into Phaedra's face, and she stumbles to her death in a hyena-pit. It's at that point that Ariadne had to try to masquerade as her evil sister, but it's perhaps a credit to her sensitivity that she can't quite pull off the evil-queen vibe, and so is forced to aid the hero in other ways.

And if one has no interest in tracing myth-motifs, MINOTAUR is still a pretty lively film, with lots of fighting and three sexy women (albeit played by just two actresses).

Friday, February 3, 2017

THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare!

I had forgotten that THEATER OF BLOOD was as lively a film as it is. It's far more entertaining than either of the DR. PHIBES films, and though it apes the basic formula of "perilous psycho killing people in imaginative ways," this was hardly a trope that the Phibes films invented. THEATER's black comic touches and its penchant for fast-paced action-- a stand-out being the villain's assault of a victim in a lengthy swordfight-- place it heads above most of Vincent Price's later films.

Many reviews have touched on one particular sociological aspect of the film: that the psycho-killer, Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart, schemes to avenge himself on the critics who scorned his thespian talents by "critiquing" them to death. Specifically, he patterns the methods of death-dealing after some of the Bard's gorier deaths-- drowning one writer in a butt of malmsey (RICHARD III), or removing a "pound of flesh" from another fellow (MERCHANT OF VENICE, the "rewrite" mentioned in the quote above). However, for me there's much more pleasure in seeing this horror-film prick the balloon of High Culture, by reminding audiences just how extremely gory the super-literary Shakespeare could be. Director Douglas Hickox, who had completed another black comedy three years before (ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE), excels here as much as does Price, and it's a shame Hickox. also known for co-directing THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, didn't try his hand at a few more horror-films.

Though Price has great presence in all of his scenes, most of the other actors get short shrift, particularly Diana Rigg, who plays Edwina Lionheart, the actor's faithful daughter and accomplice in his murders. At first it's not entirely clear that she's allied to her father's murderous cause, but once the script gets past this point of ambiguity, she gets to collaborate in many of the "designer deaths." However, she doesn't get much of a character, which is a shame, since Rigg was arguably at the height of both her fame and her thespian powers during this period. Strangely, the idea that the madman's daughter is utterly committed to his insane goals may be the biggest rewriting of Shakespeare in the film. In many Shakespeare plays he creates adult daughters of powerful men who defy their fathers by choosing to marry whom they please, or who refuse to bend to their paternal units in other respects. It's ironic that Edwina and Edward are joined together in a climax borrowed from KING LEAR, for Edwina, by doing everything her crazy father demands, repudiates the example of Cordelia, who refused to "love her father all."

Thursday, February 2, 2017

GHOST TOWN (1988)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*

As the still above may indicate, GHOST TOWN owes a conceptual debt to 1973's HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER.

Back in Old Western days, a sheriff is murdered by a ruthless gang, led by a sadistic outlaw named Devlin (Jimmie F. Skaggs), and the rest of the town lets it happen. The sheriff curses the entire town, and this apparently results in the ghosts of the outlaws and the residents remaining tied to the town for the next hundred years, long after its buildings have fallen into disuse.

Then a modern-day woman named Kate is kidnapped by one of the ghosts, and modern-day sheriff Langely goes looking for her in the local "ghost town." Langley has a memorable encounter with an amimated corpse, that of the dead sheriff, who charges him with a mission of vengeance. Once Langley can wrap his head around the notion of fighting undead ghosts, he and Devlin have a series of violent encounters that culminate in a good old-fashioned showdown.

This Charles Band production is atypical in that there are no midget-sized horrors like his PUPPET MASTER and DEMONIC TOYS flicks: the outlaws, though pretty one-note, are given good grotesque makeup, and Jimmie Skaggs shines as the principal villain. Directors Richard Governor and Mac Ahlberg maintain a nice blend of lively battles and horrific scenes, though the script doesn't do much with the element of the guilty townspeople, condemned to live with the outlaws who terrorized them.

If only because of the showdown between Langley and Devlin, this is a combative film. I categorize it as a "drama" rather than an "adventure" because I consider Langley's goodguy character is not as central to the story of the vicious Devlin, and so the story is mostly about the attempt to banish a seemingly invulnerable "demon."

Monday, January 30, 2017

THE TIME TRAVELERS (1964)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*


Quick personal note: THE TIME TRAVELERS was one of the few 1960s SF-films that I saw in a movie theater, though not in its original 1964 release. To the best of my recollection, I saw it bundled together with two others films—probably THE GORGON and THE VALLEY OF GWANGI—in a triple feature that played a neighborhood theater, probably around 1967-68.

Thus my opinion of the film is partly informed by nostalgia. It’s not that it was ever a great favorite in the sense that I sought to see it any time it played on TV, nor did I add to my video collection once I had the chance to do so. Even at a young age I didn't deem it an equal to the classic SF-films of the preceding decade, such as THE WAR OF THEWORLDS and THIS ISLAND EARTH. Yet though I was probably catching whatever TV-broadcasts I could even by 1967, I have the feeling that TIME TRAVELERS was unusual in presenting a large number of “gosh-wow” wonder-elements in one package—a time-space warp, a post-nuclear civilization on future-Earth, radiation-created mutants menacing said civilization, a generations-ship that the surviving civilized Earth-people intend to use to voyage ot Alpha Centauri—and lots and lots of androids. This was a pretty good array of wondrous elements for an independent film with a pretty limited budget.

The film’s opening could have been set in the 1920s as easily as the 1960s. On an unnamed campus, a trio of scientists labor on an experimental time-viewing device. Somehow their device opens a time-space portal. The scientists— young man Steve, older mentor Von Steiner, and young lady scientist Carol—hesitate to explore the portal. However, dimwitted comedy-relief Danny, a technican from the local power plant, steps through the opening, entering a barren post-nuclear landscape. This forces the scientists to follow him. Fierce mutants, deformed by radiation, attack the time-travelers. However, the travelers are rescued by a member of a hidden civilization, who commands a troop of androids who have eyes but no other prominent features.

According to Varno (John Hoyt), the de facto leader of the hidden civilization, he and his people are the last normal human beings, mostly descended from scientists who survived the nuclear devastation. The mutants are the descendants of the military men who went to war, though the mutants blame the scientists for the world’s fate. Beccause food is scarce in the future, their only hope is to escape Earth is a generations-ship that will carry a complement of normal people all the way to Alpha Centauii. However, the rocket can only transport so many people—who will sleep in suspended animation while their androids tend the ship—and so Varno and his people can't take the time-travelers along. The travelers'
only hope is to use the future’s advanced technology to get back to their own time, even though that world is doomed to be destroyed.

Director Ib Melchior provided the script, which, aside from the nuclear references, would not have been out of place in a 1920s SF-magazine: exactly the sort of thing that the film’s cameo guest-star Forrest J. Ackerman would have grown up reading. All of the characters are paper-thin, the comedy-relief is lame, and some of the futuristic gimmicks wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1950s TV commercial for Westinghouse products. Melchior even drags in a standard stage magician’s trick to stand in for having a person travel through space-time. Yet I don’t think it’s entirely nostalgia that gives me a sense of gravitas regarding humankind’s struggle to escape its own fate. One of the most effective moments in the script—though it passes without much comment—is when Varno explains that his people plan to launch the generations ship from the site of a mammoth atomic crater: new life springing from old death, as it were. More central to the plot is the “bitter necessity” that will force the scientists to leave behind the time-travelers to conserve space on the rocketship.

There are also slight indications that the scientist-cabal is far from the apex of humanity. Carol, the typical empathetic female, questions their choice to keep the mutants at arm’s length. When she’s told that the mutants won’t make nice, she accepts it, but in one of the underground caves she encounters a deformed, helpless fellow whom a scientist calls a “deviant.”  Carol prevents the hotheaded scientist from executing the intruder, but after she succors the fellow, he disappears from the story-- unless he’s somewhere in the big melee that takes place when the mutants stage an invasion. The melee, by the way, is quite impressive for a tight-budgeted film like this one.


Some time-travel stories, such as BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER, allow for the possibility that the past can be changed, but I rather like how TIME TRAVELERS refuses to give the modern world that  “out.”  The scientists’ escape-project is destroyed, but the providential advent of the time-travelers makes possible the survival of humanity, albeit due to a whole lot of dumb luck. As a coda to this happy ending, Melchior repeats a lot of rapid-fire key scenes from the film to depict the strangeness of the temporal loop—and I must admit that he succeeded with the young me, as I felt my mind blown as much here as by anything in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  

Saturday, January 28, 2017

THE STILL OF THE NIGHT (1982)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


I have the dim recollection that I once read a Robert Benton interview in which he claimed that his psycho-thriller STILL OF THE NIGHT might have been a box-office success in its day. What he should have done was to re-jigger the script he wrote with David Newman -- Benton's previous collaborator on both the 1978 SUPERMAN and the earlier Broadway comedy based on him-- so that co-star Meryl Streep was the killer. This struck me as singularly foolish thinking, to expect that the audience could be swayed by this one change.

STILL doesn't have a very remarkable script, but to the extent that it works at all, it's because Meryl Streep is not the killer, and psychiatrist Sam Rice (Roy Scheider) has to prove she's not a killer in order to satisfy their common romantic arc. The two leads provide serviceable performances, but Benton-- who loads the film with references to famous Alfred Hitchcock tropes-- shows no more understanding of the way Hitchcock's stories worked *as stories* than he understood anything about the Superman mythos. This may be shown by the fact that toward the end Streep's character has a "big reveal" about the nature of her relationship with her quarreling mother and father-- and the supposed "reveal" turns out to be a whole lotta nothing (aside from its reference to VERTIGO).

From the glacial pace of the direction, I think Benton had some idea that he was "above" the crude excitement of the psycho-thriller: the actual "psycho" here isn't even as interesting as the sex-killer from Hitchcock's FRENZY. The only scenes that are slightly compelling take place as Rice "re-imagines" some weird nightmares experienced by a patient. However, though the imagery is creepy-- a weird little girl with a teddy beat, for instance-- the images are clearly straightforward representations of things the dreamer has seen in real life, which marks STILL as being strongly influenced by Sir Alfred's SPELLBOUND. Thus, the dreams in this film, like those in the earlier one, register in the naturalistic mode.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

REAL MEN (1987)



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


REAL MEN was the only directorial effort of Dennis Feldman, who is best known for writing such formula action-films as THE GOLDEN CHILD and the 1999 VIRUS. It's one of those comedies that some viewers will swear to be outrageously funny, while it leaves others cold. My reaction was lukewarm at best.

Feldman's script makes no pretensions to making his scenario even mildly believable. An agent of the FBI has just made contact with an alien visitor, but said agent is killed by an assassin. Despite the agent's death, somehow he communicates to his superiors the essence of the alien's needs. In exchange for a very minor item-- a simple glass of water-- the alien is willing to give Earth one of two major gifts: either a "big gun" capable of blowing up a planet, or a "good package" that can help the government eradicate a major pollution menace. The good agents of the FBI want the "good package," but there's a rogue element in the agency that wants the gun, and so do various Russian agents.

Because the rogue element has left the good FBI drastically lacking in resources, the chief assigns one of his loyal agents, Nick Pirandello (James Belushi), to seek out a man who looks exactly like the murdered agent, so that the substitute can finesse the trade without incident. However, the lookalike is wimpy civilian Bob Wilson (John Ritter), so Pirandello must find a way to draft the unwilling citizen to serve the FBI's ends.

REAL MEN is little more than a basic buddy-comedy, in which Pirandello manipulates the confused Wilson into serving his purposes. The only interesting psychological motif in the story is that once Wilson does become committed to the mission, he takes on a macho attitude-- just as Pirandello, not coincidentally, begins to decline in his balls-to-the-wall masculinity. This comes about in part because the agent encounters a sadistic torturess-- apparently not one of the opposing agents-- who forces him to confess his vulnerability and weakness to her. However, like most of the jokes in the film, this one doesn't go anywhere. Feldman's script shoots for broad irony, not least with the basic setup of the aliens-who-just-want-a-glass-of-water. Yet the story fails as an irony, largely because it's too invested in the idea of giving wimpy Wilson a macho upgrade so that he can trounce bullies and such.

Neither the heroes nor the villains utilize any marvelous weapons against one another, though I've decided that the villains' desire to acquire a marvelous weapon lends them a marvelous phenomenality, even though the closest they personally get to the metaphenomenal is a lame joke where some of the bad agents dress up like clowns for no particular reason.