Wednesday, September 21, 2011

CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN (1958)

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

Director Edward L. Cahn's first of two collaborations with SF-writer Jerome Bixby is the more mythically resonant movie, even though the latter film probably gets the most press in that it might be humorously retitled IT! THE TERROR THAT INSPIRED 'ALIEN!'

It's fascinating to see how Bixby attempted to use the tropes of the "mummy movies" that had seen some revival in the mid-1950s, apparently with the aim of seeing how far he could distance the tropes from their original contexts.

The first and foremost re-thinking is naturally the "Faceless Man" of the title. Rather than being a bandage-wrapped denizen of ancient Egypt, the titular monster is a Etruscan gladiator "wrapped" in an impenetrable stone covering, the legacy of having been buried in the famous volcanic explosion that devastated Pompeii in the year 79 A.D. However, according to the amazed modern scientists attempting to explain the mobility of the stone-faced warrior, gladiator Quintillus Aurelius does owe his prolonged life to Egypt indirectly. In fact, it's scientist Paul Mallon (a rare starring role for Richard Anderson) who posits that Aurelius was exposed to mummy-preservation chemicals in a temple of Isis. The idea of radiation is tossed into the stewpot as well by Bixby's script, but Bixby puts the greatest emphasis on the chemicals, perhaps indicating his desire to give viewers a more SF-oriented version of the classic magical mummy.

Another major trope with which Bixby experiments is the film-mummy's tendency to go looking for a modern-day woman who just happens to have reincarnated his ancient beloved. Karl Freund's 1932 THE MUMMY remains the essential expression of this theme: in this film the modern woman in question is partly Egyptian and so may be not only a reincarnation but also a descendant (albeit over thousands of years) of the original beloved. Most later mummy-movies weren't so concerned with an extensive pedigree, and in most of them, wherever the mummy happens to come to life, he encounters some not-very-Egyptian-looking female who happens to reincarnate his lost love.

Here Bixby pulls a bit of a switch on normal expectations. Normally the lead male has a girlfriend whom the mummy attempts to abduct. But during Paul Mallon's Pompeiian mummy-hunt, the script gives him both a current girlfriend, American Tina Enright, and an Italian ex-girlfriend Maria. Since in life gladiator Aurelius pined after an upper-class Roman woman, one might have expected Maria to be the reincarnation of the mummy's lost love. Instead, Aurelius goes after Tina, who is never given explicit connections to ancient Rome but whom the scientists eventually declare to be the spitting image of the Pompeiian noblewoman.

I'm not sure precisely what Bixby wanted to accomplish with this "splitting" of the heroine into Former Girlfriend and Current Girlfriend. It may be a testament to Mallon's virility: in his introductory scene while he's talking to another character he turns a lascivious eye toward a statue of a semi-clothed Roman goddess. This bears a degree of irony in that later his own lover, an artist, will be partially seduced by the stony charms of Aurelius. Tina dreams of the "stone mummy" and paints his picture before she ever sees him. It's never clear that she is literally a reincarnation, though. The film invokes "ESP" on one occasion to explain how Aurelius can navigate given that his face is covered by stone. Perhaps one could as easily justify the notion that Aurelius subconsciously mesmerizes Tina, who toward the end frees him from his restraints. Tina's fascination with her "demon lover," like those of the character Helen in THE MUMMY, function as the emotional core of this mummy-flick.

Other elements aren't as psychologically successful. Just as Paul has a current girlfriend, Maria has a fiancee, one Enrico, though he barely figures into the plot. Maria does seem to have misgivings about marriage with him, implicitly because she still loves Paul. Indeed, from one angle one might see Aurelius as a manifestation of Maria's hostility toward the woman who replaced her. Following Tina's initial encounter with the mobile Faceless Man, the artist falls into "shock" and Paul almost accuses Maria of not doing enough to help Tina, prompting Maria to perhaps "protest too much" about how she does want to help Tina. Toward the film's end Maria does reaffirm her commitment to Enrico even as Paul remains loyal to Tina, but the script as presented never shows either Paul or Maria as seriously tempted by one another.

The "curse" of the title is an interesting twist as well. Despite the hints of ESP and reincarnation there's no actual magic-style curse involved; Aurelius simply leaves behind a document in which he curses the Roman people for his frustrations in loving the noblewoman. There's a small allusion to class warfare here, in that despite his fame as a gladiator Aurelius couldn't wed his love due to his slave background. On the other hand, just to confuse things a bit more, Tina has a psychic episode in which she seems to channel her ancestor, who regards Aurelius with fear rather than love. Here the Faceless Man seems molded after the model of female fantasies of the Deadly Male a la KING KONG. Indeed, the conclusion focuses on Aurelius' capacity to endanger his beloved Tina when he thinks he's protecting her, as he bears her away from civilization and tries to take refuge in the sea, imaging that Vesuvius is exploding once more.

The psychological aspects of FACELESS MAN are the most prominent, but one should not give short shrift to the cosmological ones. Bixby's justifications for the monster's mobility are naturally psuedoscience, but they play on real scientific knowledge for their effectiveness, and so give this faceless Italian mummy a bit of a "face-lift."

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