Friday, July 29, 2011

TARZAN'S SAVAGE FURY (1952)



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

The fourth of Lex Barker's Tarzan films is probably the most exciting of the Barker outings, thanks in large part to snappy direction by Cy (MYSTERIOUS ISLAND) Endfield and a strong script filled with rapid-fire pulp-action and some actual references to E.R. Burroughs' Tarzan books. I suspect that of the four writers credited on imdb Cyril (FORBIDDEN PLANET) Hume was the most likely to have provided these references, since he had also penned three previous Tarzan films before this, not least TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932), which jumpstarted the ape-man franchise for the sound era.

The plot here strongly recalls 1943's TARZAN TRIUMPHS, in which the sociological quarrels of the outside world impinge on Tarzan's jungle paradise. In the earlier film, the jungle is invaded by Nazi troops, but as FURY takes place during the Cold War, the villains are Communists-- although only one, Rokov (Charles Korvin), is faithful to the cause. His accomplice Edwards is an Englishman who, under Rokov's tutelage, poses as Tarzan's cousin from England. The cousin does accompany Rokov and Edwards to Africa, for the purpose of getting Tarzan's help in securing a treasure of diamonds for England's military security. However, once there Rokov kills the cousin, so that he and Edwards can obtain the diamonds for the sake of the Communist regime. References to Rokov's politics are spotty, the best being where he sneers at Edwards' being promoted from "bourgeousie" to the aristocracy through just one bullet.

In addition, the filmmakers apparently gave some thought to giving Tarzan and Jane a new "boy," played by Tommy Carlton, who in 1952 was two years older than Johnny Sheffield was when he essayed the role in TARZAN FINDS A SON! (1939). Though Tarzan calls the kid "boy" a few times, this time the orphan has a real name, Joey. Tarzan, upon hearing the kid speak English, presumes that Joey is English, and comically insists that the boy is English even after Joey claims to be an American. Carlton gives a good performance in scenes where Tarzan has to talk him into facing his fears, and even helps Tarzan out in a climactic scene, but Joey made no more appearances (and neither did Carlton as an actor).

Many Tarzan films fall into a fairly routine pattern of perils but FURY keeps up a good variety of pitfalls. After Tarzan, Jane and Joey lead Rokov's party through a scorching desert (prefiguring Endfield's later hot-spot encounter in SANDS OF THE KALAHARI), the group has a dangerous encounter with a cannibal tribe before being taken prisoner by another tribe, the Waziris, who have access to the coveted diamonds. Tarzan leaves the village in the company of a village elder, and in his absence Rokov beguiles the natives with some wild magic tricks. (This is probably one of the few, if not the only, Tarzan films that can fit my trope "enthralling hypnotism and stage magic!") Rokov then repays the natives' trust by killing their witch doctor and stealing some of their diamonds. For good measure he leaves Edwards to die in a lion pit and then tries to drop Tarzan into the pit as well. After Joey helps Tarzan escape, Tarzan returns the favor to Rokov (as seen in the illo above) and then rushes back to the village, where he's just in time to keep Jane from being sacrificed beneath the jaws of an alligator-idol.

A word on the aforementioned Burroughs-references: in the novels "the Waziri" are the first African tribe to pledge allegiance to Tarzan, and appear in many later books as his retinue. In FURY they remain autonomous to the end, and are presented with some degree of respect. The script even suggests that Darby Jones' witch doctor may have some psychic talent, since after casting the bones he sees a vision of a diamond. This causes him to intercept Rokov in the middle of ripping off the tribe's diamonds, though the witch doctor dies for his trouble. FURY is one of the few sound films to reference Tarzan's aristocratic heritage, though for convenience the origin is rewritten so that Tarzan and his father actually lived together in the jungle for some time before the father's death. In fact, the Waziri remember Tarzan's father as a man who tried to teach them the "Good Book," but thankfully this missionary motif gets very little screen time.

Rokov probably takes his name from one of the print-Tarzan's better villains, Nikolas Rokoff, a Russian (but not Communist) malefactor who gives the apeman a hard time in RETURN OF TARZAN. Here Rokov invades the jungle not with the massive *forza* used by the Nazis in TRIUMPHS, but with *froda.* One might imagine that the guile Rokov uses in his magic performance touches on the manipulations of Communist rhetoric, though to be sure the magic tricks may've come about simply because Endfield himself was a well-regarded practitioner of stage magic. Moreover, FURY was directed roughly a year after Huac named Endfield a Communist-- which may well explain why, even though the film's villains are implied Communists, there's really very little anti-Commie rhetoric here. That said, the film does suggest, better than many Tarzan films, the fate of Africa and other third-world areas being caught up in the quarrels of two opposed "Great Powers."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009)




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

While 2009's SALVATION doesn't come up to the level of either the first or second films in the TERMINATOR franchise, it's a distinct improvement over the third installment from six years previous. T3's greatest fault, however typical of a lot of Hollywood product, was at least appropriate to the Terminator-theme, in that T3 was "too mechanical."

One improvement in T4 is that director McG and the film's writers attempted to extend the mythology somewhat. This endeavor is more difficult than it sounds, for unlike many other franchises TERMINATOR's mythos depends on a lockbox concept: that in the near future an evil computer system and its robot hordes will attempt to exterminate mankind, only to be defeated by military leader John Connor-- who only exists because he sent the man who would become his father back to the past to protect (and mate with) his mother. (Talk about your major reversals on the Oedipus Complex: here the hero actually *wants* his father to be with his mother!)

SALVATION's attempt at adding a new mythic personage involves reversing the pattern of the original TERMINATOR: for the first time, a human being from our present is propelled into a future dominated by the war of man and machine. Marcus Wright is a convicted murderer who volunteers to let science use his body once he's been executed, but he wakes to a future (roughly 2018) which promptly has him raging against lots of machines. He also meets a young version of Kyle Reese, whom the audience knows to be the man who will eventually go back in time and spawn John Connor. Connor knows it too, and is desperately trying to find and protect Reese while also juggling a major military offensive against the malevolent mechanisms. Wright thus becomes very valuable to Connor, but Connor must also deal with the possibility that Wright may be a pawn in this future conflict without even knowing it.

Sam Worthington pulls off the best performance as Wright, balancing human confusion with the necessary toughguy ability to survive incredible falls and blow up stuff real good. By contrast, Christian Bale's Connor is dull, but the script does use the two of them to make some telling points about the nature of humanity in a machine-dominated world. Their respective dramatic agonies keep the impressive FX from overwhelming the storyline, as arguably occured with T3. Some of the repeated tropes from the earlier films in the series may be wearing a little thin-- I could stand never to hear "I'll be back" again-- but I had to smile at the sequence in which the filmmakers match Connor against a *doppelganger* of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I call this a "cosmological" film because this is the category Campbell assigns to myths which address the nature of mankind's physical reality-- the movements of the sun, the habits of animals, and (here) the sentience of the very machines mankind builds to make life easier. As in James Cameron's two TERMINATOR films, the noisy shrieks and groans of metal are everywhere, while robots with metal skeletons stand as a perverse revision of the human skeletal form.

In terms of assigning the TERMINATOR films the best possible category of Fryean mythos, I've concluded that the first three films, for all that they use many tropes of the adventure mythos, are structured more like horror films than adventure stories-- and, as I've often remarked on my ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE blog, horror dominantly follows the form of the drama-mythos rather than the adventure-mythos.
SALVATION may come the closest of all four films to the structure of an adventure-story, but I tend to feel-- in large part because of the fate suffered by Marcus Wright-- that drama is still a better match than adventure for this TERMINATOR as well.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN (1937)




PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

Prior to this my only entry for the trope "delirious dreams and fallacious figments" has been BLACK SWAN, because its protagonist's insanity caused her to have hallucinatory waking nightmares. However, the much lighter-themed ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN deals with dreams of a different sort, in which almost the entire story takes place in the protagonist's head.

BABA stars Cantor as a goony movie-fan journeying to Hollywood to collect autographs. That's really all the viewer ever knows about him, because his main function is to become an extra on the set of a Hollywood "Arabian Nights" fantasy, where he promptly falls asleep and dreams himself in ancient Bagdad. As in Twain's CONNECTICUT YANKEE Cantor quickly becomes revered as a sorcerer by the local sultan (Roland Young) and his people, while rousing animosity from evil conspirators Gypsy Rose Lee and Douglass Dumbrille.

The film's pace is lively but I suspect most of the jokes will prove tough sledding for contemporary viewers, particularly some hard-to-follow rimshots at the then-current politics of the New Deal. Similarly, some viewers will look askance at the political incorrectness of this particular "clash of cultures:" as in Twain's YANKEE, the first thing Cantor wants to do when he encounters another culture is to remake it in terms of his own. In one of the script's wittier twists, Cantor's attempt to get the sultan to become a popularly-elected president backfires when the people try to elect Cantor instead of the sultan. Winning the election, then, means that he loses his life, probably by being "berled in erl" (boiled in oil.)

And yes, Cantor does don blackface, but for what it's worth, it's part of a musical number in which everyone else in the number is really black, which calls some attention to the artificiality of blackface. Cantor did at least one other movie (whose title I can't remember) in which he donned partial blackface in the presence of real blacks, who look at him like he's the world's biggest ass. Finally, though some would object to the "language" of Cantor's black performers-- consisting of nonsense-riffs from Cab Calloway-- I found it pretty harmless, and think it at least *possible* that some black people of the time might've found that funny.

The best scene in BABA appears at the end, when Cantor has to fight Dumbrille aboard a flying carpet. Despite the expected use of rear-projection, it's still an exciting scene, during which Cantor injured himself and was voted an "honorary stunt man."

Monday, July 18, 2011

SPASMO (1974)





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





SPOILER WARNING as the resolution of this giallo is discussed in detail.


I screened the "Shriek Show" DVD edition of this 1974 Italian thriller, which fortunately came with the bonus of a short interview with director Umberto Lenzi. This was fortunate for me because the interview enlightened me as to why the story fails even on the generous terms one usually gives to the giallo genre.

Since the inception of the genre-- usually traced back to Mario Bava's 1964 opus BLOOD AND BLACK LACE-- most enthusiasts usually don't mind the convoluted plotlines or the often shallow characterizations. The giallo's main attraction has usually been the fetishization of sex and death, often though not always in a form Edgar Allan Poe might've liked: the deaths of beautiful women.

Lenzi's interview stresses that he didn't initiate SPASMO; that he inherited it from another director and had to rewrite the script to his liking. By that time Lenzi had already become a success with scripts he wrote for himself, notably his first giallo outing ORGAZMO (1969), but as I've not seen any of these in a long time, I can't make a just comparison between Lenzi's other works and SPASMO. Still, I would state that SPASMO fails to come up to the level of other superior giallo works.

Other online reviews note that this is a rare bird for the genre in that it contains almost no blood or gore. Thus SPASMO is largely deprived of its best-known facet: the devising of artful set-pieces involving murder. It's not impossible for a giallo to stress suspense over gore, of course, but Lenzi's characters aren't involving enough to generate said suspense.

The opening is intriguing enough, as wealthy young man Christian Bauman and a girlfriend encounter a woman, Barbara (Suzy Kendall) on a beach. Initially they believe she's dead, and Lenzi gives the scene enough ambience that the sunlit beach still seems creepy even after Barbara proves to be alive. A little later, Christian and Barbara meet again at a party. Barbara seduces Christian back at her place-- but this good fortune leads to Christian's worst day ever. A man, possibly an agent of Barbara's former lover, breaks in, brandishing a gun. Christian fights with the man over the gun and the man is apparently killed. Barbara helps Christian get away, and the two take refuge in a mansion owned by one of Barbara's friends. The friend isn't home, but Christian and Barbara have to share the place with a mysterious old man and a pretty young woman Clorinda while listening to confusing police reports about the incident. Later Clorinda seduces Christian while Barbara mysteriously disappears. Oh, and the house has a weird aviary, allowing for many psychedelic shots of assorted birds.

By this point in the story it seems pretty obvious that Barbara, Clorinda and the old man are part of some larger scheme, and this is the point where Lenzi chooses to reveal that the gunman is still alive. The overall plot is being engineered by Christian's brother Fritz, but for once the villain isn't motivated purely by gain. Fritz stage-manages Christian's troubles with the long-range purpose of getting Christian committed, because Christian actually is crazy. The truth of this suspicion is disclosed at the very end, where it's revealed that Christian has actually killed every woman he's come in contact with-- strangled, slashed, etc. Even though these deaths aren't bloody one almost fees like Lenzi was making up for lost time by introducing so many slain females. Fritz ends up killing Christian-- but then it's implied that Fritz too suffers from some mental abnormality, and the film ends with yet another psychotic menace on the loose.

One might think that in a thriller involving a psychotic killer, I might've identified one of its Campbellian functions as "psychological." This I couldn't do, for the film shows too little interest in how an aberrant psychology develops. Lenzi's DVD interview, however, makes clear that what Lenzi actually had on his mind was a *sociological* meaning. Lenzi claims that in this film and his other giallos, he seeks to identify a psychological "malaise" in the world of rich people, whose "excesses" drive them to committ unspeakable acts. Thus in Lenzi's world the reply to F. Scott Fitzgerald's famed statement, "The rich are very different from us" would be, "Yes, they kill more people."

In essence, this is Lenzi demonizing the upper class as a haven for psychotics, much as I, CLAUDIUS showed the Roman emperors as a inbred society full of bizarre aberrations. This sociological motif could have yielded fertile ground for a good thriller, but precisely because Lenzi keeps back the psycho-reveal till the last, focusing for most of the movie on the Gothic fakeout plot, Lenzi never sells the viewer on the inherent corruption of the upper class. The mere fact that I only got the concept when I heard him talk about it suggests that he didn't put the idea across adequately.

Still, I am intrigued enough to check out other Lenzi thrillers in future, to see whether or not he achieved this theme more successfully elsewhere.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

DEATH PROOF (2007)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *high*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

The category of "perilous psychos" may be one of the most familiar tropes of "the uncanny"-- that is, one of the few I've devised that doesn't need much elaboration. Perhaps because it seems obvious to me, I haven't analyzed but two films in this category, and one of them, THE MISSING JUROR, I judged to be outside the domain of the metaphenomenal.

DEATH PROOF was hyped by filmmaker Quentin Tarantino as his commentary on the slasher-genre, but seems to have taken shape primarily from his fascination with the "bad old days" of cinema's "fast-car genre," as per this comment from Wikipedia:

The story for Death Proof developed from Quentin Tarantino's fascination for the way stuntmen would “death-proof” stunt cars so a driver could survive horrific, high-speed crashes and collisions.


Even taking into account the fact that Tarantino intended to deconstruct what might better be termed the "psycho-stalker" film-- given that the villain of DEATH PROOF doesn't "slash" anyone-- overall DEATH PROOF shows more generic resemblance to fast-car thrillers than to horror films. Of the many films that have dealt with the subject of vehicular mayhem, few transcend the mundane realm of the thriller and inculcate the "strangeness" necessary for a metaphenomenal film-- one of those few being Steven Spielberg's 1971 DUEL.

To add to the difficulty, Tarantino divides DEATH PROOF into two distinct parts, each seeming to have its own phenomenality.

The first half concerns how the psychotic Stuntman Mike stalks several female victims with the use of his reinforced "stunt car," killing one of them, Pam (Rose McGowan) by slamming her about in the unprotected passenger-seat of the car, and executing four other women by driving his car directly into their car. The impact implicitly gives Mike an erotic rush, but it doesn't kill him since his car is "death proof," at least for him.

The second half, taking place 14 months later, deals with Mike's attempt to assault another group of females, two of whom, unbeknownst to him, are experienced stuntwomen. Mike catches the three women out in the desert doing a dangerous stunt: one stuntwoman, Kim, drives a car very fast while her fellow stunt-comrade Zoe rides on the hood and while third female Abernathy, an acquaintance from the film they're all working on, goes along trying to be as cool as the other two. Mike's assault this time, rather than ramming the women's car directly, consists of repeatedly slamming them from behind-- possibly because this time his car isn't quite as heavily reinforced. However, driver Kim is skillful enough not to get wrecked, and in a turnabout very unlike anything in most psycho-stalker films, the women not only overcome the stalker but also savagely beat and murder him.

If Tarantino had taken the essential events of the film's last half and expanded those alone into a film, with no reference to the "death proof" car or various stalker tropes, I'd probably deem that film's phenomenality "atypical," along the lines of a similar thriller like J.J. Abrams' 2001 flick JOY RIDE.

However, the first half does reference the patterns of uncanny horror, so as a whole the film is metaphenomenal, as per my assertion that a film can't be "a little bit metaphenomenal" any more than a woman can be "a little bit pregnant."

The "death car" fits the uncanniness trope "outre outfits skills and weapons," in that said car, though obviously within the domain of existing technology, takes on the aura of the uncanny, much like a lot of the unique weaponry one finds in a James Bond film. The car's skull-hood design provides the "creep factor" usually supplied in stalker-films by the killer himself wearing some bizarre disguise. Indeed, early victim Arlene (Vanessa Ferlitto) sees the car long before she sees its driver, first in broad daylight and later in a night-shrouded parking lot. Stuntman Mike himself displays no "creep factor" to speak of: at worst he wears his hair and clothes to suggest his ties to bygone eras of fashion. Even a prominent scar doesn't make Mike look particular sinister, and he's initially charming enough that he even talks Arlene in giving him a lapdance.

Tarantino certainly chooses to make his "perilous psycho" the obverse of the more typical stalkers: Mike is neither a fidgety nerd like Norman Bates nor an obsessed hulk like Jason Voorhees. But he does share both stalkers' need to find sexual gratification through violence, though Tarantino never provides more than broad hints as to Mike's personal psychological makeup.

In terms of Campbellian function the sociological function is stronger than that of the psychological, for much of DEATH PROOF concerns the "war between men and women." In psycho-stalker films this conflict is not as pronounced as many stalker-haters have claimed, in that the stalkers often target male victims as well. There's probably some truth to the claim that on average the deadly fates of female victims may be treated with greater levels of spectacle, though as yet no one's provided a precise breakdown of male/female deaths and a dependable criterion for "spectacle."

DEATH PROOF definitely breaks down the alleged conservatism of the stalker subgenre in that in both sections, all of the females, whether real or only potential victims, seem to be sexually active, with the possible excepion of Zoe Bell, who's not playing a character as such but rather a fictionalized version of herself. Thus there's no resemblance to the alleged paradigm of stalker-films, in which "bad girls" are killed horribly while a "virgin" survives in the end. The first group of girls to die merely have bad luck, while the second group not only best the stuntman on his own terms but essentially execute a justifiable lynching for Mike's crimes against womanhood. To be sure DEATH PROOF conjures with other themes as well, as is typical of Tarantino's multi-levelled, heavily-referential approach to moviemaking. But the film's sexual politics seem to be the most pervasive aspect of the story.

A note on my assigning this film to the Fryean mythos of "drama:" as I've detailed on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, I tend to view the majority of horror-films as belonging to this mythos because most horror films focus not on the triumphs of the hero (which are the focus of the adventure-mythos) but on the depradations of the horrific menace. DEATH PROOF does end with a heroic triumph, and one that's much more "adventurous" than, say, Dennis Weaver's last-ditch maneuver to destroy his opponent in DUEL. But the majority of the film deals with two groups of women interacting in casual fashion, perhaps executing their own "female-bonding" rituals, only to have their worlds torn apart by a psychotic menace. This connotes for me the purgative world of the drama, rather than the invigorative world of adventure.

Friday, July 8, 2011

THE AMBUSHERS (1967)



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


"Blonde hair, brunette, redheads/lying like injuns in the grass/they're comin' through the pass/and buster/you're General Custer".-- Boyce and Hart, theme song to THE AMBUSHERS.

Continuing my meandering review of spyfilms in terms of the AUM theory, here's one that makes no bones about abandoning any connection to the "real world" (as against the original Matt Helm books of Donald Hamilton, which are entirely grounded in the world of "atypical" phenomenality). AMBUSHERS, third in the series of Matt Helm spyflicks, features almost nothing but one crazy marvel after another-- a flying saucer, a beam that melts belt buckles, "happy gas," levitation rays, and so on.

The sort of sociological motifs that govern many spyfilms-- that is, relating to the conflict of cultures-- has little application to the Helm flicks, which are essentially frothy setups for endless sex jokes for the Playboy generation. However, though none of the characters are any deeper than a character in a sex joke, there are a few moments where the Playboy aesthetic wears thin.

Though it's the third in the series, I saw it first on broadcast TV, and remember thinking that for a frothy film it had a momentary hard edge at the start, in that Helm is investigating the ordeal that robs his spy-colleague Shiela Sommers (Janice Rule) of her memory. One imdb viewer thought the script implies that Shiela had been raped by the film's villain Ortega (Albert Salmi). The film certainly never states this outright, though it's a view substantiated by a later scene when Ortega tries to get busy with Shiela. She does end up being the cause of Ortega's death, which fits the rape-revenge motif, even if Shiela shows little or no trauma following the film's first half-hour.

There's also an interesting dialectic here: are women empowered in the Helm films or not? The "sex-joke" aspect of the films plays to the fantasy of women who are instantly willing to gratify male desires, without imposing any particular demands for gratification themselves. OTOH, both Rule and badgirl Senta Berger are active participants in the action, rather than damsels in distress. The film also tosses out a bevy of beauties called the Slaygirls, who only have a couple of scenes in the film proper but are the main focus of the Boyce & Hart theme song. One of the scenes filmed for the theme-montage, co-ordinated with the "injuns in the grass" lines, shows the Slaygirls stalking a young man walking along with a bouquet. Half a dozen girls then jump the not-unfortunate young swain, at which point the montage cuts to a standard scene of Indians on the warpath. It's not the sort of feminine empowerment that would please Andrea Dworkin, but it does make a nice counter to the Playboy aesthetic of the pliable pussy.

I take this tossoff motif to be more emblematic of the empowerment of female spies in pop culture than any particular originality on the part of the Matt Helm flicks. But that's a subject for another essay.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972), THE GIANT CLAW (1957), VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS (1965)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1)*poor*; (2-3) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1-2) *drama;* (3) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1-2) *cosmological;* (3) *sociological*

From a punny standpoint it would be tempting, considering these three films about gigantic beings, to pronounce them all to be "a colossal waste of time." But in fact, though none of them rank high in the "giant creature" subgenre, at least two out of three have a few interesting symbolic overtones.

The weakest of the three is the first-named, director William Claxton's NIGHT OF THE LEPUS. I see from a quick look at Claxton's resume that he looks to be a journeyman director with a lot of westerns to his credit. That background is possibly one reason he and his collaborators eschewed any of the satirical content from the novel on which LEPUS is ostensibly based, Russell Braddon's YEAR OF THE ANGRY RABBIT. The creators of LEPUS present their concept much like a western, with such genre stalwarts as Stuart Whitman and Rory Calhoun busy fighting off a horde of killer bunnies, while keeping their faces as straight as if they were battling wolfpacks or wild mavericks.

Of course there's no way the premise could turn out any way but funny, and the risibility is if anything enhanced by the straightforward performances. The central SF-idea-- that of a growth hormone given to one rabbit, promptly passed on to its offspring thanks to the famed procreative powers of the "lepus"-- is also treated with straightforward logic, though the execution is a trifle on the pedestrian side. Had the scripters wanted to make it less so-- though, as I said, there would've been little payoff for doing it-- they might have emulated the classic giANT movie, THEM. It's true that THEM has an advantage: giant formicidae simply look scarier than giant bunnies. But THEM also exploits its motif in terms of what I've termed the Campbellian cosmological function. For the protagonists to conquer the giant ants, the characters have to learn something about the nature of ants. The heroes of LEPUS never have to figure out anything about the nature of rabbits to combat the threat: the killer bunnies, after gnawing a few victims to death here and there, obligingly attack a human installation and get mowed down by flame, gunfire and electrical traps. The only cosmological symbol that comes through strongly is the aforementioned procreative power of the rabbit, as the film ends with a closeup on a normal rabbit, implying a "will it or won't it" vibe.

1957's GIANT CLAW is similarly risible despite a similar straight-faced approach. However, its script does succeed in conjuring its cosmological motif with greater complexity, and as more than one fan has observed, it might have been one of the better giant-critter features had it not been for the FX used: probably the gooniest looking marionettes ever to appear in a 1950s creature-feature.




Nevetheless, the giant bird-- nicknamed "La Carcagne" on some websites because one character associates the monster with a French-Canadian myth about a giant harpy-like creature-- doesn't scuttle the whole film. Profiting from THEM's example more than does NIGHT OF THE LEPUS, director Fred Sears builds tension for the first half-hour as the winged predator swoops down on Air Force jets and civilian planes alike, seeming like a phantom because it's immune to being detected by American radar. (As I recall the beast never menaces any area beyond North America.) When fighter jets finally do encounter the beast, they find that it possesses a naturally-generated shield of anti-matter, rendering it both invulnerable and untraceable.

No doubt the sci-fi doubletalk justifying the bird's force-field amounts to hogwash in the world of real science. Nevertheless, the heroes have to do a lot of heavy thinking to figure out how the bird operates (absorbing its victim's energies rather than actually eating their flesh), what it means to do on Earth (it's building a nest for a lotta little predators), and how to penetrate that force field by bombarding the creature with "mu-mesons." The principal characters are well-drawn stereotypes, and the action is always brisk, especially when the bird swoops in too quickly for the camera to focus on its overall appearance. Sears' best-directed scene may be the one in which a group of joy-riding teens violate their curfew and fall victim to the bird's attack, just moments before they joke about "putting salt on the bird's tail." Neither the Cold War nor nuclear brinksmanship are directly referenced, though the opening narration emphasizes the work of "free men" to combat evil. There's little doubt that "La Carcagne" embodies, like all good monsters, many of the period's anxieties. Is it a coincidence that the lead female is one of Those Professional Women, yet the Giant Claw is a "traditional mother?"

Finally, there's Bert I. Gordon's VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, a loose comic take on H.G. Wells' generally-serious novel THE FOOD OF THE GODS.

Wells' giants are emblematic of capitalist society's desire to dominate an underclass. The standout example of this theme is the character Albert Caddles, a young giant raised in captivity by his smaller brethren, who keep him confined to a chalk pit until he finally rises up and is destroyed for his impertinence-- a pretty clear indictment of capitalist society.

Gordon naturally doesn't venture into waters that deep, but even so, he's clearly coming from the other end of the political pool. His giants are a motley crew of delinquents who invade a quiet little town full of nice adults and well-behaved teenagers. The malefactors, led by a dopey-looking Beau Bridges, get hold of a giant-making substance called "goo," invented by a pre-pubescent genius (a very young Ron Howard), and once they've all got as big as their egos, they attempt to take over the town. Eventually they're de-giantized by Tommy Kirk and his teen buddies, the town's adults having come off as pretty much powerless in the face of this form of "burgeoning adolescence."

The sociological myth-motif here is clearly "good teens vs. bad teens" without much embellishment. In contrast to Roger Corman's 1966 biker-flick THE WILD ANGELS, in which the rebellious bikers have some individuality, all of Gordon's delinquents sound pretty much the same, and so do all the good teens. Moreover, despite their ambitions the delinquents, whether giant or not, are all pretty stupid, so it's not easy either to identify with them or root against them as blackhearted villains.

However, Gordon does put across some memorable visual elements despite the script's weaknesses. First and foremost (especially in the advertising) are the breasts. GIANTS is a breast-fetishist's dream-come-true, particularly for the comic bit in which a full-grown teenager (male of course) hangs off a giant delinquent girl's bra, reduced to the image of a nursing baby by "the goo." But the best visual sequence in the film may be the one with which it begins. Bridges and his delinquents, in the midst of driving to Decentville, get stranded when the car craters in the midst of a downpour. Yet, with the invulnerable conscience of youth, the bad teens get out of the car and start dancing in the rain, wallowing in the
muddy earth in a Dionysian frenzy one hardly expects from Bert I. Gordon. Gordon bookends this scene with a mirror-image at the film's conclusion: defeated, the ex-giants trudge out of town past their dead auto, robbed of their confidence and gusto. On top of that, the delinquents' last act in the film is to set up a final gag, pointing the way to Decentville for a parade of midgets, who have an even better reason to "get tall." But the image of muddy body-worship to the tune of Jack Nitzsche's "The Last Race"-- later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for DEATH PROOF-- isn't one that can be dispelled by a little bit of goofy humor.

BELATED NOTE: THE GIANT CLAW qualifies to be considered a "combative drama."