Wednesday, November 30, 2011

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)




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


Captain America: the First Avenger—henceforth abbreviated to Captain—is a fairly entertaining film that illustrates both the advantages and disadvantages of applying real-world verisimilitude to comic-book superheroes.

It’s axiomatic that comic books, particularly in their mode of juvenile entertainment, have ignored or erased verisimilitude as they pleased.  When Amazing Fantasy #15 was crafted, none of Spider-Man’s creators thought twice about asserting that high-school science-whiz Peter Parker could possess the technical wherewithal to devise his web-shooters, which so perfectly complemented the spider-powers he’d received by accident.  In adapting the property to film, Sam Raimi and his scripters didn’t think their intended audience, comprised of both juveniles and adults, would credence that origin of the web-shooters, so the filmmakers elected to make Spidey’s web-powers biological in nature.

The setup for the original Captain America comics of the Golden Age—designed to appeal to juvenile desires for a Nazi-busting hero—has similar continuity problems.  The character’s origin posits that after 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers is rejected for regular military service, the government invites him to be a guinea pig for a scientific experiment.  The experiment succeeds, transforming the weakling into a prodigy of strength, but a Nazi spy infiltrates the project and kills the only scientist able to reproduce the transformation.

At this point the original comic books conveniently drop the matter of the government’s involvement in the patriotically clad superhero.  Some Golden Age stories may have shown Cap reporting to or seeking counsel from the American military.  But there’s never a sense that the hero accounts to any military superiors, at least in the identity of Captain America.  Steve Rogers, no longer a weakling, successfully enlists in the army as a private, but there are no indications that anyone in the military chain of command knows that he’s also Captain America, despite the fact that everyone involved in the experiment knows his identity.  Moreover, Captain America, accompanied by his youthful sidekick Bucky Barnes (barely explained as some sort of “army mascot”), doesn’t just oppose military evils, but any sort of public menace ranging from counterfeiters to Gothic monsters.  Such was the continuity with which the adaptors of the Captain film had to cope.

Following an introductory “flashforward” setting up the premise that this WWII superhero is destined to be “reborn” in the modern era, the filmmakers attempt to make the incredible somewhat credible.  A few tropes are entirely reconfigured: in this iteration, Steve Rogers still knows Bucky Barnes, but Bucky is a strapping fellow who’s the same age as Rogers, as well as a successful enlistee in the army.  Rogers, a sketchy character in the Golden Age comics, is given a degree of psychological depth.  Because both of his parents died in war-related circumstances, Rogers desperately wants to fight against fascism, so much so that he repeatedly tries to enlist under fake identities, only to be repeatedly rejected because of his weakness.  He hates violence and bullying, but he refuses to back down from confrontation.  His courage is witnessed by Doctor Erskine, creator of the super-soldier project. Over the objections of military liaison Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) Erskine gets authorization to use Rogers for the experiment.  Later, when Rogers asks why Erskine wanted him, Erskine gives a better justification than any of the comics ever did:

“ there were other effects. The serum was not ready. But more important, the man. The serum amplifies everything that is inside. So, good becomes great. Bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because a strong man, who has known power all his life, will lose respect for that power. But a weak man knows the value of strength. And knows compassion.”

In this reconfiguration, Erskine reveals that he performed the same experiment back in Europe, on one Johann Schmidt.  Schmidt became Hitler’s right-hand man, the Red Skull, as well as the head of the Nazi science division, known as “Hydra.”

The first third of the film works perfectly, and even enhances Rogers’ transformation into a superhero by including an exciting sequence wherein the not-yet-costumed Captain America must chase Erskine’s assassin through the streets of New York.  However, it’s at the point where the filmmakers must figure out how to make Cap into a superhero that the film begins to stumble.

The filmmakers’ logic is understandable.  Since Rogers is now the only superhuman of his kind, rather than being one of a hypothetical division, the military and the government relegate Captain America to a shill designed to get citizens to buy war bonds.  I understand that the filmmakers could not ignore the continued involvement of the military in shaping Rogers’ life, but the film’s second act diminishes the hero’s stature by putting him through the ironic paces of a pitchman.  Of course, the second act also provides the trial of fire by which Rogers realizes his heroic destiny. He disobeys Phillips’ orders, taking off on an unsanctioned mission to rescue a party of American soldiers from the clutches of Hydra and the Red Skull. Some of the captives include the stars of Marvel Comics’ 1960’s war-adventure series, Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos.  The sight of Dum Dum Dugan, an infantryman clad in a derby hat, provides a welcome vacation from all the verisimilitude.
 
From that point, though, plot-points begin to be ticked off in desultory fashion.  The Red Skull tries to convert Cap to evil. Cap fights the villain, but the Skull escapes.  Bucky, like his comic-book counterpart, falls in battle.  After Cap helps the military capture the Skull’s number-two man, Arnim Zola (another name culled from the comics), Zola betrays his master’s apocalyptic plan, which is based in his having gathered super-powerful weapons from another world (that of Thor, thus setting up a plot destined to tie together that film and Captain with 2012’s The Avengers.)  Aboard a massive “flying wing” Cap contends with the Skull, who apparently perishes, after which the hero must crash-land the craft into Arctic waters.  This sets up the final coda, in which the protagonist emerges from a frozen sleep into the brave new world of 2011.

Captain America has many enjoyable moments, but there’s never the sense that the parts contribute to a greater whole.  A few of these are related to the setup for the Avengers film, and many are enjoyable recapitulations of the Captain’s Marvel Comics mythos (the origin of the round shield, Cap’s romantic interest Peggy Carter). All that said, the second and third acts lack the mythic power of the first act, which is the only plot directly derived from the comic books.  The rest is efficient, but the film as a whole is never as inspiring as it intends to be.

Even a genre as way-out as that of the superhero needs some verisimilitude. But for superheroes, reality is a seasoning, not the main course.  Captain America, though far better plotted than Thor, proves untrue to its own potential as a fantasy-film.        
                  


DEAD RINGER (1964), THE BLACK ROOM (1935)









PHENOMENALITY: (1)*naturalistic* (2) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1)*poor*; (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


It is believed that twins are able to bestow happiness,
health and prosperity upon their family. However, since
they can also bring about disaster, disease and death, they
will be treated with all due respect, loving and care. Their
upbringing is therefore far more permissive than that of
other children (Stoll & Stoll, 1980).-- from this website.


I chose to pair these two films in review because they respectively show naturalistic and uncanny takes upon the real-world phenomenon of twinship.

That phenomenon is not readily associated with the popular conception of "the freak," as is the related phenomenon of "conjoined twinship," even though the same basic biological processes give rise to both entities.  But in terms of fictional narrative, twins can be used isophenomenally (as in Paul Henreid's DEAD RINGER) or metaphenomenally (as in Roy William Neill's BLACK ROOM). Both films turn on an identical plot-idea-- a sibling murders his/her twin in order to take the twin's place in society-- and both stories are star vehicles in which the star naturally plays both roles through the use of film illusionism, with the emphasis naturally centering on the murderer and his/her attempted deception.

In RINGER, Bette Davis imparts an sympathetic air to the travails of Edith, who lost the love of her life to twin Margaret.  Margaret bamboozled Edith's rich suitor into marriage with a pretended pregnancy, leaving Edith to cry in her beer for the next 20 years, during which Margaret's husband passed away and left all of his wealth to the scheming twin.  When Edith-- suffering in comparative poverty-- finds out about Margaret's deception, she arranges to kill Margaret and assume her identity.  To do this, Edith also has to fake her own death, much to the chagrin of her friend police sergeant Hobbson (Karl Malden), who unbeknownst to Edith has been in love with Edith for years.

Naturally, the road to riches doesn't go smoothly for Edith, particularly when it develops that Margaret had a boyfriend who regularly drops in, expecting "Margaret" to welcome him.  RINGER doesn't contain any real surprises, and in tone feels like many of the crime melodramas Davis made twenty years earlier.  In time Hobbson begins to suspect "Margaret" of committing the murder of "Edith," resulting in a typically ironic conclusion. 

Davis and Malden acquit themselves best, particularly when Hobbson comes this close to suspecting what really happened, and when Davis realizes that she wasted years of her life not being with the ardent detective.  In 1964 Davis was still a few months away from debuting in her first all-out horror-work, HUSH, HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE.  (I don't rate BABY JANE as horror at all, merely as a macabre thriller.) RINGER is simply another thriller that avoids anything spooky or macabre about the twins and their relationship.  To the extent that one can regard "twins" as a manifestation of the freakishness of birth-processes, RINGER stays firmly within the boundaries of the naturalistic. 

In contrast to Davis, whose association with horror-films was yet to come, the star of 1935's THE BLACK ROOM had become America's "poster boogieman" for the genre.  Even if one discounts everything Boris Karloff had done prior to 1931's FRANKENSTEIN, eight of the sixteen films he did up to appearing in ROOM were metaphenomenal in nature, if not always strictly in the horror-genre.  Yet Karloff also did several films throughout his career that are much like Davis' RINGER: thrillers with no metaphenomenal content.  So the question arises: would BLACK ROOM qualify as a metaphenomenal film if an actor with a more mundane resume played the role?

In contrast to RINGER, I believe ROOM does play off the "strangeness" of the twin-phenomenon.  It helps that the twins in the film are such broadly-drawn opposites.  Gregor, baron of some Tyrolean province by virtue of being born first, is an absolute rotter, while younger twin Anton is a soulful angel, despite the fact that he, unlike Gregor, was born with a deformity: a paralyzed right arm.  In addition, both twins have been somewhat haunted by a prophecy.  Their noble line began with a pair of twins, who fell out.  The younger murdered the older and dumped his body in a dungeon called "the Black Room," so the prophecy asserts that the baronial line will die out the same way.  The main body of the film begins with Gregor inviting Anton back to the palace after an estrangement of many years.  Anton accepts, having no knowledge that Gregor is both a tyrant to his people and a libertine who has caused many women to simply "disappear."

Anton finds out soon enough.  Gregor takes Anton to the long-sealed Black Room, shows him some of the corpses he's dropped into the dungeon, and callously murders his brother there.  Then Gregor, knowing that his people plan to rise and oust him from his position, feigns to cede his office to Anton-- planning to masquerade as Anton (complete with a pretense of a paralyzed arm) for the rest of his life.

Gregor is such a clever cad that one almost expects him to pull off the deception.  His libido proves to be the heel's "Achilles heel."  He fancies young Thea (Marian Marsh), who is both the daughter of a political opponent and the fiancee of a young soldier, so he connives at a marriage between Thea and "Anton."  This forces him to take more chances and commit more murders before ultimately, unlike the Bette Davis character, Gregor is exposed in public.  A rousing chase-scene follows, leading to a climax in which, as the prophecy suggests, the younger twin does slay the latter.

Prophecies which seem to come true, but are not actually dispensed by gods or psychics, I deem "uncanny" under my category of "phantasmal figurations," in that their provenance is questionable at some time during the story.  But even without this aspect of the film, Neill confers a sense of  "strangeness" to the proceedings.  It's certainly possible that another filmmakers might have taken the same plot-elements and rendered something more naturalistic, along the lines of Joseph Mankiewicz's DRAGONWYCK.  But in BLACK ROOM the twins by themselves make a very strange pair, at once (as the myth-quotation above has it)  capable of bestowing both beneficience and malevolence equally-- while in RINGER, both twins are just two eccentric human beings.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

WICKED WICKED (1973)






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

Director/writer Richard L. Bare, veteran of many B-films and TV shows (among them TWILIGHT ZONE's "To Serve Man"), demonstrates in WICKED WICKED that two bad movies for the price of one is no bargain.

To be sure, the basic idea of "duo vision" has promise, if used artfully enough.  During the same year Brian dePalma made excellent (but more restricted) use of split-screen effects in SISTERS, and would pull off even better effects in 1976's CARRIE.  Thirty years later, Ang Lee employed a related technique in the 2003 HULK film, using "inset panels" to offset the on-screen action. I wasn't a fan of Lee's use of this concept, but some liked it.

It's hard to imagine anyone getting much out of Bare's WICKED WICKED, except in the usual "so bad it's good" sense.  Most of the time the split-screen isn't used to convey suspense, but simply shows one mundane action on one screen and slightly more arousing action on the other.  The overall look of the film screams "TV movie."  Bare's story is "PSYCHO in a hotel," though the psycho in Bare's film wears monster-masks when he kills his female victims, rather than his dead mother's clothes. 
That said, killer handyman Jason (Randolph Roberts) is wholly defined by mommy issues, and in a much more desultory fashion than seen in either the Bloch PSYCHO novel or the Hitchcock adaptation.  At one point late in the film, one half of the screen shows the contemporary Jason talking about his past, while the other half shows him being first molested by an adoptive mother, then abused by an adoptive father.  This is practically Freud 101, but Bare (also the writer of the screenplay) never builds on this ramshackle Freudianism.

When WICKED isn't dealing with Jason's main opponents-- a hotel detective who suspects that too many female residents are going missing, and his ex-girlfriend (Jason's "Final Girl")-- it sets up assorted side-stories about the hotel's quirky residents.  These seem to exist just to fill up time, for with one exception Jason only kills young blond women, so no one else in the hotel stands in danger.
The "one exception" is an older female resident, impoverished actress Mrs. Karadyne.  She befriends Jason, possibly because she senses his need for a legitimate mother-figure.  In the film's only effective use of "duo-vision," one half has her in present-time telling Jason about how her late husband abused her, while the other half shows that after said abuse, Mrs. Karadyne killed her abuser with a fire-poker!  However, when she finds out Jason's secret, that's the last trip she ever takes down memory lane.

The wrapup has one pleasing scene of grotesquerie, as Jason takes his Final Girl (Tiffany Bolling) to a lair where he's assembled the corpses of his previous victims, a la the folktales of Bluebeard and the later HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981).  But as the film sputters to a close, it winds up being little more than one of several precursors to the development of the "slasher-film" genre.

Monday, November 28, 2011

THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR (1986)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*

I've seen various online comments to the effect that this 1986 adaptation of a Jean Auel novel takes many liberties with the source material.  I'm not likely to ever read Auel to find out what was changed, but though CLAN is far from a perfect movie, it's reasonably coherent and doesn't seem to suffer inordinately from the alterations.

I confess that I chose to rewatch CLAN simply because I wanted to categorize a "caveman film" in my system.  Interestingly, though a lot of exotic jungle films don't appear in fantasy-film concordances, it's my general impression that caveman films are almost always present.  However, most films in this genre, in terms of the range of phenomena they depict, are not that different from contemporary-era jungle-films.  In both respects the focus is upon exploring the exoticism of the respective societies, whether that exoticism takes on naturalistic or uncanny manifestations.  I suspect that caveman films make it into the concordances because a lot of them (though not CLAN) put dinosaurs in with the cavepeople.  It's well known that this juggling of prehisoric time-periods is an egegious mistake, but it doesn't confer the aura of the marvelous upon such a film, since their intent is to play to popular misconceptions.  Therefore--

Dinosaurs hanging out with cavepeople, as in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C-- "uncanny"
Dinosaurs surviving into modern times, as in THE LOST WORLD-- "marvelous"

To be sure, CLAN also fits the uncanny mode because there's a hefty dose of shaman-type mysticism involved.  The film is set in the period that includes both the early form of homo sapiens, the Neanderthal, and a later form, the Cro-Magnon.  As a child our heroine Ayla (Daryl Hannah), one of the new Cro-Magnon people, is found abandoned by a traveling band of Neanderthals.  Among them is Iza, a "medicine woman" who elects to adopt Ayla over the objections of the tribe's more conservative members because Iza's "spirits" tell her to do so.  To their surprise even as a child Ayla becomes their trailblazer, for she finds a new cave-dwelling for the clan, which takes its totemic name from that of the cave-bear.

In time Ayla grows to maturity, but she remains distanced from the Neanderthals in that they all share a quasi-psychic awareness of "the memories" of the clan's prescribed way of life.  The implication is that Ayla, as a Cro-Magnon, has already begun to grow away from this form of "group mind."  As a result she frequently transgresses against tribal law-- first and foremost because she does not recognize the boundaries between the male and female worlds.  Early in the film she incurs one Neanderthal's wrath when she unthinkingly touches a man's spear, thus conferring female "pollution" on it and rendering it unuseable.  But Ayla has a proto-scientific awareness that the others in the tribe do not.  She comes up with a more efficient method of counting (a wise friend tells her not to reveal it, as it would upset everyone).  Forbidden to use the weapons of men, she invents a sling and later uses it to save a child from a wolf.  However, this demonstration of originality causes the tribe to deem her a "spirit."  They banish Ayla, even though she's been made pregnant (against her will) by one of the local studs.

Without going into extraneous detail, Ayla survives her ordeal in the wilderness and returns to take over her foster-mother's position as medicine-woman for a time, though by film's end she restlessly takes her leave once more, still unable to fit in.  Ayla leaves behind a male child, who, oddly enough, shares the tribal memories that Ayla does not.

CLAN is a decent enough dramatization of various theories on prehistoric societies, though some will find suspect the fact that all of the Neanderthals are dark-haired while Ayla the Cro-Magnon is the only one who is both blonde and blue-eyed.  I would imagine that the evolution of "the blonde blue-eyed" genes were still some ways down the pike, which to purists might be as objectionable as mixing cavemen and dinosaurs.

John Sayles' script, written shortly after he finished writing and directing THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, is efficient but never particularly moving, much like the actors' performances.  Ayla has a climactic confrontation with the man who impregnated her but it largely falls flat, though this may have been a flaw passed on from the book.  On one occasion, there's a suggestion that two characters actually do share a psychic connnection, but it's so questionable that I rate this and all of Ayla's visions under the category of the "phantasmal figuration," which deals with phenomena of uncertain nature. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

HERCULES AND THE MASKED RIDER (1963); HERCULES AND THE TYRANTS OF BABLYON (1964)



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

Apart from the categorization problems offered to my theory, HERCULES AND THE MASKED RIDER's only entertainment value lies in its title.  Upon watching the film, it's evident that "the Masked Rider," not Hercules, is the star of the show.  Otherwise, RIDER is nothing but a run-of-the-mill swashbuckler set in 16th century Spain.
In my system, a figure like Hercules can be "marvelous" if he's given powers like those of the gods, as in the 1959 HERCULES.  He can be "uncanny" if he's just a normal man with somewhat awesome muscular strength, which describes the majority of the Hercules/Samson flicks of the early 1960s, some of which starrred RIDER's cast-member Alan Steel.  Here, however, Hercules (Steel) is a minor character who does some minor strongman feats, so the "Hercules" hero here possesses "outre skills" in a naturalistic context.
However, the main character of this swashbuckler does don a mask and cape for a few minutes, and becomes a name to conjure with a la Zorro and other masked adventurers.  So this particular development qualifies the film to be uncanny because of the (admittedly brief) presence of the hero in his masked identity.  The plot isn't worth commentary.

TYRANTS is uncanny as well, and within the same "outre" category, but in the more traditional *peplum* style.  Rock Stevens (aka Peter Lupus of 1960s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE fame) stars as Hercules, who does toss around some good-sized rocks against various evildoers.  He journeys to Babylon to rescue a coterie of Greek captives, among whom is Queen Esperia of the Hellenes, for whom Hercules has a thing.
 
Three Babylonian co-rulers are responsible for the enslavement of Hercules' fellow Greeks.  Two of the villains are just standard bad Orientals, but the third ruler takes on greater stature, thanks to the always sultry performance of Helga Line, as Queen Tanit (pronounced "Taneel," as in "Captain and.")  Line schemes more against her fellow rulers than against Hercules, and unlike most ancient rulers has her own Bond-like doomsday device: a giant mill-wheel set to bring the city of Babylon tumbling down so that Tanit can rule the land alone from Nineveh.  A similar effect is pulled off with considerably more flair in 1961's MOLE MEN AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES. Here the effects of the city's destruction are pretty penny-ante, but any film with Line in it scores a little higher than average.


Friday, November 25, 2011

LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

 For my theoretical system, a film like John Hancock’s LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH presents some categorization problems, because it never definitively declares its phenomenality to be either “uncanny” or “marvelous,” as most metaphenomenal works do.  In Tzvetan Todorov’s literary tome THE FANTASTIC—which I’ve discussed in copious detail here—Todorov asserted that works which did not choose existed in a special interstitital category, which he dubbed “the fantastic.”  My earlier essays have demonstrated the reasons why I don’t think this special category is necessary.  As far as I’m concerned, if a work allows for the possibility that there is no actual departure from causality and/or rational order, then it remains an uncanny work.  In my system, in contrast to Todorov’s, the lack of such a radical departure does not automatically align the work with other works of pure naturalism: an uncanny work still conjures with the same quality of “strangeness” seen in a marvelous one.


In most of the films using my “perilous psycho” trope, the focus is upon a madman usually out to slaughter assorted innocents.  An exception is BLACK SWAN, but in this film, there’s no suggestion of the marvelous at all: the protagonist’s bizarre visions are purely the result of her own madness.  In JESSICA, however, one isn’t quite sure whether or not Jessica is imagining her experiences.


Jessica, a young wife who’s recently received treatment for mental illness at a rest home, travels with her husband Duncan and their male friend Woody to a farm in Connecticut.  Like so many film-characters who wind up residing in peculiar old houses, their first and foremost haunting is an economic one.  Jessica and Duncan have sunk all their money into making this new start, in part to give Jessica a less stressful environment.  Their first setback is meeting someone else squatting in the house: Emily, an odd but winsome young hippie-ish chick who claims to have simply taken up living in the house because she thought it was deserted.  Emily makes herself amenable to all of them, particularly a smitten Woody, and they allow her to stay with them.  The second setback is that when they take some of the house’s old artifacts into town to sell to an antiques dealer, he tells them a weird story of the former owners, the Bishop family.  The daughter supposedly drowned herself in the lake near the farm, but there are rumors that she didn’t truly die, but arose as a vampire.  Coincidentally—maybe—the picture of the long-dead Abigail Bishop looks just like Emily.


Jessica’s perceptions are always in question, largely because she frequently hears voices saying that they’ll never leave her.  She meets a strange mute girl in the woods who leads her to the dead body of the antiques-dealer, but can’t locate the body for her husband. Duncan does see and touch the mute girl, though, for he helps Jessica catch her.  However she escapes again and her presence is never explained.  Jessica suspects Emily of coming on to both Duncan and Woody, but even when Jessica’s not present, Emily still projects an air of peculiarity with only Woody for witness.  The local townspeople treat Duncan with hostility for no reason, and most of them possess strange scars or wounds that have been bandaged over.  Near the climax Emily, clad in Abigail Bishop’s clothing, seems to invade Jessica’s house with her entourage of vampiric thralls. Jessica flees to the lake, on the way finding Woody's death body atop the tractor.  She takes refuge in a boat that she steers into the lake.  Someone swims out the boat and tries to get aboard; Jessica kills the intruder with a boathook, only to see that she's killed Duncan.  As she drifts in the water beside the body of the man who was her last link with sanity, the maybe-vampires watch her from shore, and then walk away.  Since Emily had no trouble getting in the water before, one presumes that she isn’t repelled by the lake-water.  If she really is the vampiric ghost of Abigail, why doesn’t she just finish off the victim she’s been chasing so assiduously? Are Duncan and Woody really dead, or has Jessica simply surrendered to madness by imagining the climactic vampire scenario, so that her imagined tormentor has no more reason to pursue her?  The last words of the film leave Jessica in a liminal space, even as the boat places her in between water and land: “Nightmares or dreams, madness or sanity—I don’t know which is which.”


Director Hancock and his cameramen constantly emphasize this ambivalence, for even in the film’s early scenes, the audience sees commonplace things take on the aura of the bizarre, like the tractor Woody drives while spraying insecticide on the crops.  When Duncan warns Jessica not to touch one of the trees because “it’s poison,” he seems to be speaking of the ability of any common thing to take on evil aspects.  At times the film’s omissions are as powerful as what it shows, as with the Connecticut town that seems populated largely by weird old men, with no women or children present.


The title suggests the sort of Gothic contrivance seen in the works of Ann Radcliffe, where the supernatural is faked in order to drive someone mad.  This scenario is never really suggested in the diegesis, so I still choose to label this film with the trope "delirious dreams and fallacious figments.”  In addition, the townspeople are odd enough to justify the “weird families and societies” category.
        












Thursday, November 24, 2011

LEGEND OF THE FROSTY THE SNOWMAN (2005); PUFNSTUF (1970)















 PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *(1) poor, (2) fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*

Imitation MARY POPPINS, meet imitation WIZARD OF OZ.

LEGEND OF FROSTY THE SNOWMAN is the former.  Since the original children’s song/story tells a very tale of a snowman coming to life and enchanting some kids out their dull routine, this feature-length extrapolation naturally attempts to pad out the original story into a tale with more conflict and theme.


MARY POPPINS centered on the actions of a well-meaning paterfamilias who attempted to force his family into a life of rigid conformity, only to have his eyes opened by the gentle influence of a supernatural nanny.  In LEGEND, a similar paterfamilias, Mayor Tinkerton, uses his authority to compel a whole town into obeying his arbitrary rules.  Later it comes out that the mayor was one of a group of kids who witnessed the original advent of Frosty the Snowman.  Tinkerton lost faith in Frosty’s magic when Frosty disappeared and didn’t come back as promised.  As an adult he overcompensated by becoming an anal-retentive rulemaker.  In contrast to POPPINS, LEGEND comes up with a villain to blame for the transformation: a bad kid stole Frosty’s magical hat and locked it away so that the snowman couldn’t come back.  Later the bad kid grows up to be Mayor’s second-in-command, Principal Pankley, at which point he finally reaps the benefits of his perfidy by usurping the mayor's position.  Thus the mayor’s son and his crew of grade-school friends have to learn how to “fight the power” and free the magical snowman.

LEGEND is, unfortunately, a lot like the laws in the mayor’s town: efficient but not very lively.  The narrator gets the best line as he observes the mayor’s confusion when his well-ordered town breaks down: “It’s when you don’t have all the answers that there’s room for something wonderful to happen.”  But the writers and animators don’t have any concept as to how to make Frosty’s return seem wonderful.  The movie’s heart is in the right place; its head simply doesn’t know what to do about it
.
PUFNSTUF, a feature-film version of a live-action kids’ TV show, comes a little closer to creating a sense of wonder, if only because it isn’t shackled to any particular theme. I’m not familiar with the TV show, but I assume that the feature film pretty much recapitulates the show’s first episodes, as PUFNSTUF starts from square one.  English boy Jimmy (Jack Wild) feels tormented by his feelings of being different from American schoolkids, so he wanders off and finds a magical talking flute who becomes his new best pal.  The flute, Freddy by name, leads Jimmy to a magical land called the Living Island, inhabited by talking trees, owls, clocks, and a big two-legged dragon named Pufnstuf, who’s the mayor of the community.

(Try though I did, I couldn’t find any marijuana jokes in the film.  No one but the villain ever complains of hunger, and she wants to feast on Pufnstuf.)

Just like Dorothy’s first visit to Oz, Jimmy’s appearance on the Living Island provokes the appearance of said villain: Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes).  Witchiepoo, anticipating a big witches’ conclave with the “Boss Witch” in attendance, is willing to kill Jimmy and all the beings of the Island so that she can possess the magic flute and impress all of her witchy friends.  Her first foray is repelled, so she resorts to chicanery to get the flute, and from then on the flute goes back and forth like a bone fought over by two dogs.

None the whimsicalities in PUFNSTUF’s world possess the deeper symbolic resonance of any versions of Oz, but they’re diverting, at least.  The standout scenes take place during the longish climax in which Jimmy must masquerade as a witch to gain entry to Witchiepoo’s party.  There are some amusing bits—Boss Witch (Martha Raye) has for an assistant a talking rat in a Gestapo uniform, and she says things like “for Satan’s sake.” (I’m aware that bonafide modern witches don’t worship Satan, but I can’t imagine any of them taking offense at this batch of  “happy harpies.”)  Ultimately Jimmy and his friends save Pufnstuf by invoking the powers of good—which, in contrast to the world of Oz, seem suspiciously absent.  One of the Island-critters observes that witches are frightened by both angels and good fairies, leading me to note that the film is nothing if not even-handed in this mingling of Christian and pagan presences.  Jimmy and his friends decide to masquerade as angels.  They drive away the witches, save Pufnstuf and the flute, and frustrate Witchiepoo for the time being-- until the next go-round.

Possibly the oddest thing in PUFNSTUF is not any of the talking critters, but the fact that one of the minor witch-characters, Witch Hazel (Mama Cass Elliott), performs a song for the other, supposedly evil witches—a song entitled "Different" that speaks perfectly to Jimmy’s sense of being different. All of which comes much closer to getting across the Importance of Being Different than one ever gets from the mediocre FROSTY flick.          









Wednesday, November 23, 2011

INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES (1962)





“From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step”-- Napoleon Bonaparte.

Rarely does one see the opposite assertion: that one can go to the ridiculous to the sublime in one step.  This rarity probably relates to the dynamics of producing both effects, at least in fictional narrative.  When a creator seeks to invoke the sublime—which in my view is essentially identical with sci-fi’s “sense of wonder”—the creator tries to invoke a sense of majesty or awesomeness to some phenomenon.  When the creator fails to do so, the disconnect between intention and execution often has a comical effect.  In cinema, many of the most popular “bad films” are those that suffer such a disconnect, as seen in Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and Phil Tucker’s ROBOT MONSTER.

“Bad film” connoisseurs have shown little regard for Bruno VeSota’s 1962 sci-fi comedy, INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES.  In all likelihood this is because INVASION is intended to be ridiculous from the start—literally, since the first credit of the film is the jokey “R.I Diculous Presents.”  INVASION follows the tradition of broad comedy a la Abbott and Costello, focusing on frenetic slapstick and simple spoofs of “straight” genres.  Such films usually show no insights into what makes the “straight” genre appealing. INVASION is an exception, for it does have such insights.  Indeed, the aggressive stupidity of the film, whose humor shouldn’t be overly funny to anyone out of grade school, makes it a little easier to view said insights.


INVASION opens less like a sci-fi parody than a service comedy, focusing on the misadventures of Penn and Philbrick, two dim-witted army privates assigned to duty on a missile base.  Penn is nominally the “straight man” of the duo, heaping Abbott-like abuse upon his Costello-like partner, a whining child-man who reads comic books.  Specifically, Philbrick reads the space-opera comics of “Space Commander Connors,” who also has his own TV show and marketing campaign.  Later, one of the film’s real aliens asks Philbrick what “comic books” are.  He replies that “they’re our army tech manuals”—a lame joke that may contain more truth than humor.


In contrast to the service comedies of 1940s Hollywood, everyone in the army is as idiotic as the two protagonists, from a sergeant who converses in Beatnik-speak to a wacky, gun-waving colonel.  The colonel whips the plot into motion by choosing Penn and Philbrick to be part of a detachment sent to inspect the site of a recent atom-bomb test.  According to the colonel, seven days have gone by, which is adequate time for the “fallout” to disperse, but aerial reconnaissance spotted a strange natural cave opened up by the bomb.  Later it’ll be disclosed that the “Star Creatures” of the title are camped out in the cave, and have been there for ten years, but said aliens never comment on having weathered any nuclear explosions.  The old force-field trick, perhaps.  At any rate the colonel sends the detachment off to investigate the cave for no particular reason.


Following a few more forgettable comic escapades, the detachment arrives at the cave.  Most of the soldiers are captured and put into stasis by the Star Creatures, but the aliens allow Penn and Philbrick to remain conscious for interrogation.  The aliens take two forms: super-strong mindless plant-creatures called “vege-men” (guys in silly-looking tree-suits) and their mistresses, two stacked space-amazons wearing tight-fitting one-piece swimsuits and high heels.  Penn describes the girls as being “seven feet tall,” but this comment may just be a way of masking how short the two heroes really are.  Jonathan Haze’s script sneaks a ribald reference into the names of the amazons, who are “Doctor Puna” and “Professor Tanga.”  Someone liked the pun so much that those names also appear in the credits, though no other actor in the lead credits has a character-name so referenced.

  The space amazons are, in essence, the element of Haze’s script that most pushes the crude humor from the ridiculous to the sublime.  Sci-fi cinema of the 1950s sports a fair number of stories about alien worlds ruled by women, as seen in 1954’s CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON and 1958’s QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE.  In these films the females possess technology superior to that of Earth, but their feminine emotions make them vulnerable to the charms of hunky Earthmen.  INVASION follows this basic pattern, but Tanga and Puna are scientists who are far more intelligent than any Earth-denizen in the story, rather than simply inheriting technology from their culture.  Their ability to loom over the short soldiers is of course exploited for sex appeal—lots of shots of Philbrick looking straight up into Puna’s cleavage—but it also allows an interesting reversal, in that Puna and Tanga can and do frequently push or knock the two males about with impunity.  To be sure, one line suggests that the males back home may be equally big, since Haze’s script devotes a few sentences to describing their culture as a “three-phase society,” in which men are the warriors, women are “the technicals” (implicitly the rulers?), and vege-men are the slaves.  Haze says nothing further about the male natives of the alien world, but curiously takes the trouble to relate the history of how the women took control of the vege-men by killing off their leader (Che Gherkin, perhaps) and confining future vege-men to grow only from their “pastures.”  To be sure, this mini-history is used as a cue for a lot of dopey vegetable jokes, as well as one of many witticisms about how much the vegetable slaves are treated like the army’s “yardbirds.”  Still, the conquest and neutralization of the vege-men sounds a lot like standard tropes concerning amazon-societies conquering and neutralizing the male sex.


The “Star Creatures” originally came to Earth as scouts for possible invasion.  As noted earlier they’ve been stuck down in this cave for ten years, stranded by damage their spaceship sustained on landing and unable to communicate with the home planet.  That damage has just been repaired, however, and the amazons are making ready to blast off, taking Penn, Philbrick, and the rest of their detachment along as specimens into “the black voids of space.” 


For some reason everything the space-babes say starts to sound dirty after a while.  Maybe it’s those names…


The big girls have a chink in their armor, though:  ten years is a long time without a man.  Tanga doesn’t seem particularly charmed by their captives, and has issues with the male sex generally: “Stupid arrogant braggarts, all of them, with their illusions of superiority!”  Her subordinate Puna, however, seems receptive to Philbrick’s attentions, and Tanga tells her that the Earth-man has merely stimulated her “maternal instincts.”  This effectively turns the sci-fi trope of the “invading virile Earthman” on its head; in INVASION it’s the men who must “stoop to conquer,” seducing the superior females with their childlike weakness.


True, Penn does try one show of force: ambushing Puna to take her gun.  She puts his lights out with a handy judo-toss, so Philbrick must fast-talk the amazon into receiving a cultural education on the human custom of kissing.  In a schtick probably swiped from some Three Stooges short, the human-alien kiss creates electric-spark sounds and both of them are semi-paralyzed with ecstacy.  Penn manages to drag Philbrick away from his conquest and the two escape.


Back at the army base, the two doofuses fail to convince their chicken colonel of the impending danger—that is, until Philbrick reveals that he is a member of “Space Commander Connors’ Secret Squadron.”  The colonel is a member too—“Space pals forever!”—and so he and his two new buddies lead another (very small) detachment against the alien cave.  This ersatz “cavalry” promptly gets detained by a group of roaming Native Americans who happen to be in the neighborhood.  Philbrick explains their mission, only to once again invoke the name of Commander Connors, whereon the Indians’ leader reveals that he too is a member of the squadron. In fact, he has a superior rank to both Philbrick and the colonel.  “Outranked by a savage,” grouses the colonel.  The cavalry and the Indians both get drunk on firewater, leaving Penn and Philbrick once more alone to plumb the perilous papier-mache cavern.


By the only kind of luck such heroes ever have—the dumb kind—the soldiers not only sneak into the cave without being torn apart by vege-men, they manage to launch the amazons’ spaceship without anyone aboard, where it will be lost in space.  Soon Puna and Tanga learn they’ve been marooned on Earth, and conclude that when they don’t return to their homeworld the invasion will be called off.  Tanga doesn’t take it well, beating up both men and threatening to shoot them.  Puna draws her own weapon and forces Tanga to surrender.  She suggests that they throw themselves upon the Earthmen’s mercy.  Penn gives Tanga the requisite electric lip-job and the two men propose marriage.  “It sounds like slavery,” says the bemused Tanga.  “That’s exactly what it is,” responds cagey Penn.  INVASION then concludes with the two soldiers getting medals for their heroism.  They go to their car, where their amazon wives-- now clad in Earth-garments-- are seated atop the rumble seat like two tremendous trophies.  Off the two dopes drive with their prizes, and so ends the INVASION.


When I first viewed this film as a kid, I thought most of its humor was pretty lame, especially the parts where grown men were playing some sort of Buck Rogers-Captain Video space-opera games.  I still think the humor itself is lame, but it’s interesting that writer Haze and director VeSota end up depicting all the patriarchal societies seen in the film as no better than a “secret squadron” based on a television show.  For male juveniles of that time period, such merchandise-related “societies” functioned as “boys’ clubs” in which males could fantasize about performing the deeds of men.  Such deeds included conquering alien princesses as a substitute for fraternizing with real girls.  The two dunces do indeed conquer a pair of space-babes, but the way they do so undercuts the heroic element of such fantasies.  Given that INVASION doesn’t work that well as a comedy, it’s surprising that it has such a comparatively high level of mythicity, mostly within the sociological and cosmological functions. 
 






Tuesday, November 22, 2011

HOME ON THE RANGE (2004); A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *(1) poor, (2) fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *(1) comedy, (2) drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*


The only thing that I'm grouping these two animated projects together is that I happened to have seen them within weeks of one another-- though as it happens, both happen to be Disney films.

HOME ON THE RANGE is the first film I've reviewed here which is "marvelous" in one restricted manner: its heroes are animals who resemble their real-world counterparts in every way except that they can think just like human beings, and can carry on fluent conversations in humanspeak with other animals though never with humans.  The fantasy-critic Todorov claimed that he didn't think that fables about talking and/or thinking animals should be labeled as "marvelous" works, but I take the opposite stance.  With this in mind, I rather wonder why none of the fantasy-film concordances have ever considered entries for the various PEANUTS films, or at least the ones in which Snoopy appears.

RANGE is perfect for small kids in that it presents a ranch way out west where the animal stars are part of the ranch-family, rather than sources of revenue and/or dinner.  The plot is pretty standard: the ranch "Patch of Heaven" is in dire straits financially.  Three cows-- Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench), Grace (Jennifer Tilly), Maggie (Roseanne)-- decide that the only way they can save their owner's property is to go out and capture noted outlaw Alameda Slim.  I suppose the writers thought that it would be intrinsically funny to see these cows-- who comprise sort of a "Joy Udder Club"-- trying to perform heroic deeds, but in my opinion all they did was to prove that cows don't make good animated film-heroes.  Borrowing a trope from the "Jack and the Beanstalk" folktale, the villain whom the heroes pursue turns out to be responsible for their financial woes, as Slim is not just an outlaw, but an evil banker set on buying up all the land in the state, with "Patch" being the only holdout.

The voice-work is skilled and the traditional animation is fairly attractive, but neither can save the unremarkable script.  Only Slim's assistants, his three dumbell nephews, are a little funny, but that's just because dumb is easy to make funny.  Real comedy, as others before me have said, is hard.

Genre-wise Dickens' CHRISTMAS CAROL in some ways feels halfway between drama and comedy.  Certainly Scrooge's reprieve from a meaningless death (though not, obviously, from death as such) has a comic feel to it.  But on the whole the story of Scrooge's haunting is generally serious, and this version (starring comedian Jim Carrey as Scrooge) emphasizes the dark, forbidding aspects of Dickens' tale with no comic relief throughout the bulk of the film.

As with other "capture animation" projects, one ought to speak of the "voice actors" (Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth) as "voice-and-body actors," since the performers act out some if not all of the actions of their animated personages.  Carrey's Scrooge sports a craggy face with a nose like an icicle of flesh, as well as playing younger versions of Scrooge and all of the Ghosts of Christmas.  This is a nice conceit, as one could interpret the ghosts as elements of Scrooge's own psyche, though thankfully the film doesn't dwell on the matter.  By and large it's a faithful retelling of the original, though to liven up the film for modern audiences, Scrooge is put through some over-the-top ordeals, like being rocketed into the sky or shrunk to the size of a mouse.

Precisely because CAROL is a faithful adaptation, there are no real surprises aside from those inherent in the capture-animation technology.  While it's not to my taste, director Zemeckis and his team did a much better job of "humanizing" these computer-figures than they did in the previous POLAR EXPRESS, which I found nearly unwatchable.

The rating for CAROL's mythicity is "fair" only insofar as it reproduced elements of the Dickens story, not because of anything Zemeckis and Company brought to the table.

Monday, November 21, 2011

ELLIE (1984)




PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *low*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

"Ellie may... or Ellie may not..."

This line from the theme song playing over the credits of Peter Wittman's ELLIE (1984) is probably the height of the film's cleverness.  That, and the base idea of taking the rough plot of the Greek myth-tale of ELECTRA and updating it for the purpose of a cornpone comedy.
Most of the time this blog won't cover films which are obviously naturalistic in terms of their phenomenality.  For the most part the only time I'll cover them will be if there seems to be some doubt as to their nature; for instance, I view the phenomenality of Hitchcock's FRENZY as naturalistic, but it often does get listed in fantasy-films books alongside Hitchcock films that do deserve to be there, like PSYCHO.  No one would ever mistake ELLIE for a fantasy-film.  However, a fair number of hillbilly-horror films do create a sense of the uncanny, as seen in my review of CABIN FEVER. So I elected to use ELLIE as an example of the "weird families and societies" trope in its naturalistic mode.

In myth Electra's story revolves around her attempt to revenge her fatherAgamemnon, slain by her mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aesgistus.  Because Electra makes known her hostility to Clytemnestra, in some versions (like the Euripides play named after the heroine), Electra is married off to a low-class farmer so that she will bear no noble children to seek revenge; however, the farmer allows the marriage to remain in name only.  Electra doesn't have to wait for kids, though, because her grown brother Orestes returns, and the rest of the play concerns her persuading Orestes to kill the murderers of Agamemnon.

Wittman's ELLIE (which actually sports a pretty diverse cast of familiar faces, such as George Gobel and Pat Paulsen) is "Electra" told without an Orestes.  "Black widow" murderess Cora (Shelley Winters) persuades Ellie's aged widower-father to marry her, even though Cora comes with a pretty heavy retinue-- three grown sons and a "brother" who is actually not a relation, but Cora's secret lover.  The four men all pant like so many dogs after the virginal daughter of their new "dad," but the widower barely has time to register a protest before Cora dumps him in a lake and sits on him until he drowns.  (Agamemnon never had to tolerate that kind of abuse!)  Ellie accuses Cora and her sons of murder but the incompetent sheriff (Paulsen) is sweet on Cora and refuses to take action.

Ellie then uses her charms to lure all four men to their respective deaths.  Most of Ellie's plots are pretty ordinary, with one exception that justifies my assigning this film the trope of "bizarre crimes" in its naturalistic mode.  Having directly or indirectly offed the three sons of Cora, Cora's lover Art (the "Aegisthus" figure) faces her off with the intention of killing her.  As Ellie happens to know that Old Art has hisself a real bad heart, she talks him into taking her virginity before she dies-- which leads to a "heart-pounding" conclusion where she lives and he dies.

The conclusion is probably the oddest aspect of the film.  Ellie and Cora scrap a little when Cora tries to kill the heroine with a shotgun.  Yet Cora, already a murderess several times over, is spared by the film's script, in what seems like a riff on the Euripides ELECTRA.  In short, Cora is forced to marry a man she deems beneath her-- the amorous sheriff-- just as Electra was forced to marry a low farmer.  I gather that means that the filmmakers considered marriage to Pat Paulsen a punishment worse than death.

As for the "weird families" trope, Cora's traveling entourage of three sons and a lover is probably swiped from a similar role Winters played in 1970's BLOODY MAMA.  The three brothers lusting after their "sister" gives the film a quasi-incestuous tone, though oddly the script has one of them killed not by Ellie, but by a trap set by Cora for Ellie: a poisonous snake that bites the fellow to death just as he's preparing to rape the heroine.  So in this farcical rewriting, the evil mother and virtuous daughter both live; it's just the menfolk who get chopped off at the knees.

Friday, November 18, 2011

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*

I finally got round to reading the Starblaze Classics Illustrated reprint of THIEF OF BAGDAD, which was the contemporaneous novel-adaptation of the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks fantasy-film.  I'm not well-versed as to the genesis of the original film, though it's been said that Fairbanks, writing under the psuedonym "Elton Thomas," was most responsible for the overall shape of the film.  The book-adaptation is written by one of the film's screenwriters, one Achmed Abdullah (actually a Russian-born subject of Great Britain), and sports lush illustrations by esteemed comics-artist P. Craig Russell.

Though the film influenced the book rather than the more usual reverse-situation, I note in passing that the metaphysical themes of the story-- the rogue reformed by love-- receive more expanded treatment in the novelization.  Some episodes may have been present in the film-script and excised.  In the book the Thief's encounter with a "tree-man" is an episode in its own right, while in the finished film the tree-man is a minor matter quickly overshadowed by more dazzling wonders. However, the film outshines the book in terms of visual presentation.  The comic moment wherein the Thief's horse tosses him into a rose-bush is desultory in the book, but in the film it serves to heighten Fairbanks' gift for both stuntwork and visual comedy.

I concur with the standard view that THIEF remains a classic, though as a longtime devotee of the 1940 remake by producer Alexander Korda, there are times I found myself regarding the 1924 work (directed by the famed Raoul Walsh) as something of "raw material" for a greater work.  I admit this is unfair to the Fairbanks film, which has its own distinct identity-- for one thing, possessing a more earthly sensuality to the love-scenes between Fairbanks and his princess bride (who's actually given the name "Zobeid" in the book, yet is left unnamed in both films).  Still, there are times when the second film just does more with elements of the first one.  In the Fairbanks film, the Thief's battle with a sea-spider and a man's scaling a huge idol to gain its eye-gem are two unrelated scenes.  In the Korda film, the two become fused into one grandiose scene in which Thief Sabu both scales a giant goddess-statue AND fights a giant spider.  The two separate scenes from 1924 are enjoyable but not very complex, while in the 1940 work they take on qualities I can only term "archetypal."

I term this film "metaphysical" because from the first it's suggested that the Thief's growth from a simple atheistic robber ("What I want I take," "Allah is a myth") to a self-sacrificing lover has a deeper spiritual dimension beyond the level of "who gets the girl."  Of all the dangers the Thief faces in order to gain the hand of his beloved, the most visually arresting are his moments wandering through the Valley of Flame, which suggest a purificatory ordeal.  Again, I have to remark that the book enlarges better on the framework of this wild psuedo-Islamic universe, and the princess' other three suitors are more rounded characters.  Here too it's interesting to see how the Korda film took various elements-- the seeing-crystal, the flying carpet-- but reworked others (the Princess of the first film is poisoned by the villain so that he can bring her back to life and wed her; in the second film she falls into a long-lasting sleep by her own volition).

Of the principal actors here, only Fairbanks and Anna May Wong (playing a treacherous Mongol slave girl) went on to much fame, though Noble Johnson, one of the rival princes, enjoyed a long and varied career, especially in horror films like the 1932 MUMMY.

I confess that I did find the film rather slow going at times.  But in terms of the film's technical achievements and Fairbanks almost giddy athleticism, THIEF steals the game from any of its silent-era competition.




Thursday, November 17, 2011

MOTEL HELL (1980)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *high*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


"It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent Fritters!"

Of course the great joke of this memorable movie-tag-line is that only *one* kind of critter provides the "mystery ingredient" that makes Farmer Vincent's smoked meats so popular.

I've seen MOTEL HELL termed a "parody" of earlier "hayseed horror" films like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  I agree that director Kevin Connor and his writers infuse a great sense of black humor into the proceedings, but strictly speaking, I wouldn't consider MOTEL a parody.  When Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun) proposes that his method of human-harvesting at once alleviates the population problem and feeds the hungry, it's done with dark Swiftian irony.  But though I found that and many other moments in MOTEL pleasantly absurd, I personally didn't find them funny in the sense I associate with true parody.

Another consideration is that as with CHAINSAW, there are scenes of genuine peril that are too grotesque to function as pure parody.  Any of the scenes in which Vincent and his batty sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) are extracting ingredients from their many human captives (most of whom have had their vocal cords cut) have this quality.  Though both Calhoun and Parsons have some over-the-top moments, they're reasonably serious when they project the idea that both of these mad mulchers really believe that they're being humane to their livestock.  The strongest such scene shows Vincent "humanely" using a gimcrack hypnotic device to lull several victims into a dazed but pleasant stupor before he and Ida kill them off.  Most of the other characters aren't much more than amusing cannon fodder.  Heroine Terry (Nina Axelrod) is theoretically the Final Girl who ends up exposing everything, but her character proves rather weak and inconsistent.  A cameo by then-celebrated DJ Wolfman Jack adds a little spice to the mix.

In addition to the tropes "perilous psychos" and "enthralling hypnotism," which should be self-explanatory, this film also includes the trope of "weird families and societies," with emphasis on the former, even though unlike most hillbilly horrors, the family's a rather small one, consisting of just Vincent and his sister.  I'm not sure whether or not Ida's jealousy of Terry, who tries to marry Vincent, was supposed to imply some quasi-incestuous bond or not, though that too would be one of the routine canards tossed at country-folk.

Given that director Connor had most recently done a host of Burroughsian and Arabian Nights fantasies, it's a small miracle the fact that MOTEL HELL, almost the polar opposite in the fantasy department, is as good as it is. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

TARZAN AND THE GREAT RIVER (1967); TARZAN AND THE JUNGLE BOY (1968)









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

These two films comprise the last entries in Tarzan's long career as a serially-produced cinematic attraction.  After this, his appearances would become increasingly sporadic, and subject to interpretations as wildly apart as those of John Derek and the Disney Corporation.

Often, long-running serials die with a whimper rather than a bang.  RIVER and JUNGLE BOY are no exceptions.  Both are modest, reasonably watchable entertainments, but there's considerably less sociological myth-content than was typical of earlier films in the series, even in lesser works like TARZAN GOES TO INDIA.

RIVER is the last of Tarzan's globe-hopping episodes in the series, taking the ape-man to Brazil.  As with India, Brazil boasts a fascinating culture that might have made for considerable sociological tensions, but the script by Bob Barbash (veteran of mostly TV shows) simply slots in a generic devil-cult like that of the leopard-men in 1946's TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN.  The cult's leader Barcuna is played by Afro-American Rafer Johnson, but since Brazil does have Black African elements in its culture, his presence isn't quite as eyebrow-raising as the apperance of Woody Strode in the Thailand of TARZAN'S THREE CHALLENGES.  Mike Henry's Tarzan has a reasonably good end battle with Barcuna.

Sadly, too much of the film is devoted to cute kid Pepe (Manuel Padilla Jr.) and his scalawag-mentor, raffish boat-captain Sam Bishop.  Kids had been evident in the Tarzan films for several years, but RIVER and JUNGLE BOY seem to bend over backwards to make the stories kid-friendly.  Pepe, outcast from his own Brazilian tribe for the crime of being an orphan, is taken in by kindly if devious Captain Bishop.  There may be an imperialistic metaphor in there somewhere, particularly when Pepe is called upon to demonstrate the efficacy of modern medicine to his tribe so that beneficent Doctor Phillips (Diana Millay) can do her job.  There's one decent joke here, though, in that Pepe, having learned the white man's ways very well, won't do the job for altruism, but requires some folding green from Captain Bishop for the service!

JUNGLE BOY is even thinner plotwise, as photojournalist Myrna (Alizia Gur) enlists Tarzan's help to look for yet another white foundling-boy lost in the African jungle.  It's modestly appropriate that at least the last of the serial Tarzan-tales returns him to his African home, even if, as was always the case, it's an Africa constructed out of pulp-stories.  Tarzan's search for the lost kid is complicated because the kid has gone missing in an area dominated by a tribe hostile to incursions.  On top of that, Tarzan shows up just as two royal brothers are contesting one another's right to the tribal throne.  Tarzan manages to get on the bad side of the villainous one, again played by Rafer Johnson, and he and the "jungle boy" end up helping the good brother, played by Rafer's brother Edward.  Tarzan has a somewhat better fight with the villain this time but in the film's best moment, the "good brother" is allowed to mete out justice.

Thus ends the long-running Tarzan series.  Neither of the last two films is especially good, but it must be admitted that they could have been much worse-- as evidenced by both John Derek AND the Disney Corporation!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

THE STORY OF MANKIND (1957)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*

One of the great conundrums of art-criticism (in which I include the criticism of film) is that the critic may find mythic content in authors with whom the critic vehemently disagrees.  This is largely because myth, as Susanne Langer has profitably argued, is *presentational* in character: it makes its arguments by force of emotional tonality, not through discursive logic. 

Irwin Allen's portentous philosophy-primer THE STORY OF MANKIND is, on the mythic level, fascinating in that Allen and his scripters tried herein to resolve the conflict between what C.P. Snow memorably described as the "two cultures" that dominated Western society: the culture of the sciences and the culture of the humanities.  Allen's opus isn't quite as ambitious with respect to the latter as the former.  For science, STORY relates many of the best-known parables of scientific discovery-- Isaac Newton and his apple, Alexander Graham Bell and his Watson, etc.  By contrast, the domain of the "humanities" is largely represented by acceptance of the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition (though in one quick scene the film gives the nod to Islam and Buddhism).  Art is never mentioned outside a Eurocentric context.

The most fascinating myth-component of STORY is only suggested by the initial setup.  Somewhere in outer space, a heavenly council of elders meets to decide the fate of mankind, by which they mean purely the inhabitants of Earth, of course.  What has mankind done to provoke this celestial scrutinization?  Well, they've invented a device called the "super-H-bomb."  However, the council isn't concerned simply because they've invented the thing: they're concerned because humans have invented it far ahead of schedule by some 60 years.  Buried in this odd scenario is not just the notion that human society may be moving too fast for its own good-- a common trope in science fiction-- but also that it can move so fast as to exceed the designs of fate itself.  For the mysterious council surely seems to be able to rule on the fate of mankind, though they don't appear to be Christian angels or any similar beings.  In addition, they exist in a world where the Devil himself comes to court to plead against humanity's survival (played by the always winsome Vincent Price, and usually called by the Devil's folkloric name "Mister Scratch.")

As in the Biblical story of Job, no debate on human fates large or small is complete without a defense attorney.  The film suggests that Adam, the First Man, was supposed to show up and oppose the Devil, which would have made a fun match given Satan's alleged jealousy of mortals from their earlier origins. I assume that an early version of the script possibly did use Adam as mankind's defender, but the completed script calls in a less controversial pinch-hitter, addressed only as "the Spirit of Man" (Ronald Colman, in his last film).  While the Devil argues that mankind has totally blown it and deserves extinction, the Spirit continually argues that Man can turn it around.  (One wonders, given the "super-H-bomb" scenario, if the filmmakers were hoping that mankind would prove worthy of atomic secrets within the next 60 years.  As of this writing things don't look all that optimistic for 2017.)

So the Devil and the Spirit take the elder-council on a Magical History Tour of mankind's highs and lows.  The Devil's first witness for human infamy is the Pharoah Khufu, who supposedly once made a deal with the Devil for immortality-- though despite gaining this immortality he also built his pyramid to keep a more visible form of immortal presence. Khufu, by the way, objects when the Spirit of Man calls him "godless." And before anyone can speak the magic words "Egyptian religion," up jumps the Spirit to declare that something good did come out of Egypt: Moses, leading his people nobly to freedom.  The Plagues of Egypt are not mentioned, though Moses' acquisition of the Ten Commandments is depicted as a real historical event.  Later, the Spirit will aver that sometimes history and mythology become confused, allowing the audience to believe what it will about what is or isn't confused here.

The Greeks get the next mention on the "top 40" parade of historical hits.  The Devil points out that the Greeks did pretty well despite worshipping dozens of gods, although they too were as warlike and avaricious as the rest of humanity and just as deserving of annihilation.  The Spirit of Man conveniently vaults over the issue of polytheism and characterizes the Greeks largely in terms of their contributions to science, thus setting up the C.P.Snow dichotomy noted above. 

Feminists, by the way, would probably not like Irwin Allen's version of history.  Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I are the only examples of positive influential women in Allen's mostly-male history of the world.  Moreover, these two make less of an impression than such Evil Women as Helen of Troy (who laughs as men destroy each other in her name) and Cleopatra, seen in the illo above poisoning her brother to keep him from claiming her throne.  Incidentally, when Cleo links up with Julius Caesar, the script criticizes her for dallying with a man "old enough to be her grandfather."  Unsurprisingly, the script makes no complaints later in the "Peter Minuit" section, where Minuit (played by 67-year-old Groucho Marx) not only swindles the Indians who sell him Manhattan, but also runs away with the chief's 27-year-old daughter.

For American viewers the Devil's most affecting arguments may be those critiquing the high ideals of the American Revolution, for its slaughter of Native Americans and the creation of slavery in the U.S.  I give Allen a point or two for at least mentioning these dubious moments of history, but no sooner does the Devil mention slavery than the Spirit of Man quickly switches topics (and advances several years in history) to start talking about World War II.

It all wraps up when the Spirit of Man calls forth "the Man of Tomorrow"-- actually a child-- to demonstrate the potential positive fate of humankind's continued existence.  But in case this still doesn't grab the elders, the Spirit pulls out his trusty Bible (provoking a comic over-reaction from Price, who argues that the book has no place in court).  The Spirit reads a rather unmemorable preachment from the Bible, which I confess I've already forgotten, and the council decides in the end to postpone its decision a little longer, essentially giving mankind more time to clean up its act.

Allen's "Readers' Digest" version of history is pretty risible, and on occasion, the film more or less admits this in the comedy-relief scenes (Harpo as the aforementioned discoverer of gravity).  The script doesn't come anywhere near bringing about any truly thoughful reconciliation of the two cultures, but it can still be enjoyed on the basic fannish level of "look, there's Peter Lorre playing Nero!"

Monday, November 14, 2011

LECTURE TO AN EMPTY HALL

Just by way of keeping track of some alterations in my terminology...

Up to this point I've been writing labels for each of my ten tropes without specifying whether or not, "amphibians" that they are, a specific use is either "naturalistic" or "uncanny."  Last weekend I decided to correct this.  Now all ten will be labeled with either the letter "n" or "u" to signify their status.

An example can be seen in this double-review of NABONGA and THE SAVAGE GIRL.  Both films show female jungle-castaways palling around with apes, and so both participate in my category, "astounding animals."  However, SAVAGE GIRL never passes beyond the most mundane level of this foundling-myth, as I observed:
...despite her being loosely patterned on other, more extraordinary jungle foundlings, Nameless Girl doesn't measure up as an uncanny heroine despite wearing an "outre outfit," and the natives in her bailiwick lack any exotic tropes, despite the script's hilarious allegation that they practice "voodoo."

By contrast, though Doreen, the heroine of NABONGA, isn't much more exotic than Nameless Girl, she at least seems to have some perternatural bond with the ape Samson, which puts her a little closer to the Tarzan myth.  Samson himself seems a little more unusual too:

...Samson, because he is at once an ape and yet seems like something more as well, does qualify for the trope of "astounding animals," and shifts this otherwise routine film into the realm of the uncanny.
 As I've retrofitted the review now, SAVAGE GIRL has (n) versions of the two tropes "astounding animals" and "outre outfits skills and devices," while NABONGA has (u) versions of the same, in that both Samson and Doreen's outfit carry a valance that I recognize as uncanny, or metaphemenal only in the affective sense.

Before my weekend revisions, the name of the second trope was "outre outfits skills and weapons," for this category was designed principally to account for the affect produced by heroic figures who were not marvelous and yet were more than simply naturalistic, such Tarzan and Zorro.  I recently decided, however, that such heroes may on occasion use "devices" that are not technically "weapons."  For instance, if some James Bond imitator makes use of a remote spy-eye that's a little ahead of the technology of the time, that item would not be a weapon as such.  Yet it could, under the right circumstances, confer a degree of the uncanny upon the spy's adventures, even if that spy never shared Bond's arsenal of exploding cufflinks and so on. 

I also revised the category formerly listed as "enthralling hypnotism and stage magic" to read "enthralling hypnotism and illusionism."  I was specifically thinking of a handful of movies which sometimes invoked "stage magic" as an element of the uncanny, though of course not all movies containting stage magic invoke these elements.  I decided that "illusionism" was a better term, for there are also films in which characters may create illusions through methods allied to the methods of stage magicians, without the former actually being anything like stage magicians.  It seems to me that I've seen a few "ninja films," for example, in which the ninjas are shown to be masters of illusion rather than possessing any genuine magical powers.  Thus a ninja-film that used illusion to stimulate the aura of the uncanny would be an uncanny expression of this trope. 

ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION (1939)

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

ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION is one of several serials on which John English and William Witney shared co-director credit.  It's a good solid adventure-romp with a colorful villain: Don Del Oro, seen above facing off against the titular hero.  It never quite scales the heights of great serial-adventure which the duo attained with ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL and THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU, however.

Like a lot of serials, LEGION has a good setup and a lively finale; it's all the episodes in between which cause the serial to sag in the middle when viewed as a whole.  The best serials are those in which at least some of the "middle" episodes are bracing in their own right, allowing the audience to suspend their knowledge that (a) the hero's not going to die in the middle of the story, and (b) the hero's not likely (if ever) to die at the end either.  Of LEGION'S 12 episodes, only once did I find one of the hero's perils bracing: trapped in a burning room, with snipers outside ready to riddle him if he tries escape through the main door, Zorro manages to use his whip to swing through a high window to safety.

The aforementioned setup is a little more political than in most serials.  In the time of Juarez's Mexico, the fragile country seeks to shore up its reputation for fiscal soundness by shipping gold shipments from the San Mendolito mine to Mexico City.  When Yaqui Indians begin raiding the shipments, Zorro takes a vacation from his home in Old California and investigates.  He and his "legion" (a group of similarly-masked vigilantes) learn that the Indians are being commanded by a mysterious man in golden armor, representing himself as "Don Del Oro," the reborn "gold god" of the Yaquis.  One wonders why a Native American god doesn't have a Native American name, but rather a Spanish one.

Modern viewers, sympathetic to the treatment of Native Americans throughout history, may be tempted to sympathize with the Yaquis' desire to reclaim their ancestral lands from the descendants of Spanish invaders.  Naturally this is an aspect of real-world ethics that LEGION simply can't address.  The most one can project is that in theory the Juarez rule of Mexico, had it lasted, probably would have been better for the Yaquis than the overlordship of Don Del Oro, who is, as the climax unsurprisingly reveals, a white guy.

Reed Hadley makes a fine Zorro, with a number of above-average swordfight-scenes.  An interesting side-note is that female lead Sheila Darcy, though she doesn't get to do much of anything here, would play a version of the famed Dragon Lady in her next serial, TERRY AND THE PIRATES.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

ODYSSEUS: VOYAGE TO THE UNDERWORLD (2008)



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


The Sci-Fi Channel has certainly aired many made-for-video/cable flicks that are worse than ODYSSEUS: VOYAGE TO THE UNDERWORLD.  But I suppose this item-- which I caught in a rerun buried in the wee hours-- annoys me because it's so indifferent to being bad, or (even worse) to being boring.

I recognize that this film probably came about not because someone was burning to tell the untold tale of Odysseus meeting Penelope, Queen of the Dead, but because some producer put up the needed money and someone else found that the studio could film something, anything, cheaply at such-and-such a location in Romania.  I have nothing against "desperation film-making," where the filmmakers are essentially throwing everything possible at the audience to keep them in their seats.  What I dislike are filmmakers who throw things in a desultory manner, not even trying to "hit" anyone.

The Italian muscleman films of the 1950s and 1960s were probably made for roughly similar reasons.  Got some togas left over from THE ROBE?  Let's do HERCULES.  Got some 16th Scottish costumes lying around?  Let's put archaic hero Maciste in Scotland to fight witches (Maciste in Hell, 1962).  But though there were some dull *peplums* as well, at least they usually tried to get their basic mythology right.

Quick summation of the VOYAGE: thanks to the song of the sirens, Odysseus and his men (including the ODYSSEY's author Homer) end up stranded on an island filled with marauding harpies.  They meet a strange woman who will help them get off the island if they take her with them.  The only problem is, when no one's looking she turns into a gigantic smoke monster and...

Oops. Sorry; that was the plotline for the last season of LOST.

I assume that the writers may have started out trying to figure out a new story for Odysseus (played gamely here by Arnold Vosloo), and realized that the most logical thing would be to have him encounter yet another dangerous female on an island, in imitation of the original's encounter with Circe and Calypso.  Odysseus and his men are a trifle suspicious of the nameless woman (identified in the caption-crawl as "Persephone" even before her name is given).  But they have nothing to go on until Athena, patron of heroes, sends a vision to Odysseus, informing him that the woman is the Queen of the Dead, exiled to the island because she wanted to take over the rule of the world from Zeus.  The writers don't trouble to explain how she's going to do this, any more than the LOST writers cared to explain what their smoky villain was going to do once he got loose.

Said writers, however, do explain what's keeping Persephone penned up on the island.  It's nothing less than the Golden Fleece, woved together with the coat of the Nemean Lion--

Oops again.  It's actually a doodad called "the Hellfire Cross," which sounds like something the writers pulled out of some 20th-century horror movie they'd written.  But this is what I mean by the filmmakers' inability to play by even the fuzzy rules set by the old peplum.  Homer can claim that this "cross" was constructed by Hephaestus and charged up by Zeus, but the problem remains: why would Greek gods be fiddling around with any sort of cross?  In similar fashion, all through this dialogue varies between portentous archaism and modern-sounding discourse, including, of all things, a paraphrase of Nietzsche's maxim that "what does not kill me makes me stronger."

Anyway, Athena isn't content to tell Odysseus to keep clear of Persephone; she also wants him to stab the goddess with the cross, because for some reason the gods need a mortal to do the dirty deed.  Persephone finds out soon enough that her pawns are getting ideas of their own, and she tries an interesting strategy: masquerading as Odysseus' long-unseen wife Penelope.  Though Odysseus sees through the charade he has sex with her anyway.  Following their intimacy, Persephone, not needing the average pregnancy-test, declares that she now has Odysseus' newest boy-child in her womb, and tries to use the fetus as a bargaining-chip.  This could have been an intersting moral problem even within the context of a fast-paced adventure, but the script drops the ball and concludes the film with the usual predictable face-off.

The most I can say for this film was that it was more fun to dis it than to watch it.