Saturday, December 31, 2011

MIND OVER MURDER (1979)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*




MIND OVER MURDER is a decent enough TV-movie about an assistant district attorney, name of "Suzy" (Deborah Raffin), who suddenly gains the power to hear other people's thoughts.  This proves to be somewhat helpful as she starts picking up the thoughts of the perps she's trying to convict. She doesn't do what many people with such a gift would do-- running around reading as many minds as possible-- but tries to restrict the power of her gift to criminal matters.  In the film's one memorable comic scene, she has one accidental encounter with the thoughts of the married man she's sleeping with, as she learns that he really has no intention of leaving his wife.

Apart from this scene, most of the film is routine movie-of-the-week mush.  Director Ivan Nagy does well with her experiences of other people's memories, which are depicted as chaotic when funneled through Suzy's perceptions.  Apart from that, its only other interest is its cast of seasoned veterans: in addition to Rafferty, we also get Andrew Prine, Paul Lukather, Bruce Davison and (in a small role) a pre-Freddy Robert Englund.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)




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

X-MEN FIRST CLASS-- loosely modeled on a comic book depicting the early years of the 1960s X-Men superhero team-- is a definite improvement upon the previous entry in the franchise-- the one that tried to force Deadpool down the throats of middle America.  However, as with X-MEN ORIGINS WOLVERINE, CLASS gives the impression of too many superheroes spoiling the cookery.

In the DVD's promotional materials, someone comments that director Matthew Vaughn, who had subordinate directing duties on X3, was the perfect choice for CLASS because he possessed the chops to deliver both superhero action and the "tonality" of the complicated character interrelationships.  Half of that statement is true: Vaughn (also credited as a CLASS writer) does a fine job with all the character scenes.  Since former X-director Bryan Singer was credited with input into the story as well as having a producer credit, one may assume that Vaughn followed Singer's successful model to some extent.  However, though X3's director Brett Ratner was excoriated in some circles for the lack of character moments, Ratner delivered far more kickass visual moments than Vaughn-- which is ironic since prior to CLASS Vaughn's most noteworthy project was his adaptation of the graphic novel KICK-ASS.

The central storyline in CLASS deals with depicting the complex "friendly enemies" relationship between the X-Men's leader Charles Xavier and his sometime ally Magneto, aka Eric Lensherr.  In this iteration Lensherr joins Xavier in the quest to both protect and recruit mutants in order to preserve them from the dangers of regular humanity.  Lensherr, however, has a darker past than Xavier, for in keeping with his revised origin from X-MEN (2000), he was subjected to the horrors of the Holocaust during World War II.

During his internment in a concentration camp, Lensherr becomes an experiment for a sadistic madman named Sebastian Shaw.  Shaw recognizes Lensherr's mutant magnetic powers and attempts to develop them, though it's not clear what use Shaw hoped to make of such power.  Despite a truly "hard knocks" method of instruction-- Shaw shoots Lensherr's mother in front of the boy's eyes-- Shaw fails to do anything but give the future villain the desire to hunt Shaw down like a dog.  In the process of doing so, Lensherr will unconsciously model many if not all of his future actions after those of Shaw.  In the 1960s, during which the majority of the story takes place, Shaw forms the Hellfire Club in order to manipulate young mutants to serve his will.  After losing all faith in Xavier's meliorist plans, Lensherr will do the same.  Shaw, becoming aware that he might be vulnerable to Xavier's mental powers, dons a helmet to protect him against mental influence; as viewers of the earlier films will recognize, Lensherr-as-Magneto will don either the same helmet or a copy thereof.  There's even a loose parallel between the fact that each man has a "femme fatale" as a right-hand "man."  Shaw has the White Queen (or a facsimile thereof).   In the first Singer films Magneto's second-in-command is the sexy shapechanger Mystique, but in CLASS we learn that Lensherr essentially seduced her away from Xavier-- though as it happens the high-minded mutant leader only considered Mystique a sister-like confidante.

I've nothing against this sort of rewriting of history, but Vaughn's script doesn't allow any room for Shaw to be anything but an anticipation of Magneto.  His big plan-- to foment war between the U.S. and the USSR during the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis-- allows the film to reflect back on the tensions of the time but it doesn't seem to yield Shaw any tangible advantage.  At least in a real 1960s artifact like FANTASTIC FOUR #22, where the Mole Man tries to execute the same essential doomsday scenario, the villain's able to hide from the conflagration beneath the earth.

The original comic book series FIRST CLASS dealt with the charter members of the 1960s group, but for whatever reason, Vaughn and his collaborators chose to emphasize a bunch of new kids on the block.  This did allow for their crucial rewriting of Mystique's relationship to Xavier and Lensherr, but the other "new kids" don't fit the mold quite as well.  Here the only character who actually appeared in the 1960s X-MEN comic is the Beast, who starts out as a human being with big feet but mutates himself into a hairy monster.  This takes elements of the Beast's solo 1970s series and melds it with the X3 film's idea of a "mutant cure."  However, the Beast's arc never shows much pay-off, apart from playing around with the notion that in his blue-furred persona he might have become interested in blue-skinned Mystique.

Alex Summers/Havok is merely there to fill in for his brother Scott/Cyclops, possibly because the writers didn't want to deal further with the Cyclops continuity confusion engendered by the WOLVERINE film.  Banshee, a charter member of the record-breaking 1970s group, has no real characterization and is used mostly for comedy relief during his first attempts to fly.  Angel, a butterfly-winged female borrowed (sans any characterization) from the Grant Morrison X-MEN run, is used to be one of Xavier's pupils whom Shaw manages to "turn"-- which is pretty much a reprise of a similar Singeresque development in X2.  Lastly comes a character named "Darwin," whose comic book original isn't familiar to me.  He's given little characterization and his death-- principally to prove that the villains are badasses-- only served to infuriate audiences because the first hero killed was a person of color.  For all of me, they could have killed Havok or Banshee just as easily, though Darwin's power in the film seems the least interesting of the three.

There are many good continuity hat-tips all through the film.  I'm particularly fond of a bit where Xavier's lover Moira is first to suggest that he call his group "X-Men" as a logical development of their not being "G-Men," or "government men."  There are, as in the comics, many minatory pronouncements about the evils of racism, judging by appearances, and totalitarian government.  They're enjoyable enough, but like most of the film they feel a little derivative.  In contrast to X2-- still the best film in this series-- CLASS has no superlative sequences that set it apart from others of its kind.

THE LONE RANGER AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD (1958)





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

CITY (which I deem the best abbreviation for the movie's long-winded title) was the last outing for the Lone Ranger of the 1950s following the conclusion of the series.  It was also the last official performance of Clayton Moore as the character, though the actor continued to make public appearances in costume and, according to imdb, never again portrayed any non-Ranger-related role.  In 1979 the company that owned rights to the Ranger character sued to block Moore from such unsanctioned activities, but relented when the suit netted them nothing but bad publicity.

Still, had Moore never again been able to play the masked man, CITY would have made a good if not exceptional film with which to conclude.  Directed by Lesley Selander, a specialist in horse operas, and scripted by a writing-team that had already collaborated on various TV-show episodes, CITY has a strong sociological theme relating to the fate of the "red man" at the hands of white culture, and a minor metaphysical theme that alludes to the subject of Indian beliefs about deific forces.

The latter theme is constituted almost entirely in terms of an Indian legend related to Tonto and the Ranger.  Back in the time of the conquistadors, a tribe stood in danger of being wiped out by the superior firepower of Coronado's troops as the soldiers searched for the fabled "SevenCities of Gold."  The night before the conquistadors' attack, a "fire from heaven" crashes down upon the conquistador camp and wipes out the enemies of the Indians.  Being a rational fellow, the Lone Ranger deduces that the Spaniards were wiped out by a falling meteor, but Tonto's demurral-- that the Indians believe the fire came from God-- is supported by the thrust of the story as a whole, which concerns the Indians of a particular tribe getting back their own from the white man.

The story proper begins with the heroes coming to the rescue when a band of hooded outlaws ambush an Indian's wagon, killing him but leaving behind his infant son.  Tonto and the Ranger take the child to a local mission, whereupon they learn that the same outlaws have been repeatedly attacking many Indians in recent months, always despoiling them of jewelry or related trinkets.  While the heroes investigate, Selander reveals the villain as a rare female antagonist: a ranch-owning widow named Fran Henderson.  Aided by her foreman Brady, Fran is the secret boss of the hooded outlaws.  Her goal is to regain the separated pieces of a medallion which, when assembled, will lead its possessor to one of the fabulous "seven cities of gold." At the conclusion we'll learn that the "city"-- actually a city-like expanse of golden stalactites-- resides beneath the ground where the meteor of legend crashed, which doesn't make a lot of sense but allows for a good emotional payoff.

In addition to coveting ancient Indian treasure, Fran-- though she's plainly keeping Brady loyal with displays of affection-- shows some interest in the town's local doctor, James Rolfe.  Unbeknownst to her and to the town-- dominated by a bigoted sheriff-- Rolfe is a half-breed, who has concealed his Indian heritage in the hope of earning enough money from the whites in order to build a mission hospital to help his people.  His true love is the full-blooded Indian squaw Paviva, who works at the mission and desires to adopt the orphaned child.  This causes her to put pressure on Rolfe to reveal himself as an Indian so that he can marry her, implying that the white commmunity of the town would have taken a dim view of a white guy marrying red.  At the same time, Rolfe is justifiably concerned that if he comes out of the closet, he'll be ostracized from the town, short-circuiting his plans for improving his people's lot.  Though the Rolfe-Paviva story is clearly the "B-story" beside the main storyline of the Ranger's pursuit of murderous outlaws, the two complement each other quite well.  Eventually, after Tonto has a violent encounter with the bigoted sheriff, Rolfe does the right thing and reveals his nature to the people, who rather quickly renounce both their own bigotry and the sheriff's.

The upshot is that, following a few more encounters with the outlaws, Tonto and the Ranger unmask the villainess, moments after she kills her foreman in a fairly grisly scene for what must have been sold as a "family western."  They recover the medallion's sections from her, which leads them to the sunken "city."  Because the gold is on Indian land, it's assured that now the doctor will have the necessary funds to build his hospital, and for once a western ends with the unequivocal triumph of the "red men."

Some reviews speak of the meteor's role as propelling the film into the realm of science fiction.  But though the meteor accrues some symbolism as a possible manifestation of the "Hand of God," the meteor has no marvelous properties, though it might be deemed a mark of the uncanny.  However, as noted elsewhere the mere fact that the main hero wears a mask alone qualifies the film within that phenomenality, under the "outre outfits" trope.

Friday, December 30, 2011

BATMAN (1943)



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

For the last forty years the 1943 Batman serial has been subjected to massive derision, largely because of its cheapjack sets and costumes and its World War II jingoism.  However, the serial is considerably more accurate to the Golden Age comic-- only about four years old by that time-- than many similar adaptations of comic books or strips into the serial format.

Director Lambert Hillyer, who launched his career with William S. Hart silents, directed almost nothing but westerns during the sound era. Yet in the 1930s he proved that he could work with more extravagant subject matter in his two 1936 horror films, THE INVISIBLE RAY and DRACULA'S DAUGHTER.  The BATMAN serial was the last of his delvings into the world of marvelous cinema, but as in the horror flicks, Hillyer was more than able to create the atmosphere necessary to adapt the early, Expressionism-influenced Batman comic. The Japanese villain Doctor Daka makes an eminently hissable mad-scientist villain, particularly for his ability to turn healthy men into subservient zombies (an apt metaphor for the fate of democracy at the hands of the Axis "New Order," whether by accident or design).  The battles of the Dynamic Duo against Daka's various thugs aren't rendered with the amazing precision seen in the Republic serials, but Columbia's fights look more like real, rough-and-tumble brawls.

Douglas Croft (about 17 at the time) is an undistinguished Robin, though he could have been much worse.But given a decent costume, Lewis Wilson might've made an excellent Batman, since he had a good enough build (which he kept up in the 1950s cultfilm WILD WOMEN).  His scenes as Bruce Wayne, shifting between affable playboy and determined crusader, are a welcome change from the one-dimensional granite-jawed do-gooder. As Daka, J. Carroll Naish is the only other actor who really makes a strong impression, although William Austin puts over a strong comedy relief presence as cinema's first Alfred.

Like most serials, BATMAN starts off strong, as the opening chapters establish some "mcguffin" that both heroes and villains must pursue-- in this case, radium needed to power Daka's disintegrator ray-- and then it sags in the middle from repeating the setups.  But at least BATMAN delivers a good pulp-style conclusion, though it's also the section heaviest with racial slurs on American's Nipponese opponents. I can imagine an argument in favor of war propaganda as a necessary evil.  But I must admit that BATMAN does indulge in anti-Japanese rhetoric a little too heavily for modern sensibilities..








Tuesday, December 27, 2011

TEKKEN (2010), DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE (2006)







PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair*, (2) poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

Here we have two martial arts tournament-flicks with loose SF-themes woven in.  Both have been excoriated for failing to live up to the video games that inspired them.  As I don't play video games, this alleged unfaithfulness doesn't matter to me.

Though on a whim I chose to borrow illustrations of hot kung fu babes for both films, TEKKEN, like the majority of kung-fu films, emphasizes a dark and obsessive world of male violence, even though there are a few killer babes tossed into the mix.  In contrast, DOA, focusing primarily on three female fighters who cross paths during a tournament, is considerably lighter, with more of a CHARLIE'S ANGELS tonality.

TEKKEN takes place in a future-world wherein eight corporations have taken over the world and continually strive amongst themselves for superiority by matching their martial representatives against one another.  Aside from the hero's battle with one cyborg-opponent (Gary Daniels, veteran of quite a few low-budget martial mayhem films), one doesn't see a lot of advanced technology in the TEKKEN world.  Had there been no cyborg, though, the setting alone constitutes a *marvelous* phenomenality.

The hero Jin (Jon Foo) is raised in poverty by his mother Jun (Tamlyn Tomita).  She's never explained the mysterious absence of his father, and she dies early on at the hands of enforcers sent by the Tekken Corporation.  By luck Jin defeats a fighter scheduled to represent Tekken at the Iron Fist tournament.  Tekken recruits Jin to fight in the tournament, and the hero accepts with the ulterior motive of finding his mother's killer.  After his first victory he's almost assassinated by two babe-assassins (seen above) but Jin is saved by his new girlfriend, a fighter named Christie.

At the film's first mention of the "absent father," I was pretty certain Jin would meet his pappy during the tournament; however, the script did throw me a mild curve in that said father, Kazuya by name, turns out to be the main villain rather than a sympathetic ally to the hero.  Kazuya is responsible for the assassins, as well as for attempting to pervert the Iron Fist tournament in order to have the gladiators kill one another.  One might discern a very light Oedipal theme here, in that Jin's mother is killed by his father, and that TEKKEN ends with a life-and-death battle between the two.  It may also be of mild significance that Jin's mother, a martial artist herself, trained him, and that Jin needs a little help from his fighter-girlfriend to prevail over Kazuya.  This quasi-Oedipal theme is the only reason I consider TEKKEN to possess a fair level of mythicity.

Ironically, though I rate DOA as "poor" in terms of symbolic complexity, it's a lot more fun.  As noted above, three tough girls from disparate backgrounds (Jaime Pressley, Devon Aoki and Holly Valance) are drawn into an island-bound tournament (shades of ENTER THE DRAGON!) for a substantial monetary prize offered by the insidious mastermind Donovan (Eric Roberts).  Aoki's character is motivated by a desire to find her brother, who disappeared during an earlier tournament; the brother's disappearance is later tied into the villain's fiendish plan to perfect a device that allows him to duplicate and supersede the abilities of any martial-arts fighters.

Corey Yeun, veteran of several Jet Li/Hong Kong actioners, directed this vid-game adaptation, partly filmed on a famous Hong Kong movie set in Heng Dian, China.  However, while the three actresses are all adept at the fighting-stunts given them, it's quite evident that none of them are capable of the extreme athletics of the best HK cinema battles.  Frankly, even the big warehouse battle of CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE is superior to any of the fights in DOA.  This may be one reason the film approaches the girls' battles with a comic tone, though not to the extent of ridiculing the central heroines.  Devon Aoki probably gets the best single battle, fighting a huge muscular opponent who attacks her in her hotel, while Pressley gets the most amusing battle: battling it out with her own dad (a Hulk Hogan-like wrestler) in order to prove her abilities. Finally it all winds up with a big multi-character battle in which villain Roberts, souped up by his miracle device, nearly beats all of the heroines.  He's rather comically beaten when his device is simply removed (too cheap to spring for an implant, guy?) and Aoki kills him by blowing up his entire island.

Both of these films are decent time-wasters, but fall pretty far short of the realm of great action-cinema.


Monday, December 26, 2011

THE BRASS BOTTLE (1964)



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


If there's one good thing that came of my re-watching THE BRASS BOTTLE, it's that I gained a new appreciation of the oeuvre of an early fantasy-writer who wrote under the pseudonym "F. Anstey.."  I don't imagine I'll ever read his original books, but I have new respect for him, knowing that he wrote the works on which the better-than-average films VICE VERSA (1948) and ONE TOUCH OF VENUS (1948) were based.

OTOH, I can't say 1964's BOTTLE does anything for the guy's reputation.  There were two silent film adaptations of the Anstey book, both of which have been lost, but the primary significance of the surviving adaptation is its contribution to the far superior fantasy teleseries I DREAM OF JEANNIE (1965-70).

Without turning this review into a celebration of the TV series, I must say that everything BOTTLE got wrong, JEANNIE got right, to wit:

-- In BOTTLE, Tony Randall plays architect Harold, who's trying to convince his fiancee that he's put aside his carefree bachelor life in favor of settling down.  His one-note commitment to marital fidelity makes him as dull as a stick and no competition for dashing bachelor Tony Nelson, who tries not to let his genie take over his life but nevertheless often takes pleasure in having wishes granted, at least until they backfire.

--Burl Ives tries gamely to bring humor to the transgressions of the blundering genie Fakrash, but his various magical misdemeanors are predictable and, in contrast to those of Jeannie, take little advantage of the genie's "fish-out-of-water" status.

--Barbara Eden, playing Harold's fiancee, is even more one-dimensional than Harold.  It's hard to believe that the same actress did so well in the earlier-released 1964 film SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO (where her relationship to co-star Randall was, ah, more interesting) or that roughly a year later her comedic skills would be most fully exploited with JEANNIE.

--Finally, the film even introduces-- and bungles-- the comedic possibilities inherent in a "rogue genie."  Fakrash. desperate to find some way to please his reluctant master, conjures up a female genie of surpassing beauty (Kamala Devi).  When dull Harold refuses the charms of the genie Tezra, Fakrash tries to banish Tezra back to Arabian Nightville, but she refuses to leave.  This suggests that BOTTLE will then use Tezra to ramp up the mischief level, but despite her rebellion (during which she speaks approvingly of modern monogamy as against Arabic polygamy) she never does anything.  In contrast, JEANNIE gained considerable spice through its use of troublemaking djinni, not least among them Jeannie's libidinous sister.

 The ending feels pretty much like the rest of the film: again Fakrash tries and fails to please his master, this time revealing his powers to strangers, but the only thing that finally saves Harold is that Fakrash accidentally mentions that he can erase everything he's done from mortal minds.  Harold wishes that he do so, and thus the genie finally succeeds in pleasing his master, allowing a return to dull reality.

The only interesting psychological note is the association of Fakrash and Tezra.  As far as the film is concerned, Fakrash could have conjured any old Arabian hottie.  Instead he conjures up Tezra, a fellow genie with whom he once dallied-- an act which caused  him to be sealed in the bottle from which Harold freed him. If this odd exchange took place in Anstey's book, then it makes a significant comparison with a similar "exchange pattern" seen in the 1948 body-switching comedy VICE VERSA (as well as the middling 1988 remake).

Incidentally, scuttlebutt asserts that JEANNIE creator Sidney Sheldon  expressly cited the 1964 film as a direct influence on his series.  Perhaps he did so to obscure JEANNIE's indebtedness to the model of BEWWITCHED, which enjoyed great success the season before JEANNIE came out. That said, Sheldon seems to have done a good job of gleaning all the comic possibilities that BOTTLE flubbed.





Wednesday, December 21, 2011

SCROOGE (1970), MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1962)








PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor*, (2) good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, metaphysical*

Before evaluating these two takes on the famed Dickens tale, I should note that I assigned these films, as well as the 2009 CHRISTMAS CAROL, to the category of "the marvelous."  Now, in both the original prose tale and most if not all adaptations, all of the marvelous elements in the story takes place in Ebenezer Scrooge's dreams.  Usually, this is a hallmark of the "delirous dreams and fallacious figments" trope, where a given work portrays a fantastic event as merely taking place in a dream, as with ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN.

However, in the case of CHRISTMAS CAROL and all of its faithful adaptations, I think the narrative strongly suggests that some Higher Power has intervened in Scrooge's life, rather than that he simply imagines everything, as with the Eddie Cantor-Ali Baba film.  I think CAROL leads the audience to believe in this marvelous intervention-- even though there is no decisive statement to this effect in the story-- just as in both DEAD OF NIGHT and CORRUPTION, characters experience premonitory dreams of events that seem to be poised to take place, even if the audience never actually sees said events.

That said, I didn't remember much about the 1970 SCROOGE film from some earlier viewing, but it must have made no great impression on me way back when.  Now that I've seen this original musical adaptation, all I can say is-- "Humbug!"

I've admired the acting of Scrooge-star Albert Finney in almost everything else he's done, but I thought he just cruised his way through the role of Ebenezer.  He blusters at Xmas well-wishers and quails at some of the Xmas spirits as needed, but despite the fact that he won a Golden Globe for the role, I never felt he really "inhabited" the role.  I thought the same feeling of artificiality pervaded most of the other performances as well, particularly Alec Guiness playing Marley and David Collings as Cratchit.  Kenneth More makes a passable Ghost of Christmas Present, but for some bizarre reason the filmmakers selected Dame Edith Evans to be the Ghost of Christmas Past.  Dame Edith doesn't assume anything remotely like the look of Dickens' past-life ghost; she's just a prim old woman, which takes away some of the feeling of the marvelous conveyed by the original story and most adaptations.  The actor playing the Xmas Future ghost is happily rendered with the traditional cowled look, though unlike Dickens this film gives the Ghost a skull-head as it hurls Scrooge into hell (where, in an overlong and unnecessary sequence, Scrooge meets Marley for a short tour of perdition).

I found the lyrics and musical score of composer Leslie Bricusse generally forgettable, with the possible exception of the non-Dickensian sequence "Thank You Very Much," in which Scrooge hears Londoners thanking him in a merry testimonial, which turns out to be them expressing their joy at his death in the "Xmas Yet to Come" scenes.  I did note that during one song the misanthrope Scrooge complains about how people are all out to cheat one another, but several invented scenes portray the miser as a money-lender, shuttling around London and shaking down his debtors.  I'd speculate that this was a tip of the British cap to that culture's traditional hatred of usurers, which even made it into MY SON THE VAMPIRE.  However, none of the new scenes are all that clever, and Finney's performance robs the traditional Dickensian content of any mythic power.

Now, MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL invents scenes as well, and for the same basic reason: to provide grist for new songs, since MAGOO'S is also a musicalized CAROL.  Jule Styne, whose imdb credits for musical composition run about three pages, delivers new takes on the old tale with such works as "Ringle Ringle" (which addresses the pleasures of money-love), "The Lord's Bright Blessing," and my favorite, "We're Despicable" (a tune sung by the leeches who have pilfered items from Scrooge's dead body).  The script also deviates from Dickens in some particulars-- for instance, it dumps Scrooge's nephew, so that the reformed miser celebrates Xmas with Bob Cratchit's family.  But overall the original writing by one Barbara Chain is meritorious.  Unlike Styne, her career as a cartoon-writer was more, ah, various: she worked on the FAMOUS ADVENTURES OF MR. MAGOO TV series, which was a direct spin-off from this carol-tale.  However, aside from that her longest credits are for the short-lived RAMBO cartoon show of the 1980s!

As MAGOO'S is a favorite cartoon that I grew up with-- and was probably my first exposure to the Dickens tale-- I'm probably not that objective about it. So, without trying to find some superficial fault that doesn't really dim my enjoyment, I'll just close with a glance at the "We're Despicable" crew.







Tuesday, December 20, 2011

CRITTERS 3 (1991), CRITTERS 4 (1992)





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

Above are Leonardo Di Caprio from CRITTERS 3 and Angela Bassett from CRITTERS 4 because nearly the only pleasure offered by these two bland by-the-numbers flicks is that of spotting actors who were stuck making bad monster-flicks before they hit the big time.

The first two films in the CRITTERS franchise were the up side of popular filmmaking: they were simple but fun exercises in humorous mayhem.  Films 3 and 4 are the down side, where talent is pretty much wasted in uninspired potboilers. 

CRITTERS 3, which has the distinction of a female director, one Kristine Peterson, makes a feeble effort to change the focus with a new extended family for the munching monsters to menace.  Reversing the trend of the first film, this time a teen girl is the dramatic focus.  Annie's widowed father plans to go back on the road for his job but doesn't want to take Annie and her little brother with him.  He takes her to the big city to be raised in an apartment by an elderly couple, one of whom has a thing about alien invasions.  Annie's pretty upset about being forced to lose contact with her only parental unit but not as upset as she gets when she and the rest of the tenants learn that the apartment building is infested with-- Critters!!

This is the straight-to-video equivalent of a television "bottle show," where for some reason the characters are all stuck in one location and can't get out while they battle some menace or other.  There's a very small sociological theme in that all the apartment's tenants are in danger of being put on the street by a cruel landlord, who just happens to be the stepfather of DiCaprio's character, who is in his turn a potential love-interest for Annie.  But once the Critters start munching, there's really no further exploration of the exploited lower classes, nor does a potential romance between the widower and a telephone linewoman get going.  Happily, the evil landlord is one of the monsters' first victims, so the Critters end up doing the humans a favor, if you set aside almost eating them all.  The character of Charlie from the first two films appears at the film's outset to utter dire warnings to the kids, and later makes it to the tenement to help them fight the alien porcu-hogs, who aren't overly scary or funny this time out.  A coda sets up a sequel: Charlie's about to destroy the last Crite eggs when he gets a holographic message from his old spacefaring buddy Ug.  Ug warns that Charley can't destroy the Crites as they're the last of their kind, and then sends a space-pod to collect the eggs.  To be continued...

...in one of the worst in the very crowded field of ALIEN ripoffs.  CRITTERS 4 is the only directorial credit on imdb for Rupert Harvey, also credited with the script for Film 3, and it's a mixed blessing that at least this was his only such film.  Picking up from the third film, Charley pilots the pod with its burden of Crite eggs into space, intending to rendezvouz with his old pal Ug.  Something goes awry and Charlie ends up being put in suspended animation for 53 years, until he's picked up by a decrepit spaceship crewed by Harvey's sad-sack version of the crew of the Nostromo.  Most of the characters are tedious though Angela Bassett displays a sexy presence, so it's a shame that Harvey didn't opt to imitate ALIENS instead and make her the central heroine of CRITTERS 4.  Charley is morose to find out that by this time everyone he knew on Earth will have died, but by that time the Critters are loose again-- on top of which the freighter-crew begins to suspect governmental hanky-panky.  In a schtick lifted from the original ALIEN, it turns out that the government's trying to breed super-predators, which is why their emissary Ug really insisted on preserving the species.  Ug himself shows up on the spaceship to collect the Criters and/or their eggs.  He's no longer the humorously-destructive good guy of the first two films; he's simply the tool of the government.  Charlie's horrified; Ug explains merely by saying, "Things change."  Eventually the most sympathetic of the crew-members, along with Charley, escape the ship as it blows up with Ug, his soldiers and whatever may remain of the Critters. 

Aside from Angela Bassett, about the only mild entertainment offered by CRITTERS 4 was some byplay with the ship's willful computer.  With any luck, the current rash of horror-remakes will ignore this franchise.

Monday, December 19, 2011

CRITTERS (1986), CRITTERS 2 (1988)









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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

I decided to watch all four of the "Critters" franchise this week, though so far I've only made it through one and two.  Three and four will probably follow tomorrow.
My first observation is that though I've seen a lot of reviewers label this franchise as a "horror-comedy," I don't really think "comedy" fits the bill here.  Like the GREMLINS films that may or may not have influenced the property (Stephen Herek, writer and director on the first CRITTERS, has denied the influence), tongue-in-cheek moments abound.  Yet the films never completely lose track of the real menace of the titular monsters, best described as a cross between a porcupine and a tumbleweed.  The immediate image of the creatures tucking themselves into balls and rolling at their adversaries starts out as mildly funny, but when they sink their teeth in human flesh, the films quickly jump back into the terrain of the horror-drama.  Unlike true comedies, whose first priority is to belittle more than to expel their villains, the CRITTERS films are all about coming up with a nasty-looking face of evil and then beating the hell out of it.

In the first film, the protagonist is middle-school-age Brad Brown (Scott Grimes, also in CRITTERS 2).  As the youngest kid he's somewhat under the thumb of his teen sister April, and his parental units don't quite seem to understand.  Brad has a friendly relationship with town drunk Charlie (Don Opper, who stayed with all four films in the franchise), and even takes a punishment from his parents to protect Charlie.  The relationship doesn't get a lot of screen-time, for the script keeps things moving, but it helps establish that Brad's the focal "good guy" of the story.  Brad's at the right age where he feels like proving himself in a cosmic crisis but he's still being badgered about getting good grades in school.

Then Brad's small midwestern town is beseiged by the Crites/Critters, out to do nothing but eat anything and anyone, and then breed more hungry Crites.  The omnivorous spineballs are pursued by two alien bounty hunters, the risibly named Ug and Lee.  On their way to Earth they check out Earth's broadcasts, for being shapechangers they plan to assume Earthlike forms and "blend in"-- though in practice they don't really seem to care about passing for human once they start creating almost as much carnage as the Critters.  Ug immediately "likes" the form of a handsome male pop star and keeps that form for the remainder of this film and its sequel.  Lee, whose character is one of the film's main sources of comedy relief, can't seem to settle on a particular form and keeps changing his looks during both 1 and 2.  Without getting overly analytical, I don't think it's coincidence that the figures which will come to the rescue of Brad and his family are two gun-toting images of power: one a heroic, definably-masculine figure and the other a more amorphous "chameleon" type.  It's also not coincidence that Charley, the image of masculine failure, is redeemed by the bounty hunters, joining their ranks after the Critters are vanquished.  But to be sure, the main attraction of CRITTERS is watching all the ways the pillbug predators can get blown away.  The beasties seem to be defeated by film's end but leave some of their eggs around to prepare the way for a sequel.

CRITTERS 2, directed by Mick Garris, is not quite as sharp in its balance of humor and danger, but has some acceptable thrills.  Brad's mom, pop and sis are written out of the story, as teenager Brad, having been absent from the town for a while, comes back to visit his grandmother at Easter -- just in time for the hatching of the fiendish furballs.  There are some minor subplots, such as the introduction of a potential love-interest for Brad, and the question as to whether or not the sheriff from the original film (M. Emmet Walsh the first time, Barry Corbin this time round) will return in time to help blast some roly-poly runts.  Charley and his two bounty-hunting buddies come back and recycle the jokes about Lee changing his shape.  This time Lee runs the gamut from Eddie Deezen to a hot blonde.  Apparently some scripter got tired of the routine, though, because the chame-Lee-on gets his chimes rung this time out.  Brad, having proved himself in the first opus, finds that a hero ain't nuthin' but a sandwich when some of the townsfolk blame him for the return of the manic munch-monsters, but he finally convinces them to help destroy the marauding midgets once again.

Sequels often tend to repeat successful bits of story-business without substantial improvement, but CRITTERS 2 makes one improvement on the original.  In Film 1, there's a scene where a pretentious preacher is lecturing to his congregation on "Sodom and Gomorrah," whereupon an out-of-control car crashes through the church-wall. Maybe the fall of the church-walls was supposed to parallel the fall of the ancient Biblical cities, but in any case, it didn't work that well.  In Film 2, just as the preacher is reading a passage referring to a figure in white (the resurrected Jesus), a figure in white crashes through the church-window-- though this one is that other dominant image of Easter: a man in an Easter Bunny suit who's just been bit to death by the Critters.  If I were rating CRITTERS 2 I'd give it an extra star just for that moment of black humor.




Saturday, December 17, 2011

THE HIDDEN CITY (1950), THE LION HUNTERS (1951)




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

Though the third film in the Bomba series was a letdown, THE HIDDEN CITY, fourth in line, proves that it's still possible to get good value out of even the most modest productions. 

CITY is a quickly-paced, occasionally humorous jungle-adventure whose only stopping point is the title.  It suggests the possibility of that old Tarzan-standby, "the lost city," which would have required sets far beyond the means of a Monogram production like this one.  Instead, the city in question-- which is never called anything but "the Hidden City"-- isn't the least bit hidden.  It seems to be nothing more than a regular Muslim city somewhere in Bomba's nebulous Africa.  Why is it called hidden, since a major plot point is that the villain takes over the governance of the city but fears retribution from some central governing body?  The film carries no answers.

Scripter Carroll Young, already a veteran of both Tarzan and Jungle Jim franchises, spins out your basic "foundling-finds-another-foundling" tale.  White hunter Johnson is our initial viewpoint character: he travels to the City to meet with its new ruler Hassan-- following the mysterious death of the previous governor and his family-- and finds out that Hassan has a mad on for the mysterious "jungle devil" Bomba.  In time the audience finds out that Bomba witnessed the killing of the old governor and his wife, though neither Bomba nor Hassan knows that the couple's child Zita escaped the assassination and lost her memory.  For amusement Hassan takes Johnson on a safari to capture Bomba, but Hassan's man has secret instructions to kill the jungle boy.  The assassin almost succeeds, but Bomba escapes.

The hero is given aid in the village of Zita (Sue England), who was herself taken in by a childless man.  However, that old scalawag hopes to please Hassan by getting him to select Zita when Hassan comes looking for a a new serving-girl.  Since the Bomba series was aimed at kids, no direct allusions are made to Hassan's lascivious plans for the new girl, but it's surely no coincidence that the villain wants him a purty girl.  He chooses Zita, but Bomba, somewhat recovered from his wound, takes her away.  Actually, the strong-willed Zita pretty much forces the dumbfounded Bomba to spirit her off, and the film gains considerable humor from the scenes in which she badgers the usually-indifferent hero into doing the right thing.

In due time, Johnson, Bomba and Zita are all on the same page as to her origins and they defeat Hassan's attempt to kill them.  There's nothing new in the film's low-level hijinks, but its quick pace and moments of humor redeem this entry. 

LION HUNTERS, written by the series' frequent director Ford Beebe, is a little more on the serious side, returning to the quasi-ecological message of the first film.  Middle-aged Tom Forbes and his teen daughter Jean journey to Africa to make money capturing lions for a zoo, with the help of unscrupulous big game hunter Marty Martin.  Bomba first sees evidence of Martin's transgressions when the jungle-boy finds a wounded lion, whom Bomba must put out of its misery.  Bomba first interviews the local Masai tribe-- not seen in the series since the first film-- with whom he's on good terms.  They know nothing about the wounding and regard it as a trespass on their worship of the lions.

When Bomba finds the white-people's camp, he frees several captive lions and earns Martin's emnity.  However, on meeting Jean in the forest, Bomba seems inordinately taken with her, and tries to explain why it's wrong for people to put lions in cages just to look at.  Later Bomba illustrates his logic by putting Martin in a cage for the animals to look at.  Jean and her father begin to realize they've allied themselves to a bad fellow but can't do anything about it.

The Masai come back into the picture when Martin sees a lion attack a Masai native.  He clumsily shoots the native instead of the lion, and though he didn't intend to kill the man, he tries to use the incident to turn the natives against their worshipped totem-animals.  The plot fails-- apparently thanks to a witch-doctor who has some mild psychic skills and sees through Martin's deception.  The Masai retaliate by driving a pride of lions toward the white camp.  Bomba is forced to intervene to save Jean and her father, though naturally the despicable Martin gets it in the neck.

On a minor note, this is the first Bomba film which depicts the hero talking to birds and lions as if he has the power to commune with all animals.      

Friday, December 16, 2011

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)



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



Prior to DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (henceforth RISEN for short), Freddie Francis had directed about a half-dozen horror films, and he directed more afterward.  However, RISEN was Francis' only contribution to the Hammer Dracula saga, though he had worked with Christopher Lee earlier and would work with Lee on other, non-Dracula projects in future.

In contrast, producer Anthony Hinds, who wrote the film under the alias John Elder, had also written the previous entry in the series (DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS) and wrote the next two in the Drac series.  Arguably he occupied a more central position in creating the pop-mythology of Hammer's King-Vampire-- and yet, RISEN has a stronger story than Elder's other contributions, including 1970's TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, which I reviewed favorably here.

Characterization seems to be the main difference here.  The majority of Dracula-films-- and possibly the majority of Hammer horror-films generally-- largely use one-dimensional characters.  There's nothing wrong with this practice: some stories are designed to be plot-focused and wouldn't benefit from heavy characterization (particularly the barnstorming 1958 film that opens the Dracula series). 

In comparison with PRINCE OF DARKNESS, though, RISEN does take particular care to layer some of the major characters.  The vampire-lord himself naturally remains an icon of evil, but Dracula's two main opponents in RISEN-- aging Catholic Monsignor Mueller and young atheist Paul -- play off one another in dynamic fashion.

The audience meets the monsignor first.  In the months following the destruction of Dracula in PRINCE, Mueller rides to the town neighboring Dracula's castle and is appalled to learn that no one in town attends the church.  The townsfolk claim that they feel that the shadow of the castle literally lies across the church, suggesting that the dead vampire's power can still menace them.  In response the Monsignor temporarily ejects the weak-willed local priest (for whom no proper name is cited) and performs an exorcism to re-sanctify the church.  For good measure, the monsignor places a huge metal cross against the doors to keep away vampiric spawn.

However, the priest-- though not overtly resentful of his treatment-- takes an action that leads to the renascence of evil.  Walking along a frozen mountain-pass, he stumbles and cuts himself above an ice-floe-- wherein the body of Dracula has been frozen (a plot-device perhaps borrowed from Universal's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN). The blood revivifies the vampire, who promptly makes the priest his new Renfield (i.e., enslaving but not vampirizing him).

The monsignor returns to his home in his own town, where he lives with the wife of his late brother and his marrying-aged niece Maria.  Francis and Hinds give the few scenes depicting the family a warmth unusual for a Hammer film, but there's a disturbance on the horizon, long before the vampire makes the scene.  Maria wants to marry Paul, a young man apprenticing in a bakery while he completes his academic studies.  In contrast to the monsignor, who takes a role akin to that of a titled aristocrat, Paul is a man born in a low class but aspiring to rise higher in the bourgeoise pattern.  He's also an atheist, as he's obliged to reveal at dinner with Mueller's family when the priest starts probing into Paul's religious background.  Mueller's  hypocrisy-- claiming that he values honesty, and then being offended by Paul's apostacy-- is presented in such a way as to render him human without damaging his essential goodness.

Paul, too, is better-rendered than most young Hammer swains.  Angry at getting ejected from dinner, he gets drunk at the local pub.  He makes a drunken pass at barmaid Zena, who clearly would like to take advantage of his inebritated condition.  Fortunately for Paul, Maria shows up and prevents her future husband from going down that road.  A clearer dichotomy between the "Good Girl" and "Bad Girl" of the Hammer Dracula series would be hard to find.

Soon enough, Dracula shows up, angry that the monsignor re-sanctified the church.  He decides to vampirize the monsignor's niece and uses the priest as his instrument to learn of her movements.  This is apparently the reason Drac shows up at the pub and vamps Zena, so that he can use her to trap Maria.  Only a timely intervention by Paul prevents the vampire for taking Maria as well.  In frustation Dracula kills Zena for failing him (though it seems more his failure than hers) and commands the priest to dispose of the body.

Soon Mueller and Paul are forced to put aside their differences to protect Maria from the undead fiend.  Mueller is killed by the priest, but Paul captures the traitor, who with some persuasion leads Paul to Dracula's crypt.

Many horror-fans objected to the following scene.  While Dracula is still helpless in his coffin-- though possibly close to night's falling-- Paul succeeds in impaling the vampire with a big stake.  However, even as Dracula lurches up, grabbing at the stake in his torso, the priest yells that the staking won't work unless someone prays at the same time-- essentially conflating the vampire-staking with an exorcism.  Paul the atheist can't pray, and neither can the disgraced priest-- so Dracula pulls the stake out of his body.  Paul and the priest just manage to escape with their lives, while Dracula promptly takes possession of Maria once again.  He takes some of her blood but still doesn't vampirize her, attempting to take her back to his own territory.

Paul and the priest follow.  Paul is momentarily held back by some of the townspeople, who take an appeasing approach to evil, but he escapes and follows Dracula's trail.  The vampire seeks out not his own castle (probably so that Hammer could avoid using another set) but rather proceeds to the church. He uses Maria to hurl away the cross holding the doors shut, but in the climactic battle with Paul, Dracula falls and is impaled on the cross.  The priest manages to find enough faith to exorcise the writhing vampire this time.  Dracula dies (for a while).  Paul, though not officially converted to the faith by his experiences, does grant the Catholic God his due by crossing himself before he and Maria embrace in time for closing credits.

To return briefly to the problem of the stake--

Francis and Hinds almost certainly made up this idea of concurrent staking and exorcising out of whole cloth.  Clearly, most vampire stories, including Stoker's, don't insist on the extra ritual, not least because in most situations it slows down the narrative action.  HOWEVER, in RISEN the notion of this extra ritual does serve a fair thematic point.  Paul's atheism isn't simply a mistaken choice on his part; he's never shown to be foolish for not being a believer, and it's implied that his attempt to make his own destiny is a good thing.  But if religious belief may show some negative aspects, as seen in Mueller's bull-headedness, the film at least depicts belief as a double-edged sword.  Thus the idea that the staking is only effective when backed with belief reinforces the film's overall theme: that religion can be used to dispel real evil.  Thus I think that though RISEN does break the usual rules of vampire-killing, it does so with a good end in mind.

ADDENDA: My earlier recounting of the plot is erroneous: the Monsignor exorcises Dracula's castle, not the local church.  A patent brain-fart on my part.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970), DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)








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


I don't have current access to the Chris Lee Drac-film SCARS OF DRACULA, which appeared between TASTE and A.D.  But in theme these two films are mirror-images of one another.  Both posit the idea of common mortals foolishly summoning a deceased Dracula back from the dead with the use of a rite resembling a black mass.  But in the earlier film, the guilt falls upon the elder generation, and in the later one, the younger gen's to blame.

Though Satanism plays a minor role in Bram Stoker's somewhat variable origin of Dracula, Peter Sasdy's TASTE seems to be the first time a Hammer film strongly associated the vampire lord with Satanic practice.  British audiences of the 1960s apparently became more responsive to Satanic-horror films at a time when the Americans still hadn't made many such films in the subgenre. It's possible that the Hammer Draculas were being influenced by a "satanic panic" that wouldn't catch cinematic fire in the States until the 1970s.

Of the two Sasdy's film has a more overt moral stance.  It begins with a minor crime, in which a salesman is robbed and thrown from a coach.  Wandering the countryside, he just happens to witness the demise of Dracula as seen at the end of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE.  The salesman takes possession of the artifacts left in the wake of Dracula's dissolved remains.

Some time later the audience meets a threesome of middle-aged British family men-- Hargood, Paxton and Secker-- who are all men of means with adult children.  They also meet in secret to take nightly pleasures in the local whorehouse, for all that Hargood, the most hypopcritical of the three, chastises his daughter Alice for her supposed wantoness.  A chance encounter with a young Satanist aristocrat, Lord Courtley, offers a new level of decadent thrills to the jaded threesome, for Lord Courtley knows about the artifacts of Dracula and persuades the roues to purchase them.  Courtley then leads them in a black mass designed to revive Dracula, but when the three men chicken out, the ritual goes wrong and Courtley perishes.  Dracula manifests from the dead body of Courtley (reprising a similar motif seen in DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS) and determines to avenge his dead servant.  Instead of going after the three offenders, Dracula enslaves the three adult children of Paxton, Secker and Hargood-- though Lucy Paxton is the only one Dracula literally vampirizes.

Hargood-- most despicable not just for hypocrisy but also because he cherishes a repressed desire for his daughter-- is killed by daughter Alice when he tries to molest her.  Secker is stabbed to death by his son (who is put in prison and whose final fate is not disclosed by the film).  Paxton, tearfully intending to end Lucy's undead life with a stake, is overpowered by Lucy and Alice under the will of Dracula, and so gets staked himself.  In some sense Dracula acts as an id-figure to these young people, giving them the excuse to "get out from under" their confining parents (though Hargood is the only one who seems actively bad).  Once the three conspirators are gone, Dracula reveals his own nasty nature by slaying Lucy.  Then Alice's boyfriend Paul manages to intervene, saving Alice from the vampire and killing Dracula with assorted Christian paraphernalia.

Most of the Hammer Draculas don't give their female fiends very much to do, but TASTE is a welcome exception, the staking of Paxton being a high point.  Still, the old "good girl/bad girl" dichotomy of the DRACULA novel is alive and healthy here, given that the film has to find some way to kill the bad girl but let the good one survive for future marriage.

DRACULA A.D. 1972 has some striking scenes, notably a similar black mass ceremony, but script and direction are both much looser and less evocative.  An opening scene shows Dracula perish in the 1800s at the hands of his enemy Van Helsing, with his remains being confined to sanctified ground-- perhaps to keep Satanists from fiddling with them.  However, a century or so later, the church where the remains lie has fallen into disuse, rendering it perfect for another black mass, led by modern London swinger Johnny Alucard.  (The film does not comment on whether he's a descendant of some branch of the Dracula family.)  Alucard persuades a gaggle of fellow young swingers to join him in the sport of calling up the devil (Dracula being essentially the same thing).  To his extreme good fortune, one of the members of their swingin'-set is Jessica Van Helsing, granddaughter of the current Van Helsing, descendant of Dracula's 1800s slayer (both Helsings played by Peter Cushing).  Prior to the black mass, Jessica establishes in conversation with her grandpa that she's a good girl (who hasn't even had sex yet!) but just likes to hang out with the happening crowd for kicks.

A.D. borrows TASTE's idea of the ceremony gone wrong.  Alucard tries to persuade Jessica to be his virgin sacrifice to the devil, but when she demurs, Laura (Caroline Munro) steps in, apparently trying to impress Alucard.  In the resultant chaos Dracula once more manifests but Jessica and her boyfriend escape to tell their tale to Grandfather Van Helsing.

As in TASTE Dracula then enslaves several of the swingers and uses them as his pawns, but the scenarios of A.D. are much weaker, sometimes rendered comic by the dorky-looking young men the vampire is forced to use.  When one of your vampiric minions is defeated by the running water of a showerhead, it's time to get new minions.  Alucard is a particularly weak secondary villain, even complaining to Dracula about his need for vampiric power to capture Jessica-- yet even when he gets such power, he doesn't seem formidable.  Finally it comes down to another match-up between Van Helsing and Dracula, with the expected outcome.  Dracula does get somewhat better dialogue during this scene than he gets anywhere in TASTE, however.

The most interesting symbolic aspects of the two films are the visual imagery they bring to their fictional versions of a black mass.  In TASTE, Courtley cuts his own hand and lets blood dribble into goblets which he and his three cohorts are supposed to drink, in a clear parody of the Catholic rite of transubstantiation.  The moment when the goblets magically fill with blood in reaction to the drops of real blood is a strong image. In contrast, A.D. juxtaposes the imagery of the filled goblet with that of the female breast, with Laura lying recumbent on an altar while holding a goblet on her chest: a goblet which also fills with blood after Alucard does the hand-cutting thing.  It's often been commented that the very concept of the European vampire may constitute a parody of the Christian resurrection, so on the symbolic plane at least, a similar pastiche of Communion seems no less up Dracula's blasphemous alley.    

Of the two films, only A.D. is a combative film, thanks to the opposition of Dracula and Van Helsing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)



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

Though like most horror-fans I've always had a special regard for this film just for its pairing of actor Chris Lee with the role of Dracula, I've also been puzzled by many of the changes that writer Jimmy Sangster wrought upon the Bram Stoker novel.  Even knowing the nature of the cinematic beast-- that it cannot possibly translate a long novel accurately into a commerical-length film without changes-- some of Sangster's changes seem peculiar, almost capricious.

The change in setting is probably the simplest to explain.  Thanks to assorted fan-writings on Hammer Studios' practices, we know that the studio had relatively few sets on which to shoot, and depended on essentially redressing many of the same sets they used over and over in their horror films.  It seems likely that Sangster's most glaring change from the novel-- that this Dracula never invades England, but sticks pretty close to either his castle or the neighboring German city of Klausenberg-- was made so that the production would have fewer sets with which to cope.

Changes in the names of the protagonists are harder to figure. Jonathan Harker and Doctor Van Helsing still approximate the roles they hold in the novel, even if HORROR's plot takes them in different directions.  But in the novel Jonathan is engaged to Mina Murray, whose best friend Lucy is courted by three men, two of whom are Arthur Holmwood and Doctor Seward.  In HORROR Seward is demoted to an incidental character, while Holmwood is married to Mina and Lucy, Arthur's sister, is engaged to Jonathan.  I assume that Sangster's main concern was to condense Bram Stoker's plot as much as possible for the film's 82-minute length, so he must have figured it didn't matter much who was called what.  In further evidence of cost-cutting, Dracula's three vampire brides, who make such a strong impression in both the novel and the 1931 Bela Lugosi adaptation, are reduced to one bride.

As HORROR opens, Dracula is clearly a menace still feared by the German locals, but he seems to be making no plans to go anywhere in search of new blood. The long novel-sequence in which Harker travels to Castle Dracula and gradually realizes the nature of his host is simplified by the notion that Harker already knows Dracula's nature when he arrives at the castle.  He's ostensibly there not to help Dracula emigrate to England, as in the novel, but to serve as the castle-lord's librarian-- though the script never specifies how Harker found out that the Lord of Vampires was such a bibliophile.  Harker's reasons for "going undercover" to destroy the vampire are never specified. Van Helsing is nowhere in the neighborhood when Harker fails to destroy Dracula and so loses his life, but the eminent doctor does manage to show up in time to claim Harker's body and issue a cover story to Harker's loved ones, who apparently live full-time in Klausenberg.  In the course of the cover story, Van Helsing describes himself as a "colleague" of Harker, so one assumes that somewhere along the way the doctor gave Harker the idea to infilrate the vampire's lair, but one never knows why the doctor wasn't around to provide back-up.  Certainly later in the story Van Helsing, as famously essayed by Peter Cushing, shows no lack of courage opposing the vampire and his new converts.

Harker's "secret agent" mission to destroy Dracula actually makes him the aggressor in the situation as given.  His first action upon entering the castle-- which seems deserted, with no one prepared for his advent-- is to meet the unnamed bride, who pleads with him to help her escape Dracula.  At this point Sangster alters the novel's setup into a fantasy with minor Freudian overtones, suggesting a scenario in which a young man intrudes on an older man's domain with the goal of stealing away his bride.

The bride flees before the castle-lord shows up.  Since the audience does not yet know Harker's plans at that point, the natural assumption is that Dracula's charming personality causes Harker to disregard the bride's strange action.  Only after the bride shows her fangs and attacks Harker-- provoking Dracula to appear and restrain the bride while knocking out Harker-- does Harker's true purpose manifest.  Near the setting of the sun Harker manages to escape his prison and make his way to the vampiric crypt.  Because the script can't afford to have Harker stake Dracula just yet, the hero wastes time impaling the female-- giving the villain the chance to rise and snuff out his opponent.  Interestingly, while the three brides of the novel turn to dust when staked-- indicating their centuries-long age-range-- the one bride turns into an old female corpse when she's killed.  This alteration brings her closer to the age-range one would expect for an actual mother-figure for an adult Harker's age.

Van Helsing's cover story to Harker's loved ones serves largely to introduce the audience to the vampire's more upper-class victims, who seem to know nothing of the area's vampire traditions. Perhaps they're supposed to have moved recently to Klausenberg?  Sangster also effaces any real difference between the female characters.  Whereas Lucy and Mina are very distinct in the novel-- one being a mild flirt while the other is a comparative schoolmarm-- they're interchangeable victims here.  Lucy seems to be a sickly woman even before Dracula starts showing up at her window, much as the novel's Renfield is insane before the vampire arrives to make the madman his cat's-paw.  (There is no Renfield as such in HORROR.)  When Lucy rises from the dead, Sangster's script again invokes incestuous tones very briefly, as Lucy offers to give her horrified brother Arthur a "kiss."  However, while in the novel Arthur forces himself to stake his revivified fiancee, in an act some academics view as a "rape," here Arthur stands to one side while Van Helsing finishes off the persistent female corpse.

While Arthur and Van Helsing run about trying to figure out the vampire's current location in Klausenberg, Dracula seduces Mina.  As in the novel, Mina is saved where Lucy is not, but the narrative puts little emphasis on Mina's struggle, preferring to focus on the actions of the good doctor and his new assistant vampire-hunter.  In the end, it comes down an epic clash between the noble doctor and his fiendish opponent.  This end-battle proved so strong that Hammer's scriptrs seemed hard-pressed to equal it in later outings of Dracula and other vampires, with a result that most other vamp-flicks peter out rather disappointingly at the climax.

Though the plot does suffer somewhat from many of the condensations of the original story, overall HORROR OF DRACULA still remains one of the few films to translate the essence of the novel's appeal, far more so than many of the more technically accurate productions, particularly Jess Franco's unbearably tedious 1970 adaptation.






Tuesday, December 13, 2011

300 (2006)


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

It's been a while since I read Frank Miller's "300" graphic novel, but as I recall, Zach Snyder's film-adaptation of the comic is reasonably true to the original, apart from adding a few fillips (the subplot concerning Queen Gorgo, wife of the film's hero King Leonidas).

In interviews Miller asserted that he became interested in the subject of the Battle of Thermopylae after seeing the 1962 historical film THE 300 SPARTANS.  That film was a reasonably "straight" naturalistic depiction of the historical events, but both Miller and his adaptor Snyder were less interested in facts than in a sort of fever-dream translation of those events.  Snyder in particular defended 300 from detractors by asserting that the audience was in some sense seeing the events "darkly," as through a subjective glass: that it's "an opera, not a documentary."  Snyder would play with this subjectivized mentality once again in his equally operatic (but less interesting) SUCKER PUNCH.


I've mentioned in my review of CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR that whenever I see a historical situation depicted in such a way as to distort known facts, I don't consider it fantasy in the "marvelous" sense, but it may often be an "uncanny" fantasy.  The plot of 300-- in which the heroic 300 Spartans sustain a holding action against an army comprised of millions of invading Persians-- is not the source of the uncanny metaphenomenality, however. Rather, this phenomenality springs principally from the grab-bag visual characterizations of the Persians, who are explicitly said to have marshalled against Greece all the strange powers and cultures of Asia. (Technically Africa finds its way into the mix as well.)  In so doing 300 continues a long mythic tradition perpetuated in Europe, in which the progressive, often masculinist Occident is favorably compared with the repressive, backward and demi-feminine Orient.  Tennyson said it best in the poem "Lockley Hall:"









Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.
Thro' the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day;
Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.
 
Snyder's film certainly spins a similar story, crediting the stand of the 300 Spartans with keeping the Eastern menace at bay and making possible Greece's promotion of "reason" and "justice" in later European civilizations (though the film, like the comic, uses their values as little more than buzzwords).  The real impetus of 300 is not about reason or justice, but about the exaltation of the masculine virtue of "hardness" as against the relative softness and femininity of the Orient.
 
As I noted above, though, this vision of "the forbidden East" takes in pretty much everything that ever seems menacing to Occidental culture.  Thus Persian king Xerxes is figured (as the illo above shows) as an eight-foot-tall black man with a fey attitude and multiple body piercings.  In the world of 300 Persia's greatest fighters, the historical "Immortals," are outfitted with faux-Japanese metal masks and ninja-like garments.  At one point the defending Spartans even beat back an attack which they regard as "magic," though the attack is actually comprised of nothing but incendiary devices, perhaps fueled by that great Chinese discovery, gunpowder.  Further, Xerxes is clearly figured as a Satanic tempter.  He continually offers Leonidas fame and riches to stand down.  He fails to seduce the king but succeeds by offering temptations of the flesh to the one who does betray the soldiers.
 
In addition, whereas the Spartans have sought to ruthlessly eliminate from their culture any offspring with weakness or deformity, the Persians have embraced freakishness. One scene shows a monstrous fellow with crab-like appendages, who serves to execute soldiers who fail Xerxes.  Another scene has the Persians unleash a giant who is, like Xerxes, about eight feet tall, and has fanglike teeth.  This unnamed giant comes closest of any Persian to finishing off heroic Leonidas, in what I considered the film's most bracing fight-scene.  However, the Spartans are actually undone by one of their discards: Ephialtes, a hunchback saved from infanticide by his mother, and who lives to betray the Spartans to the Persians.  Perhaps this was Frank Miller's way of letting the "freaks" get back some of their own?  He could certainly afford to do so, since the 300 Spartans were doomed to die anyway, though their sacrifice rallies the rest of Greece to rise and defeat the Persian invaders.
 
I tend to agree-- partially-- with Snyder when he dismisses the film's racial politics, asserting that 300's rewriting of history is so absurd that no one should take it seriously as representing anything in the real world.  However, I wouldn't say that the racial and sexual content means absolutely nothing.  Such extreme depictions of race and gender are part and parcel of the often crude and self-adulating nature of dreams and fantasies.  It would not be incorrect to see 300 as a revenge-fantasy against multiculturalism.
 
Can I esteem the imaginativeness of such a fantasy, even while disagreeing with any real-world extrapolations from it?  I don't think that's so difficult.  Many naturalistic historical films are no less flagrant in their rewritings, and not nearly as imaginative.  Steven Spielberg's AMISTAD spends over two hours analyzing the virulence of slavery in the United States, yet at the film's conclusion it chooses to draw a convenient veil over the provenance of slavery in North Africa (i.e., the North African slavers are alluded to but never seen on camera).  
 
Though I've defended 300's transgressions against political correctness, I can't say I'm overly fond of the film.  I found the film's use of CGI and slow motion effects tedious in the extreme.  Frank Miller stated that the main reason he had his Spartan heroes clad only in capes and light armor had to do with allowing the viewers to identify better with the individual warriors, but it's impossible not to see some feverish homoerotic elements in the film.
 
"Not that there's anything wrong with that--" but as I'd rather watch female anatomy, all those abs became for me just a little bit ab-horrent.         

Monday, December 12, 2011

SUPERMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES (1996-2000)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, cosmological*

I didn't care much for this original animated TV series when it first ran, but I decided to give it another try, watching all the episodes off-and-on over the course of a few weeks.

My verdict is not much different than before.  Credited series-developers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm merely go on the end of a long list of creators who don't "get" Superman.

That doesn't mean that I think that there's a single unitary approach to the DC character.  But in order to produce good Superman stories, one has to come off with some insight into either Superman or members of his support-cast.  What the animation team produced-- in vivid contrast to their stellar work on BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES-- was a work that looks good on the surface but whose plots and characters remain "super" only in one way-- "superficial."

The three-part introduction is perhaps the most tantalizing, suggesting some of the directions the producers might have taken (always admitting that they may have been hamstrung by DC Comics, eternally protective of their flagship character).  For instance, the comic-book Brainiac-- debuting in 1958 in a story by Otto Binder and Al Plastino-- plays off some of the same archetypal myth-motifs Siegel and Shuster used for their hero Superman.  Whereas Superman was the heroic survivor of a world calamity, after the fashion of "flood heroes" like Noah and Manu, the original Brainiac was symbolically one of the gods who played with human lives.  Indirectly this had favorable consequences for Kandor, the city Brainiac saved from being destroyed with the rest of Krypton, but the original Braniac remained obsessed with shrinking and imprisoning alien specimens for his delectation.  The TV series comes up with a novel re-invention of Brainiac, by claiming that he's not only a computer built on Krypton, but also that he allowed Krypton to be destroyed so that he could continue his mechanized existence while continuing to absorb new data on alien races.

And yet, despite that inventive rewriting, later stories fail to get any bang out of this revised Brainiac.  It's one thing for Brainiac to have no emotions, but Superman has no real emotional response to this survivor of Krypton-- and enemy of his father Jor-El-- beyond just the desire to destroy the android in vengeance.

Most of the other episodes fail to show any dramatic interaction between Superman and his opponents.  Whether it's a retrofitted character like Toyman or Parasite, or a new nemesis like Livewire or Volcana, the stories are all pretty much the same.  Villain takes action.  Superman tries to stop him and gets sidelined or otherwise detoured.  Villain escapes, comes back to menace innocents again.  Superman stops him this time.  The end.

This basic plot-action isn't bad in itself, but when Dini and Co. used it for their BATMAN series, they managed to layer the action between Batman and his opponents with considerable verve and style.  Batman did not fight the Mad Hatter with the exact same strategy he used to fight the Joker or the Catwoman.  Characterization of both hero and villains mattered in the Batman mythos.

Observing the way Superman was also treated in the JUSTICE LEAGUE cartoon-- also by some of the same creators-- it seems that the dominant concept of the Man of Steel was that he basically had no substantive character, that he wasn't much more than a big dumb farm boy.  Three seasons went by, during which Superman's affections for Lois Lane received only scant allusions.  Such omissions encourage me to believe that whenever the producers had any chance to infuse the hero with passion, they backed away from the challenge.  Even LOIS AND CLARK had a better sense of the centrality of the Clark-Lois-Superman relationship.

Many of the episodes are fleetingly entertaining.  "Mxyzpixilated," relating the first encounter of the hero with the impish pest Mxyzptlk, is amusing.  Luthor episodes, following the comics' revision of the villain into an evil, legally-untouchable businessman, benefit greatly from the smooth voicework of Clancy Brown as Luthor. However, like the Superman-Lois relationship, the conflict of Superman and Luthor remains static and unremarkable. Perhaps the most developed relationship the hero has with anyone is one depicted in a three-episode arc devoted to Batman as a guest-star; here the writers did develop a fair take on the two heroes developing a dubious affection for one another.

Many of the plots, particularly in the third season, emphasize the hero's encounters with the forces of Darkseid.  Darkseid, unlike the rest of this Superman's fight-and-flee rogues' gallery, is a figure of Satanic majesty.  Even when Superman defeats this villain physically, Darkseid remains in a sense unbeaten, living on as the virtual incarnation of evil.  Yet this struggle too lacks the deeper resonance found in the "Fourth World" comics of Jack Kirby, from whence Darkseid springs.  In contrast to Kirby, the producers of the Superman series apparently view evil as inhering mostly in mindless violence.  Villains are never very clever in this world.

Only one episode, entitled "Ghost in the Machine," approached some degree of drama, precisely because it allowed one of the support-cast some room to breathe.  Brainiac, in need of a new body following his last encounter with the superhero, captures Luthor to better use Luthor's immense scientific resources.  Mercy Graves, Luthor's faithful bodyguard-chaffeur, enlists Superman to help her rescue Luthor.  Superman, puzzled by Mercy's devotion, warns her that Luthor cares nothing for her and will betray her if he has to.  The hero's prediction is borne out; Luthor does leave his faithful servant to die, and only Superman's intervention saves her life.  Yet, in a moving coda, Mercy continues to serve Luthor, and the episode's last shot shows the Man of Steel gazing down at her as she helps Luthor into his car-- a god puzzled by the foibles of mortals, and yet empathetic to them as well.





That's a Superman I wish I'd seen more of in these many, many episodes.



Saturday, December 10, 2011

YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (1985)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES isn't technically a hybrid of genres, like BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA, but it feels like one, being a patchwork of influences from other films: sort of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM meets THE GOONIES-- where the "goony" kids are juvenile versions of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

I've never looked into the history of the film's genesis.  I doubt it was a dream project for director Barry Levinson, who would soon make his mark with more realistic fare like GOOD MORNING VIETNAM and RAIN MAN.  As for Steven Spielberg, he only served as executive producer on HOLMES.  I'd speculate that the idea might've sprung from HOLMES writer Chris Columbus, also the writer of the screenplay for Spielberg's GOONIES tale, which arrived in theaters about six months before HOLMES.  Given that Spielberg's TEMPLE OF DOOM had been a big (if controversial) hit the previous year, the idea of combining juvenile protagonists with evil cults and wild pulp action-- plus the name-recognition of the Holmes icon-- must have seemed a natural to someone.

A pulpish Sherlock Holmes isn't a total derangement of the Doyle character, in that a few of the canonical stories get fairly wild-and-woolly.  Still, the the majority of the Doyle tales are ratiocinative exercises which fit the mythos of "drama" better than that of "adventure."  In this film Holmes' detective efforts are no more than cues to initiate new outbursts of extravagant action, rather than pieces of a well-made puzzle.

The plot bears a loose resemblance to Doyle's SIGN OF FOUR.  In that novel, the members of a secretive group, all of whom profited by smuggling a treasure out of India during the period of the Mutiny, are being killed one by one by a mysterious malefactor.  Here, something similar obtains; certain residents of London begin dying as a result of having wild hallucinations that end up claiming their lives.  The juvenile Holmes and Watson become involved because one of the first victims is the father of Holmes' girlfriend Elizabeth (more on whom later).  Their roundabout pursuit of the criminals eventually leads the heroes to an Egyptian cult (albeit one made up of disaffected Englishmen) and results in a myriad of lively set-pieces that would not be out of place in an Indiana Jones film.  (Actually, I like them better than some of the ones selected for LAST CRUSADE, which I've always found rather anemic.)

The base idea of depicting Holmes and Watson as teenagers might not be beyond all redemption, but even if hardcore fans could get past the concept's first violation of Canon (changing the way in which the Great Detective met his confidante), I doubt if any of them appreciated seeing Sherlock depicted as a brilliant but overly emotional teenager.  Columbus' script tries to have it both ways: depicting Holmes with enough emotionality to please modern audiences, but positing that the experiences of this story cause him to formulate his low-affect persona in adulthood.  Indeed, one of his schoolteachers, fencing-master Rathe, encourages young Holmes to become as emotionally controlled as possible-- which gives away pretty early in the game that he's more than a simple teacher.  As mentioned before, young Holmes also has a girlfriend whose nugatory characterization pretty much screams "sacrificial victim."  By film's end she takes a dirt nap in order to provide a pedestrian, psuedo-romantic reason for the mature Holmes' disinterest in women.

Columbus is of course far from the first pastiche-artist to attempt psychologizing Sherlock Holmes.  One scenario put forth by Michael Kurland was that Holmes' obsession with Moriarty in HIS LAST BOW stemmed from an extramarital affair between Moriarty and Holmes' mother.  Columbus' script touches on similar territory.  During one sequence Holmes, Watson and the girl are all exposed to the illusion-potion.  The illusions seen by the girl prefigures her own moribund destiny, and those seen by Watson are played for comedy (a pudgy kid, Watson is attacked by animated confections in the movie's most ill-fitting scene).  Holmes, however, experiences a loose rewriting of Freud's Primal Scene, for he relives an experience in which he "detected" his father's infidelity and his mother's disgrace-- though this trauma from the past seems to have done little to remove Sherlock's passion for detection.

This motif of the hero being psychologically distant from his real father was seen later in another Spielberg-associated work, 1989s INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, opening the possibility that Columbus' "origin of Holmes" had a decided effect on that film's "origin of Jones."  As Holmes pursues clues to the mysterious Egyptian cult, he finds that it had its roots in the evils of British imperialism.  The murdered men undertook a money-making project in Egypt (where labor was cheap).  They accidentally uncovered a buried Egyptian tomb, and when local Egyptians protested the tomb's despoilment, a whole townful of natives were slain by overzealous British forces.  But an Egyptian named Eh Tar escaped the chaos, and after 10-15 years of effort, he built the cult and devised the illusion-making potion to avenge himself on the Englishmen. 

Aside from this anti-imperialist theme-- again, probably extrapolated from SIGN OF FOUR-- the most interesting thing about YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES is that his enemy becomes his mentor, which was also a prominent theme in LAST CRUSADE, authored by George Lucas and two other scripters.  The patrician fencing-master Rathe is pretty much the only likely suspect to be the mystery villain, even without the jokey rearrangement of his name into "Eh Tar."  In the final scene, some time after the hero conquers the villain, Sherlock dons the cloak of his adversary, telling Watson that it's like a "leopard's skin" trophy.  (Could he have meant to reference the Greek Heracles' donning of the skin of the Nemean Lion after hero killed beast?)  However, following the credits the viewer learns that this film will not be the last encounter of the hero and his "bad father," for Rathe survives to take on the name of Moriarty.

I have only contempt for the Spielberg-Haters who revile him as juvenile, imitative, etc.  Still, Spielberg's particular genius doesn't lend itself to working and playing well with other people's material, as seen in HOOK, WAR OF THE WORLDS, TWILIGHT ZONE and most though not all of his adaptations.  The most one can say for HOLMES is that it's far from the worst depiction Sherlock's ever had in the Case of the Public Domain Detective.