Tuesday, May 29, 2012

HUGO (2011), THE MYSTERIOUS HOUSE OF DOCTOR C (1976)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) poor
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) comedy
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) *sociological, psychological,* (2) *psychological*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

 
In some ways Martin Scorcese’s HUGO—based on Brian Selznick’s novel THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET—is the perfect naturalistic exemplar of the trope I call “enthralling hypnotism and illusionism.”  Hypnotism, the art of seeming to make people surrender their wills, is not on display here.  However, whereas in previous entries I’ve usually spoken of “illusionism” in terms of stage-magic, here it refers to “movie-magic,” the ability of filmmakers to create a “dream-screen” to which filmgoers surrender their “reality principle.”


I won’t go into the details of HUGO’s plot, which concerns, in brief, the fortuitous way in which the unsupervised orphan boy Hugo stumbles across an old man who proves to be (remember the spoilers) the once-heralded silent fantasy-filmmaker Georges Melies.  Scorcese brings every ounce of his formidable directing-talent to the fore in this valentine to early cinema-history.  And though Scorcese is best known for realistic crime drama, HUGO is predicated on the notion that cinema’s greatest achievement is its ability to capture magical fantasies—even though the film HUGO itself does not properly belong in the annals of metaphenomenal film.


 The irony of HUGO is that the only way cinema can manifest dreams is through the medium of technology—and not the futuristic technology of science fiction, but the vaguely “steampunk” technology of the late 19th century, from which filmmaking technology was born.  Presumably following Cabret’s book, Scorcese’s story makes clear that the re-invention of man’s culture through his technology also implies the reinvention of man himself— essentially a benevolent rewriting of the Frankenstein myth. 

The story dovetails two developments in the 19th century, for the birth of film technology was also the period in which humans began their first fumbling steps with automatons.  One such automaton provides a link between Hugo and Melies.  At no time does this primitive version of a robot do any of the things associated with science-fiction robots, whether railing at its creators or serving as an obedient “Ariel” to a masterful “Prospero.”  First and last, it, like all other forms of technology in HUGO, is just a machine that does nothing more than what it’s been made to do.  And yet, whenever Scorcese’s camera lingers on the automaton, the viewer cannot help but expect to see it come alive. It only does so once, in Hugo’s dream, as he imagines himself being overwhelmed and consumed by machines.  But that nightmare is never more than another dream, and the upbeat tone of HUGO makes clear that in this world all dreams are grist for the “dream screen.”


Interestingly, some film-critics have spoken of cinema’s beginnings as divided between two polarized attitudes: that of Melies, who embraced fantasy and dreamlike illusion, and of the Lumiere Brothers, who reputedly emphasized documentarian examinations of reality.  As HUGO depicts history, the Lumieres are the first out of the gate, for the film depicts Melies as attending one of their early cinematic efforts.  When these pioneers decline to share their secrets with Melies, he steals those secrets and puts them to his diametrically opposed use.  Yet though Scorcese recognizes the Lumieres’ primacy, it’s Melies the fantasist whom he chooses to celebrate.  



To be sure, those who are familiar with Scorcese’s frequent tub-thumping efforts for film preservation-- often seen on the TCM movie channel—may feel toward the end that the whole film has been a big commercial for Scorcese’s idée fixee.  Nevertheless, HUGO, though not a fantasy-film in either the uncanny or marvelous categories, shows supreme respect for the art of fantasy itself.


THE MYSTERIOUS HOUSE OF DR. C is one of the films whose history is more interesting than the film itself.  The movie was first launched in 1968 as an adaptation of the 1870 comic ballet "Coppelia," which itself was largely based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story, “The Sandman.” Not being a ballet enthusiast I have no knowledge of the original work, but since I view (through my  Fryean literary lens) "Sandman" as an extremely depressing ironic horror-tale.  it seems like the a strange choice on which to base a frothy musical comedy.

Further, though the initial release of the Spanish film "Fantástico mundo del doctor Coppelius" was in 1968, it met with little attention, so its producers rearranged the original film and added new material for an equally unsuccessful release in 1976.  As that version was the one to debut on TCM in 2011, I'm reviewing that one only here.

Whereas HUGO was written as a 21st century take on the 19th century’s fascination with automata, Hoffman’s story was a roughly contemporaneous take upon the marvelous machines, such as the famous chess-playing automaton "the Turk," which was exhibited from the late 18th through the early 19th centuries.  Hoffman's 1816 tale concerns a semi-hysterical narrator—possibly the ancestor to most of Poe’s storytellers—who has encountered a mysterious Doctor Coppelius.  The narrator compares the weird doctor to the “Sandman” of folktales.  The narrator falls in love with the young female protégé of Coppelius, only to be driven to distraction when he discovers that she is nothing more than a mechanical creature.  In 1919 Sigmund Freud famously interpreted the story in terms of the Oedipus Complex, and labeled the story “uncanny” in that one was never sure whether or not the events were real or the product of a demented imagination.  This reading surely affected the view of Todorov in his study THE FANTASTIC, where he views all fantasy through this same Freudian lens.


While it might be hard for some to say whether or not Hoffman’s story is “uncanny” or “marvelous,” MYSTERIOUS HOUSE OF DR. C solves the quandary by abolishing it and hewing to a naturalistic interpretation of the universe.  In this inversion of Hoffman, Doctor Coppelius is not a sinister mad scientist or even a nasty father-figure, but a harmless crank who tries to make automata.  Through an assortment of  contrivances, the girl Swanhilda pretends to be one of his automata and goes through a series of comic mishaps posing as a robot girl and trying to win her beloved.


Judged as a musical, HOUSE is mainly a curio, not very memorable in terms of song, dance, or performance.  The film's crazy doctor doesn't even make a functioning automaton, which apparently does happen in the ballet. Thus MYSTERIOUS HOUSE OF DOCTOR C is really all about dispelling any sense of "mystery" in favor of a cheery comic "reality."
      





CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*


I haven’t re-viewed animator Ray Harryhausen’s final theatrical film, CLASH OF THE TITANS, in many years.  At this time it remains my least favorite of Harryhausen’s otherworldly fantasy-films.  Harryhausen’s other venture into Greek myth, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, possessed a strong theme, that of man’s growing independence from the gods who created him.  But the 1981 CLASH seemed little more than a series of episodic fantasy-sequences built loosely around the archaic myth of the hero Perseus.  In addition, the simple charm of Harryhausen’s stop-motion techniques seemed to me at odds with the then-current mood of 1980s triumphalism.


To be sure, the 2010 CLASH, directed by Louis Letterier, isn’t long on charm either, but arguably its CGI techniques are meant to be more overwhelming than charming.  That said, this version does attempt to approach the same theme seen in JASON, asking once more the question, “What does man owe the gods?”

By and large the 1981 CLASH sticks with the bare bones of the Perseus myth.  Letterier’s version expands the mythic topography, hearkening back to the beginnings of the Greek myth-world, when Zeus led a younger faction of gods against the elder generation of deities, the Titans.  In addition, the gods triumphed with the help of a cosmic beast, the Kraken, who was spawned by Zeus’ brother-god Hades.  (For some reason the Kraken is later described as a “Titan,” which makes no sense given that he’s the spawn of a god.)  However, despite Hades’ contribution to the triumph, he got the short end of the stick when it came time to divide up the universe, since Hades got stuck with overseeing the underworld.  Hades, who plays no part in the archaic Perseus stories or in the Harryhausen work, becomes the villain of Letterier’s cosmos.



In the original Perseus myth, Zeus simply begets Perseus on a whim, and Perseus’ later feat of saving the city of Argos from a great sea-beast is set in motion by an unrelated challenge to the dignity of divinity.  Queen Cassiopeia of Argos unwisely proclaims that her daughter’s beauty surpasses that of the sea-nymphs, the Nereids.  The nymphs complain to Poseidon, who sends a sea-monster against the city.  In the 1981 film it’s Thetis whose divine beauty is challenged, but the Letterier film ramps up the stakes.



This time, the mortal king Acrisius swears to overthrow Olympos—a patent evocation of the story of the Titanomachy.  Zeus, who ostensibly loves mankind, holds back from simply destroying the king and all his people and settles for humiliating the impious mortal by sleeping with and impregnating his wife.  Acrisius tries to destroy his wife and her bastard child by hurling them into the sea.  The mother perishes but Perseus is found and raised by humble fisher-folk, while Zeus takes further vengeance on Acrisius by converting him into a monster named Calibos (a boogeyman from the Harryhausen film who had nothing to do with Perseus’ family tree). 



Twenty years later, Perseus is still a fisherman based near the city of Argos when the city’s rulers attempt to do away with the gods—not by direct assault as Acrisius planned, but by destroying the gods’ temples.  Though I’m not aware of any archaic authors who believed the gods to be dependent on man’s worship of them, the idea is common coin for both mortals and gods in Letterier’s cosmos.  Zeus and the other gods are enraged that mortal impiety may end their immortal gravy train, but Hades is the first to take retributive action, sending forth his demons to kill several mortals.  Hades himself kills Perseus’ parents, apparently with no more knowledge of the hero’s demigod status than he himself possesses.  Perseus swears vengeance upon Hades.  In addition, Perseus is more than a little put off when he finally learns that he himself is the son of Zeus, making him kin to the evil god who slew the only parents he knew.  In contrast with the hero of the Harryhausen film, this Perseus is deeply conflicted by his intimate and unassailable relationship to the capricious tyrant-gods.  He swears to act only with the power of a man, foreswearing any godly heritage he may possess.



The mortals continue in their impious defiance.  With a little prodding from Hades, who acts rather like Satan toward God in THE BOOK OF JOB, Zeus agrees to turn loose the Kraken on Argos.  Yet even here he allows an “escape clause” designed to force the mortals to acknowledge their ignominy: the city will be spared if they sacrifice Princess Andromeda.  To be sure, there’s a minor line in which the queen mother does exalt her daughter’s beauty above that of Aphrodite, but that’s no longer the principal cause of the gods’ enmity as in the Harryhausen film.



Once all this set-up is done, the film essentially follows the plot of the 1981 film.  The desperate rulers send Perseus on a quest.  Perseus obtains the aid of Pegasus and talks the wise-women, the nearly-eyeless Graieae, to learn the location of Medusa.  As in the 1981 film Perseus beheads Medusa—who once again is termed a “titan” in order to rationalize the film’s title—and uses it against that other “titan,” the Kraken.  Incidentally, the 2010 CLASH features a clever joke at the expense of the 1981 movie, which seems to be pretty much the only humor in this generally grim and unrelenting film. 



As with many remakes, the digressions are more interesting than the likenesses.  While Perseus is following his heroic course, Hades makes his move for rulership of Olympos, blithely informing Zeus that he Hades has become stronger because he feeds on mankind’s fears.  It seems pretty improbable that all Hades needs to conquer his heavenly sibling is to get fueled by the fears in one lousy city.  However, the contrivance makes it possible for the script to place Zeus in danger as well, the better to disassociate him with the evil of the Kraken’s rampage.



Letterier’s film doesn’t have much of a handle on its hero’s “daddy issues.”  When Zeus becomes belatedly aware of his mortal offspring, he sends Perseus a magic sword.  Perseus initially rejects the blade as a way of denying kinship with the father who begat Perseus but showed no interest in raising him.  Yet the hero ends up using the sword to slay Calibos/Acrisius, who is in a sense the mortal equivalent of Perseus’ divine father. Later, though the hero can’t actually slay Hades, he again uses the blade to banish the death-god back to his dismal realm.  Since Hades had been injected into the story as a second “bad father,” the one who does Zeus’ dirty work, this makes it possible for the film to end on a reconciliation of the demigod and his father. Unfortunately it doesn’t ring true and seems merely a convenient wrap-up.



The nature of that reconciliation may be the most interesting change. The romantic trajectory of the 1981 CLASH follows the same premise as the archaic myth: as the prize for defeating the sea-beast, Perseus wins and marries Andromeda.  In the 2010 version, Andromeda is noble and self-sacrificing, but holds no romantic interest for Perseus, any more than he does for her.  Were the scriptwriters reluctant to validate the old “save-the-woman-and-then-marry-her” trope? Or did they simply want a more active female lead? To the latter end they introduce another character foreign to both the Perseus myth and the 1981 film: a woman named Io, who though born mortal has acquired immortality and oracular powers.  She’s seen watching over Perseus as a child when he and his deceased mother are hauled forth from the ocean.  Twenty years later, she follows him on his quest, instructing him in the ways of the gods (and even giving him a little martial training).  She dies at the hands of “bad father” Calibos, but at the end of the film Zeus resurrects Io and reunites her with Perseus.



Though I’d never accept Freudian analysis as a universal tool of interpretation, I must say that even the image of Io watching the re-delivery of the child Perseus from the sea is enough to mark her as an alloform of Perseus’ mother Danae.  It’s probably not coincidence that the scriptwriters named the heroine “Io,” who in Greek myth is best known as one of Zeus’s conquests—in fact, by one account she was Zeus’ first mortal conquest as well as one of Hera’s temple-maidens.  In addition, the fact that Io is many years older than Perseus, despite looking to be his age, also rings Freud’s version of the Pavlovian bell.  Of course the original Perseus myth is full of “hostility to the father” tropes, though it’s not overtly Oedipal.  But though there’s no hint that the Zeus of Letterier’s film has any history with this Io, the mere fact that Io shares the name of a Zeus-paramour in real myth suggests that Perseus’s reward for accepting his heritage and saving his father from conquest by Hades is to receive one of his father’s former conquests.  I’m aware of no myth in which the traditional Zeus does this.  However, there is an interesting story which states that when Zeus’ demigod son Heracles was about to perish, he had his son Hyllos married to one of his wives.  Obviously this hand-me-down-wife wasn’t Hyllos’ own mother, but she did possess the name of “Iole,” which is strongly comparable with the name of Zeus’ first mortal conquest.  How much of this tradition was known to the writers of the 2010 film is, of course, anyone’s guess.


LONE RUNNER (1986), SCI-FIGHTERS (1996)




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

Though it’s hard to quantify, I see a fine line separating those works that are tolerable but uninspired, and those that look like everyone involved made no more effort than punching a time-clock.


LONE RUNNER is a fair example of the former.  There’s nothing in it to distinguish the film for dozens of other low-budget “Max Max” post-acpocalyptic knock-offs, though it does sport one half-memorable opening sequence.  A small group of future-citizens ride through the desert in a stagecoach, and an old nanny tells a little girl about the legend of the “Lone Runner,” a mysterious hero who comes to the rescue of innocents.  As soon as the tale ends, ruthless bandits attack the coach, but who should come to the innocents’ rescue but—ah, you know.  After that, the Lone Runner (Miles O’Keeffe) gets involved in saving a princess (Savina Gersak) from more marauders, who in “Mad Max” tradition are garbed in all manner of goofy 20th-century castoffs. RUNNER is nothing but cheese, but O’Keeffe and Gersak are good-looking protagonists, and though the fight-scenes are unexceptional there are at least a lot of them.  If one’s in the mood for this type of film, there have been many worse exemplars.


SCI-FIGHTERS, however, is just ninety minutes of dullness.  In the far future convict Billy Drago becomes infected with a extraterrestial virus. He breaks out of prison, essentially an unkillable zombie controlled by alien programming designed to unleash a disease that will decimate Earth’s population.  Cop Roddy Piper goes after him, aided by scientist Jayne Heitmeyer.  In the down-time between shooting sprees Piper reveals to Heitmeyer that Drago was once his best friend until he went berserk and killed Piper’s wife, yadda yadda yadda.  Finally zombie-Drago is vanquished and Earth is saved, amid assorted competent but boring FX-scenes.


Piper, Drago and Heitmeyer have all delivered good entertainment in other B-movies, but they’ve nothing to work with here.  The only curiosity about SCI-FIGHTERS (other than the meaningless title) is that twice in the film, maverick cop Piper threatens to shoot a petty criminal in his “pink puss”—which is presumably a line no one even bothered to change when the criminal was cast with a black actor in the role.  






Thursday, May 24, 2012

REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956)



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

For fans of Universal Studios’ classic movie-monsters, the Creature of the Black Lagoon represents the last, albeit impressive, gasp of Universal’s old-school approach to the creation of formidable yet often sympathetic fiends.  Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the three films dealing with the “Gill Man” loosely recapitulate the cinematic development of the monster most closely associated with the studio: the Frankenstein Monster.


The only strong resemblance between the two Universal figures—one appearing near the beginning of the studio’s monster-making orientation, the other at its end—is that both characters are one-of-a-kind entities. Admittedly, it’s implied—though never established beyond all doubt—that other Gill Men once existed, while Frankenstein’s creation is pieced together from disparate bodies by a mad scientist.  But both concepts emphasize the pathos of the monster who has no ingroup, whose attempts to find liaisons in the human world must be doomed to a tragic outcome.


Because the characters are alike in a fundamental emotive sense, the Gill Man films progress roughly along the same lines as Universal’s Frankenstein.  The bulk of the narrative of the first CREATURE film—reviewed here—takes place in the Amazonian Black Lagoon, in a domain where modern humans are intruders.  The first two Frankenstein films, both directed by James Whale, take place in a Gothic never-never land that possesses only a rudimentary similarity to real-life Europe.  In CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, human beings intrude on a world governed by an evolutionary life-process that dwarfs human conceptions, while in the Whale films, human culture is dwarfed by the presence of Almighty Death.


In contrast to its predecessor, REVENGE gets out of the Black Lagoon as quickly as possible.  A new expedition, headed by Dr. Ferguson (John Agar), journeys to the Amazonian home of the Gill Man, apparently believing that the rumors of the fish-man’s death have been exaggerated.  Ferguson even manages to charter the same boat from CREATURE, as well as its captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva).  Prior to the Gill Man’s capture, the scientists discuss the phenomenal good fortune that allowed the creature to survive for so long.  As if to mock the science-fiction underpinnings of the story, Lucas suggests that the Gill Man has actually survived so long because he is a demon incarnate.  No one else takes this seriously, and yet, a supernatural explanation might actually make more sense than a fish-man surviving on his own since prehistoric times.


Using the same drug-techniques seen in CREATURE, the expedition sedates the Gill Man and carts him to Florida, where he’s put on display in a Seaworld-like theme park.  CREATURE put forth a conflict between a Good Scientist who wanted only to learn the Gill Man’s mysteries for science, and a Bad Scientist who wanted to kill and dissect the humanoid if it meant gain.  No such dialectical conflict appears here. Doctor Ferguson is the main scientist in charge, and though his main motives are those of the furtherance of science, he has no ethical problem with chaining the Gill Man at the bottom of a tank and using him as a cash-cow to fund his studies. 


Nor is there a dissenting voice in the film’s female lead.  In CREATURE Julie Adams’ Kay, despite being a loyal fiancés to the Good Scientist, seems fascinated by both the Lagoon and its creature—though not to the extent that she wants to be the mother to a bunch of Gill-babies.  Biology college-student Helen (Lori Nelson) gets the honor of participating in Ferguson’s investigations of the Gill Man, apparently on the basis of how well she fills out a swimsuit.  The Creature naturally fixates on Helen as a new potential baby-mama, but she never shows him more than token sympathy, and never opposes the creature’s incarceration in the name of science.  Compared to Kay, who’s treated as an equal by the males of the first film, Helen represents a repressive figure in gender-dynamics. Many 1950s films present women in authoritative or at least qualified positions, but Helen describes her interest in biology as something into which she simply drifted during college.  During a beachside idyll, Helen essentially agrees with Ferguson when he conveys the fifties-style chauvinism that women must choose between marriage and career, while men are free to do whatever they want.


Inevitably, and satisfyingly, the Gill Man breaks his chain and goes on a rampage, terrorizing the modern citizens who thought themselves safe from the demon Nature.  It’s at this point that the second Gill Man film resembles Universal’s first non-Whale film, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.  In contrast to the Whale films, SON is less delirious, less purely Gothic. In addition, that film devotes much more narrative attention to the rational consternation of the local villagers at the experiments of the new Doctor Frankenstein, and puts less emphasis on the pathos of the Monster and more on his capacity for running amok and destroying everything in his path.


THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, the final Gill Man outing, takes much the same path as GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, the last of the “solo” Universal Frankensteins (i.e., films in which the Monster was the only fiend in residence).  True, SON suggests the possibility that the Monster may be modified via a brain-transplant, but only in GHOST does the monster-modification actually take place.  WALKS follows a similar premise in that a new scientific expedition, funded by arrogant Doctor Barton, seeks to force the Creature to become an air-breather, thus depriving him of his basic evolutionary identity.



The second sequel follows the model of the first film far more than did REVENGE.  Barton’s wife Marcia becomes the film’s initial viewpoint character, as she comes aboard her husband’s chartered ship and meets some of the scientists engaged to assist Barton, as well as Grant, a horny guide who seems to sense her alienation from her husband even before Barton makes the scene.  Barton soon lays out the expedition’s plan to seek out the creature—who evidently survived being shot down at the end of REVENGE, and took refuge in the Florida Everglades—and to alter the Gill Man into an air-breather.  It becomes clear that Barton is the reincarnation of the Bad Scientist, who cares only for personal gain and glory, while his subordinate Morgan is the Good Scientist, who respects the boundaries of nature and doesn’t want to change the creature. Nevertheless, Barton’s money wins the argument. 


Grant covertly suggests to Marcia that Barton may have bought her with the same money.  It’s soon clear that all is not well between the head scientist and his wife.  This female lead is no shrinking violet, though; she shoots a rifle at some sharks to save a school of porpoises and joins the diving-expeditions as if she were as good as a man.



After a suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse—during which the scientists track their underwater prey with radar, as if he were a hostile missile—the Gill Man attacks the expedition.  By accident the Gill Man douses himself with gasoline, and in self-defense Morgan sets him afire.  The Gill Man is so badly burned that he can no longer breathe normally, which gives Barton the excuse he desires for his experiment.


Barton’s ship takes the comatose creature toward a scientific compound, but the Gill Man awakes first.  The creature happens across Grant getting grabby with Marcia and swats the would-be lothario, though in this story he has little or no interest in female humans.  Escaping to the sea, the monster finds out the hard way that he’s been converted into a “Lung Man,” and Morgan has to capture him and drag him back aboard ship.


At the compound, the confused Gill Man allows the scientists to put him in a pen.  Morgan and Barton re-enact the old argument between nature and nurture, with Barton claiming that the destruction of the creature’s gills has made him pacific, while Morgan argues that he’s become pacific because they’ve treated him kindly.


Marcia, continuing to grow away from her husband, identifies with the Gill Man’s need for freedom while warming somewhat to Morgan.  Meanwhile the Gill Man becomes hypersensitive to human violence.  When he sees Barton assault Grant out of jealousy, the Gill Man goes wild, killing Barton and returning to the sea, even though he can no longer live beneath the waves.  And though Morgan holds out the possibility that the creature’s gills might regenerate, the conclusion implies that this will be the fish-man’s final appearance—which, in the real world, it was.  It’s a far more poetic finish for the Gill Man than the gun-blasts he survives in the other two films, in that he’s at last reunited in death with the element that gave him life.  
  

    

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

DINOSAURUS! (1960), JUNGLE JIM IN THE FORBIDDEN LAND (1952)



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

Here's a pair of prehistoric perils this time.

In previous viewings, I never liked Irwin Yeaworth's DINOSAURUS, the last of his collaborations with producer Jack H. Harris, following the enjoyable BLOB and the underrated 4D MAN.  But after a recent rescreening I found that though it was far from deep in terms of presenting its cosmological theme-- the fascination with prehistoric forms of life-- it had one virtue in that it was a very active film.  Even THE BLOB, despite its classic status as a concept, tends to "drag" somewhat.  But in DINOSAURUS, something's always happening.

By accident or design, Harris and Yeaworth managed to aim their three collaborations at each of three perceived filmgoer-markets.  THE BLOB, with its misunderstood teenagers, is aimed at the burgeoning teen audience of the period.  4D MAN, a more mature storyline, might not have appealed to any adults but those with a jones for SF, but the story still has an adult focus.  And DINOSAURUS spends most of its narrative time with Julio, the Caribbean island kid who gets to pal around with a dinosaur and a caveman for a little while-- surely the dream of dino-loving kids everywhere.

The adults in DINOSAURUS, mostly associated with a construction crew that accidentally unearths a brontosaurus and a tyrannosaurus, are perfuctory characters, treated with a child's idea of good and bad. This is particularly true of the cruel character of island manager Mike Hacker, who butts heads with the more charitable lead hero Bart Thompson.  A chance bolt of lightning revives the two dinos from their suspended animation and they begin roaming the island, causing trouble for the adults but fun for Julio, who gets to ride the bronto's back.  In addition, though it's not clear if lightning has anything to do with it, a caveman also awakes from suspended animation and eventually befriends Julio.

One likeable aspect of DINOSAURUS is that although Julio has fun with his new prehistoric friends-- particularly in a scene where he tries to teach the caveman to eat with utensils-- the film doesn't shy away from reminding one that real prehistoric life was nasty, brutish, and short.  This becomes readily clear late in the film, when the T-Rex finally stalks and destroys the bronto.  Hacker, the human equivalent of the voracious carnivore, has less success in his attempt to corral the caveman to use as a sideshow attraction (the usual KING KONG motif).  Eventually heroic Thompson manages to vanquish the T-Rex with the help of a steam shovel, making for a better than average climax.

The caveman, despite being played for a good deal of humor, emerges with a fair amount of pathos when he sacrifices his life for his modern-day friends.  DINOSAURUS even allows for a mild allusion to sex when the caveman gets ahold of lead female Betty.  It would be a dim kid indeed who didn't see what was on Caveguy's mind, though she manages to divert him nicely.

JUNGLE JIM IN THE FORBIDDEN LAND is in essence another "elephant's graveyard" tale of the sort that launched Tarzan into the sound era.  The villains, led by a nasty female mastermind named Denise (Jean Willes), hatch a plan to defy the governmental protection on elephants and to massacre many of the animals for their ivory.  For some overcomplicated reason
Denise and her buddies need the aid of a race of prehistoric giants-- two of which are in captivity-- who can lead them to the elephants.  Jungle Jim, on his way to the giants' land with an acerbic lady scientist in tow, naturally gets involved.

The "Jungle Jim" films never attempted to stress environmental concerns as much as the contemporaenous "Bomba" films, but FORBIDDEN does at least touch on such concerns.  In keeping with most jungle films, the evil rapacious whites are seen as the exceptions to the rule, as against the essentially benevolent (though in this film, often rather stupid) white ruling government.

The giants-- a big hairy male and a smaller hairy female-- don't really do very much in the story, although the male goes on a couple of rampages and has a brief bout with former Tarzan Weismuller.  The most enjoyable aspect of FORBIDDEN is the performance of Jean Willes as the venal Denise, who turns on the man who made her his ward (a patent father-substitute) and has him killed when he obstructs her plans.  She ends up being killed by the male giant, the sort of development that might contain a  Freudian theme or three.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

THE GAMMA PEOPLE (1956)



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


Though Cold War themes appear indirectly in many 1950s SF-films, THE GAMMA PEOPLE-- directed and co-written by John (PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES) Gilling-- is one among the few SF-movies of the period that addresses the ideological differences between democracy and totalitarianism.  To be sure, it's a phlegmatic film that makes its points in a fairly obvious fashion, but it's considerably more intelligent than 1952's RED PLANET MARS or 1957's THE 27TH DAY.


Communism is never explicitly mentioned in GAMMA, but the evils addressed by the story are clearly those that the democratic West found in Communist countries: isolationism, thought control, indifference to human rights.  Here, rather than being the creation of a revolutionary political system, they are the outgrowth of one man's mad scientific experiments, apparently abetted by his country's government though the scientist appears to act as a power unto himself, without governmental "handlers."


Two journalists, American Mike Wilson and British Howard Meade, begin the film traveling through postwar Europe by train, planning to undertake some story in Salzburg.  They happen to be traveling alone in the train's rearmost car, which, by a puzzling combination of chance and design, gets separated from the main train. By "chance" I mean that the coupling holding the rear car apparently breaks of its own accord, while by "design" I mean that two young locals see the separated car coming down the track, and they reroute the track to take the hurtling car into the postage-stamp land of Gudavia.  I thought for a moment that they might have been spies who knew the journalists were aboard, and might have even engineered the coupling-break.  But the two locals are never seen again, probably meaning that Gilling only wanted them for a quick setup.

Wilson and Meade are effectively contrasted as opposites in temperament. When Meade thinks of travel, he reminiscences on past romantic conquests and looks forward to new ones.  Wilson is the pragmatic American, who makes a curious association between the train's progress and going to meet someone's mother-in-law.  Innocence and experience, perhaps? In any case, both newsmen are exceedingly confused to find themselves in the forbidden "democracy" of Gudavia, where the authorities initially regard them as Western spies.  The aforementioned scientist, Dr. Boronski, orders the police to let the journalists have free run of the place so that they won't carry back news of ill treatment to the West-- a bad decision, since it leaves the newcomers free to observe the strange goings-on in Gudavia.

For a locale based on real Communist countries, it's axiomatic that the main city of Gudavia must be ruled by a climate of fear and oppression.  However, the fear is of Boronski's experiments with gamma radiation.  The reporters eventually learn that Boronski's using the townspeople as his private preserve, culling subjects and exposing them to radiation-- which either turns them into geniuses or morons.  Strangely, all the morons are male adults, who respond to Boronski's commands like zombies to a voodoo sorcerer, while the geniuses are children of both genders.  The reporters are flummoxed to see the dialectical conflict played out between young Hedda, who plays the piano like a maestro but demands to be allowed to play what she wants, and snotty Hugo, who demands that she play only what the State wants.

In  contrast to many mad-scientist films, Boronski is a rather pallid threat.  The more visceral threat is his creation Hugo, who has become not a physical but a moral monster: scorning sentimentality and mocking Western ways.  At the eleventh hour Hugo rather improbably finds his soul thanks to learning that he still has a living sister, and helps the reporters destroy Boronski and free Gudavia.  But he's much more convincing as an early version of a type of monster who would be seen more in the 1970s: the child who acts like an immoral adult.

Gilling's pace is never exciting, but he does work some interesting ideas into the mix of political thrills and SF-horror.  One interesting subplot is that when the reporters arrive, the populace is due to celebrate a festival descended from pagan times.  The locals look forward to it and one of Boronski's associates says that it's allowed to keep the people docile. Late in the film Boronski orders the festival cancelled, with the result that the peasants revolt and overthrow his reign, suggesting the cultural resonance of such archaic practices-- though nothing is related of the festival except that the citizens dress up in masquerade.  Interestingly, in one scene Wilson is pursued by several rock-throwing "zombies" in a scenario that actually recalls primitive sacrificial rituals rather strongly-- except that here, the victim escapes with his life..
GAMMA PEOPLE is far from one of the period's best offerings, but it's reasonably well thought out and takes a few unexpected terms even for a script convinced of its own ideological superiority. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE (1929), HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983)








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



I've a minor fondness for the "old dark house" films that were popular in America from the silent era until roughly the 1940s, though it's a given of the genre that they'll resort to somewhat superficial explanations of the weird events portrayed therein.  Earl Derr Biggers' SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE, which begat a play and several film adaptations, was one of the many of these quasi-Gothics.  Like Agatha Christie's ABC Murders, the story hinges on a gimmick that has been recycled not just in official adaptations but in many, many knockoff forms.  I imagine that by the time I saw any version of BALDPATE, I'd probably seen its gimmick in assorted telefilms or television shows.

That familiarity might be the main reason I didn't care for the 1929 BALDPATE, directed by silent-film veteran Reginald Barker, who would direct a sound version of Wilkie Collins' MOONSTONE a few years later.  Richard Dix plays a writer challenged to finish a novel at an isolated inn, the Baldpate, but his isolation ends when an assortment of characters gain entry to the inn and distract him from his purpose with their assorted melodramas.  Dix's role is fairly lightweight, and doesn't challenge him much, in contrast to his lead in 1925's THE VANISHING AMERICAN or his later psychotic performance in THE GHOST SHIP.  Barker maintains a light tone, as well, which made it even harder for me to invest much emotion in the film, given that I knew the Big Reveal: that all the intruders are actors hired to harass the writer for fairly dubious reasons.  Though there aren't any overly spooky moments in this version, and the actors supply a naturalistic explanation for the "weird-family" aspects of the story, I still categorize this as an uncanny film based on the Gothic concept of tricking a victim with the appearance of weirdness.

HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, however, does a more credible job of conjuring up "phantasmal figurations" with its version of the Biggers story.  Director Pete Walker, who had gained his fame with violent shockers like 1972's THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW, evidently decided to go in the opposite direction for SHADOWS, emphasizing Gothic suspense with very little blood or violence.  This time the writer's played by Desi Arnaz Jr. in what proved to be one of his more solid performances.  Yet he was destined to be "overshadowed" (pun intended) by the film's casting of four famous horror-film stars: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine.

Admittedly, Carradine has little to do and Cushing's role is largely comic (though very well played).  But Price and Lee, playing two brothers with a dark rivalry between them, get a few meatier scenes, particularly a climactic scene in which Lee appears to murder Price with a battle-axe.  Given the frustrations of the two other films in which Price and Lee co-starred, but had no substantive scenes together -- 1969's OBLONG BOX and 1970's SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN-- SHADOWS at least takes *some* advantage of teaming its horror-titans.  Because of this additional lagniappe-- and a mild smattering of phony gore-murders-- I found myself enjoying the creaky old Biggers plot.  SHADOWS, though it was Walker's final film, doesn't represent the director at his most characteristic, but based on my incomplete viewings of the Biggers adaptations, it's the best remodeling of This Old Dark House in my experience.\

ADDENDA 4-3-17:  I'm in the midst of re-evaluating my previous reckoning that BALDPATE is "uncanny" and will probably devote a "dissenting opinion" in a future post. However for my own purposes I will leave the above review in its original state.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

SGT. DEADHEAD (1965), DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS (1966)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) naturalistic, (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) *psychological*, (2) *sociological*

I imagine that the genesis of SERGEANT DEADHEAD was some AIP producer's hope that Frankie Avalon might prove viable as an "adult" lead actor in light comedy, perhaps after the example of Tony Curtis.  I assume that this and Avalon's same-year outing in DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE must have put paid to that expectation.

With the exception of one joke about a bunch of towel-clad WACs forced to salute a superior officer, DEADHEAD is dead in the water as far as jokes.  Louis Hayward, one of the credited writers on BIKINI, doles out the usual service comedy yucks with no finesse, and director Norman Taurog, whom I beat on earlier for BIKINI, puts the jokes across with stolid indifference to timing or excitement.  The plot concerns the klutzy Deadhead accidentally going up in a space capsule.  After his return he becomes a celebrity, and gets an ego so inflated that he becomes a problem for the military brass. They luck out and find an exact double to take Deadhead's place for public appearances, but Deadhead is also scheduled to be married.  Thus the final question becomes, will Deadhead be able to head off his double at the "pass" (so to speak)?  For some reason I liked Avalon's performance as the titular sergeant better than many of his other roles, but it certainly wasn't because of script or direction.  The main attraction is the apperance of several comedy veterans-- Gale Gordon, Fred Clark, and the inevitable-at-AIP Buster Keaton-- but none of them have much to do, though Eve Arden gets the best song out of an unmemorable lot.

DEADHEAD appears in some fantasy-film concordances simply because the title doofus ends up going into orbit in a space capsule.  I don't regard films about modern-day space-travel to be "science fiction," however.  The film does have include a chimp in the same capsule (who acquits himself better than Avalon's Deadhead), and Fred Clark has a slapstick bit where he gets electrically charged and lights Gale Gordon's cigar with his finger.  But none of these factors make DEADHEAD relevant to metaphenomenal cinema.

Once or twice, Mario Bava's DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS has a nice Europop atmosphere that looks forward to the director's DIABOLIK in 1968.  Still, though GIRL BOMBS looks better-directed than Taurog's BIKINI MACHINE, the script's about the same.  I've seen only the Americanized version of Bava's film, which pits Goldfoot (Vincent Price) against another bumbling secret agent (Fabian) and an even more bumbling duo, sort of an Italian "Mutt-and-Jeff" pair who get drafted into the spy games.  Lovely Laura Antonelli goes along for the ride but doesn't get much to do, other than having a catfight with Goldfoot's female accomplice.  It's indicative of the level of the humor that the assistant is named "Hardjob"(after Harold Sakata's "Oddjob" from the GOLDFINGER film), while Goldfoot's other assistant is a male Asian (George Wang) with a fair resemblance to Sakata.

There is a little more energy in the film than in the previous entry: Price seems to have a little fun dispensing flowery talk ("poem of the Pacific!") and he suddenly seems to think he's Chinese, which gets a strange reaction from his two Asian colleagues.  The "girl bombs" have less to do in the story, but they seem a little sexier this time-- maybe thanks to the absence of Susan Hart.  But it's still a pretty minimal improvement.




Wednesday, May 16, 2012

RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL (1937), SHADOW OF CHIKARA (1977)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) fair
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) irony
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) *sociological,*(2) sociological, metaphysical


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


The cowboy as light-hearted adventurer and the Civil War hero as existential punching-bag show the genre of the western at its most disparate.

RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL, fourth of the "Three Mesquiteers" B-movie series, pits the three modern-day cowpokes (in this case Ray Corrigan, Robert Livingstone, and Max Terhune) against the inhabitants of a "lost race" of devilish redskins.  The cowboys get wrapped up in helping a pretty young thing look for her father, lost while he was seeking the Lost City of Lukachuke.  They set out to investigate the mysterious mountain-formation known as "the Whistling Skull" (a big chunk of rock sculpted to look like a skull, which "whistles" when the wind blows through it).  The Mesquiteers thus fall afoul of a tribe of Indians who may or may not be the modern-day descendants of Lukachuke, but they've more than willing to send the white intruders to join the bones of the ancient dead.

The suggestion that the Indians may have lived undiscovered by civilization as a whole is enough to qualify this B-film for my category "exotic lands and customs," though the film never tells audiences anything much about the red men, except that they're hot to kill all cowboys.  There is, to be sure, a half-breed character who encourages the tribe to kill all outsiders, but he doesn't become much of a significant force in the plot either.  One online review praised its fast pace in that the action covered up all the plot-holes, and I'd tend to agree.  I'll also note that the weird effect of the Whistling Skull-- which director Mack Wright plays up for one eerie scene-- also qualifies for the "exotic lands," though this is the first time I've ever applied the trope to a feature of "the land" itself.

SHADOW OF CHIKARA is one of many titles enjoyed by this Civil War outing, written and directed for Howco by one Earl E. Wright, but it's probably the best title in emphasizing the dark nature of the proceedings.  Following the end of the Civil War, soldier "Wishbone" Cutter (Joe Don Baker) finds that his civilian life is in tatters, for his nasty wife is now sleeping with a Yankee. She forces Cutter to leave his own house.  Seeking riches in place of love, Cutter learns of a treasure of diamonds concealed in a certain mountain, and he joins up with two other ex-soldiers, "Teach" and "Half Moon," to help him find the diamonds.

For the first 20 minutes SHADOW seems like a commonplace story, but eerie music starts playing in the background as soon as the three adventurers pick up Drusilla (Sondra Locke), a young woman who's apparently been ravaged by Indians and left to die.  Cutter, somewhat less enamored of the feminine gender, wants nothing to do with Drusilla, but Teach insists that they bring her along on their journey.  Other strange things begin happening: unseen Indians shoot at the group with black arrows, and some bird, possibly an eagle, attacks one of the horses, leaving deep scars.

The group arrives at the mountain, whereupon Half Moon (who is half-Indian) suddenly realizes that this is a mountain reputedly haunted by demons.  Half Moon relates a Eden-like story of how Chikara, an eagle-spirit, once protected a certain tribe within the mountain, bringing them peace and plenty. A jealous shaman sought to kill Chikara, only to be killed, thus bringing about the exile of the entire tribe from Chikara's mountain hideaway.

Naturally neither Teach nor Cutter believe in such superstitions, particularly because they have more pressing problems: some cutthroats attack the fortune-hunters, intending to rob the adventurers and rape Drusilla.  The cutthroats are defeated, but not before the heroes learn that one of the thugs experienced an attack by a mysterious eagle.  As the hard-luck heroes make their way toward the mountain, Half Moon is killed, apparently by accident, while in Drusilla's presence.  Teach, Cutter and Drusilla manage to gain access to the mountain, but Drusilla uses her feminine wiles on both of them, leading to their destruction.

Wright's moody story never directly states that the eagle-god is real, or that Drusilla is either his creation or his priestess, but though the supernatural is only implied, I judge that on balance it has to be considered real rather than delusory.  I also judge this film an irony because it depicts a world in which the horrors of war and the horrors of a malign god seem to be one and the same: both forces that end up dooming the heroes beyond hope of rescue.

Monday, May 14, 2012

JUNGLE MANHUNT (1951), VALLEY OF HEADHUNTERS (1953)



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


My impression of Alex Raymond's JUNGLE JIM comic strip is that most of its stories fall into the naturalistic phenomenality.  However, its adaptations in films and comic books have gone in all possible directions.

Putting aside the 1937 JUNGLE JIM serial, Sam Katzman's low-budget series of potboilers were the first feature-film adaptations of the character.  JUNGLE MANHUNT, the seventh in the series, starts out with the suggestion that it may possess the uncanny phenomenality, as it begins with a peaceful village being raided for slaves by warriors led by "skeleton-men" (men in obvious costumes).  Jungle Jim, a hunter who apparently protects the jungle from evil in his spare time, investigates the raiders while simultaneously guiding a snippy girl photographer in search of a white man who became lost in the jungle.  At one point Jim and reporter Ann encounter a pair of "dinosaurs" (the usual lizards filmed to look big), but though they have nothing to do with the story, their presence alone would push the flick into "marvelous" territory.  However, as Jim and Ann find their way to the raiders' camp, they encounter another science-fictional element, in an evil doctor who's using native slaves to mine radioactive materials.  It turns out that the evil doctor is making synthetic diamonds, and his explanation of the process certainly should have won any 1951 award for Best Scientific Goobledygook.

MANHUNT is at least moderately pleasurable to watch, in that it has a fair amount of action (though none of the natives are Black Africans, instead looking like South Sea Islanders).  Also, Ann is one of the more sharp-tongued heroines, but Jim gets back some of his own by constantly needling her about her mercenary motives for coming to the jungle.  Coming to Africa to look for a lost football player doesn't seem all that blameworthy, but at least their exchanges, and good direction by Lew (THE RAVEN) Landers keep the pot boiling.  In the end Ann hooks up with the lost football player, who's been playing "white god" because he has a paternalistic feeling for the villagers who took him in.  As with most jungle-adventure films there's a strong emphasis on distinguishing the "good white interlopers" from the bad ones.

VALLEY OF HEADHUNTERS, however, lacks even these relative high-points.  Jim is enlisted by the local jungle constable to help him secure mineral rights from one of the local tribes.  It seems that these natives used to practice headhunting, but though they gave it up they still don't trust the white men.  Jim and the constable can't make a very good case, for a local jungle bandit named "Arco" is constantly raiding local villages to steal women, and he too wants the valuable mineral rights.  The only relevant trope in VALLEY is that of "exotic lands and customs," but though headhunting is referenced, no evidence of it is seen, not even so much as a shrunken head.  In addition, both the acting and action are pretty dismal.  The constable gets a missionary's daughter, but for all the importance she has to the plot she might as well not have been there.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951), ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)



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

In my review of DREAMCHILD, I noted that I judged the original Lewis Carroll “Alice” books to fit the Fryean category of “the irony,” in that they depict a world whose inhabitants, despite being vivid and colorful, are also cruel and indifferent, viewing all that makes “sense” to human beings as “nonsense.”  In addition, the original books fit my trope “delirious dreams and fallacious figments,” in that the entire action takes place in a dream of viewpoint character Alice.


I also remarked that DREAMCHILD, though not technically an adaptation, used Carroll’s stories as the basis of a narrative set in another mythos, that of a drama concerning the historical Alice’s relationship to the historical Carroll.  The two films I’ll examine here are both direct if very loose adaptations of Carroll’s nonsense universe, but they too diverge from the mythos of the irony, centering upon the mythoi of the “comedy” and the “adventure” respectively.


I’m far from the first reviewer to express disappointment in Walt Disney’s 1951 ALICE IN WONDERLAND.  Its closest resemblance to the Carroll books is that like them it’s a work of the “uncanny” phenomenality, in that the phantasms of Wonderland exist only in Alice’s dream.  But where Carroll delves into a child’s dreams in order to blur the boundaries between sense and nonsense, the Disney script emphasizes a moralistic tone.  Disney’s Alice doesn’t like the hard work of learning her lessons, so she daydreams about a world governed by nonsense rules.  She gets her idle wish, learning a new lesson: that a world without sense is one in which you can literally lose your head.


Whereas many Disney feature films use slapstick to enhance the narrative and thematic aspects of the stories, ALICE’s antics here have the feel of Disney’s cartoon shorts, in which the main character(s) stumble from one silly pratfall to another until the psuedo-narrative reaches its peak and the curtain comes down.  As in most adaptations, Alice chases the White Rabbit down a tunnel, falls into a room, and experiences an assortment of size-changing dilemmas trying to follow her tantalizing target.  In contrast to many adaptations, when she finally enters Wonderland proper, she encounters the “caucus-race,” one of Carroll’s trenchant satires on the “nonsense” regarded as “sense” in the human world.  But satire is absolutely of no interest in the Disney version, and the caucus-race is reduced to a slapstick farce, one that’s not even particularly funny.


Similarly, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Alice’s next nonsense-encounter, constantly bumble about in slapstick fashion, as if the scripters were afraid that any sequence without slapstick might start to drag.  The twins recite the story of “the Walrus and the Carpenter.”  Not only do the silly comic elements detract from the story’s cynical outcome, the script can’t resist injecting a know-it-all “mother oyster” who warns her simple-minded offspring against the blandishments of strangers.


The best sequence, regarded on the strictly comic terms of the Disneyverse, is the Mad Tea Party.  Oddly, though guileless Alice tends to take most of the strange things she sees at face value, she shies away from the Mad Hatter’s unbirthday-party when the Cheshire Cat tells her that everyone there is mad.  But she goes, of course, and the film does manage to put across some of the lunacy of the original novel, thanks to skilled voice-work by Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna.  However, when Alice becomes lost in a Wonderland forest, her weeping draws matching tears from the nearby creatures, demonstrating that we’re nowhere near the callous Carroll cosmos. Ultimately Alice ends up at the court of the Red Queen, where she’s subjected to the nonsense-justice of Wonderland—“sentence first, evidence afterward”—but manages to wake up to the reassuring familiarity of the real world, a soporific moral conclusion with which Carroll would have had no patience.


Oddly, a feature on the anniversary DVD mentions that Walt Disney and his team did consider adapting one of the most subversive segments of Carroll’s books: the one concerning the Duchess, whose advice to mothers with infants is to “beat him when he sneezes.”  The DVD shows some Tenniel-like advance drawings that capture much of the grotesquerie that the finished film leaves out, so it’s probably best Walt Disney decided not to attempt this sequence.


Tim Burton’s take on Carroll—which I’ll call WONDERLAND for short-- dispenses with the notion that Wonderland is a dreamscape.  The film, released by contemporary Disney but with none of the old Disney "brand" about it, begins with Alice as a young lady whose mother attempts to make her marry a rich but repulsive suitor.  In her heart Alice knows that she shouldn’t have to bow to the conventions of the real world, because as a child she visited the unconventional cosmos of Wonderland—though during her inevitable second visit, she learns that her child-self got the name wrong; that it’s actually called “Underland.”  Though Underland’s only intrusion into Alice’s real world is the White Rabbit, the script strongly implies that the other world maintains its own existence, for between Alice’s two visits the wacky inhabitants of Underland undergo a political victimization more in line with STAR WARS than with Carroll's satirircal japery.


Even though the script insists that the world’s proper name is not Wonderland, the CGI effects go all-out to emphasize the wondrous beauty of the terrain the teenaged Alice explores.  However, much as in STAR WARS and the NARNIA films, this Alice finds she’s been called to a new world not to simply wander about but to fulfill a heroic destiny.  The reluctant heroine not only learns that the quirky inhabitants of Underland are enslaved by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter in CGI-altered form), but that a prophecy asserts that Alice will be their liberator. More specifically, Alice—a young woman who has no martial training whatever—is expected to slay the dragon-like Jabberwocky, as a prelude to destroying the Red Queen’s power.


Obviously this is about as far from satire as one can get, even further than Disney’s looney slapstick comedy.  Nevertheless, Burton’s WONDERLAND is enjoyable enough on its own terms, and even if the characters aren’t as dark as the Carroll originals, they are (in line with most of Burton’s other films) much quirkier than Disney’s flat comic types.  The CGI versions of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, though depicted as sympathetic figures, carry a creepy Charles Addams vibe, as does Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter.




  The Hatter, despite his madness, is something of a secondary heroic figure in WONDERLAND: like Obi-Wan in STAR WARS, he pushes Alice to be the hero that his world needs.  Alice finally girds her loins (so to speak) and has a vivid sword-battle with the Jabberwock, insuring the defeat of the Red Queen (who might be viewed here as symbolically identical with Alice’s tyrannical mother).  As a result of facing her destiny in Underland—which is to say, the “underworld” of her own psyche-- Alice returns to the real world, rejects its insistence of conformity, and successfully chooses her own path in proto-feminist fashion.


Though neither film has much in common with the themes of the Alice books, the Burton film does at least feel like the work of an artist providing his very different take on another artist’s themes.  Derivative though Burton’s film may be, it has a less cobbled-together feeling than the Disney adaptation, and for that reason is more aesthetically successful overall.

   



SPACE PROBE TAURUS (1965), CURSE OF THE SWAMP CREATURE (1966)





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


In many of my reviews I’ve sought to look past cheapjack sets and hackneyed plots to see whether or not the films I review contain any elements—however badly expressed—that speak to the way the human mind organizes its narratives according to the organizational categories supplied by Joseph Campbell—the cosmological (dealing with the physical world), the metaphysical (the world of spirituality and abstract concepts), the psychological (dealing with individual responses), and the sociological (dealing with social constructions).


But sometimes no matter how you polish a stone, it won’t become a diamond.

In my review of TWELVE TO THE MOON, I found it confused and full of narrative glitches, but there was the ghost of a real story there, and once or twice TWELVE came close to catching a glint of the SF-genre’s fabled “sense of wonder.”


Next to SPACE PROBE TAURUS, TWELVE TO THE MOON is another DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.


I suppose that in essence if not execution, TAURUS falls into the cosmological category.  The film concerns the titular ship’s exploration of two alien environments—an alien spaceship and another planet. Yet the film’s script shows no interest in exploring the nature of either one after the fashion of prose SF, but simply uses new environments to introduce new monsters. 



A crew of four astronauts, seeking a planet for Earth to colonize, fights its way through meteor showers and comes across a mysterious alien ship, their first encounter with alien life.  They get on board and the sole alien occupant—your usual man-in-a-monster-suit—attacks them.  The astronauts kill the alien, and though one of them sheds a pretend tear that they couldn’t have learned more from this first contact, the narrative’s off and running, eager to find another monster.  On the aforementioned planet, the ship lands and encounters two aquatic menaces: a knockoff “Gill Man” who fights one astronaut under water and a giant crab.  The astronauts repel the monsters and go home; the end.

The movie was produced, directed, and written by Leonard Katzman, who would go on to produce well-known television shows like DALLAS and THE WILD WILD WEST.  An online comment by Francine York, the actress who played the ship's only female astronaut, alleged that Katzman proved incompetent to execute the picture and that the film was finished by longtime genre-director Burt Topper.



The only interest this dull specimen affords is that York's character provides a very minor sociological component. Whereas a fair number of 1950s SF-films gave female characters some status and agency, TAURUS-- which looks like it was made in the '50's but appeared in theaters in 1965-- gives the York character nothing to do.  It's plain that the script includes her so that she can do the courting-dance with the surly captain, who doesn’t like women on his ship but eventually falls for the hot lady scientist.  As if to agree with the captain’s opinions on women’s uselessness, another character notes that she’s on the ship not because she was the best qualified scientist, but because she weighed less than any male, allowing the astronauts to take along more equipment. That’s actually an appropriate rationalizaion, since aside from providing a little romance the female astronaut serves as nothing but dead weight.


In my review of FROGS I complained that its script didn’t do much with the potential rich-vs.-poor theme, and that the doomed victims were flat stereotypes.  But at least they were attractive stereotypes.  Like FROGS, CURSE concerns a straight-arrow viewpoint character (John Agar) who gets roped into visiting an out-of-the-way house in the boondocks of a natural setting (a cursed swamp this time).  But neither Agar, the mad scientist who owns the house, or his sexy neglected wife (Francine York again) proves the least bit interesting.  Then the audience must suffer through many many time-filling buildup scenes involving a male-and-female pair of thieves looking to rob the scientist and the sexy wife, who seems to think Agar can cure her loneliness.  Finally the scientist finally changes the female thief into a big ugly monster.  The monster goes on a rampage, killing the scientist and herself, and Agar’s left with the wife.  I have to admit, though, that CURSE outdoes SPACE PROBE TAURUS in badness in that at least I could enjoy hating TAURUS's reactionary politics.  Here, there's nothing even worth hating.    


Thursday, May 10, 2012

THE AVENGERS (2012)



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

As I write this, THE AVENGERS has broken the current record for an opening box-office gross in the United States.  While this success is impressive for a comic-book superhero film, given that some critics thought the trend was burning out, it’s also vindicates Marvel Studios’ canny strategy: building up advance support for AVENGERS through advance-hype in IRON MAN 2, THOR, and CAPTAIN AMERICA.

Joss Whedon, who both directed and co-wrote AVENGERS, does a fine job of translating for modern audiences the appeal of early Marvel comics—hyperkinetic action, clever comic relief, strong characterization and hero-crossovers.  Whedon’s teleseries efforts, ANGEL and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, showed similar facility in all four departments, so he was surely the best choice to assemble the Avengers.

The plot is as simple as the original AVENGERS comic.  In that story, Thor’s villainous stepbrother Loki, wishing to destroy the Thunder God, launched a plot that involved using the Incredible Hulk as a pawn, but ended up involving Iron Man, the Ant-Man and the Wasp as well.  After Loki’s defeat, the five heroes banded together as the Avengers.  Here, following a storyline set up in the THOR film, Loki plots to open a cosmic gateway, allowing alien marauders to subjugate the Earth, the planet Thor loves best.  Loki’s plot runs afoul of not just Thor but also Iron Man, Captain America, Hawkeye, the Black Widow, and the Hulk (who, to be sure, only appears in the last third of the picture, after Bruce Banner finally fails to keep the green goliath under wraps).

In contrast to the mediocre fight-choreography seen in THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA, THE AVENGERS goes all-out.  Since the alien invasion doesn’t take place until the film’s final third, Whedon keeps the plot-pot boiling just as Marvel’s creators did: by having the heroes fight amongst themselves-- Thor vs. Iron Man, Black Widow vs. Hawkeye, and— with an eye to decades of Marvel-fans’ arguments—Thor vs. the Hulk.  Whedon’s command of humor is no less strong, whether it’s evoking Marvel catch-phrases like “Hulk smash” or giving Tony Stark metrosexual references to shawarma.

Given the fast-paced narrative there aren’t many in-depth character moments, though a confrontational scene between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Huddelstone’s Loki shows both actors to good effect.  One might complain that some of the hero’s interactions become a little too fractious a little too quickly— admittedly a characteristic of early Marvel comics as well.  But here the heroes’ quarrelsomeness, though rooted in their personalities, has been enhanced by Loki, which fact allows Whedon a certain leeway.

Thematically THE AVENGERS could have been stronger.  I suspect that Whedon patterned his screenplay not just on AVENGERS #1 but also on the animated Disney XD series, AVENGERS: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES.  In that teleseries, the supergroup arises partially in counter-response to the “black ops” of Nick Fury’s SHIELD agency.  Foe me this scenario concretizes the ethical basis of the superhero, making it an individual response against any kind of evil, including evils sanctioned by the government.  In the live-action films, Nick Fury midwives the group’s birth, and though there are a few canards tossed at the superspy’s questionable morality, those sociopolitical vagaries go out the window when the alien horde comes calling.  

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)

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


CREATURE begins by quoting the origin of the universe a la Genesis, yet afterward immediately shifts into a straight scientific account of life being born from the oceans rather than from the Garden of Eden.  Did the producers have the Biblical reference thrown in to placate audiences who might’ve taken a dim view of a purely materialistic account of the evolution of life?  It’s possible, but in any case the injection of the numinous supports the script’s assertion that before man arose, there might have been many other “experiments” that God and/or Nature perpetrated.  The opening sequence ends with the sight of the petrified hand of some dead humanoid—a hand like that of a human, except that this dessicated relic sports claws.  When a living exemplar of this almost-vanished species makes his first appearance on camera, he too does so by putting forth a clawed hand—to the accompaniment of a loud “dah dah DAH” musical sting—suggesting that in this world, the essence of the alien is symbolized by the interface of the human hand— the tool with which man builds things—with the destructive claw of the beast.

The claw beckons the audience to follow the adventures of the scientists who find it buried in rock in some Latin American country.  One of those scientists, Doctor Maia, invites a team of scientists from the U.S. to mount an expedition in the same territory, a territory enclosing the ominous-sounding “Black Lagoon.”  Three Americans—Doctor David Reed, his fiancés Kay, and Doctor Williams, who arranges the expedition’s financial affairs—elect to hire a boat and accompany Maia down the Amazon River to find more fossils.  But even before the expedition proper begins, it’s clear that Reed and Williams represent opposed aspects of man’s quest for science.  Reed speaks altruistically about wanting to learn more about the origins of life in order to gather knowledge that will help mankind explore outer space.  Williams merely wants to garner financial rewards in the here and now.

Before the boat-trip even begins, the film shows an Amazonian native attacked by a modern-day descendant of the claw’s owner, though the film naturally does not disclose the creature’s full appearance so early.  Some time later the expedition arrives on the scene to find the body.  Some time later the heroes will learn about local legends of a “Gill Man” who can breathe underwater, but though they don’t yet suspect his existence, the creature begins to follow these new intruders into his domain.

When the boat enters the Black Lagoon, prior to any sightings of the Gill Man, Kay displays her fascination with raw nature by speaking of “the beautiful lagoon.”  It’s not clear as to how long the Gill Man’s been around, but since he doesn’t seem to have any Gill Women around, one has to assume that he must have been spawned long, long ago.  But one look at Kay and the Gill Man apparently remembers the joys of spawning.  Following the famous “water ballet” scene in which Kay goes swimming and the Gill Man swims beneath her, mimicking her movements in a quasi-erotic manner, the monster decides to attack the boat, shredding one of its nets.  When the scientists are finally convinced of this anomaly’s existence, Reed wants to capture it for scientific study, while Williams seems more interested in killing it with his handy spear-gun.   “Dead or alive,” Williams asks Reed, “what’s the difference?” In a sense Williams speaks for that part of science that cares only about dissecting living things for the sake of sterile curiosity, while Reed implicitly respects the ecology of living things, though in 1954 the modern philosophy of ecological science had yet to get off the ground.

The Gill Man kills another crewmen and maims another man in the party.  With the help of the boat’s Latino captain (who has a nice moment when he shows Williams that the doctor’s money doesn’t put him in charge), the scientists manage to drug the Gill Man.  However, their success is short-lived.  The creature escapes and blocks the ship’s exit from the lagoon, forcing Williams and Reed to contend with it.  Callous Williams meets his maker at the clawed hands of his distant ancestor, and Kay is abducted into the creature’s subterranean boudoir.  Reed and his fellow adventurers arrive in time to keep Kay from becoming the mother of a new race of fish-people.  The Gill Man appears to perish, but as most fantasy-film fans know well, he returns in two more films.  Both of these will be covered separately, but arguably the “Black Lagoon” films present the decade’s most empathetic treatment of a science-fictional creature, and make him the fit heir to the Universal tradition of great monsters.