Wednesday, February 29, 2012

DUEL (1971), ROAD RAGE (2000)



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


DUEL, certainly one of the three most celebrated television movies of all time, has been praised so effusively that there’s no need for me to add to the chorus.  Thus, accept as a given my agreement with all the praise of Richard Matheson’s adaptation of his original short story to telefilm format, Steven Spielberg’s tense direction and Dennis Weaver’s strong performance as an everyman driving cross-country and falling prey to the menace of a maniacal tanker-truck driver.

The one original thing I can say about DUEL is of course in terms of my NUM theory.  On the face of things, DUEL sounds much like what I’ve usually described as a naturalistic thriller in ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE essays like THRILLER KILLING.  Certainly most if not all of the “vehicular violence” films that came out in the forty-plus years following DUEL’s oil-drippings, including 2000’s ROAD RAGE, which may well be the worst of that breed.

However, the one element most of the imitators did not follow was the uncanny sensibility with which Matheson and Spielberg treated their subject matter.  In naturalistic thrillers, a psycho-stalker, however dangerous, is fundamentally intelligible.  The audience may not understand the stalker’s motivations in all respects, but he is not constructed as being beyond ordinary experience in any way: he’s merely an atypical extreme within a naturalistic phenomenality.

In uncanny thrillers, however, the psycho-stalker does have carry such a construction, some aspect of mysteriousness that cannot be reduced to commonplace experience.  Years before the “slasher-film” craze promoted the idea of the psycho-killer whose face is not seen by the audience until the conclusion, Spielberg employs the same visual trope for DUEL, never allowing the audience to see more of the truck-driver menacing Dennis Weaver than a hand or a pair of feet.  The affective result is that, even though the audience knows that some mortal man is driving the truck, the driver's near-invisibility makes his mortality ambiguous. Indeed, for most of DUEL’s running-time I for one felt as if Dennis Weaver were being chased by an inhuman beast in the form of a truck; an impression Spielberg clearly plays to at the telefilm’s climax.  At this point, Weaver finally turns the tables by forcing the mammoth truck to plunge off a high cliff, during which the truck emits an animalistic “groan” as it falls to its “death.” 

Thus, with these considerations in mind, I categorize DUEL’s dominant trope—that of the “perilous psycho”—as belonging to the uncanny phenomenality.  I note in passing that DUEL is among the first psychos to employ a mundane-seeming object as the means of dealing death, foreshadowing the shears of THE BURNING and the power drill of SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE.

ROAD RAGE, however, doesn’t just eschew any uncanny tropes, as most vehicle-violence films do.  RAGE, directed by longtime mediocrity Sidney J. Furie, actually tries to trade on some of the concepts of DUEL to force some sparks into its tired battery.

Like most DUEL-imitators, RAGE isn’t satisfied to focus on one man’s existential confrontation with death, but rather employs at least two characters as the victims of vehicle-vengeance.  RAGE starts out with something close to a meet-cute moment, when Sonia (Danielle Brett) tries to give her cheating boyfriend Bo the gate.  When Bo refuses to leave her alone, a limo-driver named Jim (Casper Van Dien) tries to come to her rescue, only to get his head beat in.  Bo leaves Sonia behind with gallant wimp Jim, who offers Sonia a ride home.  However, in their progress Jim makes the mistake of cutting off a big truck, which tries to run down Jim’s car.  The meet-cuties shake it for a while, but like the Everready bunny the big truck just keeps coming and coming.  For the rest of the film, the cute couple keep running and running, arguing and falling in love in the process, until Jim finally finds a way to destroy their pursuer.

For the first thirty minutes, it looks as if Furie really intends to do a complete one-off of DUEL, right down to having Jim commit the same sin as Weaver’s character: the sin of cutting off a big-rig in traffic.  During that short period, the driver(s) of the menacing truck cannot be seen, thanks to the truck’s tinted windows.  Very briefly the truck does begin to seem like an inhuman presence a la DUEL.  This is best illustrated by a scene when the vehicle crashes through a gas-pump and continues to chase the couple, even with gas-flames dancing on the truck’s exterior-- easily the film’s only memorable scene.

However, the DUEL citations soon go out the window, as Jim and Sonia finally do get a look at the truck’s drivers: none other than Bo and a couple of friends.  It’s quickly revealed that Bo’s still pissed about being thrown over by his girl, enough to commit vehicular homicide.  This means that the cut-off in traffic was actually just a “fake-out” designed to hoax the audience, but for such a petty result that one wonders why Furie thought it worth the trouble.  The truck soon begins to show signs of wear and tear, dispelling any claim it might have had to uncanny presence.

Given that one tends to expect routine characters and action-sequences in this breed of junk-film, RAGE’s failings in these departments are not surprising.  But in this case Furie should have stuck with making a predictable vehicle-vengeance story like 1997's JOYRIDE.  The allusions to a work whose quality he can’t hope to touch are just embarrassing this time out.      






    


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

THE LAST ACTION HERO (1993)



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

Directed by John McTiernan, who helmed two classic 1980s action-opuses-- 1987's PREDATOR and 1988's DIE HARD-- THE LAST ACTION HERO offers fewer interesting observations in terms of its somewhat over-obvious repetitious script than in its attempt to push the adventure genre toward comedy without actually becoming one.

Comic spoofs of "serious" adventure genres have been around since the birth of cinema, but HERO isn't really a spoof, for all that it makes fun of the tropes of what the film calls "action movies."  Perhaps McTiernan and his writers didn't want to bite down too hard on the hand that fed them, but I prefer to believe that beneath all the jokes there lay a desire to validate the absurd excesses of adventure-cinema.

The plot is as straightforward and simple as any "straight" shoot-'em-up.  Middle-schooler Danny Madigan constantly escapes reality by cutting school to watch adventure-movies, with his favorite being a series starring maverick cop Jack Slater, played by real-life actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Danny's behavior exasperates his widowed mother, but the script suggests-- without overdoing the pop-psychology-- that Danny finds in Slater a role model for masculine behavior in lieu of his late father, much as young John Connor bonds with Arnold the Terminator in 1991's TERMINATOR 2.

However, where a comedy would make this identification ludicrous while an ironic satire would make it deplorable, HERO actually shows that Danny has learned his lessons pretty well.  True, when a magical "golden ticket" transports Danny into a dimension where Jack Slater and his adventures are all real, Danny constantly points out the artificiality of the tropes with which Slater lives, as with the "cartoon cat" who's one of Slater's fellow officers.  Nevertheless, Danny bonds somewhat with the thick-witted Slater (also Schwarzenegger of course), and shows considerable insight into the male relationships encoded by the adventure-genre, noting how the acrimony between Slater and superior Lt. Dekker masks their strong feeling for one another.  It's also evident that Danny isn't a brainwashed movie zombie: that he can recognize the excessive sexism of adventure-films, as when he and Slater visit a video-store in Slater's world and Danny points out that all the workers in the store are improbably beautiful models.  And of course, though Danny has to be dragged kicking and screaming into being an adventure-hero, he does step up to the bat, whereas a real comic hero would find ways to undermine the whole "proving oneself" process.

Most of the movie's comic moments are passable but nothing special.  HERO's best moment arrives when one of Slater's villains, the chilling Mr. Benedict (a very excellent Charles Dance) gets hold of Danny's magical ticket and escapes to Danny's world.  When Slater and Danny follow, Benedict exults to them about the chaos he can bring about in this universe:

Dracula? Huh. I can get King Kong! We'll have a nightmare with Freddy Krueger, have a surprize party for Adolf Hitler, Hannibal Lecter can do the catering, and then we'll have christening for Rosemary's Baby! All I have to do is snap my fingers and they'll be here. They're lining up to get here, and do you know why Jack? Should I tell you why? Hmm? Because here, in this world, the bad guys can win!

Of course Benedict is defeated and the two heroes return to their respective worlds, somewhat wiser for the experience but still preferring their own domains.  But the Benedict-speech makes a persuasive argument in favor of the adventure-genre that a comedy never could: the enjoyment of adventure's excessive unreality purely as a compensatory mechanism against the fact that in reality, "the bad guys can win."  A satire might suggest that this could only be a negative compensation, but HERO-- admittedly in a very simplistic, unphilosophical manner-- suggests that the compensation is basically positive in nature.  Even if we know (metaphysically speaking) that evil can win in our world, the desire that good *should* win does not imply that said desire is merely avoidance of reality.  Rather, HERO-- and heroes generally-- exist to suggest that reality can be changed for the better.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940)



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

European emigres Joe May and Curt Siodmak, who had teamed up for the same-year-released INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (with May directing), come together again to present a comic take on the "unseeable person" concept, though only contributing the story while one Edward Sutherland took over directing duties.  Most of the comic moments in the earlier two INVISIBLE MAN films tended toward silly farce, and the gender-flipping INVISIBLE WOMAN jumped into the silliness with both unseen arms flailing.

It's appropriate that Shemp Howard has a supporting role in WOMAN, because the plot here is simple enough to be recycled as a Three Stooges short (and may well have been).  Playboy millionaire Dick Russell (John Howard) goes broke as a result of his excesses, but there's hope for a financial comeback if Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore), in whose eccentric inventions Dick has often invested, can complete his experiments on an invisibility machine.  To test the machine Gibbs advertised in newspapers for a test subject.  Working-girl model Kitty (Virginia Bruce) answers the ad, mostly because she and her fellow models are constantly browbeaten at their job by an officious supervisor (Charles Lane), inspiring Kitty to see the gift of invisibility as a means of getting some payback.  Sure enough, as soon as Gibbs makes her invisible, she returns to her place of work and scares the heck out of her supervisor by pretending to be his "conscience."  Upon returning to the Professor's lab, new conflicts arise as Dick becomes intrigued with the unseen ingenue (but isn't quite willing to commit until he's seen the goods), and a group of bumbling mobsters intrude, wishing to use the Professor's invention for evil ends.

Wisely the writers abandoned the Wellsian concept that being invisible gradually unhinges one's mind, though at times Kitty does start acting a little too daffy for her own good, or anyone else's.  In the slapstick conclusion the invisible wench manages to clobber all the mobsters by clonking them from behind.  Then Dick, finally in love with her (because he's had a chance to see her, albeit briefly), arrives on the scene.  Kitty, wanting to force Dick to "fight for her," shoots a machine-gun in his direction, just so he'll feel properly motivated to come rescue her.

The most interesting function here relates to the sociological process by which women "construct" themselves to titillate and trap the male of the species.  Most of the invisibility effects concentrate on showing how well Invisible Kitty fills out various gowns, though this isn't enough for Dick, who argues that anyone who'd become invisible must not be much of a looker.  She beguiles him, though, by becoming only partly invisible, showing off (what else?) her legs.  It might've been more interesting to see him pledge his love before he knew what he was getting for certain, but as noted above he does get to see her visible self before taking the plunge.

Bruce's invisible charms notwithstanding, the best thing about INVISIBLE WOMAN are the familiar faces in the cast, which also includes Charles Ruggles, Oscar Homolka, and "Wicked Witch" Margaret Hamilton, who like Bruce shows a feisty side of womanhood by hitting a thug with a chair!
 

Monday, February 27, 2012

GHOSTS OF MARS (2001)





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


In my earlier review of two John Carpenter films I wrote:
I do see a prevalent motif in Carpenter's work, which takes on deeper resonance according to individual treatment-- and that motif is essentially that of his first great success, HALLOWEEN: "what happens when vulnerable mortals encounter an unstoppable force?"
GHOSTS OF MARS is no exception to this characterization.  Though Carpenter's best known for the one-man killing-crew of Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN, MARS has clear antecedents in other works where a small group of protagonists are menaced by a group menace, as in 1976's ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and 1980's THE FOG-- a motif which he allegedly copied from various works by Howard Hawks.

MARS offers a fresh take on this motif by placing the plot-action on a futuristic Earth-colony on the planet Mars.  A Martian police squad undertakes what should be a routine transfer of imprisoned criminal  Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) to a new location. The squad encounters not only interference from the crook's buddies, seeking to liberate Desolation, but also from the "ghosts of Mars," invisible presences which can infest human beings and turn them into savage Goth-rockers (like the one seen in the illo above).
Much carnage ensues, but although the outlook looks fairly hopeless in the end, the humans don't seem inevitably doomed, which leads me to categorize the film as a drama.

The viewpoint character within the small squad is Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), who's seen early in the film popping an illegal pill during the mission.  Her detachment is a mixed bag, with two green rookies and two more experienced officers (Pam Grier, Jason Statham), both of whom want to sleep with Melanie.  Melanie ends up needing more than a few pills to survive, for when she and her fellow officers reach the mining-town where Desolation's imprisoned, the Mars-cops discover assorted dead and mutilated bodies while most of the other miners have gone missing, though Desolation's still safe in his cell.  Desolation tries without success to break free on his own, and then later is joined by two of his crew; however, given the growing menace of the Martian Goth-rockers, cops and crooks are forced into an uneasy alliance.  A doctor who survives the chaos (Joanna Cassidy) speculates that the killers have been taken over by the "spirits" of Mars' original inhabitants, who are pissed off at the foreigners who have taken over their planet.  These discarnate presences can invade human beings and turn them into savage killing-machines, who then do the Martians' bidding and seek to kill their own kind.  Sadly, Pam Grier's lesbian character is an early casualty, scotching the desire to see her replay BLACK SISTER, WHITE SISTER in a whole new context.  Would it have killed Carpenter to kill Statham instead, and let Grier and Henstridge enjoy the desperation-shag toward the end?

The upside of MARS is that there's a lot of gun-pumping, high-kicking action as Earth colonists take on Martian zombies.  The downside is that this is another uneven Carpenter film, in which some of the more interesting story-concepts lie fallow.

The sociological conflict of Earthlings and Martians shows such neglect. The Martians apparently die out before the Earthlings reach the planet, which takes much of the bite out of the conflict between the two cultures.  Though the Martians serve the same function as the ghosts of POLTERGEIST, they act as if they are physical entities expelled from one possessee to another.  In a late scene, a possessed man held in a cell is machine-gunned by one of the rookies, and a miasma-like substance leaps from the body of the dead victim, joining not with the rookie but with Melanie.  Other "ghosts" don't seem to hop around from body to body as easily as in standard ghost-possession tales, so the script vacillates on just how the Ghosts of Mars do their possession thing.  The subplot of Melanie's possession also shows some wasted potential: though she's chided early in the film for using drugs on the job, she's saved from becoming a manic Goth-rocker because one of her allies gives her one of her pills, largely as a gesture to a doomed comrade.  The drug helps Melanie fight her possession, and she too is seen literally expelling a Martian miasma from her lungs, making her the only person to fight it off-- although even at the conclusion, when doom seems imminent, no one ever suggests using the drug to exorcise the Martian invaders.  Too much influence from the "just say no" crowd?

The strongest theme in the film is that of martial respect between allies, in this case between Melanie and Desolation, who end up being the "mismatched buddies" of the flick.  Everyone else, including a pre-TRANSPORTER Jason Statham, registers in a more minor key.  But though the script hints that Desolation may have been ill-used by Martian society, thus making him a criminal, it never offers any backstory, so that there's no real heft to the "cop vs. crook" plotline.  Melanie and Desolation end the film together, getting ready to plunge into combat with more merryMartian maniacs.

Friday, February 24, 2012

THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)


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


In terms of characterization, the early and late works of George Lucas bear an interesting parallel to the early and late works of Gene Roddenberry. Both men pioneered radical new approaches to the science-fiction genre—at least in terms of the genre as presented in film and television.  In both the first STAR WARS trilogy and the “Classic” STAR TREK teleseries, much of the popularity of each franchise depended on the appearance of vivid, seemingly three-dimensional characters.  However, when in later years both Lucas and Roddenberry put forth new iterations of their most famous franchises—i.e., the second STAR WARS trilogy and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION—both creators centered their stories on comparatively inert central characters.  I’m tempted to believe that as both men grew older, they felt distanced from the more spontaneous, freewheeling charms of characters like Skywalker and Kirk, and for that reason invested themselves in such sententious characters as Qui-Gon Jinn and Jean-Luc Picard.


That’s as far as I’ll take the WARS-TREK comparison here, though I will add that I believe Lucas got more negative criticism than Roddenberry for his later works.  Of course, Roddenberry’s TREK at its best never captivated audiences as widespread as those of Lucas.  Morever, Roddenberry’s works were always mitigated by controls from Paramount, while it would appear that nothing prevented Lucas from doing anything with his franchise that he pleased.  But I feel much of the critical hostility toward the Second Trilogy, as I’ll now term it, stems from the fact that this prequel to the First Trilogy didn’t give audiences characters that proved as beguiling as Luke, Leia and Han.
Action, set design, costumes, optical effects—these are as good as anything from the First Trilogy, particularly the attack-droids called “destroyers,” who give young Obi-Wan Kenobi and his mentor Qui-Gon Jinn a rough time in the film’s first half-hour.  But the Jedi themselves are about as engrossing as Friday and Gannon from Jack Webb’s DRAGNET teleseries.  From the main characters’ dialogue we know that the galaxy-spanning Republic served by the Jedi Order stands in danger from various forces, though we never feel any passion from these characters about the matter.  The foremost danger is a separatist group called the Trade Federation.  The Federation takes possession of the sovereign planet Naboo and then attempts to get the galactic Senate to accede to the takeover as a fait accompli—a fictional event with interesting though coincidental resemblances to the United States’ takeover of Iraq in 2003. 

The two Jedi aid the escape of fugitives of Naboo’s two races, including Queen Amidala, official represenative of Naboo’s human residents, and Jar Jar Binks, official comic relief and very unofficial representative of the aquatic race called Gungans.  On the way to the Senate’s planet, the Jedi’s spacecraft crashes on a planet with the familiar name of Tattooine. Needing parts to repair the ship, Qui-Gon learns that the only dealer who can supply those parts is a hard-fisted butterfly-alien named Watto, who won’t accept Republic credits for the parts.  Qui-Gon also meets a young boy named Anakin, the slave of Watto, and the Jedi recognizes that the “force is strong in” this boy.  Through a very involved plotline that perceptibly slows down plot-development, young Anakin ends up participating in a “pod-racing” competition in order that Qui-Gon can win money for the parts and Anakin can win freedom from slavery—though unfortunately Anakin's mother Shmi remains a slave on Tattooine.

Prior to the Jedi’s ship taking off, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are attacked by a demonic looking individual wielding his own version of a lightsaber.  Both Jedi escape, taking Anakin, the queen and the queen’s retinue (including a very Leia-ish young woman named Padme) on to the Senate planet.

Once there, The Queen—who is actually “Padme,” having hidden in plain sight while a decoy pretended to be the real queen-- seeks to plead for her planet’s freedom before the Senate.  The bureaucracy stymies her efforts.  One senator, the mysterious Chancellor Palpatine, uses Naboo’s situation as a stepping-stone to raise himself to a position of undisputed power in the Senate, but this doesn’t do the oppressed planet any good.  Conversations between Qui-Gon and his Jedi allies reveal the possibility that the strange lightsaber-wielder is one of the Sith, long thought extinct.  However, since by this time audiences have seen Palpatine in the company of the Sith “Darth Maul,” the conclusion as to Palpatine’s relation to the “dark side of the Force” becomes evident even without having seen the First Trilogy.

Qui-Gon endeavors to make his fellow Jedi consent to training Anakin for their ranks, despite the misgivings of Yoda.  Then Padme decides that, having failed to gain the Senate’s aid, she must return to her people.  The Jedi take her, her retinue and Jar Jar back to Naboo, and begin efforts to oppose the tyranny of the Trade Federation—which is actually controlled by a shadowy figure who isn’t expressly identified with Palpatine, though the same actor plays both.

The climactic battles—rebels battling invading forces, the Jedi engaging once more with evil Darth Maul—are largely well done, with one grating exception: little Anakin.  It’s unclear why Qui-Gon takes him along, as the Jedi clearly doesn’t mean him to be part in the battles.  Of course, being the father of future hero Luke Skywalker, Anakin does prove important to winning the war for Naboo’s freedom, but Lucas’ use of him is contrived and fails to grow out of any natural character traits.


With the exception of Natalie Portman, who does an exceptional job with Padme, the acting is acceptable if never riveting.  Kid-actor Jake Lloyd, however, is allowed to speak and emote as if he’s some video-game-playing kid from a suburban neighborhood.  At no time does he even attempt to suggest the bearing or psychological hang-ups of his future self Darth Vader.


On the plus side, there are some strong sociological-myth motifs here, that will be more fully realized in ATTACK OF THE CLONES; thus I’ll defer exploring them until I review that film.  However, only in MENACE does Lucas expound, however erratically, on a major metaphysical motif of his cosmos: the fact that Anakin Skywalker is of virgin birth.  This monumental development is explained in a few tossoff lines that establish that the people of Lucas’ cosmos have microscopic entities called “Midichlorians” in their cells, that aid sentient beings in their manipulation of the Force and that apparently quicken the womb of Shmi Skywalker for reasons never fully disclosed.


It’s hard to figure out why Lucas incorporated this myth-motif.  Obviously in a Judeo-Christian culture it’s impossible to speak of “virgin birth” without making an allusion to the Christian Messiah, but nothing in the script of MENACE suggests that Lucas is overtly commenting on any aspect of real-world religion.  It’s interesting, though, that the Jedi, who are portrayed as high-tech shamans, are destined to be almost entirely wiped out by an anti-savior (a "slaughter of innocents?") in a manner loosely analogous to the destruction of pagan culture by Christians.  But Lucas definitely doesn’t evince the philosophical stance of a neopagan.  It’s possible that in his world, the “virgin birth” merely suggests the same sterility exemplified by the Sith themselves. Ironically, that sterility is destined to be overthrown by the virgin’s naturally produced son.    
   
     





THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*

The second of 20th-century Fox’s two period Sherlock Holmes ranks as one of the best adaptations of the famed sleuth into cinema—surprising, given that it builds upon an unlikely source, the same William Gillette stage-play that resulted in the mixed bag of the 1922 SHERLOCK HOLMES.  It would appear (given that I’ve only read summations of the play) that the producers of ADVENTURES reached their level of excellence by throwing out everything in the play except the core idea, that of Holmes tilting lances once more with his old foe Professor Moriarty.

Many of the Sherlock Holmes tales and films fall within the Fryean mode of the “drama,” in that their thematic focus is less upon the hero’s invigorating accomplishments than on the nature of the mystery he must solve.  ADVENTURES is a rare Holmes that matches up best with the “adventure” mythos, however.  In comparion to both Fox’s previous HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and the later Universal films also starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, ADVENTURES presents a Holmes who fights and shoots like a pulp hero.  To be sure, this Holmes is still much more restrained than the modern Robert Downey Jr. incarnation.  But the epic combat of Holmes and Moriarty is played for all its worth here, rather than being “seen” via indirect means as in Doyle’s “Final Problem,” or reduced to a crime-melodrama as in the 1922 silent film.

As in the stage-play, this Moriarty (George Zucco) plans a great crime to baffle his frequent foe.  But the writers of this Holmes film give audiences a Moriarty who isn’t just a criminal, but a near-Nietzschean worshipper of strength alone.  An opening courtroom scene presents the sight of Holmes frustrated in his attempt to bring Moriarty to justice for murder.  The enemies’ subsequent verbal sparring establishes their grudging respect and Moriarty’s determination to tempt fate, to thwart Holmes in an even more humiliating fashion.  In a later scene, Moriarty mocks one of his minions even as the man has a shaving-razor to the villain’s throat. Such is his mental strength that he’s not afraid of a weak man even when the latter has total advantage.


A further development from the play is that this Moriarty decides to put forth a complicated ruse to distract Holmes from the villain’s real target—a ruse that involves Moriarty using an agent to kill one innocent man, and then threatening the victim’s sister Ann  Brandon (Ida Lupino) as well.  Lupino, a few years away from stardom, nevertheless gives a strong performance as an ordinary woman who fears the power of the murder-plot against her and yet does her best to help Holmes where she can.


Moriarty’s assassin—not seen fully until a climactic “reveal”—comes very close to edging the film into the phenomenality of the uncanny.  Though he’s a purely human killer, given the name “Mateo” in the credits only, he’s always either seen at a distance in the omnipresent London fog or heard as he plays a monotonous tune—described as an “Incan death-dirge”—on his flute.  Because he not only kills Ann’s brother but may have had something to do with the previous death of her father (the script seems vague on this point), Mateo takes on the resonance of a death-spirit stalking his prey.  He also projects the image of freakishness, in that he leaves footprints resembling those of a clubfooted man, but this turns out to be another ruse.  His method of killing is almost exotic enough to qualify as an “outrĂ© device” that fits the mode of the uncanny. However, the weapon-- a South American bolas-- doesn’t come up to the level of uncanny devices examined elsewhere on this blog, as noted in (for instance) my review of THUNDERBALL.  An uncanny device in my reckoning has to be an artifact that seems overly complicated in terms of pure utilitarian aims, as with the electric chair that the villainous Blofeld uses to off one of his underlings in the Ian Fleming book.


The entire cast distinguishes itself as much as the aforementioned Lupino, with standout performances from Rathbone, Bruce, and George Zucco.   Both Holmes and Watson are a little more fleshed-out here than in many of the future Universal films, which tend to make the characters into not-quite-so-human icons.

PSYCHOMANIA (1973), DAUGHTERS OF SATAN (1972)







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

Here’s two Satanic excursions this time out, but only one is as boring as hell.

PSYCHOMANIA is one of many British horror-films that portrayed new horror in the younger generation, this time in the form of a roguish motorcycle-gang led by Tom (Nicky Henson).  At the outset Tom, his girl Abby and the rest of the gang are content to “raise hell” by such mundane means as running cars off the road.  However, it happens that in the house Tom shares with his widowed mother and his creepy butler (George Sanders), there’s a special room that, in some vague manner, gives people contact with the powers of hell.  Years ago, Tom’s father entered that room, but he never emerged.  Tom’s mother (called a “spiritualist” in the credits) asserts that there exist powers that can enable one to come back from death, but only if one believes without doubt that one can do so.  Apparently Tom’s late father didn’t quite manage it.  Tom, however, survives the room, and comes out bearing a token of transcending his father’s failure: wearing his father’s lost glasses.  Next step: suicide as a means to become superhuman.

Abby is essentially a nice girl despite hanging out with the cycle-gang, the rest of whom are mostly nameless goons. She’s distraught by Tom’s death, but not as distressed as she is when he comes back from the dead, now immune to deadly force.  On a side-note, Tom also has to be buried with a little Satanic charm to make the spell work, which is one of the few things Sanders has to do in the film aside from standing around making cryptic comments.  Tom manages to talk all of the gang-members except Abby into killing themselves and coming back as biker-zombies.  In the end Tom’s mother chooses not to let his depradations go on and reverses the Satanic contract, with an evil outcome for both her and the gang.  Abby alone survives.

Some reviewers expressed a liking for the basic idea of this low-budget outing, if only because the “monsters” are reasonably original in conception.  That said, the budget-limitations assure that the invulnerable cyclists don’t do much of anything: the biggest stunt consists of Tom on his cycle crashing through a none-too-formidable-looking brick wall.  Henson projects good “bad boy” charm but the character of Tom is flat and uninvolving.  The music is appropriately spectral, but the zombies themselves are just guys on bikes, and don’t arouse any real frisson.

The Filipino horror-film DAUGHTERS OF SATAN is sleazy, but at least it knows what buttons to push.  Tom Selleck (a few years away from portraying Magnum P.I.) makes the mistake of walking into a Manila curio-shop and buying a painting of a historic witch-burning because he thinks the central figure in the picture looks like his wife Chris (Barra Grant).  As soon as Chris sees the picture, she starts having odd visions of Satanic sabbats.  In addition, a mysterious dog—one that resembles a similar canine in the portrait—shows up on the couple’s property and befriends Chris while growling at James.  Things go from bad to Satanic as in jig time Chris is drawn into a Filipino coven, through which she meets other Satanic “daughters” and realizes that she’s the incarnation of the witch in the painting.  Things don’t end well for James, who survives one murder-attempt by his devilish wife, though she ends up getting him in the end.

There’s no deep characterization here, but I did like one scene at the beginning, when James first shows Chris the witch-burning painting.   He regards the scene as merely “historical,” while she reacts negatively to the “sadistic” sight of seeing women burned alive.  If only DAUGHTERS had really concentrated on the sociological sex-war theme, it might have aspired to a classier title—perhaps—

“Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Avernus?”
  







EARTHSTORM (2006), PTERODACTYL (2005)



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

The only reason I chose to bracket these two minor Syfy-Channel offerings—aside from the fact that I saw them close together—is that they are examples of the Campbellian function I seem to be reviewing with the least frequency here: the cosmological, which projects knowledge of the physical world into fictional forms.
EARTHSHOCK is a dull imitation of 1998’s ARMAGEDDON.  This time a meteor impacts on the moon and causes the deformed satellite to bring about world-wide "earth-storms."  In a minor nod toward verisimilitude-- though most of the science of the film has been trashed mercilessly in reviews-- EARTHSHOCK doesn’t send a whole team of amateur astronauts to the moon as did ARMAGEDDON.  Instead real astronauts take along just one blasting-expert in order to destroy the meteor.  There’s also a confusing debate about the mineral composition of the moon: a bad know-it-all character (Dirk Benedict, looking bored in the role) thinks that the moon’s internal composition will allow it to block the meteor, while a good know-it-all character (your basic prissy gal-scientist) knows just the opposite.  By the time one sits through all the talk-talk, the viewer may wish to see that particular Earth blown to smithereens.
PTERODACTYL isn’t any more complex, but at least it has lots of blood-and-guts, as well as being a late work from producer/director Mark L. Lester, noteworthy for such 1980s productions as FIRESTARTER and COMMANDO. The script's sole source of cleverness consists in giving various characters the surnames of famous SF-authors, such as Heinlein and Zelazny.  It’s a Professor Lovecraft who initiates the adventure, taking a group  of paleontology students into a remote area on the Turkish-Armenian border.  They stumble across some very animated “fossils” when they’re attacked by a flock of hungry pterodactyls.  They survive for a while because Lovecraft’s group joins forces with a detachment of American soldiers, but one by one even the armed soldiers start biting the proverbial dust.  Many gun-battles and bird-chompings ensue, and the cosmological theme only emerges when Lovecraft tries to advise the soldiers as to what areas may be vulnerable on a pterodacyl’s body.  The characters are a tiny bit more engaging than those of EARTHSHOCK but are still nothing special; the actors do what they can.  The ‘dactyls are better-than-average CGI, at least compared to many many worse films endlessly recycled on the Syfy channel.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

PLANET OF THE APES (1968), BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) poor
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama* [CORRECTION] *irony* (see ADDENDA)
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological,cosmological*

Perhaps the most "marvelous" thing about the success of the original PLANET OF THE APES is how well it succeeds as science-fiction cinema, even though its source novel resembles works of satire than those of mainstream science fiction.  Similarly, only one of the creative collaborators, Rod Serling, had established chops in writing SF, though the series in which he most explored metaphenomenal themes, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, was as devoted to fantasy and horror as to science fiction.  PLANET was not the first expensive SF-drama in 1960s cinema, but it's set apart by the artistry of the script by Serling and Michael Wilson, of Franklin Schaffner's direction and Jerry Goldsmith's memorable score.

Then again, when one looks at even many of the best big-budget works of the period, there's a sense that Hollywood found it hard to get away from the associations of Buck Rogers and BEMs.  The approach of Schaffner and his team, all of whom had long credits dealing with "normal" drama, kept their approach simple but alternated between the satiric jabs of Pierre Boulle's novel and the thrills of "manly adventure" stories.  At times the script resembles mainstream SF less than than a film Michael Wilson and another collaborator adpted from another Pierre Boulle novel: 1957's BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

Yet it must be noted that PLANET addresses a theme common to the "giant mutant" films of the 1950s: the constant fear that mankind stands in danger of having its reign usurped, whether by giant ants (THEM!) or giant mineral growths (THE MONOLITH MONSTERS).  Here, the usurpation has already taken place, with humanoid apes stepping in to take over from incompetent humans.  True, in a move that seems to follow the Boulle novel, the greater part of the film implies that the overthrow has happened on a parallel version of Earth, but then the film undermines that consolation in a finish that's too well known to merit comment.  I will note that the Boulle novel does have the Earth-astronauts find their way to a totally different planet, only to find out at the close that Earth has suffered the same ape-uprising.  But PLANET's conclusion is better in terms of driving home a barbed satire of man's self-destructive nuclear brinkmanship.

Watching it again, I'm most entranced by the film's first 20 or 30 minutes, in which the ape society isn't even seen, unless one counts the scarecrows they erect, encountered by Charlton Heston and his fellow astronauts in the barren canyons.  From a logical standpoint this scene is flawed: since later Dr. Zaius gripes about wild, unthinking human predators preying on the apes' agricultural fields, it seems like the scarecrows wouldn't be doing any good up in the mountains.  Yet the scarecrows are such a great alienating image that I can't say I minded.

The film's weakest aspects show up whenever the social satire goes on too long.  The script's anti-religious barbs are dated, and its transparent appeal to the burgeoning youth culture, seen in the character of the rebellious young ape Julius, is rather painful.  The metaphors of the apes themselves have been cross-analyzed so much that I'll forego repeating any such analyses here.  I will note that one critic averred that the apes are metaphors for black American slaves in the fourth APES film.  Yet even if that's accurate for that film, such a metaphor doesn't apply to PLANET, where the apes are accidentally replicating all or most of the faults of Euro-American "white" civilization.

Another metaphor not explored as often is the Apefilms' treatment of women: why exactly did the American expedition consist of three men and one woman, who, according to Heston's character Taylor, was expected to be the "Eve" to all three of the men?  The female astronaut Stevens dies during the journey to the supposed alien world, so the implication seems to be of human fruitfulness aborted, at least until Taylor comes across his potential "wild" mate Nova.  Indeed, one might argue that the qualities of Stevens, who is described by Taylor as both beautiful and smart, have been divvied up by the film's only two significant female characters, with the brains going to Zira (Kim Hunter) and the beauty going to Nova (Linda Harrison). Admittedly  Nova has one other attraction going for her that Stevens couldn't have possessed. Nova Has No Speech and Cannot Nag.

Given that PLANET succeeds so admirably on so many levels, my re-viewing of BENEATH sorely disappointed me.  I suppose it's unfair to expect that Ted Post, dominantly a director of TV shows, should step up to Schaffner's level of accomplishment.  Still, it's depressing to see the basic scenario of PLANET revisited in the visual terms of a TV-western, particularly noticeable when the new protagonist in town has a fight with an ape-opponent aboard an out-of-control wagon.  The credited writer of the screenplay, Paul Dehn, would remain associated with the APES series for the remaining three films of the 1970s.

Said new protagonist is another astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus), whose mission seems even more improbable than Taylor's, in that he's been sent to look for Taylor, even though the Earth of Brent's past can't  have any believable means of knowing of the fate of Taylor's failed mission.  Brent luckily comes across Nova, and flashbacks inform the viewer (though not Brent) that Taylor has been taken prisoner in a mysterious region outside the limits of ape society.

Eventually, after assorted skirmishes with the apes, Brent finds his way to the mysterious region, and does indeed find Taylor (Heston in a very brief appearance).  Brent also encounters this future-Earth's only enclave of humans who have retained their intelligence, unlike the "wild humans" encountered by both Taylor and Brent.  However, these humans are also deformed mutants, as well as being insane, in that they worship one of the Earth's last thermonuclear bombs.  I realize that the conceit of nuclear mutants "loving the Bomb" that made them is a clever one, but I don't think Post and Dehn pull it off to best effect, possibly because as a whole BENEATH looks like a rushed production.

The apocalyptic ending of BENEATH is also probably well known enough to need no comment, though it's never been quite as famous as that of PLANET.  Despite all the adventure-elements used in both films, I judge that at the core these still fall into the Fryean mode of the drama, where the proper measure of mankind is man's fallibility.

ADDENDA: I've reconsidered some of my statements in the text of the review, and I've changed my mind: these two APES pictures are more in tune with the Fryean concept of the irony, in that both posit a world where the aforesaid fallibility spells man's doom in spite of anything he might do.  In Fryean drama, the power of the protagonist to take action usually has some, albeit limited, significance, but in an irony it does not; hence these two APES pictures (though not necessarily their sequels) fit the mythos of irony better.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

SMALLVILLE PROJECT: 1: 17-21 (2002)



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

The final five episodes of SMALLVILLE's first season prove a little more impressive in terms of their mythic/symbolic content.

"Reaper" is a variation on the vampire theme, but this time the vamp-like character kills not out of a physical need, like Sean in "Cool," but out of a psychological repetition-compulsion.  A young man named Tyler, who happens to have placed a kryptonite fragment in his bracelet, visits the hospital room of his terminally ill mother. She cries out for him to end her pain, and he responds by trying to mercy-kill her. In a struggle with hospital security, Tyler falls out a window to his death.  However, by the time he reaches the coroner's slab, the kryptonite brings Tyler back to life, resulting in a very creepy scene in which Tyler wakes just before the coroner can make his first incision.  After killing the coroner with his life-draining powers, Tyler-- who believes he's successfully killed his mother-- goes on a hunt for others who desire easeful death.  In more mundane matters, Lana's boyfriend Whitney becomes increasingly depressed over his sick father's worsening condition, while Jonathan Kent once more feels compromised by the Luthor money when Clark suggests that he and his father forego their annual fishing-trip in order to take in a baseball game, to which Lex has given Clark passes.  Clark eventually butts heads with Tyler but manages to resist having his life-force drained.  However, when Clark reveals to Tyler that his euthanasia attempt on his mother did not succeed, Tyler turns his power on himself and dies.  During one of the many emotionally-charged conversations between Lex and Jonathan Kent, Lex asks Jonathan if he wouldn't like to find out the truth behind an apparent miracle.  Jonathan replies that he prefers to accept his miracles as given.

"Drone" is considerably lighter than its predecessor, returning to the trope of the krypton-powered menace who consciously seeks to further his or her advantage-- though the goal is pretty small potatoes this time.  Two students at Smallville's high school, both of whom are competing for the office of student president, are attacked by malicious swarms of bees.  Soon the suspicions of Clark and Chloe fall upon the remaining candidate Sasha Woodman. It seems that some time ago Sasha survived an accident when she fell into a local declivity (named, with the usual in-joke, as "Schuster's Gorge") and was stung by 1000 bees-- yet did not die, despite being highly susceptible to bee venom.  The heroes soon deduce that meteor-rock radiation has given Sasha the powers of a queen bee, but as it happens Clark is also Sasha's hit list, in that Pete has talked him into running for student president as well.  (His slogan: "the Man of Tomorrow.")  Clark manages to break Sasha's hold on the bees but doesn't win the race for president.  A minor subplot involves Lex being pursued by an investigative journalist named Carrie Castle, who might have been intended to play the role of a foil but never appeared again-- unlike Sasha, who was resurrected (and played by a different actress) in the 2007 episode "Cure."  Though Lana is still faithful to Whitney, she does a very girlfriend-like thing by encouraging Clark to read her his abortive acceptance speech.

"Crush" brings to the fore the unrequited affection Chloe feels for Clark, as she grows jealous of Clark's attentions to Lana.  She also accuses Clark of having a "savior complex," in which he's willing to save her life but remains otherwise "emotionally unavailable," which sounds like a pop-psychological critique of the entire Lois Lane-Superman relationship.  Chloe finds a new boyfriend in Justin, a local artist whose hands were injured in a hit-and-run accident, and Clark for the first time does feel some degree of jealousy at his gal-pal's new situation.  But of course Justin is the meteor-freak-of-the-week, having received telekinesis powers from meteor exposure.  He first causes the maiming of the doctor who botched an operation on Justin, and then goes looking for the unidentified hit-and-run driver.  He thinks he's found him in Principal Kwan, but after he's killed Kwan, Clark discovers that the guilty party was Kwan's son Danny, who was driving his father's car when he hit Justin.  Clark subdues Justin with his powers, after which the law commits Justin to a juvenile home even though they've no evidence of his telekinetic crimes.  This setup could have made it possible for Justin to return as a supervillain, but the character never returned.  Lana becomes  disturbed when Clark confesses his interest in Chloe, confirming that her affection for Whitney has waned.  In a Luthor subplot, Lex is visited by his former nanny Pamela Jenkins, who seeks a reconciliation because she deserted him shortly after Lex's mother died.  Lex refuses to forgive her, telling Clark later that he only loved two women in his life, one who died and one who betrayed him.  Then Lex learns that Pamela has terminal cancer, and forgives her after she reveals that Lionel forces her to desert Lex.  The episode ends on yet another sombre note as Whitney's father passes away.

"Obscura" references the idea of a "camera obscura," which means a camera that can relay pictures of its own surroundings.  Lana happens to be in the company of two Smallville deputies when a kryptonite-flavored explosion takes place, with the result that Lana sometimes becomes a living camera obscura, seeing through the eyes of one of the deputies as he plots to kidnap Chloe Sullivan.  Meanwhile, Lex seeks to break with journalist Roger Nixon, one of the informants he had investigating the Kents way back in "X-Ray."  Nixon prevails upon Lex to interview a crop-duster who was airborne during the meteor-strike and witnessed a ship fall to earth with the meteors-- thus giving Lex his first real clue that a sentient being may have descended to Planet Earth during the bombardment that cost Lex his hair.  Lex begins to investigate the Kent property under cover of making a survey of some environmental damage caused by Luthorcorp (referenced in an earlier episode). Despite all the super-powered entities that have been running around for the past year, Lex makes the odd statement to the Kents that there's "no proof" that the meteors harm anyone-- apparently some writer's misstep, since Lex has no reason to conceal the real effects of kryptonite.  Nixon finds a tiny piece of metal from the Kryptonian ship and presents it to Luthor, whose pet scientist Hamilton is utterly unable to analyze it.  Clark, having foiled Deputy Watts' plan to imperil Chloe so that he the deputy could rescue her and become a hero, must then keep Watts from killing Lana.  Watts becomes the first villain to behold his bullets bounce off Clark's chest, but he never gets the chance to tell anyone, as Watts dies in a gun-battle with police.  Clark asks Chloe to attend the spring formal with him.  An offhand reference to "Cadmus Labs" keeps that particular ball in the air.

By its very name "Tempest" references the stormy passions of the soap-operatic tv series, which crank into high gear for the first season's final episode.  Chloe and Clark make plans for the formal dance, with Chloe expressing the fear that at the first opportunity Clark may bolt to seek out Lana-- which he does do by episode's end, though purely for altrusitic reasons.  Lionel returns to undermine his son once more, announcing the closing of the Luthorcorp plant as a scheme to force Lex to work under Lionel.  Lex tries to save the plant by making an alliance with Smallville homeowners to buy out the business; in so doing Lex both serves their interests and his own.  Whitney announces that he plans to join the marines, which Lana interprets as his "putting on a uniform and saving the world."  Nixon, not satisfied with Lex's progress on the alien-ship investigation, sets off an explosion near Clark, giving the journalist confirmation of Clark's invulnerability.  On the night of the formal, while Clark escorts Chloe to the dance, all the other plotlines come to a head in a "perfect storm" symbolized by the appearance of three tornado-funnels.  As Jonathan and Martha flee to the storm cellar, they find Nixon, who has broken in and discovered the ship; while Jonathan wrestles with the man threatening his son's secret, Nixon loses the metal piece of the ship (last seen in Lex's possession as I recall) and the piece joins with the dormant ship, causing it to spring to life before a confused Martha Kent.  The storm also hits the room where Lex and Lionel are arguing, putting Lionel's life in peril and giving Lex the chance to either save his father or let him die.  Finally, Lana, having seen Whitney off on the bus taking him to marine camp, drives back to town and is herself caught up by the tornados.  Clark, having learned of Lana's peril at the dance, leaves Chloe there and arrives on the scene, only to be pulled into the tornado that has captured Lana and-- To Be Continued in Season Two.



Monday, February 20, 2012

HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (2004)



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

Before watching the well-regarded anime movie HOWL'S MISSING CASTLE (English version only), I decided to first read its source, Diana Wynne Jones' young adult novel of the same name.  I thought the book was very inventive but had too many subplots distracting from the central conflict: the relationships between protagonist Sophie Hatter, a young woman cursed into old age, Howl, the eccentric wizard of the title, and Howl's attendants Calcifer (a fire demon) and Michael (a young helper).

Happily, the feature film, adapted and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, eliminates most of the supernumerary subplots.  On the other hand, Miyzzaki adds in their place some of his favorite tropes, especially his beloved Victorian cultural motifs and his anti-war sentiments.  Neither of these harm the film thematically, though they do take the film's emphasis off the characters and place it more upon the very involved plot.

However, Miyazaki's handling of the characters as such is a mixed bag. Sophie is largely in tune with her prose counterpart, who lives her life so quietly that she seems afraid of her own youth, and who partly embraces the curse of old age as an escape.  However, in the novel Howl is a more comic figure, an egotistical wizard who constantly romances young women and then flees any commitments with them.  Miyazaki makes Howl much more of a standard Japanese "charmer," in essence what Jung might call the male *animus* who awakens Sophie's buried femininity.  Because this Howl is a more "serious" figure, the screenplay wobbles badly on those few occasions when Miyazaki does include some of the novel's comic escapades, or accuses Howl of the "cowardice" seen in the novel.  In addition, Miyazaki adds to Howl's persona a curse involving his transformation into a bird-man, which feels suspiciously like the director's handling of his dragon-man character Haku in his earlier anime-film SPIRITED AWAY.

Still, there's never a lack of movement in this CASTLE, and Miyazaki puts forth a fascinating visual conceit in having "Old Sophie" briefly transform into younger versions of herself during her adventure, as her affection for Howl and her passion to prevent wartime suffering cause the old-age curse to recede.  As noted above I only watched the American version, but found the voice-work above average, even (to name an actor I usually can't stand) Billy Crystal as the fire demon Calcifer.

Friday, February 17, 2012

DALEKS-- INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. (1966)



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

Adapted from the BBC's "Doctor Who" teleseries scripts, this film offers an alternate version of the Doctor's second encounter with his most popular villains, the mechanized Daleks.  However, in both this theater-film and its previous companion-piece DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS, the main character's legend was drastically altered. The Doctor, originally conceived as an alien "Time Lord" who bounced around various eras in his time machine fighting (for the most part) other aliens, is now an Earth scientist (here played by Peter Cushing) with his own time machine, who never gets a workout against any foes other than Daleks.  In addition, whereas the teleseries' conceit was that the Doctor never had a name as such (so that "Doctor Who" is simply a wry commentary on his namelessness), this version is literally named "Doctor Who."

The story is a pretty simple liberation-from-tyranny drama, as Who, his niece and granddaughter, and a comically confused cop named Campbell travel to Earth in 2150 AD to save the human race from destruction by the Daleks.  The look of the Daleks and their ship is superior considering that INVASION is a fairly low-end production, but the design elements are really the only standouts in the otherwise pedestrian tale. The sociological metaphor behind the conception of the Daleks, in which they're revealed to be atrophied humans who inhabit super-powerful mechanical forms, is never exploited.  This suggests, as with the excision of the central character's "Time Lord" background, a desire on the part of the film's producers to simplify the teleseries' content as much as possible.

Bernard Cribbins as confused Campbell comes off best in the acting department, as he gets all the best lines.  Peter Cushing does an adequate job with the uninspiring material, but even he can't get blood from this particular turnip.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939)





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological,cosmological*
 
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is generally venerated as one of the best Universal Frankenstein films that followed in the wake of director James Whale's first two classic takes on the Mary Shelley story.. At the same time, it's also the first film in the series to begin the tendency to donwplay the Frankenstein Monster himself as a vital character in the stories.  The central characters, much like their writers, treat the Monster as nothing more than a means to an end.  One might take this development as a backhanded compliment to James Whale.  Perhaps Whale and his assorted writers did such a superlative job of imbuing the creature not just with "life" but with characterization and dimension that every succeeding writer on the Monster didn't even try to play in Whale's ballpark.

Indeed, in re-watching Boris Karloff's last performance as the Monster, I had the strong sense that he as an actor had run out of things to "say" about his classic character, even though Rowland Lee and writer Wyllis Cooper allowed the actor to return the Monster to speechlessness (thus undoing Whale's "education of a 
 young monster"  trope from BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN).  Karloff gives a solid performance as always, but even if his character had received more screen time, it's  questionable that he could have added much more to his conception of the raging yet fundamentally helpless child-monster.

The bulk of the screen-time goes to the warped genius who revives the Monster and the evil being who controls the creature's incredible power-- both of whom care nothing about the Monster's welfare.  The latter, the lovably nasty Ygor (Bela Lugosi in one of his best performances), only wants to use the Monster as a catspaw who will kill his old enemies (continuing an idea touched upon in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, where the scientist's assistant gets the Monster to do some dirty work).  The former-- the original mad scientist's titular son, or at least one of them-- is Wolf Frankenstein, who barely knew his late father but has been traumatized by the long shadow cast by his father's deadly deeds.  When he discovers that the Monster has survived the explosion at the end of BRIDE and that his friend Ygor wants Wolf to make the artificial creation well, Wolf talks himself into revivifying the Monster with the notion that he can redeem his father's reputation for horror.

Naturally this particular good intention paves the way to a lot more horror, and not least because the creature has become less of a patched-together dead man and more  of a cosmic dynamo.  Cooper and Lee evidently decided that the only way the Monster could have survived the holocaust of BRIDE was if he became a veritable powerhouse.  The old Galvanic explanation alluded to in Mary Shelley's book was clearly no good for this purpose, so Wolf theorizes that Henry Frankenstein actually tapped into the "cosmic rays" which gave rise to life itself, thus causing the Monster to become virtually invulnerable.  Oddly, this is accomplished by the fact that even the Monster's  blood cells are continually at war with one another. This condition sounds like it ought to make the creature weaker, not stronger, but perhaps the effect the writers were going for was the idea of the Monster as an incarnation of pure violence.  Certainly the Monster's character falls in line with this, as he now hates pretty much everyone except Ygor. The creature's one moment of tenderness-- alluded to but not seen-- concern his faltering attempts to befriend Wolf's naive little boy.  Yet when Wolf kills Ygor in self-defense, the Monster quite fiendishly plans to kill the little boy in revenge-- though to be sure, one is never completely sure he'll do it.

Wolf's wife and a few other functionaries have largely thankless spear-carrier roles, but Lionel Atwill seems to have as much fun with the role of Inspector Krogh as Lugosi does with evil Ygor,  As a child Krogh lost an arm to the Monster during one of the latter's rampages, with the result that he's among the first to become suspicious when the new Baron Frankenstein seems to be conducting experiments in his castle.  There's a lovely moment where Wolf's boy mentions how a friendly "giant" grabbed him by the arm; Krogh starts and touches the wooden arm he wears in place of his lost limb..

As Wolf Rathbone does his best to evoke the same sort of hysterical mania that Colin Clive gave to audiences in the previous FRANKENSTEIN films.  However, I never felt that Rathbone-- known primarily for roles of smooth persuaders or intellectual paragons (like Sherlock Holmes)-- quite managed to make Wolf come alive, even though the script gives him a lot of material with which to work.  The central problem may be that while both the novel FRANKENSTEIN and the two Whale adaptations could delve into psychological depths with the original Frankenstein-- for whom the Monster is both a "son" and the shadow of his other self-- the fraternal conflict between Wolf and his inhuman "brother"  never dives quite as deeply. 


Monday, February 13, 2012

SMALLVILLE PROJECT: 1: 13-16



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

The next four SMALLVILLE episodes dip down in their mythic/symbolic qualities once more, as the series spins its wheels in a predictable soap opera mode.

"Kinetic" involves a gang of thieves who've found a way to use kryptonite paint in a manner analogous to the menace in "Shimmer:" however, this time the krypton-power gives them the ability to walk through walls and even harm people by partly merging with them (a la Marvel Comics' character the Vision).  The thugs-- all jocks who formerly attended Smallville High-- decide that they want a new member to beef up their ranks. To that end they lure Lana's jock-boyfriend Whitney to join them at a time when he's lost his scholarship and is worried about being stuck in Smallville forever.  The thugs also try to blackmail Lex over a computer disc they've looted from his house, so that once again Clark is in danger of exposing his powers to his devious friend when he Clark goes after the gang.  On some minor notes, Lana discovers that her aunt's shop/movie theater has been bought out by Lex, but she persuades him to let her manage the business in the hope of turning a profit.  This will not be the last "deal with the devil" Lana makes with Lex in the series, and in later seasons her yielding to temptation will have far greater consequences than Clark's accepting occasional favors from his shady friend.  Also, student journalist Chloe makes a joke about Clark Kent becoming an "investigative reporter."

The title of the episode "Zero" refers to a Metrpolis hot-spot, Club Zero, where three years ago Lex was involved with a shooting-fatality involving a man named Jude Royce.  Now Royce seems to have returned from the dead and started hanging out in Smallville in order to gaslight Lex.  The real culprit turns out to be the brother of a woman named Amanda, who committed suicide because of the death of her fiancee Royce.  However, Lex reveals the truth of what happened that night, which exonerates him of blame for the killing while Clark settles with the crazed brother, who is the first SMALLVILLE featured villain who doesn't have a kryptonite schtick.  The B-story proves more interesting, as Chloe undertakes a class project in which she interviews Clark and his parents about his adoption.  The episode alludes to some mysterious circumstances as to how Clark was adopted, but no details are revealed.

"Nicodemus"-- I don't know what a kryptonite-irradiated flower has to do with a Biblical Pharisee, but that's what Lex's pet scientist Hamilton names his new botanical specimen.  An employee of Lionel Luthor, seeking to curry favor with Lex's dad, steals the flower from Hamilton but wrecks his truck.  Jonathan stops to help and is the second person to be exposed to the flower's deadly pollen, which lowers a victim's inhibitions.  Jonathan becomes so frustrated over monetary worries that he seeks out the local bank, intending to blast someone with his shotgun.  Clark intervenes, and Jonathan accidentally-but-harmlessly shoots his super-son, which Oedipal strain causes him to pass out.  While he's in the hospital, Lana and Pete are the next two to become infected  Pete becomes jealous of Clark's friendship with Lex and goes hunting for the younger Luthor with a handgun.  Lana significantly does under the plant's spell what she clearly wants to do in reality: dumping Whitney and coming on to Clark.  While in this "temptress mode" she also tells Lex that she knows the "real reason" he funded her business, implying (as later episodes will confirm) that Lex has a thing for Clark's potential girlfriend.  Lana has the memorable line, "If life doesn't make you crazy, why bother living it?"

"Stray" concerns orphan boy Ryan, who possesses mind-reading powers, apparently not caused by krypton-radiation this time.  His crooked stepfather and the stepfather's girlfriend force Ryan to use his powers in stick-up jobs, so Ryan bolts, and is taken in by the Kents.  While the two crooks work to track down their meal-ticket, Clark bonds with Ryan as the brother he never had, but soon learns the facts about Ryan's abilities, most memorably telling Clark that Chloe-- who has always been just a "gal-pal" to Clark-- secretly wants Clark to ask her to prom.  Ryan also happens to be a comics-reading kid, whose favorite book is a Superman-like character called "Warrior Angel."  Lex collects the same comic book, which he claims was very important to him in youth, not least because the character is totally bald.  Lex also mentions his deceased younger brother Julian, telling Clark that when the boy died his parents became even more distanced from Lex.  At the same time, Lex, having made a successful go of running his father's Smallville business, gets a "devil's proposal" from Lionel, who wants Lex to join him at a Metropolis firm.  Lex decides to leave Smallville. He then gives Clark a going-away present: a fencing-foil-- significant to Lex because he was seen dueling his father with foils in an earlier episode, and significant to the Suprman-legend in that the character's dual identity took some influence from that sword-fighting crusader Zorro (which is what Chloe calls Clark when she sees him with the sword).  However, when Ryan's evil stepdad claims the boy, Clark rescues him, as well as aiding Lex when the stepdad clonks him. The experience changes Lex's mind, as he refuses his father's temptation, at least for the time being, and opts to stay with the only friend he has.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

HEXED (1993)



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

Given the advertising copy in the above promo, no skeptic can doubt that HEXED is a comedy riffing on thrillers like BASIC INSTINCT and FATAL ATTRACTION, in which men who hook up with beguiling temptresses with psychotic tendencies.  But though there's no question that the central antagonist of the film is a "perilous psycho," one can debate as to whether HEXED is a "naturalistic" or "uncanny" type of film.

Obviously this sort of decision is a lot easier when the film overtly channels familiar horror-tropes, as do works like PSYCHO or THE CAT AND THE CANARY.  But what about films that transpire entirely in a modern-day setting, without a spooky house or a costumed maniac anywhere in sight?

FATAL ATTRACTION, I have no doubt, falls into the naturalistic camp; the psycho therein is too "worldly" to suggest the ambivalences of the uncanny.  My jury-of-one is still out on BASIC INSTINCT, but there is a strong case to be made that the insanity in that film-- not entirely confined to the main psycho-killer-- shows more larger-than-life characteristics.  I can't say that HEXED-- which concerns the mishaps of hotel clerk Matthew (Arye Gross) when he gets mixed up with crazed supermodel Hexina (Claudia Christian)-- projects such a sense of insanity, as a plague corrupting everything in its path. 

Still, Hexina herself does seem a larger-than-life psycho, even if her only reference to horror-tropes is when she briefly hisses like the Bride of Frankenstein.  HEXED starts out like a lot of less wacked-out comedies, with a nebbishy fellow impersonating someone else in order to seduce a woman with whom he'd normally stand no chance.  Yet HEXED could almost be taken as a slight satire of those sort of comedies, where the protagonist reaps the rewards of deception and doesn't have to do more than sweat a little.  After having sex with Hexina, Matthew gets dragged into a caper in which she tries to discourage a blackmailer.  Matthew finds out a little too late that Hexina considers herself above mortal law when she kills the blackmailer outright.  Hexina then framed Matthew for the crime, and the cops-- consistently played as brutal dunderheads-- fall for the hoax hook line and sinker. 

A few apt details give Hexina the dimensions of an "uncanny psycho."  One such detail is her name, which also inspires the film's name and signifies a witch's spell (as well as being homophonous with "sex").  Her diva's attitude is another such aspect.  Hexina isn't given any deep psychological readings, but she does disclose to Matthew that she was once seriously obese.  In a sense she has "remade" herself as much as any horror-film plastic surgery, and with that remaking comes a manic disregard for human morality.  Last, in a climactic rooftop battle between Matthew and Hexina, Hexina shrugs off two or three direct blows from Matthew.  Granted, Claudia Christian is a tall woman, but Arye Gross isn't a tiny man, so her ability to take a lickin' and keep on stabbin' gives Hexina the larger-than-life dimensions of a true uncanny psycho.

Writer-director Alan Spencer's most well-known work aside from HEXED is probably the short-lived TV series SLEDGE HAMMER.  HEXED has the same essential go-for-broke atttide toward comedy, and so might be tough sledding for anyone not in the mood for that type of comic approach.

MARS NEEDS MOMS (2011)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, cosmological*
“Where love rules, there is no will to power, and where power predominates, love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.”-- C.G. Jung


MARS NEEDS MOMS, adapted from a story by Berkely Breathed (which I have not read), is a lightweight kid's drama for the most part, though once or twice there are some ideas in it which, though erratically expressed, have some genuine mythopoeic resonance.

The title riffs on the 1967 film MARS NEEDS WOMEN, which concerned invaders from the Red Planet plundering Earth to capture nubile women for purposes of breeding.  In MOMS, the Martians have evolved away from pair-bonding and have worked out the breeding problem with ruthless efficiency.  The Martians have formed a quasi-Amazonian society in which the females inhabit Mars' surface while the males are dumped down beneath the crust's surface, where they dwell alongside the refuse of the females' technological civilization.  Given that the film is aimed at preteens (the central protagonist is nine), there is no direct allusion to matters of breeding.  Still, one assumes that the males are being kept around for something: that the hatchlings who burst not from wombs but from incubation-cubicles must be fertilized from both genders since they include female and male. 

So breeding is no problem, but the Martian females have a literal "nanny state," in which most of them serve as soldiers and the hatchlings are raised by nanny-robots.  The robots seem to work best, though, when they get a personality-transfusion from "real moms," females who still nurture their own young.  This is where Earth comes in, when the Martians decide to swipe the mom of a kid named Milo.

Just before the Martians strike, Milo, a standard lazy-ass American kid, has rebelled against performing some mild chores by telling his mom (never given a name of her own) that he could do without a mother.  Moments later (shades of HOME ALONE), the Martians fulfill his wish.  Fortunately Milo catches up to their spaceship and stows away as the ship returns to Mars.  He's soon separated from the object of his quest, and the rest of the film involves assorted helter-skelter adventures as Milo keeps trying to rescue his mom and return to Earth, all the while giving the audience a view of the deep schism of Martian society.

Naturally Milo can't fight all of Mars alone, so he providentially acquires two vital helpers.  The first is Gribble, a pudgy man-child from Earth who came to Mars the same way Milo did, but failed to save his mother (who was decorously disintegrated after having her persona downloaded).  Gribble was thus stranded on Mars, eking out his existence in the giant trash-heap alongside the Martian males, all of whom seem to possess no cognitive skills whatever.  Amusingly, one of Milo's statements to his mom during his mild rebellion indicated that he thought it would be great if no one ever had to take out the trash, so he gets his "wish" when he ends up in the mountainous land of refuse.  Again, in deference to the audience, it's all "cool trash," nothing ugly or depressing.

Milo's second helper is a young Martian female, Ki, who became disenchanted with the regimeneted world of her people after happening across a television-broadcast from Earth-- which, having been delayed by the time it took the television signals to reach Mars, featured the then-current Earth-phenomena called "hippies."  Even prior to Milo's arrival, Ki endeavors to rebel against the dull military decor of her society by sprucing it up with psychedelic paint-schemes.  Upon meeting Milo by accident, Ki resolves to help him save his mother.  She ends up fulfilling her dream to break down the rigid barriers of her society by finding evidence that the schism between the genders is not natural: that it's been engineered by the females' supreme leader: the incredibly wizened "Supervisor," who has issues with men and procreation and who seems to be the only really old Martian on the planet.

As presented the schism-idea doesn't bear much close scrutiny. A similar gender-division scenario in the STAR TREK episode "Spock's Brain" is more believable.  But it's interesting on two levels.

One is the idea of using the gender-bifurcation to comment upon divisions in the human(oid) spirit.  The Jung quote above cites one such conflict in the opposition of love and the desire for power, the desire to control.  Before the Martians visit Milo's home, his mom is "the power" in his house (the dad is seen briefly and in such a way that the film establishes his fundamental irrelevance to the mother-son quarrel).  Of course once Milo's mom is stolen, all he can think about are the associations of love he holds for her, and his conviction sparks the Martians to rediscover those principles.  But in opposing and destroying the Amazon society of Mars-- another case of women being too controlling-- one might say that Milo is still contending with the "shadow side" of maternal domination.  There's no reason given as to why all the Martian males have become cretins who simply imitate what they see others do, but since the Martian females have monopolized reason and order, the Martian males implicitly become the "shadow" to their efforts: a bunch of thoughtless, childish, "good-time-Charlies" (not unlike the hippies on whom Ki becomes fixated)

The second level is that of inspiration.  Since the director was Simon Wells, great-grandson of H.G. Wells, one might've expected to see him emulate some aspect of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS.  Instead, a few aspects of MOMS seem borrowed from the Mars books of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Since Disney launches its own JOHN CARTER this year, it's not impossible that someone took inspiration from the Burroughs books.  Summaries of the Breathed book from 2007 don't allude to the Martians' having a gender-divided society, so my bet is that Wells (who co-wrote the screenplay) took a leaf from some of the exotic societies of the Burroughs Mars books-- the society of the Tharks, for instance, who raise their children communally rather than allowing them to be parented by bonded pairs.  And of couse, like the hero John Carter, Milo does a lot of leaping around on low-gravity Mars, though the emotional tone here draws from the mythos of the drama rather from the mythos of adventure to which John Carter belongs. 

Erratic as the film is in some respects, this may well be Simon Wells' best film thus far.