Tuesday, July 31, 2012

HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Though I’ve sometimes reviewed films here as if the director were the sole author, it’s only for convenience, not because I’m a devotee of the cinematic theory of auteurism.  I’ve analyzed cinematic adaptations of Hawthorne and Gaston Leroux in comparison to the original sources when possible, but sometimes the original prose sources aren’t readily available.  Such is the case, so far as I’ve been able to determine, with the original story by Edward Spencer Shew from which Sasdy created HANDS OF THE RIPPER.  The only reason this is something of an issue is that HANDS is one of the most thoroughgoing Freudian horror-films of all time, making it hard to know how much of the Freudianism stems from Shew and how much from Sasdy.  However, some of Sasdy’s other films have strong Freudian currents, so at the very least he translated the original story’s concerns without dumbing them down.

Though I’m far from a Freudian, I can appreciate the interweaving complexity of his psychoanalytic theories.  Most cinematic quotes of Freud are pretty simple from a theoretical perspective, not least Hitchcock’s PSYCHO.  Hitchcock followed the Robert Bloch original novel in combining the Oedipus complex with the concept of “repetition-compulsion,” which asserts that victims of trauma ceaselessly replay the circumstances of their torments.  In horror films this was a useful means of motivating a psycho to kill and kill again, so the repetition-compulsion explanation for psycho-killings has become—perhaps fittingly—the most repeated device in psycho-killer flicks. HANDS uses this trope as well, but it also incorporates a wider range of Freud’s central concepts, including the “primal scene,” the so-called “phallic stage” of female development and the idea of psychological transference, with particular reference to what occurs between patient and psychologist.

HANDS opens in the late Victorian era, as angry crowds pursue the serial slayer Jack the Ripper.  The Ripper manages to find safety in his own home, but because he has fresh blood on his hands, his wife realizes that he’s a murderer.  The Ripper kills his wife before the eyes of his five-year-old daughter Anna, whose eyes focus on the glittering of her mother’s jewelry as she dies—an association that will later become a psychotic trigger.  Having silenced the inconvenient witness, the Ripper gives his little girl a kiss and flees the premises, vanishing from the movie’s diegesis.

Fifteen years later, orphan Anna—a fragile, withdrawn girl with no conscious memory of her trauma—lives with a dowager named Mrs. Golding.  Golding runs a spiritualism racket, but she approaches one of her upper-class customers, name of Dysart, to pay for sex with Anna.  Anna doesn’t understand what Dysart wants; Dysart gets rough with her.  Oddly, his violence—slapping her down—doesn’t trigger Anna’s buried trauma.  Then Golding rebuffs Dysart and tries to comfort Anna, while the light of the fireplace shines in the girl’s eyes.  Together the gleaming light and the older woman’s show of affection trigger Anna’s psychosis, apparently reminding Anna of the last kiss she received from her killer-father, and moving her to imitate his example.  With superhuman strength Anna seizes a fireplace-poker and stabs it through Golding—and the oak door behind her.  Dysart witnesses the crime and flees to avoid being implicated; later, he will swear that Anna is possessed of a demon.

Anna, who immediately forgets having committed the crime, is hauled to jail as a witness to the murder (since no one believes a woman could have perpetrated such a deed).  Doctor John Pritchard, a widower and a convert to Freudian theory, convinces the police to release Anna into his custody.  He does what no practicing psychologist of the time would have done: he takes her into his own home and dresses her in the garments of his dead wife.  Throughout most of the film—except for one scene near the conclusion—Pritchard seems entirely proper in Anna’s presence, not moved by any conscious erotic motivation.  Even when he witnesses her bathing, he seems unmoved by her nubile charms.  At the very least, though, he’s a Pygmalion seeking to mold a Galatea into an icon representing his pet theories.  He gives no thought as to Anna being dangerous, either to himself or others, and, having witnessed Dysart fleeing from the scene of the crime, the doctor even blackmails Dysart to help him research the background of the winsome waif.

Shortly after Anna’s arrival, the film introduces its last two major characters, who in some ways mirror Pritchard and his charge. One is Michael Pritchard, the doctor’s adult son, and the other is his fiancée Laura, a gentle woman who happens to be blind.  In their introduction-scene Pritchard is notably cold, though not quite rude, to Laura.  This suggests that on some level that he doesn’t approve of his son’s choice in women, though no explicit reason is ever given.

It doesn’t take long for the trigger-effect, combining glittering light and female affection (from Pritchard’s maid), to strike again.  Pritchard comes home to find his maid murdered and Anna missing.  Naturally, rather than expose his foolishness to the police, he conceals the maid’s murder and goes looking for Anna.  He finds her, but only after she’s slain a streetwalker who attempted to initiate Anna into the joys of lesbian sex.

Once Pritchard has returned Anna to his home, he’s still unwilling, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to admit that he’s unleashed a monster on the world.  He confers with Dysart, who maintains that Anna has been demon-possessed.  Pritchard won’t believe such a thing, but Dysart—who’s been unable to learn anything about the orphan’s background—threatens to expose the whole business to the police unless Pritchard takes Anna to a medium able to uncover the female killer’s nature.  Backed into a corner, Pritchard agrees.

Despite Pritchard’s skepticism, the medium turns out to be the real thing: she relates Anna’s traumatized history to Pritchard flawlessly, holding back just one thing—the identity of Anna’s father.  (She calls him a “nobleman” but the film, though obviously influenced by later theories about Jack the Ripper’s identity, doesn’t go any further down that path.)  Anna’s trigger strikes again, and she kills the medium.  Once again Pritchard spirits her back to his home.  While he tries one last time to divine her trauma with the tools of Freud, he slips for a moment, and kisses her—though it’s unclear whether he’s kissing a would-be daughter or a would-be lover.  Anna stabs him and flees, but this time she only wounds her target.  Pritchard recovers, crudely binds his wound and pursues her.

By chance Anna falls into the company of blind Laura, and the two of them enter a vast theater.  After some suspenseful moments climbing a staircase to a higher level, Anna’s trigger strikes again.  But before she can make an attempt to hurl Laura to the floor below, Pritchard arrives and calls out to Anna.  Perhaps realizing her murderous nature at last, Anna vaults off the high floor toward her new “father,” and dies in the fall.

At no point does Pritchard directly use the words “repetition-compulsion,” which term Freud first advanced in 1914.  Pritchard does, however, describe the theory in essence, talking about patients repeating actions “in reaction” to past experiences. Ironically this diagnosis, though correct, comes from a physician who can’t treat himself.  On some level Pritchard has transferred his needs to Anna: he wants the young girl to substitute for something lost in his life.  Significantly, his maid comments that though he likes others to affect good spirits Pritchard himself “isn’t one for showing smiles.”

The most vexing question of HANDS OF THE RIPPER becomes, “Why does Anna become a killer after witnessing her father kill her mother?”  Freud asserts that young children may mistake the parental sex act—aka the primal scene-- for a fight, and thus become conflicted about their relationship to their parents.  Anna witnesses a real one-sided battle in which her father kills her mother, but it would appear that though she’s not actually possessed by her father’s spirit, as the medium suggests, she has subconsciously allied herself to her father’s murderous ways—perhaps it’s easier to identify with being a killer than a corpse.

    As mentioned earlier, Freud claims that female psychology proceeds in a different manner than that of males.  Young female children go through a “phallic stage” in which they emulate the active behavior of boys.  Later, due to the forces of biology, socialization, or both, girls assume the “passive” feminine model.  What Sadsy and his collaborators show here is a short-circuit in the Freudian process.  Once the maternal force in the girl’s life has been destroyed, Anna internalizes the male penchant for violence incarnated by her father.  To be sure, Anna commits her murders in a trancelike state and appears to take no pleasure from them, as one generally assumes the Ripper did.  But even with that caveat, it’s apparent that Anna is attempting to “be a man like her father,” even as the quasi-parental Pritchard wants her to fill some female role, be it wife, daughter, lover or just a female patient.

Psycho-films dominantly follow a pattern in which a male psycho-- like Norman Bates-- kills nubile young women as a substitute for the sex-act, of which he’s incapable due to some trauma, often brought on by parental influence.  But HANDS is perhaps the only psycho-killer film in which all the female victims are older women.  The only other persons Anna attacks are Dr. Pritchard—who is stabbed but does not die—and young blind Laura, who’s nearly assaulted but is saved by outside interference. It’s no coincidence that the only four women Anna kills are women roughly in the age-range of Anna’s mother; no matter who else her father killed, she’s only concerned with re-enacting the horror of the primal scene, and surviving it by being active like the father, not passive and helpless like the mother.  Laura is the only young woman Anna attacks, but merely by being blind she too recapitulates the helpless passivity of the mother.  In fact, Freud correlated the symbolism of blindness with that of castration, which in turn he correlated with the symbolism of feminine biology.  This may be the only reason Sasdy and company choose to make Laura blind, for it serves no overt function in the story.

In the end, HANDS paints a doleful picture for women seeking empowerment.  Instead of rejecting the father’s violence, Anna internalizes it and turns it, not against those who exploit female victims, like Dysart, but against other women, whether they have committed questionable acts (Golding, the streetwalker) or not (the maid and the medium).  Only once does she strike down a man who’s sought to use her for his own oblique ends, but she bungles the job, and her father-subsitute lives through her assault and finishes the job her real father left unfinished: the destruction of the dangerous female.

In most respects this qualifies as a film in the category of the uncanny, under the trope of "perilous psychos."  However, the presence of a real psychic feat, that of the medium, transports it into the realm of the marvelous-metaphenomenal.    



  

LUCAN (1977)



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

I recently rewatched the telemovie LUCAN-- pilot for a short-lived 1977-78 series-- not because I had great memories of it but to determine whether or not it fit my trope for "outre outfits skills and devices."  It did, with emphasis on the "skills" section only.

LUCAN was one of many 1970s series-concepts based around a "wandering weirdo" and patterned after the successful 1960's drama THE FUGITIVE.  Lucan is an orphan who was raised by wolves until the age 10, at which point other humans found him and took him back to their world.  Over the next decade or so he becomes acculturated into most if not all human ways-- at least enough that he wears cool clothes and has his hair regularly styled.  But just as Tarzan became a superior man due to the rigorous upbringing of his ape buddies, Lucan shares with his wolf-family keener senses, abnormal (though not inhuman) strength, and the ability to take giant leaps.  The leaps make him look less like a wolf and more like a jackrabbit, but an adopted wolf has to adapt as best he can.

Like THE FUGITIVE, the template was simple: the hero would wander around from town to town, inevitably taking time out from his own pursuits to play the Good Samaritan and solve problems for good but needy people.  LUCAN is more adventure-oriented than FUGITIVE, in that dramatic conflicts play second-fiddle to seeing Lucan trounce some bad-guy (all in a very restrained way that was characteristic of 1970s television).  In this particular offering, Lucan-- nicely played by Kevin Brophy-- uses his wolf-senses and powers to help out Stockard Channing, though a few days after the re-watch I've completely forgotten what Stockard's  problem was.

If you're not interested, as I was, in the show's position in the NUM theory, you still may find it a pleasant enough timekiller, chiefly thanks to Brophy's attempt to play a wolf adjusting to becoming a man.

I note that this movie possesses a "cosmological" function in that the society of wolves is at least referenced, though not in any significant detail.






Sunday, July 29, 2012

ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1971), THE FATAL FLYING GUILLOTINES (1979)



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


I determined the first of the ZATOICHI films to be a "combative drama," but I suspect most of the series tended toward the "combative adventure" mode.  

Produced at the height of the kung-fu craze, SWORDSMAN is a solid but unremarkable tale teaming the blind warrior-masseuse with a version of the popular Hong Kong franchise, "the One Armed Swordsman," essayed by the actor who created the role, Wang Yu.  Plotwise, the story seems the reverse of a Marvel superhero comic of the period.  Instead of the heroes coming into conflict near the story's beginning, only to become allies against a common foe later, here Zatoichi and the Swordsman rub each other the wrong way, proceed on separate paths to decimate the forces of a nasty yakuza-boss, and then end up having a climactic battle.  Hint: it's a Japanese production, so it's no surprise which hero wins.  Though the tragic motifs are rather light, the film is true to the Zatoichi mythos in that the conflict is fundamentally needless, spurred by the inability of the two leads to understand one another's language.

In contrast to the original, low-impact ZATOICHI, the blind hero's sword carves up a lot more flesh, enhancing the main character's sense of being an uncanny presence.  At one point Zatoichi even cuts a wagon-wheel in two with his sword-cane.

In contrast, FATAL FLYING GUILLOTINES-- made about four years after the trend-setting MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE-- is a dull, thinly-plotted ripoff of the earlier film.  The rambling story concerns the quest of hero Carter Wong to obtain a rare medical text to help his ailing mother, only to find that his quest brings him into conflict with a sect of Buddhist monks and a weird old hermit whose principal defense is a pair of "flying guillotines"-- two hatbox-like devices that can be hurled by chain-attachments so that the box-section settles over a victim's head and decapitates him.  These may be the most blatantly absurd weapons ever invented for an old school kung-fu film, and they're pretty much the only thing worth watching in this opus.  But the earlier GUILLOTINE film was many times more entertaining than this plodding mess.

About the only thing unusual about this film is that (SPOILER SPOILER) the hero triumphs over his decapitating foe, only to be slain by another malefactor.  It's very rare for the main hero of an adventure-tale to be knocked off in this fashion, but I tend to view this sort of deviation as an example of a storyteller tossing in a motif more suited to a work in the dramatic mythos, simply to inspire a shock-response.

Friday, July 27, 2012

THE WRECKING CREW (1968)



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


This was the last and IMO the least of the four 1960s "Matt Helm" films starring Dean Martin as superspy Helm.

In my reviews of the other three I've found that the series' most interesting sociological motif has been its teeter-totter attitude toward women. In my recent review of the first two films, I found that the first one, directed by Phil Karlson, treated its heroine rather badly, while the second, helmed by Henry Levin, made its heroine-- again, an "amateur sidekick" to the main hero-- considerably more formidable.  The third film, also Levin-directed, which I reviewed some time back, eschewed the use of an amateur, placing Helm between the affections of a good spy-girl and a bad spy-girl, both of whom proved quite competent. 

With WRECKING CREW Phil Karlson comes back to the director's chair.  Since the end-credits announce that the producers intended to make yet another sequel entitled "The Ravagers," the filmmakers probably didn't think of this entry as wrapping up the franchise.  The only effect of Karlson's return is that once more we have the Return of the Klutzky Sidekick seen in THE SILENCERS, although the type has been crossbred with the efficient good girl-spy of AMBUSHERS.

Of all four this storyline seems the least interested in the villain's diabolical plan and its consequences for the free world.  Count Contini (Nigel Green) is little more than a roadshow Goldfinger, who heists a billion-dollar gold shipment from the U.S., thus threatening the economy (which is nowhere near as much fun as the death-dealing "helio beams" and flying saucers of earlier films).   Contini is aided by various Asian agents, including a female agent with the corniest name yet seen in the series, "Wen Yu-Rang."  But he himself is a dull villain, who misses several opportunities to knock Helm off, with the usual I-have-to-learn-what-you-know-before-I-kill-you rationale.

Helm, however, has only one aide: a British agent named Freya (for the Norse goddess?)  Freya, perhaps because of her youth and inexperiences, shows herself a continual screwup, prompting Helm to utter the same sort of acidulous putdowns seen in SILENCERS, though at least Helm doesn't treat Freja with the same level of sadism. 

Because Contini has Asian agents, some of them engage Helm in martial-arts battles, all of which are atrocious.  Dean Martin looked like he tried to fake-fight a little bit in MURDERERS' ROW, but here he's just doing transparent setups with various stuntmen.  But there is one good fight-scene-- possibly choreographed by Bruce Lee-- that transpires near the end between Sharon Tate's Freya and Nancy Kwan's Yu-Rang.  Neither actress would be likely to outclass Eliza Dushku or Michelle Yeoh in the art of movie martial arts, but they put more into their effort than the lethargic Martin.

The last image of the film is a strange choice. After the villain's been defeated aboard a speeding train-- with Freya taking out one of the henchmen rather nicely-- the hero settles down for connubial bliss in the DOCTOR NO tradition.  As they're getting it on Freya's foot accidentally hits a brake, sending both of them catapulting toward the front of the train, toward certain injury and/or death.  The action freezes there, and a helpful caption informs us that not only does Matt Helm survive, he "got where he was going," wink wink nudge nudge.  It's rather appropriate that a near-farcical adventure-series should end with an image of a farcical death.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH (1978), HAPPY HELL NIGHT (1992)


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


The only reason I rented (and am reviewing) Franco Prosperi's LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH is because it's so clearly indebted to Wes Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, which usually makes horror-reference books due to the intensity of its violence (subsumed by my "bizarre crimes" trope).  However, whereas Craven injects enough grotesquerie into his scenario to qualify it as a horror-film, BEACH is simply a naturalistic thriller, and not one of any particular merit.  Compared to cruder thrillers it generally looks good from a cinematographic stance.  Most of the cast-members were amateur actors, with the exception of experienced thesps Florinda Bolkan and Ray Lovelock, who naturally get the meatiest roles.

A trio of brutal thieves complete a bank robbery and head for the country to hide from the cops.  They chance to find a villa inhabited by seven women (the film's shooting title was "La Settima Donna," the "seventh woman.") One of the seven in the villa is a domestic whom the robbers kill almost immediately.  This leaves the hoods with six comely female prisoners: five of whom are students under the charge of Bolkan, a nun wearing civilian clothes.  Shake them all together and you get your usual stew of rapine and revenge.  Bolkan delivers the strongest performance, maintaining a constant reserve that's in keeping with both her calling and her immediate situation. 

Prosperi keeps the sex and violence level comparatively low compared to other thrillers in this vein, though to be sure he isn't responsible for the script.  I've seen very little of his other work, but his 1960s peplum HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (which he both scripted and directed) is one of the more well-regarded of its type.

Anyone who saw my somewhat positive review of MOUNTAINTOP MOTEL MASSACRE might well wonder how crappy a movie has to get before I stop analyzing it and really bag on it.  I did dismiss SCI-FIGHTERS are "ninety minutes of dullness," but if called upon to rain hate upon a film of the slasher variety, I'd be happy to jump with both feet on HAPPY HELL NIGHT.

Slashers take a lot of flack for usually employing very simple character-types, many of whom are simply set up as targets for some psycho-killer.  Nevertheless, there's a minor art to doing this and still making the stereotypical characters fairly appealing in some way.  NIGHT's stereotypic characters are probably no flatter than many of those in SCREAM, which would resuscitate the subgenre four years later.  But the scripters-- director Brian Owens and two others, none of whom went on to do much else in film-- bring no charm to any of the characters.  Originally titled FRAT FRIGHT, it concerns a bunch of stupid collegians trying to outdo one another in terms of fraternity pranks.  One of them conceives the idea of sending a pledge-- the younger, screwup brother of a fraternity member (Sam Rockwell)-- to the local asylum, where he must snap a photo of a prisoner who committed murder many years ago but hasn't spoken or interacted with his captors in all that time.  This leads to a chain reaction, revealing that all those years ago, the father of both brothers (Darren McGavin) feathered his nest with a Satanic contract.  For some reason tampering with the prisoner-- actually a demonically-possessed ex-priest-- makes it possible for him to go on a killing spree once more.  He proceeds to stalk about murdering dumb teens and occasionally older victims until he's duly exorcised-- OR IS HE?

Rockwell and McGavin's characters are so thinly written that neither actor can do much of anything with the unrewarding roles.  There's a brief suggestion of a fraternal conflict between Rockwell and his brother, but it comes to absolutely nothing.  The skin content is small and the gore is generally boring, made even more tedious when the demon-priest spouts witless witticisms that amount to nothing more than "No (fill in the blank.")  The worst of these is when he kills a person watching an MTV-clone called "STV," and the none-too-funny fiend says, "No STV."  It's one thing to rip off scenarios from HALLOWEEN and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET-- some would say those kind of homages are almost expected. But riffing on MTV in 1992 was the work of a very desperate and unskilled author.

The only scene that was a little interesting involves a Catholic priest praying in his church before a statue of Christ on the cross.  In a dimestore imitation of a Freddy-killing, the statue comes alive and implicitly kills the priest.  FWIW, even though this faux resurrection is accomplished on the cheap, with an actor covered in white paint rather than via CGI, it's pretty good makeup.  However, the effectiveness of the supernatural scene is reduced in that the living statue isn't seen to kill his victim-- and further, it's the only example of the demon-priest wreaking this sort of magical Kruger-effect.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

THE MOONSTONE (1934), THE MOONSTONE (1997)



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


Wilkie Collins' 1868 THE MOONSTONE presents some interesting problems in terms of phenomenality-categorization.

There's one element of the book that qualifies as a *marvelous* one-- on which I'll comment below-- but it plays a very small role within the narrative.  Because of the presence of this element, I would have to classify the novel as "marvelous," in the same way that I classified this film as *uncanny* even though it only possessed two very minor elements of the uncanny.  I noted in the cited essay that I term such small-beer elements to be "the marginal metaphenomenal," and that applies just as well to Collins' novel.

The famous plot of THE MOONSTONE deals with a fabulous diamond, originally from the head of a Hindu idol, which is stolen from India by a reprobate British officer.  After the thief dies he leaves the diamond-- rumored to be cursed-- to his niece Rachel, a heiress being courted by her two first cousins Franklin and Godfrey.  (Nowhere in the novel does anyone remark on this level of consanguinity: one assumes that both Collins and his original English audience found it unremarkable, at least for the aristocracy.)  A trio of Indians, dedicated to returning the holy diamond to India, haunts the steps of Rachel and her protectors.  Because the unnamed Indians are so fantastically dedicated to their unique task, Collins' novel *might* be classified as uncanny because the Indians' "bizarre crime" (which is only a crime in the technical sense of the English law, of course) makes such a strong affective impact on the reader, and takes on a near-supernatural aspect at the conclusion even though technically nothing supernatural occurs.  The same logic applies to the "exotic lands and customs" trope.

The one aspect that propels the novel into the "marvelous" category appears early in MOONSTONE and never comes up again.  Because Collins wanted to give his Indians an almost supernatural ability to be wherever he wanted them to be-- and because he surely knew that they would hardly blend in well with British society-- Collins has one of his characters overhear the Indians using an unnamed English boy in a divinatory ceremony.  It establishes the possibility-- which the reader must take seriously even if no one in the novel does so-- that the boy is a real medium who can tell the Indians at all times where to locate the diamond.  It's a clever device, and I personally consider it veracious enough to classify MOONSTONE as "marvelous," even though I realize most readers won't take note of it.

The first English-langauge adaptation of Collins' novel, filmed by Monogram Studios, does not aspire to be much more than a routine mystery.  The film shifts its location shifted to America, but keeps most of the character-names but with altered functions.  The script-- directed by Reginald Barker, best known today for 1929's SEVEN KEYS FROM BALDPATE-- essentially sticks to adapting one of the novel's opening plotlines, the actual theft of the diamond, and quickly solves the theft without any of the characters ever leaving the "old dark house" where the crime's committed.  Possible Indian fanatics are mentioned but never surface; one Indian manservant of the Franklin character appears but proves to be innocent of the crime.  Some reviewers have enjoyed Barker's MOONSTONE on the basis of how much it does on a low budget but I still found it boring, possibly because leading man David Manners (as Franklin), having no stronger talents on which to lean, sucks up the air whenever he speaks.  The only interesting change is that in deference to American feelings on cousin-marriage, Franklin, sweetheart to Rachel, is no longer related to her.  However, Godfrey is still her first cousin, and actor Jameson Thomas gets one nice moment where he leers lustfully at the unsuspecting Rachel-- though one never knows if he's more interested in her body or her bank account.  Despite the mystery trappings, nothing suggesting the strangeness of "the uncanny" ever transpires.

In contrast, the 1997 MOONSTONE-- the third of three British adaptations of the novel-- is far truer to the novel's events, even though, in order to condense the book into two hours, many characters and plotlines are omitted. Not surprisingly, Collins' divination-device is dropped, thus excluding the film from possessing any claim of marvelous metaphenomenality.  The Indians are present this time, and though they aren't as prevalent as they are in the book they do convey the same uncanny aspects presented in Collins' book.  Nevertheless, though the film does a creditable job of adapting all the salient elements of the novel, it's as disappointing as the Monogram flick.  None of Collins' deeper myth-themes-- the sympathy for the outsider, the psychology of the English classes-- receive more than cursory treatment here.  The professionalism of the acting and directing suggests that the production might have been able to convey some of Collins' themes, and that the film's failure to do so comes down, as much as the Barker film, to concerns of time and money.



Tuesday, July 24, 2012

MOUNTAINTOP MOTEL MASSACRE (1986)



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

This rural psycho movie isn't anywhere near the best of its kind, yet it's far from the worst either.

I've no knowledge whatever about the writer-director team, except that it was a "family affair" as the director was billed as "Jim McCullough Senior" and the writer as "Jim McCullough Junior."  IMDB lists a smattering of credits for both creators, some together and some separately.  None of their works, together or separately, are particularly noteworthy, though probably 1976's CREATURE OF BLACK LAKE is their best-known work thanks to its having a few name-actors and having been circulated to television in many venues.

The actors in MOUNTAINTOP are unknowns, suggesting that this was a pretty low-budget psycho-film.  For all that, McCullough's direction isn't as unattractive as that of many rock-bottom productions.  The story concerns how Evelyn Chambers, manager of an isolated rural motel, goes bonkers and starts knocking off all of her guests.  The basic story had been done better many times, but McCullough has made some attempt to keep the thrill-level high.  At the very least, the camera's always active; something's always going on at the Mountaintop Motel.

McCullough Junior's script is frustrating in that it suggests a backstory to Evelyn's nuttiness that never appears on camera.  Perhaps those scenes were cut to save cash?  It certainly starts memorably enough. Evelyn occupies her secluded motel with only her young daughter Lori for company.  While Evelyn is first seen trying to clear varmints of her garden, using the same sickle that will later carve human flesh, Lori is off in some room, conducting what looks like a Satanic ceremony in order to contact her dead father.  Evelyn breaks in on Lori's ceremony and goes berserk for no clear reason (maybe she doesn't like the impugnment of her parenting skills).  Evelyn accidentally kills Lori, which triggers her descent into total madness.  However, though she calls the local law out to report Lori's death, and though we later learn that Evelyn's already spent some time in a nuthouse, the sheriff believes that Lori died by accident.  This leaves Evelyn-- now haunted by the guilt-making voice of her dead daughter-- free to start picking off the few tenants that start arriving at the motel.

The tenants are mostly unmemorable, though some of Evelyn's murderous assaults are better, as when she turns loose a poisonous snake on a honeymoon couple.  The only good characters are a pair of girls whose car breaks down and get picked up by a driver who tells them he's a record producer as a scam to get them into bed.  Surprisingly, the McCulloughs make these three characters fairly affecting, particularly when the driver confesses his turpitude but still tries to defend one of the girls against Evelyn.  Atypically for the genre, it's the girl who *doesn't* sleep with the phony producer who gets killed.

There's one brief suggestion that the haunting girl may be real, but it's not supported by anything substantive, so I file this killer-diller under the uncanny version of the "perilous psychos" trope.

Friday, July 20, 2012

THE SILENCERS (1966), MURDERERS' ROW (1966)



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



The one thing that distinguishes the “Matt Helm” films of the 1960s is how well they capture the “PLAYBOY swinger” culture of the period.  The films take the name of the hero, and titles of selected books, from the Donald Hamilton “Matt Helm” paperback series, but nothing else, for the books are hardboiled, naturalistic espionage adventures.  The four films starring Dean Martin as superspy Helm exist in a world even more flagrant with science-fiction gadgets and gimmicks than the entirety of Bond films from that decade.  The phenomenality of this world, with its solar death rays and coat-buttons that turn into grenades, cannot be other than marvelous in nature.

The symbolic discourse of the Helm films, though, is more dubious.  Though I’ve said the films embody the “swinger” cultural fantasy, saying that doesn’t give one any means by which to judge the *mythicity* of these spy-fantasies.  As mentioned elsewhere, a narrative has high mythicity in relation to the complexity of its symbolic discourse, quite apart from its value as pure entertainment.

So what if the entertainment is politically incorrect?  The Helm films, like many superspy narratives— particularly the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming, the main source of the subgenre—constantly put hot women on display, though not as explicitly as the infamous PLAYBOY spreads.  At the same time, the superspy genre wasn’t entirely devoted to the humiliation of women, and it spawned not a few characters—Emma Peel, Modesty Blaise—who became icons of feminine (and sometimes feminist) rebellion.

As it happens, one of Ian Fleming’s characters, Pussy Galore of the 1959 Bond novel GOLDFINGER, has become one of the mythic touchstones of both the novel series and the film adaptations of the Fleming books.  And this mythicity remains strong despite the fact that her creator depicts her in rather demeaning terms, while her film-adapters depict her in more empowering (and for this time, more politically correct) terms.  The coyly-named Miss Galore, then, offers a paradigm for showing mythicity in spite of the creator or adapter’s political orientation.

In Fleming’s book, Galore—a lesbian henchwoman of the titular villain Goldfinger-- symbolizes all of Fleming’s conservative—even primitive—opinions on the nature of lesbianism.  By the book’s conclusion Bond wins Pussy over for Team Hetero, though there's some intimation that she joins him against Goldfinger as a way of reducing her sentence.  That said, in her prose appearance Pussy’s mythicity rates as “fair” given that Fleming makes her the vehicle of his sociological beliefs in a relatively thoughtful manner, no matter what one thinks of said beliefs.

In contrast, the Pussy Galore of the 1963 film GOLDFINGER barely references the lesbian nature of the book-version, though there are a few lines to indicate that Pussy resists Bond’s suavity because she plays for another team.  This Pussy is portrayed on screen by actress Honor Blackman, who prior to the 1964 film had essayed a heroic female spy-type on the AVENGERS teleseries.  Possibly in deference to fans who expected Blackman to play another such character, film-Pussy defends herself against Bond’s advances with judo-skills.  Bond still manages to convert her to his team, this time with a forceful persuasion that some would consider rape.  In the end she still joins him against Goldfinger, however, with a little less implication that she did it to save herself some years in prison.
Therefore, when I evaluate the way the Matt Helm films stack in comparison in terms of either demeaning or empowering archetypes of femininity, they stand or fail not in terms of political correctness, but according to the “Pussy test.”

Oddly, THE SILENCERS begins with hero Matt Helm (Dean Martin) no longer working for the American intelligence organization I.C.E., though the nature of the dispute is never disclosed. He doesn’t seem worried about being out of a job, and still maintains an expensive bachelor pad, a secretary, and assorted seduction amenities, not least being an automated bed that dumps into occupants into a waiting pool.  (No worries about a dearth of “precious bodily fluids” here.)  Female agent Tina (Daliah Lavi), one of Helm’s many former lovers, successfully brings Helm back into the fold to thwart the master plan of Chinese mastermind Tung-Tze (Victor Buono), which will foment nuclear war between the superpowers.  By film’s end Tina’s mission to return Helm to the field will look a little strange, for then it’s revealed that she’s a double agent working for Tung-Tze.  Say what you will of Bond’s villains; at least they don’t go out of their way to encourgage the hero in his heroic efforts.

As in many superspy films, the sophisticated “bad girl” finds competition for the hero’s favors from a more naïve heroine, often a non-combatant accidentally drawn into the spy game.  When Helm and Tina seek out an informant—played by apparently slumming musical-star Cyd Charisse—the informant is killed and Gail (Stella Stevens) is the last to hear the informant’s dying words.  Due to various contrivances Helm suspects Gail of being a henchwoman of his enemy.  He then goes out of his way to maltreat her, such as ripping off her dress to look for concealed weapons.  Gail calls him a “sadist” at this point, and there certainly does seem a sadistic vibe in the script, going far beyond the usual movie-motif of showing two potential bedmates butting heads.  Though the audience pretty much knows that Gail is just an unlucky innocent, she’s still the victim of innumerable “comic” humiliations.  At least when the James Bond of the GOLDFINGER book bends Pussy Galore to his will, he actually thinks he’s doing her a good turn.

Probably the most noteworthy scene in the film—far more memorable than the hero’s anemic fights and gun-battles against the villain’s forces—transpires when Helm forces Gail to accompany him on a cross-country trip to check out the last words of the informant.  When they camp out in the car for the night, Helm—despite his professed belief that Gail’s an enemy spy— casts forth enough innuendos that Gail tries to sleep outside the car.  The script promptly spends several minutes deluging her with rain and mud, so that she eventually gets back in the car and succumbs to the inevitable.  One wonders if the scriptwriter was punishing some girl who left him sitting alone in his car at Makeout Point.

Eventually Helm and Gail are captured by Tung-Tze’s forces and are conveniently brought to the villain’s base of operations, where Helm proceeds to break free and destroy everything with his button-grenades.  Tina proves herself to be bad and Gail overcomes her naivete enough to assist Helm to a small degree.  The climax isn’t very impressive even for a Bond imitation, though it’s of interest that Victor Buono—known for scenery-chewing villains like “King Tut” on the BATMAN teleseries—plays the character of Tung-Tze straight, succeeding in giving him a quiet menace. 

MURDERER’S ROW follows the same pattern as SILENCERS.  Malevolent mastermind Julian Wall (Karl Malden) captures American scientist Dr. Solaris in order to wring from him the secret of (what else?) a solar super-weapon, with which Wall hopes to bring the world to its knees.  In this Wall has the usual small army, and two main allies.  One is the “bad girl” of the story, Wall’s mistress Coco (Camilla Sparv), who proves somewhat sympathetic to Helm’s cause, though for a change she doesn’t become one of the superspy’s bed-partners.  Wall’s other main aide is “Ironhead,” a tough enforcer-type who has a metallic dome covering the top of his skull.  This character proves more visually imposing rather than Malden’s unimpressive mastermind-character, and makes it possible for Helm to engage in a few half-decent fight-scenes.

Again, the most impressive element in the script is the “innocent outsider/good girl” who gets drafted into Helm’s adventure—but the script’s treatment of Suzie (Ann-Margret) is precisely the opposite of SILENCERS’ treatment of Gail.  As Suzie is the daughter of the captured scientist Solaris, she’s automatically given a greater motive for becoming Helm’s aide despite her inexperience, but the script also goes out of its way to make her as clever and vivacious as Gail was made klutzy and awkward.  Indeed, Ann-Margaret’s characterization of Suzie is of a piece with a similar “hot number” in 1964’s VIVA LAS VEGAS. In that film, Ann-Margret’s energy was well-matched with that of Elvis Presley.  Here, when Suzie tries to dance with Helm at a discoteche, he’s almost immediately exhausted by her energy—one of the few times any of the four Helm films acknowledge Dean Martin’s advancing age.  Perhaps Ann-Margret’s greater star-power insured that the scripters didn’t try to put her through the same wringer they used on Stella Stevens.

MURDERER’S ROW, in addition to giving audiences a more vibrant heroine, is richer in its employment of quasi-surrealistic fantasy-scenarios.  Helm is picked up in the scoop of a huge steam-shovel.  Helm drives a hovercraft through the streets of a major city.  Ironhead imprisons Helm in a giant centrifuge and jokes that it’ll turn Helm into a “milkshake” with its pumping action.  Given that from the first the series was focused on exploiting the most fantastic aspects of the Bond film-series, it’s somewhat pleasant to see ROW go all-out in the absurdity department.

Finally, we come back to “the Pussy test.”  Suzie is certainly a more admirable heroine than Gail, but does she possess any greater symbolic complexity?  The answer is no, though with the caveat that none of the characters, including Matt Helm, are anything more than simple stereotypes.  Oddly enough, SILENCERS ends with a come-on for the same-year sequel, and pays unusual attention to repeating the name of  the secretary-character seen briefly at the film's beginning: “Lovey Kravezit.”  Maybe the producers wanted to make sure everyone in the audience "got" the transparent pun modeled on “Pussy Galore.”  But the imitation of the name is all that the Helm series could duplicate.  In every other way, strangely for a series so devoted to heterosexual conquest, the filmmakers just couldn't manage to “get Pussy.”                 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

9 (2009)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*


I recently rescreened Shane Acker's first feature-length animated effort, 9. After some rescreenings I may pick up on subtleties I missed the first time.  Unfortunately, not only did I encounter no fresh nuances, I liked the animation design and the action choreography less than before.

The most problematic aspect of Acker's story-- which formed the basis of an earlier short with the same title, and which was expanded for this feature by a screenwriter-- is that it deals with a future world on which humanity has exterminated itself.  It's not impossible to wring pathos out of seeing the Earth divested of human beings, but to make the situation accessible, one must conceive a new group of beings to inherit the ill-used planet.  Some writers have achieved the proper effect with field mice, some have done just as much with robots.  But Acker's nine rag-dolls-- essentially led by the hero, who wears the titular number on his hide-- simply lack the *gravitas* necessary for the situation.

Acker begins his tale with a well-worn device: Doll Number 9 comes into consciousness with no knowledge as to what he is, what's happened to the ruined planet, or why he's being chased around by mechanized monsters that attempt to suck his soul.  Once he's made contract with some of the other dolls, they begin to fill in some of the gaps in his knowledge, but naturally they can't tell him everything,  In addition, one of the other dolls, Number 2, is captured by one of the robot monsters, but 9 perceives that the robot is keeping 2 alive, so 9 determines to rescue him. He meets opposition from a hidebound doll, Number 1, who doesn't belief in transgressing against the order of things as they appear to be, but the conflict between 1 and 9 never comes to much.

What the viewer gets, in essence, is the same basic scenario as TERMINATOR: SALVATION, but in place of human beings fleeing the victorious forces of a mechanized army, we have the dolls attempting to avoid similar machines (none of which are very impressively designed) while they attempt to sort out their origins.

I term the function of this narrative as "metaphysical" because those origins prove to be metaphysical in nature.  The dolls and the machines were both created by the same nameless inventor.  He created a super-machine that was suborned by a military-oriented government, but the super-machine created other machines and thus laid waste to humanity.  In some sort of last-ditch effort-- though its parameters are never made clear-- the scientist sacrifices his life to transfer nine parts of his soul into nine ambulatory rag dolls.  Thus, though the dolls aren't precisely programmed to destroy the super-machine and its offspring, somehow they're supposed to bring an end to the mechanized tyranny.  They do so, but it's certainly a pyrrhic victory at best, especially since the nine dolls-- minimally and insufficiently characterized-- don't suggest that they're going to prove better stewards of the planet than deceased humanity.

There are definitely ways one can meld materialistic science fiction with concepts of the soul, but Acker's approach to both concepts is wholly superficial. Just how does a cybernetic expert work out the problem of dividing his own soul into fragments?  Presenting answers to such questions can often help an author deepen the logic and consistency of his fictional world.  Unfortunately, Acker's world isn't even as well constructed as your average Ken-and-Barbie "doll house."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

MATCHING ESCORT (1983)



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



This period kung-fu film, whose translated title seems to mean precisely nothing, is sometimes titled WOLF DEVIL WOMAN 2.  The events of the story have nothing to do with the 1982 film WOLF DEVIL WOMAN, but it looks like ESCORT uses many of the same sets and costumes of the earlier film, in addition to its female star Chang Ling.

Picking up on a trope used in the earlier film, from girlhood heroine Pearl, a young noblewoman, receives training designed to increase her leg-strength, consisting of her wearing heavy iron shoes. By the time she reaches young womanhood, she runs around normally despite the weight.  But evil forces conspire against her family, all of whom are wiped out.  Only Pearl survives, because her uncle, just before he dies, instructs her to take off her shoes.  Once she does so, she finds that she can leap about with gravity-defying bounds, allowing her to escape the assassins temporarily.

If this were her only skill, the film would deserve the label "uncanny," for her enhanced strength would be along the same lines as that of Tarzan, whose formidability results from the rigor of his life with the apes.  However, there's also some oblique references to magic here, as well as some technology that doesn't belong in medieval China, which bump the film into the marvelous category.

Though Pearl escapes her family's killers, she has no real fighting-skills, though she does manage to trounce a gang of bandits who assault her later.  She also meets a handsome young swordsman and his comic retainer, though only at film's end will she learn that the swordsman is no less than the Emperor himself, traveling incognito as he seeks out the same group of assassins, albeit for his own reasons.

Pearl's enemies overtake her once more and she's flung into a mountain crevasse.  Her fall is broken by a pool inside the mountain, but the pool is part of the domain of a crippled old hermit; a domain filled with peculiar giant flowers and mushrooms.  The old man lost his legs to the same fiends who killed Pearl's family, and for years he's been cultivating a "medicine pool" which would somehow help him gain his revenge.  He yells at Pearl, claiming that she's soaked up all the power of his pool, but she tries to make nice by becoming his apprentice.  Later, after various comic training sequences-- none of which involve weapons-- the old man dies and claims that he's passing his spiritual power on to Pearl.  The audience sees no evidence of this, except that when Pearl goes after her enemies, she not only possesses her leaping-power but peerless sword-skills.

The more serious fight-scenes that follow include some wild fantasy-battles, though Chang Ling herself isn't an especially convincing fake-fighter.  In the end, Pearl's forced to spare the main villain because he's the brother of the Emperor, and must face the Emperor's presumably more lenient justice.  Oddly, Pearl and the Emperor part ways at the end, with an odd remark about her being unable to stay with him because she's a "commoner."  The opening made it look like she was of noble family, but maybe the translation's at fault there. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

EYES IN THE NIGHT (1942)



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

Since I just devoted an essay to two "uncanny-metaphenomenal" films which involved visually impaired heroes with impressive fighting skills, it seems right to touch on a film which uses the same trope in a naturalistic-isophenomenal manner.

Most compilers of fantasy-film encyclopedias don't include the Zatoichi films, since they don't contain anything overtly "marvelous."  With the notion of the "blind hero," though, I extend the same logic that I do to the "masked hero," as seen (for example) in my review of THE MAN FROM BROKEN GUN.  The hero of that film doesn't do anything beyond the boundaries of what a skilled human being can do, but the act of taking on a masked identity-- one that personifies justice-- qualifies it for uncanny phenomenality.  Zatoichi's actual skills are also within the boundaries of human abilities, yet the idea of a blind man being able to outfight not just one but sometimes several sighted opponents conveys a sense of the more-than-human.

This is not the case with the modern-day blind detective Duncan Maclain, who first appeared in the prose works of writer Baynard Kendrick.  Possibly MGM Studios contemplated a series featuring the detective, since one more entry for Maclain-- entitled THE HIDDEN EYE-- appeared, though not very speedily, since the second film didn't hit theaters until 1945.

Maclain, though totally blind, makes up the defienciency by taking advantage of others' overconfidence in his presence.  The opening film also shows him practicing the relatively-new combat of judo, which makes feasible for the hero to win a hand-to-hand battle with a sighted opponent at the conclusion.  But in contrast to Zatoichi, there's absolutely no indication that Maclain's sightlessness confers any specialness upon him.

In contrast to many B-mystery films of the time-- including HIDDEN EYE-- EYES's plot has somewhat more psychological density.  Perhaps this is because, unlike the sequel, it was adapted from one of author Kendrick's novels, though as I've not read it I can't testify to any points in common.

Maclain (an excellent Edward Arnold) receives his new case from an old friend (possibly an old lover), age-appropriate Norma Lawry.  Norma has married a widower named Stephen, also a top scientist working with the US military. Unfortunately for her, Stephen has a grown daughter, Barbara (a young Donna Reed).  Barbara may have a bit of an Electra complex toward her dad, for when Barbara begins an amateur acting gig, she meets, and begins dating, one of Norma's former boyfriends, another older man named Paul.  As Norma tells Maclain, though she didn't have any more feelings for Paul, Norma wanted to discourage the relationship.  Norma has the misfortune to stumble across the murdered body of Paul, and to be seen by Barbara.  Barbara then uses her knowledge to blackmail Norma to divorce Stephen and go away.

The setup is more interesting than the resolution: in keeping with the wartime theme, Maclain learns that Paul was actually murdered by a nest of Nazi spies masquerading as domestics in Stephen's house.  Led by a harsh-looking older woman (another older woman!), name of Cheli, the spies hope to suborn Barbara and Stephen to their cause.  Maclain, his seeing-eye dog and Barbara finally join together to defeat the spies.  Barbara even gets the chance to belt Cheli a good one, which may represent what she'd like to do to the woman who stole her daddy.

The ending is a little unusual, for most mystery-programmers of the time were careful to match up young ladies with young gentlemen beaus.  Not only is there no young beau for Barbara at the end of the adventure, she ends by asking the much older Maclain on a date.  Not only does he accept, there's even brief talk-- perhaps not entirely as a joke-- about him "spanking" her.  So even though Barbara is thwarted of her earlier project to get hold of one of Norma's old boyfriends-- which may be code for a paternal substitute-- she ends up with yet another old friend of Norma's.  There are no indications that either Norma or Stephen disapprove of this May-December date, though.



Friday, July 13, 2012

ZATOICHI (1962), ICHI (2008)





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

 In one of my essays for my litcrit blog THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, I drew a comparison between the medieval adventure-story of the character "Amlethus," which Shakespeare transformed into the sophisticated dramatic play HAMLET:

",,,the original Hamlet stories of the medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus, taking an adventurous approach, present the hero as cleverly pretending madness as a ruse to deceive his enemies.  Shakespeare transforms this notion into a critique of Hamlet's own rational mind and of his responses to his father's murder-- and in so doing, signals that the reader must be more critical toward Hamlet than Hamlet is.  Whereas in the adventure-themed folklore story of Hamlet the evil can be cast out without harm to the society, in a drama the hero is implicated in the evil and is "purged" no less than the villain."

The two films considered here take the opposite approach: the earlier starts out as a purgative drama, while the other takes the shape of a hot-blooded adventure-tale.  Both concern a species of the "uncanny-metaphenomenal" I've not yet written about: that of the blind warrior who seems to possess senses beyond any naturalistic sphere.

In 1962 ZATOICHI (the full title is THE TALE OF ZATOICHI) launched the first in a series of samurai stories focused upon the blind swordsman of the title (though only "Ichi" is his proper name; the entire designation translates to "blind itinerant low-class Ichi.")  The name denotes an important sociological motif in the first of the Zatoichi films, which continues to appear in at least some of the subsequent films in the series.  Like many heroes of popular fiction, Zatoichi addresses conflicts within his society. Prior to losing his vision, Zatoichi, born into a low class in Japan's "Edo era," is expected to be deferential to his betters, but he anticipates ill treatment and becomes a peerless swordsman in order to defend himself.  After losing his sight, Zatoichi wanders Japan, plying his trade as both a masseur and a gambler.  Sooner or later, however, his skills as a swordsman are called into play.  In the first entry, two rival gangster-factions are battling in the town where Zatoichi happens to wander.  One group tries to hire him against their enemies, while the other enlists another samurai to take on the blind swordsman.  There are other dramatic crossplots, but the inevitable conflict of the two warriors is the center of the drama.

Only a few scenes are devoted to the blind warrior displaying his peerless skills, easily the superior of many sighted men, and thus are the only manifestations of the uncanny-metaphenomenal within the "outre outfits skills and devices" trope.  These exhibitions are clearly secondary to Zatoichi's interaction with the other characters he meets-- splendidly essayed by lead actor Shintaro Katsu, who exclusively played the role in films and TV until his 1997 death.  Zatoichi himself has decidedly mixed feelings about his lonely, borderline-criminal existence.  In keeping with other serious samurai-dramas of the time, though there are situations that demand combat, there is no pleasure taken in combat, none of the glorification of the hero that marks the adventure-mythos.  Other Zatoichi stories may cleave more toward adventure than this one, but the original opus clearly follows the dramatic path.

The 2008 film ICHI posits that the wandering swordsman passed his skills on to a female student, also blind, who also took his name.  As Young Ichi has no family, she's taken in by a group of *goze* (a guild of blind female musicians), but after Ichi's raped by a man, the guild casts her out.  Despite having killed her rapist, Ichi's loss of her peer group is the greater trauma, so she too takes up an itinerant lifestyle, wandering the land in search of her father-surrogate.  Instead she finds surrogates for a couple of brothers: Kotaro, a little boy who calls her "sis" and Toma, a young man roughly her own age.  Toma has sword-skills roughly comparable to Ichi's own but can't use them readily, having undergone an emasculating trauma as a result of having accidentally blinded his mother during sword-practice.  Happily, though this all sounds like it should have a Freudian subtext, what with Ichi seeking her "lost father," the psychologizing is kept to a minimum.



Both Ichi and Toma become involved in battling a gang of marauders called the Banki-to, led by a man who once dueled Zatoichi and lost.  The presence of these unquestionable villains does much to edge the story more toward the pattern of the adventure-mythos.  In addition, Ichi's near-miraculous displays of swordswomanship are handled with a greater attention to sheer spectacle.

This isn't to say that the dramatic aspects are neglected.  I've seen some reviewer-complaints to the effect that Ichi is too one-dimensional in comparison with her male predecessor.  I don't agree.  Actress Haruka Ayase plays a character who has largely withdrawn into herself due to her traumas, yet even from the first, her capacity for normal emotion is strongly suggested.  In an early amusing scene, Ichi saves the largely powerless Toma from several bandits.  When he tries to claim, as a salve to his pride, that he actually saved her, Ayase barely changes expression, but just enough for Toma to accuse her of laughing at him ("You snorted, didn't you?  You snorted through your nose!")  Later, she confesses to Toma that she can't form bonds with others due to her exile from her guild, which has left her feeling as if she has no borders-- a thing that proves particularly ennervating to a blind woman.

There's also a fair amount of wry humor here, though I will admit that the actor playing the main villain overplays his role, when he would have proved more menacing as a subtler kind of adversary.







Thursday, July 12, 2012

EVERYTHING'S DUCKY (1961), THE 30-FOOT BRIDE OF CANDY ROCK (1959)



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


I found almost no amusement in 1965's SERGEANT DEADHEAD, a service comedy with no real metaphenomenal content, but it seems like comedy gold after struggling through Don Taylor's Disney-esque talking-duck-in-the-Navy story.

To be as mercifully brief as possible, two schlumpy Navy-sailors, played by the chemistry-less team of Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett, are given the duty to release an experimental duck back into the wild.  They find out that the duck can talk due to the experiments performed on it, but none of the sailors' Navy superiors know about that fact.  The duck becomes friends with the two schlubs, whose first thought is to figure out how they can use it to con other sailors into betting against their prodigy's ability to speak.  Then the Navy science lab decides it wants the duck back, because it supposedly has in its head a guidance-control program.  The sailors don't want the duck to get its head chopped off.  Supposed hilarity ensues.

About the only thing that was a little bit noteworthy in this strained fantasy-comedy was the duck's accidental role in setting up both of the goofs with cute girlfriends.  In one scene, Hackett's character accidentally acquires a girl when the duck flirts with the waitress, so that the duck more or less plays Cyrano to Hackett's Christian.  In contrast to Hackett, Rooney can't get anywhere with the girl of his dreams, but the Navy forces her to be a spy and get close to Rooney.  Naturally, she grows to like the little weasel.  But this is old, old stuff, all of which was done better by Universal's agreeably silly FRANCIS pictures.  After watching this pap, I wanted to rinse out my brain with reruns of the acerbic DUCKMAN teleseries.

It's not impossible to put a little heart into even silly endeavors, as is shown by Sidney Miller's 30 FOOT BRIDE OF CANDY ROCK.  The story of a goofy scientist (Lou Costello in a rare Abbott-less role) who changes his fiancee into a giantess is nothing new, but there was some care to set up some half-interesting psychological conflicts.  For instance, it's made clear that parentless Emmy Lou (Dorothy Provine) has long been under the thumb of her uncle, the big cheese in the small town of Candy Rock, and that in rebellion she's taken up with the town doofus.  To her irritation, the doofus wants to be a big man as well, hence his wacky inventions-- but thanks to one such invention, she's the one who becomes a Really Big Show.

Compared to DUCKY, BRIDE is well-paced even if it isn't exactly a laugh-riot, and Provine's restrained rampage through Candy Rock is fun if not memorable.  And then, there's also the scene that speaks to fears of male inadequacy before the female (no further comment needed):

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

THE STRANGE AND DEADLY OCCURENCE (1974), DON'T GO TO SLEEP (1982)



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


Both of these family-related "ghost stories" were enjoyable enough TV-fare, though one is "fake supernatural" while the other appears to be real, despite a slight suggestion otherwise.

STRANGE deals with that horror staple, the city-family that moves to a house in the sticks and gets no help from the locals when things get hairy.  The Rhodes family-- father Michael, mother Christine, and teen daughter Melissa-- seem to be enjoying their life in the country.  There's a slight suggestion that Melissa may be the source of the trouble that comes.  Before anything actually happens, Melissa tells her parents and a couple of guests a bloody story about how their home was built on the site of a Spanish mission.  As the story goes, a man with a typhoid-ridden wife brought her to the mission for help, and when his wife died, he went berserk, killing the monks and burning the mission to the ground.  Unfortunately, this charmingly bloody story never serves any purpose but to suggest the possibility of ghosts.  Mysterious pounding sounds are heard, the animals around the house act strangely, and the family dog is killed.  Michael demands protection from the local country-boy sheriff but the law can't be bothered with ghosts.  In the end, the ghostly effects turn out to have had a merely human cause, which aligns the film with the "phantasmal figurations" trope.

Old pros Robert Stack and Vera Miles are enjoyable as the beleaguered parents, and Margaret Willock does well as the teen daughter, though imdb lists only 11 film/TV roles in her history.  There's a slight suggestion of a parent-child conflict in that Melissa tells her mother that she's getting too old to be called pet-names by her father.  In a real supernatural story this might have set the scene for a poltergeist-haunting, but whatever Melissa's conflicts are, the script quickly loses interest in them.  The smooth direction comes from long-time genre veteran John Llewellyn (NIGHT STALKER) Moxey.

DON'T GO TO SLEEP, directed by Richard Lang, is of a piece with OCCURENCE, in that it too has some creepy moments but never grounds the spookiness in a strong psychological schema.  Again we have a relatively stable family, consisting of father Philip, mother Laura, and their grade-school aged son and daughter, Kevin and Mary.  However, this family has a tragedy in their background: under circumstances not fully revealed until the story's end, they lost another daughter, Jennifer, in a car-accident.  At times Philip shows stress from this event by drinking heavily, but Mary shows the most extreme reaction when she starts seeing Jennifer.

Is the ghost real, or has Mary-- whose carelessness caused her sister's death-- merely become unhinged?  Lang and writer Ned Wynn don't really pull off any sort of "Turn of the Screw" homage here, for when people start dying, some deaths seem like Mary could have pulled them off while others seem pretty strongly supernatural (Kevin is pushed out of a high window by an invisible force)?  At last only Laura and Mary are left, and Mary is confined to an asylum, thought insane due to claiming she's seen Jennifer.  The film ends with Laura finding out just how real Jennifer is.

Despite the fact that the family here is more troubled and the ending more downbeat than those found in OCCURENCE, the script doesn't give much more insight into the psychology of this troubled family than OCCURENCE did for its more upbeat characters.

A couple of years after SLEEP, Lang and Wynn re-teamed on a somewhat more satisfying project, the action-packed TV-movie VELVET.  This pilot-film, focused on a team of tough female government agents, might have provided the then-successful CHARLIE'S ANGELS with some competition, but unfortunately the project never got past the pilot stage.


Monday, July 9, 2012

A PLACE TO DIE (1973)



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

Though I wouldn't normally review the episodes of a television-anthology series (like, say, TWILIGHT ZONE) as distinct works, the episodes made for Brian Clemens' BBC series THRILLER have often been released to television in formats that suggest telemovies rather than TV episodes.  Further, these short (usually a little over 60 minutes) stories have often been included in metaphenomenal film-concordances, so whatever their origin, their reception is that of full-fledged movies.

I don't anticipate reviewing a lot of THRILLER movies.  Some of them are adequate timewasters, but many of them display not only their cheapness but also a cavalier tendency to fill screen time with meaningless scenes of people driving cars or ascending stairs.  In other words, many of them are extremely boring, regardless of the acting-talent involved.

A PLACE TO DIE, directed by Peter Jefferies (one of three THRILLERS he executed), is an above average exercise in TV-style terror.  Doctor Bruce Nelson and his wife Tessa move to a small rural English community, planning to make a new life.  Unfortunately for them, prior to the move Tessa injured her ankle in a minor accident, so that she limps and walks with a cane.  The superstitious locals-- many of whom also have a limping deformity, diagnosed by Bruce as congenital due to inbreeding-- regard her as the destined bride of their true deity: Satan himself, though at times he sounds more like a pagan crop-god.

The Brian Clemens-Terence Feeley script certainly isn't interested in the issues of religion and aesthetic life raised by the far superior WICKER MAN from the Peter Schaffer play. Still, even if one anticipates the real reason that the locals go out of their way to be extra kind to the new arrivals, the tension remains high because all of the actors play their roles with an intensity not found in a lot of THRILLER films.  There's a touch of the idealization of the "archetypal blonde goddess" here-- the Satan-worshippers also fixate on Tessa because she's "moon-pale and moon-golden"-- in spite of the fact that everyone in the film is Caucasian.  The presence of a mute character dressed in faintly Harlequin-esque garments adds to the general sense of strangeness, so that this fulfills the uncanny version of the "weird families and societies" trope.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

RED PLANET MARS (1952), THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957)





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


Some critics, aware of the real existence of paranoid elements in 1950s America, tend to see every SF-film from that decade as recapitulating those elements.  If this were true in fact, 1950s audiences would have stopped coming to SF-films in very short order, for they would have always known what to expect.  That said, some contain elements of paranoid psychology in very diluted forms, while others are more overt in pursuing them.

RED PLANET MARS is without question one of the most overt.  Scripted in part by John L. (DRACULA) Balderston from his own stage-play, MARS proposes a religiously-oriented “thought experiment” by which the era’s greatest bugaboo, the Communist menace, could be eradicated through the power of words rather than by force of arms.

In many SF-films a gender-dichotomy appears between the characters portrayed by the “male lead” and the “female lead.”  Usually the man is eminently willing to break new conceptual ground; to attempt risky experiments or explore new terrain, while the woman is the conservative one, constantly wary of danger and of overstepping social boundaries.  The question of religion doesn’t usually become a conflict between the couple in 1950s SF-films, but given the overall dynamic of the dichotomy, one would expect the female to be the one harping on “things God did not mean for man to know,” while the man would be anxious to overstep those boundaries in the name of science.  However, it was rare that the female lead’s reservations would be proven to be incontrovertibly correct. More, SF as a genre generally had a contentious attitude toward religion, so the defenders of religious verities were not usually validated in all respects.

The husband-and-wife scientist team of Chris and Linda Cronyn (Peter Graves and Andrea King) reproduces this dichotomy without fail.  Though Linda is a scientist herself, she experiences religious qualms at Chris’s current experiment: attempting to contact Mars.  Using an advanced “hydrogen tube” for his broadcasts—the invention, significantly, of an ex-Nazi, now-Communist scientist named Calder—Chris sends radio messages to Mars in an attempt to contact its hypothetical civilization. Chris, though unswervingly devoted to the cause of science, evinces some Faustian overtones, implying broadly that he wants the personal glory of going down in history as a great contributor to science.  The first “answering” signals seem to be mere rebounds of his broadcasts, but he eventually gets the idea of including the incomplete value of “pi” in his broadcast, to see if the Martians will finish the equation.  In short order the Martians do so, and begin sending official messages to the people of Earth, describing their advanced civilization.

What follows seems a broad warning against the dangers of “freedom of speech.”  Even though the people of Earth have no literal contact with the denizens of Mars, the Martians’ alleged mastery of advanced science and social order spreads worldwide panic.  Capitalist businesses prove particularly vulnerable: even the rumor that some new science may render current technology obsolete sends the stock market into a tailspin.  This may be Baldestone’s best insight: showing how deeply capitalism was implicated in a sort of day-to-day “faith”—not in religious precepts, but in the inertia of everyday experience.


Despite the financial and social turmoil, Chris sticks to his guns, believing that all scientific knowledge should be fully available.  The government reluctantly agrees, upholding his civil rights to continue his Martian broadcasts. Then the broadcasts take on overtones of sacred revelation.  All over the world religions—not only Christianity, but also Judaism, Buddhism and “Mohammedism”— make thousands of new converts.


But there’s a fly in the ointment, and it’s the aforementioned inventor of the hydrogen tube.  Calder, seen early in the film, apparently marvels at Chris’s results when speaking to his evil Communist masters.  He appears to perish in an avalanche, but later shows up on Chris and Linda’s door to reveal the truth.


According to the rogue scientist, he’s been the agency behind the Martian broadcasts, circulating the appearance of a super-religious civilization so as to pull the rug out from under mankind’s religious community.  He doesn’t even do it because he’s an ardent Communist; he just holds a pathological hatred of all mankind and lusts for its destruction.  Because Calder is armed, Chris and Linda can’t directly attack him to prevent his insidious plan from coming true, but they consider overloading one of their devices so that it will explode and doom them all before the secret is revealed.

In the ensuing moment, Linda's religious leanings are vndicated.  A new broadcast—one which neither Calder nor the Cronyns could have made—confirms at last that there is life on Mars, and it worships God.  Calder, filled with rage, blasts away at the very device Chris and Linda hoped to trigger.  He thus blows all of them, thus preserving the secret without the necessity of Chris and Linda committing functional suicide.  The religious conversion-movement grows with such rapidity that the Communist Empire is overthrown.  The planet Earth becomes a haven of peace.  Chris and Linda die but their sons will grow up knowing that all the world will venerate their names—thus accomplishing Chris’s ambitions, though not in the manner he originally desired.

In Campbellian terms this must be considered a film about metaphysical issues, but it remains a superficial one.  There may be good arguments one could make about the superiority of religion to science, but Balderston doesn’t present any sort of argument.  I give it a ‘fair” rating in terms of mythicity mostly because of the aforementioned sociological critique (however indirect) of American capitalism, and for its slight twist on gender roles.  It’s clear that Balderston had no conception of the dynamic underlying Communism, and even a cognate film like THE GAMMA PEOPLE showed more ideological insight into the fabled Red Menace.  Arguably the bland direction and the indifferent acting by the two leads match the stereotypical conceptions of the script.






THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD is a decent but unexceptional creature-feature of the period.  Released about three years after 1954’s THEM!, MONSTER feels like a minor variation on the earlier film's invasion of giant ants.  In place of the ant-army, the 1957 film substitutes a less spectacular attack by a group of prehistoric mollusks with a strong resemblance to caterpillars.  Though a group is implied, only one monster is seen onscreen at any time, so that the paranoid fear of “the other” isn’t conjured as strongly as it was in THEM! To be sure, THEM! was not a super-expensive film, but its producers proved skillful at suggesting an army without showing much on screen.  MONSTER doesn't overcome its limitations in that respect, but the mollusk-monster is a solid design.

It might be too much to regard the trope “military vs. monsters” as a genre in itself, but MONSTER does begin and end with the American military’s efforts to contain the prehistoric beasts, only incidentally involving civilians.  The usual scientific gobbledygook is brought out to explain the revival of the mollusks, and radiation is referenced but never anathematized as a source of evil.  The acting is as bland as the script, except for Audrey Dalton, who conveys a good level of fear at the monster’s advent.


In contrast to THEM!, there’s no great sense that the beasties represent any sociological boogies, so I’d regard the main Campbellian function as “cosmological” in the sense that it takes a normal creature and inflates it into a menacing “other.”


  

 
 

THE MUMMY'S GHOST (1944)




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

 The most notable aspect of MUMMY’S GHOST, directed by frequent horror-helmer Reginald LeBorg, is that it’s the first of the four Kharis films to return to the idea of reviving the spirit—technically, the “ghost” in the title—of Kharis’ long-lost princess in a contemporary body.  In the previous two films, Ananka herself is of no great importance.  It’s her tomb, the cynosure of a modern cult of Egyptian paganism, that the mummy Kharis defends, and it’s because of the tomb’s desecration that the cult’s high priest sends the mummy after the desecrators.  As noted in the previous MUMMY-movie essay, it’s the high priest’s passion for a modern woman that usurps the idea of the undead mummy being reunited with his lost love.

At the start of GHOST several years have passed since Kharis is supposed to have perished in a fiery holocaust in the Massachusetts town of Mapleton at the end of MUMMY’S TOMB.  The setting remains in Mapleton, but now the students at the local college profess disbelief that a living mummy ever existed.  Among the disbelievers is young Tom, who little suspects that his current girlfriend will prove to have an intimate connection with Kharis.  The girlfriend, name of Amina (Ramsey Ames), has Egyptian heritage in her background, thus returning to a notion expressed in Karl Freund’s MUMMY : that though one might expect reincarnation to transcend ethnic boundaries, it’s apparently easier for Egyptian spirits to show up in those descended from Egypt.  Unfortunately, Amina is an underdeveloped character, vastly inferior to Helen Grosvenor, the heroine of THE MUMMY.  Similarly, the film’s script has little interest in any of the glories of ancient Egypt.


Meanwhile, though it’s never revealed just how Kharis survived the holocaust, the two extant priests of the Egyptian cult (located in the Egyptian city of “Arkham,” a clear shout-out to H.P. Lovecraft) are aware that  the mummy has not been destroyed.  Again, a wizened George Zucco gives the requisite orders to priest-in-training Yussuf Bey (John Carradine), sending him to America.  But there’s a new wrinkle.  Since the desecrators from THE MUMMY’S HAND were killed in MUMMY’S TOMB, the priests’ new concern is that the mummy of Princess Ananka has been put on display at a Mapleton museum.  Yussuf’s mission is to revive the mummy of Ananka and bring both mummies back to Egypt.  No further plans are mentioned: the priests don’t nurture any overt plans to conquer the world with a mummy-army.  It's implied that all they want is to reclaim what they consider to be their sacred property.


Even before Yussuf arrives to take charge of Kharis, the mummy kills a local professor who makes the mistake of experimenting with tana leaves.  Amina begins to have weird fears about anything suggestive of ancient Egypt, and at one point she walks in her sleep, drawn by the presence of Kharis.

Once Yussuf locates Kharis, priest and mummy break into the museum at night, but their plans to revive Ananka’s mummy are apparently foiled by the capricious Egyptian gods.  Before Yussuf’s eyes the body within the mummy-bandages simply fades into nothingness.  He takes it as a sign that the spirit of Ananka has become fully embodied in a modern female body, and he and Kharis depart after committing another incidental murder.


While the local police come to grips with the mummy’s return and try to set traps for the creature (easily the film’s most forgettable scenes), Yussuf and Kharis find and abduct Amina.  This breeds the first conflict between the bandaged monster and his spooky handler.  In the two previous Kharis films, the mummy’s handlers both fell in lust with nice American girls and so compromised their devotion to their faith.  There was no conflict with the mummy, though, since Kharis had no interest in any female but the one he loved in ancient times.


Yussuf becomes infatuated with Amina within moments of having captured her.  The poor girl’s given no chance to cope with the dire fate being thrust upon her when Yussuf is encouraging her to marry him, promising her (just as Turhan Bey did to a similar victim in MUMMY’S TOMB) the gift of mummified immortality, even though Yussuf himself does not seem to be any sort of immortal.  Kharis overhears the betrayal, breaks in and destroys his only ally in the strange land of America.  The mummy attempts, rather pathetically, to escape to parts unknown with Amina.  Tom arrives on the scene but fails to impede the invulnerable creature.  A convenient mob of townspeople show up to help the young man chase his fiancee’s abductor.  In a downbeat ending rare for a 1940s Universal film, the mummy walks into a swamp with Amina.  But even before Amina drowns, she shows the withered face of a mummy.  In contrast to the fortunate fate of Helen Grosvenor, Amina has been completely claimed by her ancient heritage.  Later,  in the subsequent MUMMY’S CURSE, Kharis apparently takes a subterranean tunnel, still carrying Amina's drowned body, all the way from Massachusetts to Louisiana.  There both of them emerge from a Louisiana swamp-- Amina comes back to life for no particular reason, albeit played by another actress-- and once they begin their pas de deux of death.


GHOST is something of a mixed bag.  In contrast to previous Kharis-helmers Christy Cabanne and Harold Young, LeBorg proves a phlegmatic, unimaginative director here.  He devotes an unfortunate amount of time to long shots of the mummy shambling through the forest.  This strategy may have given Lon Chaney Jr. more time to perfect his unique “mummy-walk,” but it also spotlights just how slow the creature is and how easy it should be for victims to run away from it.  Tom and Amina, though not unsympathetic, lack even the breezy appeal of the average 1940s stock characters.  The script forces Yussuf Bey to fall in lust so quickly that not even John Carradine’s sonorous voice can make the development seem convincing.

Still, there’s some pleasure in seeing this B-film flaunt the usual conventions of its kindred.  In most such films, no matter who else gets killed, the romantic couple is sacrosanct, even when they’re not overly likeable.  Although GHOST may be the least exciting Kharis-film overall, the death-scene of Amina by itself may be for many the most memorable such scene in the whole four-film series.