Friday, August 31, 2012

ARABIAN NIGHTS (1942)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
 
 
ARABIAN NIGHTS is one of many naturalistic sword-and-sandal pictures produced by Hollywood in the 1940s, no better or worse than most.  For fantasy-fans it may sustain a little more than average curio interest because it derives a substantial part of its plot from one of the decade's great fantasy-movies, Alexander Korda's 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD.
 
The 1940 film, more a rethinking than a remake of the 1924 silent original, places its royal protagonist King Ahmad in jeopardy when his evil vizier convinces him to go among the people in secret-- thus emulating his ancestor Haroun-al-Raschid, a real-life Islamic ruler prominently fictionalized in the tales of the 1001 Nights.  Ahmad, having willingly divested himself of his royal identification, is hurled into a dungeon by the vizier's agents and condemned to die, only to be rescued by Abu, the young Thief of Bagdad who protects him and eventually makes it possible for Ahmad to wed a beautiful princess.
 
Similar events come about in 1942's NIGHTS, albeit by accident.  This time it is a very fictionalized version of Haroun al-Raschid, the Caliph of Bagdad (Jon Hall), who takes the Ahmad role from THIEF OF BAGDAD.  As the film begins, Haroun has just put down an uprising by his bastard brother Kamar (Leif Erickson).  Kamar is being slowly executed by being hung in the sun.  Haroun feels guilty and looks as though he might spare his envious brother.  However, adherents of Kamar attack the execution-site. Haroun is forced to flee, but a thrown knife by an enemy soldier wounds him.  Ali Ben Ali, an acrobatic performer in a traveling circus, witnesses Haroun's wounding and takes the injured ruler into the circus while concealing his identity.  Throughout the film Ali-- played by the actor Sabu, the same actor who essayed Abu in THIEF-- becomes Haroun's faithful protector.  In contrast to THIEF, where the low-born thief rescues the king because he forms a personal liking for Ahmad, Ali risks his life for this king without much motivation beyond "that's what faithful retainers do." 
 
Meanwhile Kamar's forces take over the city (wonder where all these soldiers were, during the earlier uprising?)  Kamar and his flunkies believe Haroun has been slain, but Kamar has another ambition beyond ruling Bagdad.  He's fallen in love with a famous dancer, Scheherazade (Maria Montez), and so he wishes to present her with the throne despite her common birth (which mirrors his bastard status, though this never comes up again after the opening).
 
Dancer Scheherazade happens to be with the very circus into which Ali has smuggled the wounded Haroun.  From her opening dialogue, she's something less than appealing: she tongue-lashes the circus-manager (Thomas Gomez) like a modern-day diva.  She bears no love for Kamar, she merely wants him to rescue her from her low status.  However, she softens when Ali shows her his unconscious prize, and persuades the circus-manager to take Haroun along, both of them ignorant of Haroun's true status.  Later, when Haroun comes to, he and Scheherazade rapidly fall in love.
 
Once Kamar sends for Scheherazade to join him on the throne of Badgad, the plot has to use a number of contrivances to keep the dancer and the hidden king out of his hands for a while.  The main contrivance consists of the circus-troupe being sold into slavery, though in due time Scheherazade is separated from the group and brought to Kamar.
 
The tribulations of Haroun and his fellows are played with a light touch; they break free from the slave-pens with ridiculous ease and have various near encounters with Kamar's soldiers.  Eventually Ali reveals Haroun's identity to his fellow performers, who also selflessly risk their lives in an attack on Kamar's camp, conveniently far from the armies with which he conquered Bagdad.  The assault results in the death of Kamar and Haroun's reunion with Scheherazade.
 
I'll argue that the romantic battle of Haroun and Kamar over Scheherazade owes something to THIEF's model as well.  In the 1940 film, Ahmad and the evil vizier Jaffar will come into conflict over the aforementioned beautiful princess, but it's actually Jaffar who sees her first in his magic crystal. It's implicit that one of Jaffar's main motives for unseating Ahmad is to become a ruler worthy of approaching the princess' father for the lovely lady's hand in marriage, though she never sees him until the day of said proposal.  In NIGHTS, Kamar sees and falls in love with the ambitious Scheherazade long before Haroun knows her as anything but a name, if that.  In both cases, the villains' plots backfire, causing the respective heroes to encounter their respective heroines and to win the heroines' hearts. 
 
This was the first Arabic-flavored archaic adventure in which either Hall or Montez starred.  Hall is adequate.  In this film at least I found Montez's beauty rather cold and unappealing, even after she's supposed to have lost her ambitious desires in favor of true love.
 
In comparison with the strong comic touches of THIEF, Sabu's role as Ali is played straight, aside from one humorous moment where he's dunked in a pool by several harem-girls.  Most of the comedy is supplied by two circus-performers playing versions of "Sinbad" (Shemp Howard) and "Aladdin" (John Qualen); the former won't stop yakking about his fabulous adventures while the latter keeps thinking that every lamp he comes across ought to contain a genie.  These routines aren't very funny, but toward the end Qualen's Aladdin has a good comic dialogue with one of Kamar's soldiers, whom he torments with lines like, "Why come back later?  Why don't you come back now?"
 
Oddly, this reverse-logic may be the closest thing in ARABIAN NIGHTS to anything from Islamic lands, as it reminded me of a similar reverse-logic joke from the legendary storyteller Nasrudin:
 
 Nasrudin walked into a shop one day.
The owner came forward to serve him.
"First things first," said Nasrudin; "did you see me walk into your shop?"
"Of course."
"Have you ever seen me before?"
"Never in my life."
"Then how do you know it is me?"
 


 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

HERCULES AND THE MOON MEN (1964), SAMSON IN KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1964)





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

These two peplum are alike in that they're (1) heavy on the pectotal-pricking deathtraps, and (2) possessed of at least some marvelous elements.  They're different in that (1) one has a decent lead actor and a boring lead villainess, while the other's the exact reverse.

HERCULES AND THE MOON MEN-- directed by Giacomo Gentilomo, whose other familiar credit is co-directorship of another peplum, GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES-- is better known to modern audiences thanks to its adaptation into an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.  MOON MEN isn't by any means the worst of the Italian musclemen epics, but it's made partly risible by the presence of aliens in a Hercules (originally "Maciste") film, and partly by the blatant "men-in-monster-suits" conceptions of those aliens, to wit:

 

The sci-fi elements overlay what might be called the "Minotaur trope," wherein an evil ruler continually sacrifices helpless victims to the maw of some monster or monsters.  The monsters here are a race of moon men who have crashed on ancient Earth near the city of Samar.  Queen Samarra (Jany Clair) strikes a deal with the aliens: they want constant sacrifices, whose blood they think may revive their comatose queen (though it apparently goes on for some time without having any effect).  In exchange, the evil queen, not satisfied with dominating her own bailiwick, wants to use the aliens' advanced technology to conquer the world.  Naturally, such a threat brings forth the mighty Hercules, played this time by a muscleman named Alan Steel, who generally looks cheerful as he lays waste to the queen's minions and, eventually, the moon men.

Despite her vaulting ambition, Samarra struck me as one of the weaker evil queens seen in these mini-epics.  Perhaps it's because she seems dependent on the aliens to maintain her power.  She meets her inevitable end rather uncourageously, as well.  Gentilomo at least included a couple of extra beauties for the audience's delectation: Samarra's good sister, who has the usual prince-boyfriend, and a lady freedom-fighter who makes nice with Hercules.  However, overall Gentilomo's pacing is pretty slack, which may be one reason it made a good subject for MST3K treatment.

In contrast, SAMSON IN KING SOLOMON'S MINES, though padded with some travelogue-style footage at the start, keeps a nice assortment of plot-threads moving.  Director-duties here went to Piero Regnoli. His imdb credits show more writing-gigs than directorships, though he both wrote and directed the enjoyable fang-flick THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRES.  Regnoli also wrote MINES, though aside from the North African location there's nothing substantive to connect these particular mines to the Biblical sovereign.  (Of course, mines by themselves are one of the favorite locales seen in peplum, since they almost require the presence of enslaved workers.)

To be sure, the opening does tell us of a fabulous African city named Zimba, ruled by Caucasians, which has access to the fabled mines, though Zimba's king doesn't allow any gold to be removed, as a means of keeping the city at peace.  Zimba has a young son, name of Vazmar, who stands in line to inherit the kingship-- his very existence a sure sign that it's going to be placed in peril.

Scheming general Riad decides to betray his king and his city.  Using a subterranean tunnel (concealed by an ornate Sphinx-head that becomes significant later), Riad sneaks out of the city and seeks out the camp of a tribe of neighboring warriors, also Caucasians, who are ruled by a fiery queen named Fazira (Wandisa Guida).  In exchange for more power, Riad makes a pact to lead Fazira's troops into the city through the hidden passage.  He does so, and the city falls to Fazira.  However, orphaned prince Vazmar escapes with the help of a handmaiden.  Her name happens to be Samarra, proving that for some reason 1964 was a good year for peplum-girls of that name.

Fazira is one of the strongest evil queens I've seen in peplum.  Before Riad arrives to make his deal, she's seen striding around in trousers as she critiques two of her warriors after they've finished fighting with staffs. Displeased with their performance, she grabs a staff and knocks one man to the ground.  One might say: sure, no soldier's going to really fight his ruler.  However, during the invasion of Zimba minutes later, Fazira is seen plunging into battle alongside her men, and even stabbing a few of the defending soldiers.  This was not the norm for the nefarious queens of peplum, who were more accustomed to lounging around giving other people orders to maim and kill.



Enter the inevitable hero, Maciste/Samson.  As played by Reg Park, Samson doesn't exactly look like the brightest bulb in the socket.  However, he does have some good stunts.  When a freedom-fighter is imperilled by a spike-machine bearing down on him, Samson simply rips out the wall behind him in order to set him free!  But Fazira's men capture Samson, and he's scheduled for execution via being torn asunder by wild horses.  With a vibrant display of tormented musculature, Samson outpulls the horses. Fazira is very taken with this display of prowess, to the extent that she talks about rediscovering her femininity, or something like that.


Following the example of Steve Reeves' two HERCULES films, Fazira finds a way to enslave Samson.  Once an enchanted metal cuff is secured around Samson's ankle, he becomes a veritable zombie in her service.  Sadly, he's not seen satisfying her sexual whims; rather, Fazira is content to make Samson work his ass off in the mines.

Meanwhile, for a while Samarra and Vazmar have been taken in by a friendly tribe of black Africans (mostly "acted" by travelogue-footage). Later Samarra is captured by Fazira's forces and tortured to make her reveal the prince's whereabouts.  When she doesn't talk, Fazira threatens to go Goldfinger on her, by pouring molten gold over her body.

Fortunately the enslaved citizens of Zimba manage to get away from their overseers long enough to file the enchanted cuff off Samson's leg.  Samson leads a general revolt, which includes coming up through that secret passage with such force that the giant Sphinx-head is toppled, crushing Riad with his own device.  Minutes later, Fazira meets a similar fate, perishing in her own molten gold (but, unlike Samarra of MOON MEN, remaining uncompromisingly evil to the end).

Unlike MOON MEN, the elements of the marvelous in MINES are a little more marginal, as Samson's zombification only takes place for a short time in the film.  Some of Samson's stunts, like outpulling the horses, might be assigned merely "uncanny" status, but when the hero picks up a hunk of stone about the size of a small car, I think we're dealing with real super-power.




Tuesday, August 28, 2012

GHOST RIDER (2007), GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE (2011)



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


Like most comics-fans I can grind my gears about any number of "incorrect" cinematic portraits of comic-book characters, even knowing that the comic books themselves often differ widely in this or that creator's depiction of a given character's nature.

Marvel Comics' Ghost Rider, however, has one advantage over more well traveled figures like Spider-Man or even Daredevil.  I confess I'm not as familiar with versions of the character seen during the 1990s and afterward as I am with earlier renditions. Nevertheless, nothing I've seen of those later versions dissuades me that Ghost Rider is harder to make "incorrect" because he's such a simple type of monster-hero.  From the early version by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog to the chain-wielding "spirit of vengeance," the Rider is pretty simple: he encounters evil and kicks its ass.  The character's experiences with magic, mysticism, Heaven and Hell are rarely if ever developed in terms of their symbolic complexity-- which may be a great part of the Ghost Rider's continuing appeal; that lack of canonical story-baggage that often weighs down characters like Spider-Man.

This may be why the 2007 GHOST RIDER, written/directed by Mark (DAREDEVIL) Steven Johnson, was reasonably profitable despite negative critical reviews.  Though it drew on some of the hero's comics-mythology of the 1990s, Johnson's film remained basically true to the essence of the Friedrich-Ploog original, detailing the struggles of Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage), a man who sells himself to the Satan-like Mephisto for a favor.  Mephisto later summons Blaze and transforms into the fiery-headed Ghost Rider.  Blaze is offered the chance to win back his soul if he will defeat a group of demons who have rebelled against Mephisto's authority-- one of whom is Mephisto's own son Blackheart.

Most of the plot is consumed by the Rider's running battles with the demons, though a subplot involves an earlier "Ghost Rider" from the Old West, who was also Mephisto's pawn but who won free by defying the demon-lord.  (For those not in the know, this was a continuity "shout-out" to the fact that Marvel had published a Western "Ghost Rider" prior to the skull-headed protagonist.)  At the climax, thanks to the help of the Western Rider and of his faithful (but not very interesting) girlfriend, this Ghost Rider defeats the rebel demons but also deprives Mephisto of a prize consisting of a contract for a thousand souls. The film ends with Johnny Blaze swearing to use his demonic powers to bedevil the Devil himself.

Johnson's film isn't a bad rendition of the comic-book original, but the hero's running battles with assorted petty demons reduce it to a rather pedestrian collection of supernatural fight-scenes.  Its best moment consists of the two Riders teaming up for the common good, to the accompaniment of the pleasurable (though predicatable) tune "Ghost Riders in the Sky."  All in all, just an average blending of the horror/superhero worlds.

Prior to screening the sequel GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, I'd heard nothing but thumbs-down reviews for it.  Since I found it an improvement over the original film, I'm inclined to wonder if SPIRIT was the target of fannish "vengeance" from audiences who didn't like Nicholas Cage (reprising the central role), or story-scribe David S. Goyer (who *has* written many bad works), or just the idea of a Ghost Rider sequel to begin with.

As I said above, most GHOST RIDER comics have kept their metaphysical dealings pretty simple.  In contrast, Goyer's story (transformed into a screenplay by Goyer and two others) does yeoman duty to bring some of the resonance of real Christian mythology into the comic book's Christian-derived mythos.  At the same time co-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor deliver almost as much kickass action for SPIRIT as they did with their previous (and justly celebrated) collaborations, the two CRANK films starring Jason Statham. 

In contrast to the rather ponderous plot of Johnson's adaptation, the plot of SPIRIT sticks with one basic, visceral idea: Mephisto sending his goons, both mortal and demonic, to bring him Danny (Fergus Riordan), the thirteen-year old boy whom the Devil fathered on a living woman named Nadya (Violante Placido). At a certain time and place, Mephisto-- who walks on Earth in a mortal body named "Roarke"-- plans to transfer his essence into his son.  This will destroy the boy's essence but will also make it possible for Mephisto to extend his power in the mortal world to an unprecedented degree.  Nadya, a gun-toting babe in the Linda Hamilton tradition, opposes this plan, as does Moreau, a gun-toting Christian warrior.  Moreau, having somehow learned of Johnny Blaze's curse, seeks out the bike-rider and offers him the chance to be purged of his curse if he helps foil the devil's scheme.


Goyer's characterization of the Blaze-Rider relationship is more nuanced than Johnson's.  Following the 2007 film, Johnny Blaze has found it hard to control the Rider's power.  In particular, he warns Moreau (and later Nadya) that the Rider is so ruthless that he'll punish anyone, not just those most deserving.  This warning bears fruit later; following the Ghost Rider's second conflict with a batch of Mephisto's hired thugs, the Rider also turns on the objects of his rescue.  Only the fact that Danny is a conduit for Mephisto's Satanic power enables the boy to subdue the demon inside Johnny Blaze.

Mephisto ups the ante by transforming one of his thugs into Blackout (a character based on, but not directly linked to, a villain from the comics-mythology).  The demonized Blackout, possessed of the power to cause things to decay, goes after Blaze and his cohorts, which belatedly includes Moreau.

Moreau, thinking that he's got the mother and child stashed away securely, comes through on his promise to rid Johnny Blaze of his curse, after giving him a little history lesson about the demon, who was once an angel who was captured and corrupted by Hell.  The script thus creates a parallel between Blaze and the demon that possesses him, though it doesn't come to much given that the Rider doesn't have much of a personality beyond "crush kill destroy."  The curse is lifted, but one doesn't need a telegraph receiver to get the message that Blackout will once more capture Danny and that Blaze will need the Rider's power just when he's lost it.

Still, despite this predictable development, Goyer does come up with a fairly original way to re-curse the hero so that he can kick demon-butt, save the boy and restore the hero's status quo as cursed crusader. Goyer's story may have aroused fannish ire simply because it was a simple formula, but I'd argue that it was a better rendition of formula than the Johnson film-- and also better than an awful lot of GHOST RIDER comics.  Its virtues may be minor ones-- as when Danny asks Blaze what would happen if he tried to pee while he was on fire-- but they are virtues nonetheless.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

LIPSTICK (1976), EYES OF A STRANGER (1981), THE COLOR OF NIGHT (1994)




PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic* (2) *uncanny* (3) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) and (2) *poor,* (3) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

In his book THE PROBLEM OF PAIN, C.S. Lewis writes:

There is no possibility of arguing from mere danger to the uncanny, still less to the fully Numinous. You may say that it seems to you very natural that early man, being surrounded by real dangers, and therefore frightened, should invent the uncanny and the Numinous. In a sense it is, but let us understand what we mean. You feel it to be natural because, sharing human nature with your remote ancestors, you can imagine yourself reacting to perilous solitudes in the same way; and this reaction is indeed ‘natural’ in the sense of being in accord with human nature. But it is not in the least ‘natural’ in the sense that the idea of the uncanny or the Numinous is already contained in the idea of the dangerous, or that any perception of danger or any dislike of the wounds and death which it may entail could give the slightest conception of ghostly dread or numinous awe to an intelligence which did not already understand them. When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.



I've discussed the distinctions between the qualities of Lewis' trinity of "fear, dread, and awe" in this ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE essay,  but I won't go into a lot of theory-oriented detail here.  Rather, I want to apply the theory to three "perilous psycho" movies in order to what puts them either in the realm of the naturalistic (and thus dealing principally with "the fear of danger") or in the realm of the uncanny (and thus dealing principally with "ghostly dread.")


Of the three films cited here, LIPSTICK would be the least likely to find its way into the annals of metaphenomenal cinema.  Helmed by longtime television-director Lamont Johnson, LIPSTICK is a very straightforward thriller in which a young model named Chris (Margaux Hemingway) is raped by an acquaintance-- her young sister's schoolteacher Gordon (Chris Sarandon).  Her victimization is followed by yet more humiliation, when the innocent-seeming Gordon succeeds in convincing a court that his sex with this high-rolling fashion-model was consensual in nature.  Later, when Gordon menaces Chris's little sis Kathy (Mariel Hemingway), Chris gets hold of a shotgun-- rather conveniently within her reach just when she needs it-- and blows the rapist scumbag away. 

LIPSTICK is about as elementary as an adult-targeted thriller can get.  Chris is horribly maltreated by her tormentor; Chris gets even with vigilante justice-- and also gets vindicated for manslaughter charges just as easily as her rapist did for his crime.  The script is so horribly schematic and by-the-numbers that even mediocre knockoff-flicks on the revenge-theme-- such as LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH, a blatant rip of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT-- are more resonant than this glossy, empty exercise.  At no time does the sparsely-written screenplay even attempt to get into the heads of either the rapist or his victim, not even in the most simplistic manner typical of telefilms.  At no point does this film evoke any emotion except the naturalistic fear of danger.

LIPSTICK deals with a instance of "acquaintance rape," committed by an ordinary-looking man with a psychotic edge.  The villain of 1981's EYES OF A STRANGER (played by John DiSanti) looks just as ordinary as LIPSTICK's rapist-villain, but he operates on a larger scale, terrorizing the women of Miami by both raping and killing several victims.  By itself, however, the larger scale of this psycho's endeavors does not transform the narrative's phenomenality from naturalistic to uncanny, from the realm of simple fear to a more complex dread.  The Lifetime cable-channel is replete with dozens of telefilms featuring serial killers, serial rapists or combinations thereof, few of which evoke the sense of uncanny dread.

EYES debuted in theaters at a time when psycho-slasher films were still in ascendance, but this film's killer has little in common with the more colorful fiends of the period: he isn't deformed, wears no distinctive mask or clothing, and uses no special gimmicks or bizarre methods to commit his murders-- all in spite of the fact that one of the writers credited with the EYES screenplay also worked on the seminal 1980 FRIDAY THE 13TH.  Nevertheless, for all the naturalistic touches here, the script does give the villain a larger-than-life quality that confers a sense of dread to the proceedings.  For one thing, though the psycho-rapist never earns a distinctive nom du crime, on occasion the heroine, news reporter Jane Harris (Lauren Tewes), dubs him "the Phone Freak" because he preys on women after tormenting them with lascivious phone calls. His first on-screen victim complains about the perverted phone calls to the police, only to be told that she's just one of many women being so harassed, which conveys the sense of Miami being gripped by an epidemic of malicious male behavior.  The conspiracy of evil males particularly afflicts Jane Harris due to the fate of her younger sister Tracy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who lost her sight due to a trauma brought on by kidnapping and molestation.  Jane attempts to rouse the public against the serial murderer, only to find out that the Phone Freak occupies her own building.  This leads to a creepy scene in which the Freak invades Jane and Tracy's apartment and tries to rape the blind girl-- who nonetheless defends herself pretty well until her sister comes to the rescue (accompanied by a Tom Savini "exploding head" effect).

I can easily imagine a Lifetime movie adapting the essential plot of EYES and reframing it into entirely naturalistic terms.  However, the approach of director Ken Weiderhorn-- best known for 1977's Nazi-zombie film SHOCK WAVES-- gives the proceedings a vibe that suggests the uncanny despite all the mundane trappings.  




Whereas the villain of EYES communicates a perverse "Jack the Ripper" theme despite the film's surface naturalism, COLOR OF NIGHT swings back toward the realm of the naturalistic even though it too deals with a serial killer who racks up an impressive body count.

Rather than being motivated by pure lust, COLOR's villain is your basic "psycho with a grudge."  Hero-psychologist Bill Capa (Bruce Willis) finds his heart full of Hitchcock-esque insecurities after one of his patients kills herself before his eyes.  Despite his self-doubts, Capa finds himself committed to take over a colleague's "encounter group" after that colleague is savagely murdered by a knife-wielding killer, heavily garbed so as to keep the psycho's gender ambivalent.  As the psycho targets other victims, Capa finds himself thrust into the role of amateur detective, despite the fact that real police detective Martinez (an abrasive Ruben Blades) strongly discourages such investigations.  All of the members in the encounter group are obnoxiously demented in one way or another, making all of them potential suspects.  In addition, Capa finds himself enthralled by a mysterious woman named Rose (Jane March), with whom he has a lot of hot sex even though he doesn't fully know who she is.  Naturally, she turns out to be implicated in, though not directly responsible for, the continuing murders.

The nature of this film's psycho-stalker is in some ways more extreme than that of EYES OF A STRANGER.  The knifing-scene isn't unusual in any way, but in the film's "big FX" scene, he does execute a naturalistic version of a "bizarre crime" by attempting to push a parked car off a rooftop onto Bill Capa's head! Atypical as this murder-attempt is, though, I don't think it edges into the realm of the uncanny.  In essence the modus operandi of trying to drop a car onto a victim's skull is only a slight extension of other scenes in which the mystery-killer tries to menace Capa on the freeway with standard auto-chase scenes.




Similarly, at the climax the psycho menaces Capa with a nail gun, which might remind many slasher-fans of the murderous tools employed by the uncanny-type slashers seen in 1978's TOOLBOX MURDERS and (even more fittingly) 1985's NAIL GUN MASSACRE.  Yet, whereas the mundane tools in these films become icons of the killers' savageries, the nail gun in COLOR remains nothing more than an instrument of "fear," and never ascends to the creepier level of "dread."

 COLOR does have some very steamy sex scenes going for it, but the characters' psychological complexes are anything but, well, complex. Director Richard Rush had not helmed a feature film since 1980's THE STUNT MAN, and following the box-office failure of COLOR, Rush never again assumed directorial duties.  The script by Billy Ray and Matthew Chapman follows the basic structure of Hitchcock's VERTIGO (Capa's trauma eventuates in the loss of his color vision in the same way VERTIGO's traumatized protagonist is symbolically castrated by his inability to endure high places).  Rose seems less like an individual character than a condensation of Freud's "madonna-whore" complex, with a lot of sexual ambivalence thrown in for good measure.  It's a shame that COLOR is such a workmanlike script, for Bruce Willis and Jane March engage their thin roles with a great deal of gusto (and not only in their sex scenes).  As things stand, COLOR interests me largely as an illustration of how the "bizarre crimes" trope can remain within the sphere of the naturalistic, even though it possesses the potential for the uncanny (e.g,, the less-than-uncanny "nail gun.")








Thursday, August 23, 2012

THE COSMIC MAN (1959), WARNING FROM SPACE (1956)



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

I decided to bracket these two 1950s SF-films because one is called simply THE COSMIC MAN, while an alternate title for WARNING FROM SPACE is "The Cosmic Man appears in Tokyo."  Both are slightly dull, obviously under-budgeted timekillers that judge man for his shortcomings but don't have much to offer beyond a little light polemic.

As many before have observed, COSMIC MAN is not much more than a colorless recapitulation of the storyline of 1951's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, minus the cool robot and the parallels to Christian mythology.  The Cosmic Man (John Carradine, not evincing more than his usual sonorous voice) comes to Earth to poke around and study the humans' primitive ways.  Officers of the military are freaked out by his giant ping-pong-ball spaceship, which no instruments can penetrate.  Resident scientist Karl Sorenson attempts to offer a voice of reason and ends up being contacted by the curious alien.  The military doesn't like that and attempts to shoot the Cosmic Man down like a dog, but he wears a shield that foils all their efforts.  Cosmic Man also befriends a young woman and her son (standing in for similar characters in DAY), but they are if anything flatter than the scientist and the colonel in charge of the military task force.

Director Herbert Greene and scripter Arthur C. Pierce create almost zero suspense in their scenario, attempting at the eleventh hour to duplicate the Christ-motif of DAY by having the Cosmic Man sacrifice his life for the young boy but then "rise again"-- or at least, it's implied that he may live again after his dead body gets teleported away. 

The film's only distinction is that this was Pierce's first SF-script.  Pierce would go on to script and direct a handful of minor SF-films, the best of which was 1960's BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER.


WARNING FROM SPACE is a good deal less preachy, though it does make a few comments about human beings' unreasoning fear of the unknown, giving it a slight similarity to 1953's IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE. 

In this case, however, the aliens aren't merely passing through.  Rather, the starfish-shaped creatures have observed that a mammoth meteor is approaching Earth.  The aliens attempt to warn human beings, but they arouse only fear.  Finally one of them assumes human form and makes human beings aware of the danger.

From that point, the remainder of the film deals with humanity's attempt to divert the meteor.  Oddly given Japan's experience as the first target of a nuclear weapon, a nuclear device proves the only method by which the deadly meteor can be diverted.   Still, I can't help but feel that the scripters were simply borrowing from the GODZILLA scenario in this respect.

WARNING, while not long on thrills, nevertheless does well with the costumes of the starfish-aliens.  They'll strike some viewers as risible, but the thing I enjoyed most in the entire picture was a skillful time-lapse sequence in which the alien-turned-female agent slowly transforms back into starfish-form.  It was the one part of the film that attempted to put across the "sense of wonder" in the best SF-cinema-- something that the later COSMIC MAN dismally failed to communicate.

JYU-OH-SEI (2006)



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


This fairly sophiscated SF-adventure series-- whose name translates to "Planet of the Beast King"-- first appeared as 11 episodes on Japanese television in 2006.  The episodes adapted a *shojo* manga of the same name that, according to Wikipedia, ran from 1993 to 2003.  I haven't seen an English translation of the manga, so I don't know how closely the anime series follows the original manga.


I will say that, in contrast to some of the more vacuous SF-fare I've seen from Japan in recent years, the JYU-OH-SEI anime includes some strong dramatic situations in addition to its dominant action-adventure tropes.  While it's not precisely a match for the best adventure-dramas from the days of John W, Campbell Jr.'s ASTOUNDING, I do see some parallels in the way the young hero slowly progresses from the status of naive outsider to feudal lord to a man in conflict with a higher technological civilization.


The hero begins as a member of that higher technological civilization.  Eleven-year-old Thor Klein and his twin brother Rai are living a peaceful existence with their parents on Juno, one of several colonized worlds in the far-future Balkan star system.  The assassination of their parents ends their childhood, following which the mysterious assassins dump the two children on a penal planet named Chimaera.  In a clear evocation of the mythic trope of "stronger brother/weaker brother," Rai proves unequal to the rough life of Chimaera and perishes, but Thor has no time to mourn.  He's captured by a tribal society, where he meets two of the individuals who will rule over his life in different ways.  The first is Tiz, a perky young girl who wants him to mate with her (as Chimaera has more males than females, women have absolute right to demand mating-rights with anyone).  Amusingly enough, the second is Third-- "third" being his tribal title, though his true name remains a mystery for the majority of the series.  Third will prove to be something of a manipulator, for in time he maneuvers Thor into fighting the tribe's headman in an arena.  When Thor kills the old headman, he ascends to leadership.

Interestingly, after the first half-dozen episodes, the storyline jumps ahead four years, with Thor still the chieftain of his tribe and attempting a King Arthur-like feat of gaining sovereignty over other tribes on Chimaera.  To the consternation of Tiz-- who loves Thor but who Thor only regards as a "sister"-- Thor takes a lover named Karin, the discarded paramour of rival tribe-leader Zagi, who was among those who helped Thor in his early days on Chimaera.  Thor has aspirations of becoming the "Beast King," which will earn him the privilege of being able to leave the penal planet to return to the place of his birth.  However, Karin is killed by a conspirator, and Thor is forced to ferret out the traitor even as he begins to learn that the entire occasion of his advent to Chimaera is part of a vast scientific experiment by the other Balkan colony planets.  He and his allies must fight both the technological perils of the experimenters while trying to keep Chimaeara from falling into chaos.

The storyline here, though essentially solid, often seems rushed, so it may be that the manga series had the luxury of unwinding many of its plot-developments in more leisurely fashion, whereas the limited teleseries had to cram in as much as possible.  Nevertheless, JYU-OH-SEI does a good job of putting across the cosmological motif of building Chimaera's distinct ecology, the sociological motif of the tribal customs and the way those customs are manipulated by outsiders, and the psychological motif of Thor's attempt to throw his own immaturity and become a fit ruler for the society he inherits.


In addition to giving the hero the name of a heroic Norse god, there's also an "Odin" and a "Loki" in the story, though the authors don't seem to have any particular purpose in using the Norse names.  The only myth-context here is reversed, with this Odin being hostile to Thor while Loki turns out to be Thor's benefactor.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

THE FINAL EYE (1977)



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

The date on this telemovie seems to be highly variable: one account says that it was filmed under this title in 1977 but didn't make it to television screens until 1982, when it may have been given the revised title "Computercide."


Though FINAL EYE is bankrupt in the arena of the science-fiction "thought-experiment," it does accidentally replicate the essence of Alfred Bester's THE DEMOLISHED MAN, in that the story concerns an attempt to commit a crime in a highly evolved future when crime seems impossible.  That's where the resemblance ends, unfortunately.


The title refers to hero Michael Stringer (Joe Cortese), who appears to be the world's "final private eye" in the ultra-evolved world of 1995.  People drive electric cars (one looks like Darth Vader's helmet) and computers have made the bad old days of crime investigation unnecessary. But to Stringer's surprise, a client named Lisa Korter (Susan George) seeks him out.  The daughter of a wealthy philanthropist, she suspects that her father has met with foul play.  Mr. Korter had invested in an utopian retreat named "Eden Island," where only persons of great talent could enter. Korter suffers a vague accident at the retreat, but when he's seen in public, he suddenly seems to be a much younger man. It's not clear why this peculiarity doesn't impress anyone else-- it will later turn out that Korter is dead and that a clone, one not yet accelerated to the proper age, has taken his place-- but Lisa is the only one who objects.


Stringer, rather like the 1960s teleseries-hero Mannix, is an "oldstyle" P.I.-hero who doesn't like all the fancy technology-- even though he's only in his late twenties and therefore would have grown up with all the technological advances.  It's a little like expecting the audience to buy that a modern kid grew up hating the Internet.  There's a strange psychological quirk here, as if the writers themselves had some animus toward scientific advancement-- or thought that the general audience did-- and so decided to incarnate that animus in a young man, in effect putting the sentiments of a sixty-something old grouch in the mouth of a twenty-something young guy.


Anyway, Stringer manages to find his way onto the island-- he runs such a cheapjack operation that he has to induce his client to accompany him on the investigation-- and uncovers a clonemaking operation run by  Donald Pleasance.


Though there's potential for some excitement in this derivative storyline, the script is listless and the hero shows no superior combative ability, which is why I've labeled this a "subcombative adventure."  The budget may have curtailed what director Robert Michael Lewis could do, for unlike the writers (who don't have any outstanding credits on imdb), Lewis executed did some fairly entertaining telefilms in his day, including 1974's PRAY FOR THE WILDCATS, 1980's S*H*E*, and 1988's LADYKILLERS.


 The only entertainment here is seeing how poorly the scripters imagined a future-world-- my favorite being a "computer-library" that scans video-recordings but which one has to search through like a microfiche machine.  In fact, the prop used may have *been* a converted microfiche reader.

 




IRON MAN (1994-96)



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


I barely saw the 1990s IRON MAN cartoon in its original broadcast, but a recent DVD compilation of its two seasons spurred me to check it out in detail.  It proved a tough slog.  In another review I said that AVENGERS: EARTH'S MIGHTIEST HEROES did an excellent job of translating the appeal of Marvel comic books into animated TV adventures.  IRON MAN's first season is so bad that it's very nearly the polar opposite of AEMH, though the balance of the second season brings the whole's rating to merely mediocre.

I have no idea who thought it was a good idea to take a cartoon titled "IRON MAN" and have the main hero share the stage with a group of Marvel heroes who enjoyed their own not-especially-successful comics-series around the same time, FORCE WORKS. I don't know why anyone would've thought that a cartoon about Iron Man had to mirror the events of the character in the comic books (Iron Man had formed the Force Works team around that time).  Did someone think that they could spin FW off into its own TV series?  The world may never know.

The presence of the FW heroes (Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, War Machine, Spider Woman and a portentous deadhead named Century) isn't the only thing nearly crowding Iron Man out of his own cartoon.  The main villain is Iron Man's old foe the Mandarin, who maintains a small division of super-villains torn from the pages of Marvel comics.  The villains, like the heroes, are tedious and lacking any of the character touches that helped make Marvel the leader in its field. A particular awful adaptation is the super-villain Modok, a world-beater in the comics, but turned into Mandarin's dim stooge for the sake of an easy comic relief.

The stories of the first season are almost uniformly flat and unexciting, to say nothing of their being crudely animated.  Most stories deal with Mandarin and his thugs making some sort of attack on Stark Industries, only to be beaten back by the Armored Avenger and his costumed coterie.  Most of the character's origins and backgrounds are ignored, and of the few characters who do get an origin, the Mandarin gets his before Iron Man does!  (More on the sociological undertones of the Mandarin's origin later.)  Once or twice the series makes some facile comment on Tony Stark's character flaws, but it's like a bad imitation of even the most simplistic Marvel melodramatics.

The second and last season had nowhere to go but up, and evidently a new animation team decided to eject most of the Force Works characters from the series, though two of them, War Machine and Spider Woman, remained present in their civilian identies and only rarely donned superheroic garb.  The stories, though no better than average, observed basic story-construction principles and made some effort to explore Tony Stark's nature as a "lone wolf" hero.  The Mandarin's flock of supervillains were also ditched, and the villain himself was sidelined until the season's climax.  In their place, the series incorporated several of Iron Man's rogues' gallery (Firebrand, Sunturion), and even adapts a few comics-stories tolerably well (the "Armor Wars" continuity).  One could probably watch the episode "Hulk Buster" and get a good sample of the series at its average best.

To return to the matter of the Mandarin's re-imagined origin: the comic-book villain was a standard "Chinese peril" villain-- that is, not made a villain because he was of the "yellow race," but because, being Chinese, he  represented a rival to the growing American technocracy of the period.  In the comics, the Mandarin was a half-Chinese aristocrat who acquired ten super-powerful rings from the alien ship of a dragonlike alien.  In the teleseries, the Mandarin gains his rings from a race of still-living dragon-aliens, one of whom is given what may be Marvel Comics' all-time-cheesiest monster-name: that of "Fin Fang Foom."  This was not particularly resonant, but it wasn't objectionable.  However, the series' scripters were apparently leery that they might be accused of racism if they dared adapt a villain with any link to a "Yellow Peril" past.  Therefore, the new Mandarin is a European who gains the power and general look of an Asian overlord from an ancient Chinese enchantment.  This struck me as a more insidious form of racism: an attempt by the scripters to keep their hands clean by refusing to use an Asian character as a villain for fear of adverse reaction.

Ironically, by doing this the cartoon also managed to accidentally promote another racist stereotype: the Mandarin-origin shows a goodguy-Chinese preparing to sacrifice his life to save two white people from death. The character-- given the awful name of "Wellington Yinsen"-- survives to become a captive of the Mandarin at the same time Tony Stark is abducted by the villain. As a similar "Yinsen" character did in the comics, this one helps Stark make his fabulous armor and thereby escape the villain's clutches-- after which Yinsen dies and the Mandarin obsesses about regaining the armor for his own use.  Happily, the 2008 live-action film showed more intelligence in adapting the Vietnam-era origin of the comics, resulting in a work that was much more affecting.    


Saturday, August 18, 2012

CARRY ON UP THE JUNGLE (1970)




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

I see that a number of imdb reviews declare this to be one of the best of the British "Carry On" series, and I'm no exception to this rule.  While I haven't usually found the Carry On films to be all that funny, JUNGLE coaxed a fair number of chortles from me.  In fact, it's the best "jungle-adventure" spoof I've ever seen in movie-form, with its only real competition being the teleseries GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE and some of the MAD comics-parodies.

Perhaps because the British people originated most though not all of the basic rudiments of the jungle-adventure genre, the Carry On crew is unusually thorough in demolishing most of the cliches of that genre.  It begins with a typical collection of dotty (and randy) Brits journeying to the depths of the African jungle.  Not all in the party have come for the same reasons. Professor Inigo Tinkle (Frankie Howerd) has come looking for the rare Oozlum bird, while Lady Evelyn Bagley (Joan Sims) is searching for some clue that might explain the long-ago jungle-disappearance of her husband and her young son.

For some reason the setting of the jungle does a great job of bringing forth the mainstay of the Carry On films: sex, sex, and more sex-- though with what we would term a "PG" mentality today.  At least two of the mighty white hunters pursue the rather mature charms of Lady Bagley, while her traveling-companion June (near-soundalike for "Jane") ends up with a wild man named Ugh-- who turns out to be Lady Bagley's lost son, though one never knows what wild beasties raised the blundering jungle-man, who has the GEORGE-like habit of swinging into trees.  And whereas Tarzan at least knew what human women looked like-- though Edgar Rice Burroughs was careful to state that the hero was never tempted by African females, only by his first encounter with a woman of his own kind-- Ugh has apparently never seen a woman until encountering the safari.  In an odd touch, the first pair of female breasts he focuses on are his mother's (maybe remembering infantile experiences?)  Later he proves much more interested in the way June busts out all over, but though Ugh and June intend to rendezvous in June's tent, a gorilla ends up in June's tent and Ugh winds up in his mother's bed.  Perhaps needless to say, neither Ugh nor the gorilla scores that night.

Ugh isn't a very formidable jungle hero, but in keeping with the type, he does at least have the Tarzan-ish power to call a herd of elephants for a big rescue-scene.  Naturally, he does so at the wrong time and to the wrong enemies.

The other main source of uncanny phenomenality-- not to mention sexy hijinks-- is an Amazonian tribe comprised entirely of white women, except for a male king, who is of course Lady Bagley's lost husband.  Despite the fact that almost all the women in this "exotic land" are stunningly attractive, none of them have been able to birth male offspring, but they're more than willing to keep experimenting with the new arrivals from Britain.

It's interesting that although as noted all of the Amazons are white-- apparently such a dominant trope that the scriptwriter doesn't even bother explaining how they got there-- one of the advertising posters showed them as dominant black women:




However, this poster was more accurate as to the actual look of the women:





The "female native" poster is about the only objectionable thing one could find in the film's harmless depiction of black natives.  There are various bearers, led by a goofus named Upsidaisi (probably a joke aimed at "Umsloppogas," the heroic chieftain of KING SOLOMON'S MINES), and there's a black tribe that threatens to kill and maybe eat the dopey white trespassers.  But in no way could one think that the black characters here were any sillier than the white ones, and indeed they're a good deal less so.

I even appreciated some of the little, practically-invisible touches.  As my opening illustration shows, Ugh and June's first meeting takes place in water, which is a clear tip of the hat to all of the erotic water ballets of the Weismuller/O'Sullivan TARZAN films.  It's a shame the film didn't try to spoof those famous water-dances; it's a promising joke that has yet to find its proper execution.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963), THE RAVEN (1963)



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


In a commentary by Roger Corman on MGM’s DVD release of these two AIP films, Corman notes that he worried about the films in the “Poe cycle” beginning to seem overly similar. This change in focus eventuated in these two films, in which the subject matter of Poe is played for humor.  (To be sure, Matheson notes in a commentary that Poe himself took a humorous slant in many of his macabre stories.)



The title of THE COMEDY OF TERRORS spoofs the name of a Shakespeare play, but in the Fryean terminology I use here, it would be more properly termed an “irony” than a “comedy.”  In the world of the irony, the characters exist in a world where all striving is ultimately futile, a world dominated by entropy and death—which seems more than appropriate for a story about crooked undertakers.



COMEDY establishes its ironic credentials early on, depicting the familial strife in the funerary parlor run by Trumbull (Vincent Price).  Largely through his quarrels with his shrewish wife Amarillis, it’s revealed that Trumbull, a perpetual drunkard, only married her in order to gain control of the business from her doddering father (Boris Karloff).  Trumbull has proceeded to run the business into the ground and accrue enormous debt, so that his landlord, one Mr. Black (Basil Rathbone), threatens to kick Trumbull out.  Trumbull’s only ally, the inept coffin-maker Gillie (Peter Lorre), obeys the undertaker (while obsessively calling him “Tremble”) only because the undertaker threatens to expose Gillie’s past crimes to the police.



Trumbull has a unique way of drumming up business: when things get slow, he breaks into the homes of rich people and kills elderly victims, so that their relatives will have to pay for expensive funerals.  However, the first time this happens, the victim’s daughter skips town without paying Trumbull, giving Price one of his best moments, as he addresses the audience plaintively: “Is there no morality in this world?”



Desperate to prevent his dispossession, Trumbull decides to remove Black from this vale of tears.  He sends Gillie to break into Black’s house, where the reluctant stooge witnesses the landlord, a former stage-actor, performing scenes from Macbeth.  Black is so shocked by Gillie’s appearance that Black falls down from a heart attack, which seems to accomplish Trumbull’s purpose.  However, it turns out that Black suffers from catalepsy, and “comes back to life” while Trumbull and Gillie prepare him for internment.  The undertakers kill their corpse and inter them—but they don’t kill him quite dead enough.



At no time does Black come back from the dead due to any supernatural cause, so his catalepsy falls within the phenomenality of the uncanny, with particular attention to the trope of the “phantasmal figuration.”  I’ve often used this trope to categorize plotters to pretend to be ghosts, so it seems equally applicable to a person whose body-chemistry causes him to “fake” being dead. 

Even before the persistent corpse returns for the big climax, the fractured family dynamics are coming apart.  Once Trumbull has been paid for Black’s funeral, Amarillis attempts to make nice with him, only to be rejected by the dyspeptic undertaker.  She takes up with Gillie and intends to run away with him, but then Black breaks in, seeking vengeance.  In an amusing climax, Trumbull finally manages to kill Black (or so it seems at the time)—albeit only after Black has uttered several death-soliloquies—but he almost kills Gillie and Amarillis as well.  But even a witness threatening to call the police is not enough of an indignity to finish off Trumbull: he’s done in accidentally by Amarillis’ father.



To be sure, this “irony of terrors” has one thing in common with Shakespearan comedies, in that a romantic couple, that of Gillie and Amarillis, escapes the general carnage.  However, neither of them are overly sympathetic characters, not to mention being dominantly portrayed as idiots.



COMEDY is only fitfully entertaining, though, for the characters are largely flat stereotypes that serve Matheson’s scenario in mechanical fashion. THE RAVEN, however, plays a little more imaginatively with the *dramatis personae* established in the earlier “Cormanized Poe” pictures.



Given that the Poe “Raven” offered no narrative around which a scripter might assemble a picture, Matheson essentially built a new story out of elements from other Poe-pictures, particularly drawing on PIT AND THE PENDULUM and the “Morella” segment of TALES OF TERROR.



THE RAVEN starts out in an undefined medieval era, focusing first on Doctor Craven (Vincent Price), who lives an ascetic existence in near-solitude in his secluded mansion, devoting himself to the practice of thaumaturgy.  His only family consists of his daughter Estelle, whose mother is long gone.  Craven never speaks of her, but only has eyes for the picture of his “lost Lenore,” who was “stepmother” to Estelle but who vanished from Craven’s mansion two years previous.  So obsessed with Lenore is Craven (much like Price’s character in the “Morella” tale) that he even asks a visiting raven whether or not he’ll ever again see Lenore—to which the bird replies, “How should I know?  Do I look like a fortune-teller?”



After the magician uses his magic to return the raven to a semblance of humanity, the bird is revealed to be another magician, Doctor Bedlo (Peter Lorre), who fell afoul (or a-fowl?) of yet another magician, Doctor Scarabeus (Boris Karloff).  Craven mentions that Scarabeus was once the rival of Craven’s father Roderick back when both men were members of a mystic organization, “the Brotherhood.”  With Roderick dead, his son has retreated from contact with the Brotherhood, allowing Scarabeus to take over.



Just from this bare description it’s plain that like the protagonist of PIT AND THE PENDULUM, Craven is “craven” regarding the overshadowing history of his father’s exploits.  Though he’s willing to help the bad-tempered Bedlo, who seems to have earned his transformation by quarreling with Scarabeus, Craven wants no trouble with his father’s old enemy—or so it seems.  When Bedlo has been only partially restored to humanity (he still has a wing for an arm, a la the “Swan Maiden” folktale), he insists that Craven should raid the local graveyard for one potion-ingredient, “the hair of a dead man.”  Craven is initially horrified at the suggestion of despoiling graves, yet in the next moment, he thinks it’s a good idea to despoil the crypt of his dead father Roderick and take the hair from that source.  This suggests that on some level Craven is aware of the dominating influence of his father’s legacy, and that he wants to throw off that influence.  The results of this bit of grave-robbery are ambiguous: in the comedic film’s one creepy scene, the corpse of Roderick comes to life when Craven clips its hair—but it does so only to tell his living son to “beware,” and then falls back dead.



Though Craven has no interest in helping Bedlo avenge his grievances, Bedlo piques Craven’s interest when he remarks that he’s seen Lenore—whom he recognizes from her portait in the mansion—in Scarebeus’s castle.  Craven disbelieves Bedlo, protesting that Lenore’s only reason for being absent is that she must be dead, but he decides to join Bedlo in questioning the older wizard.  Before they can leave, Craven, Bedlo and Estelle are attacked by one of Craven’s servants.  Craven’s magic subdues the man, who was obviously controlled by hostile magic.  Slightly later, the threesome are joined by Bedlo’s son Rexford (Jack Nicholson), looking to bring his foolish father back home.  Instead all four journey to the castle, though the trip is interrupted briefly when Rexford is also magically possessed, so that he almost overturns their carriage.



At the castle Scarabeus is the genial host, showing no knowledge of the spirit of Lenore.  But Bedlo has told the truth: the flesh-and-blood Lenore has been in the company of Scarabeus since leaving Craven.  Between them, wizard and unfaithful wife plan to imprison Craven and learn his mystical knowledge. To that end, they manage to gain Bedlo’s help, though Bedlo is somewhat less than pleased with his reward: that of getting turned into a raven again.  Bedlo turns against his former allies and gets Craven free.  The conflict climaxes in a magical duel between the two wizards, which Craven wins.  At last aware of Lenore’s duplicity, Craven escapes the castle and leaves Lenore with her lover as the castle comes crashing down in flames.  However, given the jubilant spirit of the comedy here, both villains survive with only each other to increase one another's misery.  With Estelle and Rexford set up to be “the romantic couple,” Craven returns to his mansion and gives the traitorous raven his punishment: to sit upon a “pallid bust of Pallas” and speak “nevermore.”



THE RAVEN is much more fun than COMEDY OF TERRORS, and gives each of the actors more individual moments (even having Rexford show the same paternal deference to Bedlo than Craven does to his late father).  The “daddy issues” don’t run as deep here as in the “straight” horrors, but it’s a testimony to Matheson that he managed to work them into a farcical tale with an admirable attention to detail. 

 

           

THE WHISPERING SHADOW (1933)




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

WHISPERING SHADOW was star-billed Bela Lugosi's first serial, but it's far from his best. 
Even by 1933 it was routine to organize a serial around the activities of a mysterious villain, who became the narrative center while the hero or heroes sought to unveil his identity.  In contrast to SHADOW OF CHINATOWN, where the villain's identity is known throughout, the "Whispering Shadow" is approrpriately seen as a shadowy figure, actually a projected image that appears before his hired thugs to give them their commands. Only a few times is the villain seen in the (heavily costumed) flesh, with the result that the serial does a fairly good job of keeping the audience guessing. I don't think I'm giving anything much away to say that the heroes' number one suspect, Professor Strang (Lugosi), is not the villain this time, but your basic red herring.  Strang, who runs a slightly spooky wax museum, gets involved in the Shadow's quest to steal the Crown Jewels of the Balkan States.  Also involved is heroic main character Foster, who wants to hunt down the Shadow for having killed Foster's brother.

Neither direction nor action-scenes are anything special here.  The marvelous gimmick most on display here is an electrical "death ray" which the Shadow can direct at anyone who wears a "death disc," a sort of homing device for the ray.  These scenes of electrical death are largely the serial's only high points, although Lugosi and heroine Viva Tattersall give intense performances.

THE JADE MASK (1945)


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

JADE MASK is an okay Charlie Chan mystery, a little stagey in terms of its direction by Phil Rosen (who helmed the superior BLACK MAGIC Chan-film the year before),  The film does prove better than average in terms of the number of pseudo-Confucian bon mots tossed out by the Asiatic sleuth.

Analyzing JADE MASK's phenomenality allows me to address the question: how should one categorize films that use minor conceits of "science fiction," but are clearly not remotely within the marvelous bailiwick of SF?  It's one thing to denote as marvelous, say, a war-film that has a death-ray in it, like Q PLANES, but what about the dozens of mysteries that have the characters chasing after some minor scientific "McGuffin," like a process that produces artificial diamonds, or, as in MASK, a formula that can render wood as hard as steel, thus proving of immense value to the then-current "war effort."  After some thought I've decided that these represent such minor advancements in fictional science that they should be considered "outre devices" rather than full-fledged marvelous phenomena.  Thus in this respect, and in respect to yet another device used by the murderer, MASK qualifies for uncanny phenomenality.  The use of that device to commit murder qualifies as an uncanny version of the "bizarre crimes" trope.

The setup for MASK involves the murder of the scientist who conceived the wood-to-steel process; Chan (Sidney Toler) is called to the scientist's mansion due to the detective's vague connections with the American Secret Service.  As usual for these type of mysteries, everyone in the victim's household hated him for one reason or another, giving Chan no small supply of suspects.  The victim also had a lively interesting in the hobbies of maskmaking (hence the title, though there's no "jade mask" herein) and the use of ventriloquist's dummies.  Rosen manages to get a few spooky moments out of the dummies, as well as the scientist's weird laboratory, which at times has an infernal look to it.

As usual, Chan's efforts to solve the mystery are complicated by one of his ambitious offspring trying to imitate-- or possibly, to show up-- Dad's detective activities.  This time the offspring is "Eddie Chan," played by one Edwin Luke.  Eddie is a conceited college graduate seeking to prove that his criminology studies make him his old pop's superior.  This has the effect of making it a little more pleasurable to see Charlie deflate his son with insulting barbs, whereas with more likeable Chan-sons (like Benson Fong, who played "Tommy" against Sidney Toler's Chan), Chan sometimes seemed a little too cruel.

Making his fourth appearance as the comic-relief cab driver/chaffeur Birmingham Brown is the always enjoyable Mantan Moreland, whose character is dragged to the spooky mansion at the insistence of the younger Chan.  However, this time Moreland doesn't have any standout gags, perhaps in part because his character and Luke's display little chemistry in the script, thus leaving the actors little to work with.

Monday, August 13, 2012

SHADOW OF CHINATOWN (1936)






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


Writer-director Robert F. Hill had the chance to work on a number of adventure-films adapted from other media, starring such heroes as Tarzan, Flash Gordon, and the somewhat less famous Blake of Scotland Yard (though Hill managed to helm both the silent 1927 Blake-serial as well as the sound Blake-serial of 1937!)  But his one encounter with actor Bela Lugosi-- whose flamboyance often gave birth to mythic film-icons-- didn't lead to anything more than a road-company version of Fu Manchu.

It's a shame, because SHADOW OF CHINATOWN has a little more potential than most sound serials that touch on Asian themes.  One positive aspect is that a fair number of real Chinese actors were used for the Chinatown scenes.  The most-used Asian character is Willy Fu, manservant to the film's hero, but Willy is consistently portrayed as reasonably resourceful and likeable. 

Further, the film focuses on the disenfranchisement of Chinese merchants on the American West Coast, at the hands of some unnamed European company.  The company orders local Eurasian "shady lady" Sonya Rokoff-- described as half Chinese, half Russian-- to find some way to terrorize the Chinese into fleeing the equally-unnamed West Coast city.  To this end Rokoff (Luana Walter) enlists mad scientist Victor Poten (Lugosi), also a Eurasian, to begin the terror campaign.

Unfortunately, at some earlier point in his life Poten was so badly treated by both Caucasians and Asians that he decides to elevate the campaign into a general war on both.  Whereas some versions of Fu Manchu emphasize the battle of "the East" to subjugate "the West," Poten is the victim of bigotry from both of the ethnicities making up his background. 

Granting that an adventure-serial would never have exploited the dramatic potential of this setup, as one might see to some extent in Capra's 1933 BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN, Poten's conflict could still have been used for some very exciting adventure-scenarios.  The problem seems to be that SHADOW, a production of Victory Pictures, was supervised by Sam Katzman, whose notoriety for extreme cost-cutting would later lead to such cinematic absurdities as THE GIANT CLAW.  Thus at no time does the mad doctor unveil any apocalyptic schemes capable of eradicating both hated ethnicities.  His fearsome gimmicks include:

--a stationary "automaton" that can grab victims who get close enough, and then drop said victims into a pit
--the usual "hydraulic walls" seen in countless serials
--a poison needle inserted in a telephone's earpiece
--the usual poisonous gas
-- and, most comically, a "sinister ray" that is no more than a goldfish-bowl set so that it will concentrate the rays of the sun and burn a hole through a victim's head.

One suspects that at no time did Fu Manchu watch the serial and feel envious.

To be sure, Poten has one other weapon: in keeping with earlier Lugosi characters, Poten can exert hypnotic influence upon some if not all victims, which is certainly handier than the light-focusing fishbowl.

Once Poten makes his first strike against Chinese merchants, he largely forgets about them and focuses on destroying the people trying to strike back against him: the police, Rokoff (who turns on Poten when he goes bat-nutty), and local writer on Things Asian Martin Andrews (Bruce  Bennett, fresh from playing a serial-version of Tarzan). Andrews gets drafted into villain-hunting by spunky lady reporter Joan (Joan Barclay), who wants Andrews to help her get a great story on Poten.  They fall in love, if one can call it that, during which Andrews constantly berates Joan and finally does succeed in getting her to quit journalism and marry him.  If the film has a better-than-average attitude toward Chinese Asians, it goes out of its way to deride then-current feminine liberation. 

The action is stodgy at best: strapping hero Bennett gets into a few fights but none are well-choreographed, though there's one nice cliffhanger-moment where it looks as if Poten succeeds in hanging the hero.  None of the characters are overly sympathetic, and the serial often burns up time having Poten trying to kill or utilize defecting allies like Rokoff and one of Poten's own henchmen.

All in all, aside from the generally friendly portrait of Asians (in the last chapter Poten flees the law and bypasses a Chinese lion-dance ceremony), this is a very low-energy adventure serial.  Its only other point of interest is that it's one of those in which the villain is more the narrative center than the hero.

Friday, August 10, 2012

BUTTERFLY AND SWORD (1993)



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


I've only seen a handful of Chinese/Hong Kong-produced movies based on Asian novels, but with the exception of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, those I've seen are notable for a plethora of melodramatic incidents and for tossing out characters willy-nilly, as if expecting that the audience will already know the significance of each and every character. BUTTERFLY AND SWORD, for instance, introduces one supporting character near the film's beginning who doesn't show up again until the climactic conflict, where he proves to be the only way the other characters manage to vanquish the head villain.

Of course, BUTTERFLY is a big splashy adventure-romance, and from one vantage it shouldn't be penalized for lack of verisimilitude any more than THE EXPENDABLES.  Both adventure-films are about highly kinetic stuntwork first and everything else second-- though when such a film takes a stab at characterization, a reviewer is obliged to mention it anyway.

BUTTERFLY takes place in a fantasy-version of the Ming Dynasty, and concerns, as do so many other films in this genre, massive battles between rival kung fu schools/clans.  The focal characters comprise a fairly pedestrian four-sided triangle, three of whom began as street urchins who band together as petty thieves in their youth and somehow become martial arts masters in their adulthood.  These are leading man Brother Sing (Tony Leung), who is loved by Sister Ko (Michelle Yeoh).  Brother Yip loves Sister Ko, who can't see him, while Brother Sing marries a woman outside the martial-arts tradition, nicknamed Butterfly (Joey Wang).  Ko is jealous of Butterfly and Yip is jealous of Sing, leading to the usual heartache.  Sing, Ko amd Yip also function as assassins for their Master Li, attempting to winnow away the competition-- a fact which doesn't make them especially sympathetic, given that the film spends no time trying to explain why their side is better than the opposing group.  Only Sing is portrayed as slightly reluctant to go on with this life-- he maintains a sort of "Clark Kent" identity as a harmless businessman in order to shield Butterfly from his ttue work-- but when push comes to shove, Sing proves willing to go around knocking off the competition.  Sister Ko particularly wants her group to become "masters of the martial arts world" with the idea that this will help her persaude Sing to stay by her side, but Sing can't think of her as anything but an elder sister, despite the fact that they have no blood relation.  Nothing interesting is done with this potential quasi-incest vibe, and it's never clear just why Yip can't just man up and proclaim his love.  In an alternate ending seen on one DVD, Ko commits suicide and Yip joins her with some last-minute romantic appeal.

BUTTERFLY is a colorful, messy and somewhat gory production, with dozens of kung-fu stunts that go far beyond the level of "uncanny kung fu" that I've treated in this review.  There are a lot of kung-fu films in which characters do fantastic things that still (in theory) don't violate natural law, in that they've the result of a fighter's unusual skills.  But when BUTTERFLY has one character rip a stone pillar from its roots to use as a club, and later comes back to life even after his head's been kicked off (!), I think we're dealing with the category of the marvelous-- presumably "explained," to the extent that these things are ever explained, with the Chinese concept of kung-fu masters using "chi" to accomplish all manner of marvelous feats.  Michelle Yeoh's glamorous aura helps her steal every scene she's in, and the fight-scenes are never dull, thanks to the choreography of action-director Siu-Tung Ching.  That said, BUTTERFLY is far inferior to Ching's best work in works like THE HEROIC TRIO, THE DUEL, and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS.


One other categorization-aspect of the film that interests me is the question, "Who's the hero"-- or in this case, "who's the quasi-superhero?"  Yip barely appears in the story, not unlike the last-minute savior mentioned above, so at best both would appear to be "support-cast," not central heroes.  Butterfly certainly is never more than support-cast.  This leaves Sister Ko and Brother Sing, who are roughly comparable to many of the male-female fighting-duos throughout kung-fu cinema in all three of its phenomenal categories.  But though many such films the duo are essentially co-equal partners in the story, and should share billing as "central heroes," BUTTERFLY isn't one of these.  Sister Ko functions less like a battle-partner than an impediment to Sing's reunion with Butterfly.  Thus, were I attempting to categorize BUTTERFLY AND SWORD's central heroes for the "Everything Resembling a Superhero List" that I've mentioned from time to time, only Brother Sing would qualify for inclusion there.





Thursday, August 9, 2012

TEKWAR / TEKLORDS / TEKLAB / TEKJUSTICE (all 1994)



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


Completism alone made me slog through these four telemovies, adapting the books written (maybe) by William Shatner, depicting a futureverse in which hardboiled cops fight against druglords peddling a harmful drug that really really really isn't supposed to make you think of the word "Trek."

The futuristic elements of the "Tek-world" were small change in the inventiveness department compared to the revolutions going on in print SF.  It's possible that Shatner (or his writers) may have loosely modeled their world on the SF-subgenre of cyberpunk, which had been around for about 10 years by 1994.  But whatever SF-tropes the creators of this series of four tv-movies (and a subsequent teleseries for about two seasons) may have borrowed, this is just basic cops-and-robbers stuff. 

The series-concept is not helped by the casting of its regulars.  The central hero of all the narratives is tough-as-nails future cop Jake Cardigan, played by Greg Evigan, an actor whose best work was always of a lighter nature (B.J AND THE BEAR, anyone?)  Cardigan, on top of being a badass, is supposed to be a man living on the edge due to a false conviction, leading to his imprisonment in "cryo-sleep" for four years in the first telefilm TEKWAR, and to the disruption of his relationship with his wife (soon his ex-wife) and his traumatized son.  Evigan gives his role the old college try, but any time he attempts to tell someone that his soul is dead or the like, he looks about as intense as when he missed his pet orangutan.

Shatner makes minimal appearances in all four telemovies, playing Bascomb, the head of a security agency.  He's supposed to be a chess-master type, bringing about Cardigan's release from prison so that he can clear his name and find the real villain, one Sonny Hokori (Von Flores), who plays the main villain in two other outings.  However, Shatner chooses to play Bascomb with so much restraint that the character seems phlegmatic rather than calculating. 

After TEKWAR clears Cardigan's name, he goes to work (with the usual toughguy reluctance) for Bascomb's agency. TEKLORDS is at least minimally more interesting than the first outing, as it concerns a series of murders committed by a computer virus. In the series' most cyberpunkish turn, the virus turns out to be a computer simulation of Sonny Hokori's deceased sister, who gains the power to kill with some sort of real virus.  She infects Cardigan's ex-wife, forcing the hero to move heaven and earth to find his old foe once again.  He also manages to expose his wife's current boyfriend as one of Hokori's pawns, which shows that the scripters weren't afraid of being too contrived.  The struggles of the sister-virus to regain some form of life-- enlisting Cardigan's scientist-girlfriend to play a Frankenstein-like role-- are at least minimally affecting.

TEKLAB, the only telemovie without Hokori as the villain, concerns Cardigan and his unmemorable partner Sid running around England in pursuit of the sword Excalibur.  The sword has been ripped off by a group called "the Roundheads" in the hope of preventing the coronation of the English king.  It's a lot of running around and not much sense.

The final film, TEKJUSTICE, is a little more diverting in that Cardigan is accused of murder and placed on trial.  Plotwise it's just another murder-mystery, but it's distinguished by some rare (for this series) humor, in that Cardigan's lawyer is the product of an "accelerated" program, meaning that he's a brilliant legal mind in the body of a high-school boy.  The film also gets two points for casting Sandahl Bergman as Hokori's hitwoman-accomplice, but loses a point for not giving her a good kickass action-scene.

Short as all these reviews are, I'm still tallying them as four in my monthly count.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

BLACK DRAGONS (1942), FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO (1945)




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

BLACK DRAGONS, a WWII film directed by William Nigh (who had previously directed star Bela Lugosi in 1935's MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG) is a so-so blend of wartime themes with the horror-movie tropes characteristic of earlier Lugosi films.  The film's main interest for me, however, is how it illustrates a particular subset of my "freakish flesh" trope.  Nine out of ten times, anything I label with this trope connotes a narrative in which someone has some natural physical characteristic culturally deemed to be "freakish" in some way.  Here the physical characteristic is one created by advanced surgery.

DRAGONS' title plays loosely off wartime America's knowledge of the super-patriotic Japanese group known as the Black Dragon Society.  However, the crux of the script asks the question: what if the Japanese could become fifth-columnists working to undermine America?  Germans could do so with impunity, but one would expect the Asian features of the Japanese to prevent them from "blending in."

Surgery proves the solution, though this isn't revealed until late in the film.  For half the film one only knows that a mysterious killer, known as Monsieur Colomb (Lugosi), is killing off prominent political or social figures in Washington D.C.  Agent Dick Martin (LONE RANGER immortal Clayton Moore) centers his investigation of the killings upon Colomb, the guest of a local luminary named Doctor Saunders, but the G-Man cannot initially prove anything. Saunders' niece Alice (Joan Barclay) also occupies the residence and seems determined to vamp the mysterious Colomb, despite the fact that he's about thirty years her senior.

Eventually the complicated truth comes out.  Colomb is actually a Nazi surgeon named Melcher.  He travelled to Japan in order to perform operations that transformed six members of the Black Dragon Society into identical doubles for the prominent citizens.  Once the citzens were replaced-- the film is murky as to how this was done-- the camoflagued spies took over their identities in order to somehow destroy America's war effort. 

The Society's leaders, however, made a mistake, for they decided to imprison and execute Melcher so that he could never reveal the secret.  Melcher escaped execution and voyaged to America, no longer interested in serving the war effort and seeking only revenge upon the "monkeys" who betrayed him.  Thus it comes out that although Melcher/Colomb is evil, he's been working to the benefit of the Allies by killing Japanese spies.

Heroes and villains alike receive only the flattest of characterizations, and the American/Japanese conflict receives no insight beyond the usual propangandistic tropes.  Only Alice seems to be a little
unusual in her pursuit of Colomb, but it eventually comes out that she too is an agent of some intelligence unit, so that she was only pretending affection for him.  The only moderately interesting dialogue appears between Moore and Barclay as he tries to figure out why she's interested in the old geezer Colomb.

As a last horrific touch, Melcher doesn't simply kill his final spy-victim, but mutilates the man's face so that he looks a little on the ghastly side (though not too ghastly). 

Just to cite how an entirely naturalistic film approached the same trope, I point to 1945's FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO.  This film reverses the racial masquerade, in that an American officer with the very vanilla name of "Major Steve Ross" (Tom Neal) accepts a unique undertaking.  In order to find a man being held in a Japanese prison camp, Ross allows the alteration of his features and skin-color so that he will appear to be a native of Nippon.  In this guise he successfully infiltrates the Japanese army, which gives him every opportunity to see the unregenerate scumminess of the people, both at home and at war.  Despite the suspicions of one Japanese officer, Ross succeeds in making it into the prison, gathering vital information from the internee, and transmitting it to his people. In addition, Ross just happens to stumble across his former fiancee working in the camp as a nurse.  She thinks Ross is dead, and when she sees him altered into a man who looks like her people's enemy, she comes close to wishing him dead.  Ross gets her clear of Japan as well, and stays behind, pledging to join the Koreans in their battle-- implying that even if his surgery was reversed, he's been in some sense polluted by even wearing the image of a hated Asian.