Wednesday, November 28, 2012

RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, WRECK-IT-RALPH (2012)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: (1) *metaphysical,* (2) *psychological*


I'm a longtime lover of crossover-concepts, so I suppose 2012 must go down in my personal history as the first time not one but two animated crossover-films appeared in the same year: Dreamworks’ RISE OF THE GUARDIANS and Disney’s WRECK-IT RALPH.  Both are reasonably amusing entertainments, but only one of them realizes the full potential of a crossover: to juxtapose ideas that weren’t meant to go together but can successfully blend when the writer understands how to play the disparate elements off one another.

Given that Dreamworks did a nice job with crossing over fairy-tale figures in its original SHREK film (though not so much in the sequels), I might have expected that company to produce the better 2012 crossover-film.  Instead, the Dreamworks film never goes beyond its derivative nature, which might be capsulized as “MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET meets THE AVENGERS,” with lots of goofy jokes.

The viewpoint character of GUARDIANS is Jack Frost, a young winter-spirit able to conjure up ice and snow wherever he pleases.  Though he generally has no cares beyond having fun, he has two sources of disquiet:

First, he doesn’t know who he is or where he came from, except that the unapproachable, never-seen being called “the Man in the Moon” gave him his name. 

Second, though he can interact with humans with his powers, they can’t perceive him, and only know his name as an outmoded expression. 

In contrast, children the world over still believe in the mythic characters who comprise the Guardians—Santa Claus (given a delightful Slavic accent here), the Easter Bunny (rendered as an Aussie for some reason), the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman.  In their capacity as Guardians, these folkloric characters not only pursue their assorted child-nurturing duties, they keep watch to make sure that children’s belief in them stays strong so that they can continue those duties.

Along comes a menace to that stability: an evildoer named Pitch Black, also called the Boogeyman, who flourishes on the emotion of fear.  The villain manages to take control of the benign dreams created by the Sandman and spawn hideous nightmares—or to be precise, night-mares, since Pitch’s creatures all take the form of black monster-horses.  With these minions Pitch begins undermining the ability of the world’s children to believe in their protectors.  The Sandman is (apparently) killed, the Tooth Fairy’s domain is ransacked, the Easter Bunny’s eggs are smashed.  Though Christmas is months away, even Santa is diminished by the growing plague of disbelief. 

The Guardians attempt to enlist the flighty Jack Frost to their cause.  As if usually the case with rebel-heroes, initially Jack can only be drawn into the battle by appealing to his self-interest: his desire to know how he came to be what he is.  This becomes a running subplot, in which Jack learns that there’s a record of who he once was in the Tooth Fairy’s collection of harvested teeth (don’t ask).  However, in good time Jack gets religion and begins fighting Pitch for the sake of the kids, particularly one young boy who maintains his belief long after his kid-friends have lost their faith.  A climactic scene in which the kids use their belief to combat Pitch's terrors put me in mind of a similar "belief vs. unbelief" struggle in the 1982 animated cartoon THE FLIGHT OF DRAGONS.

The attention to Jack’s self-realization is a secondary matter: GUARDIANS, which has obviously patterned its concept on comic-book hero-teams like the Avengers and the Justice League, falls squarely within the mythos of adventure. Accordingly, Dreamworks doesn’t spare the CG-graphics in the area of wild battle-scenes.  At the same time, the film provides an acceptable amount of fun with such ideas as a sword-wielding Santa or a boomerang-tossing Easter Bunny.  However, though GUARDIANS is enjoyable formula, it’s never anything more than that.

There are hints of mythic resonance that could have gone beyond mere plot-utility.  Jack is revealed to have been a human before becoming a frost-spirit, and the Tooth Fairy tells him that all of the Guardians were humans raised to the status of protective spirits.  This follows a myth-pattern set by the heroes of ancient Greece, who were portrayed as mortals who once lived and later became gods.  The Man in the Moon, who remains an otiose deity-figure, is a folkloric stand-in for God on High.  The villain is a pretty simple Satanic type, seen to best effect when he plays “tempter” and nearly sways Jack Frost from his heroic course.  It’s interesting that the writer of the books on which the film is based named this boogieman “Pitch,” a name which appears in the 1960 Mexican film "Santa Claus" as a name for the Devil.  However, this devil's gimmick of unleashing nightmare-horses gets old very quickly; he might have seemed more like a master of nightmares had he been able to unleash a greater variety of horrors.



The script for WRECK-IT RALPH had apparently been kicking around since the pre-Internet days when arcade-games enjoyed the height of their popularity. Today, the references to arcades may evoke nostalgia more than anything, and the idea that the games’ characters are secretly alive is familiar ground after ROGER RABBIT and TOY STORY.  The script plays heavily to the nostalgia-factor with several cameos from such licensed characters from such games as STREET FIGHTER II, QBERT and SONIC THE HEDGEHOG.

But properly speaking, WRECK-IT RALPH is not a crossover of characters designed for separate franchises, but rather parodies of real game-characters, much as MONSTERS VS. ALIENS did with classic movie-monsters.  RALPH’s storyline principally concerns five main characters who hearken from three made-up arcade games, all of which sound like franchises that might have existed but did not.

From the game “Fix-It Felix” comes the titular character.  His discontent with his role of “villain” moves him to desert his game, where the star Felix and the game’s other denizens take him for granted.  Once he realizes that Ralph has vanished, Fix-It Felix is obliged to follow Ralph into other games in order to corral his resident villain, lest the game be shut down.

Ralph, obsessed with finding validation in the form of a “medal,” lucks out—so to speak—on his first try, when he invades a video-game roughly patterned on ALIENS.  There he meets the third major character, badass lady soldier Sergeant Calhoun, whose regular game-plotline involves leading other badass soldiers against swarms of ghastly “Cy-bugs.”  Ralph takes part in the game, and despite numerous comic blunders, he manages to acquire a medal for his efforts—though when he leaves that game, he accidentally takes a Cy-bug with him.  Calhoun subsequently meets Felix and they team up to track down Ralph and the Cy-bug.

Ralph crashes his way into the third game, the memorably-named “Sugar Rush,” a girly-girl scenario in which cute little girls race one another in super-go-carts.  Ralph loses his precious medal to a cute but very manipulative munchkin named Vanellope, and to get it back, he has to help her win a race.  The fifth and last central character, the evil King Candy, wants to stop Vanellope no matter what.

Like the aforementioned ROGER RABBIT and TOY STORY, RALPH is hectic in its heavy layering of subplots and sudden revelations, many of which are hurled at the audience before it has much chance to care about them.  Nevertheless, in terms of its four major heroes, RALPH does a fine job of playing the disparate characters off one another. There’s nothing new about the main character Learning His Lesson that a mere medal can’t take place of human connections.  But though many films have put across such moral lessons with heavy sentimentality, the film displays honest sentiment when Ralph is forced to crush Vanellope’s dreams (temporarily) in the belief that he’s saving her life by so doing.

In contrast to this displaced parent-child bonding, shrimpy Felix and warrior-babe Calhoun pursue a more romantic form of bonding.  The film plays this more for comedy—particularly in a scene where Calhoun can only save her life and the life of Felix by punching him in the face several times.  Nevertheless, RALPH’s script has fun playing off the disparity of pairing up a woman with the power to inflict massive damage with a male with the power to “fix” anything.    

Both films have a strong admixture of elements from adventure, comedy, and drama-- though almost none from the irony.  Still, I label RISE as a "combative adventure" because the adventure-elements predominate.  WRECK-IT RALPH is not quite as clear.  But after some consideration I determined that for the most part the adventure and dramatic elements of RALPH serve to underscore a very comedic theme, that of bringing together oddly-matched characters to their mutual benefit, so I term this film a "combative comedy."
       

THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960)




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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

 

Critically speaking, there are two sides to the Wolf Mankowitz script for TWO FACES.  On one hand, it’s refreshing to see a Jekyll-Hyde film that doesn’t tediously follow the pattern set by the Thomas Russell Sullivan stage-adaptation of the Stevenson story.  On the other hand, the changes wrought by Mankowitz and director Terence Fisher suggest that there’s a point beyond which change for its own sake can vitiate the concept being re-interpreted.

This version loosely follows Stevenson’s concept of Jekyll as a man obsessed with the two-sided nature of man.  This Jekyll (Paul Massie), alienated by the scientific community’s scornful reception of his theories, reframes Stevenson’s “angel / devil” dichotomy in terms of man’s transcendence of moral laws.  Jekyll tells Ernst, his elderly chorus-like confidante, that man could be transformed into either “man as he could be,” advanced beyond moral laws, or “man as he would be,” one who simply ignored moral laws.  Either way, Jekyll is determined to use science—which he claims must “release and understand every force of nature”—to set aside moral law.

In scripts indebted to the Sullivan play, Jekyll is motivated to unleash his “inner Hyde” because the nasty father of Jekyll’s fiancée cuts the good doctor off at the nuptials. Some scripts add a seductive lower-class female who tempts Jekyll to abandon fidelity and propriety.  This character usually meets a sad fate when Hyde takes over and subjects the woman to his sadistic pleasures.

In this film, the opposition of a “heavy father” has been excluded.  Moments after Jekyll outlines his theory to Ernst, the audience meets Kitty Jekyll.  She tells her husband that his old friend Paul Allen (Christopher Lee) has appeared at their door, as usual looking for money to pay his gambling-debts.  Kitty complains of Allen’s excesses, but soon the audience learns that her displeasure is a sham: Kitty and Allen are conducting an affair almost in front of Jekyll’s unobservant eyes.

Despite Ernest’s disapproval, it’s plain that Jekyll has already tried out his new serum on himself, for Kitty mentions having heard a strange voice in Jekyll’s lab when only he was supposed to be there.  Later, as Kitty departs for a party, where she plans to hook up with Allen, Jekyll utters a last cry for help, urging her to stay with him.  Even without his knowledge of her betrayal, Kitty's cold-hearted refusal pushes Jekyll over the edge.

Where some films have rendered Hyde as a grotesque monster, TWO FACES’s Hyde hews closer to the Stevenson story, where Hyde is noticeably younger than Jekyll.  The film accomplishes this minor transformation simply by having the bearded Paul Massie doff his facial hair, becoming a more epicene figure.  As Hyde Jekyll attends the party and finds out about he’s being cuckolded.  Hyde worms his way into the confidences of Allen and Kitty, planning to betray them in turn.  Only once does Hyde show his murderous side, almost killing an obnoxious pimp.

Hyde also takes advantage of his new anonymity to approach Maria, a salacious-looking snake-dancer.  Though he uses his more forceful personality to win her favors, Hyde never maltreats Maria.  In a much later scene Maria tells him that she loves him, suggesting that Jekyll and his alter-ego aren’t incapable of finding a way out of Jekyll’s dead-end relationship with his cheating wife and traitorous friend.

However, Jekyll in his Hyde-persona remains fixated on his wife.  As Hyde he attempts to seduce his wife as he did Maria. He fails miserably, for though Kitty is a conniver, she genuinely loves Paul Allen, and she’s no more attracted to Hyde than to her husband.  Hyde then uses Jekyll’s money to buy up Allen’s debts.  Holding the whip hand over Allen, Hyde forces him to become his guide into London’s dens of iniquity.  Again Hyde tries to use his hold over Allen to blackmail Kitty, and again he fails. 

Jekyll manages to re-assert his persona temporarily, but his obsession with his wife’s infidelity brings Hyde back into play.  Unable to best Allen in the bedchamber, Hyde takes the next best course and murders Allen, using a “trophy” from his one sexual conquest—killing Allen with Maria’s poisonous snake.  Kitty finds her lover dead and takes her own life.

At this point, there’s little left for Jekyll to do, except to take refuge in his normal persona and set things up so that the never-to-be-found Hyde takes the blame for Allen’s murder.  However, as if to validate Ernst’s moralistic vision of the world, Jekyll is unable to allow himself to get away with the crime, and exposes his own iniquity before witnesses.

The script’s invention of Paul Allen has one precursor: in the 1920 silent film-adaptation, Jekyll’s prospective father-in-law acts less like a domestic tyrant and more like a roué.  However, it’s unlikely that Mankowitz sought to emulate that one element of the earlier film.  It’s more likely that both films took some influence from Oscar Wilde’s classic PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY, where a younger man falls under the influence of an older reprobate.

I said earlier that change for change’s sake could vitiate a given concept. Although TWO FACES is intelligently and logically mounted, it lacks the deeper mythopoeic roots of both the Stevenson story and the better films that drew on the Sullivan play.  It’s arguable that much of the mythic pleasure of Mister Hyde is seeing him let loose on innocent humanity, albeit with the knowledge that his excesses will somehow be curbed.  But the Mankowtiz-Fisher Hyde seems more “idiot” than “id,” and never rises above the cliché of a cuckolded husband out for revenge.  Mundane though this trope is, it’s possible to use it to evoke psychologically-based mythicity. Fisher was able to do so in films like HORROR OF DRACULA and BRIDES OF DRACULA, so the fault would seem to lie in Mankowitz’s script, where his characters feel compulsions toward forbidden loves but remain, as characters, less than compelling.    

           

Monday, November 26, 2012

BLOOD AND LACE (1971)


 
 
 
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS GALORE
 
PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

 
 

It irritates me whenever a slovenly thinker like Laura Mulvey earns a place in academia.  Still, I recognize that her appeal stems from pointing out a basic truth, no matter how much nonsense she extrapolated from it.  In this case the basic truth is that American cinema, though made to appeal to both male and female audiences, seems at first glance to center upon the efficacy of male characters and to situate female characters as decorative display.  In her over-reaction to this truth, Mulvey called for some sort of “new cinema” which has yet to appear.

What ruins Mulvey’s case is that she failed to acknowledge the extent to which American cinema harbored female characters of considerable potency and efficacy—the exceptions, as it were, that disprove her rule.  Further, many such “femme formidable” films come into being not in pursuit of the ideological purity Mulvey desires, but in pursuit of the almighty dollar.  One such film, in which the female characters are principally efficacious and the male ones more reactive in nature, is the 1971 exploitation film BLOOD AND LACE.

Though LACE was helmed by one-time director Philip S. Gilbert, I suspect that the main creative force behind the movie was writer Gil Lasky, if only because Lasky later mined a similar concept in a later production, MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS.  But while GIRLS is just a basic exploitation picture, LACE is unique in being chiefly centered upon the struggles of female characters.

LACE begins with an unseen figure moving through a house in a Southern-looking community.  The intruder uses a hammer to brutally assault a couple in bed.  The murderer then sets the room on fire.  The murdered woman dies in bed without a struggle, but the assaulted man manages to stagger out of bed, though the scene ends before the audience sees if he gets clear of the fire.  The killer escapes but leaves behind the murder weapon.

 A day or so later young Ellie Masters (Melody Patterson) awakes screaming at a local hospital.  She’s the daughter of murdered woman Edna Masters, but it’s not clear if Ellie actually witnessed the scene in the burning bedroom, or if the film is simply reconstructing what happened for the audience’s benefit.  When Mullins, a local government official, visits Ellie, Ellie’s conversation with him suggests the reconstruction angle.  Ellie tells Mullins that she did not witness the murder, or even see the murder weapon, though she’s dreamed of the hammer (later an important plot-point).  She awoke while the house was burning and saw a man fleeing, whom she presumed to be her mother’s latest bed-partner; an unnamed drifter. In contrast to what the audience knows, Ellie thinks that the drifter murdered Edna Masters, who often sold her services to anyone able to pay.

Ellie isn’t interested in finding her mother’s murderer.  The young woman hated her prostitute-mother for forcing Ellie to live in a house of sin.  Mullins, though he’s aware of Edna’s checkered past, offers little sympathy.  Because Ellie’s a minor he’s obliged to place her with a private home for underage adolescents and problem teens.

Ellie attempts to flee the area, but an officer of the local police force catches her at the train station.  Detective Calvin Carruthers (Vic Tayback) is a local, and the two know each other slightly from the days when Calvin ran the local movie-house, though Ellie’s surprised to learn that he’s now a plainclothes cop.  In her conversation with Calvin Ellie reveals that her main goal is to find her father.  Edna never told Ellie anything about the man, except that he was Edna’s first lover and that he knocked up her up with Ellie—which Edna resented because pregnancy made her lose her figure.  This may have been the cause of the split, after which Edna sold her services to every “traveling salesman” and “sixteen-year-old” willing to pay.  Calvin sympathizes with Ellie but he’s duty-bound to deliver her to the state-sanctioned private reformatory, run by a widow named Mrs. Deere.  Perhaps hoping to discourage Ellie from running again, Calvin warns her that the missing drifter hasn’t been found and that he might come after the daughter of the murdered woman.

Before Ellie arrives at the Deere reformatory, though, the audience sees that both Mrs. Deere (Gloria Grahame) and her hulking handyman Tom—who’s sometimes seen with a hammer—regularly maltreat their adolescent charges.  The night before Ellie arrives, a boy named Ernest escapes, but Tom hunts him down, kills him and hides his body. Tom tells Mrs. Deere that Ernest escaped.  Mrs. Deere’s only concern is that one less charge means less money from the state, so she conspires to conceal Ernest’s absence from Mullins, the official in charge of keeping a head count on the teens.

At first sight Ellie and Mrs. Deere are clearly fated to be enemies, particularly when Mrs. Deere makes the odd remark that her late husband Jamison spoke well of Ellie’s late mother.  Since Edna was the town tramp, the script loosely implies that the late Jamison Deere may have used Edna’s services.  Could he be Ellie’s unknown father?  And just how did Jamison meet his death?

Ellie becomes acquainted with other teens, all of whom acknowledge that Deere works them like dogs.  First Ellie meets 16-year-old “Bunch,” but soon steps on the younger girl’s toes by coveting “Walter,” the studliest fellow at the reformatory.  Bunch tells Ellie that Walter’s boyfriend.  But even before Ellie learns that this is a lie, Ellie doesn’t seem disturbed by the morality of boyfriend-stealing.  Bunch also claims that Walter is “Mrs. Deere’s pet,” which assertion contains a measure of truth.

Ernest’s absence is revealed so Mrs. Deere is forced to claim that he ran off.  The missing boy gives Calvin an excuse to show up at the reformatory to investigate, though he’s clearly more interested in Ellie.  Hammer-wielding Tom happens to pass a remark about Ellie to Calvin and Calvin responds by telling Tom not to go near the young woman.

Ellie goes walking with Walter.  She wishes that her mother hadn’t been such a slut, so that Ellie might have had a normal family with a proper father. Walter, an orphan who never knew his parents, demurs, for he isn’t sure it’s so good to know one’s progenitors. “You can look at them and see what you’re going to be.”  Ellie continues to insist that she wants to be “better than my mother.”

Ellie continues to see evidence of Mrs. Deere’s iron hand: she keeps her charges on minimum rations so that she can keep more of the money.  She also chains one runaway girl, Jennifer, in the attic without water for hours.  Mrs. Deere speaks enviously of how Ellie still possesses the charms of youth, and how her late husband strayed from her in pursuit of prettier women.  The widow also speaks as if her husband were alive in some way—though only later does the audience learn that Mrs. Deere keeps his body preserved in a walk-in freezer in the basement, and talks to Jamison’s corpse as if it’s alive.

Tom disregards Calvin’s warning and offers Ellie a chance to escape, but it’s just a trick to get her alone so that he can rape her. Ellie escapes in part because “teacher’s pet” Walter tells Mrs. Deere that he saw the two of them go off together.  Later Walter tells Ellie that he ratted her out because he thought Ellie meant to have sex with Tom consensually, and that he Walter was jealous. 

Mrs. Deere threatens to fire Tom.  Though he still keeps quiet about his murder of Ernest, Tom blackmails the widow about other charges that disappeared and who are now kept in the freezer.  Mrs. Deere reluctantly yields to the blackmail.

Meanwhile, just to further prove that even persons of one’s own age can’t be trusted, jailbait Bunch manages to seduce Walter—despite his earlier avowal of disinterest in such a young girl—and to rub the seduction in the face of “older woman” Ellie.

One night a strange figure with a burned-looking face invades Ellie’s room, though no one else sees it.  Could he be the drifter who escaped the fire, driven insane by his wounds and seeking to kill the daughter, even though the audience knows he didn’t kill the mother?

When the cops can’t locate runaway Ernest, Mullins shows up to investigate the reformatory more thoroughly.  Tom murders him.  Moments later Tom is forced to fight the burn-faced man.  The two fight; Tom is killed.  Mrs. Deere, still pathetically hoping to conceal her crimes, hauls Tom’s body to the freezer.  Vengeful Jennifer locks the door on the tyrannical harridan, and that’s the last the audience sees of Mrs. Deere.

Ellie flees into the countryside, where she stumbles across the corpse of Ernest.  The burn-faced man overtakes her, only to pull off a face-mask.  Surprise: it’s Calvin!

Calvin reveals that during the last few days he found the corpse of the drifter, who died after fleeing the murder-scene.  He tells Ellie that he thought it was strange that she should dream of the hammer when she said that she never saw it.  Because of that disparity, he deduced—correctly—that Ellie was the wielder of the hammer with which she killed her mother and her mother’s client.

Calvin tells Ellie that he masqueraded as a killer in order to spark Ellie's memory of the true events, since she seemed to have forgotten what she did.  He convinces Ellie that if he reveals what he knows, she’ll face certain execution (guess she’s never heard of the insanity defense).  Calvin offers her a deal: he’ll conceal what he knows if she marries him.  After a very slight resistance Ellie agrees—at which point Calvin reveals the kicker: he was Edna Master’s first lover, and by implication Ellie’s real father.  The film ends with Ellie laughing hysterically, for she’s not only made a deal with the devil, she’s fulfilled Walter’s prophecy and become just like her mother.

Given the presence here of both a “perilous psycho” (Mrs. Deere) and a “phantasmal figuration” (Calvin pretending to be a freakish killer), there’s no question that BLOOD AND LACE is a horror-film.  But even whereas there are many horror-films that end badly for their protagonists, most of them are simply melodramas.  LACE is a horror in the mythos of irony, which possesses a bleak, black comic aspect when one sees the extent to which all the characters are trapped.  Even when the teens have the chance to escape the reformatory at the climax, none of them leave.  “No Exit” has clearly been stamped upon their souls.

But is the tyranny more paternalistic or materialistic?  Mullins and Calvin represent the law that keeps Ellie and the other teens prisoner.  But it’s Mrs. Deere, who implicitly murdered her cheating husband, who is the prison-warden.  Walter, despite being caught in a tug-of-war between two young girls, is described as Mrs. Deere’s “pet,” and he justifies this description when he tattles about Ellie’s supposed tryst.  In the one long scene between Walter and Mrs. Deere, he relates to her like a mother, while she treats him indifferently, forcing him to pay her homage. 

Mrs. Deere can’t totally control the brutish Tom, who may rape or kill on impulse.  However, he’s little more than a minotaur who can’t do anything but prey on the captives others send him.  Though he stymies Deere somewhat with his blackmail attempt, he has more to lose than she does from the revelation of Ernest’s fate.  Mullins exerts some control over Mrs. Deere’s acquisition of her charges, but initially she’s able to quell his misgivings by plying him with sex.  When Mullins finally sees the light, he dies as a result of his “deal with the devil woman.”

Calvin might seem to be an exception.  He’s tough and clever, and seems to hold all the cards at the climax.  Yet there’s an element of defeat in his victory.  Clearly whenever his wife Edna kicked him out, she made it stick, as Ellie is never even aware of Calvin as a contender for the role of “absent papa.”  He’s clearly watched his daughter grow up at the movies, and nursed a desire to have her in place of the unwilling mother.  But though he maneuvers Ellie into taking her mother’s place (wonder how well that marriage went?), it’s implicit that Calvin would’ve been incapable of getting her in any other way but to hold a Sword of Damocles over her head.  His manipulations smack of a desperate need for the lost icon of Ellie’s mother, and his “seduction via blackmail” could never have transpired had Ellie not stored up such massive resentment of Edna Masters.

Lasky’s script remains vague about Ellie’s motive for murder, harping only on her disgust at all the men who passed through her mother’s portals, and her desire for a real father who (presumably) would have controlled Edna’s profligacy.  This doesn’t seem like a good motive for murder, though, especially since Ellie also kills a complete stranger.  Freud assumes that the Oedipus complex manifests in girls the same way it does in boys, with the girl-child envying the mother’s sexual power over the father.  Here, since the real father has been cast out, one may surmise that Ellie still resents her mother’s ability to entice men.  By killing both Edna and the man who intrudes on what should be the bed of Ellie’s father, Ellie demonstrates that she is faithful to the absent father’s memory, and that she should take the mother’s place in the father’s affections.  This is precisely what does happen, though it could not have happened had the mother not cast Calvin out in the first place, which in turn creates the war between mother and daughter.

Mrs. Deere is plainly a resurgence of the tyrannical mother whom Ellie has killed.  The Greek Cronos swallowed his children, reversing the female process of birth via ingestion. Mrs. Deere doesn’t just eat children; she continued to torment them within her figurative gullet, for the crime of still being young.  The widow takes her greatest pleasure in torturing Jennifer, and it’s clear that Ellie would have eventually received the same treatment.  Admittedly, Mrs. Deere is anti-sexual where Edna was over-sexual.  It’s initially surprising that there’s no evidence that Mrs. Deere has had sexual relations with her “pet” Walter.  If Deere is a reflection of Edna, one might expect cougar-ish behavior from Mrs. Deere as well, given Ellie’s remark about how Edna was known to every “sixteen-year-old” boy who could buy Edna’s favors.  But then, maybe there’s a greater irony in presenting Mrs. Deere as a woman capable of using her sexuality (with Mullins, who also may have slept with Edna) but is fundamentally faithful to her dead husband.  Ellie, of course, wanted a mother who was faithful to Ellie’s real father.  In effect, the film shows Ellie proof that mothers are not automatically nicer simply by being more monogamous; that such mothers can still be real “mothers” to their real and figurative daughters.

All of which, I hope, shows that despite being crafted by men, BLOOD AND LACE is a film entirely absorbed with the unique and terrible power of feminine nature.      

 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962)



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

The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.-- Tolkien, ON FAIRY STORIES.


Years ago I remember reading a hostile review of Ray Harryhausen's CLASH OF THE TITANS in which the reviewer stated his opinion that such films were about nothing but creating as many impossible things as possible.

There was a certain degree of truth in this, but what the reviewer missed was that a good fantasy-filmmaker doesn't just choose "impossibilities" at random.  Much of the quality of such a genre-film rides on the creator choosing the *right* impossible things.

As it happens, the difference between choosing things the right way versus the not-so-right way can be seen via a comparison of two contemporaneous films, 1958's SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and 1962's JACK THE GIANT KILLER.  The first film, whose stop-motion effects were masterminded by Ray Harryhausen, is renowned as the first of Harryhausen's feature films in the genre of magical fantasy.  The second film-- which shared VOYAGE's producer, director, and two of its actors, but not Harryhausen on effects-- is clearly an attempt to duplicate the success of the previous film.  JACK, though far from being the worst cinematic "knock-off" ever made, fails to choose the "right impossible things."

The lack of Harryhausen seems to have made the most difference in quality, for Nathan Juran's direction in VOYAGE is winsome while his work in JACK seems desultory.  The scripters of record-- Ken Kolb for VOYAGE, Orville Hampton for JACK-- were jobbing screenwriters. neither of whom were known for a large repertoire of superlative scripts.  If anything, Hampton had worked on more metaphenomenal films, yet Kolb's script catches just the right blend of the wondrous and the prosaic, while Hampton's is largely pedestrian.

VOYAGE weaves together three principal Arabian Nights concepts: the concept of the obedient genie-in-the-lamp, patently made famous by the tale of Aladdin, and two of the storied voyages of Sinbad.  One of these concerns Sinbad's attempt to free himself from a desert isle with the help of the gargantuan bird "the Roc," while another deals with Sinbad and his men being trapped on an isle with a huge cannibalistic man-beast.  The last story quite possibly traces back to the Cyclops episode of the ODYSSEY, so it's fitting that Harryhausen combines elements of Odysseus' adventure with that of the Arabian Nights hero. The one element not common to any of these particular borrowings, though one strongly associated with "fairy tales" generally, is VOYAGE'S main plotline: "the rescue of the maiden/bride."

When Sinbad's ship first strays near the Isle of Colossa, the captain is on his way to Baghdad with his betrothed Princess Parisa.  Sinbad-- apparently once a commoner, but now the adopted son of the Sultan of Baghdad-- is scheduled to marry Parisa of the kingdom of Chandra, thus cementing good relations between the rival powers.  Nevertheless, for once love and politics do go together, for Sinbad and Parisa are genuinely in love.

Sinbad orders the ship anchored off Colossa, after which he and his men go ashore for provisions. Instead they are obliged to come to the rescue of a stranger, Sokurah the Magician, who is being chased by a giant man with one eye and goat-like legs.  The sailors seem doomed to defeat, but Sokurah summons a genie from a lamp-- a lamp we later learn was filched from the giant's treasure-trove-- and commands the genie to block the giant with a wall of force.  The giant is stymied long enough for Sokurah, Sinbad and the sailors to flee back to their ship in a longboat.  However, in the process Sokurah loses the lamp, which the cyclops later reclaims and returns to his treasure-cave.

Without lingering on fine details, the magician, still desperate to acquire the lamp, decides that he will move heaven and earth to use Sinbad as a catspaw.  When bribery fails, Sokurah arranges to foil the adventurer's nuptials by secretly casting a spell on Parisa, shrinking her down to doll-size.  Sokurah tells Sinbad that nothing can cure the afflicted woman save a potion made from the shell of a Roc's egg-- which means that, whatever his suspicions, Sinbad must take the magician back to Colossa in the hope of curing Parisa.

Though the adventures that follow do indeed set up the hero's encounter with many "impossible things," the script is superlative at rendering the wonderful things more believable by using the prosaic as a counterpoint.
To get to Colossa, Sinbad must employ freed convicts as part of his crew, which of course creates an assortment of non-fantastic problems.  Twice the shrunken Parisa uses her size to help Sinbad in what seem mundane ways-- freeing the captain and his men from the cyclops' cage by unlatching the lock, or descending into the lamp of the genie Barani in order to gain his help. Moreover, while the emotional range of the characters is necessarily simple, it's never simplistic.  When Parisa learns that Barani, having been imprisoned in the lamp for thousands of years, wants only to be a mortal boy, her quasi-maternal compassion stands in contrast to Sokurah's desire to use Barani as a slave.  And though the cyclops does not speak and has no "origin-story," even this creature has a certain ferocious dignity.  Harryhausen's aesthetic attention to detail extends to the evocative fairy-tale sets and settings, while the Oriental-esque score by Bernard Herrmann easily matches the rich visual imagery.



In contrast, JACK THE GIANT KILLER uses many of the same elements seen in VOYAGE but succeeds in giving them at best only a trifling degree of mythic resonance.

Whereas Harryhausen, Juran and Kolb managed to find common ground between the original Sinbad-tales, the Odyssey, and the basic "princess-in-peril" story, Juran and Hampton seem to have chosen the "Jack the Giant Killer" stories simply because it suggested a way to work in a lot of titanic creatures.  The special effects team-- of whom the best known members were Jim Danforth and Wah Chang--  follows the pattern Harryhausen set in a mechanical fashion. If Harryhausen began VOYAGE with a giant, satyr-legged creature menacing normal-sized humans, then JACK does the same.  If VOYAGE had actors Kerwin Matthews and Torin Thatcher locked in combat as respective hero and villain, so must JACK-- though Thatcher plays a different type of character, if not a particularly successful one. If VOYAGE has a genie in a bottle, JACK has a leprechaun in a  bottle. If one of VOYAGE's climactic scenes pits its cyclops against a green dragon, JACK must have a two-headed giant battle a giant green sea serpent.  The last conflict contains an element of probably unintentional humor, when the tentacled sea serpent "bitch-slaps" the giant across both of its ugly faces.

The most interesting alteration in JACK is that though Jack, just like Sinbad, spends most of the film attempting to free a princess from an evil sorcerer, Elaine lacks the elegant simplicity of Parisa, and registers as nothing more than a cypher.  She becomes more visually interesting when the sorcerer Pendragon uses his Satanic magic to morph Elaine into a witchy beauty, but she isn't evil in any interesting way, and doesn't really do anything that evil before Sinbad manages to transform her back to normal.

Whereas Harryhausen and Kolb apparently had an instinct for combining different strains of myth and folklore, Hampton's script simply imposes a superficial conception of "evil witches" over the template of Jack's giant-killing adventures.  Only once does Pendragon do something authentically "witchy," when he conjures in the name of Isis while kissing a skeleton's hand, but the script merely throws this bit of magical detail out with no context.

 Though VOYAGE's Sokurah is no more complex than Pendragon, his motives for gaining the supreme power over the lamp has a strong elemental appeal.  In contrast, there seems to be no particular reason as to why Pendragon wants control over the kingdom of Cornwall.  Too often Pendragon's demons, when not being rendered in stop-motion, appear as nothing but actors in monster-suits, and many of the stop-motion creatures have plastic-ky eyes, detracting from any sense that they might be alive. 

JACK is not a terrible film, but it has no imaginative center.  VOYAGE is using myth and folklore for entertainment aimed at juveniles, but it comes much closer to the tone and feeling of the originals. 





Tuesday, November 20, 2012

GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (1973)



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

In my review of Stephen Weeks' 1984 SWORD OF THE VALIANT-- which is essentially a remake of this 1973 flick-- I wrote:

IMDB informs me that SWORD's director Stephen Weeks had already made a film version of the medieval British tale "Gawain and the Green Knight," which I don't believe I've seen. It surely must be better than this phlegmatic tale of "when knighthood was in the toilet." 
 
Now that I've seen the earlier film, I rate its use of mythic symbolism as "fair" for one reason: it doesn't have those meaningless riddles voiced in the 1984 film, which supposedly guide heroic Gawain to his next meeting with the Green Knight.  In place of the riddle-schtick, in this film Weeks pays a little more attention to structuring the film around the passing of the seasons as Gawain spends a year in search of the Knight.  This isn't very deep symbolism, though, any more than Weeks' conception of the Knight as a vegetative spirit.  I wrote of SWORD:


The only time Weeks treats any element of his fantasy-world as having a symbolic value is at the end, when Gawain meets the Green Knight again, escapes beheading and slays the Knight, who implies that he is some sort of vegetable spirit, who rises only to be felled again. But this "value" sounds cribbed from some grad student's paper on Frazer's GOLDEN BOUGH, and has no spirit of its own.
 
The 1973 GAWAIN isn't much better in terms of its myth-symbolism, aside from the focus on the passing of the seasons. 

Weeks plays fast and loose with the sexual aspects of the original GAWAIN poem, in which wandering Gawain finds his way to the castle of a Sir Bertilak. Bertilak's queen attempts to secretly seduce Gawain and fails, though at the story's conclusion it's revealed that it was all a test; that Bertikak is the Green Knight, who spares Gawain's head, and the queen is Morgan Le Fay, merely pretending at seduction.

From this, possibly cribbing from assorted other knight-tales, Weeks puts forth a sequence in which (a) the wandering Gawain kills a hostile Black Knight, (b) the Black Knight's queen tries to make Gawain marry her, and (c) the queen's handmaid Linet, a more age-appropriate lady, saves Gawain from this Fate Worse Than Death, using a sorcerous invisibility ring.  Later Linet does copy one action of the queen from the archaic poem, giving Gawain a magic sash to protect him from the Green Knight's axe.  But Weeks evinces zero curiosity as to why Linet happens to be such a mistress of sorcery.  I did find myself wondering if Weeks' scenario-- in which Gawain is threatened with marriage to a crone but is saved by a beautiful young woman-- might have been Weeks' response to another famous Gawain-story, "Gawain and the Loathly Lady."  But this may be giving the writer-director too much credit, since he doesn't manage to put across any of the original story's complex sexual politics.

Though lead actor Murray Head isn't as bad an actor as Miles O'Keeffe in SWORD, he's still just as pedestrian as Weeks' script and direction.   About the only thing SWORD does better is the casting of the Green Knight, for Nigel Green delivers a flat performance, while Sean Connery provides the best scene in the more lacklustre SWORD.


THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS PT. 1 (2012), SUPERNATURAL : THE ANIME SERIES (2011)



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


Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS presents almost the same adaptation problems as the Moore-Gibbons WATCHMEN of the same year.  Both graphic works presented highly idiosyncratic visions of the American superhero genre.  Miller made direct use of Batman and a handful of other DC characters, while Moore and Gibbons used a group of DC-owned characters as a template for their otherwise original "Watchmen."

Given that both works were extraordinarily popular, one should expect that any adaptations would be required to follow the originals very scrupulously-- perhaps so scrupulously as to eradicate any chance for the adaptors to evince their own creativity.  Such was the case in respect to the 2009 live-action adaptation of WATCHMEN.

This 2012 adaptation of TDKR-- or rather of TDKR's first two sections, as the remaining half is due to be adapted in Part 2, scheduled for 2013-- has one advantage over the 2009 WATCHMEN.  Since TDKR PT/1 is animated, it's better able to emulate the idiosyncracies of the Frank Miller art than the live-action WATCHMEN could emulate its model.

Further, Miller's approach to his narrative was less "monumentalist" (in Nietzsche's sense of the word) than that of Moore-Gibbons.  WATCHMEN is structured like a novel, or perhaps (to use one of Moore's repeated images) like the interdependent parts of a mechanical clock.  Miller's narrative is more organic, alternating scenes full of tense, terse suspense with sudden outbreaks of chaos and violence.  This form of narrative made it possible for director Jay Oliva and scripter Bob Goodman to keep the essential plotline of the graphic novel but also to improvise a bit more.

I won't dwell on the improvised scenes except to say that none of them work as well as the corresponding scenes from Miller's narrative.  However, none of the improvisations detract from the mordant, tough-as-titanium-nails story, so at least they do no harm.

Only in respect do Oliva and his animators successfully go beyond what Miller did.  Miller's visual narrative favors a "quick-cut" strategy, in which every panel quickly conveys some key information or insight.  Even the two big fight-scenes from the novel's second part-- both involving Batman taking on the hulking "Leader of the Mutants"-- depend on quick cuts and close-ups, so that there is no space allotted for the involved fight-choreography characteristic of many superhero features.  Oliva happily does not follow Miller in this approach, and instead gives the audience two well-choreographed punchups between the two bulky opponents.

The worst aspect of TDKR PT/1 is that it backs off on Frank Miller's trademark hardboiled language.  Anyone who hasn't read the GN may not notice the omissions, but the video will be horribly sanitized to anyone expecting fidelity to Miller's dialogue.  For example, in the GN a Gotham citizen is asked by the media for his reaction on Batman returning to crimefighting after a ten-year absence.  The citizen enthusiastically approves of Batman's return and hopes that "he goes after the homos next."  The video uses the same citizen but reduces the character's line to something so bland that I don't even remember it.  The video-producers probably feared that had they used Miller's original line, some pundits, much like those Miller satirizes, would have jumped on the video, accusing it of "gay-bashing" despite the fact that it's clearly meant to be an ironic condemnation of the person speaking it. But while the video's self-censorship makes good business sense, it nevertheless reduces the integrity of the story.

I note in closing that since guest-star Superman doesn't appear in this video as he does in the second section of the GN, the only elements that make this work "marvelous" are some of Batman's advanced technology.



Though TDKR PT/1 is at least a creditable adaptation, SUPERNATURAL THE ANIME SERIES demonstrates that some ideas just don't lend themselves into animated spin-offs. 

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of Japanese storytellers providing their take on an American series, or vice versa.  And given that the live-action SUPERNATURAL has provided some strong scares and shocks throughout its eight seasons, one might expect that some Japanese artists might be able to ring in their own cultural approach to horror.

Unfortunately, the twenty-two episodes of this Japanese TV show-- whose segments are introduced by the live-action stars Ackles and Padalecki-- tend to plod along, offering few shocks and seemingly concerned with riffing on the live-action series' mythology (only from the show's first two seasons).  There are many metaphenomenal series-concepts whose mythology is loose enough that an animated show can riff on it to good effect, but SUPERNATURAL is not one of them.

The animators clearly like the seriocomic appeal of Dean, barely getting any of Sam's mojo.  Not surprisingly, the Winchester Boys end up fighting a few more Japanese demons-- a *kappa,*  a poverty-god-- than they would ordinarily encounter.  Even the better episodes rate no better than a "fair" episode of the live-action series.  Toward the end of the DVD, I did get one laugh: when Ackles and Padalecki say to their audience, "Really? You're still watching our lame promos?"


Monday, November 19, 2012

DRAGON AGE: DAWN OF THE SEEKER (2012)

 


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


DRAGON AGE: DAWN OF THE SEEKER is a very simple RPG-fantasy produced in tandem by Bioware and Funimation.  For the DVD I viewed, the makers made the unusual decision to separate the English-language version and the Japanese-language version onto separate discs. 

The short version: no wheels are reinvented here, but at least the wheels turn smoothly enough. 

Notwithstanding the name, the dragons don't have much to do here.  Perhaps they play a bigger role in the DRAGON AGE games, but here they're principally the pawns caught between the forces of good and evil.  A prologue gives an efficient if not very enthralling outline of those forces: the good guys are the Templars, knights dedicated to a churchlike body, "the Chantry," whose main purpose is to reign in the power of magicians. There are good magicians around, called "Circle Magi," but the Templars must periodically chastise the unsubtly-named "Blood Magi," presumably so named due to a penchant for blood sacrifice.

Happily, there is some philosophical wiggle-room between these portraits of absolute good and absolute evil, for the prologue does admit that the Templars can become "corrupt" or obsessed with their pursuit of justice.  Cassandra Pentaghast, one of AGE's two main characters, is an example of the latter, being that she is an elite Templar called a "Seeker" and that she hates all Magi because a Blood Magus killed her brother.  AGE's heroine-- the only female knight in the story-- is based on a supporting character from the DRAGON AGE 2 game, upgraded here to star-status. However, she's not given a tremendously articulated backstory beyond the death of her brother.

Cassandra is a consummate badass fighter, but not a very likeable character.  More than any other character she suffers from Bioware's stiff CG-animation: at times her brow-- usually furrowed because she's angry almost all the time-- looks like a shelf capable of holding a pot or two. 

Cassandra and her father-figure Byron break up a Blood Mage ritual and rescue a lone elf-girl.  (Elf-haters may be pleased that there's only one elf in the story.)  Byron tries to get the elf-girl into the helping hands of a Circle Mage name of Galyan, but the operation is betrayed and Byron is killed.  Cassandra, despite her dislike of mages, must join forces with the rather bland Galyan to learn the nature of a conspiracy between a Blood Mage and a Chantry traitor, which uses the dragons as "hit-men" to eliminate as many Chantry bigwigs as possible.

The conflict of warriors and magicians has some potential, but AGE never takes the conflict beyond the obvious, nor articulates the origins of the conflict.  There's a smidgen of romantic interplay between Cassandra and Galyan, but don't expect IT HAPPENED ONE DRAGON-NIGHT here. The emphasis is principally on action, and if one can get used to the limited CG-animation, a few scenes of Cassandra smashing and slashing are moderately enjoyable.  I have seen more than a few RPG adaptations that didn't even manage that.

Friday, November 16, 2012

THE MIND OF MISTER SOAMES (1970)



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

THE MIND OF MISTER SOAMES, a British film released under the Amicus banner, deals with a man, John Soames (Terence Stamp), who is born in a coma and stays in it for twentysomething years.  Though there seems to be no hope of his awakening, a Brit hospital run by one Doctor Maitland (Nigel Davenport) keeps Soames alive and uses therapy to prevent muscle atrophy.  Along comes Doctor Bergen (Robert Vaughn), who invents a way to awaken Soames through the use of electric shocks.  Thus Maitland and Bergen become the custodians of a man "born" as an adult, yet with the mind of an infant.

I haven't read the original novel by English author Charles Eric Maine.  SOAMES the movie however feels like a very talky novel translated into film, with decidedly mediocre effects.  The only exception to the mediocrity is Stamp's performance as a baby in a man's body.

The only conflict, if one can call it that, appears between the two doctors.  Bergen favors a slow, maternal approach to Soames' pedagogical program, while Maitland is the "demanding father," insisting that Soames master adult skills in jig time, without paying even superficial attention to the normal developmental processes.  There might have been some potential in this conflict had Maitland been given credible motivations for his tyrannical nature, but the audience sees less articulation in his character than in the standard mad-scientist of B-movie fame.  Bergen is no better, he's simply the "good doctor," while Soames, the only other main character, is the innocent caught in the middle.  The script is really not concerned with illustrating the problems of normal child-rearing with respect to a full-grown man-- issues of sexuality and potty-training, for instance, are entirely omitted.  The script's main concern is to find a way to jazz up the medical theme by turning Soames into a "monster." Soames eventually breaks free from the hospital-grounds for a brief walkabout in London, which is poorly handled but still contains the most interesting scenes.  Like most monsters he dies at the close, but the script fails to evoke any real tragedy, choosing to paint by the numbers.

Neither Soames' coma nor Bergen's revival procedure is "marvelous."  What we're dealing with here is the uncanny trope of "freakish flesh," which most often denotes stories about characters with deformities.  In SOAMES, however, the child-man is the victim of a neural disorder, which arguably distorts his potential for a full life as much as any deformity. 



Monday, November 12, 2012

ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (1945), THE SIREN OF BAGDAD (1953)



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



These two specimens of Arabian knockwurst don't offer anything new, but in contrast to 1942's ARABIAN NIGHTS, they both offer a lot of magical goings-on, as well as a wealth of pretty chorines in skimpy outfits.  I find them an interesting contrast in that though both are full of tongue-in-cheek anachronisms, ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS is essentially a comedy with some adventure elements while SIREN OF BAGDAD is closer to the style of a Douglas Fairbanks adventure but with lots of comedy worked in.

In my essay on ARABIAN NIGHTS I showed how it was indebted to the 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD.  Oddly, though the producers of THOUSAND took the trouble to cast Rex Ingram-- who played the genie in THIEF, and appears as another genie in exactly the same costume and makeup-- THOUSAND's plot is largely derived from the classic "Aladdin" plotline.  True, this Aladdin (Cornel Wilde) departs from the original in that he's a street-singer with dozens of girls on the hook.  In addition, he's called "Aladdin of Cathay" a couple of times.  Since "Cathay" was an archaic name for China, one presumes that either the scripter was ignorant of that fact or he was having fun tossing out names with wildly discordant meanings.

This Aladdin does encounter his true love Princess Armina (Adele Jergens) in a manner slightly reminiscent of the way Ahmad meets his love in the 1940 film, and this Aladdin does have a thief for a companion.  However, this thief is a jive-talking fellow named Abdullah (Phil Silvers), and he's the source of most of the anachronisms.  At one point he wishes for a gun, but realizes they haven't been invented yet.

Armina pines after Aladdin despite his reputation as a veil-chaser, but in the palace of the Sultan her father dire dealings are in progress.  The Sultan's twin brother sneaks into the palace, overcomes the Sultan, imprisons him, and takes his place.  When the Grand Vizier finds out, the false Sultan offers to give him the hand of Armina for his silence, and the Number Two villain agrees.

Aladdin and Abdullah fall in with Kofir, a sorcerer who wants them to do his dirty work, getting a rare lamp from a deep cavern.  The duo enter the cavern, play catch-as-catch-can with the guarding Ingram-genie, and find the lamp.  Kofir, playing the same role as the sorcerer in the original Aladdin story, refuses to release them from the cavern unless they give him the lamp.  They refuse, and he seals them in.  But soon Aladdin learns that the lamp contains the genie with the light red hair (Evelyn Keyes), who apparently doesn't want Abdullah to get all the funny false-history lines, since she claims her name is "Babs."  Babs, immediately falling in love with Aladdin, liberates the hero and his comic relief from the cavern.  She's less than happy at her next assignment: to help Aladdin marry Armina.  However, she pulls off the next part of the Aladdin storyline: conjuring up presents and a fabulous retinue to impress the Sultan. 

Kofir, like his archaic analogue, recovers the lamp by means of the famed "new lamps for old" scam, with some help from Babs, who wants to foil the wedding.  Aladdin and Abdullah lose all their rich trappings, and have to go looking for the lamp once more.  The script gets rid of Kofir offscreen (he dies from the excitement of regaining his prize!) and the good guys have to chase down the lamp through its subsequent owners.  Eventually the heroes return to the palace, and with the aid of the genie's power and some belated swordplay from Aladdin, the real Sultan is returned to power, the happy couple is reunited and Babs consoles herself by conjuring up a double of Aladdin for her own, uh, pleasure.  In the film's most deliriously stupid anachronism, Abdullah becomes a medieval version of Frank Sinatra, wowing the bobbysox-wearing houris with his crooning magic.



THOUSAND is incredibly silly, but it does show a little inventiveness.  SIREN OF BAGDAD, though like THOUSAND distributed by Columbia, was produced under the aegis of Sam Katzman, who was not well known for coloring outside the lines.  Paul Henreid plays Kazah  the Great, a magician who travels throughout the Persian Empire with a troupe of dancing girls and with Ben Ali, yet another acerbic sidekick who makes anachronistic remarks (Hans Conreid).  He gets involved with Princess Zendi (Patricia Medina), a freedom fighter opposed to a tyrannical Sultan who usurped the throne of Zendi's father, the rightful ruler (isn't there always some tyrant who got the job the *right* way?) But soon Zendi's primary concern becomes that of weaning playboy Kazah away from all those hot dancing-girls.

The only interesting aspect of SIREN is that the only magic in the story comes from the hero, rather than a genie or some similar being.  In the film's one attempt at verisimilitude, Kazah claims that his magic is all illusion, probably just so the scripter didn't have to rationalize his seeming miracles.  But when Kazah transforms Ben Ali into a beautiful woman (who talks in Hans Conreid's voice), I think we've departed from the vale of what phony magic can do.  Even though there's as much silliness on display here as in THOUSAND, SIREN follows the narrative pattern of the Arabic swashbuckler, with Kazah performing some bargain-basement athletics against the bad Sultan's minions.  There's enough action for me to label this a "combative" film, whereas the one measley swordfight in THOUSAND-- which more than anything follows the pattern of the musical comedy-- need not even apply.

Friday, November 9, 2012

THE BLOB (1958), THE BLOB (1988)



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

It may be heresy in some quarters to say this, but I think the BLOB remake is a much better film than the original from '58.

Of course the original still merits supreme bragging rights in the department of ideas.  Producer Jack H. Harris credits his colleague Irvine Millgate with the idea of a "molten meteor" that fell to Earth and started absorbing any living thing it encountered.  In retrospect it's odd that Millgate and Harris conceived of the creature as a "mineral monster" (Harris' term), for the only objects with which the Blob bears close comparison-- sponges, unicellular creatures, or even the human stomach-- are organic in nature.  The only way in which the Blob seems mineral-like is that at many points it still resembles the meteor on which it descends.

That said, director Irwin Yeaworth was still learning his trade-- on one DVD commentary, Harris asserts that Yeaworth's main motive for helming Hollywood films was to hone his talents for his church-related projects.  THE BLOB, though not Yeaworth's first directorial effort, is often slow-going; sometimes the Blob itself moves faster than the plot.  I remarked in my review of DINOSAURUS! -- the last Yeaworth-Harris collaboration-- that something always seemed to be happening in that film.  In contrast, when the Blob's not on the screen, events slow to a crawl that Yeaworth and his scripters must have believed to be suspenseful. 

For me the lack of suspense inheres in the colorless characters inhabiting the small Pennsylvania town menaced by the molten monster.  Harris has claimed that he wanted to do a film with crossover appeal for the then-current "juvenile delinquency" genre, but he clearly didn't want to deal with the more visceral aspects of such films.  Everyone in town, from the local cops to the batch of "clean teens" led by Steve (Steve McQueen) and Jane (Aneta Corseaut), is so gol-darned nice that there's no conflict.  THE BLOB deserves points for adapting the "boy who cried wolf" trope to the teenager-flick, so that the teens are the only ones who must play "Paul Revere" in order to alert the slow-moving older generation to the danger of the Blob.  But the script just keeps rehashing this same basic plot-point without significant development. 

There are interesting touches. Some of the local cops are war veterans, indicating a model of manly behavior to which the peacetime generation of the "baby boomers" may wish to compete with-- which Steve certainly does, by ferreting out the Blob's Achilles heel.  The continually interrupted romance of Steve and Jane is a little less interesting, with Jane functioning principally as an inspirational figure to Steve-- making her one of the less effective female personas in 1950s SF-cinema.  There might be some symbolic potential in the fact that the "shooting star" containing the Blob falls to Earth at the same time Steve's trying to make out with a reluctant Jane, who implies that his intentions may be dishonorable.  "Meteor-is interruptus," anyone?  Certainly the Blob ends up being responsible for a lot of trouble for which the local teens are blamed...



The 1988 film, scripted by Frank Darabont and director Chuck Russell, utilizes many of the same tropes that began the original film, but adds material of an edgier nature.  For a start, "good girl" Meg and her boyfriend Paul encounter an old man contaminated by the meteor-borne Blob, but Paul dies early in the picture, replaced by Brian, a "bad boy" character at odds with the local law.  Brian then teams with Meg to first expose the existence of the monster, and then to destroy it-- with touches of romantic interest along the way.  Meg, unlike Jane, isn't confined to being an inspirational figure.  Though not a "tough girl" as such, she steps up at the conclusion, helping Brian destroy the Blob by spraying it with machine-gun fire and luring it into a "cold trap."  Yet Brian is equally important in helping Meg out in times of peril.  I speculate that Russell and Darabont wanted to promote a sense of equality in giving the female character a sizeable role in monster-slaying, as well as validating the raffish charm of "bad boy" Brian over that of the respectable townie Paul.

In keeping with sociological developments of the 1980s, this Blob is created by a government experience as opposed to being of entirely alien origin.  Jack Harris went on record as disliking this development, but I find it a valid update of the original concept.  The appearance of Hazmat-suited government operatives in the rural town adds to the general paranoiac atmosphere, and gives Meg and Brian additional opponents when the teens learn that the government guys plan to raze the town to cover up their blunder.  A coda adds a fitting pessimistic touch.

The special effects of the Blob  are admirably ramped up via bluescreen and copious detailed models, which today would certainly be rendered by CGI.  The humor, while aimed at the 1980s juvenile market, is at least more on target than the fusty jokes of the 1958 film, which couldn't even pull off a scene in which the town principal has to put aside his prissy respectability and break a window with a brick.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961)



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



“Oh, the terrible disgrace, the ignominy of it—possessing a mythical monster in one’s family, in this age of science and enlightenment!”—Aymar, “father” to a werewolf in Guy Endore’s WEREWOLF OF PARIS, p. 128.

 

It’s become commonplace to observe that the mythology of the vampire, as created by both European folklore and modern pop culture, parodies such Christian tropes as resurrection and communion.  Werewolves share with vampires a common European heritage, but only rarely have modern fiction-writers attempted to dovetail werewolf lore with Christian symbolism—with the notable exception of Hammer Studios’ CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.  But though Guy Endore’s novel provides a few important motifs, the credit for conjuring up a religion-haunted wolfman properly belongs to director Terence Fisher and producer-writer Anthony Hinds.

 

The above quote, in which the werewolf character’s quasi-father describes his shame at having a “mythical monster” in the family, captures author Endore’s apparent distaste at writing a book with a werewolf in it.  Though Endore was known for scripting 1930s horror-movies like MAD LOVE and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, in PARIS he goes out of his way to minimize the story's horror-tropes.  Occasionally Endore dispenses bits of werewolf lore in desultory fashion, almost saying to the reader, “Here’s what you expect; go nuts.”  PARIS is a rambling, Hugo-esque novel set during the Franco-Prussian War, in which the violence of one solitary werewolf comes to seem minor next to the violence of the normal human species.  In Fryean terms Endore’s novel is an “irony,” in that all of the characters—whom Endore uniformly renders as flat and unappealing—have no chance for happiness or closure.  Endore’s contributions to Hinds’ CURSE script come down to three items.

 

    In both works the werewolf-infant is born on Christmas Day, with the implication that the fact of his being born on Jesus’ birthday is an offense to an unfair God, who dooms the mortal infant to bestialism for such impertinence.  Endore implies that his wolfish protagonist Bertrand may be re-enacting the fate of an ancestor who was reduced to a human wolf.  Hinds allows for a little more supernatural leeway, in that a priest opines that there are malignant spirits that can bring about werewolfism in those humans—like the film’s protagonist Leon-- who prove too spiritually weak to resist pollution.

 

      In Endore, Bertrand’s father is a scurrilous Catholic priest who impregnates a maid working for a rich family.  Out of a desire to minimize scandal, the family takes in both Bertrand and his mother.  One member of the rich family, Aymar, becomes the defacto father to Bertrand, and the novel ends with Aymar having Bertrand committed to an asylum where Bertrand perishes.  Hinds offers a more dramatic resolution: after the death of Leon’s mother in childbirth, Leon is adopted by a wealthy family, and when Leon’s adoptive father Don Alfredo learns of his charge’s monstrous nature, the don must execute his “son” with a silver bullet.

 

      Finally, the film owes its bravura opening sequence to an idea Endore basically tosses off.  In the novel, long before Bertrand is born, one of his ancestors poses as a monk in order to assassinate the occupants of a French castle; upon being caught, he’s confined for life to a cell and reduced to an animal.  Much later, one of his descendants in the same family spawns Bertrand.  Hinds immeasurably improves on this scenario, changing the setting to Spain and introducing a beggar who seeks charity from a castle of bored Spanish  aristocrats.  On a whim the castle-lord imprisons the beggar for so long that he becomes a virtual beast.  Later another aristocrat punishes a maid by jailing her with the maddened beggar, and the offspring of the maid’s rape by the beggar is Leon.  Of the many Hammer narratives that critiqued the fundamental ugliness of the aristocracy, CURSE is the most successful, showing how the attempt of men to play God torments not only the innocents they directly victimize but also their offspring, who becomes a figurative offense to God, a beast in man’s clothing.

 

      Whereas Endore is so busy with his calculated ironies that he barely gives Bertrand any characterization, Hinds makes his narrative all about Leon.  As a child Leon experiences a few manifestations of early blood-lust, but fittingly he doesn’t take on the full status of werewolf nature until he hits the tempestuous years of adolescence.  As played by Oliver Reed, Leon is entirely sympathetic in his desire to forge his own destiny and find love.  Predictably enough, this commoner finds that love with a girl of the aristocracy.  Still, Hinds’ script and Fisher’s direction make the romantic liaison enjoyable despite its clichéd nature.

 

         None of the characters in Hinds’ script except Leon do anything more than perform their basic functions in the script.  The tormented beggar and maid, the girlfriend, Don Alfredo dourly anticipating the doom of his adoptive son—they’re largely ciphers aside from their participation in Leon’s life.  Nevertheless, this is the nature of a good werewolf film: in contrast to the Endore novel, CURSE is all about the wonder and terror of seeing a man become a beast—though to be sure, Leon doesn’t become a full-fledged wolf-man until the last ten minutes of the film.

 

       That conclusion, appropriately, takes place in a church, where wolf-Leon recoils from the ringing of the church-bells just before Don Alfredo arrives to finish off his adoptive son.  And though Leon is just as doomed as Endore’s Bertrand, there’s a league of difference in the ways each of the characters are doomed.  Bertrand’s doom projects the irony’s avoidance of affect, mocking the idea that his fate should mean anything.  Leon’s doom carries the overtones of tragic drama, in that he’s denied satisfaction in a world where some people do manage to live fruitful lives-- arguably making his death far more pathetic. Leon-- named for a beast sometimes associated with Jesus in Christian iconography-- doesn't die to redeem man's sins, but he certainly does die because of them.