Thursday, February 28, 2013

HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970), NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (1971)



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

The teleseries DARK SHADOWS, which began in 1966 as a gothic soap-opera, became over the years sort of a dramatized encyclopedia of horror-motifs, managing to recapitulate the majority of the most famous tropes of popular terror-tales.  Though the character of Barnabas Collins was not the first monstrous presence to impinge upon the mansion of Collinwood, he quickly became a figure of cultish popularity.  Thus it’s logical that producer Dan Curtis, seeking to profit by spinning the series off into a theatrical film, should choose to focus upon the saga of Barnabas.

Like most soap operas DARK SHADOWS maintained a sizeable cast of characters, many of whom are packed into the movie like sardines.  HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS often felt to me like one of those Hong Kong movies that adapts a sprawling Chinese novel, introducing new characters in rapid-fire fashion.

With some alterations HOUSE keeps the essential family memberst of Collinwood: matriarch Elizabeth, her brother Roger, Roger’s grade-school age son David and Elizabeth’s grown daughter Carolyn.  Other major characters include Carolyn’s fiancée Todd, Maggie (governess to David), handyman-cum-vampiric-pawn Willie, Maggie’s boyfriend Jeff and two “friends of the family,” Professor Stokes and Dr. Julia Hoffman.  The latter two prove to be savants in the ways of vampires,  albeit with very different affiliations.

Into their midst comes Barnabas Collins.  Willie, looking for buried jewels, accidentally releases the undead Barnabas from a family mausoleum, so that Willie becomes this vampire’s “Renfield.” Barnabas is described in a theatrical trailer as “the head of this family of blood relations.”  For once the trailer-hype is psychologically apt.  Though Barnabas gains entrance to Collinwood by posing as a distant British relation, he’s actually the same Barnabas who lived 200 years ago, whose relation to his descendants is less a cousin and more of a “super-father.”  With remarkable celerity Barnabas talks himself into occupancy of the “old house” on the Collins estate, a deserted structure which was formerly Barnabas’s ancestral home.  As in the series, the “old house” provides a virtual shadow-counterpart of the main house.

Because the script for HOUSE telescopes many long-running plotlines from the teleseries, the functions of many characters become abridged.  Elizabeth and Roger have nearly nothing to do, and of the two boyfriends, only Jeff gets to participate in Barnabas’s downfall. Carolyn, who started out in the series evincing a strange attraction to her uncle, flirts with her “cousin” Barnabas and so becomes the first victim he turns into an undead revenant.  David, who started as a malevolent imp on the series and morphed over time into a more traditional juvenile, starts out as a mischievous figure, has one big scene when he sees his dead cousin Carolyn return to life, and then the boy disappears from the story.

The telescoping does increase HOUSE’s similarity to the basic plot of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA.  In that novel the vampire count principally pursues two women, Lucy and Mina.  Lucy is depicted as being somewhat less straight-laced than Mina, with the result that Dracula attacks the “easy” girl first, changing her into a monster who must be staked to death by her horrified fiancée—a fate which the heroes must then seek to prevent for Mina. 

As soon as Carolyn flirts, however minimally, with cousin Barnabas, her Lucy-like fate is sealed, and she becomes the first Colins to perish.  Buried on the estate, she comes back to life.  In one of the film’s most effective scenes, David—who doesn’t look too broken up by Carolyn's death—is playing a ball-game with himself, chanting strangely, “If I miss this one, Carolyn won’t be dead.”  He misses, and moments later cousin Carolyn reveals herself in her filmy cerements.  The family refuses to believe David, leaving her free to strike when her fiancée Todd checks out her mauseoleum.  In a minor gender role-reversal, Todd, the male victim, must then be prevented from seeking out his demoness lover.  Later Carolyn is found and executed by Stokes and the local constables.  Stokes, the resident Van Helsing, provides the staking himself, though unlike Van Helsing he’s fated to perish later in the story.

Barnabas has his own preoccupations: having met Maggie the governess, he sees that she has a striking resemblance to his lost love of 200 years past, Josette.  He wants to wed Maggie, but fears dragging her into the life of a vampire.

Dr. Hoffman comes to his rescue, after a fashion.  As the first of the two local savants to figure out Barnabas is a vampire, she approaches him and tells him that she’s devised a way to reverse his curse of vampirism.  She secretly does so because she’s fallen for the urbane bloodsucker, and doesn’t know of his passion for Maggie.  Willie—who has the same protective attitude toward Maggie that Stoker’s Renfield had for Mina—purposefully jinxes his master by revealing Barnabas’s plans to Hoffman.  Though her serum temporarily cured Barnabas of his affliction, she deliberately bollixes up the next injection.  Barnabas not only reverts to vampire status but finally shows some fraction of his age, taking on the look of a man in his 70s.  Barnabas kills Hoffman and bites Maggie for good measure before being forced to flee the mansion.

The remainder of the story is a good if slightly pedestrian reworking of the usual vampire-killing scenario.  While the police arm themselves with silver bullers that they never use, Jeff chases down Barnabas—who manages to kidnap Maggie—with a crossbow in hand.  Drawing somewhat more on the conclusion of the 1931 DRACULA film than on the novel, the vampire is betrayed by his pawn, as Willie’s intervention makes it possible for Jeff to kill Barbabas.

HOUSE’s best moments, like those of the series, are the more understated psychological moments, rather than the showier set-pieces involving vampire-slaying.  As noted, most of the continuity stems from scripts for the teleseries, though the reworking of Carolyn’s fate gives the flick a certain distinct identity of its own.
 
 
 

In the couse of the teleseries, the writers introduced the character Angelique as a witch responsible for cursing Barnabas with vampirism, while another leading-man-monster, Quentin Collins, came along to provide his own horrific plotline.  The film NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS discards any of the serial’s plotlines regarding these characters, aside from minor resemblances: the new Angelique is still a witch, and the new Quentin is still a late addition to the Collins family.

Some time after the events of HOUSE, the surviving members of the family apparently disperse, though it’s specified that the matriarch Elizabeth has passed on, leaving Collinwood to distant relative Quentin inherits the mansion.  He and he and his wife Tracy arrive to take possession.  They find it occupied by a housekeeper, Carlotta Drake and her helper Gerard.  Significantly, even before meeting Carlotta, Tracy speculates that she may be like the “Mrs. Danvers” character of the novel REBECCA.

As they tour the house, Quentin beholds the portrait of one of his ancestors: the beauteous Angelique Collins.  Quentin is initially most pleased to receive the house, as he needs a place where he can work on his abstract paintings.  He comments that his ancestors probably wouldn’t care for his painting, one of the film’s few notations of the gulf between the living present and the dead past.

The past is lying in wait for Quentin, who happens to be the reincarnation of his ancestor Charles Collins.  Though Charles had a wife named Laura, he conducted an affair with Angelique, wife of his brother Gabriel.  Gabriel and Laura arrange with the local fire-breathng reverend to have Angelique executed as a witch—which, as it happens, she is.  She’s helpless to stave off her own execution, but she swears to return in another age, and adjoins her young pupil Sarah to pave the way for her advent.

Two hundred years later, Sarah is reincarnated as Carlotta Drake, who is not only fully conscious of her past life but conspires to facillitate the return of Angelique.  This includes not only playing on Quentin’s mind, so that he begins to identify himself with his ancestor, but also getting rid of wife Tracy and the Collins’ friends the Jenkins, who try to free Quentin from the witch’s thrall.

The teleseries version of Angelique is one of the great soap-opera villains, but the version we see in NIGHT is merely a stereotypical seductive sorceress with no depth of character.  Indeed, she only speaks in the scenes from the past, and the most villainous presence in the film is that of the housekeeper Carlotta.  The film is a competent enough ghost story, but it’s slowly paced and fails to deliver the resonance of a REBECCA, which is still the go-to work for conflicts between the “new living wife” and the “old dead wife.”

The one mythic moment here is the film’s twist on the relationship between the dead wife and her fanatical acolyte.  Back in the witch-burning era, we see that Sarah is a child who idolizes Angelique like a mother/teacher and protests her execution.  In modern times, Carlotta—who in some convenient fashion “just knows” herself to be Sarah’s reincarnation—effectively becomes the “mother-figure” and makes it possible for Angelique to be reborn.  But the film doesn’t exploit this psychogical myth-potential any more than it does the fraternal conflict, and comes across as distinctly the lesser of the two SHADOWS films.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

MAN-THING (2005)



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


Perhaps the most interesting thing about the direct-to-video movie MAN-THING is that it shows how little the Marvel Comics street-cred is worth in some adjuncts of the American movie-and-TV business.  At least HOWARD THE DUCK, while probably a worse movie overall, attempted to sell itself on the idea that the original comic was something outstanding, something worth seeking out for the uninitiated.  In contrast, MAN-THING is just a routine swamp-creature film with no ties to the Marvel monster save the name-- oh, and three names of the feature's raconteurs, worked in as names of characters (Steve Gerber, Val Mayerick, and Michael Ploog). Often when a filmmaker drops names in this fashion, it's to suggest respect for what the authors created. Here, the strategy strikes me as a feeble attempt to cull favor with comics-fans. 

For those not in the know, the comics' series-concept was as follows: scientist Ted Sallis, at work on a "super-soldier" serum (a variant of the serum that created Captain America), is assaulted by enemy agents at his laboratory in a Florida swamp.  In the altercation Sallis plunges into the swamp's murky waters with his serum.  Together the serum and the mysterious magic of the swamp transform Sallis into the Man-Thing, a near-mindless muck-monster. The monster can't think, but it can feel, and when it encounters human beings who feel fear in its presence, the Man-Thing's touch burns them.

The script credited to one Hans Rodionoff keeps a few minor aspects of the Gerber-scripted MAN-THING comics, but on the whole the writer seems to have paid more attention to DC's competing sludge-fiend, SWAMP THING.  Like the Alan Moore version of Swamp Thing, this Man-Thing inhabits a swamp in Louisiana rather than one in Florida-- a domain which the monster can protect thanks to his ability to manipulate the local plant-life.  Like the DC muck-beast, this Man-Thing can even alter the size of his own plant-derived body, becoming a colossus as shown in the photo above.  Swamp Thing is also known (as the comics Man-Thing is not) for insinuating plant-growths into the bodies of his opponents, another feature of this DTV flick.

I wouldn't automatically downgrade MAN-THING simply for not being a copy of the comic book feature, though I do think the makers' disinterest in the original speaks to their priorities.  For what it's worth, the routine plot-- in which a new sheriff in a Louisiana community must investigate an assortment of mysterious deaths attributed to a swamp-monster-- is adequately executed.  Brett Leonard's direction is that of a competent journeyman, but at least it's not as dull as 90% of the movies that make their television debuts on the SYFY channel (as MAN-THING also did).

The main plot concerns how a drilling company has encroached on swampland sacred to local Indian tribes, and how the company's manager Franklin Schist (whose original comics-name was "F.A. Schist") killed off a Native American by the name of Ted Sallis.  Sallis is later resuscitated by the weird magic of the swamp and becomes its murderous guardian, eventually leading to a lopsided battle between Man-Thing and Schist. 

There's also a paint-by-the-numbers romance between the sheriff-hero and a lady conservationist, and lots of empty lip-service paid to the woes of marginalized Native Americans.  The script would have done better to take a shot at understanding the mystique of the swamp's ecology rather than playing around with bland ecologist characters.  The script at least shows some potential for cosmological symbolism, unlike an earlier and far inferior marsh-creature flick, reviewed here.  But sometimes wasted potential is worse than no potential.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

CARRY ON CLEO (1964), ONE MORE TIME (1970)




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

These two comedy-films don't usually get listed in compendia of fantastic films, but they both have credentials for what I've termed the "marginal-metaphenomenal," meaning metaphenomenal elements that barely have any impact on the film's main plot.

CARRY ON CLEO, one of the popular British "Carry On" comedy-series, is just a fair outing.  It chronicles the story of primitive Briton Hengist, who finds himself abducted as a slave by Roman soldiers and therewith transported to Rome (composed of leftover sets originally built for the 1963 production of CLEOPATRA).  There are some fitfully funny bits here-- I note that some writer worked in a character named "Horsa," possibly to revenge himself on having to learn the story of Hengist and Horsa in his school days.  However, I found the film as a whole much less clever than CARRY ON SCREAMING two years later, much less 1970's CARRY ON UP THE JUNGLE.


The one marvelous aspect of this silly comedy has to do with the famous "beware the ides of March" warning Julius Caesar receives from a soothsayer.  In JULIUS CAESAR, the play that made the prophecy famous in the domain of western literature, there's no indication that the prophecy is anything but a lucky guess.  In CARRY ON CLEO, however, the soothsayer (played by future "Doctor Who" Jon Pertwee) is treated as if he's a genuine psychic, complete with a literal vision of Caesar's impending death.  Frankly, the joke associated with this bit of business has evaporated from my mind, so it must not have been all that memorable.



ONE MORE TIME is the second of two films which might be considered the last gasp of the Sinatra Rat Pack. Stars Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. had been long-time members of the Pack.  But by the time (1968) the first film in the two-film series debuted, the bloom was more than off the rose for these middle-aged entertainers, whose associations with the Las Vegas life probably doomed them in the eyes of the young and the counter-cultural. 

As in the first film SALT AND PEPPER (the white guy was "Pepper" and the black guy was "Salt," yuk yuk), Lawford and Davis play night club owners who get mixed up with criminal shenanigans.  The script of the second film, like that of the first, is credited to Michael Pertwee-- coincidentally, the elder brother of Jon, which I just learned as I typed this.  However, it's interesting that TIME is directed by Jerry Lewis-- the only Lewis-directed film in which the actor/director did not star-- and that most of the time Sammy Davis' character Salt seems to be recycling Jerry Lewis "takes" and "schticks."

Of all the scattershot occurences in the forgettable plot, the one scene that most reminded me of a Lewis movie-- particularly THE LADIES' MAN-- is one in which Salt opens a door in Lawford's manor, and sees, just for a second, Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) and Doctor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) hanging out in the cellar.  It would have been easy to dismiss Salt's experience of these baffling boogeymen as nothing more than a "fallacious fragment;" that is, a scene in a comedy-film which no one is supposed to take seriously, like the opening bit in THE ALPHABET MURDERS in which Tony Randall's character speaks to the film's audience.  However, though one never sees Dracula and the doctor again, Davis chases one of the film's villains, who takes refuge in the cellar.  Davis stops short as he hears a tortured scream, as the villain presumably meets villains far worse than he.  I presume that for Lewis this was a profound piece of cinematic deconstruction, since he did so many similar schticks in his career.  Personally, I believe ONE MORE TIME-- which would have been better titled ONE LAST TIME-- might have played better as a standard haunted-house comedy along the lines of the aforementioned CARRY ON SCREAMING.

ADDENDA: I neglected to mention that ONE MORE TIME itself utilizes the naturalistic version of the "fallacious figment" in exactly the same manner seen in ALPHABET MURDERS. Here the figment appears not at the beginning but at the end of the story, when both Lawford and Davis become aware of the watching audience and attempt to summarize the plot for said audience's benefit, before moving on to the merciful fade-out

CYBORG (1989)




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

Possible subtitle for CYBORG: "the Passion of the Muscles from Brussels?"

Director Albert Pyun, while never better than a journeyman talent, has at times succeeded in making good popcorn films, ranging from his first directorial effort-- the 1982 CONAN-ripoff THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER-- to his 1997 take on John Woo's "heroic bloodshed" schticks in MEAN GUNS.  At the same time, he's also helmed many execrable films, particularly one of the worst comic-book superhero adaptations, 1990's CAPTAIN AMERICA (his second assignment after CYBORG).

CYBORG made a lot of money in 1989.  One reason it succeeded was because it only cost $500,000, cutting costs for its futuristic scenario by a clever selection of mundane settings bleak enough to suggest a post-apocalyptic future.  Another reason was the casting of lead Jean-Claude Van Damme. However, since he'd only had one break-out film prior to CYBORG, 1988's BLOODSPORT, it's easy to imagine Van Damme striking out with his sophomore star-effort.  The stunts, which include a lot of martial arts battles and various mundane gunfights, are adequate but nothing special.  And despite the musical homages coded in the character's names-- many of whom are named for brands of guitar like the "Gibson" and the "Fender"-- the music is like a more monotonous imitation of a John Carpenter score.

CYBORG's success certainly isn't related to any profundities in the script, allegedly written by Pyun in one weekend (though imdb doesn't credit the director with any writing-input).  It takes place in a standard apocalypse-world wherein humanity has been ravaged by some disaster-- a plague in this case-- which presumably is still going on though we rarely if ever see future-people who are sick.  The "cyborg" of the title is no more than what Alfred Hitchcock called a "Macguffin," a person or object over which two opposed groups contend-- in this case, a woman who voluntarily allows herself to be "cyborgized" so that she can be the courier for data that can lead to the cure of the plague.  She intends to transport the data overland to Atlanta for its implementation, but a gang of scruffy pirates, led by the evil Fender Tremolo, intercepts her.  Gibson tries to stop Fender, not to save the cyborg but to kill Fender, who, we later learn, killed members of Gibson's family and abducted his stepdaughter Haley.

Characterization is just barely evident.  Gibson shares roughly the same motivations as John Wayne's character Ethan Edwards in 1956's THE SEARCHERS, but Gibson barely even mentions his motivation to find Haley, nor does he react overmuch when he learns that she's been inducted into Fender's pirate-tribe.  He shows no emotion save the desire to destroy Fender, and even when a female traveler named Nady informs him that Fender has absconded with a possible cure for the plague, Gibson can think about nothing but killing Fender.  To a small degree Nady functions as Gibson's conscience, gradually forcing him to become more of a Good Samaritan, but the script certainly doesn't follow the progress of his character-growth.  Nady dies but Haley is rescued (the latter event showing another resemblance to THE SEARCHERS), but neither event inspires the emotion that Gibson feels for destroying his enemy.

The moment in which Van Damme's hero Gibson is crucified has no more mythic resonance than it does when the same thing happens to the hero of SWORD AND THE SORCERER-- a scene which was one of the more egregious swipes from the CONAN movie.  At the very end of the film, the cyborg-- who sports the ambitious but not very evocative name "Pearl Prophet"-- succeeds in getting the cure-information to Atlanta, but tells one of the doctors that Gibson "may be the real cure."  This gets a little closer to the resonance of the myth-hero who restories the order of the cosmos by slaying an evil warrior or a monster, but I can't say Pyun pursued the metaphor with any consistency.

The one thing CYBORG has going for it is that it was an unapologetic plunge into a pure testosterone-fantasy, sans even the sort of comic relief one usually sees in more mainstream adventure-films.  CYBORG is first and foremost a film in which big men roar at each other, shoot each other, and hit each other, over and over.  There's a little variation when the female lead gets in on the action, though as noted above she doesn't end up surviving the rough trade.  And whatever one thinks of this kind of popcorn-adventure flick, at least the films of the 1980s took some chances by promoting new faces to represent the genre, rather than compulsively pushing the action-heroes of thirty years ago, as we see happening in 2013 with the simultaneous release of new vehicles for the very old Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sly Stallone.

Friday, February 22, 2013

BLACULA (1972), SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973)



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

Though these two blaxploitation films had different directors, scripters Raymond Koenig and Joan Torres worked on both screenplays, so that the short-lived "series" of Blacula films has a solidarity of tone-- a solidarity often sacrificed by series-concepts that last several years, as I've had cause to observe for the James Bond series.

As with many series-characters, Blacula's "origin-story" has the strongest mythicity. The setup is somewhat preposterous: during the 1700s the highly educated African ruler Mamuwalde (William Marshall) journeys, along with his wife Luva, to Transylvania to seek the aid of Count Dracula in ending the European slave trade.  Yet though the concept behind this ambassadorial mission doesn't make much sense, it delivers an emotional payoff when Dracula chooses to steal Mamuwalde's bride from him.  As icing on the cake, Dracula vampirizes the prince, imprisons him in a coffin so that he'll never be able to slake his undying thirst, and forces on him the gift of his own name, slightly altered: "You shall be-- Blacula!"  Luva is not seen to die but one presumes that she does, in that the main plot concerns her reincarnation.

Two centuries later, a salt-and-pepper team of interior designers purchase several items from Count Dracula's restored castle (where a guide informs them that the evil count was finished off by Doctor Van Helsing-- a rare bit of fidelity to the Stoker novel).  The designers ship the items-- including the coffin containing Blacula-- to Los Angeles.  In a story-wrinkle possibly swiped from the 1967 episode of DARK SHADOWS that introduced vampire Barnabas Collins, the designers accidentally set Blacula free and are killed by him.

As it happens, Blacula spots a woman named Tina, when she comes to mourn the "pepper" half of the designer-team.  The vampire recognizes her as the reincarnation of his deceased wife Luva.  While keeping himself alive with frequent feedings-- thus creating more of his kind-- Blacula romances Tina.  However, an alert police pathologist, Doctor Thomas, examines the body of one of Blacula's victims and begins to investigate other reports of vampire-like slayings.  Thomas finally succeeds in getting the L.A. cops to beard Blacula in his den. Tina is slain, so that her spirit is lost to the vampire lord.  Tormented by this second bereavement, Blacula immolates himself by stepping into the sunshine.

SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM struggles to have the same emotional appeal as the "reincarnated lover" storyline-- also possibly borrowed by the writers from DARK SHADOWS-- but the struggle doesn't prove successful. 

The bones of Blacula fall into the hands of a voodoo priest, and he in turn sells them to Willis, an acolyte belonging to a voodoo cult.  Willis harbored ambitions to be the high priest of the cult, but he was passed over by a popular vote of the members, who chose instead a priestess named Lisa (Pam Grier).  Willis performs a revival ritual in the hope of using Blacula to destroy his rival. but though Blacula is reborn, he takes control of Willis by vampirizing him.

Forced back to life, Blacula makes the acquaintance of Lisa and her cop boyfriend Justin.  Once he learns of Lisa's occult powers, he pursues her, not for romance, but with the end of getting her to cure him of vampirism. Thus in theory he would be able to return to his beloved African land, albeit in modern times.  Inevitably Blacula continues to spawn vampires whenever he feeds-- no fancy Stoker-ritual involved here-- so that Justin and his cop allies end up storming Blacula's crib while Lisa endeavors to perform a curative ritual.  The ritual fails and Blacula takes out his frustrations on the cops.  Lisa, terrified by the monster's sheer power, kills him by stabbing a voodoo-doll image of Blacula with a wooden arrow.

Both films benefit hugely from the presence of William Marshall, as well as the design of his vampiric "look," which is probably one of the most recognizeable vampire-lords in cinema history.  Thanks to his own stature Marshall looks great tossing fragile mortals around.  However, he's really the only character in the story who's more than a flat stereotype.  Even Pam Grier, who in the same period became famous for playing "ballsy" women in COFFY and THE BIG BIRD CAGE, gives a dull performance as a dull character.  The voodoo angle of SCREAM is also not exploited for much mythopoeic effect, though the film is notable for presenting voodoo as a legitimate religion.

As noted above, the first film's most mythic moment is the equation it makes between the institution of African slavery and the predatory Count Dracula, whom Mamuwalde calls an "animal"-- a canny rebuttal to stereotypes of the black race as "animalistic."  Admittedly, when the scripters named the lead vampire "Blacula," the idea was almost certainly was conceived as a marketing gimmick.  Still, the idea that the lead character loses even his name to his white oppressor speaks volumes.  It's an ingenious way for a pop-culture character to speak to a phenomenon reported by many African-Americans: the feeling of being continually implicated in the very thing that oppresses him.

SCREAM never becomes as ambitious as the first film, though it does feature an interesting scene in which Blacula is accosted on the street by two pimps.  The pimps attempt to rob the caped figure-- perhaps envying his superior sartorial style-- and won't take his plea of empty pockets for an answer.  Before Blacula kills them both, he levies a judgment on them as having copied their ancestors' slave-masters by enslaving their "sisters" and acting like slaves themselves.  One might read this sequence as an insight into a sort of cultural inferiority complex, in which the African-American comes off second to the African who has never known slavery, or at least not a slavery informed by racism. 

However, the fact that the scathing comment comes from a murderous vampire does rob Blacula of some if not all moral high ground.  In fact, the film comes full circle at the point of the vampire's final battle with Justin, in which he refuses to acknowledge Justin calling him "Mamuwalde."  "The name," growls the vampire, "is BLACULA!"  It's the only time the character uses the name imposed on him by the evil count, and to me it signfies his wrathful decision to accept being a vampire, being a monster outside human affiliations-- moments before he's destroyed.  To be sure, the film ends slightly before he dies, freeze-framing on Blacula's death-throes, as if the creators might've been hedging their bets for purposes of a second sequel.  Fortunately, the series ends on this pleasant note of closure



Wednesday, February 20, 2013

BLITHE SPIRIT (1945)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

I was surprised to learn that although Noel Coward's original 1941 play enjoyed many successful runs, the 1945 film, directed and co-scripted by David Lean, proved a flop.

It's possible that the film's talkiness-- an unavoidable inheritance from its stage origins-- hurt it with audiences, but I can't see why.  Lean does his utmost to give the actors plenty of physical "business" to perform as they recite Coward's snappy dialogue. 

The plot deals with Charles Condimine (Rex Harrison), a novelist who lost one wife, Elvira, to pneumonia seven years ago, but lives a pleasant if decorous life in his country-house with his second wife Ruth.  Early in the film both Charles and Ruth express their contentment with their dull lives, and Ruth professes not to mind the stories of Elvira's greater beauty and charm.

Charles is the one to upset the marital applecart.  Intending to research occultism for a possible novel, he invites local spiritualist Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) to hold a seance at the country-house, with one other couple in attendance, and one maid named Edith (Jacqueline Clarke) serving.

The aristocrats manage to get through the seance without revealing that they regard Arcati as an entertaining fraud, and have a good laugh afterward about her babblings about "ectoplasm."  However, that very night, Charles receives a visitor no one else can see or hear: his first wife Elvira, looking radiantly green (both her gown and her skin), begins to haunt him.

Ruth naturally thinks her husband's going mad, until Charles convinces Elvira to give Ruth a demonstration of her reality.  Ruth attempts to get Arcati to banish the unwanted first wife but she accidentally discloses that Arcati was the butt of their patrician humor.  Arcati refuses to help.

Charles, for his part, seems to be very pleased to have two wives in his life, though there's no indication that he's getting sex from either one.  Given that Ruth tells Charles that he has a "hag-ridden" nature due to some unspecified influence from his mother, perhaps what Charles really enjoys is the surfeit of feminine attention.

Elvira, however, doesn't want to share Charles any more than Ruth does.  She plots to kill Charles so that his spirit will join her in the afterlife.  One will search SPIRIT in vain for the kind of TOPPER-style American emphasis on dutiful angels watching how ghosts comport themselves either in life or the afterlife!  However, Elvira's plan backfires and Ruth is killed instead, so that now Charles has two ethereal wives haunting his house.  It's a measure of the story's ability to "sell" us on the jolly world of the afterlife that all this talk of gruesome death seems like a romp in the park.

Charles doesn't like having two ghost-women in the house, and manages to convince the eccentic Arcati to do some ghostbusting.  As enacted by the incomparable Rutherford, Arcati's repeated failures are a feast of droll humor.  Yet things become quite eerie when she zeroes in on the cause of Charles' troubles: none other than the simple-minded, rather homely maid Edith.  Apparently-- and the film is vague on this point-- Edith seems to have nurtured some fascination with the vivacious Elvira, thus causing her to subconsciously summon Elvira from the other world. With Edith's help Arcati manages to banish Charles' two wives-- temporarily.

Accounts differ as to whether or not Charles escapes the influence of his phantom paramours in the play.  The movie naturally has the luxury of escaping the proscenium, though, so Lean is able to show viewers the full effect of the Husband's Taming by the Shrews.  Charles drives away from the house, but he fails to anticipate that his wives have conspired to tinker with the brakes on his car.  His body perishes, and he plunges in spirit-form right between his two ethereal inamoratas-- thus destined to be pleasurably "hag-ridden" for the rest of eternity.

In the early sound era of films Great Britain didn't exactly offer a bounty in the horror genre.  Nevertheless, despite the light tone of this British ghost story, it shows quite a bit of intelligence as to the "rules" of the medium-game, comparable to the sort of rigor one finds in classic ghost-story authors like M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood.  It's an interesting coincidence that one of the most well-recognized "straight" British horror films-- DEAD OF NIGHT-- also hails from this pivotal year.


LETHAL NINJA (2006), AMERICAN NINJA V (1993)



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

Kipling said, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."  Little did he know that one of the greatest commonalities between East and West is their equal ability to make crappy ninja movies.

To be sure, Herman Yau's LETHAL NINJA isn't the bottom of the barrel.  The photography at least keeps things looking good, though I suspect that this is one of the most sedentary ninja movies of all time, probably in the interest of keeping production costs down.

The story starts with a villain known only as "Brian," who has hired a ninja clan to secure for him a wonder drug capable of curing nearly every disease known to man.  One of his ninjas makes the mistake of cutting off the head of the serum's inventor, before the inventor revealed how to open the impenetrable box containing the serum's secret.  However, Brian has a machine that can recapitulate a dead man's last memory.  He sends his ninjas to abduct a young man with the peculiar name of "Copy."  However, a good clan of ninjas comes to Copy's defense. 

Despite the invocation of the "rival clans" trope, ninjas, lethal or otherwise, are not seen in great quantities.  Most of the story dwells on two female ninjas from the respective clans: Xiao Ling from the good side, Hibiki from the bad side.  When Xiao Ling defeats Hibiki, the good ninja-girl takes both Copy and the bad ninja into custody, apparently because the two clans used to be one.  Despite the fact that Hibiki is in love with the head bad ninja, she's persuaded to betray her bad masters.

The fight-scenes are pretty subdued for a Hong Kong action film, and the script by director Herman Yau suggests that he had more interest in the sentimental scenes in Xiao Ling's ninja village.  At best LETHAL NINJA might be a decent timekiller if one happened to be in the mood for a sentimental ninja flick, but it doesn't seem to have much else going for it.



When I reviewed AMERICAN NINJA IV, I said that I didn't think "that I could have picked a worse exemplar of the genre had I been trying."  Well, Number Five is worse, though to be sure, the film was originally not created to be part of the franchise, having been filmed under the title "American Dragons."  David Bradley, who performed in the third and fourth installments, is about the same as he was in those: a poor actor and a decent movie-martial artist.

The plot is routine and the production values are abysmal.  The only reason I label the film's function as "metaphysical" is because Bradley's character raps a bit to his juvenile student about the spirituality of the martial arts before he proceeds to kick butt.

The film's phenomenality should be "uncanny" given all of Bradley's fights with ninjas in multicolored costumes, including a villain called "Super Ninja," who despite his name uses nothing but standard ninja tricks.  There's just one scene which forces me to term AN 5 as "marvelous," however. In this scene  Bradley, meditating along with his student (Lee Reyes), actually summons the spirit of his still-living teacher Tetsu to come rap with them, even though Tetsu's in America while the Ninja and his pupil are in Venezuela.  Perhaps this little "psychic hotline" schtick came about with the idea of giving the film's one name-star Pat Morita more to do in the film, the better to justify using him in the advertising.  However, because the film's too cheap to spring for any sort of effect to show Tetsu in psychic communication, the producers simply have Morita, clad in martial-arts costume, walk up to Bradley and Reyes, chat with them a little about ninja matters, and then walk away.  It's the only moment of laughworthy cost-cutting that raises AMERICAN NINJA 5 out of the ranks of the completely forgettable and into the ranks of Ed Wood-wannabes.  However, that one hilarious moment hardly justifies watching the film.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

SANTA CLAUS (1985), SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964)



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

Though SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS is the more familiar candidate on lists of "worst films of all time," the 1985 Salkind production SANTA CLAUS is for me a better candidate.

Following in the wake of the Salkinds' success with the early SUPERMAN films-- though not so much with follow-ups like the 1984 SUPERGIRL-- the producers tried their luck again with another flying figure.  Despite the box-office failure of SUPERGIRL, the producers brought back the film's director Jeannot Swarc for their Xmas-adventure, as well as the writing-team that had been the dominant scripters of the Superman films (though not the one with Superman's cousin).

The script is the greatest liability.  It takes a flat, by-the-numbers approach to the legend of Santa Claus.  The only section that sustains a strong sense of wonder is the opening, which as it happens Swarc considers (in a DVD commentary) to be his favorite part of the movie.  A voiceover informs the audience that Santa's workshop exists at "the top of the world," where no one can see anything but snow and ice.  The presence of the Northern Lights and the North Star sets a potentially wondrous mood for the advent of the embodiment of Christmas generosity.

Santa (David Huddleston) and his wife Mrs. Claus (Judy Cornwell) have their origins in two mortals in 14th-century Scandinavia.  They're stranded in a blizzard and face the threat of imminent death.  However, a group of elves spirit them into their enchanted world and inform that the two of them, who have no children, are fated to distribute gifts to children all over the world.  I rather liked the arbitrariness of the script's "fate," which certainly makes it possible for the scripters to leap over any questions about why the elves think there should be a Santa. The situation of "elf-abduction" bears a slight resemblance to traditional folktales about elves abducting humans into their ranks, as with the story of Thomas the Rhymer.

After this hint of promise, the script then zooms through the catalogue of Santa-myths-- the workshop, the "naughty or nice" list, the flying reindeer-- as if the North Pole is on fire.  Since it would have been awkward to recall that Santa is a very Eurocentric myth, the film deftly skips over the intervening centuries in order to reach the 20th, so that the main plot can begin.

The conflict, such as it is, revolves around Patch (Dudley Moore) ,an elf who unintentionally causes Santa no end of trouble.  Moore was the most bankable star of the Salkind production but the staid script gives him nothing fun to do.  In an attempt to demonstrate his worth to Santa, Patch makes contact with a crooked toy tycoon, B.Z. (John Lithgow).  B.Z. determines to use Patch's toymaking skills in order to make a fortune.  One of Patch's creations goes wrong and proves a threat to its buyers, but B.Z. refuses to recall the item and tries to abscond with the profits.  Santa, aided by two rather colorless children-- one of whom is B.Z.'s niece-- must intervene to stop the deadly toys and save Patch's life.

While I have seen worse movies than SANTA CLAUS, it's still much duller than most of the low-budget wonders that usually frequent worst-film lists.  The only actor who gets to have fun with his role is Lithgow, who essays B.Z. with an acidulous Snidely Whiplash flair.  Everyone else just goes through the motions.


In contrast, though 1964's SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS is a silly kid's fantasy, the story is much more coherent than the expensive Salkind production.

The conflict arises because of the cultural pollution of the civilization of Mars, who live in a rigid, anti-emotional quasi-Marxist regime.  Given that depiction, it's rather surprising that Martian kids get to watch Earth television-- haven't the Martians heard of Politburo?  But because the Mars kids watch Xmas broadcasts, they begin to year for visions of sugarplums.

Though it would seem to contradict the Martian ideal of science and order, the leaders decide to go to Earth and kidnap Santa Claus, so that he will bring Christmas joy to Mars.  After some initial failures in which the Mars-men mistake store-Santas for the real thing, they succeed in their endeavor.  However, with the help of two Earth children, Santa manages to find a substitute emissary-- a native Martian who wants to act like Santa-- and endorses him as Mars' own gift-giver, while returning to Earth himself.

Though the script is many leagues inferior to a work like MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, in its simple way it's addressing the same theme: the need to believe in outlandish fantasies rather than expousing a utilitarian scientism.  I'm not claiming that MARTIANS addresses the theme with any sophistication, but at least it has a simple argument to make, in contrast to the 1985 SANTA CLAUS, whose only theme is the expulsion of the Bad Guy.  (It's a quite literal expulsion, as B.Z. ends up rocketing out into space in comic fashion.) 

And, as noted above, MARTIANS is at least lively, no matter how meagre its performances and budget might be.  One scene stands out for me.  The Martians, having found their way to Santa's workshop, send a clunky robot in to capture their quarry.  Santa is such a jolly old elf that he mistakes the robot for a big toy, and in Santa's presence, the robot acts as if it has been "reprogrammed" into toy status.  I wouldn't rush to claim that this scene embodies the theme of Christmas magic conquering science.  But it's not totally irrelevant either.



Wednesday, February 13, 2013

OCTOPUSSY (1983)



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

Roger Moore's next-to-last outing as 007 does a 180-degree turn away from the comparative realism of the previous entry, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.  OCTOPUSSY thus moves back toward the more playful concept of James Bond as secret agent/bon vivant that appeared in the first Moore flick, though OCTOPUSSY is not so obtrusive in its attemtps at comedy.  Still, given that Moore showed that he could play Bond as a semi-ruthless professional in SPY WHO LOVED ME, it's a shame Eon's scripters didn't shoot for that goal a little more often.

As other accounts have mentioned, Eon had considered other actors for the role, but persuaded Moore to return as an antidote to the competition of Kevin McClory's competing Bond-film NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN.  Interestingly from my standpoint as a trope-analyst, Eon chose to fight one "bizarre crime" (the nuclear blackmail of McClory's THUNDERBALL reenactment) with another, equally bizarre endeavor.  Coincidentally or not, OCTOPUSSY also deals with a private conspiracy involving a nuclear device, though in the Eon film a nuclear explosion is meant to serve the far-fetched end of bringing about European nuclear disarmament.

Nevertheless, as I've commented before, most viewers expected larger-than-life perils from James Bond films, so Eon may have decided to get away from the realism they'd encouraged in EYES.  The script ironically uses elements from some very naturalistic Fleming stories, for it does, in the words of Wikipedia, 'include a portion inspired by the Fleming short story "The Property of a Lady" (included in 1967 and later editions of Octopussy and The Living Daylights), while the events of the short story "Octopussy" form a part of the title character's background and are recounted by her.'

The film is a trifle oblique as to how villain Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan)-- known to British Intelligence as a minor trader in antiques-- becomes involved with the film's secondary villain, hard-line Soviet General Orlov (Stephen Berkof). In any case, because Kamal has a business affiliation with big-time smuggler "Octopussy" (Maud Adams)-- a woman who uses traveling circuses to smuggle artifacts from country to country-- Kamal and Berkof employ her smuggling-pipeline to send a nuclear bomb into an inhabited German city.  There they plan to detonate it, thereby to impress upon Europe the need for universal disarmament.  Hard-liner Orlov believes that this disarmament will lead to total Soviet triumph in Europe.  The film, however, makes clear that Orlov is a dinosaur in the 1980s era of detente, which is as far as the sociological myth-making of this film goes.

Given that so many of Fleming's books concern former British possessions that have gone on a rampage since gaining their freedom, it's surprising that Fleming never gave Bond an adventure in India, often regarded as "the jewel in the crown" of the British Empire.  But on re-consideration, though Fleming seems positively encyclopedic in his knowledge of Europe from the British Isles to the USSR, his novels give no sense that he knew, or wanted to know, anything of Asia. 

The filmmakers don't allude to the former status of India as a British possession; one gets more sociopolitical content from the conflict between English Bond and Irish Red Grant in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.  OCTOPUSSY's India is just a catalogue of "exotica" motifs: having Bond pursued as part of a "tiger hunt," having Bond encounter various fakir-trickery amidst a fight-scene, such as sword-swallowing and a bed of nails.  Not that the Germans fare any better in their part of the film: Bond, given a ride to his destination by some jovial Germans, has to fend off the threat of being fed German sausages.

The closest OCTOPUSSY comes to making a new literary myth is the character of Octopussy herself.  In the Fleming short story, "Octopussy" is a nickname given to a real octopus by a man named Smythe, who is guilty of having killed a friend of James Bond.  Bond tracks Smythe down, but rather than taking him into custody, allows Smythe to take the gentleman's way out.  In the film, the nickname "Octopussy" is one Smythe gave to his daughter-- which certainly raises one's eyebrows as to their relationship. However, though the film keeps the substance of the short story, with Octopussy relating how Bond allowed her father to off himself, Octopussy bears no grudge and is glad Bond gave her father the chance to spare himself public shame.

There can be little doubt that the scripters of this film had "Pussy Galore" of the GOLDFINGER book and film in mind when they concocted the female artifacts-smuggler Octopussy.  For no clear reason, Octopussy has assembled a small female army around her, most of whom are Caucasians who were wandering the Indian subcontinent in search of "enlightenment" before falling in with the female smuggler.  This "femforce" certainly recalls the all-female aviatrix group associated with Pussy Galore in both the book and the film of GOLDFINGER.  However, there's never any intimation that Octopussy might swing in a Sapphic direction, or even both ways. She makes a remark about "sisterhood" that might imply some criminal version of women's lib, which also resonates fairly well with the book version of Pussy Galore.  However, though Maud Adams is sexy in the role, Octopussy as a character is much less memorable than either the book or film versions of the GOLDFINGER girl. There's a minor attempt at visual symbol-play between the octopus and female genitalia, but it's rather clunky and obvious.

By this time Moore had already expressed a desire to walk away from Bond, so it's not surprising that he looks a little bored at times.  I've complained earlier that Moore's Bond could be "clownish."  Ironically, Moore's best scene in OCTOPUSSY appears in a scene where he must infiltrate an ongoing circus-performance to disarm a bomb, and does so dressed-- as a clown.  Moore's desperate attempt to get to the bomb despite the interference of the regular performers is more interesting here than Bond's normal derring-do stunts.

I found most of Bond's stunts less than exciting, except for one in which he has to jump from a car to a train.  The best stunt-scene in the film doesn't involve Bond, but focuses on Octopussy's female army as they overcome Kamal Khan's soldiers with a variety of clever fighitng-strategies.

Bond himself uses no special gimmicks in his fights, though Q demonstrates a few in a lab, none of which seem particularly useful.  The villains have one ingenious "outre device," as one henchman sports a weapon in the form of a razor-edged yo-yo. 

The film's opening theme, Rita Coolidge singing "All-Time High," goes down in my books as the Worst Bond Theme Ever.



Monday, February 11, 2013

1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982), ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX (1983)




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

These two Italian action-flicks, both directed by sometime-cult director Enzo G. Castellari, are little more than enjoyably trashy takes on earlier American films, particularly 1979's THE WARRIORS and 1981's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

From THE WARRIORS Castellari and his collaborators essentially took the notion of colorfully costumed gangs battling one another.  The 1979 Walter Hill film takes place in a modern-day setting, however, so the essential concept of both films is more properly derived from John Carpenter's 1981 effort.  Both Castellari films take place in an oppressive future society where the gangs are posited as revolutionary forces against the tyrants. 

The main plot-thread of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is that the hero is obliged to venture into hostile territory to save the President of the United States from the inhabitants of New York, now a massive high-security prison.  The first Castellari film, 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS, keeps the basic idea that a person of influence-- in this case a wealthy heiress--- blunders into the "no man's land" of New York's Bronx, which is entirely ruled by the aforementioned Halloween-costumed gangs.  She's saved by Trash, the more or less beneficient leader of  a group called the Riders.  However, instead of negotiating with the Riders for the heiress' release, the government sends a hired mercenary named Hammer (Vic Morrow) to re-acquire the heiress (essentially altering the heroic character played by Kurt Russell in the Carpenter flick to an outright villain).  The hero, played by Mark Gregory, has a moderate raffish charm but the film benefits more from seasoned performers like Morrow and Fred Williamson, and some decent costume-designs.




ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX ratchets up the sense of social inequity as the tyrannical government decides to force all inhabitants from the Bronx before razing it for a future development project.  Trash is again the hero, though he's lost his old gang; however, he recruits new adherents in his efforts to force the government out of his stomping-grounds and return the power to the gangs. The scenes in which the fascist cops are expelling the innocent lowlifes from their homes are the more potent sequences, but ESCAPE looks like it was shot with much less attention to action scenes and costumes, while between the shooting of the two films Mark Gregory managed to lose some of the sculpted musculature that made him look like a dystopian version of Italy's Maciste. Henry Silva is on hand in a role that duplicates that of Vic Morrow, but he's more subdued and therefore much less effective.

LIVE AND LET DIE (1973)


 
 
 
 

PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

I make it a rule not to penalize any movie for its lack of fidelity to its source material.  However, it's fair to point out when a movie doesn't realize its own potential as well as the source book does.

Eon's 1973 Bond film LIVE AND LET DIE is a fitfully entertaining movie in its own right,  Certainly it's always lively, never showing any of the dull stretches that mar the next film in the series.  Still, it's lamentable that it doesn't play as vividly with the racial imagery as the novel does. Having reread the book to review the movie, I find that Fleming's LIVE AND LET DIE is something of a minor pulp masterpiece, whose complexities I've examined in three separate blog-pieces, here, here, and here. The book has a very forthright, cinema-friendly structure, so it's a shame that in all likelihood it's never be adapted in the only way it could be to preserve Fleming's concept: as a period-piece set in the 1950s.

Fleming's approach was impossible in the decade of the 1973 film.  In the novel the evil Mister Big maintains a network of resourceful black agents whose primary virtue is the invisibility conferred on them by the low status of their jobs as porters and the like.  In contrast, the dominant motto of black culture in the early 1970s might be, "Say it loud; I'm black and I'm proud!"  Therefor the LIVE AND LET DIE film takes the same basic approach as the contemporaneous "blaxploitation" films, where swagger replaces obsequious deceptiveness.

The villain's goal had to change as well.  In the novel Mister Big is smuggling pirate treasure into America and funneling the proceeds to the Communists.  Audiences of the James Bond films, regardless of their race or nationality, were accustomed to seeing 007 tackle much more momentous schemes.  Thus Mister Big becomes Kananga, the ruler of San Monique, a small island in the Caribbean, in essence a stand-in for Haiti, generally regarded as the birthplace of voodoo religion.  In addition, Kananga maintains a double identity, becoming the jive-talking Mister Big during some of his American forays.  Again voodoo practices serve to obscure the villain's activities, but Big's treasure here is a crop of poppies, and his plan is to flood the American market with cheap heroin.

The image of the drug baron was a fortuitous one for the filmmakers.  In some blaxploitation films, such as 1972's SUPERFLY, the druglords were portrayed as powerful men in the ghetto communities, capable of bucking the corrupt white system.  However, the druglords could also be potrayed as villains, seen as making themselves rich on the sufferings of their customers, just as the white Mafia dons did.  LIVE plays to both images, but never commits to one or the other.

Voodoo religion was also evoked as a source of power in a few blaxploitation films.  However, rather than following the book's lead, and showing it the religion as having a terrible hold on its adherents, the film's voodoo terrors are just standard boogiemen-images, even though actor Geoffrey Holder has some enjoyable scenes as a high priest of the cult.  The voodoo influence may also explain the shift in the book's geographical plan.  Where in the book Bond's progress takes an arrow-like trajectory  from New York to Florida to Jamaica, in the film the hero zigzags from New York to New Orleans to Big's  Caribbean redoubt.

LIVE shuffles some book-scenes to no great effect.  The scene in which Big commands Tee Hee to break Bond's little finger comes early in the book in order to make the agent's battle more personal.  The movie does have an early scene in which Bond is menaced by Big's gunmen, though it peters out rather disappointingly. The "threat to Bond's hand" does show up late in the picture, but at such a position it proves less than effective.  The film's Tee Hee is made more interesting than his prose incarnation by the addition of a claw-hand, while Whisper, another henchman from the book, gets his role beefed up as well.  Felix Leiter's mutilation by a captive shark is omitted, as is Bond's vengeful quest against the henchman guilty of maiming the FBI man.

If the books takes any key plotline from the book, it's the battle of Big and Bond over the psychic Tarot-reader Solitaire.  As in the book the woman's psychic gifts are ambiguous, so that I can't consider them "marvelous," but only "uncanny."  Solitaire isn't a strong character in either work, but she does at least have a history of sorts in Fleming, while in the film she's little more than a prize to be won.

Perhaps because the scripters were focused on making the black villains tough and efficient, Bond himself is sorely underwritten, often seeming to be little more than a quip machine.  The humor in LIVE isn't nearly as bad as what comes later in MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, though both films are burdened with the "Southern fried cracker"  comedy of J.W. Pepper-- about which the less that is said, the better.  This Bond never seems to be a seasoned, clever agent, but more an effete dabbler who's wandered in from a Noel Coward play, and just happens to be able to fight pretty well.  The film gives Bond some good stunts, but they don't make up for a flat character and an equally flat performance by first-time Bond Roger Moore.

With the exception of J.W. Pepper, the film's greatest deficit is that the character of Mister Big lacks any of the mythic resonance of the original, or even that of a cognate figure like Superfly.  This Big may talk the talk of a revolutionary-- in one interview Yaphet Kotto even claimed that Big/Kananga was the film's real hero-- but this version of Big doesn't have the bearing of a great villain.  He's just an asshole drug-dealer with a good gimmick, nothing more. 

Bond uses more gimmick-weapons in LIVE than he did in the previous Eon entry. One of the weapons, a watch that can attract small metal objects magnetically, comes close to the category of the marvelous.  However, I decided that the science-fictional factor here is still pretty limited, and thus belongs in the category of the uncanny.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977)



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


Three years passed between Eon Productions' 1974 THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN and 1977's SPY WHO LOVED ME, thanks to legal and financial problems.  Without celebrating the misfortunes that caused these production problems, the delay may have contributed to making the third Roger Moore-Bondfilm a much better film than the previous entries.

As has been my practice here, I reread the Fleming novel before rewatching the film.  Though film-producers in general have a habit of not following their source material, here the Eon producers can't be faulted, for their contract forbade them from using anything but the book's title.  They still managed to find inspiration in the Fleming work, though, and probably concocted a work more pleasing to moviegoers than any straight adaptation of the novel.

SPY the novel has a entirely naturalistic phenomenality, and diverges from the rest of Fleming's series in that the narrative unfolds from the first-person vantage of Vivienne Michel.  This young woman, lured into an insurance scam, has her life endangered by two professional thugs, only to be saved by the chance intervention of James Bond.  The two thugs, "Sluggsy" and "Horror," are close to being DICK TRACY grotesques, with one described as having steel-capped teeth while the other as suffering from congenital hairlessness.  However, like some of the "freakish" hoods in the earlier DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER novel, these mundane hoods never convey the sense of "strangeness" that marks the phenomenal mode of the uncanny. They're just plain ugly.

Sluggsy's steel-capped teeth, however, inspired writers Richard Maibaum and Christopher Wood to create one of film-Bond's best sparring partners, the titanic, steel-toothed Jaws (Richard Kiel).  If the Jaws character were the only metaphenomenal aspect of SPY, his strength, near-indestructibility and steel teeth would qualify for the trope of "outre outfits skills and devices." 

As it happens, though, the SPY-film falls into the category of the marvelous by virtue of its main villain, Karl Stromberg (Curt Jergens) as a sort of demi-Nemo who is devoted to the beauties of the ocean.  He also plans to bring about armageddon in order to make a new start for mankind.  The "mcguffin" in the plot is a mundane submarine tracking system, but as Bond and his female lead chase after the device, they uncover Stromberg's plot, which includes his having constructed his own underwater city whereby to survive the cataclysm. 

Stromberg is certainly the reason I didn't like this film much the first time round.  His love for the sea ought to make him a very dynamic Bond-villain, given that two of the best Bond-villains in the books, Emilio Largo and Mister Big, carried nautical associations.  But though Curt Jergens does his best with the character, the Stromberg character is never more than the sum of his parts.

Both the book and film serials starring James Bond have often been accused of being demeaning or condescending to women.  I've disputed this in other reviews, but SPY WHO LOVED ME is a definite improvement over MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, where the lead female was played as a ditz.  The heroine who was "spy-loved" in the novel was not entirely defenseless-- she was at least able to use a gun-- but the film's female lead is much more formidable.  In tune with the era's appeals to ideological compromise between Western democracy and Soviet Communism, Russian spy-girl Anya Asamova (Barbara Bach) is played as Bond's opposite number on the other side.  The script never condescends to Asamova, who outmaneuvers Bond on a couple of occasions and shows herself able to defend herself against normal opponents.  I would have liked to see her be a little more dynamic at the film's climax, but this wasn't a deal-killer.  Bach's romance with Bond-- who, we learn early on, has accidentally killed Asamova's lover-- is handled intelligently; she certainly doesn't fall into 007's bed at the crook of Bond's finger.

Finally, though I felt Roger Moore never found a decent take on Bond in his first two films, the script gives Moore a much more centered role.  The Bond of LIVE AND LET DIE is effete despite his skills, and the Bond of GOLDEN GUN is frankly clownish.  But in SPY Moore's Bond seems far more the professional spy-- and killer-- than he had seemed to be in any of the Eon Bond-films since THUNDERBALL.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

AEON FLUX (2005)



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


“We’re meant to die—it’s what makes anything about us matter.”—the titular star of AEON FLUX.

The original “Aeon Flux” cartoons, produced in the 1990s by Peter Chung for MTV’s “Liquid Television,” became popular with viewers chiefly through their feel of enigmatic unpredictability. The scantily garbed Aeon, an inhabitant of a far-future civlization, engaged in assorted obscure missions, sometimes including assassination, against the forces of city-ruler Trevor Goodchild, sort of a futuristic Nero, albeit rendered with more irony.  On occasion Aeon was “killed,” but came to life by the next episode.

I haven’t viewed the original cartoons—which I found pleasant, but hardly among my favorites—in many years. I don’t know what if any story-content the film borrowed from the cartoons, nor do I know whether or not I would judge the cartoon Aeon’s exploits to be more allied to the formal Fryean category of irony, or that of adventure.

There’s no such doubt in the case of this Aeon Flux-- directed by Karyn Kusama just after her writer-director breakout success with GIRLFIGHT-- and certainly no irony.  A quick summing-up tells us that in the very near future (2011, actually) most of the population will die off of a malady called “the Industrial Disease.”  The survivors of humanity now occupy a sole city called Bregna, ruled by scientist Trevor Goodchild , his brother Oren and an assortment of other government officials.  Their power is absolute, but the most distressing aspect of their rule is the way citizens mysteriously disappear.  Discontent breeds a group of rebels, “the Monicans,” and among their number is athletic super-assassin Aeon Flux.  She was apparently originally a citizen, for she keeps contact with her sister, a non-rebel named Una, but unlike Una Aeon chose to fight the power.

Aeon’s Monican superiors give the order to “hit” Trevor at last, and with her special skills she invades the ruler’s sanctum and fights her way to the supposed tyrant.  However, she finds herself unable to kill him, while for his part he recognizes her, calling her by a name, “Katherine,” which she does not know.  She escapes, only to find that her sister Una has been spirited away.

Following many rather low-energy adventures, Aeon learns the truth from Trevor: the original survivors of the plague were sterile. Trevor decided that, rather than allowing the human race to die out, he would keep it alive through cloning, but without the population’s knowledge.  A citizen would be harvested and killed as needed, and his DNA would be used to produce a clone-fetus, which would be introduced into the womb of a likely mother. Thus the population of Bregna has been recapitulated over seven generations, including Trevor himself, though each of his clone-rebirths is educated to become a new Trevor Goodchild.

Trevor meant for the clone-technique to serve as a stopgap until he found a cure to the sterility, but his brother Oren desires to perpetuate the Goodchild rule for eternity.  Moreover, Oren makes a discovery that he conceals from Trevor: real pregnancies have started to appear, as nature triumphs over the Industrial Disease.  Aeon’s sister Una was specifically harvested because she was one of these.  Aeon’s rebel allies cast her out for failing to kill Trevor, so that the heroine and her ally are almost alone, caught between the hostile Monicans and Oren’s corrupt hegemony.

The AEON film puts forth a tolerable but essentially routine iteration of the “ragtag rebels vs. corrupt rulers” plotline.  Direction and design never aspire to equal the stylish flair of Peter Chung’s cartoons, and the script lacks either Chung’s irony or even much in the way of comic touches.  There’s a very basic existential proposition suggested in the script, as seen by the dialogue-line cited above, to the effect that mortal humans were meant to die in order to make their limited lives meaningful.  However, it’s too heavy a thought for the banal script to support. 

As for the less than compelling mystery of Aeon’s origins, she turns out to be a clone of Katherine, wife of the original Trevor.  Katherine became sick during the original crisis, but Oren, who feared her ability to influence Trevor, ordered her DNA destroyed for good.  Another member of the hierarchy defied that order and kept Aeon’s DNA for future use.  It’s not articulated as to why seven generations went by before Aeon was re-created, or why her insider-ally didn’t tell her any of her complicated history.

Most unforgiveable in an adventure-film, the action-sequences are perfunctory at best.  Theron, a skilled actress, can’t be faulted for not giving audiences the captivating, insouciant Aeon from Chung’s cartoon.  But she plays the role emphasizing the character’s emotional vulnerability, and so isn’t able to bring any real heroic mojo to the role, compared to (say) Milla Jovavich in the RESIDENT EVIL films.  Theron's best moment is her astonishment when she sees her grown sister Una re-incarnated as a clone-baby.  But her scenes as a heroic “femme formidable” are far from standout. 

 

Friday, February 1, 2013

KUNG FU: SEASON 1, EPISODES 7-9 (1973)


                                
        

PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny* (2) *naturalistic,* (3) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*, (3) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*

“Nine Lives,” season one’s seventh episode (according to the order on the DVD set), virtually reprises the same plot-structure as the first, “King of the Mountain,” in which wanderer Caine gets enmeshed in the troubles of some unfortunate just long enough to help, before the relentless pursuit of bounty hunters forces him to depart for new horizons.

“Lives” is the first episode to have a substantial degree of comedy, as Caine finds himself obliged to help a man find a cat.  Mulhare, member of a mining-camp, sets off an ill-timed explosion that inadvertently kills the camp’s pet cat.  The camp exiles Mulhare until the Irish miner can find a replacement feline, and Caine elects to follow him in his quest.  Mulhare desperately wants to get back to the camp because he’s found a nugget that will yield him a rich strike, and he frequently runs off at the mouth about his dream of riches to the indifferent priest.  The duo stumble across a ranch run by a lone widow-woman, who happens to own a cat.  She’ll trade the cat if the two of them will dig her a well, which keeps Mulhare around long enough for a romantic interest to spark between the miner and the widow. 

However, a family of bounty hunters follow Caine’s trail to the ranch.  They take Caine captive and search Mulhare.  One of them laughingly dismisses the miner’s nugget as iron pyrite, dashing the Irishman’s dreams.  In an amusing moment Caine manages to trick one of the hunters, who has bragged about his wrestling prowess, to engage Caine in a match.  Following a decent fight, which Caine naturally wins, the bounty hunters take flight. Mulhare loses interest in prospecting.  He briefly considers trapping Caine for the reward, but gives up his dreams of wealth for a new life with the widow.

One of the better flashback-meditations deals with the double-sided nature of “pain and pleasure.”  Caine’s only uncanny feat takes place in a medical context: the widow’s mare is foaling, but the foal is turned around in the womb.  Caine’s animal empathy allows him to calm the horse while Mulhare extracts the foal, making possible the survival of both mother and offspring.


“Sun and Cloud Shadow,” a wholly naturalistic episode, centers upon the theme of xenophobia once more.  Caine happens upon an old man named Ying on the outskirts of a mining-town.  Ying is one of a community of Chinese miners who moved into a played-out mine in a neighboring mountain, though the mountain technically belongs to the town’s richest man, Colonel Binns.  Ying invites Caine to stay with him, but first he must go into town to pay off a bill at the local saloon.  In the saloon Binns’ son Douglas makes trouble, insisting that the two teetotaling Orientals must drink his whiskey.  In the fight they ensures, Douglas shoots Ying dead.

Caine meets the late Ying’s daughter Cloud Shadow and his son as they claim their father’s body, and then follows them to their mountain-hideaway.  Ying's son, remembering how his people were treated as slaves before they started making money from the mine, wants to start a war with the whites.  Colonel Binns shows up at the funeral, taking no responsibility for the death and ordering the Chinese families to leave.  Ying's son persuades the others to buy guns for protection.

In addition, Cloud Shadow reveals her history to Caine. She was an unwanted child sold into slavery in China (just to remind audiences that China had its own set of evil practices), and shipped to America to be sold as a prostitute.  An American priest intervened and raised Cloud to be a nurse, but she was unable to find any work but that of a maid, which led her to Colonel Binns’s household.  Benz’s younger son David fell in love with her, and she with him.  The Colonel forbade any marriage, and David lacked the gumption to challenge his father.

The Chinese community appeals to Caine to be a go-between, to make peace with the Colonel in exchange for a tributary payment.  Binns is much like Ed Rankin of “The Soul is the Warrior,” a self-made man who holds his property with a gun, but he also claims to be a man of peace, perhaps because he values his position in the community.  After a dialogue that functions as an exchange of cultural views, Caine and the Colonel make a deal.   In an ironic note, hearkening back to the saloon-scene, Benz offers Caine champagne, which Caine declines in favor of tea.

However, that same night Ying's son kills Douglas. The Colonel isn’t content to bring the killer alone to justice.  Binns brings a formidable weapon—a mortar-shell cannon—to the mountain, demanding that the miners must either leave or yield up Cloud Shadow to be his son’s “pillow-girl.”  In addition, he reveals Caine’s presence to a pair of bounty hunters, one of whom is another martially trained “Manchu agent.”  Caine fights and kills the murderous agent as he did his opponent in the pilot movie.  David finally defies his father and swears to marry Cloud Shadow.  The Colonel retreats in fury, but it’s implied that whether or not he’ll accept his son’s marriage, he’ll cease menacing the miners for the sake of their profitable business arrangement.


“Chains,” another naturalistic story, begins with Caine once more on the trail of his half-brother.  Having somehow heard that his brother was working a claim with a man named Hantoon, and that Hantoon is being held in prison at a fort, Caine ventures into the fort to interview the prisoner.  He meets Sergeant Bedford, a greedy officer who recognizes Caine from his wanted poster.  The sergeant allows Caine to speak with Hantoon, a hulking, slow-witted fellow accused of murder.  Hantoon barely understands Caine’s desire to find his brother.  Bedford traps Caine in the jail and then forces him to be chained to Hantoon (hence the title). 

Caine breaks them free in exchange for the befuddled giant’s promise to lead Caine to his brother.  Bedford follows, intent on claiming the reward.  During their travels Caine teaches the slow-minded man a sense of his own worth, despite the way so many normal people have called him an “animal.”  When Hantoon boasts that he can whip anyone who gives him insults, Caine remonstrates, “If you plant rice, you will grow rice.  If you plant fear, you will grow fear.”

The area is menaced by hostile Ute Indians, and the duo’s progress is further complicated when Hantoon takes Caine to the home of his brother-in-law, whom Hantoon believes guilty of murdering his sister.  Caine deduces that this accusation is a delusion born of his grief and takes him away again.  Eventually they arrive at the cabin Danny Caine once occupied, but Danny has disappeared.  Bedford overtakes them.  Caine subdues him, but then leaves to scout for the Indians.  The sergeant, greedy to claim the gold uncovered by the prospectors, persuades Hantoon to betray Caine by telling him that Caine’s a killer. Once again Caine manages to gain the upper hand.  Knowing that the hostiles are close, he takes Hantoon with him after fruitlessly trying to convince Bedford to come along. Bedford, busy trying to gather up the gold, is overtaken by the Utes,

Caine takes Hantoon to a nearby town, giving him the chance to seek a new life.  Instead, having somewhat absorbed Caine’s lessons on natural harmony, the “animal” elects to become a forest-dwelling “wild man,” devoted himself to caring for the beasts.  The story thus merges the images of the American savage—either an Indian, or a white man who lives like an Indian—with the image of the Asian in quest of natural harmony.