Sunday, April 28, 2013

THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939), THE APE (1940)



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

I've always admired a phrase coined by William K. Everson to explain the appeal of Boris Karloff's acting-persona: Everson said Karloff looked "brutal yet sensitive."  To the best of my knowledge not much of the actor's silent-era work contributed to this balance of opposed qualities: not until after he essayed the Frankenstein Monster did Karloff manage to create the persona that made him arguably the most renowned American horror star of Classic Hollywood.

THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, the first of three Columbia films directed by journeyman Nick Grinde (also a collaborator on BABES IN TOYLAND), is also the best of the trio.  It's also one of Karloff's best "mad scientist" roles, boosted in part by the screenplay of Karl Brown (who also scripted the other two films in the "series.")  In contrast to some films, in which the over-reaching scientist is condemned for meddling with the works of God, HANG defends the attempts of science to bring about radical new advances.  True, the dedicated scientist becomes so obsessed with his discovery that he becomes a dead-alive monster, bent on avenging the wrongs done him.  But in part society's purblind conservatism has contributed to the creation of the monster.

Dr. Savaard (Karloff) dedicates himself to finding a way to cryogenically preserve bodies with fatal injuries in order to resurrect them afterward.  A young man volunteers to be a guinea pig, which is to say that he must be killed before he can be resuscitated.  The volunteer's girlfriend reveals the experiment to the police, who arrive in time to find a dead body, but they refuse to let Savaard finish his experiment.  Despite an impassioned plea to his jury on behalf of science's prerogatives-- the high point of the film-- Savaard is condemned to hang.

However, a loyal assistant manages to claim the scientist's body quickly enough to subject it to the resurrection procedure.  Alive but embittered, Savaard decides to seek vengeance on the judge, jury, and coroner who sentenced him.  He gives his future victims an invitation to a mysterious party, not unlike the situation of the earlier NINTH GUEST, reveals himself to his guests and sets in motion their deaths-- one from an electric gate very like that of the earlier film.  Only the intrusion of Savaard's innocent daughter on the party keeps the body count relatively low, and inevitably results in the doctor's reacquaintance with death.  But despite his murderous acts, Savaard keeps the audience's sympathy to the last.



THE APE was released just weeks after the last of the Karloff-Grinde-Brown films, BEFORE I HANG. I didn't like THE APE at all when I first encountered it, but I don't think it was because of its premise, though it is particularly preposterous even for a low-budget mad-scientist flick.

Doctor Adrian (Karloff), a scientist ostracized by his peers for his far-fetched theories, comes to live in a small country town.  He cherishes a desire to do away with paralysis diseases, and so comes to form a paternal interest toward pretty young Frances, a girl confined to a wheelchair by polio.  The locals regard  Adrian as something of an odd duck, and Frances' fiancee Danny seems vaguely threatened by the old man's attentions.

This status quo is interrupted by the appearance of a traveling circus outside town.  A caged gorilla (played by renowned gorilla-man Crash Corrigan) escapes after mauling his abusive trainer. The townspeople bring the trainer to Adrian for treatment, but since the man is almost dead of his wounds, Adrian finishes him off by drawing spinal fluid from the trainer to create an anti-polio serum.  His initial test on Frances works, but he needs more spinal fluid.

 The gorilla, wandering in the wild and terrifying the locals, happens to invade Adrian's laboratory.  Adrian very improbably manages to kill the animal.  Somehow the animal's presence gives Adrian the idea to skin the dead beast, wear it as a costume and pose as the ape in order to kill unworthy members of the community and harvest their spinal fluid.  The good doctor continues to terrorize the town although, as with HANG, the body count is rather low.  As a result of Adrian's exploits, Frances's polio is cured, but he's caught during one of his night-time peregrinations-- ironically, because Frances sees the "ape" and calls the constables to attack and kill the "creature."

In my first viewing of the film, I think that I disliked the film because the audience never delivers a "monster," just a man bumbling around in an ape suit. At least HANG shows its mad scientist looking creepy and cadaverous.  The film employs two uncanny tropes-- the "astounding animal" trope for the rampage of the real gorilla, and the "outre outfits" trope for Adrian's simian masquerade.  However, the element of the miraculous polio-cure transports the movie into the domain of the marvelous.

Friday, April 26, 2013

STARSHIP TROOPERS: INVASION (2012), LOCKOUT (2012)



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

Strangely, though STARSHIP TROOPERS sounds like the title of a pure adventure-opus, neither the original Heinlein novel nor the three live-action films derived from it conform to the tonality of the adventure-story.  Only one derivation known to me, the 1999 ROUGHNECKS: STARSHIP TROOPERS telecartoon, falls into the adventure mythos.  This 2012 direct-to-video release, also animated, can now be added to this short list.

As I said in this review, the original TROOPERS film is certainly constructed as a covert irony.
Following that, as I noted here,the second live-action film in the franchise hewed to a more melodramatic approach, while the third one returned to "a more ironic stance."  STARSHIP 4, however, abandons any ironic or satiric elements, and comes off as a somewhat darker version of the G.I. JOE cartoon-- a similarity that may have been suggested to me by noticing that one of that show's writers, Flint Dille, wrote the screenplay for INVASION.  In truth, I think the characters in G.I. JOE were a tad more individualistic than Dille's versions of such TROOPERS characters as Johnny Rico and Carmen Ibanez.

One of the most un-ironic developments in INVASION is that, during the space-soldiers' battle against their arthropodal adversaries, Rico and Ibanez express negative feelings toward Carl Jenkins, and one of the new protagonists, Henry "Hero" Varro, is put into prison for being insubordinate to Jenkins.  In the original TROOPERS film, none of the Earth-people are in any way aware of the noxiousness of the quasi-fascist things Jenkins says or does.  By making Jenkins a secondary adversary for the "grunts," Dille's script defuses any of his potential for irony. 

INVASION boasts some impressive animated effects, particularly for its newly designed insect foes and by improving on the armor-suits seen only briefly in the third live-action film.  However, all of the characters are relatively routine stereotypes, thus reducing the film's ability to compel audience identification.



LOCKOUT-- in part scripted by Luc Besson, and directed by the script's other two writers-- is no more original than INVASION, being no more than another take on the plotline of John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.  In place of ex-soldier Snake Plissken, we have an ex-CIA man  named "Snow" who is falsely accused of espionage against the U.S.  In place of the government needing to have him venture into the hostile territory of New York, the hero must invade a prison-satellite filled with manicas. In place of Plissken's quarry, the President of the U.S., Snow must seek to rescue the President's daughter-- though something close to this variation had already appeared in a pair of Italian ripoffs of ESCAPE.

However, though there's nothing very impressive about LOCKOUT's plot or action-sequences, the Besson film does put across some entertaining chemistry between Snow-- played by Guy Pearce, not exactly the first actor one picks to be a muscular action-hero-- and the President's daughter, played by feisty Maggie Grace.  Said chemistry comes about largely because Snow, in contrast to many monosyllabic heroes of similar appearance, shows a mocking sense of humor about nearly everything.  Moreover, some of the jokes are actually funny, so that the audience generally wants to see Grace's character get back some of her own. 

LOCKOUT could have benefitted from some freakier villains, as the prison-maniacs are fairly uninspired.  But overall, it's a good time-waster.


HAMLET (1969), SERAPHIM FALLS (2006)



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


In my review of the Laurence Olivier HAMLET I aligned the film with the trope of the "phantasmal figuration," which subsumes those works in which there's a question as to "whether or not to take the fantasy-material at face value."  The 1969 HAMLET strongly resembles the 1948 production in seeking to avoid the problem "is the ghost real or not" by not letting the audience see a spirit in either of the two scenes where it appears.  If anything, director Tony Richardson-- whose only other contribution to fantasy-cinema is the 1990 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA-- is even more abstemious than Olivier in this respect.

Because this production was entirely filmed in the Roundhouse theater, constructed from a deserted train-shed, Richardson keeps his lens focused on the actors either in close-up or at middle-range.  Perhaps the intent was to make this HAMLET more intimate and less defined by cinematic "pomp and circumstance."  Unfortunately, the actors sometimes seem rushed to finish their speeches, unable to fall back on the long stage-tradition of using props for "bits of business."  Nicol Williamson's Hamlet is particularly plagued by this stagecraft-problem.  And although some critics do put Hamlet in his early thirties, which Williamson was at the time, his advanced balding makes him look older, and clashes with the dominant sense of the Danish prince as a book-learned naif.

However, one of the well-trod paths that Richardson does not follow is Olivier's over-emphasis on the Freudian angle.  True, the word "incest" still appears as often as in the play, but there's no mouth-on-mouth kiss here, as in Olivier's version.  In fact, during the infamous scene where Hamlet confronts his mother in her bedroom to chastise her for her waywardness, Williamson's Hamlet seems not at all like a son filled with concupiscent lust for his parent, but like a confused child in a man's body.  One reviewer complained that a kiss between Ophelia and her brother Laertes went on long enough to suggest some greater intimacy, but I didn't get that vibe.

Most of the male performers deliver professional but unexciting turns, with Anthony Hopkins' Claudius a particular disappointment.  The lead females, however, seem to flourish with Richardson's up-close-and-personal approach.  Judy Parfitt makes a Gertrude with a "Mona Lisa" inscrutability and singer Marianne Faithful essays an impassioned Ophelia.





The main plotline of wrtier-director David Von Ancken's SERAPHIM FALLS covers much the same ground as Fritz Lang's "revenge melodramas" like THE BIG HEAT and RANCHO NOTORIOUS.  However, whereas Lang supplies his audiences with up-front details on why his protagonists have hit the revenge trail, Von Ancken delays the backstory for over half the picture.  Thus one does not know whether to empathize with Pierce Brosnan's fugitive Gideon, or his pursuer, Liam Neeson's Carver, though the latter is somewhat more unsympathetic in that he has a gang of mercenaries working with him to track down Gideon.  When the backstory is revealed, it apportions a certain sympathy to both characters, instead of taking Lang's path, in which the audience wants to see the protagonists take down the villains despite the awareness that vengeance corrupts Lang's heroes.

The only metaphenomenal elements here are two strange individuals who appear in the story toward the last half-hour, when Carver pursues Gideon through an arid desert.  One is a Native American (Wes Studi) with a philosophical turn of mind, and the other is a female drummer (Angelica Huston) with a wagonload of goods.  Neither one does anything that's especially fantastic, except that Huston's character pops up as if out of nowhere in one scene.  Von Ancken does give both of them myth-derived names, for the name on the drummer's wagon is "Louise C. Fair" (Lucifer), while the Indian, given no name in the storyline, is billed as "Charon." Some comments assert that they must be either the angels or the devils of the Christian tradition, but neither character conforms to the myths of angels or devils, much less the tales of the Greek boatman of the dead.  Presumably Von Ancken's use of these names, both associated with meting out fate to the dead or dying, means that the two men will perish following the picture's conclusion, though as it happens the enemies manage to forgive one another before the end.  But if anything, the actions of these two ambivalent figures carries the resonance of the Amerindian trickster-gods, who are merely amused to watch two mortals fighting for their lives.  However, Von Ancken's script is not ambitious enough to make these mythic references amount to anything.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

HALLOWEEN II (1981), HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982)




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


I noted at the conclusion of my HALLOWEEN review that if there had never been another film in this franchise, it might be hard to judge the original as being either "uncanny" or "marvelous."  Slasher Michael Myers takes a significant amount of punishment from both Laurie Strode and Doctor Loomis, but at the end of the film it's just marginally possible that the killer has simply crawled away to die.

HALLOWEEN II, picking up mere moments after the first film, references the fact that Michael, a.k.a. "the Shape," was shot six times by Loomis.  But when the audience first sees Michael, he shows no sign of having taken any wounds, and at no point is his slaughter-spree slowed down by having six bullets in his body.  Almost none of the victims of Michael's spree manage to inflict any wounds on the killer, and only at the climax does he take about four shots, again from Loomis, which he shrugs off before killing another victim.  Michael seems to have some limitations on his "healing powers," for shortly thereafter Laurie shoots him in the eyes and blinds him for a time.  Loomis apparently destroys "the Shape" in a fiery explosion, though as most horror-fans know later filmmakers found a way to exhume Michael for Part 4 of the series.  At the time writer-producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill intended this film to be the swan song for the Shape.

Sadly, while the original film is a masterpiece of pacing, the sequel stretches out its thin premise with draggy, psuedo-suspenseful scenes courtesy of new director Rick Rosenthal.  Despite all the commotion generated by the Haddonfield police upon discovering three dead bodies and sending the injured Laurie to the local hospital, somehow Michael manages to have the run of Haddonfield as he stalks around, killing both men and women-- though, to be sure, female victims receive a little more attention here than in the first film.  Given the almost total absence of medical activity, the hospital in Haddonfield seems more like a morgue, which is symbolically right but still makes the place seem far more conveniently deserted than any real hospital should be.

Michael shows a little more sadism in his murders this time, as when he plunges one nurse's face into a super-hot tub and drains another's blood from her body.  Arguably, the first film shows a little of this propensity, as when the killer dresses in a "ghost costume" in order to take some pleasure in fooling his next victim.  But there's little of the first film's sense of Michael being an incarnation of evil and/or impending fate. The narrative also retcons the original story to make the slasher the long lost brother of Laurie Strode.  This is at least an interesting development, in contrast to a clumsy scene in which Loomis and a cop ally find that Michael has written the word "Samhain" near the site of one of his murders.  I've seen it suggested that, since Michael spent most of his time at the insane asylum as nearly inactive, possibly the legend of the Celtic version of Halloween was mentioned to Michael by his then-analyst Loomis.  However, though Loomis promptly pontificates on the subject of Samhain for the audience's benefit, he never admits that he is the source of Michael's sudden interest in comparative religion.  Possibly Hill and Carpenter thought it was an ambivalent means of suggesting "pure evil" again, or bringing a "Halloween" theme back into the story since all the trick-or-treaters would've gone indoors by that hour.  Still, the scene doesn't offer any real payoff here.



In contrast, though HALLOWEEN III has a lot of problems, it's never as dull as Number Two frequently is.  If it had been successful, possibly Hill and Carpenter would have continued the franchise along the lines of THREE, with each new film pursuing new plotlines on a general Halloween theme.

The finished script of THREE is credited to director Tommy Lee Wallace, though an early version was written by Nigel Kneale, who withdrew his name from the movie when producers insisted on an elevated level of goriness.  THREE is indeed much gorier than the first two HALLOWEEN films, but it rather fits the new concept, in which the "witch" of the title seeks to bring back the Celtic custom of massive ritual sacrifice.  At very least it's a better use of the Celtic-Halloween theme than we see in TWO.

Doctor Dan Challis (Tom Atkins), father and somewhat browbeaten husband, happens to be on duty at a California hospital when an injured man, brought in for medical attention, is murdered in his hospital room by a mysterious, passionless assassin.  The same assassin then covers his tracks by setting himself, and the car he occupies, on fire.  What Dan does not know-- though the audience does-- is that the killer is one of several identical androids.

The patient's pretty daughter Ellie shows up at the hospital, swearing to find out why her father was murdered.  Dan is both curious about the murder and intrigued with the young woman, and he accompanies her to investigate the victim's last place of employment: the Silver Shamrock Novelties Factory, located in Santa Mira, California.  Ellie is apparently impressed with Dan as well, for upon reaching a motel in the factory-town, she goes along with their masquerading as a married couple.  She also ends up sleeping with Dan rather quickly, considering that her main goal ought to be finding her father's murderer.

Dan and Ellie learn that Ellie's father sought to expose a massive plot by Irish-born factory-owner Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy) to sacrifice dozens upon dozens of trick-or-treaters to his pagan gods.  One might consider it the super-villain's answer to "tainted Halloween candy."  Cochran's factory produces mass-produced masks that have the capability to kill those who wear them, though as a means of explaining why he's doing this for the first time in 1982, the villain helpfully explains to Dan that the stars have to be "in conjunction" before the sacrifice is made.

On the plus side, long before the nature of the peril is known, the film continually foregrounds Cochran's masks through a barrage of television ads, urging all the kiddies to don their masks at just the right time. On the minus side, it's vague as to what powers Cochran commands.  His identical android-servants seem like pure products of scientific innovation.  However, though the audience is set up to think that the masks are also mechanical menaces, the one time they're used, they unleash what would have to be mystical effects, in that a kid's mask fills up with insects and snakes.  The villain also steals a "bluestone" from Stonehenge to make his plan work, and the stone gives off an assortment of weird effects at the climax.  Dan manages to achieve an initial victory over Cochran's forces, though the film ends on an ambivalent note, so that the viewer doesn't know if he manages to avert the crisis fully.  While some films are stronger when they attempt this type of "maybe-unhappy ending," the attempt in THREE merely seems to come out of left field.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

CHILDREN OF THE CORN V (1998), CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666 (1999), CHILDREN OF THE CORN VII (2001)



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


Now that I've finished watching the first six sequels to the original 1984 CHILDREN OF THE CORN film, I've decided that there really isn't any deep symbolic reason as to why the franchise has lasted so long.  Now I tend to believe that the main reason is economic.  Entries in the series are always going to feature young actors with few to no credits, which keeps the producers' costs down, even if they may turn around and hire a few "big names" to spice up the appeal to renters.  On top of that-- how much does it cost to maintain cornfield sets?

Not surprisingly, the next three in the series get further and further from the original concept of the Stephen King story.  Five, Six, and Seven are all inferior entries in a dubious franchise, though they're mounted well enough that they're still better than most SYFY channel dreck.

CHILDREN V is subtitled FIELDS OF TERROR.  Perhaps the original intention was FIELDS OF SCREAMS, to play on a famous film-title, and some lawyer said "no."  It's the weakest of the sequels, as it returns to an almost empty plot-well: dopey teens in trouble with supernatural evil. 

A new locale, Divinity Falls, takes the place of Gatlin, Nebraska, but at least, in contrast to THE GATHERING, the demonic child-cult still worships "He Who Walks Behind the Rows," that devilish corn-god.  However, the deity takes an unusual form here, that of a fire-creature who lurks within a grain-silo.  Addtionally in a move that goes against the whole "kids vs. adults" trope, the demon-kids have a old man as the leader of the cult, fanatical Luke Enright (a spacy David Carradine). 

In addition, one of the trespassing teens-- lead character Alison-- happens onto the cult without knowing that her long-lost brother Jacob is a member.  Jacob must struggle against his allegiance to the cult and his loyalty to his sister, recalling a similar struggle in CHILDREN III.  In addition, the most dedicated of the evil kids is again a kid of middle-school age.  In general throughout the series it's the younger kids who are the most dangerous, while the older ones are capable of being lured away from the cult by sexuality or by earlier relationships.

In contrast to earlier films in the series, there's far less attention given to designing elaborate deaths for the victims of the children, which helps to make the film even duller than its rambling plot.



The script of CHILDREN 666, subtitled ISAAC'S RETURN, makes the greatest attempt to ground its mayhem in the original events of Gatlin, Nebraska, for it revives "Isaac," the leader of the child-cult from the first film. In addition, protagonist Hannah is the full-grown offspring of Rachel, a character who had been one of the original Gatlin kids.  Hannah is raised by adoptive parents, but chooses to visit Gatlin to find out the truth about her mother, partly because Hannah is tormented by recurring weird visions.

Naturally, weird things happen to Hannah as soon as she arrives. She meets an old street-preacher who, unlike most preachers in this series, actually seems to have read the Bible, for he seems to know about her visions and draws a comparison between Hannah and the Biblical seer Samuel. 

Isaac, who has not aged since being put in a 19-year sleep by his corn-god, is told that he spawned a son previous to that sleep.  Isaac, desiring a "pure race" to serve the corn-god, plans to wed his son Matt to Hannah.  There might have been some mythic potential in this plot, given the association of corn-rituals and fertitlity.  But any such potential gets lost because the script introduces too many characters, none of whom take on any distinctive personalities, not even Stacy Keach's woeful Doctor Michaels or Nancy Allen as Hannah's mother, who tried to prevent Hannah's involvement in the cult's business.  Still, there are some decently creepy scenes, as when the street preacher tells Hannah that she should never have been born-- a feeling some adoptees have experienced for mundane reasons.



CHILDREN VII, subtitled REVELATION, makes only minimal use of the Gatlin mythology, as heroine Janie, seeking her missing grandmother in not-so-rural Omaha, stumbles across a new cult of evil children, who also apparently worship "He Who Walks Between the Rows."  As Janie follows clue after clue, seeking to learn if her grandmother is dead, she learns that the woman had once been a member of a religious cult, and that she's been reclaimed by the child-cult.  The motives of the cult seem murkier than ever in this sequel, but REVELATION is at least superior to the previous two in presenting assorted creepy scenes, though there's too much reliance on dream-sequences.

The one standout characteristic of this sequel is that Janie is an atheist and declares vociferously that her grandmother was the same.  Only later does she learn that this posture was a cover for the grandmother's earlier activities-- and more importantly, that the corn-god is real.  In contrast to the pagan explanation from CHILDREN II, a Christian priest (Michael Ironside) identifies the creature with the devil, and this may be closer to the original intent of Stephen King's story than any other interpretatiom.  Unsurprisingly, REVELATION doesn't manage to reveal any level of metaphysical complexity with its simplistic approach.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

HALLOWEEN (1978)



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


Though the original HALLOWEEN probably hasn't been as extensively critiqued as the original PSYCHO, there's been so much written on John Carpenter's breakout work that it can be daunting to try saying anything new about it.

However, I have one advantage in that I believe a great deal of the criticism that has focused on the sexual elements of HALLOWEEN has been misapplied.  I'm not saying that there are no sexual elements in the film, but I don't believe they are the center of the film. It should be noted that Carpenter's previous two films, DARK STAR and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, are not films about sex but about surviving violent forces.  ASSAULT has sometimes been compared to the similar works of Howard Hawks, and as it happens Hawks' one science-fiction film THE THING appears briefly on a television set in HALLOWEEN.

Far too much has been made of the distinctions between main character Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her two friends Annie and Lynda.  Criticism seems to focus on the idea that Laurie survives the assault of psychopathic Michael Myers because she's a "virtuous" teen, while Lynda and Annie are sluts who have slept around.  In actuality nothing in the Carpenter-Debra Hill script suggests that Annie and Lynda are killed because of their promiscuity, though the critics may have influenced many, many derivative films to use that very formula.

According to the girls' conversations, Laurie's lack of a boyfriend is not attributed to any virtuous refusal of pre-marital sex. Rather, Laurie herself says that she doesn't attract guys because they think she's "too smart."  This is confirmed for the audience in a subsequent scene, wherein an unseen teacher calls upon Laurie in class to explicate two authors' beliefs on the nature of fate.  Laurie responds with a concise analysis of the authors, noting that the latter believed that fate was inescapable-- much in the vein of Doctor Sam Loomis' pronoucements that his former patient Michael is "pure evil."  These are certainly more metaphysical thoughts than one would get from the average filmmaker putting together a script about imperilled babysitters.

Annie and Lynda are not stupid, but they are overly complacent as to how safe they are in the suburban terrain of Haddonfield.  In an early scene Annie yells to a fast-driving car, "Hey, jerk; speed kills!"  There's a moment of suspense when the car stops, as if the driver-- whom the audience knows to be the unseen asylum-escapee Michael-- contemplates getting out to assault the girls.  The car drives on, and all three teens more or less forget about the matter.  However, when Michael descends on the girls, Lynda and Annie have both let down their guards, making it impossible for them to apprehend the threat.  To be sure, Laurie has an advantage in that she's the last one Michael attacks. Still, she shows a heroic ability to strike back at her tormentor, best represented by her desperate but clever maneuver to stab her attacker in the eye with a coat-hanger wire.

While I don't think the sexualizing distinctions apply to Laurie and her friends, there's certainly a sexual element in the Michael Myers makeup. The prologue informs us that at the age of six little Michael Myers took a knife and stabbed his sister after she'd made love with her boyfreind.  Yet, though this inevitably conjures the spectre of incestuous sexual jealousy, Carpenter and Hill only indirectly invoke Freudian explanations of Michael's malice.  Then they undercut the standard psychological interpretations by having their Voice of Authority speak not of the Oedipus complex but of an "evil" that has left Michael bereft of any normal affects.  It's also inevitable to associate the stalker's knife-attacks with the employment of a substitute phallus, but one must ask: is it because Michael suffers from negative compensation, or because he has, in some inexplicable way, become the literal incarnation of "the Boogeyman?"  Does he attack young women because he's attracted to them, or because, being sheer evil, he opposes everything that symbolizes life?

This brief analysis must pass over other complexities of Carpenter's direction.  However, the question arises: what type of phenomenality does the film portray?  In this film-- unlike others in the series-- Carpenter and Hill keep the audience guessing.  Does Michael really possesses some sort of supernatural potency, or does he just throw off his injuries because he's too crazy to know he's hurt?  If there had never been another film in the HALLOWEEN series, I might go with the latter, though being shot six times point blank is pretty good even for the most enfevered psycho.  However, since the initial film becomes implicated into the scheme of the later films, where Michael survives incredible assaults, I have to categorize even the first film as a "marvelous" work.





CHILDREN OF THE CORN II (1993), CHILDREN OF THE CORN III (1995), CHILDREN OF THE CORN IV (1996)




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


In his nonfiction work DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King made a distinction between "inside horror," dealing with the sort of horror stemming from human motivations, and "outside horror," dealing with horror stemming from the nonhuman.  It's a good distinction, particularly since it shows why King's attempts at "outside horror," loosely in a Lovecraftian vein, have been fairly sucky. 

His short story "Children of the Corn," best known from King's 1978 short story collection NIGHT SHIFT, seems like one of the least likely subjects to spawn a long-running series of films, some (though not all) of which went straight to video rental shelves.  The short story concerns a feuding husband and wife who make the mistake of driving their car into the small Nebraska farming community of Gatlin. There the intruders learn that all of the adults were killed by the town's children, whose Christian roots have been confused with the worship of a literal pagan deity called "He Who Walks Between the Rows."  Aside from the dark portrait of a dissolving marriage, the story functions largely to satirize the association of Christianity with children's innocence, for the doomed duo learn that the children's religious independence arose from the local church's exploitation of kids as "child preachers."

I have seen but did not re-screen the 1984 CHILDREN OF THE CORN film.  However, all six of the sequels appear on a recent DVD, so I determined to examine them for clues to the franchise's appeal.

CHILDREN II, subtitled THE FINAL SACRIFICE, takes place after the chaos of the previous film, as state authorities and local reporters investigate the holocaust in Gatlin.  None of the investigators know that the ancient corn-god is real, and believe that most of the children involved were innocent pawns of some older kids who perished in the first film.  The town of Hemingford attempts to take the survivors into private homes in order to give them new lives, but though a few of the kids drift away from the faith, one boy named Micah is literally possessed by the spirit of the corn-god and begins using supernatural powers to continue sacrificing adults.  Reporter John Garrett-- who comes to town quarreling with his teenaged son, a loose reworking of the original story's conflict-- pursues the history of Gatlin.  The script introduces an educated Native American professor who believes in the reality of the kids' savage deity, though he claims that the god's depradations are a reaction to the evils of mankind.  It should be noted that King's story involves neither Native American mythology nor any elements of conservation.  There's also a confusing subplot in which it's revealed that a corrupt individual plans to sell tainted corn on the open market, with the suggestion that some of the toxin in the corn may have brought about the children's religious visions-- though this would seem a needless elaboration, since it's well established that "He Who Walks Behind the Rows" is the Real Thing.

That said, though the script and the performances are never better than fair, CHILDREN II moves along smartly.  There's a jokey invocation of the 1939 WIZARD OF OZ film, in that one of the children's victims is an old woman named "Ruby," killed by having her house dropped on top of her.  Ruby is mourned by another future-victim by the name of "Mrs. West"-- as in "Wicked Witch of the West."



CHILDREN III, subtitled URBAN HARVEST, picks up the previous film's idea of situating some "wild children" with a normal family.  The film introduces two kids, middle-school-age Eli and high-school-age Joshua, who at first blush seem unrelated to the events in Gatlin.  Both boys are abused by their father, and are then orphaned when Eli-- who is actually one of the kids from Gatlin-- covertly kills their paternal guardian.  A couple in Chicago adopts the two kids in order to give them a normal family.  Both boys continue to wear the severe Amish-like attire they were raised with, but though both experience difficulties with socialization at school, the older Joshua sways from the faith thanks to an attractive high-school girl.  In contrast, the younger Eli remains devoted to the corn-demon, and attempts to bring the children of Chicago into his fold.  Killings multiply, but in the end Joshua turns on his evil little brother, defeats him and exorcises the monstrous "He Who Walks, etc."  However, again there's a subplot about toxic corn, and the film ends on the suggestion that the corn-god will again find a new following.



CHILDREN IV, subtitled THE GATHERING, is the first straight-to-video film, barely no connection to the events in Gatlin, though Wikipedia notes that there was a deleted scene that connected the primary possessed-kid, name of Josiah, to "He Who Walks."  However, director Greg Spence, who co-wrote the film with another writer, returns to one of the elements of King's story, that of the "child preachers."  When medical student Grace Rhodes (Naomi Watts) looks into the cause of mysterious diseases beseiging her Nebraska town, she finds that Josiah, the source of the evil, was once a "child preacher" exploited by a traveling tent-show.  Not only did greedy adults exploit Josiah-- who never grew out of his childhood, whether for natural or supernatural reasons-- they also "gave him over to darkness" in some way.  Thus Josiah, like previous evil kids, practices all sorts of black magic and attempts as usual to convert local kids to his cult. 

Though the plot is routine, Spence-- who at present has directed only one other film, PROPHECY II  -- exceeds the previous two directors in the series, using close-ups and unusual angles to imbue the fourth CORN flick with a brooding sense of darkness and pessimism.  The gore quotient is much more impressive for this reason, and the victimization of the town's kids seems more troubling. Naomi Watts gives a solid performance, as do veteran actors William Windom and Karen Black.  Thus far GATHERING is the best sequel I've re-watched, and may well exceed the 1984 progenitor of the series, given that my memories of that flick are less than stellar.



Monday, April 15, 2013

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1962)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is certainly an odd final film in the career of director Edward L. Cahn, who died the year after the movie debuted.  Today Cahn is best remembered for ten metaphenomenal films he directed, beginning with 1955's CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.  Some of these films, like BRAIN, are no better than decent potboilers, while others, like THE SHE CREATURE and CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN, displays a surprising level of mythic complexity.  Given that Cahn's fantasy-films are far more outnumbered by his crime and western movies-- suggesting that he had no special attachment to fantastic genres-- I'll hypothesize that Cahn's better metaphenomenal movies came out of the luck of the draw. That is, when he got hold of a solid script, he did a good job with it.  When he got a routine script, he gave it a routine treatment. 

As I have no info on the origins of the 1962 BEAST project, I'm going to hypothesize that it was a writer-driven project: that Cahn simply happened to get the assignment to direct the film because he was able to deliver low-budget pictures on schedule.  BEAST shows no kinship with Cahn's 1950s "creature features," the last of which was 1959's FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE.  In between SKULLS and BEAST, Cahn directed an amazing *twenty-three* non-fantasy films in the next three years before finishing out his career with this story of a prince seeking to escape a curse in a fairy-tale medieval kingdom in Italy.  BEAST is like nothing Cahn had directed before.

However, the two credited writers of the BEAST screenplay have more relevant resumes.  George Bruce, the older of the two writers by about 15 years, shows by his credits a penchant for swashbuckling romance films, in that he started on high-profile Hollywood films like THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK but later gravitated to lower-budget B-actioners like ROGUES OF SHERWOOD FOREST and MASK OF THE AVENGER. Interestingly, BEAST is one of the last films for which Bruce is credited, though he lived until 1974. Bruce had almost no metaphenomenal credits to his name, apart from swashbucklers with uncanny elements.  In contrast, his collaborator Orville H. Hampton-- who had worked with Cahn on FOUR SKULLS-- included fantasy-works in his resume from his earliest years (ROCKETSHIP X-M in 1950) to several episodes of TV-shows like FANTASY ISLAND and SUPER FRIENDS in the late 1970s.  I can imagine the two of them putting together the script for BEAST by drawing on their talents for swashbuckling and B-horror respectively.  I can even suppose that they may have concocted the script to take advantage of the minor vogue for magical fantasy-movies throughout the late fifties and early sixties-- one of which Hampton co-scripted: JACK THE GIANT KILLER.

The Cahn BEAST only takes two elements from the classic fairy tale: a prince is cursed to become a beast-man by a supernatural agency, and his only hope for redemption stems from the love of a woman.  However, early versions of the fairy tale stress two other elements that the Cahn film does not: (1) the prince earns his curse by his own bad actions, and (2) the story as a whole stresses the process by which the "beauty" slowly becomes accustomed to the beast's aggressive behavior and eventually falls in love with the accursed lordling.

The script dispenses with both of these elements.  There is no gradual forging of love between beauty and beast, for here the couple, Eduardo and Althea, have known each other since childhood and have fallen in love prior to the curse's manifestation.  Althea has a rough moment when she first sees Eduardo transformed into a werewolf-like creature, courtesy of makeup by famed expert Jack Pierce.  But after that, she still plights her troth to the Prince Who Looks Like a Beast.  It's Althea's continued love for the normal Eduardo, not her love of the soul she discovers beneath a beastly exterior, that brings about the dissolution of the curse.  Moreover, even when Eduardo becomes a werewolf, his faithful retainers simply keep him locked up. Eduardo doesn't show the traditional wolfman's lust for blood; clearly the peril here is one less befitting a horror-film than a swashbuckler, for Eduardo will loose the throne if his malady is revealed to his kingdom.

Other elements seem borrowed less from the original tale than from bits and pieces of Shakespeare's HAMLET and Hawthorne's HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES-- both of which deal with descendants suffering for the sins of a previous generation.  Eduardo's curse comes about because of the actions of his father the previous king, who is dead as the film begins.  King Francisco became convinced that a certain wizard possessed the power to change base metals into gold.   When the wizard did not reveal his secrets, the king consigned him to a dungeon, where the wizard died-- much as sorcerer Matthew Maule dies in HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES, at the hand of an ancestral persecutor.  Just as Hawthorne's sorcerer curses the descendants of his murderer, the alchemist Scarlatti-- whose name is a rough sound-alike for the title of another famed Hawthorne book, by the way-- curses Francisco's heir apparent.

Both king and wizard are dead as the film begins, but in their place Eduardo has Orsini, an evil uncle hanging around and sending forth his pawns to learn Eduardo's secret, so that Orsini can usurp the throne. Of course evil usurping uncles had appeared in many romances over the years, so the writers need not have had HAMLET consciously in mind.  Still, I invoke the HAMLET model simply because Orsini functions as a negative father-image, just as Claudius is to Hamlet in the Shakespeare play. For that matter, even Eduardo's actual father is known to viewers only for an evil act.  Even the deceased Scarlatti comes off better than either Orsini or Francisco.  Though the wizard leaves behind a curse on an innocent prince, Scarlatti also bequeathes the means to counter the curse on the walls of his dungeon.  Only thanks to this deathbed generosity do Eduardo and his retainers learn that Althea's love can dispel the curse. 

However, Orsini's stooges learn this fact as well, and they attempt to remove the cure by killing Althea.  Eduardo, roaming the castle in beast-form, comes across the thugs trying to kill his beloved, and drives them off with some very restrained werewolf-violence.  (Was Cahn avoiding bloodletting because he aimed the film at young audiences, or just for cost-cutting reasons?  The world will never know.)  Eduardo's retainers then interpret Scarlatti's bequest to mean that the curse will be broken if the betrothed couple can be married.  Orsini manages to thwart this ploy by rousing the nearby townspeople against the prince with rumors of witchcraft.  And when the usual "torch-and-pitchfork" villagers roust out the prince, and witness his transformation into a beast-creature, the rumors of witchcraft seem confirmed.  However, Althea finally gets her moment in the sun, as she pledges her troth to Eduardo before the eyes of the gawking crowd-- and it is this unequivocal pledge, rather than marriage, that happily reverses the curse.

Though BEAST has its workmanlike aspects-- not only in the direction, but also the acting and the script-- there are some moments of interest here.  While for some popular films witches and warlocks were automatically cast as evil boogeymen, it's clear that the late Scarlatti is victimized by a greedy monarch.  Orsini essentially duplicates his brother's evildoing when he incites the villagers to violence by playing on their fears of witchcraft.  This minor theme blends well with the essential theme of the "Beauty and the Beast" tale, regarding the imperative to judge other people less on appearance than on behavior.  At the same time, it's true that this BEAST barely has a "beauty" in it, and the real concern seems to be not "man-woman" relationships but the ever popular "daddy issues," which serve to project all evil upon the prince's relations and exonerate beastly Eduardo from any evil in his own heart.

Friday, April 12, 2013

LI'L ABNER (1959)



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


In this essay for my ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE blog I examined some of the difficulties in sussing out the phenomenality of the LI'L ABNER comic strip.

The 1959 Paramount film, a close adaptation of the successful 1956 stage musical, displays no such difficulties. One of its primary conceits-- to my knowledge, not derived from the Al Capp comic strip-- attributed the hyper-muscular development of main character Li'l Abner Yokum to a marvelous cause: from childhood his mother "Mammy Yokum" fed him regular doses of "Yokumberry tonic."  Mammy also shows some unusual power for an old lady, but the screenplay doesn't resort to the tonic to explain this phenomenon.  The Yokumberry mixture goes well beyond the limits of any real-world tonic, for one dose can immediately mutate an ordinary-sized man into a muscular colossus.  In addition, the script manages to work in not one but two Capp characters who possess paralyzing powers--: "Evil-Eye" Fleegle, master of the ocular whammy, and Stupefyin' Jones, who can paralyze men simply because she's played by Julie Newmar.

The script for the 1956 musical was written by long-time partners Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, and was substantially unaltered in its adaptation to Paramount's movie version (Frank also directs the movie).  As the story opens most of the inhabitants of the backwoods community of Dogpatch are disporting themselves in cheerful squalor.  The one exception is Daisy May, a beauteous young thing obsessed with snaring hunky Abner Yokum for her own.  Abner repeatedly spurns her, showing all the sex-drive of a nine-year-old. Later his indifference to feminine charms will also be shown to be the result of long exposure to the tonic-- again, not a conceit drawn from Al Capp's strip.

The government comes calling, having decided that Dogpatch is the most worthless piece of real estate in the country, and thus the most desireable site upon which to test the military's atomic bombs.  The hillbillies are initially glad to think of leaving Dogpatch, until they realize that they will not be able to continue their most prized custom. This is Sadie Hawkins Day, a contest wherein any single male must consent to wed any single female who can catch him in a foot-race-- sort of an inverted Atalanta myth.  The script doesn't dwell on how Sadie Hawkins came about, or why everyone, even the men who apparently dread the custom, are horrified to think of being without it.  Still, the threat to Dogpatch's most unique cultural ritual prompts Mammy Yokum to reveal the Yokumberry secret to the government.  The government is naturally interested in a drug capable of transforming men into supermen-- but so is the corrupt industrialist General Bullmoose, who wants to patent the drug for his own profit.

Since Abner is the heir to the Yokum "fortune," Bullmoose undertakes a complicated scheme to obtain the Yokumberry formula.  He rigs Sadie Hawkins Day so that his henchwoman, the suggestively named "Appassionata Von Climax," will marry Abner for his community property-- after which Abner will not enjoy a long marriage. Mammy learns of the dire scheme through her knack for supernatural visions (yet another "marvelous" trope) and sets out to save her son's life. In addition, Abner begins to show some belated concern for Daisy Mae when she's betrothed to marry local lout Earthquake McGoon.

Like most musical comedies, the plot's main concern is the marriage of the hero and the heroine, but LI'L ABNER manages to work in many other seminal Capp characters in addition to those mentioned.  At the very least this wealth of characters makes a fitting tribute to the inventiveness of Capp's imagination.  Some might feel that the film demonstrates less of a penchant for satire than the comic strip, but I've found that throughout the strip's history it too was far stronger on comic than on satirical/ironic elements.  For instance, toward the end of the film the government rejects the use of the Yokumberry tonic when it's found that a side-effect of its enhancement of muscles is that it also kills the sex drive-- which some might deem a satirical jab at the burgeoning "muscle culture" fad of the 1950s. Though the film tosses about some minor comments on the inefficiency of government, the script is incapable of imagining a government that would be evil enough to sacrifice American manhood to gain some advantage during the Cold War.  LI'L ABNER the comic strip also stopped short of depicting the depths of darkness that one sees in the full-fledged ironies of Swift and Kafka.  Thus in this respect the film is on the same aesthetic level as the strip.

The biggest gap between the strip and the film is that the latter isn't particularly funny, even though it borrows many key strip-conceits and even recycles one of Capp's most memorable catchphrases: "What's good for General Bullmoose is good for the country!"  On a tangential note, I'd never refer to the Capp comic strip as "camp," even though Capp used one strategy beloved by the practitioners of camp: having characters say ridiculous things in a straightfaced manner, like Mammy Yokum's famous "Good is better than evil 'cause it's nicer."  However, seeing live actors mouth these sort of farcical lines puts across much the same effect one sees in the 1966-68 BATMAN teleseries, which some view as the first mainstream work to take advantage of the camp sensibility.

The songs are pleasant but generally unmemorable doggerel.  However, the dance choreography, particularly during the Sadie Hawkins Day race, is excellent, very nearly reaching the kinetic heights of better known works of the period like 1954's SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS.

 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

WICKED STEPMOTHER (1989), SANDS OF OBLIVION (2007)



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


Though WICKED STEPMOTHER is a massively unfunny fantasy-comedy, I'd still choose to watch it nine times back to back before I'd rewatch a minute of SANDS OF OBLIVION.

STEPMOTHER-- written, directed, and produced by the uneven Larry Cohen-- is less known for its own content than for being the last film of Classic Hollywood legend Bette Davis before she died.  Davis walked off the production, expressing discontent with Cohen's work, though Cohen claimed that she was really motivated by her ill health.  Davis did indeed die a few months later.

Whatever the reasons for Davis' departure, Cohen apparently rewrote the film as best he could to compensate.  Davis' character Miranda is an obnoxious older woman who enters the yuppie Fisher family by marrying the father of wife Jenny (Colleen Camp).  Miranda hits every one of Jenny's buttons-- smoking in her house, bringing a cat into the house despite Jenny's allergies-- long before Jenny has reason to suspect that Miranda isn't just a bitch, but a card-carrying witch.  In addition, Priscilla (Barbara Carrera), Miranda's hot young daughter by another marriage, also insinuates herself into the household and begins making moves on Jenny's husband Steve.

Though the stepdaughter-stepmother conflict is a rich trope going back long before CINDERELLA, Cohen's work in this vein is tediously one-note and fails to delve into potential psychological territory.  Cohen's introduction of Barbara Carrera's character provides a substitute for the absent Bette Davis, since the two are never seen on screen together.  But while it would have been logical to reveal that Miranda simply metamorphosed into Priscilla, Cohen's script takes a more roundabout route, revealing that the two witches (a) are not actually related, and (b) for some obscure reason cannot take human form at the same time, but must alternate in assuming the form of the cat. 
This complication doesn't end up having very much effect on the plot as such-- the means of the witches' defeat doesn't have anything to do with their shapechanging abilities-- though it does culminate in one of the film's few eyebrow-raising scenes: when Priscilla, attempting to have sex with Steve, begins to half-transmute back into a cat.

Interestingly, the cat's name is "Pericles," which happens to be the name of a Shakespeare play which includes an evil foster-mother, one incidence of father-daughter incest and the (unrealized) peril that a similar incest may be repeated between the title character and his daughter.

Laugh-free though most of the script is, it does have the minor virtue of including many familiar actors, including Tom Bosley, Lionel Stander, Evelyn Keyes (in one of her last roles as well), and Laurene ("YELLOW HAIR") Landon. 



There are familiar faces in SANDS OF OBLIVION as well, such as Morena Baccarin, George Kennedy, and Adam Baldwin.  Unfortunately, SANDS-- one of many tedious TV-films made by SYFY channel back when it was "Sci-Fi"-- gives none of them anything interesting to do. 

SANDS is nothing but a bland ripoff of Stephen Sommers' 1999 blockbuster THE MUMMY, right down to being set in the 1920s.  The script's only attempt at originality is that the protagonists who accidentally fall afoul of an ancient Egyptian curse are not a group of archaeologists, but a movie-crew associated with Cecil B. deMille's silent-era filming of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.  However, the script does nothing to take advantage of this grounding in cinematic history. Aside from getting an actor to play deMille, the movie-shoot might as well have been for a made-up film.  Similarly, though various pseudo-Egyptian demons come to life-- including, of all things, living hieroglyphs that float around like paper cut-outs-- the script shows no insight into the complexities of Egyptian myth and religion.  Even as inaccurate as THE MUMMY is in this regard, it at least tosses together enough superficial research to be moderately convincing to the uninformed.

Friday, April 5, 2013

THE HOUSE OF FEAR (1945)



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

Despite the tag-line in the illo above-- "horror stalking its halls"-- the Sherlock Holmes film HOUSE OF FEAR does not fit my criteria for a horror-film, even to the extent that THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES might.  The "fear" conjured forth by this work is purely naturalistic in nature, as in the fear of an entirely human killer.  Even though FEAR centers upon events in an "old dark house," the film could almost stand as an example of how to make the least spooky "old dark house" film possible, since familiar Holmes director Roy William Neill eschews most of the usual ghostly goings-on.  Even a stern-faced housekeeper doesn't provide any spook-juice.

From the beginning, an earthly motive is suggested.  Seven older men, who occupy Drearcliffe Manor and are insured up to the gills, begin receiving envelopes that suggest that each of them will be assassinated in turn (the story is loosely derived from Conan Doyle's "Five Orange Pips")  Holmes and Watson are brought in to investigate the possibility that one of the men plans to kill all of his comrades in order to reap the insurance rewards.  The big reveal of the culprit(s) was probably a little more original in 1945 than it seems to be today.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are always pleasant to watch together in this series.  However, at times the scripts tended to earn cheap laughs at the expense of Watson.  At one point in FEAR, Holmes must leave Drearcliffe at night, and posts Doctor Watson there to watch out for trouble.  The results leave one skeptical of Holmes' good sense, for this Watson, unlike the one created by Conan Doyle, is an inveterate bumbler.  Not only does this Watson fall asleep at his post, but upon being awakened he makes a fool of himself by shooting at a housecat and a suit of armor.  Bruce does the bits well, of course, but by that point in the series such schtick began to seem purely from hunger.

THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940), THE VAMPIRE (1957)



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


THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS was the first in a fair-sized line of sequels to Universal's 1933 classic THE INVISIBLE MAN.  It's an adequately polished movie, but by its choice of formulas-- a man on the run trying to prove his innocence-- it naturally bypasses the theme common to the previous film and the originating novel: the theme of the scientific over-reacher.  In RETURNS, the new unseeable individual, Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe, isn't even a scientist.  After he's unjustly sentenced to death for the murder of his brother-- the owner and manager of a mining-company-- Radcliffe is given the opportunity to escape jail by the scientist-brother of Jack Griffin, the original Invisible Man, who died nine years previous to the 1906 date of the film's continuity.

As in the 1933 film the film's ticking clock has less to do with Radcliffe's race to find his brother's true killer while eluding the police than the fact that, as in the previous film, the drug that induces invisibility will also cause madness in the subject.  Radcliffe-- played, or more properly, voiced for the majority of the film by Vincent Price in his first horror-film role-- slowly begins to succumb to the same kind of megalomaniacal dreams of power experienced by his predecessor. 

Price's sonorous voice is always enjoyable, especially when he torments a fellow who mysteriously moved up in the mining-company (played by Alan Napier of 1960s BATMAN fame).  Radcliffe eventually finds the murderer, but unlike Griffin he has a happy ending, being saved from death for his grateful fiancee.  The film's main attraction are a few of the better FX-scenes and a gallery of enjoyable 1940s jobbing actors, especially Cecil Kellaway as a genial but nonetheless dogged police inspector who pursues Radcliffe.  The film's mythicity is pretty low though it's interesting that there's a scene in which the miners give a resounding vote of confidence for Radcliffe, which might be interpreted as a show of support for the aristocratic values he embodies.



THE VAMPIRE is not as rich in familiar faces, though it does include supporting roles for Colleen ("LEECH WOMAN") Gray and Kenneth ("THE THING") Tobey.  The central role, small-town doctor Paul Beecher, is essayed by the competent but unexciting John Beal.  The opening scenes make clear that Beecher is something of a small-town Samson, bearing the weight of the community on his shoulders.  The widower-doctor also seeks to prosper in the quiet town while raising his small daughter, even though many of his clientele pay their bills in vegetables or livestock.  He has a very pretty nurse (Gray), but though Beecher doesn't have anything going with her at the film's inception, he seems to have some thoughts in that direction as he tries to steer away any possible competition.

This "nice guy" doctor is victimized not by his own research but that of a local scientist named Campbell, who like Stevenson's Doctor Jekyll wants to find ways to control human nature through chemistry.  Beecher is summoned to Campbell's home when the mans health fails. Campbell passes on to Beecher-- without adequate explanation-- special pills which he derived from vampire bat-blood.  By accident the hard-working doc suffers a migraine (brought on by his labors?) and takes one of the pills, thinking that it's a migraine tablet.  The pills cause him to desire the taste of blood like a vampire bat, and he begins to slake his thirst on the local population.  His depradations are not shown on-camera and only once does he transform into a sort of Mister-Hyde-like creature before being brought down.

The most interesting myth-angle of the film is psychological in that even though Beecher is innocent of wrongdoing, he ends up attacking the very community he formerly protected, as well as almost killing his potential love-interest-- though the film avoids placing Beecher's small daughter in peril.  This was the first of a trio of low-budget metaphenomenal films made by director Paul Landres and writer Pat Fiedler, followed by first THE FLAME BARRIER and then RETURN OF DRACULA in 1958.  Of the three, RETURN OF DRACULA proved a more traditional and well executed experiment with the myth of the vampire.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

BEVERLY HILLS NINJA (1997)



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


BEVERLY HILLS NINJA is a formulaic comedy made to showcase the talents of the late Chris Farley.  Farley, despite being a very hefty fellow, was skilled in physical comedy, revealing a certain athleticism not typical of chubby comedians.

Set in contemporary times, NINJA concerns a clan of Japanese ninjas who hold sacred a prophecy of a "Great White Ninja" who will someday come among them.  The clan's sensei adopts into their order a Caucasian foundling, names him Haru and raises Haru as his own son and adoptive brother to his real son Gobei.  Gobei is in all ways a superb ninja, but Haru is maladroit in the extreme, and fails to graduate at the head of his class.

While Haru is alone at the ninja sanctuary, he meets an American woman named Allison, who charms him and involves Haru in her troubles with gangsters.  Haru bids farewell to his adoptive father as he prepares to journey to America to help Allison.  The sensei, justifiably believing that Haru will probably screw up royally, sends Gobei to follow Haru to America and keep him from harm.

Though the slapstick routines are largely predictable, they're reasonably well done, particularly those wherein the superior ninja-brother keeps getting accidentally bashed as he shadows his inept sibling.  There might be a minor element of sibling rivalry in the punishment Gobei takes at the hands of Haru.  The device is somewhat comparable to a similar schtick in BLANKMAN, though in NINJA any aggression is displaced by the fact that Haru is equally clumsy around everyone. 

Oddly, the only scenes that mark this martial comedy as "marvelous" are those in which either Haru or Gobei commune with their sensei through some form of astral-travel/telepathy.  I've rarely seen such scenes in Asian ninja movies, but NINJA treats the idea as if it's a standard trope worthy of mocking.  Oddly, I only recall one ninja-movie-- literally of the American-made variety-- which used such a trope, though NINJA at least has enough a budget to make the psychic stuff look marginally credible.

I debated about whether to consider Haru's exploits as a "combative comedy," but decided against it.  Throughout the majority of the film, Haru is unable to harness any of the ninja skills he's studied, and the movie's standout scene may be one in which Nicolette Sheridan (as Allison) punches out a bad guy before Haru can even get warmed up.  There's one scene at the end where Haru finally gets his mojo working in order to save his adoptive brother, so that the film does end up in a big fight between the two brothers and Allison's gangster-enemies.  But the nature of the violence in BEVERLY HILLS NINJA is that of slapstick first and foremost, rather than combining the comedy with the combative, as was done in 1994's BLANKMAN.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

THE SHERLOCK HOLMES COLLECTION (1965)



PHENOMENALITY: (1-5) *naturalistic,* (6) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*


The six surviving episodes of the 1960s BBC series-- with Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Stock as Doctor Watson-- have an assortment of pluses and minuses.

Since these were television episodes, it's inevitable that they all have a rather cut-rate look to them.  Perhaps their most irritating aspect is the directorial overuse of extreme close-ups on the actors' faces.  I've rarely seen even the cheapest television productions use this device quite so much, and it becomes tiring very quickly.

The adaptations of the first two Holmes stories are the worst of the six.  Since both STUDY IN SCARLET and THE SIGN OF FOUR are full novels, they offer considerable difficulties for the producers reducing the stories down to TV episodes.  By accident or design they also manage to exclude elements in each novel that might've proved controversial even in the 1960s, such as the rather disparaging portrayal of Mormons in SCARLET and Watson's inability to propose to a woman who had more money than he did in SIGN.  Indeed, Watson doesn't even propose to the woman in question as he did at the end of SIGN, even when the monetary obstruction is removed; presumably this was eliminated to save time.

However, THE BOSCOMBE VALLEY MYSTERY and THE BLUE CARBUNCLE, both of which were more compact short stories, translate to television much better.  The adaptation of CARBUNCLE is particularly engaging, given that it includes a fair amount of visual humor, particularly in a scene where Holmes tricks a truculent witness into giving up information.

The remaining two episodes provide one of the better adaptations of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.  These episodes were the first the BBC filmed with star Cushing, and happily they devoted more time to the classic story.  Indeed, this two-parter recounts more of the original novel's plot than either the 1939 Fox version or the 1959 Hammer Studios version.  In my essay on the earlier film, I noted that the character of Beryl is substantially revised in both films, becoming a total innocent in 1939 and a total villainess in 1959.  These revisions are not necessarily bad in and of themselves.  However, the BBC version, by hewing to the novel, captures an aspect of the book that the films miss, for Beryl's dominance by her husband Stapleton offers an indirect comment upon the evils men perpetrate on women-- a clear parallel to the treatment that Stapleton's ancestor Hugo Baskerville metes out to an innocent farm-girl.  In one scene Stapleton-- who has arranged a pretense of being Beryl's brother-- rages at Henry Baskerville when the young lord courts Beryl.  Of sociological interest is the way Stapleton accuses Henry of the same crime Hugo committed-- of practicing the nobleman's "droit de seigneur."  In truth Stapleton-- described as a physical and moral "throwback" to his ancestor's ways-- is the one with the feudal temperament, since he treats his wife as a slave and toys with another woman's affections so that she will help him set up a victim for a hell-hound execution.

This is not to say that the overall production of the HOUND episodes are sterling: they suffer from the same use of close-ups, and the plotline of Beryl's rebellion is simply dropped when it proves too complicated.  The revelation of the hound is no better or worse than it is in the two movie versions, but the 1965 effort does much better in terms of conjuring up the eerie mystery of the phantom hound, making much use of spectral howls coming from the "heart" of the deadly Grimpen Mire.

Peter Cushing went on record as saying that he felt very constricted by the show's shooting schedule and that he felt he did not give his best possible performances.  I'll raise a dissenting voice in saying that I think he succeeded with Holmes in these extant episodes far more than in the 1959 film or in 1984's SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE MASKS OF DEATH.  In the extant episodes Cushing does as well as Basil Rathbone at managing to balance his performance between Holmes' super-computer mind and his more human elements.  The character of Doctor Watson is one where many actors have simply relegated themselves to being the helpful sidekick, but I felt Nigel Stock exerted himself to give Watson his own dignity and authority.