Thursday, October 31, 2013

MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN (1940), SAMURAI (1979)



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

Though MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN doesn't quite reach the top of the hill alongside the best serials of William Witney and John English, like DRUMS OF FU MANCHU, it's a solid "B" entry in terms of the quality of the stuntwork and its main villain. Like DRUMS, this is a serial whose villain is the real star of the show. 

This is somewhat ironic in that the original script was prepared by Republic Studios for a SUPERMAN serial, had it that studio been able to come to terms with DC Comics. One wonders how much of the familiar Superman mythology would have made it into the rough-and-ready action-template favored by Republic.  As it is, SATAN's substitute hero. "the Copperhead," seems closer to the model of Zorro, who was often succeeded by modern-day incarnations of the character.  In the first installment of the serial, protagonist Bob Wayne learns from his father-substitute Governor Bryson that Bob's true father had been a vigilante called the Copperhead. Bob is intially ashamed to learn that the father he never knew was an outlaw-- thus proving that Bob's a real straight-arrow-- but Bryson sets Bob right, informing the young man that vigilantism is OK when there's real evil to be opposed-- evil like the insidious world conqueror, Doctor Satan.

After this introductory chapter, the Copperhead becomes a pretty standard athletic Republic hero, capable of many fantastic stunts but with no great mythology of his own. In contrast, the evil Doctor Satan, as played by genre-veteran Eduardo Cianelli, outshines the rather routine gimmicks he's given to work with-- remote-control electrical devices that slay any rebellious henchmen, and a giant robot whom the Firesign Theater once dubbed "an enraged water heater."  Cianelli gives the evil doctor a brooding, forceful intelligence even though one never knows who Satan is or how he came to be a sinister mastermind.

But as noted before, Republic's specialty was fast action, and SATAN has it to spare, even though as is often the case the best cliffhanger-scenes occur in the earliest chapters.  In addition to the heroic strivings of star Robert Wilcox (or his stunt double), a few chapters also feature some horse-riding action by stunt-rider Dorothy Herbert, who gets some decent fighting-action.  This was Herbert's only cinematic appearance.



There's not much to say about the rejected TV-series pilot SAMURAI.  Lee Cantrell, son of an American businessman and a Japanese heir to the samurai tradition, decides to dress up in black togs-- but no mask whatever-- and fight crime on the mean streets of San Francisco.  He comes up against a corrupt industrialist who, for no clear reason, wants to unleash an earthquake with a special machine, whose presence pushes this potentially-uncanny martial-arts flick into the realm of the marvelous.

Stunts and dialogue-- particularly the lines dealing with Cantell's supposed "culture clash"-- are bland and unmemorable.  Joe Penny, a talented enough actor, is given nothing to work with and is unable to raise this mediocrity even to the level of a "so bad it's good" outing.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

RODAN (1956), MOTHRA (1961)


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




I've watched the original RODAN several times, but without exception the film always seems a terrible follow-up to the greatness of the original *kaiju eiga,* GODZILLA.  Whereas Godzilla goes beyond the limits of simple allegory-- the nuclear-powered sleep of reason produces monsters-- Rodan seems no more than a quick knockoff of the themes underlying the first Godzilla film.  I've derived some modest enjoyment from the big pteranodon's presence in Toho's "monster mash" films, but the original film strikes me as dull.


Though Rodan can be somewhat impressive in flight, when he soars over rooftops and blasts them asunder with his hurricane winds, the monster's design never looks organic in the least, even making concessions for the limits of "suitmation."  I even prefer the avian terror of 1957's THE GIANT CLAW, since the only really ludicrous thing about the giant bird of that film is its goony-looking head.  With Rodan I dislike not only the head design, but also the spiked chest and the awkward, topheavy look of the creature when it stands upright.


The human interest of the RODAN film shows none of the wit or clarity of the preceding Godzilla film; the viewpoint characters exist purely to showcase the monster-- or rather, monsters, since the film starts with the appearance of giant caterpillars in a Japanese mine, and then introduces the two much bigger prehistoric creatures that feed on the caterpillars: a male and a female "Rodan," as they're named by the awestruck humans.


The plot doesn't stand much examination: the newly awakened Rodans wreak havoc wherever they fly, the armed forces respond by trying to shoot them down.  Only at the conclusion does the script shoot for any deeper resonance in the beasts. When the army learns that the Rodans have concealed themselves in a dormant volcano, they shell the mountain, hoping to trigger an eruption.  The resulting lava-tide traps one of the ancient birds, and its mate perishes in attempting a rescue.  The film's last words by one of the viewpoint characters exhibit what some might call the Japanese fascination with the spectacle of heroic death.


MOTHRA boasts a superior kaiju script in all respects.  Even if the titular monster had been poorly conceived or designed, I'd still find the viewpoint characters charming in their wonder at the monster's strangeness and their moral defense of nonhuman forms in life in the face of economic exploitation.  Even the character who's there to provide comic relief is much more palatable than most such characters.


But Mothra, the true star of the show, is in her original form one of the best creatures from the Golden Age of monster cinema.  Whereas most monsters of this period were "fish out of water," usually prehistoric animals violently translated to the modern era, Mothra is a creature that has been perennially reborn from archaic times to the present-- reborn within its isolated environment, the so-called "Infant Island."  One does not know in this film how the first Mothra came into being, only that the creature begins as a gigantic larva, capable of spinning yards of silk, both in self-defense and for the purpose of creating a cocoon.  After gestating in its cocoon, the larva emerges as a gargantuan moth, who borrows Rodan's routine of whipping up cyclonic winds with its wings (and frankly, doing it much better). The giant moth then lays an egg in which one or more Mothrae will be born once the parent has passed on.

The film also succeeds by taking the kaiju genre in a new direction, rather than simply reiterating the antinuclear critique of GODZILLA.  The film begins with a scientific expedition to Infant Island, underwritten by the corrupt financiers of "Rosilica" (a stand-in for the United States).  The well-meaning Japanese scientists along for the ride are horrified to see the Rosilicans slaughter the islanders in order to kidnap the two priestesses of the Mothra-cult; doll-sized "fairies" whom the Rosilicans wish to place on display to the curious public.  This plot may have been derived in part from the model of KING KONG, where the economic exploiters shanghai not a dangerous beast worshipped by natives. Rather, the kidnappers take the priestesses who are part of that worship-- which nonetheless results in a dangerous beast coming after the transgressors.

MOTHRA is also a film with a great sense of color: though the larva-form of Mothra is a dull brown, the moth-form is a dazzling creation, in vivid contrast to most giant beasties, who tend to be monochromatic.  The creature seems almost too delicate to withstand the cannons of Japan's self-defense forces, or the atomic heat-ray of the "Rosilicians"-- which is a rather "back-door" way of injecting some critique of nuclear power into the film.

True, in the monster-mash films it was sometimes harder to make Mothra's power convincing in the presence of hulking brutes like Godzilla and Rodan.  But the original film maintains its own integrity in this matter, managing to strike a balance between the fairy-tale quality of Mothra's island-existence and the modern technologies which humankind employs against the great creature.  In addition, this is a rare monster-film that emphasizes the hegemony of feminine nature, represented not only by the egg-laying moth but also by the twin priestesses, whose doubled nature makes them more uncanny than a single priestess would have been.  Thus MOTHRA's critique of modern civilization is one of the few monster-films not to display a masculine gender-bias.



Saturday, October 26, 2013

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (1941), SOUL OF A MONSTER (1944)



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

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK might not be director Robert Florey's best film, but it boasts Florey's most sympathetic protagonist, and one of Peter Lorre's most multidimensional portraits.  Lorre plays Middle European Janos Szabo, who emigrates to America full of new hopes for the future.  He plans to send for his fiancee once he has steady employment, either in his usual trade as a watchmaker or with comparable technical work.  He makes a minor friend in a cop named O'Hara, who, like the audience, is impressed by Szabo's earnest desire to embrace American life.  O'Hara guides him to a cheap flophouse where Szabo can reside while looking for work.  Unfortunately fire breaks out at the hotel.  Szabo is horribly disfigured-- the camera never lets us see his damaged features-- and as a result no one will hire a man with such disfigurement.  Szabo's disillusionment about America is such that he pathetically writes his overseas fiancee a "dear John" letter, claiming to have met someone else, when in fact he's close to starving. 

Like the film noirs that would soon dominate the period, MASK comes very close to indicting the American culture's claims to beneficience. For dramatic effect the script gives Szabo no contact with any sources of charity, such as churches, so that his only possible avenue of escape is crime.  He falls in with a friendly if petty crook, one Dinky, who leads him to contact with a gang of thieves.  Szabo does not want to be a criminal, but since legitimate employers turn their faces from him, the world of crime is more than happy to enlist his talents for safecracking and planning crimes.  As a criminal Szabo becomes cold and domineering, wearing a mask to conceal his ruined features and continuing to steal in the hope of buying plastic surgery.  Meanwhile the gang's former leader nurses a desire to kill the man who took over.

Some innocence returns to Szabo's life when he meets beautiful, blind Helen (Evelyn Keyes).  He realizes the emptiness of his criminal life and makes plans to marry Helen and leave it all behind.  But his old gang doesn't accept his resignation, leading to a tragic outcome for all concerned.

MASK's script moves from one catastrophe to the next with ruthless logic, and even though Szabo pays the ultimate price for his criminal dealings, the audience remains sympathetic with him to the last, when he avenges Helen's death in a sort of pyrrhic victory over his fellow crooks.  And though he pays for his crime, it seems hard to see what else this disfigured victim of circumstances could have done differently.


SOUL OF A MONSTER is just the opposite: a preachy set-piece that warns anyone in the audience of the folly of seeking one's own best interests against those of God.  When saintly Doctor Winson lies on his deathbed, his wife Ann succumbs to hubris, claiming that she would sell her soul if the Devil would do what God won't: bring her beloved husband back to life.  Speak of the Devil and up he-- or rather, a servant thereof-- pops.  This servant is Lilyan (read: Lilith), a frosty brunette who comes to supervise Winson's resurrection. 

Ann's happiness at her successful devil's bargain doesn't last long.  The resurrected Winson is heartless and soulless, and the script implies that the devil's emissary is there to make sure he spreads more misery upon the earth, as when she incites Winson to commit murder.  This leads to the film's only mythopoeic moment.  Late at night Winson approaches his intended victim, armed with a knife.  The intended, not aware that Winson means him harm, nervously prates about how he wishes there "were no more nights."  While this bit of "light vs. darkness" symbolism is never pursued, it does strike deeper chords than the film's dutiful and very obvious moralizing.  The lucky placement of a crucifix preserves the unwitting fellow's life.

At the eleventh hour, though, the script backs out of the theological dilemna, for it's all been a dream, Winson's deathbed hallucination.  Given that during the hallucination he imagines his tormented wife falling for another man, one has to wonder if all was entirely "Christian" in the Winson household.  Overall SOUL is a bore, aside from the striking visual presentation of Rose Hobart as the devil's sinister emissary.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

THE LEECH WOMAN (1960), CULT OF THE COBRA (1955)



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

In my review of MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, I remarked that I didn't think " the script would have been improved had [the character of ] Blake been more three-dimensional."  By that I meant that there's a special enjoyment one gets from seeing fantasy-concepts expressed through simple formulas, as opposed to the high literary treatment they might get in avowed classics like the original versions of FRANKENSTEIN and DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE.

That said, some films are just too damn formulaic to offer even basic fun.  Such is the case with THE LEECH WOMAN, whose script-credits included a contribution from David Duncan, the scripter of MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS.  In contrast to CAMPUS, LEECH is a more direct meditation on the Jekyll-Hyde theme, for the 1960 film does include a character who chooses to become a monster.  Most adaptations of the Stevenson story don't dwell on the author's observation that Hyde is positively younger than Jekyll, but this is a prime consideration in LEECH WOMAN.

The film begins with two positively unlikeable characters: endocrinologist Paul Talbot and his badly-aging, alcoholic wife June.  After a scene in Paul's lab to establish their state of mutual marital detestation, Paul receives a visitor: an ancient African woman, Malla.  Malla promises that she can show Paul the secret of age-retardation, hidden in a rare African plant, if he gives her enough money to return to her tribe, the Nandos.  To further intrigue Paul, Malla tells him that the Nandos control a process by which age can be positively reversed.  Paul doesn't know whether or not to believe her on this score, but the age-retardant works.  Thanks to the money Paul gives her, Malla hops a flight to Darkest Africa. Paul decides to follow in order to learn more about the Nando rituals.  But he needs June's money to make the trip, so he sweet-talks her into joining the expedition.  Later she finds out that he's deceived her, and she's less than pleased.

Suffice to say: Paul's group is captured by the Nandos.  The whites learn that the de-aging ritual is real, though the Nandos only allow it to be used for the very old as a gesture, allowing the de-aged one last taste of youth before they end their lives.  Presumably this ritual explains why the small tribe isn't made up of de-aged nonagenerians.  However, to make the de-aging drug work, the medicine man must drain a living subject of his pituitary gland-secretion.  A prisoner dies so that Malla may enjoy a brief recovery of her youth.  Meanwhile, June-- who knows the Nandos are going to kill all of the intruders-- persuades Malla to allow her to de-age, using Paul for the sacrifice.  Then, her youth temporarily restored, June and her guide escape.  But on the way back to civilization, June needs a refresher-youthification, and she ends up killing her guide for it.

From then on LEECH WOMAN follows a fairly set pattern.  Back in the U.S., Young June masquerades as her own niece, and successfully vamps her husband's lawyer, who couldn't even see Old June as a woman.  But June must keep killing all over and over, including her husband's nosy secretary, who happens to be in love with the young lawyer.  Eventually June's secret comes out and she dies a predictable death.

It seems unlikely that this film is a swipe from Roger Corman's slightly earlier WASP WOMAN, given that the production-times of each film are so close to one another.  The Corman film follows the same basic "Hyde-on-the-loose" structure, applied to a woman's need to find the Fountain of Youth.  But the characters, though just as simple, are much more engaging.  One never feels much sympathy or dislike for the Leech Woman, for Duncan's script merely follows the Jekyll-Hyde formula in the most perfunctory fashion. 





CULT OF THE COBRA isn't a Jekyll-Hyde story, but provides the rationale for its serial murders through another trope: that of the offended deity striking down the profane.  COBRA has some of the same pacing and characterization problems as LEECH WOMAN. and the "Cobra Woman" of the story doesn't come anywhere near entering the pantheon of great Universal monsters.  Still even though the director and the three credited writers were neophytes in the practice of fantasy-films,
COBRA edges a little closer to the realm of the mythopoeic sources of great horror.

The film starts in 1945, with six American GIs stationed in a part of "Asia," presumably India or some nation where the natives wear Indian attire.  All six are scheduled to end their tours of duty at the same time and to return to the U.S.  Though one of the soldiers, Paul by name, is sincerely interested in Asian customs, the others are all raucous and irreverent, particularly group-Lothario Carl, who calls out an offer of marriage to a random sari-clad girl on the street.  This minor action suggests a textual reason to set the film so close to World War II, for one of the cultural results of the Second World War was that of the "war bride."  There had been war brides in many eras other than that of WWII, but perhaps because American soldiers traveled to so many different climes, the topic engendered far more films on the topic after WWII than after the First World War.  In any case, though the sari-clad woman doesn't take Carl up on his facetious-- and disrespectful-- offer, the GIs provoke feminine vengeance in another form.

Searching for some big tourist-experience before they return home, the six soldiers encounter a snake-charmer who is willing to take their money and let them witness the rare and sacred ritual of "the Lamians," a small tribe of Asians who claim the ability to change into serpents.  The snake-charmer successfully smuggles the six disguised Americans into the secret ritual, but warns them not to draw attention to themselves.  There follows a ritual in which a lithe female performer mimes the act of killing an enemy by coiling around him and biting him to death.  But the dumbest of the GIs decides that he wants photographic evidence to show off in his slide-shows.  He gives them away, and the soldiers must flee for their lives.  Unbeknownst to five of the six, the mysterious female performer pursues Nick and gives him a poisonous bite.  Nick's friends find him and take him to a hospital, but this proves no more than a stopgap.  The Cobra Woman, this time assuming cobra-form, insinuates herself into the hospital and bites Nick to death.

The other GIs return to the U.S., only slightly chastened by Nick's death, and return to their regular lives.  However, a romantic complication opens the group up to new infiltration, for once they're all back on American soil, Paul reveals to his buddy Tom that he Paul has proposed marriage to Tom's actress-girlfriend Julia, and that she's accepted.  It's not clear when this big romantic reversal developed; usually this sort of "Dear John" outcome takes place because the girlfriend gets seduced by a stateside Romeo.  Tom takes the rejection badly but tries to deal with it.  Then a lissome new neighbor moves into Tom's building.  It's none other than the Cobra Woman herself, calling herself by the very un-Asian name "Lisa Moya."  She inveigles Tom into a romance while continuing to stalk his buddies in her serpentine form.

Though COBRA's setup is good, the latter half succumbs to tedium.  Aside from Paul, the rest of the GIs are flat stereotypes, so that their deaths arouse little identification, and the Paul-Tom-Julia conflict peters out quickly.  The cobra-transformations, when they are even on-screen, are handled as simple dissolves and give no real frissons, any more than does her snake-form.  Director Francis D. Lyon sometimes evoke a Lewton-esque quality to Lisa's stalkings, but the aura of menace is not steadily maintained.

The weakest element is the one that should have been the strongest: the monster.  Lisa Moya has the potential to be an avenger of her insulted culture-- and its women-- but the potential is unrealized because the script fails to grapple with the failings of the all-American protagonists.  Her incredibly easy assimilation into American culture-- giving no hint of her origins-- could have been used to suggest the ability of the alien intruder to masquerade as "one of us."  Instead, Lisa's lack of cultural indications-- her clothes, her accent, her awareness of America's customs-- merely seems to be laziness on the part of the scripters.  Worst of all, the audience never knows exactly what Lisa is.  Her shapeshifting ability confirms that at least some Lamians can change into snakes, but why does she alone pursue the infidels?  Is she the only one who can do so? If so, why doesn't she at least have some fellow cult-members along for backup?  Yet even these inconsistencies could be ignored, if Lisa had been given a consistent emotional core.  But the script gives actress Faith Domergue nothing to work off emotionally, so she simply plays the mysterious exotic most of the time, aside from a moment or two suggesting that she might weaken toward her target Tom.

In conclusion, COBRA doesn't (to mix metaphors) get all of its ducks in a row.  But at least, unlike LEECH WOMAN, it has some ducks to start with.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955)



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


IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (henceforth IT for short) follows the general American model for giant city-crushing monsters supplied by 1953's THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.  Though BEAST's Rhedosaurus had more visual personality than the "sixtopus" of IT, the latter film benefits from a better script, credited in part to George Worthing Yates, who racked up about a dozen SF-film credits in that decade.  In both films Ray Harryhausen shines-- as always-- in his animation of the respective monsters, and if anything "It" seems the more formidable opponent, being able to resort to the concealing waters of the ocean more ably than the big dino.  The scene in which soldiers repel It's gargantuan tentacles with flamethrowers is to my mind much more enjoyable than the often excerpted scene in which the great cephalopod hauls himself up on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Perhaps because the octopus spends so much time under the water, the script is obliged to beef up the dialogue of the creature's human opponents.  The foremost of these is naval submarine commander Pete Matthews, whose vessel encounters the giant beast during maneuvers.  The initial voiceover even frames the encounter as a showdown of sorts, in that the nuclear sub represents one of the finest achievements of modern mankind, and the hostile sea-monster exists to challenge its supremacy.  "The mind of man had thought of everything - except that which was beyond his comprehension!"

Matthews and his sub-mates manage to escape the creature's grip, though Matthews is rather mournful that the ship held no torpedos.  Like the gunfighter deprived of the chance for a fair fight, Matthews will get a chance to redeem himself later.  In a rather peremptory fashion Matthews uses the authority of the Navy to draft two civilians to examine the sub for evidence of the oceanic opponent.  One of the scientists is an older man, coincidentally sharing the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs' monster-fighting hero, "John Carter."  The other scientist, a colleague to Carter, is Lesley "two-girls'-names-in-one" Joyce, a highly trained female professional whose presence provokes Matthews to assert his dominance.  BEAST tossed in a romantic relationship between two scientists, played by the male and female leads, while the female had a vaguely paternal colleague off to the side.  Yates' script shakes up this pattern a little by mixing the military man with the "new breed of woman."  In addition, there's a slight suggestion that Joyce may have some interest in the older Carter, though Carter is blissfully unaware of any such attention, or of Matthews' initial looks of jealousy.

The "dueling romance" schtick in IT was far from new in 1955, but Yates has some fun with it, and keeps it from becoming entirely predictable.  Initially Matthews seems so overbearing that Joyce's eventual affection for him seems to come out of left field, though Yates may've meant to suggest that her response to his masculine assertiveness was inevitable for even a "new breed of woman."  But Joyce does get some of her own back at times, and after It has been defeated, the film ends with Joyce showing a certain assertiveness about "taking possession" of Matthews.

Some 1950s films present Oedipal oppositions between younger and older men for a young female, as seen in 1953's CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON and 1956's FORBIDDEN PLANET. Usually these contests don't end too well for the older male.  In IT, not only is Carter not aware of any possible conflict, he risks his life to save Matthews from the monster, attacking the six-armed terror in its Cyclopean eye-- with the result that all three protagonists live to enjoy their coffee after the monster dies.

In contrast to BEAST's Japanese imitator Godzilla, It never has any personality, and the scientists' discussions of its nature treat the octopus pretty much like a predictable "thing."  Like the ants of THEM!, the sixtopus is not a prehistoric critter, but has been suffused with atomic-bomb radiation, forcing it to leave the ocean depths to look for new food-sources.  But the creature's problems are never addressed with any conservationist compassion, and no one suggests for a moment that it might be corraled somehow.  Sadly, just like Jaws, "no one cry when It die."

I should also note that IT is almost a corrective to the species of cautionary, anti-atomic SF-films.  IT's message is almost more celebratory in tone: "Well, if our atomic tests happen to bring forth rampaging monsters, bring 'em on and we'll cut 'em down!"

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

ED GEIN (2000)




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

The best way to regard the 2000 "fictionalized-reality" film ED GEIN would be to deem it the "anti-PSYCHO" of Ed Gein movies.

Robert Bloch said that his 1959 novel PSYCHO, on which Alfred Hitchcock based his classic work, was written with only a cursory knowledge of the then-recent Gein case.  Both book and movie are frequently the subject of online debates, as to whether or not they are "real horror."  This debate stems in part out of a tendency to associate horror with the supernatural-- a department of my category "the marvelous"-- or at least with the appearance of the supernatural.  But since the movie's version of Norman Bates does not invoke the supernatural, the argument goes, Hitchcock's PSYCHO does not qualify as "horror."  It's too real, given that Norman's exploits-- psychotic gore-murders and grave-robbing-- are just as possible in our world as in his, though the real-life Gein went a good deal farther than Norman did.

I've long argued on this blog that the determining factor for metaphenomenal films-- including both the uncanny and the marvelous-- is not what divided them but what unites them: the sense of "strangeness."  If this were not the case, then we would have to judge Bloch's book to be horror because in the novel Norman tries to use occult books to resurrect his mother, while Hitchcock's film is not horror, because the script dispensed with this detail.  The uniting factor in both, whether the supernatural is invoked or not, is the "strangeness" communicated by the figure of Norman Bates, my favorite example for the trope of the "perilous psycho."

Oddly, one detail in ED GEIN's meticulous examination of the rural Wisconsin murderer's history sounds more like Bloch than Hitchcock: for one scene, Gein does read from some book, attempting, like Bloch's Norman, to raise his mother from the dead.  Yet, that minor invocation of supernaturalism does not imbue ED GEIN with "strangeness." Nor does the quality of strangeness descend from any of the other factors that make up Gein's legend-- the gory murders, his fetish for shrunken heads (see the still above), his rearrangements of corpse-parts-- including a 'woman-suit"--or Gein's hallucinations of his dead mother talking to him.   These are all *potentially* elements for evoking the feeling of strangeness.  But ED GEIN pursues the approach I called "fictionalized-reality" above, meaning that Gein is rendered with a pathetic, no-larger-than-life treatment by lead actor (and executive producer) Steve Railsback.  Thus I judge that this version of Gein, unlike Norman Bates and other fictional icons spawned by Gein, to be purely "naturalistic."

With those categorization issues out of the way, ED GEIN is an extremely artful "fictionalized-reality" endeavor, many leagues above the clumsy, over-earnest biofilms that sell so many commercials for the Lifetime Channel.  The Oedipal influences on Gein-- a weak, drunkard father who dies in Gein's youth, a domineering mother who tries to use religion to bind him to her-- are handled with a direct simplicity.  Thus, when the audience views the processes through which his personality became irrevocably warped, the audience is not allowed to sit in judgment, or to hold the fatuous belief that It All Could've Been Prevented With Better Social Workers (as in the standard Lifetime flick).  I'm not an expert on Gein's history, so I can't say whether or not it's true that, contrary to most fictional characters based on the murderer, Gein never pursued nubile young women a la Janet Leigh, but only wanted mature females who reminded him of his mother.  But here too, the issue is handled with restraint and a strong sense of the realities of small-town life.

Cast, direction and script possess this same simple, understated quality, but ED GEIN is all Railsback's show: it stands or falls on his performance-- which is to say, it stands quite well.  Though the film is uncompromising in its matter-of-fact presentation of Gein's ghastly acts, I judge it to be a "drama" rather than an "irony" like both film-versions of PSYCHO and Hitchcock's FRENZY.  Even though Gein is unquestionably a dark soul, the script does not use him as a lens through which to view the general ineffectuality of mankind.  Since even the Wisconsin psycho's victims retain a certain degree of human dignity, the story registers as belonging to the mythos of the drama.

Monday, October 14, 2013

BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT (1982/ 2007)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *superior*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

"Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave."

I'll pass over a summation of BLADE RUNNER's plot here for the same reason I did in my reviews of 1960's PSYCHO and 1933's KING KONG: most viewers of metaphenomenal cinema see such cornerstone films early in their viewing-careers, often repeatedly.  In addition, the story remains far more symbolically complex than the vast majority of science fiction films, meaning that such complexity would require more than a blog-review to do it justice.  But I will cover a few aspects of the film in lieu of a more involved undertaking.

The above quote is spoken by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the principal foe of replicant-hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), but a truncated version of the line is also uttered by another replicant, Leon (Brion James) in a scene where he's about to kill Deckard.  The fact that the line-- which does not appear in the original Philip Dick novel-- was repeated even once demonstrates that it was important to director Ridley Scott and writers Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples.  It's possible, in fact, that in the replicants' simple-sounded observation lies a key to the labyrinth of BLADE RUNNER's meanings.

The film, which elevates some of Philip Dick's concerns but subverts or ignores others, weaves together a wealth of motifs, as this entry from Wikipedia mentions:

It is a literate science fiction film, thematically enfolding the philosophy of religion and moral implications of human mastery of genetic engineering in the context of classical Greek drama and hubris.[52] It also draws on Biblical images, such as Noah's flood,[53] and literary sources, such as Frankenstein.[54]
Other religious images include the suggestion of Christ-motifs during the final combat between Batty and Deckard, as seen in (a) a scene in which Batty drives a nail through his own hand, invoking a visual parallel to the image of the Crucifixion, and (b) Batty's death, after which Deckard utters the word "finished," in a clear emulation of the New Testament's phrase "tetelestai."  The superhuman replicants, of course, differ from the sacrificial model of Christianity in that all of them do want the "cup of sacrificial death" to pass from them, although at the very end Batty accepts death's inevitability.  So, given that sacrifice does not have the same redemptive power in the fictional work BLADE RUNNER as it does in a religious context, one may also expect that the film's construction of slavery will also differ strongly from that of the New Testament, particularly as seen in Paul's Epistle to Titus: "Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior."

If anything Roy Batty's acknowledgment of the fear with which real slaves must live resembles philosopher George Hegel's meditations on fear and slavery from his PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT:

...although the fear of the lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom, consciousness is not therein aware that it is a being-for-self.  Through work, however, the bondsman [Hegel's word for "slave"] becomes conscious of what he truly is.

And later in the same section:

Through this rediscovery of himself by himself, the bondsman realizes that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own... Without the discipline of service and obedience, fear remains at the formal stage, and does not extend to the known real world of existence.

I won't explore the convolutions of Hegel's theories regarding the philosophical meaning of the slave's fear, but whether or not Scott and his collaborators were familiar with Hegel, they parallel Hegel's concepts by showing Roy Batty as entering an exalted state as a result of knowing the truth of death-- and not just in the form of a lord's retaliation for disobedience.  All the replicants of Batty's clan, the "Nexus-6" model, are doomed to live no more than four years whether they obey faithfully or not.  The replicants' human creators, aware of their having endowed their creations with superior physical and mental powers, chose to limit the Nexus-Sixes in this manner, much as Plato's Zeus felt threatened by the powers of early humans and imposed another type of limitation upon them.  Yet even with those limits, the replicants escape the colonies-- where they have served as warriors, assassins, or sex-toys-- and seek freedom by returning the overcrowded "satanic mills" of Earth.

But it's a fool's errand, for Earth offers no escape even for its natives. The movie spends less time than Dick's novel with the future-humans' form of "conspicuous consumption;" purchasing expensive artificial animals. Nevertheless, this pursuit still shows the emptiness at the heart of Earth's humans, their pursuit of chimerical imitations of reality once they've brought about the extermination of most if not all real animals.  Scott's film is more evocative than Dick's novel with regard to the stultifying effect of the police, who exist to rein in the city's crowded citizens. Even blade runner Deckard is forced out of his retired status by the local police to serve their designs. 

The darkness of Scott's film comes close to the level I expect from the literary form called "the irony."  Yet I choose to term it a "drama" because it does evince dim hopes for humanity, whether or not one deems Deckard himself to be a human being-- a subject on which various film-creators were themselves divided.  Even though Roy Batty and his replicant friends are unjustly terminated, Batty's transcendent example helps to redeem Deckard, so that he flees the corruption of the city along with the replicant female Rachael.  Deckard has no way to fight the monolithic capitalism that creates genetic wonders to serve as slave-labor; this is no METROPOLIS, where the failures of a system can be mended by a metaphorical union of head, heart, and hands.  But, perhaps in contrast to Paul's Epistle to Philemon, Deckard can and will help a slave to escape the conditions of her servitude.

Scott's use of action-adventure motifs is certainly ironic. Deckard's supervisor calls Deckard a "one-man slaughterhouse," but in all four of the blade runner's encounters with the replicants, they all beat him down and are capable of easily killing him, and Deckard is saved only by contingent circumstances, not by his own skills or powers.  If Deckard himself is some sort of replicant, as Scott argues in his "Final Cut" commentary, he's clearly a model inferior to the Nexus-Sixes-- though even being able to survive the superhumans' attacks may be a clue to the character's own inhumanity.  I for one side with the camp that would prefer Deckard to be a normal human being who parts ways with the injustice his people have imposed on their creations/children: if he is another replicant, then his decision to leave a people who are not really his own resonates less. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

DEAD MEN TELL (1941), JUNGLE MAN-EATERS (1954)



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


Though I rate DEAD MEN TELL's mythicity as poor, it's still a moderately entertaining Charlie Chan mystery that serves up the necessary number of red herrings and pseudo-Chinese homilies.  The crimebusting ambitions of Charlie's son Jimmy lead the Oriental sleuth to a ship in a stateside harbor-- possibly New York, where the previous film took place.  Though many Chan films exerted themselves to explain why Chan wasn't in his homeground of Honolulu, TELL doesn't even bother with this detail.

Chan's dense son Jimmy gets the idea that some crime is brewing on the ship, and for once he's right.  The ship's old-lady owner Miss Nodbury relates the legend of the ghostly "Black Hook," the spirit of a pirate-ancestor, who visits his descendants to guide them to the other world.  In short order a spectre in peg-legged pirate-gear visits Mss Nodbury, and she dies of heart failure.  Charlie and his son discover that Nodbury and all the guests aboard the ship planned to journey in search of a fabulous pirate treasure.  She and certain guests shared sections of a treasure map, and now Chan must keep all the would-be seafarers confined to the ship until he can ferret out the ghost-impersonator.

Among the crowd of suspects are two film heroes, George "Superman" Reeves and Kay "Nyoka" Aldridge, but the most interesting character is a neurotic passenger names LaFarge, whose unstable psyche is cared for by a female psychologist.  Skeletal Milton Parsons plays LaFarge with a sepulchral voice and a twitchy personality, making it impossible to know whether or not he's a criminal or just a kook.  As for the mystery, it's serviceable enough, dotting most of the 'i's' as they come along.  Sidney Toler's Chan is a little less paternal toward Jimmy here than in some entries, showing barely any interest when Jimmy tries to show him how he was sapped on the head.  Director Harry Lachman, who had helmed one Oland Chan film and did four with Toler, makes good use of closeups to compensate for the limited sets, and the scene in which the old lady is frightened to death by a hook-handed pirate is a worthy evocation of the uncanny.



JUNGLE MAN-EATERS is the last, and probably the least, of Columbia's "Jungle Jim" series.  Though Columbia's contract to adapt Jungle Jim ended with this film, the studio simply made three more jungle-films also starring Johnny Weismuller, but billed as "Johnny Weismuller."  The title JUNGLE MAN-EATERS seems to have been dreamed up prior to the script, for though Jungle Jim does fight a lion and a crocodile in his approved post-Tarzan style, no man-eating animals are central to the script.  Jim's foe is Leroux, a greedy white man who colludes with a savage African tribe, the Moros, in order to drive another tribe, the Kazembis, off their land so that Leroux can mine the diamonds on their land.  Jim is brought in by white authorities whose first concern is that no ilicit diamond-trade upsets the European diamond-market, though to be fair these scenes take place prior to the attempt to dispossess the Kazembis.  There's also a new young Kazembi prince whose wife is pregnant with a son, who in turn is cared for by a white doctor-lady.  She in turn has a rather pointless dislike for Jungle Jim, apparently because his chimp gets into her things, though MAN-EATERS doesn't bother with a lot of tiresome chimp-comedy.  All of these elements are simply tossed into the pot and are kept boiling to no particular good effect.  The only interesting scene is one in which the "old order passes," as the good prince of the Kazembis receives a stamp of approval from the colonial white government.  Like most Jungle Jim films, this one is pretty unconflicted about the merits of colonialism.

Friday, October 11, 2013

THE TOUCH OF HER FLESH (1967), THE CURSE OF HER FLESH, THE KISS OF HER FLESH (both 1968)



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


Many of the critical debates about the sexual representations of mainstream slasher films-- debates like Carol Clover's MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAINSAWS-- were anticipated by the so-called "FLESH trilogy" of the late 1960s.  All three films were directed by sleaze-filmmaker Michael Findlay under the phony name "Julian March," which he also used to play the lead psycho "Richard Jennings."  Similarly, Findlay's wife Roberta assumed at least two stage-names for credits of "music" and "cinematography."  All three of these black-and-white sexploitation-wonders are clearly the result of a small group of filmmakers working on miniscule budgets, shooting on various locations in the New York area.  They could get away with unvarnished sets and inexperienced actors because the Findlays catered not to the Hollywood mainstream but to sexploitation theatres, the kind frequented by the "raincoat crowd."

The later slashers, both from Hollywood and from independent filmmakers, were roundly criticized for being misogynistic.  Even when the killers slew both male and female victims, some critics asserted that the deaths of female victims were given much more emphasis, treated as gory spectacles that played to the misogynist sentiments of male viewers. The argument of "emphasis" may be true, at least in a statistical sense, though later defenders of the slasher subgenre pointed out that many of these films ended with female heroes successfully reversing expectations by killing the killers.

However, most slashers were products of the mainstream mentality, which targeted  both male and female audiences.  The films of the "sleaze circuit" were aimed almost entirely at male viewers.  Going by the logic of slasher-haters, these films should be even more baldly misogynistic, given that no reputable critic reviewed them and they existed outside the strictures of the Motion Picture Code.

Sleaze films of this period were, to be sure, far more daring.  They often deluged the viewer in nude female bodies, and they sometimes depicted a level of violence that went beyond most contemporary horror-films.  Yet some sleaze-films-- like the Findlays' FLESH trilogy--  raise the demons of misogyny in order to exorcise them.  Were one dealing with truly untrammeled misogyny, such demons would reign supreme, and women would have no more chance in such a world than the proverbial hell-bound snowball.

The credit-sequence of the first film, TOUCH OF HER FLESH, sets a precedent that the other two sequels will also follow: superimposing the credits over exhibitions of feminine flesh or some other sleazy spectacle.  Then the film introduces its "starring demon": Richard Jennings, an ordinary looking schmuck.  He's at his house, practicing with his crossbow and hitting a target with deadly accuracy.  However, when he leaves his home, his wife Claudia invites her lover Steve into her marital bed.  To add insult to injury, Claudia tells Steve that Jennings only plays around with his extensive weapons collection because he's compensating for a tiny penis, as well as general sexual incompetence.  Then Jennings returns unexpectedly.  Though he doesn't let the cheating couple know that he's witnessed their flagrant delectability, Jennings wanders away, stunned, until he's hit by a car.  This causes the permanent loss of an eye and a temporary loss of his mobility.  Later, once Jennings regains his ability to walk, the now-insane weapons-collector dons an eyepatch over the damaged eye and embarks on a career as a psycho-killer.

Two elements set TOUCH apart from similar misogyny-fests of the period. Though it's a bare-bones, barely-acted production, the camerawork is reasonably skillful.  Also, Jennings isn't content to merely piss and moan about the evils of women.  Instead, he positively rhapsodizes about their evil, full of purple passion about how he was "trapped in the vortex of the female being."  He doesn't immediately make an attack on Claudia, but warms up by coming up with insidious methods for killing women who routinely tantalize men, like hookers and go-go dancers, and he has a particular mania for turning their own evil against them.  He gives a rose to his first victim, ranting in a monologue-voiceover that "the thorns shall be impregnated with the poison she herself dispenses, and this symbol of her once-virginity shall kill the whore."  Findlay was no Faulkner, but he does seem to have tapped into a familiar trope of American fiction, usually expressed as the "virgin-and-whore dichotomy."

Finally the sicko does get around to killing Claudia with a table-saw, though the camera has to cut away from the scene, probably because the filmmakers had no budget for the necessary gore.  However, Claudia's gal-pal Janet "takes back the penis," as it were, getting hold of Jennings' crossbow and shooting him dead with it-- at least until the box-office reports for this film came in.

Jennings came back, none the worse for wear, in CURSE OF HER FLESH.  The title may be the best realization of Jennings' misogyny, in which the very fruitfulness of female bodies, as well as their excessive lust, is a "curse"upon the male gender.  However, though Jennings still kills various female victims, his main target is Steve, the professional actor whose affair with Claudia sent Jennings around the bend.  As part of an involved plot to corrupt and humiliate Steve, Jennings-- who no longer wears the eye-patch consistently here or in the next film-- becomes the manager of a small-time stage-show, specializing in weird, avant-garde erotic plays.  Steve performs in one of these plays, which sounds like it was scripted by Jennings.  While Steve sits around reciting, naked women dance around him, with dollar bills taped to their genitals.  Steve's rambling discourse babbles about how most people don't have "it," though Steve's character claims that he does have "it," presumably potency.  The notion of Jennings paying stud-Steve to boast about his prowess-- the prowess that Jennings does not have-- lends a masochistic air to Jennings' project.  Then the wonky monologue credits women with having some extraordinary sexuality unavailable to the male of the species, as Steve laments, 'why do the women have "'it" and the men don't?'

Later Jennings, hungry to feed on more female flesh, gets a hooker to take him back to her place, where she keeps her cat, which naturally leads to various "pussy" double entendres from both of them.  Then Jennings starts talking about how "this little pussy is really a primordial carnivorous beast" that "swallows as much meat as it can," which goes a little too far for the hooker.  Jennings poisons her in a roundabout manner, putting poison on the cat's claws and then scratching the woman with the claws, so that she too is symbolically killed by her own sexual nature. 

Jennings becomes even more elaborate in his next murder-plot.  He inveigles one of the actresses in his sex-shows so that she offers her services to a lesbian client at the latter's home.  However, since Jennings worships death rather than sex, he gives the actress a dildo that causes the client's death.  Unbelievably, even for this sort of film, the aggrieved actress returns to the theatre, pissed about having been used as a catspaw and wanting money to keep quiet.  Naturally, Jennings kills her as well.  Finally, Jennings maneuvers Steve into dark suspicions about his fiancĂ©e, and those suspicions result in Steve killing his girlfriend for the same reason Jennings killed his wife.  Having made Steve over into his own image, Jennings ambushes the actor, who flees and tries to hop a ride in a passing truck.  Jennings catches up with him, and after a wild-and-wooly battle in the back of the truck, the psycho both kills and castrates the actor.

However, chasing down a male victim didn't give Michael Findlay's psychotic "alter ego" as much time to wax poetic about feminine evil.  Indeed, in CURSE Jennings also kills a male cop, though he simply shoots the cop, not bothering to give him any special Sadean death.  KISS OF HER FLESH returns to the basics.  Jennings is still on the loose, this time having fled to the snowy countryside outside New York.  In order to gain a new vantage to attack women, he kills a male doctor, takes over the man's home and pretends to be him. Apparently this area of New York hosts a lot of women who like their doctor to give their sexual massages-- but of course, Jennings once more dispenses death rather than delight, using such devices as a sterno can, an "acid douche," and-- pushing reality more than ever before-- his own "poisoned semen." After killing a female hitchhiker, he sets her corpse on fire amid the snow, and declares that "the snow and the fire will purify your soul."

However, one of his victims has a sister, Maria, who knows about Jennings' twisted career and wants to avenge her sister.  Maria figures out Jennings' modus operandi and makes plans with her boyfriend Don to ambush the killer.  Posing as a patient, she infiltrates Jennings' country-house practice, and stabs him nonfatally before he can kill her.  Don and Maria then give Jennings a taste of his own sadistic medicine.  They tie him to a chair with his own crossbow aimed at him, and the bow's trigger is tied to his penis.  If Jennings gets hard watching Maria make out with Don, he'll jerk himself to death.  However, though the crossbow goes off, the vigilante duo deliberately set it to just miss its victim, since Don and Maria plan to torture Jennings again.  This proves a mistake, for Jennings gets loose and brawls with the two of them.  Still, though the madman comes close to killing them both, in the end studly Don gets the honor of executing Jennings with his own arrows.  The coda asserts that this is "positively the end of Richard Jennings."

What makes this three demented trilogy interesting to a modern critic?  Well, much like the later slashers, these films play to male misogyny, and yet at the same time, characterize misogynists as impotent losers.  At one point, while "Doctor Jennings" is sex-massaging one of his victims, she tells him that she's had sex with "the girl downstairs," prompting the pathetic question from Jennings, "Am I better than the girl downstairs?"  The broad implication is that no matter what Jennings does in retaliation, female sexuality is something both fearsome and awe-inspiring.  CURSE also specifies that women have some formidable power than men don't have.  A Freudian would claim such power can only abide in "the phallus," but Findlay-- who was probably unlearned in all but the most rudimentary Freudianism-- doesn't endow the male organ with power.  It's the female organ that is a devouring vortex, and although a psychotic male can kill many women, the trilogy's conclusion suggests that women like Maria will rise and best the male psycho even in the manly art of murder.  Given that the entire FLESH trilogy was aimed at male viewers, this remains far more subversive than the crude sexual politicizing one finds in a later breed of art-films, particularly the corpus of Pedro Almodovar.  The FLESH trilogy doesn't ever pretend to be art-- and it isn't-- but there's something elemental in these sleazefests, something one will never find in a hundred arthouse-films about the subject of sex.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

THE FORSAKEN (2001), MERLIN: THE RETURN (2000)



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


THE FORSAKEN, a male-bonding road-movie with vampires, is an interesting misfire. 

Twenty-something Sean, a dutiful young film-editor, is given the task of driving a valuable car cross-country.  While passing through a desolate part of the Southwest, far from most human habitations, he encounters a hitcher named Nick.  Sean gives Nick a lift and later is drawn into the world of vampire hunting, for Nick has been infected by vampirism.  The only way he can avoid becoming a full vampire is to kill the head vampire responsible for his infection, who is also passing through the same area.  Head vampire "Kit" travels with a small retinue of fellow vamps and one human servant, the latter used to drive them about during the day, when the bloodsuckers dare not face the sun.

Sean wants no part of Nick's weird world, but when Sean is bitten by another almost-vamp, the young man has no choice.  Though the vampires are stronger and resist most methods of death-dealing, Nick knows their special list of weaknesses-- the sun, fire, and holy ground-- and seeks to draw them to a place where he can destroy them.  Conservative, rule-following Sean must step up and become a fearless vampire killer or be recruited by the ranks of the undead.

While the basic scenario has the potential to rank with Kathryn Bigelow's vampire-western NEAR DARK, writer-director J.S. Cardone doesn't work hard enough to give his characters the degree of characterization they need.  Sean and Nick cart around one of the vampires' victims for most of the film, but she remains so traumatized that she barely reacts to their circumstances (possibly a lame attempt to emulate a character from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD).  The trashy vampires, from leader Kit to his charismatic girlfriend Cym, are also little more than ciphers.  Sean and Nick have the best lines and the actors play well with what they're given, but they rarely succeed in evoking more than superficial aspects of their opposed characters: Sean the Conservative Plodder and Nick the Moody Rebel.  The final scene of the film has a certain charm based on those stereotypes, but the film doesn't foreshadow Sean's transformation adequately.  Further, Cardone mixes his tropes carelessly, citing demonic possession as the origin of the vampires, yet claiming that vampirism is passed like a "telegenic" virus.




All of FORSAKEN's failings, however, gleam like gold next to the abortion that is MERLIN: THE RETURN.  Given that this film was made by the United Kingdom-- though parts were shot in South Africa-- one half expects King Arthur to come back from death to avenge his horrible treatment in this film.  Britons are usually known for having some respect for Matters Arthurian, but this may well be the worst treatment of these matters by any filmmaker in any country-- and there have been some awful Arthur-films over the years.

This is obviously a film shot on a handful of limited (and limiting) sets, to judge by the way the actors seem unable to move about freely.  A dithering version of Merlin is the central hero of the plot, traveling to the 20th century in order to prevent a mad scientist (Tia Carrere) from releasing Morgan LeFay and her son Mordred from the magical prison to which Merlin confined them.  Confined in the same prison, for reasons that escaped me, were the adulterous duo Lancelot and Guinevere.  Arthur and his knights also appear in the 20th century and try to fight a truck before Merlin finds them and sets them right.

The quotations of familiar Arthurian tropes and characters are passionless, the costumes are offenses to the eye and even decent actors like Tia Carrere and Adrian Paul seem to be flailing about, trying to find something interesting to do.  Two kid-actors get the best lines, so I must assume that writer-director Paul Matthews thought he was doing a kiddie-confection.  Whether he had no talent for the Matter of Arthur, or was coasting because he was making a juvenile feature, the result is the same: an awful bore that doesn't even have the saving grace of being unintentionally funny.


HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1995)



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

After HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH failed at the box office in 1982, the franchise returned to the familiar menace of Michael Myers for two quickie films, released within a year of one another.  I screened these long ago and didnot have the chance to review them prior to rescreening the sixth film in the series.  I remember both films as no more than adequate time-killers, in which the filmmakers attempted to give Myers a new opponent, his niece Jamie Lloyd.  The fifth film in the series also failed to show a significant profit, so the franchise didn't come out with another installment for another six years.
The backstory of CURSE as summarized on Wikipedia suggests that writer Daniel Farrands, a noted fan of the franchise, was on the right track in trying to come up with some way to deepen Michael's rather sketchy nature.  Since no one had successfully managed to use Michael as a metaphor for pure evil as John Carpenter did in the first film, perhaps the next best thing would have been to give the hulking shape some simpler raison d'etre.  Farrands picked up on some of the pagan references in the series-- particulary movie #5-- and hypothesized that Michael was the incarnation of a demonic power set loose by an ancient, but still extant, pagan cult.  Under this power, the demon-haunted being was driven to kill all members of his family in what might be described as a scapegoat ritual, designed to keep other families safe from the demon.

However, the history of the film suggests so much behind-the-scenes conflict that it's impossible to judge whether Farrands' angle would have borne fruit.  The basic plotline doesn't suggest much in the way of complexity, though: after Michael succeeds in finding and killing Jamie Lloyd, he's drawn to a new victim: Jamie's baby.  For good measure the Horror of Haddonfield also goes after the Strode family that originally adopted his sister Laurie.  In essence this HALLOWEEN follows the same plot-logic as an old action-serial, where the baby is a *maguffin* that both heroes and villain pursue.

Though there are various character conflicts that might have developed into genuine drama, even Tommy Doyle-- a now-teenaged version of the child from the first film-- comes off as flat and uninteresting.  The pagan cult seeking to manipulate Michael might have made at least as good a villain as the character of Cochran from the third film, but the script wastes time keeping them in the shadows.  The ending as filmed is all but incomprehensible, and can only be sorted out by referencing the summaries of Farrands' original script-- though that, too, sounds like at best small improvement.

Though HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH are frequently lumped together in terms of their genre, my survey of the first eight FRIDAYs suggests that the filmmakers on that series took a little more care to please the audience that did the HALLOWEEN filmmakers.  Even the worst FRIDAY films show some concern for building on the mythic figure of Jason Voorhees.  In contrast, HALLOWEEN's sequels allow the Michael Myers character to become more and more of a cipher.  It's true that Michael is supposed to be without affect, but he's not supposed to inspire that reaction in his audiences!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

FULL MOON HIGH (1981)



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


Although I doubt that any serious critics these days believe in analyzing all films through a Freudian lens, the Viennese doctor has had no small impact on modern culture, including that of filmmakers.  This impact usually sorts out into three types of influence:

(1) Films in which either an original film or the work from which a film is adapted show obvious intellectual indebtedness to Freud, as with Peter Sasdy's HANDS OF THE RIPPER  and Robert Bloch's PSYCHO, respectively.

(2) Films which seem to be largely innocent of Freudian influence, such as Sam Newfield's 1943 DEAD MEN WALK.

(3) Films in which it's likely that the filmmakers had some basic knowledge of Freud, but it's hard to tell whether or not Oedipal motifs crop up intentionally or not, as with both George Waggner's 1941 WOLF MAN and Larry Cohen's 1981 FULL MOON HIGH.

In his 1985 DREADFUL PLEASURES academic James Twitchell argued that Waggner's WOLF MAN-- of which Cohen's film is a partial spoof-- recapitulated Oedipal motifs.  Twitchell's argument takes a position of the Good Doctor himself and many of his followers-- most prominently Otto Rank-- that any tensions between male siblings, or between a father and son, derived from the inevitable conflict of males over a mother-figure (for the siblings) or a wife/mother-figure (for the father and son).  According to Freud, Rank, and Twitchell, there doesn't even have to be a real "bone" for the male dogs to fight over. The mere existence of the tensions "proves" the Oedipal conflict.  Thus Twitchell had no problem in arguing Oedipal motifs in THE WOLF MAN even though protagonist Larry's mother is (presumably) dead and gone, and Larry never has no quarrel with his father over any woman.  Maleva, who is not related to either man, is the only maternal character in the story, but neither man is interested in her erotically, nor does either one want to be drawn into her world of witches and werewolves.  Unlike Twitchell, I can't credence the idea of Oedipal motifs in any work that doesn't feature some sort of conflicted erotic desire, however suppressed.

Now though I don't believe that Waggner's movie holds any fruit for the devout Freudian, I feel it likely that Larry Cohen had some idea of "Freudian-izing" the WOLF MAN story for his own film.  In this Cohen may have been influenced by an earlier (and superior) spoof of a Universal Studios horror-concept, Mel Brooks' 1974 YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, whose intentionally-articulated Freudian motifs I discussed here.  I emphasize that it's "hard to tell" with MOON because Cohen's script is much more "all over the place" than that of the Brooks film.

And yet, MOON does seem as if it goes the extra mile to give its protagonist an embarrassment of riches in terms of the "mother-substitutes" lacking in WOLF MAN, and more "father-substitutes" to boot.

The film begins in the town of Full Moon in 1950, when high-schooler Tony Walker has become a prominent football-player.  Tony's relatively happy in this position, particularly since he has an ardent admirer, fellow student Jane, with whom he's already shared a few rolls in the hay.  To be sure, he does have a heavy-handed father, usually addressed only as "Dad." Mister Walker shows no particular interest in Tony himself, but like the people of Full Moon (and its high school) he dearly hopes to see Tony win a big game with the town's perennial rival in the town of Simpson.  His mother's evidently been gone a long time, for he barely remembers her, and confuses her with the maid, who cared for him before she absconded with the silverware.  The unnamed mother cost Walker a little more, since she departed with his entire bank account.  Soon the audience gets some idea as to why Mrs. Walker may've left.  Walker, who claims an affiliation with the CIA, invites his son to travel with him to fabled Rumania, where Walker plans to pick up a microfilm drop.  However, once they've arrived Tony's pretty much on his own, as "Dad" uses the trip as an excuse to have some fun with the local ladies of the evening.

While dining alone, Tony meets the first of many strange women in his life: a Rumanian fortune-teller who reads his palm and tells him he suffers the curse of the Pentagram, that he's doomed to become a werewolf and wander the earth in an unaging state until he fulfills a destiny.  The fortune-teller is clearly a goof on Maleva of the WOLF MAN, but there's no obvious connection between her and the werewolf who comes across Tony in the night and administers the expected bite.  Back to the USA go Tony and his dad, and Tony gets the first clue of his new condition during the flight, when he routs a group of plane-hijackers en route.

Back in high school Tony realizes he must stay away from his girlfriend Jane due to the approach of the full moon.  This is almost surely the first time a male character ever put off a female character due to "the time of the month."  Tony's werewolf, however, is never filled with any burning bloodlust; he contents himself with accosting young women-- or, unintentionally, men-- and biting them in the butts.  Jane's would-be paramour Jack swears to find the werewolf, but he never has the chance.  "Dad" makes the mistake of bugging Tonywhen he's about to make the change, and has to flee his hirsute offspring, concealing himself in their fallout shelter.  Dad's own stupidity, rather than the werewolf's claws, brings about his death.  Tony, filled with remorse, leaves Full Moon without finishing his senior year or winning the big game.  He spends twenty years in Europe, presumably biting foreign butts, until he decides that the fortune-teller's prophecy meant that he had to win the big game to undo his curse.

Tony returns to Full Moon and enters his old school again, pretending to be his own son, "Tony Walker Junior."  A twenty-years-older Jane--Roz Kelly, thirteen years older than star Adam Arkin--has married Jack, now the police chief.  She's more than a little interested in Junior, opining that "he could have been my son."  Tony has a glancing romantic contact with teacher Miss Montgomery, played by Elizabeth Hartman, in real life the same age as Roz Kelly.  Later Tony makes a more substantial relationship with Ricki.  She's played by Joanne Nail, represented as a high-schooler, though she was nine years older than Arkin, who was himself about seven years too old to be a high school senior.  When Jane finally gets a look at "Tony Junior," she recognizes him as her long-lost lover and tries to inveigle him into a relationship, preferably one in which he bites her and makes her immortal too.  It never gets anywhere, prevented by Tony's accidental encounters with several items of the werewolf's bane, silver.

Tony reaches a crisis point when he assaults Miss Montgomery in her home-- where she already has another student doing a "makeup exam."  The script implies that he kills her, but prior to revealing her actual situation, the audience only knows that Tony becomes so upset that he decides to expose his secret to the world.  He intends to make this revelation with the help of Ricki, but she mistakes his intention of filming his transformation for a kinky sex-escapade.  The resultant brawl between Ricki and the werewolf works out pretty well for Ricky, who threatens the wolf in an obvious PSYCHO riff, and then calms him down by acting in a more nurturing-- might we say maternal?-- manner.

After Tony reveals his lupine nature, the local law officers lock him up and call in a specialist in abnormal psychology, Doctor Brand (Alan Arkin, real-life father of Adam).  Brand makes a heavier father-figure than either Dad Walker or the middle-aged Jack, for he practices a hectoring, confrontational style of pop psychology.  Rather than being an obvious Freud-parody, he seems loosely patterned upon either Freud's discipline Wilhelm Reich or one of Reich's influences, like Arthur Janov.  However, Brand only wants to have Tony killed and to dissect his corpse.  Tony escapes jail and decides to try playing in the Big Game Against Simpson.  This leads to a protracted comic conclusion in which the following occurs:

(1) Tony, in werewolf-form, wins the big game but his curse isn't cancelled out.

(2) Brand tries to kill Tony with silver bullets and fails, after which Tony finally does kill someone-- appropriately, an evil and negligent father-figure.

(3) Jane pledges her eternal love to the dying werewolf and then suddenly develops an allergy to fur, while Ricki starts becoming enamored of Jane's neglected husband Jack.

(4) Tony comes back to life and tells the audience that "inflation" made it impossible to kill a werewolf with a mere six bullets.  Then he goes hunting for Miss Montgomery, who wasn't killed but turned into a werewolf, whom Tony wants to have bite him all over again.  Thus the film ends with Tony satisfying his dead father's main desire-- to win the Big Game-- yet he continues to violate the Oedipal taboo by linking up with a "mother-surrogate" by whom he'll have a lot of hairy children.

Cohen's script, as I said above, is all over the place.  Because the film is only fitfully funny, it's never gained the status of a "cult comedy."  But in Cohen's fuzzy attempt to rewrite the Waggner WOLF MAN, MOON does suggest some of the transgressive content that usually makes for cult comedies.  Had Cohen been a little more organized, and a little more taboo-breaking, MOON might be better remembered today. 









BOTH BARRELS BLAZING, BLAZING THE WESTERN TRAIL (both 1945), TRAIL OF THE RUSTLERS (1950)



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

In my review of the last Durango Kid movie, I said:

The scene in which the black-clad masked man threatens the villain with execution gives that scene a touch of the uncanny that one would never get from a similar threat made by Gene Autry.
By saying that, I didn't mean to suggest that a given Durango Kid would not fit my category of "the uncanny" unless it conveyed such an emotion.  The only reason to regard these films as metaphenomenal is based on the POTENTIAL to create such emotions, not in the actual execution.  Though the masked western-hero of this series never became a name to conjure with, along the lines of the Lone Ranger-- or even Marvel's "Two-Gun Kid"-- his masked persona removes him from the rank and file of oater-heroes like Roy Rogers and the rest, irrespective as to whether the filmmakers do anything with the potential.  If I were basing my concept of the metaphenomenal on execution rather than potential, then I'd have to leave out not only inferior Durango Kid movies, but also badly executed SF-film like these two specimens.

BOTH BARRELS BLAZING, third in the series, offers a confused tale about the Durango Kid trying to find a cache of gold after the bandit who stole it-- apparently a holdover from the second film-- is killed.  The most notable thing about the story is its attempt to do a swipe on the classic "Lady for a Day" scenario as represented in Frank Capra's 1933 film-- though for all I know, there may have been earlier examples of the story.  An impoverished old prospector named "Grubstake" has lied to his long-absent daughter as to the extent of his wealth, but everyone in Durango's town resolves to go along with his pose as a rich man.  These scenes, however derivative, offer the only real entertainment in the film, apart from the comedy relief of Dub Taylor, making his first appearance as "Cannonball."  The film ends on a cheerful note even though salty old Grubstake is killed.
 
BLAZING THE WESTERN TRAIL, sixth in the series, is a decided improvement.  Here it's the old chestnut in which outlaws continually besiege a stagecoach company until it's near bankruptcy.  If I mention that there's another stagecoach company in town that isn't getting this kind of treatment, there shouldn't be any mystery as to the villain's identity.  The story proves a little more interesting in that the Durango Kid-- taking the name "Jeff" in this picture-- pretends to quarrel with his sidekick Tex in order to get in good with the bad stagecoach company.  The virtuous stagecoach company is run by an old man and his daughter, whom he "raised like a boy," though she never does anything more active than driving her coach.  She also provides some static, relentlessly criticizing Jeff for consorting with evildoers, who also murder her father.  On the comedy range, Dub Taylor has some cute moments trying to find a way to propose to his intended, so that in the end she's forced to maneuver him into popping the question.  I imagine she was gone by the next entry in the series, though.

The third and last Durango I viewed, TRAIL OF THE RUSTLERS, jumps forward quite a bit, to Number Forty-Three in the series of Sixty-Four, by which time Smiley Burnette had replaced Dub Taylor as the comedy relief, which I find to be no improvement.  This time the familiar plot is that of owlhoots seeking to gain control of all the land in the territory, to the extent that they willingly gun down the father of a young boy.  The crooks also have one of their number impersonate the Durango Kid, leading to a nice scene where the young boy gets the drop on the real hero, thinking that Durango has killed his father.  The murdered rancher also has an older daughter who doesn't do much of anything but provide the standard female lead.  This is a shame given that the actress, Gail Davis, would later garner a measure of sagebrush notoriety for playing TV's "Annie Oakley."  This time the only female character who gets a substantial role is the secret leader of the robber band, who pretends to be a solid citizen while ordering her gang to kill and plunder.  Smiley Burnette gets a few smile-worthy moments attempting to court the older woman.