Monday, December 29, 2014

THE DEATH KISS (1932)




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

It would be easy to resent this minor mystery-thriller as a harbinger of Bela Lugosi's future marginalization in Hollywood. Lugosi is reunited with two co-performers from 1931's DRACULA, David Manners and Edward Van Sloan, but both actors are given much better lines. With Manners it's understandable, for he's the real star of the show.  When a much-disliked actor is killed on a film, Manners' character, a smart screenwriter named Franklyn Drew, makes it his business to solve the crime in order to clear his actress-girlfriend.

DEATH KISS is pretty standard for this type of fast-paced murder mystery, and Manners is reasonably entertaining trading quips with the investigating cops, who of course are all idiots. Lugosi is merely a studio manager seeking to keep his place of employment from suffering bad press. I imagine the producers merely wanted to suggest a slight aura of horror by casting him in a minor role. But there's nothing horrific in the script as such, and I disagree with any concordances that deem this a "fantasy-film"  simply because it has Bela Lugosi in it. The suggestive title also adds up to nothing, for "Death Kiss" is simply the title of the movie that's being filmed when the victim is killed. As a very slight irony, though the source of the "death kiss" is an evil temptress in the film's script, the actress playing her is entirely likeable, if dull.

The only slight claim DEATH KISS might have to metaphenomenal status is the method of the murder.  I've rated some mystery-films, like THE JADE MASK,.as "uncanny" if the murder-devices suggests the quality I've frequently called "strangeness." But not every "infernal machine," as some authors call them, are automatically (heh) uncanny. In this essay I referenced one naturalistic "machine"-- a gun rigged to shoot a victim at a certain time. To make such a mundane device "strange," one needs some sense of its being given a peculiar tonality-- which I did find in one of the films reviewed here. 

But KISS' murder-method-- a simple derringer loaded into a camera-- didn't suggest any strangeness for this viewer. I don't recall that anyone makes the obvious pun about finding a "shooting iron" in a device meant for "shooting actors" in a non-fatal manner.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)




PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *superior*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical, sociological*


I've long had the same problem in reviewing the 1939 WIZARD OF OZ as I've had with Hitchcock's PSYCHO; both films have been subjected to endless quotes of key lines and extensive academic analysis. But since I've recently re-read Baum's first Oz book, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, I think it would be interesting to note some comparisons, rather than simply vegging out on all the iconic moments.
First, I consider both the book and the 1939 movie to belong to the category "drama." There are a lot of comic or adventurous sequences, as well as a handful of ironic touches, but both stories emphasize the pathos of Dorothy being separated from the life she's known. Her "separation anxiety," so to speak, is so great that even the endless fascinations of Oz's dream-world hold no attraction for her, except insofar as they help her get back home. However, it should be said that Baum doesn't spend as much time as the film does in delineating the simple charms of Kansas, and the success of the first book insured that Dorothy and other protagonists would make many more trips to Oz. In contrast, the 1939 film presents Dorothy's conflict as a completed journey, one that presumably will never be repeated.

According to the 1977 book MAKING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ, the first drafts of the film-script did not employ the device that Dorothy's trip to Oz was a dream. This development testified to the belief of MGM producers that general audiences would not give credence to the book's genuinely marvelous fantasy-world of Oz. I'd hypothesize some possible influence from Maurice Maeterlinck's 1908 play THE BLUE BIRD, which had seen adaptation into two silent films. The theme is certainly the same; that of the glorification of ordinary life as against childish fantasies. The play also presents its child-protagonists encountering humanized versions of homely house-pets and other phenomena, just as Dorothy's  Oz-buddies are patterned on the farm-hands she knows from home.  If there was such a behind-the-scenes influence, this would make it all the more ironic that the next year 20-Century Fox tried to steal MGM's fantasy-film thunder with an adaptation of BLUE BIRD-- an adaptation which flopped.  

The 1939 Dorothy, then, embarks on her journey as a way of balancing her personal conflicts between "staying home on the farm" or venturing off into exotic lands.  It's highly significant that long before Dorothy has a good reason to run away-- that is, before she knows that Mrs. Gulch is going to try to have her dog Toto put down-- she's already thinking about seeking out some other world where people won't treat her like a mere child, that paradisiacal place "where troubles melt like lemon drops." It's been fairly objected that Dorothy's single-minded drive to get back home overlooks the ways in which the real world sucks: that Mrs. Gulch, the richest woman in the area, may again try to exterminate the little girl's dog. On the other hand, it's possible that the dog-hating harridan may have perished in the cyclone, though the film would have lost its happy-ending feel had it presented Gulch's death as a real outcome, rather than a symbolic one confined to the world of dreams. 

In Baum's fantasy, there are no evil male or female figures portrayed in the Kansas seen only briefly at the book's beginning and ending. Thus Oz's authority figures-- the good witches, the bad witches, and the "humbug" wizard-- are more archetypal visions of good and bad authority, not necessarily only of a parental nature. In both film and book Dorothy is presented as a mild spirit who has no overt forceful tendencies. Her three male companions definitely incarnate the forcefulness she does not normally show, though all three have defects that keep them from being invincible. In the book, Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion all have moments of genuine violence. The film downplays this potential in favor of comic sequences of fear, so that they arguably become more vulnerable than their prose originals.  This isn't to say that Dorothy lacks all initiative: in both book and film she intercedes to slap the Lion on the snout when he menaces Toto. Yet in Baum the mild-tempered little girl can be roused to real anger. In the book's middle section, after Dorothy has been forced to labor in the Wicked Witch's castle, the Witch succeeds in stealing one of Dorothy's slippers, and this makes the girl mad enough to hurl a pail of water at her tormentor-- albeit without knowing in advance that the water will destroy the evil sorceress.  For the film-version, even this minor display of ire toward an authority-figure born of dreams may have seemed too chancy, and thus Dorothy only kills the Witch while trying to save the Scarecrow from a fiery doom.

The progress of Dorothy in WONDERFUL WIZARD is linear. She goes from the East, where her house has killed the Witch of the East, and she picks up allies on her way to Oz, in the center of the Land of Oz. Her errand for the Wizard sends her and her friends to the West. After the death of the Witch of the West, the heroes' return takes them back to Oz, but the return to the center doesn't finish the story. Although the Wizard has managed to empower the three allies in his humbug-ish manner, he fails to deliver on his promise to Dorothy. This forces the three allies to accompany her on a second quest to the South, which gives them the chance to show off their new fortitude. Still, the quest can only be finished when Dorothy-- essentially taking on the power of a witch-- must invoke magical power to get the group past the land of the Hammerheads-- and only after doing this does she come into contact with a being of genuine knowledge, the Witch of the South, who alone knows how Dorothy can get home.

The film favors the entirely circular path from East to Center to West and then back to Center, appropriately resembling the circularity of the dream in which all the action takes place. But to make this work, the script must conflate the Witch of the North, who first tells Dorothy to seek out the Wizard, with the genuinely wise Witch of the South. This has the unfortunate effect of making it look like the film's Glinda, Witch of the North, is primarily concerned with using Dorothy's predicament in order to knock off the Witch of the West. One might argue that she has recapitulated the Wizard's bargain, albeit in altered form. In the book and film the Wizard challenges Dorothy and her friends to kill the Witch even though he isn't entirely sure that he can grant their wishes afterward, but at least they have the option of simply not obeying the challenge, since the book's Witch of the West isn't ceaselessly chasing them around. Glinda of the North knows from the first that she has the power to send Dorothy back, but chooses to let Dorothy seek out the Wizard when Dorothy already has the power to go home. Glinda's clunky rationale is that Dorothy "wouldn't have believed" that she had the power, but it still seems like Glinda has forced upon Dorothy an unannounced "quid pro quo." At least the Wizard makes his bargain clear, even if he falsifies his own power of compensation. Of course, within the logic of a dream, one may argue that Glinda isn't an entity with real agency. Rather, Glinda is the agent of Dorothy's own desire to kill off an evil authority-figure who mirrors one in the real world-- and that, more than any "belief," seems to be the real reason Dorothy has to stay in Oz for a while.  But in contrast to the book, film-Dorothy cannot be seen to assume any degree of real power, even temporarily-- so she goes back home, back to the life of a child surrounded by doting elders. The book's Dorothy returns to the bosom of family as well, but it's a family that has been so meagerly described that they can't help but seem more phantom-like than all the wonders of the Land of Oz. The book's last lines, unlike those of the film, place both the fantasy-land and the real world on a co-equal plane:

  
Aunt Em had just come out of the house to water the cabbages when she looked up and saw Dorothy running toward her.
"My darling child!" she cried, folding the little girl in her arms and covering her face with kisses. "Where in the world did you come from?"
"From the Land of Oz," said Dorothy gravely. "And here is Toto, too. And oh, Aunt Em! I'm so glad to be at home again!"
  








Monday, December 22, 2014

THE MISTS OF AVALON (2001)



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


After I finished Marion Zimmer Bradley's mountainous, overwritten 1982 MISTS OF AVALON-- reviewed here-- I immediately got hold of a DVD of the 2001 TNT teleseries adaptation. I wasn't expecting a lot. The TNT Channel had turned out a significant number of telefilm adaptations in the early 2000s, but few if any garnered noteworthy reviews.  At the same time, I thought that a pruned-down version of Bradley's story could have been an Arthurian masterpiece, at least on the level of Boorman's brilliant if eccentric 1981 EXCALIBUR.

TNT's MISTS isn't a masterpiece, but it did satisfy many of my wishes. It was inevitable that a film-adaptation would have to jettison most of Bradley's repetitive internal monologues, but there was a chance that it might have just descended into banal cliche. Ironically, scripter Gavin Scott's next finished project was just such a disaster: the 2004 teleseries adaptation of Ursula LeGuin's EARTHSEA books. Happily, the MISTS movie keeps the general rudiments of Bradley's main characters: Morgaine, Arthur, Igraine, Vivian, Morgause, Lancelot and Gwenhwyfar.  The film does make substantial alterations in its latter half. For instance, the movie eliminates some of Morgaine's unheroic actions, such as the plot in which she uses her stepson Accolon against the King, but even in the novel this was no more than a side-plot. Morgaine is made more generally sympathetic, and as if in compensation her aunt Morgause is made more of a deep-dyed villain. Morgause has a much more central role in corrupting Mordred, so as to bring about the fall of Arthur's fortunes and of Camelot, 

The film does adequately with the book's "Christian vs. pagan" theme, but as I noted in my review, Bradley's own handling of the theme was also just adequate, even though she devoted much, much more space to it. Both the book and movie conclude with Morgaine watching the passing of the pagan way of life in Britain, but although both are meant to give her some hope that the future may see some sort of revival, the film's script communicates this more concisely and therefore more effectively.  As in the book, the only "magic" in this Arthurian universe is that of psychic talents channeled into superstitious practices.  The film does unfortunately play down the rigors of Morgaine's training in becoming a priestess of Avalon, but this too would seem to be the consequence of moving from the print medium to a filmed medium. 

For any viewer who wishes to see more of the standard Arthurian tropes, the film delivers them without vitiating the book's female-centric approach. For instance, when the Vivian of the book offers the sword Excalibur to Arthur, it's a long, talky scene that goes into excruciating detail about Arthur's loyalties to both Christians and pagans. The film puts across the same information but gives the ceremony some visual *oomph.*  The film, while still concentrating on the female characters, allows for more visceral battle-scenes, and even Morgaine uses a sword to defend herself in one scene.  Mordred's psychological motivations for destroying Camelot are more intense than those presented in the novel.

The novel's pervasive theme of incest is also diminished, though this may have been more for economy than for any other reason. Morgaine is still maneuvered into having sex with her half-brother, which in retrospect is not one of Vivian's better plots, given that it eventuates in the fall of Arthur's reign and the end of Avalon's influence. But there seems to have been no good reason to eliminate the sexual chemistry between Morgaine and her cousin Lancelot. Granted, the film doesn't have the space necessary to explore all the resultant jealousies of Morgaine toward Gwenhwyfar. But Bradley's scenario provides more narrative suspense, in that it leaves the reader wondering whether or not Morgaine might successfully divert Lancelot from his destined course.

The actors are generally impressive: Angelica Huston isn't given much to do with her Vivian, but Julianna Margulies delivers a fine sympathetic "Morgan LeFay Redux" and Hans Matheson excels as Mordred.  


Saturday, December 20, 2014

WAXWORK (1988), WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME (1992)



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


The two WAXWORKS films by writer-director Anthony Hickox are an anomaly within my Frye-influenced system of categorization-- a weighty sentence that shouldn't take away from how fun these adventure-horror films are, apart from their structural peculiarities.

I've designated most movies that can be easily identified as "horror" as "dramas" because most of the centric characters of these stories parallel the process of *pathos* that Frye finds characteristic of the dramatic work, as opposed to his other three literary *mythoi.*  Whether that centric character is an obsessed mad scientist or a giant radioactive lizard, these type of stories parallel the structure of the literary drama, in that this story principally deals with the destruction, or at least the near-destruction of some great individual. On occasion there have been film-narratives in which the focus is upon not the pathetic monster but upon the hero who battles the monster, and this frequently shifts the balance of the conflict from the domain of drama to that of adventure. Examples of this shift would include both the teleseries BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and the three-film series that began with the 1999 MUMMY.  However, there have been a few times that a quasi-horror film keeps its narrative emphasis on its monster rather than upon the hero (or demihero), and yet still communicates the invigorating thrill of the adventure-mythos. As example, I noted that the first two films in the PROJECT SHADOWCHASER film-series emphasized this thrill, even though the third film in the series followed the dramatic mold of the ALIEN films.

The two WAXWORKS films are similar to the initial two SHADOWCHASER films, though with another exception. The latter two films oppose an android monster with two doughty heroes.  In contrast, the various monster-mash entities of the WAXWORK films-- whom I'll call "Cartagrans"-- are opposed by two demiheroes, Mark and Sarah. These two characters are admirably resourceful in opposing the monsters, so much so that the WAXWORKS films do carry the thrill of the adventure-narrative-- yet the narrative's emphasis is still on the monsters, not on the heroes.

WAXWORK begins like many slasher-films of the period, with the interactions of a bunch of high-school teens-- Mark and Sarah among them-- looking for kicks. Sarah and a girlfriend encounter Lincoln (David Warner), a strange British fellow who's opening a waxworks in their suburban neighborhood. Neither of them seems to think that the suburbs are a strange place for such a display, but the girls agree to come to the show's advance opening that night. 

Unbeknownst to the teens, Lincoln-- a sorcerer many decades older than he looks-- has constructed the waxworks as a series of sacrificial traps.  Following principles that are supposedly derived from Haitian voodoo, each waxwork statue is capable of pulling a victim into a extradimensional world. There the statue becomes alive and kills the victim. If Lincoln can muster enough victims for his devilish display, he'll unleash a demonic apocalypse.  Teens die in various horrible ways-- victims of a werewolf, a mummy, and a vampire. Despite the fact that these beings sound like refugees from the late night movie, Hickox's script states that all of these re-creations were once real people figures, for Lincoln has collected tokens from the original figures in order to revive his wax-demons. Most of them are not really historical, like the werewolf, but the list of nasties does include such genuine entities as Vlad Tepes and the Marquis de Sade.

Most of the teens die as cannon-fodder, but Mark and Sarah escape. Their attempts to figure things out lead them to a Van Helsing-type scholar, Sir Wilfred (Patrick MacNee). Wilfred informs Mark that his own grandfather gathered some of the tokens. Further, Lincoln killed Mark's grandfather in order to use the tokens for evil. The big climax involves Wilfred and his allies helping Mark and Sarah storm the waxworks in a big, lusty battle-scene.

The story is longer on action than psychology, but Hickox does come up with one atypical trope. Sarah, like a lot of female leads in 1980s horror flicks, is hesitant to come across with her boyfriend. However, late in the film she falls into one of the waxwork-scenarios, and becomes an initially willing, entirely masochistic victim to the brutality of the Marquis de Sade. When Mark intrudes on the scene, the Marquis mocks the young man, telling him that his would-be lover achieved her first orgasm beneath a whip. However, Hickox doesn't intend to explore this kink in depth, for Mark is able to talk her out of the sadistic fantasy, and he even gets to duel de Sade to the "death."




Since the evil waxworks is destroyed at the end of the first film, Hickox goes in a different, and somewhat contradictory, direction with WAXWORK II.  Because Sarah is accused of a murder because of one of the wax-demons, the teens must brave certain "time doors" beneath the ruined waxwork.  Though the idea of time-travel implies staying within one's own cosmos, Hickox explains that the doors actually take the youngsters into the dimension of Cartagra, where evil beings assume the appearance of monsters and devise scenarios to lure their victims to destruction-- all as part of something the Ghost of Sir Wilfred calls "God's Nintendo game."

Behind this confusing rationale lies the likelihood that Hickox simply didn't want to bother with the voodoo-token-calls-up-deceased-evildoers schtick. When Mark and Sarah venture into Cartagra, they start meeting all manner of purely fictional villains, from Doctor Frankenstein to Doctor Jekyll to a version of Ridley Scott's Aliens. In other words, Hickox wanted to write a love-letter to the horror-genre by having his protagonists stumble through a number of tongue-in-cheek battles with famous monsters of filmland. After Mark and Sarah work their way through enough scenarios, this film too concludes with a long battle-sequence-- though, as a slight twist, Mark is temporarily left behind in Cartagra, and the film concludes with Sarah seeking a way to rescue him.

I leaped over the circumstances of Sarah's murder accusation because they seem like a rather piecemeal explanation for the character's sudden masochism in the first film. When Mark and Sarah leave the destroyed waxworks, they're followed by one last wax-demon, an animated severed hand. (No idea what historical entity this was supposed to be linked to.) The hand follows Sarah to her house. There Sarah is greeted by her stepfather, who not only doesn't like her staying out so late, he also doesn't like her wearing one of her deceased mother's dresses. When the exhausted teenager gives him some lip, the stepfather comes close to backhanding Sarah-- but restrains himself. Not long afterward, the animated hand kills the stepfather, and Sarah, though unable to rescue him, destroys the hand-- which, unfortunately, leaves her looking like the only viable culprit in the murder. And if this seems like a wonky set-up, even wonkier is the vague solution Mark and Sarah come up with-- to journey into Cartagra and come back with some magical item that will prove their crazy waxworks story. And even wonkier, Sarah succeeds-- though, as I mentioned, she isn't able to bring Mark with her too.

Did Hickox mean to suggest that Sarah, with both birth-parents dead and being saddled with a maybe-abusive stepfather, had formed some sort of masochistic and/or incestuous tendencies? Maybe not, but it can't entirely be coincidence that her last trial in Cartagra involves her merging with the persona of an innocent girl in a medieval Poe-esque setting. This girl is not only destined to marry an older monarch who is not related to her, she's also menaced by her evil sorcerer-brother, who wants to assume the monarch's form, so that he can conquer both a kingdom and a sister.

Ah, kink!-- Thy name was Hickox. 


Friday, December 19, 2014

KUNG FU: SEASON 2, EPISODES 1-3 (1973)



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


KUNG FU's second season commences with one of its strongest dramatic exercises. Caine, sick from having drunk bad water, wanders into a town and is set upon by a bullying deputy and his buddies. Even sick, Caine floors them all, but is on the verge of collapse with a young boy, Daniel, who gives the traveler a ride in his wagon and takes him to his parents' small ranch.

Parents Caleb and Elizabeth are both ex-slaves, implicitly freed by emancipation, but Caleb remains bitter over his experiences and suspicious of any stranger who might bring trouble to his family. Because of his hostility, Caleb has concealed from his neighbors that his property has a hidden well, one that keeps him and his family well-watered at a time when most of the community suffers from a water shortage. Caine is pursued by the irresponsible deputy, but this doesn't develop into a major threat, given that the local sheriff soon becomes aware of his subordinate's shortcomings.  The main focus of the story is upon Caleb's struggle to overcome the ghosts of his past. Since Caleb wears the brand of a slave, he's particularly affronted to learn that Caine branded himself as part of his Shaolin training-- and though the episode doesn't offer any easy solutions, the comparison does allow Caleb some understanding of the relative nature of the humiliation he's suffered.  The conclusion is also cautious not to suggest that the black family should simply throw its bounty open to all its white neighbors, but still finds a way for them to extend charity to those neighbors while protecting themselves.




Though in previous episodes Caine was forced to duel other martial-arts masters, "The Assassin" provides his first martial adversary who qualifies as an uncanny threat. While on the road Caine witnesses the murder of a stagecoach-driver by a masked man clad in black.  He soon learns that the owner of the stage-line, one Jones, has an ongoing feud with Swan, the owner of a trading-post-- a feud based in some past altercation that's never explained. When Caine meets Swan, he also meets his Japanese wife and half-Japanese daughter, both of whom maintain the priorities of their culture with regard to female deference to the male head of the family.  Daughter Akiko is slightly rebellious, and though a local white boy shows a yen for her, she tries to talk Caine into marrying her and taking her away from the ongoing conflict. The scenes between Akiko and Carradine's Caine are handled with sensitivity, for while Caine respects her immensely, he doesn't have any romantic feelings for the young woman, and must discourage her as gently as possible. Meanwhile, Caine soon ferrets out that the killer is a Japanese ninja, imported by Swan to compensate for Jones' own hired henchmen. Caine senses that the only way to defuse the conflict is to provide a scapegoat-figure by bringing in the hired killer, which results in a very cool battle between the bare-handed Shaolin priest and the weapon-wielding ninja.





"The Chalice" is a more involved meditation on the problems of becoming owned by one's possessions. By his training, Caine exists with only the most rudimentary of possessions, and seeks not to become attached to any objects.  He happens upon a robbery, four bandits stealing a golden chalice from Father Benito, a Mexican priest who lives in the nearby monastery of San Blas. Benito is fatally wounded, but as he dies he reveals to Caine that the reason he held the chalice with him was because he had formed a lustful attachment for the vessel. Benito himself crafted the chalice to be displayed in the church's tabernacle, but he conceived a desire to own the chalice himself, rather than letting the church keep it. He fears being doomed to hell for his sin-- a concept hard for Caine to understand-- but still he enjoins the Taoist priest to recover the chalice, to make indirect restitution for the Christian priest's sins. Caine remembers his own past indebtedness to other priests-- not only the Taoists who raised him, but a Christian missionary who helped Caine escape China-- and so of course he agrees.

The four bandits prove to be lesser opponents, even though they've stolen a gatling gun from Caine's main opponent, Captain Luther Staggers. Staggers is apparently an ex-cavalry officer who deals in weapons, and he's not too happy when Caine, in the midst of recovering the chalice and defeating the thieves, also wrecks the gatling gun. In an inversion of Benito's selfless desire for restitution, Staggers wants Caine to yield the chalice as compensation for the ruined weapon. Caine refuses, and this leads to a climactic battle.  Since the show's producers obviously wanted to come up with ways to challenge Caine without resorting to martial-arts foemen, here the script has Staggers-- played by the huge actor William Smith-- devise a heavy chain-weapon, which he tries to use to smash open Caine's head. But the story's moral meditations are the main attraction. Even Caine, as we learn from a flashback, has had experiences in which he became enthralled by a particular possession. Thus when he exculpates Benito's sin of possessiveness, in a sense he does so for himself as well.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

GOLD OF THE AMAZON WOMEN (1979)




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


Most of my entries with the trope "exotic lands and customs" stem from the era of Classic Hollywood, the period which probably enjoyed the greatest number of "exotica" films. Still, the 1979 film GOLD OF THE AMAZON WOMEN is interesting for its use of the same tropes in a much later context. Unfortunately, nothing but the time in which this telefilm was produced proves interesting.

Bo Svenson plays a character with a roughly sound-alike name, Tom Jenson, who gets roped into a search for the Seven Cities of El Dorado, somewhere in South America. He goes down with a couple of allies, one of whom is killed early in the adventure. Unbeknownst to Jenson, he's also pursued by a rogue treasure-hunter, played by Donald Pleasance.  In looking for El Dorado, Jenson and his buddy meet a tribe of matriarchal Amazons, who keep their men in sexual thrall and are ruled by the middle-aged Na-Eela (Anita Ekberg).

I'd like to say that GOLD is a enjoyable cheesefest like WILD WOMEN, willing to have some fun with the notion of a matriarchy that demotes men to second-class citizens. However, the script for GOLD merely hits all the expected notes. Jenson, upon arriving in the Amazon village, has not one but two cutie-pie warriors fighting over him. Pleasance's goons attack, forcing the Amazons to join forces with Jenson and his surviving buddy. Over time the Amazons come to have a slightly more enlightened view of men, though it's not clear what caused their society to turn matriarchal in the first place.

The film is uncanny not only with regard to the Amazons, but also an illusion used by another tribe to defend El Dorado: an illusion in which a tribesman appears to have not just his head, but his whole body shrunken down to doll-size.

All in all, GOLD is a pleasant time-waster, but nothing beyond that.




Tuesday, December 9, 2014

SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949)



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


In contrast to 1953's SALOME. the scripters for Cecil B. DeMille's SAMSON AND DELILAH had a wealth of Biblical material to work with, for the Samson material in Judges is replete with all the spectacular incidents a Hollywood moviemaker could ever want. However, unlike many of the narratives in the Bible, that of Samson and Delilah is infused with the wild illogicality of myth and folklore.  Not surprisingly, DeMille did not attempt to depict some of the more eyebrow-raising deeds of Samson, like tying torches to the tails of three hundred foxes in order to set fire to Philistine crops.

Male heroes in American-made religious epics tend to be depicted as either righteous men from beginning to end, or men who stray from righteousness but end by re-affirming the Judeo-Christian ethos. The script for SAMSON intends to portray its hero (Victor Mature) in this manner: an early scene has Samson's mother chastising the hero for wenching, roistering, and being too friendly with the Philistines who hold dominion over the Jewish tribe of Dan, Samson's own people. The mother urges the hero to settle down and marry Miriam, a nice Danite girl. His response is to chase after Philistine girl Semadar (Angela Lansbury).

Semadar is the name the script gives to the unnamed Biblical wife of Samson, but the script also throws in a few interesting myth-allusions. Semadar is first seen wearing Philistine armor and hurling a spear at a picture of a lion, preparing herself for an anticipated lion-hunt. Her father compares her to the Greek goddess Dictynna, an analogue of the "mistress of animals" Artemis. Perhaps the scriptwriters wished to make Semadar as different as possible from her younger sister Delilah (Hedy Lamarr), who has more in common with Aphrodite, and with feminine arts of persuasion rather than masculine arts of force. When Samson comes calling for Semadar, Delilah hangs around, clearly planning to steal the Danite muscleman from her sister.

I'll pass quickly over some of the "high intrigues" of the story-- how Samson's suit interferes with a Philistine general's desire for Semadar, how the Danite hero's famous bare-handed slaying of a lion impresses the Philistine king, the Saran (George Sanders). In short, the film takes the "bride story" from the Old Testament-- in which the bride's father gives Samson's bride to another man and then tries to convince the Danite to accept an unnamed younger daughter-- and converts the whole plot to the contrivances of Delilah, who wants her sister married to anyone else and herself wed to Samson. Delilah's plan backfires. Delilah convinces Semadar to betray Samson's confidence, bringing about a battle between Samson and his Philistine groomsmen, a battle that results in the deaths of Semadar and her father. In a strong "Scarlet O'Hara" moment, Delilah swears vengeance on Samson, and her words suggest that she experiences some guilt for her own role in causing her family's demise.

After the Philistines fail to capture Samson by force-- yielding the crowd-pleasing scene in which the hero slays dozens of soldiers with "the jawbone of an ass"-- Delilah offers her services to  Saran's court. One courtier asks her if she plans to drive a stake through his head, as Jael did to Sisera (another nice mythic touch), but Delilah promises to conquer her enemy not through the "force of arms" but "the softness of arms."

I need not go into a lot of detail about the familiar conclusion, except to point out that Delilah regrets her betrayal of Samson to the Philistines, and allows herself to perish when the blind hero pulls down the pillars of Dagon's temple. One of the effects of Delilah's self-sacrifice, though, is that it works against the film's supposed theme, in which Judeo-Christian modesty is extolled over pagan glamor. The effect of Delilah choosing to join Samson in death, though, is just one of many scenes that impart a heroic, almost Hellenic glory to Delilah, as much as to her strongman lover.

Moreover, even though SAMSON AND DELILAH is plagued with dozens of unintentionally risible dialogue-lines-- often rendered funny simply because they're uttered with midwestern accents-- DeMille's scripters succeed in filling the movie a catalogue with so many sadistic, masochistic, and penis-envy references as to warm the cockles of any Freudian heart. I'm tempted to generalize that while most American Bible-films are all about Freud's "reality principle"-- i.e. learning to respect life and live within limits-- SAMSON AND DELILIAH is more about Freud's so-called "pleasure principle," in which the joy of transgression, of polymorphous sexuality, is the main attraction.

The scripters also show some realization that certain motifs from the original narrative aren't logical in the light of later Christian rationalization.  When Samson does reveal his secret to the temptress, she doesn't believe it: "Do you really believe that this great god of yours gave you power through your hair?" When she clips him of his locks, what she's really doing is shearing away his confidence in God's gift. Thus the film, not wanting to imply that the God of the Fathers would mess about with folkloric gimmicks, strongly implies that Samson never really loses his strength; he merely *believes* that he has. Thus, when he regains his strength, it's not because the blinded hero's hair has time to grow back during his final captivity, as in the Bible narrative.

Yet, for what reason does Samson's strength return? It doesn't come back because Samson re-commits to the Lord of Hosts.  Samson first realizes that his strength is back when Delilah approaches him in his confinement. Full of hatred, he grabs her and lifts her over his head, intending to kill her. However, in so doing breaks his chains-- which leads him to realize that he can spring one last surprise on his enemies-- as long as Delilah doesn't betray him again. And so we see that in this particular Gospel According to DeMille, that a man's strength can not only be drained by sexual love, it can also be restored by the passion of a lusty hatred.  And that may be one reason why, for all its faults, SAMSON AND DELILAH is a helluva lot more fun to watch than most religious epics of this time-period.



SALOME (1953)



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


Critics long before me have observed the curious two-sidedness of Hollywood religious epics. Thematically, whether they adapted stories from the Bible or latter-day fictional works like THE SILVER CHALICE, the films advocated Christian values such as modesty (i.e., no sex) and forbearance (i.e., no violence). But most of the epics sold themselves to the masses on spectacles of sex and violence, usually displaced to evildoers like Romans, Philistines, and the like. Additionally, the Biblical films often had to expand minimally described selections from scripture in order to give them dramatic unity-- and some did it much better than others.

The 1953 SALOME, directed by longtime spectacle-director William Dieterle, had to bring together a coherent story out of Matthew and Mark, contemporary historians like Josephus, and Oscar Wilde's famed stage-play SALOME, which is said to have invented the name for Salome's dance, "the Dance of the Seven Veils." But whereas Wilde used his version of the famed dancing-girl as a meditation on feminine perversity, the American film labors to make Salome into a model of pious nobility.

From the older works come the central, probably non-historical plotline: that Herodias divorced her former husband and married his brother, Herod Antipas, ruler of the Jews albeit under the authority of the Roman occupation. Since Jewish law did not recognize this re-marriage, John the Baptist condemned Herodias and Herod as adulterers. In the Bible, the queen's unnamed daughter, who talks Herod into executing the Baptist, does so at her mother's behest and has no animus against the prophet.

In the film, Salome (Rita Hayworth) spends most of her youth in Rome, where Herodias may have sent her to keep her away from her lustful stepfather. When she attempts to marry a Roman citizen, she's sent back to Herod's court in Galilee. On her way there she forms a relationship with one of the Romans escorting her, Claudius (Stewart Granger), who is secretly a Christian who knows and respects John the Baptist. In Galilee Salome does get scoped out by her uncle/stepfather Herod (Charles Laughton), while Herodias (Judith Andersen) complains to her daughter that the Baptist is turning the populace against her with his condemnations.

Salome, though she is the star of the show, is oddly defined by other people. To Claudius, she is his potential lover and a potential convert. To Herod, she is an object of seduction. To Herodias, she is a tool to accomplish her ends, which are to silence John the Baptist.  Salome is also easily swayed by others' opinions. She initially sympathizes with her mother, finding John's harsh law "senseless," but after listening to one of the Baptist's public rants, she quickly comes to value the holy Jewish laws, even though she's been raised to have a cosmopolitan Roman outlook. It's somewhat suggested that her love for Claudius, rather than any personal epiphany, causes her conversion.

From this description, it should be evident that most of the film is concerned with the high intrigues of court life, though through Claudius' eyes the audience witnesses Jesus performing one of his miracles, thus slotting this film firmly within the marvelous domain. Strangely, the film's biggest deviation from scripture is that here Salome agrees to dance before Herod not to serve Herodias' end of destroying the Baptist, but with the idea of preserving the prophet's life-- an aim that goes wrong thank to Herodias' meddling. In the end the corrupt rulers are brought low and the glamorous "power couple" of Claudius and Salome are united in Christian bliss.

The film's reading of the period's politics is no more or less simplistic than other religious epics of the time. Still, SALOME's script has to work harder to convince American audiences that Herodias' re-marriage is unremittingly evil, so she and Herod are also portrayed as standard pagan tyrants, albeit not very convincingly.  Laughton's Herod is just another lustful ruler, but Judith Andersen gives Herodias not only intensity, but a degree of psychological complexity: it's not impossible to read her desire to "pimp out" her daughter to please Herod as a mother's resentment of her daughter's youth and beauty. Granger is undistinguished as Claudius. Hayworth's talents were not overly challenged by this pious dancing-girl, though in the same year she showed her acting abilities to much greater effect in MISS SADIE THOMPSON.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966), KING ARTHUR WAS A GENTLEMAN (1942)



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


THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN is very probably the most well-remembered of Don Knotts' short spate of starring films in the 1960s. All of these were essentially big-screen television movies, though these films weren't as solidly aimed at juvenile viewers as Knotts' 1970s flicks. I like CHICKEN as much as the average baby-boomer, but it doesn't reward many repeated viewings.

The plot is one with the many "phantasmal figuration" films of the Classic Hollywood period. Knotts' character Luther Heggs (great name!) is a typesetter in a small Kansas town, but he yearns to graduate to the higher social status of a reporter. Luther, like most Knotts characters, is perpetually nervous and the butt of jokes from the town bullies. He also yearns after local cute-girl Alma, who is being dated by one of Luther's rivals at the newspaper. Luther does make some progress with the girl, but the junior reporter's not overly thrilled when his editor wants him to promote the paper by spending the night at the supposedly haunted Simmons house.

The spooky old house and its faux-horrors, accompanied by the eerie score of Vic Mizzy, come close to stealing the show from Knervous Knelly Knotts, who witnesses all manner of ghostly sights but then can't reproduce them for anyone else. It's surprising that director Alan Rafkin and his scripters do so well with the scary stuff, for all were basically laborers in the fields of episodic television, and none of them have strong metaphenomenal credits. Yet the near-climactic scene, in which Luther, alone and deserted by everyone else, hears the eerie music again and forces himself to brave the forbidding house, is arguably better than many similar scare-sequences in the "old dark house" movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Knotts' jittery routine does get a little tiring at times; personally, I think his most well-rounded movie performance was in 1968's SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, also directed by Rafkin. The explanation of the "ghosts" via gimmicks-- in particular an organ in the old house that can play automatically-- is given a mild send-up. At the film's conclusion, when Luther and Alma are being married, the organ in the church-- which one would not expect to be "gimmicked-up" begins to play as if by invisible hands, and continues to do so through the remainder of the credits.  This, however, is not an intrusion of a short-lived marvel, as I've written about here; rather, it's simply a "fallacious figment," which is not meant to be taken seriously within the film's diegesis.




The British wartime comedy KING ARTHUR WAS A GENTLEMAN pretty much deserves its obscurity. A winsomely-named wimp named "Arthur King" enlists in the army and proves himself a screwup of the well-meaning kind. The only thing that keeps ARTHUR from being a routine service comedy, filled with far too many forgettable musical numbers, is a gag that Arthur's barracks-mates play on him-- a naturalistic "phantasmal figuration," as it were. The other soldiers find a rusty old sword in the trash, and, knowing that Arthur treasures various fantasies about the archaic King Arthur (whom he deems to have been "a gentleman"), they convince the bumbler that the sword is the real Excalibur.

The real joke is on them, though. While the sword evinces no magical powers, Arthur becomes more formidable on the battlefield while holding it, and even captures a squad of Germans while wielding the blade. This is the film's one interesting sociological theme: portraying a blundering goof as being able to tap into the moxie of King Arthur, particularly at a time when enlisted Englishmen were facing the realities of World War II.

Since the hoax about the sword is naturalistic, and only works because of Arthur's belief in it, it's likely that it's never been listed in any fantasy-film concordance. However, it does have another "fallacious figment" that comes a little closer to the world of the marvelous. After Arthur is informed of the hoax, he tosses the sword into the nearest body of water-- whereupon a feminine hand, implicitly that of "the Lady of the Lake," reaches up from the waters and pulls the sword back down into her domain.

Monday, December 1, 2014

POPEYE (1980)



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


In my review of LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER, I said:

... though Hollywood expressed interest in a lot of franchises-- including, incredibly enough, PLASTIC MAN-- the possibility of more big-time movies of this type was killed for a time by three major flops: FLASH GORDON and POPEYE in 1980, and LONE RANGER in 1981.

I had always heard that all three of these films flopped at the box office. Upon belatedly checking Wikipedia, though, I found it asserted that both FLASH GORDON and POPEYE made decent if not exceptional profits, in contrast to the RANGER's unquestionable failure. I might still assert that the less-than-blockbuster box office of the first two films may have some effect on the way most adaptations of the next eight years-- that is, all those prior to 1989's BATMAN-- remained generally mediocre, as seen by such winners as 1982's SWAMP THING, 1984's SUPERGIRL and SHEENA, 1986's HOWARD THE DUCK and 1987's MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.

Anyway, POPEYE was not a flop in 1980. I remember mildly enjoying it, though I noticed a lot of problems in pacing and a lot of mediocre music. Like most reviewers, I found that Shelley Duval and Olive Oyl proved a perfect match, while Robin Williams and Popeye were only fair by comparison.
Director Robert Altman and scripter Jules Feiffer certainly understood the quirky humor of the original Elzie Segar comic strip, and they translated several regular strip-characters-- Rough House,
Geezil-- who had never been adapted to film before.  Altman, no small talent with quirky characters himself, chose to set the entire shebang in "Sweethaven," a ramshackle East Coast fishing-village, convincing his backers to let him build an entire town on the island of Malta.  This enabled Altman to put said backers at a distance, creating his own little Popeye-world.

The film's greatest down side was that of action. The filmmakers were obviously aware that they had to provide some adventurous stunts, since the audience's strongest associations with the one-eyed sailor was their familiarity with the hyper-violent Fleischer Brothers cartoon.  In those pre-CGI days, it was clearly impossible to create the illusions POPEYE sought to create-- the sailor-man twisting his own arm around and around to deliver a "twister punch," or his body being turned into a rolling wheel by the force of Bluto's blow. Yet I forgave the obvious limitations of the period then, and I still found the phony effects somewhat charming today.

However, there's one thing that the Segar strip and the Fleischer Brothers had in common that Altman and Feiffer did not see fit to emulate: the free-wheeling sense of adventure. The animated cartoon frequently had Popeye venturing to strange climes to fight Sinbad the Sailor or Aladdin's Lamp, and while Segar's strip focused somewhat more on domestic comedy, the artist also pitted the sailor-man against exotic menaces like the Sea Hag and his mindless Goons.

The Altman-Feiffer Popeye, however, is largely rooted in a naturalistic universe. Sweethaven is patterned on dozens of Old West towns dominated by moneyed tyrants: the opening song-- one of Harry Nilson's few strong contributions-- mentions that the denizens of Sweethaven are "safe from democracy." Here the tyrants are Captain Bluto-- who is engaged to marry Olive Oyl, much against her will-- and the mysterious, never-seen Commodore. To this enslaved community comes Popeye, the marine version of the lone cowboy-hero, right down to the fear he invokes in the sheep-like inhabitants of the town.  However, there's one big difference between Popeye and the classic cowboy: the sailor-man has daddy issues. He's come to Sweethaven in response to a "visikayshkon" that tells him to look for his lost father there. On his first day he even finds a corncob pipe, though he doesn't connect it to his quest.

It's no great reveal to state that the mystery of Popeye's father and that of the Commodore are one and the same. I won't dwell on this because I find it one of scripter Feiffer's weakest plot-threads, and even though POPEYE is full of lots of mugging actors, Ray Walston as "Poopdeck Pappy" is one of the muggiest.  Considerably better is the introduction of the "infink" Swee'pea, who brings Popeye and Olive closer together, though I didn't care for Feiffer's introduction of a subplot which gives Swee'pea psychic powers. This proves to be nothing but a plot-device that serves two purposes: to provoke a quarrel between Olive and Popeye, and to give Bluto the idea of using the baby to find the Commodore's hidden treasure.

The latter development is a half-baked attempt to provide the film with a bang-up finish; instead, it's one of Altman's worst-paced sequences. Altman is obviously comfortable with the domestic comedy of Segar's strip, and his main strategy for livening things up is to throw in bits of slapstick wackiness. I suspect Altman, given his stated antipathy for the "storytelling" aspects of mainstream films, would not have been comfortable with a more "adventurous" Popeye, even one leavened by a lot of humor. But in focusing on dozens upon dozens of "bits of business" throughout the film, Altman and Feiffer don't deliver much payoff to Popeye's quest for his lost daddy.

I note in passing that though many of Williams' muttered Popeye-asides don't work very well, he does this aspect of Popeye quite well-- though one of the best was reworded. I seem to remember hearing the first release of POPEYE utilize the salty expression "I wonder who stuck a feather you know where," as referenced in this Amazon review-- but the dialogue on the current DVD definitely does not use that phrasing.

The only marvelous element of the film, aside from Swee'pea's psychic power, is the super-strengthening effect of spinach on Popeye. As in the cartoons, Popeye is sometimes seen performing feats of phenomenal strength even without spinach, but there's no explanation for these, aside from the Roger Rabbit explanation: "he can do it because it's funny." Feiffer's best conceit is that Popeye has hated spinach since he was a tyke being raised by Poopdeck Pappy, but the history of the sailor and his pappy is so muddled that it doesn't have any psychological resonance.  Still, the irony of the end-fight, in which Bluto force-feeds Popeye spinach precisely because the sailor doesn't like it, is a fair twist on the now predictable image of Popeye reaching for his spinach-can.

In conclusion, POPEYE is very much a mixed bag. I didn't find that not having viewed in for many years made any difference in my opinion of it. What I had liked or disliked in 1980, I still liked or disliked. Given the period in which the film was produced, it's lucky that it's as good as it is.

ADDENDA: I've been reliably informed that the character Geezil did make some brief appearances in three POPEYE cartoons of the Classic Hollywood years, most notably A CLEAN SHAVEN MAN.  I'm going to guess, though, that the Altman movie does seem to be the first time Geezil gets to do his main Segar schtick , in which he heaps epithets on Wimpy for either swindling him, mooching off him, or some combinations thereof.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER (1981)



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


Whenever I've mentioned THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER in conversation, it's usually been to allude to its role in arguably killing off a spate of "comic book movies" that might have come arisen in the wake of the box-office successes of STAR WARS, SUPERMAN, and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Hollywood obviously sensed the public's possible enthusiasm for properties that either derived from comic books or had "comic-bookish" reputations. However, though Hollywood expressed interest in a lot of franchises-- including, incredibly enough, PLASTIC MAN-- the possibility of more big-time movies of this type was killed for a time by three major flops: FLASH GORDON and POPEYE in 1980, and LONE RANGER in 1981.

Seeing this iteration of the Lone Ranger today, in the wake of the lively but hollow LONE RANGER of 2014, the 1981 film doesn't seem so bad. Its worst sin is the opposite of Verbinski's flick: where the 2014 Ranger is overblown, the 1981 Ranger-- boasting five talents working on the screenplay-- is simply pedestrian. Interestingly, the later film probably borrows more of its basic elements from the 1981 film, particularly in respect to a Lone Ranger who begins as a bit of a dude, and whose brother is more at home in the Old West than he is.

To avoid some of the negative associations of the most famous Ranger-Tonto origin-- where Tonto virtually gives up his life to become the white hero's sidekick-- young Tonto and young John Reid become bonded in childhood, when the Indian boy takes the white boy into his camp following the death of John's parents. John stays with Tonto's tribe long enough to make clear that the Ranger will be a liminal figure, straddling the cultures of "White" and "Red." Then John returns to the white man's world and becomes a lawyer.  He returns to the Old West to join his brother, already a Texas Ranger, and this leads to the "slaughter of the innocents" of which Reid, the solitary survivor, will dedicate himself to justice.  This time, however, Tonto is somewhat more proactive. It's his advice to the bereaved lawyer-- telling him about the good effects of silver-tipped arrows-- that leads the future Ranger to come up with his famous "silver bullet" icon.

Directed by former cinematographer William A. Fraker, RANGER usually has a fine visual look, with some strong action-sequences. However, Fraker and his writers seem to be just ticking off each point of the famous "legend" in desultory fashion.  Even the script's new developments don't help. The Ranger's foe Butch Cavendish is no longer a penny-ante outlaw: he's a Darth Vader of the Old West, planning a grand conspiracy to kidnap President Grant and force the government to give Cavendish title to a huge parcel of land.  This idea of crippling the nascent United States by dividing it up-- not via secession but for a supervillain's ego-- is very much in tune with the seminal "Ranger" scripts of radio and television, where the hero is always out to protect the unity of the future America. But the script is so uninspired, that Cavendish's scheme comes off as unimpressive and untenable rather than grandiose.

And finally, even without the bad publicity that arose when the owners of the Ranger franchise filed a "cease and desist" court order against Clayton Moore-- the film probably would have failed due to the lack of charisma of both of its leads, Klinton "voice-dubbed-in" Spilsbury and Michael Horse. Other supporting actors do themselves well, particularly Juanin Clay as Reid's love interest, but without strong performances in the lead roles, the film was doomed from the start.

I do give the film a "fair" rating in the mythicity category simply for attempting to formulate a new version of the Ranger mythos that placed more value on Native American traditions.



Monday, November 24, 2014

THE MASK OF DIIJON (1946), WHIRLPOOL (1949)



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


THE MASK OF DIIJON, directed by metaphenomenal veteran Lew Landers, is one of those films, like THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, that isn't precisely within the expected format of the horror-film. Yet DIIJON is definitely an uncanny film, given that it focuses upon the downfall of a master hypnotist who learns that he has gained the power to mesmerize people in ordinary life, not just on stage.

It's also patently a vehicle for lead actor Erich Von Stroheim, often billed as "the Man You Love to Hate." As an actor Von Stroheim plays along with this conceit. although Diijon is married, neither the actor's performance nor the script gives any indication as to why his wife Victoria ever loved him. Diijon is a magician with a ghoulish act involving the illusion of a living victim being killed beneath a guillotine's blade, but there's no hint that he has any passion for performing. His only passion seems to be to sit around reading books that teach him how to open the deep powers of his mind. Diijon only returns to the stage for pecuniary reasons, but in so doing, he comes to believe  that Victoria is secretly meeting with her ex-boyfriend Tony. His delving into secrets of the mind unleashes in him formidable hypnotic powers, which he then uses to seek revenge on his wife and her supposed lover. Naturally, things go wrong for the effete villain, leaving Victoria clear to hook up with the young, well-scrubbed Tony.

Von Stroheim is really the only element of the film worth watching, but there's not much he can do to juice up this by-the-numbers hokum.




WHIRLPOOL is obviously an "A" production, boasting Otto Preminger as director and name-stars like Gene Tierney, Jose Ferrer and Richard Conte in the cast. Yet this film also shows very little insight in the handling of its psychological subject matter, coming off a bit like "road company Hitchcock."

Ann Sutton (Tierney) is a woman who seemingly has it all, being married to a well-off psychoanalyst (Conte). Yet one day she starts shoplifting, and is caught. Only the unexpected aid of a stranger named Korvo (Ferrer) saves her from prosecution.

Though the script was based on a Guy Endore novel and was adapted by acclaimed writers Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, it never gives the audience a credible reason for Ann's psychological quirk. Its best shot at so doing is a knee-jerk Freudianism, asserting first that Ann married her husband William as a father-substitute when Ann's father died, and then that, for some reason, this led her to start stealing things.

Korvo is the most interesting character here. He's a smooth con-man who doesn't want to work for his daily bread, rather like the psychotic villain from the 1990 thriller PACIFIC HEIGHTS. To this end he has mastered the talent of hypnotism, and he uses it to control Ann's actions so that she becomes his patsy in a murder.  Most interestingly, Korvo even uses self-hypnosis in order to give himself an alibi for the killing.

WHIRLPOOL is a diverting enough melodrama despite its simplistic characters, but for me its main interest is that its hypnotic mastermind is about as "naturalistic" as a villain of this type can get. Whereas both WHIRLPOOL and DIIJON take place in contemporary environments, DIIJON creates a world where Von Stroheim's weird talents are a source of strangeness, propelling the film into the domain of the uncanny. But WHIRLPOOL never represents hypnotism as anything but a mundane talent, and so Korvo remains an entirely naturalistic character.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

GAMERA GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995), ADVENT OF LEGION (1996), AWAKENING OF IRYS (1999)



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

With the exception of 2006's GAMERA THE BRAVE-- which I didn't like and don't plan to re-screen any time soon-- these three 1990s films, directed and co-written by Shuseke Kaneko, were the final hurrah for the turtle-monster.

The first time that I screened 1995's GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE, I thought that it was a strong, substantive upgrade of the enjoyably loony series of the 1960s and 1970s. In re-screening these films, I can see that on occasion they had a greater claim to mythopoesis than I used to believe. Still, compared to the original Godzilla films, the mythic material appears in a very hit-and-miss manner. Most of the early films get by purely on the absurdity of a giant turtle who defends children from harm.

Kaneko's series does not forswear the events of the old films, but he erects a more sophisticated science-fiction explanation for them.  Gamera is not just a freak of prehistoric nature mutated by radiation, but a creation of an ancient civilization, one "programmed" to protect the Earth against its enemies. The foremost enemies here are a trio of Gyaos-birds, but humanity has unwittingly conspired in their resurrection through its pollution of the atmosphere.  In addition, humans hurl their military forces against Gamera, despite the protests of Asagi, a psychic Japanese woman who has formed a link with Gamera and knows that his basic instincts are protective. Asagi performs basically the same role in all three films and provides a decided improvement on the old series' concentration of cutesy kids as viewpoint-characters.

The FX are far more impressive than anything in the old Gamera films, and the script is far more logical. Still, I must admit that the first film seemed a little pedestrian this time out, lacking the wild inventiveness of the old flicks. Still, it remains one of the better kaiju films of the period.




GAMERA 2: ADVENT OF LEGION is a serviceable follow-up, but it necessarily lacks the excitement of the first film's conceptual reboot. LEGION begins a year after Gamera's victory over the Gyaos-creatures, and the heroic monster has apparently stayed out of sight, not even emerging from the sea to feed on the odd volcano, much less raiding human refineries.

A new menace arrives from space: a meteor which unleashes not only a brood of killer insects but their own ecosystem, consisting of alien plants that immediately take root in Earth-soil.  After the insects have killed various victims, Gamera emerges from the sea and begins killing the intruders, who are dubbed "Legion" by an observer, because they are many, a la the Biblical quote. The legion-creature's Big Mama appears on the scene and engages Gamera in combat, and in keeping with the usual pattern, she wins the first bout and leaves Gamera seriously wounded.  Queen Legion then leaves, seeking new ground on which to expand her brood.

While humanity plays its usual role, attempting to short-circuit the creatures with technological weapons, Asagi continually tries to reach out to Gamera psychically. She finally succeeds, and Gamera rises to fight again, with the expected results.

As brood-beings go, the various incarnations of Legion are just okay: I found them visually far less arresting than the similar Godzilla-foe Megaguirus, though these monsters appeared four years later. The film's most interesting moment appears at the coda, when one character theorizes that Gamera isn't primarily a defender of humanity: that the hero-monster's main goal is to preserve the Earth-- and that if humans endanger the planet, they may find themselves on the wrong end of Gamera's fire-breath.




As stated before, Gamera's myth always remained secondary to the more impressive aura of Godzilla, and although there have been some Godzilla films that were as bad as the worst Gamera movies, there were never any Gamera films equal to the best of the second-tier Godzillas (the original GOJIRA occupying its own primary tier).

GAMERA 3: AWAKENING OF IRYS is the happy exception, for IRYS is as good as the best second-tier Godzillas.  Just as a few Godzilla-films have dealt with viewpoint-characters obsessed with terminating the big lizard, IRYS introduces Ayane, the first human who lusts to see the big turtle brought low. During one of Gamera's battles with Gyaos, the young girl and her family were trying to evacuate their house before the combatants came too near.  This flashback sequence is seen in chaotic fashion, capturing the terror of Gamera's presence even when he has been given a sympathetic nature.  Gamera accidentally crushes the house and kills Ayane's parents.

Years later Ayane happens upon the egg of a Gyaos-- though apparently a mutant offspring-- beneath her village's temple.  Despite the fears of her schoolmates, Ayane psychically bonds with the creature, just as Asagi did with Gamera.  When the creature is a helpless, somewhat bird-like fledgling, Ayane names it "Irys," after her pet cat, also lost in the cataclysm that took her parents. The creature matures quickly and begins bonding with Ayane physically as well as psychically.

Gamera makes his usual appearance and gives battle to the now gigantic Irys. However, all the intense delving into psychic matters causes Ayane to unlock her buried memories. Belatedly, she realizes that she helped cause her parents' death, delaying them by looking for her cat. This is one of the more emotionally intense scenes seen in a giant monster film, particularly when one realizes that she has named the monster "Irys" not for her conscious reasons-- he reminds her of her desire for vengeance-- but because the name of the cat reminds her of her subconscious guilt.

Gamera proves unusually forgiving for a giant monster: he reaches his paw into the monster's chest and liberates Ayane, which is the beginning of the end for Irys.  The final battle is again an above-average display of FX, but this time they serve as a counterpoint to Ayane's emotional turmoil.

Kaneko ends the series on an ambiguous note, and one might wish that this high point had been the final battle for the Big Bad Turtle.





Tuesday, November 11, 2014

GAMERA VS. JIGER (1970), GAMERA VS. ZIGRA (1971), GAMERA SUPER MONSTER (1980)


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


Gamera once more seesaws downward in quality with GAMERA VS. JIGER. Like 1966's Barugon the great turtle's opponent is a quadruped, and in fairness Jiger is a little better designed than the lizard-critter.  However, though Jiger-- a rare female monster-- packs some odd weapons in her biological arsenal, this is a case where the parts do not add up to more than the whole.

One of the film's bland protagonists seems to encourage a return to the folkloric content of the early films, for this character, apparently an anthropologist, advocates learning from the cultures of the past. However, there's no depth to this sentiment: it's only a justification for a crucial plot-point. The 1970 World's Fair is being held in Osaka, so the anthropologist journeys to "Wester Island" to obtain a mysterious stone statue, intending to exhibit it at the Expo. Even though this is referenced as being somewhere in the Pacific, a representative from the island-- portrayed by what looks like a Black African in a daishiki-- objects to the statue's removal, shouting that it will bring down something called "Jiger" on all of them. 

That character never appears again, but Gamera shows up on Wester Island and tries to block the Japanese crew from removing the statue. The adults fire their guns at Gamera, who isn't harmed but withdraws to avoid a fight. Two precocious kids immediately know that Gamera had sensed some danger in the statue's removal, but could not communicate said danger.

As it turns out, the statue-- called "the Devil's Whistle"-- was erected to keep a fearsome monster confined beneath the earth, by virtue of the whistling sound the statue could make when the wind blows through it. Once the statue is gone, the baleful Jiger comes forth. Gamera attacks the evil beast but Jiger wins the first round, temporarily immobilizing the chelonian.

Because the statue continues to make its annoying sounds in transit to Japan, Jiger swims to Japan, intent on destroying her nemesis. Gamera follows and again gets trounced, this time because Jiger manages to inject Gamera with its own eggs-- sort of a wasp-and-spider parasitic relationship.  Gamera suffers greatly until the two kids journey into Gamera's gullet, find the implanted egg, and destroy it.  This is the film's only noteworthy sequence, only for the curiosity value of seeing the big monster saved by two of his little acolytes.  However, the concluding battle between Gamera and the mom-monster is poorly choreographed, ending rather sappily when Gamera stabs Jiger through the head with the length of the statue.



GAMERA VS. ZIGRA-- technically the last in the original series--benefits from a better looking bad monster, the shark-like Zigra, making his debut four years before Spielberg's JAWS became the defining cinematic image of the killer shark.  The film recapitulates elements of earlier films: again a spaceship comes to Earth seeking conquest, as in VIRAS, but in addition Zigra want to reverse the food-chain by feeding on human beings, as seen in GUIRON.  Whereas two inhabitants of GUIRON's evil alien-world Tera survived some planetary catastrophe, here Zigra seems to be the only one aboard the ship, aside from a Japanese woman. She's later revealed to be not a Zigran but an Earth-woman abducted by Zigra and forced to serve him.  

The kids, being held captive along with some adults on Zigra's ship, call upon their hero Gamera, and the turtle-creature obediently shows up to attack the spacecraft.  Zigra, originally not much bigger than a regular shark, emerges from the ship, instantly grows king-size, and paralyzes Gamera with a ray-attack.  Slightly later Zigra-- one of the genre's few talking monsters-- meditates that he's changed because of the different "pressure" in earth's oceans, as opposed to those on his destroyed native planet.  He initially tells his human slave that he doesn't want to kill all the humans, since he plans to use them as a food-resource, but he evidently changes his mind and starts creating havoc.

Since the paralyzed Gamera is sunk beneath the sea, the adult protagonists employ a bathyscaph in order to attempt awakening the beneficent monster, and their kids sneak along for the ride. Zigra sees them and threatens to destroy the humans. Fortunately for them, a bolt of lightning revives Gamera and the turtle returns to the fray. Happily, the big concluding battle is much better staged than the Jiger fight. Zigra's sword-like nose gets in a few cuts on Gamera's shell, but in the end Gamera not only defeats Zigra, he humiliates him by playing a tune on the shark-monster's back, as if his dorsal fins were a big xylophone. This may be the best single fight-image in the series, making the actual destruction of Zigra a little anti-climactic.




There's not much to say about the studio's lame attempt to give Gamera another shot at stardom nine years later. It's the cinematic equivalent of a television "clip show," since almost all of Gamera's scenes are borrowed from earlier films. The framing-device here is that aliens called the Zanon-- never seen, except for a ship that looks like a swipe from STAR WARS-- are conjuring up these monsters to attack Earth and reduce its defenses before the Zanon ship arrives to destroy them. 

Young Keichi knows nothing of this, but he idolizes Gamera-- who is, however, only a character in comic books. But he accidentally stumbles across a trio of "space women," who have taken refuge on Earth after Zanon destroyed their world. Somehow the Zanons know that the space women are there, for they send a human-looking agent, Girugi, to find them as well as paving the way for the monsters' acts of destruction.  Whenever the space women transform from ordinary women to ladies in superhero costumes, the Zanons can target them from afar with destructive rays. But they find a way to strike back by creating Gamera from an ordinary turtle, and setting him against Zanon's creatures.

The space-women sequences in themselves aren't that bad for juvenile entertainment: the three women have a good rapport with Keicihi, who seems to have been the only Gamera-kid with real acting talent.  Girugi finally throws down with the leader of the space women, but after she's spared, Girugi redeems herself for 
her evil acts. At last Gamera charges the massive spaceship, and sacrifices his life to end the Zanon menace.  

Even if a clip-movie was a terrible idea, I must admit that SUPER MONSTER gives the big turtle a better than average fade-out-- at least until his revival in 1995.