Friday, May 30, 2014

THE LOST WORLD (1960)




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




Irwin Allen's 1960 adaptation of Conan Doyle's LOST WORLD-- Allen's second metaphenomenal outing, if one counts his helming of the execrable STORY OF MANKIND-- displays the writer-director's emphasis on flashy-looking, if ultimately cheapjack, special effects and generally banal melodrama. That said, the 1960 LOST WORLD, like the many Allen SF-teleserials that retain some nostalgic resonance, is far from a total loss.


In contrast to the 1925 LOST WORLD, there are no ape-japes in this film.  The Challenger expedition does not meet any subhuman aborigines; only various South American peoples who have emigrated to the prehistoric plateau, though this tribe is alleged to be cannibalistic in nature. Another major contrast with both the source-novel and the 1925 film is that a volcanic explosion is brought in to destroy the Lost World-- apparently for no other reason than for a big splashy climax, somewhat in tune with the destruction of Skull Island in SON OF KONG.


Still, Allen's effort owes much to its predecessors. From the novel, it takes a plot-device not employed in the 1925 film: the expedition is menaced by a guide named Gomez who only joins the group in order to revenge himself on John Roxton. In the novel, Gomez wants to kill Roxton because the huntsman murdered Gomez's brother, a "half-breed" slavemaster. In Allen's film, Roxton is not quite so heroic, having brought about the death of Gomez's brother through negligence. The addition of the "traitor within" plotline proves mildly diverting, which is more than one can say for the romantic angle.


In the 1925 film, the romantic conflict-- in which two men vied over a young woman devotedly seeking her lost father-- was nothing special, but it had a certain tried-and-true predictability to it. Here, the intruding female presence is Jennifer Holmes, the daughter of a rich newspaperman. Though she claims to be able to shoot like a man, she's never seen doing much of anything in the Lost World. Her main motive for joining the group stems from her romantic relationship with "great white hunter" Roxton, as she's hoping to persuade the world-weary adventurer into some permanent alliance.  This is a rather petty reason for her to join the adventure, but to be fair, the script doesn't give anyone-- except Gomez-- a very strong reason to undertake this hazardous adventure.

As in the other versions of LOST WORLD, reporter Ed Malone is still the viewpoint character through whom the audience meets Roxton, Professor Challenger, and assorted other support-characters-- not to mention the dinos of the Lost World. For no particular reason Malone conceives a passion for Jennifer, though for most of the film there's not much evidence that she reciprocates. Roxton and Malone never compete with one another in the novel, and their competition in the silent film is only implicit, but here the two men, aware of their mutual admiration, come to blows over Jennifer. By film's end, Jennifer apparently gets her fill of Roxton's elusiveness and chooses Malone as her beau. Certainly the script, co-written by Allen, gives no other reason for her choice.

With the exception of the elimination of the ape-people, the 1960 film's biggest alteration is bringing another female character into the story. She belongs to the maybe-cannibal tribe of the plateau, but she's never given a name-- being billed as "the Native Girl." She's captured by the Challenger expedition when they catch her spying on them, but she remains a cipher, never learning to speak even pidgin English, and none of the adventurers are able to speak her native language.  Whereas the rest of the hostile Indians on the plateau are only interested in killing the intruders-- and Challenger does at least admit that his group has intruded on the Indians' culture-- the Native Girl finally becomes an ally, though the Native Girl's decision to side with the strangers over her own people gets no more emphasis than the reasons for Jennifer's romantic alliance.  The eccentric character of Challenger gets a little more attention here than in the version in the 1925 film, but the romantic triangle still gets the lion's share of dramatic attention.

LOST WORLD's dinosaur-FX are not usually highly rated, as most of them are devised by trick-photography of real animals with appliance-modifications. The most I can say for them is that while there's nothing revolutionary here, the prehistoric beasties are a little more interesting than most of the human characters.

One incident in the narrative seems to touches on mythological content. In the first encounter with the Native Girl-- the first human the explorers see on the plateau-- she flees from Malone. Though one wouldn't expect her to run into a section of jungle that presented more peril than her pursuer, she hightails it right into an area of jungle festooned with giant spider-webs-- which have been placed there, predictably, by a giant spider.  That TNG is not friends with the spider is indicated by her fearful reaction to it, though the big arachnid lets her get by pretty easily-- and then blocks Malone, who easily shoots the critter dead. It would have been interesting if there had been some symbolic equivalence between the spider and the feminine "man trap." However, that would be more in the vein of Gene Roddenberry. When Irwin Allen has presented anything that even looks like a myth-symbol, I usually suspect that he only strayed into symbolic waters because h0e didn't know where he was going from the beginning.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

THE LOST WORLD (1925)




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




An exact adaptation of Conan Doyle's 1912 novel THE LOST WORLD would be neither feasible nor desirable. Just to cite two aspects of the novel that no one today would ever touch:


(1) One of the expedition-members, Lord John Roxton, relates a past adventure in which he heroically freed a tribe of South American Indians from slavery; a slavery visited by them entirely by a group of "half-breeds," presumably of Caucasian and Indian parentage. Doyle's attempt to excoriate the exploitation of Native Americans as the responsibility of a group of mixed-race criminals, while allowing the natives to be rescued by a noble English adventurer, is nothing short of staggering.


(2) The heroes of the expedition-- Professor Challenger, Lord Roxton, and reporter Ned Malone-- all take part in an act of virtual genocide. Confronted with a war between two tribes on the "lost world" plateau-- one descended from modern-day Indians, one made up of sadistic ape-men who have survived from the prehistoric era-- Challenger's people wipe out all the male ape-men, convinced that they have simply duplicated the original evolutionary struggle in which higher forms of humanity displaced earlier, more brutish specimens.


The first two film adaptations of LOST WORLD, though, might have done well to emulate one salient aspect of Doyle's novel. Whatever its ideological problems, the original LOST WORLD is a bracing "he-man" adventure whose basic theme is a masculine rite of passage for viewpoint character Malone. He begins as a rather fatuous young man who is willing to undergo a life-threatening adventure in order to impress his flighty girlfriend, but by the novel's conclusion he has seen the error of his ways. In his absence his girlfriend has married another man-- not even a particularly adventurous one-- and he ends the novel by vowing to return with Roxton and Challenger to the Lost World, the "proving-grounds" of manhood.


In Doyle's novel the environment of the Lost World is secondary to the lively characters. In both films, the prehistoric plateau is the "star" of the show. This is quite understandable-- Doyle's novel was the first to posit the survival of an entire *topos* from a long-vanished era-- but in place of playing vivid characters off one another, the two films are content to focus largely on hackneyed romantic conflict.


Women are marginal presences in the Doyle novel. The closest thing to an important feminine presence is Malone's girlfriend, but her fickleness is a joke aimed at the female of the species. Cinema adaptations of such male-focused works, though, almost invariably inject a more central female presence to appeal to women in the viewing audience, and the 1925 LOST WORLD is no exception. Thus Challenger and his male allies seek out the Lost World to locate an earlier explorer-- one of marginal importance in the novel-- because his daughter Paula wants to see her beloved papa again. At the same time, two of the male adventurers-- the somewhat older Roxton (Lewis Stone) and the age-appropriate Malone (Lloyd Hughes)-- both become infatuated with Paula during the adventure. Challenger (Wallace Beery), a dominating presence in the book, starts out strong in the film's opening scenes, duplicating a scene from the book in which the older man brawls with Malone before the two become friends. But Challenger and his cranky colleague Summerlee recede in importance once the story proper begins and the romantic triangle develops-- though it, too, pales in comparison to the Lost World.


Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animated dinosaurs are the stars, though in this early era they don't interact much with the human stars and so lose a lot of their appeal-- an appeal realized fully in 1933's KING KONG, for which LOST WORLD has been termed a "dry run."  None of the novel's cosmological reflections on the details about prehistoric life make it into the film, with one exception. Like Doyle's book, the film is fascinated with a prehistoric form of man-- although the film chooses to make do with just one "ape-man" (Bull Montana), rather than a whole tribe.  The ape-man's origins are left to the imagination: is he one member of a tribe that is never seen, or-- like his direct descendant Kong-- is he the last of his kind?  Malone does come face-to-face with a single ape-man in the course of the novel, but none of the subhumans are individuals in the way that the film's brutal cave-creature is. That said, although the ape-man is the first prehistoric entity seen by the film's camera-eye as he stalks the expedition, his motives remain murky. Why does he stalk them? Does he want to eat them, or, more logically, to mate with Paula? Director Harry Hoyt gives the viewer no clue, though oddly, the expedition does include another anthropoid-- a small monkey named Jocko-- who does dote on Paula's feminine charms.  Whether the ape-creature and the monkey represent two forms of the same impulse is left up from grabs.


The most logical possibility is more symbolic than diegetic, relating to the romantic competition. Older suitor Roxton loses Paula to his young rival Malone; in fact, at a point when the members of the expedition believe they won't be able to get off the plateau, Paula and Malone announce that they plan to be married by Professor Summerlee, who "used to be a minister." Roxton does not voice any displeasure. Still, shortly afterward the ape-man makes the second of two attacks-- both on Malone. In the second case, the ape-man threatens to wrench Malone off the rope-ladder he's climbing. In doing this, the ape-man is doing what Roxton might like to do to his rival-- but here, as in an earlier scene, Roxton discourages the subhuman's attack with rifle-fire. I must admit, though, that if Roxton feels any hesitation in saving his rival, neither the script nor the direction shows it.  Once the ape-man dies of the second gunshot, the adventurers are conveniently saved by a South American official who has spotted their campfire-smoke. The officer's aid makes it possible for the expedition to transport a live brontosaurus all the way to London. There it provides a lively climax, breaking loose from its transport-ship and causing havoc in the city-streets before it falls into the River Thames and escapes. The film then ends with Roxton congratulating Paula and Malone on their impending nuptials and wandering away,


Though LOST WORLD is important in setting the stage for many other gigantic, city-smashing critters, its greatest significance is its influence on KING KONG, which remains the signature effort by Willis O'Brien. KONG reproduces, with some alterations, the scene in which the ape-man threatens to kill the suspended Malone. And where LOST WORLD foregrounds the romantic conflict of two men over a lissome female, and leaves the motives of an anthropoid intruder vague, in KONG the woman is pursued by a normal, age-appropriate man and an obsessed simian, while the viewer never quite knows if older man Denham also carries a torch for the nubile object of their affections. But as I stated in my review of the 1933 classic, KONG succeeds on so many more levels than most monster-movies-- including LOST WORLD-- that even knowing of all the influences, KONG still seems to be "sui generis." 

Since the script isn't too clear on the ape-man's reasons for stalking the expedition, I find myself wondering whether the writer was influenced by another early "jungle-stalking" scene: Tarzan's shadowing of Jane Parker's group in the 1912 Burroughs novel. However, it may be more likely that the producers simply wanted to inject the ape-man whenever possible because he was a much cheaper "special effect" than any of O'Brien's dinosaurs.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964), THE OMEGA MAN (1971)





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




Though I like many works by the late Richard Matheson, I have little regard for his popular 1954 ironic novel I AM LEGEND. I define LEGEND as an "irony"-- unlike its first two cinematic adaptations, which are in my opinion both "dramas." The Fryean form known as the irony stresses the protagonist's lack of power, or lack of significance, or both.  In my view LEGEND is too preoccupied with an ironic, and rather sterile, inversion of the tropes of supernatural vampire mythology. Matheson was apparently very proud of his central conceit, in which his bloodsuckers are victims of a bio-engineered plague. Protagonist Robert Neville, the last uninfected man on earth, makes it his mission to kill all of these pseudo-vampires with the traditional vampire-hunter's weapons: stakes. Matheson's rationale for his use of this vampiric trope involved anaerobic bacteria, and I for one found it less resonant than folklore's more affecting concept of literally pinning the undead to the earth to keep them from roaming around.  In addition, Neville is a tedious everyman type. His colorlessness is designed to set up another of Matheson's ironic turnabouts: he's the last normal man in a world where everyone has, to some extent, been infected by the plague-- and as a result, his "normality" becomes "monstrosity." But promising as this notion is, Matheson doesn't do much with it. There are some inspired moments, as when Neville's former friend Ben Cortman-- an intelligent vampire who continually stalks Neville-- is killed by a new breed of vampire. Because Matheson's character remarks that Cortman looks like Oliver Hardy, his death signals "the death of comedy."  But this idea seems little more than a toss-off, and Neville's own sacrificial death-- in which he takes poison, more after the fashion of Socrates than Christ-- is unaffecting.


Though Matheson himself worked on the script for the Italian-American production THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, the author used a pen name because he was dissatisfied with the final product. LAST MAN isn't much more enjoyable than the novel, though it makes substantial use of the novel's narrative.  The most haunting scene in the film hews close to a similar one in the book: protagonist Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) barricades himself in his house while the shambling vampires, led by Morgan's former friend Cortman, pound on the house's outer walls and yell at Morgan to come out and face his fate.  But many scenes that have similar potential are either slow or poorly realized, since co-directors Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona frequently chose to use long-shots that usually diffuse the audience's identification with Morgan.


There are some interesting changes. Cortman is not only a former co-worker of Morgan, but also a family friend: in addition, he's much more handsome than the book's character. As in the book the narrative seems to lead up to a final confrontation between Cortman and the protagonist, an expectation short-changed when Cortman is killed by the "new breed of vampire." However, in the film Cortman's death passes by so quickly that it has no emotional impact.  Some fans of Vincent Price have claimed that LAST MAN contains one of his best performances. In playing Morgan Price does avoid his signature boogieman tics, but the actor can't enliven the dull dialogue or the static performances of the largely Italian support-cast-- many of whom I presume were speaking their native Italian and had English speech dubbed in later, thus further hampering their performances.


I term the movie a "drama" because although it still ends in the protagonist's tragic downfall, the emphasis is more on pathos than on the upending of familiar values. This protagonist, unlike the one in the novel, defies the new species of plague-victims as they come for him, castigating them as "freaks" before they kill him. The conclusion is easily the greatest improvement on the novel. Whereas Matheson explicitly seeks to obviate the new society's killing of "the monster," LAST MAN indulges freely in the more violent form of sacrifice: though his female ally pleads for his life, Morgan violently fights the new vampires with bullets and tear-gas bombs, until they corner him in a church and impale him with a spear.  The church-scene is poorly staged by Salkow and Ragona, but it proved a significant inspiration for the superior scenarios of 1971's THE OMEGA MAN.




OMEGA has one immediate advantage over LAST MAN. Whereas Price was not at his best playing world-weary characters, OMEGA redesigned the Matheson storyline as a vehicle for Charlton Heston, a vehicle considerably indebted to Heston's classic performance in 1968's PLANET OF THE APES.  The similarity is pronounced: Heston's APES character Taylor was the only normal man on a planet dominated by intelligent apes, while his OMEGA character-- taking the name "Robert Neville" once more-- is the last true man in a world dominated by the victims of a bio-engineered plague.  Whereas I AM LEGEND simply referenced the artificial creation of the bacterial agent, OMEGA plays the "what fools these mortals be" card for all that it's worth.


Heston's Neville is a far more proactive character than the one seen in LEGEND or LAST MAN. Like them he's what I term a "demihero"-- a protagonist more concerned with survival than the defense of idealized justice-- but he's also much more kickass, which causes me to categorize OMEGA as a "combative drama." Ironically, at the time OMEGA was made, Charlton Heston had not yet become a public defender of "gun rights;" if anything he was known for campaigning for gun control. Today, the opening of OMEGA MAN-- in which the protagonist is first seen driving along the trash-strewn, deserted streets of Los Angeles, and shooting at a skulker in a window-- is almost comic as it captures the actor's latter-day persona.


Neville's foes are also skillfully re-imagined, for all that they may owe something to the bald mutants of BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. The biological plague has devastated most of the populace of the United States, but in L.A. most of the survivors are albino mutants who are averse to light-- nearly the only trope they borrow from Matheson's novel.  Whereas the Cortman of novel and film is a nemesis who comes to nothing, "Matthias" (Anthony Zerbe) is a formidable religious fanatic who tells his fellow mutants to adjure the technology that infected them. Curiously, prior to the plague, Matthias was a television newscaster-- which would have made him a perfect foe for the  conservative icon Heston later became. Matthias and his fellows also wear monks' robes, giving them a medieval image, an image intensified in a scene where the robed men torment a captive Neville on a cart before threatening to burn him alive. Their name for themselves-- "the Family"-- invokes the Manson Family murders of 1969. However, where Manson predicted widespread war between blacks and whites, an early scene shows Matthias counseling his aide Zachary-- an albinized black man, complete with snow-white hair-- to "forget the old ways" of racial divisiveness, for "the Family is one."


That said, racial divisions are very much on the mind of scripters John and Joyce Corrington.  The 1954 Matheson novel has little to do with racial conflict, though once in a flashback does LEGEND's Neville mentions having spoken with a "Negro" mortician who gave him some insight on the functions of the living dead.  In the view of the Corringtons Neville's retreat to his fortified house, where he drowns out the rabble with classical music, is a species of "white flight," signified when Zachary calls Neville's digs a "honky paradise." Neville refers to the mutants as "vermin" and "barbarians," and it's clear that even though he is a military scientist who desires to cure the plague, he's defined himself in part in terms of hating "the other."


Yet, when he finally encounters Lisa-- the first normal-looking female he's seen in two years of mutant-fighting-- she's played by a black actress, Rosalind Cash. Lisa, unlike the comparable characters from the earlier versions of the story, is a resourceful, kickass female of the type that would be popularized two years later in films like COFFY and CLEOPATRA JONES. Lisa turns out to be a member of a group of survivors hidden in the hills, who have developed some resistance to the plague. But they still need Neville's help to fight off the encroaching disease. I suspect the Corringtons were aware of some of Heston's "great white father" roles in films like 1963's DIAMOND HEAD; when he gives blood to cure one of the survivors, he asserts jokingly that his blood is "160 proof Anglo-Saxon." Heston's TEN COMMANDMENTS reputation is probably also referenced when a little survivor-girl asks Neville, "Are you God?"


On the other hand, not all religious metaphors are jokes. When one of the hippie-like survivors finds out that Neville's blood can be used for a cure, he cries out to Neville, "Christ, you could save the world." His use of "Christ" is primarily meant as an epithet. But amusingly, it could also be read as imputing Christ-characteristics to Neville.  And in the end, Neville does sacrifice his blood for the redemption of mankind. When Neville makes his final war of revenge on the mutants, his persistent enemy Matthias gets in the final blow.  Whereas Robert Morgan's death is given only a vague religious context, OMEGA MAN goes the whole nine yards: Lisa plays Judas, betraying Neville to Matthias, who in turn plays Longinus as he spears Christ-Neville to death in a fountain. Neville dies in an attitude of crucifixion-- oddly, Lisa references crucifixion in her first meeting with Neville-- but the great white father lasts long enough to give his redemptive blood to Lisa's hippie-friends, who will implicitly inherit the Earth. 


I suppose from one point of view, THE OMEGA MAN might be criticized for displaying its theme a little too broadly.  But as I prefer "too much" to "too little," the Corringtons' take on the earlier narratives strikes me as the best of the three.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

INTO THE WEST (1992), ONDINE (2009)






PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Though many of the films I've listed under the trope-category "phantasmal figurations" deal with things like phony supernatural phenomena, I specified in my essay on the 1948 HAMLET that the trope could also take in any narrative in which there was some ambivalence about what the phenomenon was. In that essay I held forth on the reasons I thought the academic Todorov was wrong to see such films as subsumed by the world of reality:

Todorov's original category [of the uncanny] encompasses works in which phenomena that seem fantastic are proven to be either delusions or a mortal-made hoax, his most dominant examples being the fake horrors of Radcliffean Gothics. In my conception, Radcliffean Gothics still evoke the affectivity of the metaphenomenal in spite of the fact that it's proven that the ghost is actually Uncle Ephraim in disguise. Further, my "uncanny" also takes in many works Todorov placed in his transitional category "the fantastic," in which the reader/audience cannot be entirely sure whether or not to take the fantasy-material at face value. What the "ghost of Uncle Ephraim" of some imaginary Gothic and "the ghost-or-maybe-devil" of HAMLET have in common is a similar affectivity; of something that seems wondrous but which does not, in the end, have the same boundary-altering effect on the mortal realm that "the marvelous" does.

At the same time, I have to ask, are there times when "the big reveal" doesn't sustain the feeling of the wondrous, but instead does purely return us to the realm of the naturalistic?  By the logic of my argument, all of the tropes I've formulated should have both naturalistic and uncanny versions, but to date I've only isolated one naturalistic version of the trope, the 1943 LEOPARD MAN-- and this is not a good parallel to the example of HAMLET, where something supernatural does seem to be going on but the audience never knows just what. Perhaps Shakespeare's RICHARD III would be a good contrast, since the audience doesn't tend to believe that the spirits seen by the titular character are anything but his fevered imaginings.

INTO THE WEST, though, presents a more modern example of the "ambivalent uncanny," where one may be able to read the narrative in a naturalistic fashion if one pleases, but where the narrative is oriented toward presenting something wondrous despite that possible reading. I won't deal in depth with the psychological ramifications of the film's characters, except to say that the basic plot resembles that of Disney's THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA. In THOMASINA as in WEST, the audience is introduced to two children who have a troubled relationship with a widowed father, and who seek to gain deliverance from this uncomfortable situation though a relationship with a beloved animal.

But where Disney's Thomasina is a cat who can think as coherently as a human, one never entirely knows what the strange white horse "Tir Nan Og" is.  The juvenile heroes of the story, older brother Tito and younger brother Ossie, receive the horse from their grandfather, who is aware of his son's mordant outlook. Unfortunately, the ownership of the horse comes into question, and the police become involved. Tito and Ossie flee civilization on the back of the strange white horse, forcing their father to abandon his mourning and show his concern for the living. As a bonus, this upset of conventional mores brings about the father's union with a possible replacement for the boys' lost mother, just as a similar plotline did in THOMASINA.

Tir Nan Og never demonstrates any marvelous powers or capacities, not even the ability to act as if he understands human ways. But at times he disobeys his young masters, carrying them where he pleases despite their protests. No one in the film mentions the myth of the Celtic pooka, a fairy-horse with a reputation for carrying its riders into fairyland-- i.e., death. But it's hard for me to believe that the writer had no knowledge of this tradition, when the film climaxes with the horse making straight for the sea with his young riders. The boys' father appears on the scene and saves them from this fate, while Tir Nan Og disappears into the waves. Since the audience never actually sees a strongly naturalistic denouement, in which the horse is proven to be nothing but a horse washed away in the tide, INTO THE WEST maintains the sense of a wondrous thing that alters our familiar boundaries, even if there is no proof that anything marvelous has occurred.





Not so the 2009 film ONDINE. This film also deals with Celtic/Germanic folklore, and if anything excels WEST in terms of its lush photography of Ireland's natural beauties.  But it's a good example of a work in which the possibility of the marvelous is raised in such a way that it is ultimately discredited.

An Irish fisherman named Syracuse, out trawling for fish with his nets, finds a strange, stunningly beautiful woman caught in those nets.  She calls herself "Ondine" but offers no explanation as to why she was swimming about in the ocean. Syracuse takes Ondine back to his home, but she begs him not to reveal her presence to anyone-- a typical enough request for a creature of faerie.

Syracuse obeys her request, keeping her hidden from most of his Irish village, including his drunken ex-wife Maura (note the name, a homonym for certain words meaning "the sea.") But his precocious young daughter Annie discovers Ondine. Annie, who suffers from kidney disease and can only get about in a motorized wheelchair, takes note of Ondine's mythical name and begins wondering if she is really a "selkie," a Celtic version of a mermaid, one who becomes human only when she takes off her seal-skin.  In addition, Syracuse notices a strange man in the village, and is apprehensive when Annie tells him that most selkies have husbands in their ocean-world.

Ondine herself does little to build up her mythic persona; both Syracuse and Annie want to believe it, perhaps to escape their own mortality and limits. However, in the end it's revealed that Ondine's name is the only thing mythical about her. She is in reality a Romanian drug-mule who lost her last shipment. She fled to Ireland to escape her vengeful bosses, but the stranger in town spots her and brings in his confederates, resulting in a fight between the drug-runners and Syracuse.

The film's script, then, invokes supernatural beauty only to dispel it in favor of the naturalistic beauty of both the mortal Ondine and Ireland, which becomes her adopted land. Naturalistic love is also preferred as well, as Syracuse has fallen in love with the woman, not the myth. Annie receives two non-magical gifts: a better "mother" to replace the old one, and a new kidney, which becomes available, very indirectly due to Ondine's presence in the village. ONDINE is a very enjoyable romance, if one can penetrate the thick Irish accents of the players, but in no way does it belong in the category of the uncanny.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

SURF NAZIS MUST DIE! (1987)



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


On a film forum I posted the following about SURF NAZIS MUST DIE:

I've seen one review that includes NAZIS in the domain of fantastic films because it takes place in the "near future," another because it's "post apocalyptic." When I re-watched the opening scenes I didn't catch any reference to the story taking place in the future; merely that the entire California coastline has been devastated by a major earthquake, thus allowing weird cults of surfers to flourish unchecked. Even if the script had stated that the events took place in 1997, though, I wouldn't deem it a marvelous film. To me, if the society of a near future film looks pretty much like the society of the present, it's not science fiction just by virtue of being advanced a few years in time. 
For similar reasons I discounted Jodorowsky's FANDO AND LIS for being genuinely marvelous, even though the film suggests that it may take place in a "post-atomic" world. 

SURF NAZIS does qualify as a metaphenomenal film, though, in that the "weird family" of the Surf Nazis-- as well as a handful of similar surfer-gangs, like "the Samurai Surfers"-- go beyond the affective limits appropriate to a naturalistic depiction of modern neo-Nazis.  In fact, though a few of the titular nasties take the names of famous fascist figures-- "Adolf," "Eva," and "Mengele"-- the surfers are just punks playing Halloween dress-up.  Even the fact that one of the punks evinces a racist attitude when he kills a young black man doesn't really demonstrate that the Surf Nazis really identify with the ideals of Adolf Hitler.  Rather, they're just using the paraphernalia of Nazis to shock people-- kind of like director Peter George.

The idea for these colorful surfer-gangs almost certainly derives from Walter Hill's flamboyant 1979 film THE WARRIORS, wherein street gangs with bizarre costume-motifs attacked one another-- also a possible candidate for the uncanny phenomenality, though I doubt the film ever appears in most fantasy-film concordances. 

SURF NAZIS disappointed many viewers who expected the exploitative title to be filled with over-the-top sex and gore, like many other Troma Film releases. The potential for ultraviolence is there: after the young black guy is killed, his enraged mother, portly Eleanor Washington, goes after the Nazis. Gail Neely gives a ripe performance as Eleanor, but not until the climax do we see much of her vengeance: most of the film's violence stems from the surfer-gangs fighting one another.

But though SURF NAZIS does not impress in these departments, I liked it a little more than the average balls-to-the-wall Troma release. Many of these films wear out their welcome with me quickly, but SURF NAZIS did not. Though it's just a superficial revenge-film, I admired George's facility with long shots of elegant surfers, as well as some occasionally evocative music from composer Jon McCallum.  I suspect that George's quasi-lyrical approach may have been influenced by Meir Zarchi's 1978 revenge-fantasy I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, particularly because the final scene-- referenced above-- shows Washington oddly pensive after she blasts a hole in Adolf's head.  This bears some similarity to the final scene of GRAVE-- though I must admit that McCallum doesn't end on the pensive note: Washington is last seen riding away on a motorcycle, laughing manically at her triumph.

I wouldn't call SURF NAZIS a "comedy," as most references do, although "black comedy" comes closer to the mark. But then, for me, "black comedies" are in essence the same as the form of the "irony," in which all virtue has absented itself from the world. True, Mama Washington has the moral high ground here, in comparison to the brain-dead surfers. But as with the protagonist of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, she too has become defined by her quest for vengeance, and though she exits laughing, it's a laugh that rings hollow.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

THE LONE RANGER RIDES AGAIN (1939), THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN! (1941)



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

It will come as no surprise that both of these sequels to successful adventure-hero serials are inferior to the originals, respectively 1938's LONE RANGER and 1940's THE GREEN HORNET.  It's rare for a sequel to excel the original, though even in serials there is precedent, given that 1942's PERILS OF NYOKA easily trumps 1941s JUNGLE GIRL.

What is surprising is that of the two sequels, the Hornet proves more enjoyable by far than the Ranger. Devotees of vintage nerd-data should all know that of the two, the Lone Ranger was the first out of the gate, produced at the behest of radio entrepreneur George W. Trendle. The initial film serial seems to have been the first time the character acquired his memorable "slaughter of the innocents" origin, and was helmed by co-directors William Witney and John English, whom I still view as the "reigning kings of the sound serials," thanks to their felicitous collaborations on PERILS OF NYOKA, ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL and THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU.  However, due to an inferior script featuring the hoary-even-back-then homesteaders-vs. cattle ranchers plot, and an unmemorable set of villains, LONE RANGER RIDES AGAIN is nothing more than by-the-numbers entertainment.  It even cadges its ending from the original RANGER serial, suggesting that the sequel was quickly thrown together to take advantage of the first one's success.



The mythos of the Green Hornet also originated under George Trendle's aegis, and as I commented in my review of the first serial, was something of a reversal on the Ranger-formula: whereas the Ranger donned a mask to become a symbol of justice, the Hornet donned a mask with the idea of becoming a "stealth crusader," pretending to be a crook competing with other crooks and "accidentally" sending them into the arms of Lady Justice.  I don't know whether or not the 1940 serial was the first to introduce the idea that the Hornet undertook his crusade as compensation for guilt-- a guilt that, to be sure, is passed over very quickly-- but it did give the original serial a little more psychological heft than one could usually expect from an adventure-serial.

In terms of villains the 1941 sequel is no better than the 1940 original: once again the Hornet and his aide Kato are pitted against a group of undistinguished racketeers-- which seems to have been a particular theme beloved by Trendle. However, it's generally more watchable than the Ranger sequel, perhaps benefiting from the crisp cinematography of Jerome Ash.  Of the co-directors responsible, one of them, John Rawlins, never worked on another serial before or after this one.  Senior director Ford Beebe had ample experience in serials, not only in the 1940 HORNET but about a dozen others as well. However, even Beebe's best serials-- probably 1936s ACE DRUMMOND and 1939's THE PHANTOM CREEPS-- don't come anywhere near the best of Witney and English. But the two Hornet films remains reasonably good entertainment even without strong villains, in part due to the Hornet's special gimmick of sending crooks into dreamland with a puff from his gas-gun.

An odd coincidence about the two sequels, respectively from Republic Pictures and Universal Studios: the non-white sidekicks get a little more action than in their first outings. Additionally, at least the actors were racially close the characters they portrayed, with Chief Thundercloud, self-identitified as a Cherokee, playing Tonto and Chinese Keye Luke essaying the once-Japanese-turned-Filipino valet Kato.

Friday, May 9, 2014

QUEEN KONG (1976)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Though QUEEN KONG is one of the most relentlessly silly film-parodies ever made in Britain-- making CARRY ON UP THE JUNGLE look like a comedy of manners by comparison-- I enjoyed it despite the mugging and the bad jokes.

Though the film was made to cash in on the 1976 remake of KING KONG, it follows the plotline of the 1933 classic for the most part, albeit with many sexual reversals, in line with the spoofy title.  The biggest change is that QUEEN jettisons Jack Driscoll, the age-appropriate "normal guy" who seeks to rescue Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) from her gargantuan fan. The film opens with the character of filmmaker "Luce Habit" (Rula Lenska), a female version of entrepreneur Carl Denham from the 1933 film. Whereas Denham stumbles across the cult of Kong on Skull Island with no prior knowledge that they are there, Luce is first seen trying to film a story in which a young male is being sacrificed by the amazon tribe of "Lazanga" (where they do the conga, as we're told over and over).  Luce's leading-man walks off the set, forcing Luce to look for a new star.  She comes across the fey young blonde man "Ray Fay" (Robin Askwith) in a nearby city, where he promptly gets in trouble for stealing an expensive poster of the 1933 KONG. Luce pays off the plundered merchant and drafts Ray to be her new star.  Some critics have claimed that Carl Denham has some submerged lust for Ann Darrow, but there's no question that Luce is definitely interested in taking advantage of this helpless male, as are many of the actresses in the cast.  In fact, Luce has such confidence in her new star that she takes her crew to the real Lazanga, trying to persuade the Amazonian natives to allow Luce to film the sacrificial rites to their mysterious deity, Queen Kong. Instead, the amazons want to buy Ray from her. Luce refuses, and she, Ray, and the film-crew return to their camp. Later that night, the amazons seek out the camp and steal Ray.  He protests a little as three buxom girls pick him up and carry him off, but suffice to say, he never evinces any manly resistance here or any other part of the film-- and for that matter, no other male characters display any forcefulness, either.

Luce and her girls rush to rescue Ray, but by the time they arrive, Ray has been placed on the sacrificial altar-- a picnic table-- and Queen Kong arrives to eat her dinner. But like all other females, the Queen is immediately smitten with Ray's blonde wispiness, and she bears him away to her cave-home.  While Luce and her allies pursue, Queen Kong is forced to fight two local Lazanga dinosaurs, a tyrannosaurus and a pterodactyl, to keep her new mate safe. Ray, overcoming his initial fear of the Queen, even cheers her on, which is more than Fay Wray ever did for the original Kong. Given the paucity of the film's budget, it's no surprise that both beasties are very tatty men-in-suits. Yet given that the film is a comedy, the tattiness is not nearly as objectionable as the unimaginative handling of Kong's one undistinguished dino-fight in the more expensive, and more serious, 1976 KING KONG.

Kong also repels the would-be rescuers, though without loss of life, and when she chases down her lover again, Luce fells her competition just like the 1933 version, via gas-bombs. (Why does a film-crew stock gas-bombs? Don't ask.) Luce is happy to take the Queen back to England to put her on exhibit. She also plans to marry Ray, though Ray has fallen for his anthropoid lover, whom he thinks to be more gentle and caring than the demanding women of his world. I speculate that Lenska got the role of Luce because she appears to be a head taller than Ray, and she not only dominates him verbally, she even wrestles him to the floor when Ray tries to seek out his captive queen. The jealous Queen Kong breaks her fetters and finds the two of them in their apartment, knocking down Luce and stealing away a now-willing Ray.

Not surprisingly, this antic comedy does not follow the tragic denouement of the 1933 film; though planes are scrambled to shoot down Queen Kong from a lofty perch, Ray saves his beloved. He gets hold of a radio microphone and pleads for the queen's life to the women of England, asserting that she is the very essence of feminine power. Women take to the streets and protest the killing of Kong. Finally the prime minister's mother scolds him, and the politico has Queen Kong and Ray shipped back to Lazanga. Luce is last seen wondering whether or not they would accept a threesome.  The absence of a final battle exempts the film from falling into the mode of the combative, for reasons elucidated here.

 QUEEN KONG is certainly not a good comedy, but it has a few amusing moments.  Today one could never get away with a scene in which the nominal hero tries to persuade a giant ape not to eat him by claiming, "I'm Jewish-- no, I'm black-- no, I'm Jewish and black!" (Or words to that effect.)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

MANHUNT ON MYSTERY ISLAND (1945), THE SHADOW (1940)



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


Though I have to rate the mythicity of both of these serials as "poor," that's not to say that they tried and failed to get into deeper symbolic waters. Most sound serials made no such attempt, and when a serial does manage to touch on such matters, it often feels like it's by accident, as with the 1940 GREEN HORNET, reviewed here.

MANHUNT ON MYSTERY ISLAND is a typical Republic serial, which means that most of the narrative involves knockabout fight-scenes of fairly bland heroes against colorful criminal masterminds. In this case the villain is Captain Mephisto, fulsomely played by long-time character actor Roy Barcroft, in a role that many serial-fans deem his best outing.  Many serials feature villains who masquerade as upstanding citizens while they assume some cowled identity as they send out henchmen to commit crimes. Considering that Mephisto appears in 1945, he's refreshingly old-school in that he's not funded by some foreign power. Rather, he's a solo player: a fellow who just happens to be a descendant of a 19th-century pirate named Captain Mephisto, and uses this identity to get hold of a super-weapon with which he can force all nations to pay him tribute.  He somehow acquires a "transformation chair" that can make anyone who sits in it into a "molecular duplicate" of the original Mephisto, resulting in many "teaser" scenes in which the villain enters the room with the chair, his true identity obscured by the camera's reticence, only to metamorphose into Mephisto.  Despite the use of the Goethean name, Mephisto doesn't have any particular devilish associations, except that he's more fun to watch than the dull heroes. Richard Bailey plays Lance Reardon as just one more tedious private detective, though to modern ears certain associations of his name might prove a source of amusement. His leading lady-- a typical professor's daughter who hires the private dick to find her missing father-- is no better characterized, but she's more winsomely played by Linda Stirling, best known for being one of the few heroines to essay action-heroines in serials. Though by 1945 Stirling's best serials-- THE TIGER WOMAN and ZORRO'S BLACK WHIP-- were behind her, the scripters at least allow her character to be a deadly shot with a handgun. 

In short, the "manhunt" for the professor and his super-dingus is just an excuse for lively fistfights, which no company did quite as well as Republic.



1940's THE SHADOW shows a little more interest in character over combat, as well as using more of the pulp hero's mythology than did a lot of serials that adapted pre-existing material. 

To be sure, Columbia's scripters changed a number of Shadow-myths. The hero's secret ID of Lamont Cranston is a "criminologist" rather than a wealthy bon vivant, and the viewer never knows why he chose to take on the masked identity of the Shadow in the first place. He never uses any of the deceptive tricks of the Shadow, either the misdirection-maneuvers of the pulp stories or radio's "power to cloud men's minds." On the plus side, Victor Jory stands unchallenged for the honor of playing the best film version of the dark avenger. True, the limits of a serial budget mean that there's nearly no use of the hero's sinister aspects. The Shadow is usually seen in well lighted scenarios, thus negating a lot of the costume's appeal, and he more often punches out his opponents rather than shooting them. However, it makes up for a lot that Jory utters a haunting laugh that is worthy of the character's reputation-- unlike, for instance, the forgettable chortle that emerges from Alec Baldwin's lips in the overblow 1994 SHADOW film.

The hero's accomplices sport the same names as characters from the pulps or the radio series-- Margo Lane, Harry Vincent-- but they're pretty interchangeable "hero-stooges," though it's a mark of distinction that this version of Margo has some training in forensic science. The serial's villain, the Black Tiger, is one of many villains who display some limited form of invisibility; in the Tiger's case, he only turns invisible when he's barking out instructions to his henchmen-- in what may be the most unique villain-voice in serials, since he sounds like he's passing a gallstone every time he talks. Just as in MANHUNT, there's a death-ray weapon that the Tiger's after, though naturally most of the battles between hero and villains are low-tech until the final clash of the Shadow and the Tiger.

Strangely, during that clash the Shadow doffs his disguise to reveal his Cranston identity to the Tiger, seconds after Cranston has unveiled the villain's true ID. This is a pretty rash move to make if you plan to take an evildoer alive, but maybe Cranston had a psychic flash-- in the form of reading the script-- and knew that the Black Tiger was going to be accidentally-- and conveniently-- killed in the final struggle. Following this, Cranston tells Margo that he doesn't plan to play the costumed crime-fighter any more. I assume that if the studio ever harbored thoughts of producing a sequel, they would have simply ignored this coda.  As he did in many of his serials for Columbia, director James W. Horne and his writers tossed in a number of tongue-in-cheek scenes, the best of which allowed the lead actor to assume colorful identities while investigating the crooks' schemes. On the minus side, Horne had nearly no interest in cliffhangers, and THE SHADOW is notorious for a resolution in which the hero survives the roof collapsing on him, by merely getting up and dusting himself off.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)



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


Monster-kids never forget their first time-- at seeing a classic Universal monster-film. HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the first such film I saw, back in the dark days when one was almost entirely dependent on television reruns in order to view old films. To be sure, HOUSE might be deemed a "lesser classic" next to the seminal films from which it loosely derived: the DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN films of 1931 and WOLF MAN from 1941.  Still, HOUSE does tap into some of the same depths of dark romanticism in which the greater classics are rooted.

The first sequel to Universal's original "monster mash" FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN shares with that film a strong opening, followed by a rather rickety plot. Unlike FMTWM, which I noted in my review was strongest in scenes dealing only with Larry "The Wolf Man" Talbot, the script by Curt Siodmak and Edward Lowe gives far more attention to the mix of characters-- though Siodmak's apparent disinterest in Frankenstein's creation may be the reason that the monster remains stuck on an operating-table for most of the film.

In FMTWM, Siodmak's tosses out a conflict in which Doctor Mannering becomes more interested in reviving the Monster rather than putting an end to the Wolf Man's sufferings.  This may be read as Siodmak loosely re-using a primary theme from his THE WOLF MAN script, in which protagonist Larry has a long-standing conflict with his father regarding Larry's "second-best" status next to his recently deceased brother.  No "sibling rivalry" theme ever appears as such in FMTWM, but such a theme does catch fire in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Evil Doctor Niemann (Boris Karloff) is, far more than the Monster, the real focus of HOUSE, even though he is only, as the script says, a "would-be Frankenstein." Instead of being the fey young man of the early Universal films, this "Frankenstein" is a white-haired "bad father," imprisoned for cavalierly performing experiments on unwilling participants.  Sharing his imprisonment is the hunchbacked killer Daniel (J. Carroll Naish), who becomes, like the hunchback from 1931's FRANKENSTEIN, the doctor's servant.  Unlike the earlier hunchback, Daniel serves the mad scientist because the latter promises to dole out his favor in the form of giving Daniel a better, more attractive body.  Daniel's longing sets the tone for HOUSE's emphasis on frustrated eros.

A freak storm sets Niemann and Daniel free, and by chance they come across-- and take over-- a traveling freakshow-carnival. Niemann hopes to combine his Frankensteinian aspirations with the pleasure of killing those who sent him to prison-- and since it's a short movie, he only goes after three victims, two men who testified against him and the burgomaster who sentenced him. Posing as the master of the carnival, he even brazens his way past Burgomaster Hussmann. Niemann's plan for vengeance against Hussmann isn't very clear, but once again Dame Fortune favors the mad doctor: he learns that the carnival's exhibit of Dracula's corpse is the real thing. Niemann makes a bargain with Dracula (John Carradine), promising to protect the vampire's coffin while he sleeps in exchange for the killing of Hussmann and the destruction of his family.  Dracula keeps his end of the bargain-- killing Hussmann though he fails to seduce the wife of Hussmann's grandson-- but Niemann callously exposes the vampire to sunlight in order to discourage a band of pursuers.  It's the first indication that Niemann is not a good person to make deals with.

While the only "frustrated eros" in the film's Dracula-section is that of Dracula's attempt to dominate a new victim, the next section makes this theme more central.  Niemann and Daniel arrive at the village of Vasaria, whose citizens managed to destroy Frankenstein's Castle with a dam-deluge that apparently also destroyed the Frankenstein Monster(Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr).  Niemann and Daniel providentially find the two monsters encased in ice underground, and thaw them out.  The Monster is too weak to do much of anything, but Larry Talbot isn't happy that Niemann has released him to "suffer the torments of the damned," i.e., to become a murderous werewolf again. Niemann placates Talbot with promises to cure him. In truth his next project, with Daniel's help, is to capture the men who testified at Niemann's trial. He plans to torture them by switching their brains with those of the Wolf Man and the Monster.

Fortunately, though there's a brief scene of Niemann operating on his victims-- possibly pickling their brains and putting them away for a rainy day-- the script sets this matter aside as Niemann continues futzing with the Monster. During the evil duo's stay in Vasaria, Daniel becomes infatuated with gypsy girl Ilonka. She, however, doesn't see the hunchback for dust, though she and Larry fall in love-- leading to a romantic tragedy when spiteful Daniel reveals Larry's werewolf curse.  This leads Ilonka to do what the negligent Niemann won't: killing the Wolf Man with a silver bullet to save him from further murders-- though she pays with her life in so doing.  Daniel, distraught at Ilonka's death, turns on the master who gave him nothing for his loyalty, and almost slays Niemann. The mad doctor is saved by the Monster, who apparently views Niemann as his only friend-- but then both the would-be Frankenstein and his pawn are doomed when torch-wielding villagers drive them into a deadly quicksand bog.

I've glossed over many details in this summary that would make my case for HOUSE's "dark romanticism." One is the scene in which Rita Hussmann is erotically fascinated by Dracula's world of the living dead.  Another is a Sade-like scene in which Daniel takes out his anger against Larry by whipping the helpless body of the Monster and cursing him for taking away the evil doctor's attention.  Strangely, though Niemann's hunger for vengeance is the motive force that assembles all of the monsters, his character is flat and not nearly as interesting in his megalomania as most of Universal's obsessed doctors.  Despite some strong early scenes, Karloff isn't able to do much with the character-- though unlike Glenn Strange, he doesn't have the excuse of being stuck on a table for most of the story.  Lon Chaney Jr., though guilty of some over-ripe line-readings, makes up for them with a pleasing romantic interaction with his gypsy girl, and John Carradine is at least imposing, for all that his Dracula is a bit too quick to trust Niemann. But in some ways J. Carroll Naish is the emotional linchpin of the story; though he's a deep-dyed murderer, he remains sympathetic as he mourns "the only thing I ever loved." Other familiar Universal actors-- Anne Gwynne, Lionel Atwill, Sig Ruman, and George Zucco-- add to the enjoyment.

And though this Universal monster-mash makes a strong appeal to eros, thanatos is never far behind, as seen in this memorable line by Talbot as he sums up his differences from the Monster:

"He only wanted life and strength-- and I only wanted death. And now look at us."