Friday, October 31, 2014

JOURNEY TO THE WEST (2013)



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

*** SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS****


I had to give a lot of thought as to how to classify Stephen Chow's looney, often anachronistic take on the classic 16th-century Chinese novel JOURNEY TO THE WEST.  In the original novel, a devout Buddhist priest journeys from Tang-era China to India in order to secure a collection of precious sutras and to bring them back to China. According to Wikipedia most of the adventures of the priest-- in the film given the name Xuan Zang-- and his magical bodyguards take place on the way to India. Chow's JOURNEY focuses only on the early life of Xuan Zang, when he is a young Buddhist demon-hunter, but one with a naive belief that he can reform demons by reading nursery rhymes to them. This is probably nothing like the original priest's early history, and certainly the available summaries emphasize not demon-hunting but Xuan Jang's quest on behalf of Buddhism.

The priest isn't only naive about demons; he also understands nothing about women, and out of foolish pride he rejects a more experienced female demon-hunter, Duan (Shu Qi) when she falls in love with him. The association of Xuan Zang and Duan leads them into many exploits of demon-hunting, particularly against cannibalistic pig-demons, whose leader is given the comic name "K.L. Hog" (Killer Hog?)  The climax involves the rash young priest releasing Sun, the mercurial and deadly Monkey King, from the prison to which the original Buddha condemned him for the past 500 years. In the novel, Monkey is released so that he will be tamed and enlisted to help Xuan Zang collect the sutras, but in Stephen Chow's script, the mission of the sutras doesn't come about until after Monkey is released.

My various comparisons with the novel are not meant to suggest that Chow misleads anyone in his audience into thinking he'll deliver a sober-faced rendition of the original work. By the time Chow has finished the opening sequence, which deals with Xuan Zang's attempt to "demon-bust" a murderous fish-demon, it's clear that the director is delivering an all-stops-pulled-out Hollywood-esque exercise in kinetic showmanship. It's in this sequence that Xuan Zang first tries to pacify a demon through the use of Chinese nursery rhymes, which naturally does not end well for the young man. Duan arrives on the scene and promptly beats the demon to death with her fists. She becomes piqued by Xuan Zang's resistance to her charms, and when they cross paths again, both hunting down the leader of the cannibal pig-men, she determines to pursue him.

This theme by itself-- a woman's aggressive pursuit of an unwilling man-- should signal that the film will be an all-out comedy. And certainly the middle section of the film is replete with many farcical sequences. Duan and her fellow martial demon-hunters (one of whom is called "Fist of the North Star," after a famous manga hero) have a wagon that can be propelled sans horses, because inside is a ludicrous air-filled balloon that makes the wagon shoot forward every time the balloon is whacked with big hammers. Duan uses her friends to attempt fooling the priest into sleeping with her. Duan, deciding that she needs to act in a more feminine manner to snare Xuan Zang, gets a female friend to use magic so that she Duan will "mimic" the friend's actions-- and of course, the wrong actions get mimicked.

Yet the third part of the film begins the downfall of the traditional boy-girl plot. On the advice of his mentor, Xuan Zang journeys to the prison of the Monkey King in order to employ the latter's powers against the pig-demons. This sequence starts out comically, for when the priest first meets the simian demon, he looks like a wizened old man. Monkey even gets Duan to dance with him, much to Xuan Zang's displeasure.

But once Xuan Zang releases Monkey, the funny little man becomes a malicious, egotistical demon, and he smashes down all of Duan's demon-hunters. Even some of these fight-scenes contain farce-elements, particularly since one of Monkey's challengers is a monk whose power is to make one of his feet grow to titanic size. But the comedy vanishes when Monkey kills Duan. This, ironically, causes the grieving Xuan Zang to realize his own Buddha-hood, and he attains a level of power that allows to chastise Monkey in a show-stopping fashion.  Following this, Xuan Zang goes on to accept the sutra-mission, taking with him his three most iconic helpers: a pig-demon, a river-demon, and the now tamed Monkey.

I've discoursed on the storyline in detail to indicate why I think that JOURNEY is more of a drama than a comedy. It's not simply that it has a sobering ending, but rather, because all the jubilative scenes are subordinate to the main point of the plot. This main point is not jubilative but purgative in nature. Xuan Zang, since he is destined to be a priest, must be purged of his desire for Duan, and this, in the formulations of Northrop Frye as I have read him, aligns JOURNEY with the mythos of drama.

This isn't to say that a drama must end tragically: even Aristotle stated the contrary. SLEEPING BEAUTY is a notable film that I categorize as a drama, not because it ends sadly, but it does so by emphasizing the purgation of evil, in the form of Maleficent, more than it does the heroic triumph of Prince Philip. SLEEPING BEAUTY, like JOURNEY, contains many farcical scenes, but the presence of these is also subordinate to the dramatic resolution of the romance-plot. In similar fashion GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is also replete with numerous comedic material, but at its core it does emphasize an invigorating heroic triumph, and so it qualifies for the mythos of adventure. Finally, THE TENTH VICTIM is another film with a number of funny sequences, but the main point of its plot centers upon the mortificative mood of the irony, even though, as in SLEEPING BEAUTY, the romance does succeed despite the rest of the world going to hell.





THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972)



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


In my review of THE INCREDIBLE 2-HEADED TRANSPLANT I wrote:

About a year [after TRANSPLANT], director Lee Frost collaborated with one of TRANSPLANT's three writers on THE THING WITH TWO HEADS. It was not any subtler than its predecessor, but it showed a much better grasp of how to get some fun out of a silly idea.

I probably based this opinion on my having re-screened bits and pieces of THING WITH TWO HEADS occasionally over the years, while I hadn't seen any part of TRANSPLANT for years. But I guess I hadn't sat through THING all the way through. Now that I have, I retract the above opinion: THING isn't really much more fun than TRANSPLANT, and if anything the earlier film at least has a little more potential with its frustrated Frankenstein/Doctor Jekyll theme.

Lee Frost's film could have been fun, of course. The loony idea that, through a sequence of improbable events, a bigoted white doctor gets his head transplanted onto the body of a black man is just begging for all sorts of acidic racial humor. What image better encapsulates the idea of "the Man" as a specter that haunts Afro-American dreams and achievements?  But THING plays it too safe.

Though the opening scenes are clunky, Frost efficiently communicates the racism of dying Doctor Kirshner (Ray Milland) when he meets a new hire for the first time, Doctor Williams (Don Marshall), and finds out that he's black.  Milland does a good job portraying his character's entitled contempt-- he barely even tries to give a plausible reason for rejecting Williams. And while Marshall maintains his dignity by holding the racist doc to his contract, the actor musters an undertone of disappointment, of having his hopes of working with a prominent physican dashed by the physician's ugly animus.

However, that's the last strong dramatic moment in the movie.  Kirshner suffers an attack, and the only way his subordinates can get a new body for him is to accept that of a man on Death Row: an innocent man named Jack Moss (Rosey Grier).  Moss is holding out for evidence that will prove him innocent, only to wake up and find that his body has been hijacked by the Arch-Ofay himself.

However, unlike the two-headed monster of the previous flick, Moss and Kirshner don't go on any murderous rampage. Moss controls the body enough to break free of the doctors and run for his life.  There follows a lot of tedious chase-scenes involving cars and motorcycles, all of which dissipated whatever good will I had for the movie.

Of course, there is the film's one good line: when Moss' girlfriend sees the two-headed critter, she asks him if he has two of anything else.  It's a good line, but she says it in a distinctly unsexy setting, with Doctor Williams standing around listening.

Moss and Kirshner seesaw back and forth over control of the body a little, but the inevitable "feel good" finish comes to pass, and Moss wins free from both the long arm of the law and that unwanted second head (or third, depending on what anatomical parts one counts).

So TRANSPLANT comes off a little better than this. But my advice is, don't watch either of these; check out 1959's THE MANSTER instead.

I'll note in passing that the next completed project for both Frost and his co-scripter Wes Bishop was 1974's POLICEWOMEN, which is above-average seventies sleaze. So the two of them could successfully put their two heads together, as long as they weren't stuck in the same body.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970)



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

**SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS*****


In its era THE DUNWICH HORROR was the most faithful adaptation of a Lovecraft "Cthulhu mythos" work, and it still outstrips most of those now in existence. Aside from one problematic acting-performance, seen above, DUNWICH captures much of the appeal of the great author's themes.

To be sure, there are some major changes. H.P. Lovecraft almost never allowed any form of romance to appear in his stories, while sexuality generally manifested in displaced forms.  The prose original, though, does indirectly involve sexual congress, since it eventually comes out that the otherworldly being Yog-Sothoth has spawned not one but two entities from a human mother. So in this case it's not surprising that the script for the cinematic DUNWICH plays up the 1970's version of ilicit license, in the form of hallucinatory pagan dream-orgies.

Romance is not present in the original story, wherein a foul-seeming young man, Wilbur Whateley, seeks to get a copy of an occult tome, the Necronomicon, and is killed before he can perform any rituals, though his alien "brother" escapes to create havoc. Since a commercial film needs more audience-involvement than was necessary for Lovecraft's type of story, DUNWICH creates a young female college-student, Nancy (Sandra Dee), and has her become interested in the young, rather stone-faced Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell) when he comes to her college's library on his evil-book hunt. It's a little hard to buy Nancy's fascination with Wilbur, since he displays no ingratiating charms and projects the febrile intensity of a serial killer. Perhaps director Daniel Haller and/or actor Stockwell decides that this was the best way to communicate Wilbur's disengagement from the emotions of ordinary humanity, but the approach sabotages the credibility of Nancy's behavior. It's been suggested that Nancy is under Wilbur's hypnotic control as she makes herself increasingly available to the obsessed bibliophile, but I was never convinced that she was entranced, perhaps because Sandra Dee plays the part as if she's genuinely intrigued.

Fortunately for humanity, one of Nancy's teachers is Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley).  Armitage not only prevents Wilbur from getting access to the book, he and a student named Elizabeth follow Nancy to the Whateley farm in rural Massachusetts, here they encounter Wilbur's grandfather (Sam Jaffe).  When they are unable to draw Nancy away, Armitage begins investigating the reputation of the Whateleys, and learns that Wilbur's father was lynched for attempting a demonic ritual. They also meet Wilbur's mother Lavinia, now confined to an asylum.

While Armitage is busy with research, Elizabeth trespasses on the Whateley house looking for Nancy, and finds the "brother" instead. The creature, represented as a sort of dazzling light-show that human sight cannot resolve, kills her and gets loose. In a rather strange side-plot, the grandfather is killed afterward in a fall, and Wilbur takes time out from his occult plot to attempt burying his relation in the local graveyard, inciting more antipathy from the locals.  The conflict comes to a head as Whateley almost completes a forbidden ritual in what looks like the Massachusetts version of Stonehenge, but Armitage interferes and uses his own occult knowledge to counter the ritual, dooming Wilbur and sealing Yog-Sothoth back in his own dimension. In the final coda, however, it's revealed that at some point Wilbur got the chance to impregnate Nancy, and that the Whateley line will go on.

Plot and characterization are only fair here: the real attraction are the visuals of director Haller, who made his fame providing art direction for most of Roger Corman's Poe pictures.  Unfortunately DUNWICH did not lead to greater prominence for Haller, who, like Sandra Dee, spent the rest of the 1970s in television projects. Ed Begley died shortly after DUNWICH, and of the stars only Dean Stockwell seemed to prosper in later years, though he just about ruins the film at the climax, braying "Yog-Sothoth!" at the top of his voice, when a subtler, more modulated approach might have communicated more of a creepy otherworldy resonance.

Monday, October 27, 2014

DONOVAN'S BRAIN (1953)




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


Coincidentally, I just recently remarked on the indebtedness of THE INCREDIBLE 2-HEADED TRANSPLANT  to both the brain-transplant films of early horror and Stevenson's DR. JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE. Now by coincidence a local channel re-showed DONOVAN'S BRAIN, one of those early brain-films-- albeit not one dealing with a transplant-- and that film's script even briefly references Jekyll and Hyde!

I've never read the original Curt Siodmak novel. Allegedly Siodmak liked none of the movie-adaptations of his work, but based on Wikipedia descriptions, this one sounds pretty close to the original. The 1953 film's direction and screenplay were both courtesy of Felix E. Feist, who does an efficient but unremarkable job with the story.  A plane crashes in the vicinity of the home of Doctor Patrick Cory and his wife Janice, and they manage to pull from the wreckage the dying body of wealthy financier W.H. Donovan. Cory, aided by his colleague Dr. Schratt, removes the brain from Donovan's body in order to study it, even though Schratt protests that this bit of "brain robbery" could land them both in jail.

Soon Cory's hubris catches up with him: the brain not only survives being removed from its body, it develops telepathic powers and begins using Cory as its catspaw. Cory begins mimicking the habits and attitude of the corrupt financier, and becomes Donovan's mouthpiece in continuing shady deals with the rich and powerful.  But the brain's control lapses occasionally, and in one of Cory's periods of clarity, he conspires with Schratt and his wife to destroy the cerebral horror.

One interesting aspect of BRAIN is that while it doesn't include a sustained discussion of the topics of God and science, it doesn't entirely take the standard mad-scientist POV that the scientist shouldn't trespass on the dictates of heaven. When Schratt initially protests that removing the brain goes against God, Cory replies that the scientist's skills are the creation of God like everything else. The big finish, in which the brain is destroyed by lightning, is surely meant to conjure with the notion of God striking down evildoers (as well as being one major difference from the novel, whose described conclusion includes no lightning). Yet the only reason "God" can take this action is because Cory reroutes his home's lightning rod so that it will electrocute the brain if all else fails.

The most interesting thing about the film is that though its story is probably distantly derived from the Stevenson classic, Cory does not suffer annihilation for his hubris, unlike both Doctor Jekyll and the majority of 1950s SF-scientists.  Cory and his wife go through a lot, but they survive unscathed, and even Schratt, after being forced to shoot himself by the brain's mental commands, lives through the ordeal.  Only a nasty blackmailing reporter is killed during the reign of Donovan's brain, and certainly the audience isn't likely to weep for him.

The film lacks the more inspired dialogue of the best 1950s SF-films, but it does have one risible line at the climax, when the brain-possessed Cory grabs hold of Janice and tells her, "Look at my brain, my dear-- your last look--!"

Saturday, October 25, 2014

THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT (1971)




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


I had not watched TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT in twenty (maybe more) years. My only memory of that experience was that TRANSPLANT was nothing but forgettable trash.

I won't exactly say that the many years of slogging through bad movies made TRANSPLANT any better than it was. It's still pretty lackluster work. Its writers and its director, one Anthony Lanza, didn't really go the extra distance to engage with their ludicrous premise. But if one is in the "bad movie" spirit, TRANSPLANT may at least hold your interest, even without a payoff on the level of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, or even 1970's BIGFOOT, on which Lanza worked as an assistant director.

The justification of Doctor Girard (Bruce Dern) for wanting to create two-headed creatures-- beginning with various animals, and graduating to a human being-- is no better or worse than the rationales provided by the brain-swapping flicks of the 1940s, not least the recently reviewed MONSTER AND THE GIRL.  As Girard tells his older assistant Max, the idea is to be able to graft a healthy noggin onto a body whose regular head has contracted brain cancer. Girard, surprisingly, has no special Frankenstein-like quirks, no desire to seek revenge on anyone for not realizing his genius-- though the viewer gets a little of that from Max, who was forced to quite the practice of medicine due to deterioration of his motor skills.

Others reside at Girard's rustic country house/laboratory-- his pretty blonde wife Linda (Pat Priest), the caretaker for the property, and the caretaker's adult son Danny (John Bloom), a huge hulk who became mentally damaged in a mine accident.  In keeping with the archetype of the "gentle giant," Danny has a childlike affection for Linda. Linda also receives a visit from former beau Ken (Casey Kasem). He serves little purpose beyond being available as Linda's "consolation prize" when her over-ambitious husband comes to grief, also a common motif in such 1940s flicks as THE MAD GHOUL.

At the same time Girard and Max are creating two-headed snakes, dogs, and so on, a sex-obsessed madman named Cass escapes a police dragnet.  Cass happens onto Girard's house, shoots the caretaker, ties up Girard, and abducts Linda with the intent of finding a good hideaway in order to enjoy himself.  Max comes to Linda's rescue, shooting Cass dead with a rifle.

It's also Max who puts into Girard's head the idea of taking the next experimental step.  Max argues that Danny, reduced to confused mourning by his father's death, is as good as dead, so why not try transplanting the head of the murderer to Danny's hulking form?

As easily as falling off a log, the two mostly-mad scientists create their unholy merger. In a bit of psychological parallelism that the film doesn't explore adequately, Cass's consciousness survives and dominates Danny's mind, not unlike the manner in which Max wields a subtle influence over Girard.  And soon the Two-Headed Transplant is on the loose, killing whatever victims come to hand.  The highlight of the creature's murder spree is an encounter in which Old Double-Dome has a fight with a biker, despite the latter's advantage of being mounted on his cycle and wielding a bike-chain.  This little scene makes all the sense in the world when one knows that Lanza and two of TRANSPLANT's writers collaborated on 1967's biker-flick THE GLORY STOMPERS.

I can't say that TRANSPLANT is ever anything but predictable, but since Lanza had ample experience as a film editor, the film's visuals are at least efficient.  John Bloom tries hard as Danny, but though the role isn't that demanding he just doesn't have the mojo to convey much pathos as the "weak brother" in the enhanced body. Albert Cole as Cass is just a bad over-actor, failing to convey the necessary menace that would have improved even a "so bad it's good" film. Dern, Priest and Kasem are no more than adequate, bringing nothing special to their parts.  The conclusion does include one "full-circle" moment in that the Transplant seeks to hide in the same mine where Danny was injured, but even here the pathos of Danny's fear is conjured more by the situation than Bloom's talent.  And though the "two heads" might be considered a variation on the theme of the "Jekyll and Hyde" split-personality, the two minds of the monster remain so separated that there's not much psychological interest here.

About a year later, director Lee Frost collaborated with one of TRANSPLANT's three writers on THE THING WITH TWO HEADS. It was not any subtler than its predecessor, but it showed a much better grasp of how to get some fun out of a silly idea.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

PROJECT SHADOWCHASER I-III (1992, 1994, 1995)



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


I had seen PROJECT SHADOWCHASER III years ago on cable, and for many years had no idea what the other installments were like. YouTube gave me the chance to find out.

The opening film from 1992 is essentially "Die Hard with a Killer Android."  In a near-future setting some terrorists break into a government installation. There they find and liberate an intelligent android being kept on ice. The android, name of Romulus (Frank Zagarino), takes over the gang, and they invade a high-rise hospital in order to kidnap the daughter of the president.  More or less by accident, the authorities also unleash a convict from cryo-sleep, name of DaSilva (Martin Kove). To keep his freedom DaSilva braves the high-rise and begins knocking off terrorists in the approved John McClane manner, with a little help from the aforesaid daughter (Meg Foster). It's a tolerably executed cheesy action-flick with decent direction from Jon Eyres, also the director on the other two in the official series.



Next up is 1994's SHADOWCHASER II, aka NIGHT SIEGE. Although Romulus appears to be destroyed at the end of the 1992 film, again an android-- this time without a name, but identical in appearance and again played by Zagarino-- recruits a bunch of terrorists. With this gang he proceeds to take over a nuclear plant, apparently in the hope of triggering armageddon. This time the tough McClane-clone is Frank (Bryan Genesse), a janitor at the nuclear facility, who for no clear reason is a master of the martial arts.  Of the three films, this one puts forth the best hard-hitting fight-scenes, particularly a face-off between Unnamed Android and Forgettable Janitor-Hero at the conclusion.  Female lead Beth Toussaint is both a physicist at the plant and a working mom, so of course her young boy arrives during the chaos in order to up the tension a bit.




PROJECT SHADOWCHASER III, however, has even less to do with the earlier two Eyres films than they do with each other. Number Three jumps forward to an era in which mankind is now exploring space on a regular basis. Our viewpoint characters are a motley crew aboard a communications station orbiting Mars, all of whom are just minding their own business, shooting the shit and complaining about work. Then an ore-mining spacecraft suddenly careens into their vicinity. The crew manages to steer clear of the onrushing spaceship-- until it turns around and deliberately runs into them.  The protagonists soon learn that the ship's original crew has been killed by a berserk, again nameless android (Zagarino), who then begins stalking the comm-station crew as well. For absolutely no reason, the android can assume the appearance of anyone he sees-- which means that, in essence, Eyres and his scripter decided to borrow not from one movie, but two: the original ALIEN and 1982's THE THING.

Ironically, though Eyres' handling of the larger ensemble of actors and the low-budget ALIEN-derived setting is quite skillful, Number Three is the least enjoyable of the series.  The actors are skilled but their characters are all cookie-cutter types, and whatever charisma Zagarino displayed in the earlier films is mitigated by all the shapechanging.

Given that dozens of DIE HARD imitations appeared during the nineties without birthing sequels, I speculate that Zagarino's lean muscular bod is the main reason the first film managed to spawn two more entries.  It's interesting that while Zagarino doesn't look anything like Alexander Godunov, who played the long-haired blonde crook in DIE HARD...




...it might be that Zagarino's essaying of yet another "blonde muscleman" sparked in video-viewers some enthusiasm for this particular DIE HARD knockoff. But as I say, it's pure speculation on my part.

Since the android in the third movie doesn't have any decent opposition, that and its copying of ALIEN relegate it to subcombative status.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

ANNIE (1982), LITTLE RITA OF THE WEST (1967)



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


I haven't reviewed many musicals on this blog, but the form presents a number of challenges to the NUM theory.  In contrast to more mimetically oriented narratives, musicals take a pleasure in "breaking the fourth wall." Most of these are "fallacious figments" in the naturalistic sense, meaning that audiences know that they're meant to disregard most, if not all, departures from causality. The most prominent figment is the manifestation of orchestral music to accompany the performers' songs, but there are also moments in which the protagonists briefly contravene causality, as when Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling in 1951's ROYAL WEDDING.  Yet there are also instances in which musicals include metaphenomena that are not meant to be disregarded. The cinematic dance-team of Astaire and Lucille Bremer did one of each type of metaphenomena. In ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, a dying Astaire dreams that he dances a sumptous exotic ballet with Bremer, while in YOLANDA AND THE THIEF, Astaire poses as a heavenly angel to the naive Bremer, only to encounter the Real Thing.

Except for one brief sequence, the 1982 ANNIE could be a musical in the naturalistic mode. This would be in keeping with the comic strip, which seemed to place Little Orphan Annie's exploits in a largely naturalistic, if larger than life, world. As my knowledge of the strip is spotty, I don't know if the film's attribution of magical powers to Daddy Warbucks' aide Punjab is on-target or not. But Punjab provides the only example of marvelous content in the film; that of levitating a flower-vase with his mind-powers for Annie's entertainment. Thus the film falls into the category I've termed "the marginal metaphenomenal," in that the metaphenomenality doesn't really contribute to the plot and barely adds anything to any of the characters.  Yet this doesn't seem to be a phenomenon meant to be disregarded as with my first Astaire example. There's at least a degree of logic in that Punjab, being a Hindu, may have developed mental powers through the mystic arts for which India has become famous. I tend to think that there ought to be at least a tenuous chain of logic that justifies a real metaphenomenon, even as tenuous as when a vampire and a mad scientist appear in the manor-setting of ONE MORE TIME, apparently for no better reason than the tendency of monsters to show up in such settings.

Incidentally, I don't have much to say about ANNIE as entertainment: it's tolerable on that level, but it doesn't bother to address any of the social issues relevant to the conservative Harold Gray comic strip, except in the most dismissive manner.





Much more negligible in the history of film musicals is the Italian western spoof LITTLE RITA OF THE WEST. It's a silly farrago of comics scenes in which the titular Rita-- played by Italian singer Rita Pavone-- goes around beating down various cowboy opponents, except when she takes time out for non-diegetical musical performances.  The script is cheerfully anachronistic, so the question comes up: should anything be taken "seriously?"  Or should everything fantastic be dismissed in the manner as ROYAL WEDDING's ceiling dance?

The particular maybe-metaphenomenon I had to consider is seen in the still above. Following a scene in which the miniscule cowgirl beats up a guy dressed like Eastwood's "Man with No Name" (and played by former *peplum* star Kirk Morris), she blows the guy away with a "golden pistol" that doubles as a grenade-launcher. Real spaghetti westerns sometimes edge into the realm of the uncanny with the use of weird weapons, but my verdict is that the only way Rita's golden pistol would have qualified would be if it had been given even a tenuous thread of logic to justify it. No such logical chain is evoked, so in essence Rita's pistol-- really no more than a verbal reference to the 1966 film, RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL-- is no more a "real fantasy" than Astaire's ceiling-dance.

Like ANNIE, RITA is only tolerable entertainment if one happens to be in the mood for its charms. Its most amusing sequence is one in which Little Rita triumphs over a villain outfitted exactly like Franco Nero's Django.

Friday, October 17, 2014

THE X FROM OUTER SPACE (1967), MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET (1967)



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


These two kaiju films debuted in the same year, both coming from studios not known for heavy involvement in the genre, unlike Tojo (home of Godzilla) and Daiei (domicile of Gamera).  THE X FROM OUTER SPACE originated from a studio called Shokichi, best known to Americans for their production of anime films, while MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET was the only kaiju to come from Studio Nikkatsu.  But their differences are far more fundamental.

I've seen reviewers who harbor quite a bit of affection for THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, with its reptile-chicken monster Guilala. I might have liked Guilala if he'd appeared in a film that showed some life. Unfortunately, before the monster appears, almost an hour of X's running-time is squandered with slow-moving scenes with no action and superficial characters.

The story begins by stating that a Japanese space program has already sent ships to visit Mars, and that none of the ships have returned. A new ship, commanded by Captain Sano, takes off for Mars to investigate, and although most of the crew is Japanese, there's one pretty white girl named Peggy, who's patently in love with the brave captain. Sano's got nothing but business in mind, though, especially when his ship nears Mars and almost encounters a UFO. The ship fails to intercept the UFO but the alien craft leaves some spore-like residue on the Earth-ship's hull. Having failed to unravel the mystery, Sano's ship goes home (because we all know that in the future space-ships will be able to simply turn around like you turn around your automobile).

There's not much to say about this. Once the ship returns to Earth, the spores, upon exposure to air, spawn the aforesaid giant chicken-reptile, which then goes on a rampage-- an exceedingly cheap rampage, with inferior visual effects and miniatures. Is the creature the tool in an alien conquest-plot? No one seems interested in the matter.  After the monster has rampaged for a while, Sano's team isolates an element from the detritus that birthed the monster. Just like Lex Luthor could synthesize kryptonite, the Japanese manage to synthesize "Guilalanium," which has a kryptonite-like effect on Guilala. The monster, after being coated by what must be tons and tons of white Guilalanium foam, shrinks back to spore-size, and the humans send it back into space.




MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET doesn't have a plot that's any more complex than that of X. However, even if its visual effects had been on the same low level as those of X-- which they aren't-- MONSTER plays fair with its simple story, and delivers a giant-monster tale with a little bit of heart.

I suspect MONSTER had a higher budget, since the director allows for a number of engaging shots even at the beginning, while the protagonists-- a Japanese exploring group, combining both scientists and reporters-- are simply riding in their chartered boat. The comedy-relief guy sees a shining UFO flash through the sky, but of course, he's the only one, so no one believes him.

The explorers have been hired by Japanese businessman Funazu to scout Obelisk Island. Funazu plans to find some way to dispossess the island's natives in order to remake the island into a tourist-trap. The explorers-- primarily represented by scientist Hiroshi, reporter Daize and lady photographer Itoko-- don't initially worry too much about their role in this dicey plot, so it's not clear how much they know about the tourist-project in advance. However, they end up committing a similar act of imperial aggression all on their own.

The natives are happy to meet the explorers, having had some previous contact with Japanese people, though it's never clear what that contact was. There are a few seismic rumblings, and the explorers attribute these to the local volcano, though a young native boy claims that the shocks are caused by "Gappa."  The curious explorers trespass on the cave-temple of Gappa, assuming that he's merely some non-existent local god. Within the cave, they find giant dinosaur bones and a giant egg. Hiroshi jumps to the erroneous conclusion that the bones belong to a mother dinosaur, whose only legacy is the egg. When the egg hatches, disclosing a bird-reptile, the explorers decide to take the creature with them. Hiroshi wants to use it for experimental biology, Daize wants a good story, and Funazu wants to exhibit the monster in the time-approved Carl Denham manner. Only Itoko feels squeamish about taking the creature away from its habitat, though neither of the Japanese males listen to her. While the three characters are merely stereotypes, the script attempts to ground them in reality with some reasonably lively dialogue.

The creature not only grows to small-dinosaur proportions, it's pursued by its two larger parents, twin bird-creatures who fly all the way to Japan from Obelisk Island. Even when it becomes clear that the twin monsters are seeking to recover their offspring, Funazu doesn't want to give up the creature. Granted, this sort of satire was better done by MOTHRA. But MONSTER has its heart in the right place.The ending is somewhat predictable, but in a pleasing manner if one isn't too demanding.

Strangely, after the demise of Nikkatsu Studios in the 1990s, Shokichi announced a crossover film that would have starred both Guilala and at least one of the Gappa-monsters.  I for one am just as glad no such film ever came to be.





COUNT DRACULA (1970)



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


At the beginning of Jess Franco's COUNT DRACULA there's a short intro that claims that the film will adapt Bram Stoker's novel "exactly" as written. Perhaps it's not surprising that filmmakers would fib for the sake of publicity, but I'm amazed that a few fan-critics have agreed with this assertion.  For the record, COUNT DRACULA may use more of the novel's plot structure than either the 1931 classic or 1958's HORROR OF DRACULA.  But the Franco version is just as cavalier about condensing or switching around characters-- to less good effect than those previous Stoker-adaptations.

Like the majority of the films in the Hammer Studios "Dracula" series, the king-vampire is played by Christopher Lee. Lee sometimes phoned in the Dracula role in some of the lesser Hammer entries, and aside from the actor's opening scenes, COUNT DRACULA is about on the level of weak efforts like DRACULA A.D. 1972. The opening scenes also display director Franco using his much-loved zoom lens to best effect, to capture the eerie tension of Jonathan Harker's journey to Castle Dracula.  But it's all downhill after this.

One of the few changes that resonates well is that after Jonathan Harker escapes the castle, he's found by Transylvanian authorities and shipped back to his native England-- but because he makes the mistake of telling his fantastic story, Harker ends up in an asylum; the same one that, in the novel, just happens to be within spitting-distance of Dracula's English hideaway.  In addition, Dracula's nemesis Van Helsing (Herbert Lom), who in the novel is called in for a consultation, is the asylum's administrator, while Doctor Seward, who held that post in the novel, is demoted to a staff physician, whose role is largely confined to his interaction with the inmate Renfield.

The two friends Mina and Lucy are still in the story, and Mina is at least still affianced to Harker, in contrast to the turnabout of the girls' roles in HORROR OF DRACULA.  Lucy, however, does not have three suitors; Arthur Holmwood is written out and Quincey Morris is Lucy's bethrothed. Van Helsing does not initially seem to believe Harker's story, but he comes around quickly when Lucy Westenra begins to suffer a mysterious blood-loss.

One of the most interesting twists-- one which could have been exploited to good effect-- is that Van Helsing recognizes the vampire phenomenon because he's been researching black magic for years. Why? Because he became interested in the subject after Renfield (Klaus Kinski) became his patient. This version of Renfield, unlike the one from the novel, has been to Transylvania like the Renfield of the 1931 film. But this Renfield, who traveled in the company of his daughter, was simply a victim of the vampire's predations: the daughter died-- or possibly became one of Dracula's wives-- and Renfield went insane. Renfield doesn't really have much to do in Franco's tale: as in the novel Mina tries to reach out to him, but the madman almost strangles her. But I can imagine a situation in which Van Helsing might have been more involved in treating Renfield, perhaps using him to track down the vampire-lord.

Unfortunately, even though Franco selects a handful of scenes from the novel, none of them maintain much tension. The actors are partly to blame, for most of them, aside from Herbert Lom, give bland performances-- but not even the best actor could pull off Franco's most idiotic scene. In it, three of Van Helsing' vampire hunters-- Seward, Morris, and Harker-- invade Dracula's lair, where his coffin is guarded by-- a bunch of stuffed animals? I guess Franco envied the novel's ability to have the villain conjure up troops of wolves or rats at a moment's notice, and since the director's budget didn't allow for such spectacle, he decided to go with a bunch of taxidermy victims. I don't even think the scene even works as self-indulgent cinema.

As in the novel the vampire flees England for Transylvania, and his hunters pursue him. Franco doesn't come anywhere near the excitement of the final confrontation, either in the novel or in superior renditions like BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA. The hunters' defeat of Dracula's gypsy minions and their execution of the vampire are both listless affairs, so that unlike the novel and some of its translations, COUNT DRACULA proves to be a work in the subcombative mode.



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

THE PSYCHOPATH (1966), THE PREMATURE BURIAL (1962)



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


In reading up on STRAIT-JACKET, I often saw it described as a "B-movie."  In terms of the film's production values, I don't doubt that it qualifies. However, a number of reviewers used the term to connote "something you don't expect to be good in the first place."  As I would hope my review made clear, I think the film had some though not all of the same symbolic resonance as its partial model PSYCHO, making it better than a huge number of more expensive "A" pictures.

Freddie Francis' 1966 PSYCHOPATH is closer to being a B-picture that justifies that putdown. Like JACKET it's made on a budget, and PSYCHOPATH also presents only two viable suspects for a rash of serial murders. But there really isn't much to the story beyond watching the murders unfold while slow-moving Inspector Holloway (Patrick Wymark) takes his time to investigate.

At the first crime-scene the murderer leaves a doll made in the image of the victim. Holloway finds his way to the friends of the victim, all of whom were members of a German war crimes commission. The inspector's investigation of the doll leads him to a dotty old woman, Mrs. Von Sturm (Margaret Johnson) and her protective adult son Mark. Mrs, Von Sturm's house is filled with dolls, making it pretty obvious that either she or her son is the killer, but Holloway takes no action to have them or their house watched by London cops.  The old lady may seem the less likely candidate as she's confined to a wheelchair, but Holloway's interview with her doctor establishes that her injury is only psychological and thus not a real alibi at all. The howling obviousness of this declaration makes it hard to believe that it was written by the same Robert Bloch who penned STRAIT-JACKET two years previous.

The reason for Holloway's phlegmatic detection is obvious as well: it's suggested early on that the four men targeted were indirectly responsible for causing the death of a man they sent to prison, the husband of Mrs. Von Sturm. Thus the audience is given every reason to want to see them knocked off.  Each death at least uses a different tool-- a noose, a blowtorch, etc.-- though none of the murder-methods are exotic enough to have raised the blush of envy on Dario Argento's cheek.

The one psychological touch that is interesting-- and goes undeveloped-- is a parallel between Mark, dominated by his clingy, maybe-crippled mother, and the innocent female viewpoint-character Louise, who's similarly under the thumb of a parent: her father, who tries to discourage her marriage to a suitable young man. But Bloch and director Francis leave this kernel unpopped. If one doesn't guess the murderer after the doctor's declaration, one would have to be pretty dense not to get it when the killer cuts down one victim not associated with the German commission: a pretty young girl who makes the mistake of showing interest in Mark Von Sturm.




Roger Corman's THE PREMATURE BURIAL looks a lot more opulent than PSYCHOPATH, but it's even less well-developed in terms of narrative and symbolism.  Although scripters Ray Russell and Charles Beaumont are renowned for a respectable number of quality metaphenomenal works in film and television, BURIAL seems to be nothing more than a sterile regurgitation of narrative tropes borrowed from the Corman-Matheson Poe-film from the previous year, PIT AND THE PENDULUM.


Matheson's script, which had nearly nothing to do with the original Poe story, focused on a central character, played by Vincent Price, who was consumed and destroyed by his heritage, in part due to a conniving wife. The Beaumont-Russell script at least bears a thematic resemblance to Poe's "Burial" story, in that Poe's protagonist has to overcome his morbid fear of being buried alive. BURIAL's Guy Carrell (Ray MIlland) has a similar meaningful epiphany, but it occurs in the middle of the film when he thinks he's put his irrational fear behind him. In contrast to the prose-character, who overcomes his fear after being comically embarrassed, Carrell transcends his fear with the help of an apparently loyal wife.  Then, of course, there begin all the "phantasmal figurations" that are meant to send him to his doom, but end up backfiring on the plotters-- just like in PIT AND THE PENDULUM.

Some reviewers have wished that Vincent Price could have essayed the role of Carrell, but I think it would have made the resemblances to PENDULUM all the more glaring. Milland is perfectly fine in the role, bringing what I'll term a "calm twitchiness" to the part, in contrast to Price's stylized seriousness.  Milland is particularly good in the film's best scene, where Carrell outlines to his horrified listeners the many devices in his custom-built burial vault-- devices to keep him alive if he should be buried while still technically alive-- and one device he can use to meet death quickly, if no one comes to rescue him. Daniel Haller's art direction makes BURIAL look great, though I imagine the penny-pinching Corman didn't spend a dime more than he had to. Fortunately, Beaumont would do much better in Corman's later Poe-outings, HAUNTED PALACE and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, while Corman, Russell and Milland would enjoy a solid, non-derivative winner with 1963's X-THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES.

In passing I'll note that the role of the sister, who doesn't want her brother to marry Hazel Court's character, suggested to me a slight incest-vibe. But even if this was intentional, it remained undeveloped.

Monday, October 13, 2014

STRAIT-JACKET (1964)




PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

In my review for the Joan Crawford psycho-film BERSERK! I wrote:

Though there are some perceptive psychological motifs scattered throughout the Herman Cohen-Aben Kandel script for BERSERK, I can't help feeling that if they'd been doing this script in college we'd have witnessed them peeking over Robert Bloch's shoulder to read his notes for STRAIT-JACKET (1964).
Upon re-viewing JACKET, though, I have to add that Bloch's notes for that film would have had another previous source: that of his own 1959 book PSYCHO. This book, rather famously adapted to film by director Alfred Hitchcock and scripter Joseph Stefano, set the tone for the majority of the "perilous psycho" films of the 1960s.

The producers of both STRAIT-JACKET and BERSERK-- respectively William Castle and Herman Cohen-- were both showmen just as Hitchcock was. The great difference, though, was that Hitchcock usually chose scripts that were tight and at least apparently logical, while the other two preferred scripts built, almost transparently, around gimmicks. STRAIT-JACKET is the exception to the rule in William Castle's films, but any quality in the film arises predominantly from Robert Bloch's script.

As many horror-fans know, Castle had dipped his bucket in the PSYCHO well earlier, as he produced and directed a knockoff, HOMICIDAL, which appeared a year subsequent to Hitchcock's big success. HOMICIDAL has its moments, but it's not nearly as well organized as Bloch's script for JACKET-- which in turn, recycles many of the elements of Bloch's PSYCHO novel.  I don't suppose Bloch thought he'd duplicate the success of the Hitchcock film by collaborating with Castle, but JACKET is a much more layered script than one sees in most Castle movies-- or, for that matter, in most of Bloch's later screenplays.

If any readers ignored the spoiler warning, too bad, because right off I'm revealing that the daughter did it. Even though this is a Joan Crawford film-- sold as one of the "horror hag" movies more or less initiated in the 1960s by WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE-- the character central to the narrative is not Crawford's Lucy Harbin, but her daughter Carol (Diane Baker)-- who functions in part as Bloch's "female Norman Bates." I don't remember if I guessed "the real killer" in my first viewing of JACKET, but in retrospect there are no other suspects for the film's murders: one either believes that Lucy did it, or figures out that it's really her solicitous daughter. PSYCHO, the story of a boy's unhealthy obsession with his mother, diverted the audience's suspicions from Norman by creating the illusion of a vicious old knife-wielding biddy. JACKET focuses on a girl's unhealthy preoccupation with her mother, but Carol is never as twitchy as Norman, and usually seems to be a model of daughterly concern-- though some of her innocuous lines take on new meaning following the Big Reveal.

Norman's poisoning of his mother and her lover-- not seen on camera, and only recreated through dialogue--  has been interpreted by some critics as a violent reaction to the Freudian primal scene, every young boy or girl's first exposure to seeing Mommy and Daddy make the beast with two backs. Bloch's script puts JACKET's scene of primal-sex-and-violence right up front. Lucy, a low-income farm-woman, finds her husband in bed with another woman, picks up an axe, and chops them both to death. But this time a fourth person witnesses the transgression: grade-schooler Carol witnesses the murder of her father by her mother, in some ways becoming merged with the "eye" of the audience. Whereas the story of Ed Gein informed PSYCHO, JACKET's roots are in the story of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of killing both her father and stepmother with an axe. Bloch makes this evident by reworking the famed "Lizzie Borden took an axe" doggerel and inserting Lucy Harbin's name into the song.  Of course, Borden was acquitted by the law, if not by folklore, while the film's viewer never doubts that Lucy kills in rage at her husband's infidelity. When the film concludes, it will be Carol who has the closer resemblance to Borden, having been focused on killing a mother and a father-- though not her own.

Lucy is found guilty of manslaughter and condemned to an asylum for the next twenty years. During this time Carol is raised by her uncle Bill (brother to Lucy) and his wife Emily, who like Lucy and her barely seen husband are also low-income farm-folk. So Carol doesn't take a step down in terms of her economic situation, but at some point in her fictional life-- perhaps because she's mercilessly teased by schoolmates for being a murderess' daughter-- Carol decides to marry up by romancing Michael Fields, a scion of the upper crust. Michael's parents are a problem, though. Mister Fields is not entirely hostile-- in one scene he flirts jokingly with Carol, claiming "it's all in the family"-- but Mrs. Fields doesn't want the daughter of an axe murderer in the family.

Lucy's release sets up Carol's plot: while not realistic on the face of things, it is at least "apparently logical" in film-thriller terms. Carol gaslights her mother to make her uncertain that she's truly been cured, and designs a mask that will make observers (the audience?) think that Lucy has killed the Fields. But before Carol can even get to her real targets, she's forced to kill two men who pose a threat to her elaborate scheme-- one being Lucy's psychiatrist from the asylum, the other being farm-hand Leo, a sort of stereotypical "white trash" hick who represents the nightmare of low-income origins.

One of Bloch's best twists on his PSYCHO-plot revolves around Carol's Pygmalion-like efforts to build Lucy into a credible killer. Norman Bates' efforts to simulate his mother's continued existence fool no one but himself, but Carol is playing to a bigger audience. When Lucy is released into the real world, she looks like no sort of threat: she's a fragile, dowdy old woman. Carol actually re-models her aged mother to make her look as much as possible like the Lucy who killed Carol's father, with a flashy dress and a big black wig, not unlike Carol's hair. Carol succeeds so well in this makeover that Lucy comes on to Michael right in front of Carol's eyes. This scene probably does a lot to convince audience-members who expect Crawford's character to go axe-happy.

Other PSYCHO-references abound: edged objects like knives, axes and even knitting-needles appear not just to puncture things, but also to punctuate the narrative. Wigs and sculpted busts constantly remind the audience of the image of the severed head seen at the opening-- and may be Bloch having some fun with a Norman-motif that didn't appear in Hitchcock's film: the fact that Norman wasn't just a stabber, but also a head-chopper.  Yet all of these images, so often stage-managed by Carol, raise the question: is Carol really acting for sheer gain, or is she recapitulating these images as a sort of repetition-compulsion?

Interestingly Carol doesn't say much if anything about her murdered father; she certainly isn't committing murder because she lost her daddy, like the female psycho of 1971's BLOOD AND LACE.  And though Carol's real opponent is another woman, Mrs. Fields, whom she does plan to kill, Carol only ends up slaying males, her third and last victim being the blandly unassuming Mr. Fields. Carol may well be the first female psycho-killer who executes only male victims, even though she does plan to kill one woman and frame another.

Norman Bates kills his mother and her lover, and then kills women who remind him of his mother. Carol builds up her mother in order to destroy her-- but Carol can only do this by "becoming" her mother, by taking on the image of a violent, trashily-dressed slattern. It's in this guise that Carol is thwarted from killing Mrs. Fields when Lucy intrudes by accident and wrestles away Carol's weapon. Carol's last scene shows her pounding her fists on the mask she made of Lucy's face, alternately crying out both hatred and love for her mother. Carol may even show more ambivalence than Norman, given that in a sense Lucy's husband betrays not only Lucy, but also his daughter, by sleeping around. On some subconscious level Carol may admire Lucy's fearsome use of force, rather like the "daughter of the Ripper" from HANDS OF THE RIPPER, who walks in on Daddy murdering Mommy and decides she'd rather be more like a live Daddy than a dead Mommy.

Like PSYCHO, JACKET ends on a downbeat summing-up scene, but lacks the powerful final image of the Hitchcock film. Strangely, the title really doesn't take on much meaning either in a literal or figurative sense. There's a scene or two in which Crawford's Lucy is seen in an asylum strait-jacket, but this may have been nothing but a marketing-strategy, intended to sell the film with something that had "madness assocations."




Monday, October 6, 2014

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (2014)



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

Frank Miller's second venture into Grecian formulas-- entitled XERXES--  has not yet been published, so it's impossible to tell whether or not its film adaptation, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, follows it closely or not.  While I was not a huge fan of the original 2006 film, I had to admit that it had a certain "feverish" power, full of wild fantasies of freakish flesh and racial transgression. Since RISE lacks this visual inventiveness-- which is generally present even in Miller's worst work-- I speculate that the filmmakers may have had to fill in a lot of holes in the narrative. Script and production were provided by Zach Synder, director of the original film, but actual directing chores devolved to one Noam Murro.

The film is based upon two crucial battles in the history of archaic Greek-Persian relations: the Battle of Marathon and the ten-years-later Battle of Salamis. As other critics have pointed out, RISE is in no way historically accurate regarding either battle, but that in itself is no criterion for judging the film's value as art.

Much of the symbolic power of the first 300 arose from tapping into political myths about the masculinity of the West vs. "the demi-femininity" (as I term it) of the East. Miller's fierce and uncompromising Spartans became the very incarnation of masculine power. But RISE, presumably in line with the unpublished graphic novel, chooses to investigate a less extreme representative of Hellenic culture: Themistocles, an Athenian general, who in the real world was justly famed for his leadership both at Marathon and Salamis.

Miller's fantasy-version of the Persian king Xerxes-- an eight-foot-tall Black African covered with body-piercings-- is the brains behind the assault on Salamis, just as he was in 300's assault on Thermopylae.  This time, possibly in answer to the many criticisms of Miller's having made the Persian overlord look distinctly un-Persian, the script for RISE provides a hypothetical reply. In youth Xerxes looks like any other Persian noble, but it is strongly suggested that he undergoes his transformation into Big Black Pierced Dude as a result of making a deal with unspecified dark powers.  This might open the narrative up to mythic associations between the East and the Judeo-Christian underworld, but since that concept goes nowhere, it's more likely that no one was thinking of anything more profound than a "continuity fix."

Xerxes, however, remains in the background far more than in the 2006 film, for the central villain is the female warrior Artemisia. In a rare combiation of tropes, she is both the evil genius who foments Xerxes' conversion to inhumanity-- she not only encourages his transformation but also kills all the lord's other advisers-- and his general on the field of battle.  Whereas Xerxes is a huge male who projects an air of effiminacy, Artemisia is a beautiful woman who proves herself adept at battle and leadership. She's also Greek by birth, but has turned against her people because in her youth Greek soldiers sold her as a sex-slave. A Persian general saved her from that degrading status, and trained her in the masculine arts of combat.

Like Themistocles, Artemisia is based upon a historical female battle-commander. But for the sake of a good story, the two of them are opposed romantically as well as combatively. During a conference between the two generals, Artemisia takes a fancy to the Athenian and tries to convert him to her dream of Persian supremacy. Like many heroes before him, Themistocles is devoted to the dream of democracy and refuses to switch sides-- though unlike most of those heroes, Themistocles does allow himself a quick fuck with the lady general *before* he turns her down.  This naturally leads to a bloody duel between the two during the climactic naval battle, and the best line of the film: the Athenian general strikes Artemisia during their duel, and she remarks, "You hit harder than you fuck!"

The metaphenomenal content of RISE is far less emphasized than in the original 300: Xerxes' possibly-Satanic transformation is the only uncanny aspect of the Evil Orientals. The samurai-masked "immortals" from the first film appear in RISE, but to far less effect, though they do qualify the film for the "outre outfits" trope.

Friday, October 3, 2014

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1978)



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


The job of the actor is not enviable. On one hand, to survive in "show business" one must believe passionately that one has something worth showing, enough that others should be willing to pay for the privilege of seeing the show. On the other hand, the actor must be willing, for the most part, to subsume his or her own personality into that of characters created to serve specific effects in stories that are greater than any single actor's contribution to it.

I said "for the most part" because every once in a while I encounter a film that looks like as if everyone involved just decided to have a high old time, regardless as to how much they might be entertaining the audience. One such film is the 1991 film THE MARRYING MAN, which seemed to be devoted to showing how much fun it was for Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin to be humping one another.  Yet that film is a work of genius next to Paul Morrissey's 1978 HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.

The famous Conan Doyle story is so familiar that it certainly has rich potential for a comic take-off. Yet, even though the script-- for which Morrissey shares credit with stars Peter Cook and Dudley Moore-- shows a strong familiarity with the Doyle original, the writers neglect to translate the rich original drama into rich comedy. Instead, what one gets is a series of aimless, unfunny skits. I can toss out all manner of possible reasons as to why the script turned out so poorly. Maybe Cook and Moore couldn't work well playing off a set script, being better suited to approach a looser structure, like the "devil's bargain" trope that informs their best film-script, 1967's BEDAZZLED. Or maybe they thought they had to compete with the wilder excesses of Monty Python, which had scored a big box-office three years before with MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL.

Yet the impression I take away from HOUND-- admittedly, the cut American version-- is that of a bunch of actors having fun doing goofy routines without much rhyme or reason-- and certainly without any concern for entertaining an audience. For instance, the film fiddles around with a seance at Baskerville Hall-- a scene created for the 1939 HOUND adaptation-- but instead of doing the utmost to get comic effect out of a seance, the film veers into EXORCIST territory, roughly five years after that film was on peoples' minds.  This scene barely relates to the plot at all, but it does make the 1978 HOUND one of the few adaptations that actually has a supernatural entity in it, making it "marvelous" in phenomenality though not in quality.

Once or twice there are slight suggestions of content that might have been played to good effect, as when Sir Baskerville talks about all the "strange couples" that are either at Baskerville Hall or in neighboring abodes.  A good comic take on HOUND could've built this into a poke at the tendency of "old dark mansion" stories to be freighted with loads of dysfunctional couples.  But it's just a throwaway line. The only thing I enjoyed in the whole tedious flick was a scene in which busty Dana Gillespie (seen above) gets Dudley Moore in a boob-alicious headlock-- and that was a pretty lousy pay-off for eighty minutes I'll never get back.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

THE MONSTER AND THE APE (1945), THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL (1941)



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


Here's a pair of ape-horror films from the forties, although the first of these, a 1945 Columbia serial, also shares time with a "monster," i.e., the robot seen above, known as "the Metalogen Man."

THE MONSTER AND THE APE (henceforth just "APE") is something of a switch-around with a long established serial-trope. Many SF-oriented serials of the 1930s and 1940s displayed a fascination with big clunky robots. Such primitive effects were probably not especially expensive, beyond the original design of  each robot, given that they were all men in suits, but I would guess that they were time-consuming to film. That may be the reason why in most SF-serials-- including this one-- the robot is used sparingly.  However, long-time western director Howard Bretherton and his scripters-- both of whom had worked on many more serials than Bretheron had-- found a way to give their juvenile patrons a little more bang for the buck: they gave their villain a trained ape. Thus the evil Doctor Ernst --surely one of the least imposing villain-names in serials-- has one inhuman servant already working for him while he strives to steal another one, the Metalogen Man, from its creators.

Like many scientists of this period the robot's creators have altruistic motives: they want their Metalogen Man to liberate humankind from hard labor. Doctor Ernst wants the Metalogen Man for criminal purposes, and early in APE he claims to be one of its inventors, though the script drops that particular ball later on. After Ernst has his killer gorilla Thor (Ray Corrigan) knock off most of the robot's makers, the surviving scientist Dr. Arnold and his daughter Babs call in an engineer from another foundation-- Ken Morgan, who for all intents and purposes acts like your basic cop/ FBI bloodhound.  The plot is driven the same way most serials are: "find a vital part for the robot," "find a source of energy for the robot," and so on.

Often the villain outshines the hero in serials, but not here. Though George Macready would prove a highly watchable performer in other films, he's merely efficient as a robot-stealing mad scientist, lacking the intensity of Eduardo Cianelli playing a similar fiend in 1940's MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN. Nevertheless, he's clearly more the narrative focus than the bland Morgan (Robert Lowery of BATMAN fame). Lowery acquits himself well in the serial's numerous punch-ups, and he plays almost a lone hand, with only minor assistance from Arnold, his daughter, and his black chauffeur/comedy relief Flash.

Flash, essayed by Willie Best, is just about the only reason I rated the symbolism of this well-shot but routine adventure-serial as "fair" rather than "poor."  Best didn't regularly do serials, and although many of his routines conform to the general outline of the "scaredycat Negro" popular at the time, I see some evidence that he may have interpolated some bits of business that he originated, since said bits don't resemble much of anything in the other serials by the credited scripters. "Flash," of course, is an ironic reference to the notion that black people are all lazy, but the character does show a modicum of gumption. In an early chapter Morgan has Flash drive him to the crooks' suspected hideout, and leaves the chauffeur outside while he, the two-fisted engineer, investigates.  Morgan of course gets into a fight with the hoods, wrestling with one over a pistol. When the gun goes off, Flash reluctantly goes to Morgan's aid, wielding that stereotypical "Negro weapon," a straight-razor. He and Morgan are knocked out and left behind, but things work out so that the local cops check out the scene and find only Flash with his razor.  Later he complains about being grilled by the cops, making one wonder why none of the heroes found time to go bail him out.  Also, though Flash is skittish of the robot, and jumps whenever he thinks it moves, he does gain a little skill in operating it-- though his triumph is dimmed when Ernst takes over the robot by remote control.



THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL (henceforth "GIRL") is a more dramatic,er, bunch of bananas. Moreover, the "monster" of the title isn't just an ordinary trained ape like the one from the serial.

He starts as an ordinary man, Scot Webster, protesting his innocence at a murder trial. He won't give the court the full story, though, so his sister Susan steps forward. In a rather complicated scenario, Susan was suckered into a criminal life (implicitly, a sort of white-slavery prostitution racket) by a heartbreaker who romanced her and turned her over to his cronies. Scot gets in the faces of the racketeers, and they, rather than just killing him and dumping the body, elect to follow a more complicated scheme, framing Scot for murder. The jury doesn't believe Susan's impassioned narrative and sentences Scot to death.

However, though Scot goes to Death Row, he receives succor from an unlikely source: quirky scientist Doctor Parry (genre fave George Zucco). Parry can't save Scot's body, but he'll preserve his brain after death, by sticking it in the body of a gorilla. Scot doesn't get much of an explanation as to what sort of experimental evidence this is supposed to yield, but with the "undiscovered country" staring him in the face, he gives the mad doctor permission.

The results are better than Scot could have hoped: the transplant succeeds, and Scot finds himself in a body of a powerful, agile primate. Scot escapes Parry and goes on a rampage, using his inhuman strength and skill to seek out the racketeers and execute them one by one.  I should note that the actor in the gorilla suit, Charles Gemora, gives a particular pathos to his performance that's rarely seen in "man-in-gorilla-suit" films.

While the film's first half feels like a downbeat film noir, the second half takes unquestioned joy in seeing each of the scumbags tracked down and snuffed out by their nemesis.  To provide continuity with his old life, Gorilla-Scot is recognized not by his sister Susan but by his little dog, who provides a mute Greek chorus, accompanying the ape-monster until the final confrontation, when Scot destroys his last targets but pays the tragic price. The dog's final reaction is expected, and yet effective because the script keeps the canine's interactions with the ape-man minimal.

Just to touch on the film's psychological content: the idea of a small-town girl being "ruined" by a city-slicker and avenged by her loving brother has always suggested Freudian overtones to me, as if to suggest that she errs by getting too far from kith and kin. GIRL solves the possible brother-sister incest-angle by bringing in a more respectable suitor for Susan: a newspaper reporter covering the murder trial, who befriends Susan and remains with her despite her checkered past.