Monday, December 28, 2015

HERCULES IN NEW YORK (1969)



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

I panned the hell out of the script for 1953's THE NEANDERTHAL MAN, which was particularly bad considering that the same writing-team, Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen, produced THE MAN FROM PLANET X in 1951.

HERCULES IN NEW YORK, solely credited to Wisberg (his last such credit), is far worse than NEANDERTHAL MAN. Yet I must admit that HERCULES is superior to the earlier film in one respect. Since NEANDERTHAL appeared during the height of the 1950s SF-craze, its "Doctor Jekyll and Mister Caveman" storyline might have had some potential to be good.

In contrast, there was almost no chance that a comedy about the demigod Hercules descending to Earth would be any good at the time when it showed up on theater-screens. Despite the fake movie poster seen in the still above, Italian muscle-hero films had fallen out of favor by 1969, and I'd be surprised if any of these creaky epics had appeared in theaters during the five years previous.

NEW YORK is even cheaper and creakier than the Italian muscleman films, and is remembered today only as an early role for Arnold Schwarzenegger, over ten years away from his breakout success with 1982's CONAN. At the time Arnold's only fame stemmed from winning a "Mister Universe" contest, and he's billed here as "Arnold Strong," probably as a play on the name of his co-star Arnold Stang. In addition, because his Austrian accent was deemed overly thick, Arnold is sometimes dubbed over.

Centuries have passed since the days when the Greek gods were worshiped. Yet for some reason, when 1969 rolls around, the demigod Hercules, who's apparently been tooling around the halls of Olympus with the other gods throughout those centuries, gets the idea that he wants to visit Earth again. I'd be a little curious as to where Wisberg got his basic plot, since it seems to me that I've encountered earlier stories where Hercules harbored the same wish, and got the same negative reaction from Big Daddy Zeus, who wants his son to stay put. However, this Zeus is particularly dumb, for when Hercules annoys Zeus with a lot of whinging, the god-king zaps Herc with a thunderbolt. (It looks like a jagged pipe-cleaner, by the bye.) The effect is to dump Hercules down on Earth (technically, in the ocean near New York). This might seem to be a classic reprise of the old "don't throw me in the briar patch" schtick, except that Herc doesn't expect the result and Zeus barely comments on his goof. Once Herc is on Earth, Zeus just pettishly watches for a while from his cloud. So does his wife Juno, who still resents Hercules as being the fruit of some other woman's loins after Zeus did some planting therein.

For a while the Olympians watch from beyond while Hercules makes his way to New York. Though the Greek hero magically speaks English, he doesn't understand Thing One about American customs. Enter Stang's character "Pretzie," playing a basic 98-pound weakling, who guides Herc through the rigors of modern life. Surprisingly little is made of the physical disparity between the "two Arnolds." Less surprising is the script's inability to provide any reason why Pretzie befriends Hercules, who acts as if everyone should know him on sight as the Son of Zeus, and who repeatedly clobbers anyone who doesn't show him the proper deference. Maybe Wisberg's idea was that Herc represented a fantasy-ideal to Pretzie, doing the kind of things Pretzie would like to do-- which is about as psychological as this lame film gets.

Once the two Arnolds have teamed up, Herc's muscles get them into the Big Time, earning the Greek muscleman accolades for athletic accomplishment. He also gets noticed by some gangster-types, who force Pretzie to sell them Herc's contract, though the audience barely sees Herc doing much of anything by which a gangster might make money. Mostly the hero keeps butting heads with confused New Yorkers-- including a bear escaped from the zoo-- until Daddy Zeus has had enough.

Zeus orders Nemesis to execute his will; to consign Herc to the deathly realm of Pluto. This sounds like filicide, but apparently it's just a temporary punishment. Juno, however, wants Herc dead for real, so she persuades Nemesis to slip the hero a mickey to remove his super-strength. Herc loses his strength at a critical moment and costs his gangster-bosses some dough. So then it's a race, if you can call it that, to see whether Herc gets killed by the crooks before his Big Daddy can give Herc back his godly strength.

In addition to being entirely predictable, the ending is flat and without much emotional effect. I can only imagine this film being popular with filmgoers who hate Arnold Schwarzenegger, because it's nearly the only film where one can see Arnold beat down to the ground by a bunch of ordinary-looking schnooks.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

ROLLERBALL (1975)



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


The original ROLLERBALL was the first of director Norman Jewison's very rare metaphenomenal films, and like many science-fiction flicks of the time, this one depicted the future in terms that would make audiences dread to face the next day, if they actually believed the future would turn so badly. I suspect that only the prospect of turning out a meditative critique of society lured Jewison to a project so unlike anything he'd directed before.

Scripted by William Neal Harrison from his own short story (which I have not read), ROLLERBALL follows the general example of Orwell's 1984, positing a near-total takeover of all government entities by a corporate state. Most citizens seem OK with the change, and any instinct toward rebellion seems to have been almost totally quelled by the various corporations' implementation of the game of "Rollerball." The sport is essentially a much more violent version of roller derby, with the addition of motorcycle-riding combatants to the derby-ring, and the foremost practitioner of Rollerball is Jonathan E. (James Caan), who plays for a corporation based in Houston.

The idea that a fascist state might control the masses by offering them "bread and circuses" in the form of blood-sports was nothing new. A very campy adaptation of Robert Sheckley's "The Seventh Victim" had appeared in 1965, but the Jewison-Harrison film takes a much more dour vision of its Orwellian future-- though allowing for a bit more hope than 1984.

Like countless fictional Roman gladiators, Jonathan E. becomes exceedingly popular with the audiences watching Rollerball-- so much so that he becomes for them a symbol of resistance to the powers that be. The corporations had intended audiences to come to the exact opposite conclusion-- that the team-focused endeavors of the players would actually discourage individual initiative on the part of the viewers. But Jonathan's superior talent, as well as his selfless devotion to his team, soon shows the corporate reps the error of their ways.

Again, like the fictional gladiators, Jonathan cannot be simply disposed of. One of Jonathan's corporate bosses encourages Jonathan to retire for the benefit of the companies, but the player doesn't want to leave his team. The corporations are much less given to random violence than those dominating the worldscape of Orwell-- long sections of the film deal with Jonathan simply mulling over his owners' demands-- but by the climax, the overlords have decided to eliminate all resistance by upping its potential for bloodsport.

There are some decent lines in ROLLERBALL's script, mostly dealing, very seriously, with the character's unwillingness to sacrifice his soul on the altar of convenience and comfort. Still, Jonathan is rather underwritten and doesn't generate much charisma when he's not battling in the ring, and despite some decent insights, the project doesn't gell nearly as well as other SF films about the demands of the "sporting life"-- not least my personal favorite THE BLOOD OF HEROES.

The ending is moderately ambiguous but not especially compelling.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

ALLAN QUATERMAIN AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD (1987)



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

1985's KING SOLOMON'S MINES, the first entry in this two-film series, strayed quite far from the titular source-novel, unlike this more accurate 1937 adaptation. Yet I recall that the 1985 effort was at least "dumb fun" of the kind for which producers Golan and Globus became infamous.

ALLAN (whose full tite I won't deign to type more than once) is based on Rider Haggard's second-published novel, entitled simply ALLAN QUATERMAIN. I've not read this novel, but it does deal with a "lost city" of white people in Africa, as does the movie, though as thousands before me have written, the primary inspiration is the Indiana Jones film-franchise. I would not be surprised to learn that the white people of the novel, like those of the movie, ride herd on the local Black Africans, since Haggard used the same trope in his very next novel, SHE. I find it interesting that, as the still above shows, some of the black henchmen wear white hoods. This visual trope also appears in the 1937 film-adaptation of Haggard's first Quatermain book. Perhaps some scripter picked up the trope from that source and stuck it into the ALLAN screenplay simply because both films in the series were shot back-to-back.

To be sure, the only major action by one of the white-masked black guys takes place at the opening. Quatermain (Richard Chamberlain) is scheduled to depart from his beloved Africa for America, where he's to wed his spunky girlfriend from the first film, Jesse (Sharon Stone, who was apparently told to imitate the scream-happy female lead from the second Indiana Jones flick rather than Karen Allen in the first one). A half-dead explorer makes his way to Quatermain's door. This proves of intense interest to the hero because Quatermain's brother Robeson (named for one of the stars of the '37 film?) took part in the explorer's expedition to the legendary City of Gold. Though the explorer dies a little while later, he's managed to stay ahead of a white-masked assassin from Gold City, who's apparently been trying to make sure the explorer didn't tell nobody nothing. The henchman fights Quatermain and dies in a fall, so the hero decides that he can put off his marriage to his obnoxious intended and go looking for his brother.  After running off in a snit, Jesse later joins Quatermain's expedition, as do comic-relief Indian named Swarma (Robert Donner), fierce Zulu chief Umslopagus (James Earl Jones), and a handful of Black African red-shirts.

Though in the 1980s ALLAN was attacked for its use of colonialist-- and presumably racist-- elements, no Black African character gets treated as badly as the film's sole Indian character. While one may fairly expect comic-relief characters to be stupid, cowardly and greedy, Swarma isn't even moderately interesting as a character, like "Beni" from the 1999 MUMMY film; he's just a walking collection of cliches. Haggard's Zulu character Umslopagus is a different matter. He's arguably the first important Black African literary character to emerge from European fiction, and starred in his own Haggard-novel, the 1892 NADA THE LILY. James Earl Jones certainly had the moxie to render a high-quality version of the character. Unfortunately, the script gives Jones nothing but hackneyed lines and routine action-scenes. Later, when the expedition reaches the City of Gold, the Zulu does get to split a stone table with his massive axe, but that's his best scene in the film.

The expedition makes an extremely swift journey to the City, delayed only by a weird corridor that's been gimmicked-up to drop visitors into a chasm (this was the script's feeble attempt to emulate the suspenseful cave-exploration in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK). John Stanley's concordance claims that the explorers also meet "snake monsters," but I think these were meant to be naturalistic creatures; they're just represented by crummy-looking visual effects. Once the expedition reaches the City of Gold, Quartermain happily finds his brother, but he also learns that his brother's a threat to the sacrificial cult of high-priest "Agon" (a name with a Greek resonance, though no one else shares a Hellenic cognomen). Agon also has his own favorite "outre device:" a device he uses to dip his sacrificial victims into a lake of liquid gold.  He's horribly played by Henry Silva, who looks like he can't wait for his scenes to be done, and he receives assistance in his evil from Queen Sorias (Cassandra Peterson, who gets no lines in the film). There's also a good blonde queen to balance out the evil brunette one, but the audience doesn't get any backstory on the two queens, the provenance of the white colony in Africa, or how they came to worship lions (in the book, it's hippopotami). Agon enlists the traitorous Swarma to help him get rid of Quatermain and friends, all of which leads to a big, generally underwhelming battle-scene and the inevitable victory of the good guys.

One phenomenon at the climax comes close to evoking the supernatural. While a storm rages overhead, Quatermain, surrounded by Agon's men, climbs atop a giant lion's head statue made of gold, and then gets Umslopagus to toss him the big axe. Somehow the hero's hitting the lion's head draws the lightning from the storm overhead, and the energy-- represented as animated force-lines-- causes the statue-head to spew molten gold down upon the soldiers. Why Quatermain isn't electrocuted by all of this energy goes unexplained-- but the phenomenon seems to fall into the uncanny domain, specifically that of "exotic lands and customs."

MEN OF THE DRAGON (1974)




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

Some kind soul finally posted this moldy oldie on YouTube, so that I was finally able to see the whole film for the first time since its television debut forty years ago.  I remembered little about it except that it was nearly a beat-for-beat reprise of 1973's cinematic success ENTER THE DRAGON, and that leading lady Katie Saylor was more enjoyable to watch in her kung-fu scenes that her low-wattage co-stars, Jared Martin and Robert Ito.  I was curious, though, as to whether the telefilm had any of the touches that caused me to label ENTER as a film in the uncanny domain.

As in ENTER human trafficking plays a big part in the plot. Evildoer Balaslev (Joseph Wiseman, best known for his role as the title character of DOCTOR NO) maintains his own island where he processes abducted women for sale overseas. In contrast to ENTER's villain, this one's not involved in holding any martial-arts tournaments, nor is he a practitioner of the arts himself. Still, like the ENTER villain, Balaslev keeps around a small army of Asians clad in karate-gi get-ups, though their utility as guards seems dubious since none of them carry guns.

The heroes are brought into Balaslev's machinations in a very straightforward way. Martial artists Jan and Lisa Kimbro (Martin and Saylor) arrive in Hong Kong to visit their old training-buddy Li-Teh (Ito). Some of Balaslev's thugs spot blonde Lisa and decide she's prime stuff, so they wait until she's alone and kidnap her. Jan and Li-Teh go looking for her and find their way to Sexual Slavery Island (not really "white slavery," since most of the victims are Asian girls).

It's no less odd here than in ENTER to see a human-trafficking ring merged with a martial-arts dojo, but in neither movie does the villain's gang receive enough narrative emphasis that it would qualify as a "weird society" either in the naturalistic domain or in its uncanny counterpart. Balaslev doesn't use any super-villain-ish traps or weapons; and the closest he comes to an "outre device" is a drug that he uses to sap the wills of his slaves, including Lisa. But since roughly equivalent drugs exist in the present-day world, I have to view the will-sapping drug as naturalistic.

Though some viewers wondered if the telefilm might have been planned as a back-door pilot for a series, the script doesn't give the three principals any more background than is needed to explain why they're all martial-arts whizzes. None of the fights are particularly exciting, except a duel between two of the heroes. In Balaslev's only really memorable evil deed, he separates the captive Li-Teh and Jan, tells each of them that his buddy is dead, and then hoaxes them into fighting one another with their eyes covered.

There's not much in the way of sociological East-meets-West myths here. There's one moment in which a Chinese girl, implicitly Balaslev's favorite, becomes piqued when he seems to be bestowing his attention upon cute blonde Lisa. But one could easily blink and miss said moment. There's also a very odd scene in which Jan tries to give his aging martial-arts mentor advice on how to update his dojo for the modern age, and unfortunately that scene is both longer and more painful to sit through.

Monday, December 7, 2015

LOST IN SPACE (1998)





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

Someday some writer ought to do an in-depth study of the impact Tim Burton's 1989 BATMAN had on Hollywood of the nineties. Such a study would involve not just the sequels within the Bat-franchise, which came to a temporary end with 1997's BATMAN AND ROBIN. but also Hollywood films that sought, in one way or another, to imitate Burton's success in updating a comics/ television franchise-- including LOST IN SPACE.

Though the 1990s played host to many big-screen adaptations of small-screen TV-shows, LOST doesn't resemble most of these, be it the few good efforts (mostly, just the two ADDAMS FAMILY films) or the many forgettable flops. LOST feels more like an attempt by writer Akiva Goldsman to find a new home for the approach he'd used in both BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN AND ROBIN-- an approach that seems like a misapprehension about what made the Burton Batmans popular.

The essential merit of the two Burton Batman films is that although he and his collaborators have a lot of fun at the expense of the absurdities in the Bat-franchise, they show some degree of respect for how entertaining those absurdities were. In contrast, Goldsman and his Bat-director Joel Schumacher display only a snobbish contempt for the weirdness within the Bat-world, and so they tend to reduce said weirdness to pat psychological formulas. And I belabor all this Bat-film history because I see Goldsman taking the same approach with the LOST IN SPACE franchise, for all that it presents a world not at all like that of the DC Comics hero. 

For a sixties kid like myself, the original LOST IN SPACE was something of a "love it / hate it" item. Because the Irwin Allen production was on the whole aimed at children, the scripts fluctuated between evoking "childish wonder" and simply being childish-- that is, repeating ideas in a rote fashion, probably with the notion that kids didn't mind seeing the same ideas repeated ad nauseum. Unlike most of Allen's TV-productions, the original LOST IN SPACE utilized a great deal of wacky humor, and this has probably played a role in keeping the series popular with fans, just as the more ironic "camp" comedy of the BATMAN teleseries keeps it fresh for later generations. 

Goldsman, in concert with journeyman director Stephen (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5)
Hopkins, shows himself unable to either emulate the original LIS wackiness or to come up with his own signature brand of wit, as Burton had done in response to the 1960s Bat-series. Goldsman tediously recycles many of the familiar lines from the LOST teleseries-- the robot with his "Danger, Will Robinson;" Doctor Smith's catch-phrases "The pain-- the pain" and "Never fear; Smith is here." But whereas these fit into Irwin Allen's wacky, kid-friendly cosmos, they have no place in Goldsman's grim and joyless designs.

The opening gives the mission of the Jupiter 2 a heftier thematic burden than the spaceship had in the original series: anticipating the theme of the recent INTERSTELLAR, the Robinsons are seeking new venues so that humankind can escape an Earth diminished by centuries of misuse. But whereas INTERSTELLAR resolves the conflict it raises, it's a given that by the end of the 1998 film, the Robinsons have to remain "lost in space"-- and, had there been any further entries in the franchise, those films too would probably never have resolved the crisis on Earth-Goldsman. 

The idea of John and Maureen Robinson taking their kids along with them makes even less sense here than it did in the teleseries, for Goldsman portrays them as a dysfunctional family rather than as a clan of dedicated squares. Arguably, even though Goldsman makes de rigeur attempts to give the three female members more credibility as space-voyagers, Maureen, Penny and Judy are all of negligible importance to the plot, centered, as the series generally was, on the conflicts of dedicated scientist John Robinson, his inquisitive son Will, aggressive pilot Don West, and snarky accidental stowaway Doctor Zachary Smith.

Will probably gets the best treatment insofar as he isn't subjected to any facile psychological analysis, beyond resenting his dad's failure to attend his ball games and such. I'm at a loss to figure out what Goldsman was trying to accomplish with Robinson and West. This Don West isn't just a normal fellow with some temper-issues; he's an aggressive alpha-male lacking any semblance of charm or class, and played in an over-the-top manner by FRIENDS alumnus Matt LeBlanc. As if to compensate for the aggressiveness of the West character, Robinson is weirdly underwritten, as if he lacks any passion at all, even of the scientific kind. Once or twice Robinson and West butt heads over command issues, but such scenes are rendered implausible by Robinson's neutral characterization-- which the talented William Hurt underplays, perhaps hoping to convince audiences that "still waters run deep."

Not surprisingly, the character of Doctor Smith posed the greatest challenge, given that Jonathan Harris' rendition of the Irwin Allen version has become a pop-culture icon in its own right. Goldsman answers this challenge by ignoring the goofy, self-indulgent Smith that became the defining version, and focusing on the early, somewhat nasty version of Smith from the first few LOST episodes. Gary Oldman tries to work his insouciant magic on this inconsistent, blundering, generally unpleasant character, but it's all for naught. 

And if all the predictable and unsavory characters aren't bad enough, Goldsman's idea of challenging science fiction is a confusing time-travel plotline meant to underscore all the dysfunctional crap, in addition to some alien spiders that belong in a more gore-happy space-epic. 

The only plus I can give this tedious film is that the robot looks pretty good, and gets some of the best lines. Though there's a fair amount of violence in this film, the 1998 LOST IN SPACE is not a combative work by my lights, not least because of the low-energy climax.




Sunday, December 6, 2015

CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984), SLEEPWALKERS (1992)




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

I finally got around to re-screening the first CHILDREN OF THE CORN movie, whose simple (or simple-minded) concept eventuated in several sequels, reviewed here and here. In the first set of reviews I referenced King's ruminations in his non-fiction book DANSE MACABRE. I observed that though King was intelligent enough to formulate a distinction between "outside horror" and "inside horror," his efforts at producing the former had generally been "sucky." 

Re-watching the first movie, the only CORN-film based directly on King's work, reinforces that opinion. I don't have much to add to my other CORN reviews except to say that the movie is moderately entertaining whenever it focuses only on the two yuppie protagonists (Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton). However, it's as boring and predictable as hell whenever the story turns to the corn-cult youngsters who menace the twosome. Reportedly King's original draft for the screenplay included more backstory regarding how the cult came to be. It may be a small blessing that such material was cut out.of the completed film.

Unlike the sequels, the original does impart some of the urban-dwellers' fear of the great rural unknown. But otherwise it's a routine outing into the world of hick-horror.


 

Just under a decade later, King wrote one of his few movie-scripts not based on a prose story, the story of SLEEPWALKERS. Unlike CHILDREN OF THE CORN, the basic idea here has some potential-- which may be why I consider it much worse than the earlier film.

Mary Brady and her grown son Charles move to a small town in Indiana. It's quickly established that they are actually "sleepwalkers," immortal creatures with the metamorphic capacities of old-school vampires. For some reason that King's script never bothers to make clear, the two of them must devour the spiritual energies of virgin girls in order to stay alive. One would think that if their very lives depend on such prey, and they've been doing this since the days of ancient Egypt, that they'd have some better modus operandi that to drift from small town to small town, killing girls as they go. King would later use the germ of this "vampire drifters" concept in his recent novel DOCTOR SLEEP, but in that novel the vampires are immensely wealthy and can afford to paper over their mistakes.

As soon as Mary and Charles move into their new digs, they start screwing up. King's excuse for their precipitate actions is that Mary is "starving" and must use Charles as a stalking-horse to draw young girls to them-- but this excuse, no matter how valid, doesn't make SLEEPWALKERS any more entertaining. It soon becomes just a rambling assortment of gore-murders, none of which has even a tenth of the imagination of the worst NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET film.

King may have been thinking of Egyptian myths involving incestuous content when he conceived Mary and Charles, for like Horus and Isis in certain tales, the mother and son are sleeping together. As a plot-point this doesn't add much to the story. But it does allow for the film's one source of merit. Though the other actors put across competent performances, only Alice Krige, playing Mary, distinguishes herself. She brings to the under-scripted role a heady ambivalence, in that she's simultaneously a woman jealous of her young lover's possible affections for their targets, and yet also a mother who cherishes her son and perhaps, on some level, wishes he could have a normal life with someone other than her. But as I said, this is only suggested by Krige's performance, for the thud-and-blunder script gives her no help at all. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN (1995), THE FRIGHTENERS (1996)



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


VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, directed byWes Craven, may be deemed a fantastic turn on Eddie Murphy's 1988 success COMING TO AMERICA, in which the wealthy denizen of a foreign land ventured into an Afro-American neighborhood of New York City. However, this time the emigre isn't technically of the same race as the Black Americans. The script of VAMPIRE is very specific in stating that Maximillian (Murphy) is one of the last of the vampire race, and that he can only breed more of his kind by finding someone who is at least half-vampire. New York fortunately has one such: a police detective named Rita, whose mother had mated with a male vampire in the Caribbean. Rita and her male partner Justice are both Black Americans, who have not yet acted on their romantic interest in one another. Thus Maximillian may be seen as an inversion of the fantasy of COMING TO AMERICA, for this time, the dark-skinned outsider is a threat to black womanhood, rather than a fabulous Prince Charming.  But that reading may be giving this pedestrian film too much credit.

The script-- written partly by Murphy's brother Charles-- creates its own vampire mythology, which is reasonably consistent on its own terms, though still not very interesting. In particular, Maximillian is able to merge with and take over the bodies of mortals. Yet he can only do so with mortals who are thoroughly corrupt. This results in the film's best scene, when the vampire takes over the form of a hypocritical street-preacher and delivers a comical rant to his congregation, all for the purpose of confusing Rita and aiding his attempts to gain her consent to mate with him. At the same time, this limitation means that Maximillian can't just take over the body of Rita's partner Justice, leaving the detective the chance to divine the threat to his lovely partner and fight back. The conclusion does involve a battle in which Justice tries, and fails, to fight the quicksilver Maximillian, but the conflict's not decided until Rita weighs in.

In his seductive vampire persona Murphy plays it almost completely straight, aside from a few sarcastic remarks to his ghoul-servant Julius, who provides fairly predictable humor. But though Murphy follows all the standard tropes of the seductive demon-lover, Maximillian is simply a bore. Rising above the material are Angela Bassett as Rita and Zakes Mojae-- who previously performed in director Craven's SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW-- as a road-company Van Helsing.




Peter Jackson's THE FRIGHTENERS isn't any deeper in terms of its plot and characterizations, but visually it's a lot more inventive than VAMPIRE. Frank Brannigan (Michael J. Fox) is first seen as a man cursed with a chimerical gift-- the ability to see the forms of earthbound ghosts. However, he uses this gift for petty ends: summoning goofy ghosts like Cyrus and Stuart (seen above) to haunt houses so that he, posing as a ghostbuster, can scam the house-holders and collect a fee for dispelling the unquiet spirits.

But Frank has tragedy in his background, having lost his wife in a car accident, which trauma gave him his powers-- and this tragedy plays into his finding a new love in his life, Lucy (Trini Alvarado). Over the course of the movie, Frank learns that his wife was one of several victims of Johnny Bartlett, the ghost of a serial killer, and that Lucy is now on Johnny's list.

The characterizations are simple but appealing; Jeffrey Combs in particular shines as a demented FBI agent, used as much for comic relief as any of the ghosts. The film's real strength is its concentration upon finding innovative ways to exploit CGI effects for both comic and horrific effect, particularly with respect to the Judge (John Astin), the ghost of an Old West gunslinger whose ectoplasmic body is beginning to fall apart, and to Sergeant Hiles, a deceased drill instructor (R. Lee Ermey, basically reprising the same part he played in Stanley Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET).

Both films are not as interesting in themselves as they are for their attempts to use familiar horror-tropes for comic effect. That said, there's an important difference in emphasis. Though there are many comic moments in VAMPIRE, the core of its story-- Rita's temptation by a seductive demon lover-- has a dramatic resonance. In contrast, although Frank and Lucy are imperiled several times, and Frank himself almost dies at the climax, the core of the story has a comic resonance, celebrating not just Frank's physical revival but his renewed ability to find a new love and future happiness.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN (1981)







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




I've noted that a fair number of the Charlie Chan films qualify as metaphenomenal works. Some reference-works have no problem citing Chan films with pretend ghosts and the like, but to my knowledge no chronicler has devised anything like my criterion of the "bizarre crimes" trope, to cover things like weird methods of killing people. I alluded to one such method in the 1945 film THE JADE MASK, and this 1980s comic re-creation of the Chan mythos seems to have chosen to pursue the same trope. Charlie (Peter Ustinov), now in his grandfather-years. is brought out of retirement to find a serial murderer, and it's indicative of the script's lack of imagination that the best name it can come up with for the criminal is something like the "bizarre murders killer." (I confess that I can't stand to watch the film again to get the exact term, or to recall exactly what bizarre murders were committed.)


Many of the original Chan films of the sound era have some interesting sociological themes despite their status as light entertainment. At the very least the films were good about showing an Asian protagonist in a generally favorable light, and even if Chan wasn't played by an Asian in the sound era, at least the films did offer regular employment to a handful of Asian actors in supporting roles.
However, DRAGON barely has any Asians in its big-name cast, with Richard Hatch playing a half-Asian grandson of Chan and Angie Dickinson as the titular "Dragon Queen."


The comedy in DRAGON is pretty predictable and generally unfunny, but the script-- originated by producer Jerry Sherlock (his only writing credit on IMDB)-- offers one puzzling conundrum: the Dragon Queen herself. She's a Caucasian woman who's a member of the American "upper crust" of the 1940s, and a murderess whom Chan sends to prison. Yet she's called "the Dragon Queen" after she curses Chan, and at one point she dresses a little like the famous "Dragon Lady," the Eurasian temptress of Milt Caniff's comic strip TERRY AND THE PIRATES. Later in the rambling story, when she's suspected of the murders, she assumes the outfit of a Chinese coolie for reasons that go unexplained. Did Sherlock have some dim idea of bringing together two famous Asian archetypes, Chan and a road-company version of the Dragon Lady? This puzzle, unlike the central mystery of the film, will likely never be solved.


Clive Donner's direction is so slack and pedestrian that it makes his THIEF OF BAGDAD look like a classic by comparison.  I could imagine this film originating when some producer heard Peter Ustinov do a dead-on re-creation of Warner Oland's version of the Oriental detective, resulting in the producer's decision to build a comedy film around Ustinov's imitation. The only virtue of DRAGON, in addition to Ustinov's superior mimicry, is that the Chan character generally keeps his dignity, apart from one or two minor pratfalls. That's more than one can say for another 1980s comic take on a famous Asian archetype, THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU-- which was far more painful to watch than DRAGON.


Sunday, November 22, 2015

KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1937)






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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Most film-fans today primarily know British director Robert Stevenson for his many Disney films of his late period, particularly such above-average works as MARY POPPINS and DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE. But the hallmark of his early career in the 1930s is that he directed the first, and best, adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's 1885 novel KING SOLOMON'S MINES.


Haggard's novel was the first of the so-called lost-race stories, even though the "race" involved is simply a tribe of Africans who have remained so isolated from the rest of Africa that they've had no contact with the white people who had made their indelible stamp upon the continent. In many ways these fictional Africans, the Kikuanas, aren't markedly different from other tribes, since author Haggard had garnered experience in that domain, but they are still "exotic" for two principal reasons. One is that their female witch-doctor Gagool practices a species of "witch-finding" that allows her to have any tribe-member executed-- and the other is that the remote land of the Kikuanas is found to be the source of the legendary mines of King Solomon.


In the novel, the hero Allen Quatermain is hired by a man whose brother disappeared into Kikuana-land looking for the mines, so the mission starts out motivated by rescue, not treasure-seeking-- though of course the title makes it inevitable that the protagonists will get their shot at priceless riches. Though the film includes most of the cast from the book, it foregrounds the attractions of treasure-seeking by introducing two new characters: Patsy O'Brien and his adult daughter Kathy, two penniless Irish fortune-hunters stuck in Africa. They manage to hitch a ride on an expedition headed by experienced white hunter Quatermain (Cedric Hardwicke). Also along for the ride is a mysterious, very dignified Black African, Umbopa (Paul Robeson).


Various contingencies lead to Quatermain taking his party into Kikuana-land, where the hunter finds himself involved in king-making as well as treasure-hunting. The Kikuanas are ruled by a tyrant named Twala who, as noted above, allows an incredibly ancient witch-woman, Gagool, to maintain a reign of terror with her activities. (One of the creepier scenes in the film shows her marking out one of her victims, who is immediately executed by tribesmen wearing white feathery masks-- apparently the Kikuana equivalent of executioners' masks.)  The white men are initially threatened by the natives but they manage to overawe them with their superior technology-- first with false teeth, and later with guns-- so that the tribesmen think they're gods. (Hence the "phantasmal figuration" trope cited here.)  However, Twala is the usurper of the previous chief's family, and Umbopa is the son of the murdered chief, who has returned to take back the tribal throne.


I've seen some online political critiques of the film that claim that the film supports imperialism. It's true that it doesn't in any way critique real-life British imperialism. However, the Brits in the film, like the ones in the novel, don't despoil or dispossess the tribe, nor do they alert imperialist authorities to the hidden tribe's presence. When the whites escape, they do take some treasure with them, but it's a pretty fair exchange for having ended an unquestionable tyranny and restored a deposed ruler.


There are various minor differences between book and film. In the latter, not only do the white adventurers get trapped in the depths of the mines by Gagool, they are also menaced by an erupting volcano (cinema needs all the visual spectacle it can get). The novel has an African woman of the isolated tribe fall in love with one of the white men, who is flattered but doesn't allow any romance to develop. This doesn't work as badly in the novel as it sounds, but Haggard is obliged to kill the woman to tie up that loose end, so that character's exclusion from the film is probably for the best. The two new Irish characters-- the father who goes looking for treasure, and the daughter who more or less guilts the whites into going to his rescue-- are pretty forgettable. On the plus side, the film is very accurate to the novel's original portrait of Allen Quatermain, who is a stable older man who happens to be a good shot, but who in no way resembles the he-man white hunters that imitated the Haggard novel-- to say nothing of other, less faithful movie-Quatermains. Oh, and since Umbopa is played by Paul Robeson, the film-version sings a lot more than the book-version, but that's not too hard to take, and certainly Robeson's character has more dignity than most Hollywood versions of African tribespeople.







Thursday, November 19, 2015

ULYSSES (1954)



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

Producer Dino de Laurentis' ULYSSES was almost certainly an Italian response to the American vogue for films of epic proportions, which were in their turn a response to the competition said studios were getting from inexpensive television shows.

Despite flaws that are now very evident today-- awkward dubbing, budgetary limitations-- ULYSSES was a success with 1950s audiences, and arguably paved the way for a wave of Italian-made fantasy/adventure films that reached U.S. shores, starting with 1958's HERCULES.  Ironically, Ulysses, who might be said to have "started it all," didn't get a series of film spin-offs as such, though occasionally he showed up in such hero-team-up films as ULYSSES AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES.  Very few English-language productions, save the 1997 telefilm THE ODYSSEY, have troubled to give the hero his original Greek name of Odysseus.

I didn't expect the enormously complex Homer epic to be faithfully represented in a mainstream theatrical film, and indeed the script very efficiently boils down the rambling narrative into a watchable story. Ulysses (Kirk Douglas) is first introduced to the viewer in a way roughly like his appearance in the epic-- that of being washed ashore on the island of the hospitable Phaeacians-- but, in order to keep the audience from being overwhelmed by the mythic narrative, Ulysses initially has amnesia. Thus the audience learns part of his story through Ulysses' recollection of it, and part from the family he's been unable to reach for the last ten years: his wife Penelope and his grown son Telemachus. As in the epic poem, the travails of these family-members provide narrative suspense, in that a small horde of importunate suitors have plopped themselves down in the king's house, claiming that the long-absent king must be dead and that Penelope must choose a new husband.

Ulysses' first memory deals with the conclusion of the Trojan War, whose victory is made possible by Ulysses' employment of the Trojan Horse. So that the movie-audience won't have to deal with all the involved transgressions that cause Ulysses' long exile in the poem, the movie substitutes just one initiating transgression: UIysses and his men, while sacking Troy, destroy the temple of Nepture (Poseidon in Greek). The effect of this action is questionable, since at no point does the movie-script show that the Greek/Roman gods are incontrovertibly real. Plainly the producers didn't want to deal with scenes of the Olympians watching from on high, like the ones in 1963's JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

The desire to exorcise the gods gives the story a rather schizophrenic attitude. Even though the gods don't appear, ULYSSES has to incorporate a host of marvelous presences-- or at least, the ones that the audience most expected to see. Ulysses naturally hears the song of the sirens, whose origins are not explained, and manages to vanquish the cannibalistic cyclops Polyphemus, who claims to be the son of Neptune and is clearly bigger than any ordinary human being. And in his confrontaiton with the "witch" Circe, she does not claim to be the kindred of the gods, as in the epic. But Circe mysteriously claims that if the hero will stay with her, she can give him a potion that will make him into one of the gods. He refuses-- like the later cinematic Jason, Ulysses values the limits of a mortal life and death-- so that the audience never quite knows whether or not Circe can deliver what she promises. The Circe-section, incidentally, also incorporates material from other sections of Homer. The sorceress in the epic makes it possible for Odysseus to consult spirits of the dead, while the one in the film actually calls them up herself, in an attempt to cajole the hero into joining with her. In an added twist, Ulysses' dead mother shows up to the spirit-party uninvited, and steers her errant son away from the sorceress and back to earthly love and duty.

It's likely that the film's producers had some mundane reason for casting Silvana Mangano in both the roles of faithful Penelope and the temptress Circe. For all we know today, perhaps Mangano simply wanted both roles. The psychological effect, though, is to assert a unity between the two diametrically opposed women-- a unity that does not exist between Ulysses and the suitor who proves his foremost rival, Antinous (Anthony Quinn). Some of the dialogue is very suggestive of the whole "woman is an eternal mystery" trope. It would be interesting to know if any of the story's six writers were aware of a non-Homeric continuation of Odysseus' adventures, in which the hero is killed by Telegonus, the grown son of his former lover Circe-- after which, in a rather convoluted Oedipal scheme, Telegonus marries Odysseus' widow Penelope while Telemachus, the hero's child by Penelope, marries Circe.

Mangano and Douglas are the only players given enough material to construct bravura scenes for their respective characters. By comparison, even the actors playing more important support-characters-- Quinn, Rosanna Podesta (given the very unrewarding role of Nausicaa)-- aren't much more than spear-carriers. The script tries to construct for a modern audience a palatable version of a roistering Greek hero, and though Douglas' Ulysses is never all that compelling, his moments of arrogance, skepticism and bloodthirstiness are certainly in tune with the Greek idea of the martial heroes.  The pace is overly slow at times, but the movie deserves plaudits for its suspenseful construction of the mariniers' ordeal in the Cyclops' cave, which comes off well despite the aforementioned budgetary restrictions.


Friday, November 13, 2015

CANNIBAL WOMEN IN THE AVOCADO JUNGLE OF DEATH (1989)



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


I hadn't seen CANNIBAL in many years, and I didn't have particular vivid memories of it. To my surprise, even though the script by director-under-a-pseudonym J.F. Lawton is far too dependent on pop-culture jokes, the first hour of the ninety-minute film is fun. 

I didn't remember that CANNIBAL was based *very* loosely on Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS, but in one sense the Lawton film is closer to the source than the more famous APOCALYPSE NOW. As I interpret the Conrad novel, the author wanted to portray both the colonizing Europeans and the colonized Africans as blithering dunderheads. It's an ironic view of humanity as a whole, even if the enormities of Kurtz, the "white man gone more native than the native," push the irony closer to the realm of tragedy.

In place of a satirical attitude toward both the colonizers and the colonized, Lawton opposes the fatuities of both men and women in a post-feminist age. The title's "Avocado Jungle of Death" is an exotic jungle-land hidden within the fastness of Southern California. Within the jungle dwell the no less exotic "Pirahna Women," an Amazon tribe with the habit of devouring any males who trespass on their domain. In contrast with most cinematic Amazon tribes, there's no reference as to how the tribe perpetuates itself-- though, since the Pirahnas are an extreme offshoot of modern feminists, it may be that they are continually welcoming disaffected women, rather than mating with men to swell their ranks. 

The U.S. government asks feminist scholar Margo Hunt (Shannon Tweed) to seek out the Pirahna Women. Allegedly the jungle is America's only source of home-grown avocados, so officials want to move the tribe out of the jungle and give them all Malibu condos. Margo doesn't relish this contra-feminist agenda, but accepts the mission under coercion. She's accompanied by one of her students, an airhead named Bunny, and a klutzy, anti-feminist male guide, Jim (Bill Maher), with whom Margo had a one-night stand. During most of the journey Margo and Jim snipe at each other, while the brainless bunny serves as a Goof Chorus. Not all that much happens during the trek, except for the trio's encounter with a tribe of anti-masculinist men who idolize Phil Donahue and Alan Alda. However, Lawton's script keeps the barbs flowing against both men and women, disarming any expectations of an agenda. 


Unfortunately, the film falls apart in the final half-hour, once Margo and her comrades reach the domain of the Pirahna Women. There's the expected revelation that the tribe's current queen is a lost feminist scholar-- naturally named Kurtz (Adrienne Barbeau)-- but Lawton doesn't really use this Kurtz as anything but a vehicle for a few facile jokes. In addition, despite the script's early intimations that Margo and Jim might get together again, Lawton belatedly introduces a romantic relationship between Jim and Bunny-- as well as briefly showing Bunny get seduced by the Pirahna's vision of radicalized feminism. Margo has to run for her life, but after making an alliance with a neighboring tribe of "Barracuda Women," she returns to challenge Kurtz and save Jim from the cooking-pot.

Even in a comedy, the conclusion seems to demand some spectacle, but Lawton allows the climax to peter out very anti-climactically. In place of the sacrificial death seen in APOCALYPSE NOW, the tribal queen and her challenger fight it out-- but it's a dull, half-hearted battle; so that I can't deem the film *combative* since both fighters seem pretty inept. It may be that Lawton simply had no money to hire a fight choreographer, or maybe one or both of the actresses weren't willing to do more than the minimum required. I don't know what sort of ending might have resonated better. I certainly didn't care that Margo and Jim fail to become "an item," but I felt that because Lawton raised the question of their relationship, he should have found a better answer for said question.   

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

THINGS TO COME (1936)



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


Reportedly after H.G Wells had seen Fritz Lang's classic 1927 future-tale METROPOLIS, he Wells pronounced it the "silliest thing he'd ever seen." Though Wells had written a fair number of famous satires of modern culture, something about the silent film evidently rubbed him the wrong way. I suspect, given the work Wells wrote roughly six years later, that he may have faulted METROPOLIS because its future society did not rise to a higher state of affairs due to its mastery of science.

Such is the theme of Wells' hard-to-classify book THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME. It isn't precisely a novel-- Wells termed it a "discussion"-- though it relates to the prose-genre later called "the alternate history." Because Wells wrote a future-history spanning his contemporary period of 1933 all the way through the 22nd century, he chose a very pedantic way to present his narrative: as a notebook, written by a 22nd-century diplomat, which falls into the hands of a modern-day interlocutor.  This means that SHAPE, because it spans such a long period, has no central protagonists, just a stream of personalities who have no more dramatic heft than a historical summary might give real historical figures. Though Wells sought to communicate one of his key ideas-- the triumph of a "world state" administered by a technological elite-- often the book feels like a long and tedious lecture entitled, "Why H.G. Wells Was Right About Everything."

Wells is given sole credit for the script of the 1936 THINGS TO COME, which doesn't borrow more than a few major scenes from the novel, and creates many scenes that have no analogues at all in SHAPE. In this online essay the unnamed writer claims that Wells "had little control over the final film and much of his written material was ignored or edited from the final cut."  Based on what I've heard about the flee-flow collaborative atmosphere on other films helmed by producer Alexander Korda, I think it likely that many hands crafted the narrative of THINGS TO COME, even if both the screenplay and its later novelization were credited to Wells alone. Director William Cameron Menzies, a production designer famed for his elaborate, well-crafted settings on films like 1924's THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, probably had major input in constructing the mise-en-scene of the 1936 film.

THINGS TO COME has many faults, but I can't imagine anyone saying of it that "the book was better than the movie." Whereas the book wanders ceaselessly through endless, sterile future-history summations, always accompanied by Wells' sententious commentaries on the necessity of the world-state, the film is divided into three coherent periods.

First, in order to give the developments of the future immediate relevance, THINGS begins in modern times, as the English city of Everytown (a.k.a. London) is suddenly attacked by aerial raids. Three central characters during this section-- Cabal, Harding, and Passworthy-- witness the sane world of organized civilization torn asunder by a Second World War-- and right on the eve of Christmas, no less! The origins of the conflict are deliberately left vague, so that the audience cannot think of it as an unusual occurrence. The script intends for the audience to see this event as the beginning of the dissolution of separate nation-states. Cabal himself (Raymond Massey) pilots an aircraft and shoots down one of the invaders, but there is no triumph in this, for Cabal knows that the problem of war itself cannot be solved by defeating a particular enemy.

The Second World War lasts over two more decades. Thanks to the "other side" unleashing biological weapons, Earth devolves into a new Dark Age, something of an ancestor to the "Mad Max" films of the 1980s. The second section opens in 1970, focusing again on Everytown. The shattered city is now ruled by a petty chieftain who calls himself "Boss" (Ralph Richardson), and under his rule it's clear that there can be no advancement of mankind, though the 1933 Harding is still alive, striving to keep medicine alive. Then a strange aircraft lands in Everytown, and out steps the city's former native son, a much older John Cabal. He proclaims that he represents an organization of air pilots, "Wings Over the World," devoted to stamping out independent nation-states everywhere. (Note: the original novel speaks of an "Air and Sea Patrol," but the film wisely focuses only on the superior technology of the "Airmen," who bring order to the world even as the invading planes of the first section brought only chaos.) The Boss keeps Cabal prisoner, in part on the advice of his much smarter concubine Rowena. However, thanks to the help of one of the Boss' subordinates, Cabal is able to send a message to his fellow Airmen, who defeat the Boss and his pocket army by gas-bombing them into submission. Only the Boss dies, and Cabal sanctimoniously observes that the old world of warring nations has died with him.



There follows the film's greatest scene: an eight-minute montage capsulizing how the Airmen take advantage of the "gigantic possibilities of science" to build the new world order. This comes into fruition in 2036; the film's third section. By this time massive art deco cities have replaced the chaotic warrens of the old mankind, including that of Everytown, which has become a sleek new "metropolis." The descendants of the 20th-century Cabal and Passworthy are important citizens of Everytown, and their grown children are scheduled to take part in the first attempt at space-travel, when their capsule will be fired into the void by a huge "space-gun."

This plot-development resembles nothing in SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME, where Wells seems at pains to emphasize that all civilization under the world-state has become pacific and arguably rather sedate. Indeed, the high ideals expoused by Oswald Cabal (Massey again)-- in which he stresses the need for risk and daring-- sound like something that Alexander Korda might have wanted, the better to make the future-world less of a dusty old man's fantasy. The voice of conservatism, opposing space-travel in principle, comes from an unscientific artist named Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke). In the novel he's a minor comedy-relief character who doesn't do much of anything, but in the film he's given a visual appearance somewhat like that of Percy Shelley as he rebels against Cabal's attempt to extend the boundaries of mankind further.  The artist and his followers storm the spaceport but fail to keep the massive cannon for firing its human cargo into infinity. Although Cabal succeeds in his experiment, he tells Passworthy that they may have to attempt the same adventure again and again before they find a way to take mankind to the stars-- a fairly realistic assessment, before the film closes on a deeply philosophical quote: "All the universe, or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy, which shall it be?"

Though I disagree strenuously with Wells' vision of a world-state, much less one controlled by a techno-elite, THINGS TO COME is certainly the greatest cinematic realization of this vision. As many others have noted, its concentration upon polemic robs its characters of any depth or individuality. In contrast to the novel, where all of the female characters are either romantic interests or functionaries, Rowena the (implied) concubine at least gets a memorable speech in which she expresses her frustration at not being able to wield power in man's world, though subsequently she simply disappears from the story after making an attempt to save Harding and his daughter.

The Montage of Science, as I like to call it, does seem like something Wells would have conceived as his answer to the romanticized pessimism of METROPOLIS. The montage is, at base, an expression of faith in man's ability to use science to extend his horizons. To be sure, Wells never really answers Lang's criticism of human society; never allows for any possibility that power in his perfect future-world can be abused. But as a pure expression of the emotions behind "the Faith in Science," THINGS TO COME presents a visual feast for the eyes that has rarely been equaled in cinema.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

CABIN BOY (1994)




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


For years after CABIN BOY flopped, the film's co-producer David Letterman-- who had a cameo appearance in the flick-- used his scene as grist for his talk-show's comedy mill.

The movie, a vehicle for quirky comedian Chris Elliott, is a mixed beg. Like many 1990s films starring Saturday Night Live alumni, CABIN BOY plays like an extended sketch. Elliott plays Nathaniel, an overprotected aristocratic youth (implicitly a character much younger than the actor hismelf) who leaves his "fancy-man" college to go on a cruise. Like the protagonist of Kipling's CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS, this young scion of the upper class gets on the wrong ship; in this case a fishing-scow full of sailors who work for a living and can't be bothered with upper-class fripperies. Unlike the Kipling book, the hero's efforts to get back to civilization propel the ship into a forbidden stretch of ocean inhabited by bizarre fantasy-creatures like giants and ice-monsters.

Nathaniel is intentionally a one-note character. following a pattern that Elliott had established in earlier appearances and that he continued to play, with variations, in many subsequent (mostly supporting) roles. But Nathaniel is brought out of his narcissistic cocoon, not so much by the rigors of sea life, but by meeting a long-distance swimmer named Trina (Melora Walters). Nathaniel falls for Trina but she doesn't reciprocate-- at least, not as long as she deems him a silly-ass virginal boy. In the film's most psychologically interesting scene, as soon as Nathaniel manages to get his rocks off with a multi-armed goddess, Trina suddenly becomes interested in him.

The odd thing about CABIN BOY is that if one described the bare plot on paper, it would sound like Nathaniel actually does "toughen up" due to his life at sea and the rigors of the fantasy-land. The film even gives Nathaniel a heroic climax: when the goddess' giant-husband comes after Nathaniel to kill him, the giant is partly forestalled by one of Nathaniel's allies, a friendly merman (Russ Tamblyn). However, it's Nathaniel himself who managed to slay the colossus, by the heroic act of climbing up the giant's shirt, looping a belt around his throat and strangling him. Nathaniel is so seduced by the heroic life that after he's returned to civilization, he decides that he'll continue the arduous life of a sailor with his fellow sea-salts.

Yet, because everything Chris Elliott does is laced with an arch, fey quality, it's impossible to think of him actually "manning up" (and of course, the actor doesn't become any more physically formidable-looking at the film's end than he looked at the opening). In comedies, a serious story may be mocked with a lot of jokey situations but most comedies dont' undermine the protagonist's nature in itself. And arguably there's nothing intrinsically heroic about Nathaniel simply having killed a cuckolded husband, giant or not. Thus, since the script seems to constantly undermine both the protagonist and his wold so thoroughly, I consider it an irony in the combative mode.

 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

MISTER SARDONICUS (1961)



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


One of the best things about William Castle's adaptation of the Ray Russell source-novella-- aside from Castle's hiring Russell himself to write the screenplay-- is that he Castle chose to separate his own puckish, would-be-Hitchcock humor from the story proper. The two horror films Castle released directly before SARDONICUS-- 13 GHOSTS (1960) and HOMICIDAL (1961)-- have their merits, yet both seem stitched together out of disparate set-pieces. It's as if Castle, in trying to imitate Hitchcock's gallows-humor, came up with something closer to the concept of "camp"-- which Susan Sontag hadn't yet written about, though her famous 1964 essay claimed that the sensibility had been "in the air" since the 18th century.

Even though the "monster" of SARDONICUS is a man who can't stop smiling, the main body of the story, set in Europe in the late 1800s, is given a sober and dramatically centered treatment, in keeping with the Russell novella. The main source of humor is extra-diegetical, as Castle himself interrupts the story in his persona as the modern-day director. He does this twice. First, he appears at the film's outset, to stoke the audience's anticipations of the weird tale to come. His second appearance comes near the conclusion, where he invites the audience to vote in a "punishment poll" that would supposedly determine, at each theatrical showing of the film, whether the theater showed a version that punished Sardonicus or tendered him mercy.  Given that I haven't often liked Castle's sense of humor within other horror films, this sequestration suited me just fine.

The original novella and the film adaptation are very much framed by Freudian notions of traumatic obsession. We're introduced to Cargrave, a British doctor. He excels in the treatment of trauma, and is seen healing a young girl via his techniques. He might be seen as a positive inversion of the maker of horror stories, for instead of creating nightmares that haunt audiences, Cargrave frees his patients from irrational fears and promotes healing.

Cargrave gets a note from a former lady-love, Maude. Some time ago she married another man, whom Cargrave never met, and took up residence in his baronial estate in the fictional Middle-European land of Gorslava. Maude implores Cargrave to come to her assistance, so he's immediately off to Gorslava. In keeping with many of the Gothics from the actual 1800s, the estate is ruled over by the heavy hand of its master, Baron Sardonicus, whose tyrannies are administered through his one-eyed right-hand man, Krull. At dinner Cargrave meets Sardonicus, who initially hides his face behind a mask. Sardonicus ordered Maude to write Cargrave because the Baron wants to be healed of his affliction: his face frozen into a grinning rictus, not unlike that of Victor Hugo's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.

Hugo's smiling monster was created by crude surgery, but Sardonicus-- who has taken his name from his affliction-- had his condition brought on by psychological trauma. He, his wife and his father once lived in poverty. Shortly after the death of Sardonicus' father, he and his wife learn that the deceased was buried with a valuable lottery ticket that could solve all their penury problems. The wife, like a lesser Lady Macbeth, eggs on Sardonicus not to kill a father-figure, but just to violate the peace of his grave. Sardonicus doesn't need much urging, but he's no less cursed than Macbeth for his trespass: his face assumes the frozen grin of his dead parent.

Castle's film doesn't cavil so much at this offense as at the things the cursed Baron does with his money: torturing servants with homemade experiments, and possibly killing a few local ladies just for amusement. And when Cargrave doesn't want to employ untried techniques on Sardonicus' condition, the Baron threatens to have his wife disfigured to force the doctor's hand. (Here Castle and Russell ratchet up the Baron's fiendishness somewhat from the novella, where Sardonicus simply threatens to have congress with the woman who has only been his wife "in name only.")  Cargrave appears to both give in to the Baron's demands and to cure him, which wins freedom for both himself and Maude. However, the Baron's own sense of sinfulness pursues him even after he's been cured of the grin-malady. Freudian guilt-repression results in a new flowering of the same trauma, and brings an end to the career of Sardonicus.

Though I wasn't able to lay my hands on a copy of Russell's novella, it's my memory that the original Sardonicus had much more of a conflict with his father before the old man died. In the film the father of the future Sardonicus is a pretty jolly old fellow, so there's not as much resonance as in the original story's Freud-influenced paradigm, where the act of opening the grave is inherently a show of hostility to the dead man. Still, this slight alteration of the villain's psychology doesn't make him any less nasty. The facial appliance used to give the Baron his grin of death isn't overly convincing-- actually, I even preferred the one seen in the 1942 SMILING GHOST.  Actor Guy Rolfe can't really talk through the appliance, so for the most part he utters his on-camera lines when he's wearing the mask. Still, it's one of the few times an actor was able to create such a memorable character using only voice and body-language.

A minor note: I don't include this film under my trope-designation "perilous psychos" because I see no evidence that Sardonicus is truly insane; merely that he's both afflicted and cruel as a result.

ADDENDUM: I've now laid hands on a copy of the original Russell novella, and I have some corrections. Although I still think that there's a "Freud-influenced paradigm" in the situation of Sardonicus being "cursed" by his father's death-grin, it doesn't come about because the young monster, name of Marek, had an overt conflict with his father. The father described in Sardonicus' flashback is still a jolly old fellow whose one vice is his continuous purchase of lottery tickets, and the only hostility Marek feels is toward the custom that the oldest son gets the lion's share of the bequest:

"The good man had left few possessions, but these few were divided, according to his written wish, among his survivors, with the largest share going, of course, to the eldest son."

A little later it's evident that Marek feels the most acute resentment. When the family realizes the old man's been buried with a winning ticket, the mother refuses to let the sons dig him up. Marek pretends to agree with her, tricks her into letting him guard the grave against trespassers, and then proceeds to dig it up himself.

Also, I've changed my mind about Sardonicus being a "perilous psycho"-- not because the things he does to others are the result of madness, but because madness informs what his traumatized mind does to his own body-- a situation that compares slightly with that of the protagonist in 2010's BLACK SWAN.


Monday, October 19, 2015

THE NAKED GUN (1988), THE NAKED GUN 2 1/2 (1991), THE NAKED GUN 33 1/3 (1994)




PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny,* (3) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


I imagine that most fantasy-film concordances automatically leave out the NAKED GUN films for the same reason they would leave out the same filmmakers' AIRPLANE: because so many of the fantasy-triopes in all of the films are extra-diegetic. In one of my ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE essays I wrote the following on AIRPLANE's "automatic pilot" joke:

I've mentioned that many comedy films toss out "impossible" occurences for the sake of humor, but that they are not "marvelous" because the impossible elements are not meant to be taken seriously.  An easy example of an unserious impossibility is the "automatic pilot" joke in AIRPLANE, who comes to life and smiles for a moment or two for the sake of a joke anyone reading this blog ought to know.

Dozens of jokes in the NAKED GUN series are of a similar nature, such as the famous scene in which Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) tries to prevent his girlfriend (Priscilla Presley) from slapping him by grabbing both of her wrists-- only to somehow get slapped by a mysterious third hand.



However, not all of the fantasy-elements in the GUN series are extra-diegetic, or, as I style them, "fallacious fragments" in the naturalistic mode. Only the third movie lacks any diegetic fantasy-elements and thus lines up as "naturalistic" alongside AIRPLANE.


The 1988 NAKED GUN, for instance, concerns how villainous Victor Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban) plots to kill off the Queen of England. Early in the film Ludwig demonstrates how he can transform an innocent maid into a programmed killer with a special hypnotic device (allegedly "borrowed" from the serious Charles Bronson film TELEFON). This sets up viewers for the comic suspense at the film's conclusion, when Drebin must ferret out the new killer at a baseball game-- who is none other than Reggie Jackson.




Thus, the NAKED GUN diegesis is marvelous, just as it is for 1962's ROAD TO HONG KONG, which *does* get mentioned in concordances for its SF-tropes-- even though it too sports all sorts of nonsense-non-sequiturs, like Hope and Crosby appealing to "wardrobe" to instantly change their costumes for them.



NAKED GUN 2 (life's too short to spell out the goofy title every time), however, has no SF-content. For most of the film, the plot of villain Quentin Hapsburg (Robert Goulet) involves only naturalistic resources, such as having a ringer impersonate the President's energy-advisor, so that Hapsburg and his energy-baron cronies can continue to control the country's destiny.  However, when goofball cop Drebin thwarts his plans, Hapsburg belatedly diverts the film into the uncanny domain, when he tries to blow up the energy conference with an "outre device" in the form of a small nuclear device. Such a device isn't the least bit marvelous, but it's as "uncanny" in the hands of an "anti-eco-terrorist" as it was in the hands of a gang of super-crooks in THUNDERBALL.

The final film in the Nielsen series took it back into the naturalistic phenomenality of the original 6-episode TV series POLICE SQUAD, where the only digressions from coherence and intelligibility are those the viewer isn't supposedly to regard as part of the diegesis. The opening gives an example of this by having Drebin and his squad take on a plethora of boogeymen...




...including "disgruntled postal workers," a joke which won't make any sense to anyone who didn't live through that particular era.

The main plot, though, is essentially naturalistic, even if it does involve a terrorist (Fred Ward) threatening to blow up the Academy Awards with a letter-shaped bomb.

As should be evident by now, I'm not reviewing the three films here except with respect to their phenomenalities. I like all of them to some extent, though none are as laugh-filled as AIRPLANE. Yet the GUN films fulfill the basic law of vaudeville: if you don't like one joke, wait a moment and you may like the next one coming right up.

In closing I'll note that I've seen some serial franchises that freely partook of all three phenomenalities whenever their authors so pleased, notably both the DICK TRACY comic strip and its various cinematic incarnations. But NAKED GUN may be the only franchise that had exactly three episodes, each of which fell squarely into one of the three phenomenalities.

Monday, October 12, 2015

THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920), DON Q SON OF ZORRO (1925), THE EAGLE (1925)



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


Zorro, who first appeared in a magazine serial by Johnston McCulley in 1919, seems to have been one of cinema's most durable "quasi-superheroes," rivaled only by Tarzan. While most costumed adventurers-- Batman, the Green Hornet, the Shadow, the Spider-- were confined to juvenile film serials, Zorro and Tarzan were apparently characters that adults could enjoy to some extent. That's not to deny that both characters did appear in serials, as well in cheap B-film vehicles. But you didn't see Batman or the Shadow get considered for even one A-level film.

The silent MARK OF ZORRO appeared the year after the magazine serial. with Zorro's adventure performed-- and scripted-- by Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Because the film became popular, it's alleged that when author McCulley wrote his Zorro sequels, he borrowed bits of film business, like Zorro's signature use of the "Z" carved with his sword.  Fairbanks only did one sequel, and for one reason or another Hollywood tended to remake the original rather than chronicling the swashbuckling hero's continuing adventures, as they did with Tarzan from the silent era onward. (Alternately, they frequently tossed out new versions of Zorro who were descendants of the original, as seen in ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION-- but none of these latter-day avatars enjoyed a second outing.)

MARK OF ZORRO was in one sense Fairbanks' successful attempt to "re-brand" himself, for many of his previous cinematic efforts had been comedies, though I assume a performer of Fairbanks' athleticism had used stunt-work before launching himself as an adventure-hero. Other such high-energy films followed ZORRO, not least 1921's THREE MUSKETEERS and 1924's THIEF OF BAGDAD, but ZORRO set the standard for Hollywood swashbucklers, and arguably upped the ante for all films of an adventurous mode.

Like the novel, ZORRO is a simple story of revolutionary heroism: Don Diego de la Vega. a caballero, has been for years absent from his father's home in Los Angeles during the Spanish colonial period. He returns, and presents himself to all as an educated fop who could not care less about the abuses of the Spanish government. As such, he's laughed at by cruel soldiers like Sergeant Gonzalez, and scorned by the haughty local beauty Lolita. But when he dons the mask and black outfit of Zorro, he becomes a crusader against evil-- and to be sure, even though this is a mostly bloodless film, viewers will behold some cruel whippings that inevitably cause them to side with the rebel hero against the corrupt but legal authorities.

That said, Fairbanks puts a great deal of humor in the film, particularly at the opening, when Gonzalez boasts to all the listeners in a bar about what he'd like to do to Zorro. Naturally,the masked hero promptly shows up to give him his chance, and of course thrashes the buffoon handily.  Scenes like this one still resonate today, and comics-readers will note how often Jerry Siegel wrote his early SUPERMAN stories to project the same sort of daredevil insouciance.

One interesting note is that the question of aristocratic "blood" is raised three or four times, particularly when Zorro breaks into a party of aristocrats. He condemns them as "idlers," "wasters," and "fashion-plates" for tolerating rampant injustice given that they possess "the blood of Aragon"-- while adding that, "I pledge you, my blood's as noble as the best!" From what I remember of the novel, this seems to be in accord with one of the ideals of Zorro; that of noblesse oblige.





DON Q SON OF ZORRO was based on a historical novel that had nothing to do with Zorro or any masked adventurer. Keeping with the idea that at the end of the first film Zorro revealed his true identity to the public, the producers may have decided that this revelation ended any possible use of the original hero. But even though Diego married, he could still give rise to a new hero-- though Cesar de la Vega (played by Fairbanks) never dons Zorro-like garb, as some viewers might expect. The action takes place entirely in Spain, as Cesar seeks the hand of a lovely young lady. Another suitor covets the same woman, and so frames Cesar for murder. Though Cesar is as athletic as his daddy, and sports skill with a whip, the closest he comes to Zorro-like action is that he fakes his death and persecutes some of his enemies as a mysterious presence, until it becomes known that he's still alive. The film was quite popular in its time, and shows some technical improvements over the earlier work. However, it lacks the fevered romanticism of the original, and although Fairbanks was only five years older, he doesn't succeed in infusing Cesar with as much charisma as either Zorro, or most of the actor's better known heroes. The only thing that qualifies this as a metaphenomenal film is that toward the end, Daddy Zorro journeys to Spain and, assuming his black costume once more, helps his son fight a bunch of soldiers.



Rudolf Valentino enjoyed his ascension during the same period as Fairbanks, but his best known roles are entirely naturalistic in tone and content. Until I watched THE EAGLE, I had no idea that it even contained-- albeit only for a few minutes-- a sequence with a Zorro-like masked hero. The story was adapted from an unfinished Pushkin novel about a noble Cossack soldier named Vladimir, who is forced to flee the service when the Czarina Catherine came on to him. In the film Vladimir assumes the masked identity of "the Black Eagle" to keep from endangering his family while he and his fellows battle the authorities. Since it's said this identity was not in Pushkin, it's almost certain that it was an addition made by the producers to give it a little Zorro-flavor-- possibly in anticipation of the year's new ZORRO-related film.

THE EAGLE is not a swashbuckler at all, having very few action-sequences. Like the best-known Valentino films, it's first and foremost a romance, about Vladimir trying to find happiness with Mashka, who happens to be the daughter of an evil nobleman. Vladimir manages to infiltrate the nobleman's household under an assumed identity, which leads to the film's most psychologically interesting scenes: Mashka being torn between her love for Vladimir and her reluctance to see her father punished for his misdeeds. In the end Vladimir and Mashka are allowed to find happiness, but there's no climactic battle at the end. Therefore, although the presence of the masked crusader does mark THE EAGLE as a "marginally metaphenomenal" film, it's not even marginally combative, unlike the previous two films cited here.