Saturday, August 22, 2015

FIRESTARTER (1984)



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


FIRESTARTER the novel was published roughly six years after CARRIE, the book that made Stephen King a bestseller celebrity. When I recently reread the 1980 book, I thought of it as "CARRIE lite"-- not in terms of its seriousness, but in terms of its symbolic richness. CARRIE remains a deep exploration of feminine fears and anxieties, given mythic resonance by its combination of an "ugly duckling" story with one of Poe-esque vengeance. FIRESTARTER's grade-school heroine Charlie McGee, however, read to me as a flat, uninteresting character. Her whole reason for being is simply her anxiety over using her fire-kindling power to defend herself and her father against the manipulative agents of the evil "Shop." The anxiety is formed at a younger age, when she almost burns her mother with a careless use of her power, and from then on, little Charlie is largely defined by her reluctance to use her power again. Further, it seemed to me that King was actually more interested in the chief villain of the story; John Rainbird, a Cherokee Shop-agent who cherishes the desire to kill the young psychic and spiritually take his power for his own after death. Still, though Rainbird has more symbolic depth than Charlie, he isn't much better realized.

The 1984 film, directed Mark L, Lester, is probably one of the more faithful adaptations of a King work-- and this may be because the original novel lacks a lot of the deeper psychological issues found in the best Stephen King prose. Most films are, by their nature, forced to leave out many of the subtler details of prose works, partly for reasons of time, partly due to the cinema's general inability to "go into the heads" of characters. But since King didn't put much into the heads of his novel's characters, I didn't feel the lack, as I did, say, with the adaptation of DEAD ZONE.

Lester and his FX-team do an admirable job with the fires and explosions, and young Drew Barrymore's intensity enlivens the static character of Charlie. The script minimizes Rainbird's Native American associations, so it seems that his desire to kill Charlie is no more than a strange fetish. The other actors turn in decent if unexceptional work.

HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER (2002), HELLRAISER: DEADER (2005), HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD (2005)


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

If there's one thing one can uniformly praise about the last three HELLRAISER films to feature Doug Bradley's Pinhead, it's that they all abandoned a particular bankrupt idea introduced in the third film and carried into the fourth; the idea that Pinhead and his fellow demons had to be prevented from busting out of Hell and invading the modern world. IMO Barker's Hell functions best not as a clear and present danger to temporal reality, as seen in 1999's clunky END OF DAYS, but as a domain of transgressive temptation. In most films it's asserted that Pinhead can't menace those who are innocent of summoning him for evil reasons, though HELL ON EARTH bends that rule to the point of near-breaking. So the later films' shift to using Pinhead as a source of sado-Satanic temptation was certainly an improvement on the idea of hell not just being raised, but breaking loose.

The fifth HELLRAISER film initiated this shift, and in my previous review I praised HELLRAISER: INFERNO for plunging its possibly-sinful protagonist into a noir-like world of sex, sin and corruption. HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER unfortunately reprises almost the same basic idea, but telegraphs the plot-twist without a trace of the subtlety employed by the creators of INFERNO. Director Rick Bota, who would also helm the next two franchise-entries back-to-back during the same year, shows a total lack of the visual style that's so important to the franchise, while leading man Dean Winters turns in a workmanlike performance as Trevor, a man accused of murdering his wife. The twist, despite being telegraphed, is muddled and confusing, and the only reason the film stands out is that it marks the return of Kirsty Cotton, again played by Ashley Laurence and last seen stuck in an asylum as a side-point within HELL ON EARTH.

Unfortunately, though I admire Laurence's acting and I'm sure she was glad to get the work, the role itself is crap. The few lines that recapitulate the relationship between Kirsty and Pinhead, the demon she managed to escape, are poorly written and capture none of the tension present in the first two films. Kirsty might as well have been "Generic Lifetime Movie Wife," for all the difference her character makes. This is without question the worst entry in the series.




HELLRAISER: DEADER isn't much better, though the audience gets a protagonist who's somewhat sympathetic. It's another lady reporter this time, Amy Klein (Kari Wuhrer), out to investigate a European cult, "the Deaders," rumored to kill their members and then resurrect them. If I had not read online that both this film and the subsequent HELLWORLD came from re-purposed scripts that originally had nothing to do with the franchise, I would assume that the scripters were deriving this idea from HELL ON EARTH's use of the zombie-raising trope. (I must admit that there is a prevalent association between hell and the illegitimate raising of the dead-- the trope shows up in one of the surviving stories of Sumerian Ishtar-- but "dead people walking" just doesn't fit the sadomasochistic mythos of HELLRAISER.) The writers at least do as much as possible to make this look like a Hellraiser entry: the head of the Deader cult is a descendant of the man who created the Lament Configuration, and, as shown in the still above, the box even serves to unleash those nasty infernal chains on Amy, though this deviation from canon is proved to be a short-lived nightmare. But though Wuhrer is good, she can't do much with the incoherent script. At the eleventh hour it's suggested that Amy has some molestation issues with her dead father, apparently for no reason but to ratchet up the heroine's agonies.



Next to HELLSEEKER and DEADER, HELLWORLD is at least modesty entertaining, partly because it suckers the mythos-devotee into thinking that it's gone totally off the rails, showing the urbane Pinhead in scenes like the one above: chopping someone's head off with a mundane axe. However, fans of the franchise may be pleased that the canon is in the end preserved, and in a much more involved manner than a simple bad dream.

I suspect that HELLWORLD's original script was patterned upon 1980s slasher-flicks like BLOODY NEW YEAR and KILLER PARTY, in that the Bota flick deals with a quintet of American teens being systematically knocked off during a lavish party. The party celebrates the success of the online game "Hellworld," which, by some murky plot-contrivance, has channeled the real names and associations of Pinhead into aspects of the game. The five youngsters are all devotees of the game, as was their former sixth member Adam, who committed suicide two years previous.  The host of the party is billed only as "the Host," and played by Lance Henriksen, who was reputedly offered the role of Pinhead for the first film. Pinhead and some of his fellow demons show up during the festivities, using tried-and-true slasher-methods to murder the friends of the late Adam. But are the Cenobites the real source of the evil, or is it-- someone or something else?

The five protagonists are as flat and uninvolving as are most slasher-victims, but that's almost become a standard in the genre. The resolution regarding Pinhead's uncharacteristic actions isn't any masterpiece of puzzle-solving, but at least it isn't telegraphed as in HELLSEEKER. The production values are better than the previous Bota pictures, which isn't saying a lot. Doug Bradley gets more stuff to do on-camera rather than just standing around, though his dialogue is dull in the extreme. If this is, as I expect, his last perfomance as Pinhead, he could have found worse final outings.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH (1992), HELLRAISER; BLOODLINE (1996), HELLRAISER:INFERNO (2000)


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1, 2) *poor,* (3) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*


After reviewing the first two films in the HELLRAISER franchise months ago-- the first one here, and the second one here-- I'm currently trying to work my way through the following six films, which will put me up to date on all but the 2011 HELLRAISER: REVELATIONS, which alone does not feature the highly iconic Cenobite "Pinhead."  The results so far have been mixed. Though I gave the first two films "good" ratings re: mythicity, I tend to think that the franchise, like that of HALLOWEEN, has an extremely limited range of expression, so that it's difficult-- though not impossible-- to execute a decent series by diverse hands.

In my review for HELLBOUND I had no small praise for the way director Tony Randel and writer Peter Atkins created a mythology for Clive Barker's somewhat sketchy short-story concept. Since writing that review I've linked that infernal mythology to Atkins' enthusiasm for the British horror-author Arthur Machen. However, though Atkins is the credited scripter for both the third and fourth films, he doesn't adequately explore the mythology of Pinhead, Hell and Leviathan in his next outings that he helped create.

HELL ON EARTH was directed by Anthony Hickox, whom one might have thought to be a good match, given his previous success with the two WAXWORK films, which mixed surrealism and sadism in equal measures. Unfortunately EARTH, as if to fit its subtitle, is a mundane and workmanlike letdown. Plainly the film's script wanted to get away from the first two films' emphasis on the convoluted "family romance" of Kirsty Cotton, and this in itself was a creditable idea, since Kirsty's involvement in the Cenobite saga was played out. But Hickox and Atkins chose for their new viewpoint character one of the most routine types possible: the ambitious lady reporter. Struggling telejournalist Joey accidentally witnesses an unbelievable event: the sight of Cenobite chains, tearing apart one of their victims in plain sight. Joey senses a story in this bizarre event, and investigates various people who either witnessed the event-- street-girl Terri-- or who were involved in similar events in the past. At one point Joey watches a videotape of an interview with Kirsty, who's been condemned to an asylum for trying to tell the truth about the Cenobites. Nothing further is done with Kirsty in the film, so for me the interview accomplishes little except to make this viewer want to see something more done with her character.

Both Joey and Terri, the principal viewpoint characters, are achingly dull, and the film only comes alive when Pinhead (Doug Bradley) shows up. He has a strong scene where he parodies the Christian resurrection, but his overall mythology is corrupted by a terrible conceit. This version of Pinhead can re-animate dead bodies and magically equip them with super-weapons, suggesting that Hickox's film might've been better named ZOMBIE TERMINATOR. The idea of a Cenobite who can shoot deadly CDs from his mouth demonstrates that the filmmakers had totally lost touch with the original idea.



HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE is at least better than HELL ON EARTH in that it attempts to expand on the Cenobite mythology, in particular by telling the story of who created the demon-unleashing box known as the Lament Configuration. However, BLOODLINE, like EARTH, also suffers from a careless appropriation of tropes from the domain of science fiction. Originally, the storyline was supposed to evolve chronologically, showing the demon-box from its creation in 1700s France to its recrudescence on a space station in the twenty-second century. The studio reputedly interfered, insisting that the film needed a sequence with Pinhead toward the beginning to help sell the film. Thus the narrative opens with one of the space-station scenes, uses sequences in 1700s France and 20th-century America for the "body" of the film, and then returns to the 22nd century for a big finish. I can't say whether the original order of events would have worked for me any better than the finished product, which was completed by Don Chapelle when original director Jeff Yagher walked off the project. However, even allowing for the interference, none of the characters in any time-period are particularly memorable, and Pinhead doesn't get much in the way of memorable lines or action. There's an attempt to create a new female demoness, Angelique. This development might be regarded as a partial return to a discarded idea, since at the time of HELLBOUND's production one idea was that future installments might be built around the remorseless Julia Cotton. However, though Angelique gets a few lively scenes of torture and mayhem, she doesn't rate as any sort of rival to Pinhead. The pincushioned one even apparently perishes in the far future, though the script's assertion that he's suddenly vulnerable to light sounds like yet another impoverished idea-recycling.



Just when I'm thinking that the franchise can't offer any more pleasures aside from listening to Doug Bradley's orotund speaking-voice, along comes HELLRAISER: INFERNO, directed by Scott Derrickson, who also co-wrote the film with Paul Boardman. One review faulted the script because Pinhead's physical appearance is minimal. But INFERNO succeeds just where the previous two installments failed. Clive Barker created in his short story and original film a vision of Hell concocted out of images of modern-day pain and anxiety, as opposed to the medieval images that still inform the popular image of the Judeo-Christian "inferno."

Derrickson accomplishes this by organizing his narrative around a tough yet possibly corrupt police detective named Thorne (insert obvious Christian symbolism here).  Thorne is brought in to investigate the horrific murder of a victim slightly known by the detective. On the scene he finds a mysterious puzzle-box and opens it, partly because he himself is "good with puzzles" (Thorne's own self-characterization, and one that strongly implicates him in all that follows). Thorne seems to be the archetypal dedicated cop, willing to "march into hell" to save the innocent, but the deeper his investigations go, the more he's dragged into a world that merges the grunge of real life (tattoo parlors, prostitutes) with the chittering and capering of semi-human creatures.

Anyone who knows the oeuvre of Cornell Woolrich will probably guess where the narrative is going, but it's to Derrickson's credit that he never does give the audience an explicit "Big Reveal." Even at the end, Thorne's fate, like his guilt, is ambivalent. The noir conceit works here thanks to an intense, dynamic performance by the underrated Craig Sheffer, who also gets good support from Nicholas Turturro as the detective's partner. The only false step in the script appears toward the climax, when Pinhead shows up to lecture Thorne on how he's allowed his "flesh" to conquer his "spirit." I know that the Cenobite's cassock-like attire makes him look a little like a Catholic priest-- but I don't think Pinhead, denizen of a sadomasochistic hell, ought to SOUND Catholic.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

THE DEADLY BEES (1966)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological*


I've not read the novel on which THE DEADLY BEES was based, but Wikipedia asserts that the original shooting script by Robert Bloch was greatly modified during the film's troubled production. What emerges is a rather low-wattage thriller, perhaps noteworthy only for being one of the first "killer bee" movies, a subgenre that really took off in the 1970s.

One of the film's story problems is attempting to generate a "whodunnit" as to the identity of the person unleashing a strain of killer bees upon a small English town. Given that there are only two suspects, obviously one is the red herring and the other is supposed to be the less likely suspect, but the flaccid quality of the "mystery" results in nothing beyond a lot of shots of viewpoint character Vicki (Suzannah Leigh) meandering about trying to find clues.

Leigh is appealing enough, but her character is grossly underwritten, even though there's potential in the fact that she's a big-time singer who's come to the English countryside to get away from the big-city noise. But she's a cipher next to Bloch's archetypal heroine Marion Crane, or even Carol Harbin from 1964's STRAIT-JACKET. Nor do the local bee-fanciers manage to communicate to the audience any sound reasons for their fascination with bees.

The original game-plan for the film was to team Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff as the two antagonistic apiologists, but that bit of casting fell through. The presence of stars might have helped the film at the box office, but it wouldn't have improved the film's marked lack of tension and its inability to mount impressive bee-attacks on its low budget.

DEADLY BEES is an adequate time-killer, but nothing more.


OMOO OMOO THE SHARK GOD (1949)



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


Though I read Herman Melville's novel OMOO-- sequel to his bestseller TYPEE-- back in college, I remember nothing about it, except that said sequel also involved Polynesian culture. Even without any clear recolletions, though, I doubt that Leon Leonard's film really has anything more than that in common with the Melville novel. A quick quote from the author at the film's beginning is probably the only Melville work here.

OMOO OMOO is nothing but a cheapjack take on a popular trope in horror fiction: a curse that results when Western unbelievers pilfer the treasures of a pagan idol. As the film begins, this theft has already taken place, possibly by one Bardette, captain of a European ship. His ship is returning "to the scene of the crime" as it were because Bardette has become deathly ill, and he seeks to recover the pearls of a Polynesian idol and return them to their rightful place. It was never clear to me whether or not Bardette himself stole the pearls or simply knew that one of his crew did so. It's also not clear whether or not there is a real supernatural curse at work, for at one point a Polynesian holy man comes aboard the ship and essentially heals the captain with his techniques. Again, since it's not clear that the shaman is using magic or psychology, I can't really say that he's a source of marvels either. When the story's villain is slain, it's through the mundane means of a Bengal tiger.

There's really just one distinction about OMOO OMOO. Whereas Hollywood made reams of naturalistic films about the Edenic pleasures of Polynesia, this is one of the few that dwells on the islanders' exoticism to the extent that the film moves into the domain of the uncanny. The presence of the pearl-eyed "shark god" is the main source of the uncanny exoticism, even if there's no proof that either the god or the film named after him have any power-- except the power to make viewers wonder why anyone would choose to reference a Melville novel that no one reads any more.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

ANT-MAN (2015)



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


At a 2015 convention, a fan asked Stan Lee if there were any little-known Marvel characters he wanted to see adapted to the cinema. Lee didn't really seem to understand the question, because he merely started talking about Marvel characters already in the development pipeline, like the Black Panther. It's most likely that the fan was someone who had enjoyed how Marvel Studios had managed to generate huge success with a conglomeration of obscure characters in 2014's GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Perhaps the same fan looked forward to seeing what Marvel would do with Ant-Man come summer, and hoped to see more such miracles of adaptation performed in future.

I don't imagine Stan Lee nurtured any deep nostalgia for Ant-Man, or for his subsequent incarnation Giant-Man, for both of these identities for size-shifting scientist Henry Pym came a cropper in sales. The Ant-Man/Giant-Man franchise was the first major failure of the Marvel Comics line, and the character only became important in Marvel history when he became part of the Avengers franchise-- though during that tenure Henry Pym spent much more time under the sobriquets of Goliath and Yellowjacket (his third and fourth re-namings, respectively).  Later there was an attempt to revive Pym's Ant-Man in a sort of INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN format, and still later Marvel took a shot at putting a new and younger face under the ant-helmet, one Scott Lang.

The 1979 storyline which introduced Lang serves as the template for the Marvel Studios film. Henry Pym's participation in that storyline was only minimal, but here, Pym is the "older, wiser hero" who initiates the younger man into the ways of heroism. This Pym has never been connected with the Avengers, but to keep him in the Marvel Studios continuity, a flashback establishes that he was once associated with Howard Stark (father of Tony ("Iron Man") Stark. Both he and his wife Janet (aka "The Wasp") were not public superheroes as they were in the comics, but apparently served the U.S. government as covert operatives, using Pym's shrinking-formula to accomplish special missions. One of those missions claims the life of Pym's wife, so he hangs it up in typical "mourning hero" fashion, though the flashback teases the comics-insider with the possibility that Janet might have suffered some darker fate, in keeping with the complicated history of the comics-characters.

As in the comics feature, Lang is an ex-con who was sent up for burglary, and his primary mission upon getting out is to find gainful employment in order to get visitation rights to his small daughter Cassie, who is currently being raised by his ex-wife and her new cop-husband.  Henry Pym and his daughter Hope lure Lang into their own agenda, which has to do with stopping Pym's former protege, industrialist Darren Cross, who plans to weaponize Pym's shrinking process into a miniature armor-suit styled "Yellowjacket" (a cute shout-out to one of Pym's multiple identities). Cross also plans to sell the armor to the evil folks at Hydra, which, as Pym tells Lang, will lead to evilness, chaos, and lotsa bad stuff. Lang is more or less dragooned into taking on the Ant-Man identity-- part of the "persuasion process" involves Lang getting convicted for burglary-- and to my recollection, not a lot is said about what sort of "gainful employment" he obtains as a result of playing hero. Of course, by the film's end, he's not only saved his daughter's life and impressed her stepfather, it's hinted that Avenger-hood may be around for both Lang and possibly for Hope, who's set up to assume the persona of a "new Wasp." Thus it may be expected that at that point the mundane problems of earning one's daily bread will go out the window.

The plot-material regarding Cross' weapons-threat is easily the most pedestrian aspect of ANT-MAN, though it's certainly in line with many of Marvel Studios' criticisms of the multi-national arms race.  Cross as a villain isn't much better: he's largely a cipher who is defined, as is Hope, by "daddy issues." Pym even admits that at one point Cross was like the son Pym never had-- so does that mean that when Cross tries to cozy up to Hope, he's actually trying to have sex with his symbolic sister?  If this had been played up, Cross would have come closer to the Oedipal territory suggested by the comics-version of the villainous Ultron-- Pym's Frankenstein-monster creation-- than anything audiences got from the cinematic Ultron. The more things change, etc.

By far the film's strongest scenes are those involving Lang's mastery of the many talents of the Ant-Man-- fighting, jumping through keyholes, and commanding ants. Easily the best comics-stories of the original Ant-Man were those by Lee, Larry Leiber and Jack Kirby, which placed great emphasis on placing the mini-hero in strange situations with sewers and popsicle sticks. Director Peyton Reed and the four writers of the script get lots of mileage out of analogous situations, and it's to their credit that the many, many scenes of Ant-Man contending with Very Big Things never become tedious. Perhaps this is because the cinematic Ant-Man is more powerful than the comics-version, for while the latter had the strength of a human being despite his ant-size, he didn't have much in the way of mobility, being dependent on flying ants and the like. The film's Ant-Man can leap around like a miniature version of the Hulk-- which actually would have made just as much sense in the comics. After all, if Pym had a man's normal strength at his diminished size, why *wouldn't * he have been able to jump around? Maybe the comics-creators were afraid readers might comment that he acted more like a "Flea-Man?"  Still, with that extra bit of power the comic-book Ant-Man might have survived the decade in his own feature-- or at least, he might not have become the joke he became when Garrett Morris (who has a cameo in the film) played him on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

The psychological aspects of ANT-MAN are minor at best, but the cosmological content is quite good, including Lang's accidental journey into the subatomic realm, for all that the film telegraphs that This is Sure to Happen. Principal players Michael Douglas (Pym0, Evangeline Lilly (Hope), and Corey Stoll (Cross) all do pretty well with their roles. Rudd, primarily known as a comic actor, assumes a basic "self-effacing dork" persona that gets boring at times, and I would hope that if there is a second Ant-Man film, the writers will expand on his rather two-dimensional personality.

Friday, August 7, 2015

KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963)



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


KISS OF THE VAMPIRE wasn't by any means the last time Hammer tried to put out a vampire movie without Christopher Lee, but it was the last vamp-film for producer Anthony Hinds, who sat in the producer's chair for the film that started the company's mix of fangs and cleavage, HORROR OF DRACULA. Hinds had also helmed BRIDES OF DRACULA, the company's most memorable attempt to make a Lee-less vampire-film, and it's common knowledge in horror-fandom that part of KISS was recycled from BRIDES. The story goes that BRIDES' original script was set up to have vampire hunter Van Helsing destroy the Meinster cultus by unleashing on them a horde of killer bats conjured via black magic. BRIDES reigning star Peter Cushing didn't think that his Van Helsing would muck about with magic, so a new-- and arguably better-- climax was devised for BRIDES. However, someone in the Hammer hierarchy, possibly Hinds, decided to use the discarded ending for the next vampire film on the roster, which by accident or design happened to be Cushing-less.

A British man and wife, Gerald and Marianne, venture into Bavaria for their honeymoon, and almost immediately receive a cordial invitation to dine with a local luminary named Doctor Ravna. The good doctor inhabits his own mansion and has both servants and three grown children, though no wife, and though he doesn't seem to be any sort of aristocrat, the locals in the Bavarian village defer to him as if he were some feudal lord. During dinner, it becomes evident that Ravna has taken a shine to Marianne, though Gerald doesn't see it coming until it's too late. Ravna is a vampire who uses his powers to steal Marianne away, and Gerald can find no one to help him, except an eccentric professor named Zimmer. 

Since Hinds wrote both BRIDES and KISS under the psuedonym John Elder, it's tempting to believe that he produced the later movie simply to take advantage of what he deemed a killer ending-- and one even more in line with Hammer's anti-aristocracy attitude than BRIDES. Professor Zimmer has come to Ravna's territory because the vampire-lord seduced Zimmer's daughter not with fangs but with the lure of decadent pleasures, thus forcing Zimmer to destroy his own offspring. When Gerald invades the mansion to bring out Marianne, he gets a good look at the bacchanale Ravna has going with his children and various other vampire hangers-on-- though, to be sure, the audience doesn't actually see all that much, even with the restoration of brief scenes of bloody violence that were clipped from the U.S. TV version of KISS. Gerald manages to rescue Marianne and Zimmer unleashes the killer bats. The end.

KISS is a decent enough vampire film, but none of the characters have much presence. Gerald probably comes off best for his type of character; while his wife is antsy about the way the doctor looked at her, Gerald is seen blithely doing morning calisthenics, the very picture of the positive-minded type. Considering that the climax hinges on the opposition of Ravna and Zimmer, neither is more than a cipher, and so the killer ending doesn't have the kick it might have.  

SATELLITE IN THE SKY (1956), THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH (1963)



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


Together with the Ian Fleming novel MOONRAKER, SATELLITE IN THE SKY makes the case that some Brits in the 1950s really, really wished that Great Britain could've had a space program.

Aside from that bit of sociological history, though, SATELLITE doesn't offer audiences very much. Taking into account the period's limitations of knowledge about space travel, the film offers a sober enough account of the technical exigencies of launching Britain's first orbiting spacecraft, the Stardust. Commander Haydon (Kieron Moore) is the stalwart fellow in charge of the orbital expedition, but he gets some verbal opposition from a local reporter, Kim (Lois Maxwell), who doesn't like her country wasting resources on spaceflight.  Romantic tension underlies their respective political stances, of course.

Unbeknowst to either of them, one of the men slated to go on the expedition brings with him a nuclear bomb, which he plans to detonate in space for an anti-nuclear demonstration. To complicate things even more, reporter Kim sneaks along on the flight. One would've thought that her extra weight, as well as that of the bomb, would have thrown the Stardust off its course, but that possible problem is addressed only fleetingly. The big problem is that when the bomb is released, it becomes attached to the ship's hull. Thus the Stardust can't descend back to Earth without endangering the populace with the bomb, and if the ship remains in orbit, eventually the ship and its crew will all be destroyed.

The characters are simply stereotypes, though at least they have some modest variety, in contrast to this film from the same year.  Kim gets the most background-- both her father and brother lost their lives to the space effort, conveniently explaining her animus to the Stardust. Still, she's essentially there to be converted to the rightness of this noble undertaking, as well as being the soul source of romantic involvement. The execution of both characters and plot is never better than average, so SATELLITE is most interesting as a cultural time-capsule.




THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH is a low-budget independent with nearly no budget for FX, and its only "name" actors were leads Kent Taylor and Marie Windsor, as the heads of a family beleaguered by an atypical "Martian invasion." And yet, even though Doctor Fielding (Taylor) and his family are fairly stereotypical, I liked the film better than many similar low-budget efforts.

Dr. Fielding, a scientist involved in the U.S.'s project to land on a robotic probe on Mars, experiences a strange disorientation when the probe makes landfall, only to be destroyed by forces unknown. Fielding takes a vacation and journeys to California to join his family-- wife, teen daughter and middle-school son-- who inhabit a huge mansion surrounded on all sides by towering trees and cultivated English gardens. He and other family-members start seeing duplicates of themselves wandering the estate. Only near the conclusion does Fielding understand that Martians, whose bodies are made of pure energy, have come to Earth to forestall any further attempts of the third planet to investigate the fourth.  To this end they duplicate the bodies of important personages, like Fielding-- so the originals can no longer be kept around.

The stolid, no-frills approach of the film has its strengths, and though the concept of the "passionless duplicates" is probably borrowed from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, the Martians seem credible in that they don't care about imitating human culture, merely putting an end to an annoyance. But the setting is MARS's strongest element. Even though the majority of the scenes take place in daytime, the mansion-grounds are so large than the few inhabitants seem to get lost in them, and the trees and encircling fence encourage a sense of entrapment-- a particular standout being the fate of the boyfriend of Fielding's daughter, who dies in a simple car crash on the estate as a result of alien contrivance. Thus, like 1945's LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, one sees that even open, clearly-lit settings can, under the right circumstances, trigger in audiences a sense of oppressive doom.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

WORLD WITHOUT END (1956)



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

Short version: four 1950s-era male astronauts travel into space, get hit with a storm that sends them into Earth's future, and are able to bring about "the rebirth of the human race" thanks to good old American know-how.

I've commented that with some of the "giant monster" films of the 1950s decade-- particularly the highly influential BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS--  there's not much of a cautionary moral with respect to the dangers of nuclear power: rather, films of this type seem "to side with the notion of modern progress against all other considerations." Such is the case with the four heroes of WORLD WITHOUT END, with respect to their witnessing the results of a nuclear apocalypse. Taylor of 1968's PLANET OF THE APES is memorably anguished by the revelation of man's self-destructive deed, but writer-director Edward Bernds doesn't have the astronauts display more than mild consternation at the apocalypse. But perhaps there's a good reason for this reluctance to toss brickbats at The Bomb. After all, in BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, modern-day humans are validated when their ingenuity makes it possible for them to slay a great dragon of the past. Many fictional "after the Bomb" stories have taken a similar tack: the catastrophe isn't an occasion for tragic chest-beatings, but an opportunity to remake the world according to one's preferences. Bernds is definitely in this category, for by the end of the film the shipwrecked astronauts have become the de facto rulers of the reborn world, which unites formerly warring factions under a banner of an armed peace.

Of the handful of SF-films Bernds worked on in the 1950s, WORLD is certainly the closest to being good SF-drama. Having astronauts travel in time to a future-Earth via "time dilation" anticipates the central idea of the APES film, which may well have borrowed said idea from Bernds' film, since no similar time-travel occurs in the APES source-novel. Yet it should be noted that Bernds almost certainly borrowed his basic time-travel concept from Wells' TIME MACHINE, as well as populating his post-apocalyptic world with loose derivations of both "the Morlocks" (Bernds' one-eyed "mutates") and "the Eloi" (Bernds' pacifist "underworlders," as I call them, given that they live beneath the earth and refuse to explore their post-apocalyptic world).

Bernds does ring in some significant changes. In contrast to Wells' scenario, there's no relationship of dependence between the savage mutates and the somewhat over-civilized "underworlders."The script also strongly suggests that the mutates are a temporary aberration that will decline as postwar radiation continues to diminish. The underworlders are the film's main problem, and one might almost imagine them as the extrapolation of a "bomb shelter" culture, though Bernds' script does not explicitly say so. While the male underworlders are not as willowy as the Eloi, they are mostly played by flabby or otherwise unattractive actors, in contrast to the most prominent female underworlders, all of whom are played by gorgeous starlets. This bit of casting falls into line with the judgments of the four castaways, who repeatedly emphasize that the human race was not meant to live "in a hole in the ground." The Americans' verdict is backed up by the fact that most of the men haven't been spawning children lately, adding up to the equation: "male inaction = lack of viirility." Did Bernds choose to believe that female fertility wouldn't be affected by the underground life-style because females were naturally inactive, or because they were closer to the world of womb and cave by nature? The world will never know, for the script never deals with this inconsistency. Yet it's more than evident that the underworlder-women are sexually eager, and even a crewman who admits being on the wrong side of fifty gets his share of attention.  This, in addition to the fantasy of ruling a new world, is the other major perk of nuclear apocalypse. It should be noted, however, that Jaffe, the only married astronaut, doesn't definitely hook up with anyone in the future-world, even though his wife and children are long dead. He's last seen dispensing grade-school education to young underworlders and mutates, perhaps suggesting that he still considers himself a married man and can only satisfy his familial needs through the role of teaching the children of others.

The sociological politics of Bernds' apocalypse bear a strong resemblance to the ideals of imperialism. The Americans of the new world, like those of the old, must coax older and more decadent cultures to take up arms, and when necessary use violence themselves to put down the rebellions of savage hordes. Still, at least Bernds' mock-Eloi are allowed to voice the critiques of warring mankind that the astronauts will not voice, and it's possible to read WORLD as a response to the end of Wells' TIME MACHINE: "well, what if the Eloi don't WANT the time-traveler to change them?" Nevertheless, the astronauts' most vociferous critic is motivated by jealousy when the underworlder-girl he likes goes gaga over a more beefy American. So I can't say Bernds allows for very much in the way of opposing sentiment.

In the film's first thirty minutes, shortly after the astronauts begin to explore the world on which they've crash-landed, one of them jokes to the others that he expects to see green Venusians with their space-blasters. This was a clever way for Bernds to mock the vision of SF as "Buck Rogers stuff," and perhaps to make audiences invest belief in the characters-- even though their first adventure on future-Earth has them attacked by giant mutant spiders, a virtual staple of the space-opera subgenre. The conclusion is also very much in the realm of science-fantasy, for in order for the astronauts to overcome the savages, their leader Borden must fight the mutates' leader in single combat. I'd like to say that Bernds pulls off this final battle with aplomb, but it's a fairly blah sequence. Thus I can't deem WORLD a film in the "combative mode" even though said film concludes with a fight-scene. In fact, if there's any single reason that WORLD doesn't have a better reputation with fans of 1950s SF-films, it may be that the four astronaut characters are exceedingly dull, and are almost indistinguishable from one another despite the differences in their backstories.




Monday, August 3, 2015

DEADWOOD DICK (1940), MR. HERCULES AGAINST KARATE (1973)



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



No outre devices this time, just "outre outfits" for the first film and "outre skills" for the second.

DEADWOOD DICK, a 1940 serial directed by James W. Horne, is one of those "masked cowboy" films that I consider to be no less metaphenomenal than, say, "mystery-horror" films in which masked killers lurk about old dark houses. This time out the titular hero-- who takes his name from a dime novel hero, one who, to my knowledge, did not wear a mask-- is opposed to yet another fellow in a mask. In a visual sense the villainous Skull actually puts to shame the bandanna-over-the-face cowpoke hero. However, aside from his cool mask, the Skull is a routine western type, out to terrorize the Dakota territories so that they won't achieve statehood-- a fairly common trope in western serials.

Like most James Horne serials, this one is fairly lively, with a more knockabout fighting-style than one gets from the Republic serials. The hero is played by one Don Douglas, who at least is not a standard square-jawed heroic type. However, he's still rather colorless, except in one scene. It's established, through conversation with a confidante, that in earlier years newspaper Dick Stanley has assumed the masked guise of "Deadwood Dick," though it's not clear why he started his double identity or why he retired it. Stanley is slightly reluctant to become a vigilante again, and he even gets blamed slightly for not going into action when the Skull's men cause the death of Wild Bill Hickock. Once Stanley decides to become a hero again, he embraces the job fully, but the suggestion of "guilt through neglect' makes interesting comparison with the GREEN HORNET serial, which also appeared in 1940 but presumably derived from the earlier radio-series.




Though DEADWOOD DICK is a fairly ordinary adventure, it's like a masterpiece next to the incredibly cheesy Antonio Margheriti flick, MR. HERCULES AGAINST KARATE.  I presume that the film came about because some producer observed the popularity of 1970's THEY CALL ME TRINITY and decided to create his own version of that films slapstick fighting-team. To my knowledge neither this film's Big Stolid Brute (name of Percy, and never called "Mr. Hercules" in the English language version) nor its Clever Handsome Charmer (name of Danny) ever made another appearance.

The plot is exceptionally stupid: the two buddies are laid off their job, in part because Percy's immense strength keeps causing catastrophes. They're offered a new job by a Chinese businessman. His wife was stolen from him by a rival who runs a martial-arts dojo, and the wife took his son with her. To retrieve the boy, Percy and Danny brave the dojo and manage to outfight dozens of strangely incompetent martial artists.

The film's only relevance to my project is that though there's no narrative explanation for Percy's great strength, he's seen pulling off feats that are completely beyond the abilities of any real muscleman. At the end, he even stops a plane from taking off! But the vibe I get from the film as a whole is more uncanny than marvelous, so I have to judge that the filmmakers were simply following in the footsteps of other, "uncanny-centered" films of Italy's peplum era, like the two non-marvelous Hercules films I reviewed in this essay.