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.