Thursday, April 28, 2016

DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (1954), BARABBAS (1961)



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

After 1953's THE ROBE made good box-office, 20th-Century Fox rushed a sequel into production, which came out in the summer of 1954, also to good box-office. Whereas the first film was based on a novel, DEMETRIUS simply picks up with the titular character, again played by Victor Mature. Demetrius inherits the robe of Jesus Christ from his former master Marcellus, who was executed for his Christian sentiments at the end of THE ROBE. The Emperor Caligula, who ordered the execution and wanted nothing to do with the "bewitched" robe of the supposedly risen Christ, changes his mind and decides that because he's a god, he ought to be able to derive great powers from regaining the cloth.  Though the robe manifestly has no powers-- it doesn't even give whim-whams to the guilty, as it did in the first film-- Demetrius manages to conceal the robe amidst other Christians. This leads to the "and the gladiators" part of the title, for the Christian Greek is sentenced to gladiatorial school.

DEMETRIUS pays a lot more attention to the sensual and violent domain of Rome than the first film did, and though it's clear that Christianity will triumph in the end, no miracles take place within the scope of this movie's narrative.. Indeed, Demetrius loses his faith for the latter half of the film when he thinks that God has failed to intervene to save the life of an innocent. He garners great fame in the gladiatorial arena, where his name begins to overshadow that of the Emperor, and he allows himself to be drawn into an affair with Messalina, wife of future Emperor Claudius, portrayed here as a mild-tempered old man who doesn't want either power or sex.

There's an eleventh-hour save for Demetrius, and it involves the robe coming back into the story in a fairly contrived manner, and the preservation of the life of the innocent who was believed to be dead-- also a pretty large contrivance. It's interesting that during his apostasy Demetrius remains hostile to pagan gods, reviling Messalina's god Isis as an abomination. Peter (Michael Rennie) makes an appearance but doesn't do much of anything. Considering how quickly the film was turned out, production values and performances are decent all around. Jay Robinson repeats his role as Caligula from the previous film, and enjoys the script's juiciest lines as the representative of the ultimate hubris in the Christian world, that of a man pretending to be God.



BARABBAS, produced by Dino de Laurentiis in his salad days, isn't nearly as by-the-numbers as DEMETRIUS. The 1961 film is, like THE ROBE, based on a novel whose purpose was to expand on the drama of minor characters connected to the Christian Passion. Barabbas is mentioned in all four Gospels as a man imprisoned by Roman authorities in Judaea, though it's not clear if he's a mere bandit or someone actively involved in rebelling against Roman power. In accordance with Passover customs Pilate offers the citizens of Jerusalem the choice as to whether to release Jesus or Barabbas from captivity, and the citizens choose Barabbas.

I don't know about the Par Lagerkvist novel, but the film never makes clear why Jerusalem is so anxious to free Barabbas (Anthony Quinn). This version of Barabbas is simply a common thief who exists in a world that countenances nothing supernatural, though the title character is somewhat flummoxed when his own girlfriend turns Christian. In addition, the thief witnesses the crucifixion of Christ and beholds the "darkness at noon." He also meets the risen Lazarus and hears testimony as to Christ's rising, but refuses to become a believer. Barabbas then endures a tumultuous life, being condemned to slavery in the mines, battle in the gladiatorial arena, and finally, the "imitatio dei" of dying upon a cross for the sake of the True Religion.

As an actor Quinn tended to "dog it" at times, as one may see in his rather lazy performance in 1954's ULYSSES. But Quinn does seem to fully inhabit the character of the bemused thief, and never more than in his scene alongside Lazarus. I presume that the portrayal of Lazarus in the film is in line with the novel, and it's an odd one. Lazarus's response to being raised from the dead is not recorded in any Biblical narratives, but it seems rather odd that the film portrays Lazarus as being little more than a zombie, showing no interest in the world of the living. It may be one of the creepiest scenes ever seen in a film devoted to the wonders of Christian grace.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

THE WOMAN IN GREEN (1945)



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

WOMAN IN GREEN, the eleventh film to star the Rathbone-Bruce team as Holmes and Watson, pits the Great Detective's mind against the subtleties of hypnotic manipulation. It's not as solid a script as most of the Universal features, but it's never dull and projects a haunting quality throughout.

The title "Woman in Green" may have puzzled some audiences, given that it seems to concern a male antagonist at the outset. The film opens by informing the audience that three young women have been murdered in London; women who have nothing in common except the way their killer mutilates them, removing one finger from each victim's hand. This surgical procedure seems designed to remind audiences of the depredations of Jack the Ripper, whom Doctor Watson mentions, though the Victorian serial killer no longer occupies the same time-frame as Universal's Holmes. The detective, having studied the case, believes that there's some rational plot behind these repetitive acts of violence, though he has no clues as such and fails to prevent a fourth victim from being killed. While Holmes is in a bar with a Scotland Yard contact-- Inspector Gregson, standing in for the more familiar Inspector Lestrade (who would return for one more appearance in TERROR BY NIGHT)-- the detective happens to notice a "woman in green" drinking with an aristocrat named Sir George Fenwick. Holmes calls Gregson "naive" when Gregson wonders if the young woman might be Fenwick's daughter, and makes the casual observation that the woman is "not born to the purple, but giving an excellent imitation." When Fenwick leaves with the woman, Holmes idly wonders where they're going, and Gregson gets the chance to return Holmes' "naive" barb.

This exchange manages to suggest a incipient sexual liaison in the most indirect manner possible. But as indirect as it is, it's one of a very few such references in the Universal series, which in contrast to the Doyle stories tended to avoid references to sexual acts of any questionable nature. The audience follows Fenwick and his date Lydia (Hillary Brooke) to her quarters, where without his cognizance she places him under a hypnotic trance. He wakes up elsewhere, hearing the morning papers announce a new "finger murder"-- and soon the audience sees what Sherlock will learn later: that Fenwick is one of several men who has placed in circumstances that make them look culpable of the murders, for purposes of blackmail. In fact, the head of the blackmail ring is none other than Sherlock's old foe Moriarty (Henry Daniell), whom Sherlock believes to have been hanged in another country.

Fenwick pays off the blackmailers, but the aristocrat's erratic behavior causes his concerned daughter to consult London's foremost detective. Moriarty has apparently kept tabs on his victim, for once the villain knows that Sherlock's been brought in, he has the aristocrat killed. Yet Moriarty isn't the least bit concerned about covering his trail, for somewhat later he shows up at Holmes' quarters, making a futile effort to warn the detective not to meddle. The far-sighted fiend sets things up so that Holmes must release him, since one of Moriarty's henchmen stands ready to execute Watson-- though the dimwitted doctor is utterly unaware of his danger.

There follows an attempt by Moriarty on Holmes' life, patterned roughly after a sequence from Doyle's "Adventure of the Empty House," but with a major change-up: the man who tries to assassinate Holmes is not a Moriarty henchman, but an innocent enthralled by Lydia's hypnotism. Holmes and Watson seek out a society of hypnotists in order to get close to Lydia and garner evidence to convict both her and Moriarty. The scene at the hypnotists' society leads to considerable humor at the expense of Watson, while Holmes' interaction with Lydia leads her to attempt putting his intellect under her control. Moriarty's plot is exposed, but in escaping the police he falls to his apparent death-- one of the few times that there would seem to be no way to mistake the fact of his demise. As far as the Universal series was concerned, it did take, since Moriarty made no appearances in the last three films of the series.

The greatest logical objection to the script is that if Moriarty and Lydia's real concern was to reap hefty amounts of blackmail-loot, then one would think that the last place they would have showed up would have been London, where Holmes would automatically be called in to consult. Nor does Moriarty seem to have planned his newest criminal exploit with an eye to attracting Holmes' attention, though some of the villain's dialogue suggests that he looks forward to another tilt with his eternal foe. Lydia's role consequently diminishes once the Professor comes into the tale, though the script is careful to lay out the boundaries of her mesmeric art in quasi-naturalistic terms.

Though the criminal motivations are not very logical, the script is strong in its use of inverted symbolism. I don't know the precise state of "Ripperology" in 1945, but I suspect that by that time someone had advanced the theory that the Ripper was an aristocrat who went out at night and murdered prostitutes at the behest of a demented psyche. WOMAN IN GREEN takes that Ripper-trope and inverts it; women are being killed, not out of sexual perversion, but to make money.


Holmes has an odd, not entirely satisfying homily at the film's conclusion:

I'm thinking of all the women who can come and go in safety in the streets of London tonight. The stars watch in the heavens, and in our own little way, we too, old friend, are privileged to watch over our city.

The phrasing reminds me of Browning's line: "God's in his heaven / All's right with the world."  But more than many Holmes films, one may wonder if all is right in London, even with Holmes and Watson watching over things. Moriarty's plot hinges upon the idea that single, wealthy British aristocrats will fear having the "finger" of psychotic criminal activity pointed their way. for no better reason than that they are single and wealthy, and thus may be given to killing off the women of lower classes out of demented impulses.

In addition, though Moriarty is behind the plot as such, the innocents' deaths only come about because of another woman, who uses both her beauty and her persuasive arts to beguile men, and convince them that they too might be Rippers in disguise. WOMAN IN GREEN, then, may not concern Jack the Ripper directly, but it suggests how often the legend of the infamous serial killer influenced ideas about the nature of British society, and how those "born to the purple" fare in comparison with those of lesser station.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965)




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


It's ironic that even though Daniel Haller directed one of the best adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft in 1970, his DUNWICH HORROR, five years previous he collaborated on one of the worst HPL-films, 1965's DIE, MONSTER, DIE!

Haller had accrued many years working as art director for films, including some of Roger Corman's Poe-films like THE HAUNTED PALACE and THE RAVEN (both 1963). DIE was his first shot at directing, so it's arguable that he hadn't yet found his directorial "legs" at the time. But the film's greatest weakness is the dull script by Jerry Sohl, a writer of prose SF who's best known today for his script-contributions to TWILIGHT ZONE and STAR TREK.

Ostensibly DIE adapts one of Lovecraft's best regarded stories, his 1927 "Colour Out of Space," in which a meteor containing an eldritch entity-- little more than a "colour," with no physical form as such-- crashes to Earth on a Massachusetts farm, causes the local flora to mutate wildly, and slowly poisons the inhabitants of the farm. Like many Lovecraft stories, it's a study in decay, mental and physical.

Haller and Sohl keep the malignant meteor, but they insert it into a passionless imitation of the Corman Poe films. The basic set-up resembles Corman's first Poe-film HOUSE OF USHER in that a young man, the film's viewpoint character, journeys to a remote old mansion in search of a young woman he's met, only to meet opposition from the young woman's older relation. However, I suspect Haller and Sohl took most of their inspiration (if one can call it that) from either HAUNTED PALACE or the novel on which that film was based, HPL's "Case of Charles Dexter Ward." There are no characters in "Colour" with a surname resembling that of DIE's mystery-plagued "Witley family," but both "Charles Dexter Ward" and its film-version include a viewpoint-character named "Willett." Even more compelling is that the grey eminence of the Witley family Nahum (Boris Karloff) has a skeleton in his family closet, for his father Corbin (= "Curwen" of "Charles Dexter Ward") was both a madman and a delver into devilish lore. For what it's worth , though "Colour Out of Space" didn't include a "sins of the fathers" theme, this was a frequent theme in other Lovecraft stories, not just "Charles Dexter Ward."

In any case, young American hero Stephen (Nick Adams) shows up at the Willett house, which is located in an English version of Arkham, as opposed to the prose work's Arkham in Massachusetts. Because Susan met Stephen at at college and talked about him to her mother Letitia, Letitia invites the American to visit the house, hoping to get him to take Susan away from the meteor-poisoned atmosphere. Susan, who's been back at home for about a month, is concerned for her mother's illness but doesn't seem to notice the strange, intense behavior of her father Nahum or the manor's servants. Stephen is immediately suspicious of the strange goings-on, though, particularly when he's attacked by the female servant Helga. In time his attention is drawn to Nahum's greenhouse, where he encounters some of the freakish products of the meteor.

There's not much narrative drive in Sohl's script, in part because the action is almost totally confined to the grounds of the Witley manor. Since Stephen is trying to win Nahum over as a potential father-in-law, he doesn't follow Letitia's advice at first, though as he sees more weird things he does at least encourage Susan to depart. Eventually he gets a few dire intimations from Arkham's doctor, who presided over the mysterious death of Corbin Witley. but the script never makes clear what Grandpappy Corbin had to do with the meteor. Nahum is of a piece with dozens of other well-meaning transgressors played by Karloff in past films. and the film only catches fire a few times thanks to the passion that Karloff gives to the mostly uninspired dialogue. Nahum finally talks Stephen into taking Susan away, but instead of waiting till the young people leave, he decides to attempt destroying the meteor while his daughter and her suitor are still about-- leading to a predictable "monster on the loose" conclusion.

All of the cosmological menace of the "Colour Out of Space" is sacrificed here in an attempt at evoking a vague metaphysical evil ("Don't do demonology, kids") and there are nearly none of the psychological complexities found in the better works of Corman's Poe-cycle. The most I can say for DIE MONSTER DIE is that it may have encouraged Haller to attempt a less cluttered, more direct adaptation of Lovecraft the second time around.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

SCOOBY DOO (2002), SCOOBY DOO 2 (2004)



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

I certainly haven't seen all of the multitudinous incarnations of the SCOOBY DOO franchise, which would seem on the face of things to be the most successful (in terms of longevity) television cartoon thus far. However, I'll hazard that the two live-action films are the only time there was a concerted effort to make the characters conform to a combative mode.

For most of the Scooby Gang's career, they've been comic heroes within a subcombative mode-- which is to say that although they serve a heroic function by tooling around the country exposing the schemes of phony ghosts, they do so without resorting to a combative level of violence. Their most common method of restraining the fake monsters-- and occasionally real ones-- is to catch them in some sort of absurd trap. This became such a regular feature that in the 2010 MYSTERY, INC. teleseries, the character of Fred became a geek obsessed with the making of increasingly arcane traps.

Since the producers had been trying to launch a live-action version of the cartoon since 1994, it's impossible to know whether they always meant to "soup up" two of the Scooby Gang's regulars, Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar). The only information I've found asserts that the early plans were to produce an ironic take on the cartoon series, and that even during shooting they changed horses in mid-stream, making the first SCOOBY more "family-friendly" and exiling some of the adult humor to deleted scenes. I can't help but suspect that the casting of Gellar as Daphne-- then famous for her role on the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER teleseries-- was the motivating factor, though, since Daphne's entire character-arc in the film consists of her casting aside her "damsel in distress" past and becoming a kickass femme-formidable. Fred in the cartoons showed no more martial abilities than Cartoon Daphne, but he too becomes a kickass hero in live-action SCOOBY DOO. Since actor Freddie Prinze Jr was dating Gellar at the time, it seems possible that the character of Fred also got a power upgrade so that he wouldn't seem like a wimp next to his girlfriend.

As for the finished film, it's got a few fun moments, but it suffers from a lazy, contrived plot which may be the legacy of the original satire-oriented plans. The Scooby Gang, fresh from another successful fake-monster bust, breaks up due to wounded feelings. However, a rich fellow named Mondavarious needs a mystery solved, so he invites the whole gang out to his horror-themed island resort "Spooky Island." The Scoobies agree to take the case, though not without some thoughts of trumping one another. Eventually they're able to set aside their differences and work as a team once again.

The big weakness of the 2002 film is that the nature of the menace is contrived and not especially threatening, even though it involves a bunch of soul-stealing demons and the return of the Scooby-franchise's least popular support-character, "Scrappy Doo." There are some faint laughs when the young sleuths lose their "spirit thingies" to the demons, and in trying to regain their original bodies manage to wind up in the wrong vessels for a time. The action-scenes, despite being played for comedy, are perhaps the film's best feature.



SCOOBY DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED is such a huge improvement over the first film that I can hardly believe that the script and direction come from the same talents, James Gunn and Raja Gosnell. Perhaps once the creators had committed to doing a Scooby film for all of the fans who grew up loving the characters and their menagerie of monsters, that conviction allowed them to play along with the franchise-mythos rather than fighting against it.

It helps, of course, that the Scooby Gang are a team throughout the story, rather than being on the outs with one another. In place of being piqued with one another, this time most of the characters take a leaf from the Daphne of the first film, who was conflicted about her efficacy in her arc. Thus Fred is concerned about being perceived as a wimp, Velma (Linda Cardellini) is worried about being able to have a relationship with cute geek-boy Patrick (Seth Green), and both Shaggy and Scooby (Matthew Lillard, voice of Neil Fanning) fret about being screw-ups. In addition, an Evil Masked Figure is attempting to make the Scoobies look bad in the eyes of their home town Coolsville. Though the young heroes had already fought real monsters in the previous film, as well as a number of cartoon iterations, MONSTERS UNLEASHED takes a clever turn into geek-continuity by having the evil mastermind create real-monster incarnations of the fake ghosts from the cartoons. The 2004 film is particularly clever in selecting most of the fiends from the original 1969-71 SCOOBY DOO WHERE ARE YOU teleseries: The Black Knight, Captain Cutler's Ghost, and the Miner 49'er. That said, even some of the later funny fiends taken from later cartoon-serials, such as the Tar Monster and the 10,000 Volt Ghost, are used to produce both strong action and good comic bits.

It's just as well that this particular series ended on this high point, for the strength of the sequel probably couldn't have been duplicated. I should mention that in some ways Cardellini and Lillard, though not playing the "sexy" characters, prove much more integral to selling the exploits of a live-action Scooby Gang.




Monday, April 11, 2016

THE RETALIATOR (1987)



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

THE RETALIATOR, also frequently known as PROGRAMMED TO KILL, is largely a wasted opportunity in every way. It's not even a lively junky action-film.

The blame can be equally shared by long-time director/film editor Allan Holzman and writer/co-director Robert Short. RETALIATOR is just a basic "Frankenstein" story transferred to the arena of international terrorism, and Holzman and Short bludgeon their one idea into taking the dullest, most predictable path possible.

There's some potential in the character of Samira (Sandahl Bergman), an American expatriate who for reasons unknown has become allied with a terrorist group in Greece. Her motivations may be purely romantic, since early on she's seen sucking the face of the head terrorist, who sports the Islamic-sounding name "Hassim."  The CIA decides that Samira is the perfect subject for a cyborg-program, so they send agent Eric Matthews (Robert Ginty) to Greece to capture the female terrorist and bring her back to the U.S. Matthews only partly succeeds, for Samira fights back, knifing him, so that he's forced to kill her and bring back nothing but her dying body. This doesn't deter the CIA in the least, for they rebuild her as a cyborg killer and send her back to Greece, where she easily infiltrates the terrorists and kills them all. Immediately after that-- with no trigger to speak of-- Samira suddenly turns on her handlers and kills them. She then manages to return to the U.S, and begins killing off everyone involved in the project, as well as pursuing Matthews and his family.

There's a fair amount of shooting, but the script doesn't bother to take advantage of Bergman's athleticism, as seen in her best-known fantasy-film, 1982's CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Despite her cyborg enhancements, Matthews manages to kill her with the use of a bulldozer, in a scene even more risible than a similar slo-mo death in the intentionally comic AUSTIN POWERS.

About the only entertainment value of this loser is that of watching for an early appearance of later action-star Paul Walker.

FEAR CITY (1984)



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

About five years after Abel Ferrara dipped his toe into the genre of slasher-films with 1979's DRILLER KILLER, he once more visited slasher-tropes in 1984's FEAR CITY, a film that might appear to fall more within the naturalistic domain. However, CITY is one of those rare slashers that remains in the uncanny domain in the same way as the killer of 1981's EYES OF A STRANGER, who also evinced a larger-than-life quality despite lacking most of the common tropes of slasher-killers.

Ferrara places his struggle within New York at the height of its 1980s "Sin City" reputation, focusing on the daily functioning of one of the city's sleaze districts. Ferrara and writer Nicholas St. John (a frequent Ferrara collaborator) depict unflinchingly the "dog eat dog" atmosphere of this milieu, in which everyone's out for a buck and even righteous black cop Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams) openly disparages the "dagos" and "guineas" who run the area's strip-joints.

Into this corrupt domain comes a new element, a man who attacks strippers with a knife, thus earning himself the awkward newspaper-nickname "the New York Knifer." The Knifer is given no backstory whatever, and he departs from many of the common tropes. He slashes his victims in order to watch them suffer, but doesn't invariably kill them, nor does he seem particularly turned on by their injuries. He shows no more affect than the mask worn by Michael Myers, and he attacks with the grace of a ballet dancer, stemming from his expertise in the martial arts.

Both the cops and the strip-joint managers are clueless in dealing with such an outre menace, and their first thought is that the Knifer is some sort of gangland killer. Only an ex-boxer, Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger), eventually sees the nature of the menace, and this seems to be because he himself suffers from a tormented past: having accidentally killed another boxer in the ring. Given inspiration by a Mafia don (Rosanna Brazzi), Rossi makes it his business, private citizen though he is, to track down the New York Knifer.

Unlike most slashers, this one culminates in a combative struggle between the hero and his foe, in which the skills of the Western boxer are pitted against those of the Eastern martial arts. I saw one imdb reviewer who deemed the final fight "one-sided," but that's not what I saw: the nameless Knifer scores quite a few good hits on the boxer, and it's certainly by no means certain that Rossi will win until the final verdict.

Ferrara would became well-know as a creator devoted to exploring the worlds of venality and corruption, as in 1992's BAD LIEUTENANT and 1996's THE FUNERAL. This early work isn't nearly as extreme as his later works, but it serves as a bracing precursor of sleaze-to-come.

ADDENDUM: Though none of the characters in FEAR CITY tend to make any ethical or spiritual analyses, the St. John script seems to suggest that most of the sins seen and sinners seen in the film are petty and thus unable to deal with a serious threat. Ironically, Rossi's implication in a far more monumental sin-- that of manslaughter-- seems to confer upon Rossi the spiritual power that's needed to combat a deeper metaphysical threat.


THE PEARL OF DEATH (1944)



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



"What's Conover? No more than a symbol of the greed and cruelty and the lust for power that has set men at each other's throats down through the centuries. The struggle will go on, Watson, for a pearl, a kingdom, perhaps even world dominion...until the greed and cruelty has been burned out of every one of us, and when that time comes perhaps even the pearl will be washed clean again."-- Sherlock Holmes, PEARL OF DEATH.


In horror-film fan-circles PEARL OF DEATH had some influence beyond just being a good Sherlock Holmes film. PEARL introduced the moviegoing public to the persona of Rondo Hatton at a time when the unfortunate actor's acromegalic condition had progressed, giving him the appearance of a "real monster." This led to his very short career as a horror-film actor in four more films, including HOUSE OF HORRORS and THE JUNGLE CAPTIVE, prior to his untimely demise.

While re-screening PEARL, I gave a quick re-read to the Doyle short story "Six Napoleons," which is credited as a source for the screenplay. In my view it's a slight, gimmicky story that places a problem in front of Holmes' nose and then gives him plenty of time to solve it, with only one murder to spice things up. I liked PEARL's story quite a bit better, in part because the priceless Borgia Pearl, which is no more than a "MacGuffin" in the short story, becomes an element in the struggle between the stern yet beneficent Holmes and his corrupt adversary.

Giles Conover (Miles Mander) may be a bit of a road-show Moriarty, but he fits the more limited scope of this production. In any case Holmes talks about the villain in the same mythic terms that he applies to Moriarty, while the Borgia Pearl, the treasure which Conover seeks, is also infused with the aura of Wilkie Collins' Moonstone. Conover's resources are more limited than those of Moriarty, for though he sets a few thugs on Holmes and Watson in one scene, his only regular resources are female thief Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers) and the Hoxton Creeper (Hatton)-- and even then, director Roy William Neill keeps the Creeper offscreen for most of the story, so as to give his freakish appearance the maximum impact at the conclusion. That said, Conover pulls one Moriarty-like assassination trick, when he sends Holmes an anonymous gift, rigged to kill the detective.  The plot amounts to a situation akin to that of the short story, in which both the detective and his adversary seek a lost treasure, though in the film both of the seekers and the audience know the nature of the treasure. It's a good combination of thrills and ratiocination, and the film's sole weakness for me was the ease with which Holmes managed to turn the Creeper against his master.

Rathbone and Bruce are allowed to do more than simply go through the Holmes-Watson paces, particularly in a scene that establishes Watson's fierce loyalty to Holmes when the latter is subjected to public criticism. Holmes for his part has both some warm moments and some more prickly scenes, as well as waxing almost metaphysical in his final meditations on the folly of "greed and cruelty," and imagining some "time" in which even the bloodstained pearl "will be washed clean again."

Friday, April 8, 2016

WRONG TURN 4 (2011), WRONG TURN 5 (2012)




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

At the end of my review of WRONG TURN 3 I allowed that Declan O'Brien's directorial work on that film was at least slightly more competent than two other metaphenomenal films he'd both written and directed. But MONSTER ARK and SAVAGE PLANET. However, his writing-and-directing work on the next two entries in the WRONG TURN series constitute a "turn for the worse" in their own right.

Aside from these films, nothing in O'Brien's present oeuvre is allied to the horror-subcategory that became labeled "torture porn" in the 2000s. Given many film-makers deny this label when it's applied to their horror-films, I don't expect O'Brien consciously aimed to be lumped in with such works as Eli Roth's HOSTEL and James Wan's SAW. Yet that's the vibe I get off the fourth and fifth films in the WRONG TURN franchise.

I confess that I haven't seen that many of the more prominent "torture porn" films, and I admit that there probably isn't any clear dividing-line between this category and other types of violent horror film, like the "splatter" movie. The most that I can say within this review is that even though most splatter films often depict all sorts of extreme violence, cruelty to innocents, and emotional torment, there doesn't seem to be nearly as much emphasis on making the suffering of the victims linger on endlessly, even monotonously. In the majority of horror-films, even scenes where the villain/monster seeks to make the victim suffer seem to come to a definitive end. One of the nastiest tortures in cinematic history appears in 1934's THE BLACK CAT, where Lugosi's Verdeghast flays Karloff's Poelzig-- but though the audience knows that the suffering must seem like an eternity for Poelzig, it certainly doesn't seem so to the audience-- in contrast with any of the torture-scenarios in SAW.

WRONG TURN 4 and 5, according to Wikipedia, part company with the first three films in establishing a new origin for the hillbilly clan, called for the first time "the Hillickers." The three recurring mutants of the previous films-- Three Finger, Saw Tooth, and One Eye-- are being held in captivity, along with various other hick-mutants, in a West Virginia sanatorium back in 1974. The deformed hillbillies break free from confinement and slaughter all the doctors-- and then, supposedly for the next 20 years, the Hillickers take up residence at the abandoned sanatorium, until a bunch of 2011 snowmobiling college-students are forced to seek shelter in the building.

I assume that some exigencies of location-shooting forced the filmmakers to stick the hillbillies in a setting as counter-intuitive as that of a snowbound nuthouse-- but that said, this is still a really stupid set-up. I'm not opposed to showing extreme violence to depict the nastiness of the villains, but as I said above, the butchery of the physicians just seems to go on and on, more tedious than terrifying. The same applies to the slaughter of the college kids, and none of the murders this time out is as interesting as the brutal one that begins the far superior WRONG TURN 2



WRONG TURN 5 has just two things that make it a little better than Number 4. First its setting, though it's still not in the backwoods where hillbilly-menaces thrive, is a modern West Virginia city, where there's at least the potential for some conflict between the hicks and the moderns. Second, the film resurrects the character of "the Old Man" from the first and second films-- a non-deformed relation of the mutants-- and though he's not that interesting a character, he's played by Doug Bradley, a consummate horror icon for his role as Pinhead in the "Hellraiser" series. Playing a hillbilly version of Hannibal Lecter, Bradley gets a lot of juicy lines when he's taken prisoner by a local cop,. There's some minor fun to be had, watching him repeatedly predict doom for the cop and the teens helping her when his "boys" come to set the Crusty Cannibal free.  But at base Number Five has the same problems as Number Four: the "kills" are as dull as the hillbillies' wits, and O'Brien's script takes a little too much pleasure in putting his one-dimensional characters through the mill, at least for my taste.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*


Before I geared up to review BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE—henceforth “BVS”—I wrote this short history of both Batman and Superman in live-action cinema and television. Said history hits only the high points; the points that most pertain to Warner Brothers Pictures' current ambition to restructure their two best-known franchises for the prospect of launching a “DC Universe” in the film-world. This marks the company's first major attempt to take on the cinematic version of the “Marvel Universe,” cosmos-to-cosmos—or perhaps “cosmoses,” since the Marvel properties have been spread out over three different film-studios.

I’ve seen a number of comics-fans trounce BVS for continuing many of the visual tropes seen in the most recent live-action movie-versions of “the Dark Knight”  (all directed by Christopher Nolan) and “the Man of Steel” (directed by BVS’s helmsman Zack Snyder. Given that both the Nolan Bat-films and 2011’s MAN OF STEEL were both financially successful—and that BVS is a direct sequel to the earlier Snyder film—it was pretty much a given that Snyder would use most of the same visual tropes seen in the earlier Bat-Super films—gritty, hyperviolent action-scenarios, dingy and muted colors, and a mordant world-weariness that conflicts with the characterization of comic-book superheroes as vehicles of light-hearted escapism.

Many fans have complained about Snyder’s continued pursuit of these narrative strategies. What many have not realized is that this time they are being used not in opposition to the mythology of the superheroes, as was the case with the previous four films. I regard all of these as “hired gun” films, in the sense that the directors and writers involved were engaged to do nothing but to make viable franchises out of Superman and Batman respectively, not to make them function within any larger continuity.. 

But in BVS, the game plan has been changed. BVS is a “tentpole movie,” designed to launch other Warners projects like WONDER WOMAN and JUSTICE LEAGUE. Yet it’s not only that. BVS is also an attempt to build a cosmos by modeling it after a particular comic-book mythology. Even MAN OF STEEL, technically the precursor to BVS, did little more than reshuffle a few elements of the Superman mythos that were largely familiar to a mainstream audience. In the "universe" produced by Marvel Studios from the properties not sold to other movie-makers, the mythological structuring-event was the formation of the Avengers. Here, the event is the formation of the Justice League—but told as if it had come about because of the events of Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.



For some hardcore comics-fans (or maybe just me), this restructuring might suggest a delicious level of irony. Miller’s story of an aging Batman, coming to terms with a world that had rejected superheroes, was what Miller himself called a “brass band” funeral for the superhero genre. The same hardcore fans will undoubtedly note BVS’s many quotes from TDKR: the Batman-Superman conflict itself, a scene where a nuclear attack reduces Superman to a withered almost-corpse, before sunlight restores him, a quote from Batman to the effect that “We [superheroes] have always been criminals.” But the most important thing that the Terrio-Goyer script takes from TDKR is Miller’s extremely convoluted argument about the nature of power.  

The “hired gun” films by Nolan and Snyder were not concerned with the pros and cons of power. Nolan’s stance is distinctly ultraliberal: his script turns the Bat-mythos inside out for the purpose of scoring political points against the perceived conservatism of that mythos. Snyder loosely emulates this pattern in MAN OF STEEL, but his pre-Superman work makes clear that he has never been as doctrinaire as Nolan. He apparently found just as easy to direct 300, whose theme concerned the glorification of a warrior-clan’s power, as WATCHMEN, whose storyline interrogated the power-aspects of the superhero fantasy.

I won’t dwell on the plot of BVS, though I’ll point out that ever since 1992’s BATMAN RETURNS it’s become routine for big-budget superhero flicks to force too many irons into the fire, and that BVS’s plot is no worse than the chaos of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.  BVS must juggle not only the intimations of other superheroes in the world, but three separate plots that account for Batman’s animus toward Superman, Superman’s mutual hostility, and villain Lex Luthor’s confusing scheme to manipulate the two heroes against one another—while at the same time said villain also plots to unleash a second menace, Doomsday. This somewhat tacked-on subplot also derives from a famed comic-book narrative, the 1990s “Death of Superman.” However, the Doomsday sequence, and the death that results, don’t really concern the theme of power. Naturally I suspect that the hero killed at the film’s end will resurrect in his next film just as predictably as he did in the comic books. For all that I know, said resurrection may even be the key to the assemblage of the Justice League.



BVS does not explore exactly the same issues of power as Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, but the film shows a Miller-like sense of power’s ambiguities. The Superman of Richard Donner and the Batman of Tim Burton are imposing presences, but they’re not scary. Despite the difference in the levels of power controlled by the two heroes, their use of it is visceral and unsettling, and very much in tune with the way superheroes of comics’ Golden Age were depicted: as holy terrors to evildoers. Early in the film, an African warlord holds a gun to Lois Lane’s head, to make Superman back off. Superman literally puts the man through a wall. The audience is obliged to assume that the warlord survives the hit, since nothing about his death is stated—but the abruptness of the violence will make most viewers feel as if the evildoer was reduced to a pulp by the Kryptonian’s inhuman power. And even though Batman is fully human, he’s seen shooting a vast number of henchmen in BVS, including a scene that’s a direct swipe from a similar one in TDKR, right down to Batman’s concluding phrase, “I believe you.”



At the same time, even though their power is fearful, the Terrio-Goyer script allows both of them moments of humanity, showing that they unleash violence only to protect others. In fact, the two heroes become enemies because each sees the danger in the other’s uncontrolled violence. The script misses the chance to say something meaningful about the nature of power and the issue of collateral damage, but it does show Superman’s guilt and regret when, as a result of his righteous actions in Africa, the local government’s re-asserts its power by slaughtering helpless people. Batman is more directly responsible for inciting violence for having placed a “bat-brand” on some of the crooks he captures: this brand at least causes said crooks being killed in prison. Yet the hero also shows some regret for his precipitate actions, at least by the film's end, where Batman threatens an imprisoned Luthor with the deadly brand—and yet, at the last moment, spares the super-villain from that fate.

Though some reviewers have caviled at the film for its splashy scenes of spectacular violence, I found Snyder’s spectacle-scenes somewhat more artful than those of the Nolan films. Nolan specializes in scenes of slick, high-octane violence; scenarios, that oppose their diegetical “reality” to the fantasy of billionaires who cruise around town into tricked-out military vehicles. A similar intellectual aridity pervades Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL, where both Superman and his Kryptonian foes have no more mythopoeic status than a weatherman’s reportage of a colossal storm. But in BVS. Snyder at least allows a few sparks of superhero symbolism to cut through the murk of sociopolitical determinism.  The interpolated subplot of Wonder Woman—who’s pursuing a course not related to the Gotham-Metropolis struggle—is of some help in this, though her rich mythology is barely suggested. Given the brevity of her appearances, I can't understand why any reviewers would claim that she 'saves" the film, though I think her non-costumed scenes outshine her costumed ones as far as communicating her Olympian poise.



BVS is not by any means my ideal live-action chronicle of the first encounters of Batman and Superman, and the best that I can say for the principal actors—Affleck, Cavill  Gadot, and Eisenberg—is they generally acquit themselves well with what they’re given, though only Eisenberg really puts a definitive stamp  on his “manic Bill Gates” version of Lex Luthor For me scenes of head-scratching confusion probably outnumbered scenes of wonder and awe. And yet, the mere fact that the production chose to steal from the best, from Miller’s definitive Batman work, suggests that the new Warner-DC Universe might be able to formulate a superhero universe with its own unique tonality, rather than doing what a lot of DC comic books did to poor effect—simply copying the Marvel method of doing things.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

SCOOBY DOO AND THE SAMURAI SWORD (2009)





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


SCOOBY DOO AND THE SAMURAI SWORD wasn't much funnier than most of the DTV Scooby-movies out there, though it did make me laugh out loud at one point.. Yet it does boast a script that's more intelligent than the average.

The subject matter of the story may have encouraged the scripters to devote a little more research than usual. Scooby and the gang find their way to modern Japan, whose culture, according to one character, is perpetually conflicted between ancient ways and modern post-technological civilization. Perhaps because the popular culture of Japan has become entwined with that of America, the Scooby Gang don't encounter some fake-ified version of the country's myths and legends, but a bonafide supernatural menace called the Black Samurai. (To be sure, there are a bunch of robotic ninjas flying about, controlled by a secondary adversary whose identity must be revealed by the usual penny-ante sleuthing). The samurai, a medieval warrior possessed by the spirit of an evil sword, is loosely tied to the authentic Japanese legend of the swordsmiths Masamune and Muramase.

One welcome variation on the regular Scooby hijinks is that the character Daphne has much more to do this time, as she's the main reason for the Japanese sojourn. SWORD's version of Daphne seems to have been conceived in line with the "Kung Fu Daphne"  seen in the 2002 live-action Scooby-film, though to my knowledge this DTV is one of the few to do so. Daphne has a nice martial-arts match with a fellow female student, which event Shaggy calls knowingly a "kung fu catfight." (I wonder what any little kids watching the DVD made of that phrase.)

Aside from the spectacle of Daphne in a karate-gi, the film is at its most interesting when Scooby and Shaggy must both train with a Japanese mentor to become samurai capable of defeating the undead swordsman, using a "good sword" that destroys the Black Samurai's "bad sword." This sterling accomplishment by the two goofballs is only possible because both Shaggy and Scooby can easily reach the Zen state of "no mind"-- because neither of them has any mind to speak of. (The joke at which I laughed ties into this sequence, spoofing the schtick of the mystic master who can counsel his disciple through telepathic contact.)

For the purpose of my combative theory, SAMURAI SWORD is another illustration of a variation I described in my ARCHIVE essays like this one. Although Scooby and Shaggy are the means by which the evil demon is defeated, the "good sword" is guided not by their talents by the power of the sword's guardian dragon. In addition, I thought it was implied that all of their skills acquired by Shaggy and Scooby were more or less bestowed upon them by their samurai-mentor's "crash course" and that any and any of those martial skills would go bye-bye when the Scooby Gang had its next outing.. For this reason I don't regard SAMURAI SCHOOL as a film with a full combative value.