Wednesday, November 30, 2016

STAR TREK: "METAMORPHOSIS," "JOURNEY TO BABEL" (1967)



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


Though romance appeared in other episodes, Gene Coon's "Metamorphosis" is the show's first true love story. To be sure, it seems to have been conceived to fit into Gene Roddenberry's somewhat masculinist view of the world. The opening scenes feature the show's first depiction of a woman in a position of Federation authority: diplomat Nancy Hedford. Though McCoy explains to Kirk that Hedford's shrewishness may stem from her having contracted a rare disease, the character's depiction, both in the opening scenes and in later exposition, fits the trope of the "loveless career woman."

That said, these sociopolitical aspects are happily kept to a minimum, in contrast to later episodes like "Turnabout Intruder." Kirk, McCoy, Spock and Hedford are en route to the Enterprise when their craft is forced down onto a small planetoid. The waylaid foursome encounter a single male human on the otherwise empty planet. They eventually learn that he is the legendary scientist Zephraim Cochrane, developer of the warp drive, supposedly dead for the past hundred-odd years. Cochrane crashed on the planetoid but was restored to youth and made immortal by a mysterious energy-being, the Companion. This entity also brought Kirk and company to the planet to keep Cochrane company. Kirk has a ticking clock: he needs to get Hedford back to civilization not only to treat her illness, but because she's important to diplomatic peace talks. In the course of trying to escape the Companion's reach, Kirk and Krew learn that the energy-creature is fundamentally female, and in love with Cochrane. Because the Companion will not release Cochrane and his prospective new social group, Hedford's disease catches up with her.

Kirk, in trying to convince the alien that she can't really love Cochrane in her immaterial form, unwittingly allows career woman Hedford to undergo a "metamorphosis." Before Hedford dies the alien fuses with her, giving her body new life but essentially taking over her personality. This removes the Companion as a threat, at which point the main conflict becomes the question of whether Cochrane can come to terms with his emotions.

The episode's high point appears when Cochrane-- who has frequently "merged" with the energy-being in order to communicate-- finds out that she's female by nature. Somehow, this makes him conceive of their unions as sexual in nature, and he reacts as if he were the victim of an unwitting seduction-- or many seductions, over the course of numerous years. The denouement, in which Cochrane and the reborn Companion, pledge to live out their now mortal lives together on the planetoid, strongly resembles the conclusion of "The Menagerie." Apparently Eden is OK when it's made available only to those at the end of their lives, or otherwise outside the bounds of normal society.





"Journey to Babel," scripted by D.C. Fontana, is an excellent "white-knuckle" thriller, as the Enterprise must transport a dozen or so diplomats to their next peace conference. In addition to strife between the less than diplomatic politicians, Kirk must also contend with an assassin in their midst, and an unidentified ship that dogs the Enterprise's tracks. On top of that, two members of the diplomatic party are the Vulcan Sarek and his human wife Amanda, who are the parents of Spock. Father and son have not spoken in eighteen years because Spock chose to lend his scientific talents to Starfleet rather than the Vulcan Science Academy. Though Sarek never admits the ultimate cause of their disaffiliation, it's clear that he resents Spock choosing to ally himself to his mother's culture, rather than that of Vulcan.

This is dominantly a Spock episode, concerned with depicting Spock's strained relationship to his parents, as well as putting forth little gems like McCoy finding out that little Spock once owned a live "teddy beat," Yet Kirk gets his fair share of strong moments, riding herd on the diplomats and suffering a serious wound at the hands of the assassin. Fontana throws even complication after complication-- Sarek suddenly develops a serious illness and needs a blood transfusion from Spock, just when the science officer cannot surrender command-- yet none of the complications seem excessive. The makeup and clothing-design for the alien actors ably sustains the illusion of numerous conferring aliens, even though all we actually see are Vulcans, Tellarites and Andorians.

One interesting psychological angle is whether or not Spock's initial refusal to give the blood transfusion may be rooted in emotional resentment rather than the logic of duty, despite Spock's eloquent defense of Starfleet priorities. Certainly his mother's appeal to Spock's sentimental side is an appeal to make him choose the "law of the father" over "the law of Starfleet." Curiously it's Kirk who puts the Freudian angle into its most concrete terms, claiming that he must, despite his wound, get Spock to surrender command to keep Spock from committing "patricide."

STAR TREK:"CATSPAW," "I, MUDD" (1967)



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


If "Who Mourns for Adonais" was partly influenced by "Squire of Gothos," then "Catspaw," Robert Bloch's second TREK-script, is baldly derivative of both of the. Instead of one alien who assumes the image of a bygone figure from Earth's past, here we have two: a pudgy male named Korob (cherub?) and a witchy female named Sylvia.

For the first time, there's no advance explanation of why the Enterprise chose to beam a crew down to the surface of the aliens' planet, one Pyris VI, not even the standard "anomalous readings." One member of the landing-party, a redshirt named Jackson, asks to beam up and when he gets there, he proves to be a dead man through which the aliens speak, warning the space-sailors to keep away. Of course, if the aliens really wanted the crew to stay away, they would have returned the whole landing-party: by keeping Scott and Sulu captive, they invite Kirk and his usual wingmen to descend in search of them. The aliens' motivation is choppy at best: in one scene Korob claims that he warned the Enterprise away, though none of the crewmen mention their having been warned. Still later, both aliens-- who have assumed the appearances of warlock and witch respectively (while Sylvia can also transform into a black cat)-- claim that they wanted the spacemen to come, in order to test their resolve. They admit that they are not natives of Pyris VII, having used a "transmuter" to get there, but the closest we get to an explanation of their purpose is that Sylvia tells Kirk that her people lack "sensation" in their domain, and that they've come to experience the full gamut of sensations in Kirk's part of the universe.

She says this, by the way, while trying to seduce Kirk to help her in some vague way, but Kirk only plays his Don Juan act for a few minutes before turning down her presumably-Faustian overtures. Bloch may have intended Sylvia to be a sort of Magna Mater type-- and she does come closer to this than any previous female character on the show, though the actress isn't quite up to portraying such a figure. Late in the story it's revealed that she has more authority than Korob, even though he seems to be in control at the outset. Korob, for no particular reason, changes sides toward the conclusion and helps the crew save themselves and their zombified friends from Sylvia's wrath. However, he dies with her and the crewmen go on their way.

Whereas the "Adonais" script does a fair job at depicting the Glory of Greece in the form of Apollo, Bloch doesn't even come close to representing "things that go bump in the night" in the forms of Korob and Sylvia. Supposedly this was conceived as a "Halloween episode"-- even the custom of "trick or treat" is referenced-- but the dominant theme is that of rejecting the superstitious beliefs of man's forbears in favor of the Federation's technology. And of course, the fact that the aliens themselves only use a "science-that-looks-like-magic" does nothing to enhance them. The most interesting facet of the erratic script is when Spock theorizes that the aliens may have taken on these forms by drawing upon the "racial unconscious" of humankind, which sounds like a tacit endorsement of Jung's collective unconscious-- at least, within the sphere of this episode.



"I, Mudd"-- whose title may be a spoof on Robert Graves' 1934 novel I, CLAUDIUS-- is much more successful than either "Catspaw" or the comic villain's previous appearance in "Mudd's Women." Mudd himself is something of a "catspaw" himself. He crashes upon an uncharted planet while fleeing the forces of law and order, and finds that this world was an outpost created by an extinct race and now inhabited only by a coterie of androids. The androids serve Mudd as their emperor but won't let him leave their world, because his presence gives them something to do. Desperate to give the robots someone else to serve, Mudd talks them into sending one of their number, Norman, to infiltrate a Federation starship and bring it to Mudd's world, so that the crew can take Mudd's place as the imprisoned "masters." By dumb luck Mudd gets the Enterprise and his old nemesis Kirk.

Since this episode is a perennial favorite, I won't rehash the many comic routines to which the spacemen resort to get clear of the androids. I'll note that this is not only one of the second season's episodes to emphasize the perils of man's technology dominating him, it also is something of a "plague" story, as Kirk and Crew must prevent the robots from spreading to other parts of the galaxy. Perhaps one of the funniest concetions is that Mudd tells Kirk that he fled to the stars to escape his harpy of a wife-- appropriately named "Stella" (star)-- which is certainly a neat inversion of the old trope about men conquering new terrains to please their women. I also won't rehash how Stella fits into Mudd's punishment after Kirk has defeated the androids, but it remains one of the show's most effective comic endings.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

THE MONSTER SQUAD (1987)



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


Though THE MONSTER SQUAD was not overly successful in its initial release, the film-- directed by Fred Dekker and co-scripted by Dekker and Shane Black-- has become a cult item over the years. It's not a particular deep film, but it offers the first major "rally" of traditional American monsters since the venerable ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.

Like the 1948 film, this one also offers the psychological thrill of the heroes getting to be "the Boys Who Cried Wolfman;" of knowing that there really are monsters and that the community at large is too dim to pick up on it. To be sure, Lou Costello's Wilbur is merely a full-grown man who acts childishly at times, while the four members of the Monster Squad are literal 12-year-old boys. I don't watch to prate too much about the typical Freudian "latency fantasies" to which kids in that age-range *may* be prone. Nevertheless, the script strongly hints at a correlation between the ages of the four main protagonists-- Sean, Patrick, Eugene, and Horace (stuck with the name "Fat Kid" for most of the picture)-- and their unrelenting passion for movie monsters. The latency interpretation is somewhat supported by the fact that Rudy, a sixteen-year-old loosely tied to the club, initially scorns the group's monster-love, just as most adults view the boys' club as a passing phase. Sean's five-year-old sister Phoebe aspires to be a member of the group, but the fact that the boys exclude her argues that the club really is for guys of a certain age. That said, if the boys have any Freudian fantasies, they're barely acknowledged by the script, except through the indirect medium of Patrick's teenaged sister, whose dubious status as a virgin becomes a humorous plot-point late in the film.

Of course, the monsters here aren't psychological fantasies, but real creatures of the dark, out to dominate the world. As in the A&C film, Count Dracula is the undisputed leader, probably because he's the most overtly Satanic figure, but in that film Dracula only aspires to use one monster as his puppet, while the original Wolf Man seeks to oppose the vampire's evil. In SQUAD the vampire-lord commands four monstrous stooges:  the Wolfman, the Gill-Man, the Mummy, and the Frankenstein Monster. However, the first three are not able to resist Dracula's power-- although the werewolf' in his normal identity makes a stab at doing so-- and only the Monster is able to win free. Dekker's Frankenstein is more like the pitiable figure of the two James Whale films than most of the creature's later incarnations, and he plays a vital role in the vampire's ultimate defeat. It's regrettable that their climactic conflict is not a major battle, for actors Duncan Regehr and Tom Noonan give their roles an aura of great formidability. By comparison, the Mummy and the Gill-Man suffer rather humiliating defeats at the hands of the preteens, though at least the Wolf Man gets the dignity of being killed with the iconic silver bullet, by none other than latter-day conversion Rudy. But all of the monsters are visually imposing, and even little Phoebe gets to play a role in their defeat.

The "McGuffin" over which the two groups struggle is a mystic amulet, which, rather confusingly, has the potential to either (1) give Dracula and his minions ultimate power over mankind, or (2) exile all of the monsters into a formless limbo. Given that I subjected the kids to Freudian dissection, I might as well subject the amulet to the Jungian magnifying glass. Dekker and Black don't explain the magical bauble, but IMO it represents the power of the imagination itself, which possesses, among other things, the power to bring fictional monsters to life. It's also a power that the kids, despite their love of creepy things, must foreswear by the film's end, as they cast all of the creatures back into the unreality that spawned them. In the film's most poignant moment, even the Frankenstein Monster, despite having aided the Squad, must return to the void (or collective unconscious), unable to fit into the real world from which he sprung.

That said, the film ends with a vindication of fantasy, rather than an injunction to "put away childish things." There are apparently no more monsters on Earth, but nonetheless the movie's last lines consist of Sean telling a flummoxed army officer that he and his friends are "the Monster Squad." Possibly Dekker just wanted to suggest the possibility of a sequel to investors. Yet Dekker's conclusion also celebrates the fantasies of kid-hood-- which certainly includes the wish-dream of being able to defeat evil, even when you haven't yet got your full growth, and even when all the older folks can't see that you're in the right.

Monday, November 28, 2016

KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1985), FIREWALKER (1986)




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


I reviewed the second film in this series here, but though the second outing was released two years after KING, these 1980s versions of classic white hunter-hero Allan Quatermain were filmed back-to-back. The first film is, like its sequel, "dumb fun" at best, and only erratically borrows plot-threads from the 1885 novel. The novel begins with Quatermain being hired to venture into an unexplored part of Africa to find an Englishman's missing relative. In this film, released by the cheese-kings Golan and Globus, Quatermain is hired by a sexy young blonde (Sharon Stone), whose father, like the missing man in the novel, was seeking the fabled King Solomon's Mines.

The script for this flick has no sense of the mythic resonance of the Biblical mines, much less the culture-clash of colonial England venturing into "darkest Africa." KING's entire raison d'etre is to copy the comical scenes from 1981's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, ignoring all the other elements that made that film a success. Most of KING's slapstick-toned antics don't work particularly well, as director J. Lee Thompson-- never a strong hand with comedy, even in his early years-- overplays most of the scenes, virtually telling his audience, "Laugh here!" 

Only one action-comedy scene works moderately well. Quatermain and Stone's character Jesse are captured by a cannibal tribe and thrown into a gigantic metal cooking-pot, sort of a brobdingnagian version of the sort of cookware seen in dozens of cartoons about white hunters getting stewed-- and not in a good way. The heroes' escape isn't the least bit believable, but it's the only scene in which the absurdity works on its own terms.

One odd scene doesn't rely on goony slapstick. While foraging through the jungle Quatermain and Jesse are given succor by a curious tribe of natives who no longer live on the earth, but inhabit the latticework-branches of the trees, There's an explanatory line about how these natives abandoned the earth to escape the evil of mankind or something like that. I seem to remember reading somewhere that this fantasy-element may have been taken from another Haggard book, and that may be the reason that it's the only scene that carries a little of that author's poetical charm. There's no fantasy-explanation for how the natives can hang from the branches, more or less in Spider-Man fashion, so it may be the natives' uncanny agility shares some kinship with some similar abilities demonstrated in the kung fu film FIVE DEADLY VENOMS. That said, the presence of a giant spider edges the film into the domain of the marvelous.

Stone probably gets the worst part in the movie, as the script writes her "Karen Allen lite" character as a blithering idiot, though Chamberlain doesn't get much better treatment, nor do Herbert Lom and John Rhys-David. Two Black African characters from the novel aren't implicated in the silly hijinks: Umbopa (Ken Gampu), who joins the expedition to uncharted Africa to reclaim his lost throne, and Gagool (June Bethelezi), the evil old witch-woman who tyrannizes over Umbopa's tribe. The latter makes a very good evil old woman, but is not nearly as central to the film as she is in the novel.



FIREWALKER, also produced by Golan-and-Globus and directed by Thompson, takes the same near-comical approach to RAIDERS material, but if anything it's even lamer than KING. It concerns two Americans (Chuck Norris, Louis Gossett Jr.), stuck in Central America and looking for their next big break. Along comes a comely blonde girl, Patricia (Melody Anderson), who informs them of a fabulous Indian treasure, though the script doesn't seem clear on whether the treasure was left behind by the Aztecs, the Mayans, or the Apaches. As the trio set out on their trek, they are menaced by Coyote, a local shaman, also the evil guardian of the treasure. He's also apparently the "firewalker" of the title, though this is barely justified in the careless script.

I've seen other online reviews go into great depth charting the embarrassing inconsistencies of the film, so I won't touch on them here, except for one. After Norris and Co have consulted with a "good shaman" to get help on their quest, they take their leave, and the shaman says something like, "I don't know how Tonto does it." It's not out of line for a Native American to pass arch comments on people looking to plunder Indian artifacts. However, at least Tonto's tribal origins were consistent,while this film's script can't even keep its Native American mythology straight.

Again the humor is largely overplayed by Thompson and largely unfunny, but there's some novelty in seeing Chuck Norris, the Great Stone Face, trying to play things for laughs. He doesn't do that badly, even given the lame lines he has to read, but his relative success might be attributable to a good working chemistry with Louis Gossett, an actor noted for his ability to imbue even the worst characters with total conviction.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

CALL OF THE SAVAGE (1935)



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


CALL OF THE SAVAGE is a neglected but perfectly serviceable jungle-serial. I read one of the novels on which it's based, Otis Kline's JAN OF THE JUNGLE, but without re-reading it would guess that very little was borrowed from the book. It's also very nearly an "uncanny" story, except for one minor intrusion of marvelous super-science.

As a young boy at the jungle-sanctuary of his father Doctor Trevor, Jan (Noah Beery Jr,) loses his mother to a lion-attack, while his father is injured and loses his memory. Jan wanders off into the jungle and grows up with the animals, though no particular creature seems to have fostered him. But Trevor was working on a cure for polio, and fifteen years later a scientific expedition returns to Africa to search for Trevor's valuable notes. One scientist is a good guy, another is a bad one. The expedition also includes a young woman, Mona, and a mysterious fellow who believes that Mona is the lost princess of the City of Mu. The latter schemer plans to take her back to her home city-- which she no longer remembers-- at the earliest opportunity. However, most of the serial's chapters deal with Jan's interactions with the expedition-- and with Mona, who gets a G-rated "Jane" treatment, lots of stock animal footage, and various double-crosses, not getting to the Lost City until the tenth chapter. This runs in contrast to the prominence of lost cities in most jungle-serials, notably DARKEST AFRICA. 

SAVAGE, directed by Lew Landers of RAVEN fame, is nicely photographed and lively in terms of action. and it benefits from a cheery performance by Beery as Jan. The jungle-boy, like a road-company version of the Weissmuller Tarzan, never learns more than a few words, but the lack of tedious pidgin dialect is a bonus, forcing Berry to rely on gesture and expression. He also acquits himself well in the fight-scenes.In one chapter Jan and one ally are attacked on a large river-raft by hostile natives, resulting in a big fistfight while the raft careens toward a waterfall.

Given how little time the Mu-natives occupy, it's surprising that they're included at all. Their only super-weapon is an electrical arc that zaps intruders who enter a certain cave-mouth: other than that, their other menaces are standard uncanny-traps from other serials: a room with a descending ceiling of spikes and a room full of flame, for two.

Dorothy Short plays Mona, and looks fetching in her jungle-outfit (see above). Her performance is generally good, except that the script apparently told her to scream piercingly every time danger threatens. It's one thing for Mona to be incapable of jumping into the fights, and another for her to scream gratuitously when she's not immediately in danger. When the guys are busy fighting villains, that sort of feminine indulgence-- even if scripted by male writers-- could prove exceedingly unwise.

ROCKULA (1990)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

I hadn't watched ROCKULA in years, and my memories of it were not good, but I gave it another look anyway. The film was directed and co-written by Luca Bercovici, who had his greatest success with 1984's GHOULIES and its three sequels. None of the GHOULIES films are especially good, but they're pure poetry next to ROCKULA.

I have to assume that Bercovici's took his main inspiration from comic horror flicks like YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, but ROCKULA doesn't understand anything about the vampire-story subgenre. In the setup scenes, we learn that Ralph, a vampire who looks like a twenty-something mortal, is actually over 400 years old, as is his only living relative, his mother Phoebe, with whom he still lives. Neither of them seem to suffer any of the needs or vulnerabilities of vampires, although they do display fangs on the odd occasion.

It's not Ralph's fault he still lives with his mom: he seems to be really, really unlucky at love. Centuries ago he met his one true love, Mona, but before they could be joined, Mona was killed by a pirate with a rhinestone peg-leg. Since that first evil encounter, Mona keeps getting reincarnated in a new body every 22 years. But apparently the Rhinestone Pirate does as well, since he appears at each reincarnation to kill Mona off, before Ralph can know the joy of sex.

It's modern times, and Ralph doesn't even want to stir out of the house, for fear of meeting Mona again and watching her die. Eventually, after talking to his own reflection for a while (don't ask), he ventures forth, and runs into Mona-- or rather, she runs him down with her car when he steps into the street. Again Ralph tries to avoid the cursed girl, but when he finds out that she's a club singer, he finds himself moved to form his own band, of which he is the lead singer-- Rockula!

However, though the Pirate doesn't immediately appear, Ralph has a rival in Mona's ex-boyfriend Stanley, a huckster who sells expensive funeral plots. Stanley observes his ex spending time with Ralph and consults a psychic, the suggestively named "Madame Ben Wa." The psychic tells Stanley that the only way he can defeat Ralph is to dress up as a pirate, compete with rhinestone pegleg. Stanley doesn't plan to kill Mona, though, only to deep-freeze her until she loves him again.

The comedy scenes are lame despite the efforts of the actors, but the lame jokes provide some relief from the even worse music. At times ROCKULA looks like a long music video punctuated by some narrative digressions, and I suspect that the movie was designed with the notion of pushing the music, credited to none other than Hilary Bercovici, brother of Luca.

My SPOILERS is for the film's only interesting psychological motif. It turns out that "Madame Ben Wa" is none other than Ralph's mom Phoebe, who has never wanted her little boy to marry and thus leave her. Implicitly-- though the script glosses over this point-- she's been the sole source of the "pirate curse" for centuries, suborning some schmuck like Stanley to kill off Mona at the appropriate time, so that she could continue living with her precious boy. For what it's worth, Phoebe-- whose name connotes "the moon," even as one derivation of "Mona" does-- isn't planning to seduce her son a la MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE; she just wants him to keep him in her eternal orbit. Yet Bercovici doesn't really play fair with the Big Reveal, since Phoebe, despite acting weird at times, doesn't really act in a way that might throw suspicion on her.

All that said, though, I must admit if there's a little goofy symbolism in the psychic's name. Is Ralph, in a symbolic sense at least, an object she keeps inside her, for her satisfaction? But this bad pun is about the only time the film aspires to the Mel Brooks level of smutty jokes.

ADDENDA: Although the film does end up with a comic battle between Ralph and Stanley, neither character shows a high level of dynamicity, so this is a subcombative comedy, not unlike the later CANNIBAL WOMEN IN THE AVOCADO JUNGLE OF DEATH.

Friday, November 18, 2016

STAR TREK: "THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE" (1967)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological*

THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE is another "terror-of-technology" episode, though there's no attempt to imagine the nature of artificial intelligence, as in THE CHANGELING. The titular machine, sometimes called "the Planet Killer," is a gargantuan, nearly invulnerable cylinder that travels through space, breaking up planets and consuming their remains, regardless of whether or not the planets were inhabited. Kirk and company theorize that it was some alien race's Ultimate Weapon that went berserk, perhaps killing its makers and then continuing to follow its pre-programmed course of destruction.

The psychological interest here lies not in the machine, but in one of its victims. As the Enterprise ventures into a solar system devastated by an unknown force, they find one survivor aboard a shattered Federation ship: Commodore Matt Decker, a friend of Kirk's. Decker has almost been unhinged by watching his ship crippled and his crew destroyed by the Planet Killer, so while Kirk and Scott attempt to salvage the wrecked ship, Decker is sent back to the Enterprise. This proves to be an error on Kirk's part, for once Decker's on a functioning ship, he displays an  Ahab-like determination to destroy the Planet Killer. He assumes command and tries to pit the Enterprise's inadequate resources against the space-behemoth.

DOOMSDAY is another of the series' "white-knuckle" episodes, concerned with the imminent peril of the mammoth menace and the possibility that an obsessed Starfleet officer may get everyone killed as a result of his own desire for a "do-over," or even a displaced desire for suicide, to join the dead crew he feels that he failed. William Windom gives a stellar performance as the obsessed Decker, though both Shatner and Nimoy play off him well. Decker seems to be the first indication that even a man who rises to the lofty position of starship-commander may prove unequal to the task; prior to this episode, the only psychologically flawed Starfleet officer was Ben Finney of COURT MARTIAL,  and he was explicitly sent around the bend because he didn't realize his dream of becoming a ship-captain. There won't be too many Decker-like officers in future episodes, but the Roddenberry-verse always leaves open the possibility that power-- or even a lack of power-- can corrupt.

STAR TREK: "THE APPLE" (1967)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *superior*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*


Despite some obscure points in the script, "The Apple" is a huge improvement on earlier TREK scripts that dealt with similar subject matter. This may be because Max Erlich's script managed to meld two established TREK-tropes: the problems of tyrannical computers ("Return of the Archons") and of the stagnation of a bucolic existence ("This Side of Paradise.") Neither of those societies seemed particularly desirable-- the latter was too uneventful, while the former was too harshly legalistic, broken only by weird festivals of violent activity. "Apple," however, makes its stagnant society pleasing by appealing to the Christian ideal of unsullied innocence.

Kirk and his crew, prompted by other starships reporting anomalous "sensor readings" about an unexplored world, investigate with a larger-than-normal landing-party-- Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Chekhov, and several redshirts, most of whom will be dead by episode's end. In terms of its lush vegetative life, the planet seems to be a reborn Garden of Eden. However, some objects seems to work like booby-traps: a thorn-shooting flower kills one redshirt, an explosive rock slays another. There's no final verdict on whether these objects are the creation of the malign mechanism that rules the planet: they seem to have been tossed out to ramp up the danger to the crewmen, not because they have in purpose in the design of the being that controls everything.

Thorn-flowers and rock-bombs might not have had any place in the original Eden, but Kirk and Comapny soon get a taste of Old Testament fury when their unseen opponent hurls lightning bolts from the sky, killing yet another redshirt. (The one redshirt who's never in serious danger is Landon, a young blonde yeoman whose romantic relationship with Chekhov is important to the plot.)

In due course the Kirk Krew gets the lowdown from the planet's natives: crimson-skinned humanoids who go about dressed in South Seas-like attire and call themselves "the Feeders of Vaal." Though not immortal, the Feeders know neither age nor sickness, thanks to the rigidly controlled environment provided by Vaal, an ancient computer-system buried deep in the earth. Vaal's only outward aspect is a cave-mouth carved into the head of a serpent, but it's soon clear to the crew that Vaal doesn't like trespassers in his domain. The computer makes no more immediate attacks on the crew and allows them to stay in the Feeders' village, but this may be because the machine has decided that the orbiting Enterprise is the greater threat. The computer fixes a tractor-beam on the ship, threatening to drag it down to destruction, and for the next day or so commanding officer Scott is stuck in the midst of a deadly game of tug-o-war.

(It's a good thing Vaal is so distracted, because given his powers, he probably could have zapped the whole Kirk Krew with lightning while they slept in one of the Feeders' grass huts.)

While the ship's fate lies in doubt, Spock and McCoy debate the societal status of the Feeders. McCoy takes the position that the Feeders' culture has stagnated, in part because Vaal doesn't allow them to mate unless they need a "replacement" for someone killed by accidental death.  Spock, always a little dubious about Earthmen's need to convert everyone to their way of life, argues that the primitives have found their ideal way of life and that the Federation ought to leave well enough alone. Both arguments are academic, since Kirk will seek Vaal's destruction to save his ship, but it's one of the better philosophical oppositions of the series.

In the end, Kirk, having seen the natives delivering some ambiguous "food" to the computer's mouth, deduces that his people can weaken the mechanism by keeping it from being fed. Here, too, it helps that Vaal again strikes a provoking blow, sending his followers to slay the intruders. (I'll note in passing that Landon gets one of the few TREK-scenes in which a female crewman kicks some ass, even if all she gets is a single high-kick.) In the end, Vaal is defeated and the Feeders must learn to live without a god, just as the people of the Federation (usually) seem to.

Erlich's idea of Vaal fascinates me. Given the South Seas attire of the natives, my best guess is that he named the computer-god after various "volcano-gods" seen in Polynesian melodramas. These stories usually show natives trying to appease their rumbling deity by tossing one of their people into the volcano's lava-filled mouth. It's possible that some early version of the script did have the Feeders hurling chosen victims into Vaal's crater-- though neither that sort of sacrifice, nor that of the ambiguous foodstuffs actually used, would seem to be of much use to a computer. Erlich may have dropped that angle because it would have conflicted with the idea that Vaal was trying to keep the population stable and unchanging. Vaal's serpentine cave-face is probably conceived as a way to distance him from the image of the Judeo-Christian deity. Vaal is the Serpent and thus a deceiver, not a real creator. Kirk and his crew are the ones who actually present the "Apple of Good and Evil" (as Kirk calls it) to the static primitives, but in doing so the star-travelers are liberators, and Vaal is less a creator-god than an old pagan dragon, demanding sacrifices from an unwitting populace.


BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986), VAMPIRES (1996)



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

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, though it's a cult-film now, failed at the box-office and so marked the general decline of director John Carpenter's fortunes as a commercial film director.

Much though I enjoyed it, I don't have a lot to say about the film. When I saw it in theatrical release, its breakneck speed somewhat annoyed me. It seemed to me that Carpenter didn't want to spend any time justifying his wild story of Chinese wizards and martial arts cults, for fear of breaking the effervescent, take-everything-on-its-own terms pulp-aesthetic. After repeated viewings, I've gotten used to the pacing, and can enjoy Carpenter's attempt to keep some sort of fantastic apparitions in front of the viewers' eyes at every time. Despite a downbeat, if slightly ambivalent, ending, TROUBLE shows a visual creativity and a comic flair that resembles nothing else in the director's oeuvre, least of his preceding hit with TROUBLE-star Kurt Russell, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

I have a dim recollection that Carpenter once claimed he was sending up a species of Hollywood adventure-films, particularly GUNGA DIN, in which Caucasian heroes were seen cutting an easy swath through armies of little brown opponents. This coheres with the representation of lead hero Jack Burton (Russell): almost all of the Asian characters, into whose feuding world Burton stumbles, can fight better than he can. When Burton does manage to give a good account of himself, at least some of his victory stems from dumb luck. He's still identifiable enough to be a hero, rather than the spoof of a hero-- but of course Russell's dead-on John Wayne emulation always undercuts the adventure somewhat. In Kim Cattrall, Victor Wong and Dennis Dun the star gets much more appealing allies this time, in contrast to ESCAPE, while James Hong stands out as Carpenter's best villain.



1996's VAMPIRES (I'll pass on using the possessive "John Carpenter's") is like BIG TROUBLE an ensemble-like film in which one major character leads a bunch of lesser sidekicks against a common enemy. In my mini-review of the original book by John Steakley, I found that the author went so overboard with his nattering about the male bonding between the kickass vampire killers that he neglected to make their battle against a "super-vampire" compelling. Carpenter seems to have kept about the first three-fourths of the book's main plot and deep-sixed most of the rambling asides I didn't like.

This time, while main hero Jack Crow still works with a bunch of male vamp-hunters, most of them aren't given much to do in the non-action scenes, which is all to the good. The one exception is the character of Montoya, who becomes Crow's primary buddy. James Woods and Daniel Baldwin make all the "cowboy samurai" stuff go down easy, and Carpenter ups the ante on the action-scenes that the original author neglected. That said, no one in the film is particularly appealing, even within the sphere of the "tough professional" ethos being evoked here. VAMPIRES also failed to "stake" any claims at the American box office, and despite an energetic Woods performance, doesn't seem to have taken on cult status as yet.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

STAR TREK: "THE CHANGELING," "MIRROR, MIRROR" (1967)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

That unit is defective. Its thinking is chaotic. Absorbing it unsettled me.-- Nomad, on the experience of probing the female mind.

This quote would seem to prove that even robots inevitably share their creators' beliefs as to the superior logic of the male gender.

Technically the "changeling" of the title isn't at all like the figure from folklore, since the "child" sent forth by an Earth-scientist-- Nomad, an exploratory robot-probe-- actually comes back to his "people," crossbred with an alien device that makes Nomad extremely perilous to Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise. One might compare Nomad more to humans who travel in fairy lands and then come back radically altered, whether inhumanly young or possessed of inhuman powers.

Like "What Are Little Girls Made of?," this Trek-episode seems devoted to the proposition that artificial life has no more claim on accurate perceptions than emotional living beings. Whereas the show's first season is rife with stories involving contagion by aliens or mutated humans, Nomad presents a new menace: the doomsday machine. Nomad's innocuous original mission is accidentally programmed into a mission of destruction, as the relentless machine judges all organic life-forms and finds them "imperfect" by its lofty non-living standards. Only its deference to its supposed "father," Captain Kirk, keeps the ultra-powerful machine from wrecking the ship, as it has earlier destroyed billions of (disposable) lives in a star-system.

"Changeling" is a strong thriller-episode, refreshing in the economy of its single premise: how can one use logic to defeat logic?




"Mirror Mirror," fourth episode of the second season, remains a perennial fan-favorite. It's certainly a lot of fun to watch four duty-bound members of the Enterprise-- Kirk, McCoy, Scott and Uhura-- encounter a Bizarro-world version of their universe: one in which the Johnsonian "Great Society" of the Federation has evolved into a merciless, Mongol-like Empire, devoted to ruthless conquest. Of course, it might put a damper on some of the fun to recall that some cultures contemporaneous with the show's original run DID think of America as being a merciless empire. I don't think Gene Roddenberry would have agreed with those voices back in the day, for he seemed to feel that American-style democracy provided the best of all possible worlds. Still, "Mirror Mirror's" script, by two-time TREK writer Jerome Bixby, may have been designed with Roddenberry's political beliefs in mind. While it might have been impossible to state on the show that democracy wasn't all it was cracked up to be, an alternate-world story could show that even the best of political systems could be corrupted-- and more, that the corruptions would eventually prove transitory.

Aside from the assorted thrills of the "good guys" to get out of the Bizarro-verse, the script also seems designed to play to another favored Roddenberry trope: that of the powerful man who attracts a woman to serve him-- though not necessarily a wife. The character of Marlena, the "captain's woman" to Bad Kirk, is a woman who, despite being a professional at her starship-job, chooses to advance by sleeping with powerful men. Like Bad Spock, Bad Marlena is for the most part won over the essential decency of Good Kirk, though his lovemaking abilities may have something to do with Marlena's conversion as well.

I noted that in the first season, Kirk isn't nearly the "Don Juan" he would later become, though Roddenberry clearly favored the image of powerful male seducers. "Mirror Mirror" seems the first episode that truly casts Kirk in the role of such a perpetual seducer of women.



ON THE BEACH (1959)



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

"You're about to say something serious," says Donna Anderson's character to Anthony Perkins' character, "I wish you wouldn't."

After watching Stanley Kramer's version of Nevil Shute's bestseller, I wish that I might have said something similar to Mr. Kramer. That's not to say that the original novel was any improvement on the film, though reportedly Shute didn't like the film. Though I never had read, and probably never will read, the Shute novel, I suspect that it shares the film's attempt at "high seriousness" about the audience's fears of a nuclear armageddon.

Aside from serving as a producer on THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DOCTOR T, the 1959 ON THE BEACH seems to be arch-naturalist Kramer's only flirtation with metaphenomenal cinema. In my view BEACH shows simply that Kramer, whatever his altruistic motives, was unable to make a compelling film on this type of subject, and should have stuck to his more naturalistic proclivities.

I came away from a re-viewing of BEACH not with any deep feelings about the atomic bomb, but with a deep sense of boredom, from watching a bunch of Hollywood actors sit around looking glum about the impending doomsday.

Not that they don't have reason: most of humanity has been eradicated by a nuclear catastrophe-- though not necessarily war-- and the last survivors have assembled on the continent of Australia. However, fallout clouds are advancing on mankind's last redoubt, and so the survivors have to take stock of their lives before they come to an inevitable end.

However, the characters are pretty damn boring, making them far from fitting representatives for mankind's twilight. I don't imagine Shute's work-- aimed at a melodrama-loving bestseller audience-- gave Kramer much to work with. But almost all the characters-- Peck, Astaire, Perkins-- sound pretty much the same. Ava Gardner steals what show there is to steal as the alcoholic would-be lover of Peck, but in the end she's pretty boring too.

As low-rent as Roger Corman's apocalyptic flicks were, I think that any of them-- even TEENAGE CAVEMAN-- probably have more of substance than this bloated Hollywood valentine to the ineviyability of death.


Monday, November 14, 2016

ZORRO THE GAY BLADE (1981)



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


I hadn't watched ZORRO THE GAY BLADE since it appeared in theaters. I found it fairly amusing back then, but not so much in a "home theater."

BLADE may be one of those comedies that just doesn't work that well when one doesn't have the "infectious laughter" factor. I remember that the line "He looked like-- like a poof!" worked in the theater, but not so well without a mass audience reaction.

BLADE followed quickly on the heels of George Hamilton's successful LOVE AT FIRST BITE, but since the 1981 film was also the last above-the-title film for the actor, I have to assume BLADE didn't do nearly as well. It may be that Zorro simply wasn't a hot topic for the early 80s as Dracula had been for the late 70s; BITE is a better comedy than BLADE but not by that much.

In the 21st century BLADE's repertoire of gay-jokes and Mexican-dialect jokes probably wouldn't play very well. I find them silly but innocuous. They're not as bad as the borscht-belt stuff that came out of the 1960s-- even in good comedies like GET SMART-- but the BLADE jokes are fairly trivial, like George Hamilton saying "the peoples" instead of "the people."

The gay schtick is more central to the story. Hamilton plays Don Diego de la Vega, but this time he's the son of the original Zorro, the role filled by a fellow named Cesar in the original Zorro sequel. 
As in most of the films that remake the original 1920 film, Diego is a master swordsman trained in the schools of Spain, who returns to the hacienda of his father in California and finds that a military dictatorship now oppresses the people. However, when this version of Diego arrives, he's informed by a faithful servant that the elder de la Vega-- now deceased-- played Zorro twenty years earlier. This inspires Diego to don the black mask and crusade against the petty-- and puny-- dictator, Esteban (Ron Leibman). Then Diego is injured, so he's forced to bring in a ringer, his long-unseen brother Ramon. It happens that when Ramon left California he ended up serving in the British Royal Navy, which apparently not only inflicted on him not only an effete British accent but an effete personality, with a penchant for "gay" colors. Thus, when Ramon doubles as Zorro, he affects costumes all in white or shocking pink. Nevertheless, though Ramon prefers the whip to the sword (hmmm), he proves as adept as Diego at confounding Esteban and his soldiers.

In a twist not derived from earlier Zorro iterations, this time Diego's romantic interest is not of Spanish descent: rather, lead-female Charlotte (Lauren Hutton) is a Caucasian American who's come to California to stump for political reforms to benefit the people. Hutton has an appealing scene in which she tries to confess her love to the Ramon-Zorro, who has to endeavor to keep his pose without revealing that his interests really don't swing her way. (To be sure, one never does see Ramon go after any guys, which might have made eighties audiences a little queasy in the midst of the light entertainment.)

On balance, though the humor is merely fair, some of the sociological observations between Diego and Charlotte, and the gay character is at least one portrayed with verve and daring despite his "whoops ducky" attitude.  Despite being a comedy, the film mounts its duels and chase-scenes better than a lot of straight Zorro films, and the effective music was apparently culled from earlier work by the respected Max Steiner.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME (1947)



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


This was the fourth and last production of a quartet of DICK TRACY films released by RKO in the late 1940s. All of them are competent enough B-features, and in contrast to the Republic serials, they do occasionally capture some of the grotesquerie of the Chester Gould comic strip.

That said, I find DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME the dullest of the four, mostly because of a by-the-numbers script, playing to the presence of top-billed Boris Karloff (the script even manages a jokey mention of the actor's name by one of the characters). Karloff plays Gruesome, a hard-bitten thug just out of prison and looking for a crooked score. He hooks up with a piano-playing hood (a distant descendant of "88 Keys?") and this leads him to an encounter with an unseen crime-boss. The boss wants to use Gruesome and his buddy to knock off banks using a special paralysis gas. Gruesome, being an ornery cuss, has his own ideas about who's calling the shots.

Gruesome is a flatly conceived role that Karloff could play in his sleep. There are a few horror-references: early in the film the villain is exposed to the gas, and is mistaken for a corpse by Dick Tracy's comedy-relief partner. But aside from being convincingly brutal, there's not much to Gruesome, nor to any of his partners, though Skelton Knaggs (seen above with Karloff) has a good creepy look to him. As for the heroes, Ralph Byrd essays Tracy with his usual brio, and Anne Gwynne makes a particularly vivacious Tess Trueheart.

I term the Campbellian function here "sociological" because it's about cops vs. crime, but it's pretty thin stuff. John Rawlins, who co-directed THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN, does a good noir-ish job with the material, making use of high-level vantage shots to break things up a little.