Thursday, December 29, 2016

WHTIE CARGO (1942)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*



SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Though politically I don't agree with the tendency of modern critics to cry "racism" at every negative portrait of a given ethnicity-- see THE BAD APPLE DEFENSE for details-- there's no question that WHITE CARGO is one of the most unadulterated racist films ever made.

To be sure, the story was a recrudescence of attitudes that went largely unquestioned at the time it was first written. CARGO began as a 1912 novel, "Hell's Pavement," by Ida Simonton. Thus the narrative, involving white traders presiding over an African rubber plantation, took place at a time when British imperialism was assumed to be the same as natural law. Roughly ten years later Leon Gordon allegedly ripped off aspects of the novel for his successful 1923 play "White Cargo." Simonton sued Gordon and the courts found in her favor, with the result that the credits for the Hollywood film acknowledge both novel and play while using the title of Gordon's play.

Perhaps in an attempt to distance the pro-imperialism sentiments of the narrative, the movie starts in the present, in a dialogue between traders on a 1942 rubber plantation. After a quick reference to current events-- the need to produce rubber to defeat the Japanese threat-- one character begins to reminisce about his experiences when he first came to the plantation in 1910. The main action then takes place in a flashback, with a brief return to 1942 after the story has been told.


The opening scenes of the flashback show Langford, a new employee, arriving to oversee the native workers. As Langford arrives, the man he's replacing leaves, and it's plain that he and his boss Witzel have bad blood between them. Witzel almost immediately takes a dislike to Langford as well, assuming that he's going to be too "green" to prove useful. The conflict between Langford and Witzel dominates the storyline, though neither of them is really the film's main character. Rather, it's the mysterious Tondeleyo, a native woman who was apparently Witzel's lover at one time, and who gradually worms her way into Langford's affections.

Tondeleyo is in every way a caricature of European (and American) beliefs about African natives. She is vain, foolish, and untrustworthy. She knows how to use her sexuality to manipulate men, but doesn't have the ability to care about anyone: the only things she cares about are receiving men's gifts of jewelry or geegaws, which are the only things that reinforce her sense of self. It's purely for this reason that she seduces Langford and gets him to marry her, but she soon grows bored with married life. She may even possess a mild feminine masochism. At one point she recommends that Langford ought to beat her regularly, so that afterward they can make up. But Langford refuses to shoulder the white man's burden: that of curbing the worst traits of the dark races by disciplining them-- and it's for this reason that he's also a failure at controlling the misbehavior of the native workers, all of whom are truculent savages who shirk their labors and pretend not to understand English. Ultimately, Tondeleyo is so bored that she decides that she will murder her husband by introducing gradual amounts of poison into his food. Witzel finds out in time to save Langford, and he dispenses "jungle justice" by forcing the native girl to imbibe a killing dose of her own poison. Langford is shipped back to Europe as "white cargo," which is as good a name as any for a white man who has "gone native."

It would be interesting to study in detail Hollywood's depictions of non-white races during the period when America was at war. Almost certainly there would be some works that were relatively progressive, while others, like WHITE CARGO, were entirely regressive. It seems likely that Hollywood's main interest in the story was largely to find another "exotic" role for Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr, who had become a major star with the release of 1938's ALGIERS. At the same time, there was a limit on how "exotic" a Hollywood actress could pretend to be. Interracial marriages were forbidden by the Hollywood Code, and so Tondeleyo-- apparently originally conceived as a full-blooded "negress" by Simonton-- was rewritten to be a half-Egyptian, half-Arab girl, so that Langford would be able to marry her. Nevertheless, the theme of the original novel is supported in spite of the rewriting: Tondeleyo's bad habits stem from having been raised by the local Black Africans, and so any marriage between the dusky native woman and a white man can only produce a spiritual miscegenation. Interestingly, nothing is said in the movie-- though I can't speak for the play or the novel-- about the prospect of Tondeleyo bearing children. Possibly the idea was omitted because any mention of motherhood might have softened the film's portrait of the character as the demonic incarnation of idle, soul-corrupting femininity. The only aspect that might be even slightly positive is that, whereas most Black African female characters are nearly invisible, Tondeleyo is almost as mythic a temptress as any European witch or siren.




Monday, December 26, 2016

SANTA CLAUS (1959)



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


I actually enjoyed this 1959 Mexican Santa Claus more than either of these other two Santa-flicks I reviewed in 2013, but only on the kinetic level, because SANTA '59 is a much more lively, colorful film than the other two. I rate its mythicity low, though, because even though it shows some chutzpah by having Santa faced off against a mischievous minion of the Devil, it's not so much a story as an assemblage of tossed-off slapstick scenes. Basically, Santa's mission is, as always, to deliver hundreds of toys to children on Christmas Eve, while it's the mission of Pitch-- inept servant of hell-- to foul him up.

The most coherent aspect of the rambling story speaks to a socio-religious motif close to Mexican culture: does God-- more or less taking the form of the eternally beneficent St. Nick-- care about the poor? One poor little girl, Lupita, dearly wants to own an expensive girl-doll. Pitch, who yearns to corrupt the goodness in all the children Santa wants to benefit, whispers in the girl's ear, tempting her to steal the doll. Lupita does steal the doll for a moment, but her decency asserts itself (much to the joy of Santa, watching from a celestial cloud) and she puts it back. The movie might have been stronger if it had centered more on Lupita's woes, but instead director Rene Cardona chooses to spend a lot of time with various "kids from around the world," all of whom are as dull as dirt. There's also a minor subplot about how Pitch suborns a trio of naughty boys to kidnap Santa, but despite the buildup, the subplot comes to nothing.



Santa's peculiar looking cloud-workshop is worthy of comment. It's obviously a bunch of very cheap props assembled in haphazard ways-- yet somehow, it was a lot more visually stimulating than the standard depictions of the Jolly Old Elf's workplace. The movie's highlights, simple as they are, are the one-upping contests between Santa and Pitch, in part because the actor playing the goofy devil, one Jose Luis Aguirre, really throws himself into the role, capering and gesticulating and generally stealing what show there is to steal.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

SUPERMAN III (1983)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical, cosmological*


The most interesting thing about watching the DVD of SUPERMAN III is listening to Ilya Salkind's reminiscences about the script treatment he submitted to Warner Brothers. Though I can see why the studio nixed it, the idea of having Superman deal with the advent of Brainiac and Supergirl had real possibilities for expanding the cinematic film-franchise. (I'm a little less sanguine about his notion of introducing Mister Mxyzptlk to the movies.) Salkind said WB didn't want the script because it was too "far-out," which probably meant, "too expensive," particularly for a franchise that might not make as much money in its third iteration. Salkind mentions the fact that his treatment included a little love-interest between the hero and his cousin, but he doesn't seem to apprehend that this would have been taboo to Americans doing a kid-focused property, even if the relationship never went beyond a brief flirtation. (Luke and Leia get away with it because no one, possibly not even George Lucas, suspected their relationship in the first movie.) I wouldn't have minded it, particularly because the comics themselves occasionally communicated a similar vibe. And certainly Brainiac-- who would have been responsible for Superman losing his sense of morality, as he does in the finished Number Three-- would certainly have been a villain to conjure with. (I suspect that he makes a covert appearance at the end of SUPERMAN III, when Annie Ross' character Vera-- seen above-- is briefly changed into a cyber-being to serve a super-computer.)

Though WB turned down the treatment, Salkind obviously gave a copy to David and Leslie Newman, the two credited writers of SUPERMAN III. Possibly they too were under an injunction to keep things more down-to-earth and thus less expensive, and I don't excoriate them for that. But I grade this film as poor because all the Newmans did was to recycle their one big contribution to the previous SUPERMAN films-- the conception of Superman's villains as a bunch of maladroit cornballs, like the ones from their stage musical (and later telefilm) of the superhero's career. Given the acrimonious separation of the Salkinds from Richard Donner, I'm not surprised that the producers couldn't get any help on the script from Donner's script consultant Tom Mankiewicz-- but did they really think that they just had to use the Newmans again, or that the writing-duo had contributed anything that had made the first two films successful? Then again, from what I've read, the Salkinds were highly susceptible to "star power." That's probably why they accepted the Newmans' script, and why they were so enthused when big movie-star Richard Pryor announced his desire to do a Superman film on the Johnny Carson show.

I'm not a big fan of Richard Pryor, so I won't dwell on my opinion that his humorous persona didn't work in the context of a big-budget Superman film. If I'm right about my "recycling" theory, then Pryor's Gus Norman is basically a retread of Otis from the other films: the innocent-seeming stooge who doesn't quite know what he's gotten into. Similarly, Robert Vaughan's billionaire-villain Ross Webster is another quirky mastermind like the Newmans' Luthor. The third member of the original trio, the sultry Miss Teschmacher, is split into two opposed characters in SUPERMAN III: Ross's sultry "psychic instructor" Lorelei and his sister Vera, who is an unattractive virago who doesn't like sex in any form. The biggest difference here is that Gus actually has some talent-- that of being an innate computer-wizard-- that Ross can use in his mad plans, which reference both the 1970s "oil crisis" and the growing power of computers in civilized life. Both of these "hot topics" of the period badly date the film today, while the first two in the series remain fresh and universal in their appeal. I will note that the Newmans finally provide a reasonably logical method for the villains to get ahold of kryptonite, but maybe this was an idea that just got left out of the 1978 film, when Luthor had to do the exact same thing.

In many respects the Newmans' script matches the talents of Richard Lester, who did his best work with zany comedies like HELP! and THE KNACK-- AND HOW TO GET IT. But the focus on comic bits-- even when Pryor's not around-- undermines any sense of drama in the proceedings. This includes the romance-scenes, in which Clark Kent re-connects with the girl he loved in Smallville, Lana Lang. I don't mind the script putting Lois Lane to one side (whatever the behind-the-scenes motivations). Lois' character-arc, after all, had been given a pretty strong conclusion in Number Two. But the script is heavy-handed about establishing that Lana likes Clark more than Superman, putting forth an over-obvious reversal of the Lois/Clark/Superman triangle. The romantic scenes are slow and ponderous, which surprised me given that the 1976 ROBIN AND MARIAN showed that Lester could direct romance ably.

The action, scoring and FX scenes are all creditable enough, but the only long scene that works well is the big fight scene. Superman-- corrupted by the film's version of "red kryptonite"-- splits into two beings: one his costumed, Kryptonian self (almost indistinguishable from Zod and his decadent partners), the other a super-powered version of Clark Kent, who is implicitly the moral side of the character, nurtured in the ethos of Earth. Lester handles these action-scenes as well as anything Donner did, though I didn't care for the fight's conclusion, in which Clark simply strangles his doppelganger to death. Similarly, the concluding battle between the hero and Gus's super-computer is badly paced, with the computer ratcheting itself up to self-awareness abruptly. A slower metamorphosis, along the level of a film like COLOSSUS THE FORBIN PROJECT, would probably have made the last section more suspenseful.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

SUPERMAN II: THE DONNER CUT (1981/2006)



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

When the Richard Lester version of SUPERMAN II premiered in theaters, I had no knowledge of any of Richard Donner's contributions to it, and my tendency at the time was to say "This guy Lester got it right." The theatrical release of the film seemed to be the first exemplary superhero movie ever made. and I credited Lester with having skirted many (though not all) of the problems I had with the 1978 SUPERMAN. I was uninformed enough in those days to think that the early ejection of Otis from the second film was a validation of all viewers who had hated his character as vehemently as I. Now it seems that this was one of the many crucial ideas, whether good or bad, propagated by Donner and his script consultant Tom Mankiewicz, and that Lester simply added assorted bits that amount to little more than cimematic groundskeeping. Allegedly Donner was responsible for the public's lack of knowledge, in that he was offered a partial director's credit on the finished film and turned it down. However, viewing on DVD the "Donner cut" for the first time doesn't entirely validate everything the director did, or wanted to do, in his original concept.

Just as I did with my review of the 1978 film, I'm not going to dwell on the plot in depth. The first film set up the origin of the hero, his "eternal triangle" relationship with Lois Lane, and worked in such familiar tropes as kryptonite and the hero's major enemy. The sequel amplified an idea that the comics up to that point had barely addressed: the spectacular potential of seeing Superman outgunned by three villains with the same powers. In both versions, just about everything associated with the Kryptonian Trio-- General Zod, Ursa, and Non-- works as well as the Luthorian Trio failed. To be sure, Gene Hackman's comical Luthor works much better here, with three humorless foils off which to play. In addition, I'll admit that once Ned Beatty's Otis is out of the picture, Hackman and Valerie Perrine's moll Miss Teschmacher have good chemistry in the film's early scenes, but she's unceremoniously dropped out of the story thereafter. At no time in either this film or the previous one does genius villain Luthor suspect Teschmacher's culpability in the failure of his original villainous scheme.

The first film treated the Superman/Lois romance subplot respectfully enough, and benefited from an even better chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. But when one knows that the original conclusion of SUPERMAN '78 did not involve Lois' temporary death, the romantic subplot in that film seems to lack a good finish. Only in SUPERMAN II, when Lois suspects the godlike man behind bumbling Clark Kent, does the romance catch fire. Donner's original version started out with suspicious Lois performing a stunt that had appeared a few times in the comics: the lady reporter jumps out of a high window, challenging Clark to change into his other identity and save her. The resulting sequence, in which Superman saves her with tricks to avoid revealing himself, is equally reminiscent of the comics. This sequence was dropped from the Lester version, and in its place is one in which Lois performs a roughly similar action at Niagara Falls. I prefer the latter stunt, because it takes place later in the story, when Lois theoretically has had a little more time to think about her theory. In the Donner version Lois manages to expose Clark as Superman by shooting a blank-filled handgun at him; a scene that Donner didn't shoot for the sequel, but which was rescued from a screen test between Reeve and Kidder. The fact that Donner and Mankiewicz rave over this scene in the DVD commentary indicates that they lacked the ability to think critically about their own work. Did it occur to neither of them that when you shoot blanks at Superman from a distance, he's going to know that they're blanks because nothing actually hits him?

On the flip side, most of the other Lester scenes dropped from this cut are of nominal importance: Ursa's arm-wrestling scene with an Earth-yokel, the short battle between the hero and his super-opponents in the Fortress of Solitude, wherein Superman displays a number of peculiar powers for no good reason (particularly the power to pull the "S" off his chest and fling it like an energy-boomerang). Lester is apparently responsible for a much better final shot of Reeve flying above the Earth and smiling to the camera: I've always thought that shot captured the cinematic appeal of Superman's Boy Scout persona more than anything else filmed. But aside from other scenes having to do with the altered ending, there's a huge improvement thanks to the restoration of the Brando scenes. The Salkinds ordered those scenes cut so that they wouldn't have to pay the actor for the second film, and in Brando's place the film substituted the less expensive Susannah York as Superman's mom. I entirely agree with Donner that the first film had very intentionally established a "God/Messiah" relationship between Jor-El and his son, and that the intrusion of his mother's character was a major fault with the theatrical version. Further, the whole plot in which Superman renounces his powers-- and then must return to Jor-El's computer-spectre to get those powers back-- carries a stronger emotional charge than the equivalent scene in the Lester version. This extends also to the scene in which the computer-image of Jor-El restores the hero's powers, with the stipulation that Kal-El will never see his father's image again, thus cutting off the hero not only from a normal life with Lois but also from further contact with his Kryptonian heritage.



And then-- there's the original ending. Or rather, the endings of the two films. From what Donner and Mankiewicz say, the first film would have ended right after Superman diverted Luthor's missiles. with one of the missiles accidentally opening the "Zone of Silence" and releasing the three aliens, thus ending Number One on a cliffhanger. Donner then meant to end Number Two by having Lois perish-- apparently from falling into an arctic crevasse-- so that then Superman performed his time-reversal primarily to save her life, though with the additional effect of obliterating all the damage caused by the Zoners (and returning them to the Zone) and erasing Lois' knowledge of Clark's double identity. This finally makes clear to me why Donner (though not his principal character) was so unconcerned about what happened to the Zoners at the conclusion of SUPERMAN II. Deprived of their super-powers, all three of them plunge down into crevasses leading somewhere beneath the Fortress, and the film's hero doesn't seem too concerned about whether they'll break their necks as they fall. In addition, Superman later blows up the whole Fortress, and surely some viewers must have wondered about whether he'd just killed anyone who'd survived underneath. (Only a deleted scene establishes that Luthor isn't in the Fortress when it's eradicated.) Now I know why Donner was so cavalier: originally time was going to be reversed, so that no one else is around the Fortress when it's destroyed.

It's of considerable scholarly importance to see the original time-reversal scenes as Donner filmed them, but there's no way they can seem fresh given the retooled version of Number One. Allegedly the studio liked the time-reversal scenes so much that it insisted that Donner add them to the first film. I'm sure that the studio's main motivation was that of commerce, not art. Yet though I never really cared for the time-reversal schtick in a conceptual sense, I think that it delivers a better emotional punch at the end of Number One. It's the only time in that film that Superman isn't on time to save someone, and it just happens to be the woman he most cared about. Admittedly I can't really see the original time-shift scenes with a fresh eye. But Donner's conclusion seems overly "busy" in that, on top of Superman's self-sacrificial triumph, he also has to save Lois from death, make her forget his identity, and expunge humanity's knowledge of everything that's happened in the film. I remain attached to the two solutions of the theatrical version, regardless of who conceived them: the "forgetfulness kiss" and Superman's penitent pledge to the American president, not to shirk his duty again-- making the president a stand-in for the Kryptonian father that Kal-El will never see again.

All these reservations aside, it's clear that Donner deserves the lion's share of the credit for the general excellence of SUPERMAN II, even if Lester added some valuable material-- and having seen the "Donner cut" explains to me at last why Lester was unable to make much out of SUPERMAN III, which unfortunately had no script but that of the Salkinds' favorites, David and Leslie Newman.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

SCOOBY DOO AND THE GHOUL SCHOOL (1988)



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


It's hard to believe, but there was a time when Scooby Doo's TV show was threatened with cancellation. By some accounts the addition of "Scrappy Doo," a puny but feisty version of the speech-impaired Great Dane, may have helped give the show new legs. Of course it might have helped that the show began using real, rather than fake, monsters at the same time. GHOUL SCHOOL is one of three animated telefilms that centered only on Scooby, Shaggy, and Scrappy, and all three of these emphasize boogiemen whose faces can't be pulled off by story's end.

If one can get past the dopey setup-- that terminal slacker Shaggy somehow gets hired as a coach for a preteen girls' school-- then one can probably also buy into the idea that it's a "ghoul school" run by a nice witch named Miss Grimwood, whose students are the daughters of famous monsters.  Of the five in the picture above (not counting the little dragon on the right), four are the feminine offspring of famous male monsters, whom I shouldn't have to identify. Third from the left is Phantasma, the daughter of a ghost, and I found myself wondering if maybe the scripters thought about doing a schtick about "the Opera Ghost" from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, only to decide that there wouldn't be much they could do with another fake ghost, while a real ghost-girl could do disappearing tricks, invisibility tricks, and so on.

GHOUL SCHOOL, one of many Hanna-Barbera "funny monster" efforts, would probably be reasonably amusing to small kids. At least there's some effort to give each of the ghoul-girls her own schtick: Sybilla the vampiress (a bit of a "nymphet" compared to the others) says words like "fangtastic" and injects the word "bat" into everything; the girl with the "Bride of Frankenstein" hairdo is given the fairly charming name of "Elsa" (for Elsa Lanchester, natch).  The movie's first half displays a bit of a "girl power" theme, as the girls have repeatedly lost a series of volleyball matches to a neighboring boys' military academy. Though Shaggy doesn't really seem to be much of a coach, by the time of this match, the girls somehow get their act together and score their first victory. That said, the boys are drawn as basically sympathetic types, who have to impress their martinet-commander Colonel Calloway.

The movie's second half then introduces a witchy villain, Revolta, who might be seen as the observe of Miss Grimwood. Revolta plans to mentally enslave the five girls and somehow make them serve her as a monstrous 'SWAT team." This doesn't make much sense, though I rather like the fact that Revolta complains that modern monsters have become too "soft." This is of course the main theme of the movie: to refashion the formerly scary images of famous monsters so that they become cute and winsome. Calloway's Cadets join with the Scooby Gang and foil the evil witch's scheme, and then the Scoobies are off to their next adventure.




Tuesday, December 13, 2016

STAR TREK: "FRIDAY'S CHILD," "THE DEADLY YEARS" (1967)



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

I don't imagine "Friday's Child" usually ranks on any Trekker's list of favorite episodes, but though it's not one of the better episodes, it benefits from a simple, uncomplicated script by D.C. Fontana. "Child" is basically another story where the representatives of the Federation get involved in local politics for the long-term betterment of native people-- though once again, the proximate goal has to do with gaining mineral rights.

Kirk and his two wingmen visit the world of the Capellans, a humanoid species whose males tend to grow about seven feet tall. (The only native woman seen for a substantial amount of time is 5'11'' Julie Newmar.) The Federation wants mineral rights on Capella, as do the Klingons, and Kirk must deal with Kras, an agent sent to compete over said rights. But the Capellans are the primary menace, for they are a fierce people who believe in the archaic warrior-ethic that both Earth and Vulcan have long renounced. Kirk and Co have their negotiations interrupted when the old leader, with whom the Federation was dealing, is killed in a coup by a Klingon partisan, Maab. Once the fighting is done, Maab has the authority to decide between the offworlders' offers, but first he has to take care of old business: assassinating Eleen, the old leader's wife (Newmar), and her unborn child. Kirk and Co. object to this barbarism, rescue Eleen (much against her will), and head for the hills. The rest of the story is largely a long chase-scene, though it benefits from the consistent depiction of shifting loyalties and of the Capellans' own warrior-ethic. The story's humorous conclusion suggests that Eleen's child, named for two of the offworlders that helped him survive, will be the gateway that gives the Federation a toehold with the natives-- sort of the science-fiction version of all the "Douglas McArthur babies" named in the aftermath of World War II.




"The Deadly Years" was no favorite of mine, and I'd largely remembered it as just a sci-fi excuse for the regular actors to put on old-age makeup and imagine their youthful characters as "grumpy old men." But it does go deeper than that, and makes a better drama than "Friday's Child"-- perhaps because the drama inheres not so much in the regular actors, but in the responses of those around them.

A landing-party consisting mostly of the usual suspects-- Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scott, with newbie Chekhov and a female "redshirt"-- descends to suss out what's happened to a scientific research station on Gamma Hydra V. It's revealed that a foreign radiation has caused all three researchers to age rapidly beyond their years: one has already died, and the other two are hanging by a thread. The guys still don't seem to have learned anything about protecting themselves from foreign contagions from episodes as far back as THE NAKED TIME, and so the whole landing-party returns to the ship with zero cautionary actions. As it happens, though, only the ones who made landfall get the aging disease-- except for Chekhov, who seems immune. This twist in David Harmon's script adds a much-needed element of mystery to the tale, as well as allowing for a last-minute reversal of fortune for the afflicted crewmembers.

The Enterprise happens to be playing host to a Commodore named Stocker: Kirk's superior in rank, despite being more of a "desk officer." For reasons that aren't ever entirely clear, Stocker's burning to get to his new command post at Starbase 10, and when Kirk and the others starts showing signs of senility, Stocker uses their infirmity as an excuse to assume command of the ship and take it to the Starbase. This runs counter to Kirk's desire to stay near the planet that caused the illness, but Stocker succeeds, and then foolishly takes the ship on a straight-line course through the Romulan neutral zone. Though Stocker's actions are ultimately determined by the script's need for a "ticking clock," it's at least refreshing that Harmon doesn't make the character a simplistic martinet. He sincerely respects Kirk but thinks that the Starbase can do him and the others the most good. There's probably a subtext here regarding the superiority of "field warriors" to the desk-bound kind, but the narrative doesn't dwell on it.

More interesting, given Roddenberry's problematic status with American feminism, is the handling of another passenger, Janet Wallace. Wallace is a respected endocrinologist with whom Kirk had a relationship many years previous. The two broke up because both were primarily passionate about their careers, which is quite even-handed compared to some early depictions of "career women," such as Elizabeth Dehner. Wallace then implicitly "rebounded" to a scientist who shared her career goals, though he was much older than Kirk at the time of Wallace's marriage to him, and he's died by the time she takes passage on the Enterprise. There's no suggestion that Kirk and Wallace will revive old passions in the opening scenes, but once Kirk starts showing his advanced age, Wallace becomes a little more interested in him. Does she have a father-complex? Does she want an older husband whom she can control, as she could not control the young, vital Kirk? Or, being that she's a scientist who studies hormones, has she decided that she likes men whose hormonal surges are on the sedate side? Harmon's script happily does not nail her down, and thus she remains more interesting than a lot of Kirk's former flames. She made enough of an impression that her character was originally scripted to re-appear in the WRATH OF KHAN movie, only to be retooled into "Carol Marcus" for reasons that were not publicly revealed.

SORRY WRONG NUMBER (1948), THE NIGHT WALKER (1964)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic,* (2) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair*, (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*


Though I've claimed in some of my ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE essays that uncanny narratives have a greater potential power for the mythic than naturalistic ones, the potential has to be realized with skill and control.

SORRY WRONG NUMBER and NIGHT WALKER are both stories in which the starring actress Barbara Stanwyck is terrorized, by naturalistic forces in one story and uncanny forces in the other. However, the script for SORRY, adapted by Lucille Fletcher from her own radio play, is a skillful psychological and sociological analysis of Stanwyck's character, while the script for WALKER is a sterile rehearsal of routines that were already stale when William Castle started to recycle them.

Leona Stevenson, the central character of SORRY, is a bedridden heiress. Prior to becoming an invalid, she romanced and married a poor man, Henry (Burt Lancaster), and essentially railroaded him into doing everything she wanted through a process of passive aggression.  Leona seems to have everything her own way, but one night, alone in her mansion, she picks up her phone and overhears a call involving a murder. She can't get the cops to investigate the mysterious call, but from her bed Leona tries to play detective through proxies. She eventually finds that the murder being discussed is intended to be her own, and that the scheme involves the husband she's manipulated over the years.

The script's heavy dependence on dialogue betrays its roots as a radio drama, but director Anatole Litvak gives everything a lush appearance to offset the sinister events, so that SORRY is easy to watch, even when Stanwyck isn't on screen. Given the film's memorable conclusion, one might theorize that Leona is being somewhat "punished" for being an assertive woman, which was indeed a frequent trope in films of the 1930s and 1940s. However, despite her "lionlike" name Leona is seen to be a moral coward who has not only beaten down her husband, resulting in his attempt to reclaim his manhood through criminal action, but she's also made herself too sick to resist the assassin who comes for her-- meaning that she's not really an assertive woman; just her own worst enemy.




I have little to say about Castle's NIGHT WALKER. It appears on the tail-end of his notoriety as a horror-showman, and it seems to be the point where he lost his mojo. I wasn't a big fan of his early hits, like HOMICIDAL and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, but they had a certain cachet, usually thanks to the performers involved. Some later works, like THE OLD DARK HOUSE and MISTER SARDONICUS, boast decent scripts as well as strong performances.

Not THE NIGHT WALKER, though. Stanwyck is Irene, a middle-aged woman married to a blind, significantly older man. The husband becomes jealous when Irene murmurs the name of a fantasized lover in her sleep, and he tries to find out if she has a real lover. Then there's a fire at the house, not long after Irene quarrels with her husband, and the old guy dies. After that, she begins seeing weird spectres, particularly of a man who's forcing her to marry him. Is she guilty of-- MURDER?

It's naturally a plot so ineptly disguised that even Shaggy could solve it with no input from Velma: a dastardly schemer is trying to drive poor Irene mad using people who wear obvious rubber masks to pose as her dream-spectres. I don't mind a "phantasmal figuration" tale that doesn't have much real mystery behind it: a little while back I gave a minor nod to SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, and that uncanny deception made no more sense than the one in NIGHT WALKER. But there were a couple of interesting psychological twists in SHE WOLF, and the bugaboo of "marital ambivalence" in WALKER lays a big fat goose-egg.

I'm amused by the fact that Irene never once thinks of the obvious: that someone may be messing with her mind. I'm sure it occurred to more than one audience-member, and the degree to which audiences could buy into this old-hat hocus pocus would have depended entirely on their impulse to be charitable. Given that WALKER flopped, I suspect that not too many people in 1964 felt like tossing their money away on this well-mounted folderol. For that matter, they could get better writing on TV for free, as THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR was still airing at the time.

For those who choose to study William Castle, NIGHT WALKER repeats what seems to be his favorite visual trope: floating heads, whether or not they're specifically horrific looking. I imagine Castle was attracted to this trope not because it held any great meaning for him, but because it was cheap. He was evidently depending on the status of the big-name actors to sell this flick, and WALKER does have the distinction of being (1) Stanwyck's last feature film, and (2) her last acting-job with former husband Robert Taylor. Happily, Stanwyck found superior fare later on in the burgeoning growth of the made-for-TV movie, particularly in simple but concise horror-flicks like THE HOUSE THAT WOULDN'T DIE.




Monday, December 12, 2016

SCOOBY DOO AND THE CYBER CHASE (2001)



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

CYBER CHASE was the last of four Scooby-flicks produced for direct video under the theoretical aegis of Hanna-Barbera Studios. Warner Brothers had pretty much absorbed Hanna-Barbera by that time, which may be one reason that another WB property, Superman, gets two separate references. There's an attempt to update the Scooby Gang by having them encounter the world of video games, but it's still the same old schtick. This time there's a villain, the Phantom Virus, and instead of being a man in a mask, he's the cyber-creation of the mystery villain. He initially threatens his victims by coming into the human world and creating chaos, but when the Scoobies get involved, the Phantom sucks them into the video-terrain and imperils them with largely unimaginative dangers: a Roman gladiatorial arena, dinosaurs-- in other words, the same type of dangers Hanna-Barbera had been recycling since the 1960s. In similar fashion, the Phantom Virus is one of the most banal designs for a Scooby villain, as he resembles nothing more than a living lightning bolt.

The sole attraction of the 2001 DTV film is that while the heroes are inside the game, they encounter some of their old villains, whom the programmer created from their own recollections. The video doesn't do much with the idea, but at least it proves that recycling isn't always bad, since the 2004 live-action flick SCOOBY DOO 2 took the same idea and made it work pretty well.





Saturday, December 10, 2016

EVE (1968), KILMA QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS (1976)



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

There's not much to recommend either of these two potboilers beyond the feminine charms of their protagonists.

EVE stars Celeste Yarnall as a blonde jungle-girl whose presence in the Amazon jungle is never very clearly explained. She rescues a treasure-hunter named Yates (Robert Walker Jr.) from some nasty tribesmen, but there's no instantaneous jungle-romance between the two of them: Yates learns that her name is Eve, thanks her, and goes back to civilization, and Eve seems content to stay in the jungle as before. Back in some Brazilian dive of a town, Yates makes contact with the rich man who's been funded the treasure-hunt, Colonel Stuart (Christopher Lee). Stuart has a new lead on the location of the treasure they're hunting, but for the first time, Yates meets Stuart's long-lost brunette granddaughter, whose name also happens to be Eve. It transpires that the brunette is a phony, merely posing as the grown-up Eve who was lost in the jungle, and that Phony Eve is really the wife of Stuart's rival Diego (Herbert Lom, playing a competitor slightly like Belloq in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, but with none of the charm). Diego and his party, having ferreted out the info they wanted from Stuart, take off for their new destination. Yates pursues with a few helpers, manages to enlist Real Eve's help, and the good guys manage to get the treasure while the bad guys get dead.

Since Eve remains in the jungle even after becoming acquainted with her aged grandfather, I suspect that producer Harry Alan Towers, famous for his Fu Manchu films, had some hope of spinning the character off into a series. However, the action-scenes are humdrum, though Eve is at least a combative jungle-girl, unlike LUANA, which came about roughly at the same time. The actors-- Lom, Lee, and Yarnall-- are the film's only real charm, and Robert Walker Jr. does a credible job with his adventurous role, despite its not playing to his strengths. This was the second and last time co-director Jeremy Summers worked with Chris Lee following their collaboration on VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU.






The Spanish-made KILMA, QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS does boast somewhat better stuntwork, as seen in the VHS art above, but the story is much more confusing. For many years an all-female (and all beautiful) cult of Amazons have reigned on a secluded Pacific island. Whereas Greek Amazons used to make temporary marriages with men, after which they kept only female babies to swell their ranks, the narrative claims that these Amazons have long, completely virginal lives thanks to an alien gem that they worship in their temple, and that, when they do need new recruits, they just steal girl babies from the nearby islands (though we don't see any children, just a lot of hot Spanish babes who don't look the least bit Polynesian).

A European ship comes near the island just as some of the crew, fancying a life of piracy, mutiny and take command. Ship's navigator Dan Robinson (like Robinson Crusoe, get it?) escapes in a boat and makes landfall on the island. He soon gets wind of the island's unusual inhabitants when he sees the ladies-- led by their high priestess Kilma (Eva Miller)-- take on an invading force of Polynesian men and kill all of the invaders. A little later Robinson encounters Kilma by herself, and she immediately tries to kill him. The only thing that saves the European's life is that just Kilma is about to knife the unconscious man, the priestess' horse tosses its head, as if to say, "No, don't do that." It doesn't exactly fill the viewer with confidence in Kilma's sagacity to see her take advice from her beast of burden, but she spares Robinson anyway, and eventually the two of them become more than friends.
Soon the mutineers arrive on the island, looking for provisions, and they learn that the Amazons have gemstones-- including one big one in their temple.

There are assorted action-scenes for the rest of the picture, a little more lively than those of EVE, but nothing overly memorable. At the climax, when the pirates invade the temple, the gem comes alive and blasts everything to hell-- after which the Amazons abandon their man-less customs and decide to start having sex again.

Though the myth-motif here is pretty well botched, it's evident that the cloistered gem represents the Amazons' cloistered sexuality, and that when the first is gone, the second has no reason for being. Still, director/co-writer Miguel Iglesias devotes so little time to the Amazons' religion that the viewer cannot know how aware he was of the symbolic potential.











THE BOY AND THE PIRATES (1960)



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

Though producer/director/writer Bert I. Gordon will forever be known for the "giant critter" films he made-- most famously, 1957's BEGINNING OF THE END-- Gordon's fantasy THE BOY AND THE PIRATES stands as his best work, whose merit easily eclipses most of the monster films and the slightly more adult fantasy he did as his follow-up to PIRATES, THE MAGIC SWORD.

In addition to directing PIRATES, Gordon also supplied the original story, crafted into a screenplay by two more practiced writers. It was rare for a children's film of the time to possess the structure of an irony-- the sort of story in which all moral compass seems in doubt-- but Gordon may have taken some inspiration from Lewis Carroll's Alice books. As Carroll's young protagonist falls asleep and dreams herself into a Wonderland full of creatures who celebrate pain and death as a rollicking good time, Gordon's kid-hero Jimmy Warren gets a taste of the distasteful realities behind his fantasy.

Jimmy is a modern 12-year-old living in a beachfront house in Massachsetts with his parents. His parents, only seen at the film's opening, are solid, square types who get on Jimmy's case to do his homework and clean up after himself, while the only peer we see is Kathy (Susan Gordon, Bert's daughter), a little girl roughly Jimmy's age. Jimmy fantasizes about the glorious life of being an 18th-century pirate, while Kathy sagely tells him that they weren't glorious figures, just a bunch of thieves and cutthroats. Then Jimmy stumbles across an antique bottle, washed ashore by the surf. He happens to be holding it when he wishes he could have lived the life of a pirate-- and whoosh! Jimmy finds himself on the deck of an 18th century ship, that of the pirate Blackbeard, whom Jimmy has idolized as a roguish hero.

Jimmy also encounters the inhabitant of the bottle, a tiny genie named Abu-- but Abu isn't one of the helpful sprites one could find in the Disney films of the period. Abu has been consigned to the confinement of the bottle for thousands of years, and the only way he can get free is to have someone take his place: a "role-exchange myth" rather like the one that Atlas tries to enforce upon Heracles in the Labor of the Hesperides. By some unjust cosmic law, anyone who holds the bottle takes the chance of being forced to change places with Abu, even if the holder is utterly unaware of the law's stipulations, and said holder can only avoid the role-exchange by putting the bottle right back where he got it in the first place. Abu only grants Jimmy's wish so that the youngster will be spirited away from the Massachusetts beach by Blackbeard, whose ship is busy fleeing from the English navy-- specifically, forces commanded by Lt. Maynard, historically destined to overtake and slay the pirate.

Jimmy soon finds out that there's nothing jolly or roguish about pirates: Blackbeard finds the boy aboard ship and almost tosses Jimmy overboard. Jimmy is saved by the fast talk of a sailor named Snipe, the only decent adult character in the story (aside from the pirates' victims, who only exist to be killed). Jimmy is spared as long as he pleases Blackbeard with his services as cabin boy, but the child is doomed to spent his young life in the magic bottle if he can't find a way to get the thing back to its original source. Additionally, life with the pirates offers peril at every turn: he witnesses the buccaneers ruthlessly pillage a ship and callously kill everyone aboard: a hard scene for kids to watch, even in G-rated form. Jimmy manages to rescue a young girl his own age from the ship-- Katrina, also played by Susan Gordon-- but though this gives him someone to talk to, it also makes his own situation aboard the ship more uncertain. Additionally, though the miniature genie doesn't seem to boast very grandiose powers, he's capable of a few tricks in order to counter any move Jimmy makes to get back to Massachusetts.

Jimmy does manage to triumph over both the pirates and the genie and get back to his own time, but it's something of a costly success (the viewer sees Snipe cut down by his lawless mates: no piratical loyalty here). Like Alice waking from her dark dream, Jimmy doesn't seem to fully know what's happened to him. But the viewer knows, and it's not just the sort of lesson that applies only to little boys glamorizing pirates. It has more to do with the main theme of the irony in all its works: of what T.S. Eliot called "the skull beneath the skin."




Monday, December 5, 2016

THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971), DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972)



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

In my review of MADHOUSE-- Vincent Price's last "name above the title" film-- I said that I preferred its potential in its storyline to that of the "wild but shallow" films that immediately preceded the 1974 film. On re-watching the two "Dr. Phibes" films, I don't see anything to contradict that stance. They're great-looking films, and director Robert Feust does a fine job in putting across what I called their "operatic" look. But they're like a lot of horror-films based on a "Ten Little Indians" concept: the entire plot revolves around a designated set of victims being knocked off by a maniac, and usually neither the victims nor any detective-types trying to corral the maniac are generally more than bare ciphers. The focus of the story is almost always upon the nefarious presence of the killer, whether his identity is known or not. In this case, Dr. Phibes also gets points for originality: unlike such repetitive killers as Dr. Carruthers in THE DEVIL BAT, Phibes never repeats a gimmick.

As a substitute for giving all of the designated victims their own character arcs, both films have the cop investigating the murders (Peter Jeffrey in both of these) team up with one of the prospective victims: Joseph Cotten in ABOMINABLE and Robert Quarry in RISES AGAIN. Cotten is one of nine medical persons involved in performing an operation on Victoria, beloved wife of Dr. Anton Phibes. It's not clear if the operation was definitely botched, but Phibes, mutilated by a car crash while fleeing to succor his wife, believes it. As he has a strong emphasis in Egyptology-- a motif that will be emphasized again in the sequel-- Phibes decides to kill each of the participants with some device modeled on one of the nine plagues of Moses' Egypt.  The murder-methods are without question the most imaginative elements in the story, though the script also gets points for the design of Phibes' mutilated face and his method of speaking (his throat being paralyzed, he must communicate through electronic enhancement). This has the effect of reining in the tendency toward over-flamboyance one finds in Price's work during this period.

The script also allows for some mysteries: Phibes is aided in his work by a silent woman, Vulnavia. Nothing is explained about who she is or why she serves him, but in contrast to many henchpeople, Vulnavia seems more than just someone for the villain to talk with. Romance is not seriously suggested, since Phibes is entirely focused on his dead wife, but at times Vulnavia seems like a mirror-image of Victoria, rather like one of the various doppelgangers in Poe's tales.

Phibes doesn't quite succeed with all of his killings, but he disappears in grandiose Fu Manchu style, leaving the door wide open for the sequel.




A few critics faulted the sequel for not hewing to an identifiable pattern like the "nine plagues," but I found that said pattern made ABOMINABLE a bit predictable. In the second outing, it's not nearly as clear as to what Phibes is going to do or how he will do it, nor whether his enemies might be able to steal a march on him.

Three years pass after Phibes disappears with his dead wife into a shrine deep beneath his headquarters, and apparently Scotland Yard has been pleased to believe that the evildoer immolated himself, without ever bothering to unearth the bodies and examine them. When the moon reaches a certain conjunction in the sky, its radiance revives Phibes from his suspended animation. Vulnavia, though she appeared to get killed in the first film, shows up to assist the doctor in his grand quest, to take Victoria's body to Egypt, expose her to the legendary River of Life, and restore her life. However, to gain access to the River, Phibes must consult a special papyrus that will lead him to the proper place.

Whatever Vulnavia was doing with herself in those three years, apparently it wasn't house-sitting, for in Phibes' absence his house has been razed to the ground-- again, without anyone nosing around into the subterranean tomb. Phibes rushes to a certain floor-safe, containing the precious papyrus, but the parchment is gone. Fortunately for the exigencies of the script, Phibes knows that only one Egyptian authority in London will be on the lookout for such a papyrus: archaeologist Darius Biederbeck. By the time Phibes rises, Biederbeck has translated the papyrus and plans a trek to Egypt with his fiancee Diana and several helpers. Phibes invades the archaeologist's home, recovers the document, after which it's a (rather slow) race to see who can reach the mystic site of the River first. On the way Phibes enjoys himself picking off Biederbeck's men with various exotic murder-methods.

Biederbeck, though no more a worthy foe for Phibes than Scotland Yard, is at least more interesting in that he's living proof that immortality can be obtained through ancient knowledge: he himself has remained young for a few thousand years, and he plans to extend the same immortality to Diana. He's no more sympathetic than Phibes, for he cares nothing about the men who die for his quest, but at least his fate is somewhat unpredictable.

I give these films a "fair" rating for their meditations on mortality and the idea of overcoming it through metaphysical / cosmological means, though I suspect the script-writers gleaned their knowledge of Egyptian lore from a quick trip to the London Museum.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

THE SECOND BEST SECRET AGENT IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD (1965)



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


Lindsay Shonteff, perhaps best known for MILLION EYES OF SUMURU, both wrote and directed this film, which originally sported the Fleming-derived title LICENSED TO KILL. Early in the film the bosses of the titular agent, "Charles Vine," make a few arch references to that other spy involved in the "Fort Knox business," but they can't get him, so they assign Vine to guard a prominent foreign scientist while the latter is in England.

With a set-up like that, SECOND sounds like it ought to be a silly spoof of the Bond films. Yet it's really not a comedy, but an irony, devoting itself to the proposition that "things are not as they seen." The script plays the spy-jinks fairly straight, but they're always a little "off." For instance, when Vine-- no relation to "James Vine" of TARGET FOR KILLING the next year-- is given his weapons for the assignment, they include a pistol so tiny that he can balance it on one finger. With a standard comedy, this would be treated in a silly manner and would eventually lead to some slapstick routine. Vine is rather taken aback by the miniature gun, but he keeps it on his person, and sure enough, it comes in handy in getting him out of a nasty scrape with bad guys.

SECOND isn't exactly a scathing satire of the superspy-subgenre, but some of the incidents are clearly meant to diverge from the usual course of things. In one scene, Vine gets into a conversation with the scientist he's guarding. It isn't funny or particularly dramatic. The scientist, having learned that Vine was once a prominent teacher of mathematics, wonders why Vine went into the far more dangerous profession of government agent. Vine makes no bones about the matter: government work pays well, and he Vine has expensive tastes. A later scene has Vine encounter what appears to be a sexy Asian woman, which seems to betoken the usual Bondian sex-scene. Instead Vine gets into a brutal fight with the "woman," who turns out to be an Asian guy in drag. At the climax, Vine gets into a running battle, through conveniently empty London streets, with an assassin from the other side, but the gunfight is handled dispassionately, as if it could go against Vine any moment. Vine does win the bout, but there's no adventurous sense of triumph going with it.

In contradistinction to the Matt Helm films of the period, the scientist here is a working on a science-fiction idea-- harnessing anti-gravity-- but the marvelous invention is never shown, much less used to make people float around. The miniature gun is nearly the only thing that makes this film metaphenomenal-- though the American release added an opening scene that qualifies as an uncanny "bizarre crime:" an assassin dressed like a nanny, killing a British agent with a sten-gun taken from a pram.