Saturday, April 22, 2017

THE STORY OF RUTH (1960), JUDAS (2004)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*

The 1960 STORY OF RUTH is less significant as a recapitulation of themes from the Biblcial "Book of Ruth" than it is as another example of the priorities of Hollywood moviemaking. That said, in its status as American pop culture, it sustains more mythicity than the humdrum 2004 JUDAS.

Most Hollywood Bible-films have sustained their box-office profits by building upon one major motif of the Old Testament-- that of the ressentiment of the nobly poor Jews against the rich "princes of the earth," as recorded (for example) in Ezekiel 39:18:

Ye shall eat the flesh of the mighty, and drink the blood of the princes of the earth, of rams, of lambs, and of goats, of bullocks, all of them fatlings of Bashan.

It's surprising, though, that 20th-Century Fox chose to adapt the Book of Ruth at all, because it's totally lacking in any meaningful opposition between the rich and the poor. The Biblical story tells the reader nothing about Ruth's background; she is introduced as a Moabite woman who marries the Hebrew Mahlon, the son of Naomi, during a period when Mahlon's family is sojourning in the land of Moab. Though other parts of the Bible inveigh against Moab and its worship of the pagan god Chemosh (whom later commentators identify with the better-known Moloch), the only original relevance of Ruth's Moabite heritage is that, after the untimely death of Mahlon, Ruth puts aside her cultural birthright and chooses to follow her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem. The story's main significance seems to be to demonstrate that a converted Jew could be as loyal to the faith as anyone born to the religion. Some analysts have asserted that the second part of the story-- in which Ruth meets and marries the Hebrew Boaz-- may reproduce Hebrew fertility rituals in disguised form, largely because Ruth approaches Boaz in a threshing-room, implying an association between the grain and the eventual union between human male and human female.

THE STORY OF RUTH was written by Norman Corwin, sometimes called "the poet laureate of American radio." Corwin only amassed a handful of Hollywood script-credits, but he does bring a sense of intelligence to his rewriting of the Bible-story, possibly because he was an observant Jew. That said, Corwin's script-- directed by journeyman Henry Koster of THE ROBE-- amplifies the role of fertility in the movie's narrative.

To make up for the original story's lack of earthly princes, in childhood the orphan Ruth is given an exalted position as a handmaiden of Chemosh. Some Moabite children end up being sacrifices to Chemosh/Moloch-- implicitly for fertility, though the motive is not emphasized. Ruth dodges that bullet and lives on to serve the god as a young woman (Elena Eden) attached to the priesthood. Only when she meets the Hebrew artisan Mahlon (Tom Tryon) does Ruth come to repudiate the worship of Chemosh in favor of what Mahlon calls "the invisible god," and so she marries Mahlon and becomes the daughter-in-law of Naomi. However, Ruth's renunciation results in the death of Mahlon at the hands of the merciless Moabites. The widowed woman then chooses to accompany her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem. (This development actually weakens Ruth's decision in dramatic terms, since the original story implies that Ruth could have stayed in Moab without any consequences.)

Once they reach Bethlehem, the two dispossessed women have no property, and so they are forced to glean the fields to make their daily bread. The owner of the fields is local bigwig Boaz (Stuart Whitman). He fancies Ruth but one of Naomi's kinsmen has first claim on the widow of Mahlon. In addition, the country suffers a drought, and some of the more ignorant Hebrews attribute the lack of rain to the presence of an idolatrous Moabite in their midst. An ambivalent miracle takes place, when Naomi alone witnesses an unnamed holy man come to town. Not only does rain manifest right after the holy fellow (or maybe angel?) shows up, but he informs Naomi that Ruth is destined to be the ancestress of a great Hebrew king. (This one scene is the movie's only instance of a marvelous phenomenality.)

Even after the rain comes, many hidebound Hebrews still don't want Ruth around, and they put her on trail for idolatry. I suspect that these scenes reflect Corwin's experiences as a writer persecuted by 1950s Commie-hunters, but they also function to give the film a stronger climax than was possible with the original material. The trial causes Naomi's kinsman to renounce her, and even Boaz doesn't seem to want her when two Hebrews testify that Ruth is indeed an idolater. However, Naomi reveals that the two are false witnesses sent from Moab to make trouble for the apostate Ruth-- a far-fetched revelation to say the least. Ruth is then found innocent of idolatry and is united with Boaz.

Though RUTH is far from a great Bible-movie, it's a work of genius next to the 2004 telefilm JUDAS. Tom Fontana's script takes the story of Judas' interaction with Jesus and gives the familiar characters banal lines unworthy of anyone's religion. The priest Caiphas is made to say, for example:

 I hear that Jesus is quite captivating. I look forward to meeting the young fellow.

The only aspect of JUDAS that's of mythic interest is that Fontana may have drawn upon medieval folklore about Judas, given that the viewer meets Judas's mother, who does not appear in the Bible but does have a role in folklore (oddly, playing "Jocasta" to Judas's "Oedipus). Fontana-- best known for creating the down-to-earth prison-drama OZ-- treats the friendship of Judas and Jesus as if they were just a couple of young guys shlepping around Jerusalem, and shows absolutely no awareness of any metaphysical considerations in the narrative.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE (1929, 1935, 1947)

PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1, 3) *drama,* (2) *comedy*

I reviewed the 1929 version of the cinematic war-horse SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE back in 2012. However, due in part to some discussion on the CLASSIC HORROR FILM BOARD regarding the thriller's three sound incarnations, I began to reconsider my 2012 reckoning of the film as "uncanny" in terms of both the "phantasmal figurations" and "weird societies" tropes. I appended a 2017 note at the end of the 2012 post to this effect. I don't plan to re-review the other film covered in the earlier post, because I think that 1983's HOUSE OF LONG SHADOWS succeeds in transmitting the uncanny vibe, for reasons I'll cover later.

I have not read the original Earl Derr Biggers book, or seen either the play or the three silent films based on the book. That said, I'm going to guess that the 1929 flick, the first sound version, is probably reasonably close to the model of book and/or play. The "Barker version" (that is, directed by Reginald Barker) is fairly stagy despite depicting its basic situation with a light tone, and I said of it:

Richard Dix plays a writer challenged to finish a novel at an isolated inn, the Baldpate, but his isolation ends when an assortment of characters gain entry to the inn and distract him from his purpose with their assorted melodramas... Barker maintains a light tone, as well, which made it even harder for me to invest much emotion in the film, given that I knew the Big Reveal: that all the intruders are actors hired to harass the writer for fairly dubious reasons.  Though there aren't any overly spooky moments in this version, and the actors supply a naturalistic explanation for the "weird-society" aspects of the story, I still categorize this as an uncanny film based on the Gothic concept of tricking a victim with the appearance of weirdness.
I should have stated the nature of the "weirdness:" that the writer (whose name, McGee, remains constant in the sound films) suffers. Despite McGee's having being told that he's been given the only key to the door of the Baldpate Inn, six other strangers, in the course of one night, also utilize keys to enter the inn. Some of them seem to be innocents-- including a misogynistic hermit who likes to don a sheet and pretend to be a not-very-convincing ghost-- while others seem to be criminals involved in a complicated pay-off scheme. As played by Dix, McGee is a fairly witty fellow who doesn't seem all that flummoxed by the appearance of armed men at the deserted inn, and he frequently makes arch remarks about how all these melodramatic occurrences resemble events in his novels.

In my assorted commentaries on the "phantasmal figuration" trope, I've ferreted out at least three "variations" of the trope. One of them does not relate here: that of works like HAMLET, where something supernatural seems to happen though no one can explain its provenance. But the Barker film has both of the other two variations. One variation is akin to what we see in 1943's LEOPARD MAN, where a character projects the illusion that a panther has committed a killing in order to cover a crime, and this is comparable to the way in which actors-- hired by the man who bet McGee that he couldn't finish a novel in one day-- pretend to be dangerous gangsters. The other relevant variation is supplied by the hermit who plays ghost with a sheet over his head: this is the sort of half-baked ghost-imposture one sees in HAUNTED RANCH (also 1943), where no one but a child or a cretin could possibly be convinced by the illusion.

Eight years later, the 1935 BALDPATE, directed by William Hamilton and Edward Killy, totally drops the first "naturalistic phantasm" trope, for the gangsters that invade the security of McGee (Gene Raymond) are entirely for real. Only the female lead is still keeping up an imposture, and this time she's a newspaper-woman looking for a story, which was perhaps borrowed from a minor character in the 1929 film, or some even earlier source. The hermit who dresses up as an unconvincing ghost is still in the film, and he's arguably one of the film's highlights, as he's played by Henry Travers, a supporting actor who attained immortality as "Clarence the Angel" in 1946's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, so a "naturalistic phantasm" is still in this film.

There's some irony in the fact that a lobby-card for the Barker version calls that film a "farce melodrama," for it's nothing of  the kind: it's a thriller-drama with a somewhat light touch. Hamilton and Killy, however, go full-tilt comedy, as if they were trying to distance their work as much as possible for earlier versions of the creaky old story. The script dispenses with the long set-up seen in Barker's film, wherein McGee makes the bet to stay at the supposedly lonely inn. Instead, Hamilton and Killy start with McGee arriving at a train-station in the locality of Baldpate, where he meets his leading lady (rather than meeting her at the inn). Every attempt is made to "amp up" the proceedings, with lots of close-up  shots (a good early shot shows a face looking through a foggy window, the better to draw the viewer in) and a black cat who hangs around the inn to provide "jump scares." Gene Raymond's version of McGee is much more in the mold of Bob Hope; he's not just making the occasional witticism, but slamming out bon mot after bon mot. Moreover, a lot of other characters begin uttering whimsical lines-- a cop has a line that goes something like, 'Ya can't have a murder without a corpus"-- and for the first half-hour the score plays jaunty, comical music. The real gangsters are defeated and McGee hooks up with the reporter-lady with none of the complications that attended the Barker version.

Since neither Hamilton nor Killy enjoyed any major successes as principal directors, it's surprising to me that the 1947 version is not nearly as good as the one from 1935. The last of the SEVEN KEYS films (at least, the last to sport that name) was directed by the venerable Lew Landers, later celebrated for some outstanding if formulaic works, particularly the 1935 RAVEN.

Like the scripters on the Hamilton-Killy version, the writer for the Landers version plays a little mix-and-match with elements from the earlier iterations. Once again, the gangsters who invade the inn are the real thing, though this time the film plays up the menacing aspects of one particular malefactors, played by the always sinister Eduardo Cianelli of MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN fame. Again, only the leading lady is putting across an imposture, but instead of being a reporter, she's an actress who has been explicitly hired to throw McGee off his game so he'll lose the bet. This might be seen as a skewed salute to the main gimmick of the original property. That said, even though the "naturalistic phantasm" is back in this adumbrated form, the Landers film only makes indirect reference to the hermit's attempts to pose as a ghost. Maybe by 1947, no one could buy the idea of the bedsheet angle. The last BALDPATE is probably the weakest, though, for Philip Terry's McGee is the least interesting. True, his rather nebbishy take on the role is more realistic than anything from Dix or Raymond-- but it's neither engaging nor funny. Though Landers incorporates stuff from the 1935 version, notably the train-station opening, he doesn't keep up the comic ambience and so the film transitions back to the drama-category.

In conclusion, 1983's HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS is the only version I've seen that uses the acting-troupe to portray an uncanny phantasm, since the SHADOWS actors are portraying members of a significantly weird family.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I was too old to have been enthused by the 1983-85 cartoon series HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE. I don't mean that I had grown too old for superheroes and similar adventurers. I mean that by that time it was easy for me to spot most of the influences from which the cartoon-- principally devised to sell the Mattel toy line-- had been constructed, and it seemed a very ramshackle construction indeed.

I saw similar problems with the 1987 live-action movie, but it had one advantage over the cartoon: it wasn't constantly trying to sell me toy-figures with goofy names like "Ram-Man." I'm not even sure if I saw the film in a theater, though I might have given it a chance had it appeared in one of the "dollar theaters" of the period. If I saw it without spending much, that might explain why I find it easier to take than many Golan-Globus productions of the time.

MASTERS is little more than your basic duel between absolute good and absolute evil as they vie over a magic doohickey called "the Cosmic Key." Almost everything about it is indebted to the SUPERMAN film-franchise that was launched in 1978, and which Golan and Globus attempted to pick up in an ill-fated fourth film. There's a copycat John Williams-esque score, a bombastic credits sequence, and various lower-tier actors in fancy costumes.

Yet MASTERS isn't nearly as bad as either SUPERMAN IV or the two HERCULES films.  True, the film does itself no favors-- except in the financial sense-- by having most of the fantasy-action take place on mundane Earth, as He-Man's group and Skeletor's gang contend for the Key. But the David Odell script does play the superhero action fairly straight, aside from a typically unfunny comic relief (Billy Barty playing a Muppet-like dwarf named Gwildor). Frank Langella has often been praised for imbuing his Skeletor with sophisticated menace despite acting through a heavy mask. But I thought Dolph Lundgren managed to keep a fair amount of dignity despite the opposite handicap: having to swagger around in barbarian-garb and showing off his pectorals almost non-stop.

There are of course two innocent humans who get mixed up with the good guys: one who would go on to become a "Friend" and the other who would become a long "Voyager." The latter is an amateur musician who gets the chance to save the universe with his skills, leaving his girlfriend with the major role of-- well, betraying the good guys to supposedly save her parents. Not exactly standout roles for either actor.

Still-- I've seen much worse than this bit of derivative but nicely mounted nonsense.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological. sociological*


Psychotic killers appeared intermittently in cinema before Alfred Hitchcock scored a major hit with 1960’s PSYCHO. The trope of the psycho-killer became far more prevalent thereafter, as seen in works like 1966’s THE PSYCHOPATH, but most of them were fairly derivative of Hitchcock.

NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR is the first directorial work by Joy N. Houck Jr,, best known for his cheap “Bigfoot” movie CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE and for being the son of Joy Sr., a producer associated with an earlier generation of cheap flicks, including Ed Wood’s “Jail Bait.”  NIGHT is sloppily edited and badly acted, but the psychological motivation of its killer is a twist, particularly because the script, co-written by Houck, suggests a motivation of which he might not have been consciously aware.

NIGHT gives the viewer a helter-skelter introduction to Wesley, a young fellow who may or may not be a psycho. In childhood he accidentally shot and killed his brother Jonathan, implicitly the favorite of their mother Agatha. Wes spent some time in a mental institution but was eventually released into general society—but is he really cured? He experiences splitting headaches, illustrated by weird animated visuals. Somehow Wes has no trouble bedding comely young women, but two of his girlfriends get gruesomely murdered. The cops put Wesley through a grilling that borders on brutality, but they can’t prove him guilty. Then another young woman comes into Wesley’s life: a reporter looking for a story on the murders. When she too falls for his (less than obvious)+ charms, the viewer must wonder: will she become another victim?

Since Houck doesn’t provide any red herrings, there should be no surprise in the final revelation: this time, Mommy Really Did Do It. This is the one psychological angle that makes NIGHT more interesting than an outright PSYCHO imitation.

Once Agatha’s crimes are disclosed, she doesn’t use the usual justification seen in the aforementioned PSYCHOPATH: that she nurtured a maternal jealousy of any woman who slept with her boy. Rather, Agatha claims that she’s killed Wes’s girlfriends to keep him from knowing any happiness, because she still resents him for having killed her favorite son. Further, Agatha has in some sense conflated her favorite son with her husband, for it turns out that at some point she acquired the rotting bodies of both Jonathan and her husband, and decided to keep them in her house. (Naturally, whereas Hitchcock played fair with the audience by setting up Norman Bates’ means for preserving his mother’s body, Houck just throws in the two corpses at the last minute, as a cheap shock.)

But for all this distancing, in a roundabout way NIGHT still conforms to the “maternal jealousy” model, since by killing Wes’s girlfriends Agatha is still keeping him from having sex. True, there are no indications that she nurtures any desire for him, but it’s possible that her *eros * has been projected backwards into both Jonathan and the dead father. Aside from this minor trope, the only other noteworthy aspect of the film that its grungy look links it less with the Hitchcock imitators of the period and more with the raw look of the 1980s slashers.

There’s even less going on with 1961’s ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO. Despite using the same buzzword as the Hitchcock movie, the main character is not at all in the Norman Bates tradition of the mad killer. Main character Chet and his sister Pat were raised by their older brother Duke. Duke is found guilty of murdering a man and the state executes him. Pat is able to move on, particularly because she’s engaged to a young upper-crust fellow named Mickey, but Chet just can't let go of the wrongs society did to his family. Chet’s fixation on the injustice of his brother’s execution—whom he regards almost as a surrogate father—is given little psychological elaboration. Only in the opening sequence is his extreme reaction given some basis in fact. After he visits his condemned brother in prison-- where Duke protests his innocence to the last-- some of the “respectable” male teens rag on him for having a crook-brother, beat him down, and scar his face. However, this is the first and last indication that "straight society" might harbor some bad apples. After being so wounded, Chet refuses to let his scar be treated by a doctor, so that it disfigures his good looks and so becomes the "objective correlative" of his rage against society.

The opening suggests a potential conflict between the lower and higher classes in the unnamed American city. However, the script-- which some have attributed partly to Ed Wood writing under a pseudonym-- drops the ball, content to portray Chet and his friends as no-account juvenile delinquents. In his brief crime-spree, Chet starts a fire and burns down a house, treats his girlfriend lousily, and frames his sister’s boyfriend for murder before he's put away by the square citizens. ANATOMY came out at a time when “j.d..films” were beginning to lose their appeal; hence, the attempt to ride Alfred H.’s coattails.

None of the acting is memorable, but one participant makes for some curiosity-value: Ronnie Brooks, adopted son of comedy-team George Burns and Gracie Allen, plays the thoroughly uninteresting character of upper-crust Mickey.

Monday, April 17, 2017


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I've reviewed almost none of the myriad productions of entrepreneur Charles Band, who apparently never met a creepy little doll he didn't like. There's not usually much to say about even the better Band films, though his longest running series, PUPPET MASTER, is watchable if one is in the mood for creepy mixed with silly. My main reason for seeking out this 2004 film-- made for the Sci-Fi Channel and apparently "non-canon" according to Band-- stems from my interest in the dynamics of crossover properties.

By and large, the film builds its sketchy storyline largely from PUPPET MASTER mythology, and the less developed DEMONIC TOYS mythos is more or less grafted on top of that. The evil-looking puppets of the former series eventually took something of a "good monster" role in some installments, given that these magical mini-mannequins were created by a basically good mad scientist. (The puppets even end up fighting Nazis in one film, I forget which). In contrast, the DEMONIC TOYS had enjoyed one solo movie and a crossover with Band's mini-superhero DOLLMAN, and then remained in mothballs for almost ten years before appearing in this teamup flick. It's thus not too surprising that the Toys don't get as much attention as the Puppets. The script doesn't even bother to revive all the terrible toys from the 1992 DEMONIC TOYS film for this roundup.

A summary of the plot isn't really all that rewarding. Suffice to say that a modern descendant of the original puppet-master, a nutty but basically nice scientist (Corey Feldman), finds himself using his ancestor's puppets against a madwoman (who has control of the Demonic Toys) who plans to unleash demon-possessed toys on children on Christmas Day. The Puppets get all the best scenes, the Toys are forgettable, and the two teams of "tiny titans" only contend in the last minutes of the film, using what looks like a very cheap form of stop-motion animation. The overall feel of the film is more silly than creepy, and the most entertaining aspects are Feldman's wacky scientist and Vanessa Angel's wacky villainess.

Throughout this blog's history I've tended to categorize "monster-films" as dramas unless the plots were strongly determined by the modes of adventure, irony or comedy. Thus I've linked even a film as goofy-looking as GAMERA VS. GUIRON-- in which a "good" fire-breathing turtle fights a "bad" quadruped with a knife for a head-- with the drama's reputation (in the works of Northrop Frye, at least) for *purgation,* for using evil to cast out evil. PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS always seems to be right on the edge of turning into a complete comedy, similar to a situation I noted in the almost-spoofy spy-film OPERATION KID BROTHER. But like the Gamera films, as absurd as PMVDT becomes, it never puts across the *jubilative* scheme of the pure comedy, and so this, like the more overtly "scary" films in both serial-properties, lines up with the trope of "good monsters casting out bad monsters."

Thursday, April 13, 2017


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*


Given that the DVD adaptation of Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was a somewhat mixed bag, I didn't expect much of the animated feature THE KILLING JOKE-- particularly I'm in the minority that doesn't care much for the original graphic novel.

Before seeing the film, I couldn't quite avoid hearing about some of the controversy surrounding the adaptation, though I withheld myself from reading any detailed commentary. So I knew going in that, whereas the GN only shows Barbara "Batgirl II" Gordon in her civilian identity, the DVD-script by Mike Azzarello adds a prologue in which she partners with Batman in breaking up a criminal gang. Not having read any publicity-statements by the people who made the video, I assume that one reason for this addition springs from the fact that most films have a stand-alone structure. When Alan Moore wrote KILLING JOKE, he knew that he was writing primarily to DC comics-readers who were accustomed to thinking of Barbara Gordon as a kickass heroine, one who just happened to get surprised by the Joker one bad night. But a movie-version of the same story-- one which played in some U.S. theaters-- could not assume that all audiences shared the same knowledge. Moreover, since the original GN was criticized for belonging to "Women in Refrigerators" trope-- whose basic philosophy comes down to "It is always wrong to show any woman being abused or put-upon"-- a movie that followed Moore's exact plot would have reaped the same accusation as the GN.

Frankly, writer Azzarello and director Sam Liu translate the Moore script with a fastidious faithfulness. I don't know if they were motivated by genuine admiration for the GN or by an understanding that they'd be critically roasted for not following nearly every beat of Moore's alleged-by-some-critics masterpiece. But such faithfulness gives the creators little room to breathe, The parts of the story adapted from Moore are accurate but unremarkable, and come close to validating Moore's famous belief that "Comics don't work as films." Only once do Liu and Azzarello exceed the bounds of their adaptation-task. In the last panels of the GN, Moore and artist Brian Bolland create a non-canonical suggestion that the story may end with Batman finally killing the Joker off-panel. The DVD does manage to put across the same suggestion in a manner that no comic book could imitate, which is at least a clever twist on the basic storytelling.

So, on to the original content: the Batgirl-prologue. I knew ahead of time that it portrayed a very non-canonical relationship between the heroine and her mentor. (For any readers not in the know, Barbara Gordon-in-the-comics never evinces any romantic feelings toward Batman, only toward his ward Robin-- who significantly, does not appear in the DVD story). Azzarello depicts a situation in which Batgirl has been crime-fighting under Batman's tutelage for some time, to the extent that she's become reasonably experienced in her vigilante adventures. However, Batman is a hard taskmaster, and explicitly does not view her as an equal partner. The two of them become involved in trying to stop a psychotic criminal with the wry name of "Parris Franz," and Franz makes things more complicated by pursuing, or pretending to pursue, Batgirl as a sexual object. Batman accurately assesses Batgirl's reaction: that Franz's objectification has thrown her off her game, and so he forbids her to continue on the case. Insulted, she argues with her mentor, assaults him, and then initiates sex with him on a rooftop-- an offer, to be sure, that the Caped Crusader does not turn down. Some time later, Franz almost manages to kill Batman. Batgirl saves his life but almost beats Franz to death. Thus, by the time that the Moore continuity begins, she's all but given up her role as Batgirl-- at which point the Joker surprises and almost kills her.

As I said, I can appreciate the basic need to give Barbara Gordon some psychological reason for having been Batgirl in the first place. Azzarello's version clearly follows the model of the "daughter-with-daddy-issues." This take is not entirely unsupported by the original comics. The character was conceived as the offspring of Commissioner Gordon, who had for unspecified reasons chosen the quiet life of a librarian rather imitating her cop-father's profession. Comics-Gordon's encounter with Batman clearly sparks in her a fascination with a life of danger, and this in turn may be viewed as an imitation of her Cop-Daddy, albeit through a masked surrogate. About forty years later, DC dropped the notion that Batgirl had become a crimefighter through her own resources and promoted the idea that Batman had tutored her much as he did Robin-- although in these adventures too, the idea of sexual attraction between master and student remained, to the best of my knowledge, off limits.

Is Azzarello's overall take on Batgirl a brilliant psychological insight? No, but it's also not mere "objectification," as the more asinine critics have claimed. The one strong aspect of Azzarello's conception is that, by giving her an "Electra complex," he has departed from the fannish tendency to depict Batgirl II as a representative of the eternally innocent "Silver Age of Comics." I grew up in those days, but they're gone. In today's market it's hard to believe in heroes who run out to risk their lives in battle without also believing that they may be a little messed-up at times. Azzarello's version of Barbara Gordon shows her as rightfully despising a slimy, murdering gangster who tries to play sexual games with her head. At the same time, her rage, however justified, has an unclean quality about it. When she pounds on Franz, crying, "You ruined everything," it's to show that she has demons she has not yet mastered-- not, as I'm sure some ultraliberal idiot will have said by now, because "everything in a woman's life has to be defined by a man."

Azzarello probably will never reach the heights Alan Moore has at his most creative. However, the original material for KILLING JOKE matches one of Moore's own professed ideals: to tell the stories that the artist wants to tell, not those that his audience necessarily wants.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

GOR (1988, OUTLAW OF GOR (1989)

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

I've never read any of John Norman's GOR novels, which I've heard described as "John Carter with bondage-and-discipline" elements. In the films these fetish-elements are confined to a few lines of dialogue, so these two bland barbarian fantasies-- presumably shot back-to-back like many productions of the time-- probably have much more in common with Edgar Rice Burroughs mildly sexy adventures than with Norman's GOR books or anything more venturesome.

To be sure, the two films do put a lot of female flesh on display-- much more than the Disney adaptation of the first John Carter book-- and for fans of feminine objectification, this is pretty much all the films have to offer. The above still of B-movie actress Rebecca Ferrati ably represents the generally buxom look of most of the women on display- though to be sure, this struck me as a little odd. After all, one of the producers on both films (as well as a scripter, writing under a pseudonym) was Harry Alan Towers. It's not that Towers' productions-- of which the Fu Manchu film-series remains his best known work-- don't sell themselves with a lot of attractive females. But most of the Towers films I've seen favor more svelte depictions of feminine charms. The GOR movies put me more in mind of the Italian sword-and-sandal flicks, in which casting directors generally tend to skew toward the Grand Tetons.

Plotwise both films also follow the general example of the peplum films rather than other barbarian epics. GOR begins by focusing on a Clark Kent-ish college professor, Tarl Cabot, who possesses a mystic ring that he thinks has the power to transport people to the "counter-Earth" Gor, though he's apparently going on hearsay from his father, who passed it down to Tarl in some vague manner. Tarl seems bullish on the idea of extraterrestial teleportation for someone who's never actually experienced it, and he's such a nerd about it that his girlfriend deserts him for a more manly rival.

Then, for no particular reason, the ring suddenly works, teleporting Tarl to the world of Gor, where everyone runs around the desert in skimpy costumes and no one, except maybe some priests, has access to advanced technology. Tarl gets mixed up in a village-raid led by the tyrant Sarm (Oliver Reed paying his bills). While defending himself Tarl, though not a fighter, kills Sarm's son, thus getting the tyrant cheesed off at the Earthman. Fortunately for him, though he's got no fighting-mojo at all, the tough barbarian girl Talena (Ferrati) takes a liking to him and inducts him into her anti-Sarm forces. Both the Earthman and the tyrant are after a special gem called the "Homestone," which Tarl can use to return home. Why Sarm wants it seems more obscure, but his motives more or less get lost in a lot of aimless quests to various desert locales, and even the matter of his avenging his son is pretty much forgotten. Eventually, following the lead of many a peplum, Tarl and his rebels overthrow Sarm. And just as Tarl has become more interested in hanging around with Talena, his magic ring activates and flings him back to Earth.

GOR and its sequel are much more padded than the better sword-and-sandal flicks, and their appeal is hurt by the fact that the main hero, as essayed by Urbano Barberini, is one of the most listless barbarian-heroes out there. Frankly, I wish the films had starred Ferrati, who projects a feral savagery in addition to just looking good. In contrast to the sequel, GOR has more familiar faces-- Paul L. Smith of POPEYE fame and Arnold Vosloo, who had yet to score with the MUMMY films.

However, if I had to choose between the two dopey flicks, I would say that OUTLAW OF GOR has a minor psychological trope that puts it above the former film's aimless wanderings. Toward the end of the first flick we meet an evil priest named Xenos (Jack Palance), and in the second film we learn that he's putting the moves on the throne of Gor, or at least some realm of Gor. Xenos arranges a marriage between Marlenus, elderly father of Talena, and a hot young thing named Lara (Donna Denton). Because Marlenus chooses to let Tarl succeed to the throne after the latter marries Talena, Xenos and Lara conspire to kill Marlenus and set up Tarl for the crime. Oh, and this time when Tarl comes back, he brings along another Earthman, a wimpy comedy-relief character named Watney, who may be one of the most useless comedy-reliefs ever created. For some reason hot Lara seduces Watney, apparently to use him in her schemes, then forgets whatever scheme she had in mind and imprisons him as well.

Tarl's subsequent adventures are just as disorganized as they were in the first film, but this time the villains have more potential to generate good hate, like the best of the peplum-evildoers. Unfortunately, Xenos soon takes a back seat to Lara, and Donna Denton doesn't make even a good road-company evil queen. Most peplum take a roughly Oedipal route-- young hero is caught between a babe his own age and a somewhat older evil queen-- so I like the fact that there's a potential "Electra complex" here: young woman marries the elderly father of the hero's equally young girlfriend, kills the old guy, and then tries to put the moves on Talena's stud. But Denton and Barberini are equally incompetent at projecting their respective villain/hero roles-- thus giving me yet another reason to wish that they'd thrown out the Tarl Cabot character and focused on Talena from the start.

Friday, April 7, 2017


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

I posted this enthusiastic encomium for the 1935 LOST CITY on the Classic Horror Film Board:

I'm with those who regard this as a favorite serial. By comparison even some of the best serials slow down to furnish lots of boring exposition. Something's always happening in LOST CITY. That's not to say everything's interesting, but some of the scenes are so weird. Queen Rana feeding Bruce Gordon a drug that makes him go blind! Bruce being crushed by one of the black giants, only to be freed when Nadia shoots the giant! Manyus about to be crushed by a giant spiky thing! That's what serials are all about.
Strangely, Manyus, the "Dr. Zarko" of this FLASH GORDON-wannabe, gets more time on-screen than "Ming" does.

I mentioned 1936's FLASH GORDON because I tend to think that the scipters for this independent serial knew something of Universal's plans for a GORDON serial, which came out the next year. True, a more proximate influence was probably Mascot Pictures' THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, which depicted an ancient civilization popping up in the modern-day American West, just as CITY depicts ancient Lemurians showing their faces in modern-day Africa. That said, the idea of archaic survivals in Africa first appeared in Rider Haggard's 1887 novel ALLEN QUATERMAIN, and became a repetitive trope in Edgar Rice Burroughs' TARZAN novels. TARZAN in turn became a successful comic strip in 1929, and almost certainly influenced the early development of the Alex Raymond FLASH GORDON comic strip five years later. Although all of Gordon's encounters with weird races and beasts take place on another planet, it's arguable that "Mongo" was just an extraterrestrial version of Burroughs' polymorphic Africa.

Another point of comparison is that the GORDON strip stared out with massive catastrophes taking place on Earth because the planet Mongo is entering Earth's solar system. The 1936 serial adaptation would also use this starting-point. 1935's THE LOST CITY got there first with what seems like a virtual knockoff of the comic-strip tumult. However. in CITY the worldwide havoc is being caused by mad Lemurian ruler Zolok, using his hyper-advanced machines to attack modern cities. This opening, at least, has nothing in common with the initial episode of Mascot's PHANTOM EMPIRE.

EMPIRE comes off as somewhat dull these days-- partly because, like a lot of 1930s serials, it lacks both good action choreography and a bracing musical score. CITY doesn't have either of these assets, either, but as my snippet above suggests, it's a much more "wild-and-woolly" pulp adventure. CITY has its own "Gordon" who's out to locate the source of the disasters: two-fisted scientist Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond). To be sure, Bruce isn't nearly as mythic a character as his flashy forbear, and I tend to view this as a "villain-oriented" serial. That said, Zolok isn't in that many scenes, though his function is taken over by a bunch of secondary villains, including a nasty white hunter (who reforms at the end), a road-company white queen, and an Arab slaver. Whereas a lot of serials may use multiple villains who covet some radical new device, CITY may be the first time that the "new tech" consisted of mutated humans. The aforementioned "Doctor Manyus," a scientist forced to serve Zolok in order to preserve the life of his daughter, comes up with a process by which ordinary men can be changed into obedient, near-mindless nine-foot-tall giants. It's not clear how Manyus-- who's supposed to be a basically decent sort-- comes up with such an abominable weapon, except that one episode-- the source of the serial's greatest notoriety-- suggests that maybe he came across it as a way to transform poor benighted Black Africans into White People.

Naturally, the serial's script takes this somewhat demented fantasy at face value. However, in earlier forum-remarks, I decided that there was probably no conscious intent of making any statement about racial matters:

It's also interesting that the "black-people-turn-white" schtick is not a big part of the overall story. It seems to have been a bit of lunacy the scripters tossed in for a passing effect. The main emphasis always seems to be on the villains' wanting Manyus' process in order to make gargantuan black slaves-- though I think Zolok says something about subjecting Bruce Gordon to the treatment, so it was also *feasible* to have giant white slaves.

Politically inappropriate content aside, it does make the struggle a little more tense when it's less about possessing some arcane weapon, and more about turning real people into slaves. The casting department found one or two incredibly tall actors to represent the mutated slaves of Zolok, and early in the serial there's a fascinating scene in which the two colossi are seen carrying regular-sized Africans around like rag-dolls.

Most of the acting is ridiculously over-the-top, but it rather fits a serial of such bizarre extravagance. Though CITY isn't exactly popular among serial enthusiasts, I think it's a far better twist on the "lost civilization in Africa" theme than better-known works like DARKEST AFRICA and UNDERSEA KINGDOM.

Monday, April 3, 2017


CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*

The title of this WWII-era adventure might suggest that the Great Detective may get involved with some radical new device, of the sort that belongs to my "outre" category. However, Holmes is involved in protecting an effective but thoroughly mundane aerial bombsight-- and its inventor-- from being acquired by Nazi agents.

Though Holmes succeeds in smuggling inventor Tobel out of Switzerland and into war-torn England, the Nazis are in pursuit. Tobel, rather than immediately giving his invention to the Brits, procrastinates while waiting to contact his fiancee. This allows the Nazis time to capture Tobel. The fiancee then reveals that during his time in Switzerland Tobel sought to pass on his invention to other scientists, but only in four separate segments, so that the Nazis could not easily track down the plans. The fiancee has a code that explains who has what section of the plans, and this code-- based on one used in Doyle's 1903 story "Adventure of the Dancing Men"-- is one that Holmes must try to decipher, to gain custody of the segments. However, the Nazis also get a copy of the code and make their own attempt to trace the scientists, even while torturing Tobel for information.

The dodgy plot is really just an excuse for (1) morale-boosting about England's continued resistance during WWII, and (2) yet another encounter between Holmes and his best-hated foe, Professor Moriarty. This time Lionel Atwill essays the role, and although Atwill had been playing cads and bounders for some time by 1943, he seems especially well suited to play the master villain who proves most able to confound Britain's master detective. Indeed, although there's nothing special about the sociological aspects of WEAPON, the psychological opposition between upright Holmes and the thoroughly immoral Moriarty provides the film's best moments.

Moriarty and his agents only utilize mundane means in their espionage, up until the point when the villain has Holmes in his power. Holmes then mocks the evildoer's paucity of imagination, claiming that he Holmes could think up a more imaginative way to kill someone. Thus, in a rare turnabout, the bizarre crime performed by the criminal-- that of slowing draining the hero of his blood as a means of execution-- is actually conceived by the hero! Holmes only does so to gain time, of course, and the stratagem works. Moriarty is killed (again), the bombsight and its inventor are saved, and Britain is one step closer to the presumed victory. Rathbone is good as always, though I didn't think his disguises were very convincing. Nigel Bruce and Dennis Hoey perform ably but don't have any outstanding scenes.




Starting with the most obvious spoiler-- that, like the title says, the film's main plot is One Big Prank, both on the majority of characters in the story and on any viewers who don't see the Big Reveal coming.

Director Fred Walton had only one previous entry in the world of metaphenomenal films: 1979's WHEN A STRANGER CALLS. Walton had done a short film, THE SITTER, in 1977, and upon seeing HALLOWEEN reap big bucks in 1978, he expanded his short into a full-fledged film, which also enjoyed considerable success, and is probably one of the better-known titles from the late 1970s-mid 1980s period. However, for whatever reasons he did not become "typed" by the genre like many other horror-directors. Aside from a TV-sequel to CALLS, APRIL FOOL'S DAY is his only real foray into "slasher-horror." (He did also direct a couple of TV-films with somewhat horrific themes, but not "pure horror," slasher-related or not.)

Since APRIL appeared in theaters when the slashers were on the downswing, it's easy to imagine Walton pitching the film as an extended joke on the subgenre, though the film is still serious enough to rate as a drama, rather than being a comedy like 1981's STUDENT BODIES. In many ways, APRIL seems to follow the mode of hoax-thrillers like SEVEN KEYS TO  BALDPATE, particularly since BALDPATE and APRIL, unlike the great majority of "phantasmal figuration" films, both deal with hoaxes that are NOT informed by any criminal purposes.

Because the plot is to an extent a rewritten "Ten Little Indians" scenario, APRIL places a group of college-age students in a ritzy setting: the island-estate of rich girl Muffy St. John. Even before the students arrive at their destination, one of their number seems to fall victim to a disastrous accident, and is taken away to a hospital. Though the accident throws a temporary pall upon the students' desire to party, they manage to put the unfortunate victim out of their minds and to return to a semblance to normalcy. Then other "accidents" transpire. Is someone out to get everyone on the island, but without bothering to issue a "ten little indians" challenge? Could it be the little-known "Buffy," insane twin sister of Muffy?

Even though it will eventually be revealed that all the deaths and maimings are illusions, Walton and his crew do a good job of keeping up the mysterioso effects necessary for an uncanny film. The weakest aspect of the film is that Muffy, the instigator of the hoax, never really puts across the illusion of Buffy for the film-viewers, even though the stranded students take it seriously enough. As in many slashers, the characters are broad stereotypes. However, in some scenes the script does succeed in putting across the uncertainties in the lives of these prospective adults, and thus links up with 1981's PROM NIGHT and other slashers involving young people on the cusp of adulthood. The scattered scenes about the uncertainties of adult life are the main reason I term this a sociological myth.

I noted in this essay that 1935's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is about two illusory vampires, who are "created" by a law enforcement figure to smoke out a real villain. In the same sense, it might be said that "Buffy St. John" is the illusion at the heart of APRIL's foolery, even though Walton doesn't succeed in making "her" as compelling as VAMPIRE's fake monsters.

Monday, March 27, 2017

DRACULA (1931)

When I reviewed the 1960 PSYCHO, I did so with the knowledge that it had been so exhaustively critiqued that it was difficult to say something new. For that reason I drew comparisons between the film and its somewhat neglected Robert Bloch source-novel. Film critics haven’t written nearly as much about the 1931 DRACULA. But as it’s a classic film and the forerunner of the first horror-craze of the sound era, DRACULA is still pretty well-worn territory.

I’ll again touch on some of the divergences between a film and its source-novel, but only on a few assorted points, particularly since the screenplay reputedly owes less to the novel than to the novel’s stage-adaptation. Still, I think it’s interesting to look at some of the differences as “roads not taken.”

There’s little to say about the film inability to duplicate the novel’s wild supernatural effects. Director Tod Browning had the same considerations as stage productions of the novel: budgetary considerations. Cinematic contrivances did allow Browning and cinematographer Karl Freund (allegedly an associate director in all but name) to give viewers a magnificent illusion of Dracula’s castle, far beyond the resources of theatrical productions. But a major portion of the action takes place in the stagy-looking drawing-room of a manor that doubles as Doctor Seward’s sanatorium, and the one impressive visual seen in Carfax British abbey at the climax doesn’t eradicate the preceding visual tedium.

There are things, though, that a movie could have done as well as a book; things that the DRACULA screenplay didn’t bother to address. The Stoker novel gains great mythic power from picturing modern Transylvania as a wasteland drained by a tyrant who’s been alive for centuries, and who only in 1898 has decided to move on to fresh killing-grounds. Perhaps the Universal film couldn’t give a panoramic view of a whole country. Still, the script could have given more attention to Dracula’s personal history, not least giving him a stronger motive for moving all the way to England. It’s even ambiguous about how long Dracula’s been undead. He makes reference to the “broken battlements” of his land and speaks of the glory of being truly dead. Yet there’s no reference, when the vampire is staked off-camera, to his body's turning to dust (which later becomes a plot-point in DRACULA’S DAUGHTER). Only Bela Lugosi’s superlative performance really sells the image of the Count as the relic of a bygone aristocratic era. This image comes across during the scenes at Castle Dracula, though there’s a similar vibe when he takes as his first victim in London-- a poor flower-seller, before moving on to the higher social strata.

If the character of this Dracula is not as rich as Stoker’s creation, the character of Renfield certainly profits from the changes of the 1931 film. In the novel, he’s just an insane fellow in Seward’s nuthouse. Dracula uses Renfield as a pawn until the demented man becomes fascinated with Mina and betrays his master. Film-Renfield is far more memorable, changing from a slightly stuffy solicitor to a debased mirror image of his master: his passion for devouring insects stemming from an "Imitatio Diaboli." His doglike devotion to Mina isn’t as well developed as it is in the novel, and he doesn’t get a scene in which he’s in any way tempted by the attentions of Dracula’s wives. Still, Frye’s performance as the vampire’s slave may define Renfield even more than Lugosi defines Dracula. 

In contrast, though, Stoker’s resourceful Jonathan Harker becomes a thoroughly meat-headed swain who’s something of a headache for vampire hunter Van Hesling. Edward Van Sloan provides a fine methodical vampire-hunter, though over the years Van Helsing has proven elastic enough to allow for a variety of re-interpretations.

Central to the novel’s structure is the “bad girl/ good girl” dichotomy that many critics consider innate to the culture of Victorian England. The movie makes Mina Murray, who in the book is the friend of the more upper-class Lucy Westenra, the daughter of Doctor Seward. The movie does keep the idea that Dracula goes for Lucy, the “easy get,” before going on to Mina, the “hard get.” This Lucy, though, isn't noticeably upper-class and doesn’t have three men courting her, and the only thing that makes her a little “bad” is that she shows an ardent fascination with Count Dracula even before he starts talking about his “broken battlements. ” In contrast we have “good girl” Mina, who’s securely engaged to the dishrag Harker, which seems to be all that's especially "good" about her. The script mangles the story-potential of Lucy’s vampirization, possibly eliding any conclusion to her plot-line-- which is particularly grisly in the book-- to avoid alienating the audiences of 1931. As for Mina, she lacks the heroic, yet still feminine, dimensions of Stoker’s creation. Only in one sequence does she consciously resist the influence of Dracula after having been forced to drink his blood and become a “pre-vampire.”  Helen Chandler’s best moment with the character occurs when she begins displaying the predatory nature seen in Dracula’s wives. But this scene remains a tease, so that some other actress got the honor of acting out the first female-on-male fanging of cinema’s sound era.

The vampire-mythology of Browning is nowhere near as well developed as Stoker’s, but again, it must be admitted that a book has much more space in which develop such matters. Yet it’s arguable that the movie DRACULA had a far more transformative effect on American cinema than Stoker’s novel did on British fantasy-fiction. There were several novels in the 1800s that might equal DRACULA in terms of developing fantastic concepts. But in American silent films, it was a rare thing to see full-blown fantasy-concepts developed to their utmost, with occasional exceptions like the 1924 THIEF OFBAGDAD and the 1929 MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. Films in the horror subgenre tended toward the uncanny form of the Gothic, with stories like THE CAT AND THE CANARY. But Stoker’s freewheeling synthesis of vampire legends hearkened back to works of marvelous horror like VATHEK and THE MONK, to say nothing of working in a probable parody of Christian lore.

The film’s script is talky, but this has the advantage of laying out the mythology of vampires in a way that a silent film could not. The Count seems positively Satanic as he battles with Van Helsing over the soul of Mina, imparting a mythic vibe to a phrase like, “I shall see that she dies—by night!” He doesn’t succeed, partly due to Renfield’s betrayals. The final scene in Carfax Abbey manages to put across this vibe too, despite Browing’s clumsy mounting. We see Van Helsing and Harker penetrate the abbey, where they find Dracula inert in his coffin. Then Van Helsing kinda-sorta opens another coffin, in which he seems to anticipate finding Mina—though for some reason he doesn’t really look into the coffin. Then there’s a cut to show Mina still alive, off to the corner—and only then does the professor look again, and find the second coffin empty. I would guess that this bit of business is another inheritance from the stage-adaptation, but though it’s far from riveting, it did make me wonder if the scene might have been derived from the Gospel story in which Christ’s followers visit his sepulcher and find it empty. Such a reworking—which resembles nothing in the novel-- compares favorably with Stoker’s recasting of other Christian motifs, even if the film’s Mina is no heroic sufferer; merely a prize to be protected by her future husband and his elderly preceptor. I imagine that Browning was aware of some of these aspects of the original, but I don’t get a sense that they signified anything but aspects of a job he’d been assigned.

That said, DRACULA remains a major game-changer in American cinema. If it had not been made at that particular time—if, say, FRANKENSTEIN, also a popular stage-play, had gotten there first—the game still would have been changed. Still, of the two the vampire-lord has deeper roots in myth and folklore, and so for that reason I’m glad that DRACULA was the first “marvelous Gothic” out of the gate. Bela Lugosi never got another role nearly as crucial as this one, and he certainly had reason to regret being typed as a horror-actor. Still, since he’d been largely doing a lot of exotics and functionary-types before DRACULA, he could have faced a worse fate for an actor: that of total obscurity. Becoming an icon doesn’t always make you rich, but it does provide one with a curious kind of “life after death.” 

Saturday, March 25, 2017


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

TV-series reunions almost never turn out better than mediocre, and the two WILD WILD WEST telefims run true to form. The original show was a fast-paced, thoroughly pulpy transposition of James Bond's superspy tropes into the "wild west" of the 1870s. Two agents of the American Secret Service, tough James West and sneaky Artemis Gordon, fought various threats to the U.S. government, many of whom possessed weird weapons beyond the technology of that time-period. The foremost of the two agents' foes was pint-sized genius Doctor Loveless, played with great elan by "little person" actor Michael Dunn.

The first telefilm is marginally better than the second in that it plays to fans' history with the series. Since Michael Dunn had passed on, West and Gordon-- retired from the Service but brought back for "one last job"-- learn that the original Loveless has died but left behind two adult children, Miguelito Jr. (the short-but-not-that-short Paul Williams) and Carmelita (Jo Ann Harris). Miguelito has inherited his daddy's talent for producing weapons far beyond the science of the time, but there's no great imagination here: the writers simply have him invent the atomic bomb fifty years early. (Even a coda at the end of the movie comments on how ridiculous this is.) On the positive side, the script does give actors Conrad and Martin some clever lines about how much they've aged, and how hard it is to keep the pulp-action going, whether it consists of romancing young ladies or trashing cyborgs. Mime artists Shields and Yarnell play the cyborgs: Loveless calls the male one his "six hundred dollar man."

Though REVISITED only satisfies low expectations, it does that better than the single sequel, MORE WILD WILD WEST. One might have thought that it would be as good as the first one, given that it must've been put together by the same contingent of producers. Instead, MORE is a talky bore, in which West and Gordon are drafted once more to thwart the designs of another mad scientist, played clownishly by Jonathan Winters. Only one actor in this bore acquits himself well: Victor Buono, who played an arch-villain on the series, does an amusing imitation of Henry Kissinger, given the unsubtle name of "Doctor Messenger."

One other item of interest: in REVISITED, West gets embarrassed when he thinks a much younger woman is coming on to him, only to find out that she's the grown daughter of an old flame, who thinks of him as an uncle. However, all such limitations of old age are forgotten in MORE, when West has to seduce a much younger woman-- one of two twins-- to get information from her, and the film ends with both agents getting a twin apiece-- who are, of course, virtually interchangeable, like the plot of this telefilm with that of other reunion-pieces.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I bracketed these two serials together because (1) both stem from the years that producer Sam Katzman helmed Columbia's serial production, (2) both are adaptations from other media, and (3) both are what I call "running around, fighting, getting nowhere fast" serials.

Although most serials of the sound era had considerable budgetary limitations, most of those produced under Katzman don't really try to conceal said limitations. Where a serial like 1937's DICK TRACY gives viewers the impression of seeing the hero jaunting around to many locales in search of crimes to stop, many of Katzman's serials seem to keep the principals confined to one or two locales. Thus. no matter how much fighting and running around the heroes and their opponents may perform, a sense of inertia, of not getting anywhere, inevitably sets in.

The BRICK BRADFORD comic strip began in 1933, focusing at first on aviation adventures, and then putting increasing emphasis on fantasy-exploits like those of 1929's smash success BUCK ROGERS. (The appearance of 1934's FLASH GORDON may have had some effect as well.) In 1935 the heroic Brick began having adventures in other temporal eras thanks to his "Time Top" (seen above), and in his few later incarnations he's probably best known as a time-traveler.

The 1947 serial, however, doesn't have a consistent idea of what it wants to do with Brick, and it's been said that each of the three credited writers did separate parts of the continuity without much reference to one another. Brick, like many serial-heroes, finds himself trying to prevent a radical new weapon (another death-ray) from falling into the hands of evildoers, this time both Earthly spies and agents of a civilization on the Moon-- technically not "aliens," since it's briefly established that the humans there emigrated from Earth long ago, under vague circumstances.

For me, the section dealing with the Moon-action was the most enjoyable. Despite being a dimestore version of the FLASH GORDON serial, there's at least some attention to the exotic appeal of FLASH in some of the Moon's weird decor, in the glowing "Crystal Door" that transports the Earthmen to the lunar surface (where of course they can breathe quite easily), and in the nasty queen of the Moon, Khana (Carol Forman). There's even a little Dale-Aura conflict as Khana sets her sights on handsome Brick (Kane Richmond), much to the displeasure of the standard Earth-scientist's daughter June (Linda Leighton).

Aside from these sequences, the rest of the serial is just a lot of incomprehensible running around and fighting, whether it takes place in modern times or in another era, thanks to the Time Top. There are occasional moments of humor, but not an intolerable comedy relief this time, and the conclusion actually emphasizes a romantic moment between Brick and June.

I have not read Jules Verne's MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, but from all accounts it's barely a metaphenomenal book at all. Several castaways become stranded on an island and must deal with issues of survival, though they get help from a mystery benefactor who turns out to be none other than Captain Nemo, who alone survived the wreck of the Nautilus in 20,000 LEAGUES, along with his fantastic submarine.

The first episode of 1951's MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is allegedly true to the book, which takes place during America's Civil War. The aforementioned castaways, all Northern officers or sympathizers, escape captivity in the South by stealing an observation balloon, but become stranded on an island. The main hero Captain Harding (Richard Crane) is given a touch more humanity at the outset than most serial-heroes, though it doesn't help once the action starts, for said action once again consists of-- lots of fighting and running around, this time in a locale which cannot be varied. As if to make up for this static situation, the scriptwriters have the five castaways menaced by no less than three separate menaces. The most mundane menace is a gang of 19th-century pirates, and technically the island's inhabitants are mundane in that they belong to some island-dwelling Earth-tribe, though the serial dresses them up in outer-space-looking garments. In contrast, the last menace-- actual aliens from the planet Mercury-- are rather mundanely outfitted, as the above photo shows. The Mercurian leader, one Rulu, is acceptably "alien" in her attire, but her minions are dressed in knockoffs derived from the look of Columbia's SPIDER'S WEB serial, right down to that hero's spider-webbed mask. I note in passing the accidental resemblance of the serial's first chapter to the title of a 1965 teleseries, but there's no truth in ISLAND's advertising. No one goes into space in the course of the serial, though we do see the Mercurian ship-- which is just a refurbished BRICK BRADFORD "time top"-- land on the island.

The various motivations of the three separate menaces are dodgy at best, while the castaways have no motivation beyond immediate survival. The fistfights are pretty good, and though Rulu is no Khana, she at least has a few magisterial moments, conquering the will of her opponents with a thought-control wand. Of Harding's four companions, the three white guys are largely interchangeable. The one black character, Ned (Bernie Hamilton), doesn't get a lot of characterization, but in contrast to the roles given black people in most serials, he's treated respectfully and is shown to be a handy guy in a fight. Given that Verne did a horrible "idiot Negro" in ROBUR THE CONQUEROR, I suspect that this may be one thing that this goofy serial improved upon-- though I'm in no hurry to read the book and find out.

Monday, March 20, 2017


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I only rewatched these two low-budget vampire flicks because I remembered that both ended with vampire-on-vampire battles. Thus I wanted to know whether or not these fights qualified them for the mode of the combative. I satisfied myself that they do, though there wasn't much else of interest.

TO DIE FOR is definitely the better of the two films. Despite the budgetary limitations, director Deran Sarafian gives Lesley King's script a glossy erotic flair, as modern vampire Vlad Tepisch-- who is apparently yet another version of Dracula, without using the name-- seeks to set up new digs in the Hollywood Hills. To do this Vlad needs a real estate agent, and he just happens to meet a toothsome one in young Kate Wooten. Kate, like so many vampire-victims before her, just happens to be dissatisfied with her current boyfriend. Yet, though there's any immediate erotic charge between Kate and Vlad when they meet, Kate doesn't succumb right away, making her the "Mina" of the story. So Vlad seduces her friend, who becomes the ill-fated "Lucy." Vlad, as played by Brendan Hughes, manages to remain relatively sympathetic despite his acts, partly because his vampire brother Tom (Steve Bond) has followed Vlad and shows himself to be much worse. Tom (they couldn't have found a more Romanian name?) bears a grudge against Vlad, who vampirized Tom's former girlfriend. Now Tom is out to get revenge by killing or vamp-kissing Kate. It's pretty predictable but is helped somewhat by good visuals and strong acting from Hughes and Bond.

Not so the second incarnation. Despite being scripted by the same person, SON OF DARKNESS is unbearably tedious. It sets forth a premise with good potential. At some unspecified time, Vlad-- now played by a lackluster Michael Praed-- lay with and conceived a child by a mortal woman. By chance Vlad-- who somehow escapes his death from the first film and becomes a medical doctor at a bloodbank (har har)-- meets both the infant child and his adoptive mother. Tom survives his death too and does everything he can to make Vlad's life miserable-- except that the script does his job for him. Director David Price probably didn't have much to work with, as the script wanders about with no sense of dramatic development or backstory-- but the only decent part of the story is the final fight, which is at least livelier than the one from the first film.

Still, nothing much to recommend about either one, unless one just has a jones for vampire erotica.


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

I've sometimes devoted one review to an entire television series, as with the 1990s Superman cartoon, and sometimes to a smattering of episodes in separate reviews, as I did with my incomplete survey of the KUNG FU teleseries.  This falls into the latter category, as I've only watched the first five of the thirteen episodes, which is about the same number of episodes that the "pro" critics watched before widely trashing it in online media.

One common complaint voiced concerned the level of action in the series. It's true that there's nothing here that even equals the better Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, much less the classic Hong Kong kung fu flicks, Yet the slow pace of IRON FIST is echoed in earlier Netflix online serials like DAREDEVIL and LUKE CAGE, and in all likelihood said pace is mostly a matter of economics, not lack of talent. The FIST fight-scenes are adequate, but the overall strategy of the show's producers is to draw viewers into the emotional world of Danny "Iron Fist" Rand. If they succeed in making you care about Danny as a character, then in theory you'll be more invested in his welfare than whether or not his battle with a gang of hatchet-wielding Triad gangsters comes up to the level of a Jet Li flick.

It's not by accident that I worked in a reference to the 1970s series KUNG FU, for the earlier series parallels some if not all of IRON FIST's direction. Both serials emphasize action enough to qualify for the mythos of adventure, but both also incorporate strong dramatic elements into the mix. Admittedly KUNG FU is superior to IRON FIST in both content and visual style. That said, the earlier series focused more on the main character Caine helping out "guest star" characters during the hero's peripatetic journeys, while Danny Rand is grounded in New York as part of his dramatic arc.

Rand's situation in a nutshell: fifteen years ago he-- a child of ten-- was lost in an airplane crash over the Himalayas, as were his wealthy parents. At age 25 he shows up in New York, seeking to connect with the Rand Corporation. the only link he has with his past. In the absence of the Rand family, the Meachams, the grown son and daughter of the elder Rand's partner, have assumed control of the company. Danny can't initially prove who he is and the Meachums don't initially want to listen to his story: that he was rescued from a freezing death by the monks of K'un-Lun. The explanation for his long absence-- that these monks inhabit a Brigadoon-like city that only intersects with the Earth-plane on rare occasions, and that Danny simply couldn't get back-- does not go over well.

While the dramatic resolution of Danny's identity problems might have been tighter, I found it interesting that the producers chose to resolve them gradually, given that the more common resolution in pop fiction is to have the doubters convinced immediately by some supernormal demonstration.  Though the leisurely pace is probably born of an economic need, the producers made the best of the situation, allowing the involved heritage of the partners and their children to unfold in a naturalistic manner.

It's been said online that star Finn Jones plays Danny Rand as a "ten year old in a man's body." This is inaccurate. Danny Rand's struggle in the series during the first five episodes is that of a grown man attempting to re-connect with the memories of his childhood, now layered over with the experiences he's had in the past fifteen years-- experiences that include not just living in a culture very unlike that of his birth, but also one in which things like dragons and disappearing cities are commonplace. In addition, because other Marvel serials have introduced Frank Miller's evil ninja-clan "The Hand," this group now becomes an opponent for Iron Fist, whose original comics-incarnation predates Miller's DAREDEVIL run. In emulation of the gritty, down-to-earth approach in Netflix's DAREDEVIL series, marvelous powers and creatures don't show up in the streets of IRON FIST's New York quite as often as they do in the Marvel Comics New York-- which adds to the tension, in which Danny Rand's story is simply not creditable in real-world terms, despite the fact that the Avengers and their ilk exist off on the margins of the Netflix universe.

I've already expressed my feelings on the matter of so-called cultural appropriation in this essay, but I should add that some of the aforesaid reviews apparently thought it was cool to fight racism with racism, as seen in this nearly incoherent piece from COMIC BOOK MOVIE:

The current MCU is very white. Danny Rand is a pretty lame character to begin with. Having him be an asian would have brought an actually interesting aspect to his character, especially as a fish out of water to a mystic asian culture. Instead we get some boring white guy about to do some more typical white guy stuff. 

Now, if I were to say that all black guys were inherently boring, or all Asian guys-- who would fail to label that racism? But generalizing about Caucasian characters gets an automatic pass from ultraliberal types-- not to mention the reviewer's reverse-racist conviction that not being white automatically makes a character "interesting."

Neither in any comics-incarnation nor in this series is Danny Rand likely to set any records for "greatest white character." But whatever shortcomings the character may have certainly do not depend on his race.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

D.E.B.S. (2004)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I'll get the metaphenomenality question out the way first: the only thing that makes this film "marvelous" is that in one scene the soon-to-be-reformed villainess steps up to a big-ass, somewhat phallic cannon and claims that she's going to annihilate Australia. The gun is never activated, but her henchman seems to believe it will work. There's also a moment where some of the titular heroines are trapped in a chamber where a spiked ceiling is lowering itself down upon them, though technically this could fall into the "uncanny" phenomenality-- much like the outfits worn by the D.E.B.S., which look like faux "Catholic schoolgirl" uniforms.

I'm not sure why the DEBS (I got tired of typing the periods) bother with these outfits. Their alma mater is an American spy school where presumably everyone knows that they're not ordinary students. Of course the non-diegetic reason is that main character Amy (Sara Foster) and her three DEBS colleagues look really hot in their outfits, and not only to that evil "male gaze." DEBS (the movie) started out as an 11-minute short that toured various festivals, including at least one that focused on gay/lesbian film-making, and it is, despite its apparent similarity to spy spoofs, primarily a lesbian rom-com in which the spy-junk is incidental to the unison of Amy with her opposite number (and other main character), international arch-villain Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster).

Lucy is in truth not the villain of the story, even though she has the usual Blofeld-ian lair full of intricate devices and even though she's on a "most wanted" list for international criminals (the audience is led to believe that she's simply overcompensating for never having found True Love). While Lucy is a lesbian when the film starts, Amy has not yet realized her true erotic calling, though she's just broken up a hetero relationship-- making her, so to speak, ripe for conversion. Lucy and Amy have a "meet-cute" in spy-movie terms-- they confront each other with drawn guns-- but Lucy distracts the less polished DEBS agent with her charms and slips away. However, Lucy continues to court Amy, who is conflicted less by changing her gender-focus than by betraying the ideals of the DEBS agency by consorting with a criminal. Lucy promises to change her ways-- there's even a cartoonish scene in which Lucy gives back some of the money she's stolen from banks over the years-- and eventually the two hot girls hook up. One other DEBS member knows of their relationship, but the other two don't, making for a lot of comic-- though not particularly funny-- confusion.

So who's the villain of the story? Well, in a sense it's the DEBS agency, in that its members insist on obeying the law and bringing Lucy in for trial. rather than letting the two lovebirds fly away. The affair is revealed, but because the bosses of the agency don't want to be publicly embarrassed by Amy's fraternization (sororization?), they agree to sweep the incident under the rug. The other DEBS members are somewhat pissed at Amy for breaking her oath of office, and for hiding things from them. As part of the cover-up, Amy-- who is up for a "DEB of the Year" award-- must give a speech in which she tells of her harrowing captivity by Lucy Diamond. Lucy for her part is so desperate to see her lover that she infiltrates the ceremony. However, Amy can't denounce Lucy and publicly confesses their love affair to the audience. Lucy gets the only combat of the climax-- she gets to beat down her romantic rival Bobby-- and with the help of the other DEBS agents, Amy and Lucy escape, giving up both heroism and villainy for their love.

As mentioned earlier this is not a regular spy-spoof like SPY HARD:  the tropes of the superspy-genre could have been redone as cop/crook tropes with no real change in the plot or theme. DEBS is not even trying to be funny after the manner of other spoofs: its writer-director Angela Robinson was apparently more interested in projecting a droll attitude. She doesn't really have anything to say beyond the glorification of the film's amour fou, but I assigned this a "fair" rating because there's some sociological accuracy to portraying the superspy-fantasy as an excuse for erotic encounters. Also, silly though the film is, it does buck the tendency of commercial American films to validate the authority of government agencies. I feel like Robinson might have also said something about the social pressure that "girl-groups" exert on their members. but maybe that would be expecting too much from her.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical, psychological*

A great deal of Marxist-feminist ink has been spilled about the figure of the master vampire as the Freudian Big Daddy who monopolizes as many young women as he can for his undead harem. However, considerably less attention has been paid to the ways in which the master vampire is used, not just as a male fantasy of erotic supremacy, but also a female fantasy of erotic competition, in which one of the master’s many brides receives his special attention.

Such a competition is at least suggested in Stoker’s classic novel, in terms of two boon female friends, upper-class Lucy and lower-class Mina. Lucy, if not actually more sexually active than Mina, gives the impression of being more forthright, enough so that she has three suitors to Mina’s sole fiancée. Lucy is the first one Dracula vampirizes, but once he’s had her, he seems to leave her to her fate without much attention. In contrast, Mina is—thanks in part to her protection of the vampire-hunters—a “hard get.” She is vampirized, but resists the Count’s influence until he is destroyed. Thus there is an intimation sense that she enjoys erotic primacy in Dracula’s eyes, though perhaps not as overtly as one sees in straightforward romantic versions like 1991’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA.

Writer-director Bob Kelljan’s two “Count Yorga” films are very much built around the idea of a vampire taking up harem-hunting in modern Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the first film, COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, is rather murky as to the vampire-lord’s motivations. He uses his knowledge of occult matters to become an adviser to a group of well-to-do citizens, which includes at least two females that Yorga wants to add to his seraglio. One member of the group is Errca, whom Yorga interrupts when she’s parking in the forest with her boyfriend. Though not a major character, she more or less fulfills the “Lucy” role, as her friends try to find the missing woman, with the help of a blood-specialist who just happens to believe in vampires. Another member of the group, Donna, is in essence the “Mina” of this roadshow Stoker-show, for she’s the one whom Yorga pursues for most of the narrative. In contrast, Yorga seems to pretty much forget about Erica once he’s ensconced her as one of his three vampire brides. In contrast to the three brides in Stoker’s novel, all three seem to be modern converts to vampirism. Erica is the only one named, a second is completely anonymous, and the third is revealed to be Donna’s unnamed mother, thought to have died of pernicious anemia. This may be the most intriguing psychological motif of Kelljan’s script, but he doesn’t do much with it. Did Yorga come across the mother, seduce her, and then decide that he liked the taste of her so much, he just had to go after the fruit of her loins? There might be a hint of a mother-daughter competition here, not unlike the one in SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. But Kelljan apparently didn’t know how to construct his psychodrama so as to give this motif the competitive edge that it has in Stoker’s novel. Interestingly, since Yorga is like Dracula more than a century old—Yorga’s the only one seen to turn to dust—both mother and daughter are equally “daughters” in his family romance.

Frankly, the competition angle of COUNT YORGA is the only thing that saves the film. Kelljan’s script and direction are both weak, and I suspect that the main thing that made the movie successful in its time was the novelty of placing an old-school vampire in the world of hip L.A.

RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, though, is a huge improvement, though the competition-motif isn’t emphasized to the same extent.

The previous film ends with Yorga slain, though at least three of his vampire brides are alive. While it would have been easy to set up a scenario in which the brides pursued some course that would revive Yorga, Kelljan—this time, co-writing with Yvonne Wilder, who plays a deaf-mute character in the film—tosses aside continuity in favor of visual intensity.

Neither Donna, Yorga’s old erotic focus, nor any other character from COUNT is referenced here, though actor Roger Perry plays a new character in RETURN. Yorga’s new target is Cynthia (Mariette Hartley), who lives with her family in California and works at a children’s orphanage. Though later in the film we’ll learn that Cynthia is engaged to a young doctor, she seems strangely discontented as she stares fixedly into the sky and listens to the blowing of the notorious “Santa Ana” wind. After she talks a little with the priest who runs the orphanage, the camera cuts to the activities of one of a preteen orphan boy, playing out in the forest. He comes across three graves in the woods. For no obvious reason—though there’s a suggestion that the quixotic wind is exerting some supernatural effect—Yorga and two of his brides claw their way out of the ground. The boy becomes one of Yorga’s non-vampirized pawns, and although he’s not a major character, he’s the last character seen as the film closes:  suggesting the continued existence of evil masquerading as innocence.

Just as the wind seems to revive Yorga, it also seems to bring him tidings of Cynthia’s discontents. Certainly no other explanation is offered as to why, upon reviving, he somehow manages to purchase an estate neighboring the orphanage. In addition, he apparently does a  lot of recruiting, for by the time Cynthia does meet him—he attends a Halloween party at the orphanage—he’s got at least one non-vampire male henchman, whose sole purpose is to serve as “muscle,” and about five more vampire brides in addition to the two that un-buried themselves.

Like most vampiric targets, Cynthia is clearly fascinated with Yorga’s attentions, despite the fact that she’s engaged to a nice but dull modern fellow. The first film failed to speculate about Yorga’s reasons for pursuing Donna, but during the party, the vampire and his erotic prey have a fascinating tete-a-tete that suggests something about their subliminal relationship. Cynthia tells Yorga that she labors at the orphanage because she’s always sought some form of “purity” in life. Yorga, who naturally has no interest in such Christian values, reflects that he prefers “truth” over purity—though without mentioning that his truth is a literal perversion of the Christian ethos. Yet in a strange way Cynthia’s “purity” and Yorga’s “truth” seem to complement one another, though nowhere else in the film does the script wax philosophical in this manner.

The rest of the film from then on is a rousing thriller. Because Cynthia has a family who gives her support, the ruthless Yorga stages a home invasion, sending his harem to attack Cynthia’s house. The brides slay Cynthia’s mother, father, and sister. However, sister Ellen appears later as a vampire. Ellen, while not a major character, may be viewed as the “Lucy” of the story: she is a doublet of Cynthia, right down to having a dull fiancée, and her only major scene after being killed is to approach her fiancée and slay him. Perhaps Ellen is doing to her dull boyfriend what Cynthia might subconsciously like to do to her own.

Once the family is dead, Yorga uses his mental powers to obscure Cynthia's’a memory of the traumatizing event, and uses the family’s absence as an excuse to invite Cynthia to his estate. However, Yorga is anything but subtle, despite a few scenes in which he tries to seduce her through his charm alone. Thus Cynthia soon learns that she’s a prisoner in a mansion full of cackling vampires. The two male fiancées gain the aid of two reluctant cops and investigate the mansion, which leads to multiple blood-lettings. Despite having ample chances to vampirize Cynthia, Yorga does not do so, though he does put her under his mental thrall. At the conclusion, Cynthia rebels against her “demon lover,” after which her fiancée hurls him out the window. But like many early 1970s flicks, the evil of Yorga lives on, and the film ends with Cynthia about to get fanged, mirroring a comparable scene in COUNT.

RETURN is much more satisfying than COUNT. Whereas lead actor Robert Quarry seems somewhat affected in his role in the first film, in the second he epitomizes the courtly European par excellence. A rude woman, mistaking Yorga for a Halloween reveler, asks, “Where are your fangs,” and he responds, “Where are your manners?” In a pleasing scene that verges on burlesque, Yorga is seen at his manse, staring without expression at a Spanish-language broadcast of Hammer Films’ 1970 opus THE VAMPIRE LOVERS. These and similar moments suggest that Kelljan took a “catch as catch can” approach to vampire mythology. On one hand, it’s a given that Yorga cannot withstand the Christian cross, irrespective of whether the wielder believes in the faith or not. Yet, though the vampire brides are unharmed by the cops’ bullets, Yorga himself is wounded by a metal axe in the chest. Still, though Cynthia is a “Mina” who doesn’t have much of a “Lucy,” she does conform to the general pattern of the female who is fascinated with the unknown but fights to the bitter end to avoid being suborned by it. The fact that neither Donna nor Cynthia triumph as Mina does merely suggests that Bob Kelljan was not nearly as devoted to the theme of erotic primacy as was Bram Stoker.