Tuesday, May 23, 2017

SCOOBY DOO / WWE: WRESTLEMANIA MYSTERY



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


This, the twenty-second direct-to-video "Scooby Doo" film, is one of many such films in which the cartoon characters encountered fictionalized versions of real-world celebrities: the next year would also see a crossover with KISS, who in that film may or may not be superheroes.

As is usually the case in such films, one or more of the regular characters are suddenly revealed to be avid fans of the visiting celebrity or celebrities. Unsurprisingly, WRESTLEMANIA posits that Shaggy and Scooby are diehard fans of WWE wrestling, and so are in hog-heaven when events take the Scooby Gang to a major bout in "WWE City." Over a half dozen real-life celebrity wrestlers-- John Cena, Triple H, Kane-- voice the cartoon versions of themselves, as does the WWE's famed emcee/promoter Vince McMahon. The gang's visit to WWE City is very close to being a movie-long commercial for the ostensible virtues of WWE in particular and big-time wrestling in general. Initially only Shaggy and Scooby are devotees, but Daphne is soon converted to wrestling-fandom by John Cena's manly muscles, and even rational Velma gets into the sport. Fred, while diffident about Daphne's affections for Cena, remains a good enough sport to speak no discouraging word.

What saves WRESTLEMANIA from being nothing but an extended ad is the movie's monster, the fearsome Ghost Bear. While no one who's seen a Scooby Doo flick expects anything but the usual hokey resolution, the script and the animation devote some time to building the backstory of the ursine menace. Said backstory even includes ties the Bear in with the luchadore ancestor of a current WWE fighter, Sin Cara, which to my mind was an attempt to tie in modern glamour-wrestling with the thrills and spills of the Mexican wrestlers-- to say nothing of superhero wrestlers like Santo and the Blue Demon. Further, while many Scooby-pics have the juvenile heroes chased around by some counterfeit terror, WRESTLEMANIA has the gang pursued by the Bear into a system of caves under the city, and the flight is actually choreographed with some attention to making it fairly scary.

Like the KISS crossover, this one too ends in the combative mode, as the Ghost Bear is defeated in the ring by several WWE wrestlers. For that matter, in a development similar to one in 2009's SCOOBY DOO AND THE SAMURAI SWORD, the physically incompetent Great Dane gets a sort of power-boost, so that Scooby Doo too is able to take part in the Ghost Bear's defeat. But for the same reasons I discussed in SAMURAI SWORD, I regard Scooby's power-boost as atypical for his normal modus vivendi.

THE FURY (1978)



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


It's by no means axiomatic that movies are always inferior to any prose works on which they're based: indeed, FURY's director Brian dePalma had succeeded in filming Stephen King's CARRIE, producing a definitive movie version of a strong novel. I saw THE FURY many years ago, and once again more recently, and didn't get much out of either viewing.Further, to the outsider's eye it looks like dePalma was trying to duplicate his CARRIE success, right down to adapting a popular horror novel that became a bestseller. There's even roughly two years separating the two film adaptations from the publishing-dates of both source-novels. So, before writing this review, I decided to read John Farris' 1976 source-novel to see if it gave me any insight as to what went wrong.

I briefly discussed the prose FURY in this essay, where I was most concerned not with the quality of the writing but simply with determining which of the book's characters qualified as the protagonists. I enjoyed the book much more than the movie, even though the book possesses a very rambling storyline and a downbeat, unsatisfying ending. The plot deals with how a super-secret government organization, name of MORG, is plotting to kidnap and brainwash psychics to use as weapons for the U.S. In the book, the two teen psychics-- male Robin and female Gillian-- are not initially in the hands of MORG, and Farris devotes considerable time to showing how the two young people live before being plunged into spy-jinks. In addition, Peter Szandza, father of Robin, is out to find his son before MORG does. Peter is unsuccessful, for MORG, led by Peter's old boss Childermass, manages to capture Robin. Childermass keeps Robin confined to an estate that appears to be a school for psychics, but while testing the docile boy the agents are also trying to break down his will with drugs and sexual temptations. Meanwhile Peter makes contact with Gillian and, after many involved plot-lines, the two of them infiltrate the estate. Unfortunately, Robin's development of his great psychic powers has made a monster of him, with the drugs and sex contributing to the "power corrupts" theme, and both Peter and Gillian are imperiled as much by Robin as by the MORG agents.

Though the plot heaps spectacle on spectacle, the book is a good thriller, and Farris shows his greatest strength in devising detailed characterizations for his protagonists and antagonists. However, most of his best character moments take place thanks to the novel's blend of external dialogue and internal reflections. Film, of course, is never at its best in the "internal mode;" the medium can barely emulate what prose can do with characters' thoughts. John Farris, who adapted his own story into the screenplay for the 1978 film, must have realized this, for he elides most of the novel's rambling plot-action, and simplifies the characters in order to make them more broadly appealing for the movies. Indeed, he, like de Palma, may have had the success of CARRIE on his mind, since he throws in a gratuitous "special FX" scene in which Robin kills dozens of people with his psychic power-- a scene which seems to have no real purpose in the story as such. Sadly, while it was inevitable that Farris had to cut a lot of the book's pleasing secondary characters from the screenplay, he also "dumbs down" his principal protagonists, Peter and Gillian, so that they seem to be no more than stock figures.

Most prose works go through a process of simplification in being adapted to film, but the process can be overdone. For the CARRIE screenplay Lawrence D. Cohen left a lot of King's more complex ideas behind, but Cohen retained the essential appeal of the narrative. Similarly, even though there are many differences between Thomas Harris' RED DRAGON and Michael Mann's MANHUNTER, Mann too succeeds in communicating the significance of the film's characters without the benefit of internal thought. Farris' script for THE FURY, however, is simply dull, and dePalma's direction shows none of the natural charms of CARRIE, emerging as just another big Hollywood set-piece.

Ironically, the only part of the novel that is faithfully rendered is its weakest part: that violent but rather pointless ending. Farris' screenplay naturally devotes much less time than the book does to metaphysical justifications for psychic powers, except for a quickie reference to a "bioplasmic universe." Robin and Gillian also have a more involved reincarnation-connection in the book, although I'd admit this could have been tough to put across in this sort of high-octane film. The neutering of the two main characters removes all of their psychological quirks, and leaves us only with Robin, whose mental deterioration is not that memorable in book or movie.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

GUNGA DIN (1939)



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

In the many years I've devoted to this blog, I've touched on a number of religious societies that have been either uncanny (THE SEVENTH VICTIM) or naturalistic (COOL IT BABY), but until now I've yet to deal with one of the more unusual religious movements to receive cinematic treatment: the Indian cult of the Thuggee.

Of course, there haven't been very many films devoted to the subject. In recent years the thoroughly marvelous film INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM is probably best known for its lurid portrait of the cult, who were renowned for killing travelers in the name of the bloody goddess Kali. Before TEMPLE, GUNGA DIN was probably the best known depiction of the exotic society.

Not having seen the film in some time, I wondered if how it sorted out phenomenologically. The majority of the film follows the adventures of three knockabout Brit soldiers in colonial India, played by Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen. There are some intense scenes toward the end-- when Grant's character beholds the cult's guru (Eduardo Cianelli), who exhorts his followers to "kill for the love of killing." Though the scenes depicting the weirdness of the Thuggee cult are brief, their length is less important in the phenomenological sense than how they work within the whole film.

On close consideration, I find that director George Stevens plays down the potential grotesquerie of the cult, emphasizing rather the threat that the cult poses to the generally beneficent rule of the English (though the script happily doesn't run the "Rule Brittania" cliches into the ground). After Grant and his buddies capture the Guru and use him as a shield against his men, it becomes clear that most of the Thuggee threat is sociopolitical. Here's the Guru's denying the superior military (and racial) power of his captors:


You seem to think warfare an English invention. Have you never heard of Chandragupta Maurya? He slaughtered all the armies left in India by Alexander the Great. India was a mighty nation then while Englishmen still dwelt in caves and painted themselves blue.

It wouldn't be hard to imagine an film that placed more emphasis on the weirdness of the society, and thus became "uncanny," but these lines suggest to me that the film-makers were concerned with only the world of naturalistic concerns.

As for the film proper, it's a good lightweight adventure, all about three chums defending one another in the service and managing to impress the titular water-carrier so much that he gives his life for the cause of the English. Even for someone like myself, who gets a little tired of political correctness, it's impossible not to see GUNGA DIN as being, at the very least, a fictional "clash of civilizations" in which it's predetermined that the "dark side" must lose. At the same time, scripters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur probably had some awareness of the real India's struggle to gain independence from Great Britain, and perhaps that's why the Guru, alone among the faceless cultists, projects a solid personality, as well as a fierce dignity despite the ultimate immorality of his position. Conversely, one may get tired of Grant's heroic-yet-comical character "Archie." He's the epitome of the low-income soldier who harbors dreams of stealing some incredible treasure from the Indian people, so that he can go back to England and become high-class. He never exactly renounces the basic immorality of his treasure-hunting, either. At most he becomes chastened by the noble death of Gunga Din, and perhaps becomes a less profit-driven servant of the Crown.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

DORORO (2007)



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


Based on the translations of Osamu Tezuka's DORORO series, this Japanese live-action film is a rare example of the film registering as better than the source-work.

Tezuka's concept for the manga-series is episodic in nature. A ruthless feudal lord named Daigo chooses to sacrifice his infant son to multiple demons, so that he Daigo can gain temporal power. The demons then harvest nearly every functional part of the baby's body-- for what reason, I never quite understood-- so that the child is no more than a dying lump of flesh. However, a brilliant medical man finds the lump before it expires. The doctor builds artificial limbs and other organs for the child, allowing him the chance to grow to maturity. When the child, dubbed "Hyakkimaru," grows to manhood (played by Satoshi Tsumabuki), he's informed that he can reclaim the body-parts stolen from him by slaying the demons who harvested them. The following episodes in Hyakkimaru's career deal with him wandering from Japanese town to town, killing demons and reclaiming his lost parts. If he kills a demon that stole one of his eyes, a magical transference returns his original eye to him, squeezing one of the swordsman's artificial eyes out of his skull. However, after Tezuka ran through assorted episodes-- adding comic relief in the form of a thief named Dororo-- the manga-artist seemed to lose interest in the story, giving the narrative a "hurry-up-and-finish" conclusion. Allegedly a 1969 anime adaptation provided a more satisfying ending.

The live-action film, not being episodic at all, manages to focus more upon the relaitonship between Dororo and Hyakkimaru, often treating the encounters with various demons more like lively music videos than like organic parts of the story. In the original tale, Dororo is an urchin bent on stealing Hyakkimaru's sword, but the two of them bond through shared danger-- and to some extent, because Dororo, who dresses as a boy, is actually a young girl, who forms a quasi-romantic attachment to the older swordsman. Not surprisingly, the makers of the 2007 film didn't go there, for this time Dororo is portrayed by a grown woman (Ko Shibasaki)-- and while she gives a fine performance, she isn't for a moment believable as a boy.

The best aspects of Tezuka's story are preserved in the film. Feudal Japan is no picnic for the poor, particularly when power-hungry rulers go to war, and Dororo and Hyakkimaru, who have themselves suffered from such power-grabs, constantly encounter evidence that humans are even worse than demons in this respect. In fact, Dororo has sworn vengeance against the family of Daigo, and is less than pleased to learn of Hyakkimaru's heritage. The ending places a strong emphasis on Hyakkimaru's psychological need to vanquish his father, which conflicts with Japan's cultural insistence than the father is sacrosanct.

There are some clever uses of both "suit-mation," limited CGI, and "wire-fu" in DORORO, which I liked a good deal more than a lot of modern, over-produced CGI effects. But the two primary actors provided the film's best asset, the unambiguous girlhood of Dororo notwithstanding.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

WOLVESBAYNE (2009)



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


I've often assigned the mythos of "drama" to stories that involve vampires or werewolves, following the myth-critical notion that such monsters have a dominantly *purgative* character. However, WOLVESBAYNE-- a six-years-late knockoff of the UNDERWORLD series-- pits one werewolf, a bunch of good vampires and some vampire-hunters against some really evil vampires. Like UNDERWORLD, WOLVESBAYNE's focus is so much on theoretically invigorating fight-scenes and saving the world from doom, and so despite the horror-elements, this one falls within the mythos of adventure.

This telefilm was almost certainly someone's idea for a horror-themed TV series, for it ends with the two principals, experienced vampire Alex Layton and newbie werewolf Russell Bayne (as in "wolfsbane," get it?) planning to sally forth against evil once more, even though they've just defeated a Big Bad capable of establishing a vampire dominion of the world. Alex and Russell originally have a "meet awkward" moment in which they don't really get along, but Alex senses that Russell's in for trouble. Sure enough, he gets bitten by a werewolf, so that he's informally initiated into the "monster club"-- although no other werewolves appear, and most of the conflict is just half-decent vampires vs. really bad vampires. Possibly the script meant to suggest some common origin for this world/s vamps and wolf-people, since there's a tossed-off mention of a "retrovirus." Once Russell has become a wolf-guy, Alex accepts her duty to train him in the fine points of monster-existence, like tapping into your super-powers without changing form. This comes in handy, because at the same time there's a cult of power-hungry vamps who want to resuscitate an ancient vamp queen, Lilith, so that she can help them conquer the world.

The action and makeup FX are standard, but I might have found this road-company horror-opus entertaining if the two leads had been decently conceived. Alex, however, oscillates inconsistently between being a strict taskmaster and a kind Samaritan. Russell might have been interesting had he remained a self-absorbed type from start to finish, but he "gets religion" far too easily, and on top of that, the script reveals that his great-grandfather was some sort of vampire hunter who had ties to the venerable Van Helsing himself-- who ALSO has a modern-day descendant heading up the modern vamp-hunters.

A good summary statement for this one:

"Too many tropes spoil the script."



Thursday, May 11, 2017

THE TIGER WOMAN (1944)



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

The major "serial queen" films of the silent era came into their own in 1914, roughly two years after the debut of Tarzan in ALL-STORY MAGAZINE. Serial queens were enormously popular for about four or five years, but as it happens, the serial queens started to fade right about the time when Tarzan made his movie debut in 1918. He would go on to star in both features and serials throughout the silent years, while heroines seemed to fade from prominence in the 1920s and the early sound era.

JUNGLE GIRL in 1941 seems to be the first concerted attempt by a major studio-- in this case, Republic Pictures-- to create a heroine who could to some extent fight like a male hero. I can't resist the speculation that Hollywood was at least dimly aware of the market success of the comic-book character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, who debuted in America shortly after the bombshell success of Superman in 1938. There had been other jungle girls in 1930s cinema, and even in serials like 1935's QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE, but for the most part the ladies were not fighters. Did some studio pitchman decide to cook up a counterfeit Sheena, pretending to base the character on a completely dissimilar figure from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel? The answer will never be known, but Nyoka of JUNGLE GIRL was popular enough that Republic put out a quasi-sequel the next year: PERILS OF NYOKA, in which the central heroine was even more dynamic than the one from JUNGLE GIRL.

Two years later, Republic dug for jungle-girl gold with THE TIGER WOMAN, which was also the debut for one of the most celebrated serial actresses, Linda Stirling. Whereas both versions of Nyoka were white women raised by white parents, the Tiger Woman was more in the Sheena mold, a "white goddess" who had been raised in a jungle by a savage tribe (albeit one in South America rather than Africa). In addition, the Tiger Woman-- who is never given any other "native" name-- is clearly meant to be just as assertive as the 1942 Nyoka. On occasion she gets knocked out like any other serial heroine, in order to put her in some sort of cliffhanger peril, but unlike other heroines she's seen punching, wrestling, using judo-holds, riding horses and shooting pistols. Further, Linda Stirling has a physical glamour not often seen in the serial queens of the sound era, so that she combined stunning looks with indisputable toughness. It helped that many of Stirling's stunts are performed by a stuntwoman rather than by a man in female costume.

The plot of TIGER WOMAN, though, is not nearly as intricate as PERILS OF NYOKA. As in many jungle-adventure films, a native tribe is the "bone" over which two sets of opponents fight: a group of well-meaning white people and a gang of exploitative whites. In addition, not only is Tiger Woman the high priestess of a tribe whose resources are coveted by the two groups, she's also an heiress. Thus the villainous group is not only interested in making a land-grab from the indigenous tribe, they also want to kill Tiger Woman and substitute an impostor who can claim the inheritance. Both of these villain-plots date back to the silent serials but the overall story doesn't gain anything from blending them.

The villains themselves are also no equal for the two previous Republic heroine-serials, though this time the male lead is strong enough to balance the persona of the jungle-queen. As essayed by cowboy-actor Allan Lane, oil-company troubleshooter Allen Saunders makes a decent embodiment of the "square citizen" who wouldn't dream of doing anything against the interests of the native people. That said, there are times that the cowboy ethos intrudes too much on the jungle-scenario, and there are far too many scenes of good guys simply shooting it out with bad guys. Tiger Woman is indubitably the most visually interesting character, but compared to Nyoka her character is rather underdeveloped, even for an action-oriented serial.




Monday, May 8, 2017

DEMONIC TOYS (1992), DEMONIC TOYS 2 (2010)



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

I probably wouldn't have bothered to re-screen the original DEMONIC TOYS if I hadn't become interested in how the franchise had crossed over into the terrains of two more interesting properties: PUPPET MASTER for one, and DOLLMAN for two.

Unsurprisingly, while I did get a little more bang for my buck in re-screening the DOLLMAN crossover, the original TOYS is pretty bang-less. In my moderate praise for the crossover, I noted that Tracy Scoggins gave the best performance as a lady cop. Scoggins gets the best scenes in the original film as well, partly because the toys, in contrast to the manikins from the PUPPET MASTER series, are all very one-note, and they share the same purpose. They've been animated by a demon whose sole purpose is to conduct a sexual ritual with a pregnant woman-- which Scoggins' character happens to be-- and to insert his spirit into a mortal vessel.

The demon's motives aren't convincing, and, aside from the emotional turmoil of Scoggins' character, the toys' other targets-- a young guy who delivers chicken, a female runaway-- are largely dull. The film depends almost entirely upon keeping its victims stuck in a warehouse so that the toys can continually attack them, and the attacks are as unimaginative as the toys themselves.



Almost twenty years later, the TOYS franchise gets a second stand-alone outing, one that, in theory, takes place immediately after the first story, ignoring the two crossover tales.

TOYS 2, written and directed by William Butler, doesn't score any major triumphs. However, Butler's direction is more fluid and well composed than most Charles Band-produced films. This time a toy collector with the predictably villainous name "Doctor Lorca" brings the toys to an Italian castle. A young realtor, name of Caitlin, has brought to Lorca's attention the fact that there's a special "moving toy" within the uninhabited castle. As a setup for putting a bunch of potential victims within a restrictive locale, this is no better than fair, but it's certainly a little more fun to see said victims running around a castle rather than a dull warehouse. The potential victims are also at least a little more interesting: cheating wife, weirdo psychic, and so on, and this time the Toys use a lot more CGI to give the illusion of life. But given the limitations of the demon-possessed toy concept, I certainly hope that this is the last trip to the toy box.


Friday, May 5, 2017

DOLLMAN VS. THE DEMONIC TOYS (1993)




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


I confess one of my main reasons for seeing DOLLMAN VS. THE DEMONIC TOYS-- the last cinematic version of the Dollman character, following the 1991 origin-story-- was to see whether the two "focal presences" featured in the title were equally central to the story. I've often encountered combinations in which two monsters share the spotlight, as with 2004's PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS, or two heroes, as with BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN. But in none of the films I've reviewed thus far have I found a situation where a hero and a monster (or in this case, a group of monsters with a common origin) were equally important to the story-line.

I had seen DVTDT before, but didn't remember much about it, except that most of the story takes place indoors, principally within a big warehouse which serves as the HQ of the evil Demonic Toys. I had also seen the 1992 DEMONIC TOYS, and they struck me as a poor variation on the earlier PUPPET MASTER franchise. 

However, having re-screened DVTDT, I find that even though the film wears its low production values on its sleeve, the script-- totally by Charles Band this time, who also directed-- is better than that of DOLLMAN, and may well exceed the original DEMONIC TOYS as well. 
Band's script wisely dumps Brick Bardo's relationship between Brick Bardo-- an alien cop who's only about six inches tall on Earth-- and a "giant" Earth-female named Debi. Instead, as DVTDT opens, Bardo-- who rather unashamedly introduces himself as "Dollman"-- goes looking for a woman who won't make him feel inadequate. This happens to be a character loosely recycled from another 1992 Band production, BAD CHANNELS, which I found unmemorable. The plot of that film dealt with aliens who were shrinking Earth-people for some reason, but by the end of that film, one Earth-woman-- redubbed "Nurse Ginger" for DVTDT-- remained small. The newspapers have publicized Ginger's plight, and so Bardo goes to the small town of Pahoota to make a possible booty-call. The two of them "meet cute"-- or as cute as things get when the guy has to blast a huge spider off of the girl-- and then they relate their respective origins to one another. It's to Band's credit that the recycled footage from DOLLMAN and BAD CHANNELS respectively doesn't slow the film down appreciably.

Meanwhile, a cop named Judith Grey-- played by Tracy Scoggins, giving the most appealing performance in the film-- alienates her superiors by insisting that the Demonic Toys-- with whom she battled in the 1992 flick-- are still around, planning to sacrifice some innocent virgin for their unholy rites. Unfortunately, Judith can't prove that the Toys ever existed-- which makes it surprising that she's not confined to an asylum somewhere. The Toys are actually dormant until a homeless man enters the warehouse, managing to cut himself in the process-- and his fallen blood revives the demon-possessed toys. For some reason the grizzly-bear toy-- who does re-appear in the PUPPET MASTER crossover of 2004-- is absent, and in his place is a slightly more interesting "GI Joe" clone named "Zombietroid." Somehow Judith gets wind of Dollman and enlists his help against the Toys. In contrast to the original DOLLMAN, this time Brick Bardo has to engage with opponents his own size, and he has a couple of good battles with Zombietroid and the evilly laughing jack-in-the-box Jack Attack. To add insult to injury, the Toys' repulsive leader, Baby Oopsy Daisy, decides to use Bardo's new girlfriend Ginger in a ritual of sexual penetration. 

As cheesy as it all is, there are some cute lines, as when Oopsy Daisy, who looks like a demented infant, informs that he wants Ginger to wear a "baby-doll nightie," and there are a few clever uses of the giant-sized surroundings. DOLLMAN VS. THE DEMONIC TOYS is no neglected classic, but it may be a rare case in which two weak concepts worked better with one another than either one did on its own.

DOLLMAN (1991)



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

Given that Charles Band has become famous for producing scads of "morbid manikin" films, starting with 1989's PUPPET MASTER, I would have thought he would've done he'd done a lot more of them before he decided to try his luck with a small-size superhero. Now that I've checked the list of Full Moon productions, DOLLMAN is really the second manikin out of the gate, and only later was followed by DEMONIC TOYS, BLOOD DOLLS and all the rest.

The script, co-written by Band and directed by Albert Pyun, is a pretty straightforward "fish out of water" effort. On his home planet of Arturos, Brick Bardo is a hard-nosed cop who gets on the wrong side of his superiors, a la Dirty Harry (actor Tim Thomerson channels an unadulterated Eastwood). He also incurs the wrath of a crimelord named Sprug, who's been reduced to nothing but a talking head. Sprug sets his mob to kill the tough cop, but Bardo outshoots them with his blaster, and then boards a spacecraft to chase Sprug down. However, both of them pass through a dimensional gateway, and end up on Earth, where they are doll-sized.

Specifically, they end up in the South Bronx, which location provides the film's only sociological myth. A Hispanic lady named Debi (Kamala Lopez) is rescued by Bardo from some drug-dealers, and thus Bardo-- nicknamed "Dollman" much against his wishes-- incurs the wrath of ganglord Braxton Red (Jackie Earle Haley). Sprug briefly allies himself to Braxton, but nothing much comes of this, since Braxton kills the miniature crimelord early on. Debi takes Bardo into her home, introducing the miniature alien to her precocious little son. Given the disparity in size between Bardo and Debi, there are the inevitable sex jokes about things like "does size matter." Yet there's an interesting contrast between the uncompromising "crime is just plain evil" persona of Dollman versus the more reality-based concerns of Debi, given some impressive speeches talking about the hopelessness of life in the poverty-stricken South Bronx. But the script isn't able to do anything with the contrast: the poverty of the Bronx is merely a means of setting up Bardo's battles with the despicable gangster element.

This Dollman differs from most of the "mighty mite" superheroes of comic books-- including a "Doll Man" introduced by Quality Comics in 1940-- in that he doesn't fight with his fists but with a blaster capable of blowing its targets to pieces, even the giant-sized ones. It doesn't make for a lot of variety in the culminating fight-scene, since Dollman's human opponents aren't usually able to draw a bead on the minute crime-fighter. Still, there's a reasonable amount of havoc at the climax, and that's enough to make DOLLMAN adequate entertainment.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (1995)



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


It remains one of the great mysteries of cinema, that Mel Brooks, working on a script co-written by Gene Wilder, could produce a horror-spoof as good as 1974's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and yet be utterly unable to come up to that level of humor in all subsequent films. It's especially galling to see him fail so badly with DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT, since LOVING generally follows the template of the 1931 DRACULA much as YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN emulated SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Possibly not even a good script could overcome the problematic casting of Leslie Nielsen as the vampire lord. I have a mild liking for some of Nielsen's goofball post-AIRPLANE flicks, including bush-league efforts like SPY HARD. But Nielsen's ceaseless mugging seems like a tacit admission that he had no idea how to play Dracula, except as another Frank Drebbin type.

Brooks shares screenplay credit with Rudy deLuca and Steve Haberman, who had previously authored the Italian comedy SCREW LOOSE, for which film Brooks provided only acting services. For what it's worth, LOVING is better than SCREW LOOSE, but only for a sprinkling of grins amid a trash-heap of groans. The three writers reproduce many of the major plotlines of the 1931 film, although they add tropes taken from other vampire films: Nielsen-Drac wears a wig derived from BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, and in the early scenes Renfield encounters two buxom vampire-brides who look like they came from Hammer Central Casting. (Neither of these were funny, however.)

Renfield, as played by Peter MacNicol, is one of the few joys of LOVING, for MacNichol furiously channels the portrait by Dwight Frye while adding his own manic comic touches. The best scene in the film shows the way the film might have gone: Renfield is trying to prove his sanity to Doctor Seward (Harvey Korman) in order to be released from Seward's sanitarium. Unfortunately, they're on a patio, and there are a lot of juicy bugs around...

One odd change in the original template is that this time out, vampire-victims Lucy and Mina (who becomes Seward's daughter in the 1931 film) are not simply friends. Instead, Lucy is Seward's ward-- a change that seems to have happened for no reason except to make it simpler to have her cared for at Seward's sanitarium. Later, when Lucy comes back from the dead, she attempts to poach on the territory of "functional sister" Mina by seducing her fiancee Harker. This might have been an interesting twist if anything had come from it, but the idea is just tossed out there. It also doesn't help that except for MacNicol, everyone else-- Korman, Steven Weber (Harker), and Brooks (Van Helsing)-- give nothing more than journeyman performances.

The conclusion of the film is a little more lively than that of the 1931 film. However, the vampire hunters are all bumblers, so there's no combative mode here.

SUPER SEVEN CALLING CAIRO (1965), THE SPY WHO LOVED FLOWERS (1966)



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


Here we have two Italian-made Eurospy films, both directed by Umberto Lenzi of "Cannibal Ferox" fame, and both starring American actor Roger Browne as an American spy working for the British as he runs around the exotic locations of Rome, Egypt, etc. His code name is "Superseven" (one guess where Lenzi got that name), but he's usually addressed as "Martin Stevens," which may well be the dullest name ever bestowed upon a superspy. Browne does his best to give Stevens a modicum of Bondian cool, but he's less than riveting in the action-sequences and seduction-scenes. Rosalba Neri, a familiar face from various horror-films, spices up the scenery a bit as the secret agent runs around looking for a "new radioactive material" being smuggled by the Other Side.

As always my main interest in these ephemeral flicks lies in seeing the various ways the writers delve into the phenomena of the uncanny and the marvelous. Certainly the McGuffin in this case is neither. The material involved is somehow radioactive but harmless to the touch, but no one does anything with it, or even explains what it can be used for, so even though it's a "new" element, it sounds like nothing but a plain old isotope, and thus falls within the naturalistic domain. Two uncanny gimmicks do appear. one being a "pen-gun" that Stevens wields a couple of times. Another unexplained gizmo appears about midway through the film. When Stevens is lured to the hideout of the villains, he flees into a cellar, and one bad guy throws a switch. The light inside the cellar turns crimson, and Stevens crumbles into unconsciousness as he sees the nasty spies come in, looking like they've turned into photographic negatives. Later Stevens, recovering after escaping from a torture-session, says something about one of the spies being an electronics expert, which is all the "explanation" one gets for the weird light-show. Still, the general sense of the scene implies that the light-show is low-tech, making it closer to the uncanny than the marvelous.




The second and last Superseven film is not really much better, but it has a slightly lighter tone. Stevens tells a shop-girl that he's a superspy named James Bond, knowing that he won't believe her.. and he's saddled with Genevieve, a female agent who seems less than competent, much like Matt Helm in THE WRECKING CREW.  This time Superseven is given a less than heroic mission: to go forth and assassinate three people who know too much about a super-scientific McGuffin. However, perhaps to keep Steven sympathetic, this plotline is dropped in favor of his chasing around after a villain code-named "the Great Dragon." (Flowers are involved in the spies' recognition of one another, thus explaining the title, but I forget the details.) Sadly, the guy who turns out to be the Dragon is pretty colorless. On the up side, one of the Dragon's agents is a Chinese woman named Mei Lang, who shows much more character than anyone else in the film. (She's played by French-born Japanese actress Yoko Tani). Mei Lang has not just one but two catfights with Genevieve, but while they aren't great fights by any stretch, they are a little unusual in that both spies make generous use of karate chops rather than slaps or punches.

The sci-fi weapon that the two sides are fighting over is never seen in action, but one of Stevens' superiors helpfully explains that the gizmo is capable of short-circuiting the power in a whole city, and that one recent blackout was the result of the gizmo getting a field-test. Even though we don't see the weapon, everyone seems to believe it really exists, so I suppose I must rule that its presence makes the film marvelous in phenomenality. If it weren't for the blackout dingus, though, FLOWERS is disappointingly bereft of spy-gadgets.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

SPECIAL MISSION LADY CHAPLIN (1966)



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


SPECIAL MISSION LADY CHAPLIN is the third and last Eurospy film concerning the adventures of American spy Dick Malloy (Ken Clark). I haven't seen the others, but this is a colorful and action-packed example of same. In addition to swiping the plot for 1965's THUNDERBALL, the film also exploits its Bondian connections by pitting Malloy against the titular lady assassin, played by Daniela Bianchi of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE fame.

Chaplin, in fact, gets a lot more memorable scenes than Malloy. Aside from his romantic interminglings with Chaplin and other Euro-beauties, most of the time the hero is just running around busting his knuckles on bald henchmen. Chaplin dresses as a nun and machine-guns some fake monks, masquerades as an old wheelchair-bound lady and shoots a victim with guns hidden in the chair-arms, karate-chops one guy and catfights with another gorgeous babe (albeit very briefly). She eventually joins Malloy in opposing the mastermind who's stolen a brace of atomic missiles, but she doesn't get much leeway from Malloy despite this.

Unlike a lot of Eurospy films, this one is quite liberal with its uncanny gadgets: aside from those mentioned, there's also a car whose cab fills with knockout gas and another gas-dispenser in cigarette form.

REIGN OF FIRE (2002), FIREBALL (2009)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: (1) *sociological,* (2) *cosmological*

The appearance of the word "fire" isn't the only reason I paired these unrelated films. I've also done so to spotlight my own preference for a well-done if formulaic film over one that doesn't know how to handle its own ambitions.

REIGN OF FIRE was a box-office failure in its day, and though it's fairly watchable, I can see why it didn't move audiences, despite the star talents of Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey. REIGN is another addition to the populous genre of the post-apocalyptic film. However, much of the charm of that genre lies in its abilities to (1) eradicate everything viewers may dislike about their real-life histories, and (2) erect some marvelous landscape or phenomenon to take its place. Whether it's the endless driving-spaces of MAD MAX or the grotty perils of zombie hordes, the new world has to be interesting in some way.

The film starts by showing one of the film's heroes, Quinn, as a British child who witnesses the recrudescence of a race of fire-breathing dragons in the early 21th century. The dragons, who have been sleeping beneath the earth since prehistoric times, immediately start burning everything in sight, for they feed only by devouring the ashes of what they burn. In the space of less than thirty years, the human race is nearly eliminated, both by the dragons' attacks and by futile counter-attacks by the world's military.  Only isolated tribes of humans have survived, and one such tribe, led by a grown-up Quinn (Christian Bale) resides in a castle in Northumberland. Unfortunately, the dragons frequently attack the tribe's crops, so that the humans are in more danger of starvation than direct attack.

A detachment of American soldiers-- or rather, ex-soldiers, given the annihilation of most governments in the world-- shows up on the doorstep of Quinn's tribe. The hardnosed Van Zan (McConaughey), leader of the detachment, informs the Britons that he and his men (and one female soldier) have figured out the way to hunt and kill dragons. Further, after the soldiers demonstrate their prowess with one such conquest, they want Quinn's help in locating and killing the only male dragon in the flock, so that the creatures will die out and give humanity another chance. The hub of the conflict is that Quinn must overcome his conservative instinct to protect his tribe, and join Van Zan's group in order to save humanity.

The dragons, while their FX are well realized, are conceived as no more than a biological infestation. One can't expect them to have any of the symbolic heft of the dragons of myth and legend-- and yet the script doesn't show any interest in their biology beyond describing their weaknesses. They aren't especially believable in terms of biological patterns, either: they're supposed to have fallen into their deep sleep because they destroyed the dinosaurs with their flames, and so cut off their own food-source. That's a pretty dumb sort of predator that does that!

The primary interest in REIGN is sociological. In general terms the story pits the proactive Van Zan against the merely reactive Quinn, and though Van Zan is right in his quest, Quinn is the one who survives to deal the final blow. Since the viewers don't see the rest of the world destroyed, the focus on the devastation in England may have been patterned after the London Blitz of World War II-- not least because it's American troops who come to the rescue. However, this re-playing of 20th-century history isn't enough to make REIGN's world interesting.



FIREBALL doesn't have much money or much ambition, but it does much better on its limited terms. It seems to have premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel, which is usually the haven of tedious monster-flicks with desultory action and cheap CGI. FIREBALL doesn't have any more money than the other flicks, but the action is nicely staged and the two leads, Lexa Doig and Ian Somerhalder, display a good chemistry as they work to take down the "fireball monster."

Said monster is an out-of-control former linebacker, Tyler Draven (Aleks Paunovic). After unleashing his bad temper on several innocents, Draven is jailed. Part of his bad behavior may be attributable to his having witnessed his mother's death at the hands of his father, but a more influential culprit may be the special steroids he's been taking. A fire breaks out at Draven's place of incarceration, killing everyone except Draven. Later he regenerates from his burns, and develops the ability to channel balls of pure flame from within himself, and hurl them at targets just like the comic-book Human Torch.

The best thing about FIREBALL is that the script buttresses its premise with loads of well-researched tech-talk about the genesis of "pyrophoric" (learned a new word!) phenomena, all supplied by sexy fire inspector Williams (Doig). She and FBI agent Somerhalder are nowhere near in Draven's league, so this does not register as a combative film-- but they do a very good job of outmaneuvering the pyrotic psychotic. The psychological angles of Draven's temper-tantrums aren't any more interesting than Williams's "daughter-who-wants-to-be-like-Daddy" routine, but the action is well mounted and the dialogue is generally pretty sharp.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

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



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
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*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1, 3) *drama,* (2) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

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

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987)



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

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

NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR (1969), ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO (1961)


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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

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

PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS (2004)



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


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

THE KILLING JOKE (2016)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

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*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
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.