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.


Friday, April 7, 2017

THE LOST CITY (1935)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
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

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (1943)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
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.

APRIL FOOL'S DAY (1986)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

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.