Friday, August 25, 2017

DOCTOR JEKYLL AND THE WOLFMAN (1971)



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


The sixth film in the "Waldermar Daninsky" series proves to be one of the most listless.

Like most of the other films, JEKYLL starts from square one. Englishwoman Justine and her rich husband travel to Central Europe to visit his parents' graves. However, car thieves attack the couple and kill Justine's husband. They are only prevented by the intrusion of a local nobleman, Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy), who beats up the bandits and kills one of them, He then takes Justine back to his castle, where he lives alone with his mother. For reasons undisclosed, Waldemar is cursed to change into a werewolf, which has caused the local village to regard the castle's inhabitants with dread, and to believe (falsely) that Waldemar's mother is a witch. However, one of the thieves resents the killing of his accomplice (and brother), so he rouses the locals against the castle. The bandit even kills Waldemar's innocent mother, but though Waldemar manages to kill him in return, he realizes that he must flee the country, and so he and Justine depart for England.

I've dwelled on this amount of detail about the film's first third for one purpose: to show how much time the script wastes on things that the audience doesn't really care about. Naschy, who scripted a lot of his own "Hombre Lobo" films, may have thought that he needed a de rigeur "old castle" scene, and that this could be used as an excuse to propel Justine into the wolfman's world. Still, even knowing that the innocent young thing is destined to fall hard for hairy-chested Waldemar, as they usually do in Naschy's wolf-films, the script really doesn't portray any romantic tension between Justine and Waldemar. Of course, during her initial stay in the castle, Justine is mourning her murdered husband, but even these scenes are handled in dismissive fashion.

Therefore Justine and Waldemar aren't lovers when they reach England, though she's decided to do everything she can to help him conquer his lupine curse. She just happens to know Henry Jekyll, grandson of the famous scientist of Victorian times, and she appeals to Jekyll for help. Conveniently, Jekyll decides that he may be able to destroy the curse by injecting Waldemar with both the original "Mister Hyde" serum and its antidote. I guess the two serums are supposed to act like a vaccine, driving out one evil with another, though the explanation leaves something to be desired.

The only good thing to come out of this melange is that when Naschy responds to the serum and takes on a "Mister Hyde" persona, he really looks pretty good in the role. He hardly has any time to do anything nefarious, though, because Jekyll's trying to get him ready for the next step in the experiment. Unfortunately, Jekyll nurses an unrequited love for Justine, and his lab assistant Sandra carries her own torch for the doctor, while being insanely jealous of Justine. She kills Jekyll and sabotages the experiment, and probably anyone who's seen even two of Naschy's wolf-films knows that things can only end with the old "silver bullet to end his suffering" routine. JEKYLL may not be the worst Naschy film, or even his worst wolf-film, but it doesn't have much to make one want to watch it again. Even the lead female, who's usually played by some gorgeous model-type, is essayed by a singularly underwhelming actress, one Shirley Corrigan.



Thursday, August 24, 2017

ENTER THE DEVIL (1974), STIGMATA (1999)



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


The shadow of THE EXORCIST looms large over both of these otherwise unrelated "possession" flicks.

The 1974 film used many names, ranging from the sleazy (THE SEXORCIST) to the derivative (THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW), but ENTER THE DEVIL is probably the most accurate, since, like the earlier film, it's all about what happens when the Devil is allowed to enter into one's life-- not to mention one's body.

The first half of ENTER is fairly intriguing. Young art-student Danila observes the restoration of an ancient wooden statue, carved with incredible fidelity to look like Christ in torment. The status fascinates her, in contradistinction to her depressing home-life. Her upper-class parents Mario and Luisa give a lot of loud parties, and Luisa has a young lover, of which Mario is blandly aware. Danila even looks in on one of her mother's trysts, wherein she satisfies masochistic tendencies by letting her male lover whip her with a bouquet of thorn-bearing roses.

Though Danila doesn't do anything wrong, the sins of her parents apparently opens her up to corruption. Later she visits the place where the wooden statue is kept, and, to her dismay, the statue comes to life and rapes her. It then disappears, with the general implication that it was either Satan or some lesser demon, though there's no attempt to explain why this devil chose to assume the form of a statue. Since the experts assert that the statue was carved whole from an olive tree, a pagan explanation, like the statue being inhabited by a lascivious wood-sprite, would make a lot more sense than any Judeo-Christian scenario.

Whatever the statue's provenance, it passes on its demonic nature to Danila, who starts becoming erratic and seductive. Given that one of her attempted conquests is her own father Mario-- who refuses her advances-- it's not hard to see the Freudian "rescue fantasy," in which a daughter seeks to "save" her father from the influence of a corrupt mother. However, the film quickly drops any potential mother-animus, for Luisa responds to her daughter's travails by dumping her lover. He gives her some static and promptly disappears from the story. The loose implication is that the marriage of Marco and Luisa has been "saved" once they bond over their daughter's situation, which I guess would go toward inverting the movie's suggestion of an Electra complex.

In contrast to THE EXORCIST, ENTER has a fair first act while the second and third go down the tubes. Danila runs around, spitting green goo and attacking her exorcist with a chain. Aside from the actress's nudity, the exorcism itself is a bore, and it seems likely that the creators were just phoning things in at this point. ENTER does exemplify the Italian culture's fascination with the disruptive potential of sex, but that's about all it has to offer.




STIGMATA was filmed long after the EXORCIST craze, and it's more ambivalent about what power causes a young American woman, Frankie (Patricia Arquette) to manifest the stigmata phenomenon, in which the victim bleeds from the same parts of the body where Christ was wounded.

Long before encountering Frankie, Father Andrew Kiernan is working for the Catholic Church, seeking to use both tools of science and religion to examine purported miracles. His latest case takes place in Brazil, where, following the death of a beloved priest who experienced the stigmata, a votive statue of the Virgin Mary weeps blood-tears at the priest's funeral. Unbeknownst to Kiernan, a rosary possessed by the dead priest is sold to an American tourist in Brazil, who sends it to Frankie in America. Kiernan is also sent to America to investigate Frankie's stigmata, and makes the connection: that the rosary has somehow "passed on" the priest's nature to the American woman, who is, incidentally, an atheist.

Though Kiernan's superiors strongly suggest that his real job is only to deny, never to confirm, the existence of non-canonical miracles, the priest soon learns that the dead priest had access to a new Christian gospel, roughly cognate with the Gospel of Thomas. Though Frankie does a lot of EXORCIST-like things, such as speaking in a male voice and tossing Kiernan around, the film seems to imply that the unwanted influence is more akin to a ghost than to a demon, though the script never quite states this outright. Indeed, Frankie's experience-- as seen in the screencap above-- puts her through the ordeal of an "imitatio Christi," as when she's seen "crucified" inside a subway-car.
However, the script, taken from an original story by Tom Ramage, doesn't seem to know how to make its ideas cohere, least of all what the viewer is supposed to feel toward the Catholic Church. Are they sentinels who stand against the horrors of possession, or just a bunch of guys trying to protect their own interests? Further, though there's some suggestion of an attraction between the male and female lead, the script also doesn't allow this potential to develop in any interesting directions.

STIGMATA is a well-mounted spectacle in the subgenre of "religious horror," but it doesn't know how to deliver a pay-off on the very issues it raises. The contrast of the two movies makes me wonder: what's worse, to make intellectual pretensions and fail to justify them, or to go "down and dirty" and mess up what ought to be fairly simple?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT (1989)



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

In my review of THOSE DEAR DEPARTED I mentioned that the film had probably semi-swiped the title of this Bo Derek film. This was sort of like stealing pennies from a blind man. for John Derek's last film with his then-wife Bo, who continued with his surname after Derek's death in 1998, was ineluctably his worst, and possibly among the worst films of all time.

The film introduced the viewer to the May-December couple of Kate (Bo) and Scott (Anthony Quinn). Scott fears an imminent death by heart attack, and so decides to take his own life because he can no longer make love to his beauteous, younger-by-forty-years wife. To his surprise, after having put his widow through all of this heartache, he learns that he can manifest as a ghost and that only Kate can see him. After a little dialogue with a quirky angel (Julie Newmar), Scott gets the idea that he might still enjoy connubial bliss with Kate. All Scott and Kate need to do-- since Scott can't affect anything in the real world-- is to have Kate kill some young stud, so that Scott's spirit can enter his dead body.

Usually, when professional filmmakers start out with an obnoxious premise, such as the main characters committing murder for their own benefit, the comedy proceeds out of having everything go wrong for the characters. Not in GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT, though. Even though Scott is usually presented as an arrogant, rather sexist SOB, Kate is tempted to do his bidding and kill some young dude so that she can be reunited with her beloved. Her temptation increases when she meets a twenty-something guy who relentlessly pursues her. His name is Fausto, and in most productions, I'd assume that the scripter (Derek again) was referencing the idea of a "Faustian bargain." But I doubt that's the case with GHOSTS, because the whole idea of such a bargain is that-- once again-- it has to go wrong somehow. And Derek, for whatever reason, doesn't want more than extremely minor impediments to Scott's reincarnation.

Derek's sole purpose seems to be just to find borderline sleazy ways to put Bo on display, usually with no more sense of tension than one would get from a video-montage. Even when Kate is threatened by a gunman while she's swimming naked in a pool, there's no sense that this might impede Kate's plans. She dithers a little about the morality of killing a man, and she gets a little absolution from the script in that when Fausto's life is placed in peril, she makes a belated attempt to save him. I've more or less given away the film's conclusion, but I can't really picture anyone caring.

The nicest thing I can say about the film is that Bo tries to put a lot of passion into her stupid dialogue, which is more than one gets from Anthony Quinn or from the cameo of our current President. She does get naked a little, but anyone who tries to watch for those scenes is likely to sleep through them.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES... (1964)



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

I've often had the experience of re-viewing some film I hated in youth and finding in it some motif that I found interesting, even my general sense of the movie's merit was no greater. However, when I was young I despised Ray Dennis Steckler's INCREDIBLY LONG TITLE THAT I'M NOT GOING TO TYPE, and a recent re-viewing did nothing to change that opinion.

I tend to sympathize with the efforts of low-budget filmmakers, who don't have the luxury of expensive sets and must often resort to shooting "on location" in situations that aren't very enviable. But I think I could forgive Steckler's charmless scenes of carnival rides or vaulting buildings-- lots of tedious zoom shots by cinematographer Joseph Mascelli--  if Steckler had possessed any semblance of a story to tell. But INCREDIBLY doesn't even have the virtue of being good low-budget sleaze, like Michael Findlay's FLESH trilogy.

In essence, Steckler's story is a lot like Universal's 1943 MAD GHOUL, in which a mad scientist takes control of an innocent pawn and sends him out to commit assorted murders. Here the pawn is a young wastrel, Jerry (played by Steckler under the pseudonym "Cash Flagg") and his manipulator is Estrella, a carnival fortune teller who apparently took lessons in being a poverty-row plotter. Though Estrella seems to living a fairly marginal existence, in that she has to fleece rubes for a living while employed at a local carnival, she happens to be a master hypnotist. She takes offense when Jerry pursues her sister Carmelita, and the two sisters, for no particular reason, subject Jerry to hypnotic treatment. He becomes a psycho-killer who kills a couple of women but doesn't remember doing it until the climax of the film, when he returns to the carnival to confront his tormentors.

I might even buy Estrella as a bargain-basement Svengali, except that in her carnival domicile she somehow keeps a dungeon full of earlier victims, whom she and her hunchbacked assistant have mutilated with acid, and who have apparently all devolved into madmen, perhaps due to more hypnotic manipulation. I found myself wondering how many fortunes she had to read to feed all those deformed freaks, whom she didn't apparently keep around for any purpose. Of course the only real function of these "strange creatures" is to go berserk at the film's conclusion, incidentally interrupting one of the film's mediocre musical numbers. (INCREDIBLY was billed as the "first monster-movie musical.)

There are various other support-characters, all of whom exist just to eat up running-time, and none of whom are any more interesting than Jerry and Estrella. That no one can act worth a damn should go without saying.

I haven't seen most of Steckler's later work, but will note that his 1970 SINTHIA THE DEVIL'S DOLL was at least better than this work. INCREDIBLY will probably always be his signature work, though. if only because it was "clean" enough to be shown on mainstream television.






Friday, August 11, 2017

CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (1959)



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


CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is a fine idea given mediocre execution. Even without researching the career of its director Edward Dein-- who co-wrote the script with his wife Mildred-- I suspected that this was a "writer's film," one in which the business of following the plot took precedence over finding interesting visual ways to direct the film. Sure enough, even before his first directorial credit in 1952, Dein spent most of the 1940s scripting assorted flicks, including JUNGLE WOMAN. As director UNDEAD is surely Dein's best known credit, though he also helmed 1960's THE LEECH WOMAN, which if anything is even more workmanlike than this film.

The inhabitants of a small Western town are besieged by two disparate menaces. One is a standard Western element, a landowner who covets his neighbors' property. Ambitious rancher Buffer tries all sorts of barely legal tricks in his quest to drive the Carter family-- the widowed Doc Carter and his children, young Dolores and her teen-aged brother Tim-- off their ranch. The other menace appears to be nothing but an infectious disease, but it only seems to target nubile young women, and the local preacher, Dan Young, notices that one of the victims has curious bite-marks on her neck.

The two menaces converge on the Carters roughly at the same time, perhaps a bit too conveniently even in a B-film. The source of the mysterious deaths-- a black-clad gunman named Drake Robey-- suddenly decides to take an old man as a victim, the aforementioned Doc Carter. For some reason, though, the disease doesn't get the blame when the doctor's body is found. Hot-headed Tim Carter, who already nursed a grudge against Buffer, challenges the rancher to a duel, and loses. This moves Dolores to post "wanted" posters in town, inviting any hired gun to take down the man who killed her relatives. Then, for the first time, Drake Robey shows his face, first to the townspeople (and his intended victim, Buffer), and then to Dolores Carter. Preacher Dan, engaged to Dolores, already doesn't approve of her hiring a killer, naturally dislikes Robey on sight, but can't prevent Dolores from letting the gunfighter stay at her ranch. This western female's assertiveness, however, results in her getting a night-visit from Robey. As will have become obvious by this time, Robey is a vampire, and he drains Dolores of her blood without her knowledge.

The main plot, with Young eventually figuring out Robey's true nature, plays out efficiently if predictably. It's a shame that the Deins' plotting and characterizations weren't a little more venturesome, though, because their twists on the vampire concept are ingenious, far superior to those of the previous year's RETURN OF DRACULA. The preacher discovers an old document, explainin how Robey became a vampire because in life he committed the crime of suicide-- not to mention fratricide, though this isn't a direct cause of his curse. When Robey first rose from the dead, his distraught father located his corpse, sleeping its day-sleep, and tried to impale him with a silver knife. This fails to contain Robey, because something along the lines of a wooden stake is needed. This foregrounding of the knife-gambit suggests that the Deins knew that the stake-mythology came about as a means of "pinning down" the unquiet dead. Still, at the conclusion Robey is "staked" in a very anomalous manner, using wood supposedly taken from Christ's crown of thorns.

The actors all turn in solid performances, with Michael Pate's vampiric gunslinger naturally being the standout. In fact, the script had so much under-used potential that I wouldn't mind seeing some modern talent take a shot at remaking UNDEAD. I for one think it would be better to try improving on a less-than-great film, rather than endlessly seeking to remake films that are already well-executed, as with later versions of INVADERS FROM MARS, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and so on.


MURDER AT DAWN (1932)



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


This is an "old dark house" film that offers none of the expected tropes. There's a dark house, to which a young couple and their friends show up, but nobody's trying to scare them with ghostly phenomena, nor are there any masked masterminds hanging about.

The owner of the house is Professor Farrington, and his daughter Doris wants her father's blessing on her coming nuptials. However, Farrington has just finished a new invention, a device that accumulates energy from the sun, with which he hopes to liberate a world of "wage slaves" by giving the world infinite power. However, one of the servants (Mischa Auer) wants to get the plans to the invention in order to sell the accumulator as a death-ray. To this end, he not only murders one of Farrington's other guests, he ties the scientist to a chair and threatens to let him be incinerated by his own invention, when it gathers up the energy of the dawning sun and discharges it right at him.

MURDER is limply directed by Richard Thorpe, a journeyman who would later become known for various musicals of the Classic Hollywood years, as well as four Tarzan films, starting with TARZAN ESCAPES. The feature itself has nothing much to recommend it, except for the rare sight of comic player Auer playing a nasty villain and the appearance of Kenneth Strickfadden's wild electrical FX, making their second appearance after 1931's FRANKENSTEIN.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

THOSE DEAR DEPARTED (1987)



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


IMDB says that this obscure Aussie film stated out with the title seen above, though I've also seen a VHS entitled GHOSTS CAN DO IT. Did some enterprising marketer re-title the film so as to take advantage of the 1989 American-made flick GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT? The latter film, while it was roundly panned, at least possessed considerable star power-- that of Bo Derek and Anthony Quinn-- while in the earlier movie, only New Zealand native Pamela Stephenson (SUPERMAN III) was the only cast-member who was somewhat familiar to American audiences. A marketer might have hoped that the Bo Derek film would be enough of a sensation that the Aussie film could coast on that success. As things turned out, the only attention that the Aussie film gained from the name-change was from people putting together concordances of fantasy-films, since those people had to try to keep the two titles distinct from one another.

The two GHOSTS are about equally unfunny, but whereas the Bo Derek train-wreck is just dumb sleaze posing as eroticism, DEPARTED has a curious psychological angle that might have been rewarding given a little more thought.

The aforementioned Stephenson plays Marilyn, who has married a rich actor, Max Falcon, but would like to get rid of him because-- well, eventually you learn that she still loves him, but she's pissed that he hasn't been very attentive lately. Unfortunately for other people in Max's orbit, Marilyn's not a very efficient black widow: she keeps killing everyone but Max. All of Marilyn's victims, being aggrieved about getting bumped off in this manner, congregate in a sort of purgatory, and since they're mostly theater-folk, for them purgatory is a theatrical stage presided over by a nasty producer. These ghosts seem impotent to do anything about their situation until Marilyn finally does off Max. Once he joins their number, they all take on the ability to "haunt" Marilyn and her chauffeur-accomplice, who are the only ones able to see the ghosts. However, the ghosts can't perform any physical acts in the living world. Thus they have to resort to psychological pressure in order to get Marilyn to confess her evil deeds, which in turn will allow the unquiet spirits to move on.

DEPARTED is essentially a love-farce, in which Max and Marilyn eventually confess their mutual feelings, and, like the altered title, even manage to "do it" even though to the eyes of onlookers she seems to be "doing it" all by herself. The script glosses the dysfunctional relationship of Max and Marilyn with the following Freudian tropes:

(1) Max is first seen performing in a play entitled "Freud, the Musical," in which he sings about how he as a child-Freud wanted to kill his father and marry his mother.

(2) Max, after dying, meets his father Gordon in purgatory. However, Gordon isn't hanging around because Marilyn killed him, but because Max did when he was still a child. In the middle of a quarrel between Gordon and his wife Ruth, Little Max "accidentally" leaves his teddy bear out on the floor where Gordon trips on it, thus breaking his neck. Thus it's all but stated that Max did the Freud-musical because in real life he was a subconscious daddy-killer (though Gordon seems pretty mild about the whole patricide thing). The film's flashback even shows Ruth consoling her son and promising to stay with him forever now that Daddy is gone: however, in this flashback "Little Max" is replaced by the adult figure of Max Falcon.

(3) Despite his mother's promise, Max's mother isn't even seen in the bulk of the picture. Max's patricide doesn't keep him from marrying-- but does he marry his mother, as Freud would say he must? Marilyn isn't especially maternal, but with a little psycho-tinkering, one might see her as the obverse of the erotic mother: a punishing mother who seeks to kill Max as he killed his father. It's not a great correlation, but the writer clearly wanted some carry-over, since the murder-weapon, the teddy bear, shows up again. Gordon for some reason wants the bear to help him move out of purgatory, and he even appears before his still-living Ruth looking for the toy, only to be told-- since she can see him-- that he can't have it. The bear then shows up at the conclusion, and proves instrumental to killing off Marilyn, so that she and Marilyn are united in the afterlife.

DEPARTED presents, to say the least, a fairly lame hodgepodge of Freudian tropes, and even though I'm not a Freudian, I've seen much better renditions of his psychology, even in a movie as half-baked as HAUNTED HONEYMOON. I can't actually recommend anyone sitting through THOSE DEAR DEPARTED, but I will say that I wasn't entirely bored by all the chaos.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)



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


VALERIAN has already been labeled a box-office failure in America. I found it a conceptually solid film, one which accurately captured the protean visual creativity of Christin and Mezeries (authors of the "Valerian" comic-album series from the shores of France). It's far from a perfect film, but it's not guilty of having "charisma-challenged" lead actors, nor is it devoid of a plot, which are both routine dismissals of the film.

Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne portray the space-soldiers Valerian and Laureline, who are charged in part with the safety of the Terran Galactic Empire in the 28th century. Both actors give decent but admittedly not outstanding performances, but given the film's emphasis upon wild sci-fi scenarios and bizarre forms of alien life, I doubt that any actors of greater repute could have done any better. DeHaan and Delevigne are at their best in the action-filled sequences, partly because their romantic ones are very badly written by director Luc Besson. As I've not read the original French comic on which this movie was based, it's possible he transcribed bad dialogue from the original, though I tend to doubt that.

My experience with other "Valerian" albums is that they tend to be leisurely paced, in which the main plot is frequently interrupted by "and then this happened" sequences. This stands in opposition to the type of linear storytelling most American moviegoers favor. There is a substantial plot in VALERIAN, but it often gets sidetracked by some of the ancillary stories. Some of these also relate the romance subplot, and they also do the actors no favors.

At least one review attacked the movie for the temerity of casting two white actors to play two white comics-characters, but this sort of "diversity-by-any-means-necessary" attitude overlooks the fact that the plot concerns the suffering of a race of innocent aliens at the hands of the Terran Empire. For a good portion of the film the audience isn't given sufficient clues about what happened to the beleaguered aliens, and I suspect this caused many filmgoers to lose track of the main plot.



Besson may be fairly critiqued for getting too caught up in depicting the wonders of the Christin-Mezeries universe through the agency of modern CGI. Yet there can be no question that Besson did so because he was seeking to emulate a major theme in SF: an almost giddy enthusiasm for the variegated life-forms one can conjure forth. It's true that most of the time these SF-entities recombine aspects of life-forms that modern humans already know-- aquatic creatures, insect-aliens-- but this is all but inevitable given the difficulty of anyone imagining a wholly original organism.

I also suspect that VALERIAN is one of those summer films that critics simply dump on because they're big and expensive, not because they've offended against the Aristotelian unities.

HELLZAPOPPIN' (1941)



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


The 1930s stage production HELLZAPOPPIN' was reputed to change from performance to performance, working in new, more topical jokes whenever possible, and always seeking to keep a sense of anarchic comedy. Thus there was no "final text" for the revue. In contrast, the film adaptation presents a version of the play that is frozen in time, representing exactly what the filmmakers thought might prove funny in 1941.

The film is almost inevitably a mixed bag, but it boasts a bravura sequence at the beginning, in which "society swells" get dropped into the maw of Hell, where they're roasted on spits or jammed into drums marked "canned guy" or "canned gal." After an intense of nonsensical comedy, it's revealed that it's taking place on a movie set, and that two of the people condemned to Hell are comedians Olsen and Johnson (who also appeared in the Broadway production). However, in contrast to most movies about movies, the moviemakers' reality is also nonsensical. Ridiculous things keep happening on the side while Olsen and Johnson strive to convince their director that they can make a film without a standard script. Soon Olsen and Johnson magically step back into their movie, whose story proper starts with a standard "girl loves boy who doesn't notice her" schtick. Yet even when they rejoin the movie, they're still capable of talking to people back in "reality," including a daffy movie projectionist (Shemp Howard). They even interact with their "real-world" counterparts. When the duo aren't busy trying to arrange the obligatory romance, they spoof conventions of the film world, like causing themselves to become invisible by doing a "zipping" routine, or having the Frankenstein Monster appear in a stage audience.

The musical numbers are sometimes interrupted by comic bits of business, but not always, which may speak to the producers' desire not to get too far from the standard presentation of a light comic musical. Since most of the action takes place in a mansion filled with rich people, there's a modest amount of mockery of the upper classes, which lines up well with the opening sequence of "swells going to Hell." A lot of jokes don't work, especially those involving Shemp Howard and Hugh Herbert. On the plus side, Mischa Auer is amusing as a social climber trying to court a rich girl, but who is constantly pursued by an aggressive Martha Raye. I've never been a Raye fan, but she shows the most energy here, outdoing even the main stars of the show.

Everything in the film is a "fallacious figment," so of other films I've reviewed so far, HELLZAPOPPIN' has a great deal in common with 1968's HEAD.



Monday, August 7, 2017

DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

I rather wish I'd reviewed this film side by side with Larry Buchanan's remake, IN THE YEAR 2889. In that review I complained a little about the acting "histrionics" of DAY, in contrast to the "somnambulistic" performances dominating the later film. Yet now I'd say that the acting in DAY isn't all that bad; it's just that the characters are one-dimensional types, giving the actors little to work with.

In contrast to THE SHE CREATURE, written by DAY's scripter Lou Rusoff the next year, the characters of this post-nuclear drama are no more than schematic figures. In the aftermath of nuclear conflict, an older man named Maddison flees with his grown daughter Louise to a box canyon out west. Lead permeates the canyon-walls, in theory shielding the occupants from fallout, which takes the form of radioactive vapors that swirl outside the canyon yet somehow can't pass the canyon's walls. Maddison is a rather circumscribed Noah, who hopes to repopulate the polluted world with a marriage between his daughter and her fiancee. However, the fiancee is lost in the chaos, thus making Louise "up for grabs" when other survivors of the conflict find their way into the canyon. These include stalwart scientist Rick, nasty gun-wielding hood Tony, Tony's aging moll Ruby, an old guy with a burro, and a fellow who's contracted radiation poisoning.  In addition, Maddison has a fear of precipitation that Noah could not have imagined, since the next big rain may be radioactive-- and thus will seal the fate of the last humans.

These repeated apocalyptic references-- even presenting mankind's devastation as part of God's plan in the opening prologue-- are the strongest symbolic aspect of DAY, an aspect pretty much mucked up in the late YEAR 2889. Significantly, Maddison doesn't gather any animals into his redoubt, not counting the old prospector's burro. He relates, though, that he's seen how radiation mutated test animals under military experiments, so it's understandable that he's a little reluctant to bring other creatures under his aegis. The proper breeding of humanity is Maddison's main concern, and thus there's a continuing battle between "good guy" Rick and "bad guy" Tony to see who will get access to the fertile female.

Further, mutation is an ongoing concern, for the man with radiation poisoning begins to develop strange habits, making it seem like he may be mutating to tolerate the fallout. There's also a humanoid monster stalking the area, and though it only eats contaminated animals, it seems able to communicate with Louise on a psychic level. She even claims that the creature calls her by name, opening up the possibility-- never confirmed in the script as filmed-- that the monster may Louise's lost fiancee, rapidly mutated by the fallout. This deformed suitor, who in his absence has been eclipsed in Louise's eyes by the square-jawed Rick, is something of a loose parallel to Ruby, who is thrown over by Tony when he starts obsessing over Louise. Rusoff shows considerable empathy for Ruby, a former exotic dancer, just as the scripter did for the camp-follower from SHE CREATURE.

In contrast to Richard Matheson's post-apocalyptic novel I AM LEGEND-- published the year before DAY THE WORLD ENDED-- Rusoff's characters view mutants as a stain upon God's creation. Thus it's no coincidence that when nature's rain at last comes to the canyon, it's a rain representing the mercy of God, a deluge that dissolves the humanoid mutant and may also function to get rid of any others skulking around the decimated planet. Thus humankind gets another chance at survival, and though everyone in the group dies except for Rick and Louise, there's also a last-minute revelation that other normal humans have survived the cataclysm.

This was the fourth directorial credit for Roger Corman, though his work on THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES was not credited.

Friday, August 4, 2017

KING OF THE CONGO (1952), FLYING G-MEN (1939), CONGO BILL (1948)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous*, (2,3) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


Though I've frequently given ample space to serials that are top-of-the-line, the majority of them are pretty workmanlike, and don't reward close study. It's certainly not because many serials are cheap, since I've devoted full reviews to 90-minute horror films that might not be great, but may have some interesting theme or motif worth mentioning. American sound serials, however, offer almost nothing but action, and when action is handled in a repetitive manner, rather than by people who know how to make it fresh every time, the serial can become a study in tedium.

KING OF THE CONGO hails from the era when serials were beginning to be marginalized by television. It's a little surprising that the filmmakers chose to derive their scenario from a comic book that wasn't especially well known in its day. Of the three serials I cover here, CONGO had the greatest potential, which it didn't really exploit, though it's still the best of the three.

The serial's opening loosely resembles the setup of the 1950s jungle-comic, THUN'DA, KING OF THE CONGO, which concerned Roger Drum, a modern-day pilot, who crashed to earth in one of Africa's many unexplored valleys. In the comic, Drum enters a pocket "lost world" inhabited by both dinosaurs and primitive cave-people, and he becomes the leader of one such primitive tribe, who give him the name "Thun'da" to denote his leadership. The comic didn't keep the prehistoric elements very long, but CONGO presents them in an ambivalent fashion. There are of course no dinosaurs, which would have cost big bucks, but though there's a mysterious mist shielding the valley from the outside world, the script never explicitly says that the tribes living there are descended from prehistoric ancestors, even though the tribe that takes in Drum has a giveaway name like "the Rock People." Nevertheless, Drum's transformation into barely-clad jungle-hero is unusually faithful to the comic book origin.

However, Dtum isn't the only one to land in the mist-shrouded valley. A group of spies-- never explicitly called Communists, though they use terms like "comrade" to one another-- infiltrates the terrain, looking for a legendary mineral that might help them win the Cold War. The mineral gives CONGO a more marvelous nature than one finds in most jungle-serials. Though one can't be sure that the Rock People and their neighbors are direct descendants of Paleolithic types, the weird mineral is apparently the source of the enshrouding mists. It also has strange effects on those who come too close, for one episode's cliffhanger consists of Thun'da and another good guy getting "magnetized" to the side of a mineral-bearing rock.

Aside from the mystery of the miracle mineral, and the peregrinations of the prehistoric peoples, CONGO is largely another serial full of seesaw battles and little character interest. Buster Crabbe essays Thun'da, and though he was about 15 years older than he was in his Flash Gordon days, he still gave his role considerable charisma. Unfortunately, the spies are all one-note villains, so Thun'da doesn't have much to work with. One odd note is that in a couple of scenes the Rock People's elder seems to display limited magical powers-- he can foresee ongoing events in a crystal ball-- but there's no attempt to credit his powers to the miracle mineral or any other pseudoscience-explanation.




Jaunting back to pre-WWII times, FLYING G-MEN was one of many pop-culture stories to subject America to Axis attacks long before the country was officially at war-- though naturally, the saboteurs are not explicitly identified as agents of Germany or any other Axis ally. Still, acts of sabotage are on the upswing. American intelligence decides to bring together four G-men who all have piloting-experience to serve as counter-terrorists. All four men flew together as a group called "the Sky Hawks," and they're charged with ferreting out the mysterious leader of the sabotage-ring, "the Professor."

In the first episode, one of the G-men is killed. Since the four pilots are almost identical to one another, the murdered man simply functions as an emotional rallying-point for the three remaining crusaders. As an additional touch, one of the three men operates with a double identity, occasionally taking on the identity of a masked pilot, the Black Falcon. The reasoning for the masked identity seems fuzzy at best, and was probably just a bald imitation of a similar motif in the successful LONE RANGER serial, in which that Ranger was suspected of being one of three local cowpokes. However, there doesn't seem to be a clear and present need for any single pilot to do his work in a costume, though there's some eyewash about the Falcon being able to do things that the other agents cannot. This time both the mystery hero, the other two hero-pilots, and their villains are all pretty vanilla, though there are some OK aerial dogfight scenes.




CONGO BILL, an adaptation of DC Comics' long-running second-stringer, rates even lower than the previous two. The basic plot traces back to the serials of silent days, as it involves schemers who want to profit by getting an heiress out the way. The script for BILL crosses this plot-germ with the "white queen of the jungle" notion. In this case, the heiress in question, one Ruth Culver, became lost in Africa, and became the white queen to an isolated tribe. However, even while the villains mount an expedition to find and kill Ruth, in order to protect their access to the trust fund that should be hers, Congo Bill is asked to find her and bring her back to civilization. Thus is the stage set for (again) an assortment of seesaw battles between thinly characterized goodies and baddies.

On one level, Ruth's status as "white queen" over an African tribe isn't as socially problematic as it is in other films. This hidden tribe is composed of a bunch of white people, even though, as in many jungle jaunts, the tribesmen dress more like Polynesians than like Black Africans. The fact that the tribe is white is the only thing that causes me to label them as uncanny in nature, for they're not exotic in any other way. BILL's script doesn't give the natives any interesting cultural habits or practices, and they aren't even all that possessive of their white queen when Congo Bill shows up to liberate her.

Only one other element makes this a metaphenomenal film: one of the villains tries to torture information out of Congo Bill using a peculiar rotating-blade device. It's not clear as to why someone in the deep jungle chose to concoct such a Poe-esqae contraption. Further, the fellow who owns it doesn't have the marginal excuse of being an evil genius, like the villain in FEDERAL OPERATOR 99, who utilizes just one metaphenomenal gimmick against his heroic antagonist.

The Congo Bill of the comics was a marginal presence at best: largely just a space-filler whose career has never been well-regarded by afficanados of Golden Age comics. Thus, in contrast to the adaptation of THUN'DA, this serial doesn't lose points for not making the best possible use of the original material. Don McGuire portrays the white hunter-hero with a brusqueness unusual in serial heroes, but he's not at all likable, while Cleo Moore's Ruth lacks any queenly attributes. There's one good scene where Bill is menaced by a gorilla, but everything else is fairly ordinary.



TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975)



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


I didn't enjoy TERROR the first time I saw it, but decided that before re-viewing it. I'd give a look to Steve Ryfle's thoughts on this film, the last of the "Showa series," from Ryfle's book JAPAN'S FAVORITE MON-STAR.

Ryfle made a pretty intelligent defense of the film, finding its script to be superior to most of Godzilla's other 1970s offerings, and that its potential had been undermined by budget cuts. In addition, the American version, the one that usually shows up on TV screens here, made the Japanese version far more incoherent, The most daunting example of this that the main villains of TERROR-- the so-called "Black Hole Planet 3 Aliens," seen in the preceding film GODZILLA VS. THE COSMIC MONSTER-- are conflated with the aliens from MONSTER ZERO. Why did the American editors do so? My guess would be that because the actual aliens in the original TERROR look pretty wimpy, the editors chose to excerpt the neat-looking aliens from ZERO to give the villains more heft.

For the final time in the Showa series, we have aliens who have decided that Earth is a plum ripe for picking, and who justify their aggression by nattering about humankind having treated the old planet badly. On top of bringing back their previous creation, the always snazzy-looking Mechagodzilla,, the Black Hole dudes also acquire the services of a mad Japanese scientist, Doctor Mafune. The doc long ago discovered a new breed of surviving dinosaur, whom he named "Titanosaurus," but apparently he couldn't produce the monster in the flesh. The scientific community embittered Mafune by mocking him, though their scorn seems unusual, given that a new mutant dinosaur seems to pop up every other year in the Toho-verse. Anyway, the nastiness of other scientists motivates Mafune to turn against his own people, though some seeds of future discontent are planted when the aliens begin acting rather high-handed. Not only do the Black Hole guys start using Titanosaurus as their own catspaw against Godzilla, they also turn Mafune's daughter Katsura into a cyborg, programmed to help them control Mechagodzilla. This naturally plays havoc with Katsura's love life, as well as eventually turning Mafune against his alien masters.

Most of the human characters are incidental, and though Katsura's subplot has potential for tragedy, the treatment yields only shallow melodrama. The film's sole merit is in the battle-scenes between Godzilla and his two opponents. Mechagodzilla always looks great, though he doesn't really move a whole lot. In contrast, Titanosaurus is a highly mobile antagonist, but his design, right down to his squalling battle-cry, is something less than winning. Only Godzilla himself gains points this time out, for though he's not a figure of terror that he was in his early years, at least he's not a clownish, world-saving superhero-monster. He just seems to be a big ornery beast protecting his chosen stomping-grounds-- though certain future versions of the character would eventually restore the Big G to his lost glories.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

THE MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*


Though I appreciate a number of ultraviolent movies, I've never had a warm spot in my heart-- or should that be stomach?-- for the "cannibal film." Still, like any other genre, it's theoretically possible for some of them to be exemplary for their kind. MOUNTAIN isn't such an exemplary work. It was directed by Sergio Martino, who had directed westerns and SF-adventures, but seemed to excel with giallo horror-mysteries.

The narrative for MOUNTAIN seems strongly indebted to assorted jungle-adventure films-- not least 1950's KING SOLOMON'S MINES-- in that it deals with a jungle-guide being hired by a woman to find her lost husband in some wilderness far from civilization. Here the woman is Susan, played by Ursula Andress, and her statuesque, blonde appearance may be just as responsible for the film's financial success as its ultraviolence. Certainly the majority of film-posters linger upon the sight of a bound Andress, being subjected to terrible torments by the titular cannibals.

Susan's looking for her anthropologist-husband, lost during an earlier expedition into the wilds of New Guinea. Susan's accompanied by her obnoxious brother, some bearers, and a mysterious man, Foster, who turns out to have some past history with the cannibals. Foster's origins are about the only thing that keeps the trek from devolving into complete tedium, as the less-than-great white hunters keep stumbling over various jungle perils-- though none of the animals, however menacing, are anything more than naturalistic types.

The cannibals, though, are very much a people whose exoticism verges on the demonic. They are a dwindling race, though it's not clear if they've almost been wiped out by white colonials or by rival tribes. Foster reveals that when he was taken prisoner by them, he was spared because he cared for the chief's son. However, for reasons unexplained, Foster has made it his personal crusade to stamp out the tribe if he can. Does he want to finish what other whites have started? There's no clue, for MOUNTAIN is not internally consistent enough to display strong sociological content.

Most of the film's gross-out moments occur when the travelers have fallen into the cannibals' hands, and one torment, in which Susan is painted with some gooey substance (honey?). was recycled in a later jungle-film, John Derek's 1981 TARZAN THE APE MAN, where Bo Derek gets the sloppy torture. By this point there's no evidence that the cannibals are in any way capable of sentiments like gratitude: they are entirely demonic creatures, represented by a nasty dwarf who torments one of Susan's allies.

Frankly, the most entertainment I got from this film was from an extra included on Blue Underground's DVD edition. Martino gives a standard interview about the filming of MOUNTAIN, except for one moment, in which he claims that he didn't put much sexual material in the film-- at which point the director of the featurette cuts to a half-dozen scenes showing men screwing animals and the like.