Thursday, September 28, 2017

THE TERROR OF THE TONGS (1961)




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


TERROR OF THE TONGS is reputedly a remake of Hammer's STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY, which I have not seen, and which concerned the Thuggee in British India rather than the Tong organization in British Hong Kong circa 1910. The film's main significance to metaphenomenal film-fans is that, though TERROR is not a metaphenomenal film itself, it anticipates British actor Christopher Lee's "yellowface" performance as Fu Manchu, beginning with 1965's THE FACE OF FU MANCHU. Lee's villain here may have been loosely influenced by the example of Fu Manchu in various media, but he lacks the devil-doctor's formidable character, and suffers from a risible name that just happens to be the same as that of several modern restaurants: "Chung King."

The film opens by illustrating the Tong's power in Hong Kong, which local police and civic organizations are powerless to combat. The Tong men usually keep their activities of vice and drug-smuggling confined to their fellow Asians, but two of Chung King's men make the mistake of killing the daughter of a prominent, two-fisted British seaman, Captain Sale. Sale then rushes from pillar to post like an early version of TAKEN's Liam Neeson, seeking to find his daughter's murderers, and the Tong proves incompetent to kill him. Eventually Chung King's men manage to take Sale prisoner, which leads to the film's one memorable line, "Have you ever had your bones scraped, Captain?" Sure enough, Chung King's torturer demonstrates the technique of inserting a blade into Sale's flesh in order to affect the bone beneath. Sale only survives because an agent opposed to the Tong-- one of the civic organizations I mentioned-- saves his life. Eventually there's a public confrontation between
Sale and a Tong killer, and Sale's victory backfires on Chung King's organization, as the tyrannized populace storms the Tong HQ and the villain commits suicide, thus avenging Sale's daughter.

The script by Jimmy Sangster is reasonably tight, and though most of the Asians are played by British actors, there's a saving grace in the fact that the only reason Sale makes so much progress is because he's given covert aid by the anti-Tong group. Thus, this isn't entirely a "white savior" film, but one in which he acts more as a catalyst to help the Chinese people save themselves. On the minus side, a hot young Chinese woman named Lee attaches herself to Sale, and it's implied that she gives him some romantic recompense for helping free her from her Tong slavemaster. There's no romance as such between the characters of Lee and Sale, and it may be fairly argued that Lee is just a standard "hot Asian babe" fantasy. I don't always object to such fantasies, but here its presence highlights the superficiality of the characters.

The Tong registers as a "weird society," and their one use of torture-- later quoted in 1986's ARMED RESPONSE-- qualifies as a "bizarre crime." But both of these are entirely naturalistic in tone.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

DINOTOPIA: QUEST FOR THE RUBY SUNSTONE (2005), HAPPILY N'EVER AFTER (2007), FREDDIE AS FRO 7 (1992)



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


These feature-length cartoons were designed for undemanding kids who would be willing to view direct-to-video discs rather than re-watching the latest Disney/Pixar. I've no delusions that anyone would use my reviews to help them suss out what their kids should watch: my interest in visiting these one-shot wonders is purely to see if any of them conform to my theory of the combative mode.

I've never read any of the juvenile adventure-books in the DINOTOPIA series, but found the television adaptations to be subcombative in nature. I didn't really expect that DINOTOPIA: QUEST FOR THE RUBY SUNSTONE would be any different, even though it discarded any of the regular characters and tried to launch its own franchise (possibly inspired by elements of the books and its video games). Nevertheless, since it featured Malcolm McDowell voicing the above-seen villain "Ogthar," I felt SUNSTONE deserved a look.

Twelve-year old orphan "Kex" (odd name for the hero) tries to escape his lot at the orphanage by stowing aboard a ship, but he's washed overboard. The good news is that he ends up on a remote island, Dinotopia. It's a mark of the movie's superficiality that when he meets the first of several talking anthropomorphic dinosaurs, he's amazed more by the survival of dinosaurs than by the fact that they can talk. The first one he meets is a little female triceratops named "26." She gives Kex a guided tour of the incredible island, whose existence is masked from humanity by magical "sunstones." Kex also meets a 12-year old girl named Mara, who gives him the sort of attitude that would connote a romantic hookup were we dealing with older kids.

The most interesting character is indeed nasty Ogthar, a former tyrant resurrected by two bumbling comic-relief dinos. Though he, like a lot of characters, uses too much contemporary slang for my taste, Ogthar at least takes his villain duties seriously, and proceeds to go after the prize of the Ruby Sunstone.

None of the principals-- Kex, Mara, or 26-- are the least bit formidable, though they gain the help of an ally, a talking T-Rex, when they do him an "Androcles and the Lion" favor. The T-Rex provides a brief battle when it takes on a scorpion-shaped vehicle driven by Ogthar, but this battle is not the climax of the story. Rather, Ogthar chases 26 up the side of a volcano, trying to obtain the sunstone, and the quakes on the volcano drop both of them into the lava. 26 gets a last-minute save, while Ogthar manages to activate some spiffy armor that perhaps saves him from the molten rock. He probably would have come back had the video sold well. Certainly, had there been any more of these bland adventures, Ogthar probably would have still been the best element.



HAPPILY N'EVER AFTER hasn't even got a good central villain to offset its bland heroes, though another big name, Sigourney Weaver, is drafted for the voice-work. In "Fairy Tale Land," where apparently the stories of the folklore-inhabitants repeat themselves over and over, Freida, evil stepmother to Cinderella, gets hold of a magical wand owned by the wizard who rules the land. Since Freida is sick of seeing heroes and heroines get their just desserts, she decides she'll use her new powers to put all the evildoers of Fairy Tale Land in charge, and reduce the heroes and heroines-- not least her stepdaughrer Cinderella-- into disarray.

Frieda isn't the only thing wanting to rewrite the old stories. Apparently, during all the times that Cinderella has been getting hooked up with the Prince, there's a kitchen-boy named "Rick" who's been Cinderella's best friend, and the guy she always overlooks. Because of the chaos Frieda wreaks, Rick finally gets a chanced to make a play for the heroine.

Though the setup in Fairy Tale Land makes no real sense, there are a couple of decent moments. I'm a bit of a sucker for convocations of famous villains, so I like seeing Freida bring together all the giants and ogres who usually lose out. (Admittedly, the SHREK series did the same thing, and better.) The only good designs are the Seven Dwarves, who are made into jovial hicks. However, Rick, Cinderella, and the evil stepmother are tedious in the extreme. The film's so predictable that the moment I knew that Sarah Michelle Gellar voiced Cinderella, I thought, "I bet she gets a girl-power moment where she decks the villain." Sure enough, she does-- and even that tiny payoff was boring.



Yet both of these films have at least a predictable consistency, next to 1992's FREDDIE AS F.R.O.7.
This British kiddie-cartoon sports a wealth of well-known voice-actors-- Ben Kingsley, Billie Whitelaw and Brian Blessed-- but the script, co-written by director Jon Aceveski, is lame beyond words.

The "F.R.O.7" of the title is an incoherent play on both the word "frog" and "James Bond, 007," because it features what is presumably the world's only secret-agent frog. Aceveski devotes a third of the film building up the idea of how "Freddie" became a humanoid frog, though nothing is said about how he managed to become a French secret agent in a world where he's the only anthropomorphic being. But no "Howard the Duck" alienation for Freddie the Frog; he's a walking caricature of "the French Romeo," making passes at a lady secret agent while he gets his new assignment. It seems a dictator, El Supremo, has been stealing national monuments for some nefarious purpose, so Freddie and a couple of human agents are assigned to take the evildoer down. Perhaps to justify his secret-agent status, Freddie is actually seen fighting with the villains a few times, combining kung fu with frog-fu (taking really big leaps high in the air).

Like the other features covered here, FREDDIE should be relentlessly unfunny to anyone but a really young kid who's never heard any of the jokes before. That said, a really young kid probably wouldn't appreciate the film's main joke: that Freddie is a "frog" not only by virtue of his green skin, but also because he's French. "Frog," "frog-eaters"-- get it? The oddest thing in FREDDIE is as follows: he gets turned into a frog by his sorceress-aunt back in medieval times. Centuries later, Freddie "magicks" himself into the form of a humanized frog, and somehow escapes the perils of anti-frog prejudice in order to become an agent of the French secret service. Finally, he learns that his sorceress-aunt is still alive, partnered with El  Supremo--and though Freddie gets even with his aunt by foiling her plot, never once does he consider getting her to reverse her spell and make him human again.

Maybe, as Kermit memorably said, "it ain't easy bein' green." But if that's not really the way you were born, and you got the chance to stop being green-- why wouldn't that be the first thing on your mind?

NOTE: Wikipedia speculates that, had there been a sequel to the flop frog-flick, the hero might have confronted his aunt again and been restored to humanity. Still, it's idiotic that, in Freddie's only outing, the idea of re-humanization doesn't even occur to him.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

SATURDAY THE 14TH (1981), SATURDAY THE 14TH STRIKES BACK (1988)




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

I suspect that SATURDAY THE 14TH was already in production as a standard monster-mash comedy before the fortuitous success of FRIDAY THE 13TH, and that said success prompted the oh-so-humorous title, since nothing about the film even slightly resembles the famous slasher-flick.

A haunted house is bequeathed to the family of clueless yuppies John and Mary and their two kids. However, it's haunted not by ghosts but by a Lovecraftian "Book of Evil," which starts causing weird things to happen (for one thing, the television set plays "the Twilight Zone" all the time.") Monstrous apparitions start appearing, some of which choose to model themselves on then-recent pop culture. For instance, a shark-like thing, complete with "Jaws" theme, shows up in the bathtub of John and Mary's teenaged daughter, while a gill-man resembling the Creature from the Black Lagoon attacks a plumber. Meanwhile, outside the house a married vampire couple, Waldemar and Yolanda, conspire to get into the house and find the book for themselves. Waldemar even vampirizes Mary, which leads to some jealousy on the part of Yolanda. So many weird things happen that the two yuppies welcome the appearance of supernatural sleuth Van Helsing-- but it turns out that the vampire-hunter has his own designs on the Book of Evil. At the climax Van Helsing and the two vampires unleash great supernatural energies upon each other, accompanied by making silly faces at the same time. (Since none of them are the movie's focal characters, SATURDAY does not qualify as a combative movie.) 

The first SATURDAY, like its sequel, was both written and directed by Howard R. Cohen, who did a lot of schlock pictures, the best being IMO 1985's BARBARIAN QUEEN. Both films were also produced for Roger Corman's company New World Pictures by Corman's wife Julie, and thus both are full of cheapjack effects and much recycled footage. John and Mary are essayed by husband-and-wife team Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, and it may be that SATURDAY was greenlighted in response to Benjamin's participation in 1979's successful LOVE AT FIRST BITE. Certainly both Benjamin and Prentiss attempt some dry humor comparable to that of FIRST BITE, but Cohen's script is incompetent to pull off anything but the most obvious horror-comedy schtick. Since the works of Lovecraft had yet to be mined to good cinematic effect in 1980s flicks like REANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, I theorize that Cohen may have used the "evil book" routine in homage to Roger Corman's 1963 HAUNTED PALACE, which also involved a family moving into a creepy old place and encountering a book of evil spells. Only Severn Darden (as Van Helsing) and Jeffrey Tambor (Waldemar) do moderately well delivering the stupid dialogue.



Surprisingly, seven years later the same producer and writer-director assembled for SATURDAY THE 14TH STRIKES BACK, and though there were no overt connections to the first film, again the plot concerned a family moving into a house bequeathed by a relative.  However, this time the focus is not on two clueless parents-- this time out, played by genre vets Avery Schreiber and Patty McCormack-- but on their teenaged son Eddie (Jason Presson). Eddie's existence, in fact, gives the title more relevance than it had the first time, for Saturday the 14th is his impending 18th birthday. Eddie is only slightly younger than his teenaged sister, but he feels generally marginalized and out of touch with his family, except for his seemingly dim grandfather, Gramps (Ray Walston).

Then weird things happen and monsters again start roaming the halls. There's no book responsible, though. Rather, there's a crack under the house that unleashes spirits. Eighteen years ago the same crack unleashed a magical mist, and this was the method by which a "dark force" (Satan, I assume) marked Eddie to inherit unlimited powers on his eighteenth birthday. No one else sees the monsters, particularly sexy vampiress Charlene and Kharis, an Egyptian high priest who looks like John Carradine but talks like Boris Karloff. Moreover, the rest of the family, except Gramps, began to act strangely, at one point turning on Eddie and trying to kill him. By the next day, though, they go back to being oblivious.

The mystic contagion even spreads outside the house, affecting Eddie's teacher (who launches into a song in a miniature golf park; one of three or four bad production numbers). Kharis and Charlene keep working on Eddie, trying to make him use his incipient powers for evil. STRIKES BACK thus has a slightly better core idea than its predecessor, rooted in the idea of the "monster-nerd" as a potential Faust, willing to indulge in fantasies of omnipotence. The idea fails partly because Eddie may be the most boring character ever to undergo temptation. When the spirits ask him what he wants to do with his power, the first thing that comes to his mind is to one-up his bossy sister. (The sister fusses so often about Eddie going into her room that I thought this might go the way of AMITYVILLE II, but Eddie's too boring to contemplate even comical incest.) Moreover, Presson has a really annoying whiny voice, so it's hard to identity with him. Walston gives the film a boost when it's revealed that he's not anyone's grandpa, but a mystic protector who makes it possible for Eddie to fight the force of darkness. At the climax, there's sort of a psychic struggle between Eddie and the Dark One, but it consists mostly of stock footage from earlier Corman films, so one could hardly call it any sort of "combat." Basically, Eddie just wishes things back to normal. We may be thankful that the conclusion was so underwhelming, for it may have helped put an end to any further entries in this lame series.

KUNG FU: SEASON 2, EPISODES 7-9 (1973)



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

"The Tong" is Caine's first encounter with the Chinese criminal organization. The Tong is explicitly said to have arisen when renegade Shaolin priests sought to oppose the imperial forces of China, which led only to the Tong becoming purveyors of vice rather than liberatorsn-- a moral very much in keeping with the series' skepticism regarding organized movements.

Caine drifts into a town where Sister Elizabeth, a Christian proselytizer, has been seeking to convert lost souls in the Chinese section of town. The adults ignore her, but Wing, a little boy brought over to serve as a slave to Mister Chen, a Tong functionary. Wing doesn't understand Elizabeth's Christian rhetoric, but he hides behind her skirts to avoid punishment by Chen. For his part, Caine seeks to peacefully persuade the Tong man to "cut his losses," but Chen considers the loss of his slave to be a loss of face as well. He appeals to his superior, Master Li, to intervene and send "highbinders" (Tong henchmen) to collect Wing.

Unfortunately for Chen, Li wants him to clean up his own mess, which means taking on Wing's protector Caine. Chen makes a clumsy attempt to kill Caine with a thrown hatchet, and naturally Caine simply catches the weapon in flight. Nevertheless, Li has always planned to unleash a more formidable opponent-- his henchman Ah Quong-- to kill the interfering priest, as Li believes that "a superior man fights only great battles."

Ah Quong is initially up for the coming fight, but when Caine shows off a little of his own skills, the henchman tries to fix the fight by having a hidden associate shoot the priest with an arrow. Caine does get shot. Yet  his determination to meet his opponent, despite the arrow-wound, so cows Ah Quong that the highbinder hightails it outta there, and the Tong loses its hold on Wing. Caine doesn't display any uncanny skills here, and he's at pains to inform Wing that his efforts had nothing to do with what the boy calls "magic."

"The Soldier" is a straightforward meditation on the perils of trying to live one's life according to someone else's standards. Caine stumbles across a massacre, the result of a bandolero attack on a detachment of pony soldiers and the civilian they were escorting. Caine gets a degree of personal involvement as the civilian dies in his presence, asking Caine to give a keepsake to his soon-to-be widow. Then Caine learns that there's one soldier left alive. As Caine watches, Lt. Wyland-- who apparently took cover during the bandit-raid and failed to engage the enemy-- shoots himself in the leg. Then, seeing Caine, Wyland takes the priest prisoner, accusing the stranger of being one of the raiders.

Caine is transported back to the fort from which the detachment set out, but despite being falsely accused by Wyland, the Shaolin does not reveal what he saw Wyland do. The soldier's convictions about Caine weaken once he sees the priest interact with the widow, and it comes out that Wyland has chosen the life of a soldier to follow in the footsteps of his officer-father. Eventually Wyland frees Caine and chooses to pursue his own path. One of the flashbacks retells a familiar story: a monkey reaches into a jar to get a fruit inside, but can't remove his paw as long as he holds the fruit. Master Po, seeing the monkey's distress, comments that the creature is additionally perverse because he could seek out any of the fruits in the garden, but chooses to focus only on the one that's hard to get.

"The Salamander" is one of the weaker second-season episodes. The priest sees Andy, a young man on a bridge, apparently contemplating suicide with a hangman's noose. Andy tells a sad story about how his mother went insane and had to be placed in an asylum, while his father, a miner named Alonzo, deserted the family. Caine and Andy journey to Alonzo's last known address, a -played-out mining-town where Alonzo still seeks to make a great strike. External conflict is foreshadowed by a claim-jumper named Bates, who hopes to steal any new claims. Andy and Alonzo go back and forth on the reasons Alonzo left, which involved his attempt to separate his wife from a father she loved too much. Those efforts resulted in the woman's insanity, which amounts to some rather facile plotting. The flashbacks are more interesting than the main story, for it mirrors Andy's desultory suicide-attempt with a successful suicide, committed by one of Master Kan's teachers. Kan uses the tragedy as a teachable moment for Young Caine, stressing the importance of seeing the world clearly.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

ASSIGNMENT TERROR (1971)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

ASSIGNMENT TERROR is, in effect, the second entry in Paul Naschy's "Daninsky-verse," following FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR. Although another film, NIGHTS OF THE WOLFMAN, took place between these two films, it was either unfinished, lost, or both. Still, whatever took place in NIGHTS, the second TERROR seems to follow through on plot-threads from the first one. Naschy's "El Hombre Lobo," shot to death in the first film by the woman who loved him, is now revived with the excuse that the werewolf can only be permanently destroyed if the woman is willing to die with the monster (!) In addition, the werewolf's vampire foe from the 1968 movie is also revived, though with a slight name-change, assuming imdb credits are accurate to the two films. The vampire has so little time in ASSIGNMENT that one wonders why the scripter-- who was also werewolf-actor Naschy-- bothered to bring him back.

I've given this erratic Eurofilm a "fair" rating in the mythicity department simply because the crazy script displays a sincere affection for the horror-tropes developed by Universal Studios in the 1940s, particularly in "monster mash" films like FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. That said, Naschy's script has less in common with the Universal classics than with Ed Wood's most famous work, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Wood's magnum opus dealt with aliens resuscitating dead people in order to throw the planet Earth into chaos. There's no way to know if Naschy ever saw PLAN 9, but he uses the same essential idea here. The motivation is a little different, though. Wood's aliens wanted to prevent Earth-people from creating a deadly super-weapon, while the aliens from Naschy's "Planet Ummo" want to eliminate Earth-people because Ummo stands in danger of destruction.

Given that the Ummo-ites are on a time-clock, they seem to take their sweet time unearthing famous monsters of Earth's history, but never get around to using them as part of any specific program to get rid of humanity. Half the time Naschy's script seems to treat the Ummo-aliens-- who are, incidentally, alien intelligences who have taken over human bodies-- as if they were just examining all the monsters as part of a big research-project. This idea finds some support in the fact that the main three-- Warnoff, Kieran, and Maleva-- talk a lot about how they've advanced beyond the petty emotions of humankind. Naturally, it proves easier for the aliens to talk the talk than to walk the walk. When alien Maleva beholds the manliness of Waldermar Daninsky, it gives her some human stirrings, and though leader Warnoff continually claims to be above emotion, he subjects another female minion to electrical torture with a sort of suppressed sadism.

Waldemar, as I said, is resurrected when the aliens pull the silver bullet out of his body, conveniently mentioning that he didn't really die because his lover didn't have the decency to die with him. In addition to reviving Waldemar, the aliens find the vampire "Jamos" in a traveling carnival, a scene lovingly swiped from HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  The Ummosians also bring back a mummy named Tao-Tet and a Frankenstein Monster whose proper name is garbled, at least in translation. (Was someone afraid that the producers would get legal static from Hammer Films, who were still coming out with Franikenstein films?) The werewolf and vampire both get free a few times, and cause enough havoc that a tough local cop starts looking for monsters.

The cop does get one strong scene, staking Janos the Vampire, but El Hombre Lobo does most of the heavy lifting Mummy-characters have typically got the short end of the "monster mash" stick, so I can appreciate that Naschy's script concocts a decent enough battle between the hairy guy and the bandaged dude. In fact, the werewolf's method for destroying the mummy, turning him into a Catherine Wheel, is rather ingenious. It's an improvement on the fight between the wolf-man and the artificial monster, anyway. It's a given that this cheap production couldn't equal the fight-scene from FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, but it's also sabotaged by the decision to have the actor playing the monster look like his eyes are always closed. (Admittedly, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN used the same peculiar visual trope, and to no better effect, given that the monster was no longer blind at that point, as he had been a couple of earlier films.) This time the werewolf's claws are given the chance to shed more a lot more monster-blood than they did in the Universal film, though.

In the end, Waldemar and his beloved embrace death, and the aliens give up on their plot to exterminate humankind, with a little moralizing about the superiority of human emotions. Waldemar would then come back again and again, often with a brand-new origin and no connections to any earlier entries.


KUNG FU: SEASON 2, EPISODES 4-6 (1973)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1)*good,* (2-3) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*


In "The Brujo," Caine has apparently wandered down toward the Mexican border, since in this episode he'll find himself in San Martin, a town inhabited by people of Mexican ancestry. They even have a "grandee" of sorts in wealthy landowner Don Emilio (Henry Darrow), though the real power in San Martin is a male witch (brujo) named Carlos. The audience witnesses the brujo pronouncing a spell of some sort, while far away, a wagon crashes in the rocky wilderness. Caine happens across the wrecked vehicle, and discovers its two occupants. One is a young Caucasian boy with white-golden hair, who is unharmed; the other, an old Mexican woman who dies despite Caine's efforts to help. The relationship of the two is never explained. nor the reason for their being in the wagon, but the old woman charges Caine with returning the child to San Martin. Somewhat later it will be attested that the woman inhabited the town, and that she had the reputation of a witch, but the reason as to why she drew the hostility of Esteban is not made explicit.

Before Caine reaches the town, he and the boy encounter Don Emilio, who has apparently been hunting with a trained hawk. The nameless boy beckons to the hawk and it flies to him, establishing that he, like Caine in certain episodes, possesses at the very least a strong affinity with lower animals. Emilio recalls his hawk with some difficulty and makes a note to watch Caine and his charge.

Once Caine reaches San Martin, he finds that the town suffers under the curse of Carlos. Caine successfully treats an infant whom the townsfolk believe to be cursed, but Carlos claims a new victim. The nameless boy, apparently affected by the brujo's voodoo-like magic, falls into a coma and Caine cannot revive him, because the boy believes in the magic. Apparently the boy resided in San Martin as well as the witch-woman, since it's said that the reason he falls sick is because he believes in the power of Carlos. Caine confronts Carlos and learns only that the brujo is utterly heartless and consumed with a desire for power. Later, he extends his power over Don Emilio, who once slept with Carlos's wife, but learns that Carlos sent the woman to Emilio in order to seduce him to evil. Carlos's game plan is to assume Emilio's temporal power and totally subjugate the town.

Structurally the episode resembles a scenario familiar in many genres of popular fiction: one in which a outsider, usually Caucasian, enters a community, often made up of "People of Color," who are in the thrall of superstitions, sometimes manipulated by a phony priest or witch-doctor. "The Brujo" is subtler than the standard depiction, however, and not only because Caine is half-Chinese (regardless of the actual ethnicity of the actor, of course). Within the naturalistic context of the standard scenario, magic and superstition possess no reality. Yet in this tale, the audience doesn't know for certain that the Brujo has not used magic to wreck the wagon, nor that the nameless boy has not reached out to the hawk with his mind. All that the audience for this episode can say with certainty is that some of the Brujo's power depends on keeping the community under his thumb, and the community obliges by celebrating "the Day of the Devil," an implicit expiation-rite. When Carlos finally decides to prove his power to Caine, he draws a circle around the Shaolin priest-- with a devilish pitchfork, no less-- and tells Caine that he will die when the shadow of the church's cross passes over the circle. Caine obligingly waits, and breaks Carlos' power by declining to give in to his legerdemain. It helps that back in China, Young Caine briefly interacted with a magician who promised the boy "the secrets of the universe," though the youngster fled and returned to the safety of the Shaolin temple.

"The Squawman" contrasts with "the Brujo" in that it's all about the power a community can have over an individual, even one whom the community has more or less cast out.

Caine-- who in this season has almost totally forgotten his quest to locate his half-brother-- wanders onto the ranch of Marcus Taylor (Jack Elam). Marcus is largely secluded from the nearest town because he's a "squawman," a white man married to an Indian woman, who in this case is named Kiona and is pregnant with their first child. While Caine is enjoying lonely Marcus' hospitality, a thief tries to steal the rancher's horse. Caine fights the man, but Marcus, assuming Caine is in mortal danger, shoots the thief dead.

Marcus, Kiona and Caine take the body to town to report the death. At first the townsfolk seem suspicious of Marcus, not only because he married an Indian but also because they've been plagued with bandit-raids, and someone wonders if Marcus might be an ally of the outlaw-gang. Then the crowd's mood changes when the slain thief is identified as a member of the same gang. Immediately everyone in town wants to be Marcus's friend, though they won't allow his Indian wife to enter the local saloon. Worse, the townsfolk talk Marcus up into thinking he's a hero, so that he seriously thinks about meeting the outlaws when they come to avenge their dead comrade. Caine uses his skills to save Marcus and Kiona from the bandits, and teaches Marcus a lesson about false glory.

In "The Spirit Helper" Caine again crosses paths with superstition, though this time the priest is unable to dispel it. Caine happens upon a young Indian brave, Nashebo (Don Johnson) when the latter has been undergoing a vision-quest for days. Nashebo assumes that the gods have sent Caine as a "spirit-helper," and Caine cannot convince the brave otherwise. The Indian youth specifically wants Caine to show him how to become a man.

When Nashebo escorts Caine back to his camp, however, he finds that he needs more help than he thought. A gang of robbers has despoiled the camp, killing Nashebo's father and taking his mother captive to be sold as a slave. This brings forth bitter memories for Caine, whose parents were slain in China by the violence unleashed by a petty warlord, General Chung. Caine's experience made him thirst for vengeance on Chung, though he transcended that desire to an extent thanks to the Shaolins who took him in. Still, though Caine will not help Nashebo seek vengeance on his father's murderers, he is obliged to lend the young man aid to help rescue his mother. It may be argued that this gives Caine the chance to put some of his own demons to rest, by fighting robbers who have perpetrated a deed not unlike that of General Chung.

The robbers, as it happens, have a ruthless leader named PIke, a towering Irish brawler who cheerfully kills one of his own men to keep the others in line. Events culminate with Caine fighting Pike in single combat, and when Caine wins, he has to keep the other bandits from adopting him as their new leader. In addition to saving Nashebo's mother, he also prevents the young brave from murdering Pike-- though the audience is not denied satisfaction, as it's indicated that Pike won't enjoy any tender mercy from his former minions, once Caine and company have departed.

Friday, September 15, 2017

GODZILLA 2000 (1999), GODZILLA, MOTHRA, AND KING GHIDORAH (2001)



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


GODZILLA 2000 started out the "Big G" reboot known as the Millennium series, but 2000 is somewhat less than "millennial" in quality.

The film runs two parallel plot-lines which eventually dovetail, but to no great effect. The principal viewpoint characters are members of a small group of "Godzilla sighters," made up of scientist Shinoda, his precocious young daughter Io, and a jaded lady reporter, Yuki, who hangs around with them to get advance info on the monster's rampages. Shinoda makes clear in his speeches that he wants Godzilla contained but not destroyed, since he's an important example of post-nuclear adaptation. However, the "Godzilla Prediction Network" has no clout, and the officials of the "Japan Self Defense Force" continue with their plans to destroy the giant reptile. In fact, the JSDF is led by the obsessive Katagiri, whom Shinoda knows from his days working for the same organization. Both the scientist and the military commander are fairly flat figures, designed to embody "good view of Godzilla" vs. "bad view of Godzilla."

The JSDF is also responsible for giving Millennium Godzilla his first sparring-partner, when the military tampers with a sunken UFO. The UFO comes to life and promptly seeks out Godzilla, blasting the reptile in order to harvest the creature's DNA. However, the aliens in the UFO can't control the monster's "wild card" genes, and the whole shebang-- the craft and whatever beings are inside it-- morph into a big monster, whom the Japanese dub ":Orga," There's a seesaw battle between Godzilla and Orga, which Godzilla predictably wins. Katagiri actually gets the best scene: roaring his defiance of Godzilla just before the monster destroys him.

While Ogra is a dull opponent that made me long for the days of the Smog Monster, 2000 at least boasts an impressive new design for Godzilla, certainly better than the slinky iguana-critter from America's 1998 GODZILLA. The 2000 film even does its own version of the 1998 film's much longer and more involved "car fleeing big monster's feet" scene. Still, the Japanese characters are not as appealing as those of the American version, much less those of the earlier "Heisei period."



2000 was followed by the equally weak GODZILLA VS, MEGAGUIRUS, which allegedly did not do well at the Japanese box office. This spurred the producers of the next fun to attempt another "monster mash" with roots in the original Godzilla-series. Originally the plan was to oppose the Big G with three revamped versions of Angilas, Varan, and Baragon, though only Angilas had any explicit connection with Godzilla's series. Marketing considerations led to the use of Mothra and King Ghidorah, who had always been two of Godzilla's more popular foes. The stratagem proved profitable, as the third film did very well, despite (or because of) its exhaustingly long title:GODZILLA, MOTHRA, AND KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK.

Picking up on some of the more mystical elements from the Heisei days, ATTACK advances a new origin for Godzilla's three opponents. Now Mothra, Baragon and Ghidorah are all spiritual defenders of Japan, and all are much less powerful than in their earlier versions. This time there's no strong opposition between the military and civilians, for the main viewpoint character is reporter Yuri Tachibana, daughter of Commander Tachibana of the JSDF. There's a minor conflict between the two over the proper investigation of Godzilla, but by film's end they are reconciled-- not that their interpersonal drama is all that interesting.

Despite the film's box office success, I found the battle-scenes routine at best, and even a scene in which Mothra and Ghidorah fuse to produce "King Ghidorah" did not help. Baragon actually gets the best scenes, for though he's no match for Godzilla, his burrowing-talent literally knocks Godzilla's feet out from under him-- which is something you don't see every day in Big G films.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II (1993), GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA (2002)



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

I'm continuing in my eccentric habit of reviewing Godzilla films that weren't even intended to be part of the same continuity, if only for the personal pleasure of having a "G VS. MG II" show up in 1992 before a "G VS MG 1" appears in 2002. Of course, this is mere semantics. "G VS MG II" is in theory a conceptual sequel to Mechagodzilla's first 1974 appearance, known as GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA in Japan and as GODZILLA VS. THE COSMIC MONSTER in the U.S. Even so, it seems odd for the Japanese to call the 1993 work "second in the series," partly because it's actually Mechagodzilla;s third appearance (following TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA), partly because the producers of the 1993 film have chosen to give the Big MG a brand-new origin.

Building upon developments in GODZILLA VS, KING GHIDORAH-- though another film, GODZILLA AND MOTHRA, interposed itself between GHIDORAH and the 1993 film-- MECHAGODZILLA II posits that a Japanese self-defense batallion, G-Force, is empowered to dredge up the remains of Mecha King Ghidorah. Mechagodzilla is to be constructed from these remnants, thus establishing that this robot has no connection with the alien-made mechanism from the 1970s.

Time passes, during which the movie's viewpoint character Kazuma is more or less drafted to serve in G-Force, where he's something less than a great fit. Nevertheless, he ends up being part of the crew working with Mechagodzilla, along with the "monster-whispering" psychic Miki, previously introduced in earlier "Heisei era" Godzilla films. To further complicate G-Force's situation, a Japanese research team visits a Pacific island, where they discover a giant egg. No sooner do the humans show up than so do Godzilla and a radically redesigned Rodan (making his first apperance in the Heisei series). The monsters fight over the egg and the team escapes with the egg. Back at G-Force a lady scientist examines the egg, and figures out that it contains a mutated dinosaur of the same species as Godzilla  (so that MECHAGODZILLA II is also a reboot of the "Son of Godzilla" character from the original film-series). Once G-Force knows that the infant in the egg is sending out telepathic broadcasts, they decide that they can use the hatchling to lure Godzilla into the city and then attack him with Mechagodzilla. However, Rodan also shows up for the party, and good havoc is had by all.



Given that I have never liked the classic version of Rodan, whom I considered too cartoony, the Heisei Rodan is a huge improvement. When he fights Godzilla this time, he looks like he has a chance to peck a hole in the Big G's head. The hatchling is also less cutesy than the original Son of Godzilla, and the scenes in which it imprints on the lady scientist is handled without too much false sentiment. However, the plot doesn't accomplish anything beyond getting the monsters together for another battle, and the human characters don't have much heart. And I never figured out why Rodan wanted the egg. Surely, even with the telepathy angle, the pteranodan monster never thought it was its own offspring? Or did he/she just really want to make a monster omelet?



GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA, is the fourth film in the so-called "Millennium series," and it gives the Big G one of his best human opponents, Lt. Ayane Yashiro. The Godzilla films have always been erratic in their creation of strong female characters, but Ayane is almost certainly the best of these.

Ayane, a member of Japan's self-defense force, is called into action when Godzilla makes one of his peripatetic attacks on her country. She and her fellow officers operate a maser-tank, but due to a storm that hits even as Godzilla attacks, her maser-rays fail to slay the monster. Ayane refuses to defend herself for her failure and so she's made a scapegoat for the JSDF's embarrassment. Then someone gets the idea to create a mechanical version of Godzilla to fight the real one. However, whereas the 1993 film chose to cobble its robot out of Mecha King Ghidorah's pieces, the JSDF goes to the source of all Godzillas: the bones of the 1954 monster, still in one piece all these years later and resting on the ocean's bottom after the original was slain by the oxygen destroyer.

Ayane's piloting skills earn her the chance to redeem herself by piloting the new Mechagodzilla, who is here given the proper name "Kiryu." Her fortunes are also improved (sort of) by a possible romantic encounter with maladroit scientist Tokimitsu, who even comes with ready-made family (his precocious daughter Sara). However, when Godzilla returns to Tokyo again, Ayane misses her chance to close with the enemy once more. Once Kirya sees Godzilla, the organic matter in the robot's makeup rebels against human control, and Kiryu begins to ravage Tokyo instead of fighting Godzilla.

However, Tokimitsu manages to submerge the organic instincts of the robot, and finally Ayane manages to square off in her long-delayed combat with Japan's favorite monster. She succeeds where most human-operated devices fail, and drives Godzilla back into the sea, at least for a time.

The 2002 film succeeds best in its exacting view of Ayane's military world, and this in turn resonates with the original GOJIRA's post-war themes. Both Ayane-- again played by the excellent Yumiko Shaku-- and Kiryu return in the next entry, GODZILLA TOKYO S.O.S, but they take something of a back seat to the development of new characters and an involved Mothra subplot.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

GODZILLA VS. KING GHIOORAH (1991)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

GHIDORAH was the third film in the so-called "Heisei series" of Godzilla films. I commented that the previous film in the series, GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE, tried to bite off more than it could chew. GHIDORAH also takes in an awful lot of story-developments, but manages to produce some decent "food-for-thought" nourishment, even if the plotting is a little helter-skelter at times.

GHIDORAH rethinks several key ideas associated with the Godzilla franchise, particularly with respect to the origins of the "King of Monsters." In the original GOJIRA, the monster is a multivalent presence, at times seeming like the incarnation of Japan's traditions, at other times like the forces of modernism that threaten those traditions. Writer-director Kazuki Omori, who also performed both functions on BIOLLANTE, seemed to apprehend this ambivalence. In the original conception, Godzilla was a dinosaur who somehow remained alive beneath the earth until he was both awakened and mutated by an American atom-bomb test. Omori imagines a period, previous to the dino's mutation, in which the creature happened to be awake on a Pacific island during the end years of World War II. A squad of Japanese soldiers have retreated to the island, fleeing the advance of American troops. By chance the bombings disturb the dino, which attacks the American ground troops. This makes it possible for the Japanese soldiers to get away, though the dinosaur is killed by fire from an American ship. Implicitly, the "Godzillasaurus" revives from the dead, rather than from sleep, when its body is irradiated by a bomb-test ten years later.

The film's rather forgettable viewpoint character-- Kenichiro, a science fiction writer-- first learns of this incident from the Japanese field commander, Shindo, now a wealthy businessman. Kenichiro is joined in his investigations by a biology professor and psychic Miki, previously introduced in BIOLLANTE, who has been able to communicate with giant monsters to some degree. The three of them are also brought in as consultants when Japan receives a visit from a UFO, containing three denizens of Earth in the 23rd century.

The "Futurians" inform Japan that the world stands in danger to total destruction because at some point Godzilla will start attacking nuclear plants on a regular basis. Not only will there no longer be a Japan in the future-- although of the three time-travelers, a female named Emi is of Japanese stock-- the rest of the world will suffer devastation as well. The Futurians' solution is to go back in time and prevent the dinosaur's irradiation, so that there will be no Godzilla.

Given how much destruction Japan has suffered from Godzilla's attacks, the modern-day Japanese characters have no problem lending aid to the Futurians (though, to be sure, I was never sure why the time-travelers even needed their aid). The moderns and the Futurians travel back to the Pacific isle in 1944, and witness all the events narrated earlier by Shindo. They even see Commander Shindo salute the courage of the fallen dinosaur, just as if it were a fellow soldier, rather than an animal who aided the Japanese squad by accident. At the right moment, the Futurians teleport the dinosaur's carcass away from the island, tossing it under the ocean waves. (Given what transpires later, one may wonder why they didn't hurl the corpse into an active volcano, just to be sure that it was entirely disposed of.) Unbeknownst to the moderns, the Futurians also leave behind three cute little bio-engineered imps called "Dorats," whose purpose unfolds later.

The Futurian named Emi, due to being exposed to the authentic culture of her ancestors, reveals to Kenichiro's bunch that the mission has been a lie. Future Japan, rather than being destroyed, becomes an economic superpower in the 23rd century, to the extent that all other countries have become subservient to Japan. The Futurians don't make any claims about Future-Japan being a tyranny; they just want all countries to be of equal stature (thus proving that Marxism is still around in their century). The Dorat-imps undergo the mutation that would have happened to Godzilla, and turn into King Ghidorah. For some reason, though Ghidorah is created at the 1954 bomb-test, he waits around almost forty years before attacking 1992 Japan. The country's utter destruction will ensure that it never dominates the future economy, while the elimination of Godzilla from history makes sure that the Big G cannot interfere with the Futurians' plans, if only by accident.

"All we have to do," says Kenichiro, "is blast [the submerged corpse of the Godzillasaurus[ with some radioactivity." But, in one of the movie's weakest plot-developments, the good guys somehow find out that the dino-corpse has been exposed to radioactivity by a sunken nuclear sub at some past point in time. Just like that, Godzilla appears in Tokyo once more, and successfully thrashes King Ghidorah. However, with Ghidorah gone, Godzilla begins another of his many rampages, making it possible that he may do the same thing the Futurians wanted their pawn to do. In a rather confusing turnaround, Emi journeys to the future, and brings back Mecha-Ghidorah, a cyborg composed of the original Ghidorah and various mechanical parts. The battle ends with Godzilla being hurled into the ocean for a "cooling-off" period. Emi departs, leaving open the possibility that Japan will still become the future world's economic overlord.

While I wasn't crazy about the rewriting of Ghidorah's raison d'etre, the film does successfully take the mythos of Godzilla in some interesting new directions. Prior to the successful worldwide  marketing of manga and anime in the 1990s, Godzilla films were one of the few products of Japanese culture that achieved widespread recognition, and so, in a loose way, the success of Godzilla in the 1960s does approximate Japan's later "economic miracle." When the modern Japanese agree to get rid of the Big G. they open the door to a worse menace, and this comes close to stating that Godzilla is essential to Japan's destiny.

Even more interesting is the extension of the martial motifs of the 1954 GOJIRA. In 1944 Commander Shindo salutes the fallen dinosaur, and by so doing, he also implicates Godzilla in the fortunes of his nation. When Shindo expresses regret at having to leave the creature behind, the scene carries the resonance of an officer being forced to leave one of his own men behind. Later, after Godzilla has defeated the original King Ghidorah, he happens upon a massive building belonging to the modern-day Shindo. In a scene echoing Steve Martin's "face-down" with Gojira, Shindo alone remains in his building, exchanging meaningful stares with the giant reptile, Happily, the film doesn't go so far as to claim that the encounter is as meaningful to Godzilla as it is to Shindo, for Big G then destroys the building pitilessly, killing the same man whose life he spared by chance fifty years ago.

Necessarily, future films in the series did not address this modified origin. But if one could hazard that, in some metaphysical way, Godzilla was covalent with a Japanese soldier deserted by his unit, then that would go a long way toward explaining why Godzilla seems obsessed halt the time with raining destruction on "his" native land, and, at other times, determined to protect Japan against any and all enemies.