Saturday, March 25, 2017

THE WILD WILD WEST REVISITED (1979), MORE WILD WILD WEST (1980)



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


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

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




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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

BRICK BRADFORD (1947), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1951)



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


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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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



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


Monday, March 20, 2017

TO DIE FOR (1988), SON OF DARKNESS: TO DIE FOR 2 (1991)



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


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

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



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

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

MARVEL'S IRON FIST: EPISODES 1-5 (2017)



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

D.E.B.S. (2004)



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


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

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

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

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

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

COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970), THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971)



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


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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 11, 2017

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)


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


I've not read the original H.G. Wells "Empire of the Ants" short story from 1905, but an online summary informs that (1) the titular ants don't get their super-intelligence from radiation or any other marvelous factors, and (2) neither the setting nor the characters of the original story appear in the movie.

For what little it's worth, the 1977 movie is the last "big bug" flick from writer-director Bert I. Gordon, who garnered a measure of fame for cheesy films like BEGINNING OF THE END. The special FX in EMPIRE are at most marginally better than those in the 1957 film, but the basic plot is roughly the same-- not too surprising, since Gordon co-wrote the script. Once again, humankind's careless use of radioactive materials-- in this case, wastes dumped into the environment-- causes ordinary-sized insects to mutate to king-size status in a matter of days.

As long as one doesn't expect much of the film's weak cosmological theme, there's a little fun to be had in watching ants hunt down a collection of baffled humans in the Florida Everglades. The expedition is made up of a group of potential land-buyers being given the grand tour by real estate schlepper Marilyn (Joan Collins before her pre-DYNASTY comeback), and there's a little symbolic potential that most of the characters are motivated by the great American Dream of making money, when they're forced to fight for their lives. But the characters are largely ciphers with stereotypical problems and situations, though the cast boasts several solid presences, including Robert Lansing, Albert Salmi, and Pamela Susan Shoop (who gets the best lines, at least within the script's mediocre capacity). There's also some potential in the idea that the "queen ant" magically evolves the ability to turn human beings into drones with her pheromones, but this too is not used to best effect.

Though I can imagine EMPIRE being watched with a "so bad it's good" mentality, I don't think it's all that rewarding on that level. Cinematographer Reginald Morris composes some really good shots to make the most of the Florida locale, which is more visual oomph than one usually gets in a Bert Gordon film.

Friday, March 10, 2017

SCARED TO DEATH (1947)



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

Just to get the classificatoon thing out of the way: though there is a mention of "mental telepathy" in SCARED TO DEATH, as well as a schtick in which the film is partially the flashback of a dead woman, I discount both of these as indicators of any "marvelous" content. The narration is not unlike that of SUNSET BOULEVARD three years later: a mere narrative device, not a delving into how unquiet spirits occupy themselves.

Coincidentally, workhouse director Christy Cabanne died the same year of the release of SUNSET BOULEVARD. Cabanne directed dozens of Hollywood films from the silent years up to 1948, but I would guess that the only films in his repertoire that are watched today are this film and 1940's THE MUMMY'S HAND. The latter initiated a short run of Mummy-films that crystallizes the figure of the bandage-wrapped boogeyman for modern audiences. In contrast, SCARED TO DEATH seems to be more like the final nail in the coffin of the spooky murder-mystery.

Of course, such mysteries continued to made throughout the fifties, so SCARED was not the last of its kind. But the script, by a two-credit writer named Walter Abbott, seems to go out of its way to pile coincidence upon coincidence, as if having fun at the expense of this type of "mellerdramer." (Abbott's only other Hollywood credit was a comedy entitled STOP THAT CAB.)

After the brief introduction of the framing-device, in which we see a female corpse on a slab start to flash back to her recent past, all of the action takes place at a sanatorium run by George Zucco's character, Doctor Van Ee (could the scripter have meant to write "Van Eyck" and gave it up because of the difficulty of spelling the name?) Also residing at the building-- which looks like nothing but the usual Hollywood mansion-- are the doctor's son Ward and his wife Laura, an ex-cop named Bill, serving as bodyguard to the doctor, and a nosy maid, Lilybeth. The central conflict is swiftly presented: Laura is estranged from Ward but won't give him a divorce, and for some unknown reason Laura suffers from some sort of hyperactive nervous condition. Since Laura is the dead person on the slab in "real time," it's not hard to guess that someone is going to do Ward a big favor and get rid of his annoying wife, much in the vein of 1943's CALLING DOCTOR DEATH, which looks like a classic horror-film next to SCARED.

Quick as flies to a picnic, the Van Ee estate starts getting visitors. First is Professor Leonide (Bela Lugosi) and his dwarf-accomplice Indigo (Angelo Rossito, teaming with Lugosi for the third time, though he gets almost nothing to do). Conversation between the professor and the doctor establishes that they are cousins, and there's some dark secret they share, though it really doesn't amount to much of anything for Doctor Van Ee. However, husband Ward takes advantage of Leonide's visit to probe him about a mysterious photograph Ward just happens to have found somewhere, showing two dancers in masks. Ward doesn't exactly say that he thinks the dancer is his wife, or that he's hoping to find something in the photo that might get him out of his unhappy marriage, but that seems the only reason to approach a virtual stranger on the subject. (Ward knows Leonide from a youthful encounter but the two don't have any history together, as Leonide does with Ward's old man.)

Then a green-masked figure shows up, though only for the audience's benefit. Laura gets gaslighted when someone sends her a package containing the head of a female dummy (I never did get the supposed significance of this.) Abbott's script does eventually reveal the source of Laura's hypertension and the reason why she never wants anything covering her eyes, but it's certainly a lot of work to little effect.

Also visiting the house are Terry. a nosy reporter, and his girlfriend. His visit is at least a little more believable than Leonide's purely coincidental appearance: Laura calls Terry because of receiving the dummy-head, hoping she can make a case against her husband or her father-in-law for trying to drive her mad. In reality, it's the guy in the green mask who's the source of the head, and he also happens to be a master hypnotist, for he puts the nosy maid into a death-like trance for a time. (I couldn't follow the reason for this, either.) The reporter more or less picks up the role of viewpoint-character to suss out the identity of the mysterious figure, though for once he isn't a serial killer. He only executes one character in the whole film, and that's Laura, who is-- yes, here it comes-- "scared to death."

The movie has the distinction of being being Bela Lugosi's only color film, but since it's a pretty cheap-looking color process, there's little to no aesthetic merit to said distinction. Lugosi is fine, playing what I think is his last "red herring" role, but most of the actors, including character actor Nat Pendleton as the dumb flatfoot, just put in their time without distinction. Only Molly Lamont does well with the thin material, for she has to put across Laura's frenetic condition while keeping her unlikable. Interestingly, two years prior to SCARED, Lamont played a character in 1946's DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER, a Lugosi-less sequel to Lugosi's 1940 DEVIL BAT.






Tuesday, March 7, 2017

SEEDS OF SIN (1967), THE GHASTLY ONES (1968)



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

In my review of LEGACY OF BLOOD I said:


What little I remember of GHASTLY ONES is that even though it was just another predictable story of a mystery-killer knocking off members of a nasty family, at least the "sadism, incest, and murder" in that film was comparatively "good sleaze." In contrast, Monson has all the same ingredients, and does nothing diverting with them.

I''ve now reviewed my copies of two Andy Milligan films that came out within a year of each other, and I have the impression-- though certainly no evidence-- that Carl Monson, director of LEGACY, may have seen both Milligan films and borrowed elements from them for his film. Since both men worked in sexploitation films, it doesn't seem unlikely that Monson might have been acquainted with both works, though of course no one will ever know positively.

Further, I erred in calling GHASTLY ONES "good sleaze," though the film does have fans who would affirm this. I was actually thinking of SEEDS OF SIN, which was issued on a DVD with GHASTLY by the Something Weird people. Neither film is actually good in a formal sense, but whereas Monson is simply playing with a dysfunctional family as a means of putting butts in theater-seats, Milligan appears to have been obsessed with the theme as a result of his real-life experiences.

SEEDS OF SIN involves no inheritance-theme, and in place of a malevolent patriarch there's a corrupt matriarch, wheelchair-bound Claris Manning, who spawned a brood of children she hates. One daughter, Carol, stays with Claris and takes care of her, though the two of them ceaselessly spit bile at one another all day. One day Carol takes it into her head to invite all of her siblings to the Manning estate without her mother's permission, and since they're all on their way, Claris has no reasonable choice but to let them enter her house.

The various vices of the Manning children and their spouses are then put on display, but the only one that makes for passably good sleaze is the connection between sister Carol and her older brother Michael. The two of them had sex as teens, and Carol clearly wants to renew the forbidden relationship, despite the presence of Michael's wife Susan. The other members of the family are just as wacked-out and one-dimensional as Carol and Michael, but to provide narrative momentum, an unseen killer starts knocking off members of the family. (Both Milligan films use this trope but barely if at all bring in any authorities to investigate the murders.) The crimes are passably bizarre-- a beheading, acid thrown in a beautiful woman's face-- but the director's main passion is for the toxicity of the family, irredeemable in any way (which in terms of my schema makes SEEDS an irony). In keeping with the emphasis on family-as-hell, the killer is revealed to be a person entrusted with a caretaking function-- which is the one thing both MIlligan films and the Monson film have in common. 




SEEDS is moderately better than GHASTLY ONES, partly thanks to distributor tampering. It seems someone thought that the film would play better in low-class theaters with more softcore sex scenes, and so many such scenes are inserted willy-nilly. They're not exceptional scenes, though they did employ body-doubles with better bodies than Milligan's cast. However, GHASTLY ONES has no such saving grace: in place of softcore sex-scenes, Milligan has relied more on horrific "money shots"-- and indeed, GHASTLY is said to be the film that started Milligan on the road to being a maker of horror-films.

This time, there is a definite inheritance-plot, in which three sisters and their spouses must live for a time on their late father's estate in order to satisfy the conditions of his will. In place of the stark black-and-white photography, GHASTLY is full of, well, ghastly, garish color shots, giving me the impression that Milligan had no idea how to compose shots in this medium. I found the film so hard to watch that I couldn't even make notes as to which siblings did what to whom. The murders by a hooded killer-- particularly one involving open-heart surgery-- are clumsy, though at least the killer has a different motive than the one in SEEDS, while still following the "demented caretaker" theme. I suppose Monson probably swiped the notion of the inheritance-conditions-- though this was old-hat even in the 1960s-- some of the gore, and keeping one character-name, "Veronica," the same, albeit for a different type of character.

This too is so full of the toxins of human vileness that I can only categorize it as an irony as well, in which nothing positive or life-affirming has any chance to survive.


Friday, March 3, 2017

GOG (1954)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


To the extent that Ivan Tors is remembered outside the circles of metaphenomenal film-fans, the writer-producer is probably best remembered for his work on family-friendly animal-shows like FLIPPER and DAKTARI. Fans of 1950s SF-films, though, may have more regard for his three films known as the "Office of Scientific Investigation" series. The series was united more by a concept than any regular characters: in each one, agents of the "OSI" became involved in investigating mysteries or problems relating to America's scientific sphere of activities.

An interview with director Herbert L. Strock, included in this Tom Weaver book, throws substantial light on both the virtues and failings of the final film in the series, GOG. Strock, originally a film editor, found himself promoted to directorial duties on GOG, and expressed his opinion that Tors was the sort of creator who regularly read SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN and routinely tried to incorporate as much "techie" stuff in his 1950s trilogy as possible.

I have not seen the other two "OSI films," THE MAGNETIC MONSTER and RIDERS TO THE STARS, in some time, but GOG alone demonstrates Tors' penchant for structuring his stories so as to provide huge infodumps about fascinating scientific developments. GOG is probably the most jam-packed of the three, in that almost all of the action takes place within one American government facility, wherein a wide number of experiments are being performed, though all are related to a "space station" project.

GOG is constructed after the fashion of mysteries like Agatha Christie's TEN LITTLE INDIANS, in that the film starts with one of the researchers suffering a mysterious death. OSI agent David Sheppard (Richard Egan) is called in to investigate, posing as a scientist assigned to the project. He receives aid from another agent, Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling), who's already serving as a covert contact with the facility, and who brings Sheppard up to speed about the various personalities involved-- not least a super-computer named NOVAC, very likely a cinematic tip of the hat to the famous mainframe computer of 1951, UNIVAC.

For most of the film, Sheppard and Merritt-- who are also a low-key romantic couple-- don't have much luck in preventing other scientists from suffering accidents (fatal and otherwise). All of the incidents involve malfunctioning equipment, and since all of the equipment is controlled by NOVAC, the script by Tors and Tom Taggart seems to be edging toward "Colossus" territory. Sadly, while this would have been a much more satisfying conclusion than the actual one, NOVAC is being controlled by another party, one that the audience never gets to see captured or incapacitated. It's a little like watching a "mystery killer" film in which you're informed that the killer was caught by the cops in some offscreen altercation.

However, the force behind the accidents does have two proxies that are more or less the stars of the show: the twin robots Gog and Magog. Designed as functioning "waldos" used to manipulate hazardous materials, the robots become violent and threaten everyone in the facility. Strock does an outstanding job of jazzing up the thrills at the film's end, considering that GOG was very much a limited-budget project. In fact, though Sheppard isn't exactly an action-hero, he distinguishes himself at the conclusion by wielding a flame-thrower at the robots (probably the most overt attempt to sell the film's 3D effects).

None of the characters are memorable, but to the script's credit, it does catch some of the pure fascination of science, and to that end the characters serve as adequate vessels of that "sense of wonder." It's interesting that the robots are named for two rebellious figures from Biblical lore, and that would have been more than a little appropriate had Tors decided to go the "Colossus" route. Even without an insidious super-computer, though, GOG is interesting in that it's a pro-science film that nevertheless takes all of its narrative strength from showing new scientific ways to kill people.

LEGACY OF BLOOD (1971)



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

While the cover-copy of the above VHS package is technically accurate-- that one will find in the movie all the stars billed, as well as "sadism, incest, and murder"-- never before have such actors and themes been rendered with such tedium in one work of cinematic sludge.

A few sources assert that the plot by writer-director Carl Monson-- whose best work is probably 1973's schlocky sleaze-horror flick PLEASE DON'T EAT MY MOTHER-- cadged the story of LEGACY from Andy Milligan's 1968 THE GHASTLY ONES-- which Milligan turned around and remade in a film that may be just as boring as Monson's: LEGACY OF HORROR. What little I remember of GHASTLY ONES is that even though it was just another predictable story of a mystery-killer knocking off members of a nasty family, at least the "sadism, incest, and murder" in that film was comparatively "good sleaze." In contrast, Monson has all the same ingredients, and does nothing diverting with them.

Of course, the story was old before either Monson or Milligan were born: Hollywood had once churned out dozens of "old dark house" flicks in which a bunch of potential victims were forced to tolerate each other's company while some killer strove to assassinate the lot of them. LEGACY is probably duller than the worst of these, though, because the 1971 film promises a lot of ilicit titillation and doesn't deliver. Yes, there's a guy who likes to be beaten, and a vague interaction between a brother and sister that may have included incest-- but it's all delivered in a workmanlike manner by actors who were probably mortified by participating in the project: not least Jeff Morrow and Faith Domergue, who had enjoyed considerably better fortune when they were cast together in 1955's THIS ISLAND EARTH.  For the record, only Ms. Domergue manages to put across a halfway decent performance amidst the tedium, in contrast to the offensive mugging of Buck Kartalian. John Carradine only has a few scenes, but his ringing voice offers one of the film's few pleasures.

The various murders are poorly executed and always unconvincing, but there's not much doubt from the first that the motivation is pure gain, so there are no perilous psychos in LEGACY. For completists of Carradine and Domergue only.

GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1969)



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


This is a review of the usual American version of ALL MONSTERS ATTACK. I understand that there may be a video version more in line with the original Japanese release, but this is the one where Godzilla's son talks like Barney Rubble.

I've heard that some fans have a liking for REVENGE, finding it a winsome look at the life of a young Japanese kid, dealing with school bullies and a lack of supervision from his working parents.From the first time I caught the film on TV, I saw what the film-- directed by the same man who initiated the franchise, as well as some outstanding follow-ups in the series-- was shooting for, and the good intentions behind the film do keep it from being the worst film in the series. I might have even forgiven the film its glaring re-use of scenes from other Godzilla flicks of contemporary vintage, mainly SON OF GODZILLA and GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER-- if director Ishiro Honda and scripter Shinich Serizawa had come close to capturing the world of a child fascinated with monsters. Not that long ago, I championed Bert Gordon's THE BOY AND THE PIRATES because it provided a valid look into a child's world, even if the film was something less than perfect. Unfortunately, every idea in REVENGE is predictable in its delivery, and had I seen it as a kid, I think I would have considered it somewhat condescending.

To be sure, I can admit these days that there were economic justifications for making a Godzilla movie aimed at kids. According to Steve Ryfle's book JAPAN'S FAVORITE MON-STAR, in late 1960s Japan television's imitation of the big-screen kaiju ega had eroded much of the audience for Godzilla films. At one point Toho Studios considered putting an end to the Godzilla series with their big monster-mash epic DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, but roughly a year later, ALL MONSTERS ATTACK appeared, cutting costs through the use of stock footage and attempting to appeal to the more uncritical kids.

The essential idea of REVENGE is that for kids like young Ichiro, Godzilla represents a masculine image of adult power, while Godzilla's less prepossessing son Minilla is the image of what kids are like in the real world. In fact, though Ichiro knows all his monsters by heart, Minilla is his favorite. However, when Ichiro sleeps, he apparently dreams himself onto Monster Island, where he befriends Minilla, the only monster in the story who can speak human language, as well as being able to vary his size, sometimes standing about half as tall as his dad and other times able to descend to Ichiro's size. Ichiro learns that Minilla's life is no bouquet of posies, for the diminutive critter is persecuted by a bully-monster named Gabara, whose name, wonder of wonders, just happens to be the same as that of Ichiro's real-world bully. Further, Minilla's dad isn't altogether sympathetic to the young monster's problems, as Godzilla encourages his spawn to fight his own battles. (This message is somewhat muddled by a scene in which Godzilla does fight Gabara in protection of Minilla, but this may have been included just to satisfy an audience that couldn't get enough Godzilla-battles.)

Having had my own experiences with school-bullies, I certainly can't deny that *some* of the appeal of fantasies-- be they monsters, superheroes, or whatever-- is that they portray a world where the good guy, or even the relatively good monster, always wins. That said, I think the main reason I don't like GODZILLA'S REVENGE is because it's too reductive.

My first exposure to Japanese monster-films was seeing advertisements for KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, though sadly I didn't get to see that one on the big screen. I did, however, get my share of kaiju-thrills from big-screen showings of 1960s epics such as THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, MONSTER ZERO, and, happily, the well-loved DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. But the appeal of these films for me didn't really hinge so much on the defeat of the assorted villains, be they aliens, other monsters, or even bad humans. The appeal for me was closer to that which Immanuel Kant called "sublimity," the pleasure one takes in beholding vessels of great force in action. I've talked about this concept exhaustively on my ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, and won't further discuss it here, except to provide one essay-link that related to "sublimity and science fiction."

Still, I could have entertained even a reductive account of monster-pleasures if there had been any imagination to it; any attempt to capture the feeling of "life as it is lived." But Ichiro's story-arc is just as escapist at bottom as anything in the outright fantasy-films, and not without certain contradictions about its ideas of boyhood and manhood.

In conclusion, I've seen some reviews that claim that REVENGE exists in a world that isn't necessarily coterminous with Godzilla's other outings, and it's true that no adult in Ichiro's real world actually displays belief in monsters. Still, the story isn't as overt as, say, Lewis Carroll's ALICE books in terms of relegating all the fantastic content to dreams. Honda's film seems to want to have it both ways, giving the audience the elbow-room they need to associate REVENGE with all the other giant-monster movies-- and so I designate the film as being just as "marvelous" in its phenomenality as the others.