Wednesday, February 27, 2019

FANTOMAS (1913-14)



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


Having finally read the first of the Fantomas books, reviewed here, I then made it my business to check out at last the five-part serial by Louis Feuillade, refurbished and packaged by Kino with a commentary by film-scholar David Kalat.

Given that I wasn't all that mesmerized by some of the earlier Feuillade serials, such as the 1915 LES VAMPIRES, I didn't exactly hurry to seek out FANTOMAS, though it seems as if I've been hearing rapturous accolades ever since I started reading early film-criticism in depth. Nevertheless, I attempted, as much as possible, to watch the serial with an open mind, keeping in mind some of the virtues I'd found in the novel.

Each of the serial's five parts is based on a separate novel by authors Allain and Souvestre. Critic Kalat informs me that the novels were so widely popular in France that most of the audience knew what happened in them, and thus Feuillade could pick and choose what elements he filmed, assured that the audience already knew what happened. That said, I found it surprising that IN THE SHADOW OF THE GUILLOTINE, Feuillade's adaptation of the first book, omits some of the prose work's best stuff. I fully understand why a filmmaker would eschew the novel's initial "is Fantomas real or not" approach, and why Feuillade begins his adaptation by having Fantomas, in one of his many disguises, appear before one of his victims. But the director gives only cursory attention to the serial's two viewpoint characters, the police inspector Juve and his young reporter-friend Fandor, whose interwoven history is so important to the novel. Other scenes from the novel appear in helter-skelter fashion, and one of the more shocking scenarios-- in which an innocent man is killed by the guillotine-- is understandably altered to spare the victim's life. The villain's pursuers never lay hands on the evildoer, though Juve does daydream about meeting Fantomas clothed, as in a famous illustration, in evening-wear and a domino mask.

JUVE VS. FANTOMAS is the best of the five segments, which are largely independent of one another, aside from the trope of Fantomas escaping each time. For the first time, Fantomas is seen in a sort of "costume," an all-black outfit with a dark hood like that of an executioner. One of the villain's more exotic crimes involves unleashing a python on his victims, and Juve manages to both anticipate and counter his foe's snaky attempt on his life. The sequence ends with the apparent deaths of both Juve and Fandor when Fantomas blows up the building they're in-- the only true cliffhanger in the set, and the only episode I found effectively atmospheric.

THE MURDEROUS CORPSE is one of the duller entries. It opens with the conceit that only Fandor escaped the explosion, though, if it's true that everyone knew the novel, then everyone back then would've know that Juve too survived, concealing that fact in order to infiltrate the villain's gang with the aid of yet more clever disguises.This time the main crime involves Fantomas making gloves out of a dead man's hand in order to leave only the dead man's fingerprints behind. This episode features the only instance in which Fantomas commits an on-camera act of violence: decked out in his executioner's costume, the evildoer comes up behind a French cop and strangles the cop with a sash.

FANTOMAS VS. FANTOMAS-- This is the second-best episode, helped out by many sequences at a colorful costume ball. The opening shows Juve reacting to the imprecations of the local newspapers, to the effect that because he Juve has not caught Fantomas, then this can only be because-- shades of J. Jonah Jameson-- Juve actually IS Fantomas. There's also the complication of a famous American detective who comes to Paris to capture the villain, though since the guy sports the risible name "Tom Bob," the viewer probably doesn't anticipate his showing up Juve. There's an antic sense of fun when no less than three people dressed like Fantomas attend the ball, not counting Fandor, who has a similar but not identical outfit.

THE FALSE MAGISTRATE is the last episode, and the one most affected by missing or decayed footage. It's some malarkey about Fantomas stealing some jewels, and though this time Juve and Fandor actually lay hands on the villain this time, he escapes them by the ingenious method of wearing a pair of fake arms. How he knew he's need fake arms before he was caught is anyone's guess.

David Kalat correctly anticipates that many viewers may not take to Feuillade's underplayed, almost elliptical method of story-telling. He makes an interesting but not convincing argument about how Feuillade pioneered an approach to pulp fiction called "fantastic realism." I just think the guy was a sloppy storyteller, and remain unimpressed by his alleged genius. I'm sure, however, that his approach to the wild pulp-content of the Fantomas novel impressed the heck out of many intellectuals of the time, particularly Rene Magritte, since the underplaying of melodrama is similar to "high art's" attempts to distance emotion and affect. Still, Kalat's enthusiasm for the material is somewhat infectious, and I appreciate his mini-history of the Fantomas character in various media, as well as the character's influence on other fictional figures.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

ALADDIN AND HIS LAMP (1952)



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


Though there's almost no chance that this 1950s programmer influenced 1992's ALADDIN, it's an interesting coincidence that this is one of the few English-language pictures, prior to the Disney film, to give the keeper of the lamp a rather swashbuckling nature.

To be sure, the filmmakers, director Lew (THE RAVEN) Landers and two screenwriters, were probably channeling one of the story-tropes from 1924's THIEF OF BAGDAD. The opening establishes that an invader named Bokra and his soldiers have taken over Bagdad and that the leader plans to marry Princess Zafir (the always reliable Patricia Medina). Aladdin (Johnny Sands), who happens to be a thief rather than the lazy layabout from the Arabian Nights tale, decides that he wants an up-close look at the famed beauty, and just like the Fairbanks-thief, Aladdin scales the palace wall and pitches woo to the princess. Zafir's not a shrinking-violet, as she slaps his face, but on some level the viewer's led to believe that she's covertly impressed by his daring.

Aladdin escapes the palace with his hide intact, but, in the biggest similarity to the folktale, an evil magician, one Mahmud, persuades the thief to haul an innocent-looking lamp out of a deep well. Aladdin takes the job, but when the magician seems a little too eager to dispense with his helper's services, Mahmud angrily seals Aladdin up in the well. However, the thief soon discovers that he can call upon the genie of the lamp to obtain freedom and riches. But there's a catch not present in the original tale. The genie wants to win his freedom from the lamp, and he can only do so if he slays his master. However, the genie can only make an attempt on his master's life immediately after the master makes a wish. Further, to judge from the forthcoming attempts, the genie has to disguise himself as a mortal and kill his master with a weapon, rather than just zapping his enemy into dust.

While nasty Bokra plots to make Zafir marry him, Aladdin conjures a fabulous palace to impress the princess. In a plot-thread not unlike the Disney film, Zafir can't be won over by phony miracles, so the piqued Aladdin uses his second wish to conjure up the world's most beautiful woman, only to find that she doesn't please him as much as Zafir. (It helps that Zafir makes the scene in time to save the hero from his baser nature.) After both wishes, Aladdin manages to thwart the genie's assassination attempts. However, before Aladdin can make his third wish, Mahmud intrudes and steals the lamp-- though, being a secondary villain, he soon yields pride of place to Bokra.

Without going into further plot-details, suffice to say that Aladdin is a doughty type in this version, good with a sword or with his fists. However, when Bokra gets into the act of genie-conjuring, he gets a little too incautious about observing the rules-- thus paving the way for the genie's freedom and the lovers' reunion. The genie even tosses in a little moralizing at the end, regardless the fruitlessness of idle wishing rather than taking action. Be that as it may, I grade LAMP's mythicity a little higher than the average Oriental sword-and-slipper flick for its ingenious play on the tropes of genie-mythology.

Aside from JUNGLE JIM IN THE FORBIDDEN LAND, this was Landers' final metaphenomenal film, though during his later TV career he executed some SUPERMAN episodes as well.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

SUICIDE SQUAD: HELL TO PAY (2018), BATMAN AND HARLEY QUINN (2017)




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


Whatever minor virtues one may find in the shabby, mishandled live-action SUICIDE SQUAD, its greatest benefit to fans of superhero videos may well be that it paved the way for HELL TO PAY. In fact, while the original SUICIDE SQUAD had its fair share of nasty moments-- par for the course for a feature about career criminals working for the U.S. government-- HELL has an advantage over the comic book. The comic had to allow many of its villains-- both those in the Squad and their opponents-- to keep on living, so that other DC authors could use them as needed. But director Sam Liu and writer Alan Burnett are able to kill cherished characters right and left, all to the effect of giving this OAV a justifiable air of grimness and grittiness.

The premise of HELL only works if one buys into the idea that many, if not all, characters in the DC Universe believe in the reality of both heaven and hell. Amanda Waller, the ruthless C.O. of the Suicide Squad, orders her crooked charges to fetch her a special "Get Out of Hell Free" card, precisely because Waller believes that her many "Black Ops" activities on behalf of the U.S. will someday place her in the depths of perdition with the rest of the sinners. Thus six members of the Squad-- Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Copperhead, Killer Frost, Bronze Tiger, and Harley Quinn-- must go in search of the supposedly mystic device. If they fail, Waller can activate explosive chips in their skulls so that the ex-villains will lose their heads. If they succeed-- and they have considerable opposition from such heavy-hitters as Zoom, Vandal Savage, Blockbuster and Silver Banshee-- the Squad's only reward will be a little time commuted from their jail sentences, while the "outta hell" card falls into the hands of someone who doesn't deserve it.

HELL is a good example of hardcore adult-oriented pulp, with loads of murderous violence and a dollop of suggestive sexuality, particularly from the asides of Harley Quinn, though this version is not nearly as funny as Margot Robbie's take on the character in the live-action film. However, HELL's best feature is its renunciation of the live-film's ghastly take on Deadshot, of which I wrote:

I try not to be offended when a film drastically revises a favorite character. But in place of Ostrander's driven, trying-to-be-affectless killer, Ayer substitutes a one-dimensional "I'll slap you up side the head" badass with no redeeming character points. Possibly this version came into existence purely to showcase the limited talents of Big Name Star Will Smith. However, whereas Hugh Jackman sold audiences on the appeal of Wolverine by sheer talent, Smith simply coasts on playing a character-type he's already done before.

HELL does keep one trope from the 2016 flick: Deadshot has a teenaged daughter who never existed in the comics. But, joy abounding, the dumb "street-smart" Will Smith version is dumped in favor of something closer to the comics-version: cynical, yet not as incapable of feeling as he'd like to be.




Sam Liu also directed BATMAN AND HARLEY QUINN, but the script by Bruce Timm and Jim Kreig emulates the style and content of Timm's signature animated series BATMAN (1992-95). Given that Timm concocted Harley Quinn for this series, it's a given that she has the same appearance and verbal characterization, as well as her "ambiguously lesbian" relationship with gal-pal Poison Ivy.

Batman and his former sidekick Nightwing team up once more when they learn that Ivy has joined forces with the Floronic Man, and that the villains plan to obliterate humanity in order to give the world back to the Plant Kingdom. But the heroes need the expertise of Harley to find her old buddy, and thus, amid much prickliness, Harley is enlisted to fight on the side of the angels.

BATMAN AND HARLEY QUINN is an enjoyable romp, though some of the action-scenes prove repetitive, as do the inevitable conflicts between uptight Batman and his clownish co-star. On the good side, Harley and Ivy have a really nice girl-fight, and Harley gets some really good lines, though not as many as the scriptwriters may've thought. The character "Swamp Thing" makes a cameo appearance for the sake of a rather lame joke.


SHIN GODZILLA (2016)



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


My visceral response to SHIN GODZILLA is "too many bureaucrats, not enough Godzilla."

Intellectually I can respect that SHIN is a new take on a familiar set of tropes-- one of which is a trope that's barely been used since the original GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. The first film in the long-running franchise is all about Godzilla fighting against the military might of Japan, and nothing else, and SHIN GODZILLA follows this template. In contrast, every Japanese-made Godzilla film since the original has followed the template of the second outing, GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN. This sequel was the first time the Big G was shown battling another colossal monster, and as I argued in my review, this served to divert some of the violence away from human targets:

One immense benefit of the battle between the two creatures is that their conflict distracts from the audience's expectations of seeing Osaka ravaged as Tokyo was in the first film.  That said, their conflict also has some of the same ego-boosting effect seen in KING KONG: when Godzilla triumphs over the formidable Anguirus, he proves that he is "top lizard" much as Kong did in defeating various dinosaurs.  Thus Anguirus is in some sense a stand-in for Osaka: the extended-- and exciting-- wrestling match of the two colossi takes the place of a more expensive general destruction of the city.  Though this maneuver may have had its roots in economics, the "monster duel" would become one of the central tropes of the Godzilla franchise, becoming far more important than the trope was in the original KONG or in most of its recapitulations.

No other monsters appear in SHIN, nor are there invading aliens or scientific madmen. If anything, SHIN follows the "humans fighting giant monster" pattern of the giant monster-films of the 1950s, particularly the one that purportedly inspires GOJIRA, 1953's THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.  In fact, since the new Godzilla takes place in modern times, the script, written by co-director Hideashi Anno, is obliged to set aside the traditional origin, in which Godzilla is a prehistoric creature awakened and given super-powers by atomic testing. Still, "Shin Godzilla" is birthed by a more modern concern; that of the dumping of radioactive waste in the oceans. Thus the new Godzilla can't represent the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though he can incarnate a looser conception of the hubris of modern man-- in this case, a creature that presumably starts as some modern animal, yet thanks to the radioactive waste, goes through a series of macroevolutionary transformations until it reaches the apex of its creation

Like the old 1950s SF-flicks, SHIN's narrative spends a lot of time following the activities of assorted humans as they strive to cope with the advent of a monster beyond their understanding. As in the older flicks, most of the humans rate, at best, as passable in terms of their characterization. Yet Anno's script is endlessly fascinated with the real-world consequences of the monster's invasion: devoting painstaking details to the ways in which government employees second-guess one another even in an emergency, or wrangle about details, or even concern themselves with the social status of their scientific experts. The two most developed viewpoint characters, Japanese functionary Rando and U.S. envoy Kayoco, are young politicians who are intensely aware of their career opportunities even in the midst of combating a giant monster.

One trope that SHIN develops far more than any earlier Godzilla film is that of the "pseudo-science rationalization." From the first film onward, entries in the Godzilla franchise barely bother to explain any of the giant monsters in terms of then-current science. However, Anno's script makes it a major concern for Japan's scientists to dope out Godzilla's nature as a means to capture/destroy the creature. These cosmological myths, as well as the attempt to make the mutant symbolize all of unpredictable nature-- and maybe even of God-- are give SHIN GODZILLA a better than average mythicity.

As for Godzilla himself, the new version is tolerable but far from a match for the original classic design, or even the re-design for the so-called "Millennium Series."

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

THIEF OF DAMASCUS (1952)



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


Most of the "Arabian Knockwursts" that came out of post-war Hollywood are pretty forgettable, and THIEF OF DAMASCUS, one of many cheapies knocked out by producer Sam Katzman, has no better a script than any of the others. However, Katzman must've lavished a comparative fortune on the art direction, since THIEF is noteworthy for a vivid use of contrasting colors, without nearly as much mix-and-matching of costumes from different historical periods.

The 1944 ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES is probably a loose influence here, in that again the heroes use the magical "open sesame" cave as a refuge where they can escape the forces of the evildoer. However, the gimmick for which THIEF is best remembered is that forgettable soldier-hero Abu Amdar (Paul Henreid) receives aid from four figures out of the genuine Thousand and One Nights: Scheherezade (Jeff Donnell), Sinbad (Lon Chaney Jr.), a lamp-less Aladdin (Robert Clary), and Ali Baba (Philip Van Zandt), Following the example of the 1944 flick, Ali Baba is the leader of the Forty Thieves, not their enemy, as he is in the original story.

Even for this sort of trivia, it's surprising that someone felt the film also needed to conjure with the immortal THIEF OF BAGDAD, since there's no "thief" as such in the story, even if the hero shares the first name of the thief in the 1940 remake. Abu is a general who somehow rises to a command position in the armies of the rapacious Khalid (John Sutton), and suddenly decides that Khalid is a really bad guy because he won't spare the city of Damascus. To his credit, Abu expresses this opinion even before he talks treaty-terms with Damascene princess Zafira, with whom he immediately swaps lusty glances. Khalid doesn't like his second-in-command challenging them, and tries to have Abu arrested. Abu goes on the run, and in seeking to defend himself from pursuing soldiers, he does steal a sword from a smithy (though this doesn't really serve to justify the "thief" title).

The sword, though not magical, is made of the newly-created "Damascus steel," and so shatters any ordinary blade turned against it. This really doesn't play a big role in the story, however, which is much more concerned with (a) Khalid trying to marry Zafira, only to be comically blocked by the wiles of Scheherezade, (b) Abu getting help from the other three Arabian Nights luminaries, although only Ali Baba and his thieves are much help, while Sinbad and Aladdin just supply comedy relief. Eventually Abu does use both the special Damascus swords and the "open sesame" cave to undermine Khalid's forces, to defeat Khalid and to marry the princess.

There's one side-plot atypical for the subgenre. Some time after Abu has met Zafir, his true love, he enjoys a little canoodling with an old girlfriend, Neela (Elena Verdugo). Usually the main hero is so lovelorn for his new paramour that he doesn't even look twice at former lovers. Of course, Abu's canoodling takes place so that Neela has a motivation to almost betray the hero's forces. In order to make up for her almost-betrayal, Neela sword-fights some bad soldiers and acquits herself by dying heroically.


KINGSMAN THE SECRET SERVICE (2014), KINGSMAN THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (2017)



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


Though I expressed a low opinion of the Mark Millar source material, KINGSMAN THE SECRET SERVICE is certainly an improvement on the original in terms of pacing and eye-candy.

In the original graphic novel, young punk Eggsy is spirited out of his lower-class environs by his uncle Jack, who gives Eggsy a chance to train with the made-up British superspy agency, Kingsman. In a chance that's neither good nor bad, this time it's Eggsy's father, name of Lee, who's a member of Kingsman, and when Lee meets his death fighting the minions of a supervillain, his friend Harry Hart (Colin Firth) steps in to succor Eggsy (Taron Egerton). Once Eggsy receives all the proper training in using all the requisite super-spy weapons-- which are meant to be even more over-the-top than the most fabulous Bond accoutrements-- Eggsy and Harry join forces to destroy the schemes of Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is kidnapping the movie-celebrities he loves to protect them from the world-destroying weapon he plans to unleash, all to the end of reducing Earth's rampant population.

SECRET SERVICE is just as silly and witless as the graphic novel, and the overacting of Jackson does nothing to improve things, though Firth's ability to channel Michael Caine's "Harry Palmer" character is diverting. I enjoyed seeing Sofia Boutella take on the formerly male role of the villain's bionic henchman Gazelle, and that's about it. Both the real Michael Caine and Mark Hamill have supporting roles.




Despite the fact that Harry Hart appears to die very bloodily in SERVICE, Colin Firth plays him again in GOLDEN CIRCLE, and most of the other principals return, as does the writer-director Matthew Vaughan. However, this film is an original script not tied to any graphic novel, and though it's almost as violent as a Millar work, it's not nearly as sloppy and witless.

Though there are also just as many vacuous pop-culture references here, the Vaughan-Jane Goldman script doesn't seem to be about NOTHING BUT pop culture. To make Eggsy's job all the harder, the villain-- drug-dealer Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore)-- assassinates most of the Kingsman organization, leaving Eggsy only with a few minor allies-- one of whom, as I noted above, is the recrudescent Harry Hart. However, the remnants of Kingsman get some help from an American superspy-agencny, "Statesman," whose operatives are given to using lots of cowboy motifs.

The action is better staged this time, and the villain's scheme-- to force the world powers to legalize drugs, so she doesn't have to be a criminal any more-- allows for some witty satire about modern America's ambivalence toward illegal substances. However, just so the script doesn't stray too far from the original template, Poppy does keep her own pet celebrity, Elton John (playing himself), who's good for a few laughs until he improbably starts hurling kung-fu kicks.

THE CASE OF THE SINISTER SPIRIT (1987), LEGEND OF THE LOST TOMB (1997)



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


Since I've never been a Perry Mason fan, I've no idea how often the famed defense attorney tilted his legal lance against the supernatural, but I would assume that whenever he did so, he just papered the spirits out of existence.. SINISTER SPIRIT, one of many Hallmark TV-films featuring a much grayer version of Raymond Burr reprising his 1950s teleseries role, follows this pattern, but it does start off with Perry having a really bad nightmare, which is certainly one of the few times the indefatigable lawyer shows a more human side.

Along with his legal team-- Barbara Hale reprising her role as Della, and William Katt playing the son of the first character who provided Mason's "legwork"-- Perry defends a publisher (Robert Stack), who's been accused of killing a prickly horror-author. Prior to his death, the author invites a group of his enemies to a soiree and then terrifies them with fake supernatural tricks. After his death, one of the witnesses apparently beholds the ghost of the author's ancestor, but given the earlier display of chicanery, I don't know why anyone would buy into such ghost-sightings.

In fact, the ghost-business has very little to do with Perry Mason managing to solve the case so as to exonerate his client. The denouement was fairly clever, though for the most part the flick as a whole is a forgettable time-killer. And in contrast to the TV-show's district attorney, who usually seemed rather torqued about losing to Perry, the replacement character, played by David Ogden Stiers, seems overly almost cheerful at Perry's big win.



Ten years later, Hallmark brought to TV a shot-in-Egypt trifle known as LEGEND OF THE LOST TOMB, which might be called "Indiana Jones for the pre-teen set." Two American teens, John and Karen, visit Egypt and get involved in seeking out a fabulous treasure in an undiscovered tomb, while being chased by the rather low-rent menace of a schemer named Doctor Bent (Stacy Keach) and his single piddling henchman, who likes to torment victims with scorpions.

Though a lot of the lower-level actors are Egyptians, none of them distinguish themselves all that well, and the colorful locations don't do much to dispel the tedium. Only two elements prove slightly memorable:

(1) Stacy Keach, giving his villain role some hammy flair,

(2) The odd way the characters under-react to the presence of genuinely supernatural phenomena. For most of the film, no one displays the slightest fear of Egyptian curses. Then, in the last forty minutes, tomb-statues start shooting mystic rays from their eyes, not once but twice. And the only reason no one reacts must be that they've come to expect such things after many viewings of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

THE PAINTED STALLION (1937)




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


On the face of things, THE PAINTED STALLION looks like dozens of other oater-serials. The main conflict takes place in the year 1820. Mexico had just won its independence from Spain, which meant that the Spanish-held territory of California fell under Mexican control. Despite Spain's disavowal of control, local (fictional) dictator Dupray decides that he wants to keep control of the state, with the help of his henchmen (one of whom is played by future "Cisco Kid" Duncan Renaldo). Dupray's main opponents, though, are not agents of the Mexican government, but Caucasian cowboys looking for new enterprise. The main hero is Clark Stuart (Ray Corrigan), a two-fisted treaty negotiator representing U.S. interests, but others include a clever old wagonmaster (played by silent-film cowboy Hoot Gibson) and three famed frontier-figures: Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and "Kid Carson"-- by which I mean "Kit Carson as a boy."

To say the least, nothing in PAINTED STALLION is remotely rooted in real-world history. Still, even though STALLION is not historical, it does thump its tub pretty well for the "Manifest Destiny" of Caucasian Americans, who, of course, will eventually absorb most of Mexican California into its authority. It's this sense of an overriding historical destiny that causes me to rate its mythicity as highly as I do. It helps, too, that the cinematography and location work are a cut above the usual western serial, so the visual grandeur enhances the simple theme. That said, I must admit that most of the conflicts are just standard back-and-forth gun-battles between the good guys and the bad guys.

Only one element of STALLION qualifies it as a metaphenomenal film, and that's the fact that Stuart and his friends frequently receive aid from a mysterious character known only as "the Rider of the Painted Stallion." Frankly, I don't know exactly why the film's title focuses on the Rider's horse: it has no special appearance or talents. The Rider is one of the few female heroes in serials, although she's usually on the periphery of the action, not unlike "Lothel" in the much later JUNGLE QUEEN. Her attire is that of a male war-chief, with a big feathered bonnet and a feathered breastplate, which makes it hard to see whether or not she even has breasts. This would be odd attire for an Indian maiden, but the Rider is later be revealed to be a white woman raised by Comanches. The oddness of her odd garments doesn't quality the Rider for metaphenomenal status. However, she has one unexplained gimmick: she can shoot arrows that make bizarre whistling sounds as they travel to their targets (usually striking to wound, until the ultimate chapter). Stuart is told that the Indians believe she's a spirit who promotes peace, so a possible influence from the 1936 comic-strip THE PHANTOM is possible here, though the timing is rather close. The 1933 LONE RANGER serial may be a more likely influence, given that the Rider's whistling arrows are a memorable schtick like the Ranger's silver bullets-- and it's the arrows that make the Rider uncanny, even if it's through an auditory rather than a visual trope.

The 1931 film version of the novel TRADER HORN is also a possible influence, since, as that film posits that its savage people regard a white woman as a a goddess because of her blonde hair. I'm tempted to see the Rider as a sort of feminine spirit blessing the eventual destiny of the United States, but I must admit that this is never stated outright.


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

THE MAN FROM UNCLE: "THE GIRLS OF NAZARONE AFFAIR" (1965)



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

Whereas I often expect to find strong symbolic discourse in fantasy TV-shows like XENA and BUFFY, NBC's colorful but light-hearted spy-fy series THE MAN FROM UNCLE would seem to be less promising territory. True, since the show is about a predominantly American agency, UNCLE, that constantly thwarts the schemes of the often-European minions of THRUSH, MAN FROM UNCLE is a fantastic transformation of mundane spy-tropes, often made even more distanced from the real world by the frequent use of science-fiction conceits. But by the time "Girls of Nazarone" appeared, late in the program's first (and only black-and-white) season, the generally simple content of the episodes had largely been established. Thus "Girls" is an unusual entry in providing a more sustained exploration of male and female roles in the world of spy-fi. It's all the more unusual in that Peter Barry, the writer credited with the original story for "Girls," had only a smattering of TV credits, none very outstanding. It's possible that producer Sam Rolfe and credited teleplay-author Peter Allan Fields may've taken a piece of coal and polished it into a mythic diamond, but their careers aren't all that strong in the mythicity department either.

The episode's title is one of its cleverest concepts: spoofing the title GUNS OF NAVARONE (1957 novel and 1961 movie) so that dangerous, possibly phallic "superguns" become transformed into "perilous Pussy Galores." all of whom are blonde like the Honor Blackman character from GOLDFINGER. The episode's chapter-titles keep reminding the viewer that all of the heroes' enemies are these perniciously seductive blonde ladies, and there may even be a slight sapphic flavor to the narrative, given that neither of the male heroes ever manages to have his way with the lissome ladies.

As in many episodes, American agent Solo and his Russian ally Kuryakin descend upon a European city, looking to claim or protect some secret vital to the defense of the Western World. This time the locale is Cannes on the French Riviera, where supposedly the famed Grand Prix race is scheduled to be held. The agents seek out the hotel room of one Doctor Kelwyn, who has apparently approached UNCLE to obtain protection for his invention: a serum that accelerates bodily healing in humans. On their way the agents brush by a blonde woman of mature years (Marian Moses), later identified as Madame Streigau (from the Italian word "strega," meaning "witch.") Streigau is accompanied by a small coterie of younger blonde women, one of whom will later be identified as Lucia Nazarone (Danica D'Hondt), a female race-car driver who has participated in several tourneys and is presumably in Cannes for the Grand Prix.

Once the agents get to the room, they find that Doctor Kelwyn is inexplicably missing, and that the room is now occupied by a tourist, an American schoolteacher named Lavinia Brown (Kipp Hamilton). Naturally, the agents' insensitive intrusion as they comb the room for clues gets on Miss Brown's nerves, with the usual comic results. Solo and Kuryakin learn enough to indicate that Kelwyn has been kidnapped, and when a street vendor is slain, the agents determine that he was probably trying to blackmail Kelwyn's kidnappers.

Certain clues lead the spies to a garage, where they once more encounter Lucia Nazarone. The young woman stonewalls the agents and makes them leave, but they hang around long enough to see Lucia apparently shot down, St. Valentine's Day-style, by a chatter-gun wielded by Madame Stregau. Streigau escapes with Lucia's body. and the agents are nonplussed as to what they've witnessed.

Their puzzlement increases the next day, when a newspaper announces that Lucia Nazarone, despite her apparent death, has been seen entering a Cannes health clinic run by one Doctor Baurel. Solo decides to bull his way into the clinic and corners Lucia, who clobbers him with a very unfeminine display of strength. Baurel shows up and has the clinic's workers-- all of whom are hot young blondes-- eject Solo./

Stymied, the agents decide to provoke their enigmatic enemy into coming to them. They plant the idea that Lavinia has somehow located a copy of Kelwyn's formula and sold it to UNCLE. Though this is meant only to smoke out Streigau, inevitably the innocent civilian is captured and placed in danger. Streigau's blonde amazons easily trounce Kuryakin-- though they rather generously leave him alive-- while Solo, invading the clinic again, is soundly beaten down by Lucia. It's soon revealed that Lucia was a test subject for the healing serum, though it's never clear as to why she consented to be THRUSH's guinea pig. Because of the serum, Lucia has become a veritable dynamo, though one who's become so aggressive that she sounds like a Dionysian Maenad. (After she conquers Solo, she fantasizes about being allowed to tear the agent apart "with my bare hands.")

Inevitably, Kuryakin comes to the rescue of both Solo and Lavinia. Kuryakin and Lavinia witness Lucia burn herself out from the fatal serum, while Solo fails to capture Streigau-- who is actually a previously-seen THRUSH villain, one Doctor Egret-- because he's thwarted by two athletic but hardly super-powered young women. The episode ends on one more cutesy reference to blondes-- said blonde being Illya Kuryakin.

Barry's story seems to be dimly aware that blondes have acquired, in Western culture, a certain unique glamor, and he merges this conceit with the idea of the modern Amazon, which becomes a major trope in superspy-fiction with the elaboration of Ian Fleming's Bond series into the celebrated film-franchise. I could go into greater detail as to how the film-franchise emphasizes Amazonian females far more than Fleming's prose series, but it's intriguing to see how Barry identified this burgeoning trope at a time when there had only been four films in the series. The sapphic element melds with that of the Amazon trope, though like the film GOLDFINGER, this element is kept on the down-low.



 

PHARAOH'S CURSE (1957)



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


The story and screenplay for PHARAOH'S CURSE are credited to Richard Landau, who had previously written VOODOO ISLAND. I wrote of his contribution:

....ISLAND is hugely handicapped by a vacillating script by Richard Landau. Landau's most stellar credit prior to this film is 1955's QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, though he was merely adapting Nigel Kneale's teleplay.

CURSE can't much help but provide a step up from the dismal ISLAND. One factor may be that for CURSE Landau could draw upon a history of Egyptian-curse tropes in earlier films. However, a bigger asset is that director Lee Sholem, nicknamed "Roll 'Em Sholem" for his reputed efficiency, provides much better directorial setups, even on the cheap, than does the dilatory Reginald LeBorg in VOODOO ISLAND.

Because CURSE is a cheap production, the script often depends on describing scenarios rather than showing them. The film begins in 1902 Egypt, where a British officer receives a report from two soldiers who have just escape a hellish battle against Arab insurgents. The brief dialogue establishes that the Arabs are savage opponents, though the rebellion is merely a backdrop that doesn't directly bear on the subject of the Egyptian curse-tale.

The commander has another problem, which he places squarely on the shoulders of his subordinate Captain Storm (Mark Dana). The captain is informed that an unsanctioned expedition has undertaken to break into an Egyptian tomb, and since this would upset the locals, the commander wants Storm to head them off. In addition, Storm and his two soldiers must take along a civilian, Sylvia Quentin, who is the wife of expedition-leader Robert Quentin. As one of the aforementioned cost-saving methods, the viewer doesn't even see the expedition for the first 20 minutes of the film.

CURSE's best scenes occur during its first half-hour. As Storm, Sylvia and two soldiers journey to the site of the expedition, they meet something stranger than rebel Arabs: an enigmatic Egyptian woman named Simira (Ziva Rhodan). Simira gives no explanation for her solitary sojourn in the Egyptian desert, but she claims that her brother, one Numar, is in danger at the tomb-site, She endeavors to convince Storm to take an alternate path to the tomb. Storm refuses to change his course, and soon various calamities assail the travelers (their water mysteriously disappears, a scorpion stings Sylvia). Finally Storm, despite fearing that Simira may be part of a rebel plot, agrees to follow her course.

The viewer finally gets to see the members of the expedition at the tomb-site. Their translator reads off a minatory cartouche, warning that the entombed king is guarded by the spirit of the pharaoh's sorcerer, who is capable of possessing a modern person to protect his lord's mummy. Further, the moment Robert Quentin cuts into the pharaoh's mummy to examine its face, the scene shifts to show Simira telling Storm that they have arrived at the site too late.

Storm descends upon the unsanctioned expedition, warning of the consequences of their actions, by which he means irate Egyptians. However, as Simira more or less predicts, her brother Numar is indeed possessed (off camera) and turned into a dessicated figure who can drain the bodily fluids out of his victims. I wasn't entirely clear as to why Storm can't manage to force the explorers to pack up and leave, but the extrinsic reason is obviously that both soldiers and explorers need to stick close to the tomb so that Numar, now the cursed minion of the dead pharaoh's sorcerer, can continue to attack them.

In the fulfillment of a minor subplot, Sylvia reveals that, despite her long history of following her husband into perilous situations, she's finally grown apart from him and plans to divorce him. Landau's script has some interesting psychological potential, in that Richard does regard Sylvia as a sort of "pet project" in which he shows off his ability to transform a "mousy librarian" into a woman of adventure, but Sylvia is too mediocre a character to play the role of the rebellious Galatea. She just prates some lines about wanting a home and a dependable husband, and that's all there is to that. There's also a weak attempt to suggest that she's fallen for Storm during her trek to reject her husband, but this too falls to sustain much interest.

Eventually, Numar is destroyed and Simira, who constantly clutches at an amulet of the cat-goddess Bast, simply disappears. The scenario loosely suggests that Simira may actually be a manifestation of the Egyptian goddess, but if this is so, why is she so concerned about a mortal man whom she calls her brother? Given how muddled VOODOO ISLAND was, I rather doubt that Landau had an answer to this plot-problem, though I suppose it's possible that Simira was once a living Egyptian woman whom Bast possessed, and that the afflicted Numar was the original woman's brother. Still, given that the dead sorcerer defends the tomb pretty well-- the explorers end up leaving the tomb's mysteries un-desecrated-- Bast's debatable presence seems irrelevant to the central narrative.

Monday, February 11, 2019

LOGAN (2017)




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



In my review of the graphic novel OLD MAN LOGAN, I said:

...once I read the Millar GN, I was happily disabused of the idea that anything by Millar could have had quality in its original form. Like the 2008 movie WANTED, the 2017 LOGAN-- directed by James Mangold, who also helmed the respectable 2013 WOLVERINE-- just borrows dribs and drabs from the Millar continuity. In fact, the only things Mangold really takes away from Millar's GN are the ideas that (1) in some future setting, Wolverine has gotten very old and beat-down by coping with everyday life, which is a consequence of the fact that (2) most mutants and superheroes are out of the picture. 
I should note that in the comic book another reason that Wolverine-- whom I should start calling Logan, as the film does-- is so beat-down is because he killed some or all of his fellow X-Men, in keeping with Millar's apparent love of wholesale slaughter. Mangold's script alters this plot-detail, briefly explaining that the other X-Men were accidentally slain by an aging Professor X, whose mental powers have become lethal due to a degenerative disease. This makes for a much better dramatic tension between Logan and the Professor, as the aging ex-hero seeks to care for his ninety-something former mentor. Further, Logan too is sick, thanks to a slow-acting poison introduced into his system in the previous X-film X-MEN APOCALYPSE.  Thus Mangold's scenario places both former heroes behind the eight ball, aging and dying, apparent relics of the X-franchise that's been almost extinguished by the deaths of the heroes and the dwindling births of mutants.

However, Mangold provides redemption with his most rewarding deviation from Millar's brain-dead scenario. Thus the two older men are forced to take custody of an 11-year-old mutant girl named Laura, who is based on the character X-23 from other X-comics. Laura is eerily silent for almost half the film, since she's spent most of her young life in a research facility involved in creating mutant children as living weapons. In a patently political reworking of the comics-origin, Laura is one of several mutants whose sperm was taken from mutant donors and birthed from poor Mexican mothers (who aren't allowed to survive their role as brood-mares). Laura is also silent due to an extreme ambivalence toward Logan, since he is her biological father.

The research facility, known as Alkali Transigen, may be in Mexico, but the parent corporation is American, and is staffed primarily by Americans, including mad scientist Doctor Rice and nasty enforcer Pierce. Thus America, which has often been portrayed as the "golden gate" of freedom for immigrants, is a place of peril for Laura and other children who escaped the Mexican facility. Logan, who has taken a job as an uber-driver, is approached to take Laura to a rendezvous-point on the Canadian border, where the escapees are supposed to converge. The pursuit of Pierce and his mercenaries has much to do with helping Logan decide to help the enigmatic eleven-year-old. Thus LOGAN becomes a road trip in which two moribund heroes seek to liberate a young female heroine from evil corporate types-- who are, incidentally, also responsible for the downturn in mutant births, through their manipulation of genetically-modified foodstuffs.

Though LOGAN is rife with extreme R-rated violence-- particularly when Rice brings in a new, almost mindless attack-dog, another clawed warrior named X-24-- Mangold's script earns the audience's sympathy with its nuanced study of main characters Logan, Laura and the Professor. I'd rate it as one of the most dramatically successful X-films, though in terms of its symbolic discourse (a.k.a. mythicity) never goes beyond the rating of "fair."

Thursday, February 7, 2019

PHANTOM OF THE WEST (1931), THE VIGILANTES ARE COMING (1936), TAILSPIN TOMMY/GREAT AIR MYSTERY (1935)



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


THE PHANTOM OF THE WEST is a fairly lively western sound serial. Tom Tyler is a cowboy out to avenge his father's death at the hands of a gang ruled by "the Phantom," a mysterious figure in a black cloak and slouch hat.  This Phantom doesn't have any special weapons, though for some reason he sends message to his enemies with special darts that make a whistling sound. (This device was recycled three years later for MYSTERY MOUNTAIN.)

It's pretty much standard western action. Tyler would go on to face yet another "Phantom menace" in 1933's THE PHANTOM OF THE AIR, and then followed that up by playing THE PHANTOM.  Of minor interest is a scene in which Tyler's character detains the horse-riding heroine (Dorothy Gulliver) for questioning, and she smartly responds by smacking him with her riding-crop. She doesn't do much else in the reminder of the serial except be menaced by the Phantom, though.

There's also a minor mystery to a group of masked riders who may or may not work for the Phantom, and a thoroughly unfunny comic relief with a stuttering gimmick.



Republic Studio's THE VIGILANTES ARE COMING seems very much like a Zorro manque, though apparently no one had done a Zorro film since DON Q, SON OF ZORRO, and the next one, THE BOLD CABALLERO, would appear about four months later from the same studio, in December 1936. Perhaps someone sought to test the waters for Zorro-like action before actually taking the step, for by next year Republic launched the first of its five "modern Zorro" serials, starting with 1937's ZORRO RIDES AGAIN.

Unlike the later serials, VIGILANTES does take place in 1844 in Mexican California, which is fairly close to the milieu of the original Zorro stories. However, all the major characters are Caucasians with no Hispanic heritage, including the main hero, who takes on the masked identity of "the Eagle."  Here the threat is that of a contingent of Russians seeking to colonize California for its rich resources. However, the title's emphasis on vigilantes may remind some of the original Zorro novel THE CURSE OF CAPISTRANO, which mentions Zorro's legion of aides far more than do the two silent films. Again, the action is decent but unmemorable, and star Robert Livingston proves rather bland, doing somewhat better with the real Zorro in the feature film BOLD CABALLERO.



Finally, there's the second and last of the TAILSPIN TOMMY serials, TAILSPIN TOMMY IN THE GREAT AIR MYSTERY.  These were the first two sound serials to be adapted from a comic-strip franchise, and their relative success probably paved the way for the same studio, Universal, to do FLASH GORDON a year later.

Aside from that minor place in serial-history, GREAT AIR MYSTERY is just another air-adventure serial. in which the characters generally project a rather "gosh-wow" attitude. As in VIGILANTES the heroes, get involved in attempt to head off an evil group of schemers from plundering the oil reserves of a fictional South American country. Though Tailspin Tommy (Clark Williams) is the senior pilot, he and his buddy Skeeter (Noah Beery Jr.) are treated as equals, there being no explicit comedy relief here. In addition, both partners have girlfriends who are skilled pilots and who make no bones about flying into danger alongside the guys. (One of the two characters is played by Jean "Dale Arden" Rogers.)

The baddies are pretty bland, though there's are two masked mystery-men here-- the Eagle, who ends up being on the good guys' side, and Double X, who is more briefly seen helping out the villains. Both men wear oddly patterned flight-helmets but are otherwise uncostumed, and though the Eagle's plane is supposed to be a breakthrough model, it can't do anything that other planes can't. I find that these masked pilots don't really have the bearing of either masked heroes, like that other Eagle, or masked villains, like the Phantom of the West, and thus MYSTERY's phenomenality is naturalistic.





UNBREAKABLE (2000), SPLIT (2016)



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



In re-watching UNBREAKABLE, the first thing that I, as a sometime comics-critic, had to put to one side was that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan really has no interest in the medium of comic books. He’s manifestly not interested in the medium as a whole, or any of its storytelling dynamics.  His only interest is the dialectic of the medium’s most famous creation, the superhero.

That said, the next question that arises is: what does Shyamalan have to say about the superhero? Traditionally, movies have either sought to reproduce the superhero genre faithfully or to undermine it in some way, either drawing attention to its risible elements (the BATMAN teleseries) or producing an outright satire of the form (FEARLESS FRANK).

UNBREAKABLE, like Shyamalan’s previous box-office success THE SIXTH SENSE, does not approach its metaphenomenal subject matter in a straightforward manner. But cinema had a long history of ordinary-looking psychics who could see all sorts of weird phenomena—dead people included. Superheroes were designed to stand out from the quotidian milieus that gave them birth, to dress as no people in the history of Earth ever dressed in regular life, be it in bat-costumes, suits of armor or even just a demure domino-mask.

Thus, even though UNBREAKABLE features a fair quantity of jury-rigged comic books in which superheroes wear bizarre outfits, Shyamalan can only depict a real-life superhero as being an ordinary looking man who’s unaware of his special talents.

Following a prelude that introduces the character of Elijah Price as a newborn infant, the viewer meets the mundanely named David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard seen returning to Philadelphia by train. The train derails, killing everyone aboard except Dunn. Nonplussed by his amazing survival, Dunn has no option but to return to his normal life—including marital troubles with his wife Audrey (Robin Wright). His young son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) is caught in the middle, and the three of them seem to be trapped in an Ibsen play, with no way out of their trammeled lives.

Enter Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), a curator at an art gallery with a number of comic-book exhibits. Elijah suffers from a weakness in his bones that makes him severely at risk from even minor accidents, and as another flashback scene shows us, his discontent with his constitutive weakness has led him to idolize superheroes. So far, Elijah represents the general opinion that mainstream culture has usually expressed regarding the superhero genre: that its main purpose is to provide power-fantasies for those who have no power. Further, Elijah goes a step farther, telling both Dunn and Joseph that Dunn possesses powers that Dunn himself has never imagined.

Obviously, even when the story validates Elijah’s theory—even to the extent of giving Dunn a kryptonite-like weakness— some tropes of the superhero genre are still not credible in Shyamalan’s largely mundane world.  No one in Shyamalan’s can manifest X-Men-like abilities; no one shoots lethal beams from his eyes or conjures ice from his fingers. Shyamalan’s superhero is limited to actions that are improbable extensions of normal human abilities, and even the movie’s one climactic fight takes advantage of Dunn’s weakness in order to scale down the powers involved,  so that Dunn and his merely human opponent are on the same footing.

Though anyone interested in UNBREAKABLE probably knows the film’s “big twist ending,” I don't need to discuss it, since the twist does nothing to alter the director’s implicit theme. That theme might best be expressed by a new take on an old Zen koan:

Before superheroes, chopping wood and carrying water.
After superheroes, chopping wood and carrying water.

I’ve seen Shyamalan not infrequently compared to Alfred Hitchcock. Yet Hitchcock, despite his induction into the ranks of Serious Directors, was not an “artsy” director. The world of ordinary life is something that Hitchcock’s characters glide through as fate guides them into extraordinary adventures, whether those adventures involve courting beautiful lady spies or contending with serial killers.

Nobody glides in UNBREAKABLE. Shyamalan’s characters plod from one encounter to another, and though the script leaves no doubt that Dunn shares the heroic character of comic-book protagonists, he’s still a Prometheus bound by the chains of reality. Elijah argues that Dunn damped down his superhuman potential because it would have interfered with his marriage to Audrey. This self-sacrifice, however, appears to be at the root of his unhappy marriage. Joseph is intrigued by the idea that his father may have super-powers—what kid would not be intrigued by the possibility? But he wants his father to have super-powers because on some level Joseph intuits that this has led to marital discontent. Thus what Joseph really wants is normality in his parents’ relationship, and his father’s superhuman status is a means to that end. This is demonstrated by the memorable scene when he attempts to test his father’s invulnerability with a bullet.

UNBREAKABLE’s dialectic of heroism and villainy is less impressive than Shyamalan’s signal ability to provide narrative momentum not through melodramatic events, as Hitchcock usually did, but with scenes of utter mundanity, scenes that make the viewer yearn for the pleasures of melodrama. For me he resembles Neo-Realists like Rosselini more than Hitchcock, and if I judged a film’s mythicity on style rather than content, UNBREAKABLE’s rating there would be higher.



In SPLIT, Shyamalan attempts to codify his dialectic somewhat. Though some of Elijah’s remarks suggest that super-abilities arise from stressful circumstances, only in SPLIT does a scientist make this an explicit requirement for empowerment. SPLIT is not nearly as stylistically adventurous as UNBREAKABLE, for its basic template—crazy man holds one or more people prisoners and they try to escape—is more overtly melodramatic.

This time, rather than a hero or a villain, we have a monster in the character of Kevin (James MacAvoy). After Kevin captures three teenage girls and imprisons them in a tunnel-system beneath the zoo where he works, the girls learn that he’s a multiple personality case, one who doesn’t always seem cognizant that all the personas share the same body. Two of the girls die, leaving “Final Girl” Casey as the last survivor seeking to escape Kevin before he turns into his most brutal persona, “The Beast.”

Apart from MacAvoy’s stunning performance, SPLIT is merely a decent thriller, notable for being a companion piece to the currently-airing GLASS, which brings together all the parts of Shyamalan’s “ordinary superhero” universe.

NOTE: UNBREAKABLE is a combative drama; SPLIT is not.

Monday, February 4, 2019

THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS (1983)



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


Silly as THE BARBARIANS is, it's a lot more lively than this unholy crossbreeding between an Italian peplum-flick and the THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

For one thing, even though this flick uses the same basic rationale as the 1960 western-- which was itself patterned after the Kurosawa film SEVEN SAMURAI-- the narrative focus is only on muscleman star Lou Ferrigno, whose tenure on the INCREDIBLE HULK series had concluded with the program. There are six other warriors-- not all of whom are gladiators-- but none of them are as important to the story as Ferrigno's character Han, who even gets to wield a magic sword as proof of his special valor.

As in the 1960 film, a small village, one in archaic Italy rather than Mexico, is constantly being bled by raiders. This time, though, the raiders work for a man named Nicorete (Dan Vadis), who claims to possess semi-divine status, though the script never says what god his mortal mother slept with. His blind mother Anakora functions as some sort of local oracle, but she refuses to render any aid to her rotten son. She also blames him for her blindness, without every explaining why.

However, whereas in the western the embattled villagers had to scrape together enough money to hire seven gunslingers, here there's another temple maiden, Pandora, who has acquired a magic sword. She and her fellow vestals go looking in the big city-- I guess it's supposed to be Rome-- for a hero, though they have no idea who he is. It's soon demonstrated that the sword is particular about who handles it, burning anyone who touches it, except for the one destined to wield the weapon against evil.

The maidens eventually locate Han, a gladiator who's on the outs with his emperor. (Though there aren't many scenes in Rome, SEVEN must have the most underpopulated Roman courts ever depicted in cinema.) Han gets hold of the sword and demonstrates that he's fit to wield it, after which he consents to help the beleaguered villagers without much persuasion. He then proceeds, in a rather aimless manner, to enlist other justice-loving heroes to his cause. To be sure, one of "Han's six" gets the notion-- based on absolutely nothing-- that the village may hide some fabulous treasure. This role is essayed by Sybil Danning, playing the "Brad Dexter" role from the western.

As in the 1960 film, once Han and his allies arrive, they spend a little time training the peasants to fight back-- and when Nicorete's soldiers come for tribute, the gladiators and the villagers beat them back, apparently killing Nicorete. Here the viewer finally gets a demonstration of the villain's half-divine status, for he comes back to life, visits his mother for no particular reason and kills her.

While the heroes are busy letting their guards down, Pandora tries to talk them into leaving, apparently because she's afraid they won't like living in a small village. She's apparently so focused on saving their lives that she accepts a bargain with Nicorete. The warlord ambushes the heroes but then sets them free without their weapons-- though this seems like a poor trade, given that the village really doesn't have any great resources to offer the warlord.

Naturally, at the first opportunity, all of the good gladiators return to thrash the villains, in some of the dullest battle-scenes ever filmed. In a muddled conclusion, Han duels Nicorete, and after breaking the evildoers's sword, tries to bear-hug the fiend to death. Apparently Nicorete's god-power makes him burning hot, so that Han has to let go, but the demigod's powers aren't fiery enough to protect him when he foolishly picks up the magic sword-- and he goes up in smoke.

Ferrigno, in his first feature-film starring role, is dull throughout. Dan Vadis, who played Hercules a few times in the 1960s, makes the most of his role as the heavy, and the scenes with his mother have a little more intensity than anything else. Danning distinguishes herself as the team's only distaff fighter, and handles a sword better than some of the male actors.


THE BARBARIANS (1987)



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


The first half-hour of THE BARBARIANS suggests that it could be a better than average sword-and-sorcery flick. Ruggero Deodato's direction is brisk and efficient, and the costume design people come up some nice outfits, making the fantasy-world look a bit like a MAD MAX derivative. And the initiating conflict is established not through exposition but through action.

A caravan of gaudily garbed people called "Ragniks"-- a tribe that specializes in traveling entertainments-- is attacked by the evil ruler Kadar (Richard Lynch), his soldiers, and his pet sorceress, the oddly-named China. The attackers know that the Ragnik queen Canary is charged with the ruby, but one of her subjects escapes with the gem in order to hide it. One of Canary's three fosterlings, a little girl named Kara, also flees the caravan, but the significance of this plot-thread won't be revealed until later.

The other two fosterlings, twin boys, don't retreat: when Kadar threatens their surrogate mother Canary, one of the kids bites off two of Kadar's fingers. Canary, seeking to save the boys from Kadar's vengeance, swears to do anything the warlord wants. In return for her favors-- which Kadar must figure includes yielding the location of the magic ruby-- the ruler swears not to either kill the twins or let his servitors kill them. However, he has an elaborate plan to make them kill each other. He has his gladiator-trainer "Dirtmaster" (Michael Berryman) separate the twins, raise them to be gladiators, and then pit them against each other some ten years later.

Years later, Kadar has become so besotted with Canary's erotic charms that he no longer visits the other women of his harem. He also seems to have pretty much forgotten about the ruby and whatever grand plans he meant to use it for. However, Kadar hasn't forgotten about the twins, blessed with the oddball names of "Kutchek" and "Gore" (real-life bicep-happy twins Peter and David Paul). He holds his gladiatorial game, and decides to make Canary watch the deaths of her surrogate sons. However, during the fight the Barbarian Brothers doff their helmets and recognize each other. They turn their swords against Kadar's soldiers and escape.



After this fairly bracing beginning, BARBARIANS trundles steadily downhill. Part of the problem is that despite their impressive physiques, the Paul Brothers are largely charisma-free, essentially playing a sword-and-sorcery version of DUMB AND DUMBER. (They are, forever, far from the worst actors in the film, as that honor goes to a horribly mugging Michael Berryman.) But the other problem is the episodic script.

First the brothers seek out the region of the Ragniks to get support in order to fight Kadar and rescue Canary. The Ragniks have been reduced to poverty and can't be of help without a supply of good weapons. However, the brothers meet a spunky young girl named Ismena, being held by the Ragniks for thievery. She talks her way out of a hanging by claiming she can help them find an arsenal. She then ends up following the Barbarians throughout all of their dangerous exploits, though based on what we know of her, she ought to take the first opportunity to sneak away. Ismena's inconsistency of character gets even worse later, when it's revealed that she's really that other fosterling Kara. However, she acts like she never encountered the Ragniks before, making no attempt to gain clemency by citing her past association with the tribe. She doesn't have the usual motive of the female sidekick to a male barbarian, where she's warm for the hero's form; she doesn't show any interest in either twin and they seem insensible to her (admittedly tomboy-ish) charms. So, even more than the twins and Kadar, Ismena /Kara is totally defined by the script.

The girl who's really Kara leads the twins to a tavern to buy weapons, even though none of them have money. This eventuates in a big barfight, easily the film's best action sequence. Somehow, during this chaos, Kara gets hold of info about Kadar's palace. She takes the brothers to a secret passage, and they manage to enter the lord's harem. Canary's a bird in an iron cage, so they can't get her free without a lot of commotion. As a consolation prize, she tells them where to find the ruby (possibly because of the magic tie between her and the gem), but with the caveat that they'll have to fight a guardian dragon. Off go the guys, but another harem-maiden overhears the colloquy. The maiden tells China, who tortures the info out of Canary (she couldn't have done that ten years ago?), and then China is off with some soldiers to grab the ruby. Slightly later Kadar finds out what's been going on, and he too decides to go after the ruby and the Muscle Beach Barbarians. For some reason, he drags Canary along.

Somehow, despite the barbarians'  head start, China and her entourage get to the ruby first, but the (very phony looking) dragon eats them all. The barbarians do manage to get weapons from some old barrow, and this serves them well when they fight and beat the dragon. Kara takes possession of the magic ruby.

At this point the epic battle between "good brothers" and "bad father" is only about twenty minutes away, but two more weird scenes ensue that prove much more interesting.

Deodato then cuts back and forth between Kara, who's got the ruby, and Canary, who seems to have an affinity for the stone. Canary, after having tolerated Kadar's attentions for ten years, suddenly gets the idea that this is a good day to die. From miles away Canary taps into the gem's power and creates an illusion in which she fades away. The besotted warlord reflexively strikes out with his sword, and then is really, really sorry when he stabs Canary to death. Richard Lynch gets the signal honor of being (I think) the first evil overlord in a S&S film to weep for a lost love.

The second weird scene takes place when Kara-- separated from the Barbarians, I forget why-- seeks out the Ragniks. The ruby's magic power has faded because of Canary's death, and when the Ragniks realize this to be the case, they enact a Cinderella-style ritual in which they try the ruby-- a.k.a. the "Belly Stone"-- to see if it fits the navels of any of the tribe's virgin daughters. All of the girls fail to bond with the stone-- not necessarily a slur on their virginity-- and so the Ragniks try it on Kara. Despite her protestations that she's not a virgin-- the film's only genuinely good joke-- the stone bonds with Kara, and she's the new Ragnik Queen. After all that, the climactic battle of heroes and villain is something of a letdown.

From a myth-finding point of view,  the most interesting thing about this silly thud-and-blunder flick is this transfer of power from symbolic mother to symbolic daughter, even though the adult versions of these characters never share a scene together. In the final frames, Kara ascends to queendom, and I guess the brothers go on to serve her as knights-- making this one of the few barbarian flicks without an erotic payoff.





Saturday, February 2, 2019

NINJA MASSACRE (1978)



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


Though this chopsocky is probably best known under the title NINJA MASSACRE, there are no ninjas in it, given that it all takes place in medieval China. (I'll admit there is one clan that dresses up with black masks over their faces, but still-- no ninjas.) The alternate title SECRET MESSAGE is much better, since the main McGuffin here is a secret containing an esoteric kung-fu technique, which a bunch of martial arts clans want to possess, implicitly for evil reasons.

In fact, the heroine Chi Fong (Doris Lung Chung-Ehr) starts out as just another ruthless leader of a criminal group called the Poison Clan. She and her all-girl warriors stage a raid on the Beggar Clan to gain their secret scroll. However, another clan, the Iron Bloods, gets there first, slaughtering all the Beggars. The only copy of the scroll is tattooed on the back of an infant, so Chi Fong fights the leaders of the Iron Bloods. He flings some powder in her face that permanently blinds her, but Chi escapes with the infant. Her experience evidently causes Chi to do a volte-face, for despite her blindness she somehow manages to set up a small cottage in a rural valley far from society. There she proceeds to raise the babe Sao Shan as her own child, schooling him in kung fu. Since she can no longer read, one assumes that she has no access to the tattoos, though she does a sterling job of learning how to live and fight without her sight. Later, when her Poison Clan sisters seek her out, she refuses to return to her evil ways, wanting only to be a surrogate mother to Sao Shan.

However, every other clan in the territory pursues Chi for the precious scroll, and most of the film consists of her battles against them. One clever group tries to nullify her only sensory guide, her hearing, by attacking her with the use of bells, but Chi even beats them.

Two more personal adversaries also appear: Len Chung, Chi's old lover, who just wants to get close to her in order to steal the scroll, and General Lung, who's figured out that the young boy is really the last of the Beggars, and therefore Lung's nephew. But the melodrama definitely takes second part to the action sequences.

One sequence keeps MASSACRE from being fully uncanny: a bizarre sequence in which the Poison Maidens conquer another clan by whipping around their sashes so fast that they create a miniature tornado.



Friday, February 1, 2019

THE HURRICANE EXPRESS (1932), MYSTERY MOUNTAIN (1934)





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


A couple of online references claim that Mascot Studio's serial MYSTERY MOUNTAIN is a "remake" of the same studio's chapterplay from two years previous, HURRICANE EXPRESS. I find "remake" too strong a term. It's more like the later serial simply recycled some of the story-tropes that had been used by EXPRESS, though all of the tropes probably date back to the silent years. Both serials involve trains to some extent, though there's a lot more locomotive action in the 1932 serial, while the 1934 film is more concerned with horse-riding and stagecoach chases.  And both involve trains being assailed by a criminal conspiracy, headed by a mystery mastermind who can assume many identities through his use of disguises.

There are some important differences, too. EXPRESS is set in contemporary times, given the presence of both cars and planes of the 1930s. Hero Larry Baker (a pre-stardom John Wayne) is even a pilot, providing a small amount of air-action here and there, and the serial begins with what amounts to a two-minute paean to "the wheels of civilization," proceeding from stagecoachs to cars to speedboats, before settling on the train-line that's the main concern. MOUNTAIN, though not given a strong period setting, apparently takes place closer to the 19th century, given that there's an ongoing conflict between two companies: a stagecoach line and a railroad seeking to lay tracks around the "mystery mountain" of the title. Heroic railroad detective Ken Williams (Ken Maynard) drives neither cars nor planes, depending on his horse Tarzan for transportation. Williams is simply motivated by professional duty, while Baker seeks the villain for having slain Baker's father.

Another difference: the villain of EXPRESS, though he sports the fancy cognomen of "The Wrecker," is never seen in any sort of masked or cloaked manifestation. He depends entirely on his masks to keep his identity hidden, particularly the from viewer, until the final chapter's unveiling. In MOUNTAIN, "The Rattler" is also a master of disguise, but he affects a black slouch hat, a black cloaked outfit, and a patently false nose with a big mustache. Due to the false nose, the Rattler is probably one of the most ridiculous looking villains in American serials, though he's still resourceful enough to give the hero a good tussle or two, while the Wrecker depends a lot more on henchmen. The Rattler also uses certain "calling card" gimmicks-- artificial snakes, presumably made of wood or metal, that he throws like darts, and by which he sends messages to both allies and enemies. He seems to have no particular reason for this affectation, except that it arouses terror in his enemies' hearts, and his motive for plaguing both the railroad and the stagecoach-line has to do with unearthing a secret bounty from the mountain. The Wrecker's motive is simple revenge.

Both serials have a lot of thrilling set-pieces, though EXPRESS speeds ahead of MOUNTAIN in most respects. John Wayne and Ken Maynard both provide better-than-average heroics, though it should be no surprise that Wayne gives the more dynamic performance. However, MOUNTAIN has a better support-cast, ranging from feisty heroine Jane (Verna Hillie) to comedy relief Breezy (Syd Saylor), with the latter breaking the mold for serial-comics in actually being fairly funny.

But neither of the heroes have any metaphenomenal status. MYSTERY MOUNTAIN does have a costumed villain, but does HURRICANE EXPRESS fall into the category of the uncanny, just on the basis of his disguises?

In this essay on my companion blog, I considered whether or not a "man of many faces" could be said to register as having an "outre outfit:"

Now, being a simple "disguise expert" is not enough to mark a protagonist as belonging to what I've termed "the superhero idiom"... there are various "men of many faces" who do make my cut for belonging to the idiom, like the 1934 pulp-hero Secret Agent X, while others do not, like "Paris" from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.
I must admit that, even though the cloaked Rattler with his false nose is risible, the Wrecker's reticence makes him a little dull as a serial-fiend. Still, I've decided that his protean ability to masquerade as anyone-- even the hero-- does give  him the requisite aura of "strangeness" that I find necessary for an uncanny villain.

Besides, it gives me an excuse to induct John Wayne into the august company of actors belonging to 'the superhero idiom"-- an honor he'd probably have declined had he lived to hear about it.