Saturday, September 28, 2019

NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984)



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



I don't think NINJA III has nearly as much fame in the "so bad it's good" annals, but it deserves at least as much perverse love as, say, TROLL 2, in terms of being a nominally serious film that turned into total insanity in practice.

This was the third of Cannon's "ninja films," which all included the briefly famous Japanese actor Sho Kosugi, who's always playing a different ninja in each flick. Here, Kosugi is essentially a supporting character who comes looking for the main villain and makes possible the evildoer's defeat. Indeed, though ads usually feature hot young thing Lucinda Dickey as the main character, she too is a devil within her body, more or less in the way that Regan of THE EXORCIST is secondary to the demon who possesses her.

Though director Sam Firstenberg provides decent direction-duties, it's clear that scripter James Silke could not have cared less about story-logic. I don't recall if Cannon's two previous films in the "series" alluded to the widespread belief that Japanese ninjas were supposed to be masters of subtle assassination. That approach, though, isn't good enough for NINJA III's central villain "The Black Ninja," apparently so named for his black heart, since he's always in grey. For some unknown reason he seeks out and assassinates a "famous scientist" and the man's bodyguards, but does he do it in a place of relative concealment? No, he waits until they're out on the golf links, where he can be seen in broad daylight. A small army of cops respond to the murder, and the Black Ninja nearly beats all of them, even though they have guns and he just has archaic weapons like a sword and throwing-stars.

Still, one cop manages to shotgun the ninja in the back. He staggers away, and happens upon a telephone-repairwoman, Christie Riley (Dickey), who just happens to be out and about fixing lines. Even dying, the supernaturally powerful killer entrances Christie, though it's unclear as to whether he immediately possesses her or not. She's next seen at the police station being grilled by cops, though one young officer, Secord, wants to heat her up in a more friendly manner. Since we later see Christie take the dead ninja's sword from her repair-van, apparently she was hypnotized into putting the sword into her van, and then returning to the scene of the ninja's death-- I guess.

Secord pursues Christie, but she can't see him for spit until, well, he gets mad at her indifference-- after which she immediately falls into bed with him. Yeah, that's the way male-female relations worked in the eighties. Second doesn't seem too concerned when he witnesses her beat up a trio of thugs with her kung-fu skills, though Christie doesn't seem to know where they come from.. :Later, in the movie's most lovably cheesy scene, the Black Ninja's spirit manifests in Christie's apartment, inhabiting not only his sword but also-- I kid you not-- a video-game console.

So Christie gets fully possessed, seeks out the Ninja's store of weapons, costumes herself and goes hunting the cops responsible for slaying the Black Ninja. In the meantime, a good ninja named Yamada (Kosugi) shows up in the States, looking for vengeance against his ninja enemy. During the time that he spends nosing around, several innocents die at the evildoer's hands, but Yamada's focused on stealing the Black Ninja's bullet-riddled corpse. As for Secord, he's observed enough odd behavior from Christie that he takes her to a Japanese shaman for exorcism. The ritual fails, though Secord gets confirmation of her possession-- yet he still doesn't do anything to confine her, even just for her own good.

With the help of Second and a briefly in-control Christie, Yamada manages to transfer the Ninja's spirit back into his dead body. This somehow makes it possible for the villain to live again, and to fight Yamada at full power (even tunneling through solid stone). The good ninja wins, of course, though the victory makes no real sense-- thus in keeping with the rest of the film.


VAMPIRE (1979)



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


I had a dim memory of enjoying VAMPIRE when it debuted as a TV-movie in 1979. Given that it concluded with two vampire hunters still desperately seeking the vampiric villain of the story, I think I guessed it was a failed pilot. However, in my re-watch I found it pretty much devoid of good vampire-flick entertainment.

The film's only positive aspect is the actor playing the vamp, Richard Lynch. As Anton Voytek, a 700-year-old bloodsucker revived by the unearthing of his burial-place, Lynch delivers the quintessential "vampire as continental charmer." However, the script by co-producer Steven Bochco-- who later gained fame doing HILL STREET BLUES and other cop-shows-- is never more than blandly functional, leaving the two vamp-hunters-- played by Jason Miller and E.G. Marshall-- nothing to work with. Miller is particularly shortchanged, for he's meant to be the identification character, the guy who loses his wife to Voytek. But Miller's character of architect John Rawlins is numbingly dull, and Marshall's ex-cop is no better. A possible love interest for Rawlins is introduced to no greater effect.

Given that Bochco would become famous for his work with acting-ensembles, I speculate that he simply had no feel for the material. Bochco hauls out various routine cliches of the subgenre and shows no desire to give them emotional resonance, not even the scenes with Voytek seducing young women. The viewer expects, for instance, that he'll make Rawlins's wife an undead in order to torment the man. But she's dead for so long in the story that when she shows up, the viewer's almost forgotten her.

The horror genre is forever indebted to the suits who kept this iron-poor pilot from becoming what would probably have been an equally tired series, and perhaps contributed to Bochco getting on a better path.


Thursday, September 26, 2019

LABYRINTH (1986)



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


I remember liking LABYRINTH fairly well back in the eighties, but I find now that its potentially mythopoeic story-- that of a young girl entering the world of Faerie, trying to recover her brother from the King of Goblins-- to be seriously undercooked.

During my recent re-watch, I felt that two aspects of the story's theme conflicted with one another. On one hand, we begin with viewpoint character Sarah, a 15-year old modern American teenager (played by Jennifer Connelly, 14 at the time). Yet Sarah's concerns don't seem like those of a 15-year-old. She reads fantasy-books about goblins, and is jealous of her toddler-brother Toby, not least because Toby has inherited all of her old toys. Though some other issues are suggested-- Sarah's mother is apparently deceased, and a stepmother has taken her place-- Sarah seems to act like a much younger child, especially when she shows her pique by wishing the goblins to abduct Toby. Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) happens to be hovering around listening, and he grants her wish. When she tried to take back the wish, Jareth challenges her to pass through his labyrinth and to beard him in his lair, to see if she can take back her brother. After many twisty adventures in director Jim Henson's version of faerie-- in which most of the otherworld's inhabitants are, logically enough, simulated by "muppetry" effects-- Sarah eventually succeeds in her quest and returns home with Toby.

The Wikipedia writeup on LABYRINTH suggests the possibility that one or more of the persons involved in scripting-- not necessarily the credited writer Terry Jones-- may have subconsciously emulated Maurice Sendak's OUTSIDE OVER THERE, in which a 9-year-old girl is subjected to a similar brother-napping. The filmmakers admitted a possible indebtedness in a roundabout way, by including an end-credit praising the works of Sendak. Without jumping to any conclusions, I will note that the initiating events of the plot sound perfect for a moody 9-year-old, not yet ready to surrender her childhood to her more junior competitor. But the opening scenario really never works for a 15-year-old, just as Sarah's desire to befriend the quirky inhabitants of the dream-world would also resonate better for a younger child.

On the other hand, Jareth's motives for stealing Toby make a lot more sense, given that the film gives very veiled suggestions that his real purpose is to bring Sarah into his world and seduce her. Henson and Jones tread very carefully here, in part because Henson wanted to keep things lighter than his previous effort THE DARK CRYSTAL. Nevertheless, while there aren't any good mythic moments during Sarah's labyrinthine journey, her interactions with Jareth have an appealing eroticism, not least thanks to Bowie's androgynous appearance.

At the same time, Bowie, while he displayed a great penchant for flamboyant strutting and posing, didn't show a lot of acting panache. Connelly, though, makes up for Bowie's shortcomings, and her winsomeness is probably what worked most for me when I first viewed the film. But on this viewing, she and her goofy muppet-faerie friends just didn't hold up anymore.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

TALES OF TERROR (1962)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


TALES OF TERROR follows the same pattern seen in the previous three films in Roger Corman's "Poe cycle," where a scripter takes Poe's delirious but sketchy stories and attempts to fill in the gaps with greater psychological verisimilitude. Of the previous three, Richard Matheson scripted the first two-- FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and PIT AND THE PENDULUM-- for Corman, while the one that immediately preceded TALES was THE PREMATURE BURIAL, scripted by two other writers and not nearly as affecting in the psychology department.

As I've discussed in my short surveys of Poe's fiction on another blog, OUROBOROS DREAMS, Poe's psychological concerns were closely linked to his philosophical ones. Both Matheson and Corman sell their Poe-adaptations not with philosophical insights but with an appeal to the sort of wild-and-woolly melodrama that Poe eschewed during his career. Yet Matheson was a good enough writer that his first two feature-length rewrites of Poe manage to sustain themselves as "myths derivative of Poe's world." TALES OF TERROR, being an anthology film, stands as more of a mixed bag, in which Matheson sometimes seems to be chafing at his task of dramatizing Poe's curious meditations on death, love and eternity. Indeed, the anthology starts out with one really good segment, one merely adequate segment, and one that looks like Matheson just going through the motions.

Going from worst to best-- and thus in reverse order of the segments' appearance in the film-- Matheson shows little passion for the Poe story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." As I observed in this post, Poe's original tale exists to do little more than raise the question of what it might be like, to use mesmerism to pierce the veil between life and death. As in previous entries, Matheson merely injects sex into the mix. Wealthy Valdemar (Vincent Price), who now has a lovely young wife named Helene, suffers from a pain-inducing disease. The ministrations of the hypnotist Carmichael (Basil Rathbone) relieve Valdemar of his pain, but nothing can forestall the victim's death. However, Carmichael does not allow Valdemar to die, but places Valdemar's into a hypnotic state that keeps his mind alert even though his body dies and begins to putrefy. Carmichael attempts to blackmail Helene into marrying him, which she's willing to do if the hypnotist will release Valdemar from his thrall. But for some obscure reason this isn't good enough for Carmichael, as he fears betrayal after he lets his victim free. In contrast to the original tale, Valdemar then stirs forth and takes supernatural vengeance. The only saving grace of this routine segment is a barnstorming performance by Rathbone.

"The Black Cat," the second story in the film, is a free-form take both on Poe's original story and the later "Cask of Amontillado." Possibly Matheson or Corman associated the two tales because they both deal with protagonists who (1) commit bizarre crimes for capricious reasons, and (2) wall up their victims behind freshly-laid brick walls, though in the case of "Cat" the victim is already dead, while in "Cask," the killer Montresor entombs his rival Fortunato while the latter is yet living. Matheson plays his "Cat" for goofy humor. Though the main character is named after "Cask's" Montresor, as played by Peter Lorre he's a jokey version of the nameless "Black Cat" protagonist, whose addiction to liquor causes him to kill first a pet cat and then his wife, following which he receives his comeuppance from a mysterious feline doppelganger. Montresor is a drunk who berates and abuses his wife, and then makes the acquaintance of an upper-crust wine-expert Fortunato (Vincent Price). Though Montresor wins a wine-tasting contest against Fortunato, the latter gets even by seducing Montresor's wife. Montresor gets his revenge in a denouement borrowing from both of Poe's story. But aside from the segment's sociological theme of "lower class vs. higher class," Matheson's "Cat" is just a silly mashup, whose humor probably played well in theaters but doesn't hold up in subsequent viewings.

Matheson's "Morella" is also a mashup, though it doesn't wear its influences quite as overtly as the "Black Cat" segment. Of the 1835 story, I wrote:

Whereas "Berenice" concerns a desired woman who seems to perish of a literal illness, "Morella" is about a woman who passes away because the unnamed narrator, her husband, mysteriously ceases to feel affection for her. Also in contrast to "Berenice," both the narrator and Morella seem to be ardent bookworms, schooled in abstruse philosophies like Fichte and Schelling. There may an element of envy in the narrator's indifference; perhaps he feels inferior to Morella's oft-described learning? In any case, though once again Poe's narrator disavows erotic feeling toward his beloved, this time he's somehow managed to father a child on Morella. A girl child is born just as Morella perishes, roughly repeating the trope in "Berenice" wherein narrator Egaeus is born when his mother dies.
The daughter grows to womanhood, and the narrator somehow manages to avoid giving her a name until she shows an almost identical resemblance to Morella. A christening-ritual requires the husband to name his daughter. He gives her the name "Morella" and she, like her mother. drops dead.
The story is preceded by a Platonic quote on the uniqueness of identity. Poe may be burlesquing this high-flown philosophy by showing the horror resulting when two entities share the same basic identity.

Matheson entirely ignores these Platonic concerns by jettisoning the climax of Poe's story-- that of the narrator giving his daughter his mother's name and thereby killing her-- and instead substituting a mashup of motifs from both his version of "Fall of the House of Usher" and from Poe's "Ligeia." The latter story is intimately concerned, unlike "Morella," with spiritual transmigration, suggesting that the late Ligeia has usurped the body of the narrator's current wife Rowena. Matheson builds his "Morella" along the lines of "Ligeia," but the usurpation is that of the dead Morella usurping the body of her grown daughter Lenora (patently named after the vanished "Lenore" of Poe's "The Raven").

In this opening segment, Matheson dovetails all of his influences in what might be the horror-genre's version of Sartre's NO EXIT. At the start of the story, wealthy hermit Locke (Price again) wanders around in his mansion, doing little or nothing until grown daughter Lenora (Maggie Pierce) shows up on his doorstep. Lenora has had no contact with her father since childhood, having been raised at boarding-schools, because Locke resented her for having killed Morella in childbirth. Lenora, filled of resentment toward her absentee parent, nevertheless shows up on Locke's doorstep. He tells her that he loved Morella so much that he wanted to kill infant Lenora, but he softens slightly when Lenora reveals the reason for her belated visit: that she's going to perish of a fatal illness. That illness seems to snatch the young woman away, just as a reconciliation seems possible-- but then the long-dead spirit of Morella takes over the body of Lenora, even transforming into the image of Morella, and slays Locke in a fiery climax. But does Morella come back because she despises Locke for making her pregnant? Or does Lenora summon Morella as a means of wreaking revenge upon her negligent father? I'm omitting some of the juicier details of this rich segment, but it's good enough on its own to make up for the shortcomings of the other two.

Monday, September 23, 2019

THE PHANTOM (1996)



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


THE 1996 PHANTOM, the first major production with the Lee Falk character since the 1943 serial, was a better imitation of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK than most of the outright Indiana Phonies. While PHANTOM was obviously not as expensive a production as RAIDERS, the stunts and the costumes were generally impressive, and Billy Zane played the hero with a witty insouciance that summed up the optimism of the early 20th century.

The story is based loosely on the opening sequences of the 1936 comic strip, summarized here. The 1996 film doesn't dwell very long on the origin of the Phantom line of heroic adventurers, nor upon, even in 1996, the Bengalla natives' superstitious belief that the Phantom is immortal. But like the comic-strip sequence entitled "The Singh Brotherhood," the modern-day hero is faced with the recrudescence of the Singh Pirates of Malaysia, whose lawless ancestors killed the father of the man who would become the first in the line of Phantoms. But, in contrast to the comic strip situation, the Singhs are not the main villain here. Rather, the script places more emphasis on a group of American villains, led by flamboyant entrepreneur Xander Drax (Treat Williams). Like the Nazis who pursued the Lost Ark, Drax seeks the power of antiquity, though in this case he has to gather three artificially-made skulls that, when joined, can summon phenomenal supernatural power. The Phantom learns of this plot in his Bengalla jungle, but before he can journey to America to pursue the plotters, his future girlfriend Diana Palmer (Kirsty Swanson) comes into the mix.

Diana, the rough-and-ready daughter of a newspaper tycoon, journeys to Bengalla to investigate a connection between Xander Drax and the cult of the Singh Brotherhood. Drax learns of her mission, and, apparently fearing that she'll find out something, creates considerable fuss by having a squadron of female pilots ambush Diana's flight and take her prisoner. This all-girl squad, led by the insidious Sala (a coquettish Catherine Zeta Jones) appeared in the early strip "The Sky Band" and had no connection to any other villains, Sala and Diana have a case of "hate at first sight," but because Sala's airbase is located (very conveniently) in Bengalla, the Phantom comes to Diana's rescue. To be sure, they've met before, since in college Diana dated the hero in his mufti identity as "Kit Walker," though she certainly doesn't recognize him with his mask and purple outfit.

Diana drops the original plans for her investigation and flies back to New York, and the Phantom does the same, dressed as Kit Walker. The two meet again and pursue a lead to one of the skulls at a local museum (also rather convenient), just as Xander and his thugs show up  Despite the hero's attempt to interfere, Xander assembles two of the magic skull-artifacts, which happily are able to project a modern-day map that tells him where to look for the third item. This leads the Phantom and Diana to enjoy a final battle with Xander's forces and the Singh cult, though the good guys receive some aid from Sala, who switches sides in a manner not unlike Pussy Galore in the GOLDFINGER book.

Aside from the script's tendency to arrange plot-developments for the writer's convenience, the film's biggest weakness is that of "too many crooks spoil the broth." Early scenes suggest that the Phantom's going to contend with the Singh, since there are so many references to their mythology, but Xander, a road-show Lex Luthor, gets most of the screen-time, and a late appearance by Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa as the Singh leader proves small compensation. The threat of the magic skulls is never adequately developed, and so the main appeal is that of some decent fight-scenes, Zane's nice-guy superhero and some fetching females in Swanson and Zeta Jones. The script does at least include all the major parts of Phantom lore-- his horse, his pet wolf, his jungle-cave, and his "Phantom ring," though I didn't care for the script giving the ring a special role in the resolution of the helter-skelter story. But I rate the mythicity as "fair" because the movie does capture the feel of a simpler, more adventurous era.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE (1941)



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


Wikipedia calls the 1941 Victor Fleming adaptation of the venerable Robert Louis Stevenson classic to be a "remake" of the 1931 Paramount film, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. There are naturally many points the two films have in common, not least in that both take a major motif from a Victorian-era theatrical version: that of giving Henry Jekyll a leading-lady and/or fiancee (called variously Agnes, Muriel, and Beatrice). I don't propose to make a point-by-point comparison between the two major American movies, especially since I haven't yet reviewed the Mamoulian film. But certain scenes, respectively at the beginning and at the end of the Fleming film, bear scrutiny.

One of the biggest differences is that Fleming's Jekyll comes off as more fatuously noble than Mamoulian's, as essayed by Fredric March. John Lee Mahin, adapting the earlier script by two other writers, opens the film very differently, showing Jekyll, his fiancee Beatrice, and Beatrice's father Sir Charles all attending church. The minister's sermon is interrupted when a rowdy fellow, identified as a mine-worker, starts ranting about the foolishness of morality. When the bobbies show up to eject the source of disturbance, Jekyll asks them to send the man to his clinic for study. The mine-worker's wife reveals that her husband suffered an accident that warped his normal sense of ethics, which just happens to coincide with Jekyll's own experiments with separating the good and evil sides of the human soul. The mine-worker soon expires, but he's apparently injected just so that the movie can present its audience with an anticipation of Hydes to come.

In the 1931 film, Jekyll's fiancee is jealously guarded by her father, and the sense of sexual frustration that Jekyll feels for his beloved is clearly devised to portray him as a victim of Victorian repression. But Fleming's Jekyll shows little passion, even for his own theories when he defends them against Sir Charles and other stiff figures of authority. Similarly, Sir Charles is far less of a "heavy father," for he shows little possessiveness toward Beatrice and seems relatively friendly toward Jekyll as a prospective son-in-law, if only he wouldn't delve into the secrets of Heaven. Thus Fleming's Jekyll has less in common with either the neurotic Stevenson character or the sexually repressed figure of the 1931 film. If anything, as played by Spenser Tracy, Jekyll brings to mind the way Henry Frankenstein, protagonist of the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, validates his own status as a seeker of ultimate truth. However, whereas the script of Whale's FRANKENSTEIN doesn't entirely validate the hero's opinion of himself, the John Lee Mahin script sells Jekyll as just such a seeker.

Even Jekyll's meeting with the low-class "bad woman" Ivy, closely modeled on scenes in the 1931 film, de-emphasizes the possibility that Jekyll can really be tempted by the mere possibility of sexual intercourse. When he does at last concoct his transformative serum and use it on himself, he still seems more motivated by a fierce desire to prove his theories, not to purge the demons in his breast. Further, Spencer Tracy's ostensible desire to play Hyde with barely any makeup assistance remains one of the great mistakes in horror cinema. As Hyde, Tracy bugs his eyes and bares his teeth, but at no time does he succeed in portraying "the face of evil."

Once Fleming and Mahin finish rewriting the early part of the Mamoulian film, the middle portion of the film follows the 1931 flick for the most part. Sir Charles catches his daughter committing the unforgivable offense of visiting Jekyll at his house, and it reminds the lord that he's supposed to be a much heavier father. So he takes Beatrice abroad. Separated from his "good girl," Jekyll doses himself again and goes in search of a good "bad girl," namely Ivy-- who, like everyone else, does not recognize Hyde as Jekyll even though his basic physical features are unchanged. This is the closest the film comes to incarnating Hyde's evil, as he wins over Ivy with a display of money, and then proceeds to terrorize the poor woman, keeping her confined to her own apartment.

When Hyde reverts to Jekyll, the aggrieved scientist attempts to put his nastier side away from him. But Ivy, remembering Jekyll from their previous encounter, asks him for help, not realizing that she's just betrayed her lord and master to his face-- just not the face with the bug-eyes and bared teeth. Hyde callously murders Ivy, but this action brings the police down upon him (resulting in a not very exciting chase scene, and later, to his reversion to Jekyll in front of one of his friends). The film ends, not with Mamoulian's image of a pot of repression steadily boiling over, but with an incongruous Christian choir that implicitly forgives Jekyll his transgressions-- a forgiveness that this superficial version of Jekyll does not really earn.

Monday, September 16, 2019

RUNAWAY (1984)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*


Michael Crichton scored a double-threat in the seventies by both writing and directing successful thrillers like 1973's WESTWORLD and 1978's COMA. However, he didn't have as much success in the eighties, largely bombing out with both 1981's LOOKER and 1984's RUNAWAY, and didn't regain his Hollywood mojo until Spielberg adapted JURASSIC PARK in 1993.

RUNAWAY takes place in a near-future America wherein all sorts of robot-servants have become regular presences in both home and work environments. But because robots sometimes go haywire, even becoming "runaways," police departments have to have special officers trained in dealing with berserk mechanisms. Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes), a new lady cop joins the robot-patrol department, and so becomes the audience's viewpoint character as she learns about her duties and her new superior, laid-back "old hand" Ramsey (Tom Selleck). Ramsey tells Thompson that most of their duties in robot-stopping are mundane. Since this wouldn't make a good movie, Ramsey is almost immediately proven wrong when the two of them stumble across the plans of mad engineer Charles Luther (Gene Simmons) to sell forbidden technology on the black market. Luther programs robots to attack the investigators, though most of these killer mechanisms are small devices, ranging from tiny heat-seeking missiles and "spider robots." Kirstie Alley plays one of Luther's former allies, whom Ramsey must protect.

It's not hard to see why RUNAWAY tanked. Crichton's enthusiasm for the film's gimmicks resulted in a complete neglect of any interesting characters. Ramsey has a lovable kid and a complex about heights possibly borrowed from Hitchcock's VERTIGO. Thompson has a thing for Ramsey but he seems to like Kirstie's character better. Alley, who is no means a favorite of mine, nevertheless provides the only compelling acting in the film, with Selleck particularly proving soporific.

The film's only interest for me was that of giving TV's original "Magnum P.I." a SF-hero role, which was so underwhelming that I'm quite happy Selleck was not selected to play Indiana Jones.



Friday, September 13, 2019

BATMAN VS. TWO-FACE (2017)



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


This direct-to-DVD production. following on the heels of BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS,  once again re-united three performers from the classic 1966 BATMAN teleseries, Adam West (Batman), Burt Ward (Robin), and Julie Newmar (Catwoman). But TWO-FACE-- which also boasts William Shatner voicing the titular villain and Lee ("second Catwoman") Meriwether playing a supporting-role-- will almost certainly be the last in the series, thanks to the 2017 passing of Adam West.

Though the second DVD-flick shares the same director and writing-team as the first, TWO-FACE is at least, well, two times as good (given that I rated CAPED CRUSADERS's mythicity as "poor"). And this is a fair accomplishment, given that Two-Face, though it's rumored that he was considered as a "guest villain" for the 1966 series, really did not fit the camp aesthetic. Two-Face's 1942 debut was about as gritty and grotesque as a kids' superhero comic could be at the time, and such grotesquerie didn't really fit the bright primary colors of the West-Ward world.

So, do the filmmakers succeed in making their version of Two-Face fit their version of that world? Well, somewhat. Despite my liking for the origin-story of the villain, I've generally found that he doesn't "travel" well in later stories, and that his focus on "twos" wears out his welcome much faster than the Penguin's birds or the Riddler's riddles. In order to make the villain fit the more science-fiction-heavy world of the DVD-series, Two-Face's grotty old origin is changed to include a device called an "Evil Extractor." The device's inventor is a version of another Bat-villain, Hugo Strange, who in this iteration is actually working to purge Gotham City's villains of the villainy with the Extractor. However, things go wrong and district attorney Harvey Dent is horribly scarred on one side of his face, thus giving rise to Two-Face.

The continuity then leaps over the villain's initial criminal career, showing the viewer that he's summarily captured by Batman and Robin. Following the capture, reconstructive surgery repairs the damage to Harvey Dent's face, once again suggesting that science can obliterate evil.

It should go without saying that you can't keep a good villain's bad side down, and so it's revealed that the apparently reformed Dent can morph into Two-Face, a clear nod to Jekyll and Hyde. While even the youngest viewers will anticipate this revelation, the script keeps things interesting in that square-sided Batman continually wants to believe in Dent's reformation, since as Bruce Wayne he's friends with the attorney. This version of Robin is more suspicious and less of a goody-good than he is in the original series, but he's proven right when the recrudescent Two-Face captures both crusaders and offers to sell them to the highest bidder among Gotham's usual heinous suspects. However, Catwoman, playing a quasi-heroic role as she did in the previous entry, comes to the heroes' rescue.

Whereas the first film in the series played up goony humor too much, this one manages to sell more of the teleseries' signature irony. This is evinced in an early humorous scene in which Batman seems to be courting the villainess-- only to reveal that he's just visiting her in prison. As if to make the hero squarer than ever, he brings the languishing Catwoman a book of Edith Barrett Browning poetry. Later, as if the creators were congratulating themselves for getting things right, there's a sign in front of a hospital labeled "The Sisters of Perpetual Irony."

Since this was the last go-round for the "Adam West Batman," I can appreciate that the creators stepped up to deliver a work with considerably more in common with the breakthrough TV-show.




TEENAGE ZOMBIES (1959?), FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF (1964)



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


TEENAGE ZOMBIES, one of the few films by director Jerry Warren that didn't cobble together segments from other films, is worse than any of Ed Wood Jr.'s offerings, but it'll never equal Wood's oeuvre in terms of being "so bad it's good." Left to himself, Warren produced a soporific take on the sort of "mad scientist" films made famous by the lower-rung filmmakers like Columbia and Monogram back in the 1940s. However, almost without fail Warren "directs" ZOMBIES with an unending cavalcade of tedious medium shots. Given that all of his actors were no-names-- including Katherine Victor, who would gain a measure of fame later with Warren's WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN-- it may be that he saw no reason to bother with time-consuming close-ups.

Whereas the stars of the forties potboilers were almost always adults, Warren played to the fifties' penchant for older-juvenile films by having two teenaged couples go looking for a place to water-ski. Traveling by boat to a remote island, the teens witness some strange men stumbling around, again like the non-violent zombies of Classic Hollywood. Then their boat mysteriously disappears. They look for answers at a mansion, the only building on the isle, and meet the eccentric Doctor Myra (Victor), who is served by a bearded hulk named Ivan. After a few pleasantries, Myra has Ivan toss the teens into her private prison. Myra is your basic mad scientist, working on a "zombie-making" serum for agents of an "Eastern" power. Indeed, after jailing the teens, Myra confers with the foreign agents, who reveal that their bosses are planning to make a direct nuclear attack unless the scientist can deliver bombs capable of reducing Americans to the status of obedient slaves.

There's also a subplot about two other teens trying to get the local sheriff to investigate their friends' disappearance, and this leads to the unlikely revelation that the sheriff in cahoots with the spies. As usual in mad-scientist movies, the demented doctor is the focus of the story, and Victor tries to give her unrewarding role some of the passion of a Bela Lugosi megalomaniac. However, despite a few lackluster fights when the imprisoned teens break free, and an experimental gorilla who doesn't do much of anything, the only Wood-like touch in this depressing flick is Doctor Myra's penchant for greeting her guests in clingy ball-gowns. She even wears her lab coat over such a gown. Maybe someone involved thought that, no matter how mad she was, she had one mitigating quality: that she was a really snappy dresser.



FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF is more representative of most of Warren's career, but it might please the so-bad-it's-good crowd in that it's more overtly nonsensical.

WEREWOLF has very minimal original footage, and is for the most part an unholy mashup of two dubbed Mexican films. Warren had already used a lot of scenes from the 1957 Mexican film LA MOMIA AZTECA in his 1963 American release ATTACK OF THE MAYAN MUMMY, but for WEREWOLF he used only a few draggy sequences to provide the opening of the newer film. The bulk of the 1964 film was taken from a 1959 Mexican comedy, LA CASA DEL TERROR, starring comedian Tin Tan and horror-icon Lon Chaney Jr. as a werewolf. Warren is guiltless in CASA's decision to associate the Chaney werewolf with some sort of Egyptian sarcophagus-- but in a vain attempt to provide continuity between the disparate scenes from different movies, Warren's version asserts that there are two mummies running around. One is ancient (the Aztec Mummy), and the other is a modern werewolf whom someone or other wrapped in mummy-bandages. Just as a guess I'd surmise that the original makers of CASA DEL TERROR were just having fun with Chaney's dual image of both werewolf and mummy, which might've played better in an actual comedy. But Warren snipped out almost all of the Tin Tan scenes, leaving a hodgepodge of scenes in which the wolf-man runs around attacking people, mostly some scientists who sought to revive him for reasons unknown. The scenes from the 1959 film aren't exactly good, but they're certainly livelier than anything in TEENAGE ZOMBIES.





Thursday, September 12, 2019

MYSTERY MEN (1999), TANK GIRL (1995)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *comedy,* (2) *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*


It's been a long time since I read the short-lived MYSTERY MEN comics-feature, created by Bob Burden as a spin-off from his moderately successful FLAMING CARROT, Thus I'm going only on memory when I remember the original MYSTERY MEN as being a one-joke premise: "here are these maladroit superheroes, who instead of having projecting auras of power. have either crappy powers or none at all, and so give themselves goofy names like 'the Shoveler' and 'the Spleen.'"

Necessarily, a movie script for such a concept needed more development than Burden gave it. The script for the 1999 movie, partly credited to Dark Horse Comics publisher Mike Richardson, attempts to expand on the base idea of the comic. For one thing, all of the action takes place in Champion City, which is, like many cities in classic comics, more of a baroque abstraction of a city. As the name suggests, Champion City exists to provide a backdrop wherein superheroes defeat supervillains in their projects of larceny or destruction. Generally in classic comics, such places sport only one superhero who continually protects his stomping-grounds, and if other superheroes appear at all, they do so as temporary "guest stars."

The Mystery Men of the movie's title-- even though they never precisely take that name within the diegesis-- are initially the Shoveler (who fights with a shovel), the Blue Raja (who throws forks but never knives), and their leader Mister Furious (who gets mad a lot but doesn't seem able to fight). The Mystery Men continually attempt to gain fame for their good deeds, but they're continually overshadowed by Champion's most popular super-doer, Captain Amazing. However, the captain is to some extent a victim of his own fame, for he's licensed his image to many companies to take capitalistic advantage of his popularity. But he's caught and jailed so many super-fiends that he no longer has any challengers, and so the sales of Captain Amazing merch begins to fall off. Thus Amazing decides that he'll create his own "crisis"-- much the way nineties superhero comics resorted to "big events" to goose sales-- by releasing a major foe from prison, in order to catch him again and regain his fame. However, when mad scientist Casanova Frankenstein is freed, the villain turns the tables and captures his superheroic foe.

Meanwhile, the three ne'er-do-wells attempt to build up their numbers, and manage to bring in three new members: the Spleen (who emits toxic gas from his anus), the Invisible Boy (who's only invisible when no one's watching him), and the Bowler (a "legacy hero," in that she inherits the super-bowling talent of her late hero-father). Eventually the maladroit sextet have a run-in with Frankenstein's thugs, and only the lucky invasion of a seventh "mystery man," the Sphinx, saves them. The perpetually angry Mr. Furious gets irritated when the Sphinx attempts to take over the group, but, long story short, the seven heroes manage to come together to invade Frankenstein's sanctum and triumph against the evildoer, albeit with a lot of comic bungling along the way (not least their accidentally killing the hero they've come to rescue).

In terms of the stylized presentation of this fantasy-world, MYSTERY MEN has a lively "music video" look to it (it was the only feature film of video-short director Kinka Usher). The script gives some of the heroes brief character-arcs that would've been impossible in a Burden comic, and of those arcs, the Bowler is probably the most fun, given that she carries around her father's preserved skull in her weaponized bowling-ball. All of the actors get into the spirit of the project quite well, though there's only so much they can do when some of the one-joke concepts run their course.






I've also only brief acquaintance with the Australian comic TANK GIRL, and, again based on memory, I would have to say that the 1995 film does not represent the spirit of the raucous 1988 comics feature. Ironically, though the live-action portion of the film fails to keep the proper tone, there are occasionally cartoon-inserts throughout the continuity, done in the style of the original comics-artists, and these suggest that a full animated feature might've been a better way to go.

It's another post-apocalyptic future, this time caused by a comet that strikes Earth and obliterates a lot of the planet's water-supply, In Australia a tyrannical combine, the Water and Power Corporation, attempts to corner the remaining water market, but they often suffer attacks by mysterious attackers called "Rippers." In addition, Water and Power-- run the megalomaniacl Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell)-- discovers a scruffy little commune with their own well, so they decimate the commune and take prisoner a young woman named Rebecca (Lori Petty). However, during her captivity-- which seems unusually lax-- the Rippers invade the W & P facility and nearly slay Kesslee. With the help of "Jet Girl," a young woman with great mechanical talent, the heroine steals a tank from W & P, at which point she morphs into the titular "Tank Girl." While the two young women go in search of other allies, not least the Rippers, W & P uses extraordinary technology to resurrect Kesslee in a sort of holographic cyborg-body. Naturally, he then wants revenge on everyone associated with his near-death, particularly the defiant Tank Girl.

Budgeted at about $25 million-- incidentally, about a third of MYSTERY MEN's budget-- TANK GIRL looks like a lot less was spent, particularly when the script introduces us to the Rippers, who are (for the most part) humans who have been genetically crossbred with kangaroos. Considering that director Rachel Talalay made a much better movie-- A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4-- for less than half the cost of TANK GIRL, the fault would seem to lie in an overly jokey script and poor development of characters. Lead actress Lori Petty makes a game try to incarnate the boisterous spirit of the comics-character, but the script gives her only dull psuedo-western cliches to work with. Malcolm McDowell has a considerably easier time of it playing the tyrannical Kesslee, but a strong villain can't save a film with a weakly conceived hero.

Allegedly Talalay is currently attempting to reboot the franchise with a new film. I'd still say that an animated feature would be the way to go, but after the critical embrace of MAD MAX FURY ROAD, a new outing for the girl with the big tank could only be an improvement over this outing.


Monday, September 9, 2019

POOTIE TANG (2001)



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


The character of "Pootie Tang" first appeared in sketches on Chris Rock's HBO series of the late nineties, and later grew into a feature-film, written in part by Rock and directed by another comedian, Louis C.K., although the latter disavowed the final cut of the film.

I can't imagine what the final cut might've left out, for POOTIE TANG is, despite being utterly silly, fairly tight for a superhero spoof. Aside from a largely inconsequential frame-story, in which the protagonist is interviewed about his own movie, the story starts out with showing urban hero Pootie Tang (Lance Crouther) taking out a small gang of drug-dealers, led by the Pigpen-like gangsta "Dirry Dee." Pootie displays no well-defined super-powers, but he's able to dodge bullets purely by his smooth dance moves, or to deflect bullets with either his long braids or with the belt he wears, which he also uses to bludgeon hoods. It seems that the only thing Pootie can't do is to speak the English language, in that he constantly mixes English words with an undecipherable slang of his own creation-- though for the most part both white and black listeners seem to understand what he says.

Pootie is such an incredible media-phenomenon that kids everywhere love him, and turn their backs on drugs and other temptations. This development enrages multi-conglomerate honcho Dick Lecter, because it affects the bottom line of his corrupt companies. Realizing that he can't take out the hero by force, he uses guile, in the form of a temptress named Ireenie (Jennifer Coolidge). Despite the fact that there's a good black woman who pines after the hero, Pootie lets himself be seduced by Ireenie, even though she does so in a singularly weird manner: accosting the noble fellow in a supermarket and both slapping and kicking him. Like Delilah before her, Ireenie learns the hero's secret weakness: take away the magic belt given Pootie by his father, and he loses all of his power. Lecter steals the belt, and Pootie loses his moral compass, signing a contract that allows Lecter to exploit his image without Pootie's consent. Finally, not having a Fortress of Solitude as a retreat, Pootie wanders out into some rural community, which leads to a handful of surprisingly mild redneck-jokes. Without giving away too much, suffice to say that Pootie Tang learns that his true powers stem not from the belt but from his inner "goodness," allowing him to regain his heroic stature and take down the villains.

I'm not sure if the protagonist's mangling of the English language was intended as a spoof of slang-language in general, but though this is the film's primary joke, happily it isn't the only one. Indeed, the best bit in the film appears when Pootie cuts a record which is entirely devoid of music or lyrics, but people still dance to it as if it were the hottest new track out there. As noted, most of the story derives from the Samson myth, though there's a curious, not-particularly-funny scene in which Pootie also plays Jesus, in that Pootie apparently brings a slain hoodlum back to life purely through the hero's agony over the man's death. It's an odd scene that doesn't have a function in the plot, but it's pleasing in its very peculiarity.


Thursday, September 5, 2019

ESCAPE 2000 (1982), ULTRA WARRIOR (2000)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


These two future-dystopia flicks might be object lessons in "the right way" and "the wrong way" to do this kind of thing.

ESCAPE 2000, also called TURKEY SHOOT, is a rarity in that it melds tropes from three disparate sources-- the futuristic tyranny out of Orwell's 1984, the hunting-of-humans out of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, and any number of prison-pictures-- and yet all three sets of tropes complement one another.

In an English-speaking country that isn't identified (though it may be the country where it was filmed, Australia), both real political dissidents and those frivolously accused of rebellion are transported to remote desert-prisons where they're subjected to behavior modification. At the same time, the prison's warden Thatcher amuses himself and his sadistic guards with the custom of the "turkey shoot," in which captives are turned loose in the desert and then tracked down by the armed hunters.

Some critics complained about the very graphic violence in the tortures doled out by the guards and by the retaliation of the prisoners. However, there are been so many hundreds of routine tyrannies in film that often the supposed cruelties of the regimes lack any vraisemblance. By contrast, the scene in which head guard Ritter abuses one female prisoner for failing to speak a required catechism sells the idea of relentless cruelty better than any number of wholesale slaughters.

Paul (Steve Railsback) is the one true revolutionary among the targets, but though he and the other prisoners are simply characterized, they manage to keep audience sympathy despite the familiarity



In contrast, ULTRA WARRIOR is a mess. I imagine the director, or whoever organized it, probably sold the project to Roger Corman on the strength of how cheap it would be due to all the old footage from other Corman films he could use.

Ironically, though the VHS art makes protagonist Rudolf Kenner look like Conan, he's really a corporate stooge working for a future-corporation following a nuclear catastrophe. He's sent to a small town named Oblivion to secure mineral rights to the town's wealth of "zirconium," which is somehow of use in fighting a space-war (which has nothing to do with the main plot). However, the grotty human bosses of the town so oppress the mutant underclass that Kenner ends up helping them rebel against the humans.

WARRIOR's only distinction is that though it's clearly following the example of MAD MAX, its hero seems modeled more on the heroes of naturalistic western-films.

THE PHANTOM CREEPS (1939)




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


Even though THE PHANTOM CREEPS recycles a lot of its fancy gimmicks and its exciting score from earlier works, like 1936's FLASH GORDON and 1939's SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, it still has the distinction of being the best of Bela Lugosi's five serials.

Given that at the time the actor still possessed the cachet of having appeared in A-level films, the opening chapters of PHANTOM make an effort to capitalize on Lugosi's acting prowess. Though in many ways Doctor Alex Zorka is a standard world-conquering mad scientist, Chapter 1 establishes that he has a faithful, age-appropriate wife, and though he doesn't let her fears about his madness deter him from his course, he does make an effort to keep her with him. The script disposes of Mrs. Zorka within a few chapters, but devotes a telling scene to Zorka attempting to control his emotions when he beholds her deceased body.

Like a lot of serials, this one is very loosely plotted, but this helps keep the focus on action and wild inventions. Lugosi has a veritable cornucopia of science-fiction gimmicks-- miniature spiders that can plunge victims into comas, an electric ray-gun, a giant robot and an invisibility belt. The latter is the reason Lugosi sometimes refers to himself as "the Phantom," though most of the time his enemies call him "Zorka," since there's no mystery as to his identity. Though I didn't catch any pertinent WWII references, PHANTOM like many serials of the 1930s relates the mad scientist's struggles for dominance to the dangers of foreign espionage. Zorka's newest invention, a gas that can immobilize armies, is derived from elements taken from a meteor fragment (illustrated by footage taken from Lugosi's earlier Universal film THE INVISIBLE RAY). Thus the meteor-element becomes the bone over which the various dogs-- various American lawmen, foreign agents, and Lugosi and his henchmen Monk-- continually struggle throughout the chapterplay.

I don't often devote much time talking about the villain's henchmen in serials, but I'll note that Monk, as played by Jack C. Smith, provides Bela with excellent reinforcement. Monk, a slow-witted though occasionally crafty career crook, doesn't just stand around listening to his boss wax poetic about his world-conquering plans. Rather, Monk is forever griping about how he's going to get sent back to prison because Zorka keeps all of the good "toys" for himself. In response, Zorka constantly threatens Monk with dire fates for complaining, not least siccing the giant robot, "the Iron Man," upon the hapless hood. Since this robot is, like most of those in serials, is just a man in an unwieldly suit, the Iron Man doesn't appear often, but he makes a formidable presence despite his bizarre appearance. In any case, the Zorka-Monk relationship is so chancy-- you never know if Monk will definitively betray his employer and get snuffed-- that it's much more compelling than the relationship between the vanilla military intelligence hero (Robert Kent) and the plucky girl reporter assisting him (Dorothy Arnold). In terms of casting there's even a shout-out to the 1931 DRACULA in that Edward Van Sloan has a small role, though no scenes with Lugosi.

Lugosi's forceful performance as a monomaniac ("They cannot destroy [the meteor] any more than they can destroy me") and the scientist's many gimmicks are the serial's main assets. There are a satisfactory number of action-scenes, with more emphasis on chases than on fights, but the only standout is the concluding scene, when Zorka and Monk take to the skies in a biplane. While Monk pilots the plane, Zorka, laughing fiendishly, hurls super-explosive bombs to the earth, where he destroys a number of stock-footage targets (including, I note with perverse amusement, the Hindenberg) before meeting his inevitable end.

Though I have to give the serial's mythicity a low rating even on its main sociological theme, PHANTOM CREEPS stands as one of the best villain-centered chapterplays, perhaps excelled only by THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU.