Sunday, March 29, 2020

NABARI NO OU (2008), CORPSE PRINCESS (2008-09)



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


I’m far from an expert on the development of anime in the 2000s. Still, based on my spotty viewings, I note a downward trend in overall creativity and mythicity. This view finds some support in two television serials released in the late 2000s, both adapted from manga-features debuting in the early 2000s.

NABARI NO OU proves derivative in the extreme, and can best be summed up as “pretty ninjas with problems.” Like many American teen soap-shows, NABARI has no ugly people, and barely anyone who even skews somewhat homely. If the scripts showed some awareness of their status as lightweight entertainment—BEVERLY HILLS 90210 comes to mind-- perhaps the writers might’ve had fun with the melodrama. However, NABARI presumably follows the example of its manga-source, drowning all potential for humor in relentless seriousness.

Though it’s not unusual for a serial’s viewpoint character to be an “everyman” type, NABARI sports one of the dullest principals in pop-culture history. High-school boy Miharu has no familial connections or friends, and floats through school in a state of apathy. Then he finds that rival ninja clans want to induct him because he’s inherited a mystic power, the “Shinra Bansho.” The good ninjas, most of whom wear modern suits or school uniforms, just want to monitor Miharu’s power, while the bad ninjas, “the Grey Wolves,” want to gain dominion over the ninja world.

Because NABARI specializes in copious talking-head scenes in which very little is said—aside from keeping up the melodramatic tone—it’s never very clear what the Shinra Bansho can do for its possessor. When Miharu relecutantly summons the power, he blazes with light and scroll-symbols appear on his body, but the limits of the ability are unclear. Once the glowing light looks like the DNA double helix, but no one makes any commentary on this manifestation. Sometimes Miharu has mental reveries with a female demon who’s apparently the incarnation of the power, but she doesn’t really do much of anything either.

The supporting characters, despite their good looks and their archaic weapons (almost no one uses a gun), are dull in the extreme. The closest thing to memorable melodrama appears in the backstory of girl-ninja Raimei, for her B-plot involves squaring off aginst her brother Raiko. Since she believes him guilty of slaying her clan and her immediate family, the backstory sounds like a setup for the sort of superheated passionate drama for which Japanese animators are justly famous. Instead, this plot peters out with some minor revelations. Even the serial’s fight-scenes are dull and makework, making NABARI NO OU one of the worst anime-serials I’ve ever encountered.


                                                 

CORPSE PRINCESS is no classic, but it’s at least as good as many of the better formulaic anime-shows from the eighties and nineties. The manga presumably provided a much better model for the serial in terms of concepts and characters than that of NABARI NO OU. To be sure, though, NABARI does at least give the viewer closure at the end, while PRINCESS’s 26 episodes evidently weren’t able to capture the range of the original manga, which ran for about six years. However, if the viewer accepts that the ride will be wild but somewhat brief, PRINCESS is worth a look.

The manga provided the serial with a relatively novel take on Japanese folklore about “angry spirits.” Whereas many ghosts in the Westenr storytelling tradition appear as ephemeral phantoms, Japanese revenants tend to be capable of taking on solid form with many repulsive characteristics. I’m not sure whether or not the Japanese word “shikabane”—which literally means “corpse”—appeared in genuine folklore as a word for such a revenant, though I tend to suspect that the original manga-author has taken many liberties to adapt legend into pop culture.

The Shikabane of this anime-serial are less like ghosts than zombies. If, at the moment of a human being’s death, that person nurtures deep resentments—repeatedly termed “regrets”—the person’s body simply re-animates. These living dead people have no organic needs as such, but they feel driven to avenge the wrongs done them in life. However, a particular Japanese sect (possibly Shinto) called the Kougon Sect evolves a special means of fighting death with death. Certain monks of the sect make contracts with dead Shikabane, in which the monks supply the Shikabane with a power called ”rune.” In exchange, these benign Shikabanee then use their inhuman strength and endurance to battle the more malefic corpse-monsters. An additional facet of this arrangement seems rooted in Japanese pop-culture’s preference for cute young female heroes, for the monks are only able to forge their contracts with deceased girls of a certain age. (And yes, this circumstance is played for as much raunchy fan-service as is feasible.) All of these undead women are termed “Shikabane Hime,” meaning “Corpse Princesses.”

Though several of the “Hime” (as I’ll call them from now on) and their “contracted monks” appear as supporting characters, the focal figures here consist of one particular “Corpse Princess,” Makina, and a young man, Ouri who’s forcibly introduced into the world of metamorphic zombie-fights. Makina, a dynamic young Hime, is originally given her mission by Keisei, who’s both a Kougon monk and the adoptive brother of Ouri. However, early in the series Keisei perishes, and the later episodes deal with the problems faced by Ouri as he tries to assume his brother’s role in this dangerous scenario—not least because he and Makina face not only random undead menaces, but also an organization of evil Shikabane, the Seven Stars.

The somewhat passive Ouri and the hardcore Makina make a good “opposites attract” team, though by serial’s end it’s unclear as to whether or not there will be romance between the principals. At the very least, though, they complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Further, the scripts are sensitive to the melodramatic potential of human beings who feel cheated of life but must define themselves as the living dead—though not without lots of high-powered shonen action, wherein the super-powered Hime (who wield weapons but don’t usually change form) battle hordes of shapechanging zombies. A particular standout appears when Makina goes toe-to-toe with Hokujo, a Shikabane who seemingly has no human sentiments, and therefore seems to Makina like the incarnation of death itself.

As noted earlier,,the story is unfortunately truncated. Episode 25 ends with Makina fighting, and apparently winning out, over Hokujo, but there’s no wrap up of the situation,. The final episode concerns one of the supporting characters, and was apparently released as a solo DVD feature in Japan when it became apparent that another full season would not appear. Still, even these limited adaptations of Makine and Ouri make me want to invest some time in the original manga.

Monday, March 23, 2020

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932)



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




MGM’s loose adaptation of Sax Rohmer’s same-title novel, published in the same year, presents a mixed bag to the acolytes of Fu Manchu.

On one hand, the film is much more entertaining than the so-so novel. The three credited writers clearly display familiarity with the overall mythos of the devil-doctor as it had developed up to that point, and they sought to build upon Fu’s reputation for ingenious tortures, less evident in MASK than in the earlier books. The script dispenses with the book’s dull device of a fictional Muslim revolutionary, and instead imagines that the Chinese evildoer seeks to inspire an uprising of diverse Easterh factions by finding the relics of the formidable conqueror Genghis Khan. Arguably, this trope—that of unifying the East to rebel against Europe’s colonial authority—is a major source of Fu Manchu’s appeal, and this stand-alone film certainly captures all the implicit horros of such a rebellion, far more than the two films starring Warner Oland (reviewed here and here).

On the other hand, even though the tortures are inventive, the torturers, Fu and his daughter Fah Lo Suee, are much more one-dimensional than they are even in the least of Rohmer’s novels. To the writers, both villains are merely unregenerate sadists, and though both Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy chew the scenery with vim and vigor, no one would think of this Fu and Fah as, respectively, a “superman” and a “superwoman.” Karloff’s Fu boasts of his numerous collegiate degrees, but the script doesn’t really play up his intelligence or his ferocious dignity. Perhaps it’s a measure of the script’s antipathy for the character that it’s the only English-language Fu-film in which the venerable villain is killed at the end, with no ambiguity about his return.

The rather fusty plot of the novel is accelerated here. Fu’s continual enemy Nayland Snith is first seen informing archaeologist Lionel Barton (played here as a standard English gentleman, not the egotist of the novels) that the latter’s quest to unearth Genghis’s tomb is of the utmost importance. Smith is somehow aware of Fu’s plan to acquire the Khan’s relics—a scimitar and a golden mask—in order to unite all of Asia against the West. Despite giving Barton this warning, Smith does nothing to protect the scholar, so that he’s abducted by Fu’s men quite easily. This incident gives the writers ample opportunity to subject Barton to a memorable torture. However, sicne Barton’s absence doesn’t prevent his expediton from proceeding to Mongolia to unearth the tomb, it seems peculiar that the oily mastermind even bothers trying to pressure the archaeologist for inside info. Karloff’s Fu never says anything to justify the torture, and since the audience never sees Barton break, it seems like a massive waste of the villain’s time and effort. I found myself wondering, “Given how highly visible the expedition is, why doesn’t the evil mastermind just shadow the Europeans until they reach their goal?”

Indeed, apparently the writers realized this was their best course too. Despite Smith’s lectures about the monumental consequences of unearthing the tomb of Genghis, he doesn’t take along any armed guards. Aside from Mongolian coolies, the expedition consists of Smith, a handful of archaeologists (one of them, Van Berg, named for a character in the fourth novel), and the standard romantic couple. In the novels the romance originates from Lionel Barton’s niece Rima and her English suitor Shan Greville. The movie-script changes these to Barton’s daughter Sheila and her suitor Terry Greville, both of whom are thoroughly American despite Barton’s Brit-heritage.
After the expedition unearths the tomb and collects the relics (despite a supposed curse compared to that of King Tut), Fu’s assasins attack the party, albeit unsuccessfully.

Providentially, Fu happens to have transported Barton all the way to China, and he attempts to extort Greville into surrendering the relics in exchange for the freedom of Sheila’s father. Greville takes the relics to Fu’s hideout, but unbeknownst to him, he’s carrying counterfeits of the originals, which Smith had made for reasons that are never at all clear. Fu’s wrath against Greville leads to a scene which may be the film’s most perverse use of torture: the villain orders the stalwart hero whipped, and Fah, who has obviously formed an attraction to Greville, watches the whipping and excitedly commands the slaves “Faster! Faster!” A subsequent scene implies that she intends to enjoy Greville without his consent, but Fu has another plan, using one of his many mind-control drugs to make Greville his pawn. Whereas in the novel Fah Lo Suee entrances Greville to simulate ardor out of a melancholy desire for romantic connection, here it’s obvious that sex with the Chinese villain’s daughter signifies nothing but degradation.

Greville obeys Fu’s will and brings the villain not only the Genghis relics, but also his fiancĂ©e. Considering that the film is famous for a line in which Fu exhorts his followers to “kill the white man and take his women,” the Asiatic mastermind shows no interest in degrading Sheila. He only wishes to use her in a pagan sacrifice to his gods, to further inflame the Asian tribes when Fu shows them the relics that prove his fitness to be the new Khan.

Fu also captures both Smith and Van Berg and subjects them to torturous traps, but following a tradition rightly parodied in the AUSTIN POWERS films, the villain assigns no guards to watch the captives. Smith escapes and frees both Van Berg and Greville, leading to a violent conclusion in which the white guys not only slay Fu but also massacre all of the rebellious tribesmen with Fu’s own weapon, an electrical arc capable of being used as a death-ray. The slaughter is then followed by a light-hearted coda in which the white men feel relief when they behold a dim-witted Chinese fellow working in a position subservient to their authority.

It’s hard to know how seriously the director and writers took this farrago of racial myths. Certainly they weren’t concerned about offending Asians of either the Near East or the Far East, nor is there any suggestion that any Asians might have a legitimate beef against colonialism. Even the first Warner Oland film is a little more liberal on that score. Still, the film’s racial myths seem too outlandish to inspire the conviction of even the full-fledged racists in the audience. The alteration of Fah Lo Suee from a melancholy superwoman into a man-eater is one example of the outlandishness, as is a follow-up scene in which a tearful Sheila “de-programs” Greville with the power of her love, and so triumphs over her iniquitous rival. In her autobiography Myrna Loy regarded the film as trash and claimed that she and Karloff were the only ones who tried to have fun with it, but it’s possible to see the writers amusing themselves with the overheated melodrama, rather than trying to make the material convincing, as Sax Rohmer did. Thus MASK is fun on the kinetic level, but its greatest signifance may be that its basic plot was recycled, with far greater poetic resonance, in the superior serial DRUMS OF FU MANCHU.

To touch briefly on the film’s phenomenality, most of Fu’s devices register as uncanny, even his mind-drugs, which as mentioned aren’t as infallible as the ones in the book-series. However, the electrical arc-cum-death-ray is enough to transport the movie into the realm of the marvelous.


Friday, March 20, 2020

TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964)




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



TOMB OF LIGEIA was the last of Roger Corman’s Poe-films. Often serials, whether built around a character or a general concept, tend to peter out toward the end. Happily, Corman’s last outing with the haunted genius was a fitting summation of everything that Corman and his collaborators had managed to extrapolate from the original works of Poe.

As I remarked in a review of the short story, LIGEIA is the closest Poe ever came to writing a “classic ghost story.” The author doesn’t neglect the possibility that the unnamed narrator may have imagined all of the apparitions, but my verdict was that most readers probably tended to affirm that some sort of obscure transmigration did take place from the late Ligeia, the narrator's first wife, to the person of his second wife Rowena. The same basic approach holds true for the direction of Corman and the script by Robert Towne. In contrast to some of the other adaptations, this one is set within Poe’s own era, that of the 1820s, and TOMB embodies, perhaps better than any other Corman film, Poe’s association of dangerous physical enclosures with the peril of the enclosing family unit. The action takes almost entirely on the estate of the unfortunate husband, given the pleasingly Gothic name of Verden Fell (Vincent Price), and not only is Fell’s manor as thoroughly baroque as any of Poe’s domicile-descriptions, Fell’s property includes a ruined abbey where the main action of the delirious story concludes. Indeed, Fell tells another character that his wife was so knowledgeable in things occult that”in a sense, Ligeia became the abbey.”

The abbey is the site of the film’s opening, as Fell chooses to bury his recently deceased wife in the shadow of the ruined buildings. A local priest objects, asserting that Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd) cannot rest in such a grave because of her past history of blaspheming against the power of God, claiming that human will alone can allow one to survive death. Fell doesn’t care about traditional pieties; he only wants to ensure that his beloved wife will always be close to him, whether she can return from the dead or not. Ligeia’s coffin even comes with a window spotlighting her face, and when a mysterious black cat pounces on the coffin, the eyes of the corpse flutter open. Verden examines her, and shuts her eyes once more before having Ligeia committed to the earth. During this scene Fell shows no signs of optical impairment, but for the rest of the film the gloomy aristocrat’s eyes prove extremely sensitive to sunlight. Towne was certainly referencing, in part, the over-sensitivity of the Poe-character Roderick Usher, but the lack of sight has other connotations. Since Fell’s under the thumb of his late wife throughout the film, one might speculate that even while dead, she’s exerted her will to make sure that he sees nothing she doesn’t want him to see, such as other women. Further, it will be disclosed that Fell’s lack of sight also signifies his inability to see his own nature, though he ends up being the only one who pays for it.

Poe’s short story suggests that the narrator’s second marriage may have been arranged as a merger of fortunes. Here, Towne contrives a meeting between Fell and his future second wife that recalls the encounter of Jane Eyre and Rochester. While Rowena (also played by Shepherd) is out hunting foxes with her family, she crosses onto the property of Fell, her neighbor. When she meets the strong but damaged lord of the manor, she becomes fascinated with him, and with the idea of “rescuing” him from his morbid attachment to his dead wife. Fell isn’t eager to cultivate new relationships—indeed, during his second encounter with Rowena, he imagines her to be Ligiea and tries to strangle her. Yet even this doesn’t discourage the ardent female, of whom Fell notes that she’s as “willful” as Rowena.

The story’s climax revolves around Ligeia’s spirit usurping the body of Rowena, and the film chooses to follow this model as well. To do so, Towne’s script has to delay the climax with assorted “haunting scenes.” The best takes place when Rowena follows the omnipresent black cat into a bell-tower—possibly on loan from one of Poe’s other stories—and nearly gets “bonged” to death. Fell rescues Rowena, and the scene glides to the site of Rowena’s wedding to Fell, complete with church-bells. More than once, the black cat seems at times to represent the will of the late Ligeia. If so, then Ligiea may have abetted Fell’s second marriage for her own reasons.

As in most of the other Corman Poes, there’s a young man who more or less plays the role of detective. In this case a man named Gough, who seems to cherish a covert ardor for Rowena, investigates when Rowena claims that the spirit of Ligeia is still haunting the manor. Eventually Gough discovers that much of Fell’s eccentric behavior stems from what a later era called post-hypnotic suggestion, and Towne’s script skillfully foreshadows this revelation with a scene in which Fell demonstrates hypnotism on Rowena. At the same time, Towne isn’t attempting to dispel all the ghosts via Radcliffean rationales. Ligeia’s seeming possessions of Rowena aren’t explained by hypnotism, and though Ligeia never comes back in the same way she does in the story, the black cat still seems to incarnate her recrudescent will for the big climax. Fell is literally blinded by the cat’s claws—castration complex, anyone?-- and another convenient Corman-fire destroys both the ornate manor and the proto-family that inhabited it. As in the Poe story, the chain of events proves too extraordinary to be contained by even marginal rationality, and the Corman Poe-cycle fittingly meets its end by equating Ligeia’s “tomb” with her destructive “womb.”

Monday, March 9, 2020

COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE (1953)



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


COMMANDO CODY is an anomaly in the world of serial films. When filming began, Republic Studios intended it to be a 12-part television serial, competing with other juvenile SF-fare like CAPTAIN VIDEO. However, union rules required Republic to exhibit CODY as a movie serial first, even though each installment of the serial was self-contained. The only exceptions to this rule are the first episode, in which the hero and his aides are introduced for the benefit of the audience, and the final episode, in which the main villain is defeated.

CODY has a complicated relationship to Republic's three "Rocketnan" serials, the last of which had appeared in 1952. In KING OF THE ROCKET MEN, the Rocketman suit was worn by a crusader named "Jeff King," played by Tristram Coffin. In RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON, another hero took King's place without explanation, and he was given the name "Commando Cody." This character was played by lead actor George D. Wallace, and there's no explanation as to why the hero affects this peculiar name. The third serial, ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE, allegedly started out with the idea of using the "Cody" name again for the featured "Rocketman." But again the studio used a different character-name, "Larry Martin," possibly because the lead actor changed once again, this time to one Judd Holdren.

The CODY TV-serial was designed as a "prequel" of sorts, for the first episode shows the featured hero meeting his two aides Ted and Joan for the first time, as they're already working under Cody when RADAR MEN begins. In addition, the studio, possibly observing the popularity of the LONE RANGER teleseries, gave the character of Cody a domino mask, which he wears even when he's not in the rocket-suit. This gets a quick explanation in the first episode: Cody is a great scientist who uses both the mask and his peculiar cognomen to protect his real identity from spies-- though the fact that he's forever running around fighting alien invasions doesn't exactly keep him clear from danger. This version of Cody is also more pro-active than the first one: at some point Earth has become aware of a hostile alien force, based on Venus. Cody's genius is responsible for creating a massive cloud of space-dust-- sort of a literal "Iron Curtain"-- that keeps the aliens away for the most part. This ensured that when the evil alien tyrant attempted to assail the planet, he had to operate either through thugs born on Earth, or occasional agents who managed to travel to the planet even though their ships disintegrated through contact with the dust-cloud.

This setup is the most interesting thing about the serial. All twelve episodes show off Republic's skill with both miniatures and fight-choreography. However, because the episodes are roughly thirty minutes, the producers often pad the running-time more than was necessary with serial-segments. Thus the action is decent but never riveting, and of course a lot of footage and many props get re-used seen throughout the serial, notably the "enraged water heater" robot from RADAR MEN. The better episodes are invariably those that present the heroes with some apocalyptic threat-- a new ice age, two suns in the sky-- because these stories force the characters to provide some elementary lectures on scientific principles. I found particularly amusing an episode in which the script worked in a reference to the Greek savant Archimedes.

I commented in my serial-reviews that I thought Judd Holdren was the best Rocketman, but the actor doesn't come off nearly as well in this low-budget TV show. Aline Towne reprises the role of lady assistant Joan, and for three episodes "Ted" is played by veteran character actor William Schallert. Due to a schedule-conflict, Schallert was not available for the other nine episodes, so the writers created a new number-two man, Dick, played by Richard Crane, who had previously played the lead in the serial MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. The scripts with Crane emphasize more light humor and thus are a little more accessible than the first three. However, even when CODY made it to the small screen, no one was interested in the commando's further adventures, thus bringing an end to his adventures, apart from a quickie reference in George Lucas's REVENGE OF THE SITH.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

THE EYE IN THE LABYRINTH (1972)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*



SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Nothing in the repertoire of director/screenwriter Mario Caiano—full of peplum flicks, Eurospies, and westerns—suggests artistry. In the U.S. Caiano’s probably best known for the 1964 horror-film NIGHTMARE CASTLE. It’s possible that when Caiano directed and co-wrote THE EYE IN THE LABYRINTH, he may have been making his bid to enter the domain of “toney thrillers,” along the lines of the celebrated giallo-filmmaker Dario Argento. Presumably EYE didn’t bring in big box office, since Caiano didn’t become as prolific a producer of giallos as numerous other toilers in that field, like Umberto Lenzi.

An opening quote from Jorge Luis Borges certainly seems to signify Caiano trying to stake out territory for EYE among the more sophisticated horror-films. The title is similarly referential, and much less random that many giallo-titles, many of which comhine sensationalism with nonsensical elements (cf. DON’T TORTURE THE DUCKLING). Eyes aren’t automatically paired with labyrinths, where the dominant association is either the thread that leads the hero out of the maze, or the minotaur-monster waiting to assault said hero. Yet the image of an eye at the center of the labyrinth suggests a trope common to mystery-thrillers, where the person seeking to solve the mystery is “a private eye,” investigating a labyrinthine mystery. Further, given that EYE makes liberal reference to psychoanalystic ideas—albeit seen through the prism of a horror-thriller—the main character turns out to be seeking the nature of her own self, lost in the maze of her own conflicting nature.

EYE first shows a man being knifed to death by a vaguely seen assailant, though this scene proves to part of a dream on the part of central character Julie (Rosemary Dexter), and the man being murdered is her boyfriend Luca (Horst Frank). Disturbed by the dream, Julie seeks out Luca at the mental asylum where he works as a prominent psychiatrist. But Luca has left without leaving a forwarding address. Julie’s only clue is that a fanatical patient screams that Luca can be found in the small (and fictional) seaside resort-town Maricuda.

Guided by this token from a demented soothsayer-type, Julie goes to Maricuda. There she meets an older man, Frank (Adolfo Celi). He guides Julie to a resort built on a rocky Mediterranean coast, run by its apparent owner Gerda (Alida Valli).  However, none of the resort’s residents appear to be tourists. Rather, they all seem to be bohemian psuedo-artists living on the property at the sufferance of Gerda. All of the residents are famlliar with Luca, who stayed at the resort, but they claim that the psychiatrist left some time ago. However, Julie observes various inconsistencies in their stories, and gets a mysterious phone call that sounds like Luca. A previous relationship between Frank and Gerda is mentioned—one which involved in Gerda taking over the house from Frank in some arrangement—and all of the artists have peculiar tics, to the extent that they seem like the demented Dionysian rabble from Tennessee Williams’ SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER. Sex, particularly age-transgressive, makes frequent appearances, and not only with Frank macking on Julie. Middle-aged Gerda keeps Louie, a younger man, as her lover, and a teenage guy, Saro, peeps on Julie in her bedclothes. Saro is also the source of another clue about Luca’s disappearance, when Julie sees that Saro has painted a picture of one cartoony figure stabbing another to death at the resort. Real death doesn’t take long to raise its grisly head, as a mysterious killer makes attempts on Julie’s life. The director doesn’t craft his murder-attempts with as much visual panache as Argento. Still, Caiano brings a piquant quality to a scene on the rocky coast, where the driver of a distant speedboat tries to kill Julie with a speargun.

The truth about the artists’ colony—more or less the “labyrinth” of the title—is that the god they worship is the demon of lllegal narcotics, and both Frank and Gerda are pushers. Further, the monster at the heart of the labyrinth initially seems to be Luca, who used his psychological mind-games to unearth the artists’ secrets for blackmail purposes. This revelation devastates Julie, who reacts by falling into bed with Louie, much to the displeasure of Gerda. Caiano also gives his audience the impression that Julie’s inquiries are spreading a plague of death without help from some other killer. She drags the lascivious Saro into a car, intending to make him admit his secret knowledge of Luca’s fate to the cops. Instead, she crashes the car, and manages to accidentally set it on fire with Saro inside.

But Caiano has an additional mystery to disclose, right out of the Cornell Woolrich “the killer is really the detective” handbook. Although Gerda, Frank and their bohemian puppets are dangerous people— that speargun shows up again, when Gerda executes the traitorous Louie with it—none of them embody the monster at the labyrinth’s center. Frank has known the monster’s true nature all along. It turns out that Julie wasn’t just Luca’s girlfriend, but his former patient. The audience never knows much about Julie’s psychological problems—this is no attempt to do a rigorous portrait of a disturbed mind a la “Equus”—only that at some point in the past Jule’s father cast aside Julie’s mother, which somehow resulted in Julie being treated for anger issues. Yet, precisely because Luca was a scumbag, he took advantage of his patient’s father-transference, sleeping with her and then casting her aside, just as her mother was cast out. So Frank finally reveals that Julie’s visit to Maricuda was her second one: that she came to the resort days ago and murdered Luca. None of the residents witnessed the murder, but they all covered it up to avoid having their own crimes exposed. Frank evidently worked all this out because he was monitoring the situation in the hope of reclaiming his former property. However, Frank outsmarts himself. He gets the idea that he can become the new “daddy” in Julie’s life—not realizing that for Julie, sex and death are inextricably entwined.

Some IMDB reviews complained that EYE was too “Freudian.” It’s true that Freud’s intermingling of “eros” and “thanatos” casts a long shadow over the history of popular entertainment. However, though Freud was notable for a few images of monstrous femininity—in particular when he imagined the Medusa as horrible because her snaky hair represented the pudenda—his principal concern in most of his psychological writings concerned the Oedipal conflict of father and son. The father of psychology even rejecred Jung’s perhaps-humorous concept of an “Electra complex,” in that Freud argued that the female subject simply manifested a feminine version of the Oedipus paradigm.

There might be a father-son conflict buried in the original story of Theseus and the Minotaur, but there’s none in this labyrinth. The “eye” of the movie’s title is clearly Julie herself, the would-be detective, but she;s also the minotaur waiting at the maze’s center. Her monstrousness is malignant femininity, in that it’s directed toward not just fathers, but all males. There’s a loose opposition between her and Gerda, the evil mother-figure, since they contend over the same man, whom Gerda ends up killing out of jealousy. (A previous scene, in which Gerda upbraids Louie for his infidelity, shows a rate moment of humor in this grim film, for the proprietess of the resort asks “Aren’t you ashamed,” as if she were a real mother castigating her son for going out with a bad girl.) Yet even though Julie’s specialty is killing false fathers, she’s something of a fatal mother to teenaged Saro as well, reacting to his clumsy passes by imprisoning him in a flaming coffin.

Most giallos allow the protagonist to remain relatively innocent, and thus qualify for the Fryean mythos of the drama. But there are no redeemable characters in Caiano’s acidulous riff on bohemian evil, and so it better aligns with the more downbeat mythos of the irony. I've already mentioned one of the "bizarre crimes" in the narrative, that of the speedboat-speargun attack, but at the climax Julie also decapitates her dead lover for no reason in the plot, which tempts me to believe that Caiano was referencing the Freudian take on castration.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

TEEN TITANS GO! TO THE MOVIES (2018), TEEN TITANS GO VS. TEEN TITANS (2019)




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


I commented in one of my ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE essays, SUBCOMBATIVE SUPERHEROES PART 3, that I didn't consider the still-current series TEEN TITANS GO! to be a combative series, even though occasional episodes did hinge on fight-scenes rather than on fart and poop jokes. In the multi-part episode "Island Adventure," even the character Raven commented, after she and the other Titans beat a bunch of villains, something like, "I don't know why we don't do this more often. After all, we are superheroes."

The two feature-movies based upon the GO series, however, emphasize the tropes of adventure more than does the average episode. Possibly, because both films run about eighty minutes each, the producers may have favored a more action-oriented superhero-plot to hold the audience's attention, even though both films are dominantly comedies. Of the two, only MOVIES was released to theaters, but though it enjoyed a profitable box office, the second went straight to DVD release. Perhaps Warner Brothers simply couldn't find a hole in their release schedule for a cartoon-movie sequel, despite the fact that MOVIES made substantial money.

As in various episodes, the comedic Teen Titans are screw-ups and bozos. When they botch a confrontation with the Balloon Man (based on an ultra-obscure one-shot METAL MEN villain), three other heroes-- Superman, Wonder Woman, and "John Stewart Green Lantern"-- comment that they don't consider the Titans real superheroes. The teens suffer further societal scorn. They're excluded when they try to attend an advance screening of a new Batman movie. Dozens of heroes far more obscure than the Titans are getting movies-- including Swamp Thing and the Challengers of the Unknown. Robin, the group's irritable alpha male, is particularly torqued at the group's marginalization. The other four aren't that affected, but they're willing to accompany Robin to Hollywood in quest of getting both respect and movie-fame.

Naturally, in the course of courting the cinema, the Titans fall afoul of the evildoer Slade. In the 2003 TEEN TITANS series, Slade was one of the group's principal villains, but most of the GO! episodes made only vague allusions to him, though he seemed to exist in their universe in some form. Here he's treated as if the heroes have never encountered the villain before, resulting in one of the film's better jokes, when the Titans mistake him for Marvel's Deadpool. Slade's evil plot also happens to involve the current craze for superhero movies, and even the late Stan Lee is called upon to make an animated cameo to usher the Titans into the Superhero Big Time.

Overall MOVIES has some moderately witty moments, though I imagine the references to obscure aspects of DC Comics' history were lost on younger viewers.



If anything, the DTV entry-- which I'll call TEEN/TEEN for short-- is even more referential. Here, most of the inside jokes deal with the popular 2003 TEEN TITANS series, which was dominantly serious in tone and which was responsible for establishing the comic-book characters as popular subjects for animation. Indeed, the producers of GO! included a "teaser" at the end of MOVIES, suggesting that the "Serious Titans" would appear in this sequel.

If the main subject of the first movie was American society's enthusiasm for all manner of superheroes, TEEN/TEEN spoofs what I'll call the "multiple earths adventure" In comic books, this trope depended on the encounter of at least two groups of heroes from parallel versions of Earth, wherein the two groups had to resolve some cosmic threat to the respective domains of each group. In Silver Age DC Comics, these were usually variant versions of popular heroes like the Flash and Green Lantern, and thus for the most part the trope was confined to the comic-book medium. The TEEN/TEEN take on this concept is certainly one of the first, if not the first, non-comics adaptations of the trope, debuting even before the CW network produced its very loose adaptation of a crossover-series from the eighties DC-series CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. In TEEN/TEEN, not only must the "funny Titans" deal with the serious versions of themselves, and with an assortment of other variant heroes as well, the teams' antagonists are a funny and a serious version of the demon-lord Trigon.

Though the 2003 Titans are played straight, their gravitas is largely flouted by the levity of the 2013 group. The level of humor is about the same level as MOVIES, decent but not spectacular, and the "serious TItans" don't really have a chance to shine in this format-- which will probably aggravate the many fans who preferred their adventures to those of their goofball variations.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

THE GOLDEN IDOL, KILLER LEOPARD (1954)., LORD OF THE JUNGLE (1955)



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


The most interesting thing about the last three BOMBA films is that, although numbers 10 and 11 are nearly rock-bottom in terms of general entertainment values, the twelfth and last at least rises to the level of "fair," which puts it on the same mythicity-level with the first (and best) in the series.

The idol of number 10's title-- hilariously referred to several times as "the Golden Idol of Watusi"-- is a priceless relic that the Jungle Boy steals from Ali, a crooked Arab chieftain, who in turn stole the idol from its true owner. Ali suborns the help of a crooked white hunter to track down Bomba and recover the statue. At the same time, a pretty young archaeologist arrives, and she tells Bomba that museums will pay top dollar for the idol to the tribe that owned it. (Almost as soon as she arrives, she decides to go swimming, signifying that the shadow of Maureen O'Sullivan still loomed large over the Bomba series even by the 1950s.) Mostly, IDOL burns up its running time with various chases and captures, none of which are memorable.



That said, IDOL is still a little better than KILLER LEOPARD, the dullest of the series. In addition to the leopard, Bomba also has to deal with a lady, though only in a non-romantic sense. LEOPARD dovetails the overt plot of the hunt for a man-killing beast with that of a civilized wife looking for her husband, who fled into the jungle from the forces of the law. Garland, one of the few BOMBA leading-ladies who went on to a measure of film-fame, has very little to do, though she does go swimming as well, with the usual result that Bomba must rescue her. There's a slight suggestion that Bomba's interested in her despite her married status, but naturally nothing comes of it, even though he was about 24 and no longer a "boy" in truth.



LORD OF THE JUNGLE-- which some writer may have borrowed from the title of a 1928 Tarzan book-- at least places the jungle boy in a situation that pits his love for the jungle-world against the encroachments of civilization. After a herd of elephants wreaks chaos on various native habitats, the colonial government sends Wood (Wayne Morris) and his fellow hunters to gun down the whole herd. Bomba argues with Wood, claiming that only the leader of the pack is a rogue, and that, if the rogue leader is killed, the other elephants will go back to their non-destructive ways. Wood, though not a true villain, is a martinet who insists on following his orders, and he doesn't like it when Bomba tries to keep the elephants on his land to prevent their being slaughtered. Bomba meets some resistance also from the local commissioner, who's usually on the jungle boy's side in other entries, but the commissioner's niece Mona (yes, another swimming fiend) throws her support toward the hero. Though Bomba is put into a few perilous pickles from stampeding elephants, in the end he gets his way when the rogue is slain and the other elephants are spared. Thus the series ends on the same quasi-ecological theme with which the first film in the series began.

Monday, March 2, 2020

BRIGADOON (1954)



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


BRIGADOON is one of those musicals that's more memorable for its concept than for its execution. Though I've enjoyed the peerless dancing of both Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse elsewhere, here their interactions lack the sort of sublimated sexual heat that exemplifies the best romantic movie-choreography. I've never seen the musical on stage, but I have the impression that the very concept that makes the story memorable is the one that tamps down the potential eroticism. Lerner and Loewe's idea of Brigadoon-- a Scottish village that exists apart from the chaotic world, but crosses path with modernity once every hundred years-- depends on the idea that this small town is so peaceful and quaint that the people there don't need the rest of the world. To be sure, the scripters draw attention to a salient problem with an isolated village-- namely, not everyone has access to a mate-- but the viewer is expected to be swept up in the fantasy and to view the inclusion of Kelly's character as a symbolic solution.

Tommy (Kelly) and Jeff (Van Johnson) stumble across the village while hunting grouse in the wilds of Scotland. Back in the U.S. Tommy is engaged to a woman named Joan, but the fact that he's continually postponed the wedding suggests he's less than content with his choice. Tommy is the earnest seeker after something to believe in, while Jeff is skeptical of all intangibles. Once the two wander into Brigadoon, they slowly realize that the natives have been alive for a few centuries, though every day they live is equivalent to one hundred years in the real world. Lerner's script presumably owes something to Celtic legends of the underworld, where time passes more slowly than in the living world. Yet, Lerner eschews any reference to faerie, and instead has his "exposition character," schoolmaster Lundie, spin a confusing tale. It seems that at some point the village was menaced by certain "witches," and though Lundie denies that the witches had any real supernatural power, Brigadoon's minister thought they would doom the peaceful hamlet. So he prayed for Brigadoon's preservation, and Heaven answered by putting the town in its own "pocket universe."

The crucial drama depends on the romantic interaction of Tommy and local girl Fiona (Charisse). As with the dance-numbers, the acting between Kelly and Charisse is okay, but for me, not good enough to rate with the best in cinema's genre of musical romance. Jeff, predictably, furnishes most of the humor when he's pursued by one of the man-hungry Scottish lasses. Rather more unexpectedly, he's also a source of pathos. One of the local men, distraught when he loses his beloved to a rival, tries to leave Brigadoon, which act will bring the timeless peace to an end. Jeff, out hunting grouse, accidentally shoots the fleeing man. Though he's blameless in the man's death, he infects Tommy with his guilt, so that Tommy feels obligated to return to the normal world and to the fiancee he doesn't love.

If you can't guess how the movie ends from here, you may not have seen too many romantic musicals. I'm aware that some musical fans prize the score highly, but I didn't like any of the songs as much as those from such Lerner and Loewe collaborations as CAMELOT and MY FAIR LADY.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

In his fictional works, Edgar Allan Poe's most pervasive theme was the fear of enclosure. He's become justly famous for showing  his usually nameless protagonists trapped in hostile environments-- inside graves ("Premature Burial'), behind bricked-up walls ("Black Cat," "Cask of Amontillado"), or within prisons ("Pit and the Pendulum"). Yet even houses, designed to be places of repose and shelter, could be turned into sites of horror. Poe may well have derived this trope from either Gothics in general, or from the "ur-Gothic" that initiated the genre, Walpole's CASTLE OF OTRANTO. The latter seems likely to me, because in Poe as in Walpole, not only are houses capable of trapping and suffocating their owners, even one's families tend to drag their relations down into perdition.

Roger Corman's first Poe-adaptation, 1960's THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, emphasized the same ouroboric elements. Thus it's understandable that PIT, the second venture into Poe-sy, would follow the same template. Of course, the original Poe short story does not involve familial pressures at all, being simply an exercise in sustained terror, as a Nameless Protagonist suffers in an Inquisition cell outfitted with both the titular "pit" and bladed "pendulum." It seems likely that Corman knew that the bare story would not make a good ninety-minute film, and so he probably suggested to Richard Matheson that PIT should incorporate some of the familial elements that had played a strong role in the success of USHER, their previous collaboration. Matheson responded with one of his best scripts, drawing together not only elements from the 1960 film but also from Sigmund Freud's reading of Shakespeare's HAMLET. Indeed, in many scenes of the film, loose viewpoint character Francis Barnard (John Kerr) wears a black outfit not unlike the traditional stage-garb of Prince Hamlet, though as a character Francis is probably closer to Laertes.

Englishman Francis stands in for the film's viewers when he comes to the door of the ancient Spanish castle where the Medinas make their home. He's responding to a letter informing him that his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), who apparently married castle-lord Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) many months ago, has passed away. After encountering Nicholas's sister Catherine-- who has only occupied the castle following Elizabeth's death-- Francis is shocked to learn that Elizabeth perished three full months ago. Nicholas claims that he was too deeply bereaved to think about notifying relatives (no one in the movie asks why so devoted a brother never bothered to meet the family intowhich his beloved sister had married). When Francis inquires as to the cause of Elizabeth's death, Nicholas equivocates, but finally claims that his cherished wife perished in reaction to the "barbaric miasma" within the walls of the ancestral home.

This figurative "miasma" stems from the brutal acts of Nicholas's long-deceased father Sebastian Medina. When Sebastian was lord of the castle, he tortured hundreds of victims in the dungeons beneath his family's living-space, and young Nicholas was aware of his father's hideous deeds. Sebastian's full descent into iniquity transpired when he learned that his wife Isabella was carrying on an affair with his brother Bartholomo. In Shakes-speech, these would be re-arranged versions of King Hamlet, his wife Gertrude and his brother Claudius, but Sebastian is more pro-active than King Hamlet. Sebastian slays both of the incestuous adulterers, not knowing that young Nicholas witnesses the whole calamity from hiding-- including seeing his mother imprisoned behind a brick wall, where she eventually either starves or suffocates. This early trauma doesn't keep Nicholas from growing to manhood and marrying Elizabeth, but he remains to some extent fascinated with the many torture-implements in the dungeon, and an early scene suggests that Nicholas keeps one implement, the giant bladed Pendulum, in good working order.

Despite the confirming testimony of family doctor Leon, Francis doesn't believe that his 'strong-willed" sister would perish of such an affliction. Then sepulchral voices disturb the servants, suggesting that the ghost of Elizabeth has suddenly started walking the halls. This manifestation plays upon Nicholas's fears that Elizabeth may not truly have died of her illness, but that her state may have mimicked that of death, causing her to get interred alive, like Isabella Medina.

Given that the film doesn't show any ghostly manifestations two-thirds into the film, it's no great surprise that the recrudescence of Elizabeth is a hoax, perpetrated by both her and her lover/co-conspirator Doctor Leon. The duo's plan hinges upon their assumption that Nicholas will suffer a complete mental breakdown when faced with his dead wife. But Nicholas, instead of retreating into a state of abject weakness, rallies by taking on the persona of his dead father. He imagines the schemers to be the wife and brother of Sebastian, and so kills "Bartholomo" and inters "Isabella." Still addled, "Sebastian" then runs into Francis and subjects him to the delights of the Pendulum before Catherine and a servant intervene, so that the mad son of the Inquisition torturer meets his fate in the Pit.

I've mentioned a few of the weaknesses of Matheson's script, though the largest hole is that he's never able to account for Elizabeth's hostility toward her husband and her reason for pursuing such a roundabout plot. Maybe the old "henbane-in-the-ear" seemed too recherche? Price's performance here is not one of his best, coming off more one-note than any of his other Poe-translations, and Steele, just coming off her career-making role in Bava's BLACK SUNDAY, appears too briefly to make a strong impression. I tend to feel that the real star of the show is the imagined persona of Sebastian Medina, for even though Nicholas fulfills a role in the film not unlike that of Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet, Nicholas comes off as a weak, vacillating and guilt-afflicted character, in contrast to the passionate (some would say over-passionate) figure of the Danish prince. But then, a figure like Prince Hamlet might have seemed more than a little out of place in an adaptation of Poe, where fusty monomaniacs existed to suffer in Gothic bondage.



Friday, February 21, 2020

CRIMSON PEAK (2015)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Though CRIMSON PEAK only performed adequately at the box office in 2015, I consider it the best work from director/co-scripter Guillermo del Toro, easily edging out my previous favorite PAN'S LABYRINTH. On the other hand, it's  hard to say a lot about it, given that in the DVD del Toro provides copious information on all of his influences from Gothic novel, Hitchcock films, Henry James novels, and other items to craft CRIMSON. One might say that he provides his own Cook's Tour of the literary myths (my term) underlying this sumptuous visual fest.

Because del Toro discussed his themes and content in such depth, I don't want to reiterate too many of his own observations, though I can hardly doubt the sincerity of his creative imperatives. However, had I never listened to the commentary, I would still have deemed the film high in its mythic realizations of cosmological, metaphysical, psychological, and sociological tropes.

The primary myth of CRIMSON is that of "good woman and bad woman fighting over a somewhat-good man," but with a conclusion that does not entirely validate the romantic angle. It may be that the lack of a romantic sense of closure-- even that of a sacrificed love such as one sees in TITANIC-- may have kept mass audiences from investing in the experience. CRIMSON also seems at odds with the current grotesquerie of the horror-film genre, for del Toro is clearly trying to find an artistic middle ground in which beauty and repulsion are fused. In all likelihood the current horror-audience didn't know what to make of this attempt to revive the tropes of the Gothic.

The movie's secondary myth involves the uncovering of some shocking secret, which isn't universal in all Gothics-- the founding novel CASTLE OF OTRANTO being a significant exception-- but many film-watchers have come to expect such revelations from classic films like REBECCA. The motif of incest has appeared so often in Gothics that no one will be very surprised to find that this trope is a big part of del Toro's conception. That said, del Toro does attempt to work out the psychological underpinnings more thoroughly than I've seen since Robert Bloch gave birth to Norman Bates.

A short summation of CRIMSON might be boiled down to "REBECCA meets THE HOUSE OF USHER." American heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasilkowska)-- who matches up loosely with DuMaurier's nameless heroine-- marries a Man With a Past, allegedly wealthy British baronet Thomas (Tom Hiddleston). Despite opposition from Edith's father, and some weird vibes from Thomas's sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Edith marries Thomas and moves to the baronet's ancestral home in England. But whereas the DuMaurier heroine has a beautiful home to inhabit while wondering about her new husband's past and her mysterious housekeeper's hostility, Edith ends up in a decaying mansion out of Poe. In place of the sludgy tarn that consumes Poe's most famous edifice, ancestral Allerdale Hall is built atop a mountain of red clay, the "crimson peak" of the title. In fact, Thomas is even attempting to mine the clay with new technology. But what crimes have he and his sister committed, in their attempt to perfect the technology and to rescue the decaying mansion from total ruin? And what crime do they intend to commit upon the new mistress of the estate?

The aforementioned lack of romance may spring from del Toro's concept of feminism. He wants the women to fight over the man in their lives, but he wants the battle to be all about the heroine's recovery of her sense of self, not simply winning the prize, even though "rescuing the guy" would seem to fit with del Toro's remarks about subverting the "damsel in distress" trope. It's arguable that, even though Thomas has his own character-arc, the movie is far more about contrasting Edith, a positive image of femininity, with the negative nature of Lucille. Del Toro even assigns each of them a sort of "symbolic animal," with Edith compared to the beautiful butterfly and Lucille to a dark and predatory moth.

The one myth-aspect of CRIMSON that del Toro does not discuss in the commentary is the idea of the peak itself. When I read that the mountain was made of red clay, I assumed that the director was playing with the Biblical association of the first man in Genesis, whose name is sometimes translated as-- "red clay." However, del Toro does not choose to speak of any religious influences upon his modern Gothic, sticking only to the literary and cinematic indebtedness. Though del Toro wants a conclusion in which his heroine escapes the horrors of the past, it may be significant that his Gothic is, like the best works in the genre, far more invested in those horrors than in any dull, alternate reality.

NOTE: the only "marvelous" aspect of the film is that a handful of "ghosts" that appear in the story, but exist purely to utter oracular statements that further del Toro's storyline. The ghosts are also the film's main "cosmological trope," since Thomas theorizes that ghosts are not spirits, but simply memory-remnants that "haunt" selected locations.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

THE WILD WILD WEST: "THE NIGHT OF THE VICIOUS VALENTINE" (1967)




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


In memory of the late Robert Conrad, I decided to review one of my favorite WILD WILD WEST episodes. To be sure, Conrad doesn't have any of his best scenes here. "Valentine," written with tongue-in-cheek by female scriptwriter Leigh Chapman, is all about the villain, Agnes Moorehead's "Emma Valentine." This episode garnered one of three Emmy nominations for the show, and Moorehead was the only nominee who won-- though, for possibly political reasons, the actress never won for her famous role of "Endora" on BEWITCHED, though she was on the Emmy ballot nine times.

Chapman begins with a weak premise: an "Alphabet Killer" has slain four rich men, and their last names are in alphabetical order, going A-D. The actual party responsible for the murders has absolutely no reason to organize her victims in this manner, and the script finds some hand-waving reason to drop that premise. Clearly the writer threw in this concept so that agents West and Gordon would have a reason to associate the apparently unrelated killings. The real element uniting the murders is that in each case, one of the rich man recently married a young bride, who now inherits the dead fellow's wealth.

Inevitably the agents track down the mastermind: Emma Valentine, famous socialite and matchmaker. She's been responsible for setting up rich older men with pretty young brides, who will then merge all of these riches together and make it possible for Valentine to RULE THE-- uh, country. The sixty-something socialite vacillates about whether or not she wants to be the first American queen or the first female president. But she's not the least bit hesitant about trying to get West and Gordon out of her way, in order to advance her cause-- which includes a nineteenth-century version of women's liberation. To be sure, Emma's going to be the queen bee in this hive, since she holds a club over at least one of her young brides, who doesn't want to kill anyone and may have actually fallen for her relatively good-looking middle-aged groom.

The best scene in the episode is the confrontation between West and Valentine, which takes place in a drawing-room festooned in pink. West is imprisoned in a chair fitted with mechanical clamps made to look like women's arms, able to tighten upon the victim to squeeze him like a package of Charmin tissue. Since West was endlessly desirable to nearly every woman who appeared on the show, Valentine briefly tries to sway the agent to play drone to her queen bee. James won't swing with a lady old enough to be his grandmother, so he and Gordon end up in one of the series' better death-traps.

Unlike the majority of crazy world-beaters on WILD WILD WEST, Valentine represents a part of society that was genuinely marginalized in the nineteenth century, but Chapman keeps the tone light enough that no one is likely to believe the villainess to be any sort of liberator. One of the script's best touches is that Valentine's method of matching up brides and grooms amounts to a primitive version of a computer designed to match people up in swingin' sixties style.

ADDENDA: I should note that the main reason I rated this episode as "good," even though most WILD WILD WEST episodes are fair at best in their mythicity, is because "Valentine" both evokes and subverts the show's main premise: that West, like James Bond, could seduce almost every woman he ever met. Valentine wasn't the only female mastermind in the show's history. But she's the only one that was such a blatant incarnation of femininity-- and not only in her emphasis of using guile rather than force and her predominantly pink color palette. Note that though the tete-a-tete between Valentine and West does require that the agent be securely bound the whole time, there's no literal reason that the script had to include a scene in which Evil En-- er, Emma-- shows how she can crush him with her feminine-flavored gimmick. The sheer peculiarity of this motif suggests to me that this scene may be referencing another "vicious V"-- which, as it happens, does bear a loose resemblance to the stylized form of the valentine-heart.


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

COLOSSUS AND THE HEADHUNTERS (1963), COLOSSUS OF THE ARENA (1962)



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


Here we have two Italian "Maciste" films linked only by the idea of giving the hero the name "Colossus" in the titles. As was common for these films, Maciste appears at random in different time periods, with no connection between any of his adventures.

HEADHUNTERS' only virtue is that, because it's so dull, it made an above-average episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Without the jokes, though, it's a dreary affair, though of minor interest in breaking with some of the standards of the template.

Usually, Maciste or one of his duplicates wanders into the midst of some dispute between two cities, takes the side of the righteous, and helps overcome the rulers of the unrighteous domain. Here, just as a volcano threatens to destroy the civilization of a more or less Greek-sounding island, Maciste shows up out of nowhere and leads the inhabitants to board a handy ship and escape annihilation.

Once Maciste and the island-people make landfall, they're almost enslaved by a nomad tribe, ruled by Queen Amoa (Laura Brown). However, Amoa's no standard "bad queen." She and her people are simply guilty of bad judgment, as they've been forced to flee Kermes, a renegade member of their tribe who enlisted the titular Headhunters as his henchmen. Maciste is tempted to help the sexy queen with her problems, but first he endeavors to get the islanders to safety. However, Kermes and his head-hunting buddies are aggressive enough to pick fights with both sets of good guys, thus solving Maciste's great moral quandary.

Both the photography and stunt-work here is tedious in the extreme, and although Kirk Morris made a good muscleman-hero in other peplum-films, he just barely performs enough strongman-films to edge this flick into the realm of the uncanny. The Headhunters are no help here, since the film tells the viewer nothing about their weird society. The only other point of interest is that Amoa is one of the more active heroines, though she just has two or three short scenes of swordfighting.




COLOSSUS OF THE ARENA, set in ancient Rome in the period of the gladiators, is far more entertaining in every way, though Mark Forest's Colossus/Maciste seems here to be an ordinary muscleman. Indeed, ARENA sports a scene in which the main hero actually gets beat up by seven other boulder-shouldered bad guys. This in itself may be deemed a marker of the film's comparative naturalism, even though later on the hero gets to clobber five of his former foes in one big saloon-battle.

The main thrust of the plot involves a nasty plotter seducing Revia, sister of the reigning queen Thalima, so that he can overthrow the rightful ruler. This doesn't sound too much like any historical version of Rome, but I feel sure that the audience of the time allowed Maciste a lot of leeway. The plotter also enlists the seven gladiators-- including both an African and a Mongolian-- to do some of his dirty work. One gladiator (Dan Vadis) ends up siding with Maciste, though this subplot proves of less interest than the one involving the royal sisters. It's incredible that Revia thinks she can depose her sister without running the risk of Thalima's being killed, but putting that aside, the two actresses, Scilla Gabel and Jose Greci, provide a satisfactory helping of pulchritude.


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (1973)




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


This is the first horror-film directed by long-time porn director Joe D'Amato, though he may have hopes that DEATH would advance his career, since he used his real name here.

DEATH, while always visually impressive, seems to be an uneven crossover of the giallo genre launched in the sixties and various proto-slashers of the seventies, such as Bava's 1971 BAY OF BLOOD. D'Amato shows absolutely no interest in maintaining even the skeletal outline of a detective-plot, such as one sees in the seminal giallo BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Instead, D'Amato jumbles together an assortment of tropes from various classic horror-stories, and concentrates only upon their emotional and kinetic appeal. To this end the director makes heavy use of vertiginous photographic angles and zooming camera-work, and, of course, more than a fair amount of sex.

The story throws a few fragmentary setup-scenes at the opening, though few commercial films have ever devoted so little exposition to similar scenes. In 1906 a brother, Franz, mourns his dead sister Greta, and we're apparently in his head as he remembers a few past events. Franz is seen attacking Greta sexually, but her attitude in the next flashback-scene is ambiguous: Greta allows her brother to chase her playfully through the countryside. She stumbles across a rich fellow, Doctor Van Ravensbruck, and then smiles coquettishly at her brother as he watches Greta chat with the older man. Later it will be suggested that Greta not only had sex with the doctor but also died of a miscarriage as a result.

Three years later, the previously dead Greta has an accident near the estate of Walter Von Ravensbruck, fully grown son of the doctor, and his wife Eva. The wealthy couple take her in so that she can recover from her apparent mishap. Family doctor Sturges examines Greta and just so happens to recognize signs on her body that remind him of a strange Incan ritual for bringing back the dead. But he doesn't suspect the full truth: that Greta is a revenant brought back to life by her brother's combination of Incan sorcery and modern science. Both Walter and Eva fall in lust with beauteous Greta and become extremely jealous of her attentions/

The supposed scientific elements have no real influence on the story: in essence, Greta is both zombie and witch, able to survive murder-attempts and to return the favor with sorcerous curses. (In the film's most memorable scene, she tosses a bouquet of flowers at her lascivious brother, and the bouquet turns into a black cat that claws Franz to death.) D'Amato works in yet another Poe-reference when spiteful Eva tries to kill Greta behind a wall of bricks, but Greta easily escapes and executes Eva in a scene reminiscent of "Masque of the Red Death." Even the name "Ravensbruck" may be something of a Poe-quote. Greta kills various other victims, and according to a review one of them is the original person who wronged her, the older doctor, but frankly I couldn't keep track.

Greta's combination of innocence and malevolence is conveyed by Ewa Aulin of CANDY fame, while top-billed Klaus Kinski collects his check for the supporting character of Sturges.



POWER RANGERS MYSTIC FORCE (2006)



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


I keep a weather-eye on the ongoing "Power Rangers" serials, most of which tend to run together after a while. This one-year series, like all the others, combines new footage with Japanese scenes taken from various incarnations of the "Super Sentai" concept. The successful first series, "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," was the only one in which the producers filmed some better-than-average fighting-stunts for the original footage, while later entries have offered less innovation in the stuntwork department. In general the English-language serials' main virtue of the serials appears in the Japanese scenes, where the Japanese scripters and costumers come up with some truly demented visual concepts for the Rangers' villains.

MYSTIC follows its "Sentai" model by hypothesizing a new set of Rangers who depend on a fusion of technology and mystic powers. The five "clean teens" of MYSTIC receive tutelage from a Celtic-looking sorceress, but their enemies look like the same old goony aliens, albeit with supernatural overtones. In fact, the main reason I searched through the series was because TV Tropes claimed that the season qualified as a "monster mashup" on the basis that some of the aliens have aspects of (a) a werewolf, (b) a mummy, and (c) a Creature of the Black Lagoon (seen above, all in red). If MYSTIC had really built up this concept, consistently making its aliens close analogues to familiar monsters-- be they the Universal fiends or science-fiction freakazoids like those of MONSTERS VS, ALIENS-- then I would consider that a genuine mashup. But the monstrous facets of the various Ranger-enemies are very minor, and at no time did I consider any of them to be anything but "villain-types."

Though some "Rangers" serials maintain some steady subplots, MYSTIC's plotting is erratic at best. The first two-thirds of the serial waste a lot of time with wimpy opponents, and a boring subplot about one of the Rangers finding his parents during the various imbroglios. Only in the last third of the show does the script introduce a set of villains called "the Ten Terrors," who almost have a Lovecraftian Old-Gods vibe once or twice (possibly because the Japanese originals were some sort of Old Gods). But because these somewhat interesting foes are introduced so late, the scripts have to burn through them quickly.

The psychological function comes down to the teens confronting and solving various simple problems, but this is better done than MYSTIC's bland treatment of visual and narrative tropes from various magical systems.





Sunday, February 16, 2020

THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956)



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


THE MOLE PEOPLE is not so much the proverbial “silk purse made from a sow’s ear,” as it is a silk purse improbably stuck into a sow’s ear. By that I don’t mean that the directing of Virgil Vogel and the acting of the principal players prove to be as ghastly as some pig’s body-part. But both the performances and the direction remain essentially workmanlike and undistinguished. Lazlo Gorog’s script is the real star of this Universal venture into the “lost civilization” subgenre.

A lot of movies have formulated their own modern myths. However, it’s a rare film that manages to successfully translate the myths of ancient times. Lost civilization stories usually come up with societies made of a hodgepodge of Graeco-Roman motifs. In contrast, Gorog does his best to make THE MOLE PEOPLE a homage to the Babylonian deity Ishtar (called Innana by the preceding culture of the Sumerians). Though there are a few technical inaccuracies in Gorog’s fictional treatment of the goddess, Gorog comes closest to capturing the multivalent symbolism present in archaic cultures.

Though MOLE PEOPLE was not the first American film to deal with a version of the “hollow earth”theory, the film begins with a scientific lecturer elucidating the theory for the audience’s benefit. The lecture’s main points of interest is its validation of inner-earth fictional tales with reference to religious narratives concerning descent into the land of the dead-- appropriate in the case of THE MOLE PEOPLE, whose lost race is metaphorically a culture of the living dead. The lecture mentions both Dante’s Inferno and a similar descent-story featuring the hero Gilgamesh.
Yet surprisingly, the lecture  does not mention that Ishtar—the deity who dominates the main
narrative—is particularly famous for descending into the death-realm of her goddess-sister Ereshkigal. But then, in the film proper, the script’s concept of Ishtar is covalent with the mountain in which the lost race endures, which may be why the lecture-sequence concentrates on images of mortal men descending into a feminine-gendered underworld.

Unlike various mummy-films in which the tombs of the dead never wish to yield up their secrets, the Himalayan mountain Kuhitara sends tokens of invitation to those who venture close. In this case, the explorers comprise an American archaeological expedition. The scientists-- four in number, though only Bradley (John Agar) and Belliman (Hugh Beamont) are principal characters-- are investigating the possibility that Sumerian emigrants, escaping the devastation of the Biblical Flood, may have traveled to the great mountains to found a colony. None of the scientists expect to find anything but relics of those ancient denizens. The archaeologists first discover a cuneiform siele written by an ancient Sumerian king, promising doom to intruders. But before the foreigners even have the chance to trespass, an earthquake—which one of the scientists humorously associates with Ishtar—shakes the entire camp and destroys the stele. However, the quake also unearths an ancient lamp, on which the chronicle of the emigration is related. This second relic encourages the archaeologists—Bradley, Belliman and the other two-- to explore the mountain’s summit. Once there, a third relic, disclosed by a convenient avalanche, points the way to the abandoned portal of an archaic temple. Yet Ishtar-as-mountain proves so impatient for the modern men to trespass on her domain that the ground swallows up one of the scientists. This forces the other three—Belliman, Bentley and Lafarge-- to go on a spelunking journey to rescue the lost man. The lost scientist perishes in the fall, and Lafarge doesn’t live much longer than it takes for the scientists to discover a living Sumerian city beneath the mountain’s rocky exterior.

Up to this point Gorog is clearly drawing upon the Biblical story of the Flood, in which Noah’s Ark eventually comes to rest on a mountain, after which both human and animal denizens stream forth to repopulate a destroyed world. But Gorog's Sumerians offer not rebirth but stasis, in keeping with the majority of lost civilizations ever since Rider Haggard invented the subgenre,
The people within the mountain, who both keep slaves and are enslaved to their superstitions, no longer have any concept of a world outside their domain, believing that everything beyond their borders is the heavenly terrain of Ishtar. The ruling class is a race of albinos, due to their long exile from sunlight, and they are served by humanoids with claw-hands and mole-like features, the “Mole People” of the title. Belliman and Bentley never devote any time to wondering how, even in two thousand years, human beings could have ever taken on such theriomorphic shapes—but perhaps that’s because the moment the scientists are captured, the albino people try to kill them as demons. Only the fact that Bentley has a flashlight—whose radiance can blind both the albinos and the Mole People—keeps the explorers in one piece. The Sumerians honor the three scientists as emissaries of Ishtar, and when Lafarge dies in a mishap, the other two have to cover for his death by claiming that he returned to the goddess.

During this time of relative safety, Belliman and Bentley learn the ways of their worshipers/captors—how they eat and make clothes-- though again, nothing much is said about how the Mole People, known to the albinos as “the beasts of the dark,” came into being. The mole-men—who presumably have females, though none are clearly indicated—harvest mushroom-crops while being lashed by cruel overseers. It’s not clear if the Mole People eat mushrooms as well, though they do consume meat, since at one point they’re accused of despoiling an albino corpse. The albinos are dependent on the Mole People to harvest the crops, which suggests a rewriting of H.G. Wells’ Eloi-Morlocks trope, one in which the effete Eloi maintain control over the cannibalistic brutes. Further, though the albinos worship a goddess, none of the few women seen have any high status, and the only female character, the handmaiden Adad, is despised for being a throwback, having non-albino coloration. Bentley becomes friendly with Adad, and tries to teach her about the freedom of the individual and the wonders of the outside world. She, for her part, does not take long to realize that the two scientists are not gods—but neither does high priest Elinu (Alan Napier), who gets the idea of stealing the flashlight from the supposed “emissaries.”

Before the conflict between the newcomers and the old guard heats up, the script devotes considerable time to working out the system of worship. Ishtar is the mountain in which the albinos live, but she is also “married to the spirit of this world.” She is also the heavenly world beyond the limits of the mountain, and though the albinos have no concept of the sun as such, they reduce their surplus population by hurling sacrificial victims into “the Eye of Ishtar." This means exposing them to sunlight in a sacrificial chamber, so that the sacrifices burn to death. High priest Elinu presides over the executions by invoking a chevron-like symbol, called “the golden rod,”which seems to be a sort of stylized image of a thunderbolt, embodying the sun’s destructive power.

Despite the fact that the albinos are the only living humans still worshipping Ishtar, one gets the impression that she’s invited the scions of modern humanity into her bailiwick in order to ring down the curtain on this corrupt and backward society. Belliman and Bentley don’t confine their emancipatory sympathies to Adad, for they also defend the Mole People against Sumerian cruelty. This indirectly emboldens the monster-men—who possess rudimentary reasoning-powers—to rebel against their masters at last. Ironically, Belliman, Bentley and Adad are spared this violence because they’re sentenced to the sacrificial chamber, where the sun’s radiance has no negative effect upon their non-albino flesh.


However, in the end Ishtar proves to be a jealous god. From the sacrificial chamber the scientists and the ex-handmaiden escape to the surface of the mountain. Yet one last tremor panics Adad, so that she turns, like Lot’s wife, to look back at the place she came from. Adad, instead of getting turned into a pillar of salt, is crushed to death by a falling pillar of the temple’s exterior. Thus, even though two of the four delvers into ancient mysteries are allowed to return to the living world, the world of death claims its last daughter. It’s a conclusion that somewhat undermines the dominant reformatory spirit of the 1950s, insisting that the people of primal times cannot transition into the world of fast food and airplanes, but must, like the goddess, pass back into the domain of fable, legend and myth.