Friday, September 30, 2022

HOUSE OF THE BLACK DEATH (1965/ 1971)







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


Some bad movies wear their influences on their sleeves. As the badness unfolds, one can imagine how the writer or director thought he was emulating something good, but that he just couldn't see how to make the parts connect. 

DEATH's scripter Richard Mahoney has but one writing credit, as his career revolved more around costuming. One imdb reviewer read the novel on which DEATH was based, and pronounced it much better than the movie-- which wouldn't be too hard. But I can't help wondering if Mahoney thought he was doing something along the lines of 1957's CURSE OF THE DEMON, where a skeptic gets converted to the reality of modern witchcraft the hard way.

Influence aside, CURSE provides a textbook example as to how to pursue the modern-witchcraft theme so that it has human appeal for the audience. In contrast, even though Mahoney's dialogue is competent enough-- at least, no worse than many forties B-films-- nothing his characters say seems to hook up with any emotion. Of course, maybe the film's three directors were responsible for the incoherence.

The hard-to-follow plot concerns the Desard family, located in the town of Widderburn, somewhere in rural England. The oldest Desards are ailing Andre (John Carradine), who has some unspecified occult history, and Belial (Lon Chaney Jr), who have been feuding for years over the family fortune. There are two other Desards living on the estate, the much younger Paul and Valerie, who I assume to be cousins, though I don't think it was specified. Belial has taken a devilish name because he's a Satan-worshipper (this several years before cinema went whole-hog with "Satanic panic"). He even has real horns, about the size of a baby goat's, sprouting from his head, presumably a gift from his evil master, and he's more or less seduced all the villagers to do his will, even those not formally inducted into his coven. In order to break Andre's control of the family, Belial curses Andre's son Paul to become a werewolf-- whose lupine activities are almost entirely off-camera, (Given how bad the wolf-makeup is, this is a meager blessing.)

Into this familial quarrel come supernatural skeptic Eric Campion (Jerome Thor) and his acquaintance Katherine Malloy (Andrea King). Their professions are vague at best, but Eric lived in the village three years previous to the film's time, though it's not clear whether or not we was a native. Eric may or may not have some romantic relationship with Katherine, or he may have some past connection with Valerie, but the script is so filled with tedious exposition that any such affiliations get lost in the shuffle. To the extent Katherine fulfills any purpose, she's there to be a sounding board as Eric begins to believe in the occult powers of Belial.

Very little happens beyond actors standing around pontificating or watching sexy women perform ritual dances in the forest. (Sabrina, a celebrity model of the period, has a non-speaking role as one of the dancers.) Andre and Belial share no scenes together, though of the two actors, Carradine succeeds in making his rambling speeches more appealing to listen to than Chaney does. 

Toward the climax Andre tells Eric that his cross-- which is just an ordinary looking icon-- has the power to defeat Belial, though there's no real evidence of this. Then, while Belial is performing some ritual, Andre suddenly decides to settle their feud with a conjuration that kills Belial. End film. 

Since DEATH was filmed in black and white, it didn't get a release until 1971. It functions as nothing more than a footnote in the respective careers of Chaney and Carradine.


Wednesday, September 28, 2022

BLOOD RAGE (1987)

 






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


BLOOD RAGE was released in 1987 but filmed in 1983, around the height of the slasher-subgenre. I imagine that director John Grissmer and writer Bruce Rubin-- neither of whom accrued many credits on IMDB-- structured their film with the slasher market in mind, given how many adolescents get slaughtered. However, the narrative's basic trope reminds me more of the many imitators of Hitchcock's PSYCHO in the sixties and seventies.

PSYCHO tells the story of a mother-dominated young man whose Oedipal fixations are only hinted at in the dialogue. RAGE doesn't hide the identity of its psycho, but one must wonder: what makes Terry kill? Freudian allusions appear, but I can't be sure if Rubin is playing his cards close to his vest or just doesn't know the game.

The story begins with an act of parental irresponsibility. Maddy (Louise Lasser) is a mother with two kids, twins Todd and Terry. She's either a widow or has been deserted by her husband, for in the opening scene she's so desperate to land a new man that she goes to a drive-in theater with her date to make out-- but because she can't find a babysitter, she takes both kids along. The boys look to be about seven, and they soon get bored sitting around the back of the car while their mother makes out with her date. So the twins leave the car unnoticed.

The two of them happen across another car in which a guy and girl are also making out. Todd is merely nonplussed, but Terry is suddenly seized by a lust for murder. He snatches up an axe from somewhere and slams it into the skull of the guy in the car. Is Terry diverting his hostility toward his mom's date to another target? One never knows, but when Terry realizes that he could get in trouble, he shoves the bloody axe into Todd's hands and lets his brother take the blame. Todd is too traumatized to protest, with the result that he goes to an asylum for many years. Maddy is confused but then extends all of her maternal care to Psycho Terry, so that Todd becomes the "bad son" for her.

It's Thanksgiving, and both twins (now played by Mark Soper) are in their twenties. Maddy has apparently put her love life on hold since the drive-in incident, and Terry shows no unseemly lust for his mother. Unlike Norman Bates Terry seems totally cool with a bunch of other teens, including his girlfriend Karen. However, Maddy announces that she's been seeing a real estate guy, and that they plan to marry. Suddenly the demons of the Id arise in Terry, and he's filled with a lust to kill not just his mother's boyfriend, but everyone in sight. Providentially, Todd breaks out of the asylum, having finally remembered the truth about the drive-in murder. Terry gives free rein to his taste for carnage, thinking that he can blame it all on his "psycho" brother. But as one might suspect, being a twin doesn't necessarily work to Terry's advantage in the end.

Rubin's script doesn't embellish anything but his three main characters. All of Terry's targets, including a helpful doctor from the asylum, are flat types, and Karen, who gets the most screen time of all the support-characters, isn't any better. Louise Lasser makes Maddy a little too crazy prior to learning that her bad son is killing people for Thanksgiving, and presumably the actress was allowed to go wild because she was the only "name" in the cast. Mark Soper is much better in his dual role, though he's working under a handicap, since the script doesn't give him consistent characters for either brother.

I had to ask myself whether or not Terry was a true Oedipal type, even within the context of fiction, since his attitude toward lust is not as easy to suss out as, say, that of the similarly crazy Ellie from BLOOD AND LACE. But I decided that, whereas Freud thought he was describing a scientific syndrome, Grissmer and Rubin are providing entertainment-- and so even a partial emulation of a psychological pattern is enough to boost the film into the realm of good mythicity.


Monday, September 26, 2022

BLOODRAYNE: DELIVERANCE (2007), BLOODRAYNE: THE THIRD REICH (2011)

 







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


The financial failure of the 2005 BLOODRAYNE did not impair Boll from getting two more outings in the DTV market. Kristanna Loken did not return for either film, and Natassia Malthe took her place. Oddly, Michael Pare appeared in all three films in the series, though he played a different role each time.

Heroine Rayne, formerly ginger like her video-game source, now sports light brown hair, and though she was last seen in 18th-century Europe, DELIVERANCE has her show up in the American West of the 1880s, with not even a passing comment about what she was doing for the past hundred years. Maybe the writers didn't want to touch on the fact that during that time she's probably been preying on humans to drink their blood, though not necessarily with fatal consequences. Rayne, now wearing standard western attire and riding a horse, seems to be making her way to the town of Deliverance. There's a snatch of dialogue to suggest that she knows someone there, but the matter never comes up again.

Providentially, Deliverance is just where the outlaw Billy the Kid (Zack Ward), for some reason a full vampire, decides to bring his vampire gang. He plans to spread the disease of vampirism until he can raise a vampire army to conquer the country. However, he takes over Deliverance and its quavering citizens as an opening gambit. (Said citizens include Chris Coppola as a reporter and Michael Pare as Sheriff Pat Garrett.) Most impressively for a hateworthy villain, Billy abducts all the children in town, planning to use them as "cover" when he starts sending his agents around the country. Even before Rayne shows up to get in Billy's face, he shows his utter depravity by fanging one of the kids to death in full view of his other juvenile hostages.

The pacing of the action here is much better than in the first film. Before coming to grips with the main villain, Rayne works her way through Billy's henchmen and inspires the townspeople to take up arms against the fiends. There aren't as many anachronisms this time either, though at one point Rayne tricks a non-vampire outlaw into letting her tie him to a bed for sex-games. Malthe is not as charismatic as Loken but Zack Ward is such a juicy evildoer that the climax is much improved, for all that Boll's staging of action-scenes is still only average. Although this version of Billy the Kid has nothing in common with the real outlaw, I would count this film as the only crossover in the Bloodrayne series.



Another sixty years just races by for the immortal dhampire, and now she's part of a resistance movement in WWII Germany, to say nothing of having her hair turn jet-black. (An attempt to make the character resemble Selene of the UNDERWORLD series, perhaps?) She's the only dhampire helping the underground, and not very secretly (she's first seen fighting Nazi soldiers with a bo-staff). Yet the Nazi high command is aware that vampires and their kindred exist. Commander Brand (Michael Pare) is in charge of an attempt to study vampire powers to see how they can be used for the benefit of the Reich. To this end the head scientist (Clint Howard) keeps one female vampire of gypsy extraction in a cell, seeking to learn if it might be possible to confer vampiric immortality upon Der Fuhrer himself.

To Rayne's chagrin, she accidentally confers vampirism on Brand when some of her shed blood splatters on him and enters his system. The creepy scientist locates more of Rayne's blood, creates two vampire pawns and sends them after the rebel, though she cuts them down easily with her swords. (Hey, doesn't everyone carry twin swords in a Nazi-held city?)  Brant vampirizes an expert tracker in order to locate Rayne, but Rayne simply kills the bloodsucker. But she learns of Brand's plan to depart by train to Berlin, so she and her few allies must stop the train before the scientist's vampire-research can be placed in other hands. This leads to a big train-battle in which Rayne destroys Brand and prevents the vampire serum from reaching Hitler. 

Despite Pare's acting mojo, Brand is not that interesting a villain, and though Malthe seems more comfortable in her role this time, she's still just average in her delivery of badass lines. However, THIRD REICH-- surely the first time the phrase was ever used to denote a sequel-- has the best action-scenes of the three films, so that Malthe comes off as equal in that department to contemporaries like Beckinsale and Jovavich. Maybe Boll finally hired a fight coordinator worth his salt.



BLOODRAYNE (2005)









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

Though I suffered mightily when a friend talked me into seeing Uwe Boll's infernally boring 2007 fantasy-film IN THE NAME OF THE KING, his BLOODRAYNE films seem to be at least generally competent. Since I've no acquaintance with the video game franchise being adapted, I don't really care that he changed the characters or situations, as do some of Boll's detractors. That said, Boll certainly doesn't expend any effort setting up characters and situations. The writer credited with the script for BLOODRAYNE later claimed that Boll had only used 20% of her work, and I tend to think he's one of those guys concerned only with showy set-pieces.

Summaries claim that BLOODRAYNE takes place in 18th-century Romania, but there's nothing about the settings, costumes or actors that suggests any particular era. Central heroine Rayne (Kristanna Loken) does get a little more attention. She is a "dampire," a hybrid created by the mating of a full vampire with a mortal human-- in her case, an incident in which powerful vampire lord Kagan (Ben Kingsley) raped Rayne's mother. However, the script can't be bothered to relate how Kagan happened to choose Rayne's mother in particular, or why he wanted to induct Rayne into his retinue about five or six years after her birth. At that point in time, Rayne's mother conceals the little girl from her father, after which Kagan slays the mother for her defiance. This is effective enough in terms of giving Rayne a strong motive for vengeance.

However, Boll can't be bothered with details. Somehow little girl Rayne ends up as the property of a traveling carnival until she's old enough to be played by Kristanna Loken. It's not clear how the carnival-people-- almost none of whom show affection for the heroine-- keep her under control given that she's stronger than a human and capable of healing most wounds. But when it's good for the movie, Rayne breaks free of the carnival and sets out on her quest for vengeance.

She happens across a cadre of heroic humans, curiously given the diabolical name of "The Brimstone Society," and they train the young heroine so that she can join them in their crusade. Only three of the Brimstoners-- played by Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodrigeuz, and Matthew Davis-- are major supporting characters, with Davis getting a little more dimension when he briefly becomes Rayne's lover. 

I noted that Boll's set-pieces were showy, but most of them aren't that dynamic. One section is devoted to Rayne obtaining a mystic device from a mysterious monastery, complete with death-devices that were clearly meant to emulate the video-game vibe, but on the whole it's less than exciting. After assorted sorties and one big betrayal, Rayne finally gets her shot at Kagan, who wants to harvest the mystic device from her body, which took residence therein for some damn reason. Kagan does make the standard "join me and we'll rule the world" speech before planning to sacrifice her, but Rayne is understandably set on patricide. The big climax is at best average, which may have a lot to do with the film's failure in the same era that the RESIDENT EVIL films kept making money with their video-game heroine.

Most of the actors-- Kingsley, Madsen, Rodrigeuz-- recite their lines dutifully at best. Davis comes off a little better, while assorted tertiary players-- Meat Loaf, Billy Zane-- are just there to add a little more heft. Loken puts as much dimension as possible into her simplified character, and though it's not a masterful performance, her nomination as "worst actress" at a Razzie award was almost certainly a reaction against Uwe Boll. 

SCORCHING SUN, FIERCE WIND, WILD FIRE (1977)

 






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


This cheap Taiwanese production-- garnished with a half-dozen HK "names"-- is a textbook example of a flick that's just making stuff up as it goes along. It's a shame, because its star Angela Mao was still in her prime. SUN would have been a much brighter film had the creators built up her character of masked freedom-fighter Violet, instead of spending so much time on subsidiary characters like that of her ally Tien Peng, her main foe Chang Yi and two comic relief characters, Dorian Tan and Lo Lieh. 

Supposedly the film takes place in 1920s China, prior to the Communist reign, but most of the film takes place out in rural areas, and almost no one wears clothes congruent with 20th-century fashions. Then one suddenly sees soldiers wearing China-Republic uniforms, or what's supposed to pass as a 1920s automobile, and one is reminded. However, for all that the time-period matters to the rambling narrative, it might as well be happening back in the usual amorphous medieval era common to so many Hong Kong chopsockies.

Violet's career as a masked avenger comes about because her father is Warlord Tung, who's doing a lot of evil things to the people and must be stopped. So like Zorro before her, Violet sets up an underground resistance while remaining close to her father's operations in order to foil his misdeeds. Because the story is so unfocused, there's no real sense of any particular goal Violet seeks to accomplish, much less any sense of conflict about defying her father. The warlord's enforcer becomes the de facto force to be reckoned with, and after the warlord perishes-- not directly because of anything Violet does-- the enforcer is defeated by Violet and the Tien Peng character in one of those two-against-one battles that's supposed to show how badass the villain is.

The "mask" Violet wears is one of those conical hats whose brim is low enough to hide the face, and she doesn't wear it that often. Since the heroine spends so much time fighting without the mask, I debated as to whether her attire really rose to the level of an uncanny outfit. But I decided in the affirmative, and besides, as the lobby card above shows, there's a moment when one of her allies gets trapped in a room with closing spiked walls, which definitely urges the film into the domain of the uncanny. (The peculiar German title, "Gorilla with the Steel Claw," has nothing to do with anything under the SUN.)

Only Mao's fights are particularly memorable, and then only because of her performing charisma. But though Mao made a few other films with uncanny aspects, SUN is probably the only one in which her character is the "costumed crusader" type of superhero.



Sunday, September 25, 2022

THE CREEPS (1997)

 







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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

By 1997, Charles Band had become inextricably associated with the subgenre of "tiny monsters" through his PUPPET MASTER and DEMONIC TOYS franchises. I can easily imagine him casting about for a new possible franchise, and deciding, "Hey! Suppose I take Universal's four most famous monsters-- Dracula, the Mummy, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Wolf Man-- and turn them into super-deformed versions of themselves?" 

(For those not in the know, "super deformed" is a term originally applied to an animation effect in which cartoon characters, usually more or less realistic in humanoid proportions, unaccountably "morphed" into toddler-sized versions of themselves, just for a quick comic effect. The term isn't used in THE CREEPS, but the movie's alternate title was DEFORMED MONSTERS, for what that's worth.)

Super-smart librarian Anna (Rhonda Griffin) finds that a valuable book has been stolen from the library on her watch. She hires a goofy private shamus named David (Justin Laurer) to track down the book-thief, a man named Berber (Winston Moynihan). 

What neither of the young protagonists know is that Berber has swiped the arcane tome because he knows that with its knowledge he can tap into the "archetypal universe." By doing so, he can make merely fictional characters into flesh-and-blood entities who can help Berber conquer the world. Anna stumbles across Berber and he captures her, intending to help his "archetypal inducer" with a virgin sacrifice. David comes to the rescue and spirits Anna away, as well as the stolen library items. Berber does trigger his inducer, but because the ritual was botched, the four monsters manifest as no more than three feet tall each. 

Of the four, only Dracula (Phil Fondacaro, delivering the film's best performance) can speak, but all are unhappy about their reduced circumstances. Berber convinces the pint-size fiends to recapture Anna in order to re-enact the ritual. The mini-monsters attempt to do so but get the wrong woman, and the ritual is ruined again. Eventually David and Anna are escorted back to the lab, but Anna convinces the monsters that they'd be better off as fictional characters, who are truly immortal no matter how many times they perish. Berber is sucked into his own machine and the Creeps return to being fantasies.

So why did I include "spoilers?" Only for the end joke, which is the movie's only modestly funny bit. A smitten Anna seeks out David and gives him a truly unusual gift: a copy of Sacher-Masoch's VENUS IN FURS. (So who does she want to be, the domina or the masochist?) David, being a lowbrow, observes that about three different movies were made of VENUS, one by the trash-flick director Jess Franco, but the duo get a romantic liaison despite their varying intellectual capacities. Though masochism often figures into pop culture, this is the first time I recall seeing a reference to the author who conceptualized the psychological posture.





Friday, September 23, 2022

ROCK 'N' ROLL NIGHTMARE (1987)

 





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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

ROCK 'N' ROLL NIGHTMARE stars out with demons invading an old farmhouse and killing everyone there. Some days later, a heavy metal rock band named Triton-- named after lead singer John Triton (real heavy-metaller Jon-Mikl Thor)-- comes to stay at the farmhouse with the intention of getting away from civilization and making a recording of their next album. It's never clear who rented them the place given that the owners are all dead, but maybe the demons had a part interest in a realty company.

For most of this excruciatingly slow film, the rockers wander around the grounds, uttering banalities and intermittently getting knocked off by demons. None of the deaths are well done or imaginative, though the denouement does hold a minor surprise. When Beelzebub, a badly animated demon, approaches Triton to destroy the last of the victims, the singer suddenly manifests a killer musculature and a wealth of supernatural powers. The demon-lord then learns that none of the rockers were real, and that Triton is actually an angel sent to castigate the fiends for their evil deeds.

Dozens of cheap "demon house" films have appeared on video shelves, all ostensibly take place in Judeo-Christian universes where for no particular reason demons have utterly free reign. NIGHTMARE at least swims against that stultifying current. However, the screenplay-- written by Thor himself, who also produced-- is an incoherent mess, totally unable to give its one good idea any resonance.

The climactic fight between Triton and the demon just barely moves the goofy flick into the domain of the combative, though the battle features one of the silliest effects this side of Ed Wood, as Beelzebub (also called "Old Scratch") tries to defeat the angel by hurling rubber starfish to stick to his big ol' pecs. It's the only scene that deserves the phrase "so bad it's good," but NIGHTMARE isn't worth sitting through for just that one scene.