Friday, December 3, 2021

ARTHUR'S QUEST (1999)


 





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


I've screened other "King Arthur" films that I liked less than this one, but this is still a pretty blah DTV flick. To be sure, one has to judge QUEST by what audience it was seeking to reach-- and to judge by the script, the writers knew that they were aiming at fairly undemanding middle schoolers. 

The quick breakdown: back in vague Arthurian times, Pendragon's (never seen) military forces have just been defeated by an equally vague force, "the Dark Knights." Pendragon, seeking to protect his six-year-old son Arthur, summons his two magicians, Merlin (Arye Gross) and Morgana (Catherine Oxenberg). Merlin intends to project Little Arthur through a time-portal into the 20th century, instead of just sending the kid to be raised by some bucolic couple. Maybe Merlin visited the 20th century earlier and got really taken with reading Mark Twain's A CONNECTICUT YANKEE? Anyway, Morgana, Merlin's lover, is also the power behind the Dark Knights, a whole two of whom show up to foil Merlin's schemes. Nevertheless, despite being caught with his pants down, Merlin still manages to send himself, Little Arthur and the sword Excalibur back through time, though Pendragon gets himself killed. 

Merlin stays near Little Arthur only long enough to see him adopted by a worthy young woman, and then he takes off to hide both himself and Excalibur. For no good reason he keeps hidden while Arthur grows to be an average American teen-- which naturally makes it very tough later on to convince young "Arthur Regal" (ugh) that he's really the heir to the throne in sixth-century England.

The writers knew their audience would want lots of silly humor, and so even the characters from the sixth century talk like modern-day TV comics. Just as Merlin reaches out to Teen Arthur, Morgana shows up in the 20th century as well, having considerately waited ten years in order to let Teen Arthur grow to the proper age. This MAY have had something to do with Arthur's fitness to inherit Excalibur, but I can't be sure the script ever makes that much sense. Morgana doesn't even do the logical thing-- immediately abduct Arthur's adoptive mom to ransom the magic sword-- but instead she mucks about pretending to be the principal of Artie's school. Eventually, after a lot of juvenile messing around, there's a desultory sword-fight between Teen Arthur and Morgana (who as shown above dresses like a Comicon booth-babe). After Morgan's defeat, Arthur decides to return to ancient England with Merlin, his mom and his girlfriend.

If I had to say something nice about this farrago, there's just one good line. Late in the film Merlin asks Morgana why she doesn't just stay in the 20th since she's adjusted to that world with ridiculous ease. She claims that there's just too much evil in the modern world, so that her villainy just wouldn't stand out as it does back in the sixth century. And that's the best I can do with this querulous quest. 


RESIDENT EVIL (2002)

 





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


The RESIDENT EVIL series is surely among the most profitable adaptations of a video game into the cinematic medium. With the exception of a 2021 reboot, whose box office may have been affected by the China Virus, all the episodes in the series proved profitable, despite widespread critical disdain.

Since I don't play video games, I come to the series without any investment in the original concept. I know that the EVIL game was a celebrated example of the "first-person shooter" game, and director Paul W.S. Anderson, who had already scored with his 1995 adaptation of the MORTAL KOMBAT game, certainly works a lot of shooting into the first installment of EVIL. In contrast to KOMBAT and the later episodes of EVIL, the first film largely takes place in one facility wherein many SF-themed menaces lurk, and this sense of confinement in a may have contributed to the success of EVIL, Part One. Later films would play up the superhuman prowess of main character Alice (Milla Jovovich), but here the heroine still seems human-sized, so I'm not sure how much her presence had to do with the series' commercial success.

The most mythic aspect of Part One is the opening description of the Umbrella Corporation, a conglomerate with many irons in many manufacturing fires. However, Umbrella unleashes chaos when it experiments with "bioweapons" for the illegal weapons market. Beneath the surface of the risibly named Raccoon City, the corporation maintains a facility, the Hive, in which a bioweapon called the "T-virus" had been developed. A mystery thief both steals the weapon and contaminates the facility with the virus, turning most of the staff into flesh-munching zombies. 

Alice, who is eventually revealed to be an agent investigating the virus, has lost her memory at the movie's opening. She and another resident of Raccoon City are taken prisoner by commandos working for the corporation on general suspicion, and the commandos rather oddly decide to take these two civilians with them into a mission to delve into the Hive's status. Everyone in the group gets trapped in the Hive, not only by the zombies but also by the Red Queen, a computer intelligence controlling the Hive's weapons and security systems. (The name of the heroine and of the computer, though patently referencing the works of Lewis Carroll, don't add up to much of anything here or in future installments.)

I enjoyed the first film reasonably well as a decent timekiller, particularly for the gutsy performance of Michelle Rodriguez as a female commando, one who makes numerous re-appearances later on. But the limitations of the $30 million budget are at times apparent, and so the sequels, given more bucks once the first proved profitable, provided more high-octane action for the audience's dollars.


Thursday, December 2, 2021

THE SPIDER RETURNS (1941)

 






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


Since THE SPIDER'S WEB made money for Columbia, one might have thought that the production team would try to follow the template of that serial closely for the sequel. Instead, RETURNS is a strange farrago of misfires, so much so that one could  almost imagine that it was made by people who had nothing to do with the first entry.

The fact that only one scripter from WEB, George Plympton, collaborated on RETURNS may be the reason the latter film is so aimless, lacking the former's strong set-pieces and dialogue. Another factor may be that this time James W. Horne, who shared co-director credit on WEB with Ray Taylor, was the sole occupant of the director's chair this time. While RETURNS is not rife with as many "baggy-pants" moments of comedy as other Horne offerings, being on his own may have allowed him to be less concerned with quality control. Of the original cast, only Warren Hull and Kenne Duncan, playing respectively the Spider and his aide Ram Singh, reprise their roles. Secondary aide Jackson is now played by Dave O'Brien, who furnished stunts on WEB, while Mary Ainslee steps in as female lead Nita Van Sloane. As in the first serial, there are multiple suspects as to the identity of the main malefactor. But whereas in WEB the Octopus remains in his sanctuary while giving orders to his henchmen, the new villain in town, the Gargoyle, is conspicuous for running around on errands of  violence his men, despite the fact that his cowl-mask and robes make him fairly conspicuous.

Other differences may have been stemmed from the reception of the first serial by audiences. Whereas in WEB the Spider mowed down a goodly number of disposable thugs with his twin handguns, this time the hero barely uses his weapons at all, and there are many more slug-nutty scenes in which the arachnid avenger takes on five-six crooks at once in wild, windmilling battles, often ending with the Spider overwhelmed. Yet the plot of RETURNS might have allowed for more violence, for this time the villains are rooted in a real-world threat. Though the serial was released in May 1941, half a year before the US entered WWII, and though the Gargoyle is not explicitly tied to the Axis, the mastermind and his gangsters are all saboteurs seeking to weaken America's defense systems. Yet, not until the last few episodes does one see the characters make any patriotic speeches.

The Gargoyle does resemble the Octopus in one regard: though most of both villains' weapons are either naturalistic or uncanny, each of them has just one marvelous resource. In WEB it's a beam that zaps airplanes, and in RETURNS it's a bizarre X-ray machine that allows the villain to spy on people over great distances. (The gizmo thus combines not only the ability of Superman's X-ray vision but also his so-called "telescopic vision.") The X-ray machine is a goofy looking apparatus, full of gimcrack add-ons, so its appearance may be in line with Horne's sense of humor. A couple of more "straight" traps include a conveyor belt that almost delivers the Spider to a furnace, and a room gimmicked with both blazing fires and with closing walls lined with spikes.

Warren Hull still gets all the requisite heroic moments, as well as delivering some comic relief as his fake criminal identity Blinky McQuade. But Duncan hardly gets any of his oddball Sikh homilies, while Ainslee is relegated to a much less feisty version of Nita Van Sloan. Nita does handle a gun ably once or twice, but she shies away from fights with the henchmen. Even when pitted against another woman-- a grotesque crosseyed woman-- this Nita only barely manages to overpower her foe by loosely pressing a pillow over her face. The angle about Wentworth telling Nita that he intends to quit being the Spider is only marginally referenced due to the crusade for national security. 

SPIDER RETURNS is certainly not the worst serial ever, and the aimless plot does pick up a little in the end chapters, during which the Gargoyle kidnaps Nita and the hero, assuming his Blinky guise, infiltrates the gang to "reluctantly" take possession of her, a trope later used to great effect in Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED. RETURNS is just one of the many serials where the sum of the parts don't add up into a pleasurable whole.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT (1942)


 





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


Though celebrated stuntman Dave O'Brien had enjoyed assorted starring roles before CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT-- such as 1936's BLACK COIN-- this serial about the popular radio hero was probably the closest he ever got to "the big time."

Regrettably, even though the first movie version of the hero-- who had also showed up in comics by 1942-- has a pretty striking, all-black outfit, as a character Midnight leaves viewers "in the dark." At the serial's outset the audience is introduced to esteemed aviator Captain Albright, who maintains-- for no clear reason-- the double identity of the masked Captain Midnight. As in the radio serial Midnight has a "ground crew" called the Secret Squadron, who were supposed to be the only one in on the captain's secret ID. But the serial's script can't be bothered to say how Albright took on the ID of Midnight, and for that matter, a lot of people in the course of the serial find out the secret rather easily.

Though the story revolves around a gang of enemy agents seeking to snag a new bomb-sighting invention, very little is said about the war itself, nor is there much in the way of morale-boosting here. Main villains Ivan Shark (James Craven) and his ruthless daughter Fury (Luana Walters) are never directly tied to the Axis, and there aren't even a lot of aerial stunts to play off the hero's aviator status. Its weak plot is fairly typical of many serials, but even some of the mid-range chapterplays bring in better moments of melodramatic characterization. Thus, Midnight is a cipher fighting other ciphers-- albeit with very well-staged fight-scenes. Of all the villains Craven does deliver a spirited "Big Bad" in spite of Shark's shortcomings as a master planner.

The one thing that saves MIDNIGHT from total mediocrity is the death-trap shown above. Shark catches Midnight in a room where the hero is imprisoned on a rotating disc, while a great weight descends from above and flames spout from the floor below. It's such a perfect trap that the script has to have the hero saved when Shark's blundering henchmen accidentally shut off the power in the trap-room. This is one of the many oddball-humor asides that director James W. Horne brought to many of his serial efforts, and while contrived, they're preferable to the antics of the two goofball members of the Secret Squadron.


Tuesday, November 30, 2021

VAMPIRE JOURNALS (1997)


 




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


Three years after the cliffhanger conclusion of BLOODSTORM: SUBSPECIES III, and one year before mastermind Ted Nicolaou concluded the SUBSPECIES, Nicolaou helmed a "spin off" within his vampire cosmos. There's nothing in VAMPIRE JOURNALS that directly connects it to the SUBSPECIES films, but the writer-director worked a few JOURNALS characters into the fourth and last SUBSPECIES film, though only in a prequel-ish sense, since two of those characters had been killed in JOURNALS.

Regardless of the time-frame, JOURNALS is, like Nicolaou's other vampire-films, set exclusively in Romania, ostensibly in Bucharest. As in the first SUBSPECIES film there's a principal female character from America, in this case a young pianist, Sofie (Kirsten Cerre). Her piano performance attracts the attention of a "music-loving" master vampire named Ash (Jonathon Morris), and he sets plans to draw her into his web of sin, even though he already has a substantial coterie of mostly attractive vampires, principally one Cassandra (Ilinca Goya). He first approaches her with a well-traveled move, a single rose (to whose thorns Sofie loses a little blood), but when that doesn't win Sofie immediately, Ash arranges for a human servitor, Iris (Starr Andreef) to set Sofie up with a private concert.

Fortunately for Sofie, Ash is being stalked by vampire hunter Zachary (David Gunn)-- and when I say "vampire hunter," I mean it in both senses of the phrase: Zachary is a vampire who hunts vampires. Years ago the reluctant bloodsucker was "sired" by one Serena, who turned Zachary and executed his lady love. Zachary destroyed Serena, his "mother," and then decides to go after the vamp who sired Serena, who could be termed Zachary's symbolic father, though the two have never met. Zachary is also immediately attracted to the youthful Sofie-- though Zachary, unlike Ash, does not seem to be the centuries-old type of undead. Zachary stalks Ash to kill him, but ends up seeking to save Sofie from perdition. He succeeds in the first goal, slaying Ash with a legendary sword once owned by Ash himself (symbolic phallus, anyone?) But there's a downbeat conclusion in that Sofie does get turned at the conclusion, and must join Zachary in his dismal existence.

Though Nicolaou's formulation of vampire mythology is just as derivative as it is in the SUBSPECIES films, JOURNALS benefits from a clearer conflict, even if one doesn't invest in the Freudian "jealous father" trope. Oddly, while the SUBSPECIES series pursues the trope of the "repulsive vampire"-- the trope that most informs the original Stoker DRACULA-- JOURNALS is wholly invested in the trope of the "pretty vampire." Both Morris and Gunn portray glamorous male vamps, so that in theory the female viewer may find Sofie's predicament suitably enthralling no matter who wins. There are some odd myth-touches throughout, principally the name of the legendary blade: "the sword of Laertes."  In Greek myth Laertes is the father of Odysseus, and he has little mythic presence of his own, while Odysseus is only tangentially connected to "unquiet spirits" through his adventure in the underworld. Though there's no support for it, I'm moved to speculate that Nicolaou may have thought about borrowing from the more apposite Oedipus myth, which would have led to a "sword of Laius," named for the Greek ruler killed by his own son. But this is just an enjoyable side-notion.

BLOODSTONE: SUBSPECIES II (1993), BLOODLUST: SUBSPECIES III (1995)

 





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

In my review of the first film in the series, I gave away one of the spoilers to the first sequel: that Stephan, Radu's only real competition for the position of SUBSPECIES' main character, gets knocked off. Indeed, as soon as Radu (Anders Hove) is revived, perhaps mere minutes from the conclusion of the first movie, writer-director Ted Nicolaou is quick to have the evil vamp murder his half-brother, who unlike Radu never manages to resuscitate himself. However, through a contrivance Stephan's newly-vampirized lover Michelle not escapes Radu but takes with her the mystic blood-bestowing Bloodstone. The stone once again plays the part of the bone over which good and bad vamps fight, but given how obsessive Radu becomes over bringing Michelle back to him, the "bone" might have dispensed with.

Michelle (now played by a new actress, Denice Duff) flees to Bucharest and tries to contact her sister Rebecca (Melanie Shatner), who just happens to have come to Romania looking for Michelle. Indeed, the narrative shifts somewhat away from Michelle's endeavors to survive as a newbie bloodsucker and toward Rebecca's quest to find her sibling-- not least because in her search Rebecca picks up three other support-characters to help her.

Nothing daunted, Radu summons up his own helper: his sorceress-mother, known only as "Mummy," who was responsible for passing the vampire curse on to the royal family that bred both Radu and the late Stephan. The old witch, looking even more haggard and raddled than Radu, immediately lends her skills to the pursuit of Michelle. The scenes between Radu and Mummy, though not particularly revealing of their backstory, at time project some of the same evil-mother-and-son vibe I got from the interactions of Grendel and his nameless mother in the epic poem BEOWULF.

The middle of the film is just a lot of running around to delay the climax, though some of the complications are enlivened by the character of police detective Marin (Ion Hadic), who being a younger Romanian remains staunchly skeptical about vampires. Eventually evil son and evil mother capture Michelle and Rebecca, and Radu tries to make Michelle kill her sister to prove her vampiric loyalty. However, Radu finds that even with newbie vamps, one should never take a woman for granted, and so Michelle turns the tables on both Radu and Mummy. However, though Rebecca takes her leave while Michelle seeks refuge from the sun, the film ends with a cliffhanger heralding the appearance of a second sequel.



At the conclusion of BLOODSTONE, Mummy survives being set on fire, captures Michelle and revives the apparently slain Radu once more. The story-arc of BLOODLUST proves a little more interesting than Part Two, for now Michelle has almost become worn down by Radu's pursuit. She pledges him her allegiance if she will teach him everything she needs to know about living as a vampire. Radu for his part begins to show a softer side, for now he wants his half-brother's former flame to yield him not only loyalty but also love.

Once Michelle goes missing again, Rebecca again saddles up for another sister-hunt, and brings along both Detective Marin and another of the support-characters, who just happens to be a handsome young guy who falls for Rebecca's charms. 

Speaking of charms, whether or not Michelle ever sincerely considered yielding to Stephan's killer, she finally breaks off her lessons and expresses her disgust for his Nosferatu-ugliness. The lovesick Radu carries Michelle back to the family crypt, and Mummy, annoyed by the new girl's disloyalty, tries to kill Michelle, only to be slain by Radu. (She stays dead, not making an appearance in the fourth and last film in the series, BTW.) Once more Rebecca seeks out the hiding place of Radu, bringing along a gun full of silver bullets. Michelle shoots Radu, but this only delays him. The generally useless Bloodstone crops up at the climax, as Radu tries once more to get it back-- a substitute for Michelle's unobtainable love, perhaps?-- but he only gets killed again, though in a more spectacular manner than he did in BLOODSTONE. But he would arise for one last time in the series' final (for the time being) entry.




Monday, November 29, 2021

SUBSPECIES (1991)

 






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


SUBSPECIES is the first of four vampire films with the same cast of characters, as well as one "spin-off" film that takes place in the same "universe." All were written (or co-written) by director Ted Nicolaou, and all were filmed in Romania, which proves to be the best aspect of the series, since Nicolaou takes full advantage of the settings and even the physical attire of the characters to give his films vraisemblance.

I haven't finished re-watching all five films yet, but my memories of previous screenings suggest that these are just lively, atmospheric time-killers. The first sets up the basic characters and their concerns, and then the sequels just repeat the same basic formula; vampires running around fanging people while pursuing an arcane artifact, the Bloodstone. The "subspecies" tag originally refers to little red manikins that the king-vampire Radu creates from his own blood, but they have only minimal impact on the storylines and may have been no more than concessions to one of the film's production companies, Full Moon, which made malevolent manikins one of their signature tropes, a la PUPPET MASTER and DEMONIC TOYS.

Nicolaou's take on vampire mythology, while derivative, is at least somewhat more engrossing than the average low-rent fang-tale. In this world, apparently vampires can breed normally, for SUPSPECIES concerns two half-brothers, begat from a vampire lord from two women, one a vampiric sorceress and the other a mortal. The film starts out with the full vampire Radu (Anders Hove) slaying his father in order to obtain the Bloodstone, a relic able to shed the blood of a saint, and thus empowering any vampire who owns it. (That said, even when he has the Bloodstone in his hands, Radu doesn't seem to hold off on drinking blood from innocent mortals-- though he and his kindred must not have doing much blood-taking, since in modern times, only the older Romanians believe in vampires.) Radu's half-brother Stephan doesn't want the relic, nor does he want anything to do with feeding off people, though it's established that he does have roughly the same vampiric powers as Radu.

Enter two American college students, Lillian and Michelle, who come to a small town in Romania, rooming with Mara, a Romanian college girl whom they met in America. All three are students of Romanian folklore, and when they go nosing around Romanian ruins, they encounter Stephan. Stephan and Michelle fancy each other, and Radu, observing this, decides to use the girls against his hated half-brother. Radu vampirizes first the two "Lucys," Mara and Lillian, and eventually does the same to Michelle, the "Mina" of the story. Stephan attempts to prevent Michelle from being enthralled to his brother by re-biting her and binding her to him. The fraternal conflict comes to a head: Radu and Stephan engage in a long swordfight, after which Stephan beheads Radu, while Michelle overcomes one of her vampirized friends with a canny trick. The swordfight, while not very well choreographed, is the only element that makes SUBSPECIES a combative film, though it's my memory that none of the other related movies qualify for the combative mode.

There's not much psychological depth in this battle for two brothers over one woman, and the film's ending is just a setup for the sequel, which picks up immediately after the events of SUBSPECIES. Aside from the location advantages, the series' main asset is the makeup devised for Radu. With his pale skin, long stringy hair and long clawlike fingers, the evil undead's image certainly owes something to that of silent-film vampire Orlock from 1922's NOSFERATU, and actor Anders Hove gives a spirited performance as the nasty bloodsucker. Had there never been any sequels, I might have found it hard to decide if the narrative centered more upon Radu or upon Stephan and Michelle-- though, since the latter two are fairly bland, I might well have settled on the undead villain, since it's his quest for power that makes the story go. In terms of the series, though, Radu is unquestionably the star, since Stephan is quickly knocked off in the first sequel, Michelle becomes more drawn into Radu's world in all three sequels, and another heroine, Rebecca, is introduced in Part Two to become "the new Mina," so to speak.