Monday, May 23, 2022

CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE (1961)


 





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


I've only watched the English-language version of CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE, which ostensibly included some new scenes added by its American distributor while others from the original Mexican movie were deleted. So it's possible that a subtitled version of the original release might have been more interesting.

Still, the plot is so basic that I doubt the original had much complexity to add. Four archeologists journey to Haiti and rip off an idol from a voodoo temple, and a voodoo priest pursues the criminals back to Mexico to wreak vengeance. None of the victims possess more than the most basic characterization, and even the vengeful priest, though physically impressive with his Charles Manson looks, has no character to speak of.

However, the viewpoint character is not just the usual expert in both science and the supernatural, but is also a highly educated female, Karin (Elvira Quintana). Karin lectures his scoffing colleagues on the formidable powers of voodoo, and though she's not a crusading Van Helsing, eventually she will seek to block the priest from killing any more not-quite-innocents. Indeed, Karin's lectures on voodoo religion is the main thing that leads me to grade the film's mythicity as fair.

However, the priest is a little more inventive than the usual voodoo master, for he doesn't use the average hand-sized dolls, but the "doll people" of the title. These manikins stand about three feet tall, being of course played by midgets, though the players wear masks of human features which do not move normally and add to the dolls' general creepiness. Being small, the doll people have to sneak up on their victims before impaling them with their poison needles. In addition, the priest brings along a regular-size zombie for heavy lifting, and the zombie shows himself invulnerable to bullets.

The pacing is fairly slow, so there's not a lot of suspense until the conclusion, where Karin unveils a counter-measure to nullify the evils of voodoo. Despite some predictable sequences, this was a good effort by director Benito Alazraki, who went on to direct the first definitive Santo film.



TEX AND THE LORD OF THE DEEP (1985)


 






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


I've never read any of the TEX comics, which became very popular in Europe since Italy published the first serial in 1948. Tex, whose full name is Tex Willer, is largely unknown in the U.S., and this movie-- henceforth abbreviated to LORD-- seems to be the only English-language translation of the character into any medium.

The movie is said to have been an unofficial pilot for a television series. But despite its having adapted sequences from three of the comic serial's arcs, and despite having the directorial services of Duccio Tessari, LORD flopped at the Italian box office, so there was no teleseries. Possibly the budget was limited from the get-go because any teleserial would also have been similarly limited.

LORD starts out moderately well, using long shots of Western natural wonders and a portentous voice-over to introduce the audience to the upstanding ranger Tex Willer (Giuliano Genma), who pals around with a stalwart Indian buddy and the real-life scout Kit Carson (thus making this stand-alone film a sort of crossover-work). Tex is seen avenging some Indians from white scumbags who've been selling them liquor. 

Then the plot proper starts, as Tex and his friends track some bandits who've ripped off a convoy of Army rifles. The heroes learn that the bandits may be working with a mysterious cult of living Aztecs who possess strange magical abilities. Tex and his buddies even witness one such ability, when a survivor of the convoy raid is subjected to some force that melts away the flesh of his face, leaving a skull (the only good effect in the film).

Meanwhile, the film segues to showing the Aztecs, who plot to conquer the world by uniting the Indian tribes against the White Man, and continuing their age-old custom of sacrificing human beings to their gods. The Aztecs, one of whom is female, debate their next move, while Tex and his friends seek them out-- 

And the two never meet. The remainder of the film trails off as Tex's band fights with some of the bandits, but the heroes never meet the Aztec plotters, and the latter are apparently defeated when their alchemical weapon goes awry. 

I don't think one can blame this incoherence on budget alone. LORD just seems to be one of those bad-luck films in which everything just goes wrong and everyone involved just wants it to be over and done with it. Genma had an impressive career playing heroes in westerns and in sword-and-sandal flicks, but it's impossible to judge whether or not he could have done a good version of this character, since his work is undercut at every turn. The flick doesn't even play to the sword-and-sandal tradition of playing up a hot evil queen, since the female Aztec's scenes are short and unmemorable.


GEMINI MAN (1976)

 






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


GEMINI MAN is one name for the ninety-minute pilot film for a short-lived 1976 series about an invisible government agent. There's a longer name for the pilot, but I don't feel like typing it.

The year before, the same production company had attempted to launch THE INVISIBLE MAN a series about an invisible do-gooder played by David McCallum. When that show tanked, the producers attempt to beat the invisible horse further by launching GEMINI MAN.

To be sure, the idea of a series about an invisible secret agent has some definite appeal, though not even the longest lasting one, the 2000-02 INVISIBLE MAN, quite tapped the full potential. Here it's clear that the series-makers have modeled their hero Sam Casey (Ben Murphy) on the affable model of Lee Majors' "Six Million Dollar Man." Like the Majors character, Casey comes from nowhere and has no particular aim in life beyond going wherever his bosses send him on his missions. Murphy delivers the goods in this respect, and the other cast-members do what's required of them but the idea of a kid-friendly world of international espionage didn't work this time. Even the introduction of a "ticking-clock" element-- Casey can only remain invisible fifteen minutes a day or he'll die-- failed to add any moxie to the pedestrian execution.

IRON MAN AND HULK: HEROES UNITED (2013)


 




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

Most of the original animated DTV movies made from Marvel comics-characters have been relentlessly mediocre, in contrast to the DC cartoon-films, which generally vary between the excruciating to the excellent. To be sure, in the 2010s Marvel cartoon serials have probably been better than those from DC, but often the stand-alone animations can't quite seem to capture the soap-operatic appeal of Marvel characters (though the live-action movies have similar problems there, as well).

Still, this time out the "brave and bold" teamup of Iron Man and The Hulk works much better than one might have expected. Naturally, these characters are extrapolated from the live-action Marvel movies, wherein the regular identities of both super-crusaders-- namely, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner-- become science-buddies. Refreshingly, though, UNITED goes in a less predictable direction, in that I don't even remember Banner being mentioned. 

At the start of the opus, the two heroes have served in The Avengers together, but Iron Man doesn't really have any sort of buddy-relationship with Banner's green-hued id-monster. However, UNITED is the story of how the two of them work through their differences in order to take arms against a sea of troubles.

The troubles, of course, are an assortment of Marvel villains, though most of them-- the Abomination, the Wendigo, and a couple of Hydra scientists-- don't do much more than set up the plot-action. The nub of the conflict is that Iron Man and Hulk get trapped aboard one of Stark's ships, which in turn falls under the control of a new version of a Hulk villain: Zzzax, a sentient electrical entity. Whereas the character in the comics just goes around shocking people, this Zzzax is pretty adroit about using his powers to over-write electronic programs with an eye to controlling the world's energy. The monster even has some minor characterization, slamming Earth's humans for wasting energy.

The action is pretty good-- Hulk is blinded at one point and has to depend on Iron Man to be his eyes as they fight a Stark-created band of robots called "Mandroids." But the barbs that the two heroes toss at each other while trying to beat their enemies are the short movie's highlight, and for once, the limited animation wasn't a huge problem.



THE GIANT OF METROPOLIS (1961)


 





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

GIANT OF METROPOLIS is one of the few "sword and sandal" films to which I've given a good rating. Its quality may have something to do with its appearance in 1961, which predates the descent of the "Italian muscleman" films into total predictability. It's also of interest that this was one of only five films directed by Umberto Scarpelli. Though he might have left filmmaking for any number of reasons, it's somewhat fitting that his last work for Italian cinema turns out to be among the best in its genre-- though, to be sure, Scarpelli is not credited as having conceived the main idea, only for providing dialogue. Since the script's three writers don't have a ton of outstanding credits to their names, perhaps METROPOLIS is just one of those occasional "perfect storms" of creativity.

The title alone suggests ambition on the part of the creators. The basic idea derives from the myth of Atlantis, a super-scientific civilization destroyed before the rise of recorded history, and a prologue even establishes that the action takes place on "the continent of Atlantis." But the city is plainly named after the future-city of Metropolis as seen in the classic 1927 Fritz Lang movie, though there's no real attempt to follow the plot-action of the silent film. I suspect what happened was that the writers were inspired by the basic pattern of Lang's masterpiece, which was a melodrama about the struggles between the high and low classes in a future-city-- including both romantic and familial conflicts. Lang's film is basically optimistic at the conclusion, and the city of its title is seen to endure all of its travails. However, since Scarpelli's film follows the pattern of the Atlantis myth, the only positive thing about this Metropolis is that its destruction clears the path for younger, less corrupt descendants.

Hulking Obro (Gordon Mitchell) wanders with his savage-looking tribe-- possibly cast out from some other land?-- until they come near the continent of  Atlantis. Like Moses seeking the Promised Land, Obro's aged father dies before the tribe reaches its goal, and as he dies the old man turns over the stewardship of their people to Obro, and encourages the hero to seek out Metropolis.

This doesn't turn out to be good paternal advice. When the savages approach the city, weird magnetic vortices assail them, and all but Obro are disintegrated. No reason is given for Obro's survival, but the city's ruler becomes curious about the stranger and orders him brought into Metropolis-- which will be a mistake on the ruler's part, though possibly one he was destined to make.

King Yotar (Rolando Lupi) is not your routine city-tyrant. Yotar is the heir to a long Atlantean tradition of super-science, and he will do anything to keep Metropolis on top of things, particularly because of dire stellar predictions about the city's demise. Most of the populace has been converted into obedient zombies, but one thing you've got to say for Yotar: he doesn't play favorites. Instead of letting his own father pass away peacefully, Yotar has transferred his dad's intelligence into an artificial body, so that Yotar can consult him whenever he pleases.

He doesn't treat his immediate family any better. His first wife died, leaving him a nubile daughter, Mercede (Bella Cortez), who initially thinks that her father hung the moon. But Yotar's second wife Queen Texen (Liana Orfei) knows better. Though she loves her husband, she fears his propensity to try to control her and everyone else. Her greatest concern is with his plan to transfer his father's intelligence into his small son Elmos. This transfer will give Elmos eternal life, but at the cost of his childhood. Yotar doesn't see why this should be a problem; doesn't everyone want to bypass the troubles of childhood? 

He doesn't seem to harbor any dire plans for Mercede, but there's a peculiar scene in which she does a revealing dance before his throne, flanked on either side by a white male dancer and a black male dancer. One can't help but think of Salome dancing to impress her stepfather, and the addition of her dancing with a racially mixed pair of males adds a little race-fetishism to the fire. Yotar shows no overt reaction to the dance. However, when he leaves his throne-room, he immediately seeks out his current queen and embraces her, despite her protests that he only wants to control her. Later Obro will comment that Yotar is not a villain, just a man mistaken in his priorities-- and the fact that the King doesn't have any designs on his daughter would seem to bear this out.

Yotar, tasked with prophecies that the stranger may spell the city's doom, subjects Obro to assorted ordeals. In an arena Obro is forced to fight a big hairy cave-guy, and later gets defeated by a gang of vicious pygmies. Yotar even tries to show the hero that muscle is no match for scientific magic by forcing Obro to struggle against magnetic forces-- which struggle Obro loses, unlike most such challenging feats in these type of films.

However, Texen and her minister Egon liberate Obro, wanting him to use his martial prowess to dispose of Yotar's guards so she and Egon can prevent Elmos from being subjected to his father's experiment. Egon's insertion is necessary because when Yotar finds out about Texen's betrayal, she takes her own life-- which doesn't seem to be a very good strategy for taking care of Elmos. However, her sacrifice earns Obro another ally, for Mercede sees Texen die, and she turns against her father and succors the stranger-- with whom, inevitably, she will become romantically linked.

I'll conclude my account there, for from then on the die is pretty much cast as to what's going to happen to the Atlantean kingdom. But all of the dramatis personae of METROPOLIS are much more vivid than those of the average historical epic, largely because they're all playing off the hubris of Yotar, who only realizes the evil of his actions in his last moments. The basic theme of seeking to control others, even for their own good, makes much better drama than tinpot tyrants who just want to beat the people down. Mitchell, though not capable of nuanced acting like his cast-mates, nevertheless has an impressive presence, especially when he's mowing down guards with what looks like a Samson-style "jawbone of an ass." 

Thursday, May 19, 2022

THE DOOR WITH SEVEN LOCKS (1940)

 





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


THE DOOR WITH SEVEN LOCKS was the second English adaptation of an Edgar Wallace novel to reach American shores, and it shows an attempt, if not always a successful one, to craft a British-made thriller considerably less fusty than those of the thirties. Director Norman Lee, who's currently not remembered for much beyond DOOR, does a good job of keeping the mise-en-scene fairly lively despite having to execute loads of mystery-oriented talking-head scenes.

Since I'm not likely to ever read the 1926 Wallace mystery, I did glean a few details about the source material from Goodreads. The movie seems to be faithful to Wallace's concept. On his deathbed, an English lord bequeaths a hidden treasure to his heirs, but they can only get the riches under assorted complicated circumstances, including the use of seven special keys designed to open the door to the treasure. The keys enter the custody of an executor for roughly the next ten years, so that a foreign heir, who knows nothing of her blood relation to the lord, has time to grow up and became young June Lansdowne (a striking Lilli Palmer). A friend of the family somehow learns of June and contacts her about the legacy, so she and a comical girl-friend fly to Great Britain. The two ladies arrive just in time to see an organized conspiracy by some of the heirs-- including sinister Doctor Manetta (Leslie Banks of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME) A young local cop, Dick Martin (Romilly Lunge), gets drawn into June's troubles, patently because he fancies June. 

What's surprising is that in content this quasi-Gothic mystery is identical to dozens of others from the period, this is one of the few to qualify for the combative mode, in that Martin has a lively battle with a burglar who breaks into June's room, later battles Manetta's mute servant, and finally fights the evil doctor at the film's climax. Possibly the novel is just as comparatively violent, given that some reviews intimate that Dick is the main character in the source novel. In the original story Dick and June have to contend with some sort of mad scientist. But the scripters of DOOR, one of whom was also the director, chose to place more emphasis on the character of the conspirators' leader Doctor Manetta. Without reading the novel I can't be sure, but I don't think it's coincidence that Leslie Banks' most renowned character, Count Zaroff, displays a sadistic mindset, while Manetta claims to be a descendant of the Spanish torturer Torquemada. Zaroff also had a mute servant, as does Manetta. Manetta also keeps a roomful of exotic torture-devices, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence that he uses them on innocent victims. Still, the torture-room is the site of the end-fight, and one of the devices, an iron maiden, plays a decisive role in the fight's conclusion.

Lunge, an actor I'd never encountered before, does nicely with his heroic role, but Palmer and Banks are the most magnetic performers. The funny girlfriend isn't very amusing, but there are a few good lines. An elderly cop is asked whether or not he can read, and he replies, "Not in the daytime. I took a reading-course at night school." 


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1964)


 




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


Despite the exploitative title, there's not a lot of screaming in this EARTH. Hammer horror-director Terence Fisher teamed with Harry (THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH) Spalding to produce a nicely photographed but somewhat disappointing tale of staunch English villagers coping with a mysterious alien invasion.

Though EARTH resembles some later bucoli English tales of horror and/or SF, this time Fisher and Spalding were working for another maker of B-films, which under various names (Lippert, Regal) had also released cheapie SF-films like KING DINOSAUR. Possibly thanks to Fisher and his production team, EARTH looks better than a lot of similar low-budget fare, though Spalding's script doesn't come up to the level of the photography.

After a memorable opening in which the audience sees various English residents inexplicably stricken dead-- particularly the engineer of a still-running train-- the film focuses upon a handful of survivors who assemble in a small village. Most of the characters are fairly typical tweedy English types, aside from one transplanted American pilot, Jeff (Willard Parker). No firm reason is given as to why these particular people survived the phenomenon that slew many others. To their consternation, the half-dozen survivors witness two strange armored figures stalking the village's empty streets. When one woman approaches the two strangers, one of them kills her with a touch. One armed survivor empties a pistol at the armored men, but they walk away, paying the attack no attention.

Two more people make their way to the village, a young man and his pregnant young wife-- and from then on, the peril of the young mother and her progeny almost takes priority over the alien menace. Though the E.T.s don't show any interest in the villagers, the woman they killed comes back to life as a zombie until being slain again. Later, one of the villagers runs down an armored man in a car, revealing that it's a robot. The space-robots change a few other locals into zombies, but since the audience is never privy to the motivations of the robots' masters, it's not even certain that the robots zombify people on purpose or not.

Like a few other similar films, the aliens remain unknowable, the dramatic focus being on the interaction of the motley crew-- though there's not much drama, since none of the characters are memorable. It is interesting that the American guy automatically takes charge of the situation, though he doesn't end up doing much, except at the end he suggests that the remaining villagers go south to look for more human beings. It feels like a quick finish, given that none of them know whether or not even more aliens may be lurking about. In comparison to the tight thrills of THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH, EARTH never delivers on its promise.