Monday, April 30, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
By the time Disney made the third PIRATES sequel, I'd become pretty sick of the support-cast provided by the characters essayed by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.  I thought that the idea of a film focused on Captain Jack Sparrow would prove an immense improvement.
I was, sadly, wrong.
To be sure, ON STRANGER TIDES isn't bad because it doesn't have those two support-characters, but because it doesn't bother to dream up new ones.  Sparrow's eccentric crewmen barely get any screen-time, aside from simply taking up space in the background.  His villains-- the infamous Blackbeard, seeking the Fountain of Youth, and his scheming daughter Angelica-- are new.  But whereas the villains of earlier installments became so involved, so baroque, that one often lost track of their motivations, Blackbeard and Angelica are predictable and boring villains.
In addition, TIDES's budget no longer allows for any of the meaningless but kinetically-dazzling sequences, like Sparrow in limbo, having conversations with other versions of himself.  Johnny Depp does an adequate job with the script he's given, but he seems pretty uninspired.  Penelope Cruz may be one of those actors who does her best work in her own language and ends up seeming entirely vapid in any other films.
The best thing about TIDES is that it may put an end to the series at last. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

DREAMCHILD (1985), HEAD (1968)

MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) irony
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) *psychological, sociological (2) *metaphysical, sociological*

These films are built around the trope I term “delirious dreams and fallacious figments.”  This trope aligns with the uncanny when the diegesis includes either (1) literal dreams that lend the narrative the metaphenomenal quality of “strangeness,” or (2) breaks in the rational continuity of the story that aren’t explained as dreams but create the same emotive effect.

Dennis Potter’s DREAMCHILD is an excellent example of the first type.  In 1932, a New York university, wishing to celebrate the centenary of the birth of ALICE IN WONDERLAND author Lewis Carroll, sends an appeal for Mrs. Alice Hargreaves (Coral Browne) to come to the States and address the celebration.  Alice, now in her eighties, was the little girl on whom Carroll based the Alice character.  Though the old woman is bemused by her brush with literary celebrity, she consents and makes her first journey to America, thus setting up a sociological encounter between the slow-paced, proper world of her Victorian upbringing and the raucous world of American merchandising and industry.

Accompanying Alice is her young traveling companion Lucy, who clearly finds the New World more attractive than the Old.  Lucy’s particularly attracted to one of the young male reporters who tries to interview the often befuddled granddame.  However, Alice has worse problems than her assistant’s defection.  Alice begins to experience involved flashbacks to her childhood, when she knew the Reverend Dodgson (Ian Holm), who assumed the Carroll pen-name to write the ALICE books.

In keeping with certain literary theories about Dodgson, the Reverend is in a sense a pedophile—though not an undiscriminating one, in that Potter’s version of Dodgson is only in love with the eleven-year-old Alice, not with little girls in general.  At no time does Dodgson make an improper advance toward Alice, connoting that he’s aware of the immorality of his desire but is helpless to prevent it. Despite her childishness young Alice becomes aware of the reverend’s feelings, and seems simultaneously flattered and annoyed.  Alice’s mother is also suspicious, particularly of the reverend’s tendency to take photographs of Alice in fancy-dress outfits.

Old Alice’s flashbacks include dreams—some of which are waking—in which she interacts with the famous characters of Wonderland.  Sometimes she appears as a child, sometimes as the old woman she is—but the inhabitants of Wonderland are not the winsome curiosities seen in most adaptations of the novels.  The Mock Turtle, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Caterpillar are depicted in line with the original novels: as capricious, indifferent, and often nasty personages that bely the “wondrous” aspect of Wonderland—and perhaps connote the darkness in their creator’s soul as well.  Jim Henson’s team, best known for the cherubic Muppets, proves no less skilled in portraying Carroll’s grotesqueries.

The romance of Lucy and the reporter provides a running commentary on the fading of the elegant Victorian world—particularly when Lucy believes, somewhat correctly, that the reporter has made her acquaintance simply to exploit Alice’s celebrity.  But the core of DREAMCHILD is Alice making her peace with the truth of her nearly forgotten relationship with Dodgson.  Though the WONDERLAND books themselves qualify for the Fryean mythos of “the irony,” in that they present a world where sense and nonsense are inextricably commingled, Potter’s work flirts with the black humor of the irony but essentially partakes of the mythos of drama, in that though Dodgson and his desires are long dead, Alice at last acknowledges the human nature of the man whose forbidden love birthed a masterpiece.

Bob Rafelson made HEAD during the twilight years of the MONKEES teleseries, a light comedy in which the titular singing-group had variously farcicial adventures.  Some episodes of the series used outright marvelous elements like vampires or aliens, but most of the time THE MONKEES used the “naturalistic” version of the “fallacious figments” trope, in which characters would violate time and space for nothing more than the space of a quick, vaudeville-like joke.

The title HEAD connotes that the film is essentially a “head trip,” the term used by the youth-oriented drug culture for a drug-induced phantasia.  HEAD extends the “fallacious figments” trope used on the teleseries into uncanny territory by positing that the whole film seems to be a “head trip,” one taking place more or less within the heads of all four Monkees—Mickey, Mike, Peter and Davy.  Rather than being musicians having funny adventures as in the series, in the movie they’re apparently playing “themselves.” They  seem to be actors continually being put through their paces as they act various parts in genre movies—westerns, spy films, etc.  But every time they leave one set they end up in another, and another, and another, while being stalked by assorted malicious entities, such as a rampaging giant played by Victor Mature.

Despite the film's somewhat Marxist complaints about the Monkess being a "manufactured image," that knowledge does not allow the discontented actors to break free from the genres that constrain them—which constraint is essentially the condition of the Freyan irony.  Not even a few racy moments—including a wry allusion to fellatio—can break the Monkees out of their cage, and metaphysical advice from a swami who looks like the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi leads them nowhere.  The Monkees thus end the film the same way they began it.  Given that in real life the performers were never able to find lasting fame beyond the associations of the Monkees’ reputation, HEAD seems sadly accurate in predicting the destinies of the foursome.            



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical, sociological, cosmological*

Despite the exploitative title, SHE CREATURE, directed by Edward L. Cahn from a Lou Rusoff script, is a better-than-average journey into fantasy-psychodrama.  Much like Cahn’s CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN, which came to theatres in the following year, the story revolves around a focal character looking for love in all the wrong places.

FACELESS MAN, following the general theme of the Universal “Mummy” series, dealt with a man-turned-monster who desired the modern reincarnation of a woman he had loved in antiquity, though the script suggests that even the original object of the man’s affection may have viewed him with ambivalence.  SHE CREATURE centers upon a similar quest for thwarted love.  Arguably the focal character is not the titular creature, but the ruthless magician who conjures her up—though one could make the argument that Carlo Lombardi and his reluctant beloved Andrea are two aspects of the same entity, much like Frankenstein and his monstrous creation.

The story opens with Carlo Lombardi (Chester Morris) standing before the ocean, summoning a barely-seen, monstrous shape from the waters, which he sends forth to perform some dark deed (a senseless murder, as it turns out).  The scene shifts to an elegant party at the beachside dwelling of a wealthy family, the Chappels. The Christian connotations of the name seems ironic, given that the head of the family, money-hungry Timothy, has no belief in the supernatural himself but allows his wife, a dilettante in things occult, to bring Lombardi into their house to perform.

Even before the audience sees Lombardi’s act, however, Timothy and his wife blithely regard their daughter Dorothy’s interest in another representative of the less moneyed classes.  Dorothy, having thrown over her fiancée, now pursues Ted Ericksen, a professor of psychic research, with some suggestion that he too may have been invited to the party in order to “perform” for the amusement of the idle rich. Ericksen is somewhat taken with Dorothy but he’s very conscious of the class difference between them, and tells her that despite being a college professor he’s just a “farmboy” at heart, instantly establishing his moral status for the audience.  Timothy Chappel regards his daughter’s lower-class flirtation with amusement, telling his wife that if Dorothy wants him, she should have him, as the “market value” of professors can’t be too high.

While walking on the beach, Ericksen tells Dorothy that he’s encountered Lombardi before, having publicly accused Lombardi of being a charlatan.  Then he and Dorothy see Lombardi himself leave a beachside residence that shows evidence of having been ravaged by some colossal force.  Ericksen finds the house’s occupants slain and reports the murder to the police, who pull Lombardi in for questioning but can prove nothing.  Lombardi’s only reason for having his pet “monster from the surf” slay the innocents seems to have been to set himself up as a “prognosticator,” the better to prove his worth to a paying audience.

Before the police arrive, Lombardi returns to the local carnival where he made his living prior to his encounter with filthy richness.  In his trailer he keeps young Andrea in hypnotic trance, and revives her.  She becomes upset that he left her entranced so long, and expresses hatred for him, though he tells her that she can never escape him.  It will soon come out that Andrea is a medium, through which Lombardi can summon the spirits of her ancestors.  But whereas most hypnotists of the period only summoned ethereal spirits (which Lombardi does do on one occasion), Lombardi can also summon the spirit of a prehuman entity, a fish-woman hybrid, thus extending the idea of reincarnation to take in concepts of evolutionary ancestors.

The police bring Ericksen along to identify Lombardi from the murder scene, and so Ericksen has his first encounter with the comely Andrea.  The two fall in “love at first eyeball,” though over half the movie goes by before they have a sustained conversation.  As for Lombardi, not only is he released from custody, his “prediction” garners him the attention he wanted.  Timothy Chappel, who still doesn’t believe in the supernatural, decides that he can exploit the small-time carnival mountebank with a major media push, and Lombardi is only too happy to oblige. Ericksen refuses to help his potential father-in-law by endorsing Lombardi’s powers, railing that Lombardi is a dangerous “quack.”  Some time later, Ericksen rejects Dorothy and sends her back to her original fiancée.

Lombardi has the She Creature kill again, getting rid of a carnival barker who was showing too much interest in Andrea.  In a tense scene Lombardi confesses that he loves Andrea, and that he wants her to love him as well, but despite his hypnotic powers he can’t make her reciprocate.  Rather like the “Jaffar” character in the 1940 THIEF OF BAGHDAD, Lombardi’s love is real enough that he won’t satisfy himself with her hypnotically enthralled body.  Andrea complains to Lombardi that “you’ve taken my soul.” But though she apparently allowed Lombardi to hypnotize her in their earliest encounters—a permission that could be seen as allowing him quasi-sexual access—she increasingly rebels against the idea that this carnival-bred “Satan” can possess her soul.

One odd development takes place when Lombardi’s fame begins spreading.  Because Lombardi has moved into the Chappel house due to his being fired from the carnival, Timothy suggests that the hypnotist strike out for greener pastures.  Plainly Timothy’s willing to make money off Lombardi but doesn’t really want to associate with him.  In terms of story-logic, there isn’t really any reason for Lombardi to stay at the beach, unless he needs to be close to the ocean to summon the She Creature-- though nothing of the kind is articulated. Given Lombardi's suspicions of Ericksen’s affection for Andrea, it seems that the hypnotist would’ve benefited had he left.  Yet Lombardi refuses to leave.  Partly this is because the story needs Lombardi and Andrea to stay close to Ericksen, and the movie’s low-budget production values wouldn’t have allowed for a new location.  But Rusoff’s script makes Lombardi’s refusal seem logical.  Though he’s thoroughly immoral, Lombardi is nevertheless a genius in the realm of the psychic.  Yet he’s despised for his low-class origins by the rich and distrusted by Ericksen, man of science, because Lombardi knows more about the psychic world than the “farmboy” does.  Lombardi has an encounter with Ericksen in which he encourages the professor to disprove his techniques, and he plainly hungers for the chance to be vindicated for past humiliations.  Thus he stays close to the Chappels, and to Ericksen, even though this will bring about his doom. I note here that Chester Morris gives a marvelously subdued performance as Lombardi, capturing the magician’s status as an “egomaniac”—one of Ericksen’s few accurate insults toward Lombardi—without the usual florid actors’ characterizations of egomania. 

At one point Lombardi witnesses Ericksen and Andrea conversing on the beach.  Filled with jealousy, Lombardi mesmerizes the Chappel’s dog (which has been present throughout the story, showing as much hostility to Lombardi as does Andrea) and sends the canine to attack Ericksen.  But Andrea faces the dog down and chases it away, implicitly tapping into the power of the She Creature to terrify the animal. 

At the climax Lombardi once more demonstrates his control over Andrea before a high-class audience at the Chappel home.  Unbeknownst to that audience, Lombardi, having suffered a slight from Timothy, conjures up the She Creature.  The monster kills Timothy.  Then Lombardi brings the She Creature onto the stage and attempts to make it kill Ericksen.  But the creature responds to Andrea’s need to protect Ericksen, and kills Lombardi instead.  With his last breath Lombardi proves his love for Andrea by releasing her from his thrall.  Strangely, though the apparition of the creature retreats back to the primal ocean, Ericksen chases it and gets the police to shoot at it, even though it’s turned invisible by this time.  Perhaps Ericksen’s actions are understandable given that he’s just seen the creature for the first time and perceives it as a threat, though it’s clear to the audience that the creature will never return with Lombardi dead.  Equally, director Cahn may’ve wanted to end the film with some spectacular violence, after the fashion of his CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.

SHE CREATURE bears a perhaps coincidental resemblance to the legend of Simon Magus and Helen, as I recounted in my review of THE SILVER CHALICE.  Lombardi is, like Simon Magus, a figure who combines aspects of the bonafide magician and the charlatan.  In CHALICE as in some versions of the Simon legend, the magician travels with Helen, a “holy prostitute,” and Andrea’s presence at the carnival is explained early on when the barker says she was a “carnival-follower”— which is certainly just a new take on the traditional “camp-follower,” meaning a prostitute who followed army camps.  Yet if Andrea was a prostitute, she’s still capable of falling in love and rebelling against the influence of Lombardi, and of using the violence of the “She Creature” to vanquish her personal demon.  Though the film ends with an ambivalent “?,” there’s no real sense in the script that the She Creature is likely to return, as every negative aspect of Andrea’s persona has been banished by true love.  

Thursday, April 26, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

MASK OF THE AVENGER is one of many B-movie swashbucklers that will find no listings in most fantasy-film concordances, with the exception of R.G. Young’s ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASTIC FILM—though as I’ve remarked elsewhere, Young also includes many films, whether swashbucklers or other genres, that fall into the purely naturalistic phenomenality. Just as I distinguished THE KID FROMBROKEN GUN from naturalistic westerns purely because the hero wore an iconic mask, the same pertains to this B-film.

MASK is one of many minor 1950s films helmed by director Phil Karlson.  Karlson is celebrated in some circles for his hard-edged crime films, but nothing in MASK is likely to spark anyone’s enthusiasm for his swashbucklers.  The direction, like the plot, is never more than adequate.

The title’s surprising in that it doesn’t seek to cash in, as did many other B-films, on Alexander Dumas’ book THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO and its equally famous film-adaptations.  Central hero Renato only uses the original Count-- who's supposed to have some vague connection with the city in which the action takes place-- as a rallying-point for the people, after Renato's father dies as a result of a plot by evil usurper Governor Larocca (Anthony Quinn). Renato infiltrates the tyrant’s mansion with a pretense of having broken his leg, as well as being entirely clueless about his enemy.  While pretending to recover in his foe’s own house, Renato then dons dark garments and a full face-mask—one that strongly resembles that of Zorro in his initial pulp-appearances—and sallies forth to whittle down the tyrant’s forces as “the Ghost of Monte Cristo” (a sobriquet which proves something of a mouthful every time someone has to utter it).  Though there's nothing particularly macabre about the Ghost's outfit, one commoner describes the mask as concealing a ghastly "death's head," which might be taken as a commentary of the suggestive power of a costume.

The most interesting aspect of MASK is its proto-feminist touches: Renato's girlfriend Maria is like him is an expert with the sword.  Unlike many helpmates in swashbucklers, Maria is so enrhusiastic for the cause that she impersonates the Ghost of Monte Cristo on one occasion.  Of course, the climax must come down to a duel between Renato and Quinn, but even here, Maria has a nice moment taking over the duel for Renato when he’s briefly out of action.

One other minor treat consists of seeing Arnold Moss, known to SF-fandom for portentous roles, playing a nasty little quisling.

I wish I could find even a minor treat in the Russian-filmed adventure-opus WOLFHOUND, named for its titular barbarian hero.  Unfortunately, the best thing about the film is the shameless hype on the American DVD: claiming that WOLFHOUND amounts to “Conan meets Lord of the Rings!”

WOLFHOUND isn’t the worst sword-and-sorcery fantasy I’ve ever seen, and if one was in the right mood it might be enjoyable just for its clumsy badness.  It’s photographed competently enough, though the action-sequences are phlegmatic, and the actor playing Wolfhound has zero charisma.

Like Conan, Wolfhound was brought up as a slave, and therefore seeks vengeance on those responsible for his enslavement, as well as the killing of his parents and tribe.  Like Conan, Wolfhound inevitably picks up a motley crew of followers and gets mixed up with various sorceries, none of which are the least bit comparable to LORD OF THE RINGS.

It’s just another sword-and-sorcery flick, despite its exotic origins.  I’d rather watch even the worst of the DEATHSTALKER series than to see it again.  


Wednesday, April 25, 2012


MYTHICITY: (1) *poor*, (2) *fair*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

The strongest resemblance between 1962’s TOWER OF LONDON and 1969’s OBLONG BOX is that both are tangentially based on works by esteemed literary authors, though both were aimed at a 20th-century horror-film audience.  Further, according to my system, both films are works of “the uncanny,” though the literary originals were both of a “naturalistic” phenomenality—in contrast, say, to the way HAMLET, an “uncanny” play, was adapted into a work with the same phenomenality.

There’s also a more fragile connection in that OBLONG BOX follows in the line of a series of Edgar Allan Poe popularizations launched by Roger Corman for AIP.  OBLONG BOX was also an AIP film, but Corman had no association with it.  He did however direct the quasi-Shakespearean TOWER OF LONDON, but another studio, United Artists, distributed TOWER.  Of the two, neither TOWER nor BOX is as rewarding as the Poe films from the early 1960s, or, for that matter, Rowland Lee’s 1939 TOWER OF LONDON, a Universal Studios film that also contributed considerable inspiration to Corman’s work.

Corman’s Poe films demonstrate that the director could, under the right circumstances, tap into a fascinating level of visual derlirum, particularly in 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER and 1965’s TOMB OF LIGEIA.  But whether one regards Corman’s TOWER as more influenced by the Shakespeare play RICHARD III or the aforementioned Rowland Lee film, the writing and direction of the 1962 movie are businesslike and pedestrian, evincing a style closer to Corman’s 1956 melodrama SWAMP WOMEN than to any of the Poe works.  TOWER comes alive somewhat when Vincent Price, playing the murder-happy usurper Richard III, struts his stuff.  But when Price is not on screen, most of the other performers stand around stiffly reciting their lines as if confined to a stage in truth.  None of the other characters come alive as personalities, and so TOWER sometimes feels like a one-man show with a support-cast.  This was not the case with the 1939 TOWER OF LONDON.  Rowland Lee’s script wasn’t on the literary level of Shakespeare, but the characters possessed considerable individuality, memorably Mord the Executioner, the non-historical right-hand man to Lee’s version of Richard III.  Corman’s TOWER includes a nasty executioner, but he’s a negligible character, barely interacting with Price’s Richard.

To my recollection Rowland Lee’s Richard III does not see ghosts as the Shakespeare version does, albeit only at the very end of the play.  In any case I regard both that film and the play as “naturalistic.”  Because the ghosts seen by guilty Richard in the play are nothing more than brief presences conjured by his guilty conscience, they do not take on a symbolic value that exceeds a naturalistic phenomenality.  But in Corman’s TOWER, Price starts seeing specters almost as soon as he starts his medieval murder spree, though no one else does.  This approach seems to be Corman’s method of layering the persona of Poe’s demon-haunted protagonists over the historical persona of Richard III, so as to make the would-be king more appealing to patrons of the horror-movie genre.

I want to be very clear that I’m not saying that Corman’s TOWER OF LONDON is “uncanny” simply because there’s a chance that the ghosts may be real (although Corman does leave that possibility open).  As I maintained in my essay THREE INTO TWOWILL GO, SOMETIMES, I’m talking about a symbolic value that the ghosts assume in the narrative, *even when* it’s entirely evident that they’re unreal.  For that reason Corman’s TOWER OF LONDON qualifies for the trope-category “phantasmal figurations."

Gordon Hessler’s OBLONG BOX presents (to jumble my metaphors a bit) a more mixed bag.  Poe’s “Oblong Box”—far from one of his best-known tales—has a few macabre touches but essentially remains a naturalistic mystery.  The viewpoint character, traveling by steamship with an acquaintance named Wyatt and Wyatt’s party, is puzzled by two enigmas: why does Wyatt keep a huge “oblong box” with him in his cramped quarters, and why does Wyatt’s wife seem to be, in the narrator’s opinion, “a person altogether beneath [Wyatt]”?  Both enigmas prove to have one answer: the woman represented as Wyatt’s wife is an actress, and the real wife is dead inside the oblong box, kept secret because Wyatt feared that the ship would not transport a corpse. 

The only thing that scripter Lawrence Huntington (who worked with Hessler on future projects as well) *may* have taken from the Poe story is the element of imposture.  Wealthy English gentleman Julian Markham (Vincent Price) wishes to be married, but has to attend to mad brother Edward, whom Julian keeps locked up in his mansion.  Edward’s madness stems from a vague colonialist venture the brothers undertook in Africa, during which time Edward fell afoul of a native tribe.  The tribe, believing Edward guilty of a crime Julian actually committed, disfigured Edward and possibly cursed him as well (the story is vague about whether it means to evoke “real magic” or not).

Julian’s buried wishes to be rid of his burden seem to come true when Edward apparently dies.  Julian has managed to keep his sibling’s deformity a secret from the locals, but with noblesse oblige Julian feels that he must offer the citizens a good-looking corpse at the funeral.  This causes Julian to get mixed up with a group of bodysnatchers affiliated with Doctor Neuhart (Christopher Lee).  Meanwhile, though Edward is buried, he’s actually still alive, and is rescued from real death by Neuhart’s graverobbing friends.  Edward, who hides his face behind a scarlet mask, blackmails Neuhart to provide him with shelter while Edward plots revenge on his brother.

The biggest problem with Huntington’s script is that it wastes far too much time on the bodysnatcher gang, none of whom are interesting even as minor villains, including Lee’s doctor.  Moreover, their activities detract from the central “sibling rivalry” plot, taking up time that might have been used to expand on the relationship of the brothers.  As presented Julian and Edward are just routine stereotypes.  There’s no clue about how they felt about each other before Edward was disfigured for Julian’s crime, and though Julian has a moment regretting the imperialist evils they committed in Africa, Julian’s only explicit crime—the one for which Edward is unjustly punished—consists of riding his horse down a trail and accidentally trampling a native boy.  While this is a horrible crime, it doesn’t possess much in the way of sociopolitical content.

A more apposite misdeed might have been the old “white imperialist deflowers native girl and brings about her death” motif.  Had Julian done this, then his desire to be happily married in England, to be free of a sexual misdeed committed in a colonial world, would have resonated better with the fate intended for Julian but imposed on Edward: mutilation designed to make the victim look ghastly in the eyes of the opposite sex.  Further, Edward’s dalliance with a hooker at a drinking-pub—ironically the film’s best sequence, though it’s irrelevant to Edward’s quest for vengeance—would have reinforced the image of the aristocracy as predators on the disenfranchised in all cultures. (To be sure, though Edward’s adventure at the pub erupts in violence, it’s the fault of a greedy pimp trying to blackmail a member of the upper class.)

Edward’s mutilation is revealed to viewers at the climax, but it’s not much of a revelation.  Makeup-quality aside, this aspect of BOX evokes the “freakish flesh” trope, even as Edward’s “Phantom of the Opera”-like mask participates in the trope of “outre outfits.”   Only at the very end is there a slight suggestion of the supernatural: Julian shoots Edward fatally, but before dying Edward bites Julian’s hand.  The film ends with Julian becoming slowly disfigured—but is it the result of an African curse, at last finding its way to its true victim?  Or is Julian’s own flesh mutating to emulate the punishment that should have been his all along?  Because the evidence for the appearance of “the marvelous” seems so scanty, I categorize OBLONG BOX as another film of “the uncanny.”

Hessler would use some of BOX's plot-elements in 1971’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, with somewhat greater aesthetic success.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

In this review I found myself less than charmed by the lame wackiness of Don Weis’ PAJAMA PARTY.  However, though GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI uses many of the same support-characters as PAJAMA, Weis does a better job of keeping things lively.

Usually when low-budget films employ the idea of a framing-concept—often to inject brief scenes of a “big-name” star whose scenes are shot separately—the frame-device seems artificial and distracting.  This time, the conceit actually adds extra spice (albeit in a juvenile mode) to the entire proceedings.  The film opens in a mausoleum, where a coffin's lid opens to reveal elderly Hiram Stokely (Boris Karloff)-- or, more precisely, his ghost, since Hiram's kicked the bucket. Hiram’s greeted by “the ghost in the invisible bikini” herself, his former lover Cecily (Susan Hart).  Because Cecily died when she was young and hot, she’s still young and hot as a ghost, but Hiram’s condemned to spend eternity as a crotchety old man because he died that way.  However, according to the ghost-girl Hiram can become a virile young spriit and enjoy heavenly nookie with Cecily if he does a good deed for those in the living world.

Hiram isn’t slow to decide what the good deed will be.  Hiram knows that his riches will soon be parceled out to his heirs, and he worries that one of those heirs—evil lawyer Reginald Ripper (Basil Rathbone)—may resort to foul means to get rid of the other inheritors, so as to get hold of the whole fortune.  One may wonder for a moment why Hiram left Ripper any sort of bequest if he feared such an outcome.  Maybe it’s a rule decreed by the “Doddering Old Rich Guys” Handbook.

Hiram never leaves his room, but he sends the ghost-girl off to his estate, where Ripper will read the will to the inheritors.  The recipients include Hiram's cousin Myrtle, her son Bobby, and two non-relations: Chuck (Tommy Kirk) and Lily (Deborah Walley), who are respectively descended from different parties whom Hiram wronged in life.  Chuck and Lily are destined to be the “cute couple” of the story, meaning they don’t have much to do except to be cute.  Bobby brings along a retinue of party boys and girls who join the proceedings from time to time, though the only one who has much to do with the plot is Vicky (Nancy Sinatra), who’s in love with Bobby even though he doesn’t know she’s alive.  She's not the only one to get a song, but she's the only one who sings particularly well.

Meanwhile Ripper, who apparently didn’t see PAJAMA PARTY, enlists the ghastly trio from that film to do Ripper’s dirty work of scrubbing the “clean teens” out of existence: bossman J. Sinister Hulk, renegade Indian Chief Chicken Feather, and token girl Yolanda.  After the threesome bumble their first few assassination efforts, Ripper brings in his own daughter Sinistra—no relation to the aforementioned J. Sinister, though after two characters with such similar names, one wonders if the scripter had some issues with left-handed people.  Sinistra is no more efficient than the trio, for she can only work her seductive wiles on Bobby by doffing her glasses, which makes her half-blind in this pre-contacts era. 

For good measure Erich Von Zipper and his Rat Pack show up to add to the confusion.  They barely interact with the main characters, though Von Zipper has a cute line where he claims that Ripper is “the guy who looks like Sherlock Holmes.”  Oh, and the ghastly trio brings along an ape, as well as getting some use out of a costume from 1965’s EYE CREATURES.

In 1966 viewers probably didn’t get any bang out of the ghost-girl’s “invisible bikini”—which also makes the areas it covers invisible as well.  But maybe the climax made up for it.  Buster Keaton doesn’t play Chief Chicken Feather this time round, but the climactic donnybrook works in a reference to silent film-serials when the good guys fight Ripper and his goons while Lily is being threatened by the old “girl-tied-to-a-log-and-headed-into-a-sawmill” gag.  The film concludes with a joke at the expense of Hiram Stokely’s desire to be “young again.”       

 Profound, it’s not.  But unlike its predecessor, its charms aren’t as invisible as Cecily's bikini.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Two kids’ films up this time, both of which depend on pretty predictable effects for their appeal.

LITTLE MONSTERS is essentially BEETLEJUICE for elementary-school kids.  The opening scenes of the film do a credible job of building up the everyday conflicts and tensions taking place in an average American family, making it desirable for central character Brian to want to escape to the world of the monsters.  But since Briann’s parents are basically well-meaning but not actually oppressive, the boy’s desire for escape doesn’t have the same resonance as, say, the main kid-character of HOME ALONE, who is reacting to a sense of being marginalized by his family members.

In addition to a slack script, MONSTERS is built around the questionable charms of comedian Howie Mandel, playing Maurice, the friendly blue-skinned monster who lures Brian into his world.  Mandel isn’t just “Michael Keaton Lite” in this film; more like “Michael Keaton with no life.”  Without a truly funny monster, LITTLE MONSTERS loses his raison d’etre. 

A kid would probably have enjoyed Brian's sojourn into the irresponsible world of the monsters much more than I did.  A conflict finally does appear: "Boy," the hostile king of the monster-world,  kidnaps Brian's little brother and threatens to permanently transform both kids into monsters.  But it's too little, too late.

 A SITCH IN TIME (the title provides the best pun in the story) was one of two telemovies built from the Disney Channel’s KIM POSSIBLE franchise.  The titular character, though constructed as a superspy operative of some sort, usually functions more like an independent superhero.  This extends to her possessing a regular “rogues’ gallery” a la Batman, though Possible's villains tend to be incompetents who suggest little real danger.  In SITCH three of those rather monotonous foes—Monkey Fist, Doctor Drakken, and Duff Killagan—plot to take over the world with the use of a time-altering monkey-idol.  An additional B-plot concerns how Kim loses her goofy sidekick Ron Stoppable when his father gets a job in Sweden, forcing Ron to move out of the neighborhood—which later proves to be a plot by the villains to break up the team.

Disney’s television franchises are perfect for most juvenile audiences: they’re repetitive but flavored with enough wit to keep them from being completely tedious.  However, there are never any particular highs or lows with Disney teleseries, and SITCH is no exception.  The telefilm is designed so that it could be cut apart and shown as separate episodes during the broadcast of the regular half-hour series, which doesn’t do a lot for narrative unity.

The film, like the show, makes copious use of physical and verbal comedy, but it doesn’t completely reduce the main character to a joke.  Therefore when assigning it a Fryean mythos I designate it as “adventure,” albeit very tongue-in-cheek adventure after the fashion of the 1960s BATMAN series. 

ADDENDUM: Changed my mind on the classification.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

FROGS (1972)

CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*
Prior to his helming of FROGS, director George McCowan had directed three enjoyable tv-movies from the early 1970s-- RUN, SIMON, RUN, THE LOVE WAR, and THE CHALLENGE.  Telefilms were never again as consistently appealing as they were during this period: even though most of the films produced-- including the three I've just named-- were equal parts pulp-action and magazine confessional in tone. 
FROGS, however-- one of the "nature gone wild" films that debuted on big screens in the same period-- is not nearly as good as McCowan's TV offerings.  And though FROGS was well-known in the day, and probably made back a good chunk of change, McCowan made only a few more big-screen films and spent the rest of his career in television.
While FROGS has a good recipe for horror-thrills, it doesn't know how to bring anything to a boil.  It starts with your classic "poor meets rich" scenario, as an earnest but poor young ecologist named Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott) meets a rich brother and sister when their boat sideswipes his canoe.  The rich kids, members of a clan called Crockett, take Pickett back to their private island.  While Pickett gets dry clothes he witnesses how all of the Crockett family-members must bow and scrape to their wheelchair-bound patriarch Jason Crockett (Ray Milland).  Naturally, there's a certain amount of friction between ecologist Pickett and the patriarch, who's a classic "nature can go to hell" industrialist.  But while no one expects a movie called FROGS to sport any deep debates about the environment, the script misses several opportunities to play the two off one another.  Indeed, after the sideswiping no one on the island seems to give Pickett any static for being the proletariat, possibly because they're too busy being various species of lazy rich people.
Pickett may not give Jason Crockett hell for his treatment of the environment, but the environment sure does.  There's no reference to any marvelous gimmick that makes the wildlife start picking off the rich people one by one: the animals are just all suddenly pissed-off, apparently.  Snakes, leeches, gators-- all of them unite with a will to take a bite out of ecological crime.
Oddly, the frogs don't do anything directly to anyone, but this is possibly the film's best conceit.  The frogs just sit around croaking while the other animals do all the dirty work, as if the batrachians were the brains of the swamp.  Or perhaps, with their fat bodies, they're more like the spirit of angry maternal nature?  In any case, the title does give the audience what it promises: lots of frogs, eager to see mankind "croak."

Thursday, April 19, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good, (2) *fair*

One assumes that Sigmund Freud might've liked both of these comic takes on classic monsters, in that, in accordance with Freudian theory, the repressions of the Oedipus complex breeds monsters.

Of the two comedies here, Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is indisputably the better work, but it does "stand on the shoulders of giants," picking some of the best elements from the Mary Shelley novel and the first three Universal film adapations thereof.

In the novel, medical student Frankenstein constructs a reanimated patchwork-corpse for no better reason than because his father tells him that he can't do it.  Not only does the resulting monster slaughter nearly everyone in Frankenstein's circle of friends and relatives-- arguably making the monster the concretization of Frankenstein's own hostilties-- the creature also usurps his creator's honeymoon with his fiancee Elizabeth, though Mary Shelley was too decorous to suggest anything more than the monster simply killed her.  Creators at Universal Studios would have quite a bit of fun with this incredible Oedipal horror, particularly in Whale's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, where an early script suggested that the Bride would borrow some body-parts from Frankenstein's fiancee.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is full of many amusing verbal and visual gags, but director/co-writer Brooks forms the germ of his story around a similar Oedipal encounter.  This time, the new Frankenstein, grandson of the original monster-maker, is shown as a twitchy fellow traumatized by growing up under the shadow of his grandfather's bad reputation.  His life as a neurosurgeon is interrupted when he must claim the legacy of his relative's old castle, which inevitably means claiming the Frankenstein legacy of monster-making as well.  He also gets cozy with the castle-maid Inga (Teri Garr), but it's not until over half an hour into the film that viewers see his fiancee Elizabeth (played by Madeleine Khan and given the same name as the fiancee in the Shelley novel).  Whereas Inga is a pliable young thing (and fifteen years younger than star Gene Wilder), Elizabeth is sexually cold to Frankenstein (denying him the chance to touch her because of her makeup) yet sexually manipulative as well.

Thus, where one might interpret that the anxiety-ridden Frankenstein of the novel made a surrogate to take his place in a honeymoon, here the wimpy monster-maker makes a hulking creature who doesn't take "no" for an answer.  And because Elizabeth makes herself such repulsive with her manipulations, her violation of the monster becomes comic, though it helps that she really enjoys it.

Small wonder, then, that Brooks' conclusion-- stronger than most of his movie-endings, and thus perhaps given some help from scripter Gene Wilder-- revolves around a last comedic confusion of creator and creature.
ONCE BITTEN stands on no giant shoulders, but it's certainly a better-than-average teen sex comedy.  As is often the case in such efforts, protagonist Mark (Jim Carrey) is a young man who can't get any from the object of his lust: in this case a young schoolmate named Robin who wants their first time to be "special" and so keeps finding reasons to put off sex.

Enter a centuries-old vampire countess, billed as "Countess" (Lauren Hutton).  It seems that simply drinking blood isn't enough to keep the Countess young, for eternal youth is hers only if she drinks the blood of a male virgin three times prior to Halloween.  The film's PG-13 rating is earned by the film's strategy of broadly implying-- but never stating outright-- that she gets the needed blood via fellatio.

If YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN resolves an Oedipal conflict for its hero-- giving him a way to break down the resistance of an unobtainable female-- ONCE BITTEN is perhaps in accord with Freud's "female Oedipal complex," in which he assumed that young women would find themselves in sexual competition with older females.  Thus it would seem that though the film is manifestly built around Jim Carrey-- who made it during the period he styles his "15-year overnight success"-- the central conflict is actually Robin's, since she has to make the decision to de-virginize Mark and save him from that Evil Older Woman.  I give nothing important away by stating that she wins and the Countess loses, devolving to decrepitude in seconds (though her faithful aide Sebastian suggests that there are still other virgins out there, so she may still make a comeback).

BITTEN isn't the equal of the Brooks film, but it has a lot of witty verbal byplay and the expected Carrey slapstick.  Amusingly-- though I don't know if it was meant as a joke-- during one scene the Countess is seen riding an exercise bike while she talks to her subordinates.  Her immortality-spell must not be that special, if she still has to exercise to keep that immortal body fit and toned.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Like many films built around continuing teleserials, the two POWER RANGERS movies always seem hard-pressed to put across why audiences should care about the characters or their situations.  The elements that usually seem to vanish from movie adaptations include (1) the ability to work well with an ensemble of characters (see also most of the STAR TREK feature-films), and (b) a strong central conflict.  In a serial television show, it's a given that every episode, whether directly linked or not, gives the viewer a cumulative sense of the characters' world.  Thus it doesn't matter so much to many viewers if a given episode sports a weak villain or central conflict; the teleseries' charm is its "continuing adventures."

The 1993-96 POWER RANGERS teleseries, which was the main influence on these two movies, had two things that lifted it above the ranks of the usual juvenile live-action cheese.  One element was contributed by the makers of SUPER SENTAI, the original Japanese series from which RANGERS was derived, for the design-work for the series' bizarre / goofy villains was far superior to similar work in American live-action juvenile TV entertainment. The other element was what the American producers brought to the table.  As most fans know, the American producers of POWER RANGERS edited out everything in SUPER SENTAI that denoted Japanese culture or the Japanese identities of the heroes and shot new scenes of the heroes' secret identities as potrayed by English-speaking actors.  I don't know to what extent SENTAI included scenes of the heroes' alter egos holding martial-arts battles with various villains' henchmen, but in any case the American version did a bang-up job in terms of choreographing the new fight-scenes, making them imaginative yet keeping the violence fairly "clean" and antiseptic (though the series was roundly criticized by parental-watch groups anyway).

The first film, whose full title is MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE, proves a lackluster take on the teleseries.  The Rangers barely get a chance to have a lackluster battle before their new nemesis "Ivan Ooze" deprives them of their powers and almost destroys their co-ordinator/mentor Zordon.  Zordon survives and sends the heroes on a quest to another planet to find new empowering weapons.  They find them, fight a few more demonic henchmen in an even more forgettable battle, return to Earth and kick Ooze's butt. The end.

Director Bryan Spicer can't do much with this lackluster script, produced by two guys with no previous association with the teleseries.  As the villain Paul Freeman is given numerous attempts to camp things up, possibly because the producers were just so thrilled to get the guy who played Indiana Jones' best villain.  Like the villains in the teleseries Ooze is meant to be slightly comic at times, but in contrast to the frustrated villains of the regular series, he lacks any particular charm or vocal peculiarity.  Said regulars, Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd, make a glorified cameo in the story, and outclass Ooze in terms of costumes alone.

In contrast, the second and last film in the franchise-- full title TURBO: A POWER RANGERS MOVIE-- is co-directed by two men.  One is David Winning, who like Spicer was largely a TV-show director, but whose work seems far better photographed and paced than Spicer's.  His collaborator is Shukim Levy, who had a long history writing, directing, and composing for the regular teleseries.  His participation suggests that someone in charge of the franchise may've decided that the second movie needed to have more of the wonky feel of the teleseries.

In terms of its villain, TURBO definitely outclasses the previous film.  The opponent here is the oddly-named Divatox, a wildly-clad sorceress whose player (Hilary Shepard) seems to have taken the same florid, over-the-top approach as Carla Perez (the teleseries' Rita Repulsa, who again gets a brief cameo along with her buddy Lord Zedd). Divatox's evil scheme-- to force a good hobbit-like wizard to help her release an evil volcano-demon-- isn't less corny than the master plan of Ivan Ooze, but the script, on which Levy also worked, keeps the script moving with assorted complications.  Even the intrusion of a grade-school-age Power Ranger is handled with enough aplomb to keep it watchable-- which is something George Lucas did not accomplish with his kid-protagonist in THE PHANTOM MENACE.

And just as Divatox's costume emulates the wild apparel-designs of the teleseries, TURBO, while not exactly fast-paced, does climax in one big lively fight at the end.  In addition, the fight benefits from a plot-thread in which the villains turn two Power Rangers, Kimberly (Amy Jo Johnson) and Jason (Austin St. John), into their evil servants.  Given that all the English-speaking actors on the series were always obliged to be disgustingly goody-goody, it's fun to see a character like Kimberly's looking pleased with her evilness (and pretty sexy because of it!)

BTW, the only reason I class these films under the "metaphysical" function is because they deal with a basic "good vs. evil" conflict, though that's not to say that either does well with these concepts.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Though Nathaniel Hawthorne's works had been occasionally translated to film prior to the 1960s, Sydney Salkow's 1963 anthology-adaptation of three Hawthorne stories seems to be the first not to approach the author in terms of a "veddy literary" film but in terms of a "blood and thunder" horror-opus with broad audience-appeal.  It seems very likely that Salkow and his collaborators sought to establish a Hawthorne-adaptation franchise with commercial appeal comparable to that of Roger Corman's adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe during the same decade.

Though Salkow's effort to create such a franchise was not successful, the idea was not without merit.  In the American public-school educational system, the works of both Poe and Hawthorne were widely distributed to the same audience that spent a great deal of money at movie theaters (particularly for films in the horror genre).  In their own time Poe and Hawthorne used elements that one might tend to associate with popular "blood and thunder" entertainment-- witches and family curses for Hawthorne, torture-devices and vampiric presences for Poe-- but which both authors re-interpreted within a high-literary context.

When Poe came to the movies, adaptations often ignored or run roughshod over the abstruse symbolism of his works, as well as interjecting normative narrative story-patterns to make the stories more easily comprehensible.  Fidelity aside, though, this process did result in some very good movies, ranging from Edgar Ulmer's 1935 BLACK CAT and Corman's  1960 HOUSE OF USHER.  Why then could one not do the same thing with Hawthorne, playing fast and loose with the narratives but still formulating works with great popular appeal, particularly for devotees of horror?

Let's examine first what Salkow and his collaborators (henceforth "Salkow") did to make Hawthorne more broadly appealing.  For TWICE TOLD TALES, he re-interpreted three Hawthorne works (only one of which had appeared in Hawthorne's own 1837 anthology of the same title) and injected them with one dominant theme: the conflicts arising from sexual jealousy.  Of the three stories so adapted-- "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," "Rappacini's Daughter," and "The House of the Seven Gables"-- only the last story possesses a distinct jealousy-theme in its original form.  Thus this would seem to be the element Salkow thought most useful in giving Hawthorne works popular appeal.

The film's version of "Experiment" is the least like the author's original tale.  In that story, the titular doctor discovers a "Fountain of Youth" potion.  He and his three equally aged friends test it, and all four revert to their younger selves.  In a comic denouement, the three males began fighting over the one de-aged woman present and spill the elixir.  All four promptly become their normal old selves again.  Since no one else witnessed the supposed transformation, Hawthorne leaves it open as to whether they de-aged physically or simply thought that they had become young again.

In the film, "Experiment" is played for a "menage a trois" tragedy.  Heidegger (Sebatian Cabot) and Medbourne (Vincent Price) are two aging friends who happen across a "Fountain of Youth" elixir and learn that it literally returns them to their middle-aged selves (presumably because having two middle-aged actors play anything younger would've made it a comedy).  They also learn, again by accident, that the elixir can restore life to Heidegger's Poe-esque lost beloved Sylvia.  However, once Sylvia lives again, it comes out that she and Medbourne had a previous relationship unknown to Heidegger.  The tragic ending destroys both Sylvia and Heidegger, leaving Medbourne-- once more an old man-- cut off from both his oldest friends and further access to the youth potion.  This segment sports both the strongest writing and Price's best performance, possibly because Salkow re-interpreted the original so freely.

"Rappacini's Daughter" is the closest emulation of its prose model.  As in the original, a young Italian man named Giovanni stumbles across a magnificent garden on a private estate in Padua, and meets Beatrice, daughter of the estate's eccentric owner, Dr. Rappacini (Price in the film, of course).  Guiseppe and Beatrice quickly fall in love, but Guiseppe learns to his horror that Rappacini has used his vast botanical knowledge to transform his daughter into a "poison maiden," so that it is death for a normal person to touch her, much less make love to her.  Because Guiseppe continues to visit Beatrice in the garden replete with other poisonous plants, he begins to become a "poison man."  (The film-adaptation differs in that Rappacini, rather than simply observing this process come about, goes out of his way to transform Guiseppe to become the "Adam" to share the garden with Beatrice's "Eve.")  Thanks to the intervention of another scientist, Guiseppe obtains an antidote with which he hopes he can nullify their poisonous natures and return them to normal. In the story it kills both of them, while in the film only Beatrice dies, with her distraught father killing himself thereafter.

The original story contains no overt theme of sexual jealousy, though one could argue that Rappacini has played the "jealous father" by making his daughter so inaccessible.  However, Hawthorne's scientist cares only for science, and thus is entirely willing to see his daughter have a husband as long as it serves his experiment.  In the film, Salkow psychologizes the doctor, telling viewers that his wife left him for another man, strongly implying a motive of possessiveness toward his daughter-- yet such Freudian possessiveness doesn't accord with Rappacini's easy acquiescence in giving his daughter a new husband.  This story probably would have been lively had Salkow followed the Freudian pattern more resolutely, or perhaps made Beatrice a more heartfelt character.  She's somewhat more resentful of her condition in the film than in the prose tale, but she remains a rather weak character in both media.

The last "twice told tale" attempts to boil down a complicated Hawthorne novel, with seven major characters, into a simpler plot that sets four characters against one another in a combination treasure hunt/ancestral curse storyline.

The novel does invoke a curse of sorts, though as with Hawthorne's version of Dr. Heidegger's experiment, the reader is never entirely sure as to the reality of the supposed supernatural phenomenon.  In the novel the titular house was constructed during the days of the Salem witch-trials, but the land it was built upon was stolen from a warlock accused by a Pyncheon ancestor.  After a few generations pass, the house is inhabited by an aging brother and sister, Clifford and Hepzibah, as well as a young distant relation Phoebe and a boarder who (it is eventually revealed) is a descendant of the warlock.  Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, the sibling's rich cousin, wishes to find certain lost papers within the mansion and blackmails Hepzibah to get them.  However, the warlock's curse apparently kills him while Phoebe marries the scion of the warlock, so that the dead man both kills a representative of the Pyncheon clan and effectively usurps the clan's bloodline.

In the film, Salkow manages to keep the essentials of the denouement even though he mixes the character-functions somewhat drastically and to uneven effect.  This time spinster Hannah occupies the house alone but finds herself intruded upon by her nasty brother Gerald (Vincent again) and his mostly neglected wife Alice (which name is attached to a minor Pyncheon character in the novel).  Gerald wants to find the location of a vault concealed somewhere in the house, but the only one who seems to know is the mysterious Jonathan, a direct descendant of the warlock Gerald's ancestor slew to gain possession of the House of the Seven Gables.  Jonathan and Alice are drawn together in the film as Phoebe and the boarder are in the novel, but Price's Gerald is so consumed with finding the treasure that he never shows the least jealousy of the situation.  If anything he seems more consumed with not only finding the treasure but with cheating his sister out of any share, as he ends up murdering her for no clear motive.  Then the curse that was only indirectly suggested in the novel kicks into high gear for the film's conclusion, as portraits shed blood, a skeleton strangles Gerald and the whole house collapses in loving homage to Corman's HOUSE OF USHER.

None of these Hawthorne adaptations are bad in and of themselves, and possibly they were reasonably entertaining to the horror-loving audiences of their day, though as stated earlier TWICE TOLD TALES did not lead to a Hawthorne horror-franchise.  However, the biggest problem with updating Hawthorne may be that an adapter has to work harder to take the "blood and thunder" elements in Hawthorne stories and rethink them for popular audiences, as against the elements as Poe used them.  Poe himself commented on how extensively Hawthorne tended to allegorize his narratives in an essay from 1847:

The "peculiarity" or sameness, or monotone of Hawthorne, would, in its mere character of "peculiarity," and without reference to what is the peculiarity, suffice to deprive him of all chance of popular appreciation. But at his failure to be appreciated, we can, of course, no longer wonder, when we find him monotonous at decidedly the worst of all possible points--at that point which, having the least concern with Nature, is the farthest removed from the popular intellect, from the popular sentiment and from the popular taste. I allude to the strain of allegory which completely overwhelms the greater number of his subjects, and which in some measure interferes with the direct conduct of absolutely all.
I myself don't find Hawthorne as monotonous as does Poe, but anyone attempting to adapt Hawthorne for wide public consumption-- particularly for the cinematic medium-- does have to weed out tons of Hawthorne's allegorizing mediations.  Poe has such meditations as well, but they don't override most of his narratives, so that Poe's torture-devices and vampiric presences possess their own "direct conduct" rather than being puppet-mastered intellectual devices, as are Hawthorne's witches and family curses.

Still, Salkow's experiment might someday, unlike Heidegger's, be picked up and developed by other hands.  Given that Tim Burton enjoyed a popular success by updating Washington Irving, who knows what he might do with a modern Goth-reading of "Feathertop," in which an old witch brings a pumpkin-headed scarecrow to life?

Monday, April 16, 2012



In contrast to this earlier review of a "Grande Dame Guignol" film, AUNTIE ROO does qualify as metaphenomenal in that the titular character is crazy enough to suggest what Tolkien called "arresting strangeness."  That's not to say, however, that director Curtis Harrington and his four credited scripters (one of whom was Hammer writer Jimmy Sangster) manage to get much mileage out of their crazy grand dame.

Shelley Winters plays Mrs. Forrest, a rich lady who appears to be a beneficient citizen, allowing children from the local orphanage to visit her mansion for holiday parties.  In truth, Mrs. Forrest simply hides her crazy well, as she lost a child long ago but has kept its mummified remains in her house. She also makes futile attempts to contact her dead child's spirit via psychics (phony ones in this film) and her cellar is replete with stage-magic devices bequeathed by her late magician husband.  The presence of the magic devices is used for one good "scary" moment for a couple of kids, and for that reason alone the film qualifies for my "illusionism" trope, but in terms of plot the devices have little relevance.

The script's overly simple idea-- that two of the orphan children end up playing "Hansel and Gretel" to an old woman who acts rather "witchy"-- would have made a good half-hour plot, but it's not enough by itself to sustain a full-length film.  In "Hansel and Gretel," irresponsible parents turn the two children out of their house, forcing them to fend for themselves, until they come across the house of a witch and manage to burn her alive before the witch can eat them. In ROO, Mrs. Forrest invites ten orphanage to send her ten well-behaved children to her Christmas party.  One brother and sister, Christopher and Katy, are not chosen but decide to follow and join the party anyway.  Forrest sees in Katy a resemblance to Forrest's dead daughter.  She kidnaps her in such a way that the authorities believe the girl's simply run off, so that her brother Christopher has to rescue her by himself, resulting in the fiery death of "Auntie" in a clear evocation of the folktale.

The most original idea in the script-- one which Harrington and Co. might have done more with-- is that instead of just happening across a witch as the folktale characters do, Christopher and Katy make an almost "heroic" action in that they intrude on the party without the consent of the orphanage-authorities (who are potrayed as a rather grim lot).  This bit of childish chutzhpah results in Forrest mistaking Katy for her own child, so in a sense, the juvenile heroes beard their personal "monster" in her den rather than simply stumbling across her.

Various psychological interpretations of "Hansel and Gretel" take note of the fact that it's usually an evil stepmother who forces the kids' natural father to turn them out, and conclude that the witch who tries to eat the children is symbolically identical with the stepmother.  This might have been a worthwhile line of thought for ROO to pursue, but the characters are generally flat and uninvolving.  Despite their defiance of the orphanage, Christopher and Katy are bland.  Christopher gets a little more characterization in that he's the first to conceive of Forrest as a real witch rather than a dangerous crazy lady, but there's no depth behind his conceit; no intimation that he might, say, resent Forrest as a symbol of a parent who deserted him. 

Similarly, Mrs. Forrest-- who certainly gets the lion's share of narrative attention, in that Shelley Winters plays her in an overwrought bravura style-- never emerges as a strong character either.  In essence AUNTIE ROO feels like "How to Make a Standard Grand Dame Horrorshow Without Really Trying."  Forrest's death almost captures an element of pity for her missing from most of the story, but it's undercut by the sense that the climax has been determined by the conceit.  In the best "shaggy dog" versions of famous folktales, the outcome has to seem logical by its own merits, not merely because it sedulously copies what happened in the original story.


Friday, April 13, 2012

PSYCHO (1960), PSYCHO (1998)

MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *poor*

Norman Bates: "You know what I think? I think that we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch."

Hitchcock's PSYCHO may be the most intensely analyzed American film of all time.  Reams of academic books and essays have been published taking apart every shot, every learned allusion in the Joseph Stefano script.  The plot's so well known that I'm not even going to bother with a summary thereof.

There is one thing, given my affinity to a Fryean literary scheme, that I can point out that hasn't been analyzed to death: the nature of PSYCHO as an irony.  Norman's lines about enduring within "private traps" perfectly embodies how the mythic form of the irony works: by putting across a vision of near-total futility and disempowerment.  Oddly, though Norman has become one of the first cinematic icons of the "psycho-killer," in the original film he's something of an anti-icon, the "little man who wasn't there."  The psychiatrist explaining Norman at picture's end observes that Norman hasn't really existed for a long time, having been subsumed in the identity of his dead mother.  In this Norman bears strong comparison with Kafka's impotent protagonists, such as Gregor Samsa, who by losing his humanity and perishing seems to revivify his family.

Marion Crane is if anything more pathetic: like many Hitchcock characters she's ceaselessly dogged by the downside of the American dream: the inability to get ahead financially.  As I'm sure others have observed, Marion and Norman are uncomfortable mirror-images of one another: even though one is beautiful and the other pleasant-looking but twitchy, they're both trapped by circumstances of birth or capricious fate.  Though Hitchcock directed many films that give his protagonists at least an even chance of achieving some happiness or contentment-- which is to say, "dramas"-- the black humor of PSYCHO places it, along with a few other Hitchcock works like THE WRONG MAN, in the ranks of the director's bleakest, most uncompromising projects.

Now, is it possible to make a bleak irony in terms of form, and yet not succeed in anything but an empty exercise? As it happens this need not be a mere intellectual question, thanks to the 1998 remake of PSYCHO by director Gus Van Sant.

Before hacking away at the remake-- also much-travelled ground in cinema-studies-- I should note that I'm not unilaterally opposed to remakes.  I don't necessarily consider them "appropriations" in that tired old post- Marxist conception, any more than I consider the 9,999,999th performance of the play HAMLET to be an appropriation of HAMLET-- not even if the theater director switches the setting to the Old West and makes Horatio gay.

Still, I will join the negative chorus by asserting that if one is going to try to remake an avowed classic, one ought to bring some fresh ideas to the mix.

It's often been reported that the 1998 PSYCHO is a "shot-for-shot" remake of the Hitchcock film.  In a publicity interview included on Universal's PSYCHO DVD, Van Sant is entirely unapologetic about stating this to be his intention.   But in point of fact, Van Sant does change up assorted shots from time to time, which to my mind is preferable to total emulation.  However, most of Van Sant's additions have a dull, noodling quality to them, as if the director were literally thinking, "What can I put in here to make it a little different from Hitchcock?  I know, when Marion's sister finds the body of Norman's mother, I'll have a spider crawl out of the corpse's nose."  But even that's tolerable next to the silly psychedelia that intrudes on the scene of Marion's murder, during which we apparently go into her head and see a deer-- because she's like a deer trapped in a car's headlights, I guess.  Whereas Hitchcock was genuinely fascinated with Freudian psychology, and could transform the source material into his own rich meditation on the subject, Van Sant has no concept of anything beyond tedious "gotcha" effects. (And they're not even good "gotchas!")

One more interesting way to approach the project might have been to still keep the best-known iconic moments but bring in more elements from the Robert Bloch book.  There are elements in the book that probably still wouldn't work in a film, such as Bloch's cumbersome explanation as to why Norman thinks his dead mother's still alive after he poisoned her (in two words: voodoo resurrection).  But there are some elements that might have given Van Sant a slightly different, but still resonant, take on Norman Bates.  For instance, in Bloch's novel Norman is that unacknowledged ancestor of the film-nerd and the comics-nerd: the "book-nerd."  Bloch made Norman a book-nerd so that the idea of his being well-read in occult studies would justify the supposed voodoo resurrection, but an ambitious director might have extended this characterization in promising new directions.

Still, it's hard to say if such a director could have pulled off much of anything with the leading actors Van Sant had to work with. 

To be sure, despite Hitchcock's legendary control of his medium, he did make films with bad or listless central performances.  PSYCHO, however, is pretty much pitch-perfect-- which makes it even harder for a remake's actors to excel.

As Marion Anne Heche gives a flat, distracted-seeming performance, but at least she doesn't screw up the Marion icon, such as it is.  However, Vince Vaughan gives us a Norman who's lost his twitch.  Not for a moment did I believe Vaughan's Norman had lived a life of quiet desperation in thrall to his clingy mother: this Norman was merely spacey and came off less like a mama's boy than one of the hustlers of Van Sant's MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO.  The only actors who prove somewhat compelling are Julianne Moore as Marion's sister and William H. Macy as the detective Arbogast, but they're pretty much lost in the film's dominant posturing-style of acting (which affects Viggo Mortensen's Sam as well).

On a side-note, I was amused that whereas Hitchcock was often analyzed in terms of his directorial voyeurism toward his female characters, in PSYCHO and other Van Sant films this director seems to take the same voyeuristic approach to the male characters.

Touching once more on the original film's theme of irony, this theme stands or falls on the character of Norman.  A Norman who doesn't truly seem "trapped" doesn't communicate his existential horror; he's merely an odd duck who happens to go off his trolley and kill people.  And despite the re-use of most of Joseph Stefano's excellent script, in the end even a good speech sounds false coming from a posturing fool.