Friday, September 28, 2012

CARRIE (1976), CARRIE (2002)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*



Though Stephen King doesn’t regard CARRIE as his best novel, it manages to sustain a better-than-average level of mythicity while remaining admirably concise—two things one can’t say about too many of King’s early works, and possibly not about any of the later ones.

As many before me have commented, Carrie White’s story follows the basic pattern of the “outcast from normal society,” with a specific emphasis on the outcast who obtains marvelous powers to strike back against that society.  Carrie, unlike her antecedents—the witches who gained power from devils or from pagan gods, depending who you ask—gains her power from a natural mutation that gives her the power of telekinesis.  In addition to being alienated from her high school society, by dint of being the butt of jokes from boys and girls alike, she’s just as alienated in her home life.  Her father left her mother long ago, and her mother Margaret—a righteous religious proselytizer—subjects Carrie to verbal and physical abuse, tacitly resenting her both as the seed of her father and for being younger and more vital.

Though boys are seen to taunt Carrie as well, King’s narrative—as well as both film-adaptations—emphasizes the greater cruelty of the “gentle sex.”  Her mother cruelly keeps Carrie ignorant of feminine biology, so that during her first period she thinks she’s bleeding to death.  This takes place in the school locker-room, so that all the girls relentlessly torment her for her ignorance, and possibly as a symbol of their own feminine vulnerabilities.  This trauma causes Carrie’s mostly dormant psychic powers to manifest.  As most film fans know, Carrie is then subject to a terrible prank that makes possible the fantasy of many high-school nerds: the complete destruction of the society that torments the nerd, as well as the oppressive parent-figure.

Brian de Palma’s 1976 adaptation remains thus far unchallenged as the best cinematic adaptation of the book.  His use of intrusive directorial techniques—particularly his famous use of “split screens” during the tumultuous climax—has been criticized, but I find that he shows good judgment as to when to dispense with flat depictions of consensual reality. De Palma dispenses with many fine details of the book, though rarely at the expense of the characters, and he “amps up” some scenes, such as the death-scene of Margaret White, who is literally “crucified” by a host of telekinetically hurled knives.  Star Sissy Spacek was just then coming into her own as one of the major female stars of the period, and for most viewers, her performance defines Carrie as the intelligent underdog outmatched from the start by the greater collective evil of society.  And of course, the “gotcha” coda—which resembles nothing in the King book—was so widely imitated that it’s arguable that CARRIE put an end to any lingering expectation that a horror-film could ever “return to normalcy” at the end.

The 2002 telemovie version of CARRIE, aside from one huge flaw, is a worthy adaptation in its own right.  As is typical of television productions all events are depicted in a straightforward “meat-and-potatoes” visual style, but director David Carson does make good use of close-ups to deliver emotional intensity.  Amanda Bettis delivers a Carrie just as well nuanced as Spacek’s version, and one arguably closer to the book, in that Bettis’ Carrie looks more like a downtrodden homebody in attitude and dress.  By contrast, at times Sissy Spacek was allowed to be a little too glamorous to be believable as an “ugly duckling.”

With a longer running time, the 2002 version also uses more of King’s book, particularly the framing sequence in which police detectives try to make sense, after the fact, of the events that led to the holocaust.  Another good scene from the book, though irrelevant to the main character as such, deals with the attempt of chief nasty-girl Chris Hargensen (Emilie deRavin) to retaliate against her righteous gym-teacher by siccing her daddy the Bigtime Lawyer on the school.  For the most part all the principal characters are well-acted, and I’d argue that Jesse Cadotte as the vicious Billy Nolan easily outdoes John Travolta’s performance.

There are small flaws.  In this version Margaret White’s extreme Christianity, while still present, seems toned down.  Entirely absent is King’s critique—operatic though it may be—of mainstream Christianity’s focus on repressing sexuality.  In the book this ethos has the depressing result that even a married woman like Margaret White feels horribly guilty about having enjoyed sex, and so projects the same guilt upon her daughter.  But you wouldn’t know it from the 2002 version.

The huge flaw I mentioned earlier is the ending.  Though Carrie still trashes the entire school and executes her mother when the demented woman tries to kill her daughter, Carrie doesn’t die as she does in the book and the initial movie.  Sue Snell, the character who made it possible for Carrie to go to her prom, intervenes to get Carrie away from town.  According to comments on IMDB, Carrie survived because some geniuses thought about spinning her off into her own series.  Fortunately, the telefilm didn’t enjoy ratings good enough to greenlight a series.  But anyone watching this version should be prepared to be deprived of the expected “death-of-the-monster” scene.           



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2)*adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: (1) *sociological,* (2) *psychological*

HUNGER GAMES and HANNA might be deemed by some as adventure-films, since both feature young female protagonists ably defending themselves against assorted forces.  But, to dwell a little on my own critical terminology here, they show radically different narrative emphases that mark the former as a “combative drama” and the latter as a “combative adventure.”
HUNGER GAMES, adapting the first of a successful series of young adult books (none of which I’ve read), builds its future-Earth with admirable low-key detail.  In this distant future, a city full of wealthy sybarites dominates the surrounding rural districts following a failed rebellion by the districts.  As a means of keeping the workers enslaved, the authorities—represented in large part by President Snow (Donald Sutherland)—hold yearly “Hunger Games.” Each year two young people are selected from each district, turned loose beneath an artificial dome, and ordered to kill one another until only one remains.  The custom, as Snow explains, is designed to keep reminding the plebes of their enslavement and yet also give the districts hope that some local boy—or girl-- may win the prestigious games.  The comparison to the Roman “bread and circuses” is inevitable with this well-traveled concept.  Here the ritual nature of the combat also compares well with the story of the Minotaur, in which young people were sacrificed to the maw of a ravening beast—save that one young victim is supposed to survive, while the ravening beast is the hunger of the "haves" to gobble up the lives of the "have-nots."
Though there’s nothing new in this basic setup, most films in this subgenre spend next to no time building up the “real life” of the protagonist. At most such films spent a minute or two showing the protagonist working his garden with his happy family before the local storm troopers come calling.  HUNGER spends roughly ten minutes showing the bucolic way heroine Catness (Jennifer Lawrence) lives-- washing clothes, mining, hunting small game.  Thus, that unlike most “gladiator heroes,” Catness’ proletarian life is grounded in a range of experience, rather than being no more than an empty symbol of “ordinary life.”
A major sociological myth underlying the “gladiator-genre” is to show whether or not the “country mouse” can survive the blandishments of the “big city.”  Once Catness and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)—the other selectee from her district—are chosen for the Hunger Games, they go through a certain amount of gladiatorial training, but their greatest hurdles relate to “pleasing the audience.”  Because the Games are broadcast on television, audience-members who favor a given gladiator can send gifts that help the fighter out.  Thus, no matter what Catness and Peeta think about the games and their instigators, they must at all times put on a polite face and act as if they’ve been given a great privilege.  It’s possible that this aspect of the story may’ve had a strong resonance with the young adult audience, well acquainted with the need to dissemble in the face of authority.  The handlers assigned to Catness and Peeta even convince the youths to play up a possible "star-crossed lovers" schtick to amuse the audience.  It's not clear whether Peeta initiates this approach because he actually has feelings for Catness or because he's exploiting a publicity angle-- an ambivalence which provides no end of irritation for the young female.
Once the Games begin, the film continues to emphasize “pathos” over the sort of combative set-pieces seen in, say, 2000’s GLADIATOR.  A chaotic bloodbath, seen only in quick cuts, erupts at the first in a struggle for the best weapons provided by the Games-masters.  Catness wisely avoids the conflict and seeks shelter in the forest.  She’s pursued by a team of hunters—who presumably are only teamed up until they can stab one another in the back—among whom is Peeta.  After a hectic series of chase-and-pursuit scenes—one of which includes Catness allying herself to a younger girl—Catness eventually bonds with Peeta again after he proves his loyalty by protecting her at a vital point.  The two enjoy a romantic liaison despite being televised, much to the heartbreak of Catness’ boyfriend back home.
Even to the end, when Catness and Peeta engage the last few hunters, the action always remains hectic and breathless. Catness’ particular skill, that of archery, isn’t exercised that much, save briefly at the very end, to liberate Peeta from a hunter’s clutches.  In keeping with the demands of a drama, the emotional turmoil of the characters always takes precedence over the action.  Catness and Peeta turn the Games on their head by becoming so popular that the Games-Masters must break their rules and allow them both to live, thus setting up forthcoming sequels.
HANNA is exactly the opposite in its balance of turmoil and action, though it also deals with a young female protagonist caught up in life-or-death conflicts.  The story, taking place in a present-day milieu, is only nominally *marvelous* in that Hanna (Saorise Ronan) has been genetically engineered to become a super-competent fighter with implicitly above-average strength.  The C.I.A., who engineered this genetic experiment, loses Hanna to rogue agent Erik, who raises her in selusion deep in the snowy wilds of Finland.  However, Erik-- who poses as Hanna's father but will later be revealed to be unrelated to her-- knows that he can only keep a feisty teenager confined for so long.  He allows Hanna to choose whether or not to return to the greater world, albeit with the knowledge that she’ll instantly be pursued by the organization—particularly the former head of the operation Marissa Weigler (Cate Blanchett).  Marissa, though not technically related to Hanna, functions here as a “bad mother” against Erik’s “good father.”
The “Freudian family romance” suggested by this setup isn’t pursued in any depth, though Hanna does also have issues with her father once she finds out her true backstory.  The film makes several references to fairy-tale motifs, but though they add to the visual appeal of the film-- particularly an end-sequence involving a "Grimm Brothers amusement park"-- the script doesn't develop the motifs with any great depth either.
Though Hanna is in considerable turmoil at times—not least because she’s the typical “girl who never had a normal life”-- the emphasis of the story is on her daredevil acts.  To be sure, HANNA is not as replete with huge set-pieces as, say, the 2010 Angelina Jolie vehicle SALT.  But in my opinion the audience has been cued to anticipate not “what will Hanna FEEL next” but rather “what will Hanna DO next.”
The mythicity of both stories—dominantly sociological for the first, dominantly psychological for the second—rates only fair in that they evoke strong symbolic patterns but don’t take them to an exceptional level of development.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

The DICK TRACY strip had been running about six years when Republic Studios launched the first film adaptation of the popular comic.  In those early years Chester Gould’s chisel-jawed police detective usually fought ordinary gangsters.  Such crooks looked ugly or brutal, but they were rarely as freakish as the antagonists of the late 1930s and early 1940s with whom the hero’s mythos became inextricably associated.

This 1937 serial seems to be the first work to pit the hero against a foe of marvelous metaphenenomenality; e.g., a villain, variously called “the Spider” or “the Lame One,” who demonstrates an apocalyptic level of power by destroying a huge suspension bridge with a futuristic “flying wing”—a device later re-used in the Republic serial FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS.  The Lame One also harnesses the talents of a hunchbacked mad scientist with the devilish name of “Moloch,” whose specialty involves operating on honest men to turn them into criminal pawns.

However, the Lame One only displays his world-beater status in the first couple of serial-episodes, after which his criminal forays take a decidedly mundane turn.  The majority of the serial’s episodes are constructed as mundane crime-adventure until the serial reaches the wrapup point, where it veers back into weirdness.

Though the serial couldn’t be expected to duplicate Tracy’s bizarre villains, it doesn’t bother to capture anything of Gould’s hard-nosed character.  This Tracy-- essayed by Ralph Byrd, who would play the character six more times in film and television—is just a standard colorless serial-hero, transformed from a city policeman to a G-man based in San Francisco.  Similarly, his spidery foe is just a typical masked menace, who doesn’t even have a clear raison d’etre but simply sends his goons about on assorted criminal endeavors until Tracy rings down the curtain.  Once or twice the Lame One achieves a slight frisson with his auditory motif—his lame foot makes a dragging sound as he approaches his victims—but he doesn’t have a physical appearance striking enough to rate with the best serial-malefactors.  In truth, his henchman Moloch—gleefully evil as played by John Picoori— is more memorable than the main villain.

There’s a very minor subplot in which Dick Tracy’s brother Gordon—entirely a creation of the serial—is the first to be transformed into a criminal.  But since Tracy never witnesses his brother running around committing crimes until near the serial’s end, there isn’t a lot of emotional impact to the transformation, except when Moloch threatens to wreak the same change on Dick Tracy.

One aspect of the serial strongly resembles the strip: a heavy use of bucolic/baggy-pants humor, as provided by a comic relief detective (Smiley Burnette) and by a crochety old prospector. Neither is likely to seem funny to modern audiences. Fortunately, some later adaptations of Dick Tracy—particularly the 1950-51 teleseries, also starring Byrd—would capture more of the overall tone of the classic comic strip.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

BRAVE (2012)

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

Much advance hype on BRAVE emphasized that it was one of the few animated films which focused on a young girl’s familial conflict with her mother—in this case, a 13th-century Scots girl, Merida, and her mother Queen Elinor.  The hype is true, so far as it goes, though it’s not necessarily the film’s most interesting aspect.

Because Merida's father—an amiable goofus named Fergus-- is the head of their clan, Merida actually enjoys a fairly cushy life in their medieval palace, even if she has to put up with three bratty younger brothers.  The film depicts Merida and Elinor as having had a strong relationship in Merida’s youth.  But as Merida grows older, she began finding her mother’s attentions more restrictive.  Elinor continually insists that Merida must learn all the ways of the courtly female: proper dress, manners, et al—when Merida would rather act like her adventurous father, riding around and learning archery.  In passing I’ll note that since it wouldn’t be politically correct these days, she’s never seen using her arrows on unassuming wildlife, as one might assume real medieval archers would have.

The main conflict comes about when Elinor—who may have wed Fergus in an arranged marriage—insists that Merida must marry into one of the neighboring clans to shore up Fergus' alliance to his sometimes contentious neighbors.  Merida has no desire to be treated as a bargaining chip, and is particularly disgusted to see that all of her suitors turn out to be goofs and feebs.  So that none of the neighboring chiefs will be offended by Merida’s choice, Fergus holds an archery contest to determine which suitor wins his daughter’s hand.  Merida turns the contest on its head by winning the contest herself.  To say the least, Mother is not pleased, though Father seems to think it all a big joke, and doesn’t seem to mind the prospect of renewing hostilities with the rival chiefs.

Like many teenagers, Merida wants nothing more complicated than ton have her mother’s constant carping to come to an end.  Guided by a chimerical will-of-the-wisp, Merida locates an ancient witch, and asks her to make her mother stop the nagging.  Merida procures a potion and slips it in her mother’s drink.  Mother stops nagging, all right, because the potion changes her into a bear who can’t speak, though she still possess her human intelligence. 

As seen in other tales of this type, the childish antagonist is in essence forced to walk in the parent’s shoes for a time: trying to find a way to re-transform her ursine parent while at the same time protecting her against harm.  Said harmful influences include Fergus, who lost one of his feet during an earlier encounter with a real bear, as well as all of the neighbor-chieftains, who join forces to hunt down the invading bear no matter what.  In the process Queen Elinor learns something of the passion for independence that moves her daughter as well.

BRAVE, like many Pixar films, is replete with many amusing bits, to the extent that I’d be tempted to judge it a comedy along the lines of CARS or A BUG’S LIFE.  Yet fundamentally the struggle between mother and daughter inclines the plot more toward drama, or, to be precise, melodrama.  The ending, in which Merida must confess her responsibility for her actions in order to save her mother, shows far more alignment with the tropes of drama than of comedy.
In addition, Merida's plight is tied in, rather confusingly, to an earlier Scottish lord who suffered a bear-curse, and under the name "Mor'du" has devolved in total bear-hood. The seriousness of the lord's fate is used both to emphasize the potential fate of Elinor and as a last-minute physical threat to Merida and all of her loved ones.  The film doesn't make much of the behind-the-scenes role of the unnamed witch and the wills-of-the-wisp that apparently serve her, but it's worth remarking that though her potion doesn't work for Merida the way she expects, it does end with two major effects: both bringing mother and daughter together and ending the cursed existence of Mor'Du.  Whether or not the witch meant to accomplish either or both of these effects is never decisively known. 

I must admit that BRAVE, in making the mother the heavy in the matter of arranged marriages, departs from historical veracity.  In this medieval period the men were lords of their castles, and they, not their wives, were more likely to barter their daughters in exchange for political advantage.  One may suspect the ideology implied by a scenario in which the woman, the vehicle of decorum and manners, is made the proponent of the dreaded arranged marriage, while the man, the happy-go-lucky warrior-doofus, makes no demands on his little girl and would apparently be just as happy to see her never grow older. 

Nevertheless, I don’t want to overstate the ideological implications, since I believe the scripters tinkered with history primarily—as the advance hype says—to make the conflict all about the mother and her daughter.  Certainly the woods are full of stories about daughters rebelling against tyrannical fathers, so no more were really needed.  Similarly, BRAVE gets points for not doing what most fantasy-films might have done: sticking one good, handsome-faced apple in the suitor-barrel among the bad ones, so that Merida would turn boy-crazy.  This would have mitigated against the script’s point, that arranged marriage was not a good thing, even if it did hook one up with a hottie. 

In order to avoid validating the custom, Merida has to find a way to circumvent it after finally returning her mother to the ranks of humanity.  The way she chooses isn’t overly believable in terms of what would have happened in the real medieval world.  But for the sake of a happy ending—which are meant to assert, “This is the way things should be”—it’s an acceptable compromise.     



CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Cats and old houses are staple ingredients of horror-films, and over the decades both have accrued many complex symbolic associations.

There’s nothing complex about John Gilling’s SHADOW OF THE CAT, however.  An old woman, owner of a ritzy country mansion and a cat named Tabitha, is murdered by a cabal made up of her servants and relatives.  The conspirators hide the old woman’s body in the hope that she’ll be declared legally dead in time, allowing them to divvy up her estate.  But there’s one problem: Tabitha witnessed the murder.

There’s absolutely no hint of the supernatural here; not only is the old woman’s spirit not in the cat, there aren’t even any significant parallels between feline and owner.  The cat isn’t even spooky-looking in any way, nor does it ever seem possessed of more than feline intelligence.  Nevertheless this common-looking housecat holds a grudge and manages to bedevil the murderers—all of whom conveniently remain in residence at the mansion—into falling down stairs, venturing into deadly marshes, and so on.  The only diversion from this main plotline is a subplot about the old woman’s missing will, which if found will confer great favor with the woman’s only “good relative,” played by Barbara Shelley, who doesn’t do anything but cluck her tongue at her relations for persecuting a poor little cat.

The best facet of this standard “punish-the-evildoers” tale—which I enjoyed on that level, even without much in the way of symbolic flourishes—is that Gilling keeps everything looking rather ordinary.  Not only is Tabitha a commonplace feline, but the mansion is, rather refreshingly, never treated as an “old dark house.”  Most of the scenes take place in well-lit areas, so there’s no visual or musical cues to warn the audience before the cat strikes.  One might fairly regard SHADOW OF THE CAT as a minor harbinger of the vogue for “naturalistic horror” in the early 1970s, though Gilling didn’t pursue this approach in his later and better-known horror-films of the 1960s, such as THE REPTILE and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES.



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

The rebooted SPIDER-MAN franchise— ignoring everything established by the popular Sam Raimi-directed “trilogy”—proves better than one might expect.  In comparison with Raimi, the appropriately named director Marc Webb provides a somewhat sunnier take on the world’s most neurotic wall-crawler, reminiscent of the late 1960s Lee-Romita comics-version of the character.

The Spider-Man born in the early 1960s descended as much from Marvel’s misanthrope-filled monster-comics as from the traditions of the costumed superhero.  Raimi’s strength was to capture the visceral weirdness of the early Lee-Ditko feature, centered as it was upon the perennial loser-turned-hero Peter Parker.  It could be argued that Raimi took the franchise too far into the domain of the grotesque, as when he transformed the hero’s famous web-shooting devices into icky biological excretions   On the other hand, Raimi and his scripters captured the essence of Peter Parker as traumatized nerd, and even the weakest Raimi work, the third in the series, faithfully reproduces the fundamental egotism of a Nerd Gone Wild.

Webb’s Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has none of the original character’s repressed egotism or tendencies toward a martyr complex.  In contrast to the bookish Raimi-version this Parker bops around on a skateboard, showing athletic abilities long before getting spider-powers.  Raimi’s version is the school punching-bag; Webb is just barely bullied by jock Flash Thompson and even has a certain standing on the high school campus as the class photographer.  Still, while Raimi’s version skimped on the character’s passion for the physical sciences and his clumsiness with girls, Webb’s version does capture these qualities somewhat better.  This Parker’s fumbling encounters with Gwen Stacy recall the comic book’s characterization of the proto-hero as a “wallflower,” though to be sure, a lot of that early clumsiness dropped away following his ascension to heroic status.  The passion for science is stronger here, though to be sure it is, as in the first Raimi film, tied into the hero’s acquisition of super-powers as well as his encounter with the person who will become his first super-villain.  But whereas Raimi apparently thought his audiences wouldn’t buy the idea of a high-schooler managing to design artificial web-shooters to match his newly acquired spider-powers, Webb totally goes with the original comics-fantasy of the hyper-inventive teenager.

One thing Webb’s version shares in common with Raimi’s?  Far too much time devoted to Uncle Ben and Aunt May, less to support developments in the narrative proper than to give the high-profile actors more to do.  I would much rather Webb had spent less time with them and more with introducing J. Jonah Jameson, who represents a sort of “bad comic father” to Parker, but I assume he’ll appear in some subsequent entry.

Whereas Raimi chose the first Spider-villain to be the Green Goblin, possibly due to that villain’s symbolic status as an “evil father-figure,” Webb chose the Lizard, more or less a reptilian variation on the Jekyll-and-Hyde theme.  Curtis Connors (Ryan Ifans), who will become the monstrous man-lizard, functions as a mild scientific mentor-figure to Parker, but his main purpose in the story is to change into a monster and tear stuff up real good.
      The best character-additions to the franchise are this film’s versions of Gwen Stacy and her father police captain George Stacy.  Gwen, a creation of the middle 1960s in the comics, appeared in the third Raimi movie but wasn’t given much of a characterization therein.  Webb’s film does something the original comic didn’t: it actually gives Gwen—whose only career in the comic was being Parker’s girlfriend—her own professional interest, in that she works for Connors’ research project.  As for Captain Stacy, he makes for some good scenes as the overprotective parental figure.  Unfortunately the script shuffles him off the mortal coil, which seems a waste, given that he would’ve made a good foil (as in the comics) to J. Jonah Jameson.

Garfield makes a decent but far from exceptional Spider-Man, and there are an awful lot of times he shucks his mask during his crimefighting, as if the actor were insecure that his face was getting sufficient camera-time.  But the script here allows him more humor in the persona of Spider-Man than I saw in the “trauma-drama” Raimi hero, particularly a scene in which Spider-Man taunts a small-time hood before webbing him up easily.

On the whole, the Webb SPIDER-MAN comes off much better than many such franchises as they’re passed from talent to talent. 

But a second film comes to pass, the omission of J. Jonah Jameson would be incredibly remiss.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

This mostly forgotten sci-fi comedy, penned by Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht, anticipates some of the devices the two writers would use on the justly more famous MONKEY BUSINESS (1952).  But though AFFAIRS is just a routine comedy programmer teaming marquee stars Lucille Ball and Franchot Tone, it's not without some significant mythic/symbolic content.

Though the title is calculated to sound racy, the "affairs" of the title refers to the separation of "the husband's business" within the sphere of a marriage as separate from "the wife's business."  The film opens by depicting young marrieds Margaret (Ball) and William (Tone). William has a good job with an ad agency, but he and Margaret both lust after the attractions of Easy Street.  To this end William makes minor investments in the scientific work of European emigre Emil Glinka, though as yet none of the professor's inventions have made money.

This changes when Glinka reveals a rather macabre sounding project: a chemical that will allow dead people to be changed into "statues of glass."  Neither William nor anyone else thinks that this is either a good or profitable idea, but William does like the effects of a by-product of Glinka's process: a chemical cream that works as a depilatory, allowing men to cream off their beards without the effort of shaving.

It's hard to conceive that even in the 1940s any company would have invested in a new chemical product without extensive test-trials, but for comedy's sake Hecht and Lederer posit that William's company repeatedly markets products without such tests.  Thus the first complication ensues when men who use the cream find their beards growing back at ridiculous rates.  Margaret then gives William the idea to market the chemical as a hair-growing tonic, and once again, customers have weird reactions, particularly a man who gets a glassy sheen on his bald skull instead of hair.  Yet another application gives William the idea to market the goop as a flower-preservative, and so on.

The thing that gives this programmer a little extra moxie is that many of these comic adventures spawn an added conflict whenever Margaret attempts, in her well-meaning way, to come to her overconfident husband's aid.  Margaret isn't especially smarter than her husband, but whenever she succeeds in helping him, he resents the help to the depths of his 20th-century patriarchal soul.  Though the film ends with Margaret apparently choosing to obey William's credo that she should stay out of his "business," even the most hidebound audience-member would have to acknowledge that Margaret comes up with some good ideas.

The spirited quarrels between Margaret and William will certainly remind many people of similar quarrels in the 1951-57 teleseries I LOVE LUCY.  However, Margaret is not nearly as much of a scatterbrain as the Lucy character, and she's not constantly trying to show off her entertainment-abilities.  Rather, she's merely trying to be a good wife in all respects, and there's some choice irony in the fact that William is so insecure that he regards this as a threat.


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

Disney's THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS feels like a standard haunted-house plot at times-- supposedy one of the publicists called it "Disney's EXORCIST"-- but in keeping with the novel its true core is a story of alien possession, albeit a benign one.  To further complicate the matter, the Disney studio seems to have been antsy of having its name associated with anything too racy or visceral.  Thus WATCHER’s thrills are kept to a low level.  Nevertheless, there are some enjoyably spooky moments here.

As with many haunted house stories, this one deals with an entire family moving into an unfamiliar domain.  Here it’s an American family, the Curtises, who rent a country house in England from an eccentric old widow, Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis).  Though the family includes two parents and two daughters, the parents are negligible as characters, and the preteen daughter Ellie only serves minor plot-functions.  Teenaged Jan Curtis (Lynn Holly-Johnson) is the focal character here. When she first enters the rental house, she sees a figure in the mirror that resembles her, but one wearing a blindfold.  In addition, every time she ventures into the surrounding woods, something strange happens.  She sees the image of a circle in a pond, but an electrical flash startles her into falling in, and she almost drowns.  Yet later the same strange force in the woods intervenes to prevent Jan from being struck by an out-of-control motorcycle, and to divert a truck from running down Ellie. 

Mrs. Aylwood later tells Jan that thirty years ago the widow lost her own teenaged daughter Karen.  Karen was playing some ill-defined “game” with three other teens in an abandoned chapel, but lightning struck the building.  The other three teens fled, but Karen was never found. 
Note: I have not read the novel, but based on summaries, this does not appear to have been the novel's reason for Karen's disappearance, but may have been an invention for the John Hough-directed film, which was plagued by many rewritten scripts.
Mrs. Aylwood believes that she still senses strange presences in the woods.  She becomes convinced that both Jan and to some extent Ellie have some mysterious rapport with her vanished daughter. Jan makes it her crusade to find what happened to the vanished Karen.  She enlists the help of local swain Mike, whose mother was one of the three teens who escaped the cataclysm.  The mother, now middle-aged, won’t talk about the incident, nor will one of the two middle-aged men.  The second man, who lives in the forest (one of Disney’s many woodspeople-characters), shows him to be more traumatized by Karen’s disappearance.

He reveals that the three of them brought Karen to the chapel to be initiated into their “secret club.”  In a more adult-oriented work, one might rightly assume that some sexual hanky-panky lurked behind this ritualistic endeavor.  But in WATCHER it seems to have been nothing but an adolescent version of, say, Tom Sawyer and his young comrades playing pirates.  Slowly Jan begins to learn the nature of the force that abducted young Karen, and to understand a way to re-enact the ritual of an elder generation so as to end the haunting.

Though the script lathers on some science-fictional explanations, what WATCHER delivers is akin to a mélange of motifs borrowed from (1) stories of fairy child-theft, including the wrinkle of the faeries leaving behind one of their own kind in the human child’s place, and (2) the haunted-house poltergeist, which continually bedevils humans for trying to live on the site of a past tragedy.  Though the alien force turns out to be essentially benign, its ambivalent actions strongly resemble the descriptions of alien-abduction, in which the alleged aliens act no less chimerically than Old World faeries.  WATCHER’s emphasis on circle-imagery springs from a functional root, in that Jan must decipher one such image in order to re-enact the ritual during a fateful eclipse.  But circles also connote wholeness. Ironically, Karen is severed from her people by an innocent ritual meant to connote her “becoming one” with the other teens in her culture.  It remains for Jan, heroine of another generation and from another country, to achieve true wholeness by uniting the past with the present, and to liberate from their guilt those who are only guilty of an innocent transgression.

The official ending of WATCHER on the current Disney DVD never shows the nature of the alien force, but the DVD contains two long-unscreened alternate endings.  In one the alien being—a gruesome thing with bat-wings—appears to spirit Jan off like some “demon lover,” yet allows both Jan and Karen to return.  In the other ending, Jan is actually seen freeing Karen in the abstract-looking alien dimension.  I’d say Disney’s official ending is the strongest, for it involves the alien force using Ellie as its mouthpiece, thus bringing the possession-theme around to “full circle.” 


Sunday, September 23, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

On the face of things John Landis' INNOCENT BLOOD sounds like a high-concept winner.  Exotic Anne Parillaud plays Marie, a moral vampire who only sucks the blood of destructive scumbags.  She happens to pick on the Pittsburgh-based gang of Sallie "the Shark" Macelli (Robert Loggia).  Normally she needs to break the spines of those she feeds on, so that they won't rise again, becoming like her nearly-invulnerable *nosferatu.*

At the same time Macelli's gang-- which includes crooked mob lawyer Manny Bergman (Don Rickles)-- has been infiltrated by undercover cop Gennaro, who's hot to bust Macelli.  The mob finds out his true identity and puts a kill order on him, but Gennaro refuses to go into hiding and keeps trying to bust the gang-leader.

Marie kills one of the gang without undue incident, but her next encounter goes wrong.  She fangs Macelli but one of his hoods interrupts before she can break Macelli's neck.  As she flees she runs into Gennaro and stuns him with evidence of her vampire powers.  Later, the undead Macelli rises and, once he gets some sense of his new powers, gets the idea of convert his whole gang into super-powered vampires.  Marie and Gennaro team up to become "fearless vampire hunters."

INNOCENT BLOOD's FX-work is first-rate, and Loggia gives a visceral performance as the foul-mouthed Mafioso out for blood, literally.  Famed comedian Don Rickles acquits himself well in a completely straight role as the harried attorney trying to rein in his manic client.  And yet BLOOD is a little too by-the-numbers to ever "stir the blood," so to speak.

The failure of Michael Wolk's script is that  focal character Marie remains too much a mystery to make her interesting, and supporting character Gennaro is merely a standard dedicated cop.  Except for the ferocious Macelli, all of the gangsters are just one-note brutal goofs.  There's a lot of slick blood-and-gore, but without the hook of engrossing characterizations, the heroes' efforts don't take on any special resonance.  For that matter, even the fight-scenes aren't always consistent as to just what force is needed to take out the undead.

I've seen a lot of reviews that call INNOCENT BLOOD a comedy.  I think John Landis does have a lot of oddball scenes that have the feel of deadpan comedy, as when Bergman bashes Macelli with a shovel just to get his attention.  But in my opinion BLOOD doesn't have the tone of a real comedy.  So I term it a drama-- specifically a melodrama in which the monster-hunters are evenly matched with the monster, which is the basis of my terming it a "combative drama."  The interested may find this concept elucidated somewhat more on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical*

Here we have two serials that follow the normative pattern of their species: a hero, generally without special resources beyond sheer athleticism, finds himself pitted against a mastermind who commands a small group of thugs and at least one super-scientific device.

MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN achieves this paradigm at the cost of its original model, though.  The character spawned by the 1934 Lee Falk-Phil Davis comic strip is said by some fans to have possessed real magic powers at the strip's outset.  Whatever the truth of this, Mandrake's most popular incarnation has been an "uncanny" one, in which the hero's only magic consisted of advanced hypnotism, of being able to convince his victims that they had been transformed into ducks or umbrellas or whatever.

Perhaps Columbia-- a late competitor in the serial market-- thought that this hocus pocus would have been too sedate for serial fans.  Perhaps the company didn't want the FX-budget associated with massive hypnotic illusions.  For whatever reason, the Mandrake of the serial, played by Warren Hull, only resembles the comic-strip version in being a professional magician.  When his involvement in a government experiment puts him at odds with a masked villain, Mandrake wades into action with both fists flying.  Only a few times does he use his magician's talents to escape handcuffs or the like.

The Wasp, the masked villain in question, has got hold of a "radium-energy" projector with which he can send deadly beams against any enemy.  As usual in such serials, both heroes and villains are constantly after some needed power-element that keeps the plot boiling.

The action in MANDRAKE is lively but pedestrian.  As is often the case in such serials, there's a minor mystery about who the costumed villain is in reality, but as the Wasp's costume is the most interesting thing about him, the revelation is an anticlimax.

Another change: the comics-Mandrake was assisted in his crimefighting by a giant African manservant named Lothar,  who was certainly one of the few black characters in the period who got the chance to go around beating up white guys, albeit only those of a criminal nature.  The serial substitutes a "Lothar" manservant who gets into only a couple of scraps and who is played by Hawaiian actor Al Kikume.

SOS COAST GUARD, while nothing special in the scripting department, benefits greatly from the presence of a more pleasingly diabolical villain-- Bela Lugosi playing "Boroff," foreign spymaster-- and from the much livelier direction of Alan James and William Witney.  Given that James' directorial efforts without Witney are just adequate, I suspect Witney's eye for spectacle informed the better sequences of this serial.

SOS starts with a bravura sequence: Boroff, who has invented a "disintegration gas" which he plans to sell to hostile powers, infiltrates America to find the physical elements he needs to produce more of the gas.  When the Coast Guard tries to stop Boroff, he shoots down one of the men.  The victim's older brother Lt. Terry Kent (Ralph Byrd), also of the Coast Guard, dedicates himself to tracking down Boroff and his gang.  Like a lot of "federal men" types of the time, he's almost never seen reporting to a superior or justifying his actions.

Boroff is a simple, straightforward fiend of the type Lugosi did well.  In addition the script invokes a few touches at the actor's horror image, such as having him smuggled in on a ship called the "Carfax" (as in DRACULA's "Carfax Abbey."  Boroff also has a master-slave relationship with a huge muscular servant named Thorg (Richard Alexander), who at the climax turns on his master in approved monster-movie tradition.

Thanks to Witney's directorial skills and Lugosi's sinister presence, SOS is well worth catching, while MANDRAKE is really only for hardcore serial followers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


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

I follow up (purely by coincidence) a review of Disney's most famous super-submarine movie with Irwin Allen's own attempt at that subgenre, which was popular enough to lead to a 1964-68 teleseries of the same name.  Surprisingly, though most Irwin Allen movies are noteworthy for flat characterization and rambling plotlines, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA is stronger in both departments.

VOYAGE was Allen's third venture into the domain of metaphenomenal cinema, following the bizarre fantasy THE STORY OF MANKIND and the tepid adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's THE LOST WORLD.  Allen would later become something of an "enfant terrible" in the world of televised SF, ranging from the above-mentioned VOYAGE series to THE TIME TUNNEL, LOST IN SPACE, and LAND OF THE GIANTS.  Most of his movies and teleseries episodes tended to follow very narrow formulaic plotlines.

VOYAGE possesses a touch more dramatic heft.  The central plot involves a natural cataclysm of the sort that would earn Allen the name of "master of disaster" in later films-- specifically, that Earth's Van Allen radiation belt catches fire.  Worldwide debate ensues, lining up between the "do-nothings," who posit that the fire will burn itself out, and the "do-somethings," who claim that the fire must be put out by positive action.  Retired Navy admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon), who built the super-submarine "Seaview" with his own resources but is still vaguely tied to the American military.  Nelson, in concert with research scientist Professor Emery (Peter Lorre), determines that nothing will stop the fire but an atomic missile fired from just the right position into the Van Allen belt-- and he also determines that he will use the Seaview to do so, no matter what anyone else says.

Among the crew that signs up to join Nelson on his perhaps-mad mission are young Lee Crane, with whom Nelson has a surrogate father-son relationship, and Crane's girlfriend Cathy, who is Nelson's secretary.  The two are scheduled to be married (though Cathy is first seen lasciviously shaking her rear end to the music of another sailor, played by the redoubtable Frankie Avalon).  Crane's loyalty to Nelson is destined to be tested, however, in a manner that suggests the age-old alpha-male conflict of "father" and "son."

What Allen's script produces is something like THE CAINE MUTINY with science fiction trimmings.  As the Seaview makes relentless progress toward its goal, the sailors are driven hard, and two lives are lost, causing Crane to question Nelson's sanity.  In addition to external threats, such as antique mines and a giant octopus, a saboteur is aboard.  Is he religious fanatic Alvarez, who draws sharp censure from Crane for counseling the sailors to sit back and accept their God-given fate?  Or is it some less likely suspect?

As it happens, both Alvarez and another passenger provide different internal threats, but the real emphasis is upon Nelson's stress.  Significantly, he alienates Crane when he slaps around the malingering Avalon character, with the result that the Seaview's progress is almost impeded by Oedipal issues.  Fortunately for the world, those issues are overcome in the nick of time, and the world is saved.

Interestingly, when this core concept was turned into the teleseries, I rarely if ever saw such conflict between the teleseries versions of Crane and Nelson.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Like many of the "baby boomer" generation I watched and enjoyed Walt Disney's 1954 production of Jules Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.  I didn't read the book for many years, and even when I did, I didn't make extensive cross-comparisons at the time.  Since the few other attempts to film LEAGUES were uniformly awful, I've tended to remember the Disney version as essentially accurate to Verne's vision.

However, having recently reread the unexpurgated Verne novel with more attention, I'd say that while the 1954 film is still the best of the adaptations, it departs from the original in too many ways to be called a faithful translation.

Of course, no one could have expected a commercial film, then or now, to include the dozens of rapturous but static scenes in which Captain Nemo uses his magnificent submarine to show his guests-- Professor Arronax, his manservant Conseil, and harpooner Ned Land-- the serried wonders of the ocean depths.  It was inevitable that when director Richard Fleischer and scripter Earl Felton approached the novel, they would seek to tighten the loose plot. Unfortunately, their tightening changed the essence of the novel's focal character, Captain Nemo, without coming up with a valid vision of their own for him.

One of the most salient changes is the way the modern world first encounters Nemo's fantastic invention.  In both book and movie, the Nautilus is initially mistaken for some new species of sea monster, as no such submersible exited at the time.  In Verne's book, Nemo doesn't go out of his way to encounter the ships of mankind; rather, they usually suffer damage from accidentally colliding with the Nautilus or from attacking it, though later in the novel it's suggested that the Nautilus does attack ships which practice the slave-trade. 

In order to tighten Verne's plot, however, Fleishcer and Felton open with scenes of the Nautilus attacking ships at will, and his reasons for doing so are never fully explained.  Later he will attack ships that are expressly involved in the slave trade, but Ned Land's frequent references to Nemo as a "madman" suggest that he's lost any power to discriminate between good and evil.

Verne's Nemo is in essence the anti-social man of Jean-Jacquest Rousseau, eternally desirous of getting away from the evil entanglements of human society-- and even though Nemo has a crew with him, none of them are characters in their own right: they might as well be golem-servants created by a medieval sorcerer.  In addition, Verne depicts Nemo as possessing a monomaniacal but nevertheless admirable love of all things relating to the seven seas.

Fleischer's Nemo, given stately bearing by actor James Mason, seems far less motivated by love of the sea than by hatred of mankind's evil ways.  In addition, whereas in the novel he rescues the three castaways intentionally-- though with the caveat that they must remain members of his crew forevermore-- in the film the castaways find their way aboard the Nautilus when everyone happens to be off the ship.  This Nemo, taking some measure of pleasure in his godlike power, threatens to let all three men drown.  He reverses himself, but it doesn't seem to be for any beneficent motive. 

As in the novel, marine biological expert Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) becomes bonded to Nemo by virtue of their common love for the sea, but the film tends to show Arronax's fascination in a negative light in that this love threatens to become a true monomania.

In the book Conseil is the perfect manservant to Arronax: not only does he unthinkingly risk his life to save Arronax, he accedes to Arronax in every way, even when Ned Land wants the servant to vote on whether the three seek to escape their floating prison.  The film, perhaps sensing that Verne's "perfect manservant" trope would seem slavish to modern audiences, changes Peter Lorre's Conseil to Arronax's apprentice.  This Conseil is quite capable of taking initiative to defy the Professor's over-identification with Nemo.

Ned Land receives quite a bit more buildup in the film than in the novel, doubtless because the film version is portrayed by heavy-hitter film-star Kirk Douglas (though admittedly Douglas, Lorre, Lukas and Mason share joint above-the-title crediting).  In the book Ned Land is an intelligent but plain-spoken sailor, a diamond in the rough but not without his own system of morals.  He's uncomfortable with being confined aboard the Nautilus but doesn't act rashly to secure escape.

Douglas' Ned Land is a greedier, more selfish character, who has no appreciation at all for Nemo's accomplishments but only wants his own personal freedom.  Nemo's anomie against the inhumanity of man means nothing to Land, but he very much wants to use the resources of the Nautilus to harvest sunken treasure, and even stoops to attempt robbing Nemo's treasure-trove. 

The novel shows Nemo and Land as equals in terms of their puissance-- Land saves Nemo from a shark, and Nemo returns the favor by saving Land from a gigantic squid.  But in the film, Land does all the saving, rescuing Nemo from being eaten by a squid-- which, at that point in the film, is the only thing that keeps Nemo from executing him for a previous disobedience.  However, Land ends up costing Nemo his life later, by sending forth a note-in-a-bottle that reaches Nemo's enemies the slavers.  This note makes it possible for the slavers to invade Nemo's island sanctuary, and though Nemo destroys the island and presumably the (mostly unseen) slave-takers, a slaver-bullet takes Nemo's life-- a less poetic demise than he meets (or seems to meet) in the Verne novel.  It may be merely coincidence that the film's Land, who's willing to do almost anything for a buck, indirectly finds himself on the side of the slavers who follow much the same ethos.  But coincidence or not, it doesn't make me like Land all that much.

In terms of the state-of-the-art effects of the Disney film, no other adaptation can touch it.  The battle with the giant squid is still one of the great scenes of metaphenomenal cinema.  But the definitive adaptation of Verne's novel has yet to be made.

Monday, September 17, 2012

KRULL (1983)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical*

KRULL, debuting a few months after the concluding chapter of George Lucas' STAR WARS, shows its creators struggling to assimilate the demands of the science-fantasy genre.  Director Peter Yates, best known for the Steve McQueen thriller BULLITT, directed no metaphenomenal films before or after KRULL, suggesting that he had no great interest in such genres.  Writer Stanford Sherman had done various teleseries episodes for BATMAN and THE MAN FROM UNCLE, so he at least had some prior acquaintance with writing fantasy-fiction.  Still, KRULL, though a fairly enjoyable fantasy-film, feels like an effort on its creators' parts to cash in on STAR WARS and/or the emerging Dungeons and Dragons subculture.

"Krull" is the name of a fantasy-planet inhabited primarily by humans, though there are various fantasy-beings who live there as well.  The film opens on a world where feudal-style kingdoms have been at war with each other for some time, but an alien threat has arise, as armored soldiers called "Slayers" have invaded, under the command of a monstrous creature called "the Beast."

Two formerly warring city-states-- that of King Eirig and that of King Turold-- attempt to patch up their differences and form a permanent alliance against the Beast's forces. To this end they arrange a marriage between Prince Colwyn and Princess Lyssa, who are already romantically involved prior to the arrangement.  Interestingly, Lyssa's father Eirig is more than a little reluctant to see his little girl married to Colwyn, as he dourly predicts that "good warriors make bad husbands." 

The alliance is foiled when a contingent of Slayers invade Turold's castle.  The evil drones carry off Lyssa and murder everyone in the castle, missing only Colwyn.  A wise old man named Ynyr seeks out the surviving warrior and guides him in his quest to recover Lyssa.  His first goal is to direct Colwyn to claim a mystic weapon called "the Glaive", which, as seen above, looks like a metallic throwing-star.  Colwyn claims this without much trouble, but the next step proves difficult. Colwyn can only find the hideout of his enemies, the "Iron Fortress," with the help of seers, for the fortress teleports from one location to another on a daily basis.

In approved D&D tradition, Colwyn and Ynyr collect a number of allies as they progress toward their goal.  Most of these allies belong to a gang of bandits whom Colwyn manages (not very convincingly) to talk into being his honor guard.  Others include a comic-relief magician who keeps accidentally turning himself into animals, a bland little boy, and a cyclops who can foresee his own death.  However, the Beast becomes aware of Colwyn's effort and sends forces to harry him.  The villain also uses magic to block most ordinary seers from finding his fortress, forcing Ynyr to seek out the one being whom the evil one can't block: the "Widow of the Web."  Once Ynyr acquires and conveys the information-- at the cost of his own life-- Colwyn and his followers invade the Iron Fortress.  Aided by the steadfast love of Lyssa, Colwyn manages to use the power of the Glaive and defeat the monster, so that Krull will endure in a happy-ever-after future.

Despite the many fairy-tale touches, KRULL is, in contrast with the work of George Lucas, very preoccupied with themes of death.  One of the bandit-followers remarks that all they're getting for their efforts are "rocks in our pockets and gravestones over our heads."  One of the other bandits dies slowly in quicksand despite his friends' attempts to save him, and an old blind seer who joins the company is slain by a demon so that she can take the seer's place and spy on the group.  And, as noted before, Rell the Cyclops belongs to a race that had once been two-eyed, but as a group sacrificed an eye apiece to the Beast, who promised them knowledge of the future-- though all the Cyclopses ever know is the hour of their own individual deaths.

Similarly, the sequence in which Ynyr must venture alone into the dwelling-place of the "Widow of the Web," a giant white web guarded by a giant white spider, is haunted with death-imagery. Ynyr only gets through by appealing to the Widow on the basis of a previous romance they shared, and she admits him by using a magic hourglass to temporarily suspend the giant spider's activities.  Before Ynyr can get the needed information, the old woman-- who for some unexplained reason shares the same proper name as the hostage princess-- reminds him that because he left her after their time together, she took out her anger at him by killing their child-- which seems to have something to do with her lonely vigil in the web.  Ynyr forgives her, though, so she gives him the information he needs, as well as passage out of the web, although the necessary magic costs both her life and Ynyr's.  It's easily the best sequence in KRULL, but it's certainly far more depressing than anything in George Lucas.

Speaking of Lucas, though there's some decent design-work in the film, one can't help but think Lucas every time one sees an animated ray-blast or looks at the Slayers in their dark version of Storm Trooper duds.  Worst of all, when Slayers perish they make a high-pitched screechng sound strongly reminiscent of R2D2's scream at the end of STAR WARS.  One source claims that the sound-effect was recycled from the earlier film AT THE EARTH'S CORE, but even so I suspect it might have been chosen on the basis of its resemblance to a sound from the Lucas oeuvre.

The Beast, who spends most of the film trying to talk Princess Lyssa into marrying him instead of Colwyn, isn't a terribly compelling villain.  He's essentially a retread of familiar devil-motifs, ranging from "the devil as trickster" (cf. the bad deal he gives the Cyclops race) to "the devil as tempter," trying to convince Lyssa that Power is more important than Love.  The Beast makes one paltry attempt to convince Lyssa that Colwyn will cheat on her by showing her a "crystal ball" scene in which his female demon attempts to seduce the Prince.  However, even the Beast's own lackey betrays him by falling for noble Colwyn, accidentally reaffirming Lyssa's belief in Love.  Yates never manages to make these scenes of highflown sentiment as interesting as the ones involving death and loss.

There are some minor references to the sexual alchemy of male and female, particularly at the climax, where Colwyn loses the Glaive but can still use its power thanks to being empowered by Lyssa's willing assent to his love.  But few of the characters come alive even to the extent that the Star Wars characters do, not even the death-haunted Cyclops Rell.  None of the principal cast-members became strong headliners, though one of the minor bandit-characters was essayed by a very young Liam Neeson.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


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

British writer-director Nick Willing seems to have made a regular habit of re-imagining public domain franchises.  He adapted the Oz books as TIN MAN and came out with two different takes on ALICE IN WONDERLAND.  Prior to watching the TV miniseries NEVERLAND I'd only seen Willing's second take on the Alice books, a patchy 2011 miniseries presenting a version of Alice who becomes Wonderland's judo-skilled freedom fighter.

NEVERLAND, though it was financed by the Syfy Channel as was the two-part ALICE, shows Willing warming to his material to better effect.  Possibly this was because J.M. Barrie's PETER PAN has stronger adventure-currents than the source material of either Alice or Oz.  To be sure, were I classifying the Barrie novel, I'd tend to consider it a "combative comedy," in that I think the comic tones of the book overpower the adventurous tones.  Likewise the Disney version of PETER PAN.  However, Nick Willing's version falls more completely into the category of the pure adventure-work.

Stage versions of PETER PAN originated a tradition in which the same actor played both the principal "father-role"-- Wendy's pater George Darling-- and the less than paternal villain, Captain James Hook.  Willing picks up this vague "daddy issue" potential and centers the narrative of his prequel upon it, probably with no small influence by the Harry Potter/Severus Snape relationship in the J.K Rowling series.  Rather than following the scenario where Peter and Hook meet in Neverland, Peter (Charlie Rowe) is one of several "lost boy" orphans born in the early 1900s, who follow the tutelage of Fagin-like thief-master and arms dealer Jimmy Hook (Rhys Ifans).  Peter, Hook and the boys are transported into Neverland-- actually posited to be a planet in the center of the universe-- by a magical orb.  Once there, they have various run-ins with denizens who were also transported to Neverland by similar orb-encounters.  The "friendlies" are a tribe of Indians, the "Kaw," whose princess is the "Tiger Lily" of the Barrie books. The "unfriendlies" are a shipful of pirates from the 1700s, led by a fiery wench named Captain Liz Bonney, played by Anna Friel and clearly patterned after the real-life female pirate Anne Bonney.

Gradually Peter and the Lost Boys are drawn to side with the Kaw, who protect the fairies/"tree spirits"-- whose number includes Tinkerbell-- from the depredations of the pirates.  Hook, however, is literally seduced to the side of the pirates by Bonney.  He proves a capable leader, urging the pirates to acquire the "fairy dust" that makes flight possible and to return, with the help of a duplicate orb, to the 1900s to acquire weapons and conquer Neverland.  And though he's been a surrogate father to orphan Peter, he willingly betrays him to serve his ambitions.  He also has a secret in that he was once in love with Peter's mother, but when he wasn't chosen to be her husband, he reacted rather, shall we say, badly.

Obviously one's enjoyment of this miniseries will vary according to one's tolerance for seeing Barrie's simple, spontaneous children's fantasies subjected to logical psychoanalysis and political correctness (the noble savages here are considerably nobler than in Barrie: think PETER PAN meets DANCES WITH WOLVES).  But though Willing never re-invents the wheel creatively speaking, he provides a much smoother tread than most adapters-- particularly the Disney version, which I find superficial and irritating. Willing provides a number of strong action-sequences, such as one in which the pirates have to cross a giant spider-web to reach a destination, calling up recollections of the 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD.  In addition there are several vivid scenes of emotional turmoil, mostly between Peter and Hook, showing good chemistry between Rowe and Ifans.

This miniseries isn't "true" to the original Barrie works, though Willing's prequel does provide some links to the setup with which Barrie begins (where Peter will become a wilder spirit with no memory of the past and no shadow).  But in some ways I prefer seeing a lively if unfaithful adaptation to a spiritless by-the-numbers re-creation.  



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Though I give SEA SERPENT the same mythicity-rating seen in the recent YONGARY MONSTER OF THE DEEP-- meaning that neither goes beyond a very functional level of symbolism-- YONGARY is at least good basic entertainment for anyone in need of a giant monster-fix.

In contrast, I can't top the remark made by a Youtube viewer of SERPENT: that it was the best sock-puppet monster-movie made in the last few decades.  But even with that distinction, it's pretty barren of the sort of inspired absurdities that make a movie "so bad it's good."  This story of a sub-Godzilla awakened by the usual nuclear testing is nothing but dull.

Given that writer-director Armando de Ossorio showed that he could deliver decent horror-movies in his "Blind Dead" series of zombie-films, it's apparent that he brought nothing to this film but a desire to get a paycheck.

There's just one curious scene I happened to notice, on which I've seen no remark.  Lead actors Timothy Bottoms and Taryn Power separately witness the monster's seaside depredations, but can't convince anyone else that the monster exists. In a scene that could have taken a few minutes, Bottoms visits Powers (the real-life daughter of Hollywood star Tyrone Power) in her hospital-room to enlist her help.  I kept expecting the scene to end, but de Ossorio kept the dialogue going and going for an absurdly long time. I finally realized that his likely reason for so doing was that the nubile Powers was seated in bed while she talked to Bottoms, wearing a scanty, non-hospital-style negligee.  This was the only scene in which Powers put her considerable charms on display in this film, so it seems de Ossorio was determined to drag the scene out as long as he possibly could for that very reason.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: * psychological*

This obscure serial has two distinctions: it's the first sound serial by long-time serial-maker Universal Studios to make heavy use of SF-devices (credited in part to Ken Strickfadden, hence lots of zap-happy electrical arcs), and (2) it's the first feature effort by actor-turned-director Lew Landers, who would make his best-known film-- the Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff horror-film THE RAVEN-- the very next year.

In addition, this outing reverses one of the more common tropes of the SF-tinged adventure-serial.  From the silent years onward, it was standard for the heroes or heroines to be skilled but essentially ordinary human beings faced with mad geniuses who could conjure up assorted super-technological death-devices, as seen in the previous year's THE WHISPERING SHADOW.

VANISHING SHADOW starts with a common enough setup: young (but repetitively named) scientist Stanley Stanfield wishes to avenge the death of his father, brought about by corrupt businessman Barnett. But Stanley happens to make contact with an even more inventive scientist, Doctor Van Dorn, who also bears Barnett a grudge.  Van Dorn happens to have a small arsenal of weapons that he'd been developing on his own, with a vaguely expressed idea of turning them over to the army for national defense.  With Van Dorn's help Stanley begins using the weapons against Barnett and his gangster allies-- particularly the device that gives the serial its name, an "almost-invisibility belt."  When anyone wears the belt, his body vanishes from sight but his shadow remains visible.  In addition the sometimes mad-seeming scientist also cooks up a death-ray that destroys only living matter, various electrical traps and, in the very last episodes, a giant humanoid robot (seen above).

The narrative problem of this reversal soon becomes clear: with so many super-weapons against them, Barnett and his thugs seem overmatched-- so the scripters are forced to even the odds by allowing the hoods to get control of the weapons, or to have the weapons backfire on the heroes, etc.

Despite this weakness, VANISHING is never dull.  Like many Universal directors of the time Landers keeps the action quotient high, while the actors are allowed to have a few moments of relatively strong characterization.  Female lead Gloria is actually the estranged daughter of Barnett, but she's foresworn her father's name due to his criminal activities.  She has some good melodramatic moments trying to persuade her father to go straight.  She's also the one who asks Van Dorn why he, one of the "good guys," happens to making all these death-weapons.

To horror-fans familiar with Onslow Stevens' work in Universal's 1945 HOUSE OF DRACULA, it'll prove interesting to see him as a young serial-hero, for all that he's not especially dashing.  James Durkin has the best role as the semi-mad scientist Van Dorn.  The villains, unfortunately, are never interesting beyond Barnett's conflict with his daughter, and spend most of their time trying to steal some valuable bonds rather than appropriating Van Dorn's miracle weapons. 

Friday, September 14, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor* (2) *good*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological, psychological*

Though these two SF-films are separated by about seven years, they belong to the same subgenre that deals with "future-astronauts-vs.-aliens."   They also make an interesting contrast in that even though ANGRY RED PLANET had a budget about four times that of QUEEN OF BLOOD, the 1966 work is unquestionably the better film.  Granted, the later thriller did piggyback on a couple of more expensive Soviet productions, by excerpting scenes therefrom after the producers of AIP bought the rights to those films.  But any of BLOOD's American-lensed scenes are easily the superior of the entire mise-en-scene of ANGRY.

ANGRY, written by director Ib Melchior and producer Sid Pink, duplicates the broad contours of the "cosmological" motif of science fiction-- its focus on strange forms of life born in alien environments-- but fails to yeild anything more than a soulless duplication.  The most that I can say for it is that it does at least have a fairly coherent plot, in contrast to my least favorite SF-film of the period, SPACE PROBE TAURUS.

The story begins *in media res,* as the officials of Earth welcome the return of the first manned spaceflight to Mars.  To the onlookers' dismay, only two survivors from a four-person crew have returned: the expedition's leader Colonel O'Bannion, unconscious due to an alien growth infecting his arm, and the mission's female doctor Iris Ryan, traumatized and unable to remember what occured on Mars.  However, after a brief period of treatment, Ryan's memory returns and relates the bulk of the film's narrative in retrospect.

In short, once the astronauts have successfully landed on Mars, their scientific investigations are continually hampered by hostile Martian life-forms-- a carnivorous plant for one, a monstrous hybrid (dubbed by fans the "rat-bat-spider", see illo above) for another.  After one of their number is killed, the astronauts determine that they should leave Mars early-- no considerations of the difficulties of lining up the trajectory of their ship for the return trip mentioned, of course.  A force field, created by intelligent Martian locals, stops them from leaving, and a giant amoeba attacks the ship.  The amoeba kills another male astronaut and infects O'Bannion.  Ryan, showing commendable resource in some (though not all) scenes, manages to pilot the ship back to Earth despite losing her memory thereafter.  The film returns to present-time, at which point Ryan gets a brainstorm and figures out in jig time how to purge the alien life-form from her commander's arm with absolutely no ill effects afterward.  A coda informs the Earthlings that the intelligent inhabitants of Mars have observed the culture of their neighbors and have "angrily" closed off their borders to any future incursions.

The real star of ANGRY is not any of the actors-- all reputable jobbing actors, but given a subpar script with which to work-- but is rather the "CineMagic" process used by the production to depict the "angry red planet" in tones of bilious red.  Against such backgrounds, the hand-drawn animations of creatures like the giant spider-thing would seem to meld with the surrounding environment.  I find it hard to credence that this intrustive effect could have inspired any "sense of wonder" in audiences of the period, but if it did, that might be more to the credit of the audience-members than to that of the filmmakers.

With the central character of Ryan, the film takes two steps back for every step forward. Like a number of other 1950s leading-ladies in SF-films, Ryan is an esteemed professional, and comes off fairly well in the science-scenes, even if her quick-cure of O'Bannion at the conclusion strains one's credulity.  On the other hand, the shipboard romance of Ryan and O'Bannion proves painful to the ears, and neither actor is able to make anything of the tedious dialogue.  The sociological critique of mankind, seen to such good effect in 1951's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, is here tossed off with no real conviction and fails to give the Martians any sociological mythicity.

In the futuristic year of "1990," Earth has its first encounter with an alien race. Earth's authorities (one of whom is the esteemed Doctor Farraday, played by Basil Rathbone) receive a radio transmission from an alien vessel that has crash-landed on Mars.  The authorities, eager to make contract with an advanced race-- possibly to profit from their technology, though the point isn't emphasized-- send a crew of astronauts to land on Mars and effect a rescue.  The crew (including such lumianries as John Saxon and Dennis Hopper) reaches Mars and finds one survivor on the alien ship: the QUEEN OF BLOOD (Florence Marly), a green-skinned, beehive-hairdoed female.  The Earthlings aren't able to communicate with the Queen, but are apparently disarmed by her feminine helplessness.  Despite her being an unknown quantity, she's allowed to have the run of the ship (much to the catty displeasure of female astronaut Judi Meredith).  Slowly crewmen start to perish of extreme blood-loss.

One may fairly criticize the convenient way the alien vampire is allowed to prey upon the crew without rousing suspicion, though the script gives the writers a possible "out" in that the Queen possesses hypnotic powers that might have dulled the reactions of the Earthpeople.  Eventually the Queen is vanquished, though, like a more famous ALIEN life-form, she leaves behind a clutch of eggs that may eventually spell Earth's doom.

Whereas director Melchior in ANGRY RED PLANET simply shot the actors speaking lines with a lot of boring middle-range shots, QUEEN's director Curtis Harrington uses copious closeups of his actors.  Perhaps this was done to conceal the bare-bones nature of the production, but the effect is to give the largely shipboard proceedings a claustrophobic quality.  The Queen herself is an excellent example of evoking the cosmological motif, for even though she never speaks, her habits and actions are comprehensible through the lens of an extraterrestrial biology.  At the same time, alien though she is, she also evokes the psychological and sociological motifs of the Eternal Feminine in its negative form; of being willing to destroy any number of male victims in order to pave the way for her "children."