Friday, May 31, 2013
SUPERGATOR (2007), DINOCROC VS. SUPERGATOR (2010), DINOSHARK (2010)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
Based on my results with these three "colossal critter" films, maybe I'll stick with those of that have a "vs." in the title from now on. It's not that these combative films are all that much better than the subcombative ones, but the former show a greater propensity toward the absurd.
I started off my mini-marathon of gobbling gargantuas with SUPERGATOR, one of the two reptilian marauders who would be cage-fighting one another three years later. The other one, DINOCROC, I did not get the chance to screen, but since it came out three years earlier, possibly it set the pattern for this spate of films associated with Roger Corman's production company (or companies, as the case may be).
The design of the big gator, apparently brought into being by a nasty company trying to weaponize growth hormones, is quite underwhelming. The best the CGI guys could do, as shown above, was to stick stegosaurus-like spikes on the creature's back. As is often the case in these flicks, two separate teams of professionals must converge in order to join their resources and kill the big beast: in this case, the biogeneticist who created the monster and a vulcanologist investigating a possibly live Hawaiian volcano. The lead actors, Kelly McGillis and Brad "Ned Blessing" Johnson, acquit themselves with this tedium a little better than some of their fellow thespians have. The additional threat of the volcano is a nice touch but it doesn't really dispel the general tedium. As with most Corman flicks there are some cute but vacuous bimbos tossed into the mix.
DINOCROC VS. SUPERGATOR has a small advantage over SUPERGATOR in that it's directed and co-written by Jim Wynorski. Wynorski will never be anything but a junk-film director, but in general I've found that he does try to keep his goofy trash scenarios lively. To be sure, Wynorksi follows closely in the footsteps of Roger Corman by injecting as much bimbo-flesh as he possibly can, but unlike the director of SUPERGATOR, Wynorski seems to choose a better breed of bimbo.
He also throws in a couple of references to Cormanological film-history, as when the bimbo-gamewarden's boat is named "Wild Angel" and a tour-guide shows tourists where "She Gods of Shark Reef" was made.
While SUPERGATOR stuck pretty close to the template, D VS. S at least tosses in other familiar tropes: David Carradine as the evil mogul whose company creates the two beasts (guess neither one is supposed to be a "dino" anymore), a karate-chopping mercenary lady, a "ragin' Cajun" crocodile hunter who tells the audience that "crocodiles and alligators are natural enemies," and a field of giant mushrooms. Oh, and the bimbo-gamewarden runs around in hot pants.
The almost inevitable disappointment is that in all of these "vs." films, the creature-battles last only three minutes at most, so they're always perfunctory affairs. Since the "dinocroc" for some reason is able to run around on its hind legs like a T-Rex, the poor supergator seems outmatched from the start. Bad form, Wynorski!
Then it's back to pure tedium with DINOSHARK. Director Kevin O'Neill has a long resume as a visual effects man on some above-average fantasy-films, as well as some which, like the yet-unscreened-by-me DINOCROC, are probably no better than they have to be. DINOCROC was the first of O'Neill's four director-credits, but DINOSHARK doesn't engender in me any fierce desire to see his other efforts. Most of the time the viewer doesn't even get much of a look at the malefic monster, so it's not even on a par with the supergator in that regard.
The attempts of the humans to track down the "dinosaur-shark" are dull, dull, dull, and the beast's attacks are not much better. Only at the very end does the female lead get the best line, one which sums up the real appeal of these "nature's revenge" flicks, as she blows away the monster shark:
"Welcome to the Endangered Species list, you bastard!"
Thursday, May 30, 2013
FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
Though FRIDAY THE 13TH was unquestionably prompted by the success of 1978's HALLOWEEN, Sean Cunningham's work displays a very different aesthetic. Whereas Carpenter's film has a cerebral quality that never entirely vanishes even during its most visceral sequences, Cunningham's signature work shows a more purely visceral appeal. Cunningham's frequent lingering shots of the inscrutable forests surrounding Camp Crystal Lake put me in mind of Meir Zarchi's 1978 work I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. I doubt that Cunningham, who at the time was hoping for a solid financial success in his career, would have emulated Zarchi's controversial GRAVE had he seen it. Still, the similarities between the two go beyond just content and setting. Both films place characters who are fundamentally guiltless in horrifically violent circumstances. In a DVD commentary Cunningham denied that the appeal of the film was that of "identifying with the killer," as asserted by Roger Ebert and others. His explanation invoked rather the truism that FRIDAY was about "bad things happening to good people."
PSYCHO may be a greater influence on FRIDAY than the Carpenter film. The musical score by Harry Manfredini frequently references Bernard Herrmann's distinctive PSYCHO theme, and the first viewpoint character introduced by the narrative, a girl named Annie, perishes early in the film just as Marion Crane does in the Hitchcock film. And most persuasively, the killer assumes the imagined personality of a long-dead relative as protection for the guilt the killer feels over that relation's death.
Further, in place of Carpenter's suggestions regarding the unknowability of evil, Cunningham's figure of evil possesses the same human dimensions as the Norman Bates of both creator Robert Bloch and adapter Alfred Hitchcock. Scripter Victor Miller has commented that his psycho-killer is in essence "a mother who would have killed for her kids." (At this late date, does anyone not know it's Mrs. Voorhees in Camp Blood with the axe?) But to be precise, her precious son Jason is long dead, and the 1958 flashback at the film's outset shows that Voorhees has already taken vengeance on the counselors who let her boy perish in the lake. All of Voorhees' other acts of violence-- burning down the camp a year later, and coming back in 1980 when the owner tries to re-open the property-- are only defenses within her demented mind. When Voorhees chooses to go after the counselors before Camp Crystal Lake has even opened, at a time when no children are endangered, it's patently clear that she's caught in what Freud would term a "repetition-compulsion." Unable to come to terms with the painful experience of losing her child, Voorhees must repeat the circumstances of her vengeance over and over, imagining that the new camp counselors deserve the same punishment as those who wronged her. Only in this way can she imagine Jason being "alive" when he speaks through her, pleading to see her kill his murderers again and again.
Miller's characters are simply drawn, but I don't think any of them are depicted as sex-crazed fools, which would become a dominant trope in FRIDAY's sequels. The counselors' warnings about the camp all come from disreputable sources: a town "crazy," a surly truckdriver, and an uptight cop. Cunningham may have chosen to use all of these male characters as "red herrings" for the true killer, to keep the audience's suspicions focused on a male killer until the climax, when Voorhees is belatedly introduced. In terms of the techniques used for a real mystery-tale, this late introduction would be a failure, but here it supports Cunningham's vaunted theme of the intrusion of the irrational upon ordinary life. In addition, the DVD commentary for FRIDAY argues persuasively that Alice, the "final girl" here, is not the least bit "virginal," contrary to those critics who assumed that all "final girls" should be, simply because that was the pattern HALLOWEEN set. Indeed, in one scene it's Alice who proposes that the counselors play "strip poker," so it's clear that she's as randy as everyone else. At the same time, Cunningham gives the young counselors' sexual endeavors a light-- one might even call it "innocent"-- touch. The only character who sees their sexuality as evil is Mrs. Voorhees, and even then, she isn't condemning sexuality as such. In her mind the young people's ability to celebrate their bodies is inextricably linked to their capacity for negligence.
The most mythic moment of FRIDAY was conceived as an addendum to the main script. Famed makeup artist Tom Savini suggested that Alice should have a final "gotcha" dream in which she was attacked by the rotting corpse of the long-dead Jason. On one level, this incident prefigures the fact that when FRIDAY proved successful, Jason would become the new horror-protagonist, Mrs. Voorhees having "lost her head." But it's unlikely that the filmmakers were thinking of that contingency at the time; the dream of Jason's recrudescence was just one more thrill-ride on the cinematic roller-coaster, one clearly derived from the conclusion of Brian dePalma's CARRIE.
What's fascinating about this sequence is that even though Alice, like all of her friends, is fundamentally innocent, on some level she accepts and internalizes the guilt of Mrs. Voorhees. Even though she wakes from the dream, she ends the film telling the surrouding officials, with an unshakable conviction, that Jason is "still down there," under the lake, haunting it with his unquiet spirit. Once he was revived in truth, however, Jason became a very different type of mythic presence-- more accessible, but not necessarily an improvement.
MEGASHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS (2009), MEGA PYTHON VS. GATOROID (2011)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
Though most of the "colossal critter" movies that show up on the SYFY Channel are pretty lean pickings, I've noticed that the reviews they receive on IMDB usually fall into two categories.
One is the "outrage against the standards of good entertainment" review, in which the reviewer tears apart the flick based on its many failings of sound plot, believable characters, and so on.
The other is the "this is so bad it's funny" review. Of these two review-types, this one is the more interesting, because it raises the question: once a movie has decided to revel in its badness, can it be fairly critiqued?
Is it at all feasible to conceive of "standards" for a deliberately bad film?
My answer is, yes and no. As to the "yes," anyone can conceive of such standards. But since the whole idea of a bad movie is to flout one's expectations of formal merit, there would seem to be no way to make those standards anything but purely personal, which would make the answer into an operative "no."
Take for instance the Asylum film MEGASHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS, a 2009 opus which seems to have received far greater attention than most of SYFY's cookie-cutter airings. This monster-mashup has just one scene that grabs me in the part of my cortex that says, "this is so deliriously stupid it's funny:" the above scene in which the Megashark leaps out of the ocean and gobbles up a 747 airliner, dragging it down into the sea with it. One fan liked the scene so much that he devoted an IMDB thread to it, terming it "the greatest scene in all Movie Hollywood." I find myself wondering if some of the appeal of this scene rests with bringing together two icons from 1970s cinema: the rapacious shark and the endangered 747.
However, for me that scene provides the only real entertainment in MEGASHARK. The big fish's opponent, the Giant Octopus, is by no means as nicely rendered as this "Spawn of Jaws," and the script is otherwise dead-serious and deadly dull. There's one scene in which former singer Debbie Gibson, playing a tough Navy officer, lays out a panicky seaman with a deft punch in the face, but that's the only other scene I recall. The clash of the titanic terrors is a distinct disappointment.
The same crummy level of FX applies to the battle of the two gargantuas of MEGA PYTHON VS. GATOROID, and as an added minus, neither beastie even looks as passably good as the Megashark. What MEGA PYTHON has going for it is a more enjoyable subplot than MEGASHARK's dull routine: an emnity between the movie's two female characters, both played by female pop-singing idols-- the aforementioned Debbie Gibson as park ranger O'Hara and Brittani as animal activist Doctor Riley. The subplot builds to a catfight-battle between the two termagants in a much more pleasing manner than the main plot dealing with the monsters-- though, to be sure, the climactic Brittani-Gibson fight doesn't rise to the level of the best cinematic f/f contests.
Many of the "colossal critter" flicks futz around with issues of conservation and animal activism, almost always treated with a politically-correct solemnity. In place of this, MEGA PYTHON treats both the "activist" and the "conservationist" as stupid, ego-obsessed characters spoiling for a fight. Riley starts the idiocy by releasing pythons into the ecosystem of a Florida State Park, but O'Hara compounds it by breeding huge gators to eat the pythons-- almost like a monster-movie version of "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly."
Brittani and Gibson brought enough vivacity to their cartoonish roles that MEGA PYTHON managed to score several times with my delirium-loving cortex, which is the only standard I can use to elevate the PYTHON above its more popular SHARK kindred. That, and the fact that during the movie Micky Dolenz, playing himself, meets a horrible death before he can sing even one note.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951), THE NEANDERTHAL MAN (1953)
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological*
THE MAN FROM PLANET X was the first fantasy-film collaboration, as both writers and producers, between Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen, who within the same year also wrote (but did not produce) THE SON OF DR. JEKYLL. PLANET has the honor of being one of the first films in the vanguard of the decade's burgeoning investment in the SF genre, and still remains a favorite, though the script sometimes wanders in its commitment to its characterization of its alien visitor.
Four characters are assembled to witness, in distinctly low-budget fashion, the first visit of an extraterrestrial to Earth-- specifically, a small island off the coast of Scotland. Two, Elliott and Mears, are scientists, though Mears has some unexplained bad reputation to his credit. Another is Elliott's daughter Enid, who has a crush on the fourth, somewhat older man, American journalist Lawrence. The last relationship provides a modicum of romantic interest, though happily Enid and Lawrence don't take too much plot time from the real star of the show.
Strangely, though the Pollexfen-Wisberg team sought to give their visitor a sense of visual strangeness-- seen above in both the design of the air-helmeted alien and his spaceship-- their science is no better than the FLASH GORDON serial of the 1940s, in that the scientists' first inkling of extraterrestial advent is the appearance of, not a mere spaceship, but a whole *planet* that has wandered into Earth's solar system, yet fails to cause the sort of gravitational effects that such a body ought to have. Since we later learn that "Planet X" is dying, it seems impractical that the alien and his unseen people would choose to pilot it around like a ship. Perhaps, for all the scientific fallacies incumbent on the idea of the "invading planet," there's some archetypal appeal to the idea, even for a production too modest to realize any spectacular effects from it.
The film's first half-hour, during which the Earth-people attempt to establish communication with the visitor, is easily the strongest. Since the alien never communicates directly with the protagonists, his motives are initially as murky as the fogbanks pervading the island-- which also serve to conceal the film's dependence on studio locations, aside from brief scenes at the Griffith Observatory. Initially the alien seems willing to communicate, though he possesses a powerful ray gun that can paralyze the will of its victims. While the others aren't looking, Mears turns on the visitor, attempting to cut off the X-ite's air supply in order to learn his secrets.
The alien survives Mears' interference and returns to his ship with Enid in tow. At this point the script's implicit sympathy for the exploring ET is inverted, as the Earthpeople learn that the Man from Planet X is the vanguard of an invasion force, set to help his people settle the Earth and get rid of its current inhabitants. In the end the Planet X invader is defeated and his people are diverted, but curiously, the script gives Enid a last line in which she expresses a confusing sympathy for the alien trespasser.
Still, the moody quality of this low-budget effort, principally the creation of director Edgar G. Ulmer, persuades one to like PLANET X despite its flaws. One can't say the same of NEANDERTHAL MAN.
I've found many a silk purse amid sow's ears like TWELVE TO THE MOON and PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES, but this "Dr. Jekyll and Mister Caveman" outing defeats me.
In contrast to PLANET X, which sets up the protagonists in an adept manner, NEANDERTHAL assembles its cast of characters in a clumsy fashion. The earliest scenes deal with a hunter who is dumbfounded to see a saber-toothed tiger roaming about in the California High Sierras. He fades out of the story, but game warden Oakes also sees the strange beast, usually played by a modern tiger, though at one point the filmmakers insert a shot of a tigerskin rug wearing "tusks" because they couldn't get the tiger to wear them! Oakes contacts a university zoologist named Harkness, the principal viewpoint character of the story. Harkness seeks to confer with a local scientist named Groves who lives in the area, but the scientist is absent from his house, though Harkness takes dinner with Groves' fiancee Ruth and his daughter Jan.
Groves is first seen in a nearby city, having a row with other scientists who reject outright Groves' theory that neanderthal men had the same innate intelligence as modern men. The script fails to provide any psychological reason for Groves to be so obsessed with this idée fixe, but he's not content to rail at his colleagues, but goes off on Harkness when he finds a strange guest at dinner. This might be a little more understandable if Groves were an "alpha male" type who proved fiercely protective of either fiancee, daughter, or both. But there's no romantic chemistry between Harkness and any of the women in the household, be it daughter Jan, fiancee Ruth or a strange deaf-and-dumb servant named Celia.
It comes out that as a consequence of Groves' researches into matters prehistoric, he's come up with a serum that can regress any species into its primordial ancestor. He's responsible for regressing a house cat into the saber-toothed tiger, as well as covering things up when Harkness and Oakes shoot the tiger. Groves is also apparently responsible for substituting the shot-up corpse of a deer for the tiger, though the script never establishes how he arranges this complicated rigamarole.
Harkness later learns, by searching the doctor's lab, that he also experimented on regressing his servant Celia, and leaves the incriminating evidence around, in the form of photographs showing Celia at different stages of regression. However, according to the doctor's notes the female of the species proved less suscepible to primitive regression-- something of a backhand compliment, I suppose-- so Groves, after unleashing yet another sabre-toothed tiger on an already excited community, decides to experiment on himself a la Doctor Jekyll.
Like his Victorian antecedent, Groves soon learns that "going primitive" isn't all that it's cracked up to be, and essentially rebuts his own theory. Groves repeatedly transforms into a bestial ape-man who kills or injures everyone he encounters-- more on which later. Thanks to Harkness' detective work, a manhunt for the killer ape-man is organized. The neanderthal man is attacked on two fronts, being first savaged by his own tigerish creation and then shot by the hunters. In approved werewolf style, he reverts to his human self as he dies of his wounds.
The one victim whose life is spared by the Neanderthal Man is a curious one: a woman named Nola, who is implicitly raped by the ape-man after he injures her date. The word "rape" is never actually used, but Nola's description of the way the creature attacked her leaves little doubt. It's strange to see so visceral a topic raised in an early 1950s SF-film, but it seems virtually thrown in for a quick exploitative effect. It seems particularly strange given that Groves is so obsessed with his theory that he seems to have no passion for either his fiancee or the serving-girl he experiments upon. But if Pollexfen and Wisberg meant this development to suggest his unbridled id, the scene fails to generate any such insights.
Additionally, the dialogue in NEANDERTHAL is one of the worst I've seen in a film of the period. At least Ed Wood's dialogue was entertaining in its demented way.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
THE ILLUSTRATED MAN (1969)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
American cinema of the 1960 was replete with many "artsy" films, the belated spawn of the French New Wave. Jack Smight's adaptation of three Ray Bradbury stories from the author's collection THE ILLUSTRATED MAN had an advantage over other metaphenomenal art-films, however, in that many of Bradbury's stories of the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes appearing in tony magazines like ESQUIRE, utilized the same "high-art" approach as the New Wave's films.
I don't know whether Smight or his scriptwriter Howard b. Kreitsek chose the three stories out of the eighteen in the collection, but someone certainly chose the stories with an eye to the "generation gap" prevalent in the period's culture. Only one of Bradbury's stories, however, actually plays to that concept, suggesting that the filmmakers were not that concerned with fidelity to Bradbury.
One of the film's central conceits takes the opposite of the usual Hollywood approach to anthology-films: instead of featuring dozens of disparate actors in the assorted stories, actors Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom are in all three stories as well as the "wraparound" story, a device also borrowed from the book but given a very different treatment.
Discounting the wraparound for the moment, the lead story "The Veldt" is the closest to Bradbury's version. Bradbury's story deals with the deadly result of parents allowing their children to be "babysat" by the virtual-reality "television" of the future. Bradbury's story is a little more of a screed against parental permissiveness, while Smight's version tends more to show as inevitable the children's deadly rebellion against their parental units.
"The Long Rain" deals with the psychological dissolution of a team of soldiers stationed on eternally rainy Venus. Of the three discrete stories, this is the more visually spectacular. The original story mentions, but does not show, native Venusians hostile to the soldiers, aligning the story with Joseph Conrad's tales of colonial disintegration. The film-version does not mention natives; in place of colonialism, the filmmakers-- perhaps with an eye to the ongoing Vietnam conflict-- emphasize the conflict of the rank-and-file soldiers with their commander.
"Last Night of the World," however, entirely rewrites the substance of Bradbury's tale, which I discussed in greater detail here. Since this story has no overt conflict, it's not surprising that Smight and Kreitsik rewrote it, changing it from a gentle elegy for all humanity to a condemnation of the tragic results of believing in false oracles.
The wraparound, however, is the part of the film that holds up best for current audiences. In the book, a young man wandering in the wilds of America simply stumbles across an "illustrated man," a freak whose body is entirely covered with tattoo-like images. When the wanderer gazes at any image for a long enough period, he "sees" the story behind the image, which is one of the stories in the book. The wraparound is not much used in the prose anthology, as it would have become quickly tedious. But in the film the meeting of the wanderer and the illustrated man in the Smight film (dubbed "Carl" and "Willie" respectively) is one that escalates in strangeness between the three stories, taking on increasingly sinister tones. The wraparound in the book simply ends when the wanderer runs away, having seen a tattoo-image of his being murdered by the Illustrated Man. Smight expands on this, giving a sort of chimerical "reason" as to why the fated hostility evolves between the two strangers. In essence, as in the other stories, a conflict between an "older generation" and a "younger generation" seems to be at the root of the conflict. There might even be some influence from the Frazerian concept of the "sacred king" who advances to his position by killing the old king, but I can't say that Smight's other works reflect a strong interest in mythography.
I should note that Smight also builds up an element completely absent from the Bradbury wraparound: sex. Most Bradbury stories avoid sex like the plague, but sexual freedom was a major theme of late 1960s cinema, the Illustrated Man's illustrations come about as a result of his encounter with the witchy Felicia (Bloom).
DARK SHADOWS (1991)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
According to Wikipedia Dan Curtis didn't want to revive his famous teleseries DARK SHADOWS (1966-71), but was talked into it by TV executive Brandon Tartikoff. The revival sputtered out quickly, yielding only 12 episodes, currently available in a DVD collection.
It's easy to Monday-morning quarterback, but in retrospect it's plain that the revival could not successfully translate the daytime horror-soap's greatest asset: its brooding (some would say plodding) narrative pace, never to my recollection leavened by the least bit of comic relief. By luck and/or design, the original DARK SHADOWS shared the meandering, contemplative ethos of those eras loosely termed "Romantic" and "Victorian." DARK SHADOWS was the teleseries equivalent of a novel from that period, and not exclusively in the novels of the horror genre, such as FRANKENSTEIN or DRACULA. That same Old World ethos was no less prominent in naturalistic novels like LES MISERABLES and THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP.
Though the 1991 SHADOWS is unquestionably well-acted and well-staged, it was conceived (or re-conceived) with the demands of a weekly teleseries in mind. There was no question of keeping any of that Old World quality under those circumstances, and, as if to compound the problem, the producers chose English actor Ben Cross to essay the pivotal role of the melancholy vampire Barnabas Collins. Ironically, Cross may well a much more versatile actor than the original Barnabas, Jonathan Frid. But Frid captured the sense of a man who had been born in the 1700s, a task for which Cross did not prove suited.
The other performers do adequately in adapting adumbrated versions of the original rambling plotlines from the first years of the original series. The only actor who proves most noteworthy, however, is Barbara Steele in the role of Dr. Julia Hoffman. In interviews Steele occasionally remarked that most of her horror-film roles afforded her little opportunity to utilize the full range of her acting-skills, but at the very least her Julia Hoffman is a much well-realized individual than most of Steele's other roles.
The themes that made the original SHADOWS so interesting are also marginalized, such as the psychological complexities of the Collins family and the "Upstairs, Downstairs" sociological theme that results in a fascinating parallel between modern-day Victoria Winters and Old World witch-woman Angelique, both of whom are "commoners" who dare to love the upper-crust Barnabas. The best thing about the SHADOWS revival is that Curtis did manage to end the show on a note of closure, which is more than many short-lived teleseries are able to pull off.
CITY HUNTER (2011)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
This South Korean-made TV drama, with light overtones of BATMAN and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, doesn't resemble anything I saw in my spotty viewing of the 1980s anime CITY HUNTER. Perhaps the teleseries builds on something in the original manga, with which I am not familiar. In my experience the anime is entirely isophenomenal, however escapist in tone. The only metaphenomenal element here is that, as shown above, the mystery avenger wears a face-mask that adds to his repute as the urban avenger "City Hunter." Aside from the mask, City Hunter has no uniform, somewhat like this character
The masked avenger doesn't make many literal appearances in the soap-operatic narrative; most of the time he appears to be "Johnny Lee," a young, empty-headed "Don Diego" type who promptly gets embroiled in romantic misadventures with a young woman named Kim Nana. But he's been trained for a mission of vengeance by his adoptive father "Steve Lee." The elder man was part of a South Korean military contingent that was wiped out during a secret operation thanks to betrayal from within. Steve Lee is the only survivor, and since infant Johnny's father was among those who died, Steve abducts the infant from his mother. By the time he becomes a young man, Johnny has been trained in the skills of assassination, and plans to use them on the traitors, all safe within the high echelons of South Korea's governmental and business elite.
The martial arts sequences are decent but far from mind-blowing. The teleseries' main strength are the traditional boy-girl romance elements, acted with a good sense of variety by the leads. The only symbolism here is sociological in nature, as the narrative repetitively stresses the need to cast out corrupt individuals in South Korean government. The script never goes beyond this literal-minded pattern, so I rate the mythicity as "poor," though the soap-opera itself is reasonably entertaining.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
WONDER WOMAN (2009)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological, psychological*
Though it seems that this direct-to-video animated film apparently was not popular enough to spawn a series, it does deserve some credit for at least attempting to deal with some of the "sexual politics" issues implicit in the "Wonder Woman" concept, which is more than one sees in most of the Amazon's translations into other media.
The main plot-thread that the story keeps constant with other comics-versions is that of pilot Steve Trevor crash-landing upon the magically hidden isle of Themiscrya, home of the immortal Amazons of ancient Greece. In both the original 1940s version this event is unrelated to the backstory that causes the Amazons' self-exile: Queen Hippolyta's victimization by Heracles.
The script by Michael Jelenic and comics-writer Gail Simone bring these two plot-elements together, so that Steve Trevor becomes Wonder Woman's helper in her quest to stop the depradations of the god who abused Hippolyta in ancient times-- here rewritten from Heracles to the less popular Greek god of war, Ares. The Wonder Woman comics of the 1980s posited a situation in which Zeus punished Heracles for unspecified crimes by imprisoning him beneath Themiscrya. Here, because Ares seduced and impregnated Hippolyta with a child-- one whom Hippolyta herself kills-- Zeus gives the Amazons their immortal paradise but also makes them the jailkeepers to Ares. This makes for an interesting parallel: Ares is brought to the Amazon Isle and is freed upon modern Earth by rogue Amazon Persephone just as Steve Trevor comes to Themiscrya accidentally and is escorted back to modernity by Princess Diana, aka "Wonder Woman." This almost makes the island something of a womb-symbol: though neither Ares nor Trevor is literally born there, they escape its feminine dominion much as unruly male children escape the womb in such mythic stories such as the birth of the Egyptian Set.
Diana-- the only Amazon conceived upon the island through magical parthenogenesis, and thus the only one without memories of "man's world," also desires to leave the island-womb. Fittingly, though, her desire for freedom has a less destructive, and hence more feminine, tonality. In a conversation between Diana and her friend Alexa-- easily the film's best dialogue-- Diana reflects that even though her favorite horse is fed and cared for, the animal still wants to "run free"-- a desire that Diana clearly feels as well. Thus her curiosity and her desire for the new are Diana's implicit motives for leaving paradise, rather than either the explicit morive of hunting down the escaped Area or (as in the 1940s origin) because of falling in love-at-first-sight with Steve Trevor.
That said, once Wonder Woman leaves her island, the mission to stop Ares predominates, and she shows little or no curiosity about exploring man's world. Indeed, though Trevor volunteers to help her-- admittedly, with an eye toward seducing her, since this Trevor is a "playa"-- Diana instantly becomes openly condemnatory of both "man's world" and men in general. Eventually this leads to a little character conflict when Trevor calls her on her simple-minded beliefs about him, but the "sexual politics" argument becomes confused because of this shift in Diana's character. If she had plunged into man's world with starry-eyed expectations and had been disappointed by its rampant sexism, then her transition into a "man-hater" would have been somewhat more logical.
The Simone-Jelenic script also falters in its logic in trying to find common ground between Diana's primary mission-- to return Trevor to his world and stop Area-- and the franchise's need to launch Wonder Woman as a costumed crusader. In the 1980s comic books, much was made of Diana being an "ambassador" for her people to the modern world. This film's script attempts to toss that motivation into the mix, in part as a quick explanation for her costume, in that Hippolyta claims that the outfit has been influenced by the "colors" of Trevor's nation. However, the whole idea of an "ambassadorship" doesn't jell with the straightforward military objective of Diana's anti-Ares mission.
The relative maturity of the dialogue and the level of violence-- the Amazons have swords and they know how to use them-- will not please anyone who wants an "all-ages" Wonder Woman, which may be one reason the video may have generated no more entries.
Best line: an aide telling the President of the U.S. that they've been saved from a war-zombie apocalypse by a bunch of "armored supermodels."
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
"In order to see you must first open your eyes"-- deep thought from Grazbo the Dwarf
As many before me have opined, the best way to view Al Adamson's DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN is as a comedy, though technically I have to label it a (melo)drama. Just to add even more confusion to the category-mix, the main plotline-- that Dracula has a yen to use a mad scientist and the Frankenstein Monster in a grand bid for power-- seems most derived from the Universal "monster mash" comedy ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.
Indeed, given that DVF is Adamson's ninth film as full-fledged director, it's surprising that the man hadn't made a Frankenstein film before this, since most of his works are cobbled together from a variety of sources, just like the archetypal Mary Shelley monster. DVF, for instance, started as a biker-film sequel to a successful Adamson film called SATAN'S SADISTS. Then the script injected the element of mad butchers waylaying people, and this grew into a mad scientist who was a descendant of Doctor Frankenstein. Then Dracula got into the act as well, not to mention some musical stings ripped off from the original CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.
The more mundane basis of the original story is seen in the plight of the viewpoint character Judith (Regina Carroll, the director's wife), who is searching for her missing sister. Little does Judith know that her sister Joan had her head cut off by the maniac Groton (Lon Chaney Jr.), who serves the will of the mad Dr. Duryea (J. Carroll Naish). Duryea, like many mad scientists before him, believes that he can create a miracle serum from the blood of murdered victims, with one refinement (if one can call it that): the victim must undergo great trauma to produce the needed effect. A borrowing from THE TINGLER as well, perhaps?
But Doctor Duryea isn't the only monster in the house, for out of nowhere Dracula shows up in the doctor's lab, conveniently located beneath an amusement park. The vampire lord, who knows all about the doctor and his plans, reveals that he has located the body of the Frankenstein Monster, concealed by some of Duryea's enemies. Dracula makes a "quid pro quo" proposition: give me access to your miracle serum and I'll sic the Frankenstein Monster on the only surviving member of your old enemies. Why Dracula himself doesn't just kill this last pathetic victim-- played by none other than Forrest J. Ackerman-- is never revealed, and for that matter Duryea's blood-serum research is in no way enhanced by the Monster's presence. Presumably the director felt the Monster had to have something to do to justify his name in the credits.
I'll pass over the excruciating details as to how Judith's search for her sister leads her, and Mike, a newly acquired amateur-detective boyfriend, to Dr. Duryea's hideout. Both the vampire and the Monster seem to disappear for long stretches of this part of the film, appearing only after Duryea has suffered one of the cinema's most improbable deaths. One of the funniest scenes appears then, when the Monster attacks Mike. Mike blinds the creature with a flare, and the Monster mistakenly attacks Dracula until the vampire can drive him off with a whammy. Surprisingly, Mike actually buys it then, as Dracula incinerates the boyfriend with a bolt of fire from his ring. I think we can fairly assume that Adamson was innocent of any influence from Iron Man's The Mandarin.
To justify the title with which the film was being sold, Adamson then tossed together a last-moment incident in which the Monster falls for Judith and attacks the vampire when Dracula wants to make her one of his kind. The scene in which the irate undead finally tears apart the Monster by his seams remains the film's high point in bad inventiveness.
I had to think about whether or not to consider this a "combative drama," since I had dismissed THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI simply because there's no real build to the conflict between the two creatures in that film. But at last I decided that there is at least the suggestion of an escalating conflict between the vampire and the heir of Frankenstein, so "combative" it is.
Monday, May 20, 2013
STAR TREK (2009), STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS (2013)
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*
Rarely does one see the first sequel to a film-franchise show a huge positive leap as against the original film. Some viewers prefer "The Empire Strikes Back" to "A New Hope," but I for one have never seen any such fans express total negativity toward the original.
Despite my negative feelings toward the 2009 STAR TREK reboot, I'll admit that it succeeded in its summer-movie mission. Whereas the TREK franchise had limped along for years, embraced only by the hardcore fans and thus irrelevant to the mainstream audience, producer-director J.J. Abrams launched the franchise into box-office success at last. It did so in part by eschewing the "technobabble" of the hardcore SF-fan, and jettisoning the burdensome continuity built up over decades upon the schema pioneered by Roddenberry.
I don't fault Abrams for navigating clear of this narrative morass. By propelling the TREK franchise into an alternate history, one where (for instance) Spock's planet Vulcan is destroyed, Abrams opened it up the potential to re-imagine the continuity. In the 2009 film, however, the script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman suffered from a paucity of imagination no less the worst of the in-continuity predecessors (possibly STAR TREK: GENERATIONS, which resembles the 2009 film in having a menace that spans at least two generations).
Because '09 TREK chose to re-introduce all of the characters-- as well as finding quick ways to propel them into positions of authority-- it's inevitable that the characters don't play off one another as well as they did in Classic Trek. However, a lot of the "character-moments" designed by Orci and Kurtzman were predictable. Kirk is the emotional risk-taker (far more so than in the classic series), while Spock is the conservative rule-follower, even though their early experiences show both of them as alienated due to a father-figure, or lack of same. Other "classic" characters are brought on to do their little turns on the cat-walk, but even some of the eyebrow-raising changes-- such as a love affair between Spock and Uhura-- seemed gratutious.
The intellectual content of the original series-- which, admittedly, was not always terribly deep-- is also jettisoned in favor of a "thriller" approach reminiscent of Abrams' outing on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3. Nothing shows this orientation better than an overlong scene in '09 wherein Kirk and Sulu must battle Romulans on the outside of the villain's ship.
And then there's the villain, a Romulan who just happens to have the same name as a Roman emperor. Eventually one learns that Nero's raison d'etre is his quest to be avenged on the entire Federation because one of their representatives-- namely, the original version of Mister Spock from the Roddenberry continuity-- attempted to save Nero's planet from destruction but failed. As motives go, this is a pale rewrite of the one given Khan in STAR TREK II: WRATH OF KHAN. As if to emphasize the linkage, Nero even tortures a victim with an earwig-like creature much like one used by Khan in the aforesaid movie.
Given that I found '09 no more than diverting, I'm amazed to find that INTO DARKNESS scores in every way wherein the earlier film failed, particularly since the later film shares the same writing-team. There is one additional writer's credit for Damon Lindelof, though he served as a producer on the first film as well. Though the characters haven't really spent that much more time together since the first film-- the "five-year mission" does not occur until the end of this film-- the writers manage this time to play off the "classic" personas in terms of both their original history and their revised elements. Naturally as in the series Spock and Kirk get the lion's share of attention, but every character gets more than just a little turn, playing some substantive role in the plot. The script's use of both pathos and humor is also far more pronounced.
The difference may be explained by the director and his writers having played to their strengths in a concerted fashion. The reboot still has none of the original franchise's fascination with strange alien cultures and cosmological phenomenon; again what we have is a futuristic thriller. But in place of a nebulous revenge-seeking foe who amounts to little more than "Khan Noonian Singh writ small," this script not only produces a new and viable verison of Khan, but adds a secondary villain designed as a condemnation of military imperialism-- though with a good deal less pontification than one sees in earlier TREK movies. I particularly liked the fact that the script takes issue with the prevalent cultural idea of simply "blowing away" an enemy political figure deemed to be dangerous to a government's interests.
I won't say that there aren't problems with the exceptionally complicated plotline. Many aspects of the plotline involving the two villains fall apart when one asks the question, "would Character A really do X in response to the actions of Character B?" But films often fudge such details. The backstory of the murder-story in Hitchcock's VERTIGO is just as logically untenable as the backstory details in DARKNESS, but VERTIGO remains a classic despite its well concealed lapses. DARKNESS, if not a classic for the ages, does a decent job of involving the audience in the passions and complications of the characters' lives, so that only later will some audience-members experience the famed "refrigerator moment."
In contrast to the mediocre action-scenes of the '09 film, Abrams brings a sense of visceral excitement to both outer space battles and hand-to-hand fights, as well as gleaning the maximum dramatic impact from them. Since my original viewing of "Space Seed" from the classic series, I had wondered what might have transpired had Khan had a dust-up with Spock. Now thanks to DARKNESS, I not only get my Khan vs. Spock fight, but one that fits in with the dramatic arc between Kirk and Spock.
EDIT: I originally rated the mythicity of the latter film as "good," but have since downgraded itto "fair."
THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
The great FX work of James Whale's THE INVISIBLE MAN is often the focus of reviews of this film, as is the unique voice "personality" provided by the star enacting the titular role, Claude Rains. To avoid repetition, let such plaudits be taken as already stated.
One thing I found most interesting about the script by R.C Sherriff, Philip Wylie and Preston Sturges is that it has a darker feel to it than the majority of 1930s horror films. By "darker" I don't mean simply that the film contains monstrous characters who do horrible things, since most horror films have such elements. Rather, a work is especially "dark" in the sense of what Northrop Frye calls an "irony" if all the characters exist in a world that seems fundamentally hopeless, one where no one's positive actions amount to much. Neither of Whale's FRANKENSTEIN films conform to this pattern, since in both the scientist is allowed to escape the penalty for his hubris and to be "saved" by his fiancee. One 1930s film that comes closer to the pattern of the irony is 1934's THE BLACK CAT, which conjures a bleak vision of life despite allowing two innocents to avoid being caught in the mills of the gods. But most horror-films conform to the pattern of the drama, which allows for some degree of comparative victory for the forces of life, as we see in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and most of the sequels to the original INVISIBLE MAN film.
What most struck me as ironic in Whale's INVISIBLE MAN is that its script manages to show both the way of the risk-taker and the way of the conservative plodder as equally doomed.
Twice the script intones some variation on the familiar (if not necessarily original) refrain: "he meddled in things that man should leave alone." Certainly Doctor Griffin's foolhardy experiment, in which he tests the serum "monocane" on himself, is far from salutary in its effects. Griffin not only becomes invisible but also insane, and he plots to use his unseeable status to gain absolute power over the world. In his godlike ambition he forgets nearly all of his connections to ordinary humanity, particularly to his fiancee Flora-- a character invented for the film, since the Wells novel, like most in his oeuvre, is romance-free. Griffin takes a foolish risk and kills countless innocent victims. Many older horror films don't date well with modern audiences, but the scene in which Griffin causes a train to derail, implicitly killing dozens of passengers, remains as bracing as it was in 1933. In contrast to the more "sinned-against" character of the sequel, Griffin's climactic death is something of a relief, since the audience knows that there was no way back for this character.
However, the character of Kemp, the "conservative plodder," is no better. In contrast to the Kemp of the Wells novel, who's rather colorless in his righteousness, the character played by William Harrigan comes across as slimy and self-serving. In one of Kemp's earliest scenes, he not only attempts to put the moves on Flora at a time when she's desperately worried about Griffin's prolonged absence, he also preaches that Griffin was foolish to pursue risky ventures. Kemp boasts that he's prospered because he only does research for established pharmaceutical companies, rather than pursuing "pure research." In later scenes Griffin frets about how his original research, and later his search for a cure to his invisible status, have been hampered by his need for money, expressing a hostility to filthy lucre that the socialist H.G. Wells might have found appropriate. In one of Griffin's less murderous acts of chaos, he robs a bank and simply throws dollar bills about to the delight of local citizens. Whale and his scripters escalate the novel's association of Griffin and Kemp into a clash of opposites, and when the Invisible Man successfully kills Kemp, the audience can't help feeling some pity for the wretched man even though he remains largely unsympathetic.
There's also a modicum of societal commentary, as in the novel, on the small-town eccentricities which the Invisible One encounters, but this takes a decided back seat to the ideological struggle of Griffin the overeacher and Kemp the plodder-- a struggle which both lose.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
DISTRICT 9 (2009)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
DISTRICT 9, which looks to be the most expensive SF-film ever shot in South Africa (in particular contrast to this one), might be considered the opposite side of the coin to 1988's ALIEN NATION. In both films, a wayward spaecehip filled with quasi-humanoid aliens arrives on (or above) Earth. In NATION Earth responds with a certain liberal largesse, allowing the alien "newcomers" to attempt integration with the people of Earth. DISTRICT presents a darker, more scarred sign of that coin, for in Neil Blomkamp's film the insectoid visitors, roughly a million in number and given the nickname "Prawns," are confined to a refuse-filled "concentration camp" policed by the South African military.
On the DVD the filmmakers assert that their film is not made to be expressly political, but to be entertaining, to get the most out of an uncomfortable conflict. There's some truth in this, but the filmmakers certainly knew in advance that merely setting this "first contact" story in South Africa would set all manner of political resonances, ranging from those associated with apartheid to the concentration camps of WWII. One facet of the screenplay allows for more "free play" than the real-life situations, though. The prawns are dominated by the human military, but the creatures bring with them an alien super-technology. Because this technology can only be activated by prawn-biology, human authorities have every motive not just to oppress their unwanted visitors, but to exploit and experiment upon them in order to harness this advanced weaponry.
Enter "ordinary hero' (what I've termed a "demihero" elsewhere) Wikus van der Merwe, a bureaucrat put in charge of evicting the prawns from their original confinement to a new and even less desireable location. By chance Wikus is infected by an alien artifact, and begins to mutate into one of the prawns. Desperate for some method of reversing the change, and ignored by the warmongering authorities, Wikus is forced to make common cause with "Christopher Johnson," one of the more intelligent prawns. Johnson has doped out a way to return to the spaceship and escape Earth's tender mercies, but needs Wikus' help to do so. Their one advantage is that Wikus' infected biology makes it possible for him to use the devastating weapons of prawn-technology, so that he blows away a lot of nasty Earth-soldiers as well as various disreputable criminal types. This opposition of violent forces qualifies DISTRICT for the category of the "combative drama," for the emphasis is less upon the physical conflict than Wikus' gradual ability to think beyond his own predicament once he's walked a mile in alien feet.
The film received some criticism for supposedly stereotyping the aforesaid "criminals" Wikus encounters, since all of them are black Africans, though they are specifically Nigerians rather than black natives of South Africa. Some critics didn't like the invocation of the "black cannibal" trope (the Nigerian ganglord wants to eat Wikus to gain his power), but this is excusable partly in that the whites are just as nasty and retrograde in their own ways-- particularly Wikus' main opponent, a mean militarist named Koobus. Further, though DISTRICT is not technically a comedy, the "cannibal" trope is invoked with a good deal of humor, and is no more racist than the teaming of Wikus and Johnson as an "odd human-alien couple."
Friday, May 17, 2013
HERCULES (1983), THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES (1985)
MYTHICITY: *fair* (sort of...)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*
In this review of SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and JACK THE GIANT KILLER, I contrasted the films in terms of how well they'd chosen to fill their fantasy-narratives with "impossible things," saying that one had done so in "the right way" while the other had followed "the not-so-right way."
However, the fault I found in JACK THE GIANT KILLER-- that of following the example of SINBAD too mechanically-- doesn't even begin to describe the problems with these two Italian-lensed Golan-Globus productions. Neither of these mythic misconceptions prove quite as stunningly awful as the current reigning champ for "Best Worst Movie." Nevertheless, both movies, written and directed by Luigi Cozzi, have the feel of someone taking a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology and tossing it into a blender.
I've frequently found gems of mythic significance in some really goofy films, but it's hard to rate the symbolism of these two daffy flicks. I can see some definite myth-motifs in Cozzi's two films, and I have to believe that he had some inklings about some of the meanings behind the archaic myths he invokes. And yet even when Cozzi explicitly points to some of these meanings-- like the idea of Hercules as a force of order in the universe, both on the cosmic and human levels-- he puts these myth-meanings across with a strange combination of incoherence and leaden obviousness.
To be sure, an awful lot of Italian fantasy and SF films tend to wander from one oddball phenomenon to another with little sense of continuity, so Cozzi's nothing special in this regard. But because there is so little continuity, it seems pointless to attempt plot summations. Both films take roughly the same approach: the evil king Minos-- not a foe of Hercules in archaic myth-- somehow imperils the metaphysical balance between "order" and "chaos." Some or all of the Greek gods send Hercules to fight Minos, but various secondary foes or problems delay the demigod until he finally manages to lock horns with his enemy and defeat him.
In narrative terms, the 1983 HERCULES is the weaker story. It starts out with a partial "origin-story" for the hero, but it quickly, and rather incoherently, puts him on the trail of Minos. The evil king, who worships "science" rather than the gods, must be pursued to his island sanctum on the isle of Thera, a genuine Mediterranean island famous for a volcanic eruption during what we now call the "Minoan civilization." In Hercules' wandering course, the following things occur:
*Creation itself begins with some vague demiurgic forces, which may give rise to the Jar of Pandora, which in turn begets the earth, the gods, and mankind. This is at least a novel use of Pandora, who was sometimes figured as "the first woman" but was never considered a creatrix of the universe. One might hazard that Cozzi wanted Pandora, or just her womb-like jar, as a stand-in for the archaic goddess "Gaea."
*Zeus creates Hercules not by sleeping with his mother, but by sending down divine light to infuse the child of two nobles with super-powers. When the forces of Minos kill Hercules' parents, the infant is sent floating down a river by a loyal maid in patent imitation of Moses and other waterlogged infant-heroes. Zeus' wife Hera for some reason hates Hercules even though he's not the product of Zeus sleeping around, so she sends water-serpents to kill the infant. Baby Herc kills the snakes pretty much the same way his archaic model does.
*Hera and Minos then ignore Hercules for the next 20 years. Then Hera sends a bear to kill Hercules. The hero kills the beast, but not before the animal kills his adoptive father. At this point Minos becomes aware of the threat, and decides to invoke the help of his weapon-maker Daedalus (who is both female and an incarnation of the "chaos" Cozzi associates with scientific innovation). Minos sends a mechanical moth-creature to attack Hercules, but with numbing monotony, the monster only succeeds in killing Herc's mother. At this point Herc decides he needs to learn why he's so strong and causes so much suffering. His solution to this existential crisis is the same as every other *peplum,* to go to town and fight in a gladiatorial game.
*After another Herculean labor, Hercules romances the king's daughter Cassiopeia, who will function as the true love for whom the hero forsakes all the other tasty morsels who throw themselves at him. Minos' daughter Arianna captures both the hero and the princess. Arianna keeps the princess for a later sacrificial ritual and tosses Hercules to feed the fishes. Despite this submarine fate the hero manages to swim to a nearby island.
*Hercules meets an old woman who will help him pursue Minos if he lets her drink some of his "powerful blood." The young hero's blood restores the old crone to the youthful persona of Circe, who then takes Hercules on a long and winding trek to recover a special talisman. On the way Hercules fights another of Daedalos' tinkertoy monsters, and manages to secure the talisman, which gets them off the island but not to Thera.
*Hercules separates the African continent from Europe. Don't ask. This labor earns him to gain the use of the chariot of Prometheus, whom Cozzi has apparently confused with Phaeton. At this point, even though Zeus is trying to help his symbolic son when possible, the high god yields to Hera's nagging and allows Circe to be infected by the spell of Aprhodite. This causes Circe to fall in love with the hero, and to lose her sorcerous powers.
*Finally on Thera, Hercules meets and beats another giant tinkertoy, though Circe perishes in the battle. Arianna plans to seduce Hercules with drugs so as to beget a super-race, while Minos explains to Cassiopeia that she's going to be sacrificed in the volcano, where he's confined a people-eating Phoenix. Hercules fights free of captivity, kills a lot of guard-ass and eventually duels Minos to the death. Oddly he gets to use a sword which Minos filched from the Temple of Hera early in the film, and because Herc draws the sword from its place, the Phoenix (never seen) escapes its confinement and the volcano goes off, though not before Minos is killed and Hercules escapes with Cassiopeia.
The film weirdly ends with Hercules-- apparently bedazzled by all the females who've thrown himself at him-- asking Cassiopeia whether or not she's the real thing, or whether she might be either Arianna or Circe in masquerade. The princess lets him have his cake and eat it too by claiming that "I'm all of them and none of them."
As anyone can see there's a lot of good potential myth-fodder here. What I've left out are most of the things that undermine the awesomeness of the fantasy-motifs-- crude sets, inept dialogue, and of course Lou Ferrigno's total lack of acting-ability. Frankly, while HERCULES isn't the worst film ever, Ferrigno may be the "worst Herc ever."
Compared to this mixmaster mashup, Cozzi's second and last outing is coherent by comparison. The only reason is that for this story he chooses a motif I call the "jigsaw quest." In this kind of myth-narrative, some precious object gets divided into multiple pieces, and the hero has to run around in quest of the parts. Again Cozzi's basic scheme derives from genuine archaic myth, specifically the myth of Typhon, the evil deity who temporarily defeats Zeus and steals what one text calls Zeus' "sinews." In ADVENTURES, Cozzi has Zeus' seven thunderbolts stolen by four rebellious gods: Poseidon, Hera, Aprhodite, and "Flora, Goddess of Spring." To keep Zeus from recovering the thunderbolts, the rebel gods hide the weapons in the bodies of monsters on Earth-- though it's never clear as to how this maneuver helps them overthrow Zeus.
*Though the thunderbolt-monsters are scattered hither and yon, Cozzi starts with one monster, a big fire-creature called Anteaus, to whom virgins are sacrificed. The victims of Anteaus belong to a local tribe, and two young women of that tribe, Urania and Glaucia, seek to appeal to the "Little People" for oracular counsel. The oracles (later given the names of two of the Fates, "Clotho" and "Lachesis") instruct the two women that they will be able to gain assistance from Hercules, as his father Zeus has just sent him to Earth. Even though we're still in archaic Greece, Urania strangely claims that Hercules hasn't been seen "for ages."
*The rebel gods respond to Zeus' action by calling forth their own champion. Flora hoaxes an ambitious warrior into opening the tomb of Minos for her. Then she kills the warrior and uses his blood to resurrect Minos. Minos, however, is even more of a fanatic for "science" than before, and plans to extinguish all of the gods.
*Hercules, Glaucia and Urania fight various monsters, such as "Slime People," a roadshow Medusa, and a warrior named "Tartarus," releasing a thunderbolt with each decisive victory. Tartarus is interesting in that though he inhabits an earthly forest, he keeps the souls of "demigods" imprisoned in the form of white dolls that he hangs from the forest's trees. This is one of the few visuals that seems to resonate with authentic myth, rather than owing its inspiration to American films like STAR WARS and SUPERMAN.
*Hercules and his gal-pals take a side-trip to visit Thetis, nereid of the sea, because the only way the hero can fight the fire-monster Anteaus is by applying a special "balm" to his bare skin. This may owe something to a roughly similar motif used for the hero Jason in the ARGONAUTICA. Herc successfully beats the fire-beast and releases another thunderbolt.
*Just so the hero won't be deprived of the requiste evil-queen seduction-scene, he is captured by "the Amazons of Scythia" with their new-and-improved "magnetic net." Not sure if the net was a creation of Daedalos or not, though it certainly works better than the tinkertoys from the previous film. The Queen of Spiders (called "Arachne" in the credits) tries to overpower the captive hero. Urania calls upon her psychic powers and sends the "powers of light" to Hercules, enabling him to kill Arachne and unleash another thunderbolt.
*Minos kills Flora with his "sword of ice," and then turns on the other gods, killing both Poseidon and Aphrodite. He lets Hera live to get info from her, because he doesn't know where one of the thunderbolts is located, but he doesn't seem to do anything to coerce the reluctant goddess. Hercules is reunited with Urania and Glaucia, but Minos overtakes them. Glaucia betrays Urania, and Minos reveals that he had the original Glaucia killed days ago, so that he Minos could use his phony Glaucia to monitor Hercules' movements (not that it seemed to help him much). To prove his power Minos has the false Glaucia kill herself.
*Because of the chaos running riot, the moon is about to collide with the Earth. Minos and Hercules both become astral beings and fight each other in space, sometimes taking the form of animated sketches based on KING KONG. Hera ironically ends up helping her old foe Hercules, giving him a magic sword with which he slays Minos for the second time.
*Urania is revealed to be a pure creation of light by the hand of Hera, made to be the vessel of the thunderbolt. Hera has a sudden moment of maternal feeling, but Urania wants the world to be stabilized, so she pleads to be killed. Hera gives her "the kiss of death," so Zeus gets all his thunderbolts in a row. Both Hercules and Urania are translated into constellations, but separately, whereas at the end of HERCULES it was implied that Hercules got to "be with" Cassiopeia even in star-form.
There's no doubt that both films are virtual catalogues of fantasy-content-- far more than one finds in even the most ambitious of the *peplum* films of the 1950s and 1960s. But Cozzi has no appreciation as to when "less is more." Even had he been given a more competent star than Lou Ferrigno, Cozzi unleashes so much myth-content that the effect is more like an avalanche than a sublime experience-- with the effect that almost everything that's potentially sublime becomes, instead, "ridiculous." I will note that ADVENTURES doesn't have as many anachronistic machines in it, and that a few scenes capture a little sense of wonder if one turns down the dialogue. Urania and Glaucia are both more interesting characters than Hercules, and seem to be among the most kickass female characters ever to arise from an Italian fantasy-film.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
THE TALE OF ZATOICHI CONTINUES (1962), BLIND RAGE (1978)
PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
In my review of the original ZATOICHI film, I commented that the narrative thrust was that of the purgative drama rather than the invigorating adventure. After my viewing of a later Zatoichi entry, I imagined that the bulk of the films about the blind swordsman/masseur probably tended more toward adventure in the later entries. However, the second film in the series makes the transition more quickly than I expected, as the story places far more emphasis on spectacle than on dramatic agonies.
The central plot maintains the tone of sociological protest in the first film, in that low-class masseur Zatoichi falls into trouble through no fault of his own, but through the sins of the well-born. While plying his masseur trade, Zatoichi becomes privy to the fact that a great lord is losing his marbles. The lord's retainers don't want the masseur telling tales, so they attempt to kill him, demonstrating how little the life of a low-class human being has for them. Zatoichi only survives because of his peerless swordsmanship, enabling him to slay six or seven opponents in one dust-up.
A secondary plotline has Zatoichi consorting with another profession of society's low rung, when he encounters a group of female prostitutes. Zatoichi's temptation is handled realistically, in contrast to American heroes who would never sully their hands (or whatever). But the main importance of this plot is to reveal an aspect of Zatoichi's past, that he once lost the love of his life to his own brother. In fact, Setsu, the one prostitute who befriends the masseur, reminds Zatoichi of his lost wife. However, a crippled samurai named Yoshio also covets Setsu-- and only after building some suspense as toYoshio's motives does the film reveal that Yoshio is Zatoichi's brother. The sense that the two siblings are once again opposed due to their common lust for one woman produces a fine undertone of Japanese fatalism.
In the earlier reviews I've explained in detail my reasons for deeming Zatoichi's feats of blind swordmanship to be "uncanny," and I devoted one review to showing how certain types of blind hero failed to transcend the vale of the naturalistic. However, just to provide one more such example, I watched the Phillipines-produced heist-flick BLIND RAGE, which deals with five blind men who conspire to rob a bank.
In a broad sense this idea of a "blind man's burglary" is just as improbable as Zatoichi's peerless feats However, RAGE never imparts the unique tonality of "the uncanny" to its improbable events; rather, the improbabilities are simply there, and the audience either accepts them or not. However, there's not nearly as much one can say about BLIND RAGE. Though producer/writer Leo Fong can be credited with a smattering of "good dumb fun" action films, the pace of RAGE is plodding and its actors are uninspired. Even Fred Williamson, who only appears for about ten minutes in the film to give it some cachet for American audiences, proves unable to inject RAGE with any charisma. There's a tiny amount of sociological content in the film, as the five blind men "rage" against "the Man" for marginalizing their handicapped status, but even this is forced and unimpressive. The only amusing moment is when the five blind thieves employ "Braille watches" to synchronize their operation.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
THE RAVEN (1935)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
It's axiomatic that Universal Studios' THE RAVEN was initiated to follow up the company's box-office success from the previous year, THE BLACK CAT. Both films derived from supposed inspiration by Edgar Allen Poe works (even down to both of them using animals in the titles), both featured two of the era's greatest horror-stars pitted against one another, and both dwell upon Poe's theme of "thanatophilia," albeit in ways that have nothing much to do with Poe's themes.
However, in terms of story-structure, THE RAVEN most resembles another horror-film released in the same month-- June of 1935-- as the Universal film. Universal's THE RAVEN and MGM's MAD LOVE both pursue the idea of a surgeon who falls madly in love with another man's woman, and who attempts to avenge himself on all those who oppose him-- an idea that appears nowhere in 1934's THE BLACK CAT. In addition, though both film-scripts were the efforts of several screenwriters, both movies have one writer in common: Guy Endore.
Endore was not the first writer MGM assigned to adapt Maurice Renard's 1920 novel THE HANDS OF ORLAC into a working script, but according to Wikipedia he is among those who collaborated on early drafts with MAD LOVE's director Karl Freund. Wiki also credits Endore with having presented the original 19-page treatment that evolved in the 1935 RAVEN. Which came first? Lacking a preicise timeline, I can't be sure. But I don't find it incredible to imagine something along these lines: someone, be it Endore or some other script-collaborator on MAD LOVE, introduced the element of the woman-stealing surgeon, an element which, going by available synopsi, does not appear in either the Renard novel or the silent 1924 film adaptation. Endore then sought to "recycle" this basic idea into his treatment for THE RAVEN, since the actual Poe work, the famous long poem, offers no plot that a mainstream movie-company could use. Purely as a hypothesis I tend to credit Endore with introducing this element, if only because he presents another case of "doomed love" in his 1933 novel THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS, though Endore's protagonist in this novel is not otherwise comparable to the mad surgeons of MAD LOVE or THE RAVEN.
I dwell on this point in part because THE RAVEN, though quite enjoyable, feels very much like a mechanical replay of the quite superior treatment of "l'amour fou" in MAD LOVE. Since I haven't yet reviewed the Freund film, I can't offer my specific reasons for claiming MAD LOVE's superiority. All that I can say here is that even on the larger-than-life terms offered by both of these uncanny films, MAD LOVE's madman is more believable than that of THE RAVEN.
At no point does RAVEN's script attempt to offer even a sketchy psychological outline for the extreme thanatophilia professed by the film's premiere monster, Dr. Vollin (Bela Lugosi). "Death is my talisman," Vollin tells the museum representative who visits his house, a house tricked out with full-sized reproductions of Poe's torture devices from the story "Pit and the Pendulum." But early in the film, Vollin is not mad, just rather eccentric in his love for Poe. He has apparently profited from his practice to the extent that he's able to retire from surgery and to indulge his mild obsession in his secluded mansion, with no other human beings around except his servants.
Vollin's only vulnerability is his ego. When young dancer Jean Thatcher is injured in a car accident, her father Judge Thatcher is told that Vollin is the only surgeon skilled enough to save Jean from death. Vollin is flattered that his peers have given him this compliment, and yields to the judge's pleas, coming out of retirement to save Jean's life.
However, Jean's beauty captivates Vollin, particularly when she composes a dance-revue in honor of Vollin's favorite author, even dressing up like a "raven." Since Vollin keeps a statue of a raven in his study, Jean unintentionally becomes for Vollin the embodiment of all the "lost loves" of Poe's stories and verse. One may speculate that perhaps Vollin also had some "lost love" in the past with whom he has merged the image of Jean, but the film remains blithely uninterested in providing any deep psychological insights. One imagines director Lew Landers saying, "What motivation? He's Bela Lugosi, so he's a crazy guy!"
Judge Thatcher sees Jean-- affianced to an age-appropriate young man, also a doctor-- in danger of falling for Vollin-- something the audience never sees, since aside from her dance-tribute Jean shows no special fondness for her savior. Thatcher is horrified to see the obsessed doctor express passion for Jean, so the judge breaks off contact with Vollin. The judge's high-handed rejection sends Vollin over the edge; he desires revenge, but fears that he doesn't have the moxie to kill his enemies. By dumb luck Edmund Bateman (Boris Karloff), a fugitive from justice, comes to Vollin with the mistaken idea that Vollin can surgically alter his face and help him escape the law. Vollin mutilates Bateman in order to make the crook serve him in gaining his revenge. In jig time Vollin lures the Thatchers and some other guests to a "make-up party," but it turns out to be a torture session. Only Bateman's hatred for Vollin, as well as the thug's rather improbable tender feelings toward Jean, saves Vollin's victims and dooms Vollin to one of his own torture-devices.
The main deficit of RAVEN is not so much the psychological flatness of Vollin, which is overcome by the barnstorming performance of Bela Lugosi. Rather, it's that all of his victims are colorless bores. Judge Thatcher, as noted above, is arrogant and unfeeling toward the man who saved his daughter's life, obviously valuing propriety above all else. Jean's tribute to Vollin is the extent to which she acknowledges her debt, but after that, he's almost a joke with which to taunt her fiancee Jerry ("He kinda likes me, y'know?") Handsome age-appropriate suitors to the leading lady are almost always bland in Universal horror films, but even by those standards Jerry is a bumptious clod. And it's almost inevitable that the comedy relief characters are tedium personified.
Finally, we come to Boris Karloff. Despite the fact that Vollin is the center of the narrative, while Bateman is merely a vividly freaky henchman, Karloff received both top billing in the credits and a higher salary than his co-star. The level of Karloff's performance in RAVEN doesn't merit this treatment. Though Karloff delivers some nice lines here, such as the quotable "maybe if a man looks ugly he does ugly things," Bateman's not any better developed than Vollin, and Karloff seems to recycle elements of earlier performances to compensate. In the scene where Bateman learns, in graphic detail, how Vollin has ruined his face, he growls and shakes his fist at the safely hidden surgeon, as if Bateman had suddenly channeled the Frankenstein Monster. The same is true of the thug's sudden compassion for Jean Thatcher; it comes to pass because the scripters needed Bateman to save the nice people and doom Vollin.
There is some satisfaction in the fact that of the six horror-collaborations of Lugosi and Karloff, this is the one in which Lugosi's flamboyance overmasters Karloff's brutishness. The same dichotomy prevailed to some extent in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, where Lugosi'sYgor is far more interesting than Karloff's Monster, even though there's no doubt that the Monster is the central character. The two actors were narrative equals in BLACK CAT, but of the other three horror-films (and obviously I'm omitting the two comedy-collaborations), Karloff's role trumped Lugosi's quite easily in INVISIBLE RAY, BLACK FRIDAY, and THE BODY SNATCHER.
There's no doubt that RAVEN is a fun torture-ride, but it's sublimely ironic that if any 1935 film truly succeeded in emulating the sophisticated perversity of Edgar Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT, it's Freund's MAD LOVE, and not "the big bad raven."
Thursday, May 9, 2013
SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological, metaphysical*
It's tempting to class SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN as a "villain-centric" version of the famed fairy tale. The title makes it sound as if the main focus will be on re-imagining the nature of the relationship between the Snow White of the tale and the minor character of the Huntsman who spares her, thus making possible the heroine's escape from the evil Queen and her sanctuary with the Seven Dwarfs.
Instead, the strongest characterization in HUNTSMAN is neither the lead male (Chris Hemsworth) or the lead female (Kristen Stewart), but the villain, Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron). Yet HUNTSMAN is not a deliberate attempt to reconfigure the story to rehabilitate a famous villain, as in Gregory Maguire's 1995 book WICKED, or to re-tell the famous tale from the POV of the villain, as in the 1997 film SNOW WHITE: A TALE OF TERROR. Although Ravenna is indubitably the most interesting character in HUNTSMAN, she's not the focus of the story as in a truly "villain-centric" narrative. She's simply built up to operatic heights to give her heroic opponents a foe against whom they have almost no chance.
The essential conflicts which HUNTSMAN takes from the fairy tale are those of youth vs. age, and to a lesser extent female vs. male. These two concerns blend to form the film's theme, which might best be stated as the unfairness of the male gender for being perpetually attracted to youth/beauty. HUNTSMAN does not really deal with the theme in any depth, using it solely to provide Ravenna's motivation.
Eric the Huntsman, the most thinly-drawn character of the three, is the one clear exception to Ravenna's imprecations on the male gender. Throughout the film we learn little about the Huntsman's background or personality beyond what is needed for the plot-action. Rather than being simply the Queen's servant as in the classic folktale, this huntsman is an independent warrior who doesn't wish to serve Her Majesty. The key aspect of his background that comes to the fore is that he is a widower, as well as the only example of a male character who remains loyal to a woman, his dead wife. Ravenna manipulates him into serving her by promising (falsely) to reunite him with his lost spouse. But once Eric learns that Ravenna has lied, he allies himself to Snow White-- originally, for mercenary reasons, a la Han Solo rescuing Leia. No romance as such develops between Snow and Eric, though the film leaves things ambiguous. Is Eric attracted to Snow as a woman, thus allowing him to forget his lost wife, or does he simply become the ideal retainer, converted to her service by the power of her regal "innocence?" Whatever his feelings, at film's end when Snow is crowned queen, the Huntsman simply looks on from the crowd, implicitly separated from her by the social hierarchy-- an atypical outcome compared to most modern-day revisions of fairy tales, where doughty young wights often do gain both princess and throne.
Snow White's character has more flexibility. As noted she incarnates the virtue of "innocence" as against the sordid "experience" of Ravenna, though it might be asserted that only the good luck of the script keeps Snow from undergoing a fate much like Ravenna's. In contrast to many modern versions of the character, Kristen Stewart's Snow is not innocent in the sense of being vacuous, lacking any energy to fight for her own life. She's never an exceptional fighter, despite getting tricked out in armor and trying to kill Ravenna at the climax, but she does try. The thing that allows her to triumph over the sorceress is the power of innocence, which the script compares the power of life itself. Only this can defeat the death-force represented by the Queen. Such "life-force" gives Snow the ability to discourage at least one forest-denizen, a giant troll, from attacking her and her retainer, and this trope might be regarded as a loose rewriting of the Disney Snow White's ability to charm wildlife. One can't precisely call Snow's "purity" to be a power as such: she never charms hordes of animals like the Snow White-manqué of 2007's ENCHANTED. The script, though it never directly references specific religious icons or concepts, seems to be invoking something comparable to the Christian rewrites of pagan myths that we moderns know best from Arthurian stories. The figure of "the white hart" is one of these that makes an appearance in HUNTSMAN:
...the white hart became a symbol of purity, redemption and good fortune in Scotland, and eventually became an important symbol in English heraldry too, alongside the mythical unicorn whose horn was said to be endowed with magical properties.-- Tales from a Cottage Garden blog.And since the hart only appears long enough for Snow to charm it, the scene's only purpose seems to be one of comparing the persecuted heroine with this implicit spirit-of-nature. However, HUNTSMAN doesn't pursue this line of symbolism very far, Overall Snow has no more development in her character-arc than does the Huntsman; she simply goes from being the persecuted maiden to a queenly figure marshalling her forces to ride against the evil Queen.
It might be argued that the Queen, too, does not appreciably change, but in general it's not in the nature of villains to change; only to suffer a critical reverse. Still, Ravenna holds the audience's attention because she's the mouthpiece of the theme. Her early background is also hazy: in one scene in the film's extended version, Ravenna is seen as a pretty little girl, who is about to be abducted by unidentified raiders. While Ravenna's brother looks on, the children's mother places a spell on the girl insuring that she will always be capable of renewing her youth and beauty through sorcery.
Sorcery also makes possible Ravenna's easy usurpation of the throne of Snow White's father Magnus. In most versions of the classic story, the king's wife simply dies, and he willingly re-marries. This re-marriage places Snow White in a difficult position once the king too passes on, which usually takes place in a naturalistic fashion in the tales.
HUNTSMAN's Ravenna takes a shorter route to success. Apparently Magnus' wife does die naturally, but following that event, Ravenna uses her sorcery to stage a fake attack on herself, so that Magnus can come to her rescue and be ensorcelled by Ravenna's charms. This duplicity leads to the film's strongest scene, when Magnus attempts to celebrate his wedding-night with his new wife. Ravenna, after immobilizing Magnus with her power, rants about her previous abuse: "I was ruined by a king like you once... I replaced his queen-- an old woman..." "Ruin" here implies rape, albeit one presumably sanctioned by a forced marriage. We don't know what happened to Ravenna's original abuser, but she's clearly chosen to vent her rage on a surrogate, slaying Magnus with a (phallic?) knife, after which she takes over the kingdom with her own forces, commanded by her now-grown brother Finn. She also locks little Snow White in a tower, fortuitously keeping her alive until Snow is old enough to challenge Ravenna. That said, this film largely dispenses with the famed trope of the"beauty contest," focusing rather on the opposition of life and innocence vs. death and experience. Perhaps that's why the "magic mirror" only makes one appearance in HUNTSMAN, unless one counts Ravenna's ability to call up "glass-fragment demons" which she uses first to deceive Magnus, and later to oppose Snow's army.
Ravenna gains considerable audience-sympathy from the revelation of her oppressed past, even though the script emphasizes that she doesn't confine her depredations to the male of the species. Though she kills a young male rebel not long after securing her rule, it's implied that she oppresses other women to a greater extent with her practice of sucking youth and beauty from them. During the flight of Snow and Eric, the heroes encounter a community of women who deliberately scar themselves so that Ravenna won't prey upon them. Though no character explicitly refutes Ravenna's argument about the tyranny of "the male gaze," one may infer that because Ravenna continues renewing herself even after usurping the throne, she has in effect become the thing that she hates.
Still, that may be giving the film-script a little too much credit. I rate the film's mythicity as "good" because it does assemble a considerable number of myth-tropes, but in many cases the impact of the tropes is muddled. A comedy-relief version of the Seven Dwarfs, though it provides one or two laughs, takes up too much time and distracts from the central conflict. Similarly, the introduction of William, Snow's juvenile-boyfriend of sorts, doesn't have much effect on the plot-action except that Ravenna masquerades as William in order to slip Snow the fatal apple. Like the magic mirror, Snow's temporary death-by-apple seems forced into the framework, as if the writers included it simply because it was expected.
Overall both costume-design and FX provide a visual feast to shore up the slower plot-moments. In this respect HUNTSMAN far excels the limp, predictable visuals of this year's OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.
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