Wednesday, June 25, 2014



This film, created by essentially the same team of actors, director and writers as the previous year's THE MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR FU MANCHU, marks a slight improvement over the earlier film. The writing and direction are still on the stagey side, and it still follows a revised origin for Fu Manchu that emphasizes dramatic intensity over adventurous thrills. But whereas the first film's script confined most of its borrowings from Fu-creator Sax Rohmer to the use of familiar names, this time Lloyd Corrigan and the other scripters infuse the story with more Rohmeresque touches.

While stout Warner Oland still remains remarkably unthreatening as the devil-doctor, this time he has more tricks in his bag than the hypnotism he displays in the first film. His skill with exotic drugs is immediately in the forefront, for the film's opening reveals that in the first film his apparent suicide through poison was in truth an escape-ploy, for he drank a potion that allowed him to simulate death. All of his foes from that film attend his funeral-- the dogged Nayland Smith, who alone recognizes Fu's evil genius, Jack Petrie, the last man Fu wanted to slay for his father's sins, and Lia, the daughter of another of Fu's enemies, to whom Fu was something of an adoptive father.  Later in the film, Fu will also employ a drug that can reduce human beings to a mindless madness. Fu's hypnotic abilities are used more cleverly this time, as he programs a captured cop to betray Nayland Smith at a pre-appointed time.  Lastly, while the doctor in MYSTERIOUS is only served by a small collection of Chinatown hoods, there's an early scene when he sends turbaned assassins after Petrie-- assassins who use poison darts and announce their presence with the howling "Call of Siva."

Still, spectacle is still in short supply. We see nothing that could not be depicted on a theatrical stage, and the script is even structured to lead from one actor-pairing to another. Even the scenes in which Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu spar verbally-- which are enjoyable in the novels-- drag somewhat here. On occasion direcrtor Rowland V. Lee comes up with a novel way of treating these encounters. One such scene shows Lia, a captive of the devil-doctor, imprisoned in a chamber with a grate over the top; Lee then Lee shows Fu mocking his quasi-daughter from above the grating.  Another scene, possibly influenced by similar episodes in the Rohmer novels, causes Fu to be wounded by a bullet in such a way that he must blackmail Doctor Petrie into operating on him. This sort of scenario is more effective in Rohmer, where Petrie, like Nayland Smith, has become semi-fascinated with the genius of his mortal enemy. But it's an interesting twist, nonetheless.

The climax is certainly more "explosive" than the one from the first film, though overall the film still lacks the elements that would make it a combative film like the much later-- and more financially successful-- FACE OF FU MANCHU.  RETURN could have provided a decent ending to the mixed virtues of the series, and one might have fancied that Fu survived the climactic blast. Unfortunately, when Lee and Corrigan did DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON the next year, they chose to assert that Fu finally met his maker, part of a strategy to promote his insidious daughter. But she didn't take Hollywood audiences by storm either, and it would be left to MGM's MASK OF FU MANCHU to show everyone how fiendish Orientals should be done.

Monday, June 23, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Though I can get as jazzed as anyone by the crossovers of famous monsters, ALIEN VS. PREDATOR underwhelmed me both times that I watched it.

Though it borrows from the 1979 ALIEN's basic structure-- this time placing a bunch of hapless humans in a "haunted alien temple" rather than a "haunted spaceship"-- the script by director Paul W.S. Anderson, Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett feels more like a film in the Predator series. In so doing the film more or less follows the lead set by the 1989 Dark Horse "Alien vs. Predator" comic book, except that the comic kept the action in the far future of the ALIEN films.  This film is the first in the ALIEN franchise to take place in modern times.

The script conflicts with the seminal "Predator" concept, in which a race of hunter-aliens choose to stalk human beings using their skills and advanced technology. AVP, however, imagines that back in prehistoric times a group of Predators constructed a subterranean complex beneath the surface of an island in Antarctica. The island was in those days inhabited by human beings manipulated by the Predators into maintaining a cult of worship to the aliens, though the humans' main purpose was to serve as incubators for the Predators' real prey, the Aliens. I suppose absolute agreement is a chimera, though, and one could always claim that AVP takes place in an "alternate universe."

Though the sacrificial human culture has long vanished, the Predators apparently take it into their heads to revisit Earth in 2004 and start up another Alien-hunt.  From the depths of space the aliens re-activate the machines in their complex. This results in an energy-signature spotted via satellite. Fatally-ill billionaire Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) seizes upon this event, mounting an expedition to investigate the anomaly.  He's in a great hurry to do so, purportedly to keep other forces from descending on the anomaly, though no competing explorations are ever seen. He enlists a savvy young arctic guide named Alex Woods (Sanaa Lathan) to lead the expedition.  Alex, Weyland and their companions make their way down into the subterranean world, only to find themselves caught between the hunter and his prey.

The battles between the Predators and their Alien foes are vivid, but they're the only part of the film with any energy. Even compared to your average SYFY-monster-hunt, the characters are tedious and lacking in tenable motivation. Talented pro Henriksen has nothing to work with, and it's impossible to tell how good Sanaa Lathan might have been with a well-written role. But her Alex is even more underwritten than the cop-protagonist of PREDATOR 2-- and she's nowhere near the heroic heights of either Weaver's Ripley from the ALIEN franchise or Arnold's "Dutch" from the first-- and still best-- PREDATOR film.

The honor-oriented hunter-culture of the Predators is adequately realized here, and is the sole reason I give this film a "fair" rating.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I confess that I've only seen the American cut of this Italian-U.S. production, originally released in Italy under the title STRIDULUM.  I suspect that the Italian cut isn't much more coherent, for the direction by Guilio Paradisi emphasizes bombastic style over substance.  The script by schlockmeister Ovidio Assonitis, best for the 1974 EXORCIST swipe BEYOND THE DOOR and the 1977 JAWS ripoff TENTACLES, puts together a script that, surprisingly enough, isn't entirely derivative of 1976's THE OMEN.  That's not to say that the script is any more coherent than the direction, though.

THE OMEN was predicated on the idea that a Satanic cabal was seeking to bring about the birth of Satan's child, an event patterned loosely on the Biblical Book of Revelations.  Religion is approached more obliquely in THE VISITOR, taking a position more or less along the lines of "Jesus Christ was an ancient astronaut." There is an evil cabal seeking to cause an innocent young woman to beget "the spawn of Sateen," but "Sateen" is an extraterrestrial force that can confer great power on its (?) children. This cabal is opposed by some mysterious agents of goodness, who are all apparently aliens, while so far as I could tell most or all of the evildoers are Earth-people-- though I wouldn't swear to that on a Bible-- or even THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

Providing minor contrast to THE OMEN is the fact that innocent mother Barbara (Joanne Nail of FULL MOON HIGH) has already given birth to one nasty, psychic-powered child, a girl about nine or ten years old, name of Katy (Paige Conner). The "Sateenic" cabal wants one of their agents (Lance Henriksen) to wed and bed Barbara in order to produce a male child, presumably because boys are so much worse, being made of snakes, snails, etc. However, little Katy comes pretty close to outdoing THE OMEN's nasty Damien Thorn. Not only does she cripple her own mother "accidentally" in the film's first half, she later causes Barbara to be hurled through a fish-tank, a set-piece that evokes the "tricycle scene" from OMEN. In addition, little Katy injures (kills?) a bunch of bully-boys at a skating-rink, curses a blue streak at policeman Glenn Ford, and brings about Ford's death by having him attacked by killer birds. There's also a scene in which a woman is borne away by extraterrestials in a scene that "alien abduction" enthusiasts would eat with a spoon, but though Katie watches the abduction, it's not clear to me whether or not she summons it.

The forces of good are watching all this, apparently biding their time. A meditative older fellow named Jerzy (John Huston) is seen on an alien landscape at the film's opening, and he communes with various odd-looking humanoids who may be fellow aliens. This may mean that he was intended to be "the visitor" of the title, though clearly the narrative focus is on "what will Katy do next."  It's not clear what Jerzy is waiting for, though he's apparently allied to Earth-woman Jane (Shelley Winters), who takes a position as a maid in Barbara's house to keep watch on Katy's movements. But Jane doesn't prevent any of Katy's tantrums, nor does Jerzy, though there's a hilarious scene when grey-bearded Jerzy shows up at Barbara's door posing as a babysitter for Katy--and is accepted at face value!

The film concludes with the forces of good finally deciding to make their move. Suddenly the killer birds that served Katy wreak havoc on the Sateenic cabal, and apparently descend on Katy and kill her-- but wait! In the film's final moments, Jerzy ushers a beatific looking Katy-- now completely bald-- into a room filled with other bald kids and one adult, who's a dead ringer for Jesus (and played by an unbilled Franco Nero).

THE VISITOR deserves its reputation for cock-eyed absurdity, but I will note that the ending shows some potential for a better theme. Whereas THE OMEN condemns its killer-child as beyond salvation, THE VISITOR does stick closer to the notion of Christian forgiveness, at least for children. For this one atom of potential, THE VISITOR scores a little higher than Assonitis' other films.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2,3) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure *

The three-film "series" of Fritz Lang's "Doctor Mabuse" films are nearly without precedent in cinema in that they trace a particular character's progress through three independent-of-one-another productions, all of which transpire in "real time." Most of the time, when a serial character like the Phantom or Batman begins in a given time, he never ages, but simply blends into whatever time-period he enters, as if he always existed then. The closest analogues to Lang's Mabuse films may be the serial characters of prose: Sherlock Holmes ages naturally, and though Fu Manchu has ways of avoiding the passage of time, implicitly he lives through all the historical events from the Boxer Rebellion to the Chinese Communism of the 1950s.

Mabuse was something of a German Fu Manchu, though his exploits are confined to one uncanny trope, for the master criminal is an illusionist, able to deceive the unwary with peerless disguises and to dominate the weak-willed through hypnosis.  Watching the silent original film-- easily the best of the three-- it's not hard to see why cineastes of earlier generations regarded MABUSE as one of Lang's keystone works. Despite the fusty atmosphere characteristic of much of German cinema of the silent years, MABUSE seems sui generis. Mabuse the great schemer, who gambles with lives and fortunes, has been called a metaphor for God and for a great director's own magisterial skills. The former metaphor only applies up to a point, for Mabuse is finally brought low by Chief Inspector Von Wenk, a rather colorless bureaucrat whose main talent is his doggedness-- another likeness to the prose Fu Manchu series.

The film's first half delivers the best goods, with the second half-- the part leading to the criminal's downfall-- proving rather dull, in part due to a tedious romantic angle.  To a modern viewer the most amusing sequence may be one in which a disguised Mabuse pulls a "Jedi mind trick" on a prosperous young man, convincing the fellow that the two of them are old friends. This deception gets Mabuse an invitation to an exclusive party, where he uses his gambling skills to gain greater influence over wealthy pigeons. But there are many strong visual sequences in MABUSE, and none stronger than those that focus on the febrile looks of the actor playing the villain: Rudolph Klein-Rogge.  The conclusion is the strongest visual element of the film's second half, though it seems too much like a borrowing from Shakespeare's RICHARD III:  "ruthless schemer is driven to madness by the imagined spectres of his victims."

TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE advances eleven years, with Mabuse confined to an insane asylum.
Inspector Lohmann, who had appeared two years before in Lang's 1931 success M, takes the role of Mabuse's pursuer-- or is it Mabuse? The prisoner in the asylum perishes halfway through the film, but crimes designed by a master criminals continue to be committed. The upshot is that just as 1922 Mabuse suffered from being "haunted" by spectres, the criminal's analyst Doctor Baum has been "possessed" by the spectre of Mabuse, if only in a figurative sense.  While TESTAMENT is a sound film and takes advantage of other advancements in cinematic art, on the whole it's a rather crabbed, one-note affair compared to the original silent film.  It does have a bravura car-chase scene which I'd characterize as the most exciting use of rear-projection I can recall.

THOUSAND EYES OF DOCTOR MABUSE was Fritz Lang's last film. It transpires in the Germany of 1960, about fifteen years from the end of World War II, yet once again Lang and his collaborators sought to show the vulnerability of ordinary society to master manipulators.  There's no serious intimation that Mabuse has come back to life, even though there have been strange new crimes on the rise, like assassinations in which victims are shot with an "iridium needle." Rather, what we have is a Mabuse manqué , though Lang skillfully directs the audience's attention away from the proper suspect. Here, long after the demise of the Third Reich, Lang is able to directly associate the new Mabuse with the tyranny of Nazism, for the "thousand eyes" of the title are a multitude of cameras placed by an old Nazi hotel. With these cameras the would-be Mabuse gathers immense amounts of intelligence with which to manipulate his victims, relying in part on the illusion of his being a psychic to ply his blackmail trade.

I judge that all three films belong to the Fryean mode of "adventure," but only THOUSAND EYES qualifies as what I call a "combative narrative," one which culminates in a violent exchange between formidable forces-- in this case, the minions of Mabuse and the tough Inspector Kras. A few years later Gert Frobe, the actor who played Kras, would play a signature villain now better known than Mabuse, when Frobe essayed GOLDFINGER in 1964.


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

THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, the first of the Hammer Frank-films to be written by producer Anthony Hinds, shows great potential but ends up coming off much like its monster's makeup: underdone.

I've never been a huge fan of the Hammer Frankenstein series, as I noted in my review of the first film, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  That film and its sequel, REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, sought to distance themselves from the story-patterns and visual elements used by the Universal adaptations of the Mary Shelley monster. But prior to filming EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, Hammer struck a distribution deal with Universal, one that encouraged the Hammer producers to attempt something more in the vein of the Universal series.

One thing does not change: though the Monster has some resemblance to the classic design, he is no more the narrative focus of the story than his analogues were in the previous two Hammer flicks. Frankenstein the scientist remains the focus in most if not all of the series, played adeptly with Peter Cushing regardless of the quality of the scripts. However, Hammer's reluctance to allow the creature any humanity, to treat him as little more than a destructive wind-up toy, undermines the potential of the story.

Hinds chooses an interesting approach to his first Frankenstein outing. The scientist and his aide Hans are interrupted during Frankenstein's latest blasphemous experiment to create life. The two men leave town in a hurry, both strapped for cash. The Baron decides to return to his native town Karlstaad, from which he was banished ten years earlier, when the townspeople found out about his earlier experiments. Frankenstein hopes to be able to realize some funds by sneaking into his ancestral home and liquidating some assets, all the while keeping his return on the down-low. Thanks to a festival in Karlstaad, the two conspirators are successful in entering the town, but they are disappointed to reach the baron's old castle, for most of the valuable property has been removed. A crestfallen Frankenstein then explains to Hans the circumstances behind his banishment: that he succeeded once before in creating a man-made monster. The creature escaped long enough to kill a sheep and terrify some villagers, until it was shot and plunged off a cliff.  None of these events have more than a minimal resemblance to events of the previous two films.

Frankenstein and Hans return to town, hoping to get a meal, and they don masks so that no native will recognize their home-town exile. Frankenstein then blows their chances for anonymity: he sees the local Burgomaster wearing the Baron's signet ring. The scientist makes a big scene and gets the local constables after him and Hans, but the two escape after a minor encounter with Zoltan, a traveling hypnotist who becomes important later. Despite this narrow escape, Frankenstein later beard the Burgomaster in his den in a scene that seems to have no point but to demonstrate the local official's greed, as he has several of the Baron's artifacts in his possession.

Hans and Frankenstein flee to the countryside, where their luck changes, after a fashion. A deaf-mute girl not only takes them in and gives them food, she reveals that she's found the body of the Monster, now encased in ice. After Frankenstein and Hans defrost the creature, they somehow manage to get the bulky man-monster back to the deserted estate. Frankenstein even manages to use his ten-year-old equipment to infuse the Monster with a measure of life, but the creature remains unresponsive to any commands. Frankenstein gets the bright idea to enlist Zoltan's talents. Sure enough, the hypnotist is able to reach the Monster and make him perform elementary tasks, which is just what Frankenstein needs for further research. But Zoltan decides to use the Monster for his personal gain, all of which leads to murder, mayhem, and even that beloved Universal standard, the exploding room/lab/castle.

Though I recognize the appeal of the cold, remorseless intellectual version of Frankenstein from CURSE, I like EVIL's mad doctor better-- for all that he's really not as "evil" as the earlier version. This Frankenstein is more purely focused on the scientific goal of creating life, and his character allows Peter Cushing to demonstrate a greater range of emotion, particularly his aristocratic rage at seeing his family's possessions looted by corrupt officials.  Zoltan, had he been better developed, could have assumed the role of the "evil shadow" who pollutes Frankenstein's lofty ambitions, as was seen with the hunchback Ygor in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN.  But Zoltan is no more than a flat stereotype of a man-on-the-make. If Hinds had allowed the creature to speak, or even have its own emotions, there could have been an interesting psychological struggle for the monster's "soul" between the scientist and the mental manipulator. But Hinds keeps the creature at the level of a lumbering beast, so that the Monster has no emotions to engage. That said, this emotionless hulk still makes a better monster-- particularly in a scene where he stalks the nighted streets of Karlstaad-- than the "chop-top" excuse for a monster who appears in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED.

One other angle of EVIL is interesting. A fair number of Hinds-scripted Hammer horrors place aristocratic characters in bad odor, as seen in CURSE, BRIDES OF DRACULA, and CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.  But this baron is appealing in comparison to the petty corruption of the ignoble Burgomaster and the local constables. Possibly, if indeed Hinds was seeking to emulate the Universal Frank-films of Classic Hollywood, he may have picked up on the tendency of those films to depict British aristocrats as a little stuffy but essentially benign-- that is, about as far as one can get from the venal scientist of the first two Hammer films.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

RED DAWN (1984)

CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*

In my review of YEAR ONE I wrote:

...most cavemen films can't resist tossing in dinosaurs.  Such movies attain an "uncanny" status given that they're producing an altered version of real history, not positing the dinos as an intrusion of the marvelous upon the commonplace world.  YEAR ONE, though, isn't mixing dinos with cavemen, but cavemen with Biblical priests and patriarchs.  I suppose I should also judge YEAR ONE as "uncanny" on the same basis, given that historical periods are lumped together in the same cavalier fashion as the cavemen/dino flicks.

RED DAWN doesn't mix elements from different time-periods However, it's no less cavalier in its depiction of an alternate history in which the United States is improbably invaded by Russian soldiers, aided by Cubans and Nicaraguans. In many reviews, recently PREDATOR 2, I've also stated that simply bumping a film forward in time is not enough to give it marvelous phenomenality. As I've specified in greater detail on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, this phenomenality depends on violating both the coherence of causal reality and the intelligibility associated with that coherence. In a film like RED DAWN, there is no violation of the standards of causal reality, but there is a deviation from the intelligibility of a naturalistic work. RED DAWN then conforms to the uncanny trope of "exotic lands and customs," which I've most often invoked with respect to strange civilizations off the beaten path of the known world.  Here the strange civilization is a United States that can be easily invaded by ground forces armed with no artillery greater than helicopters with rocket launchers. It's a world altered to conform to the martial fantasies of gun-rights advocates, in which it's really really necessary to avoid registration of firearms, lest the information fall into the hands of an invading army.

That said, in my re-viewing of RED DAWN, I was surprised that it did not conform to the adventure-heavy, rah-rah mood of many Commie-baiting works of the period, not least the very similar Chuck Norris flick INVASION U.S.A., which appeared the next year. On its own terms, RED DAWN attempts to treat its heroic protagonists as capable of vacillation and even betrayal, so that the film aligns better with drama than with the adventure-mode of director/co-scripter John Milius' 1982 epic CONAN THE BARBARIAN.

Though both CONAN and RED DAWN deal with martial protagonists, some of the tropes used in the latter film by Milius and co-writer Kevin Reynolds invert those of CONAN.  I observed in my review of that film that it displayed some surprising sophistication in spite of some lines so over-the-top that they've become more famous than the movie proper.  But CONAN is also a lone hero out for revenge, who remains isolated from any community by the film's end. RED DAWN is about a society of teen warriors, American high-school students forced to grow up fast with the Russkies invade their country. The character of Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) leads the pack of kids who escape to the woods and begin living like what an earlier generation called "Red Indians," and for most of the film he's the charismatic leader who initiates the other young men-- and a couple of young women-- into the mysteries of hit-and-run warfare.  Jed tells his new allies that he was named for early American trailblazer Jedediah Smith, which is patently Milius' attempt to align him with a past generation of heroes.

And yet, not only does the society survive at film's end while Jed does not, Milius inverts certain aspects of the heroic attitude. In one of CONAN's best-remembered quirky lines, Conan refuses to weep at the funeral of his lover, while one of his aides does it for him, saying, "He can't cry. So I do it for him."  In one scene, Jed and his brother Matt are told not to cry by their captive father, who is never seen again and is presumably killed by the invaders, and in two more scenes, Jed tells other members of his troop not to cry. Yet toward the film's end-- at a time when both Jed and his brother Matt are getting burned out by their drawn-out guerilla-actions-- Jed does cry, not out of sentiment but in response to the pressure of being forced to execute helpless prisoners.

This is not to say that Milius is debunking the mythology of heroism. He even gives the guerillas-- who name themselves "Wolverines" after their school mascot-- a hated enemy to be destroyed at the climax, one Strelnikov (the craggy-faced William Smith). At the same time, another of their enemies, Colonel Bella, gets the drop on the Eckert Brothers. Yet he lets them go, his own acknowledgment of their common humanity.  Milius then gives both brothers a mythic finish, by having them vanish from the story, implicitly dying after they've made it possible for the new society to be born once the Russians and their allies have been kicked out.

Most interesting is the film's process of identifying the Wolverines with Native Americans. No particular characters are identified as Native Americans, and a group of Russian soldiers pass scathing comments on the massacre of tribal peoples while the soldiers visit Colorado's Arapaho National Forest. Yet not only do the Wolverines take an animal name, they also practice a ritual resonant of tribalism: drinking the blood of a slain deer to fortify themselves. During the execution-scene, one of Jed's soldiers objects to the killing, asking what separates the Americans from their enemies. Jed's response is that "We live here!" This could have been the statement of a Native American justifying the tactics of extreme retaliation, but in Milius' hands, it implies not an opposition between the tribal peoples and those who invaded them, but a merging of identities not possible for the Commies and their allies.

Friday, June 6, 2014


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

I was very critical of the handling of plot and characterization in both the LOST WORLD of 1925 and LOST WORLD 1960.  However, THE LAND UNKNOWN, while not much better regarded than the 1960 film in terms of special FX, does much better in its handling of a simple melodramatic adventure.

This was the second and last film collaboration between scripter Lazlo Gorog-- one of three credited writers on UNKNOWN-- and director Virgil Vogel, who had helmed the previous year's MOLE PEOPLE from a script credited on imdb only to Gorog. MOLE PEOPLE is a much richer film in terms of mythicity than LAND UNKNOWN, even though the earlier film also suffers from mediocre FX and has sometimes been downgraded on that score. A defense of MOLE PEOPLE must wait for another time, but though UNKNOWN is a simpler work, it has its moments of mythic resonance.

Those moments stem not so much from the usual perils faced by the protagonists as they find their way into the usual "lost world," this time in a volcanic crater in Antarctica-- but from their ethical conflicts. The expedition begins as a follow-up to an Antarctic foray made by real-life naval officer Richard E. Byrd, though UNKNOWN is clearly built not on Byrd's real-life findings, but those he was alleged to have found by sensation-seeking authors. Per Wikipedia:

"Adherents to the Hollow Earth hypothesis believe that Byrd flew over the North Pole and into the hollow earth in February 1947 and that he kept a secret diary of the incident. This belief was first published in 1957 in F. Amadeo Giannini's book The Worlds Beyond the Poles."

Basically, LAND UNKNOWN simply takes this theory promoted by this fanciful book, or a comparable source, drops out the error about Byrd being at the North Pole, and overlaps the exotic idea with the real-life 1947 expedition.  UNKNOWN's new exploration is meant to be a survey of the volcanic "hot spot" via helicopter, but a brush with a pterosaur sends the craft down. Stranded in a prehistoric world of dinosaurs and cannibal plants are three navy men-- Commander Hal Roberts, two junior officers named Carmen and Burnham-- and a civilian reporter, Maggie Hathaway.  The greatest menace of the four castaways is, however, another castaway: Doctor Hunter, a member of the 1947 group who became stranded in the Land Unknown. Having suffered a crushing loneliness for ten years, Hunter takes a shine to Maggie-- so much so that, rather than seeking to escape the volcano with the others, he wants Maggie to stay with him as his cave-wife.  The three navy guys discourage his romantic ambitions. Then Hunter reveals that he's hidden materials that would make it possible for the helicopter to fly again-- and he wants Maggie in exchange.

While girl reporter Maggie is not at all a complex character, she's interesting less for what she is than what she is not. No one would have expected a female character in a SF-film of this era to be overtly feminist, say, in the sense of her being able to kick the A of any macho creep molesting her. But another thing she isn't is the "blushing virgin" type, and those types do make a fair number of appearances in SF-films of the time, at least by implication. The film's opening scenes strongly imply that Maggie has some degree of experience with the male genre, as she utters lines like "I always love to meet men"  and "Don't forget, once I was alone with half a million of them for three months in Korea."  The script is not signaling, however, that she is promiscuous; just that she is desirable and knows how to handle herself against male pursuit. One can imagine that Maggie, unlike some SF-heroines of the time, may have already had sex outside of marriage, although naturally UNKNOWN does not pursue this possibility, as she's destined to become marriage-material for Commander Roberts.

The idea of Maggie being able to handle "half a million" men is rendered ironic when she's being pursued by Hunter. Her only defense against his bestiality-- a direct consequence of his having lived only amid beasts, whom he learns to drive away by blowing a conch-shell-- is the protection of the men. The two junior officers, unlike Roberts, are tempted to make a devil's bargain with Hunter, though one never knows if they would have gone through with the trade. Maggie herself offers to surrender herself for the greater good, which in no way signals any passion for Hunter, since by this time she and Roberts have developed romantic feelings. Roberts nobly refuses to make the bargain, and he  also refuses to let his crew torture Hunter to reveal his cache. The script validates both of these moral decisions as the right ones; in the end all of the castaways, including Hunter, are able to escape the prehistoric world's danger, and Hunter is redeemed by re-connecting with other humans, and thus his own humanity.

Vogel's direction is pleasing and fluid, though UNKNOWN suffers from continuity gaffes having nothing to do with budgetary considerations. Jock Mahoney, Shawn Smith (aka "Shirley Patterson"), and Henry Brandon do creditable work with their simple characters, but in my opinion the script is UNKNOWN's most interesting facet.

Monday, June 2, 2014

PREDATOR 2 (1990)

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

There's not a lot to say about the sequel to the original PREDATOR. which, as I noted in my review, benefited from the filmmakers' knowledge of the tropes of "men's adventure" stories.  Nor can PREDATOR 2 boast any of the character moments seen in the much later 2010 sequel PREDATORS.  PREDATOR 2 takes the suspenseful concept of the original film-- which took place in a South American jungle-- and moved it to "the urban jungle" of Los Angeles.  Since the main plot involved the Predator hunting in a city overrun by gang-wars between Columbian and Jamaican drug-lords, the filmmakers moved the action seven years into the future.  Despite the time-displacement, though, this is still in essence a contemporary action-film.

The action-aspects of the film are enjoyable enough in a mindless way: lots of gun-duels and fight-scenes. Director Stephen Hopkins and his writing-team try to substitute the macho culture of L.A. cops for the machismo of the mercenaries from the original, but what they present is ultimately shallow, even for a big-budget action-flick.  Central character Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) and his cop-buddies are already stressed by the drug-lords' battles, when Harrigan begins to become aware of a "third player" who's going around gutting and skinning the participants of the gang-war-- and even a local cop, who happens to be Harrigan's best cop-bud.  In addition to his hunting for the mysterious butcher, Harrigan butts heads with a strange government operation run by Agent Keyes (Gary Busey, playing a part that would have gone to Arnold Schwarzenegger had the latter actor accepted the role).

I enjoy a lot of brain-dead action-films in which maverick cops defy their superiors as they chase down perps who deserve to be blown away. However, though there was a possibility this could have worked even with the SF-concept of the "Predator" franchise, the weak link here is the flat and dimensionless character of Harrigan. Danny Glover stolidly plows through the predictable storyline as if he's shoveling coals in hell, and I tend to believe that an actor less talented than Glover might have engaged with the undemanding role to better effect.

Two minor sociological aspects of the film deal with the construction of race. Action-films have often been criticized for giving white heroes black buddies who can be killed off in order to motivate the hero toward vengeance, but PREDATOR 2 does reverse this trend by making the killed-off best friend a white guy to the Afro-American star. In a contemporary review, Roger Ebert tried to downgrade the film by claiming that the Predator aliens-- who do sport something like dreadlocks-- unfairly associated the menacing aliens with "black males."  This was shallow reasoning on Ebert's part, given that though the Predators are a menace, they subscribe to their own code of honor as well. At the climax Harrigan kills his adversary, only to be confronted by other members of his race. The other Predators, however, not only allow Harrigan to live because he beat his foe fairly, they give him a parting gift before they leave Earth. This is, to say the least, not the sort of character-note that appears in genuine race-baiting movies.