Monday, September 29, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


Frank Miller's SIN CITY graphic novels and the films adapted from them prove difficult, though not impossible, to classify.

The difficulty inheres in the fact that Miller's quasi-anthology series takes its primary inspiration from naturalistic sources, such as films noirs and the hardboiled detective genre, particularly as executed by author Mickey Spillane, ostensibly one of Miller's strongest influences.  However, while these works usually take their rigor from the sense that their protagonists exist in a world without miracles, Frank Miller made his mark in comic books with costumed superheroes like Batman and Daredevil. He could have chosen to make his Sin City books entirely naturalistic, but instead he injects moments of the metaphenomenal, usually dealing with uncanny forms of grotesquerie.

The 2005 SIN CITY adapts three of Miller's best graphic novels, adding a new story as a framing-device. The weakest of these is is "The Big Fat Kill," in large part because it spotlights a character who was introduced in an earlier appearance-- the very story that gets the titular focus in the sequel film, "A Dame to Kill For." In "Fat Kill," tough guy Dwight (Clive Owen) falls afoul of a nasty fellow named Jackie-Boy, and despite his attempts to withdraw, Jackie-Boy's nastiness earns him a gory demise at the hands of Dwight's allies, a group of wildly-costumed prostitutes, particularly their ninja-like protector Miho (Devon Aoki). Unfortunately for Dwight, Jackie-Boy turns out to be a cop, and he and the girls must seek to conceal his death from Sin City's constabulary, who will use the scumbag's death as an excuse to shut down the girls' operation. Despite some of the outrageous kung-fu feats of Miho, "Kill" is firmly in the naturalistic vein-- though like the graphic novel, the narrative erects a Jenga-like tower of tumbling coincidences.

"That Yellow Bastard" is much better, both as original and as adaptation. Sixty-year-old veteran cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis) devotes himself to bringing down a vicious child-rapist, "Junior" (Nick Stahl), who happens to be connected to the Roarks, the wealthiest family in Sin City. Hartigan's reward for saving a young girl named Nancy from rape is that the Roarks frame him and send him away for eight years. He's finally released when he confesses to crimes he didn't commit, but it's a set-up: the Roarks want him to seek out Nancy, who has escaped their clutches. In the eight years of Hartigan's absence, Nancy has become a voluptuous stripper (Jessica Alba), and even while protecting her, Hartigan has to deal with the fact that she's fallen in love with him. Hartigan's primary foe is a freakishly recrudescent form of Junior, whose skin has turned yellow due to the medical treatments that saved his life. Although the duel of Junior and Hartigan is entirely in the vein of the hardboiled dick story, both the makeup and Nick Stahl's performance make the bizarre child-rapist an eerie personage.

I have special feelings about "The Hard Goodbye" as a graphic novel. It was the first of Miller's SIN CITY novels, and it remains Miller's best work in this franchise.  Mickey Rourke plays Marv, a hulking reprobate who spends most of his time sitting around swilling beer in strip-joints-- until he meets a woman who seduces him to serve as her protector. She's killed despite his presence, and Marv goes on a holy crusade to ferret out her killers-- who turn out to be a "weird family" of two homosexual cannibals.  Marv himself is almost a borderline superhero, given that he tears through armed men like the Wolverine and shrugs off being hit by a car. I could see him being uncanny in the same way certain "strongmen" heroes in Italian fantasy-films are uncanny, though the presence of the killer cannibals is the more important factor. Unfortunately, though director Rodriguez adapts the material faithfully, he rushes through some of Miller's best sequences, so that it's no more than an adequate adaptation of the original.  The highlights are the actors' recreations of Miller's outsized characters, with Rourke as Marv and Elijah Wood as the unspeaking cannibal Kevin taking top honors.

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR has some decent moments, but more often than not it too shows Rodriguez in his hurry-up-and-get-it-done mode.  Further, the graphic novel "Dame to Kill For," Miller's second Sin City GN, is also one of his weakest works in the franchise. It's an extremely derivative film noir tale in which Dwight (Josh Brolin) is pulled back into the sphere of his former lover Ava (Eva Green), who pretends that she's being bullied by her rich husband Damian.  It should come as no surprise that Ava merely maneuvers Dwight-- aided by his buddy Marv, prior to Marv's death in "The Hard Goodbye" story-- into killing her husband, so that she can enjoy his wealth and property as she pleases.  But Dwight refuses to just lie down and die, and he marshals other allies to bring Ava down. One of these allies is Miller's Elektra-knockoff Miho, who performs some martial arts feats so fantastic that I'm tempted-- almost-- to deem her as uncanny. But this sequence is entirely naturalistic in its phenomenality.

The same is true of "The Long Bad Night," one of two stories Miller wrote strictly for the film. Yet whereas "Dame" is derivative but coherent, "Bad Night" doesn't hold together. It hinges on the idea that the young gambler-hero Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)-- the bastard son of Senator Rourke (Powers Boothe)-- decides to throw his life away on a gesture designed to embarrass the powerful father who never acknowledged him. Miller's "big reveal" of Johnny's motivations for entering a poker-game with Roark don't track for a moment-- and even if one buys that he's willing to lose his life to score a point against his nasty daddy, it's hard to believe that he has this in mind when he brings a young waitress into his sphere-- for her association with Johnny spells her doom as much as it does his.

"Nancy's Last Dance" is even less believable.  I don't mind so much that it contradicts the internal continuity of the SIN CITY novels. As long as nothing specifies that Senator Roark is alive and well during the film version of Marv's "Hard Goodbye" rampage, then I can roll with the idea that Marv goes after the Senator prior to these events-- events which, as mentioned before, lead to Marv's death. But I can't buy that Nancy-- mourning the death of Hartigan at the end of "Yellow Bastard"-- suddenly turns herself into a killer archer and joins Marv in taking down the Senator, who's indirectly responsible for her lover's demise.

The only saving grace of this sequence is the return of Bruce Willis as Hartigan. But now he's a ghost, watching all that transpires without being able to help the young woman he loves-- except in one instance. While it would have been a violation of the tone of SIN CITY for a ghost to take direct action in human affairs, Miller figures out a viable way for Hartigan to intervene without violating the franchise's hardboiled aesthetic. Nevertheless, the appearance of a ghost as existentially real moves DAME into the realm of the marvelous.

Unfortunately, there probably won't be any more cinematic forays for SIN CITY, since DAME fizzled big-time at the box office. Though I was lukewarm toward DAME, I still found it preferable to nine-tenths of the predictable genre-work funneled out of Hollywood in recent years. I especially approve of the fact that Rodriguez did not compromise on the copious female nudity throughout "Dame to Kill For," and that actress Eva Green complied with those requirements-- an almost heroic accomplishment at a time when political correctness has come close to banishing the female nude from mainstream cinema.

ADDENDUM: Since writing this review, I've reversed myself in this essay on the question of whether or not Miho is an uncanny presence.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


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

"I'm absolutely confident that nothing can go wrong"-- a fellow who clearly had not read the whole script of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER.

I should hate this movie. It's very much in the vein of other cheapjack films that padded their running-time with the copious use of stock footage, ranging from Coleman Francis'  1961 BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS to the 1965 Rebane/Lewis monstrosity MONSTER-A-GO-GO.  This sort of film was pretty much on the way to extinction by 1965, at least within the domain of mainstream cinema.  In many respects SPACE MONSTER is pretty much of a piece with the other two films, lacking even the eccentric POV of an Ed Wood to give the proceedings some demented inspiration.

SPACE MONSTER doesn't have a really demented outlook; the most it can muster is a sort of wry proto-campiness. And yet I like it. I like the ham-handed editing, as with the scene, not ten minutes into the story, where a military officer asks scientist Karen Grant how she's doing, and she's cut off by a cutaway to stock footage. I like the fact that almost all the normal people in SPACE MONSTER are either stupid or immoral, while the damaged android "Frank Saunders" is the hero.  And even though the film compromises Mary Shelley's creation by crossbreeding it with a bug-eyed monster, there are a few scenes-- spotty though they are-- that come much closer to the pathos of Shelley's shambling hulk than many films with better production values-- particularly three or four entries in Hammer's "Frankenstein" franchise.

We first meet Colonel Frank Saunders as he speaks before a press conference. The affable, handsome astronaut speaks modestly about his impending launch into space-- and then suddenly freezes. His fellow officers hustle him out of the room, claiming that he's overtired. The truth is that Saunders is an android, created by two scientists, the aforementioned Karen Grant and her senior collaborator, Adam Steele (virtually a double for his creation, since Saunders is an "Adam" made out of steel, among other things).  Steele has somehow convinced the U.S. military to send his android into space to spare human lives. Saunders' little seize-up is accomplished by a simple "freeze-frame," both the cheapest-- and yet the creepiest-- moment in the film. One might think that the military would instantly drop the android astronaut idea like the proverbial hot potato after this incident-- who wants to trust an ultra-expensive space-rocket to a robot that may seize up and cause untold damage that could devolve back onto the heads of those who approved it?  But everyone accepts Steele's assurances that it won't happen again, and the flight goes ahead as scheduled.

As it happens, when the flight goes wrong, it isn't the fault of Steele or his creation.  An alien ship from Mars begins orbiting Earth's atmosphere, commanded by the statuesque Princess Marcuzan and her counselor-figure, the aptly-named Doctor Nadir.  They and their men-- mostly garbed in what looks like earthly astronaut-costumes-- are the winners of an atomic conflict on Mars. However, their victory is an ambivalent one: the war somehow wipes out all Martian women save the Princess-- and since the Princess patently doesn't want to become the new "Eve" of her people, she and her followers come to Earth to gather them up some "sobbin' women."  There have certainly been much better "atomic-warning" films than SPACE MONSTER-- and yet one must admit that these Alex Raymond-aliens do mirror the possible follies of human beings tinkering around with the apocalypse.

Before they can do so, their orbit accidentally takes them straight into the path of Saunders' space-launch.  Despite the Martian's superior technology, they can't figure out the difference between a manned rocket and an attack-missile-- although the Princess roundly insults Nadir after they shoot down the rocket and see a man parachute free. Yet the blasting of the missile has no immediate ill-effect on their mission: apparently cloaked from radar, the Martians land their craft in an Earth-forest. Then the Martian flunkies go girl-hunting, armed with ray-guns and still garbed in their astronaut-gear-- in other words, apparently not the least bit concerned that anyone might track them and their conquests back to their base. There's not many movies that can make MARS NEEDS WOMEN look intelligent by comparison, but SPACE MONSTER succeeds at that rare task.

However, Nadir and Marcuzan create their own destined antagonist through their mammoth stupidity in shooting down the space-launch. The android is severely damaged by his forced landing, with half his face melted away and two big plastic wires sticking out of his chest like extensions from his man-tits.  He wanders around, his intelligence shattered like his body. He has a "James Whale" moment when he tries to get help from a pair of parked motorists. The man attacks the ugly monster, and Saunders kills him, though the android spares the woman, leaving her alone despite her continual shrieking at him.

Meanwhile back at the launch-site, Steele has no idea that aliens caused the catastrophe, though he thinks that Saunders' "master control" may guide him back to the base. However, Steele and Karen don't wait for this to happen, but go out hunting for their little lost android. Eventually they find him in a cave-- again, pretty much by dumb luck rather than as a result of people having seen the monster-naut wandering about.  There's another minor Whale-ism as Steele manages to calm the damaged creature, telling him to lower his hands-- a likely parallel to the "sit down" scene in 1931's FRANKENSTEIN. At this point Karen and Steele have this meaningful exchange:

KAREN: "Frank has become so real to me that I can't bear the thought of his being hurt!"
STEELE: "No one's going to destroy ten years of my work!"

Unlike many iterations of the Frankenstein myth, "Frank" has both a mother and a father, though the mother doesn't really do him much good, nor are there any establishing scenes that might suggest that Karen's had any maternal effect on Saunders. Steele is pretty much the same selfish jerk as the original Frankenstein, for all purposes blind to his creation's feelings. Steele sends Karen off to get help, but she crosses paths with the Martians, who add her to their collection.  Once Karen has been taken to the ship, the Princess subjects the lady scientist to being terrorized by Mull, a huge radiation-created mutant. I confess I forget what if any stated reason the Princess had for torturing Karen. Maybe I was busy trying to figure out why a group of radiation survivors would bring along with them a monster created by radiation. They do end up using Mull as a sort of guard-dog, but it begs the question: why do aliens with ray-guns need a big scary monster?

Again, while the rest of the military scurries about in impotent fashion, Steele finally decides to stop waiting for Karen, and ventures forth with Saunders in tow. Somehow Steele and Saunders stumble across the alien spaceship that no one else has managed to spot. Steele, having seen evidence that Karen was in the area, suspects that she's been taken aboard. While Steele goes for help, he tells Saunders to watch the ship, again showing boundless confidence in his creation, even when severely damaged. But after Steele departs, the aliens catch sight of their metal adversary. They subdue him rather easily, take him into a ship, and leave him laying on a table with no bonds or supervision.

Finally the military finds the ship and begins bombarding it. Steele belatedly shows up and tells them to back off to protect the hostages inside (I'm still not clear if he knows about the other abductees). Aboard the ship Saunders is awakened by Karen's pleas for help. He overcomes a Martian or two and frees all the prisoners, including Karen-- but one of the Martians frees the huge skull-faced monster Mull as well.

For a fight consisting mostly of wild camera-angles, the combat between Saunders and Mull is better than one might expect, though it still leaves me wondering that if the android is this strong, why couldn't he beat the crap out of the ordinary Martians? Anyway, Nadir and the Princess take off to escape the Earth-military, but Saunders manages a pyrrhic victory by blasting their control board and destroying the whole ship-- which may or may not be a tribute to James Whale's convenient "blow-everything-up switch."  The film ends quickly, with another segue to cheery pop music.

SPACE MONSTER isn't quite brain-fried enough to be ranked with the best of the "so bad it's good" crowd. But it does have a few lucid moments amid all the perhaps-intentional idiocies.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014



I chose the above still to illustrate the 1941 BLACK CAT because the film's main merit is its assemblage of enjoyable contract players. Most of them aren't given anything all that interesting to do, but it's fun seeing a cast this diverse: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Broderick Crawford, Anne Gwynne, Gale Sondergaard, Hugh "Woo Woo" Herbert, and even Alan Ladd in a small role.

THE BLACK CAT is one of many, many "old dark house" mysteries revolving around an eccentric elder-- this time, the grandmotherly Henrietta Winslow, played in spunky fashion by Gladys Cooper.  Most of the old biddy's relatives--Rathbone more or less dominating the group-- are impatient to see her pop off and leave them her bequests. Into this den of upper-class hostility come two ambitious lower-class types, Gil (Crawford) and Penny (Herbert). Crawford thinks he has a leg up on the situation because as a kid he was a neighbor to the rich folks. Gil, who also anticipates that Henrietta is not long for the world, hopes to get the family to list their house with his agency, while Penny is mainly interested in acquiring some of the Winslow antiques.  Gil's partly right: old Henrietta and her grandchild Elaine still remember with affection the mischievous neighbor-kid Gil used to be. To everyone else, he's just an annoyance. And one can't entirely blame them. In contrast to a lot of dark-house mysteries, this time the "outsider character" shares the same pecuniary motives as the greedier relatives. This motive may be intended to intensify Gil's determination to stay at the Winslow house, since he has a major problem with doing so: Henrietta's house is full of the old lady's pet cats, and Gil is fiercely allergic to cats.

He's given a new motive to stay when he becomes re-acquainted with the comely Elaine, though. This leads to the film's only good moment in terms of sociological myths, since Henrietta tells Gil that Elaine's not likely to marry anyone who doesn't have his own fortune.  This minor illustration of the gulf between "the haves" and the "wanna-haves" doesn't come to much of anything, since soon enough Henrietta does pop off. But before she does, Gil witnesses what may be an attempt to poison her-- and so he becomes the film's reluctant detective.

The film doesn't get much mileage out of the "weird families" trope. With the exception of Gale Sondergaard's hostile housekeeper, Henrietta's the only one who's a little weird, not only maintaining a collection of kitties but also a crematorium in which to incinerate their bodies. The crematorium is a nice touch, which the writers manage to make integral to the script on two occasions. The revelation of Henrietta's killer is reasonably compelling for this type of film. Naturally, both Rathbone and Lugosi, having played villains in past films, practically have "red herrings" written across their foreheads, and neither gets a standout scene, even for this kind of comedy-mystery.  Crawford and Gwynne display a good chemistry and Herbert is less annoying than usual.

Like 1934's BLACK CAT, there's no connection between this film and the Edgar Allan Poe story except that all of them are about people who have reasons to fear cats.

Saturday, September 20, 2014


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

Despite the risible title of THE THING THAT WOULDN'T DIE, it's the sort of film that rewards the genre-oriented film fanatics, the ones who will watch a dozen common dogs just to find the one member of the pack who looks like an interesting crossbreed. THING, even though it's hampered by a low budget and average-at-best performances, manages to cross two major concerns of human beings-- religion and sex-- and come up with a better-than-average occult thriller.

In the same year prose-SF writer Jerome Bixby scored a similar low-budget thriller with CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN.  THING's writer was also noted for his work in prose SF, and while a couple of David Duncan's other film-scripts are noteworthy-- THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD,
MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS-- I regard THING as Duncan's standout film-script.

The film opens on a California ranch, where young leading lady Jessica (Carolyn Kearney) is demonstrating her talent for water-witching.  In attendance are Jessica's aunt Flavia, who runs the ranch/bed-and-breakfast with the help of two hands, conniving Boyd and slow-thinking Mike. Also in attendance are Hank and Linda, two of the ranch's three guests, all of whom have vacationed at the ranch previously.

In the midst of Jessica's demonstration, the third guest-- young, handsome Gordon Hawthorne-- comes riding up on a horse-- a nice touch, since the action makes him look more patrician. His attitude toward water-witching is both skeptical and condescending, and Jessica is visibly stung by his negative opinion. In her anger she lets her water-wand guide where it will-- and it leads her toward a gnarled old tree. Almost immediately Jessica regrets having given in to her impulse, and tells the watchers not to dig near the tree after all. Flavia, a greedy woman, gets the idea in her head that Jessica has stumbled across buried treasure, saying something to the effect of, "What else do people ever bury, except gold?"  Jessica reviles the entire group for not listening to her, swearing that she hopes the tree falls on them. With the help of a sudden, demonic-sounding wind, a tree-branch  falls, slightly injurinig Linda, though no one in the group believes that Jessica's curse is responsible.

An ancient chest-- later revealed to be 400 years old-- is unearthed. Flavia wants to break it open right away. Gordon plays on her greed, informing her that the chest itself might be valuable to a museum. Jessica, for her part, refuses to stay in the house with the mysterious chest, even when Gordon tells her she's acting "like a child." It will soon come out that Gordon has a very specific reason for critiquing Jessica's psychic premonitions: as a skeptic he considers all such metaphysical beliefs nonsense, and he wants Jessica to "grow up" and to grow out of such childish beliefs so that he will be accessible to him as a wife. To her credit, Jessica never doubts her own natural gifts, and finally does persuade him by directing him to find a lost item. In finding the lost item, Gordon also finds an ancient fleur-de-lys amulet which he places on Jessica's neck. The amulet functions as an ersatz "engagement ring"-- later she tells him, "you put it on, you're the only one who can take it off"-- and also as protection against the bane in the box.

While Jessica and Gordon are reaching their rapprochement, Flavia's crooked ranch-hands plot to make off with the treasure in the box. The latter-day Lenny-and-George come to regret this action, for in the box is the decapitated head of an immortal sorcerer, Gideon Drew. Four hundred years ago, Drew came to the New World on the ship of Sir Francis Drake (presumably during Drake's circumnavigation the globe in the 1570s). The still living head of Drew takes mental control of "Lenny" and uses him to kill "George."  Later, Drew takes control of Linda as well, and finally, of Jessica-- all with the end of having these mortal pawns link together his head with the rest of his immortal body, buried elsewhere in the area.

Drew is a great idea, but one undone by the limited budget. Despite a well modulated performance by Robin Hughes, most of the scenes of the wizard-head dominating this or that pawn are more funny than fear-inspiring. Drew's indirect influence is a different matter. In keeping with the sorcerer's satanic affiliations, he corrupts others by his mere presence. After he's caused the deaths of both Boyd and Mike, Drew separates Linda from her boyfriend Hank. Hank, hurt by her rejection, tries to put the moves on Jessica. Jessica, at one point divested of her protective charm by practical-minded Gordon, also falls under Drew's sway, and makes a partial shift from "virgin" toward "whore." That is to say, she starts behaving in an un-virginal way. She allows Hank to paint her in a compromising situation, though she has enough mental strength to reject his attempt to sleep with her. In another scene she begins dressing more provocatively and kisses Gordon passionately.  In the end, though, once Gordon is finally forced to believe in witchcraft and sorcery, he's allowed the privilege of putting down the evil sorcerer for good, though he must use the charm that Jessica unearthed. The movie closes on his words while he places the amulet back on Jessica: "let this protect us both."

Will Cowan's direction is generally competent but pedestrian, even in the film's strongest scenes, those depicting the uneasy romance of Gordon and Jessica. It's likely that behind Gordon's scorn of Jessica's witchy power lies a general fear that women may have instinctive ties to the dark side of the supernatural world, and that even for an unbeliever, only the sanctity of marriage can keep women from becoming the brides of Satan. For Gideon Drew is first and foremost a pocket-sized Satan, whose power lies in persuading a virgin to bring together the parts of his divided body. Strangely, moments before the eleventh-hour reversal, Drew is lusting not for Jessica, but for the privilege of slaying the good-hearted Gordon. Or perhaps lust isn't quite the right word, but Duncan's script makes clear that Drew scorns the corruptible Flavia, Linda and Hank as hardly worth killing, perhaps because they've figuratively signed over the souls to him.

In a Hollywood jam-packed with remakes of films that didn't need remaking, it could be interesting to see THE THING THAT COULDN'T DIE given a new lease on life.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

It's been observed that many of the prominent comedians of the Classic Hollywood period made horror-comedies. Not many of the resultant films are much more than serviceable, though-- which makes it all the more pleasing that Universal's final monster mash, combining the popular team Abbott and Costello with Universal's "Big Three" of Monsterdom, turns out to be the best of the horror-comedies, particularly since it appears so late in the Classic period (depending on how long you deem that to have lasted).

Now, it should be said that ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (henceforth A&CMF) is a classic in a very different way than any of the classic horror films from which the cinematic figures of Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster derive. Since A&C specialized in light farce, it's a given that the viewer isn't going to get Dracula musing on the boundaries between life and death, or the Wolf Man haunted by blood-guilt, or the Monster raging over the unjust treatment he has received from his maker. And yet, as many before me have remarked, the three monsters are given roughly the same sort of dignity they have in their earlier appearances. Dracula (Bela Lugosi) still has a domineering will, which he demonstrates when his criminal accomplice Doctor Mornay (Lenore Aubert) attempts to defy him. Larry "Wolf Man" Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is still tormented by the possibility of harming others, though to be sure, this film softens his threat by having him stumble over obstacles that would never have deterred him in the old days. Best of all, the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), ignominiously confined to an operating-table in the previous two "serious" monster mash-ups, is allowed to wreak havoc for a good ten minutes or so at the climax of A&CMF.

One advantage of this film is that the film's three screenwriters-- all much more associated with A&C comedies than with "serious horror"-- paid close attention to the template provided by the three previous "monster mashes." FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN loosely recapitulated the sibling rivalry-theme of 1941's THE WOLF MAN by having both the Wolf Man and the Monster seek the help of a scientist, who becomes an eleventh-hour "Frankenstein manqué" thanks to becoming fascinated with the Monster's bizarre biology. HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN presents a much madder scientist who's also more interested in the power of the Monster and who is undone by a Wolf Man rampage, while HOUSE OF DRACULA offers a scientist poisoned by the blood of Dracula, who tries to unleash the Monster's power before being killed by a de-lycanthropized Larry Talbot. In the latter two films, Dracula barely interacts with the other two monsters. The A&CMF scripters found a way to give Dracula a more central role: now, for reasons unexplained, it's the evil count who decides to bring the Monster's power under his sway, using the aforementioned Doctor Mornay as a catspaw to work his will.

Chick (Abbott) and Wilbur (Costello), playing two delivery-men accidentally involved in Dracula's plot, are the sort of characters who would normally provide a little bit of comic relief in a serious horror film. Here, their vaudeville routines-- principally, "straight man takes advantage of comic foil"-- are given new meaning.  Comic foil Wilbur, whose intellect tells him that monsters are "silly stuff," keeps seeing monsters while his blase pal Chick witnesses nothing. In this film their relationship metamorphoses into something more like scolding parent and naughty child, except that here, the audience knows that the "child" is right when he howls about seeing the living dead dogging his steps.  Small wonder that Wilbur's last words in the film are those of juvenile vindication: "And another thing Mr. Chick Young! The next time I tell you that I saw something when I saw it, you believe me that I saw it!"

I said that it was amazing that A&CMF works so well as a horror-comedy compared to its genre-kindred. But it's also the most tightly-written of all the Abbott and Costello films, with hardly a wasted word or plot-development to be found. In this it's also superior to the previous two films in the "monster mash" series, both of which suffer from unraveling plot-threads. A particular standout is the gag in which Wilbur momentarily tricks the Monster by pulling Dracula's cape over the lower half of his face, only to blow the illusion a moment later by rejoicing in his own cleverness. But this gag would not have worked so well, if there had not been a chilling scene in which Dracula is seen mesmerizing Chick and Wilbur by placing his cloak over his lower face, presumably to emphasize the effect of his vampiric gaze. In fact, when I screened the film for my nephew and three of my nieces, this scene prompted one of them to say, "Are you sure this is a comedy?"

This balance between the horrific and the humorous is the reason why A&CMF has remained a perennial of its kind. It's also a pleasant sign-off for the Big Three, who aren't diminished by the comic shenanigans. It may be that someone at Universal realized that the monsters who'd helped make the studio's fortunes had become too familiar to conjure terror the way they had for earlier audiences. Many "straight horrors" of the forties had begun to "play to the kids," and so in this atmosphere the best possible send-off for the Big Three was to allow them to hold their own against the proponents of light farce-- giving each of them a suitably horrible finish, rather than allowing them to simply fade into obscurity.

Friday, September 12, 2014

KUNG FU: SEASON 1, EPISODES 13-15 (1973)


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

The last three episodes of KUNG FU's Season 1 are resoundingly in the naturalistic sphere. Caine shows no special talents, but plays more of a second-fiddle to the guest stars.

"The Stone" is in part KUNG FU's take on Steinbeck's "The Pearl," which also concerns characters who lose themselves in the quest for profit.  Caine is passing through a town when he sees bullies attack a Braziilan man, Isaac Montoya (Moses Gunn), presumably for no reason but that he's a black man wearing a suit.  Montoya defends himself with his country's fighting-art capoeira, much to Caine's fascination-- though the Shaolin isn't so fascinated as to neglect defending Montoya when one of the bullies resorts to firearms. Montoya, who has a chip on his shoulder due to his treatment as a slave in Brazil, expresses a modicum of gratitude and goes his way-- not knowing that during the fight he's lost his most precious possession: a huge diamond.  When he misses it, he jumps to the conclusion that Caine took it.

Three kids witness the fight and one of them idly picks up the lost gem.  Their main concern is also with Caine. They live with their widowed mother, who was recently left at the altar by her current beau, an Armenian immigrant named Zolly. The kids, having seen Caine's skill, try to get him to accept a commission to assassinate that triflin' man. Caine, concerned only with getting the kids back home, gets involved with seeking out Zolly. Zolly, like Montoya, is haunted by the past. In his case, Zolly fled his native land to escape a purge, yet he harbors the desire to return and fight tyranny. Caine more or less convinces him that he's formed new ties in the new land and to forget old hatreds.

The climax leads to a nice, fluid fight between Shaolin arts and capoeria dance-fighting, followed by the usual sorting-out.

"The Third Man" is more in the vein of a murder mystery. On a road that leads to a town, Caine comes across Jim, a genial gambler who was attacked and beaten by robbers. Caine helps Jim reach his wife Noreen, and then invites Caine to stay as their guest. But Jim, despite being a popular guy in town, is a lightning-rod for trouble. He goes out gambling again and has a great night-- until he leaves the saloon. The same thugs that attacked him come after his roll. Caine comes to Jim's defense, fighting the robbers, but a mysterious "third man" intevernes and kills Jim.

As there aren't many suspects there's not a lot of suspense about the killer's identity, and the script doesn't play up the perpetrator's emotional conflict as much as it might have.  Though one of the script's main points is that Jim was wealthy in friends even if he was perpetually strapped for cash, this too is a little tough to believe.  In a small western town, how many creditors really appreciate the spirit of the all-or-nothing gambler?

"The Ancient Warrior" is easily the most touching of the three episodes. At another random stopping-place (Caine seems to have pretty much forgotten about looking for his brother in these segments), the monk encounters an aged Indian named Ancient Warrior (Chief Dan George) and his adult son. The son has been wounded and dies almost immediately, so charitable Caine takes up the obligation to get the old fellow where he's going. This happens to be his final resting-place, for the old Indian knows that he's going to die soon. He's also the last member of his almost extinct tribe, so he wants to be buried in a location given to him in a vision.

The quest becomes more complicated when it turns out that the grave foreseen by Ancient Warrior is in the middle of the street of an Indian-hating town.  One thing keeps him from being kicked out on his rear: Ancient Warrior has a deed that gives him ownership of the entire town and the surrounding valley.

Caine doesn't do very much in this episode, since the main action is legal and philosophical in nature. In the episode's best scene, an irate townsman (Gary Busey) rages at Ancient Warrior about the brothers he Busey lost to Indian raids. Ancient Warrior calmly trumps him with the record of the many Indian tribes wiped out by the white man's advance-- though Busey's character pays no attention whatever.

In the end Ancient Warrior doesn't elect to be buried in a town that hates him, though after his death Caine sprinkles the old fellow's ashes in the street, thus honoring his vision in a roundabout fashion.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


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


THE TENTH VICTIM is one of the few films that decidedly improves upon its source material.

That source material was a 1953 short-story by Robert Sheckley, "The Seventh Victim." It's probably not the first story to translate the key idea of Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" into SF-terms, but it's become one of the best-known.

From Sheckley's mordant story about a future where it's legal for people to hunt one another, director Elio Petri and his scripters take the basic setup while casting aside the short story's ironic twist: that after the protagonist falls in love with his intended victim, she reveals that she's tricked him in order to turn the tables and kill him.

This quickie "reveal," while appropriate for a short story or the episode of an anthology-series, was too thin to sustain a commercial film. In addition, love makes the world of commercial films go round, so that here, leads Marcello (Marcello Mastroanni) and Caroline (Ursula Andress) genuinely fall in love with one another.

However, even the validation of love doesn't take anything away from the irony of the overall situation, and in some ways, the survival of one value in a crazy world makes that world seem even crazier.  The romance never detracts from the looniness of this future culture, which seeks to avoid the chaos of war by allowing citizens to sign up to be "hunters" or "victims"-- a status which each entrant must accept equally, in order to obtain a big pay-off.

Similarly, Sheckley's short tale throws in a few shots at the banality of capitalistic marketing, even in the manufacture of murder-weapons. But VICTIM improves on this trope tenfold. For some time, Marcello is uncertain whether or not Caroline is his pre-designated hunter. She, for her part, holds off on revealing her status, having been intrigued by the fact that in all his years he's only married once.  But once they both know the score, they vie to work out their quarrel with the full cooperation of television sponsors.

Happily, Marcello and Caroline don't end up killing one another, though there's enough of a battle at the climax that I rate this a "combative irony."  The coda ends humorously, with Caroline maneuvering Marcello into marrying her-- though it becomes debatable as to whether she was ever really trying to kill him in the earlier scenes.

Monday, September 8, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

It's often been observed that James Bond's creator Ian Fleming had two creative sides. On one hand, having been a real agent for British Naval Intelligence, Fleming could write credibly about the down-and-dirty nature of spy-work, producing such mundane-focused works as THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and many of the short Bond stories, such as "The Living Daylights." OTOH, Fleming unquestionably enjoyed invoking sensational, often freakish villains like Goldfinger and Doctor No, and although Fleming never saddled his hero with the dozens of gimmicks wielded by the cinematic Bond, Fleming's character does exist at times in a world inclined more toward "fantasy" than "reality."

I don't know anything about Robert Rodriguez's tastes or personal history, but his history as a writer-producer-director suggests that he also finds it easy to switch gears from "reality" to "fantasy." Granted, Rodriguez' version of "reality" is like Fleming's, for it still involves unusual exploits by a ballsy hero, whether one is talking about the "El Mariachi" films or 2010's MACHETE.  These films are very much in the tradition of the hard-boiled protagonists played by celebrated stars like Eastwood and Bronson (the latter sharing something of Danny Trejo's formidable homeliness).  On the other hand, Rodriquez has also produced a large quantity of pure-fantasy films, ranging from the juvenile SPY KIDS franchise to the grittier action-horror flicks FROM DUSK TO DAWN and PLANET TERROR.

In the original MACHETE, heroic ex-federale Machete Cortez can perform stunts that border on the uncanny, like cutting off people's heads with his signature weapon, or descending from a high window by holding on to the unraveling intestines of a man he's just eviscerated. However, I find that the script for MACHETE, as wild as it is, remains on the naturalistic side of the border between the two worlds of "realistic spectacle"-- also represented by THE SPY WHO LOVED ME-- and "fantasy-spectacle," ranging from the uncanny phenomenality of LIVE AND LET DIE to the marvelous nature of DOCTOR NO.  It helps, too, that the script-- co-written by director Rodriguez-- includes some meditations on a real-world sociological concern: the relationship of the citizens of Mexico to their richer neighbors of El Norte.  These meditations aren't meant to be very deep, given that MACHETE is first and foremost about balls-to-the-wall action, indicated by the tag-line:

He gets the women. And he kills the bad guys!

The original MACHETE is aso noteworthy for tossing in a level of perversity reminiscent of the Bad Old Days of 1970's sleaze cinema, including one scene in which a Catholic priest is crucified, and another scene in which one of the villains-- the father of a teenaged girl-- clearly lusts after his own daughter.  Rodriguez, unlike his sometime collaborator Quentin Tarantino, makes no bones about offering up loads of voluptuous femininity-- Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, and Lindsay Lohan, for three. But the big action set-pieces are the main attraction, and Rodriguez delivers on most if not all counts.

2013's MACHETE KILLS isn't just Machete's version of DOCTOR NO, it plunges full-bore into the overt science-fictional content of the Bond-film MOONRAKER.  I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Rodriguez and his collaborators had intentionally "homaged" the 1979 flick, for KILLS' master villain Luther Voz (Mel Gibson) basically follows the same scheme of MOONRAKER's villain: to take a coterie of carefully selected colonists onto a space station while the rest of the world is destroyed.  However, Rodriguez plays up the loony humor of the situation to a much greater degree. Voz is an avowed STAR WARS fan, who tries to win the hero to the Dark Side by offering him various perks, including a charged-up, "lightsabre"-ish version of his normal machete. Indeed, the faux-trailer for the next Machete film-- which may never appear, given that KILLS was not a box-office success-- goes all-out with STAR WARS imagery. Gibson's performance as a space-happy super-villain is a little too in-jokey for my tastes, but his two fights with Machete are enhanced by his claim of precognitive talents, so that he can to some extent read Machete's intentions.

If Rodriguez did model KILLS on MOONRAKER, he inadvertently copied one of the earlier film's worst aspects: a slack script punctuated by the villains' repetitive attempts to kill the hero. The first half of the film poses a threat roughly like that of Jason Statham's CRANK franchise, in that Machete is forced to keep the heart of a crazed terrorist (Demian Bichir) beating. If that heart stops beating, a missile-attack will devastate the United States.  This is a fun plot-device up until Rodriguez throws it away, and after that, the film more or less gets lost in a welter of aimless fight-scenes and sexy scenes. One scene, a catfight between Machete's gal-pal Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) and the evil Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard), combines aspects of sex and violence, though I for one would much rather have seen Ms. Rodriguez take on the movie's other major Bad Girl, Sofia Vergara.

KILLS' script does toss out a few sociological comments about the demeaning treatment of Mexicans by norteamericanos: William Sadler plays a bad "good ol' boy" lawman with a habit of hanging any Mexican he encounters, and the U.S. President ("Carlos Estevez," a.k.a. Charlie Sheen) more or less forces Machete to take on the mission to find the missile-master.  But these are mere toss-offs in a script that feels more like SPY KIDS than FROM DUSK TO DAWN-- or even MOONRAKER.

One STAR WARS emulation may have hurt KILLS at the box office, for it's possible that some film-goers heard that the conclusion leaves various plot-threads dangling-- and, in contrast to the original STAR WARS, not in a good way, Also, KILLS duplicates some of the 2010 film's signature moments: there's another gut-unraveling, another revelation about an incestuous parent. A film-sequel can only succeed with these sort of  "mirror-scenes" in the same way TERMINATOR 2: by having a script that built upon the ideas of its predecessor did. But although there are some moments in KILLS, the weak script keeps them from being compelling. It's possible that the first Machete film pretty much "shot its wad," so to speak, and that even a less fantastical approach in the sequel may not have done any better.

Friday, September 5, 2014


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

I've generally tended to view 1945's HOUSE OF DRACULA as the poor cousin of the previous year's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, even though the films shared the same director, Erle C. Kenton, and one of the credited writers, Edward T. Lowe Jr.  In my review I championed HOF for its "dark romanticism," while admitting that the film had a strong appeal to me in that it was the first "Classic Universal" horror-film I ever saw.  When I saw HOUSE OF DRACULA much later, it seemed to me that it had none of the previous film's romanticism, as well as an even more rickety plot.  However, on a recent re-screening, I find that HOD has its own strengths.

The greatest contrast between the two plots relates to nature of the "mad scientist" protagonist in each. The 1944 film had an active agent who brought three monsters into his sphere, though not always intentionally. By stealing Lampini's wagon, Doctor Niemann gets ahold of the corpse of Dracula and makes the vampire do his bidding  Later, when Niemann deliberately seeks out the Frankenstein Monster, he also finds the Wolf man. He plans to use both of them in his revenge against old enemies, though he seems to take his bloody time to execute said revenge-- just long enough, in fact, for the Wolf Man to set off a chain of events that dooms the mad doctor's plans.

In the 1945 film, however, all roads lead to the home of Doctor Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), a researcher who lives in a castle-cum-laboratory in the monster-haunted Middle European realm of Visaria.  Edelmann does absolutely nothing to solicit the three monsters who, by devious routes, make their way to him, nor has he any grand plans for vengeance.  Edelmann is the ethical opposite of crazed egotist Niemann, for he and his two lab assistants-- gorgeous Milizia and tragic, hunchbacked Nina-- are busy researching a species of plant-spore whose fluids can soften bone and make difficult operations easy.  Edelmann plans to operate upon Nina and reshape her back as soon as he can harvest enough of the rare fluid.

Dracula (John Carradine), again keeping a discrete distance from the other two monsters, arrives first to ask Edelmann's help. In contrast to other Universal Draculas, this one has become weary of his life as an immortal bloodsucker. Edelmann is leery of this supernatural creature, but scientific curiosity-- as well a Christian religiosity rare in Universal scientists-- move the doctor to examine the vampire. Edelmann prescribes a blood transfusion treatment to rid the Count of his diseased blood-cells, and the doctor even allows Dracula to keep his coffin in the castle's basement.

Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) shows up on Edelmann's doorstep slightly later, having apparently read the same scientific papers that Dracula did. He explains his werewolf curse to Edelmann and later has himself locked in the town jail so that Edelmann, Milizia, and local constable Holtz (Lionel Atwill) can witness his transformation. Edelmann eventually comes up with a method to cure lycanthropy, but it requires a great quantity of the spore-juice, so that Edelmann can perform operation to relieve pressure on Larry's brain and free him from the werewolf curse.

(Possibly this business about Larry's head-injury hearkens back to 1943's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, for in that film Doctor Mannering observes that Larry has recovered from head-wounds, which the viewer knows were inflicted by Larry's father at the end of 1941's WOLF MAN. But in that film no head-trauma was involved in Larry's curse.)

Larry, impatient with the delays, tries to commit suicide by jumping into the ocean from a cliff near the castle. Edelmann goes after Larry and finds him alive, but transformed into a killer werewolf. Fortunately for the doctor, the full moon wanes just in time to banish the wolf and bring back the man.  The search for Larry also reveals that both the body of the Frankenstein Monster and the skeleton of Doctor Niemann have improbably ended up in a cavern beneath Edelmann's castle-- so that now Edelmann himself gets the idea of reviving the Monster. Unlike most mad scientists in this series, Edelmann lets himself be convinced to put the Monster on the back-burner, influenced by Larry's advice to keep hands off.

Up to this point Edelmann is perhaps the most monster-friendly scientist of all time: he feels pity for all three monsters, and does what he can to alleviate their sufferings. However, Dracula soon goes back to his old vampiric ways, for he fancies Milizia and wants to add her to his vampire harem.  When Edelmann attempts the next transfusion, Dracula double-crosses the doctor and causes Edelmann to receive vampire-blood-- a much less visceral way of blood-transfer than one sees in the Stoker novel.

Edelmann doesn't become a vampire, though. Instead, he transforms into a sort of manic "Mister Hyde." The doctor manages to maintain his good self for a while, exposing Dracula's sleeping body to the sun and destroying it, and then performing the crucial operation on Larry, curing him of werewolfism. But "Hyde" will have his day. Edelmann has dreams of unleashing the Monster's power on the world, and, more perversely, of first curing Nina of her deformity and then strangling her. Evil-Edelmann kills one of the locals-- easily the film's scariest scene-- and the constable suspects Larry of the crime. But Edelmann is exposed in the end: he makes his dream come true by choking Nina to death, and then successfully revives the Monster. In an ironic touch, Larry, who has been saved from his curse, is forced to shoot Edelmann to end the physician's affliction. Unfortunately, the hurry-up-and-finish conclusion undermines the emotional tone:the Monster is apparently-- and too easily-- destroyed in a blazing laboratory and Larry escapes with Milizia, his new lover.

HOD's idea of treating monsters with modern medicine proves inimical to the atmosphere of fantasy pervading the early Universal works. But the film remains interesting, for it's arguable as to how the viewer ought to regard Edelmann's sense of Christian charity.  Clearly he's taking a much higher road than many previous Frankensteins, both "real" and "would-be."  Yet, he's destroyed because of his pity and generosity, and even Larry, who has actually been a monster, counsels him not to extend his charity to a kindred creature.   Though the film wasn't necessarily meant to take a distinct moral view, it does sound like the reigning ethos here remains the old  "don't meddle in things beyond the pale of science."

In closing I'll note that Onslow Stevens gives his Jekyll-Hyde mad scientist great intensity, and easily wins the honors for the film's "best monster."