Wednesday, July 29, 2015


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

Considering that CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY originated from a project that AIP failed to make, this UK production, directed by James Hill, looks damn good. In fact, it looks a lot better than MASTER OF THE WORLD, the film that AIP did make from the works of Verne. Unfortunately, whereas the Richard Matheson script for MASTER firmed up some of the vagueness of Verne's conception of Robut, the script for NEMO doesn't result in a memorable Nemo.

The film follows the lead of many Verne stories: a group of disparate individuals are cast into the elements, only to be rescued by a mysterious mastermind with a miracle vessel, be it an aircraft, submarine, or what have you. In this case passengers traveling on a cargo liner during the Civil War era find themselves adrift, only to be rescued by the Nautilus.  The dominant member of the castaways is American Senator Fraser (Chuck Connors), and he's the first to encounter the submarine's mysterious commander. Nemo, as played by Robert Ryan, is initially saturnine and unresponsive-- a characterization certainly in line with Verne's original. However, throughout the remainder of the film, Ryan's Nemo sometimes shifts into the mode of "genial host" rather than "tyrannical host."

This may have been necessitated by the film's core concept: this version of Nemo, rather than being content to rule over a small coterie of men in his submarine, has somehow constructed a sub-sea city, inhabited by a larger society of people who don't mind living beneath the waves. (Nemo's selection process for the inhabitants of his city "Templemir" are not clarified.) However, despite his moments of relative friendliness to the newcomers, he remains opposed to them in that he does not trust the surface people, and will not allow any of them to go home.

Verne clearly liked the idea of pitting a group of freedom-seekers against a tyrant, however benevolent, who wished to keep them prisoner. NEMO's script goes so far as to make two of the castaways unlikable, and one of them even dies as a result of his own blundering attempt to win free. The underwater city offers many pleasures-- though, ironically, its streets are paved with gold that has no value in Templemir's society.  Fraser finds romance with a female Templemirian named Mala, and this in turn irks one of the locals who desires her as well. Yet it's Fraser who is motivated by a duty to return to the surface world and fulfill his professional commitments, leading to a scenario of self-sacrifice.

The film, in addition to being well-designed, rivals the famed Disney film in its depiction of undersea wonders. Its greatest narrative problem is that because Nemo is basically benevolent, there's not much tension in the opposition between him and the would-be escapees. The introduction of a monstrous manta ray, mutated by Templemir's intrusion upon the deeps, might have presented the good captain with his own "Moby Dick." Yet the manta ray is killed off prior to Fraser's escape attempt, and basically has no real impact on the narrative tension.

CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY is thus watchable but not overly exciting. I give the film a "fair" rating in terms of mythicity simply for the ingenuity of making the insular Nemo a sort of "King Neptune" with his own private "city beneath the sea."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1, 2) *poor,* (3) *fair*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

OLD DRACULA took its best-known title from Mel Brooks' successful film YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, replacing the shooting title of VAMPIRA. The later title might actually be more appropriate, since the film is more about this version of Dracula (played by David Niven), rather than the character of Vampira, his wife. For reasons I've already forgotten, Dracula's wife-- also a vampire-- has remained in a coma for many years. The vampire-lord has fallen on hard times, and has resorted to letting his majordomo conduct tours of his castle. When a group of Playboy Playmates takes the tour, Dracula suddenly decides that he should try to revive Vampira by giving her a blood-transfusion from the Playmates. Maybe he can't shake his habit of only preying on beautiful young girls-- though given what happens to Vampira, maybe the Count was wise not to have preyed on any forty-year-old shoe salesmen.

Vampira revives, all right, but since one of the blood-donors was black, Vampira transforms into a black female (Teresa Graves). Even though she's theoretically still his beloved wife, Dracula doesn't want to be seen shacking up with a person of color ("people would talk, you see," he claims). So he takes Vampira to London, planning to harvest the blood of some hardy British Caucasians in order to reverse the color-change. (Why go to Britain? Well, again-- force of habit.)

The main joke is racial but not racist: there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a comedy playing around with the notion of people changing their race. Some viewers might be put off that Dracula is so adamant that he can't have a black wife, but the real reason for his insistence is that the script has no other ideas going for it. OLD DRACULA might actually have been if it had played up the racial humor for all it was worth. But then, the film was conceived and shot in England, where black-white racial tensions have never been as intense as they are in the United States. The film has a few funny moments in its first half-hour, while Dracula remains within his archetypal castle-- but once he and his crew venture into the night-life of London, both the pace and the humor go downhill fast. The ending is objectionable not in terms of racism, but just in terms of being stupid.

PANDEMONIUM spoofs horror-tropes in a much more general way than OLD DRACULA, though it focuses principally on the subgenre of the slasher film, still popular in 1982. In fact, PANDEMONIUM's director Alfred Sole had made the "pre-slasher" ALICE SWEET ALICE in 1976, one influenced by earlier horror-thrillers by Roeg and Hitchcock, though ALICE wasn't released until the same year Carpenter's HALLOWEEN codified the rules for the "official slasher."

Sadly, PANDEMONIUM's comedy doesn't succeed as do the thrills of ALICE, in that most of the jokes are just as lame as those of OLD DRACULA. However, PANDEMONIUM provides a greater variety of gags, making one's chances of liking something better than average, along the lines of the old vaudeville saying, "If you don't like one, there'll be another along next minute." I confess I did rather like the "cheerleader shish-ka-bob" scene and Paul Reubens' performance as an annoying twit.

The film also benefits from an ample list of famous faces. Tom Smothers doesn't contribute much as Cooper, a Canadian mountie (did anyone even remember Nelson and Eddy in 1982?) But it's fun to see actors like Eve Arden, Donald O'Connor, Eileen Brennan and Judge Reinhold tossed into the same soup. Carol Kane plays the closest that the film has to a central character: a young woman named Candy who makes the decision to enroll in cheerleader camp just as a serial killer-- maybe more than one-- starts killing cheerleaders. Candy herself is a bit of a monster, given that she has psychic powers a la "Carrie," though Kane plays her like a possessed Linda Blair. She becomes the film's "final girl" long before that role had become set as in stone, though because she ends up fighting the psycho-killer with her powers, this is more of a "combative" work than most slashers. Six years later, Jason would contend with a "Carrie"-like telepath for one go-round.

Another "combative comedy" for this review is 1983's BULLSHOT!, the film version of BULLSHOT CRUMMOND, a successful stage-play that spoofing the famous British hero Bulldog Drummond. It might've been interesting had the film spoofed the original prose hero. I've read four of the novels originally printed in the 1920s, and they're a fascinating cornucopia of fascism, racism and brutality.  However, what's being spoofed here is the version of Bulldog promulgated through American cinema, particularly the first sound film, 1929's BULLDOG DRUMMOND, wherein the debonair Ronald Colman essayed a polite, "veddy British" hero that has become the best-known persona of the hero.

In contrast to the lackluster scripts for OLD DRACULA and PANDEMONIUM, BULLSHOT's writers know just the right buttons to push for the laughs-- though I'm not sure how funny the film would be to someone with absolutely no knowledge of the original film-franchise. As in the 1929 film, the noble athlete-hero Bullshot Crummond faces the menace of a foreign criminal, Otto Von Bruno, and his equally Teutonic aide Lenya.  The Germans are trying to wring scientific secrets out of, well, a scientist, though they themselves seem to have technology far in advance of a World War I setting-- such as force fields, of all things. The single best joke plays upon Crummond's "Rue Brittania" assumptions: when Von Bruno predicts that someday the most powerful country will be the one with the greatest oil reserves, Crummond is duly scandalized.

It's no AIRPLANE, but BULLSHOT is a better than average parody.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

THEM! (1954)

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

We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true - 'And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the beasts shall reign over the earth.' -- Dr. Medford, THEM!

We haven't seen the end of them. We've only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us.-- Medford again.

On this blog I've written extensively about how 1953's BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS influenced the original GOJIRA. and how the director of FATHOMS appears to have been in his turn influenced by the Japanese film, both in 1959's GIANT BEHEMOTH and 1961's  GORGO. But though I do think the line of influence is there, it must be added that before GOJIRA's American debut in 1955-- or even its Japanese release in November 1954-- the American SF-tradition proved itself just as capable of producing giant monsters with apocalyptic overtones. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms may not have quite succeeding in tapping the vibe of the end-times, but as the quotes above show, THEM!-- released in June 1954-- makes the most of that emotional tone.

In scrutinizing the film for its "Campbellian functions," I include "sociological" because many critics have considered the giant, atomically-mutated ants to be surrogates for an invading "Red" army. I can't deny that the film plays upon American's postwar fears of being invaded, whether by political enemies (Commies, of course) or by hypothetical extraterrestrials (the era's "flying saucer" controversy is skillfully worked into the film's latter half). However, I think both of these symbolic discourses are minimal compared to the cosmological one. The film's most pervasive fear is that man may be displaced not by intelligent beings like himself, but by "beasts." From start to finish, the viewers of THEM! are immersed in the cosmological universe of the ant-world-- the creatures' human-like propensities for war and taking slaves, the nature of their bodies, the way they make their homes, seek out food, and breed the next generation. This is the true meaning of the "them" uttered by the traumatized girl who first witnesses the monster-ants' advent. Simply by virtue of growing to giant-size, the once familiar ants become more profoundly alien than any cinematic extraterrestrial. Everything that's familiar about the creatures becomes unfamiliar, and no matter how much data one knows about them, they inspire the fear of a "them" palpable enough to unseat "us." It may not be insignificant that both at the beginning and end of the film, human children are explicitly threatened by the ants, just as the embattled humans can only win by exterminating the giant insects' progeny.

Given the film's emphasis upon the necessity for information, it's not surprising that it takes the form of a popular postwar subgenre: the police procedural, represented by two law-enforcement agents: state trooper Peterson and FBI agent Graham. Both common-sense men are thrown somewhat out of their routine worlds by inexplicable murders in the New Mexico desert, but two scientists, Doctor Medford and his pretty young daughter Pat, suspect the truth, given the locale's propinquity to the White Sands atomic tests. Graham displays an amusing moment when he becomes impatient with the two scientists' tech-speak-- "Why don't we talk English? Then we would have a basic for understanding." Soon enough the scientists' need for a specialized lingo is validated, of course. But the lawmen's attentiveness to police procedure is validated as well, and it's through their steady accumulation of clues that they track down the unusually elusive colossi. The big bugs are said to have military capabilities, but what they resemble, more than enemy troops, is a plague-infestation, not unlike the disease that the city-cops of 1950's PANIC IN THE STREETS must strive to bring under control.

I've made it a point to examine the role of the "lady scientist" in 1950s films, but until now I'd never noticed that Pat Medford may be the biggest influence of the storytelling archetype, as it goes on to appear in IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and THE DEADLY MANTIS. While there's no doubt that Pat is there in part to be a potential romantic interest for Graham, she defends her importance as an "ant-expert" in a scene midway through the film. She announces her plan to accompany Graham and Peterson when they investigate a supposedly dead nest.  Graham makes the usual statement that it's no place for a woman. Pat ably rebuts him, claiming that only her expert's eyes can find out what they need to know-- and subsequent developments reveal that she knows exactly what she's talking about.

The film's conclusion also anticipates, but surely did not influence, the conclusion of GOJIRA. Though the enemy is indeed exterminated, Medford warns that they cannot know the future-- and thus humanity's hubris in unleashing the power of the atom could still go badly for mankind somewhere down the road.

Monday, July 13, 2015



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

Considering that so much of THE ROAD TO HONG KONG revolves around the matter of memory, I'm surprised the script didn't work in any references to Bob Hope's once-signature song, "Thanks for the Memories." But then, the film is meant to be a trip down memory lane just by virtue of existing, given that the last Hope-Crosby "Road picture" had appeared in 1952.

Though I'd enjoyed the earlier pictures, something seemed to be missing in the duo's Hong Kong adventure. Was it that the actors had just done the same basic routines too many times? Was it that the "Road" idea worked better in an era where Americans generally believed that the whole world was their oyster, rather than finding out that the rest of the world considered them a painful irritation; one that didn't tend to yield any pearls of wisdom? Was it that Crosby allegedly didn't want the duo's long-time leading lady Dorothy Lamour as the female lead, so that Lamour was reduced to a cameo role while the much younger Joan Collins became the new leading lady?

It could be all of these, of course, plus the toll that age levied on Bob Hope. Bing Crosby's rep as a singer wasn't materially affected by the passage of years, and Crosby was able to branch out into serious roles, while Hope's few ventures in that direction (BEAU JAMES, SEVEN LITTLE FOYS) didn't reveal in him any significant abilities. So as Hope aged, his humor got a little less that of a "young blade on the town" and more of an "old roue on the make." There's no doubt that Hope and Crosby bring some decent energy to their roles as the knockabout "Road guys," but once they're a good ways past middle age-- as some of their own jokes attest-- the characters are just a little harder to believe.

It also strikes me as odd that scripters Norman Panama and Melvin Frank chose to send the Road-guys to Hong Kong. Some of the film's scenes do take place in Hong Kong, but the most crucial ones happen either in (a) a LOST HORIZON-like lamasery, where arch-finagler Harry (Crosby) takes his amnesiac chum Chester, and (b) an isolated Chinese island. where a clandestine organization, the Third Echelon, makes its base. I suppose it's possible Panama and Frank wanted a locale that loosely suggested all the spy-jinks that were in the cultural wind at the time. Additonally, maybe they knew that the bloom was off the rose as far as having the two stars court lovely ladies in romantic otherworlds like Singapore and Zanzibar, so they just wanted a locale that gave them the chance for many corny jokes about Chinese culture.

As noted, memory is the reason Harry and Chester get mixed up in spy games. The lamas not only cure Chester's amnesia, they introduce him to a memory-enhancing drug. Harry gets the bright idea of using the drug in a memory-act and swipes the drug. On their way back to civilization, Chester memorizes a vital rocket-fuel formula, one that the agents of the Third Echelon need. Their agent Diana (Collins) brings the duo to the secluded island, where the unnamed leader of the group (Robert Morley) informs that his group wishes to send a missile to the moon. Since the two knockabouts no longer have the memory-enhancing drug, the leader chooses to use Harry and Chester in an attempt to successfully orbit the moon. The trip is a success, and the guys even manage to make it back to Earth safely-- though during the flight some of the rocket's mechanisms malfunction, resulting in what might called the Hope-Crosby version of Chaplin's MODERN TIMES. In addition, due to exposure to lunar rays, Chester will now automatically recite the valuable rocket-formula stored in his memory whenever he sees anything that resembles the moon.

Others have commented on the way HONG KONG anticipates the "superspy genre" that would be launched with the release of the DOCTOR NO film later that year. It would be interesting to know if Panama or Frank had been exposed to any of Ian Fleming's prose bestsellers, not least the DOCTOR NO book, released in 1958. To some extent Morley's spy-chief-- whose real aim is to establish a base on the moon and thus rule the Earth-- seems like a blending of Fleming's mad doctor and the political fervor over the 1950s "space race."

Though HONG KONG has a lot of genuine SF-elements, it follows the tradition of earlier ROAD pictures by having characters break the fourth wall, or even change their circumstances by invoking "special effects." I term this the naturalistic version of the "fallacious figments" trope, since none of them are supposed to be regarded as diegetically "real."

Overall, HONG KONG isn't very funny, though it does have an admirable energy at times. I don't feel like picking on its politically incorrect humor, given that I think every culture ever born has had some chauvinism, so it doesn't bother me when Hope's character enters a Chinese house and declares that it was decorated in "Egg Fu Yung." Still, the boys are really pushing it when they actually dress up as Chinese characters for a few protracted-- and somewhat painful-- sequences.


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Ever since my essay here hypothesized the influence of Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS on some key examples of Italian cinema, I've been meaning to check out the movie and see if, as I suspected, it conformed to my ideas about uncanny phenomenality. Going by memory I'd tentatively given it that categorization if for no other reason than the protagonists' encounter with the gang called the "Baseball Furies," one of which is in the still above. 

I'm sure I'll never read the 1965 Sol Yurick novel from which the movie took some of its elements, but from two summaries I've read online, it seems to have been entirely naturalistic. The novel focuses on the struggle of an inner-city New York gang to avoid other gangs on their way back to their Coney Island turf, but the gangs they encounter aren't as self-consciously weird as the ones in the film, which director Walter Hill co-scripted with David Schaber.

As in the novel, the film begins with a summit between the various New York gangs, but Hill gives the meeting an apocalyptic vibe, Cyrus, charismatic leader of a gang called the Gramercy Riffs, tells the assembled youths-- most of whom are male-- that if they unite they can rule the city, rather than wasting their lives protecting little areas of "turf." But sooner does Cyrus announce his messianic mission than he's assassinated. The audience sees that the killing is the act of a demented gang-member named Luther, but no one else does, so that Luther easily frames the Warriors for the deed. In the fracas that breaks out, the Warriors' leader Cleon is beaten down. The rest of the gang escapes the meeting-place, and the gang's second-in-command, a youth named Swan, takes command.

Once Hill has established the movie's basic premise, the director focuses almost exclusively upon letting the action unfold. There's no real attention to the individual members of the Warriors, and even Swan is something of a cypher, even though he manages to forge a "romance on the run" with Mercy, a girl from another gang. Whereas the novel's author allegedly wanted to de-romanticize the New York gangs, Hill is to an extent re-romanticizing them. 

That's not to say that the Warriors are romantic heroes. They're not even particularly likable people. At least twice one of the protagonists uses the word "faggot" and it's clear that no one in the gang disapproves: if anything, gayness is a negative against which the gang-members can measure their masculinity. But what Hill is romanticizing is the youths' sheer tenacity, their will to survive the mean New York streets, made even weirder by youth-gangs whose "colors" are not as naturalistic as the Warriors' simple vests. In addition to the already mentioned Baseball Furies, there's also a gang called the Punks, who glide around on roller skates and wear overalls that, to say the least, don't make them look particularly formidable. This is not to say that every gang encountered fufills the uncanny trope of "outre outfits," for some of them, like the Punks and the Lizzies, wear fairly ordinary clothing. Hill, after all, wasn't trying to create a world radically apart from the regular one, unlike the SF-films cited in the above essay. But the script clearly seeks to propel the Warriors-- who are a relatively "ordinary" gang of juvenile delinquents-- into contact with tribes who are positively weird with their fetishes and obsessions.

The action scenes, shot largely in genuine New York settings, are the main attraction of the film; allegedly Hill wanted to shoot WARRIORS with a kind of comic-book flair. However, it should be noted that he does apply some basic psychology to his usually uncomplicated characters. Mercy, a member of the Punks, becomes intrigued with Swan and his persecuted allies when the group passes through Punk territory. After trying to spark a rumble between the gangs, She follows them, which supports Swan's idea that she's a prostitute looking for a new gig. And since Mercy's dialogue suggests that she may have had a checkered past, it's a given that the course of their romance doesn't run smooth, nor is it even certain that it will endure.

In the end, Luther is exposed and the Warriors are exonerated-- though the conflict has demonstrated the impossibility of Cyrus' ambition: the street-gangs are too preoccupied with issues of ego to make any long-term alliances. THE WARRIORS is too wrapped up in the thrills of exotic violence to make any social statements, but there's more than a hint of irony when the gang gets back to Coney Island, and Swan can only say, "This is what we fought to get back to?"

Friday, July 10, 2015


MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2, 3) *poor*


My formulation for the trope I call the "phantasmal figuration" is one of my most elastic. Most frequently on this blog, it connotes the act of some character in the story who performs a figuration --i.e., "the act or process of creating or providing a figure"-- that acts phantom-like in some way, like a ghost or even a madman (1939's CAT AND THE CANARY being an example of the latter). Another type of "phantasmal figure" can be an apparition that seems supernatural though its provenance is uncertain, as with the ghost of Hamlet's father and even an improbable version of Excalibur in KING ARTHUR WAS A GENTLEMAN. Additionally, there are times when the "figure" that is being created isn't an entity separate from the viewpoint character. In 1964's THE BLACK TORMENT, a clever conspirator seeks to convince viewpoint character Fordyke that he's become a madman who goes around killing women-- when in fact the murders are committed by Fordyke's twin. Thus the deceptive image of "Fordyke the killer" is the phantasmal figuration in the story, in contrast to the one in CAT AND THE CANARY, where the conspirator seeks to cover his own actions by convincing witnesses that that there's a mental patient on the loose killing people.

Robert Aldrich's HUSH, HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE is at once an attempt to "gaslight" a person with the appearance of ghostly figures, and to play off that character's reputation for potential madness, For many years Charlotte (Bette Davis) has lived a reclusive life in her Southern mansion, because long ago she was implicated in the unsolved murder of her lover, a married man. Nothing was ever proved against Charlotte, but she's been nursing her trauma for years, until the government chooses to condemn her property in order to build a new highway on the land. Charlotte appeals for legal help from her cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland), but Miriam has plans of her own. Soon weird occurrences are taking place at the mansion, and Charlotte finally sees ghostly figures-- all with the idea of driving her mad for real. So in a sense, even though Miriam and her co-conspirator are conjuring up phony phantoms for Charlotte's benefit, they're also hyping up the "phantasm" of Charlotte's mad image for the benefit of the local public. Happily, Charlotte finds out the plot, and the plotters find out what madness really means.

CHARLOTTE  was Aldrich's follow-up to 1962's WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, his earlier success with casting two aged actresses as "horror hags." I for one prefer CHARLOTTE to BABY JANE, though the psychological complexes of Charlotte don't run very deep, and I sometimes felt I was watching a dumbed-down imitation of Tennessee Williams. But then, CHARLOTTE is predominantly an actor's movie, and does quite well in that regard.

A somewhat different strategy is pursued against Lana Turner in 1969's THE BIG CUBE, a thriller which evokes in its victim not the fear of ghosts but the spectre of guilt. Successful middle-aged stage actress Adriana (Turner) marries a wealthy tycoon with an adult daughter, Lisa (Karin Mossberg). Lisa plainly resents having to relate to Adriana as a new mother, but she can do nothing about the situation save complain to her boyfriend Johnny (George Chakiris), a medical student with a penchant for partying with "the Big Cube" of the title-- that is, LSD.

A boating accident befalls Adriana and her husband, and only Adriana survives. Once the tycoon's will has been read-- stipulating that Lisa only gets her inheritance when she turns 25, and that Adriana can block Lisa's marriage up to a point-- CUBE doesn't waste any time making the audience wonder who's dosing Adriana now. Though Adriana doesn't suffer from a long-time trauma like the protagonist of CHARLOTTE, Lisa and Johnny are able to add guilt-trips to the actress' LSD-trips. Lisa just wants Adriana committed to the nuthouse, but Johnny wants her dead and gone.

BIG CUBE is an editing mess; it seems to miss whole scenes of establishing action. All of the characters are flat and predictable, and the resolution is frankly unbelievable. The only enjoyable aspect of the film are the colorful acid-trips, which serve the purpose of unleashing Adriana's inner demons. I don't consider the crazed sights of every acid-trip to conform to the uncanny version of the "delirious dreams" trope, but in this case, the association of Adriana's dope-frenzies with a plot to drive her mad pushes the whole film into metaphenomenal territory.

Jumping back about twenty years, WEIRD WOMAN may offer the most "insubstantial" version of a "phantasmal figuration" in all media. This 1944 film adapted a few elements from Fritz Leiber's overtly marvelous novel CONJURE WIFE and turned them into a low-energy, generally predictable uncanny thriller for Universal's "Inner Sanctum" series.

Norman Reed (Lon Chaney Jr.) makes his living as a professor at a small American college. Reed, who's established a measure of fame from writing a book debunking superstitions, has recently married Paula (Anne Gwynne), a Caucasian woman raised in the cultural tradition of a South Seas island. To Reed's surprise, Paula is not only strongly superstitious, she secretly invokes native magic to cast protective spells over him, and to protect him from hostile influences on campus. Reed remonstrates with Paula, irate that she should resort to the very superstitions he's railed against, and he destroys her native charms.  And suddenly, everything in Reed's life that can go wrong, does go wrong.

As anyone should expect, given the spoiler-heavy theme I've been exploring here, there's a conspirator behind Reed's string of ill fortune, rather than the actual magical threats seen in the Leiber novel. The film's strongest moments occur when Reed seems to be succumbing to a superstitious belief in bad luck as his life gets increasingly messed-up. Is Paula right that some member of the college faculty is a witch who's cursing him? But no, there's no real witch; just a bitchy conspirator who's gone through a lot of trouble to wreck the professor's career. What I find most interesting about this thriller's plot is that the schemer isn't trying to convince anyone of the existence of a witch or ghost, or even trying to unleash any demons in Reed's own mind. In essence, the "phantasmal figuration" here is the very idea of bad luck itself.

Given that WEIRD WOMAN shares none of CONJURE WIFE's thematic preoccupations, it wouldn't be fair to rag on the film for being untrue to its source material. But there is one amusing point of comparison. In the novel, all of the witch-women opposing the professor-hero are middle-aged women, and only his witch-wife is a young woman. Here, with one exception all of the women involved in Norman Reed's life are on the young side, not to mention being about ten years younger than Lon Chaney Jr.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*

I don't remember what review called the TV-film THROUGH NAKED EYES "Hitchcockian." I assume the reviewer was merely asserting that EYES had duplicated some of the content seen in the work of Hitchcock: specifically, the content of scopophilic activities, in which a person takes perverse pleasure in viewing another person without the latter's knowledge. Certainly it seems improbable that anyone would think that EYES even reaches the quality-level of even bad Hitchcock.

Still, EYES-- directed by efficient journeyman John (NIGHT STALKER) Llewellyn Moxey and written by Jeffrey (BLOOD BEACH) Bloom-- does earn points for presenting scopophilic desire in not just one, but in both of its romantic leads. William Parrish, a gifted professional flautist living in a New York high-rise, begins turning his binoculars at a female in a neighboring building-- only to find that she's also watching him, through a telescope. This might lead to nothing more than a "meet-cute," except for the fact that New York is being menaced by a random slasher who kills both men and women. When one of the deaths takes place in Parrish's building, a gung-ho cop gets the idea that because Parrish is a little odd and withdrawn, he may be the killer. The rather mundane killer is finally disclosed by the film's end, but just like the never-seen killer in Hitchcock's THE LODGER, he largely functions as a device to put the romantic couple through the wringer.

EYES is a decent time-waster, but doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The scopophilia angle isn't much more than a plot-gimmick, though it is sometimes suggested that the couple's perversion is their own business, as long as they're not harming anyone. Parrish has some daddy issues, but it's not clear how they developed, while female lead Anne Walsh is little more than a cypher. It doesn't help that stars David Soul and Pam Dawber give at best serviceable performances.  Perhaps the most Hitchcockian touch about EYES is that the cops are not presented as saviors. Indeed, the suspicious police sergeant who persecutes Parrish comes off as more reprehensible than the murderer.

COOL IT BABY is one of  many dumb, pseudo-journalistic "tell-all" films that's little more than an excuse for a parade of titillating scenes involving lesbian sex, dirty pictures, and sadism. COOL's only relevance to metaphenomenal cinema is that one of the forbidden activities is a sex-cult that intends to sacrifice nubile women. Though the sacrificial cult is only seen twice, both times in very brief scenes, I had to consider whether or not the slight eeriness of these scenes made this a film of the "marginal metaphenomenal." But since the sex-cult is just a side-act for all the morbidly mundane sexcapades, I tend to dismiss the slight *frisson*of the sacrificial-altar scenes as being overruled by the naturalism of the rest of the film. I encountered a similar viewing phenomenon in the 2000 made-for-video flick ROAD RAGE, which briefly seemed to suggest a "killer truck" like that of the classic DUEL-- yet in context, that film, like COOL IT BABY, clearly favored an unvarnished naturalistic explanation for the apparent weirdness

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

SOLDIER (1998)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

SOLDIER, in which director Paul W.S. Anderson adapted a 15-year-old script by David Webb Peoples, was a box-office failure. For whatever reason, this was the last movie to be filmed from a script by Peoples, famous for genre favorites like BLADE RUNNER and TWELVE MONKEYS, as well as a few cult favorites like 1989's THE BLOOD OF HEROES. As for Anderson, he found success with the franchises DEATH RACE and RESIDENT EVIL, which are diverting action-serials, if not quite as complex as SOLDIER.

Many SF-takes on the world of the professional soldier are as one-sided as, well, a one-sided battle. Heinlein's novel STARSHIP TROOPERS is an uncomplicated celebration of the military "grunt," while the Paul Verhoeven quasi-adaptation of the book simply inverts the novel's pro-military stance into one of distance irony. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER takes another tack, pitting a "good soldier" against a "bad soldier." The Anderson-Peoples script, in contrast, doesn't resort to such simplifications.

The film begins in 1996, as viewpoint character/ hero Sergeant Todd grows to manhood, under the U.S. government's rigorous training. He and several other children become the government's foremost "shock troops," both on Earth and on those worlds where Earth has extended its influence. (SOLDIER spends no time at all on establishing how Earth-people colonized space: all we know is that space-travel exists and some worlds have people on them.) The program that produces Todd and his comrades has been designed to absolutely suppress the soldier's emotions to make them into pure fighting-machines. In this emotionless state, Todd has no remorse for killing innocents to achieve the military's goals.

Unfortunately, in the world of SOLDIER the military is the haven of both dedicated warriors and conscienceless career-pushers. "Chicken colonel" Mekum wants the program he oversees-- one devoted to bio-engineered soldiers-- to displace that of Todd's group. To give an illustration of the superiority of the enhanced types, Mekum has his prize soldier Caine face Todd in a series of military challenges. The last of these, direct combat, ends with Caine losing an eye while Todd apparently loses his life. To keep Todd's death on the down-low, Mekum has his body dumped into an automated space-craft, whose sole purpose is to dump Earth's trash on a neighboring planet.

Todd survives being dumped on the trash-world, but he's not alone. Years ago, a ship full of colonists crash-landed upon the world, and the survivors have been forced to make the garbage-planet their home. The colonists find it hard to get used to the emotionless Todd, who rarely speaks, though one family-- a husband, wife, and their young son-- choose to take Todd in for a while. The basic situation is clearly lifted from George Stevens' western film SHANE, but the script manages to introduce some new wrinkles-- such as the young boy, who resembles Todd in that he too has been traumatized so that he rarely speaks.

Though Colonel Mekum has no idea that Todd has survived or that anyone lives on the trash-world, he like the classic guilty criminal returns to the scene of his crime. He orders his new bio-engineered soldiers to travel to the refuse-world and begin training exercises, with the stipulation that they are to treat any individuals they meet as enemy combatants. Thus Todd gets a second chance to take out the "new breed" that displaced him and his fellows-- including the one-eyed Caine-- and to avenge himself on Mekum while seeking to protect his new "family."

Though the plot-action is simple, the interplay of the military world and the civilian world is not. It might have been easy for the script to dump upon the military, given that Mekum is emblematic of careerism at its worst, and as noted before, Todd himself is trained to kill indiscriminately in defense of his orders-- just like the soldier-in-training whom he proceeds to pick off during the film's climax. Yet the civilian colonists are also capable of making misjudgments based in fear; prior to the arrival of the trainees, they exile Todd from their company because they find him off-putting. Compared to their perpetual uncertainty, the charisma of the skilled warrior-- even when he acts in defense of civilians-- seems a thing of fascinating sublimity. Yet, the film's conclusion endorses a rapprochement, in which Todd is able to liberate the colonists and find a place with them, rather than resuming his life as a programmed killer. The script implies that the two societies, that of warrior and civilian, should be interdependent, and that one has no meaning without the other.

Kurt Russell has the most demanding role, in that he can only suggest nascent stirrings of emotion through slight, subtle movements and gestures. His big end-fight with Caine is a winner as well, and is all the more memorable given that Russell suffered a broken ankle during the movie's production.