Saturday, January 30, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2, 3) *uncanny*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I don't have a lot to say about these three ordinary oaters, except in terms of the theory I explicated in my review of HAUNTED RANCH.

GHOST PATROL pits cowboy star Tim McCoy against a gang of owlhoots with a mild science-fiction twist. It happens that the crooks have abducted a professor who foolishly let the papers broadcast his development of a "radium tube" capable of zapping any electrical systems. Being small-time thinkers, the crooks decide to use the tube-- seen above looking like an electric chair-- to make mail-planes crash so that the gang can loot the contents. The finale manages to incorporate the device long enough for McCoy's character to blast the hell out of it.

In the HAUNTED RANCH review, I claimed that even though that film included a ghost-imposture, the villains' plot was so minimal in its effect that I couldn't seriously deem it a "phantasmal figuration" in the uncanny mode. Both PHANTOM OF THE RANGE and its three-years-later remake STRAIGHT SHOOTER test that theory, for in both the only attempt to create a "ghost" is that of a mysterious man in dark clothes riding past a ranch in order to spook the inhabitants.  There's still no attempt in either film to create a spooky atmosphere. Yet as long as there's at least a man in a costume-- however badly the costume is conceived-- I'd have to place both of these films in the uncanny domain.

The remake is pretty much beat-for-beat of the earlier film, but the 1936 film includes a better performance by female lead Beth Marion, who lectures Tom Tyler on the exigencies of hitchhiking. The latter film is notable only in taking the earlier script and tweaking it to become part of a short-lived character-serial which starred none other than-- Tim McCoy! 


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

I'll get the question of phenomenality out of the way first. Both of these are dominantly uncanny jungle-adventure films concerning mysterious humans raised in the African jungle. However, LUANA is marvelous thanks to one scene in which a giant carnivorous plant closes its leafy fronds around a full-grown man and apparently eats him.

LUANA and KARZAN are both Italian-made jungle films, produced at a time when Tarzan films were beginning to wear out their welcome on the American screen. Neither rates as even good lowbrow entertainment like the Bomba series, though LUANA is slightly more interesting in its potential albeit not in its execution.

KARZAN, as the name suggests, is just a routine Tarzan knockoff, though oddly for most of the running-time the hero remains somewhat on the defensive against a group of mercenary white hunters. The hunters' expedition-- made up of a bunch of barely distinguishable characters-- is waylaid by a tribe of Black Africans, who are ruled by a lithe-bodied queen. Karzan and his mate Shiran-- neither of whom can speak English, and who are implicitly both white castaways somehow raised in the jungle-- intervene to save the hunters.

Amusingly, Shiran is the first to attack the tribe, getting into a catfight with the African queen. (The director's best moment is including a shot of a tribesman grinning as he watches his queen rolling in the dust with the white girl.) Karzan then intervenes as well, using his jungle muscles to toss around other grown men. It's possible that Karzan's motives are not entirely altruistic, for he promptly takes possession of the group's only woman, taking both her and Shiran off into the wilds, leaving the other guys to free themselves. But the film isn't organized enough to get any dramatic mileage out of Karzan's apparent attempt at a menage-a-trois.

Despite Karzan's perhaps unworthy motives, the hunters are worse. They decide that they can make a fortune by taking the white savages prisoner for exhibition in the civilized world. From then on there ensues a seesaw battle: first the hunters have both Karzan and Shiran in captivity, then Karzan gets free and fights to free Shiran, then he's captured again, and so on. Finally, one of the white guys decides that they should let their captives go back to the jungle, and that's the end. The catfight is absolutely the only interesting scene in KARZAN, and that's largely because its purpose in titillating the audience is so transparent that it's funny.

LUANA isn't really much better, but its plot at least makes a little more sense.

The set-up is standard enough. A white woman named Isabel comes to Africa looking for information on her father, a scientist whose plane went missing many years ago in a remote section of the jungle. She needs a guide, and finds one in George, your basic "tough jungle hand." Despite the movie's title, the focus is more on the heroics of this cut-rate Allen Quatermain than on the mysterious Asian jungle-girl. Joining the expedition is Norman, an older man and a former colleague of Isabel's father, whose motives for going along are suspicious, not least because he makes a tentative pass at the younger Isabel.

The expedition makes its way through a very unconvincing jungle, encountering colorfully garbed natives who employ poison dart-blowguns. On the way the travelers are regaled with the story of Luana, a mysterious jungle-girl, regarded as a goddess by the natives-- but not, for once, a white goddess. Isabel informs George that her father had remarried an "Oriental princess," and that both the wife and a three-year-old child were in the plane that crashed. Even before the travelers see Luana (Mei Chen), Isabel speculates that the child may have survived and grown to maturity in the jungle, meaning that the woman could be Isabel's half-sister.

Luana, wearing a loincloth and hair long enough to shield her breasts, swings around on readily available jungle-vines and watches the white people from hiding, becoming especially curious when George and Isabel start to hook up. Even when George finally meets Luana, she displays no ability to speak any human language. The implication is that she simply raised herself. She does pal around with a single chimp, but there's no suggestion that she's a member of some ape tribe, nor does she seem to have any of the mysterious animal-rapport found in many jungle-heroes. She evinces no combat abilities whatever, and all of her scenes portray her less as a tough Sheena-type than like an Eve-like innocent. It's not even clear whether or not she's sexually intrigued by the sight of George and Isabel making out, or if she's just showing a beast-like curiosity.

The film proceeds to a combative conclusion that Luana doesn't take part in. Norman is exposed as a contact man for the local tribes, and that he buys the poison from their local plant-life and somehow converts it into a viable drug for exploitation. Even though George has proven his toughness in other scenes, it's a slight surprise when Norman is killed not by George but by one of the guide's African allies, who isn't even a particularly developed minor character.

In the end Isabel and George decide to leave the jungle innocent to her pastoral paradise. There's a slight Oedipal touch in a scene where Isabel says she finds George appealing because he shares her father's passion for jungle life-- though, unlike the crafty Norman, George has the advantage of being more age-appropriate.

Of the two, KARZAN is a combative adventure, but LUANA is not, given that the central character evinces no combat-abilities whatever

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, cosmological, psychological*


The original 1952 Spillane novel-- which I discussed in a spoiler-filled essay here-- is, by the terminology I've propounded, thoroughly *isophenomenal,* concerning detective Mike Hammer's attempt to find a mysterious box, filled with drugs, which is being sought by minions of the Mafia. The same men killed an innocent woman and almost killed Hammer as well, giving the P.I. the excuse to wreak bloody vengeance upon the criminals. Hammer, despite his sadistic tendencies, is without a doubt the hero of the story. He's also a formidable fighter. Toward the conclusion he's bound and beaten savagely by two thugs, but when he gets free he manages to defeat both men with no more advantage than a moment's surprise.

Both the phenomenality and the heroic tone of the original story are discarded in the 1955 film, whose primary authors-- director Robert Aldrich and scripter A.I. Bezzerides-- were repulsed by Hammer's violence, and perhaps also by his creator's generally reactionary political outlook. Thus while they followed some of the general plot-developments of the novel, they subvert the theme of the original KISS ME DEADLY (subversion being what critics call an unfaithful adaptation when they don't like the work being adapted). Instead of Hammer being a modern knight-errant, enraged at the attempt on his life and the killing of an innocent, the film's private dick is, well, a dick. His detective business is based upon having his secretary Velda make up to married men, and then blackmailing her marks. His motive for pursuing the mystery box-- which Velda terms "the great whatsit"-- is purely pecuniary. Hammer is a thoroughgoing capitalist, hoping to profit by finding the coveted box before the crooks do.

Although Hammer is the lowest of the low here-- using his beefy size to bully potential witnesses, for example-- no one else in the film is much better. For this reason I call the film an "irony" in the terminology provided by Northrop Frye, connoting a type of narrative often characterized by showing
"human life in terms of largely unrelieved bondage and social tyranny." KISS ME DEADLY certainly qualifies. Hammer's police contact Pat Murphy, his best friend in the Spillane novel-series, sometimes views Hammer with thinly veiled contempt, which makes one wonder why Murphy seems solicitous about Hammer in other scenes. Later, when Velda is kidnapped and Hammer wants the officer's help in freeing her, Murphy turns his back on the detective, apparently willing to see the secretary die just so that it will torment the mercenary P.I. 

Another interesting change is that Hammer is no longer nearly as tough as the book-version. He does punch out a couple of guys who come at him, but this Hammer only wins one-on-one battles. In the film's latter half Hammer is taken prisoner by two thugs as he is in the book. However, the film devotes a scene to showing Hammer trying to escape the thugs, who promptly beat him down without much effort. In contrast, the film's scene of Hammer's escape-- which contributes to the book-detective's aura of toughness--  takes place in darkness, probably to deprive the film's protagonist from seeming in any way heroic. 

The change from a naturalistic to an uncanny phenomenality has less to do with critiquing Hammer than the world in which he lives, for the mystery box contains not the evils of Pandora's Box, but the spectre of nuclear disaster. At one point it's implied that the box simply contains a radioactive isotope stolen from Los Alamos, since Hammer is briefly exposed to the box's contents and receives a radiation burn from it. However, as the above still shows, the box is fully opened by the film's femme fatale Lily, and as a result it not only sets Lily on fire but explodes with destructive fury. No simple isotope could do all of this, but Aldrich and Bezzerides are not concerned with scientific veracity, as is seen in the attempts of the villainous Doctor Soberin to prevent Lily from opening the box:

Dr. Soberin: You have been misnamed, Gabrielle. You should have been called Pandora. She had a curiosity about a box and opened it and let loose all the evil in the world. 
Lily: Never mind about the evil. What's in it?
Dr. Soberin: Did you ever hear of Lot's wife? 
Lily: No.
Dr. Soberin: No. Well, she was told not to look back. But she disobeyed and she was changed into a pillar of salt. 
Lily: Well, I just want to know what it is.
Dr. Soberin: Would you believe me if I told you? Would you be satisfied?
Lily: Maybe.
Dr. Soberin: The head of the Medusa. That's what's in the box. And whoever looks on her will be changed, not into stone, but into brimstone and ashes. Well, of course, you wouldn't believe me. You'd have to see for yourself, wouldn't you?

Soberin mixes together a cocktail of mythological references, but the most resonant one may be Lot's wife. Only the Biblical story from Genesis involves, not just the destruction of a curious woman, but also the annihilation of the corrupt civilization of Sodom, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Hammer's world. I classify the mysterious contents of the box as an "outre device" in that it doesn't precisely violate the causal rules of the naturalistic world, but simply bends those rules to produce an effect akin to the wrath of God. Interestingly, though Aldrich shots scenes showing Hammer and Velda escaping the cataclysm, the original American release simply showed an explosion that implicitly destroyed both the protagonists and antagonists, as if to say, "to hell with them all." Yet, even the scenes in which the couple escapes-- scenes restored in some DVD restorations-- one wonders if Hammer and Velda have really escaped, given their proximity to a miniature nuclear blast.

While many of the script's lines emphasize Hammer's misogyny-- particularly in his opening conversation with the innocent female who dies-- it might be argued that Aldrich's femme fatale is more condescending to women than Spillane's. In both cases, the femme fatale is a woman who has murdered the real Lily in order to assume her identity. But as I note in the essay cited above, the book's Lily is something of a "feminine monster," who horrifies Hammer in being a modern-day version of what Soberin calls "the Medusa." In contrast, there's nothing horrifying about the film's Lily, except that she like Hammer is obsessed with monetary gain, and that her feminine curiosity mirrors that of the culture that has birthed the Bomb. Both are misogynistic portraits, but though Spillane's femme may be monstrous, at least she's a powerful monster.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

It's interesting to compare this postwar American serial to BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD, made in the U.S. prior to the country's entry into WWII. Both serials emphasize a message concerning the maintenance of world peace, but while BLAKE has the idea of giving away a great weapon to keep the peace, LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE is more interested in keeping the status quo.

Admittedly, the serial's heroes are largely aligned with a private organization, the United Peace Foundation, that is not directly affiliated with any government. The Foundation's ideals-- tediously reiterated at the beginning of each JUNGLE chapter by a bunch of Foundation-guys sitting around a table-- are supposed to reflect the ethos of the newly-minted United Nations. These sequences even emphasize that the Foundation is based in San Francisco, the city where the UN first convened. The idea of an unaligned international peacekeeping force would show up again in the 1964 teleseries THE MAN FROM UNCLE. Yet JUNGLE, like the later TV show, seems to associate the best interests of the world with those of the United States. This political attitude is indicated by the threat posed by the villains: they want to construct an "anti-atomic defense" that they can sell to the highest bidder-- implying that the circulation of such a defense will inevitably bring about another war. "The warmonger who steals peace," pontificates one of the Foundation members, "is the worst kind of thief."

 The atomic defense can only be constructed by harvesting a rare radioactive element, "meteorium," from a lost temple in the Asian realm of Pendrang, so the villains head for Zalabar, capital city of Pendrang, and two Foundation agents go after them. The lead hero is one Rod Stanton, played by Russell Hayden, an actor who spent most of his career in westerns like the Hopalong Cassidy series, but who doesn't manage to project the brio of the best serial-heroes. He's frequently helped out by fellow agent Tal Shan (Keye Luke), whose role in JUNGLE allows him a little more status than his better-known serial-role as houseboy Kato in the two "Green Hornet" chapter-plays. There's also Jane Adams, playing the standard part of a scientist's daughter, but she barely has anything to do. Helen Bennett plays Indra, a road-company Dragon Lady who rules over Zalabar and who may or may not ally herself with the Foundation guys.

The nature of the villains is complicated by the fact that one villain, Sir Eric Hazarias, is played by Lionel Atwill, who died of lung cancer during the serial's production. Therefore, even though Sir Eric is the principal fiend against whom the heroes contend, the serial had to find ways to work around scenes that Atwill never shot-- sometimes using a double for the deceased actor, sometimes giving his scenes to a subordinate character, his secretary Malborn (John Mylong), who, rather confusingly, is sometimes said to have been Sir Eric's secret superior. Nevertheless, even with all of these drawbacks Atwill's Sir Eric remains the evil name with which the good guys conjure when they moralize against the evils of warmongering, and Atwill has a handful of decent scenes, though his villainous role in 1944's CAPTAIN AMERICA blows Sir Eric away.

In addition, the heroes have some dust-ups with the tribesmen of Pendrang, who are understandably miffed when the bad white guys destroy one of Pendrang's lakes in order to gain access to the lost temple hidden beneath. But despite getting help from archaeologist Dr. Elmore, an innocent gulled by the villains, the warmongers don't manage to explore the temple until the final few chapters. Perhaps this foot-dragging comes about as the result of the production's recycling of scenes from earlier serials, though JUNGLE isn't as transparent in its re-use of old footage as some chapter-plays I might name.

Though the early chapters are slow to get going, not least because of Hayden's lack of charisma, eventually the Foundation's agents get involved in an assortment of fights and death-traps. The best trap is the "Pendrang guillotine," which is triggered by the sun's rays burning through a rope, a device possibly swiped from a similar one in Republic's 1940 serial THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU.

In the history of fantasy-films, JUNGLE's greatest repute is as a possible influence upon 1980's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. It's not until the last couple of episodes that JUNGLE's "ark" materializes: a special box containing the radioactive meteorium. Thanks to some lost archaic technology, the box can provide a shield from the substance's radioactivity, and though the meteorium is loosely associated with a Pendrang deity, it has no literal metaphysical aspects, though it does blast one of Sir Eric's henchmen into dust in an Ark-like display of power. The villains actually manage to get their prize away from the heroes, but a last-ditch stratagem by one of the good guys' allies causes the warmongers to meet destruction, albeit a much humbler one than the famous climax of RAIDERS. I suppose there's a poetic justice here; that evildoers seeking to curb the right-minded use of the Atom are destroyed by meddling with a not dissimilar power.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I don't usually spend much time touching on DTV films whose main purpose was just to show a lot of butt-kicking amid some mild SF-elements, but I happened across CYBORG COP III on an old VHS tape and gave it a watch.

I think I saw the first two in the series, which struck me as efficient if unremarkable action-flicks. Like this one, those installments focuses not upon a low-rent version of Robocop, but a heroic human cop who has to take on cyborg opponents for assorted reasons. In both previous films the kickbutt cop was played by David Bradley, better known for his martial arts expertise than his acting. But even though Part III substitutes two heroes in place of one, Frank Zagarino and Bryan Genesse-- formerly opponents in the second "Shadowchaser" film
-- don't even provide the mild entertainment of one Bradley. Both men have done tolerable action-films before and after this one, but their script is so ghastly they've nothing to work with.

Quick summation: an evil company, Deltatech, begins working on cyborg-soldiers whose genetic material includes cockroach DNA, so that they'll be able to survive nuclear war. Supposedly this makes such soldiers interesting to foreign agents, but an intrepid reporter manages to get on the trail of the illegal arms deal, and she involves two witless U.S. marshals in the case.

The bit about the cockroach DNA is about the only element that causes me to label this a "cosmological" film: in no other way does the script do anything with the science of cyborg technology-- so that it's just as clueless in that respect as in every other one.

CCIII might be good for a few laughs at its incompetence if one is in the mood for a pathetic misfire. But it's not "so bad it's good;" it's just bad.

Friday, January 8, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I've never had a great fondness for the ultra-cheapie B-western serials, whether featuring well known cowboy-stars like Rogers and Autry or mostly forgotten characters like "the Range Busters," the trio of horse-opera heroes who star in HAUNTED RANCH. Probably the only ones that interest me much are those that have, or seem to have, relevance to my NUM theory, like the ones about masked heroes like the Durango Kid, or stories in which cowpokes encounter weird societies, like RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL.  

There's also a handful of "weird westerns" in which owlhoots pretend to be ghosts. Sometimes these fit the uncanny version of the "phantasmal figuration" trope, but HAUNTED RANCH falls into the naturalistic domain for reasons I find more interesting than the movie.

To summarize as quickly as possible, Dusty, one of the trio of do-gooders, impersonates a murdered man, one of two heirs to a ranch-bequest, in order to learn the secret of a hidden treasure that the murderers are seeking. There's one nice comic moment when Dusty meets-- and takes a shine to-- the other heir: Helen, a young woman who's never met the man Dusty impersonates. Dusty likes Helen so much that he's sorry to find out she's "his" cousin. In the film's only moment of wit, she rushes to mention that the two of them are not technically related, since she was adopted, which is a cute way for the script to show that she reciprocates Dusty's interest. As Dusty investigates the murder, he learns that the ranch that he and Helen have inherited seems to be haunted, though the only character who truly believes this is Snowflake, the comic-relief "scared darkie" cook. Eventually Dusty and his partners-- one of whom carries around a ventriloquist's dummy for more comedy relief-- find out that the murdering treasure-hunters are behind the haunting. There's a mildly rousing climactic fight in which the good guys trounce the bad guys, one of whom is the venerable Glenn Strange, best known for playing Universal's Frankenstein Monster and "Sam the Bartender" on GUNSMOKE.

The reason I find the "haunting hoax" to be naturalistic is akin to my verdict on the 1942 British war-comedy KING ARTHUR WAS A GENTLEMAN: because the hoax is so simple that only a child, or child-like person, would fall for it. The owlhoots' ghostly imposture consists of concealing themselves in the basement of the ranch-house and projecting their voices, or accordion-music, to give Snowflake the heebie-jeebies. True, these effects disconcert a few of the white characters. But their reactions are so mild next to Snowflake's comic conniptions that RANCH's "darkie humor" seems much worse than the average film in this subgenre.

In most cases the audience viewing a film that offers a "phantasmal figuration" trope usually strongly suspects that the phantasm involved-- be it the Baskerville Hound or the Spooky Space Kook-- is not going to be a bonafide supernatural presence. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have to put some effort into coming up with some sort of credible phantom-- not to convince the audience of its reality, but to convince the audience that one or more fictional characters might believe it's a real gh-gh-gh-ghost! Only through the medium of such characters can audience-members experience the feeling of the uncanny, assuming any audience-members are open to it.

But when characters fall for an extraordinarily simple deception-- like Snowflake, or like the hero of KING ARTHUR WAS A GENTLEMAN-- or, for that matter, when they manage to scare themselves, like Laurel and Hardy in their short THE LIVE GHOST-- I don't think that channels any sort of eerie vibe. The audience remains removed from the spectacle of the goof who puts easy credence in ghosts, magic swords, or similar chimerae, because it's evident he has no discriminatory powers.

I might find the uncanny trope in even the most threadbare "phony ghosts" possible, like the various bedsheet-wearing goons who appear in certain Three Stooges shorts, because at least there's some buildup of an eerie atmosphere. But there's nothing uncanny in this ordinary Monogram oater.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

STAR WARS (1977)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *superior*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, cosmological*

I've observed that certain films, like the 1960 PSYCHO  and the 1933 KING KONG, have been so frequently analyzed that the game of trying to say something original about them is hardly worth the candle.

STAR WARS probably hasn't received nearly as much academic analysis as the other two, but arguably it's become more central to American culture. At the time it appeared, SF-films generally followed one of two options. Some were oriented toward didactic messages that adults could appreciate-- meaning that they sought to convey some edifying message about human nature, as with 1973's SOYLENT GREEN and the "Planet of the Apes" franchise. More frequently SF-films were aimed at kids, who were-- at least according to American film-producers-- were primarily interested in monsters (Godzilla), dinosaurs (At the Earth's Core and the "Time Forgot" films) and the more escapist type of post-nuclear thrills (DEATH RACE 2000, THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR).  True, for several decades Walt Disney's animated films had found clever ways to appeal to both the kids and the adults who took them to the theaters. But these films-- most of which would fall into the genres of that awkward umbrella-term "fantasy"-- were still marketed as juvenile entertainment.

STAR WARS changed many, though certainly not all, of the usual categorizations. Part of the success lay in the film's use of cutting-edge FX-technology to offer viewers an unprecedented thrill-ride, rather than following the formula of kid-oriented films: expecting uncritical young readers to look past creaky model rockets and monsters with zippers down their backs. George Lucas' unlikely ode to FLASH GORDON appeared at a time when even the diehard Italian film-industry was barely making any movies in the SF-subgenre to which FLASH was usually relegated: "space opera." In the world of prose-SF, this subgenre was more or less the "guilty pleasure" of SF-lovers. But in print media, or the comics-page, it was easy for authors like Smith, Hamilton, and Raymond to conjure up planets full of weird alien life, or galactic empires. Live-action films had to work their metaphorical fingers to the bone just to get as good as 1936's FLASH GORDON--, and even then, an adult watching the serial would have to suspend a few metric tons of disbelief not to notice the patently phony wings of the Hawkmen.

STAR WARS gave adults a film through which they could experience the extravagance of the space opera without getting stopped by zippers and shaky model-aircraft. Yet despite that extravagance, despite Lucas's reported tinkering with his script even during filming, the film still projects the illusion of coherence through its wealth of unexplained references ("the Clone Wars," "the spice mines of Kessel"). It also keeps that coherence by making much of the advanced tech look as vulnerable to wear and tear as the cars of Lucas's AMERICAN GRAFFITI. The current J.J. Abrams effort, THE FORCE AWAKENS, sedulously copies these aspects of the original film.

One thing Abrams doesn't manage to copy, however, is Lucas's focus on the element of religion in rhe Star Wars cosmos. Lucas employs the Force in much the same way space-opera authors made up faux-religions for otherworlds like Mars and Mongo: as a source of thrills and wonder, never for the purpose of making didactic statements. Yet whereas authors like Raymond and Burroughs tended not to represent their faux-religions as being anything but put-up jobs by corrupt priests, Lucas validates the religion of the Jedi much as a source of genuine insight into the universe's nature.

At the same time, the religion of the Force works well in the first film because it's become the underdog in the galactic empire. Whenever the materialistic minions of the Empire mention the Jedi, it's only to sneer at the absurdities of their beliefs. To them Darth Vader's continued existence is little more than an indicator of the foolishness of having faith in anything but machines-- and the fact that Vader himself had taken on the semblance of a machine is merely a further confirmation of their world-view.

Luke Skywalker's existence defies the Empire's passion for "technological terrors," and whether or not Lucas meant him to be Vader's son at the time hardly matters. By inheriting Obi-Wan's mantle as the new embodiment of Jedi spirituality, he supplants Vader in the cosmos as Jacob supplanted Esau. This is the unlikely turnabout that Lucas teaches his audience to hunger for, and it plays as much a role in the franchise's success as the aforementioned love of pulpish extravagance. Indeed, without Lucas having crossbred the magic of fairy tales with the machines of SF, the furor over STAR WARS might have petered out over time like many other fannish enthusiasms, no matter how hard big corporations labored to keep them stoked.

Since I've seen the film many times now, my latest re-viewing didn't add any special insights for purposes of this review, except that I can't imagine the film's scruffy charm having come across without the musical reinforcements of John Williams. And even though I've watched the "attack of the Death Star" sequence numerous times now, even though I know about all the earlier films that influenced it--

It's still as exciting as hell.

Monday, January 4, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

The most interesting thing about writer-director Phil Smoot's THE DARK POWER-- apart from its being one of the last films of B-western hero Lash LaRue-- is that though it cribs from Sam Raimi's 1981 cult success THE EVIL DEAD, it also anticipates the way that franchise would later develop.

Both films are set in isolated rural areas, and provide the audience with a group of irritating young protagonists who occupy a rural house and are promptly victimized by undead predators. However, though LaRue doesn't have as much screen time as the annoying teenagers, in real life he served as one of the film's producers. Thus, while the sixty-something actor certainly knew he wasn't likely to make any significant comeback by whirling the whip he wielded in old B-westerns, the storyline places more emphasis on the victory of his character Ranger Girard over the horrific menaces.

At least Smoot's concept for the horrors isn't a rip-off of Raimi's Sumerian demons. According to the script's heavy exposition-scenes, one of the small-town locals, name of Cody, has for years been guarding against the return of "the Toltecs"-- a quartet of Mexican sorcerers who migrated to the United States back in pre-Columbian times, in order to bury themselves in the ground and someday rise as super-powerful zombies. The exposition doesn't tell us why they wanted to do this, but it's a suitably creepy idea-- unfortunately not pulled off by the sub-par makeup and outfits of the Indian sorcerers.

Girard has a few scenes at the beginning, wielding his whip against malicious dogs, and later telling one of the teens that the deceased Cody gave him the whip, which may have magical efficacy since it was made from materials taken from "the four corners of the world." Again, there's a little metaphysical potential in this, since American Indians made much of the potency of the number four, but the script doesn't exploit this.

There are no surprises after that: the zombie-like Toltecs rise from the earth, wielding weapons like tomahawks, knives, and even a bow-and-arrow. (Would a bowstring, buried under earth for centuries, still hold together?) They make their way to the cabin and attack the obnoxious teens amid a lot of Raimi-imitating zoom-shots, none of which are effective.  Ranger Girard shows up at the climax and whales the hell out of the undead Toltecs, and even engages one in a whip-vs. whip battle before snapping off the zombie's head. That said, some of the teen girls kill at least two of the zombies with artifacts in their cabin, so Girard doesn't get all the fun.

I doubt that Raimi saw this film. However, it's an interesting coincidence that two years later, when he brought forth a higher-budgeted sequel to his first film, he took the emphasis off of the "evil dead" and placed it squarely upon the ballsy character of Ash Williams, who has generally dominated the franchise ever since. For what it's worth, Ranger Girard got there first.

Saturday, January 2, 2016


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, cosmological, psychological*


Since beginning this blog I’ve occasionally touched upon the problems presented by “kung fu cinema,” principally though not exclusively represented by the groundbreaking productions of Hong Kong. Films with overt marvelous content—that is, with sorcerers, ghosts, reborn Chinese gods, et al—have no problem getting into the fantasy-film concordances. But many kung-fu films stride the uncertain threshold between the naturalistic and the uncanny—and since most concordances only recognize Western forms of the uncanny (phony ghosts, lost civilizations), Hong Kong films with an uncanny vibe simply get tossed out along with all the purely naturalistic fare.

THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS—whose title, according to DVD commentator Bey Logan, has spawned three rock-bands with derivative names—is one of the most famous kung-fu flicks in the uncanny domain. It debuted in 1978, at which time the genre’s major tropes had been well established. For a film with such a strong reputation, it’s not nearly as action-packed as other heralded movies in the genre, and it doesn’t even possess a particularly memorable hero. In fact, it might be argued that the Five Venoms of the title, most of whom are villains, are the film’s real stars.

A prologue introduces the audience to Wang Da, the nominal hero, and his kung-fu master. The master is dying of some illness when he relates how he trained five superb assassins, called “venoms” because of their deadliness. In flashbacks all of the Venoms wear ornate masks that conceal their identities from one another unless they choose to reveal them, so that most of the Venoms do not know one another on sight, any more than Wang can recognize them. The master regrets the evil that his students did as assassins, and even though they’ve all settled down and abandoned the assassin business, the master wants Wang to find the Venoms and check them out. If Wang learns that a given Venom is now living a righteous life, Wang can leave him alone; if not, Wang must kill him.

One of the biggest stumbling-blocks to this mission is that the master frankly tells Wang that though he’s trained in the same styles as the Venoms, Wang won’t be able to conquer the bad ones unless he gets help from at least one good Venom—a stipulation which pretty much telegraphs a major plot-development at the climax. On the up side of things, the master can point Wang to a specific city where another member of the order is said to have concealed a treasure—which all the Venoms want to obtain.

Once the master dies, Wang seeks out the city of the treasure-keeper and assumes the role of a lowly beggar in order to ferret out his quarry.  The treasure-keeper is killed by one of the Venoms, and the local court starts an investigation. Wang fades from the story as the script—co-authored by director Chang Cheh—emphasizes the ruthless corruption of medieval Chinese society.  When the city-cops can’t find the felon, the judge threatens them all with caning, and when they have a suspect, neither the judge or anyone else has any compunction against torturing confessions out of them. Not that the script is interested in unraveling identities in the style of detective-stories, either. In fact, the storyline resembles no genre as much as that of the tale of courtly intrigue.

I won’t recount any of the plot’s many complications, in which the Venoms cross paths and either form alliances or betray one another, all with an eye to unearthing the mysterious treasure. Eventually Wang finds the ally he needs and the two of them defeat the Bad Venoms—that is, those who haven’t already been killed. The plot is not the movie’s main focus anyway. The film’s focus is the exotic nature of the Venoms themselves.

I’ve mentioned the masks worn by the Venoms at the beginning of the film. Aside from the flashback sequence, only once or twice do any of the former assassins don their masks in real-time. In terms of the plots, the masks are close to being purely functional, but they’re colorful enough that the viewer is meant to remember them despite their sparse screen-time. This would be reason enough for me to classify them as "outré outfits,” even if Logan hadn’t commented that the masks give the film a potential “Power Rangers” vibe.

Many of the abilities of the Venoms also qualify as “outré skills.” While three of  the Venoms possess only naturalistic skills, two have abilities far beyond this domain: “Gecko,” who practices “gecko style,” can climb walls like a lizard and cling to the walls by his feet a la Spider-Man, and “Toad” is almost invulnerable to metal blades and spikes. Logan helpfully notes that these kung-fu “super-powers” are cognate concepts based in the Chinese concept of “inner power,” or “chi.” It’s simply, Logan says, that the Gecko uses “chi” to make his body light and agile while the Toad uses the same force to make himself ultra-dense.

But are these really super-powers along the line of Spider-Man and the X-Men? I have no problem with labeling films with “chi” as marvelous if one actually sees a kung-fu practitioner tossing around enormous weights or shooting fire from his hands. But in these cases, where the idea seems like a peculiar exaggeration of a natural bodily propensity, like agility or toughness, then I tend to place them in the uncanny domain.

Writer-director Chang Cheh made a film that was later sold as if it were a sequel to VENOMS, i.e.: THE RETURN OF THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS. The flick’s original title was CRIPPLED AVENGERS and it didn’t even have five protagonists, but four.

If VENOMS was a little slow at times, RETURN delivers on the usual expectations of a kung-fu film, in that some form of violence and/or fighting breaks out every ten-twenty minutes. It begins with two characters who will soon become the film’s villains: patriarch Dao and his son Chang. Dao’s enemies break into his home, slay his wife, and chop off the arms of his young son. A flash-forward shows Chang as a young man, by which time Dao has had metal arms constructed for his son. Chang no longer feels like a cripple with these devices, which are even capable of firing darts from the fingers  .

However, like many real people who use their own travails as an excuse to inflict suffering on others, Dao and Chang become petty tyrants in their bailiwick. For one reason or another, they fall afoul of four low-class individuals, and the evildoers proceed to make each of them crippled in some way: one blind, one deaf and mute, one legless, and one reduced to a simpleton.

Just as the original Venoms were cookie-cutter characters—living embodiments of their fighting-styles, and little more—the four victims are simply embodiments of their respective injuries. Chang Cheh gives none of them any strong characterization, though naturally they all generate a certain limited degree of pathos given their gruesome situaiton. Still, the director doesn’t let any grass grow under his feet before the quartet, having become allies in a roundabout manner, receive training from a kung-fu master to allow them to compensate for their diminished abilities.  I won’t detail these stratagems except to say that the legless man necessarily has to be fitted with metal legs in order to join the climactic fight against the tyrant and his son.

RETURN boasts some superbly photographed action-scenes, and falls into the “outré” domain thanks to the tropes of the kung-fu fighting blind man and of the two characters who have their normal limbs replaced by metal devices.

Though Bey Logan’s commentary on VENOMS doesn’t touch on the genesis of RETURN, his chatty asides include few facts about the last Chang Cheh film I’ll cover in this post. GOLDEN SWALLOW was a sequel to a successful 1968 film, COME DRINK WITH ME, by director King Hu. DRINK is considered by many to be the first film of the HK-KF era to spotlight a female martial-arts fighter. According to Logan, Cheh did not really like trying to figure out the dynamics of female fighters in his scenarios, even though star Cheng Pei Pei wanted to have the same quantity of swordplay given her character Golden Swallow in the first film. Apparently Cheh got his way, for in the sequel Golden Swallow is marginalized in her own film.

The central conflict is clearly that of two men fighting over the same woman. Golden Swallow trained with two men, Golden Whip and Silver Roc. The muddy exposition never makes clear how she felt about either man back in the day, but apparently Silver Roc was in love with Golden Swallow, while she was not aware of his affections. The swordswoman reunites with Golden Whip—also “in the friend zone,” though he wants to be more—because she’s become aware of a mystery killer who’s murdering bandits and leaving her the credit for the killings. Since the bandits’ friends start trying to murder Golden Swallow for revenge, she has an excellent motive for playing detective.

Not that there’s any mystery to the audience. It’s quite plain early on that Silver Roc is picking fights with bandits and killing them in Golden Swallow’s name, but it’s never clear as to why he’s doing so. The audience learns that Roc had a hard life; that he was an orphan who saw his parents killed before he ended up taking up the sword— and so one may assume that he didn’t just fall for Swallow; he became obsessed with her. Yet though he loves her, he doesn’t seem too concerned about the possibility that she might get killed because of his actions. My best guess is that he resorts to his ploy to gain her attention—though as soon as he sees her in the company of Golden Whip, his only concern is to duel his potential rival to the death, despite Swallow’s protests. I suppose Chang Cheh’s intention was to portray Silver Roc as a tormented outsider. But he’s so one-dimensional that he just comes across as a jealous jerk

Cheng Pei Pei is allowed a few piddling fight-scenes, but the director devotes most of his energies to male posturing and male-on-male battles. Only one item makes this a metaphenomenal film: one bandit-chief and his henchmen make use of explosive darts. I suppose these are essentially just fancy grenades, but they’re “outré” enough to cross into the uncanny domain.

The last film I’ll review in this post is the only one *not* directed by Chang Cheh: EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN. This time I’ll get the one metaphenomenal element out of the way first: the villain is a kung-fu master who, like a similar character in VENOMS, can manipulate his chi so as to be impervious to many attacks. However, whereas the guy from VENOMS could actually turn away edged metal, this one is simply very resistant to blows from his kung-fu opponents. He has a “weak point” in his chi-system, but he can cause this Achilles heel to shift from one part of his body to another, so that his opponent is never sure where to strike.

The conflict takes place against a historical backdrop, following the semi-legendary burning of the Shaolin Temple. The villain is similarly based in history, and a frequent character in kung-fu cinema: Pai Mei, one of whose avatars appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL PART 2. Pai Mei is complicit in the destruction of the Temple and has personally killed its chief abbot. The surviving students of the Temple flee and try to lose themselves amid ordinary society—but one man, Hong by name, swears to train until he can defeat Pai Wei and avenge his master.

Some good comes Hong’s way: while on the run he meets Ying, a comely young woman, also a kung-fu practitioner, though she uses “Crane” style while he’s a devotee of “Tiger” style. After an assortment of comic misadventures, Hong and his kung-fu bride are wed. There’s an attack by the new government on their place of business, so that they have to flee the company of Hong’s friends (except for one, who will later sacrifice himself to save his leader’s life). Hong and Ying manage to settle in an isolated cottage, but though they have a son, Hong’s main concern is to continue training himself until he’s good enough to beat Pai Mei. Ying suggests that she could teach him Crane style, but Hong’s pride won’t allow him to use another style. He does allow her to teach her art to their son Wen-Ding, though.

This proves Hong’s wisest move, for on two subsequent occasions, he challenges Pai Mei and is beaten. The first time, he’s able to get away thanks to his friend’s sacrifice, but the second duel spells his doom. Though he never trained Wen-Ding, Hong’s son—by this time grown to manhood—has managed to glean enough of his old man’s Tiger style to combine it with his mother’s Crane style—and then, to use both to defeat the villain.

This raises an interesting question about which character is the protagonist of the story. It’s certainly not Ying, who exists to give Hong a son. One might say Wen-Ding, since he wins the final fight with Pai Mei. But Wen-Ding has no ambitions, no life, beyond avenging his father. Therefore, even though Hong dies toward the film’s end, he is still the central character, while the members of his family exist to execute his desire for vengeance—even if his bullheaded attitude toward the “mixing of styles” is proven wrong by the actions of his wife and son.