Wednesday, March 30, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic,* (2) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*

In addition to their other accomplishments, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, Hollywood's "Kings of Horror," both crossed paths with master sleuth Charlie Chan, albeit about five years apart from one another. Not surprisingly, because both had played a number of "heavies," neither one turns out to be the main murderer whom Chan must detect by film's end.

I read Earl Derr Biggers' THE BLACK CAMEL years ago, but remember nothing much about it, so I can't say if the 1931 film is a serviceable adaptation, though both stories concern a female film-star being murdered in Chan's neck of the woods. This was a rare circumstance for the movie-Chan, who tended to hop around the globe in search of murder-suspects.

Neither the mystery nor its staging is particularly compelling, though Lugosi has a good scene with Warner Oland, as a phony psychic who can smell a cop from a mile away.  He also has one scene using a crystal ball to help a wealthy woman seek to contact a departed soul-- but even though Lugosi had scored with the public as Dracula a few months prior to CAMEL, even he can't invest the psychic or his modus operandi with any intimations of the uncanny. This is the first film in which I've found a "phantasmal figuration" of this specific type-- that of occult divination-- to fall entirely into the naturalistic domain, in that it's unlikely any audience-member identified with the hocus-pocus even for a moment.

For me the main interest of CAMEL is that the story, following the novel, saddles Chan with an incompetent junior officer of Asian descent-- anticipating the similar but far superior employment of the character of Charlie's son Lee Chan, who debuted in 1934's CHARLIE CHAN IN PARIS as essayed by Keye Luke.

Lugosi may have been relegated to playing the sort of "red herring" he'd played in his early Hollywood years, but Karloff's character gets major exposure, for all that he too is not the story's main villain.

Gravelle (Karloff) is introduced in his room at an asylum, where he's been confined due to his total amnesia for the past 13 years. He sees a newspaper item about a famous opera diva and suddenly remembers who he is, impelling him to break out of the asylum and to begin haunting the opera, seeking revenge on those who sought to kill him and caused his memory-loss instead. Chan, who is a fan of the diva, is consulted on the case. Chan's bumbling son Lee comes along for the ride, though most of the picture's funny stuff comes from short-fused Irish cop Kelly (William Demarest), who is slow to appreciate Charlie's talents and calls him things like "Chop Suey."

The script strikes a deft balance between the backstage complications of the opera's production and the mysterioso appearances of the deranged Gravelle, who is himself a former opera-singer. Fittingly,
the opera chosen is a version of "Faust," giving Karloff the chance to dress up in the devilish costume of Mephisto. Despite the fact that the murder committed at the opera isn't of his doing, Karloff's cadaverous aura of menace proves more memorable than the film's final detection-scene.

That said, it's still Warner Oland's film, and in Chan's longest scene with Gravelle, Oland's skillful underplaying actually makes Karloff's "mad act" seem a trifle overdone. Chan also shines in finding a way to allow Gravelle the kindness of seeing his grown daughter again, even though the young woman is utterly unaware of being related to the operatic madman. Even the dimwit Kelly is redeemed to some extent, as he realizes that Chan is a superior detective and admits it-- surely a sociological moral that the filmmakers encouraged the audience as a whole to embrace.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Despite the above lobby card's allusion to a "mysterious curse," said curse is entirely metaphorical: "the evil that men do," and that sort of thing.

Columbia made serials with two rather obscure-even-in-their-time heroes-- modern-day cowboy-hero The Vigilante and heroic aviator Hop Harrigan-- in the two years before 1948's SUPERMAN made it to theaters. I strongly suspect that this was the result of some sort of "package deal" between DC Comics and Columbia: if Columbia wanted the company's "big gun," they had to adapt a couple of smaller pistols first.

Admittedly, the Golden Age Vigilante, being a superhero who was revived a few times in later eras, has remained on the radar of dedicated comics-fans. But his stories were simple fare, and his visual appeal came down to a nicely designed cowboy-costume (with a bandanna-mask to hide his face), a cool motorcycle, and a daily occupation-- that of a cowboy-crooner-- that at least wasn't the usual "bored playboy."

So there wasn't a lot for Columbia to get wrong about such a simple character. Plotwise, the serial's story-- consisting of the hero trying to find out why a gang of thieves are set on stealing a set of valuable Arab horses-- is pretty much like the stories of the comic book, though in serial-form, the simple story has to be padded a lot to last 15 chapters. Columbia chose to give their Vigilante a rather ordinary white shirt rather than the comics-character's double-buttoned blue attire, and the choice makes the serial-hero less than visually appealing. This Vigilante also rides his motorcycle a few times, but it's not exactly a recurring visual motif. The bad guys are humdrum, including the gang's hooded leader X-1.

On the plus side, the action is nicely staged and the sets are clean and distinctive. The serial's best assets are star Ralph Byrd, who brings a breezy charm to the Vigilante and his alter ego (who's a government agent this time) and leading lady Ramsay Ames, who strikes a small bow for women's lib by playing a character who's a skilled trick-rider. Not a bad serial but not exceptional in any way.

WRONG TURN (2003), WRONG TURN 2 (2007), WRONG TURN 3 (2009)

I re-screened the first two of these backwoods-horror films and, for my own convenience, decided to copy my 2012 review of the third film into this post.

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

As far as the horror-films of the 2000s are concerned, the original WRONG TURN may well be the decade's most well-known venture into the vein of "backwoods-horror," following in the vein of such films as TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, and-- well, BACKWOODS. But the original film is far from a classic in the vein of the first two, despite the producer-participation of revered makeup-expert Stan Winston.

Like many of the previous entries in this subgenre: the plot is simple: representatives of modern-day citified society take a "wrong turn" into hillbilly country, and find that the denizens of the forests and swamps are hostile to everything from the city. The opening scenes play to the familiar association of hillbillies and inbreeding, as director Rob Schmidt telegraphs his Big Reveal by showing the viewer a few newspaper-items discussing a West Virginia hill-clan that has been observed as showing freakish deformities, as well as exhibiting unusual strength and resistance to pain. In contrast to the second film in the series, inbreeding is the only reason given for the deformities, though Schmidt and his writer barely make use of the hill-folk's superior physical abilities.

Following the newspaper-teasers, and a sequence in which a couple of rock-climbers are knocked off by the forest-dwellers, the audience meets viewpoint character and medical student Chris. Chris is driving through West Virginia en route to an important job interview, and when he can't get where he's driving on the main highway, he makes a "wrong turn" onto a side road. He meets two rural types, a trucker and an old man at a slovenly gas station, and both of them evince veiled contempt for the impatient city-feller. Chris literally runs into the stalled car of five other city-youths, so that all six of them must walk through the forest to reach civilization. Two of the slothful youngsters can't be bothered to leave the road-- they want to stay behind and get high-- and predictably enough, they're the next targets of the deformed hill-folk,

After the strong build-up, though, in which the script puts the city-folk through their paces, WRONG TURN just becomes a routine "line-'em-up-and-knock-'em-off" slasher-opus. The methods by which the killbillies commit their murders are usually pretty mundane-- didn't anyone read them the rules of the Book of Slashers, that specifies that good slasher-villains hardly ever use guns? A few scenes provide decent thrills, as when "Final Guy" Chris and "Final Girl" Jessie try to elude one of the killers in the branches of a great tree, and both of the lead actors acquit themselves well.  But Schmidt avoids letting the audience see the deformations in great detail, and when they do appear, they certainly aren't makeup-designs in a league with those of Stan Winston.

WRONG TURN 2, though, provides the rare example of the sequel that outclasses the original. To be sure, director Joe Lynch and the sequel's two scriptwriters raise the stakes in part by swiping from Tobe Hooper's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE-- but theirs is a good swipe, in that it melds new elements with the old.

Whereas the stranded city-folk of the first film were negligible as characters, TURN 2 paints with a broader palette. A wide variety of would-be celebrities come to the West Virginia forest to shoot a reality-show, in which all of them are competing for mucho dinero. True, all of them are types-- the Cowardly Goofus, the Lesbian Marine, the Ex-Jock-- but the script gives them all their little character moments, rather than simply lining them up for slaughter. TURN 2 is surely not the first time the participants of a "reality show" were forced to meet a much more unpredictable form of "reality," but the film gets points for casting AMERICAN IDOL celebrity Kimberly Caldwell as the first victim of the killbillies-- and for giving her one of the film's goriest deaths, being split down the middle by an axe.

Where most sequels are happy to churn out retreads of the same scenes that made the original story popular, Lynch and Co. seem eager to one-up their predecessors. The makeup of the murderous mutants is front-and-center this time, but Lynch again follows Hooper's example by infusing his monsters with touches of humanity. In particular Lynch outdoes Schmidt in emphasizing the gabbling language of the hill-folk, and by revealing that the hillbillies' mutations aren't due entirely due to incest-- though one such act is openly portrayed-- but also by careless chemical dumping by a now-defunct paper mill. Fans of CHAINSAW will remember that Hooper's degraded family were the victims of economic marginalization, and TURN 2 takes a leaf from the same book, implying at the end that the mutations will continue due to the ongoing pollution of the once pristine forest-waters.

TURN 2 is no great classic, even of this limited subgenre. But in terms of strong gore-scenes and tormented teens, it far eclipses many of the "retro-slashers" that came to theaters in the 2000s.

The best-part of this second sequel to 2003's hick-horror flick WRONG TURN comes at the beginning.  Four teens, canoeing on whitewater in the hills, beach their canoes and make camp.  One guy and girl leave to collect firewood and/or give the other guy and girl privacy to have sex.  Just as the half-nude girl is about to commence sex with her boyfriend, she asks if the guy thinks she's a slut.  His response isn't the joke: the joke is that when she's first to be killed by the freakish hillbilly Three-Finger, the writer has invoked once again the popular "slut dies first in these movies" trope.

In the same scene, the boyfriend-- also killed a few moments later-- references DELIVERANCE with a remark about a "banjo-playing hillbilly."  Then the other guy is killed by the horrible hill-dweller, though the "good girl" Alex escapes.

As often happens when it's evident that there's no place for a sequel to go with the original elements, filmmakers will try cross-breeding with elements of other genres.  Thus Jason of the FRIDAY THE 13TH films encounters a CARRIE-like girl in one of his outings.  This time, the WRONG TURN series gets crossbred (rather fitting metaphor in this case) with a prison-break story.  In brief, the next victims Three-Finger waylays is a transport-van full of convicts.  The convicts manage to get hold of the guards' guns, kill one guard and force the other one, who knows the backwoods country, to lead them to safety.  On top of all that the convicts frequently quarrel amongst themselves.  When Alex stumbles across the group seeking refuge, she finds herself thinking Three-Finger wasn't so bad-- at least until the "mutant freak," as the film calls him, starts picking everyone off one by one, largely with the use of arrows and clever traps.

The change from teen-victims to hardened criminals doesn't do anything for the level of characterization: the victims remain just as one-dimensional as in the other films.  I'm not a huge fan of the other two entries but they did show a little more imagination in terms of portraying the monstrous villain and his family; in this one Three-Finger seems to be alone except for a son who's quickly killed by the cons-- a leftover from the last entry, perhaps?  But the filmmakers do nothing special with the main appeal of the hick-horror film: the utter strangeness of the backwoods-culture.  The most I can say is that purely in kinetic terms, the film is better directed than two previous films by Declan O'Brien, the execrable SAVAGE PLANET (2007) and MONSTER ARK (2008).

Friday, March 25, 2016


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

For years I've heard it said that the last two "Christopher Lee" Fu Manchu films, both directed by Jesus Franco, were either (1) equally abominable, or (2) that the fifth in the series was the utter rock-bottom of the series.

That both are very bad, un-entertaining films should go without saying, and there's not much question that both director Franco and producer Harry Alan Towers (who made some contributions to both scripts) were merely grinding out the works without even keeping the illusion of doing a good job. The previous three films gave Chris Lee at least minimal opportunities to portray his stern, perpetually obsessed version of the devil-doctor, but here all of the actors largely walk though the proceedings with no particular focus or passion. A slight exception might be made for Richard Greene, who portrayed Fu's nemesis Nayland Smith in these final flicks. He has next to nothing to do in BLOOD, the most execrable of the lot, but at least CASTLE gives the former TV-Robin Hood some chances to swash a few buckles again.

BLOOD OF FU MANCHU is probably less descriptive of the film's content than alternate title KISS AND KILL, but either is better than the title under which I saw my first TV-print, AGAINST ALL ODDS. The script, credited in part to both Towers and Franco, involves Fu and his dacoits finding their way to a hidden city in the Amazon jungle. Along with them they take several beautiful women, all Caucasian as I remember. Fu relates to his loyal daughter Lin Tang that the former inhabitants distilled one of the most virulent poisons of all time-- and then, without further explanation, Fu proceeds to have his henchmen expose one of the girls to the bite of a snake. Why an artificial poison, distilled by long-dead Incans, would be inside a bunch of modern-day serpents is a question that Towers and Franco cannot be bothered to answer. Perhaps Franco just liked the image of having women bitten by snakes, as opposed to the more logical method of syringe-injection.

In any case, somehow the snakebites transform the women into "poison maidens," able to live despite having an immense amount of poison in their systems, and also able to kill anyone they kiss. Fu's plan to send these women out to kill off various enemies makes little more sense than his face-changing plot from VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU, but at least the plot in BLOOD might have offered more sexy scenarios, had it delivered the spectacle of the poison maidens going forth and killing multiple victims with their lips. However, possibly because this was such a cheap production, none of this potential is realized.

The film does show how one of the maidens beards Nayland Smith in his English home, and gives him the deadly liplock. She dies in a subsequent car accident, but Nayland Smith does not, though he does lose his eyesight. It's implied that he will eventually kick off if he can't locate Fu's jungle hideout and obtain an antidote, but there's no guarantee that he will last just long enough to make this formidable journey and confront the maniacal mastermind-- though of course, that's exactly what does happen.

Actually, neither Nayland Smith nor Fu and his aides appear much in the picture, possibly because the director didn't have the actors' services for the full shoot. So Towers and Franco cobble together some B-stories concerning (1) an archaeologist whom Nayland Smith sent to ferret out Fu's Amazonian project (rather an ambitious goal for a non-policeman), and (2) a South American bandit leader. Both of these characters are as dull as dirt. About the only interesting character touch anyone gets is that Lin Tang-- who was given a slight lesbian persona in FACE OF FU MANCHU-- gets to slap around one of the defiant maidens. Maybe there was a "European cut" in which she did more than that. But given that Franco had a long history of making sexploitation films, it's amazing that there's not even a hint of sexiness in the TV-print.

Most of the film looks murky and unfocused, and though I'll admit that I watched a TV print, I tend to think that Franco-- who was capable of better work than this-- was just going through the motions. There isn't even a big Nayland-Fu confrontation. Somehow the Brit-cop figures out that the blood of a poison maiden-- which one might consider one the film's "blood of Fu Manchu"-- can cure him, and it does. The good guys manage to destroy the lost city, with the usual caveat that Fu will turn up again.

CASTLE OF FU MANCHU is only a modest improvement. It's true that Fu's final Towers-authored plan-- to force the world's surrender by using a a freeze-ray-- is illustrated by stock footage of icebergs and some clips from BRIDES OF FU MANCHU. But at least the idea of a freeze-ray sounds like a plan that might impress the leaders of the world.

In order to supply the usual plot-complicated, the devil-doctor needs a large supply of opium to fuel his ray. This is a silly notion, but it's better than snakes that somehow contain artificial poison in their venom. In addition, the scientist overseeing the freeze-ray suffers from a heart-problem, so Fu has to kidnap a heart specialist and his hot daughter in order to keep the scientist alive. And Fu also has a conflict with the local opium-lord in Anatolia, where the titular castle resides.

The proceedings aren't especially exciting-- not even when Nayland Smith infiltrates Fu's castle to free the evil mastermind's captives-- but at least one can tell what's going on from one scene to the next. As a small bonus, while the music in BLOOD was eminently forgettable, the score by Charles Camillieri has a pleasant faux-Middle Eastern flair to it, making it a little more possible to engage with the bland storyline.

Monday, March 21, 2016


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

Ken Maynard, whose outfit included one of the biggest ten-gallon hats ever seen on a serial cowpoke, acquits him pretty well in a 1932 oater involving a mysterious costumed man, but pretty much loses his way in a 1940 opus where he himself plays the mystery man.

TOMBSTONE CANYON boasts a somewhat tighter script than most B-westerns. Ken (no last character name), an adult orphan who's never known anything of his origins, gets a message that he may find out something about his past if he checks out the "Lazy S" ranch. He promptly gets pot-shotted at in the titular canyon (and he even wonders if his ambush has something to do with the canyon's forbidding name). He's rescued by Jenny, a rifle-toting young woman from the ranch, one of the comparatively rare times when a leading lady in a B-western took up arms against bad guys. Before Ken and the girl depart, they hear a loud banshee-like wail, and Jenny tells Ken that it's the sound of the Phantom Killer, a cloaked murderer who's killed off several people who worked for her ranch. Nothing deterred, Ken goes to work at the Lazy S.

There's a decent mystery-twist that brings together Ken's quest for identity with the revelation of the Phantom's secret. but the film's highlight is the mystery man's creepy, black-clad image. The Phantom Killer even follows the "Clutching Hand" trope of pulling his cape over the lower half of his face: not to keep his ID secret, but because he has a face disfigured by injury. He also proves to be a "perilous psycho," driven "loco" by a near-death trauma, and he has a pretty vivid fight with Ken about halfway through the film.

The previous year director Alan James had coincidentally finished THE PHANTOM, a modern-day "old dark house" picture in which guests were menaced by the cloaked figure of the title. That film wasn't too impressive in a directorial sense, but CANYON is marked by a fluid use of the camera and good closeups of Maynard and leading lady Cecilia Parker. That said, James' most well-renowned works of metaphenomenal cinema would probably be his collaborative work on 1937's DICK TRACY  and SOS COAST GUARD.

In contrast, I have almost nothing to say about 1940's PHANTOM RANCHER. Maynard, once again playing a guy with the first name of Ken, seeks out his uncle's ranch in response to a letter. The uncle is slain, and there's no shortage of suspects, since the uncle had the habit of buying out small ranches and foreclosing on them. In addition to seeking the murderer of his uncle, Ken dons a small cape and a domino mask to become "the Phantom Rancher." He also "gives to the poor" a la Robin Hood by donating sums of money to impoverished ranchers, who are of course the prey of the men who murdered Ken's uncle.

This one's so tedious that it's not even amusing to see that absolutely no one suspects the new arrival to the town of being the masked vigilante. And this time it's the writer, not the director, who has significant connections with such metaphenomenal serials as PERILS OF NYOKA and KING OF THE ROCKET MEN.

Thursday, March 17, 2016


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


The meeting of these two 1970s icons is given fairly pedestrian treatment, so I'm not going into a lot of plot-detail. Quick summation: a "Kiss amusement park" is being threatened by a flying, bolt-blasting villain named the Crimson Witch, so the Scooby Gang shows up to solve the mystery. To no viewer's surprise, she's not a real witch, just an evildoer in a souped-up outfit-- though the outfit is still fantastic enough to make the film qualify as marvelous (if it didn't have a talking dog in it already, that is).

What's most interesting is the conflicting depiction of Kiss themselves. One minute, they seem to be the real-life musical performers, who use special-FX to make themselves look like fantasy-creatures. Then Scooby and Co are told that Kiss really are the magical guardians of an arcane stone that the Crimson Witch wishes to use, in order to unleash a world-destroying demon.

Since the Scooby gang has at times met some real occult menaces as well as the phonies, there's no real reason that the demon had to be a phony. However, once the film's given Kiss the chance to strut their stuff as quasi-superheroes, as with their Marvel Comics incarnation, a more uncanny explanation is given: the Crimson Witch unleashed some "dream-dust" that made everyone imagine that Kiss had super-powers and that they used said powers against a gigantic demon.

This raises an interesting point for my system: if some of the heroes in a movie experience a big spectacular fight, but it only happens in a dream, does the movie possess the combative value? My answer is yes in this case. The Scoobies don't do anything spectacular, but their co-stars do, and even though the big battle takes place in a dream, it still has the same spectacle-effect on the viewer as if it was "real" within the story's diegesis.

Prior to this, I reviewed another film with a combative dream-battle framed by a naturalistic explanation. though that one didn't have any of the appeal of mashing together period-related icons.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Though there have been worse Arthurian films than MERLIN AND THE SWORD, this 1985 telefilm remains near the bottom of the heap.

The film's most off-putting element is its jejune framing-device. Wide-eyed American tourist Katherine (Dyan Cannon) visits the site of Britain's famed Stonehenge, rumored to have been built by Merlin the Magician. She takes a tumble and seems to descend into a mystic cave. There Katherine meets Merlin himself and his paramour Niniane, both of whom have been magically confined to the cave since the fall of Camelot. After Katherine finishes ooh-ing and ahh-ing, Merlin and Niniane proceed to tell the tourist a handful of episodic Arthurian stories, very roughly based on genuine narratives from folklore and literature.

Despite the presence of several highly-regarded thespians-- with Malcolm McDowell as Arthur, Edward Woodward as Merlin, and Candice Bergen as Morgan LeFay-- the script is bland and disorganized, while Clive Donner's direction proves so listless as to make his THIEF OF BAGDAD seem a minor classic by comparison.

Of the episodes chosen, the oddest is the story of Sir Gawain's strange romance with a woman named "Dame Ragnell." Because Ragnell saves Gawain's life, he promises to wed her, despite the fact that she has the face of a pig, as well as snorting like one. The original story belongs to the subgroup called "loathly lady" stories, and in SWORD as in the original, Gawain's determination to marry a deserving if unappealing woman is rewarded in the end, when his honorable behavior cancels Ragnell's enchantment and returns her to her normal beautiful looks. Donner misses the potential in the story in that the Gawain-actor is never shown feeling any revulsion toward Ragnell's pig-face, so that nothing truly seems to be at stake. There is an amusing moment in which Lancelot and Guinevere see Ragnell for the first time, and are all but dumbstruck by her uncomeliness. It's been asserted that "loathly lady" stories were a comic riposte at the aristocratic image of courrtly romance, in which the participants are all "the beautiful people" of their time. But in SWORD it seems like nothing but a random tale that has nothing to do with the main story. I note in passing that the principal writer's main credit was working on a couple of FAERIE TALE THEATER episodes.

The other stories at least fit into the "fall of Camelot" theme, however uninspiring they may be. As in most such storylines, the sorceress Morgan LeFay and her ally Modred, bastard son of Arthur, conspire against the rightful monarch. However, this time Morgan is positioned as Modred's aunt, rather than his mother, of whom nothing is said, though one presumes that if she's Morgan's sister, then Arthur simply slept with another sibling.

Like Merlin, Morgan Le Fay is possessed by impressive magical powers. After she encourages a Viking warrior to abduct Guinevere, Morgan sets up a magical barrier to block the pursuing knights, though Lancelot still manages to reach the queen-- which, as in some traditional stories, begins their illicit romance. She also animates an undead knight to attack Arthur, and the King manages to win out even though his sword Excalibur seems distinctly non-magical.  However, for all her magic, Morgan doesn't seem to be able to find a good hair-stylist (see above). Candice Bergen fits her persona to her bad hair by making Morgan a spitting she-cat without an ounce of subtlety.

The Lancelot-Guinevere romance is rendered with no passion or suspense whatever. The one noteworthy psychological motif is, as far as I know, non-traditional. After nasty Modred exposes the liaison in order to unseat Arthur, Modred expresses a desire to have Guinevere for his own. A more skilled storyteller might have exploited the Oedipal parallel between the sins of Lancelot, a loyal but only figurative son, and those of Modred, the literal but disloyal son. Donner typically misses this boat as well.

As Merlin's tale draws to a close, he tells Katherine that he could do nothing to prevent the death of Arthur and the fall of Camelot. However, he suddenly gets the inspiration to send his astral body back to medieval times to prevent Morgan from enjoying her triumph. In this form he seizes the fallen Excalibur and stabs Morgan to death-- after which he returns to the cave with Niniane. Katherine then wakes up from having apparently dreamed her sojourn in the magical cave, though unlike another famous girl who took a tumble,    here it's strongly intimated that everything Katherine dreamed is the Real Thing.

This telefilm is sometimes given the title "Arthur the King," but it's really not about him, any more than it's about Gawain, Lancelot or Guinevere. MERLIN AND THE SWORD is the best title, in that all of the stories Merlin tells are the stories of his failure with Camelot, though the final combative act of using Excalibur to skewer Morgan gives the wizard a last heroic deed to conclude his career.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, cosmological*

Since this film's disastrous opening in the summer of 2015, I've put off seeing it. Though the original Lee-Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR remains one of the key comic books of the Silver Age, as well as well as being the comic that propelled Marvel to its first major success, the comic book series was something of a "perfect storm" of the many factors that made it appealing-- fascinating visuals, sharp writing, and a combination of humor and tragic melodrama unknown to serial comics up to that point, with the exception of Will Eisner's SPIRIT feature.

Certainly one would not have thought the cinematic version had any further to descend. The two previous live-actions outings from 2005 and 2007, both directed by Tim Story and co-scripted by Mark Frost, were pedestrian, predictable affairs, lacking any of the "sense of wonder" so important to the original conception. However, for all the failings of the Story-Frost collaborations, at least they did emphasize the chemistry of the FF-team.

In one respect writer-director Josh Trank outdoes Story and Frost in his take on the fantastic franchise. Almost any modern-day iteration of FANTASTIC FOUR is likely to dump the naive "spontaneous moon-flight" aspect of the comic-book's origin. The first Story-Frost film borrows from a charmless "Ultimates" comic-version of the feature, in which the four principals and their eventual adversary Victor Von Doom work together on a space station. Trank still decides to stick all five characters together in the same origin, but he does devise an improvement on the space-flight theme.

Back in high school young Reed Richards becomes fascinated with the possibility of harnessing instantaneous teleportation for the advancement of humankind. In this he's abetted by a young Ben Grimm. Fast-forward to his college years: despite some initial problems, Reed is taken under the wing of a forward-thinking Afro-American scientist, Franklin Storm, who shares Reed's passion for technology. Franklin's adopted Caucasian daughter Sue works alongside him in his endeavors, though Franklin's natural son Johnny Storm only cares about "burning rubber" in illegal drag-races.

Unfortunately, there are two flies in Franklin's ointment, though he's responsible for bringing into the project the saturnine Victor Von Doom. The other insect-- a government handler so smarmy that he might as wear a "hate me" sign on his forehead-- provides Franklin's funding, as well as the audience's suspicions that the project is not going to remain noble and idealistic.

The base idea of having the nascent FF gain their powers in an otherworldly dimension, rather than from cosmic space-radiation, could have worked. What Trank wasn't able to pull off was achieving a balance of five characters who will become intensely involved in one another's lives.

I saw some attempts at chemistry. Ben, despite having no technological abilities, is brought onto the project as Reed's "good luck charm," as Von Doom puts it. Johnny openly dislikes Von Doom and deliberately makes remarks about his nationality. Von Doom may have had some romantic interest in Sue, and Reed may be on the verge of such interest.

But Trank never allows the chemical reactions to complete themselves, apparently because he's in a hurry to give four of them an excuse to venture into an alien dimension sans governmental oversight; a loose parallel to the illegal moon-flight of FANTASTIC FOUR #1. Yet for some peculiar reason, Sue Storm is not one of the four who braves the dimensional otherworld. Maybe the scripter had some notion that Sue was too sensible to take on a foolhardy mission, which all the guys would do so just-- because they're guys.

The four adventurers get themselves teleported into the other-verse, where they encounter a mutagenic goop that has the basic effect of cosmic rays. Von Doom appears to perish and so is left behind, and when the three adventurers come back, they manage to transmit the mutagen to Sue.

I don't imagine that most modern filmgoers cared as much as I did as to whether Sue went on the fateful voyage or not-- but I feel sure they were bored, rather than sympathetic, as the government proceeds to examine the fantastic freaks. The four victims all want to be cured, but it's soon clear that the government wants their services as super-powered shock troops. Reed alone escapes Big Brother's ministrations for a time, but this ends up having no real impact on the plot, since eventually he's corralled by his own super-powered colleagues. Another teleport-mission commences, motivated by the government's desire to weaponize super-powers-- and guess who's still alive in the Almost-Negative Zone? Further, guess who's formed a massive grudge about being left behind, and has decided to wipe out all of humanity for its offenses?

The Story-Frost films were mediocre, but I'll give them credit for at least trying to give each member of the fantastic quartet his or her own emotional arc. Trank's only passion, like that of Reed Richards, is for the idea of dimensional travel, and all of the character motivations are niggling matters at best. Interestingly, Trank's one major success, 2012's CHRONICLE, may have showed his limitations in that his co-authored story for that film confined its dramatic arc to two characters. As it happens, only Reed and Johnny are given any real attention, while characterizations for Sue, Ben, Von Doom and mentor Franklin are all superficial and tedious.

FX, too, are stunningly dull, and the Story-Frost films also look much better in comparison with this film. Actor Michael B. Jordan turns in the most affecting performance, but the FX-makers' design for the new Human Torch is abominable, and the other heroes are not much better.

There's only one positive aspect of this film's genesis. Now that the studio has made two bad, under-performing movies that tried to formulate new origins for the Fantastic Four, the studio heads may finally realize that doing new origins is not in their best interest. Rumors abound that the next Spider-Man film won't trouble to relate the web-spinner's origin again, and this would seem to be the only way to approach the Fantastic Four for current moviegoers. The next director of an FF-project might find it advisable to just jump into the action feet-first, as Lee and Kirby so memorably did, and forget about noodling over details about the heroes' psychology and their government funding-- and try to actually have some fun with the characters.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


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

GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE directly followed GODZILLA 1985, the first of the so-called "Heisei series" of the franchise. Despite some promising ideas, BIOLLANTE reminds me a lot of the still-image above. The film, like Biollante, tries to bite off more than it can chew.

I watched an English-language DVD that purported to be more complete than the theatrical release, but I still found myself getting lost on some of the movie's plot-points. According to the DVD's promotional materials, neither director Kazuki Omori nor most of his crew had worked on a Godzilla film before, and reputedly their attempt to prove themselves led to clashes with upper management. On occasion such conflicts can lead to a superior product, but I found Omori's characters flat and his exposition chimerical.

BIOLLANTE sports one strong idea that continued to resonate throughout later entries in the Heisei series. After Godzilla has been temporarily exiled within the depths of a slumbering volcano, various scientific firms-- both Japanese and foreign-- attempt to harvest skin-cells left behind by the radioactive behemoth, for use in bio-technology. This was an overt attempt to supplement the "nuclear fears" represented by the 1950s colossus with an additional concern: the fear of mankind's Frankensteinian attempts to experiment with living biological forms.

The result of one such experiment is another colossus, a giant plant-creature combining aspects of a giant plant and of Godzilla himself. To further complicate the plant-monster's history, the scientist has also managed to somehow infuse the soul of his dead daughter into the mix, although this doesn't have much direct impact upon the plotline. In large part, the presence of the human element is only inferred by the presence of a human psychic, Miki Saegusa, who appeared in all of the Heisei series from that point onward. While most of the characters lack the simple appeal of the better Showa films, Miki is imbued with a spiritual quality that makes her appealing even when the script wanders about.

Godzilla is drawn to the flowering form of Biollante because of their shared cellular structure, but for no clear reason, the plant-creature attacks Godzilla with its vine-arms and is destroyed by the Big G's atomic fire-breath. However, as in a great many of the Mothra films-- to which Biollante probably owes some concept-debt-- Biollante is reborn in another form. The plant-monster does not seem as overtly beneficial as Mothra, but by hook or crook Biollante does manage to repel Godzilla's attack on Japan for a time, before Biollante's next form transmigrates to outer space. Godzilla, rather than renewing his attack on Japan, retreats back to the depths of the sea.

While the discourse on the morals of biotechnology had potential, Omori's cardboard characters are incapable of infusing the dialogue with any passion or sense of consequence. The giant-monster battles are just fair, but this may be natural enough given the inexperience of the crew. Certainly later entries in the Heisei series showed some degree of improvement.

The film proved a box office disappointment, with the result that this remains Biollante's only outing.

Monday, March 7, 2016


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

DAVID AND GOLIATH was made during the height of Italy's *peplum* craze, and in many scenes does resemble one of those action-adventure flicks more than one of the equally-popular Biblical-drama films, such as THE SILVER CHALICE and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Arguably, the 1960 film holds together a little better in dramatic terms than many Bible-epics, possibly because the script rewrites religious canon for the sake of showing how the warrior-shepherd David (Ivo Payer) assumes the mantle of Israelite kingship from the older, unpopular monarch Saul (Orson Welles).

I've seen many reviews assert that Welles' Saul is the best aspect of the film, but I found it an unexceptional, one-note performance-- certainly a result of the script, which gave Welles nothing with which to work. In contrast, though star Ivo Payer doesn't set any worlds on fire, his David at least does have to show more than a single emotion-- joy as he romances his shepherd-fiancee, sorrow when she's apparently taken from him by a manipulative God (who zaps her with lightning so David will give up the shepherd's life), and righteous fury when he goes to Jerusalem and sees the people being tyrannized by the "false liberties" of Saul's reign.

If it weren't for that very improbable lightning-strike-- which isn't in the Biblical tale of David, though it bears some comparison to the story of Job-- I would probably deem DAVID an uncanny film like SILVER CHALICE. As in that film there are prophets claiming to know the word of God-- in DAVID, it's the soothsayer Samuel-- but no other miracles take place, though the Ark of the Covenant is referenced. (Saul is blamed here, though not in scripture, for losing the artifact to the evil Philistines.)

The source of the film's uncanny vibe is inevitably Goliath, the nine-foot-tall giant who comes to work for Israel's enemies. One of the film's best scenes paints him as something of a Cyclops, when a weaselly go-between seeks out Goliath within a huge cave in order to gain his services for the Philistines. I was unable to find out the actual height of the actor playing Goliath, a circus giant named Aldo Pedinotti, but going on the film's use of forced perspective I presume he was something less than nine feet high. Since the film's hero is a lithe but not bulky specimen of masculinity, Goliath gets to fill in as the film's "muscleman," lifting a huge stone that only the legendary Samson was ever able to lift before.

The filmmakers apparently wanted their David to be more of a firebrand than the standard Biblical image, since upon arriving in Jerusalem he loudly expresses his disapproval of seeing Saul's enemies publicly tortured, another scene present nowhere in the Bible. There's a tiny suggestion that David is also the harbinger of a more civilized mode of governance, as there's a line about letting the people rule themselves-- but this sociological theme is not developed, any more than the psychological relationship between the Old King and the Young Blade who's come to replace him. In the end, after David has conquered Goliath and returns in triumph, Saul even comes to David's rescue against a hidden conspirator-- also not in the Bible.

The film's least interesting scene is without a doubt the "fight" between the shepherd and his titanic adversary. While it would have been impossible to prevent the majority of viewers from knowing the outcome in advance, the directors might have chosen some more interesting angles from which to shoot the short encounter. Though it's not much of a battle, Goliath's defeat leads to the military downfall of the Philistines in a general rout, thus supplying more action for the viewer and putting the film more firmly in the combative mode.

Like many peplum-films, DAVID AND GOLIATH also sports two females, one good and one bad, and both strikingly gorgeous.


FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) *comedy*

SCARLET CLAW is the eighth of the Rathbone-Bruce "Sherlock Holmes" films. Being one of the Universal entries, it was filmed on a lower budget than the first two films from 20th-Century Fox-- and yet, this 1944 film is an improvement on 1939s classic HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES in a couple of ways. The serial murderer in CLAW follows the same pattern as the Hound, using phosphorescent minerals to make himself seem like a ghostly apparition-- but the spooky visuals by director Roy William Neill come off much better than the comparable scenes in Sidney Lanfield's effort. In addition, the villain-- an actor-turned-criminal, who boasts considerable disguise-skills-- proves a much more formidable opponent for Rathbone's Holmes than did the master of the Hound.

Many Holmes movies prove a little too pat in allowing the Great Detective to anticipate the intentions of his adversaries, but CLAW is not one of them. Holmes and Watson, attending a conference in Canada, are called upon to investigate a gentlewoman's murder in a small town with the very French name of La Mort Rouge (though everyone in the village bears a very typical "Hollywood Brit" look). The "claw" of the title is attributed to a legendary monster, but it's actually (as shown in the above still) a simple metal instrument, with which the villain commits his murders. Holmes and Watson not only fail to run down the "monster" on their first encounter with him, they also fail to prevent two of his killings, and only manage to defeat him by using a third target as bait. There is therefore a greater sense in CLAW of the frailty of human life, with a strong mourning-performance by Arthur Hohl in particular.

Going to the other extreme is Gene Wilder's first effort as both writer and director, 1975's THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES' SMARTER BROTHER. The premise is that the Great Detective didn't have just one other brother-- (the well-chronicled older brother Mycroft, who makes frequent appearances in Sherlockiana-- but also a younger one named Sigerson. Sigerson (Wilder) has also taken up the role of a consulting private detective in imitation of his more famed brother, but he hasn't precisely set the world on fire.

Sherlock himself, in concert with Doctor Watson, seeks to protect a valuable item, the Redcliffe Document, from falling into the hands of the evil Professor Moriarty. The Wilder script doesn't trouble itself with the threat presented by the document-- which is no more than your basic Hitchcockean "MacGuffin." In any case, Sherlock decides to use Sigerson as a decoy by sending him a case: music-hall singer Jenny (Madeline Kahn), who knows more than she admits about the blackmailer who plans to sell the document to Moriarty. Sherlock also sends Sigerson his own assistant, Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman),

In the tradition of the Mel Brooks comedies that had contributed to Wilder's fame, SMARTER is filled with wild slapstick scenes, many of which spoof the tropes of Sherlock-fiction. Overall the film holds together better than most Brooks-imitations-- including many of those Brooks himself made in his later years. The best scenes take place between Wilder, Khan, and Feldman-- who had worked together in 1974's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN-- and to Wilder's credit, his portrait of the frenetic, overcompensating Sigerson remains persuasive.

On the negative side, other performers have little to do but to mug and to beat on each other, a particular example being an overlong scene between Leo McKern (as Moriarty) and Dom DeLuise (as Gambetti, an opera-singer who's also the blackmailer with the document). As might be expected, in the end Sigerson manages to remove himself from the shadow of Sherlock, engaging the Great Detective's arch-villain in a spirited swordfight.

There's only one element in the film that qualifies it for metaphenomenal status: a scene in which Sigerson and Sacker are imprisoned in a small room which has been rigged with a moving buzzsaw, set to chop any inhabitants to ribbons. However, while some versions of Moriarty have used assorted uncanny devices, like the trap-filled house in SHERLOCK HOLMES IN NEW YORK, this "guest room" is actually the possession of Gambetti. Wilder's script does not explain why an opera-singer would just happen to have a buzzsaw-execution room in his domicile.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


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

The short review would be pretty much the usual thing: "DEADPOOL is balls-to-the-wall fun for the viewer who's getting a little bored with lookalike superhero films."

That said, I can't help noting that as far as its basic plot, DEADPOOL isn't any more complex than, say, ANT MAN. The devilish fun is entirely in the details, such as the opening credits, of which I'll only say that it's the only film where I thought, "Even if the rest of the film is a loss, the credits are worth the price of admission."

In the spirit of said credits, it's easy to break down DEADPOOL into its many familiar tropes. There's a cynical "bad hero," who comes off as less than entirely villainous because he only kills, maims or torments people who deserve it. He meets a "hot chick, " the love of his life, but their future together is questionable when the bad guy gets a badder, totally terminal disease. This leads to a forbidden scientific experiment-- easily the most tedious trope these days, seeming to make an appearance in almost every Marvel adaptation. This experiment creates the super-badass Deadpool, who then goes on a crusade against the guy behind the evil experiment. Villain-protagonist gathers some allies, the villain kidnaps the hot chick, and there's a big fight at the end.

In keeping with the Marvel comic, Deadpool's charm is that he's so motor-mouthed that he makes Classic Spider-Man sound tongue-tied, with the added benefit that Spidey could never indulge in so many R-rated riffs. I credit writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, as well as director Tim Miller with having the sagacity to know just when to create enough melodrama to keep the character relatable-- even if they puncture it in the next minute with a dirty joke.

I'm largely unacquainted with the comic-book Deadpool, but I've been told that his origin in the comics simply amounts to his being injected with the blood of another Marvel character, Wolverine, so that the character obtains the same ability to heal from almost any wound. The film presents a more interesting origin. The evil experiment consists of subjecting its victims to mammoth amounts of pain and stress, in the hope of triggering "mutant genes" that manifest in super-powers. Intentionally or not, this may be a metafictional comment on a familiar trope of superhero comics, where the hero gains his powers by living through some experience that ought to kill him, be it a lightning-strike, a gamma bomb, or the bite of a radioactive spider.

Deadpool's backstory is that he was once a special forces commando who became a whimsical mercenary, and though his motor-mouth seems improbable for anyone in any military service, parts of the film-origin bear strong resemblance to a familiar trope in which disaffected soldiers are subjected to weird superman-making experiments, notably UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. Deadpool exhibits absolutely none of the familiar maladies of soldiers-returning-to-civilian-life-- no post-traumatic stress disorder, no survivor guilt. And yet, because he's disfigured by the evil experiment, and fears showing his ugly mug to his former girlfriend, this does bear some interesting similitude with narratives about disfigured ex-servicemen.

But I'll admit that this is just a side-attraction. The jokes are the thing here, and there are a lot of them . As in the tradition of vaudeville, if you don't like one barb, another will be along in a minute-- and it'll probably be sticking out of someone's ass.


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

BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER is probably the best of Arthur B. Pierce's dozen-or-so scripts for low budget SF-films, and it's certainly an improvement over 1959's THE COSMIC MAN, which was little more than a retread of 1951's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.  It's definitely not as good as the previous teaming of director Edgar Ulmer and leading-man Robert Clarke, THE MAN FROM PLANET X, a 1951 film which remains one of the best low-budget works of the period. BARRIER's visual shortcomings are more evident. For a film shot in ten days, the set-design is exemplary, but I suspect that shooting-schedule was a big reason that Ulmer steers clear of close-up shots of the actors. This is a bit of a shame, since even though the script is derivative, particularly of H,G. Wells' novel THE TIME MACHINE, the story carries more dramatic heft than another low-budget film that borrowed heavily from Wells: 1956's WORLD WITHOUT END.

Air Force pilot Major Allison (Clarke) departs his base in 1960, testing out an experimental jet, only to have the misfortune of going "beyond the time barrier." Allison ends up wandering around a post-apocalyptic landscape in 2024, until he's taken in by the denizens of a subterranean city, the Citadel.
The subterraneans bear less resemblance to Wells' Eloi than to the underworld denizens of WORLD WITHOUT END, in that the Citadel-people are also the last holdout of civilization. And in both films this last redoubt is threatened by mutants, brought on by the plague has decimated the previous civilization, and these creatures show considerable thematic resemblance to Wells' Morlocks.

However, whereas WWE depicts an apocalypse that can be fixed with good old American know-how, BARRIER is a little less sanguine about the benefits of doomsday. Allison is soon apprised that's he's crossed into another time-frame, but it's a future that has no future, at least not for mankind.

Pierce rings in two relatively novel changes in the usual post-nuclear scenario. One is that nuclear fallout has not appeared as the result of a war. The subterraneans' grandfatherly ruler informs Allison that at some point the nations of the world united in their effort to conquer space, and have even managed to send colonies to other worlds. However, the wages of sin are still death: the fallout created from early nuclear experiments becomes dispersed throughout Earth's atmosphere and ends up breeding the plague that infects almost everyone, except for a few humans known as "scapes" and the people who escaped to otherworldly colonies.

The second change is that the people in the Citadel are living on borrowed time, for most of them, except for the scapes, have been infected. The younger generation is largely both sterile and deaf-mute, although one unusual subterranean-- Trirene, the daughter of the Citadel-ruler-- may be capable of giving birth. Trirene has also formed a beneficial mutation: the talent to read minds, even though she remains mute, and implicitly deaf as well. However, the film's other mutants-- who are for obscure reasons being held prisoner within the Citadel-- are all deformed, shambling types, lusting to destroy their kindred rather than simply letting them die out.

Trirene immediately becomes Allison's champion against the more suspicious subterraneans, and he reciprocates her affections-- though it's soon made clear that Trirene may also be hoping to rejuvenate the human race by using the time-traveler as a breeding-stud. WORLD WITHOUT END seems positively giddy about this possibility, but Allison is a little more reticent. It doesn't help that the three "scapes"-- a Russian female pilot and two scientists with sinister Middle-European names-- inform Allison that he may be able to get back to his own time, and prevent the apocalypse.

Often I don't like the kind of time-travel tale that centers on preventing one domino from knocking down all the others, but BARRIER actually presents the scenario with a certain crisp efficiency, though all of the psuedo-Einsteinian science sounds like gobbledygook. Allison has to choose between making a pleasurable liaison with fetching Trirene, and going back to his own time to do his duty-- with the added complication that the sinister Europeans may have their own agenda. Clarke isn't very expressive as Allison, but co-star Darlene Tompkins sells the simple plot better than he does, giving Trirene a winsome characterization despite having only expression and gesture to convey that character.  I'm not giving away the farm to say that Allison's attempts to do his duty bring an early end to the doomed Citadel, but even though I'd seen the film before, I found myself wondering how successful he could be, bringing this doomsday tale to his own 1960s world. I'd completely forgotten the film's last-minute surprise, which makes it at least feasible that Allison might be able to rewrite the future.

Two other points: though Allison gets into a fight with one of his enemies at the climax, that fight lacks the intensity I associate with films in the combative mode. Also, although I regard the real "star" of WORLD WITHOUT END is the future-scape that's destined to be rehabilitated, in BARRIER I consider Allison the star, while the future-world he encounters is simply the environment with which he struggles.