Tuesday, May 31, 2016
KING KONG (2005)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*
When I first saw Peter Jackson's KING KONG in the theater, I couldn't be too analytical about it, having been bored out of my mind with the way Jackson padded the film with almost an hour-long boat-trip to Skull Island. Now, watching the film again on DVD, I could ignore a lot of the padding and focus on the essence of Jackson's foredoomed attempt to remake a classic.
While watching the pacing of Denham and Co. once they arrived on the island and began to see the great ape who was "king in his world," I found myself making comparisons between Jackson and George Lucas-- and not favorable ones. Jackson succeeded for the most part in translating Tolkien's Ring trilogy to film, and in retrospect I think Jackson's approach on LORD OF THE RINGS was one of the few times a major director has emulated the way George Lucas might have handled the story, at least in Lucas' better moments.
Lucas, it should be said, has been imitated to death in terms of his content, but rarely in terms of his directorial style-- probably because the Lucas style is such a patchwork, working really well at times and very poorly at others. Jackson's KING KONG-- his first project after Jackson finished his first Tolkien trilogy-- emulated Lucas' less admirable moments. All through KING KONG I found Jackson arranging his big action-sequences-- Kong's battle with two tyrannosauri, the ship's crew being attacked by multiple creepy-crawlies-- with a sense of mind-numbing overkill, not unlike the way PHANTOM MENACE subjected audiences to one of the most tedious race-scenes in a major cinematic release.
Because Jackson is so concerned with mounting snazzy CGI-scenes, he shows absolutely no ability to duplicate the strange visual poetry of the 1933 original, or even 1976's more political reading of Kong. The dreamlike racial fantasies of the 1933 film were of course impossible in 2005. Not only are the islanders no longer Africans-- most of them are made up to look like the Maoris of New Zealand-- but Kong's "apeness" is highlighted. There's no sense that Kong the Dumb Ape cherishes some unfeasible romantic fantasies toward Ann Darrow; he simply becomes attached to her, in the acceptable way that an ape might become attached to a beloved companion. A long and tedious "let's get acquainted" scene between Ann and Kong establishes that their bond is not that of eros, even one-sided eros-- but the bond of humor. (The side of Naomi Watts doing a soft-shoe dance to impress the big ape was actively depressing to me.)
This Kong, unlike the more negligible character from the 1976 film, is as much of a badass as the 1933 original, though as I said Kong's fights with his dinosaur adversaries suffer from serious overkill. In my review of the original film I opined that the final conflict between Kong and the biplanes suggested the "knightly code of honor" common to WWI pilots. I will say that Jackson does present the foredoomed conflict between the ape and the fighter-planes with more energy than the slack conclusion of the 1976 KING KONG. But the nature of the conflict is in my eyes severly undermined by making Kong nothing more than a big animal. Even though Jack Black dutifully speaks the classic final line, there's no real sense that Beauty killed this Beast.
It was CGI-overkill that raped this ape.
CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION (1967)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION is the closest its director Larry Buchanan ever came to directing a decent fantasy-film script-- but that's because said script, credited to one Enrique Touceda, is simply a reshuffling of Lou Rusoff's script for THE SHE CREATURE.
For some time I've maintained that even though this 1956 creature-feature was probably just another job to director Edward L. Cahn, the film manages to triumph over its low budget with its imaginative melodrama, involving a master hypnotist, the female subject whom he can regress back to previous lives, a skeptical psychic scientist and an exploitative impresario. Cahn, never more than a decent journeyman director, still brings a sense of excitement to the interpersonal conflicts.
Buchanan, in contrast, rarely if ever rises to the level of decent journeyman, and certainly never in the ten films that qualify for metaphenomenal status. His visual setups are tedious to the point of being mind-numbing, and whereas Ed Wood drew up a troupe of actors who were florid and extroverted, the common element in most of Buchanan's regulars seems to have been an ability to keep a straight face and not look into the camera. Even Les Tremayne, a skilled jobbing actor since 1949, can't bring much expressiveness into Buchanan's boring domain.
Whether Buchanan was working on original scripts (MARS NEEDS WOMEN being the most famous, thanks to that memorable title) or on remakes-- DESTRUCTION being one of four creature-feature retreads cranked out by Buchanan in the late 1960s-- he didn't seem to know what to do even with a good script. One can see a degree of potential in the watered-down Touceda version of SHE CREATURE, even though most of the characters have been given new names.
Basso is the name of the new film's egomaniacal hypnotist. At some point prior to the film, he senses psychic talent in Doreena, a young girl from "the gutter," and falls in love with her while using her in his demonstrations of psychic phenomena. Again there's a rival in the offing, a younger psychic researcher named Ted, who considers Basso a fraud-- and who is initially interested in the young daughter of wealthy promoter Sam Crane. The rich daughter's presence is much more negligible in the remake, and Ted's romance with Doreena is given more emphasis than the relationship of their predecessors in SHE CREATURE. The elder Crane is still the money-grubber who's in some ways more repellent than Basso.
It's a little more ambiguous this time as to whether Basso intends to use Doreena's mediumistic power to unleash a murderous monster from a past age. Still, Basso keeps unleashing the titular creature-- a low-budget "Creature from the Black Lagoon" with ping-pong-ball eyes-- on innocents, and Crane the unbeliever unconsciously abets the killings, simply viewing the murders as hype for Basso's hypnotic act.
Doreena's character is ineptly drawn, failing to project the quasi-feminist tone of the original character. Doreena seems only dimly aware that Basso's more than an overbearing mentor, and Ted is for some reason made into a captain in the Air Force (I think). None of the alterations add anything of note, and any strengths present in CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION stem purely from the earlier Rusoff script. There's one dramatic moment at the conclusion not present in SHE CREATURE. In the earlier film, the hypnotist tries to make the monster kill the romantic rival. I suspect that even this much action would proved a drain on Buchanan's budget, so instead Basso tries to shoot Ted. Doreena takes the bullet, and then Basso kills himself-- adding up to a merely depressing conclusion, whereas SHE CREATURE was sad in a tragic fashion.
Saturday, May 28, 2016
JUNGLE GODDESS (1948)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
I'll cheerfully admit that I only watched the MST3K version of this deservedly obscure jungle-flick, and that I can't imagine sitting through it without the running commentary.
In previous reviews, I've found interesting touches of myth and symbolism in various Tarzan and Bomba films. This film defies most of my efforts to do so. As the title suggests, it's another revival of the trope in which simple African savages find a beautiful blonde woman in their jungle, and proceed, for no particular reason, to install her as their tribe's goddess.
Two adventurers with the unimaginative names of Bob (Ralph Byrd) and Mike (Steve Reeves) decide to go in quest of the missing white woman, in the hope of claiming a reward. Unfortunately, a native springs out at them during their travels, and quick-draw Bob shoots him dead. The native's fellow tribesmen, the Zambeesi, corral the white guys and take them back to the village for judgment by their goddess.
As others before me have observed, it's fascinating that though Mike isn't as precipitate as Bob, neither of them is particularly moved at having killed a man. They also expect the goddess to get them off, because hey, it was the other guy's fault. White Goddess Greta (Wanda McKay) actually makes a speech about how they will be judged for murder, the same as in any other society.
But she doesn't mean it (whew); she's just buying time so that the white guys can help her escape the questionable charity of her adoptive tribe. (See, there's a witch doctor who hates her and knows she's not a goddess, so she's OK with leaving the tribe who saved her life.)
The native culture is feebly drawn, and is only an "exotic land" by virtue of their superstitious veneration of a powerless white woman. Yet if anything I'd say that the film is more unkind to women than to Africans, for all Greta can do is prattle about wanting to get back to civilization and check out the new women's hats...
ADDENDUM: I should also note that the two intrepid explorers also find radioactive material in the vicinity of the tribe's locale, which incites Bob, the uglier of the two unhandsome Americans, to betray Mike and Greta with the hope of cleaning up later-- though he gets conveniently killed off at the conclusion.
Director Lewis D. Collins directed tons of forgotten B-flicks, and today he's probably best remembered for his work in various serials, the best of which *may* be LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE.
Despite the fact that the male leads are "Superman" and "Dick Tracy," and despite the fact that they bust knuckles on each other a couple of times, the action largely consists of the white people running away from the tribesmen and running into jungle perils-- so that it's therefore a subcombative adventure.
Friday, May 20, 2016
SERIAL KILLER (1995)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
Though this video-film is strictly "HANNIBAL-lite," it's worth seeing for a couple of things.
One is the smooth performance of actor Tobin Bell playing Morrano, the killer of the title. In some ways Morrano seems more derivative of Norman Bates than Hannibal Lecter: we learn that's he's a taxidermist, was mistreated by his mother, and later killed her before taking up the career of manic murderer. However, the storyline is clearly swiped from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, though there's never an avuncular relationship comparable to the one between Lecter and Clarice Starling. However, the silver-tongued Morrano does target a female FBI profiler who is able to expose him thanks to her ability to imagine his criminal mentality. Morrano has a god-complex, and his solution to the knowledge that he will someday die is to pressure profiler Selby (Kim Delaney) into bearing his child.
Neither the characters of Selby or her FBI-boyfriend Cole give the actors much to work with, and clearly Morrano is meant to be the star of the show. He quotes Shakespeare, charms women despite having an unassuming appearance, and seems to melt through the FBI's hands whenever he chooses. He hints that Selby is somehow implicated in his evil because she can understand him, but this plot-possibility is, to say the least, not examined with any of the panache that author Thomas Harris bestowed upon Starling.
There was one minor surprise in the script, though, Early in the film, after Morrano is first captured through Selby's efforts, he's quixotically inducted into a medical program for some special project-- which of course, allows him to escape. While watching this sequence, it looks mostly like a typical action-movie jab at them pointy-headed intellectuals that won't let manly men destroy verminous scum. But surprise: the medical experiment is referenced at the film's very end, in a fairly clever manner, so as to upset the smooth-talking serial killer's applecart. However, I must admit that without Tobin Bell's performance, this wouldn't be enough to recommend the film even slightly.
On a minor note, Pam Grier appears in the cast in one of her many throwaway supporting-roles typical of this period.
PROJECT X (1968)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
The gimmick-oriented types of horror and science fiction represented by PROJECT X had become woefully outdated by the time the film made it to theaters-- and this despite the fact that the film, produced and directed by Castle (though written by a fellow who was largely a TV-series scribe), had been adapted from a pair of contemporaneous L.P. Davies SF-novels.
The best way to explain this is that neither the Davies novels (which I've not read) nor PROJECT X were on the cutting-edge of horror and SF. At heart, PROJECT X is a conventional spy-story set in 2118, "three generations" from the present, though the ambience is still much like that of the late 1960s. Even Castle, who had long specialized in hyping his productions with the use of ballyhoo publicity-gimmicks, couldn't come up with much more for this cheap, TV-style film than to attempt a few animation sequences that he would try to pass off as "depictography."
I don't recall anyone in the film actually using the term "Project X," though I must assume that it applies to main character Hagen Arnold (Christopher George). Arnold inhabits an America that has appears to have been turned into a technological paradise through government supervision and control of private industry-- yet for some reason, the country's main adversary remains that Old Debbil Communist China, adroitly renamed "Sino-Asia." Though Arnold is only a geneticist with a side-interest in the history of 1960s America, the U.S. military convinces him-- several days prior to the beginning of the narrative-- to become an espionage operative, using his credits to uncover the Asians' diabolical plans against the U.S. The film begins in media res, with the military authorities bringing Arnold to their scientists for treatment. It seems that both Arnold and his spy-contact in Sino-Asia disappeared, and that Arnold subsequently turned up back in America. However, the military can't question Arnold, for prior to his mission he was given a memory-wiping drug so that he could not talk about his mission to the Asians-- and he's apparently taken it, for he remembers nothing about what happened to him in Asia, nor anything about who he is. The American scientists, led by Doctor Crowther, are given the task of restoring Arnold's memory despite the effects of the drug they themselves created.
Crowther devises a possible way to make "Project X" remember his past: knowing that Arnold should still have subconscious memories of his studies of 1960s American history, the scientist arranges a psycho-drama to make Arnold believe that he's alive in the 1960s. In this scenario-- acted out by government operatives on specially constructed sets-- Arnold is imagined as a bank-robber, on the run from the cops and holing up on a small farm.
Possibly this idea of giving Arnold a false identity made more sense in one of the Davies novels, but seems entirely counter-intuitive in the film. What does work, however, is that by chance Arnold wanders away from his handlers and encounters Karen, a typical young woman of 2118 who has no idea she's interrupted a government project. In addition, a new player enters the game: Galleia, the aforementioned spy-contact who disappeared in Sino-Asia. Though Karen and Galleia are not precisely working together, their joint influence does what the government's scheme can't come close to accomplishing: breaking through Arnold's amnesiac haze.
Like a lesser TV-movie, PROJECT X is long on involved incidents and short on meaningful plot, and the script constantly resorts to lots of scenes of men talking-- mostly the army guys and the scientists-- about what they need to do and how they'll do it. Arnold himself is a pretty passive "hero," who barely does much of anything except wander from place to place. The stress of his memory's return gives him one moment of "action," in that he temporarily obtains enough psychic power to blast one of his enemies-- but after this happens, the psychic angle is dropped, and Castle may have only included it to give the slow-moving narrative a little pizzazz. Karen (Greta Baldwin) fares a little better in terms of narrative movement, as she seeks to figure out why this handsome stranger thinks he's a man out of the 1960s, and she actually gets a few moments of drama, defying the military and some of her superiors at her workplace. (She works for what sounds like a farm using milk-products, called-- as I heard it-- a "kinery," which I suppose is like a winery, but for the products of "kine," a.k.a. "cows.)
Since the thrills are few, the characters are flat, and the mystery less than enthralling, the most interesting elements of PROJECT X are its cultural aspects, particularly in depicting the relationship of the U.S, of 2118 and Sino-Asia. Among the endless talking-head scenes, it's revealed that both governments have for some time been seeking to control genetics so that they can breed as many male babies as possible, presumably for the purpose of having endless supplies of soldiers. There's a twofold irony to this ambition-- one being that the possession of more males is seen as a way to make the nations stronger, and the other being that today real-world China is overpopulated with men who can't find native brides, thanks to a practice that doesn't require genetic manipulation: female infanticide, for the purpose of keeping one's family line "on top" as it were. For much of the film, the authorities think that Sino-Asia has solved this genetic problem, but as it turns out-- and this doesn't deserve a full spoiler-- the real threat has to do with the unleashing of new strains of plague. It's interesting to wonder whether or not the authors were aware of a tradition, hearkening back to the ancient Greeks, that linked the idea of "the mysterious Orient" to fears of disease and pollution. Without specifying the nature of the threat, it will come as no surprise that the evil Asians do not triumph.
The sociological myths here, though, don't work very well without decent characters to convey them. Castle would have considerably more success in combining character conflict and science fiction catastrophe in 1975's BUG, his last-produced theatrical film.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
Again, Epic Poetry must have as many kinds as Tragedy: it must be simple, or complex, or “ethical,” or “pathetic.—Aristotle POETICS Section XXIV, trans. S.H. Butcher.Putting aside Aristotle’s very specialized meanings for his terms “simple” and “complex,” his other pair of terms. “ethical” and “pathetic,” prove very useful to me in describing the different approaches taken by modern moviemakers in exploring one question: “what is the significance of the phenomenon of ‘collateral damage’ for the currently booming superhero film-genre?”
In the mainstream comic books of past generations, collateral damage was a spectre that generally had only short-term effects. In a given story, authorities might get miffed for a while because Superman chose to destroy a slum-tenement, or because Spider-Man’s battle with a villain caused someone’s death, but in neither case were there long-term social consequences. The great rivals of the 1960s, DC and Marvel, would exploit uncertainties about heroism in different ways. At DC, the emphasis was ethical, in that the hero might be accused of wrongdoing yet would be swiftly exculpated. At Marvel, where a soap-operatic style prevailed, the reader would know that the hero was innocent but his reputation might suffer for a time, though not to so great an extent that the hero could not operate.
Comic books of the 1980s and thereafter sought to woo adult audiences, and so during that period artists examined the interaction of society and the superhero in more detail, if not always with great insight. Frank Miller’s 1986 THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, whose model furnished most of the ethical underpinnings of BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN, explores issues more pertinent to morals than to feeling. In the decade of the 2000s, the CIVIL WAR series at Marvel extended the 1960s idea of the superhero as “suffering savior” into the realm of the outcast from an increasingly monolithic governmental system.
I cannot render an overall verdict on the fidelity of the 2016 film CAPTAIN AMERICA; CIVIL WAR (henceforth CACW) to Marvel’s sprawling congeries of CIVIL WAR-related series, since I have not read most of the books. I suspect that the comics-stories follow the dominant Marvel orientation: that they concern ethical conflict less than conflicts of feeling. The central idea uniting all of these serials was that the American government decides to oblige all superheroes to register their names and identities, thus abolishing their liberty to act without government oversight, either as vigilantes, like Spider-Man, or as organizations loosely affiliated to the government, like the Avengers..
I can state, however, that CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is far more devoted to the pursuit of Aristotle’s “pathetic” orientation, even as BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN aligs itself with the idea of “the ethical.” BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN maintains three major intersecting plotlines that are meant to explore the ethical orientations of Superman, of Batman, and of Lex Luthor. In contrast, there’s just one dominant plot in CACW. Due to a series of events that create bad publicity for superheroes—some involving collateral damage, and one continuing a plotline about a corrupted super-operative—the government asks for compliance to a registration ruling. The various Marvel superheroes then line up for or against it, depending on their personal sympathies. In the 1960s, such conflicts between heroes would be short-term, ending once a pair of heroes went their separate ways. Here, the conflict is meant to continue with a sense of novelistic elaboration.
Whereas BVS suffered from an overabundance of plot-action, CACW suffers from an overabundance of character-action. Twelve Marvel characters are ranged against one another on either side of the Registration Act, and one of them is a living embodiment of collateral damage. Such is the not-very-heroic super-operative Winter Soldier, who was originally Captain America’s WWII buddy, later brainwashed into becoming an agent for anti-American powers. In the previous Captain American film, the Winter Soldier went undercover to escape prosecution. This time out, a mystery villain—not revealed until near the film’s conclusion—manipulates the Soldier into becoming an immediate threat. Thus he becomes the test-case for the Registration Act. Those aligned to Registration simply want the Soldier captured and locked away, and those opposed to it want to investigate the causes behind the Soldier’s re-activation.
Aside from a brief debate between the main representatives of each side—respectively, Iron Man and Captain America—the viewer sees very little individual consideration of the ethical questions of governmental oversight. True, each of the super-warriors—as well as the mystery villain and a couple of support-characters—get his or her “time in the spotlight,” in which they get to do some “character bit.” Some are strong; some are weak. But arguably there are so many of them that there ate just, as the monarch from AMADEUS said, “too many notes.”
Arguably, there are too many fights, as well. I had no problem with the quantity in the previous Captain America film, for they reinforced the progression of the plot. Here, however, the multiple battles are more gratuitous: rather than supporting the plot, they become the plot—which, incidentally, was a fault some comics-readers found in the pathos-with-action house style of Marvel Comics.
The ongoing battles might have been more compelling had the script imparted a tragic quality to Cap’s buddy/ But he’s even flatter here than he was in his previous appearance, making it difficult for this viewer to share the star-spangled hero’s investment in his “Manchurian Candidate” buddy. Though I admit that the battle-scenes are generally well constructed on an individual basis, I for one would have dropped a long car-chase scene, and maybe a couple of other minor altercations. I think that with fewer action-scenes, viewers might actually have taken more pleasure from the film’s standout battle: a mammoth, multi-character brawl between the opposed sides. Though the non-superhero cinema boasts a plethora of memorable multi-character brawls, the big airport-fight in CACW is the first time that the cinema has come close to emulating such a brawl with the utilization of diverse super-powers. In comic books the foremost practitioner of the multi-superdude brawl was Jack Kirby, and the airport-fight may be viewed as the first time any film succeeded in emulating Kirby’s expertise with this sort of involved fight-choreography.
There are also various twists and turns, in which characters make or break allegiances, but again—too many to invoke much feeling, particularly the concluding battle between Iron Man and the good captain. Their battle doesn’t follow through on the opposition between American individualism and American conservatism, and it even brings in a plot-conflict that's totally extraneous to that thematic opposition.
The film also debuts one new character and one retrofitted character. The African superhero Black Panther makes his first cinematic appearance here, and though he’s pulled into the plot by virtue of the Winter Soldier storyline, his appearance and characterization are exemplary. The newest iteration of Spider-Man—“on loan” to Marvel Studios from Sony—is more of a mixed bag. The costume and the webbing look good, and after the last two movie-versions, it’s pleasant to see a wall-crawler who continually cracks wise. However, the rest of the hero’s characterization is extremely shallow—which is understandable, in that Marvel Studios have no motive to do anything more with the character than was strictly necessary for their movie’s plot.
In the end, the most interesting aspect of both CACW and BVS is that even though I tend to assume that their scripts were conceived without direct influence from one another, both of them are just as swift to hold the superheroes guilty for the collateral damage they cause as the mainstream comics were swift to excuse the heroes of any misdeeds. Just as their separate approaches reminded me of Aristotle’s distinction between “ethical” and”pathetic,” the common theme shared by the two films suggests the Greek idea of the *pharmakos,* the sacrificial vessel through which a community’s fears and guilt is expiated. Once our superheroes were pillars of rectitude, until Marvel Comics started the trend of giving its heroes “feet of clay.” Both the DC film and the Marvel film now end with sacrificial deaths—a no-doubt temporary death for Superman, and a cryonic exile for the Winter Soldier. Still, as yet no superhero film has successfully explored the myth-theme of the superhero-as-sacrificial-lamb. Someday a film may be made that satisfactorily explores both Captain America’s and Iron Man’s conceptions of power—for the one, the desire to save lives no matter what, and for the other, the desire to expiate one’s guilt for failing in that lofty mission.
Monday, May 16, 2016
DRESSED TO KILL (1946), CALLING DR. DEATH (1943)
PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic,* (2) *uncanny*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Within a week two broadcast television channels showed what may be actress Patricia Morison's best known roles, at least to genre specailists: as the "queen of a crime cult" in DRESSED TO KILL and as the nurse to a doctor suspected of murder in CALLING DOCTOR DEATH.
Though Morison won acclaim on stage for her acting and singing talents, in Hollywood films she was largely relegated to B-films. She projected a stunning, perhaps somewhat icy demeanor in the roles here, and while she was probably capable of more, this "ice queen" image determined much of her film-career.
DRESSED TO KILL is the last of Universal's Sherlock Holmes films, and although it's an entertaining entry, the franchise was showing a few signs of age, in particular because DRESSED recycles elements of Doyle's "Six Napoleons," which elements had just been used two years ago, for the far superior PEARL OF DEATH. In addition, there wasn't much novelty left as far as pitting the Great Detective against a foe of the opposite sex, given that Sherlock had tilted with the Spider Woman in 1944 and the Woman in Green in 1945.
Unfortunately, Morison's villainess, saddled with the unmemorable name of Mrs. Hilda Courtney, seems something of a disappointment in the realm of the original villains crafted by Universal's scripters. Whereas "Six Napoleons" concerned a crook committing robberies in order to find a single precious "macguffin," Courtney's gang is seeking three items, which when put together will reveal the location of valuable money-printing plates. As in PEARL OF DEATH, the female member of the gang uses feminine persuasion to acquire her targets, and, failing that, there's a big guy to handle the rough stuff. The most interesting thing about Courtney's gang is that both she and her main aide, Colonel Cavanaugh, seem to be completely upper-class crooks, whereas in PEARL and others, there's usually the expectation that the henchmen will be culled from the lower strata.
Holmes' deductive skills at unraveling the nature of the macguffin are given more emphasis than physical peril, though the crooks do commit one "bizarre crime" in their method of trying to execute Holmes: however, the film registers entirely in the naturalistic domain. Perhaps the most interesting scene in the film is the opening, in which Holmes and Watson reflect back on their encounter with Irene Adler of Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia." While no direct parallels are drawn between Mrs. Courtney and the only female who outsmarted the Literary Holmes, I suspect that the script wanted the audience to draw such parallels. Mrs. Courtney is a decent Holmes-foe, but even rated against other Universal originals, she's no better than average.
As DRESSED TO KILL ended a Universal series, CALLING DR. DEATH began one: the six films known as the "Inner Sanctum" series, all of which starred Lon Chaney Jr. Some were heavier on horror-themed elements than others, and I would judge DEATH as somewhere in the middle, purely because of the use of hypnosis.
I've no experience of the Inner Sanctum radio series on which this and other films in the series were based, but whatever the debt to the radio shows, the films are basically indistinguishable from most of the other mystery-thrillers produced by Universal.
DEATH presents that old stand-by: the husband tormented by his wife's infidelities, called to account when she's murdered. Chaney is Dr. Mark Steele, a neurologist who treats his patients with hypnosis, and who is attended by his loyal nurse Stella (Morison). Though the screenplay is fairly decorous about presenting the infidelities of Mrs. Steele (Ramsay Ames), Dr. Steele is tormented by the knowledge that she's become his wife only in name. However, both of them emerge as fairly flat characters, with little or no psychological reasons given for their growing apart. Mrs. Steele is painted as a one-dimensional money-grubber: she won't give the doctor a divorce because she likes the status of being a wealthy doctor's wife-- and yet, one wonders why she's so open with her affairs, which could make it very easy for the doctor to get evidence against her and to divorce his wife without her consent. While the intent was to make Dr. Steele sympathetic, he comes off as something of a nervous milquetoast-- possibly to make audiences wonder the physician he had a "Mister Hyde" persona that committed the wife's murder.
While the script does throw in one possible red herring-- a woman in a wheelchair, who might have had a reason to kill Mrs. Steele-- there's never really much likelihood that "Doctor Death" is the real culprit, leaving only-- yes, icy nurse Stella. Having learned hypnotism from the doctor, she's used it to commit her own "bizarre crime," killing the wife so that she can have the doctor for herself, and allowing an innocent man to be convicted of the crime. As seen in the still above, Steele himself then turns the tables, using his hypnotic talents to make Stella reveal the truth.
Chaney's performance, complete with tormented voice-over, is only fair, while Morison projects a glacial sensuality. J. Carroll Naish makes the most of his scenes as a detective who hounds Steele throughout the investigation, but who suspects the truth-- though he plays things pretty close to the vest, choosing to stage the Big Reveal for the exact same day that the innocent man is supposed to walk the last mile.
I'll note that only the use of hypnotism as part of a murder-plot gives it an uncanny status, whereas as the functional hypnotism used by Steele in his treatments, and in his exposure of Stella, remains naturalistic.
Saturday, May 7, 2016
THE PHANTOM FIEND (1932)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
The first remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1927 silent film THE LODGER exists at present only in a truncated form: a 67-minute American adumbration (complete with a more sensational title) of an 85-minute British film. Hitchcock declined the invitation to direct the production, possibly because the offer came from a less than prestigious studio, and thus directorial duties went instead to one Maurice Elvey. In contrast, the star of the silent film, Welsh-born Ivor Novello, reprised his role as the mysrerious stranger from the continent, who falls under suspicion of being a serial killer who's been killing women in London.
Like the silent film, the 1932 film diverges from the original premise of the Lowndes novel on which both works were based. Both films take place in 20th-century England, so the serial killer of the book is no longer the historical Jack the Ripper, but a murderer known as "the Avenger." In the Hitchcock film, the killer targets only blonde women, while in the Elvey film, the Avenger preys upon women that he finds talking on telephones. As I noted in my review, Hitchcock never supplies any reason for the Avenger's "blonde-mania." Since the telephone-girl angle is so deliberate-- Elvey supplies a handful of scenes showing young women laboring at switchboards-- one must suspect that some justification for this unusual fixation got left out of the American version, which is plagued with a number of sloppy cuts.
As in the earlier silent, a lodger-- this time given a specific name, that of "Angeloff"-- takes up residence at a London boarding-house, occupied by an older couple and their adult daughter Daisy. Daisy's somewhat less than charmed with her current boyfriend, a fellow named Joe, and Joe is xenophobically outraged by the presence of Angeloff once the cultivated, violin-playing continental seems to be moving in on Daisy. The 1932 version of Joe is a reporter rather than a cop, but he still functions to set up the courtly stranger as a criminal suspect.
Partly because this is a humbler production, PHANTOM FIEND does not attempt any of Hitchcock's expressionistic visuals. However, despite some of the narrative glitches Elvey delivers a reasonably lively little B-film, without the tendency toward stilted stagecraft seen in many early 1930s B-films.
A more consequential difference: Hitchcock chose to diverge from the Lowndes novel by placing all of the dramatic emphasis upon the unfairly-accused lodger, and the offscreen capture of the Avenger appears as little more than an afterthought, making it possible to clear the lodger. Someone involved in the 1932 script-- possibly Novello himself, who allegedly made script-contributions-- apparently decided that the original ending didn't provide much of a payoff, and so the story is substantially altered to involve Angeloff in the capture of the Avenger. Arguably some viewers may find this development more capricious than Hitchcock's conclusion. Yet the altered ending has one advantage" the "perilous psycho" is a real presence in the film, rather than a chimera-- and for that reason the Elvey film registers in my system as belonging to the uncanny domain.
I didn't comment on Novello's performance in the 1927 work, partly because I found it mannered and not especially effective. I've seen reviews that claim that Novello's 1932 characterization is too obviously innocent, but I disagree. In many scenes I found that Novello and Elvey suggested in Angeloff an intensity beneath his urbane demeanor; intensity that might indicate a troubled psyche-- and maybe a psycho.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
THE NUDE BOMB (1980), GET SMART AGAIN (1989)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
A small biographical note: like other persons of a certain age, I've sometimes attempted to inflict the entertainments of my youth upon younger persons in my immediate family. I've often found, as I'm sure many others have, that some films and TV shows are inextricably dated and simply will not "reach" the youths of later generations.
One might think that the 1965-70 teleseries GET SMART, a broad spoof of the super-spy subgenre, might have gone over the heads of those who would never get the show's many references to the Cold War, President Johnson, and assorted snippets of ethnic humor. But for what it's worth, my experience is that at least some younger members of my family enjoyed the skillful slapstick of this baby-boomer artifact. They may have even enjoyed some of the show's halfway-suspenseful moments, which allowed for some ambivalence about the protagonists' survival, rather than constantly relying on slapstick spy-action. That said, there's no question that Max Smart remains ingrained in the public imagination primarily for the sight of a man talking into his shoe.
But often you "can't go home again," and both of the attempts to revive the quintessentially "sixties" characters and situations of the TV-show are largely painful to watch. Indeed, the only amusement value I found in both the 1980 theatrical film and the 1989 TV-movie was trying to decide which one was worse.
The two films hold one element in common: villains who have really absurd plans to conquer and/or alter the world. In NUDE BOMB, the evil clothes-designer Saint-Sauvage plans to unleash a bomb that destroys only people's clothing, while in AGAIN, there's a KAOS plot to gain control of a weather-manipulation machine, for the purpose of forcing citizens to stay indoors and-- read books? I know intellectually that these premises are not any stupider than some of the ones from the 1960s series. Yet in general the scripters for the series maintained a better faux-serious tone, and by keeping that tone consistent, the "big reveal" of yet another absurd super-weapon became funny by contrast.
BOMB and AGAIN both suffer from trying too hard every minute to convince the audience that everything is a million laughs.
NUDE BOMB, arriving in theaters about ten years after the series' conclusion, chose to downplay any connections to the previous continuity. Maxwell Smart still reports to a superior named "the Chief," necessarily played by a different actor due to the demise of the original one; however, for some reason the spy-organization's name changes from CONTROL to PITS. Smart's partner-and-wife Agent 99 is omitted entirely, and Smart is partnered with a new female aide, Agent 22, who's also the new romantic interest (as well as being over 20 years younger than lead actor Don Adams). Smart's attempt to track down the villainous fashion-designer takes him to assorted exotic locales, and there's some attempt to spoof the James Bond theme by having Smart encounter gorgeous women-- not only the actress playing the female lead, but also Pamela Hensely, Sylvia "Emmanuelle" Kristel, and somewhat "mature" beauty Rhonda Fleming. Given the budget, some of the comical action-sequences are passable, as with a fight-scene at the Fleming-character's chalet involving Adams, Gemser and some KAOS men. On the minus side, Smart's investigations also involve a tedious shootout in a Universal theme park that screams the message: "We the producers are dumping in product placement here, and don't care if you like it or not."
The jokes are generally flat and forced, but I'll give this spiritless production one minor compliment: at least it works as a Bond-spoof insofar as it gives the audience a quantity of action and hot women, much like a similarly dumb spoof, 1967's CASINO ROYALE
Nine years later, the franchise got another tryout, but this time, the producers decided to play the nostaglia-angle for all it was worth, bringing back many of the actors from the teleseries in their original roles. The most noteworthy of these was Barbara Feldon as Agent 99, who's once more married to Smart as she was at series-end, and there's even a quick continuity-reference to the twin sons seen therein, who are said to be "off at college." CONTROL has been dissolved and its functions taken over by newer agencies, who bring Agent 86 out of mothballs to track down a missing scientist (who bears the hilariously ethnic name "Hottentot)". In the course of his investigations Smart re-activates not only his old partner 99-- who's involved in a book-deal that turns out to be of great consequence to the plot-- but also Hymie the Robot and second-banana spy Larrabee (who admittedly had made an appearance in NUDE BOMB). In addition, Smart is once again pitted against his old series-nemesis Siegfried, though the villain himself is downplayed in favor of introducing his never-seen-before twin brother, who's not nearly as charismatic as the original comic-villain.
As for the jokes-- well, this time they're not just flat and forced, but they're covered with the dust of nostalgia, for almost every joke in GET SMART AGAIN is a swipe from the old series. The humor is also almost entirely verbal. The one half-decent attempt at aping the teleseries' penchant for slapstick takes place between Smart and a KAOS-agent, whose fight is continually interrupted by file-drawers that keep popping out and hitting both combatants.
I don't know what kind of budget this TV-film had, but frankly, most of the time the show reminded me of those old 1960s stag-films, shot in warehouses and apartments. Director Gary Nelson was a seasoned if not particularly outstanding TV-director by this time, so I tend to blame the drab, cloistered look of the telefilm on a miniscule budget-- though the lameness of the plot involving 99's tell-all book certainly does not help.
My verdict is that though both films are terrible, the earlier one is better if you want something that at least resembles a Bond-spoof, while the later one may work for anyone who simply wants to re-visit all the old schticks of the series-- though I for one would rather just watch the old show instead.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
CONSPIRACY OF TERROR (1975)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Lorimar, a production company famous for numerous TV shows and theater-films, got its start producing television films for the ABC Movie of the Week. Many of their offerings fell into the categories of thrillers and horror, and despite the company's association with the WALTONS teleseries, many fans like Lorimar best for its association with the "Golden Age of TV Movies."
In the early 1970s, Lorimar produced a fair number of well regarded horror/suspense films. However, if CONSPIRACY OF TERROR is any indication, by 1975 the bloom was off the rose.
For the most part, CONSPIRACY is constructed like a cutesy anticipation of 1979's HART TO HART teleseries, in that the story teams up a married male detective with his policewoman wife. Lead actors Michael Constantine and Barbara Rhodes, though well known in television circles for many "character roles," don't have much chemistry and the couples-badinage given them by the script is tedious in the extreme, particularly the attempt to milk the 'conflict" that Constantine's character is Jewish while Rhodes' is Gentile.
The "conspiracy" of the title is that there happens to be a Satanic cult at work right in the couple's own bailiwick. The male detective is asked to find a missing dog, and begins to gain an inkling that a lot of dogs in the neighborhood have mysteriously disappeared-- for reasons that will later become clear.
The only scene with any decent creepy atmosphere is one in which a young, traumatized-looking woman converses with Constantine about the dead dogs, but can't bring herself to reveal the awful truth. However, after this tantalizing scene, the film returns to standard mundane matters. There's little attempt to establish the nature of the Satanic cult or what their aims are, but at least they do all don snazzy red robes for the climax, as they try to exterminate a witness and run afoul of the dedicated detectives.
It's likely that this was conceived less as a horror-suspense film in its own right, and more as some sort of pilot for a series about the central characters. Happily, no such series came about.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*
Back when GODZILLA '98 first appeared, I'm sure I threw as many stones as anyone else at the Americanized remake. My complaints were voiced by many: the derivative nature of the script, borrowing heavily from ALIENS and JURASSIC PARK, and the producers' bizarre attempt to divert any "atomic age guilt" from the culture of the American audience to, of all people, the French.
Yet, upon revisiting the 1998 film, I found that although the movie-makers didn't comprehend any of the factors that made the original Japanese film, or even its Americanized version, so memorable, producers Devlin and Emmerich at least turned out a tolerable big-budget blockbuster. Like JURASSIC PARK, GODZILLA '98 wasn't much more than a series of chase-scenes, sometimes with the big atomic lizard-mutant as the chaser, and sometimes as the chase-ee. But where I didn't find any of the JURASSIC characters interesting, much less those in Devlin and Emmerich's 1994 STARGATE, I found that I did rather like the viewpoint character of the 1998 film, Nick Tatoupolous (Matthew Broderick). Maybe it was the character's indefatigable devotion to the minutiae of lizard-biology that did it, for certainly Nick's no deeper than a similar "nerdy everyman" in STARGATE.
Many critics, not least the Japanese owners of the Godzilla franchise, took exception to the fact that this Godzilla was just a big lizard rather than the embodiment of nuclear apocalpyse. Certainly this Godzilla is not capable of wading through American defenses with the near-invulnerability of the 1954 monster. If anything this "radioactive iguana," as one critic called it, may remind one more of the titular creature from the film that allegedly inspired GOJIRA: 1953's THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. In my review of that film I wrote:
The Beast's disease-bearing blood is introduced to keep the army from blowing the monster to bits at the earliest opportunity, and though this development presents a valid enough problem in the suspense department, the contrivance takes away from the Beast's formidability.
To be sure, Devlin and Emmerich don't resort to giving Godzilla some "X-factor" that protects him from harm, However, they do have Godzilla frequently fleeing U.S. forces down the deserted corridors of New York's streeets, and though on occasion the Big G turns and takes out some of his pursuers, the emphasis is upon the big critter's need to flee the superior firepower of the military, sometimes even burrowing down into the subways to escape persecution. In addition, Godzilla's more lingering threat, conspicuously swiped from ALIENS, is that the bisexual dino has laid dozens of eggs, which can and do spawn a bunch of little raptor-type Godzillas.
Though there's a lot of violence in GODZILLA, my re-screening suggested that it was of a "diffuse" rather than a "centric" type. Like the Fathom-Beast, Godzilla's eventual destruction is not seriously in doubt, and there's no sense, as in the 1933 KING KONG, that the big monster is engaged in a ritual combat with the forces of humankind-- so that I judge the film to be a subcombative type.
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