Tuesday, June 28, 2016




This film was a favorite sexploitation flick of the 1980s, definitely in the category of "they don't make 'em like that anymore." Director Howard Avedis and co-writer Marlene Schmdt shared producer-credits on three films in this "older woman-younger man" vein, but of the three, FIRE is certainly the most well-remembered.

Unlike the other two erotic thrillers-- 1972's THE STEPMOTHER and 1974's THE TEACHER, for what that's worth-- FIRE works in a "perilous psycho" of the uncanny kind. Not a few reviews online express dismay at seeing the erotic adventures of college-boy Jay (Eric Brown) and his sexy teacher Diane (Sybil Danning) interrupted by some (admittedly meager) psycho-slayings, but the psycho's presence does up the ante a little. True, nothing else in the film competes with the charms of Danning doffing her duds, but since the plots of these thrillers are usually a mess, it's nice to have a few extra tidbits to puzzle over.

As seen in many a noir movie, Diane has an agenda in sexing up Jay: to make him stupid so that he'll cooperate with the plot that she and her scheming husband have cooked up. (Possibly the nudity is supposed to have a similar effect on audiences?) Though Diane and hubby Michael (Andrew Prine) have what look like pretty good college-instructor jobs, Michael's mom and grandmom have loads of money but won't share it. Jay gets talked into pretending to burglarize the old ladies' mansion, which is supposed to spook the ladies so badly that they allow themselves to be institutionalized, which in turn will somehow lead to the power couple getting ahold of all that lovely money.

The plan goes badly in two ways, one of which shows that Michael must not know his own mother very well. Rather than getting petrified, Michael's mom takes out her trusty rifle and tries to blow Jay's head off: college boy just barely escapes with his life. Then, in a twist for which either Michael or Diane may have cooked up alone, a ski-masked killer invades the house after Jay's gone, and shoots both old ladies to death. Michael's response when he finds out is twofold: (1) he accuses Jay of the crime, and then tells him not to go to the police, and (2) he conceals the bodies of his mother and grandmother, and tells the caretaker that they've gone on vacation, even taking their yippy little poodle with them. (In one of the film's most pleasing brain-fried moments, the poodle appears again near the film's conclusion-- gagged and bound by someone, presumably Michael, since one presumes the psycho-killer would have just offed the noisy mutt.)

And yes, that's my big spoiler here: neither Diane nor Michael is responsible for the murders. They're perpetrated by (1) Michael's long-lost brother Martin, (2) who has been brought back to the States by the scheming caretaker, and (3) who also has a fatal disease that makes him violent, and (4) who is also Jay's apartment-roommate! The sublime idiocy of this "big reveal" is so daffy that its entertainment value at least comes in second after Sybil's seduction scenes. Next to this, even half-witted junk like INNER SANCTUM II  looks well-thought-out by comparison.

Martin's insanity and terminal condition are meant to explain why he no longer gave a damn about getting the family inheritance, which is what the caretaker-guy wanted. But they don't explain why he dons a Santa Claus suit to knock off one of Jay's fellow students, a former girlfriend trying to break up Jay and Diane.

The way this murder-scene takes place, one has to assume that Martin, in his secret identity of the roommate, knows that student Cynthia's sticking her nose into things, because she's told him what she plans to do. But there's nothing in the script to indicate why he would dress up in a Santa-suit to club the girl to death. If it weren't for this scene, I wouldn't consider the menace of ski-masked Martin with his rifle to go beyond the limits of the naturalistic.

I should say a word about Michael, who not only doesn't mourn about his female relatives too much, but seems content to keep their bodies hidden somewhere or other. His main worry seems to be that Diane continues to make whoopee with Jay, with not a lot of concern about what's going to happen to him when someone checks on his relations' overly long vacation-- not to mention the fact that he would be the most logical suspect, as the sole heir.

 But then, it's almost refreshing to watch a thriller in which no one seems to be thinking about real-world consequences. This even extends to the ending, for after Martin's demise, hot teacher Diane-- who's apparently got all the money with no awkward questions raised by the cops or the courts-- spirits Jay off on a cruise, for what will apparently be loads and loads of May-December sex. The "downer" of marriage is not mentioned, thus leading to the conclusion that Jay will become the contented if unpaid gigolo of his former teacher. (Similar figures in Avedis' earlier films seem to be standard Freudian mother-substitutes, but that vibe doesn't come across here, given that the film doesn't even allude to Jay having HAD parents of any sort.)

Still, I must admit that a film that ends with the promise of endless sex with Sybil Danning may not be good, but it certainly can't be all bad.

Monday, June 27, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*

I've never read the Gary Brandner novel on which Joe Dante based his classic werewolf film, but from summations, it sounds as if the key idea Dante (or screenplay-authors Sayles and Winkless) took from Brandner was the idea of a community of werewolves living out in the sticks.

Though I believe that there had been a handful of obscure novels depicting societies of werewolves, the idea never became as popular as parallel treatments of vampires. Pop-culture vampires always seemed more than capable of generating their own secret communities, but werewolves were almost always asocial, in line with European folklore's image of the wolf as a predacious outsider.

Though HOWLING is not a comedy, Dante and his writers take full advantage of comic relief to sell the idea of a Esalen-like rural community, wherein most of the members are seeking to control their violent urges with psychological guidance. I confess I never did follow the reason why the head of the community (Patrick MacNee) invites a couple of non-werewolves to join the commune, with the idea of their solving their personal problems. It's something of an absurd premise, but the light touch, used in concert with the gorier shock-scenes, works better than the vast majority of films that have sought to mix horror and humor.

The first HOWLING film is so well-structured that I just about have nothing but banal praise for it, just as most of the other films following in the franchise failed utterly to come up to its standard.

HOWLING II is in every way stupid where the original film is smart, and this despite input from novelist Brandner, and despite the presence of ever-reliable Christopher Lee and gorgeous Sybil Danning in her salad years.

Perhaps because the producers arranged to shoot the film in Prague, the dominant idea from Brandner and director Phillippe Mora was to replace the idea of a werewolf community with that of a werewolf sex-cult, ruled over by an apparently ageless queen named Stirba (Danning). Stirba apparently plans some evil ritual on the "10th millennium" of her birth, although the film is maddeningly vague about what she means to do and how she means to do it. A former sheriff, brother to the leading lady killed at the end of the first film, and a lady reporter are enlisted into the good fight by a road-company Van Helsing named Stefan Crosscoe (Lee). Toward the end of the film it's belatedly revealed that Stefan and Stirba are brother and sister, with scant foreshadowing by the clumsy script, far more concerned with having extras shamble about in shoddy costumes and try to exemplify European decadence. There are some curious, badly chosen attempts to play with the werewolf legend: Stefan advises his adherents that Stirba and her acolytes are so evil, mere silver won't kill them, only bullets of titanium. (Titanium bullets are mentioned in the Mexican "Nostradamus" serial of the 1960s, but this may be mere coincidence, as Mora does not strike me as a fannish type after the example of Dante.) After all this emphasis on titanium, though, at the end Srefan reveals mystical powers and manages to kill his sister with them even as she kills him (perhaps meant to suggest a "love-death," though the film is too muddled to put this across). This final scene does make HOWLING II to be, unlike the original, a "combative drama," for what little that's worth.

There have been worse horror-movies, simply by virtue of being duller than this nonsense. But it's still pretty awful.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


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

When SMALL SOLDIERS first came out, I dismissed it as director Joe Dante dipping once more into the well that gave us the two GREMLINS films. On re-viewing SOLDIERS-- moderately successful in theaters, though it's close to being the director's last major theatrical film-- I like it somewhat better than either GREMLINS film.

Dante's been quoted as saying that he hoped to make the film a bit edgier, appealing to older teens, but producers overruled him, possibly in the hope of being able to merchandise the film's miniature warriors-- the super-pumped mercenaries called the "Commando Elite" and monster-men called "Gorgonites"-- to younger kids. This may have had one good effect, in that the film is forced to place more narrative emphasis on the way the two sets of toys impact on the viewpoint character, a teen boy named Alan.

Though Dante is not credited among the five screenwriters, the script is filled with several horror-movie references, a characteristic of many of his earlier films. The Gorgonites, a melee of oddball monster-types, are originally designed to represent the "peaceful warrior" type seen in many 1980s cartoons, while the militaristic Commando Elite are based on the hyperbolic action films of the same era. Both groups are originally created as toys, but a foolish scientist implants in them "microprocessing chips" designed for munitions application. They fall into the hands of Alan, who hopes to use them to turn a profit, and instead ends up trying to keep the fanatically hostile Commandos from wiping out the pacific Gorgonites. Naturally, as in the GREMLINS films, everyone in Alan's sphere-- his family, the neighbors, and the cute girl who likes him-- get drawn into the struggle.

Since Alan's dramatic development is fairly slender, I label SOLDIERS a comedy, since so much of it depends on enjoying the hyperbolic militarism of the Commandos. At the same time, even though the Gorgonites are the sympathetic toys, it's interesting that Alan himself has a history of destruction-- he was kicked out of school for arson-- and that his slight "bad boy" rep is exactly what draws the cute girl to him. That said, though the film takes great pleasure in spoofing the excesses of tough-guy action-films, the pathos of the embattled Gorgonites comes through as well. Bad puns abound as well, with the standout going to "Baton Death March."

Going from a live-action film replete with puppets to one derived from a completely puppet-run TV show, I must say that I have never watched the teleseries, and frankly avoided it in its original broadcast, as I generally found puppet-shows creepy.

The 2004 THUNDERBIRDS was not a success and was rejected by hardcore fans of the teleseries, but I found it modestly entertaining for a juvenile-oriented SF-tale. Whereas the teleseries focused on a super-scientific rescue-team comprised of a family, the Tracys, the movie focuses on the youngest family-member, Alan, whose youth prevents him from joining the team.

Like most such kid-flicks, the older members of the team are quickly sidelined, so that the narrative's danger-- in this case, a low-rent terrorist called the Hood-- can be battled by Alan and his two young friends, as well as a couple of adult allies. (The standout performance in the film is by one of the adults, playing the teleseries character of prim Englishwoman Lady Penelope.) The action is reasonably fast-paced and not very violent, but the best thing I can say about THUNDERBIRDS is that it doesn't indulge in the grossout jokes typical of most American films in this genre.

Monday, June 20, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

In my review of SON OF ALI BABA I rhetorically wondered why the film had posited an Ali Baba who was the leader of the Forty Thieves, rather being a guy who robbed their hideout and who indirectly led to the thieves' extinction. Then I saw the 1944 ALI BABA, and realized that SON is a loose sequel to that film-- probably not least because both films were Universal products.

I presume that an earlier venture in Thousand-and-One territory, 1942's ARABIAN NIGHTS, must have been successful, for ALI BABA once more unites the earlier film's stars, Jon Hall and Maria Montez. I downgraded NIGHTS somewhat because I found it something of a routine riff on 1940's THIEF OF BAGDAD. However, ALI BABA, while not any deeper than NIGHTS, feels somewhat fresher, possibly thanks to a new director, Arthur Lubin, and a new writer, Edmund Hartman, who scripted THE SCARLET CLAW the same year.

To be sure, ALI BABA is a riff on the Robin Hood legend, transported to the 13th century, when the Mongols under Hulagu Khan (real-life brother of Kublai) successfully invaded Persia. The old Caliph is deposed, and he tries to run for it with his young son Ali. The Caliph is betrayed and killed, but Ali escapes to the desert. He witnesses a band of thieves emerge from a cave, whose stone door promptly shuts itself when the bandit-leader cries, "Close sesame." Ali figures out how to make the door open and takes refuge in the cave. Rather than stealing the thieves' treasure, he falls asleep, only to be found by the thieves when they return.

The early section maintains a loose parallel to some of the Robin Hood versions in which Robin, on the run from the forces of King John, takes refuge in Sherwood, encounters other fugitives, and forges them into his Merry Men. Here, young Ali impresses the thieves with his courage, so that their leader, "Old Baba," adopts the fatherless boy, who is then renamed "Ali Baba." Ten years later, when all of Persia groans under the yoke of the Mongols, Ali has forged the Forty Thieves into a resistance-force that continually harries the occupiers,

The story's romantic arc is possibly also derived from the Robin Hood legacy. In many Sherwood-tales, Robin at least knows Maid Marian before he's exiled from his home. In the prequel, young Ali bonds with Amara, noble daughter of a Persian aristocrat (ironically, one of the men who betrays the Caliph). Years later, Ali, during his rebellious career, encounters the grown Amara with the usual romantic complications, not least of which that her father has pledged her troth to Hulagu Khan.

The romantic subplot isn't overly compelling, not least because the charms of once-popular Maria Montez have not aged well. However, though I've stated that the main plot of ALI  BABA is thoroughly derivative, somehow Lubin, Hartmann and Jon Hall manage to sell it in all its naive glory. Maybe it's because Lubin depicts more of the way Persians suffer under the Mongols, making the urgency of their defeat more compelling. Indeed, the simple story was so persuasive that I didn't even mind the hodgepodge of accents and anachronisms-- best represented by the inclusion of comedy relief actor Andy Devine, using the same "golly-gee" dialect he had used in countless Westerns.

The cave's power to open and close at a word is never even referenced, much less explained: it's just presented as a given, the only magical presence in this roughly historical milieu. It does play a role of sorts, since the thieves' ability to conceal themselves in the hidden cave makes it hard for the Mongols to find them. Still, its role in the story is so minor that I consider it an example of what I'm currently calling "the peripheral-metaphenomenal;" an element of strangeness peripheral to the central action.

Saturday, June 18, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Here are two pieces of cheese: one American, one Italian, and both invoking the name of the Arabian character Ali Baba-- though it seems that the peplum originally used the name of "Sindbad."

SON OF ALI BABA presents Tony Curtis as Kashma Baba, whose dad was the original leader of the Forty Thieves-- and not, as in the Arabian Night, a fellow who ended up bringing doom to the thief-band. This bit of narrative confusion extends to every other aspect of this rather dull swashbuckler, for its script mingles aspects of DON Q SON OF ZORRO (hero is a member of a military guard, framed for wrongdoing) to Robin Hood. (One of the hero's prominent aides is a female archer, seen above with Curtis and another actor, who wears attire more befitting medieval England than medieval Araby).

In cinematic circles, the film became the source of a popular joke at the expense of Curtis' Bronx accent, in that he supposedly speaks the line "Yondah lies the palace of my faddah da king." Curtis' accent isn't the least convincing as an Arabian prince, but it's no worse than that of anyone else in the film, and he doesn't even speak the supposed line.

Though some Ali Baba tales invoke the one metaphenomenal aspect of the original tale-- the cave whose door magically opens to give the 40 thieves a hiding place-- there's no reference to that story-element. The original Ali and the thieves appear as old men, whose role is simply to advise the fierce young Kashma and his allies against their enemies. This is such a dull by-the-numbers swashbuckler that not even the presence of several sultry temptresses (among them Piper Laurie and Susan Cabot) can assuage the tedium.

According to IMDB director Emimmo Salvi-- perhaps best known for DAVID AND GOLIATH-- made a 1962 fantasy-film called THE SEVEN TASKS OF ALI BABA, though from descriptions it doesn't sound like it had much to do with the original Arabian Night. Then this film, originally SIMBAD CONTRO I SETTE SARACENI, was retitled, possibly because the 1964 shared some of the same cast as the earlier film. Certainly neither of the Arabian Nights characters inspired anything about this story, which is simply about medieval Arab warlords fighting one another for supremacy, with Ali Baba (Dan Harrison) as the good warrior and Omar (Gordon Mitchell, seen above) as the bad warrior.

The flick is just as formulaic as SON OF ALI BABA, but the action is better mounted and the costumes, while probably not accurate, don't look like they were recycled from films about other historical periods. The most interesting thing about SARACENS is that it's one of the few times that hostility between the film's "heroine" and "villainess" actually eventuated in a little hand-to-hand violence. Usually in this type of Italian film, the heroine's helplessness is emphasized, but the character of Fatima challenges bad-girl Farida at least twice to a fight, and the film delivers the claw-fest, though it's not a particularly good one. Another rarity is a scene in which the girls of Omar's harem rebel and beat up their guards, though this too is rather weak tea.

Though the original screenplay can't possibly have predicated on the story of Ali Baba, by sheer coincidence an unusual door plays a big part in the tale. But rather than a magical cave-entrance, it's a huge rock door in Omar's fortress that is raised and lowered by mechanical devices. Sometimes devices like this carry an "uncanny" vibe, but in this case it's a purely naturalistic contrivance.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Anyone who actually reads my notation on the film's phenomenality shouldn't need a spoiler-warning, for to say that the film is "uncanny" is the same as stating outright that there are no "marvelous" phenomena in it-- and therefore, no real werewolves, as in the one whose title is being ripped-off, 1935's WEREWOLF OF LONDON.

SHE-WOLF OF LONDON is often disparaged for this bit of petty larceny, but I for one liked the film better than any dozen of routine Universal mysteries. Michelangelo supposedly said that he didn't sculpt an angel from a piece of rock, but that the angel was already there and he merely brought it forth. SHE-WOLF feels like a half-sculpted rock, from which its sculptors didn't quite manage to bring out the full image. Yet the potential is still there, nonetheless.

The most interesting thing about SHE-WOLF-- another collaboration between director Jean Yarbrough and writers Bricker and Babcock, seen to good effect in the same year's HOUSE OF HORRORS-- is that it seems to be one of the few times Universal did a prototypical "woman's horror film." I don't think for a moment that the creators intended to do anything ambitious, but apparently the idea of werewolves and women sparked some unusual thoughts.

True, at the film's start, we see that the main character, wealthy Phyllis Allenby, plans to enter into marriage with her fiancee Barry, who's similarly wealthy. They're first seen arguing amiably about their wedding-date during a horse-ride. Barry wants to marry within the month, while Phyllis wants to wait until winter-- so, they settle the matter with a race. Barry wins, and tells Phyllis that she should have accepted the handicap he offered. Phyllis then claims that she really hoped he would win, suggesting that she was just putting on a show of maidenly resistance.

But then one sees that Phyllis lives in an all-female household: a small mansion which Phyllis shares with her aunt Martha, Martha's grown daughter Carol, and a female servant, Hannah. Carol too is dating a young man, but Martha doesn't approve because he's just a starving artist, not at all like the prosperous marriage Phyllis is about to make.

On top of that, Scotland Yard has begun to investigate strange attacks in a park neighboring the Allenby estate. It's not clear whether anyone's been hurt in the attacks, but victims report having seen a weird, wolf-like woman. Phyllis hears about the rumors, just about the same time that the dogs on her estate start barking at her. She also has a weird episode when she wakes in her bed with blood on her hands, shortly after one of the "werewolf" attacks.

Martha, in the midst of dressing down Carol about her boyfriend, reveals a Big Secret: neither of them is really related to Phyllis. In truth, Martha once dated Reginald, late father of Phyllis, but threw him over for someone else-- making a bad marriage with a poor man, just as Carol seems close to doing. Martha came to work for the Allenbys-- it's not clear when Phyllis' father and mother passed-- and somehow perpetuated the idea that she was a poor relation, rather than a housekeeper.

For even half-decent sleuths, this little speech probably gives the game away. Not only is Phyllis never seen performing any werewolf-stunts, no one else is given a reason to create a phony monster except good old "Aunt" Martha. Actual killings do take place, and Phyllis gets more distraught, remembering how she used to fantasize about the legendary "Allenby curse" as a child, and how she now dreams of "taking part in pagan rites." The reference to paganism comes out of nowhere, and makes me wonder if Bricker and Babcock had been reading up on such festivals as the Lupercalia. 

Barry is the logical male who thinks it's all "a case of nerves," and at one point he barges into the mansion, talking about the necessity of "overruling a woman." Yet, when the plot of the phantasmal figuration is exposed, he has nothing to do with it. Martha confesses all to Phyllis while nerving herself to kill the younger woman. Martha hopes that once Phyllis is gone, Carol will marry rich Barry, and acquire financial security for the family. Maid Hannah interrupts, Martha makes a run for it, and accidentally kills herself. Both Phyllis and Carol are now free to marry as they choose, without the shadow of a maternal "she-wolf" looming over them.

The mystery is far from perfect, for the writers never disclose what sort of disguise Martha uses to sell her werewolf legend, or how she made the dogs bark at Phyllis. The conclusion has a "finish up quickly" tone to it, and perhaps that's just as well, for most viewers probably didn't really care about the fine points: only about seeing Phyllis subjected to torment, perhaps due to her ambivalence about her approaching nuptials.

I doubt that Yarbrough, Bricker and Babcock could have made all that much with the themes they toyed with, given more time. But even a partial sculpture may hold its own fascinations.


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

I confess that I'm probably too old for most of Don Bluth's films, given that they're a little heavy on the trope of "helpless little critters struggling against adversity." I gave minor plaudits to 1982's THE SECRET OF NIMH, but I'll admit that I might find Bluth's chosen storylines more effective if I'd been seeing them as a little kid, who might identify with the little critters more readily.

ROCK-A-DOODLE, one of many financial and critical failures in Bluth's late period, at least boasts a more interesting concept than many of his works. The story, scripted by Bluth and four other writers, is an amalgamation of ideas taken from the folklore-character of Chanticler-- a rooster who believes that his crow makes the sun rise in the morning-- as well as literary treatments of the rooster ranging from Chaucer to Edmund Rostand.

A short version of the plot comes down to this: "Chanticleer leaves his happy farm when the villain convinces him that he can't crow forth the sun: the rooster's farm-friends must retrieve him from the perils of the Big City in order to stop the villain's depredations." The "farm-friends" to me are the least interesting thing in the film, though at least they're not all as ootsy-cutesy as other Bluth-protagonists. Chanticleer, described as "not too bright" and patterned after the young Elvis Presley, is also not a particularly compelling character, and the "Country Mouse/City Mouse" plotline strikes me as from hunger.

The one thing that makes ROCK-A-DOODLE interesting is the way the script approaches the reality-defying idea that a rooster's crow might call forth the sun. While some versions of the traditional tale make it clear that there is no correlation, in one tale a villain really does want to prevent the sun's rise by disgracing Chanticler-- and it's that idea that influences the metaphysics of ROCK-A-DOODLE.

I should note that the film alternates between cartoon-sequences and some very minor live-action scenes. In the latter, young farm-boy Edmund is read the story of Chanticleer and his humiliation as if it's just a story, though he extends the story to the animals he knows on his farm, including the local rooster. While his parents don't believe in magical roosters, Edmund does-- and his belief apparently allows the villain, "the Duke of Owls," to materialize out of the story-book. The cartoon-owl knows that real-boy Edmund wants to bring back the Duke's enemy, so he changes Edmund into a cartoon-kitten in order to eat him. The farm-dog Patou, also played by a cartoon, intervenes to save Edmund, and then the dog, the kitten, and various other critters go in search of Chanticleer-- while the Duke and his minions continue to harry them. In the end, Chanticleer is awakened to the power of his crow, and he uses it to dispel the darkness cherished by the Duke.

Then Edmund awakens, back to being a live-action boy. Was it all a dream, a la WIZARD OF OZ? But no, the rainstorm that beseiged the farm since Chanticleer left has vanished, allowing the sun to reign once more. I don't think for a moment that Bluth wanted to make a film about the metaphysics of belief, but in a rather haphazard way, that's what he ended up doing-- at least in the eyes of someone too old to identify with kittens and field mice.


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

After the merely mild enjoyment I had from 2011's X-MEN FIRST CLASS, and the general boredom I derived from X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, I considered X-MEN; APOCALYPSE more of a return to form, at least roughly comparable to the strongest X-film thus far, 2003's X2. That said, APOCALYPSE has some of the same problems as FIRST CLASS: "too many superheroes spoiling the cookery."

FUTURE PAST seems to have come about largely to allow Singer to reshuffle the continuity of the post-Singer films, particularly the third film, in which both Jean Grey and Professor X were killed. While I don't oppose such reshuffling overall, the X-franchise isn't as easy to reboot as some concepts, in large part because it does feature such a polyglot of interrelated characters. In APOCALYPSE Scott Summers and Jean Grey have a fleeting encounter with Wolverine for the "real first time," thus invalidating the continuity of the first film. But if the franchise ever makes it to the present day-- APOCALPYSE is set in 1983-- through what sequence of events does Wolverine eventually become a full-time X-Man?  Or will Singer just hop over such confusing matters?

Though I do think the film could have benefited from some pruning, what I liked most about it was that this did not seem focused only on Singer's "favorite characters," as was the case with FUTURE PAST. The titular mutant villain, preserved in suspended animation since the reign of ancient Egypt, revives in 1983 and decides that he wants to destroy-and-remake the world-- to which end he enlists four modern-day mutants as his henchmen as he prepares to destroy the world. I confess that I don't remember much about Apocalypse from the comics, except that when he makes the modern-day scene he spends a lot more time learning the lay of the land. Thus, when he enlists various mutants to serve as his "four horsemen of the Apocalypse," it makes a little more sense that the comics-character might invoke such a Judeo-Christian reference, as opposed to the fellow who's never seen anything since the days of the pyramids. I guess if Singer had wanted to keep faith with his villain's Egyptian associations, the evil mutant might have called his henchmen "the four sons of Horus"-- though that reference would have gone over the heads of most moviegoers.

Wolverine's brief appearance allows other, often-marginalized characters their chance to shine, particularly Summers, Grey, and a new version of Nightcrawler, whose history in X2 must also be considered null and void. That said, Singer does insert one of his "favorites" amid the Four Horsemen. Rebooted versions of Storm and the Angel, and a newly-minted cinematic Psylocke, serve as three of the Horsemen, and all three of them must make do with less than generous backstories. The exception is the fourth Horseman, perpetual X-villain Magneto, who seems egregiously out of place in his role as a flunky to another Big Bad Mutant. Neither the excellent performance of Michael Fassbinder-- who is given some burn-down-the-barn dramatic scenes-- nor a subplot about Magneto being the daddy of X-ally Quicksilver, can smooth over the rough edges here.

Mystique, whose alternate name "Raven" may have confused some audience-members, was opposed to the X-Men most of the time during FUTURE PAST. Here she seems to walk into the X-mansion without so much as a by-your-leave, though I confess this may have something to do with FIRST CLASS continuity I've forgotten. Frankly, I barely remembered the presence of Scott's brother Alex in the earlier film, and though he serves the purpose of a narrative bridge here, he's another figure I wouldn't have minded seeing excised.

What the film does have going for it-- if one can negotiate all the convoluted histories-- is action. Not counting the solo films for Wolverine and Deadpool, the group-oriented X-films haven't mounted any impressive action-sequences since the aforementioned X2. One may not have much sense of Apocalypse's motives, but he makes for a great 'everyone-beat-on-the-bad-guy" opponent: arguably a much better one than the fairly sympathetic Magneto. The concluding battle, in which all of the X-Men keep throwing their multifarious powers at the Big Bad, is much better choreographed than the big concluding fight in BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN, and most of those in CAPTAIN AMERICA CIVIL WAR-- with the obvious exception of the 'airport battle."

Finally, given that the other two "pre-summer superhero" films were rife with all manner of hazy political pontifications, APOCALYPSE is refreshingly free of such overtones, even if there's a de rigeur reference to "groups who hate and exploit mutantkind," et al. APOCALYPSE, simply by virtue of being an "apocalyptic" superhero tale, reminds us that at heart such combative works transcend the mundane realm of politics.

TREMORS 1,2, 3, 4, 5 (1990-2015)

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

Yes, I know that all of the DTV sequels to the original TREMORS have subtitles, but after watching them all, I'm too enervated to type any of them, much less bother to search out images for them. I'm by no means the type who condemns serial follow-ups with the knee-jerk elitism of many reviewers. But this time I could wish that the first film had remained sequel-less.

Even though the shadow of Ridley Scott's ALIEN looms large over the original TREMORS, the Ron Underwood film avoids the trap of most imitations. In many ways it seems like the film that 1957's MONOLITH MONSTERS wanted to be, in that TREMORS concentrates on a small human community in a mountainous region of America, far from the big cities and superhighways. Whereas in MONOLITH MONSTERS the community is attacked by alien rocks, as if the unforgiving landscape itself came alive, here the people of the town of Perfection must deal with "graboids," carnivorous monsters that burrow through the ground, tracking their victims entirely by sound. The visual motif may also remind one of JAWS, but the image of the graboids' mouths-- which have three serpent-like extensions projecting from the mouth proper-- is certainly borrowed from the "toothed tongue" of the Aliens.

Like many of the best 1950s creature features, the focal characters are a couple of "just plain folks," handymen-partners Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward), who are frankly bored with doing odd jobs for the less-than-prosperous citizens of Perfection. Even the presence of Rhonda (Finn Carter), a nice-looking female seismologist-- the "expert-figure" common in 1950s SF-films-- doesn't keep the younger Val from wanting to pick up stakes. However, when the isolated community is cut off from the rest of the world by the graboid invasion, Val and Earl end up fighting for their lives-- and not without some romantic interaction between Val and Rhonda for good measure.

Happily, the melodrama is kept to a minimum. Like the scripts for Jack Arnold's "desert noir" films, the script by Brent Maddock and S,S. Wilson allows for a slow build through which both the audience and the characters become aware of the nature of the menace, followed by the harrowing major onslaught of the graboids, during which protagonists and support-characters desperately try to deduce the vulnerabilities of the predators. In keeping with the title, the film's best scenes are those in which the characters become conscious of how their every noise can bring down the hunters-- as well as ways in which they can trick or trap the graboids. One particular stand-out scene-- which would be milked in all of the sequels-- is one in which a survivalist man-and-wife team (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire) oppose a graboid with a small arsenal and blow it away.

Bacon and McEntire did not return for the sequel TREMORS 2: AFTERSHOCKS, but Fred Ward did, as did Michael Gross. Gross's character Burt Gummer, effectively a single man from then on, arguably became the new protagonist, and his presence altered the orientation of the franchise. The first film is excellent in being an exciting thriller, in which the protagonists are on the defensive, but the sequels show the humans becoming far more proactive, even venturing to attempt the capture of the subterranean monsters. Understandably, the producers may also have felt that the first film did everything possible with the worm-creatures as they were then depicted-- and so TREMORS 2 proposes that the graboids suddenly start tossing off new phases of their species, such as "walking graboids" and "flying graboids."

TREMORS 3: BACK TO PERFECTION is really just more of the same, except that the second film wrote out Earl by competing his own romantic arc. This time, as if to support Burt Gummers' suspicions of governmental idiocy, agents of the Department of the Interior show up and want to extend "endangered species" protection to the surviving graboids around Perfection. In addition, this bit of ecological officiousness is accompanied by a theme dating back to silent cinema: the threat to one's home, for the agents also suggest that they may invoke eminent domain and eject all of the locals from their town. As usually happens in these type of films, the vicious animals themselves show no gratitude for ecological correctness and gobble down their benefactors, leaving it to individualist Burt Gummer to blast the critters to kingdom come. As if to align him with another great literary hunter, Gummer's largest quarry is a Great White Worm.

TREMORS 4: THE LEGEND BEGINS is undoubtedly the best of the sequels-- even though it's technically a prequel. The action takes place in 1889, when Perfection was a struggling mining-town under the dubious name of "Rejection," and the local mine has suddenly become  beseiged by graboids. Effete Easterner Hiram Gummer, ancestor of Burt, comes to Rejection to protect his interest in the mine, and though he seems the polar opposite of hard-bitten survivalist Burt, he eventually finds his true manhood and stands up to the murderous worms. The action is more limited than in some sequels, but the story hearkens back to the strengths of the original, and gives Gross the chance to play against the "type" of his usual character.

TREMORS 5: BLOODLINES returns the franchise to present-day, once more with irascible Burt Gummer hunting graboids-- this time in a somewhat refreshing change-of-setting: South Africa. Burt, occasionally partnered with short-lived sidekicks following the absence of Earl, gains a new aide in a young guy named Travis, who just happens to have had a family relationship with one of Burt's old girlfriends. The other characters in BLOODLINES are the most forgettable support-characters in the franchise, which even at its worst generally showed some care in their individual depiction. The action is nothing special, except for a scene in which a hostile poacher takes Burt prisoner, places him in a metal cage, and leaves him at the mercy of the African sun and wildlife. Gross makes the most of this scene, at turns both suspenseful and funny.