Saturday, July 30, 2016


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

Though "Charlie X" and "Enemy Within" had focused on particular examples of sexual obsession, "Mudd's Women" is the first broadcast episode to deal with the way sexual attraction works in the world of the Federation. Given that Roddenberry sold the series as a "space western," it's not surprising that the first thing we see of male-female relationships in this futuristic culture derives from the model of the historical western. To some degree there were already implications that "the final frontier" was primarily won by men, just like the western frontier, and that women followed in the wake of those men. The script of "Mudd's Women" is credited to Stephen Kandel, but the basic idea has been attributed to Roddenberry, who evidently based his science-fiction scenario on the American custom of "mail order brides."

Though Roddenberry was a progressive thinker, he clearly enjoyed putting beautiful women on display, if only in keeping with the familiar Hollywood mantra that "sex sells." Still, there's more going on in the script than either pure pandering or even the intellectual critique of pandering.

The story opens with what amounts to the first portrayal of the Enterprise crew as "space cops." The starship comes across an unlisted freighter-craft and calls upon the ship to identify itself. Instead the ship flees, overloading its engines. In one of the series' least impressive "ticking-clock" perils, the Enterprise is only able to save the four occupants of the freighter by over-extending its own engines, resulting in the loss of all but one of the lithium (later dilithium) crystals powering the ship.

The ship's pilot is a flamboyant rogue, soon revealed to be a slick operator named Harry Mudd, guilty of assorted infractions against Federation law. His three passengers-- or "cargo," as he calls them-- are three voluptuous women: Ruth, Magda, and the mythically-named Eve. All three hail from poor planets lacking in male populations, and all have agreed to let Mudd convey them to frontier-planets with more testosterone.

The women provide the second assault on the Enterprise's integrity, for all of the males, except for Spock, are beguiled and somewhat stupefied by all the feminine glamour, (The episode doesn't show any of the crew's women reacting in any way to this hyper-feminine invasion: Yeoman Rand does not appear and Uhura has only a few lines.) Later it will be revealed that this glamour stems from an illegal "Venus drug" administered by Mudd; a drug that enhances the masculine or feminine qualities of those who take it-- sort of a "gender essentialist" version of a steroid. Without the drug, the three girls begin to look haggard and less than comely-- all of which means that Mudd isn't just a transporter of women: he's a pimp, and one selling "sizzle" in place of "steak." However, the men don't see this. Kirk in particular is mesmerized by Eve, and she, unlike the other two "traveling brides," reciprocates somewhat (making her the captain's first romantic conquest in the series, not counting Yeoman Rand).

Mudd is given a rather one-sided trial (no lawyers for civilians, Starfleet?) However, because the arch-swindler knows that the ship needs new lithium supplies, Mudd makes arrangements to use his "cargo" as bargaining chips with the lonely men of the nearest lithium-mining planet. Mudd is so wily and Kirk so duty-bound that it's something of a pleasure to see the series' hero forced to deal with the miners to get the ship's fuel, as well as having to dismiss charges against Mudd.

The nub of the intellectual argument comes late in the story. The miners-- conveniently three in number-- hold a party with the three prospective brides. Ruth and Magda are entirely good-time girls, but Eve displays discontent with being sold as a sex-object. She runs off into a storm, while head miner Childress and the Enterprise crewmen try to find her. Childress overtakes Eve and takes her to his personal quarters nearby. At this point Roddenberry upends his own idolization of feminine pulchritude, for without the drug Eve begins to look ordinary. At the same time, without the haze of sexual stimulation in the way, Childress is able to relate to Eve as a person rather than an object.

The final scene reverses this conclusion a bit, as Roddenberry allows Childress, the far-future descendant of Western miners, to have his cake and eat it too. Kirk, with Mudd in tow, arrives on the scene and exposes the secret of the Venus drug. For no clear reason-- except to throw some light on the magical capacities of changeable women-- Kirk brings along a fake version of the Venus drug, and when Eve takes it, she spontaneously asserts her own feminine glamour, without any steroidal assistance. Kirk gets the fuel he needs for his ship, and though he has presumably kept his bargain to dismiss Mudd's earlier charges, is now able to toss Mudd in the brig for the use of an illegal drug. Interestingly, as Eve plights her troth to Childress, she alludes to her almost-romance with Kirk by implying that he's married to the Enterprise. "Mudd's Women" was third in production but sixth in release, so presumably Eve's line was something Roddenberry decided to develop further in the sixth-to-be-filmed episode, "The Naked Time."

As all TREK fans presumably know, Mudd made one more appearance in the show's second season, but that narrative didn't involve his role as a galactic pimp.

Friday, July 29, 2016


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

ENEMY WITHIN, the fifth broadcast episode, is less mythic and more intellectually schematic than previous entries. The Richard Matheson script is the first one to posit difficulties arising from the Enterprise's teleportation technology. As in "Naked Time," these denizens of a star-civilization seem remarkably obtuse about taking precautions against contamination. One of the crewmen, part of an expedition to a deserted planet, gets magnetic dirt on him on the planet's surface, but no one suggests that he even take off his contaminated clothes before beaming up. The crewman makes it up to the ship without incident, but the next person to beam up-- the good captain himself-- is split into two duplicates of himself, one a vacillating "Jekyll" and the other a remorseless but passionate "Hyde."
Further, until the transporter's irregularities are fixed, the rest of the expedition on the planet can't beam up-- and the planet's getting freezingly cold as night falls.

It takes Spock and McCoy a little time to figure out that they have one too many Kirks aboard-- particularly the one who accosts Yeoman Rand in her room and tries to rape her. However, "good" Kirk has his own set of problems: without his passionate side, he lacks the ability to make decisions. In the episode's most memorable scene, Spock advances the argument that this may mean that man's "evil side" is most necessary for a commander, while McCoy counter-argues that Good Kirk's intellect provides the greater necessary qualities. The first argument really doesn't sound much like the Vulcan science officer-- after all, isn't he the one who's always advocating the ability of the rational mind to control unruly emotions?  I'd hypothesize that Spock's visually appropriate role of "devil's advocate" came about only because Matheson and Roddenberry couldn't imagine McCoy, that defender of sentiment, assuming such a philosophical posture.

It's a decent episode, though I would conjecture that modern ultraliberals would want to see Rand's almost-rape treated with much more attention to the female character's feelings. I'd admit that even I felt a little leery when Rand tells Good Kirk that she might have concealed the assault because she "didn't want to get him in trouble." At the same time, though, one must keep in mind that Roddenberry was teasing his audience with the possibility of a "love connection" between Kirk and Rand, though it's unlikely that one would have ever come about, even if the Rand character had not been written out of the show later. In any case, while she clearly doesn't want to be raped, the audience is supposed to believe-- no matter how scanty the evidence-- that she does have some erotic feelings for Kirk, just as he does for her. "The Naked Time" episode makes this romantic impasse even more explicit, but though it was broadcast before "Enemy," "Naked Time" was actually filmed somewhat later. Still, Roddenberry certainly had some idea of where Rand's character-arc was headed from the beginnings, and so I find that her romantic leanings do make a difference in her defensiveness of Evil Kirk-- though she still comes across as something of a doormat.

Thursday, July 28, 2016


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

The action in “Man Trap” begins because two archaeologists are investigating an alien world; the home to a nearly extinct species. In “Naked Time” the ship seeks out a planet doomed to break apart, in part because a contingent of scientists have set up operations on the planet's surface. The scientists' purpose is to gather data regarding the world’s impending destruction. But to study destruction is to court it as well. An Enterprise landing-party descends to the planet, garbed in protective suits to shield them from the elements, but they find all of the scientists dead, apparently as the result of their having lost their minds. Once again there's a fear that an alien contagion will spread, though this time only the Enterprise and the closed society aboard it will be affected.

Early in the story, the ship’s officers stress their need to be able to clear of the disintegrating planet at a moment’s notice. Engineer Scott is particularly confident that they can escape without a hitch. However, he doesn't know that one man in the landing-party, a fellow named Joe, proves himself to be "the weakest link." Even though everyone in the landing-party wears protective suits, Joe decides to pull off one of his gloves for a moment, with the result that he’s infected by some virus native to the planet. (This would not be the last time when a member of the Enterprise crew performed an action of supreme recklessness, apparently for no good reason but to get the story moving.)

Within less than an hour, the organized military hierarchy of the Enterprise breaks down, as crewpersons begin to act out their fantasies. Interestingly, Joe acts out a fantasy of inadequacy and pessimism that forms a polar opposite to the Federation's  can-do optimism. “We don’t belong here,” Joe complains, at first threatening his colleagues and then knifing himself. However, as McCoy observes, Joe perishes not from his wounds but from having lost the will to live.

In this episode at least, indulging the impulses of the Id has the cumulative effect of giving up on the real world. Some of the responses to the disease—transmitted from one person to another through the medium of sweat—are largely harmless, as when Sulu fantasizes that he’s a Muskeeteer and threatens crewmen with a rapier. Riley, another crewman to have direct contact with Joe, seems to be in a similar mode when he convinces himself that he’s the captain and starts issuing ridiculous commands to his crew. However, in his delirium he shuts down the ship’s engines—the very thing Scott needs to whisk the Enterprise out of the clutches of the doomed planet. Thus, in a very real sense, Riley is every bit as suicidal as Joe, but he wants to take everyone else with him, under the delusion that they’re all going to have more fun under his command.

Almost as damaging as male ego is feminine eros. The only female to become infected is Christine Chapel, introduced to audiences in this episode as a sick-bay nurse who’s desperately in love with the half-human Spock. The disease emboldens her to profess her love to Spock, who feels compassion for her but nothing else. However, because she touches him and transmits the disease, Spock’s logic is rendered inert by an outpouring of uncontrollable emotions. This leads to the highly regarded centerpiece of the narrative.

Kirk, not yet infected, seeks out Spock, hoping to utilize Spock’s scientific acumen to re-start the Enterprise engines and save the ship. In the process of trying to slap some sense into the demented Vulcan, the two men apparently exchange sweat—a scene which must be a great favorite with fans of Kirk-Spock slash-fiction. Spock, initially maudlin over his inability to confess his love for his mother, becomes racially hostile, telling Kirk that he sometimes felt “ashamed” of being friends with a human. He returns Kirk’s blows with one of his own, and almost immediately, the worst effects of the disease pass out of Spock and into Kirk. If anything, Kirk’s confessional is more extraordinary—and less human—than that of the half-human Spock, as the captain reveals that he feels bonded to his ship as if it were the only real love of his life. This psychological issue is never substantively raised again, but it might go a long way to explaining Kirk’s later status as a player who never finds a permanent beloved.

Only at the end does the title take on significance. Up to this point, the “naked” part of the title clearly signified the way all of the crewpersons were revealing their inner selves to their colleagues. But when Kirk and his allies succeed in re-starting the engines, they also accidentally propel themselves backwards in time. When the ship returns to normal time, Spock comments that they now have “three days to live over again.” Kirk wryly comments that he certainly doesn’t want to re-live the same three days. In a symbolic sense, though, the travel in time—from a plot-;perspective, not really necessary so that the ship can escape danger—may also represent a “triumph over time.” Time is the medium through which all mortals gather experience, which in turn leads them to build up fantasies of what-could-have-been or should-have-been. By escaping the orbit of the dying planet, Kirk and his crew have also metaphorically escaped, at least for a little while, the tyrannical  dominion of time over their lives, even if their ultimate goal remains that of service to the “jealous god” of reality.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *superior*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*

The third broadcast episode of STAR TREK—actually the show’s second pilot, after NBC passed on the first one— stand as one of the best 20th century treatments of the Greek concept of hubris, of the idea that the gods would punish men whenever they stepped outside the bounds of mortal limitations. Of course Roddenberry, a professed atheist, patently did not believe in gods. However, it’s been said that in wartime there are no atheists in foxholes. Similarly, in the art of writing there are, so to speak, no atheists amid plot-holes. Thus even a writer who doesn’t believe in gods has to create hem, in order to fill the symbolic voids in his narrative.

As the episode begins, the Enterprise is about to cross into unfamiliar terrain: an area “outside the galaxy.” Within a purely materialistic view of the cosmos, there should be no “forbidden worlds” in outer space. Yet Kirk and his crew—which does not yet include either McCoy or Uhura-- encounter evidence that a previous ship, the Valiant, has suffered destruction while attempting the same feat of extra-galactic exploration. According to Spock’s analysis of the data from a recording-unit, the Valiant encountered some sort of “storm” that affected members of the crew adversely. In addition, Spock learns that before the ship’s captain initiated a self-destruct sequence, he was intensely researching information on human ESP potentials. Nothing daunted, Kirk refuses to be cowed by the Valiant’s fate, and orders the Enterprise to cross into the unknown galaxy. The ship encounters a field of force with contradictory tendencies—"deflectors say that something’s there; sensors say there isn’t." The force-cloud causes a massive breakdown of the ship’s power units, and two crewpersons are struck unconscious: helmsman Gary Mitchell—a close friend of Kirk from their days in Starfleet Academy—and psychologist Elizabeth Dehner. Dehner seems to recover without ill effect, but Mitchell’s eyes turn silver. Soon it will emerge that both of them possess high ESP potential, and that the mysterious cloud has boosted that power to godlike levels.

Though Mitchell and Dehner are the antagonists with whom Kirk and his crew will contend, the finished script gives the audience little detail about them. They have just one exchange on the ship’s bridge, suggesting that they know of one another but are not friendly. After Dehner makes a remark about studying new populations, Mitchell puts a sexy spin on her scientific orientation, asking her if she wants to improve the breed. She says that “that’s more in your line—and I do mean ‘line.’” He mutters to a friend that she’s a “walking freezer unit,” thus establishing their personas as “oversexed playboy” and “undersexed female professional.” In addition, when the cloud first starts to affect the ship, Mitchell is seen briefly holding hands with a female crewperson. This suggests that she may be his current conquest, though she has no substantive role in the story.

During Mitchell’s recovery in sick bay, the script expands on his character in conversation with his old friend Kirk. Their badinage reveals that even as a normal human Mitchell possesses a manipulative streak, which will have dire consequences for a man given the power of a deity. As his psychic abilities increase exponentially, it becomes evident to Kirk and Spock that their former colleague has become alienated from humanity. Spock argues that Mitchell’s inhuman power makes him a threat, while Kirk sentimentally wants to find a way to save his old friend. Dehner, for her part, has become infatuated with Mitchell the victim, as she never was with Mitchell the player.

In contrast to many subsequent scripts in which Spock’s remorseless logic proves insufficient to provide solutions—notably “The Galileo Seven”—Spock is proven to be incontrovertibly right. Even Mitchell agrees, darkly predicting a dire fate for his former kindred when he states that “mankind cannot survive contact with a race of true espers.” Up to this point no one has been talking about Mitchell propagating a new and more deadly species, for he seems to be the Adam of a new species, without an Eve in sight. But as Mitchell breaks free of his prison on the Enterprise, Dehner’s own boosted potential comes to the fore.

The Adam-Eve parallels are made explicit when the divine pair descend to a planetoid, one on which Kirk had planned to strand Mitchell. It’s not entirely clear why they don’t use their powers to either seize control of the Enterprise or to destroy it. The closest thing to an explanation occurs when Mitchell states in an earlier scene that he’s not quite sure what to do with his power yet, though he’s clearly already begun to think of himself as a god. With a wave of his hand Mitchell causes the barren earth of the planetoid to turn into a Garden of Eden. The psychic gods even eat from a plant with apple-like fruit, sealing their resemblance to the original couple of the Bible. Kirk, feeling guilty for having failed to obey the logic of command, pursues the divine couple, hoping to slay two gods with no more than determination and a phaser-rifle. Mitchell overcomes Kirk with ease, but Kirk manages to sway Dehner to his side. He dispels her vision of divine ascension with an appeal to Freudian basics: “You know the ugly, savage things we keep buried; that none of us dare expose. But he’ll dare! Who’s to stop him? He doesn’t need to care!”  Dehner, her loyalty to the human race reactivated, uses her powers to drain those of Mitchell. This makes possible a knock-down drag-out battle in which Kirk manages to slay Mitchell, moments before Dehhner perishes from her fight with Mitchell. As in “Man Trap,” the story ends with the heroes briefly mourning the victims of human progress.

The original STAR TREK is replete with many irresponsible gods. Some of them merely abuse their powers out of a sense of caprice, as in “Charlie X” and  “The Squire of Gothos.” Mitchell is a more profound threat. According to Kirk’s rhetoric, human beings keep one another in balance via a social contract: they “need to care” what others think because all humans have roughly the same power to retaliate against one another. Mitchell’s Olympian indifference to human culture is assumed to be the seed of tyranny or even genocide. Indeed, Kirk’s most persuasive argument to Dehner dispels the myth of Adam and Eve, for the captain argues that “there’ll only be one of you in the end—one jealous God!” Kirk successfully convinces “goddess” Dehner that her prospective mate is not Adam but Yahweh, who will have no other gods in his presence, either before or beside him. It’s an interesting turnabout in the script, that while Spock has counseled that Kirk must not forsake his duty out of feeling, the only thing that saves the Enterprise—and implicitly all of humanity—is that Kirk is able to spark empathetic feeling in a would-be goddess. The TREK narrative is full of women whose basic function is be temptresses or vampires, but Dehner provides an interesting contrast: the goddess who sacrifices herself out of her feminine sensitivity.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


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

Fortunately for me, few Classic Trek episodes require the degree of explication that "Man Trap" did. "Charlie X," the second-aired episode, is popular with fans, but I've always found it a little over-rated.

"Where No Man Has Gone Before," the second TREK pilot and the first story that establishes Kirk as the Enterprise's captain, had been of necessity filmed prior to "Charlie X," and on a philosophical level it's a superior treatment of a frequent TREK theme, "the irresponsible god." By comparison "Charlie X" is more of a character study, asking the question as to what would happen if a human adolescent, heir to all of the insecurities of that age, possessed the power of a god.

One can't complain about the quality of the acting in this episode. Robert Walker Jr. excels in portraying Charlie Evans, who at age 3 became a castaway upon a remote planet and was not discovered by Federation representatives until he reached 17. Spock is particularly curious that Charlie could have survived on the planet's sparse resources, to say nothing of his unlikely ability to teach himself to talk via his downed ship's language-tapes. Kirk is moderately friendly toward the youngster, but slightly curious that the transport ship dropping Charlie off seems to be in a big hurry to get away.

It later transpires that Charlie survived only because the remote planet was the home of a non-corporeal race of beings, the Thasians. To save the youth's life, the Thasians imbued him with supernormal mental powers, but they never intended him to leave the planet, given his potential for misusing his godlike abilities.

It's not clear how Charlie manages to leave the remote world without alerting his ghostly supervisors, but the audience soon learns that the transport-crew feared Charlie because he terrorized them. Possibly, after Charlie saw how the transport-crew reacted to his intemperate actions, he decided to conceal his true nature, for aboard the Enterprise he makes an effort to seem like an ordinary young man. He seems willing to let the transport-crew go their way as long as they keep quiet. When he overhears the crewmen trying to warn Kirk about the viper in his midst, Charlie uses his mental power to destroy them.

Before this happens, of course, the episode provides considerable buildup, as Charlie gradually starts to demonstrate his powers in little ways, such as performing card tricks for the first girl he's ever seen in his life: Yeoman Rand. However, the young man's emotions overcome his reservations, and he uses his powers to become top dog on the Enterprise. His ambitions are twofold: he wants to reach the nearest colony-world in order to experience human society, and he wants to win the heart of Yeoman Rand.

The structure of "Charlie X" would appear in many later TREK episodes: malefic agents take over the Enterprise, attempting to use the starship to infiltrate human society-- generally with the implication that the agents will infect Federation society like a cancer. The episode is more affecting than most of the others in this category, since the audience empathizes with Charlie's hormonal confusion. When the Thasians intervene to spirit their creation back to his desolate existence, even Kirk, who knows the danger Charlie poses, expresses the wish that they could find some way to give the  boy a normal life. But there's no cure for the disease of godhood, and so the Enterprise returns to the normal round of life, a life that the god in an adolescent's body can never enjoy.

One of the more interesting psychological motifs of "Charlie X" is that as soon as he comes aboard the Enterprise, he immediately sees Kirk as a potential father-image. Apparently, even though the men of the transport were the first males Charlie had seen since age 3, none of them possessed the authority to impress Charlie, who on some level wants to be "given limits." His reaction to Yeoman Rand is somewhat more logical, since he's never before seen a woman, at least not one that he can remember having seen. Freud of course argued that the male infant incontrovertibly based his image of feminine attractiveness upon the first female he saw and touched: usually the figure who fulfilled the role of the mother. The script underscores this, for when the Yeoman tries to divert the over-attentive youth by introducing him to a female crewman who is Charlie's age, Charlie rejects the younger woman. Further, he even evinces indifference to all the other females on the ship, saying that they're "all the same," irrespective of their ages. The logical conclusion is that the only way all the Enterprise-females could be the same is that none of them are Yeoman Rand.

Kirk's quasi-paternal relation to Charlie is definitely not Freudian, however. Prior to finding out what a monster Charlie is, Kirk certainly doesn't want to become Big Daddy to an insecure youth, but when it's evident that no one else can reach the youngster, Kirk resigns himself to the task. Naturally, the captain's attempt to explain to Charlie the wrongness of slapping a girl on the butt remains one of the episode's high points. And Kirk certainly isn't a "alpha male," protecting his access to the most attractive female. He warns Charlie away from Rand, saying that "the years are wrong." Grace Lee Whitney was roughly ten years older than Walker, and she didn't project a particularly maternal aura. Still, the broad implication of Kirk's speech seems to be that Rand probably isn't a virgin, and that therefore it's not quite right for a male virgin to be de-virginated by an "experienced woman." The episode "The Enemy Within" had been filmed previous to "Charlie X," but "Charlie" was broadcast first, and there's no sense in the episode-- unlike "Enemy"-- of a potential romantic vibe between Kirk and Rand. Probably the producers didn't want to tie Kirk down to a particular romantic interest, though they certainly wanted to create the impression that Rand secretly had a thing for Kirk.

Although "Charlie" and "Man Trap" were not filmed back to back, there are some bookended similarities. As in "Trap," Uhura makes a few playful jabs at Spock's nearly impervious reserve. The earliest version of Spock is still allowed to display the occasional indulgent smile: in later episodes, the separation of rank between science officer and communications officer would be enforced more stringently. In addition, while "Man Trap" concerns the depredations of an apparently feminine power on the loose, "Charlie X" revolves around a male predator-figure-- albeit one who doesn't quite know what to do with his power.

Monday, July 25, 2016


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

(NOTE: as I write this, I'm considering making the attempt to do a episode-by-episode review of Classic Trek, thanks to a current re-broadcast of unedited episodes. Whether I manage to keep it up will be anyone's guess.)

"The Man Trap" -- credited to writer George Clayton Johnson, albeit with important story-input from another writer, Lee Erwin, as well as from series-producer Gene Roddenberry-- is almost never cited as a fan-favorite. It may suffer in some fans' eyes from a general lack of humor, or the fact that it is essentially a "monster on the loose" story, rather than being overtly concerned with a high-flown sociological message. In truth, though, "Man Trap" is one of the most thoroughly mythopoeic episodes in the series.

For the first eight episodes in TREK's production schedule, there are few overt references to the politics of the Federation's outer-space empire. (The Romulans appear in the ninth episode produced, though the show aired as Episode 14.) The monster in "Man Trap," however, can be interpreted as the ultimate "other" that threatens the integrity of the human empire. The creature-- given no name in the story, but dubbed "the Salt Vampire" by fans-- poses such a threat in the same way that older civilizations are often perceived as threats to younger, current ones. In contrast to the tribes exterminated by the various empires of the 19th century, the "tribe" of the Vampire apparently perishes from natural causes. But even though the Federation-- and by extension, all the crewmen of the Enterprise-- are innocent of killing the Vampire's people, a sense of Conrad-esque guilt hangs over them anyway. The creature is compared fulsomely to two species of animal whose populations suffered from humankind's advance: the passenger pigeon and the American buffalo. The allusion to the buffalo is repeated three or four times in the story-line, and so suggests a further allusion to the chaos wrought upon numerous Native American tribes due to the advance of the American Empire-- whose ethical outlook forms the bedrock for the fictional Federation.

Captain Kirk and his crew venture to the planet M-113 for a mission that sounds rather niggling for a mighty star-vessel: to conduct a medical examination of two archaeologists, who are currently the only occupants of a planet that once harbored a now-extinct race. If there was a living race on M-113, it would be easy to view the two scientists' assignment as an "outpost of empire." But since the Federation believes that the planet's native race is dead, the archaeologists' mission can only be rationalized as seeking knowledge for its own sake-- though, in keeping with a myriad of horror-movies tropes, even well-intentioned inquiries into the past can conjure forth death and confusion.

The two archaeologists, husband Robert Crater and wife Nancy, aren't the only ones interested in the past. The man set to perform their medical exams, Enterprise-doctor McCoy, was romantically entwined with Nancy twelve years ago, and it's clear from his conversation with Captain Kirk that the doctor still carries a torch.

However, from the first it's apparent that Nancy isn't changeable only in terms of her emotions. McCoy sees her as the same youngish woman he once knew, as if she has not aged at all. Kirk, expecting to see a woman of advanced years, sees what he expects, while a disposable Redshirt makes the error of thinking about a woman he knew from "the Pleasure Planet," and so sees Nancy as a totally different young woman. The crewman's concupiscence leads to his death, as "Nancy"-- actually the last survivor of M-113's otherwise extinct race-- lures him away from the others and kills him for the salt in his body. However, because the Vampire hopes to graduate to other prey aboard the Enterprise, "Nancy" tries to convince Kirk and McCoy that the crewman died from eating an alien planet. Significantly, the alleged poison-plant is named "Borgia," probably in honor of Lucrezia Borgia, the 15th-century Italian noblewoman who became mythologized as a master poisoner and a symbol of feminine rapacity.

Aboard the Enterprise, McCoy rules out the plant as the cause of the crewman's death. Kirk and other crewmen descend to M-113 once more to interview Crater and his wife, but neither gives Kirk any satisfactory answers. Vampire-Nancy kills all three of the crewmen, but conceals the body of one of them, using her chameleonic powers to assume his appearance and thus infiltrate the ship's crew when the contingent beams up, supposedly leaving both Crater and his wife behind.

Crater later tells Kirk that M-113's supply of salt ran out, and when he and his wife encountered the last survivor of the Salt Vampire's race, the creature killed Nancy for her body's salt. It's never clearly established how Crater survived his continued contact with the Vampire for the remainder of the two years he spent on M-113, but it's possible that he did so by doling out small supplies of artificial salt. If the Vampire had managed to survive for two years on minimal amounts of the substance she needed, this might go toward explaining the Vampire's behavior once she's on the ship. Faced with a wealth of salt-filled bodies, the Vampire endeavors to get one of the crewpersons alone-- and this time, she chooses to stalk two female possibilities. The Vampire fails to get Yeoman Rand alone, and it even garners some unwanted attention when a rare plant in Sulu's garden shrieks in the creature's presence. The monster then waylays Lieutenant Uhura, assuming a form apparently derived from someone Uhura knew before, since Uhura almost recognizes "him"-- and the Vampire even demonstrates some telepathic capacity, given that she flawlessly imitates Uhura's own native Swahili language. But the Vampire's own hunger undermines her masquerade, and Uhura is only saved by the accidental intrusion of other crewpersons.

Kirk and Spock investigate the planet once more, and find the body of the crewman who supposedly beamed up with them earlier. They take Crater prisoner and beam him to the ship. Meanwhile the Vampire, apparently hoping to use McCoy as she used Crater, places him in a hypnotic sleep-trance and masquerades as McCoy. This allows the monster to sit in on the very conference in which Kirk and Spock attempt to force Crater to reveal his secrets. Crater gives them everything they want, but will not help them find the Vampire-- an amusing scene, since he's looking right at "her" as he says this. Kirk accuses Crater of having used the Vampire to give him his own narcissistic cast of companions, but what goes unsaid is that Crater has actually committed the sin that an earlier culture would've called "going native." Crater pays for his complicity, though: "McCoy" takes Crater away, ostensibly to administer a truth serum. Then the Vampire kills her human companion (and possible lover) so that he won't rat her out. As the ship's security procedures tighten the net around the shape-changer, she takes refuge with McCoy again-- leading to a final confrontation in which the doctor, the one man most within the Vampire's thrall, must prove himself by dealing the fatal blow.

It's fascinating that, by the grace of an arbitrary schedule, Captain James Kirk's first opponent would be an incarnation of female mystery and vampiric hunger-- and a shape-changer, just like the opponent he faces in "Turnabout Intruder," the final episode of TREK's third season. To the extent that the Federation is also a creation of a male-centered hegemony, all that is female is as much an "other" to it as the scion of a dead races. Early in the episode, Lieutenant Uhura playfully tries to evoke some quasi-romantic emotion from Mister Spock-- naturally, without any result. She also assumes a feminine attitude of censure when they both hear an announcement that someone in the initial landing-party has died, and Spock remains at his post, a typical "repressed male" refusing to rush out and find out if it's his friend Kirk who has perished. At the same time, Spock is the exception that proves the rule: prior to seeing the Vampire stalk the yeoman, a couple of male crewmen ogle her from afar, fantasizing about having her "serve" them-- which, I presume, is still a little better than wanting her to be a "serving," as in a meal.

As I re-watched the conclusion, it occurred to me that some viewers might taken issue with the doctor's destruction of the Vampire. Might he not have stunned her, in order to preserve the last survivor of a vanished race? I don't know if this possibility occurred to Roddenberry and the other writers. To me it seems likely that if they thought of it, they would have dismissed the notion in favor of providing the audience with a violent catharsis. After all, the Vampire wasn't just a threat to a just and proper empire: it was also a creature that apparently had no difficulty with devouring the members of another intelligent species without mercy. The finished script gives no well-defined reason as to why the Vampire's kindred dies out. But since the Vampire's hand-suckers give her the power to draw salt out of living bodies, might it not be possible that her people normally sucked salt not from natural deposits, but from other living creatures on M-113? If this was the case, then perhaps the creatures on whom the Vampires preyed were over-hunted, and thus rendered extinct, thus leading to the inevitable conclusion that the Vampire Race died as a result of its own arrogance. Thus, even though in the episode's final moments Kirk meditates on the fate of the buffalo-- to which the Vampire has been explicitly compared-- perhaps the Vampires themselves were more in the nature of "buffalo hunters" who killed themselves as the result of their own excesses. Certainly this would be a good cautionary tale for any future builders of empires...

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


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

A revue-style film such as ZIEGFELD FOLLIES poses some distinct challenges to my system of categorization. There are a few sequences that flirt with ideas of the supernatural, but should any of them be taken seriously? The opening frame story shows the deceased Flo Ziegfeld, happily enjoying his lot in a well-appointed heavenly apartment, when he starts meditating what it would be like to put on one more big revue-- which, as it happens, will feature not the luminaries of the famous showman's own time, but the cream of the MGM contract players. Still, given that the film never again returns to Heavenly Flo, I feel secure in dismissing his sequence as belonging to the naturalistic version of the "fallacious figments" trope.

Most of the musical numbers and comedy routines are performed for the screen as if they were taking place on Ziegfeld's imagined stage, so that for the most part, the diegesis supports the idea that they're not phantoms of his imagination, but hypothetical real players going through their paces-- which also means that they are naturalistic by nature. I'll get to the one exception shortly.

The opening musical number, "Here's to the Girls," is so over-the-top that it verges on outright fantasy. Dozens of female dancers parade around the stage in rose-petal pink outfits, enough to make even the more ardent lovers of the color become worn-out. It's supposedly a salute to femininity, at least in its most passive aspect-- except that it takes a weird turn with the appearance of Lucille Ball-- still deemed an MGM beauty, and years away from becoming known as a comical hausfrau. She joins the parade of "pretty in pink" dancers, but then diverges into the company of another group of females, all dressed in black cat-suits. Lucy cracks a whip around their heads to keep them in line, but as the still below shows, they can still display their claws in front of their mistress.

I don't know if most viewers in 1946 made any correlation between whips and cats (and a synonym for cat that has another intriguing meaning). Yet I could well believe that the film-makers were having some fun with some light lesbian imagery, confident that the audience would be titillated without exactly knowing why.

I'll pass over the possibility of analyzing most of the other sequences, none of which are quite as eye-popping as the opener-- except for the one number that, by itself, would fall into the phenomenal domain of the uncanny.

":Limehouse Blues," the film's longest number, follows an unnamed Chinese man (Fred Astaire in "yellow-face") as he wends his way through London's Limehouse district, notorious as a haven for criminals, Chinese laborers, and Chinese criminals. He spots an elegant Chinese beauty (Lucille Bremer, also with Asian makeup) and follows her. She gazes longingly at an ornate fan in a shop-window, and then passes on. Astaire inquires about the price of the fan with the shop-owner, but finds the price beyond his means. Back on the street, he gazes at the fan, seeing in it a possible key to the lady's heart. Then a small gang of smash-and-grab thieves break into the shop-window, and try to flee while exchanging shots with the London bobbies. Astaire reaches for the fan, accidentally put into his reach by the thieves' actions-- but this action spells his doom, as he's fatally struck by a bullet. The remainder of the number shows the Chinese man dreaming about a happy, dance-filled union with the object of his affection, before he wakes to dreary reality, and his own demise.

Short as it is, I would dream Astaire's dream-sequence "uncanny" because, in contrast to the other numbers, it's being imagined by one of the characters, and goes beyond the bounds of what one might reasonably expect of an ordinary dream. Were "Limehouse Blues" a short of the same length, it would fall into the uncanny domain. But within this revue-structure, the uncanny mode is overpowered by the great majority of naturalistic sequences.

I should comment also on my choice of Fryean mythoi. Only a few sequences are comedies in the usual sense, in being focused on outright humor, and "Limehouse Blues" is certainly in the vein of drama. However, the majority of the musical numbers are devoted to celebrating feminine glamour. in such a way that it would usually be taken as a validation of heterosexual union, even if the opening number is a bit problematic on that score. Thus, even when there is no actual romance in a given number, as in the concluding song "Beauty," I tend to see all such glamour-celebrations as indicating the successful union of romantic interest-- and this aligns, for reasons Frye also expounded upon, with the mythos of comedy.


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic // marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I'll make the allowance for the possibility that this movie seems worse than it is because it may've received a bad dubbing-job. But it still seems like an incoherent mess, and I did find one online review that asserted that most chopsockies by director Joseph Kuo follow a similar pattern.

The one noteworthy thing about SHAOLIN BROTHERS is that it's the closest I've ever seen to a film in which two plot-lines are really fundamentally separate, even though the film makes a piddling effort to unite them. Beside this film, even a jumble like 1967's CASINO ROYALE seems well organized. I gather than 1970s Hong Kong films had no outlet for "anthology films," so Kuo simply took two unrelated plotlines-- possibly one being shot for an unfinished feature?-- and spliced them together.

The film starts out in the domain of the marvelous. While opening credits are still rolling, we see a small group of Chinese "hopping vampires," complete with Buddhist ofuda (paper talismans) hanging over their faces, bouncing down a night-time village street. A voice-over tells the audience that in medieval times it was deemed important for the bodies of the deceased to be returned to the villages where they were born. Well and good, but the voice-over DOESN'T tell onlookers that these particular corpses have been re-animated by a Taoist mortician, who for some unexplained reason doesn't simply load his corpses in a wagon. Instead, he revives them so that-- they can hop all the way to wherever they're supposed to go. I've only seen a small handful of "hopping vampire" films, but I have a feeling that this "custom" is entirely the invention of the film-makers. Not that this in itself is necessarily a minus: a lot of non-canonical folklore makes for interesting cinema. But SHAOLIN BROTHERS, having come up with this bizarre and thoroughly impractical notion, has no idea what to do with it.

All of this corpse-nonsense appears long after the film establishes its principal, largely naturalistic plot, based on the struggles between the loyalists of the vanquished Ming Dynasty and the evil turncoats of the triumphant Ching Dynasty. As I don't have access to character-names, I'll call the hero Good Ming Guy and his opponent Bad Ching Guy. (The latter is played by Carter Wong, one of the few 1970s martial-arts stars who remains recognizable to non-specalists like myself). There really are no "Shaolin brothers" in the story, but the hero and the villain trained under the same mentor, so I guess that makes them "brothers," even though they don't call each other that. Also, when the film does show the mentor, he doesn't look like a Shaolin monk, but like some old Taoist herbalist living in the hills.

Anyway, Bad Ching Guy wants Good Ming Guy to join forces with the Ching forces. Good Ming Guy refuses, and they fight. Bad Ching Guy wounds his opponent with poisoned needles, apparently hidden with the belt worn by the villain, and stolen from their former master (and what would a Shaolin monk be doing with a belt full of poisoned needles?) Good Ming Guy goes on the run. His sister and some of his other allies ramp up their attempts to overthrow the Ching forces, though it's not clear whether or not Good Ming Guy was already allied with some counter-revolution. Later on, we finally see Good Ming Guy with his mentor, who informs him that he can slow down the effects of the poison, but it'll still kill the hero in nine days.

One of the rebels is killed fighting the Ching soldiers, and this provides a tenuous excuse for bringing in the Taoist mortician with his traveling parade of corpses. One of the rebels brings the dead guy to the Taoist, who says he never makes one of these night-time journeys unless he has six hopping dead people. The story-telling becomes extremely murky here, but I think two or three of the rebels fake their own deaths so that they can go along with the mortician's procession and avoid scrutiny by the soldiers. All that I can say for certain is that one or two of the vampires are real, though they don't do anything but hop about, disappear, and annoy people, and that at one point three of the "vampires" whip off their paper talismans and run off.

By film's end we finally get back to the main conflict, as Bad Ching Guy mops up the floors with all of his rebel-opponents, Good Ming Guy shows up, says something incoherent about the golden rope-weapon he wields, and then somehow sets the villain on fire. The two of them tumble into a river and the "brothers" perish together, while the mourning sister looks on. Frankly, though her fighting-scenes are brief, this actress (seen in the still above) is the only one who perks up the routine battles. Some sources identify as Lung Chung-erh, but Hong Kong Cinemagic is perhaps more reliable, listing her as "Chin Meng," with only three or four other credits to her name.

Frankly, I wouldn't have spent this much time writing about this stuffed Shaolin duck if it hadn't been a challenge to classify. In most films with any vampires, hopping or not, the main characters are intimately concerned with either fighting or avoiding them. In SHAOLIN, the real vampires have no effect whatever on the main story, and so I've come up with a new category for this sort of metaphenomenon: the "peripheral-marvelous."

For that matter, it's not entirely clear whether or not any Oriental weirdness makes it into the main plotline. Hong Kong cinema is certainly replete with all sorts of odd gimmicks, and the poison-needle belt might have been one of these. However, it's not clear that the belt fires the needles, or just has them embedded in it. Similarly, if the golden rope has some sort of power, this too is not clear, any more than the possibility that the old master works any magic to slow the hero's fatal demise. Since director Kuo didn't bother to enlarge on any of these matters, by default I'll deem the main plot naturalistic.

Saturday, July 16, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Looking at the IMDB listing for Harry Alan Towers' production credits, this movie-- also known as BLAST-OFF, and originally titled JULES VERNE'S ROCKET TO THE MOON-- seems an odd duck indeed. Towers' resume is filled with a lot of action thrillers and horror films, and in my experience most of them were poorly made time-fillers. What I've read of Towers' bio is that he was a consummate deal-maker, forever jaunting around the European continent making deals to get movies made. The result is that many of his films-- particularly the Fu Manchu series with Christopher Lee, for which Towers is probably most famous-- display a polyglot of nationalities in their production credits.

FOOLS probably wasn't much more expensive than Towers' other productions, but it gives the illusion of luxury thanks to its multi-star cast-- Burl Ives, Terry-Thomas, Troy Donahue, Daliah Lavi, and Gert Frobe, just keeping to those who had enjoyed starring roles previous to this 1967 flick. A closer look reveals that the film remains chained to a few basic locations and doesn't invest much in spectacular effects-work, in contrast to THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, which came out two years previous from an unrelated production company. Did Towers have some notion of "upping his game," of becoming one of the more mainstream movie-makers? It's a tempting notion. But Towers had just come out with the first two Fu Manchu films in the two years previous-- both directed by Don Sharp, who also helmed the adventures of the Asian mastermind-- and he would make three more in the ensuing years, as well as his incredibly dull COUNT DRACULA. So if the producer entertained any thoughts of mainstreaming his work, they probably didn't last very long.

I haven;t read the Verne novel on which this is supposedly based, but it's been said that the film's a loose adaptation at best. The meandering story is all about assorted characters-- mostly British, with a couple of other nationalities mixed in-- attempt to experiment with burgeoning new technology, some of which has nothing to do with firing rockets to the moon. For instance, Terry-Thomas's character gets hold of a magnetic pool ball designed to cheat at pool, while Gert Frobe perfects a helmet with a little cannon on top of it. But when the rocket-project gets going, that becomes the common theme that draws everyone together. The ticking clock is that leading lady Daliah Lavi, affianced to prospective rocket-pilot Troy Donahue, knows that the incompetents behind the project are going to make a fatal shambles of everything, so she seeks to prevent the launch. Though the main borrowing from Verne is the idea of using a cannon to shoot a capsule to the moon, the general comic attitude toward all the learned bumblers is also very Vernian.

Only in one scene does this lightweight movie assume some weight, if only by accident. A group of the bumblers are about to test a new explosive by setting it off in the countryside. Donahue, whose girl has just floated away in a balloon, runs up looking for help. The explosive goes off, and everyone is felled by a massive wind that knocks them down. Given that the fifties and sixties were the height of atomic-bomb cinema, I find it impossible to think that the film-makers weren't aware of the parallel to the first atomic test. But the scene in FOOLS-- in which no one suffers more than ruffled hair and clothes-- is oddly reassuring. It makes one long for the halycon days of Victorian technology, when humankind had yet to "become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds."

Friday, July 15, 2016


CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

A few reviewers have commented that this Italian-West German giallo may have had some influence on the growth of the American slasher-genre in the 1970s. Of course the key trope of SOLANGE-- in which women are obsessively stalked by a serial killer-- was nothing new even in the early 1960's.

Director and co-writer Massimo Dallamano started out his career as a cinemaographer. This certainly explains why SOLANGE looks beautiful even when very ugly things are taking place. However, a lot of cinematographers who take up the director's profession don't evince a strong sense of story-- and so it is with SOLANGE, despite being based loosely on one of Edgar Wallace's popular thrillers, THE CLUE OF THE NEW PIN.

The viewpoint character is Rosseini, a married teacher who's having an affair with one of his teenaged female students. While the two of them are canoodling in a boat, they float past a forested area ashore, and the student sees the flash of a knife. Sure enough, the next day a young woman, also an attendee at the girls' college where Rosseini teaches, is found dead. As more girls die, police attention turns to Rosseini. He and, ironically enough, his betrayed-but-still-loving wife must play detective and find the real murderer.

While no one expects the characters of a giallo to be especially well-rounded, those of SOLANGE are unusually flat, while the mystery proceeds in a plodding fashion. Dallamano is so concerned with pretty surfaces that the main attraction of the subgenre-- gruesome yet imaginative murders-- is not developed. I won't reveal the film's one ingenious "reveal" at the end. But I will note that SOLANGE departs from the general PSYCHO-pattern of the killer who slays out of sexual frustration, and even spreads some of the evil deeds to the female of the species. However, the script is too slack to suggest the level of societal corruption one finds in the superior giallo films.


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

This low-budget chopsocky depicts the avenging arc of Yim Wing Chim, a young woman left homeless when an evil agent of the conquering Manchu Dynasty kills off her whole family. She desires vengeance, and seeks out the Shaolin monastery to get the training she needs. One little problem: the monastery is only for guys, who typically practice their kung-fu moves with their shirts off.

Fortunately for Yim, the abbot suspects her identity and gives her a special form of training apart from the other students, so that she doesn't have to reveal herself as a girl. One of the young male students figures out the truth and becomes her chief helper, though no actual romantic complications ensue. For those interested in the female-centered martial arts discipline known as "wing chun," Yim gets some of this training as well as the film wends its routine way toward vengeance on Kang, the Manchu's chief hit man.

Kang is the film's only source of metaphenomenal content. Like some of the other kung-fu characters I've mentioned in previous reviews, he has an uncanny "body-hardening" power, so much so that Yim can't cut his flesh with a sword. In addition, he uses his long hair-queue as a weapon to confuse or entangle people. The Shaolin abbot explains his power as the result of this Taoist monster drinking "children's blood" to gain more power-- a rare trope in my experience, as most such martial "powers" are usually explained through breath control and so on. Maybe the long forgotten scriptwriter had a mad-on for Taoists?

Thursday, July 14, 2016



I BURY THE LIVING belongs to a small collection of decent films directed by Albert Band and written by Louis Garfinkle in the late 1950s, long prior to the period when Band became best known for turning out repetitive formula-flicks for son Charles Band's production companies.

I've examined here many "phantasmal figuration" films in which villains dress up in ghost-costumes. The hidden villain of BURY, however, creates a phantom that's purely of the mind, in order to play upon the mind of viewpoint character Bob Kraft (Richard Boone).

Kraft is a very down-to-earth businessman with a good job and a regular girlfriend. There's just one drawback to the job: due to familial obligations he's expected to perform some minor managerial duties at the local cemetery. In the main office he encounters the means by which the phantasm is conjured forth: a cemetery-map showing in detail which graves are occupied, and which are yet to be filled. Black pins are stuck in the former: white pins in the latter. By mistake, Kraft sticks a couple of pins in the points where their still living owners are supposed to be buried later-- and they promptly die.

I won't discourse in detail on the way in which the villain decides to use this odd coincidence to his own ends, partly because the set-up doesn't really track that well. But like most such films, the act of raising the spectre of uncanny fear is more important than the logic of the plot behind it all. Kraft, the stolid businessman, can't resist repeating the same action, putting black pins in the points assigned to the living-- with the result that the persons indicated pop off. It doesn't help that one of the local lawmen wonders aloud if it's possible that Kraft may possess some unconscious power that dooms men, in the same way that Haitian sorcerers doom their victims by sticking pins in dolls.

It's a paper-thin premise, but it's relatively original in content. That said, without Richard Boone's strong performance, I don't imagine anyone would bother to unearth the film.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Though the Italian-made HUMANOID isn't a good film, or even a good STAR WARS rip-off, I'll say this for it: it chooses to swipe from elements in the Lucas film that other rips-- notably producer Roger Corman's 1983 SPACE RAIDERS-- didn't even seem to notice. It's quite possible that the scriptwriters-- including Aldo Lado, who directed the film under the pseudonym "George Lewis"-- were leery of any legal ramifications for modeling their story too closely on George Lucas's then-recent blockbuster.

I pointed out in my recent review of the original STAR WARS that compared to most of the SF-films that preceded it, the narrative showed genuine respect for the made-up religion of the Jedi Knights. Most SW-imitators barely acknowledged this aspect of the original film, preferring to churn out cheapjack imitations of the film's space-skimming ships and blazing ray-blasters. Mediocre though THE HUMANOID is, the story does focus on a "spiritual odyssey" of sorts.

In contrast to WARS, HUMANOID starts out with the good guys still in control. Earth, which for some reason has changed its name to "Metropolis," is ruled by "Great Brother." Great Brother's own brother Lord Graal-- never seen without his imitation Darth Vader helmet-- was exiled to another quadrant with his pet mad scientist Doctor Kraspin and his sadistic wife Agatha (who likes to drain young women of their blood for the same reason as Elizabeth Bathory; to keep herself forever young). However, during the group's years of exile, they've built up their own private army, and Kraspin has come up with a new weapon: a missile that will change ordinary human beings into super-powerful humanoids.

Keep in mind that at the time this movie was put together, not even EMPIRE STRIKES BACK had appeared There were really no intimations in Lucas's first film that suggested the Empire's attempts to come up with clone warriors: a subject that would blossom in the "prequel trilogy" beginning with PHANTOM MENACE.

Kraspin chooses to use his test-missile on a large-bodied, but entirely ordinary, "planetary inspector" named Golob. Golob, who is initially bearded, is struck the missle, which not only changes him into a mindless colossus but also gives him a clean shave. After Graal turns some of his own soldiers loose on the hulk to confirm that he's now immune to "nuclear shells," the evil lord sends Golob on a mission to kill Great Brother, and one of his foremost female aides, Barbara Gibson.

The fly in the villains' ointment is that even though Golob easily plows his way through every armed soldier in his path, the power of the spirit is more than he can handle. For reasons that escaped me, Barbara just happens to be entertaining a guest: an Asian boy nicknamed Tom Tom. The kid wears an outfit like that of Luke Skywalker but possesses the spiritual power of Obi Wan, for he successfully manages to overcome Golob's programming and turn him into an ally, albeit one who talks like the Hulk: "Barbara-- my friend."

Nothing daunted, Graal's forces kidnap Barbara while simultaneously planning to use their special X-element to create a horde of superhuman warriors. Golob, Tom Tom, and a Han Solo-clone with the un-evocative name of "Nick" invade Graal's sanctum, destroy the X-element, rescue Barbara and flee before everything blows up. In the coda, Golob re-transforms back into a human being, and even somehow gets his beard back in one shake of a lamb's tail. Oh, and Tom Tom reveals that he's some sort of reborn Tibetan sage who came to the future to help out, and promptly invokes his powers to zip back to his previous existence on Old Earth.

Again, I emphasize that when I say that there's a "spiritual" side to HUMANOID, I'm not saying that it's well executed. Still, there is a basic "religion vs. technology" motif here, in that technology turns Golob into a mindless myrmidon, while Tom Tom's mental magic reforms him to some extent. Golob possibly owes his name to the cinematic version of The Golem, which like Fritz Lang's film METROPOLIS is best known from its silent-film origins. At the same time, Golob is set up to recapitulate another archetype dear to the hearts of Italians: the badass muscleman who can toss lesser men around like matchsticks, and who is most often seen in dozens of Hercules and Maciste films.

The action-scenes are watchable if never really exciting. Some of the film's charm for modern viewers may stem from watching its few big-name actors slumming in this low-budget production, such as Barbara Bach and Arthur Kennedy. However, for me the most fascinating thing is that though the performances aren't necessarily all that great-- least of all from Richard Kiel as the Herculean Golob-- they are all unusually low-key. I for one am used to seeing the actors in low-budget Italian SF chew the scenery outrageously, as in 1978's STARCRASH. In contrast, director Lado-- whose talents were better used for giallo like 1971's SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS-- seems to have encouraged the players to keep the mugging to a minimum.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016



"Driven [to suicide]? That *sounds* like a woman, doesn't it?-- Doctor Watson, THE SPIDER WOMAN.

THE SPIDER WOMAN remains one of the best of Universal's "Sherlock Holmes" series. It borrows liberally from different Conan Doyle stories, so that it can't be regarded as a straight adaptation, but it does so in order to give the cinematic Holmes his first formidable female opponent-- "a female Moriarty," as Holmes puts it.

Gale Sondergaard isn't even seen on-camera for the first twenty minutes of the movie, but her "cruel, feline" nature is suggested by the widespread menace of the "pyjama suicides." Holmes has left London on vacation, but he tells a worried Watson that he's done with crime because of a serious illness. And as if to reinforce the extent to which the forces of evil are now in control, Holmes appears to die, and Watson spreads the news of his beloved friend's demise.

Of course, it's a ruse, directly borrowed from Doyle, and if anything, director Neill's depiction of Watson's reaction to the detective's trick is better than the one in the Doyle story. Holmes is almost psychic, not only in knowing that the schemer behind the apparent suicides is female, but also that she's too cautious to reveal herself unless she thinks London's foremost detective is out of the picture.

Holmes uses his disguise-mastery to assume the role of an Indian prince, in order to lure out the mastermind. Swanky Adrea Spedding (Sondergaard) shows up to make the prince's acquaintance, yet after one or two encounters, she shows that she has much the same astuteness as the Great Detective. She tests her new conquest, learns that he's an impostor, and instantly intuits not only his identity, but the fact that Holmes' death was greatly exaggerated.

Twice in the film the "Spider Woman" (as Holmes names her) makes attempts on the lives of Holmes and his partner-- first, with a poisonous spider, and second with a device designed to time-release a poison gas. In addition, she also makes use of a pygmy who poses as a young boy. Between the use of malefic animals, poison, and an exotic native, I found myself lumping her in more with Fu Manchu than with Moriarty-- which is all to the good, since a female knock-off of Moriarty wouldn't have been nearly as appealing.

There are dozens of fine character touches throughout the film, which I won't bother rehashing, The most interesting, though, is the ending. After Spedding and her thugs have been handed over to the bobbies, one half expects Holmes to deliver some pontificating speech. Instead, as he and Watson move through the gaiety of a carnival, Holmes soberly reflects that at any time, someone could take their lives in such a chaotic atmosphere. It's a mordant touch, suggesting that even though the Spider Woman has lost her battle, what she represents-- Death itself-- will soon win the war.


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

Though I called the eighth FRIDAY THE 13TH installment as "a big mess," I could wish that it had finished off the Jason series. However, I suppose if these two place-holders had not made some money, the far superior FREDDY VS. JASON  would have languished forever in development hell. So in a sense, that film's escape from hell depended upon the Hockey-Mask Horror "taking the H-train."

However, the train doesn't leave until the film's end, and I could hardly even regard this film's monster as having any relation to Jason Voorhees. Director/co-writer Adam Marcus gives no indication that he's ever seen a FRIDAY film, nor that he knows anything about the character's monstrous appeal. In fact, I suspect that he researched the wrong films to make this one; that he chose to screen HALLOWEEN II and ALIEN in order to come up with this much bigger mess.

Some Jason films dealt with what I termed "the transference of evil," in which Jason seemed to mirror the obsessions or destinies of other characters. But aside from the character's relationship to his dead mother, Jason wasn't much of a family man; he had no special interest-- unlike Michael Myers-- in pursuing other members of his genealogical tree. He also had no direct relationship to any aspect of Christian mythology, and has never been viewed in the vaguely Satanic terms allotted to Michael, accused of being "pure evil."

The film begins without any linkage to Part Eight. Jason is seen stomping around Crystal Lake, but for the first time, the forces of law and order are waiting for him. They blow the serial killer to pieces, which would suggest that they know he's something more than human. Yet the officers then act like they've just blown the hell out of an ordinary mortal, for they cart his remains to the nearest morgue instead of trying to incinerate the Jason-pieces. A morgue doctor examines the remains, but the disembodied heart of Jason proves that it has some strange power over the mortician, for the guy devours the heart and thus becomes the vessel of Jason. Later in the film, it will be revealed that even though this version of Jason can occupy other bodies, they can't serve as permanent vessels, since his spirit burns them out. He can survive, however, if .he manages to possess the body of a near relative. This Jason is also able to separate from a host-body in quest of another one, taking the form of a gross little worm that looks like a distant relative of the newborn alien from ALIEN.

There's also a monster-hunter named Creighton Duke who somehow knows the whole story about Jason but can't convince anyone as Jason starts his murderous body-hopping-- and even then, he only convinces a young fellow named Steven. Steven becomes one of the series' few male antagonists for Jason, and actor John D. Le May-- formerly of the unrelated-but-from-the-same producer FRIDAY THE 13TH THE SERIES-- gives the best performance in this dismal, gory flick. Duke's main purpose is to be an ersatz Van Helsing, arming Steven with knowledge and a special weapon, a mystic dagger that can send Jason to hell-- but only if he's stabbed with it by a family member, sort of the reverse of Jason's rule about only finding new life in a relative's body.

Aside from Le May's performance, and a slightly tougher-than-average female lead in Jessica, the grown daughter of Jason's half-sister, the film is dull even amid multiples scenes of violence. Jason is duly consigned to the Bad Place, and this climax is slightly enlivened by a quickie reference to the proposed crossover with Fatal Freddy-- though it took another ten years for said crossover to come to fruition.

JASON X is a slight improvement, but only because it dispenses with the ALIEN crap. Purportedly the scriptwriter chose to send Jason into a futuristic SF-scenario in order to keep from conflicting with the proposed Freddy-Jason script, set in a present-day time-frame.

This time government officials are a little more clever about dealing with Jason: once they find that he's a supernatural thing that can't be killed, they plan to cryo-freeze the killer and send him into space. Unfortunately, Jason breaks free and only gets frozen because a female technician lures him into the freeze-pod, sacrificing herself to get rid of Old Hockey-Mask.

Over four hundred years later, the population of Earth has left the polluted planet, and no one has come across the cryo-pod and its contents. But students seem to seek Jason out no matter how well he's hidden, and a field trip of future-students lands at Crystal Lake and brings the pod back to their spaceship. Jason and Rowan both come back to life, and Jason starts killing. He encounters some opposition, a team of space marines led by a tough guy named Brodski, but they too are slowly picked off.

In X's best scene, KM-14, a female android who serves one of the professors, upgrades into a super-warrior and blows Jason to pieces-- though both crew and students don't have the sense to collect the pieces and dump them into space. Jason re-integrates-- happily, with no ALIEN-worms involved-- and also assimilates some of the ship's metal components, becoming a "Heavy Metal Jason" who can no longer be wounded by KM-14's weapons.

The android doesn't get the honor of dispatching Jason in the end; that goes to tough marine Brodski, so that even though his is a pyrrhic victory, the nature of the conflict is intense enough to enter the combative mode.

Saturday, July 2, 2016




While this film may have debuted in American markets under the title BEACH GIRLS AND THE MONSTER, the TV-title, MONSTER FROM THE SURF, captures the nature of the film far better. While there are both beach girls and beach boys who are under attack, the monster is the star of the show.

Whenever the first half of any film leaves open the question of whether or not the monster is real or not, it's almost a guarantee that one is not dealing with a genuine marvelous presence. The script, principally by Joan Gardner (best known for animation voice-work), dutifully draws upon the standard tropes of 1950s monster-flicks, in order to suggest that the "Beach Killer" may be the mutation of a naturally occurring aquatic creature, but I doubt that anyone who saw the film back in the day was fooled for a moment.

Another "tell" is that the main characters are involved in a psychodrama that almost begs to be the root of all the trouble.

Young Richard Lindsay-- ostensibly a teen, though the actor was pushing 30 in 1965-- is living it up with some fellow cavorters on the beach, when one of the girls is caught alone by a seaweed-bedecked monster. He claws her to death and disappears, after which Richard returns to the beachside home he shares with his father, acclaimed oceanographer Otto Lindsay (Jon Hall), and two others.
There's some tension between Richard and Otto; Dad wants his son to stop lazing about with beachcombers and to follow in the oceanographer profession. However, far more conflict is in the offing with the other residents of the beach house.

One is Otto's wife Vicky, who is portrayed as being much younger than her husband (though ironically the actress was only about ten years Jon Hall's junior). Vicky has been cheating on Otto and Richard hates her for having betrayed his father. Vicky for her part enjoys taunting Richard, trusting that he won't say anything that might hurt his father, and there's a slight suggestion that she'd like to make Richard in addition to her other covert conquests.

The other is technically an ally-- and maybe a symbolic projection-- of Richard. For some time, Mark, a slightly older friend of Richard's, has been the Lindsay's live-in house-guest. (Mark's age is not stated but the actor was ten years senior to the one playing Richard.) Mark was a passenger in Richard's car when the young man's careless driving resulted in a crash, causing Mark to limp from a permanent injury. Thus Richard has talked his father into giving Mark free room and board while the latter pursues the art of sculpting. On top of all that, Mark has succumbed where Richard has not: he's evidently slept with Vicky. For her part, she's constantly going out at night without her husband, making it clear that she has no intention of being bound to anyone.

No candidates for monster-imposture are presented to the audience except Mark and Otto. There are slight indications that Mark might be the culprit-- when Vicky torments him with her plans to go looking for fresh game, Mark mangles a clay sculpture of her face. But in due time Mark is seen walking the beach while the creature preys on another teen-- leaving only Otto. Otto in monster-garb promptly kills off both Vicky and Mark, flees the police in a car (though still half-garbed in monster-wear), and dies in a car-crash.

The film, photographed by an unbilled Radley Metzger, is pleasant to look it if never compelling, least of all in the repetitious scenes of teens dancing and singing on the beach. The psychodrama of the Lindsays is the film's main strength, resembling something along the line of HAMLET crossed with DOCTOR JEKYLL.

While Shakespeare's Hamlet may or may not desire his mother and hate his usurping uncle, Richard doesn't consciously want anything to do with Vicky. Still, some Freudian displacement isn't impossible. As I mentioned before, Mark may be nothing but a projection of something Richard would like to do, given their status as close friends. On the other hand, Mark's leg-injury, while present mainly to give him a reason to share the Lindsay house, can't help but invoke dozens of other older-men figures whose maimed legs signify a loss of potency-- a loss that apparently extends to Otto, since he can't keep his young wife satisfied.

In addition to playing Otto, Jon Hall was the director of the project, and the only major name in the cast aside from that of a musical credit attributed to Frank Sinatra Jr. In a sense Otto is the "Hamlet" of the story, but if so he's Hamlet I, still a king in theory but also being cuckolded by a wife with a wandering eye. In addition, his ambition to see his son take his place in the family business is threatened by Richard's smell-the-roses attitude after his brush with death. Thus the transgressions of his young wife and the young people dancing on the beach become the same target in his mind, just as all the things that bugged Henry Jekyll led him to transform into Mister Hyde and take bloody vengeance.

MONSTER doesn't really exploit any of these "treasure-tropes," though, and given that Hall is said to have financed the picture, it's surprising that he didn't have his part built up more. Did he find himself in the unenviable position of doing a reverse-take on the William Asher "beach films" of the time, but with the older man being a figure of terror instead of a bemused elder? Or maybe he just thought that the cavorting beach girls were the film's main attraction.

The world will probably never know, or even care.


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

Sometimes the aesthetic failings of a bad movie provide more insight to a critic than any average well-polished effort. Upon recently re-screening Ralph Bakshi's 1992 COOL WORLD, I found myself moved to write two separate essays about it, even though it was an utter flop that allegedly sank whatever was left of Bakshi's feature-film career. In this essay, I devoted some thought to the way the film inadvertently reflected some of the broad outlines of the history of animated cartoons in America. In this essay, I'll consider the film itself, not so much for what it is but what it might have been.

There have been umpteen films whose logic doesn't scan when examined carefully. COOL WORLD is in a different category from any of these, for most films make at least a show of consistency. From start to finish, Bakshi, despite attempting to emulate the success of 1988's WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, makes no effort to provide the viewer with any logic as to the workings of a world where animated cartoons mingle with living human beings.Given that Bakshi showed nearly no concern with explicating the tangled skein of his story for the viewers' benefit, it seems pointless for me to try to recount the few plot-threads that make up the movie-- particularly when there are reviews online which have provided yeoman service in trying to untangle the mess, like this one from I SPIT ON YOUR TASTE.

What I'm doing here, rather, is exploring the thematic ramifications of what Bakshi wanted to do the original idea behind COOL WORLD-- an idea he was forbidden to pursue, according to numerous write-ups like this one-- and what he ended up making instead. Nathan Rabin in the aforementioned link describes Bakshi's original idea thusly:

he sold his idea for a horror cartoon about a hip underground cartoonist stalked by the half-animated offspring of an ill-fated tryst with a cartoon sexpot to Paramount.

We as viewers will never know whether or not Bakshi's original idea would have made a good film or not: the filmmaker's productions had always been, to say the least, rather uneven. But like most of his earlier works, the idea is a more hard-edged rendition of more mainstream themes. ROGER RABBIT teased the viewer with the idea of sex between human beings and toons, and yet defused any scandalous potential, the better to soothe audiences who expected something that didn't stray too far from the mainstream. Early in ROGER, Eddie Valliant shows the titular rabbit evidence that Roger's wife has been "playing patti-cake" with Roger's boss, but the joke is that she really is just playing patti-cake with the guy. The gag simultaneously illustrates Roger's twisted toon thinking-- to him, his wife's playing parlor-games with another man is as much a betrayal as her having illicit sex (if not more)-- and it keeps the audience's adults from having to explain a sexual tryst to their young'uns.

There's no such "out" in Bakshi's original idea: sketchy as it is, it's clear that Bad Things Happen when a living human being, or "noid" (short for "humanoid") has sex with a toon (or "doodle," which is Baskhi's more irreverent version of the same thing). "Doodle" is a clever turn of phrase, reflecting Bakshi's interest in scatological humor ("doodle = doody.") I suspect that even if Bakshi had finished the film he wanted to make, his "Cool World"-- whether it would have been a separate universe, or just "the bad side of town"-- would have been roughly the same sort of chaos that appeared in the finished 1992 film. In the completed Cool World, the cartoon-verse is cool only in the sense that it's a place of no consequences. Doodles in the Cool World beat each other up, piss on each other, and apparently can have produce babies after having sex, though doodle-children seem to be be just as weird, as perverse and as invulnerable to real harm as any other doodles. It's a world devoted to the Freudian Id running wild at all times.

Not having access to Bakshi's original script, I can only speculate on the reasons why the half-human child of the "underground cartoonist" would have been royally pissed off at her father. Would the guy have been a deadbeat dad, who deserted a pregnant doodle-mom? This was certainly be a stock formula in film-melodramas since the silent years of cinema, and one that applied not only to forbidden liaisons between the differing classes, but also between White Americans and non-whites. The script-kernel strongly suggests the horror of miscegenation, and since Bakshi himself has claimed that he spent his adolescence enjoying an easy familiarity with his Afro-American neighbors, I'll speculate that he may have intended to satirize the fear of miscegenation that so frequently surfaced in American's middle and upper classes.

If Bakshi had any such intentions, they went out the window when his producers saddled him with a new script, written by two guys who had enjoyed their biggest writing-hit with 1982's POLTERGEIST. To the scripters' credit, they did at least keep the basic idea of the forbidden nature of noid-doodle sex, but instead of focusing on one cartoonist pursued by his half-breed offspring, the rewritten COOL WORLD deals with two male human beings being subjected to the temptation of curvaceous doodle-dolls.

Frank (Brad Pitt) is introduced first, though he turns out to be more of a supporting character, as well as the "superego" to the Id of the Cool World. He's first seen as a young man in 1945, shortly after the end of World War II. which in a generational sense makes him something of a "father-figure" to the other male, though Pitt was actually younger than his male co-star. A traffic accident injures Frank and takes the life of his mother. Immediately following this trauma, Doc Whiskers, a weird scientist-doodle in the Cool World. uses his new invention, "the spike," to spirit Frank into the doodle-dimension. Despite joining the doodle-universe, Frank remains a living human being, and he's almost immediately appointed the head of law-enforcement in Cool World. Much later in the film-- too late to help orient the viewer-- it's revealed that Frank only has one law to enforce: no sex between humans and doodles. It's loosely implied that sometimes other humans cross over into Cool World even without the intervention of Whiskers and his spike, but Bakshi spends no time on such petty details-- even though, since Frank's the only "noid" we see among the doodles, it seems a little like he's set up only to police himself. Sure enough, again disturbingly late in the film, it's revealed that in the 40-plus years since his transition, Frank regularly hangs with a doodle girlfriend, but that neither of them have transgressed on the Cool World's one prohibition. Ah, the rectitude of the "Greatest Generation!"

Enter Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne), a guy who's spent years in prison for an act of passion: murdering a man who'd been sleeping with his wife. Momentous as this act might be in the life of a real human being, no further details about the wife or her lover come up again: Deebs is really in prison only so that he can fantasize about his ideal woman. Perhaps in the abortive story-idea, Bakshi had some idea of the underground cartoonist having coitus with a being drawn by his own pen: certainly this would be a familiar, if onanistic, idea often seen in underground comics. But in COOL WORLD, Deebs' creation-- a blonde bombshell named Holli Would-- is not really something he's created; she's existed in the doodle-dimension for some indeterminate time, long before Deebs draws her to help get him through his woman-less confinement. Strangely, Holli waits until Deebs's last day in prison to draw him into her dimension-- perhaps to avoid competition with three-dimensional women? At any rate, as soon as Deebs is in the Cool World, his naivete makes it probable that he will eventually have sex with Holli-- whom Deebs thinks he's created-- even though Frank makes token attempts to keep Deebs from making this Big Mistake.

 What's the Big Mistake, since this time it has nothing to do with spawning unwanted hybrid children? Well, it's more along the lines of Lovecraft than anything. Holli, for reasons that are never clear, cherishes the desire to cross over into the mortal world and become mortal herself, which she can only do by having sex with a human "noid." Perhaps needless to say, Holli succeeds and makes the jump to the other world-- at which point Frank belatedly reveals to Jack that Holli's presence in the real world could destroy both dimensions. Even when Holli successfully transforms into a living human being (Kim Basinger), the transformation isn't stable, as she sometimes morphs into a clown-version of herself-- an implicit mockery of her feminine charms. perhaps. But by dumb luck Holli stumbles across Doc Whiskers, who has also made the transition (long after the viewer has mostly forgotten who he is). He directs her to "the spike," which may be able to stabilize her. Frank tries to stop her and Holli kills him, which finally emboldens Jack to pursue her. Once Holli gets the spike, regular human beings start turning into hideous doodle-versions of themselves-- except for Jack. He transforms into a hyper-muscular superhero, complete with an absurd adenoidal voice, and after some struggles against Holli's conjured-up cartoon-demons, Jack manages to restore the disparate dimensions into a status of "separate and unequal."

This climax is the only part of COOL WORLD that makes up for the general tedium and incomprehensibility in the beginning and middle sections of the film: once Bakshi gets himself past all the scenes that required some degree of exposition-- for which Bakshi usually substitutes some form of cartoon-havoc-- he's free to let the demons of Cool World run riot. filling the screen with their Cthulhu-esque chaos. To be sure, both Deebs and Frank remains flat characters from start to finish, so there's no sense of invigoration when Deebs gets his act together, nor any sense of tragedy when Frank dies. Not that Frank really dies, for in yet another last-ditch revelation, "a noid killed by a doodle becomes a doodle." Thus Frank is reborn into cartoon-form, and is finally able to unite with his doodle girlfriend. Holli's punishment for almost destroying two worlds is quite underwhelming, too. Deebs-- who has permanently transformed into the superhero-doodle, even though he Deebs WAS NOT killed first-- has decided to make Holli into his new wife, and the last shot shows Doodle-Holli sitting around discontentedly, now unable to get out of Doodle-World and, for good measure, stuck with a cloddish superhero husband.

It's an unholy mess of a film, and it's hard to avoid the thought that in composing such an ode to freeform nonsense, Bakshi was cutting off his nose to spite his face. He took the formulaic script and gave it no more cursory attention, but even though the film's failure may have embarrassed the interfering producers, it certainly did the animator's career no good whatever.  But then, as I mentioned in the other essay, Bakshi's role as the "Crown Prince of Adult Animation" was bound to lead to some sort of usurpation by the forces of mainstream marketing. There could be great potential in the basic vision of a cartoon-verse where all of humankind's illicit desires run riot. But COOL WORLD, like the hybrid-child of Bakshi's original idea, ends up more like a "doodang" than a doodle-- a doodang being a beast that literally does not know whether it's fish or fowl.