Monday, December 31, 2018


CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

I'll probably never read the Marie Belloc Lowndes novel that gave rise to the various film versions of THE LODGER, so I've only spotty information on how close they are to the source material. I've been informed that Lowndes, though she drew upon the 1888 "Jack the Ripper" murders, renamed the killer in her short story "the Avenger," which is the name he was called in the famous Hitchcock silent adaptation, reviewed here. I commented on how exigent circumstances kept Hitchcock from following Lowndes in portraying the mysterious lodger as a killer, and how instead the same character became in Hitchcock's film an innocent victim of mob rule. A 1932 remake, THE PHANTOM FIEND, had it both ways, both indicting mob rule but providing a definite monster, in contrast to the silent work:

Hitchcock chose to diverge from the Lowndes novel by placing all of the dramatic emphasis upon the unfairly-accused lodger, and the offscreen capture of the Avenger appears as little more than an afterthought, making it possible to clear the lodger. Someone involved in the 1932 script-- possibly Novello himself, who allegedly made script-contributions-- apparently decided that the original ending didn't provide much of a payoff, and so the story is substantially altered to involve Angeloff in the capture of the Avenger. Arguably some viewers may find this development more capricious than Hitchcock's conclusion. Yet the altered ending has one advantage" the "perilous psycho" is a real presence in the film, rather than a chimera-- and for that reason the Elvey film registers in my system as belonging to the uncanny domain.

Director John Brahm and scripter Barre Lyndon dispense entirely with the victimization angle, and bring in the name "Jack the Ripper" for the first time. That said, the script doesn't seek to duplicate the particulars of the Ripper killings, least of all in his targets, who are actresses of Whitechapel rather than prostitutes. Yet from the first night that the tormented-looking Mister Slade (Laird Cregar) becomes a lodger in the private home of the Bontings, it's clear that he conflates actresses with the "scarlet women" of the Bible. To be sure, it's clear that the actresses in turn-of-the-century England are selling sex on occasion. Slade's landlady Mrs. Bonting seems to have no problems with actresses showing off their goods in racy dances like the can-can, not even when one of them is her own niece, Kitty (Merle Oberon), who resides in the same house.

Not surprisingly, while the Ripper can murder the scarlet women with impunity, it's not so easy for him once he meets Kitty personally, and begins to care for her in his demented way. At the same time, Kitty has a suitor who's a police inspector (George Sanders), following the pattern of the Hitchcock film in this regard. However, though there are references to mobs panicking over the Ripper's rampage, the film is closer to PHANTOM FIEND in emphasizing the peril of the killer. It's probably sheer coincidence, but FIEND just happens to give its lodger a twin brother who is the real Avenger. Slade also has a brother, but the brother is long dead, and Slade makes a point of showing his landlady a portrait of his beautiful but deceased sibling, as if the brother's face proved an anodyne to the charms of scarlet women. The script never explicitly identifies Slade's psychosis as arising from a homosexual fixation on his own brother. Still, if Slade is homosexual, he seems to have some hetero currents in his makeup as well. When Sanders's inspector descants on the nature of the Ripper's serial killings, the murders are made to sound much like a man satisfying himself sexually. Later, the inspector deduces that Slade's brother was "ruined" by a scarlet woman, and that after the brother killed himself, the Ripper took his first victim, the woman who brought about the adored brother's death. Nonetheless, it's not impossible, given Slade's later demonstrations of fascination with the feminine, that the motive for the first killing became subsumed by Slade's desire to kill for his (hetero)sexual pleasure.

Yet Kitty is different. As the police finally conclude Slade's true identity, they close in on him as he confronts Kitty. He clearly desires her as something more than a quick one-off, even though he wants to "cut out" the evil within her, which viewers understand to be his own evil. Recurrently Lyndon's script resorts to images of water that presage Slade's final doom, as well as his wish to escape the dark currents of his own contradictory personality.

I'm sure I'll also never read the source-novel for HANGOVER SQUARE, but then, to 20th-Century Fox the original work was merely a vehicle through which they could seek to duplicate the box-office success of THE LODGER. Purportedly this was exactly what lead-actor Cregar did not want when he lobbied for Fox to adapt the story. But once more the studio called upon the same director and scripter, Brahm and Lyndon, to convert the original thriller into the barrative of a psychologically aberrant serial killer. In addition, the setting of the novel was also changed to one much like that of THE LODGER, and George Sanders was once more tapped to play a character who eventually figures out the killer's identity.

However, if LODGER may be a little too pat about identifying the source of its killer's psychotic rages, HANGOVER avoids making any conclusions whatever. Indeed, the first killing is never really explained. For reasons unknown, classical composer George Bone (Cregar) gets into a row with a Scottish shopkeeper, later characterized as a fence for stolen goods. Bone, going into a frenzy, kills the shop-owner and starts a fire to cover the murder. After he escapes, Bone seems distracted and amnesiac, not responding when passersby see that he has a bloodied temple. Later, his friend Barbara, who knows all about his recent spate of blackouts, consoles him, even when he half-suspects that he may have done someone an injury during the recent blackout.

Little if anything is revealed about Cregar's character, except that he's known Barbara, since childhood, and that he's driven to get ahead in the musical world. Surprisingly, there's little if any sense that Barbara has any romantic interest in Bone, nor he in her. They seem more like sister and brother than anything, and they share a common love of music, as she's keen for him to finish an important concerto that can make his reputation as a composer. Bone, whose entire life seems devoted to his art, consults with Doctor Middleton (Sanders) in order to solve the problem of the blackouts. Middleton almost makes a connection between Bone and the recent murder, but the connection proves insupportable and the doctor simply recommends that Bone relax and take in some entertainment.

It's at this point that HANGOVER moves into deeper sociological waters than did THE LODGER. Bone takes in a show at a pub and becomes enthralled with a mediocre female singer, Netta (Linda Darnell). Netta for her part figures out that Bone's skill with musical composition can translate into greater money and fame for her, so she talks him into using his talents to write her popular songs.

The film doesn't spend a lot of time with this elitist theme-- that of popular entertainment sucking the life out of high art-- for its main focus seems to be that of Bone's erotic fixation upon an indifferent, conniving love-interest. It's quite as if scripter Lyndon decided to dramatize the unseen relationship of Slade's brother with an evil woman. Netta has no interest in Bone personally, finding him a bore, though she does seem to revel in her power to manipulate him. At one point, he tries to reject her, telling her that he no longer believes that she cares for him and that London is full of other songwriters. Yet Netta still tries to keep Bone within her feminine "net" a little longer, as if anticipating a better moment to destroy him.

Bone's own murderous rages aren't the result of erotic suppression alone-- in addition to the unexplained slaying of the shopkeeper, the composer also strangles a cat, though it is a creature he associates with Netta. In place of the pat psychologizing of LODGER, HANGOVER has Bone killing out of spasms of violence, loosely but not consistently connected with loud, discordant sounds. Yet Bone's own music often draws upon discordant chords, and so one wonders if Lyndon had in mind some loose parable of the artist's main problem: that of being drawn to the impure world of common life, even while seeking the sublime joys of art.

Yet. even if Lyndon's script seems slightly dismissive of popular culture, with the music-hall songs having none of the effervescence of similar numbers in LODGER, the author roots the film's most famous scene in the "pop culture" of archaic religious practices. After Bone strangles Netta, he again seeks to dispose of a body with fire, this time in a bonfire prepared for Guy Fawkes' Day. It can be fairly objected that no corpse would be more than charred by the heat of a bonfire. Still, the scene in which Bone situates the disguised corpse of the singer amidst the dummy-victims representing the fiendish anti-monarchist plotter Guy Fawkes has a special resonance. As the blaze goes up, the crowd cheers--- and even though viewers know that the ordinary citizens are not implicated in Bone's crime, the celebration still takes on the air of a pagan sacrifice, not unlike that of the Celtic Wicker Man.

The Fawkes scene, as well as a concluding scene in which the mad pianist plays his concerto in the midst of a fiery cataclysm, are the standouts, but John Brahm suffuses the entire film with a masterful use of closeups and crane shots, easily exceeding the excellence of THE LODGER. In closing I should mention that this time, in contrast to LODGER, the detective figure is more involved in abetting the madman's crimes. Middleton's recommendation that Bone take in common folk's entertainments has the fortuitous result of severing Bone from Barbara as well, giving Middleton a clear track with the young lady. Further, though Middleton is recommended to Bone by Bone's doctor, and thus the two haven't known each other long, at some point Bone conveniently reads a Middleton-authored essay on the practice of thuggee strangulation-- and this is one of the ways the mad musician uses to assault the two women in his life, though Barbara survives and Netta does not.

Thursday, December 27, 2018


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

I probably wouldn't have given HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA a second look except for doing my "monster mash" series on OUROBOROS DREAMS. I remembered HOTEL's first entry as a dull-as-dirt example of a monster spoof, and a second viewing did nothing to change that opinion.

The franchise originated with comedy writer Todd Dunham, and clearly his only agenda was to turn his kid-friendly monsters into a multimedia phenomenon. With the help of the star-power of Adam Sandler and various other Hollywood "names," HOTEL is now due for its third bigscreen movie-iteration, which proves that the establishment in California isn't the only place where "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."

What will never leave me is the memories of seeing Sandler's abrasive persona crossbred with the Bela Lugosi Dracula, further crossed with Lenny Bruce's stand-up imitation of Lugosi (reputedly the source of the "bleh bleh bleh" schtick that this film so tiresomely recycles). Sandler's Count Dracula becomes the epitome of that favorite trope of kid-vid: the Terminally Uncool Father. This Dracula doesn't suck on people's necks; he just sucks generally. Since in modern times monsters have become increasingly marginalized by encroaching human culture, Drac has pioneered a hotel for monsters, where they can get away from their troubles with humans. (There's no telling what these difficulties might be; the script clearly doesn't want to allude to either monsters doing monster-ish things or humans retaliating, the better to soothe easily scared rugrats).

This Count is also a one-man vampire: he married long ago, but the wife is conveniently dead, leaving Drac with one familial problem: his daughter Mavis, who's just come into her teendom by reaching the ripe old age of 118. Drac doesn't want Mavis ever to check out of the antiseptic bubble he's created for her in Hotel Transylvania, much less to have any romantic entanglements with persons of the opposite sex. Rather than being the Overbearing Father who wants his darling daughter to marry a Monster in Good Standing, Drac wants to keep Mavis a kid forever. However, a human teenaged boy, Johnny, wanders into the hotel, and Drac is forced to weave a web of lies to keep Mavis from becoming fascinated with human culture.

This predictable storyline would have been tolerable if the Bayrham-Smigel script had managed to do anything witty with the monsters. But they too are just Uncool Middle-Agers, some of whom have lots of annoying monster-rugrats-- which I assume was something that kid-viewers found enormously appealing. For this big kid, the only half-witty line appeared when one of Dracula's zombie servants tries to sneak away with a mannequin, and Drac tells him to leave the dummy alone. Presumably the scripters knew that they could get away with one quick adult joke, as long as it came and went so quickly that the kids wouldn't notice.

For many reviewers, I'm sure it must've seemed like an exercise in futility to create a feature-film version of the venerable cartoon adaptation of Doctor Seuss's HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. Still, this is far from the worst remake ever.

For one thing, while the script is just as pedestrian as that of HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, the actors make some real attempt to enliven the proceedings, in part because the Price-Seaman script has to create a lot of new stuff in order to fill up two full hours of screen-time. This includes a "how the Grinch came to be" origin, including one Josh Ryan Evans as the green fellow at age eight, and-- in contrast to Seuss's original story-- some scenes in which various Whos, "both the tall and the small," aren't always as nice as they are in Seuss. Christine Baranski has some nice scenes as the Grinch's never-before-revealed Whovian inamorata, while Taylor Momsen acquits herself well as "Cindy Lou Who," who's a little more than two and given a lot more to do.

But of course, if one doesn't like the idea of Jim Carrey in this role, GRINCH is a dead loss. I'm not always a big fan of "Manic Jim Carrey," but I'm constrained to observe that by 2000 he'd proved that he could do more subtle roles-- notably 1998's THE TRUMAN SHOW-- and that there would really be no point in a toned-down version of a tall, furry green guy given to snarky humor (whose Karloffian accent comes and goes at a whim). Given how often Carrey is on film in full regalia-- often wearing other clothes on top of his furry outfit, or performing complicated physical stunts-- the comedian's sheer athleticism deserves some respect.

GRINCH isn't as touching as the original story or as amusing as the Chuck Jones cartoon, but it's never dull to look at-- and that makes it atypical for the oeuvre of director Ron Howard, one of the visually dullest long-term directors of all time. I tend to credit his art directors-- nominated in 2000 for best art direction-- for bringing Whoville to life, and even making it a little less sanctified than it is in the Seuss book. (In some ways, the Whos are a little more status-driven, perhaps closer in spirit to the good doctor's Sneetches.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2018


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

I've been finding that a lot of the fantasy/SF adventure-manga of the 2010s-- with occasional exceptions like the BLACK CLOVER series-- shows a tendency to emphasize elaborate designs over strong characterization and backstory.  SERAPH OF THE END, a two-season anime show (with one OAV I have not seen), is one of these lesser entries, though at least it's not as thoroughly incoherent as DATE A LIVE.

Possibly the original SERAPH manga expounds better on the narrative's post-apoc cosmology than the anime. In any case, I suppose the showrunners didn't think anyone cared about fine details, given that the story starts out by killing off ninety percent of the human race due to a man-made virus. However, the storytelling is so slack that initially I assumed that the story's "villains," a race of effete aristocratic vampires with jokey in-names like "Tepes" and "Bathory," were created by some mutation brought on by the virus. Later episodes indicate that the vampires may have always existed in the shadow of humankind, and that the decimation allows them the chance to emerge and make human beings into their "livestock."

The principal character, Yuichiro Hyakuya, is first seen as a middle-school youth being raised in a vampire-run orphanage, wherein all of the orphans have the same surname, actually derived from that of the orphanage. Yuichiro-- "Yu" for short-- is your typical tough-talking brat, but he's strongly bonded to his fellow orphans despite his pretense to lack of fellow-feeling. However, when the vampires decide to "play with their food," Yu is the only boy who escapes the slaughter. Though there are five other kids in Yu's "family," only one, his buddy Mikaela, gets much attention-- reason being that he's the only one the narrative keeps in a semblance of vampiric life.

Providentially Yu is taken in by the Japanese Imperial Demon Army, which is attempting to break the stranglehold of the vampires' reign. Having lost his family, Yu wants to be a lone wolf striking out at his bloodsucking foes, but the teen's mentor, Guren Ichinose, insists that first Yu must learn to cooperate with a squad of experienced soldiers. The psychological myth here is pretty simple: despite his trauma from losing one family, Yu can only prosper by binding himself to another family, this time made of peers with the power to defend themselves. Further, it's later disclosed that at some point in the past, army doctors experimented on Yu to give him special powers. The experimentation has the unfortunate effect of sometimes changing Yu into a destructive berserker, and again, he has to learn discipline to protect his squad-- to say nothing of experiencing new trauma when his former friend Mikaela, who's continued to dwell with the vampires but who does not bond with their villainous ilk, shows up on Yu's radar once more.

The matter of "special powers" is the weakest link in the SERAPH cosmology. It's loosely implied that the only reason that the Demon Army can fight the vampires at all is because the soldiers have been trained to use big, bad-ass weapons-- swords, scythes, guns, bows-- which channel the power of real, supernatural demons. How humans came to channel demons through weapons is never explained, nor is their any explanaton when the viewer starts seeing vampires use the same sort of fantastic weapons. In fact, it was only through a DVD commentary that I learned that the vampires "feed" their weapons with their own blood, rather than making soul-deals with the resident weapon-demons. This would explain why so much of the serial's melodrama revolves around the human soldiers endeavoring to empower themselves against their enemies, but without turning themselves into demon-possessed vehicles, who would implicitly be just as hard on humanity as the vampires.

Despite all the melodrama, Yu and his support-cast are pretty simplistic types. There's a Loyal Friend to Yu, who duplicates some of the appeal of Mikaela in the hero's new family; there's a couple of girls interested in the ferocious loner; there's the mentor who believes in constantly busting his student's balls to make him succeed. Only one character, a guy named Shiho, doesn't feel too shopworn, in that he's the hero's rival, always quarreling with him about one thing or the other, though inevitably he and Yu become just as strongly bonded as anyone else in the squad.  For that matter, the long-deferred meeting between Yu and Mikaeala doesn't really pull any dramatic heartstrings that I haven't felt in a hundred similar SF-melodramas.

Finally, the closing episodes toss in a handful of poorly conceived Judeo-Christian myth-references. Because of the special experiments performed on Yu, he is the titular "Seraph of the End," which just means that he can call upon a host of new powers. Oddly, he also becomes known as "the King of Salt" because he can turn people into salt or make weapons out of salt, which seems like a rather involved reference to the Old Testament fate of Lot's Wife.

Visually, SERAPH's action and costume design is worth watching. As a story, it's got no new tricks in its bag.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

MARVEL'S IRON FIST: EPISODES 6-13 (2017), 1-10 (2018)

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

Having reviewed just the first five episodes of this now cancelled series here. I don't have a whole lot to say about the remaining eight episodes of IRON FIST's Season 1. Though I disagreed with most of the prevailing fannish ire against the series, I would concur with many fans that the first season suffered in being a set-up for the DEFENDERS series, which was not capable of balancing so many disparate Marvel-Netflix characters-- to say nothing of the problematic idea of using the Hand as the "big bad" for both IF SEASON ONE and DEFENDERS.

Season 2 is at least an improvement in its handling of the Danny Rand identity of the titular hero. Throughout the first season, Rand varied from being a Taoist contemplative type a la Kwai Chang Caine to a hero given to extreme temper tantrums. With the Hand out of the way, Season Two concentrates on the more low-level exploits of Danny and his girlfriend Colleen Wing, attempting to find their place in New York's Chinatown.

The duo still fights various criminal gangs, but the "big bad" for the season is Davos, one of Iron Fist's former friends from the mystical city of K'un-Lun. In the original comics, Davos, a.k.a. "Steel Serpent," stole Danny's "Iron Fist" power from him, went berserk for a while, and then self-destructed so that the hero could get his power back. This doesn't exactly indicate a particularly complex villain, but it does allow for more development of the supporting characters. Misty Knight, originally partners with Colleen Wing in the comics, becomes bonded to Colleen in this season, and their alliance is at least decent if not quite as well-done as the original version. Typhoid Mary, one of the "ambivalent villains" from the DAREDEVIL comic, is transplanted to the IRON FIST milieu to good effect, though Joy and Ward Meacham remain useless time-killers.

There are also a few nice "shout-outs" to the comic-- Davos and Danny first duel wearing the cowls that the comics-character always wore-- but on the whole some of the scripting choices seem to have no real point beyond changing things up from the original to establish the TV-show's independence. The conclusion, which transfers the Iron Fist power to Colleen instead of back to Danny Rand, seems like little more than virtue signaling to feminists.

Friday, December 14, 2018


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

VAMPIRE CIRCUS, while not among the best of the seventies Hammer films in terms of its story, boasts a far stronger visual style than most films in that oeuvre. Though credited as an original story, it bears more than a little resemblance to Charles Finney's sardonic 1935 novel THE CIRCUS OF DOCTOR LAO, in that it concerns a circus full of weird beings who visit a rural town and uncover the residents' secret sins. Indeed, CIRCUS has more in common with the Finney novel than did the 1964 SEVEN FACES OF DOCTOR LAO, which translated Finney's ironic concerns into a more comical and sentimental effort (though, truth to tell, I like SEVEN on its own terms).

CIRCUS takes place in a Serbian village named Stell. The script doesn't trouble to explain the provenance of a vampire nobleman, one Count Mitterhaus, who resides in the requisite castle, and his activities seem to come as a big surprise to schoolmaster Muller. One moment he's gamboling around the countryside with his wife Anna and their little girl. The next, Anna steals away with the kid and heads straight for Mitterhaus's castle. It's not clear whether or not the count used mesmeric powers to summon Anna or not, but once she's there, she eagerly gives up her own daughter for the count to drain dry. Mitterhaus then rewards Anna with a long sex-session, while Muller rouses the local men of the town to help him invade the castle. Muller and the other locals catch Anna and Mitterhaus in flagrante delicto, but the vampire puts up a good fight before Muller stakes him. However, the Count curses the whole village of Stell as he begins to die.

At this point, the script shows the townfolk in a upright moral light. However, in the next scene the men of the town force the traitorous Anna to run a gauntlet, battering her with clubs until Muller intervenes. While Anna's actions are meant to be condemned-- and the script doesn't give her the "out" of having been mentally enslaved-- there's the sense that the townspeople have become tainted by their gratuitous act of retribution. Anna escapes to a secret room, where the dying Mitterhaus tells her to seek out his equally vampiric brother Emil, in order to avenge Mitterhaus.

Fifteen years later, a plague breaks out in Stell, and though the disease doesn't have that much impact on daily life, it moves the local constables to quarantine Stell, setting up armed men who will shoot anyone who tries to leave the plague-town. Nevertheless, a traveling circus somehow bypasses the quarantine. Thus the embattled townspeople are offered some apparent respite from their troubles, by watching the bizarre activities of the circus performers, having no idea that their leader Emil is a vampire.

Despite the title, though, there's not nearly as much vampirism on display as weird forms of circus-magic. Not only can Emil transform into a non-canonical animal-- a black panther-- there's also a tiger-woman, a magic mirror, a gypsy woman, a nasty dwarf, a strongman (David "Darth Vader" Prowse), and twin aerialists, a brother and sister whose every scene hints of "incest." One of the local young girls, Rosa, becomes intoxicated with Emil's charms, and one of the locals is killed by a black panther. CIRCUS doesn't attempt to construct one-on-one parallels between the repressions of particular residents and their "opposite numbers" among the performers.  Belatedly the viewer finds out that the circus-people have an agenda beyond just causing havoc, for Anna is secretly with the group, and she plans to bleed a child over the still intact body of Count Mitterhaus in order to revive him.

If CIRCUS has an overriding fault, it's that none of the characters on either side are particularly memorable. Were I to attempt to suss out who is the "star" of the show, it wouldn't be one character, but the entire ensemble of the evil circus.

Considering the financial limitations of Young's movie-- at one point he was simply ordered to halt filming, and another employee edited the movie into its finished form-- the fact that CIRCUS holds together as well as it does makes it all the more remarkable.

Thursday, December 13, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Of these two low-budget chopsockies, SHAOLIN KUNG FU MYSTAGOGUE-- also given many other names- definitely has the best title of the two. But both are just films in which martial-arts heroes are given some paper-thin motivation to ramble around the countryside back in medieval days, getting into fights with villains wielding exotic weapons. The two flicks are also linked by the fact that the weapons are so wild that I can't even conceive a modestly probable "uncanny" explanation for them, in contrast to, say, the buzzsaw-weapons seen in BANDITS, PROSTITUTES, AND SILVER.

MYSTAGOGUE (which term means a teacher of mystical doctrines) nominally concerns the transition of power between the rightful Ming dynasty and the usurping regime of the Chings. The usurpers seek the Ming prince in order to execute him, while two skilled soldiers, Shao (Carter Wong) and his sister Fang (Hsu Feng) seek to protect said prince. One of their recurring opponents is Yeun Ming, an enforcer who boasts the film's most impressive weapons: a pair of Tibetan-made knives called "the bloody birds." Not only can Yuen cause the knives to spin about like rotary wheels when he holds them, he can also toss them like boomerangs. The knives cut human flesh or cause explosions when they hit non-living targets, but the weapons always return to their wielder. (At one point, Yuen even claims "they're magnetic!")

There are also other, more uncanny phenomena. Shao's teacher (possibly the mystagogue of the title) refuses to teach him a special Shaolin move, which can defeat any enemy but causes the death of the practitioner-- and at the climax, the Shaolin monk gets the chance to show off both the move and its costly effects. Shao and Fang get trapped in rooms filled with moving walls or weapons twice. However, neither Wong nor Feng-- who both essayed much more interesting heroes in other films-- can do more than go through the motions.

REVENGEFUL SWORDSWOMAN is far from the best film in the martial-arts repertoire of Chia Ling. Yet, even though the narrative bounces around too wildly to keep track of, at least it benefits from centering upon Chia's character Hsiang, who calls herself "the Heartless Woman."

In one of the most hard-to-follow setups, Hsiang is learning kung-fu out in the country from her sifu, until one day he decides to fling her off a 200-foot-tall cliff. She survives and chases him down for an explanation. He claims to have killed her father long ago, after which he chose to instruct her in the martial arts, but fails to reveal any reason for this contradictory behavior. He then locks her in a cage and leaves her.

A handsome young man named Ku lets Hsiang loose, and seems interested in her, though Hsiang has only bloody vengeance on her mind. Ku tags along as she begins looking for her sifu. Eventually it's revealed that the sifu was lying; that the real killer of Hsiang's father was a man named "Lord Ku," who is Young Ku's uncle. (There's also a side-plot in which Ku believes that his father was killed by the uncle, but the father turns out to be alive at the end.) While Hsiang embarks on her quest, Lord Ku sends various adversaries against her and her companion, such as a one-armed boxer (a shout-out to Jimmy Wang Yu's "one-armed swordsman" series) and a female swordswoman. However, no opponent is more impressive than Lord Ku himself, who carries around two metallic skulls on the shoulders of his outfit. When he bids them to do so, the skulls launch themselves from his shoulders, fly around and bite people. The film's budget is too low to make this memorable visual touch come alive, but the film still earns some points for coming with something other than the usual swords, whips, and flails.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


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

It's far beyond the scope of this blog to address the many successes and failures of the so-called "Arrowverse," overseen by producer Greg Berlanti. My most basic overviews is that the most positive aspect of the "Berlanti-verse" is that it gets so much of the look and spirit of DC Comics right, while the greatest flaw is Berlanti's constant virtue signaling, trumpeting diversity as if it were going out of style.

There were four "crossover events" before this, but the first two focused only on bringing together the casts of ARROW and of THE FLASH. By the time the third one came about, SUPERGIRL had left CBS and was incorporated into the CW verse, even though her "universe" remained on a separate Earth from that of the other two CW heroes. The second crossover also set up the fourth CW-DC synthesis, LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, and so this motley crew joined the other three heroes (and all of their ensembles) in the next two crossovers, INVASION and CRISIS ON EARTH-X. Both of these I found mildly entertaining but as badly bloated as most comic-book smorgasbords.

ELSEWORLDS changes things up in that the LEGENDS are excluded from the plot proper, although their episode aired in between parts two and three of ELSEWORLDS and the time-traveling protagonists comment about giving the annual crossover "a hard pass." This helped Crossover Number Five maintain a little more consistency, like the comic books on which they're modeled.

Those comics, though, are not those published under the ELSEWORLDS rubric, which were all in the nature of "alternate reality" stories. Instead, this crossover is closer to the model of the annual Justice League-Justice Society crossovers of the 1960s, particularly with respect to the trope of "heroes (or other people) switching powers." This was a trope that was astoundingly popular at DC Comics, meaning that the editors of the time must've thought that the buyers really grooved on figuring out, say, why an issue of JUSTICE LEAGUE showed a bunch of scruffy crooks in the costumes of the League:

The TV ELSEWORLDS starts off with a similar, reality-rewriting situation. One day both Barry Allen (Flash) and Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) wake up, and find themselves occupying one another's domiciles. Moreover, everyone in the world looks at Barry and sees Oliver, and vice versa. Further, Oliver has the powers of the Flash, while Barry has archer-abilities, and both have to figure out how the other masters these proclivities. After much comic confusion, the two heroes decide that they may get some help in another universe, and cross over (heh) into the domain of Supergirl and her cousin Superman.

The immediate culprit proves to be mad scientist John Deegan, who in the comics goes by the supervillain name "Doctor Destiny," but he's only the catspaw of an alien plotter known as the Monitor, best known in comics for his role in the world-reshuffling event known as CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. In fact, when ELSEWORLDS wraps up, Berlanti stokes fannish expectations by announcing next year's big event, which is none other than-- CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS: THE TV VERSION.

LIke the comics that seem to have inspired this narrative, ELSEWORLDS is thinly plotted, so there's not much point in cogitating on each and every plot-twist. Like the regular episodes of the Berlanti shows, the main emphasis is always upon soap-operatic concerns, whether it's the current state of Green Arrow and his girlfriend or the ways in which gloomy Oliver is uncomfortable with Barry's sunny disposition. The big attraction is the way Berlanti's scripters play with the tropes of comics and the TV shows's mutations of them.  DEN OF GEEK outdoes me by listing all of the Easter Eggs, thus making it possible for me to concentrate only on those I deem the best:

*The fact that the Monitor gives Doctor Destiny a "Book of Destiny." The Monitor of the comics did not operate this way, but while he's holding the book, he looks like a DC character called Destiny. He was the literal incarnation of fate, who started out as a horror-comic story-host but graduated to a major player in Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN universe.

*The brief use of the theme from SMALLVILLE, also one of Berlanti's early superhero-adaptation successes.

*The attempt of the three main heroes-- Flash, Arrow, and Supergirl-- to make contact with Batman in Gotham, and their diverse reactions to his legendary status, with Green Arrow proving rather prickly about the idea of another hardcore non-powered vigilante. In comics, of course, the Golden Age Green Arrow was a tacit knockoff of Batman, and the version of Green Arrow that appeared in SMALLVILLE was allegedly second-choice when Berlanti couldn't get the rights to Batman.

*Shout-outs to the 1966 BATMAN teleseries.

*The main heroes don't meet Batman, but they do meet Batwoman, who's scheduled to join the Legends in future. At one point, Supergirl and Batwoman have a satisfactory teamup, after which the latter remarks that it was the "World's Finest" teamup.

*The visit to Arkham and a hallucinatory sequence brought on by Scarecrow's fear gas.

*The use of the name "Trigger Twins," one of DC's old western concepts.

*Good Superman meets Evil Superman (Deegan). Former's only comment: "Nice suit."

Though it's not as good as the best of the comics-crossovers, the fact that almost everything comes off well bodes well for next year's CRISIS.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

VICE ACADEMY 5 (1996); VICE ACADEMY 6 (1998)

PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *naturalistic*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

Having seen all six of these sex-and-dumb-cops flicks when they were broadcast on USA, I knew that the only reason to watch any of them was for the "babe quotient." However, the series does have one other distinction, for the series has the rare ability to make their original model, the POLICE ACADEMY series, look like the culmination of the Aristotelian unities. (Also, these two were the only one I could see for free on Amazon Prime.)

And then there's just your basic check-it-off-the-list appeal for the ardent metaphenomenalist. To the best of my recollection, the POLICE ACADEMY flicks had absurd things happen but stayed within
the realm of the isophenomemal. The VICE series-- which focuses on just two incompetent policewomen rather than an ensemble of crazy cops-- wanders back and forth between these domains, sometimes even pitting the policewomen against science-fiction menaces or supervillains.

Given that all of the films in the series have no appeal beyond hot babes and (occasionally) half-decent slapstick violence, it doesn't mean much to say that 5 is a little more inventive than most of the flicks. Candy and Tracy, whose characters boil down "the nice one" and "the bitchy one," take time out from goofing up their busts (the kind where you lock people up afterward) to investigate Heidi Ho (J.J. North), a computer game-character who translates herself into real life. Heidi's not too consistent in her motivations-- one minute she wants to screw a lot of guys for money, then she decides she wants to help a young guy (the one who called her forth) with his love life, and finally she's trying to take over the prostitution rings of the city (which are apparently made up of one pimp and two hookers). Only the performances of North and Elizabeth Kaitan, the latter playing the naive Candy, are worth watching for anything but their hottitude.

VICE 6 has no fantasy-aspects at all, and I'm stretching a point even to say that it involves any sort of "bizarre crime."  The two "flatfoots-in-heels" are sent to deposit their captain's money in the bank, get ripped off by robbers, and are accused of stealing the money themselves. They're soon cleared of these charges, but bitchy Tracy decides that prison is a good fit for innocent Candy, and frames her so that she goes instantly to the lockup, without so much as a trial!  There's not even as much slapstick as usual for one of these films, though for the last time in the series, the Nice Lady Cop is given the chance to beat up on the Nasty Lady Cop. However, it's not even a particularly good catfight. At least J.J. North knew how to sell a fake punch.

Thursday, December 6, 2018


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

Though these two Rankin-Bass animated efforts share the same year-date, they appeared separately; the first as an hour-plus cartoon special, the other as an episode in a series titled FESTIVAL OF CLASSICS. Because both have monstrous characters in them, they've been issued together, both on DVD and in an Amazon Prime package (the latter being the way I saw them).

MAD MAD MAD MONSTERS has been called a "prequel of sorts" for the same company's stop-motion animation film, 1967's MAD MONSTER PARTY. In terms of structure, MMMM is essentially a reprise of one plot-trope in PARTY: a trope involving Baron Frankenstein summoning a bunch of other monsters to attend a function of his devising. Given that MMMM is only slightly over an hour, the function has to remain pretty simple. In this case, it's that the Baron has just created "the Monstress," a female version of his original Monster. The fact that MAD MONSTER PARTY shows the Frankenstein Monster and his mate as already married is probably the only reason MMMM is styled a prequel. The Baron wants all of the monsters to join him and his creations at a local hotel, "the Transylvania Astoria," to celebrate the bonds of horrific matrimony.

Though the earlier film is stop-motion rather than cell animation, generally speaking the MMMM characters are modeled on those in PARTY, particularly the Baron. In both he's drawn to resemble Boris Karloff, but whereas PARTY had the services of the real actor, MMMM makes do with the impersonation-talents of actor Bob McFadden. However, in both productions actor Allen Swift provides the majority of the voices, monstrous or otherwise.

There isn't a lot of conflict in MMMM, so the monsters here don't have much to do aside from toss off jokes, often lame puns like calling the Wolfman "Ron Chanley." Some minor conflict stems from the reactions of the hotel-personnel to all the goony creatures, but the script doesn't really set up any funny situations. Oddly, the one monster who gets some strong development has usually had, in Classic Hollywood, the status of a "monster-stooge." In a relatively original turn, the Baron's hunchbacked assistant-- predictably named Igor-- wants to abduct the Monstress for his own. (She's also one of the few re-designs in MMMM, for this time she's a slinky if green-skinned babe whose face is hidden by her hair until the very last few minutes.) Igor is clearly locked in a sibling-rivalry complex with the Monster, and the hunchback gets the best scene in the story: abducting the Bride but being foiled when he's attacked by a stray pterodactyl. Since the 1967 flick ended with a gargantuan monster, MMMM has a pair of them, one of whom is given a name reminiscent of "Godzilla" even though both of them look like titanic Bigfeet.

While the use of the term "mad" was inevitable, what we really have is more like SILLY SILLY SILLY MONSTERS. I don't know how much appeal it would hold for anyone who didn't see it as a kid, though at least it's not lumbered with a moral message like 2000's MONSTER MASH.

Whereas most of the offerings from FESTIVAL OF CLASSICS were adaptations of familiar classics like SNOW WHITE and ALICE IN WONDERLAND, the episode JACK O'LANTERN appears to be entirely original. There are some real folkloric stories about a human who gets changed into Jack O'Lantern, but none of these seem to have anything to do with this Rankin-Bass effort.

A grandfather relates the story of Jack O'Lantern to his grandkids in modern times. Back in the days when Grandpa was a boy, and had a same-age sister, the two kids are aghast to learn that their farm may be destroyed by strange phenomena that the father calls "ghosties and ghoulies." They get the idea that maybe they could drive away the apparitions if they improve on the cornfield's headless scarecrow. The kids plan to take a pumpkin, carve a jack o'lantern face on it, and stick it atop the scarecrow. However, after getting carved the pumpkin comes alive, revealing that it grew from a seed in which a leprechaun of "the Old Sod" was hibernating for the winter. The pumpkin informs the kids that his name is Jack O'Lantern, but he seems to take to the idea of being part of a scarecrow, since he promptly sticks himself onto the scarecrow-pole. He also reveals that he knows that the apparitions have been conjured forth by two sorcerers that the leprechaun knows from previous acquaintance: Zelda the Witch and her "jellyfish of a husband," Archibald the Warlock.

Jack, though given to long blarney-filled monologues, is a good guy, so he stays in the cornfield and gives battle to the phantoms of the two sorcerers. The leprechaun has access to assorted powers-- tossing lightning bolts or throwing orange needles that look like slivers of pumpkin-- but only because he possesses an internal resource, his "pot of gold." Unfortunately, the bad magicians realize that they can triumph by holding the kids hostage, forcing Jack to surrender his pot o'gold and thus losing his powers (as well as turning into a leprechaun again). However, the fortunes of Jack and his charges improve when the farm-animals (who can talk, by the way) come to the rescue.

Finally, after Jack has saved the farm, the story ends and returns to the present, at which point the unbelieving modern kids are given irrefutable evidence that Grandpa's story really happened. It's a clever little tale, which excels in its scenes of magical combat-- thus making it a combative work, unlike its silly companion piece.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018



Speaking as a critic who makes no apologies for masculine-oriented entertainment-- which often means anything that parades around lots of sexy women-- BURIAL OF THE RATS, a Showtime cable-movie made under the rubric of "Roger Corman Presents" is an embarrassment to lovers of exploitation cinema.

Thanks to the success of 1992's BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, the Irish author's name also appeared on a few low-budget adaptations of his work. The short story "Burial of the Rats" concerns a young man in Paris who runs into a bunch of scruffy beggars and witnesses a metaphorical "burial" in which a dead body is consumed by a swarm of rodents. It's pretty thin material, even for a cable flick, so it's not surprising that Corman stuffs his adaptation with all sorts of anachronistic elements.

In BURIAL, the unnamed young man in Paris is Bram Stoker himself, who tells his patrician father that he wants to be a writer some day. He's then separated from his doting dad by a gang of thong-clad raiders, all women in thongs and bikini-tops, sometimes referred to as "the Rat Women." Bram is taken to their secret lair, where he meets "The Queen" (Adrienne Barbeau). The Queen relates her feminist agenda, possibly derived from the classical myths of the Amazons, in that the Queen brings together women misused by brothels, bad husbands, and other tools of the patriarchy. (Barbeau's character alludes to having been abused by some paternal figure in her past.) Her agenda becomes a bit suspect when the viewer sees that all of these Parisian Amazons are hot model-types, but she does have the requisite man-hatred. Bram is only saved when a sympathetic "Ratbabe" named Madeleine (Maria Ford) suggests that maybe they can use Bram to spread their legend to all of Paris, and perhaps make it easier to prey on Parisian targets. However, another Ratbabe, name of Anna (Olga Kabo), secretly has lesbian designs on Madeleine, and doesn't like seeing the blooming romance between her and Bram. Oh, and there are some rats hanging around the hideout of the Rat Women, but as in the short story, they play a minimal role until the climax, where they're responsible for devouring a body with the speed of a piranha-school.

The Rat Women-- all of whom are skilled swordswomen, though nothing explains how they became so-- do get a couple of opportunities to vent their spleen on nasty men. Yet the romance between Bram and Madeleine takes priority, and effectively spells doom to this 19th-century incarnation of the Lesbian Nation. Parisian police restore the status quo by invading the Rat Women's redoubt and dueling them all to death in a series of uninspired sword-fights, and only Bram "am escaped to tell" his contemporaries of his strange if banal adventure.

Corman has shown a proclivity for soft sexploitation for decades, running from the 1956 SWAMP WOMEN to the BLACK SCORPION telefilms that also appeared in the Showtime package. But both of the Scorpion and the Swamp Women, however risible, display a certain degree of power as well as sexiness. The Rat Women, in contrast, are never more than the sum of their exploitative parts.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018


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

In its day INDEPENDENCE DAY won a Golden Raspberry for "worst film grossing over 100 million." This seems a trifle unfair, given that most successful blockbusters are thinly plotted excuses for huge FX scenarios. In terms of depicting melodramatic characters with verve, DAY shows the writer/director/producer team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich in much better form than their previous hits STARGATE and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, to say nothing of the derivative 1998 GODZILLA.

Arguably Devlin and Emmerich are better when they focus not on one or two protagonists but on large ensembles, some of whom may get terminated in the course of the conflict. DAY is H.G. Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS for Generation X, but this time, human beings don't have to depend on germs to defeat the superior technology of the invaders. Though the aliens-- later dubbed "Harvesters"-- are a mindless swarm not unlike Wells's Martians, Devlin and Emmerich portray humans as having a more significant quality: that of adaptability. All of DAY's centric heroes show an intrinsic ability to delve into alien tech and master it with very little trouble. Some critics poked fun at the unbelievable ability of computer-nerd David Levinson to hack into the Harvesters' computer-systems, and this is a fair point. However, other characters display a similar ability to master systems with very little hassle, alien or not. Hotshot pilot Steve Hiller learns how to fly alien attack-vessels without even a run-through. Former pilot President Whitmore, having manned a desk for years as Commander in Chief, is suddenly able to call up all of his old pilot-skills with no real effort, and tragicomic victim Russell Casse becomes a hero in the war against the aliens, despite having flown only a crop-dusting plane for years. The common thread of DAY bears some resemblance to the more explicit theme of 1984's RED DAWN, which shows the ability of ordinary American teens to become "citizen-soldiers" in the face of an overwhelming menace.

Ultraliberal critics probably objected to Devlin and Emmerich's attempt to extend the ethos of the American Revolution into a worldwide principle of liberation, in which the invading aliens-- explicitly compared to a swarm of locusts-- are a menace from "outside" that brings all of the warring nations together. Nevertheless, the script brings together a wide variety of iconic images to justify the film's title. An early image of the Statue of Liberty being overshadowed by an alien vessel is one of DAY's most powerful moments. The mythology of secret government installation "Area 51" links DAY to the postwar mythology of "flying saucers," and even small references to Fourth of July celebrations, such as fireworks, fit into the greater tapestry of resisting dictatorial powers.

Of course, the Raspberry people may have downgraded DAY because it does have its share of risible moments. Shortly after the aliens destroy the White House, Levinson's quirky dad tries to play matchmaker between his son and the son's ex-wife, with the killer line, "I think there's still love there." There are other bad lines, but for me even one good line-- as when Will Smith's Hiller punches out an alien with the words, 'Welcome to Earth!"-- can outweigh all the clunkers.

The strangest thing about INDEPENDENCE DAY RESURGENCE is not just that it didn't appear until twenty years later, nor that it was, like most sequels, a rather passionless reprise of the original. What's surprising is that even though this follow-up invasion once more takes place on July 4th, the 20th anniversary of the Harvesters' victory, the script doesn't even try to duplicate any of the first film's patriotic rhetoric or its use of visual icons.

Instead, it's another military soap opera, with aliens. Dylan Hiller, stepson of the Will Smith character (written out of the series by an off-camera death), has a grudge against fellow pilot, "lone wolf" Jake Morrison. Jake lost his parents in the first invasion but has somehow managed to become the boyfriend of Patricia Whitmore, who is both a fellow pilot and the daughter of former president Whitmore. This "male bonding" is one of the sequel's weakest elements, though the romance between Jake and Patricia is at least passable. Other new characters, like an African warlord and a lady pilot from China, don't even register on the charisma-meter.

Somewhat stronger is the script's re-framing of the older characters from the first film. Russell Casse remains dead, but Doctor Okun, apparently killed in DAY, "surges" back to life, evincing a psychic rapport with the returning aliens. Thomas Whitmore, whose contact with the Harvesters in the first film was far briefer, nevertheless also feels a tingle from his "alien-vibe sense." David Levinson and his quirky dad are also back, and though I could've done less with Judd Hirsch, the other three actors-- Goldblum, Spiner and Pullman-- seem to have the most fun with their roles.

Aside from a big crowd-pleasing end-scene with a giant Harvester-queen, the invasion-FX are generally dull. There are also no standout lines of dialogue, either for good or ill. The only improvement is that, whereas as DAY tended to show women in roles of "standing by their men," RESURGENCE does put two female characters, Patricia and the Chinese pilot, into combative positions.

Though I've categorized a lot of the "alien-invasion" films I've reviewed as "dramas" because such films often focus on the "pathos" of the world's near-demise, these two films fit better into the Fryean mythos of invigorative adventure.

Friday, November 30, 2018


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

Where cinematic sequels are concerned, viewers are generally lucky if the follow-up is even roughly as good as the originating work. Serials are no exception to this general rule, and thus it's extremely rare to see a sequel turn out better than the original.

The 1948 SUPERMAN, while successful with viewers, seems to be little more than a thinly plotted reprise of a story written for the Superman radio serial. ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN was also derived from a radio chapterplay, and was executed by three of the same creative personnel who worked on the 1948 film, but the difference between the two serials is as the proverbial light/day distinction. In addition, DC editor Whitney Ellsworth represented his company's interests during both serials. Yet because the first story makes precious few attempts to emulate the mood of the comics, I hypothesize that after the 1948 serial made respectable money, Ellsworth may have had a little more clout with the Hollywood crowd, resulting in a Superman serial closer to the source material.

To be sure, Kirk Alyn's one-note portrayal of Superman is pretty much the same. However, whereas SUPERMAN played things very down-to-earth, with the hero spending most of his time rescuing Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane from the thugs of the Spider Lady, the sequel pits the Man of Steel against an "Atom Man," who wields a multitude of super-weapons fit to challenge a superhero. Further, though the Atom Man of the radio serial was not derived from the comics, in ATOM MAN the metal-masked super-villain is Superman's perpetual comic-book foe Luthor. In fact, the serial gets quite a bit of mileage from Luthor managing to convince much of the public-- though not the newspersons of the Daily Planet-- that he has reformed, and that he is actually being threatened by the New Villain on the Block. The idea of making Luthor the "secret identity" of a super-villain is one of the serial's many "shout-outs" to the primary Superman/Clark Kent mythology.

Further, this time the script goes out of its way to give Superman some larger-than-life stunts. Instead of just grabbing hoods and tossing them around, this time he rescues innocents from a burning ship, caps a blazing oil well, and gets exiled to "the empty doom" by Luthor's "space-transporter" device. In contrast to many serials, the script skillfully alternates between these spectacular feats and the more down-to-earth action (like saving Lois from falling out a window), so there's a greater sense of variety between the respective chapters. In the climactic sequence, Superman "bulldogs" Luthor's atomic rocket and sends it into the sea, and though the FX are inevitably simple, there's as much charm to this sequence as one sees in a similar climax in the 1978 SUPERMAN.

In the 1948 script, Lois Lane's primary function is to undermine Clark Kent, and her subordinate Jimmy Olsen simply goes along with whatever she tells him to do. This attitude is actually true to the first year of the SUPERMAN feature, wherein Lois felt that Clark's skill at reporting-- admittedly abetted by his super-powers-- overshadowed her own accomplishments, and she sometimes did undercut him when possible. However, Jerry Siegel didn't keep this trope running very long, at least in part because he wanted to promote a "will they-won't they" romantic feeling between Lois, Clark, and Clark's alter ego. The 1950 serial doesn't have any interest in selling romance, but ATOM MAN portrays Clark, Lois and Jimmy as colleagues who have known each other for some time. A number of small touches-- Lois celebrating her birthday at the Planet office, Jimmy asking Clark how to spell "anesthesia"-- makes the trio seem more rounded. Thus, when Superman does rescue Lois or Jimmy from peril, it no longer seems like a desperate attempt for the viewer's attention, as in the 1948 work. Further, the improved scripting gives actors Tommy Bond and Noel Neill the chance to make their characters more varied and vivacious.

In my review of the 1948 serial, I commented that its villain the Spider Lady lacked any of the charisma of the best serial villains, though actress Carol Forman had distinguished herself with a couple of much better "heavies." Lyle Talbot had played a number of heavies in his earlier films as well, but the script for ATOM MAN gives him a number of strong lines that establish his scientific wizardry and his overweening arrogance. In the last chapter, he abducts Lois and announces to her that he plans to destroy the Earth, remarking that she may soon be the last female member of the human species. Lois astutely mocks him, accusing him of wanting to create a "Noah's Ark," but Luthor calmly agrees with her assessment, showing off the spaceship on which he and his henchmen plan to escape the destruction. I suspect that this story-trope-- in which the villain more or less duplicates Superman's initiating situation of fleeing a collapsing planet-- was also original to the ATOM MAN screenplay, rather than stemming from the radio serial.

Lastly, though most serials progress erratically, leaping from one peril to another, ATOM MAN is relatively well-paced, and many if not all of the adventures proceed logically from their setups. (A particular favorite of mine is the sequence in which Lois pretends to ditch the Planet in order to work for Luthor and get the goods on him.) Even the moments that are a little on the loony side-- like Perry White insisting that Jimmy snap a picture of the oncoming atomic missile, moments before it's going to wipe out them and all of Metropolis-- seem to come about from a sense of fun, rather than poverty of imagination.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

PANGA (1991)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

The most interesting thing about PANGA, aside from racking up another decent if unexceptional Chris Lee perf, is that it was retitled CURSE III; BLOOD SACRIFICE, in response to the use of the "CURSE' title for two earlier but unrelated films. Of the three, PANGA's the only one that actually involves a literal curse.

In 1950's Africa, Geoff Armstrong and his pregnant wife Elizabeth oversee a sugar-cane farm. Geoff has been in Africa long enough to know the ways of the tribes, but Elizabeth is woefully ignorant, while her sister Cindy and her husband Robert are even worse. Cindy and Robert interfere with a witch doctor's ritual, which involves sacrificing a goat following the death of a tribal child. Elizabeth backs up her sister and saves the goat, but the witch doctor curses her and her family. In due time a supernatural sea-beast, incongruously armed with a machete, begins preying on the Armstrongs. Since Elizabeth is the viewpoint character, she lives after the others are killed off, partly due to the aid of local white doctor and magical expert Pearson (Lee).

Direction is competent but generally boring. Toward the end, Pearson is suspected of being involved in the killings, so he tells Elizabeth an unrelated story about how his sister slept with a Black African. The sister's pregnancy resulted in a half-black child that died, and somehow this also called forth the death-demon because no one sacrificed a goat in that instance, either. This backstory adds nothing to Pearson's character and is apparently thrown in as a last-ditch reminder that hey, colonial Europeans did some bad things to Black Africans. But since the story starts off by constructing Elizabeth as a well-meaning naif, this gesture toward real-world relevance is pathetic at best.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018


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

The SUPERMAN serial was immensely popular in its day, and today it remains historically important for a number of reasons, not least being the first time Superman was played on screen by a living actor. Further, given how often American serials played mix-and-match in adapting characters from pulps and comics, the first chapter treats the hero's origin with considerable reverence, allowing of course for the dimestore production values. And while comic-book editors were hesitant to incorporate kryptonite into Superman's mythos after its official introduction in a 1943 radio serial, the serial adapts this element (heh) from the radio-screenplay to good effect. DC introduced kryptonite into Superman's four-color adventures the year after the serial, and though the poisonous rock didn't become truly ubiquitous in the comics until the late 1950s, it's arguable that the serial played a vital role in encouraging the editors to incorporate what most fans consider an important part of the mythology.

Unfortunately, ninety percent of SUPERMAN's script is just mundane cops-and-robbers, and since the hero is too powerful to duke it out with ordinary criminals, the serial can't pull off what a crimefighting serial can do well: fights between the crooks and the crook-catchers. In addition, the serial pursues the same narrative strategy often seen in the actual comics: since Superman can't be harmed by most perils, the only way to generate suspense is to jeopardize someone the hero cares about: usually either Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen. However, even if a monthly Superman comic imperiled a support-character every single month, the stories were not coterminous, so readers may not have tired of this trope in that format. Even if I'd been watching SUPERMAN chapters once a week, as they were intended to be seen, I tend to think I'd still have become very tired of this schtick, particularly because the production values only allowed for the most basic cliffhangers. Only the charisma that actors Noel Neill and Tommy Boyd bring to the roles of Lois and Jimmy make these low-suspense perils halfway appealing.

True, the story follows that tried-and-true trope of serials: a villain trying to gain control of a super-weapon: in this case, the poorly dubbed "Reducer Ray" (actually your standard "destruction beam.") This trope always involves assorted time-killing plot-threads-- villain tries to kidnap the weapon's inventor, inventor delays villain by asking for special gizmos, which the villain's henchmen must seek out. This trope, however, only works well when the villain has a formidable appearance or when the actor playing him brings a lot of energy to the role. Though Carol Forman had played some visually striking evildoers in both THE BLACK WIDOW and BRICK BRADFORD, her "Spider Lady" just sits around barking orders at underlings and has no moxie to speak of. Her only gimmick is that in her (cheap looking) hideout, she has a big metal web mounted between two walls, in which she can electrocute those who displease her. Not surprisingly, this doesn't happen very often.

As for the guy making history as the "first Superman actor," Kirk Alyn is just fair in the role, projecting a breezy charm in his scenes as Superman. Unfortunately, most of his scenes show him as Clark Kent, and, since the script gives Alyn no help in developing a viable version of Superman's alter ego, he simply "plays down," perhaps trying to make Kent seem fairly subdued. However, Alyn's expression as Kent sometimes looks so constrained as to look constipated.

Lastly, though the early episodes of the serial are adequately scripted, the scripters apparently decided to get goofy in the final episodes. In the most ridiculous scene, Superman captures a henchman, but, instead of taking him to the cops, the hero takes the thug to the office of Perry White, so that the Daily Planet editor can interrogate the man. However, Superman then flies away, having done nothing to bind the ruthless crook. Does the editor call other employees to help him contain the thug? Of course not, and this allows the thug to beat down Perry and toss him out a high-rise window-- and only Perry being able to grab onto a ledge saves him from dying a really stupid death. By contrast, the climactic face-off of Superman and Spider Lady is ably if not spectacularly handled, ending the tedious story on a comparatively strong note.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Unlike some stars of Hong Kong kung-fu films, Angela Mao-- probably the best-known female representative of the genre in the United States-- didn't make many films with metaphenomenal content. Moreover, of the few that had such content, some weren't even movies that featured Mao in a starring role, as with both ENTER THE DRAGON and BANDITS, PROSTITUTES AND SILVER.
SWIFT SHAOLIN BOXER is an exception to this trend, for Mao is the featured character and gets the best fights in the story, despite the presence of the iconic Lo Lieh as a villain. However, I can't call it a welcome exception, given that it's a piss-poor story comprised of little more than jumbled set-pieces-- which is probably why it barely has any current online reviews.

In yet another indeterminate medieval-Chinese setting, Mao plays Chao Lung, a woman who helps run a tavern, using her fighting-skills as the tavern's "bouncer." She's eventually revealed to be an agent of the Emperor, who is aware of a rebel movement championed by Lo Lieh's character. The incoherent film diverges from Ms. Lung to show two other warriors passing weird tests of their kung-fu skill. One man, identified on some sites as "Emerald Headband," enters some sort of temple (maybe this is the alleged "Shaolin" connection?) and fights a gang of boy acrobats garbed in gold costumes. Elsewhere, in some rural setting, a fellow named Ho Kun (Barry Chan) triumphs over four separate opponents, including a female fighter, possibly essayed by another kung-fu diva, Chia Ling, who's billed as having a cameo. When Ho Kun succeeds in his fourth test, the woman tells him he's now fit to serve the Emperor.

However, there are agents of Lo Lieh about, and one of them kills Emerald Headband, playing a flute that causes the victim to scream and die. Though this is a pretty handy super-power, we never see it again, though at least one other agent of the Emperor is also slain by the mystery assassin.

Ho Kun makes his way to Chao Lung's tavern in order to contact her, so that they can jointly investigate the murders. Chao Lung doesn't like Ho Kun, and they fight until interrupted. Later they make amends and Chao appoints an unnamed young guy to guard over Ho Kun. The villain's agents trap Ho Kun in a cage, but Chao and her buddy break him free. There's also an incomprehensible scene in which men in zombie makeup are either real or fake hopping vampires. Either way, they have nothing to do with the plot.

Finally, out of nowhere, the villain confronts Ho Kun in a countryside studded with colorful parasols.  They fight, and just as Chao Lung and her aide show up, Ho Kun slays the villain. However, Ho Kun has only battled the revolutionary with the idea of taking over his operation, so Ho Kun promptly attacks the two loyal servants of the government. Maybe the traitor can't use his flute's magic under such circumstances, but the flute has weapons inside it, like a spear-point and a chain.  Nevertheless, Chao kills Ho in the end, though he expresses some deathbed regrets for what might have been.

In the American movie biz, filmmakers who are good at special FX or stunt coordination sometimes graduate to the director's chair, where they usually emphasize kinetic set-pieces at the expense of narrative. Since the average HK martial arts film isn't nearly this incoherent, I'd theorize that something of this sort happened with SWIFT SHAOLIN BOXER. Still, though it's merely a bad movie without rising to the "so bad it's good" level, Angela Mao's fighting-skills lift the flick out of total worthlessness.

Sunday, November 18, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*

Of all of the Universal films featuring the Great Detective, SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH sports the oddest title. While a lot of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories pose no peril to the sleuth, most if not all of the movies under this heading bring Holmes into imminent risk of his own life. Given that fact, one could almost imagine the Sherlock of FACES being forced to duel an angel of doom, or some similar specter. But FACES doesn’t even have a phony ghost, just a passing reference to an alleged spirit in the ancestral manor of the impoverished aristocratic family, the Musgraves.

Odd title aside, FACES has the distinction of being a more entertaining mystery than the Doyle story on which it’s loosely based. The case of Doyle’s “The Musgrave Ritual” is narrated to Doctor Watson by Sherlock long after the events of the case occurred, which by itself takes away some of the immediacy. Holmes’ client, a stuffy lord named Musgrave, approaches Holmes in reaction to what might be called “servant trouble.” Musgrave dismisses his butler Brunton for messing around in Musgrave’s papers, including a copy of a family catechism, the “ritual” of the title. Both Brunton and another servant disappear under mysterious circumstances, and Sherlock’s solution to the puzzle involves using the ritual to unearth an ancient English treasure.

Politically speaking, the short story pretty much adheres to the social status quo. Not so FACES. In keeping with the World War Two setting, the events at Hurlstone, the manor of the Musgraves, actually end up leveling the playing field between the classes. One change from the original story, made explicitly to appeal to wartime audiences, is that the manor has been temporarily converted into a barracks for soldiers who have returned to England to convalesce. This plot-thread doesn’t have any great impact on the mystery’s solution, but it does give the film an excuse to involve Doctor Watson with the Musgrave family. Of much more social consequence is the film’s use of the old chestnut, “young heiress wants to marry outside her class.” Thus, in place of one grumpy, landed aristocrat, we have three relatively impoverished high-class siblings, Snobbish brothers Geoffrey and Philip oppose sister Sally’s desire to marry one of the lower classes, who’s not even a native Britisher, but one of those Yanks involved in the war effort.

Though the butler Brunton still plays a key role in the mystery, the film starts off with a more momentous event: a local doctor is attacked, albeit non-fatally, on the grounds of Hurlstone. Did one of the traumatized patients go amok? But this is never really a serious possibility, especially when one Musgrave brother dies, and the other follows not long after. In fact, Philip dies in such a way as to be strongly associated with Sally-- his dead body is found in the trunk of a car when Sally’s driving it. However, given that Sally is presented as a sympathetic figure—not least because she’s marrying an American swain—Sally is also not even briefly portrayed as a possible culprit. However, the course of Sherlock’s investigations bring him into contact with the Musgrave Ritual, though in this go-round, the catechism is much more elaborate than in the short story. However, the ritual’s purpose remains the same: to pave the way to an ancient treasure, which is also the motive behind the murder. And in contradistinction to the story, where the rich are made richer by the uncovered treasure, Sally proves herself a woman of her time by casting aside the riches when it’s indicated that their use would harm the lower classes. Indeed, the film ends with Sherlock singing the praises of a new Samaritan ethic, implicitly born from the travails of the war, that will make it impossible for men to ignore one another’s suffering.

Despite some interesting visual touches—a chamber whose tiles are used as a giant chessboard, and a lightning-bolt that coincidentally causes chaos during Sally’s reading of the Musgrave Ritual—FACES is in every way a naturalistic Holmes-excursion.

Saturday, November 17, 2018


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

The 1936 serial FLASH GORDON, in adapting the phenomenally popular comic strip, proved to be a pivot -point between the old and the new. The world of American serials, dating back to 1912’s WHAT HAPPENED TO MARY, had made only occasional use of properties from other media, such as Tarzan and Craig Kennedy. FLASH was not by any means the first serial-adaptaation of the 1930s, but its unqualified success with the public guaranteed that American serials, until the extinction of the form in 1956, would invest heavily in franchises from comic strips, comic books, and pulp-magazine stories. At the same time, FLASH was among the last productions initiated at Universal Studios by that ambitious family, the Laemmles, before they were forced out by a new (and arguably less ambitious) new regime. Finally, in one department FLASH GORDON was both first and last, for it represents the only time in the sound era that an American serial was aimed at an adult audience, before the form became totally directed at young viewers.

Given how often Hollywood played fast and loose with adaptations of any pre-existing property—and not just with pulp-franchises like Tarzan, but also with literary types like Hemingway and Faulkner—it’s impressive that FLASH hews so closely to the strip, which had only been running for the previous two years. The principal plot-lines are derived from the two sequences I’ve described in this essay, though some chapters adapt the “invisible man” plotline seen in the later “Witch Queen” sequence that had concluded in 1935. Naturally, the serial did not attempt to reproduce the “cast of thousands” battles seen during Flash Gordon’s military conflict with Ming the Merciless, which had not concluded in the strip when the serial began filming, and which would not reach fruition until 1941. Thus the serial had to write its own end for its perfidious villain—albeit leaving an opening for his possible retu rn—as well as sending the serial’s starring heroes back to their native planet.rather than keeping them marooned on the planet Mongo. (Naturally, they, like Ming, returned for the sequels.) Yet almost every change Universal’s production team wrought upon the strip proved a fulfillment of the strip’s original appeal, and sometimes the changes were substantial improvements on the original.

Given that no in-depth interviews with the production team are extant, there’s no way to know who precisely made the decision to adapt the comic strip with almost the same tone of “high Hollywood melodrama” one could also find in contemporaneous adaptations of books and plays. Henry McRae, production head of Universal’s serials, certainly deserves some credit, though credit for FLASH’s flamboyant visual style probably should go to the German-born director of record, Frederick Stephani. Stephani never directed another serial, and it’s been suggested that he probably received aid in the production grind from the uncredited but more experienced Ray Taylor. Additonally, Stephani seems to be one of the few serial-directors who collaborated on scripting, in that he shares credit with three other scribes, including the noteworthy George Plympton. All of these talents seem to be united in the desire to translate to film, with as much gravity as melodrama would allow, the world of Alex Raymond, with its Burroughsian panoramas of medieval barbarism crossbred with science fiction gimmickery.

Obviously there were physical limitations to the state of special effects in 1936. Modern eyes, perhaps spoiled by the breakthroughs of computer graphics, are unlikely to see the aesthetic success of the serial, focusing only upon minutiae, like the fact that Stephani cannot, unlike Alex Raymond, make his live-action Hawkmen look like they have living wings that give them the power of flight. Yet even these qualified failures still convey Raymond’s vision of an exotic world wherein a fearless Earthman continually contends with people who have the powers or aspects of animals, and triumphs over them.

The actors, too, reflect the production team’s decision to pursue high melodrama with great intensity but without any condescending camp humor. I’m not alone in extolling Buster Crabbe to be one of the best possible castings in the history of cinema, period, and indeed, I’d rate his portrayal of Flash Gordon as an improvement on the Raymond original. Raymond’s Flash in the earliest strips is a one-dimensional hero. Forced into an arena, Flash wades into battle and tosses around his opponents, the ferocious monkey-men, like mere dolls. In the serial, Flash is no less stalwart and resolute. Yet in the arena-scene, Crabbe registers real fear when he faces the ape-creatures for the first time, and in his battle he has to sweat blood, so to speak, in outfighting these powerful beast-men. I’m not saying that I would’ve wanted to see Crabbe play Hamlet—his talent lay within a narrow expressive range—but he even has a few sensitive moments here. When Princess Aura tearfully confesses her love to him, trying to win him away from his beloved Dale Arden, Crabbe’s Flash shows more empathy for the woman’s emotional turmoil than the Flash Gordon of the comics could.

In the serial Ming, ably portrayed by Charles Middleton, is about the same as he is in the early strips: visually arresting but not yet possessing much character. However, Priscilla Lawson’s Princess Aura is a huge improvement over Raymond’s version. Raymond shows little empathy for Aura’s amour fou toward the Earthman, and the comics-artist tended to use her as nothing more than a plot-device. But both the script and the direction of FLASH GORDON play up Aura’s doomed passion for all it’s worth. She’s also a woman of action. On four separate occasions she witnesses Flash in peril, and while Dale Arden stands to one side, weeping or carrying on, Aura uses force or guile in order to save her man. As in the comic strip, Aura is eventually given a consolation prize in the form of the rebel prince Barin. However, as if to signify the producers’ secret preference for a Flash-Aura matchup, Barin comes off as rather bland, even after facing off against Flash in a blistering tournament-swordfight.

Other minor characters are artfully cast, with highest honors going to James Lipson for his rollicking effort as Vultan, King of the Hawkmen, and next highest to Frank Shannon as the always durable Doctor Zarkov. And with them out of the way, I can at least touch on the most significant change in the serial: the rendering of the comic strip’s plucky Dale Arden into a teary dishrag. (To be sure, actress Jean Rogers plays one of cinema’s best teary dishrags, faint praise though that may seem.) As I noted in an earlier essay, Dale in the comic strip was not an experienced warrior, but she was capable of independent action, and she outshone Princess Aura so much that sometimes Raymond made them look alike. In contrast, Stephani’s team went out of their way to visually distinguish the two characters. First off, the comics’ brunette Dale becomes a platinum blonde, as if to mirror Flash’s blonde locks. But as mentioned before, this Dale becomes every bit the “helpless femme” who can only scream hysterically when her lover is in danger.

The only character-monent Dale gets—and it’s a very odd, nuanced one for an American action-serial—appears in FLASH’s first chapter. The three Earthpeople, having crash-landed on Mongo, have been brought before Ming. Ming boasts that he plans to destroy the Earth, and Zarkov slyly buys time by talking the tyrant into conquering the planet instead. Up to this point Dale, who is of course wearing the prim clothes of a “nice girl,” hasn’t reacted to much of anything. Then Princess Aura, decked out in her pagan finery, pushes past some guards to stand beside her father. For just one shot—before Aura has even looked at Flash Gordon with lust, before she’s claimed him for her own property—Dale lifts her chin and gives Aura a hostile look, as if to say something like, “trashy slut.” Of course, for all anyone today knows, the actress might have been told to react as if Aura had already propositioned the Earthman. But as the scene stands, Dale comes off as overly proper. Given that the rest of the serial downplays Dale in order to play up Aura, this scene is in any case a harbinger of future developments.

In the comic strip, Dale pretends to romance Vultan in order to gain his trust, but only with the ulterior purpose of finding some way to rescue the imprisoned Flash. In Episode 6, Aura gives Dale the idea of makng up to Vultan, and Dale allows herself to be manipulated, even though it’s abundantly clear that Aura’s doing this to clear her own path to Flash. In Chapter 10, the serial reworks an incident from the comic strip in which the witch-queen Azura strips Flash of his memory, so that he makes love to her and forgets Dale. The serial has Aura slip Flash the memory-mickey, with the result that the stricken hero actually does choose Aura over Dale for a short time. Naturally Aura doesn’t get the chance to enjoy the fruits of her deception before that meddling Zarkov administers an antidote. Dale eventually wins the romantic battle, but only by being incredible passive. Some might assume that the serial’s makers were suggesting that female passivity was a prescriptive value. But that theory hardly holds up, given how much the film emphasizes Aura’s courage and cunning as positive virtues.

My explanation for the Dale-Aura change is no more verifiable than any other, but I think it fits the facts better. Alex Raymond’s comic strip was concocted in part to compete with BUCK ROGERS, which like its prose precursor, started out by having Caucasian heroes square off against menacing Mongolians. In FLASH GORDON Raymond throws in a little bit of Oriental claptrap, like giving his villain the name of a Chinese dynasty and dressing him in Mandarin robes. However, Raymmond was primarily interested in popularing his world with weird animal-human hybrids like Hawkmen and Lionmen. Thus after the first six months Raymond no longer refers to Ming’s people as “yellow men.” By the time the serial was in production, even characters like Ming and Barin, who had once been colored with a shade of canary-yellow, were depicted with the same Caucasian flesh-hues as everyone else.

By the time the serial FLASH GORDON films, no one in it looks particularly Asian except Ming. True, Aura is, though not specifically Asian, coded as an exotic “foreign beauty.” But this visual trope doesn’t necessarily signal, as Marxists tiresomely argue, an endorsement of Caucasian hegemony.

Raymond rather indifferently propounded a standard formula designed by please white readers: Asians may desire Caucasians, but not the other way round. Stephani and his fellow writers could not change the formula of the comic strip without displeasing the film’s audience. And yet, I believe that there’s some creative agenda on the minds of the filmmakers. Why, if one is playing to a dominantly white audience, would one downgrade the role of the lead Caucasian female character, making her seem helpless and a little simple-minded, while upgrading the image of the quasi-Asian exotic competition, making her much more dynamic than she is in the original strip?

There are two possible explanations. One is that one or more filmmakers secretly disliked all the “Yellow Peril” tropes in the film, and sought to undermine them through subtext: by making the romance between white man and not-white woman seem infinitely preferable to the more vanilla matchup. However, there seems no way to prove this. The other explanation rests more on the needs of entertainers trying to reach a particular audience. Possibly the filmmakers simply felt that they could generate greater melodramatic interest from adult filmgoers if the serial played up the tragic nature of Aura’s “love that was not meant to be.” I don’t suggest that 1936 female viewers would have wept for Aura the way they might weep, say, over the travails of STELLA DALLAS. But Aura’s sufferings were a trope that would be recognizable to an adult audience rasied on high Hollywood melodrama, so that all of the preposterous fantasy-elements might become more relatable.

For whatever reasons, there was never another American serial even ambivalently aimed at an adult audience, and the two FLASH GORDON serials—whose lack of earthy sexuality looks forward to George Lucas’s cosmos—would be just as juvenile as all the rest.