Tuesday, March 27, 2018


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

Both of these serials were produced near the end of the sound serial's classic period, and both show an erratic quality in the writing that suggests-- to me, at least-- that the writers knew that television was cutting in on their meal ticket, and that the serial's days were numbered.

SIR GALAHAD, for all its flaws, does try to match the event-packed gusto of the classic serials. Sir Galahad (George Reeves, still a few years away from Superman) comes to Camelot, seeking to become one of Arthur's knights. Galahad distinguishes himself in tourney-combat, so Arthur assigns him the same task by which previous knights have distinguished themselves: to remain on solitary guard-duty over the king's magical sword Excalibur. Unfortunately for the aspiring hero, a mysterious villain, the Black Knight, steals the sword, and Galahad cannot become a knight until he recovers the weapon. The hero receives some aid from comic relief Sir Bors, but he's opposed by the henchmen of the Black Knight, by Saxons who defy Arthur's reign, and, most surprisingly, by Arthur's court magician Merlin (William Fawcett).

Merlin's interference with Galahad's mission is never explained, but it's initially intriguing, just because the famed magician is usually, if not the hero of a given Arthurian tale, an ally to other heroes. One of the best cliffhangers in the serial involves Merlin trapping Galahad in a forest, where he's captured by a tree with arms (visibly a man in a tree suit)  and surrounded by "flames of darkness." Galahad is only freed by the intrusion of another sorceress, the Lady of the Lake, but her presence in the story, as well as that of Arthur's scheming half-sister Morgan Le Fay, ebbs and flows with no consistency. And to my disappointment, the script does some last-minute finagling to redeem Merlin, though the explanation of his actions really makes no sense at all.

However, even though GALAHAD lacks a strong villain, Reeves' forthright charm is on evidence throughout most of the serial, and the script is reasonably inventive in coming up with good cliffhangers, like having Galahad almost trampled by horses, or imperiling him with a moving wall of swords. The battle-scenes are well-handled, and had GALAHAD possesses a coherent script, it might now be regarded as one of the last good sound serials.

In contrast, ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN AFRICA is a patchwork mess. Apparently Columbia had the very belated idea of making a sequel to their 1943 PHANTOM serial. However, the studio no longer had the rights to use the Phantom character, so they merely concocted an unreasonable facsimile. This was Captain Africa, given an outfit with a strong resemblance to the Phantom's getup, so that Columbia could save dough by interpolating old shots from the 1943 serial whenever possible. Thus the Captain, in place of the Phantom's cowl, wears an aviator's helmet, and in place of a bodysuit, a shirt and trousers reminiscent of a football player's. Africa (played by short-lived "Lone Ranger" John Hart) has no origin, but he follows some of the Phantom's patterns, in that he interacts with a local African tribe by appearing to them in a puff of smoke, as if he's posing as some sort of spiritual being. For most of the serial, though, the Captain is involved more in North rather than Central Africa, for Columbia also wished to interpolate a lot of footage from a 1944 serial about contending Arab tribes, THE DESERT HAWK. Thus the bulk of CAPTAIN AFRICA shows the aviator-masked hero fighting bad Arabs to protect a good Arab princess.

With so much re-used footage-- some of which is used twice in AFRICA, when an episode does a "recap" sequence-- it should be unsurprising that there's no strong villain with whom Africa can contend. Hart handles the original fight-sequences well enough, but his unimposing costume does him no favors, and he gets precious little help from his support-cast.

The only really amusing thing about CAPTAIN AFRICA is, ironically, one of those footage-burning recap episodes. Most of the time, the recaps are handled by having one person tell other people about things that have already happened, interspersed with old footage. But at one point, Captain Africa decides to give his listeners a direct view of past events, by showing what happened-- in a crystal ball! (Naturally, what the crystal shows is more old footage.) Since neither the Captain nor anyone else in the serial displays any supernatural abilities, I choose to believe-- purely for categorization purposes-- that what he did was merely an illusionist's trick. The real reason behind the crystal-gazing is that an earlier Columbia serial, KING OF THE CONGO, had already made use of this schtick, though it was at least a little more justifiable in CONGO. The earlier serial had as one of its contributors writer George Plympton, and Plympton is the sole credited writer on AFRICA-- so we can fairly sure his only concern was in trying to put together a halfway credible story that served Columbia's cost-cutting purposes.

Monday, March 26, 2018



Though I've never read an Edgar Wallace novel-- and possibly never will-- I must admit that his numerous thrillers and detective stories of the early 20th century may have played some role in the evolution of the costumed superhero. Wallace seems to have made heavy use of both masked villains, with names like The Frog, and masked heroes like The Green Archer, best known for his serial incarnation.

SECRET OF THE BLACK WIDOW is admittedly not a good example with which to start, since it's not in any way derived from an Edgar Wallace work. It's simply a "lookalike" for the popular *krimis* of the late fifties and early sixties, many of which did use Wallace concepts. Thus WIDOW starts out with a murder by a singularly peculiar method: a poison-filled projectile to which the killer attaches a rubber "black widow" spider, fired by an air gun. Naturally, the mystery murderer becomes known as "the Black Widow."

In comparison with some of the bonafide Wallace adaptations from this period, director Franz Gottleib and his writers almost seem determined to camp things up, some time before "camp" became mainstreamed. Most of the actors, particularly hero O.W. Fischer, mug outrageously, to the extent that even the "straight" roles take on a comic tone. Only the heroine, played by Karin Dor of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE fame, seems to take her role seriously.

It's a lively production, though one really never knows quite what's going on most of the time. But after the viewer gets past the goofiness of the villain's modus operandi and the charms of Dor, WIDOW doesn't disclose any secrets worth knowing.

CREATURE WITH THE BLUE HAND, however, is a bonafide Wallace adaptation, and provides a lot more bang for the viewer's buck, even though like WIDOW, this film sports only one actor who became internationally known: Klaus Kinski. Here Kinski plays twin brothers, the apparently respectable Richard Emerson, and the apparently insane David Emerson, who gets locked away for having committed crimes out of insanity. Then David escapes, and suddenly other members of their family start getting knocked off by a mysterious figure with a metallic clawed glove. This "blue hand" is a family heirloom that's been in the Emerson family for centuries, and so the police initially conclude that crazy Dave has dressed up as "the Blue Hand" to kill off the other members of his family.

Naturally, that would be too simple, even for a mystery that isn't much of a mystery. It turns out that not only is David innocent, he and others have been victimized by a corrupt asylum manager, one Doctor Mangrove, who bears a nodding resemblance to Edward Van Sloan's "Doctor Van Helsing" in the 1931 DRACULA. Mangrove, in fact, is almost more of a menace than the Blue Hand, for when Myrna, sister of Richard and David, begins to investigate the crimes, he finds an excuse to condemn Myrna as insane and torment her with snakes and rats. Kinski is the primary attraction here, but director Alfred Vohrer delivers the requisite thrills with a steady hand-- probably because, unlike Gottlieb prior to WIDOW, prior to BLUE HAND Vohrer had directed three or four solid Wallace adaptations, particularly a well regarded 1961 take on Wallace's DEAD EYES OF LONDON.

As long as one doesn't pay too much attention to the phony-baloney mystery elements, BLUE HAND works fine as a wild thriller. Later an American producer concocted a film, THE BLOODY DEAD, by inserting gore-scenes into BLUE HAND's original story, but fortunately I haven't had to deal with that version.


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

In my review of Republic Studio's 1937 DICK TRACY serial, I mentioned that its idea of pitting the comic-strip police detective-- upgraded to a "g-man" by Republic-- against a virtual "supervillain" went very much against the content of the strip. The closest thing the strip had to a masked marauder was a fellow called "the Blank," and he didn't appear until October 1937, roughly ten months after the serial-Tracy contended with "the Spider."

DICK TRACY RETURNS is closer to the general content of the comic strip during the 1930s, wherein most of the villains were fairly down-to-earth, lacking the freakish features that predominated in Tracy villains from the 1940s and thereafter. In RETURNS, G-man Tracy pursues the Stark Gang, six ruthless professional crooks always garbed in plain clothes, and consisting of leader Pa Stark (Charles Middleton) and his five sons. Only in a handful of the serial's fifteen chapters does metaphenomenal content arise. In an early chapter, the Starks get involved in trying to steal the army's new radio-transmitter for the benefit of a foreign power, which would seem to indicate the extent to which even pre-war America anticipated getting pulled into the World War abroad. The invention, which seems to be the same as a later-discussed invention that combines elements of a telescope and a television, would seem to fall into the domain of the uncanny, though it functions as no more than a basic "McGuffin." Most of the time the Starks use only commonplace weapons, but in one episode, they booby-trap Tracy with a flash-camera gimmicked with tear-gas-- and this scene provides slightly better justification for gauging the serial's phenomenality as uncanny.

Such matters aside, the bulk of the serial focuses on the numerous schemes of the Starks and the efforts of Tracy and his fellow g-men to trap the crooks. As in the previous installment, the villains don't have one overriding plan, but continuously come up with new plots, usually oriented on simply making money. Middleton, who gained a measure of cinematic immortality as "Ming the Merciless" in FLASH GORDON, makes a good foil for Ralph Byrd's Tracy, particularly when, as the serial progresses, Pa keeps losing son after son to G-men gunfire. Still, given Republic's concentration on fistfights and car-chases, the potential melodrama is never realized. Still, at least all of the Stark boys are given some individuality, which is more than one can say of Tracy's assistants, particularly a rather pusillanimous version of Tracy's kid-ward Junior.

DICK TRACY'S G-MEN follows much the same pattern, except that the first and the fifteenth episodes of the serial are far better than everything in between. This time, Tracy's opponent is a full-fledged enemy agent with the rather devilish name of Nicholas Zarnoff (Irving Pichel). Zarnoff makes his debut as starring villain in a most improbable manner, for he's imprisoned in a jail cell, waiting to die for his crimes. Tracy appears on the other side of the bars, and when Zarnoff asks if the g-men thinks he Zarnoff is afraid of death, Tracy replies:

 "No, Zarnoff, you probably hold the same contempt for it that you held for the lives of others."

Thus the gauntlet is thrown down between Tracy, representing the forces of life, and Zarnoff, who is contemptuous of death and life alike. But before his execution, Zarnoff ingests a special chemical, and seems to die ahead of time. After his apparent passing, his agents revive him, and Zarnoff tells them that the death-chemical was the legacy of the "alchemists of Satan." Though in real history alchemists are not identical with Satanists, this section makes Zarnoff seem as if he's technically in league with the forces of evil, rather than just being a simple enemy agent. Indeed, the master spy makes an ambiguous remark about having "lost" some vital ingredient of his being because of using the devilish chemical-- though the allusion to sacrificing one's soul is never developed.

After this phenomenal opening, the serial settles into familiar territory, as Tracy continually prevents the spy's schemes of murder and sabotage. Regrettably, the serial makes heavy use of the practice of re-running previous scenes in order to recap earlier events, thereby saving the studio money and gypping contemporary viewers who actually followed the serials from episode to episode. However, G-MEN makes up for this debit with one of the strongest endings to any sound serial, when a crashed plane strands both Tracy and his quarry in a burning desert, where only one can survive.

Byrd is as good here as in any of his other Tracy serials, but Pichel is the real treat. He dominates every scene he's in, as much because of his presence as his Satanic-looking goatee, and for me at least ranks as one of the top ten villains of sound serials.

Saturday, March 24, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *good*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

In any arena of creative endeavor, the line between "really bad" and "really good" can shift with remarkable rapidity, to the extent that one can hardly credit that two time-adjacent works came from the same creator, or set of creators.

BANSHEE and MORGUE were both directed by Gordon Hessler, and one of the credited scripters on both films was one Christopher Wicking, who had also worked with Hessler on THE OBLONG BOX and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN. Wicking collaborated with Tim Kelly on BANSHEE and with Henry Slesar on MORGUE, but it seems improbable that Slesar's participation made the later film so much better than the earlier one. It seems more likely that the respective creators of BANSHEE approached that film as nothing more than a job, while the ones who worked on MORGUE really "got into" their work.

One of BANSHEE's big weaknesses is that it doesn't actually have a traditional banshee in it. The being that's more or less supposed to be a banshee acts much like a garden-variety Judeo-Christian demon, summoned by a witch to take vengeance on 16th-century witch-hunter Lord Edward (Vincent Price) and his family. One can't help but wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to invoke the name of a Celtic death-spirit. The best guess may be that there was some vague intent to adhere to the putative religious mythology of Celtic pagans, rather than following the lead of many earlier witch-films, assuming that pagans worshiped the devils of Judeo-Christian lore. Yet the spirit invoked is so uninteresting that he might as well have been just another Christian demon.

The supernatural entity of the tirle is not the real star of BANSHEE, anyway, but Price's Lord Whitman-- but he too is blandly derivative. A couple of years, Price essayed a somewhat similar character, based on a historical witch-hunter, in the film WITCHFINDER GENERAL. Since the film was a box-office success, it seems likely that the filmmakers hoped to repeat that success by casting the famed horror-star in a similar (but wholly fictional) role. I can picture the writers talking it up, saying something like, "In WITCHFINDER GENERAL, Price tortured and murdered people who were only accused of being witches. We'll be really original: this time Price will still torture and murder, but he'll get his from a bonafide sorceress!"

In addition, Price's Lord Edward is joined by a whole family of corrupt nobles who share his fate. Yet the wider ensemble of characters makes clear that none of the writers-- which may have included Hessler, who claimed on a DVD release that he revised the script-- had the first idea as to how to make these hypocritical wastrels interesting. For some reason the script includes a moment in which one of Whitman's sons cows the lord's wife into having sex with him-- but apparently this was just an excuse to throw in a random sex-scene, since Lord Edward never finds out and the liaison has no real effect on the plot.One of Lord Edward's daughters is in love with a lowborn servant, but this romantic arc doesn't even affect the plot all that much when the servant is possessed by the demon, making him the catspaw in killing off the lord's family. (Guess the witch thought anyone working for Lord Edward was fair game, family or not.) Overall, though BANSHEE tries to sell itself on the same combination of lust and gore seen in WITCHFINDER, even these elements are dull, and Price, easily the standout performer, turns in a by-the-numbers job.

When comparing the imaginative scope of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE with the paltry efforts of BANSHEE, one is tempted to agree with the saying attributed to many sources:

Stealing from one person is called Plagiarism, stealing from many is called Research

Like the great majority of films supposedly based on works by Edgar Allan Poe, MORGUE has very little to do with the putative inspiration. Even the 1932 Universal "adaptation" at least had a real ape in it, as did the Poe story, but this MORGUE lacks any "astounding animals," only men costumed in ape-suits. In fact, Hessler references the 1932 film by using certain elements, but only as elements in a play "within the play," so to speak.

The time is the early 20th century; the place is Paris. Most of the film's action centers around a theater that regularly gives Grand Guignol performances for the city's thrill-hungry populace. One play shows a version of Bela Lugosi's 1932 "mad scientist" threatening to torment a bound female victim by giving her over to the tender mercies of a caged ape.  However, some fiend causes one of the fake onstage murders to cause a real death. Enter the police, who investigate the theater's sole owner, Cesar Charron (a badly miscast Jason Robards) and, to some extent, his much younger wife Madeleine (presumably named for the doomed sister from Poe's "House of Usher").

The viewer knows, long before the police do, that this and other murders are committed by a man in a mask very reminiscent of the one worn by Claude Rains in the 1943 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, though the murderer's played by the actor who played the Phantom in the 1962 version. But here the masked man's motives are closest to those of the Phantom from the original novel, for the police find it very interesting that Charron's company experienced a similar botched scene roughly ten years earlier-- a scene in which Charron's former partner Rene Marot (Herbert Lom) was burned by real acid rather than the fake variety. (This element also seems to have been borrowed from the 1943 Claude Rains film.) Also, ten years ago, the two theater-partners were also rivals over a woman, which is yet another similarity to the Gaston Leroux novel. The unnamed female character, who has one child by some unknown father, chose to cleave to Marot despite his disfigurement, but supposedly Marot went around the bend, killed the woman, and then took his own life. It's not clear exactly what happened to her little daughter, but at some point, she grew up to become the adult Madeleine, at which point-- one presumes-- Charron married her.

Even if the theater-director didn't have a name suggestive of the Greek conductor of the dead, most film-viewers would probably tip pretty soon that he's the only person with a good motive for disfiguring Marot. It's also no big surprise when Hessler reveals that Marot, an accomplished illusionist, faked his death via the old "Hindu suspended animation trick" (a reference to Poe's love of cataleptics, perhaps). Marot, whose mask adroitly conceals his patches of burned skin, continues to prey on other performers, because they helped buttress Charron's testimony that Marot slew Madeleine's mother. Charron of course is his final target, though Marot, like the Phantom, has different plans tor Madeleine, essentially the reborn simulacrum of her mother (MORELLA, anyone?) Indeed, one of Charron's female friends-- possibly an old lover-- cattily remarks to Charron, "You couldn't get the mother, so you married the daughter."

Madeleine (Christine Kaufmann), usually seen garbed in white, is one of the performers in Charron's plays, and so seems destined, like a lot of Poe women, to get absorbed in the schemes of men. To Kaufmann's credit, Madeleine doesn't come off as no more than a scream-machine, though she does exist to be terrified. She even has weird premonitory dreams of the man who killed her mother, even though she's never seen Masked Marot at the time of the first dream-- and even though it's eventually revealed that as a child she witnessed her mother's axe-murder, and not by Marot. Probably to no one's surprise, particularly thanks to Robards' listless acting, Charron turns out to be the real culprit in killing his original love-object, and framing Marot for the deed. One presumes that Little Madeleine simply repressed the sight of Charron killing her mother, to the extent that it didn't even com to the fore when she started sharing his bed-- though Marot's activities cause her memories to revive. Assisting Marot, and adding to the hallucinatory feel of the film, is midget Pierre (Michael Dunn), who also makes an appearance in a sequence that may or may not be a dream.

Thus Madeleine, unlike the heroine of Leroux's novel, is caught not between representatives of age and youth, but between two older men, both with some claim to being "father-figures." Given how stacked the odds are against the heroine, it's impressive that at the climax, she manages to bring about Marot's death after the fiend has slain Charron. And yet, she isn't entirely allowed to escape the fate usually doled out to Poe-heroines.

There's been much talk in reviews about how the studio cut MORGUE for general release. However, it may be that the cuts were to the film's benefit, for this film, unlike BANSHEE, sustains a lively mix of riotous carnivalesque imagery and brooding, surrealistic dream-scenes. As a mystery, it fails. As a delirious assault on the senses, MORGUE deserves more frequent "revivals."

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

THE MUMMY (1959)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Hammer's MUMMY was the studio's third revival of a monster (or monster-maker) made famous by Universal Studios, though technically it's the fourth "Universal-influenced" outing, coming out after CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA, and REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
Hammer made other mummy-movies after this 1959 effort, but all of them remained independent of one another, in contrast to the 1959 film's inspiration: Universal's 1940s "Mummy" series, which began with 1940's THE MUMMY'S HAND. In that film, ancient Egyptian priest Kharis, who died for the love of his contemporary Princess Ananka, is revived in mummy-form by a modern-day religious fanatic who wants to punish British scientists for defiling the tombs of the ancient Egyptian dead.

Director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster, who had collaborated on the previous three "Uni-influenced" productions, may have been constrained to follow the Universal model more than they were on the earlier films, as it's been stated that Hammer made some sort of payment to Universal to avoid copyright infringement. But a more important influence on Hammer's MUMMY was that it was the second monster-film to re-team Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee after their success in DRACULA. Thus the central conflict revolves around the fate of viewpoint character John Banning (Cushing). The requisite fanatical Egyptian priest (George Pastell) somehow smuggles the mummy Kharis (Lee) all the way to England in order to kill Banning and the members of the expedition that invaded the tomb of Ananka, and Banning must find a way to survive the wrath of a walking dead man.

Given the strong focus upon Cushing's character-- who, like the lead male character of the 1932 MUMMY, seems to be trying hard to be a knock-off of his Egyptologist father-- it's not surprising that Sangster's script largely neglects the romantic interest common to the Universal films. True, this motif took different forms over the years. The 1932 film was focused almost entirely on the mummy's attempt to find his ancient love, now reincarnated in a modern woman's body. There followed the next two films, MUMMY'S HAND and MUMMY'S TOMB, in which nothing is said about finding any reincarnations, though two of Kharis's high-priest handlers fall for a modern American woman. and one of them steals a trope from the 1932 film by trying to make his beloved into a mummy-woman. Then the last two films in the Universal series once more turn to the reincarnation theme, with the bandaged killer encountering the spirit of the Egyptian princess in two more mortal vessels before the series wrap-- er, finished up.

As if to show how little this sort of spirit-hopping metaphysics appealed to the men of Hammer Studios, Sangster's script doesn't even address the topic of reincarnation. As was done in the 1932 movie, the same actress played both the mummy's former love and her modern lookalike. However, but this time the resemblance between ancient Ananka and modern-day Isobel (wife of John) Banning is accounted for by coincidence. not reincarnation. Sangster's script introduces Isobel in a very desultory manner, showing no interest in her character, for her only function in the story is to be a distraction to the near-invulnerable mummy. Hammer's treatment of female characters was often problematic, but Isobel, who boasts neither backstory nor agency, is surely one of the low points for Hammer women.

Cushing's best moments in the film are not with his confrere Lee, but with high priest Pastell, when John Banning visits the Egyptian scholar at his home and disses the man's religion, the better to enrage the high priest and cause him to send Kharis into a trap. Still, the heart of the film is to be found not in Cushing's stereotypical character, but in the mute performance of Chris Lee as Kharis. Because the mummy, like some of his Universal predecessors, has had his tongue cut out, Lee must project emotion through the formidable bandage-makeup, while using bodily attitude as much as is possible for a living dead man. The performance bears some similarity to Lee's handling of the Frankenstein Monster, though Kharis's tragic history adds a layer of emotional resonance not present in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Lee doesn't seem to have essayed another character incapable of speech for the remainder of his career, which is all to the good, since he probably could not have topped this.

Franz Reisenstein provides one of Hammer's most memorable horror-scores for this film. The overall verdict, though, is that while the 1959 MUMMY provides efficient enough thrills, and even a little sympathy for its monstrous star, it's not one of Hammer's timeless accomplishments.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

To viewers raised on CGI monsters, the "zipper-up-the-back" fiends of this 1972 telefilm probably look pretty paltry.

Nevertheless, I liked the film back in the day, as did many other "baby-boomer" viewers, at least in part because monster-costumes and puppetry were the only FX-game in town. On re-screening the film, I can see how director Bill Norton used slo-mo and other visual tricks to distract from the fact that most of the costumes, despite the participation of Stan Winston, are not that detailed. Only the one worn by Bernie Casey (see above) is truly impressive, and this stems in part from the fact that only Casey's "head gargoyle" has a speaking role.

A voice-over provides the familiar yet durable set-up: horned reptile-people, both with and without wings, have existed alongside humankind since prehistory. These reptiles are the source of humankind's legends about devils and demons, though they're always called "gargoyles" in the film, despite the fact that these medieval waterspouts are of considerably later vintage. Humans breed faster and more prolifically than gargoyles, with the result that gargoyles have had to dwell in out-of-the-way locales, like a certain desert in the American Southwest.

Pop anthropologist author Doctor Boley (Cornel Wilde) and his photographer-daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt) venture into the desert in response to a letter from a hermit who promises to show them something worthy of a book on weird anthropology. At first old codger Uncle Willie seems to have nothing more than a roadside "museum of oddities" to offer, until he shows them the skeleton of the gargoyle species. Boley, though initially skeptical, lets Uncle Willie relate his story of strange beings who have dwelled in the mountains since the Indian days. Then unseen forces attack Willie's museum. Boley and Diana get clear, but Willie dies when his museum catches fire. Boley and Diana witness just enough to convince them that the gargoyles are the real culprits, but there's no way to reveal the truth to the local law-officers without sounding insane.

The gargoyles aren't willing to let the duo get away, though, and they brave the local desert-town to capture Boley and Diana. Boley escapes, but the gargoyles spirit Diana away to their mountain lair. There she learns that the gargoyles have been nurturing a clutch of eggs with which they plan to unleash a new gargoyle horde upon humanity. In addition, the Gargoyle Leader seems to feel that he might be able to do a little mating-action with a human female, though this danger is distinctly soft-pedaled for its TV audience.

Although the gargoyles are a fantasy-race, their determination to become great upon the earth has a definite sociological myth-theme-- and it may not be coincidence that someone in production chose a black actor to speak for the put-upon fantasy-race. For both director Bill Norton and the writing-team Steven and Elinor Karpf, GARGOYLES seems to prove a high-water mark, since it remains one of the better regarded metaphenomenal telefilms of the 1970s.

Thursday, March 15, 2018


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

FLYING DISC MAN is a quasi-sequel to THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES, but only because it recycles the same basic idea-- Martians coming to Earth and collaborating with America's enemies-- and the costumes. DISC MAN is directed by Fred C. Bannen, who was one of the two helmsmen credited with PURPLE MONSTER, and is written by Ronald Davidson, credited as the PURPLE producer.

Yet, though PURPLE MONSTER is just an average serial, DISC MAN seems to go out of its way not to live up to its predecessor's modest accomplishments. It's not that surprising that the new serial does away with the Martians' propensity for "body-snatching," as this was probably an extra expense and the 1950 serial was already recycling scenes from its predecessor and from other serials. But whereas PURPLE MONSTER had several writers assigned to think up new perils for the heroes, Davidson wasn't even able to think of one good setup-- much less distinguishing his characters. Serial heroes and heroines are not exactly scintillating personalities at the best of times, yet the characters essayed by Walter Reed and Lois Collier impressed me as two of the dullest ever.

The only element that was even remotely exciting was the appearance of the "disc" of the title, which is the Martian spaceship-- and that's recycled from the 1942 serial KING OF THE MOUNTIES.

THE SECRET CODE, made at the height of U.S. involvement during the Second World War, is at least average entertainment.  Like a number of other 1940s serials, it starts with a bang, as policeman Dan Barton is accused of being a collaborator. His betrayal is really a put-up job, though, so that Barton can infiltrate a spy ring endangering U.S. security. The first episode even has a moment in which Barton's best friend is tempted to shoot the supposed traitor, but gives in to his instincts about Barton's essential decency and becomes the undercover agent's confidante. Further, so that Barton can act against the spies without endangering his status, he assumes the masked, black-clad identity of the Black Commando-- thus making for a lot of fights in this knockabout serial. CODE's biggest weakness is the same as that of many wartime serials: an undistinguished collection of espionage villains. Because the plot partly concerns an attempt to break the enemy spies' "secret code," each episode ends with an official of U.S. "military intelligence" explaining examples of code-breaking to the audience. Fortunately, modern viewers, unlike theater-goers in 1942, have the option of ignoring these tedious propaganda lectures.

On a side-note, because the serial fell into public domain (or was believed to have done so), the Black Commando showed up later as a comic-book character for Bill Black's AMERICOMICS line.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


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

TUROK SON OF STONE, a Silver Age comic book about two intrepid Native Americans seeking to escape a dinosaur-filled domain, enjoyed an unlikely revival in the 1990s, spawning not only new comics but also popular video games. I assume that's why Classic Media decided to adapt TUROK for a direct-to-video.

I didn't follow either the 1960s or 1990s comic-book incarnations of the character, so I don't know if any of the plot-elements were adapted. I can say that the Silver Age version focused only on Turok and his younger brother Andar fighting dinosaurs. The video version changes Andar into Turok's nephew, as well as interpolating a backstory in which Turok's brother Nashoba married Catori, a young woman known to both of them. Turok is exiled from his tribe for having accidentally attacked Nashoba while fighting off enemies from another tribe. The film does not state that Turok harbored any desire for Catori, though the brothers do compete to win the maiden's kiss, giving the situation a very "sibling rivalry" vibe-- the more so since Nashoba is later killed, and Turok is joined in Dinosaur-Land by a ready-made family consisting of his nephew and sister-in-law. (The original Dell comic hardly had any female characters, since it was being sold to dinosaur-loving boys, but the video has clearly been pitched to appeal to fangirls as well.)

The video is basic journeyman work, in that none of the characters are particularly memorable, including Turok's opposite-number villain, Chichak. Aside from the "girl power" touches, the only other distinction of TUROK is that there's a little more real blood shed when people or dinos get hit with spears or tomahawks. It's far from enough blood to satisfy gorehounds, but it would probably prove sufficient to give minor grossouts to the younger dinosaur-fans.

KRONOS (1957)

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

In my review of FORBIDDEN PLANET, I remarked that the creative people behind the film seemed to have gone far beyond anything they'd done previously in their respective careers. The corollary to this is also that none of them ever did anything quite so outstanding.

KRONOS came out the year after PLANET, and the later film is also credited to a story idea from Irving Block, a production designer on both films. But KRONOS was also a low-budget effort from a small company called Regalscope, and the credited screenwriter, Lawrence Goldman, brought no particular passion to the story of an alien device-- called an "energy accumulator"-- that invades Earth. Director Kurt Neumann had made his bones as a journeyman director of better-than-average Tarzan films, like TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS, but his only exceptional directorial work wouldn't come along till the next year, when he helmed THE FLY. 

It takes KRONOS quite a while to get going. A flying saucer sends an energy-construct-- possibly alive, possibly not-- down to Earth to possess a commonplace motorist. The motorist is instantly possessed by some vague alien consciousness or program. He then seeks out a redundantly named scientific laboratory, "Labcentral," penetrates the lab's security and passes on his "possession" to a major scientist named Eliot. The motorist dies, and Eliot then serves as the "inside man" for the never-seen alien aggressors. In particular, he wants to make sure that when the saucer is discovered, the U.S. Air Force attacks it. Despite the meddling of some of Eliot's subordinates, particularly leading man and leading lady Les and Vera (Jeff Morrow, Barbara Lawrence), the saucer is shot down and plunges into the ocean off the coast of Baja California. However, this is only a stratagem designed to activate the giant energy-device within the saucer. The monolithic machine has no consciousness-- it shows no reaction when Les and Vera employ a helicopter to land on its head-- but when it gets ready to start sucking energy, not even an atom bomb can stop it.

The name given to the gigantic, energy-absorbing mechanism is the one cool mythologem of the Block-Goldman story, but it's curiously underdeveloped.  A newsman says that someone took the name from the "evil giant" of Greek myth, whose main distinction was that of devouring all of his children so that the giant's reign would never be threatened. Probably Goldman didn't pursue this symbolism because the people of Earth weren't related to the creators of the giant robot. Still, to a small degree Kronos still works on this level, as the spawn of godlike aliens who have decided to wipe out humankind. The idea that the aliens have gone through all this trouble simply to steal Earth's energy with their colossal robot never proves particularly persuasive.

The only hiccup in the aliens' well-laid plans is that Eliot's possession doesn't fully take, and sometimes the scientist recovers enough to pass on insights to the defenders of Earth-- at least, when he isn't being deemed to be out of his mind. However, it's leading man Les who has the brilliant insight to over-feed Kronos with special energy designed to make him short-circuit-- which is less like the outcome of the original Kronos story than various tales in which a monster is slain by feeding it something noxious, as with Bel and the Dragon.

Kronos, looking like a giant capacitor with piledrivers for legs, might be considered a take on the Martian tripods of the 1953 adaptation of Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS-- in which film, it will be remembered, the invading vessels also survive a nuclear blast. It's an imposing presence, but it seems that the producers weren't concerned with anything else. Les the Scientist is no Clay Forrester, and his relationship with Vera is forgettable, lacking even the minor touches of the "dueling romance" theme seen in many SF films of the period. KRONOS is a film with one good mythopoetic concept, stuck in a film with a lot of bland mundane dialogue and characterization. 

Friday, March 9, 2018


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

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN isn't even close to one of my favorite Frankenstein films. However, it certainly eclipses most of the slapdash sequels, particularly REVENGE, even though Hammer used the same writer and director to bring the mad baron back from death.

The film begins well enough, with one petty thief trying to convince another to help him rob the grave of Doctor Frankenstein, executed at the end of the previous narrative. The business between the reluctant thief and his con-man acquaintance provides the film's only comic relief, but the grave-robbers' scene is only designed to provide the explanation for the baron's return. The thieves find that the coffin of Frankenstein actually contains the headless body of a priest, who was somehow substituted for the Baron on the guilloutine. The reluctant burglar wisely flees, but the greedy one sticks around, and promptly gets a heart attack when he sees Baron Frankenstein himself show up at the gravesite, in the company of the usual hunchbacked aide. It's loosely implied that the Baron has showed up here to raid the graveyard for parts, but it seems pretty counter-intuitive for even a madman to show up at the same place where he's supposed to be buried, not even wearing any sort of disguise. This is particularly egregious since the Baron is masquerading as "Stein," a doctor to the poor in what I assume is the same city

In CURSE, the scientist was aided by an older mentor-figure, who harbored some ideals about using Frankenstein's ideas for the betterment of mankind. This time Frankenstein plays the mentor, for a younger medical student, Hans Kleve, reveals that he's figured out the true identity of Stein. Kleve wants to join Frankenstein in his endeavor, and the scientist accepts the younger man's offer with scarcely the turn of a hair. This presumably gives Frankenstein someone to talk to besides his hunchback, a peer with whom he can discuss his next project: to transfer the brain of the deformed assistant into a new body, once again cobbled together from multiple sources. Karl is only too happy to leave his ugly old body behind, though once the operation takes place, the former hunchback wants to simply return to normal life, rather than being Frankenstein's ongoing showpiece.

The doctor boasts that this time the procedure will succeed because he's not using a "bad brain." However, for reasons the script does not explain, Karl's new body begins taking on the same deformities as his original form. The production chooses to "cheap out" on the appearance of the Monster, leading to many other Hammer-monsters of unprepossessing appearance.

The monster pursues romance, causes a little havoc, and exposes Frankenstein to the public. Though the mad scientist meets his comeuppance, this time Sangster's script gives him a rationale-- however improbable-- so that he can go on to future installments-- which he did, generally to even more unimpressive results.

Thursday, March 8, 2018


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Since writing these two reviews, I've still not read any of the original Russell Thorndyke novels about the early quasi-superhero "The Scarecrow," a.k.a. "Doctor Syn." The character-- a former pirate named Clegg, who escaped his alleged death and became a parson in a small English village-- might be closer to a "villain" than a "hero," albeit a very benign villain. In the same way that Robin Hood fought the soldiers of the king to benefit the poor, Syn-- who is renamed Doctor Blyss in the 1962 film-- is out to better the lives of Romney Marsh's citizens by helping them smuggle wares in and out of the country. The local lawmen don't like this, just as the soldiers of King John resented Robin Hood's incursions, and on this hinges the conflict-- though Clegg/Blyss adds one touch that the lord of Locksley never thought of; having his merry men dress up in phosphorescent ghost-costumes to scare off the curious. However, one other major difference is that Robin Hood's opposition to the legal authorities comes to an end when King Richard returns and kicks John out. Within the context of the Thorndyke setup, smuggling will always be illegal, and so Blyss can only keep fighting the law until it kills him-- which, to drop a very minor spoiler, is exactly what transpires.

Since the plot-action of CLEGG is pretty close from that of the 1937 DOCTOR SYN, I won't repeat the specifics of the plot. Suffice to say that a new officer comes to Romney Marsh with the intent of rooting any and all smugglers. No one in 1962 or since is likely to doubt that the serene-looking parson Blyss (Peter Cushing) is really behind all the skullduggery, nor that the two young lovers Harry and Imogene (Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romain) are destined to come together despite all odds. In one way Hammer's version is racier than that the 1937 adaptation: in both films an older man, who has functioned as a not-very-paternal guardian to Imogene since her childhood, puts the moves on his ward, revealing her tainted past so that she'll marry him. But the Hammer film plays the scene with more attempted bodice-ripping.

In terms of acting, Peter Cushing could do this simple swashbuckling-role in his sleep. The best scenes involve the limber actor showing off his fighting-skills against a bulkier opponent, and later trying to escape the constables at the film's finish. The film's visuals are both stark and evocative, particularly in the scenes with the "phantom horsemen." CLEGG is certainly the most watchable of the three adaptations.

Monday, March 5, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Here are two more of the Syfy-oriented "giant beastie" films, which I surveyed largely to see if they fell into the combative mode.

BEHEMOTH starts out fairly well for this type of film.A small American town, existing for years in the shadow of a mountain, experiences seismic quakes. The only one who really knows what's going on is William, a crazy-seeming old man. William claims that every few million years, a creature arises to wipe out humankind for its sins, and that this time, the creature dwells beneath the mountain.
Sure enough, he's right.

The film is fairly suspenseful for the first hour, suggesting the enormity of the buried monster rather than showing it outright. Of course, in the latter half the viewer finally gets to see the beast, and it's just another big tentacled grotesque. The script gets a couple of points for referencing the Babylonian epic of monster-slayer Marduk and his dragon-enemy Tiamat, but even then, the myth is only brought up as a guide to the hero on how to execute the modern-day behemoth.

The "Sand Serpents" are even less mythic in dimension than the Behemoth: as the above photo shows, they're just big worms with mouths like lampreys. Borrowing a trope from the original GODZILLA, the worms have apparently existed for eons far beneath the surface of the earth-- but not so far that a simple explosion in Afghanistan can't wake them up. The worms, invulnerable to gunfire though not to grenades, burrow through the earth and gobble up both Taliban terrorists and American soldiers with impunity. The script doesn't suggest how they've survived all this time if they had nothing to feed on beneath the earth, though I suppose the old "suspended animation" schtick is still good for another run. Still, it's hard to imagine such colossal creatures being able to sustain themselves by feeding on such puny fare. Each one of them looks like it needs nothing short of a whale for a good meal.

The American grunts are given at least moderately competent characterization, and Jeff Renfroe's direction keeps up the tension even in the non-monster scenes.  There's a moral lesson on the folly of deeming all Muslims to be terrorists, but it's not overdone for this sort of action-melodrama.

Saturday, March 3, 2018


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

LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES had a couple of "firsts" to its credit, in that it was the first collaboration between Hammer Studios and Shaw Brothers, and the first British attempt to meld the elements of their horror-films with elements of the kung-fu genre. (The latter might not be much of an accomplishment, since earlier in the same year, Hammer had released a horror/swashbuckler, CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER.) However, the film's "lasts" may prove more historically significant, since it was the last Hammer film of the original period to feature either Dracula specifically or vampires generally. And LEGEND was one of the very last films made by Hammer before its 1970s demise (its later reincarnation being a separate matter).

Hammer films were never known for being scrupulous about internal continuity, and LEGEND follows the same pattern. The film begins with a prologue set in 1804, wherein Dracula has been, for vague reasons, confined to his castle. For once, Hammer's Van Helsing can't be blamed, for it's 1885 when the vampire-hunting doctor encounters the king bloodsucker in HORROR OF DRACULA, so this particular Van Helsing can't have been alive in 1804, unless he was remarkably well preserved. In fact, the continuity of HORROR and its sequels seemed flatly contradicted by the following events. A Taoist monk named Kan enters Castle Dracula, asking for the vampire-lord's help. It seems that for some time a group of vampire-lords, the Seven Golden Vampires (so called for their golden masks) have existed in rural China. However, the Seven have fallen into deep slumber and need aid from the master of vampires. Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson) arrogantly rejects the simple request for help, but apparently sees in Kan an escape from his imprisonment. Over the monk's objections, Dracula possesses Kan's body-- certainly a vampire-talent never before revealed-- and in that form journeys all the way to China, where he joins the Seven and terrorizes the Chinese, often kidnapping young women for blood sacrifices, more Taoist than Transylvanian in nature. To the hardcore continuity-bug, this makes it impossible for Dracula to be in either Transylvania or England in 1885-- for when the prologue ends, the film proper starts in 1904.

A version of Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) lectures on vampire legends at a Chungking university. It will later come out that this Van Helsing knows all about Dracula, though there would seem no way that the two could have met, even though they seem to know one another at the conclusion. The doctor also knows about the stories of the Seven Vampires of China. Though this Van Helsing doesn't seem to be busy tracking down any undead, he clearly believes that they're real. The audience of skeptical Chinese students don't hold any faith in old legends, not even when Van Helsing regales them-- and the film's  audience-- with a highly detailed narrative about a humble farmer managing to steal a magical talisman from the Seven.

One listener, Hsi Ching, believes Van Helsing, and asks the scholar to join a quest to root out the evil of the Golden Vampires. Hsi Ching brings along his six brothers and one sister, who are all kung-fu experts, while Van Helsing brings along his grown son Leyland and a beautiful young widow, Vanessa.

Once the expedition begins progressing through the Chinese countryside, any resemblance to the British style of heavily-plotted drama vanishes. The film was jointly directed by Roy Ward Baker and Chang Cheh. But since only the latter had experience in handling kung-fu scenarios, it seems likely that he influenced the bulk of the film's action-scenes. There are some minor emotional subplots, such as a blossoming interracial romance between Hsi Ching and Vanessa. which was somewhat daring for a 1974 British horror-film. But most of the film is just one attack after another by the Golden Vampires and their zombie-like hordes, followed by the heroes' counterattacks. Dracula/Kan doesn't have much to do, and the Seven Vampires are even more routine as villains than Hsi Ching and his siblings are as heroes. To be sure, Layland and Vanessa are not well-developed either, so it seems likely that Shaw Brothers realizes that Cushing's Van Helsing had to be in the forefront to help sell the film in the West. The action-scenes are good fun, though there's something of a sameness about them. Van Helsing has a final face-off with Dracula, who once more assumes his Transylvanian form, and while it's just an average fight-scene, it does have the distinction of being Hammer's final battle between the two characters-- even though one could argue that these aren't "the real ones."

I assume that the visual motif of "masked evildoers" stems from Chinese folklore and/or popular fiction, since four years later, Chang Cheh used this motif in one of his biggest hits, THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS.


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

From my records I know that I watched TERROR OUT OF THE SKY when it made its TV-movie debut, but I remembered nothing about it except that it was just another "killer bee" movie. I also didn't remember that it was a sequel to 1976's THE SAVAGE BEES, which had a different director and an almost completely different cast, even though TERROR reprises the characters from SAVAGE.

TERROR's director Lee H. Katzin worked on television productions almost exclusively. and most of his shows, like the dismal 1979 SAMURAI, are unexceptional. But he seems to have warmed to his "bee-movie" theme, because he uses a couple of good storytelling tricks to compensate for a low budget and a lot of talking-head scenes. Not long after the credits-- which appear superimposed over a close-up on a single bee, buzzing in a menacing manner the whole time-- Katzin shows one of the main characters, entomologist Jeannie (Tovah Feldshuh), dreaming of her previous encounter with the savage insects. (Reportedly this was a reprise of a scene from the preceding film, refilmed with actress Feldshuh.) For me at least, this worked pretty well to make me more invested in her peril.

The other main characters are Jeannie's boyfriend Nick (Dan Haggerty) and her former professor David (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) David's in charge of the local Bee Institute, and the original "savage bees" got loose on his watch. Naturally, he's less than pleased when another blunder unleashes deadly African bees on the community. Thus Jeannie and David must collaborate on containing the threat again, with Nick somewhat unwillingly dragged along. There's a touch of tension in that David, who was apparently married in the first film and lost his wife in the interim, reveals that he has a thing for Jeannie. She in turn reveals that she crushed on him hard during her days as his student. This minor subplot doesn't have a heavy impact on the plot. Yet the simplicity of the older man-younger woman interaction proves more effective than most of the character-arcs one finds within this film-genre, arcs which tend toward being both overwrought and laughable.

I rate the mythicity at least fair because the bee-busters manage to keep up a good running scientific description of the infernal insects' habits and propensities. This leads to a good suspenseful scene in which Jeannie accidentally duplicates the enclosed horror of her earlier dream. When the bees attack a community carnival, Jeannie and a bunch of Boy Scouts take refuge in a sealed-up bus, and Jeannie can only save the other attendees by slamming on the bus-horn, knowing the bees, hating noise, will swarm toward the bus. The ultimate defeat of the little stingers is also well handled, with a nice dramatic turn for David's character.

In contrast, TARANTULAS THE DEADLY CARGO is absolutely ordinary in every way. There are some minor cosmological touches, as the script informs the viewer that these are a special type of tarantula, and that they have a prey-predator relationship to wasps, which factoid leads to their destruction when they infest another small town. But the script doesn't make the tarantulas interesting as a phenomenon of nature, and they're just barely imposing enough to register as "astounding animals." The human characters are thoroughly forgettable, though Claude Akins stands out as the one practical man who figures out how to stop the arachnids.

The telefilm's only point of interest might be termed "sympathy for the Mayor Murray Hamilton." Innumerable killer-animal movies have followed the pattern set by 1975's JAWS, where the nature of the menace is concealed from the public by some politician bent on keeping the trains running on time. Here the small town's commerce depends on a crop of oranges, and the spiders decide to nest amidst the produce in the local warehouse. The townsfolk must figure out how to squelch the spiders without destroying the crop on which their economy depends. In the end Akins' character does manage to kill the spider and preserve the oranges-- though I tend to think the town would have dubious success selling produce if anyone found out poisonous spiders had been swarming all over the fruits.

Friday, March 2, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Though I know that "white-jungle queens" appeared in comic books and B-movies well into the 1950s, BLONDE SAVAGE still seems a pale copy of such 1930s flicks as TRADER HORN and THE SAVAGE GIRL, both of which hinged on the capacity of white explorers to "tame" savage women. BLONDE SAVAGE is in the same naturalistic mode as both of these films, for even though jungle-girl Meelah is decked out in Sheena-garb, she's no "noble savage." She's also not really any sort of white goddess. She's simply a child who's been reared by a black tribe after the death of her parents. Pilot-for-hire Blake (Leif Erickson) arrives at the plantation of Harper, who happens to be the man guilty of killing Meelah's parents, and who wants Blake's help in recovering the victims' bodies. Instead of helping Harper, Blake falls for Meelah and helps her bring Harper to justice.

Meelah has no special skills or empathy with jungle-life, so even though she's the focal character of BLONDE SAVAGE, the adventure is both naturalistic and subcombative. Erickson makes a good leading man, and while Gail Sherwood makes a meager Meelah, she does get to sing for a crowd of appreciative African tribesmen, who for once are not particularly nasty or superstitious.

THE INTRUDER takes place on a desert island, when a group of stranded ship-passengers and a man who's been on the island so long he's gone a little nuts. There's one moment that suggests the uncanny, when a passenger asserts that the madman's howls sound like those of a damned soul. However, there's no concerted effort to make the madman an uncanny threat, so this too falls into the naturalistic phenomenality.

Lila Lee plays a brassy blonde with one good line, along the lines of, "If you don't like blondes, just wait a while, and I'll oblige you."

Thursday, March 1, 2018

HANCOCK (2008)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*


The only other time I watched HANCOCK, I didn't care for it, probably because of the problematic plot-elements that resulted in mixed reviews after the film's cinematic debut. But on re-assessment, I think that though the plot still has a few dodgy aspects, it's a pretty smart riff on the Superman myth.

In the first few years of the DC comics-feature, Superman was the only Kryptonian on Earth, and not for many years did the character come in contact with another survivor of his homeworld. He occasionally battled villains who equaled him in strength, but clearly the main emphasis was on showing what would happen when a Good Samaritan with the power of a demigod walked among men.

Hancock (Will Smith) is another such demigod. At the start of the film, he's been hanging around Los Angeles for several years, and so they've become inured to the spectacle of a man who can fly, lift incredible weights, and bounce bullets from his skin. However, though Hancock stops crimes like a stereotypical superhero, he manages to inflict massive damage to the city whenever he does so. Thus the Angelenos curse rather than praise their resident superhuman-- except one man. After Hancock saves Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from death, Ray-- a public relations specialist-- repays him by trying to reform his image with the public.

Some iterations of Superman start from the premise that the hero didn't even know the provenance of his powers until late in life. Hancock is in a similar situation, for he has no idea where his powers came from, nor who he was in earlier life. His earliest memory is that of being treated in a hospital for an assault, one that apparently affected him as it would any other mortal man. In the hospital he suddenly demonstrated his vast powers, and he derived his name from a check-out nurse who asked him to put his "John Hancock" on a release form. He doesn't have the first idea how to blend in with humanity, living apart from others in a humble trailer, and only coming forth to stop crimes-- always with destructive results. Ray is apparently the first person to approach Hancock as a friend, inviting him to dinner and introducing Hancock to his wife and kid-- though wife Mary (Charlize Theron) takes an instant dislike to the reckless hero.

Ray talks Hancock into humbling himself to the system, allowing the courts to put him in prison for his misdeeds-- with the expectation that soon enough, some major crime will erupt and force the local cops to offer Hancock amnesty in exchange for his help. This happens a little too easily, but it's made satisfying by the way Ray plays "Professor Higgins" to the hero, getting him to curb his raw impulses and to show appreciation for ordinary humans. Still, Hancock's time in prison reveals the source of his reckless nature: he feels traumatized because no one ever came looking for him in the hospital. A part of him wants to help other people, but another part is an angry child lashing out at normal society.

However, Hancock isn't quite the only one of his kind. The latter half of the film reveals that Ray's wife Mary had a past with the amnesiac Hancock. This section is the source of the film's plot-problems, which inhere in the fact that the director and writers didn't want to deal with specifics about their super-beings. Both Hancock and Mary are immortals who have existed for centuries, and though Mary doesn't suffer from amnesia, she doesn't know much more than Hancock about their origins. She says that they may be "gods or angels," and that they were created in pairs, though all of their brethren have died long ago. This is because whenever two super-beings, they act like kryptonite on one another, gradually removing one another's powers. (The script is pretty vague about how long this takes: Mary displays some kick-ass powers when she gets into a fight with the hero, but at the climax they both start to lose powers when it's important to keep up the tension, and their power-loss immediately reverses itself the moment Hancock puts some distance between him and Mary.)

Still, the strong acting by Smith, Bateman and Theron puts across an emotional core that overcomes the plot-problems. Hancock desires Mary even before he knows her true nature, and she hasn't forgotten their torrid past, even though she loves Ray now. In the end Hancock becomes once more the solitary superbeing, to whom ordinary life and love are denied, and who can only find fulfillment in being a full-time, crime-smashing badass. There was some talk of a sequel, but I for one think that the dramatic arc was concluded so well that the characters have nowhere else to go.