Monday, April 30, 2018


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

Forties-style horror films had fallen on hard times in the early 1950s, with the effect that some actors who had been horror-headliners in the 1940s were relegated largely to support-character status. as both Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr were in 1952's THE BLACK CASTLE. By the late 1950s, though, studios began to make very tentative steps toward old-style horror again.

VOODOO ISLAND is, frankly, largely a misstep. Director Reginald LeBorg had proven an efficient if unremarkable journeyman at 1940s Universal, but ISLAND is hugely handicapped by a vacillating script by Richard Landau. Landau's most stellar credit prior to this film is 1955's QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, though he was merely adapting Nigel Kneale's teleplay. Oddly, LeBorg and Landau had crossed paths at least one earlier time, in a 1946 adaptation of the LITTLE IODINE comic strip.

ISLAND seems very much like a "deal movie." The producers signed Karloff to a two-picture deal, and arranged to shoot the film on one of the Hawaiian Islands-- and the script was thrown together to combine those elements. Karloff plays Philip Knight, a professional debunker of supernatural phenomena. A rich man, planning to develop an island in the South Paciic, hires Knight to investigate what seems like a "voodoo" phenomenon: a surveyor who returned from the island in a deep trace-like state. Apparently Landau or someone above him thought that "voodoo" could be applied to the magical systems of just about any tribal people, since voodoo proper is associated more with the Atlantic than the Pacific.

Knight is a bit of a martinet, accompanied by Sarah Adams, a nubile young aide whom the older man persists in addressing by her last name. They and some other employees of the rich guy-- one of whom is apparent lesbian architect Clair (Jean Engstrom)-- charter a boat to the island in question from a fellow with the suggestive name of "Gunn." They even take the entranced surveyor with them, which certainly doesn't seem especially kosher in terms of the man's civil rights.

The boat breaks down near the island-- apparently for supernatural reasons-- so that the voyagers have no choice but to go tramp, tramp, tramping through the Hawaiian foliage. That's what they were going to do anyway, in order to solve the big mystery, but I suppose the crippled boat lends a jot more suspense to the endeavor. The explorers don't see any of the natives discussed earlier, but they do find some very unconvincing "monster plants," whose existence on "Voodoo Island" goes utterly unexplained. Possibly the producers thought that an old-fashioned "voodoo curse" movie might not be able to compete alongside the burgeoning genre of SF-films, and so threw in the killer plants to provide a SF-like monster.

Landau's script attempts to spice up the tiresome trek by having both Claire and Gunn pay court to the virginal Ms. Adams. Of course there's not a lot of suspense, not only because no commercial film in 1957 would portray a consensual lesbian affair, but because the script allows for no more than coy suggestions of Claire's pursuit. Gunn and Adams do become a couple, but not a very interesting one, though she listens with fascination to the story of his Big Reason for bumming around the Pacific. It's hard to say if Claire's fate-- being killed by a piece of killer kelp-- is meant to express disapproval for her sapphism, but it's hard to be moved by her death either way.

Finally, the explorers are captured by the local natives, and Knight is finally convinced that voodoo magic is real. He swears to the natives that he'll keep the developers away, and although they have no real reason to believe him or any of the others, the natives spare the group-- mostly. One employee defies the natives-- apparently not even believing in their spears any more than their magic-- and he suffers death by voodoo, apparently as a belated object lesson. Knight and the survivors all go back home, and presumably the natives keep their island.

INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, made the previous year, features Lon Chaney Jr. in one of the few featured roles of his later years. It seems loosely derived from the idea of 1941's MAN MADE MONSTER, at least insofar as enhancing Chaney's large stature with science-fictional powers. However, next to VOODOO ISLAND, INDESTRUCTIBLE is at least a passable formula-flick.

This time the narrative is driven by revenge. Chaney plays "Butcher" Benton, on death row for murder after taking part in a heist. In an early conversation between Benton and his mouthpiece  Lowe, it's established that Lowe plotted the heist, and that when Benton tried to take the loot for himself, Benton's two partners-in-crime turned state's evidence on Benton for the act of murder. However, Benton hid the money from all three of his partners, and he swears that he'll come back from the grave to kill Lowe and the other two.

After Benton's execution, Lowe seeks out the only person known to be friendly with the murderer: a showgirl named Eva. Lowe manages to swipe a clue that would have sent her to the hidden cache of cash, seconds before police lieutenant Chasen, also looking for the missing money, shows up on Eva's doorstep. However, unlike Lowe Chasen becomes much more interested in the showgirl than the dough. The script, by a male-and-female team that didn't write too much else for Hollywood, proves adept in finding reasons to keep Eva "respectable." She explains to Chasen that she only dances in a burlesque show because she really likes performing, but that she's a small-town girl at heart. In addition, she wasn't really the Butcher's girlfriend. She merely roomed with the gangster's old flame, who then threw Benton over, and then found herself receiving Benton's attentions for having showed him a little sympathy.

Benton's empty threat of revenge is brought to fruition when a couple of scientists pay a mortuary attendant to get hold of a dead body for experimentation. Said experiment not only brings Benton back to life-- albeit with no voice-- it condenses his cellular matter so that he's invulnerable to a number of phenomena, ranging from syringes to bullets. Benton immediately expresses his gratitude by killing both scientists and hunting down his enemies. Chasen soon finds out about the invulnerable killer. Despite the lieutenant's difficulties in convincing his superiors to look for a man come back from the dead, eventually the police mount a manhunt for Benton. The Butcher conveniently succeeds in slaying the other crooks before the cops prove that the Indestructible Man isn't quite invulnerable to heavy ordinance.

This was one of just three films directed by Jack Pollexfen, best known as a writer for the well-regarded MAN FROM PLANET X as well as misfires like THE NEANDERTHAL MAN (both reviewed here). Pollexfen and cinematographer John Russell, who collaborated on PLANET X and two other films, do a fine job of combining Chaney's science-fictional menace with the genre of the "police procedural," even managing to make the voice-overs interesting. It's no THEM!, but INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN is a solid B-film in terms of acting, script and photography.


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

Universal's acquisition of the Rathbone-Bruce team for a new contemporary series of Sherlock Holmes adventures immediately drafted the duo to oppose the Nazi menace. In fact, the first three Universal films, airing from late 1942 to early 1943, are all WWII morale-boosters. VOICE OF TERROR was first, followed by the best of the three, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON, and ending with SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON. Only with SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH (September 1943) did Universal put the morale-boosting aside and start emphasizing pure mystery.

VOICE OF TERROR takes its cue from Arthur Conan Doyle's 1917 "His Last Bow." This story was also a morale-booster, in which Doyle introduced an aged but still vital Holmes, capable of performing World War One espionage services for Old Blighty. However, VOICE is primarily concerned with Holmes and Watson ferreting out the titular menace. The "Voice of Terror" is a Nazi radio broadcaster who bedevils the English populace with messages of imminent doom, like the real-world "Lord Haw Haw." Unlike the real-world version, the Voice also co-ordinates some if not all of Germany's sabotage operations-- which is not enough to make him a super-villain, any more than two other cinematic "Voices" that I critiqued here. It turns out that although the Voice poses as an Englishman, he's not any more English than his real-world model. The sound of the villain's speaking-voice generates a certain amount of menace, but the Voice of Terror himself does not stand up to later Holmes-opponents, like the Spider Woman and the Creeper.

In the film's best scene, Holmes and a female aide named Kitty (Evelyn Ankers) enter a pub filled with hardcore criminals, many of whom have personal grudges against the detective. Holmes needs info from the crooks for his investigation, but Kitty, rather than Holmes, is the one who convinces the hoods to render their services with a stirring plea to their common cultural heritage.

SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON sends Holmes and Watson to America to solve the mystery of a missing Englishman named Pettibone/. The Englishman turns out to be a courier with a microfilm that the Germans want very badly. Pettibone manages to conceal the microfilm before he's killed, and Holmes must find the document before the German spies do. However, Sherlock is at least partly hampered by his apparent celebrity-- presumably through the medium of Watson's published stories-- and the Germans seem to know about Holmes' movements as soon as he arrives in Washington to contact American intelligence. In the screencap shown above, Holmes, Watson and the American agents receive a very small container. In the movie's only nod to the macabre, it turns out that Pettibone-- or at least part of him-- is inside the container.

The film features a number of stirring paeans to democracy, intoned in the approved Basil Rathbone style, and some of Holmes' best cinematic detective-work. Bruce also contributes some funny scenes when he's seen reading "Flash Gordon" in the American papers. But the best scenes are those in which Holmes faces the leader of the German spy ring, played by George Zucco, who had previously squared off against the detective in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOMES.  Zucco's quiet menace matches Rathbone's  brittle aggression. However, at one point the script seems more than a little confused. Said script has Zucco's character protests his innocence of espionage, and simultaneously seems to know a lot more than an ordinary person ought to know about the English sleuth.

Monday, April 23, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

When writer Lou Rusoff wrote GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW-- a loose sequel to his HOT ROD GANG, a juvenile-delinquency film with some of the same characters--- he was conceptually a long way from the serious 1950s SF-films for which he's best known today, such as THE SHE CREATURE and DAY THE WORLD ENDED. Instead, DRAGSTRIP appears to be the immediate ancestor of the AIP "Beach Party" films-- not least because Rusoff is credited with the first film in that series, released in 1963, the year of his passing. Strangely though, BEACH PARTY is a good deal more sober than DRAGSTRIP, which resembles the later, loonier films in the AIP series.

One interesting aspect of DRAGSTRIP is that while a lot of films about drag-racing adolescents focused on an ensemble of misunderstood teens, top-billed Jody Fair (repeating her "Lois" character from HOT ROD GANG) is the center of the action here. The boyfriend she had in the earlier film disappears, replaced by a thoroughly forgettable new swain. Lois is seen at the film's opening, drag-racing against her feminine rival from another car club. When a journalist interviews the "clean teens" in her car club, there's a certain amount of badinage with the ensemble-characters, particularly a goofy teen genius and his statuesque female companion. But Lois is the only character seen with a home life, justifying her fast-car fancies to her skeptical father and sympathetic mother. She talks her father into hosting a dance-cum-slumber party, allowing for a little bit of innocent rocking and canoodling. Although all of the teens are pretty square, the journalist portentously asserts that they have a reason to live life in the fast lane: because they're the first generation to live in the shadow of armageddon, or something like that. (Perhaps that line was Rusoff recycling sentiments from DAY THE WORLD ENDED.)

The teens' biggest problem isn't tyrannical adults, but the teenagers' second most common complaint: lack of funds. They're kicked out of their garage for non-payment of rent, but fortune favors them: Lois's oddball aunt Anastasia (Dorothy Neumann, another HOT CAR GANG alumnus) lets them hang out in her spare house. The only catch-- aside from the fact that Anastasia goes along, accompanied by a parrot that talks like a human being-- is that the joint is haunted. As it turns out, DRAGSTRIP is one of the relatively rare films in which there's both a real ghost and a fake ghost. And as if Rusoff's fount of silliness were overflowing, he even has the super-genius kid invent a talking car-- perhaps tapping into the 'transcendental state of locomotion" or whatever he says-- though almost all the car does is to argue with the parrot.

Though the story's too all-over-the-place to justify even a 'fair" rating for mythicity, it's also, like the "Beach Parties," immensely likable in its heartfelt corniness.

Monday, April 9, 2018


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

I confess that I haven't watched MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM for some time, but it seems to me that scripter Crane Wilbur and director Andre de Toth revamped the 1932 film substantially, albeit more in terms of style than content. For instance, the plot is essentially the same, aside from eliding all the newspaper-investigator characters (or replacing them with unusually competent cops). But I'd be surprised if there's anywhere in MYSTERY that the crazy waxmaker speaks a line like this one:

"There is a pain beyond pain, an agony so intense it shocks the mind into insane beauty."

It's a fine line, since it encapsulates the script's fascination with the double-sided nature of human entertainment: craving both the serenity of beauty and the kinetic impact of "shocks."

HOUSE begins with an immediate opposition of the two tendencies. In turn-of-the-century New York, sculptor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) maintains a wax museum devoted to the theme of beautiful historical figures like Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette, with only one or two concessions to what Jarrod calls "the macabre," like a wax replica of John Wilkes Boothe. He lives a monastic existence, thoroughly absorbed in his art, but to launch his museum he was obliged to become partners with a crass investor, Burke. The latter wants Jarrod to devote the museum to "shocks" in order to bring in more customers. Jarrod refuses, and though he offers Burke the chance to recoup his investment, the impatient investor suggests that they could both recoup their expenses by burning down the museum for the insurance. Jarrod refuses, since his sculptures are like his children to him.

This opening is easily the weakest part of the film. When Burke first appears at the museum, his dialogue makes it clear that he knows how besotted Jarrod is with his creations. So why does he advance the possibility of burning down the museum so blithely? And when he gets into a fight with Jarrod, he immediately starts setting fire to everything, forgetting that he can't claim the insurance if Jarrod testifies against Burke. When Burke knocks Jarrod down so that he's trapped by the fire, it almost seems an afterthought rather than a deliberate attempt at murder.

Ten years pass, during which Burke collects his insurance and Jarrod is believed dead. But Jarrod, though disfigured, has merely been biding his time, gathering assistants and constructing a new wax museum. But because Jarrod is too afflicted to sculpt statues any more, he saves time by finding human bodies-- some of whom, like Burke, he himself kills-- and encasing them in wax for his museum. One of his victims is also Burke's girlfriend, but the woman's best friend Sue becomes Jarrod's next target when he conceives that she's perfect to be his new Marie Antoinette.

There's never any real mystery as to what Jarrod is doing, in part because in place of the 1932 film's atmospheric mood, HOUSE is full of brilliant color and blatant, literally "in your face" imagery, designed to take advantage of the 3-D craze. Though the mad sculptor is devoted to his classical image of beauty-- even if it's supplemented by real dead bodies-- the film is aesthetically aligned to the aesthetic of the villainous Burke; that of giving viewers constant shocks. For later viewers, one shock not intended by the filmmakers is that of seeing an up-and-coming Charles Buchinsky-- later Bronson-- playing a deaf-mute with the Frankensteinian name of Igor.

In addition to many interesting ruminations about the nature of art and beauty, HOUSE also probably boasts the greatest number of fistfights ever seen in a horror-film up to that time. The end sequence is violent enough to rate as a combative drama.

THE MAD MAGICIAN was apparently rushed into production by the studio, since it's both black-and-white and repeats many of the tropes from HOUSE.

This time the director's chair is occupied by John Brahm, but there's nothing in MAGICIAN that's as moving as his earlier work on THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE, and he even burns up a certain amount of screen-time having the villain dispose of a body as Laird Cregar did in HANGOVER. Crane Wilbur's script is far weaker than HOUSE, except that, oddly enough, MAGICIAN has a much stronger opening.

This time, Price plays Gallico, a magician manque. He's been a maker of magicians' illusion-props for years, under the thumb of his capitalistic boss Ormond, but he's finally designed some tricks that he hopes will propel him into the big time. Price's performance in the film's first hour is actually more impressive than anything he does in HOUSE, for he successfully puts across the image of Gallico as a genius crippled by his lack of self-confidence. He's also even more put-upon than Jarrod, for before he can perform his new tricks on stage, Ormond legally blocks the performance, claiming that everything Gallico makes is legally Ormond's property. Oh, and for good measure Ormond has in past stolen Gallico's spendthrift wife (Eva Gabor), so that Ormond is the very picture of a pernicious profiteer.

As in HOUSE, the madman's first victim is the money-man, and it's Ormond's head that complicates things for Gallico after getting separated from its body. However, once Gallico goes mad the script loses all interest in his psychology. There's one moment in which Gallico seems overly fascinated with a young female model, who plays the role of the Sue-character in HOUSE, but he's far less interested in women-- even the ex-wife he murders-- than in displaying his talent. But his magicians' tricks aren't nearly as resonant as the wax statues of Jarrod, and so the film winds down to a conclusion that's less than "magical" (and certainly not combative, either).



Newton Arnold spent most of his film-career as a second-unit director, but did manage to both write and direct one flick, HANDS OF A STRANGER. Admittedly it's not a totally original work, in that the basic plot was borrowed, without credit, from the novel THE HANDS OF ORLAC, which had been adapted to film three times previously.

Like most versions of ORLAC, the main character of STRANGER is a concert pianist-- named "Vernon Paris" this time-- who loses both hands in an accident. In most iterations, a surgeon successfully transplants the hands of a dead man onto the wrists of the pianist; however, the hands were those of a murderer, and the pianist becomes increasingly distressed about the potential of his once cultivated hands to commit acts of violence.

STRANGER does depart from the template, though, for no one in the film ever knows the identity of the hands' owner. The audience sees how the unnamed man meets his demise. He's first seen walking along a dark street with a briefcase. A car with two men rolls into view, and the man flees from it, clearly expecting trouble. The men in the car shoot him down, get out, search him and take something from his pockets, and leave. The last thing the stranger does is to clutch at a lamp-post before he dies, and it's later said that the citizens who find him must pry his hands from the post. This is all the audience ever knows about the stranger: that he's somehow involved in criminal activity and that he has strong hands.

Cut to surgeon Gil Harding. He's an idealist who hates to see death claim its due, in that he fulminates angrily about the loss of a patient. (He also waxes very poetic, as do almost all of Arnold's main characters do, which makes STRANGER an odd experience, more like watching a stage play than a movie.) That same night, Gil also gets to perform an autopsy on The Stranger, and reports his findings to police lieutenant Syms, who makes odd comments like calling fingerprints "pictures that tell me all I want to know." Syms, a weary cynic, is impressed with Gil's idealism, though neither of them expect to have further contact.

That same night, Vernon Paris finishes a concert performance to great acclaim. Vernon's character is initially introduced by his sister Dina in conversation with his manager George. Both of them admire Vernon, and George makes a remark about Dina finding a new relationship, to which she asks him if George is "implying a scandalous relationship between me and my brother." In later scenes the script expands by saying that Dina and Vernon bonded strongly after the death of their parents, and though I've not read the original Renard novel. I suspect that this aspect of the script is original to STRANGER.

Vernon is an idealist about aesthetics the way Gil is an idealist about medicine, but the pianist is also somewhat more narcissistic, enjoying the adulation of his sister, his manager, and of many women with whom he's casually romantic. He takes a taxi alone, but the cabbie recognizes Vernon. The driver regales Vernon with stories about the guy's piano-playing son, and because he's distracted, the cabbie crashes the car. Unconscious, Vernon is taken to the same hospital where Gil works. Manager George pleads with Gil to save the pianist's hands, but they've been utterly ruined by the car-crash. And it's at that point that Gil Harding puts his Frankenstein-hat on, removing the hands of the stranger and transplanting them to Vernon. (Since this operation is unsanctioned by the hospital, it gives Lt. Syms an excuse to keep tabs on the results of the operation.)

Because no one ever knows anything about the donor, neither the aggrieved pianist or his distressed sister are concerned about Vernon having a murderer's hands. In fact, Gil is the only one who brings up the idea that the owner might have been a "psychotic," when he says that "psychotic tendencies don't transfer themselves mystically." And this seems to be author Arnold's position, too, for at no point is it suggested that the hands function as anything but transplanted organs. All the problems stem from Vernon's inability to accept the loss of his dexterous digits, and like most psychos, he begins to see other people as his victimizers: the cabbie who caused the crash (and his son), his most recent girlfriend, and eventually the doctors who performed the operation. Even inanimate objects take on sinister meaning, as when Vernon visits a carnival and becomes stressed at the sight of clowns, bumper cars, a player piano and a funhouse mirror that exaggerates Vernon's alien hands.  His excuse is another poetic rumination: "the only real enemies the world has are the enemies of beauty."

As Vernon falls, though, Dina rises, for she falls in love with Gil, the man who tried to give her brother a second chance at life. Vernon doesn't seem overly jealous of Dina's divided loyalties, which isn't surprising since any sibling fixation seems to be on her side. He only resents another volley against his ego, which leads to a final confrontation between Vernon and his perceived enemies.

It's not a great film by any means. But even Ed Wood never gave a policeman an eyebrow-raising line about having an "erotic respect for perfection."

Thursday, April 5, 2018


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

RISE OF THE LYCANS is the prequel to the two UNDERWORLD films starring Kate Beckinsale. Beckinsale's character Selene makes only a cameo appearance here, as RISE is basically a history lesson that sets up many of the long-lived characters whom Selene meets in her films, both set in the 20th century. Aside from the cameo, the rest of the film takes place in 13th-century Hungary, when the long-standing feud between vampires and werewolves (or "Lycans") takes a unique turn.

One is that for the first time werewolves begin to assume an intelligence equal to that of the more urbane vampires. Prior to that, werewolves are mere beasts in human form, whom the vampires can easily control by using their bane, silver, against them. This setup is RISE's best aspect, for though in real folklore vampires and werewolves have no real interaction, in popular culture vampires were usually pictured as the masters of both real wolves and wolf-people, at least as early as Stoker's DRACULA.

The script is co-written in part by Len Wiseman and Danny McBride, who had worked together on the previous films as well, though RISE boasts a new director, Patrick Tatapoulous. The change doesn't make a lot of difference, for like the previous films RISE is pretty short on genuine drama and long on ass-kicking action, though none of the action-scenes stack up to the best from UNDERWORLD EVOLUTION.

The aforesaid "unique turn" is that a particular Lycan, Lucian (Michael Sheen, seen as a villain in the Selene saga), is one of several who evolve intelligence. He works under the thrall of vampire lord Viktor as a house-slave, but he strays above his station when he falls in love with Viktor's willful daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra). Their "Romeo and Juliet" arc is adequately if unexceptionally handled. but the emphasis is on Lucian as a Spartacus to his people, leading them to escape the dominion of the bloodsuckers and to form their own long-lived clan, thus resulting in the feud that lasts until the 20th century.

As with the first two films, there's so much emphasis on the two monster-clans that the existence of regular human beings is barely acknowledged. However, because of the more limited nature of the conflict, RISE doesn't suffer from nearly as much, "Now who the heck is THIS overbearing overlord--?"

Wednesday, April 4, 2018


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

Once I'd settled in to the idea that the UNDERWORLD franchise wasn't going to explore any of the deeper symbolic potential of its base idea-- that of an ongoing war between vampires and werewolves, carried on under the noses of humankind-- I could enjoy it as a series of high-octane kick-ass action pictures.

In retrospect, the first film is more set-up than kick-ass. The 2003 film introduces viewers to the main character of Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a warrior on the side of the vampires. Like many of her kind she's existed as an unaging immortal for centuries, though she never displays any of the inhuman physical characteristics of the oldest vamps. Selene is a "death dealer," meaning that she hunts down enemy Lycans, intelligent werewolves who can fight her either with weapons akin to her own-- swords and firearms-- or they can transform into big furry beast-men possessed of the same super-strength Selene has.

Human beings have no idea that the war or its soldiers even exist, but one human, Michael Corwin, gets drawn into the conflict when he's bitten by a Lycan. Selene takes time out of her Lycan-killing obsession and succors the innocent man, eventually falling in love with him. Michael also turns out to be a unique type of human, for despite his humanity, he's a descendant of "Corvinus," the original progenitor of both the vampire and werewolf races. Because of his unique genetic structure, Michael doesn't just become another Lycan, as most victims would, but rather a strange vampire-werewolf hybrid. Selene believes that a hybrid can bring an end to the division between the enemy factions, but there are a lot of people on both sides who want Michael for their own purposes.

Despite a good number of sword and gun battles, none of them are exceptional, and at some times they seem to simply be filling up time as Selene and Michael get harried from pillar to post. Selene is betrayed by one of her vamp superiors, but there's no great drama in this development, because most of the other characters are sadly under-developed. Lycan villains and vamp villains prove almost indistinguishable.

UNDERWORLD EVOLUTION doesn't improve on the dramatic elements, but the script-- again by Danny McBride and director Len Wiseman-- does expand on the mythos of the monsters. It's revealed that Corvinus, fifth-century forefather of both monster-races, was the only person to survive a plague that killed all of his people, and that he did so because of the unique genetic makeup. He gives rise to two brothers, Markus and William, who are respectively the fathers of the vampire and werewolf races. There's some odd folklore thrown in about Markus being bitten by a bat and William by a wolf, but presumably this was not meant to be taken seriously, as the viral plague is the source of the monstrous mutations.

The term "evolution" signifies not only how the two races evolved in the past, but also the potential of Michael's genes to modify the power structure-- a potential explored in future films when Michael and Selene breed a hybrid child together. But the main thrust of the narrative is to oppose young to old, as the young lovers take on the still extant brothers William and Michael Corvinus.

Though the drama remains shallow, the filmmakers evidently got a lot more money behind EVOLUTION, for there's huge improvement in FX and stuntwork. For instance, Beckinsale, who largely employed only weapons earlier, does a fair amount of hand-to-hand combat, which only enhances the appeal of her leather-catsuited figure. Again, she's the main focus of the story-- perhaps not surprising, since she and director Wiseman were married during both films. EVOLUTION thus became the high-water mark for kick-ass "monster mash" films-- limited though that subgenre might be.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*


About the only thing interesting to me about this low-budget Argentinian ghost story is that its focal character is not the ghost--as is the case in 1972's THE OVAL PORTRAIT, which was written by HOUSE's scripter, Enrique Tudela. In that film, the ghost was benign while a madman caused trouble for innocents, and so it seems that Tudela mines the same basic idea here, since the focal character is a madwoman who commits several murders trying to cover up her crime, that of killing the person who became the ghost. In keeping with my spoilers, I'll just give the killer away right off: it's one of the film's two American actors, Yvonne DeCarlo, the other being John Gavin of PSYCHO fame.

In contrast to OVAL PORTRAIT, and to a lot of Ms. DeCarlo's films of the 1970s and 1980s (see PLAY DEAD, for one), HOUSE has a little potential. It takes place during the early 1900s, and the dubbed version of HOUSE broadly implies that the location is somewhere in America, since all of the surnames are English-derived, like Howard, Webster, et al. The viewpoint character is a twenty-something woman, Audrey, who became a live-in servant to the wealthy Mrs. Howard (DeCarlo) after the childless Mrs. Howard located Audrey through a placement service connected with an orphanage. Beyond the fact that Audrey is an orphan, she seems content enough performing odd jobs for the old lady. One night, she walks Mrs. Howard's dog, and ends up chasing the dog into an abandoned mansion. In the mansion Audrey sees a woman shot to death by an unseen assailant. She reports the matter to the cops, only to learn that there's no corpse in the mansion. However, there was a famous, near-identical murder committed at the locale over twenty years ago.

The murder-victim was a woman named Catherine, who's played in the movie by the same actress playing Audrey-- and soon Audrey, though not literally possessed by Catherine, finds herself fascinated with the story behind Catherine's murder. For one thing, Catherine was pregnant when she was slain, and presumably the child died as a result, too, though the dubbed version does not say so. Tudela might have thrown in some metaphysical mystery by wondering if Little Orphan Audrey was somehow a reincarnation of either Catherine or her child. Certainly using the same actress for both the murder-victim and the investigator seems to lead in that direction, but that potential goes unused.

Audrey's investigation results in a lot of people being murdered by an unseen killer. There's no knowing why the killer doesn't just knock off Audrey immediately, since she has no protector-- not even the local cop who helps her a little-- and has no self-defense capabilities. Of course, without a string of killings, the story would have no motive force.

Gavin, playing one of Catherine's suitors, seems mildly interested in courting Audrey, though no one remarks on any actual resemblance between the modern girl and the murdered woman. This too is not explored. All of the actors, even the Americans, are badly dubbed. Given the distinctive character of DeCarlo's voice, this takes away a lot of her star appeal. On top of this, she gives what must be the most low-key performance of her career, at least until she stands revealed as the mystery killer.

Given that there are probably hundreds of South American filmmakers whose works are never made available to English-speaking viewers, it's odd to think that a hack like Enrique Tudela is relatively available through this film, THE OVAL PORTRAIT, and TERROR IN THE JUNGLE.