Thursday, June 28, 2018


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

There's a rich irony in the fact that THE INCREDIBLES provided Hollywood's most incisive look at the superhero idiom, years before superheroes became a mainstay in popular entertainment. Arguably, Brad Bird's salute to the 1960s pop culture-- replete with references to James Bond, Jonny Quest, and the Fantastic Four-- has still not been equaled in terms of philosophical insight, particularly not by the aesthetically erratic Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Following on the heels of the 1989 BATMAN, Hollywood studios made substantial investments in big-budget s superhero films, though most of the completed productions focused on less-than-stellar properties like Judge Dredd, Blade, and the Mutant Turtles. The 2000s kicked off a short wave of studio investment in high-ticket American icons like X-Men and Spider-Man, which indirectly made possible the still-current success of the MCU. Many of these "second-wave" films sought to render the themes of Silver Age comics into the context of Hollywood blockbusters, but INCREDIBLES universalized those themes in such a way that they became practically timeless. For that reason the animated film has sometimes been called "the best Fantastic Four film that didn't literally star the Fantastic Four."

In the 1960s, the general public still conceived of costumed heroes as nothing more than colorful escapism, even when given touches of campiness, which is one reason the BATMAN teleseries touched a collective nerve. But the Silver Age superhero was far less represented by any version of Batman than by the 1961 debut of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's FANTASTIC FOUR, one of the first features to proclaim that being a superhero wasn't always a bed of thornless roses. The FF's world was one where, to get hyper-literary for a moment, William Blake's "innocence" and "experience" remained equally viable. Still, not until Roy Thomas masterminded his "Kree-Skrull War" (1971-72) did any professional authors make a thematic contrast between the "innocence" of comics' "Golden Age of superheroes" and the "experience" that Silver Age comic books sought to incorporate, usually in some form of politically-based "relevance."

INCREDIBLES doesn't have the history of Marvel Comics to play with, so its "era of innocence" takes place roughly 15 years before the main body of the film. Bird doesn't create a "continuity" as such; it's just loosely established that for some time bunches of  superheroes and supervillains have thronged the skies of modern-day America. Mister Incredible is one of the foremost heroes, seeming something like a cross between a boulder-shouldered version of Superman and the FF's team-leader Mister Fantastic. But he also becomes the crux of the heroes' downfall. Thanks in part to the interference of Buddy, an obnoxious kid who wants to be Incredible's sidekick, the heroes are all forced to hang up their capes, conceal their powers, and seek to "be like everyone else." It's probably not a coincidence, though, that this all happens to Incredible at the same time he ends his career as a "lone wolf" hero by marrying a costumed heroine, Elastigirl. Thus the law against superheroes fortuitously comes about just when the viewpoint hero is obliged to embrace domestic life and hold down a nine-to-five job.

Fifteen years later, Incredible and Elastigirl have maintained their regular identities of Bob and Helen Parr. Their two kids, Dash and Violet, have manifested their own unique powers, but they've had to conceal their abilities for the sake of conformity. Interestingly, each of the family-members copes differently. Helen seems to forget her superheroic past pretty easily, while middle-schooler Dash simply "acts out" by pranking teachers. Violet, the older sibling, acts as if the ritual of concealment has traumatized her, appearing as a slightly creepy "shrinking violet" who hides her face behind her long hair. Bob, however, can't cope. He still tries to fight crime and disasters in simple, non-costumed disguises, and he loses his temper when his smarmy boss keeps him from preventing a mugging. He seems ripe for a mid-life crisis when a mysterious benefactor, aware of Bob's heroic past, gives him the chance to be a superhero again.

Naturally, this devil's bargain has a devil behind it. Buddy, the annoying kid who once idolized Mister Incredible and wanted to be his sidekick, has channeled his former admiration of the hero and become a vengeful supervillain, Syndrome. The villain's main motive for employing Mister Incredible is to train a robotic device capable of killing any superhero-- one that has, in truth, already murdered several of the retired crusaders. Syndrome, in addition to wanting Incredible both humiliated and dead, plans to unleash the robot on a large city, so that he Syndrome can come to the city's rescue and become the world's greatest hero.

Domesticity, however, comes to Incredible's rescue. Even though Helen initially fears that her husband is revolving his mid-life troubles in a more mundane manner, her suspicions lead her to track Incredible down. For good measure, her super-powered kids manage to tag along, in tried-and-true Jonny Quest fashion, thus giving them the chance to undergo a baptism-of-fire in spite of parental protection. With all this setup done, the rest of the film is devoted to high-powered action as "the Incredibles" take on Syndrome and his organization.

I've devoted much space to the setup of  the conflict between Incredible and Syndrome because it also reflects the hero's ambivalence about domesticity. Even though he embraces marriage freely, society's celebration of mediocrity renders the domestic world joyless and uuinspired, until he finds a way to unleash his "inner superhero" once more. The movie's theme of "conformity vs. exceptionalism" is one that deserves fuller treatment in a separate essay, even though it should be noted Brad Bird has dismissed reviewers' attempts to link him with philosophical luminaries like Ayn Rand and Nietzsche. In truth, even if Bird never read a line of either philosopher, he nonetheless succeeded in mining the same imaginative potential one finds in the best Silver Age comics. If I was going to sum up that potential, it might take the form of a roundabout twist on a Blake aphorism:

"Time is in love with the productions of eternity."

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Sentiment causes me to use the Americanized title for my review of this 1970 Japanese kaiju, originally called "Space Amoeba." Since no entity in the film is ever actually called "Yog"-- the name perhaps being a creation of some publicist-- the Japanese title is more accurate. However, since I still remember seeing "Yog" on a double-bill with "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster," I choose the more colorful title.

YOG is, however, one of the weakest kaiju films of the period. A space probe returns to an isolated island on Earth with an unwelcome guest: an invisible amoeba-organism that can mutate ordinary beasts into huge monsters, which the amoeba presumably plans to use in some plan for conquest. One can only speculate, for the only time the amoeba "speaks" is when it takes control of a human being-- and even then, the viewer never learns what the creature's ultimate goal is.

In contrast to the primary template of giant-monster movies, no elaborate models of cities are destroyed here: all of "Yog's" creations are confined to the island. There happen to be a smattering of humans confined to the island-- a photographer and some companions-- and they find themselves forced to stop the alien invasion at its origin point. All three of the amoeba's monsters are given names in the screenplay, though there really seems no particular reason for anyone on the island to name them, particularly since the monsters are vanquished rather easily despite their impressive size.

This is a rare giant-monster film in which even the counter-measures of the humans fail to sustain the combative mode. A monster displays the power to project waves of cold; the humans invent a way to heat it up and kill it. Two monsters are conveniently confused into fighting one another by "supersonic waves," but there's little logic about how the humans manage to figure out this vulnerability. In addition, all of the Earthlings are singularly boring, even for this type of film, and the only thing I enjoyed about the film was the image of one monster, a giant octopus, walking upright on his tentacles.

It's hard to believe that Ishiro Hondu, responsible for so many strong fantasy-films, churned out an effort this listless.

Friday, June 22, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) *comedy*

I've not seen the 1957 crime film NAKED PARADISE. Ostensibly both of these films, written by Charles B. Griffith, re-purposed the core idea of that film-- a bunch of crooks making a getaway, and pulling some innocents along with them-- and just added a cheap monster for the drive-in crowd.

BEAST, Monte Hellman's first work for producer Roger Corman, is thin stuff, but it looks really good, thanks to stunning South Dakota locations. Since I haven't seen PARADISE, I don't know if any of Griffith's dialogue is recycled from the earlier film, but the snarky comments of the gangsters-- who have come to a ski resort in the mountains to steal gold bars from a bank vault-- make up for the flaccid action. The crooks, with an innocent man in tow, head for the (literal) hills. but they run into the Beast from Haunted Cave, an amorphous monster who lives up there. The script shows no interest in what the creature is or how it got there. I will note in passing that the main gangster's gun-moll-- who doesn't appear to have an analogue in the earlier crime-flick-- seems to be an original creation, though her world-weary attitude reminds me not a little of a similar figure in the 1955 Corman-produced DAY THE WORLD ENDED.

CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, directed by Corman himself in a Cuban setting, lacks any of the visual elan of Hellman's BEAST, though purportedly Hellman directed some fill-in scenes for a TV edition. I would admit that there's a little more tension here-- the gang-leader is out to dump a treasure in the ocean to prevent his Cuban partners from getting their share, and his efforts are continually undone by both the meddlings of fate and a real-life goony-eyed monster. However, the comedy is so obvious that even the best scenes-- provided by a dimwit police agent working undercover with the mobsters (played by scriptwriter Robert Towne under a pseudonym)-- fall rather flat.

Oh, and that monster really sucks, regardless of Corman's attempt to send up his own cheap monster films.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


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

The "steel" of the title is a female cyborg-- apparently built in part from the body of a rape victim-- and the "lace" represents the sexy disguises the cyborg adopts to trap the men who caused the humiliation and demise of her original body.

The workmanlike story-- directed by a guy mostly known for visual effects-- has just one potential myth-moment in it. The film begins with a prologue, showing how a rich boy goes to trial for raping a young woman, Gaily Morton, and gets off because four of his buddies testify that he was never there. Gaily is torn up by this travesty of justice, and despite the efforts of her scientist-brother Andrew, she manages to kill herself. But before she dies, one of the script's writers shows his awareness of Greek mythology by revealing that "Gaily" is short for "Galatea." In Greek lore Galatea is a statue brought to life by the sculptor Pygmalion. STEEL, however, is not really indebted to that myth, but rather to the modern myth of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Andrew somehow gets hold of his sister's dead body and turns it into a cyborg-- which five years later, he sends on a killer rampage against the rapist and his accomplices.

There are naturally a couple of viewpoint characters-- a cop and an artist-- who become involved in figuring out the common thread between all the slayings. It's no knock against the writers and the director to admit that these are nothing characters; viewpoint characters are often not meant to do anything but serve as audience proxies. Nor is it surprising that the villains are one-dimensional evildoers. Emerson, the rich-boy rapist, needs only a thin mustache to make him into Snidely Whiplash, while his four accomplices are merely pathetic, whom Emerson treats like flunkies for having saved him from justice.

But the script might have done something with the Frankenstein-and-his-sister-bride motifs. Andrew's robot-making talents come out of nowhere and have no connection to anything except for avenging the death of his beloved sister. There's a desultory attempt to give Robot-Gaily a tragic dimension, in that she doesn't want to be a tool of death-- even though once or twice she seems to remember things that only Real-Gaily would know-- but the writers clearly made the cyborg's internal feelings secondary to coming up with slightly inventive ways for her to kill her victims. (Faint praise, but I did like the helicopter decapitation a little bit.)

Monday, June 18, 2018

STEPFATHER 2 (1989), STEPFATHER 3 (1992)


Director Jeff Burr's follow-up to the well-regarded 1987 STEPFATHER-- the only cinematic writing-credit for John Auerbach, mostly employed in the sound department-- is about as dull s sequel as one can imagine.

Some of the routine situations go with the territory. Psycho-killer Jerry Blake, apparently slain at the end of the original film, must come back from the dead in order to make a sequel possible. In addition, though he's imprisoned in a psychiatric ward, he must be assigned one of the stupidest head-shrinkers of all time, in order to facilitate Blake's easy escape. Yet, for the only time in Blake's career, he resorts to a murder-method at odds with his usual clubbings and stabbings: in a work-shop he fashions a tiny doll designed to intrigue the psychiatrist, and then reveals that there's a tiny knife inside the doll, with which he stabs the doctor to death.

After his escape, Blake manages, with ridiculous ease, to take over the practice of the deceased psychiatrist. This identity gives him access to his favorite hunting-ground: women who no longer have unified families. This stratagem makes it easier for the scriptwriter, who doesn't have to worry about co-ordinating Blake's efforts to meet, and prey upon, new families. Indeed, Auerbach dumps the idea of showing Blake ever moving on to new territory, since the film only has him court one woman, Carol. In contrast to Blake's previous victim, Carol has a young son rather than a teenaged daughter, and Blake genuinely tries to bond with the youth. However, Carol's divorced husband makes an attempt to get back with her. This interference with Blake's quest for the perfect family-- as well as the detective efforts of Carol's snoopy friend-- sets Blake on another killing-spree.

The film's one moderately good scene appears when Blake, not long after killing Carol's old husband, sincerely commiserates with young boy Todd, who feels guilty about having spurned his real father's attempts to get to know him again. These are the only scenes that actor Terry O'Quinn seems invested in, but there's no other subtlety in the film, where the mad family-man screams catchphrases like "Make room for Daddy!" (It's also the sequel's subtitle.) The script shows no insight into Blake's "perfect family" psychosis, while both Carol and Todd seem enormously stupid not to tip to the new boyfriend's eccentricities. As in the previous film, Blake is killed by the combined efforts of his fiancee and her son, on the very day Blake is supposed to marry Carol. After killing the psycho, the bloodied woman and her offspring march down the aisle in what is meant to be a parody of the wedding-ritual. What, in their condition, they felt they just had to consult the priest at the podium, rather than hailing the first person they saw and asking for help?

STEPFATHER 3 certainly had nowhere to go but up, and Gus Magar, who co-wrote the second sequel, definitely concocts a better stew. Terry O'Quinn did the film a great favor by passing on another outing for Blake, since this required Magar to come up with a reason for Blake to get facial surgery, so that he could played by a new actor (Robert Wightman). The opening scenes, in which Blake persuades a crooked doctor to make the changes and then kills the greedy physician, are easily the film's strongest elements.

Wightman's take is not the faux-avuncular "Father Knows Best" figure this time, but a somewhat immature figure. Blake's first job in his new identity is that of working at a plant nursery, and he's first seen dressed up like an Easter Bunny, distributing colored eggs to kids at a Catholic church event. Through the resident priest Father Ernest, Blake-- now using the name Keith-- makes contact wth another divorceee, Christine, who like the previous victim also has a preteen son, Andy. However, the Magar script throws in some new wrinkles. Andy is confined to a wheelchair, and sees through Blake's trying-too-hard charade. Andy also plays detective-games with Father Ernest, so that when Andy must play sleuth for real, it becomes a little more probable. True, as soon as the script alludes to the possibility that Andy's disabled status may be psychosomatic, the viewer knows that he WILL get up out of the chair at a crucial moment. But before that happens, there's a strong scene in which Blake tries to force Andy to get up out the chair and play football, and this captures some of the fatherhood-mania seen in the first film.

There's also a little more attention paid to the original concept of Blake always looking around for a more perfect family. Nevertheless, once Blake died his third death, I doubt too many viewers regretted the end of his psycho-career (not counting remakes).

Monday, June 11, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

In this essay I cross-compared the Japanese monster-film GOJIRA to its Americanized version, and found that there were numerous differences between them. Many of the comparisons placed the original version in the better light, though I pointed out that GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS had some touches that validated its existence.

I read a little about the original Japanese version of VARAN, though, and got the impression that it didn't offer much more than the Americanized version. Both movies are largely concerned with re-using the most basic motif of the first Godzilla film-- that of having a prehistoric beast, worshiped by a Japanese tribe, awaken from a submerged slumber and take on the forces of modern military warfare. In the Japanese version, as in GOJIRA, Japan's "self-defense" force contends with the monster, while in the Americanized reboot, some or all of the military forces apparently stem from American occupation-forces.

In some ways, the intrusion of the American characters may have improved on the overly simple story. The formal American occupation of Japan ended in 1952, but in the English-language VARAN, Americans still seem to have absolute authority. Naval commander Jim Bradley, married to a Japanese wife, decides that there's only one lake in Japan where he can conduct his experiments in desalinization. Near the lake dwells a small tribe of Japanese people, who worship the god of the lake and really don't want the ugly Americans messing with their livelihood. But Bradley gets his way, and starts bombarding the lake with shells, because as we all know, that's a good way to shake the salt out of the water. (Or something.) This apparently wakes up the slumbering Varan, who may not be a real pagan god but begins tearing into the impious outsiders nonetheless.

Varan, who alternates between walking on all fours or standing erect, gets the best scenes, ignoring tank-shells and smashing houses with his tail. But whereas various reviews complain of little character-conflict in the Japanese version, Bradley and his wife Anna (Myron Healey, Tsuruko Kobayashi) sustain some slight tension as he goes about imposing his will on the tribe-- originally Anna's own people-- "all for their own good," of course. I'm not saying that there are outright arguments between the two characters, for Anna, who dresses both in traditional Japanese costume and in modern outfits, is largely deferential to her husband. But even the possibility that she might be at odds with Bradley over his ambition offers a little more potential than what I've heard about the original. And though the couple don't have children, one local kid, Matsu by name, hangs around them. He's sort of the "Dondi" of the story: the adorable foreign kid whose affection for the American military-man implies that America can do no wrong on foreign shores.

As most monster-fans know, the giant reptilian originally had leathery wings that allowed him to fly, but the Americans filmmakers cut all such scenes out of their version. Varan didn't get another outing as such, though he was given a couple of quick cameos in 1968's DESTROY ALL MONSTERS--  both of which showed him flying.

Thursday, June 7, 2018


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


At present I've not read the source-novel for this film, Gary K. Wolf's WHO CENSORED ROGER RABBIT? However, not only were Wolf's "toons" drawn from comic strips rather than animated cartoons, the parent novel seems to be more of a straight mystery.

The plot of FRAMED does have some mystery content, but it's intentionally kept loose, in order to maximize the movie's potential for cartoon-jokes. FRAMED is an unapologetic love-letter to the American animated cartoon short of Classic Hollywood, as written primarily by director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg, two filmmakers justly famed for their passion for nostalgia.

Yet FRAMED has other interesting aspects. Though it's a production made under the banner of Disney's Touchstone Studios, and though it came out one year ahead of the "Disney Renaissance" that began with 1989's LITTLE MERMAID, it doesn't share the aesthetic of either classic Disney or of the renaissance-to-come. Rather, FRAMED bears much more resemblance to the wild-and-woolly style of Disney's primary competitor in the animated short market, Warner Brothers. A few other studios are referenced as well--  the character of Jessica Rabbit is practically a living embodiment of "Tex Avery tropes" as they appeared during Avery's 1940s MGM tenure. But even though both Disney and Warners characters share support-cast status in FRAMED, the Price-Seaman script shows far more interest in the fast-paced gags of Warners than any of the "slow builds" of Disney.

FRAMED is also a "buddy picture," which means that forcing two characters with disparate background to learn to love each other. Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), a down-and-out dipsomaniac detective, works in 1940s Los Angeles and tries to steer clear of "Toon Town," where living cartoon-stars live and thrive, as well as filming movies. When Roger Rabbit is accused of murder and faces peremptory justice from the toon-hating Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), Valiant is forced to re-examine his prejudice against toons (a toon killed his brother and was never caught).

Because the pace of FRAMED is so fast, there's no attempt to make the mystery-element plausible. In one respect, the plot is as old as films themselves, resembling the "city slicker tries to steal Grandpa's land from his gorgeous young granddaughter" trope prevalent in the silents. Further, the villain's desire to eradicate Toon Town is tied to his desire to pave it over for a superhighway. No matter how often I watch the revelation of the villain's motive, it never makes much sense. Possibly the scripters were trying to say something about how, in real life, cartoon shorts belonged to a less fast-paced mode of life, which would give way to the breakneck world of commuter culture. Yet if anything killed the animated shorts, it would seem to be television, not the superhighway. Maybe the villain should have sought to pave over Toon Town to set up a television studio?

Not all the FRAMED jokes wear well over time, but enough score to make it fun in repeat viewings. And though Roger Rabbit's name is in the title, he's at best Eddie Valiant's co-star. Roger has very little agency, except insofar as he keeps tripping up his "partner." The main arc of the story is Valiant's reformation-- not least learning to cleave to his own girlfriend rather than being beguiled by Roger's glamorous wife-- and so he's the only one with the courage and resourcefulness to defy the main villain (yeah, even people who haven't seen the film will guess it's the guy with "Doom" in his name) and his henchman. Thus, though Eddie and Roger form an ensemble-team in terms of being co-stars, Eddie's the only one who's strong enough to be a combative hero.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018


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


It's rather amazing that FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS is as well-liked as it is. Though the serial's directors, William Witney and John English, would soon become pre-eminent in their field, DEVIL DOGS owes a considerable debt to Republic's 1937 serial DICK TRACY. The debt goes beyond simply the later serial recycling footage from TRACY, particularly one of the villain's weapons, "the Flying Wing." Further, as the above still shows, the principal villain, a masked figure, is aided by a hunchbacked scientist, just like the villain in TRACY. Only one of DEVIL DOGS's scripters worked on DICK TRACY, so it's more than a little possible that some producer at Republic gave the order to recycle plot-elements used in the apparently successful TRACY. Even the sympathetic element of TRACY-- his brother is killed by the villain's havoc-- is virtually duplicated by early in this one, where one of the two Marine heroes loses his father to the contrivances of "The Lightning."

Whether or not the visage of the villain inspired Darth Vader or not, the Lightning's costume is indubitably an improvement over the image presented by TRACY's featured fiend, whose men couldn't seem to make up their minds whether to call him "the Spider" or "the Lame One." The Lightning's regal armor seems to belong to a futuristic era, and this dovetails nicely with his ability to unleash super-scientific menaces designed to humble the mundane world: electric rays, flying torpedos, and so forth. The mystery of the villain's true identity is no better or worse than a dozen others, but even before he's unveiled, the Lightning seems to have gravitas, as if he embodied the advances in human technology that would spread all over the world within the space of one year, when another world war would burst forth. Even his hunchback (John Picorri) has more class than the guy serving the Lame One.

The two military heroes (Lee Powell, Herman Brix) are barely distinguishable aside from one of them having his father killed, but they (and their doubles) display credible dynamism in the fight-scenes. And though most fans have been impressed by the similarity of the costumes of Darth Vader and the Lightning, I was a little more intrigued to learn that (remember, SPOILERS) that the villain was actually the father of the serial's heroine. Granted, she's never as torn-up about this revelation as Luke Skywalker is-- the script even gives her an "out" by revealing that he's an adoptive father-- but I have no problem believing that George Lucas reached into his "old serial" collection when he was writing EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

Saturday, June 2, 2018


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

If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded and that a modern system of science had been introduced which possessed much greater powers than the ancient, because the powers of the latter were chimerical, while those of the former were real and practical, under such circumstances I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside and have contented my imagination, warmed as it was, by returning with greater ardour to my former studies. 

 I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror...

My consideration of the two classic Frankenstein films by James Whale brings up the problem of "saying something new" in the wake of tons of film-criticism about these highly influential movies. I had the same difficulty when I wrote about the 1933 KING KONG and the 1960 PSYCHO. and I chose in both cases not to do a general review, but one homing in on specific issues. For the two Whale films, I'll address the way each film in terms of how each, possibly more by accident than design, focused upon paternal or maternal matters, respectively.

The two quotes from Mary Shelley's book are vital to understanding the novel's protagonist. Victor Frankenstein loses his mother to scarlet fever just at the time that he begins his university studies in Ingolstadt, and he throws himself into his education to avert grief. With his father the only remaining parent, Victor goes down a dark path when the elder Frankenstein fails to validate his son's interest in the archaic "system of science" known as alchemy. Around the same time Victor has also fallen in love with his adoptive sister Elizabeth, but in dreams he comes to associate her with his dead mother. Many commentators have interpreted Shelley's novel through a Freudian lens, though that case may be weakened by the fact that in the novel Victor's mother-substitute perishes before his father does, which would seem to be at odds with the familiar "kill-your-dad-THEN-boff-your-mom" scenario.

The 1931 film was not interested in depicting Frankenstein's full family history. The makers chose to pattern the film not on the novel but on an unproduced play-adaptation by one Peggy Webling, and this choice may not have been informed so much by aesthetics as a need for cinematic brevity. As in the novel,the mother of  young Frankenstein-- now dubbed "Henry" (Colin Clive)-- has apparently been dead for some time, but her existence has apparently had no impact on Henry's character. The most direct allusion to her role is no better than a familial place-holder, in a scene where Henry's baronial father talks about his hopes that someday soon Henry will enact with his fiancee the same wedding-ritual that the Baron did with his wife.

Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr) is a stuffy aristocrat rather than the bourgeois figure of the novel. And whereas the novel's paternal figure is taken to task for not guiding the scientist-son toward healthy science, the Baron has no interest in science of any kind. Additionally, he seems to care nothing about his son except as another place-holder. Henry exists in the Baron's eyes to provide further vindication of the "house of Frankenstein" by bearing an heir with his fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke, apparently not an adoptive sister this time round). Apparently for the playwright Webling and the scripters who adapted her play, this was all the motivation Henry needed for his transgressive act. His father wanted him for no purpose but to make a child, so Henry decided to make a child who would enshrine not the family name but Henry's own brilliance. To do this, he puts off Elizabeth, despite a genuine feeling for her, and culls parts from charnel-houses and medical colleges, including that darn "criminal brain." In both book and film, the scientist shows no deep awareness of his responsibilities in bringing forth a new form of life. In the 1931 film, there's an extra layer of irony in that Henry's neglectful behavior toward his "monster" (Boris Karloff) mirrors the Baron's neglect of Henry.

Additionally, Henry's former teacher Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) reinforces paternal injunctions against venturing too far away from the status quo. Though Waldman understands science as the ignorant Baron does not, Waldman has no sympathy for Henry's fascination with the mysteries of life. Thus his attitude that the monster is only a meaningless abomination mirrors the baron's utter inability to comprehend Henry's priorities. Amusingly, the Baron can only conceive one reason for Henry to avoid his familial responsibilities: that of dallying with another woman-- and though he never sees such a woman, he remains to the last utterly unaware of the deeper issues that have passed under his nose. The closing scenes, in which the Baron seems to have "won the argument," are undercut by a note of subdued irony.

Only in one sense do maternal matters of any kind appear in the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN. After the barely sentient Monster runs off, Henry tries to lose himself in normalcy, surrendering to the entreaties of both Elizabeth and the Baron to get married. In both novel and movie, the creature can be seen as the "son" of Frankenstein-- an equation made explicit in the 1939 film of the same name. In both stories the creature assaults Elizabeth-- though for more dubious reasons in the film-- and in both the monster's attack can be seen as a deflected sexual assault, though the film's Elizabeth doesn't suffer the tragic fate of novel-Elizabeth. In any case, this is the closest the 1931 film gets to Oedipal issues, with the "son" of Henry's egoistic desires attacking Henry's bride on her wedding-day.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, though, gives both motherhood and women in general a greater role in the scheme of things. There is no figure comparable to Waldman here, and though an early script planned to use the character of the Baron, the object was to rewrite the triumphal ending of FRANKENSTEIN by having the old man die as a result of hearing news that his son had died. A surviving line by the Burgomeister alludes to the Baron still being alive at the time of Henry's non-fatal injury. Yet the Baron's death is never stated outright, and is only suggested when Doctor Pretorious greets Henry by conferring on him the title "Baron Frankenstein"-- presumably not possible if the father is still alive.

To be sure, though the Frankenstein Monster has no mother within the course of the story, he has one outside it. BRIDE's main story is preceded by a witty prologue, in which the novel's author Mary Shelley discusses her creation with husband Percy and with the poet Lord Byron. The prologue situates Mary Shelley as a contradiction in terms-- a gentle-seeming woman of breeding, alarmed by lightning but taking pleasure at the feeling that "the air itself is filled by monsters." One can't overlook the likelihood that having Elsa Lanchester play both the creator of the whole story (and "mother" to all of its characters) and the Bride of the Monster was conceived first and foremost as a Hollywood stunt. But if so, the stunt fits it with all of the other wildly playful-- and yet, strangely serious-- rethinkings of the first FRANKENSTEIN film.

One rethinking is the character of Elizabeth. Mae Clarke was unable to reprise the role, and this may have been of some benefit to the film, since the new concept of Elizabeth made her less the lovelorn representation of normalcy and more of a frenetic, half-oracular heroine out of Edgar Allan Poe. Whether Clarke would have played this Elizabeth well or not, one will never know, but the recasting of Valerie Hobson allowed for her to shine in the role. Though not an overbearing character like the comical maid Minnie (who boasts that she'd like to "bind" the Monster himself in the capture-scene), this Elizabeth is a more authoritative figure, commanding respect from the servants and attempting, albeit without success, to exorcise the devil who attempts to seduce Henry back to his unhealthy pursuits.

Even before the demoniacal Doctor Pretorius makes his first appearance, the dialogue between Henry and Elizabeth makes clear that Henry has learned nothing from his brush with death (to say nothing of the very real deaths suffered by the Monster's victims). He still wants to enshrine himself as the god of the secrets of life, and even thinks about perpetuating a race of scientifically created beings, mere minutes before the first appearance of Pretorius, Henry's acquaintance (or mentor) from the university. The Mephistophelean doctor is of course the evil shadow of Henry's transgressive desires, without even a smidgen of guilt. Additionally, despite having a loose mentor/student relationship with Henry at first, Henry is merely a means to an end for Pretorius, just as Henry was to his real father, and as the Monster is to Henry.

Pretorius, for all that he's played with coded effeminacy by Ernest Thesiger, paradoxically wishes to correct Henry's focus on an all-male creation. Nevertheless, Elizabeth does mostly win the day in the ethical struggle. Thus Henry balks at collaborating with the devil-doctor on contriving a mate for the footloose Monster. Only when Pretorius enlists the services of the superhuman Monster-- who has been deeply embittered by his rejection by "status quo" humankind-- does Henry give in and agree to create "the Bride."

According to one DVD commentary, an early script-proposal for a FRANKENSTEIN sequel, submitted to Universal long before Whale agreed to helm BRIDE, suggested that Henry might end up using some part of Elizabeth to construct the Bride. This would have been an even more Oedipal moment had it reached the screen, given that "father" Henry Frankenstein would be enjoining his "offspring" into having sex with his own bride. However, in the finished film Elizabeth is simply held prisoner by the Monster to force Henry to cooperate on the Bride, who is constructed from the parts of complete strangers. Nevertheless, it's significant that if the Monster is Henry's "son," then the Bride is his "daughter." In addition, though Pretorius is the one who made the greatest effort to bring about the Bride's existence, she never looks at Pretorius twice, but only has eyes for "daddy" Henry, and categorically rejects "sonny."

Having completed all these explorations of transgressive facets of the two films, I feel bound to say that I don't think Whale was a thoroughgoing Freudian, any more than was Mary Shelley. Both of them loved flouting the status quo, and their flirtations with incestuous elements are far more playful than those of artists who are consciously evoking Freud, as with the aforementioned PSYCHO from Robert Bloch.

Oh, and the other two statements that I put aside for these analyses:

(1) Boris Karloff is really great and the films could never have been done without his singular performances.

(2) BRIDE is without a doubt a better film than FRANKENSTEIN.


Friday, June 1, 2018



PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD is a modestly engaging "old dark house" film from Hollywood's pre-Code era. The initiating plot was long in the tooth even in 1932: a "scarlet woman" with many affairs to her name (a saucy Karen Morley) forces a number of her past lovers to assemble at her mansion, so that she can blackmail them all at once. Rather than simple greed, her motive is somewhat informed by guilt: she wants more money to leave the country because a young man killed himself over her. However, while bringing all of her blackmail-victims together may have seemed expeditious, it also encourages one of them to kill her. Or is it one of the blackmail-victims? A strange "phantom" also haunts the courtesan before she dies-- a phantom who resembles the young suicide.

There are some familiar tropes here, such as a convenient rainstorm washes out the roads, so that all the suspects are neatly contained in the mansion, along with a detective (former big name Ricardo Cortez) and a group of crooks fleeing the law. The dialogue is more lively than most later dark-house mysteries, and the "phantom of Crestwood" is given a much more psychologically interesting explanation than the majority of such phantasmal figurations.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

TEENAGERS, the only film completed by eccentric writer-director Tom Graeff, sports bad acting, impoverished special FX and a thoroughly predictable narrative. Yet, as with some of the better Ed Wood works, it's hard to hate a film that so openly wears its heart on its sleeve.

Four teenaged aliens and a middle-aged commander land their flying saucer on Earth. Curiously, when the saucer is first seen by both an astronomer and the film's viewing audience, it looks more like a whirling drill, but since this is never important in the story, it probably just means that Graeff decided to try an effect for the ship beyond Ed Wood's "pie-plate" solution. The aliens don't have any special name for themselves, though they think highly of their place in the cosmos, calling themselves "the supreme race." They've come to Earth after having failed to find any more suitable planets on which to keep their herd-beasts, known as "Gargons."

When one of the aliens exits the saucer, he's annoyed by the barking of a pet dog from a nearby Earth-city. He promptly shoots the animal with his ray-gun, turning it into a fleshless skeleton.Possibly this is the reason that the aliens take the trouble to refer to their weapons as "focusing disintegrators," because the guns leave behind some skeletal remains. The mean alien-- whose name is that of the Norse thunder-god-- receives no censure from the other members of the ship, except one sincere fellow, with the equally un-alien name of Derek. Derek is also the only one who protests that they shouldn't consider leaving their herd-beasts on this planet, for the Gargons could cause harm to the natives. The other aliens act like Derek is crazy for even considering the well-being of inferior beings, given that their superior race has had emotions like empathy bred out of them. Later it's revealed that the race's children are not raised by their parents, but by parents selected by the government. Derek rashly reveals that he belongs to an underground movement that believes in humane ideals, and his superiors-- particularly the sneering Thor-- threaten him to take him back to their world for punishment. They're distracted by the findings that their sample Gargon-- in truth, a regular-sized lobster-- seems to be dying in the Earth's atmosphere. Derek escapes his fellow aliens. Almost immediately, the aliens discover that the Gargon has recovered and seems to be viable on this new world after all. The aliens set about the business of getting the Gargon situated, presumably as a prelude to bringing down a never-seen herd. They send Thor to track down Derek and execute him.

After this complicated info-dump, the rest of TEENAGERS is mostly a chase-story. Derek, who has for some reason picked up the license-tag of the dead dog, finds his way to the dog's owners and ends up taking a room with them. He forms a bond with Betty a cute young Earth-teenager, who takes him swimming. Thor makes his way to the Earth-city as well, and manages to learn how to drive before killing his teacher. Derek and Betty make other stops while Derek agonizes over revealing the truth to the young woman, and wherever they go, Thor follows, killing more Earth-people. Finally, there's a shootout between Thor and local cops. Meanwhile, the tiny Gargon has grown giant-size-- an effect achieved by simply showing the projected shadow of the lobster-- and the monster supposedly kills several people, though the film doesn't have the budget to show this. Derek reveals the truth to Betty, uses an electrical tower to destroy the Gargon, and then sacrifices himself to destroy his ship and a whole armada of other invaders. Oh, and it's revealed that the middle-aged commander is Derek's father, so his act of rebellion is also a patricide.

The majority of TEEANGERS is a naive glorification of the virtues of being a fully emotional human being, as against the programming of a state government. Comparisons with the then-contemporary menace of Communism seem inescapable, and indeed, the film's only moderately strong dramatic scenes are those of Derek excoriating the soullessness of his people, who have virtually made themselves into machines. There's some quasi-Wellsian potential in the idea of aliens who are so disinterested in empathy that they see Earth not as a realm to conquer, but simply a pastureland where they can keep their food-animals, but of course the budget makes it impossible for the film to give this idea any credibility.

In contrast to many "alien invasion" films made in this time-period, the character of Derek is more significant than his race as a whole, making him the "focal presence" of the story.