Tuesday, August 28, 2018
THE KILLER SHREWS (1959)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
Watching THE KILLER SHREWS is a little like watching Sisyphus roll his boulder up to the top of the hill. You know that the boulder's going to fall down the other side as soon as it gets to the top, but you have a mild admiration of the condemned man's persistence.
SHREWS was the first film-credit for both director Ray Kellogg and writer Jay Simms. The same year, the two would collaborate on THE GIANT GILA MONSTER, which makes SHREWS's storyline look pretty good by comparison. While only the humans are in screen, SHREWS seems to be a fairly adequate thriller about the characters being besieged by murderous animals. When the "killer shrews" are on screen, however, no one above the age of five is likely to be able to take them seriously.
The hero of the film is sailboat captain Thorne Sherman (James Best). He and his pilot sail to a little-known island in order to deliver supplies. Sherman soon learns that two scientists, Doctors Baines and Craigis, have been experimenting on the tiny animals called shrews, in order to see if they can reduce their metabolism, for reasons that are never too clear. In addition to a servant and some livestock, the party also includes Craigis's daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude) and her former fiancee Jerry (Ken Curtis). It doesn't take long before Sherman realizes that there's trouble between the former lovers, and Ann begins showing Sherman favor-- chiefly because, when Ann was in danger earlier, Jerry preserved his own life rather than protecting her. It takes Sherman longer to find out the nature of the danger: tiny shrews that have been mutated to the size of wolves, so omnivorous that they'll almost totally devour their victims, even the bones.
The hubris implied by the careless scientific experiment takes second place to the duel of Sherman and Jerry for the fair Ann. Though both Best and Curtis became celebrated for later television roles, their performances are just fair, while that of Goude is dull. The best acting, oddly enough, is from Gordon McLendon as Doctor Baines, who's presented as the standard absent-minded scientist, and yet seems a little more convincing in his role (possibly because, despite the smallness of the role, he was also one of the producers).
Tuesday, August 21, 2018
BANDITS, PROSTITUTES, AND SILVER (1977)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
This 1970s chopsocky, issued under an assortment of English-language titles, is probably best known as one of the many films starring kung-fu diva Angela Mao. It's also one of the few films of the kung-fu craze to boast a female director, one Pao-Shu Kao. who also co-wrote BANDITS. The film is better organized than a lot of contemporaneous films in this genre, and sustains a strong sociological theme about the evil custom of selling women into prostitution. The fact that the story takes place in a typical quasi-medieval period doesn't rob it of relevance to modern times, unfortunately.
Though Mao is the most recognizable names to Westerners, she's not the star. Don Wong plays honest kung-fu artist Shang Li, a man who's fallen in love with Shao Choy, who has been contracted-- implicitly by her parents-- to serve in a brothel. Shang can buy out Shao's contract if he has enough silver, but he's just a poor wagon-driver. Sparrow, a scheming bandit, offers Shang a means of making big money if Shang helps Sparrow rip off a silver shipment via wagon. When Sparrow pulls off the heist but threatens to slay all witnesses, Shang fights and kills him. Despite opposing the bandit, Shang still needs the stolen silver and absconds with the loot, intending only to use as much as he needs to buy out Shao Choy's contract.
Another couple of bandits-- Mao's unnamed character, and her husband, a renegade Shaolin-- decided that they'd like the silver for their own reasons. In addition, a third conspirator, Pao, is also after the loot. The married bandits end up becoming allies to Shang, in that they're impressed with his romantic motivations, but this earns them the emnity of Pao. Pao manages to kill both husband and wife, though the evil genius is vanquished by Shang in a final combat with a singularly inventive method of death-dealing.
The only metaphenomenal elements of the film are the weapons used respectively by Pao and by Angela Mao's character. Pao uses a complicated ring-and-chain weapon slightly reminiscent of the "flying guillotine" gimmick, while the bandit queen, oddly enough, has miniature rotary buzzsaws attached to her shoes, capable of cutting anyone she kicks. There is of course no explanation as to how the saws can possibly be powered in this period film, so I have to attribute it to "the magic of chi" or something like that. No technology or magical method is explicitly evoked, so the metaphenomenality is only explicable as some obscure kung-fu trick, in line with the fellow who can cling to walls in THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS.
Monday, August 20, 2018
BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS (2016), RETURN TO THE BATCAVE (2003)
PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS-- the first of two DTV animated films which re-united Adam West, Burt Ward and Julie Newmar in their iconic Bat-roles-- doesn't come close to the more inspired lunacy of the 1966 teleseries. Granted, it gets the overall "look" of the series better than DC's odious "Batman '66" comic books. But while the series mixed corny slapstick with knowing irony (and just enough real adventure to please the kids), RETURN is pure corn, with bits of fannish trivia thrown in (something that the producers of the teleseries could not have cared less about).
The plot seems somewhat indebted to numerous 1950s and 1960s Batman-stories in which the hero or his sidekick Robin underwent some sort of bizarre physical transformation: Giant Batman, Baby Batman, Super-Strong Robin, etc. This time, Batman (West) and Robin (Ward) are faced with yet another teamup of the TV-show's four most celebrated villains: Catwoman (Newmar), Joker, Riddler and Penguin. As a result of Catwoman's attempt to brainwash Batman to make him evil, the hero loses his sanguine cool and becomes a full-time bastard. With the help of a "replica ray," Batman creates numerous duplicates of himself and uses his "clones" as a task force to ride herd on Gotham. Robin and Catwoman team up to restore Batman to his goodguy status.
It's fun to hear the three main actors reprise their roles via voice-work. There are numerous shout-outs to the teleseries (most of the signature villains created for the show participate in a gang-battle against the Bat-clones, such as Egghead, King Tut, et al), as well as to the Golden Age comic book (one sound-effect during a fight goes "SPRANG") and later DC iterations (Miller's DARK KNIGHT is conspicuously quoted). Joker, Penguin and Riddler don't get anywhere near the good lines that Catwoman gets, though, and might as well have been some of the also-ran villains of the series. And though this Catwoman isn't the super-athlete seen in the current Bat-comics, this time she does get a minor fight-scene against some of the villains. This diverges from the policy of the teleseries, which almost never allowed its female guests to take part in scenes of violence (not counting the co-starring Batgirl in the third season, obviously).
The live-action telefilm RETURN TO THE BATCAVE, though made thirteen years earlier, nevertheless mines almost the same field of corny humor, though Bat-fans won't find anyone catering to their love of trivia here. In this tale, real-life actors West and Ward become involved in the theft of the Batmobile by persons unknown, and get mixed up with other actors with whom they worked on the Bat-series, Julie Newmar and Frank Gorshin. There are bits of series-trivia worked in, but nothing very arcane, and the producers seem to have believed that the casting of the old favorite actors was the movie's main selling-point.
During the investigation, West and Ward get into a couple of not-very-real fistfights meant to ape the style of the "biff-bam-pow" kinetics of the series, but done with two really old guys in mind. So there's no intention of really delivering any sort of action along with the comedy. There is, however, an uncanny element in the form of a sleep-gas bomb, so at least this silly thing isn't a total capitulation to naturalistic thinking.
Saturday, August 18, 2018
NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE (1986)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE is a prime slice of 1980s cheese. But whereas its content is no better than the average dopey Chuck Norris flick, I tip my hat to director/co-writer Gil Bettman for laying on the cheese thickly. This is to say that, unlike most 1980s formula-films, Bettman-- by all accounts was just an undistinguished journeyman on most projects-- succeeds in keeping things visually interesting.
Of course, the film can't help but be risible when the hero is a young John Stamos, who would later gain fame for the "Full House" teleseries. To his credit, Stamos gives the simple role as much authority as possible, instead of playing it campy-- which may have been a temptation, if indeed one of the uncredited writers of NEVER was really Lorenzo Semple Jr. of "Batman" fame. As a line near the end of the film tells viewers, Stamos's character-- saddled with the umbelievable name of "Lance Stargrove"-- is the person who's "never too young to die."
To the extent that the film is about anything, it's a typical story of a young man coming into his own by avenging the death of his father. If the film said anything about Lance's mother, I missed it, but the key aspect of the young fellow's life is his longtime estrangement from his father, Drew Stargrove. However, Drew has a perfectly sensible reason for keeping his distance: he's actually one of cinema's many James Bond knockoffs, which the film amply signals by having Drew played by ex-Bond George Lazenby. While Lance is busy developing his gymnast skills, Drew's getting killed trying to prevent a madman from poisoning the water supply of a major city.
The actor playing the madman is probably the only reason most viewers would watch. In keeping with the eighties attitude toward alternative lifestyles, villain "Velvet von Ragnar" is played as a flaming transexual by Kiss-band member Gene Simmons. The viewer never knows whether or not Velvet is a literal or figurative transexual, but in addition to his daring plan to extort cash with the dubious threat of water-poisoning, he commits numerous crimes against fashion, attired in blowsy dresses, a Cher wig and artificial, poisoned fingernails. Velvet personally kills Drew Stargrove, thus setting in motion the cycle of vengeance.
In due course Lance is informed of his paternal unit's death and is uncertain as to how to respond. He's particularly miffed when he checks out his father's house and finds it inhabited by sexy too-young-for-his-father Danja Deering (Vanity). For someone who doesn't seem to evince any memories of his mother, he seems pretty pissed by the implication that Danja might be his father's sex-partner, though over time the young woman denies being anything but Drew Stargrove's colleague. However, she also has a piece of software smuggled to her from Drew, and the evil Velvet Von Ragner-- who controls a horde of weirdly garbed punks straight out of a MAD MAX audition-- wants that software.
After that setup, most viewers can probably write the rest of the story themselves. Under attack by Velvet's thugs, Lance must team up with Danja to fight them off, eventually both making love to the lady spy and avenging his slain sire. (A deflected Oedipal situation, perhqps.) Lance, Danja and the late Drew at one time or another all use spy-gimmicks like mini-explosives so as to keep with Velvet, his freaky gang and his deadly fingernails. Though Simmons seems to have the most fun with his over-the-top role, Stamos gets the best line in a climactic battle with Velvet:
"You're just one of each [male and female}. But I'm a whole man!"
If nothing else, this popcorn movie succeeds in getting away with the sort of reactionary line that's entirely verboten in today's politically correct world.
Thursday, August 16, 2018
SOLO (1996), R.O.T.O.R. (1987)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
These two films are linked only via subject matter, in that both focus on robotic protagonists, one a noble "thinking machine," the other a remorseless killer. They were filmed almost ten years apart and may have both taken a certain amount of influence from THE TERMINATOR, but I review them here because they have opposing flaws.
SOLO is a well-mounted, fairly expensive action-film, but it's bad because it has, unlike its android hero, no soul. The titular character is invented by an American research program as a mechanical substitute for men in the field, and he's deployed in Central America in order to use his superior strength and endurance to combat guerrilla insurgents. However, Solo, though not capable of expressing emotion, somehow develops a conscience and doesn't want to kill anymore. Solo escapes his handlers and takes refuge in the jungle, eventually finding his way to a small village. For a time the android tries to learn humanity from the poor folk, and then defends them from guerrilla attacks. However, the American military isn't willing to let things go, and so they send a second android to subdue Solo.
The badness here is SOLO's utter predictability, and much of the fault lies in the performance of Mario Van Peebles. Granted, it's challenging for any actor to simulate an intelligent android, but a good performer can at least show some semblance of such an imaginary being's thought processes. Van Peebles, always IMO a superficial actor, merely keeps his expression blank-- though in a sense his blankness matches that of the script. Whatever the merits of the original novel, the film-script has no interest in the process by which Solo becomes sentient. His interactions with the Central Americans follow a completely routine progression-- there's even a cute kid involved!-- and the only saving grace is a pretty good fight between Solo and the updated android. It's perhaps a symptom of political correctness that the "bad android" is white, which begs the question as to why the robot's creator, a white guy (Adrien Brody), chose to make Solo look black in the first place.
The sins of R.O.T.O.R. are more obvious, given that this howler is more in the mold of Edward Wood Jr. According to IMDB, this was the only feature film completed by Cullen Blaine, who produced, directed, and co-wrote R.O.T.OR., but whose credits are dominantly "art department" chores for numerous cartoon works.
The abbreviated title applies to a robot cop being developed for the Dallas police department by the comically named scientist "Coldyron." Despite copious textual comparisons between Coldyron and Doctor Frankenstein, the scientist acts and talks most of the time like Dirry Harry Callahan:
The only difference between a hero and a villian is the amount of compensation they take for their services. At our pay scale, I'd say we're closer to heroes.
Like Harry Callahan, Coldyron butts heads with the establishment. Though he's informed the politicians that R.O.T.O.R. won't be ready for deployment against criminal scum for four years, a particularly corrupt politico kicks Coldyron off the project so as to activate the robot-cop and benefit from the publicity. It naturally does not occur to the politician that he might get bad publicity from a robot-gone-berserk, but nonetheless he puts a secondary scientist in charge of the project. In no time, R.O.T.O.R.. gets loose and starts administering maximum punishments for minimal crimes. So the courageous Coldyron decides to destroy his creation, with the help of a lady scientist named Steele, who also happens to have "biceps of steel."
The only thing that makes R.O.T.O.R. marginally more entertaining than SOLO is that the former is so dumb that it isn't entirely predictable. As stupid as the movie's plot is-- particularly in terms of a "surprise ending"-- Blaine and his co-scripters supply a non-stop barrage of awful lines, such as:
It's like a chainsaw set on frappé.
I got more than a newspaper. And you get to guess what it is.
And my favorite:
Let me tell you something, mister. You fire me and I'll make more noise than two skeletons making love in a tin coffin, brother.
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
SHARKTOPUS/ S. VS. PTERACUDA, S. VS. WHALEWOLF (2010, 2014, 2015)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
What's better than MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS? Well, to quote the old commercial, "You got your Megashark in my Giant Octopus!" This marketing strategy resulted in not one but three movies focused on a genetic creation of mad science, Sharktopus.
I've little to say about the first SHARKTOPUS. Once or twice the multi-tentacled CGI critter is a little imposing as he attacks sailboats or people on shore. apparently being a fully air-breathing entity even though all of his genetic material came from gill-bearing sea-creatures. One would think that such an outrageous concoction wouldn't prove especially trainable, but nutty scientist Nathan Sands (the ubiquitous Eric Roberts) actually creates the hybrid beast to sell to the U.S. military. When Sharktopus gets loose, Sands sends his overly obedient daughter Nicole to corral the creature, with the help of a hunky bodyguard, the heroically named Flynn. The two of them bond over shark-catching, which is perhaps an adequate way for Nicole to put her daddy issues to rest.
I don't rate most of these "ordinary people kill off colossal beasts" flicks as belonging to the combative mode. However, I was modestly impressed with the way heroic Flynn has to tag this big beast with an exploding dart, reminding me ever so slightly of a similar scene in IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA. So SHARKTOPUS gets over the threshold.
There's no problem making such a determination for SHARKTOPUS VS. PTERACUDA, since the main focus of the narrative is upon the battle of two huge hybrids, the latter a genetic cocktail taken from a pterosaur and a barracuda.
Sequel #1, written and directed by two new hands, does keep continuity with the first film. Although the original Sharktopus gets blown to hell, it leaves behind an egg-sac with an identical replica of itself. Lorena, an amateur marine biologist finds the baby freak and raises it to maturity at the seaquarium where she works for her uncle. Around the same time another mad scientist, Syme (Keith Carradine), works on another hybrid for the military, the Pterasaur, claiming that it will be a vast improvement over mere aerial technology.
Lorena tries to train the creature to be pacific, but when the Pterasaur gets loose, Syme needs a creature capable of giving the flying monster pause. Syme buys the Sharktopus from Lorena's uncle over her protests, and then the mad scientist-- who has but one bodyguard, another hunky guy-- tries to use Sharktopus for his own purposes. Naturally both monsters get loose and create havoc, with the most memorable scene going to Sharktopus's beheading of Conan O'Brien. Lorena, unlike the female lead in the previous film, starts out with a boyfriend, but when he gets killed by one of the monsters, it doesn't take her really long to bond with the hunky boyfriend against Syme.
Director Kevin O'Neill brings a little more panache to the struggles of the giant beasties, and writer Matt Yamashita concocts more passable incidents for the human people caught in the middle. Undoubtedly the filmmakers knew that there was going to be another iteration in the series, for while Pteracuda gets blasted, Sharktopus not only escapes death but apparently kills off the protagonists, despite having shown some affection for its "mother" earlier.
To date, the Shark-Octopus Opus ends with SHARKTOPUS VS. WHALEWOLF, easily the best of the three, though still quite poor on the mythicity scale. This time, writer Yamashita emphasized as many comedy elements as possible without actually making it a comedy, starting with the latest in the line of mad scientists, Doctor Rinehart (Catherine Oxenberg). Sporting a deliberately thick German accent and an apparent devotion to the ubermensch, Rinehart decides to experiment on a washed-up Dominican baseball-player and mutate him with DNA taken from an incongruous pair of mammals, whale and wolf.
While Rinehart is indulging in mad science for its own sake, local policewoman Nita Morales rides herd on a raffish boat-captain named Ray (Casper Van Dien), whom she obviously likes despite his irresponsibility and alcoholism. She drafts Ray and his sidekick Pablo to go hunting for the Sharktopus. The three of them encounter the monster but manage to get back to land without being eaten. However, around that time Rinehart's pet monster-- which usually acts more like a big dog than a wolf-- begins prowling for prey. If the film has a highlight, it's probably the point when Morales is summoned to break up a fight between Dominican gang-boys, and encounters both monsters at once, who immediately, like the gangs, start battling over "turf." To further complicate matters, Ray is indebted to a local voodoo priest, who wants Ray and Pablo to get hold of a piece of Sharktopus's heart so that the voodoo-man can gain control over the big beast.
Yamashita provides a lot of crazy business for both his protagonists and their monstrous foes, including some jokey behavior from the shark-creature. I've usually deemed both Van Dien and Oxenberg to be rather bland performers, but they really set their teeth in their respective colorful roles. Thanks to a better variety of business, the two of them are at least as much fun as the clashing colossi.
Saturday, August 11, 2018
THE COVER GIRL MURDERS (1993)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
As with my review of APRIL FOOL'S DAY, there's no way I can address the phenomenality of this item without revealing the story's big secret: that the "murders" depicted are all a big fake, and that there is no psycho-killer, just a hoax-- though not for the same reasons seen in the psuedo-slasher, and with none of the "uncanny effect" of the earlier film.
Magazine owner/fashion photographer Rex Kingman (Lee Majors) is so domineering that he has "king" in his name twice. He rides herd over a covey of models, including his editor/ex-lover Kate (Jennifer O'Neill), and he desperately needs to score big with his next magazine publication, to prevent his being bought out. He and a few assistants fly Kate and the models out to a deserted island for a photo shoot. In jig time, the group gets stranded on the island and models appear to be die off, though very little blood or gore is ever seen.
This time, the lack of gore isn't just because this is a TV-movie; it's because the models are part of a cabal, organized by Kate, to drive the tyrannical magazine-owner into desperation. Kingman's a heartless user who doesn't care about his "ten little Indians" getting knocked off, or even, apparently, about whether he might be a target for death himself. But in due time he gets weirded out enough by the crusade of the "pseudo-psycho" that he signs away his magazine to Kate and the others, and then has to cry in his beer when the hoax is revealed. The end.
This "phantasmal figuration" is inexorably naturalistic. Even though there is an attempt to suggest the presence of a psycho-killer, the phony killer lacks any uncanny aspects, and therefore is more in line with naturalistic types of "perilous psychos" like those in FRENZY and THROUGH NAKED EYES.
In place of bloody mayhem, the telefilm offers assorted sexy photo-shoot scenes, though the banal direction robs these scenes of any real punch. Jennifer O'Neill is the only actress who projects real charisma, and she has the best single scene, which is actually a "cheat," since it involves Kate dreaming that she's being attacked by a masked psycho, despite her knowledge of the hoax. Lee Majors, however, is beyond awful. No matter how many vile, heartless things he says, his delivery is the same as it was for the Six Million Dollar Man, which makes it impossible for the viewer to properly despise Kingman. However, given the lack of even an imaginary psycho like "Buffy St. John" of APRIL FOOLS' DAY, Kingman is by default the movie's central character, not unlike the more eminently hissable victim of 1947's SCARED TO DEATH.
THE MAGICAL SWORD (1901)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*
While in the process of reading up on the silent-era British filmmaker Walter R. Booth for my review of THE AERIAL DESTROYER, I noted a reference to an even shorter and even earlier film, called variously THE MAGIC SWORD and THE MAGICAL SWORD. Fortunately this film, like DESTROYER, survived to be exhibited on Youtube, and I decided to review it under the latter title, to distance it a little from the 1962 MAGIC SWORD.
MAGICAL SWORD is far more in the tradition of Booth's predecessor George Melies, in that it depends on a lot of "magical tricks"-- superimposures, dissolves, "floating objects," et al. There is a plot of sorts, though it's hard to suss out given that (1) the short is only a little over two minutes long, and (2) it, like DESTROYER, has no title cards to explain what's going on.
The setup is much more interesting than the denouement. A knight, first seen standing on the ramparts of a castle, greets his lady-love. A malicious witch, complete with broom, intrudes, and threatens to steal the woman away. The knight prevents her, at which point the witch sits down on her broom and levitates away. The knight and his lady have no time to celebrate, for the next moment a huge ogre appears at the castle-wall and bears the damsel away. The actor playing the knight doesn't exactly communicate distress too well, for he folds his arms and stalks about, more like someone who just missed his train-ride than a devastated lover. However, a wand-wielding fairy-girl appears on the wall, and with a wave of her wand she gives the knight a "magical sword."
So far so good. The scene shifts to the short's only other locale: the witch's cave, complete with smoldering cauldron. The witch is still threatening the lady in some manner, but the sorceress sees the knight coming, so she changes the lady into a duplicate of herself. In a moment of presumably unintentional comedy, the knight walks by the two witches, and then does a double-take, as if to say, "isn't one of them my enemy?" He returns, drawing his sword. For some reason the witch then transforms herself into the likeness of a peasant girl, and then weird things start boiling out of the cauldton via superimposition: the head of the ogre, blowing smoke-rings, a couple of ghosts, and a death's head. When the visions disperse, the transformed lover prostrates herself before the knight, and he changes her back to her normal form when he merely touches her with his sword, rather than stabbing her. My best guess of the filmmaker's intention up to this point is that the witch wanted the knight to kill his beloved. To that end, she fed the knight some story about being an innocent kidnapped by the apparent witch, conjuring all the visions to support her story (though she certainly looks like she, the innocent peasant wench, is the one doing the conjuring).
The knight embraces his lover but carelessly drops his sword on the ground. The "peasant witch" picks it up. But before she can kill her enemies, the fairy shows up and transforms the witch into, of all things, a flying carpet. The lovers sit down on the carpet and it takes them home. In a short coda, the lovers sit around an open-air dinner table celebrating with other people in Renaissance outfits. The fairy appears atop their table and the diners all rejoice in her beneficence as the short ends.
There's not much mythic content in this (literally) airy-fairy trifle, but the FX are good for the time. Though the main character, the knight, does not get to put an end to his enemy, I've stated in this essay that as long as the main hero or heroes demonstrate some puissance, the combative mode is not dispelled simply by the actions of supporting characters, to wit:
...the combative mode is not dispelled simply because the particular triumph comes about because of the actions of supporting characters. As long as those supporting characters are strongly allied to the central protagonists, they can be viewed as an extension of the central protagonists' unified will.
THE AIRSHIP DESTROYER (1909)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological*
So few silent films have survived the past century that it's probably impossible to track down what may have been the first combative adventure films. Going by a partial list supplied by R.G. Young in his ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASTIC FILM, there seem to be, even in the very late 1890s, a tiny number of films inspired by either Dumas's "Musketeers" or the same author's "Corsican Brothers." But it seems likely that most of these works have gone the way of all decayed celluloid. Thus it's all but impossible to know how many of them may have focused on the adventure story in what I've termed the "combative mode"-- that is, the type of adventure that generally culminates in a physical conflict between better-than-average opponents. I realize that my preoccupation with this theme does not mean that this is the only theme in adventure-fiction, and indeed, Dumas's "Corsican Brothers" is a significant adventure-story even though it does not contain a combative climax, as I explained in my essay A SUBCOMBATIVE CORSICAN.
Nevertheless, a corollary question occurs to me: not just what's the first film of combative adventure, but also the first one with significant metaphenomenal content?
One candidate is THE AIRSHIP DESTROYER. This short film was orchestrated by British filmmaker Walter R. Booth, who like his predecessor George Melies, had been a professional magician, interested in using the new medium of film to captivate audiences. The surviving copy of DESTROYER runs about nine minutes long, but apparently it was originally about 20 minutes, and the first in a series of three related works, though the other two have been lost. Whether they even used any of the characters or situations of DESTROYER, I do not know.
"Future-war" stories-- those in which science-fictional technology played some role-- had been popular in Europe and America since the 1871 novel THE BATTLE OF DORKING. On some occasions fantastic inventions were solely in control of individuals, as with Captain Nemo of Verne's 1869 20,000 LEAGUES and Robur in the same author's 1886 CLIPPER OF THE CLOUDS. However, the majority of "future-war" stories seem to focus on how new technologies are being used by entire nations.
DESTROYER takes a page from both strategies. At the opening of the short, an unnamed young British inventor has just met with his lady-love, possibly proposing marriage (the short has no title cards). The young lady takes the inventor to her father, who for unknown reasons roundly rejects the suitor and removes his daughter from the inventor's presence. However, just as the inventor is down in the dumps, Britain suffers an attack by dirigibles raining down bombs, which scenario possibly owes something to Verne's CLIPPER concept. The invaders driving the "aerial destroyer" fleet are never identified, and wear heavily-hooded uniforms that look like costumes for a FLASH GORDON serial. In fact, the invaders indirectly do the inventor a service: they blow up the house of the tyrannical father, killing him but not killing the inventor's intended.
However, the ingenious inventor just happens to have a device capable of thwarting the invasion: a single "aerial torpedo," which looks much like a real torpedo enhanced by big butterfly-wings and a rotary tail. The torpedo blasts down one of the airships, the inventor and his lady celebrate, and the film ends, presumably with the implication that Britain will be able to mass-produce the torpedoes fast enough to take out the other airships.
Booth's FX depend largely on dissolves and the use of paper models. For a modern audience, the sight of a paper London burning isn't especially convincing, but the spectacle probably meant more to audiences to whom the very idea of aerial combat was still novel. Though Booth created a fair number of comical, antic fantasies after the manner of his predecessor George Melies, DESTROYER remains as grounded in contemporary reality as the best science-fiction films. The trope of the young man who proves his mettle, and thereby his right to marry his beloved, probably had appeared in silents in other forms, but this might be one of the first iterations of the theme in metaphenomenal cinema. And, in keeping with my search for combative fantasies, this one satisfies my requirement for an altercation between two formidable forces.
Thursday, August 9, 2018
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
Aside from the 1952 boxing movie KID MONK BARONI, the failed TV-pilot BAFFLED would seem to be one of the few times Leonard Nimoy was the main selling-point of a film or television project. To be sure, his character of Tom Kovack-- a race-car driver who begins having psychic visions-- forms an ensemble of two with his fellow psychic investigator Michele (Susan Hampshire), but I tend to doubt that Ms. Hampshire had much "name-above-the-title" standing in 1972.
Like most Good Samaritans in TV-land, when Michele informs that someone's life will be in danger if Kovack doesn't investigate his visions, Kovack drops everything in his schedule and flies to England with Michele. In order to gain access to a family manor, Kovack poses as a distant relative to the family, and Michele gets in on some other pretext. The English side of the family also plays to a real American relation, Andrea (Vera Miles) and her middle-school aged daughter Jennifer. They hope to be reunited with Jennifer's estranged father after being separated from him for over ten years. At the same time, Jennifer seems to be manifesting her own psychic powers, and she has a strange, midnight conference with her father, in which he mouths the suggestive lines, ""In some ways you'll have to give up being a child... you'll have to keep a number of secrets from your mother..." At the same time, the man gives Jennifer an odd amulet, which causes her to act more "grown-up," so much so that Michele passes a remark about Jennifer having gone from thirteen to fifteen in the space of a day.
The mystery aspects of the story are typical TV-fare, amounting to a lot of incidents that don't necessarily add up in the final analysis. The amulet-business is one of the least well-explained. The man who gave it to her-- not actually her father, but a masquerading conspirator-- is supposed to be some sort of mystical expert, and yet his main concern in the story is to bilk Andrea out of the family inheritance. The two plots don't cleave together in the least. As if to make up for the deficiency of the mystery angle, the pilot-film does conclude with a pretty good fight between Kovack and his opponent, which suggests that, had the show been bought, it might have been more action-oriented than most TV-shows about occult detectives.
For modern viewers, most of the interest will be gauging whether or not "Spock" could have carried this somewhat bland teleseries. But those viewers will be forever "in search of" the answer to that question.
Saturday, August 4, 2018
SHADOW OF EVIL (1964)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
The agent known as OSS 117-- given the name "Hubert Barton" in the subtitled version I saw-- began in a series of prose spy-thrillers that actually predated Ian Fleming's more celebrated Bond books. There was apparently one OSS movie that preceded 1962'S DOCTOR NO, after which there were five more OSS films, all of which reputedly followed the general pattern of the Eurospy film. SHADOW OF EVIL was the second of these post-NO films, though the first to be in color, and the last to star former Sinbad-star Kerwin Matthews.
EVIL is nicely photographed but lacks the charming fight-choreography-on-a-budget seen in the better Eurospy films. Matthews' Barton is sent to investigate the killing of a CIA agent in Bangkok, which has something to do with outbreaks of bubonic plague in the East. At a formal soiree Barton encounters the supposedly Indian "Doctor Sinn" (Robert Hossein) and his equally un-Indian sister Lila, as well as chatting up a blonde chick.
The meandering story, short on fights and on romance, eventually ramps up in the final thirty minutes. Barton is captured by Sinn's organization, though he's really faking being drugged, and when a scientist tries to put Barton into an "interrogation chair," Barton turns the table on him and, for good measure, ties up two other malefactors back to back, making for the film's only moments of worthwhile comedy. The low-key OSS finally discovers that Sinn plans to drastically reduce the world's population through the release of plague-bearing rats, and that he plans to rule over his group, "the People Elect," though it's not clear what "elect" qualities the members hold in common. Anyway, Barton finally has a decent fight against Sinn himself, and the film ends with a lot of explosions and Barton escaping with his foremost girl Lila.
Matthews, Pier Angeli and most of the rest of the cast are generally wooden, and only Hossein brings anything like a sense of elan to this thoroughly average outing.
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